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A-Z of thought: Consciousness

Charles Foster


I am sitting in a library. I was here yesterday too. These are very strange statements. They make many assumptions.  

They assume, for instance, that there is a thing that I call myself, and that the thing that exists today is the same thing that existed yesterday. The language I use is peppered with mysterious personal pronouns. I talk about 'my' body and 'my' experiences, just as if my body were a thing I owned, and my experiences were things that happened to the 'me'.

These are the mysteries of consciousness: of the mind-body problem: of subjectivity. My brain seems to be related in some way to my ideas about my self. If my head is hit hard enough, or my brain doused in enough alcohol, I may entirely lose for a while my perception of 'me'. And certainly some of the characteristics of the 'I' that I perceive can be changed by Prozac, a walk in the park, or a Bach fugue.

No great trauma, in fact, is required to call seriously into question the reality, or at least the continuity, of the 'I'. Of course if you ask yourself: 'What am I thinking now?', you will be able to provide a slick answer - an answer reassuring to the notion of an 'I'. But try asking instead: 'What was I thinking of a moment ago?' You may well be unable to give a coherent answer.

And some say that that inability is an indication that the 'I' is a fiction. We see ourselves as seamless stories, they say. But in fact we are strings of beads: we are our experiences, but then our brains, desperate to make us into metanarratives, and incapable of contemplating the possibility of meaninglessness, string the beads together by convincing us that there is a continuous 'I' to whom all the experiences happen.

There are many objections to these objections. And any honest, informed materialist will admit to being embarrassed by the fact of consciousness. It is hard to see how natural selection could possibly have detected subjectivity, let alone promoted it. You don't need consciousness for theory of mind (which plainly might confer a selective advantage). It is hard to see how neurones might secrete consciousness, and also hard to see how any conceivable experiment might probe the possibility.

Christians have to avoid the rigid dualism into which they have so often fallen so disastrously - a dualism that sees the body as a sort of building inhabited by the real 'me' (which they've often called the 'soul').

A proper Christian notion of embodiment, inspired by God's affirmation of the flesh in the Incarnation, will see the connections between matter and mind as far more complex, intimate and exciting than materialists or dualists could ever dream of.

Charles Foster