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Difficulties for Atheism: What is Consciousness?

Difficulties for Atheism: What is Consciousness?




Life is full of mysteries that elude explanation. Why does something exist rather than nothing? How did life begin? How is it that I can buy a box of pens and lose them all in a week?

But what greater mystery exists than the origin and nature of our very ability to reason and reflect on these mysteries? I would argue that the question of human consciousness poses a thick problem for the materialistic, atheistic view of reality. And furthermore, I would argue that the Christian worldview provides a better explanation and purpose behind our perception of the world.

Consciousness: A Dangerous Mystery

Some of those committed to materialism are willing to admit the problem posed by consciousness. I appreciate the candid words of Ron Rosenbaum in a piece he wrote for Slate back in 2009 called “The Dangerous Mysteries of Consciousness.” After reflecting on the success of science in explaining so much, he admits:

Consider, for instance, the problem of the origin and nature of consciousness. The failure to solve it without resorting to religion or quasi-religious "intelligent design”… strikes many observers as dangerous. Dangerous because it threatens the foundation of scientific rationalism and materialism. Dangerous because it disrupts one's sense of any order in the universe and opens the floodgates of chaos.

Rosenbaum admits what many atheists are unwilling to acknowledge – especially those in the fairly new field of evolutionary psychology – that the ability of inanimate matter to acquire the ability to self-reflect is a tricky problem with no easy solution.

Natural Selection to the Rescue

According to some thinkers like Daniel Dennett and Steven Pinker, every single aspect of our consciousness goes back to a genetic trait hardwired in our brains by natural selection. For example, Dennett writes:

Everything we value – from sugar and sex and money to music and love and religion – we value for reasons. Lying behind, and distinct from, our reasons are evolutionary reasons, free-floating rationales that have been endorsed by natural selection (pg. 140).

In fact, some in this field have even postulated that the consciousness we experience is an illusion. Such a conclusion makes sense, of course, if all we are is matter and energy motivated by food and sex. The irony, of course, is that it takes consciousness to assert that we’re not actually conscious. So, I had to shake my head in disbelief when I read a piece in the New York Times by Michael Graziano with the title “Are We Really Conscious?” The fact that Graziano had to assume other conscious beings beyond himself – the editorial staff at the Times, and by extension me, his reader – left me scratching my head in disbelief. At this point I’m being facetious – his argument was more nuanced than simply claiming we’re not conscious. According to Graziano, the fact that our perception of reality is often inaccurate suggests that our experience of consciousness is also misleading. He writes:

How does the brain go beyond processing information to become subjectively aware of information? The answer is: It doesn’t. The brain has arrived at a conclusion that is not correct. When we introspect and seem to find that ghostly thing – awareness, consciousness, the way green looks or pain feels – our cognitive machinery is accessing internal models and those models are providing information that is wrong. The machinery is computing an elaborate story about a magical seeming property.

Once again, this view of consciousness seems to work well within the evolutionary psychology schema. We should expect nothing less if we are meat computers who exist to pass on our genes. However, this view of consciousness itself seems to undermine the neo-Darwinian scaffolding that holds it in place.

How Reliable is Our Perception of Reality?

For one, even the argument against consciousness relies upon categories like right and wrong, fact versus fiction. Graziano is assuming reality to critique our perception of reality. And second, if our perception of the world is truly an illusion, then how can we trust our five senses as reliable tools in service of the scientific method? Science works well, but only if we are able to reliably and consistently access the physical world. Evolutionary psychologists have often categorized religion as a glitch in natural selection – a way of seeing the world that may have been helpful for our remote ancestors, but with no real connection to reality. But as Leon Wieseltier has pointed out, the logic cuts both ways. In his critical review of Dennett's book Breaking the Spell - Religion as Natural Phenomenon he explains:

If reason is a product of natural selection, then how much confidence can we have in a rational argument for natural selection...? Evolutionary biology cannot invoke the power of reason even as it destroy it."

Even Charles Darwin knew this, and lamented the possibility that a disconnect exists between our perception of the world and its reality:

The horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy (pg. 143).

If such a disconnect does exist, then how can we confidently make scientific statements about reality? It would seem that evolutionary psychology erodes confidence in evolution itself. 

More recently, atheist Jerry Coyne has alluded to the same in his book Faith Versus Fact. Coyne faces up to some mysteries, like the origin of life, with cautious optimism about a solution. On the issue of consciousness, however, he admits that an answer may be beyond our reach because of the evolutionary origins of consciousness itself:

Ultimately, its solution may evade us for one reason: we’re using our limited cognitive abilities to tackle a research project that is hard even to frame… we’re forced to use an organ that evolved for other reasons to study how that organ makes us feel (pg. 158).

Once again, naturalistic explanations of consciousness appear to have the power to undermine explanation itself.

Consciousness and the Christian Worldview

Here enters the Christian worldview. Contrary to evolutionary psychology, which sees consciousness itself as a useful glitch of natural selection, the Christian worldview sees human consciousness as a purposeful, integral part of what it means to be created in the image of God. Consciousness opens up the possibility of love and community – aspects inherent to God himself.

Consciousness allows us to see and experience the world and rejoice in its glory, and in so doing behold the glory of the God who creates and sustains all things. And furthermore, consciousness allows us to behold other human beings, not as resources to manipulate for survival, but rather as objects of love. G.K. Chesterton put it this way:

Love desires personality; therefore love desires division. It is the instinct of Christianity to be glad that God has broken the universe into little pieces, because they are living pieces (pg. 139).

In other words, human consciousness is no mistake or mere adaptive trait. Rather, it is the purpose of God for human beings created in his image and likeness. Since love requires another self, individual minds experiencing the same world together opens up the possibility of love.

A World That Is Real

Such a view of consciousness confirms our intuitions about our experiences rather than betray them with naturalistic explanations. Experiences like love, music, art, and religion do have meaning beyond the utility of adaptive traits. In fact, many of the evolutionary explanations for human behavior may, at closer glance, be rooted more in conjecture than confirmed science. For example, even the materialist geneticist Richard Lewontin has admitted:

All of the sociobiological explanations of the evolution of human behavior are like Rudyard Kipling’s “Just So” stories of how the camel got his hump and the elephant got his trunk. They are just stories” (pg. 245).

If someone presupposes philosophical naturalism from A to Z, then every aspect of human existence must fit into a naturalistic framework regardless of the lack of hard evidence. But not even all atheists are in agreement that this all-encompassing explanation even works. The somewhat unorthodox atheistic philosopher Thomas Nagel has commented:

The great achievements of physical sciences do not make it capable of encompassing everything, from mathematics to ethics to the experiences of a living animal. We have no reason to dismiss moral reasoning, introspection, or conceptual analysis as ways of discovering the truth.

Christians would agree with Nagel, recognizing that science does explain much, but not everything - and never to the point of explaining away explanation itself. Science exists as one valid form of epistemology among others.

Now, to be fair, to a certain extent natural selection arguments do make sense. The fact that I’m hungry right now is directly related to my survival. If I don’t eventually respond to my instinct to eat, I’ll die. But all of this fits nicely into the Christian worldview. God created us as contingent creatures in need of nourishment, and our instincts press us toward homeostasis. However, the Christian worldview departs from the materialistic worldview by offering reasons for existence that go beyond food, sex, and survival as both means and ends. From a Christian point of view, food and sex exist as means for survival so that we might glorify God and know one another in and beyond these immediate acts.

A World That is Knowable

Finally, while the materialistic worldview assumes natural selection as the means by which we achieved the ability to do science, that same means puts our empirical observation of the world in serious doubt. On the contrary, the Christian worldview assumes a world that is reliable and consistent, which in turn provides a better foundation for the scientific method. As Angus Menuge comments:

Solving equations in quantum mechanics has nothing to do with the finding of food and the avoidance of becoming food… By contrast, if both nature and the human mind are the products of a divine rational being, we can see how science is feasible (pg. 246-7).

In other words, the exploration of the physical world – especially the theoretical branches of mathematics and physics, where no immediate benefit exists – makes better sense if God has hardwired scientific curiosity into the human psyche as just another way to discover and give glory for his manifold wisdom in creation. I can see how science directed toward technology benefits survival. But what about the exploration of subatomic particles? Is this just a glitch on par with religion? Or is this impulse toward discovery without immediate benefit part of what it means to be a rational creature in God's world?

Overall, the Christian worldview makes better sense of the purpose and reliability of consciousness. The Scriptures assume a world in which God holds all of reality together in a reliable, consistent manner. Contrary to the erratic deities and superstitions of the pagan world, the Bible presents a universe that is firm, immovable, and consistent – the kind of place where human beings can freely glorify God in a grand theater of diverse, created beauty. The kind of place where consciousness exists not as a glitch, but as a purposeful gift that allows the fellowship of the Trinity to extend to the fellowship of human community. And, with regard to the mysteries of this universe, the kind of place where human consciousness can reliably explore reality, and confidently purse that systematic categorization of creation we often call science.

Rev. John Rasmussen; Our Savior Lutheran Church

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