Mind and matter: Does it matter?


I think it’s important for Christians to understand the mindset driving the secular worldview so prevalent in our age. Without this understanding it’s difficult to compare the Christian perspective as it relates to alternative views about origins and existential issues. The secular world culture, particularly the atheistic version, purports to be based on a belief system in which life can be summed up in the naturalistic philosophy of mere materialism. This view leaves little or no room for any acceptance or appreciation of a spiritual dimension as can be expressed in a religious sense.

Today we are being regularly bombarded with new scientific terms, many of which we might only partly understand because of their esoteric contextual settings. But there are some tongue-twisting, mind-bending terms that describe certain philosophical states that relate to or challenge the Christian belief system and which we as Christians would do well to be aware of. One such term is the naturalistic, reductionist view, which describes a philosophical view that every single constituent of an organism is basically a physical entity and can be reduced down to its most elementary particle. This means that, once deconstructed or broken down, an organism can be analysed to reveal how parts inter-relate and work together. This physical understanding of reality, it is claimed, is all there is to explain the secrets of life.

. . . the study of the mind has opened up gaps in orthodox evolutionary theory.

The Christian worldview does not accept this mere materialistic, mechanistic interpretation of the way things are. That interpretation is based on the evolutionary understanding of the origin and existence of life. This materialistic worldview begins to collapse when it is applied to such qualities of mind as qualia, meanings, intentions, values, reasons, beliefs and desires. These paraneural qualities all defy the application of a reductionist method.

The evolutionary process is a prime target for the reductionist mindset in that the theory is, through its fundamental driving force of natural selection, a step-by-step accretion of various components working collaboratively together for the benefit of the whole. If it can be proved and demonstrated that an insect or larger animal is only the result of a collection of basic and supplementary parts then it should be possible to separate those parts, even down to the most elementary nano-microscopic level. Where such an examination is possible the basic physical ingredients are revealed from which the original form was derived. The difficulty with this approach is that in the end all one is left with are segments of unconnected matter that have no individual meaning or significance and anything beyond the physical has evaporated!

This problem is more serious in respect to qualities of mind. But before the qualities and function of mind can be addressed one has to first examine the brain—the physical, cerebral matter within the cranium. Of course, the evolutionist will explain how the arboreal quadruped ape, or ape-like creature, felt the urge to leave the trees and try the bipedal form of locomotion on the ground. Then, (as the fantasy story goes) because its hands were free from clinging to branches they were able to use them for meaningful activities to construct tools. This then so stimulated the brain that the resultant spin-off of language, writing, music and abstract thinking all became a sequence of improving mental abilities that led to modern man. 

So how then does one explain how such concepts as consciousness, ethics, moral decisions of right and wrong, love, beauty, nuances of language and subtleties of poetry and music become the basic mindset of every human being? Where do these qualities come from if, when the physical brain is put through the reductive process, only physical brain matter is found? How does the naturalistic philosophy, the reductionist, materialist interpretation, explain the great “ought?” Not, “this must be done” but “this ought to be done!”

Professor Thomas Nagel is one of a growing number of recognised academics in the field of philosophy and science who are beginning to seriously question the whole evolutionary scenario because the study of the mind (so long neglected) has opened up gaps in orthodox evolutionary theory. In his book, Mind & Cosmos, he says: “I realise that such doubts [of Darwinian evolution] will strike many people as outrageous, but that is because almost everyone in our secular culture has been browbeaten into regarding the reductive research program as sacrosanct, on the ground that anything else would not be science.”1

According to evolutionists, the sequence of the progress of the fully developed human being is: matter, brain, mind. For them, matter is first (and little else!). This is the exact reverse of the Bible’s truth claim in Genesis 1:1, “In the beginning God [Mind] created [brain] the heavens and the earth [matter].” The sequence outlined by the evolutionist ends with a mind that is not able to be reduced to allow the most intricate mystery of creation to be examined.      

1. Thomas Nagel, Mind & Cosmos, Oxford University Press, 2012, p7.

Malcolm Ford writes from Whangerai, New Zealand.