Am I a believer, atheist or physicalist?

Firstly, we must ask ourselves, ignoring for a moment the question of believer or atheist, what is physicalism and what does it mean to be a physicalist. It actually means many things, and in my case, at least four.

The first instance, and the one which revolutionised my existence, I owe to my Uncle Carlo. It was a winterís evening. It was cold outside, gusts of wind could be heard and rain mixed with hail was rattling on the roof. Uncle Carlo and I were sitting silently in the warm near the hearth. Suddenly, my uncle confronted me with the question:

Do you know that you’re actually richer than me?

That’s not true, Uncle, I answered immediately, as if I had been expecting this question all my life, you’re richer than I am. And that was the truth.

I’m not talking about material things, money, houses, land, animals, he replied dolefully, and yet with a force which sounded almost like disgust, I mean wealth in terms of age, youth, of life. You’re still a boy, I’m getting on, you’ve still got many years ahead of you, but I’ve only got a few left, do you understand?

No, I replied.

All the worse for you! he said.

Auntie, (his wife) said I, says that when we die, we all go to heaven and live there for ever.

So then you understand! he practically shouted in irritation. And anyway, don’t talk to me about the stupid things your auntie says!

Stupid? I asked incredulously. I had never heard him speak like this about my auntie before.

Yes, stupid! he affirmed.

Can you explain? I asked him.

I don’t know how to explain it.

But I still don’t understand.

One day, perhaps, you’ll understand. And now be quiet, he cut me off, and started to stoke the fire, obviously irritated and fed up.

I looked at him, bent my head, and so I didn’t speak again.

Neither did he.

In spite of my youth, this episode shook me, giving rise to questions which, up until then, I had ignored: questions about life, about death, about the existence of God. I wanted answers to this sudden feeling of apprehension, but I couldn’t find them. Neither could Uncle Carlo, when he was more approachable and less surly, answer my persistent and heart-felt questions, but I was convinced that he would have given anything to be able to answer.

It was this experience with Uncle Carlo which revolutionised the existence I had led up until that point, and my childish beliefs.

The second instance came about through philosophy. Philosophy, (not the academic subject, but the desire to know and understand everything), has been my companion throughout my life. It would be possible in this particular case to synthesise by saying that, from Kant onwards, superior beings such as Zeus, Brahma or other gods are no longer created by starting with a concept, but starting with the human being. Therefore, first there is the man, then the concept (the idea, the mind, the imagination), first there is Man, then Zeus, the gods, Brahma, whatever you like, Nirvana, Heaven, etc. This means that everything invented by Man is relative to Man and is connected with Man. In a nutshell, everything to do with culture is a product of Man and it is Man who is the god or the demon to inhabit the planet Earth.

The third instance came about through evolution, which has taught me that our little nest is built on an absurdity, that we are children of chance, purely incidental. Big bang theories here or there, we come from a world without name, nobody can ever know its true origins, these are unknowables. Our roots, our realm, our homeland, are indeed unnameable. This state of being unnameable should not be understood in a positive nor in a negative way and neither is it possible to name it, because a phenomenon whose origins remain a mystery cannot be given a title. It is simply unnameable.

More than that. Our location in the universe is referred to as the Milky Way, a dot, like billions of other dots strewn across the immensity of the cosmos. Our home, within this immensity, remains suspended in a never-ending abyss. In other words, our existence is balanced in a cosmic void. In this place without any handholds and without any principles, science is poetry and philosophy is another kind of poetry.

Just like trying to flee from the arms of Death, it is impossible to escape alive from such a void. It is our prison and our grave. No way out, no escape, we are trapped, condemned to be conscious witnesses of our own end, which will be both ignoble and cruel.

The fourth instance I owe to physics. By right, we belong to the material world. We have a good understanding of the metamorphoses involved in becoming conscious beings. The most significant four evolutionary steps are: first the passage from nothingness (the unnameable) to the big bang or whatever one wants to call it; the second step is the passage from inanimate to animate material; the third is from biology to culture and the fourth is from culture to consciousness of nothingness.

The two nothingnesses, the first and the last steps (we rise out of nothingness and return to nothingness), are united in the end in one great nothingness. In fact, our appearance prefigures our disappearance: one day we will no longer be, and with this last step, we end our coincidental and momentary appearance in the world of form and phenomena.

So, within this vision of life, is there still room for a believer or an atheist? Certainly, I have no difficulty in defining myself not as a non-believer, but as an atheist. Only that this definition is wrong, out of place, arbitrary. To be an atheist, you challenge those who believe in the existence of a god, of God, but if God doesn’t exist, and He doesn’t exist, why pollute the air with futile and noxious arguing? Because of how the world is made, there is no room for God, nor for believers, nor for atheists and even less for agnostics. As far as I’m concerned, I think both believers and atheists believe. The first believe in God, the second believe in the non-existence of God, therefore both believe and cannot exist without each other. It’s as if they were the two faces of the same coin. It is clear that as long as there is an atheist left on the face of the earth, there will be a believer and vice versa. Christians exult!

However, only one world exists, the physical world. I am a physicalist, I believe only in physics, because everything originates, flows and takes breath from physics. All knowledge is born of physics. We are an assembly of cells. I myself am a composition, an amalgam of atoms, an emanation of material. And this is the reason why, even if I wanted to, I cannot be either a believer or an atheist. I am, if I have to be anything at all, a physicalist, who believes that everything which exists in the universe is made of material, and as such, this is my identity and my destiny.

Translated from the Italian by Joy Elizabeth Avery. Tel: 015.703954; Email:

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