2020-07-29

Argument for God — part 1

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by Neil Godfrey

Having posted a series setting out Justin L. Barrett’s explanation for why we as a species so easily believe in gods it is only fair that I add a couple of posts pointing out why Barrett himself does believe in “God”. I am not for a moment convinced by his arguments but, as I said, I think it’s fair that I present the full picture. My earlier posts were based primarily on Barrett’s chapter in Religion, Anthropology, and Cognitive Science; this and the next post come from his later chapters in his 2004 book, Why Would Anyone Believe in God? (He has written others since.)

In chapter 7 Barrett explores in depth the analogy between our belief in minds and belief in God. I have no problem with the analogy at all. Our “theory of mind” (ToM) and “hypersensitive agency detection device” (HADD) predisposes us to believe in hidden agencies at work in the world and that was the thrust of the earlier posts explaining why we so easily believe in supernatural beings.

But I do have some difficulty with his discussion of “mind” itself. Here are the problematic passages (at least for me; your mileage may differ):

Before turning to specifically how people come to believe in minds, allow me a few observations about belief in minds. First, belief in minds is not empirically supported. Second, belief in minds may occur both nonreflectively and reflectively. Finally, belief in minds is obstinately universal.

First, as with many theological beliefs, believing that other humans have minds is not empirically verifiable. Perhaps surprisingly, no scientific evidence exists that proves people have minds. Indeed, such direct evidence of minds falls beyond the realm of science because minds (as believed in) are experiential and not material. (p. 95)

The question that immediately arises is, “What is Barrett’s definition of ‘mind’?”  What is this specific “universal belief”, exactly? Barrett continues,

This claim may seem shocking. After all, isn’t psychological science the study of minds? Ultimately, what psychologists study is human behavior, including the behavior of brains and nervous systems. Psychologists and cognitive scientists interpret behaviors in terms of mental states and the function of minds. However, minds are not accessible to direct investigation and have not even been proven to exist. Similarly, the existence of minds is not falsifiable. That is, they cannot be proven to not exist. Minds are invisible, intangible, and immaterial (sound like God?)— not the stuff that science can prove or disprove, even if minds seem like good, reasonable explanations of a huge number of empirically verifiable behaviors. It follows from the observation that minds cannot be empirically verified or falsified that people do not simply believe in minds because they have carefully considered the scientific evidence for and against the existence of minds. (p. 96, my bolding)

The error in Barrett’s analysis comes to the fore, I think, in his next paragraph:

Indeed, belief in minds, like so many broadly held beliefs, does not first arise as a reflective belief. Rather, people typically believe in minds nonreflectively and only sometimes form a reflective belief in minds. Most of our reasoning about others’ minds (and our own for that matter) occurs “below the radar,” nonconsciously. When my daughter feels sad or frustrated, I naturally wonder what it is that she wants but has been unable to get. Why? It isn’t because I consciously recollect that many emotional states are the consequence of the satisfaction or dissatisfaction of desires and my daughter has desires that motivate her actions. I simply act as if she has a mind with these properties. This acting as if begins very early in life and continues throughout. Very rarely does anyone stop to wonder why we reason about others as we do or if minds really exist. (p. 96, my bolding)

Yes, belief in “minds” (we might say), originates “nonreflectively”. That is, we do not conceptualize or verbalize another’s emotional/motivational state as the product of “a mind”. The word “mind” itself does not arise at the beginning. I suspect that our word “mind” has very few exact equivalents in most other languages. Has our word “mind” been understood in other eras as something more akin to “soul”? I suggest when a psychologist or anthropologist says we have a “theory of mind”, she does not imagine that most of us have any notion of the word “theory” or “mind” to explain our thoughts of others. No, the expression “theory of mind” is surely entirely an outsider academic construct to describe from a theoretical perspective how people perceive the intentions and wishes and beliefs and behaviour of others. We should not quickly assume that “mind” itself is a real thing, immaterial or material. As Barrett has pointed out, psychologists are studying behaviour and nervous systems — these are the real things. “Mind”, on the other hand, is surely a shortcut term to cover those real things and should not itself be confused with some other real entity.

Barrett again,

Naturally, belief in minds—at least in some sense—is essentially universal. Anthropologists traveling to a remote part of the world to observe a never-before-studied group of people will not find that they do not believe in minds. Belief in minds arises from our species’ biology working in the sort of environment in which we live. I say belief in minds is essentially universal because some small number of academics have suggested and claim to believe that people do not have minds any more than a computer or an earthworm has a mind. But I predict that they do not consistently hold this reflective belief. They do not socially interact in accordance with this belief.

More important, such a peculiar belief about minds (whether or not it is true) simply will not spread. If I told you that the most brilliant scientific minds in the world, after decades of intensive study, have definitively shown that people do not have minds—they do not really think; have beliefs, desires, or emotional states; have experiences; or deliberately do anything—would you believe it? Do you know anyone who would? Such beliefs about minds are so counterintuitive, so much in violation of our natural propensities, that they have no hope of becoming widely held. (p. 96)

People in all cultures believe in “minds”? Perhaps so. But is that not a happy result of the word “mind” being so vague and capable of absorbing other relatable concepts like “soul”? The circularity of the argument, I think, emerges when Barrett introduces “some small number of academics” and “most brilliant scientific minds”: he equates their denial of the existence of some supposedly real entity we call “mind” with effective denial that people think, have beliefs, desires, emotional states, have experiences and motivated actions.

Let’s return to what Barrett said psychologists said at the outset: what psychologists study is human behavior, including the behavior of brains and nervous systems. Indeed, and that means they study how we think, how we come to believe, what sparks our desires and emotional states, motivations, etc. Why is it necessary to wrap all of these things up into a ball and suggest that they all emanate from some single “container” or “organ” or “essence” or “mind”? Why not simply accept that they are all originating from what we can see and monitor in our nervous systems and brains?

That brings us to the term “consciousness”. Now what is consciousness? That is a mystery, one scientists are continuing to explore, but we do not need to assume that it is a “thing” or “immaterial entity” of some kind. Perhaps consciousness will turn out to be an experience like running and feeling the wind is an experience. We don’t think “running” has an immaterial existence. We can control when and how fast and where we run. Maybe it will turn out to be something similar with consciousness — and that consciousness is nothing more than a sensation of the working of our synapses or whatever. I don’t know. But such a concept is, well, conceivable, yes? Why should “mind” be any more an independent reality than “consciousness”. That doesn’t mean we must all be automatons with no control over our thoughts. Obviously not. But being able to control and create does not of itself mean that we have some “mind” or “soul” entity in which sits a little controller man. Or am I missing a key point?

Continuing with Barrett,

To begin, belief in neither God nor other minds arises from measurable, physical proof. Neither God nor minds are physical objects that can be directly observed. Rather, only the consequences of their activities on the physical, material world serve as evidence for their existence.

Both belief in God and belief in other minds arise from the operations of nonconscious mental tools generating a nonreflective belief. Other minds and God receive affirmation from a huge number of mental tools, experiences, and memories. Of course, foremost among these tools are HADD and ToM. (p. 98)

Again, do we not have circularity here? We can only know about minds and God from the consequences (or evidence) of their actions in the world? Yes, but only if we begin our reasoning with our conclusion — that God or minds have caused the fossils to appear in the geological strata or made the shrieking sound in the haunted house. No. I’d rather simply say that Tommy’s bruised shin is the consequence of Jenny having kicked him in retaliation for some teasing. It was Jenny — the body and person of Jenny — who did it; not her “mind” as if that were a label for some “ghost in the machine”.

But People Have Bodies

Though we cannot directly observe others’ minds to support belief in them, doesn’t the fact that others have bodies encourage belief that other humans have minds? And doesn’t belief in God lack this prompt? Sure. But the connection between minds and bodies is not simple or solid. We do not come to think that other people have minds because they have bodies. Rather, we first detect agentive action acting on or through human bodies and then attribute minds. (p. 99)

True, we don’t think other people have minds “because they have bodies” — but we sure do associate minds with living physical (human or animal) bodies; we learn very early that the two do go together. A mind may exist apart from a body, but if we had no notion of bodies I suggest we could have no notion of minds……

Belief in God is particularly similar to the human ability to reason about nonpresent (peoples) minds, hypothetical persons, and minds that might account for noticed traces and artifacts. From very early in life, babies learn to appreciate that people do not fail to exist just because their bodies aren’t perceivable. Imagine if detecting a body were required for believing in a mind. Activities we take for granted, such as talking with a stranger on the phone, sending a message through the mail, or even talking to someone in the next room, would be strange, disorienting events.

I cannot agree with Barrett here. I think we would be very challenged if we had any reason to suspect that the “minds” with which we are communicating “in the other room” or “via email” etc had no bodies to house them. I would even assume we believe those human bodies are wearing clothes and have normal human families, careers, etc.

That believing in and reasoning about minds remains divorced from bodies becomes particularly clear in considering mind—body dualism. Until recently, in historical terms, even philosophers regarded minds as separate from bodies. Descartes championed such a view of the mind. Further, we can easily imagine minds being switched between two different individuals—indeed, movies and stories sometimes play on such premises—with little or no concern for how the mind may be shaped by the body it is in. In teaching introductory psychology, one of the more difficult concepts to impress on students is the embodied nature of the human mind. Such a concept is hard to teach because it is counterintuitive. Our nonreflective mental tools don’t intuitively see minds as linked to bodies. (99-100)

Hamlet’s father appeared as a ghost. His “mind” or thoughts and feelings — his person — therefore were housed in a ghost body instead of his earlier human flesh body. When I think of my deceased parents and friends and reflect on their thoughts, their desires and hopes, their personalities, I do so with the assumption that those “personalities” are belonged to, even now in memory belong (present tense), to bodies, even if only in my imagination. I cannot imagine any of them without thinking of a face, a body, of some kind — usually different bodies and faces from different years in their lives. But I cannot imagine them (usually I am thinking of their personalities, the “minds” if you like) in any way without bodies.

Barrett’s penultimate section in this chapter is headed:

The Incredibleness of Not Believing in Minds

Imagine a university professor from an elite institution — maybe a scientist — telling you that believing that people have minds is irrational. After all, we have no scientific evidence that minds exist, and more and more behavior that we have traditionally explained by referring to minds can now be explained through other, scientific means. Consequently, the professor might argue, belief in minds is unwarranted. Convinced? Me neither. (p. 103)

I am on that scientist’s side. I don’t know what a “mind” is. I don’t know what consciousness is, either, or how I come to have it. That the idea of minds seems so natural and obvious, even, is not proof or even evidence that “minds” somehow exist as some sort of entity or space or — maybe a mind, or consciousness, is simply what we experience as a result of other things doing their jobs. We don’t know, do we? Quantum physics, time and space (and gravity?) all being one and the same thing somehow doesn’t make sense, either. Should the fact that our minds cannot imagine something be a reason to disbelieve it? Maybe our minds have not evolved in a way that will enable them to understand everything there is to know about the universe. They have survived because they have done a reasonable job at helping us survive in certain environments, and for no other reason, after all.

Unsurprisingly, though some scientists occasionally make such arguments, disbelief in human (or animal) minds has not caught on even among highly educated people, let alone in the general populace of the world. The idea that we do not have minds strikes us as too counterintuitive to be credible. As with many reflective beliefs with weak nonreflective foundations, even within the scientific circles in which minds are doubted, such a position does not consistently motivate behavior. These scientists may deny that people really have beliefs but then talk about others’ beliefs and seek to change them through conventional, mentalistic means. They may deny that people willfully do anything but still hold their children responsible for “willful” disobedience. They may deny desires but still seek to satisfy the desires of their spouses. This inability to wholly believe that minds do not exist does not mean that minds definitely do exist. Simply, belief in minds is perfectly understandable and does not merit ridicule. Belief in minds is natural. Yet belief in God receives unjust condemnation. (p. 104)

I have no difficulty with the position that Barrett is here opposing. “Mind” is merely a word, a concept, that is used to cover a multitude of attributes, let’s say, about how people think, what they want, their inner feelings and nature, etc. Why should we assume that all of those things have any “base” or entity or place apart from the nervous systems that can and do explain those things? That we cannot understand how or why we “experience” our own and others’ inner lives as consciousness or personalities or identities of some sort does leave us only with not being able yet to understand how or why etc.

Then comes this finale:

The Incredibleness of Not Believing in God

Academics, as well as other folk with generous formal education (primarily social scientists), often ridicule religious beliefs, particularly belief in God, on the same grounds that should disqualify belief in minds as “irrational.” Belief in God cannot be scientifically proven (or disproven); neither can belief in other minds. Science (including psychological and cognitive sciences) offers explanations for phenomena previously attributed to God much as mental phenomena are alternatively explained by psychological scientists. (p. 104)

Here Barrett is getting into shaky ground. Why portray the discussion as one between “social scientists” who “often ridicule” belief in God and on the other hand believers who, by implication, are sincerely devout. Why introduce the ridicule. Surely there is also enough ridicule among believers directed at atheists. Even the Bible has God himself ridiculing atheists. Why not leave references to ridicule out of the discussion and keep it entirely level headed, serious, professional, scholarly, if you will.

But further, Barrett’s language is sloppy in this instance. Belief in God most certainly can be proven. We know people believe in God — and other minds. The question is not belief in these entities but whether the objects of belief really exist.

The tenacity with which religious believers adhere to their belief in God astounds many nonbelievers, particularly in the academy. “Why would anyone believe in God?” Congruent with the description given in previous chapters, the answer to this question mirrors another: “Why would anyone believe in others’ minds?” People believe because such belief is intuitively satisfying. It matches nonreflective beliefs generated by a host of mental tools converging on the same thing: minds and gods are out there.

Again, Barrett’s language is delving into the ad homina — “tenacity”, “astounds”. (I expect to address his major focus on the academy in the next post.) But it is true what Barrett says about people believing “because such belief is intuitively satisfying”, and “it matches nonreflective beliefs generated by a host of mental tools. . . . “. But the conclusion is questionable. Yes, “minds and gods are out there”, but so is Newtonian physics — and before that, the Ptolemaic cosmos and the Aristotelian natural world. Barrett has acknowledged that it is also “intuitively satisfying” that we find a purpose for everything, that very young minds even find a purpose for pointy rocks. That supernatural power created everything with its “marvellous design” (think how perfectly that body of water just fits so exactly into that hole in the ground!) is “intuitively satisfying”. Evolution obliges us to explain some bit as useless left-over appendages from an earlier life-form. Particles can be in two places at the same time — entirely correct but hardly intuitive — thanks to quantum physics. Space-time can bend. That’s not intuitive. Nor is the idea that space and time are one, or that matter is energy, or that gravity can be waves.

That belief in God (or gods) but not minds is discounted out of hand as absurd betrays a lack of intellectual honesty. Much as disagreements over the minds of animals hinge on political and practical considerations regarding the use and treatment of animals, typically, “scientistic” attacks on belief in God arise more from political and practical motivations, prejudice, and ethnocentrism than from a fair appraisal of the legitimacy of belief. These same scientists who reflexively assert that belief in any and all gods is unwarranted on scientific grounds blindly ignore the countless other beliefs they hold near and dear that find themselves in the same scientific predicament as God. For example, we cannot scientifically prove that time flows steadily, that the past has actually existed, that the laws of physics will hold in the future, that our own mind can be trusted, or that others even exist. On the top of this list of unproven assertions is belief in minds. (p. 104-5)

Now Barrett is indeed getting into uncomfortable areas at this point. “Intellectual dishonesty”? “Attacks” on belief in God “arise . . . from political and practical motivations, prejudice, and ethnocentrism”? Do nonbelievers really “blindly ignore” counter-evidence? Notice, further, that Barrett’s list of examples is all Newtonian. We know since Einstein and Hawking that time does not “flow steadily”. It slows down near a black hole, for instance. We also know that Newton’s “laws of physics” do not apply in other dimensions. We certainly know that we have reasons not to trust our own experiences and “minds” and so have come up with ways to ensure a more trustworthy (not totally, ultimately, trustworthy) way of advancing knowledge. But within a world where we can collectively agree that certain evidence entitles us to believe the past has existed and that other people apart from ourselves actually exist, then I think there is also room to doubt that “consciousness” is a real thing or that “minds” exist as some actual entity and that neither of these is rather a convenient term for describing our experiences of ourselves and others — while at the same time remaining beyond focussed understanding — just as there is always room to doubt that any “nonreflective” belief in our minds is evidence of any sort of particular reality (like “god”) out there.


Barrett, Justin L. 2004. Why Would Anyone Believe in God? Walnut Creek, CA: Altamira Press.


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9 thoughts on “Argument for God — part 1”

  1. I don’t understand why it is counterintuitive to associate mind with a body. I understand mind because I have one. This provides a basis for me to believe that other minds exist when I see evidence of it, which is everywhere. I also have a body, and I see that every other mind also has a body. I don’t quite understand the concept of the “soul,” precisely because I associate that word with something supposedly detachable from the body, which goes back to the body/mind distinction which becomes the body/soul distinction relied on by Christian belief. The body/mind distinction arose long before we understood much about the body, the brain, the nervous system, etc. I suspect Barrett is doing a false analogy, i.e., we have no rational basis to believe in a mind; minds exist; we have no rational basis to believe in God; if the mind exists without rational basis, so can God; ergo, God exists. Something like that. I have trouble with the first premise, that we have no rational basis to believe in a mind. I see that you would disagree with this, Neil, if I understand you correctly. Interesting.

    1. The body/mind distinction arose long before we understood much about the body, the brain, the nervous system, etc. I suspect Barrett is doing a false analogy, i.e., we have no rational basis to believe in a mind; minds exist; we have no rational basis to believe in God; if the mind exists without rational basis, so can God; ergo, God exists.

      In two sentences you said what I was struggling to say so much simply! Thank you!

  2. There is no question that requires the use of the word “mind” to answer it. The best definition of a mind I have heard is that a mind is a set of mental abilities, that is it is a collection of other things. So, a “hand” in a game of cards has a non-material existence. The cards exist but the hand is simply a combination of cards that one is dealt. At the end of that hand, the cards go back into the deck to be played again. So we can talk ad nauseum about “how to play certain hands” and how not to play them, the a hand is not a thing, it is an occurrence.

    The same may be true of what we call a mind. And like the word soul, it may or may not be associated with real things.

    1. The best definition of a mind I have heard is that a mind is a set of mental abilities, that is it is a collection of other things. So, a “hand” in a game of cards has a non-material existence.

      Where were you guys when I was struggling to write the post? You know how to express the problem of Barrett’s argument so much more simply than I did.

  3. “For example, we cannot scientifically prove ….. that our own mind can be trusted, or that others even exist.”

    If we take this sentence seriously then all logical thought must be abandoned.

    The word “mind” as it is repeatedly used here seems to be best defined as “self”, which also doesn’t exist as it is merely a phenomenon. Maybe Mr. Barrett could solve all this with a long visit with a Zen Master. “What is the sound of one hand clapping?!”

    1. If we take this sentence seriously then all logical thought must be abandoned.

      The word “mind” as it is repeatedly used here seems to be best defined as “self” . . . .

      More apt points.

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