I’m sitting in my family room watching the first episode of the HBO series True Detective. It stars Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson as Rust Kohle and Marty Hart, homicide detectives for the Louisiana State Criminal Investigations Division. The two are driving along the highway, getting to know one another, and suddenly I’m presented with what must be the most philosophically interesting conversation I’ve ever witnessed on screen.
Here it is, edited slightly for tender sensibilities.
Marty: “So what do you believe?”
Rust: “I consider myself a realist, but in philosophical terms, I’m what’s called a pessimist. . . . I think human consciousness was a tragic misstep in evolution. We became too self-aware. Nature created an aspect of nature separate from itself. We are creatures that should not exist by natural law.”
Marty: “Huh. That sounds god-awful, Rust.”
Rust: “We are things that labor under the illusion of having a self, this accretion of sensory experience and feeling, programmed with total assurance that we are each somebody when, in fact, everybody’s nobody.”
Marty: “I wouldn’t go around spouting that, I was you. People around here don’t think that way. I don’t think that way.”
Rust: “I think the honorable thing for the species to do is deny our programming, stop reproducing, walk hand in hand into extinction, one last midnight, brothers and sisters opting out of a raw deal.”
Marty: “So what’s the point of getting out bed in the morning?”
Rust: “I tell myself I bear witness, but the real answer is that it’s obviously my programming, and I lack the constitution for suicide.”
Consciousness a bag of tricks
Here’s one problem (there are so many!) the atheist has: If you and I are nothing more than products of nature, no spark of the divine is in us. If we are merely the forward edge of the sludge of evolution, then Detective Kohle is right when he says we labor under the illusion of having a self and are really nothing but an “accretion of sensory experience and feeling.”
Now, before those of who doubt or deny the existence of God rise up and begin shouting, “Straw man! You’re creating a straw man!”, understand that this is not something I’m saying. This is something atheist philosophers and scientists are saying. This is what those who hold a materialist worldview are saying.
For instance, Daniel Dennett. He’s written extensively on the subject of human consciousness, and from his materialist point of view, he concludes that consciousness is (here we go) a “bag of tricks” the brain plays on us. It’s a “fiction.” An “illusion.” It’s a case of our brains making it seem as though there is this “self" that sees the color yellow and hears the music of Bach and believes and intends and remembers and is somehow separate from the closed system of physical cause and effect.
We have souls, the professor assures us, but they’re not what we’ve always assumed them to be. In fact, what you and I think of as our “soul” is really trillions of “cellular robots,” little biochemical machines, each doing what it must do in accordance with strict physical laws. Your soul, Dennett says, is made of matter.
A critic commented that when it comes to Dennett’s view of human consciousness, it’s sort of like the story of the emperor who has no clothes—except in this case it’s the exact reverse. Instead of the emperor being there and his cloths being an illusion, what Dennett has is a situation in which the clothes are there but the emperor is the illusion! All the appearances of a human person exist, but there’s no person there.
Dennett’s response to this analogy? “Exactly!”
A vast assembly of nerve cells
Molecular biologist Francis Crick is even more blunt in his elimination of—well, of “us.” He writes in his book The Astonishing Hypothesis:
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 behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.
I must admit I can’t read these words without wondering how Francis Crick looks at those he loved. Does he really believe, for instance, that his children and grandchildren are machines? That their individual personalities and unique expressions, their joys and sorrows, their memories, their ambitions, the way they laugh—that all of it, everything they are—is “no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules”? Does he really?
Let these images sink in. In terms of a consistent materialist worldview, even your sense of personal identity—your sense of being “you”—is an illusion generated by your brain.
You and I are parading down the street dressed in our finest human garments. Everyone can look and see our lovely personalities. They can listen to us expressing our ideas and feelings, enjoy our sense of humor, laugh at who we are and how we think. They can empathize with our personal struggles.
But lo and behold, there’s actually no one really there. Just machinery.
From somebody to nobody
So how did we get here? How did we get from viewing ourselves as human souls in the image and likeness of God to viewing ourselves as those who now understand that they are actually nobody?
A short history. With the rise of philosophical rationalism in the seventeenth century, men like Galileo and Descartes and others wanted to pursue a scientific program of providing a complete and mathematically precise description of all physical reality—of everything.
Now, as they worked on this project, the subjective experiences we have as human beings—how the color red looks to you, what pain feels like to you, what it’s like for you to desire something, fear something, intend something, believe something—were assumed to belong to the “mind” and were purposely excluded from this total physical description. Why? Because it was so patently obvious that the mind was something distinct from matter. Sometime irreducibly “other.”
According to Descartes, the universe was a physical machine operating according to unbending physical laws. Our bodies were physical machines as well and a part of the larger physical machine. But our minds? They are something different.
It’s only relatively recently that some philosophers and scientists—those already committed to philosophical naturalism or toying with a materialist worldview—have come to believe they could formulate a purely materialist explanation of everything, including the human mind. As advancements in molecular biology have made scientists more aware of the extremely close connection—even dependence—of our minds on physical events taking place in our brains, the thought once inconceivable has now become conceivable: Could it be that the “mind” is nothing more than the brain?
Could it be that our thoughts and ideas and intentions and memories and experience of things—everything we associate with consciousness and the mind—is reducible to electrochemical processes taking place in our brains?
Could it be there is no “me”? That “I” am simply these electrochemical processes?
Consciousness in apologetics
What I’m doing here, and what I tend to do in most conversations I have with those who doubt or deny the existence of God, is simply drawing out one inescapable implication of my friend’s naturalist worldview. What I often find is that, because my friend is the image and likeness of God and knows in his heart of hearts he’s not just a mechanical thing, being confronted with this logical implication of what he says he believes about the world will not sit well with him.
It will bother him to see how his worldview, consistently held, reduces his own personhood to the status of an illusion, a trick the brain in his skull is performing. It will strike him as absurd to think that “he” is merely an image projected onto a screen of flesh by a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. That “he” amounts to a set of beautiful clothes with no emperor within.
Suddenly, the idea that he is must be more than an evolved animal sounds a bit more reasonable than it did before.
Written By Kenneth Hensley