Below I offer what I would call “the thirteen missing explanatory links” in the atheist v. theist debate. To my mind they constitute the most intractable problems for anyone trying to arrive at some sort of worldview coherence (whether you are an atheist or a theist). By “missing explanatory link” I mean that, while a claim of causal connection between two things might be assumed, the justification for connecting them actually goes missing—the proposed causal link is absent. Put another way, there may be a correlation of two phenomena, but there also may be no obvious (or even non-obvious) means for linking them. The one appears to have had a hard emergence from the other “out of the blue.” So here’s my list. They are the thirteen elephants that move most heavily around the room of the atheist-theist debate:
- The atheist’s nothing/something. This elephant has to do with the beginning of all matter. First there was nothing. Absolutely nothing. Then there was something. Absolutely something. They correlate, but the causal link is absent. If we had somehow preceded this event (though logically impossible) we would never have predicted that one would come from the other. And in retrospect the event seems incapable of explanation (either in logic or theory). The best we can say is this: matter is something that nothingness (paradoxically) does. Contra Shakespeare’s King Lear, nothing can come from nothing. But if we posit this, it appears that we have approached a limit to further explanation.
- The atheist’s eternity/something. This is an alternative for those atheists who can’t stomach the nothing/something hypothesis. Something material has just always existed. It may be inconceivable to us, but true. Material existence simply exists and has never not existed. It has no cause and is the cause of everything. Period.
- The atheist’s lawlessness/law. First there was a lawless nothingness; then, somehow, out of nothingness, emerged physical law—then matter. Matter obeys physical law because it’s just the way it is. And if you don’t like the idea that law came from nothing, then posit the “eternal” alternative: matter has always existed and physical law has always existed. Matter and physical law are just fundamental brute facts. Deal with it.
- The theist’s God/something. The theist combines the atheist’s nothing/something, eternity/something, and lawlessness/law into the following affirmation: God is eternal and made something from nothing out of the physical laws that (s)he set up. It seems (at first) like a tidy way out of three logically intractable paradoxes: God is the logically necessary eternal Being outside of matter, space-time, and physical law who causes all contingent things to appear in history. Like the physicist who jumps to another dimension to elegantly explain a thorny set of problems adhering to a smaller number of dimensions, the theist thinks outside the atheist’s strictly material box and posits God. God solves the logical conundrums of strict materialism—or at least sets them back a step—but where God came from, or how (s)he causes things to be, who can say? Three big origin problems (of matter, space-time or eternity, and physical law) have been swapped out for one big problem (God’s origin). Thus these three are one. Sorry for the pun.
- Nonlife/life. How you arrive at the appearance of life from nonlife is not, strictly speaking, like the other explanatory gaps above. Life from nonlife, after all, does not appear to be a logically impossible problem to solve. For more than 50 years, scientists have been theorizing about abiogenesis (the origin of life from nonlife) and trying to test theories about it in the laboratory. But the gaps in the nonlife/life causal chain are large, and may well be intractable. Life may be—like God, matter, and physical law—simply fundamental. You either think that there must be some material accounting for life or you don’t. The atheist might even just shrug and say (echoing Ecclesiastes) “time and chance happeneth to all.” But like saying “God did it,” chance here functions as a placeholder for a (hopefully forthcoming) more plausible and lawful explanation.
- Neural firings/qualia. Why is the color green experienced as green? What is the causal link between the neural firings in our brains and our experiences of green (or any other color or sense experience, for that matter)? Like the first appearance of life, green may be serendipity. There may be no material cause accounting for the experience of green as green. Green might just be. We might extend this to, say, near death experiences (NDEs) and the ingestion of psychedelic mushrooms (entheogens). Why would neurons shutting down in death or being exposed to a chemical like DMT ever evoke such elaborate, beguiling, and unified qualia (at least in some people)? It’s as if specific brain states and chemicals function as gateways to worlds “next door” to our own. Indeed, our own mundane world, without altered states, is just such a banquet of qualia. Shouldn’t that be spectacularly improbable? Why are qualia, whether in normal states or altered states, so coherent and vivid?
- Neural firings/love. How does one account for the ontological mystery that is love (and, by extension, some people’s moral devotions to self-control, nonviolence, and honesty)? Most of us (rationally) set limits with people and things and are pragmatic about our ethics. But there are some people and things to which we devote ourselves without limit. We might, for example, get a call from a friend, a child, or a lover a thousand miles away, and if they need us, and need us now, we go; like the apostles with Jesus, we drop our nets and follow their call. Such a call might even adhere to things (somebody might love books, travel, art, fossil hunting, or birdwatching, and, forsaking all others, serve them). Why does this sort of love happen in some cases, but not in others? Why are some attachments so urgent? This isn’t a matter of speaking in probabilistic terms about who is most likely to link to another (mothers, say, to their children; high IQ people to science). It’s a matter of who and what, in fact, links up. It’s the ontological mystery of particular linkages—the experience, the qualia, the inner devotion that can’t be reduced to brain neurons firing or a hormone in the bloodstream (though these might be correlated to the experience of love).
- Neural firings/consciousness. Who would have thought that the universe would produce ghosts inside bodies (that is, us)? That’s one thing you wouldn’t expect on strictly materialist assumptions. We know that the brain correlates with consciousness, but how on earth do the firings of neurons cause our specific conscious experiences (if they do)? Is consciousness fundamental? Is the brain like a radio studio (that is, a producer of inner experiences and thoughts that are then broadcast to others) or is the brain more like a radio (a receiving device for consciousness coming from elsewhere—or everywhere—and interacting with it)? Or is the brain perhaps like something else?
- Determinate matter/free will. Strict materialists tend to dismiss contra-causal free will as illusory. But even though free will would seem to violate the determinate laws of physics, physicists over the past century have reached a startling conclusion: the mind is, in fact, central to the ghostly particle-wave paradoxes of matter. So it’s not too large a stretch to infer that our choices may in fact have material effects, and our experience of free will is not an illusory epiphenomenon of determinate matter. But if this is so, how, for example, could our seemingly ghostly human consciousness ever really influence the position and direction of material particles? This seems to be the other side of the neuron-firing/consciousness coin: if there is an explanatory gap in how neurons evoke consciousness, there is also an explanatory gap in how the mind’s activity—choosing to give attention or not give attention to a double-slit experiment, for example—can either evoke or render “ghostly” and merely probabilistic material things. Physicists Bruce Rosenblum and Fred Kuttner, both at the University of California at Santa Cruz, call the mind’s relation to matter a “quantum enigma”—indeed, the central quantum enigma—and ask rhetorically in their book of the same title, “[D]oes it not go without saying that there is a real world ‘out there,’ whether or not we look at it?” (4). But quantum physics suggests that our intuitive ‘yes’ may be spectacularly wrong. Likewise, I would suggest that the intuition among materialists that human purposes must be generated by determinate matter first, and thus cannot really impact the direction of determinate particles, may also be spectacularly wrong. If mind is fundamental, freedom and the self may also be fundamental.
- Local/nonlocal. Quoting more fully from Bruce Rosenbaum and Fred Kuttner’s Quantum Enigma: “[I]s it not just common sense that one object cannot be in two far apart places at once? And, surely, what happens here is not affected by what happens at the same time someplace very far away. And does it not go without saying that there is a real world ‘out there,’ whether or not we look at it? Quantum mechanics challenges each of these intuitions by having observation actually create the physical reality observed” (4). Isn’t that stunning? The mind may be, in some important sense, prior to matter in the production of reality, locality, and distance (or at least equally responsible with matter for them). So if human minds “create the physical reality observed”, might this provide a hint of how the mind of God creates (if God exists)? Physicist Andrei Linde, in Discover magazine, is also reported to endorse the idea that “consciousness may be a fundamental component of the universe, much like space and time. He wonders whether the physical universe, its laws, and conscious observers might form an integrated whole. A complete description of reality, he says, could require all three of those components, which he posits emerged simultaneously.” Linde is then quoted as saying this: “Without someone observing the universe, the universe is actually dead.” Also falling under this local/nonlocal explanatory missing link is psi phenomena such as ESP, which is not as scientifically well established as some might claim, but neither is it something to dismiss out of hand. If ESP exists, however weak as a phenomenon, it opens up yet another explanatory gap between the local/nonlocal (with regard to mind, space, and time).
- Universe/multiverse. If you are an atheist, the multiverse hypothesis is a godsend. As cosmologist Bernard Carr told Discover magazine (in the same article in which Andrei Linde was also quoted above), “If there is only one universe you might have to have a fine-tuner. If you don’t want God, you’d better have a multiverse.” Like the God hypothesis (or Linus’s Great Pumpkin hypothesis), the multiverse hypothesis is a tidy catch-all for getting out of every thorny dilemma of probability: Life’s beginning? “With God the multiverse all things are possible.” Consciousness? “Ditto.” If you adopt belief in the The Great Pumpkin the multiverse, it makes every implausibility inevitable. But how the multiverse multiplies itself, or ever arrived at its spectacular powers of creation, who knows? If atheists have a god in the closet, it’s Fortuna, their Great Pumpkin.
- Savannah/Shakespeare. Innate grammar. Music. Metacognition. Tool use. Math. Art. Abstraction. Poetry. Dance. Imagination. Symbol manipulation. Culture. Irony. The creative range and sheer computational powers of the human mind appear—how shall we put this nicely?—disproportionate to its lowly African Savannah origin. And all of this seems to have only really turned-on in the past 35,000 to 100,000 years. Our origins are like the opening scenes of 2001: A Space Odyssey: one moment, we’re animals; the next, we’re reflective beings who laugh and cry, increasingly aware of being plugged into something really, really weird. But, of course, it can be argued that this sudden transition is illusory; that humans evolved slowly and in response, not to their immediate physical surroundings, but to their social surroundings. An arms race, in other words, of competing hominid minds and hands kicked-in and, though the history of this struggle is now lost to us by the ravages of time, we all now have inner mental versions of the peacock’s tail as a result. But still. Shakespeare? Sophocles? Mozart? Niels Bohr? Seriously. Why us?
- God/Holocaust. The God hypothesis has to pass through the gates of Auschwitz. It has to. We all know it.
To sum up: if we believe that a causal explanation for something really is absent, and not merely appearing absent, then what we may be encountering is the irreducible. Whether that something is “irreducibly complex” or “irreducibly simple” is beside the point. What is key here is that something appears to arrive without cause, or it arrives in such a way that we could not reasonably have predicted it, given our other assumptions, in advance. Further, now that it is here, we cannot account for it very well in theory, and maybe not even in logic. The reason for its presence seems not explainable in material or causal terms, or it simply does not fit well with what we presume to be our hard-earned background knowledge. It appears to be somehow fundamental or something that we should consider treating as axiomatic.
To absorb the list in one visual field, here it is again:
- Neural firings/qualia.
- Neural firings/love.
- Neural firings/consciousness.
- Determinate matter/free will.
So this is my list of the big thirteen missing explanatory links upon which thoughtful theists and atheists square off.
Have I missed any?
In terms of trying to decide who is closest to guessing correctly about the truth behind these explanatory gaps (atheists generally, or theists), I like what Damon Linker recently wrote about post-9-11 atheists (such as Jerry Coyne) v. post World War II atheists (such as Albert Camus):
The members of the second, more humanistic tradition of atheism understood and accepted that although an individual may settle the question of God to his personal satisfaction, it is highly unlikely that all human beings will settle it in the same way. They recognised that differences in life experience, psychological makeup, social class, intelligence, the capacity for introspection, and temperament will tend to preclude unanimity about the fundamental mysteries of human existence, including God. Humanistic atheists accept this situation; ideological atheists, including our bestselling new atheists, do not.
Here’s David Chalmers explaining admirably the problems of neural firings/consciousness and neural firings/qualia: