Atheism vs Consciousness

faceIn discussing J.L. Mackie’s defense of materialist atheism, we’ve come to his criticisms of the argument from consciousness. In particular, the topic is Swineburne’s argument, which denies that matter can give rise to mind–and ultimately concludes that mind is a better explanation for the material world than the other way around.

It is important to note that Swineburne doesn’t deny evolution. Rather, his argument has nothing to do with evolution one way or the other. He simply points out the many reasons it has been shown that mind is something altogether different than matter–and that greater complexity of material systems won’t yield mind.

Mackie concedes this point. He agrees that the materialist has no answer to this challenge. Rather, his entire argument hangs on attacking theism as an alternative to his materialist atheism.

And this sounds rather familiar–as this is the approach of nearly all atheists on the popular level today. It is flawed for essentially the same reasons as the popular versions of this argument are flawed.

First, because it fails to demonstrate that the materialist account of reality is a better fit to what we know than any other system–it’s simply a “so’s your mother” approach. At best, this results in a stalemate.

Second, and more importantly, it achieves the stalemate only by distorting theism and, intentionally or not, attacking straw men.

Mackie does so by insisting that God is no explanation for the laws of nature because we would then have to show how the intentions of a mind produce results in the reality. Human minds do this through mediators, but we don’t know how God might do this.

This is a valid question, but it is simply demanding an explanation of the explanation. Yes, there will always be more to learn. Yes, we’ll need to have that conversation eventually. No, that doesn’t mean that the explanation isn’t a valid one, as Mackie seems to think. He claims that any lack of an explanation of the explanation makes the idea antecedently improbable. But I doubt that he’d use this reasoning on any other topic.

No one, for instance, dismisses a new scientific theory because we haven’t explored the explanation of why this law is so–and that, given a lack of that further explanation, the theory must be antecedently improbable. No scientific progress whatsoever could be accomplished if we took this approach.

But Mackie also insists that the intentions of mind cannot be something other than matter because they “are a sub-class of causal explanations, not a rival mode of explanation to the causal one”.

Here, I think he’s simply confused. Mental explanations are not rival to the entire idea of causation. They are a rival to the idea that deterministic, efficient causation is the whole of causation.

And this is one more case of switching positions as the momentary need arises. Mackie (like many materialists) emphasizes the singular importance of classical, deterministic causation in this case, but is willing to deny all causation (a la references to Hume and Quantum Mechanics) when discussing arguments such as the Kalam.

But, rather than vacillate between extremes, we should see the middle-road truth that there is such a thing as causation, but that it is not exhausted by the classic newtonian picture. That is precisely what Swineburne’s argument is suggesting–and Mackie’s case against him rests on taking the newtonian account as the whole truth.

So, causation indeed. But to simply equate causation with the vision of causation held by the materialistic atheist is to beg the question. Mackie can’t assume this in order to “prove” Swineburne’s argument a failure.

He also points out, rightly in my view, that the theist can’t simply claim that God made matter to be able to create mind. This is, in effect, no different or better an explanation than the materialist’s claim that matter simply creates mind. The trouble is that I don’t know of any theologian or theistic philosopher who simply claims this. Rather, what they claim is that there is more to human beings (and, for many, the everyday objects we encounter constantly) than simply those traits that science studies.

It is those traits of the human which are not physical which are, according to theists, most directly responsible for consciousness. But it is obvious why this does not fall prey to the same problems facing the materialist position–as the materialist denies the existence of these traits.

In concluding his discussion of the argument, Mackie admits that materialism rests on claims of brute fact. He also admits that some form of dualism must be true. He then claims that materialism has better answers to bridging the mind-body gap than does theism. Not only is this false, but it is an utter contradiction of the concession just a sentence prior. For the materialist, there is no gap: dualism is simply false.

If he admits that dualism is true, Mackie has conceded his materialism, and, thereby, the basis of his atheism.


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