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This is part 9 of my “Think! Of God and Government” debate series with Christian author Andrew Murtagh. Read my latest post and Andrew’s reply.

Hello Andrew,

Just to briefly return to our previous topic, on Heaven and the problem of evil: If you say you don’t know why God does or doesn’t do X, that’s fine. But in that case, don’t also say that God is good, or that his actions advance a greater good that we can’t perceive. Saying that someone is good (or evil) requires some understanding of their intentions. If you don’t know why God permits evil and disaster to go unchecked, then to be consistent, you’d have to say that you don’t know whether God is good or not. If he could be a good being permitting evil for his own mysterious reasons, then logically he could also be an evil being permitting good for his own mysterious reasons.

On the topic of human nature and the desire to sin, let me raise one further point. You said that if we could rid ourselves of the disposition to be unloving, then the love we felt wouldn’t be genuine or real; that we have to choose to transcend the darker parts of our nature. In that case, let me pose this question: Does God also have dispositions to be selfish, unfaithful, and spiteful that he has to constantly struggle against? If not, does that mean his love isn’t real either?

The Bible, for example, says that it’s impossible for God to lie (Hebrews 6:18). Does this mean, to use your phrase, that God is a “preprogrammed computer”, lacking the option to lie and deceive that’s necessary for true freedom? If the ability to have done otherwise is a necessary part of moral responsibility (which I don’t believe, for the record), then it seems to me that a Christian has no choice but to conclude that God isn’t a moral being, but a sort of divine automaton.

This ties nicely into our next point, about consciousness and the mind. I’m not saying that consciousness is a solved problem and all that’s left is nailing down a few of the fine details. To the contrary, I believe consciousness is profoundly strange and mysterious. But I’m also not taking the position that consciousness is intrinsically mysterious, or that it can never be explained. What I’m saying is that we simply don’t know. In fact, I don’t think we even know enough to frame the question correctly. If a question seems unanswerable the way it’s posed – like “How does the release of chemical signals by neurons give rise to qualia possessing a subjective character of experience?” – that’s often a sign that we’re not thinking about the problem in the right way. It may be that we don’t have the right conceptual framework to approach it in a way that would lead to greater understanding.

An analogy I heard recently is that we understand the brain at the same level as an alien astronaut would understand our planet by looking down on it from high orbit. That astronaut could see structure and change on the largest scale – the outlines of continents and seas, the shifting patterns of weather – but the much smaller, vastly more intricate details of the biosphere and human civilization would be invisible.

Just the same way, we have a basic understanding of the large-scale architecture of the brain – which regions are responsible for which functions, in a general sense – and we can scan different patterns of activity across the whole brain and get a broad idea of how these relate to the content of consciousness. But we don’t know anything about all the complexity that resides at lower levels. We don’t yet have the detailed, neuron-by-neuron-level understanding of how the brain processes information that I think we would need to begin asking the right questions about how the mind works.

Intentionality, at least, is an easy one. Intentionality exists in any complex system that has a goal (whether it’s a consciously understood goal or not doesn’t matter) and acts to overcome obstacles to that goal. Volcanoes or thunderstorms don’t have intentionality because they’re not trying to do anything; they don’t change tactics to get around obstacles, like mountain ranges or catch basins. To put it another way, you have intentionality when you have complex systems of matter that are arranged such that a change in the external world produces a corresponding change of behavior in the system in question.

Intentionality is abundant in the living world. Even a bacterium or an amoeba, which I think we can agree are fully reducible to assemblages of molecules, exhibit primitive forms of intentionality – pursuing tasty food, adopting various strategies to escape or hide from predators. And as we move up the ladder of complexity, we find successively more sophisticated forms of intentionality: plants that grow toward light, marine sea slugs that can learn through Pavlovian conditioning, houseflies that dodge the swatter, honeybees that dance to convey information, birds that pretend to be injured to draw predators away from their nests, elephants that mourn their dead, and animals (like chimpanzees, dolphins, parrots and crows) that exhibit a basic capacity for self-recognition, abstract thought, tool use, even language.

The more you look, the more you see that there’s no chasm of discontinuity separating human minds from other minds (or some animals’ minds from other animals’ minds!), merely a spectrum of lesser or greater complexity. Our inner lives may be richer and more abstract, but this is a difference of degree, not kind. If you accept that animals’ minds are reducible to the functioning of their brains, there seems to be little ground to argue that the same isn’t also true of humans.

Is there a point in the hierarchy of minds where you’d draw the line and argue that something more than just physics is going on? If so, where is it?

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DAYLIGHT ATHEISM Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...