Monthly Archives: June 2012

Is mind made merely of matter?

From Plato to Descartes to Berkely to the majority of religious believers today, the idea that mind (or spirit, soul, or consciousness) is a fundamentally different “substance” from matter and can exist independently of matter has been accepted as a matter of course. Another way of putting this is that we tend to believe that our mind, which stands above our brain, can cause our brain to make decisions and direct our body to do this or that. Furthermore, my mind can survive the obliteration of my brain, and I can continue to be “me” in a post-mortem existence.

Before I jumped into the crystal-blue waters of Cozumel during our 20th anniversary cruise in April, I had been reading and highlighting a good number of passages in an ebook on my smartphone. These highlights, of course, were not synchronized back to the “cloud” while on the ship before I jumped into said crystal-blue waters with my phone left inadvertently in the pocket of my swim shorts.  I’ve retroactively gleaned a few highlights to share with you from this fascinating book entitled Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist by neuroscientist Christof Koch (2012, MIT Press).

People willingly concede that when it comes to nuclear physics or kidney dialysis, specialized knowledge is essential. But let the conversation turn to consciousness, and everybody chimes in, on the assumption that they are all entitled to their own pet theory in the absence of pertinent facts. Nothing could be further from the truth. An immense stockpile of psychological, neurobiological, and medical knowledge about the brain and the mind has accumulated. The travails of more than fifty thousand brain and cognitive scientists worldwide add thousands of new studies each year to this vast collection (Koch 2012, 41).

It’s not hard to miss between the lines of the relatively well-mannered paragraph above a sense of frustration on the part of author after hearing countless know-it-alls trash the consensus views of neuroscientists who are the most familiar with how the brain and consciousness function. Most of us non-pilots would never presume to lecture an experienced airline pilot on how to avoid a stall, but we think ourselves qualified to say things to neuroscientists like, “Well, your study of the brain is admirable as far as it goes, but it’s never going to explain how mere matter gives rise to consciousness and our sense of agency. You can’t determine what makes me me just by looking at circuits and connections and currents in my brain.”

This was a challenging read for me. Sure, there were some technical discussions that were over my head, but that wasn’t my greatest difficulty. Instead, it was some of the “wu”-like concepts that made me wonder how someone as brilliant as Dr. Koch can believe things that border on the mystical and the implausible. For instance, he gives provisional assent to the notion that consciousness is largely a function of two factors: differentiation and integration, the latter denoted by the Greek letter phi:

Integrated information theory introduces a precise measure capturing the extent of consciousness called Φ, or phi (and pronounced “fi”). Expressed in bits, Φ quantifies the reduction of uncertainty that occurs in a system, above and beyond the information generated independently by its parts, when that system enters a particular state (Koch 2012, 127)

A little bit mysterious, perhaps, but nothing eyebrow-raising until he goes on to discuss the pan-psychic implications of this theory. According to  Koch, any network that informationally connects any element to any other element in the universe experiences a certain degree of consciousness, from the brain of a fly, to computer networks (especially the World Wide Web), and even to every atom in the universe (Koch 2012, 131). Consciousness is not an either-or phenomenon but is a continuum from near zero to the palpable self-awareness of humans. I suppose my misgivings about this theory are rooted in common sense, but common sense isn’t always the best guide to ferreting out the nature of reality. Otherwise, there would be no need for scientific experimentation to correct our mistaken intuition that a canon ball falls faster than a feather in a vacuum, for example. I’m willing to grant that humans and dogs and mice are conscious to some extent, but it’s a little harder to imagine what goes on the brain of a fly or of a worm, let alone what consciousness could possibly mean with reference to the Internet or to a rock or to the universe as a whole.

Despite this bit of borderline wu, I found Koch’s research to be intriguing as a whole. We live in an  exciting time, a time in which we’re finally beginning to develop the tools to study empirically the questions that have dogged philosophers with no end in sight for millennia. For instance, Koch and his team are able to use a technique called optogenetics to study the effects of temporarily turning on and off groups of similar neurons in specific regions of the brain in rats. They accomplish this by introducing harmless viruses into the neurons of the brain, and when they shine a light with a specific wavelength on these neurons, they turn these neurons on or off.  Using this technique, it’s possible to determine which neurons are required for consciousness. If you turn off certain neurons, the rats  remain conscious, but if you turn off certain other neurons, the rats succumb to a zombilike state. In other words, it’s possible to identify fairly precisely which groups of neurons are required to maintain a conscious state.

Koch argues that consciousness is nothing more than an emergent property of the integrated network of neurons in our brain, and no invocation of a spiritual realm or extra-natural laws or substances is required to explain  it. Just as the gases hydrogen and oxygen combine to form water whose properties are completely different from its constituent parts, so physical neuronal activity in the brain leads to consciousness whose properties seem to point to a realm outside the physical world. Our reluctance to accept that consciousness is “merely” an emergent property of physical brains mirrors an earlier reluctance to accept that the instructions for life itself could be encoded in a physical package. Since the discovery of DNA by Crick and Watson in the 1950s, however, we now know that all the instructions for forming life are encapsulated in physical DNA.

England’s leading geneticist William Bateson in 1916 could not imagine how life could possibly be encoded with physical instructions:

The supposition that particles of chromatin, indistinguishable from each other and indeed almost homogeneous under any known test, can by their material nature confer all the properties of life surpasses the range of even the most convinced materialism (Koch 2012, 117).

Koch goes on to describe the consensus views on the nature of life before and after Crick and Watson’s discovery of DNA:

To explain life, scholars invoked a mysterious vitalistic force, Aristotle’s entelechy, Schopenhauer’s phenomenal will, or Bergson’s élan vital. Others, the physicist Erwin Schrödinger of the eponymous equation among them, postulated new laws of physics. Chemists could not imagine that the exact sequence of four types of nucleotides in a string-like molecule held the key. Geneticists underestimated the ability of macromolecules to store prodigious amounts of information. They failed to comprehend the amazing specificity of proteins shaped by the action of natural selection over several billion years. But this particular puzzle was eventually solved. We now know that life is an emergent phenomenon and can, ultimately, be reduced to chemistry and physics. No vitalistic force or energy separates the inorganic, dead world from the organic world of the living (Koch 2012, 117).

Granted, when it comes to the study of mind and consciousness, we have not reached the equivalent of our DNA moment to prove that consciousness is no more than a physical phenomenon, but Bateson’s confidence that life cannot be explained in physical terms should stand as a cautionary tale for those who still insist that mind and consciousness require an otherworldly component. If physicalism or materialism is true, then in theory it should be possible to build a working, conscious brain out of physical parts. This is the aim of the Blue Brain Project, which has succeeded in reverse engineering and simulating parts of a rat brain at the molecular level and which aims to do the same for entire human brain by the year 2023. That seems a little optimistic to me, given the uncertain economy and the capricious nature of public funding for such projects, but it’s not inconceivable that within my lifetime (I just turned 44), someone somewhere will have developed an artificial brain that speaks and thinks like we do.

If and when this occurs, it will be an unmitigated triumph for physicalism and a repudiation of all the philosophers who have separated mind and matter as two fundamentally incommensurable substances. Yet I predict that those who currently insist on the necessity of a spiritual realm to explain consciousness will continue to believe in a spiritual realm, somehow readjusting the goalposts, just as the goalposts were adjusted in the wake of the discovery that physical DNA is sufficient to encode life.

Somewhat surprising to me was Koch’s confession in his final chapter that, though he grew up Catholic and left religion behind as he embraced scientific reductionism, he is not an atheist but believes in a deistic creator, one who brought into existence matter and the laws of nature, leaving the universe to unfold and evolve into what it is today. He considers that a creator must have been responsible for the exquisitely fine-tuned constants of nature that allow for a life-supporting universe to exist. In addition, he appeals to our intuition that “nothing” is a more natural state than “something,” so without a creator, we should expect there to be nothing rather than  something. He concedes that there can be no final proof for the existence of God but finds it more plausible to believe in God than in a gratuitous multiverse to explain the problem of fine tuning. I won’t rehash here the arguments atheists have typically marshaled to answer his reasons for believing in God. I have the greatest respect for a scientist like Koch who can use optogenetics to probe the foundations of consciousness, even if I find his arguments for the existence of God to be less than conclusive.

My reading of Koch’s arguments for the existence of God came on the heels of a protracted discussion on the timing of Jesus’ return on my blog, in which very intelligent individuals went head to head, certain of what they believed yet unable to convince the other to budge in the slightest. The conjunction of these two unrelated experiences gave me pause. We all know what it’s like to feel certain of what we believe. I believe without a shadow of a doubt that the earth revolves around the sun, yet for over 150 years after Copernicus advanced his heliocentric theory, there was a protracted, heated debate between the heliocentrists and the geocentrists, both of whom were certain of their respective positions. Yet the psychological phenomenon of certainty was not a sure guide to truth for at least one of the two parties in the debate. This raises questions for me regarding the nature of my own certainty on a number of topics. I do not want to fall into the morass of postmodern relativism, where anything can be “true for you” or “true for me,” because I can’t help but think there’s a real world out there and that some ideas of ours reflect the way the world really is more than other ideas. My best guess is that no god exists, but I could be wrong. My best guess is that the universe is not conscious in any way,  but I could be wrong. My best guess is that consciousness is entirely physical, but I could be wrong. I just wish more of us could admit the tentative nature of what we often believe with great certainty, particularly when our beliefs lack empirical support. That said, I do look forward to the day when some age-old questions can be put to rest empirically, questions like whether mind is made merely of matter of or something more. We may well be living in the exciting generation that will provide a definitive answer.



Filed under Consciousness, Reductionism, The existence of God

Did Jesus hint he would return in the far future?

(Reposted from The Deconversion Desert, which is migrating to the new Deconversion Oasis. To view previous threaded comments, you may visit The Deconversion Desert, but any new comments should be posted here.)

In a recent critical review of my book, reader Karsten Klien correctly observes that most of my arguments against Christianity have been well known for a long time and that many intelligent Christians have maintained their faith despite these challenges.  I responded by asking him for his take on one of the problems I find most troubling for Christianity: Jesus’ failure to return in the generation of his contemporaries as he promised. The solution he prefers is that Jesus provided clues in his Olivet Discourse that he would return only after there were believers to be gathered from the ends of the earth, which Karsten takes to mean in a future generation, since presumably there wasn’t even time for the gospel to have spread that far in the first generation. I was intrigued by this explanation since I hadn’t previously considered it, and I appreciate his bringing it to my attention.

Since I’ve already taken the time to respond to Karsten’s Amazon review, I’ve decided to kill two birds with one stone and turn my response into my blog post for this week. For anyone who wishes to respond, I would ask that you be respectful of Karsten, whom I find to be engaging and respectful himself. It may be best to comment directly on Amazon if you have a question for him. If you’re a believer (or even an unbeliever) and you have an alternate explanation for the problem of Jesus’ return, preferably an explanation I did not discuss to your satisfaction in my chapter on prophecies in my book, then I would be glad to hear your take on this problem.
Without further ado, here’s our Amazon exchange regarding the timing of Jesus’ return:

Karsten’s comments:

You were correct when you asserted that certain Christians misuse the word for “race.” Many people want easy “quick fixes.” As to possible valid solutions, there have been many explanations of this passage, from the Lewis one you quoted, to double fulfillment, to dispensational takes on it, to various others. After all this is a question that Christians have had to deal with for over 2000 years. So there are few options that could be plausible.
But the that makes the most sense to me is that Jesus is certainly speaking of all future events that have not occurred. The context of the passage is in global terms, so it appears difficult to assume that in a short amount of time there would be believers “from the ends of the earth”(Mk 13:24-27). Jesus appears to be speaking of a future time, and that the generation alive at that time will not be completely wiped out, but will see Christ return.
Ken’s comments:
That’s an interesting take on the issue. However, by the time Mark was written, the gospel had already been taken to “the ends of the earth.” For first century Christians, this did not include Australia or the Americas; it corresponded to the world with which they were familiar, centered in the Mediterranean and spreading out nebulously from there. It apparently included parts as far east as India, where tradition maintains that the Apostle Thomas brought the gospel around A.D. 52, well before the passing of that first generation. Most scholars date all four Gospels (including Mark) after the lifetime of Paul, who preached in Rome and, according to tradition, as far west as Spain, representing the westernmost “end” of the earth to those living in the first century. So no, Jesus (or the author of Mark who penned the Olivet Discourse) wasn’t speaking of a far-future state of affairs. Furthermore, the discourse was directed to the disciples (witness the multiple references to “you”) who had asked Jesus when the end would come. If Jesus knew he was speaking of a generation not yet living, then why did he address all his remarks to his disciples as “you”–the ones who, after all, had asked about the timing of all this–with every indication it was for their consumption, not for ours 20 centuries removed?

But I fear the discussion of this one passage is getting away from the bigger New Testament picture. Do you maintain that when Paul wrote, “we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air,” (1 Thess. 4:17) he did not believe he was going to be among those still alive at Jesus’ return? Or that when Paul stated in 1 Cor. 7:29 that the “time is short” and advised his readers to live as though the end was at hand, he didn’t really think the end was at hand? Do you maintain that the author of 1 John 1:18 believed “the end” to be in a future generation: “Dear children, this is the last hour; and as you have heard that the antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come. This is how we know it is the last hour”? Or that when Jesus pronounced that “some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom” (Matthew 16:27-28), he had a future generation in mind? Or that when he said to his disciples in Matthew 10:23, “When you are persecuted in one place, flee to another. Truly I tell you, you will not finish going through the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes,” he meant that there would still be towns in Israel to go through in the year 2012? If God inspired the New Testament writers, and he knew that Jesus was not going to return in the generation then living, is the reference to “the ends of the earth” (and the 1 Peter passage you quoted, which I’ll come to momentarily) the best he could have done to make it clear he wasn’t in fact going to return in that generation, as all the above passages suggest? I see this as an illustration of the principle I alluded to in an earlier comment: the smartest committed believers (among whom I’ll count you) are the best equipped for devising ingenious solutions to the challenges to their faith. But we have to stop and ask ourselves: is this what the text is really pointing to, or is it just a way to sidestep the weight of the problem?

Karsten’s comments:

Regardless of if this explanation satisfies you, (I’m quite sure it won’t), I think the key for this is that the disciples were certainly not confused or thrown back by his so-called fail to return. They did not appear to understand it as having to occur in their lifetime. As is quoted in 1Peter, ‘With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.’
Ken’s comments:
The problem with this passage (2 Peter 3:8) is that it can be used to make language mean nothing. You lamented in your last comment that postmodernism seems to be reigning, which I take to mean that truth is relative. What finer example of relativism is there than this passage? When it appeared that Jesus’ promise to return in that generation failed, then it was time to reassess. Here’s a thought: remove all meaning from time, then what do you know, the problem is gone! Never mind Jesus’ references to “this generation,” or his “some who are standing here will not taste death until,” or Paul’s “we who are alive,” or John’s “this is the last hour,” or every other passage that speaks to the imminence of Jesus’ return; it can all be swept under the rug with one all-encompassing redefinition of time itself. The author of 2 Peter (which critical scholars unanimously hold to be pseudonymous, written after the real Peter’s death) was another example of a smart, committed believer who knew very well how to bring reason into the service of his prior commitments. How smart was he? Smart enough to convince even postmodern-eschewing believers of the twentieth-first century that Jesus’ failure to return in the first century as promised is not a problem for the Christian faith.

I’ll close with a general observation that those who purport to foretell future events almost always have in mind a fulfillment in their own lifetime. Take Harold Camping’s prediction that Jesus would return on May 21, 2011. Are we to suppose that his advancing age had nothing to do with his choice of 2011 rather than, say, 2100? Is it a coincidence that Hal Linsey is convinced Jesus will return in his generation? Or that William Miller predicted Jesus’ return in 1844, when Miller happened to be living? Or that the New Testament writers believed they were living in the generation of the parousia? (Even the author of 2 Peter, who used the day-is-a-thousand-years argument, goes on in 2 Peter 2 to warn his readers of Jesus’ impending return.) I’m not saying that no one has ever prophesied about events specified to take place after the death of the seer, but surely it must be a very rare exception. After all, of what benefit is it to the seer if the fulfillment is going to take place after he’s dead? This being the case, should it surprise us that the very human New Testament Christians believed they were part of the end times?


Filed under The timing of Jesus' return