Sunday, April 4, 2010

My Magical Mind and God

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."

If that last bit lost you, from “there are things about mind we don’t understand yet,” to “therefore God is real,”  you’re not alone.   There's a lot of work that needs to be done to connect the dots and a lot of serious philosophers of mind, philosophers of religion, or cognitive scientists aren't buying it.    The argument hasn't gotten much traction in peer reviewed academic journals.

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. 


Ken Pulliam said...


I found your post fascinating. I have been investigating Neurophysiological explanations for visions of Jesus lately.

BTW, I am not surprised by Moreland, Swinburne and Adams. They are simply doing what Christians always do--say Goddidit for whatever science is not yet able to explain.

Exploring the Unknowable said...


No matter how much we explicate, Christians will always dig one layer back, and claim in defiance, "What about that??!! You haven't explained that! You can't explain that!! Ergo, God did that!" Even if they concede that something is explained sufficiently through science, they'll play the shell game and say that's just the way that God chose to do it.

There's no way to show them that not only is God not needed to explain the world around us (as far as we can tell), but if he's not needed, there's no reason to believe in him, and it's very likely that he doesn't exist.

Also, I've been noticing a lot of Christians trying to shift the burden of proof onto atheists. They'll claim that everything "makes sense and is explained" once one accepts there is a God. Of course this isn't true, and I know that the burden of proof is on the theist, since the natural world is ubiquitously accepted and experienced, whereas there is no general consensus or delineation of the supernatural world, but Matt, do you have any advice on how to handle this trick that the theist plays?


Matt McCormick said...

Thanks Unknowable. You're right about a lot of this. And I see the same moves. We should be careful about generalizing too widely when it's really one person who makes one bad move, another person who makes another mistake, and yet another person who does X. I'm prone to sweep all of these together as "Christians" too, but I try to resist it.

Here's what's important for a lot of people who are believers but they are still reachable, as it were. They need to see and hear thoughtful, reasonable people asking hard questions about theism and Christianity. And they need to see that atheism is a reasonable position. We are so inundated with belief that lots of people out there need to see good examples of smart, reflective atheists to know that it is a viable option. Then if we just keep pressing the points, the more clear headed ones will benefit from it.

The claims that are frequently made about God "explaining everything," are interesting, but ill founded. What the God story does is provide a lot of psychological and cognitive relief for people who feel the urge to believe. But in any real, robust account of explanation the God story actually ends up with more hanging questions, and more bizarre implications, than the open issues in science that they fixate on. It's very hard to get them to appreciate that, however. Patience you must have.


Matt Howery said...

You could also track (as Dawkins does, I believe) the "deity's purpose" over time. What I mean by that is how the concept of god keeps shrinking.

If you were to look far back in history almost everything we experienced was attributed to something supernatural, be it god, or some other deity. As science progressed we slowly learned that the sun was not a god, nor the moon, nor the other stars, etc.

God "shrunk." At our current position, where we have consistent scientific explanations for a wide range of phenomenae, you have very little that is unexplained. Origins of the Big Bang perhaps, or, as show, the explanations surrounding experiences on the neural level.

If you were to draw a triangle (facing right), with just the tip cut off, you could use that to visually show the shrinking god effect. At the beginning of human consciousness, nearly (if not) all phenomenae would be attributed to some sort of supernatural event. As time continues, the phenomenae that is "unexplained" shrinks as science grows. Now, there are things we still don't know, but a huge order of magnitude less.

Could you not make an argument about drawing the observed effect (the shrinking) to it's logical conclusion (non-existence)?

For Anonymous,
Honestly, when people try that stuff with me I always start with "which god?" and go from there. It pretty much stops them in their tracks. "Why are you right, and so-and-so wrong?"

Also, Matt's got some great stuff on here about proving a negative. It can actually be done.

Eric Sotnak said...

The claim that qualia or consciousness can only be explained by immaterial souls is really odd, when you think abut it. After all, what are the details of that story?

Dualist: “Qualia/consciousness cannot be explained by mere brains. So we have to look to the soul. That explains everything perfectly. By positing immaterial souls, we can easily explain how qualia/consciousness are possible.”

Me: “Wait... Exactly HOW does a soul explain consciousness?”

Dualist: “Easy. Consciousness is a basic property of the soul. It is the kind of thing by nature than can be conscious.”

Me: “So you explain how consciousness is possible by saying that it is possible for souls to be conscious, and that is because that's just what souls do?”

Dualist; “Right.”

Matt McCormick said...

Thanks Professor Sotnak. Yeah, this is a peculiar view. Materialism must be rejected because it can't explain qualia. And if a theory doesn't explain everything then it is inadequate. But monist, dualist, epiphenomenalist, interactionist, and supervenience or mysterian views often posit qualia as an ontological basic that cannot be explained by anything more basic. But the inability to explain them is only seen as a liability for materialism.


Anonymous said...

Light = Consciousness = intelligence

Matt, you are not addressing the issue very well. Looking for NCC's to prove consciousness is material is a lost cause. You need to understand that light beams are the source for consciousness and not some fleshy piece. And light beams are not material.

Thus, the photons which constitute a ray of light behave like intelligent human beings: out of all possible curves they always select the one which will take them most quickly to their goal.

Max Planck (1858 - 1947)

Reginald Selkirk said...

A new blog relevant to this topic:
The Thoughtful Animal

Our minds are not so vastly different from those of "lower" animals than we like to imagine.