Can atheism explain Consciouness?


The latest episode of my Ask An Atheist Anything podcast went live over the weekend. Listen to it at the link below or wherever you get your podcasts.—Can-atheism-explain-Consciousness-e3fr5q

The conversation that Andrew and I have with Ernest is delightful and there is a lot of genuine laughter. Ernest’s enthusiasm for life is infectious and the world does need more people like him.

The blog post that prompted the discussion and eventual recording of the episode is here:

Comments are no longer visible or possible on the blog post, which I think is a massive shame. It was only through the ability to comment that I was able to make contact with the author and to organise the live conversation. Shutting down comments kills the ability for dialogue to spread.

I am hopeful that there will be a follow up episode, so any thoughts, feedback, or follow up questions will be welcomed and appreciated.

Twenty Arguments for God – Ten – The Argument from Consciousness

This post is one of a serious that picks apart the arguments for god that can be found at the link below. This post addresses number 10:
If you don’t want to click over there to read it, the full argument goes like this:

10. The Argument from Consciousness

When we experience the tremendous order and intelligibility in the universe, we are experiencing something intelligence can grasp. Intelligence is part of what we find in the world. But this universe is not itself intellectually aware. As great as the forces of nature are, they do not know themselves. Yet we know them and ourselves. These remarkable facts—the presence of intelligence amidst unconscious material processes, and the conformity of those processes to the structure of conscious intelligence—have given rise to a variation on the first argument for design.
We experience the universe as intelligible. This intelligibility means that the universe is graspable by intelligence.
Either this intelligible universe and the finite minds so well suited to grasp it are the products of intelligence, or both intelligibility and intelligence are the products of blind chance.
Not blind chance.
Therefore this intelligible universe and the finite minds so well suited to grasp it are the products of intelligence.
There are obvious similarities here to the design argument, and many of the things we said to defend that argument could be used to defend this one too. For now we want to focus our attention on step 3.
Readers familiar with C. S. Lewis’s Miracles will remember the powerful argument he made in chapter three against what he called “naturalism”: the view that everything—including our thinking and judging—belongs to one vast interlocking system of physical causes and effects. If naturalism is true, Lewis argued, then it seems to leave us with no reason for believing it to be true; for all judgments would equally and ultimately be the result of nonrational forces.
Now this line of reflection has an obvious bearing on step 3. What we mean by “blind chance” is the way physical nature must ultimately operate if “naturalism” is true—void of any rational plan or guiding purpose. So if Lewis’s argument is a good one, then step 3 stands: blind chance cannot be the source of our intelligence.
We were tempted, when preparing this section, to quote the entire third chapter of Miracles. This sort of argument is not original to Lewis, but we have never read a better statement of it than his, and we urge you to consult it. But we have found a compelling, and admirably succinct version (written almost twenty years before Miracles) in H. W. B. Joseph’s Some Problems in Ethics (Oxford University Press, 1931). Joseph was an Oxford don, senior to Lewis, with whose writings Lewis was certainly familiar. And undoubtedly this statement of the argument influenced Lewis’s later, more elaborate version.
If thought is laryngeal motion, how should any one think more truly than the wind blows? All movements of bodies are equally necessary, but they cannot be discriminated as true and false. It seems as nonsensical to call a movement true as a flavour purple or a sound avaricious. But what is obvious when thought is said to be a certain bodily movement seems equally to follow from its being the effect of one. Thought called knowledge and thought called error are both necessary results of states of brain. These states are necessary results of other bodily states. All the bodily states are equally real, and so are the different thoughts; but by what right can I hold that my thought is knowledge of what is real in bodies? For to hold so is but another thought, an effect of real bodily movements like the rest. . . These arguments, however, of mine, if the principles of scientific [naturalism]… are to stand unchallenged, are themselves no more than happenings in a mind, results of bodily movements; that you or I think them sound, or think them unsound, is but another such happening; that we think them no more than another such happening is itself but yet another such. And it may be said of any ground on which we may attempt to stand as true, Labitur et labetur in omne volubilis aevum [“It flows and will flow swirling on forever” (Horace, Epistles, I, 2, 43)]. (Some Problems in Ethics, pp. 14—15)

The opening sentences of this argument are the sort of pseudo profound stuff one would expect from a New Age guru. It expends much to say nothing at all.

What does the author even mean by the order and intelligibility of the universe? These words have been used in previous arguments but never explained. I guess it could be defined as intelligible in the sense that our intelligent minds can make some sense of it. Is it ordered? Well that depends on how order is defined, how the universe behaves is down to the laws of physics but when you look at the universe you see scattered stars and galaxies that are grouped and clumped, I would say they are more haphazard than ordered. Our humans brains like to pick out patterns so anything that is random will have some elements that our minds will see as having apparent order. It is an illusion of order though.

This argument, like many of the arguments in this series, asserts that there must be a greater intelligent being because of some property of the universe. Yet, also like the other arguments, doesn’t offer references to support the assertion or suggest tests that could confirm the hypothesis.

Either this intelligible universe and the finite minds so well suited to grasp it are the products of intelligence, or both intelligibility and intelligence are the products of blind chance.
Not blind chance.

The argument sets up two options, something intelligent made it all, or it’s all blind chance. Note how blind chance is not defined. Are these really the only options available? Note how the argument does not ask that question, let alone make an effort to discuss other options. Blind chance is dismissed out of hand, without even a discussion, nor a definition. It’s almost as though the intelligent originator has been pre concluded and this is just a box tick to dismiss any other option in a vain attempt to appear that other options have been considered. It’s dishonesty at it’s most brazen.

Therefore this intelligible universe and the finite minds so well suited to grasp it are the products of intelligence.

If our minds were so well suited to grasping it, how come we have so much difficulty doing so? It’s taken many years to gain the understanding we have now and many arguments and false avenues along the way. Geocentricism anyone? Our present understanding isn’t even complete, there is still much to learn and understand.

That we have minds that can make some sense of the world around us is an essential element of evolutionary survival. Without those minds we’d not be able to make the technological progress we have thus far. Without those minds we’d not be able to progress in our understanding of the universe or even have the kind of thinking that can imagine a god. Should any of this mean there is an intelligent mind behind the universe? If it was as obvious as this argument claims, there would be something more than assertions to back it up. Yet assertions is all that there is.

Wherefore Art Thou Free Will?

Free Will is fascinating. Well to me at least. As a Christian I believed that all humans have free will, God given, because without that free will we could not make the choice to have faith.

As an atheist, I still believe that the choice I made to abandon my faith was a conscious decision based on a rational response to evidence.

However, it is not all that clear cut. Experiments on Free Will and our conscious brain are questioning what we understand as Free Will and the conclusions are fascinating. In essence, it seems that what we think of as Free Will is just an illusion and what we think are conscious decisions are simply our conscious brain being made aware of a decision that has already been dictated to it by subconscious process that are simply the result of our brains chemical and biological makeup.

The Why Evolution is True blog has many posts on the subject and the latest one is here (, its worth popping over too even if its to watch the 5 min embedded video. If Free Will and the puzzles surrounding it are of interest to you, then the wider discussions on Free Will at WEIT are worth digging out.

It’s the definition of Free Will that I find most challenging, which is rightly raised here too ( One definition I have seen (I think it was on WEIT) is that if you could present someone with the exact same scenario again and again, they would make the same decision each time. Now this brings about massive logistical problems and I am not sure there will ever be a way in which such an experiment could be done because once the decision has been made, a repeat of that decision brings with it the memory of the previous decision and so the scenario is not identical.

Personally I am very reluctant to give up on the concept of Free Will and if I am brutally honest, I will go so far as to say that I find the idea a little bit concerning, frightening even; even if it is intellectually fascinating. I mostly understand the reasoning behind the suggestion that Free Will is just an illusion; however, it currently does lack the slam dunk that is absolute proof.

But what about morality?

If you accept that Free Will but an illusion, then I guess the only conclusion to come to regarding morality is that is also not chosen for us either. This brings about the discussion of responsibility and the consequences of our actions. If what we do is pre-determined by chemicals in our brains and we have no control over the decisions that are being made for us, how can we be punished for our actions when they cause harm?

My answer is that even if there really is no such thing as Free Will that should not change the existing ideas of actions, consequences and punishment.

How do we prove it either way?

For me, this is the far more interesting question. Until we knew for certain, all discussion on the consequences are largely academic. I know some have already embraced the idea that it is all an illusion. For me I need something more concrete than fascinating experiments. The suggestion that some rudimentary decisions appear to be made in the subconscious brain long before we know about it needs to be more nailed down for me and I also need convincing that the same is true for significant decisions, those that we ponder about and weight up in our conscious minds before deciding. Is the thinking process also just an illusion?

I don’t know how we can prove it and I will continue to follow the discussions and the science because on a personal level I think it is important. If it does in fact turn out that Free Will is an illusion then it pretty damning for religion. Hence I am not at all surprised to see that religious commentators and apologists are resisting this idea.

Personally, I think it is not something that is going to be nailed down anytime soon and the philosophical arguments will continues for a long time to come. I also think that its not a simple ‘yes it is’, ‘not its not’ conclusion. I think that what we consider as Free Will is far more likely to be a mixture of conscious and unconscious processes and that some decisions will appear to be consistently made for us by our biology, while others will be not so clear cut and show evidence of being far more conscious involvement. My prediction is that its not at as black and white as some blogs and articles would have us believe, rather the Free Will concept will be a varying scale of grey between illusion and cognitive thought.