In The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss, David Bentley Hart argues that there's an insuperable quantitative gap between the the physical material of the human brain and the subjective personal experience of consciousness; in other words, one cannot produce the other on its own. This isn't a "God of the gaps" argument. It's not about what materialism can't explain yet but about an intrinsic limitation of materialism. He insists that no matter how much we learn about someone's brain structure and activity, we will never be able to replicate for ourselves what it's like to be them. He goes into a lot more depth with this argument than I can. He also rejects, for good reason, the scientifically unsupported belief that bodies require spirits inside of them in order to be alive at all. If I understand and remember correctly, he asserts that consciousness flows from God in the same way that existence itself flows from God.
Writing in Psychology Today this week, in an article that was recommended to me by the almighty algorithms because I read some articles on that website about near-death experiences, Steve Taylor makes a similar argument and includes an analogy that blew my mind: "It may be that the human brain does not actually produce consciousness but transmits it. Like a radio, the brain may 'pick up' fundamental consciousness from the space around us and transmit it to us, so that we become individually conscious." To me this makes perfect sense in principle. It explains why the brain's machinery is necessary in the first place, and even why its makeup strongly influences our thoughts and feelings, despite not being the ultimate source of consciousness. And it's so simple. You don't need a book of philosophy to understand it.
It does raise further questions, though. As Taylor points out, the materialist view "also means that there cannot be an afterlife, since human consciousness cannot outlive the brain that produces it" (although I heard a Christian pastor who doesn't believe in the body/spirit dualism explain that God could recreate our personalities and identities in the resurrection exactly as they were, and argue with a skeptic about whether these new people would really still be us). But if the brain just receives and interprets a piece of a big mass of consciousness, do we just get absorbed back into that when we die? I guess becoming part of God, or one with the Force or whatever, would be nice, but I also like being me and don't want to give that up altogether. And if we all become unified into one consciousness at the end, then any love we have for each other ultimately becomes love for ourself, and that just seems a lot less special.
Taylor raises another interesting point: "Until the 19th century, almost every culture in human history took for granted that the essence of human identity was non-physical and would survive the death of the body." It's interesting because it may or may mean anything. It's entirely possible for almost every culture in human history to be wrong about something, and maybe this kind of belief is just coping mechanism for the horrors of mortality. But maybe it's an instinctive understanding that most of us have because it's true and our consciousnesses have advanced far enough to grasp it. David Bentley Hart talks about how we know or at least have reasonable grounds to assume many things that we can't prove scientifically - mathematics, for example. This could be one of those things. It's a real shame that the only way to confirm it for sure is to die.
Tomorrow is Juneteenth. Last year when it became a federal holiday I witnessed a lot of complaining from Utah Republicans who are determined to be horrible people and wrong about everything, but I haven't seen any yet this year. I guess they grew the hell up and got over it. Now if only they could do the same for everything else. We also just had Summerfest, the local arts festival here in Logan, over the last three days. I always go and don't buy any art because it's expensive but then I rationalize buying the expensive food because it's part of the experience. I went alone the first two days and then I went with a friend the last day, and she didn't buy much, but she talked to several of the booth owners and took their business cards, which I guess is the equivalent of clicking "like" on a Facebook fundraiser instead of donating to it. Then last night, because I'm still on the email list for the Mormon Environmental Stewardship Alliance, I attended a screening of "Stewart Udall and the Politics of Beauty" over Zoom. He was a phenomenal guy and the world needs more like him right now to tackle its environmental and social problems. It's funny, though, how Mormonism still claims him and takes credit for his accomplishments even though he stopped practicing it in his twenties, in large part because it was so socially backwards even by 1947 standards.
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About the Author
C. Randall Nicholson is a white cisgender Christian male, so you can hate him without guilt, but he's also autistic and asexual, so you can't, unless you're an anti-vaxxer, in which case the feeling is mutual. This blog is where he periodically rants about life, the universe, and/or everything.