The Issue of Consciousness

As a prologue to this post, let me first explain what it is. This is a research paper I wrote many years ago as a senior in high school- it was 2004, to be exact. I find that it is no less relevant and important today than it was a decade ago when I first wrote it. Enjoy!

Abstract

Consciousness is a thing that nearly everyone takes for granted. It is a topic on which the average person spends minimal time thinking, although it is consciousness that allows people to think in the first place. This paper examines the historical and modern beliefs about consciousness, explains the impact Darwin’s Theory of Evolution has had on the study of consciousness, defines and attacks the materialistic philosophy, and refutes the concept that human minds are computers and thus that computers could one day potentially gain genuine human-like consciousness. This paper asserts and provides evidence for the idea that consciousness cannot be produced by any known physical means and that consciousness is derived from a ‘supernatural’ soul in an as-of-yet unexplained interaction with the brain.

        The issue of consciousness has sparked philosophical musing and debate for centuries. The most fundamental, inevitable questions that every human must ask are “Who am I”, “Why am I here”, etc. Traditionally, consciousness has been linked to the soul of man. More recent developments have begun to call into question the traditional ideas of the supernatural spirit and soul, leading many scientists and philosophers to search for consciousness elsewhere: in the physical brain. If such an endeavor were to prove to be successful, the consequences would be massive; the concept of life after death would be thrown almost entirely into the realm of the superstitious, and along with it nearly every major religion that exists today. This will not happen, however. Consciousness is a direct result of a supernatural soul, and creating any sort of conscious machine or computer either now or at any point in the future is a logical and scientific impossibility.

In the seventeenth century, French mathematician René Descartes made history by addressing the issue of consciousness on record for the first time. His musings included the famous phrase, “Cogito, ergo sum,” which means, “I think, therefore I am”. He also founded the school of thought known as dualism, which still exists today. Dualism states that there are two fundamental components of any conscious entity: the physical body and the nonphysical soul or mind, and there is some sort of interaction and connection between these parts within the brain. Descartes even believed he had located the exact point of interaction in the pineal gland, an idea that has since been disproved (Keenan 2). Dualism fits nicely with religious concepts of the soul and the afterlife and was adopted by most everyone, until a major event changed the way the world was viewed forever— at least for many. Charles Darwin wrote his Origin of Species in the late nineteenth century, and in doing so he gave credence to the philosophy of naturalism or materialism, which has been dominant in academic circles ever since. Materialism states that rational thinkers should believe only in what can be physically proven by science to exist. Immaterial concepts such as the soul are deemed mere superstition under materialistic assumptions, which creates a whole new set of problems for those wishing to explain consciousness. If no supernatural forces exist, then consciousness must be derived from physical matter.

Darwin single-handedly changed the face of intellectual and academic thought when he released his theories to the world. At first, they weren’t widely accepted, but slowly they began to take hold. What exactly did this book contain? Darwin’s theory is called the theory of evolution. He believed he had found a mechanism by which all life could have gradually come into being, or evolved, from a single unicellular common ancestor. He believed this original ‘protocell’ had sprung from primordial pools of chemicals and inanimate matter through random trial and error. It’s important to note that Darwin’s evolution is specifically an unguided process; he left no room for an Intelligent Designer. A multitude of problems exist for evolution; there is absolutely no evidence whatsoever for these supposed ancient primordial pools. Evolutionists use circular reasoning when discussing this: because life exists, it must have originated through random interactions in primordial pools. Materialistic assumptions have become the norm in this area of study, and anyone who invokes a Creator is not taken seriously. This is in spite of the fact that the odds of even the most simple form of life coming together absolutely randomly are so incredibly low as to be considered by most mathematicians to be zero. This is only the beginning of the problems for evolution, however. Darwin’s mechanism by which evolution is supposed to work is known as natural selection. Natural selection itself is a scientific fact, and it takes place when random mutations of the genetic code occur in the offspring of animals. These mutated offspring usually have slightly different characteristics than their parents, and occasionally these characteristics give the offspring an advantage over other animals of their species. Over generations, the mutated versions of the species have better success in survival and procreation, and eventually the entire population displays the mutant traits. In this case, the population has ‘evolved’. The problem is this: mutations do not add new, more complex information to the genetic code, they degenerate it by either adding random, scrambled pieces or deleting parts altogether. Genetic code is like blueprints of a building or encoded information on a computer— it is in no way random or unorganized, and seriously degenerating the code prevents the offspring from being properly formed. For example, if a population of dogs with long hair were to migrate to a hotter environment, they might have a propensity to overheat. If a mutation occurred that deleted or scrambled the genetic code for long hair, the offspring might have short hair, and they would coincidentally be more adapted to the hotter environment. In this case, natural selection would favor the shorthaired dogs and the species would evolve to have short hair. The genetic information for producing long hair would be totally deleted from the gene pool (Sarfati 35). What’s important to note is that information has been lost, not gained. Darwin’s theory is that over eons, mutations aggregate and simpler organisms become more and more complex. This is like saying you’ll scramble or delete parts of an essay in short increments over many years, and at the end expecting to get a longer, more complex and cohesive essay.

Obviously, Darwin’s supposed mechanism leaves a lot to be desired, but something in human nature seems to like the idea of getting rid of God. Most scientists want to believe in evolution. In the words of biologist and Harvard geneticist Richard Lewontin,

It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door. (Quoted in Johnson 81)

By the mid twentieth century, nearly the entire scientific community had accepted Darwinism as fact, and materialism was the new intellectual standard. Perhaps the terrible events of WWI and WWII helped to assuage many intellectuals that no loving, compassionate God could exist and allow such travesties to take place, although ironically Hitler’s actions were fueled by the notion of Social Darwinism. The reason the issue of evolution is so critical to the topic of consciousness is because its acceptance has ruled out for many people the idea that consciousness is a result of a spirit, not the physical brain. Consciousness, evolutionists argue, must be a result of evolutionary change. Julian Keenan in his book about consciousness studies called The Face in the Mirror writes, “Evolutionists look at behavioral traits in terms of costs and benefits… Millions of years ago, prehumans who were capable of self-recognition perhaps had a slight advantage over others…” (238). In other words, to evolutionists, consciousness itself, the very thing that allows them to ask the questions that they are asking, is in existence only because it allows our species to more effectively reproduce.

 If materialists are correct, the human mind must indeed be merely an evolutionarily advanced computer. Thought must be reducible to mere mathematical calculation. The concept of reductionism entails attempting to explain the whole by looking at increasingly smaller and smaller parts (Ito 5). Reductionism applied to the mind is the natural result of materialism and is the prevailing movement in modern neuroscience and other studies of the brain and consciousness. Computers are machines whose actions are ultimately divisible into simple mathematical algorithms. An algorithm is a “step-by-step problem solving procedure, especially an established, recursive computational procedure for solving a problem in a finite number of steps,” according to the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (Qtd. at Dictionary.com). If a mind is just a computer, as materialists suggest, then thought must also be explicable in terms of algorithms. In his recent book, Computers and Cognition: Why Minds Are Not Machines, philosopher James Fetzer begins by stating, “The arguments presented in this volume clearly demonstrate— definitively, in my judgment— that…[minds] are not digital machines and people are not computers,” (Preface). Fetzer argues that minds are semiotic systems, or sign-using systems, as opposed to mark-manipulating systems such as computers. He writes, “Computers manipulate marks on the basis of their shapes, sizes, and relative locations,” and, “These shapes, sizes, and relative locations exert causal influence upon computers, but do not stand for anything for those systems.” Conversely, “Minds operate by utilizing signs that stand for other things in some respect or other for them as sign-using (or “semiotic”) systems.” Thus, computers are not semiotic, and computers do not have minds (Preface). Despite the apparently bland nature of this argument, it is actually extremely powerful; Fetzer shows that there is a fundamental difference between the way minds work and the way computers work. In his second argument in the Preface, Fetzer states, “Computers are governed by programs, which are causal models of algorithms… Most human thought processes, including dreams, daydreams, and ordinary thinking, are not procedures for arriving at solutions in a finite number of steps.” This makes sense— most normal human thought doesn’t even closely resemble following rigid, programmed steps— human thought doesn’t usually fit even the most basic definition of an algorithmic program. Even if humans can think in algorithmic ways, these are special cases that are not representative of most human thought (Fetzer 166). If we were computers, this wouldn’t be the case at all. In this case, all human thought would be reducible to merely following some preprogrammed routine. Some people will cite Artificial Intelligence, or AI, as evidence that computers can have minds like humans, and thus perhaps that the opposite is true as well and humans’ minds are also computers. Fetzer responds to this (also in the Preface) by asserting that while computers can simulate human thought through AI programming, they can never actually engage in it. Computers can only follow instructions. If this were true of humans, then the concept of free will would be awash, and the decisions of the very scientists that are pushing this materialistic theory would be nothing more than predetermined chemical reactions to stimuli— this utterly destroys these people’s credibility. Phillip Johnson in his book about Darwinism illustrates this point:

The contradiction between materialism and reality … is most inescapable when we consider the human mind … For one thing, materialism applied to the mind undermines the validity of all reasoning, including ones own. If our theories are the products of chemical reactions, how can we know our theories are true? Perhaps Richard Dawkins [a leading evolutionist] believes in Darwinism only because he has a certain chemical in his brain, and his belief could be changed by somehow inserting a different chemical. (81-82)

The famous writer and philosopher C.S. Lewis also addresses this issue when he writes, “I see no reason for believing that one accident should be able to give me a correct account of all other accidents. It’s like expecting that the accidental shape taken by the splash when you upset a milk jug should give you a correct account of how the jug was made and why it was upset,” (Koukl).

If we are to have faith in our ability to rationally deduce truth, we must first have faith in our ability to freely think.

Nothing is more damning to the concept of materialism than human emotion. Emotion is scientifically inexplicable- it goes much deeper than mere calculation. Sadness and happiness are things for which science has no explanation; they are immaterial concepts that defy a purely physical explanation. Perception and feelings are prerequisites of emotion. While a computer can record input from a connected keyboard, mouse, or camera, the computer doesn’t perceive these inputs (Koukl). Consciousness means the ability to witness events taking place, not merely to record them. Each and every human knows that he or she exists and is alive; this is more than any computer could ever hope for, if computers could indeed hope for anything in the first place. The very idea of self-awareness is so fundamental that it is difficult to explain in words. Human thought is often completely spontaneous, and without any point or purpose. Subjective experience is something that a machine is fundamentally incapable of.

Self-awareness is the ability to reflect upon thoughts and past experiences and to have a developed sense of the self as separate from others. It seems to be the case that self-awareness and consciousness are not the same things. Emotion is only possible in things that have consciousness, thus, it stands to reason that anything that can display emotion is conscious. Julian Keenan believes that consciousness and self-awareness are the same, and he utilizes a test developed by Gordon Gallop called the Mirror Test to determine self-awareness (xix). If a creature can recognize its own reflection in a mirror as itself, as opposed to some other creature, then it has self-awareness and thus consciousness according to this test. A conflict arises when we acknowledge the fact that many animals such as cats and dogs that cannot recognize their image in a mirror seem to display emotions such as pleasure, excitement, happiness, shame, etc. In his book, Keenan cites an example of a woman who had sustained brain damage who could not recognize her face in the mirror as herself; she thought someone else was looking at her through the mirror (xvii). It is somewhat odd that Keenan would cite this, however, because it seems to undermine his point. The woman was able to lucidly respond to questions she was being asked, but unable to recognize her face in the mirror; surely Keenan would not agree that the woman was no longer conscious, or even self-aware, because of this. If nothing else, this example serves to show that the Mirror Test is inconclusive. By far the best indicator of consciousness seems to be emotion— while some animals may have no real ability to reflect on their person and their thoughts and experiences, they still do have experiences, as is evidenced by their emotional responses. Self-awareness then must be simply a higher level of consciousness- a progression in awareness.

Many current reductionistic studies in neurology seem to indicate that some scientists believe that they can tap into the conscious thoughts of a person by merely examining the chemical reactions going on inside their brain. Gregory Koukl likens this to a person watching a movie projector and saying he’s seeing the movie itself. Looking at a movie projector reveals the physical mechanism by which the movie is displayed— a large spinning disk with celluloid engulfed in hot light being threaded through an apparatus— but this doesn’t reveal anything about the movie itself, because the movie is the picture on the unseen screen, and the drama, plot, etc. portrayed by it (Koukl). Keenan, like Descartes, believes he has located the site of consciousness in the brain (251). This time the claimed location is not the pineal gland but more generically the right hemisphere itself. The dualist interpretation of these findings is that not the site of consciousness itself has been found to be in the right hemisphere, but the point(s) of interaction between consciousness and the physical brain. Interestingly, it seems to be the case that the interaction between consciousness and the physical brain goes not one but two ways- just as the consciousness influences the brain, the brain can also influence the consciousness. The effects of chemical medications on the emotions evidence this; certain medicines can help alleviate depression, and depression is certainly a type of sadness, which is an emotion. Chemical imbalances in the brain can affect the emotions experienced by the conscious mind, and this must mean that the brain and the consciousness have some sort of mutual relationship, or perhaps the consciousness itself is dependant on the brain as a sort of substrate (Koukl). Evidence for a relationship between consciousness and physical states within the brain shouldn’t be confused with evidence that consciousness is a physical state within the brain.

The current state of neuroscience and other similar fields of study is a curious one. Despite our heavy research, we still know virtually nothing about the inner workings of the brain other than the fact that it is complex beyond belief. This fact alone leads many to reject the notion that such a thing as a human brain could ever have come into being randomly as the materialist paradigm suggests. Furthermore, the materialistic view of consciousness is self defeating- beliefs and decisions are reduced to chemical reactions and nothing more, and this in effect destroys the very idea that human rationality is trustworthy. Not only do we know very little about it, we can scarcely agree on how to approach the study of this topic. More and more scientists are being led by the evidence to reject a purely materialistic explanation of human consciousness, although many are much too entrenched in their theory to give up on it so easily. How could intelligent scientists be willing to attribute such obviously nonphysical things as emotion, beauty, music, etc. to purely physical causes? Fetzer offers us some insight into this peculiar phenomenon in his book by admitting, “Our enthusiasm for a theoretical position may even appear to be virtually independent of our experiences in life, which, were they only taken seriously, might completely undermine what we take as our best theories,” (153). This appears to be an apt description of the situation. Most scientists, being human and biased, contrary to the unrealistic expectations of many laypersons, are prone to throw out evidence that would imply that the majority of their life’s work of advancing what have now become dubious theories was wasted (Fetzer 153). It is this same bias that creeps up time and time again in the field of evolutionary paleontology with scientists exaggerating the importance of their often miniscule finds. It is important that we, as rational thinkers, agree to go wherever the evidence takes us, even if it is in conflict with our current beliefs. Ironically, that is the same argument that is so often utilized by evolutionists when arguing with creationists— it seems many might do well to ‘practice what they preach’!

Fetzer’s realization that there is a major fundamental difference between the human mind and a computer destroys the materialistic foundation- there is no conceivable way that consciousness can be reduced to mere computation, and thus the evolution of a very complex computer in the form of a brain, were it possible, would do nothing to explain the consciousness that we currently enjoy as humans. There is no scientific reason to reject dualism as a valid explanation for consciousness, and given the evidence, it seems to be the only credible one. Future research may help to establish more concretely what relationship exists between the consciousness or soul and the physical brain. New discoveries in the field of quantum physics are continually redefining what we have traditionally considered natural. Consciousness has intrigued and mystified scientists and philosophers alike and will likely continue to do so for a very long time— perhaps forever. Some choose to be agnostic about consciousness, simply giving up. Others choose to believe in what they deem to be the most likely answer, using faith to fill the gap that empirical scientific evidence cannot fill. Consciousness continues to be an issue on which each individual must decide for themselves what they believe— evidence exists that materialism is an inadequate solution, but definitive answers from the realm of physical science are nowhere to be found. Only time will tell what new discoveries will one day reveal about ourselves, but hopefully researchers in the future will approach the study of the mind with an open … mind.

Works Cited

Dictionary.com. Word definition entry: algorithm. Lexico Publishing Group, LLC. 9 April 2004

<http://dictionary.reference.com/search?q=algorithm&gt;.

Fetzer, James. Computers and Cognition: Why Minds are Not Machines. Dordrecht, The

Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2001.

Ito, Masao, et al. Cognition, Computation, and Consciousness. New York: Oxford University

Press, 1997.

Johnson, Phillip E. Defeating Darwinism by Opening Minds. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity

Press, 1997.

Keenan, Julian, et al. The Face in the Mirror: The Search for the Origins of Consciousness. New

York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2003.

Koukl, Gregory. “All Brain, No Mind.” Stand to Reason. 9 April 2004 < http://www.str.org/free/commentaries/philosophy/nomind.htm >.

Sarfati, Jonathan. Refuting Evolution. Green Forest, AR: Master Books, 1999.

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