Checkmate: Death and Determinism are the Two Absolute Truths of Atheism

It’s sometimes asserted that atheism admits of no ultimate or absolute truths, but in the “D Girl” episode of the Sopranos (Season 2) is a rather nice exchange between Tony Soprano and his therapist, Dr. Jennifer Malfi, that suggests otherwise. The exchange concerns existential dread. The two characters are in Dr. Malfi’s office:

Dr. Malfi: When some people first realize that they’re solely responsible for their decisions, actions, and beliefs, and that death lies at the end of every road, they can be overcome with intense dread.

Tony Soprano: Intense dread?

Dr. Malfi: A dull, aching anger that leads them to conclude that the only absolute truth is death.

Checkmate is in this exchange—a sense that one is out of moves. Concerning life, “no one gets out alive.” But at least atheist existentialism gives a person a single reed to grasp (however weak): one’s own freedom in the face of fatality.

Except when it doesn’t. When the existentialism is dropped from atheism you get another form of inescapable checkmate that closes in on a person’s psyche: determinism as an absolute truth. The shock of this is captured most profoundly in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel, The Brother’s Karamazov, in which Dostoevsky’s character, Dmitri Karamazov, tries to absorb what an academic has taught him concerning the human brain:

Imagine: inside, in the nerves, in the head—that is, these nerves are there in the brain . . . (damn them!) there are sort of little tails, the little tails of those nerves, and as soon as they begin quivering . . . that is, you see, I look at something with my eyes and then they begin quivering, those little tails . . . and when they quiver, then an image appears . . . it doesn’t appear at once, but an instant, a second, passes . . . and then something like a moment appears; that is, not a moment—devil take the moment!—but an image; that is, an object, or an action, damn it! That’s why I see and then think, because of those tails, not at all because I’ve got a soul, and that I am some sort of image and likeness. All that is nonsense! Rakitin explained it all to me yesterday, brother, and it simply bowled me over. It’s magnificent, Alyosha, this science! A new man’s arising—that I understand. . . . And yet I am sorry to lose God!

In other words, when a neuron-based self replaces a soul-based self you get a different conception of the human being, and one loses control of all experience: things happen to you; you don’t make things happen. Francis Crick calls neuron-based determinism The Astonishing Hypothesis. And Don DeLillo, in his novel White Noise, depicts a character expressing ironic helplessness before the actions of his neurons as well:

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 these are the two ultimate truths of atheism: death is at the end of every road and you are not free.

It’s a hell realm, isn’t it?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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17 Responses to Checkmate: Death and Determinism are the Two Absolute Truths of Atheism

  1. Iain says:

    I disagree with your title’s thesis.

    You may enjoy reading Daniel Dennett’s ‘Elbow Room’ or his later book ‘Freedom Evolves’.

    Not every atheist must necessarily be a determinist.

    But that still begs the question, if death comes to all men (as it surely does) and determinism is true (which may or may not be the case) then… what? Does that makes atheism false? Or are you making another point?

    • santitafarella says:


      I’m making an existential and psychological observation: what are the human consequences of drawing the atheist conclusion?

      I think that the atheist conclusion concerning death and determinism is probably true, it’s just not a pleasant truth. (Not all truths are pleasant.)

      As for Dennett, I’ve read Freedom Evolves, and his definition of freedom is not libertarian free will (which is contra-causal), and the argument that he makes in the book really doesn’t ever go beyond an affirmation that we have some degree of consciously reacted “free won’t”. We can, on Dennett’s terms, find our consciousness looped into the process of tapping the break on a direction (but never initiating it). Dennett’s view is very much like Don DeLillo’s in the quote above. The thing you want to do is what your brain chemistry determines that you want to do in any event (so there’s really nothing to contravene).


  2. Even if determinism, as you describe it, were true .. how would you ever know? At a minimum, you would need the knowledge of every atom of every molecule inside a specific human. then you would need knowledge of all external atoms with any likelihood of interacting with said human. Then, with all that and a lot more knowledge, you could start to predict …

    Oh, and you would need quantum mechanics to be wrong and you would somehow have to avoid the Heisenberg uncertainty principle.

    • santitafarella says:


      Some theist philosophers hide God or the soul in the quantum realm. I agree that we can never know if a soul or God “pinged” with a little finger an atom to go in one direction (as opposed to another).

      It occurred to me recently that theists could also account for the evolution of species in a similar fashion (natural selection plus help from God pinging mutations in this or that direction is what led to us).

      I suppose this would constitute the theist version of the butterfly effect.

      It would be much easier on all of us if God would just speak (or land, like a UFO, on the White House lawn).

      Until then, we have the hell realm of atheist death and determinism or the inconclusive faith moves of ever hopeful (and ever rationalizing) theists.


    • santitafarella says:


      I like those new Chips Ahoy chocolate chip cookies with Heath toffee pieces in them. If you’ve got those, I may be unable to resist the Darth Vader appeal.

      “Misuse the farce, Luke!”


  3. Colin Hutton says:

    The arguments for determinism are sufficiently persuasive that one needs to deploy ‘faith’ to convince oneself that one has free will. One then has to worry whether that ‘faith’ is any different to the faith that supports ridiculous beliefs in ridiculous personal gods. Can’t win.

    • I guess that I am not educated enough to see that the arguments for determinism are overwhelming. Doesn’t quantum mechanics negate this concept since all interactions are only probabilities? How could it not?

      • Iain says:


        Quantum mechanics only introduces indeterminacy/randomness. If we assume that there isn’t some comprehensible process that we don’t know about yet underlying QM then all we can say is that it proves “Universal Determinism” (which says that all future states of the universe can be determined by analysing past states) is false.

        Unfortunately, that doesn’t go anywhere to achieving freedom. That only means that we are caught between robotic determinism and fickle randomness.

        Or so the philosophy goes… 😉

      • It is kind of hard to look at the universe and not sense a good degree of randomness. At least it sure seems that way to me. I can recall a few times of feeling it most. Once taking off out of ATL .. plane picking up speed and suddenly the pilot slams on the brakes (or whatever they do). Look out my window to see another plane coming right at us. Missed by at few 100 yards at most. Air traffic control screwed up and the pilot saved it by seeing the approaching plane. How many random things caused or saved that whole scenario.

  4. trickslattery says:

    I certainly agree death is the end and that we are not free (in the sense of free will). I think it is a mistake to construe this as meaning that neurons make things happen without thoughts. That they just “happen”. It is a causal interaction of thoughts, perceptions, and genes that cause neurons to do what they do. I also think that the notion of free will is a detriment to humanity. I am currently in the process of writing a book tentatively called “Breaking the Free Will Illusion for the Betterment of Humankind”. In it I display the hard incompatibilist position, that being that free will is incompatible with both a deterministic universe and an indeterministic universe (one where acausal events happen). I also explain why this is the case regardless if there are “souls, heaven, god, etc” or not. I also explain why it is important for humanity to understand this fact.

    Take care,
    ‘Trick Slattery

    • Iain says:

      The only way that I can interpret what you’re saying in a coherent way is to assume that you must be talking from the dualist position.

      You said,
      “it is a mistake to construe this as meaning that neurons make things happen without thoughts.”
      “It is a causal interaction of thoughts, perceptions, and genes that cause neurons to do what they do.”

      Now these two sentences seem to be arguing for a dualistic theory of mind. Is that correct?

      From a physicalist perspective, and more specifically the theory of mind that holds mind-brain identity, your perspective is either wrong or possibly nonsensical.

      IF mind-brain identity holds then the “mind” is nothing more than a name for the operation of the “brain”. The normal functioning of neurons IS the mind. To then say that the operations of neurons is CAUSED by thoughts would be absurd. If anything thoughts ARE operating neurons but to refer to causality one might reasonably say that thoughts are caused by neurons firing in long-loop brain networks.

      As for whether neurons “make things happen without thoughts.” What do you mean by “thoughts”? Are thoughts independent of neuron activity? Again, from a mind-brain identity standpoint that sentence doesn’t make much sense. The only way to make it work would be to assume that thoughts were somehow totally different to brain functioning in a Dualist sense.

      I’d be interested in your comments.

      • Hiya Iain,

        I think you misunderstand what I am saying. I am not taking a duelistic position (which I think equally as incompatible with free will mind you). I am saying that neurons produce the quality of thought. That consciousness is a quality produced by the composition and firing of the brain through time – similar to music (sound) being produced by the playout of a needle on a spinning record – except the difference is if the record was like the brain the records structure would change due to the sound output (it would feed back in) which would cause a new sound. For the brain, these thoughts produced by such structure of neurons and play through loop back (feed back into the system) into the brain, causing new firings and structure changes.

        In other words, it is not neurons –> spark –> thoughts –>nothing (repeat). It is a feedback loop of neurons –>spark through time –>thought –> spark–> structure change (memory) –>neurons, etc. Mix that with sensory perception which feeds in, and you have a causal (deterministic) system of conscious thought. Downward causation is compatible with science and materialism.

        The point is that determinism does not remove thought being part of the causal process, and physicalists (for the most part) would not deny that the event of thought (or mind) happens via the operation of the brain. It is a mistake, however, to suggest it would not play part in the causality of the brain.


        ‘Trick Slattery

  5. conservative says:

    “And so these are the two ultimate truths of atheism: death is at the end of every road and you are not free.”

    Is that so? The first one is not something atheists discovered a hundred years ago, all people know this. The second one about “you are not free” is really funny. That means you are not an atheist by your own free will. 🙂 Lol

  6. Even if you want to apply Science to every detail of the incredibly intricate infinity of incalculable, definitive to the unimaginable, accounts of intricately detailed combinations of applied scientific principles to beyond our comprehension… I just want to know one thing.. Where did the power to start this come from? I mean the very particilants that combine to create the parte’s that make a particulant, one that will become the piece of the particle that combines to become a particulant of matter that begets matter to act/react creating the synergy that creates magnetism thus life… No matter (haha..) Still it had to have been able to be possible thus created… Some of us like to say “O” or ALLYA or YHWH or Just GOD…

  7. Pingback: Checkmate: Death and Determinism are the Two Absolute Truths of Atheism | Religion, Society and Politics

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