Materialistic Straw Men (The Noumenon/Phenomenon Barrier)

One of the claims theists hurl at atheists is that, from the materialist’s perspective (the perspective that the whole of the universe is simply material, and is not guided by transcendent, supernatural rules), morality, logic, thought, ego, and a host of other abstract and innate concepts could not exist.  Theists go on to state that Atheists do not have a foundation for their moral claims, in particular, that there can be morality in the absence of religion and/or God.

This is an interesting perspective, and it takes a while to work through what’s wrong with this position.  There are a lot of metaphysical considerations a person could loop through to grapple with this topic, but I think that, at the crux of this matter is the relationship between thought and language.  Wittgenstein said “The limits of my language means the limits of my world.”  He also said “Philosophy is the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.”

My point in referencing Wittgenstein is to point out that he, along with a host of other 20th century philosophers, were keenly interested in the relationship between thought and language.  We use language to convey thoughts we have, but is language a good enough medium to represent those thoughts accurately?  This is quite analogous to Plato’s ideal forms.  We can never draw a perfect triangle because of constraints in the natural world.  In fact, according to Plato, our interpretations of reality is wrong; we’re either purposely misled or our interpretation is obscured by the shackles of our reality.  In Plato’s, Allegory of the Cave, –, he used the analogy of human beings shackled, facing the wall, and only seeing the shadows of what actually exist, not the object itself.

One of Raphael’s most famous paintings is The School of Athens (, and it depicts a number of important Greek philosophers.  At the center of the painting is Plato, pointing up to the sky, a reference to his concept of the ideal.

Standing next to Plato is his student, Aristotle, who, contrasted with Plato, is holding his hand palm-down towards the ground.  This depiction is a reference to Aristotle gently reminding his teacher that we should be considerate of the world in which we live, and not just the abstract

My modern interpretation of this is that empiricism and induction are as good of an anchor for our insights into reality as philosophical deduction is.  We live in a natural world, and the best strategy we have for understanding it, and from separating fact from fantasy, is through induction and empiricism.

I tend to fall on Aristotle’s side of the discussion.  Dwelling on our intellectual ability (or inability) to understand the physical world, although an interesting exercise for undergraduates in philosophy survey courses, doesn’t do a lot of good or solve anything with a high degree of success.  Even if we never could articulate why logic exists or why we’re so compelled to natural decency, that doesn’t mean that our inability to do so means God did it.  I wouldn’t go so far as to say that we can’t articulate these positions (I think we clearly can), but it certainly isn’t easy when you get down to the nitty-gritty metaphysical contrasts between the object and the language we use to describe the object.

It’s worse to appeal to God in describing these seemingly transcendent characteristics of the world.  Clearly, humans are bound by their earthly experiences when formulating thoughts to describe their world.  And clearly there is a difference between noumena and phenomena –  To say that God is the barrier between noumena and phenomena is putting forward a claim that is neither substantiated nor honest.

Swinging back to moral behavior, there’s an old lesson that parents teach their kids about sharing.  If 2 kids are bickering over how to share some cake, the parent allows the following compromise:  Child A cuts the cake AND Child B chooses who gets which piece.  This predictably results in decent outcomes, in terms of fairness for both individuals.

The abstract concept to take from this lesson is the following:  create systems and institutions that create maximum benefit, minimal harm, and from the perspective that you will not know what role you play in that system.  This is referred to as the Veil of Ignorance –

Though this framework might very well be difficult to deductively justify (it takes more words to justify this position than it does to say “God did it”), we can appeal to historical empiricism to determine whether or not the action or institution results in better human outcomes (or, if you don’t like the term “better”, then outcomes where humans don’t die or endure unnecessary physical or emotional harm).

To me, I don’t think a consistent universe is an explanation or proof for God.  When I was a deist, I might not have been so quick to make a statement like that, but these days, I think it’s a profound logical leap one must take to say “the universe is consistent in a logically discernible way, therefore God exists.”  Part of what led me down the path I’ve been on lately is that I have no right to make claims for which I have no proof.  In fact, I could put forward an explanation for why the universe is consistent without making assumptions for which I have no proof.  I think that’s the more honest solution to the problem of a complicated universe, and I suspect it would result in a more peaceful world than one where people can manage to use their invented deity to justify killing, raping, and enslaving people.  Learning how to honestly investigate things we don’t know should be a priority for a healthier and happier humanity.

If the universe, or even the world, were so logically deductive, it wouldn’t have taken humans 200,000 years to formalize rules about it (and thousands of years after domestication).  That we can represent the world with any predictive capacity in a language we invented speaks to the quality of our language and the honesty of our interpretation.  If the world or universe were different, we might have a different language to represent it or different rules to describe it.

Appealing to incredulity is intellectually dishonest, and it’s worse than saying “I don’t know.”  It also ignores some of the things we know, such as the fact that there were evolving species over billions of years.  Couldn’t it be that our increased brain size and intellectual capacity that arose during evolution created a mechanism to internalize some of the more obvious characteristics of our world, such that it made it difficult for us to articulate its underlying rules.  Or couldn’t it be that the particular language we’ve developed doesn’t do as good of a job as it could to help us better describe the universe?

There are a lot of questions like these, and I think they all come down to God of the gaps.  Because the sun revolves around the Earth, that must mean God made it…oh wait, the Earth revolves around the sun, therefore God.  Oh wait, it’s more of an elliptical pattern…oh wait…

To a typical person who lived in the absence of formalized logic, outer space would have seemed as abstract as thought itself.  Those people lived their lives never understanding anything at all about the universe besides what they saw in the 20-square mile radius in which they spent their entire lives.  We are heirs of that ignorant time, and our emergence from this medieval Platonic cluster-fuck is in its death throes.

Who knows…maybe someday we’ll discover there is indeed a multiverse; in contrast, we may discover there is an edge of the universe that cannot be exceeded.  Regardless of what that answer is, the magnificence of it does not mean God did it.  It just means we don’t have an answer.  Appealing to Plato only serves to reinforce the notion that we could never possibly understand the universe in itself.  I think supporters of that position underestimate how much we can actually know.


Author: Tim...Stepping Out

Tim Stepping Out

2 thoughts on “Materialistic Straw Men (The Noumenon/Phenomenon Barrier)”

  1. Why is materialism so hard for Theists? Or is it they just don’t like what its success would mean to their fantasies? If we exist, we exist. We seem to have emotions. Emotions of empathy and sympathy form the basis for a morality based on kindness. Simple logic gets us to we’ll scratch your back if you will scratch ours. One further step gets to the Golden Rule, which in toto (okay, along with “love your fellow men”–I wish they hadn’t restricted it to “neighbors”) is Christian morality.

    What is so hard here?


    1. Thanks Steve! It’s a weird position, and I suspect the reason that apologists like to use the argument is that it puts atheist on the defensive, and the only way out of it is through long dissertations like this blog post. In a debate setting, this is just good strategy.

      Never mind that their moral position is that they should do what the bible tells them to do. Then you ask “how did the bible know what to do?” Answer: God.

      What really gets accomplished in their position that isn’t accomplished by a secular position? They get to cite an authority for which they have no proof nor a good logical footing for it…the best they can get for that is the cosmological, teleological, or ontological argument, all of which are ripe with faultiness.


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