Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Experience Explained

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Experience Explained

Article excerpt

Experience Explained True Paradox BY DAVID SKEEI. INTERVARSITY, 176 PAGES, $12

Evolutionary biologists like Richard Dawkins and experimental psychologists like Steven Pinker have gained immense cultural influence arguing for an atheistic, materialist worldview. Their influence derives not only from their arguments but from their undoubted scholarly achievements within their areas of academic expertise. It is imperative for Christians not only to answer these intelligent and learned voices in the public square but also to be seen by the world as answering them with equal sophistication.

David Skeel-an internationally recognized legal scholar at the University of Pennsylvania and an elder at the theologically conservative Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia-has done just this, arguing that Christianity offers a more plausible account of human experience than does atheistic materialism.

Skeel begins by considering and setting aside two familiar kinds of theistic arguments: cosmological arguments in analytic philosophy for the existence of God and arguments from intelligent design and the generation of living matter from non-living matter. In my view, his treatment of these arguments is sometimes too dismissive. After all, Antony Flew, the dean of philosophical atheists, eventually became a deist on the strength of the latter kind of argument. Skeel is no doubt correct, however, that such arguments by themselves are insufficient.

The reason is that human beings desire a consistent account of the world in which they live and their place in it. They can be presented, say, with a cosmological argument for the existence of God that seems perfectly sound, but if they think that believing in God involves other apparently insuperable contradictions such as the problem of evil, then some people may-perfectly rationally- dismiss the theistic argument as being incorrect even if they cannot determine at what point it goes wrong. Modifying one's belief on such a large issue as the existence of God entails modifying a host of related beliefs as well, and Christian apologetics has to be ready to treat a network of connected questions.

This is precisely what Skeel's book does. He argues that Christianity is better able than atheistic materialism to explain certain important aspects of human life, including the phenomenon of human consciousness, our appreciation of beauty and its transience, the meaning of human suffering, and our quest for justice. His examples are well chosen, and he argues persuasively that each of these obviously crucial aspects of the human experience is both an embarrassment to materialism and perfectly intelligible within the Christian understanding of the world.

Consciousness, including the capacity for abstract thought, is "the single most complex and mysterious feature of our existence." Moreover, virtually everyone would agree that the greatest human accomplishments, whether in science and mathematics, philosophy and literature, art and music, or morals, law, and politics, depend on the human capacity for abstract thinking. On the Christian view, this makes perfect sense: Christians believe that human beings are made in the image of God, and in saying this we are referring not to a physical similarity but to a spiritual one-namely, the fact that human beings have intellect and will. No wonder, then, that our greatest accomplishments derive from that part of our being by which we are most like the Deity.

Materialists, however, have to explain human consciousness as a product of evolution, and although some degree of intelligence has obvious survival value, the connection between the upper reaches of human intellectual ability and replicating one's genes in the next generation is extremely remote. Hence, materialists are generally reduced to saying that the most important aspects of human consciousness are a mere byproduct of the evolutionary process: The genes that allow us to use intelligence to survive in an often hostile physical environment somehow also allow Bach to write concerti and Gödel to prove the incompleteness theorems. …

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