What’s Wrong with Atheism: Piece of Mind

by / Thursday, 27 February 2014 / Published in Philosophy

http://www.flickr.com/photos/arselectronica/7773544158/

In the third post in our series on faith and atheism, we continue our critical review of one of the main arguments against religion made by atheists, especially so-called “new atheists,” who make frequent and fervent appeals to science. In upcoming posts inshaAllah, we will draw broader conclusions and outline positive arguments for theism. So, stay tuned!

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For increasingly many people today, science is seen as the ultimate arbiter of truth. For them, if science does not validate the existence of God in the same way that science validates the existence of, say, electromagnetic waves, then God does not exist.

As it turns out, however, there are many realities that science has not and cannot, in principle, validate. Logically, this means that we should not take science to be a complete source of knowledge about the world around us and reality at large, contrary to what naturalists and atheists urge.

What are some of these “a-scientific” realities? We discussed “time” here. Now let’s look at mind/consciousness.

Mind Business

The mind is more controversial than time because of all the bad philosophy that is fed to the public these days by popular hacks like Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker. Simply put, do we have scientific evidence of the mind? Can we make third-person observations of the mind like we make third-person observations of other empirical phenomena studied in science?

The straightforward answer is, no. No one has ever “seen” the mind or interacted with the mind in an empirical, third-person way characteristic of science (unless you consider “having a conversation with someone” as interacting with the mind in an empirical way). And it is highly questionable that we “see our own minds,” whatever that could possibly mean if, in fact, that is even a coherent thing to say. In actuality, the most we can objectively see are brain scans, but the brain is not the mind. The brain is a bodily organ. Not only is the brain not the mind, but it is not clear that the brain is the “seat” of the conscious mind. Different cultures have associated the mind with different anatomical and spatio-temporal locations. (Historically, the chest and heart have been popular.)

A Question of Evidence

Don’t we have scientific evidence of the conscious mind?

Some might argue that when we look at, for example, a brain scan in a medical lab, that is evidence of consciousness. When the subject gets sad or agitated or meditates or thinks about puppies or whatever, the scan changes and evolves. That is supposedly empirical evidence of a conscious mind.

Wait a second. How is a brain scan somehow more indicative of consciousness than, say, the rest of my physical body? For example, the fact that I move, talk, write, respond to stimuli, etc., is as much an indication of consciousness “inside” me than a CT scan. Why should electrical signals in one bodily organ, the brain, represent consciousness more than, say, electrical signals in my tongue or lips when I speak?

Zombies

But, are the physical movements of my body empirical evidence of my mind? To put it differently, when you see people walking in the street, how can you be sure that they have conscious minds? What if they are all zombies or androids who act as if they have minds when they do not? Again, it won’t be enough to crack open their skulls to check because, even if you find a brain, a brain is not the same thing as a mind. Presumably, whoever constructed these mindless androids to so closely impersonate humans could also construct an artificial brain that circulates blood and transmits electrical signals in the same way a human brain would.

Another way to understand this is that the mind is fundamentally and irreducibly subjective, a first-person phenomenon that, by definition, is invisible to the third-person perspective needed in science.

Without having to survey all of philosophy of mind, we can simply note that no one has been able to give a satisfactory or widely accepted account of reducing the mind to something physical and, hence, empirical. And a significant proportion of philosophers, psychologists, and cognitive scientists do not believe such a reductive account is possible (for example, read Thomas Nagel’s “What Is It Like to be a Bat?” as an introduction to the issue, or anything on the “Hard Problem”). Of course, there are those who also believe that consciousness is an illusion…

Extremists, Again

Certainly, this is a much more involved topic, but, for our purposes, it suffices to note that there is no science of the mind, per se. (Psychology might be the closest thing to a “science of the mind,” but calling psychology a science is a stretch!) Simply put, the first-person mind is not the kind of thing that can be probed or experimented on in the lab the way that researchers probe and experiment on the brain or the body in general or chemical substances, molecules, atoms, etc.

So, without the needed scientific and empirical validation, does this mean that we have to be skeptical about the existence of minds? This is an increasingly popular position, as more and more people become aware of the stark lack of empirical evidence for the mind. The most vocal proponent of this view is philosopher Daniel Dennett, a jolly old man who does not believe in such fantasies as consciousness. Of course, he’s also a vocal “new atheist,” so you can’t fault him for being inconsistent.

For the rest of us, hopefully, our minds and those of others are real and we have plenty of good reasons to believe they are real. Just because those reasons are not strictly empirical or scientific does not mean they are invalid or irrational.

11 Responses to “What’s Wrong with Atheism: Piece of Mind”

  1. kashif says : Reply

    your articles are very thoughtful and well-written.

    i broke with islam for one reason: i simply could not reconcile my notion of god with the quran. To put it another way, if there is a creator
    of this universe, he is beyond our comprehension is every imaginable manner. And if he demeaned himself enough to speak with mankind, he would say….the quran? really? exhortations to leave the prophet’s house promptly after dinner and warnings to his wives? relentlessly casting veils over people’s hearts and promises of eternal torture? come on son.
    i only left a comment because my view is one that is increasingly being echoed by young muslims growing up in america and i have yet to see any scholar address this issue in a meaningful fashion. i hope you do and if so, good luck.

    • Mateen says : Reply

      Kashif, what you expressed in the beginning is the Islamic understanding of God – “beyond our comprehension in every imaginable manner” … but at the same time everything is related to Him in that it is all His Creation and nothing is meaningless. You yourself are His creation and everything you do, and so is everything you live and breathe in. God is always communicating with you (closer to you than your vital artery). What happens on this earth has significant “meaningness” even things we initially cannot see the meaning in, like the exhortations in the Quran, but there are meaningful higher realities to every single happening and interaction we have and choices that we make. The Quran is asking us to make meaningful choices with strong focused powerful singular intentions. To develop Beautiful Character, bowing our egos and developing trust, returning to our true form and real relationship that our hearts are direly missing-that we are the created being Provided for by the Loving All Powerful Creator, and not acting like gods ourselves, by submitting to the True Guidance we have been given, with Intentions for the highest purpose – Love and Submission to the Awe striking Beautiful Ever Existing Unique One Whom we cannot fathom yet cannot escape – He created us for the purpose of getting more and more knowledge of Him (being given more and more by Him) and getting closer and closer and closer to Him, the One Who knows us, in and out, our strengths and weaknesses. Why would He leave us alone when He created us for a mission? Do you consider Him instructing us on day to day tasks strange when He created our lives full of them? And what meaning is there in even the most apparently “meaningful” action without a high meaningful intention. Intentions are greater than actions, even though they are hidden. Actions are just forms/shapes. Intention fills that form/shape with something higher.

      Anyway I have to ponder about the above more than any other, but I thought maybe there will be something useful in there that may help you in your own thinking and reflecting

    • guest says : Reply

      I don’t think God has a desire to impress us with overly sophisticated language or ridiculously fluffy meta-physical concepts. God is giving us message and there is beauty is simplicity it is not a piece of philosophy. The more you ponder over the quran the more you take from it but you have to actually read “it” not its translation. If its is the truth , whether your personal notion of god or your intellect agrees with it or not , it will be true regardless.

  2. […] of scientific evidence, should we also reject the existence of things like the passage of time, human consciousness, mathematical entities, etc., that similarly lack scientific or physical modalities? Clearly, most […]

  3. […] all, science cannot opine on a lot of things that we nonetheless experience as realities, e.g., human consciousness, the nature of time, or normativity and our sense of right and wrong […]

  4. […] all, science cannot opine on a lot of things that we nonetheless experience as realities, e.g., human consciousness, the nature of time, or normativity and our sense of right and wrong […]

    • Lanette says : Reply

      Hey, that post leaves me feeling folhosi. Kudos to you!

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    • Gracias a todos los que contribuyeron con sus comentarios. Me es imposible contestarles a todos en este momento; gracias especialmente a los que colaboran para que las visiones cerradas y polarizadas no se queden como únicas en el firmamento de la opinión.

    • If you’re reading this, you’re all set, pardner!

    • Just one more is all we need to finish off the series. I hoping to hear John had finished the script but this is looking unlikely now.PS Where the hell is the release date for Green green grass series 4? This is an insult to the great John sullivan, there should be a complete GGG boxset available for us fans, have contacted the bbc no reply.

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