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Deepak Chopra’s challenge to skeptics

July 24, 2014

This morning I heard about Deepak Chopra’s challenge to skeptics to provide a scientific justification for ‘the problem of consciousness’.

Whilst I found Chopra’s sarcastic tone a little off-putting, his challenge is a very important one. I do hope skeptics take his challenge seriously, because the problem Chopra identifies is very significant.

The ‘consciousness problem’ (which I’ve outlined some of this before where Sam Harris made an unwitting case for the existence of God) is more significant than many skeptics give credit. Chopra states it clearly,

‘how does electricity going into the brain become the experience of a 3D world of space and time?’

and again

‘everything we experience is a perception and that perception is the result of the experience of consciousness … and we have no idea how that happens’

Chopra is right. We do not have a coherent theory of consciousness. This problem is recognised by many leading atheists. For example:

Jerry Fodor, ‘Nobody has the slightest idea how anything material could be conscious’

Francis Crick, ‘There’s no easy way of explaining consciousness in terms of known science … how can you explain the redness of red in terms of physics and chemistry’

Steven Pinker, ‘The Hard Problem is explaining how subjective experience arises from neural computation. The problem is hard because no one knows what a solution might look like or even whether it is a genuine scientific problem in the first place … No one knows what to do with the Hard Problem’

Chopra is effectively issuing a challenge to solve this ‘Hard Problem’.

There are a few implications of this challenge and the ‘Hard Problem’:

1. A simple materialist view of the universe is inadequate. Chopra rightly identifies Dawkins etc as ‘naive realists’. The problem of consciousness creates enormous challenges to the proposal that that humans are simply matter and DNA.

2. The ‘Hard Problem’ creates problems for how and why consciousness could emerge in a purely naturalistic world. Related to point 1 is the challenge as to how or why consciousness emerged at all. How could the immaterial i.e. consciousness, ideas, etc emerge from the material?

3. Theists need to be careful before applying a ‘god of the gaps’ argument here. Theists may seize on this gap in our knowledge and propose, ‘we don’t have a theory of consciousness, therefore God’. Yet this rationale opens up a gap so that if a comprehensive theory of consciousness were developed, then suddenly god disappears. Hence I don’t think it’s a helpful argument to argue from ‘how’ we have consciousness i,.e. we can’t work out consciousness, therefore God gave it to us supernaturally.

4. Instead, theism best explains ‘why’ we have consciousness. Theism is the best explanation for why there is consciousness at all. It is completely reasonable to suggest that if the universe is the product of an intelligent conscious mind, then we should expect intelligent conscious minds made ‘in his image’. This line of reasoning is similar to that of C.S. Lewis, who once reasoned, ‘I have consciousness: but it is impossible that consciousness could emerge from the action of the unconscious. Therefore the original Being was conscious’.

It is certainly reasonable to propose God in this scenario. As Peter Williams wrote, ‘When we ask which worldview makes the best sense out of the irreducible nature of rationality, the matter-first view of naturalism is revealed as a complete non-starter, whereas the mind-first view of theism provides a coherent explanatory context for our rational capacities.’

So I suggest that skeptics take Chopra’s challenge seriously, and not just with the science question, but the potential theistic implications of consciousness.

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24 Comments
  1. Lewis’ argument has a problem: Unproven premises. He claims that something is impossible – without making any attempt of proving that. So, he “proves” his belief in a creator through his claim that there must be a creator, which simply doesn’t work. If someone found an actual proof that consciousness (or the illusion of it), under no circumstances can form dead matter, we could look at this argument again, but until then, it’s just the basic belief re-arranged.

    Simply put, Chopra is putting up a god of the gaps argument: “You don’t know x, so that x must be .” Scientists would actually say “We don’t know yet” and continue to research. In this case, btw, http://www.upi.com/Science_News/2014/07/02/Scientists-discover-consciousness-on-off-switch/3641404337633/?spt=mps&or=3 .

    • Steven Carr permalink

      ‘Theism is the best explanation for why there is consciousness at all. It is completely reasonable to suggest that if the universe is the product of an intelligent conscious mind, then we should expect intelligent conscious minds made ‘in his image’. T

      When will atheists get the humility to wake up in the morning , take a good , long hard look at themselves in the mirror and realise that only a god could have created what they see there?

      If we exist, it is completely reasonable to suggest that a god exists. Who else could have created beings like us?

    • Steven Carr permalink

      ‘ It is completely reasonable to suggest that if the universe is the product of an intelligent conscious mind, then we should expect intelligent conscious minds made ‘in his image’.’

      You are overlooking the force of the Christian argument.

      It is completely reasonable to suggest that if there is an all-knowing, infinitely intelligent, mind of a supreme creator of universes, then that being will have to create a person with a mind like mine to have somebody he can communicate with.

      • “if there is an all-knowing, infinitely intelligent, mind of a supreme creator of universes” then there is absolutely no point in creating someone to communicate with, as the creator of universes, being all-knowing, not to mention infinitely intelligent, would already know everything this person has to say, thus eliminating any need to create it already.

        Trying, as not all-knowing, not even remotely infinitely intelligent being to know what an all-knowing, infinitely intelligent being would want is pretty arrogant – and so obviously nonsense, that we should really stop talking about it before you embarrass yourself further.

  2. Steven Carr permalink

    ‘ We do not have a coherent theory of consciousness. ‘

    Yes we do.

    God did it.

    ‘The ‘Hard Problem’ creates problems for how and why consciousness could emerge in a purely naturalistic world’

    How does an unconscious person obtain consciousness?

    Theists can’t explain this without claiming that their god injects consciousness into the purely material body of an unconscious person.

    So it must be a miracle every time somebody comes around from an operation!

    ‘It is completely reasonable to suggest that if the universe is the product of an intelligent conscious mind, then we should expect intelligent conscious minds made ‘in his image’.’

    This is not an explanation. It is an explanation on the lines of positing a Lottery god to explain why person A wins the lottery – or Hitler positing that Providence was behind his surviving the 20th July 1944 assassination attempt.

    You can always claim that something is the way it is because an unknown agent wanted it to be that way.

  3. eyeontheuniverse permalink

    Consciousness is a problem, for not only the reasons you describe but for explaining why it would even be necessary in a mechanistic world. However, jumping to God is a leap to far. Certainly gods make up one explanation, but their own consciousness is problematic on the same grounds you list. All we really know is that the simplistic materialist view doesn’t cover it. What makes the ‘best’ explanation beyond that is going to be highly subjective, at least for now.

  4. eyeontheuniverse permalink

    I agree, btw, that materialists, at least naive materialists, need to take this problem more seriously. I would stay away from the word “skeptics” though…skeptics of what?

    You might want to include Chalmers in these discussions if the Hard Problem comes up.

  5. eyeontheuniverse permalink

    Although I agree with Chopra (and I don’t say that often) that the hard problem is huge and ignored by naïve materialists, the argument that one shouldn’t address other issues, such as paranormal claims, in the meantime seems a bit silly. Just because we don’t know a lot of really important things about the universe (many of the most important things) doesn’t make it a free-for-all. On the other hand, it should humble people to tone down their arrogance when faced with others ignorance.

  6. “…3. Theists need to be careful before applying a ‘god of the gaps’ argument here…
    4. Instead, theism best explains ‘why’ we have consciousness…”

    Irony explosion!

    Rob, theism really is not the best explanation for consciousness. This is the classic example of argument from ignorance.
    It is true that the problem of consciousness is one of the most intellectually challenging questions we have – perhaps the most. However, there is an enormous body of work, from science, that give us pointers and clues on important aspects of how consciousness works.
    We know that consciousness is an emergent property of complex neural networks. We can observe and measure the effects on consciousness from selective brain lesions and stimulation and suppression of individual pathways within the central nervous system. We can observe and experience the effects on consciousness by altering brain chemistry, including the simple and obvious such as natural diurnal patterns of hormones.

    It would serve the philosophical challengers well (and I don’t really mean Deepak, who is full of shit, btw) to keep in mind that apparent conscious behaviours like “intentionality” are largely made-up descriptions, helpful only for applying labels to intrinsically-hard-to-define patterns. Intentionality isn’t a ‘thing’. It is an artificial label that gets used so much that people start to believe it some kind of discrete behaviour that is specifically wired into us.

    If you’re going to leap to a theistic (or paranormal ) explanation, then you also need to account for observations like degrees of consciousness, and the fact that it is observed in animals, also in degrees – apparently. We have no experience of consciousness that we can separate from the physical substrate of the brain. Furthermore, any illusions of this (conscious experience outside the brain) are indistinguishable from more prosaic and parsimonious explanations, such as all too readily observed alterations in brain chemistry by whatever means.

    The more we observe and know about consciousness, the more we see that theism is a thoroughly unsatisfying, inconsistent, and incoherent explanation for consciousness.

  7. regularfellow permalink

    Have you seen “The Blind Watchmaker?” In it, Richard Dawkins discusses an insect that blends in with its surroundings. He talked about how a very long time ago that insect could only mimic 6% of its body with its surroundings. Those that could only mimic 5% or less did not survive as long. Eventually, amongst those that could mimic 6%, there would be some that could mimic 7%, and after a period of time, the majority of those that existed were able to mimic 7% of their surroundings. Some of those were then able to mimic 8% of their surroundings. With that process continuing on via natural selection, we now have insects that can mimic 100% of their body with their surroundings.

    Isn’t it conceivable that consciousness in its very early beginnings was next to non-existent and simply grew incrementally based on natural selection? Consciousness is most definitely a trait that enhances survival. If a lifeform is not aware that they are in danger, they may not survive. So if we could time-travel to the distant past and measure the level of awareness of early life-forms, perhaps the level of awareness they possessed only ranged from .001% to .01% of what we currently possess. Those who possessed a level of awareness that was closer to .01% were able to survive, and thus it incrementally worked its way up to the level of consciousness we have today.

    To me anyway, that seems like a logical explanation.

  8. Ed Atkinson permalink

    The challenge is modified in the commentary where it says “4. Instead, theism best explains ‘why’ we have consciousness. ” So with this modification, Deepak Chopra’s challenge to skeptics to provide a scientific justification for ‘the problem of consciousness’ is easy. It is covered by regularfellow just above. All that is needed is an account of some surival-enhancing qualities that consciousness provides. And this is simple. A conscious animal can filter and assess it’s instinctive impulses and so get the benefits from them when appropriate but not waste time on them when not. Consciousness also aids the development of complex communication with language and hence better communal living with technology like farming, fire and cooking.

    • I think you misunderstand. The challenge is not to explain the emergence of consciousness, but how it actually works, ie immaterial from material alone.

      • Steven Carr permalink

        So every time an unconscious person regains consciousness after an operation, it is something that cannot be explained naturalistically? It must always be the work of a god?

        Or do theists claim that an unconscious person is not a purely material object, and has some sort of soul, which just happens to be unconscious as well?

        In which case, they have to explain how an unconscious soul can become conscious – the same problem they claim there is no solution to?

      • “…Or do theists claim that an unconscious person is not a purely material object, and has some sort of soul, which just happens to be unconscious as well?…”

        I suspect that believers in the notion of a soul, or some aspect to the ‘self’ that is not material, have a wide range of opinions on what it is and how it works. But it is certainly worth asking to try and understand what it is that they mean, and what they believe, before making an assumption.

        I’m always curious to know if such a believer can ever identify a thought or decision they have ever made that has been completely free of influence from memory, experience, or ‘biological substrate’ (by ‘biological substrate’, I just mean natural drives, etc., such as hunger, which is clearly and purely physiological).

      • Ed Atkinson permalink

        Hi Rob, yes I think I did understand. My point is that you explained at the set up to the discussion why theists should not just claim ‘God did it’ as that would be to succumb to god-of-the-gaps. That concedes that a scientific answer is on the cards. Also you are moving the goalposts for theist explanation, then my point is that we can move the goalposts in the same way for science-based explanation.

        In outline, I don’t see what the problem is anyway. What is the gulf of difference between being aware of the environment (which we share with most animals) and being aware of some of our brain processes (consciousness)? Both are immaterial processes emerging from material brain structures and signals.

      • Thanks for the reply, but that is fundamentally the problem. How does the immaterial emerge from the material? It also fundamentally challenges a materialistic view of the universe does it not?

  9. Ed Atkinson permalink

    Thanks Rob. Are you saying that responsiveness to the environment in a mouse is immaterial emerging from the material? Are you wanting to form an argument for theism based on it?

    How about an analogy in maths. We start with a few simple principles and maths grows. When we get to something like calculus it has emerged from the simple principles. To describe calculus in terms of the simple priciples takes a book. Even those of us familiar with calculus would struggle to follow the deductions and proofs in the book. In the same way responsiveness to the environment in a mouse emerges from the material brain signals. Just because it is hard to understand in the round does not imply its implausibility or any need for theistic explanation.

    • No, I’m no expert in consciousness, but the key question to ask (maybe it’s impossible to answer) is, ‘does a mouse have consciousness’? I think consciousness is different from ‘responsiveness to environment’.

      The whole problem with the analogy of maths is that maths is immaterial!

  10. Ed Atkinson permalink

    Hi Rob. I’m beginning to get frustrated because you seem to be diverting and deflecting in your answers and introducing new lines. I’d like you to engage with what I am saying.

    Yes I agree consciousness is different from ‘responsiveness to environment’. (see the earlier post in the thread) Now ….Are you saying that responsiveness to the environment in a mouse is immaterial emerging from the material? Are you wanting to form an argument for theism based on it? Answer that and the discussion can proceed. I’m trying to get to the heart of what the consciousness challenge actually is, in your view. This is my third attempt at this question.

    Regarding the analogy of maths, of course all analogies are not perfect. The analogy is introduced for you to see how complexity can emerge from simplicity. Now if you push the objection to my analogy, I could say that signals are immaterial. So the conundrum is at that simplest level – we need a God to explain how a material synapse can produce an immaterial signal.

    • Hi Ed. I’m terribly sorry for seeming to divert and deflect, it is certainly not my intention at all. I think there might be a couple of mis-communications of what is intended.

      The argument from consciousness, I think, demonstrates that ‘naked’ naturalism, i.e. everything is explicable in terms of matter and energy fails. It fails because consciousness is not simply explicable in terms of matter and energy. Then the argument goes (I’m not quite sure if Chopra would say this), but what ‘best explains’ this fact? This is where a theistic explanation may have more explanatory power i.e. a ‘mind first view’ contrary to a ‘matter first’.

      So in this sense I’m not quite sure how the mouse fits in (sorry about that) because I’m not entirely clear that a mouse is conscious or self-aware. Hence I wouldn’t suggest that there is any ‘immaterial’ responding from the material as a mouse is simply responding to it’s environment. So in response to your question that no, the responsiveness of a mouse is not immaterial because it’s unclear it is ‘conscious’ in the sense of being self-aware and can generate thoughts. Hence I wouldn’t want to base an argument on that.

      It might also be that my conception of the argument is a little ill-formed and hence I’d appreciate you clarifying the weaknesses in my own thoughts and I can think through the questions more clearly.

      Thanks for your contributions. Much appreciated.

      Rob

      • Ed Atkinson permalink

        Thanks Rob. I guess we are in the same boat when it comes to a clear conception of the argument from consciousness. However, the argument should ideally work (or be refuted) at the level of educated laymen. So I’m finding this helpful.

        Your post has helped clarify. You are not really saying that it is the immaterial aspect of consciousness that cries out for explanation. My online dictionary (Chambers) defines immaterial as “not formed of matter; incorporeal.”. You are happy that a brain signal or even a mouse responding to its environment, which are immaterial by my definition, are not what cries out for explanation.

        I see these brain signals and processes on a continuum, for example:
        · at simplest a reflex response to heat or light,
        · then, say, a mouse being able to choose a habitat,
        · a cat having a 3D understanding of a wall, chair, tree branch etc in its mind before taking a leap,
        · me thinking “I am cold” and being able to choose whether to stay outside or go inside,
        · language
        · me reflecting on where I want to be in 20 years time
        · me reflecting on the meaning in life.

        I can see the evolutionary advantage for survival in each process so how they arose is not a problem (I take the last 2 as the same process).

        So to answer “I’d appreciate you clarifying the weaknesses in my own thoughts” – my view is that you need to explain consciousness in a way that clearly takes it off my continuum. Otherwise consciousness is indeed “simply explicable in terms of matter and energy”.

      • Ed has done a pretty good job of putting some contextual grounding around an ‘explanation’ of consciousness. To say that “it fails because consciousness is not simply explicable in terms of matter and energy” looks suspiciously like an argument from ignorance, and specifically an argument from personal incredulity.
        Another example of this type of fallacious reasoning is the classic, “look at those flashing lights in the sky – it must be aliens visiting from another planet!” – famously dealt with by Neil deGrasse Tyson here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NSJElZwEI8o.

        Basically, your argument is, “I can’t understand how nature / matter and energy can possibly give rise to consciousness, therefore they don’t (and furthermore, something spiritual must be the explanation for this)”. How consciousness and self-awareness can indeed emerge from physical substrates has already been partially addressed, both here and elsewhere, so I’m not understanding why one would continue to deny this point.

        If you’re going to take a philosophical position that the behaviour of mouse is different to that of a conscious human on some fundamental spiritual level, then you’ll find yourself stuck in philosophical dead-ends, like having to answer how you can know that any other human is in fact conscious and not some automaton deceiving your own senses, since, like the mouse, you’re not sharing their conscious experience either. You only have your own to allow you to ponder that.

        But if you make the reasonable assumption that other humans are conscious, on the basis that there is no significant observable difference between them and you in this respect, then it doesn’t take an awful lot of work to discover other examples of continua of the type described broadly above by Ed.

        One is to look closely at the behaviour of apes – orangutans, gorillas, chimpanzees. We don’t know what their consciousness is like of course (since we only have our own personal experiences to go by), but you’d be taking a pretty drastic leap of faith to say categorically that we’re conscious and self-aware, but they are not, based on observable behaviour. If you’re going to accept that an orangutan probably does have some degree of self-awareness, but a mouse does not, then try to work your way through the animal kingdom to find the species division(s) between “some” self awareness vs. “no” self awareness.
        Other similar continua can be discovered in our evolutionary history. Assuming one is not a total science denier and accepts that evolution through natural selection is true, then can you really make an argument that Homo sapiens had consciousness, but Homo erectus (or an earlier ancestor) did not? Keep in mind there never was any dividing line between these species. The labels we use are just for the purposes of categorisation. They don’t imply that there was ever a sudden change of one form to the other.

        Trying to find and/or assert that there is some fundamental break or discontinuity between human consciousness and the behaviour of a mouse is just another example of fallacious thinking, and is part of what Richard Dawkins refers to as the Tyranny of the Discontinuous Mind: https://richarddawkins.net/2013/01/the-tyranny-of-the-discontinuous-mind-christmas-2011/

        Note that this doesn’t deny that there are indeed important differences between the two phenomena (ie., the human mind and the mouse), but the point is that if you’re going to claim that those differences are on some fundamental, spiritual level, then you’re confronted by an unsolvable philosophical question: What is your basis for affirming that spirituality accounts for consciousness in some circumstances but not others?

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