We have looked at how the universe gives us strong clues that God exists. Now it is time to come closer to home, and examine how humanity offers clues to God.
We know everything else in the universe from the outside, but we know ourselves from the inside. That inside knowledge raises some perplexing questions.
I know what it feels like to be me
We are all different. We all know what it feels like to be “us”, but we know much less about what it feels like to be someone else. What looks, sounds or tastes attractive to me may not affect you in the same way, and we can’t always understand why.
Our brains are active, keeping us alive and well by reminding us we are hungry or cold or in danger. But we are also introspective most of the time we are awake. Thoughts like: “What are they thinking about me?”, “I wish I could remember her name.” and “Do I look silly with this haircut?” can fill our minds.
This is what it is like for us to be human. We are conscious of ourselves, and it seems like we look out on a world where other people inhabit their bodies and look out at us.
The science of the brain and mind
But neuroscience tells a different story.
Science measures and observes the physical world, and in our brains, this means electrical and chemical processes. And neuroscientists find no “self” in these processes. Instead, they say, the reality is the processes, and the sense of self is just an illusion. As famed biologist Francis Crick wrote: “You, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.”
Crick is not alone in his thinking. Psychology Professor Steven Pinker: “There’s considerable evidence that the unified self is a fiction – that the mind is a congeries of parts acting asynchronously, and that it is only an illusion that there is a president in the Oval Office of the brain who oversees the activity of everything.”
And Psychology Professor Susan Blackmore says: “there’s no room for a thing called a self”. We feel we are the same person that was around 5 years ago, but, she says: “the so-called me now is just another reconstruction. There was another one half an hour ago, and there’ll be another one, but they’re not really the same person, they’re just dust happening in the universe.”
But the same neuroscientists often admit that our consciousness, our sense of self, is a real mystery. They can objectively study our brain processes when we feel pleasure or pain, but the processes cannot explain what the pain feels like, for that is a subjective experience that can only be known from the inside.
Susan Blackmore again: “How can objective things like brain cells produce subjective experiences like the feeling that ‘I’ am striding through the grass?”
Biologist Richard Dawkins agrees: “Neither Steven Pinker nor I can explain human subjective consciousness… We don’t know. We don’t understand it.”
The scientists can see no evolutionary reason why we should have a sense of self, for we could survive and reproduce just as well without it.
…. and disagreements
But other thinkers are critical of these conclusions, arguing that science only addresses the physical world, and so is unable to detect the self. It sees the wood but not the trees (so to speak). If there is a non-physical explanation for consciousness and self, science is not equipped to see it.
There is clearly a difference between saying “someone is sick” and saying “I am sick”. The brain processes may be the same in both cases, but the subjective experience is different. That difference is what it means to be “us” and not someone else. So, it seems, we can easily understand and experience what it is to be a conscious self, we simply cannot explain it scientifically.
Neuroscientist Mario Beauregard: “The mind … remains a mystery. It has no mass, no volume and no shape, and it cannot be measured in space and time. Yet is is … real”
Even those who think “self” is an illusion often conclude that it is impossible for humans to live without a sense of self.
Finding an explanation
So science is unable to explain what we all experience without reducing it to an illusion, and what we experience cannot be confirmed by science to be real. How should we resolve this?
Simplifying slightly, there are two basic views.
Naturalism is the philosophical view that the natural or physical world is all there is. Science works well within naturalism and more or less assumes it is true.
If naturalism is true, then our sense of self must be an illusion, and the physical brain processes must totally explain our minds, consciousness and self. We may feel like there’s more to being human than that, but we would be mistaken. We just have to learn to live with it.
But if our sense of self is real, if we humans are more than the chemicals that make up our bodies and brains, and the chemical and electrical processes in our brains, then it looks like something more than naturalism is required to explain these things.
This conclusion can be developed in two directions. Some philosophers and neuroscientists believe we must somehow enlarge our understanding of “natural” to include our conscious experience. They don’t seem to know how we can do this, but they believe it is necessary to provide a true picture of the reality of being human.
But we can explain our common experience if we go beyond the natural, to the supernatural or the spiritual, areas where science cannot take us. Perhaps we humans are more than physical because we were created by God to be living conscious selves? This conclusion is resisted by most scientists because it cannot be observed and measured, but it explains what science cannot explain.
So we face a choice. Naturalism cannot explain what we all experience as human beings. So either we must reject naturalism or we must reject the reality of what we all experience and call it an illusion.
One way to judge an idea is whether it explains reality. Naturalism provides a scientific explanation, but doesn’t explain what we all experience as reality. However believing that we are created by God explains the reality and the science too.
One step at a time
To me, this all makes theism a little more likely and naturalism a little less likely. On its own, perhaps, it is a small step. But as we’ll see in the next few posts in this 12 reasons series, the choice between naturalism and theism has some far-reaching implications.
Nevertheless, after looking at three reasons so far, we have evidence that God created this universe for a purpose, and he seems to have endowed us humans with a sense of self that is crucial to being human. Each step adds a little to the puzzle.
And that isn’t the end of the story! Stay tuned for more on what it means to be human.
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