Saturday, February 4, 2017

Consciousness--A Fundamental Property?

Human consciousness is usually not a coffee table topic of conversation. Consciousness is fairly easy to define. Awareness of self and surroundings is a common definition, but the simplicity of the definition belies the complexity of the topic. Historically, scientists and philosophers have devoted plentiful attention to understanding the phenomenon of consciousness. Ironically, as we unlock even more information on the brain—the seat of consciousness—the subject may grow ever more mysterious. In spite of our burgeoning knowledge of the physical brain, cognitive scientist David Chalmers thinks the scientific explanation of consciousness might still be dozens of years away. We reiterate that some researchers claim that with the “hard problem of consciousness” we may have reached the limits of what science can explain. 

Chalmers, one of the foremost “consciousness” gurus of our time, analyzes problems of consciousness realistically and is well known for his articulate clarity of thought. He states consciousness is a subjective phenomenon. In contrast, science is objective. Scientists would delight to offer a scientific explanation of consciousness by outlining a credible, reductionist, cause and effect analysis. To cite examples, is human creativity explained as the product of simple identifiable causes? Could the subjective experience of pleasure, pain, joy, sorrow, confidence, or fear be reduced to or explained by straightforward sequences of neural electrical signals? Synapses—inter-neural connections in the human brain—outnumber the number of stars in our Milky Way. Scientists do not suffer from a lack of empirical data. Neuroscientists observe some correlations between brain events, but the totality of the resulting conscious experience remains unexplained.    

Everyday functioning of the ten body systems is generally understandable in terms of the duality of observable causes and effects. Ordinarily we are healthy and sound in body and mind. On some occasions we must visit our family doctor or another medical specialist. One of their most fascinating medical skills is their diagnostic ability, not to mention their ability to treat patients’ symptoms. Skilled diagnosticians possess one of the medical profession’s most treasured gifts. Such medical professionals have mastered the understanding of cause and effect, especially with respect to human body systems. Human consciousness, however, is in a different league. Science is unable to explain consciousness. 

Switching focus, we review the basics of universe history to reinforce a point we made in our first paragraph relating to “the limits of what science can explain.” Perhaps the most famous Bible verse of all is in the very first chapter of Genesis: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the Earth” (Genesis 1:1). The chronology of the first two verses of Genesis includes a gap of nearly ten billion years from the initial creation event (Gen. 1:1) to the following verse. Genesis 1:2 describes our planet a few billion years later as a body “formless and empty,” with darkness over the surface of the deep. This describes a liquid water world shrouded in darkness by thick clouds. But “…the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.” The Creator had something wonderful in mind almost four billion years later. The “formless and empty” earth became the beautiful planet we currently observe. Conscious humanity, body, soul, and spirit, now inhabits this unique planet. Christian theology recognizes the timelessness of God according to human reckoning. 

In our human time frame the universe was created 13.7 billion years ago. Scientists often refer to this creation event as the origin of several fundamental building blocks of nature—our time, space, matter, and energy dimensions. In our human comprehension we do not experientially understand the absence of time, space, matter, and energy. We struggle conceptually to grasp the reality of “before time began.” Some Bible translators use phrases like “before time began” or “before the beginning of time” to express deep concepts of the origins of man’s future redemption in the mind of God (I Cor. 2:7, II Tim. 1:9, and Tit. 1:2). Most scientists see the Big Bang event 13.7 billion years distant as the inception of “fundamental building blocks” of nature.

God, eternally existing before the beginning of our universe, was omnipotent and omniscient. If we could describe God (a difficult assignment for humans) we may describe Him as having ultimate consciousness. We reiterate: cognitive scientists have wrestled with the thought that consciousness may be beyond the reach of science to explain. Chalmers posits that consciousness may be a “fundamental building block of nature,” in the same league as space, time, matter, and energy. Consciousness exists, but it cannot be explained reductively. We may study the correlation of physical events in the mind, electrical impulses for example, as they pertain to our conscious experience. But at this point explaining the scientific causes and effects of consciousness is beyond the reach of science. Perhaps it will always be beyond the reach of science because science dictates all phenomena must be explained naturalistically.  

Before time began, God existed eternally—the ultimate supernatural Entity of consciousness. God created the heavens and the Earth in the beginning. He later linked consciousness with the physical matter of the human body. Matter is one of the fundamental building blocks of nature gifted to sentient humans in our realm of existence. This connects with the theological truth that God made man IN HIS IMAGE.

We are fascinated by scientific and philosophical pondering concerning consciousness. Scientists and philosophers both generate commentary on this captivating topic. Some commentators wear the hats of scientist and philosopher simultaneously. Perhaps theologians should actively join the arena where talented minds discuss this profound topic, especially if we recognize consciousness as a fundamental building block of nature with strong supernatural overtones.