(In this and the next post, I want to open the door for the atheist to consider the existence of the spiritual realm. Materialism is the biggest stumbling block towards belief in God. My purpose is not to convince the atheist that materialism is false, but to get the materialist to think it through so he himself can recognize the inadequacy of his supposition and discard it.)
Science and science fiction have dealt with the subject of consciousness. What makes someone aware of his existence? Many science fiction characters such as Andrew in Bicentennial Man, and Commander Data in Star Trek Next Generation have expressed the idea that an android can become self-aware, to the point of becoming a person. Of course, science fiction is fiction. But such a thing must appear theoretically possible to someone who believes pure material existence provides everything needed for self-consciousness. A materialist is forced to explain consciousness only in terms of matter and energy. He believes there is no need for an immaterial spirit or soul. I disagree 1.
Let’s assume there is no soul or spirit – that the material universe is all there is. Such a universe admits no control or influence outside of its own natural laws. Everything you do, therefore, must be the result of one immense cosmic chain of cause and effect. You have no real choice in what you do because everything that happens is a result of what happened before. You lift your finger not because you decide to lift your finger, but because the state of your body at the time (determined by the previous state of your body and your environment) determines you would do so. You are no different than an automaton, blindly and inevitability performing its function. An automaton is not self-aware, why should you be?
You decide to develop a self-aware android. You create its body and the computer that runs inside. Now you start writing its program. At first the code is fairly simple, but you keep adding to it and improving it until the android has the ability to learn and modify its own programming based on its environment. It even has the ability to act convincingly like a human-being so others can relate to it as if it is human. But no matter how much you improve the program, at its core all you have is a complicated automaton. It may give the appearance of self-awareness, but it has no first-person experience of consciousness 2.
Think about a very realistic 3D computer game or simulation, or a movie made with computer generated imagery. No matter how real the graphics may appear to us, the computer knows nothing of what we perceive. It is only mindlessly performing a series of logical and mathematical steps, and moving numbers around in memory as determined by its programming. Without a soul, an android can also go no further than this.
While I do believe it possible to advance in technology enough to make an android that looks, acts, and relates to us convincingly like a conscious human being, the appearance of consciousness would be an illusion to those looking on. Consciousness would not be something that the android experiences. It would just be running a very complex program that produces a predictable output for a given input. This is true whether the android uses Von Neumann, neural network, quantum entanglement, “positronic”, or some other architecture. This is also true for humans if we have no soul 3.
My personal theory is that self-awareness comes about through the union of the body and the spirit, kind of like the union of a car with its driver. You may know everything there is to know about how a car works, but that would not explain why the car ahead of you suddenly swerved into oncoming traffic. You might explain the swerve by saying the front wheels turned that way. You would then trace the cause-and-effect chain of events back through the steering mechanism to the steering wheel. But your knowledge of car mechanics cannot explain why the steering wheel turned. To do that, you have to go beyond the car and examine the driver.
Similarly, science cannot fully explain the root cause for a conscious act, such as lifting a finger. But I believe it possible, at least theoretically, to trace the act backwards on a molecular level through the body until you come to an effect without a material cause. At that point, you will have reached the interface between the spirit and the body, at least for that specific conscious act 4.
- By ‘soul’, I mean the whole person, made up of the union of the body with the spirit. One theologian put it this way: “Man is not spirit, but has it: he is soul.” (Gustav Oehler, Old Testament Theology, I, 217). I don’t believe simple living organisms, such as plants and bacteria, have a soul or spirit, so I have no problem explaining them in purely physical terms. They are highly complex electro-chemical and bio-chemical chain reactions. But the consciousness of higher life-forms goes beyond this. ↩
- At what point would an android’s program become complicated enough to somehow gain consciousness? As a programmer, I know every program, no matter how complicated, is made up of simpler components. If you ‘evolve’ a simple program into an ever more complicated program, at what point would it become self-aware like we are self-aware? What set of computer instructions or wiring would do this? ↩
- An argument can be made that humans aren’t programmed like a computer. However, this is a trivial argument. A computer program is merely one way of controlling an electrical chain-reaction. The interconnected neurons in a human brain are another way of doing the same kind of thing. ↩
- I don’t think there’s a specific location in the brain where this happens. I think it likely that the spirit can induce electrical impulses anywhere to control the body. ↩