Head to Head
true nature of reality is perhaps the greatest puzzle there is. We
all live our lives out on the basis on the conclusions we come to about
this puzzle. Here Rick and
debate whether reality includes the non-material.
Rick: From our previous dialog it is apparent we have widely
divergent views of reality. I hope I have interpreted your position correctly,
namely, that you believe only in material reality.
In contrast, I assert realities beyond the material domain including the idea
of God or a first cause.
It is not my intention to dissuade you from your beliefs, but rather to try
to understand how one comes to embrace either position. This is important, I
think, if either side is to gain support and adherents. I have read surveys that
indicate a majority of scientists - prototypes of materialism - support your
position. I would point out that many eminent scientists also believe in a
It is ironic that you, based in a religious profession, are in the material
camp whereas I, whose professional life was grounded in science, find myself in
a dual position.
I respect the importance of materiality but at the same time find critical
importance for living in believing in non-material things.
How did we come to such different views of life?
Mick: For much of my life I would have agreed with you. That is, I
would have supported the proposition that the world we each experience is not
all there is. I would have been hard-pressed to demonstrate that reality extends
beyond the material. But I was nevertheless convinced that God is, as it were,
the "ground of our being". I thought I would one day experience in full what I
now experience in part.
I have never abandoned the possibility.
But it now seems to me that it is a possibility without conclusive evidence.
Indeed I am unable to point to any convincing evidence at all. Many people tell
me of a non-material reality. None is able to show it to me in any shape or
My mention of "evidence" is revealing, I suppose. Be that as it may, it seems
to me now that there is no point in living as though there are any
conclusive answers at all. I am convinced about some truths - but only as long
as the evidence for those truths is sufficient. In my book, every truth is
I have often been pitied by those who "believe" in the non-material. It's
true that I lose the sure and certain comfort they claim for themselves. But I
gain much, much more.
Rick: "Evidence." That is a key word in this discussion. It brings
to mind the words of St Thomas: "Unless I see in his hands the print of the
nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails and place my hand in his
side, I will not believe" (John 20.25). Thomas was acting like a modern
scientist. He set forth specific criteria to falsify the hypothesis that Jesus
Christ was living having been resurrected from the dead.
Materialists say there is no "evidence" of a non-material reality. It follows
to ask, what are the criteria or standards to be met for such evidence? How is
the hypothesis, "There is no non-material reality," to be tested?
It is commonly argued that the presence of suffering and evil in the world is
evidence of the absence of God. Since there is a mix of both bad (suffering and
evil) and good (all sorts of things such as nobility, charity, love, hope, etc.)
it is problematic to affirm the hypothesis there is no God or non-material
Here is my question, Mick: What are your standards and criteria for
"evidence" of the sort we are discussing?
Mick: I can't respond to the hypothesis, "There is no non-material
First, it is impossible to produce conclusive evidence to support a negative.
The assertion that "There are no six-footed mongooses" can't be investigated
except by examining each and every mongoose. And even then, the last one might
be missed down some hole or other.
Second, our debate is about the positive assertion, "There is a non-material
reality". It is up to the person asserting this to supply evidence for its
You ask what sort of evidence I need. This is a tall order for a few lines,
so let me try some broad suggestions:
- I want to experience non-material reality. To be convincing it should be
of the same strength and quality as my experience of the keyboard I'm
presently typing on. Ultimately, I suppose, this boils down to the kind of
evidence which supports the existence of a material reality. As philosophers
have noted for a long time, it is possible to reasonably dispute even this
sort of reality.
- Alternatively, I might be convinced if it were of the type of experience
called "falling in love". That is, the vast majority of the human race attests
to it. Only those who have never fallen in love might dispute it. But this is
a wobbly sort of evidence if only because the vast majority just might be
Rick: Invoking a materialist argument to prove or disprove the
existence of God or non-material reality is not appropriate. There is no
experiment I can contrive that would be able to test the hypothesis. Nor can I
envision any material manifestation that would convince a materialist even
though it bore the label, "made by God in heaven."
Requiring materialist evidence serves only to dismiss the question.
The second line of evidence you cite is more congenial to the discussion. A
consensus of shared subjective experience can be forceful support (for some) for
a non-material reality. Such a consensus exists but it is not unanimous. It
leaves the issue still undecided. It is an impossible argument.
What I want to try to understand is how each individual person adopts either
side of the issue. It is my observation there are "tipping points" when either
external events or other persons create conditions that tip the balance to
I have only a few close friends. Whereas they all once identified with the
church, most if not all no longer do. From what they have shared with me it
seems it was the arrogance and hypocritical behavior of representatives and some
members of the church that turned them away.
As for me I continue to have my doubts from time to time. But on balance I am
still in the fold of believers. My balance has been tipped not only by family
traditions but moreover by the wondrous group of people who have been my
"spiritual" mentors. Examples of people seem more influential than doctrinal
I return to my introductory question: How did we come to such different views
Mick: I don't know. Perhaps upbringing ("family tradition") is the
clincher. Or perhaps unhelpful behaviour of Christians tips the balance for
some. Maybe social pressures push some people into one or other position.
I have been influenced by non-Christian family and friends. I also recognise
and honour fellow Christians who have very different conclusions about reality
and yet have been kind, generous and accepting towards me.
I have tried over the years to stay with the hypothesis that there is a
non-material reality. I find that neither reason nor experience allow me to do
that any longer. In other words, I hope I have, by and large, thought my way to
my present position. However, I will change that position if persuaded.
Rick: It is clear, Mick, we are both still on our separate
journeys toward truth. We have quite different ideas of what lies beyond the
door of death; and what, who or if anything has given form to the world and the
cosmos. I think we have both used reason in our respective
searches. Can reason alone clarify all the ambiguities and mysteries? I am not
sure but I don�t think so.
It is suggested that the church is in trouble because it adheres to creeds
that make no material sense as for instance the resurrection of Jesus Christ (as
well as others). Waning identification with the church, particularly in Europe,
is cited as evidence for this view. It suggests that reality is a zero sum game.
That is to say, as material reality is progressively defined, so the church and
religion in general will fade away.
As I have stated previously, I contend the human mind has two co-equal
compartments, the material and the spiritual/aesthetic. Each has its own rules,
vocabulary and imagery. Each compartment informs the other but they co-exist,
side by side. I know this dualism causes you to bridle but that is the way I can
best explain my life experience. As long as humans exist they will always
require nourishment of the spiritual/aesthetic compartment no matter how
thoroughly the material world is defined.
Mick: I'm personally more than content that you approach reality
the way you do. As you mentioned above, I'm "based in a religious profession".
So you can appreciate that most people around me have concluded much as you do.
I do experience a sense of isolation. Bishop Spong and others call it living
in exile - an image with which I have considerable sympathy. I regard myself as
a Christian. But given half the chance, many Christians would seek to drive me
out because of my attitude to life. So you will appreciate why I take
considerable care to avoid the deadly sting of the inquisition.
The clincher in daily life is that the practical requirements of love tower
far above the petty squabbling of Christian factions about the map of a country
which nobody living has ever seen.
As I have already suggested, I gain much from my approach to life.
There is a sense of integration. The entire body of human knowledge fits
together. There will always be mystery, always the unexplained. But I'm
convinced that it all hangs together in a glorious system.
I am challenged to be autonomous. There is no need for parental guidance from
heaven. A sapling can't grow in the shade of its parent tree. So I can, if I so
choose, experience true adulthood as a Christian.
A certain frisson of the risk which goes with adulthood keeps me feeling
alive and challenged. My life has no certainties, no complete security. What I
do, I do knowing that my choice may turn out wrong. What I know, I know only for
now, not for ever.
The upshot is that a person who lives fully in this world can live a life of
discovery and growth. Because nothing is finally settled, all is movement. I
think I may have turned my back for ever on the idea that somewhere over the
rainbow is a heavenly Land of Oz where all is perfect, all is peace.