The existence of brains: an argument for atheism

On my old blog The Apostasy, I wrote a post about the question of whether God's existence is a scientific question. Most believers will say it's not, because, they will tell you, God transcends physical reality and his very existence cannot even be proved or disproved, much less observed and measured scientifically.

However, the truth is that people who claim God exists are in fact making a claim about the nature of reality. And the more specific these claims get about God – that "he" is patriarchal, that he designed and created the universe and everything in it (including us), that he loves us, that he cares about how we treat each other or even who we have sex with, the greater the burden for evidence becomes.

This is why I've always found the Cosmological Arguments to be laughably weak arguments. They're fallacious for a number of reasons (particularly the fallacy of the stolen concept as it relates to causality), but even if they were logically valid arguments they do not even prove the existence of an intelligent creator – simply a first cause. The theologian still has all his work ahead of him to prove that this cause is supernatural, eternal, intelligent, loving, and even extant. Those kinds of claims require a great deal of evidence.

Supernatural claims about reality should logically coincide with what we observe. Particularly, they should be able to explain why we observe what we do better than purely scientific explanations. But do they? I once wrote a very lengthy post (one I'm particularly proud of, if I can toot my own horn just a bit) detailing why I do not think that God's existence, or the existence of "sin", can explain nature's indifference to suffering as well as a secular, atheistic viewpoint can. Similarly, I think there's an interesting fact about our minds that actually makes a decent case for atheism: the fact that we have brains.

The concept of God, particularly that practiced by modern Christians, is that of a disembodied mind that transcends our physical reality. But if a mind can exist without a brain, then why did God create us with brains? Notably, this is also an argument against a soul, or even substance dualism. Simply, if atheism is true, we have brains because we need brains. We can't have life and consciousness without them. However, if God exists, then the burden is on theists and dualists (usually one and the same) to explain why brains exist at all, since they are clearly not necessary for the existence of minds. What explanation can possibly be offered beyond a trite, "Well, I guess that's just how God chose to do it", which is quite obviously no explanation at all?

This simple argument nicely illustrates the fact that if God exists – particularly if some specific god exists – then his existence should explain our observable reality better than if he did not exist. But whether we are observing the hostility of 99.9999...% of the universe to life, nature's indifference to suffering, or the simplest facts of reality like having brains, the existence of God always seems to simply complicate, rather than illuminate.

Comments

  1. Mike, do you believe in a soul. I would assume not.

    Do you believe in free will? Choice responsibility? Should people be held accountable for the choices they make, good or bad? Should child rapists (just to use a horrendous example and thereby put us at the edge of the argument) be punished simply and only because they raped children? In the absence of any other reason to punish them, should they be punished?

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  2. Of course. We are an innately bonded and interdependent species, wholly dependent on our ability to live cooperatively with others for every aspect of our survival and well-being. If we do not respect the needs and interests of others, others have no reason to respect our own needs and interests. If we do not help others and treat them fairly, others have no reason to help us and treat us fairly. So of course, when someone acts maliciously toward another, they should be held accountable.

    I do not believe in a soul, of course, because there is no evidence that souls exist.

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  3. Let me rephrase my questions.

    First of all, do you believe in free will?

    Second of all, I know that playing with wild hypotheticals can lead to distortions of viewpoints, but I think there is merit in pursuing this one. Say there is a nuclear holocaust here on Earth. All humans are killed but one boy and one man. The man is a child rapist. He was in prison before the nuclear holocaust for raping children. He rapes the little boy as he had other children before the nuclear holocaust. The boy dies.

    Do you think that the man should suffer some kind of retribution for raping and murdering the boy. Does he owe some kind of intrinsic penalty for what he did?

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  4. To whom would such a penalty be owed? The boy is dead. The man will live and die utterly alone, with no one to care for him when he is in need. Do his acts require an ultimate "justice" or retribution? Of course not. What would such a thing accomplish?

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  5. I completely agree with your questions as to the scenario. Some people, most people perhaps, would say that justice or retribution for 'evil' acts don't have to necessarily accomplish anything. That if someone harms another, they should be punished, regardless of whether there is a pragmatic outcome to the punishment, regardless of whether it accomplishes anything.

    I disagree with this and just wanted to know if you do as well. I take it that you do.

    Do you believe in free will.

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  6. Well, if punishment accomplishes nothing, what's the point in doing it at all? Take Hitler. The guy is responsible for millions of cruel deaths and is one of the most vile and hated men in history. What kind of punishment could be inflicted upon him that could possibly be commensurate for such crimes? The best thing is that he's simply dead and gone, and can no longer hurt anyone else. Somehow punishing his soul wouldn't lessen the suffering he inflicted.

    To your other query... I don't "believe" in free will so much as I accept it as an observed reality... like Hitchens says, I believe in free will because I have no choice! I supposed some people are determinists and insist it's an illusion, but that's not particularly pragmatic.

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  7. In response to your use of quotation marks, I'm not sure that it's really dangerous to use the word "believe". Your beliefs may be based on information as you have analyzed, and you may have analyzed it in as rational a manner as you possibly could have. I'm sure you would be the first to state that they are still beliefs, personal opinions about how the world works, though you may be better informed and have put more thought into them than other people have into theirs.

    I don't propose that there isn't a momentary experience of free will. Clearly there is.

    I only ask the question because I have known many people who think they are agnostic or atheistic, who don't believe in God or a soul, but who still believe in a transcendent free will, or a transcendent choice accountability, despite the fact that the former appears to be incompatible with the latter.

    In fact, I think this presents an even larger hurdle to pulling society over the hump of the ancient belief in some form of supernaturality. Modern skeptics can agree that there is no conscious God working in our lives. They find it much more difficult, however, to get over their own experience of self and its seemingly immutable nature.

    I think part of the problem with the general atheistic movement is that people who don't believe in God but do believe in free will or a soul feel the discrepancies between the two within themselves but have not analyzed these feelings and, as a result, end up lacking conviction about their nonbelief in a conscious God. I would propose that the pervasive belief in a transcendent free will, a soul-like substance to humanity, is as much of an impediment to the evolution of human society as is a pervasive belief in a God of any kind.

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  8. Thanks for your contribution here friend. Good thoughts.

    When I use the word "believe", I'm using it to draw a distinction between accepting objective reality and assuming the existence of things that may or may not exist. I don't really need to "believe" that I'm sitting here typing this on my computer. But if someone wants to claims gods and souls exist, well, that's something that has to be actively believed since it is not an objective reality.

    My experience with skepticism and atheism isn't congruent with yours, though; I've yet to find any atheists who believe we have a soul, or that "free will" is anything more than the product of the physical world we inhabit.

    It's really the more borderline-agnostic types, in my experience, who profess such views. And in the cases I've seen, it's people whose rationality is leaning toward atheism, but who having difficulty letting go of the spiritual concepts with which they were raised.

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  9. I am also enjoying this conversation, and I understand and appreciate your use of the word "believe", and why you would qualify it with quotation marks.

    I agree with your characterization of the people I am describing, that they lean towards atheism but have difficulty letting go of their spiritual concepts in which they were raised and within which they are still immersed much of the time.

    I still feel a tension between our views. This is an assertion on my part to which you would be disadvantaged in responding since I have been reading your blog for a long time while you know nothing of me besides a few words here. I suspect that this tension arises as between our approaches rather than our views.

    I certainly feel that humanity might be on the verge of throwing off the shackles of these ancient beliefs in different forms of supernaturality and that this is a good thing for humanity. It may be a necessary thing, considering the dual explosions of population and technology. I suspect that we generally agree on these points.

    None the less, there is something in your writings which causes me apprehension. And I only confess this because you seem like someone who is very open to analysis of his own thought and behavior processes, something which I greatly respect. I recognize that this apprehension could be on my part. I am still throwing off the shackles myself. I suspect I always will be to some degree... but I digress.

    I don't know. I will think about this and return. Thank you for providing this forum and for being responsive.

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  10. "Simply, if atheism is true, we have brains because we need brains."

    Careful with that kind of teleological language:-P

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  11. It's intended to be anthropic, not teleological.

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