The Problem of Consciousness

Philosophers and brain researchers have had many brain and mind questions elude them. For example, why is it that when we hear a song, we perceive a melody, and not a series of individual tones? We don’t hear 1000 hz, followed by 2700 hz, then 1800 hz, etc. Instead, we hear a tune. Further, why is there a subjective experience in our perceptions? Why does one person experience a song one way, and another person a different way? When we hear a song, is the event going on nothing more than a series of chemicals in the brain reacting to sound frequencies, or is there something more, such as a unified experience that can be qualified as better or worse?

Here’s another way to try to explain the problem. John Searle devised an illustration that has come to be known as The Chinese Room. Here is Searle’s summary of the illustration:

Imagine a native English speaker who knows no Chinese locked in a room full of boxes of Chinese symbols (a data base) together with a book of instructions for manipulating the symbols (the program). Imagine that people outside the room send in other Chinese symbols which, unknown to the person in the room, are questions in Chinese (the input). And imagine that by following the instructions in the program the man in the room is able to pass out Chinese symbols which are correct answers to the questions (the output). The program enables the person in the room to pass the Turing Test for understanding Chinese but he does not understand a word of Chinese.

In the Chinese Room, Searle seems to demonstrate to us that thinking and experiencing is more than mere mental processing. A computer can translate language, several online translators show that. But the computer doesn’t really understand, does not have consciousness, does not think of itself as an “I.” The person in the Chinese Room can match symbols and correctly follow the rules, but have no idea of whether the symbols are Chinese or Martian, or know whether he is answering questions about cooking or car repair. The person is correctly answering the questions, but doesn’t really understand the meaning. Our universal experience of thinking tells us that there is something more to answering questions than merely following programming rules. A computer can follow programming rules, but it’s not thinking in a human sense of the term. A supercomputer does not truly have self-consciousness, does not think of itself as an “I.”

Searle’s Chinese Room created a great deal of controversy. But with this simple illustration, he appears to have effectively disproved the view of the brain as being only matter and energy. Searle was only trying to disprove the view of the brain as being a fancy computer, while trying to maintain a purely material universe — which are code words for ‘leaving God out of the picture.’

Those who believe that only natural processes exist try to find ways of explaining the problem of consciousness as a result of pure chemical and biological action, totally explained by laws of chemistry & energy without God or a human soul. Those of us who are theists try to show that it’s the result of being made in God’s image. Admittedly, neither side has hard proof from pure observation. But simple illustrations like the Chinese Room seem to have effectively disproved the popular notion that humans are nothing but matter and energy, nothing but a fancy biological computer. Philosophers knew this for some time, having wrestled with the issue of how matter could become self-aware all by itself. It cannot.

The problem of consciousness does not prove God exists, but provides an extremely strong argument against atheism. I agree with what is taught in the scriptures:  We are fearfully and wonderfully made.


About humblesmith

Christian Apologist & Philosopher
This entry was posted in Apologetics, Atheism, Philosophy. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Problem of Consciousness

  1. David P. says:

    Since this is “Thomistic Bent,” after all, it ought to be noted that there’s a difference between the problem of consciousness and, as we might call it, the problem of the intellect. For Aquinas, consciousness – our subjective experience of the world – can in fact be fully explained in physical terms. And this can be true for Aquinas because he doesn’t accept a reductionist view of “matter” to which most modern philosophers subscribe; matter is already shot through with form and thus it is already something other than bare matter. (Hence the “mind-body” problem is simply a fiction created by those who make matter into something barely physical and the mind into something totally immaterial; in the order of being, both are inextricably interlinked.) On the other hand, what for him cannot be explained wholly physically is the operation of the intellect – which knows and judges, rather than simply experiences. So the real problem for those who would wish to deny the reality of a supernatural component to man is not consciousness, but intellect.

    • humblesmith says:

      This distinction is correct, as far as I can tell. Soul and body are together, in that form and matter make up the thing. Thomas does indeed spend a fair amount of ink explaining intellect, and I don’t recall him mentioning consciousness at all, unless it is somehow assumed as a power of the soul. But you say he would fully explain consciousness in physical terms? This could be only in the sense of the soul/body unity, I would think. I believe Thomas does teach a form/matter unity, in the Aristotelian tradition, with the soul being the form of the person. But he still makes distinctions in this unity, with the soul empowering the body. (All this is not regarding the temporary separation of soul & body at death.) We can make distinctions in things even though we cannot actually separate them. One of Thomas’ illustrations is a gray, hard stone. We can distinguish the gray and the hard, even though we cannot separate them.

      I’m still studying to figure out exactly how far Thomas’ meaning goes when he uses the term intellect, and whether it contains the same sense as we would use it today, or if he used it in a wider sense. If I figure that out, I’ll know more of the implications of Thomas’ point that humans are an agent intellect. I suspect the agent intellect to be a basis for much theology, such as free will & sovereignty.

      All that aside, I think we are both correct in the apologetic point that reductionist materialism cannot explain humans. Keep up the dialog, this is fun.

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