Neuroscientist: awareness is cartoonish caricature of reality

Photo credit: Yuri Yu. Samoilov / Foter / CC BY

Photo credit: Yuri Yu. Samoilov / Foter / CC BY

Neuroscientist Michael S. A. Graziano recommends to readers of the Sunday New York Times his attention schema theory of consciousness. Is it a good advancement over other theories? Pay attention and become aware of what transpires in his opinion piece:

In neuroscience, attention is a process of enhancing some signals at the expense of others. It’s a way of focusing resources. Attention: a real, mechanistic phenomenon that can be programmed into a computer chip. Awareness: a cartoonish reconstruction of attention that is as physically inaccurate as the brain’s internal model of color.

In this theory, awareness is not an illusion. It’s a caricature. Something — attention — really does exist, and awareness is a distorted accounting of it.

I would like to offer a syllogism to clarify the issue:

1. If one knows for a fact that conscious experience is a cartoonish caricature of physical reality, then there must be an alternative account of what it is like to experience the world more accurately.

2. There is no alternative account of what it is like to experience the world more accurately.

3. Therefore, no one knows for a fact that conscious experience is a cartoonish caricature of physical reality.

The force of my argument lies in taking the claim of cartoonishness and caricature seriously. If the claim can’t be justified by a plausible alternative account,  then we should dismiss it as incoherent. To say that an amoeba or a computer experiences the world more accurately than we do is absurd, because they do not experience the world at all. The materialist is better off simply sticking with the claim that experiences don’t exist, rather than denigrating their accuracy. This is the law of excluded middle at work.

Notice that I am not refuting the attention schema theory of consciousness outright; I am just striking this one popular characterization of it from the realm of intelligibility.

For some good work on consciousness,  mental events, neuronal firings, and the ontology required for all of them, check out J.P. Moreland’s latest book, The Soul.

Greenfield’s theology; or, Does everything happen for a reason?

Decent people agree that deadly disasters like the tornado that ripped through Moore, Oklahoma are tragic.  We all feel to some degree that this is not the way things should be.  Regrettably, columnist Jeff Greenfield compounds the tragedy by propagating unsound, incoherent reflections about the realities of life.

His latest column begins by citing a common, often offensive, response to tragedy: “This is all part of God’s plan.”  Greenfield contrasts this with an answer he prefers instead.  Once, he asked a priest whether John F Kennedy Jr.’s tragic, early death was part of God’s plan.  The priest responded candidly, “Oh, no . . . this sucks.”

Hold on a second. Why think these two views are at odds?

Greenfield complains about another attribution to divine will.  You might hear this upon the death of a child: “God must have wanted another little angel.”  The columnist confesses that he would not “sign up” for a God who works like that. I’m not particularly fond of such angel-acquisition schemes either. Not because it’s distasteful to me, but because it’s not true!

The columnist treats the appeal to divine purpose merely as a means of consolation.  He claims that most serious theologians have moved on from the “simplistic” notion that “everything happens for a reason.”  This is just not the case.  With the minor exception of Open Theism, Christian theology still describes a sovereign God, who either causes or permits everything to happen for a reason.  Whether a specific reason is knowable is another question.  But core Christian doctrine does not change on the charge of simplicity or any other whim.

The only explanations Greenfield accepts are naturalistic or psychological: either the random physics driving thunderstorms and plate tectonics, or personal phenomena like greed, anger, and mental illness.  This mixing of natural and personal causes ought to gives us pause.

Are emotions like greed and anger really knowable causes, in the same way as weather patterns or plate tectonics?  On the deterministic worldview of materialism–precisely where the writer is coolly headed with his criteria for explaining tornadoes and earthquakes–there is no causation outside of the laws of physics.  Greed and anger aren’t real.  Mental illness is merely an unconventional arrangement of molecules.  There is even a subset of philosophy of mind that operates on these metaphysical assumptions.  It’s called eliminative materialism.  Some will go to great lengths to avoid the idea that there might be ultimate purpose in everything.

No one slighted by the harshness of reality–nor anyone, for that matter–can have it both ways.  Ultimately, either chance or design is king.  Ravi Zacharias has often quoted a poem by Steve Turner to great effect:

If chance be the Father of all flesh,
Disaster is his rainbow in the sky,
And when you hear
State of Emergency!
Sniper Kills Ten!
Troops on Rampage!
Whites go Looting!
Bomb Blasts School!
It is but the sound of man worshiping his maker.

There are two candidates in the running to ultimately explain reality: chance or design.  Greenfield approaches the question based on who he would sign up for.  But how is ultimate meaninglessness in any way more palatable than a perfectly purposed cosmos?

One god less

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Have you encountered the “one god less” rhetorical appeal before?  It goes something like this: “You don’t realize it, but you are an atheist too.  You already reject thousands of other gods.  I just believe in one god less than you do.”

Never mind that the correct grammatical form is “fewer,” not less. The slogan is clever but a poor truth claim. It treats the existence of deity as a quantitative rather than a qualitative issue. The appropriate question is not whether any number of deities exist, but is deity a quality of any part of reality?

In his debate with Alex Rosenberg last February, William Lane Craig laid bare the absurdity of metaphysical naturalism, which I identify here with materialism.  On such a view, science cannot find God.  But neither can it find persons!  Craig highlighted eight problematic implications of materialism.  Among them: first-person perspectives are illusory, individuals don’t persist through two moments of time, and no one actually thinks.  This last one follows from the premise that material cannot exhibit intentionality; it can’t inherently be “about” or “of” anything.  The conclusion contradicts our everyday experience; we think about things all the time.  The reality of mind is at odds with materialism.

Rosenberg deflected Craig’s metaphysical critique during the debate.  However, being more candid in the post-debate exchange, he did address a relevant chapter of his popular book, The Atheist’s guide to reality. The chapter is titled “The Brain Does Everything Without Thinking About Anything at All.” It recalls a book by Floyd Ferris, a fictional government scientist in Atlas Shrugged.  That work is amusingly titled, Why Do You Think You Think?

When it comes to building a worldview, the materialist is confined to a set of insufficient explanatory options. I’ve recently found that Thomas Nagel and Alvin Plantinga, each coming from very different places, seem to be saying as much in their own respective works (Mind and Cosmos and Where the Conflict Really Lies).

Indulging the mystique of exotic sciences like quantum mechanics and brane cosmology, lay materialists illicitly attribute intelligence, awareness, and causal potency–hallmarks of personality–to their favorite model of reality.  No amount of quantitative work can make up for a lack of qualitative analysis.

Back to “one god less.”  Why should it not follow that belief in a negative number of gods is more true belief in zero gods? If the materialist seriously entertains this question on a qualitative basis, she runs the danger of believing the existence of one God more.

The authority of science

Cosmologist Sean Carroll garnered considerable buzz recently with his contribution to the Blackwell Companion to Science and Christianity.  Launching off of an interview with Carroll, LiveScience made a big splash with the headline: “Will Science Someday Rule Out the Possibility of God?”

A few days later, an AP story mined societal anxiety about growing fraud in science.  And in the year-end issue of my local university campus newspaper, the science columnist made an earnest and zealous attempt to distinguish scientific “education” from religious “indoctrination.”

Examining the language and underlying assumptions in popular science writing reveals an often narrow and uncritical school of thought that has an outsized, unwarranted, and perilous grip on our culture.

Let’s start with the LiveScience article on Sean Carroll.  If we take it seriously, and try to discern from its own contents whether science will “rule out the possibility of God,” we’ll be disappointed to find only an abundance of ungrounded suppositions and a string of logical fallacies.

The surest presupposition that pops up is a philosophical hard naturalism or materialism.  It is simply assumed that the natural world or matter/energy are all that is.  Accordingly, only “domains of science” are considered serious fields of inquiry.  “Theologians,” to say nothing of philosophers, are cast as attempting to “seize upon” as yet-unanswered sticky points and rhetorical flips.

A deeply rational theist like William Lane Craig–a cosmological rock star of sorts–couldn’t get billing in a pop science piece like this.  To do so would turn off those readers who’ve placed faith in science’s ability–given enough time–to answer everything; a faith in science-of-the-gaps if you will.

Folks like Carroll and LiveScience offer succor for those who hope to  ignore any kind of truth that is not empirically derived.  But there are non-empirical truths each of us take for granted everyday.  There are properly basic beliefs, such as the belief that one did not spontaneously come into being five minutes ago with memories implanted to give the false impression of living prior to that time.

And individuals have faculties beyond the senses.  The faculty of morality comprehends objective moral truths, and the faculty of reason allows one to know “A” is not identical to “not A.”  These ways of knowing reside entirely outside the “domain of science.”

Yet, science writing subsists on a de facto “verificationism,” a trust only of propositions that can be empirically verified.  Of course, the foundational proposition of verificationism fails its own test.

On top of naturalism and verificationism, the LiveScience writer treats theories like the multiverse as settled matters rather than metaphysical conjectures.  This kind of assumption thrives in columns that can’t take the space to unpack the ideas they reference.

And then there are the fallacies in the article.  Consider this passage:

Other versions of quantum gravity theory currently being explored by cosmologists predict that time did start at the Big Bang. But these versions of events don’t cast a role for God either. Not only do they describe the evolution of the universe since the Big Bang, but they also account for how time was able to get underway in the first place. As such, these quantum gravity theories still constitute complete, self-contained descriptions of the history of the universe.

This passage is simultaneously a tautology and an appeal to authority.  Notice cosmologists must “cast a role” for God.  The theory cannot escape the constraints of the theorist’s inborn bias.  And for the writer to qualify the theories “as such” only  undermines the idea the theories are actually “self-contained.”

As the piece progresses toward its end, the stubborn question of ultimate meaning is dismissed as a failure to see the universe itself as unique and not in need of an answer.  But Carroll offers no real reason beyond a lyrical twist.  Dr. Craig likens this cessation of reason to the taxicab fallacy: once the questioner reaches his destination (that God is not required), he dismisses the cab of critical inquiry, namely by abandoning the principle of sufficient reason.

There is an attempt to invoke the testimony of a psychologist to explain away religious phenomenon as arising out of psychological need.  This is classic genetic fallacy.  How one might come to have a belief has no bearing on the truth of the belief.

The consequences of letting such suppositions and fallacies thrive in the thought life of scientists and their admirers are considerable.  Look at The Aggie‘s piece on education and indoctrination.  The author fills a column with generalized disdain for the excesses of “evangelical religion,” perhaps not realizing that he is harboring a zeal equally in need of its own justification and defense.

A remarkable irony emerges when the columnist pegs “indoctrination” to Western culture.  It was in large part the values of Western Antiquity and the Bible that supported the critical thinking needed to produce modern science.

The collegiate composition is alarming in its take away that “Religion has no place in schools, and science has no place in churches, synagogues or mosques . . .”  This reminds of the woefully dismissive bumper sticker that reads, “I won’t think in your church if you don’t pray in my school.”  Simply a false dichotomy.  Sometimes it’s the laboratories and the halls of the academy that could use a little more critical thinking.

The Aggie column concludes with a call for an education that will produce “un-indoctrinated” citizens.  Here we have the error of Locke, that humans are tabula rosa and there is some pure Science that can properly inform the citizen.  The prescription also bears a whiff of the tyranny of tolerance.  All ideas are equally valid except the one that proposes to be true to the exclusion of others.  As with verificationism, it’s a paradigm that defeats itself.

We are in an age where science is upheld, unrealistically and with poor justification, as some final arbiter of knowledge.  Though some think we live in a postmodern society, the underpinning beliefs are still very modern indeed.  Just looking back to the twentieth century, we know all too well the tragedies modernity begot: eugenics, gulags, genocide, rampant pollution, spiritual alienation.  What a downer.

But the search for hope is unyielding.  Like a hokey Star Trek episode, the LiveScience article concludes by waxing lyrical, quoting an evolutionary psychologist: “We’re not designed at the level of theoretical physics.”   Not even a scientist can avoid language invoking the agency of a creator.  He goes on to say that things like interpersonal relationships are what matter on the “human scale.”

Is there some grand, unifying worldview that best satisfies questions both on the cosmological and the “human scale?”  Look no further than the many ready witnesses who make a reasoned, coherent and consistent case for a God who is revealed in the Bible and intervenes decisively in human history in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.

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