The Norfolk and Norwich Christian community website

Thinking that goes outside of the box

A large number of scientists and philosophers are currently writing about consciousness, in ways that attempt to undermine religious experience. Norwich Christian magistrate and Quaker John Myhill joins in with the debate and asks other Christians to join him.

Oversimplifying Consciousness

Reductionists have a strong desire to reduce consciousness to a place (the amygdale, the mind, the network of neurons, the chemistry of the brain etc); whilst some philosophers wish to limit consciousness to a level of awareness: feeling and responding to pain; or reflecting on feeling, or developing a rational language for describing those reflections, or being able to reject and change that language, or even seeing that rejection from a point outside of one’s personal experience.
Place: If I see a tree, the visual image will be recorded in my brain.  This will involve various electrical impulses across synapses, dependent on bio-chemicals between.  Without these activities, we could not become conscious of the tree.  But these reactions do not see the tree anymore than the eye sees the tree.  They are necessary but not sufficient to consciousness. However, the electro-chemical discharges can enable us to see the tree later, when we are asleep, without the action of the eye or the presence of the tree.
The question is: where does the stimulus come from to make the subconscious mind produce that image?  Similarly, when I have a conscious thought (whether resulting from a piece of rational logic, or a complex sum; or an idea coming into my mind during silent meditation) electro-chemical reactions take place in the brain.
I would argue that the changes in the brain do not produce the thought, but simply record it, as when they record the image of the tree, or as I type these words into the computer.
In evolutionary terms, this is because humans have the ability to get sums wrong, unlike this computer, so that we can produce a rational argument that breaks the rules, we can pluck thoughts from nowhere, just as our dreams can create trees that could never exist.
It is because the brain is organic, not a binary manufactured machine, that it is able to make mistakes. Mistakes are the essential ingredient of chaos and evolution and they are dependent on complexity.  If that complexity could be simplified as the reductionists suggest, then it would be possible to reproduce consciousness in a vat.  It is not possible.
Level:  It is clear to me that consciousness needs to be distinguished from the belief that one is conscious.  Clearly we can dream that we are conscious, or be hypnotised to believe that we are conscious.
Solitary confinement, torture and other abuses can make us hear voices, which we falsely accept as conscious experiences.  Imprisonment may also lead us to side with the class of lawbreakers – to develop a consciousness of belonging to a class.  Alternatively  we may be conscious of punishment as a form of deserved suffering, and thus feel a release from tension, stress, fear and waiting; so that we cease to hear voices, thus escaping false consciousness.
Or again forgiveness, compassion and reconciliation may dispose of guilt and liberate us from false consciousness: whilst cognitive behaviour therapy, by controlling and limiting random thoughts, may distract us from behaving normally and thus limit consciousness.
Drugs (prescribed and illegal), can give the illusion that the mind is moving faster, can remove inhibitions; and when suddenly withdrawn can produce all the illusions referred to above.
BrainInBoxWhenever we reduce complexity, we become more like binary systems (computers, ying&yang, good and evil) and the universe appears a bleak place.  But what we experience, what we are conscious of, is complexity: lack of black and white, unable to establish cause and effect; able to enjoy diversity of arts and creation without saying “this is good, that is bad”.  When we are young, we make lists of our favourites, of things we like.  As we grow, we discover complexity and refuse simplistic solutions.
Consciousness is the ability to have thoughts which change brain patterns.  Thus we are able to do new and different things for which we have not been programmed. The false consciousness may appear to operate in exactly the same way, and yet we do not want to accept it as “our” ability.    This is because we want to restrict consciousness to our “true selves”.
We associate the “good” with what we are good at, with our true self. Thus Robin Hood was a “good thief”, as is a whistle blower, or someone who stole Hitler’s secrets.  In contrast a “bad thief” is one who fails to exercise conscious control over his behaviour.  A head of state may cause many deaths, and yet be given a state funeral, because he is not regarded as a “bad murderer”.
The better you are at something (the more true to yourself) the more other people will seem incompetent, useless, and even dangerous, at that activity. For example, great composers have complained about contemporary musicians, great surgeons have been horrified by the failings of others.  In contrast, good teachers have often had to struggle to learn things themselves.
Most of life fails to provide most people with an opportunity to do what they are best at.  Overloaded with the tedious, laborious, time-consuming and mundane we feel overwhelmed by false consciousness.  These tasks have been likened to an addiction, in that it is said that you must sink into despair, before you can make a new start, when you will avoid that activity altogether (eg Buddhism and Alcoholics Anonymous).
Others would say that there is no such thing as a pointless (false) activity: that good log chopping is as valuable as good composing.  We have diverse skills.  It is not false consciousness which prevents you from doing what you are good at, but lack of any consciousness at all.
We are conscious when we are aware, involved, not programmed.  If that is “false consciousness” (unconsciousness, sub-consciousness, induced or illusory consciousness) it makes no difference, for it is still capable of taking us away from a system that has been imposed upon us by:  logic, culture, authority.  Post-Modern reliance on Existentialism meant that people could not blame their genes, or the devil. This is threatened by scientists, who wish to reduce consciousness to something simple, to rule out emotions, intuition, empathy and error; and re-programme us to fit their systems.  Consciousness is valued because it is a symptom of our capacity to change, to resist socialisation and genetics. 
In this way, I would say that problem-solving is a side effect of human ability to convert chaotic errors in the brain into new effective behaviours.  Similarly observation is a side-effect of the sense of beauty that is produced by the complexity of brain reactions.  In fact, love itself is produced by the brain errors I call consciousness.  It is this which enables us to be social animals in a more complex (and thus more effective) way than bees and ants, which are limited to programmed behaviours.
Rational dissection, of what it is to be conscious, will always be in danger of limiting the expression of consciousness.  Whereas consciousness inevitably includes all the processes of rationality: thinking, getting behind the surface, seeking universals, comparing resemblances, analysing cause and effect.  Knowing depends on consciousness, so its methods cannot be used to reduce consciousness to a subject of study. 
At the start of John’s Gospel, consciousness and the Word (Logos) are one unity.  Logic that attempts to separate them, will fail, because the function of logic is to bring relationships together, to “gather” experience and shut out preconceptions.

The views carried here are those of the author, not of Network Norwich and Norfolk, and are intended to stimulate constructive debate between website users. We welcome your thoughts and comments, posted below, upon the ideas expressed here.  

Meanwhile, if you want to find out more about Christianity, visit: www.rejesus.co.uk


To submit a story or to publicise an event please email: web@networknorwich.co.uk