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A Materialist’s 3/4 Search for Truth

Only humans pursue truth. It is one of our exceptional attributes. But we all find ways to somewhat hobble the quest. A little while back, I wrote a piece at First Things noting that atheists/materialists wrongly claim the mantle of thoroughgoing objective truth-seekers. For one thing, they refuse to acknowledge the potential mystical and/or religious explanations for the numberless otherwise inexplicable experiences people have reported over the ages.

Even if they have an intense personal “encounter,” they often “reason away” that which science can’t explain — in the words of Steven Pinker’s wife, Rebecca Goldstein — because doing otherwise could undermine their materialist worldview, or perhaps corrode their self-perception as a proud rationalist. 

If rationalists want to be genuine seekers of truth, it seems to me that they should acknowledge, to paraphrase Shakespeare, at least the possibility that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in the philosophy of rigid materialism.  

This is why I was somewhat encouraged by atheist author Barbara Ehrenreich’s piece published in the New York Times. She has written about a mystical — what some might have interpreted as religious — experience, the implications of which she did not pursue because of her and her family’s adamant atheism. From “A Rationalist’s Mystical Moment”: 

But something happened when I was 17 that shook my safely rationalist worldview and left me with a lifelong puzzle. Years later, I learned that this sort of event is usually called a mystical experience, and I can see in retrospect that the circumstances had been propitious: Thanks to a severely underfunded and poorly planned skiing trip, I was sleep-deprived and probably hypoglycemic that morning in 1959 when I stepped out alone, walked into the streets of Lone Pine, Calif., and saw the world — the mountains, the sky, the low scattered buildings — suddenly flame into life.

There were no visions, no prophetic voices or visits by totemic animals, just this blazing everywhere. Something poured into me and I poured out into it. This was not the passive beatific merger with “the All,” as promised by the Eastern mystics. It was a furious encounter with a living substance that was coming at me through all things at once, too vast and violent to hold on to, too heartbreakingly beautiful to let go of.

Some would call that a gift of grace, an invitation. But Ehrenreich wasn’t interested if that was the direction in which her experience might lead her:

Since I recognized no deities, and even the notion of an “altered state of consciousness” was unavailable at the time, I was left with only one explanation: I had had a mental breakdown, ultimately explainable as a matter of chemical imbalances, overloaded circuits or identifiable psychological forces. There had been some sort of brief equipment failure, that was all, and I determined to pull myself together and put it behind me, going on to finish my formal education as a cellular immunologist and become a responsible, productive citizen.

Yet she was haunted her whole life by the vividness of her vision.  

Ehrenreich has finally received permission from recent changes in scientific trends to turn away from the glib denigration of such experiences as mental breaks or some form of psychosis. Rather, she is now open to more quasi-materialist possibilities — albeit still not those that might carry theistic implications with them:

Without invoking anything supernatural, we may be ready to acknowledge that we are not, after all, alone in the universe. There is no evidence for a God or gods, least of all caring ones, but our mystical experiences give us tantalizing glimpses of other forms of consciousness, which may be beings of some kind, ordinarily invisible to us and our instruments. Or it could be that the universe is itself pulsing with a kind of life, and capable of bursting into something that looks to us momentarily like the flame.

Except there is plenty of evidence supportive of the “God hypothesis,” evidence no more to be dismissed than Ehrenreich’s testimony of a potentially larger material world. And if God exists, such experiences are as “natural” — if unpredictable — as Ehrenreich’s theorized invisible beings or altered mental states.

But good for Ehrenreich: Some phenomena may always remain a mystery, but it is progress that she is now willing to pursue what I think could be fairly described as a three-quarter search for truth.

Cross-posted at Human Exceptionalism.

Wesley J. Smith

Chair and Senior Fellow, Center on Human Exceptionalism
Wesley J. Smith is Chair and Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism. Wesley is a contributor to National Review and is the author of 14 books, in recent years focusing on human dignity, liberty, and equality. Wesley has been recognized as one of America’s premier public intellectuals on bioethics by National Journal and has been honored by the Human Life Foundation as a “Great Defender of Life” for his work against suicide and euthanasia. Wesley’s most recent book is Culture of Death: The Age of “Do Harm” Medicine, a warning about the dangers to patients of the modern bioethics movement.