Are Atheists Right? Are Mental States Non-Existent?

In my book, God’s Crime Scene: A Homicide Detective Examines the Evidence for a Divinely Created Universe, I examine eight pieces of evidence in the universe as I make a cumulative case for the existence of God. One important piece of evidence is our common experience of consciousness. If atheism is true, our natural universe is nothing more than space, time, and matter, governed by the laws of physics and chemistry. In this material, physical environment, it’s easy to account for brains, but difficult to explain our experience of “mind”. Brains are material, minds are not. Some naturalistic atheists who try to stay “inside the room” of the natural universe for an explanation of consciousness simply deny the existence of mental states altogether. Eliminative Materialists, as they are known, do this by declaring that the term, “mental states” is an invention of those who simply didn’t understand the nature of the brain. Let me explain…

Mental States Mind

Most of us who are even remotely familiar with the history of science recognize some theories have a shorter shelf life than others. There was a time, for example, when scientists trying to understand the nature of combustion proposed a fire-like element called phlogiston. When asked to describe what happened at the point of combustion, they might have responded, “When something begins to combust, phlogiston is released.”

As scientists learned more about the nature of combustion and the role of oxygen, they abandoned the faulty theory of phlogiston, along with its antiquated terminology. Scientists eventually replaced this archaic explanation with current oxidation theories. Some philosophers, known as eliminative materialists, view “mental states” as yet another outdated, faulty notion riddled with antiquated language from “folk psychology.”

In the past, for example, we might have described mental states—such as happiness—by saying something like “People who are happy tend to smile.” But from the perspective of the eliminative materialist, this explanation is just as outdated as “When something begins to combust, phlogiston is released.” From the perspective of eliminative materialism, there is no such thing as a mental state any more than there is phlogiston. Smiles are simply the result of physical activity in the brain.

If we can eliminate mental states in this way (by eliminating the terminology we have been using to describe them), we can certainly stay “inside the room” of the physical universe for explanations of brain activity, but eliminative materialism has its own liabilities:

The Evidence for Eliminative Materialism Isn’t as Strong as the Evidence from Intuition and Experience
Philosophers and scientists recognize eliminative materialism as an extreme position because of its inability to explain our conscious experiences evidentially. Our own firsthand access provides us with evidence of such experiences, as each of us is aware of our own mental states. Eliminative materialists provide very little evidence to support their proposal outside of their complaints related to the limitations of “folk psychology” and its terminology. The evidence for mental states (as experienced by each of us intuitively) seems far greater than any evidence against such states. The weaknesses we’ve described in the other physicalist theories of mind only exacerbate the problem. If we are going to be asked to abandon our belief in our own mental states, the evidence ought to be far more significant than what has been offered by eliminative materialists.

Eliminative Materialism Is Self-Refuting
More importantly, eliminative materialism presupposes the very thing it is trying to eliminate. Eliminativists believe something is true about mental states: their nonexistence. But when we believe a truth about something (including mental states), we must first believe in the existence of the mental state of “intentionality” (the “about-ness” I describe in my book). In other words, to declare eliminative materialism as an explanation for mind, the eliminativist must first believe the theory to be true. But if beliefs about theories do exist, eliminative materialism is, by definition, false because it employs a mental state it denies.

I’ve edited and excerpted this brief summary from my expansive (and referenced) investigation in God’s Crime Scene. Any effort to deny the distinct differences between mental states and brain states simply ignores the evidence, errantly redefines the nature of the mind, or suffers from a logical inconsistency (three flaws common to false arguments in most criminal trials). I describe a number of these naturalistic alternatives in the book:

An Illustration from God’s Crime Scene

Mental states do exist, in spite of any efforts to redefine them. An ultimate explanation for the universe must account for this non-material, non-spatial reality. Atheism simply cannot adequately explain our experience of mind. If, however, there is an all-powerful mind who created the universe and conscious creatures in His image, consciousness is not only reasonable but inevitable. For a much more robust account of the inadequacy of naturalism in this regard, please refer to God’s Crime Scene, and be sure to request our free teaching outlines so you can share the case with others.


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12 replies
  1. Anthony says:

    You start off “atheists..” but then you’re talking about “some atheists”, and “eliminative materialists”… Who exactly are the people that believe this?

    Then you say “Atheism simply cannot adequately explain our experience of mind.”..Do you mean “eliminative materialism cannot adequately explain our experience of mind”? Are you deliberately trying to mislead your readers? Or are you this confused yourself?

    Atheism doesn’t have to “explain our experience of mind”.. whether adequately or otherwise. Atheism is just “not believing in God”. By the way, at the present time, nobody can “adequately explain our experience of mind”.. not even a theist.

    Surely one of the silliest and most misleading articles​ to have appeared here recently, and there’s no shortage of competition.

    Reply
    • Ed Vaessen says:

      “Surely one of the silliest and most misleading articles​ to have appeared here recently, and there’s no shortage of competition.”

      We should not be surprised too much. It is from the hand of Wallace and I think he is the one that used flawed reasoning to prove the existence of God.

      Reply
  2. Brian says:

    I agree with you that often when people write and speak regarding these controversial issues, we often use “they”, “people”, “atheists”, or “Christians” as a broad brush, when we are often speaking of a particular view or belief that a particular subgroup holds. So I understand your desire to pin down Mr. Wallace. If he is speaking of a very small group of people, then perhaps we can just ignore this minor view.

    While I don’t buy the ‘atheism is merely a lack of belief in God, so atheists carry no responsibility to explain anything’ argument, let me grant you this for the existence of God. However, many of the atheists I’ve interacted with believe in free will, morality, and the existence of the universe. As these are beliefs in something rather than a lack of belief in something, it seems reasonable that the atheist would bear a burden to provide evidence to explain how their beliefs in these things fit well into their atheistic worldview. For example, if while reading my comment you feel the desire to respond, and you believe that you can choose to either respond or not (i.e. free will), then it is perfectly reasonable for someone to ask an atheist, you for example, to explain the existence of free will – and thus the mind – in a purely materialistic world.

    Reply
    • Ed Vaessen says:

      “For example, if while reading my comment you feel the desire to respond, and you believe that you can choose to either respond or not (i.e. free will), then it is perfectly reasonable for someone to ask an atheist, you for example, to explain the existence of free will – and thus the mind – in a purely materialistic world.”

      Indeed it is a reasonable question. The answer to it is: we can’t. The first question to be answered of course is: what exactly is the ‘mind’? Memory for example, looks very materialistic in origin, as damage to a brain may lead to as loss of memory.
      So is the mind something that also can exist outside the materialistic world? It seems not to be so. But we don’t know for sure.

      Reply
    • TGM says:

      “I don’t buy the ‘atheism is merely a lack of belief in God, so atheists carry no responsibility to explain anything’ argument…”

      Brain, it seems to me that you’re misunderstood what atheists are saying here. Anyone trying to make their case does necessarily have to shoulder a burden of proof. If an atheist wants to convince you of something, then they certainly do have to explain. But atheists should not be trying to convince you that god does not exist. Atheism, when carefully considered, can only be the rejection of theistic arguments. Why? Because for an atheist to make the positive argument that there is no god, he must first define “god” before arguing against it. That’s no way to make a case. It leads to strawmen arguments where others are attributing to you a position you do not hold.

      This applies to any type of belief argument. The default stance should be to reject belief. If you start from a position of “believe until disproven”, you will necessarily have to believe contradictory statements. Example: if you “believe until disproven”, then you must simultaneously believe that “all apples are only red” and “all apples are only green” are true when presented with those premises. Starting from “disbelief until convinced” prevents this dissonance, ergo, atheism as the default stance.

      “…explain how their beliefs in these things fit well into their atheistic worldview.”

      So… there is no such thing as an “atheistic worldview”, even though popular apologists like Frank and John Lennox (among others) seem to think so, using that phrase constantly. The reason should be fairly evident: except for their position on “god”, there is nothing you can know about a person just because they identify as atheist. An atheist can be conservative or liberal, believe in free will or not, be pro choice or pro life, believe in a finite or an infinite universe, believe in evolution or not, a flat earth or not, etc. An atheist does not even have to be a materialist! Atheists can honestly believe in the supernatural. The only thing atheists have in common is the rejection of theistic arguments. They are unpersuaded by god claims and thus, unbelievers. That’s it. And that is not, by itself, enough to constitute a worldview.

      What you might say is that atheism can be one component of a worldview. You might say that skepticism, which leads to atheism, is an approach to knowledge that makes up one element of a worldview. But to call atheism a worldview is intellectually dishonest. These apologists know that, but do it anyway. They could regain some respect by instead saying “a worldview that includes atheism”, but apologists so rarely seem to be interested in honesty.

      So rather than be concerned with their worldview, you might want to inspect their beliefs for consistency and clarity. After all, beliefs are not determined by worldview. Rather, a worldview is derived from one’s beliefs.

      Reply
      • anran says:

        TGM said, “Example: if you “believe until disproven”, then you must simultaneously believe that “all apples are only red” and “all apples are only green” are true when presented with those premises. Starting from “disbelief until convinced” prevents this dissonance, ergo, atheism as the default stance.”

        This statement seems nonsensical to me. Please clarify. To believe in something, doesn’t mean that you didn’t get there logically. You may not have testable evidence, but there are other types of evidence, such as logic and “cause and effect”, etc. Does this statement work with your logic. “I start with a base of dis-belief in a Universe that caused itself with no Intelligent/Conscious cause.” But I don’t start there just simply by not believing, I get there by logical conclusions based upon my physical/scientific and conscious experiences such as “cause and effect”, “our universe had a beginning”, “my own consciousness”, “our ability to love”, etc. My dis-belief explains the physical universe as I see it. How does your dis-belief explain the universe as you see it?

        Reply
  3. Ed Vaessen says:

    “Atheism simply cannot adequately explain our experience of mind. ”
    This logical fallacy is known as God of the gaps.
    We might expect this low level of reasoning from Wallace.
    I wonder what people buy his books.

    Reply
  4. Disciplined_Idea says:

    Mr. Wallace,

    Our Lord showed that even perfection is not good enough for (the men of) the world. The drive for perfection, in the hands of the immoral, is a pretense: who would pass that test? The proverbial “Damned if you do; damned if you don’t” is the Devil’s Snare.

    And Mr. Turek, Reader,

    “The Limits of Evolution” by George Holmes Howison, ca 1900: https://books.google.com/books?id=dg3wkAkfKQ4C&pg=PR5#v=onepage&q&f=false (*italics* in original).

    At p.13-4: “To mark the fact that the realities of the first sort are without other evidence than their presentation to our senses “outer” or “inner,” it is agreed in philosophy to call them “phenomena,” that is, simply appearances in consciousness. To mark the counter-fact that the underlying Reality contrasted with appearances, and required as their explanation, is forever hidden from the senses, and is therefore without other evidence than that of pure reason, philosophical consensus names it a “noumenon,” that is, a reality present simply to the reason.”

    At p.17-8: “*He* [Kant] suggested that experience may be not at all simple, but always complex, so that the very possibility of the experience which seems to the empiricist the absolute foundation of knowledge may depend on the presence in it of a factor that will have to be acknowledged as *a priori*. This factor issues from the *nature* of the mind that has the experience, and introduces into experience all that distinguishableness, that arrangedness, and that describable form, without which it could not be conceived as apprehensible or intelligible, that is, as an experience at all.

    At p.308: “The objector who would open the eternal permanence of the soul to doubt, then, must assail the proofs of *a priori* knowledge; for so long as these remain free from suspicion, there can be no real question as to what they finally imply.”

    At p.339: “Each of them has its own ideal of its own being, namely, its own way of fulfilling the character of God; and its self-determining life is just the free pursuit of this ideal, despite all the opposing conditions by which it in part defines its life. Moreover, since this ideal, seen eternally in God, is the chosen goal of every consciousness, it is the final — *not the efficient*—cause of the whole existing self. All the being of each self has thus the form of a self-supplying, self-operating life; or, in the phraseology of the Schoolmen and Spinoza, each is *causa sui*. This is what its “eternity” exactly means.”

    At p.361: “Love, too, now has its adequate definition: it is the all-directing intelligence which includes in its recognition a world of beings accorded free and seen as sacred, — the primary and supreme act of intelligence, which is the source of all other intelligence, and whose object is that universal circle of spirits which, since the time of the Stoics, has so pertinently been called the City of God. Its contemplation of this sole object proper to it was fitly named by Dante and the great scholastics the Vision Beatific.”

    At p.53: “Plain in the doctrinal firmament of every Christian, clear like the sun in the sky, should shine the warning: *Unless there is a real man underived from Nature, unless there is a spiritual or rational man independent of the natural man and legislatively sovereign over entire Nature, then the Eternal is not a person, there is no God, and our faith is vain.*”

    “No disciple is superior to the teacher; but when fully trained, every disciple will be like his teacher.”-Luke 6:40

    At p.256-7: “Accordingly we may explicate the new doctrine of Jesus into these three truths: (1) That God is the perfect Person, the central member in the universal society actuated by love; (2) that the soul is immortal; (3) that it is free, both in the sense of being the responsible author of all its acts, and in the sense that its fund of ultimate resources is equal to fulfilling its duty to love as God loves.”

    At p.170-1: “The process which has led us to this result, and which might justifiably be called a *Critique of all Scepticism*, yields also the final impossibility of materialism in a still clearer way than we noticed before. We saw, some distance back, that the *actual* of sense could by no possibility be the *source* of consciousness, being, on the contrary, its mere phenomenon — its mere externalised presentation (picture-object) originated from within. But the hypothetical *potential* of sense, the assumed subsensible *substance* called matter, we have now seen to be precisely that self-contradiction talked of as the physical thing-in-itself, and it therefore disappears from the real universe along with that illusion. We have, then, a definitive *Critique of all Materialism*.

    “Do not be afraid any longer, little flock, for your Father is pleased to give you the Kingdom.”-Luke 12:32

    At p.320: “(4) So the conciliability of determinism and freedom depends on the fact, if this be a fact, that determinism simply means *definiteness* (instead of constraining foreordination), while freedom means (instead of unpredictable whim) *action spontaneously flowing from the definite guiding intelligence of the agent himself*. In short, the desired harmony will fail unless the determinism and the freedom are both alike defined in terms of *the one and identical definiteness of the rational nature*; but it will be secured if they can be so defined, and are.”

    Reply

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