Thursday, February 21, 2008

The value of human life without "souls"

One of the hardest things for people to accept in a godless universe is the realization that we, humans, are made up of the same ‘stuff’ as everything else. When I talk to people that are scared of a godless universe, more often than not the core of that fear is not the absence of god itself, but the absence of souls.

I have often heard people claim that atheists don’t care about human life. The arguments go from “If there is no purpose to our lives, there is no value to our lives” to “If you are an atheist then you must believe that walking into a bus and opening fire is no different from shooting empty aluminum cans.”

Of course, these arguments are absurd, and people who are accused of such views quickly dismiss them as absurd. But precisely because it’s so absurd, I haven’t heard too many people really explain why human life is still valuable without a god. So I would like to briefly show that you can be an atheist without necessarily being a nihilist.

If you gave me a pile of plastic, metal, some wire and rubber, I would probably throw that heap of junk in the trash. But when those pieces are organized in a way that makes a computer, all of a sudden I have a valuable tool that allows me to communicate with you, play solitaire, or watch endless amounts of porn. The internet is not a physical thing; it is the result of a lot of physical elements arranged in the right way to create a worldwide communication device. I don’t really know how it all works, and I don’t care, because I don’t have to understand how it works to use it.

We are the same type of sum of the parts. No single part of a computer can be called a computer. Similarly, there is no single atom or cell that holds consciousness. But a particular collection and arrangement of atoms brings consciousness into existence. So is an atom that is part of me any more valuable than an atom that is part of a snowflake? No. Even if you chopped off my hand, I would not be sad for the physical hand that will decompose without the rest of my body. I would be sad because of the pain it causes me, both physically and psychologically. The physical aspect of a human body is not what we value. What we value is consciousness, which some people call the soul. What we have learned from neurology is that this consciousness is a result of a completely physical process. The mistake that some people make is to then claim that consciousness is purely physical, and thus unimportant. But consciousness itself does not exist as a physical thing. Consciousness is what is created in the non-physical world when certain physical elements are perfectly aligned.

This is what makes human beings special. It’s not one physical aspect of humans, but the sum of the parts that creates consciousness. And consciousness is not the only non-physical phenomenon that should be valued. On the level of single atoms, no one is any more important than another, true. But this does not mean that everything is meaningless.

There is no objective way to define ‘good’ and ‘bad,’ but I don’t think anyone would disagree about the inherent value of certain feelings and interactions. Love is good. Hate is bad. Human connections, cooperation, justice, knowledge, understanding…all of these things are inherently and inarguably good things. Like consciousness, none of these things physically exist, but are instead a sum of the parts.As an atheist, these are the things I fight for. I don’t find value in physical things, but in the non-physical things that physical things can create. My goal is to increase the amount of these things in the universe. So I seek to increase these things in my own life, but also in other people’s lives. My physical being is valuable only in its ability to create these inherently good, non-physical occurrences.


David B. Ellis said...

Good post. I've always explained my views on why the claim that there can be no basis for morality if there is no God in a similar way:

If there is no reason to be loving and kind if there is no God then you are saying that love and kindness have no intrinsic value in and of themselves.

This seems to me to be too obviously false to be worth debating. I value love because of what it is like to love, what it is like to be a loving individual and what it is like to be part of a community of loving individuals.

Love needs no external sanction, divine or otherwise.

Miriam said...

I find myself having to explain to people that just because I don't believe in God doesn't mean I don't value life. So I read your post with great enthusiasm--it is indeed an excellent response to the question of how we might value human life if we don't believe in a soul.