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What is man (2): What’s it like to be a bat?

June 2018 | by Edgar Andrews

The second of three edited extracts from Edgar Andrews’ new book What is Man? Adam, alien or ape?

How would you like to live in an ultra-modern high-tech house? It has a basement; ground-floor living accommodation; a mezzanine entertainment-suite; and a top-floor bedroom level. On the ground floor, windows look out on the world around you.

The same is true of the mezzanine level — except that there the window glass is coloured, affecting the way you see the wider outside world. The bedrooms have video wall displays that can be changed at the touch of a button.

The basement contains things you seldom use, together with an automatic heating plant and a lot of quiet machinery that keeps the house in tip-top working order, without you having to do anything or even being aware of it.

The grounds are tended by robots controlled automatically from the basement complex, without any conscious effort on your part. Would you like to live there? I hope so, because you already do.

I’m not, of course, referring to bricks-and-mortar but to the human body and mind that each of us inhabits. The garden represents your body, the house represents your brain, and you, the occupant, represent your mind.

As you relax in your sitting-room, you can mentally survey the internal things that you are actually conscious of. Or you can gaze out of a window and watch the landscape beyond your property. Let’s call this outside-world ‘reality’.

The cellar is stacked with the brain-controlled machinery that keeps your blood flowing, your lungs breathing and your whole body functioning without any conscious input by you.

On the mezzanine floor you keep your beliefs, morals, prejudices, opinions, convictions and suchlike things that constitute your ‘world-view’. Like the window glass in our illustration, these things colour your understanding of reality. This colouration, in turn, affects your attitudes and actions, sometimes without you realizing it.

Finally, you can go upstairs to sleep, where you lose all consciousness of your surroundings — even though you brain is still as busy as ever, running the machinery of life and sorting out your tangled thoughts in nonsensical dreams. Let’s call this house-and-garden illustration the ‘Analogy’.

What’s your life worth?

Pursuing the Analogy, you decide to find out what your home is worth. You seek opinions from three different realtors (a.k.a. estate agents).

Realtor 1 walks into your house ignoring you completely. When you ask why he is behaving so badly he replies, ‘Why should I take any notice of you, seeing that you don’t exist? This property is just an unoccupied machine and mind is a myth’.

Realtor 2 is much nicer but she seems doubtful about the house. ‘I don’t think it’s worth much. But it would be different if it wasn’t haunted’.

‘Haunted?’ you splutter. ‘What do you mean, haunted? Show me the ghost!’

‘Well’, comes the apologetic reply, ‘I’m talking to it. You may think you’re a real person, but you’re actually just a kind of emanation from all that machinery downstairs. You do exist, but only as a by-product of the house. You have no independent existence — no strength, control, influence or power over the house or its grounds. You’re just some kind of radiation field emitted by the house’.

Realtor 3 is more to your liking. In his opinion, you actually exist as a person; you own and enjoy the property; and you can, if you choose, exercise some control over the machinery in the basement. What is more, you have the capacity to leave your home and go elsewhere without losing your identity or ceasing to exist.

Hopefully, the foregoing sketches will help us understand the personal implications of some of the actual theories of human consciousness on offer today.

Realtor 1. Does your mind exist?

The view that only material objects are real is called ‘materialism’ or ‘physicalism’. A material object is a publicly observable object, accessible to everyone in space-time. Materialism therefore denies the existence of genuine non-material entities such as mind, spirit and soul, while treating consciousness as an illusion arising from the operation of a material organ, the brain.

For example, Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the DNA double-helix, begins his book, The Astonishing Hypothesis, with the following words: ‘The astonishing hypothesis is that “You”, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.

‘As Lewis Carroll’s Alice might have phrased [it]: “You’re nothing but a pack of neurons”. This hypothesis is so alien to the ideas of most people today that it can truly be called astonishing’.

Materialism is based on the idea that every effect, including every human experience, must have a physical cause. However, John Haldane (1892-1964), a geneticist who vigorously promoted Darwinian evolution, neatly sums up the dilemma facing those who claim that consciousness is merely a by-product of the physical brain: ‘It seems to me immensely unlikely that mind is a mere by-product of matter.

‘For if my mental processes are determined wholly by the motions of atoms in my brain, I have no reason to suppose that my beliefs are true … hence I have no reason for supposing my brain to be composed of atoms. In order to escape from this necessity of sawing away the branch on which I am sitting, so to speak, I am compelled to believe that mind is not wholly conditioned by matter’.

Haldane was right. Neurons, neural-circuits, or any of the other physical hardware of the brain, have no capacity to make the decisions that guide and characterise our daily lives.

René Descartes

Realtor 2. Are you a ghost?

Your second visitor was nicer, but hardly more reassuring. On this view, consciousness is an ‘epiphenomenon’ — something arising from the activity of the physical brain, but having no independent existence, power or significance.

Yes, you do exist as a self-conscious person, but only as a helpless emanation from the material brain. When I walk into my utility room, a gentle hum tells me the freezer is working. Thus the hum does have a function, but it isn’t a necessary function; a sound-proofed freezer would work equally well. The hum has no power to influence the operation of the equipment, but is simply a by-product of the freezer machinery, an inessential, insignificant and incidental emanation.

In the more technical language of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ‘Epiphenomenalism is the view that mental events are caused by physical events in the brain, but have no effects upon any physical events … mental events play no causal role in [human behaviour]’.

What I have just described is the popular belief that mind ‘emerges’ from the physical brain and is somehow unreal; it is ‘the ghost in the machine’. An article in New Scientist (August 2016) puts it thus: ‘René Descartes was convinced that the body and conscious mind are two different substances: the first is made of matter, the latter is immaterial.

‘His ideas influenced neuroscience until a few decades ago, but the field has moved on. Today, it is widely accepted that our brains give rise to consciousness. But how? That is a raging debate’.

Descartes may be dead, but he isn’t buried. Philosopher Keith Ward (former Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford University) writes: ‘The metaphor of a ghost in the machine has worked well as a rhetorical device to make people think that we all know the brain (the machine) is real, whereas talk of a mind other than the brain, or of mental events in addition to brain-events, is talk about something peculiar, not quite real, and probably illusory (a ghost).

‘[But] … talk of mental events is the most real thing we humans know. We know we have sense experiences, bodily sensations, thoughts, feelings and images. We know we experience things in ways that are unique to us and never wholly communicable to other people … Mental events are real and to deny them would deprive us of all knowledge. They are not ghosts or hallucinations at all’.

Realtor 3. What’s it like to be a bat?

Your third valuer believes that the things that make you a self-aware person having a continuous existence — your thoughts, personality, spirit, soul, memories, desires, ambitions, emotions and free-will — are more than the unalterable and fatalistic output of your genes and neurons.

In other words, Realtor 3 teaches that dualism (the belief that mind and physical brain are distinct) best describes the relationship between consciousness and brain, in spite of the fact that it creates what is often called the ‘hard problem’. This is described by New Scientist as follows: ‘At its heart is what philosopher David Chalmers at New York University termed the “hard problem” of consciousness: how can physical networks of neurons produce experiences that appear to fall outside the material world?

‘As Thomas Nagel, also at New York University, put it in the 1970s: you could know every detail of the physical workings of a bat’s brain, but still not know what it is like to be a bat’.

Two dualistic answers can be offered to the ‘hard problem’. Firstly, some argue that as brains evolved and became incredibly complex machines, something having a decidedly non-material nature emerged from the machine — not just a helpless ghost, but a mind capable of controlling the machine (at least to some extent).

The second and alternative dualistic view is that Man was equipped from the outset with both a material body (including a physical brain) and a non-material mind. He differs from all animals, by virtue of having originated as a thinking, self-aware and moral creature. This, of course, is the biblical view of Man and we shall address it in Part 3 of this book.

Edgar Andrews is an author, speaker, physicist and engineer. He is Emeritus Professor of Materials at Queen Mary, University of London, and former editor of Evangelical Times