Atheism and the Mind – chapter 1

Over at The Road To God Knows Where, Brendano posits a challenge for atheists. He has a list of interesting questions to be answered. And I intend to step in on the line of duty, and try it out.

Brendano’s questions are, in order:

1. Why is the human mechanism better or more deserving of respect than any other mechanism … a lawnmower or a cat?
2. Whence do concepts such as human dignity, human rights, personal morality, right and wrong, good and evil arise, and what is their justification?
3. Why should anyone be held responsible for their actions, given that these are caused by chemical reactions in the brain, and chemicals have no sense of right and wrong?
4. Why do you have the concept of a quasi-separate ‘I’, as in ‘my body’, if you are just your body?
5. How can volition be anything other than an illusion?
6. Why should feelings, emotions, etc. have any importance if they are mere artefacts of chemical reactions?

I will answer in a different order, and I also intend to tamper with Brendano’s phrasing. Iam also afraid that this will take more than one post.

But first of all let me point out one huge and terrible blander, of which I hereby blame Brendano. He seems to think that these questions pose a difficulty for atheists alone. That is utter baloney. These are, and always have been, the greatest philosophical questions of all time, wrestled with by many religious thinkers. And if you think that any of these problems are even  remotely addressed by any conceivable religious dogma in existence, you are dead wrong. They certainly are not solved. Not through Christianity, Islam, Judaism, or any far-east religion in existence.

I short, then:

I do not know, but neither do you.

True, some of these religions have dogmas which seem, to the layman’s eye, as a move in the right direction. The simplest of these is of course the first question. The usual answer is that there is a divine soul in the physical body, and this soul is a spiritual perpetual being, magically attached to the physical body. The Wikipedia article on soul is a good introduction. Modern Jewish teaching, for example, holds that inanimate objects are devoid of soul, that plants have a “lower level” bit of soul, that animals (e.g. cats) have a more divine piece of an “animistic” soul, that humans possess an even greater soul, and that the most perfectly divine souls on the face of the earth reside within the bodies of religious orthodox Jews.

Some religions like the idea that everything has a soul. Including inanimate objects. There is widespread discord on these matters within Christianity itself. And this is even before we begin to question the strange and illogical attachment of spiritual and material things. How can a spirit, being immaterial, affect matter in the first place?

But all this has very little with atheism per-se. One can believe in an immaterial soul and still be suspicious towards the fable about the old-man-in-the-sky. What Brendano is thinking about in this regard is not Atheism (disbelief in God) but materialism (disbelief in non-material objects). These are different (though somewhat related) positions.

So let me start off with my version of materialism. Or, rather, methodological naturalism.

And even before I start, let me make it very loud and clear: I do not know the answer. I do know, almost for certain, that no one knows how to answer that question. But the question, as Bernard puts it, is ill-posed. He misrepresents the “atheistic” view as if entailing that the mind does not exist. That, indeed, would be a dumb position. We certainly have a mind (at, least, I know from introspection that I have one, and I assume other people have their own). And the mind is surely not in the hands, or feet, or lungs. Is it in the brain? Well, we know that the mind is a feature of the brain. We do know that for sure. And this is an important (and known) fact, so let me repeat it:

The Mind is a Feature of the Physical Brain

There is a mountain of evidence that physical injury of the brain alters the mind. The case of Phineas Gage was the first to be throughly studied. In short, the man’s personality completely and totally altered after he had a brain injury. Take a look at “Divided Minds, Specious Souls” from SEEDMAGAZINE. Modern research clearly shows how the physics of the brain alters the mind. After all, what are recreational drugs if not a physical object inducing changes in the mind (some of them, regrettably, being nasty long term damage). I am a parent, and I can clearly see how my little boy’s mood and behavior changes in subtle ways when he is hungry. One of the most insightful thing I’ve ever seen was Jill Taylor’s Stroke of Insight. I shall embed it here:

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Jill was a neurologist who had a stroke, and was able to learn much from it. Watch it.

with instructions!

Now, do we understand all that? Hell, no. Does it mean that out view of ourselves is completely mistaken? No. But some of it clearly is. But what does the notion soul avail us? When my nephew was 2 years old, he saw a crane. He asked his mother: “What is that?”. His mother got stressed. How do I start explaining to a 2-year-old how building are constructed and how cars and cranes work, she asked herself? “Well”, she started off, “this is a crane”. “Oh”, said the toddler. “Now I see”.

Religious people like Brendano remind me of my nephew. Naming the mysterious, unknown, well, thing, which is the human mind, by the term soul solves nothing. Nor does it serve to say that it is the outcrop of God. How is God affecting physical reality? How is it a soul formed? What are the origins and characteristics of it? Give me details, please. I want a working theory, or at least some ineligible form of inquiry, before I concede that religion has a way of answering that question.

Note for the moment the following points:

  1. All this has very little do to with the existence of God.
  2. All of our passions, volitions, thoughts, et cetera, are all facts. We know them true from introspection. No one denies them. The mountain of material evidence only shows that these are consequences of physical states. Not that they are null, or unimportant. The sun is a physical object, and I doubt that anyone in his right mind would call it inconsequential or even dull. The argument is not on the question of their existence, but on the question of their nature and origin. And these questions are not answered by any religion in any meaningful way.
  3. From what I’ve seen, not only are there numerous, conflicting, and inconsistent religious views on the matter. They are all patently false. And that is not due to some magical deformity of religion as is, but simply because they are all outdated. We have learned much in the last few centuries, and none of it has found it’s way into religious dogma. As Yet.

There is a lot more to answer for, but I will leave it to later posts, if there will be any such demand (and perhaps even in the absence of).

14 thoughts on “Atheism and the Mind – chapter 1

  1. Brendano

    Hello, TD. I’m glad you found my questions interesting, but my name is not ‘Bernardo’.

    The questions are addressed to those who conceive of the body/brain/mind as a mechanism … not to those who don’t. I don’t see, then, that I have made ‘a huge and terrible blander’, as you put it. I had particular materialists/atheists in mind. You shouldn’t make assumptions as to my own beliefs.

    There is a discussion here:

    1. mousomer Post author

      I’ll amend the name. Sorry. As for the blunder, I stand firm. To claim that we know enough as to dismiss the mechanistic view is premature. And to do that while pretending that the mechanistic view alone posits problems – that is a huge transgression.

  2. Brendano

    No problem. I didn’t say that the mechanistic view alone entails problems … I was interested in hearing the mechanistic view try to account for certain features of human life.

  3. Brendano

    My own experiences with magic mushrooms and cocaine along with puff were well documented on my blog on the My Telegraph site, unfortunately when my account was deleted by the site administrators due I might say to a terrible misunderstanding, my entire archive was lost to humanity. I had sensibly kept copies on my own PC, but following a computer malfunction they are now irretrievable and the hard drive is also no longer in my possession.
    What I can say on the question of the existence of a God is that the second time I tripped on magic mushrooms I recall a large bearded man in white robes with a golden staff appearing before me with a host of angels. He said to me, “Bernardo, there are those who would wish to tempt you away from the path of righteousness and spiritual enlightenment.”
    The next time I tripped the Devil himself appeared before me holding a briefcase full of gold coin, and he was surrounded by whores and bankers and politicians. He said to me, ” Bernardo me old mucker abandon the path of righteousness and join me, and I will make you rich beyond your wildest dreams.”
    Needless to say you can guess which path I decided to take.

  4. Brendano

    I’d like to post a quotation that seems apt, but I can’t because it’s from a book that hasn’t been published yet and I am compiling the index, besides it might land me in hot water and it wouldn’t be the first time I have betrayed an authors trust and exploited all their hard work and research. to make myself look intelligent down at my local bar and on my My telegraph blog!

    I’ll content myself with this from Jung (1929):

    ‘The Gods have become diseases; Zeus no longer rules Olympus but rather the solar plexus, and produces curious specimens for the doctor’s consulting room, or disorders the brains of politicians and journalists who unwittingly let loose psychic epidemics on the world.’

    Some say that God or the gods have been incorporated into our psyches, whence they originated in the first place. This reintrojection can lead to freedom or alienation; one response (that of organized religion) is to project God right back out again.

    In any case, we are all affected by what is going on in the collective human psyche, conscious or unconscious. Neither the atheists nor the religious are immune. No man is an island.

    I notice also that a fake Brendano is posting comments here and also on the My Telegraph site.

  5. Pingback: ID hijacking in blogland « The road to God knows where

  6. Brendano

    TD, may I also apologize to any of your readers who clicked the link to my site and whose computers have now been probably hijacked by tracking cookies and other nasty computer viruses if their computer security is not upto date. 😦

  7. mousomer Post author

    I doubt very much that the situation is as grave as you put it. I also fail to see what great harm might befall us if someone fished out WordPress accounts. So someone will put comments in my name. That won’t make me very happy, but it is not serious damage.

  8. Pingback: Atheism and the Mind – part 2 – Volitions « Theoretical Democratix

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