Quintessence of Dust

One of the most persistent misconceptions about atheism is that, if there is no supernatural soul and human beings are made merely of atoms and molecules, then our lives would be deprived of meaning. Asserts Christian apologist Phil Fernandes:

If atheism is true, then man is mere molecules in motion. He has no greater value than the animals. In fact, human life would be no more sacred than the existence of a rock.

This conclusion betrays a very warped view of the nature of worth and value. It works only if you assume, not just that human beings have souls, but that having a soul is the only possible determinant of moral worth.

This reasoning leads to conclusions that are deeply counterintuitive, to say the least. We could imagine God creating two human beings: one of which who had no consciousness or higher brain function, existed in a permanent vegetative coma, but had a soul; whereas the other was a rational, emotional adult who dreams at night, laughs, falls in love, raises children with love and affection, and cares deeply about the welfare of others; but who was a mere assemblage of molecules, created by God without a soul. By this apologetic logic, the first one would be a moral person, deserving of full rights, worth moving heaven and earth to protect; while the second would be less than an animal, the moral equivalent of a stone, whom we could carve up or destroy at our pleasure as if she were an inanimate object. Does this make any sense at all?

Whether you believe in a soul or not, it’s nonsense to claim that the presence or absence of a soul is the only thing that could possibly matter when it comes to judging the value or worth of a being. The pantheists of old asserted that everything in nature had a spirit of its own which gave that thing its unique character. Using the same reasoning as Fernandes, we could imagine a defender of pantheism arguing that, if stones do not have souls, marble and slate must not have any distinct qualities that justify treating them differently.

If we reject this argument for stone, we should reject it for people as well. Even if atheism is true and human beings are nothing but molecules in motion, all the qualities that might reasonably be suspected to have some bearing on our moral worth – our self-awareness, our personality, our sense of conscience and empathy, our hopes and fears for the future, our ability to feel joy and sorrow, our rationality, our creativity, our feelings of awe and wonder – all these things would still exist. No matter what the physical basis for consciousness is, they are manifest facts about us and they are not going away.

Imagine if neuroscientists, peering ever more deeply into our heads, discovered that at the tiniest level, our brains were made of hydraulic systems shuttling water through pipes and valves, or an intricate, submicroscopic clockwork of brass springs and cogwheels. No doubt, these discoveries would cause profound shifts in our self-understanding. But should they cause shifts in our moral understanding? Of course not! The facts about us that give us moral value are external and readily apparent to all. There is no possible way they could be affected by other facts about our physical makeup on a microscopic level.

Overcoming Bias has an insightful post about “Egan’s Law,” coined by the sci-fi writer Greg Egan: It all adds up to normality. No matter how our minds work, they must be organized so as to produce the traits and behaviors we already observe in each other. If we are made of atoms and molecules, then we have always been made of atoms and molecules. This conclusion will not – cannot, by definition – change any of the facts about who we are, what we have done and what we can do.

If we are made of molecules, then Shakespeare’s plays were written by a human being made of molecules, Verdi’s Requiem was composed by a human being made of molecules, Macchu Picchu and the Pyramids and the Buddhas of Bamiyan were built by human beings made of molecules. Would that make any of them less beautiful or less inspiring?

Our value lies in what we’re capable of, not what we’re made of. Love and compassion and the desire for justice are equally praiseworthy regardless of whether they come from an intricate ballet of atoms or from flesh imbued with spirit. Art and architecture retain their capacity to enthrall us, regardless of who held the pen. Even if we are made of matter, tastes still have their savor, great music still moves us, and heroic writing still inspires brave souls to action. We have nothing to lose, so let us not fear to discover that we are, in truth, a quintessence of dust. That knowledge cannot deprive us of our personhood, our value, our dignity, or anything else worth caring about.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://www.myspace.com/citagsonmyhood Jeremy

    Thought-provoking post, Ebon.

    The quote cited from the apologist is very interesting to me. I have no qualms admitting my animal status. It is scientifically undeniable. What I find most interesting about a statement like that is the deep aversion the religious have to owning our status as animals. In fact, I’ve seen this attitude in those who are not outwardly religious as well.

    There seems to be a deep desire in our culture (meaning non-aboriginal cultures) to see ourselves as separate from the living community on this planet. While I wouldn’t claim that all life shares a kindred “spirit” that animates us, the reality of our biological kinship with the “lower lifeforms” cannot be denied.

    If there is any credence to incorporating the idea of “the sacred” within our molecular structure, why would mankind be any more sacred than any other form of life or vice versa?

    Are we not all cut from the same cloth?

  • hb531

    This post makes me wonder how prior discoveries were received by the dogmatic. For example, when it was discovered that everything on earth was composed of molecules such as water, hydrocarbons, nitrates, phosphates, etc., did the religious lament how this meant that humans were made of the same stuff animals were made of? Did they lament how our humanity was reduced to the same molecules that comprised a dog or a frog?

    I don’t see how the case with souls/consciousness is any different. It’s just a matter of time before the enigma of consciousness is solved by science.

  • Christopher

    Phil Fernandes,

    “If atheism is true, then man is mere molecules in motion. He has no greater value than the animals. In fact, human life would be no more sacred than the existence of a rock.”

    And this would be different in a theistic universe… How? This fellow never stops to ask just what this thing called “value” is: ultimately, it is the opinion of some one/something that a thing is desirable or posseses some sort of utility. So, whether there’s a “god” or not, the question of a thing’s value would still be a matter of opinion – the only real difference is that there would be an extra entity in existence to ascribe value to things.

    Once one disregards the idea of intrinsic value, Phil Fernandes’ apologetics cease to make sense on any level.

  • http://unix.culti.st/ Ceri

    @Jeremy, @hb531, I think the tendency or “deep desire” you’re putting forth would normally just be called dualism. This fundamentally stems from the fact that you percieve that you have a first-person awareness of the world, formulate relations between objects which you’re then able to communicate with others, and relate to their formulations.

    The mistake, as is implied here, is strictly a category error; that is, if you assume that consciousness can be either “on” or “off” as you state here, and thus this implies that there’s some kind of disconnect between the awareness itself and it’s media (ie: the physical form of the individual), rather than it being the result of an evolutionary process.

    However, as for why this mistake occurs, you could well relate it to the use atomistic analysis in the various fields of knowledge (philosophy, Maths, science, &c), that is, the tendency to consider the individual components as the important parts of the system at the risk of ignoring how the system acts a whole.

    Very much related is reductionism, the tendency to ignore the higher level, more abstract aspects of a system–for example, stating that “Government is a stupid idea, because you already have a large population of individuals”. Or, perhaps more controversially, stating that because the brain is made up of physical matter, then things such as thoughts, feelings, tendencies of the mind and so on aren’t scientifically interesting.

    @hb531, as for the question of solving the enigma of conciousness, I’d certainly think that the movement towards including first person data in resarch, rather than simply third person data. After all, to not do so, would be to throw away a large store of valuable data. The argument that’s often made about the data being “unreliable” simply implies that you need to train your instruments better (ie: they need to refine their reflective skills more). Allan Wallace is doing good work in this area.

  • velkyn

    “We could imagine God creating two human beings: one of which who had no consciousness or higher brain function, existed in a permanent vegetative coma, but had a soul; whereas the other was a rational, emotional adult who dreams at night, laughs, falls in love, raises children with love and affection, and cares deeply about the welfare of others; but who was a mere assemblage of molecules, created by God without a soul. By this apologetic logic, the first one would be a moral person, deserving of full rights, worth moving heaven and earth to protect; while the second would be less than an animal, the moral equivalent of a stone, whom we could carve up or destroy at our pleasure as if she were an inanimate object. Does this make any sense at all?”

    No, it doesn’t, but there are many many Christians and other theists who think that those of us who believe tht we are just molecules should be treated less than an animal. This is the problem.

  • http://inthenuts.blogspot.com King Aardvark

    Wow, everyone else is providing deep-thinking commentary here while all I can think of is that this reminds me of the Family Guy episode where Chris says to Brian, “I don’t have you listen to you! You’re a dog! You don’t have a soul!”

  • http://bridgingschisms.org Eshu

    If atheism is true, then man is mere molecules in motion.

    The bit I object to here is the “mere”. We are molecules in motion, but not just that, any more than a house is merely and arrangement of bricks, or a book is merely an arrangement of letters. There are many such arrangements which do not form persons, houses or books.

    It is apologists such as Phil Fernandes who insist this explanation of people must be a reduction. As you eloquently explained, this defies common sense. People of all philosophies consider human beings valuable.

    The reduction is similar to that which John Searle made in response to the claims of artificial intelligence researchers. His arguments about the Chinese Room and the systems response are analogous to this one.

  • http://www.xanga.com/andrea_thatonegirl TheNerd

    I think what is being lamented here may not be so much the existance of the soul as it is the persistance of the soul. True, the mental processes which make up a person are not any different from how a soul is described, until one approaches the topic of death. Unfortunately, death is a topic that leads people to abandon their rational arguements for emotional ones. Not that emotional arguements are wrong, but they have no place in describing and defending the physical universe.

  • Samuel Skinner

    It is the classic quick way theists do things- God is special so he can ignore the rules and souls are special so they can ignore the rules to. In addition morality and worth are tied to them for no readily apparent reason- it is pretty annoying.

  • http://www.kellygorski.com Kelly

    I had a very similar conversation with a theist the other day about this very thing. Even after I pointed out that the consequences of a belief or lack of belief don’t affect the belief’s truth value or even its merit, he still believed as he did before, illustrated in his bringing up the same point (worded differently) later in the conversation. I know I shouldn’t but I get very frustrated with myself sometimes when I rationally explain something and they don’t change their minds. Rationally, I know I can never change anyone’s mind on anything–that comes from within–but emotionally I feel as though I’ve failed. I think a lot of people feel this way. I feel like I just didn’t communicate, and that that reflects poorly on me and my capabilities.

  • Joffan

    So, what’s God made of? what are the laws that govern that stuff? Does that make Him better or worse than other things made of the same stuff? Is He mere ether in motion?

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    “Ether in motion” – heh, I have to remember that one. :)

  • Chris

    If we are made of molecules, then Shakespeare’s plays were written by a human being made of molecules, Verdi’s Requiem was composed by a human being made of molecules, Macchu Picchu and the Pyramids and the Buddhas of Bamiyan were built by human beings made of molecules. Would that make any of them less beautiful or less inspiring?

    More so, IMO. It’s much more impressive to believe that the descendants of beings who once crawled through primordial slime built the Taj Mahal and flew to the Moon *by our own efforts* than to believe that we did it in mere imitation of a creator who placed that inspiration in our heads.

    In short – we *earned* our achievements, don’t try to take that credit away and give it to some god. Where were the gods when we harnessed electricity? Where were the gods when we learned to fly? Nowhere, that’s where. Those things were achieved by molecules in motion.

  • Steve Bowen

    This post gets right to the heart of atheism for me. I often wonder what the religious person really feels about their own self worth, when all their morality, talent and accomplishments have to be ascribed to God.

  • windy

    We are molecules in motion, but not just that, any more than a house is merely and arrangement of bricks, or a book is merely an arrangement of letters. There are many such arrangements which do not form persons, houses or books.

    “Socrates was merely a mortal man” (as opposed to alien, angel…) is perfectly consistent with “Socrates was a special and valuable kind of mortal man”. Your objection sounds equivalent to “But not all mere mortals are Socrates, therefore Socrates was not just a mere mortal”.

    I know you don’t mean to argue that there is some special human-stuff that makes a human, but because “merely” = “nothing more than”, it’s potentially confusing to say “we are not merely molecules in motion” since it can be translated to “we are something more than molecules in motion”.

  • http://thechapel.wordpress.com the chaplain

    Chris said, we *earned* our achievements, don’t try to take that credit away and give it to some god.

    Well said. Many religious doctrines demean the value of humankind and life of all kinds. What could be more demeaning than such ideas as Original Sin, Atonement through Sacrifice of a living being/person, Hell, etc? Humanists don’t teach those things, religions do. It’s obvious to me who actually values life and humanity more.

  • MS (Quixote)

    I often wonder what the religious person really feels about their own self worth, when all their morality, talent and accomplishments have to be ascribed to God.

    They feel it is grounded in objectivity and eternality, thus possessing genuine worth.

  • http://whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    All their failures must be internalized while all their accomplishments are really the fault of someone/something else. Couple this with the argument from original sin and you’ve got a very life dis-affirming way of looking at the world. The only way I can see a Xian finding this to be worthy is through cognitive dissonance or battered spouse syndrome.

  • Ric

    Yeah, the stupid argument that atheists believe humans are collections of molecules, and since molecules don’t have rights or morals, atheists must believe that neither do people. That argument is so stupid it beggars description. It is the fallacy of composition, pure and simple.

    Here is a similar argument:

    Sand is cheap or free.

    Concrete is made from sand.

    Therefore skyscrapers made from concrete should be cheap or free.

    STUPID.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    Personally, I’ve always thought that the religions I’ve looked into had a vested interest in debasing man. I find it almost paradoxical how they at the same time attempt to exalt his place in god’s eyes.

  • Tal

    The one thing that bothers me more then anything about religions in general and the three deserts ones in particular is that the search for knowledge or just plain human curiosity is always punished, always seen as a bad thing, that to me is the worst kind of debasement there is.

  • bipolar2

    ** Christianity is the practice of nihilism — Nietzsche **

    For 2,000 years one vile hallmark of xianity has remained its hatred of natural science and skeptical philosophy. The Stoics and Epicureans of Athens laughed at Paul of Tarsus when he spoke to them. Paul’s anti-intellectual rejoinder is still holy writ:

    20-Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21-For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. 22-Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23-but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles . . . . 1Cor1 20-23 NIV

    In short, Paul and his fellow down-and-outers created a god glorifying their nihilistic valuations.

    27-But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. 28-He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are . . . . 1Cor1:26-28 NIV

    Xianity still appeals to those who believe themselves mistreated. To those in whom resentment surges. To those who must punish their guilty selves. To those who must project that guilt onto others and nature.

    “Xianity is the practice of nihilism.” Directed inward, hatred of self. Directed outward, hatred of others and the world. Revenge seekers acting on absolute *truth*.

    Psychologically there is no difference between the Taliban in Afghanistan and bible-worshipers (fundies) spread like metastases across the US. Without a vigorously enforced secular state, I would burn at the stake or receive a bullet in the head for anti-supernaturalism.

    For all true believers, behold! your doctrine: “those not with us are against us” Luke 11:23 NIV

    This hatred is not some peripheral ideological stance — it is Paul’s life-negating worldview, tarted up as the religion of “love”.

    bipolar2
    © 2008

  • Nate

    Whether or not living things have a soul, it does not change the fact that we really are just a collection of molecules. Of course, we can do things that make us think otherwise. Isn’t that why so many good and logical people follow religion? Because they are afraid that accepting science will make them realize there is nothing after death, and life was created by accident? But that doesn’t mean we must live in despair. Can’t we just be happy? A person without a soul can be as happy as anyone who thinks they have a soul. I personally just believe that our only meaning, our only purpose is to be happy. Unfortunately, Christians and all other religious people make their lives miserably trying to appeal to a God whom they hope will give them eternal happiness.

  • zwenkwiel

    If atheism is true, then man is mere molecules in motion.

    we are

    He has no greater value than the animals.

    we don’t

    In fact, human life would be no more sacred than the existence of a rock.

    it isn’t

    all these terms of value,sacred and moral do not exist.
    they’re all man made and highly subjective

    illusions created to justify our existence