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It’s Monday morning. I am in a local coffee shop, queueing for a flat white. Music is playing in the background, and I can just about hear it over the hum of the conversations. A child is having a tantrum in the corner. But it’s okay, the smell of coffee reaches my nostrils. The Monday morning trip to the coffee shop is an experience of sights, sounds, smells and sensations all rolled into one. It is an instance of consciousness.
What exactly is human consciousness? Consciousness is hard to define. Consciousness is the reason for the first-person perspective and the inner narrative in your head. Consciousness is why you integrate everything at the coffee shop into a single experience: the aroma, the screaming, the music. As philosophy Professor Thomas Nagel puts it, to be conscious is for there to be something “that it is like to be us”. (1)
In philosophical terms, qualia refer to “what something is like”. Let’s return to the coffee shop again. There is nothing quite like the smell of a rich Guatemalan blend. But if someone asked you to describe the smell of coffee, how would you respond? It is an experience that cannot be reduced any further. If you want to know what coffee smells like, you need to smell it! Life is full of qualia, such as seeing the colour blue, hearing a musical note or tasting watermelon. Qualia are central to consciousness.
Consciousness is the brain?
If you ask philosophers “What is the nature of consciousness?” a range of very different answers will come back. There is no agreed theory. However, one view in particular receives a regular hearing: the view that brain science can access and entirely explain (or will one day explain) qualia. This view is sometimes referred to as “reductive physicalism”. Conscious states are reducible (hence “reductive”) to the physical workings of the brain (hence “physicalism”). In other words, consciousness is the brain.
But is it true that scientific methods can access and explain qualia? A scientist can find out what’s in someone’s brain by measuring chemicals and electrical activity and recording MRIs. But can they measure what’s in their mind in quite the same way? To find out what’s in someone’s mind we need to ask the person to share their inner world with us. Scientists may help us understand certain aspects and states of consciousness, but they cannot get inside someone’s head and recreate their actual experience. They may make 3rd-person observations but cannot access the first-person conscious experience itself.
The “hard” problem
David Chalmers, Professor of Philosophy at the Australian National University, describes the quest to account for qualia as the “hard” problem of consciousness. How do you get from brain cells firing to “what it is like to be you’? Or, as Baronness Susan Greenfield, Professor of Physiology at the University of Oxford, recently asked,
How does the water of boring old brain cells and sludgy stuff translate into the wine of phenomenological subjective experience? [2}
Many would argue that the water of brain processes alone, are insufficient to explain the “wine” of the Guatemalan blend. Or, returning to the coffee shop one more time, knowledge of the chemical structure of caffeine or its impact on brain physiology is of little help in describing the smell of coffee. On this basis, we can conclude that conscious processes cannot be synonymous with brain processes. The two may well work closely together, but they are not identical. Therefore, reductive physicalist approaches to consciousness must be false. We are not just machines, we are more than machines. So what alternative explanations are there?
Does the brain generate consciousness?
Some take the view that the brain generates mind and consciousness. When a number of different parts come together over time, a new thing comes into being. This view can be broadly referred to as non-reductive physicalism (NRP). The mind is generated by the physical brain (hence “physicalism”), but is not reducible to its foundational components (hence “non-reductive”).
Consider the case of a university. A university as an institution is made up of several different departments, each with its own subject area and expertise, and yet is more than the sum of its departments. A university also has an alumni network, an international reputation, a donor base, and develops ideas that shape culture. The institution is formed by its component parts but is far greater than all of them combined.
This view seeks to make sense of the close connection between mind and brain that is clearly demonstrated in neuroscience and clinical medicine, but it still doesn’t solve the hard problem. How exactly does consciousness emerge from a physical system? Max Tegmark, writing in the New Scientist book The Universe Next Door, is among a number of philosophers who explain the transition in terms of complexity. When groups of atoms are arranged in new ways, new properties emerge.  Higher and higher levels of complexity lead to more and more sophisticated abilities. But others argue that physical systems alone, however complex they may be, are insufficient to get us across the chasm.
Christians who are non-reductive physicalists take the view that the brain has given rise to the conscious mind but as the creative handiwork of a conscious being—God. In this view, the bridge to human consciousness is not traversed by greater and greater levels of brain complexity, but by humanity entering into a relationship with their Maker.
Is consciousness beyond the brain?
Another alternative view begins by asking, what if conscious experience is a fundamental building block of life? If true, then we need to begin here and explain everything else in relation to consciousness, rather than the other way around. This view, reignited by Rene Descartes (1596-1650), holds that conscious states are independent of neurons and brain chemistry. In fact, there are two distinct, but interactive substances at play: a physical brain and a non-physical mind that is conscious. This view, known as substance dualism, argues that consciousness is beyond the brain.
The question of how a non-physical mind could exert changes in a physical brain poses concerns for many. If mind and brain are distinct, how do we explain the clear interaction between them? Proponents argue for holistic dualisms in which conscious states exist beyond the brain but are also causally connected to the brain. Holistic dualists accept the discoveries of neuroscience but claim they are not the whole story.
Dualists also argue that the non-physical can impact the physical in life. Consider, for example, the effect of bullying on appetite and sleep, or how good news puts a spring in our step and causes tears of elation. Words are non-physical but have a physical effect. Neurologists also speak of disorders for which there is no traceable physical cause. According to the World Health Organization, psychosomatic illness may affect as many as 20% of patients worldwide. Seemingly, the non-physical impacts the physical in daily life. So why not a non-physical mind interacting with a physical brain?
An open system?
A decision about the nature of consciousness cannot ultimately be reached on the basis of science. It really comes down to worldview. What if we entertain the possibility that God exists? How would this help us with the “hard” problem?
The first sentence of the Bible says,
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Genesis 1 v 1
If God exists, then consciousness is fundamental to the cosmos because the mind of God has always existed and has given rise to everything else. If God exists, then the system is not closed, and there is hope for solving the hard problem.
These early chapters of the Bible also poetically and creatively describe the formation of human beings,
The Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being. Genesis 2 v 7
These verses are not necessarily at odds with scientific descriptions of the processes by which homo sapiens came to exist. But they imply that physical descriptions alone are not enough to describe the human person. The Hebrew word for “breath of life” is neshama or ruach, and means “God’s breath” or “God’s Spirit”. According to these verses, a person is far more than matter. Far more than a machine. They have been breathed into by God, and have been given a capacity to think about themselves and beyond themselves to other people and to God himself.
In other words, consciousness exists because God exists. We are conscious because God is conscious. God is a thinking, feeling, conscious being who is also relational and wants to extend consciousness beyond himself to people. Why? So that He can be not simply observed, but also known and experienced.
Sharon Dirckx is a Senior Tutor at the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics (OCCA). Originally from a scientific background, she has a PhD in brain imaging from the University of Cambridge and has held research positions in the UK and USA. Sharon speaks and lectures in the UK, Europe and North America on science, theology, ‘mind and soul’ and the problem of evil. She has spoken at the Veritas Forum at the University of Oxford and appeared on several BBC programmes, including Songs of Praise, Radio 2 Good Morning Sunday and Radio 4 Beyond Belief. She is also the author of the award-winning book on suffering, entitled Why?: Looking at God, evil and personal suffering (2013). Her latest book, Am I just my brain? (2019) examines questions of human identity from the perspectives of neuroscience, philosophy and theology.
• Joel Green and Stuart Palmer, In Search of the Soul: Four views of the mind-body problem (IVP Academic, 2005). A helpful book that presents and critiques four views of
the mind-body problem & references many other helpful books.
• JP Moreland and Scott Rae, Body and Soul: Human Nature and the Crisis in Ethics (IVP, 2000). A careful and thorough treatment of the case for body-soul dualism from the perspective of a Christian.
• Malcolm Jeeves and Warren S. Brown, Neuroscience, Psychology and Religion: Illusions, Delusions and Realities about Human Nature (Templeton Press, 2009). A discussion of current views about mind and brain interwoven with Christian perspectives on human nature.
1: Thomas Nagel, “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?”, in The Philosophical Review, 1974, 83(4):440.
2: S. Greenfield, “The Neuroscience of Consciousness”, University of Melbourne, 27th November 2012.
3: F. Swain, The Universe Next Door: A Journey Through 55 Parallel Worlds and Possible Futures (John Murray, 2017), p 166.