The human mind – a glimpse of the divine?

March 22, 2021 in News

BILL TONER :: Most of us know people who don’t believe in God or who have lost their faith. Perhaps we are even among their number. There are many possible reasons for this lack of faith: some people are so scandalised by the behaviour of certain priests that they can no longer find God in their Church; others consider that the findings of science make the idea of a God unnecessary for explaining the natural wonders of the world that either awed or terrified our ancestors; others are caught up in ‘the spirit of the times’ and like to believe in the ability of human beings to chart their own way in the world without having to depend on the assistance of a mysterious Being that they never see and whose actions they cannot detect.

There are others again to whom the idea of ‘spiritual’ or ‘supernatural’ realities seem nonsensical. Few people can claim that they have had a clearly ‘supernatural’ experience. Many people enjoy movies about supernatural happenings such as The Sixth Sense or The Amityville Horror but how may people can claim to have actually seen a ghost? Many will say they have had religious or even mystical experiences, strong enough even to provide a bedrock for their faith. But the sceptical may see these as the result of a fevered imagination or some trauma.

If we don’t seem to encounter the ‘supernatural’ anywhere in our daily lives, it can be a struggle for us to believe in a supernatural ‘God’ or other supernatural realities such as ‘heaven’.

The mystery of the human mind

In fact, there is possibly only one truly mysterious thing we are likely to encounter in life, and that is our own human mind, and particularly our own consciousness. By and large the average person does not pay much attention to it. In his fine book, The Conscious Mind, the Australian philosopher and scientist David Chalmers talks about consciousness as “the biggest mystery”. He concedes that the sciences of physics and biology have removed most of the ancient mysteries surrounding the nature of life. He goes on:

Consciousness, however, is as perplexing as it ever was. It still seems utterly mysterious that the causation of behaviour should be accompanied by a subjective inner life… How could a physical system such as a brain also be an experience?… Present-day scientific theories hardly touch the really difficult questions about consciousness. We do not just lack a detailed theory; we are entirely in the dark about how consciousness fits into the natural order.

The conscious mind, p. xi

Chalmers wrote this in 1996, so many people will dismiss it as ‘old hat’. What about the development of ‘artificial intelligence’, many will say? Does not that reveal that it is possible to build a conscious brain, and one much bigger and more powerful than the human brain? Chalmers was open to that possibility. He devoted a chapter of his book to artificial intelligence, and argued that an appropriate type of computer, that precisely mirrored what the human brain does, would bring conscious experience along with it. He saw the outlook for machine consciousness to be “good in principle, if not yet in practice”.

Fast forward 25 years and we find the technology columnist for the New York Times, Kevin Roose, writing in the Irish Times in March 2021:

The metaphor I use for most of today’s advanced AI [artificial intelligence] is an army of chimpanzees. AI is smart, but not as smart as humans. It can follow directions if it has been properly trained and supervised, but it can be erratic and destructive if it hasn’t… AI can do superhuman things like filtering spam out of a billion email inboxes…but it’s not particularly good at being thrown into new, high-stakes situations.

Irish Times, March 6, 2021

Former Yale Professor Drew McDermott, acknowledged to be one of the world’s leading authorities on AI and the philosophical issues associated with it, takes a rather similar stance to Chalmers and does not rule out the possibility of ‘machine consciousness’. However in 2003 he conducted an informal survey on this issue with Fellows of the American Association for Artificial Intelligence. The problem Drew put to them was how a computer or programme could be created that has “phenomenal consciousness”, that is, the ability to experience things. Of the 207 living Fellows, Drew got a response from only 34 (16%) Of the 34, 18 thought the solution was in sight, 11 said it required new ideas, 4 said the problem was ill-defined, and 1 said the problem was uninteresting. The other responses were varied. But clearly the issue does not seem to have built up a big head of steam among the scientific community, even though it is of considerable interest in the popular mind. Peter Russell, author of The Global Mind, remarked that “in a strange way, scientists would be much happier if there were no such thing as consciousness”

The Christian view

The traditional Christian view of consciousness, and particularly self-consciousness, is that it can only be explained by a non-material quality of the human mind, a ‘self’ that is able not only to gather experiences from the senses (as many other creatures do) but to reflect on these experiences and to know that one is reflecting on them. And there were other qualities of the human mind that led philosophers such as Thomas Aquinas to propose a non-material mind or soul. In fact, writing in the 13th century, Aquinas had the remarkable intuition that we do not actually think with our brains; the brain simply processes sensory information for a higher faculty, called the mind, or intellect, to make use of.

An important insight of Aquinas was that the human mind is not limited simply to ‘observing’ the material that comes to it through the senses. It can make generalisations from all this material and create ‘concepts’ which are immaterial and abstract. For instance, your senses (sight and hearing in this case) may make you aware of a bus coming along the road as you wait at the stop. It is easy for the brain to store an image of a bus. But your mind can move to a higher level than this and think ‘public transport’. And if the bus passes by full, your mind can move to a higher level of abstraction still and think about ‘public transport system’. Neither of the concepts ‘public transport’ or ‘public transport system’ are amenable to sense perception, nor can they even be said to exist in a material sense, yet the human mind has no problem dealing with them, and even composing letters to the paper about them! Modern humans spend much of their time talking and thinking about abstract notions, not accessible to the senses, such as ‘democracy’, ‘liberty’, ‘society’, ‘morality’, ‘restrictions’, ‘pandemic’, and ‘conspiracy’. How is this done? If we think of the brain as a kind of super-computer, we can imagine it processing and manipulating data from sense experience, which leave some kind of image in the brain. But how does the brain juggle around notions like ‘democracy’ which are complex abstractions from sense data? How is the brain able to store ideas, rather than just the labels that identify them? This is where the concept of mind comes into the picture, as an immaterial ‘element’ of the human person. In the view of many philosophers, only an immaterial mind can deal with immaterial mental constructions.

In a recent book, After, the American psychiatrist Bruce Greyson, who has spent his life chronicling and analysing ‘near-death experiences’ ponders some of the same questions that Aquinas grappled with. When he was asked what his current logical understanding [of near-death experiences] is, he stated:

It seems most likely to me that the mind is somehow separate to the brain, and, if that’s true, maybe it can function when the brain dies. But if the mind is not there in the brain, where is it? And what is it?… And I’m still not sure what spiritual means. I am convinced now, after doing this for 40, 50 years, that there is more to life than just our physical bodies. I recognize that there is a non-physical part of us. Is that spiritual? I’m not sure. Spirituality usually involves a search for something greater than yourself, for meaning and purpose in the universe. Well, I certainly have that.

Observer Magazine, 7 March 2021, p. 17

Other mysterious functions of the mind

If we are nevertheless wedded to a common view that our brain accounts for all our intellectual activity, and that there is no need to postulate a mind or intellect or soul, it leaves us with a number of questions to answer. The logic of that position is that the brain is a kind of super-computer. People who hold this view would agree that there are many mental functions of the human person that we have not yet been able to incorporate into a manufactured computer, but that this should be possible in time.

Nowadays, we are all familiar with some types of computers, and can appreciate their extraordinary power. For instance, who has not marvelled at the speed of predictive text, which may depend on a computer scanning an entire dictionary, and a forest of grammatical and syntactical rules, in a fraction of a second, and doing it again and again as we type? However, there are a number of important intellectual activities that a computer might have problems with, no matter how well we design it. To name just a few:

Judgement: Judgement is different from intelligence. We all know people who are very intelligent – perhaps people who perhaps have great mathematical or technical knowledge – but who exercise poor judgement in the practical matters of daily living. Good judgement is needed in all kinds of situations, from courts of law, to flower shows, to business decisions. Some may hold the view that if you feed enough information into a computer it could make reliable judgements. For instance, it may be argued, in the case of a legal court case you could feed in all the facts of a particular case, and the relevant legislation and case law, and out would pop the correct judgement. But would the computer also be able to apply principles of fairness, proportionality, and to consider extenuating circumstances, all of which are considered necessary to make such a judgement? Would we be happy to entrust yourselves to a computer in a court of law? A higher viewpoint seems essential to cover all the angles required in a good judgement.

Aesthetics and artistic creativity: Though it is one of the most important things in our lives, beauty is something we ourselves cannot define, or agree about it. Soccer is considered ‘the beautiful game’ by millions, but other people find it quite boring. Beauty, we say, is in the eye of the beholder’. But can a computer have an aesthetic sense and appreciate beauty? Could we get a computer to draw a picture that is something more than a wallpaper design? The creation and appreciation of beautiful things seem to belong to a higher faculty than can be programmed into a computer.

Initiative: If we were ‘interviewing’ a computer for most kinds of jobs, we would want one with at least some initiative, – for coping with the unexpected; and adapting the organization or activity to the changing environment. We are not speaking here of just the business environment, but also the political environment as well, issues like climate change, changes in taste, developments in technology and so on. The possibilities are infinite but it is not possible to envisage a computer, no matter how carefully programmed, having an appreciation of all possibilities. The gift of initiative seems to belong to some higher faculty. For repetitive jobs we might indeed ‘hire’ a computer; for anything else we would hire a human who might or might not make use of one.

Academic research

Computers can be a wonderful help to people carrying on academic research, especially in science. But if the human brain were nothing more that a computer it would seem impossible that it could carry out research. The first step in a research project is to decide what new area or new question needs to be explored. But a computer is limited to what has been programmed into it, and it does not seem possible for it to break fresh ground. Only a human mind can ask the questions that open new horizons.

The common factor in all these areas (and there are many more such) is the exercise of freedom, but the essence of a computer is that it is programmed. Even if we want it to behave randomly, such as in the choice of Lotto numbers, it is always within defined parameters. Nobody wants computers to have the kind of freedom that was exercised by manufactured androids like The Gunslinger in Westworld, or Hal in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Furthermore, if the human brain were just a computer, programmed in this case not by humans but by evolutionary needs, its functions would be limited to those created by random mutations that allowed it to respond to environmental challenges. Many higher faculties of humans, such as their aesthetic sense and artistic creativeness, could not be accounted for by this process since they confer no competitive advantage, which is the driving force of evolution.

A glimpse of God?

In spite of all this, there is in fact no clear evidence that the great early Christian thinkers deduced from the extraordinary power of the human intellect that it was ‘supernatural’, although, as we shall see, they may have come to that conclusion by a different route. Aquinas did not mention the powers of the human intellect in his so-called ‘proofs’ for the existence of God.

These early thinkers placed great store in the Bible. And in the Bible, in Genesis 1:26, God said, “Let us make man in our own image and likeness”. The concept of man as the imago Dei (the image of God) thus originated in Jewish reflection and theology, though it is little commented on in the Old Testament apart from the few references in Genesis. But in the early Christian era the nature of the imago Dei became a matter of great debate. Augustine was one of the first to conclude that God made man in his image by giving him an intellectual soul that raises him above the beasts of the field. Aquinas also identifies the ‘image of God’ primarily in man’s rational faculty. More modern writers like Emil Brunner and Paul Riceour regarded human free will as being central to the concept of imago Dei. Cardinal Ratzinger and many others have emphasized the human capacity for relationship, particularly with God.

In our ordinary day to day living, the human mind may not strike most people as having a ‘divine’ or mystical quality. Yet if we are prepared to give the time to sustained reflection on the mind it can be a great source of puzzles, some of them even scary at times, and which can lead us to wonder if there is not some great ‘beyond’. This is especially true about reflection on free will; since the natural and social sciences tend to make us believe that all human actions have preceding causes (ranging from hormonal disturbances to bad parenting) how can there be any room for ‘free’ will? What parts of us, other than the nerves and cells of our body and brain, could account for ‘free’ decisions? Mention has already been made of our mysterious appreciation of ‘beauty’, which is totally subjective, with no clear function, and yet shared by many as something of great importance in their lives. And there is Chalmer’s question mentioned at the start: How could a physical system such as a brain also be an experience?

To quote Shakespeare: “there are stranger things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy”.