What’s Wrong with Atheism: Piece of Mind
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!
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.
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?
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…
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.