Repost: Quintessence of Dust

[Author's Note: I'm reposting some old favorites while I'm away on vacation this week. This post was originally from June 2008.]

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.

The Hidden Garden of Ex-Muslim Atheists
New on the Guardian: Atheists Are Diversifying
How Low Will It Go? The Continuing Decline of American Christianity
When Would You Rather Be Alive?
About Adam Lee

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


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