Atheism on Trial: Robots v. Fairies?

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)?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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21 Responses to Atheism on Trial: Robots v. Fairies?

  1. trishothinks says:

    I’m a “dualist”…..I think, therefore I am. “Cogito ergo sum”….as Rene Descartes said.

    So….yes…I believe in faeries…and all kinds of creepy things….makes life more interesting.

    • santitafarella says:

      I admire your willingness to leap in a direction. I myself am completely confused as to which position is, in fact, deluded (and yet one of them must be so).


      • Heuristics says:

        Hello again (was a little while since I last commented)

        You wrote: ” I myself am completely confused as to which position is, in fact, deluded”

        I would like to offer a way out:
        The arguments that the one side uses against the other works and vice versa. From this observation we should conclude that they are both wrong.

        But… Something must be true. From this we reach the idea that there must be another posibiblity then what the two extremes can offer.

        There is a middle position between the two that is my current favorite, created by Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas:

        Here it is not the case that the matter that we are made up of is pure emotionless mechanics and it is not the case that there is a ghost in the machine pulling the strings. Instead the human experience is explained as comming about when matter takes on the form of the human body, the form of the body here plays the third part and the purpose of humans plays a vital part in enabling them to have a purpose for themselves.

        This view was created before Newton and Descartes created the ghost in the machine view of man and it has a view of the world that takes reading through a good many texts before one can understand since as a modern man one has a whole slew of preconceptions of the world that Aristotle did not have.

        (that is not to say that it solves everything perfectly, but like it best so far)

      • santitafarella says:


        That’s interesting. I’ll have to look into this. In the meantime, might you have a looksie at what I just posted this evening. Maybe I’ve accidently mused my way in the direction you suggested:


  2. Andrew Furst says:

    I think that the facts say that neither is a theory that works. Here are the facts

    1. There is lots of matter around, including the stuff that makes up our bodies.
    2. There is sentience, or awareness – As a Buddhist I’m inclined to draw the distinction between the brain mind, thoughts, habits, points of view AND basic awareness. While we can mechanically produce memories, feelings, and the like by simply applying electrical stimuli to various parts of the body, we can not produce awareness with such things (i.e. reanimation).
    3. There is as of yet no evidence of another “substance” called mind.

    Based on these facts, I would say that sentience is evidence that materialism is not complete as a theory. I would also say the dualism, while acknowledging mind (although I think the wrong kind) is creating a backstory for sentience, that is like your title suggests – a fairytale.

    • santitafarella says:

      I’m not entirely clear about how you are staking out a middle position. Are you arguing from the vantage of Theravadan or Mahayana Buddhism—or are you a Westerner who sort of cherry picks your own Buddhist reflections and practice from both?

      If I understand you correctly, you are suggesting that we are having “thoughts without a thinker”—and that is part of what is the real—the manifestation of “spontaneous Buddha nature.” But we shouldn’t put on that an individualist self and backstory, and we shouldn’t reduce it to the material.

      Is it your position, as a Buddhist, that emptiness is what we find when we look closely at either the material or the mental? And so is emptiness what’s really real? And if so, how is this different from the confrontation with nihilism that we find in, say, Nietzsche?


      • Andrew Furst says:

        Ooh missed your reply. Great questions. I’ll go at them in order

        – Are you arguing from the vantage of Theravadan or Mahayana Buddhism – I come from the Mahayana/Vajrayana tradition

        – “thoughts without a thinker”— hmmm, I don’t think so. If I’m hearing what I think I’m hearing here’s my response.

        There are three aspects to our being

        1. Pure awareness (no more-no less) – this I think (pun intended) is the thinker you’re trying to place. I would more accurately describe this aspect as the “experiencer”
        2. Our bodies and our perceptions – this is the “experience”
        3. The union of these two or “experiencing”

        I think the shortest way to differentiate a dualist from a Buddhist is by comparing thinkers or experiencers. A dualist ascribes to the thinker a great number of attributes, personality, morals, ownership or property, etc.

        The Buddhist says, no, there is an experiencer, but this experiencer obviously does not have any of the attributes or properties that a body has. If it did we could observe it as another substance. If it has no attributes except existence, then what can we say about it? It’s perfect! It does not change, it does not die, and it does not participate in the passing of time. It’s the one “real” thing about us.

        Theists might want to take a leap here to say this is God, and that’s fine, as long as you understand that we cannot know much more about God than that she exists. To assert anything further than this would be to imply that you’ve identified a feature of God, and with that you’ve changed God from eternal and perfect to just another passing feature observed in our empty world of perceptions.

        – Emptiness is a very misunderstood Buddhist idea and gets latched onto as a link to nihilism. Remember, until recently these ideas grew up in separate cultures with little contact. They take a little time to ingest because of the cultural divide. Emptiness is the proposition that the second aspect of ourselves – the experience, our bodies and perceptions – do not exist “in and of themselves”. There is no eternal electron, there is no eternal Sun, and there is certainly no eternal human body. By this logic the Buddhist reject the idea that matter has permanent “substance” in the western philosophical sense. This is actually consistent with modern physics formulation of matter. Buddhism does point to a substantial “thing” but that “thing” is pure awareness, or life. I’d compare it to the breath of life that is bestowed upon the man in the Bible by God.

        So Buddhism is free of nihilism, in that it affirms the existence of something. But it is also very adamant in stating that such a thing – that exists, in and of itself – cannot have attributes or properties ascribed to it. Such a thing could not be divided into subcomponents and would not have features that would make it describable or perceived.

        This is what rocked my world when I became a Buddhist. It sidesteps, rather elegantly, the philosophical conundrums that were born of the Western “Age of Enlightenment”!

  3. By coincidence I happen to be reading “C. S. Lewis’s Dangerous Idea: In Defense of the Argument from Reason” by philosopher Victor Reppert (2007?)

    I think he makes a good case that this has been a much-ignored argument, and makes what appears to be a strong case that materialism alone leads to us being unable to trust our own reasoning. (If materialism means there are only moving atoms, how can we trust the atoms in our brains to tell us the truth?)

    It’s short, and an easy read as philosophy goes, without being simple. Probably worth a look?

    • santitafarella says:

      I’ll check the book out. Thank for that.

      On a pragmatic level, I find the “you can’t trust your reason if you’re an atheist” argument fishy. Our reasoning is, of course, flawed in numerous ways. And this is why we talk to others (two heads are better than one) and do public science experiments (so that others can replicate the results that we arrive at), etc.

      We try to build redundancies and methods and verifications into our systems of reasoning precisely because our reasoning is so unreliable and frequently flawed. But what the strictly philosophical argument is doing (in my view) is setting up a strawman—trying to suggest to the atheist that his or her position must lead to radical doubt (as opposed to a high degree of epistemic caution)—imagining that an evolved brain is an epistemically hopeless organ.

      I would argue that it is precisely because our brains are far from perfect that we should be epistemically cautious and, wherever an issue matters to us, to be skeptical and doubt what we think we already know. The “our evolved brains are imperfect so how can we know the truth?” argument seems to me to fare badly for religious claims (as opposed to, say, a scientific theory that has seen many minds argue it through accompanied by loads of empirical investigation).

      “For now we see through a glass darkly.” And for exactly this reason, arriving at halfway decent conclusions requires work (as opposed to leaps of faith).


  4. Human Ape says:

    Intelligent Design advocates = Magic advocates.

    If you believe in intelligent design you believe in magic.

    If you believe in magic you’re a superstitious moron.

    darwinkilledgod dot blogspot dot com

    • santitafarella says:

      Why isn’t the acceptance of the sudden appearance of matter and the laws of physics out of the blue (or their eternal existence for no reason outside of themselves) also a form of “magic advocacy”?

      And do you reject mental-to-physical causation?


      • Saying that we do not know the answer to something is vastly different than saying we do not know the answer so it must be a creator. Matter is observable and measurable – we may not know from whence it came, but we know it is here. There are numerous theories of how it MAY have come into being, but those theories follow standard scientific method and have supporting evidence. ID does not. ID equates lack of evidence to causation and is outside of scientific method.

  5. Alt Numlock says:

    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).

    Which is a philosophical train wreck. If atheists can’t understand that it is a train wreck, their opinion on anything else under the sun is of little value. Except, perhaps to someone like Robert E. Curry.

    • But saying that it is in God’s nature to be is not the exact same train wreck? Do you even see the irony of your post? The same thing you use to condemn atheists and then dispose of anything else they say can be directly applied to your assertion of why they should be dismissed. The irony … it burns …

    • santitafarella says:


      If you come back to this thread, do you think that there is mental-to-physical causation?

      On strictly atheist terms, how can that be?


      • andrewclunn says:

        Well see synapsis in my mind are linked to quite a number of glands that produce hormones, which in turn effect how my body operates. Or in reverse, my visual cortex does preprocessing on an image before that image is sent to the rest of my brain. I also can through conscious control directly influence my breathing, while I can also completely ignore my breathing and give it over to subliminal control.

        As to how I can ‘think’ of such a thing as controlling my breathing or further, something as complex as a sentence and then act differently based on said thought, it all comes down to abstraction and layering. When I was young I built a vocabulary of words and their meanings. Then with these I was able to form structural representations of an event, such as, “The dog is sitting.” Through repeated use of this mechanism for conveying the linguistically represented event / situation with the act of observing it, the two became inextricably linked. So then the addition of new words became in fact the addition of new thoughts.

        Now through observation I have been able to determine whether various words correspond to something actually represented in reality, or whether those events are better describe in other terms. This has (in my case) allowed me to reject both sociology and psychology for neuroscience. So now I am enabled to consciously reduce my vocabulary or expand it toward the aim of (well in my case) trying to better explain and understand reality.

        So then where is the ‘me’ and why should I have the goal of understanding reality? Well the ‘me’ comes from my genetic preprograming, my early programing as a child, and continued environmental factors influencing me. The drive towards reality comes from evolutionary pressure both at the genetic, the epigenetic and the conscious level, where the more accurate representation of reality is superior (except perhaps in situations of urgency where there is a trade off between accuracy and time dedicated to observation and / or analysis). The DNA better suited to the environment wins. The more accurate mental simulation of reality well better predict outcomes.

  6. santitafarella says:


    It seems to me that you’ve described a process, not an entity with a locatable identity. This is where a souless world appears to be a selfless world (and a world, therefore, where libertarian—that is, contra-causal—free will is incoherent). Where, on atheist terms, is this self that: (1) chooses to put its attention on the breath; and (2) can then choose to hold the breath? Obviously, according to strict materialism, these decisions are dispersed through independent neural and bodily systems and triggered in one direction or the other by whatever part of the system happens to be activated at a particular moment (and, in your view, the self is also tangled up in its acquired vocabulary and abstractions). So really, Don Delillo’s right, don’t you think? Here’s the White Noise quote again:

    “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.”

    What’s wrong with this quote, in your view? How and from where does your experiential self ever really disrupt the physical causal chains that are in operation—unless the mind cannot be reduced to matter and yet can (somehow) bat out of their course atoms of matter in your brain with just a thought? Who withdraws your hand from a hot potato?


    • andrewclunn says:

      Let us look by comparison to the mitochondria. Now it is widely accepted that the mitochondria was at some point separate from the rest of the cell, but that they developed a symbiotic relationship that eventually formed into a union where the two became inseparable. Now one might take the view that the mitochondria remains a separate entity from the rest of the cell. If that is the case however, then attempt to remove the mitochondria, and judge whether or not it survives.

      Similarly let us judge someone who has undergone a lobotomy. Are they two people sharing one body? If one were to surgically remove a brain hemisphere then both the removed section and the remaining person would promptly die, so clearly that is not the case. Individuality is indistinguishable from independence. This is what is meant by claiming that existence and identity are one and the same.

      Now a clever contrarian might claim that I am making a claims that presuppose some human notion of scale. After all an individual might survive outside of society from a few decades, just as a lump of flesh might survive a few hours when cut from a living body, so barring immortality, what distinguishes the two, save scale?

      However, as embryology has shown us, there is no central control mechanism for the formation of the body. See the chapter “You did it yourself in nine months” from The Greatest Show on Earth.

      Even if we were to identify the whole as the entity, the individual cells still act as just that, individuals. They are simply individuals who’s very nature lends to the formation of a more complex structure. In nature no system exists where a complex structure lives at the expense of another complex entity outside of predation and parasites. The very notion of involuntary or forced cooperation could only ever be justified if one viewed a society as the relevant being rather than the people within it. And even then both historical and natural observation will display why a “societal organism” structured around voluntary association will out compete authoritarian ones.

      It does not matter the scale: emergence, survival, individualism, truth, pragmatism… all these things are on the same side. The better a reason to frame any notions of morality around this knowledge, least we foolishly convince ourselves otherwise momentarily and suffer for it (both collectively and individually.)

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