Thursday, October 23, 2008

Consciousness and the Culture Wars

It’s been quite a while since my last blog post. And what does it take to awaken me from my blogmatic slumbers? Headlines like this: Creationists Declare War over the Brain. Not again! Not another surd in the so-called culture wars. Say it ain’t so; please, say it ain’t so.

I’m afraid it is so. Apparently, there was an “international symposium” titled Beyond the Mind-Body Problem: New Paradigms in the Science of Consciousness held in New York last month. And in August, the Discovery Institute (home to Intelligent Design thinkers and supporters) held their annual Briefing on Intelligent Design, at which two putative neuroscienists—(I say “putative” only because I have not yet had the opportunity to review their credentials and because I have suspicions about agenda-driven “science” whether it emanates from the Discovery Institute or from the likes of Dawkins and Hitchens; and I put “science” in scare quotes because usually when you’ve got cultural agenda in the neighborhood a lot of stuff gets called “science” which isn’t)—as I was saying, the Discovery Institute hosted their annual confab at which two putative neuroscientists spoke, two scientists who also headlined the “international symposium." These “scientists” (and for all I know they may have impeccable credentials; but until I get the chance to check them out, I'm going keep "science" in scare quotes) these "scientists" claim that the fact of consciousness constitutes “Darwinism’s grave.” And in the aftermath of “Darwinism,” with “Darwinism” (whatever that is; about as helpful a term as "evangelical" or "postmodernism") having been buried, there’s now room for what they call “non-material neuroscience” a “science” they themselves allegedly practice.

Well, there are many, I say MANY, issues embedded in this “non-material neuroscience” movement that deserve attention. I’m going to address a few of them. I do so not as a neuroscientist, but rather as a Christian philosopher with a keen interest in consciousness and neuroscience, a professor who regularly teaches a course called Minds, Brains and Persons, (a course in which we puzzle over the mystery of consciousness and just how it relates to neural goings-on between our ears), and someone who has published a couple of articles and books on related issues.

First, although there are others more competent than myself who can speak to the ID movement as such, notably among them my colleague, Steve Matheson, I will say this: to the extent that ID claims that the level of complexity found in biological systems exceeds that which evolution, i.e., natural mechanisms, could have produced, then if God has in fact brought about biological systems through natural mechanisms (i.e., through evolution), I think God’s going to be pretty surprised to learn that God could not have in fact done this! I can state the point much more succinctly: isn’t it a bit presumptuous to lay down a priori how God has to do things?!!! Of course it is; it’s presumptuous (as uncle Al Plantinga might say) in excelsis.

Second, let me say something about consciousness and the brain. For starters, it’s no secret, no new revelation to any of us—hard core dualists, atheistic materialists or even Christian materialists like myself—that consciousness has so far escaped the materialist-naturalist net of explanation. Why is that? Why hasn’t consciousness yielded to natural explanation? Is it because no naturalistic ‘link’ exists between neurophysiological goings-on in the brain and ‘technicolor’ phenomenology or is there a solution to the mystery that characterizes the relation between the mental and the physical and that solution is to be found in an immaterial mind or soul?

According to one atheistic philosopher there is indeed a natural property that accounts for the psychophysical link. Says Colin McGinn, a notable philosopher of mind,

Resolutely shunning the supernatural, I think it is undeniable that it must be in virtue of some natural property of the brain that organisms are conscious. There just has to be some explanation for how brains subserve minds. (From Can We Solve the Mind-Body Problem,
Blackwell's, 1994, p.6)

Now McGinn thinks that we are constitutionally incapable of ever discovering that link. But, he assures us, it is a natural link and indeed it has to be. It has to be because we must—as good materialists/naturalists—shun the supernatural.

Well, it’s clear that by “resolutely shunning the supernatural” McGinn means to rule out--again, a priori--the existence of God, the soul or anything supernatural or immaterial. To put it another way, McGinn is a metaphysical naturalist, i.e., a naturalist about everything: the natural world is all there is and so it is exhaustive of reality.

But look: one needn’t embrace that exaggerated claim in order to believe that it is in virtue of some natural property of brains that organisms are conscious. I, for example, am a theist, a supernaturalist you might say. I believe in God the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth. And since I believe in the God of the Christian Scriptures, I believe neither that the natural world is all there is, nor that the natural world is “causally closed.” I believe, in other words, that God can intervene in the natural world, that God has done so and, sometimes, continues to do so. And I believe that it is in virtue of some natural property of brains that we are conscious.

Furthermore, I believe that, for the most part, God does not directly intervene in the natural world. Since the natural world has yielded in so many ways to scientific (i.e., naturalistic) explanation over the past several hundred years, it seems eminently plausible to believe that God created the world—the natural world—with its own integrity and such that it operates according to regularities that can be grasped and understood, not only by those who acknowledge its author, but by those who do not and whose explanations, though natural and accurate, do not appeal to the author of nature.

Since God created the natural world, and all that it contains, with its own integrity, it is also reasonable to believe that consciousness itself—a feature encountered in the natural world—has a natural explanation. That’s my position anyway. So it seems clear to me that we can accept the claim that it is in virtue of a natural property of the brain that organisms are conscious without accepting metaphysical naturalism.

Perhaps some distinctions will help. Begin (and for our purposes, end) by distinguishing metaphysical naturalism from both methodological naturalism and what we might call chastened naturalism. Metaphysical naturalism, again, amounts to the claim that the natural world is all there is and is exhaustive of reality. Methodological naturalism, on the other hand, amounts to a presupposition about the practice of science. It says that scientific explanations must exclude reference to supernatural or immaterial entities.

Now if science is in the business of discovering natural causes, this ought not to surprise or offend. Methodological naturalism, as I understand it, is perfectly compatible with a robust Christian theism insofar as it does not rule out explanations that appeal to God. It simply will not count such explanations as scientific explanations. Moreover, what I want to call chastened naturalism recognizes the enormous contribution science has made to our understanding of the natural world and takes the natural world to possess its own integrity and to exemplify regularities that can be understood without reference to any immaterial or supernatural entities. What makes it chastened naturalism is its refusal to go “metaphysical” and to claim that the natural world is all there is and, therefore, that the sciences are the only source of genuine knowledge. Chastened naturalism is compatible with there being religious experience and Divine revelation. Such experience and revelation provides for religious knowledge, which is genuine knowledge even if not visible to the practice of science and by definition not scientific knowledge.

In short, to grant to atheistic naturalists that it is in virtue of some natural property of brains that organisms are conscious does not require us to sacrifice our theistic or Christian commitments. It doesn’t even require us to deny that consciousness is a result of Divine activity. Why? Because since when is God precluded from acting through naturalistic mechanisms? Did God fashion you in your mother’s womb? Yes. Well, how did he do that? I suggest picking up any biology textbook and reading the chapter on embryology. There you will find the answer. You are not, however, likely to find there any mention of God. That’s not surprising, though; is it? What you find there is the naturalistic explanation for your coming to be. And there's nothing atheistic about it. Who made up the rule that natural (explanation) is incompatible with God? I didn't get that memo.

So, what is the solution to the problem of consciousness? I'll say it again—and say so with no embarrassment—I have no idea. Like McGinn and Leibniz before him I think consciousness continues to prove itself intractable. It remains a mystery. But I'm not convinced that we will never solve it.

But doesn't the fact that materialist neuroscientists have so far failed to solve the problem drive us ineluctably to substance dualism? Well, the “neuroscientists” funded by the Discovery Institute think so. I, however, think not. Let me tell you why, why the fact of consciousness, though profoundly puzzling to materialists, ought not to be viewed by dualists as grounds for celebrating victory in the mind-body debate.

Here’s a little argument for dualism, based on consciousness:

(i) Materialism or dualism is true
(ii) We human beings are conscious creatures
(iii) It is a mystery how it is that we human beings are conscious creatures if materialism is true
(iv) The fact that we human beings are conscious creatures is a good reason for believing dualism is true

This is not, of course, a good argument. Suppose we know about John only that he is either a full-time auto-mechanic or a full-time janitor. Suppose too that we know that John attends philosophy colloquia at Calvin College every Tuesday afternoon. The fact that it is difficult to see how it could be that John attends philosophy colloquia at Calvin every Tuesday afternoon if John is an auto-mechanic is no good reason to believe he is a janitor. In other words, it needs to be shown how John's attending philosophy colloquia makes it more likely that he is a janitor than that he is an auto mechanic. Likewise, just because we can’t see how consciousness emerges from matter makes it no more likely that it owes to an immaterial soul.

But isn’t it much easier to see how it is that we human beings are conscious if dualism is true than it is if we are wholly physical beings, i.e., if some version of materialism is true? I don’t think so. Is it really any easier to see how an immaterial soul could be conscious than it is to see how a material being could be? If anything it may seem harder, owing simply to the fact that it is difficult to imagine an immaterial soul. Peter van Inwagen—a Christian and philosopher who is recognized by his philosophical peers as among the very best analytic philospophers currently working—has argued for the claim that since we know quite a lot about physical objects the mystery of consciousness is glaring. There is, he believes, a corresponding ignorance about non-physical objects that has had the tendency to conceal the mystery for dualists. But the fact of the matter really is this: consciousness is a mystery for all of us. It is no less a mystery for dualists than it is for materialists.

So the fact that consciousness has not yielded to natural explanation is not, despite the claims of the non-material neuroscientists, Darwinism’s grave. (I still want to know what view or views “Darwinism” is supposed to pick out. But that’s a topic better left to my friend Steve over at Quintessence of Dust. And it’s probably already been addressed there.)

I can think of at least two reasons for believing that naturalism--in terms either of consciousness or evolution--poses a problem for theism. (i) assume that God cannot work through natural mechanisms or (ii) identifiy naturalism with metaphysical naturalism. I see no reason to embrace either (i) or (ii). Until I do, I will remain a (chastened) naturalist and a Christian theist. And with any luck, I will also remain employed.


Tom Clark said...

"Chastened naturalism is compatible with there being religious experience and Divine revelation. Such experience and revelation provides for religious knowledge, which is genuine knowledge even if not visible to the practice of science and by definition not scientific knowledge."

I'm wondering why you think that religious experience and Divine revelation are reliable grounds for knowledge claims. Seems to me the only way to reliably insulate knowledge claims from wishful thinking, subjective bias, arbitrary authority and calcified tradition is to test them against intersubjective evidence, that is, be empiricists as exemplified by science. Can non-empirical subjective experience and revelation really compete with or add to science as reliable modes of modeling reality? About all this see , especially the latest exchanges with Goetz and Taliaferro on their book about naturalism.


Tom Clark
Center for Naturalism

Kevin Corcoran said...

Hey Tom,

First, thanks for taking the time to comment. Based only on an argument from silence, I surmise that you have no problem with the naturalist elements of my view, i.e., that I would be inclined to accept an evolutionary account of creation and expect a naturalistic explanation of consciousness. What puzzles you is that I believe in God, and that I don’t believe that science is the ONLY source of genuine knowledge. And the problem, as you see it, is that science is the only source of knowledge that is “reliably insulated from wishful thinking, subjective bias, arbitrary authority and calcified tradition.”

Well, I suspect we have different starting points. You, I take it, are what we might call an antecedent metaphysical naturalist (an atheist, for short). I’m not. I begin with God. Given your starting point, I can understand why you would think that science is the sole arbiter of reality, as you would believe that the natural, physical world is all there is. But, as I say, I don’t start there. I mean I don’t come to the world, to science or to anything else, believing that the physical world is all there is. I come with a different picture. It seems to me that my experience, and the experience of the vast majority of others, also confirms my belief in God. For among the belief forming mechanisms we human beings seem to be hard-wired with is one that is God-directed, and this receives confirmation in the fact that we find religious beliefs among the species throughout time and across the globe.

Moreover, I would suggest that science (or the practice of science) is not especially well insulated from calcified tradition. One can think of many working scientists whose ground-breaking work was summarily dismissed in their day precisely because it cut across the grain of what had become a calcified way of thinking. I think here of the work of Michael Faraday and Barbara McClintock, to name but two. Subjective bias in various of its forms is also an equal opportunity employer, and science is no stranger to its employ. Consider perceptual bias, publication bias and various and sundry other sorts of subjective biases that infect the practice of science. Finally, I would suggest that Dawkins’ belief that science tells against the existence of God is much more the result of wish fulfillment than it is a deliverance of science. Science, as I understand it, just isn’t in the business of the supernatural.

That’s how I see things anyway.

Thanks for you question!


Peter B said...

Thanks for that explanation Kevin.

I tend to agree with you on your response to Tom. Am I correct in reading your explanation as a claim that we all start with certain metaphysical foundations, all of which are not amenable to empirical justification. These personal foundations (e.g. Tom does not believe in God, you do believe in God) then serve to guide our understanding of the world in some fashion. This does not mean there will be complete disagreement because there exist tools that allow people with different foundations to arrive as similar conclusions (e.g. the use of methodological naturalism and scientific method to study the natural world, the use of logic and argumentation, etc.).

So then are all foundations equally valid (again comparing Tom and your differing views on the existence of God)? You seem to argue here that this is not true, and bolster your own claim with some type of 'naturalistic' evidence (brains 'wired' to believe in God), though with metaphysical implications. This information makes your foundation more plausible to you.

But even with that evidence, we are still coming to it and understanding it within our foundation. So some scientists (perhaps who are atheists) would take that claim that people tend to believe in God and explain it with something in our evolutionary history (Pascal Boyer's work does a bit of this). Other scientists would take this as evidence that we are foundationally individuals meant to be in relationship with God, though not necessarily saying this did not come from evolution (I see Justin Barrett as being more in this camp).

I guess my larger question is what are worthy foundations to start from... and if these foundations are made plausible by naturalistic evidence... is this just a modified empiricism where empirical data makes some claims more or less plausible?

Tom Clark said...

Hi Kevin,

Thanks for your reply, a few thoughts in response:

My starting point doesn't assume naturalism, only that if you want a reliable, objective model of reality, you have to insulate your beliefs from the influence of subjective bias, arbitrary authority, perceptual distortions, etc. Intersubjective empiricism, of which science is a special case, is the only reliable way to do this as far as I know. All worldviews claim objectivity, but only naturalism relies exclusively on empiricism to achieve it. I'm a naturalist because I want reliable knowledge of the world.

That millions of people have experiences that seem to confirm the existence of god doesn't confirm it, since they could all be mistaken in their experiences, just as the millions who believe in astrology, alien abduction and paranormal powers could all be (and likely are) mistaken. You need external, publicly observable and repeatable evidence available to anyone (not just to those who have experiences of God) in order to establish God's existence. It seems to me that being hard-wired to experience God doesn't help, since we're hard-wired to perceive intentional agency in all sorts of situations where there isn't any (some speculate it may be adaptive to do so). And of course the huge variety of supernatural religious belief over the millennia (polytheism, spirit worship, etc.), as well as its relative absence (e.g., in China) is evidence against the veridicality of belief in a Christian God.

You're of course absolutely right that science gets bogged down in tradition and various kinds of bias. But it's method has evolved to detect and correct such errors, which it has more or less successfully over the last 300 years. Science doesn't defend an ontology, as do most religions, only a method.

Lastly, I'd say science is in the business of providing a reliable, objective, and explanatorily satisfying model of reality, and its deliverances are what we call nature. If there were another reliable mode of knowing that revealed a supernatural realm to us, then that would be *its* business. But as far as I can tell there isn't any, so there's no good reason to believe in the supernatural.



Kevin Corcoran said...


I've been out of town and now having just gotten back, find myself knee-deep in various obligations. All I can do now is issue a promissory note to the effect that I WILL respond just as soon as I can.


AmateurAuteur said...

hey just so you know, Luis pissed in your backyard last night...

Plumb Bob said...

You wrote: "In short, to grant to atheistic naturalists that it is in virtue of some natural property of brains that organisms are conscious does not require us to sacrifice our theistic or Christian commitments."

Perhaps not, but what reason do we have to grant it? Apart from the naturalists' claims that it must be so, what reason do we have to insist that it is so? Isn't the act of granting this simply an a priori announcement that their -- and your -- presuppositions are true? Why should anyone not of your mindset grant this?

Kevin Corcoran said...

My apologies for being lax in following up here. The semester got the best of me, I'm afraid.

First, to Tom. If you think that empiricism is somehow specially insulated from the influence of subjective bias, arbitrary authority, perceptual distortions, etc., then I think you're much too sanguine about empiricism. It is no more insulated than any other human endeavor.

I think (but I'm not sure) that you misunderstood how I meant to use "confirms." For the antecedent theist (i.e., one convinced of theism) her experience and the experience of others confirms her belief in theism. (I don't mean to suggest that her experience will lead her to believe in the existence of God all by itself.) Of course, she could mistaken. But, that's perfectly compatible with her experience serving to confirm her belief. (I think science works this way as well. You have an explanatory account or theory that receives confirmation from future observations etc. only much later to be abandon as ultimately inadequate or deficient or false.)

And when you claim "You need external, publicly observable and repeatable evidence available to anyone (not just to those who have experiences of God) in order to establish God's existence," I wonder who exactly it was who made up that rule? Sounds preposterous to me.

And to Plumb Bob, the reason to grant "it" is that it seems to me that natural explanations are what is to be expected in the natural realm. And given the fact that the mental has to an extraordinarily large degree yielded itself to natural explanation I expect that consciousness too will one day so yield. I'm not saying that God doesn't sometimes act in surprising and unexpected ways in the natural world. But usually the natural world behaves in regular, predictable ways, with the sort of autonomy God seems to have given it at creation.

Sorry I haven't time for more thorough responses.


Tom Clark said...

Hi Kevin,

Thanks for the reply. In response I'd just say that

1) Empiricism is of course fallible, like any other human enterprise, but by requiring publicly available evidence it works to limit the distorting effects of individual subjectivities, tradition, and arbitrary authority when making claims about reality. Empiricism is inherently self-correcting in this respect and thus a more reliable route to objectivity than ways of knowing that don't require public evidence.

2) As an empirical enterprise, science confirms belief by means of public observation. Having an antecedent belief in God confirmed by one's own experience and the experience of others leaves open the question of whether those experiences are accurate reflections of reality. Absent publicly available evidence to validate them, such experiences could all fail to be veridical representations of the world.

3) This is the rational (not preposterous) basis for wanting 3rd person evidence to establish the reality of God's existence, and it's why many religionists (creationists, IDers) try to use science to confirm their belief. But if science actually found God that would tend to naturalize him, which isn’t what religionists generally want.

About all this, see Reality and its rivals at Naturalism.Org.



Anonymous said...

Hey Kevin,

From what I understand one of these neuroscientist is Mario Beauregard, who has very good credentials as far as they go but in areas that you and I might find interesting (the philosophy) he has very poor arguments for substance dualism. Beauregard is a neuroscientist from montreal and is an often quoted researcher on emotions and the brain.

He has just written a new book called "The Spiritual Brain: a neuroscientist's case for the existence of the soul". From what I've read of the book it has it's pluses(sp?) and minuses. On the plus side he investigates some of the popular research on religious belief and religious experience by contemporary neuroscientists and investigates each critically (some of them are even very good criticisms from what I can tell).

Essentially he criticises a lot of the quick fixes that are often given to explain away religious belief and experience including God parts of the brain, God genes, God modules, God helmuts, temporal lobe epilepsy, temporal lobe sensitivity etc.

He then offers his own research in this area and suggests religious experience is a bit more complex than most of these scientists have been led to believe. Religious experience often occurs in other parts of the brain than just the temporal lobes as many neuroscientists claim and involves a lot of the areas of the brain that are involved in emotion.

The research he did with the carmelite nuns was interesting and his criticisms of the "quick fixes" neuroscientists give for religious belief I think are almost right on target.

Alright, so now the bad. Beauregard thinks that neuroplasticity offers a good case for substance dualism. I don't buy it. Further, any form of substance dualism faces some very powerful criticisms that Beuregard doesn't really adress, including how the mind can interact with the physical body if they are two substances.

In fact Beuregard doesn't even say if he is a substance dualist but he comes pretty close to it, he also mentions other positions that we have seen commonly presented in philosophy of mind including emergentism, epiphenominalism etc but he doesn't outright say "I'm defending substance dualism here", he just says he's a "non-materialist" without actually saying what exactly that is. Is it a form of ontological emergentism? I've heard some ontological emergentists claim they are not physicalists and not materialists in the strict reductionistic sense of the word. But, I still think that they are still physicalists and materialists in the sense that they are monists. Clearly Beauregard has some philosophical work to do here in defending his more positive aspect of his theory.

So i think he is legit, and I'd suggest reading his new book, especially if your interested in religious experience (his research in this area is what I think is most interesting). But he has a long ways to go to actually make a case for the immaterial soul.


Raymond W Aldred

david said...

You Wrote: Methodological naturalism, on the other hand, amounts to a presupposition about the practice of science. It says that scientific explanations must exclude reference to supernatural or immaterial entities.

Me: I'm not so sure. Suppose that we have an exhaustive list of possible explanations of some phenomena. At least one of these explanations includes reference to a supernatural or immaterial entity. Now suppose that via scientific investigation every other explanation is ruled out. Thus, the only remaining explanation is a supernatural or one that involves an immaterial entity. Given that this is the only one left it is safe to conclude that it is the best explanation. It seems to me that this explanation should can't as scientific despite the fact that it violates your definition of methodological naturalism.

Thoughts said...


You say:

(i) Materialism or dualism is true
(ii) We human beings are conscious creatures
(iii) It is a mystery how it is that we human beings are conscious creatures if materialism is true
(iv) The fact that we human beings are conscious creatures is a good reason for believing dualism is true.

What strikes me as odd about this is that you missed the possibility of a non-materialist, non-dualist interpretation. There is a gap between materialism and physicalism occupied by events due to geometrical phenomena. Materialists ignore this gap because it makes them uncomfortable ( see Stanford Encyclopedia entry on Physicalism at ).

The materialist argument against consciousness is also no more than a form of Aristotle's regress and even Aristotle, over two thousand years ago, found this regress argument unconvincing.

So item (iii) is only true if the regress argument is true, and unfortunately for the materialist, the regress argument is not sustainable.

On item (iv), the fact that a fallacious theory such as materialism does not explain consciousness does not mean that dualism explains it. I believe there are already other approaches and I would guess that in the next billion years of sentient thought someone might come up with yet another approach.

Karen Gritter said...

Just a few thoughts:

Our paradigms are definitely dictating what is "observable" and therefore scientifically valid. Cf the disparity between ancient Chinese medicine and western medicine: the first was based on the study of living beings and so incorporates a lot of things having to do with chi and other energy that the west has basically said is hooey. But since the west based their study on cadavers, they never looked into this area; they are better at surgery.

I think our idea of nature/supernature is probably similar; we're caught in a paradigm of either/or, so we don't necessarily see the confluence...