Materialism is the theory that matter is all that exists. From a materialist’s perspective, all aspects of mind and consciousness — including our thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and intentions — are believed to result from nothing more than electrochemical impulses in our brains. A corollary of this perspective is that many aspects of our everyday human experience – including mental causation, free will, and our sense of self – are mere illusions, simple by-products of our neural and bodily machinery. The materialist viewpoint was articulated rather bluntly by Francis Crick (co-discoverer of the structure of DNA), who said: “‘You,’ your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.” Or, as Marvin Minsky (one of the pioneers in the field of artificial intelligence) put it: “The human brain is just a computer that happens to be made out of meat.”
The materialist perspective contrasts rather sharply with the religious belief that human beings are children of God. While different religions may teach different things about exactly what it means to be a child of God, I think it’s safe to say that most, if not all, religions agree that humans are much more than computers made of meat.
So it’s not surprising that a religious person like myself would be skeptical of materialism. It is, however, surprising that someone like NYU philosophy professor Thomas Nagel would be skeptical of materialism. Nagel, you see, is a committed atheist. He has expressed this rather forcefully, saying: “It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.”
And yet, in his book Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False, Nagel confesses that