By James Miller
(Excerpted with Permission from, Hardwired: Finding the God You Already Knew)
The Chair That Wasn’t There
It is around a campfire that philosophical speculation best lends itself to the formation of deep interpersonal relationships. Something of the primacy of nature brings out the noble savage in us, and we can vulnerably discuss how our most rattling anxieties might be soothed by our most profound ideas. Plus there are s’mores.
It was around a campfire that an atheist friend and I began hammering out the substance of what could be believed in. We covered rituals, holy texts, charismatic cult leaders, and Christmas. He began to take a position of radical doubt, attempting to undermine my hunches and intuitions that had pointed me in the direction of God. He wouldn’t acknowledge the reliability of secondhand testimony, ruling out the story of almost all of human history. He wouldn’t grant that morality was objective, or that anything religious couldn’t merely be a product of biology. However, he then wouldn’t substantiate anything he thought dependable in the realm of biology. He really wanted to be a blank slate, one that was particularly resistant to being written upon.
I was getting annoyed.
So at one point in his sermon when he really crescendoed, he insisted that no one in any certain way could prove that the chair that he was sitting on actually existed. That was a bad move, given the circle of friends he had brought with him to the wilderness. He leaned forward to poke a stick in the fire, lifting himself just a touch off the lawn chair of questionable existence. At that point, a nearby accomplice used the toe of his shoe to scoot the skeptic’s chair backward. Just about an inch, mind you, nothing for which he could have been held liable. When my skeptical friend tried to return to his seat, it didn’t cause him to fall on his behind. It was worse. It caused him to have that sudden, dramatic, jerky, adrenaline-charged panic with flailing arms as he tried to regain his balance and stop gravity from having its way with him. He stumbled into his chair and saved himself, but at that point he couldn’t save his pride. Fortunately what he didn’t have in theology he made up for in good humor. It was a good thing, after all, that his chair was really there.
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Now what’s interesting about the scenario is that my friend was philosophically in about the same place he was physically. He was trying to pull the rug out from underneath himself, the rug he was in fact standing on. That’s because talk about God fundamentally requires the existence of God. There are two things in play by the time we strike up a conversation about a deity, and neither of those things could exist if the deity wasn’t actually there. This will be very frustrating to the person who believes there is a good reason to reject the existence of God, but one can hardly complain about a chair being yanked away when one is confident it doesn’t exist.
Losing Your Marbles
For an atheist to carry on a meaningful conversation about the rejection of God, certain things are required. The first is that the objects in the world around us that we can see actually correspond to our ideas about them in some way. The picture of the chair I have in my head had better be pretty close to one I’m trying to sit on.
This is where the skeptic starts to get into trouble. In a universe empty of God, everything is reduced to the random and causal collision of particles. Picture a landslide of marbles rolling over one another, bouncing, crashing, rebounding, and tumbling. If physics is the science most likely to produce a unified theory of the sciences, sooner or later everything will be reduced to the building blocks of the physical world. All the stars, all the clouds in the sky, all the trees, all the earthworms beneath our feet, all of it is just made of particles that continue to bounce around.
This would then include the particles that make up the gray matter within one’s head. That gray matter is just a series of collisions. Where they are not random, they are predetermined. The gelatinous, colored spheres through which light passes into the brain is just the same. It’s all just a marble avalanche.
The problem is that when we have a conversation about God, we are fundamentally relying on another assumption we all carry around, specifically, the assumption that the ideas in our head match up pretty well with the objects outside of our head. But if everything is just particles, there is no reason why our brains should have to accurately report on what the world around us holds. There’s no reason to trust the particles that make up our brain at the very moment when they are telling us to trust them. C. S. Lewis put it this way: “If minds are wholly dependent on brains, and brains on biochemistry, and biochemistry (in the long run) on the meaningless flux of the atoms, I cannot understand how the thought of those minds should have any more significance than the sound of the wind in the trees.”
An atheist can’t be sure the chair is there. Nor can he be sure that you are there to debate about it. These are things we’ve simply assumed, and we carry around the latent sense that something has to make the world objective and our perceptions of it accurate. That simply can’t be the case if it’s all just particles. As Schopenhauer put it, “Materialism is the philosophy of the subject who forgets to take account of himself.” So the atheist can’t in the end trust that the ideas that convince him not to believe in God actually correspond to the supposedly godless world around him.
To confound things, in almost the same way we can’t be sure our ideas correspond to the world around us, there is even less reason to assume that the meaning we think we are conveying with our words actually transfers from our mind to the mind of another. If we can’t trust the objective world to be objective, we can hardly expect language to communicate anything objective. My friend sitting by the fire thinks he has a real case to make against the existence of God. He looks at the world around him, gets an idea of what it’s like, and then tries to convince me that he’s seen it correctly. But again, if it’s all just particles, there is no reason to assume the particles in his brain correspond to or are even anything like the particles that make up my brain.
About the author:
James Miller is the author of Hardwired: Finding the God You Already Knew (Abingdon Press) and senior pastor of the dynamic Glenkirk Church, in San Gabriel Valley, California, and has degrees from Fuller Seminary, Princeton Seminary, and UC Berkeley. He is a frequent speaker at conferences, graduations, and camps. He and his wife Yolanda live in Glendora, California. You can visit James Miller’s Hardwired blog here.