Is nature all there is? Skeptics and atheists hold that view. They want to make sense of what they see around them by viewing it as a natural process, taking place over vast periods of time and resulting in the incredible diversity and complexity that we presently experience. The view has some intuitive appeal – on the surface, anyway. We all know that things change over time. On a massive scale, we see the shift of the continents over the millennia and see how they once fit neatly together, puzzle-like, before they began to drift. We recognize that living beings inherit the traits of their parents and that modifications can occur over time. Anyone familiar with dogs knows that selective breeding can bring changes. Even in the area of the brain, as scientists probe deeper into its mysteries, it is apparent that some of our behavior is influenced at a very basic, chemical level. We read stories of accident victims whose personalities are altered by an injury to the brain, and we all know the effects that drugs and alcohol routinely have on one’s thinking, and behavior.
But this surface appeal does not bear much scrutiny. First, and foremost, resting one’s “faith” on nature as “all there is” is self-defeating. If the brain is in fact the by-product of purposeless forces that just happened to have developed it to its present state, then developing in a markedly different way was also a possibility. What worked, according to the Darwinian explanation, is what allowed for survival. But what makes a thing survive is not necessarily related to what is true; I can hold many false beliefs and yet survive over a weaker competitor whose views are actually closer to the truth. If what we think is simply the by-product of this random process, there is no basis upon which to place our trust. By contrast, if we want to assert that our minds are reflecting actual truth when they tell us that nature is all there is, then there must exist prior to, and apart from, our perceptions, an actual true state of things that the brain is accessing. Just as a line cannot be considered straight or crooked until one first understands what “straight” is, so too with the brain – it cannot assess actual truth, whether it be about mathematical sums or about profound origin questions, unless there exists apart from them a source of true - actual - knowledge.
The second way in which this idea fails is that it does not properly take into consideration the objective things that are out there for brains to assess. It’s one thing to “get right” the idea that large animals are dangerous and should be avoided, or that blunt objects can cause us harm. At some level, humans, like animals, are possessed of instincts that help them survive. Thinking more deeply for a moment, one quickly realizes that much more exists than animals or inanimate objects with which we may interact. Things such as ideas - conceptions of, for example, math, morality, and music - are real. We do not imagine them; they can be studied and tested by others. Indeed, the scientific enterprise is rooted in the notion that things are a certain way and that hypothesizing and testing will lead to useful knowledge. In short, we are aware that these ideas exist and that we can access them, even though we also realize that they don’t actually reside in physical things. If they did, they would be destroyed when physical things, such as brains, cease to exist. But they live on.
Jim uses an analogy to make this point. An MP3 file is used to store music and with the right type of device, and power running through that device, audible music results. But the music isn't the MP3 file; the file simply captures it for a specific type of use. So too with our brains. The materialist asserts that what we think is simply the product of the electrical impulses in our brain. But the ideas, like the song stored on an MP3, exist beyond the brain. When I contemplate a differential equation (which I don’t do often, actually, as math is not my strength) I realize that I am not inventing it; I realize that it pre-existed me and that it exists apart from me. Before the first human first conceived of it, the mathematical concepts resided somewhere and were unchanging. Indeed, it seems fair to conclude that those ideas always existed, as it makes no sense that they came into being at a particular point in time. Morality is similarly perplexing for the materialist. While secular people can be moral, the very idea that someone “ought” to act in a certain way given certain conditions is an abstract concept that bears consideration. It is not simply instinctual; this might make some sense in a "survival-of-the-fittest" type of way. But often times, the moral thing to do runs counter to what would enhance our survival. The very notion of weighing and balancing the competing interest, while searching for the “best” alternative, suggests that we all have access to a source of “right knowledge” that we intuitively know we should apply. That pervasive feeling called “guilt” is what results when we don’t.
Naturalism cannot make sense this of this. To do so, the idea – whether mathematical, moral or musical – would have to have come into existence for the first time when the first brain first thought of it. But this is simply not the case – and we all know it. Our brains do provide us reliable information. But they do so by facilitating the function of the mind, which has access to real and unchanging truth. The sooner we accept that notion, the sooner we can address the really pressing questions - who does ground this knowledge and why has He left us here?