Intuitively, the atheist feels vaguely, without necessarily even having any consciously or explicitly identified set of reasons, that if human consciousness could not be explained in thoroughly physical terms, this would somehow pose a dangerous threat to his entire worldview—and he enters into the discipline of philosophy of mind with this prejudice coloring his perception from the moment he begins to explore its questions.
Plenty of forms of “atheism” the world over (present even in the religious sects of Buddhism and Hinduism) seem, without believing in any deity at all, to have no issue with nevertheless acknowledging the existence of what the typical Western atheist would even describe as, for all intents and purposes, “souls.” Yet, however much these perspectives may lack belief in a deity, the term “atheism” doesn’t call them to mind for us because the word—whatever its formal denotation—does, in fact, connote a specific, developed worldview—which generally holds something like the series of claims that: (1) the scientific method is the most effective, or the only way to investigate the physical world; (2) the world itself is, at root, fundamentally ‘physical’ through and through; and (3) since the world is thoroughly physical and science is the best (or only) way to investigate the physical, science is capable of doing everything religion is ever supposed to have, answering every question about ‘who we are, why we are here, and where we are going’ in what are ultimately purely mechanistic terms (summarized by the scientific accounts of cosmological and evolutionary sciences, conceived of in a physically deterministic sense) and thus rendering any sort of religious speculation whatsoever absolutely superfluous. In the minds of many, it is this capacity of science to now replace the answers once given to great questions by religion with its own which has made it possible for atheism to become “respectable.”
Yet this trend, I have argued, is not because of any necessary direct logical connection between the nature of human consciousness and the existence of God per se, but because of the contingency that the religions of the West have historically chosen to predicate themselves on particular tellings of stories in history rather than, strictly, on metaphysical and theological beliefs per se—as science progressed, it inevitably found these historical claims to be untrue (the world, for example, is most certainly greater than a mere six thousand years old); and as it did so, the battle lines became drawn around science and religion in particular, with the conflict between the two hardening and changing the shape of each of them in turn, like two people in an abusive relationship who begin to hate the foods the other eats, or the small habits they practice, for no reason other than the fact that these are what the person they feel so much disdain for likes and does, the relationship thus giving them tastes (and distastes) they might never have formed outside of it through their own solitary development. The battle over religion having formed around the pivot point of crisis established by modern findings of science which directly contradict the claims of religions which have chosen to center themselves on historical, empirical claims, a tendency thus develops within an atheism that evolves out of this condition to increasingly want to strengthen the force of science’s argument against religion by denying that anything could possibly stand, in any way, beyond the reach of full explicability by science and the peculiar methods of investigation which science is suited to at all.
The first and most fundamental mistake committed by the atheists’ typical approach, however, is that it philosophizes science unconsciously, without knowingly and explicitly owning up to what it is doing. The true internal nature of the “physical” entities investigated by science is left entirely unrevealed by the strict facts of science itself. Strictly speaking, even the fact that those entities are “physical” in any way that is ordinarily assumed at all is left unproven by science, and is unnecessary as an assumption for just continuing to engage in scientific practices—strictly speaking, science simply allows us to predict what we will observe in the future based on the correlations we find between our observations today. Yet, this endeavor, in and of itself, says absolutely nothing about the possibility that something like Berkeleyan idealism could be true: what if our observations correlate in the ways that they do not because there are truly “physical” entities existing “out there” at all, but because we are living within a virtual simulation rather akin to a dream world created by God, who actively chooses to always allow our observations (which are all that ever actually exist) to consistently correlate?
“Science,” insofar as it simply applies the scientific method of testing and refining hypothesis to increase the accuracy of our predictions, simply says nothing whatsoever about whether the correlations it finds exist for a reason like this one, because the entities it observes truly are blind and physical forces composing the “rock bottom” of reality, or for some other reason besides (there could perhaps be a thousand examples in between these two extremes). As a practice, it simply says nothing about any of these possibilities; and it simply doesn’t need to. A practice that tests and refines hypotheses about our future observations simply says nothing, in and of itself, about the intrinsic nature of the reality behind our observations or about how it is that our very observations are possible (or what their relationship is to the world) in the first place.
The atheist commits himself to particular philosophical interpretations of precisely what science does and can reveal, and in precisely what way it reveals to us what it reveals. So far as it goes, this is fine—anyone else would be applying their own philosophical interpretations should they want to provide any alternative answer to the same questions, too; and one of these interpretations does, after all, have to be true. The problem is just that these interpretations typically are not acknowledged as such and instead are treated as if they are simply what “science” itself transparently reveals to us to be true—and this isn’t so. The best explanation for science’s success may lie in the interpretation that all reality is in fact composed at its root of only blind physical forces operating by mathematically capturable laws; but science itself quite plainly does not intrinsically reveal to us that this is true as a transparent fact. If we branch off from here into philosophy of mind and we begin to find that this interpretations doesn’t allow us to do a great job of accounting for the possibility of consciousness, we are perfectly well within our rights to question that interpretation and consider whether alternatives, in light of the questions raised by philosophy of mind, don’t do a better job of allowing us to hold together a more cohesive understanding of the full phenomena of the world around us.
However, we shouldn’t miss the point that the reason admitting this isn’t so simple is because, to a large degree, the entire purpose for which science is adopted against religion by the atheist in the dialectic is precisely that it removes the mind and mental concepts from the picture. Scientific cosmology is important because it removes the requirement for any intention within a (divine) mind to create behind an explanation for the existence of “creation.” Evolutionary biology is important because it removes the requirement for any intention within a (divine) mind to design behind an explanation for the build of all life forms on Earth. Where once we had mind and intention and purpose and desire as the bedrock of our ultimate explanations for these things (e.g., that God wanted to do it, for such-and-such reasons), now we have replaced them with blind, mindless causality that is best described by deterministic mathematical laws.
And so the hard–line philosophy of physicalism becomes so intimately associated with “atheism” as to become nearly its synonym because it seems natural to the atheist to assume from here that as the deepening of our understanding of reality progresses, it will continue to move in this direction: it will continue to dethrone the place of consciousness in reality; it will continue to reduce “mind” to the mere byproduct of the physical; it will continue to reduce what once seemed to be “intention” to the blind forces of mere brute causality; and it will, finally, result in a picture in which everything that exists is the mere byproduct of a world running blind on fixed, predetermined rails that no one built, and where consciousness is—at best—something that shows up at some later point inside the train and whose role is limited—at most—to the ability to glance out at the predetermined rails the world is running on from the window.
The question philosophy of mind brings us to is whether this process can continue once it reaches up to the consciousness we all experience—once it moves from eliminating the existence of intentionality in a hypothetical divine mind in favor of a story that replaces this with blind causality on to carrying this project through to the task of similarly dethroning the “purposes,” “desires,” and conscious intentionality we all experience first–hand and to reducing even these fully to blind forces of brute causality as well. This is the project which physicalism does—and must—set for itself, and we should not fail to see that this redefining of who and what we are at the core of our everyday experienced being is even more extreme than any dethroning of any particular religious claim by science has ever been.
There is again, however, absolutely nothing inherently contrary to the project of science, conceived of in the clearest and most unassuming terms, in accepting the possibility that some phenomena which are irreducibly “mental” could indeed simply turn out to be part of the rock bottom list of “things which reality is composed of.” The atheist (or naturalist or physicalist) is not relying on anything which has been strictly proven when he assumes that this cannot be so. What he has against this possibility is, in the most literal sense of the word, a prejudice—a prediction, however based it may be off of what the atheist considers to be a trend in this general direction. The problem is that this prediction is so often assumed to be so much more than it actually is—it is assumed to be, or at least spoken of as if it is, something that has actually been proven somehow by the facts strictly demonstrated by science as such. A couple of parables will serve to help illustrate the risks contained in holding on to this assumption too fervently.
To adapt an analogy first proposed by the philosopher David Chalmers, let’s rewind ourselves for a moment back to the time of Newton. All that we know of the “rock bottom” kinds of entities that science suggests the world contains at its root as the building block of all further entities is the atom, and the only kind of interaction we know of that takes place as the building block of all further interaction between things in the world is direct physical contact between these entities: “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction;” and so the world is much like a complicated collection of very tiny billiard balls bouncing into each other. Now, consider the confusion that Newton expressed from within this view of the nature of the world about gravity when he wrote: “It is inconceivable that inanimate Matter should, without the Mediation of something else, which is not material, operate upon, and affect other matter without mutual Contact… That Gravity should be innate, inherent and essential to Matter, so that one body may act upon another at a distance thro’ a Vacuum, without the Mediation of any thing else, by and through which their Action and Force may be conveyed from one to another, is to me so great an Absurdity that I believe no Man who has in philosophical Matters a competent Faculty of thinking can ever fall into it.”
Because Newton had no reference point within the list of entities which the science of his day had so far established to make up the most basic “building blocks” of reality which he saw any option of “reducing” an explanation of gravity into, he was left to simply regard this “action at a distance” to be some kind of bizarre mystery. Of course, in the modern day, most of us know the correct answer (or at least, something much closer to it): the “vacuum” which Newton spoke about is not just vacant space—space, itself, turns out to be a “thing;” a thing that can be curved; a thing in its own right, not reducible to any other “bedrock” entities, but existing all on its own right beside them. Newton was confused because he couldn’t explain gravity in terms of local atomic interactions. His confusion was appropriate: it can’t be. But the answer to that conceptual dilemma could only come in realizing that atomic forces and local “billiard ball” interactions between them are not the sole building blocks of reality; something new simply had to be added to our list of what those entities are. And there was absolutely nothing contrary to the project of science in allowing ourselves to admit that space itself was just such an entity.
Now, for another example (this one closer to Chalmers’ own use of it, but still modified slightly for my purposes), let’s move to the early 19th century, at a time when the phenomena of electromagnetism had yet to be discovered. Suppose someone has, by accident, discovered a magnet, and set up shop on the side of a street somewhere using those magnets to cause lead shavings to “levitate” while claiming to have discovered “magic.” They would call this “magic,” of course, merely because it violates their own expectations about the world—expectations set, quite simply, by an incomplete worldview that does not tell them about electromagnetism but instead references only atomic phenomena. A modern day skeptic who encountered this street magician might insist that science shows that no such thing is possible (per the assumption that “science shows” that all that exists “at rock bottom” are atoms, which cannot interact with each other “at a distance”)—and his way of refusing to accept that “magic” is real would be to insist that whatever is going on, it must be explicable in terms of the particular entities so far acknowledged by the science of his day—direct physical contact between atomic particles. However, no such reduction would ever be possible: the phenomena produced by electromagnetic forces would, quite simply, never be explained in terms of local mechanical interactions between atomic particles. Yet if the skeptic were stubborn, he might continue insisting on to no end that unless and until we’ve explained the street magician’s trick in terms of such interactions, we haven’t understood what’s going on. But—we could easily imagine him swearing to us—once we understand all the facts, we will—one day!—know exactly how the phenomena in front of us is explained by local, atomic interactions.
And while his claim would, in one sense, be impossible to refute, and our skeptic might have gone on making this unredeemable promise to us forever, we know today that he would simply be wrong. Once again, the correct answer is that electromagnetism was simply a new phenomena, belonging to the “bedrock” of reality itself, in its own right; and is not something reducible to the terms and functions of any other “bedrock” entities like atoms. The correct response to this encounter with “magic” absolutely would have been to accept that something we previously would have considered “magical” and counter to our then–so–far recognized entities and laws simply was, in fact, real—that it was not the magic tricks with magnets that were not as they appeared, but our own assumptions about reality that were at fault as a result of the fact that they were incomplete. The analogy should be clear enough: physicalists often promise that even if we don’t know the details at present, a completed science of consciousness will absolutely—swear!—be able to explain exactly how subjective consciousness is explained in terms of the somewhat less linear, yet still most assuredly blind, mechanical and deterministic entities and forces (and laws describing them) acknowledged by current science, once its understanding is complete.
How much stock should we put in this sort of promise? Is it possible we could be in a similar position with regards to consciousness as Newton was towards gravity, and as a skeptic before the time of Maxwell would have been towards magnetic “magic tricks”—encountering a new, and fundamentally different sort of entity whether we realized it or not, and yet potentially indefinitely refusing to acknowledge this, out of nothing more than sheer prejudice about what kinds of phenomena reality can or cannot contain—committing ourselves to a promise of eventual reduction which is irredeemable in principle (because the phenomena is one that exists in its own right, and simply does not reduce) and therefore committing a mistake we might never even see the error in, because no length of time in which the promise goes unredeemed is ever going to “prove” that it is irredeemable because it was made in error?
 I use this word in the loose sense that even if the laws are probabilistic and “random,” as the laws of quantum mechanics may be, they still “determine” when a randomized roll of a metaphorical dice in some equation will be performed as a part of the equation itself. Even “random” laws are still “deterministic” in this basic sense.