Living in a Materialist World

Is Everything Just Atoms?

To find meaning and purpose in life is an enduring challenge. But with modern science telling us we’re just dust in a vast physical universe, itself only one of a multitude of universes, that challenge can feel insurmountable. Considering the possibility of another dimension to reality—a spiritual dimension—could be the key.

It’s not really funny when the chemistry teacher asks, “What’s the matter?” and then declares, “Everything!” But students play along and, with a roll of the eyes, giggle at the corny icebreaker.

The idea of matter as the basis of everything may seem beyond question today. Still, it feels somehow unsatisfying. Like germinating seeds, deeper thoughts—more intimate and personal—come to the surface. If the seedlings really get going, they may grow into an intense evaluation of conditions and hopes, meaning and purpose. We may even question our beliefs about the structure of reality itself.

And then, as we look at the world around us, more questions blossom: “Does any of this matter? What does it all signify?”

That so many philosophers and mystics, belonging to so many cultures, should have been convinced . . . that the world possesses meaning and value is a fact sufficiently striking to make it worthwhile at least to investigate the belief in question.”

Aldous Huxley, Ends and Means

A Common Quest

For journalist Barbara Ehrenreich, those questions cropped up, as they often do, during her early teens. Over those formative years she compiled a journal on her quest, a kind of diary and narrative of her experience and discoveries. Decades later, she examined her former and latter self in Living With a Wild God: A Nonbeliever’s Search for the Truth About Everything. It’s a fascinating everyman story: a chronicle of her search for meaning, or as she wrote then, a search for “the ‘spiritual,’ . . . a ‘poor word, but you know what I mean.’”

As the book’s subtitle suggests, Ehrenreich was a skeptic. In her atheistic household, there was an especially keen interest in science and the empirical. One evening she asked her mother, “Could something be true but not explainable? Of course not, she said. If you can’t explain something, it isn’t true and has no basis in fact.” Although Ehrenreich would eventually earn a doctorate in cellular immunology, at the time the gospel that Science was preaching to her was not delivering any good news.

So before turning 13, she writes, “I set my goal for life, which was to find out why. What is the point of our brief existence?”

From the perspective of the life sciences, meaning was very shallow indeed. “I was being recruited into the great death march of biology—be born, reproduce, die.” As such, life’s purpose was uncomplicated: “Just carry on those germ cells and populate the earth; that seemed to be the entire agenda.”

The physical sciences were even less help: “As for high school physics, all it offered was a view from which, as far as I could determine, ‘matter’s chief property is inertia,’ meaning that the physical world was dead—a huge corpse deposited, for unknown reasons, in the middle of space-time.”

Ehrenreich remained determined. “What are we doing here and to what end?” she pondered, as most of us do at some point. And “would [the answer] be in a book or in a place? Coded or in plain sight?”

These are all gut questions, not brain questions, says religion historian Alec Ryrie. We are heart-and-head creatures: feeling and logic, metaphysical and physical. It’s just not as simple as, say, building our picture of the world (what we believe as true) by analyzing the corners of each data point and then stacking them all into a neat pile. There’s emotion and experience, a past, present and future to consider. Human beings are irrational, Ryrie says, in the sense “that we are not calculating machines, and that our ‘choices’ about what we believe or disbelieve are made intuitively, with our whole selves, not with impersonal logic.”

Ehrenreich also describes this necessity to go beyond logic. “You can and should use logic and reason all you want. But it would be a great mistake to ignore the stray bit of data that doesn’t fit into your preconceived theories, that may even confound everything you thought you were sure of.”

It’s no surprise, then, that our own response to the chemistry teacher’s question might dig deeper. “I’ll tell you what’s the matter,” whispers—or even shouts—our inner voice; “I feel that I’m more than matter, more than a pile of wobbling atoms.” In other words, if the world is made of square blocks, why are there so many round holes?

I Feel, Therefore I Am More

Beyond the sense that there’s more to life than matter alone, we wonder, “Why am I ruminating about this at all?” What makes us aware, conscious, knowing, caring one way or another? “I think, therefore I am,” said Descartes, but things haven’t progressed much. We must still work through these problems individually.

Somehow, despite all the peculiarities of my gender, age, class, and family background,” Ehrenreich muses, “I had tapped into the centuries-old mainstream of Western philosophical inquiry, of old men asking over and over, one way or another, what’s really going on here?

Our ever-expanding scientific observations of the world have not dulled these questions. But as Ehrenreich found, science is not equipped to see beyond the material world.

In Taking Pascal’s Wager, philosophy professor Michael Rota observes: “The major goal of natural science is the understanding of physical reality. How far would scientists get at that goal if they appealed to God every time they came across a puzzling phenomenon?” Not far at all. Rota cites Stanford physicist Leonard Susskind’s view as “fairly typical”: “Let me be up front and state my own prejudices right here,” Susskind writes. “I thoroughly believe that real science requires explanations that do not involve supernatural agents . . . including the amazing lucky accidents that conspired to make our own existence possible” (The Cosmic Landscape, 2006).

It’s those “lucky accidents,” however, that continue to dog us. The myriad physical qualities that make life and its biochemistry possible on earth are tied to laws and constants of physics that sustain the entire universe. If just a tiny tweak or two were made (on, say, the properties of a quark or the forces within a star), nothing would exist; the universe would have appeared and disappeared in an instant.

This fine-tuning of the universe seems too good to be just an accident; it gives intuitive evidence that our existence is a created event, not just chance material evolution. The late physicist Freeman Dyson remarked, “The more I examine the universe and study the details of its architecture, the more evidence I find that the universe in some sense must have known that we were coming” (Disturbing the Universe, 1979).

Astronomer Carl Sagan, who was once called “the gatekeeper of scientific credibility,” used “spirituality” as a description of our natural sense of awe for creation: “Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual.” From Sagan’s perspective, science helps inform a sense of awe (even if, in his view, that awe must still be firmly rooted in the material).

For the most part, however, what we hear from the sciences is a much colder, data-driven perspective. Paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson, a key figure in the modern synthesis of Darwinian evolution with genetics, summed up this view rather directly: “Man is the result of a purposeless and natural process that did not have him in mind. He was not planned. He is a state of matter.”

As for meaning? Science still seems to be the wrong place to look. “We find nothing that gives our lives an objective meaning,” declares Nobel Prize–winning physicist Steven Weinberg. “There’s nothing in the laws of nature to suggest that we have a particular place in the universe.” Still, he adds, “that doesn’t mean I find my life pointless. We can love each other and try to understand the world. But we have to give our lives that meaning ourselves”—we must find it from within.

Fellow physicist Sean Carroll agrees: “We are collections of atoms, . . . and we are thinking and feeling people who bring meaning into existence by the way we live our lives.”

As we hurtle toward a cold and barren cosmos, we must accept that there is no grand design. Particles are not endowed with purpose. . . . And so, in our quest to fathom the human condition, the only direction to look is inward.”

Brian Greene, Until the End of Time

Going Out-of-Bounds

We can all agree that the way we live our lives is certainly important, but to claim that human meaning is not intrinsic stretches science too far.

American philosopher and theologian David Bentley Hart explains that these sorts of statements are really science going out-of-bounds. What is “an admirably severe discipline of interpretive and theoretical restraint” can go off the rails and become “its perfect and irrepressibly wanton opposite: what began as a principled refusal of metaphysical speculation, for the sake of specific empirical inquiries,” Hart warns, “has now been mistaken for a comprehensive knowledge of the metaphysical shape of reality; the art of humble questioning [science] has been mistaken for the sure possession of ultimate conclusion.”

Joining historian Ryrie, Hart argues that our sense of the world is not always bound to hard, public evidence. “Most of the things we know to be true, often quite indubitably, do not fall within the realm of what can be tested by empirical methods; they are by their nature episodic, experiential, local, personal, intuitive, or purely logical.” The methods of science, Hart concludes, “do not provide proofs of where reality begins or ends, or of what the dimensions of truth are.”

The fact of science itself, that we can explore the world and understand it at all, resonates with another often-cited proposition: that the human mind mirrors God’s mind—that being “created in His image” gives the human mind access to the rest of creation.

It is such a remarkable fact that we can understand the world in a deep way,” physicist and theologian John Polkinghorne told Vision, “and that when we do so we get this experience of wonder.” In this he sounds much like Sagan. But regarding what causes such a reaction, their views diverge: “I would say we need further explanation and would answer happily that the mind of God lies behind the deep order of the world; the order expresses God’s nature.”

This suggests that we are conscious because we have been created by a conscious Being. Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga notes, “Modern science is an enormously impressive attempt to come to know something about ourselves and our world. . . . [It is] an unexcelled display of cooperative intellectual power and depth . . . in which humankind communally reflects the divine nature, a striking development of the image of God in humanity.”

In the first century, the apostle Paul understood this connection as stemming from something he referred to as “the spirit in man” or “the human spirit that is within” (1 Corinthians 2:11, New King James Version and New Revised Standard Version).

It’s an intriguing thought. If human consciousness and intellect emerge from a combination of a physical brain and a spirit of some sort, then materialism alone is not enough; a spiritual dimension would also be an aspect of reality.

We are struggling in the language of our day, as Paul did in his, to express the richness of human nature. We cannot deny that we are materially embodied beings, but we are not merely material.”

Sir John Polkinghorne, “Holes in the Net” (Vision interview, Winter 2010)

Another Side of Reality

The puzzle of human consciousness, while still being investigated as a physical phenomenon, is beginning to draw the attention of some scientists who suspect the existence of that spiritual component. One is neuroscientist Mario Beauregard. He insists that our sense of a spiritual reality outside of physics and the material world is real. Our intuitions are not merely mental cascades of misfiring neurons—hallucinations that fool us into wanting to believe. “We are not animals in competition with each other for survival,” he writes in The Spiritual Brain, “but rather spiritual beings connected to the source of our spiritual nature.”

The mental jump that takes us from one view of things to another is similar to what we experience with the cube illusion (below). The challenge is to simply determine the orientation of the box. Is the grey face the front or the back? First we see one way, then the other, but it seems we can never hold on to both at the same time. So what’s the reality of the cube? Can it be that both are correct?

The real surprise is that just as our conclusions about the box jump back and forth, our perspective on other themes can also spontaneously flip over. Science and spirit are two sides of the same box, but which one dominates at a given time changes with our experience.

For Ehrenreich, the moment of insight did come. “My quest was about to come to a shattering climax, which I would spend the rest of my life, or large chunks of it anyway, straining to understand,” she writes. In her journal she called it “total perception.” It was the moment she saw the other face of the box, and it rattled her sense of the world. “The clunky old reality machine would never work the same way again. I knew that the heavens had opened and poured into me, and I into them, but there was no way to describe it, even to myself.”

This indescribable sense that more than the physical exists can arrive in many ways. Ehrenreich eventually called it a “vision.” Near-death experiences have convinced others that a spiritual dimension is real. Neuroscientist and stroke survivor Jill Bolte-Taylor explained how the world looks different when certain mental biases go “offline” and one is able to comprehend a hidden reality.

Science could of course continue to dismiss anomalous ‘mystical’ experiences as symptoms of mental illness,” Ehrenreich concludes, “but the merest chance that they represent some sort of contact or encounter justifies investigation.”

Postmaterialist Science?

The science—balancing equations, bonding, ions, laws of thermodynamics, momentum—is important but not inclusive of all that is important. Beauregard, along with fellow scientists at the Academy for the Advancement of Postmaterialist Sciences, is trying to cut a path through the materialist thicket: “Our goal is to create a safe haven for senior scientists, young scientists, and students, to individually and collectively explore concepts and findings that may fall outside the mainstream of accepted materialist thinking.”

The implications of this shift of paradigm are “numerous and crucial,” Beauregard told Vision. “This new theoretical framework fundamentally changes the vision we have of ourselves, and it gives us back dignity and power as human beings by inviting us to develop the various aspects of our potential.”

Science is not synonymous with materialism. . . . Furthermore, materialist theories have utterly failed to explain how the brain could generate the mind and consciousness.”

Mario Beauregard, “The Emerging Post-Materialist Paradigm: Toward the Next Great Scientific Revolution”

When given the chance, most of us seem to be drawn toward a personal quest for meaning and explanation that lies outside the physical alone. As Huxley acknowledged, the idea that materialism alone does not bring light to our deepest questions is an age-old and almost universal intuition. An inner sense of transcendence—that our lives really do mean something beyond what science tells us or what we can invent—seems part of the human condition.

In the ancient Hebrew wisdom book of Ecclesiastes, King Solomon put it this way: God “has put eternity in [human] hearts.” Again, it suggests that we have an inborn sense that there’s more to life than can be detected through our physical senses, and that we have a deep desire, a compulsion even, to understand the meaning and purpose of life and to discern our destiny. Although there are some who embrace the existentialist worldview that there is nothing beyond the now, such a view is out of sync with much of human experience.

In terms of human needs, Huxley talked about our craving not only for explanations but also for righteousness, meaning and value. “The craving for righteousness seems to be a human characteristic just as fundamental as the craving for explanation,” he wrote. “The [materialist] theories devised to satisfy the craving for explanation have proved to be remarkably accurate in their account of the nature of the world; we have no right to reject as mere subjective illusions the analogous thesis [postmaterialist, spiritual] devised to satisfy the cravings for righteousness, for meaning, for value.”

That quest for both material knowledge and spiritual meaning continues. It is ongoing, and one never knows where the revelation will come from or when the box will flip. Do our lives have purpose beyond the empirical data? The experiential evidence and our intuition both say yes, and science may soon agree. As the apostle Paul (who wrote about the “spirit that is within”) told an audience of Athenian philosophers and others, spiritual reality may be closer than people realize (Acts 17).

To seek out the fullness of life and its deeper mysteries is part of being human. The seeds of insight are continually sown, but will they find good ground? We each must consider what matters and what does not, and how those seeds will be nurtured or neglected.