Science, consciousness, explanation, theism

In a discussion with Alister McGrath (formerly Professor of Historical Theology at Oxford and now Professor of Theology at King’s College, London) Richard Dawkins (formerly Professor for Public Understanding of Science at Oxford) says (19:45):

“I totally agree with you that there is deep, deep mystery at the base of the universe, and physicists know this as well as anybody, questions like ‘What, if anything, was there before time began?’* Perhaps it’s because I’m a biologist who has been impressed through my whole career by the power of evolution, that the one thing I would not be happy about accepting in those deeply mysterious preconditions of the universe is anything complex. I could easily imagine something very hard to understand at the base of the universe, at the base of the laws of physics, and of course they are very hard to understand, but the one thing that seems to me clearly doesn’t help is to postulate anything in the nature of a complicated intelligence. There are lots of things that would help, and physicists are working on them […], but a theory that begins by postulating a deliberate, conscious intelligence seems to me to have sold the past right before you even start, because that’s one of the things that science has so triumphantly explained. Science hasn’t triumphantly explained, yet, the origin of the universe, but I feel, I have a very strong intuition and I wish I could persuade you of it, that science is not going to be helped by invoking conscious, deliberate intelligence, whatever else preceded the universe, whatever that might mean, it is not going to be the kind of thing which designs anything [.]”

*This question is nonsensical, as ‘before’ in this context is a temporal relation. One can ask “What exists non-temporally?”, and presumably something like this is what Dawkins is asking, and he suggests something similar near the end of the quotation.

Explaining phenomenal consciousness in materialist (‘scientific’) terms in contemporary philosophy of mind is often referred to as ‘the hard problem’. It is so called because a significant percentage of those who study this issue believe it is conceptually very difficult – that we do not know how it could be explained, and some believe it cannot be explained, by an account of the universe that is something like the one we have in current physics.

It is true, however, that evolutionary biology has given a general account of how biological organisms (including brains) might have arisen, and it is true that we understand more about the brain and behaviour than before (for example, we can generate computer-based ‘neural networks’, which use certains aspects of human brain functioning as an analogy for the computer programs, which in turn can accomplish certain behavioural tasks in ways that are somewhat similar to how humans do them).

So, it seems reasonable to assume that what Dawkins has in mind here is an explanation of the brain and behaviour, or of ‘functional consciousness’ as opposed to ‘phenomenal consciousness’. Science has started to give an explanation of how human brains do certain things (i.e., behaviour or functionality), and these explanations in turn seem to fit into a larger story of the development of organisms in general through evolutionary processes. I.e., we have begun to develop a plausible causal story which starts from simplicity and builds complexity relevant to brain functionality.

Yet. If there is a conceptual conundrum between phenomenal consciousness and materialist accounts of the universe, as indicated above, we also know regardless that there is a tight linkage between phenomenal consciousness and behaviour. For examples, I can talk about the contents of my phenomenal consciousness and act in other ways on them, brain activity seems to be highly correlated with certain kinds of phenomenal states, and so on. If science doesn’t seem near an explanation of phenomenal consciousness, and if certain behaviour or brain activity (i.e., ‘functional consciousness’) seems dependent on or to act in a tight causal relationship with phenomenal consciousness, then to what extent does it make sense to say that ‘deliberate, conscious intelligence’ is something we have triumphantly explained? It seems rather the opposite – it is one of the things that has stymied science the most, and led contemporary materialist philosophers into contortions in an attempt to explain it.

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