Posted by: davidlarkin | December 4, 2010

Reason – Spearhead or Beam of Light?

Which is the better metaphor for the human faculty of Reason in the interaction between mind and matter — spearhead or beam of light? Who would care about this?

As discussed later in this post, C. S. Lewis considered this in his Christian apologetic work in the 1940s. Modern science denies any distinction between mind and matter, reducing mind to matter. For me, that reduction is merely rhetorical because the “Hard Problem” of providing a physical explanation for human consciousness has not been solved, and is not likely to be solved for reasons described below.

The past few days, we have been having an email discussion on my college class listserv about the alleged “emergence” of reason in the physicalist account of the evolution of the brain and mental phenomena. I argue that there are non-physical elements in the mental that cannot be reduced to mere biology and physics of the brain. Specifically, materialist or physicalist accounts of contemporary science, e.g. Darwinian or Neo-Darwinian accounts of random DNA mutations and genome code, cannot account for and will never be able to account for the appearance of abstract concepts like Reason, mathematics and logic in the history of human consciousness. I argue:

(1) There is a chasm between the mental events in our consciousness and the physical events in and among the neurons in our brains, i.e., we cannot reduce our conscious experience to a scientific naturalist or physicalist explanation of particles of matter acting in fields of force according to laws of nature. The best and most accessible argument for the inability of scientific reductionism to explain subjective mental events is NYU philosopher Thomas Nagel’s famous paper What Is It Like to Be a Bat?. By highlighting the example of the probable consciousness of a bat, with its sonar-like sensory viewing system, Nagel contends that there is a subjective quality of the consciousness of living creatures that cannot be reduced to physical description, but is necessarily a part of reality that science cannot partition away in order to have a unified theory. There is just something that it is like to be a bat. It cannot be reduced to the formulas of physics or code within the bat DNA. Our experience of reality includes our subjective qualitative experience. There are 5 billion subjective human experiences happening at these moments, and we can only believe that they are of the same nature, because we cannot experience and observe any of those subjective experiences except our own. This chasm between the objective physical and the subjective mental is a fact that allows for and makes possible a justified belief in an immaterial self, or person, with a will and responsibility for his or her actions. Without this chasm, science could and would triumphantly reduce us to automatons who act in accordance with the interaction of neuron cells in the brain in an order determined by laws of nature, and not by means of our personal, thinking, reasoning will that causes action. Our conscious self becomes reduced to a spectator who falsely believes he or she is a participant in his or her behavior and that personal decision-making is an illusion.

Yet, some do this reduction and believe it. There is a substantial number of philosophers, cognitive scientists and scientists who believe in a deterministic universe. All of our actions are determined by physical laws of nature, and each action is the necessary next action in the succession of events determined at the time of the Big Bang. Quantum physics may add a dimension of indeterminacy to the physical world, but that indeterminacy does not translate into an opening for rational purpose and will, but only provides an apparent randomness to subatomic physical events that cannot be predicted with certainty by any other discovered law of nature. As such, a theoretical physicist tempted to argue that there may be human actions that are not determined in a manner that we can predict with certainty with the laws of physics would need a theory to explain how that indeterminacy at the subatomic level can have consequences at the neuronal level. At the level of the neuron cell, biochemists and cell biologists confidently explain how cellular events are determined by the biochemical regularities qua laws that regulate the activities of molecules and proteins acting with predictable integrity far above the quantum level. As such, indeterminate random quantum events within atoms are not predictors of events at the macro-level of neuronal activity. We do not experience physical indeterminacy. If we did, we would see a significant gap between our actions, and our ability to find reasonable explanations for our actions because we would find ourselves acting randomly. We would certainly sense some underlying uncertainty principle in operation in our brain somewhere as we wander out into the street when we thought we were walking in the front door. The only physical indeterminacy we experience is the action of our will we believe to be freely causing actions with discursive purpose, i.e., purpose that can be expressed in language that is our reason for why we acted so, rather than an scientific explanation of our action due to the interaction of molecules in accordance with biochemical laws.

(2) In our human experience it is evident that Reason and rationality necessarily precede knowledge of truth, or apparent and pragmatically acceptable truths, about the world that we seem to need to survive in the world. We must be able to rationally assess our observations and sensations in order to make decisions about actions to take to survive. We use reason in forming our beliefs which we consider true beliefs and upon which we rely in calculating our immediate course of action or plans for action and formation of habits useful for our survival and flourishing.

(3) Reason or rationality (and mathematics) are abstract concepts that describe a phenomenon of objective mechanical operations in the brain and subjective mental events in our our consciousness. The prohibitive explanatory divide between the physical brain and our subjective mental conscious life also precludes an physical explanation. Moreover, it is difficult to imagine that DNA was altered in natural history by random mutations such that the infinite and unfathomable reason and mathematics became embedded in the stem cell to be manifested in the animal brain. Even if a Neo-Darwinist could posit an explanation and reduce Rationality or mathematics to certain physical code sequences in the human genome to document the “emergence” in natural history of the capacity, the mutation of the DNA code to do this seems so conveniently and improbably the result of random mutations of DNA (without the ability of the environment to provide input into the mutation sequence as Darwinism and now biochemistry or Neo-Darwinism presupposes), that the foundation of Neo-Darwinism must tremble at the articulation.

(4) Accordingly, because of the irreducibility of abstract thought and reason and the like, the physicalist or Neo-Darwinist is faced with the problem that Plato attempted to systematize in The Republic, how do we account for abstractions, as exemplified by common thoughts and beliefs about “Ideal” forms of things mundane and ethereal and qualities like beauty and justice. Plato’s idealism caused him to posit another world of the true and real forms of ideas of things and qualities of things like ideal forms of a chair or table or the highest form of the Good, which Plato equates with God.

In thinking about these things, I was reminded of C. S. Lewis’s argument that Reason and rationality are not reducible to Nature and physical reality because rationality is God-given and not present in Nature.

I found my copy of Lewis’s 1947 work Miracles. I remembered buying my copy around 1984 or so at a Christian bookstore in Westwood, in Los Angeles across the street from Bullocks department store, which I suppose is long gone today. The paperback book is yellowed around the edges of the pages now and the bent corners evidence my progress through the book back then.

In Chapter IV, Lewis is discussing the distinction between Nature and Supernature which is the title of the chapter. Lewis argues that Nature, the material physical world we observe and live in, is irrational and purposeless. For Lewis, our rationality, and our ability to use Reason to consciously form true beliefs (to the best of our ability), is not imparted by Nature, but is imparted by God. God is a god of Reason, and because He made us in his image, we are endowed with Reason, though a humanly imperfect reason. On page 31 of my copy, Lewis has posited that God and Nature are separate, but in coexisting there must be a relationship between God and Nature. This relationship is manifested in every human mind. He writes:

. . . There is enormous difficulty in conceiving two things which simply co-exist and have no other relation. If this difficulty escapes our notice, that is because we are victims of picture-thinking. We really imagine them side by side in some kind of space. But of course if they were both in a common space, or a common time, or in any kind of common medium whatever, they would both be parts of a system, in fact of a “Nature.” Even if we succeed in eliminating such pictures, the mere fact of our trying to think of them together slurs over the real difficulty because for that moment anyway, our own mind is the common medium. If there can be such a thing as sheer “otherness,” if things can co-exist and no more, it is at any rate a conception which my mind cannot form. And in the present instance it seems specially gratuitous to try to form it, for we already know that God and Nature have come into a certain relation. They have at the very least, a relation — almost, in one sense, a common frontier — in every human mind.

Lewis believed that this chasm between Nature and God existed in the life of the human mind. Man is made in the image of God, and His Reason is imparted to us as a gift from a God of ultimate Reason, though the gift is limited and imperfect for reasons only God knows. Hence, for Lewis, Reason in the mind of man is supernatural because it is from God, and not from Nature, the two being separate. Lewis writes further:

The relations which arise at that frontier are indeed of a most complicated and intimate sort. That spearhead of the Supernatural which I call my reason links up with all my natural contents — my sensations, emotions, and the like — so completely that I call the mixture by the single word “me.” Again, there is what I have called the unsymmetrical character of the frontier relations [between God and Nature]. When the physical state of the brain dominates my thinking, it produces only disorder. But my brain does not become any less a brain when it is dominated by Reason: Nor do my emotions and sensations become any less emotions and sensations. Reason saves and strengthens my whole system, psychological and physical, whereas that whole system, by rebelling against Reason, destroys both Reason and itself. The military metaphor of a spearhead was apparently ill-chosen. The supernatural Reason enters my natural brain not like a weapon — more like a beam of light which illuminates or a principle of organisation which unifies and develops. Our whole picture of Nature being “invaded” (as if by a foreign enemy) was wrong. When we actually examine one of these invasions it looks more like the arrival of a king among his own subjects or a mahout visiting his own elephant. The elephant may run amuck, Nature may be rebellious. But from observing what happens when Nature obeys it is almost impossible not to conclude that it is her very “nature” to be a subject. All happens as if she had been designed for that very role.

Assuming it were possible to reduce the mind to physical events in the brain, a naturalist or physicalist must agree with David Hume that Reason is a slave to the passions, which arise naturally and spontaneously; Reason is a mere cognitive instrument. However, as Lewis shows and a fair appraisal of our own conscious life confirms, Reason is the capacity to judge the true from false and right from wrong in Nature, which results in our rational behavior when we are acting in accordance with the “light” of reason. Through practice or prayer, this capacity results in what we refer to as wisdom, the developed use of reason to know the world better and to act freely and effectively in it if we choose to act. If this is the case, then Reason cannot be a mere cognitive tool to carry out the irrational desires of our flesh. With Reason we are able to harness the flesh and our desires, as difficult as it may be at times, if we so choose. We are able to enjoy the creation as God does. We create with rational operation of the will and the imagination, and know, understand and conquer Nature by means of uncountable judgments resulting from our ability to Reason. To say that reason and similar gifts are inherent in a material or physical Nature is to give an immaterial and non-physical self-consciousness to particles of matter acting in fields of force according to laws of nature, which is a supernatural property and therefore contradictory.

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