This article summarises the arguments of Graham Martin’s book Does it Matter? The Unsustainable World of the Materialists, which was the joint winner of the 2005 Network Book Prize. Here Graham takes the reader on a whistle-stop tour of the difficulties facing a materialist account of consciousness, demolishing a number of common fallacies on his way.
Scientists animated by the purpose of proving that they are purposeless constitute an interesting subject for study.
Last week I attended the most enormous, festive and entertaining dinner party. A guest expressed interest in my new book, so I began to explain that (1) scientists have not found consciousness in the brain, and that moreover (2) our experiences of colour, touch, sound and all the other senses are apparently not part of the physical universe (as at present defined), and that furthermore (3) …
This was already too much for him. He was overcome with disbelief. ‘Are you sure? They must have found it in the brain. Of course our senses can be explained by science. Of course …’
It’s rare not to meet this reaction. Just as some Christians believe that the Church has got the Universe all wrapped up in cosy little swaddling clothes labelled ‘Truth’ – so that there’s no need for any thinking, but just to believe the Creed (whatever ‘believe’ might mean) – so, for many, science is imagined to have explained everything. ‘Soul’ has become a word with no reference, one indeed which it is embarrassing to pronounce. Yet common sense rebels when we read a respected psychologist writing:
The existence of something called consciousness is a venerable hypothesis; not a datum, not directly observable [...]
Sorry, but Professor Hebb has got it all completely upside down. Consciousness is the only thing which is directly observable. Indeed, it’s the only thing which isn’t a hypothesis. All data come through it.
Hence my new book Does It Matter? The Unsustainable World of the Materialists (Floris, Edinburgh 2005). I have inspected the claims of materialist philosophy and science, and found them wanting. Spiritual realities remain unassailed. Naturally I can take only a very abbreviated look at some of these issues here.
Is consciousness in the brain? Now one might have supposed that contemporary neuroscientists could tell you where consciousness is to be found, but no, its location has never been discovered. Nor has that of longterm memory, or of tacit memory. (This is almost equally interesting, but I cannot discuss it here.) Moreover, no one has explained how the sense information coming along the neural pathways in the brain is transformed into conscious experience. This is the problem of qualia, one of the most discussed issues in contemporary philosophy.
What are qualia? They are the ‘feel’ and ‘look’ of colours, the ‘feel’ and ‘flavour’ of musical sounds in all their infinite variety, the felt texture of objects, the rich (but literally indescribable) tastes and odours of things. Qualia are the raw sensory material of conscious experience, they are what we feel and how we feel it. Though they are the way all our experiences come to us, they are incommunicable to others, for the reason that we have no means of transmitting these ‘feels’, these ‘experiences’, directly from one brain to another. Talking about them is quite inadequate. For instance, how do you describe the goldengreen of a James Grieve apple2, or its individual flavour? You can appeal only to other people’s similar experiences — provided they have had such. If we haven’t had the experience of a particular quale, then we cannot imagine it. Even Wittgenstein recognises this, and says as much (apropos of the smell of coffee).3
Now how does this happen? By what unknown process does the electrochemical message conveying “Sense this as RED!” make whatever unknown entity that does that kind of feeling actually sense it? WHAT does it do to WHAT so as to make WHAT experience the sensation RED ? The answer is that none of these WHATS can be found in the brain, and the whole business of experiencing a quale is completely mysterious. As indeed is the whole business of experiencing anything at all. Experience itself is the great mystery.
There is thus an absolute gulf between the electrochemical message and the subjective experience of RED (or COOL or WET or ANGRY or any other sensation). The experiential side of the process is completely invisible to the scientist. It’s as if, once something passes from the world of physical process over the threshold of consciousness, physical instruments fall silent, cease to operate.
Now there are about ten different senses (sight, hearing, taste, smell, touch; heat & cold, pain, proprioception, muscle sense …) Every one is completely different in its suchness from any of the others. Yet the physical processes in the brain are all of a kind4 – so (1) not only can we not tell how any sensation arises into consciousness, but we have the further problem: (2) how do you get ten different kinds of sensation, each more different than chalk from cheese, out of one same type physical process? And in fact they are more different than that; they are as different as the taste of cheese from the squeak of chalk on a blackboard. This is David Chalmers’ famous Hard Problem, much discussed in contemporary philosophy.
Now all this is most encouraging. Materialists will put their head in their hands and weep — or rather they’ll call up a team of philosophers and get them to change the goalposts. But this gives us hope. Maybe consciousness is not a material product, not in the last resort subject to the brain, but a spiritual reality.
Since materialists claim that, fundamentally, there is nothing but matter, they have to claim that consciousness wasn’t there at the start of the Universe. They are obliged to claim that it evolved – out of absolute unconsciousness – like a hole in the ground magically turning into a symphony, like something emerging from its own negation.
Here we’ll have to ask what “Matter” is. The man-in-the-street usually claims to ‘know by experience what matter is’. Dr Johnson famously thought he could show what it is, by kicking a stone. On investigation, however, we find that this ‘knowledge’ is no more than how his senses present the outside world to him, namely as hard, painful, resistant, coloured, noisy, cold, etc. Thus matter is merely the way mind perceives its surroundings, i.e. matter is appearance. This is exactly how Indian philosophy has always seen it. The quantum physicist Nick Herbert says we’re like King Midas. Everything he touched turned into gold – including his food, so he would have starved to death had the god Dionysos not taken pity on him. Herbert says we ‘can’t directly experience the true texture of reality because everything we touch turns to matter.’5 (Midas would have died of gold. We die of matter.)
The physicist on the other hand does not claim to ‘know what matter is’. Whatever it is, however, it provides calculations and pointer readings, i.e. it is that aspect of appearance which can be quantified, reduced to measurements, and thereby manipulated.
The ‘true nature’ of matter is absent from both these views, nor is it possible to ascertain what that ‘true nature’ might be. For the philosopher Berkeley, there are only two fundamental elements in nature: percipere (what perceives and cannot by its nature be perceived) and percipi (what is perceived and cannot by its nature perceive). We may term these Reverse or Polar Twins, for each is the complementary opposite of the other. Contemplating these ‘twins’, one is reminded of the YinYang symbol.
Materialists (which might be thought surprising considering their dislike of Berkeley) entirely agree with this definition. That is, they define unconscious matter (to them the only sort of substance that exists) as ‘that which is perceived and cannot by its nature perceive.’
They deny the reality of consciousness, and believe that unconscious matter is all there is: yet they seek to derive the former from the latter. They thus face the challenge: ‘How are unconscious molecules to begin to have conscious experience?’ There are innumerable accounts by reductionists explaining in small detail exactly how it’s done – and none of them makes sense.
To take one typical example, Nicholas Humphrey6 assumes that (at the outset of evolutionary history) animals are completely unconscious. They evolve consciousness. How? As they evolve, their senses respond with increasing sensitivity to stimuli (for sensitivity promotes survival.) This sensitivity (as yet completely mechanical & unconscious) increases until (hey presto!) the animal becomes conscious of this sensitivity. Has Humphrey triumphantly proved his case?
Certainly not. It’s based on the most barefaced of fallacies. First of all Humphrey uses the word ‘sensation’ to mean ‘a delicate, but mechanical and unconscious reaction.’ He can’t claim these initial processes are conscious, because he has to start with the nonconscious so as to show how the conscious emerged from it. Then he pretends that sensation1 (meaning ‘it reacts but doesn’t feel’) spontaneously transforms itself into sensation2 (meaning ‘it reacts and does feel’). This is Marvo-the-Magician stuff. He’s introducing consciousness into his account surreptitiously, in the manner of a conjuror concealing a white rabbit up his sleeve.. Every account of consciousness emerging from nothingness proposes the same conjuring trick. Anyone who takes this seriously is deeply confused.
Consciousness therefore remains a mystery. (1) It cannot be seen how neurochemical stimuli turn into conscious experience. (2) It cannot be understood how they do so. (3) It cannot be explained how conscious experience might evolve out of unconscious matter. (4) The elements of conscious experience, e.g. the overwhelmingly real qualia, seem beyond scientific explanation. (5) Consciousness can’t be found in the brain.
Now this is after a century or more of research and argument by materialists, in the course of which for 70 years or so psychology departments forbade all mention of consciousness. I would suggest it seems less and less probable that one might explain consciousness by materialist principles. We are at liberty to think that (1) consciousness did not develop from unconscious matter, in which case (2) it must be at least as fundamental as matter — that (3) it is not a product of brain activity, that (4) it is not material (according to current definitions), (5) that it is not in the brain. All this is not 100% proven (what ever is?), but I think probability is on our side. The brain is not the mind after all –it’s the computer that the mind uses.
If, however, it is inconceivable how matter could produce mind, can mind produce matter? Yes, for the simple reason that mind has an imagination, and matter has none. Certainly this is much more thinkable, as the evidence of dreams, hallucinations such as the Charles Bonnet syndrome, placebo phenomena, etc. shows. The human mind can produce convincing simulacra of reality, and we should recall that in Indian philosophy, the fundamental metaphysical division is not drawn between ‘mind’ and ‘matter’, but between ‘consciousness’ and ‘appearance’. We have not created Matter, of course, but it is perfectly thinkable that the Universal Mind did so at the beginning of our Universe.
Now if consciousness is not in the brain, where is it? It is hardly surprising that we do not know. I provide, however, four contemporary speculations as to its possible whereabouts (those of JE. Charon, John R. Smythies, Ervin Laszlo and Peter Marcer).
Opponents will of course bitterly contest all such ideas. Frank Jackson for instance writes:
[Why do I] not follow the lead of those who locate mental objects in a special private space? To me this is like saying ‘I find it mysterious that mental objects are in normal space, so I will locate them in mysterious space.’7
It is nonsense on Jackson’s part to claim that mental objects are in normal space. It is evident that they are either not in normal space or not in space at all. Nor is mental space any more ‘mysterious’ than so called ‘normal’ space, which, as Kant showed two centuries ago, is a category of our perceptions and understanding, and cannot be shown to be anything more.
My provisional conclusion is: consciousness is real, is nonmaterial, and is perhaps a fundamental element of the Universe.
How fundamental? Does the Universe not merely contain consciousness, but was it also created by consciousness? Take the calculation by Roger Penrose. The U is constructed out of all the forces in physics. If one is to produce a universe which contains life of our sort, then – at the point of its creation — all the forces of physics need to be very precisely fine tuned. So fine is the tuning that the odds against a universe with life in it are enormous. For these odds are one against a figure so large that, taking all the elementary particles existing in the Universe, and writing one digit on each particle, there are not enough of them to write the figure out in full.8 I take it this makes the argument for an intelligent creator rather likely.
The usual way to avoid the evident conclusion that the Universe came into being through intelligent design, is to adopt the Many Worlds interpretation of Quantum Physics. This interpretation is exceedingly popular, but suffers from several problems. For instance (1) it tells us that, every time a quantum superposition collapses into reality, all the alternative possibilities happen – in different universes. But events are happening continually. Thus, the Universe is splitting into myriad copies of itself at every instant. Has this been going on since the moment of creation? How many Universes are we expected to believe in? Is this hypothesis not an absurdity? Besides (2) Occam’s Razor declares that one should not introduce additional entities beyond the necessary minimum. We may easily rewrite this as “Do not introduce additional Universes beyond the necessary minimum.” Moreover each Universe necessarily contains many additional entities. One may raise further objections, but these will do to be getting on with.
Then there is the question of the evolution of life. When I set about researching this book, I discovered to my amazement that orthodox neoDarwinism is simply very unlikely. At this point I was somewhat alarmed. For here we reach the great Shibboleth, the point where most educated people stop listening. I must therefore utter two warnings. First, of course the world is four and a half billion years old, and its denizens were not created ex nihilo by Yahveh in 4004 BC. Secondly, of course evolution occurs. However, (pace any blasphemy against the conventional wisdom) it is easy to be convinced that evolution is not a total explanation.
For orthodox neoDarwinism denies purpose: evolution operates by pure chance and mindless causality. But let us read Paul Davies in The New Scientist,9. He mentions calculations made by Seth Lloyd of MIT: treating the Universe as a computer, how many ‘bits’ could it process throughout its known duration? His answer is 10120. He then calculates that pure accident cannot account for ‘a typical small protein ... made up of about 100 amino acids of 20 varieties,’ since merely the number of possible combinations is about 10200. And that’s just one small protein. There are thousands. How did they all evolve together, during the same period of time, against such enormous odds?
Some years ago the astronomer Fred Hoyle tried to calculate the likelihood of creating the set of enzymes (there are about 2,000) needed for the duplication of one simple bacterium. (There are about 100,000 in complex creatures like ourselves.) He came up with the figure of 1 in 1040,000(= 1 followed by 40,000 zeros). Hoyle says that this compares to the likelihood that ‘a tornado sweeping through a junkyard might assemble a Boeing 747 from the materials therein.’10 We are again dealing with figures which exceed by many magnitudes the total number of fundamental particles in the entire observable Universe. Surely there must be some process other than chance driving the processes of life.
What could this purposive alternative consist in? It must be admitted that these gaps in evolutionary theory allow room for a god or gods. Or should we, in the mists of our present ignorance, favour Rupert Sheldrake’s morphic resonance – his hypothetical 'field' controlling the forms of life – or look for some as yet undreamed of new theory? At the very least, neoDarwinism contains a yawning chasm at its heart.
One reads philosophers saying ‘I know of no evidence for a divine power.’ On the contrary, there is plenty of evidence, namely the experience of the mystics, who report very similar experiences, no matter in what epoch they may live, no matter to what religion they belong, or indeed regardless of any religious faith. Mystical experience provides an assurance that there is indeed a divine intelligence because — despite vast differences in dogma and imagery between different religions – there is astonishing agreement between the mystics, i.e. their reports conform to the rules for good evidence.
What should we conclude? If consciousness had been found in the brain — IF it could be put together artificially — IF qualia were explicable physically – or even appeared to be part of the physical universe – IF free will could be explained away (i.e. IF consciousness had no causal effects) — IF the creation of the Universe could be said to be a mere chance — and IF neoDarwinism could explain all the problems about life – THEN it might be more difficult to believe in the spirit. On the contrary, however, I believe we have the better of the argument, there being far too many things that materialism is by its nature inadequate to explain. People should stop taking physicalism so seriously. The weight of evidence favours the reality of the soul, and a deliberately created Universe.
The philosopher Jaegwon Kim writes: ‘It is not obvious how positing immaterial souls helps us with our problems.’11On the contrary, it’s easy to see how it assuages everyone’s most serious problem. It puts purpose back into the Universe, and meaning back into life.
1 Donald Hebb, quoted in Martin 1981, p172
2 In the philosophical ‘literature’ it’s always the Granny Smith they talk about. Let’s use a less familiar apple!
3 Wittgenstein p 610.
4 Dawkins says so most distinctly, quoted by me, p65.
5 Herbert 1985,p194.
7 Quoted bySmythies 1993, p225.
8 Penrose,p 3424.
9 5 March 2005,pp 3437.
10 Hoyle 1996,pp 133,156.
Charon, Jean Emile (1977) La Relativité Complexe, Albin Michel.
Dawkins, Richard (1991) The Blind Watchmaker, Penguin.
Green, Celia & Charles McCreery (1975) Apparitions, Hamish Hamilton.
Hoyle, Fred & N.C.Wickramasinghe (1996) Our Place in the Cosmos, Orion.
Humphrey, Nicholas (2000) ‘How to Solve the Mind-Body Problem’, J. of Consciousness Studies 7, 520, 98.
Kim, Jaegwon (2006) Philosophy of Mind, 2nd ed., Westview.
Laszlo, Ervin (1993) The Creative Cosmos, Floris.
Martin, Graham Dunstan (1981) The Architecture of Experience, Edinburgh U P.
Penrose, Roger (1989) The Emperor’s New Mind, OUP.
Smythies, John R. (1993) ‘The Impact of Contemporary Neuroscience …’ in Edmond Wright New Representationalisms, Ashgate.
Wittgenstein, Ludwig (1967) Philosophical Investigations, Blackwell.