I Am Not Determinate Matter, and I Too Sing the Universe!

This is the confident theist position, which as an agnostic I am not committed to, but I nevertheless think it might well be right. Here’s why: Science is a tool for the study of matter, and it must study matter in a public  way. But here’s the thing: a tool for the study of matter (and matter consists of parts readily taken apart) is presumed to be the right tool for the study of other things that may well exist apart from matter and not consist of “parts” (mind, consciousness, free will, the physical laws undergirding matter, the information in the first cell).

I’m all for scientists making the attempt at material reduction. We need to know exactly what is and is not reducible to matter. Push science as a tool as far as it will go. But what I’m saying is that every single day you can ask yourself this question:

Is it reasonable to infer from what we know about mind, free will, matter, and the nature of information in the universe, that something more than just matter might be at work here—something apart from matter and that cannot be reduced to matter, or accounted for by the fluctuations of matter?

I’m saying that on a day like today a reasonable person can infer that more might be at work in the universe than matter. This is not a negation of science. It’s an inference that a reasonable person can make today, and that could have been made yesterday, and that could have been made 150 years ago. It may well be that tomorrow, or three hundred years from now, the materialist and atheist intuition of today (that science can and will reduce all phenomena of mind, free will, and information in the universe to matter) will be proven correct to all reasonable people. But we ain’t nowhere close to that place yet. Materialist reduction, however confidently expressed by atheists, may be a mirage.

In short, we can only infer from the time and place that we are at right now, this moment, today. This is why I think the singer’s intuition in the video below is so spot on, and why I think the average person is not an atheist. There’s an intuition on the part of most people that total reductionism is wrong, a narrowing of experience and a blindness, and that something more is going on in existence than determinate material processes. There’s a visceral response to atheism that says: Contend with free will, the self, with consciousness. They’re not going away, and I’m not going away. Like the poem by Langston Hughes (“I too sing America”) there’s a certain announcement, a declaration of presence that says “I’m here too.” You can’t just account for me by sending me, unnoticed, into the materialist and reductionist kitchen. I’m not your robot, nor am I, at bottom, just a determinate matter machine. I too sing the universe.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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4 Responses to I Am Not Determinate Matter, and I Too Sing the Universe!

  1. Jared K says:

    Santi,

    Another good video:

  2. santitafarella says:

    Jared,

    I’m sorry to be dense, but have I misunderstood the Spektor video?

    Isn’t it a threat?

    If you laugh at God, someday you’ll be on your death bed and suffering miserably and God will be showing you who’s boss—He’ll be laughing at you. Doesn’t this video suggest that God is a monster authoritarian, and that one only questions or makes light of Him at your doom? Is this one of these callous and smug “every knee shall bow” retorts to atheism?

    Or do you hear something God-positive or life affirming here? It feels to me like adolescent revenge. I like the Magritte art allusions, but the refrain of the song, well, kind of made me feel sorry for arrogant dumb-ass confidence atheists (a group of people which I haven’t felt all that much sympathy for lately).

    I think God (if God exists) loves confidence atheists (even if He would say that their reports of his death are greatly exaggerated), and God would probably enjoy their company in heaven more than the severe and apparently shallow Miss Spektor. (I certainly would.)

    I’m sorry if my response is slow here. What did you get out of the video that I’m missing? Am I being too defensive and sensitive here (because I’m an agnostic). Do you suppose that I’m missing Miss Spektor’s intended point?

    —Santi

    • Jared K says:

      Santi,

      I think the song is a better crafted expression of the idea behind the cliche “there are no atheists in foxholes”. That is what I get from it–that religion often strikes as ridiculous, but when we are scared and hopeless, religion starts making alot of sense. Even opinionated bystanders (like the Dawkins-types) shut the hell up when they see a mother in a hospital waiting-room crying out to God.

      I didn’t catch the authoritarian business at all. I might listen for it. What did you hear?

      Regina Spektor is not a fundamentalist or evangelical–I don’t even know that she’s a Christian. I know that she is very liberal and progressive and raises money for planned parenthood, etc.

      The song is almost certainly about how ideas about God are sometimes funny and absurd (certain fundamentalist ideas in particular), and yet in terrible situations, all humor and absurdity disappear when people reach out to an idea of God for help. In fact, Spektor said that is what the song is about.

      I thought the title of the song, the last line I believe, that we are “laughing with” God, is something more like what you would be attracted to–affirming the absurdity of both disbelief in God and belief in God. We laugh with God because it is absurd both ways? Depending on whether we are chatting about Benny Hinn over beers or if we are anxiously sitting in a hospital waiting room?

      I’m a little concerned that you might be finding authoritarianism under every rock.

  3. santitafarella says:

    Jared,

    I do have my authoritarian detector set on HIGH. It’s a personality quirk, no doubt. I’m a jumpy person in general, a bit like a nervy toy poodle.

    As for the song, I like your Dawkins observation. People shut the hell up around others in suffering and at the brink of death. If that’s the song’s point, great.

    But I think she was also taking a swipe at atheists (which is fine, too, that’s her right). I just think that as a swipe at atheists, it’s a bit callous. Unless you are a theist triumphalist who is absolutely confident you’re going to be in a better place, few people laugh at much of anything against moments of facing terror and death.

    I’m quite sure I’ll die horribly. I don’t harbor any illusions that I will go gently or decorously into that good night. I know that. It doesn’t mean that cynicism expressed towards, say, God for the Holocaust, and how God could let that happen, or cracking a joke about Abraham sacrificing Isaac, makes one a glib person. You have to laugh at horror, or cry. The historian Will Durant once said something I’ve never forgotten (I first read it as a teen, I believe in his book on the French Revolution):

    “Life is a comedy to those who think, a tragedy to those who feel.”

    Durant was referring to Voltaire and Rousseau. He may also have been quoting someone else (but I don’t know who).

    You might want to get Durant’s great book, “The Story of Philosophy”, if you don’t know him as a writer already. He wrote his philosophy book in the 1930s, and it still reads great. And what a writer! Wow.

    —Santi

    —Santi

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