As someone with a scientific background, I’m by default drawn to materialistic explanations for everything. I however, also find the materialistic explanation for consciousness unintuitive and unsatisfying. My issue is that I really don’t understand what the “theistic alternative” is. To me it seems that there are two schools of thought:
Materialism: a bunch of non-conscious components come together, something something something, TA-DAH! Consciousness.
My understanding of the theistic alternative: God created humans, something something something, TA-DAH! Consciousness.
So my question is: can you throw any more light on what the “theistic alternative” is? Or point me in the direction of someone who does?
Bernie, thanks for the thoughtful question. I think I can help.
It’s certainly true that consciousness is intrinsically mysterious. It’s hard for us to think about consciousness for the simple reason that to think about it is to use it. When I use my conscious mind to consider the nature of consciousness, it’s like using an Olympus BX53 microscope to study an Olympus BX53 microscope. Any limitations or faults in the instrument will compound. If we see a certain feature in the lens we’re examining—a certain tint, for example—we can never be sure whether the feature is an effect of the viewing lens or the viewed lens. Thinking about consciousness is “loopy” in this way. It is both difficult in process and unreliable in results.
Therefore there will always be a certain degree of “TA-DAH!” in any account of consciousness, so long as “TA-DAH!” implies uncertainty, lack of clarity, and a degree of mystery.
But materialism and theism differ very greatly in the type and degree of “TA-DAH!” that they invoke.
In materialism, the sense of surprise comes from the observation that consciousness has none of the features of matter and pretty clearly defies all the usual ways in which we think about and talk about matter. I won’t go into this deeply, as you seem to grok it. Both the “how” of consciousness and the “why” raise huge questions for materialism, and quite rightly produce a big “TA-DAH!”.
But the “TA-DAH!” in theism is much more mild and natural: it is limited to the inevitable “loopy” feelings I described above.
If God exists, then he is—by definition—not himself part of the universe. In the same way that a game programmer (like me) is not actually part of the game code that he writes, God is not “inside” the universe. He defines the universe—sets up the mathematical base rules, the gravitational constant, the elementary laws that lead to (coarsely speaking) the periodic table, and so forth. And he does so completely arbitrarily: he could, as he conceived of the universe and gave it its initial definition, tune the gravitational constant this way or that or eliminate the gravitational force entirely. He could define three spatial dimensions or two or four or whatever seems best. As a game programmer I can define whether my game has the notion of temperature or mass or “mana” and how much heat or mana it takes for an object to combust. If God exists, he has defined our universe something like that.
As a game programmer, I’m not done when the game starts to run. I can still intervene either through user input (such as taking up an Xbox controller and moving a character) or through programming tools (such as pausing the game with the debugger, inspecting and modifying data, rewriting and recompiling parts of the code, and so forth). If I have that power over my games, why should God have any less power over the universe?
In this view, then, consciousness is just another property of certain entities in the universe that God has defined. God has established conscious minds as part of the definition and mechanism of the universe, with as much ease as he defined everything else. Consciousness is simply “part of the code”, another class definition alongside Particle and Field and whatever else. (Of course this metaphor only goes so far, and here I’m in danger of stretching it.)
Conscious minds are not, of course, physical entities—but then, why should that bother anyone? Materialism’s insistence that the physical world is the only “real” aspect of nature is peculiar. Just because scientists have had a lot of success studying physical entities for the last couple of centuries doesn’t mean that physical entities are the only entities, or the only interesting ones. Science only assumes that matter is all that is, and it’s a grave error to mistake assuming for demonstrating. To say that the universe consists only of matter is like a person who reads the New York Times every morning saying that it’s the only newspaper that exists, or like a carpenter with a brand-new hammer saying that nails are the only things that exist. To be used to something is not to make it the only thing around.
For the theist, the sense of shock that confronts a materialist when he considers consciousness simply never appears. What could be more natural than a programmer who wants to make a multiplayer game adding not only a physics system but also user input? In this metaphor, God is the programmer (of course), the physical universe is the physics system, and consciousness is the user input system. Consciousness enables personal, experiential, moral, thinking, feeling, relational, meaning-creating entities (we call them “people”) to engage with the otherwise mechanical physical systems. This creates an interesting “play setting”: a venue for choice, learning, growth, relationship, and experience, and actors to populate that venue.
You asked me to throw some light on what the “theistic alternative” is. A fuller expression of the theistic alternative would be much longer than a single blog post. I hope the metaphor of the game programmer helps to briefly convey the idea. Theism removes the shock of how consciousness exists in a material universe and also answers the question of why it exists.
You may be left still wondering one thing. “But what about the wiring?” you might ask. “Where does consciousness sit? What’s it made of? How does this vague, almost spiritual thing interface with particles and waves and fields?”
I can only answer with two thoughts.
- I don’t know how consciousness works. I certainly can’t describe it in mechanistic or physical terms. No one can, and the “loopy” nature of consciousness will probably make it a permanently inscrutable subject for all humans, theist and atheist alike.
- The yearning, keening need to explain things in mechanistic terms has its proper place as well as its limits. Those of us raised (like I was) in a culture devoted to science have been trained to demand a precise, mechanical explanation for everything. A couple of centuries of success in the physical sciences has created a generation of intellectuals who “see everything as a nail”—who expect everything to be physical or to resemble the physical. It simply won’t work with consciousness, and the attempt to force this square peg into a round hole (to shift the metaphor somewhat) is leading materialists into all sorts of silliness. There is no answer to the “mechanics” of consciousness: in this regard it will always be a “TA-DAH!”
You asked me to answer or to recommend someone who could. I’ve done my best at an answer but for further insights on theism, materialism, and mind you might try: