Sunday, 17 January 2010

Who are you?

Who, or rather what, are you from an atheist point of view?

A man says that he is a rationalist and refuses to believe anything without sufficient evidence. Then he goes on to add that he thinks there is no such evidence for anything outside of nature, and therefore he is an atheist.

Perhaps that's you. But before we examine what you think, can we be allowed first to ask - what exactly is this "you" that is doing the thinking?

That we exist as self-conscious, self-aware beings is as basic a fact about our own existence as there can be. Beyond the mere firing of neurons through my brain, somewhere there is an "I" that actually experiences all that is going on around me. The materialist/atheist picture is of a giant biochemical machine that responds to stimuli and exists basically to pass on its genes to the next generation. But this picture does not even have in view one of the most basic facts of our own existence that we can be assured of: namely, the fact of our own existence as a distinct, personal subsistence. Or in English, I am me, and I am not you and you are not me. There is an "I" which transcends mere mechanical functions to actually observe and experience them.

Despite the ongoing replacement of all my body tissues through various biological processes, yet there is I am sure (as sure as I can be of anything at all), that there is an "I" which has continually been since my earliest remembered moments onwards.

The imagined atheist universe cannot account for personality - i.e. the existence of distinct personal self-conscious subsistences. It only allows matter/energy in constant re-arrangement. An impersonal and non-conscious machine is the most it can rise up to. Our most basic experience - of existing - tells us that the atheist universe does not exist.


gingoro said...

"That we exist as self-conscious, self-aware beings is as basic a fact about our own existence as there can be."

If by being you mean a physical entity in a world that has objective existence then I would dispute that we can be 100% certain that we exist in such a reality. It is possible that we "exist" in some kind of simulation like software simulations that humans create for games, climate, training etc. The fact that space and time are quantized is compatible with such a simulation. Plank time is the smallest quantity of time that exists.

As a Christian I tend to rule such scenarios out but rationally I can't prove them impossible. My reasoning is based upon the understanding of God as a God of truth. Likewise I rule out "appearance of age" explanations to account for the age of the universe, although I accept a "young" universe of about 13 billion years. IMO a truly old universe would be on the order of 10**100 years old (ie 10 raised to the 100th power).

Dave W

Ned Kelly said...

A question I would like answered is that if even our mind, volition, personality, perception of self, etc are simply a biological function of genes, why are identical twins so not identical? The differences are apparent even at a very early age when experience and environment cannot account for them. Of course, genetic mutation is given as the answer, but what genes are involved?

Watcher said...

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David Anderson said...

Hi Dave W,

I wasn't particularly meaning our physical existence no - the argument only depended upon our having self-awareness, which implies the real existence of a self. ("I think, therefore I am" !).

The "brain in an experimental vat" scenario still implies the reality of our existence, and still requires an accounting for the reality of self-consciousness.

I think C S Lewis once put forward an argument in this area - about why we could be sure that our non-dreaming life is the real one and our dreams are (in the intended sense) non-real. He said that our waking life can coherently and satisfyingly interpret and explain our dreaming life, but the reverse is not true. So extending that argument, I think we could confidently say that the "brain in a vat" scenario does not give a coherent or satisfying explanation of reality as we experience it, whereas our creation as body/souls in a real physical and fallen world does explain both our experience and why we have the power to imagine brains-in-vats. It the atheist is going to complain that this doesn't constitute absolute proof then we can concede that, but then go on to point out that a million other beliefs he holds aren't supported by such a level of proof and yet he finds it reasonable to live his life relying upon them - it seems to be only in matters with theistic implications that he refuses to do so.

David Anderson said...

Hi Ned,

This does seem a impossible question for a materialist. He has to hold that somehow self-consciousness emerges at a higher level out of low-level gene coding, and yet this self-consciousness is physically localised in the area of those genes. Identical twins have the same genes (i.e. genetic code), yet they have separate centres of self-consciousness because they have different genes (i.e. different physical encodings). Yet if the genetic code is physically expressed in another form (e.g. written on paper or computerised as the sequence of bases) then every evidence is that there is no self-consciousness that then emerges. So it can't just be genes, it has to be something else.

I think I remember reading that recent research shows that identical twins are not genetically identical after all. I'd have to Google to find this again. But even so, this would not help the main point of the lack of any explanation of how self-consciousness can arise from a physical machine as in the materialist picture. There's no connection between a physical machine and self-consciousness... it seems like a category mistake - like asking which note of the musical scale a chair is, or how many multiplication tables there are between here and Moscow.