– ’Eye of the Beholder’ by Metallica
I’ve mentioned before to those that I know how as an atheist I had reached the conclusions of both existential and moral nihilism. While I should get around to how I arrived at those conclusions at some point (and further justify them as I no doubt did not consult literature when deciding such things) what I had never considered was epistemic nihilism; I had always assumed the existence of the material universe as philosophy seemed to be utterly useless without such an axiomatic belief. Of course, any theist who would have criticized me on taking that on faith would be completely right in their assertion.
More importantly, and relevant to this sketch, is the fact that I was a determinist in my view on free-will. This resulted from the philosophy class I took as a freshman, coupled with some of the science on the subject I had recalled from my high school psychology class which showed how decisions were made in the sub-conscious before being relayed to the conscious. The more I reflected on the matter, the more sense it made to me as an atheist; if I was the result of physical/material processes that functioned off of cause-and-effect, then that means every thought, action, etc, that I had was also the result of cause-and-effect and not a ‘choice’. I, after all, wasn’t a human being made in the image of God, but a biochemical machine.
But I never took the denial of free-will out to its full implications. To review: physicalist atheism seemed to lead to determinism since nature works via cause-and-effect. While quantum mechanics seems to contradict this, there are two important points. Firstly, quantum mechanics functions at such a micro level that it probably has no effect on macro-level systems such as the will. Secondly, even if this is not the case, quantum mechanics shows the universe to be at a level of randomness and chaos. This is in no way synonymous with free-will as all it would mean is that our choices are either determined by the antecedent state of the universe or are completely random.
If, then, we are the products of causality, this means our very beliefs, or lack thereof, are not the result of conscious deliberation and weighing of the facts. Nor are they the result of critical thinking or skepticism. They are the result of the antecedent state of the universe and nothing more. I was an atheist and am now a Christian because I had no choice but to be such things. The Christian who apostatizes because he feels that his religion is irrational is not doing so for rational reasons but because he had no choice but to become an atheist.
The one retort may be that while this is all true, atheists may have more accurately perceived the world around them, they have created a better mental model. At this point I will quote from an article by R. M. Manion:
Then,” I said, “if the mental models of a thing correspond to knowledge and the assessment of those models correspond to reason, we would have a paradigm for the evolution of knowledge and reason. We already have mechanical representations of this in artificial intelligence systems. We have robots that identify objects in a room from video input and make a sufficient analysis of these models to navigate around the room. If we set up an experiment where robots that ran into objects disappeared while those that successfully avoided objects reproduced with minor changes in their programming, we would eventually evolve a collection of robots with an astute knowledge of their environment and ability to assess and navigate it. In like manner, man has evolved the ability to form extremely detailed and accurate models of his sensory input of the world and to make sophisticated analysis of that data. Hence, man has evolved knowledge and reason. True, this system is still deterministic, and man is still a part of the natural system he has come to know. But, he knows it none the less. It is a case of nature knowing itself. A sort of feed back loop, or self-diagnostic routine.”
After pointing out the inherent dualistic language of the above, the second character of the dialogue gives the reason as to why such a feedback loop does not do us any good:
The robots know nothing. Simply, the ones set up to avoid obstacles, avoid obstacles, the ones that don’t, don’t. Can we say that water flows to the ocean because it knows the way? Does water that finds its’ way to the ocean know something that other water doesn’t? You see, water simply does what nature would have it do. So the robots do what their environment, sensory apparatus, and programs would have them do. Their actions are caused. They cause nothing. In like manner we believe what nature would have us believe. We do nothing. We are the repository of certain thoughts. I do not create my beliefs. I am simply a repository of belief. All of it, my beliefs, my thoughts, my reasons, even the language by which I try to explain them, are simply acts of nature.”
To transpose this, the Christian is a Christian because he was set up to be that way. The atheist is an atheist because he was set up to be that way. Their very deliberations, thoughts, analysis of evidence, and their very perception of evidence is all programmed. At no point can a person somehow transcend nature and peer behind its curtain to try and see whether or not its lying to us, because by adhering to physicalism we have already thrown any kind of transcendence out the door. There is nothing but the physical – that is it.
Ultimately, this leads one to an epistemic nihilism, or that we cannot know anything. The previous quote gets at the heart of the matter, that “we are the repository of certain thoughts…I am simply a repository of belief. All of it…are simply acts of nature.” The issue is that nature is everything in the physicalist worldview; it is the Alpha and Omega of this brand of atheism. But the problem is that non-physicalists exist, or rather, that there are differing claims about existence. The universe is the only source of information, but it has somehow has given contradictory answers, and we have no way of knowing which one is right. Hence, we cannot know anything – epistemic nihilism.
The rest of the dialogue goes on to talk about the self-refuting nature of such a stance, but I am not going to do that here; this sketch was rather to bring out physicalism in regards to free-will to its logical conclusion. Again, given the rough nature of any sketch it is open to being easily criticized, but I do invite any criticism or thoughts as long as the tone is appropriate. Oh, and read the article mentioned; it is better than anything I could type out here.
-  I keep saying that my works are sketches because of their very unpolished nature. My current job prevents me from sinking too much research and time into anything, especially as the job is rounding its last leg. Thankfully, I will be able to devote more time to my writings once its finished. ↩
-  I should mention now that this is merely a hackneyed version of a brilliant article posted over at Energetic Processions on metaphysical naturalism and its moral and epistemic implications. I highly suggest that one reads it in its entirety and read the comments section at the bottom of the post. ↩
-  The view that there is no God and that only physical systems exist. ↩
-  R. M. Manion, The Other Side: Metaphysics and Meaning. November, 1993. http://energeticprocession.wordpress.com/2011/05/17/the-other-side/ retrieved 5/7/2012. ↩
-  Ibid. ↩
-  Needless to say, while I could (and probably should) go on to comment on morality and purpose, if one agrees with this conclusion then such essays are rendered rather superfluous; if we cannot have knowledge, then there is no way to ascertain morality or purpose. ↩