Consciousness: The Biggest Mystery Left to Science

Eric Metaxas | Author | Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Consciousness: The Biggest Mystery Left to Science

The “biggest mystery left to science” is the fact that you are listening to this broadcast. Well, actually, it’s that you’re aware that you’re listening to this broadcast.

You see, science can explain or at least believes it can explain a great many things. But consciousness has it stumped. We can describe the brain in ever-increasing detail. We have a pretty good idea about which parts of the brain control certain actions and even emotions.

But what about the so-called “mind/brain” distinction? It’s just as mysterious today as it was when philosopher Rene Descartes wrote “I think, therefore I am” some four centuries ago.

This mystery and what to make of it was the subject of a recent public radio series entitled “Mind and Brain.”

The mystery lies in the fact that, as one guest put it, this “wet gushy stuff” with the “consistency of mashed potatoes” in our skulls is an integral part of “us”: of our thoughts, our feelings, our hopes, and desires.

As was clearly evident on the program, the culture we live in is, in large measure, shaped and governed by a materialist worldview. That worldview holds that the only “real” things are matter and energy and that everything we observe is the product of the interaction between matter and energy.

That “everything” includes our awareness that we are the ones doing the observing. But as the philosopher David Chalmers said, “materialism doesn’t have the resources to fully explain consciousness.”

Instead of acknowledging the inadequacy – or, as the program called it, “limits” – of the materialistic worldview, three of the program’s guests, militant atheists all, tried to play down the problem.

Daniel Dennett, author of Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, insisted that there was no mystery at all. When challenged by the host, he argued that, within 15 to 20 years, we would able to “read” people’s dreams while they slept. Right.

When the host challenged that assertion, all that Dennett could say was, “Hang on to your hat.”

Richard Dawkins, who penned, among other things, The God Delusion, admitted that we may never solve the mystery of consciousness, but added, “What on earth makes you think that religion will?”

And Sam Harris would not rule out the possibility that consciousness survived death. That’s right, one of the world’s most famous atheists allowed for the possibility of life after death. He just thinks that the “idea that the brain can die and a soul that still speaks English and recognizes Granny is going to float away into the afterlife” is “profoundly implausible.”

Well perhaps it is. But what is equally implausible is that the materialism that reduces consciousness to chemistry and electrical impulses can tell us anything worthwhile about the human condition.

As award-winning writer and Christian Marilynne Robinson explained in her book Absence of Mind, a “central tenet” of this materialistic worldview is “that we do not know our own minds, our own motives, our own desires.” Only “well-qualified others” know them.

Thus, materialistic neuroscience explains away “experience and testimony of the individual mind,” and substitutes a story that more neatly fits the materialist paradigm.

Except that it doesn’t fit. And people are noticing this, and are pushing back against junk neuroscience and even the worldview that produced it.

Which is a very good thing. I’m sure the wet gushy stuff inside your head would agree.

Eric Metaxas is a co-host of BreakPoint Radio and a best-selling author whose biographies, children's books, and popular apologetics have been translated into more than a dozen languages.

BreakPoint commentary airs each weekday on more than one thousand outlets with an estimated listening audience of one million people. BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today's news and trends via radio, interactive media, and print.

Publication date: February 19, 2013

Consciousness: The Biggest Mystery Left to Science