Fundamental Reality IX: Stories and Atoms

You might say that, at any rate, it is very natural to suppose that an animal whose brain processes sensory stimuli, represents them as patterns, and then reacts to them should be conscious.  Granted, it is very natural for you to think this, since you are yourself a conscious being, and what's more you are evolved to attribute mental states to other things in order to help you survive and reproduce.

When we engage with fictional characters displayed in books or anime (leaving aside plays and movies, since in them the actors are real people), we are indulging our tendency to treat sets of letters or pixels which have no inherent meaning, as if they did have meaning, in fact as though they were people.  But none of us think that the characters in books have an independent mental existence, since apart from the actions of an external mind in making sense of them, they have no intrinsic meaning or significance.

Well, in some sense we are in the same boat as these fictional characters.  We have the advantage that our brains, lives, and actions are specified in considerably more detail, whereas in the case of fiction there are a lot of gaps to be filled in.  But from a sufficiently “objective” perspective, we are ourselves just a collection of material objects, a set of 1's and 0's in the cosmic computer with no inherent meaning.  Well, evidently this supposedly objective perspective is wrong.  Our Universe seems to be more hospitable than that.  Sometimes, when there is a collection of matter to which meaning might be ascribed, it is so ascribed.  Something is to us as we are to anime characters, interpreting the pattern as significant.

As Muriel Rukeyser writes in her poem "The Speed of Darkness" [erotic themes, not safe for work]:

Say it.        Say it.
The universe is made of stories,
not of atoms.

Well, all of this suggests that the fundamental nature of existence has to be more like a mind than like a set of equations, because no set of equations interprets itself.  And obviously we are not the most fundamental minds in existence, because human beings are contingent.  We are born and we die and we need not have existed.  The Universe existed long before we did.  Therefore, some other mind-like entity must be.  At best we participate in the operations of this mind.

Being the most fundamental entity in existence, there can be no distinction between its subjective thoughts and feelings and the objective “real world”, as we have seen previously.  Its thoughts are what is.

This is not the only way to try to incorporate mental qualities into the fundamental description of the world, but it has a certain appeal due to its simplicity.  In any case, these considerations turn the tables on claims that Naturalism is simpler because it can describe everything in a mathematically quantitative way, without any appeal to basic mental qualities.  You can't get mental qualities out of any model of the world, unless somehow you put them in from the beginning.

To recapitulate: a book is a material object containing a set of letters in a row.  The words in a book contain meaning because a human being, who is conscious, reads and understands them.  But why does the human brain contain any consciousness or meaning?  Because the ultimate nature of reality is like a mind, not like a set of equations, and it "reads" our brains and finds them to be meaningful.

Given that the series has to terminate in any case, why not just stop at our own minds rather than on God?  Because we know that we, as complicated, evolved, and contigent constructs, are not the most fundamental entities in existence, and therefore any reasonable worldview should explain everything about ourselves in terms of a more fundamental picture.

Or to put it another way, if there are any types of meaning in the world which cannot be deduced just from the laws of physics, then it follows that the most fundamental reality is more than just those laws of physics, and indeed it must be something capable of supporting this meaning.  This increases the probability that the fundamental reality is more analogous to a mind than a set of equations.

By itself, this Argument from Consciousness might well support a pantheistic conclusion, rather than a theistic one.  But for the reasons given before, I think the unity and clarity of Monotheism has a decided advantage, not least for making sense of a scientific approach to the world.

Next: Theories of Ethics

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Fundamental Reality VIII: The Hard Problem of Consciousness

To my mind, the true implications of Philosophy of Mind, far from being an argument against Theism, are actually an argument for Theism.  To see this, we must start, not with God's mind, but our own.

It is indisputable that Consciousness exists.  Or rather, it has been disputed, but it ought never to have been.  However many fallacies Descartes may have committed later in his arguments, I think therefore I am has always seemed perfectly sound to me.  It is in fact more certain than anything else.  To say that I am wrong that I am self-aware, just is to say that I am aware of some perceptions or arguments that make me think I have no awareness or thinking, but in fact I am wrong because I only think I think.  This is manifestly absurd and self-contradictory.

In the case of other people, or certain animals, we assume they have conscious self-awareness because of their similarity to us.  This is an argument by analogy which (even though it is very reasonable) could potentially be mistaken.  But in the case of our own conscious self-awareness, there can be no doubt.  This consciousness includes specific qualia or experiences such as blueness or sounds, as well as many other things.

Now this is a very interesting fact, primarily because, as far as I can see, there is no way you could possibly logically deduce it even if you knew all the Laws of Physics, and everything about Neurology which one could possibly learn from external observation alone.  It is quite inexplicable, if all you know are the physical Laws of Nature.  Physicists mostly don't think about this issue since it's not our specialty, but when asked most of us would probably admit that there's a deep mystery here.  This mystery is known in Philosophy circles as the “hard problem of consciousness” (a term coined by David Chalmers).

Please don't think I'm saying more than I am.  I'm not talking about the question of why our material brains are arranged in the complex pattern that they are, as one might in an Argument from Design.  Presumably Darwinian evolution is at least a large part of the answer to that question.  I am asking why, once they are arranged into these patterns, they experience self-awareness.

Nor does this argument imply that there has to exist a detachable “soul”, which is separate from our bodies, and survives death.  I'm not denying that the brain has a lot to do with our minds, or even that the brain and mind are in one-to-one correspondence (or more likely, many-to-one).  I am only saying that we could not possibly deduce this correspondence from the Laws of Physics plus Logic alone.  It might even be metaphysically necessary that living brains (and maybe artificial intelligences if we ever make them) have minds.  But if so, we've just learned something about Metaphysics!

That Consciousness tells a story against Naturalism can be seen by the great efforts which many Naturalists take to resist the unavoidable conclusion.  The first main counterattack is to try to deny the existence of the problem at all, through some type of “eliminative” or “reductionist” materialism.  Maybe Consciousness is just another name for certain kinds of information processing which happen to occur in the brain.  As in the Sondheim musical: “The woods are just trees, the trees are just wood!”

As much as I respect philosophers like Daniel Dennett for trying to make this idea precise, I just don't think it can work.  Self-awareness might well turn out to be related to certain types of causal events in the brain, but we knew that we were self-aware long before we knew anything about neuroscience.  So we cannot say that self-awareness is by definition a certain pattern of neurons.  If folks like Dennett are right that there's no hard problem to explain, then their position has to be true by logical necessity.  And it just isn't, because no matter what you tell me about the physics, I could assert without contradiction that nothing in it is self-aware.

The second main counterattack is to say: “We may not know the answer now, but Science will discover it one day!  Once upon a time, some people used to think that biological life was due to some inexplicable élan vital, but now we know that it can be explained entirely through ordinary chemical processes.  The same will one day be true of Consciousness.”

It's a little presumptuous to appeal to future scientific discoveries as an argument for any position, since by definition those discoveries haven't happened yet.  That is why these people instead make an inductive argument, based on imagined triumphs of Science over Mysticism in the past.

But there is a key dis-analogy between Life and Consciousness: we are directly aware of the latter but not of the former (except insofar as it includes the latter).  And the argument that Physics cannot explain Consciousness is not based on the detailed form of the Laws of Physics.  So long as they consist of formal mathematical equations which merely describe the spatio-temporal patterns of material entities, it seems that the problem remains insoluble.  At the very least, a radical change in how we even do Physics would be necessary.  And as for neurological studies, surely brain researchers could go on and on making lists of which neural processes correspond to which conscious sensations, and classifying them into patterns, without ever explaining from the basic Laws of Physics why that particular set of correspondences should hold (or any set).

I said earlier that I am going to confine myself to plausibility arguments, but in this stage of the argument I think strict demonstration is possible: to deny that we are conscious clearly contradicts experience; but to say that our consciousness follows logically from the known Laws of Physics is also manifestly false when consciousness is properly defined.  So it appears that our description of the Universe in terms of physical laws is incomplete.

This is why many of the early Enlightenment philosophers and scientists were Dualists.  Because they assigned all conscious, sensory, and “secondary” qualities to mind rather than matter, they were free to construct scientific descriptions of matter which made reference only to their “primary” qualities, those capable of mathematical modeling.  Having assigned these quantities to the “soul”, they were free to do quantitative physics on the rest.  To go one step further and also banish these secondary qualities from the mind, was for them obviously inconsistent. As the philosopher St. Ed Feser says:

...the reductive method in question is like the method of getting rid of all the dirt in the house by sweeping it under a certain rug.  While this is a very effective way of getting rid of the dirt everywhere else, it is not a strategy that could possibly be used to get rid of the dirt under the rug itself.  On the contrary, it only makes the problem of getting rid of that dirt even worse.  And that is exactly why the mind-body problem as it is understood today essentially came into existence with Galileo, Descartes, and Co. and has remained unsolved to the present day.  What these early modern thinkers wanted (for certain practical and political ends) was a completely quantitative, mathematical description of the world.  Irreducibly qualitative features—secondary qualities, final causes, and the like—since they would not fit this model, were thus essentially defined away as mere projections, “swept under the rug” of the mind as it were. But that only makes the idea of dealing with the mind itself in the same manner even more hopeless.  For these early moderns, the mind just is, you might say, the holding tank for everything that doesn’t fit their quantitative method.  Naturally, then, that method cannot coherently be applied to the mind itself.

This does not mean that a Cartesian mind-body Dualism is the only or best way of describing our situation—I think it isn't—but at least it recognizes explicitly some of the problems at stake.  (There are several other options which recognize the objective reality of the mind, which go by names such as “Property Dualism”, “Hylomorphic Dualism”, “Epiphenomenalism”, “Idealism”, etc.)  But any view which says that all mental quantities can in principle be derived from a purely physical description of the brain, is necessarily incoherent and wrong on philosophical grounds.   And no amount of progress in empirical Science can ever prove that which is logically impossible.

Note that the logical contradiction lies in a reductionistic form of materialism which claims that all of our mental properties can be derived from external, physically measurable properties.  On a non-reductionistic definition of "matter", to mean "that mysterious thing which we are made of, which may have additional properties besides those which can be externally measured", it would not necessarily be a contradiction to say that we are entirely made out of matter.  Such a viewpoint would be a type of Property Dualism, which asserts that that we are one type of entity which has both physical and mental properties.

My arguments should stand on their own apart from any suspicions about my motivations.  But since this term “soul” has popped up, let me add that for many years, I thought it was possible to reconcile Christian theology with the view that the human mind is identical to the material brain.  I thought then, and I still think now, that the reason we will live forever is because of God's promises and his faithfulness, and not because of what we are “made out of”.  It was not my interest in Theology, but trying to make sense out of the Philosophy of Mind, which led me to see the contradiction in a purely materialistic conception of human beings: that we are solely what can be physically measured about the brain.

Next: Stories and Atoms

[Next-to-last paragraph added later.]

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Fundamental Reality VII: Does God Need a Brain?

One possible objection to Theism is this: in the case of human or animal minds, we think using our brains.  This is a rather complicated chunk of matter, that has—at the very least—a rather large amount to do with determining what our thoughts are.  Assuming that there is a divinity which transcends the material world, and everything else, it wouldn't and couldn't have anything like a brain.  So how could God possibly think?

The problem is aggravated all the more if we decide that the fundamental reality should be simple in the sense of not being composed of any kind of parts (this is a technical term in theology, not to be confused with "simple" in the sense of easy to understand or unsophisticated).  Since if it were composed of separable parts, it would be natural to seek some explanation further back about how these parts got to be stuck together.

Recall, however, that I only proposed that God is like a mind, not that his mind works in the exact same way that ours does.  Because we have brains, our knowledge is necessarily limited (because there's a limit to the information capacity and reliability of a finite piece of matter) and also indirect (because we experience things in the outside world by representing them as particular patterns of firing neurons).

If God does not have a brain, then there is no physical mechanism to determine which things he knows and which he doesn't know.  So it seems likely he would have to know either nothing or everything.  (Aristotle stands up to propose the compromise that God knows only his own act of thinking, but let's ignore him.)  Since our original motivation for Theism was that God is like a mathematician who can appreciate the mathematical elegance of the physical world, it seems only the omniscience option will do.

Unlike us, God knows things directly, rather than by the mediation of a perceptual apparatus and neural processing.  For if an omniscient being knew things by representation, then he would need an exact identical copy of the entire Universe in his brain.  If he is omniscient, the copy would be exactly like the original, which seems absurd on grounds of redundancy: everything in the world would exist twice, once in reality and once exactly the same in God's mind.  Better to say that God just knows whatever is true, or rather that God is such that his knowledge and Truth are one and the same thing!  (This, incidentally, also provides a general recipe for dispelling almost any supposed logical paradox about omniscience.  Just replace all instances of “God knows X” with “X is true”, and then you will have a new paradox which must have a solution, even if you are an atheist.  That solution is then also available to the theist.)

Some readers may think that this view of God is a form of Pantheism, because in some sense the world is a part of God's thoughts.  But I don't think this is true.  The views which I am articulating here are a form of Classical Theism, which has historically been the most important view of God in the philosophy of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity.  This view might come a little closer to Pantheism than people think, but it differs in some essential details.

If God is the fundamental reality, then he exists quite apart from the world and does not depend on it for his existence.  His wisdom and power are eternal, and eternally he knows himself.  Because he is omniscient, and does not need representations, what he knows about a tree must be exactly the same as that tree (together with its context), but that is not to say that his pre-existing ability to know is identical to the tree, still less that he himself is made out of wood, like the idols that have no understanding.

A brief digression:  In Christian theology, there is one possible exception to my argument here, namely that God's knowledge of himself might well still be representational.  We believe that there is also a Divine Son who is the Word and Wisdom of God, that he eternally pre-existed with his Father before all Creation.  “Word” (λογος) is a metaphor for an expression of some idea, and this suggests that in some sense the Son is involved in God's act of knowing himself.  So, although this is getting into very deep waters here, maybe even God can't fully understand himself without recourse to a representation.  Since God is omniscient, this representation is in some sense an exact copy; fully accurate to who he is, yet distinguishable by the fact that it is the copy, not the original.

In fact, we believe that God is so full of life that there are actually two distinct self-expressions springing up out of the Father's being, namely the Son and the Holy Spirit.  When an artist paints a self-portrait, the image of himself is an expression of who he is, and in a different way his artistic style—the “spirit” of the work—is also an expression of who he is. Yet there is only one portrait, and there are not three artists but only one.  Since as Monotheists we believe that God is also One, we do not regard these as three parts of God but rather use the language of three persons within the unique divine Being.  (A person is something which can be in a loving relationship with another person.)

However, most Christian philosophers (e.g. St. Thomas Aquinas) have thought that the doctrine of the Trinity cannot be deduced from armchair reasoning alone!  (Though after we learn the fact, we can say something about how it might make sense given God's loving nature.)  Especially since it sits rather uncomfortably with the idea of divine unity; our theologians have their work cut out just explaining why the Trinity is consistent with the idea of Monotheism which we hold in common with Jews and Muslims, let alone demonstrating it from sound metaphysical reasoning.  Thus these last three paragraphs are NOT part of my main argument; I cite them only to avoid some confusions about how what I've said might fit in with what God has revealed about himself in the Bible.

Next: The Hard Problem of Consicousness

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St. Thomas on the Theological Method

An interesting quotation from St. Thomas Aquinas' Summa Theologica concerning what I am calling the Theological Method.  The quotation steers a middle road which avoids both fideism (the belief that faith involves the acceptance of propositions without evidence, and that this is somehow praiseworthy) and rationalism (the belief that the unaided human reason can reason its way into the correct views without help from above).  In the process, he has some interesting words about the degree of certainty attained from metaphysical reasoning.  Thomas believed that there were valid rational arguments for the existence of God that could be appreciated apart from divine revelation or even faith, but that a full knowledge of Christian doctrine requires placing one's trust in a divine revelation (although in this quotation, St. Thomas does not go into details about what criteria one would use to identify such a divine revelation).

Note that for St. Thomas, a "science" is any method of study capable of producing knowledge, while the modern definition is narrower.  Thus for him, Theology, Metaphysics, and History would all be sciences, which they are not according to the more modern definition.


I. Q1. Article 8. Whether sacred doctrine is a matter of argument?

Objection 1. It seems this doctrine is not a matter of argument. For Ambrose says (De Fide 1): "Put arguments aside where faith is sought." But in this doctrine, faith especially is sought: "But these things are written that you may believe" (John 20:31). Therefore sacred doctrine is not a matter of argument.

Objection 2. Further, if it is a matter of argument, the argument is either from authority or from reason. If it is from authority, it seems unbefitting its dignity, for the proof from authority is the weakest form of proof. But if it is from reason, this is unbefitting its end, because, according to Gregory (Hom. 26), "faith has no merit in those things of which human reason brings its own experience." Therefore sacred doctrine is not a matter of argument.

On the contrary, The Scripture says that a bishop should "embrace that faithful word which is according to doctrine, that he may be able to exhort in sound doctrine and to convince the gainsayers" (Titus 1:9).

I answer that, As other sciences do not argue in proof of their principles, but argue from their principles to demonstrate other truths in these sciences: so this doctrine does not argue in proof of its principles, which are the articles of faith, but from them it goes on to prove something else; as the Apostle from the resurrection of Christ argues in proof of the general resurrection (1 Corinthians 15). However, it is to be borne in mind, in regard to the philosophical sciences, that the inferior sciences neither prove their principles nor dispute with those who deny them, but leave this to a higher science; whereas the highest of them, viz. metaphysics, can dispute with one who denies its principles, if only the opponent will make some concession [emph. mine]; but if he concede nothing, it can have no dispute with him, though it can answer his objections. Hence Sacred Scripture, since it has no science above itself, can dispute with one who denies its principles only if the opponent admits some at least of the truths obtained through divine revelation; thus we can argue with heretics from texts in Holy Writ, and against those who deny one article of faith, we can argue from another. If our opponent believes nothing of divine revelation, there is no longer any means of proving the articles of faith by reasoning, but only of answering his objections — if he has any — against faith. Since faith rests upon infallible truth, and since the contrary of a truth can never be demonstrated, it is clear that the arguments brought against faith cannot be demonstrations, but are difficulties that can be answered.

Reply to Objection 1. Although arguments from human reason cannot avail to prove what must be received on faith, nevertheless, this doctrine argues from articles of faith to other truths.

Reply to Objection 2. This doctrine is especially based upon arguments from authority, inasmuch as its principles are obtained by revelation: thus we ought to believe on the authority of those to whom the revelation has been made. Nor does this take away from the dignity of this doctrine, for although the argument from authority based on human reason is the weakest, yet the argument from authority based on divine revelation is the strongest. But sacred doctrine makes use even of human reason, not, indeed, to prove faith (for thereby the merit of faith would come to an end), but to make clear other things that are put forward in this doctrine. Since therefore grace does not destroy nature but perfects it, natural reason should minister to faith as the natural bent of the will ministers to charity. Hence the Apostle says: "Bringing into captivity every understanding unto the obedience of Christ" (2 Corinthians 10:5). Hence sacred doctrine makes use also of the authority of philosophers in those questions in which they were able to know the truth by natural reason, as Paul quotes a saying of Aratus: "As some also of your own poets said: For we are also His offspring" (Acts 17:28). Nevertheless, sacred doctrine makes use of these authorities as extrinsic and probable arguments; but properly uses the authority of the canonical Scriptures as an incontrovertible proof, and the authority of the doctors of the Church as one that may properly be used, yet merely as probable. For our faith rests upon the revelation made to the apostles and prophets who wrote the canonical books, and not on the revelations (if any such there are) made to other doctors. Hence Augustine says (Epis. ad Hieron. xix, 1): "Only those books of Scripture which are called canonical have I learned to hold in such honor as to believe their authors have not erred in any way in writing them. But other authors I so read as not to deem everything in their works to be true, merely on account of their having so thought and written, whatever may have been their holiness and learning."

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Fundamental Reality VI: Comparison of the Finalists

For the reasons just given, I think the main choice is between Naturalism and Monotheism (which I will sometimes call Theism for short).

Before trying to decide between these two views, I think it is well worth emphasizing just how much they have in common.  Both of them agree that Nature is not a divine being, but instead a limited reality capable of being studied and explored—these metaphysical views are therefore the most compatible with Science, and it is not surprising that people of a scientific bent tend to adopt one of these two views.

We thus have to decide which conception to adopt of Ultimate Reality.  Is it more like a Law, or more like a Mind?

On the one hand, there is something strange about the concept of a “Law of Nature” as a fundamental entity, since as pointed out earlier, normally a law is something which is imposed by a Lawgiver.  Really it must be a metaphor for something stranger, more magical as St. Chesterton says.  Indeed, in so far as the Laws compel matter to behave in a particular, rationally comprehensible way, one can see that they are already, in certain respects, a bit more like a living mind than say a rock is.  Thus Naturalism itself borders on a form of Theism, to the extent that it implies that the Universe is governed by a rational ordering principle (λογος) similar to, but greater than, the rational ordering in the minds of the scientists who study it.  There is a risk here of introducing at least Einstein's “God”, if not the God of Religion.

But to be fair, no matter what conception of Ultimate Reality we adopt, it seems likely that we can only understand it with our limited human minds by employing some set of metaphors or analogies.  This applies to Theism at least as strongly as to Naturalism (though perhaps Theists are more often conscious of the fact that they are applying metaphors to God, than Naturalists are when they speak of Nature).  In that sense, we are all in the same boat.  If the Naturalist wishes to insist that they are using “Law of Nature” in a purely metaphorical way, which connotes order and rationality but excludes any hint of personality or mind, then I cannot say that they are employing a fundamentally illegitimate methodology.  Nearly all of our conceptions are metaphorical to some degree, even about lesser matters.

And if there are some deep questions about what the metaphysical meaning of the Laws are, at least their physical content can be precisely stated in precise mathematical terms.  Whereas anyone who has studied Theology knows that hashing out the meaning of a fundamental mind, and predicting its effects, is a far murkier subject.

For these reasons, I believe it is not possible on the basis of Cosmological Arguments alone to decide between Naturalism and Theism.  But the balance of probabilities is shifted by other types of arguments.

We might check to see if there is any credible evidence that some god has revealed himself to the world through explicit revelation, supported by manifestations such as miracles, prophecies, or visions.  In fact we should do this, but it is not something that can be done from our armchairs (not without the aid of books or the internet anyway!) so let's leave this aside for the time being.

Another set of considerations is Design Arguments.  These concern the question of whether the Universe is organized in a way that suggests the existence of an intelligent agent with particular goals.  One particular type of Design Argument was invalidated by Darwin, but there are other versions, such as the Fine-Tuning Argument, which I'll discuss in depth at a later time.  On the flip side are the Undesign Arguments that the Universe is not the way a divine being would organize it: the most convincing forms of these involve Arguments from Evil.  But I don't want to consider Design Arguments here.  Not because they are irrelevant, but because they don't have much to do with purely Cosmological considerations.

Instead let me consider what we can learn from the Philosophy of Mind and the Philosophy of Ethics.  There is a sense in which these give a continuation of the Cosmological Argument, namely that if we believe there is some Source responsible for everything else that is, then what attributes we should attribute to the source will depend on what kinds of things really exist and therefore proceed from that source.  (I say kinds of things, not arrangements of things into patterns; the latter would be more akin to a Design Argument).  We need to decide whether it would be possible in principle for those kinds of things to come from that proposed Source or not.

In the process, I will naturally have to make some rather controversial statements.  In other words, the plausibility of Theism depends on your background beliefs.  I hope that doesn't shock any of my readers too much!

Next: Does God Need a Brain?

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