I recently read a new book by Randal Rauser called The Swedish Atheist, the Scuba Diver and Other Apologetic Rabbit Trails. Its intention is to help believers think through and respond to major philosophical and scientific challenges to Christianity.
The book’s conceit is that it narrates one long, hypothetical conversation in a college-town coffee shop between a theologian (the author himself) and a scornful atheist student named Sheridan. One criticism of the book that I encountered online is that it’s hardly a fair fight: Sheridan, who uses the word “dude” and “sky daddy” a lot, knows his New Atheists like Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett, and, ahem, Bill Maher. Unlike the author, however, he isn’t well-acquainted with the heavyweights of philosophy. Why not set up a conversation between a theologian and a “real” philosopher?
Fair enough. But since the New Atheists have hogged the media spotlight over the past ten years, responding first to their objections seems practical. Sheridan represents their point of view nicely. The author certainly couldn’t have made Sheridan less sympathetic to Christianity.
Spoiler alert: by the end of the book, while the author gains some ground with Sheridan and at least gives him a reason to be less certain of his convictions, Sheridan remains unconverted. That seems realistic, too.
One idea I hadn’t considered before reading this book is the problem that free will poses, not to the Calvinist this time, but to the philosophical materialist: Why do we seem to possess a non-material substance called a mind, which transcends the three-pound lump of gray matter called the brain?
That’s easy, says Sheridan: the brain—the result of physical processes only—gives rise to the mind and consciousness. Philosophically, this idea is known as epiphenomenalism.
Rauser directs Sheridan to consider a professor, Dr. Ferry, who’s currently tapping on the glass of the pastry case, ordering a cinnamon bun. Why does he order this cinnamon bun and not a rhubarb muffin? There is no materialist account of this action, Rauser argues, that doesn’t compromise our belief in free will.
“Sheridan, you suggested that mental events—sensations, desires, intentions and the like—are mere byproducts of the firing of neurons like smoke rising from fire. If that’s the case then they have no role to play in the story of Dr. Ferry’s ordering a cinnamon bun. All of Dr. Ferry’s actions are determined and thus explained by the firing of neurons in his brain while his mind does nothing. But this doesn’t seem to match reality at all, does it? Surely Dr. Ferry’s intention to order a cinnamon bun is causally basic in the story of how one ends up on his plate. 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 to the barista.
In other words, if Sheridan is right then there’s no “mind” superintending the ordering of this man’s cinnamon bun that isn’t itself the consequence of blind, physical processes of cause-and-effect. Desire and choice are illusions. By contrast, a theistic account of reality provides an alternative that better explains our experience.
“This means we have at least one example of a non-physical substance—a mind or soul—that interacts with the physical world. And if souls can exist and interact with the world, then why not think that God could be another non-physical substance that interacts with the world?”
1. Randal Rauser, The Swedish Atheist, the Scuba Diver and Other Apologetic Rabbit Trails (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2012), 102-3.
2. Ibid., 103.