More than a negative? 

Dr Hugh Burling led the recent session for members of the Year 10 Athenaeum on the theme of atheism. The purpose of the session was to go beyond a definition defined by the simple negative “ someone who does not believe in any God or gods or who believes that not God or gods exist.” 

What might be the foundations of atheism? A lack of belief may result from never having thought about the question and in that sense be no different from agnosticism. Some polytheists may reject the idea of a God but not gods. Perhaps materialism offers an explanation? Materialism or physicalism, which rejects the idea of anything beyond the physical world such as souls, spirits, or immaterial substances, arguably have the view which drives most who self-identify as atheists today. 

Might the rejection of the immaterial leave humans without a moral compass, or a ‘deeper meaning’ to our lives; and can’t we see there is more than the physical just from inspecting our own minds? This is very much an issue under consideration in the field of consciousness studies, which the group have touched on in other sessions. Dr Burling chose to focus, however, on what are termed “modal” issues, to do with “must and must not”, or “could and may.” 

Two modal puzzles: 

  1. The physical universe does not seem to exist necessarily, but it seems that it could have not existed. So why is there anything at all?
  2. The physical universe behaves in a law-like way: there are ways things must always be and ways they can never be (at various levels). How can physical stuff alone explain its own regular behaviour?

Theism proposes an answer to these in terms of an eternal (necessarily existing) mind which can choose any/everything about the way any/everything else is. Dr Burling argued that materialists, and hence atheists, have a couple of options for solving these puzzles, but that the best will be some version of atomism: the theory that there is a layer of physical reality which must exist, and exists eternally, but which is made of parts which can be arranged and re-arranged in a huge – but finite – number of different ways.