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The Emperor’s New Clothes: Atheism and Human Consciousness

December 11, 2017 No Comments

A couple years back, at my son’s instigation I watched the HBO series “True Detective.” It stars Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson as Rust Kohle and Marty Hart, homicide detectives for the Louisiana State Criminal Investigations Division.

The two are working together for the first time, investigating a gruesome occult murder. They’re driving along the highway, making small talk, getting to know one another.

Suddenly, I find myself listening to the most philosophically interesting conversation I’ve ever witnessed in a TV show.

Marty: “So what do you believe?”

Rust:  “I consider myself a realist, but in philosophical terms, I’m what’s called a pessimist…. I think human consciousness was a tragic misstep in evolution. We became too self-aware. Nature created an aspect of nature separate from itself. We are creatures that should not exist by natural law.”

Marty: “Huh. That sounds god-awful, Rust.”

Rust: “We are things that labor under the illusion of having a self, this accretion of sensory experience and feeling, programmed with total assurance that we are each somebody when, in fact, everybody’s nobody.”

Marty: “I wouldn’t go around spouting that, I was you. People around here don’t think that way. I don’t think that way.”

Rust: “I think the honorable thing for the species to do is deny our programming, stop reproducing, walk hand in hand into extinction, one last midnight, brothers and sisters opting out of a raw deal.”

Marty: “So what’s the point of getting out bed in the morning?”

Rust: “I tell myself I bear witness, but the real answer is that it’s obviously my programming, and I lack the constitution for suicide.”

Everybody’s Nobody

I wonder if the first episode of a television series has ever begun with such an interesting – a depressing – conversation.

And of course the most depressing thing about the worldview expressed here by Detective Kohle is that if atheists like Richard Dawkins are correct, and you and I are nothing more than material beings with no spark of the divine within us, the evolved products of a wholly material universe, then… well, then he’s right!

In that case, we really are “things that labor under the illusion of having a self . . . programmed with total assurance that we are each somebody when, in fact, everybody’s nobody.”

This isn’t something this Catholic apologist is saying. This is something prominent atheist philosophers and scientists are saying!

Take Daniel Dennett, for instance. Dennett has written extensively on the subject of human consciousness, and viewed from a purely materialist point of view, his conclusion is that consciousness is a “bag of tricks” the brain plays on us.

It’s a fiction, he says. It’s an illusion.

It’s a case, he explains, of our physical brains making it seem as though  there is this “self” that is somehow separate from the closed system of physical causes and effects, but is really not.

Our brains make it seem as though we “see” the color yellow and “hear” the music of Bach and “believe” in God and “intend” to learn to play the piano and “remember” that time at the lake years back, when in reality there is nothing going on but electro-chemical processes.

We have souls, the good professor assures us, but they’re not what we imagine they are. Rather our souls are trillions of “cellular robots,” little biochemical machines, each doing what it must do in accordance with strict, physical laws. Our souls are made of matter.

A clever critic commented that when it comes to Dennett’s view of human consciousness, it’s sort of like the story of the emperor’s new clothes – except in the reverse. Rather than the emperor having no clothes, according to Dennett the clothes have no emperor! All the appearances of a human person are there, but the person is really not. There really is no “self.”

Dennett’s response to this analogy? “Exactly!”

A Vast Assembly of Nerve Cells

But professor Dennett isn’t by any means alone in his affirmation of Detective Kohl’s bleak view of the human person. Molecular biologist Francis Crick is even more blunt in his elimination of… well, of us:

You, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.

I have to admit that I can’t read these men without wondering how they look at those they love.

Do Dennett and Crick really believe, for instance, that their wives and children are nothing more than biological machines? That their individual personalities and unique expressions, their joys and sorrows, their memories and ambitions, their sense of humor—that everything they are as persons is “no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules”?

Do they really?

Let these images sink in. Ponder their implications. This is what a consistent materialist worldview entails.

If the worldview held by atheists like Dawkins, Dennett and Crick is true, even our sense of personal identity—my sense of being “me”; your sense of being “you”—is nothing more than an illusion generated by the brains in our skulls.

Here we are dressed in our finest human garments. Everyone can look and see our lovely personalities, listen as we express our ideas and feelings, enjoy our sense of humor, empathize with our personal struggles, celebrate our happiness. And lo and behold, there’s actually no one there. It’s just machinery.

From Somebody to Nobody

So how did we get here? How did we get from viewing ourselves as human souls in the image and likeness of God to viewing ourselves as those who now know they’re nobody?

With the rise of philosophical rationalism in the 17th century, men like Galileo and Descartes and others wanted to pursue a scientific program of providing a complete and mathematically precise description of all physical reality—everything.

With this in mind, the subjective experiences we have as human beings—how the color red looks to you, what pain feels like to you, what it’s like for you to desire something, fear something, intend something, believe something—these subjective experiences were assumed to belong to the “mind” and were purposely excluded from this total physical description.

Why? Because it was so patently obvious to these men that the mind was something distinct from matter, something irreducibly “other.”

It’s only relatively recently that some philosophers and scientists—those already committed to philosophical naturalism, or toying with a materialist worldview—have come to believe they could attempt a purely materialist explanation of the human mind.

As advancements in molecular biology have made scientists more aware of the extremely close connection—even dependence—of our minds on physical events taking place in our brains, the thought once inconceivable has now become conceivable:

Could it be that the “mind” is nothing more than the brain?

Could it be that our thoughts and ideas and intentions and memories and experience of things—everything we associate with consciousness and the mind—are entirely reducible to electrochemical processes taking place in our brains?

Could it be there is no “me” beyond chemistry? That those I love can be defined entirely in terms of matter? That while the clothes are there, the emperor is missing?

This is what the consistent materialist must embrace – and all of the implications that follow from it. For instance, that:

  • Human beings have no more intrinsic value that cockroaches
  • Unalienable human rights do not exist
  • Life is ultimately meaningless

I think that all modern disciples of Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris and Dennett should at least accept that these are the inescapable implications of their materialist worldview.

Of course, they won’t be able to live in a manner consistent with these implications. Not at all. In fact, we can be sure that all but the most depraved will continue to live as though life had meaning and human beings possessed intrinsic value and the unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. And why is that? Why?

Because they have been created in the image and likeness of God, and whatever they may say about God’s non-existence, they know better. God has etched the truth into their hearts.