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Tuesday, September 16, 2014

What if the Materialists are right about Consciousness?

In July of this year (2014), Helen Thomson wrote an article for NewScientist entitled "Consciousness on-off switch discovered deep in brain" or, as it originally appeared in print, "Consciousness - we hit its sweet spot." (http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg22329762.700-consciousness-onoff-switch-discovered-deep-in-brain.html?page=1#.VBgLzc8tDIU) In the piece, Ms. Thomson reports that a team of scientists at George Washington University in Washington D.C. has successfully turned on and off the consciousness of a patient by stimulating the claustrum (an area deep within the brain that hadn't been stimulated in this fashion heretofore) with electrical impulses. Previously, some scientists had speculated that the brain needed some kind of structure to coordinate our different brain networks, thus "allowing us to perceive our surroundings as one single unifying experience rather than isolated sensory perceptions." Hence, although this phenomena has only been observed in one person (and she cannot be characterized as having a "normal" brain), it does appear that scientists may have found this structure in the patient's claustrum.

What does this mean for the age-old debate on the metaphysical nature of consciousness between dualists and materialists? According to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (or IEP), dualists generally believe that there is a non-physical component to consciousness - one that is not related to the physical brain. In similar fashion, the IEP suggests that the materialist position can best be summarized as stating that consciousness is entirely the product of neural activity within the physical brain. (http://www.iep.utm.edu/consciou/) Now it has generally been acknowledged by philosophers that the dualist position lends itself to a supernatural or theistic interpretation of life while the materialist position is more in line with an evolutionary one (Once again, this presumes that a theistic view is incompatible with an evolutionary view).

Hence, as one could argue that this scientific finding regarding the claustrum tends to support the materialist view of consciousness, one might well ask "Is this another nail in the coffin of a theistic interpretation of life?" First, it should be noted that the IEP acknowledges that the association of a theistic or supernatural interpretation with the dualist position is a traditional one. In other words, the materialist position is not inherently incompatible with a theistic or supernatural view.

What if consciousness is entirely the product of neural activity within the physical brain? What would that mean for the concept of a soul or supernatural component to man? What if the "soul" or "spirit" within man has no independent consciousness apart from the physical brain? What if the purpose of this non-physical component of man is merely to record the neural activity of the brain on a more permanent medium? Wouldn't such a view be consistent with the Christian concept of a future resurrection of the dead? And how could materialists exclude these possibilities when so much of the scientific research points to a very complex view of the nature of consciousness?

After all, if God is the source of the evolutionary processes that produced the physical brain, wouldn't that have profound implications for the true nature of the "finished" product? What does the scientifically demonstrable phenomenon of instinct tell us about this topic? Isn't the perpetuation of itself (immortality) the goal of every species on this planet? Can instinct be described as a kind of collective memory or awareness of a species? A memory or awareness that is passed from one generation to another to ensure the survival of the species as a whole? We now know that our awareness of the world around us, along with some of the conscious decisions that we make in the course of our lifetimes (e.g. picking a mate), is influenced by things that are coded in our DNA. Hence, if physical life is "programmed" to pursue immortality, what does that suggest about the nature of God or the supernatural? And what about the fact that humans have the capacity to circumvent their "programming" (a man can decide to marry a woman with narrow hips and a woman can decide to marry a man with weak musculature)? In short, do any of these considerations have any implications for the materialist view of consciousness relative to the concept of a Divine origin for life?

In conclusion, it was not my intention to argue for the dualist or materialist position on consciousness when I sat down to write this piece. I simply wanted to demonstrate that theists do not have to resort to the old "God of the gaps" approach (that God is the answer to everything that is unexplained by science). Locking ourselves into a "God of the gaps" view is not a sensible long-term strategy for dealing with science. After all, scientific discovery is an ongoing and ever expanding process - What happens if science someday explains everything? So, What if the Materialists are right about Consciousness? This writer is merely suggesting that if the materialist view prevails that this does not necessarily exclude the existence of God or an afterlife.

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