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Allen C. Guelzo
I have written this book," Gerald Edelman brazenly announces at the opening of Bright Air, Brilliant Fire: On the Matter of the Mind, "because I think its subject is the most important one imaginable." Since his book is about the nature of human consciousness, that might be nothing more than cutely obvious. But Edelman is not playing obvious, and he is far from alone in believing that something has recently cracked and given in what used to be the wall of mystery surrounding consciousness. Building on a generation's worth of studies of brain physiology and on the creation of computers in the last decade and a half sophisticated enough to simulate thinking, Edelman—together with Patricia and Paul Churchland, Daniel Dennett, John Searle, and Francis Crick, to name only the most well-known—have suddenly thrust onto center stage an unsettling series of solutions to the mystery of human self-awareness, our subjective experience of being alive and personal, of the divine spark, if you will.
These solutions are far from unanimous in their details, but they are all agreed on one very basic point: What we call "consciousness" is purely a material process. Consciousness is not the evidence of a "mind" substance as apart from "body" substance; still less is "consciousness" the activity of a spirit or soul inside our physical bodies. "We are at the beginning of the neuroscientific revolution," Edelman buoyantly declares, "a prelude to the largest possible scientific revolution, one with inevitable and important social consequences." Indeed we are, and while Christians are mostly consumed with opening yet newer rounds in their century-and-a-half-old war with Charles Darwin, they have scarcely the faintest idea that the new consciousness enthusiasm is by far the greater threat to the integrity of Christian belief.
What is peculiar about what Edelman calls "the neuroscientific revolution" is that it is really not a new business at all, but merely a long-deferred one. Three ...