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A materialist creed?

By Peter Sellick - posted Monday, 27 October 2014


It is common to think that materialism is antithetical to religious faith. But this needs to be thought about a little more deeply.

I think that we must affirm that the materialist view of humanity and the world is essentially correct ie there is no such realm as the paranormal or the immaterial, we and the world are composed of matter, period.

However, as soon as the material world has an observer, an aware, sentient being, then the description of the world as pure matter has to be modified. I am not suggesting that consciousness requires us to postulate a "ghost in the machine". This would contradict my previous statement that there is no such thing as the immaterial.

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What I am saying is that there is no way we can bridge the gap between the material and our experience of being conscious. This does not mean that consciousness does not have a material basis; it is that there exists an unbridgeable gap between matter and consciousness.

For example a functional MRI image of activated areas in the brain is not an image of the consciousness that is present in that brain. Certainly neural networks produce consciousness but we have no way of knowing how this happens. Thus our only window into consciousness is our experience of it.

Furthermore, we may, with certainty, say that there will never be a time in which a thought process may be described in terms of nervous activity. Even if it were possible to describe each neural firing and excitatory or inhibitory activation of synapses this would still not amount to a description of an event in consciousness. What would be missing would be the self that experiences this event.

Thus although we may say that events in consciousness have their basis in neural firing and connectivity there is no way that a bridge between them may be found. It is because of this gap that we are forced to invent a different language when we attempt to describe an experience or a thought process. The words that are traditionally used are "spirit" or "psyche" or "soul". None of these words point to the existence of the immaterial, they denote human consciousness.

These words encompass the whole of human experience, of memory and life story that contributes to identity. They encompass hopefulness, dread, anxiety, joy and love. There will never be neural analogues to these conscious events even though an area may light up in the brain when we are anxious, for example. Indeed we can say that all of culture is reliant on neural processes but cannot be described by them.

The evolutionary psychologists have demonstrated that the brain is specialized to respond to certain stimuli. This has been referred to as the Swiss Army Knife model of the brain. Thus we have modules that identify human faces, those that acquire language, those that deal with exchanges, care of children, fear of snakes and spiders but not knives and guns.

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The evolutionary process has produced modules that operate below consciousness and reduce the computational load of the higher centres. It may be that the operation of these modules will someday be open to analysis on the basis of neural connectivity and function. This would be a huge step forward but we would still be a long way to understanding conscious events in terms of neural processes.

I can hear the reader protesting that religion requires the acceptance of the existence of the immaterial. Some do. But, I would argue, one can agree with the above and still be a faithful member of the Christian Church i.e. that despite the biblical texts that relate the breaking of well accepted laws of physics, despite the texts that refer to angelic beings, despite postulation of a divine being who created the universe one can still go to church and feel that you belong.

Mind you, being so influenced by natural science which most of us are, you will need to do some intellectual work. But that work is no more than most students of the humanities are familiar with. Texts work on several levels and the surface level is not necessarily the most important. The great novelists know this. Telling a story that consists of a description of events is not enough, the story must point to a deeper human reality. It is the same with the visual arts; the visible refers to the invisible.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences. He has a website called Coondle Art Presentations.

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