The Miracle of Atheism: Turning Matter into Mind

In the previous post, I argued that the first decision point in the discussion between atheism and belief in God is the choice between matter and mind as most fundamental explanation for our world. Is the beginning and end of all things “spirit or matter, life or death, intelligible or unintelligible, mind or machine?” I ended that post with the question of whether or not we could make a rational judgment about this issue. Today I want to begin a line of reasoning that I believe enables us to reject materialism for rational reasons, not just because of our emotional reaction to its deification of death.

In this post we will consider a common experience central to the argument between atheism and belief. We experience ourselves and the external world in two ways, as mind and matter, that is, as something intelligible and something merely sensible. We can think the intelligible as an idea, a concept, or a set of relationships. The intelligible aspect of things enters our minds as information. But we experience the sensible as merely there, a brute fact offering resistance but not yielding information. Both are such primitive experiences that we can’t readily explain one in terms of the other.

To move us forward, let’s assume that the atheist option is correct, that matter is the one primordial reality, and see where this hypothesis leads us. If atheistic materialism is true everything we experience can be reduced to matter. Everything real is wholly material, and everything that we experience as mind or idea is but an “appearance” of matter, even the mind, ideas, and thoughts of the atheist who makes this argument. By definition pure matter cannot possess any intelligible properties. But can we actually perform this reduction of mind to matter?

To pursue this argument we need a clear concept of matter. But it would be a huge mistake to assume that our common sense notions give us an adequate concept of matter. Let’s use a human artifact as our example of how the reduction of mind and intelligible ideas to matter might work. From the street in front of my house I can see the entire front of the structure. When I look at it I think the idea of a house. My house is not matter alone. Its matter is structured by an idea. The idea of a house contains many components we might consider practical or emotional, such as beauty, comfortable, convenience, and familiarity. But the idea of a house is also a complicated design plan that one can diagram as a set of blueprints and understand with the mind. The design plan differentiates the house from other physical objects, from a car or an elephant.

My house is composed of smaller units arranged according to its design plan. Let’s remove one of those units and consider it in isolation from the other units. A single brick is not a house. Nor is pile of bricks a house. You need a design plan and a builder in addition to materials to create a house. But neither is a single brick pure matter, for there is a difference between a brick and unmixed, unmolded, and unbaked clay. Not just any pile of earth can be made into a brick. Hence a brick, too, is an idea, a design plan, an inner order that makes its components a brick and not one of many other things.

Let’s go further. The brick also is composed of units arranged in an order, according to the idea of a brick. The units are composed mostly of Silicon and aluminum oxides that possess properties that enable them to form tiny, thin, flat sheets, which gives wet clay that slick feel. A Silicon tetraoxide (SiO4) molecule is also composed of units, one Silicon atom and four oxygen atoms. A single Silicon or a single Oxygen atom or an aggregate of these atoms is not a Silicon tetraoxide molecule any more than a brick is a house. And apart from the design plan that makes these atoms a Silicon tetraoxide molecule, they do not possess the properties of Silicon tetraoxide.

A Silicon atom, too, is composed of units arranged in a stable and intelligible order. It contains 14 protons, 14 neutrons, and 14 electrons. Its inner structure is surprisingly complex, and a list of its known properties would fill several pages. In experiencing and understanding a Silicon atom, just like our knowledge and experience of a house or a brick, we do not experience matter alone. We know a Silicon atom as an order, an intelligible structure, that is, as an idea.

Let’s keep going! A proton by itself is not a Silicon atom, and it does not possess the properties of a Silicon atom but a completely different set of properties. Like a house, a brick, a Silicon tetraoxide molecule, and a Silicon atom, a proton is not pure matter. It too has an inner structure and is composed of units. A proton is composed of 2 up quarks and 1 down quark held together by three gluon fields. Quarks and gluons also possess properties that differ from those of the protons for which they are the components. How far toward the infinitely small modern physics can pursue the structure and properties of the physical world I do not know. But one thing is clear: Matter, considered as primordial, unordered, unintelligible, undifferentiated yet real stuff—a concept necessary for atheism to make sense— can never be known or experienced except as an abstraction from the ordered and intelligible world we know.

From our common sense experience of the world, we tend to think that the existence and nature of matter is the most obvious of all things. And the immediate plausibility of atheist/materialist’s argument depends on this naïve presumption. But the existence of matter is not obvious at all. Matter is a theoretical idea postulated to account for the difference between mere ideas and the physical objects that embody those ideas in space and time. Matter is not knowable in itself, that is, apart from an internally structured physical object. The physical order we experience daily in ourselves and the external world is built up not from purely material components but by things with internal order, used as components for other orders, and those are used for still others, and so on for many levels.

Nevertheless, let’s continue to assume the materialist hypothesis. This hypothesis asserts that all the intelligible order in the universe, everything that ever was and ever will be, from quarks and gluons to human brains, came into existence not by the ordering power of mind but by some other means. What other means could account for the vast number of levels of intelligible order in nature? Apart from mind, what could you add to amorphous, unordered, and undifferentiated matter to cause it to become ordered? If matter is all there is and matter is unordered by definition, why wouldn’t matter simply remain unordered forever? Chance, you say? I agree that chance is the only option other than active mind for creating new order. But chance won’t work to order pure matter, because chance applies only in our already ordered world. Chance makes sense only where there is differentiation and processes are already under way. Chance makes sense only where you have two or more lines of causality that can intersect in a way unpredictable from within either line. But with pure matter there is no causal process because causal processes assume a difference between cause and effect; and in pure matter all is one and the same. Without difference nothing happens, and if nothing happens, nothing can happen by chance either. If, nevertheless, the atheist/materialists insist that something did happen to order matter, they are asserting an absurdity, a miracle, which hardly places them a superior rational position to theists who insist that the operation of a mind is the explanation for the intelligible order of our world.

As I stand before that first decision point, completely surrounded by intelligible structures, layer within layer, knowing matter only as an abstraction, I feel justified in rejecting the materialist alternative and choosing the alternative that asserts that mind and intelligibility are fundamental aspects of reality.

Next week: we will examine our experience of ourselves as causes, free and creative initiators of change. We know that pure matter cannot order itself, but we know mind can order matter because we do it every day.

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12 thoughts on “The Miracle of Atheism: Turning Matter into Mind

  1. nokareon

    A quick thought here: It seems to me interesting that many Materialists who strive to be consistent about their belief system may in fact use this very line of reasoning (delving deeper and deeper into the components of things until the indivisible is reached) to argue that composite objects like minds do not actually exist. Because you can keep on dividing the material components of any object, they would say, composite objects like tables, people, minds, houses, bricks, etc. cannot be said to actually exist (a position known as Mereological Nihilism). On this view, these abstractions are only useful fictions, a limitation and consequence of human language and terminology. So, as bizarre as the position is intuitively, perhaps the materialist can weasel his way out of your line of reasoning by denying that minds, as composite objects, exist at all. It actually seems to me more consistent with Materialism to go this route than claiming that the mental life is a phenomena that somehow arises from complex material interactions (i.e. Emergentism).

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    1. Boxing Pythagoras

      I actually had much the same thought, as I read this. I would actually self-identify as a materialist who considers the mind to be an emergent property of material interactions; however, I would say that claiming “composite objects like minds do not actually exist” goes a fair bit too far. The simple fact that one thing emerges from the interactions of some baser material does not indicate nonexistence. To use this article’s example, it would be overstating the objection to say that Bricks do not actually exist because they are composed of interactions between Silicon and Oxygen atoms.

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      1. ifaqtheology Post author

        Thanks for reading the post and replying. I hope I did not say that materialism implies that “composite objects like minds do not actually exist”. If I did, I misspoke. I thought I said that consistent materialism would not be consistent unless it asserts that internally ordered physical objects are wholly reducable to formless or pure matter. Or, from the other angle, that all internally ordered physical objects arise from pure, unordered matter. You say that mind–and I assume all the rest of the order of nature–is “an emergent property of material interactions.” That sounds like an explanation, but it is not. My point is that the concept of pure matter will not support the ideas of “emergence” and “interactions.” You cannot have interactions without at least two things to interact and combine intp stable composites. Pure matter is purely one. Everything I’ve read about emergence indicates that it presupposes a lower order set of properties the combination of which is more than the sum of its parts; hence new properties emerge not foreseen by extrapolating from the lower levels. One more note: the use of the word emerge is interesting. It is a spatial word, a metaphor perhaps. One thing “emerges” (the opposite of submerge!) from another thing, that is, one thing arises “out of” another thing to occupy a new space, hitherto unoccupied. Did this space exist before the emergence? That is did matter contain the “possibility” for this new thing to arise? Is pure matter bound by laws about what can and cannot emerge from it? And if so, are these laws pure matter or are they intelligible? You see where I am going. Laws imply properties and properties imply differences and differences imply relationships and relationships are ordered and hence intelligible. My conclusion: dualism is much more rational than reductionism.

        Thanks for your thoughts.

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      2. Boxing Pythagoras

        Thank you for your reply! And there is no need to apologize! I’ve missed the context of a comment, myself, and more than once. Certainly no worries on that account.

        You cannot have interactions without at least two things to interact and combine intp stable composites. Pure matter is purely one.

        I would disagree that “pure matter is purely one,” but a proper answer to that entails a fairly complex and difficult discussion about the geometry of space-time. I don’t think I’d be able to adequately address it as a comment, but I might look towards dedicating an article to it on my own blog.

        One more note: the use of the word emerge is interesting. It is a spatial word, a metaphor perhaps. One thing “emerges” (the opposite of submerge!) from another thing, that is, one thing arises “out of” another thing to occupy a new space, hitherto unoccupied.

        Yes, unfortunately the word “emerges” does evoke a spatio-temporal connotation. Though I do make a great effort to divorce my language from such spatio-temporal concepts, when discussing issues of space-time, it is an inordinately difficult task. When I say that a property is “emergent,” I simply mean that it is a particular property of a specific set of entities which is not a property of any one of those entities, individually. For example, Oxygen atoms are not wet, nor are Hydrogen atoms. However, a particular set of Oxygen and Hydrogen atoms which we describe as “water” has the property of wetness.

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      3. ifaqtheology Post author

        I would very much like to hear your reasoning about the nonsimplicity of pure matter. How could matter be composite, since in my view the concept of matter is always defined vis-à-vis mind/intelligible order as the absence of mind? Can matter (as a metaphysical concept) be defined except by this contrast? To define something is to think it. And to think something is to admit that it is intelligible. Is there a mysticism of matter, where matter is beyond thought but nevertheless subject to some other mode of awareness?

        It may be ironic to say, but I appreciate your thoughtfulness about these issues. Perhaps not, because I believe your mind is real!

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      4. Boxing Pythagoras

        I would very much like to hear your reasoning about the nonsimplicity of pure matter.

        Lovely! I’ll try to work up an article about it for next week, and I’ll be sure to let you know when I’ve posted it.

        How could matter be composite, since in my view the concept of matter is always defined vis-à-vis mind/intelligible order as the absence of mind? Can matter (as a metaphysical concept) be defined except by this contrast?

        Matter would definitely require another definition to the one you prefer, on Materialism, since your definition seems to inherently cast “mind” as something immaterial. This would, of course, be incoherent on a view that everything is material. I’ll attempt to offer a more cogent definition of matter in my upcoming article, but I think that a fair amount of confusion arises due to an unintentional equivocation. When most people think of “matter,” they think of the word as it is meant by the physical sciences; however, that is very different than what the word “matter” means to philosophers and metaphysicians.

        To define something is to think it. And to think something is to admit that it is intelligible. Is there a mysticism of matter, where matter is beyond thought but nevertheless subject to some other mode of awareness?

        I would say that to define is certainly to describe, but the existence of that being described is not dependent upon my act of defining it. If I want to define the word “water,” the thing which I am describing exists independently of my definition. Whether or not I understand what water is, it still remains that water exists.

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      5. nokareon

        I am interested in the discussion here about Emergentism because I certainly believe that it is the “best game in town” for the Materialist who rejects any dualist account of the mind.

        I would be interested not only in Boxing Pythagoras’ reasons for affirming the nonsimplicity of pure matter, but also Dr. Highfield’s reasoning that “pure matter is purely one.” He offered the reason that matter is defined as that which is the absence of mind. I suppose it would be analogously similar to the notion that a shadow could not be defined in the first place if not for the existence of light. To me, this seems to argue for the conclusion that Materialism is incoherent along these lines—”It is incoherent to affirm that only matter exists because the concept of matter can only exist when placed in contrast with immaterial minds.” However, this is where we seem to have an equivocation, as Boxing Pythagoras pointed to. Dr. Highfield admittedly speaks of the “metaphysical concept” of matter, whereas the materialist would referring to the “stuff” of matter that the metaphysical concept describes. And if matter is taken to mean the “stuff” that the concept describes, it seems plausible enough to take the pieces of matter which together comprise the physical world and affirm that those pieces might be the distinct objects that can then interact (and possibly be greater than the sum of their parts).

        I would like to object to the Emergentist position on slightly different grounds. I would contend that even if physical matter can in some cases yield properties that are greater than the sum of their parts (such as the wetness of water), the interactions of physical matter cannot get us to a mental life such as the one that we regularly experience. There are two factors that I would briefly sketch to support this point. The first is concerning the nature of Intentional States. In our mental life, we frequently experience thinking *about* one thing or another—for example, I am thinking about the words that I am writing now and what their relationship to one another is within a sentence. But it is puzzling at best how the interactions of fundamental particles could form a basis for such Intentional States of consciousness. A hydrogen atom cannot be *about* anything. The revolving of the planets or laws of Special Relativity are not *about* anything. At best, physical matter seems only to be able to get you to reaction to stimuli—not the Intentional States *about* those stimuli that we regularly experience. This is more than just incredulity that a composite could be greater than the sum of its parts—it seems to me to be a principle of nature and matter itself that it cannot possess the state of Intentionality any more than matter could be said to be “free” (in the sense of agency).

        The second piece of support I would like to consider is the Chinese Room thought experiment. It seems to me that Emergentism can, at best, only get us to a mind that is analogous to a highly advanced computer—or, more poignantly, to the situation described in the Chinese Room thought experiment. I won’t go into the details of the Chinese Room experiment here (since it is quite well known and has been written on in detail elsewhere), but suffice it to say that the thought experiment builds a situation in which a hostage with no knowledge of Chinese is able to give all the “right” answers to an interrogation in Chinese for an entire conversation. The person receives an input, has a method of determining what the appropriate output is given that input, and then writes down the output for the answer. In the thought experiment, the correct output is given, but no understanding of the content of the input or output is acquired. This is meant to be analogous to how a computer works, but it is not analogous to how we experience our mental life (It would be a strange mental life that yielded the correct outputs to stimuli but yielded no understanding of either the input itself, the output itself, or how you get from the input to the output. Now it seems to me that a mind which is only a material brain could only reach the level of being analogous to a very advanced computer or stimuli-response machine, but this does not accord with the experience of the mental life that we do have. At this point, the Emergentist either has to deny the experience of our mental lives (as Alex Rosenberg does, but this is tantamount to intellectual suicide) or give an account on how material interactions could give rise to the cognition and understanding that we experience in our mental lives (rather than simply giving reliably appropriate responses to stimuli). And it seems to be more mystic and implausible to hold that material interactions could give rise to States of Intentionality and Cognitive Understanding of the sort that the person in the Chinese Room thought experiment lacked than the oft-critiqued idea of an immaterial mind causally acting on a material body.

        —Thomas Yee

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      6. Boxing Pythagoras

        @Nokareon:

        …it seems to me to be a principle of nature and matter itself that it cannot possess the state of Intentionality any more than matter could be said to be “free” (in the sense of agency).

        This seems to be begging-the-question, though. Why do you not think that intentional states could be an emergent property of material interactions? The only support you’ve offered, thus far, is along the lines of “hydrogen atoms cannot be ‘about’ anything;” however, as you’ve already acknowledged, neither can hydrogen atoms be ‘wet,’ and yet ‘wetness’ can still emerge from interactions involving hydrogen atoms. Why do you believe intentional states are indissoluble?

        The second piece of support I would like to consider is the Chinese Room thought experiment. It seems to me that Emergentism can, at best, only get us to a mind that is analogous to a highly advanced computer

        I rather think that the point of the Chinese Room thought experiment is that such a highly advanced computational system is indistinguishable from a mind. Your objection is that, “It would be a strange mental life that yielded the correct outputs to stimuli but yielded no understanding of either the input itself, the output itself, or how you get from the input to the output,” but the point of the Chinese Room seems to be that the computational system does have an understanding of the input, the output, and how to get from input to output, even though the mechanism by which the computational system operates (the hostage) lacks such understanding.

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    2. ifaqtheology Post author

      Interesting. That would be an interesting definition of “exist”! It would define exist as “irreducibly real”, which I take to be the nonnegotiable heart of materialism. But surely “to exist” should not limited to the irreducibly real. It would be difficult to have a conversation about materialism with someone who did not exist. I think that denying the existence of internally ordered things would not only be “weaseling” but a type of intellectual suicide. Instead of doing the hard intellectual work of showing how all “emergent” properties actually arise from pure matter, this type of materialism simply skips to the assertion that materialism is true because composite physical objects are intelligible! What if I simply followed the opposite course and denied the existence of matter because we can never know anything but the intelligible order and matter is a mere abstraction to fill the gaps until we see through the entire order of nature? (Matter of the gaps!) I don’t think my move would be anymore question begging that above materialist’s move.

      Thanks for your thoughtful reply!

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      1. nokareon

        Dear Dr. Highfield,

        I do not believe that the Mereological Nihilist’s move is truly question-begging, if in this context you mean to say that they pre-suppose the truth of Materialism in order to argue for Mereological Nihilism. For example, the Christian philosopher Peter van Inwagen is a partial Mereological Nihilist (holding that tables, chairs, etc. do not exist) on other grounds even though he believes Materialism is false (although it should be noted that he is a Materialist concerning human persons and therefore denies the existence of immaterial minds on other grounds). I do agree that it is akin to intellectual suicide to say that no minds exist at all, including one’s own. It is as impossible as denying Descartes’ “Cogito, ergo sum.” Nonetheless, there are some who take this position, such as Atheist philosopher Alex Rosenberg, claiming that all our perception of the mental life is in fact illusory.

        I’m interested in the emergentism discussion going on with Boxing Pythagoras above, so I shall shift my attention to that topic now.

        —Thomas Yee

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      2. ifaqtheology Post author

        Perhaps I misused the name of the fallacy. But one cannot use one’s conclusion as one’s premise. If the nonexistence of internally ordered physical objects is not an immediate experience but an inference from the truth of materialism, the nonexistence of these objects cannot then be used as evidence for materialism. Whether or not any philosopher actually does this I do not know.

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