One of the arguments that have been circulating amongst apologetically and philosophically inclined believers lately is the so-called argument from consciousness. The reasoning roughly runs like this. No matter how advanced or complete a scientific explanation of consciousness becomes that is based on an external, empirical investigation of the brain, there are some facts about mind that it will not and cannot even in principle explain. No scientific account will be able to tell us why any particular state of our neurons produces just this internal conscious feel rather than some other. We can analyze the brain states correlated with eating a ripe banana all we want and explain it all the way down to the molecular level, but none of that explanation will ever account for why it tastes just the way it does instead of like a guacamole. Then somehow, improbably, these arguments move from this alleged irreducibility of mind to God. The only way that brain states can be accompanied by any phenomenal states at all, the only thing that could have made them actually feel like something (with banana flavor) to you inside there is if God set it up that way. (See Richard Swinburne's The Existence of God, Robert Adams' "Flavors, Colors, and God," and J.P. Moreland's "Argument from Consciousness."
This God of the neural gaps line suffers from a familiar problem in philosophy. Very often philosophers will consider the radically disparate ends of some phenomena and its alleged mechanical, physical, molecular, or material causes, and throw their hands up at the prospects of ever connecting the two. When we consider it from our philosophical (and evangelical) armchairs, it seems like that just can’t be any way that mere atoms of matter, molecules, or meat could possibly be responsible for the transcendental joys of listening to Beethoven, or the nuances of a fine French meal, or the rapturous elation of love. From the inside, mere meat just seems too different from what it feels like to be me. It just seems to debasing, dehumanizing, and demoralizing to render us down to simply brains.
Part of the problem here arises from linking such a low level physical account with such abstract, high level mental states, and then trusting our imaginations and our intuitions to be a reliable guide to what can or cannot be accomplished by serious scientific research. I can’t fathom how a vast and complicated physical system like O’Hare airport in Chicago can possibly function either when I watch the janitor at gate 263B empty the trash. My imagination and intuitions are red lined when I try to leap from my micro access perspective at the gate to what the whole, vast system is doing. But it would be silly for me to conclude on similar grounds that the airport is therefore some sort of magical, transcendent, emergent, or immaterial entity.
Another part of the problem comes from people confidently concluding that science can never possibly do X, or neuroscience will never explain Y when they just don’t know much about it. It’s very easy to make these kinds of sweeping pronouncements from a position of ignorance. That’s also why serious neuroscientists and cognitive scientists aren't about to shut down their research labs because they find the reasoning behind the “Consciousness therefore God,” argument to be so compelling. A note from history: declarations that science will never do X usually prove to be quite embarrassing.
Here’s an interesting relevant bit from Cristof Koch’s book The Quest for Consciousness that summarizes one of the major theories we have to explain consciousness now. Koch is a leading neuroscientist--Professor of biology and engineering at Cal Tech--working on the subject. Neuroscientists have been looking for the neural correlate for consciousness (NCC) for a while. They seem to be zeroing on some likely candidates. (Please don’t argue at this point that correlation doesn’t imply causation—I’m well aware of that and the discipline of neuroscience is well aware of it. If you’re really sure that the neural events in your brain that correlate with your thoughts are not the causes of your thoughts, then you wouldn’t mind if we, say, opened up your skull and excised those regions of brain tissue, or poured acid on them, right?) So the view that has emerged involves certain neural firing structures outcompeting or out-shouting, as it were, other firing structure/patterns for temporary ascendency to being more globally broadcast across the brain. Think of the cases when you can’t get that annoying Lady GaGa song out of your head. That’s a informational/representational neural firing pattern that has achieved some temporary fame-in-the-brain, as Dennett puts it. Eventually those neurons will get exhausted and something else will move to the forefront. But Koch is the expert. Let him explain it:
"The NCC involve temporary coalitions of neurons, coding for particular events or objects, that are competing with other coalitions. A particular assembly--biased by attention--emerges as the winner by dint of the strength of its firing activity. The winning coalition, corresponding to the current content of consciousness, suppresses competing assemblies for some time until it either fatigues, adapts, or is superseded by a novel input and a new victor emerges. Given that at any one time one or a few such coalitions dominate, one can speak of sequential processing without implying an clock-like process. This dynamic process can be compared to politics in a democracy with voting blocks and interest groups constantly forming and dissolving.
Francis (Crick) and I postulate that the NCC are built on a foundation of explicit neuronal representations. A feature is made explicit if a small set of neighboring cortical neurons directly encode this feature. The depth of computation inherent in an implicit representation is shallower than in an explicit one. Additional processing is necessary to transform an implicit into an explicitly representation. " (47)There's lots more, but that's a good start. This offers us amateurs a glimpse of what part of a neurobiological account of mental phenomena might look like. And it’s surprisingly potent to explain a lot of things that might have otherwise seemed inexplicable. So at the very least, we should not gallop off on the God horse when a clear answer to the big how question eludes us. Those answers have always come into focus through the steady, diligent, and hard work of science. And it’s closing the gap on this so-called miracle too.