Substance dualism is the standard view among Christians. They believe that the mind can’t be reduced to the workings of something physical like the brain, and that the mind and body are made of two distinct substances. There are many arguments from consciousness and a vast range of opinion among experts on the issue of consciousness. We’ll be talking about the common claim of apologists that science and naturalism can’t account for conscious creatures like ourselves, but that theism can, and that this amounts to an argument in favor of theism. Before we go any further, let’s go over some philosophy of mind in order to get our bearings.
First of all, what do we mean when we say ‘consciousness’? The best definition, in my opinion, is the one Thomas Nagel uses in his famous essay “What is it like to be a bat?” He says, “The fact that an organism has conscious experience at all means, basically, that there is something it is like to be that organism. . . . fundamentally an organism has conscious mental states if and only if there is something that it is like to be that organism. . . . We may call this the subjective character of experience.”
So for something to be conscious means that it is like something to be that thing. It’s not like something to be a rock or a quark, but it is like something to be a bat or a dog. The exact nature of a subjective experience could certainly be different from our own, but the point is that it is like something to be a conscious system. So that’s what we mean when we say that something is conscious.
The Hard Problem of Consciousness
The hard problem of consciousness is highly relevant to these sorts of discussions, so let me briefly lay out the hard problem. It starts with a not-so-shocking observation: the world is made of atoms. Atoms, which are made of subatomic particles, which are excitations of quantum fields; but the point is that there is only unfeeling, non-conscious matter on the most fundamental levels of our universe. You’re able to follow the plot that science has pieced together from the most fundamental levels of the universe to the most emergent levels, from physics to chemistry up to microbiology and so on. But at some point, some of this matter becomes conscious. We go from the fundamental levels, which are made up of non-conscious, physical material that has no subjective experience, and at some point, we get conscious physical material that has a subjective experience.
The phrase “the hard problem of consciousness” was coined by the philosopher of mind David Chalmers. The hard problem is something that’s discussed in secular philosophy of mind, entirely separate from any discussion of religion.
To quote the neuroscientist Anil Seth, “For many people, the phenomenon of consciousness is the best evidence we have that there must be something important missing in our basic physical description of the world. According to this worry, a bunch of atoms and particles, mindlessly obeying the laws of physics, can’t actually experience the way a conscious creature does. There’s no such thing as ‘what it is to be like’ a collection of purely physical atoms; it would lack quailia, the irreducibly subjective component of our experience of the world.”
Many neuroscientists and philosophers of mind, including the one I quoted, Anil Seth, don’t actually think that the hard problem is as intractable as it may sound at first blush. And even the ones who do think the hard problem is a serious issue are not sympathetic to theistic explanations or substance dualism. David Chalmers, the philosopher who coined the phrase, is not a substance dualist. He just believes, as Anil Seth mentioned, that there is something missing from our basic physical description of the world, but he’s still a naturalist. Sam Harris also believes the hard problem is a real issue, and he’s definitely not sympathetic to theism.
One response to the hard problem is to point out that it may be a compositional fallacy. Apologists (and others) will try to argue that inanimate material will never suddenly gain quailia. Atoms aren’t conscious, so it’s not as if you can just arrange a bunch of atoms a certain way and get consciousness, they would argue. But the higher-level, emergent properties of something don’t have to be present in the lower-level building blocks of that thing. A single molecule of water isn’t wet, but that doesn’t mean that a collection of water molecules don’t have the emergent property of wetness. A single atom isn’t red, but that doesn’t mean that a collection of atoms can’t have the property of redness.
By the way, it’s called the “hard problem” of consciousness to distinguish itself from the “easy” problems — the difference between being awake and asleep, how we collect data from the outside world and store information, how we remember the past, and so on. Many neuroscientists think that once we’ve solved the easy problems, there won’t be any hard problem left to solve. But many think there will still be a question as to why we’re conscious once we’ve solved all the easy problems.
Zombies and élan vital
Those who take this position often make their case by asking us to try to conceive of hypothetical beings called philosophical zombies. Philosophical zombies are just like us, but it isn’t like anything to be them. They do all the things we do, but have no inner, subjective life. If we can conceive of a being just like us in every way, but isn’t conscious, then the hard problem seems to persist. But if philosophical zombies aren’t conceivable once you actually learn more about the “easy” problems, then the hard problem is just a non-problem. Once we solve the easy problems, there may no longer be a hard problem. We can draw an analogy here to life. Many neuroscientists have pointed out that the situation we’re currently in feels a lot like the state of affairs biologists and philosophers were in before we gained our current understanding of microbiology. People thought life could never be explained in materialistic, naturalistic terms. There were many subscribers to an idea called vitalism, where a “life force,” or “élan vital” was postulated to explain the difference between living things and dead things. You could almost think of it as the hard problem of life. Living systems have all these interesting, unique properties — they can reproduce, they can repair themselves from injury, they can metabolize — people thought there would never be a mechanistic explanation for these things. And that’s why we needed élan vital, a non-physical substance or force to make sense of the fact that life is so different from non-life. Once they learned more about the mechanisms of life, there was no more need for élan vital.
An extremely common argument for why we have an immaterial soul is because the Bible says we do. The Bible also says the sun goes around us and that Pi is equal to three and that stars are points of light that can fall out of the sky and land on the earth. This point is probably just to convince people who already treat the Bible as an authority, but it came up in every argument from consciousness apologetics resource I found, so I thought I should mention it anyway. But what are the philosophical arguments apologists use to defend the soul?
the argument from consciousness
(A) It is a fact that human consciousness exists.
(B) That fact can be adequately explained within a theistic framework (i.e., one which posits God’s existence), whereas it cannot be adequately explained within an atheistic (or naturalistic) framework (i.e., one which denies God’s existence).
(C) Hence, there is a fact which only theism can adequately explain.
(D) Therefore, God must exist.
god of the gaps
First off, it needs to be pointed out that the argument from consciousness is a god of the gaps argument. “We don’t know how to explain consciousness, therefore god.” Here’s something on the frontiers of science that we don’t fully understand, and of course, that’s the thing that god did. The list of things we used to not understand physically and attributed to the supernatural is virtually endless. Disease, failed crops, thunderstorms, the diversity and complexity of life, and on and on the list goes. If we lived a few hundred years ago, theists would’ve been appealing to earthquakes and trees as arguments for the existence of god. It’s an accident of history that we’re alive now talking about the details of how the brain produces consciousness instead. ‘Neuroscience is confusing, therefore god’ is not a good argument.
We’ll talk about whether or not consciousness can be understood in a naturalistic framework in the next podcast, but first, let’s talk about why Christians think consciousness makes more sense on a theistic worldview, besides the fact that they just get to invoke magic and we don’t.
One of the points believers make is based on the persistence of identity through physical change. They say that the physical parts of you, like the cells of your body, are replaced over and over again, and yet your core identity remains. They’re arguing that there must be something non-physical about you since basic information about you persists though your brain cells are constantly being replaced. This is wrong, since the information that makes you, you — the arrangement and configuration of the brain — isn’t going anywhere. Fingerprints are a good analogy here. The specific pattern that makes up your fingerprints doesn’t change even though the skin cells are constantly being replaced. Does this mean that fingerprints are made of some immaterial substance? The information that we’re calling your fingerprint is preserved. And the fact is that personal identity is not so simple, no matter what you believe. Whatever the implications may be, the fact is that you do change drastically as time goes on, even if your former selves and future selves have some things in common. But there’s no need to postulate an immaterial self to explain these things in common any more than we need to postulate an immaterial fingerprint to explain that part of you remaining constant.
Many objections to a more scientific view of consciousness are ultimately based on appeals to introspection. If you introspect and think about your own experience as a conscious creature, you don’t immediately apprehend any physical workings. You don’t introspect and sense neurons firing — instead, you observe emotions, feelings, thoughts, and desires. Apologists try to argue that introspection and what we apprehend through it should count as some evidence that our mind is more than the physical workings of our brain. But of course, there’s no reason to think that our introspection would reveal reality as it really was. We know the process by which our intuitions evolved, and we have to recognize what their function is and that they’re only reliable within their domain. Any argument about consciousness that merely appeals to our intuition doesn’t qualify as a compelling argument.
This goes back to the hard problem. Our intuition would say that it’s possible for philosophical zombies to exist — at first, it seems like we can imagine humans that are physically identical to us, but have no inner conscious experience. But as many neuroscientists have pointed out, once you learn the relevant science, it gets harder and harder to conceive of humans that are atom for atom copies of ourselves, but have no inner mental experience. Twenty-five years after Joseph Priestley discovered the element of oxygen, it was discovered that water is made of two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen. If you were to ask Joseph Priestley prior to then if he could imagine water without oxygen, presumably, he would’ve had no problem conceiving of it. But now, with our current knowledge of water and it’s physical properties, we know that “water without oxygen” is not conceivable. The various thought experiments that demonstrate the hard problem do a good job of pinpointing our intuition about why consciousness can’t be purely physical, but the past has shown us that an argument that just appeals to our intuition isn’t good enough.
When apologists speak of intentionality, they appear to be claiming that purely physical objects can’t be “of” or “about” anything. I think a clearer way of saying this is that purely physical objects can’t contain representational information. But anyone who listens to the CA podcast knows that this is incorrect; you’re listening to an audio file that contains representational information about consciousness. There’s nothing immaterial in that audio file or on the server where it’s stored. In the same way there can be a video on YouTube of a cat or about divine hiddenness, our brains can have thoughts of a cat or about divine hiddenness. Physical devices, like microphones and cameras, collect and play back data that can be entirely described in physical, material terms. Likewise, our sense organs collect physical data and store it in our brains; and you can play back this representational information, given certain physical events preceding the playback. The arrangement of atoms in your hippocampus, for example, can literally be said to be “of” or ”about” something, just as the physical arrangement of atoms in a computer can be of or about something without containing an immaterial soul. It’s also question-begging to assert that only mental things can have intentionality, physical things can’t, and go on to claim that this shows consciousness isn’t ultimately physical. Intentionality is something that secular philosophers of mind discuss, though there’s a range of opinion regarding it as a concept. In my opinion, this is just not a fruitful way of thinking about the mind. As far as I can tell, nothing is added to our understanding of consciousness by speaking in terms of of-ness and about-ness, but either way, it’s certainly not an argument for an immaterial soul.
The superfluous material realm
Something I never understood is why god would make the material world at all. If you’re God, there’s just no reason to create physical matter. If god is immaterial, and what we really are is a soul, what’s the point? If God doesn’t need matter, and we don’t need matter for our minds to exist, what exactly is matter contributing? On the account of Christian substance dualists, the material world is entirely superfluous.
Something related to keep in mind is that the argument from consciousness, in most of its forms, is incompatible with the fine-tuning argument. You can’t be a substance dualist and use the fine-tuning argument. The fine-tuning argument assumes that we could only be here if the physical parameters of the universe hold very specific values. Since the universe supports life — since we’re here — believers think this is an argument that supports a designer. But the only framework where the emergence of consciousness is dependent on what matter does is materialism. If you’re a naturalist, it really matters what the physical stuff is doing, since consciousness is purely information processing performed by the physical arrangement of atoms in the brain. If consciousness is entirely independent from the physical world, it doesn’t matter what the physical world is doing. Your soul would still be here regardless of how the laws of nature were tuned. According to naturalism, life and consciousness are the products of particular arrangements of molecules — nothing more. But if you’re a Christian substance dualist, there’s no reason to fine tune anything. There’s no reason the physical world would exist at all, but there’s also no reason the physical, material parameters of nature would need to hold certain values for our non-physical, immaterial souls to exist.
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Consciousness – Anil Seth and Sam Harris [YouTube]
Sean Carroll – Zombies and the Hard Problem [Nautilus]
William Lane Craig on the Soul [YouTube]
Consciousness – Steven Pinker [YouTube]