Atheists tend to be comfortable with one, and only one, irreducible thing in the universe: matter. Matter just is. It has no explanation outside itself, but it’s here; it is its nature to be here. Did it just jump into existence out of nothing, or has it always been here? Atheists don’t know (and, of course, neither does anyone else). But however conceived—whether as atoms and void or as Plank-level vibrating strings—there’s something properly basic at the bottom of all things—an ontological mystery, if you will, that exists without any antecedent causes—and for the atheist this just happens to be matter.
So if you ask an atheist where matter came from, you’re likely to get a response like this:
It is in matter’s nature to be. Whether matter is eternal or came into existence out of nothing, its nature derives from nothing (or nothing outside of its contingent existence).
For the atheist, matter’s explanation can pretty much stop there. Short of some new scientific insight about the question, it’s okay to just leave it at that.
That’s why atheists, like Hindus, can be considered monists. Just as Hindus believe that everything is ultimately illusion, or maya, save the Atman—the Big Self behind appearances—so atheists believe that everything reduces to one thing: matter (however conceived). Matter is behind all appearances.
But there are also dualists in the world. Instead of one irreducible thing in the cosmos—one ontological mystery—dualists think that there are two: matter and mind, neither of which is illusory or reducible to the properties of the other. By logic they shouldn’t be here, but they are. They are not apparent enigmas; they are enigmas. And so, for the dualist, wherever these two enigmas—matter and mind—appear to intersect, things get interesting.
Michael Behe and other Intelligent Design advocates think that life can be held up as an example of where matter and mind have obviously intersected. Life’s origin, in other words, appears (at least to Intelligent Design advocates) to not be amenable to a strictly material explanation. Behe’s specific thesis is that there are at least some things in this world—the first cell, the tail of the flagellum—where explanation ought to include, not just material mechanism, but help from mind.
Jerry Coyne dismisses such mind help as a religious attempt to slip “Jebus” (his word) into biology. And Daniel Dennett, in his great book, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (1996), tartly calls any explanation of Behe’s sort a skyhook. Dennett, being a strict materialist—an atheist monist—writes that he prefers cranes to skyhooks: at every step in the explanation of a phenomenon there must be a ratchet working, as it were, from the material ground up. There must not be any part of an explanation floating, unsupported, as if it simply came out of the blue (even though matter’s ultimate existence appears to have come about in this way). Like the exclusion of 19th century Irish Americans from offers of employment, Coyne and Dennett are agreed on this: in ultimate terms, no mental explanation of any phenomenon need ever apply.
But what is this mind that Coyne and Dennett would exclude from explanation (and that theists like Behe would include)? Mind is where conscious desires are experienced and goals are formulated. It is where choices are made and actions are both planned and initiated.
And where is mind, exactly? Well, that’s where things get ghostly, and, therefore, for atheists, ghastly. You don’t, after all, want to believe in spooks, do you?
And so you have to swallow long and hard before deciding to place your bets on something that you can’t even see. You at least know that matter exists, even if it’s always in flux. But mind as a real, stable, and independent entity not reducible to matter, yet capable of mental-to-physical causation? That’s arrived at by rational induction (at best) and a faith-based and desperate hope for a world different from the one we actually inhabit (at worst).
Sure, you have your own experience of mind, and it feels like you have free will. But do you ever, really, cause anything? And is your self of today really, in any meaningful sense, the same self that you see in, say, your baby pictures? It’s more than plausible that your sense of self and free will are illusions generated by blind and transitory material forces. Though it makes me feel uncomfortable, I like, for example, this quote from Don DeLillo’s novel, White Noise. It captures the materialist Weltanschauung—worldview—perfectly:
Who knows what I want to do? Who knows what anyone wants to do? How can you be sure about something like that? Isn’t it all a question of brain chemistry, signals going back and forth, electrical energy in the cortex? How do you know whether something is really what you want to do or just some kind of nerve impulse in the brain? Some minor little activity takes place somewhere in this unimportant place in one of the brain hemispheres and suddenly I want to go to Montana or I don’t want to go to Montana.
And so it comes down to this: in accounting for the origins of all that you see, will you place your bets on:
- one irreducible explanation for things—matter; or
- two irreducible things: matter and mind?
Will you say, for example, that the reason the ball rolled across the floor is not just because it obeyed the laws of matter—which it must have done—but because you desired it, you chose to make it happen, and you set a material process in motion for it to happen? Or does the introduction of mental-to-physical causation into a perfectly adequate material explanation cloud explanation? Perhaps you think the real and only genuine explanation for the ball rolling is this:
The ball rolled across the room because determinate (or quantum random) atoms, without conscious direction and purpose, moved my brain and body to initiate the motion of the ball. My experiences of consciousness, desire, will, and action are just the curious epiphenomena of what matter is always already on its way to doing. I am unnecessary to any scientific hypothesis of motion. Pragmatically, to imagine myself as an agent—an irreducible locus for initiating action in the world—is okay for day-to-day life and in the way I talk about myself to others, but to go beyond this, and treat the self and free will as really real and causing things to happen in the world, is a delusion.
Is this your view? Are you a monist or a dualist? When push comes to shove, do you think that we’re all, at bottom, robots in a thoroughgoing and inescapable material world? Or do you leave intellectual room for the possibility that there is a real and independent existence for the mind, the self, and free will—and, therefore, perhaps even other nonmaterial minds as well (angels, devils, ghosts, fairies at the bottom of gardens, and God)?