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Nancey Murphy

I Cerebrate Myself

Is there a little man inside your brain?

This tome would be worth buying for either of two reasons: it collects in a single volume a veritable library of essays on consciousness, and it includes as well a remarkable overview of the field of consciousness studies, both current and historical, by one of the editors, Guven Guzeldere.

Interest in philosophy of mind has blossomed in recent years due to a combination of factors. One is the light shed on these issues by developments in the neurosciences and in studies of artificial intelligence. But these developments have provided a stimulus to philosophy of mind only because of a reconceptualization of philosophy itself in the past generation—one that refuses to isolate it, as "conceptual analysis," from empirical studies.

A great deal can be said about the mind without reference to consciousness. In fact, some approaches to psychology and philosophy of mind have deliberately denied a role for consciousness. Study of consciousness is notoriously problematic (some even say impossible) so we should not be surprised that Guzeldere's careful analysis of the state of the field focuses on identifying the controversies rather than the conclusions.

Part of the problem is that the term consciousness is used in a variety of ways. It is helpful to distinguish some of these. First, one can distinguish between social and individual (or "psychological") senses of the word. The first of these, as in "feminist consciousness," is not at play here. With regard to individual consciousness, one can distinguish "intransitive" from "transitive" consciousness, the first contrasting with unconsciousness and of less interest philosophically than transitive consciousness—the awareness of something or other. Transitive consciousness admits of further distinctions. We can attend to what philosophers call propositional attitudes—believing, intending, willing something; or we can attend to the phenomenal characteristics of consciousness—"raw feels," "qualia," the painfulness of pain, the phenomenal experience of redness. The most acute problems in philosophy of mind have to do with phenomenal consciousness.

The major controversies concerning consciousness are both ontological and epistemological. What is the ontological status of consciousness? In answer, Guzeldere quotes George Miller: "Depending upon the figure of speech chosen it is a state of being, a substance, a process, a place, an epiphenomenon, an emergent aspect of matter, or the only true reality."

Epistemological controversies arise from the puzzle of what we should make of that fact that I seem to know my own phenomenal conscious states immediately but have no such immediate access to those of others. There seems to be a unique epistemological asymmetry here. A deep division concerns the very possibility of explaining consciousness. At one end are those who say that consciousness can no more understand itself than a microscope can be used to examine itself. At the other end are those who say that with the right combination of approaches, such as neuroscience, psychology, and phenomenological studies, this mystery will yield to investigation just as have the "mysteries" of life and the origin of the universe. In between, everyone recognizes that there are acute problems here, and the nature of the problem is closely tied to the position one takes on the ontology of consciousness. Few philosophers, cognitive scientists, or neuroscientists today are substance dualists, largely because the problem of mind-body interaction has proven over three centuries to be so intractable. For those physicalists or materialists who countenance consciousness, the problem is to explain how phenomenal consciousness could arise from wet, gray matter.

Guzeldere brings an insightful ordering to a chaotic field not only by distinguishing and cataloguing these controversies, but also by uncovering deeper intuitions among the participants that contribute to disagreement. For example, some theorists approach consciousness in terms of what it does—the causal role consciousness plays in the general economy of our mental lives. Others focus on consciousness as consciousness seems—the phenomenal qualities of consciousness mentioned above. These two approaches are usually assumed to be mutually exclusive, but Guzeldere believes that the way ahead is to recognize that "how consciousness seems cannot be conceptualized in the absence of what consciousness does."

The book throughout assumes a physicalist or materialist account of human consciousness; no essays by mind-body or body-soul dualists have been included even for historical interest. The assumption of all the authors is well expressed by Patricia Smith Churchland:

In assuming that neuroscience can reveal the physical mechanisms subserving psychological functions, I am assuming that it is indeed the brain that performs those functions—that capacities of the human mind are in fact capacities of the human brain. This assumption and its concomitant rejection of Cartesian souls or spirits or "spooky stuff" existing separately from the brain is no whimsy. On the contrary, it is a highly probable hypothesis, based on evidence currently available from physics, chemistry, neuroscience and evolutionary biology.

Tie this physicalist assumption to the fact that Christians have not only attributed consciousness to the soul but, in addition, have taken it to be the seat of our spiritual nature and it is clear that the very existence of such a book raises important questions for Christians.

It is no accident that this review follows an earlier one in BOOKS & CULTURE by Allen C. Guelzo, titled "Soulless: Is Consciousness an Illusion?" (Jan./Feb. 1998). Guelzo reviewed several books on consciousness studies by many of the same authors included in Block's anthology, and he raised an impassioned warning to Christians. I shall devote the rest of this essay to an attempt to explain why consciousness studies should raise the interest of Christians but should cause no alarm. Along the way I shall mention some of the more engaging of the book's 49 essays.

The central point of Guelzo's article is that consciousness studies are thoroughly antidualist and that an assault on substance dualism is an assault on Christianity. I take issue with Guelzo's assumption that Christianity needs dualism. True, body-soul dualism of one sort or another has been the majority view at least from Augustine to the beginning of the twentieth century, and remains common among lay Christians today. Nonetheless, I make the following claims:

  1. In the Hebrew Bible, human life is regularly understood monistically rather than dualistically, and this unified being is a physical being.
  2. New Testament writers recognize a variety of conceptions of the composition or makeup of the human being but do not teach body-soul dualism.
  3. Original Christian hope for life after death is based on bodily resurrection, patterned after that of Jesus, not on immortality of the soul.
  4. Christian salvation in the end is not "soul-ectomy" (in Ted Peters's colorful term) but rather participation of the entire person as new creation in the kingdom of God.
  5. The moral value of humans is not due to their possession of an immortal substance, but rather to the fact that God has created us and has chosen to be in relationship with us.

The intrinsic connecting among concepts of human nature, eschatology, salvation, and ethics are well represented by Jewish scholar Neil Gillman:

why stress bodily resurrection rather than immortality of the soul? For many reasons: Because the notion of immortality tends to deny the reality of death, of God's power to take my life and to restore it; because the doctrine of immortality implies that my body is less precious, important, even "pure," while resurrection affirms that my body is not less God's creation and is both necessary and good; because the notion of the bodiless soul runs counter to my experience of myself and of others; … and because resurrection affirms the significance of society.1

It is unfortunate, as Guelzo points out, that evangelical theologians have not taken up the challenges presented by consciousness studies. I and two of my colleagues at Fuller Seminary, Warren Brown and H. Newton Maloney, set out to do our bit to fill this gap. We were not concerned specifically with consciousness, but more broadly with evangelical Christians' need to come to terms with scientific evidence of varying kinds, but especially from the cognitive neurosciences, for a physicalist account of human nature. The propositions that I have stated above in a rather tendentious manner have been carefully argued in our book, titled Whatever Happened to the Soul?: Scientific and Theological Portraits of Human Nature (Fortress, 1998). The biblical and theological points have been made in chapters by Ray Anderson and Joel Green, the ethical point by Stephen Post. We argue that Christians can get along quite nicely with a view of the human being as a purely physical creation—one whose capacities for consciousness, social interaction, moral reasoning, and relationship with God arise as a result of the incredible complexity of our brains.

So the physicalism assumed by current writers on consciousness should not be seen as a threat to Christian belief but rather as a call to re-examine our own biblical heritage, and, we would argue, to recapture a more authentic understanding of Christian teaching.

I said earlier that consciousness studies ought to spark the interest of Christians, even if it does not set off an alarm. There are several questions that I see as central to the philosophical discussion of consciousness, and I will comment on the significance of these for Christians.

Does consciousness exist? This is the question with which Guelzo's review was most concerned. The major proponent of the (seeming) nonexistence of consciousness, here as elsewhere, is Daniel Dennett, and I fear that on this topic he is more interested in being controversial than in being clear. His philosophical arguments only support the claims that philosophical accounts or definition of consciousness are either incoherent or fail to find instantiations. A representative piece is included in the anthology by Block et al. titled "Quining Qualia."

"Qualia" is a philosophical term designed to refer (roughly) to the phenomenal characteristics of conscious experience —experienced redness, sourness, hotness, and so on—the properties of experience. Now, it is difficult to see what is left of a perceptual experience if all of its properties are removed. So if Dennett could succeed in arguing that "there are no such properties as qualia," this would be a startling claim indeed. However, what he actually accomplishes is much more modest. "Qualia are supposed to be special properties, in some hard-to-define ways. My claim … is that conscious experience has no properties that are special in any of the ways qualia have been supposed to be special."

My view is that the whole debate is something of a red herring; the question "Does consciousness exist?" is poorly phrased. The proper way to put it (since consciousness is not a thing by most accounts) is "Are there conscious beings?" or "Are humans conscious?" A negative answer to these latter questions would disrupt our ordinary language so badly that I scarcely see what linguistic resources we could muster to carry on the debate.

What is consciousness? I fear that the typical reader (i.e., one who is not a professional analytic philosopher) will find the essays on the nature of consciousness tedious to read and unsatisfying. My diagnosis is that this branch of the discussion relies too heavily on conceptual analysis and pays far too little attention to what is going on now in the neurosciences. So I skip to the next question.

Can consciousness be explained scientifically? Here we find extremely interesting arguments. Patricia Churchland well represents those who say yes, Thomas Nagel those who say no.

In "Can Neurobiology Teach Us Anything About Consciousness?" Churchland argues for the value of neuroscience in explaining consciousness on the grounds that a strategy of analysis (methodological reduction) has worked throughout science. So, if it is clear that the nervous system has something to do with consciousness, it is highly likely that examining the structure, organization, and function of its parts will shed light on the functions of the entire system.

Churchland makes short work of several arguments to the contrary. One set of positions she characterizes as the "I cannot imagine how you can get awareness out of meat" arguments. These, she says, merely represent a failure of imagination; a century ago we could have argued "I cannot imagine how you could get life out of dead stuff." Whether we can explain consciousness or not is an empirical question, she claims, and so long as scientific investigation continues to contribute to our understanding, why not keep on going?

Churchland then condenses into a few pages some of what is known about consciousness, largely from brain scans and from study of patients with unusual cognitive deficits (such as lack of awareness of one-half of their bodies). For example, certain regions of the brain once suspected of being the seat of consciousness have now been ruled out.

Thomas Nagel argues for the impossibility in principle of giving a scientific explanation of consciousness. In "What Is It Like to Be a Bat?" (one of the most widely cited essays in the field), Nagel observes that for an organism to be conscious means that there is something it is like to be that kind of organism. No scientific analysis of a bat's sensory systems, including its sonar system for echo-location, would ever convey to the researcher what it is like to be a bat.

The fact that one (this one, in any case) can find both Churchland's and Nagel's arguments persuasive tells us not so much about consciousness as it does about lack of agreement on what would count as an explanation of it. The analogy with the explanation of life is helpful. In previous centuries life was as mysterious as consciousness is now. It was thought that it could only be explained by invoking a "vital force." In recent years, however, it has been possible to study ever simpler life forms and to list the minimal ingredients that go into the distinction between the living and the nonliving: self-boundedness, self-generation, and self-perpetuation of an entity as a consequence of its dynamic interchange with its surroundings.2 Much progress has been made in understanding the various systems that permit organisms to fulfill these three requirements.

I see no reason in principle why we cannot similarly define the necessary and sufficient conditions for consciousness and then explore the neural systems that fulfill those conditions. So consciousness would be "explained" in one sense of the word. But there seems to be another, more elusive, sense of "explanation" at work in Nagel's argument that is something like "feeling one has insight into" the thing in question. And so we may understand, say, visual perception in the sense of knowing how it all works, but never have insight into why something red looks like this.

Does the outcome of this debate matter to Christians? Should Christians be worried that science will explain consciousness? I can think of two reasons some Christians might be worried. One is a view of divine action that requires special interventions in the creative process. Christians who hold this view will already have been shocked by my claim that life can be explained scientifically. But scientific explanation need not (and I would claim, should not) be seen as an alternative to theological explanation.

A second reason some Christians might hope that consciousness cannot be explained has to do with what I think of as a misplaced metaphysical divide. The important metaphysical distinction for Christians is between God and God's creation. There has been too much temptation in the past to draw a line with God, angels, and ourselves (or our minds, souls, spirits) on the one side and the rest of creation on the other. The scientific inexplicability of consciousness would then count toward our exalted status. This temptation comes, probably, from hubris, but also from various Hellenistic cosmologies. A more authentically biblical view recognizes that we are earth creatures. Adam derives from adamah, earth, in the Genesis writer's pun; we are thoroughly a part of God's physical creation. From this point of view, our consciousness being scientifically inexplicable might make us "spooky" in Churchland's term, but not holy.

Does consciousness do any work? The most interesting contribution to this discussion in Block's anthology is Owen Flanagan's "Conscious Inessentialism and the Epiphenomenalist Suspicion." The epiphenomenalist suspicion is that "although consciousness exists and enters into the characterization of some human actions, it plays a relatively inconsequential role in mental life, akin to the ineffectual, often misled, and ever belatedly informed public relations office for a large organization." A much discussed experiment by Benjamin Libet has often been seen as evidence for epiphenomenalism:

First subjects are hooked up to electroencephalographs, which measure the "readiness potential" in the cortical areas thought to subserve hand movement, and to electromyographs, which measure onset of activity in the hand muscles. Second, subjects are told to flex their right hand spontaneously whenever they feel like it. They are also told "to pay close introspective attention to the instant of the onset of the urge, desire, or decision to perform each such act and to the correlated position of a revolving spot on a clock face."

The surprising result was that the consciousness of the intention to flex occurred after the onset of the readiness potential. This experiment has been taken to show that conscious intention to act is not the source of action but rather a belated report on the fact that the action is under way. Flanagan, however, reinterprets the experimental results to provide evidence for the causal role of consciousness. One clear instance is the fact that subjects can consciously veto flexion in the 200 milliseconds between consciousness of the urge to flex and the actual response. More important, Flanagan notes, were it not for the conscious awareness of the experimenter's instructions, the experiment could not have worked at all.

Flanagan's arguments, sampled here, are far from resolving this issue. And the causal role of consciousness in behavior is but part of a larger question having to do with the causal efficacy of the mental in general. Here Christians have a big stake. If all of our intendings and willings and judgings are in fact brain processes, then how can we say they are governed by reasons—moral or rational—rather than by blind laws of nature? Defending the meaningfulness of the mental qua mental depends on defeating causal reductionism, and I make some moves in this direction in my contribution to Whatever Happened to the Soul? In fact, the entire book has a dual purpose: not only to argue for an intelligible replacement for dualism but also to contradict the reductionist versions of physicalism that give up on human freedom, moral responsibility, and religion.3

Is consciousness unitary? Here again Daniel Dennett is the provocateur. In "The Cartesian Theater and 'Filling In' the Stream of Consciousness," he says that "the idea of a special center in the brain is the most tenacious bad idea bedeviling our attempts to think about consciousness." The Cartesian theater is "the view you arrive at when you discard Descartes's dualism but fail to discard the imagery of a central (but material) theater in the mind where 'it all comes together.' "

In place of this model, Dennett offers his "multiple drafts" model of consciousness. This alternative is difficult to do justice to in short space and without reporting the empirical evidence on which it is based. Dennett says that according to this model, all varieties of perception and other mental activity are accomplished in the brain by parallel, multitrack processes of interpretation and elaboration of sensory inputs. This much is commonly accepted in neuroscience. Dennett adds that there are always editing processes going on with regard to these inputs, turning them into various versions of narrative sequences.

What Dennett objects to in the standard account is the view that all of these rough drafts get sent to a central processing area to be pieced into a single stream of consciousness. Instead, he speculates that they compete "in parallel pandemoniums," with some achieving consciousness and creating something like a unified stream of consciousness. So Dennett believes that the unity and continuity of consciousness is only apparent—we simply do not attend to the discontinuity and gaps. This illusion about the character of consciousness is an occupational hazard for neuroscientists.

Dennett traces the philosophical mistakes involved here to Descartes, who spoke of himself as though he (the real Descartes) was an individual perceiver inside his body—and, in fact, inside his own mind—to whom sensory inputs were transmitted via the sense organs and the brain. We might ask where Descartes's image comes from: that the I, the real I, is somehow inside myself, and seeing things "in there."

This is actually a very odd idea if we think about it, although our language about thought and perception is loaded with such images. I speculate that it originated with the medieval spiritual writers who spoke about the spiritual life as withdrawing from the world of the senses and turning inward. Teresa of Avila's image of the soul as the "interior castle" is perhaps the most vivid. In her book by that title she writes: "You have already heard in some books on prayer that the soul is advised to enter within itself; well that's the very thing I'm advising."4

I have a great love for this spiritual tradition, but I have to say that I find it hard to correlate with the teachings of Jesus, whose concerns I take to be largely social and in that sense material. His choice image for communion with God is not of solitary inwardness but of a wedding feast. I believe that Christianity took an unhealthy turn toward inwardness and individualism as a result, largely, of Neo-Platonic influences; Descartes was not the origin of the concept of the mind as an internal container.5

The point of the foregoing speculation about Descartes's Jesuit spiritual formation is to show that what may seem the most arcane of discussions in consciousness studies may prove a valuable source of reflection for Christian scholars. In our day, social conceptions of mind and self are defended by philosophers in the Wittgensteinian tradition, by psychologists of a variety of persuasions, and by neuroscientists such as Leslie Brothers.6 All of these voices in philosophy and neuroscience are valuable resources calling Christians back to the essential sociality of human life and, consequently, of their faith.

The terms of the debates in consciousness studies have all been shaped throughout Western history by Christian voices. Let us continue to have our say in these rich and lively debates.

Nancey Murphy is professor of Christian philosophy at Fuller Theological Seminary. She has written and edited many books, including most recently Whatever Happened to the Human Soul? Scientific and Theological Portraits of Human Nature (Fortress), which she edited with Warren S. Brown and H. Newton Maloney.

1. The Death of Death: Resurrection and Immortality in Jewish Thought (Jewish Lights, 1997), p. 238.

2. Gail Raney Fleishaker, "Three Models of a Minimal Cell," in C. Ponnamperuma and F. R. Erlich, eds., Prebiotic Self Organization of Matter (A. Deepak, 1990), p. 235.

3. See Robert J. Russell, N. Murphy, et al., eds., Neuroscience and Human Nature: Scientific Perspectives on Divine Nature (Vatican Observtory, forthcoming) for additional arguments against reductionist accounts of human nature.

4. The Interior Castle, in O. Rodrigues and K. Davanaugh, eds., St. Teresa of Avila, vol. 2 (ICS Publications, 1980), p. 286.

5. As Richard Rorty has pointed out; see Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (Princeton Univ. Press, 1979).

6. See Friday's Footprint: How Society Shapes the Human Mind (Oxford Univ. Press, 1997).

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