Scientists are reasonably confident that they can describe and study and explain the biological stuff you’re walking around in. The you part–the self that feels like it inhabits or animates that body and looks out at the world from it–that part is where things get a lot trickier. There were a couple of items circulating this week on the topic of self: an editorial on whether self is an illusion, and a discussion of the proposal that consciousness is a state of matter (named perceptronium, presumably by James Cameron). The second piece conveniently summarizes what we currently know for sure on these deep and fundamental topics: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Personally, I think the self can be real even if it is complicated; life is equally hard to define but the state of living is still useful to distinguish from alternatives. Still, since definitive answers about self and consciousness are in short supply, what interested me most is that the questions are something of a Rorschach test. Want to believe self is an illusion? Scrub with a generous dollop of reductionism and watch the whole thing disappear. Want to believe computers and ant colonies and maybe the universe itself are all conscious? Find a definition abstract enough, throw in some optimism about technological progress and you’re off to the races. Want to believe consciousness is the pinnacle of human exceptionalism? No other species have iPhones or blogs about what consciousness is, do they?
For obvious reasons, I was most interested in the different conclusions about religion that people drew from these pieces. When science doesn’t have definite answers or explanations, some see an opening to suggest that’s because God is the only or best explanation. I’m certainly sympathetic to that impulse, since I believe God is causally involved. Given that belief, I certainly can’t rule out the possibility that we will never be able to understand consciousness as anything other than a function of an immaterial soul given to us by that God. At the same time, it feels odd to celebrate the unique creative power of human intelligence in order to say what it will never be able to accomplish.
How do you handle the unknown in your field?
About the author:
Andy has worn many hats in his life. He knows this is a dreadfully clichéd notion, but since it is also literally true he uses it anyway. Among his current metaphorical hats: husband of one wife, father of two teenagers, reader of science fiction and science fact, enthusiast of contemporary symphonic music, and chief science officer. Previous metaphorical hats include: comp bio postdoc, molecular biology grad student, InterVarsity chapter president (that one came with a literal hat), music store clerk, house painter, and mosquito trapper. Among his more unique literal hats: British bobby, captain's hats (of varying levels of authenticity) of several specific vessels, a deerstalker from 221B Baker St, and a railroad engineer's cap. His monthly Science in Review is drawn from his weekly Science Corner posts -- Wednesdays, 8am (Eastern) on the Emerging Scholars Network Blog. His book Faith across the Multiverse is available from Hendrickson.