Promissory Atheism and Promissory Theism

I”ve been thinking about something that the late Nobel Prize winner, Sir John Eccles, said of strict materialism. He called it “promissory materialism”, and said of it:

“I regard this theory as being without foundation. The more we discover scientifically about the brain the more clearly do we distinguish between the brain events and the mental phenomena and the more wonderful do the mental phenomena become. Promissory materialism is simply a superstition held by dogmatic materialists. It has all the features of a Messianic prophecy, with the promise of a future freed of all problems—a kind of Nirvana for our unfortunate successors.” (1994)

Eccles’s observation—“It has all the features of a Messianic prophecy”—especially struck me, and it made me think: Why would there appear to be such a parallel between atheism and theism? Here’s what I think right now:

  • The traditional monotheisms have always had a very, very large hurdle to overcome: Why does a universe designed by a good God contain suffering? The solution to the problem seems inexplicable in the present, for in terms of what we actually observe around us, we appear to live in a universe utterly indifferent to our suffering. Thus, to get around this obvious problem, religious believers have set suffering’s solution in the future, in the form of a promissory expectation that God will someday set the world right, and bring poetic justice from outside (though this outside realm cannot be seen by us and is currently beyond our grasp).
  • Likewise strict materialists, since being confronted in the 1970s with the problems posed by the Anthropic Principle, have been driven to postulate invisible (to us) multiverses, and to hope that scientists will discover indirect evidence for them in the future. In other words, the universe appears designed for the inclusion of life and mind in it, and cannot seem to be accounted for without the positing of other worlds invisible to it. But just as the theist overcomes the appearance of widespread evil by positing invisible worlds that will set all right, so the atheist overcomes the appearance of design by positing invisible multiverses that will set the atheist thesis into plausible coherence again.

Put in biblical terms, here’s how the Book of Revelation (20:4) glosses suffering for Christians:

And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any pain: for the former things are passed away.

Put simply, suffering will be a “comma” in the progress of history. It is not the final word accompanied by a period. It does not entail the death of God. Likewise, the Anthropic Principle does not entail (for the atheist) the death of atheism, for here is how the promissory atheist might put her (his) contemporary faith:

And scientists in the future shall open our eyes; and there shall be no more appearance of purpose or design in the universe, neither of matter, nor of life, nor of mind, neither shall there be any more ‘woo religion’: for the former things are passed away.

And the atheist congregation said what? Amen?


About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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8 Responses to Promissory Atheism and Promissory Theism

  1. Matt says:

    The thing about promissory materialism though (unlike promissory theism), is that it has history and precedent.
    There are any number of things once considered supernatural (rainbows, earthquakes, astronomical events) that have now been shown to have have natural causes.
    Why is it unreasonable to think this pattern will continue?

  2. santitafarella says:


    You ask a fair question. All human knowledge is partial (we are, afterall, embedded in the system that we are trying to account for, and life is short). Thus all have to live, in some sense, in “faith.” Your faith about the future, as an atheist, is not necessarily unreasonable, and you may well be right. Some version of atheism or theism must, necessarily, be correct.

    Some questions, however, are so intractable (such as suffering for theists and the physical constants and qualia for atheists) that extreme measures have to be posited to maintain the coherence of one’s beliefs. I think that positing a heaven outside of Earth to make right the failed promises of Yahweh towards Israel, or to make sense (religiously) of the Holocaust, are examples, but so is positing infinite multiple universes as a way to get chance to “account” for the universe that we see. Leaps of this nature are of orders of magnitude greater than, say, accounting for a failed individual prayer in theist terms, or the rainbow in atheist terms.


  3. santitafarella says:


    Oh, and one more thing. As for rainbows, I don’t think that atheism has accounted for them in terms of qualia. Why should the refraction of light encounter our neurological meat (brains), and we have the perception of such a spectacular range of colors and beauty?

    When you start to think about it, atheism doesn’t really account for clouds and rainbows all that well at all. I’ll make a post later for a Judy Collins song from the 60s that I like.


  4. Matt says:

    You seem to be saying that theological and scientific questions are in some way equivalent, but that’s not the case.
    Theological questions are used to interpret the universe in terms of a pre-defined positive conclusion (eg, there IS a God, or there IS a purpose) and fitting the observations into that framework.
    Scientific questions are different. Scientists take what is observed and seek to understand the mechanisms behind it, without pre-imposing any conclusions.

    The other main difference is in the method. Science considers coherence of method more important than coherence of conclusion, because the latter can be very deceptive.
    Look at quantum physics … it has incredibly non-intuitive results (eg particles in two places at once) that without the coherence of the scientific method would be considered impossible. However, the results are accepted because of the tried-and-true methodology.
    Theology has no equivalent coherent methodology.

  5. Matt says:

    In addition, that same methodology can be applied to theological claims.
    We can observe the results of prayer and conclude (quite simply) that it has no effect beyond that of a placebo.
    We can examine the fossil record and conclude that the Genesis account of creation is not a literal account.
    As science has developed, theology’s power to explain the world has shrunk. We now have ministers talking about God in terms of a non-interventionist being who maybe set things going but that’s about it.
    Once you get to that point, God has been reduced to an unnecessary hypothesis.

  6. santitafarella says:


    I don’t disagree with a lot of what you say above. I agree, for example, that what science has discovered about the age of the Earth has constrained the interpretation of Genesis to poetry (at least by reasonable, non-fundamentalist, religionists).

    I do think, however, that you are conflating science with materialism and atheism. I think you need to decouple them to think clearly about these issues. Science is a tool for material observation, but the inferences you draw from the data may not lead to philosophical materialism.

    If, for example, you are positing multiple universes to salvage strict materialism as a philosophical position (there is no mind prior to matter), then you are engaging in ad hoc reasoning. Lee Smolin, when he posited Darwinian multiverses as a hypotheis more than a decade ago, said that if you don’t want an almost inescapable God inference, you have to come up with some workable multiverse hypothesis. And you are free to do so, Matt. And you may find evidence for your a priori atheist beliefs. But you also might not, and if you don’t, what then? Do you remain a strict materialist nevertheless? Why?

    I suppose that you will say, “Yes. Because science cannot function outside of material causes.” I agree. The material causes must always be pushed to their limits of explanation. But there can always be a final inference. That final inference—God or the multiverse—is probably going to always be a philosophical (as opposed to a scientifically answerable) question. And even if there is evidence discovered for the multiverse, and it’s strong, God will still be posited as the ground of being. And God, to my mind, is a trope for poetry, for the ontological mystery, maybe really there, maybe not. Some people want it, others don’t.

    Personally, I don’t know. I want God, mind, telos to salvage the poetry of existence. Without purpose or mind somehow behind the universe, it becomes one damn thing after another. It’s hard to make all the meaning just from your own side. It’s like trying to go on trip with no companions, or to have a conversation into a dead mirror. But I don’t know if God is there. So I guess I’m stuck.


  7. Matt says:

    I think we’ve found some common ground here, Santi, which is very cool. I agree with pretty much everything you say here too.
    Just a couple of things:
    I don’t think I’m conflating science and atheism, although I can see why it might appear that way. I see my atheism as a provisionally-held conclusion based on the available evidence, much like any other
    scientific conclusion.
    Regarding meaning, I agree with your statement that it’s hard to make meaning from our own side. However, I don’t agree that religion offers an acceptable source of such meaning.

    Religion isn’t some revealed answer to these very deep questions … it’s just someone’s preferred (and let’s face it, made-up) explanation presented as if it’s an answer. What’s more, it’s offered without
    any justification beyond the feeling of comfort it gives.

    Unlike the theologian, I’m happy to say “I don’t know” until I’m shown some solid evidence to back up any claims.
    I’m even happy with the possibility that no answer exists at all. That strikes me as something a theologion wouldn’t be willing to consider.

  8. santitafarella says:


    Once again, I can’t really quarrel with your position. If you see atheism as a provisionally held probability, and as making the most sense to you of the available options, I can’t argue with that. For me, the monotheisms, in their details, leave me flat. But I’m guessing that there’s a surprise at the end of the rainbow for us, some form of transcendence. A dark horse. Something. Mind, free will, love, qualia, the laws of physics, life. Chance, matter, and natural selection are unlikely (in my view) to fully account for them. Something else (it seems to me) must be going on. But what? I don’t know.


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