Atheism and the Inability to Think

brainless_brainDo you ever have thoughts about anything–or simply “think” that you do?

If this strikes you as a strange question to ask in context of the debate over God’s existence, it’s likely that you haven’t read anything by prominent atheist Alex Rosenberg. He’s firmly of the opinion that our thoughts aren’t about anything at all:

Ultimately, science and scientism are going to make us give up as illusory the very thing conscious experience screams out at us loudest and longest: the notion that when we think, our thoughts are about anything at all, (The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, p. 162)

This may sound like utter nonsense (and it is). But, if you are a materialist, Rosenberg has a point. The “aboutness” of thoughts isn’t something that can be reduced to brain states alone. There is simply no way that any interaction of neurons, by itself, can objectively be about anything but itself–and nothing can be subjectively about anything without an interpreter already present. This would mean that we have to assume a mind in order to explain the mind.

As such, it might “feel” as if you have thoughts about things, or thoughts at all, but (so the argument goes) this is all illusion.

If you’re thinking that Rosenberg is a bit off his rocker, you’re not alone. What is an illusion after all, if it isn’t a thought? Rosenberg doesn’t actually tell us, but he compares it to trickery, sleight of hand, and several other things that make no sense whatsoever unless they involve (false) thoughts about things.

But he isn’t claiming that our thoughts are false; he’s claiming that they are literally about nothing at all.

Most might think that Rosenberg has given us a beautiful reductio ad absurdum of his materialist-atheist view. If the materialism which is the core of nearly all defense of atheism breaks down into denying that thought even exists (as Rosenberg shows later in his book), well, it might seem hard to imagine anything the theist could say to make this philosophy appear more inane than it already seems.

There is, however, one more thing.

Rosenberg never mentions the fact that science (so beloved by him and other materialists) is founded on trust of the human capacity to think about things. If materialism leads us to reject thought altogether, it leads us to completely reject science–which depends on thought. Hence, Rosenberg’s materialism is more deeply anti-science than anything the most fundamentalist preacher ever dreamed of saying.

The utter incoherence of this is striking, but there is nothing Rosenberg claims which doesn’t follow from his materialism. In this way, he’s simply being more consistent and clear-headed than most materialists. The act of rejecting the existence of anything that can’t be backed by experimental data has come around to reject itself, and science along with it.

So, if one isn’t willing to follow Rosenberg down this trail, one needs to reject the idea that there is nothing more to the mind than brain states.

But do to this is to reject materialism.

16 responses to “Atheism and the Inability to Think

  • Logan Rees

    This is where scientism breaks down, the assertion that the material world can be understood objectively. I understand his proposition that in the material world, there is no substance to the subject of our thoughts. Example: If you asked me to think of a baseball, there would be no physical correlation between the neurons firing in my brain and a physical baseball. Yet we both know that my thoughts do correspond to a physical object. To a reasoning person, this would be evidence that an objectively materialist viewpoint is irrational, but to someone eager to prove a point, it turns into a hypothesis that ‘our thoughts are about nothing.’

    • Debilis

      Well said.

      I suppose that part of the lesson here is that one can’t ever hope to persuade everyone. But I find this to be a very powerful argument against materialism, and think that any who are genuinely considering the matter will find it very hard to deny.

    • Ray R.

      Because we do not yet have a good , complete theory about how neural connections and electrochemical interaction within neurons give rise to consciousness , does not in any way imply we won’t have one in the future . It also does not , in any way , imply that materialism , or “scientism” , as you call it , is wrong .

      • Debilis

        The argument is not, however, based on the idea that we can’t currently explain how neurons give rise to consciousness. It is based on the fact that, given what we do know about consciousness and the methods of science, there cannot, even in principle, ever be a purely physical explanation for consciousness.

        As such, it does indeed imply that materialism is wrong. This is over and above the fact that there is no good reason to think that materialism is correct.

      • Logan Rees

        I won’t say outright that we won’t someday have a physical explanation for consciousness, and there have been several theories involving quantum mechanics, but none of them even theoretically solve the “hard problem of philosophy” as stated by David Chalmers, being that the subjective experience of brain-functions is so removed from physical phenomena that it may never have an explanation. For example, there is no physical explanation for why a certain wavelength of light is perceived as ‘red’ while another is perceived as ‘orange.’ We can define the colors as their corresponding wavelengths of light, but we cannot explain why they take on the qualia of colors in our minds. As Schrodinger said, “The sensation of color cannot be accounted for by the physicist’s objective picture of light-waves. Could the physiologist account for it, if he had fuller knowledge than he has of the processes in the retina and the nervous processes set up by them in the optical nerve bundles and in the brain? I do not think so,” a quote I wish I had looked up before i wrote this article:

        If we do accept the fact that there is no physical explanation of consciousness, then we must either dismiss materialism as an incomplete model of the universe, or we must dismiss consciousness as an illusory by-product of brain-function. If the latter is so, and we corroborate this with Descartes’ assertion that the only thing we cannot doubt the existence of is our own consciousness, then we’ve effectively proven that nothing can be said to definitely exist, not even ourselves…… uh oh I’m starting to disappea– *poof*

        • Ray R.

          It was thought that humans would be incapable of powered flight as late as the turn of the last century . The theory of relativity and the quantum were unimagined in the 1880’s . Because we are as yet , unable to explain how physical processes give rise to mind and consciousness , does not in any way mean that someone , someday , won’t . To suggest otherwise is an argument from ignorance .

        • Logan Rees

          I didn’t suggest otherwise; I actually agreed with you on that point. All of your arguments so far have been unsubstantial, irrelevant, redundant, and, most of all, pointlessly argumentative. So I’m done with you. I’m gonna get high and watch Django!!! 🙂

        • Ray R.

          I kinda suspected you were high when you wrote your drivel . Thanks for confirming it !

  • Persto


    The ‘mind-body problem’ is not simply a matter of how little we still know about the human nervous system. No matter how our knowledge develops, we will still be faced with that mysterious gap between the last known neurological occurrence and the experience. Right now we can trace our neural impulses only so far, and that is not very far along, as you indicate. But even when we have complete ‘brain maps’ and can say for every mental occurrence what is going on in the brain at the same time, the problem will still remain: How are the two related?

    You will admit, I assume, that it is odd that something so different as ideas and sensations interact with the nervous system and brain cells. Of course, the human body can described in terms of size, weight, chemical composition, and movements in space. The workings of the nervous system can be described just like any other biological reaction, as changes in cell membranes and chemical reactions, the procession of electrical-chemical nerve impulses, and the intricate network of distinct nerve components that are stimulated at particular moments. The human brain is incredibly complex and can be described in terms of a complex machine. And you can open my skull and see my brain. And we understand how bodies can interact with other bodies, even when the forces are difficult to pictorially represent–like the gravitational attraction between two distant planets.

    However, the question remains: how does a body interact with something that has none of the crucial characteristics of a body?


    • Ray R.

      Once again , I reiterate , just because we don’t yet have a theory of how the neurons within our brain give rise to mind and consciousness , does not in any way mean that we won’t or can’t at some future date . Thousands of years ago people thought much the same about rainbows and thunder .

      • Debilis

        I don’t see anyone arguing that we won’t have such a theory on the grounds that we don’t have one now. Speaking for myself, I completely agree with you that this would be a silly argument.

        However, that was not the argument being made. The argument is that, while we don’t know everything, we know enough about the “aboutness” (teleology) of thoughts to realize that it lies outside of the purview of science.

        So, the issue isn’t that science hasn’t advanced far enough, the issue is that science has been defined in such a way that it cannot possibly study every part of reality (this being one example).

        Even thousands of years of research won’t change this fact, because it has nothing to do with research. It is a simple category distinction about what science studies, and what it does not.

      • FZ

        Its not a problem of science, it’s a problem of metaphysics. If you read the history, you will find that the mind body problem arose BECAUSE of materialism, so how can we expect materialism to solve it? It doesn’t have to do with the progress of science, it has to do with the materialist picture of what matter is (metaphysics). It’s the materialist metaphysics that is flawed, not neuroscience.

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