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The Hard Problem of Consciousness

Consciousness and personality are perennial topics of conversation among philosophers. But that doesn’t mean they’re topics only for the academy. These subjects touch each of us deeply, because they are at the very heart of our existence. That’s why they live in high culture, low culture, and everywhere in between. For example, Tom Stoppard’s latest play, The Hard Problem, focuses on the issue. And who can count how many literary works, films, or songs address consciousness and its relation to personality? The artists have certainly contemplated this for a while. But what about the scientists?

Materialists struggle to explain features of human existence. This is an old problem even though it thrives upon the scientific and technological frontier. What is new are the means of investigation and the attitudes about “solving” the so-called problem. More and more people seem optimistic the clouds engulfing consciousness and personality might be dispelled through scientific investigation. Some scientists have suggested they’ve found the human soulOliver Burkeman reports that neuroscientists are starting to consider all sorts of possibilities:

Christof Koch, the chief scientific officer at the Allen Institute for Brain Science, and a key player in the Obama administration’s multibillion-dollar initiative to map the human brain, is about as credible as neuroscientists get. But, he told me in December: “I think the earliest desire that drove me to study consciousness was that I wanted, secretly, to show myself that it couldn’t be explained scientifically. I was raised Roman Catholic, and I wanted to find a place where I could say: OK, here, God has intervened. God created souls, and put them into people.” Koch assured me that he had long ago abandoned such improbable notions. Then, not much later, and in all seriousness, he said that on the basis of his recent research he thought it wasn’t impossible that his iPhone might have feelings.

Deep down, Koch wanted there to be something more to human existence than what could be studied scientifically. While hard materialists will deny any sort of transcendent aspect of humanity, some scientists are will to speak about human spirituality. We ought to recognize that humans are body-soul unities. Reducing human existence to one or the other or separating body and soul from one another hermetically will do violence to the truth of who we are. Exploring the connection between body and soul—or the physical and the spiritual—should be of interest to us. Still, such studies are not all created equal:

Perhaps the most influential and rigorous of these early studies was the Good Friday experiment, conducted in 1962 by Walter Pahnke, a psychiatrist and minister working on a Ph.D. dissertation under Leary at Harvard. In a double-blind experiment, twenty divinity students received a capsule of white powder right before a Good Friday service at Marsh Chapel, on the Boston University campus; ten contained psilocybin, ten an active placebo (nicotinic acid). Eight of the ten students receiving psilocybin reported a mystical experience, while only one in the control group experienced a feeling of “sacredness” and a “sense of peace.” (Telling the subjects apart was not difficult, rendering the double-blind a somewhat hollow conceit: those on the placebo sat sedately in their pews while the others lay down or wandered around the chapel, muttering things like “God is everywhere” and “Oh, the glory!”) Pahnke concluded that the experiences of eight who received the psilocybin were “indistinguishable from, if not identical with,” the classic mystical experiences reported in the literature by William James, Walter Stace, and others. (Michael Pollan, “The Trip Treatment” in The New Yorker)

There you have it: spirituality can be reduced to a chain of electro-chemical reactions after all. As any apologist should know, if we have determined reality is only comprised of materiality, materiality is the only explanation for the phenomena. The “hard problems” persist. Reading accounts such as the one above might leave you rolling your eyes. But if you had to sit down and write out your own account of human existence, would it be thorough? coherent?

What exactly is consciousness? How does it relate to personality? How does it relate to the physical body in particular and the world in general? Do aspects of humanity transcend the limitations of scientific inquiry? I believe that simply affirming human beings are body-soul unities created in the image of God places us far ahead of the pack. Nonetheless, unchartered waters abound. As I continue to come across investigations into human consciousness and personality, I wish Reformed Christians would write more themselves. We could use more Reformed theologians and philosophers committing their minds and energy to “hard problems” like these.

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"lee n. field"

5 years ago

Can I toss a monkey wrench in here?

Peter Watts recent novel science fiction novel Blindsight deals with questions of consciousness and sentience. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blindsight_%28Watts_novel%29

http://www.rifters.com/real/Blindsight.htm (free to read online).

Worth a read. IMHO, YMMV.

Eric Chabaneix

5 years ago

Edwards’ work on the affections has, in my opinion, a lot to say about the nature of consciousness, at least by implication. Part I of Religious Affections “Concerning the Nature of Affections . . . ” is particularly insightful in as much as Edwards’ deals with one’s understanding, inclination, desire, and will, among other things. Edwards reminds us that consciousness is not seated in the body, in our biology, but primarily in one’s soul. My two cents. Anyways, as Camden wrote, “We could use more Reformed theologians and philosophers committing their minds and energy to “hard problems” like these.”

Eric

Bruce Sanders

5 years ago

The following are excerpts from the July 2, 2014 issue of New Scientist:

“ONE moment you’re conscious, the next you’re not. For the first time, researchers have switched off consciousness by electrically stimulating a single brain area … the claustrum … a thin, sheet-like structure that lies hidden deep inside the brain.”

“When the team zapped the area with high frequency electrical impulses, the woman lost consciousness. She stopped reading and stared blankly into space, she didn’t respond to auditory or visual commands and her breathing slowed. As soon as the stimulation stopped, she immediately regained consciousness with no memory of the event. The same thing happened every time the area was stimulated during two days of experiments.”

The results of this experiment join a long list of amazing neural discoveries published in back issues of New Scientist. Going forward, I highly recommend that Reformed readers sign up for a subscription.

J. Cilliers

5 years ago

I am no scientist, just a mere missionary but Francis Schaeffer’s views helped me – even if I don’t comprehend everything yet he says. But I would say the root or origin of it all is that man has been created in the image of God (Gen1:26, 27) and so since God is a conscious being we are inherently as well (and we will never be able to analyze and clarify it on pure scientific basis) – and so we also are personal and able to relate – to God and to other personal beings such as people, angels, Satan and demons. I think the main goal and end of consciousness / personality is to relate – to God first and then to others. Without consciousness we would not be able to perceive, observe, think, create, relate, enjoy etc. We would then be sub-human, impersonal and limited.

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