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Big Science Questions and the Gospel, Part II: Consciousness and the Soul

Any reasonably intelligent person can understand the principles involved in the search for extraterrestrial life issue that I addressed in my last science post. However, the issue of consciousness is fundamentally mind-wracking and forces us to question some of our basic intuitions. It can get crazy; with some philosophers going so far as to claim that consciousness itself is an illusion, and others claiming that consciousness is almost everything. Consequently, it’s a little foolhardy to do the issue and its relevance to the gospel justice in one post, but I will try. 

The standard position of philosophers and neuroscientists is that consciousness arises from chemistry in the brain. However, a substantial minority hold that things we associate with consciousness such as internal experience and feeling fundamentally cannot arise from atoms and molecules interacting with each other. While our computers are becoming more human-like in terms of processing and even in terms of intuition with neural networks and other AI algorithms, they would argue that our computers are not getting any closer to “feeling” anything or self-awareness.  

One of the most famous thought experiments making this point is called “Mary’s Room.” Mary is a neuroscientist who has lived in a black and white room for her whole life, during which she has spent all her time studying the technical characteristics of the color red. Despite her lifetime of learning, once the door is open and she sees red for the first time she will presumably come to learn something new about red from her own experience that she could not have learned from bits of knowledge. The issue of how consciousness and internal feelings can fundamentally arise from machine-like processes of the brain is called the “hard problem of consciousness,” as distinguished from the “soft problem of consciousness,” which is the question of what aspects of the brain are related to what aspects of our consciousness. The latter is amenable to scientific investigation, the former less so. 

Like a lot of dispositionally religious people I find the idea that we fundamentally can’t get feeling from bits of 1s and 0s more intuitive. However, in a sense we do have a theology that is more physical than some of our Christian counterparts (There is no such thing as immaterial matter. All spirit is matter,” ), so I think there is space for believing Latter-day Saints to hold to the traditional neuroscience view that who we are is reducible to the molecules and atoms in our head, but my intuition and gut don’t buy it. 

I suspect the most professionally prominent Latter-day Saint philosopher, Mark Wrathall of Oxford University, is sympathetic to an “atoms all the way down” view as he has written about religion “after metaphysics,” but I don’t want to put words in his mouth. Similarly, the only Latter-day Saint neurophilosopher of which I am aware, Tarik LaCour, believes this, although his view is more interesting than “consciousness came from atoms,” so go check it out.  

Consciousness is very tricky though; while it’s hard to imagine “feeling” coming from molecules mechanically interacting in our brain, it is also tricky trying to explain what this other thing is. Probably the most commonly held religious view is that a spirit is distinct from the body , but that they interact in some ways, and this also has scriptural support (“the spirit and the body are the soul of man”), but another interesting possibility is that consciousness is a part of matter itself; not so much that rocks “feel,” but that rocks have a part of the thing that, in some form, causes us to feel and be aware. Moses 3 has some potential support for the view that in a way everything has a “spirit” (“for I, the Lord God, created all things, of which I have spoken, spiritually, before they were naturally upon the face of the earth”); it is worth noting that none of the proponents of this view (including noted atheist Sam Harris) that I have read or listened to appear to be religious, but I suspect it has some potential appeal to a certain type of Eastern religious sensibility. 

Those that believe that it’s molecules all the way down sometimes like to make a comparison between consciousness and “vitalism.” In the 19th and 18th centuries many biologists believed that there was special spark in living things that allowed them to create certain substances. Piece by piece science hacked away at the need for some almost mystical life force until just about everything (except for consciousness) could be clearly or nearly explained in a mechanical fashion. In much the same way, they believe that eventually we will be able to explain consciousness after we have hacked away at its different pieces scientifically. 

For example, there are some brain conditions that spooked even me as a devout dualist when I read about them. For example, “alien hand” syndrome is a disorder where somebody’s hand appears to be operating on their own without any intentional effort on the part of its owner, sometimes to the point to where they have to tie one hand down so that the other hand can perform its functions without being hindered by the alien hand. Capgras delusion is a disorder where somebody believes that close friends and family members of theirs have been replaced by somebody in disguise, since they don’t feel the same connection to them that they are used to feeling. Cotard delusion is a related disorder where people (in some cases) literally do not believe that they exist, or that they are dead. These disorders have often been directly tied to a lesion in a specific part of the brain. Consequently, it is likely that different parts of what we mean by self-awareness and feeling can be tied to different aspects of the brain’s physiology, because it leads to some very strange results when they stop working, and that there is no one “seat of the soul” in the brain.  

Still, the difference between vitalism and consciousness is that vitalism was hacked away at piece by piece as chemists learned how to create biological substances in the lab; brain scientists still haven’t been able to create consciousness in a lab from chemical reactions or digital manipulation. Yes, we should avoid a “God of the gaps” situation where we just posit God to explain something that science hasn’t gotten to yet, but this is a pretty big gap, and it’s not clear to me that science is really making any clear progress on explaining how atoms essentially bumping into each other create feeling. I’m open to being proven wrong; I’m not married to my position here, but I’m not sure what being proven wrong would even entail short of creating a completely robust, self-aware artificial intelligence (and even then we have the “other minds” problem), so this is a particular gap that I think religious believers can be comfortable claiming as our own for the foreseeable future.


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