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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Photo by David Cassolato from Pexels
It’s not uncommon to come across stories of people being miraculously healed. They are some of the most popular pages on this site, and there’s no shortage of them on the internet.
I’m not sure why, but I’m guessing that some people want to feel re-assured God is really there, and some are perhaps looking for hope for their own healing. And then of course there are those who don’t believe healing can occur and want to debunk the stories.
So I wonder what evidence you would need to believe someone was miraculously healed?
Continue reading →
Human beings are curious creatures, and most of us think about ‘big’ questions, such as “What is life all about?”, or “How did everything get here?” or “Could there be a God?”.
How can a human being possibly answer these questions with any assurance?
But how can we ignore these questions either?
So what is the best way to try to answer them?
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I sometimes get asked for the reasons why I believe. Sometimes it is curiosity, sometimes people are desperate to know why they should believe.
Occasionally people ask what sort of reasons are good, with the implication that some reasons are somehow inappropriate.
So here’s the results of many years of thought and reading …..
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It is Chinese New Year, and last Saturday we visited the celebrations at Hurstville, the suburb where we both grew up and now home to a large Chinese community.
We watched the parade and checked out the stalls, and found plenty to interest us.
Continue reading →
This scene from the Egyptian Book of the Dead (c 1275 BCE), shows the dead scribe Hunefer’s heart being weighed by the canine-headed Anubis on the scale of Maat. The ibis-headed Thoth, scribe of the gods, records the result. If his heart is lighter than the feather of truth, Hunefer is allowed to pass into the afterlife. If not, he is eaten by the crocodile-headed Ammit. Photo from Wikipedia (public domain).
A nasty idea?
The idea of hell, a place of punishment in the afterlife, is a part of traditional Christianity and Islam, yet is rejected by some christians and reviled by most non-believers.
It isn’t a pleasant thought, and I don’t recall ever discussing it in any detail on this website before. But for some people it is such a barrier to believing in a loving God that I felt I must address it.
Where did the idea come from? And is it an essential part of christianity?
Let’s take a look.
Justice in this world and the next?
The word hell has a Germanic origin, appearing in such languages as Norse and Anglo Saxon. It referred to the place of the dead, an underworld, and sometimes as a place of punishment and suffering for evildoers.
Most religions have a similar concept of an afterlife in an underworld, either the same for all people (as in ancient Sumerian belief), or more commonly with rewards and punishments based on the merits, or otherwise, of each life (as, for example, in ancient Egypt, as pictured above).
We can see the attraction of this idea, at least for those who have lived a hard life with suffering caused by the wealthy and powerful – they may be downtrodden in this life, but the pecking order will be reversed in the next world.
Early Jewish and Christian views
The Jewish scriptures refer to Sheol, meaning the state of death, or “the grave”, but it was often seen as being a shadowy underworld where people still existed in some form. However in the couple of centuries before Jesus, Jewish thinking evolved to think there was a place of either (1) purging before entering into life in the age to come, or (2) a place where evildoers were judged and their lives forfeited, or sometimes (3) a place of ongoing punishment of evildoers, while the righteous entered straight into the glorious life in the age to come. The place where this happened was sometimes referred to as Ge Hinnom, actually the name of a valley outside of Jerusalem where refuse was burnt.
Jesus used the phrase Ge Hinnom (the Greek of the New Testament is Ge’enna) when talking about God’s judgment, and it is usually translated as “hell”. He seemed to use the term in sense (2), as a place of judgment and destruction rather than ongoing suffering. The rest of the New Testament says nothing about Ge’enna.
The early christians generally followed Jesus’ example and, if they talked about hell at all, most often spoke of it as an end of life rather than punishment. But weren’t very explicit about it.
Later Christian views
Apparently under the influence of Greek philosophy of an immortal soul that couldn’t be destroyed at death, plus some pagan religious ideas, the idea was developed of hell as a punishment that would go on forever. It became mainstream in the church based on Augustine’s teachings around 400 CE, and has been the main doctrine in both Protestant and Catholic theology since then.
Painters and preachers have at times in church history painted a lurid and fearful picture of hell, and “fire and brimstone” preachers have used it as an effective means of scaring people into obedience to the christian faith.
The concept of hell has moderated in modern times, for several reasons.
Modern conservative Protestants and Catholic still generally believe in hell as a place of ongoing punishment for sin and unbelief, with the doctrine often now defined as “eternal conscious torment”. But the days of fire and brimstone preaching are, mostly and thankfully, over.
However many “progressive” christians find that idea repugnant, inconsistent with a loving God and (most importantly) inconsistent with the teachings of Jesus. So many have moved to one of two other doctrines:
- “conditional immortality”, which sees those who refuse to seek God’s forgiveness forfeiting their opportunity for life in the age to come, or else
- “universalism”, where hell is a place of temporary purging, or of short term existence until the person is repentant and seeks God’s forgiveness, but eventually all will be won over by God’s love and receive eternal life.
Meanwhile, the growing number of sceptics and non-believers in previously “christian” countries, influenced no doubt by a scientific understanding of the world and death, but also by a growing sense of humanity, now scorn the idea of hell. They don’t believe it exists, because they don’t believe in an afterlife or in God, and they would find it difficult to believe in a God whose punishment was so harsh that he penalises even a lifetime of unbelief and sin with an eternity of punishment.
The evolution of hell
So the idea of hell has come almost full circle. From an expectation that death was the end, through the idea of justice in the next world, hell reached its peak as a scary place of fire and torment somewhere around the Middle Ages, and is now in decline as an idea.
I don’t think it is a moment too soon.
I have examined the philosophical, ethical and Biblical aspects of hell in Does hell make it impossible to believe in God?. You can find a number of references there.