Why God can't not exist

Andrew Brown assesses how an understanding of consciousness has implications for atheism

Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion is one of many books this year suggesting that the only reason for religions to exist is human frailty. Perhaps the best and most thought-provoking of these is the philosopher Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell. Dennett is interesting because he wants to work out how meaning, purpose, and so forth appeared in a universe that originally had none. Part of his answer is Darwinian processes, which generate complexity, consciousness, and eventually creatures capable of reflecting on their own consciousness. But another part of his answer involves the redefinition of consciousness. He believes, as a materialist, that consciousness is not the kind of thing that most people take it to be. It is just an interpretation of behaviour; the behaviour is all there is.

He believes, as a result, that computers can become conscious; if they can get sufficiently complex to behave exactly as a conscious being, then conscious is what they would be.

In this view, purpose, wanting and consciousness are ways to predict the behaviour of parts of the world around us. For Dennett, anything that acts as if it had a belief about the world, has a belief. This is not an exclusively human trait. Animals do it all the time with other animals. The kind of beliefs that humans have, and animals don't, he calls opinions, meaning that they are not just dispositions to behave in certain ways (a Dennett-style belief) but a disposition to use language in certain ways about our beliefs. So, he concludes, there is no mystery to consciousness; it is just the way we apprehend certain kinds of behaviour in certain kinds of material things, just as we apprehend gravity as weight.

This is a compressed version of his idea, which is much harder to refute than it looks. I'm not trying to refute it. But it does have one odd consequence. If you take it seriously, it seems to make dogmatic atheism impossible.

Here's how: it's undeniable that people sense purpose, consciousness, and higher powers in the workings of the universe. Not everyone; not all the time. But plenty of people do: probably more than have Sartrean experiences of life's meaninglessness. And when someone says they have felt a higher power, the advocate of the intentional stance cannot assert with confidence that this intuition is wrong. In particular, he can't say that it's not an intuition of real consciousness, and real purpose, because he denies that these exist in any strong metaphysical sense.

This doesn't rule out agnosticism. But it does seem to me to rule out the strong atheist position that the universe couldn't by its nature be the sort of thing that manifested God's intentions, simply because it anchors intention, consciousness and desire so firmly in materialism that we can never in advance rule them out as the result of an inquiry into the material world.

This article first appeared in the 13 November 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Rumbled!