The Self and the “New Atheists”

Paradoxically the most important oversight of the new atheists is the most human datum  of all: themselves. The ultimate supraphysical/physical reality that we know from experience is the experience itself, namely, ourselves. Once we acknowledge the fact that there is a first-person perspective, “I,” “me,” “mine,” and the like, we encounter the greatest and yet the most exhilarating mystery of all. I exist. To sort-of “reverse think” Descartes, it’s as if we’re saying, “I am, therefore I think, perceive, intend, mean, interact.” But who is “I?” “Where” is it? How did it come to be? Your self is obviously not just something physical (anatomical), just as it is not merely something supraphysical (or spiritual, if you prefer). It is an embodied self, an ensouled body; “you” are not located in a particular brain cell or in some part of your body. The cells in your body keep changing and yet “you” remain the same. If you study your neurons, you will find that none of them have the property of being an “I.” Of course your body is integral to who you are, but it is a “body” because it is constituted as such by the self. To be human is to be embodied and ensouled.

In a famous passage in his A Treatise of Human Nature, Hume declares, “When I enter most intimately into what I call myself…I can never catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe anything but the perception [itself].” Here Hume denies the existence of a self simply by arguing that he (meaning “I”) can’t find “myself.” But what is it that unifies his various experiences, that enables him to be aware of the external world, and that remains the same throughout? Who’s asking these questions? He assumes that “myself” is an observable state, much like his thoughts and feelings. But the self is not something that can be thus observed. It is a constant fact of experience and, in fact, the ground of all experience.

Indeed, of all the truths available to us, the self is at the same time the most obvious and unassailable and the most lethal for all forms of physicalism. To begin with, it must be said that denial of the self cannot even be claimed without contradiction. To the question, “How do I know I exist?” a professor famously replied, “And who’s asking?” The self is what we are and not what we have. It is the “I” from which arises our first-person perspective. We cannot analyze the self, because it is not a mental state that can be observed or described.

The most fundamental reality of which we are all aware, then, is the human self, and an understanding of the self inevitably sheds insights on all the origin questions and makes sense of reality as a whole. We realize that the self cannot be described, let alone explained, in terms of physics or chemistry: science does not discover the self; the self discovers science. We realize that no account of the history of the universe is coherent if it cannot account for the existence of the self. Atheists such as Richard Dawkins, and naturalists like Carl Sagan, want to explain our perceptions solely in terms of sensory perception and our neurochemical reactions to them. They claim it’s all binary, just like computer processing: zeros and ones.

Even if that were remotely so, how did life, consciousness, thought and the self come to be? The history of the world shows the sudden emergence of these phenomena – life appeared soon after the cooling of planet earth, consciousness mysteriously manifested itself in the Cambrian explosion, language emerged in the “symbolic species” without any evolutionary forerunner. The phenomena in question range from code and symbol-processing systems and goal-seeking, attention-manifesting agents at one end to subjective awareness, conceptual thought, socialization and the human self at the other. The only coherent way to describe these phenomena is to say that they are different dimensions of being that are supraphysical in one way or another. They are totally integrated with the physical and yet radically “new.” We are not talking here of ghosts in the machine, but of agents of different kinds, some that are conscious, others that are both conscious and thinking.

Carl Sagan always adhered strictly to a materialistic perspective when discussing the emergence of Mind, which he defined as “intelligence that is inseparable from the brain.” I read his book The Dragons of Eden during my first semester at Penn State University in 1980. Sagan discussed the search for a quantitative means of measuring intelligence. His chief tenet was that brain-to-body-mass-ratio is an extremely good indicator for intelligence, with humans holding the highest ratio, and dolphins the second-highest. Sagan attempted to explain the evolution of the human brain with the Triune brain model first developed by neuroscientist Paul D. MacLean. According to MacLean, the human brain is structured in three parts: the reptilian complex, the limbic system, and the neocortex. He reduced human experience to localization of basic brain function and electrochemical processes.


The reptilian complex (R complex) is the situs of species-specific (reptiles, birds) instinctual behaviors involved in aggression, dominance, territoriality, and ritual displays. The limbic system (which includes the hypothalamus and the hippocampus) is a set of interconnected brain structures responsible for feeding, reproductive behavior, and parenting. The Neocortex is exclusively found in higher-functioning mammals, specifically humans, and is responsible for development of language, abstract thinking, planning, and perception. This is precisely the concept relied on by proponents of evolution to explain how the human mind has developed over hundreds of thousands of years. It’s noteworthy that the standard-bearers of evolution cannot properly explain how the human mind is “aware” of itself.

Man has created computers capable of processing information and providing data measured in speeds so fast it is impossible to comprehend. The latest is a teraflop, which is a unit of computing speed equal to one million million  (10 to the twelfth power) floating-point operations per second. It is used to quantify the mathematical ability of a computer’s processing unit. Saying something has “6 TFLOPS” means it is capable of handling 6 trillion floating-point calculations every second. To put this into perspective, a traditional calculator may need only 10 FLOPS for all its calculations. So when we start talking about megaflops (a million floating-point calculations), gigaflops (a billion) and teraflops (a trillion), you can see what sort of power we’re talking about.

But no matter how fast a computer can “think,” it is completely incapable of knowing it’s a computer, or realizing that it is computing. Humans, on the other hand, are aware of awareness, are conscious of the fact that they are in the midst of figuring out a problem, and can even grasp the impact their decision will have on their circumstances, their immediate environment, the rights or circumstances of others around them and, ultimately, the long-range impact on human history. Whether it will ever be possible to teach a computer to be “aware” of such ramifications will likely remain a mystery for millenia to come.


Flew, Antony. (2007). There is a God. New York, NY: Harper Collins
Sagan, Carl. (1977). The Dragons of Eden. New York, NY: Random House


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