Reviewing Randal Rauser’s “The Swedish Atheist…” Chapter 14

Chapter 14: The Pastry I Freely Choose
Our friend Sheridan, the atheist, then posits that consciousness is a byproduct of neurons firing, like smoke it a byproduct of fire burning. Randal informs his friend that epiphenomenalism is complicated by “free will.”

Before I get into Randal’s discussion on free will, let’s just take a moment to reflect on the fact that neuroscience seems to fully support epiphenomenalism, or the idea that the mind arises out of physical processes in the brain. Meanwhile, free will is still nowhere a given. At best, the existence of free will is still an open ended debate. Besides this, it would be wrong to use an uncertain philosophical idea, like free will, to disprove a scientifically supported philosophical idea, like epiphenomenalism.  

Additionally, it could be that both are mistaken, as the philosopher and cognitive mind theorist Daniel Dennett, in his book Consciousness Explained, has cautioned, citing that both ideas of epiphenomenalism and qualia may simply be category mistakes, and rejects them just as the British philosopher Gilbert Ryle rejected the Cartesian “ghost in the machine” for the same reason.

This category mistake seems to be a continuation of the one Randal made earlier where he thinks understanding how a thing functions and the utilization of function equate to one and the same. As the car analogy showed, understanding how a car engine works doesn’t necessarily equate to knowing how to drive a car. It seems that Randal is either unfamiliar with Functionalism, or he just doesn't want to acknowledge it here because it would act as a defeater to his premise about the mind and soul being independent of the body. If it really is a category mistake, as I think it is, then most of what Randal will argue in this chapter is going to be predicated on false premises.

Randal turns our attention to Dr. Ferry, who enters the coffee shop and orders a cinnamon bun. Randal says that we cannot account for his desire of the cinnamon bun. That, all the firing of neurons and motor functions amount to is the action of achieving the goal of the desire, in this case, to eat a cinnamon bun. But the desire, that exists in the mind. Randal informs the key observation is:

“His mental desire for the cinnamon bun and his intention to order it to meet that desire… You’ve got to look to Dr. Ferry’s mental intention to order a cinnamon bun because he wanted one.”

Of course, Randal is once again, only partially right. Desirism is a burgeoning area of modern mind theory and it is still an active area of research, but my understanding is that there are numerous physiological triggers, such as hunger, having a sweet tooth, and certain reactions to taste and smell, which all impact desire. In fact, desire can be manipulated by physical changes in diet. For example, if one fully embraces veganism, I have it on good authority, that after several years the smell of meat and cheese can become revolting. Things like a juicy cheeseburger, a block of cheddar, or a nice carbonara pasta, which once made one’s mouth water in anticipation of the meal can become disgusting turn offs due to the change in diet. To assume desire is merely a metaphysical construct of the mind, and to ignore that it is, at least in part, governed by physical processes is to make the category mistake which we noted above.

Randal informs about Dr. Ferry’s ordering of the cinnamon bun that:

“It’s because he wanted a cinnamon bun that a particular pattern of neurons fired, causing his finger to tap the glass. And it’s because he wanted to express this intention that more neurons fired, thereby causing him to vocalize the desire to have one…”

It seems that Randal is too far out of his depth here, talking about philosophy of mind as if he was an authority on the subject. I don’t want to make the same mistake Randal continuously does by talking at length on a highly specialized, highly specific, area of study I know little about. Instead, I’m not going to even bother to respond to this, because the truth is I’m simply not qualified to contend all of his points, but with the added note that we at least see where his points are flawed, since it seems he ignores the physiological relationship between desire and action, which I mentioned above.

“So that’s two reasons to support the existence of a mind or soul...” Randal asserts. 

And again, we find him asserting things without backing up his claims. Nowhere did he cite a cognitive scientist, a philosopher of the theory of mind, or any relevant research. Now, if it were Randal saying I think this to be true based on this, I would be more lenient with my criticism, because then it would amount to Randal’s opinion, which he certainly is entitled. But this is not what Randal is doing. Rather, he is saying things like, “So that’s two reasons to support the existence of a mind or soul…”—a definitive statement. Based on what? Base on nothing other than the fact that Randal says so, and nothing else.

So, basically, we can ignore Randal’s authority here because nowhere does he establish that he is familiar with the relevant research or material, and nowhere does he even try to demonstrate his claims as such. He merely asserts them based on his assumption that his beliefs, in this case Christian beliefs, are true. And in order for Christianity be true in the way Randal holds it to be, it also must be true that the mind and soul exist in such a way that affirms his preferred theory of metaphysics. Low and behold, according to Randal, they do! What a coinkidink!

But it seems Randal isn’t done throwing out baseless assertions just yet. As if we hadn’t gotten it yet, he states it one more time for the record:

“First, conscious experience is something more than the activity of the brain. And second, our minds interact in the physical world. This means that we have at least one example of a non-physical substance—mind or soul—that interacts with the physical world.”

Notice that in one sentence Randal has conflated mind and soul to main the same thing.

“And if souls can exist and interact with the world,” Randal continues, “then why not think that God could be another non-physical substance that interacts with the world?”

On this latter question I do feel qualified to talk, since much like the theologian who studies God, as an atheist, I am equally qualified to talk about a whole lot of nothing.

If the mind exists as a metaphysical state and not a physical state, this doesn’t prove the soul exists as Christians define a “soul” or a “spirit”. All it means is that the mind doesn’t have a direct physiological reason for existing—that is, it exists apart from the natural world rather than because of it. Although this isn’t at all clear, what is clear is that the mere existence of a metaphysically derived mind speaks to nothing about the validity of the Christian concept of a soul.

Moreover, the existence of a soul would say nothing about the validity of Christianity or the existence of the Christian God. It could, after all, be Hindu souls we are talking about, right? Or even thetan “souls” as Scientologists believe? See, even the existence of a soul doesn’t prove any particular religious construct or conceptualization of god. For all we know, it could be like the Native Americans believed, and our souls just become free range after death.

Randal, once again, is guilty of allowing his bias to presuppose Christianity true to lead him to hasty conclusions. Of course, instead of demonstrating his claims, he merely goes about creating apologetic arguments to reassure himself, and most likely other Christians, that they’re not wrong. It’s a whole lot of mental masturbation just to feel good about oneself. At least, that’s how it seems from my atheist perspective.

Before the chapter closes, Dr. Ferry takes a seat behind them and catches Randal and Sheridan talking about him. Leaving it on a cliffhanger, our curiosity is piqued. Will Dr. Ferry join in the conversation? Or will he simply eat his muffin and be off? I guess we’ll have to wait until chapter 15, entitled “Naturalism, Scientism and the Screwdriver that could Fix Almost Anything,” to find out.


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