Theists often think of atheists—especially new atheists—as people who take an extreme position by closing their eyes to the obvious existence of God. In fact, atheism is eyes wide open. The atheist turns off the tv show, stops the movie, closes the novel, and takes a real look at the world. No more fantasy—at least for the moment. Put fiction aside. Instead ask, what is true?
That’s the atheist program. Though the average person may not realize it, atheism is based on honest observations about ourselves and the world around us. Some of these observations are the work of scientists, others part of our everyday experiences, but together they make a compelling case for a world without God.
What is the theist program? Theists say God, who is non-physical, existed first. Then God made the physical world. Then God made us with a physical body but placed inside us a soul or consciousness which is non-physical. When our bodies die, this conscious soul that once was inside us escapes and can be punished or rewarded by God.
It is a story with tension, drama, compelling plot lines and, if we pick the right religion, the promise of a happy ending. It’s got everything we expect from a good novel or movie. But is it fact—or fiction?
Let’s open our eyes and look at the world for an answer.
What Thought Can’t Do
Our consciousness comes from our brain, from neurons. How do we know this is true? If neurons get damaged, consciousness gets damaged. Brain scientists have confirmed this fact again and again. But even without the input of scientists, we know it already. We know that alcohol and drugs alter the brain and in turn mess up our consciousness.
On one hand, the physical brain directly affects consciousness. On the other hand, consciousness cannot directly affect the world around us. Our thoughts can’t make physical things come into existence. Thoughts can’t think objects into being. We can think of objects, of course, but thinking of them doesn’t make them exist. Consciousness doesn’t work that way.
Our thoughts, in fact, can’t affect anything in the world around us. Not directly, at least. If we want to affect something in the world, we must engage it with our hands, with our bodies. Otherwise nothing gets done. Although many have claimed that they could bend spoons or move objects with their minds, every scientific attempt to verify such claims has failed. Minds simply don’t work that way.
Thoughts & Neurons
And yet, there must be some location where matter and thought engage each other. It makes sense, for example, that our consciousness and our neurons have a two-way interaction. After all, our thoughts seem to influence our behavior. But the evidence, quite overwhelming, is that interaction between consciousness and matter occurs only in the brain. It is specifically interaction between neurons and consciousness. My thoughts and feeling can’t affect the pair of scissor sitting on the desk in front of me. I can’t move or do anything to the scissors with my consciousness. Except in one specific manner: I can influence my brain to move my arm to pick up the scissors. My body can affect the physical world. My thoughts can only affect the neurons in my brain.
In fiction, of course, things are different. In The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra, one of my favorite movies, Lattis and Kro-bar attempt to use Marva mind-meld to control Betty and thwart the Lost Skeleton’s own mind-control efforts over her. Our movies and fantasy novels are full of this kind of thing. But in the real world, we know life doesn’t work that way. We have only one way of influencing other people’s consciousness and that is through our actions or through physical lines of communication—talking, writing, art, music, movies and so on.
The reality is that we are all experts on consciousness—if only we pay attention to what we know.
And this is what we know: consciousness is intimately associated with the neurons in our brain. Those neurons somehow create our conscious experiences, and in turn our thoughts and feelings can alter our behavior from what it would otherwise have been. We also know that it is the brain—those neurons again—that moves our muscles and makes our bodies do things. And we also know that only by our bodies doing things (or tools we have built with our bodies) can we affect physical changes in the world. We can’t bypass our bodies or our tools and affect those changes directly from consciousness.
We can’t even communicate consciousness to consciousness directly without our bodies being there to mediate the exchange—those physical lines of communication again. The Marva mind-meld doesn’t work in real life, and we all know that. We may wish or dream, but reality is otherwise.
If it requires a body in order for thoughts to have any hope of affecting the world, then it follows—again this is simple common sense—that bodiless beings are powerless. The God and gods of our imagination can’t do anything in the world even if we grant their existence. It takes a body to act. Indeed, scientists have learned that it takes neurons—a brain—even to think or feel. Without a body, God can’t even have consciousness.
Evolution and Consciousness
These are the common sense observations from which atheism springs. If we take these observations seriously, they lead us not just to atheism but to a natural worldview that contrasts sharply with the supernatural worldview of theists. In the natural worldview, physical reality—not any kind of consciousness or God—comes first. In some form or other this physical reality has always existed. From it, organic life evolved into existence. Later, the brains of some organisms evolved to the point where their neurons began producing experiences—the beginning of consciousness. The ability to experience helped species survive and thrive, and led to more types of conscious experiences evolving: pain, visual and auditory simulacra, and so on.
Among the striking features of experiences is that they are assigned a location (inside the body, on its surface, or outside), they simulate useful information about the world or about the body of the organism, and at varying levels they create value toward action. This last is a difficult concept to put into words, but essentially it means that each experience has a meaning for the organism, and these meanings deliver varying levels of influence upon the organism’s decision-making process.
Eventually (in our own species at the least) higher-level experiences of symbolic thought evolved, enabling us to construct knowledge models of the world around us. It is important to realize that because it’s a product of evolution, knowledge is inherently pragmatic in nature. We never know the “true reality” of the physical world; what we know is a simulacrum of reality which is valuable for its usefulness. What this mean is that in the natural worldview there is no ‘underlying intelligence” to be found in the world; intelligence is something that evolved into existence much later and exists only in organisms with brains that create that sort of consciousness.
It also follows that our way of knowing the world must be based on pragmatic empiricism. Thus if we assert that some statement about the world is “true,” what we mean is that the statement is useful to us, and specifically that it’s more useful to us than competing statements which we might invent in terms of it’s reliability and predictability. If this sounds something like a description of the scientific method, it’s because the scientific method is a codification of the most effective way of developing statements about the world that are useful and reliable. What is important to understand about the scientific method is that it does not and cannot verify knowledge against the “real” world—instead one hypothesis is pitted against another (or against its negation) and then controlled tests are run to see which is more useful for describing and predicting what happens. If an hypothesis is less useful than its negative, we say it’s been falsified. We never know the world directly, never extract knowledge from the world (because that’s not where knowledge exists); instead we invent knowledge and test it against possible alternatives for its usefulness to us in our interactions with the world.
I’ve laid out in brief the common sense basis of atheism. It is based, as we have seen, on what we all know about how consciousness and thinking actually works in the world; knowledge that comes either from our common experiences or from the careful observations of scientists. And simply, the way that thoughts and consciousness work just doesn’t fit with there being a God.
Still, I can imagine theists admitting that, on the surface, things may seem to be the way I have described. But—and it’s a big but—asserting that there are nevertheless very good reasons to believe the atheist viewpoint, the natural worldview, just can’t be right.
First of all, theists argue, atheists can’t explain why the physical world exists. Every physical thing has a cause, and the physical world must have a cause too. There has to be a beginning. (This doesn’t apply to God because God is not physical.) But if there is a beginning of the physical world, it can’t be from nothing. Something can’t come from nothing—there is no logical way to explain how it ever could. So atheism doesn’t work. No matter all our common sense observations about thinking and consciousness, the physical world just can’t pull itself up by it’s own bootstraps. There must be a non-physical cause behind everything.
On examination, however, the argument falls apart. The problem is that causes are confused with explanations. If we look carefully at the natural worldview, we see that the word “cause” means in effect “useful explanation” (or “explanation more useful than any other explanations we’ve come up with so far”). So to say that everything must have a cause is really to say that everything must have a useful explanation. But that’s not true. Nothing has to have an explanation at all. It’s just that we human beings have found that useful explanations are, obviously, useful to us. We like them. They enable us to reliably manipulate the world.
If everything did have to have an explanation, then God would have to have an explanation too. It would be very fair to ask, what explains God’s existence? Who or what created God? Nothing? Then the theist believes something came from nothing. But that’s impossible, right?
God, in fact, is not very useful as an explanation for the physical world if we can’t actually explain how God creates or causes that world. And we can’t. We can’t because God has no physical attributes. Literally, God can’t touch the world. How can he create it?
Physical & Spiritual Causes
But theists will object to this entire line of argument. I began it with the assertion that causes were being confused with explanations. But I can see theists insisting that causes really exist, over and beyond whether or not we know or can explain what those causes are. Every physical thing really does have a cause. And spiritual things do not, therefore God doesn’t have to have a cause, and doesn’t in fact have one. But why don’t spiritual things have causes? It seems arbitrary.
Perhaps spiritual things have spiritual causes and physical things have physical causes. Granted. But this doesn’t solve the theistic problem. It still means God, being spiritual, should have a cause. And it doesn’t provide an explanation for how physical things, which have physical causes, can have a spiritual cause instead. How does the spiritual interact which the physical in a causal manner? What spiritual something interacts with what physical something to do anything? We have no way to imagine a spiritual entity creating a physical entity except by the fantasy—which we know from experience isn’t true—that physical things can be thought or felt into existence. Consciousness simply doesn’t work that way, and we know it.
Everything physical must have a cause. That is the theist mantra. But in reality God can’t be that cause, because causation of the physical world must include interacting with it. God can’t interact. We know by our extensive common experiences with thoughts and consciousness (after all, we are experts), that bare thoughts cannot create or even move physical things. This brings us back to the original atheist observation: thoughts can’t interact with material things except through the intermediary of a physical body. God doesn’t have a physical body, so he can’t begin to interact with, much less create, the world.
Is God something or nothing? Of course God is something, the theist will say. But God is not something physical. How then can God’s non-physical something cause the physical world’s something? We can fantasize that somehow it does. But that’s as far as anyone can go toward making God an explanation for the world.
A Final Sally
But theists have another objection, and it’s a much better one. The physical world is full of evidence of intelligence, and that intelligence clearly predates the advent of human beings and predates, for that matter, the evolution of organisms. The natural worldview simply can’t account for the intelligence we find in the structure of the physical world. Where could it have come from? Therefore something supernatural—and intelligent—is afoot. No matter what atheists assert or science implies, something intelligent existed first and evidently formed the world. Say all you want about how impossible it is, it must have happened.
But we’ve already blown this up, unfortunately for the theist. Intelligence is a property of minds, and information is mental currency. It is an illusion that these are attributes of the world outside our minds. Everything modern neuroscience reveals about the workings of the brain reinforces this point.
For the mind to do its thing, for it to know the world, it must invent information and map it into a simulacrum of the world. Actually, it is not exactly the mind that does this, but the brain. And the result of the brain’s creation of an information simulacrum is this thing we call knowing. It’s not the brain’s only simulacrum: vision and sound and feelings and tastes are some of its other experiential handiworks. But here’s the rub. When we build hypotheses and theories, when we know, it all happens within the simulacrum. And the subject of our knowledge, the data-source, is not the real world outside of us but rather the collection of other simulacra, the sense experiences, which our brains are constantly creating for us. These stand-in for the presumed world outside us.
Neuroscience tells us that nothing we know is knowledge of the real world outside. Instead it is knowledge of the simulacra of sensations which the brain is constantly creating for us. It follows that only indirectly, through pragmatic empiricism, can we test our knowing and maximize its usefulness. This indirect relationship between knowledge and the world, together with the fact that we directly know only our own simulacra, means that our knowledge of the world is necessarily covered with a patina of our own intelligence.
We think we see intelligence in the universe outside us, but in fact what we see is the patina of our own minds as they know the world.