For what it’s worth

Consider this a kind of postscript to the last two posts. My personal view is that consciousness and mind are perfectly “natural” in the sense that no supernatural intervention was necessary to “insert” them into the process by which life developed. I take it that they emerged once living organisms became sufficiently complex, even though how this happened is still very incompletely understood. But at the same time, I think they are real features of the world and shouldn’t be explained away as mere epiphenomena. The temptation to treat them as such arises when theories or concepts are taken to be exhaustive descriptions of reality rather than abstractions that only capture certain aspects of it. So because consciousness, say, doesn’t lend itself to the kinds of measurement and quantification that have given theories in the physical sciences so much of their explanatory power, scientists (or more commonly philosophers and popularizers of science) sometimes dismiss it as somehow “less real.” What we need then is not an appeal to the supernatural to make room for mind, but an understanding of “nature” that is sufficiently rich to accommodate all the parts of our experience.

More specifically, I don’t think Christians have any theological stake in viewing mind or consciousness as somehow separate from nature. Even though most mainstream churches have made peace with evolution to some extent, there is still a tendency to make an exception for human minds. For instance, some theologians still insist that each human soul is directly created by God at the moment of conception. This not only seems to wreak havoc with the unity of the human person, but it undermines the observed continuity between humans and other animals. I think it’s preferable (and arguably more biblical) to see human beings as unitary organisms with both physical and mental aspects. Moreover, it seems more credible to think of God as creating a universe that already contains within it the seeds of consciousness and mind rather than as having to add them after the fact.

5 thoughts on “For what it’s worth

  1. Nicely said. And such a position puts much more on the act of creation, where it (IMO) properly belongs, than on routine intervention into the created order. Polkinghorne, among others seeking to prove God from gaps (however elegantly), would just as soon have a created framework that requires intervention. Very classically Hellenistic. The world is not complete without God, and would fall apart without intervention. This is the root of the logos concept in the early Greek physicists. But while it makes it harder to “prove” God’s existence without some necessary place in the order of things, there is ultimately no future for that kind of theology. We will fill those gaps with increasingly plausible, increasingly demonstrable explanations, which certainly do not disprove God, but do disprove certain hypotheses about the relationship between God and the world.

    The alternative I see is to have a robust theology of creation which permits us to seek to explain what we see as both created and exactly what it appears to be on arbitrarily close inspection, and likewise a robust theology of God’s action in the world beyond the doctrine of creation. This lets us refuse to wedge God’s ongoing activity in the world into the not-yet-understood bits of our mental models of the system. God makes a horrible placeholder, and placeholders make horrible gods. But why shouldn’t it redound to God’s glory that the world is deeply and thoroughly complete? That its processes are not fundamentally broken in ways that must be constantly supplemented? We have a doctrine for the brokenness in the world, and it isn’t creation—it’s the doctrine of sin!

  2. “Moreover, it seems more credible to think of God as creating a universe that already contains within it the seeds of consciousness and mind rather than as having to add them after the fact.”

    This is essentially what atheists like Nagel and Chalmers are doing without the God part: Chalmers (whose mind seminar I attended at NYU) puts it that consciousness is somehow part of the “basic furniture” of the universe. (At least that’s what I recall him saying!)

  3. Interesting–I haven’t read Chalmers (or Nagel’s latest as I mentioned). Do they distinguish between consciousness and potential for consciousness? Because it seems like it’s one thing to say that consciousness is somehow a fundamental element of the universe, and another to say that it is an emergent (though non-reducible) phenomenon.

    1. Well, think about it this way: the number 10^734234234243423447780984496.862346345 has always been a number in the same fundamental way 1 is a number (although, true, we would never say 10^734234234243423447780984496.862346345 is “the loneliest number”), even though until I just typed it a few seconds ago, it almost surely had never, ever been mentioned in the history of the universe. But in a sense it was “always there.”

      Similarly, I might contend that if consciousness is irreducible to matter, somehow it was always part of “the furniture of the universe,” even if that particular piece of furniture never appeared on stage until whenever you think consciousness “emerged”: it was always waiting in the wings offstage.

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