Neuroscience and the Soul: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Mind, part 2

Geometry of the Soul series two. Background design of human profile and abstract elements on the subject of spirituality, science, creativity and the mind

Part two of three. This series is based on material I presented at a recent conference under the same title. In part one I will discuss some preliminary distinctions that are necessary for this discussion. In part two I will discuss the nature of consciousness. In part three I will discuss the nature of the soul. I am deeply indebted to the speaking and writing of J. P. Moreland. Links to relevant resources are at the end each part.

The Nature of Consciousness
For the philosopher of mind who is committed to some kind of physical explanation of reality the existence of consciousness is a profound problem. In this post I will discuss the nature of consciousness and offer reasons why it is not a physical phenomena.

First, let’s consider a definition of consciousness. J.P. Moreland has offered the following definition: “Consciousness is what you are aware of in first person introspection. Paying attention to what is going on inside of you.” When you pay attention to the thoughts, sensations and emotions you are experiencing, that is consciousness. Consciousness can be broken down into five different states: sensations, thoughts, beliefs, desires, and acts of free will.

Sensations encompass all our experiences, including our senses and emotions. Sensations are things we experience directly or indirectly from our environment. If someone injures you in some way you will experience pain. If you believe it was done with intent or malice, you may also experience certain emotions in response to being attacked. Sensations can abstract like the experience of color red or looking at sunrise. Sensations are not true or false. Depending on a variety of mental or physical circumstances, they may be accurate or inaccurate. For example, colored lighting may change your perception of other colors. Severe emotional trauma may cause someone to react with unexpected emotions to otherwise benign circumstances.

Thoughts are propositional statements, which can be expressed as sentences that are either true or false. For example:

“God exists.”
“The universe had a beginning.”
“All life is descended from a common ancestor via the natural process of evolution.”

These are examples of thoughts that are either true or false.

Beliefs are mental content that one takes to be true. One does not have to be completely certain something is true for it to quality as a belief; you may only be 51% certain. If you are more certain something is true rather than false, it qualifies as a belief. Beliefs are distinct from sensations because they can be true or false. They are also distinct from thoughts. I have thoughts I don’t believe and beliefs I am not thinking about.

Desires are felt inclinations towards or away from something. Similar to sensations, they are neither true nor false. They can be appropriate or inappropriate.

Finally, there acts of free will where one purposes or intends to do something. What is in view here is libertarian freedom. An agent or person engages in an act of free will when they cause something to happen (e.g. raising an arm) and they could have done otherwise (e.g. not raising an arm). Nothing in that person’s circumstances forced them to raise their arm. Hopefully the reality of libertarian agency is not a controversial concept. (While the scope or grounding of such agency is an entirely different, and potentially more contentious subject.)

Why consciousness is not physical.
There are several reasons we can know that consciousness is not merely physical. First, thoughts do not have physical properties. It is incoherent to ask how much a thought weighs or where it is located. Second, thoughts may be true or false, while a physical state cannot. Using the concept of identity discussed above, this clearly shows that consciousness and our physical brain are distinct. A third and more potent argument is the difference between the experience of consciousness and the measurement of consciousness.

The definition of consciousness cited above emphasized the first person private access we have to our mental lives. Everyone has immediate access to their conscious experience. There is no scientist, instrument, or mechanism that can tell you what you are thinking. However, everything the neuroscientist can observe about your brain is available to anyone via the proper equipment. Neuroscience can only access third person public information about your consciousness. Consider for example what we know about rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. The correlation between dreaming and certain external physiological queues was made only because the subjects being measured reported their first person private experience of their dreams.

In short, neuroscience has established a correlation between a variety of mental states and brain states. What it cannot establish is that those brain states are identical to mental states.

Consciousness is mental and physical.
There is however more than mere correlation between the mental and the physical. There is also causation. Our consciousness causes our physical body to move, speak, and interact with reality. In a reciprocal manner, the states of our body (especially what we eat and drink) impact our consciousness.

In the next post we will discuss the nature of the soul.

The Soul: How We Know It’s Real and Why it Matters


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