I’ve been listening to the infuriating Frank Turek. He’s got one argument against materialism which he seems to be well known for: those damn atheists are saying you’re merely molecules in motion, and you know you’re not, so therefore atheism is false, to paraphrase. Here’s an example from Turek’s debate with Hitchens. It’s an awful argument.
Christopher’s a self-described materialist but if atheism is true we have no grounds to know it because reason and thoughts are just chemical reactions in the brain. How can you have—even Einstein believed this. Einstein was a determinist. How can you trust what Christopher says if it’s just chemical reactions going on in his brain and chemical reactions in our brain? See, chemical don’t reason, they react. Now, I’m not saying there’s no connection between our thinking and chemicals, there is, but if it’s nothing but chemicals, how can we trust them? Even Darwin recognized this, it’s called Darwin’s doubt. He said, “If we are just the product materially of primates, why should I even trust anything, much less my theory of natural selection?” The next major reason is the laws of mathematics. Science depends on the notion that the universe is rational and mathematical at all levels. But how does rationality and mathematics arise from randomness? How do they come from matter? Rationality and mathematics are the product of mind, not matter. So you’ve got reason and the laws of logic, the laws of mathematics, and, number seven (or, seven in my list here, three in the addition) human freedom and the ability to make choices. Christopher is somebody who is very concerned about human freedom as I am, but again, if we are just molecules in motion, how do we have human freedom? William Provine from Cornell, he’s a materialist, a Darwinist, he points out that we don’t have any human freedom if all we are is molecules in motion. Now, Christopher ought not scold anybody for being a snake-handling, Bible-thumping, funny mentalist preacher because according to his own world view, that person is that way because these are just chemicals going on in his brain. Neither could you say that Hitler had done anything wrong if it’s just chemicals going on in his brain. I mean, what is the murder molecule? How much does justice weigh? These are questions that have no answer in a materialistic world view, but that is Christopher’s world view. It seems to me that it makes much more sense to say that reason and laws of logic and mathematics and human freedom come from a great mind that granted us these immaterial realities. The final argument is consciousness. Do you know that a heap of sand and a human brain have the same elements? Why are some carbon-based molecules conscious and some are not? Materialists have no answer for this. Daniel Dennett, another person who would agree with Christopher on many things, he’s a materialist, says that consciousness is an illusion because he’s a materialist. You’re not really witnessing this right now, it’s just an illusion. Now one wonders if he was conscious when he wrote this. But again, there is no explanation for this in an atheistic world view.
He has it all wrong.
You are not just chemicals in your brain; you are chemicals in your brain, isn’t that awesome?
The thing is that there are a set of facts on which Turek, his audience, and atheists would agree. You can think, you can make decisions, you can have goals, you can dream. You have conversations in your head, you replay memories, you feel. These are realities. Atheists do not deny them, but what Turek is doing here is playing with his audience, making a false emotional appeal by suggesting that materialists are saying you don’t do any of those things, because you’re a meat robot, and robots can’t dream.
What he’s missing is the real core of the difference. When we say, “you dream”, who is the “you”? We’re not denying either the existence of an individual or the process of dreaming, we are saying that there is a material explanation for the perception of self, and that that explanation involves cells and molecules and ions and currents and a complex trajectory of experience and learning to produce a functioning brain that does interesting, complex things. We’re actually pretty impressed with the power of ‘molecules in motion’, and we only attach the modifier “merely” to be ironic.
When Turek says “you dream”, he’s denying all the complex activity of the brain to say that there is a “you” that is not part of your physical body; that there is an invisible puppet master called “you” that lives in an invisible realm and somehow intangibly makes your body manifest the external symptoms of dreaming. It’s a weird and very common view that there is a “you” that is completely independent of your physical existence. He has no evidence for it, of course, while we have all the evidence of psychology and physiology and endocrinology that correlates the activity of the brain with the activity of mind.
He also asks,
Do you know that a heap of sand and a human brain have the same elements? That’s not actually true; there’s very little silicon in the brain, and very little carbon in sand. If you want similarities, a heap of sand and a computer have a lot more in common. Would Turek like to argue that computers don’t work in a material way? My laptop here is doing a lot of extremely complex stuff right now: it’s running a word processor, it’s making a cursor blink, it’s monitoring my keyboard and collecting key strokes, storing them and displaying their associated symbol on my screen; it’s also running a web browser in the background, as well as my email software, and it’s occasionally alerting me that I’ve got new mail (rarely worth bothering with), that someone’s tweeting at me somewhere, and that I’ve got incoming messages. It’s also playing music for me. Do I argue that all of that is an illusion? No. Does Turek believe that there is a spiritual cognitive force hovering in a different dimension, reaching in to manipulate all this silicon to do all this work, because a heap of sand can’t possibly be that organized? Probably not, but if he doesn’t, he’s inconsistent.
But he’s also wrong when he says materialists have no answer for how some collections of molecules are conscious and others are not. We do! They aren’t complete answers — complex phenomena are hard to understand and take time to untangle — but we certainly can sort out many material properties that are necessary to make brains work, which aren’t present in a heap of sand. The more accurate assessment is that the spiritualists have no answers at all. They have no evidence for even the existence of a disembodied soul, no idea how it would diddle a material brain, and not even the vaguest hypothesis about how this phantasmal wisp of guesswork would be doing the complex business of dreaming without any molecules.