“If science can’t prove it, it isn’t real.” This is another way the belief in Physicalism is expressed. Last week I discussed one reason Physicalism dies before it gets started as a rational approach to the world—it is logically self-defeating. This week I’ll tackle a second problem with Physicalism—it can’t explain so much of what we observe every day.
Yet first I offer a word of caution. In our pragmatic, Western culture we have been trained to always begin with the question "how is this immediately practical?" If we can't answer this right away, we automatically tune out the conversation. The problem is that sometimes the most practical things are only discovered by a process of thinking about things that are more abstract.
To understand this issue we have to think a bit more deeply and abstractly. In fact, it is also what Paul often does in his writings—he outlines the theory in the first (and often largest section) of a book, and then turns to application (for instance, in the book of Romans). So we are in good company!
The point of this second argument is that if a person cannot live consistently what he says he believes, this is a good indication he should give up that belief. Most Physicalists I’ve know actually believe in a whole world of immaterial things! But they can’t have it both ways—claim to be Physicalists yet believe in immaterial realities to make sense of the world. They must either live and speak consistently as Physicalists, or grant that immaterial realities exist and live accordingly.
There are at least three ways Physicalists implicitly believe immaterial things exist—specifically abstract objects that are “multiply exemplified” in many particular things, often at the same time, which are known as “universals.”
Argument One: Universals “show up” everywhere!
Sometimes Physicalists can “see” the universals they implicitly believe in if asked a few questions. For instance, I was once talking with a professor of mathematics at a public university who claimed to be a Physicalist. I’ll call him Dr. Phillips. He was giving me a hard time for believing in God, souls, and an afterlife, because such things cannot be proven empirically (through the five senses). Here’s how our conversation went:
Dr. Phillips: You must not be very well educated. When you study more you will learn that educated people don’t believe in those fairy-tales you grow up believing. The only things that exist are what we can see, touch, taste, smell or hear—what science can prove.
Me: (I could see that I wasn’t going to get anywhere in helping him understand the gospel with his assumption of Physicalism. So I took a different approach.) Can you tell me more about what you study? It must be fascinating.
Dr. Phillips: I study mathematical objects and their relations. (Quite a good answer.)
Me: Wow, that sounds really interesting. Do you happen to have any mathematical objects in your drawer or on a shelf that I can hold for a minute? I’ve never felt one. And what do they smell like? Do they taste good? How much do they weigh? And how about a relation—I’d sure love to get my hands on a ‘greater than’!
Dr. Phillips: (He looked at me with incredulity and pointed to his whiteboard) They are right there!
Me: I see. But doesn’t that worry you? If the cleaning staff comes in at night and erase that board, your subject would no longer exist. Then you will need to go get a Ph.D. in some other field!
Dr. Phillips: No, they are written out other places as well.
Me: But, in theory, if all those writings were erased, your field would no longer exist, right?
Dr. Phillips: (He stopped and thought for quite some time.) Actually, I think the field of mathematics would still exist, even if nothing were written down.
Me: I agree, but it would not exist physically. It seems you are saying that mathematical objects and their relations—the focus of your field of study—are ultimately immaterial things. Even if they are not written out anywhere, they still exist. Right?
Dr. Phillips: Yes, that seems to follow. I guess I never thought about it that way.
Me: And so if you already believe in countless things that exist and are not physical (an endless number of mathematical objects and their relations), why is it not reasonable to believe God and souls can also exist though they are not physical?
Dr. Phillips: Good point. I have to go to class, but let me think about that some more and let’s talk again soon.
Over the years I’ve had similar conversations with Physicalists in many other academic disciplines who in fact also believe in universals:
- Professors of Chemistry who believe the Periodic Table is objective—that the elements truly have certain natures which define their characteristics. (Natures are a type of universal.)
- Professors of Foreign Languages who believe the very same proposition (the contents of a sentence) can be expressed in many different languages. (Propositions are a type of universal.)
- Professors of Law who believe there are truly “inalienable rights” that should be upheld for all, regardless of class, race, gender, and so on. (Moral values are a type of universal.)
- Professors in the Medical Sciences who believe there is an objective property known as “health” that the body naturally seeks to achieve, due to its nature. (Properties are a type of universal.) As a result, they use language to identify when this property is not present such as disease, illness and deformed.
- Professors of Music who believe Bach’s Concertos are truly beautiful and have given their lives to understanding the relations among the notes, tempos, etc. which make it beautiful (Relations are a type of universal.)
- Professors of Logic who believe the laws of logic are objective, and so everyone ought to understand and utilize them (Logical relations are a type of universal).
Similar arguments can be made concerning properties such as love, courage, justice, honesty and so on. The fact that universals are so hard to deny seems to be one strong reason to believe in them and therefore reject Physicalism.
Argument Two: Predication Assumes Universals
Furthermore, one must assume universals exist to make sense of our common-sense approach to the world, as reflected in our language. This is the language of predication. We often say things like “Lori is kind,” “This sunset is beautiful,” and “Ryan is a human being.” Saying things like this are claims that “a is F.” Yet we have to stop and ask how is it that “a” truly is “F”? What are we really saying when we say “a is F”?
It appears the best explanation is that “a” actually is “F”—that “a” does, in fact, actually posses “F” and therefore we can truly say “a is F.” In other words, it seems the best explanation is that “a”—the particular thing, be it Lori, the sunset, or Ryan—truly has (possesses, instantiates, exemplifies) a universal such as kindness, beauty, or humanness.
This seems to be a second strong reason to believe in universals and therefore reject Physicalism.
Argument 3: Attribute Agreement Assumes Universals
Third is the fact of attribute agreement. We not only say things like “Lori is kind,” “This sunset is beautiful,” and “Ryan is a human person.” We also say things like “Brooke is also kind,” “Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is also beautiful,” and “Luke is also a human person.” In other words, we often make the additional claim that “a and b are F.” We readily identify when different particular things share the same attribute (or property) in common. But physical things can only be in one place at one time. The only way the same thing can be shared by two (or more) particulars is if that thing is, by definition, immaterial (and thus “multiply exemplifiable”).
Or consider when two people have the same thought (for instance, you now having the same thought I had in mind as I wrote this, which allows you to understand what I have written). There must be something identical in my mind and your mind— namely the proposition we both are thinking about (in this case, the proposition “two people can have the same thought, even though at different times and places”). This is another clear case of the same “F” being “had by” multiple particulars (the same thought being “had by” multiple minds). The same can be said of propositions expressed in various languages, for instance “It is raining” and “Il pleut.” The very same “F” (a proposition concerning rain) is expressed in two particular instances (two distinct languages).
This has theological implications as well. A similar argument can be made concerning God’s “communicable” attributes. God is loving, just and wise. He has created us to be able to share in these attributes. So the very same attributes of love, justice and wisdom are exemplified by God and by us. The same is true of the rest of the “fruit of the Spirit” listed in Galatians 5:22—these same properties are “had by” many believers. Furthermore, Scripture assumes this in Philippians 2:7 and Hebrews 2:14, for instance, as the authors speak of Christ taking on the very same human nature as we each possess, in order to be a (truly, deeply, essentially) equal sacrifice.
Said differently, there seem to be “ready-made groupings” in the world, and we naturally classify things by these groupings—kind things, beautiful things or human things. For instance, no one has trouble classifying Ryan and Luke as humans and not dogs or antelope. They seem clearly to share something in common which grounds their membership in the group “human things.”
What best explains these natural groupings we observe—this attribute agreement whereby many different things share the same “F”? The best explanation is that there is something shared in common among members of these natural groupings. Specifically, there must be some actual “F” that is “in” each of these particulars and truly make them what they are (human, beautiful, kind, etc.) Such a “F” is a universal, which is “in” the particulars and thus make the particulars what they are and ground their membership in the class.
There appear to be many such cases of the same thing is “had by” many particulars, whereby we accurately group them into natural groupings. This, then, is a third strong reason to believe in Universals and reject Physicalism.
The fact that Physicalists deny immaterial objects exist, yet cannot live consistently with this denial is an indication that the Physicalist view is bankrupt. The Physicalist must either give a good response to the above arguments and begin living consistently, or admit Physicalism is false—that immaterial things exist.
Until next week, grace and peace.
For further reading I suggest Garrett DeWeese and J. P. Moreland’s Philosophy Made Slightly Less Difficult: A Beginner’s Guide to Life’s Big Questions, Chapter Two: “What Is Real?”
For a more detailed treatment I suggest J.P. Moreland and William Lane Craig’s Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, Chapter 10, “General Ontology: Two Categories—Property and Substance.”
I have also written a longer essay on this topic that I would be happy to send you as a PDF, if you like. Just send me a note through the Contact page section of my website.