The philosopher John Locke believed in the idea that all knowledge comes through sense-experience. Berkeley took this idea and raised some questions about matter. In the end, Berkeley did not believe the material world existed. The transition is an interesting one and can be read about in Gordon Clark’s book “Thales to Dewey.” By the way, both of these thinkers were Christians.
Yet it raises a question. Is anything objective? Do we discover the world or do we define the world? I find it amazing that when I look at an action such as the 9/11 attacks or school shootings in America and call them evil, I am told by moral relativists that that intuition that I have that tells me that something is evil is what is really wrong. Morality is not objective but relative. I would be more inclined to believe with Berkeley that the material world was relative before I’d believe morality is relative.
Yet solipsism has been an idea that many people have sought to avoid. (If you don’t know what it is, I recommend doing a google search for a philosophical article on the topic.) If solipsism is false though, then there is a reality outside of our minds. There really is a world that is there.
Kant could leave us in basic doubt if all we have is sense-knowledge. Kant argued that we can’t know the things in themselves. We can only know the impressions that we receive from them. Kant spoke much about the moral law though and definitely treated it as if it was a reality. He wasn’t a solipsist either. He believed in the material world. He said the two things that would always leave him in awe are the starry host above and the moral law within.
Yet this is a valid point that is raised and one that Dinesh D’Souza brings up in “What’s So Great About Christianity?” If the atheist wishes to rely on sense-experience, what tells him that it is reliable? If he wishes to use reason, what tells him that reason is reliable? Can he ever truly say he has knowledge?
While this applies to sense-experience, I think it applies to so much more as well. C.S. Lewis wrote in the Screwtape Letters of how the demons of Hell could not yet create one pleasure. Pleasure was purely the ground of the enemy, who would be God in this case as it’s one demon writing to another.
Consider this though as you look at the world. What happens if you hear a piece of music and think “My! That is beautiful!” Immediately to avoid a reality you must say, “Stop! Don’t think such a thing! There is no real beauty in the world! Nothing is objectively beautiful! It is only an illusion in your mind!”
If you give your children a hug when they come home from school and think that love has taken place, that voice must shout again. “Stop! Do not think such a thing! There is no you there! There is only a machine acting on chemical reactions! Don’t think that there is something objectively loving or something objectively lovable!”
If you donate money to a needy cause and think you have done a good thing, you must hear it again. “Stop! Do not think that is good! There is nothing that is truly good out there! It is only in your mind that you think it is good! Do not say it is good if it is not really good!”
Then, if you want to complain about God allowing suffering in the world, you can’t even do that before that voice repeats. “Stop! There is nothing objectively evil out there lest there be an objective good! You must not allow this! You must deny that there is an evil and that there is a good!”
I believe this is why pleasure is God’s territory. The demons can only twist the pleasures that God has made. They can only rip them out of their context and use them as they see fit. If you have true pleasure though, it is a transcendent experience. It draws you into a reality beyond yourself. You see the world as it is.
And isn’t that what we’ve talked about here before? The Christian can look at the world in such a way. He can say it is beautiful and wonderful and good. The Christian can say that there is such a thing as love and he can even affirm that he is not just a machine. He is a being in the image of God.
In fact, the Christian should engage in such thoughts. The more we think about the world as it is and see the wonder and beauty of it all, the more we will be drawn to the one who is wonderful and beautiful. The more we participate in true pleasure, the more pleasurable he will be to us.