The Clothes Have No Emperor: How I Evangelize Atheists

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



  1. Peter Spasic Reply

    Well put… I wonder how they rationalize man’s struggle to stay alive (when drowning or attacked by a shark, etc). Are the molecules, tissues and organs trying to survive and so transmitting that desperation to the “mind”. And, if we our “minds” are responding to some sort of illusion, it seems there must be something doing the illuding. And if we are being illuded, doesn’t that that mean – in their scheme – that matter itself is being illuded? They are arguing there is no God (or transcendent being) yet still attribute some sort of consciousness to inanimate matter.

  2. Patrick Gannon Reply

    The author seems to be preparing us for the scientific discoveries to come, and letting us know that there is a high likelihood that we will discover that consciousness is an illusion, as is free will. We don’t know this for a fact yet, but there is growing evidence to this effect. We know that there are experiments indicating that the brain makes decisions before the conscious “self” is aware of having made those decisions. We know that if the brain is injured in certain ways, the self disappears. The evidence is growing that consciousness is an illusion, and that means there is no soul.
    A book for those interested in understanding the current theory is Michael Graziano’s “Consciousness and the Social Brain” which posits an “attention schema” that keeps track of all the things competing for the brain’s attention, and feeds information back to the brain in a continuous loopback, which creates the illusion of self-aware consciousness. He likens the process to what the brain does when we are looking at other people. What is it in our brain that ascribes self-aware consciousness to another person, or for that matter, to an inanimate object like a ventriloquists’ dummy? Graziano says the process our brain uses to assign consciousness to others, it uses to assign self-aware consciousness to itself.
    All we know for sure right now, is that we don’t know, but there’s a of research going on now, and it will be interesting to see what we find out. The Church has always fought against advancing scientific knowledge and has gone so far as to burn people like Giordano Bruno at the stake, in part, for suggesting that stars were suns and that they might have planets going around them – which it turns out is the the case. Galileo got an apology, but Bruno is still waiting. The Church got the cosmos wrong, it got creation wrong, it got evolution wrong, and it will probably turn out that it gets consciousness wrong. The Church has a long history of being wrong, so if you’re hedging your bets, your best chance is with agnostics who are open minded and will await the results from science rather than the superstitious celibate men dressed in robes. .

  3. Patrick Gannon Reply

    Fish, penguins, otters, birds and other critters struggle to stay alive when attacked by a shark, don’t they? Do you attribute human consciousness to them?
    Evolution has developed pathways for sensory input to the brain so that the organism can react and attempt to defend itself or escape. The brains of organisms that did not evolve to react to this input would have died out long ago. These instincts appear to be programmed by evolution. In a sense, yes, the organs are transmitting that desperation to the brain, but the “mind” may be an illusion created by the brain to help it manage all the sensory overload it is constantly bombarded with – internal (memory, emotion, etc.) and external (sight, sound, taste, etc.). It has been proposed that there is an “attention schema,” a sort of a working outline that constantly manages what is contending for the brain’s “attention” and at the same time, providing feedback to the brain of the results of any actions taken. This process, it is said, creates an illusion of self-conscious awareness, in the same way that the brain assigns awareness and consciousness to other persons and even inanimate objects like puppets or cartoons.
    Our brains are not responding to an illusion – the sensory input of pain or lack of oxygen, etc. is very real – it’s an electrical impulse that the brain receives and attempts to act upon, based on whatever tools evolution has provided to it, so your theory about material creating an illusion for the brain is off the mark. It’s not an illusion – it’s real information. Nobody I know of is arguing that there is no God and still attributing consciousness to inanimate matter. The shark bites, it tears into nerves which use electrical impulses to signal the brain with something the brain interprets as pain, because evolution gave organisms that developed this capability, an advantage to survival that other brains not working in this way lacked – and thus died out. It’s much like when you throw a light switch – nobody is arguing that the light switch is conscious. It sounds like you aren’t familiar with the scientific literature on the subject, or the views of people like Dennett, Sam Harris and others who explain consciousness without resorting to gods or souls. A short, simple book that you may want to try is Sam Harris’ “Free Will.”

    The author clearly doesn’t like where the scientific research is taking us, but then neither did the Popes when Galileo and Copernicus proposed a different universe than the one presented by the Church. The Church didn’t like cosmology and plate tectonics proving that the earth was 4.5 billion years old. The Church didn’t like that evolution does away with a literal Adam and Eve, 6000 years ago, nevertheless truth marches on. Whether the Church likes it or not, it may well turn out that self-aware consciousness IS an illusion, and so too, the soul. What matters is not what we believe, but whatever the truth is.

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