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The medical student’s question that inspired Cheshire’s article—“What difference does it make?”—though somewhat shocking, should not perhaps be too surprising in an era where scientists—though certainly not all—have engaged in their own apologetics for the bankrupt religion of materialism. Indeed, Cheshire himself is aware of Francis Crick’s The Astonishing Hypothesis and Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene (1989) and Unweaving the Rainbow (1998). To his credit, Cheshire steers clear of the snarky, condescending prose frequently employed by Dawkins and others, choosing instead to speak poetically while marshalling compelling evidence in support of a finely tuned cosmos that supports human life. In starting “from below,” Cheshire begins inductively with the particularity of molecules and probabilities to construct what he describes as the outline of a mystery, concluding that these features point to the likelihood of a divine intelligence that is best described as the God revealed in Scripture.

It should not be lost on us that Cheshire begins with praise—“Thanks be to Molecules”—which is perhaps the only proper stance to adopt when we consider the mystery of human life. And yet, for all of their explanatory power, which, no doubt, is impressive, molecules fail to provide any satisfactory explanation for fundamental human activities like thought, praise, worship, and wonder. Here, it seems that Cheshire’s student has been seduced by materialism—the belief (religious belief?) that human beings can be fully explained by attending to molecular structures without remainder. But Cheshire points out the imprecise nature of materialist descriptions of material itself, such as the behavior of electrons, which are impossible to fully describe apart from theories such as Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle and another known as quantum tunneling. Nevertheless, materialism insists that the brain is matter that somehow gives rise to thoughts, which are essentially “specific arrangements of molecules.” Indeed, desire, delight, love, remorse, reasoning, and aesthetics are “completely described by an outpouring of neurotransmitters in response to accidental stimuli.” Consciousness, free will, and moral responsibility are all illusions of a prescientific age. Hence, the mind is reducible to the brain.

At this juncture Cheshire’s argument pivots from the challenge of describing human nature materially to the precise arrangement of the cosmos to support human life—the anthropic principle. Here he notes several features—like the electromagnetic force of chemical bonding, nuclear forces, gravity, neutron mass, and the electron—fall within an exceedingly narrow range to support human life. The brain is also structurally optimized for cortical information processing, which depends on interneuronal distance, axonal conduction velocity, and synaptic transmission speed. The same goes for our DNA, genetic identity, and features of our environment like the air, temperature range on earth, and gravity. Collectively, this evidence strongly suggests—though does not prove—that human beings are not here by accident, but by design: “What it means to be human is to be a special entity on a divinely chosen trajectory.”

In the remainder of his article Cheshire considers what it means to be human, describing human creatures as dust that ponders, praises, purposes, and prays. Humans have the rational capacity to investigate, measure, evaluate, and comprehend nature and ourselves. Indeed, our reason would be entirely untrustworthy if we were merely bags of molecules. We are dust in awe—we long for mystery. We experience joy and wonder when we see things that cannot be adequately explained by materialism. While the measurements of science do indeed allow us to quantify and understand nature, they also offer hints of God’s glory (Ps 19), reminding us that we are fearfully and wonderfully made (Ps 139). Moreover, we are purposeful beings. We have a moral nature, something that is not really possible in a material system where freedom is elusive and nature blind. This has implications for the practice of medicine, where virtues like faith, fortitude, hope, patience, and love (ideally) inform and uphold this most sacred enterprise. Finally, notes Cheshire, we are dust that prays, which means that to be human is to be created in God’s image, “a person created by, in need of, and loved by God.” He concludes that the anthropic principle does not negate what the materialist knows about science or medicine, but rather illuminates it more deeply.

Cheshire’s article appears to be part apologetic—a cosmological argument—and part confession, and it serves as a helpful reminder that Christian apologetics need not be an overly rational discipline carried out by argumentative individuals who relish contentious, often thinly-veiled condescending dialogue in an attempt to demolish arguments against the faith. I teach apologetics to seminary students on a fairly regular basis, and for this reason (among others), it is not my favorite class. While gifted scholars debate the best apologetic methodology—classical, cultural, evidentialist, cumulative case, presuppositional, Reformed epistemological approach, etc.—Cheshire’s approach reminds us afresh that the best apologetics are carried out in the context of meaningful relationships. To be sure, none of us are exempt from providing reasons for the hope that lives within us (1 Pet 3:15), but offering such reasons presupposes we are living the kinds of lives that evoke the right questions from onlookers, questions that really matter. Moreover, in his confessional approach he makes no attempt to conceal his own joy and wonder at the beauty of God’s design. I think this is important when we operate in a culture that increasingly questions rationality as a core criterion of belief. While some may bemoan this shift, it actually seems to open more doors than it closes, unless we think the Christian faith can be adequately captured with propositional truths.

For Cheshire, to be human is to be created in God’s image, which means that we are designed by God to inhabit a physical space, a climate or habitat, in which to be in relationship with this God. The conditions in which we relate to God as embodied beings with brains and minds to contemplate, ponder, pray, and praise are themselves as wonderfully precise as they are complex. And these facts, he observes, engender an attitude of thanksgiving and praise. How refreshing again it is to read such reflections, where apologetic priggishness is replaced by praise, offered in a spirit of humility and wonder. While Cheshire is astonished at the breath-taking (mind boggling?) complexity of the human brain, it appears that he is still more amazed by the God who created such wonderful things. Unlike some apologists who behave as if they have the truth, Cheshire bears witness to the Truth that has him.

One suspects that this appropriate attitude of reverence is only possible if one has some grasp of the mysterious nature of things, of reality itself. Cheshire shows deep appreciation for mystery—whether describing the nature and activities of molecules or the nature of God. To be human, says Cheshire, is to long for mystery, especially when materialistic accounts of reality disappoint. No doubt this is correct. In adapting the posture of a poet, G. K. Chesterton (1874–1936) would say that he is following the only sane approach to things precisely because he allows for mystery. In Chesterton’s own reflections on the bankruptcy of materialist accounts of reality he opts for the language of poetry, which floats easily on an infinite sea. It is the materialist that tries to cross it, thereby making it finite, and in so attempting is inevitably shipwrecked. Indeed, “the poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.”[1] Far better to have one’s heart expand—or even break—than have one’s head split open.

Mystery keeps us engaged—keeps us coming back—reminding us that not everything is a problem to solve and that explaining anything can be dangerous to our minds, potentially leading to haughtiness rather than humility. As the British scholar Basil Willey (1897–1978) once observed, a “successful” explanation of anything inevitably alters one’s attitude towards the subject being studied: “Where we had formerly fear, pain, curiosity, dissatisfaction, anxiety or reverence, we now experience relief, and regard the object [of study] with familiarity and perhaps contempt.”[2] In short, the particular danger of explaining anything is that the thing explained tends to be explained away. In general, says Willey, our demand for explanation is the desire to be rid of mystery. This danger is as real for scientists as it is for apologists, ethicists, and theologians. Cheshire’s reflections on what it means to be human vis-à-vis the complexity of the brain has avoided the danger precisely by focusing on the mysterious nature of our existence as creatures who wonder about such things.

Cheshire’s reminder of competing explanations that are routinely employed to describe material reality—like Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle and quantum tunneling—is helpful and indeed necessary when doing theology as well. If, for instance, light exhibits both particle-like and wavelike properties, should we not expect doctrinal reflection on the God who has brought the cosmos into existence to also engender a similar both-and kind of approach? If we both have brains (i.e., if we are dust) and can also reflect on the fact that we have brains (i.e., we are purposeful dust that ponders, praises, and prays), should we be surprised? It reminds us to be cautious about theologies that perhaps tie things up too neatly. We can certainly appreciate the desire to synthesize knowledge on the one hand (à la Hegel) while also acknowledging the either-or, paradoxical nature of knowledge (à la Kierkegaard), without succumbing to the temptation of either extreme. God is both great (i.e., powerful) and good (i.e., moral); the Bible is made up of both divine words and human words; Christ is both fully divine and fully human; salvation is both God choosing us and us choosing God (in that order); human creatures are both good and fallen, both spirit (or soul) and embodied, both free and foreordained, and so on. As Roger Olson has recently commented, this both-and theology does not automatically exclude the “either-or,” nor does it rush too quickly to synthesis.[3]

Scientists then would do well then to be wary of synthesizing or existentializing the brain, or any other object of scientific inquiry for that matter. One gets the distinct sense that they have, in the words of Willey, explained the brain in a way tantamount to explaining away. Collapsing cognition into electrical signals in the brain is certainly fatal to human freedom, responsibility, and morality. We may wonder too whether the general public are as accepting of the religion of materialism put forward by some thinkers. Common experiences would suggest otherwise. Sarah Coakley, for instance, asks whether reductive scientific materialism really reigns in our culture, “or does a stark dualism still dominate with our obsessions with manufactured fitness and sexual youthfulness?”[4] By dualism she means the belief that the distinct locus of selfhood (the intentional “I”) is in some kind of directive, interactive relationship to one’s body. Indeed, she calls this tension between materialism and dualism the “dominating ‘paradox’”[5] of our culture.

Finally, Cheshire’s repeated references to human beings as dust that ponders, dust in awe, dust for purpose, and dust that prays show his commitment to some kind of dualism. In fact, they are perfectly appropriate and appropriately poetic, and harken back to Augustine’s description of the human creature as terra es animata—“animated earth.”[6] Cheshire’s insistence on this language reflects his refusal to surrender to any kind of reductive materialism or Cartesian dualism (here there are several valid options available for duality, such as emergent dualism, non-reductive physicalism, or theological materialism). Moreover, it invites theological reflection on the Incarnation—which underwrites the goodness of embodiment—where God met humanity in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, who was (and remains) fully human without at the same time ceasing to be God. Hence, in light of the “animated dust” of Jesus as presented in Scripture, we learn that worship and weeping, laughter and loneliness, fellowship and fear, sorrow and submission are core features of proper creaturely existence, features that cannot be adequately accounted for with a materialist outlook. Praise be to God, who has designed and ordered our brains, bodies, and this cosmos for life and fellowship with God through his Son.


[1] G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, ed. Trevin Wax (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2022), 18.

[2] Basil Willey, The Seventeenth Century Background (London: Chatto & Windus, 1949), 5.

[3] Roger E. Olson, The Mosaic of Christian Belief: Twenty Centuries of Unity and Diversity, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2016).

[4] Sarah Coakley, The New Asceticism: Sexuality, Gender, and The Quest for God (London: Bloomsbury, 2015), 1, fn. 1.

[5] Coakley, The New Asceticism, 1, fn. 1.

[6] Augustine, City of God, XX.20. See also Gilbert Meilaender, “Terra es animata: On Having a Life,” Hastings Center Report 23, no. 4 (1993): 25–32.