Now You’re Thinking With A Bunch of Atoms

Question from Jeff:
I’m sort of in a searching phase of life where I really don’t know what to believe. I recently heard a compelling argument for the existence of god and want to get some input. The argument goes like this:

If there is no god and the world is just an accident, if everything about people, including what they think and feel, is just the chance combination of molecules and is explained in terms of chemistry and physical laws, why be rational? On the basis of atheism, weeds grow because they are weeds (laws of physics) and minds just do whatever they do. People act like they are free to think about different kinds of ideas and then choose the best one. On the basis of atheism, that’s impossible. Our minds are just a bunch of atoms vibrating and will do whatever they have been programmed to do. If there is no god and the physical world is all there is, there is no logical basis for logic. But people, including atheists, do trust reason and logic even though they have no reason to assume that it works.

Any thoughts you have would be greatly appreciated.

Answer by SmartLX:
Minds, or brains to be more specific, indeed do what is dictated by their physical structure combined with the electrical signals travelling through them, so you could say that they do what they’re programmed to do. The thing is, they are programmed to think. They have the necessary complexity to store something as abstract as an idea, among other information, and they apply ideas to the world around them. This leads them to make choices based on the information available to them, and act upon those choices. This can be called a person’s will. Its ultimately deterministic nature in the absence of supernatural influences (like a soul) leads many to stop short of calling it free will, but it’s will all the same.

We have plenty of reason to assume that reason and logic work, because we live in a world where reason and logic regularly help us make predictions about the world that turn out to be correct. It’s not a matter of philosophy, it’s simply a lifetime of observing the practical power of understanding the logical workings of an apparently consistent universe. We don’t know why it’s that way (and many religious people jump on that fact to make an argument from ignorance in favour of gods – back to this in a moment), but we learn that it is so and we use it to our advantage. That’s what learning is, really. If the world weren’t consistent we couldn’t learn anything.

The argument you heard is rather close to the transcendental argument for God (TAG) and ultimately has the same problem: to establish a god as the source of logic in its premise it has to assert that there’s no other possibility, when there’s merely no other KNOWN source. In fact the possibilities are endless, but the simplest one is that logic has no source and has always been in place, much like God is supposed to have been. The other important thing about the TAG, in my experience, is that its persuasive power is not targeted where you think it is. It almost never convinces non-believers, but it very often convinces believers that their belief is justified when they might be in doubt. It is primarily a tool for reassurance, not conversion. The same may be true of all apologetics at this point, but TAG more than most.

Order. Why?

Question from Gene:
How did reality come to be structured such that there are fundamental laws of nature and a hierarchy of intelligence in the natural world?

Answer by SmartLX:
The “hierarchy of intelligence” is the easy part. Sentient life forms on this planet have diversified and subsequently evolved in different directions, and some animals’ brains grew more than others, so different animals have wildly different levels of intelligence. Individuals are also subject to different genes and environmental factors, so even within one species there are relative geniuses and relative idiots. It’s exactly what we would expect in the circumstances. If all animals with intelligence had exactly the same amount of it, now that would be a remarkable thing.

As for the apparently universal consistency of the laws of nature, I don’t know why they’re there, though of course if they weren’t so consistent then I wouldn’t have a functioning brain to wonder about it.


It might simply be that way as a result of the physical properties of all matter and energy. The constants might have varied significantly in some ancient epoch, and stabilised around the time of the Big Bang (if that phrase even makes sense given the nature of time) so that we’re now enjoying the benefits of a stable universe. There could be many universes, some with fixed constants and some without. Perhaps one day we’ll discover the reason.

Let’s say, though I won’t assume at this point, that you believe a god structured the laws of nature the way they are. If I don’t know how it happened and admit as much, is that a good reason for me to adopt your position? No, because it’s merely an assertion. There’s no substantive evidence for the existence of a god, let alone its influence on the form of the universe. I have no desire to grasp at any answer presented to me if there’s nothing to support the idea that the answer is right.

We can take this a little further. Let’s say that we did both believe that there’s an almighty god, but didn’t adhere to the specific doctrine of any one religion. Could we then say confidently that He structured the universe? The answer is still no, because there’s still no evidence that it happened. Unless we can establish that uniformity can ONLY be deliberately structured, which we can’t, our god might only have happened across our universe and adopted it like one adopts a puppy.

Finally, if we both adhered to the doctrine of a religion that stated that God structured the universe, we would both accept that idea. We would not, however, have arrived at this particular position through logic, other than through the logical fallacy of accepting an argument from authority.

So, if even taking the existence of a god as a given doesn’t necessarily lead to the conclusion that a god structured the universe, we certainly can’t arrive at that conclusion when the existence of a god is in question. As for using the idea to argue for the existence of the god, forget it.

The Benefits of Irrationality?

Question from Ariel:

I am interested in your perspective as an atheist on a few things. I am not an atheist, nor am I a theist. I am certainly not an agnostic. As a bit of background: I grew up in an entirely atheistic, secular environment and have only begun exploring religious and spiritual traditions recently. I believe that within all mainstream belief structures that I’ve thus far encountered (predominantly atheist and Christian branches), there arises at some point or another – in some structures it is more hidden and deeply buried than in others – some sort of intellectual dishonesty. In most Christian traditions this dishonesty manifests in a relatively evident form of cognitive dissonance. Obviously very few Christians fully cognize the implications of their beliefs or else they would not be able to function in our pluralistic society. To honestly believe that 3/4 of the people I encounter are going to be punished eternally would put a strain on my existence that would become unbearable. The dishonesty I feel I encounter with atheism is that it cannot provide an answer for the qualitative aspects of our human experience. Answers to questions of beauty, morality, meaning, etc cannot be answered within a materialistic paradigm. Science deals with quantifiable evidence in a horizontal plane of existence while religion deals with qualitative evidence in a vertical plane of existence. It’s been often stated that science deals with the How while religion deals with the Why.

Of course that’s not entirely true. Science can begin to explain Why a particular organism behaves in a certain way by referring to various hypotheses within evolutionary science or psychology or what have you. But any answer to a why in a strictly causal, materialistic paradigm leads to another why, and you end up with an infinite regression. The big questions remain mysteries. When a religious person asks: how does your life have meaning without a God? What do you base your morality on? – those are very valid questions, as much as skeptics seem to want to scoff at them. The answers that often arise are answers of common sense: you make your own meaning, of course! You are moral by treating others kindly and valuing their lives, of course! But none of these answers warrant ‘of course’s.

The way that I see it, atheists have internalized the moral foundations that have been developed in religious traditions and have secularized them without realizing that, in removing ‘God’ from the equation, the ‘foundation’ part of ‘moral foundation’ is eliminated. I believe it might be worth studying / engaging in religious traditions, as well as poetry, speculative philosophy, etc for hints at some sort of higher truth than cannot be captured by adamant rationalism. There is a hugely mysterious aspect to our human experience that should not be suppressed by strict adherence to a particular *method* of thinking, like rationalism, logic, empiricism, the scientific method. These are just that: methods. They are particular closed systems in which we have trained our brains to think according to established rules and patterns. The thing about the aforementioned disciplines of speculative philosophy, religion / theology, poetry and arts in general is that they may, in their most honest and non-dogmatic manifestations, experience a high level cognitive freedom that allows them to delve into the vertical plane of existence. It is in this freedom that we may learn to take the leaps of faith that provide us with the ‘meaning’ that we so desperately crave as human beings. Paul Tillich suggested that with the modern emphasis on rationalism, there has been a removal of ‘depth’ from our experiences. That’s why you see so many people falling victim to consumerism or substance abuse. We are trying to kill an eternal God and substitute him with fleeting things, and it’s not leaving us very fulfilled. It is actually also this rise of rationalism / atheism that has led religions to become as literalized as they are (think about the doctrine of biblical inerrancy established in the early 20th century). Religion feels that it has to move from the vertical to the horizontal in order to duke it out with science, which is why we are now seeing a much more explicit divide between atheist-theism than we may ever have seen in the past.

Anyway. I probably ranted. I am wondering whether you feel there is any space for non-rational thought and belief structures in the ideal future that you envision for humanity.

All the best.

Answer by SmartLX:
Hi Ariel.

Science and the associated rational way of thinking does not presume to have all the answers. This is a major difference from religious thinking, which does presume that the ultimate answer to every question is God. This becomes problematic when the questions themselves start to involve God, because it’s difficult for a thing to explain itself. More importantly, a believer can assert knowledge of an ultimate answer and therefore have an answer for everything, but what is the value of an answer if you don’t know whether it’s right?

While the “big questions” remain a mystery, science provides reliable answers for many of the “smaller” questions with practical applications for our daily lives. Because we know the rate at which the flu virus is evolving, we know how often a new flu vaccine must be created and distributed to ensure reasonable coverage (roughly every year). Because electricity applied to a magnetic coil in the right way can cause it to rotate, motors function. Because human beings have near-universal natural instincts towards not only self-preservation but living in social groups, we can develop laws and social contracts that will benefit us all. Meanwhile we keep working on the things we don’t know, so that we might actually discover the facts. (Incidentally, if you search this site for blanket terms like “morality” you’ll find that we’ve done far more than scoff at such questions.)

Rather than atheism secularising religious moral foundations, religions have claimed credit for ethical norms that existed long before they did; atheists simply tend to be the ones to point this out. For instance, the Commandment not to kill from the Book of Exodus was preceded by many entirely secular laws against killing, devised separately by civilisations the world over.

You can philosophise and go as “deep” as you like into any aspect of religion, but as soon as you take as a premise anything for which you have no evidence is true, you are in the realm of the hypothetical. You may experience profound realisations about your chosen topic, but as they may rely on false premises they are built on sand, and it may not be possible to translate your progress into anything which will be of practical help to anyone. This is the main problem with theology, from a non-believer’s perspective. Religion is often touted as another “way of knowing” besides science, but what is it that we “know” exclusively through religion that we actually do know? Comment if you have an example.

If I had to try to boil all of this down, I would return to my first point and say that while science cannot answer everything, religion has no more authority to answer anything and yet does it anyway. Which one you rely on for your worldview depends on whether you care more about having all the answers or being justifiably confident that the answers you have are correct.

Finally, there had better be room for non-rational thoughts and beliefs in the future, because no matter how hard people try to be rational they will always fall short at times. We’re all human, and no one’s always entirely rational. Fortunately, leaps of reasoning can indeed be achieved by taking seemingly illogical or irrational steps, though only if logic and rational analysis are applied to them afterwards. New ideas can come from anywhere, but you have to sift through them once you get them.

Logic and Certainty

“I proceed with confidence in consistent logic on the basis of experience and precedent.”

Question from Dan, apparently paraphrased from his own blog (I added the numbers for easy reference):
1. How do you account for the universal, abstract, invariant laws of logic,
2. on what basis do you proceed with the assumption that they will not change, and
3. how is it possible to know anything for certain according to YOUR worldview?

Before I start, atheism is not my worldview. It’s my position on a specific issue, and it has very little to do with how I view anything else.

1. I cannot account for the laws of logic, yet, and neither can you. You as a Christian have been supplied with an answer to this tremendous mystery whereas I have not, but you have no substantive evidence to support or verify your answer. Its power to explain anything satisfactorily is therefore extremely limited. If you think you do have evidence, please present it or link to it.

2. I proceed with confidence in consistent logic on the basis of experience and precedent. I expect the laws of logic not to change because they have apparently never changed. All my life, and as far back as I’ve delved into history, there isn’t a single confirmed instance when the laws of logic changed. (Contrast that with the Christian idea that God temporarily circumvents these laws to cause miracles.)

If the laws do suddenly change at some point in my lifetime I will be mighty surprised (as will those who think a god is keeping them constant) but I do not expect this to happen and I live as if it won’t. Chances are, I’ll be right.

3. Knowing things for certain depends on just how certain you want to be. Since I can’t be absolutely certain this life is not merely a dream, for example, I can’t be any more certain about a single specific aspect of my life as it’s all potentially within that dream.

Once I have enough evidence of something, for example that my fiancee both exists and loves me, I develop a certain confidence that it is true. In the given case I am so confident that I will happily say in everyday life that I am certain.

Sure, there is a possibility that my fiancee is putting on an act, or that she is my schizophrenic delusion, or again that my whole life since meeting her was a dream. I simply think the probability of any of these scenarios is so low that it’s negligible. If I’m wrong and one of them is the case, I will be heartbroken and again very surprised, and that will be that.

I do not pursue absolute certainty in anything, because I don’t think it’s attainable. I don’t need it, because in most matters I can attain a level of confidence where I can happily act as if I am certain. Sometimes I’m wrong. It happens.