Here’s Something to Make You Wonder (If You’re an Atheist)

Mathematician David Berlinski (from his new book of collected essays, The Deniable Darwin, p. 422):

At some time in the history of the universe, there were no human minds, and at some time later, there were. Within the blink of a cosmic eye, a universe in which all was chaos and void came to include hunches, beliefs sentiments, raw sensations, pains, emotions, wishes, ideas, images, inferences, the feel of rubber, Schadenfreude, and the taste of banana ice cream. A sense of surprise is surely in order. How did that get here?

The list is a bit Freudian at the end (rubber, echoes of Freud in Schadenfreude, and banana ice cream), but his point is well taken (pun intended, I suppose). How, exactly, did the mind get here from matter? Strange alchemy! Base matter turned to mental gold!

In other words, how is strict atheist materialism different from 16th century alchemy? What if mind can’t, in fact, be reduced to base matter or derived from base matter? Maybe the ontological mystery (the mystery of being) extends not just to matter but to mind. Maybe there are two irreducible things in the universe (matter and mind). At the very least (and given our current state of knowledge), the inference that mind might not derive from matter is not unreasonable, is it?

Is it?

I mean think about it. Who would have predicted (if anyone had been there) that the young and hot matter at the Big Bang would cool and congeal over time into, well, us? Isn’t that absurd? It’s like being told that hot water, on the way to cooling down and turning to ice, passes through a stage in which it loves the Beatles and the smell of coffee, and can talk about the plays of William Shakespeare with you at your kitchen table! Like the roiling water in a pot on your stove top, that hot thing at the Big Bang doesn’t appear that it would eventually do such ridiculous things. Matter isn’t like that. But here we are. Base metal turned to gold is a fancy that has nothing on what actually did happen. The cooling carbon “steam” from the stove tops of the stars cooled into us.

Ab. Surd.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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4 Responses to Here’s Something to Make You Wonder (If You’re an Atheist)

  1. Jared says:

    Consciousness is subject to the refining process of evolution also. Humans are not the only species whom are aware of pain or pleasure. Life on earth has been evolving the sense of self-awareness for some time. The fact that humans can make a bannana split is impressive, but the fact that whales sing is equally (if not more) astounding. I think that the speciesism of Berlinski quote is apparent. I think that the fact that the playpus evolved in a comparable amount of time to human emotion makes his quote uninspiring.

  2. Jared Burton says:

    Of course, I meant platypus…

  3. santitafarella says:


    Your point is taken. Thanks, by the way, for emailing me that article on the Hadron collider. It made me want to research the subject, and led to a lot of recent posts. Once again, you led me in an interesting direction.

    It is odd, don’t you think, that matter sings in any form at all?


    • Jared Burton says:

      Yes…singing matter and, singing matters!. I saw a film on hummingbirds this week and boy do they sing in an interesting way.

      I’m glad the Hadron collider topic is of interest to you! I’m really enjoying the blogposts you are leaving about it! I have so little time these days to comment though.


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