OK, so 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 partners 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 ever-so-slightly for the tender sensibilities of my reading audience...
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."
Now, I can imagine an atheist reading what's been said in preceding lessons and responding:
"OK, OK, so my materialist worldview creates some problems for me in the realm of ultimate values. I understand and accept that. But at least thank God I have me! I mean, thank natural selection I have me. I open my eyes each morning and look out on the world. I have my own unique personality, my own thoughts, desires, loves, hopes, intentions, memories, beliefs. As an atheist, I may have to sacrifice the cherished fiction that we human beings possess objective value and unalienable rights, or that there exists objective meaning and purpose to life, objective morality... But I still have me."
Well... I hate to break it to you, but it's worse than that. A lot worse.
Because if you and I are nothing more than evolved animals, products of nature with no spark of the divine in us, I believe Detective Kohle is pretty much on target when he says...
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.
Now, before you rise up as though your chair were on fire and begin shouting, "Straw man! You're creating a straw man!", keep in mind that this is not something I'm saying. This is something atheists are saying. This is what philosophers and scientists who hold a materialist worldview are saying.
For instance, Daniel Dennett. He's written extensively on the subject of human consciousness, and viewing it from a purely materialist point of view, his conclusion is 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 they were.
In fact, what you think of as your "soul" is really trillions of "cellular robots", little biochemical machines, each doing what it must do in accordance with strict, physical laws. Your soul is made of matter.
A critic commented that when it comes to Dennett's view of human consciousness, it's not like the story where the emperor has no clothes. It's a situation where the clothes have no emperor! All the appearances of a human person are there, but the person is really not.
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":
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.
But 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 know they're nobody?
A short history. With the rise of philosophical rationalism in the 17th 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.
With this in mind, 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---these subjective experiences 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 is a physical machine operating according to unbending physical laws. Our bodies are physical machines as well. But our minds? These are something different.
Our minds, our souls, exist in our bodies like a ghost in a machine.
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 attempt a purely materialist explanation of 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
It's at this point that our apologetic method of simply drawing out the inescapable implications of a naturalist worldview begins to really "bother" one who is the image and likeness of God and who knows in his heart of hearts that he's not just a mechanical machine.
After all, it's one thing to lead a friend to see that according to his naturalist worldview he must abandon belief in certain values---even the extremely important values we've been discussing in previous lessons. It becomes a bit more, shall we say, "personal" when we begin to (gently, respectfully) explain that according to our friend's worldview he must also abandon belief in him-self. That he must come to view his sense of identity as a "person" as merely an illusion, a trick the brain in his skull is performing.
In short, the consistent naturalist must view himself as a fictional character, an image projected onto a screen of flesh by a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.
There's a set of beautiful clothes, but no emperor within.
Do you see what's happening? We haven't even presented (yet) what we might call a proof of God's existence or of the truth of the Christian worldview.
But piece by piece the naturalist is being stripped of everything it means to be human---if he's willing to be consistent with what he says he believes. Step by step he's being led to see that he cannot, on the basis of his worldview, make sense of even the most basic and fundamental aspects of his experience as a human being. He simply cannot account for them. Not even his own personal identity.
"But hasn't science proven that the mind is merely material?" the naturalist responds. "Isn't this the reality, whether or not we like it?"
We'll see what atheists themselves say about it in our next lesson.