Another Post on Mind/Body

Another Post on Consciousness and Science:

Arguing against my position is this author from the Chronicle of Education, defending the new Atheism. I don't think he does a very good job of understanding the position being argued by his opponents:

After all, there is no evidence that consciousness and mind arise from anything other than the workings of the physical brain, and so those phenomena are well within the scope of scientific investigation.
That's really not what is being argued; what's being argued is that even complete proof on this score wouldn't alter the question. It's not that science should not answer these questions, but that it cannot. By all means try!

This part of our discussion below is on point.
Well, if we were talking about medicine, I'd be inclined to agree that it would be an odd position to believe that spirits caused physical diseases.

What we're talking about, though, is consciousness -- that direct experience of reality that normally leads people to believe that they have a mind; and which opens for us the realm of experiences that very often lead people to believe that they have a soul. These beliefs are based on intuition about our direct experience: if that doesn't rise to the standard of scientific evidence, it is at least empirical.

And it happens to be in an area where science has no final answer available, even in theory. For example: imagine that through future advanced brain scan techniques you could prove that the brain's state wholly determines our mental experience, and that we can control mental experiences by altering brain states in a reliable way.

Does that prove that there is no mind? Not at all -- what it proves is that the mental supervenes on the physical. The question of why we have the mental experience at all is still there.

It doesn't even address the question of where consciousness "comes from," because there's no way to determine if consciousness is arising from the brain, or if the brain is a receiver for consciousness. For example, imagine that you could now build an entire human being, controlling every aspect of their physical reality down to the quantum level. In theory, then, you should be able to produce two people who are actually identical: and, if the mental supervenes on the physical, they should have exactly the same mental states, and indeed, be thinking exactly the same thoughts.

Can you prove that they are, in fact, having the same thoughts? It turns out you can't actually even prove that they are conscious -- to the degree that we show that the mental supervenes on the physical, we run into what philosophers are currently calling the ZOMBIE problem. They may react predictably, even deterministically, in the way that a person experiencing consciousness does; but we can't really know if they are actually conscious at all. They may be physically determined, not "human." Our only reason for assuming otherwise turns out to be that same intuition that leads us to believe in the mind, and sometimes also the soul.

All that means is that these questions come down to articles of faith -- even at very high levels of scientific evidence, currently unavailable to us. That means the one assumption is no better founded, from an evidential perspective, than the other; but the intuition remains to support the idea of minds and souls. That fact seems important to me, but even if you are inclined to disagree, it remains the case that these questions appear to lie permanently within the area of faith.
That's not an argument about what science should or should not do; it's an argument about what it can and cannot do, not what it may or may not do.

Science can do what it likes, and ought to do whatever it can.

However, it needs to beware of its limitations. Imagine a science that appeared to show a hard determinism even at the quantum level. Would it answer this question?
What's more, because the powerful appeal of religion comes precisely from its claims that the deity intervenes in the physical world, in response to prayers and such, religious claims, too, fall well within the domain of science. The only deity that science can say nothing about is a deity who does nothing at all.
No, actually, it would not. A God who had the ability to alter the world could, and maybe might, alter the world so completely that what appeared to be determined by physical forces was determined instead by divine will. A genuinely omnipotent God could alter the past and the future as well as the present.

It's fine to say, "Well, I don't believe in such a God." It's not important that you do; it's just the case that these questions are beyond the realm of what we can know for certain. Even imagining the best possible proof according to methods of scientific inquiry currently impossible, we find that the base question isn't resolved by any standard of proof we can imagine.

What remains is our experiences, and our intuitions about them. Those intuitions may be set aside or valued, as you prefer.

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