Monday, 11 August 2014

God and human minds

This is a post I wrote in a discussion board 11 years ago in 2003.

There seems to be this universal misconception amongst atheists that there is no evidence for a God. I intend in this post to refute this notion. To make it really simple, throughout this post I'm going to assume a materialist perspective, or at least a materialist based perspective i.e. physical reality is primary, and minds or consciousnesses are somehow derived from this primary physical reality.

We can just use the minimal definition of "God" as a mind or consciousness, albeit a mind very large or unlimited in scope.

Now one might argue that given that God is a mind or consciousness, it might be a good idea to provisionally suppose that the nature of any evidence for God's mind may be of a similar nature to the evidence for our minds.

So what evidence do we have for the existence of other minds? I would suggest that we do not see other peoples’ minds directly. If we look into a living brain we will only ever see various physical processes operating according to physical laws. You can of course simply declare that minds are identical or are a function of these physical processes, but still that assertion itself is just a stipulation. The pertinent point here is that we could only know that other people are conscious by literally partaking in their conscious experiences. Which we don't.

Nor do we have any scientific evidence that other people are conscious. Now people might find this a very surprising assertion. After all many scientific entities are invisible, but we do not dispute their existence. This is because we can infer their existence from their effect in the world. So if minds have an effect in the world, then why can't minds play a role in some scientific theory describing the world?

The thing about invisible scientific entities like electrons is that we can infer their existence because electrons play fruitful roles in our theories describing the world. Or to put it another way, electrons are causally efficacious. They need to be supposed to exist in order to explain some aspect of reality (for the pedants out there I agree this is not strictly true, but I'm trying to make it simple!).

Being materialists we suppose that the world is physically closed. By this I simply mean that everything that ever happens is wholly explicable in terms of prior physical causes. In particular, there is no non-material mind affecting processes in the brain. Physical processes in the brain, like everything else in the Universe, can be wholly understood as an unbroken chains of physical causes and effects. In other words everything that ever occurs in our brains, and hence by extension all our behaviour, can be completely described with reference to the physical laws of nature.

This being so, minds are not required for an understanding of our behaviour. To have a scientific understanding of our behaviour it is sufficient that we have knowledge of all facts accessible from the third person perspective. By a third person perspective I mean that anyone with unimpaired sense and instruments could potentially corroborate. This would then include neurons firing in a living brain, but would not include mental states such as emotions since emotions cannot be seen, only the effects of emotions can be seen.  So the totality of our behaviour can be explained with reference to third person facts.

As an aside this is why minds can never be scientifically explained. Minds can neither be perceptually sensed nor play a fruitful role in our theories describing the world, therefore from a scientific perspective they are superfluous. Thus within any materialist based understanding of the world, it simply has to be arbitrarily stipulated that they are identical to, or are a function of, or are somehow derived from physical processes within the brain. Sort of like a faith if you will.

A couple of things to point out here. If we can neither perceptually perceive other peoples’ minds, nor scientifically prove the existence of other peoples’ minds, then what justification do we have of supposing other peoples’ minds apart from our own exist whatsoever? I would simply suggest the obvious answer here. Namely we infer other peoples’ minds by noting that other peoples’ behaviour is very similar to my own. I know in my own case that my behaviour is apparently a consequence of my internal mental states; therefore it is reasonable to assume that other people in turn possess internal mental states. Another point is that simply because minds (defined, if you like, as the phenomenal aspect of physical processes in the brain) are not required to scientifically explain our behaviour, this doesn't mean that everyday explanations of our behaviour are redundant. Sure, one could explain why I get up to make myself a cup of coffee in terms of purely physical processes occurring in my brain, but we can also provide an explanation in terms of intentions (e.g. I need something to keep me alert). These explanations are not incompatible; rather they apply at different levels.

A related point is that simply because the world is physically closed this does not necessitate we do not have free will. It’s true that our behaviour is wholly determined, or to use a better term, described by physical laws. But this need not imply at all that we are hapless puppets dancing to the tune of the physical laws of nature. To suppose this you are thinking of physical laws as somehow necessitating change in the world, where as it is more appropriate to think of physical laws as simply describing change in this world. But once we have adopted this latter view then the physical laws of nature do not compel our behaviour, rather they describe our freely chosen actions!

Now, having got all the foregoing out of the way, we can at last address the issue of the evidence for the existence of a God. The essential point is this. Just as a complete physical description of the physical processes occurring in someone’s brain, and thereby accounting for their behaviour without reference to any consciousness, doesn’t necessitate that that person is not possessed of a mental life, so does the fact that just because the Universe and all change within can be accounted for in terms of physical laws, this doesn’t mean to say that consciousness is not associated with the physical Universe as a whole. Indeed, just as we have differing levels of explanations for peoples’ behaviour in terms of either physical laws, or in terms of the intentions of minds, so it may be possible to have differing levels of explanation for processes in the Universe as a whole, either in terms of physical laws, or in terms of what we might describe as a metamind or “God”.

Notice that whether it is in fact legitimate to infer the existence of a metamind or "God" will depend upon the character of the Universe as a whole. But the assertion of every atheist I have ever met is that there is no evidence whatsoever for any “God”. They are indeed quite emphatic in this assertion. But this position simply cannot be maintained as it is clear that the characteristics of the physical Universes as a whole could have been less suggestive of an associated meta-consciousness than what we actually witness. We just simply need to consider logically possible Universes. One might imagine for example that it could have been logically possible for us to have subsisted in a Universe where no physical laws at all pertained, and we found ourselves existing in a bodiless state experiencing a stream of random perceptual experiences through our senses.

But even if we are to suppose that such a Universe were somehow not logically possible, it certainly seems that we could have subsisted in a differing Universe from the one we find ourselves in, but which didn’t exhibit the regularities exhibited by our Universe. Regularities, don’t forget, which can be captured by our scientific theories written in the language of mathematics. At least in physics these theories need not depict a literal state of affairs, and in the past have found to be limited in their scope e.g. Newtonian mechanics. Notwithstanding this, our theories still work in the sense of accurately predicting the cause of our perceptual experiences. One almost gets the impression that the Universe is contrived in such a manner that intelligent sentient beings are just to say able to do this! After all, we can easily imagine a Universe not exhibiting any patterns, or if it did exhibit patterns those patterns not being amenable to mathematical investigation or being too abstruse for us to discern.

It should be noted that I am not arguing that the existence of a “God” is proved, nor that the existence of a “God” is as likely as the existence of other people, nor even that the existence of a God is even likely. What I have just done is to demonstrate that even under a materialist interpretation of the world, it is not only possible to believe in a “God”, but that the characteristics of the world go someway towards lending some evidence for a God. If I am able to do this by assuming a materialist framework, then a fortiori I will be able to do this under any other metaphysical interpretation of the world, such as for example immaterialism.


  1. I very much enjoyed this! I wonder if you go astray with two parts. (EDIT: Please excuse the slightly unedited screed; I'm typing this into a four-line-high box on an iPad. Still, beats looking out the train at the rain. Here goes - - - )

    The first is taking the universe we witness as being evidence for its own nature:

    "One almost gets the impression that the Universe is contrived in such a manner that intelligent sentient beings are just to say able to do this!"

    We can certainly imagine all sorts of universes, but we only have one that we actually experience. We must be careful not to wander into an anthropocentrism where the fact of our existence is taken to mean that the universe was specially created such that we would exist! This is meaningless and unscientific. The fact that it is possible to imagine a way in which our universe, as we observe it, could support a notion of God is no evidence at all. (Nor, of course, evidence against.) Similarly, our ability to imagine that 'other people' have conscious awareness doesn't provide any evidence at all for it. It's simply not provable. So you are right when we say we infer these things, but that really just means we're filling a gap that we can never really access. We're just having fun imagining stuff.

    The second is in the nature of people / free will:

    You make a good point about scientific physical descriptions. Scientific theories are descriptions of what you observe happening in a material sense, they say nothing about how these processes arise.

    So, it is fine that human behaviour can be completely described by physical processes, and that doesn't at all mean that 'we' (as in 'awareness' or 'consciousness') do not influence our actions. However we probably have to be careful here, language can trick us. Because we do not really deliberately perform our actions, they arise as experiences we have. Subsequently we attribute agency to ourselves, but we really do not hold the reins in detail.

    If you play close attention, you find that your free will takes one of two forms: We suppress an action which is starting to take place, or we set a goal for ourselves, which our bodies and minds then seems to 'solve for', operating along physical processes. This can be short-term (I stop making that cup of coffee, and have water instead) or long-term (I will be a successful scientist/actor). The rest is spontaneous/automatic. In fact, you never control yourself physical, directly; you control yourself with mental imagination.

    You can demonstrate to yourself. Pause a moment, then lift your arm. Do this several times, paying attention. You will likely discover that you have a sense of pause, there's an imagined 'pre-feeling' corresponding to imagining what it would be like to lift you arm, then your arm moves by itself. (See here for fun.)

    Furthermore, some worldviews suggest that when you 'intend' things you are not just operating on your brain/body - you 'intend' into the universe at large. So, as you find yourself performing actions helpful to your goal, so the universe seems to present you with encounters and opportunities that are appropriate.

  2. Hi Ian,

    I just happened across it randomly while exploring topics on consciousness, perception and reality etc.

    A good point on proof vs evidence.

    You're right that I don't think "ordered = creator", no matter how ordered the universe is. At what level of order would we say "this is sufficient"? That's not to say there can't be evidence that would suggest a creator though, I just don't think this line of thought is it. But I realise writing this that I mean single, independent creator - separate from you and me - an architect or guide. I don't see evidence of that at present, and I'm not sure how I would distinguish between that and two other ideas:

    * That the universe is evolving or unfolding intelligently, but as a summation of all of our intentions, say, as conscious beings. No additional "out there" being required - although one could describe us as 'fragments of God' in this case, perhaps.


    * That the universe develops "habits" which build upon themselves - once stable structures have formed by chance, they tend to 'stick' and form the basis for further structures, and so on and that this quickly appears like a form of intelligence, since the level of complexity makes it non-deterministic.

    The point of the "free will" part links to the first option above. Yes, the intention or purpose is absent from a purely physical account - in the same way as an 'intention or purpose of God' wouldn't be detectable in a physical examination of the order and behaviour of the universe, barring "miracles" (i.e. discontinuities).

    Our intentions are 'almost magical' in their influence over 'our' physical bodies, we don't need to micromanage that control, and we tend to attribute agency after the fact because we never actually experience the 'doing' part directly. Can we be the intelligence guiding the universe?

  3. I don't know what level of order I would say is sufficient to make it more probable there is a creator than not. We have to address the question of what we would expect atheism to imply. If reality is at variance with these expectations, then a creator is more likely than not. But you're saying that no matter how much the Universe is ordered, or even if it were wholly chaotic, this doesn't affect the atheist hypothesis one iota.

    It might well be the case that a creatorless Universe can develop "habits". But the issue I would have is regardless of whether it can develop "habits", or whether it had just happened to be wholly random, the contention that whatever the Universe might have been is equally supportive of atheism means that atheists are wrongheaded in asking for evidence for a creator *since nothing could possibly constitute evidence*.

    I can assure you that I personally am not consciously playing any role in creating the order in the Universe.

    In exercising our free will we don't think "now I will do this", then do it. Clearly we operate on auto-pilot most of the time. But that doesn't mean we attribute agency after the fact. I decide to go to a certain pub. I walk there on "auto-pilot", but that doesn't entail I don't intend to go to that specific pub.

    1. I guess atheism implies that the universe would observably behave in alignment with physical laws, and that it's proof of a creator - a separate being with influence - would require an obvious intervention counter to these. The idea of something seeming "unlikely", for instance, doesn't count, because "likeliness" or not after the fact is a matter of imagination of lack of imagination. (This applies both to atheists and to non-athiests!) Saying that "order = creator" isn't evidence unless you already approach it with that worldview, but saying "physical laws = no creator" isn't either, so it applies the other way. I am thinking.

      (A problem here of course is that "scientific laws" aren't laws, they are just codified repeatable observations. They are "reliable descriptions" so not really meant to represent a "truth". They are not things to be believed in. If an exception comes up, they just amend the description to fit.)

      Yes, so they key is, in "the theory of a creator" and "the theory of no creator", how could these theories be falsified? What is the evidence that would cause us to jump camps, one way or the other? Otherwise it's not a theory. For atheists, I'd say evidence of some sort of intervention or contradiction - observing something materialise 'as is', say, rather than gradually evolve - maybe? Something like that. For non-athiests, not sure? I guess some notion of a situation where intervention would be a given and then proves not to be the case, or similar?

      On free will, the decision itself could just occur to you on autopilot and off you go. If I asked you later, you'd tell me you deliberately went to the pub, but actually you just experienced some passing thoughts that arose spontaneously, and ended up there. I do think we have points at which we can/do intervene though. That's not a challenge! What I'm getting at is, you might influence the universe but not via conscious decision to materialise or change the universe, rather as a bi-product of the direction you choose.

      (Okay, rubbish examples to follow, please forgive:) For instance, by deciding to become an artist you give rise to ideas and actions in that direction, but also imply and create events to assist you in the larger world, changing it into a place where it's easier to do so. Similarly, the desire to be able to breathe underwater, or walk on land, long term...

      This is just a way of supposing: How do we imagine a conscious creator-type entity would influence the world? How would it differ from our consciousness?

    2. God

      Yes, that is a "big bearded interferer" or "God of the gaps" conception, I suppose. The alternative is a God who does not intervene at all, having set the universe in motion. In that case, an atheist has nothing to challenge him? He looks around and sees things apparently following repeatable patterns (this does not necessarily imply things are deterministic and predictable, but that things that are observed can be described reliably) and either doesn't see the need for a creation apart from a big-bang-plus-evolution, or rather doesn't see how one could be introduced and be detectable.

      Or is there an intermediate position to take?


      Meanwhile, the reason I say they aren't "laws" is to convey that the meaning of the term "scientific laws" wasn't meant to imply that they are the real underlying rules of the universe - they're not "laws from above". Scientists made observations, saw trends and pattern that repeated, abstracted them can called them "laws'.

      Later observations often disprove a law, or it to be applicable only in a limited case (gravitation, light). Also, there are often several different sets of patterns that can be inferred from the same set of observations, more than one possible set of laws was possible. (As we progress further and further along a particular approach, this diminishes of course.)

      The universe is uniform*. That is why we can make repeatable observations, and that is why we can infer rules that help us predict later observations. However, the rules are ours and the universe doesn't obey them. That's why we keep revising them, throwing stuff out, making up new ones.

      Comparison: There are "laws" for co-ordinating colour or arranging lines to make them more pleasing to the eye, but we wouldn't say they are "laws of the universe", rather they are ways we make sense of the world?

      *(Fairly uniform, that is. The thing about science is that it only pays attention to uniformity and repeatability; the rest is noise. In other words, we only pursue observations that could lead to rules anyway.)

      Free Will

      "I might do, or I might ponder... I believe that our intentions and goals do sometimes exist before we act."

      Free will is often interpreted as being us controlling our actions and lives in detail, leading to challenges. In fact, it is more likely (and easier to promote) the idea that we occasionally intervene to amend our goals, shorter or longer term, and the details take care of themselves.. Just as you say.

      I wonder if it's possible for someone to be on complete autopilot - the "philosophical zombie" in action. Many people are perhaps exactly this.

  4. No hard feelings, I did go on about it a bit. I'll give if one last spin, if that's okay, because I would like to get to the bottom of it! This is because I don't get the final step of the argument really.

    Your argument seems to be:

    * We can believe in other minds, despite there being no physical evidence for them, and no requirement for them in order to explain the observed behaviour of people - because other minds are not disproved by evidence. We know that we have a mind, which seems to lead to intelligent action, and others' actions can appear intelligent to us. Okay.

    * Therefore we can believe in a God-like universal mind, despite there being no physical evidence for it, and no requirement for it in order to explain the observed behaviour of the universe - because it is not disproved by evidence. Again, we have a mind, which seems to lead to intelligent action - if the universe's actions look like 'intelligent' actions to us, we might ascribe a mind to it.

    So in both cases, we can imagine or believe or perceive that the physical processes are driven by a mind - although we cannot detect it happening.

    "But the assertion of every atheist I have ever met is that there is no evidence whatsoever for any “God”."

    I think they usually mean an interventionist God (fair enough), but at least there there is a hope of future evidence.

    But if its an idea of God that is not required in order to explain the world we see - that there is a undetectable mind that makes things as they are - then it's going to be hard to persuade anyone.

    It remains an optional belief, reliant on what 'feels right' to a person - for instance, whether it 'feels right' that an ordered universe can emerge from evolving processes over millennia, or whether there needs to be some form of intelligence to guide it.

    The atheist's (and scientist's) question would be: How can I tell the difference between the two cases? Is that mind-like aspect actually doing anything that we can detect?

    "What I have just done is to demonstrate that even under a materialist interpretation of the world, it is not only possible to believe in a “God”, but that the characteristics of the world go someway towards lending some evidence for a God."

    I think you've proved that it is always going to be possible to believe in God. It's going to depend on how "unlikely" an individual thinks it is that we're in this universe, of all the (imagined) possibilities. If one believes that order requires a guiding intelligence, then yes; if not, then not.

    Does this get us anywhere, though?

    Note: I personally subscribe to something akin to a 'mind-like property of the universe' because it's the only way to join together personal experience and an apparently external universe - to join the idea of free will and physical laws, the 1st person and the 3rd person. (This leads to a form of idealism.)

    Hence my apparently meandering responses - there was a point, honestly! :-)