Philosophy Can Debunk Myths About Atheism

by James Gray

Many people are taught many strange things about atheists. For example, supposedly atheists can’t be moral, can’t have a source of “meaning” in their lives, and can’t attain knowledge. Many atheists will say that they are being misrepresented by theists because they believe morality, meaning, and knowledge can exist without God. The theist might say, “You’re just being irrational. It’s impossible to have morality, meaning, or knowledge without God!” We need philosophers to study the evidence and justification for various beliefs so we can know whether God is required for these things or not—but philosophers have already been doing so. I will not prove that morality, meaning, and knowledge are possible in a godless universe, but I will discuss one atheistic worldview (atheistic emergentism) that seems compatible with these three things. Philosophers can defend this worldview in much greater detail than I can here. I will not prove that morality, meaning, or knowledge exists; but I see no reason to think these things could only exist if God does.

Before I begin, it should be noted that the theist’s claim—that God is required for morality, meaning, and minds—is an extreme position. We have no reason to believe this claim unless it is supported by very strong evidence. It’s an extraordinary claim and it requires extraordinary evidence. The fact that atheistic emergentism is a plausible worldview that can have morality, meaning, and minds can debunk the theist’s extreme claim. The theist must prove that atheistic emergentism is impossible or we will have no reason to agree that God is required to have moraliy, meaning, and minds.

I will briefly discuss atheistic emergentism; then I will discuss if morality, meaning, or knowledge requires God.

What is atheistic emergentism? It’s is a form of physicalism that states that everything is physical and natural rather than supernatural, but it also says that some things are “greater than the sum of their parts.” Rather than saying that only atoms and motion exist, the emergentist can say that some things exist because the right “material conditions” have been met. For example, the human mind seems to exist because we have a brain, but it is more than just the brain itself. It is greater than the sum of its parts. To say that the mind is physical or natural doesn’t mean it’s a solid object. This is an overly-restrictive understanding of these terms. The mind is quite strange and wonderful, but that doesn’t mean it’s a soul. One philosopher who advocates an emergentist explanation of the mind is John Searle.

An opposing view to emergentism is eliminative materialism, the view that only atoms and motion are real. The eliminative materialist could say that the mind is nothing but the brain and the brain is nothing but atoms and motion.

One claim against atheism is that atheism can’t account for the human mind. This is not a popular argument against atheism because it is so absurd, but Jason Dulle implies this argument when he asks, “What can explain the origin of the soul: an immaterial, conscious, personal, and rational substance? From whence could it come? Surely it cannot be a material source. Material things only producer material things, are not conscious, are not personal, and are not rational.” Dulle says that the mind isn’t compatible with naturalism by definition. He decides that solid objects seem physical and the mind doesn’t, so the mind must be some other kind of entity. Dulle seems to assume that atheists must be eliminative materialists and he ignores the possibility of emergentism.

1. Does morality require God?

Many theists think morality comes from the nature of God or his commands. They say that the atheist can’t have morality for various reasons. For example, it is argued that morality requires rational altruism, but they don’t think we can demand altruism without God. Without God, we merely evolved like the other animals and we have no choice but to be selfish.

An eliminative materialist might be unable to account for rational altruism because people would just be a cluster of atoms in motion; and it’s unclear how such a being could be rational, moral, or conscious. However, we can reply that if rational altruism is possible, then it is possible because we have rational minds. The mind is more than just the brain and is capable of wonderful things. It is plausible to think that we could try to help a strangers at our own expense simply because we think the strangers’ lives have value. The motivation for such a decision could come from “empathy” and many have suggested that empathy evolved to encourage mutually beneficial behavior.

Moreover, we could have evolved the ability for rational altruism, even though it enables us to break free from selfishness (and become a reproductive disadvantage). Perhaps I can use empathy to motivate altruistic behavior even when I don’t expect any benefit in return. Not everything we evolve is guaranteed to give us a reproductive advantage at every moment and some of our evolved traits can even be a reproductive disadvantage on occasion. For example, we evolved to enjoy eating sweet foods, but that enjoyment can lead to unhealthy eating habits. Our enjoyment probably gave us a reproductive advantage in the past, but it doesn’t always provide an advantage anymore.

2. Does meaning require God?

Many theists think that life would have no meaning without God. There would be no “intrinsic value.” Nothing would be good “just for existing.” Some people say that, “the universe doesn’t care about anything” and “we have no reason to believe that human beings are special if God doesn’t exist.” The belief that nothing has any intrinsic value for the atheist is tied to the objection that atheists have no way to “ground morality.” If nothing has intrinsic value, then it’s unclear why morality is rational. It seems rational enough to want to help others at our personal expense if the people we help have inherent worth, but it’s not so clear why it’s rational if they don’t.

Not all atheists believe in intrinsic value or the inherent worth of human life, but I find it plausible. It generally seems better to exist than not. A universe with lots of happy people in it seems better than a universe without people. Certainly if the atheist thinks that only atoms and motion exists, then there is no room for intrinsic value, but the emergence theorist could say that meaning (intrinsic value) could emerge into existence just like our minds given the right material conditions. In fact, intrinsic value seems to only exist because minds exist. My life has value because I have a mind and pain is bad precisely because it exists as a bad sort of mental state.

The existence of intrinsic value does not entail that the universe cares about us. The universe is not a being with thoughts or desires, but intrinsic value doesn’t require any thoughts or desires. Suffering seems like it is bad before anyone experiences it and decides they dislike it. In fact, people seem to dislike it precisely because it’s bad rather than the other way around.

3. Does knowledge require God?

One of the more shocking claims that some theists have made is that knowledge couldn’t exist without God. Many theists think that knowledge is a product of the soul—an immaterial entity capable of transcending the material world to help us understand the truth. Theists sometimes say that atheism would entail that our mind is merely a product of evolution and that the ability to attain knowledge would not necessarily provide us with a reproductive advantage. (Similar arguments were given by both Luke Nix and Jason Dulle.)

I find it incredibly plausible that we can attain knowledge—sufficiently justified true beliefs—even if our knowledge is limited and fallible. However, I don’t think God has to exist for it to be possible to have knowledge. We can have beliefs, so it’s not surprising that at least some of our beliefs can be true. We could have some true beliefs by chance if nothing else. The real issue is how it’s possible for us to have justified beliefs. Why is it possible for us to reason about which beliefs are appropriate? Again, rationality seems to be a product of our mind and the traits we inherit from evolution do not always provide a reproductive advantage. Moreover, I find it plausible that an ability to be rational could be a reproductive advantage quite often. Rationality helps us think in terms of concepts, detect deception, achieve goals, create natural science, and so forth. This all seems very helpful for survival.

Conclusion

In general, the theist’s outrageous claims against atheism are based on misrepresentations of atheism by assuming that all rational atheists must accept “eliminative reductionism.” These arguments are extreme because they require us to accept that it’s impossible for atheism to be true given various “facts” about reality. We shouldn’t accept this sort of an impossibility unless every atheist worldview is incompatible with the “facts,” but the theist rarely attempts to prove that. Instead, the theist takes the most extreme and implausible of atheist worldviews and proves it to be inadequate rather than discussing relatively plausible worldviews, such as atheistic emergentism. It’s like assuming someone is an idiot with terrible beliefs and then using those terrible beliefs against the person.

I think one of the reasons that theists think that theism is so much more rational than atheism is precisely because they don’t really understand atheism. They think atheism requires absurd commitments that it doesn’t. If theists knew that atheism is compatible with very plausible worldviews, then more people might become atheists.

Emergentism is compatible with both theism and atheism. Even if God exists, I find the emergentist explanations to be more plausible than the “supernatural” explanations given by many theists. The fact that we have minds because we have brains is plausible given the connections scientists have found between the brain and mind. A brain dead person does not seem to have a mind. The fact that our brains evolved without the interference of God is greatly supported by our current biological evidence. There is no evidence that God interferes in evolution. The fact that intrinsic value exists because minds exist is plausible given our experiences of happiness, suffering, and our own existence.

Guest Contributor James Gray has an MA in philosophy, manages the Ethical Realism blog, and is the founder of the Philosophy Campaign.

jamesgraysm

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • http://geoffarnold.com Geoff Arnold

    You write,

    A universe with lots of happy people in it seems better than a universe without people.

    From a “people perspective”, sure – but not, presumable, from the perspective of another species which is going extinct as a result of (even unconscious) actions by these people. In other words, your “intrinsic value” is just another example of species chauvinism. (Shades of the Victorian “tree of life” with Man at the apex.) There’s nothing inherent in the universe about such values by any stretch of the imagination.

    Time to trot out my favorite quotation:

    “It will not be humans who witness the demise of the Sun six billion years hence: it will be entities as different from us as we are from bacteria.”
    - Sir Martin Rees

  • http://ethicalrealism.wordpress.com James Gray

    Geoff Arnold,

    From a “people perspective”, sure – but not, presumable, from the perspective of another species which is going extinct as a result of (even unconscious) actions by these people. In other words, your “intrinsic value” is just another example of species chauvinism. (Shades of the Victorian “tree of life” with Man at the apex.) There’s nothing inherent in the universe about such values by any stretch of the imagination.

    I never said human beings were the only thing that has value. I think other animals have value as well. There might be an animal with more value than human beings. There was no species chauvinism in anything I said.

  • http://ethicalrealism.wordpress.com James Gray

    In fact, intrinsic value seems to only exist because minds exist… My life has value because I have a mind.

    I think non-human animals have minds, don’t you?

    • Colin Hutton

      I think you’re on a slippery slope here James. Chimps? – maybe. Frogs? Earthworms?

      Colin

  • William J. Kelleher, Ph.D.

    Can athiests have ethics? Of course! All normal humans are born with a natural order of values in mind. W/ over 6B people on Earth, the amazing fact is how peacefully we get along. I think that personal integrity is also a natural calling, for atheists and everyone. Unhappily, personal integrity is punished and repressed in US politics — see how, and learn more about the Natural Order of Values at, http://nblo.gs/flAdc
    William J. Kelleher, Ph.D.
    Internetvoting@gmail.com

  • http://ethicalrealism.wordpress.com James Gray

    Colin,

    My point isn’t that all nonhuman animals have minds. My point is merely that humans aren’t the only animals have minds.

    The “slippery slope” is a claim about causal chain. “If x happens, then y happens. If y happens, then z happens.” This is often a fallacy, such as when people argue that legalizing gay marriage will lead to the legalization of marrying animals and so on.

    If my statement was false, it was because it was an over-generalization, but that was not my intention. Sometimes the word “some” is implied but unstated. It isn’t always appropriate to infer from “X are Y” that “All X are Y.”

  • http://ethicalrealism.wordpress.com James Gray

    William J. Kelleher,

    I agree with what you are saying but many theists think God is required for morality. In other words they think atheists are born with a moral compass precisely because God exists.

  • stevarious

    I take back everything I ever said about philosophy not being very important.

  • CalebTheGnome

    A very nice summary of refutations of myths about atheism, but I must admit that emergent theories of the mind have always sounded quite mystical to me, I’d say even no less mystical than some sort of dualism (maybe less than Cartesian dualism). The very idea that “the whole is more than the sum of its parts” implies to me that there’s a part or two that aren’t being counted. I can accept emergentism when it comes to things which are more clearly human constructs, such as a “heap” being an emergent concept when it comes to quantities of sand, but when it comes to something that seems to have a more fundamental ontological status like a mind, then emergentism just doesn’t seem to work. It essentially says that once you get the right pieces in the right order a new entity above and beyond the individual pieces comes into existence. Such a thing has never been observed, so I don’t see why it should be considered a more scientific theory than some of the less-exotic dualist explanations.

  • http://ethicalrealism.wordpress.com James Gray

    What do you mean nothing like that has been observed? What about subjective experience? Minds don’t seem like just brain activity. Perhaps you mean it’s never been testing in a lab, but it has. In fact, there are emergent theorists in chemistry and biology. You might want to take a look at Eric R. Scerri’s “Reduction and Emergence in Chemistry.” http://philsci-archive.pitt.edu/3057/

  • CalebTheGnome

    Of course subjective experience has been observed, but subjective experience has not been observed as “emerging” from a combination of constituents in the sense that emergent theorists mean. Subjective experience could be explained in other ways.

    For example, what exactly do you mean when you say that “minds don’t seem like just brain activity”? Have you ever adopted the point of view of brain activity, and then made the judgment that your subjective experience is fundamentally different from it? I would argue that what you’re saying is really that the subjective experience of brain activity is different from what brain activity looks like from a third person view, but this difference does not necessarily imply emergentism. I’ll take a look at the article, but there are serious criticisms of emergent properties in the ontological sense, and I doubt that article addresses them (http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/properties-emergent/#ObjEme)

  • http://ethicalrealism.wordpress.com James Gray

    CalebTheGnome,

    Of course subjective experience has been observed, but subjective experience has not been observed as “emerging” from a combination of constituents in the sense that emergent theorists mean. Subjective experience could be explained in other ways.

    Maybe it can, but many of our observations can be explained in various ways.

    For example, what exactly do you mean when you say that “minds don’t seem like just brain activity”? Have you ever adopted the point of view of brain activity, and then made the judgment that your subjective experience is fundamentally different from it? I would argue that what you’re saying is really that the subjective experience of brain activity is different from what brain activity looks like from a third person view, but this difference does not necessarily imply emergentism.

    Maybe not, what did you have in mind? Of course, this is all part of a philosophical debate and I don’t want to suggest that emergentism must be accepted by atheists. I think I made that clear already.

    I’ll take a look at the article, but there are serious criticisms of emergent properties in the ontological sense, and I doubt that article addresses them (http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/properties-emergent/#ObjEme)

    Yes, and there are serious criticisms of every worldview. Worldview metaphysics is a highly ambitious and contentious part of philosophy. I don’t think one has to ascribe to any worldview in particular. I just think emergentism shows that atheists can have a pretty satisfying worldview (of metaphysics) if they want one. Theists tend to be very interested in knowing everything, and philosophers who want to know everything will want to study the worldviews possible.

  • CalebTheGnome

    Quite right, I don’t mean to say that I believe emergentism to be untenable (this would be exceedingly difficult to argue), only that I don’t see why it should be considered any more atheistic than other views on the philosophy of mind. The emergent properties, from my perspective, seem to be no less mysterious than the dualism advocated by philosophers like David Chalmers. While dualism has historically been associated with theism, it is not essentially theistic, and I think Chalmers in particular has shown that it can be stripped of its overtly supernatural elements.

    Personally, I’ve always thought that panpsychism tends to unfairly get the shaft in these debates, probably because it initially sounds like some kind of animistic view of the universe. Essentially, a panpsychist would hold that the basic stuff of the universe has qualities that are “mental” properties as well as the more easily observable “physical” properties. Rather than emerging at a given level of complexity, the mind that we know and love is constituted by more basic particles like everything else, with the whole being no more than the sum of its parts. This is not to say that an atom has experiences in the way that we do, only to say that this ability to experience is not something that comes about all at once at a given level of complexity and is entirely absent at any lower level of complexity, but rather comes about gradually, and is always present in some primordial form. This view would be more-or-less consistent, as far as I understand, with the “neutral monism” of Bertrand Russell and William James (http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/panpsychism/).

  • http://ethicalrealism.wordpress.com James Gray

    Substance dualism seems to lead to epiphenomenalism. It’s not clear how the mind can do anything given dualism and that’s a major reason that it’s rejected. (The mind/body interaction problem.) Charlmers might show how the body can effect the mind, but not the other way around. Property dualism/pluralism and identity theory are all competitive theories and are supposed to be satisfying (not lead to major counterintuitive problems).


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