Atheism and Common Sense

Theists often think of atheists—especially new atheists—as people who take an extreme position by closing their eyes to the obvious existence of God. In fact, atheism is eyes wide open. The atheist turns off the tv show, stops the movie, closes the novel, and takes a real look at the world. No more fantasy—at least for the moment. Put fiction aside. Instead ask, what is true?

That’s the atheist program. Though the average person may not realize it, atheism is based on honest observations about ourselves and the world around us. Some of these observations are the work of scientists, others part of our everyday experiences, but together they make a compelling case for a world without God.

What is the theist program? Theists say God, who is non-physical, existed first. Then God made the physical world. Then God made us with a physical body but placed inside us a soul or consciousness which is non-physical. When our bodies die, this conscious soul that once was inside us escapes and can be punished or rewarded by God.

It is a story with tension, drama, compelling plot lines and, if we pick the right religion, the promise of a happy ending. It’s got everything we expect from a good novel or movie. But is it fact—or fiction?

Let’s open our eyes and look at the world for an answer.

What Thought Can’t Do

Our consciousness comes from our brain, from neurons. How do we know this is true? If neurons get damaged, consciousness gets damaged. Brain scientists have confirmed this fact again and again. But even without the input of scientists, we know it already. We know that alcohol and drugs alter the brain and in turn mess up our consciousness.

On one hand, the physical brain directly affects consciousness. On the other hand, consciousness cannot directly affect the world around us. Our thoughts can’t make physical things come into existence. Thoughts can’t think objects into being. We can think of objects, of course, but thinking of them doesn’t make them exist. Consciousness doesn’t work that way.

Our thoughts, in fact, can’t affect anything in the world around us. Not directly, at least. If we want to affect something in the world, we must engage it with our hands, with our bodies. Otherwise nothing gets done. Although many have claimed that they could bend spoons or move objects with their minds, every scientific attempt to verify such claims has failed. Minds simply don’t work that way.

Thoughts & Neurons

And yet, there must be some location where matter and thought engage each other. It makes sense, for example, that our consciousness and our neurons have a two-way interaction. After all, our thoughts seem to influence our behavior. But the evidence, quite overwhelming, is that interaction between consciousness and matter occurs only in the brain. It is specifically interaction between neurons and consciousness. My thoughts and feeling can’t affect the pair of scissor sitting on the desk in front of me. I can’t move or do anything to the scissors with my consciousness. Except in one specific manner: I can influence my brain to move my arm to pick up the scissors. My body can affect the physical world. My thoughts can only affect the neurons in my brain.

In fiction, of course, things are different. In The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra, one of my favorite movies, Lattis and Kro-bar attempt to use Marva mind-meld to control Betty and thwart the Lost Skeleton’s own mind-control efforts over her. Our movies and fantasy novels are full of this kind of thing. But in the real world, we know life doesn’t work that way.  We have only one way of influencing other people’s consciousness and that is through our actions or through physical lines of communication—talking, writing, art, music, movies and so on.

The reality is that we are all experts on consciousness—if only we pay attention to what we know.

And this is what we know: consciousness is intimately associated with the neurons in our brain. Those neurons somehow create our conscious experiences, and in turn our thoughts and feelings can alter our behavior from what it would otherwise have been. We also know that it is the brain—those neurons again—that moves our muscles and makes our bodies do things. And we also know that only by our bodies doing things (or tools we have built with our bodies) can we affect physical changes in the world. We can’t bypass our bodies or our tools and affect those changes directly from consciousness.

We can’t even communicate consciousness to consciousness directly without our bodies being there to mediate the exchange—those physical lines of communication again. The Marva mind-meld doesn’t work in real life, and we all know that. We may wish or dream, but reality is otherwise.

If it requires a body in order for thoughts to have any hope of affecting the world, then it follows—again this is simple common sense—that bodiless beings are powerless. The God and gods of our imagination can’t do anything in the world even if we grant their existence. It takes a body to act. Indeed, scientists have learned that it takes neurons—a brain—even to think or feel. Without a body, God can’t even have consciousness.

Evolution and Consciousness

These are the common sense observations from which atheism springs.  If we take these observations seriously, they lead us not just to atheism but to a natural worldview that contrasts sharply with the supernatural worldview of theists. In the natural worldview, physical reality—not any kind of consciousness or God—comes first. In some form or other this physical reality has always existed. From it, organic life evolved into existence. Later, the brains of some organisms evolved to the point where their neurons began producing experiences—the beginning of consciousness. The ability to experience helped species survive and thrive, and led to more types of conscious experiences evolving: pain, visual and auditory simulacra, and so on.

Among the striking features of experiences is that they are assigned a location (inside the body, on its surface, or outside), they simulate useful information about the world or about the body of the organism, and at varying levels they create value toward action. This last is a difficult concept to put into words, but essentially it means that each experience has a meaning for the organism, and these meanings deliver varying levels of influence upon the organism’s decision-making process.

Eventually (in our own species at the least) higher-level experiences of symbolic thought evolved, enabling us to construct knowledge models of the world around us. It is important to realize that because it’s a product of evolution, knowledge is inherently pragmatic in nature. We never know the “true reality” of the physical world; what we know is a simulacrum of reality which is valuable for its usefulness. What this mean is that in the natural worldview there is no ‘underlying intelligence” to be found in the world; intelligence is something that evolved into existence much later and exists only in organisms with brains that create that sort of consciousness.

It also follows that our way of knowing the world must be based on pragmatic empiricism. Thus if we assert that some statement about the world is “true,” what we mean is that the statement is useful to us, and specifically that it’s more useful to us than competing statements which we might invent in terms of it’s reliability and predictability. If this sounds something like a description of the scientific method, it’s because the scientific method is a codification of the most effective way of developing statements about the world that are useful and reliable. What is important to understand about the scientific method is that it does not and cannot verify knowledge against the “real” world—instead one hypothesis is pitted against another (or against its negation) and then controlled tests are run to see which is more useful for describing and predicting what happens. If an hypothesis is less useful than its negative, we say it’s been falsified. We never know the world directly, never extract knowledge from the world (because that’s not where knowledge exists); instead we invent knowledge and test it against possible alternatives for its usefulness to us in our interactions with the world.

Counter-Attack

I’ve laid out in brief the common sense basis of atheism. It is based, as we have seen, on what we all know about how consciousness and thinking actually works in the world; knowledge that comes either from our common experiences or from the careful observations of scientists. And simply, the way that thoughts and consciousness work just doesn’t fit with there being a God.

Still, I can imagine theists admitting that, on the surface, things may seem to be the way I have described. But—and it’s a big but—asserting that there are nevertheless very good reasons to believe the atheist viewpoint, the natural worldview, just can’t be right.

First of all, theists argue, atheists can’t explain why the physical world exists. Every physical thing has a cause, and the physical world must have a cause too. There has to be a beginning. (This doesn’t apply to God because God is not physical.) But if there is a beginning of the physical world, it can’t be from nothing. Something can’t come from nothing—there is no logical way to explain how it ever could. So atheism doesn’t work. No matter all our common sense observations about thinking and consciousness, the physical world just can’t pull itself up by it’s own bootstraps. There  must be a non-physical cause behind everything.

On examination, however, the argument falls apart. The problem is that causes are confused with explanations. If we look carefully at the natural worldview, we see that the word “cause” means in effect “useful explanation” (or “explanation more useful than any other explanations we’ve come up with so far”). So to say that everything must have a cause is really to say that everything must have a useful explanation. But that’s not true. Nothing has to have an explanation at all. It’s just that we human beings have found that useful explanations are, obviously, useful to us. We like them. They enable us to reliably manipulate the world.

If everything did have to have an explanation, then God would have to have an explanation too. It would be very fair to ask, what explains God’s existence? Who or what created God? Nothing? Then the theist believes something came from nothing.  But that’s impossible, right?

God, in fact, is not very useful as an explanation for the physical world if we can’t actually explain how God creates or causes that world. And we can’t. We can’t because God has no physical attributes. Literally, God can’t touch the world. How can he create it?

Physical & Spiritual Causes

But theists will object to this entire line of argument. I began it with the assertion that causes were being confused with explanations. But I can see theists insisting that causes really exist, over and beyond whether or not we know or can explain what those causes are. Every physical thing really does have a cause. And spiritual things do not, therefore God doesn’t have to have a cause, and doesn’t in fact have one. But why don’t spiritual things have causes? It seems arbitrary.

Perhaps spiritual things have spiritual causes and physical things have physical causes. Granted. But this doesn’t solve the theistic problem. It still means God, being spiritual, should have a cause. And it doesn’t provide an explanation for how physical things, which have physical causes, can have a spiritual cause instead. How does the spiritual interact which the physical in a causal manner? What spiritual something interacts with what physical something to do anything? We have no way to imagine a spiritual entity creating a physical entity except by the fantasy—which we know from experience isn’t true—that physical things can be thought or felt into existence. Consciousness simply doesn’t work that way, and we know it.

Everything physical must have a cause. That is the theist mantra. But in reality God can’t be that cause, because causation of the physical world must include interacting with it. God can’t interact. We know by our extensive common experiences with thoughts and consciousness (after all, we are experts), that bare thoughts cannot create or even move physical things. This brings us back to the original atheist observation: thoughts can’t interact with material things except through the intermediary of a physical body. God doesn’t have a physical body, so he can’t begin to interact with, much less create, the world.

Is God something or nothing? Of course God is something, the theist will say. But God is not something physical. How then can God’s non-physical something cause the physical world’s something? We can fantasize that somehow it does. But that’s as far as anyone can go toward making God an explanation for the world.

A Final Sally

But theists have another objection, and it’s a much better one. The physical world is full of evidence of intelligence, and that intelligence clearly predates the advent of human beings and predates, for that matter, the evolution of organisms. The natural worldview simply can’t account for the intelligence we find in the structure of the physical world. Where could it have come from? Therefore something supernatural—and intelligent—is afoot. No matter what atheists assert or science implies, something intelligent existed first and evidently formed the world. Say all you want about how impossible it is, it must have happened.

But we’ve already blown this up, unfortunately for the theist. Intelligence is a property of minds, and information is mental currency. It is an illusion that these are attributes of the world outside our minds. Everything modern neuroscience reveals about the workings of the brain reinforces this point.

For the mind to do its thing, for it to know the world, it must invent information and map it into a simulacrum of the world. Actually, it is not exactly the mind that does this, but the brain. And the result of the brain’s creation of an information simulacrum is this thing we call knowing. It’s not the brain’s only simulacrum: vision and sound and feelings and tastes are some of its other experiential handiworks. But here’s the rub. When we build hypotheses and theories, when we know, it all happens within the simulacrum. And the subject of our knowledge, the data-source, is not the real world outside of us but rather the collection of other simulacra, the sense experiences, which our brains are constantly creating for us. These stand-in for the presumed world outside us.

Neuroscience tells us that nothing we know is knowledge of the real world outside. Instead it is knowledge of the simulacra of sensations which the brain is constantly creating for us. It follows that only indirectly, through pragmatic empiricism, can we test our knowing and maximize its usefulness. This indirect relationship between knowledge and the world, together with the fact that we directly know only our own simulacra, means that our knowledge of the world is necessarily covered with a patina of our own intelligence.

We think we see intelligence in the universe outside us, but in fact what we see is the patina of our own minds as they know the world.

 

 

 

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10 Responses to Atheism and Common Sense

  1. If “atheist” is wide open, how come the meaning of atheism, the group of people, the absence of God, or they are not acknowledging that God does exits?

  2. ursa major says:

    Ah – An unintelligible theistic reply attached to spam. Let’s all get out the Monty Python song book.

  3. John says:

    What we have here is a failure to imagine. But its not one of intelligence..its one of bias. Bias is what allows someone who dreams every single night and interacts in a world that he, himself, created to demand that God’s thoughts cannot do the same.

    Your problem is you dont want to see solutions because if you do..your going to be judged in the end. Thats a powerful bias. You guys are fightin for your lives. You know you’ve done the deed..mocking God proudly day in and day out. You cant give any ground because you wont be able to sleep at night.

    This is simple stuff. If God is Spirit–which means just THOUGHT–then there is no actual physical material. Its physical to us, just as it is when you dream and feel substance, but God is the only being that really has Life in Himself–we are sustained by his thought. To put it short..God doesnt knock on wood–he thinks of wood.

    You atheists say you know the Bible but you dont even have the most rudimentary knowledge of theology or philosophy. Why? Because everything you read is to protect your psyche. The Bible clearly states the world is IN God and is sustained by his thought. Yet you skipped that part and typed a bunch of nonsense you didnt need to type. Move on to the next pithy comment.

    You think your constructed, bit by bit, of actual matter TO God? Drop your bias and consider how absurd that is based on the definition of God as Spirit. Those bits are thoughts. Thats whats behind them. If we can build a program that does things in a computer cannot Almighty God do the same? Can Omnipotent God not construct the parameters, a self perpetual matrix, using his infinite thoughts? Thats YOU pal. How gracious is He to let you mock him as he sustains your very being. So gracious to give you the latitude to think anything you want along with the free choice to seek him out–he’s as close as you thinking within him right now.

    Could he not put the knowledge of Christ directly in the beings that he sustains when they ask him for the truth? How hard would it be for a programmer to insert a single line of code into a matrix as fact? Every wonder why Christians are so sure? Your searching in the material word for the supernatural where God purposely hides so your choice is free of coercion.
    If God lived next store you’d follow him out of fear. This world is a world in which there is just enough proof for those who are for God to search for him in prayer and just enough doubt for those who dont to just say its all bullcrap. Its perfect– as it reveals Gods children and exposes those who want to be their own god free of coercion and allowing something as simple as faith as the vehicle to heaven.

    Atheists want a god on CNN but dont know what they’re asking for. Then what would God use to judge?–the scales of justice? I think we know how many would be standing after that court room drama–zero– because we all used our freewill to think ourselves into oblivion in front of a sinless God. God understands that and provided heaven through the simplicity of faith. A willful reaching out for forgiveness and its a done deal but how arrogant we’ve become. We’re God, we’re all knowing, no one rules us.

    Look you guys are all so transparent. So afraid you need this daily ritual of reassurance you wont be judged, backing it up all the live long day with mountains of evidence of how dumb Gods people are and oh so intelligent you are. Brother, the math is irrefutable. You have to be protecting a lot to talk yourself into existence from nothing in the spacetime universe.

  4. Udaybhanu Chitrakar says:

    God is most commonly said to be spaceless, timeless, changeless, immortal and all-pervading. It is all very nice to say that God does not exist. Scientists are saying so, atheists are also saying so. But the fact is that science has treated God as real and shown that all the above five attributes of God are actually scientifically explicable with the help of the findings of special theory of relativity. For further reading on this please see the online journal Scientific God Journal (http://www.scigod.com), Volume 1, Issue 6, 7 and 8 (articles by an author Himangsu S. Pal). Or you may read my comments recently posted in the following blog:
    http://leightontaylor.net/2011/09/17/a-question-for-the-atheist

  5. Sarah Marie Lapointe says:

    Why do people even believe in God? I mean take a look at science and the real world for just a second here!

  6. Dwight says:

    John – somehow you seem to have missed the point of the article, which is that atheism is based on common-sense observations about how thought actually works in the world—in contrast to theism which must rely on the fantasy that somehow thoughts can create physical matter. To recap, atheists make the common observation that thoughts can’t create matter or even directly move the physical objects that are around us. Instead, atheists observe, thoughts must interact with neurons in the brain to engage the body to move objects. Nor can anyone ever create matter from scratch out of nothing. Without a body, in other words, our thoughts are powerless. That’s simply a common sense observation.

    Since by definition God lacks a body, therefore lacks neurons, he has no way to engage with the physical world, much less create it. Armed only with thoughts, he can’t create us, our neurons, or anything else that is physical. As I wrote, “How then can God’s non-physical something cause the physical world’s something? We can fantasize that somehow it does. But that’s as far as anyone can go toward making God an explanation for the world.”

    You seem to argue, however, that the physical world is not really physical at all, that it’s some kind of illusion created by God’s thoughts. How this can be, I can’t begin to imagine. It’s not, to put it kindly, the common sense point of view. You argue that when we have dreams we are creating an illusory physical world that is just like the waking world. But who seriously believes that the characters inhabiting our dreams actually have physical feelings and experiences of their own independent of us?

    I have a friend, considered by the medical establishment to be mentally ill, who actually does believe that fictional beings—cartoon characters for example—are really physically alive. (He believes they are the world’s most oppressed people, because even their “real” existence is denied.) I hope you are not in agreement with him. But if you are, I can only point out that this is not the common sense point of view.

    My whole point is that atheism is about accepting what is obvious to common sense. In contrast, you leave common sense behind when you suggest that our world is a self-perpetual matrix, a simulated world created by a celestial programmer. It amounts to believing that the world is not physically real, or else believing that thoughts can create matter—something we all know from personal experience they cannot do.

    You argue that the Bible says that “the world is IN God and is sustained by his thought.” But it’s a matter of common sense that the Bible is a book—like all books on earth—written by human beings. It’s not God’s word, did not come down to us from on high. It represents the thoughts of people 2000+ years ago who did not have the benefit of modern science. And on this point, the Bible is clearly wrong. As we have seen, unless God has a physical body his thoughts can’t interact with the world. Safe to say, they can’t “sustain” it either. Given the choice between an unsupported claim in an ancient book and modern scientific common sense, we pick the latter.

    Our approach is to put fiction aside and look honestly at the real world. And that’s led us to atheism. You, on the other hand, prefer fantasy. To each his (or her) own.

  7. John Bates says:

    Interesting discussion. Good points made by the non-bible thumpers. Still and all, a few points. Does it always have to come down to Theism vs. Atheism? If the bible is mythology (I think so) does that prove there is no Creative or Purposeful force beyond blind chance? Hardly, not in the slightest. Over and over Atheists observe that Theism is indefensible then LEAP to the conclusion that matter + time + accident + space = everything. Assuming I am understanding what some of this argument is about.

    Imagine a yard full of junk, metal shards, glass, wires. Then imagine a tornado, a million tornados, a billion. Now imagine a 747 jet magically assembled from this chaos. That is what materialism is asking us to believe.

    Richard Dawkins, in his book “Climbing Mount Improbable”, asks us to believe in absolutely nothing more than chance mutation. Yet the title of his book uses the word “Climbing”. Isn’t climbing intentional, directional, purposive? Dawkins asks us to believe in something that seems very, very directional and purposive yet somehow is a fantastic accident. Common sense, I don’t think so.

    Beyond the great leaps of faith materialism requires, this “science” ignores and misconstrues modern science to fit it’s presuppositions. Mind can affect nothing? Where did this idea come from? Ever heard of the “two slit experiment”? Where looking for, measuring for material objects (electrons) walla results in electron signatures being discovered. Looking for waves finds wave signatures.

    The observer effect is well known and a very established quantum effect. Yet materialists seem to totally ignore this and other evidence. Why? Because it calls into question their faith-based belief that matter is the primary if not only reality.

    It seems to me that given the very strange nature of “matter” materialism itself is under seige. Atoms, electrons, and so on are not real. There is not one atom in the universe. Really? Yes, really. The atomic structure of matter is a model, a metaphor, a guide (note: so is the bible). A useful one to be sure but a close look shows that what appears to be solid is on closer inspection a set of probability waves, not material substances. Materialism is false and matter is definitely not primary, so argue a good many physcists.

    Of course all we have are models and metaphors. We do not and cannot see the world directly as it is — our senses, our body that is, is easily misled. Still, we require fallible, that is non-factual metaphors.

    If materialists would recognize “common sense” they would admit that their ideas are ideas, concepts and that the world itself is, in many respects, beyond our grasp. However, metaphors like the atomic model DO work. Isn’t this itself a kind of (limited) argument for the mysterious power of the mind? i.e., As Kant noted 200 years ago, our categories of thought (God, Atoms) determine what it is possible or impossible to find.

    Will materialists catch up to 21st century science? Or will they keep returning to their faith-based creeds like: matter is real?

    (Note: I recognize that some models fit observation and testing closer than others. My objection is that ALL are metaphors, i.e. mythology, i.e. not the Truth.)

  8. Hey, just so you know: technically, if God existed first then you are wrong to say that nothing ever existed. Nothing never has existed — it’s only a term to say that a being that we know of did not exist at that time. Oh and did I say that every scientist that I know is a theist. A theist can also be a naturalist by the way.

  9. Ben says:

    believe in one god is like the knoledge of the only language.Christians who name themselves deists or theists in reality think about Christ. The evident evolution of the Universe make the Bible stories the tales.The humanity is evidently not the aim of some god but the stage of the evolution.Who needs the god who is not interested in the humanity?-Deists are liing(they need Christ).

  10. pule pitlele says:

    “What this mean is that in the natural worldview there is no ‘underlying intelligence” to be found in the world; intelligence is something that evolved into existence much later and exists only in organisms with brains that create that sort of consciousness.”

    How did the abovthoughts come about? in particular: the understanding of intelligence evolved from what, sense ofconsciesness itself. Isnt is true that conscieousness concretises mainly in comaprison to the “other”. these concepts are ras you put them non tangible and you seem to post them i nthe mind. evolution to you is the composer/giver of the most evolved atributes? this is secular in many regards. The good matter about atheism is that true atheists who naturally reflect on what is find tehir way back to in some way accept to existance of a superior being with the most atributes co-existing but not limited to the the bible texts.

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