Do the New Atheists Own the Market on Reason?

New Atheists often are noisy and triumphalistic. Just think of the "Reason Rally" in Washington, D.C. They want to be known as owning and uniquely standing in the place of reason.

However, they think religion is irrational and can only give us opinions and preferences. Who has the authority to make that judgment? New Atheists, of course! Why? Because they claim to have knowledge, since they have science on their side.

Yet for all their professed enlightenment, these "brights" fail to grasp a major blind-spot: their view of science actually cannot give us knowledge of reality. At best, it might give us only a beginningless series of interpretations, yet without a way to start. If so, why would someone want to build their worldview, and indeed their life, on a bottomless house of cards?

Let me explain. Today's orthodox science is naturalistic; only what is knowable by the five senses is real. God, souls, and things we thought were non-physical, such as thoughts, beliefs, and experiences (i.e., mental states), cannot be known to be real. Or, simplifying, they don't exist. Yet, we can test natural, physical stuff scientifically, so that's what is believed to be real. That view of reality undergirding atheistic evolution by natural selection (NS) is the philosophy called naturalism. There's only the physical universe, without anything non-physical.

Prior to Darwin, many believed there were non-physical, essential natures that separated living things into kinds. Afterward, biological classification is understood as one interconnected "tree of life"—all living things share a common ancestor.

Maybe we still should ask: How do we know what's true on scientific naturalism? Consider Daniel Dennett, a leading philosopher and New Atheist, who takes atheistic evolution by NS seriously. Dennett realizes NS is blind: bereft of goal planning, thinking about some desired outcome, believing something, or trying to do something. Since non-physical mental states aren't real, the qualities they'd have, e.g., their representing, or being of or about, something also wouldn't be real. There are only brain states, physical patterns, and behavior we take, or interpret, to be about something.

Dennett realizes that if there were real, intrinsic, essential natures, something could be so due to what kind of thing it is. So there could be a "deeper" fact, beyond just behavior, of what our mental states are really about. Just due to a mental state's essence, it really could be of its objects, and not something else.

But, since evolution by NS denies any such essences, Dennett says we only interpret peoples' behavior as being "about" their objects. But that's all we have to go on—our interpretations, which we attribute to a person. Based on someone's behaviors, we interpret them to mean the person is thinking "about" something (e.g., an errand to Lowe's), but that's just how we talk. In reality, there isn't any real "aboutness" to us or our thoughts.

But there could be other interpretations too. Maybe the thought is "of" something else (e.g., a movie on HBO), but there's no fact of the matter to which we can appeal in order to settle the issue. For that, Dennett admits there would have to be an essence to the thought's being of something, so that it really is about the errand, not the movie.

Without essences, we're left only with interpretations—but interpretations of what? Apparently, an interpretation of another interpretation. If we keep pressing that question, however, we're left just with interpretations of interpretations "all the way down," without any way to get started and experience something as it is, simply because no mental state is really about anything. And, if our mental states cannot really be about something, how would we ever know how things really are?

Fortunately, that's not how we experience life. Our mental states seem to have three essential features:

  1. They're "particularized." My thought about tonight's dinner, or my experience of drinking a Starbuck's chocolate smoothie, is not generic or unspecified. Each is about something particular.
  2. These mental states must be about something. Try having a thought that isn't about anything!
  3. That "aboutness" seems to be intrinsic, or essential, to each mental state. My thought about last night's dinner couldn't be about anything else and still be the thought it is. I could observe a raven, but that experience could not have been of my dinner.

How do we best explain these three apparently essential features of mental states? Dennett realizes that if mental states had essential natures, they really could be of their intended objects, so we could know them.

If atheistic evolution by NS were true, we'd be in a beginningless series of interpretations, without any knowledge.Yet, we do know many things. So, naturalism & atheistic evolution by NS are false --non-physical essences exist. But, what's their best explanation? Being non-physical, it can't be evolution by NS. Plus, we use our experiences, form concepts and beliefs, and even modify or reject them. Yet, if we're just physical beings, how could we interact with and use these non-physical things? Perhaps we have non-physical souls too. In all, it seems likely the best explanation for these non-physical things is that there exists a Creator after all. That seems more reasonable to believe than evolution by NS or naturalism.