Logical Atheism: Neither Materialism nor Spiritualism

Logical Atheism: Neither Materialism nor Spiritualism

I’ve been an atheist for over 50 years. It took one lecture to convince me. I don’t just disbelieve in the existence of the supernatural. I believe in the nonexistence of the supernatural. The natural universe is it. How do I know? (That’s always the appropriate question but with the caveat below). The wrong answer to that question is that we have no or too little evidence. (The “new atheists” seem to like that answer.) But that gives theism credit it does not deserve.

Before you ask for evidence, you need to know what an assertion means. Otherwise, you cannot know if something qualifies as evidence or not. If I say, “Crooly blurps,” the right question is not “How do you know?” but “What are you talking about?” I submit that the same applies to the assertion “God exists.” God is always defined incoherently (it can’t be all-knowing and all-powerful, etc.), and since God is said to be literally out of this world, I don’t know what the word exists means in the supposed sentence. It asserts nonsense.

In other words, I know God doesn’t exist because even to try to speak about the supernatural, you have to use concepts, such as existence, that human beings have derived entirely from their experience with the natural universe. Concepts are contextual. To rip a concept out of its context and use it in an entirely different way is what Ayn Rand called “the fallacy of the stolen concept.” One has no epistemological “right” to apply the concept existence to anything other than the natural world because that’s where it came from. A tip-off that this is true is that if you press a theist on God’s “existence,” he will eventually tell you that it is a form of existence unlike anything you know, could know, or will know. (For more on this and much more, I highly recommend George H. Smith’s Atheism: The Case Against God.)

With that out of the way, I want to offer younger atheists some advice. Do not think that atheism commits you to materialism. The rejection of spiritualism—what Gilbert Ryle mocked as “the ghost in the machine”—in no way commits you to physical reductionism. By materialism I mean the view that our mental lives and actions can be exhaustively explained by—reduced to—electrochemical processes in the brain and central nervous system. It’s the position that conceives people essentially as robots; their consciousness and self-consciousness, their freedom of the will, their power to reason, and their ability to deliberate and choose are mere illusions.

I have met and heard many atheists who show all signs of believing this. I used to argue over lunch with professors of biology who were atheists. They would not concede that I or anyone else really made choices. How could they do that? Their answer was that anything we do can be explained by some prior phenomenon. When I told them that after lunch, I planned to go to the store to buy toothpaste, they asked why. When I told them, they asked why again. And so on, presumably forever had I allowed it.

Did that prove their point? Of course it did not. Yes, I had a reason to go to the store, and my decision could be attributed to perhaps a long chain of reasons: I’m out of toothpaste; I like clean teeth; etc. But—and this is crucial—reasons are not causes! We do things because we want other things. We operate in a means-ends framework. It’s the only way to make sense of the human world. (The nonhuman world is another story. Planets and particles don’t have motives.)

This is hardly a new point of view. I would recommend three thinkers who have elaborated it. The economist Ludwig von Mises (Human Action), the philosopher Gilbert Ryle (The Concept of Mind), and the psychiatrist Thomas Szasz (The Myth of Mental Illness). In his own way, each of these men explained that human beings do not belong in the materialist-spiritualist straitjacket. They have the power to look around, focus, deliberate, choose ends, and find means that seem appropriate to achieving those ends. It doesn’t mean they are infallible or possess complete knowledge—far from it. We always act with imperfect knowledge and perhaps mistaken beliefs, but we still act. We may regret our actions later. But actions are rational in that we conceive and execute them in terms of means and ends. The ends may be self-destructive or silly. We may not be entirely sure why we want something. But that’s irrelevant to the point. Without presuming human action, we cannot seriously study the human world. Forget economics, sociology, anthropology, and the rest. People are not billiard balls careening off each other according to physical laws. Our bodies are certainly subject to those laws, but that does not come close to exhausting the description of human activity. We have to talk about the mind.

The mind? What’s that? Despite common usage, it is not an organ, either physical or nonphysical. Strictly speaking, it isn’t a noun at all. As Szasz wrote, “Mind is a verb.” It is not something we have but something we do. We mind. We are minders, exospectively and introspectively. “The mind” is a metaphor, and Szasz advised us to mind our metaphors, just as we mind our own business and mind our manners. Mind presents no problem for atheists who reject materialism and spiritualism. What about free will? That debate will go on forever (a waste of time), but consider this thought experiment posed long ago by my friend the economist Bryan Caplan. Assume that a neuroscientist, after satisfying all of the most demanding criteria of his field, predicts that at noon today you will raise your right arm. Will you be able to falsify his prediction? Who would seriously say no? To claim that free will violates the law of cause and effect is to beg the question by assuming what is in dispute: that human actions are effects. They are not. They are human actions. As Ryle said, some tautologies are worth repeating.

Is human action a scientific and empirical matter to be verified or falsified? No! Verification and falsification are themselves human actions. It’s similar to Aristotle’s point that any attempt to refute the law of identity must assume the law because the skeptic would have to believe his own conclusion could not be both true and false.

Those who insist that consciousness and free will are illusions can be dismissed as impersonators of Chico Marx, who in Duck Soup famously told a woman who had said, “I saw you with my own eyes”:  “Well, who ya gonna believe, me or your own eyes?

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Sheldon Richman is the executive editor of The Libertarian Institute and author of numerous books, including What Social Animals Owe to Each Other. He’s also the publisher/editor of The Logical Atheist. Follow him on X  @SheldonRichman.