It’s bad enough everyone is using this “New Atheists” label: various critics keep inventing new ones. Some letter writer to the Independent has decided to call us “Naive Atheists” because we are unaware of the implications of atheism.
However, let’s forget about the unfortunate history of atheism for a moment and concentrate instead on its philosophical implications.
Two of the big consequences are that once you ditch belief in God you must also, logically, ditch belief in free will and in objective morality.
What a silly, silly man. If anyone is naive here, it’s someone who thinks atheists must all be amoral robots, and that unpleasant consequences mean you should reject the truth value of a claim. But now he’s going to tell us he’s got evidence for his argument, straight from the mouth of an atheist.
But don’t take my word for it, take the word of some of the most distinguished atheists of the last hundred years.
Take Francis Crick, the co-discoverer of the double helix. In one of his last books, ‘The Astonishing Hypothesis’, he flatly denied the existence of free will with these words: “The Astonishing Hypothesis is that you — your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules”.
Have you got that now? What Crick is saying is that nothing you do is freely chosen.
Your ‘decision’ to read this column is the result of chemical reactions in your brain.
Your love for your spouse is only a chemical reaction.
Your love for your children is only a chemical reaction.
Your beliefs, whether you are an atheist or a religious believer for example, are the result of a chemical reaction. None of these things are freely chosen.
When you ditch belief in God you are left with the idea that matter and energy are all that exist. Everything you do is the result of your genes reacting with the environment.
First of all, Crick is not quite saying what he thinks he’s saying. That our minds are the product of electrochemical activity in our brain in our brain is not the same thing as saying there is no free will. What it says is that this magnificent product of evolutionary refinement residing in our cranium is a biological machine of immense sophistication capable of making complex choices and generating complex responses. The brain, in other words, is a choice-making machine. It is also not deterministic. It takes in a multitude of inputs, including lots of noise, filters them on the basis of deep personal history, and generates interesting internal states and elaborate responses. There’s no “only” about it.
My love for my spouse is the outcome of long association. I got to respect her in third grade as the smart kid in class, and as she got older, she was the va-va-va-voom girl in high school (yes, there was all kinds of interesting internal chemistry going on), and when we started dating, I enjoyed her personality and her outlook — my rational brain, my emotional responses, and my hormones were all engaged. At every step of the way, I can say that only natural processes were involved, and that’s just beautiful to me. No ghosts required, no extraterrestrial magic, no cherubs armed with enchanted arrows, just two smart animals nuzzling each other in those intensely human ways.
When some shallow git on the internet claims that is “only a chemical reaction,” I have to say that he seems to be deeply ignorant about how powerful chemistry and biology can be … and that he seems to be overlooking the fact that if we’re right, “only” chemistry produced Shakespeare, Bach, and Baryshnikov. Does it diminish Mozart that he was made of meat, that he used a chamberpot and got sick and fueled himself with food and drink?
Secondly, if we materialists are right (and of course, I think we are), then it doesn’t matter if the writer believes he’s an ephemeral puppet whose strings are being tugged by invisible vapor — he’s made of meat, too, and all of his most cherished feelings are the result of tuggings by a chemistry he chooses to ignore. Similarly, if he were right (and no, he isn’t!) and I had some magical non-corporeal spirit diddling my synapses, my disbelief wouldn’t change that fact, either.
Remember when you were five years old, and your best friend was hysterically concerned for you because you didn’t believe in Santa Claus? “You won’t get any presents,” he cried, “and Christmas won’t happen!” But of course Christmas did happen, and you got presents, and that you had replaced an imaginary obese elf with real, live, physical parents who loved you was an improvement on the damned stupid fairy tale.
That’s what runs through my mind on traces of ions guided by miniscule pipes of lipid, triggering slight sprays of neurotransmitters in orderly patterns, when some theistic lightweight protests that I won’t feel love if I believe in the beauty and elegance of chemistry. I love my chemistry.