Physicist Victor Stenger in God: The Failed Hypothesis rejects the idea that humans have souls. “If we do indeed possess an immaterial soul, then we should expect to find some evidence for it.” Along the same lines, philosopher Daniel Dennett writes, “Nerve cells are very complicated mechanical systems. You take enough of those, and you put them together, and you get a soul.” Cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker adds, “Every aspect of our mental lives depends entirely on physiological events in the tissues of the brain.” And what happens to free will? “It seems free to you,” biologist Francis Crick explains, “but it’s the result of things you are not aware of.”
The issue here is the effort on the part of atheists—some with impressive scientific credentials—to extend the materialistic understanding of nature to human beings. Yes, we humans are material objects but are we no more than that? Certainly we experience ourselves very differently from the way we experience the outside world. All other things we experience indirectly, from the outside, through the apparatus of our senses; but ourselves we experience directly, from the inside, without the involvement of our senses.
Only about ourselves do we have this kind of “inside information.” And when we examine ourselves we discover things about our nature that we don’t find in inanimate objects. Based on our privileged and unique access, we know that the external or objective account of reality, however accurate it may be in describing raindrops and tree trunks, is not the fully story when it comes to describing ourselves.
For instance, we have consciousness and that is something that doesn’t show up under a microscope. We experience love, one of our deepest human experiences, and this seems absurd to explain simply in terms of atoms and molecules interacting with each other. We also are “selves,” which means that we experience our lives as unified wholes. The molecules that make up my bodily frame change over the years, and yet I remain the same “me” all along. We are intentional and purposeful beings, and our actions are much better understood in these terms than in terms of the laws of physics. Finally we have free choice and free will, and neither of those are possible if we are simply material objects subject to the invariable laws of nature.
On Valentine’s Day I will take my wife out to dinner and gaze into her eyes. Sixteen years later, those eyes have the same magic that they did when I first proposed. I suppose that this can be understood in a purely scientific way, as a mechanistic response to some deep evolutionary drive. But this response must remain deeply alien to the way in which the thing called love is actually experienced by all those who are in love. The scientific outlook on love makes nonsense of every novel and poem ever written on the subject. This is not to say that the scientific account is wrong, only that it’s very narrow and incomplete. It would be like understanding the Civil War purely in the terms of the physical movements of the platoons with no comprehension of the moral and human factors that propelled the conflict.
The materialist fallacy, Schopenhauer wrote, is that mistake of “the subject that forgets to take account of itself.” Schopenhauer was an atheist, but he recognized that the materialist understanding of reality is a very shallow one. I’m not sure if today’s leading atheists like Dennett and Pinker have someone to care for, but if they did they would surely know, and would not need me to remind them this Valentine’s Day, that love is much more than chemicals.