I was only a few pages into John Allen Paulos’ book Irreligion: A mathematician explains why the arguments for God just don’t add up (New York: Hill and Wang, 2008) when I came across Paulos’ extraordinary description of his childhood conversion to “materialism”. He writes:
“if there is an inborn disposition to materialism (in the sense of ‘matter and motion are the basis of all there is,’ not in the sense of ‘I want more cars and houses’), then I suspect I have it. At the risk of being a bit cloying, I remember another early indicator of my adult psychology. I was scuffling with my brother when I was about ten and had an epiphany that the stuff of our two heads wasn’t different in kind from the stuff of the rough rug on which I’d just burned my elbow or the stuff of the chair on which he’d just banged his shoulder. The realization that everything was ultimately made out of the same matter, that there was no essential difference between the material compositions of me and not-me, was clean, clear, and bracing.” (x)
As I said, this is an extraordinary description. Paulos sets himself up as this skeptical, rational free thinker. And yet, but for the content of his experience, his “epiphany” is remarkably like that of countless “religious” people. Consider:
“I was scuffling with my brother when I was about ten and had an epiphany that God loved me and had a wonderful plan for my life. The realization that everything was ultimately made by God and for God and that God loved me was clean, clear, and bracing.”
I have little doubt that Paulos would balk at this description of a childhood conversion to theistic personalism. And yet, he apparently believes that his epiphany as a ten year old to materialism is perfectly rational. What’s the difference?
In fact, there is a striking difference between the two cases, but it doesn’t work in Paulos’ favor. The child who has the theistic epiphany can point to God as the agent through whom they achieve that insight into the nature of reality. But what is Paulos’ explanation for his childhood epiphany? What insight is it that allowed him to know that everything that exists is made out of “the same matter”? How did young Paulos know, at the age of ten, that non-reductive philosophies of mind, platonic theories of universals, and theistic theories of the origin of the universe are all false?
This materialist epiphany is doubly ironic for a child who grows up to be a mathematician given that most mathematicians are Platonists about numbers and thus explicitly reject the notion that “everything was ultimately made out of the same matter”. The fact that Paulos places such a blushingly non-rational conversion narrative at the head of a book purportedly touting tough minded rational thinking, and that he does so with no sense of irony, suggests the man ought to turn his skeptical eye inward before worrying about the rationality of theists.