Consciousness as a Case Study: How Scientism Fails

October 29, 2018

The study of human consciousness is an excellent example of what happens when the hard sciences intrude into another field where they don’t belong.

Neuroscience is a wonderful tool, and it should be gladly celebrated by all Christians who recognize that all truth is God’s truth. But neuroscience needs to stay in its own lane, cognizant of what it can tell us and what its limitations are. When it functions as a totalizing theory, intruding into the domain of other areas of knowledge (such as philosophy or theology), it has a distorting effect and ultimately undermines the nature of science itself. Once again we have an example of how scientism distorts genuine knowledge and hurts the enterprise of science.

Note very carefully what we know about five kinds of mental or conscious states:

  • sensation: a state of awareness or sentience;
  • thought: a mental, semantic content that can be expressed in a sentence;
  • belief: a person’s view (accepted to varying degrees of strength) of how things really are;
  • desire: a certain felt inclination to do, have, or experience certain things or to avoid them;
  • act of will: a choice, exercise of power, or endeavoring to act, usually for the sake of some purpose;

Notice: Mental properties are items we know quite independently of neuroscience. People have known these things for a long time, and they are known not by empirical tests or measurements, but by simple introspection. Simple introspection—combined with biblical, theological, and philosophical reflection—is the most rational and very best way to learn facts about the nonphysical nature of mental properties and mental/conscious states.

But the intrusion of neuroscience into philosophy of mind and commonsense reflection has, in my view, distorted the nature of our view of mental states and properties by rendering them in one way or another to be physical states and properties. Motivated by scientism (specifically, strong empiricism), philosophical behaviorism, for example, identified conscious states with body movements! This was a ridiculous view because, among other things, pain is inside us and causes body movements; pain is not a body movement itself. Still, for the behaviorist, being in pain is the same thing as moving the body by, say, grimacing and shouting, “Ouch!”

The most popular physicalist theory today is functionalism, which says consciousness is what the brain does rather than something the brain (or, better, the soul) has. Consider a pain: In my view, the nature of the pain is that it is the occurrence of a feeling of hurt. The role the pain plays in our lives is that it is caused, typically, by pin pricks, hitting one’s knee on a table, and so forth, and it causes us to shout, “Ouch!,” rub our knee, and desire to be comforted.

Now, what a pain is (a feeling of hurt) is different from what having a pain does or what a pain causes. And the former is far more central to the identity of a pain than the latter. But functionalists claim that what a person experiences when he has a pain, even if he has no experience at all, is irrelevant to his being in pain if he is stuck with a pin, shouts “Ouch!,” and desires comfort.

In sum, the commonsense dualist view of mental states such as pains holds that their essential nature is the intrinsic character of the mental state—e.g., being hurtful. Mental states are immaterial. But the functionalist view disregards the intrinsic nature of mental states such as pains and holds that their essential nature is a complex set of bodily inputs (e.g., being stuck with a pin, cutting one’s knee), the brain states these cause (e.g., certain neurons firing), and the outputs caused by these brain states (e.g., a desire for soothing, grimacing, and shouting, “Ouch!”).

Suppose one is stuck with a pin, a pleasurable state of tasting ice cream is produced, and this, in turn, causes a desire for soothing, and grimacing, along with shouting “Ouch!” The dualist will say that the person is in the pleasurable mental state of tasting ice cream, but that he or she is wired in an odd way regarding inputs and outputs of that state. On the other hand, the functionalist will say the person is in a state of pain, in complete disregard for the what-it-is-like to the state (experiencing the taste of ice cream) because the person exhibits the pain role (e.g., is stuck with a pin, desires soothing, and grimaces and shouts “Ouch!”). For most people, functionalist views on these matters are odd and unconvincing.

Indeed, the functionalist view has distorted consciousness beyond recognition. Consciousness is a series of inner states that we experience. There is a what-it-is-like to a conscious state. Conscious states may, indeed, be caused by bodily inputs and may cause bodily outputs, but what consciousness is, is not what it does. However, physicalists who are functionalists have wanted to identify consciousness with what the brain does because that makes consciousness physical and the body movements caused by the brain (e.g., rubbing one’s knee and shouting “Ouch!”) can be measured.

In this way, functionalism, along with philosophical behaviorism and the type identity theory have seriously distorted the nature of consciousness. It makes consciousness physical or implies that, for it to exist, it must depend on the brain functioning. Among other things, it rules out disembodied life after death, something many physicalists desire to eliminate. But in an ironic twist, it has been the science of neardeath experiences that has demonstrated beyond any reasonable doubt that a conscious self does not depend on the brain to function; it can survive death, and can have either a heavenly or a hellish experience.

So, since conscious states are not physical states, neuroscience is inept at discovering their nature. By contrast, neuroscience is good at discovering which brain states cause which conscious states (and vice versa). If we want to know how conscious states relate to and are dependent on the brain (and some brain states are dependent on conscious states, e.g., if you change your thinking habits, it will rewire your brain grooves), neuroscience is critical and extremely helpful. But it is of little or no value in discovering the very nature of mental states in the first place.

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