Musings on consciousness.
Consciousness stands as a necessary condition for purpose and free will. (For now, I will leave aside the questions of the reality of God and human immortality.) But the notions of purpose and free will require that consciousness has real effects in the natural world. Otherwise we are ineffective spectators of the results of natural processes that take place at the micro level. Many scientists hold just that, namely that free will is an illusion and what we think are free acts are the result of electro-chemical processes going on in our brain.
Among those scientists who hold this view are Kristof Koch with his “Romantic Reductivism,” and Sean Carroll with his “Poetic Naturalism.” Other prominent scientists who hold the naturalistic reductive position are the late Stephen Hawking and Francis Crick. Maybe the majority of scientists hold this view, but that does not matter. Although I respect scientists and scientific consensus, the question of consciousness goes beyond science.
Sean Carroll believes that physics has explained consciousness, and in this he joins the old “new atheists” such as Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett. Philosopher Thomas Nagel argues that consciousness cannot be reduced to an object of physical science; Kristof Koch, neurobiologist and protégé of Francis Crick, admits that science cannot yet explain consciousness, but believes that it has the capacity to explain it in the future. I want to analyze and explicate the views of Nagel, Carroll, and Koch, but first I will present my own take on the problem. (Not that I imagine myself to be in the same leagues as the fore-mentioned).
Most of the attempted explanations of consciousness explain the neural conditions necessary for human consciousness. But they leave out the unique subjective experience of humans including the physicists and philosophers who do the analysis. Carroll dismisses this problem while Nagel and Koch grapple with it. From the point of view of the physicist, the question can be framed: How can something that is not physical move something that is clearly physical, such as the electrons that compose our neurons? The answer of the reductionists is simply that something non-physical, even if it exists, could not move something physical. Such movement would contradict the law of conservation of energy.
I see the major premise of the reductionist argument to consist in this: Whatever exists can be an object of physical science; and whatever cannot be an object of physical science cannot exist. So a common position of reductionism holds that consciousness cannot be anything apart from properties and processes of the brain. Furthermore, consciousness cannot exert a physical effect on the brain, and therefore our thoughts, choices, and values depend on physical activity in the brain, these conscious experiences can only be the effect of physical event, never the cause. As Kristof Koch sums up the reductionist position. “No matter; never mind.”
I join those who contend that consciousness is unique and not reducible to physics. When scientists study the brain you can think of at least three distinct aspects of the study. There is the object of scientific knowledge gained through instrument-aided experiments; the physical processes going on within the brain of the scientists; and the consciousness of the scientists of their knowledge. Physicists can reduce biology and chemistry to physics. The reduction includes the structure and processes of their own brains. But what about consciousness including their own. It is unlike any object of physical science.
In my next posts I will consider the reductive arguments of Sean Carroll and Kristof Koch.
An evolutionary view of creation
John Haught fully embraces the insights of science and especially those of Darwinian evolution. He contends that these scientific insights are not only compatible with the experience of biblical faith, but that they nourish a theology that is richer than pre-Darwinian religious thought.
Scientists begin with the commitment to the belief that the world is to some extent intelligible and that truth is worth the hard work of science. These faith commitments of scientists do not prove anything about the ultimate nature of reality, but they are more compatible with a religious vision than with a materialistic one. Unlike the materialist interpretation of reality, the religious view sees the work of the scientist as part of a larger cosmic narrative characterized by a hopeful outcome.
Haught shows the weakness of naïve theism as well as naïve atheism both of which find a world that grows from random events, as depicted by Darwin, incompatible with belief in God. These theists therefore argue that the events happen by design and the randomness is illusory; the atheists affirm the randomness and declare belief in a Creator to be the illusion. Haught grounds his view of creation in the religious insight that God’s love is self-emptying, which allows creation to develop on its own as something other than the Creator. As Haught writes:
An unrestrained display of infinite presence or “omnipotence” would leave no room for anything other than God, and so it would leave out any evolutionary self-transcendence on the part of the cosmos. It is a humble “retreat” on God’s part that allows the cosmos to stand on its own and then to evolve as a relatively autonomous reality distinct from its creative ground. In this sense, creation and its evolutionary unfolding would be less the consequence of an eternal divine “plan” than of a humble and loving “letting be.”
The crucial meaning of Haught’s insights shows that a slowly evolving and chaotic universe does not necessarily lead to a materialist view of reality. Theists and atheist alike cannot get by with a simple choice of affirming or denying design.
Haught’s process theology takes a different approach to the notion of God as designer. He maintains that the universe is allowed to grow as something independent of the Creator. He contrasts the understanding of God in process theology with the portrayal of God in naive theism and atheism:
A coercive deity---one that immature religiosity often wishes for and that our scientific skeptics invariably have in mind when they assert that Darwin has destroyed theism---would not allow for the otherness, autonomy, and self-coherence necessary for a world to be a world unto itself.
A non-coercive creator allows not only human freedom, but also the pre-human spontaneity that allows for the formation of the universe and the evolution of life and of species. Haught concludes that God is the source not only of order, but also the instability and disorder that are necessary for novelty and for life itself.
While John Haught approaches the issue of evolution as a theologian with a deep understanding of science, Kenneth R. Miller approaches the same question as a cell biologist with a rich understanding of theology. In his book, Searching for Darwin’s God, Miller begins by demolishing the array of Creationists theories including Intelligent Design. These theories, while claiming the label of “scientific,” deny the validity of much well-established science, and they present a diminished notion of God.
In chapters 3, 4 and 5, Miller shows that Creationists present God as: first, a charlatan who created the earth only ten thousand years ago, but through fakery, made it look older; second, as a magician who made living things appear out of thin air; and third, as a mechanic who tinkered together the intricacy of the living cell. Miller then demonstrates that the origin of life as well as of species can be accounted for by the scientific study based on Darwinian natural selection.
The conflict that still endures between some religious thinkers and some scientists
stems partly from the notion that religion can answer questions better left to science, for example, questions on the origin of life and origin of species. But the controversy is fueled by many evolutionists who contend that evolution makes mechanistic materialism triumphant to the point that any religious or spiritual ideas are superfluous and irrational. Those evolutionists hold in common with the creationists the premise that evolution and religion are mutually exclusive.
Creation and Chaos
In my last two post I presented the notion that the universe does not look like the work of an all-good and all-powerful designer. I agree with this assessment. Here I want to express an idea of God as seen in the light of evolution.
The notion of God as a designer who controls every event in creation rules out the notion of evolution by natural selection; conversely the acceptance of evolution by natural selection rules out the possibility of belief in God the designer.
Religious thinkers who welcome the findings of evolution understand God differently from the theists and the atheists who think of God as a Designer. Theologian John Haught, for example, contends that the discoveries of Darwin open up the possibility of a richer notion of God than had ever been know before. Religious understanding, specifically the understanding of Christianity, does not portray God as an all-controlling designer, but as one who empties Himself to allow the world to be itself. As Haught sees it:
God’s creative love constitutes the world as something ontologically distinct from God, and not as a simple extension of divine being. Consequently, the indeterminate natural occurrences that recent physics has uncovered at the most elementary levels of physical reality, the random events that biology finds at the level of life’s evolution, and the freedom that emerges with human existence are all features proper to any world that is permitted and even encouraged to be distinct from the creative love that underlies it.
(I am aware that some scientists including Sean Carroll, author of The Big Picture, and the late Stephen Hawking, probably the best known physicist of our time, believe that the probability laws of quantum mechanics are as deterministic as the older mechanistic view, and they reject the notion of random events and freedom. I will try to deal with these issues later, but for here I will go along with those scientists who accept randomness and freedom.)
In Christian belief and experience, God reveals Himself in the form of a poor man, of no political or economic consequence, who suffered death by execution on a cross. The trust in an incomprehensible God, in spite of unbearable sorrow also runs deep in the history of religious Jews from their early days of exile up through the Holocaust.
This notion, of course, has no appeal to those who do not accept it, but it shows that God as experienced in Christianity and Judaism bears no resemblance to the powerful but prissy god whom anti-evolutionists affirm, and atheists reject. God as experienced by religion is quite compatible with evolution by natural selection.
As expressed by the renowned Jesuit paleontologist, Teilhard de Chardin (1881 – 1955) “Even to a mere biologist, the evolution of life resembles nothing so much as a way of the cross.”
The key issue, as John Haught argues, is not whether the universe is the work of an Intelligent Designer, but whether the universe has purpose. The two questions are different although both sides often run them together as, “The world is either the product of Intelligent Design or it is pointless.”
Advocates of Intelligent Design, invoke the complexity and beauty of design while atheists claim that the design is sporadic and explainable by randomness over vast periods. Haught’s rejection of design is similar to the argument of the atheists in that he contends that evolution does not look like the work of a designer.
But Haught, rather than looking back for an original design, looks ahead to an evolving purpose. He further argues that the religions that sprang from Abraham consist primarily in hope for the future.
The question of purposefulness in the universe cannot be answered by science. Scientists can and do express opinions on the issues of purpose, but in doing so they base their judgments on whatever factors cause a person to accept or reject faith in a purposeful universe. Haught compares the fatalism of some scientists to that of the Greek tragedies.
Fate for the scientists as for the tragedians moves on with remorseless indifference to human aspirations and comes to a bad conclusion. Shakespeare’s Mac Beth expressed this powerfully on hearing of his wife’ death:
Life’s but a brief shadow; a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Of course, the scientists who think of the universe as pointless may or may not feel their own life as tragic; they might be quite content with their “hour upon the stage.”(Sean Carroll seems to fit this description.) But regardless of how scientists view life, their view is not part of their science.
As Haught argues, science is not equipped to find the value of things. Such questions are metaphysical, and although metaphysics must be consistent with science, a metaphysics of promise is not less scientific than a metaphysics of despair.
Evolution, the problem of evil, and a challenge to the idea of good
The argument from evil stands out as the strongest case against belief in God. If an all good and all powerful Creator produced a world, the argument goes, that world would reflect the Creator’s own goodness. But a close look at reality presents something quite different from what we would expect.
Life on earth is violent, terrifying and excruciatingly painful for its inhabitants. Except for those at the top of the food chain, animals must seek food for themselves and their young under the constant threat of being eaten by a predator. Their lives are likely to end with a few minutes of terror as they try to escape and then the horror and physical pain of having the claws and teeth of death tear into their flesh.
Psychologist Ernest Becker writing about how our fear of death, which we try to suppress, describes an absurd nature in which the horror of human death constitutes a small but typical part:
What are we to make of a creation in which the routine activity is for organisms to tear others apart with teeth of all types---biting, grinding flesh…bones between molars, pushing the pulp greedily down the gullet with delight, incorporating the essence into one’s own organization, and then excreting with foul stench and gasses the residue?
Becker argues that if we can remove all of the illusions that constitute our culture and look at life as it is, we realize that nature mocks the poet. In the context of these posts, we might conclude that nature mocks the idea of the good.
Why did the Creator not make us all vegetarians like the animals in the “Peaceable Kingdom?” Since plants lack the awareness and the nervous system to feel pain, eating them would not involve inflicting cruelty. Or better, yet, why not endow all creatures with the power of photosynthesis and skip eating all together?
But since eating constitutes such a pleasure, why did the Creator not grow lobster tails on trees so that we could enjoy them without throwing a live lobster into boiling water? And why can we not enjoy all sorts of steaks and roasts without the pain and horror of the slaughterhouse? Scientists today are working on growing meat from stem cells. Why didn’t an omniscient Creator think of that?
The contrast between reality and our fantasy of what a benign all-mighty being would have created constitutes for many an airtight argument against belief in God. Atheists like Dawkins do not posit an evil god, but simply an absence of any creator or source of good and evil. The universe including the process of evolution is, in their view, unconscious and pitiless. Atheists have a strong case to show that the world including living things does not flow from an intelligent designer.
What happens to the idea of the good?