Reason, freedom and atheism

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January 20, 2015 by allistairg

There are few things in life more precious than ‘reason’ and ‘freedom’: the ability to evaluate claims and arguments with recourse to logic and evidence rather than merely conforming to imposed dogma, and the right to express one’s point of view and make one’s own decisions without unreasonable pressure from any person or organisation (‘unreasonable’ meaning “pressure beyond the moral duty to treat others with respect and dignity”).

In contemporary culture (certainly here in the UK) there is a general – often tacit, and therefore subversive – assumption that religion is inimical to the values of rationality and liberty.  We are frequently reminded by the many vocal atheists, who have their say in the media and on the internet, that it is their view of reality, which upholds reason and guarantees personal and social freedom:  “If only we would discard our primitive superstitions – a regrettable hangover from the confused traditions of the past – then society would become more moral, more compassionate, more free and, most of all, more intelligent and rational” (so the popular narrative goes).  Theists are frequently accused of abandoning reason in favour of ‘faith’, and being bound up with burdensome duties relating to the practice of their religion – pointless disciplines which drain all the joy and colour out of life, and which create unnecessary divisions within society.  Religious believers are therefore apparently neither rational nor free.

“Reason and Freedom Will Prevail”

Just the other day I received a circular email from the Richard Dawkins Foundation, with the title “Reason and Freedom Will Prevail”.  This was in response to the recent barbaric attack on the staff of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.   I wholeheartedly agree with this sentiment that reason and freedom will prevail, and that these values ought to prevail against the rise of violent extremism under whatever banner or creed it may be expressed and justified.

But what I find rather strange, in the light of Prof. Dawkins’ long, vocal and public campaign against ‘religion’, is the insinuation that it is atheism, which will deliver a future of reason and freedom.  I find it curious that the concepts of ‘reason’ and ‘freedom’ should be considered the natural outworking of that philosophy on which atheism depends, namely, the philosophy of naturalism (also loosely termed materialism and physicalism).

A wholly physical process

If the philosophy of naturalism is true, then reason is merely an emergent property of natural selection, a wholly physical process by which species develop in order to survive.  Within this paradigm there is no ultimate intelligence above and behind the universe, but rather an abyss of brute mindlessness.  There is therefore nothing objectively real about the universe other than matter and energy.  Thus reason and intelligence are merely properties – one could actually say ‘illusions’ – which have come into being as an aid to the ongoing existence and flourishing of the species known as homo sapiens.  Ideas are reduced to mere neuronal events: cerebral experiences, which confer some measure of utility on the organism, whose brain produces them.  These noetic experiences exert a psychological force on the organism to feel and act in a certain way with a resulting benefit in terms of personal well-being.  Such concepts operating in the brain are merely tricks to stimulate the organism to act in its own self-interest, and they are then passed on to the next generation to be perpetuated throughout the course of history.  The longevity of these ideas thus confer a ‘feeling’ of truth or validity.

Now clearly this understanding of the origin of reason has very interesting implications.

Hyperactive Agent Detection Device

Let us take the “idea of God”.  No informed person can question that throughout human history a vast proportion of humanity has believed in some concept of a Supreme Being believed to be the first cause and creator of the universe.   Are all these people essentially mistaken?  Well, according to the atheist, of course they are.  Those who subscribe to the philosophy of naturalism offer an explanation as to why so many people believe and have believed in God.  One such theorist is the atheist Daniel Dennett, who proposes this view in his book Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon.

Dennett’s view is that the big brain of homo sapiens has caused self-awareness and also awareness of other people’s self-awareness.  This anatomical phenomenon has led to the development of what is known as HADD: a “hyperactive agent detection device” operating within the human organism.  This device has the useful property of alerting humans to the presence of potential predators, but also suffers from the unfortunate side effect of projecting agency onto inanimate objects.  Thus rocks, trees and rivers are believed to be inhabited by fairies and nymphs and all other manner of fantastic creatures.  This is animism, which (so we are told) led on to polytheism and ultimately monotheism.  The belief in and appeasement of these spiritual entities became convenient as a way of explaining natural phenomena and coping with scarcity of resources, and the ultimate deprivation, namely, death.  And thus the positive feelings generated by these imaginary ideas bucked up the spirit of man and helped his survival within a totally hostile, mindless and ultimately meaningless universe.

A truly fascinating theory!

There is just one rather major flaw with it.  In fact, the error is so fundamental that it strikes at the very foundation of the theory and the entire edifice collapses into dust, as I will explain…

Conclusive evidence

There are many different types of evidence, such as mathematical proof, compelling empirical evidence (doubted only by recourse to hyper-Cartesian doubt), inductive and abductive evidence, the evidence of personal experience and so on.   Most types of evidence fall short of being absolutely conclusive and what we usually term ‘proof’ describes a level of certainty “beyond reasonable doubt”.  But there is one kind of evidence – or rather proof – which is completely conclusive.  The only way to doubt this evidence is to reject the validity of logic itself (and then all knowledge and truth claims collapse).  This is the evidence of self-refutation.  If an idea refutes itself, then it cannot be true (as long as, of course, we have accurately assessed that it is indeed self-refuting).  An idea, whose inherent nature is to kill itself, is obviously impossible.  It cannot live.  It cannot conceivably describe or reflect reality.   Anyone who thinks that such an idea could be true clearly cannot claim to be rational by any stretch of the imagination.

Daniel Dennett’s claim about the natural origin and development of belief in God is one such idea.  It is logically impossible to make this claim, because the presupposition on which this theory is built is unjustifiably made immune from the theory’s own method of verification.

Dennett is assuming that the philosophy of naturalism is true.  This philosophy is also known as “metaphysical naturalism” (not to be confused with “methodological naturalism”).  It is the metaphysical belief that what we call ‘nature’ – the physical world described by the laws of physics – is all that exists, or all that we can know or assume exists.  This is not a view that is proven or even supported by the empirical scientific method, given that there is nothing within a truly scientific explanation, which automatically rules out the existence of non-empirical dimensions of reality (a view scientists cannot deny, given the theorising about the unobserved multiverse and the problems posed by quantum physics).

Utility and survival

If we assume that the philosophy of naturalism is true, then it follows that all ideas within the human brain are an emergent property of natural processes, such as natural selection.  These ideas have come into being, and have been believed, for reasons of utility: in order to confer fitness on a species to aid survival.  If any metaphysical idea circumvented this process, then the philosophy of naturalism would not be true, because another source of reason – a non-natural source – would be required.  It is self-contradictory (dare I say Orwellian?) to claim that all ideas originate in this way (as must be the case if physical nature is all that exists), but only some metaphysical ideas are imaginary and others objectively ‘true’.   If the “idea of God” is the product of an entirely natural and utilitarian process and does not reflect objective reality, then the same judgment must be applied to the “idea of philosophical naturalism”.  If the former idea is judged to be essentially ‘untrue’, then the same applies to the latter.

Thus the epistemology of naturalism is self-refuting.  Whatever judgments it makes about other ideas, it also makes about itself.  Just as it is possible to write a book explaining how humans have needed the idea of God to aid their well-being and survival, so someone could write a book explaining how 20th and 21st century atheists believe in the philosophy of naturalism to aid their well-being and personal survival.  The argument works both ways!

This evidence of self-refutation is conclusive proof that the philosophy of naturalism has no means to explain reason without killing itself in the process.  The fact that atheists manage to pull off this trick is, I would suggest, largely due to the popular conflation of philosophical with methodological naturalism. The understandable reverence for science, based as it is on the method of the observation and measurement of the physical universe, leads many to the unwarranted conclusion that nature is, in fact, the only objective reality. There is indeed a semblance of logic to this conclusion, but it is actually a leap of faith into a quasi-religious dogma, not a rigorously justified inference from scientific data.

An alternative explanation

Without an objective basis to reason, naturalism collapses in on itself.  The alternative is a truly objective intelligence and reason, which brought human reason into being.  Either rationality was caused by something of the same or similar nature to itself, or it was not. I have already considered the latter theory, and found it self-refuting. The alternative theory therefore needs to be considered. The inference of this alternative theory constitutes strong evidence for the existence of an intelligent creator of human rationality. It is not unreasonable to consider that this originator of reason is a person, on the basis that it is inconceivable how an ultimate, primal and uncreated intelligence could operate in the absence of personality and consciousness.

Free will: reality or illusion?

The other value championed by atheists is ‘freedom’.

There is absolutely no doubt that throughout history personal freedom has often been undermined by various forms of organised religion, and I can appreciate that many people have discovered a sense of liberation in atheism after having escaped the tyranny of a religious sect or cult. I have a great deal of sympathy for such people. The certainties of natural science must come as a welcome relief after years of suffering the torment of a dysfunctional spirituality.

While atheism may have some utility as a reaction against corrupt forms of religion, there is, however, the serious question of truth. This leads me to ask whether the concept of ‘freedom’ actually coheres with the philosophy of naturalism.  ‘Freedom’ operates through the faculty of free will.  If, as the philosophy of naturalism states, we are nothing more than genetic machines in a brute and mindless universe – mere configurations of molecules produced by an environment completely unsympathetic to our existence and well-being and only permitting us to exist by sheer chance – then clearly free will is an illusion.  A programmed machine has no more free will than a stone.  The prominent American atheist Sam Harris has said as much in his book entitled Free Will.

Now it may be argued that theism offers no justification for free will, and indeed some interpretations of monotheistic belief fall into that category.  But I am not here to defend every interpretation of theism.  I am investigating aspects of reality: in this case, reason and freedom, and asking which paradigm logically explains the existence and function of these elements.

Some may argue that free will is not part of reality.  If so, then they need to explain why nothing in human society could function in denial of this faculty.  Probably over 80% of media news concerns moral issues in some form or other.  But moral responsibility is an illusion in the absence of free will, because without it all behaviour can be justified.  No one who champions moral issues can therefore deny the reality of free will.

The persuasion paradox

Furthermore, many atheists seek to convert people to their point of view.  All attempts at persuasion imply a tacit belief in the reality of the operation of free will.  If I was convinced that no one could ever change their mind about some idea or claim by means of reasonable persuasion (rather than psychological manipulation), then I would think it futile to express my point of view.  Just what are atheists complaining about when they despair at the prevalence of religious belief?  If we are all nothing but machines, programmed by our genes, and free will is an illusion, then obviously some people are religious because that is how nature made them.  To criticise such people is therefore to criticise nature itself.  And if nature is so incompetent that it causes some people to be religious, then one must call into question all that nature has allegedly created, including the intelligence of atheists themselves!  Another example of self-refutation (actually the same example in a different guise).

Clearly free will can only have been created in or conferred on humanity by some source above nature, given, as I have argued, that nature is a wholly inadequate origin for this human faculty.  Free will could not have been constructed by brute mechanics.  On the contrary, the originator of free will must be the kind of agent, which could produce something fundamentally different from that formed by deterministic material reactions.  Could an impersonal force pull this off? By definition it could not, because it would produce an effect in accordance with its own character, that is, another impersonal mechanism. What is needed is a personal creator. Just as intelligence is the source of human reason, so personality is the source of human free will.  Again, this is strong and compelling evidence for the existence of a personal God.

Cause and effect

It seems remarkable to me that any careful and informed thinker should consider it irrational to infer that the nature of a proposed cause (intelligence, personality) should be of the same or a similar nature to its effect (reason, free will), and then affirm that the only possible rational position is the theory that reason had its origins in unreason and that free will (if it exists at all) arose from impersonal and deterministic forces. Those who think otherwise are dismissed as “enemies of reason” (to use one of Richard Dawkins’ phrases), and, through the popular media, we are frequently urged to respect this quite audacious, and frankly, nonsensical judgment (hence the recent pronouncements on the BBC about the origin of life by the popular atheist scientist Prof. Brian Cox).

Atheism is operating by stealing the ideas of ‘reason’ and ‘freedom’ from the very world view it deplores and seeks to consign to the dustbin of history. It is a kind of intellectual parasitism.

In the light of this, I would suggest that if “reason and freedom” are truly to prevail, as Professor Dawkins hopes, then the future of atheism looks very bleak indeed. Once the parasite has killed its host, then where does it go?


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