Dr. King: Freedom & Free Thinking

Adam Coleman

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January 14, 2018

Recently I’ve been working my way through Victor Reppert’s “C.S Lewis Dangerous Idea.” In Reppert’s book, he draws from C.S. Lewis’ ideas about man’s ability to reason and subjects them to philosophical rigor to produce a well-developed series of arguments which suggest that if naturalism is true then “reasoning” itself is likely impossible. In reading Reppert’s book I got the sense that his goal was not only to stand on the shoulders of giants but also to breathe new life into insights that had yet-to-be-explored potential. So, as I thought about it I found myself getting inspired. I decided to revisit the works of some of my favorite authors and speakers that I hadn’t read in a while to see if I could unearth a few gems that I’d previously overlooked. In a number of ways I’ve found this to be a worthwhile project.

Secularizing the Sacred

I have a really bad habit of reading several books at the same time and not finishing any of them in a timely manner or in some cases not finishing some of them at all. However, every now and then I luck up and find myself two books that compliment each other in such a way that insights I glean from one helps me to connect the dots with ideas presented in the other. Such was the case, as I started my Reppert-inspired project of re-reading works from my favorite authors. Around that same time, I had begun to read Nancey Pearcy’s, “Total Truth”, and listening to her lectures on the net. Pearcy often refers to how we have a tendency to subconsciously separate that which is sacred from that which is secular. The consequence of this sacred/secular split is that we sometimes sequester God and His influence or way of doing things in such a way that we mute the degree to which God could impact the world around us through us. Rather than maintain a sacred/secular split mentality it seems to me that God would have us to understand the fluidity between the two. As I re-read some of my all-time favorites like Frederick Douglass and Dr. King, it suddenly struck me that in the writings and speeches of abolitionists and civil rights activists of the past, there was a fluidity between the sacred and what I’d previously characterized as secular endeavors. I hadn’t fully appreciated the depths of influence that the biblical worldview–with its ethical and philosophical outworking–I had upon the abolitionist and civil rights movement. In a sense, I’d the taken the Christian worldview to be a companion of the freedom movements whereas many of those involved in the fight clearly understood them to be one and the same; To pursue freedom was to take biblical truths to their logical conclusions and live them out.

As I poured over writings that I hadn’t read in quite some time I suddenly found myself confronted with theological and philosophical underpinnings in them that I’d completely overlooked. I’d like to explore one example here. In December 1964, Dr. Martin Luther King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work in the civil rights movement. At that time Dr. King received the award there was still a long road ahead for the fulfillment of the civil rights movement’s aims and this is reflected in Dr. King’s solemn yet hopeful acceptance speech. Midway through the speech, Dr. King briefly mentions the basis for which he had hope in the face of racist opposition back home. Among other reasons for hope he states:

“I refuse to accept the idea that man is mere flotsam and jetsam in the river of life, unable to influence the unfolding events which surround him. I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality.”

This is a powerful statement that militates against the disillusionment that might otherwise set in given the daunting mission of seeking freedom from historically oppressive institutions. Fortunately for us all, Dr. King along with countless (and nameless) others who stood for freedom held on to hope and stoked the flames of moral progress in our nation. But what was the nature of that hope which Dr. King spoke of?

It seems to me that an essential pillar of Dr. King’s hope hinges upon his rejection of a naturalistic perspective of what man is and a refusal to accept the determinism that comes along with it. As I read those words for what felt like the first time it struck me that if naturalism is true then more than likely Dr. King was wrong and his hope misguided. Let me briefly give a context for what I’m getting at here.

Freedom Thinking Argument

My friend and Free Thinking Ministries colleague, Tim Stratton, has developed what he calls the Free Thinking Argument Against Naturalism. For the purposes of this blog I will give you the gist of the Free Thinking Argument (FTA) and explain how it relates to my topic. While I will not provide a defense for the argument here, I would encourage the reader to avail themselves to the articles and videos about it on the Free Thinking Ministries website. A good place to start would be The Free Thinking Argument in a Nutshell and this short but informative video on the FTA which you can view by clicking HERE.

Now, in Dr. King’s statement above he said that he “refuses to accept the idea that man is mere flotsam and jetsam in the river of life”. In other words, there is a conjunction here between what man is and what man can do. Man is made up of more than just physical stuff and has the ability to make choices or take action to bring about change. For Dr. King the fact that man is capable of causing change (i.e. ending segregation) keeps the door open for hope. The basic idea behind the FTA is this. If human beings do not have souls and are made up of nothing more than physical matter then it is unlikely that humans possess “free will”. Furthermore, free will is an essential feature of how we come to  conclusions about things. If humans do not possess free will then it is impossible for us to consistently use reasoning to come to reliable conclusions about anything. However, we use our reasoning all the time. Some of us may be better at it than others but nevertheless drawing conclusions about things is a normal part of every day life. The fact that we have the ability to reason is an indicator that we do indeed have free will. If it is the case that we do have free will then that would favor the notion of human beings having souls in which case naturalism would be false. Let’s chew on this a little more just to make sure we’re on the same page in terms of how the FTA makes sense.

Imagine a set of dominos set up in a row so that once the first domino falls over the rest of them will fall one after another. The first domino represents the beginning of the universe (Big Bang) and all the other dominos represent physical events that have happened from the time the universe began till now. If naturalism is true then our universe is like that row of dominos in the sense that once the Big Bang happened, every physical event after that is a “falling domino” which occurs in a ripple effect sort of way due to the Big Bang. Now, if naturalism is true then everything that happens in our minds is like one of those dominos. If human beings do not have a soul and naturalism is true then we are nothing more than our physical bodies. If human beings are nothing more than our physical bodies then our minds are nothing more than the physical brain. Now, all physical stuff essentially boils down to being matter and energy. If our brains/minds are nothing more than matter and energy then, just like everything else in the universe, everything that goes on in our minds including our thoughts, beliefs, desires, intentions, decisions to take action, etc. are all ripple effects of physical events that happened before them. In the same way that the later dominos in our analogy fall due to the domino in front of them going back to the first domino, all of our mental activities are caused by physical events in the brain over which we have no control and ultimately trace back to the first physical event of the universe AKA Big Bang. In other words, your thoughts and actions really aren’t **your** thoughts and actions (See The Vanishing “I”). They are merely the results of the physical matter your brain is made of moving about in ways you don’t control and determining what you think and do.

Facing the Consequences

If naturalism is true then mankind really is mere flotsam and jetsam in the river of life; unable to influence the unfolding events which surround him. Dr. King rightly observes that if he thought this way then there would be no room for him to have hope. Consider how the non-violent protests depended upon the ability of people to change their mind, identify right from wrong then act accordingly, and be morally accountable for their actions.

The target of Dr. King’s non-violent protest strategy was to appeal to the conscience of Americans and the global community. They accomplished this by publicly enduring physical abuse at the hands of racists so that it would be broadcast to the homes of those on the sidelines of the race struggle. The idea was to put the ugliness on racism in full display, get people off of the fence, and provoke them to action on behalf of freedom. However, if there is nothing beyond the physical world and all of our thoughts are physically determined beyond our control then there was no point in the civil rights protesters enduring abuse with hopes of swaying the minds of the public. The people that these protesters hoped to influence are slaves to whatever the physical events in their brains prompt them to think and do no matter how many billy clubs the protesters get bludgeoned by.

On top of that, the individuals responsible for the abuse aren’t actually responsible for the abuse. If naturalism is true then Bull Connor was no more in control of his thoughts and actions against black protesters than the dogs he unleashed to attack them. He can’t really be faulted for his behavior since he simply did what the physical events in his brain prompted him to do. Actually, it may sound strange but when you think about it Bull Connor’s actions were every bit as determined by the laws of physics and chemistry as the water flowing out of the hoses he used to pelt protesters. As a matter of fact on the other side of the coin, the protesters can’t really be applauded for bravery in the face of those dogs and fireman’s hoses since they too were merely acting out what the physical events in their brains imposed on them.  In that whole scene there was neither bravery nor villainy; right or wrong. It was just physical matter predetermined to clash against other physical matter. Furthermore, in Dr. King’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech he made reference to an objective moral law, which he called “the eternal oughtness.” However, given naturalism it’s doubtful that there is an eternal oughtness to appeal to. Even if there is somehow an eternal oughtness in a purely naturalistic world, it’s not likely we would have the ability to rationally attain and then guide ourselves toward it anyway. With our minds/brains being “puppetted” by physical events we don’t control, how could we? It would seem that naturalism has undercut us once again.

Conclusion

Worldviews matter and have very real consequences. A strong sense of God given intrinsic worth, was foundational for the black church and the black community more broadly during the period that African-Americans were fighting for the abolition of slavery and throughout the civil rights movement. African Americans appealed to this notion of equal personhood through the Biblical framework which afforded them the moral currency and logical bedrock from which they could advocate for themselves to the predominant culture. I agree with Dr. King that it is reassuring man is not mere flotsam and jetsam that is unable to impact the world around him. To hold such a view and accept some form of determinism would have been to abandon freedom in more ways than one. Thankfully there is more to us than that. Keep thinking freely out there folks.

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About the Author

Adam Coleman

Adam Coleman is passionate about equipping Christians with evidences for the faith and engaging the culture. He is a husband, father of three busy children, social worker, writer, and public speaker. Upon graduating from Virginia Commonwealth University with a Master’s in Social Work Adam began a career of community development, mentoring youth, and service to our nation’s veterans. Currently, Adam is primarily focused on using his "Tru-ID Podcast", writing, and public speaking to promote the gospel of Christ through Christian apologetics.

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