Joy Davidman Lewis’s Brilliant Take-Down of Materialism

Just yesterday I was thinking, “I’ve just got to recover that fantastic quotation from the Joy Davidman Lewis biography I listened to on audio last year.” (The downside of audio books—and the reason I typically “read” only fiction and biography in audio format—is that I can’t take down quotations easily for future use.)

And then today Alan Jacobs comes through for me, quoting the very thing I was wanting to recover. It’s brilliant. Joy, later in life, describes the way she thought as a young, ardent materialist. I love the last line:

Men, I said, are only apes. Virtue is only custom. Life is only an electrochemical reaction. Love, art, and altruism are only sex. The universe is only matter. Matter is only energy. I forget what I said energy is only.

Everybody has an ultimate reference point, whether they’ve thought it out rigorously or not.

Is Your Brain a Meat Machine?

Edge.org is running a fascinating series of articles asking major public figures in science, “What scientific term or concept ought to be more widely known?”

Prominent atheist and evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne’s answer is “Determinism.” In his words, “All matter and energy in the universe, including what’s in our brain, obey the laws of physics.”

And Coyne jumps right to the significance of his viewpoint:

The most important implication is that is we have no “free will”: At a given moment, all living creatures, including ourselves, are constrained by their genes and environment to behave in only one way—and could not have behaved differently. We feel like we make choices, but we don’t.

Of course, the issue of “free will” has been taken up by Christian theologians throughout the centuries; the Bible isn’t silent on this issue. I want to analyze Coyne’s viewpoint and then offer you some biblical suggestions for how to evaluate it.

Every society has a priestly class, the people generally trusted to be arbiters of what’s true. Among educated Westerners, notes one scientist, “doctors and scientists [are] at the top of the list.” And here is one of our top arbiters—Coyne is indeed a very gifted scientist and communicator—telling us that our choice to read his article instead of sneaking some more Nutella was determined by two atoms going bump in the night, long ago, before there was such a thing as night—or ago.

Our brain…is simply a collection of molecules that follow the laws of physics; it’s simply a computer made of meat. That in turn means that given the brain’s constitution and inputs, its output—our thoughts, behaviors and ‘choices’—must obey those laws. There’s no way we can step outside our mind to tinker with those outputs.

Not all conflicts between mainstream Western science and Christian faith are this overt, this direct. But the Bible not only affirms the existence of immaterial beings but says that we ourselves have “spirits” and “souls” and “hearts” and “minds”—which aren’t reducible to the cause-and-effect laws of physics. The “spirit” in the Bible is, among other things, “that which animates or gives life to the body,” (BDAG) because when your spirit leaves you, you die: “Jesus … yielded up his spirit” (Matt 27:50; James 2:26; Ps 104:29). For a very few people we know of in Scripture, God sent that spirit back: Jairus’ deceased daughter’s “spirit returned, and she got up at once” (Luke 8:55; Rev 11:11). “Spirit” in the Bible also refers to at least one narrow aspect of man’s immaterial being: Jesus “sighed deeply in his spirit” (Mark 8:12). But in Coyne’s view, nothing can be any deeper inside you than about six inches.

Coyne doubles down on his view as soon as the natural question arises, like cause and effect: then are people not responsible for their actions?

Realizing that we can’t “choose otherwise” has profound implications for how we punish and reward people, especially criminals. . .. If we can’t choose freely, but are puppets manipulated by the laws of physics, then all criminals or transgressors should be treated as products of genes and environments that made them behave badly. . .. All of them, whether or not they know the difference between right and wrong, have the same excuse as those deemed “not guilty by reason of insanity.”

There’s actually a part of me which sees some real appeal in this line of reasoning, and the Bible has a name for that part of me, too: it’s called the “flesh” (Gal 5:16–21). I can’t deny that that part of me would like a world where I get to give up my guilt in exchange for giving up a freedom it sure feels like I still have. My flesh would willingly sacrifice the pack’s survival on the altar of my pleasure.

But I reject my own flesh. Without taking sides here on the intramural Christian debate between Calvinists and Arminians, I can say with confidence that I and all orthodox Christians believe in the reality of human choices—because the Bible does. Biblical religion teaches that there are constraints on human choices (Rom 7:15–18), but all Old Testament textual critics agree that Joshua did not put “choose” in scare quotes when he said, “Choose this day whom you will serve” (Josh 24:15). All Christians believe in moral responsibility, even for the mere “careless words men speak” (Matt 12:36–37).

All the ways Christians are accustomed to talking about sanctification, repentance, sin, and grace are destroyed in Coyne’s “reductive materialist” view, a fact for which he is glad (he says that given his views, “the Abrahamic religions dissolve into insignificance”). He even makes Christ’s sacrifice for us a sad mistake, for why should an incarnate God die for robots who were only carrying out their programming? But the Bible says Christ died “for the ungodly,” “for sinners” (Rom 5:6), not for automata.

Coyne the fundamentalist

Dr. Jerry Coyne is a rock-ribbed fundamentalist who puts me to shame, because my ribs have some flex compared to his—mine allow me to breathe. I sometimes have to resort to words like “paradox” and “mystery” when I contemplate the interplay of divine sovereignty and the reality of human choices. But Coyne is cock-sure that he has reached the deepest level of reality:

We don’t have any choice about what we do, and we never did. We can come to terms with this, just as we come to terms with our mortality. Though we may not like such truths, accepting them is the beginning of wisdom.

If Coyne gets to quote the Bible in the public square, so do I (if my blog even counts as public). In Not By Chance there’s a valuable appendix full of verses that I find myself going back to regularly. In it author Layton Talbert shows that the Bible simply asserts—often in the very same line—God’s rule and human moral responsibility, the reality of human choice. He quotes a number of Scripture passages in which he bolds statements about the divine will and italicizes statements of human responsibility. It takes only one to show that the Bible takes a vastly different view from that of Jerry Coyne:

My beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. (Phil 2:12–13)

Do you see? Not only does this passage assume the reality of human responsibility and choice; it urges human obedience as a logical consequence of the power of God’s will. No explanation is given, only assertion. Other passages do stretch further toward an explanation, but I’d be showing my theological cards if I told you which ones I thought did so. I’m content instead to have you take a look yourself—click this link to see the other passages Talbert uses. If you’re interested in studying further, copy them into Logos 7’s Sermon Editor or a word processor and bold and italicize the text yourself.

On knotty philosophical-theological questions such as divine sovereignty and human responsibility, all Christians should humbly let the Bible speak. And when it contradicts cultural authorities, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).

Jerry Coyne Vs. C.S. Lewis

Reductive materialist Jerry Coyne doesn’t believe human choices are real. They are, he says, just matter and energy doing what they’ve always done. He thinks, however, that we should still “punish criminals,” that we should, in fact,

remove them from society when they’re dangerous, reform them so they can rejoin us, and deter others from apeing bad behavior. But we shouldn’t imprison people as retribution—for making a ‘bad choice.’

One must in this case point out that C.S. Lewis was arguing against this point long before Coyne was born. He pointed out that while retributive justice is concrete—an eye for an eye, a six-month sentence for a robbery, a fine for a traffic infraction—“reform” lasts until the powers that be proclaim it complete. Such a view puts the criminal under a despotic power to which no human has a right. Here’s Lewis:

Some enlightened people would like to banish all conceptions of retribution or desert from their theory of punishment and place its value wholly in the deterrence of others or the reform of the criminal himself. They do not see that by so doing they render all punishment unjust. What can be more immoral than to inflict suffering on me for the sake of deterring others if I do not deserve it? And if I do deserve it, you are admitting the claims of ‘retribution’. And what can be more outrageous than to catch me and submit me to a disagreeable process of moral improvement without my consent, unless (once more) I deserve it? (91–92)

There is an infinite regress in Coyne’s reasoning:

Understanding that we have no choices should create more empathy and less hostility towards others when we grasp that everyone is the victim of circumstances over which they had no control.

That “should” sounds like a moral “should.” But what if I don’t wanna have more empathy for those jerks and blockheads in the other political party? Aren’t I only the victim of a circumstances beyond which I have no control? Shouldn’t they start having some empathy for my physics-based inability to have empathy for them? As Coyne himself goes on to say, “Jerks had no choice about becoming jerks.” But that sword cuts both ways. Over and over. Till what Christians call “morality” is left in tatters on the floor.

I’ll stick with Lewis’ view—the Bible’s view: that human choices are real even if they have constraints on them (Rom 7:15–18). I’ve got a post coming out on Logos Talk with more detail.

Review: Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work

Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of WorkShop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work by Matthew B. Crawford
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I was utterly taken with this book, first to last. The philosophical portions were elegantly written, insightful, and persuasive. The anecdotal interludes about car and motorcycle repair gave just enough breathing space (and entertainment) to make for a good reading pace. What a remarkable author; I will be reading anything by him I can get my hands on. On to “The World Outside Your Head.”

A friend commented that he found the philosophical portions difficult, and that his father, with an MA in carpentry and a life as a practitioner, actually found the book off-putting. I don’t think this book was written for most tradesmen; they know intuitively that they engage in their practices for their intrinsic goods. They don’t need a convoluted philosophical justification for what they discovered long ago was in their blood.

But I, the office worker, recognized immediately the truth of Crawford’s comment that

those who work in an office often feel that, despite the proliferation of contrived metrics they must meet, their job lacks objective standards of the sort provided by, for example, a carpenter’s level, and that as a result there is something arbitrary in the dispensing of credit and blame.

I needed to think through whether what I’m doing is valuable or not, and I needed the philosophical meanderings. After my very intelligent friend said he found difficulty in the philosophy stuff, I realized that it was laboring through Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue—an immensely rewarding experience—that made it easy for me to process Crawford. Crawford mentions MacIntyre particularly in the acknowledgments, and MacIntyre’s recovery of the Aristotelian idea of virtue being tided to practices was everywhere in Crawford’s book.

I happen to have a job with most of the ideals Crawford praises: I get to do something I love (writing, and writing about the Bible), to produce something concrete (blog posts) for a specific community (Christians interested in Bible study, mostly evangelicals), with fairly objective measures for success (social shares and comments). My job and my personal life bleed into one another because I have a vocation, a calling. I feel very blessed.

But reading Crawford revealed to me what I sort of felt guilty for acknowledging before, lest it cloud my ideal vision of myself: I enjoy putzing around the garage, doing yard work, and fixing ice makers and other household stuff. My heart slows down; my stress ebbs; my brain is nonetheless challenged; I have the satisfaction of a job begun and finished; my wife gives me an admiring kiss when I’m done. I do believe I will go at this kind of work with more gusto in years to come; I won’t disdain it as I once did—thinking, “I’m a knowledge worker, a creative; I make money to pay other people to do this menial stuff.” (What a foolish vision, and an impracticable one. The money I don’t make is what forces me to fix my own stuff in the first place.)

I was convinced to read this book by Crawford’s presence on the Mars Hill Audio Journal. Otherwise I would have guessed it to be sentimentalized pop psychology. But Myers took it seriously, and it became apparent quickly upon reading that I needed to as well. The stamps of Hunter’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture were clear in the book; I need to read more material coming out of that group.

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