There is a certain kind of person who asks “Why can I think? Why can I feel?” A kind of person who stares at their hand and ponders how their thoughts can make it move, or wonders whether human-like consciousness will arise from machine AI as computing power continues to grow. We may not bring up such topics in casual conversation, but I think most of us have at one time asked exactly these kinds of questions.
One of my keen interests in recent years has been to try and understand the shape of the reaction against philosophical materialism. The basic idea is that our culture has been in the grip of this view for well over a hundred years, culminating in the public prestige and authority granted to the New Atheists in the 1990’s and 2000’s. At its height, the feeling was that smart and sophisticated people accepted that only matter exists; that there is no ‘spiritual’ reality.
But humans have not changed.
Eternity in the Heart, but What’s in the Brain?
Made in the image of God, we are hardwired with eternity in our hearts (Ecclesiastes 3:11). You may be able to get eternity out of the mind, but you can never get eternity out of the heart. And so people have become starved for the transcendent, the spiritual, the other. They are hungry for meaning, ritual, and mystery. This eternity-ache manifests itself in all kinds of ways.
Like any generalization, this narrative is too tidy for reality: there have been small reactions against this view for a long time, but on the whole I think it is correct. In a previous article I traced a few streams of this reaction: politics as religion, a return to Christianity, psychedelic experiences, and technology. In this piece I want to explore one more stream: the burgeoning field of consciousness studies.
So what is consciousness? Dr. Sharon Dirckx, a Christian apologist with a PhD in brain imaging from Cambridge, defines it as follows in her helpful little book, Am I just my brain?: “A property of the mind through which our subjective thoughts, feelings, experiences and desires have their existence.” Everyone more or less acknowledges that consciousness exists. The key question is how consciousness relates to our physical brains. A number of different answers are on offer, but Dirckx sums them up in three general categories:
- The mind is the brain (reductive physicalism).
- The brain generates the mind (non-reductive physicalism).
- The mind is beyond the brain (substance dualism).
The scientific community, committed for the last few generations to a metaphysics of materialism, has typically opted for the first view. It’s not entirely fair to say this is a purely modern phenomenon either. In 400 BC, Hippocrates said, “Men ought to know that from the brain, and from the brain only, arise our pleasures, joys, laughter and jests, as well as our sorrows, pains, griefs and tears.”
In more recent times, Neuroscientist Sir Colin Blackmore has said, “The human brain is a machine which alone accounts for all our actions, our most private thoughts, our beliefs. All our actions are the products of the activity of our brains.”
A Christian might wonder what role the soul has to play in this discussion. Is it different from one’s mind? If so, how? But materialists have no need for this category: “The supposedly immaterial soul, we now know, can be bisected with a knife, altered by chemicals, started or stopped by electricity, and extinguished by a sharp blow or by insufficient oxygen,” writes Steven Pinker.
The bulk of Am I just my brain? is devoted to chipping away at this view of the relationship between brain and mind, and in that goal it is largely successful. The reader benefits from the author’s deep familiarity with the specialized academic debates that surround these questions and also the contributions of thoughtful Christians.
One of the issues addressed in the book that has recently spilled over to the news cycle is the question of sentient artificial intelligence (AI). The advance of AI technology is fueling two powerful public sentiments: a messianic hype on the one hand and an apocalyptic fear on the other. Is it possible for AI to become sentient? To achieve consciousness and personhood? Those questions really cannot be answered without a clear definition and understanding of what sentience and consciousness are.
Uploading Minds vs. Opening Minds
If our minds are naught but neurons, then by definition a computer powerful enough could simulate or replicate consciousness. And this materialist assumption leads many today to believe that we could take things a step further and create a digital replica of the mind and then upload our minds, achieving a disembodied eternal digital existence (as long as no one pulls the power cord).
But this is highly contested. Many experts across numerous fields, from philosophers to computer scientists, point out that a number of important aspects of human experience are impossible to replicate via digital computation. For example, qualia (subjective experiences), the understanding of meaning, true creativity, and more. Simply put, a computer can never replicate the most important aspects of human consciousness, it can only simulate it by observing and copying what humans do. Life and consciousness are, frankly, miraculous gifts from God. For a deeper dive into sentient AI, consciousness, and the implications for philosophical materialism, check out Joe Carter’s recent piece over at TGC.
Critiques of the mind-as-brain paradigm are by no means a purely Christian or theistic effort. Neuroscientists and consciousness researchers from across the spectrum of beliefs are examining the evidence and coming to disagree with the standard paradigm exemplified by Steven Pinker above. For example, Philip Goff, who has been on Rogan’s podcast and has interacted with Sharon Dirckx on the Unbelievable show, advocates for panpsychism, the view that consciousness is a fundamental and pervasive aspect of the physical world.
Similarly, philosopher Bernardo Kastrup argues that consciousness is more fundamental than matter, and that “reality is essentially mental.” These are interesting and serious philosophical approaches that have not yet been mainstreamed broadly into the general public, but my sense is that among young people they are proving more attractive than the stringent materialism of boomer atheists.
Add to this the recent attention Iain McGilchrist’s work has been receiving in numerous places: Jordan Peterson’s YouTube channel, Rod Dreher’s blog, Jonathan Pageau’s Symbolic World, as well as The Big Conversation (hosted by Justin Brierly from Unbelievable) where he was in conversation with Sharon Dirckx. McGilchrist has recently published a major work: The Matter with Things, a 2-volume magnum opus stretching to 1500 pages. His project is very much in line with the themes above, although he approaches these questions from the perspective of brain science, and specifically the distinctives between the two hemispheres of the human brain.
In his conversation with Dirckx, McGilchrist concurred with the panpsychist view, stating that he believes “matter is a phase of consciousness,” and that rather than matter being prior to consciousness, that consciousness is prior to matter. He argues that this view is in harmony with many traditions that go back thousands of years.
And with the proper qualifications, perhaps we can include the Biblical tradition in that harmony. After all, the first four words of the Bible are, “In the beginning God.” Before the creation of matter, we have God, who is spirit and mind: ultimate consciousness. But important differences remain. The Creator/creation distinction is crucial to faithful theology, but is usually absent or fatally compromised in panpsychism and similar views.
Leaving Materialism for Wonder (and woo)
While Christians can and do offer their own powerful critiques of the mind-as-brain view of consciousness as well as of materialism more generally, what is interesting to me is to see the groundswell of people across different disciplines, cultures, and belief systems coming together to say, essentially: “Materialism is not sufficient to explain the world as we find it.” This is inherently re-enchanting. It is a baby step to be sure, a little nudge in the right direction, but philosophical materialism’s stranglehold on public discourse is so strong that it is a significant step.
Once you leave that stifling paradigm behind, it begins to feel like anything is possible. The world begins to feel strange and wondrous again. You stare into your child’s intelligent eyes and wonder how can this be? You rediscover the truth that life and consciousness are colossal and enchanting mysteries. It seems to me that people, including many Christians, are starved for this kind of re-enchantment, and the soaring popularity of these thinkers affirms that idea.
One or two steps removed from the academic respectability of these thinkers, however, we stumble into the chaotic panoply that is the non-materialist space. What do you get when the supernatural is no longer out of bounds? You get Eastern mystics, New Agers, cults, UFO experiencers, cryptozoologists, hallucinogenic psychonauts, NDE (near-death experience) researchers, believers in the paranormal, wiccans and other kinds of neo-pagans, and then over there, standing slightly awkwardly in the corner, are Christians of various stripes.
To spend any time in these circles is to encounter an endless mélange of the fascinating and the bogus. Never mind peer-review, some of these folks don’t even check any sources – any good story will do. In our critique of reductive materialism, we can all link arms as co-belligerents, but how much agreement will we really find with New Age occultists? Not much beyond agreeing that Dawkins and his ilk have left out some pretty big pieces of the puzzle.
From Consciousness to Christ
For Christians, the end point can only ever be Jesus. But precisely because the non-materialist space is fundamentally different from the typical public square where atheistic materialism is the de facto paradigm, the kind of conversation that can be had about Jesus is qualitatively different. The challenges to belief in Christ are different, and the pathways to Christ may be unconventional as well.
Regardless of the route, at the end of all roads to Christ is a thrice-holy God before whom we stand utterly without merit or excuse, condemned by our rebellion and sin against the moral law that is woven into the fabric of the universe and revealed in his Word. But – wonder of wonders – the God who made all things and who “upholds the universe by the word of his power” (Heb. 1:3), that fundamental underlying Consciousness that the thinkers mentioned above are “perhaps feel[ing] their way toward” (Acts 17:27), he has made himself known in Jesus, and he has made a way to be reconciled. That way is the good news of the sacrificial death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus on our behalf, a salvation which becomes ours by faith.
I am thankful that many of these thinkers seem far more congenial towards Christianity than the scoffing and angry atheists of the recent past. But friendliness and areas of overlapping agreement will not ultimately be enough. I do wonder what happened to that man to whom Jesus said, “You are not far from the kingdom of God” (Mark 12:34). I sometimes get the feeling that some of these folks are in a similar position: not far, but not quite there. But thanks be to God – there is room for any and all at the foot of the cross.