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Science of Consciousness: The Elephant in the Room

Science has had great success in explaining many functions of living organisms in purely material terms. So why not consciousness?

After repeated failures to explain consciousness, there’s a new path in the science of consciousness that promises to be the final theory of consciousness.

How is consciousness explained?

The still prevailing view among scientists and philosophers is atheistic materialism. That is, the explanation comes in purely material terms and does so without God.

Materialists typically believe that science alone can do the trick. Science has had great success in explaining many functions of living organisms in purely material terms. So why not consciousness as well?

But the easy extrapolation from neuronal wirings to living experience — consciousness — has failed to materialize (pun intended). The only things on offer from materialistic science are promissory notes. For example, neuroscientist Christof Koch had wagered in 1998 that neuroscience would find an explanation (a materialist one, that is) within 25 years. He recently lost this bet to philosopher David Chalmers (who believes consciousness is non-physical). However, Koch is still hopeful that the big breakthrough might happen 25 years from now. More technology and accumulated knowledge are presumed to bridge a gap that seems unbridgeable for much more principled reasons: promissory notes are what atheistic materialist explanations are most famous for.

The unease is felt by many. Annaka Harris (wife of the famous New Atheist Sam Harris) has noted the significance of a new, non-materialistic theory of consciousness and that it might be something like the final hope for making sense of consciousness. It is important to point out the why of her concession: precisely because of the failures materialistic science has met.

Nagel: Physical Science Isn’t Enough

Much earlier, the famed atheistic NYU philosopher Thomas Nagel argued that minds are not merely physical, so they “cannot be fully explained by physical science.” He also said that atheistic science is interested in theism because of its seeming capability to explain what physical science can’t (Mind & Cosmos, 22). And yet, he remains committed to salvaging atheistic science.

God and the soul remain the elephant in the room no one wants to talk about.

The ‘New Atheists’ with their hard scientistic views that the whole of reality is material, mechanistic, and comprehensively explained by governing laws of the physical, believe that true science must “sweep from the field of theory this mob of gods and demons” (to borrow a phrase from 19th-century atheist John Tyndall). No wonder Sean Caroll suggests that souls are crazy ideas. One of the goals has been the despoiling of science in a way that makes no room for God.

However, as the New Atheists find their failures on display, they’re being replaced by an even newer atheism.

The Elephant in the Room

Recently, the famed Scientific American has been sounding the clarion call to consider the new view gestured to by Annaka Harris. This view actually takes the mind seriously as non-mechanical, not wholly made sense of by gray matter and physical laws governing biology. That theory is panpsychism, roughly the view that matter is conscious, which makes the quest for Chalmers’ famous “hard problem of consciousness” obsolete. The hopes put in panpsychism are seen in the continued platforming of its best-known contemporary proponent, Philip Goff. He, being the author of  Galileo’s Error, has been arguing for several years now that physicalism, the view of the New Atheists (like Daniel Dennett), cannot explain consciousness. He and his colleague, Andrei Buckareff, recently celebrated panpsychism’s success in the form of a conference, with Scientific American coverage.

But the elephant in the room has still not been acknowledged. You wouldn’t see Scientific American promoting the long-held view of most people throughout history, the world, and religion that believes that souls are precisely the right kinds of things that are conscious and created by God. But, why not?

Perhaps God and souls view will be reconsidered once the new theory, too, has turned out to be another string in a long series of atheistic promissory notes.

Joshua R. Farris

Joshua R. Farris is a Humboldt Experienced Researcher Fellow and Visiting Researcher at the Ruhr Universität Bochum. He is also Visiting Professor at Missional University and London School of Theology. Previously, he was the Chester and Margaret Paluch Professor at Mundelein Seminary, University of Saint Mary of the Lake, Fellow at The Creation Project, and Fellow at Heythrop College. He has taught at several universities in philosophy, theology, and Great Books. He has published over 50 peer-reviewed articles and chapters in a variety of journals in philosophy, philosophy of religion, analytic theology, systematic theology, historical theology, and interdisciplinary studies. He founded and oversees the Design-Theology Project. He is also published in The Imaginative Conservative, The Christian Post, The American Mind, Mere Orthodoxy, The Worldview Bulletin, Prosblogion, Spiritual Media Blog, Faithlife and Essentia Foundation among others. He has recently completed a new monograph entitled The Creation of Self.

Alin C. Cucu

Alin Christoph Cucu (PhD, University of Lausanne) is a lecturer in philosophy at the University of Lausanne. He is the author of several peer-reviewed papers on mind-body-interaction, and co-editor of the anthology “Religious Hypotheses and the Study of Human Nature” (in Romanian, Institutul European). His co-authored paper “How Dualists Should (Not) Respond to the Objection From Energy Conservation” (with J. Brian Pitts) was awarded the Best Paper Prize of the Mind and Matter Society. In recent years he won three Templeton grants in Romania for research projects at the intersection of theology, philosophy and science. His research focuses on soul-body-dualism, the Christian worldview vs. the modern worldview, and the philosophy of C.S. Lewis.

Science of Consciousness: The Elephant in the Room