Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Addressing the Mind-Brain Dependence Problem

A common argument used by atheists to argue for the inference of the non-existence of God is the apparent non-existence of the human spirit. Since most of the major forms of theism assumes that human beings have spirits, and since human spirits are supposed to be able to think and experience consciousness apart from the body, the fact that human consciousness can be affected by or be (temporarily or permanently) extinguished due to physical sleep, or drugs (e.g. anesthesia, alcohol, LSD), or head trauma or cerebral diseases would suggest that humans don't have spirits. If humans don't have spirits, then God who is supposed to also be a spirit similar to human spirits (of which human spirits are derivative, dependent and ontologically inferior to) may also not exist.

Let's use a more specific example. When a patient is going to have an operation and anesthesia is administered to him, why does the patient completely lose consciousness until the application of anesthesia is stopped?

How could Christians answer such a a challenge? Here's my personal preliminary answer. While there are a minority of Christian scholars, apologists and philosophers who are materialists or physicalists when it comes to human nature, historically Christians have believed in mind-body dualism. That humans have both a physical and spiritual (i.e. immaterial) aspect to them. Some Christians hold to a trichotomous anthropology (of 1. spirit, 2. soul, 3. body) while others hold to a dichotomous anthropology (of 1. spirit/soul, 2. body). For the purposes of this discussion, I'll assume (my preferred position) that human beings are a dichotomy. For all I know the "soul" is the effect or emanation (for lack of better words) of the interaction of the spirit and body (but admittedly this is just speculation). In some Christian circles trichotomy is the majority report. However, dichotomy is the preferred position taken by most scholarly Christian theologians, apologists and philosophers. I won't go into the issues of whether the spirit of a human is a mind or whether the mind is merely a faculty of the human spirit etc. (with all the variations and permutational possibilities).

To answer the challenge, I would say that it's possible that the interaction between the spirit of human beings and their physical bodies might be analogous to wearing strap on binoculars or night vision goggles. By wearing them, one's abilities are both enhanced and curtailed. On the one hand, one's ability to see distant objects or to see objects in near perfect darkness is enhanced, yet on the other hand one's peripheral vision is diminished. Assuming the goggles are strapped onto a person's head so that it's virtually "glued" to their eyes, if the goggles get damaged so that they no longer function as they were designed to, then the person wearing the goggles could entirely lose all ability to see. Say for example that the batteries of the goggles dies or the goggles get accidentally crushed. So long as the goggles are strapped onto the person's head, the person is, for all intents and purposes blind.

Similarly, the spiritual mind of man might be such that when properly interacting with the human brain it's possible for the mind to also interact with the physical world (corresponding to enhanced abilities while wearing goggles). However, if the brain get's damaged, then the experience of consciousness might also be affected. This could explain why it's possible to lose consciousness during sleep, or due to head trauma or exposure to anesthesia (corresponding to curtailed abilities while wearing goggles). It may be that only when the human spirit is completely severed from it's normal connection to the body (i.e. at death) does the spiritual mind of a human being become able to experience consciousness apart from the limiting influence of the brain. This might be the explanation as to why people who claim to have had Out of Body Experiences (OBE) in conjunction with Near Death Experiences (NDE) also claim that their consciousness and awareness of themselves, others and their environment was enhanced and broadened/widened during the experience, but ceased when their bodies and/or brains were revived. There are instances of people who were born blind but claim to have had near death experiences where after their spirit had left their body, they were able to see for the first time (at least that's what they suspect they were able to do and their descriptions seems to match the process of vision). See for example these links
Here, Here, Here, Here, Here and Here.
Admittedly, all analogies break down eventually. Nevertheless, I think one can see how this analogy could account for all the data of the physical world and still maintain the traditional understanding of Christian anthropology which teaches that humans also have spirits which can experience consciousness apart from brains. This is similar to angels and demons who are, according to various theistic religions, also unembodied spirits with minds and consciousnesses. But whose spiritual ontology may be different than the ontology of human spirits. According to Christian theology, human spirits are meant to be connected to their human bodies. So much so that even Christians in heaven who are enjoying the blessedness of heaven nevertheless patiently wait for their resurrection bodies and know that their current disembodied state is unnatural.

It might be argued that the analogy I gave above doesn't really work because the person who continues to wear the broken goggles can still see through his eyes. He's just seeing "black" because the goggles aren't working. Sight is still occurring, even though he can't see anything. Whereas under anesthesia the person isn't experiencing any consciousness at all, not merely limited consciousness. But that misses the point of the analogy which was to show how the faculty of one system could be limited by its connection to another system.

Here's another analogy that might be better. It's possible to have two separate computers that can both perform a particular function separately, but which can perform the function along with other functions when they are networked together. Yet, if one starts malfunctioning, it's possible for the other computer to also malfunction so long as it continues to be connected to the other computer via a network; but which will start working properly again once the connection is severed.

Think of two computers (say computer A and B) that each have their own printers (printers A and B). Printer A prints only black and white and printer B prints color (along with black and white), but neither can fax. Then there's a third printer, printer C which only prints black and white but can also fax when it shares a connection with both computer A and B through a network. It's possible for computers A and B to not be able to print from printers A and B so long as they are networked and set to print only through printer C. It might be the case that only and until the network is disconnected can computer B (analogous to the soul or spirit of a human) print color from printer B. However, printer B cannot fax (analogous to interacting with the physical world) even though it can print better pictures in color (analogous to the enhanced consciousness experienced by those claiming to have had NDE). According to Christian theology, after the resurrection, Christians will possess both benefits. Both the advantage of having a physical body AND having an enhanced consciousness because of their resurrection (i.e. glorified) bodies.

Some might say that using this analogy would entail that the human brain could function (at least in a limited fashion) apart from a connection to the spirit. But that wouldn't be completely contradictory to Christianity. While most modern Christians and non-Christians have thought that only humans could have souls, previous generations of Christian theologians and philosophers have been willing to grant the possibility that some animals have souls even if they don't have spirits. It was really only due to the influence of René Descartes did Christians start questioning and then eventually denying that animals could have souls and consciousness. Even J.P. Moreland admits this in the first 3 minutes of his lecture "Evidence for the Existence of the Soul." We also have strong indications that certain animals have some reasoning ability even though they don't have spirits. For example, it's been said (rightly or wrongly) that the famous gorilla Koko is able to understand more than 1,000 signs based on American Sign Language, and understand approximately 2,000 words of spoken English. Also, some studies suggest some monkeys can do simple arithmetic. There are also anecdotal stories of how some people who were beheaded during the French Revolution were able to respond up to 30 seconds after being decapitated. I mention these things to say that there's nothing inherently contradictory to Christianity to say that it's possible for the human brain to produce something like consciousness apart from a connection to a spirit for a limited amount of time; if such a thing could even occur. But even then, in the case of decapitation, the connection between the 1. spirit and 2. body and/or brain may not be disconnected immediately upon the separation of the head from the body. The connection between the spirit and the brain may continue until the brain itself completely shuts down due to lack of oxygen and other nutrients. In which case, it might have been the case that the human spirit of people remained connected to the brain for 30 or more seconds after they were decapitated. Therefore the objection really has no sting to it.

By the way, I have been in office situations where something similar to the above analogy was the case. A computer may have a program that alone could open a specific file type, but which needed another computer it was connected to through a network to be able to print because that other computer had the program to operate the printer. So, in order to perform certain tasks, both computers needed each other.

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