If we suppose that the things we see, hear, touch, etc. are real and not illusory, then we include ourselves and those other things in our conception of reality. Material things are real. Living things, the earth, water, air, other people – they’re all real. Those things move and we experience interaction with them in a linear fashion. So time is real. Physical forces like gravity and electromagnetism are real, too.
But let’s not stop to just ask whether certain things are real. Let’s ask what constitutes all of reality. Are the physical things just described, the natural world, all of reality? Or is there more? Is there a spiritual realm in addition to and pervading the physical realm? If you answer “no,” then you hold the philosophical outlook of materialism. A materialist would say material things operating according to physical forces comprise all that is; that there is no spiritual reality beyond.
You are forming mental concepts in your mind as you read this. I am transmitting concepts from my mind as I write them. The concepts are themselves immaterial, but surely anyone would agree they’re real. One who denies spiritual reality and imagines physical things to be all of reality would have to reconcile the existence of these immaterial concepts by describing them as emergent properties of the physical workings of our physical brains.
Importantly, only as emergent properties. An intellectual concept, according to materialists, cannot exist at all apart from the physical host. As properties of physical things, the concepts you’re engaging with right now would have to be real only as a descriptor of physical (biological) responses to data. Physical electrical switches in my brain contain the idea, and also motivate me to transfer them. This involves a complex physical process of manipulating a physical keyboard to send physical electrical impulses over physical media to result in you, doing similar physical things on the receiving end, having physical changes in your brain, where the idea then resides as electrical switches storing data. Other switches in your brain interact with these, so that you can evaluate the idea, and form new ones. In this way, we engage the same ideas. This is the materialist explanation for what is going on here.
The materialist explanation is incomplete, however. Physical events are involved, but the concept as a concept is not real. It cannot exist, for one who assigns all reality to the physical realm. And yet it does exist. A materialist would say that the ability to engage the idea is purely an emergent property of the underlying physical electrical switches that make it possible.
Beauty, Virtue, Truth
What about “beauty?” Does that exist? Something is “beautiful” in the materialist paradigm only if it meets the socially-constructed criteria we assign to that word. The concept as pure concept has no intrinsic nor independent meaning. Same with virtue. We say conduct is good or bad based on evolved social consensus. Virtue simply as virtue is meaningless, as is its opposite.
In like manner, “truth” does not exist in the abstract, for the materialist. It exists only as a tag for an orientation we all have toward that which makes us more fit for survival. If as a society an idea is more helpful to individual or social survival, we call that idea “true.”
Understand, this does not deny the reality of an idea of beauty, or virtue, or even truth. They surely exist, for the materialist. But they do not exist apart from physical things. They are ideas, but they do not come from some Source outside ourselves because there is no such Source. They therefore come from within ourselves. They are necessarily (for the materialist) a product of our biology.
Truth Orientation vs. Usefulness Orientation
We all hold that a belief should be based on truth, and no other criteria. Let’s call this an orientation to truth. We all share it. That’s not to say we are always truthful, but the truth orientation exists even when we knowingly lie. We observe this orientation even in the breach. We believe this thing and not that one because the first is “true,” the second is not. When we argue about things, like whether God exists, we argue that our position on the subject is “true,” and our opponent’s is “not true.”
But when materialists and theists speak this way, they are talking about different things, though they use the same word “truth” for it. A theist supposes that truth is objectively true, meaning that it is not merely a function of our biology or prejudices or desires. That’s why we seek it. We presuppose that it is eternal and exists outside of ourselves. The concept – not what is true about this debate or that one, but the concept – is of divine origin.
A materialist, by contrast, holds that there is no divine origin. All that is, remember, is of material origin. Ideas are a function of the brain, and the brain is material. The brain’s content and workings are the product of biological evolution only. That means a materialist would have to explain this truth orientation that we all have as being only a product of evolutionary necessity. Ideas which are helpful to us are assigned the label “true.”
The truth orientation is therefore better described as a usefulness orientation. An idea is argued as true because it is naturally selected from competing ideas to enhance survival, not because it is “true” in the abstract.
Evolution of Truth?
Materialists who have thought this through typically point out, at this stage, that natural selection and resulting evolution work on ideas in the same way as biological features. That is, that untrue ideas are de-selected because they do not enhance survival, while true ideas are selected because they do. Thus, they argue, the truth orientation is maintained in purely physical beings. We have a truth orientation because it makes us more fit for survival.
But do you see the problem with this argument? To say that a “true” idea is naturally selected presupposes that there is objective abstract meaning to the word “true.” Otherwise, “true” is just a sound we make and attach to that which is beneficial in evolutionary terms. It is no longer a label for and independent, objective concept of truth. What is happening according to materialists is that an idea is selected because it enhances survival, not because it is in some cosmic sense properly described as true. The designation “true” is just an after-the-fact add-on label for an idea that made the cut. The cut wasn’t based on objective truthfulness. It was based on utility for survival.
To say that only “true” ideas are selected for survival presupposes a feature of the idea – its truth – which precedes the process of selection. And further, that the process of selection winnows out some ideas and not others on just that prior established feature of the idea. What we know as truth is bootstrapped in this way. According to materialists, an idea survives only because it enhances survival, not because it is true. It dies if it does not enhance survival, not because it is untrue.
So, this orientation to truth is not something that is explainable solely on the basis of biology or anything else material. Because it is not a function of biology, it is not merely an emergent property of biology. Nor of anything else physical. Because truth exists in the abstract rather than merely as an emergent property of physical things, physical things are not all of reality. Reality encompasses also something else: something immaterial; spiritual; non-physical; what the Bible refers to as the “Unseen.”