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.