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Consciousness And The New Scientist Magazine Reflections On False Materialist Assumptions

The Big Questions: Consciousness (Picture: New Scientist)

(Picture: New Scientist)

In April the New Scientist magazine published Volume I, Issue I of their The Collection series entitled The Big Questions. The ‘big questions’ addressed were reality, existence, God, consciousness, life, time, self, sleep and death. Of all these weighty topics of inquiry, what interested me the most was the consciousness question as recently I have been reading, studying and thinking about this topic. In wishing to delve deeper, I sat through two academic lecture series on consciousness and in April I engaged in a discussion with the analytical philosopher Professor Peter Simons titled “Can Consciousness Best Be Explained by God’s Existence?”[1] It was a nuanced, warm and fascinating exchange.

I was particularly heartened by the fact that the professor agreed with the analysis I presented of why biological and philosophical accounts fail to adequately explain consciousness. Our point of disagreement lay in what we understood to be the best explanation. My presentation included a five point argument asserting why God best explains internal conscious experience (phenomenal states) and conversely, Professor Simons argued that we don’t have an answer but if we work hard enough we will find one that fits well within the materialistic paradigm. In light of the above you can imagine why I was particularly interested in this new publication from the New Scientist.

Chapter 4 of The Big Questions addresses the question of consciousness and it opens the discussion in the following way:

“There are a lot of hard problems in the world, but only one gets to call itself “the hard problem”. That is the problem of consciousness – how 1300 grams or so of nerve cells conjures up the seamless kaleidoscope of sensations, thoughts, memories and emotions that occupy every waking moment…The hard problem remains unresolved.”[2]

On reading these opening remarks, I found myself gaining a sense of hope that this publication would perhaps attempt to provide a range of comprehensive angles to explain the ‘hard problem’ of consciousness. Unfortunately, the rest of the chapter just focussed on biological and materialistic approaches without really addressing that which requires deconstructing itself: the hard problem. A key assumption in the chapter was that the more we will know about the brain with regards to its processes, functions and neuro-chemical activity, then eventually the more we will learn about consciousness, and the more we will be able to address its hard problem.  Research fellow Daniel Bor in the first article of the chapter reflects this assumption:

“We may not yet have solved the so-called hard problem of consciousness – how a bunch of neurons can generate the experience of seeing the colour red. Yet to me, worrying about the hard problem is just another version of dualism – seeing consciousness as something that is so mysterious it cannot be explained by studying the brain scientifically. Every time in history we thought there had to be some supernatural cause for a mysterious phenomenon – such as mental illness or even the rising of bread dough – we eventually found the scientific explanation. It seems plausible to me that if we continue to chip away at the “easy problems”, we will eventually find there is no hard problem left at all.”[3]

So you may be wondering “what is the hard problem of consciousness?”. Good question! I want to spend some time answering this and then analyse what I would call the false materialist assumptions expressed by Bor. The scope of this post is to deconstruct materialist explanations for consciousness (and how they fail to address the hard problem) and introduce a comprehensive theistic approach. I will also bring to light that this is not an issue of “science will eventual give us the answers”, because even if we were to know everything about the brain and insist on solely referring to biological or physical explanations, we will still not answer the hard problem of consciousness and I will demonstrate why. This post will not address the non-materialist explanations such as interactionist dualism, epiphenomenalism, phenomenalism, panpsychism and others, these will be addressed in a forthcoming essay that will be published on this site, insha’Allah.

By their own admission, the issue of consciousness has caused materialists unsolvable problems, especially those that are excessively dogmatic and uncompromising. The materialist, Professor Christof Koch in his book Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist openly admits:

“But there’s the rub. How the brain converts bioelectrical activity into subjective states, how photons reflected off water are magically transformed into the percept of an iridescent aquamarine mountain tarn is a puzzle. The nature of the relationship between the nervous system and consciousness remains elusive and the subject of heated and interminable debates… Explaining how a highlight organized piece of matter can possess an interior perspective has daunted the scientific method, which so many other areas has proved immensely fruitful.”[4]

These unresolved problems do not concern the structure and function of the brain and how we can correlate some conscious states with brain activity. It is quite clear now that if I am thinking or feeling some pain there will be some sort of activity in my brain that indicates that I am thinking or feeling pain. No one is denying that the brain and consciousness have some form of a relationship, but I must stress here, it is just a relationship. The brain and consciousness are not the same thing. Take the following analogy into consideration: the brain is the car, and consciousness is the driver. The car will not move without the driver and the driver will not be able to start the car – or use it properly – if it is damaged or broken. However, they are both different and independent in some way.

So what are the problems that specialists in the field are trying to address, and why is the brain and consciousness not the same thing? The answer to these questions is in what is known as the hard problem of consciousness. The hard problem of consciousness concerns the fact that we have personal subjective experiences. In other words, the problem is that we cannot find out via materialistic means what it is like to be a conscious organism or what it is like to have a particular experience. Professor David Chalmers, who popularised the phrase the hard problem of consciousness, explains:

“The really hard problem of consciousness is the problem of experience. When we think and perceive, there is a whir of information processing, but there is also a subjective aspect…This subjective aspect is experience. When we see, for example, we experience visual sensations: the felt quality of redness, the experience of dark and light, the quality of depth in a physical field. Other experiences go along with perception in different modalities: the sound of a clarinet, the smell of mothballs. Then there are bodily sensations from pains to orgasms; mental images that are conjured up internally; the felt quality of emotion; and the experience of a stream of conscious thought. What unites all these states is that there is something it is like to be in them. All of them are states of experience…If any problem qualifies as the problem of consciousness, it is this one. In this central sense of “consciousness”, an organism, and a mental state is conscious if there is something it is like to be in that state.”[5]

Professor Torin Alter adds another dimension to the definition of the hard problem of consciousness by focussing on why physical brain processes produce conscious experience:

“As I type these words, cognitive systems in my brain engage in visual and auditory information processing. This processing is accompanied by states of phenomenal consciousness, such as the auditory experience of hearing the tap-tap-tap of the keyboard and the visual experience of seeing the letters appear on the screen. How does my brain’s activity generate those experiences? Why those and not others? Indeed, why is any physical event accompanied by conscious experience? The set of such problems is known as the hard problem of consciousness…Even after all the associated functions and abilities are explained, one might reasonably wonder why there is something it is like to see letters appear on a computer screen.”[6]

Let me simplify and elaborate on the above definitions with an example; say for instance you were to eat a strawberry, scientists would be able to find correlations in the brain that indicate that you are eating something, and maybe even the fact that you are eating a piece of fruit, they may even find out that you find it tasty or sweet. But scientific materialist perspectives could never find out or examine what it is like to eat a strawberry for you, or what tastiness or sweetness means and feels for you, and why you have had the subjective experience of what it is like to eat a strawberry.

So why do I disagree with Daniel Bor and other materialists who argue that the more we will know about the brain the closer we are in addressing the hard problem of consciousness? Well, there are – broadly and currently speaking – two types of explanations for consciousness: philosophical and biological. Let’s first address why biological explanations have failed. Some of these biological attempts include Francis Crick’s and Christof Koch’s Toward a Neurobiological Theory of Consciousness, Bernard Baars’s Global Workplace theory, Gerald Elderman’s and Giulio Tononi’sThe Dynamic Core theory, Rodolfo Llinas’s Thalamocortical Binding theory, Victor Lamme’sRecurrent Processing theory, Semir Zeki’s Microconsciousness theory and Antonio  Damasio’s The Feeling of What Happens theory. Although it is not the purpose of this post to discuss the technicalities and shortcomings of these empirical theories, none of them comprehensively address the hard problem of consciousness. Professor David Chalmers explains the failure of materialists and empiricists in addressing the hard problem of consciousness. In his book The Character of Consciousness he mentions five perilous strategies that have been adopted:

1. The first strategy is to explain something else. Researchers simply admit the problem of experience is too difficult for now and may be outside of the domain of science. Koch openly admits this failed strategy to his Toward a Neurobiological Theory of Consciousness theory. In a published interview he confesses: “Well, let’s first forget about the real difficult aspects, like subjective feelings, because they may not have a scientific solution. The subjective state of play, of pain, of pleasure, of seeing blue, of smelling a rose–there seems to be a huge jump between the materialistic level, of explaining molecules and neurons, and the subjective level.”[7]

2. The second strategy is to simply deny the hard problem of consciousness. It is to accept we are Zombies, with an illusion of free will and volition. This strategy describes the human reality as a biological machine with no subjective experience.

3. The third strategy is to claim that subjective experience is explained by understanding the physical processes in our brain. But this sounds like magic. Experience somehow emerges without explanation. The question “how do these processes give rise to experience?” is never answered.

4. The fourth strategy is to explain the structure of experience. This strategy tells us nothing of why there should be experience in the first place.

5. The fifth strategy is to isolate the substrate (the underlying basis or layer) of experience. This strategy aims to isolate the neural basis for experience by understanding certain processes. However, this strategy does not explain why experience emerges from these process and how.[8]

So now we are in a position to understand how philosophers of the mind explain consciousness in a way that attempts to address the hard problem of consciousness. An important note to add here is that the above empirical theories have implied materialist philosophical assumptions, therefore addressing the philosophical theories in a little bit more detail will also address the empirical theories. Professor Antti Revonsuo makes this point clear:

“However, it is useful also for empirical scientists to be aware of the different philosophical alternatives, because every empirical theory also necessarily involves some sort of implicit philosophical commitments…The overall empirical approach that a scientist takes to consciousness is guided by his prior philosophical commitments or intuitions about the nature of science and the nature of consciousness, whether he is aware of such commitments or not.”[9]

There have been various materialist attempts to explain consciousness, and – as this post will demonstrate – none of them are comprehensive enough to challenge theistic explanations. Below is an account of these attempts and an explanation of why they have failed.

Monistic materialism assumes everything is matter. The brain is made up of neurons undergoing physical and chemical processes, therefore explaining these complex processes will explain consciousness.[10] So if subjective experiences or the hard problem cannot be explained by physical and chemical processes, then it doesn’t exist. According to this view the very fact we have subjective experiences is merely an illusion. In other words, proponents of this view deny the hard problem of consciousness (an approach also referred to as Eliminative Materialism). In light of this, it is not an adequate explanation of consciousness as it just redefines consciousness and ignores what requires explaining: the hard problem of consciousness.

This view became popular with the neo-atheist Daniel Dennet publishing the book Consciousness Explained. In his heavily criticised book he redefines consciousness by ignoring what requires explanation: our subjective conscious states. According to Dennet, we have no real personal subjective experiences. We are simply biological robots. In other words we are zombies with the illusion of subjective experience. Criticism of Dennet’s approach, also known as Multiple Drafts theory, has been summarised by Professor Antti Revonsuo in his book Consciousness: The Science of Subjectivity:

“Dennet’s theory has been heavily criticized because it seems to redefine ‘consciousness’ in such a way that the term comes to mean something very different from what we originally set out to explain. Dennet’s famous 1991 book is titled “Consciousness Explained”, but many felt it should have been called “Consciousness Explained Away“. What most people wanted to find an explanation for is phenomenal consciousness, qualia and subjectivity, but Dennet dismisses them as mere illusions.”[11]

Another approach that shares the conclusions of Type-A materialism is the Sensorimotor theorydeveloped by Kevin O’Regan and Alva Noë. This theory, and ones similar to it, denies subjective conscious experience, and defines consciousness as the way we act rather than the way we are. Simply put, they deny the hard problem of consciousness. Professor Revonsuo explains:

“Because consciousness resides in our behavioural interactions with the world rather than in our brain, the theory postulates that consciousness does not derive from brain activity at all. Consequently, there is no need to explain how brain activity causes or constitutes consciousness, because it does not. Furthermore, O’Regan and Noë believe that the theory gets rid of the Hard Problem for good by simply denying phenomanility [subjective experience].”[12]

This type of philosophical behaviourism fails to acknowledge that you can have mental states without any behaviour. This is absurd as it leads to the denial of mental states. For instance, a behaviourist may argue that there are no feelings of jealousy or love if one does not display the relevant behaviour of love and jealousy. The behaviourist may deny that someone is in love as there is no way to verify it. But this presupposes verificationism, which argues that propositions can only be meaningful if they can be empirically verified. Verificationism is now considered an old and incoherent philosophy due to a whole range of problems. One of these include that verificationism itself cannot be verified, because you cannot empirically verify it; “propositions can only be meaningful if they can be empirically verified.” In essence, it is self-defeating. Another reason for the incoherence of behaviourism includes acting and actors. If we consider very good actors we can imagine that they can behave in a certain way that doesn’t correspond to their mental states.

Type-B materialism asserts that there is an epistemic gap (meaning, a knowledge gap) between physical and subjective conscious experiences. However, proponents of this view claim that the gap can be explained with a materialistic philosophy as there is a link between certain activities in the brain and certain experiences of consciousness. American philosopher John Searle’s Biological Naturalism theory is an example of Type-B materialism. According to this view, “consciousness is a biological phenomenon, a higher level feature of brain activity…Consciousness is entirely caused by neurobiological processes and is realized in brain structures. However, conscious phenomena have the unique feature of subjectivity or first-person ontology, which is irreducible to any objective neurophysiological phenomenon.”[13]

This view is not an adequate explanation of consciousness as it assumes materialism to be true without justification, and implies that the link between consciousness and matter must be a fundamental law of nature – due to subjective experience being “irreducible” to any biological explanation. However, if subjective conscious experiences are distinct from matter, there needs to be a fundamental law that connects matter and consciousness, because that’s what fundamental laws do. Therefore, if matter and subjective conscious states are distinct – as assumed by Type-B materialism – then matter could never explain these conscious states. Professor Chalmers explains this problem:

“If one acknowledges the epistemically primitive connection between physical states and consciousness as a fundamental law, it will follow that consciousness is distinct from a physical property since fundamental laws always connect distinct properties…This suggestion is made largely in order to preserve a prior commitment to materialism.”[14]

Type-C materialism claims that there is a deep epistemic gap between physical and subjective conscious states. Advocates of this view assert that this gap will be closed when we improve our scientific knowledge. This approach does not provide an adequate explanation of consciousness as I believe it is a form of the “science of the gaps” fallacy. It is essentially saying we presume materialism to be true, but we have no idea how consciousness is related to matter, or how it came from it, or even how we can explain it scientifically.

Is the assumption that science will eventual explain consciousness justified? If we examine the scientific method and the philosophy of science, we will understand that subjective conscious experiences are outside of the scope of the scientific enterprise. Science is restricted to only that which can be observed, and subjective conscious states cannot be observed. However, some hard-core empiricists may argue that we may be able to correlate neuro-chemical activity in the brain with subjective experience. But this is impossible, because neuro-chemical activity in the brain can only indicate that something is happening, and not what it is like for that something to happen. A simple piece of evidence to highlight this impossibility is that you can have different levels of subjective experiences of pain with two people with the same injury, and yet have the same type of neuro-chemical patterns in the brain. Also, as Professor Chalmers argues that if we were to understand every behavioural and cognitive function related to consciousness and all the neuro-chemical happenings in the brain were mapped out, there would still be an unanswered question: why is the performance of these functions accompanied by conscious experience?[15] Therefore it is impossible to measure or deduce what that subjective experience of pain actually is, or why it occurs, just by observing brain correlations.

In light of the above, materialistic attempts to explain consciousness comprehensively fail. The Neurophysiologist John C. Eccles aptly summarises this failure:

“I maintain that the human mystery is incredibly demeaned by scientific reductionism, with its claim in promissory materialism.”[16]

In light of this, how do we explain consciousness in light of the failed materialist attempts to comprehensively explain our subjective personal experiences. Here is a summary of five main reasons why God is the best explanation:

1. Firstly it answers a question that none of the existing views have answered: where did consciousness come from? Professor J.P. Moreland explains how it could not have been via natural physical processes:

“Our knowledge of the natural world would give us positive reasons for not believing that irreducible consciousness would appear in it, e.g. the geometrical rearrangement of inert physical entities into different spatial structures hardly seems sufficient to explain the appearance of consciousness.”[17]

If matter and consciousness are distinct, it follows that consciousness could not have emerged from matter. In order to explain the fact that subjective conscious experiences exist, God must have created consciousness. Moreland summarises this point:

“The truth is that naturalism has no plausible way to explain the appearance of irreducible, genuine mental properties/events in the cosmos…when compared to the rich explanatory resources for theism…”[18]

2. Secondly, theism answers how consciousness could have entered the physical world. God’s comprehensive will and Divine activity ensure a world-the physical and non-physical. Charles Taliaferro explains:

“But in a theistic view of consciousness, there is no parlor trick or discrete miraculous act of God behind the emergence of consciousness. Consciousness emerges from the physical cosmos through an abiding comprehensive will of God that there be a world of physical and non-physical objects, properties, and relations. The relation between matter, energy, consciousness, the laws of space-time, tout court, all stem from an overwhelming, divine, activity.”[19]

3. Thirdly, theism has greater explanatory power. According to a materialist’s view, consciousness seems to have miraculously popped in to existence without any adequate physical explanation. However, theism doesn’t face this problem, as the emergence of consciousness is viewed as part of reality. Since God is conscious, alive and All-Aware, it is not implausible that the world that He created contains beings with conscious awareness of themselves. Taliaferro similarly concludes:

“From the vantage point of a fundamentally materialist cosmology, the emergence of consciousness seems strange; it is likened to claiming ‘then a miracle happens.’ But from the vantage point of theism, the emergence of consciousness may be seen as something deeply rooted in the very nature of reality. The creation of animal and human consciousness is not some isolated miracle, but a reflection of the underlying structure of reality.”[20]

4. Fourthly, theism explains the interaction between nonphysical mental and physical brain states. God’s will and power has enabled such interaction to take place, as this interaction is part and parcel of reality that God has created. Simply, if in the beginning of the cosmos all you had was matter then you would never get consciousness. However, if in the beginning there was a type of consciousness that created the physical world then it follows the interaction between the nonphysical mental states and physical brain states.

5. Fifthly, theism explains our ability to have subjective conscious states and the fact that we have an awareness of what it is to be like ourselves, experiencing tastes, sounds and textures. Since the universe was created by an Ever-Living, Alive, All-Aware being, it follows that we have been given this capacity to be aware of our inner subjective states:

“God, there is no god except Him, the Ever Living.”[21]

“And He is the All-subtle, the All-aware.”[22]

A theistic explanation for the emergence and reality of consciousness has greater explanatory power than competing materialist explanations. I must stress here however that I am not denying biological explanations and just replacing them with theism. What I am advocating is adding theism as a philosophical basis to fully explain that which materialism cannot: the hard problem of consciousness. I appreciate that I haven’t addressed the Islamic theological discussion on this topic in this post. This will be included in forthcoming posts and essays on this topic which will be available on the iERA website under the research section in the near future, insha’Allah.  However, I feel it is important to address the following common contention.

Muslim readers will rightly ask if this argument is compatible with normative Islamic theology. The common concern or objection usually includes the fact that the Qur’an explicitly states that the rūḥ (meaning, soul, spirit, consciousness or the thing that animates the body) is the affair or command of God, and humanity have been given very little knowledge about it. Therefore, we should keep silent on the matter.

“And they ask you, [O Muhammad], about the soul. Say, “The soul is of the affair of my Lord. And mankind have not been given of knowledge except a little.”[23]

To reconcile this apparent theological conflict it must be understood that this verse concerns the essence of consciousness or the soul, and not its existence. In actual fact this verse affirms that there is an immaterial substance that animates the body, in other words a soul or consciousness. This is exactly what the argument presented in this post relates to. We are arguing that the existence of consciousness can only be explained with a nonmaterialist worldview. This post is not discussing anything outside of whatever is already implied the Islamic source texts. For instance the Qur’an affirms that the rūḥ is different from our material universe, that it animates the body, that it is a unified “I”, and it was created by God. All of which is discussed in this post. Therefore there is nothing that has been presented here that contradicts core Islamic principles.

To conclude, I think we must ponder on the fact that God tells us to ponder within ourselves, and by doing so we may conclude that if there is no God, then there could be no consciousness, in other words there wouldn’t be…you!

“Do they not reflect within themselves?”[24]