Truth, Propositions, and Materialism

Materialism states that there are no immaterial states of affairs, personal or impersonal. All can be explained according to chemistry, biology, and physics without remainder. The cosmos has its mysteries, but none of them will finally resist a material explanation. Materialism is the worldview of American elites, especially in education and the sciences. Materialism melts under scrutiny, however—just like the Wicked Witch in the Wizard of Oz. Consider one reality it cannot explain: truth.

Materialists, of course, claim that materialism is true. But what is truth? Truth is a property of indicative statements. A truth claim offers (rightly or wrongly) to stake out reality through a statement. A true statement is one that succeeds in its job—referring to reality. The statement the cat is on the mat is true if and only if there is a cat on the mat. There are other theories of what truth is (the metaphysics of it), but this view is common and well-defended by Christian and secular philosophers. If so, how does materialism fare on this account? Can it support a concept of truth that is required for materialism to be true? We will approach this question from two angles: (1) the nature of statements themselves and (2) a true statement’s relationship to what it refers to.

What is a statement in the philosophical sense? A statement affirms or denies something to be the case. John Coltrane played saxophone indicates a state or affairs; thus, it is a statement. However, Did John Coltrane play saxophone? is a question and not an affirmative statement. John Coltrane played the saxophone may be uttered in French or Arabic; it may be written in English or Albanian; it may be thought by you right now or by me right now; it could be communicated through sign language or through Morse Code. But how can the same idea be cognitively expressed in so many ways when those means of expression differ so dramatically? The sound of John Coltrane played saxophone in English is vastly different from that statement in Amharic. Nevertheless, all these acoustic blasts, inscriptions, and thoughts mean the same thing. How could that be?

The answer is that there is more to a statement than its physical or mental expression. Every statement affirms a proposition, which is the meaning of the statement. Only this reality of propositions can explain the unity of meaning in the diversity of forms of presentation. Since a proposition is not identical to any statement for which it is the meaning, propositions are not material, spatial objects. In fact, they are called abstract objects in the philosophical literature. I once mentioned the idea of abstract objects to a Christian philosopher who laughed and said, “What a medieval concept!” To that, I said, “So?” (One hopes he is not teaching philosophy or that he changed his mind.)

Materialism cannot abide abstract objects, since they are not material.” It must account for the meaning of statements in some other way. However, it is not clear what that might be. Some materialists, such as Richard Rorty, opt for pure pragmatism. Our language gets things done in the world according to our perspective. Yet how could it get things done if there is no objective meaning to our statements? We need intellectual content for the simplest actions, such as buying a book. I find the book that matches my thought of buying that book. At the checkout, I am asked “Credit or debit?” I respond, “Credit.” All of these interactions require propositional content. In any event, the propositional account of statements makes far more sense than materialist alternatives. Let us sum up:

  1. The nature of statements is best understood in relation to propositions.
  2. The propositional content of statements is required for navigating everyday life.
  3. Propositions, as immaterial or abstract objects, have no philosophical place in the worldview of materialism.

  1. Therefore (a), materialism cannot account for the nature of statements as propositional.
  2. Therefore (b), materialism cannot provide an adequate philosophy for everyday living. It fails the existential viability test for worldviews. (See chapter three of Christian Apologetics by Douglas Groothuis.)
  3. Therefore (c), materialism is false.

Christian theism, on the other hand, has no reason to fear or deny the existence of propositions, since it does not limit being to matter. God is spirit. Humans have souls that think. (Their brains do not.) The material expression of propositions in books or in articles is always related to an immaterial element which is supplied and supported by God. Perhaps the best way to relate propositions to God is to say that they are thoughts in God’s mind.

But things get even worse for materialists. Propositions are true if they correspond to what they refer to; they are false if they fail to correspond to what they refer to. In the case of a true proposition (which is immaterial), there is a relationship of correspondence between what the proposition affirms (or the truth-bearer) and something factual (or truth-maker). This correspondence is not a material thing; it is rather, a truth relationship between a proposition and what the proposition affirms about reality. The true statement reaches out, as it were, to what it identifies as the case. This reaching out is how a proposition attaches to its referent. But neither the proposition nor the truth relation is material, although the object referred to (say a truck) may be material.

  1. For a proposition to be true, it needs a truth maker to which it corresponds. This may be called a truth relationship.
  2. Materialism can provide no basis for this truth relationship, since that relationship is immaterial.

  3. Therefore, materialism is false.

While materialists must claim that materialism is true, the worldview of materialism cannot carve out the metaphysical space for the very concept of truth. Therefore, materialism is false, since it fails to correspond to reality—no small weakness there.

On Being a Christian Philosopher: Short Course on Intellectual Virtue

I did not set out to set the world straight as a philosopher. Journalism was my vocation, or so I thought. Then, after failing a typing test at the University of Oregon, I changed my major to philosophy. Providence moves in odd ways, but I am grateful. Nearly forty years later, I have learned a thing or two about philosophy and philosophizing.

Philosophers need long periods of time to be alone and ponder things. This best suits introverts or those with that tendency. They must fight for and prize this solitude. Many pastimes, then, will fall away, as they frown in their studies or bedrooms, hunched over an article or book. If an aspiring thinker struggles with this, it does not mean she is not fit for philosophy. Discipline, after all, may be applied to any good thing to which one is rightly attracted. Max Pickard’s classic, The World of Silence, may prove helpful.

Philosophers, however, also need comradery—like-minded and supportive thinkers with whom they can make common cause. The discipline, professionally speaking, it is a field of cut-throat cognition. Attend any philosophy conference and you will see the sharks circling, ready to attack any argument they deem wrong. Arguments need analysis and critique, to be sure; but much of philosophy is one-up-man-ship. In 1999, I attended a lecture by Alvin Plantinga, one of the world’s preeminent philosophers. One respondent said, “I agree with much in Professor Plantinga’s work, but I will pass over that and say what I don’t like.”

But nurture is nourishing to philosophers. Christians in particular should offer loving support to one another. Fellow students, elders, and peers should provide a community for encouragement and critique and prayer. I first interacted with Christian philosopher J. P. Moreland when I was a graduate student at the University of Oregon in about 1990. He kindly gave me detailed comments on a paper concerning the mind-body problem. Years later, J. P. is more of a peer (but still my superior) and he continues to offer advice and heart-felt encouragement—even in a short email. I meet philosopher David Werther in graduate school in 1985. We went on to get our doctorates. David has read and commented on a number of my books and papers, most significantly my lengthy book, Christian Apologetics.

Philosophers should remember that academic trends should not dominate one’s priorities in scholarship and teaching. As Plantinga wrote years ago in “Advise to Christian Philosophers,” Christian philosophers should keep in mind the needs of the church in their philosophizing. Since philosophers are trained in critical thinking and in the history of ideas (although some departments sadly neglect this), they afford a tonic to counter shabby thinking and intellectual flabbiness. I have found that theology often needs the discipline that Christian philosophers can offer. While some theologians, such as Gordon Lewis and Millard Erickson, are philosophically savvy, many are not; and instead revel in continental philosophy to their own peril. The analytic theology movement is a heartening antidote here.

It may sound haughty or self-serving, but philosophy, I wager, uniquely serves Christian apologetics. Some of the best apologists today are philosophers: J.P. Moreland, William Lane Craig, and others. Epistemology especially sniffs out bad arguments for and against Christianity and finds the best intellectual meat to chew on. (My apologies to vegetarian philosophers out there.) Philosophers, at their best, can take large swaths of prose and turn them into premise-conclusion arguments ready for analysis. They are skilled at getting to the logical point and addressing it rigorously. All these skills—and more—contribute to a muscular apologetic. There is far more to philosophy than apologetics, but philosophy rightly practiced through the power of the Holy Spirit, is a strong and sharp jawbone with which to slay anti-Christian arguments. Paul’s comments, while addressed to matters of church discipline and theology, should challenge philosophers:

For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ (2 Corinthians 10:3-5).

Paul combines the urgency of argumentation—“demolishing arguments”—with “divine power” for the purpose of “waging war.” This shouts that intellectual engagement for the Kingdom of God is not merely a matter of intellectual argument. In Did the Resurrection Happen? Anthony Flew, an atheist at the time, granted Paul’s intellectual powers by saying “he was an outstanding philosophical mind.”

We must intellectually stand against the armaments of spiritual error (See Ephesians 6:10-18). Our environment is human, but also angelic and demonic—all under the jurisdiction of God. Therefore, we pray and work, fighting for the knowledge of God in a world of deception, diversion, and decay.

Arguments are the philosopher’s forte, and I have not mentioned any argument forms in this essay; that will come in a future article. The soul of a philosopher should be formed—through right motives and good habits–for the marshalling of sound and timely arguments for the kingdom of God (Matthew 6:33) and for the greater glory of the God of all truth (1 Corinthians 10:31).

Means and Ends in Education

In a fallen world, we confuse much—lust with love, pleasure with goodness, and even good with evil (Isaiah 5:20). Means and ends are often confused, and sometimes with dire results. Wise living requires clarity on this.

An end is what we want to achieve by our actions. It could be a job, a relationship, a political office, or an academic degree. In other words, it is our goal. We sometimes say, “The end goal is X.” If so, we consider means (or strategies) by which to reach this end (or outcome). If I want to write a book as my end, I consider the means by which to bring this about—research, writing, and rewriting. It is absurd to claim that one’s end is to write a first draft of a book and nothing more (unless one deems this therapeutic). Similarly, one sharpens a knife to make it better for its purpose—to cut or pare or penetrate. One does not sharpen it to simply have a sharp knife.

Put formally, this is the concept I am after:

X is a means to end Y if:

  1. X is necessary to achieve Y, but may not be sufficient.
  2. It is usually the case that X is one of several factors to achieve Y. These factors are individually necessary and jointly sufficient for achieving Y.

Consider some cases. The curriculum for a university is the means by which to achieve the end of being granted a degree. Thus, each class is designed and executed to contribute to the completion of a degree, which is itself a means of attaining knowledge, skill, and responsible citizenship. Thus, one attends classes as means to an end, which is to graduate; but one graduates in order to achieve the end of being a more educated and well-rounded individual. This means-ends chain was the vision of universities in the United States until about 1950. Few institutions of higher learning hold to this today. They have defected and become training mills and mere big businesses.

However, many students believe that passing the class is an end. When in college, I saw a student put his freshly-graded paper into a garbage can, much to the disgust of his friend, who quickly fished it out and began lecturing him. On that theme, at the end of my sophomore year in college, I saw a resident of my apartment complex slowly walking down the hall with a stack of books, which were secured by his two hands at the bottom and his chin at the top. There were over ten of them. He was headed for the garbage, since the term was over. (I can still see his clueless face forty years later.) I intercepted the literary crime in progress and commandeered several of the books for myself. (His trek to the trash was especially stupid, since our apartment complex was one block from a used bookstore.)

The end of all our being and acting should be human flourishing according to the principles, practices, and disciplines of the Kingdom of God. God is the original and originating good. All our goodness comes from him and rests in him. Concerning the cares of life, Jesus said:

But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well (Matthew 6:33).

Thus, the totality of our lives should be a means to the end of seeing God’s Kingdom manifest on earth and radiate into eternity. Paul affirms essentially the same truth:

So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31).

The writer of Ecclesiastes sets our activities before our ultimate End.

Now all has been heard;
here is the conclusion of the matter:
Fear God and keep his commandments,
for this is the duty of all mankind.
For God will bring every deed into judgment,
including every hidden thing,
whether it is good or evil (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14).

To sum up our three writers: Our duty to God is to seek the manifestation of God kingdom, so that God will be glorified. That grand vision and mission demands that we not confuse means and ends.

The Apologist’s Repertoire

“How could anyone do that?” I thought to myself when I heard Walter Martin explain what was required of a counter-cult apologist. Those who would challenge false religions with the truth of the Gospel had to be well-prepared and highly educated, he urged. They must know the Scriptures (preferably in the original languages), church history (to become familiar with both orthodoxy and heresies), theology (to understand the Bible as a whole system), apologetics (to defend orthodoxy), and they needed the courage and confidence to challenge cultic beliefs and practices. And add to this the ability to write well and speak well in public! All this should be in the apologist’s repertoire.

Dr. Martin, the founder of the Christian Research Institute, and author of the classic work, The Kingdom of The Cults, was a towering and daunting figure. (I was blessed to spend some time with him a few years before his death.) His clear and forceful oratory, fearless witnessing, along with his encyclopedic knowledge of the Bible, theology, and biblical interpretation, placed him in a category by himself. But Dr. Martin knew that others needed to follow his example in “contending for the faith given once and for all to the saints” (Jude). In this, he was heeding the Apostle Paul’s concern expressed to Timothy:

And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others (1 Timothy 2:2).

Moreover, we can apply to Walter Martin what Paul wrote to his friends, “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1). But how can we lesser mortals follow the example of Walter Martin? With Christ as Lord, there is always hope for us and for the propagation of Christianity under the lordship of Jesus Christ.

All Christ-followers must be obedient to the command to “always be ready” to defend the Gospel and the entire Christian worldview, and to do so with “gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15-16). The Holy Spirit, however, has uniquely equipped some Christians to go deeper into the disciplines necessary for apologetic engagement. No one can master all these areas, but no matter; we labor earnestly to know as much as we can about what matters eternally. As Paul said:

But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me (1 Corinthians 15:10).

First, to follow Dr. Martin’s charge, apologists must become studious students of the Scriptures. Vernon Grounds (1914-2019), a luminous evangelical statesman, counseled that “Christians should read many books, but be the master of one, the Bible.” The most well-informed generation in history is, paradoxically, the most ignorant of God’s living and active Word (Hebrews 4:12; see also Isaiah 55:11). The only instruction manual for this dark, daunting and marvelous planet lies in the ruins of ignoble oblivion.

My people are destroyed from lack of knowledge. “Because you have rejected knowledge, I also reject you as my priests; because you have ignored the law of your God, I also will ignore your children” (Hosea 4:6).

To counteract this scandal, Christians must sit at the feet of Scripture and sit at the feet of godly and knowledgeable Bible teachers and preachers. Some should pursue a seminary education to that end. Others, especially autodidacts, can learn much by attending seminars, listening to lectures, and by auditing courses at theological schools that adhere to the Bible as divinely-inspired and, therefore, without any error (2 Timothy 3:15-17; John 10:33).

Christians concerned about a godly witness in a dark and darkening world (Ephesians 6:12), need to read and study the Bible regularly; know where key ideas and events are located in books of the Bible; and memorize passages of evangelistic and apologetic note. They need also meditate on the Bible by prayerfully pondering its profundity, and praying through biblical texts, particularly the Psalter (see Psalm 119).[1]

Besides a deep and growing knowledge of Scripture, we should, secondly, be familiar with the great events and theological controversies of church history. Jesus promised that “the gates of hell would not prevail against the church” (Matthew 16:16), so Christians should explore how God has preserved his church through the ages. One reason why the preposterous claims of The Da Vinci Code (and its spin-offs) bothered so many Christians is that they knew little of church history, particularly how the books of the New Testament were selected. Dan Brown’s fantasy that the inclusion of books into the canon was merely political is laughable when one knows the facts.[2] Church history can be a daunting, but Bruce Shelley’s readable textbook, Church History in Plain Language, is a reliable and well-written study.

Having studied the history of Christianity and theology, I am never surprised at the heretical teaching of a new or old cult. There are only so many ways to fall off the cliff and into the abyss of heresy. Knowing the past is the key to understanding the present. We must heed the words the Apostle Peter:

But there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them—bringing swift destruction on themselves (2 Peter 2:1; see also Acts 20:39-41).

Third, those eager and bold to defend the gospel of Christ should be at home in church’s basic theological traditions. This chimes in with what I wrote about church history. The apologist should discern between a theological difference within orthodoxy Christianity (say, concerning eschatology) and a heretical deviation from orthodoxy itself (such as denying the Trinity). A fine work on this subject is by Robert Bowman, Orthodoxy and Heresy.

The fourth element in the apologist’s repertoire is the skill of biblical interpretation or hermeneutics. Cults and false religions usually appeal to the Bible for support, yet they invariably twist the Scriptures to support false doctrine and to their own destruction, as Peter said (2 Peter 3:16). Whenever someone defends a false gospel with the holy Bible, the Christian should counter with an appeal to biblical texts in their literary and cultural context and understood according to the plain meaning of language employed by the author. Scripture Twisting: Twenty Ways Cults Misinterpret the Bible by James Sire is a modern classic on how hermeneutics bears on false teachings.

Some claim that “you can interpret the Bible to prove anything.” To this, we retort that this approach is intellectually lazy. Further, we do not apply this reasoning to interpreting a will or doctor’s instructions. The Bible is not made of wax.[3]

Fifth, the apologist must know apologetics proper. Points #1 through #4 build a solid foundation for Christian witness, but the nature, areas, and method of apologetics requires study as well. A skilled surgeon becomes knowledgeable of many things before she is allowed to operate. The American Board of Surgery says that initial certification requires experience in “Alimentary Tract (including Bariatric Surgery), Abdomen and its Contents, Breast, Skin and Soft Tissue, Endocrine System” and six more areas. But she must also learn how to operate.

Likewise, the well-equipped Christian will learn how to operate intellectually by reading classics in apologetics such as Pensées by Blaise Pascal and Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis as well as the best contemporary writers and speakers, such as Francis Schaeffer, Os Guinness, and J.P. Moreland. This study should address the various spheres of apologetics (such as science and history) and the method of apologetics (presuppositional, classical, or cumulative case).[4]

Apologetics needs philosophy to make its case in any domain of Christian truth. While we must eschew “hollow and deceptive philosophy” (Colossians 2:8), sound thinking is always conducive to commending the Christian faith, as the Apostle Paul demonstrated in his address to the Athenian philosophers (Acts 17:16-34). Jesus himself was a philosopher of the highest caliber, who never ducked a significant argument and won them all.[5]

Basic to philosophy is the ability to detect, construct, and evaluate arguments of various forms, such as deduction, induction, and abduction (or inference to the best explanation). To this end, apologists should learn and sniff out common fallacies, such as false dichotomy, poisoning the well, begging the question, and argumentum ad hominem.[6]

Philosophy further aids apologetics by identifying the basic worldviews advanced throughout history, such as theism, deism, naturalism, nihilism, existentialism, pantheism, polytheism, New Age thought, and postmodernism.[7] The basic alternatives to Christian theism are limited. One must know the basic alternatives in order to defend Christianity over against them.

Sixth, the apologist’s knowledge of Christianity and its defense needs to be communicated to others (Matthew 5:14-16). In our inarticulate age, Christians should write and speak with lucidity and logic. Apologists should have their writing and speaking evaluated by experts. Books abound on these topics, but two are particularly helpful: How to Speak, How to Listen by Mortimer Adler and Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E. B. White.

With examples such as Walter Martin, it behooves those eager and earnest to defend Christianity to build on a foundation that gives us a place to stand and to speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15).

[1] See James Sire, The Psalms of Jesus (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press).

[2] See F. F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1977).

[3] On hermeneutics, see William Klein, Craig Blomberg, Robert Hubbard, An Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, revised and expanded ed. (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2004).

[4] Steven Cowan, ed., Five Views of Apologetics (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000).

[5] Douglas Groothuis, On Jesus (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2003).

[6] J.P. Moreland and William Lane Craig,“Argumentation and Logic,” Philosophical Foundations for the Christian Worldview (InterVarsity Press, 2003).

[7] James Sire, The Universe Next Door 5th ed. (orig. pub., 1976; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009).

How Philosophy Relates to the Bible

Philosophy is feared by many Christians, especially as they heed the Apostle Paul’s warning concerning a false religion tempting an early Christian fellowship:

So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.

See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ (Colossians 2:6-8).

Paul did apologetics and preached to the Athenian philosophers, so it is unlikely that he is condemning all philosophy (Acts 17:16-34). Our passage makes clear that Paul is drawing a contrast between a false philosophy about Christ and the gospel. He adjures his readers not to be ensnared by false and deceptive philosophy, not philosophy itself. Paul even quoted two Greek thinkers to make his case. If the Bible does not foreswear all philosophy, how might this ancient discipline be brought to bear on the Holy Scriptures. But what is a philosopher? I wrote this in On Jesus:

I propose that the necessary and sufficient conditions for being a philosopher (whether good or bad, major or minor, employed or unemployed) are a strong and lived-out inclination to pursue truth about philosophical matters through the rigorous use of human reasoning, and to do so with some intellectual facility.

These philosophical matters are, in broad categories, metaphysics (the study of what is), epistemology (how do we know?), and axiology (the theory of value, moral or otherwise).

C. S. Lewis wrote in “Learning in War Time” that “Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered.” Good philosophers should employ good philosophy. How might good philosophy contribute to the mission of God in the world? Good philosophy ought to be articulated by good philosophers.

First, philosophy contributes to Christian apologetics. Most of the best apologists today are those with philosophical educations. Philosophy at its best disciples the mind to think critically about ideas by giving and analyzing arguments, understanding argument forms (deduction, induction, and abduction) defining terms, and understanding the history of ideas—all necessary for defending the Christian worldview as objectively true, compellingly rational, and pertinent to the whole of life.

Second, philosophical categories elucidate concepts in Scripture. One should never impose an alien philosophy on the Bible (as many now do with postmodernism), but rather use ideas to bring out biblical themes. For example, the Gospels do not articulate moral theory in philosophical terms. Yes Jesus’ teachings, when considered in terms of meta-ethics, deontology, virtue theory, and consequentialism, yield significant insights, as I argue in On Jesus, “The Ethics of Jesus.”

Third, philosophical acumen should inform and inspire exegesis and theologizing. Theologians like Karl Barth to the contrary, sound reasoning according to the canons of fundamental logic open up the Bible’s truth as found through interpretation and theology. Even more, knowing about non-philosophical systems—such as Hegelianism and Marxism—alerts us to ways in which the Bible can be twisted to serve ungodly ends (See 2 Peter 3:16).

Fourth, philosophy aids us in applying common grace to our worldview. Common grace pertains to the gifts God gives to those who do not follow him, including what is true in non-Christian worldviews. In the debate between realism and non-realism, an atheist philosopher such as John Searle gives the Christian sound arguments against a position that opposes the very notion that objective truths exist and may be known. See his work, The Construction of Social Reality. “Unspeakable Ethics, Unnatural Law,” written by Arthur Leff, is perhaps the most cogent article on meta-ethics that I have read, even though his (inconsistent) conclusion does not affirm God as the basis of morality.

Books without end have been written on philosophy’s relationship to the Bible. I hope that this short essay stimulates wise thinking for those who want to follow the Apostle Paul’s example:

We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5).

It’s Immaterial

Common phrases and sentences often assume false ideas. A wise person will interrogate herself and language in general to sniff these out. Here is one statement worth looking at:

It’s (or that’s) immaterial.

This sentence is uttered to mean:

It is irrelevant or it is not pertinent to the issue at hand.

The statement A may be used correctly in one sense. Consider a red herring fallacy. Someone offers a scientific criticism of Darwinism, which depends on no ideas that are uniquely religious or specifically Christian. The Darwinist replies, “But the Bible is an ancient and superstitious book.” The reply: “That is immaterial to the issue at hand. In fact, it is a red herring.” In this case, the sentence is true inasmuch as it means, it is irrelevant or it is not pertinent to the issue at hand. However, we should say more.

It’s (or that’s) immaterial assumes the metaphysic of materialism: a worldview that denies the existence of any immaterial or spiritual reality. If there is no such thing as the immaterial realm, then any reference to minds or souls or immaterial principles (of logic or morality) or to God or angels or demons is wrongheaded, since these things do not exist.

Or the “It’s immaterial” may mean something epistemological, such as:

Even if there is an immaterial realm, it has no bearing on rational     explanations of the world of matter. Beliefs about the immaterial are never items of knowledge.

This view is called methodological naturalism, since it claims to remain neutral on the metaphysics of naturalism or any other worldview. This view begs the question of whether explanations can rationally invoke immaterial causes. I have written against this idea in chapter 13 of Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith.

If this discussion explains the use of the phrase and its conceptual roots (even though not everyone who uses it holds to a materialist worldview), then we are prepared to unpack its implications.

Materialism is the common worldview in the hard sciences and in American education at all levels. Like all worldviews, materialism requires philosophical justification to be a matter of knowledge (justified and true belief). For many reasons, materialism lacks such support. But beyond that, materialism colors our language, whether or not we are materialists. As such it is a hidden persuader. I could cite and explain other examples of language bearing strange gifts. Consider one. The brain is commonly referred to for matters of thinking and experience when the brain (as a material organ) has little or nothing to do with it. That requires another essay, however.

Those who are not materialists should watch their mouths (and their immaterial minds). Perhaps we need to wash out our mouths with philosophical soap. Zip the lip if it is wrong.

On Jimi Hendrix

Having recently heard yet another live release of The Jimi Hendrix Experience (this one authorized), I offer a few reflections on the man who died forty-five years ago, but who will not be left for dead musically or culturally. I first heard his music when I was thirteen; now I am fifty-eight. Experiencing his works when I was younger—and now that my musical predilections have deepened with age—provides perspective.

Hendrix came from a bad family, led a hardscrabble life, was a hustler, and was not a morally virtuous person. All his musical talk about freedom was more about license, not the strength and vision to do the good in one’s life. He went into the military to avoid going to jail. He got out of the military by lying to his superiors (about being a homosexual, believe it or not). He was a mean drunk, and hit women. Money was something to be spent immediately. He left no will. He did take heroine and just about any other drug you can imagine. Although he needed glasses, he never wore them. His many car accidents attested to that. He was a sex addict, as is widely known. He left many illegimate children, for whom he did not care. This is sinful.

Clothes did not make this man, but Hendrix knew how to dress outrageously without looking like a clown. He dressed the part of a psychedelic gypsy, which added to his mystique. Women found him irresistible and he resisted few of them. He was, perhaps, the most-photographed musician of his day.

Musically, Hendrix was rooted in the blues—John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, B. B. King. Music was his only consistent passion and all his skill reduced to his music. He did not read music and knew little theory. He was a natural who practiced endlessly—sometimes falling asleep in bed with his guitar—and jammed with anyone he deemed worthy. His showmanship came mostly from a brief stint with the supernaturally-flamboyant Little Richard. (Compare their mustaches.) Hendrix also stole the idea of destroying amps and guitars from Pete Townsend of The Who—although Pete never set a guitar on fire (to my knowledge).

Spiritually, Jimi attended church a bit while growing up in Seattle, but abandoned that as a young man. He would later call his music “electric church.” He reveled in science fiction. I found a photo that shows him before a shelf of books, one of which is from C. S. Lewis’s The Space Trilogy. I wonder if he ever read that—and if he did, what would have happened. His worldview was that of a hedonistic Gnostic. His attempted ascents into the divine never left sexual license behind.

This electric shaman took you there through the ecstasy of his music and liberal doses of hallucinogenic drugs. For a time as a teenager, he deceived me into thinking he was a conduit to ultimate meaning. He was not. I was wrong. Christ is the way, and Jimi never recognized this.

Hendrix could be comical. When Dick Cavett asked him if Jimi liked to get up and start making music, Hendrix laconically responded, “I usually try to get up.” When Cavett said, “Many say your are the best guitar player in the world,” Hendrix replied, “Best guitar player in this chair.”

At his best, Jimi Hendrix’s playing was mesmerizing. He made the electric guitar speak in a tongue it had never before known. In that sense, he was like John Coltrane, although not aesthetically serious or gifted musically. Hendrix used electricity intuitively and made what was considered a mistake (feedback) into an integral part of his playing. He could lock into a grove that finds and sticks to your core—if you listen. He was also the sloppiest live rock player I have heard. He took too many chances, was often too drugged, and sometimes played in the wrong key. His antics on the guitar often put it out of tune. Sometimes he seems to be fighting himself because of it, altering his playing to avoid the rocks of ruin. Then there is the incessant tuning in between numbers. Of course, he was punishing the instrument in ways never before known and the electric guitar had not reached its level of sophistication known today.

Jimi Hendrix was a path-breaker in music. But he died young because he lived badly. Please don’t look to his lyrics for enlightenment or especially for sexual ethics or spirituality. He could be clever, but he was not wise.

The Philosophy of the Pause

Pauses are imperiled today. An unintended pause on the radio is dead air. Pause in a conversation—to find the right word, right example, or right question—and someone will end it for you by filling in their words. Impatience demands it. Culture accepts it. Some of us hate it.

Pauses may be awkward or apt, affected or authentic. No one speaks a continuous stream of words. Our acoustic blasts are punctuated. But the pause is longer than standard punctuation. People speak at different speeds. There are gazelles and snails. The preacher and writer, D. James Kennedy spoke deliberately and slowly, but made every word count. He was not lethargic, but authoritative. Dr. Kennedy did not fear the pause, and his pauses were honored. Others speak at a breakneck rate. For those old enough to remember, their speaking is akin to playing a 33 rpm album at 45 rpm. But pauses are identifiable no matter what the rate of speaking. What, then, should we do with them?

As creatures, we are limited in every way. God is not. We are not God. We are personal and finite. God is personal and infinite. As my Denver Seminary colleague Dr. David Buschart says, we should own our finitude. Our goals often exceed our abilities. We make honest mistakes that are not moral lapses. This irritates us, and we find it difficult to rest within our limits. One small way to accept our finitude is to honor the pause in conversations.

Words matter. We are not speaking into the air. Our words are stored in a changeless past and affect the eternal future. Thus, we should select our words carefully and heed the words of others. When I listen to another person, I attempt to fathom the meaning of their speech. I should also honor their manner of speaking, especially the pause. Silence does not bracket noise; it is a positive condition, which should elicit patient listening.

To answer before listening—that is folly and shame (Proverbs 18:13)

Honoring a pause in another’s speech affirms her as finite being, giving her breathing room—a portal to meaning in a world padlocked by ceaseless chatter, blather, and banter. How might this be done? How might we honor our finitude and that of another of our own kind? Consider an exercise.

Arrange a conversation with a friend in a quiet place. This may take some work. Listen attentively to what your friend is saying, noticing the pacing and cadence of his or her speaking. Resolve to neither fill in pauses (unless asked to do so) or to talk over your friend’s speech. If you fail, then apologize, saying, “I am sorry. I want to give you the space to say what you want and in your timing.” Also try to speak in a measured pace which allows for your own pausing. If your friend fills the pause or talks over you, discern whether it is appropriate to bring this to his or her attention.

There is no need to press the pause button. Machines do not have conversations. Even Siri—despite her billions of words—is not an interlocutor. Rather, pace your pattern of listening and speaking. Recognize, accept, and honor the pause. And ponder these inspired words from The Apocalypse of John (Revelation):

When he opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour.

And I saw the seven angels who stand before God, and seven trumpets were given to them.

Another angel, who had a golden censer, came and stood at the altar. He was given much incense to offer, with the prayers of all God’s people, on the golden altar in front of the throne. The smoke of the incense, together with the prayers of God’s people, went up before God from the angel’s hand. Then the angel took the censer, filled it with fire from the altar, and hurled it on the earth; and there came peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning and an earthquake (8:1-4).

The PersonalPhilosophyTrainer (PPT)

Always looking for more applications of philosophy to life, I have come up with a sure-fire winner: the PhilosophyPersonalTrainer (or PPT). Personal trainers developed out of the fitness trends of the last three decades. We pay and defer to experts to size up our (generally unacceptable) bodies and propose solutions (or at least ameliorations).

Now: enter the PPT. Poor thinking is a perennial problem, at least since the fall introduced intellectual torpor, stupefaction, and dereliction. Things really got dumber east of Eden. Poor thinking, which leads to bogus worldviews and ruined lives, needs to be corrected. As C.S. Lewis opined, good philosophy needs to exist if for no other reason than to counteract bad philosophy. Yet many never take a philosophy class, never read a philosophical book, and don’t even know what modus ponens is. (Hint: it is neither a snow mobile nor a skin rash.)

The PPT will access your intellectual life—if there is one. First he or she accesses your library. Since most do not have a library (of books at least), the trainer will recommend starting one, even if this means talking money always from (gasp) cable TV and Netflix. Then, one must actually read these rather archaic objects in book form (not on line). One must learn to love the text, to indwell it, and have it indwell oneself. This, of course, takes work. Withdrawal symptoms include: twitches in the direction of the nearest remote control, urges to check one’s smart phone and email, boredom because the book’s text does not move, blink, or bark, and so on. The trainer can provide practical help by regaling the client with stories of those who used to intoxicate at play station who now are hopeless book addicts who cannot let a logical fallacy pass unnoticed. Support groups are available as well.

Second, the PPT audits your vocabulary and knowledge of the history of ideas. This is not done through a routine test but through conversations. The PPT sometimes uses personal restraints on the more hyperactive clients who tend to lunge toward whatever electronic medium is in sight. After several conversations, the PPT accesses the client’s knowledge (and ignorance) and makes general recommendations. Here is an excerpt from one recommendation made to Ivan Ignoramus:

Ivan, you know everything about “The Matrix,” but nothing about Plato. So, you really cannot understand “The Matrix,” since it trades on Plato’s cave allegory. You are terrific at video games but no knowing of Wittgensteinian “language games.” You are swimming in data about sports, but know nothing about theories of human nature or why humans even care about sports. Your vocabulary is miniscule, pathetic. You rely on a few emotive terms to do all the work of analysis (if I can call it that). Things you like are “cool” or “awesome,” but there is no clear sense what you mean by these terms. Things you don’t like “suck,” but you show no understanding of where this expression came from (the gutter) or just why you dislike the things that “suck.” You say, “Oh my God,” all the time, but have never considered whether there are any sound arguments for God’s existence. And you don’t know what “sound argument is.”

Of course, there is much more to the discipline of being a PPT. But this is enough to start a new movement, a movement of the mind in the making. All you need is a car, philosophical knowledge, and a lot of patience and clients. But what should the hourly rate be? As Proverbs says, “Buy the truth and do not sell it.”


A Recently Recovered Screwtape Letter

A Recently Recovered Screwtape Letter 0n Words

My Dear Wormwood:

I lick my parched lips with delight that our propaganda efforts are going splendidly well. Good things come to those who wait—and growl in infernal anticipation. We may have won the battle of words. Not that we have won any arguments—that is expecting too much. The Enemy seems to have the advantage in that. But never mind. But we may have succeeded in eliminating arguments entirely. Oh, the delight in it!

How careless these vermin are with words—words, the very thing that separates them from the rest of the Enemy’s ridiculous menagerie. With our promptings and manipulations, they readily substitute words for thoughts. These talkative bipeds spew out a million words and few of them make up rational assessment or argument. As I said in a previous letter, we must never move the contest into the world of true and false, good and evil, rational and irrational. No, those silly dichotomies are tools of the Enemy—narrow-minded, dualist, rationalist that he is. These categories quicken the mind. We must numb it.

You must push forward a trend already set in place. Take heed to my tips, my young charge, since my words have meaning, and ignoring them will not advance your infernal vocation.

  1. Always substitute untutored emotion for conceptual clarity. Thus, vilify those speaking for the Enemy. They are so many bad things: narrow-minded, bigoted, reactionary, phobic (how we have profited from that!), and more. Never let them see that, according to the Enemy, reason and emotion should work in tandem, even shake hands with jolly goodness and resolve. Keep them away from that pseudo-intellectual and word-monger, C.S. Lewis, who wrote in The Abolition of Man:

No emotion is, in itself, a judgement; in that sense all emotions and sentiments are alogical, but they can be reasonable or unreasonable as they conform to Reason or fail to conform. The heart never takes the place of the head: but it can, and should, obey it.

How I tired of that man!

  1. Attenuate their vocabulary, since the fewer words they have to capture thoughts, the less able they are to make distinctions. It is the philosophers that obsess on distinctions, especially that Nazarene, most of whose followers do not even recognize this fact! That logic-chopper outwitted all the rhetoricians and theologians we threw at him during that egregious episode they call the Incarnation. His distinctions dispatched our dialecticians.

But we are advanced in the art of retarding thought, you know. Reading is considered a luxury or even a vice. Emotive utterances and lazy superlatives—awesome, epic, perfect—have replaced the love of words and books.

  1. Make the most of slogans that applaud the loss of precise wording for important arguments. Here are a few delicious ones: “You are over-thinking this.” Of course, we know, from thousands of years of amusing experience, that few humans do this—or are even capable of doing this. “It is a matter of the heart, not of the head.” Jump in here, since this expression excuses all manner of cheap emotion, baseless opinion, and fuzzy thinking. Here is one more (there are many others): “It is what it is.” This may be used to mean “It cannot be changed.” But often it means something more helpful to our cause, such as “I cannot think it through. That would be too tiring.” Or this sentence may endorse a mindless fatalism—Stoicism, but without the intellect. You have to love that: Keep a stiff upper lip and a mind unfit for thought.

You should get the idea, Wormwood. Claptrap is our snake pit. Keep an eagle eye on their words, especially when they don’t. Be encouraged. That forgotten book in the Old Testament, Proverbs, cannot hurt us as long as it remains forgotten. Our men are doing splendid work on that.

Your ever-so-insightful uncle,


PS: I am delighted to add this this essay is exactly 666 words long