The official site of bestselling author Michael Shermer The official site of bestselling author Michael Shermer

Silent No More

published April 2018

The rise of the atheists

Scientific American (cover)

In recent years much has been written about the rise of the “nones”—people who check the box for “none” on surveys of religious affiliation. A 2013 Harris Poll of 2,250 American adults, for example, found that 23 percent of all Americans have forsaken religion altogether. A 2015 Pew Research Center poll reported that 34 to 36 percent of millennials (those born after 1980) are nones and corroborated the 23 percent figure, adding that this was a dramatic increase from 2007, when only 16 percent of Americans said they were affiliated with no religion. In raw numbers, this translates to an increase from 36.6 million to 55.8 million nones. Though lagging far behind the 71 percent of Americans who identified as Christian in the Pew poll, they are still a significant voting block, far larger than Jews (4.7 million), Muslims (2.2 million) and Buddhists (1.7 million) combined (8.6 million) and comparable to politically powerful Christian sects such as Evangelical (25.4 percent) and Catholic (20.8 percent).

This shift away from the dominance of any one religion is good for a secular society whose government is structured to discourage catch basins of power from building up and spilling over into people’s private lives. But it is important to note that these nones are not necessarily atheists. Many have moved from mainstream religions into New Age spiritual movements, as evidenced in a 2017 Pew poll that found an increase from 19 percent in 2012 to 27 percent in 2017 of those who reported being “spiritual but not religious.” Among this cohort, only 37 percent described their religious identity as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular.”

Even among atheists and agnostics, belief in things usually associated with religious faith can worm its way through fissures in the materialist dam. A 2014 survey conducted by the Austin Institute for the Study of Family and Culture on 15,738 Americans, for example, found that of the 13.2 percent who called themselves atheist or agnostic, 32 percent answered in the affirmative to the question “Do you think there is life, or some sort of conscious existence, after death?” Huh? Even more incongruent, 6 percent of these atheists and agnostics also said that they believed in the bodily resurrection of the dead. You know, like Jesus.

What’s going on here? The surveys didn’t ask, but I strongly suspect a lot of these nonbelievers adopt either New Age notions of the continuation of consciousness without brains via some kind of “morphic resonance” or quantum field (or some such) or are holding out hope that science will soon master cloning, cryonics, mind uploading or the transhumanist ability to morph us into cyber-human hybrids. As I explicate in my book Heavens on Earth, I’m skeptical of all these ideas, but I understand the pull. And that gravitational well will grow ever deeper as science progresses in these areas—and especially if the number of atheists increases.

In a paper in the January 2018 issue of the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science entitled “How Many Atheists Are There?”, Will M. Gervais and Maxine B. Najle, both psychologists at the University of Kentucky, contend that there may be far more atheists than pollsters report because “social pressures favoring religiosity, coupled with stigma against religious disbelief…, might cause people who privately disbelieve in God to nonetheless self-present as believers, even in anonymous questionnaires.”

To work around this problem of self-reported data, the psychologists employed what is called an unmatched count technique, which has been previously validated for estimating the size of other underreported cohorts, such as the LGBTQ community. They contracted with YouGov to conduct two surveys of 2,000 American adults each, for a total of 4,000 subjects, asking participants to indicate how many innocuous versus sensitive statements on a list were true for them. The researchers then applied a Bayesian probability estimation to compare their results with similar Gallup and Pew polls of 2,000 American adults each. From this analysis, they estimated, with 93 percent certainty, that somewhere between 17 and 35 percent of Americans are atheists, with a “most credible indirect estimate” of 26 percent.

If true, this means that there are more than 64 million American atheists, a staggering number that no politician can afford to ignore. Moreover, if these trends continue, we should be thinking about the deeper implications for how people will find meaning as the traditional source of it wanes in influence. And we should continue working on grounding our morals and values on viable secular sources such as reason and science.

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42 Comments to “Silent No More”

  1. James Wade Says:

    Professor Shermer, I fully accept evolution as the explanation for the development of life forms. However, there is a question that plays on my mind. Biochemistry is carbon based so all life on earth is based on carbon. Is there any materialist explanation of how carbon became aware that it is carbon?

  2. Bad Boy Scientist Says:


    I can strongly associate certain political ideologies with Catholics, Jews, Evangelicals, Mormons, etc. But there are some groups that I cannot make strong associations, such as Buddhists, Unitarians and Atheists. In these latter groups, I personally know about equal numbers on each side of issues like economics, the environment, immigration, trade, legalized pot (the ist goes on).

    Maybe the reason few politicians cater to atheists is because we aren’t a homogeneous group that has been indoctrinated by a central authority (or tradition). Atheism is such a broad tent that appealing politically to these particular citizens _as atheists_ isn’t as effective as appealing to us as members of different groups (e.g. by occupation, urban vs rural, national region, etc).

    Anyone who has participated or lurked on a skeptics’ forum is quite aware of how much diverse opinion is found within the atheist community (and how intolerant atheists can be about those opinions). Calling a bunch of atheists a ‘community’ is even a stretch because there’s very little communing going on.

  3. Jeff Flanzer Says:

    Mr. Wade,

    I like the way you posed your question!
    Is there a non-materialist explanation that you are persuaded by?

  4. rharkn Says:

    What Jeff Flanzer said…

  5. Prof. Emeritus Ferrel Christensen Says:

    “of the 13.2 percent who called themselves atheist or agnostic, 32 percent answered in the affirmative to the question “Do you think there is life, or some sort of conscious existence, after death?” Huh? Even more incongruent, 6 percent of these atheists and agnostics also said that they believed in the bodily resurrection of the dead. You know, like Jesus.” NOT incongruent unless you assume Western religions and thereby exclude those in which conscious existence after death does not depend on any deity–in particular, those that believe in reincarnation. But still VERY hard to reconcile with evolution by natural “selection”. The really tough question, despite certain thinkers’ attempts to wish it away, is the “problem of consciousness” raised above by Mssrs. Flanzer and Wade. About the oldest and deepest in Western philosophy.

  6. Bry Says:

    ‘of the 13.2 percent who called themselves atheist or agnostic, 32 percent answered in the affirmative to the question “Do you think there is life, or some sort of conscious existence, after death?”’

    Interestingly, in 2006 I conducted a similar Internet questionnaire which asked whether people agreed with the statement, “My soul will live on after my death.” Of self-described agnostics or atheists, 31% agreed – startlingly similar to the survey quoted by Shermer.

    Even more interestingly, 40% of self-described Christians said that their souls would not live on after their death.

    I deduced from this that belief in immortality had not much to do with religion: it was more likely the result of naïve dualism. If the mind is somehow separate from the body, then it is not unreasonable to expect it to live on after death. Why not?

    If you are not a dualist, then you know that the soul/mind/psyche is a construct of the brain, and will die when the brain dies.

  7. Keith Croes Says:

    I’d like to know more about the political beliefs of these groups regarding the free exercise and establishment clauses of the First Amendment, and their views on the separation of church and state. What percentage overall, and what percentage of those who identify with each religion, or with any religion, vigorously supports the separation of church and state? One would assume that 100% of all atheists believe in the absolute separation of church and state, but is that really the case? The creeping theism in government gives me the creeps, and I’d like an idea of how many others out there–religious and nonreligious–feel likewise.

  8. Michael Allan Slaughter Says:

    Shermer has his own deity–the “free” market.

  9. noe feldman Says:

    you mingle atheist and agnostics. I don’t think they belong together. you cannot prove ( or disprove) the existence of God, therefore Atheists (and religious) belong to the category of faith and not logic. If I remember correctly in a previous in skeptic newsletter both of them (Religious and atheist)were in the Gnostic Or agnostic categories .I am referring to the ones in the Gnostic category. Even one of the most famous atheists of our days, Richard Dawkins famously said, both in his debate with the Archbishop of Canterbury and in his book the God delusion, that he did not belong to the top of the atheist category. I know that in the God delusion book he did clarify his statement, But anyway he was intellectually honest.

    Noe Feldman

  10. Stephen Nowlin Says:

    “of the 13.2 percent who called themselves atheist or agnostic, 32 percent answered in the affirmative to the question “Do you think there is life, or some sort of conscious existence, after death?”

    If you want to know for certain what happens to human life, or consciousness after death, you have only to observe a deceased human for any amount of time. You’ll notice there is no life, or consciousness, any more. As to the nature of consciousness: that it ceases to exist at the death of an organism, is a good clue as to what it is.

  11. Stephen Nowlin Says:

    Noe Feldman, I’m curious about your response, and apologies for the trite analogy — but neither can you prove or disprove the existence of Superman. If you are an atheist about the Man of Steel, rather than an agnostic, is your certainty a matter of faith and not logic? If so, it would seem to be a technicality, a flaw, in the reliability of philosophical argument to arrive at the truth. Because we all know that Superman does not exist.

  12. Albert Natian Says:

    Perhaps the best definition of “ATHEIST” is anyone who is not a theist. As such, those who call themselves “agnostic” are also atheists*, but prefer the designation “agnostic” over “atheist” for one reason or another. E.g., the designation “agnostic” is more socially friendly and acceptable than “atheist”, or maybe agnostics just are not aware of the above definition of “atheist”, and instead assume an atheist is anyone who claims the non-existence of god(s).
    Of course there are atheists who claim the non-existence of god(s), but these atheists still are not theists. That’s why they are called “atheists” … because they are not theists.

    *A simplistic take on the word “agnostic” in relation to a particular thing is that an agnostic is anyone who claims humans (or the agnostic himself/herself) cannot know or as of yet do not know a particular thing (e.g., what caused the universe to exist or whether god(s) exist). Nonetheless, with this definition of “agnostic”, it is possible for an agnostic to be a believer in some god(s). But what most agnostics mean by the word “agnostic” is that they have not made up their mind either way with regard to the existence or non-existence of god(s). As such, an agnostic is also an atheist … because the agnostic is not a theist.

  13. Bad Boy Scientist Says:

    I read these comments and thought maybe a better division than atheist vs. theist would be materialist vs. dualist.

    Dualists hold that there is some thing that is not part of the material body – maybe you could call it a ‘soul’ or an ‘essence’ but it is not matter. They would likely embrace the idea of an afterlife or at least the persistence of the soul after death whether or not they believe in a deity. In fact there are some religions which do believe in a non-material part of humans but do not believe that there is/are divine beings (IOW: gods). Those religions could be reasonably called atheist religions.

    Also, if a materialist and a dualist try to discuss these things, it’d be good to understand the fundamental beliefs of the other side. Talking about what happens to the matter of the body after death isn’t compelling to a dualist because they believe there is a non-material part of people.

    Before you decide your side is right – recall that very intelligent people have gone around and around for centuries debating whether or not there is something beyond the physical. Neither side has prevailed upon the other. Probably because both sides are founded in basic assumptions that cannot be refuted.

  14. noe feldman Says:

    Stephen Nowlin

    The same point was already made by Richard Dawkins in the God delusion when he claimed he was not at the top of the scale regarding atheism, although he used different nomenclature. The point I am making Is that often people that consider themselves atheist are doing it out ofdogma very similar to many religious people. I know them well because even if I don’t Believe you often find God in religion, I still attend services because I love the values I have, and many of them coincide with religious beliefs. I personally find that it is much easier to pass around to the next generation a modification of religious beliefs then purely mine. The other might be possible, but I am lazy.

    Same as you I don’t mean disrespect because my values don’t allow me to be disrespectful to others only because I don’t understand their point of view, for example even if I don’t understand the Orthodox blind faith and if I have been called heretic by some of them, I go out of my way not to be offensive.I might agree more with what Bad Boy Scientist says.

    Curiously I was preparing a comment on your other posting but I needed to leave for an appointment. What I was going to tell you was that out of the percentage of atheist and agnostics to which you refer, very few if any believe that the dead body will have any consciousness or life. I don’t know you meant this as an insult (not to me, I am not in that category) but to some Orthodox people.

    Even if I am often called hypocrite by some heretic by others, I still like my values

  15. James Wade Says:

    Jeff Flanzer, thanks for your response to my comment. I understand the antipathy of atheists toward dogmatism of any sort especially dogmatism that seeks control over the minds of men and women as this partial quote from Jefferson affirms. However, it seems to me the claim that materialism is the end all and the be all of existence, is a form of dogmatism. There are serious questions about the adequacy of materialism to account for phenomena such as the fact that carbon speaks. As Shakespeare put it in the words of Hamlet, “There are more things in heaven and earth Horatio, than are drempt of in your philosophy.”

  16. noe feldman Says:

    James Wade

  17. Stephen Nowlin Says:

    Noe — thanks for the thoughtful response. Certainly I didn’t mean my comment that whether or not life and consciousness continue after death is answered by simply observing a deceased organism, as an insult to believers — sorry if it came across that way. Rather it seems to me a perfectly reasonable way, or actually the only way, to answer that apparently enigmatic question “debated by intelligent people for centuries” (to paraphrase Bad Boy Scientist.)

    If you were to wonder, as a random example, if the proposition were true that a square cube object will turn into a sphere by setting the cube down on any one of its facets, you’d set the cube down and observe it to determine the answer. Why is it any different with the proposition of life or consciousness surviving death? If someone were to insist, despite what is obvious to the contrary, that the cube turns into a sphere, wouldn’t showing them that it does not, be the only way to demonstrate the truth?

  18. Chrysippo Says:

    “There are serious questions about the adequacy of materialism to account for phenomena such as the fact that carbon speaks.”

    Just another ‘God of the gaps’ hand waving response to current uncertainties.

    Amused that Noe Feldman considers it a faith that I accept neither the existence of the 4-D invisible pink zebra in my garage nor that of the community of fairies said to live beneath the garden hedge. I used to believe in Santa Claus; is it now a faith when I dismiss the evidence he exists? After all NASA calculated his travel times around the globe. Perhaps he could let me know of any other beings that I may not have heard of yet in whom my lack of belief must be a faith.

  19. James Wade Says:

    Sorry, I don’t see this as a God of the gaps at all. I am drawn to the idea that the universe is not validated until it is observed. Carbon and all of the long lived elements were born out of the death of stars. It is as though they made possible our existence so that we might give them meaning. By that I mean all physical manifestation is based on electromagnetic phenomena, and quantum experimentation has taught us that electromagnetism is neither particle nor wave until it is observed. This interdependence of reality and conscious observation may indicate that non materialist influences are involved.

  20. Chrysippo Says:

    A state that collapses upon observation does not need a conscious observer; a camera will suffice. Furthermore, if the camera transmits the image of an event (particles passing through slits etc) to a distant computer before being watched by a human then what do we include as part of the quantum system and what is part of the macro world? Both in space and time (if the latter exists). Are you saying that the image recorded by the computer and displayed on a screen does not exist until viewed? Perhaps true only in the sense that a falling tree in the middle of a forest is unheard unless an eardrum is present, but sound waves are still produced.
    Your teleological argument and new wavvy stance fits with spiritual and religious outlooks deployed to fill gaps in scientific explanations – ‘woo of the gaps’ perhaps.
    Good night, late this side of the pond.

  21. noe feldman, Religious skeptic Says:


    As far as your comment number 17 goes

    of course you could observe the square and find out that it Doesn’t turns into a sphere. But maybe you can recognize that that does not mean it can never turn into sphere, there could be some quantum mechanism that makes it do it. By just observing it for a limited time by no means proves that the square can not turning into a sphere. I think that you will realize that the cube and sphere belong to the physical realm. The spirit or life after death belong to a different realm.

  22. noe feldman, Religious skeptic Says:


    Regarding your comment number 18

    I don’t see why you are amazed. If you can prove to me that the fairies or the four dimensional zebras don’t exist, I will Eat my hat. If you cannot prove it then yes, I think it is faith. You must be thinking that faith can only exist in religious terms, I think that a dogma is a dogma. As I mentioned before one of the better known atheist of our time, Richard Dawkins, already used an argument very similar to yours to explain his statement that in a scale from 1 to 7 (for atheists) he was a five tending to six. I think that was the scale that he used that time. He repeated that comment with a different scale but the same idea, in his debate with the Archbishop of Canterbury. Probably out of respect he did not qualified the statement. I don’t know what was in his mind but i presume independently Of that, he wanted to be intellectually honest.
    In a previous issue of e- skeptic one psychologist wrote something regarding dogmatic atheists. Also in a different issue the remarks of Richard Dawkins were also documented.

  23. Barbara Harwood Says:

    I should like to point out that there are people born with severe intellectual disabilities and even blind on top of that, who are able to play the piano like people who have studied it for years. Most such people have parents who would not have wasted money on having those children taught to play, but they have a talent. A piano keyboard is not a natural construct and has only existed for a fewe centuries. Don’t try to tell me that it is all contained in the various chemicals that make up the body.

  24. Barbara Harwood Says:

    I should like to point out that there are people born with severe intellectual disabilities and even blind on top of that, who are able to play the piano like people who have studied it for years. Most such people have parents who would not have wasted money on having those children taught to play, but they have a talent. A piano keyboard is not a natural construct and has only existed for a fewe centuries. Don’t try to tell me that it is all contained in the various chemicals that make up the body.

  25. Stephen Nowlin Says:

    Noe, re comment 21:

    In science, all knowledge is provisional. However, that principle doesn’t mean all speculations are possible — rather it means that at any given time, we can only reliably comprehend the universe and our existence “to the best of our knowledge.”

    Propositions whose truth or not is muddled by lurking within the folds of coincidence and chance — for example, “I prayed I would feel better, and I did” — are difficult to convincingly disprove by tests, because believers will cling to their confirmation bias. But when a proposition can be tested, repeatedly, and is never shown even by random chance to ever be true, then believing it to nonetheless be possible in contradiction of all evidence could legitimately be called delusional. The belief that life and consciousness survive death falls into this category.

  26. noe feldman, Religious skeptic Says:


    we are not going to convince each other, let’s leave it like that. No need for an answer but I don’t know what makes you think I don’t know that. There are things that belong in science and that thinks that not.

  27. James Wade Says:

    chrysippo, Thank you for your criticism of my last post. You seem well informed about quantum theory, and I will not try to contest your arguments. However, I would be very interested in your response to my original question in this series of posts, what conceivable materialist explanation is there for how carbon became self aware?

  28. noe feldman, Religious skeptic Says:

    bad Boy Scientist

    Regarding your comment number two

    I recently learned that there are different type of Buddhism, the Zen Buddhism have centers not temples and they don’t believe in deities. Maybe with those you can have rational (at least with my friend I can) conversations. With the others I also cannot. I suspect the reason you can have conversations with Christians, etc. is because intuitively some of them make a difference between dogma and logic

  29. Chrysippo Says:

    Hello Noe

    Alice may have insisted that “one can’t believe impossible things” but many appear to side with the White Queen who “believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

    Hmmm. So any supernatural entity conjectured by anyone, including myself, which I am unable to prove doesn’t exist, irrespective of whether I am aware of the hypothesised deity, but upon which I do not wish to waste time accepting as a valid possibility means I have a blind faith equivalent to and just as dogmatic as a believer’s faith in such a being. I don’t bother myself with the existence of black swans, far more likely than fanciful creations, is this also a faith? Stretching the word’s meaning so much renders faith a rather vapid term. I would never claim to Christian friends that their faith is an anaemic feeling but mine apparently is extremely attenuated spread as it is over an infinite number of denied cosmic concepts .*

    Bemused that Dawkins is continually put up as a high priest; were I to accept him as such then I would need countless more for all the faiths I hold because I do not have faith.

    *Apologies Flying Spaghetti Monster, even in you I faithfully doubt.

  30. Chrysippo Says:

    Hello James

    A fascinating question to which I would love to know the answer. If pushed I would plump for the phenomenon of emergent properties. But how do you know I am self-aware? Perhaps you are the only one and the rest of us merely simulations. But if you think you are self-aware, who are you being self-aware about?

  31. Stephen Nowlin Says:

    Hi, Chrysippo —

    Actually entities, if by which you mean forms of life or intelligence, exist in bizarre and complex variations throughout the natural world. Deific conjecture can’t even begin to match their weirdness. But none of them are supernatural — there is no supernatural. Everything extraordinary, uncanny, mysterious, paradoxical, transcendent, and conjured to be deific, is natural. Supernatural is filled with wispy caricatures and godish avatars playing out banal soap operatic narratives — like a pulp fiction Bapti-Catholic Disneyland, and its never around when you need it, to boot. Natural has about 9 million species of “entity,” and a lot of cool art, ocean waves, and beer, to name just three out of about a gazillion things.

  32. noe feldman, Religious skeptic Says:


    I don’t see where we are in disagreement; I understand what you’re saying here. What I was trying to say is that there are things that don’t belong in science. I think what that was is what Prof. Shermer point was in his last book.
    To answer your question of why Richard Dawkins is held as high priest, I really don’t know, but he is. I assume you read e-skeptic and once if I remember correctly, he was referred as one of the four horses of atheism, making reference to the four of horses of the apocalypse. I myself I not an atheist I have only read some books about it as intellectually curious.
    Religion is something I don’t accept as a dogma. I discuss with my religious friends very often about that, they think they are accepting religion by logic. They probably think it is for peasants to accept it as dogma. By the way, I think I load atheist do the same thing.

  33. James Wade Says:

    chrysippo, your question about self awareness brings to mind Descartes’ Cogito ergo sum. The only thing you know for sure is that you think, and in thinking you know that you are. I have no doubt that you are a thinking being. I suppose over the next 50 to 100 years, if a computer is developed that is demonstrably self aware and is constructed with silicon or carbon or any other inanimate element, mankind will have some evidence of emergent properties. Strong AI enthusiasts seem to be convinced that with enough artificial neurons and necessary connections, self awareness will emerge.

    I think this is highly unlikely. In order for a computer to demonstrate self awareness it will have to show that it understands the meaning of what it is doing. A computer basically manipulates ones and zeros and uses statistical methods to produce answers to sometimes complicated questions, but it is the human mind that poses those question, uses those answers and understands their meaning. I suspect that consciousness of self is unique in the cosmos. The interplay between self aware beings and their environments brings meaning to reality.

  34. Chrysippo Says:

    Hello James

    Pentti Haikonen at the University of Illinois has created a robot that can react to perceived threats and complain if hit. No big deal for a software-based machine but novel for a machine that stores sensory information directly in its hardware, as do we. This suggests that researchers may have found the beginning of the road that leads to machine consciousness.

    How do you know you instigated any conscious thought when it is your unconscious that controls so many of your actions including mental manipulations? Whether or not you are aware of them! Your conscious reactions to the world about you arise owing to your interactions with other people and the environment in general. But your unconscious only passes information about this to your conscious after much editing and processing. Can you really claim self-awareness when much of your brain acts independently of it and actually feeds you the signals that allow you to feel in charge? Did you decide to become the type of person you are? My attempts at charisma and mathematical supremacy were badly let down by both biology and my back-seat driver.

    We are all marionettes to an unknown puppeteer. Descartes was misled: it should be ita cogitat ergo sum.

    Enjoy your weekend, if your unconscious permits.

  35. Chrysippo Says:

    Hello Noe

    Much as my intellect may be minuscule in comparison with Stephen Jay Gould, he of the separate magisteria for science and religion, I think any attempt to say some matters are off limits to enquiry and rational explanation just takes us back to ‘God of the gaps’. We would still be dwelling in caves if stone-age people thought it unproductive to seek explanations for everything beyond their control.

    Gods, spirits and cosmic forces have always been invoked, even by scientists, as causal agents for material changes currently inexplicable; but eventually a Laplace comes along to say “I had no need of that hypothesis” when demonstrating cause and effect for a phenomenon previously ascribed to God. Even feelings will eventually fall to materialist description unless one could isolate one from a biological source. I would marvel along with everyone else if pleasure could be bottled, cloned and fed back during a moment of boredom.

    Religious language can be wonderfully evocative, especially as found in the King James Version, but when used by those religious to describe atheists in an attempt to set an equal footing in logical status then I complain.

    We do disagree!

  36. Chrysippo Says:

    Hello Stephen

    I sit in wonder before the revelations of Blue Planet and other nature programs and completely accept that evolution brings forth a host of weird and wonderful organisms. All obey the ‘laws’ of nature. However, if a serious documentary broadcast scenes of fairies dancing beneath a hedge and it wasn’t 1st April then I would be sceptical initially. If only because no mammal has four limbs plus a set of wings: wings, fins, flippers and so on are modified fore-limbs. Further reflection and the reasoning of those qualified in various fields would shape my eventual response.


  37. James Wade Says:

    chrysippo, congratulations to Pentti Haikonen for programming such a marvelous computer, but that is a far cry from a computer that could program itself. Perhaps you are suggesting that our unconscious mind is our programmer. If so, you are still not addressing the core problem of an explanation of how carbon became animated since the unconconscious mind is also carbon based.

    I would like to get your response to the idea that awareness of reality is necessary for reality to have any meaning. Your thoughts?

  38. noe feldman, Religious skeptic Says:


    I agree, we disagree.

    As I told you I have not read that much on atheism, I will try to read Gould who is another of the four Horsemen of atheism.


  39. Stephen Nowlin Says:

    Chrysippo: “Further reflection and the reasoning of those qualified in various fields would shape my eventual response.”

    Thanks, Chrysippo — well stated response, clarified my hasty misread of your original post in 29. Cheers . . .

  40. Chrysippo Says:

    Hello James

    Apologies, but…

    Haikonen’s machine is not a computer, nor is it programmable, it is a robot. Incoming sensory information is stored directly in hardware components needing no software to encode or translate. For example, it can associate a colour as signalling a threat without the need for a program to tell it what the colour is and how to react accordingly. Crude maybe, but closer to the way animals, including us, respond to stimuli. As far as we know, a bull doesn’t know that what the matador is waving is called a red flag though it does recognize it is being goaded. Software-based machines may be a dead end as far as artificial intelligence is concerned.

    Do viruses discuss the weather? Are bacteria aware of their surroundings? Their reaction to stimuli we ascribe as merely interplay between electro-chemical forces. If a bacterium can function as a living creature in its environment without need for contemplation (assuming some brain type matter is essential for consciousness) then how far up the food chain does this apply? Where lies the cut-off point?

    If we allow an organism exists solely unconsciously then in principle so could a human – an extreme case of sleepwalking perhaps. Or go back in time: how distant would our ancestor (species) need to be before we deny presence of self-awareness when reality would not yet have switched on? That is, have meaning in your sense.

    If we say complex behaviour requires a conscious controller, what about an ant colony? From above, the ants seem to have purpose, as individuals, and organization, as a group, but these are emergent properties (albeit largely based on chemical signals – its non-conscious driver?).

    Reality proceeds just fine without our awareness of it is my stance based on what I know or can understand. Contrary facts and logic will change my opinion. I just want to know ‘what is’ not what ought to be or would be comforting. As for meaning, that is a human conceit. When or why does a bunch of chemicals become a living entity? If only I could live long enough to hear a provable explanation which I suspect will not invoke any form of vitalism.

    Thanks everyone for the prod to my brain cells.

  41. James Wade Says:

    chrysippo, I promise this will be my last prod. I do not mean to say that complex behavior requires a controller. I am saying that complex behavior will not have any meaning unless it is observed by a self aware consciousness. No one knows when our human ancestors crossed the bridge between reacting to stimuli and understanding that the sun comes up in the morning and goes down in the evening. Historically the Greeks left written records of coming to grips with the mysteries of existence through formalizing philosophies and advancing mathematics.

    My real point in this exercise is to ask why the improbability of carbon achieving cognition is not seen as a major problem by materialists. I am not advocating for a belief system, just an honest acknowledgement that the universe may consist of more than material widgets. It may be more wonderful than we ever imagined.

  42. Chrysippo Says:

    Hello James

    “My real point in this exercise is to ask why the improbability of carbon achieving cognition is not seen as a major problem by materialists. ”

    That both life arose and awareness followed certainly happened at least once – here we are! What the (im)probabilities were before is meaningless because there was nobody to calculate them. Even as an academic exercise now, and ignoring our existence, answers would give a range of figures to make the Drake Equation seem an exercise in pinpoint precision.

    The causes ‘are’ seen as major, and interesting, problems by materialists; however, efforts to elucidate are not helped by effects that didn’t suddenly appear – there was a transition along a spectrum. When does a foetus achieve ‘life’ and a baby ‘self-awareness’? Not via a switch, more a gradual infusion. Some consider a virus as semi-lif; but if experiments show a simpler assemblage capable of reproduction others might say but we have many non-living chemicals in our body capable of mimicking various properties of life. Complexity in structure and action gives rise to the appearance of purpose and hence life, thus my suspicion that both the latter and cognition are emergent properties.

    Apologies for my failure to give an answer (and aren’t I in marvellous company there) but easily solvable problems are no fun to contemplate (so my unconscious tells me).

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