Nothing but Atoms

Ciruena, La Place’s Demon?

Jack’s meeting with the Fokov’s, just before Ciruena on the Camino, initiates one of the most important philosophical questions, ever, the answer to which will determine so much else of one’s own philosophical views. And still, it is not a question that can remain solely in the realms of philosophy for long, as it will inevitably underpin the way we choose to live our lives. It will determine our ethical choices, whether we believe in life after death, whether we have free will, whether we believe we have a soul, whether we are ultimately enhanced machines, there are few philosophical ideas that escape it.

What is this question? Are we, and the world, anything more than physical? Are we ‘Nothing but Atoms’?

It is such an important question, that Jack encounters it in its various guises throughout the Camino, and it is Midgie who tries to balance the argument for him, so that Jack can continue to find meaning in his journey. Without Midgie’s intervention, Jack may well be led back into a path of despair again, and to engage again with Mara’s nihilism:

I have come to a standstill, both in terms of resolving my past, and finding a purpose to my future. It is not helping me to Silva again, this is pointless.

In its first guise, the Fokovs outline the view from both biological determinism and pyschological conditioning. It is a compelling argument and one which is attractive to many. I wonder however, that at first sight, the instinct is simply to assert our freedom, to say to ourselves, I feel free, my decision are mine, I know when I don’t want to do something and react accordingly. I sense that freedom. Well in fact you would have good company, this is exactly what Kant says:

“Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the more often and steadily we reflect upon them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.


The concept of freedom is the stone of stumbling for all empiricists, but at the same time the key to the loftiest practical principles for critical moralists, who perceive by its means that they must necessarily proceed by a rational method.

Kant from this, simply asserts that there is free will to address that moral law within. Like the moral law, it is there, it is a fact.

Kant picks up an important point however, when he states that empiricists will find the idea of freedom a problem, for where does that freedom originate if not outside of the empirical arena?

Yet increasingly, philosophers have argued for this more deterministic view, that in fact there is nothing outside of the empirical arena, a crude oversimplification of this view would be simply to say that since everything is physical, and we are not in control of our own physical make-up, then we are neither in control of our brain, which is ultimately our mind. So the chain of causality, from the atoms that we are composed of that leads in the end to our actions, is one complete unbroken chain, nothing within that chain is determined by you. You are a product, if you like, of your genes.

Voltaire puts it:

“Pear trees cannot bear pineapples”

That then, in a nutshell is that, but Ivana Fokov takes it a step further, her argument is not only that we are biological determined, but that we are conditioned as well by our own environment. There are any number of variants of this view, Operant Conditioning, (Skinner, early Fromm), Evolutive Psychology (Freud, Piaget), Soft Behaviourism (Ryle), Hard Behavioiurism (Hempel, Spinoza) and so on….

Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett are perhaps two of the most famous proponents currently, of this line of argument. You may think you are free, they decree, but you are ignorant of the causes of that freedom, and so are not, it is an illusion. There is a similar line of argument in the mind/body question, your consciousness is an illusion.

Yet determinism has a long history, from the fatalism of the Ancient Greeks whose lives were so determined by the gods, to Calvin’s theological determinism – a natural extension of St. Augustine’s thought from the 4th/5th Century:

“The potter has authority over the clay from the same lump to make one vessel for honour and another for contempt.” (Divine Election – quoting Rom 9:21)

Theological Determinism, argued that God was absolute sovereign, and Jesus’ sacrifice had the total efficacy to save all. Therefore you could not save yourself, you had the stain of original sin, only God could save you, and Calvin argued for Double Pre-destination, God will decide if you go to heaven or if you go to hell.

“The eternal decree of God, by which God determined what God wished to make of every man. For God does not create everyone in the same condition, but ordains eternal life for some and eternal damnation for others’ (Institutes of the Christian Religion 1559)”

For my part, this has to be wrong, and how Calvin ended up down this path is due to a monumentally wrong turn made by Augustine earlier, in his views that seem to derive from his rejection of Manicheism and his dalliance and siding with neo-Platonism. Pelagius, the British opponent of Augustine, had and still has a more compelling argument, that the existence of morality means that we are in some part responsible, for our own actions, and in theological terms, for our own salvation.

But, back to Jack, he is confounded by the modern formulation of this argument, unable to see a way out.

Midgie, who Jack first meets at the Church in the Cotswolds, is waiting.

One could I suspect go to Sartre, as a counter argument, however he is very much at the other end of the spectrum to Determinism, arguing that to deny one’s freedom would count you as scum! It is hard to see that position, however brave, as we do appear to have constraints on what we can do, and that is all well and good. Camus’ character Meursault in L’etranger is not the most endearing, the idea of the Absurd in Camus’ writing is not the most inviting. Why? Because most of us feel a moral abhorrence to random acts of destruction. We feel moral outrage at certain actions.

So a more balanced counter-view, arguably, is that given by Midgie. Her argument is simply this, your will is an important, possibly the most important factor of your humanity. Describing a cool stream on a hot day, purely in physical terms as H20, does not tell you what that stream is really, not to you the experiencer. Neither does a blue line in a map. They are ways of representing that stream, they are not the stream. Equally, describing you in terms of your genes, your atoms or your Biology, does not tell me much about you. What is Einstein or Edison if you take away their will, their perseverance, their hopes and dreams? Your humanity, our human nature, is far more than that.

And who is Midgie? The answer is Mary Midgley. one of the most important philosophers I believe, of the last hundred years.


Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: