Let’s start with the quibbles, and move on to the good stuff.
Skeel desires to avoid the concept of burdens of proof, in argument concerning the existence of God. Here’s the problem with that. Materialists routinely argue, for reasons they never adequately explain, that Christianity (or creationism or theism) bears the burden of proof. So theism gets an inadequate hearing, if we accept these rules for debate. Moreover, if there is properly a presumptively correct position, it ought to be theism. Materialists never have explained how we get more than nothing, from nothing, unless the answer be God.
Another quibble. Skeel points out that materialists “insist on counting as evidence on that which is measurable and quantifiable.” Quite right. That which is measurable and quantifiable is that which is material, and materialists attempt to prove from exploration of material things that there is nothing beyond that which is material. Materialist reductionism is a self-proving (and therefore invalid) argument. It’s like saying that study of the paper and marks on this page do not yield a book review, therefore there is no such review. It’s circular, and it’s nonsense. Skeel doesn’t draw the straight line to materialist absurdity.
Of the various arguments for theism and contra materialism, Skeel seems to think the problems of human consciousness are paramount. He may be right. He writes that consciousness is “the subjectivity of our experience—what it feels like to be human;” and that consciousness “is the single most complex and mysterious feature of our existence.” But then Skeel doesn’t really talk about that kind of consciousness. Too bad, because that would be a fascinating line of inquiry. Instead Skeel talks about consciousness in the sense of engaging in abstract thought. Obviously there is overlap between these two meanings of “consciousness,” but they’re not the same. For the rest of Skeel’s discussion on this central topic of his book, Skeel means abstract thinking; “idea-making.”
Having gotten past this rocky start, Skeel brings us to some important understanding about idea-making. Materialists can’t account for man’s thinking of meaning, but Christians can. The search for meaning begat science, which is now used, ironically, as a cudgel by materialists. Materialists claim the mantle of science, but that’s not entirely legitimate. The materialist finds a rationally-ordered universe, and because it is rationally-ordered, he is able to make ever expanding inquiry into questions of material reality. And yet, he can’t say why the universe ought to be rationally-ordered in the first place.
Skeel hits his stride when he addresses intangible ideals and the failure of materialism to adequately explain them. For example, beauty exists only in contrast to ugliness. Light we know because of its contrast to darkness. Sin we understand in contrast to that which is good. We have an ineffable longing for permanence. Where does that come from? How is it that materialists experience the same appreciation for beauty, and experience the same emotions in its presence, as everyone else?
Great art and music are great precisely because they manage the tensions and complexities of life that only Christianity can fully explain. Beauty is linked to truth because it creates a desire for truth and sharpens our commitment to seeking truth. Indeed, it may be that some truths can only be conveyed, or can only be conveyed effectively, through beauty. We can talk about immortality and a desire for permanence all day long, but when we encounter a landscape of rolling mountains fading into the far distance, we may feel it on a deep level. Do you remember the first time you ever saw the ocean?
This same idea about the ineffable exists for moral and ethical considerations. A materialist has to be saying that there is no God because if so, that God allows evil. But, he cannot explain how we come to call it evil in the first place. Materialism itself doesn’t imply any particular set of ideals. Indeed, it implies the absence of ideals.
This brings me back to a side benefit of this book, one that the author might not even have intended. Throughout, you may find yourself writing in the margins: “If materialism is true, then . . .” Skeel leads us, perhaps on purpose and perhaps by accident, to understand the incoherence of materialism as a belief system unto itself. If we take materialist jibes as darts flung here and there against the bulwark of theism, we might have pause on this idea or that one. Perhaps the sum of them causes us to doubt. But if we reverse this, and look at materialism as a complete ideology, we find that it falls apart of its own accord.
(See, True Paradox/How Christianity Makes Sense of Our Complex World, by David Skeel (Intervarsity Press 2014))