Zombie Meditations

Consciousness (I) — Atheism, Science, Philosophy: The Origins of the Conflict


The typical person who develops an interest in philosophy of mind comes into the matter through a prior interest in the topic of philosophy as a whole. Predominantly, those who find themselves attracted to philosophy (other than philosophy of religion) are atheists—and by and large, those who are members of an organized religion will tend to perform their “philosophizing” amongst those who share their religion, rather than amongst the mixed environment of a formal philosophy class.[1] It could even be said that for many, the very project of philosophy itself is to build a worldview which fills in the gaps to answer the questions once addressed by religion, in the wake of religion’s demise. Nietzsche, writing in 1882, gave the clearest precedent for this conception of philosophy when he wrote, “God is dead. . . And we have killed him. . . What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us?”

Generally, the kind of atheist who decides to pursue philosophy will have a consciously dim view of religion’s influence in the world—a declaration of atheism most usually does not just express a belief that the claims of religion happen to be false, but even further, that it would be positively worth the effort to erase religion from the world. Whether Karl Marx writing in 1833, “The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness;” Sigmund Freud writing in 1929, “The whole [religious worldview] is so patently infantile, so foreign to reality, that to anyone with a friendly attitude to humanity it is painful to think that the great majority of mortals will never be able to rise above [it];” or Sam Harris in the 21st century writing, “If I could wave a magic wand and get rid of either rape or religion, I would not hesitate to get rid of religion,” rarely is atheism expressed as a position on something which rational people could disagree about; most often it is, in effect, synonymous with the belief that religion positively ought to be eradicated. Even more rarely, for example, do we hear the opinion expressed by someone who happens to think God does not exist that the fact is disappointing. 

The average  individual enters the debate on philosophy of mind, at the very least, with the solid impression in the background of his awareness that the scientific method generally seems to be resolving questions previously thought to lie in principle beyond its scope and fall instead within the realm of religion. To the first question, “Why are we here?” the Christian account of an intentional creation of the world by God  (as well as the argument that the existence of “creation” logically requires the existence of a creator) has been nullified by advances in the sciences of cosmology and evolutionary biology. As Richard Dawkins puts it: “Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually respectable atheist.”

Though we may lack a full understanding of some of the details (such as the exact mechanism of anthropogenesis), science is generally supposed to have already fleshed out a relatively complete picture of the course of the Universe as a whole and of the place of human beings within that picture; and it is assumed to be on an inevitable path of continuing to fill in all missing details until a final account is complete—and it is the advance of this picture, which begins with a Big Bang, proceeds to the gradual formation of galaxies and to the formation on some planets in these systems of single-celled organisms, finally to the evolution of human beings through a process of natural selection out of these origins, and then ultimately to the collapse of the Universe into a final state through either heat death, a “Big Crunch” back into its original state before the Big Bang (which may or may not eventually result in yet another Big Bang), or a “Big Freeze”—that has made it possible for disbelief in the existence of God to be, at least from the viewpoint of people like Dawkins, “respectable.” Notably, this story begins with only physical entities and forces in its account, and it proceeds through a purely physical sequence of causation to account for absolutely everything in existence.

While many adherents of an organized religion may attempt to incorporate the facts revealed by science into their belief structure, an all-too-common response is to deny their truth entirely. Religious criticism of the scientific findings of Charles Darwin began within Darwin’s own lifetime, with the 1847 publication of the Princeton Biblical scholar Charles Hodge’s What is Darwinism? which concluded with the answer: “It is Atheism” (a point taken to be the decisive argument against it); and the conflict continues today, with as many as four in ten Americans still believing, over 150 years after the first publication of On the Origin of Species, that God created all life in Earth in exactly the same form it exists today just 10,000 years ago or less. (In fact, if the chronologies recorded in the Bible are added up together, and we were to assume that every detail and length of time was recorded accurately, there would in fact be just six thousand years between God’s creation of all life on Earth and the present day.)

Clearly, a battle has formed, in which the interplay between these two sides has caused them to mutate in response to each other. On one side, we have those who are committed to the belief that one particular book from one particular ancient culture accurately records the entire story of all life from the beginning of time itself, and who believe they can consider this “knowledge” without any need to first investigate the claims they have made and test them (except, at best, as an afterthought). However sophisticated or even seemingly plausible the objections may be which any particular religious believer can produce against the idea of evolution, the root of his objection is almost always the same: he has read Genesis 1; and Genesis 1 says, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. […] And God said, “Let the water teem with living creatures, and let birds fly […] Let the land produce […] livestock, the creatures that move along the ground, and the wild animals, each according to its kind.” […] Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness (…).” Having read these words, the religious individual needs look no further, unless to produce more complicated justifications for what he already knows whether he can produce arguments or justifications for it or not. In at least the basic outline, the religious believer knows without a doubt exactly when and how the sequence of creation went down.

And on the other side, we have the atheist who understandably sees this commitment to the belief that one “knows” things they haven’t arrived at through questioning and testing to be irrational; sees the need to admit, first and foremost, our lack of automatic knowledge and the fundamental need for a careful method of investigating and testing claims in order to thereby discover the truth; but who then almost inevitably goes further, and advances an account on which science is supposed to have revealed a full and complete account of absolutely everything, revealing a world composed at root of nothing but blind physical objects and forces crunching, banging, expanding, and evolving through purely blind physical sequences of causation to produce everything that there is, by sheer accident. In the words of Richard Dawkins, “The universe [is] […] at bottom […] nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.”

While the strict definition of the word “atheism” may state that it merely denotes a lack of belief in the claim of God’s existence, by all measures of popular usage, the term has indeed largely come to connote positive belief in a substantially developed worldview rather than a mere, simple lack of belief that the God of popular theism exists. And that worldview has evolved (excuse the pun) in a specific number of ways, for specific reasons. The peculiar battlegrounds on which religion has fought with its skeptics has caused those skeptics’ worldviews to shift, in response, in ways that they might not have otherwise in attempt to hold their ground on those particular fields. In India, for example, 77% of respondents gave the affirmative answer to the question, “Do you agree that enough scientific evidence exists to support Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution?”—compared to just 41% of the United States. In a culture where the dominant religions advance a cyclical cosmology incredibly similar to the Big Bang–Big Crunch–Big Bounce model of modern cosmological science and evolution faces less opposition from the religious, the non–religious are less likely to worry that the truth of evolution might render our lives without “purpose” (the cyclical worldview of their religion does not advance the need for any linear “purpose” to begin with), or even that it undermines the likelihood of the existence of the soul—as one school of Hindu thought, known as Samkhya, even accepts the notion of reincarnating individual souls while rejecting the existence of God! Whatever the formal definition, few in the West think of a worldview like this one when the word “atheism” is used.

The peculiar set of religious claims which the non-religious act in reaction to in the West influences the shape that the worldview of those who reject religion here will take in response to that rejection. There will be a tendency amongst those who see reason to be hostile towards religion to feel an automatic distaste towards anything which it promotes — Nietzsche, to take the most obvious example, wrote that Christianity “turned every value into a disvalue [and has] contempt for every good and honest instinct (emphasis mine).” (Similarly, the religious will broadly tend to form their own reaction to these trends in turn by growing less and less trusting of science and the claims of scientists in general.)

In his 1983 Science on Trial: The Case For Evolution, evolutionary biologist Douglas J. Futuyman writes: “Some shrink from the conclusion that the human species was not designed, has no purpose, and is fully the product of mere material mechanisms—but this seems to be the message of evolution.” Notice that Futuyman is not content to end the sentence with the statement that evolution gives us the message that “the human species was not designed”—even though this, formally, is all that the theory of evolution in and of itself necessarily seems to prove. Futuyman makes the leap to the further statement that the message of evolution is that the human species “has no purpose, and is fully the product of mere material mechanisms” in reaction to the fact that these happen to be frequent further concerns carried by Christianity.

It was not Darwin—who wrote in The Origin of Species that “There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved”—who raised concerns that evolution would render life “purposeless,” but his Christian critics. Darwin even confessed this of his own personal views elsewhere: “With respect to the theological view of the question. This is always painful to me. I am bewildered. I had no intention to write atheistically. [ . . . ]  There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidæ with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars [ . . . ] [Yet] I cannot anyhow be contented to view this wonderful universe, and especially the nature of man, and to conclude that everything is the result of brute force. [ . . . ]  I feel most deeply that the whole subject is too profound for the human intellect. A dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton.”

Simply in and of itself—so far as it goes—the evidence of evolution strictly says nothing at all about, for example, a topic like free will. Could we imagine that the free, conscious decisions that species make about how to use their inherited abilities could play some role in how they might go on to evolve? Sure, we can. Does any of the hard evidence supporting the fact that evolution occurs rule this possibility out? Not really. What of the fact that the developing embryo seems to reenact stages of evolution—what of the fact that humans and other primates share the same broken, nonfunctional genes in the same specific places in their genome—what of the fossil record addresses the metaphysical question of free will? Strictly speaking, none of it does. But, for better or worse, evolution ends up getting absorbed into a materialistic and deterministic worldview in which man is fully “the product of mere material mechanisms”—largely as a result of where the battle lines end up drawn around religion (and Christianity, in particular): because the progress of science began to dismantle religions which chose to base themselves so largely on false historical claims, this led to a battle with lines drawn between “matter” and “spirit:” if science is going to be the weapon that destroys religion, then it must destroy the religious concept of the “soul” as well. Again—the dialectic looks much different in India. The particular shape and form that this conflict takes is a result of the contingencies of the particular claims made by the religions of our culture; this conflict becomes the branching point at which two groups split and evolve in differing directions specifically in reaction to each other.

Daniel Dennett, one of the so-called “Four Horsemen” of contemporary atheism, is an example of one very prominent atheist tackling the questions of philosophy of mind. Yet, his readers do not always understand what his position on the relationship between conscious experiences and the brain is. His position is that there is, in fact, no relationship between conscious experiences and the brain because there is no such thing as conscious experience. An exchange between Daniel Dennett and John Searle in the New York Review of Books makes this clear. Searle directly accuses Dennett of saying it—and Dennett explicitly accepts the charge. “To put it as clearly as I can: in his book, Consciousness Explained, Dennett denies the existence of consciousness. […] For him, it refers only to third-person phenomena, not to the first-person conscious feelings and experiences we all have. […] I think most readers, when first told this, would assume that I must be misunderstanding him. Surely no sane person could deny the existence of feelings. But in his reply he makes it clear that I have understood him exactly. He says, “How could anyone deny that!? Just watch…”

How, and why, does Dennett arrive at this conclusion? We begin to put together how it might have happened in the introduction to his book Consciousness Explained, where he writes: “in this book, I adopt the apparently dogmatic rule that dualism is to be avoided at all costs.” Dualism—the idea consciousness can’t be explained in terms of blind, physical mechanism, but is—somehow—something additional to that, something which exists in its own right and perhaps has the capacity to interact with the world all on its own. Dennett adopts this “dogmatic rule” against dualism even though he admits that “It is not that [he] think[s] [he] can give any knock-down proof that dualism […] is false or incoherent.” Yet, does not every single one of us have all the evidence we need to know that the claim that nobody ever has any feelings or inner experiences is absolutely false and incoherent? The main reason Dennett does give for adopting his “dogmatic rule” is what he calls “[the] fundamentally antiscientific stance” of dualism. What does he mean by “antiscientific?”

Dennett goes on to express his disappointment that “[t]he few dualists to avow their views openly have all candidly and comfortably announced that they have no theory whatever of how the mind works” and explains that this leaves him with “the lurking suspicion that the most attractive feature of [the dualist idea] is its promise of being mysterious” before concluding, finally, that his justification for the “dogmatic rule” is that “given the way dualism wallows in mystery, accepting dualism is giving up.”  This clearly raises the simple question: is there, in fact, some mystery left over about the existence of conscious experience, after Dennett’s attempt at an account? A critic would say that there absolutely is, and that the dualist is not “giving up” on addressing that mystery nearly as much as Dennett is: in other words, that pretending that a mystery doesn’t exist is absolutely no good way to go about solving one if one actually is there—and all of this serves to most dumbly beg the question: “So, is there a mystery here, or not?”

It seems as though Dennett’s own preposterous “explanation” of consciousness, itself, suggests an answer: faced with what he sees as a decision between either acknowledging that consciousness is, in some sense, “mysterious,” or else denying the very existence of his own subjective feelings and experiences altogether, Dennett prefers to bite the bullet covered in strychnine. If we were to encounter someone telling us that trees don’t exist, we would reflect for a moment on our basic experiences with the world,  recall our many countless experiences with trees, and write them off as a lunatic in a worryingly dangerous level of denial. Why, when Dennett tells us that nobody ever has any experiences of the color green when they look at a tree, or of the roughness of the texture of bark when they touch one, should we take him a whit more seriously or consider him a whit less insane?

It goes without saying that typically, when someone begins to enter a state of denial, there are powerful underlying psychological forces which cause them to do so. Can Dennett’s place at the forefront of the social battle between science and religion be ignored? Could it simply be that the need to see science as something promising completely objective answers to every conceivable question religion has ever played any part in attempting to address could be so strong that Dennett would literally rather deny that he ever has any experiences of anything than acknowledge that the existence of these experiences might, in any way, pose mysterious problems which he himself can’t immediately see any clear answer for?

And if these psychological motives can be so strong for Daniel Dennett, might that be enough reason for all of us to question the impact that this social background might have on our understanding of the issues raised by philosophy of mind as well, and cause us to wonder what we might have thought had we approached those questions with a “beginner’s mind,” without that influence? What might we have thought about them had we approached them with an open mind, starting fresh and clear from the beginning?

[1] See, for example, the PhilPapers survey which finds that 66.2% of all respondents favored atheism, compared to only 18.6% of all respondents favoring theism. By contrast, amongst all respondents specializing in philosophy of religion, the numbers are reversed: 68.4% favor theism, whereas only 18.6% were found to favor atheism.

Continued posts:

 (II) — Digging Up the Conflict’s Roots
 (III) — Does the World Pantry Stock More than Sugar?
(IV)  The Case of the Lunatic Fish