Christian theism vs material naturalism-can they both be true?

worldviewIn her book, Is Reality Secular?—Testing the Assumptions of Four Global Worldviews, Mary Poplin outlines what she considers to be the five characteristics that are common to all worldviews.

“There are five characteristics of all worldviews:

First, and most consequential, all worldviews begin with faith, a metaphysical belief that cannot be verified using scientific methods. Robert Bellah point out that the Latin word for faith, fides, is more akin to the English term for trust rather than belief. Though these faith statements can be argued philosophically, and from evidence we can inductively and deductively hypothesize, none can be proven empirically through scientific methods, including material naturalism. Every worldview begins with faith in something empirically or scientifically unknowable.

Second, every non-Christian worldview holds within it some principles of the Judeo-Christian worldview. Thus there is an overlap between principles of Judeo-Christianity and those of material naturalism, secular humanism and pantheism.

Third, there are also principles held by each of these three worldviews that lie outside of the Judeo-Christian worldview, such as the material-naturalist belief that everything that exists is ultimately a material or natural phenomenon. From a Judeo-Christian standpoint these principles would be considered errors of commission.

Fourth, there are principles of Judeo-Christianity that lie outside the purview of believers in these other three worldviews. The absence of these principles in other worldviews would be considered by Christians as errors of omission.

Finally, none of these worldviews is more progressive or modern than the other. They have all existed ever since recorded history. The only real question is, are one or more of these an adequate description of reality?” [1]

The errors of commission and omission are striking when other worldviews are compared to that of the Christian worldview. Let’s take one of the worldviews listed above and compare it to that of the Christian worldview. In this case, we will highlight material naturalism.

Essentially, when analyzing worldviews we have to first ask, ‘Is it true?’ To do this I find it best to employ the three standard philosophical tests of truth –logical consistency, empirical adequacy, and experiential relevance.

This means that there are three questions we must ask:
1) Does it cohere? (That is, does it make sense?)
2) Does it correspond with reality?
3) Does it work?


Let’s look at each of these in turn:

First, does it cohere? This question derives from the theory that holds that, if a statement is true, it will cohere. That is, truth will make sense. It will not contain logical inconsistencies or elements that are mutually contradictory. Something which is incoherent cannot be true. It cannot be true if it does not make sense. An example of an incoherent statement would be: “That may be true for you, but it isn’t true for me.” If something is true, it is true for everyone even if no one believes it. Another statement would be, “There is no such thing as objective truth.” Really? Then is that statement true? Obviously not.

Secondly, does it correspond with reality? This question derives from the theory that says that if a statement is true, it will correspond with reality. That is, truth properly describes the real world and does not make claims inconsistent with reality.
Let me give you another example of statements that fail this correspondence test. Mormons believe that Christopher Columbus was not the first person to discover America. They claim that hundreds of years before Christ, a group of people led by a man named Lehi travelled there from the Middle East and founded a great civilization including such people as the Nephites and Lamanites. This story is coherent on its own terms, but lacks in empirical evidence to collaborate that such a civilization ever existed. It is a great story, but its claims simply do not correspond with evidence.

Thirdly, does it work? This statement derives from the theory that says that, if a statement is true, it will work. That is, truth enables us to function, whereas error does not.
The story is told of a politician, a vicar and a Boy Scout who travelled together in a plane. Suddenly, the engines failed. The pilot bailed out, leaving only two parachutes between the three of them. Immediately, the politician said, ‘I’m the most important, intelligent person here, so I’m taking one of the parachutes.’ And he jumped out. The vicar turned to the Boy Scout and said, ‘You take the other parachute and save yourself. I am not afraid to die.’ ‘But you don’t need to,’ replied the Boy Scout, ‘because the most important, intelligent person in this plane has just jumped out with my haversack on his back.’

No matter how much the politician believed that the haversack was a parachute, he would soon find out that it wouldn’t work. So his belief wasn’t true. If it doesn’t work, it can’t be true. These three theories of truth and the questions which derive from them provide us with a structured means of analyzing a worldview. They give us a framework of three crucial questions we can ask. [2]

Using the criteria above, let’s compare the two worldviews mentioned above, Christian theism and material naturalism, highlighting one of the errors of commission in regards to material naturalism:

Material Naturalism:
 God—No God
 Ultimate Reality—Materialism; All that exists is the physical, material universe
 Knowledge—Scientism; the only source of knowledge is the scientific method
Human Beings—the result of the random process of evolution; purely physical beings
 Ethics—Relativism; no objective moral values
 Plight—Ignorance and superstition
 Solution—Education and Technology


Christian Theism:
 God—God exists and is distinct from His creation
 Ultimate Reality—Dualism; a real physical universe exists that is created by God.
 Knowledge—Revelation is a source of knowledge as well as reason and science
Human Beings—Created in God’s image; spiritual and physical beings
 Ethics—Objective moral values revealed by God
 Plight—Sin; alienated from God
 Solution—Salvation by God’s grace through faith in Christ’s atonement


For lack of space and time, (as well as fear of losing my audience) I will highlight just one of the points above—Human Beings. On the naturalist worldview human beings are the result of the random process of evolution; purely physical beings, and as such, are of no intrinsic worth. They are just an accidental by-product of nature, a result of matter plus time plus chance, just a random link in the biological evolutionary chain, a collocation of molecules, atoms, H2O, that arose from a primordial ‘soup,’ which have no purpose other than to live out their life to extinction. However, in the Christian theism worldview, human beings are “created in God’s image and are both spiritual and physical beings,” and are therefore, of great intrinsic worth.

Even the eminent philosopher and atheist, Thomas Nagel, takes issue with material naturalism stating that it is reductionist and therefore “attempts to reduce the true extent of reality to a commonBrain mind basis that is not rich enough for that purpose and that the mind, in particular, is not merely physical.” Thus our understanding of the mind “must be supplemented by something else to account for the missing elements.” Nagel states, “If evolutionary biology is a physical theory—as it is generally taken to be—then it cannot account for the appearance of consciousness and of other phenomena that are not physically reducible…The possibility opens up for making the mind central, rather than a side effect of physical law.” [3]

In a recent article by neurosurgeon Michael Egnor, the life and transformation of neurosurgeon pioneer, Wilder Penfield is highlighted. Penfield was a pivotal figure in modern neurosurgery. He was an American-born neurosurgeon at the Montreal Neurological Institute who pioneered surgery for epilepsy. He was an accomplished scientist as well as a clinical surgeon, and made seminal contributions to our knowledge of cortical physiology, brain mapping, and intraoperative study of seizures and brain function under local anesthesia with patients awake who could report experiences during brain stimulation.
Penfield began his career as a materialist, convinced that the mind was wholly a product of the brain. He finished his career as an emphatic dualist.
During surgery, Penfield observed that patients had a variable but limited response to brain stimulation. Sometimes the stimulation would cause a seizure or evoke a sensation, a perception, movement of muscles, a memory, or even a vivid emotion. Yet Penfield noticed that brain stimulation never evoked abstract thought. He wrote:

There is no area of gray matter, as far as my experience goes, in which local epileptic discharge brings to pass what could be called “mind action”… there is no valid evidence that either epileptic discharge or electrical stimulation can activate the mind… If one stops to consider it, this is an arresting fact. The record of consciousness can be set in motion, complicated though it is, by the electrode or by epileptic discharge. An illusion of interpretation can be produced in the same way. But none of the actions we attribute to the mind has been initiated by electrode stimulation or epileptic discharge. If there were a mechanism in the brain that could do what the mind does, one might expect that the mechanism would betray its presence in a convincing manner by some better evidence of epileptic or electrode activations. [4]


brain stimulation yalestudyshoPenfield noted that intellectual function — abstract thought — could only be switched off by brain stimulation or a seizure, but it could never be switched on in like manner. The brain was necessary for abstract thought, normally, but it was not sufficient for it. Abstract thought was something other than merely a process of the brain. Regardless of how many times Penfield probed the cerebral cortex, he found that, ‘There is no place . . . where electrical stimulation will cause a patient to believe or to decide.’ The reason: those functions originate in the conscious self, not the brain. Roger Sperry and his team studied the differences between the brain’s right and left hemispheres, they discovered the mind has a causal power independent of the brain’s activities. This led Sperry to conclude materialism was false. [5] The preponderance of the evidence is so affirmative of dualism that Laurence C. Wood said, ‘many brain scientists have been compelled to postulate the existence of an immaterial mind, even though they may not embrace a belief in an after-life.’[6]

The findings, evidence and conclusions of an atheist, a former material naturalist, and a host of neuroscientists seem to weigh heavily on the side of Christian theism being the worldview that 1) coheres regarding its claim that man is created in the image of God and is therefore a physical and spiritual being, 2) it corresponds to reality as being true, and therefore, properly describes the real world in which we find ourselves, and 3) it works, and as such, verifies the truth claim of Christian theism that we are indeed dualist beings-beings that are both physical and spiritual.

I will close here with an excerpt from an interview with J. P. Moreland (Lee Strobel is the interviewer) in which he makes a convincing case for Christian theism and the dualist nature of human beings as professed by Christian theism:

“What about beyond the laboratory?” I asked. “There are valid philosophical arguments as well,” he said. “For instance, I know that consciousness isn’t a physical phenomenon because there are things that are true of my consciousness that aren’t true of anything physical.” “For instance . . . ,” I said, prompting him further. “For example, some of my thoughts have the attribute of being true. Tragically, some of my thoughts have the attribute of being false—like the Chicago Bears are going to go to the Super Bowl,” he said with a chuckle. “However, none of my brain states are true or false. No scientist can look at the state of my brain and say, ‘Oh, that particular brain state is true and that one’s false.’ So there’s something true of my conscious states that are not true of any of my brain states, and consequently they can’t be the same thing. “Nothing in my brain is about anything. You can’t open up my head and say, ‘You see this electrical pattern in the left hemisphere of J. P. Moreland’s brain? That’s about the Bears.’ Your brain states aren’t about anything, but some of my mental states are. So they’re different.

“Furthermore, my consciousness is inner and private to me. By simply introspecting, I have a way of knowing about what’s happening in my mind that is not available to you, my doctor, or a neuroscientist. A scientist could know more about what’s happening in my brain than I do, but he couldn’t know more about what’s happening in my mind than I do. He has to ask me.” When I asked Moreland for an illustration of this, he said, “Have you heard of Rapid Eye Movement?” “Sure,” I replied. “What does it indicate?” “Dreaming.” “Exactly. How do scientists know that when there is a certain eye movement that people are dreaming? They’ve had to wake people and ask them. Scientists could watch the eyes move and read a printout of what was physically happening in the brain, so they could correlate brain states with eye movements. But they didn’t know what was happening in the mind. Why? Because that’s inner and private. “So the scientist can know about the brain by studying it, but he can’t know about the mind without asking the person to reveal it, because conscious states have the feature of being inner and private, but the brain’s states don’t.” [7]

Materialistic Reductionism, Mind & Consciousness-William Lane Craig

Neuroscience and the Soul-J.P. Moreland
J.P. Moreland (Biola University) comments on the existence of the soul, the nature of consciousness, and the relevance of neuroscience to questions about human nature, spirituality, life after death, and mental life.

For further reading on the topic:

God and Mind/Body Dualism–Stewart Goetz–complete article, here
Nothing But a Pack of Neurons?–Stuart Judge-complete article, here

[1] Mary Poplin, Is Reality Secular? Testing the Assumptions of Four Global Worldviews, Intervarsity Press, 2014, pgs. 30, 31
[2] Nick Pollard, Deconstructing a Worldview, from Evangelism Made Slightly Less Difficult, (IVP, 1997),
[3] Thomas Nagel, Mind and the Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False, New York: Oxford University press, 2012, pgs. 14-15
[4] Wilder Penfield, The Mystery of the Mind A Critical Study of Consciousness and the Human Brain, Princeton University Press, 1978, pp. 77-8.
[5] Roger W. Sperry, Changed Concepts of Brain and Consciousness: Some Value Implications, Zygon, 1985
[6] Laurence W. Wood, Recent Brain Research and the Mind-Body Dilemma, The Asbury Theological Journal, vol. 41, no. 1, 1986
[7] Do We Have Souls? Lee Strobel interviews Dr. J.P. Moreland, complete article/interview, here

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