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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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