All knowledge begins with God. Without God, all that can result is foolishness. This may seem counterintuitive, especially if you do not believe in God, because we are taught to rely exclusively on our own senses, or our own comprehension and understanding when we think about the world. However, if we take a moment to really think about it, we have created fields of study dedicated to answering the very questions that the Bible addresses outright and these fields of study haven’t been very successful.
The Mind-Body Problem
17th century French philosopher Rene Descartes has a famous line, one which I am sure even those who have no interest in philosophy are aware, “I think, therefore I am.” This phrase is loosely representative of the philosophical mind-body problem. What is the mind-body problem? At its core, this philosophical problem can be summarized by the following three points:
- I am a mind
- I am aware of my body
- Is my body the source of my mind, or is my mind independent from my body?
My mind exists without a doubt. I think, therefore I am. Since I am capable of thought, rational thought, and I am aware of my existence, then I must exist in some form. When I use the word mind, this is what I am referring to; my conscious existence and self awareness. With this definition, mind is completely separate from body, and results in the question at the root of the mind-body problem; does my mind depend on my body? At first, the answer seems obvious, but it only seems obvious because we take our senses for granted. We see that we have a body, we can hear our voice, we can feel our limbs, we can taste with our mouths, and we can even smell our flesh, but these facts remain true in situations where we know we do not have a body, such as our dreams. Let’s return to Descartes for further clarification.
“How often have I dreamt that I was in these familiar circumstances, that I was dressed, and occupied this place by the fire, when I was lying undressed in bed? At the present moment …I look upon this paper with eyes wide awake; …but I cannot forget that, at other times I have been deceived in sleep by similar illusions; and, attentively considering those cases, I perceive so clearly that there exist no certain marks by which the state of waking can ever be distinguished from sleep…”DESCARTES, Meditations On First Philosophy
Descartes has beautifully encapsulated the mind-body problem right in this section from his book, Meditations On First Philosophy. My mind is capable of creating entire worlds, new physical bodies, years-long relationships, and it is able to convince me that these things are very real, when in fact they are components of a dream. My mind has placed me in the body of a fish, using every ounce of energy I have to power my fins in order to escape a nasty predator, while genuinely fearing my impending doom and what my death may mean for me. If my mind is capable of doing these things, how do I know that it is not doing those things right now? How do I know that this life is anything more than another layer of a dream, feigning continuance by creating memories of dreams and sleep which have not occurred? Descartes answers these questions theologically, and I would challenge you to answer these questions for yourself. Science rejects the possibility that everything is happening in your mind, and that the world is an illusion. It has no empirical or observable reason to reject this possibility, and even if it did, how could you be certain that the scientific evidence of such a position is not merely conjured by your own mind? Theology and philosophy are not restricted to this dichotomy because they do not rely solely on empirical evidence obtained exclusively through our natural senses.
The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and discipline.Proverbs 1:7
Now that we have fully defined the mind-body problem, we can begin to tackle the subject of consciousness, or an awareness of self. We established that it is unclear if a mind is dependent on a body, or even whether our bodies exist, but what about the reverse? Can a body live and function without the presence of mind? Again, the answers to these questions seem obvious at first, but consider the jellyfish. It has no brain, but it eats, in fact it deliberately hunts its prey, and it selects a mate for copulation. How can it select a target to hunt if it does not think? How does it select a mate without a mind? There must be more for us to consider in this equation.
For the sake of this discussion, let’s divide consciousness into a few subcategories:
- Sentience – subjectively feeling, experiencing, or sensing
- Awareness – identifying meaning within a subjective experience
- Self Awareness – identifying oneself through introspection, the ability to analyze and reflect on one’s experience
Sentience is something that we could most likely attribute to every form of life. Plant life can be witnessed as responding to stimuli, especially painful stimuli. We have even confirmed that plants emit high frequency forms of communication, inaudible to human ears, allowing them to express their needs.
Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge. Without speech or language, without a sound to be heard, their voice has gone out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.Psalm 19: 2-4
While we can claim that virtually all life is sentient, by the definition provided earlier, the degree of consciousness of other life forms remains unclear. How many forms of life are able to extrapolate meaning from an experience? For example, while a dog may respond to unfamiliar sounds as a potential threat, can a dog derive meaning from familiar sounds, such as a phone? I believe that this is the real grey area in consciousness. Once we reach this middle stage, it becomes difficult for us to determine the degree to which others are aware. If I play a recording of a dog’s master giving the dog commands, such as sit or speak, does the dog understand that what he hears is a recording? Is the dog capable of understanding that the device merely records a voice and plays it back, or does the dog think that his master is trapped inside of the device?
Most importantly, do the answers to any of these questions indicate that the dog experiences the third category of consciousness, self awareness? A dog’s ability to recognize a sound as a threat does not clearly indicate that the dog is self aware. Jellyfish do not have brains and are capable of determining if something is a threat, food, or a potential mate. A jellyfish is capable of deriving meaning from its experience in this manner, but we do not consider them to be self aware.
How do we determine if a being is self aware? Well, some of the greatest scientific minds of our generation got together and thought about this question a great deal. After much collaboration and deliberation, it was decided that the most scientifically accurate test would be to place a mirror in front of the subject of the test. Yes, that is the current test for self awareness, the most advanced stage of consciousness, we simply place the subject in front of a mirror. After the subject has had a chance to familiarize itself with its reflection, we then make a mark on the animal and see if they recognize from their reflection that the mark does not belong. If the animal attempts to remove the mark after discovering it in their reflection, they are considered to be self aware. Again, on the surface this seems like a good test, but does it really establish that the animal is self aware and capable of rational thought? Or does it simply mean that the animal has become accustomed to the appearance and behavior of its reflection? Perhaps it does not understand that it is his reflection, but instead understands that whatever it is seeing mimics his behavior, resulting in the animal touching his own forehead in an attempt to make the reflection remove the mark on its forehead. There is, of course, no way for us to be certain.
The Philosophical Zombie
The struggle to determine self awareness is convoluted even further by the concept of the philosophical zombie. The philosophical zombie is a thought experiment imagining a hypothetical being with no conscious experience, but which reacts as if it has such an experience. Artificial intelligence will likely only serve to popularize this analogy as it progresses. Imagine an artificially intelligent robot, with a human appearance, which has been programmed to behave as humanly as possible, to the point which it could fool the unsuspecting observer into thinking that the robot was a real person. The robot has no sense of mind, or sense of self, in the way that you or I do, but it could certainly simulate such an experience. It could react to pain, hunger, and sexual stimulation in the same ways that we do, and it could do these things without actually having a sense of experience. Would you consider this robot to be self aware? It would be capable of analyzing its behavior and improving itself, it would be programmed to view itself as an individual, and it would capable of expressing a variety of wants, needs, and original ideas. In this way, we may consider it to be self aware, but it would not actually feel emotions, it would not have true desires, and it would not have an experience at all like ours. In a way, it would be more like the jellyfish than human, capable of performing a surprising set of functions, but doing so without the presence of mind, or true individual experience.
Let Foolishness Ensue
So, to summarize, we have established that we cannot empirically determine if the life around us is self aware and that philosophy is capable of imagining beings exhibiting self awareness without having a fully conscious experience. We have also established that we cannot rely on empirical data obtained from our senses and that we cannot even be sure that our physical bodies, or senses, even truly exist. Given this, we are unable to establish a moral hierarchy regarding food consumption. Is it moral to hold down a chicken, chop off its head, and proceed to watch it flop around on the ground while waiting to cook him? Or perhaps it is better to be a vegetarian, blindly ignoring the tomato’s screams of pain simply because they are inaudible to human ears. Who is to say that the tomato’s experience is less than that of the chicken, when we have no way of understanding the situation from either living being’s perspective?
Without theology, philosophy and science have no ground, no base upon which we can build up to those things which we take for granted; our collective experience, and ultimately, our physical existence. We are unable to create philosophical morals without understanding the experience of others, and we cannot accurately assess that experience exclusively with empirical data. Without God, only foolishness can follow. God is the rock upon which we base our understanding, and even if we eventually forget that fact, it will continue to remain true.