Your consciousness…if it “really” exists…is pretty      important!

And who’s there to manage it?


Only You!

–Some final thoughts on Keith Ward’s More Than Matter?  What Humans                Really Are–


[For more use the DOOR]





First, to summarize and clear away…

Former Oxford prof Ward, in his More Than Matter?** (correctly, I feel) emphasizes that “…there is no more important question in the whole of philosophy and in the whole of life than that of what a person really is. Is a person a by-product of purposeless and blind physical forces, as materialists suppose? Or a continuous autonomous rational agent…?” (“Rational agents,” of course, can “think” and make choices.)

To say it differently: Are people no more than brains receiving electrical messages from the outside world and sending “automatic” needed responses to  the human body to react to survive? Or is there a conscious mind, unique to each person, in place–often, but not always–to weigh information received before deciding on and taking action?

To oversimplify: (1) Are things “pre-determined” as to how to respond, taking strict materialism to a fixed cause-effect conclusion? Or (2) Is there an invisible (and, reflecting one of our recent descriptions) “unweighable” chooser in the system (a “mind”) that receives, evaluates, and decides the proper response? This, of course, implies some free choice.

Much is on the table here. Here are 5 things we think should be remembered:

(1) No science has yet even come close to describing the personal conscious mind that everyone recognizes exists in some form and is private to every individual. How we individually observe, analyze, and manipulate information–and why we do it–is unknown to science. Why I am typing these words, and what my ideas are behind them, is a complete mystery to science. (Sometimes I’m glad about that.)

(2) But, yes, the conscious mind–so active, rich, and real in daily life–is illusive. You could put my brain in a bucket, and end my consciousness–as far as others are concerned. And you can’t extract any of it from my severed head, pin it on a board, or discover anything about it. The closest you could come to recovering any of it would be to quiz someone who knew me for clues. (My books and writings? They may give clues about my consciousness–if I’d been open and honest. But as to why I’d  thought about such things, how I pondered them, how longand how sure I was of my conclusions, and if  they’d really mattered to me, my writings wouldn’t be of much help…)

(3) Modern theoretical physics, as we’ve suggested when discussing Leonard Susskind and small-particle physics, surprisingly respects the “reality” of some important things that we can argue exist, but most likely can never fully explain.***  To model this “respect,” I’ll adapt a story that Ward gives (for another purpose) in one of his Boyle Lectures**** : “Suppose a teacher with a dozen students (with unlimited resources) is at the South Pole. Class ends and he wants them all to meet together again at a ‘reasonable far-off time’ for their next gathering. They’re to leave immediately, and set out independently, not speaking with each other until they meet again. ‘Which way should we travel?’ one of them asks. ‘Go separately any way you choose,’  the teacher replies.  ‘All I ask is that you head straight in the same direction  and travel 12,430 miles. Then we’ll be together for our next class. Don’t be late!” Now…as you’ve probably figured out, they all end up at the North Pole. ***** (Sometimes, no matter how hard you plan to go on the straight and narrow, life on a sphere can throw you a “curve.”)

So what’s the point here? Simply (no, it’s hardly simple…) science has data that strongly suggest that the road to knowledge may extend from A to D. Science knows very well how to go from A to B.  From there it can see C in the distance and are confident it can be reached, but not by using the road map in hand. But once at C (in the small particle world), using a different kind of road map, one can proceed on the adventurous trek to D. The hope of science is that by connecting all the dots, one can arrive at (what some call) “TOE,”  “The Theory of Everything.” Susskind suggests that even if such a “journey” (my term) was possible, the human mind is not developed enough to even understand this.

(4) Does consciousness exist after death?  We would have to step out of the world of science to respond to that.  (And we’re already up to our eyeballs in science issues here to open that up.)

(5) If science can’t help us much with consciousness, should we still study the science of the brain?  Absolutely!  We can still learn much about the ability to remember, the sleeping state, reaction times, use of the senses, disease, etc. Neuroscience is alive and well. But can we uncover the mechanisms, networking patterns, the content and secrets of individual conscious lives? No, at least not directly. We believe that the “key ring” of science has no ‘tool’ on it to unlock the DOOR to what really matters in my mind–and yours. (And you know how we value DOORS.)


* Please don’t overlook the clever wordplay here…

** More Than Matter? What Humans Really Are (Lion, 2010).

*** We’re not saying that small particle physics argues for our views on the mind; rather, new bewildering discoveries in physics honestly and bluntly underline the limits of scientific conclusions and logical reasoning to explain the reality of certain possibilities that fall “outside the box” of legitimate science, which many “New Atheists” are unwilling to admit.

**** The Boyle lecture here is “Materialism and Its Discontents,” delivered in 2008.

***** I know certain details can wobble such as location of the North Pole. If you’re thinking of the magnetic one, it’s not exactly due North, but you can see where we’re going. Cut us a little slack…