Sunday, June 05, 2016

Why I'd like my Christian friends to consider that rational thought is a natural phenomenon

Some people try to prove the existence of the supernatural by talking about our minds. The claim is basically that, unless there is some supernatural involvement, we could not trust our own reasoning processes. If our minds work by electrical and chemical processes, why should we trust their results?

I'm posting both as a Christian and as a computer scientist. Computer science is my profession and has been for many years. I can tell you confidently that computers work by purely natural means, and we trust the results we get from them every day. If I asked you to multiply 327 x 418, how many of you would trust your own minds, and how many of you would use a calculator?







Here is why I think it matters: if you visit the atheist forums on the internet, you will meet so many ex-Christians who were (once, long ago) totally sold on the idea that either the Bible was infallible or the earth was 10,000 years old (or both). My argument here is not meant for those Christians who believe that the Bible is infallible or the earth is 10,000 years old. It is meant for those Christians who engage in and largely accept scientific findings as honestly derived and trustworthy. Young earthers are at risk of being picked off by atheist snipers because they believe things that are increasingly difficult to defend. In the same way I believe that insisting on a supernatural explanation for consciousness will become increasingly difficult to defend. And it's probably a peripheral issue, hardly worth risking your faith for it. I expect that all Christians -- and all people of good conscience -- want the truth of a matter. And so I'd like you to hear out my reasons why I believe that rational thought is a natural phenomenon.

There is an argument that our minds cannot be based on electrical and chemical processes. And when I have heard that argument, there is usually some reference to the mindlessness and randomness of the particles or chemicals involved. I will grant you that an electrical impulse in itself is not intelligent.  But that's not the question. There's a context to those electrical impulses and those chemical signals, and it's a living organism.

Let's define an organism as a biological entity where the electrical and chemical processes are directed towards the well-being of the system that contains them. That's a working definition; it might stand refining but let's start there.


Let's also start with a process that most people would agree is natural: digestion. Why exactly should the food we place in our stomach be put to use in strengthening our bones and other tissues? How does a totally irrational system like our digestive system manage the that? Consider our food going through the refining processes and the distribution system to get to the point where it strengthens other parts of us. A totally random chemical process could never manage it. But our stomachs are not totally random. There are biological processes that govern that. The chemistry in our stomachs is part of an engineered system that works toward a specific purpose and goal.

Let's move towards the topic of how our minds work. Why exactly should our minds conclude that 2 + 2 = 4? Let's set aside the background questions about what words mean and what numbers mean, and let's look at the question in the same way that a calculator would. Once the mind has been trained in the basic knowledge of what numbers are and how to add them, we get the right answer: 2 + 2 = 4. We get the right answer reliably ... unless we're sleepy or distracted or there are other perfectly naturalistic things going on with our minds. (The problems -- once we trace their causes -- tend to support the idea that there are biological causes behind how our mind works.) The reason our minds work is not because there are random electrical impulses in our brain.  Instead, the electricity and chemistry in our brains is an engineered system that works toward specific purposes and goals.

This is not said to diminish the amazing quality of our minds and of consciousness. It is not said to argue against knowing God with our minds. It is said in a quest for truth, and because I believe that the day will come - and sooner rather than later - that those who hold out for a supernatural component in consciousness will become a target for atheist snipers.

20 comments:

Martin LaBar said...

I think that you are right, in your main thesis, and also that you are right in the danger of denying this.

Harrison Jennings said...

This is an extremely interesting position to take, especially coming from a Christian. I greatly respect the sentiment behind your argument, that Christians should respect truth and follow it wherever it leads us. The problem is, this post doesn't display a very sophisticated knowledge of philosophy of mind and the relevant issues. Your argument seems to make at least an implicit assumption that contemporary science has somehow demonstrated that mind is essentially material; in fact, contemporary science has not done such, and in principle, cannot do such. The so called "mind body problem" has two dominant answers in modern philosophy of mind: materialism, which holds that mind and all mental functions are reducible to physical matter and material/chemical processes. This materialism is usually taken because one already has a prior reason to think that matter is all that exists, which is why it is somewhat strange for a Christian to take this approach, because a Christian is certainly not already committed to the notion that matter is all that exists. The major problems (although certainly not the only) with this materialism is that according to modern, mechanical views of matter, matter only contains mathematically quantifiable features. Consciousness, however, consists almost entirely of qualitative features. Similarly, matter, as it is held in modern scientific/mechanistic views, cannot be intentional; it cannot be "about" something else, but that is precisely what thoughts are. Thus Descarte and his followers proposed Substance Dualism, which holds that the mind is a wholly immaterial thing which exists in the material body. There are also numerous problems with this substance Dualism. And so we have something of a stalemate to the mind body problem. But you seem to entirely ignore the crucial and serious arguments for non materialistic answers to this question, which come from some very good philosophers who certainly aren't arguing based on divine revelation, but on reason and philosophy. A good place to start exploring this field is Ed Feser's book "Philosophy of Mind." Equating no materialistic answers to the mind body problem to young earth creationism is not only false, it's absurd and ignorant.

JBsptfn said...

Well said, Harrison. Here is some more info from a Christian apologist about this:

DOXA: Consciousness: Mind, Spirit, Brain

Weekend Fisher said...

Good evening

I'm glad to see that I sparked some interest; I hope it continues to the point of dialog. (By the way we don't do flame-wars here, just so you know.)

Martin, thank you for the encouragement.

Harrison, I don't think that contemporary science has *yet* demonstrated that mind is completely material. However, I don't see any obstacles to fleshing out that demonstration based on parts that we are reasonably sure are material.

Frankly, I don't see the problem of intentionality as much of an obstacle for the reasons I outlined in my "digestive system" analogy: the digestive system behaves as if it is intentional when it refines and processes our food. Of course that process needs external direction to achieve that intentional result; it just so happens to have external direction as part of the organism to which it belongs.

I hope you'll participate in some dialog; I'm fond of the topic. I think the situation for the "non-material mind" camp now is comparable to what it was for young-earth-creationists 10 years before Darwin: it was a rational belief at the time ...

Your substantive argument seems to be that you believe consciousness is qualitative and not of a type that can be explained physically. I'd like to suggest a direction for dialog. You could reply with some ways in which you believe consciousness cannot be explained physically, and I could take an honest look at whether it can in those specific cases.

JB, you're welcome to join in.

Looking forward to a productive conversation.

Take care & God bless
WF

JBsptfn said...

Weekend Fisher, you are making a mistake. You seem to be confusing consciousness with cognitive function. Those are not the same thing.

Weekend Fisher said...

Hi JB

Thank you for taking the time to engage in a thoughtful exchange.

I'd say that consciousness is one kind of cognitive function.

If you'd disagree then, in your thinking, what is the key distinction?

Take care & God bless
WF

JBsptfn said...

I don't think that Consciousness is any kind of Cognitive Function. Joe Hinman (Metacrock) has argued that Atheists try to use these terms interchangeably in a "bait and switch" when addressing this issue.

I think that Cognitive function is what the brain controls (Motor skills, cognitive abilities, etc). Consciousness is basic awareness. The brain can filter that, but it doesn't control it:

Life in B-Flat: Filter Model of Brain



Joe Hinman said...

hey weekend it's I metacrock. glad you are doing better. Please get in touch with me.I like your post a lot.. My position is consciousness is produced by the brain in biological organisms. That is a naturalistic process of course. That does not mean that mind isn't non physical. it's produced by physical aspects but is not reducible to the physical.

I equate mind with spirit. Not that consciousness is SN. Spirit is mind. So /God is mind. Unlike a biological organism God is not produced. God is eternal universal mind. We are a reflection of that but biologically produced.

Weekend Fisher said...

Now there's an ironic thing. Since last time we spoke, I've spent a huge portion of my waking hours with my mother who has developed some cognitive problems. She's 75 years old, and in the last couple of days has become very confused. (Last night, when she seemed confused, I asked her to humor me and tell me what year it is. She told me confidently that the year was 1986, as if that should put an end to all discussion about whether she knows what she's talking about. It did, of course ... just not in the direction she expected.) She was actually fairly normal (for her) last week ... I really hadn't expected life to throw an object lesson at me. Anyway, back to actual comments here:

JB - I'm trying to make sure that I understand what you're saying. If "consciousness" is "basic awareness" -- do you mean like the type that (say) goldfish have, that they're aware of their surroundings? If that's the direction you're going, it does go beyond brain function as we get input from all our senses. That input does end up in our brain. Let me know if I'm tracking your argument here.

Hey Joe - really good to see you again. I'm trying to understand the way your definitions are classifying the different pieces there. It looks like, in your definitions, "consciousness" is naturalistic (and so not really what we're focusing on). On the other hand, it sounds like you're saying "mind" is not reducible to the physical ... If we go with "God" as "eternal universal mind" and if we are a reflection of that, biologically produced ... doesn't that work out to a biological reflection of a reality beyond us? (That's a large part of what the brain does, is model the reality of the outside world.)

Once we're saying that it's basically biological on our ends ... that doesn't mean irrational, or unspiritual.

Take care & God bless
WF

JBsptfn said...

WF, here is a good analogy of brain and mind that Piero Calvi-Parisetti used (Piero is a doctor, and he wrote the book 21 Days Into the Afterlife) on his Subversive thinking interview with Jime several years ago.

Pieri basically said that the brain is like a radio. When you play the program (or music) back, and you get a tester out, the tester will align perfectly with what is played on the radio. However, that doesn't mean that the program is produced inside the radio. The signal comes from somewhere else, like a broadcasting company or God (in our case).

Weekend Fisher said...

That analogy will work for conversation purposes. Is the 'signal' supposed to be analogous to mind, then? If 'mind' is 'the ability to think / the function of thinking and consciously evaluating', or 'the phenomenon of consciousness', then for what reason would we think it doesn't reside in the brain?

If I were making a radio analogy ... I usually go with "programming" but I'll try "radios" here ... We can receive input/signals from elsewhere, and we can reproduce it (HiFi or not), we can process it, we can synthesize it, mix it, make mash-ups, have our own on-board recording studios and make sound tracks to our own lives ... and it's still done on physical equipment, our own in-head sound studios. (Hm. Didn't manage to stick 100% with radios but I'm hoping you can work with it here.)

I know you have plenty of company in your view; still the bottom line is I don't get why you think there's a part of our consciousness that isn't physical. I honestly don't see what part (or function) you're saying isn't physical, or what the reason is behind that assessment. I'd love to understand where exactly our differences lie but I haven't spotted that yet.

I appreciate your patience. Feel free to send reasonable-sized links & I will in fact read reasonable-sized pages if you think they do a good job of presenting your position / premises / objections / all that.

Take care & God bless
WF

JBsptfn said...

I shared this with another blogger (Stan on Atheism-Analyzed. I don't know if you are familiar with him). He was going to do a write-up on it. I will let you know when finished.

He can be a tad arrogant, so I told him to go easy on you because you aren't an atheist troll. You guys may have an interesting discussion on this (BTW, he also has a lot of problems with evolution theory).

JBsptfn said...

WF, here is Stan's reply:

Atheism-Analyzed: An Analysis of Purely Physical Mind and Rational Thought

Weekend Fisher said...

I haven't met Stan before. I read through his post & kept a few notes. I feel a follow-up coming on. But thank you for starting the conversation and introducing us.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Talon said...

If you're curious about philosophical argumentation , here are a few entries by Thomist Edward Feser on James Ross' argument for the immateriality of the intellect, Feser is a hylomorphic dualist, and believes that Naturalism cannot, in principal, explain the mind in materialistic terms.

edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2013/10/oerter-on-indeterminacy-and-unknown.html

http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2013/10/do-machines-compute-functions.html

Weekend Fisher said...

Hey Talon

I appreciate the links & the conversation there.

It looks like the focus in that thread is leaning towards the context and origins of our minds: whether there was a rational or metaphysical component in establishing consciousness in the first place. I'm focusing on slightly different scope here: "Given that consciousness exists or occurs, how does it work? Does its current working require something beyond our physicality to continue to work?"

Thank you for stopping by.

Take care & God bless
WF

Aron Wall said...

Nitpick: I'm pretty sure young earth creationism was unreasonable even 10 years before Darwin, because of Geology. People knew about rock layers and extinct animals and so on before Darwin came up with Evolution by Natural Selection.

However, leaving that aside, I don't see how one could ever know that a position will become unreasonable in a few decades. It could always be that 10 years from now, someone will make an important discovery which points in the opposite direction. That's the thing about the future; it hasn't happened yet!

Weekend Fisher said...

That's the thing about "10 years before Darwin": you really could know that a YEC position was on shaky ground 10 years before Darwin; you're basically granting my point. 10 years before Darwin, the thing that hadn't happened yet was for the big push into mainstream consciousness with a respectably comprehensive theory. But the pieces were in place. (Didn't Darwin mention that the reason he published when he did, is that he didn't want a scientific rival to beat him to it?) That's why I think it's comparable.

In theory it's possible someone will put dualism on more solid ground. But unless someone does ... Who knows, maybe it will be you. I'm not just messing with you; I know you have some interest there.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Aron Wall said...

Hmm, well maybe Old Earth Creationism was still reasonable back then...

Anyway, I'm not exactly a dualist. That is, it's not at all important to me that we consist of two different "parts" one of which is not material. I am happy to admit that the brain is a single physical object so long as it is acknowledged that consciousness involves a deep philosophical mystery which cannot be completely understand in external, reductionistic terms.

Weekend Fisher said...

I promise I'm not trying to be obtuse ... maybe it comes naturally. But the question is: Why exactly do people think that consciousness is a deep philosophical mystery?

By "consciousness" I mean something like "state of being aware of existence and surroundings; may also include self-awareness and awareness of internal states".

It doesn't seem too mysterious, or no more so than a mirror, or eyesight.

Maybe I'm coming at it from a different definition or a different angle so that I'm missing other peoples' points. And I'd really rather not miss your point.

Any explanation is much appreciated.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF