The Thirteen Missing Explanatory Links in the Atheist v. Theist Debate

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:

  • Nothing/something.
  • Eternity/something.
  • Lawlessness/law.
  • God/something.
  • Nonlife/life.
  • Neural firings/qualia.
  • Neural firings/love.
  • Neural firings/consciousness.
  • Determinate matter/free will.
  • Local/nonlocal.
  • Universe/multiverse.
  • Savannah/Shakespeare.
  • God/Holocaust.

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:

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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20 Responses to The Thirteen Missing Explanatory Links in the Atheist v. Theist Debate

  1. Jared K. says:

    Hi Santi,

    I like your list.

    How about the addition of “No God/Holocaust” as the flip side to “God/Holocaust”?

    Not to deny the God/Holocaust problem, but simply to say that the No God/Holocaust problem might involve one or both of these two questions:

    1. What does it mean for me to believe that Auschwitz is abhorrent? In other words, Auschwitz (or moral oughts) could be like qualia, love, consciousness, and free will. How can it be that molecules in motion, those in a time and place we collectively refer to “Auschwitz,” take on an actually meaningful moral plotline?

    2. How can I live in a universe where Auschwitz cannot be put to rights?

    You may disagree, but I think the crux of the “God/Holocaust” problem is the emotional and existential question “How can I possibly believe there is a caring God when Auschwitz…?” If that is right, the No God/Holocaust questioner asks “How can I possibly fail to believe in a caring God when Auschwitz…? How can I possibly do without a caring God who offers me hope in a world where Auschwitz…?”

    What do you think? Is this worthy of being the 14th link? Maybe not?

    • santitafarella says:

      Hi Jared,

      Long time, no hear from. If you ever decide to email me down the road, use the email address.

      Hope all is well.

      As for Auschwitz, I think that you make a fair point: I used to argue with you about moral justification and atheism, but I think that’s something I’ve shifted on a bit (I’ve read a lot of Nietzsche since then). It is hard to maintain coherence about love within atheism and agnosticism (even as you try to practice it).

      I’d have to think about the no-God/Auschwitz more before giving you a fuller reply.


      • My *brief* take on the problem of Auzchwitz is that it is not a “proof” (in the strong sense) that God cannot exist, as God could have reasons which we are unaware of. (So it’s a problem of what we can know, not the evil itself). I realise such a short reply may seem unsatisfying, but I will refrain from novelising.

        However, the emotional side of pain is highly problematic, it’s one thing to know good reasons, it’s another to be comforted by them when faced with suffering. Even as atheists, we still have to face this.

  2. JCR says:

    I am a philosophy noob, so I am likely reading into this he wrong way, but isn’t there a lot missing? Your list seems to encompass basic deism and the existence of god. But that is only a tiny little subset of modern religion. Factor in Christianity and the list grows exponentially.

    The heaven / hell quandary
    A Triune god
    Biblical immorality

    I do not know Islam as well as I know Christianity, but some similar issues arise – not the least of which is that Mohammed was a pedophile.

    • santitafarella says:

      I certainly agree with you that atheists and theists argue about more things than what I listed, but I was trying to think of the conundrums not based strictly on faith or appeals to authority, where thoughtful people and intellectuals—atheist or theist—genuinely tend to throw up their hands (for either logical or theoretical reasons).


    • I agree with Santi’s approach. I guess he’s looking at the general idea of whether a God can exist or not. It’s only after we come to a conclusion on that that the questions of a specific g0d come into play.

      At least, that’s how I’m approaching it, as an agnostic 🙂

      As a post-christian I’d respond to the first two from your list briefly with
      * hell is not necessary to christianity
      * i don’t find three personalities in one “body” impossible. It was reading Sci-Fi and meeting a “multiple personality” person that clarified this for me.

      I intend to write about these things “one day”, but as always other things come up first 🙂

      Jonathan from Spritzophrenia

  3. Hi Santi. A great list, and some I hadn’t thought about in detail.

    Responding to a point in your “Determinate matter”, I am currently unsure what the best interpretation of quantum uncertainty is. There are people like Victor Stenger (see ) who assert that quantum physics says nothing about mind influencing matter.

    Then there are other, equally qualified physicists who seem to say that it DOES. I’m going to have to read much more around this area. (Some other links in my piece here , particularly )

    As always, thought provoking and I don’t have time to respond fully.

    Jonathan from Spritzophrenia 🙂

    • santitafarella says:

      I’ll check out what Stenger says. In the above post, I’m relying on the excellent book (at least in terms of clarity of writing) “Quantum Enigma,” which was written by two “straight” physicists (not metaphysical enthusiasts). I was trying to be conservative in my claims about the subject, as I think that they are as well.

      —Santi : )

  4. Colin Hutton says:

    Santi :

    “Have I missed any?”

    A great post. (Thanks, especially, speaking as an Australian, for the referral to David Chalmers). But – haven’t you missed the mammoth in the room?

    You allow that the conflation of the first three elephants into the theist’s idea of a ‘god/something’ does not address the regression problem and does no more than create a single larger elephant. So why, in the absence of any proof, does anyone entertain the idea as a belief? – (as opposed to nothing more than an interesting point for philosophical discussion)

    Speaking as an atheist, I maintain that the theist’s god/something is nothing more than an escapist response to the fact of death – which is the mammoth in the room.

    It seems self-evident that evolution has programmed us to avoid death. Having been blessed/cursed (by evolution!) with consciousness, we are predisposed to favour belief systems which offer an alternative to dealing with the (otherwise self-evident) fact that we will die and the fact that there is not a shred of evidence to suggest that ‘dead’ does not mean dead. Full stop.

    I also find it significant that theists feel that they need to address the problem of the existence of evil (whether exemplified by the holocaust or the fact that, as I am writing this, dozens of children in third world countries are dying, horribly, right now, of starvation). It is a nice philosophical conceit to consider, for example, the possibility that we are nothing more than manifestations of a deity’s consciousness, but a different order of speculation to presume that the deity is in some sense ‘good’. More wishful thinking.

    13 elephants and 1 mammoth.


    • santitafarella says:


      I think you’re a bit hard on the theist position. I think it admirably pulls together, in an elegant fashion, the first three problems I listed. Theism at least offers the appearance of a “solution.”

      But I definitely like your “13 elephants and 1 mammoth” observation. Clever, I must say, and I wish that I had thought of it and included it in the original list. Yes, the psychology of death—and how to deal with it—is absolutely lurking beneath all theist-atheist wrangling.

      So I would add your death observation and Jared’s morality issue as expansions on the above list.

      Both have issues of justification and meaning that lurk and pester (regardless of which side you land on in talking about them).


  5. Colin Hutton says:


    “Psychology” –

    Well, you introduced the term, so I’ll go with it. (I hold psychology and its practitioners in even lower regard than I do economics/economists).

    It seems to me that just as ‘biological Darwinism’ produced our aversion to death, so too ‘social Darwinism’ produced (a significant part of) our morality and our resultant craving for justice/revenge. Both psychological desires are pandered to by religion and, potentially, deism.

    (So – I found Jared’s comment interesting, although not persuasive. But it may have subconsciously provoked my own reaction)

    “elegant fashion”

    On the evidence of Elephants #12 (in particular math and irony) and #13, I would be more inclined to believe in a ‘god/something’ that has an aesthetic sensibility than in a ‘moral’ god.

    In the interests of elegance, which is obviously pleasing to god, can I propose that you conflate 12 and 13 (determining god’s nature) and combine my and Jared’s issues into a single ‘psychological’ mammoth.

    = 12 elephants + 1 mammoth = “elegant”


    • santitafarella says:

      The psychological mammoth? Hmm.

      You said something else, Colin, that makes me think: is God an aesthete or a moralist?

      It appears difficult to make him both at the same time (given how the world is).

      I’ll have to think about this aesthete v. moral tension some more. I believe that Terry Eagleton, in one of his recent books, takes a view akin to yours (that God is up to aesthetic play, if (s)he exists). But the way you put it is very stark.


      • Colin Hutton says:

        “….takes a view akin to yours (that God is up to aesthetic play, if (s)he exists)”

        You gave me too much credit, there. On the issue of aesthetics, in my comment, I was mouthing off rather than thinking – which I’ll now have to do!

        Don’t know Terry Eagleton – more homework!

        In one of his books (sorry, can’t remember which one)Paul Davies allocates quite a high probability to the possibility that we are computer simulacrums in an experiment being run by super-advanced intelligences (or simulacrums created by very advanced simulacrums created by etc.)


    • I’m cautious about assigning psychological explanations for things like this. We could also claim that atheism is some kind of “I want to be free from my father” neurosis. (A little Freudian there?)

      Useful to speculate on, but not so useful for finding out the truth (if we can). I wonder what psychology would explain an agnostic like myself?


  6. jean-philippe says:

    It’s hard to believe in God, but I find it much harder to believe in mankind. I don’t have the strenght to be an atheist, so I’m an agnostic.

  7. Pingback: The Multiverse Returns, or “Daddy, Is There A God”? « Spritzophrenia

  8. Speaking of the multiverse, I’ve quoted you here Santi, along with a cartoon series I’m rather enjoying. 🙂

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