The Ghost in the Machine

July 26, 2013

The problem with materialism as a world view is that it reduces what it means to be human. If we are no more than a biological machine, can we trust our thoughts? Are our actions a matter of free will? Some evolutionary biologists have in fact embraced determinism. Is there a self that goes beyond the programming of the electrochemical impulses of our bodies?

Reductionism is a fine intellectual game to play, but it is very difficult to live consistently. An episode of the British crime show, Inspector Lewis, illustrates the tension. Detective Inspector Robbie Lewis is the no-nonsense policeman. His partner is Detective Sergeant James Hathaway. Hathaway is the intellectual who provides the show’s dialogue with the needed literary or classical music reference. Before becoming a detective. he had been a theology student at Cambridge. In the episode, “Fearful Symmetry,” there are two exchanges that I found intriguing.

A young Oxford student has been killed, and the detectives must visit the lab of Dr. Ezrin, a biologist.

Hathaway: What do you actually study here, Dr. Ezrin?

Dr. Ezrin:The parts of the brain relating to learning. – how data is imprinted and stored in the memory. Anything you’ve ever felt is down to microscopic variation in the electrochemical balance in here (pointing to his brain). Everything we are – love, hate, anger, jealousy, desire…

Hathaway: And the soul?

Dr. Ezrin: Sorry, there is no ghost in the machine. When the machine stops, we stop.

Later the detectives learn that after an affair Dr. Ezrin has been stalking a woman who has a connection to their murder case. He has even broken into her apartment.

Lewis: You’re aware, Dr. Ezrin, that stalking is an offense?

Dr. Ezrin: I’m not a stalker. Look I went to her place once or twice … just as a… I don’t know. I was jealous.

Hathaway: Those electrochemical impulses can be a nuisance.

Hathaway’s quip accents the problem of reductionism. None of us explain our behavior away by saying my electrochemical impulses made me do it. Especially when we are in the wrong, we give reasons why in this case, our behavior is allowable and understandable. All of us in conversation assume that there is a self that is above the electrochemical impulses going on in our brains. Historically, that self is called the soul. All of us behave as if there is a “ghost in the machine” despite what we may say intellectually.

What Will You Do With Jesus?

March 29, 2013

The scene was DeVos Hall in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The occasion was a public discussion on the resurrection of Jesus. The participants were N.T. Wright and Marcus Borg. Borg is a member of the Jesus Seminar, which questions whether many of the gospel sayings are actually from Jesus. He stated during the presentation that he believes Jesus of Nazareth is mouldering in the grave, but he still believes in the Christ of faith. Wright is known for his massive three volumes: The New Testament and the People of God, Jesus and the Victory of God, and The Resurrection of the Son of God. Wright believes that Jesus has been raised from the dead, and his work emphasizes the importance of world view in the study of Jesus.

Borg is educated and eloquent. He passionately believes that his approach to Jesus salvages the church for the modern world. He doesn’t believe that the modern mind can believe in miracles. How can people today believe in someone rising from the dead? Borg believes that the dead simply do not rise.

Borg has adopted the world view of naturalism. Such a world view says the physical world is a closed system. There is no possibility that God can intervene in human affairs, so miracles are ruled out by definition. But we have to back up and ask whether this world view is true. Naturalism tends to be reductionistic to everything human. Are my emotions, thoughts, and morals simply biochemical reactions? Even for the person who would say yes to this question, it is a difficult proposition to live with consistently. We tend to behave in such a way that these very human traits are viewed as of a different order from indigestion.

Science does not necessarily lead to naturalism. Science developed within the Christian world view, and today, many scientists hold a Christian or theist world view. It is not logically inconsistent to say the natural world operates in an orderly and understandable way (that we can discover by the scientific method), and the creator of the natural order can intervene when he desires.

The scientific method is also not the only way of evaluating truth. You can’t put historical evidence in a test tube or replicate an experiment with it. In both philosophy and history, we must reason correctly and weigh the evidence. We must look for consistency of thought and preponderance of evidence. We may never arrive at absolute certitude, but we also can’t remain neutral.

So what will we do with Jesus? As C.F.D. Moule has said, “If the coming into existence of the Nazarenes, a phenomenon undeniably attested by the New Testament, rips a great hole in history, a hole of the size and shape of Resurrection, what does the secular historian propose to stop it up with?”

Listening to Borg made me wish the audience could have stood up and recited, “And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:17–20, ESV).