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Hawaii_Jake's avatar

Is consciousness reducible to brain-states or is it something else?

Asked by Hawaii_Jake (32728points) August 23rd, 2010

This article is about the arguments for atheism raised by Richard Dawkins in his book The God Delusion. The writer contends that Dawkins’ logic is faulty. I won’t attempt to regurgitate the arguments here. You are certainly capable of reading the article for yourselves. The writer does a much better job of it than I could anyway.

What it seems to boil down to is the core of the human condition. Our thoughts. Our knowledge. Our self-ness. Our consciousness.

What I’m wondering (apart from is there a God) is what is consciousness and what part does it play in belief systems?

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16 Answers

Hawaii_Jake's avatar

[I’ll be playing tour guide for friends from the mainland all day, so play nice, boys and girls.]

Seek's avatar

Well, holding The God Delusion in my hand, the article is already faulty in not actually quoting the portion of the book it claims to be examining.

For example, Number 1:

Article: There is need for an explanation of the apparent design of the universe.

Book: “One of the greatest challenges to the human intellect, over the centuries, has been to explain the complex, improbable appearance of design in the universe arises.”

The word “need” changes the entire meaning of the thought.

Number 2:

Article: The universe is highly complex.

Book: The natural temptation is to attribute the appearance of design to actual design itself. In the case of a man-made artifact such as a watch, the designer really was an intelligent designer. It is tempting to apply the same logic to an eye or a wing, a spider or a person.

That’s not even trying to be faithful to the source.

So, since the writer of the article has made it plain that they are not going to play fair, I’m going to choose not to dignify it with a thorough read and rebuttal.

CrankMonkey's avatar

The human brain is constantly interacting with its environment, so I don’t think consciousness is reducible to brain state. As to the nature of consciousness, I think this is an open issue. Consciousness certainly plays a role in belief systems.

Whether God exists is another open question, although recent research indicate humans may be predisposed to believe God does exist.

Hawaii_Jake's avatar

@Seek_Kolinahr : How does “need” change the entire meaning of the thought? It seems to be reducing the ideas of the book to fewer words, not changing the intent.

And I don’t see the corelation between number 2 in the article and what you’ve quoted from the book. They don’t go hand in hand.

ETpro's avatar

Since @Seek_Kolinahr is in the midst of reading The God Delusion right now and it is still languishing on my reading list, waiting for me to get a round tuit, I will leave it in her capable hands to refute the article’s misquotes and spin. I will only comment that we do not yet fully know how human consciousness works. AI engineers are slowly chipping away at modeling the more complex functions of the human brain and the complex methods it uses to process information. Our best information so far is that consciousness is an emergent metaphenomenon that grows out of a large collection of inference engines and self-teaching networks formed by the staggering 100 trillion synapses in a brain.

Seek's avatar


The article claims to be “restating” the list of points on pages 188–89 in the book. I agree that #2 has apparently no correlation whatsoever. That was my point exactly.

As far as number 1, stating that there is a challenge present, and stating that the challenge must be faced, are two very different points.

Seek's avatar

Also, from the article,

(Here I’ve formulated Dawkins’ argument a bit more schematically than he does and omitted his comments on parallels in physics to the explanations natural selection provides for apparent design in biology.)

…and then says

As formulated, this argument is an obvious non-sequitur.
Of course it is. That’s exactly how you phrased it.

This article isn’t actually refuting The God Delusion at all. It’s an obvious straw man.

Hawaii_Jake's avatar

From the article: “The premises (1–6), if true, show only that God cannot be posited as the explanation for the apparent design of the universe, which can rather be explained by natural selection. They do nothing to show that “God almost certainly does not exist” (189).”

The article asserts that Dawkins’ logic is flawed because a complex universe does not of necessity need a complex—as we understand complex—God. The article is making the claim that we can’t understand God and might be surprised by how simple God really is.

The article then goes through some of the debate surrounding the existence or non-existence of God and the logic of that debate. It ends with my question. What is consciousness? If it is merely brain-states, then agnosticism is a good view of God’s existence. If, however, it is something else, then agnosticism may still be the best view of God’s existence.

What is consciousness? Can it be whittled down to brain chemistry? Is there a divine spark that creates what Faulkner called the “quenchless lucidity”?

FireMadeFlesh's avatar

I recommend you read Consciousness Explained by Daniel Dennett if you have an interest in consciousness. It is a fairly old book (1991), but advances a compelling case for a materialist model of consciousness.

Consciousness, as best as we know, is analogous to a software program that runs on the hardware of the brain’s neural structure. This is not strictly correct, since it can instruct the rewiring of the brain, but it is the best analogy I have come across. We know that if thalamo-cortico-thalamic circuits are severed, a permanent coma can result. Large strokes to the left cerebral hemisphere can result in significant damage to consciousness levels, while similar size strokes to the right hemisphere generally spare consciousness.

It has also been shown that people with temporal lobe brain damage are more likely to be spiritual or religious, although the researchers specifically stated that they did not think this reflected the truth or otherwise of supernatural beliefs. This effect can be replicated with magnetic stimulation of the temporal lobe.

Non-materialist (primarily dualist) theories of consciousness suffer fatal flaws, in that they merely abstract the problem to another centre, and do not even attempt to explain consciousness. Stating where it is does not equate to what it is. Materialist theories attempt to explain consciousness by breaking down thought to simple steps that may compose a complex thought, and then draw parallels between these steps and the inherited neural circuitry that may allow for that facet of thought. To my knowledge no dualist theories have even attempted to explain consciousness – they just explain why they think it cannot be explained.

Seek's avatar


The article asserts that Dawkins’ logic is flawed because a complex universe does not of necessity need a complex—as we understand complex—God. The article is making the claim that we can’t understand God and might be surprised by how simple God really is.

Wrong. The article states that the author’s flawed interpretation of Dawkins’ writings is flawed. The “quotes” supplied are not quotes. I explained that already.

The idea of any creative force is much more than simple. It fails to answer any question, and in fact begs only further questions. What is god? Where did it come from? Are there more like it? Where does it live? How does it gain nourishment? How does it reproduce? Why does it not provide any evidence of itself?

These are not unreasonable questions to require of a supposedly intelligent force capable of creating the universe, much less one that is intimately concerned with our sex lives and where we spend our Sunday mornings.

FireMadeFlesh's avatar

@hawaii_jake The article also forgets to mention that the “who created the creator” argument is only a small part of the book.

ETpro's avatar

@hawaii_jake Whatever consciousness is, it is not some supper-intelligent little homunculus supplied by God and operating the meat mind. When portions of the meat mind are damaged by trauma, electrical probes or drugs, the conciousness suffers very predictable degradation. Disable this area, and the right arm no longer works. Disable that, and one can see but can make no sense of the visual input. Disable enough, and the person lapses into an advanced vegetative state where only the autonomic activities of the primitave reptillian brain and the distributed nerve centers of the body still function.

From that we can conclude that our “I“ness may be an emergent metaphenomenon arising out of the complexity and organization of a meat brain, or it may be nothing more than the meat brain—but it is not some ethereal thinking entity with no connection to the corporeal body. Strike a blow for agnosticism.

Hawaii_Jake's avatar

[I had a great day showing my friends around the island today. It didn’t rain on us at all, which is something when you live in a rain forest.]

@Seek_Kolinahr : I am also concerned that the article may misrepresent Dawkins’ ideas, but that won’t make me embrace Dawkins’ atheism. The article points out that there are centuries of philosophical debate for us to study about God’s existence or absence, which Dawkins does not explore. But I’m not asking about God’s existence in this question. I’m asking about the nature and origin of consciousness.

The article states, ”[Believers] will also cite our experiences of our own conscious life (thoughts, feelings, desires, etc.) as excellent evidence for the existence of immaterial realities that cannot be fully understood by science.” Where do we get our deepest desires?

I toured a spectacular garden today, and I stood in awe of an orchid. It was deep purple with pendulous petals. I was simultaneously struck by my awe, by the feeling itself. Why did that flower affect me? What is the me that is affected?

@FireMadeFlesh : Thank you for the book suggestion. I will look for it, and I will look into dualist theories.

@ETpro : Removing parts piece by piece until the whole completely breaks down doesn’t seem to me to completely disprove the idea that the spark arrives in us from somewhere else. In the end, our “I“ness (I like that term, by the way) may be an emergent metaphenomenon, as you say, but for me, today, sitting in my chair, it may be something more.

@everyone who has contributed to this thread so far, thank you. I am just a small thing living on a small planet in a remote end of a single galaxy in a universe so vast that I pale at trying to comprehend it.

But I’ve got questions. Lots and lots of questions.

Seek's avatar


I’m sorry, but the article claims to be refuting Dawkins’ work, and fails to represent Dawkins’ work accurately. Thus, it would be impossible to defend the point accurately.

I will say that Dawkins is not a philosopher, nor does he ever claim to be a philosopher. He is an evolutionary biologist. For a single book to cover centuries of philosophy (on which the author is not an expert) to justify the science that makes the point on its own (on which he is an expert) would be extraneous and ultimately distract from the points he intended to make.

The book never once states in the 256 pages I’ve read so far that “god does not exist”. It says “god probably does not exist”, or “the evidence does not support an intelligent creator”.

To further drive the point – Someone tells you that every garden has a garden fairy. You can look in your garden and plainly see there are no fairies. Will you then turn to the various fairy-related world mythologies, independent articles on fairy existence, and journals of fairy-hunting to prove to you that there really are fairies in your garden? No, you’ll just say “Yep, no fairies.”

As far as the nature of consciousness, that is not a subject with which I am familiar enough to make an argument without a source.

ETpro's avatar

@hawaii_jake As to conciousness arriving as a spark from somewhere outside the physical realm, there is no evidence it does. All evidence points to that not being the case. And the postulate is not falsifiable or useful in predicting any known observable date. Those that insist on believing it anyway are certainly welcome to do so. It simply isn’t part of brain science to date. And giving the fact it is not falsifiable, I wouldn’t give it much chance of becoming so.

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