Joe Carter's recent post about "neism" (his coinage, I think), reminded me about a subject that puzzled my mind for some years ago. It has to do with paradigms and the material world.
For the sake of argument, let's begin with a given: All that exists is the material world. All material things have material causes, and nothing immaterial exists. There is no supernatural; everything is matter and energy (and no cheating by talking about "spiritual energy." We mean natural energy here).
Now, place humans into this material world. Human societies, without exception, have some belief in experience beyond the material. These may be shamanistic beliefs, or polytheistic beliefs, or monotheistic beliefs, or even atheist non-material believes, but all believe that the immaterial exists. Though a few individuals deny the existence of anything beyond the material, by and large these people are oddities.
OK, so here is the question: In this material world, how can people imagine the non-material? If all is material, then the immaterial is completely beyond the paradigm of humans (and other denizens of the natural world). For someone to imagine the immaterial when neither they nor anyone else has ever experienced the immaterial is rather like trying to imagine a fifth dimension -- it is something so far out of our perception that conceiving of it seems nearly impossible.
Some would answer this question, I suppose, by arguing that the belief in the immaterial offers some sort of material benefit -- i.e., somehow religion helps mankind in the evolutionary contest. By necessity this argument pre-supposes a natural cause for such beliefs, and their ubiquituous nature suggests evolutionary advantage. But just how the material can mandate a fantasy about an immaterial world is always left unexplained; how could primitive mankind (and near-humans such as neanderthals) contextualize such ideas? And, assuming they did, how could such ideas -- at odds with reality -- offer any kind of evolutionary advantage to the species? Wouldn't humans be better served by beliefs in material causes, even if those beliefs are wrong?
To put the question another way, let's use Plato's allegory of the cave. In the allegory of the cave, men sit in a cave and watch the shadows pass on the walls. From these shadows, they try to determine what the outside world is like. The philosopher leaves the cave, goes into the sunlit world. Plato's allegory of the cave is the father is Thomas Kuhn's paradigms. The solely material world paradigm, then, is rather like the allegory of the cave in which nothing exists outside of the cave, and no puppeteers cast shadows on the wall. Yet, for some reason, all of the prisoners in the cave falsely believe that they see shadows cast on the wall and postulate that this means something exists outside the cave. Or, to put it in a more Kuhnian form, people have formed beliefs completely outside of their paradigms (since an entirely material cosmos would not allow immaterial anomolies to fuel a paradigm shift).
What was the point of this exercise? Simply to point out that perception of an immaterial world is a common human experience -- indeed, possibly the common human experience. To argue about the state of the immaterial or supernatural is one thing, but to argue that only the material exists runs counter to human experience. How can denying that which all mankind perceives be considered wisdom?
All sorts of sites link to the Wordhoard: evangelical, Catholic, Jewish, various New Age, and all sorts of others. They disagree on what the shadows on the wall of the cave mean, but all can see the shadows. Let's not indulge the fantasies of the myopic few.