What is the murder molecule? How much does justice weigh? These are questions that have no answer in a materialistic world view.
A famous statement from Dr. Frank Turek made during both of his debates with Christopher Hitchens on the question of whether or not God exists.
Despite the fact that Dr. Turek, in my view, was thoroughly undone in those debates, and my admiration for Mr. Hitchens, these questions are worth thinking about and were addressed only in the overly verbose, roundabout, and albeit elegant way that makes Christopher Hitchens Christopher Hitchens.
What follows is my attempt to answer Dr. Turek’s question.
What is wrong with the question?
The first thing to point out is that the question is not exactly framed the way I believe Dr. Turek intended. The statement, “These are questions that don’t have an answer in a materialistic world view” implies that they are asked by all, and confounding only to those who lack a belief in God, when Dr. Turek’s intent clearly was to imply that the questions are ridiculous to even ask.
Taken as stated, Dr. Turek is correct: materialists don’t know which molecule, or gene, in particular relates to murder, or the weight of justice. But the fields of psychology and neuroscience are getting there, and the theist has yet to even begin. Far from being ridiculous to ask, questions like these are essential to understanding why we act the way we do, and how to best navigate existence given these facts of human nature.
I take Dr. Turek’s question to be: how does science and the study of the natural world inform the immaterial aspects of our world? How do we account for things like love, justice, and jealousy in terms of molecules, DNA, and materials? Moreover, upon what basis can one trust anything when all we are are molecules in motion?
The argument being made is that the existence of immaterial human qualities are proof of a divine creator — where did they come from if not God? Dr. Turek’s most lucid formulation of this argument was advanced in other discussions on the topic of evil. Evil, on his account, proves that there is a God because in order for us to classify an action as evil we must know what is good, and in order for us to know what is good, there must be God. Put in another way: the natural and spiritual worlds are wholly separate domains. The characteristics of good and evil are spiritual concepts that are untouchable by science.
All of this boils down to a problem of semantics. Dr. Turek, when using words like “love”, “justice”, and “evil”, is attaching more significance to them than most. Replacing the word “love”, for example, with the phrase “chemical reactions in the brain that produce the sensation of love” helps to elucidate the disconnect that Dr. Turek has on this topic with his opponents. Dr. Turek relies on our human intuition that these things are immaterial, and therefore untouchable by science, when in fact the realization that the exact opposite is true is coming more into focus with every day. Justice can either be taken to be a disposition endowed to all humans by a deity, or a common sense evolved through natural selection. The materialist says that these immaterial phenomenon are merely biological processes, which is simply a matter of fact at this point. The fact that we have them proves the existence of God no more than the fact that we have thumbs.
How can we trust our emotions?
In a materialistic world view, if love, consciousness, and all things ethereal are just chemical reactions, why should we trust anything?
The short answer to this question is, we shouldn’t. But to answer this question completely, we need to first define what it means to trust something, and be more specific about what it is that we’re trusting.
Dr. Turek’s point here is that chemical reactions have essentially no meaning, and should therefore be suspect. Perhaps trust however, is not the right word for describing our relationship to morality and our emotions. Consciousness can be, in one sense, reduced to a series of sensations and emotions which result in myriad behaviors and drive our moral judgements. It’s not a matter of trusting what you think and feel, because they essentially are you, but rather justifying why we feel the way we do. What tools, words, and institutions do we have to transcend our instinctive impulses and biases? The next step is to seek good reasons for loving our families and treating our fellow man with dignity.
Dr. Turek means to ask: what reasons, upon reflection, can we give to explain why we love our family, or view murder as an injustice? He would point to the word of God, but the materialist has more explaining to do.
Unfortunately, there is no one answer to this question. There are many ways to justify our feelings, and they need not be affirmed by one’s peers. I could say that I love my wife because of reasons x, y, and z, or simply because I just do. It matters not what the reasons are. For matters of justice, in which society as a whole should have a say in how it’s exercised, these can be decided mostly by consensus. Justice is a human affair, and can be sufficiently reasoned about using certain axioms that can be accepted by all humans, such as the fact that suffering is bad. To Dr. Turek’s question, the decisions we make regarding justice need not have a divine or purely objective basis. We can trust our intuition that murder is bad because we have materialistic reasons for our aversion to pain, compassion for others, and desire to live in a society in which murder is rare.
A perfectly good and valid reaction to a materialistic world view is to question the existence of free will. If all we are are “molecules in motion,” how then do we have free will? In what sense are we free if the entirety of human experience is merely chemical reactions and biology?
The underlying intent of this question is merely to play off of our base intuitions about free will. Most of us feel a sense of freedom when it comes to operating our lives, and are even sensitive to the idea that we are guided mostly by our biology. Based on this intuition, and the fact that the materialistic worldview does not allow for explanations of phenomena outside of the natural world, the theist concludes that free will exists and therefore must have been endowed to us by God.
The question of whether or not we have free will is a philosophical and scientific one, and is very rich, and very deep, but need not involve the notion of God. Setting that aside for another time, it seems to me that even the existence of God does not acquit one from the question of free will.
In the case of the omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient Christian God, how does free will come into play? Either we have free will, and God does not know exactly what will happen in the next moment, or we are bereft of the power to choose and everything has been preordained. Either God knows all, including our entire life’s course and minds in every moment, or he doesn’t.
I wrote this post because I found Dr. Turek’s arguments to be disorienting at first. They seem wrong, but are difficult to fully unpack in the moment. The questions he raises are fair, and align with issues that many people have with non-belief, but in the end rely on the idea that science and religion are, as Steven Jay Gould puts it, non-overlapping magisteria. An idea that is proving to be more incorrect with each passing day.