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Atheism and the Personal Pronoun

Iron Man

The overwhelming majority of atheists today are also materialists. Ousting God implies an evacuation of all things “spiritual,” leaving behind only blind, brute, bits of matter. Whichever one arrives at first—whether materialism or atheism—is really inconsequential; one usually follows the other.

Concerning galaxies and stars, materialism seems unthreatening. After all, these are material, natural phenomena that we can understand, explain, and model according to material causes; there’s nothing supernatural about supernovas. But when atheistic-materialism trains its lens upon the human person, something quite puzzling (and frightening) occurs—human subjectivity disappears; that which makes humans human is explained away. The personal pronoun “I” is swallowed up.

Francis Crick called it “the astonishing hypothesis,” namely, that all our thoughts, dreams, imaginings, sensations, joys, and pains are entirely (and without remainder) the product of physiological processes and events occurring in the intricate folds of the brain.1 Steven Pinker, professor of psychology at Harvard University, explains further: “The intuitive feeling we have that there’s an executive ‘I’ that sits in a control room of our brain scanning the screens of the senses and pushing the buttons of the muscles, is an illusion.”2

According to the conclusions inherent in the atheistic-materialistic premises, individual subjectivity, the personal pronoun “I,” turns out to be the illusory byproduct of trillions of crackling neurons. As Carl Sagan once put it, “I am a collection of water, calcium, and organic molecules called Carl Sagan. You are a collection of almost identical molecules with a different collective label.” Thus, according to their own worldview, all thoroughly honest atheists and materialists must consent that they themselves, as selves, do not exist. What an odd conclusion!

While Rene Descartes built the edifice of modern philosophy on the bedrock foundation of the individual subject with his famous cogito ergo sum, I want to propose another use for the “I”: a doorstop. While atheistic materialists seek to slam the door of the universe shut, expelling all that is non-material, the fact—and I mean fact—of personal subjectivity, our ability to say “I,” acts like an intruder’s foot that gets wedged between the door and the frame, stubbornly preventing materialism from enclosing the universe within. Who or what is the “I” that declares Carl Sagan to be nothing but a collection of molecules? Does he not speak and assert this truth from a real center, a real subjective focal point? The common experience of being a subject, an “I” in the world, resists the spirit-draining power of the atheistic-materialistic worldview.

This is no incidental fact. Many apologetics projects have been launched to combat the New Atheism in the effort to show the reasonableness of Christian faith. But, before we can dialogue about faith in the Triune God whose nature and essence is union and communion, or in Jesus, who died an ignominious death for the sins of all, or in the very idea of Goodness, Truth, or Beauty itself, a critical step must be taken, one that is often overlooked. Because of the contemporary phenomenon of aggressive materialism, theists must persuasively show that there is more to this world than the mere matter to which scientists and the New Atheists want to reduce it.

In addition to the material stuff of the universe that scientists study and model so well, there is an equally real and infinitely more efficacious force at work that is intrinsically spiritual. There is a spiritual order that eludes scientific investigation or modeling. Recourse to material causes alone is insufficient to account for the universe and the human person. It must be shown that this materially-closed universe, this “nothing but” worldview, inadequately captures reality and lived-experience.

It is my firm contention that for our modern sensibilities, which prioritize the individual, there is no better starting point for this project than with personal subjectivity, with our unique ability to say meaningfully, “I...”

While the atheist-materialist may be able to reduce all being to the level of matter, void of spirituality, he is unable to explain himself away. There is an inherent contradiction built into the atheistic-materialistic worldview that can and ought to be noted. What does that look like?

Take Daniel Dennett for example. He is a philosopher of consciousness and director of the Center for Cognitive Sciences at Tufts University and a staunch proponent of the atheistic-materialistic worldview. He writes in his book, Consciousness Explained:

"Materialism: there is only one sort of stuff, namely matter—the physical stuff of physics, chemistry, and physiology—and the mind is somehow nothing but a physical phenomenon."3

Dennett’s definition of materialism turns out, upon closer examination, to be a metaphysical claim regarding the ultimate nature of things. His materialism, one will notice, is not a discovery or conclusion of science but rather is a methodological presupposition that guides his science and determines what kinds of answers are acceptable. In other words, the scientific project, beginning centuries ago, was launched with an a priori limitation: to only consider and investigate material causes and to only accept material solutions. Naturally then, under this rubric, scientists like Steven Pinker, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennett himself are forced to draw the following conclusion regarding the brain, the mind, and personal subjectivity:

"The trouble with brains, it seems, is that when you look in them, you discover that there’s nobody home. No part of the brain is the thinker that does the thinking or the feeler that does the feeling...There is no longer a role for a centralized gateway, or indeed for any functional center to the brain...The brain is Headquarters, the place where the ultimate observer is, but there is no reason to believe that the brain itself has any deeper headquarters, any inner sanctum, arrival at which is the necessary or sufficient condition for conscious experience. In short, there is no observer inside the brain."4

To state their conclusion another way: there is no for whom consciousness exists; there is no “I” in the brain; there is no dative of manifestation to whom the external world is disclosed—all is sheer brute matter operating according to determined physical force laws, and consciousness happens to be an epiphenomenon of the interplay of specific materials and specific force laws. Scientists, gazing into the brain are unable to locate the thinker of the thinking, the feeler doing the feeling, and so conclude that there must not be a thinker or a feeler...or by extension, a scientist doing the science or a surgeon doing the open-brain surgery. This conclusion should rightly strike us as untenable. Why?

To whom does this thought occur: “there must be no thinker within who does the thinking”? Somebody is thinking this thought! Whose name is it that appears on the front jacket cover of Consciousness Explained, or atop any of their published journal articles, or outside their office door, or on the cover of their syllabi? Is it not their names? When they sign checks, make promises, or marry their spouse, what signs? What promises? What vows and loves?

From out this cloud of whirring, buzzing atoms, somebody acts, speaks, wills, dreams, and loves. What is the nature of this center from which all activities flow? It is obvious: this center is subjective (not in the sense of being relative, but in the sense of belonging to a subject, a person). Springing from Daniel Dennett’s irreducible “I” flow all his thoughts, theories, and books that, strangely enough, seek to prove that he does not exist. Carl Sagan’s quote is not attributed to a collection of molecules that happened to be called, by convention, “Carl Sagan.” No, his words are rightly attributed to him! The adherents of the atheistic-materialistic worldview are a living contradiction, and every time they act, speak, or write, they prove their own theory to be woefully inadequate.

For those encamped within the confines of the atheistic-materialistic universe, all that exists are mechanistic bodies—like Tony Stark’s Iron Man suit; the only problem is, there is no Tony Stark inside or anywhere for that matter within the atheistic-materialistic universe.

Suits without Starks; iron without men.

A theory or worldview that eliminates the possibility of the theorist existing is a bad theory and an incomplete worldview. There may be parts of it that are true, but taken as a whole, the atheistic-materialistic thesis is inadequate and incoherent. So why will the door not close? Because in addition to the matter that comprises my body is a soul, an animating principle that organizes the matter that I am to be the matter of “me,” unique, unrepeatable me. In addition to my stuff, there is a soul, I have an “I,” that persists through time, that began at my conception, and will persist beyond my mortal life. There’s more to me than my mere meat. When I say “my brain,” I really mean my brain, not just any brain belonging to any body, but to a specific body, a somebody, namely me! And you too!

Doorstops do not do anything positive; rather, they prevent something from happening, namely the door being shut. In this case, the atheistic-materialistic worldview cannot close in on itself because the “I” gets in the way. Getting rid of God and spirituality isn’t as simple as it seems at first blush.

It cannot be maintained that the only stuff that exists is matter—the stuff of physics, biology, and chemistry—precisely because this assertion eliminates the theory-making subject. The “I” of every atheist holds the door of the universe ajar, permitting some non-material, spiritual “stuff” to sneak in. If immaterial “I’s” exist, then that begs the question: whence come the “I’s”? Perhaps God? That’s a topic for another article. I thank you!
(Image credit: Mirror)


  1. Steven Pinker, "The Brain: The Mystery of Consciousness," TIME Magazine. 19 Jan. 2007. Web. 05 Jan. 2011. . 3.
  2. Ibid., 4.
  3. Daniel Dennett, Consciousness Explained (New York, Boston, and London: Back Bay Books, 1991), 33.
  4. Ibid., 106.
Patrick Schultz

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Patrick Schultz is a fourth year seminarian in formation at St. Mary Seminary in Cleveland, OH. He is passionate about good coffee, good conversations, philosophical apologetics, masculine spirituality and walking with non-believers as friends and intellectual companions; but his greatest passion is Christ the Living Mercy and sharing the reasons for his joy. He has a zeal for evangelizing and youth ministry, and looks forward with great anticipation to receiving Holy Orders, God-willing, in May 2016.

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