I feel a great sense of awe whenever I meet somebody who claims to work by reason alone, who claims that all things will eventually be knowable by means of the human rational faculty and who is only too happy to be removed from the religious impulse of vesting faith in higher and more perfect things than we. Those scientific materialists and atheists who fain hold that all phenomena are naught but emergent properties from the matter of the world and who would deny that there exists any Divine, in accordance with which the world of appearance is determined. After meeting such people, I often had half a mind to prostrate myself before them and beg them to teach me how not to believe: how could I, possessing faith in absolutely nothing, remain as unfettered as they?
But lately, I have come to reflect more dispassionately upon the bold assertions of men and women of this sort, and have since concluded that perhaps it is they who are mistaken about the Divine. I have begun to consider the possibility that scientific atheism is a dubious way of apprehending the world.
Before we look into the problems attendant upon worldview of the scientific-materialism of the atheist, it would behoove us to examine a crucial distinction between what I identify to be the two modes of belief. The first form is the “belief-that,” and this is the one proper to every human being; not even atheists would deny that they “believe that” some things are determined in some way or another.
The belief-that has two major conditions proper to it alone.
In the first place, it must refer to a belief that is falsifiable: and by a “falsifiable belief,” I mean to refer to a situation in which holding the belief becomes impossible in light of contradictory evidence, or one in which the consequences of holding the belief work against pre-determined and accepted axioms and definitions. In this way, the adherence to a scientific theory is a belief-that it is valid, for the scientific theory must of necessity allow for the potential of its falsifiability given the existence of contrary evidence, or else risk no longer being deemed scientific.
The second condition, following logically from the first, is that the belief-that aims only at determining the object of belief in respect of its qualities. I believe that the object is round, or blue, or in Massachusetts, for instance. Therefore, the belief-that is fundamentally relative, for it is simply the belief that the descriptions predicated to the underlying thing are determined in one way or another.
The “belief-in” exists solely under the purview of religious faith. There will be some who quibble linguistically and say that even the atheist can speak of “believing-in” America, for instance, but it is clear that this form of believing-in is really nothing more than a form of short-hand and reducible to a series of belief-that’s: for instance, the belief-that America is powerful, moral, free and so on. As any opinion is reducible to a set of definitions (e.g. “strong” = “the ability to fight wars” = “having a large army” = “having 40,000 soldiers” etc.), even the opinion remains a falsifiable belief-that, after the underlying assumptions of the opinion are revealed.
The object of the belief-in is believed-in absolutely; the belief-in aims at the underlying and essential Being itself, and not at any of the descriptions predicated to it. The belief-in further aims at something that is not falsifiable, and indeed, it aims at something that is not even an object of knowledge. The belief-in is acquired not through reason or empirical observation, but only by means of a “leap-of-faith,” for contrary evidence and logical contradictions are only able to affect the attitudes of those who hold belief-that’s about the object.
The atheist of materialism and scientism cannot believe in things, for this individual asserts that all beliefs are at bottom falsifiable. As a result, this atheist can only believe that things are determined relatively, for a belief-in demands of the individual that the object of belief be surrendered into the realm of the forever unknowable. The thing being believed-in, as being beyond the object or purview of knowledge, becomes the unqualified qualifier that qualifies qualification itself.
It is necessary, therefore, that we believe in a fundamental sense of Being, which, for convenience’s sake, I ask that you allow me to refer to as the Divine. Insofar as the belief-that can only apprehend the observable descriptors attached to the underlying-Being, it remains unable to apprehend the Divine, which is simply Being stripped of all its accidental qualities. Thus, the Divine is unqualified since it cannot be understood relatively (we would be foolish to call the Divine small or large, red or blue), but it qualifies qualification, in the sense that it is the underlying Being to which predicates are able to be “attached,” and it primordially conditions the act itself of predication, for without this Being, nothing can be said to be. The atheist, in denying their belief-in this Being, does nothing but deny the conditions of existence itself.
To be fair, I am not in favor of organized religion either, for I feel that many organized religions involve themselves in too many belief-that’s. (Note well: I am not attempting to argue that religion is harmful or that it ought to be extirpated; I am well aware that religion builds community and is often a force of moral good, for which reason I am more sympathetic to believers than I am to atheists.) I shall name no particular religions, since almost all are guilty of these problem. But let us, for example, address the problem of volition. How is it that people can believe-that the Divine, for instance, wishes us to be “good”? If the Divine has such volition, it must be imperfect. The Divine must lack for something, if it possesses wants. I shall clarify my more fundamental objection to the problem of volition below, but let this objection suffice for now. For, at present, I would rather assert that the Divine ought to be apprehended in the following way, as being the simplest.
I speak of the way of the up-building of things. Go to a house, and look at a brick. The brick is both one and many: for it is, on the one hand, made up of atoms, and yet the emergent thing from these atoms forms the one entity we call the “brick.” The brick in turn, with other bricks, forms the house. The house is one and many, for it is both made of bricks and yet is considered a thing itself.
Continue to up-build: the house is part of the earth; the earth is one and many, for there are houses, and people, and soil of which it is comprised, and yet we say the earth encompasses all of these things. Continue to up-build, higher and higher, until we reach the level of the universe. Here, then, we have reached a sense of the universe as encompassing all things in the objective and material world. And yet at the same time, the Divine, as determining the universe and as containing it, must also encompass the objects of thought: for everything that has been thought to exist, if not in the objective world, exists at least in the world of the mind (for example, the objects of our dreams “exist”, even if not materially). And so the Divine carries within it the pre-condition of all things that both actually are, as being in the objective world, and things that only potentially are, as being in thought.
That is the reason why the Divine must be believed-in: because it must contain and pre-condition both everything that is actually and potentially. Allow me the following example. As shown earlier, we cannot believe that the Divine wills us to be good. But similarly, we cannot believe that the Divine does not will us to be good. We may continue to attach such qualities to the Divine ad infinitum: we believe that the Divine is only blue; we believe that the Divine is anything other than only blue. From these contradictions, it is clear why we cannot have belief-that’s about the Divine: it is because every belief-that is a definition or determination of its object. As any definition or determination is at base a form of limitation (for the red thing cannot simultaneously be blue), we cannot qualify the Divine — doing so would prevent it from being other than the quality we have attached to it — and so we must believe in it itself, absolutely and without qualification.
Alex Chen is a College sophomore from Palo Alto, California.