How to Know Immaterial Things Exist

Can you prove religious, ethical, or moral kinds of things?  Learn how to avoid a materialistic view of the universe.

By Gregory Koukl

If you’re Christian and you say, Yes, I believe there’s a Heaven and God, and there are souls and spirits, and right and wrong, but I don’t know it. I just have faith and hope that I’m right. Or if you hear others say something like, You can’t prove religious, ethical, moral kinds of things, these statements buy into a materialist view of the universe.

I had a conversation with a Christian couple who were getting challenges of these kinds from their non-Christian relatives who were saying, “We know things in science, but when it comes to everything else, it’s all fantasy.”

To help answer such objections, I walked them through a reflective exercise that I gleaned from the influence of J.P. Moreland. I had a pen, I placed it on the table, and asked them, “Is there a pen on this table?”

And they said, “Yes, there is.”

I said, “Are you reasonably confident that statement is true?”

“Yes.”

“How do you know that?”

“I know it because I can see it there.”

In other words, you are trusting in the deliverances of your senses. You have no good reason to believe that your senses are misleading you, and so you are concluding that there is this object that we’re referring to that is sitting on this other object that we’re referring to–a pen on the table

There’s nothing mysterious about that, and I’m not skeptical about it. “I accept it,” is what I told them. I said, “Now I have another question. Do you know what you’re thinking about now?”

They said, “Yes.”

I said, “How do you know what it is you’re thinking?

We were role-playing a little bit and he took the side of his brother-in-law, the secularist who had given him this challenge. He started describing brain chemistry as an explanation for how he knew his own thoughts.

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I said, “Wait, wait, wait. That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m not talking about your brain chemistry; I’m talking about your thoughts.”

“Well, the thoughts are these electrical impulses that are going through my neurological…”

“Wait a minute,” I said. “I want you to think about what you’ve just said. You told me you knew what you’re thinking.

“Yes.”

“When you gaze, as it were, on the content of your mind so that you know what it is you are thinking, is the thing that you’re aware of neurons, brain tissue, and electrical impulses? No. The things you’re aware of are your own thoughts. Maybe there are electrical impulses that are happening when you’re thinking, and it may be that they’re always accompanied with the thoughts, but that isn’t how you know your own thoughts.  You can you just tell by reflecting, if you will, upon your thoughts themselves that you are not gazing upon something that has chemical properties?” Thoughts have propositional qualities. They are not governed by the laws of physics, yet your brain chemistry is. They must be something different.

Actually, I’m not trying to argue at this point for mind/body dualism, that your brain is different than your mind, though that seems to me obvious, just in this little analysis. I’m just simply asking about how we know something about our own thoughts. How does he know his own thoughts?

People have known the contents of their own minds from time immemorial without knowing anything about brains. The way we know the contents of our own thoughts is not by somebody else telling us, by some scientist taking a measurement, by using any of our five senses to apprehend it; rather, we have direct, unimpeded access to our own thoughts. We are directly aware. We simply introspect, and we know…

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