Friday, March 4, 2011

The Camel's Nose

One of the major problems in philosophy, particularly for those of a materialist disposition, is what is called the "hard problem" of consciousness, i.e. how do the material structures of the brain translate physical stimuli into an immaterial sensation (a quale). What, in fact, is a "sensation" anyway? How, for example, does the experience we call "sweet" arise from the interaction of sugar molecules with sensory neurons?

The materialist assumption has been that since the brain is a physical structure, and since everything that happens in the brain can be explained in terms of chemistry, conscious experience must be ultimately explicable in terms of chemical reactions in the cells of the brain. Unfortunately, for materialism this assumption just doesn't seem to be supported by the science.

In a lengthy review of a pair of books on the subject, neuroscientist Raymond Tallis explains why. Here's an appetizer for those who may be interested in the subject:
The republic of letters is in thrall to an unprecedented scientism. The word is out that human consciousness - from the most elementary tingle of sensation to the most sophisticated sense of self - is identical with neural activity in the human brain and that this extraordinary metaphysical discovery is underpinned by the latest findings in neuroscience. Given that the brain is an evolved organ, and, as the evolutionary biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky said, nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution, the neural explanation of human consciousness demands a Darwinian interpretation of our behaviour. The differences between human life in the library or the operating theatre and animal life in the jungle or the savannah are more apparent than real: at the most, matters of degree rather than kind.

These beliefs are based on elementary errors. Just because neural activity is a necessary condition of consciousness, it does not follow that it is a sufficient condition of consciousness, still less that it is identical with it. And Darwinising human life confuses the organism Homo sapiens with the human person, biological roots with cultural leaves. Nevertheless, the coupling of neuromania and Darwinitis has given birth to emerging disciplines based on neuro-evolutionary approaches to human psychology, economics, social science, literary criticism, aesthetics, theology and the law.

These pseudo-disciplines are flourishing in academe and are covered extensively in the popular press, in articles usually accompanied by a brain scan (described by the writer Matt Crawford as a "fast-acting solvent of critical faculties"). Only last month, David Brooks asserted in the New Yorker that "brain science helps fill the hole left by the atrophy of theology and philosophy".
If one is wedded to the belief that the physical is all there is then, of course, the phenomena we associate with consciousness just have to be ultimately reducible to chemical processes, but what if they're not? That would imply that there's more to reality than just material "stuff", and that would be very unsettling to those who have invested their entire professional careers in trying to provide justification for a materialist or naturalistic worldview.

If there really are immaterial entities like minds which somehow interact with brains in producing the effects of consciousness then what else might there be lurking about "out there"? Immaterial mind is the nose of the supernatural camel pushing its way into the tent of naturalism. It's a very unwelcome camel, and it'll do a lot of damage to the furniture once it gets in.

Surprising Numbers

George Weigel of the Ethics and Public Policy Center summarizes a recent report from the International Bulletin of Missionary Research which has published their annual "Status of Global Mission". The report, says Weigel, is unfailingly interesting, sometimes jarring, and occasionally provocative:
The provocation in the 2011 report involves martyrdom. For purposes of research, the report defines "martyrs" as "believers in Christ who have lost their lives, prematurely, in situations of witness, as a result of human hostility." The report estimates that there were, on average, 270 new Christian martyrs every twenty-four hours over the past decade, such that "the number of martyrs [in the period 2000-2010] was approximately one million." Compare this to an estimated 34,000 Christian martyrs in 1900.

As for the interesting, try the aggregate numbers. According to the report, there will be, by mid-2011, 2,306,609,000 Christians of all kinds in the world, representing 33% of world population -- a slight percentage rise from mid-2000 (32.7%), but a slight percentage drop since 1900 (34.5%). Of those 2.3 billion Christians, some 1.5 billion are regular church attenders, who worship in 5,171,000 congregations or "worship centers," up from 400,000 in 1900 and 3.5 million in 2000.

Compared to the world's 2.3 billion Christians, there are 1.6 billion Muslims, 951 million Hindus, 468 million Buddhists, 458 million Chinese folk-religionists, and 137 million atheists, whose numbers have actually dropped over the past decade, despite the caterwauling of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Co. One cluster of comparative growth statistics is striking: as of mid-2011, there will be an average of 80,000 new Christians per day (of whom 31,000 will be Catholics) and 79,000 new Muslims per day, but 300 fewer atheists every twenty-four hours.
This is indeed interesting. We're often led to believe that atheism is growing, and perhaps it is in America and Europe, but, on the other hand, perhaps those reports of an ascendent atheism are overblown. I wouldn't be surprised. Atheism offers its adherents little more than a hopeless, empty life with no ultimate explanation for the universe, no ground for moral conviction, and no basis for human worth, dignity, or rights. Nothing but the prospect of meaningless life followed by eternal annihilation. Little wonder their numbers are declining.

We're also sometimes given to believe that Islam is burgeoning and will swamp the world in terms of sheer numbers before too long, but if this report is accurate Islam is actually losing ground vis a vis Christianity.

Weigel offers much more detail at the link and readers interested in this report should check it out. He closes with this:
The Big Lesson of the 2011 Status of Global Mission report can be borrowed from Mark Twain's famous crack about his alleged death: Reports of Christianity's demise have been greatly exaggerated. Christianity may be waning in western Europe, but it's on an impressive growth curve in other parts of the world, including that toughest of regions for Christian evangelism, Asia. Indeed, the continuing growth of Christianity as compared to the decline of atheism (in absolute numbers, and considering atheists as a percentage of total world population) suggests the possibility that the vitriolic character of the New Atheism -- displayed in all its crudity prior to Pope Benedict's September 2010 visit to Great Britain -- may have something to do with the shrewder atheists' fear that they're losing, and the clock is running.
All this may be true on a global scale, but it's hard to escape the feeling that here in the United States the trends are less hopeful. Much of the growth of Christianity, at least a Christianity more muscular than the nominal nebulosity of much mainstream religion in America, is occurring in the third world. Perhaps we'll soon be receiving their missionaries here, coming to convert the heathen. Wouldn't that be ironic?