I consider myself to be firmly in the atheist camp. None of the arguments for the existence of a higher being or prime mover convince me, let alone attempts at proving the existence of the old God of the Bible and Quran.

However, recently I have been examining the question of freewill, and I have come to the conclusion that there can be no freewill without the mind having a non physical component. Saying that the mind has a non physical component is essentially substance dualism. A purely materialist/physicalist account of how the mind works eliminates the possibility of freewill no matter how you try to interpret it.

So here is my dilemma: Substance dualism is normally what theists subscribe to, since they see it as implying the existence of souls. I'm not a theist and don't plan on becoming one any time soon. All of the arguments for the existence of God seem wrong to me.

From what I have read so far, atheism and materialism/physicalism go hand in hand.

Yet I don't want to abandon the concept of freewill. So can a substance dualist be an atheist? Has anybody of note held this position before?

  • 2
    Notable: Roger Penrose has tried to walk this fence. Daniel Dennett has confronted the idea.
    – jscs
    Commented Feb 26, 2015 at 5:19
  • 5
    Isn't it bad to try to justify a belief that you find appealing when the evidence points you in a different direction? If nothing else, that seems incompatible with atheism. Personally, I am a determinist, and I don't find it to be a depressing belief at all. I recommend Sam Harris's speeches on the subject if you're looking for reasons why abandoning free will can be beneficial. Commented Feb 26, 2015 at 14:59
  • 1
    How did you come to the conclusion that there is a free will?
    – yamm
    Commented Feb 26, 2015 at 15:29
  • 3
    How do you define substance dualism? Does it include the belief in an immortal soul? In that case, it's obvious why western atheists don't like substance dualism: What happens to the soul after the body dies? Does it wander aimlessly through the universe? This is scary, far scarier than complete annihilation.
    – viuser
    Commented Dec 23, 2016 at 19:04
  • 2
    Catholics from what I understand are committed to the theology of Thomas Aquinas on several points. Aquinas is not a dualist but rather a hylomorphist which means that he believes the soul and the body coexist with the soul giving order / structure to the matter. On this account, human souls are not naturally capable of existing without bodies since bodies are integral to the holistic substance. Reworded without the jargon, they don't detached souls cannot exist apart from miracles. Protestants are by definition not necessarily committed to catholic positions so some are probably dualists.
    – virmaior
    Commented Dec 27, 2016 at 6:32

12 Answers 12


Its a matter of definitions. Whether it is possible to be an atheist and not be a materialist/physicalist depends on how you define atheist and materialist. Generally speaking, they are different words because people have found them to not define the same thing.

Your challenge as an athiestic substance dualist will be accounting for how your freewill affects other minds without a supreme being to tell you. As a non-exclusive list of examples of valid paths forward:

  • You can move towards solpsism, arguing that you are the only mind in the world. This effectively makes you the only freewill bearing entity in the world, which would potentially lead to you declaring yourself to be the "supreme being."
  • You can move towards Aristotle's ethical system which has been named "self-realizationism," which states that each "self" does "good" by realizing its own full potential. This admits that there is freewill in others as well, and potentially leads to the questions natural philosophers like Arne Naess approached: what is a "self" anyways?

You also have access to a reasonable body of religions which do not admit the existence of a "supreme being" in the western sense. The Dao is a particularly popular entity to study for atheists looking for a life beyond naive materialism (not to say all materialism is naive, but it is very easy for an atheist to land on a naive interpretation, and it takes time to grow out of that state).

I have found it very valuable to explore what "freewill" means anyways, or what a "supreme being" means. Most people have very compatible definitions for these things, but when you really dig into it, there's some flex in what each individual thinks. "Freewill," in particular, gets particularly nuanced when trying to define it within a deterministic world.


From what I have read so, atheism and materialism/physicalism are considered to be the same thing.

This is incorrect. Atheism is a view about the existence of God. Materialism is a metaphysical view about the kinds of substance that exist. Specifically, atheism is the claim that there does not exist a God, or Gods, in the style of the major religions. Materialism is the claim that the only substance that exists is the kind posited by our best theories of physics. Neither one necessarily implies the truth or falsity of the other.

Here's why the don't imply each other. Suppose some kind of atheism is true. So God doesn't exist. This is entirely compatible with physicalism being false - there could be some other kind of substance in the world, say ectoplasmic goo, that we haven't discovered yet. So atheism can be true while materialism false. On the other hand, suppose that materialism is true. Then the only substance that exists is the kind posited by our best physics. But then there are two ways theism can be true. (i) God is some kind of superpowerful physical object, or (ii) God is not the kind of thing composed of substances at all - rather God is more like mathematical objects, which exist, yet don't have a definite 'substance' to them. Either one of these options is compatible with theism (and there may be more!). So materialism doesn't imply atheism.

However, recently I have been examining the question of freewill, and I have come to the conclusion that there can be no freewill without the mind having a non physical component

You may want to re-examine this belief. Most contemporary philosophers are compatibilists about free will: they accept that some kind of causal determinism is true, but that this has no bearing on the issue of free will. You will find this link helpful:

http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/compatibilism/ http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/freewill/

  • You left off option (iii) god(s) being something that exist outside our universe and are therefore not constrained by the internal physical laws of the universe. Not that I think there's any evidence of such, but who knows, there's always room for doubt in science. :-) Commented Feb 26, 2015 at 3:42
  • 2
    I'was wrong in stating that materialism and atheism were exactly the same thing. What I meant by that was that people arrive at atheism and materialism for the same reason: A refusal to except supernatural entities. Commented Feb 26, 2015 at 14:41
  • It's also possible to be a materialist and a theist---Hobbes is an example.
    – user5172
    Commented Feb 14, 2016 at 12:24
  • 2
    Arheism is not "a view about the existence of god". Atheism is simply lack of belief in deity.
    – MmmHmm
    Commented Dec 25, 2016 at 20:07

Being an atheist does not imply a materialistic worldview, it simply means one does not believe in (a) God.

Having said that, I think an atheist would likely have a materialist worldview simply because the same thing that caused an atheist to deny the existence of God (lack of evidence for this thing existing in another realm) would lead to a denial of dualism. However, this is not required by the definition.

Free will -- as traditionally defined -- is the claim that we are not bound by causal factors when choosing -- we freely choose. So for instance, while as stone rolls because physical laws compel it, believers in free will think we are not so compelled by anything.

The problem here is that our bodies (this of course includes our brains) are physical and are thus bound by physical laws. This means the belief in free will requires some part of us to somehow be immune to the laws of physics, and this is not compatible with the materialist worldview.

Unfortunately, free will is an emotional issue; many people don't like the idea of being automatons. As a result, this area is rife with semantic games, contradictory positions and incoherent claims. This also means that people who hold worldviews that should render free will incoherent will still try to hold on to free will -- more out of emotional attachment than due to any coherence.

This is common enough that it doesn't surprise me in the least when atheists, people with materialist worldviews, etc... still maintain that they have free will.

  • Great answer. However, it probably helps to give some definition of free will. Commented Feb 26, 2015 at 4:02
  • Thanks; I beefed it up to define the type of free will I was talking about.
    – R. Barzell
    Commented Feb 26, 2015 at 14:14
  • You have stated better than I can, why I believe freewill and materialism are incompatible, and why I remain attached to freewill. My original post makes it seem like I believe that atheism and materialism are identical. I know they are not. What I meant was that all of the atheists I've met or read are atheists because they are materialists, hence my conflation of the two categories. That the two are not identical is giving me hope we that we don't live in a depressing world of self aware automatons going down predetermined paths. I want to see if anybody has come up with alternatives. Commented Feb 26, 2015 at 15:08
  • @AlexanderSKing actually, I think the lack of free will is very liberating. I find it much easier to not worry or feel guilt over past actions, or to hold grudges when I remind myself that we were so determined. As for going down predetermined paths -- I don't think that's a problem; just remind yourself that it's the ride that matters and not who's in the driver's seat.
    – R. Barzell
    Commented Feb 26, 2015 at 15:23

There have been very good answers, but I want to add a few thoughts.

By any sane definition (sorry, Hobbes) of the terms, theism is incompatible with materialism. But the reverse is not true, substance dualism and atheism are compatible.

Atheistic dualism is even a common view in the world, because of Buddhists and Taoists.

But if we look just at Westerners, we get a different picture. So we must ask ourselves: What (in the West – for now on) makes (substance) dualism and atheism seem so incompatible? Why do atheism and materialism seem to go hand in hand? Why are nearly all prominent atheists also materialists?

And why do discussions about consciousness get so heated? Just look at the hundreds of angry comments to an article from atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel, a summary of his book which attacks materialism (he doesn't commit to substance dualism, though).

Substance dualism as defined by you (the OP) doesn't guarantee even the one important thing, which would be persistence of the self after death.

Superficially it would not change much, except our attitude to free will, perhaps. So, why again, do atheists take it so serious?

IMHO humans seem to suffer from an intense obsession to construct a world view, which can give us a satisfying cosmology, i.e. which can give a good answer to ‘The One Question’, the question of “arche” (ἀρχή):

“What is the ultimate principle that underlies the universe?”

And materialism does this. It answer this question very elegantly and convincingly (which does not mean correctly). The ultimate principle is objectively observable, purposeless ‘physical stuff’. The universe is inherently meaningless, there is no goal or point to it. It just exists. And by operations of chance and necessity everything else has come to be.

While we may dislike this answer, it allays our thirst for further probing deep metaphysical questions. For example, “Why exists something rather than nothing?” – what's the point of asking that if what exists is just inherently meaningless? Or, “What is the meaning of life?” - either there is none or the meaning we personally give it, it is not tied to the cosmos.

Theism, of course, is also a world view which at least gives us the illusion to answer ‘The One Question’.

But what about atheistic dualism (or atheistic non-materialism)? It fails to answer ‘The One Question’ satisfyingly. In substance dualism we must just take it as a brute fact that two fundamentally different substances exist. Now, why does ‘mind stuff’ exist? Why? Where does it come from? A materialistically conceived evolution surely can't explain it. How can we dare to believe ‘consciousness’ is equally deeply built into the universe as fundamental physical properties, like say, electrical charge or mass?

Outside of a theistic context it really sounds like the universe from *cough* not that intellectually challenging science fiction. Like Star Wars... or Warhammer 40.000.

Why does such an extremely weird universe exist? This is beyond “quantum mechanics” weirdness, it is unacceptable weirdness.

“Why is there something rather than nothing?” definitely becomes a pressing answer again. Also “What is the meaning of life?”: there is no transcendent God – but there seems to be a profound connection between human life and the natural order, since consciousness is a fundamental part of the fabric of the universe. Maybe there is a cosmic meaning? But on the other hand, we are not living in a universe that is very nice to its creatures. Even if we live in the best circumstances, there still is death and suffering all around us, psychologically healthy humans are just able to ignore it. As Goethe's Werther puts it:

No: it is not the great and rare calamities of the world, the floods which sweep away whole villages, the earthquakes which swallow up our towns, that affect me. My heart is wasted by the thought of that destructive power which lies concealed in every part of universal nature. Nature has formed nothing that does not consume itself, and every object near it: so that, surrounded by earth and air, and all the active powers, I wander on my way with aching heart; and the universe is to me a fearful monster, for ever devouring its own offspring.

So atheistic dualism (if we don't incorporate more extreme ideas from Eastern religions) is, at least in my view, a very unsatisfying, weird and lopsided world view. That doesn't mean it is incorrect, of course.

As a final note, the truth of materialism is unsurprisingly part of the secular elite's orthodoxy. Probably most of them want to live in a climate in which religion/theism is regarded as intellectually not respectable. If dualism (or some other non-materialism) would become plausible again, their whole narrative would begin to unravel.

This is also a result of not being content enough to just use the classical argumentation against theism, but to present a complete alternative world view, in which there is not even a foothold for religion, and to use the prestige of science to advance it by framing the dispute as a fight between scientific rationality and archaic superstition.

If someone felt so much to be on the right side of history and arrogantly presented himself as the voice of reason, to turn out being wrong is a death blow. In light of this, the strong hostility of the secular elite to criticism of materialism is not surprising at all.


Most of the upvoted comments are quite good, so I'll just add my ten cents that hasn't already been covered.

Assumption underlying your query - maybe you're not an atheist

To have originally come to your query, you must have made some assumptions that your dualistic experience, being a consciousness beyond the material body, is supernatural. More than that, supernatural in the sense of a traditionally understood immortal soul.

If what you are suggesting is that your consciousness resides in a traditional soul, then I would argue your atheistic leanings are contradictory to your dualistism.

Alternate assumption - maybe you can still be an atheist

However, if what you're eluding to is that your consciousness resides in a non-material component of your being, which you are not defining, then this does not contradict atheism.

For example, consciousness is believed to be an emergent property of the brain. It's not material but is an effect of all the activity and cannot be pinpointed to any specific parts of the brain.

However, you are probably no longer an atheist if..

I would personally argue that there are some limits to how far you can argue this duality and still remain an atheist.

The purpose of atheism isn't just to deny god, but gods, spirits, and the supernatural. It's to say, there are natural explanations for the human experience and our natural world. Some of these natural explanations might end up being bizarrely magical in appearance, maybe our consciousness resonates on some quantum level and exists in multiple dimensions, maybe there's an untapped sensitivity in our brains that reacts to the universe. Who knows.

But as wild as these possibilities get, it's important that we don't simply replace one type of superstitious gobbledeegook, with another set of gobbledeegook.

If you are starting to believe in a model that your actual consciousness does not reside in your brain but resides in a spiritual realm, then your beliefs are moving away from atheism and towards ietsism.

Maybe you are an Ietsist (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ietsism)



It might help to note that while substance dualism is a very strong form of dualism (requiring the existence of non-physical entities), there are weaker notions of dualism, such as predicate dualism and property dualism, which don't require any non-physical entities. These offer clear advantages to those who are seeking a wholly causal explanation of everything; though it is fairly noted that their solution(s) purchase certain problems of their own. Descartes is the most well-known of the modern dualists, as he was the first to attempt to reconcile the development of a very robust form of causality with the existence of God. His Second Meditation is the locus classicus of this, for it is in the Meditations that he presents his mind/body form of substance dualism. The resource modalmilk suggests above is an excellent one, and in addition to the article on Compatibilism you may enjoy the article on Dualism: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/dualism/#VarDuaOnt


One possibility, admittedly somewhat speculative, is to take what Aristotle announces all philosophers are agreed: that principles are contraries, and one must have also gave a unity of contraries.

Thus, if one has determinism, one must have its contrary - indeterminism; and it's union - in which we either find the world, or we find it in the world; this would be a flavour of compatibilism.

One recent (relative to A) philosopher who pushes this through, is Hegel.


Sure, as long as you use an argument otherwise than that of Descartes in his Meditations, where he relied on the clear and distinct idea of God as perfect as implying that God not only existed as perfect in virtue of this but also caused this idea, and all other ideas, for God is infinite whereas all else is finite. But whereas Descartes took any possible substance that could be clearly and distinctly conceived of as potentially existing on its own, or as it being possible that God could create such to stand on its own, hence getting that the mind and body are separate substances, presumably you'd need a different process to reach some such conclusion.


An atheist may hold to materialism but so can a theist. The nature of what types of material there exist does not influence what types immaterial exist (Which God are usually held to be) Or in other words The types of what is physical does not preclude the types of non physical exist. It is not incoherent to believe nothing Physical / Material transcends the known universe and still believe that something immaterial transcends the universe.

To be honest I'm not sure that a deity that stands outside space and time could actually be physical. That seems to me to be the logical assertion for those who do believe that something transcends the universe. Physicalness seems to me to be characteristics of things that are in the universe not those who are outside it.


I consider myself an atheist substance dualist. But not because of free will (to me free will seems incoherent by definition). But to me, physicalism cannot explain personal identity over time. The difference between the mental and physical is an irreducible difference imo. That along with mental causation (not the free will kind) leads me to substance dualism.


Yes. While he does not give her name, in his third lecture on philosophy of mind (the lecture available on youtube) Professor John Searle mentions a Swiss philosopher who (purportedly) maintains the positions of atheism and substance dualism. His comment starts @2m36s and continues until around 3m15s when he mentions meeting her. You could email him and ask who he was referring to and research their work (if any) on an atheist substance dualism. Mostly tho, Searle's point is that this is "a rare view amongst professional philosophers".

As for leveraging an epistemically grounded concept of an ontologically positive "free will" out of a stultified materialist v dualist dichotomy, you might enjoy Searle's articles, "Why I Am Not A Property Dualist", "Free Will As A Problem In Neurobiology" (the copy @Jstor is available to read for free!) and "The Phenomenological Illision". He is an atheist and proposes "Biological Naturalism" (a naive or direct realism) as a framework to advance knowledge claims about consciousness, language, society and the world.

Oh, and iirc he's not a substance dualist proper, but Thomas Nagel is a dualist atheist...


Substance dualism, imo, is incompatible with theism, and also problematic in itself, due to its incoherence with interactionism. With that said, in order to hold onto free will, you cannot have physical determinism. This has been known to be the case by the Conway-Kochen Free Will theorem, which states that if you have free will, so do elementary particles, and moreover, all quantum systems. So compatibilism is thrown out the door, as is standard materialism, if you want to hold onto free will. Furthermore, the Kochen-Specker theorem implies that what physical properties we observe are dependent upon what we choose to observe, and cannot be said to exist in any definite state independent of such observation. Finally, the door gets shut closed with Professor Anton Zeilinger's delayed choice entanglement swapping experiment, wherein the set of particles that become entangled depend on not only on the timing of the measuring device's measurement, but upon the time that the experimenters observe the data. In other words, our physical reality isn't separate from the information we observe about it, and is actually dependent on said observation. So these essentially throw out materialism - along with the idea of matter that exists independent of observation. Now, your remaining options are these: neutral monism and idealism. To hold to materialism now requires a superdeterministic quantum conspiracy of the world intentionally tricking all these experimenters into thinking that physical reality doesn't exist independent of measurement. As for completely neutral monism, the ontological importance of the observer for physical reality makes it rather tenuous, and it suffers from not being able to explain the origin of the subject-object gap. This is only driven further by the quantum Zeno effect- by which one can control the evolution of a quantum system by successive measurements, and the requirement for quantum tunneling between neurons, due to the walls of dendrites being too thick for the hydrogen ions to come out by classical means, given their internal charges (which implies your mind has control over a quantum system). Your best bet then would be to hold to some form of idealism. It preserves free will, fits the data, allows one to continue doing science, and even explains the subject-object gap (since if one's thoughts can be given a certain level of one's subjectivity by dissociation, those thoughts would view each other as separate objects- such as in the case of a person with multiple personality disorder).

  • 1
    First off welcome to philosophy.SE. While you mention lots of things here, this answer would benefit strongly from a rewrite on several fronts. First, by putting two line breaks, you can get new paragraphs -- making this easier to read. Second, with what little I've read of it, it seems like you're jumping all over the place and making some rather substantial and controversial claims that are idiosyncratic. A good answer would do less of this or source more of it.
    – virmaior
    Commented Feb 14, 2016 at 15:23

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .