Matthew David Segall has an excellent post on religion and atheism that I had to respond too. He starts by asking: “If religion arose naturally as a result of humanity’s gradually increasing capacity for self-consciousness, and by implication, for conscience, then what are we secular folks supposed to replace it with?”
Why do you assume the need of a replacement to begin with? Why do you assume we are supposedly ‘guilty’? Why do we even need the notion of an internalized ‘conscience’; an outmoded and misunderstood moral attribute? You seem to accept as fact this substantive notion of a category termed ‘conscience’ as the bearer of guilt? Why? Guilty of freedom? Guilty of being born? If you’re going with this tack then why not return to Shame Culture rather than Guilt Culture? Shame before all those others for whom I compete to survive? Jean Delumeau in his magisterial Sin and Fear – The Emergence of Western Guilt Culture 13th-18th Centuries once termed this sense of guilt as the “scruple sickness” instigated by the Catholic (obviously the main religion of the era in question) turn toward introspection and moral enforcement or hygiene. Once you impose a moral code, a set of rules on a community and those go against the natural state of affairs conflict arises which stems the flow of natural aggression. This blockage of natural aggression turned against itself is the beginnings of guilt culture. I’ll not go into the antecedents and also realize this is a simplification of an argument that would take a full detailed work to explicate, of which Jean Delemeau’s is a great example…
I do not know of any atheists who deny consciousness as a feature of the universe. Even the most blatant eliminativist does not deny consciousness, what they do deny is the permanent implantation of this notion of the first-person-singular, the ‘I’ as Self. Instead they say that it is a mechanism, a function of the brain’s processes just like all other functions, that it comes and goes as needed for specific actions. What eliminativists deny is this notion of capacities and dispositions as existing eternally in consciousness. There are no permanent power, dispotifs, emotions etc. as permanent entities, instead what is taken as the label for all intentional states of affairs is in itself momentary functional process of the brain’s continuous biochemical interactions with the environment.
This notion that “I do not have Freedom, Freedom has me,” seems a perfect example of statement “I do not have Self, Brain is.” The difference between the two statements is the difference between Idealism and Materialism. Freedom is Idea, Brain is Material. You assume the Idea of Freedom is real, that it has real capacity, that it stands for certain modes, capacities, powers, dispotifs that have causal efficacy. For me freedom has none of these, it is an illusion of the Brain doing what it does in a material universe. But that does not divide material into some old mold of an outdated materialism that sees matter as dead. That materialism never existed, that was always a critical appraisal of materialism by its detractors. Materialism is a monism, but does not reduce everything to the physical as some physicalists did during the positivist era. If one studies to the full extent the complete history of materialism one discovers that at the heart of this unique view of life is a sense of openness to existence that need not be final. Existence is not a set of algorithms, neither is it mathematical, nor is it even bound to the term ‘matter’. As in all human thought the moment you qualify the real by such terms you reduce what cannot be reduced to a human equation. We do have limits, we are blind to our own capacities. We take as sufficient what is actually our own ignorance of the true state of affairs. We scramble for definitions, philosophical theories, scientific facts to sway to argue to bind the real to our Ideas of reality. Reality escapes all our human notions. To use a religious metaphor in a secular way (Paul): “We see through a mirror darkly…”. That is all. What little light we shed on this real is always up for revision as we gain more insight and better tools or apparatuses by which to understand it. An open universe is infinite in this sense. Why? Because it does not follow our rules, it invents its own moment by moment (to use an occasionalist or Whiteheadian metaphor). But this need not entail even a reduction to some Big Other behind the scenes causing those relations between moments. To reduce the mystery to either a secular or religious notion is still to equate the real to human need. The universe does not need us, yet we do. That is all.
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