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?