Atheism and the Denial of the Soul
“You’re asking me to believe in sentient meat?”
“I’m not asking you, I’m telling you. These creatures are the only sentient race in the sector and they’re made of meat.”
“Oh, there is a brain all right. It’s just that the brain is made out of meat.”
“So…what does the thinking?”
“You’re not understanding, are you? The brain does the thinking. The meat.”
“Thinking meat! You’re asking me to believe in thinking meat?!”
“Yes, thinking meat! Conscious meat! Loving meat. Dreaming meat. The meat is the whole deal! Are you beginning to get the picture, or do I have to start all over?”
–The above is an excerpt from a short science fiction story by Terry Bisson, which UCLA Research Professor of Psychiatry Jeffrey M. Schwartz cites in his book The Mind & The Brain to humorously highlight the absurdity of the belief that we do not have an immaterial soul which exists independent of our brain.
I’m sorry to ruin your day, but if you are reading this, you are nothing but a mindless robot made of meat. How do I know this? Atheists told me so. (And, up to this point, you thought you were a person with a soul…HA!) What you refer to as “me” is really nothing but “a survival machine….a robot vehicle blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes,” in the words of the renowned atheist biologist Richard Dawkins from his book The Selfish Gene.
Atheism MUST deny the existence of the immaterial self (the soul) because if consciousness can exist independent of matter (referring, of course, to the matter that makes up the human brain), then there is no reason to disbelieve in an immaterial, disembodied conscious being such as God.
Regarding atheism’s denial of the existence of the human soul, philosophers Stewart Goetz and Charles Taliaferro cite two of the most prominent atheist figures of the last 50 years in their book Naturalism…the astronomer Carl Sagan and the biologist Francis Crick. Sagan writes:
“I am a collection of water, calcium, and organic molecules called Carl Sagan. You are a collection of almost identical molecules with a different collective label. But is that all? Is there nothing in here but molecules? Some people find this idea somehow demeaning to human dignity. For myself, I find it elevating that our universe permits the evolution of molecular machines as intricate and subtle as we are. But the essence of life is not so much the atoms and simple molecules that make us up as the way in which they are put together.” (Sagan 1980, 105)
In a similar vein, Crick (as cited in Goetz and Taliaferro) writes:
“The Astonishing Hypothesis is that ‘You,’ your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behaviour or a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. As Lewis Carroll’s Alice [in Wonderland] may have phrased it: ‘You’re nothing but a pack of neurons.’ This hypothesis is so alien to the ideas of most people alive today that it can be truly called astonishing.” (Crick 1994, 3).
But, if one stops to think, what is truly “astonishing” is that anyone could believe such nonsense. How can a “collection of water, calcium, and organic molecules” (in Sagan’s words) be an experiencer of an experience (or, put another way, the subject of a first-person, subjective experience)? Why would one arrangement of “water, calcium, and organic molecules” produce a first-person, subjective experience…whereas another such arrangement does not? Further how can “a pack of neurons” have a “sense of identity and free will” (in Crick’s words)?
The view that we are really just robots made of meat (with no free will) is known as determinism, since our behaviours are alleged to be pre-determined by natural laws. What bone-to-pick do atheists have with the existence of free will, thus causing them to endorse determinism? As I detail in my essay If the Evidence of God Is So Strong, Why Are So Many Smart People Unconvinced?, atheism is most often motivated by a distaste for the idea of having to answer to a higher power for one’s actions. What could be more comforting to persons with such a psychological motivation than the idea that one is not responsible for one’s actions, since one’s actions are pre-determined by natural laws?
But as Montreal Neurological Institute neuroscientist Mario Beauregard points out in his book The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Case for the Existence of the Soul, determinism is impossible in light of the discoveries of modern physics:
“There is a principle…called the Heisenberg Uncertainty (indeterminacy) principle. It says that subatomic particles do not occupy definite positions in space or time; we can find out where they are only as a series of probabilities about where they might be (we must decide what we want to know).”
“This area of physics, quantum physics, is the study of the behavior of matter energy at the subatomic level of our universe. Briefly, the synapses, the spaces between neurons of the brain, conduct signals using parts of atoms called ions. The ions function according to the rules of quantum physics, not of classical physics.”
“What difference does it make if quantum physics governs the brain? Well, one thing we can dispose of right away is determinism, the idea that everything in the universe has been or can be predetermined. The basic level of our universe is a cloud of probabilities, not of laws. In the human brain, this means that our brains are not driven to process a given decision; what we really experience is a ‘smear’ of possibilities. But how do we decide between them?”
UCLA Professor or Research Psychiatry Jeffrey M. Schwartz echoes Beauregard’s points about the impossibility of determinism in light of modern physics, in his book The Mind & The Brain:
“Though you would hardly know it from the arguments of those who appeal to physics to assert that all mental phenomena can be reduced to the electrochemical activity of neurons, physics has progressed from its classical Newtonian form and found itself in the strange land of the quantum. Once, physics dealt only with tangible objects: planets, balls, molecules, and atoms. Today, in the form of quantum mechanics, it describes a very different world, one built out of what [University of California, Berkeley physicist Henry] Stapp calls ‘a new kind of stuff,’ with properties of both the physical and the mental.”
“…What we now know about quantum physics gives us reason to believe that conscious thoughts and volitions can, and do, play a powerful causal role in the world, including influencing the activity of the brain. Mind and matter, in other words, can interact.”
Schwartz’s above comments call attention to the fact that one of atheism’s worst nightmares has come true: Modern physics has demonstrated that consciousness (mind) DOES exist independent of matter, and that there is therefore no scientific basis for denying the existence of immaterial, conscious beings such as God and human souls. (Please read Henry Stapp’s book Mindful Universe, Johns Hopkins University physicist Richard Conn Henry’s article Mental Universe, and my essay God Is Real: Why Modern Physics Has Discredited Atheism for a more in-depth exploration of this topic).
Further, Stapp’s research has shown that, since mental activity precedes brain function, the mind and the brain cannot be said to be one-in-the-same. Rather, immaterial consciousness (the mind or soul) causes brain states. Schwartz notes how this conclusion dovetails neatly with his own research:
“In fact, Stapp’s work suggests that there is no fully defined brain state until attention is focused. That physical activity within the brain follows the focus of attention offers the clearest explanation to date of how my hypothesized mental force can alter brain activity. The choice made by a patient—or, indeed, anyone—causes one physical brain state to be activated rather than another. A century after the birth of quantum mechanics, it may at last be time to take seriously its most unsettling idea: that the observer and the way he directs his attention are intrinsic and unavoidable parts of reality.”
Philosopher J.P. Moreland lucidly comments on the absurdity of suggesting that a “collection of molecules” or a “pack of neurons” can be the experiencer of an experience (the first-person subject of a subjective experience) in his book The Soul: How We Know It’s Real and Why it Matters. (Moreland utilizes the term “physicalism” to refer to the belief that the mind and brain are one-in-the-same, and that therefore human beings do not have souls independent of the brain):
“Physicalists are committed to the claim that alleged mental entities—substances, properties, events/states—are really identical to physical entities, such as brain states, properties of the brain, overt bodily behavior, and dispositions to behave (for example, pain is just the tendency to shout ‘Ouch!’ when stuck by a pin, instead of pain being a certain mental feel of hurtfulness). If physicalism is true, then everything true of the brain (and its properties, states, and dispositions) is true of the mind (and its properties, states, and dispositions) and vice versa. If we can find one thing true, or even possibly true, of the mind and not of the brain, or vice versa, then dualism [a soul independent of the brain] is established. Then the mind or its properties and states is not the brain or its properties and states.”
Moreland continues by elaborating on specifically how the mind and brain cannot be the same since mental states are NOT identical with physical (brain) states:
“Mental states are characterized by their intrinsic, subjective, inner, private, qualitative feel, made present to a subject by first-person introspection. For example, a pain is a certain felt hurtfulness. The intrinsic nature of mental states cannot be described by physical language, even if, through study of the brain, one can discover the causal/functional relations between mental and brain states. In general, mental states have some or all of the following features, none of which is a physical feature of anything: Mental states like pains have an intrinsic, raw, conscious feel. There is a ‘what-it-is-like’ to a pain. But there isn’t a similar ‘what-it-is-like’ to physical states like boiling at a certain temperature or existing as a liquid. Most, if not all, mental states have intentionality—they are of or about things. But no physical state is of or about something. A thunderstorm, for example, isn’t about or of anything.”
For the few remaining meatheads (pardon the pun) who stubbornly insist that immaterial conscious beings such as God and human souls do not exist, I conclude by citing the Harvard University neuroscientist Eben Alexander from his book Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey to the Afterlife in which he encountered God after a brain infection caused the complete cessation of activity within his brain:
“During my coma my brain wasn’t working improperly–it wasn’t working at all….In my case, the neocortex was out of the picture. I was encountering the reality of a world of consciousness that existed completely free of the limitations of my physical brain.” [italics are his]
“Mine was in some ways a perfect storm of near-death experiences. As a practicing neurosurgeon with decades of research and hands-on work in the operating room behind me, I was in a better-than-average position to judge not only the reality but also the implications of what happened to me.”
“Those implications are tremendous beyond description. My experience showed me that the death of the body and the brain are not the end of consciousness, that human experience continues beyond the grave. More important, it continues under the gaze of a God who loves and cares about each one of us and about where the universe itself and all the beings within it are ultimately going.”