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The deep mystery of consciousness

By Peter Sellick - posted Wednesday, 4 January 2017

Whilst it appears that our understanding of how the human brain works has become increasingly sophisticated, we are no nearer to understanding how memory, sensory experience, self reflection, wonder, hope and love, to name but a few, come together to create our experience of consciousness. The seat of consciousness, the phenomenon that is most familiar to us, that sense of the self that we awaken to every morning, is completely obscure.

David Bentley Hart, in his new book The Experience of god: Being, Consciousness, Bliss argues that intentionality cannot be derived from even the most complex physical processes. Subsequently, he deduces that to attempt an explanation of consciousness in terms of physical processes is a fool's errand. Similarly, the search for artificial intelligence will be found to be a dead end. Computers will never reach consciousness. There is an infinite qualitative difference between physical processes that are subject to physical laws and hence cannot transcend those laws and a conscious being who can be self-aware and act with intention.

Hart uses such observations to critique the almost universal materialist understanding of the world, including human and animal behaviour. Such a theory, that insists that even consciousness itself must find its origin in physical causation is totally inadequate. This is a persuasive argument that he argues at length. Being an inheritor of the materialist philosophy, as most scientists are, without even thinking of its inadequacy, I found myself profoundly disturbed.


But what is the alternative? He dismisses the ghost in the machine. The postulation of an even more mysterious "spiritual" agent somehow separate but also integral to neural processes. This reintroduces the old problem of spirit/brain interaction. If spirit is immaterial and the brain is material how do they interact?

Hart describes our situation:

"Since the mechanical philosophy was an approach to nature that excluded all terms peculiar to consciousness, it had no way of fitting the experience of consciousness back into its inventories of the physical order. Hence, the metaphysical ambitions of scientific naturalism inevitably required that everything that in the past had been regarded as belonging inalienably to the mental or spiritual realm would have to come to be seen as, if not simply illusory, at least entirely reducible to the sorts of mindless processes the sciences are competent to discern. In this way, the limits of scientific inquiry – as a result, I suppose, of the irrepressible will to power that corrupts most human enterprises – had come to be equated with the limits of reality." P300.

This is not to say that those who worked in the humanities and art and theology were limited by the mechanical philosophy. They simply ignored the idea that all things had to be reduced to the physical, the evolutionary or the genetic. Theirs was a much more complex world.

Hart argues for a change in our metaphysics from an inadequate materialism (as concerning consciousness and culture) to a revival of pre-modern metaphysics that understands the universe in terms, not of materialism but in terms of the spiritual or the supernatural i.e. that which could not have arisen out of nature.

Central to this proposition is the classical concept of the being of God not as a being among beings or a cause among causes but as the source of being itself. This cuts the ground from under the atheist protest that no evidence for the existence of such a being as God exists and that God as an explanatory concept is redundant.


Part of the problem with a return to classical metaphysics is that it assumes that the universe was intended i.e. that there is purpose in it. This idea is as old as Aristotle who, when observing a natural phenomenon could say for example that it was in the nature of the apple to fall from the tree. This, of course, avoided a physical understanding that involved the force of gravity thus short circuiting scientific enquiry.

This is why Aristotelian teleology had to be scrapped so that real relationships between objects and their motions could be described. Scientific discovery would have been crippled if Aristotelian physics held sway.

However, when materialism is extended from the initial observations of matter in motion to the complexities of biology and consciousness we find ourselves devoid of explanatory concepts. For example, attempts to explain human culture in terms of Darwinian or genetic mechanism display an amazing naiveté. It seems that we are caught between two ways of understanding the world, the materialist and what we may call the spiritual. The latter term may be replaced by "supernatural" if by using it we refer to phenomena, like consciousness, that appears to transcend natural mechanism. I am reminded of C.P. Snow's two cultures. Our view of humanity is very different depending upon wether we use the materialist ontology of natural scientists or wether we see humanity in terms of history, the arts and consciousness. The divide between these two views lies between the ancient and modern world.

Ancient metaphysics affirms that each person is an en-souled body precious in the eyes of God because he/she reflects the image of God. This is the basis for our legal system, our care for the disadvantaged and ill and our general nurturance of the human community i.e. the spiritual. When this goes unrecognised and human beings are described in terms of materialism we unleash terrifying consequences that were played out in the twentieth century. For example, if there is no difference between human beings and animals, if both can be described in terms of mechanism, then human beings can be treated as animals and were.

The ancient metaphysics, certainly in the Judeo/Christian tradition, postulate the fulfilment of history when evil and death will be no more and God will dwell in peace with His people. Note that this is not a prophesy of a coming time that can be identified among the times but a reality that exists in hopefulness that even now is breaking in upon us. This may not be identified with technological progress and a surfeit of goods. It is transcendent; it does not grow out of human effort but exists as promise that evokes yearning. The presence of this idea, its proclamation during worship creates an arrow of time, not in terms of blind optimism but in terms of the working out of an established historical reality.

This is impossible for a materialist metaphysics that reduces the future to a working out of existing physical relations and processes. All it can give us is a desolate earth circling a dying sun. Both of these narratives may be true because they do not occupy the same category. The new heaven and the new earth that is proclaimed in Revelations is a reality that belongs in the realm of the spiritual and as such is present in all of time, as the truth of God is present in all of time. The cosmological projection looks to an event in the future.

The above represents the difficulty we have when thinking of the natural and the supernatural. When we adhere to the natural view there is a danger that we impoverish the experience of being human. When we adhere to the supernatural view we are in danger of floating off into the world of ideas and ignoring the physical.

It seems that we are faced with a situation in which we cannot devise a unified metaphysics that gives space for the natural and the supernatural. This was easy to resolve when the "supernatural" was identified with the ghostly, as in "supernatural thriller" ie it was plainly nonsense. However, Hart has argued that the supernatural points to the experience that is most familiar to us: consciousness. The problem we face in late modernity is that materialist metaphysics has become dominant to the exclusion of the spiritual and that, as we saw in the twentieth century, the century that proclaimed that God was dead, millions could be brought to their deaths without a flicker of compassion.

The only discipline that can shed light on this dilemma is theology. It alone has at hand the language and concepts that are needed.

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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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