We are all conscious when we are awake. We observe, feel emotions, react, and form memories. But how does the brain do this? What is the relationship between our brain and our conscious mind?
You might think this isn’t a very interesting or important question, but it is one of the most important questions today, for science, religion and ethics.
Our human experience
We all know what it feels like to be
us, but we know very little of what it feels like to be someone else. We all feel there is some distinct being that is us, even though the particles that make up our bodies and brains are constantly being replaced by new particles. We all have memories of our past, even if we forget more than we remember.
And each of us knows what it feels like when we taste coffee or listen to Bob Dylan or see a certain person of the opposite (generally) sex. But we don’t know what those same things feel like to others, and we can be fairly sure that although the coffee, the Dylan song or the person may be the same, the experience may be very different. For example, I dislike coffee and I like Bob Dylan’s music, but many of you may feel the opposite.
And our brains are active, introspectively, most of the time we are awake. “What are they thinking about me? I wish I could remember her name. Do I look silly with this haircut? Now what was I going to do next?” etc.
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 story from scientific materialism
But the majority of brain scientists have a problem with this. They are materialists (i.e. they believe that everything is material or physical, or can be explained by the physical) when they do their science, and materialism cannot explain all we experience.
How can objective things like brain cells produce subjective experiences like the feeling that ‘I’ am striding through the grass? …. The objective world out there, and the subjective experiences in here, seem to be totally different kinds of things. Asking how one produces the other seems to be nonsense. The intractability of this problem suggests to me that we are making a fundamental mistake in the way we think about consciousness
There’s considerable evidence that the unified self is a fiction–that the mind is a congeries of parts acting asynchronously, and that it only an illusion that there is a president in the Oval Office of the brain who oversees the activity of everything.
Neither Steven Pinker nor I can explain human subjective consciousness… We don’t know. We don’t understand it.
What is the problem?
There seem to be three main problems for a scientist who is a materialist:
1. Material vs immaterial
It is hard to explain something immaterial like our consciousness in purely materialistic terms – i.e. in terms of matter and space. How can a physical brain produce subjective experience?
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 ….
Neuroscientist Mario Beauregard
You’ve got a brain made of billions of neurons, and all those neurons are doing is shunting electrical impulses and little molecules of chemicals here and there, back and forth. That’s all they’re doing. How can that be, or give rise to, or be responsible for …. the experience of [colour]?
2. Contrary to experience?
From the inside, it feels like we are more than the materialist explanation allows for. Should we reject what we experience just because a materialist scientist cannot explain it? Even the scientist has difficulty maintain the materialistic view in real life.
3. The ‘hard’ problem
Materialist science can explain many brain functions – how the brain reacts to stimuli, how it categorises information, how it controls our behaviour, etc. But these functions could all be carried out without our consciousness, and often are. So why does the brain generate our conscious experience?
If there was more to “us” than our physical brain and body, then we could understand that conscious experience relates to that “us”, but if the material brain is all of “us” then consciousness seems unnecessary and unlikely. This question, commonly associated with Aussie philosopher David Chalmers, is sometimes called the “hard problem”.
And pretty much everyone admits it is indeed hard.
It is easy to see three ways one could try to resolve the mystery of consciousness:
- Our self is an illusion. We feel as if we are a unified being living inside our bodies, but we are not (see the Steve Pinker quote above). Science will one day explain it all.
- David Chalmers suggests science will only resolve the question if it ceases to be materialistic, and adopts a new approach. Matter is not all there is – consciousness or experience is a fundamental fact of the universe just as magnetism and gravity are.
- A christian, or theistic approach would be to agree with Chalmers, but argue that we have this property or ability of consciousness because God created us with it – it is something we share with him.
These thoughts about consciousness have some interesting implications:
- Christians don’t need to feel at all ‘worried’ about the implications of materialistic neuroscience. Christian thought has a conceptual explanation of consciousness but materialistic science does not. The more you believe we are conscious ‘selfs’, the less you will believe in materialism.
- Some atheists suggest that the idea of a disembodied being, as God is said to be, is a contradiction in terms. But if Chalmers is right about consciousness being a fundamental of the universe just like matter or energy, then God cannot be a contradiction in that way.
- Are our brains like computers? and Do humans have free will? on this website.
- Hard problem of consciousness in Wikipedia.
- David Chalmers: Facing Up to the Problem of Consciousness
- Interview with Susan Blackmore in Third Way magazine.
- Victor Reppert on consciousness: Truncated Thought part II and I am not a selfplex.
- Mario Beauregard: Brain Wars.