Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Mind vs. Matter

We’ve been talking lately about the Apostle Paul’s contention that Creation reveals the existence of God. In my previous post I argued that the existence of the universe and the existence of life are both good reasons to believe in God. Now I want to talk about another reason to believe in God that I find even more compelling, although it is much more subtle and easy to miss. This evidence can be seen by looking inward: the fact that I exist as a thinking, feeling, volitional and self-aware being. To paraphrase Descartes, “I think, therefore God is.” Cogito, ergo Deus est.

I mentioned earlier that we are so steeped in the secular scientific worldview we can look right at the evidence and not see it. But scientific naturalism, the philosophy of secular science, has a huge problem. It requires us to suppose that all our thoughts, ideas, feelings and choices are just an illusion. What’s real is the intricate arrangement of molecules in my brain interacting in complex, but purely deterministic ways. You and I, as individuals, don’t really exist. The life of mind is an illusion. We are nothing but chemistry. A temporary pattern of atoms that evolves and persists for a few years, then dissipates.

If you grew up going to public school, or watching PBS and Discovery Channel, or reading National Geographic, you’re probably saying right now, “So what?” You’re so used to this worldview being stated as fact that you can’t see what a breathtaking leap beyond the evidence it is. But stop and think about this for a moment. The most real, persistent, and intimate experience of reality I have is my own thoughts and feelings. When I talk about “I” it is not usually my protoplasm I’m referring to; it’s my mind. I experience this inner self in a different way than I experience anyone or anything else in the world. Everything else I experience through my senses as they respond to physical stimuli. But my mind is something different altogether. It is self-aware. It seems, at least, to have an independent existence apart from neural substrate that supports it.

Neural scientists are excited today because they feel they are finally beginning to “unlock the secrets of the mind” – to gain some insight into how physical brain function relates to mental processes. But just because a certain part of your brain lights up when you experience anger doesn’t give me any insight into what anger is. Even if I knew every tiny detail of what happens electrochemically inside your skull when you get angry, it would tell me nothing about how you feel. I only understand what anger is because I experience it myself in my own mind. It may correlate with certain brain activity. You may even be able to provoke me to anger by stimulating a certain part of my brain. But I believe it is a category mistake to talk about this mental feeling we call anger as being equivalent to the physical processes of the brain.

In a similar way, we all know what it is like to make a decision. We make decisions almost continuously every day. But the scientific naturalist must insist that my sense of free will is an illusion. Consider also our sense of right and wrong. If I am nothing but a deterministic physical system, then morality is just another illusion. The physical laws that govern the biochemical processes of my body are deterministic. There is nothing intrinsically different in applying those laws to my brain chemistry compared to a high school chemistry experiment.

What I am trying to help you understand is how utterly counterintuitive it is to suggest that our thoughts, our feelings, and our choices are an illusion. Some would argue that our intuition is simply wrong. It is true, of course, that science has discovered many counterintuitive theories, such as relativity and quantum mechanics. It’s easy to see how our intuition can be wrong when it comes to physical realms far outside our experience. When it comes to a theory of mind, however, we are all intimately familiar with the data.

But this theory is not just counterintuitive, it is illogical as well. It’s fine for me to contemplate the possibility that your mind is an illusion. But it is self-refuting for me to contemplate the idea that my own mind is an illusion. The problem is that we have been so completely indoctrinated into scientific naturalism that we fail to see the contradiction.

How does this relate to the existence of God? The connection is this: physical processes can only give rise to other physical processes. But my mind is a different type of thing, and it must arise from something different than a physical process. The source of my existence is a personal Creator God, who made me in his image as a thinking, feeling, self-aware and morally responsible being.


Anonymous said...

"Cogito, ergo Deus est" is not a paraphrase of Descartes, but a phrase of St. Augustin

Bill Hensley said...

Others have also told me that since I wrote this piece, however, I cannot find the quote. Do you know where Augustine wrote this? I would love to read what he said.