The Iron Bed of Naturalism

Ken Hensley
December 27, 2017 No Comments

One of the more curious figures from Greek mythology is a fellow named Procrustes. Apparently, Procrustes ran a little Bed & Breakfast on the road between Athens and Eleusis. When travelers made their way past his lair, he would invite them in for a pleasant meal and rest for the night. He had a special bed, he explained, one they would surely want to try out — an iron bed that somehow matched exactly the length of every person who lay on it.

What Procrustes declined to mention was the unusual method by which this “one size fits all” miracle bed worked.

As soon as he had his guest where he wanted him, he would bring out his various tools and get to work. Those who were too short, he would stretch on the rack to make them longer. Those who were too tall, he would cut down to size, amputating as much of their feet and legs as was required to achieve the perfect length. In the end, everyone fit Procrustes’ bed. He made sure of it.

Iron Beds and Worldviews

I think of Procrustes as the ultimate reductionist. His methods may have been on the blunt side, but no one can deny his skill in making things fit a pre-desired shape.

Well, in one way or another, the terrible things Procrustes did to his guests are similar to what all reductionist worldviews do to the richness of human experience. When reality is viewed as reducible to “one essential thing,” and when one is committed to making sure everything is made to fit that “one essential thing,” while it can be done, it always seems to take some stretching here and whittling down there. It always seems to require some painful torturing of the richness of human experience, what Francis Schaeffer referred to as the “mannishness of man.”

An example. The eastern pantheist asserts that “Nothing exists but spirit. Everything is ‘God.'” And when some unenlightened westerner scratches his fool head and says, “You know, it sure doesn’t seem like everything is God. I mean, what about shoes and automobile transmissions and this very earth you and I are standing on?” the subtle eastern philosopher responds, “Ah, but all that is illusion, you see. Material reality may seem to exist, but it really doesn’t. Beneath what appears to be, everything is God.”

Notice now that the modern scientific materialist does exactly the same thing, only in reverse. He also reduces reality down to one essential thing: “Everything is matter,” he insists. “Nothing exists but the material universe. Even your mind is matter.”

And when the unenlightened theist furrows his ignorant brow and says, “But it sure doesn’t seem like everything is matter. I mean, what about the ideas I have in my head? Are my memories material? What about consciousness? What about love? What about the laws of logic? Are these all material things?” the subtle materialist philosopher responds, “Ah, but all that is illusion, you see. Although realities such as mind, consciousness, love, the laws of logic, do not seem to be material, they are. Beneath what appears to be, everything is reducible to matter.”

Illusions Abounding

And so the modern materialist assures us that a number of things we believe to be real, aren’t.

We believe there is objective meaning and purpose to life. “False,” says the materialist, “that’s an illusion.”

We believe human beings possess intrinsic value and dignity. “Nope. Another illusion.”

We hold it to be self-evident that all men and women are created equal and endowed with the unalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. “Pure illusion.”

We believe that right and wrong are real, that morality isn’t relative from person to person or society to society and that it isn’t merely an evolved aid to survival and reproduction. “Hate to disappoint, but that’s another illusion.”

We think that we are someone. The materialist looks at us with sad, knowing eyes and says, “Actually, 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” (Francis Crick, The Astonishing Hypothesis).

Mind, we’re told, is matter and matter only. What you and I experience as happiness or pain, what we perceive as our thoughts, desires, intentions, memories, beliefs — even what we perceive to be the color yellow or the sound of music — these are all illusions, tricks our brains play on us.

What actually exists, we are instructed to believe, is a series of entirely physical events taking place in a lump of biological tissue in your skull. What exists are electrochemical processes.

Thus Darwin referred to thoughts as “excretions of brain.”

The (Non-Miraculous) Miracle of Water to Wine

Of course, while these materialist philosophers and scientists are sure this is the case, they admit continually that they have no idea how consciousness could possibly arise from biological tissue.

Not a clue.

And so Geoffrey Madell confesses in Mind and Materialism, “The emergence of consciousness is a mystery, and one to which materialism signally fails to provide an answer.”

Notice, it’s not that materialism has a hard time explaining the emergence of consciousness. According to this atheist, it “signally fails” to explain.

Likewise, materialist Jaegwon Kim asks in Philosophy of Mind, “How can a series of physical events, little particles jostling against one another, electric current rushing to and fro …. blossom into a conscious experience?” He has no idea.

In his book The Mysterious Flame, atheist Colin McGinn expresses utter dumbfoundedness at the idea that human consciousness could somehow arise from the jostling of atoms:

How can mere matter originate consciousness? How did evolution convert the water of biological tissue into the wine of consciousness? Consciousness seems like a radical novelty in the universe … so how did it contrive to spring into being from what preceded it? It strikes us as miraculous, eerie, even faintly comic.

These are good questions. After all, common sense would agree with philosopher J.P. Moreland who writes in The Recalcitrant Imago Dei, “Start with matter and tweak it physically and all you get is tweaked matter.”

This all seems intuitively self-evident.

Materialism Almost Certainly False

Recently, well-known atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel has come out with a book in which he argues that what seems intuitively self-evident to us, is self-evident. If there ever was a provocative book title, this is it: Mind & Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False.

Apparently, Professor Nagel has become bone-weary of naturalist philosophers and scientists continuing to merely assert that human consciousness can be explained as a product of biological evolution, assuring us this must be the case, insisting that it is the case.

No, he argues. Consciousness — especially the subjective experience of being conscious of ourselves as individual persons with our own memories and fears and intentions and desires — this is such a fundamental characteristic of who we are as human beings, and it stands out so conspicuously as distinct from matter; it can no longer be merely asserted that consciousness is reducible to matter. It must, he says, be explained how it could possibly have evolved in a universe in which nothing exists but material substances.

Consciousness is the most conspicuous obstacle to a comprehensive naturalism that relies only on the resources of physical science. The existence of consciousness seems to imply that the physical description of the universe, in spite of its richness and explanatory power, is only part of the truth …  If we take this problem seriously, and follow out its implications, it threatens to unravel the entire naturalistic world picture.

Now, Nagel admits freely that he does not want to believe in God. He doesn’t even like the idea of there being a god, and therefore being accountable to a god. At the same time, he has come to believe that straight-up materialism is almost certainly false.

He’s working on another solution to the problem, one in which both mind and matter simply exist as fundamental realities in a universe without God. But at least he’s willing to face the reality that consciousness amounts to a recalcitrant fact, a fact that cannot be explained in terms of a worldview that reduces everything to physical particles and insists that nothing else exists.

The Religion of Naturalism

One would think that at some point the sheer weight of the implications of holding to a consistent materialist worldview would lead the atheist to take another look.

After all, while Procrustes only amputated the feet of his guests, the consistent materialist must amputate virtually everything that makes us human, declaring all of it “illusion.” And all to make us fit the iron bed of his materialist worldview.

For the really committed atheist, this isn’t an issue. For him, the naturalist-materialist worldview is something that is accepted by faith. It isn’t something science has demonstrated to be true. It isn’t something science could ever “demonstrate” to be true.

It’s something that is believed.

And because it’s believed, the committed atheist also believes there must be some “natural explanation” for the emergence of human consciousness. What we need to do is wait patiently for science to discover this natural explanation.

And even if the idea that consciousness evolved from matter sounds insane to you, and goes against the grain of everything that seems intuitively true, we must at all costs resist the temptation to depart from a materialist explanation. We must never allow ourselves to even wonder if consciousness might not be evidence of the existence of something beyond physical reality.

Listening recently to a lecture on consciousness by atheist philosopher Daniel Dennett, I marveled at the impressive strength of his faith commitment to materialism as a worldview.

After admitting that he has no idea how consciousness could have naturally evolved (and insisting that no one else does, either), he went on to insist that those who seek explanations other than natural explanations “haven’t even begun the work” of trying to figure out this whole issue of consciousness.

In other words, the truth of materialism is assumed. It is Dennett’s starting point. And because of this only materialistic explanations are counted as explanations at all.


A couple of years ago I was talking with an atheist friend. He was insisting that science must consider only natural explanations.

I understand that science is the study of the material world and that for science to progress hypotheses put forward to be tested must be scientific. But this raises a series of questions I posed to my friend:

Is science a search for the truth, or is it a search for natural explanations of everything? How do you know that there is a natural explanation for human consciousness, for instance? Is it possible that consciousness is evidence that naturalism isn’t true, that there’s more to this universe than particles in motion? Is it possible that, to quote Shakespeare, “there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy?” What if the truth is that God’s existence and our creation in God’s image and likeness is what accounts for human consciousness? If that were the case, wouldn’t you want to know it? After all, what is your real goal, to find the truth, or to find natural explanations for everything?

Got a smile out of him with that last one.

Ken Hensley

Ken is a well-known Catholic speaker and author on staff with CHN. To subscribe to his personal email list and browse his many recorded talks on Catholic apologetics, visit his website at