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How a Toddler in a Toy Store Refutes Materialism

This everyday observation yields insight into a fundamental truth

I’m a magnet for materialists. I often get into discussions with people who tell me that the universe is nothing but matter and energy. These folks believe in materialism. They say I’m nutty and wrong to think there is anything else. Something like: “Silly theist! Gods are for kids!”

Let’s follow that thought. A grandparent of 11 humans, I’ve journeyed with their parents through the young ones’ toddlerhood many times. There’s a lot to learn about reality from toddlers’ learning and growing. It leads to understanding Toddler Truth.

Take a toddler to a game arcade, a toy store, or another kid’s house to play. There’s one thing you can count on hearing: “I want that!” We parents start tuning out those requests, since they are so frequent. Toddlers learn the game, so they say it louder, more demandingly (or more whiningly) to get our attention. “I WANT THAT!” 

Busy either ignoring the request or negotiating with the toddler, we can miss an amazing fact. The toddler’s message shows there do exist things that are not “just matter and energy” in the universe.

It’s like when the ancient Greek thinker Archimedes discovered the buoyancy principle by noticing his body displacing a volume of water in a bathtub. Everyday observations can lead to fundamental truths.

“Wanting” is Not Matter and Energy

The materialism viewpoint says the universe consists of nothing but matter and energy, forces and fields. If materialism is true, then everything that happens comes from a sequence of material-energy causes and effects. Like playing billiards (pool), the stick hits the cue ball, which moves until it hits a cushion or another ball, and so on.

If pure materialism is true, then there must be a sequence of matter-energy causes and effects that end up with the toddler pointing a finger at a thing and saying, “I want that!” Can anyone show that sequence?

We could try to trace the sequence starting at the Big Bang beginning of the universe, but let’s make this simpler. At 12:30 p.m. in the toy store, the toddler looks at a shelf of toys. Light from the shelf hits the toddler’s retina, and through a complicated process, the pattern of light is sent as data to the brain. What happens next? 

Scientists can detect changes in electrical activity in the brain that occur when the toy is seen, and there may be electrical activity that relates to being interested or excited. There will be brain activity in the visual cortex and likely also in parts of the brain associated with interest and intention. And that’s all.

The materialist has to show the cause-effect sequence from the brain activity to the toddler’s deciding which toy to prefer, desire, and point at. Nobody knows, however, what is the chain of causes starting with a retinal picture and leading to the toddler’s choosing and pointing at a preferred toy.

Not only that, but materialism cannot show the cause-effect sequence of matter and energy starting with the parent’s saying “no” to the toddler, and the toddler’s insisting, pleading, demanding, and/or whining about it. For materialism to explain cause and effect, it must rely on matter and energy elements that can be measured, for example, by the international (SI) units for length, mass, time, temperature, etc.

You can’t measure a toddler’s desire for something, or the preference for a certain toy, in SI units. You can’t measure in SI units the toddler’s disappointment or anger or insistence after the parent says “no.” That means you can’t provide a materialist cause-effect explanation for the toddler’s pointing and requesting a toy in the store.

This toddler preference and demand situation happens worldwide millions of times daily. In each instance, we see not a material cause-effect sequence, but evidence of immaterial reality. That reality is undeniable and everywhere.

Speaking Out is Not Merely Matter and Energy

Peeling back the veneer of ordinariness, we see that the toddler’s pointing and requesting (or whiningly demanding) to have a certain thing show more immaterial reality. Finger pointing and speech are both ways to communicate using symbols. Using symbols means using a code. The toddler believes the parent knows what the finger pointing means, and the toddler relies upon the parent’s knowing the sound code to understand what the toddler wants.

Anytime you find a symbolic code, especially when you find the encoder and decoder devices for it, you have evidence of intelligence with a purpose. A symbolic code associates physical things with meanings. Meanings are understood only by minds. You cannot use SI units to describe and measure the meanings of a symbolic code or of the messages sent using the code. The toddler’s speaking in coded sound symbols about personal desires demonstrates an immaterial reality.

The idea that everything in the universe consists solely of matter and energy is simply untrue. Enjoying time with a toddler pretty much proves that.

Richard Stevens

Fellow, Walter Bradley Center on Natural and Artificial Intelligence
Richard W. Stevens is a lawyer, author, and a Fellow of Discovery Institute's Walter Bradley Center on Natural and Artificial Intelligence. He has written extensively on how code and software systems evidence intelligent design in biological systems. He holds a J.D. with high honors from the University of San Diego Law School and a computer science degree from UC San Diego. Richard has practiced civil and administrative law litigation in California and Washington D.C., taught legal research and writing at George Washington University and George Mason University law schools, and now specializes in writing dispositive motion and appellate briefs. He has authored or co-authored four books, and has written numerous articles and spoken on subjects including legal writing, economics, the Bill of Rights and Christian apologetics. His fifth book, Investigation Defense, is forthcoming.

How a Toddler in a Toy Store Refutes Materialism