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The mystery of consciousness

August 6th, 2013

Human brain

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

Susan Blackmore

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.

Steven Pinker

Neither Steven Pinker nor I can explain human subjective consciousness… We don’t know. We don’t understand it.

Richard Dawkins

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]?

Susan Blackmore

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.

Possible explanations

It is easy to see three ways one could try to resolve the mystery of consciousness:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Implications

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.

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Photo Credit: Mikey G Ottawa via Compfight cc

18 Comments

  1. As a Deist, I too believe that God created us with consciousness . I’m sure there are many Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and others who believe the same thing.

  2. I’m not sure if Buddhists and Hindus would say that, but I’m sure you’re right about Muslims and Deists. I was writing from a christian perspective, but I wouldn’t want to exclude anyone! Thanks.

  3. unkleE, “I’m not sure if Buddhists and Hindus would say that, but I’m sure you’re right about Muslims and Deists. I was writing from a christian perspective, but I wouldn’t want to exclude anyone! Thanks.”

    Since Christianity is inherently exclusionary, I am glad that you are not Christian in this sense. 🙂

    I always enjoy your posts, unkleE. Thank you for allowing me to continue to participate.

  4. I always enjoy your posts, unkleE. Thank you for allowing me to continue to participate.

    Thanks you so much Ken, I really do appreciate that. I should be thanking you for wanting to participate!

    Since Christianity is inherently exclusionary, I am glad that you are not Christian in this sense.

    I think exclusion is only half the story in christianity. Yes, most christians (including me) believe Jesus was divine in a way that no other human being was or will be, and that his life, death and resurrection are unique. But we also believe that God is loving and as inclusive as we will allow him to be, and many christians (including CS Lewis & Billy Graham) believe that God judges everyone according to the light they have been given, not the light they haven’t been given.

    I know your comment was light-hearted, but I thought I would nevertheless respond seriously.

    Thanks again, and best wishes.

  5. unkleE, have you ever read any works from Alvin Boyd Kuhn ? He believes in a God who has planted his divine knowledge into each and everyone of us. Rather than a God who supernaturally intervenes from time to time in people’s lives, he believes we are suppose to use this divine knowledge we already possess to deal with situations on our own rather than sitting back and waiting for God to do this for us.

    The first book I read of Kuhn’s was “Shadow of the 3rd Century: a revaluation of Christianity” He made a lot of sense to this fading christian who later became a deist.

    I’m not trying to convert you, just sharing what I read from an interesting author. The best to you.

  6. Hi Ken, I don’t feel you’re trying to convert me, I wouldn’t mind if you were, and I appreciate your input.

    No I haven’t heard of Alvin Boyd Kuhn before, though I just looked him up. It is often said that most of the philosophical “proofs” lead to a deist God, not the God of any religion, but I don’t fully agree.

    I think deism is a quite logical belief, and if I wasn’t a christian I think it would be my next choice based on the evidence. But two things prevent this: (1) I am a deeply committed follower of Jesus (which as you know I believe has a good historical basis) and (2) I believe the evidence shows that God does indeed intervene from time to time (e.g. in supernatural healing).

    But tell me, what you find helpful in his books?

  7. unkleE, it is nearing the end of my evening so I will provide a comment I found on his book, “A Rebirth of Christianity” . Tomorrow I will add my own comments. Have a pleasant day.

    The search to uncover the hidden origins of Christianity and discover its true message has become a current topic of fascination for many readers. People are eager to know the truths behind the biblical legends and the mysteries that created Christian rites, ceremonies, and codes of behavior. Kuhn argues that the sacred scriptures of Judaism and Christianity do not portray historical truths, but symbolic and mystical metaphors. The spiritual truth encoded in scripture, says Kuhn, is far more important than its literal narrative. Kuhn’s research provides a clear understanding of the allegorical interpretations of the scriptures and their significance to a deeper, more profound Christianity. He traces the historical and philosophical origins of Christian thought to illustrate that Jesus was one of many incarnations of an enduring archetype that has surfaced in many religions. In fact, those who wrote the scriptures may have never even intended the focus to be on Jesus, the man. Moreover, Kuhn investigates the problems (psychological, spiritual, and otherwise) that result from a purely historical interpretation of Jesus. In doing so, Kuhn reclaims the mystical power at the core of Christianity’s message, which has to do with the “birth” of the inner Christ and the emergence of divine consciousness in humanity.

  8. Just a brief comment pending your assessment. I think this brings us to areas we have discussed (and disagreed on) before. I think Kuhn’s view was probably more tenable back in is day, but these days scholars don’t generally accept some of those ideas about archetypes and allegorical interpretations. But I’ll be interested to see your take on it.

  9. Sorry I haven’t had time to provide my comments unkleE. I own a business here in Springfield, IL (the land of Lincoln) and spending time with my grandsons yesterday has kept me away from my computer.

    You seem to selectively dismiss certain sources because their works were “back in the day” . You can’t have it both ways. Everything you use to base your belief system was written “back in the day” Using your logic, we should dismiss any source or anything every written before 2013. I know you don’t mean this but you see where I am coming from.

    Much of Raymond Brown and Geza Vermes’s works were written before this millennium. Does this negate their works? I think not.

    Here’s my point in a nutshell. As a Deist, I marvel at God’s wonderful universe. I am in constant “wonder” of the things I experience every day. Through my living experience, I am constantly gaining more knowledge and as more questions are answered, more appear. Like Alvin Boyd Kuhn, I believe we all possess this “divine spark” that God has placed in our beings. It’s our blueprint for living our lives here on earth. Unlike what some religions teach, I believe God has made us inherently and equally good . Once we realize we are no better than anyone else and that our “belief system” is no more divine than other’s, we can experience a life far more pleasing to a Creator than what we presently do.

    Bishop John Shelby Spong says that when your religion fails to lift up your fellow man, then it is a religion to cease practicing.

    I know you yourself unkleE have pointed out flaws in Christianity in previous posts. Religion which has its flaws is a “Flawed Religion”

    I am a man with flaws but a deep respect for a Deity and a desire to live life as best I can and to avoid beliefs or practices that do not uplift my fellow man. I don’t know how people could argue against this simple plan for my life , but they do. 🙂 More to come…….

  10. Another thought: I have been down the road of Christianity for almost 50 years. The past 9 years I have evolved to Deism. I can honestly say I have experienced far more happiness as a Deist over these past 9 years than I ever did as a Christian for 50 years. I no longer feel compelled to challenge or defend my belief system . I just “live it”.

  11. Hi Ken

    The problem isn’t that those beliefs are old, but that they have been found not to be historical (as a broad generalisation).

    Much of what you say about Deism I can agree with, so that is nice. Obviously I would draw the line at “our “belief system” is no more divine than other’s”, but I wonder how strongly you would hold this belief in practice? Presumably you wouldn’t believe Nazism to be as good as any other belief, or militant Islam? I wonder too how you feel about the caste system which is fundamental to Hinduism, or the extreme asceticism of Jainism?

    You may be surprised to know that I would accept this statement too: “Religion which has its flaws is a “Flawed Religion”. My belief is that everything which is human in any way is flawed, though often still good. Since “religion” would probably be defined as people’s response to God, that would clearly be flawed. The question to me isn’t whether our response to God is flawed, but whether it is based on truth.

    And while I disagree with much that Spong writes, I have no problem with that quote (it is, after all, based on Bible teaching), and I agree with your last paragraph. I guess the main difference is that, because I see myself as flawed, I know I don’t live up to the ideal you expressed there a lot of the time.

    I look forward to further comments.

  12. @unkleE, “I guess the main difference is that, because I see myself as flawed, I know I don’t live up to the ideal you expressed there a lot of the time.”

    You must not have read my closing comments where I say, “I am a man with flaws but a deep respect for a Deity and a desire to live life as best I can and to avoid beliefs or practices that do not uplift my fellow man.

    You also say,” Presumably you wouldn’t believe Nazism to be as good as any other belief, or militant Islam?”

    I probably carelessly exchanged belief system with religion in my comments. Nazism was not a religion but as you pointed out a belief system. Hitler had no problem using Christianity to support Nazism however. I have in my office a belt buckle once worn by a Nazi Soldier. It says, “Gott Mit Uns ” which means God With Us.

    My comment from John Shelby Spong should have further explained how I too would feel about Nazism or Militant Islam.

    I have little formal education, so please forgive me for not having a command of the English Language as I would like. This brings me to a question. Since the writers of the OT and NT were arguably not all well educated, how do you know we have not misunderstood them much the same way as we tend to misunderstand each other ? Hmmm 🙂

  13. as a Christian for 50 years

    I’d be interested to know about those 50 years – what sort of christianity were you involved in and how involved were you?

    You must not have read my closing comments where I say, “I am a man with flaws but a deep respect for a Deity and a desire to live life as best I can and to avoid beliefs or practices that do not uplift my fellow man.

    When I spoke about my self-awareness, I wasn’t inferring anything about you or anyone else, just saying why I follow a belief and associate with fellow believers who are all “flawed”.

    I have little formal education, so please forgive me for not having a command of the English Language as I would like.

    I think you express yourself well, I just thought your statement was a little rosy when compared to the beliefs out there.

    Since the writers of the OT and NT were arguably not all well educated, how do you know we have not misunderstood them much the same way as we tend to misunderstand each other ?

    Do we misunderstand each other, or do we just disagree with each other? Some of the NT authors were well educated (e.g. Paul & Luke) and I daresay they could all describe events which happened. I don’t see any major problem there.

  14. I didn’t take my Christianity lightly. I never thought I would ever stop being a Christian. I still love the music and I continue to read the Bible along with works by Christian Authors. The more I read from scholars like Vermes , Brown, Schweitzer, Weiss, Tabor just to name a few, the more I realized things were no longer ringing true that I had been taught about Christianity from Christians. I defended my faith for most of those years. I didn’t like the fact that what I used to believe in was no longer making sense to me. Even Raymond Brown a Catholic Christian Scholar questioned the authenticity of the virgin birth and resurrection stories. He went on to say that Christians placed too much emphasis on these stories rather than believing in Jesus and what he taught.

    I have however received a peace that I didn’t have before. I stopped thinking about the here after and started thinking about making every minute of this life count . If there is a here after, great ! If not, I am quite content in this life being all there is. I would venture to say there are professing Christians who aren’t very happy today and are only looking for their heavenly reward. Very sad.

    Yes we disagree and I think we also misunderstand each other from time to time as well.

    I think we’ve beat another horse here unkleE. Thank you for sharing your comments.

  15. @unkleE, “I’d be interested to know about those 50 years – what sort of christianity were you involved in and how involved were you?”

    I wasn’t going to reply to this but thought it necessary to after all. This is where Christian Apologists cross the line. They (you) can’t accept the fact that if I were a Christian like themselves (yourself) , I couldn’t possibly denounce my faith and become something else. Therefore my Christian walk had to be inferior to theirs (yours). It is a flawed argument designed to make the Apologist justified in continuing his Christian Walk. He is the “True Christian” because he continues to believe and those who fall by the wayside never were.

    This was a problem among most Christians I ever knew. When learning (gossip) of a failure of a fellow Christian the common thought / response was, how “Christian” were they ? How strong was their walk ? I don’t find this behavior taught by Jesus in the NT anywhere.

  16. They (you) can’t accept the fact that if I were a Christian like themselves (yourself) , I couldn’t possibly denounce my faith and become something else. Therefore my Christian walk had to be inferior to theirs (yours). It is a flawed argument designed to make the Apologist justified in continuing his Christian Walk.

    I’m sorry you feel this way Ken. I have on occasion observed that other people’s christian experience was very different to mine, and makes me better understand why they left the faith, but that wasn’t in my mind in this case. I was genuinely interested, and I thought hearing a little of your story might help us avoid some of the loggerheads we’ve come to in the past.

    To demonstrate that I’m not just making this up, you might like to read two posts from my other blog: Atheists who once were christians and The way we treat deserters.

    Best wishes.

  17. I don’t mind sharing my experience with you under those conditions. I am sure you have seen Christians do what I was describing. When I have time, I will be happy to share. Thank you

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