Why I'd like my Christian friends to consider that rational thought is a natural phenomenonLet’s pare this down into bite sized chunks:
Some people try to prove the existence of the supernatural by talking about our minds. The claim is basically that, unless there is some supernatural involvement, we could not trust our own reasoning processes. If our minds work by electrical and chemical processes, why should we trust their results?
I'm posting both as a Christian and as a computer scientist. Computer science is my profession and has been for many years. I can tell you confidently that computers work by purely natural means, and we trust the results we get from them every day. If I asked you to multiply 327 x 418, how many of you would trust your own minds, and how many of you would use a calculator?
Here is why I think it matters: if you visit the atheist forums on the internet, you will meet so many ex-Christians who were (once, long ago) totally sold on the idea that either the Bible was infallible or the earth was 10,000 years old (or both). My argument here is not meant for those Christians who believe that the Bible is infallible or the earth is 10,000 years old. It is meant for those Christians who engage in and largely accept scientific findings as honestly derived and trustworthy. Young earthers are at risk of being picked off by atheist snipers because they believe things that are increasingly difficult to defend. In the same way I believe that insisting on a supernatural explanation for consciousness will become increasingly difficult to defend. And it's probably a peripheral issue, hardly worth risking your faith for it. I expect that all Christians -- and all people of good conscience -- want the truth of a matter. And so I'd like you to hear out my reasons why I believe that rational thought is a natural phenomenon.
There is an argument that our minds cannot be based on electrical and chemical processes. And when I have heard that argument, there is usually some reference to the mindlessness and randomness of the particles or chemicals involved. I will grant you that an electrical impulse in itself is not intelligent. But that's not the question. There's a context to those electrical impulses and those chemical signals, and it's a living organism.
Let's define an organism as a biological entity where the electrical and chemical processes are directed towards the well-being of the system that contains them. That's a working definition; it might stand refining but let's start there.
Let's also start with a process that most people would agree is natural: digestion. Why exactly should the food we place in our stomach be put to use in strengthening our bones and other tissues? How does a totally irrational system like our digestive system manage the that? Consider our food going through the refining processes and the distribution system to get to the point where it strengthens other parts of us. A totally random chemical process could never manage it. But our stomachs are not totally random. There are biological processes that govern that. The chemistry in our stomachs is part of an engineered system that works toward a specific purpose and goal.
Let's move towards the topic of how our minds work. Why exactly should our minds conclude that 2 + 2 = 4? Let's set aside the background questions about what words mean and what numbers mean, and let's look at the question in the same way that a calculator would. Once the mind has been trained in the basic knowledge of what numbers are and how to add them, we get the right answer: 2 + 2 = 4. We get the right answer reliably ... unless we're sleepy or distracted or there are other perfectly naturalistic things going on with our minds. (The problems -- once we trace their causes -- tend to support the idea that there are biological causes behind how our mind works.) The reason our minds work is not because there are random electrical impulses in our brain. Instead, the electricity and chemistry in our brains is an engineered system that works toward specific purposes and goals.
This is not said to diminish the amazing quality of our minds and of consciousness. It is not said to argue against knowing God with our minds. It is said in a quest for truth, and because I believe that the day will come - and sooner rather than later - that those who hold out for a supernatural component in consciousness will become a target for atheist snipers.
Objective: Prove that the operation of the mind is not supernatural.
Premise 1: Computers work purely by natural means.
Premise 2: Let's define an organism as a biological entity where the electrical and chemical processes are directed towards the well-being of the system that contains them.
Premise 3: Digestion: But our stomachs are not totally random. There are biological processes that govern that. The chemistry in our stomachs is part of an engineered system that works toward a specific purpose and goal.
Conclusion: The reason our minds work is not because there are random electrical impulses in our brain. Instead, the electricity and chemistry in our brains is an engineered system that works toward specific purposes and goals.
Discussion of the Argument:
Computers as a premise
Computers do nothing, even under power, without being externally directed to function toward a certain objective, which is determined externally to the computer. A computer has no initiative; it does not set out on its own to consider its maker, or the poverty of the designs of previous computers as observed in computer boneyards. Computers do not set out on their own to connect to anything else, or to communicate responses to inquiries they receive. Computers merely respond to intelligent inputs, and they do so deterministically, as defined in their hardware and software, designed by external intelligent minds. (This had better be the case, or computers would make poor tools; they'd be more like extremely stupid employees).
Until a computer is instructed and configured to perform a function, it does nothing but sit in an idle loop, blindly and dumbly awaiting input from external intelligence, or even not-so-intelligent sources. Given an electric glitch to the logic, a computer is more apt to produce gibberish than it is to perform fluid flow simulations.
Computers are not autonomous agents, and neither are computerized robots. They will not decide moral problems unless specifically programmed to do so, with the morals of the programmer, not the computer. Computers do not ask whether moral principles exist as objective axioms, based on the computer's skepticism and a need to disprove.
Taken through a reversed chain of cause and effect, then, computer operation can easily be traced back to forces directed by intellect, mind and creative agency. So as far as computers are concerned, the question of material source remains grounded in the question of the nature of intellect, mind and agency, all of which are external to the computer.
Computers do not function purely materially; they require external intelligence.
Digestion as a Premise
The premises of directed processes in a living organism and particularly the autonomy of digestion, both refer to something which is different about “life”. The recognized existence of life presumes the existence of “something” which specifically is not present in either dead organisms which were quite recently alive, nor in deterministic mineral existence which has never been alive at all. That difference which defines “life” as opposed to death might be described by its animation, directed toward objectives such as self-preservation, reproduction, etc. But it is not explained
by animation, because neither the nature of animation, nor the source of the animation are explained, nor are the directed forces which control the animation. Directed animation is merely an interim effect of being alive, of “life”. The source of directed animation is acquired solely from parents: life comes only from prior life, as even evolutionary Atheists admit. Life is not produced ad hoc from dead minerals or in dead minerals, contra any unprovable “common ancestor / First Life” speculation.
The source for life has no physical characteristics which provide a purely physical ‘essence” that can be examined physically using empirical techniques; it has neither mass nor energy; there is no physical lump called “life”, much less a lump of its source. Yet it creates directed operational forces which are far different from the entropic "four forces of physics" [note 1] which take over in the deterministic decomposition of ex-organisms.
So again we can see that living organisms, when subjected to analysis by reversing the chains of cause and effect, also arrive ultimately at non-physical causation. Premises 2 and 3 do not support the conclusion.
The argument’s conclusion, that the brain is engineered to operate “toward specific purposes and goals”, actually does not preclude the necessity of non-physical preconditions for that operation. But it does seem to limit the mind to deterministic operation, unless one of the purposes is to generate a mind which is emergent from the physical structure. But that defeats the idea of purely material operation, so that is excluded, and determinism of the brain is conclusive in this argument. The argument also fails for the following reasons:
First, purely physical operation toward those ends does not account for the initiative to attack abstraction due solely to the desire to do so, and for no other reason. There is no “purpose or goal” within the physical neuronal structure which causally induces such pursuits as the comprehension of paradox, dilemmas, self-evidence, and comprehension itself.
Because comprehension, thoughts and concepts are not physical lumps amenable to be analyzed empirically, then when considered reductively (physically), they are reduced to mere information which is contained in the relationships of biochemical electric discharges to each other. The essence of that transient operation is that the neurons are somehow induced to form carriers which are somehow modulated with information from somewhere, which presents only when multiple carriers somehow work in conjunction to coordinate a congruence of discharges such that the result produces the complete information for the apprehension by … the mind. Again the mind is found to be external to the physical operation and not contained within it.
A neuron is not a mind, it is a biochemical semiconductor switching device (sometimes containing logic devices – AND/OR functions - and multiple inputs). There is nothing about a neuron or a large group of neurons which suggests nondeterministic agency or mental independence of a mind. The idea that mind “emerges” from the wiring of multitudes of neurons is unsustainable, using known facts of neurology. Logic circuitry is not a mind; it is totally deterministic, without curiosity or self-awareness even remotely possible.
As for emergence of complexity from large quantities, an ocean does not create an emergence beyond wetness which is produced from a single drop of water. Animals did not emerge because of Deep Time. And mind, agency, creativity, qualia and comprehension cannot be shown to emerge from large accumulations of neurons.
A single neuronic discharge contains just one bit of information, hardly an abstract “idea” or useful concept. For rational thought there has to be the force generation by an overall coordination by intelligence which controls neuronal operation (just as with bit flow in a silicon based computer). And again there is no lump of intellect lodged in the brain to be materially analyzed. So again, the reverse analysis of prior cause and effect terminates in a non-material entity.
The argument that the mind and rational thought are physical entities derived from the processes of the physical brain is not sustainable. Especially and specifically given the origination of all life processes, including mind itself, in nonphysical existences which, despite being nonphysical, are causal in life, agency, mind and comprehension.
1. The four forces of physics are weak, strong, gravity, electromagnetism. A potential fifth might be found in Dark Energy, but is not yet identified.