Problems With Atheistic Materialism – Greg Bahnsen

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Three Foundational Worldviews

You either have materialism, dualism, or some religious philosophy, and of course, there’s a plethora of religious philosophies. How do we, as presuppositionalists pursue Step Four: showing the failure to provide the preconditions of intelligibility with respect to the different worldviews that we can encounter?


Let’s start with the materialist. We want to point out to the materialist that he or she can claim

  • that only concrete particular things exist
  • that there are no immaterial or abstract realities
  • that he or she can claim that all events are random
  • there’s no personal plan, no control over this world in which we live

And he or she can claim that reality amounts to matter in motion.

But, they cannot think or act or reason in that way. They can claim that, but they can’t reason or act, cannot think, in that fashion at all.

Five Questions for Atheist Materialists

Five questions quickly to address to the materialist and to the atheist.

  1. Why be rational?
  2. What’s the origin of life?
  3. Why think in terms of scientific inference?
  4. Why think in terms of general principles?
  5. Why be more?

I’m going to talk about each one of them, but I want you to see there’s an overwhelming avalanche of philosophical problems with materialism.

1. Why Be Rational?

Why do I be rational? I once had a radio dialogue with George Smith, who wrote The Case Against God and this book is really played up and so forth, and it’s supposed to take all the great arguments, you know, into account in the community, you know, deep and profound and so forth.

And in my interview with him on the radio, I said, “George, one of the basic flaws I find in your book is your conception of Christian faith. You have the idea that reason takes all of us so far and then some of us in this world have a leap of Christian faith that goes beyond reason.”

I want to point out that in the Augustinian tradition that’s not our conception of reason and faith. We believe that all reasoning rests upon faith, and so faith is none other than reason. Faith is the most reasonable thing because reason itself relies on it.

I notice that in your book you say all of us must be rational and not follow this Christian idea of reason. Now, his notion of reason is not really the Augustinian one, but I pressed it further and I said, “But given your conception that reason is apart from faith, right when you say that all men must follow their reasoning and not do like the Christians and have a blind leap of faith, I want to know on what basis you can say that.”

Why are men under obligation to be rational? You know, it’s just almost like something the guy had never considered, or just blitzed his thinking. You know, I don’t mean that he just crumbled on the radio. It’s really quite arrogant, wanted to keep, you know, pushing things back at me.

That’s fine, but he didn’t have any answer for that. I said, “Now, I think all men should be rational. I think we are under obligation to use our intellectual tools to glorify God and learn about this world. We should be consistent, and so forth and so on. I think we should believe things on good evidence. I believe everybody should be rational, but I believe that because God requires all men to be rational.”

So, within my worldview I can make sense of this demand for rationality, but you know, if this world is “sound and fury signifying nothing,” why should anybody have to be rational? Why don’t I just live moment by moment, and not worry about inconsistencies or rational theories or intelligent ways of interpreting my experience?

Why don’t I just think one thing one time and another thing another time and not care about logic at all? After all, logic has nothing to do with this world. You see, the strange thing is about the materialist is the materialist who wants to be rational has already departed from this materialism.

Another aspect of this question, “Why be rational at all?” If the person you’re talking to is really a materialist, then they have a naturalistic explanation for everything that we think and do. The naturalist says what’s going on in this gray matter in my cranium is controlled by the laws of physics, chemistry, and biology.

I don’t really think. I’m just like a weed that’s growing and this particular weed expresses itself through vocal cords and all that, but nevertheless weeds don’t think and make decisions and neither do I. We’re all subject basically to the laws of physics. I’m just at a more complicated level, a more complex level.

So, if naturalism is true, then there is no mind and there is no objective reasoning and no freedom to my thought. And so, if naturalism is true, why do you call on people to be rational? If naturalism is true, there is no rationality. There’s just whatever people end up thinking and doing.

Naturalism destroys the demand for rationality.

2. What’s the Origin of Life?

Second, what’s the origin of life? If that’s the atheist worldview, where does life come from? According to the atheist’s theory—the reigning dogma or prejudice in our day, as you know—life came from non-life.

That ought to be enough right there to make any rational person snicker. Do you think life came from non-life? In fact, I thought it was one of the established principles of biology that spontaneous generation is not true.

And you know, if the atheist will say—I mean he may have a more sophisticated way of doing this, basically the atheist says—we want one exception, just give us one exception to our universal rule. Well, if I give you one exception, it’s not universal.

Now, if we start giving out exceptions, then the Christian can just as easily say, “I want an exception, too.” At every point that you think that what I’m saying is not rational, not consistent, then I just want an exception from the command of rationality.

No, I cannot give you an exception to, “Where did life come from?” The idea that there was a prebiotic phase of evolution where chemicals just somehow came together accidentally and life originated is a preposterous scientific theory.

It’s a preposterous philosophical notion, too, because it assumes that something that doesn’t have any of the characteristics of the final product came together with something else that had none of the characteristics of the final property, but in bringing those two somethings together, you got the final product.

It makes no difference how much you tinker with our work, with the cake mix. You’re not ever going to get a political constitution out of a cake mix. And I don’t mean a cake mix box having somehow a whole constitution in it.

You all know how to make it. Well, maybe you don’t all know, but you have some general idea of how cakes are made. You also have some idea of the character of political constitutions. They have no relationship to each other—they don’t share, you know, attributes.

And so, for somebody to say, “I think political constitutions arise from cake mixes,” you say, “Well that’s preposterous.” And some will say, “Give us time. We’re working on it.” And that’s essentially what the evolutionist is doing.

He says, “Well, that’s right. Life and intelligence and morality have attributes which don’t have anything to do with inert chemicals, but give us time. We’re working on it. Let us tinker with the cake mix, and eventually we’ll get freedom. We’ll get morality. We’ll get intelligence. We’ll get life itself.”

Inorganic things do not by mechanical reconfiguration give rise to the organic. And so, secondly, we see the absurdity of the atheistic materialistic worldview and that they have qualities coming from their opposites: life coming from non-life, the moral coming from the non-moral, the intelligent coming from the unintelligent.

That’s not good science or good philosophy. Why be rational? What’s the origin of life?

3. Why Think in Terms of Scientific Inference?

Thirdly, why think in terms of scientific inference at all? If you’re a materialist and you believe that everything happens by chance—there is no personal control over the universe and what happens in history—then how can you hold to the uniformity of nature?

In a random, chance universe, there is no basis for expecting the way things that happen in the past to be the way they happen in the future. Now, you need to be aware of the fact as a Christian apologist that all human reasoning, all human experience, all use of language presupposes uniformity.

Why is that? Well, if the way the natural world operates is radically different from moment to moment, then I couldn’t learn anything. I couldn’t learn anything because every experience I have doesn’t give me any basis, by analogy, for what’s going to happen later.

Okay? So I stubbed my toe this night, and it hurts. That has nothing to do with whether stubbing my toe will hurt in the future, if it’s a completely random universe.

But if there is uniformity in the natural order, then from analogy, from past experience, I can predict what will happen in the future. So I’m going to avoid, you know, bumping my toes into that chair leg. I don’t want that kind of pain.

That’s a very homespun, down-to-earth illustration. Sending someone to the moon based on calculations and observations and experiments and so forth we’ve done in the past. I mean you’d have to be out of your mind to get in a rocket to be sent to the moon if you really thought this universe was random.

But somebody says, “Trust us. We’ve done a lot of tests in the past.” But why do you think those tests in the past provide any model or analogy for what will happen in the future? If you’re an atheist, why be scientific at all?

If you’re an atheist, there’s no uniformity to nature. Now, I once debated an atheist, Dr. Stein, who, when confronted with this kind of thing, said, “Well, it’s just the characteristics of the material world to be uniform.”

Anybody see any kind of unargued philosophical bias here? Now, the most obvious indication of bias is that he just wants to say the world’s like this, pure and simple. “Oh, you don’t need a reason for that.”

Now, science is the demand for—what?—a reason for the events that take place and what you want to tell me, then, Dr. Stein, is the edifice of science rests upon no reason. So, science rests upon the opposite of itself, indeed, the very violation of what it demands.

“You don’t need reasons for the uniformity of nature,” you say, but then everything else calls for reasoning, for causes of the events that take place. So, you’re not even living in terms of your own worldview.

But, I’m going to press beyond this. When he says that matter simply has this character, what has he assumed about matter? That it’s not constantly changing, right? That it has, “a character,” but the very notion that matter has an unchanging character is the very question under dispute: does matter have an unchanging character, so that whenever you put the vinegar and the soda together, the cork pops off?

Is that one of the attributes of vinegar and soda, in combination? That hydrogen is released and so the cork is going to pop up? Well, only if hydrogen from Tuesday is like hydrogen on Wednesday, vinegar from Tuesday is like vinegar on Wednesday, and so forth. Only if matter has an inherent character can we do these predictions.

But, that’s the very thing we’re asking for. What’s the basis for making these predictions? You can’t say the material world is predictable. Why? Well, because its character is to be predictable.

That’s just unreasoning prejudice. And so here, we have the atheist without any rational foundation for rationality and reasoning, any rational foundation for the origin of life, without any rational foundation for science.

4. Why Think in Terms of General Principles?

Fourthly, why should an atheist think in terms of any general principals? Everybody, to think, must use general principles. That is to say, everybody is committed to classes of things.

Our experiences are not taken as novel, new experiences, one by one by one by one by one by one, having no connection with anything before. Not everything is brand new.

Okay? So last few nights, I’ve been in the same hotel room and when I’ve gotten up every morning, it was the same hotel room. That’s what I want to say. But if materialism is true, and only material particulars exist, then it turns out the experience I had getting up in the hotel room the first morning is not the same experience as I had the second morning, the third, and so forth. Those are all just momentary experiences.

And therefore, there’s no sameness between them unless classes exist. To put it another way, unless something called similarity is real, but is similarity a particular thing that we encounter? Have any of you ever run into similarity itself?

I’ve never known anybody say, “Dr. Bahnsen, I’m really worried. I’ve lost my, you know, my quantity of similarity. I don’t know where I put it.” Similarity is not the sort of thing that you materially encounter.

Here’s something else you don’t encounter in the material world: the laws of logic. The laws of logic are general principles of reasoning. They’re prescriptive in character. The classes are general principles that we think in terms of are descriptive in character.

But nevertheless, they are both immaterial. When I say classes are descriptive and immaterial, I think in terms of giraffes and cats and running, and events and qualities that can be categorized together. So, there is “cowness” in terms of which I recognize particular animals in the field as cows.

I don’t just say, “Oh, there’s Beulah and there’s Beauregard. There’s no connection between the two of them.” I say, there’s something that makes me say, “They’re both cows.” But that “something” that makes me say they’re both cows is not a cow, nor is it anything physical.

In fact, if it were, then I’d have to have something that unites whatever this something is and the two cows into another category by which I can unite. I can say, “This ‘something’ belongs to ‘cowness’ and not to ‘catness.'”

And so, whatever it is that unites the cows together cannot itself be a material particular. It has to be universal. It has to be abstract and therefore, it has to be immaterial.

We’re back to my point. The unbeliever who is an atheist therefore is making use of categories, which are immaterial, even if it’s only the category of similarity, and laws of logic, which are immaterial and prescriptive for the way that we should reason.

And so, why should we reason or think in terms of general principles at all? If we are materialist, why have categories like barns and redness and cows and the laws of logic, if you’re a materialist?

Now, y’all wanted illustrations, and so these are the illustrations. I may give you more, but this is the sort of thing you need to think in terms of. Many of us don’t want to be philosophical brawling in some of this, and because of brevity and also because of my own training and personality, it may seem somewhat abstract, but all of you can think this way. All of you can push these issues.

With some practice, you’ll do it better. There’s no question about that. But you need not be intimidated by it because it’s philosophical. Everybody’s got to ask, “Why is it that we speak of these objects as being cows? Why don’t we just say experience? Why don’t we just have names for every single experience we have and nothing is ever common? Why do we think that there are common or universal laws of things? The only reason I do so is because as a Christian I know that the mind of God unifies the world and controls the world and my thinking should emulate his but I don’t know why a materialist, why an atheist would do so.”

5. Why Be Moral?

And then the fifth question that I rattled off so quickly is, “Why be moral?” If naturalism is true, I can say two things for sure:

  1. First, there are no absolutes. If naturalism is true, everything’s in flux and whatever happens, happens. There are no absolutes, there are no absolute prescriptions, there’s only descriptions of moment to moment to moment experience. If naturalism is true, then from that, we’d have to say there can be no absolute prescriptions, but if there are no absolute prescriptions, there’s no ethics system. There’s no, “Thou shalt or thou shalt not,” which is without qualification. There’s no universal obligation in a world that’s completely naturalistic.
  2. Second, if naturalism is true, there’s no human freedom or dignity by which people choose to live a life which is noble or ignoble, to do what is right or what is wrong. If naturalism is true, we don’t have any freedom or any dignity to maintain anyway. What is, is.

Pretty profound right? Whatever happens, happens, so that on the materialistic approach to reality, when it’s reporting to us the Hitler engaged in genocide against a number of human beings, or there are criminals who have raped and killed people, or people who have molested children, all you can say as a naturalist is, “Poop happens.”

Right? Things that are ugly and smelly take place. What else can I say? I can’t tell you it’s wrong. Because in a naturalistic universe, there is no wrong. There is no freedom to choose between right and wrong. And there’s no absolute prescription by which whatever I did could be right or wrong.

So, naturalism destroys all morality. Now I should warn you that many atheists who have gone to the University and have studied under atheist professors will have been taught, “Here’s the answer to that problem.” Naturalists try to live moral lives, and so you’re wrong to say that naturalism destroys ethics because people can choose values by which to live.

Well, first of all, you need to say, “You mean they can choose values by which to live?” I thought in the naturalistic world, everything happens by the laws of physics, chemistry, and biology, but whatever it is, it’s going on there. Let’s not call it a choice. That’s kind of problematic, isn’t it? Whatever it is going on there is still not an absolute prescription that’s being chosen. It’s just what somebody decides to do.

So let’s say that you decided to live a noble life of self-sacrifice and protection of the weak and so you’re really upset with what Hitler did. Do you come to me, or I’m talking to you, and I say “You really can’t condemn what Hitler does.” You’re going to say, “I do condemn what Hitler does, as I believe in self-sacrifice, in protecting the weak.”

I say, “Well that’s fine that you’ve chosen to live that kind of life.” My point is, you can’t condemn Hitler for not having chosen the same lifestyle with you because in your naturalistic presuppositions, there is no obligation for Hitler to be like you, to be self sacrificial, or to care for the weak.

At the debate I had at Davis with Edward Tabash, this Jewish lawyer, he complained about his relatives having died at Auschwitz. That’s a very sensitive subject. I tried to address that sensitively. I said, “I as a Christian, condemn what happened to your relatives. It’s morally outrageous. It’s atrocious. But what I have to point out to you is that on your worldview, you have no basis for condemning it at all. On your worldview, why should Hitler be under any obligation not to torture and maim and kill anybody he wants? What one animal does to another animal is morally irrelevant, if you’re a naturalist because what is, is. Poop happens. That’s it. That’s all you can say. You don’t like it, you find it smelly, but it nevertheless happens. End of story.”


Okay, so when you deal with the worldview of atheism or materialism and finally get down to this level, we’ve just said, “You see, you can’t provide the preconditions of intelligibility, for rationality, or understanding life, for thinking scientifically, or thinking at all logically and in terms of general principles, or being moral.

So when somebody says, “Well, your Christian worldview is already assumed when you take the evidence and are led to Christian conclusions. But, on my non-Christian worldview. I don’t have to be led to those conclusions,” we have to say, “You’re right. if you keep your autonomous presuppositions, the evidence we give you will not lead you to Christian conclusions, but you won’t be able to draw any conclusions because you won’t be able to be rational at all.”

The proof of God’s existence—is the coin gonna drop now?—is what? That without God, you couldn’t prove anything. Dealing with the materialist, many people will say, however, is the easy task, once you catch on to these criticisms. And really it isn’t all that difficult. It will become easier for you as you do it more and more. I mean, the materialist is, philosophically, I mean, a sitting duck

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