"The physiologist studies the development of the first cell of each new human baby into a full-grown adult. The evolutionary biologist studies the forces which have formed the genetic structure of such a first cell. But relatively seldom do either of these scientists point out that their descriptions and explanations cover only the evolution of the physical characteristics of man, and that they give no account of the evolution of the most important characteristics of man-the characteristics of his conscious life, his feelings and desires, hopes and beliefs, those characteristics in virtue of his possession of which we treat men, and think that we ought to treat men, as totally different from machines. Most philosophers of the past four centuries have been well aware of the difference between the conscious life of a man and goings-on in his body. but their views have relatively seldom made any significant difference to the writing and teaching of biologists and physiologists.—Richard Swineburne The Evolution of the Soul.Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2007.3.
"Scientists have tended to regard the life of conscious experience as peripheral, not central to understanding man. But there is so much and so rich human experience, and experience which is apparently continuous and is causally efficacious that this attitude will not do. His life of experience has to be taken seriously if we are to understand man."
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Come Reason's Apologetics Notes blog will highlight various news stories or current events and seek to explore them from a thoughtful Christian perspective. Less formal and shorter than the www.comereason.org Web site articles, we hope to give readers points to reflect on concerning topics of the day.
Saturday, January 02, 2016
Monday, October 19, 2015
Rene Descartes is famous for his quest to identify at least one thing that was absolutely certain. He considered what he saw and what he felt, but he reasoned that his senses could be lying to him. He considered his past experiences, but he thought that it could be the case that he didn't remember them accurately or perhaps an evil daemon placed those thoughts in his mind even though they weren't real events (think: The Matrix). The more things he thought about, the more he doubted until he came to the realization that he couldn't doubt the fact that he was doubting! If doubting is going on, thinking is going on and someone has to do that thinking. Thus we get Descartes famous statement, "I think, therefore I am."
Conscious thought not only proves the existence of the thinker, as Descartes argued, but it also points to the existence of the Creator of the thinker. Materialists believe that all thinking is merely the outworking of physical processes like brain chemistry and electrical stimulation. But that view faces huge problems; it fails to explain where thoughts come from at all and why unconscious matter would suddenly have this new ability, especially given an evolutionary paradigm.
We Can't Assume Thought Just EmergesHave you ever had a brand new thought that seems to come from nowhere? Or perhaps you held to a particular belief and you read something and it strikes you that your belief is wrong, even though the piece you're reading isn't directly related to that belief. Where do these thoughts come from? How do they appear? Why should we have them at all?
J.P. Moreland says that to simply wave off consciousness as a product of the physical functions of the brain is tantamount to ignoring the question. Mental states do not "just appear." JP says they are "puzzling entities that cry out for an explanation."1 Philosopher Thomas Nagel agrees. In his book Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False he explains that the goal of science is to understand just how it is that things work the way they do. Nagel states that in science there is "an assumption that certain things are so remarkable that they have to be explained as non-accidental if we are to pretend to a real understanding of the world"2
The materialist view that thoughts are simply products of brain chemistry without need of any further explanation should then be considered the opposite of real understanding. It's guesswork and it's offered because the materialist holds a preconceived bias against immaterial causes such as the soul as the source of thought.
Why Should an Organ Produce Consciousness?Another problem with the materialist account of human consciousness is it doesn't fit neatly into the Darwinian explanation of how complex entities arise through means of natural selection. Just how does unconscious material become conscious in the first place? When we see plants that grow in the direction if the sun, we can explain their actions through physical processes, but since it's impossible to describe mental events using physical explanations, it's impossible to offer a physical explanation for the emergence of consciousness.
This is why Darwinian explanations for the emergence of consciousness fall short. David Berlinski noted the same when he asks:
Why should a limited and finite organ such as the human brain have the power to see into the heart of matter or mathematics? These are subjects that have nothing to do with the Darwinian business of scrabbling up the greasy pole of life. It's as if the liver, in addition to producing bile, were to demonstrate the unexpected ability to play the violin. This is a question Darwinian biology has not yet answered.3Consciousness, the ability human beings have for rational thought, cannot be explained in materialist terms. Our ability to reason separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom. It is something that cries out to be explained and by limiting oneself to only the materialist's tools of empirical evidence gives us no explanations at all. Our senses can deceive us, as Descartes rightly reasoned. Instead, consciousness points to an immaterial aspect of who we are and the emergence of consciousness points to an immaterial origin. Minds come from minds, consciousness comes from conscious beings. The Christian argues that the conscious mind is part of the immaterial soul, created by a conscious, rational, immaterial God. Such an explanation is both consistent and sensible. Consciousness gives us reason to believe God exists.
2. Nagel, Thomas. Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False. New York: Oxford UP, 2012. Print.
3. Berlinski, David. The Devil's Delusion: Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions. New York: Crown Forum, 2008. Print. 16-17
Wednesday, October 07, 2015
In his groundbreaking book Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False, philosopher Thomas Nagel identifies consciousness as a problem for not only the materialist (one who believes only physical/material things exist), but also the evolutionist. He makes the case that consciousness cannot be simply reduced to physical processes like brain synapses firing firstly because there is a difference between a brain state and the concept of pain and secondly because subjective experiences show that physical processes cannot explain all aspects of mental consciousness.
Nagel then focuses on the problem of the origin of consciousness, which he sees as a crucial issue. All evolutionary theories must account for our mental states if they are to be held as the only explanation for our existence. But since mental states cannot be accounted for through purely physical means, it is no surprise that absolutely no kind of Darwinian account exists other than assuming consciousness as a brute fact. This holds huge implications, as Nagel states:
What kind of explanation of the development of these organisms, even one that includes evolutionary theory, could account for the appearance of organisms that are not only physically adapted to the environment but also conscious subjects? In brief, I believe it cannot be a purely physical explanation. What has to be explained is not just the lacing of organic life with a tincture of qualia but the coming into existence of subjective individual points of view—a type of existence logically distinct from anything describable by the physical sciences alone. If evolutionary theory is a purely physical theory, then it might in principle provide the framework for a physical explanation of the appearance of behaviorally complex animal organisms with central nervous systems. But subjective consciousness, if it is not reducible to something physical, would not be part of this story; it would be left completely unexplained by physical evolution—even if the physical evolution of such organisms is in fact a causally necessary and sufficient condition for consciousness.Consciousness is a significant problem for the evolutionist. It fails to account for that thing that makes us human. Without consciousness we cannot even reason towards an evolutionary theory, yet all evolutionary theories have no plausible explanations for that very consciousness. It is much more reasonable to believe that materialistic accounts of life are false.
The bare assertion of such a connection is not an acceptable stopping point. It is not an explanation to say just that the physical process of evolution has resulted in creatures with eyes, ears, central nervous systems, and so forth, and that it is simply a brute fact of nature that such creatures are conscious in the familiar ways. Merely to identify a cause is not to provide a significant explanation, without some understanding of why the cause produces the effect. The claim I want to defend is that, since the conscious character of these organisms is one of their most important features, the explanation of the coming into existence of such creatures must include an explanation of the appearance of consciousness. That cannot be a separate question. An account of their biological evolution must explain the appearance of conscious organisms as such.
Since a purely materialist explanation cannot do this, the materialist version of evolutionary theory cannot be the whole truth. Organisms such as ourselves do not just happen to be conscious; therefore no explanation even of the physical character of those organisms can be adequate which is not also an explanation of their mental character. In other words, materialism is incomplete even as a theory of the physical world, since the physical world includes conscious organisms among its most striking occupants.1
Tuesday, October 06, 2015
Last week I was invited to a college campus to answer questions about Christianity and the Bible. The event was hosted by the local Christian club and several members of the Secular Student Alliance were in attendance to offer their best objections. It was a good interaction.
At one point, the discussion came to ideas about the soul. The secularists held that all our thoughts, feelings, ideas, and even our consciousness could be explained by pointing to electrical signals firing across specific neurons. They claimed they knew this and that science has allowed us to see this happening. Of course, it is easy to assert such things but when one examines the details of PET scans or MRI-type imaging, we find out that the science isn't so precise after all. Neuroscientists cannot see thoughts at all. As the secular neuroscientist Alva Nöe explains, "images produced by PET and fMRI are not in any straightforward way traces of the psychological or mental phenomena. Rather, they represent a conjecture or hypothesis about what we think is going on in the brains of subjects."1 (See his fuller explanation here.)
The Problem of Physical ExplanationsGiven that scientific instruments cannot give us any real window into the inner workings of thoughts, I told the students that we can know our consciousness is different than simple brain activity by thinking about it a bit more. First, physical attributes can always be explained using physical descriptors. For example, if I wish to talk about why an apple has the attribute of redness, I can talk about physical wavelengths of light being absorbed or reflected on the apple's skin. If I want to explain why a computer completes a specific task, I can talk about binary code, chains of ones and zeroes that will affect the mechanical apparatus attached to it. Physical attributes can be explained using physical terms.
However, thoughts and intentions are not like that. When one asks about an intention to lift one's arm, where does that come from? Sure, you can explain the lifting of the arm in bio-mechanical terms, even if it were possible to trace the beginning of the action to an initial signal sent from the brain. But where did that initial signal come from? Why does that signal appear when you wish to ask a question but not when someone asks for volunteers to clean the bathroom? Who materializes the desire or intent to raise an arm? The electrical stimulus doesn't just appear out of nowhere; if it did we'd be raising our arms as a happenstance, which would cause quite a bit of confusion in the classroom, I'm sure! Mental attributes cannot be explained in physical terms.
The Difference Between Physical and Meaningful DescriptionsA second point is that there is a difference between physical descriptions of thoughts or ideas and meaningful descriptions. To demonstrate this to the students in attendance, I walked up to the classroom whiteboard, picked up a marker and wrote "John Loves Mary." I then wrote next to the sentence a bunch of scribbly lines that had no real pattern to them. I then asked "Is there a difference between the first writing and the second?" The class grew a bit quiet. I continued, "If I were to explain each of these writings using the language of physical and chemical properties, the sentences would appear to be exactly the same. It's the same board, the same ink, and the same kind of chemical bond that keeps the ink applied. Let's assume there is the same number of straight lines to curved lines and the same amount of ink was used. There is no way you could physically describe the sentences to show the difference between the first and second sentence. But there is a real difference between the two: the first one conveys an idea and the second doesn't."
I think this is a big problem for those who would reduce our conscious behavior to simply neurons firing and brain chemistry. Anyone can see there is a fundamental distinction in the words "John loves Mary" as compared to a scribble. In fact, the key difference doesn't even require the whiteboard. I can say the statement, I can transmit it via Morse code, or I can simply think about the sentence without it ever being physically output at all. No matter the physical medium, the central aspect of the message is consistent and remains unchanged
The Secular Student Alliance students didn't seem swayed by my arguments, but they didn't have any answers, either. They couldn't explain why the first sentence is different from the second. They had no idea where intentions or will comes from. Given that their "proof" of MRI imaging is far from conclusive, I think they need to seriously examine the fact that human consciousness requires more than a physical system to work. Consciousness is not physical; it's part of the immaterial aspect of human beings. Consciousness resides in the soul.
New York: Hill and Wang, 2009. 20.
Image courtesy Wellcome Images and licensed via Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) license.
Thursday, September 10, 2015
I just had the opportunity to listen to a recent Unbelievable? podcast where Christian biologist Zachary Ardern squared off against Peter Atkins, debating the topic "The Case from Science For & Against God." Atkins is an avowed atheist and is steeped in philosophical naturalism and scientism. He even said near the end of the interview (about 55:35 and following) that science is really the only way to discover truth and if one isn't leveraging science as the ultimate arbitrar of truth people are "not fulfilling their human capability."1 I guess that means we should shutter all the humanities departments at the colleges as a huge waste of money!
Given Atkins' full-blown scientism, it should be no surprise that he repeatedly decried any appeal to an immaterial cause for the order and design we see in the universe as "intellectually lazy." Arden tried to challenge Atkins on this point by explaining that scientist routinely distinguish between personal and mechanistic explanations every day (such as by forensic scientists). He then extended that to say an immaterial mind could provide better explanatory power than a purely mechanistic account of how the universe came to be.
The Mind as a Physical ProcessAtkins objected to even the idea of an immaterial mind as "gobbledygook." He then replied, "We know what mind is. We know that mind is the outcome of the functioning of the brain. We know that the brain is a conglomeration of interacting cells. We know that those cells work upon physical/chemical principles. So, to say that there is a kind of ‘super-mind' out there, disembodied, that can effectively do what it wants and create the material universe, I think, that's just fantasy."
Arden objected to Adkins characterization. "I think it's very fair to us that there is a distinction between personal explanations and mechanistic explanations."
Atkins quickly shot back: "Well, I agree with that, but I think to understand the personal explanation, you put your subject onto the psychiatrist's couch and you explore how they come to those… that kind of understanding."
At this response, host Justin Brierley sought Atkins to clarify that he believes all minds basically reduce down to the chemical processes that happen in the brain, and Atkins gave a non-equivocal response of "Yes, absolutely!"
What's supposed to happen on the couch?I want to take up Atkins appeal to the psychiatrist's couch. Atkins seems to hold one who believes in God is mentally deficient. He described it as "the lazy way of answering the big questions" and derided theism throughout the interview. So, Atkins claims anyone who settles on the answers to the origin of the universe by positing an immaterial mind should undergo psychiatric evaluation to uncover the false basis for their belief.
The charges that believers are mentally deficient and rely on mental fantasies have been around since Freud began making them himself.2 But here's the question I would pose to Atkins and other materialists: What is supposed to happen on that couch? Certainly Freud, who was also a materialist, believed that through psychoanalysis a person could change their beliefs. But what is this thing that's doing the changing? If our beliefs are ultimately a product of those physical/chemical reactions, then how can a person will to change anything? Further, how can person A declare person B's physical/chemical processes in the brain as defective if it's simply person A's physical/chemical processes that brought him to that conclusion?
You Can't Change Mechanistic Minds Through IdeasYou can quickly see the problem. If Atkins (and Freud) really believes that the mind is an outproduct of mechanistic laws and chemical reactions, there is no way to know if Arden's or Atkin's processes are those that are functioning correctly. Given the sheer number of theists versus atheists, one may conclude that it is Atkins that needs to seek the couch. But further, the assumption that theists are deluded and they can somehow become undeluded by working through their problems and talking about their feelings makes no sense, either. Certainly we can now change brain chemistry through drugs, but is that what Atkins and other materialists are really proposing? For any action or belief another person does that you don't like, give him drugs to change his brain chemistry. How rational is that?
Peter Atkins has a problem with his understanding of what a mind is. His appearance on Unbelievable? and engagement with Zachary Arden shows he wishes to change minds by making his case. But that very act contradicts his fundamental understanding of what the mind is and how it functions. By appealing to the psychiatrist's couch, Atkins denies the very materialism he claims. To me, holding on to two such disparate viewpoints is, well, crazy.
2. Nicholi, Armand M. The Question of God: C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life. New York: Free, 2002. Print. 38.
Tuesday, July 15, 2014
In order to better understand the problem, I'd like to look at the attributes of the mind. Whenever on seeks to classify a certain thing, it is the attributes of that thing that help us in so doing. For example, when British naturalist began to explore Australia, the discovery of the platypus gave them fits! Here was an animal, kind of shaped like a beaver with a bill and webbed feet of a duck. Further, the creature laid leathery eggs and produced venom like a reptile. How would one classify such an animal? It is because the platypus was warm blooded, covered in hair (not feathers or scales), and nursed its young that naturalists listed the animal as a mammal. The attributes of the animal help us categorize it.
Similarly, there are specific attributes of the mind which clearly demonstrate that the mind cannot be reduced to brain activity. Brain activity is electro-chemical and can be described using physical nomenclature. For example, if their instruments are sensitive enough, one could measure the amount of dopamine present in the brain or tell if certain neurons were firing at x point in time. But as Daniel N. Robinson has succinctly noted, "One who spoke of pounds of thought or volts of memory would be considered not a native speaker! Equally bizarre, at least in the area of common sense and ordinary judgments are the claims to the effect that brain tissue makes moral judgments and wishes nothing but happiness for the bride and groom."1
Here are at least five attributes of the mind that can in no way be explained in physical terms:
- Thoughts - Thoughts are one of the most basic elements of the mind. A thought is any idea that can be expressed in the form of a sentence. I can ask you to think about pink elephants right now and you can picture a pink elephant in your head.
- Beliefs – Beliefs are different from thoughts. Beliefs carry a truth value to them. If I believe that the Los Angeles kings will win a third Stanley Cup championship, then I hold the statement to be true. I currently believe that I am sitting in front of my computer right now typing this blog post. Such a belief is not hard to hold. However, I also believe that the memories I have of yesterday are true. That belief is harder to prove.
- Intentions – Intentions are mental events that are usually tied to some action or event. I can intend to raise my hand and my hand will rise. My intention caused m hand to go up. However, intentions are not the same thing as the action. People who suffer from Tourette's syndrome move parts of their body without intending to do so. Also, I may have intentions without being able to execute them. If my hand is tied down, I will not be able to move it, even though I'm intending to do so.
- Desires – Desire are primarily natural inclinations that one experiences. Hunger is the desire to eat food. Desires can produce thoughts or intentions, but they are different. They sometimes have a biological basis, but not always. One can have the desire to solve a particularly pressing math problem for example.
- Sensations – Sensations are how our minds comprehend sensory input from our bodies. While our ears can translate sound waves into electrical signals and send them to our brains, only our mind can have the experience that the sound is pleasing or annoying. Feeling pain or heat happen at the mental level. Even seeing the color red, one has an experience of "redness." Red has a certain quality to it that green doesn't and one cannot explain such qualities by talking about wavelengths of light any more than one cannot warn a two-year-old about burning her hand on a hot oven with talk of high energy molecules.
Tomorrow, we will look more closely at why physicalist explanations of the mind fail. But for now, it is important to realize that your mind is not your brain. It is something with different attributes, which means it falls into a separate category: the category of the soul.
(La Mirada, CA: The Evangelical Philosophical Society, 2013.) 13.
2. Moreland, J.P. The Recalcitrant Imago Dei: Human Persons and the Failure of Naturalism.
(London: SCM Press, 2009). 24.
3. Nagel, Thomas. Mind and Cosmos: Why the Neo-Darwinian Conception of the World is Almost Certainly False.
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.) 7.
4. Ibid. 42.
Tuesday, March 18, 2014
Emergent properties are familiar in both science and philosophy and they basically mean that the whole cannot be described solely by describing its parts. For example, we can talk about a snowflake by its chemical composition. A snowflake is comprised of nothing more than H2O in a solid state. However, describing the chemical bonds that create H2O does not describe a snowflake. The snowflake is something more specific than the chemical reactions of H2O, and thus a snowflake is an emergent property of H2O. Flocks of birds, molds, even societies are used as examples of emergence, where these things are different than the sum of the parts. 1
Materialists will then use this kind of description to say that the mind may be an emergent property of the brain. It exists because the brain's chemistry and electrical pathways are arranged in a specifically complex fashion. Just as the molecules of water or the grouping of people to form a city emerges as a new property that didn't exist in that entity's building blocks, so the mind emerges as a new property of the brain's makeup. Thus, they claim, the mind is a real property but it comes from the physical structure and function of the brain. No soul is required.
The Problems with EmergenceThe explanation sounds good, but there are several problems with the claim that the mind is emergent. First, in a complex system where new properties emerge, those new properties fall into the same domain as the system's constituent parts. In other words, any physical emergent system will produce emergent properties that can be described physically. Water may have properties that hydrogen and oxygen lack such as the ability to crystallize into a snowflake. However, a snowflake is still describable by using the chemical language of solid/liquid/gaseous states and crystalline structures. The components are physical and the new property is also physical. Likewise, cities emerge from groups of people getting together and choosing to live a certain way. People are sociological and cities are described sociologically.
The mind however produces mental properties. As we've said, mental properties are non-physical. Therefore there is still a difference in kind in the property one is trying to account for. How does one account for non-physical properties from purely physical substances?
Secondly, emergence runs into the problem of impotence. J.P. Moreland notes that if the complexity of the brain produces a mind "like fire produces smoke or the structure of hydrogen and oxygen I water 'produce' wetness," then the mind is nothing more than an effect of the brain and it therefore has no causal powers. J.P. writes that if this was the case, "mental states are byproducts of the brain, but they are causally impotent. Mental states merely 'ride' on top of the events in the brain." 2
If this is true, then we cannot change our minds, really. We can only dance to the electro-chemical reactions that are happening in our heads. In other words, we have no free will whatsoever! We are simply victims to whatever processes our body and any outside events that we come in contact with cause. We are not making decisions, but our brains, like so many dominoes falling in a row, are just following the rules of chemistry and physics. The mind is simply the smoke, but it's the fire of neurons in the brain that's doing all the work.
The self-refuting nature of a material view of selfBecause a purely material origin for the mind leads to determinism, such a description can be seen as contradictory. J.P. quotes from H.P. Owen who says:
Determinism is self-stultifying. If my mental processes are totally determined, I am totally determined either to accept or reject determinism. But if the sole reason for my believing or not believing X is that I am causally determined to believe it I have no ground for holding that my judgment is true or false.3I think Owen and Moreland are right here. Much like the argument from reason, trying to relegate our conscious awareness to the physical becomes a fool's errand of determinism and contradiction. Such suggestions really don't explain why unique properties of the mind exist and it leads us to conclude that no one really makes any free choices. That's an awful lot to give away in order to escape the necessity of the soul.
2. Moreland, J.P. and William Lane Craig. Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview. Downer's Grove, Il.: InterVarsity Press, 2003.240.
3. Ibid. 241.
Monday, March 17, 2014
However, I fear that our today culture is in danger of losing our collective minds. As I've stated before, we live in an age where science is lauded above all else. With the overemphasis on science comes a presumption of materialism—that is that the material aspects of ourselves are the only things that are real or they are the only things that really describe us and our actions. Neuroscientists scan the brains of serial killers, looking for some physical trace as to why those individuals would commit such heinous acts, even if the findings show that they themselves have the same physical traits as the killers!
The problem is that while modern scientists assume that brain scans are all we need to understand the mind, no one should make the mistake that the mind is the brain. The mind is something completely different than the brain and one can see that in several ways.
Mental states are fundamentally different than physical states.First off, when we talk about the mind, we are referring to things called mental states. These include thoughts about something, experience, will or desire, intentions and things of this sort. A serial killer has intent to hunt and kill a victim even before he does so. After News Year's Day, many of us change our eating habits because we have an intent to lose weight, so we conform our actions to our intent. Notice that biologically, the drive to eat would make sense. We feel hunger. But our intention overrides that natural feeling and we curb our eating anyway.
Things like thoughts, ideas, desire, intention, and will are qualitatively different from brain states. A thought contains content that is not physical at all. Think of the sentence "I think, therefore I am." That sentence holds an idea, a concept that doesn't exist physically. If you are reading this on a computer right now, you cannot understand the sentence in the least bit if you were to measure its length and width on your screen. Neither will it help you if I explained the inner workings of my computer and told you how electrons traveled from my keyboard through my CPU, how data is stored on servers on the Internet and how it's delivered to your device. None of this tells you anything about the sentence, what it means, or whether its true. The idea is independent of the mechanism by which it is delivered. The idea is understood by the mind, regardless of how it was perceived by the senses and brain.
Because ideas are fundamentally different, we must recognize that they are not physical, and the same is true for thoughts, desires and other mental actions. It makes as much sense to say that my intent to lose weight rests 4.5cm from my right ear near my cerebellum as it does to measure the letters on your screen to understand a sentence. Mental states simply cannot be described using physical descriptors. That should be a tip off that mental states are fundamentally non-physical. The working of the mind, therefore, is not the same thing as the working of the brain. The mind is an immaterial aspect of a person. Thus, a person must be made up of material and immaterial components. That part of a man that is immaterial is the part Christians identify as the soul and the mind is one part of a man's soul.
In the rush of science to reduce knowledge to those things that are physical, they have run roughshod over the idea that the mind is distinct from the brain. Brain scans are supposed to tell you your thoughts, even though such a process is completely incapable of so doing. Such a concept bewilders me as much as my messy room confused my mother. It shouldn't be considered appropriate practice and I believe it reflects a level of ignorance and immaturity among its adherents.
A mind is a terrible thing to waste. Don't lose yours in the hype.
Thursday, March 13, 2014
Here what confronts us is not so much direct evidence of the lack of consciousness as the absence of normal brain-imaging findings. Does the absence of normal brain profiles in patients in the persistent vegetative state help us decide whether they are sentient or not? Would the mere absence of normal patterns of neural activity as modeled by functional imaging technologies such as fMRI or PET satisfy you that your loved one was now little more than a vegetable?It's interesting that we don't hear these kinds of nuanced explanations from the press when they cover such stories. We're led to believe that science will always have all the answers and that because the brain-imaging scanners make multi-colored maps we can really see inside the head. I appreciate Dr. Nöe's explanation and I think that it shows how cautious we must be when dealing with issues like consciousness. Tomorrow, I will talk more directly about what consciousness is and why it cannot be based on something physical. But for now, let us take some care before assuming that we've already got everything worked out. Such sentiments are more a sign of hubris than knowledge
Actually, things are more complicated. Although patients in the persistent vegetative state show markedly reduced global brain metabolism, so do people in slow-wave sleep and patients under general anesthesia. But sleepers and surgery patients wake up and resume normal consciousness, whereas patients in the persistent vegetative state rarely do. Remarkably, in the small number of cases in which brain imaging has been attempted in patients who have recovered from the persistent vegetative state, regaining full consciousness, it would appear that global metabolic levels remain low even after full recovery. Moreover, external stimuli such as sounds or pinpricks produced. Significant increases in neuronal activity in primary perceptual cortices. Interesting new work by Steven Laureys and his colleagues in Belgium indicates that vegetative patients show strikingly impaired functional connections between distant cortical areas and between cortical and subcortical structures. In addition, they show that in cases where consciousness is recovered, even if overall metabolic activity stays low, these functional connections between brain regions are restored. These findings are important and point in the direction of a deeper understanding of what is happening in the brain in the persistent vegetative state.
But this doesn't change the fact that at present we are not even close to being able to use brain imaging to get a look inside the head to find out whether there is consciousness or not. Consider these simple questions: Does a patient in the persistent vegetative state feel physical pain—for example, the pain of thirst or hunger, or the prick of a pin? Does she hear the sound of the door slamming? We know she turns her head in response to the sound, and we know she withdraws her hand from the pinprick. We also know that there is some Significant neural activity produced in primary perceptual cortices by these stimuli. Is the patient in the persistent vegetative state a robot, responding reflexively to stimulation, but without actually feeling anything? And, more important, is this something that brain imaging could ever help us decide?
We don't know how to answer these questions. It is disturbing to learn that so far there are no theoretically satisfying or practically reliable criteria for deciding when a person with brain injury is conscious or not. At present, doctors and relatives have to deal with these questions without guidance from science or medicine. For example, the press tended to treat the widely discussed case of Terri Schiavo as one in which science, armed with cold hard facts about the nature of Schiavo's brain damage, did battle with family members who were blinded at once by their love for their daughter and their religious fundamentalism. Sadly, science doesn't have the hard facts.1
New York: Hill and Wang, 2009. 19
Wednesday, March 12, 2014
Some of this confusion stems from the fact that the media are not really good at nuancing their stories when they report on things like brain scanning techniques. One such example is the reports that began to circulate when scientist used an fMRI scanner to measure blood flow through the visual cortex of the brain while people were looking at a specific image. They then built a computer to map the blood flow and they reproduced a kind of silhouette of the image itself. This isn't surprising, really, since blood flow to the visual cortex is a chemical response to stimulus from the optic nerve, kind of the same way film has a chemical reaction to light exposure. However, UC Berkeley's newsroom carried the story with the headline "Scientists use brain imaging to reveal the movies in our mind" and wrote, "Imagine tapping into the mind of a coma patient, or watching one’s own dream on YouTube. With a cutting-edge blend of brain imaging and computer simulation, scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, are bringing these futuristic scenarios within reach."
This makes for great sharing on the Internet, but fMRI imaging is nothing like understanding what someone dreams or imagines. In fact, it has a really hard time telling scientists what is even going on when they can see activity in the brain. Alva Nöe, another professor at UC Berkeley and a member of the Institute for Cognitive Brain Sciences does a great job describing just how crude tools like fMRI really are. In his book Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain, and Other Lessons of Consciousness, he explains:
"PET and fMRI yield multicolored images. The colors are meant to correspond to levels of neural activity: the pattern of the colors indicates the brain areas where activity is believed to occur; brighter colors indicate higher levels of activity. It is easy to overlook the fact that images of this sort made by fMRI and PET are not actually pictures of the brain in action. The scanner and the scientist perform a task that is less like gathering a photographic or X-ray image than it is like the process whereby a police sketch artist produces a drawing of a suspect based on interviews with a number of different witnesses. Such drawings carry valuable information about the criminal, to be sure, but they are not direct records of the criminal's face; they are, rather, graphical renderings based on perhaps conflicting reports of what different individuals claim to have seen. Such a composite sketch reflects a conjecture or hypothesis about, rather than a recording of, the perpetrator. Indeed, there is nothing in the process that even guarantees that there is a single perpetrator, let alone that the sketch is a good likeness.So, to see things like thoughts that exist only in your conscious mind and are not produced by external stimulus are nothing like the images that MRIs produce. You may say, "But at least we can see what happens when someone is looking or talking, right?" Nope. You still have to ask the patient what he or she is experiencing. Nöe goes on:
"In a similar way, images produced by PET and fMRI are not in any straightforward way traces of the psychological or mental phenomena. Rather, they represent a conjecture or hypothesis about what we think is going on in the brains of subjects. To appreciate this, consider that we face a problem from the very beginning about how to decide what neural activity is relevant to a mental phenomenon we want to understand. Scientists start from the assumption that to every mental task—say, the judgment that two given words rhyme—there corresponds a neural process. But how do we decide which neural activity going on inside you when you make a rhyming judgment is the neural activity associated with the mental act? To do that, we need to have an idea about how things would have been in the brain if you hadn't performed the rhyming judgment; that is, we need a baseline against which to judge whether or not the deviation from the baseline corresponds to the mental act. One way to do this is by comparing the image of the brain at rest with the image of the brain making a rhyming judgment. The rhyming judgment presumably depends on the neural activity by virtue of which these two images differ. But how do we decide what the brain at rest looks like? After all, the brain is never at rest. For example, there are stages of sleep when your brain is working harder than it does at most times during the day!" (Emphasis added)1
"Comparison provides the best method available for uncovering the areas of the brain that are critically involved in the performance of a cognitive function. For example, suppose you were to produce a bunch of PET images of people listening to recordings of spoken words and then making judgments about whether given pairs of words rhyme. To isolate the activation responsible for the rhyming judgment, as distinct from that responsible for the auditory perception of the spoken words, a standard procedure would be to compare these images with a second set of images of people listening to recordings of spoken words but not making rhyming judgments. Whatever areas are active in the first set of images, but not the second, would be plausible candidates for the place in the brain where the rhyming judgment takes place.Because there is so much activity in the brain, it becomes really difficult to construct an objective model of even which areas of the brain are involved in which discreet process. And even that makes an assumption that thoughts can be relegated to a single area of the brain. We don't know that to be true. What we do know is that consciousness is something completely different than brain activity. I'll talk more about that in an upcoming post. Just don't let news reports or popular movies lead you to believe otherwise.
"This method of comparison is cogent and it holds promise. But it is worth stressing that its reliability depends on a number of background assumptions, not all of which are unproblematic, as Guy C. Van Orden and Kenneth R. Paap have convincingly argued. For one thing, sticking to our example, the comparison method assumes that there is no feedback between what the brain is doing when we make a rhyming judgment and what the brain is doing when we perceive the words. If there is indeed feedback, then it would follow that overlapping regions in the images do not necessarily correspond to a common neural factor."2
Sunday, December 15, 2013
Many believers have absorbed the fact/value, public/private dichotomy, restricting faith to the religious sphere while adopting whatever views are current in their professional or social circles. … The problem was phrased succinctly by Harry Blamires: "There is no longer a Christian mind."
...What did [Blamires] mean? To say that there is no Christian mind means that believers may be highly educated in terms of technical proficiency, and yet have no biblical worldview for interpreting the subject matter of their field. "We speak of the 'modern mind', and of the 'scientific mind', using that word 'mind' of a collectively accepted set of notions and attitudes," Blamires explains. But we have lost the Christian mind. There is now no shared, biblically based set of assumptions on subjects like law, education, economics, politics, science, or the arts. As a moral being, the Christian follows the biblical ethic. As a spiritual being, he prays and attends worship services. But as a thinking Christian, he has succumbed to secularism.
—Nancy Pearcey in Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from Its Cultural Captivity,
(Wheaton, Il: Crossway, 2004).33-34.
Monday, March 18, 2013
There's something fundamentally different about conscious experiences and physical effects. Physical effects, such as the effect of gravity on any mass, are governed by natural laws and are simply brute facts of cause and effect — if you let go of a ball, it will fall to the ground. The ball doesn't have the "idea" to fall to the ground, nor does the earth have the idea of pulling the ball down. Laws of nature are by their very definition fixed and do not contemplate whether or not to act. However, conscious decisions are not mere cause and effect. They are more than that. Take the act of raising my hand. I can choose whether to raise my hand or not in normal circumstances. If I decide to raise my hand, I can do so, but it's not inevitable that my hand will raise until I've chosen to rise it, unlike the inevitability of a ball falling when it is not supported by anything.
We see that our minds can affect our bodies in other ways, too. Some people have a medical condition where they cannot feel pain, while other people feel pain in limbs that they no longer have. Certainly the experience of feeling pain is different from the physical process of pain receptors receiving stimuli and transmitting electrical signals to the brain. And the concept of what it means to be in pain is something that cannot be explained by physical interactions. The ability to cognitively understand you are experiencing pleasantness or unpleasantness is independent of simple cause and effect laws.
Most naturalists (that is, people who believe that everything can be explained by using only physical explanations) will say that there really is no such thing as a mind or they will believe the mind somehow shows up, but is only a result of physical states. Basically, naturalists believe that we somehow evolved our minds from more primitive chemical interactions that happen to occur within one organ of our bodies — the brain. But there are huge problems with this view and the general understanding of what it means to be a person.
Evolution cannot account for the existence of mindsIs it possible that evolution can account for the emergence of a conscious mind from all those chemical interactions? Since chemical interactions are responding to the laws of nature, like the ball above, I can see no way how this independent decision-making capability will "pop" into existence. In fact, if such a possibility were to exist, it would undermine all of our scientific principles. We count on the laws of nature to be consistent. Imagine if a plastics manufacturer mixed his chemical ingredients together and the carbon decided not to bond with the hydrogen! It would be tough to get that new iPhone this way! As J.P. Moreland noted, the emergence of consciousness from a physical organ "seems to be a case of getting something from nothing."
Computer simulation programs and artificial intelligence are sometimes claimed as showing how intelligence may emerge from the mechanistic antecedents, but this is the stuff of science fiction, not science. Even a computer program that has the capacity to "learn" has been programmed to write the results of a precedent condition and pass that back through only a predefined series of options. Thus an AI program may generate new sentences if programmed to do so, but it can never decide to not run its own program.
So, how in a universe that starts with only natural laws, these brute facts of cause and effect, can consciousness come into existence? How do you evolve consciousness from non-conscious materials that only interact mechanistically? In all that we observe, we note that minds only have their origin in other minds. Plants don't produce thinking plants, but thinking people can produce new thinking people. If you think about it, you will soon see that matter and the laws of nature are simply powerless to create intelligence. And the fact that you can think about it argues that there must be a mind who produced man.
2. Moreland, J.P. & William Lane Craig. Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview. Downers Grove, Il: InterVarsity Press, 2003. 228.
3. The idea that there is no mind and all that we experience is simply a result of chemical processes is known as physicalism. See Geoffrey Paul Hellman and Frank Wilson Thompson's paper "Physicalism: Ontology, Determination, and Reduction" in The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 72, No. 17, Seventy-Second Annual Meeting of theAmerican Philosophical Association Eastern Division (Oct. 2, 1975), 551-564.
4. This view is known as epiphenoninalism. For a more detailed explanation of all these views and the reasons they fail, see J.P Moreland. The Recalcitrant Imago Dei: Human Persons and the Failure of Naturalism. London: SCM Press, 2009.
5. Granted, this is a simple illustration, but it really doesn't matter how big or complex the reactions are. The more complex the interaction, the more difficult it may be for us to predict all the results, but it doesn't mean the results won't follow directly from their precedent conditions.
6. Moreland, J.P. "Argument from Consciousness" JP Moreland's Amazon Blog. 12 June 2008.
Wednesday, January 30, 2013
I've had an off-and-on again discussion with an atheist friend of mine on the concept of the soul. Being an atheist, he routinely defaults to a naturalistic/materialistic understanding of the world and how things work. For example, he recently made the claim on my Facebook page that "The new thing that is emerging is 'machine life' (artificial intelligence). It will surpass us in intelligence." There are two claims being made in this statement, both of which I think are faulty and the first rests on the understanding of the second. The primary claim that machines will someday be considered alive due to advances in artificial intelligence that are happening even now. The second is that this intelligence will allow machines to be smarter than us.
The problem here is one of language. We've heard people discuss sentience or intelligence as synonyms. Then, we see a new device, such as a smart phone or intelligence-assist devices and think that people are using the words in the same fashion. But that is simply not true. In the first sense, intelligence means to be able to comprehend the facts that are presented to you, to understand a concept. The biggest point of understanding is not the medium through which the concept is presented nor is it the reaction or outcome. Understanding is an act of consciousness and consciousness has a specific kind of experience associated with it that machines can never have.
You see, machines simply are cause and effect loops. Given a specific input, a computer acts like any other mechanical device—it spits out a result based on preset programming. This is true even if the programming has a randomizer built into it. As computer programs become more complex we can be tempted to think the machines are "understanding" what is going on, but they aren't. They are merely acting like an extremely complicated Rube Goldberg machine and producing an outcome based on their prior programming.
Philosopher John Searle's Chinese Room thought experiment is a great example of the difference. Searle asks you to imagine a man inside a locked room with two slots in the wall. A Chines messenger will slip a question written in Chinese on a piece of paper through the door and in a little while the paper will be returned through a second slot with an answer inscribed at the bottom, also in Chinese. The messenger and probably all observers would believe the man in the room spoke Chinese. However, inside the room the facts are different. The man actually speaks no Chinese at all. He just has a very large code book that will tell him "If this combination of characters appears on a piece of paper, then you should write this second combination of characters at the bottom and return the paper." The man inside the room has no idea what the question is or what the answer says. It is a qualitatively different experience than conscious understanding. (For a more detailed explanation of the Chinese Room and some great animation, see this page.)
This is exactly how artificial intelligence works. Even the head of the Google Car project can teach you how to program your own self-driving car in just seven weeks. See the page at https://www.udacity.com/course/cs373 and look at the list of topics covered in the class. All the programming features are simply rules in a code book that must be followed by the machine. No understanding is required. The CPU in a computer is basically a Chinese Room, except the language is binary, 1s and 0s.
I don't think the label artificial intelligence will ever change; it's become too ingrained in our culture. However, it still can be understood that the term intelligence can mean different things. If I say my cell phone is dead, I don't mean that at one point it was capable of biological life. In the same way if I say my phone is smart, I don't mean that it is capable of conscious understanding. We would do well to note the difference.
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