I’ve just agreed to participate on the Interpreter Radio Show a week from today, on the evening of Sunday, 27 March 2022. Please don’t let that dissuade you from listening in. I won’t be doing all the talking, after all, and the other participants — Steve Densley, Mark Johnson, and Matt Bowen — are really quite good. The show starts just after the seven o’clock news.
Cassandra Hedelius, a very incisive Latter-day Saint thinker and a friend, has just published a significant and concerning article in the Deseret News:
Cassandra is someone to watch. As she is perhaps too cheerfully fond of observing, many of us “apologists” are grey of beard and long in the tooth and will soon need to be replaced. She’s a reason for optimism.
Some thoughts from the English Anglican priest, philosopher, and theologian Keith Ward, now retired as Regius Professor of Divinity at the University of Oxford, drawn from his book Why There Almost Certainly Is a God: Doubting Dawkins (Oxford: Lion, 2008):
To most philosophers, materialism has looked like a non-starter: Most of us do not want to deny that material things exist. But we are no longer very sure of what ‘matter’ is. Is it quarks, or superstrings, or dark energy, or the result of quantum fluctuations in a vacuum? It is certainly not, as the ancient Greek materialist Democritus thought, lumps of hard solid stuff — indivisible atoms — bumping into one another and forming complicated conglomerations that we call people. Some physicists, such as John Gribbin and Paul Davies, in their book The Matter Myth, argue that matter is a sort of illusion or appearance produced by some mysterious and unknown substratum in interaction with the human mind.
Quantum physicists such as Bernard d’Espagnat talk about a ‘veiled reality’ that we can hardly even imagine, which appears as solid physical objects only when observed. And when quantum physicists talk about ‘imaginary time’ as being more real than ‘real time’, about the cosmos being a ten- or eleven-dimensional curved space-time, or collection of space-times, and about electrons being probability-waves in Hilbert space, we may well wonder whether matter is a solid foundation for reality after all, or whether we really know what it is.
There is something out there, and it appears to us as a world of fairly solid objects. But modern physics suggests that the nature of reality is very different from what we see, and that it is possibly unimaginable. Roger Penrose, the Oxford mathematician, even thinks that the laws of physics may need to be radically revised, so that they take account of the important role of consciousness in the nature of the world.
What is the point of being a materialist when we are not sure exactly what matter is? It no longer seems to be a set of simple elementary particles. Instead, we have a ‘particle zoo’ of flickering, insubstantial, virtual wave-particles, most of which (like the elements of dark matter) are probably not detectible by us at all. And it no longer seems that just a few simple laws will account for their behaviour. Instead, we have a very complex mathematics of Hamiltonians, differential equations, and Hilbert spaces, which may be elegant and beautiful, but is far from being simple (in the sense of being easy to state and reducible to just one or two basic rules).
What this means is that materialism no longer has the advantage of giving us a simple explanation of reality. Explanations in physics get more and more complicated and counter-intuitive every year. Any plausible form of materialism will be exceedingly complex and mysterious. It no longer has the alleged benefit of being the simplest explanation of the world. (14-15)
When we come to consciousness, things get much worse. The problem of consciousness is so difficult that no one has any idea of how to begin to tackle it, scientifically. What is that problem? It is basically the problem of how conscious states — thoughts, feelings, sensations and perceptions — can arise from complex physical brain-states. Even if we are sure that they do arise from brains, we do not know the sorts of connections that conscious states (such as ‘seeing a train’) have with brain-states (such as ‘there is electrical activity at point A in the brain’). We do not know if conscious states can have a causal effect on brain-states, or if they are somehow reducible to brain-states in some way that we cannot yet explain.
If Dawkins was a radical materialist, he would state, like his philosophical friend and ally Daniel Dennett, that conscious states are ‘nothing more than’ brain-states and brain-behaviour. Dennett wrote a book called Consciousness Explained, in which he defended this radical theory. Most competent philosophers were unconvinced, and privately referred to his book as ‘Consciousness Explained Away’.
The main reason they were unconvinced is that you could very easily have brain-states and behaviour without any conscious states at all. Nobody can observe anyone else’s conscious states, and we cannot really be sure that anyone else has any conscious states at all.
The philosopher A. J. Ayer, who was one of the people who tried to teach me philosophy, used to say in seminars that he could not be sure that other people around him had any minds with thoughts in them at all. We did our best to confirm his suspicions. Most of us, however, accept that other people are often thinking, even though we can have no idea of what is going through their minds.
We could attach them to a brain-scanner or put electrodes in their skulls, and record electrical activity and chemical interactions in the brain. But to find out what they are thinking when we do this, we have to ask them. We have not yet got to the stage where we can just attach someone’s brain to a recording device and examine their thoughts without asking them to write examination papers, just by measuring electrical activity in their brain. (16-17)
Posted from St. George, Utah