Hi Max, thank you for taking the time to address our questions. We have been grappling with the mind-brain problem and consciousness in our discussions and it appears to be a difficult one to fully comprehend. Yet, there is a sense that it can be a useful apologetic tool if we can frame the argument appropriately. I was wondering if you could share with us your thoughts on this and whether we can use it effectively in our discussions, particularly with naturalists. Thank you.
Thanks for your question! Yes I agree that the mind-body problem can be a useful apologetic tool if used carefully.
Philosophers who specialise in this topic will often talk about “the hard problem of consciousness”, which is basically the problem of how we could ever hope to explain mental events (for instance, the sensation of having a headache or the experience of tasting honey) in terms of merely physical events (such as the firing of neutrons in the brain). Intuitively, the experience of tasting honey is just a completely different kind of thing from the physical event of neutrons firing in the brain.
There’s a famous philosophical thought experiment which was devised by a philosopher called Frank Jackson, which is meant to show that subjective conscious experience cannot be a physical thing. Here’s how it goes: Mary is a scientist who has learnt everything there is to know about the physical processes involved in seeing red–she knows all about how light is transmitted, and all about the electromagnetic spectrum, and she also knows everything there is to know about what happens when red light hits the retina and is encoded into nerve impulses and sent down the optic nerve and into the visual cortex in the brain. In short, she knows absolutely every single fact there is to know about the physical processes that are involved when a person sees red. But Mary has lived her entire life in a room containing only black and white objects; she has never had the experience for herself of seeing red. It seems, then, that there is something about seeing red that Mary doesn’t know. But then, for the very first time in her life, Mary sees a red object. Intuitively, it seems that Mary has learned something new. But she already knew absolutely all of the physical facts about what’s involved in seeing red. Therefore, the thing Mary learns – namely, what it’s like to experience seeing red – is not a physical thing.
Many philosophers agree that this sort of thought experiment shows that subjective conscious experience is not a physical thing, however closely conscious experience may be correlated with physical events (e.g…, particular kinds of experience such as tasting honey always occurring in tandem with particular patterns of brain activity). This is fascinating, because despite what you might have expected, many philosophers, including many who are not theists, accept that conscious experience is a non-physical phenomenon. The interesting question, of course, is which worldview best accommodates the existence of non-physical conscious experience as a real phenomenon. Intuitively, it doesn’t fit comfortably into a naturalistic worldview, and in fact, the most thoroughgoing naturalists recognize this, and so are driven to claim that there isn’t actually any such thing as conscious experience!!! Daniel Dennett is an example of one such philosopher. To my mind, this absurd position of denying the reality of conscious experience on the grounds that it can’t be fitted into a physicalist view of the world is rather like putting on a pair of goggles that only allows in green light and then claiming that unless something is green it isn’t real at all!
This is one of those bizarre philosophical positions that no one is actually able to genuinely believe in, whatever they may say. Daniel Dennett, like the rest of us, presumably goes around talking to his family and friends about how he is feeling and about how he is experiencing a painful headache, and so on, in complete contradiction to his professed disbelief in the reality of conscious experience. So, in short, whatever someone may claim, everyone acts and speaks as though they believe in the reality of conscious experience. The interesting question, then, is what is the best explanation for the existence of this non-physical phenomenon of conscious experience. If ultimate reality is unconscious physical matter and energy, then it’s truly odd that conscious experience should arise at all. By contrast, if ultimate reality is a non-physical consciousness–i.e. God–then the consciousness that we human beings have is not, as it were, a free-floating phenomenon, but rather, is grounded in God as the ultimate foundation of everything.