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The Dennett Institute of Advanced Athiest Studies

Often we atheists find that, when confronted by rational argument based on our wealth of scientific knowledge, god believers retreat to the one last refuge where they believe no atheist can touch them. I refer, of course, to the following argument: “Ok, perhaps I cannot prove that god exists in any physical way, and admittedly I cannot show you that god does or ever has interacted with the physical world, but really none of that matters, for god is not a physical being and so of course we cannot see him or find his hand in physical doings. God is beyond the physical, and just because you and I cannot comprehend what that means is no good reason to dismiss it.” I think we have all heard a variation of this, and have recoiled from it (surely even god believers find it a little peculiar to have an omnipresent, omnipotent being who has no presence and no measurable physical effects {i.e., no physical effects} in the world whatsoever). But because it is so hard to pin down the actual meaning of the argument it has always been very difficult to refute it. Let us, then, examine what exactly it is that is being said here, and find out whether the convenient obscurantism of the god believer’s last line of defence is so convenient after all.

To hold that neither god himself nor the doings of god can be detected in the physical world is the logical equivalent of stating, “god exists but has no effects in the physical world whatever”. Since god has no effects, it follows that no instrument can detect the presence of god directly or indirectly, and the way the world goes is not modulated in the slightest by the presence or absence of god. How, then, could there ever be any empirical reason to assert the presence of god? Suppose, for instance, that Solomon insists that he (for one) has knowledge of god. Why does he say this? Certainly not because god has some effect on him or his environment, somehow guiding him or alerting him as he makes his avowals (remember that god has no physical effects whatsoever). Moreover, Solomon’s heartfelt avowals that he has knowledge of god could not be evidence for himself or anyone else that he does have such knowledge, since he would be saying exactly the same thing even if he didn’t have it! But perhaps Solomon has some “internal” evidence?

Here there’s an escape clause for the god believer, but not an attractive one. If Solomon wants to embrace out-and-out dualism, he can claim that his god has no effects in the physical world, but does have effects in his (nonphysical) mental world. For instance, he can claim that god causes some of his (nonphysical) beliefs, such as his belief in god. But this is just a temporary escape from embarrassment, for now, on pain of contradiction, his beliefs can have no effect in the physical world. If, for instance, he suddenly lost his (nonphysical) mental knowledge of god, he would no longer believe he had such knowledge, but he’d still go right on saying he did; he just wouldn’t believe what he was saying! (Nor could he tell you that he didn’t believe what he was saying, or do anything at all that revealed that he no longer believed what he was saying.) So the only way Solomon could justify his belief in god would be by retreating into a solipsistic world where there is only himself, his beliefs, and his nonphysical god (who is cut off from all effects in the world). Far from being a safe way of being materialist and having your god too, this is at best a way of endorsing the most radical solipsism, by cutting off your mind, your beliefs, and your experiences from any commerce with the material world.

This postulated nonphysical god cannot be invoked to explain the way things happen in the world since, by definition, things would happen exactly the same without him. So there could not be an empirical reason for believing in this god. Could there perhaps be another sort of reason for asserting his nonphysical existence? And if so, what sort of reason? An a priori reason, presumably. But consider the (similar, if not identical) hypothesis that there are exactly fourteen nonphysical gremlins in each cylinder of an internal combustion engine. These gremlins have no mass, no energy, no physical properties; they do not make the engine run smoother or rougher, faster or slower; there is and could be no empirical evidence of their presence, and no empirical way in principle of distinguishing this hypothesis from its rivals, e.g., that there are twelve or thirteen or fifteen gremlins. By what principle does one defend one’s wholesale dismissal of such nonsense? “Ah, but there’s a difference,” says Solomon. “There is no independent motivation for taking the hypothesis of these gremlins seriously. You just made them up on the spur of the moment. The notion of god, in contrast, has been around for a long time, playing a major role in our conceptual scheme!” But what if some benighted people had been thinking for generations that gremlins make their cars go, and by now have been pushed back by the march of science into the forlorn claim that the gremlins are there, all right, but are nonphysical? Is it a mistake for us to dismiss their hypothesis out of hand? Whatever the principle we rely on when we give the back of our hand to such nonsense, it suffices to dismiss the doctrine that god is nonphysical in this sense. These god and gremlin hypotheses do not deserve to be discussed with a straight face.

(This disquisition is adapted from Daniel Dennett, Consciousness Explained, Penguin Books: London, 1993, pp. 398-406.)

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