Sci-Fi Christianity, Part III: (Re-)Making Ourselves

For the preceding post in this series, click here.

I’m a fan of the cyberpunk genre. I grew up playing the Shadowrun tabletop roleplaying game, which probably is what started my love for the genre–it wasn’t until I was in my twenties that I started reading the progenitors and great writers of this brand of sci-fi (Stephenson, Gibson and Morgan, for instance).

One of the key aspects of the genre is cyberware (and/or bioware and/or nanotech)–the ability for humans to replace or supplement their physical bodies to achieve superhuman abilities through technology.

Unless you haven’t been paying attention, you know that we’re there in real life–or very close to. Les Baugh, Neil Harbisson and the number of patients with installed brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) are proof of this. On the biological side, CRISPR may allow us to undo some of the infelicities of genetic processes, essentially eliminating some genetic disorders or diseases.

So far, these technologies are concerned with restoring lost faculties, but is perfectly conceivable that there will be some willing to lose their meatbody (to use the cyberpunk nomenclature) arm to replace it with one that can perform at a much higher level than the one with which nature provided our subject–and without the constant need to prevent muscle atrophy.

To be clear, these technologies are in their infancy, and we really don’t know yet how far we’ll be able to go in synching man and machine–without sufficient neurological feedback, a cybernetic arm is as much a liability as an asset. Imagine not being able to gauge how hard you’re gripping something when you want to hold that ceramic coffee mug.

But, for the sake of argument, let’s assume that the technology described in cyberpunk fiction becomes available. Since we’re in a realm of speculation here, let’s assume that such technology becomes available at a price point that a majority of people can afford it if they want to. Can you imagine the person who treats body modification in the same way he might have treated souping up a street racer or a mudding truck? If the technology is there, it seems rather inevitable to me.

From a Christian perspective, how do we address this potential? How can our theology and desire to follow Christ inform our response?

Well, that depends on the theology, I suppose. The easiest argument, one I expect to be made by many, is that voluntary body modification is an abomination; a rejection of being made “in the image of God” and a rejection of the principle that “our body is a temple.”

But let’s think about those ideas, starting with the latter. Paul’s exhortation that we should view our bodies as the temples of the Lord (in 1 Corinthians 6:18-20) is used as an argument for sexual purity. Leaving the specific context aside for a moment, let’s think about the metaphysical and theological meaning of the statement itself. When we incorporate the sweep of the Gospels, Christ’s reference to his own body as the Temple and his death and resurrection in John 2:21-22, and the promise of the Holy Spirit, the major thrust of such a metaphor is that God enters into us through the Holy Spirit. One valid interpretation of this, yes, is to say that we ought to keep God’s new Temple beautiful and pure just as the Jews did for the Temple in Jerusalem. But isn’t it more important that the statement reminds us that God is always with us, always seeking relationship with us, and is not in some distant place to which we must walk though valleys and over broken hills to commune with? At the end of the day, these interpretations should probably be considered “both/and” rather than “either/or,” but this still leaves us with the necessity of determining the details of how our individual temples to God ought to be kept.

That Genesis tells us that we are made “in the image of God” might provide some interpretative assistance, but we must unlock the secret of this enigma as well. How are we in the image of God? First, we must accept that we are in the image of God in some form, but certainly not in degree. With this understanding, it seems foolish to believe that our being in God’s image is somehow related to our physical form–are we saying that the infinite, sovereign God is shaped like us but moreso? Or bigger?

No, we must look to something more existential to properly understand this question. Is it that we are able to think on a higher level than the rest of Creation? That we may philosophize and theologize? Perhaps, but we must approach such a conclusion with some trepidation, for those abilities ultimately remind us of our finitude and God’s infinitude.

As Paul Tilich writes, “Our power of being is limited. We are a mixture of being and nonbeing. This is precisely what is meant when we say that we are finite. It is man in his finitude who asks the question of being. He who is infinite does not ask the question of being for, as infinite, he has the complete power of being. He is identical with it; he is God” Biblical Religion and the Search for Ultimate Reality, pp. 11-12.

So what must it be, then? It is our power to create, I would argue. We, like God, make meaning in Creation, particularly through the creation of narratives that define us and our world. Unlike God, we do not do so ex nihilo, but by recombining the things that are in new and unforeseen ways. That is a difference in degree but not kind.

This minor power of creation, coupled with freedom of the will, forms the basis of the need for God’s action in us through Jesus Christ–so that we might be both free and independent and good. But that is a discussion for another time.

We already spend most of our time creating identify for ourselves: every time you tell a story about something that happened to you, you are using that story to create some idea about who you are for others to absorb. If you don’t believe that, think about the last story you told a friend about something that happened to you and honestly count the number of ways you might have “massaged” the truth a little to get across a certain point.

We already use much of our technology in the quest to find or make meaning and identity. What are Facebook, Instagram and Twitter but media for the construction of identity.

“Look at what I had for lunch today, and what that says about me.”

“Look at what I tweet about.”

“Look at what I like.”

“Look at me.”

That being the case, isn’t control over our bodies simply another form of self-creation? How we choose (or choose not) to modify our bodies with the technology we have available to us is not, I think, an issue of categorical morality.

That does not relieve us of moral responsibility. The questions of intent and consequence, common to all moral questions in Christianity, remain to confront us in relation to any particular choice about body modification. Just as there are good and bad reasons to get a tattoo, or to have elective surgery, or to wear makeup, the morality of a choice to augment human capabilities through advanced technology is a highly contextual calculus.

We must walk a fine line here. Jesus came to us as a human, so we must see that embodiment and incarnation constitute important aspects of God’s Creation. At the same time, we must not distort such an idea into the belief that there is only one right way to be an embodied human being–that there is only one type of body that is good.

The theology (at least in very simplified form as argued above) of human enhancement reminds us that morality–that sin–is not composed of easy categories, of boxes into which a particular action does or does not fit. We ought, then, to look at sin as a state of being, of disassociation from the right relationships with our neighbors, with ourselves, with God, with Creation. We enter into sin not because we have crossed some clear demarcation but because we have stopped considering our intentions towards ourselves and all other beings and have avoided concern about the consequences on Creation (and all that is within it) of our actions. Yes, the state of sin leads to hurtful actions and destructive or antisocial behavior, but let’s look past the symptoms to the disease.

Sci-Fi Christianity, Part II: Mind Uploading and Mind/Body Dualism

For the previous post in this series, click here.

If you’ve read the second post in my sci-fi example of worldbuilding (to which I’ll likely return in the near future) or my highly-critical post of a certain brand of materialist science, you know that I’m highly skeptical of ideas about the “Singularity” and particulary prophecy about the future potential of uploading minds into computers to achieve digital immortality. Yesterday, as I binge-watched the released episodes of the second season of Westworld with some friends, I was reminded of this issue (though, if you’re as interested in both technology and sci-fi as much as I am, it’s an idea that’s never too far from hand). I think also of Altered Carbon (both the book and the Netflix show, but especially the book, to which I’ll return shortly).

For a short recap, here are my condensed criticisms of mind uploading as touted by Ray Kurtzweil and others.

First, we simply do not understand consciousness well enough to make such far-fetched claims with anything but wild speculation. The Kurtzweil paradigm assumes a materialist basis–that the mind is merely an emergent function of its underlying physical parts (i.e. the brain). This approach allows us to assume that replicating the (arguably) underlying material components of consciousness will lead to a replication of the consciouness itself.

To be sure, there are some scientific studies that, taken uncritically, might lead one to such a belief. In particular, Google has been working on “mind-reading” technology, which uses high-resolution brain-mapping to predict what a person is thinking about in more-or-less real time. Google has been experimenting with reading mental images and unvocalized commands. In the realm of images, Google’s development allows a sophisticated system to make guesses with high accuracy about what image a person is holding in his mind by looking at those brain scans. In command inputs, Google’s AlterEgo prototype allows someone to command Alexa or Siri without any physical or verbal component–with 92 percent accuracy (which is far better than the accuracy I get when trying to speak to either).

But when we look closer, these technologies are far more primitive than we might expect. For the image-reading programs to work, they must be extensively trained–by looking at particular pre-selected images. The brain scans of activity when looking at these photos are then used in a sophisticated game of “match” when trying to predict which image(s) the subject is thinking on. With AlterEgo, the system actually reads electric signals to muscles generated when a person mentally (but not physically) says certain words.

When it comes down to it, these devices are using highly-impressive algorithms, artificial intelligences (though not the sci-fi kind) and neural networks to read physical corrolaries to thought to deduce the thoughts themselves. I do not mean to sound like this is not amazing research and development, but it is not true “mind-reading” and it does not require an understanding of the dynamics between brain and mind. Nor does it offer any special insight into that relationship.

And that leads to my second criticism: We just don’t understand enough about the relationship between brain and mind to have any authority whatsoever to predict what is and isn’t possible in regards to mind uploading. It has been definitively established, I think, and cannot be questioned that chemical states in the brain influence experienced consciousness–my own journey with depression is a constant personal reminder of this. But there’s also a number of scientific studies that show that this is a two-way street–the action of the mind also affects the physical brain. Dr. Mario Beauregard’s The Spiritual Brain presents some evidence of this, as does the entire field of cognitive psychology. There’s nothing wrong with Kurzweil and his fellows speculating, of course, but a line is crossed when such speculation is offered as having been established on an indisputable and fully-understood foundation. Current science simply isn’t equipped to prove or disprove mind uploading theory.

Which conveniently leads to my third–and most important–criticism: we’re dealing with issues of consciousness here. Even without the kink in the hose caused by the thought of consciousness transfer, we already have no means by which to verify consciousness. We can test for the “symptoms” of consciousness–a la the Turing test–but we cannot definitively establish that any person or thing is or is not possessed of independent essence and consciousness. We do–and must, I think–for means of living life well and maintaining some semblance of sanity assume the full consciousness of other human beings (and probably also animals), reject solipsistic ideas and treat questions of what is “real” and what “actually exists” as fodder for creative fiction but not the sort of thing that should actually keep us up at night.

But when it comes to transferring consciousnesses as predicted by projections of mind uploading, we have no means by which to verify that such a transaction has been successful. I’m reminded of China Mieville’s Kraken, where a character and fan of Star Trek is haunted by the ghosts of all the times he’s killed himself using teleportation magic in imitation of the show. The difference is that we would never know if our “mind uploading” is just murder followed by the creation of very good imposters. That alone should be enough to keep us wary.

But this post is not (merely) an opportunity for me to rehash my criticisms of the idea of mind uploading, but to use this idea (in its many forms) to discuss mind/body dualism in Christianity.

Mind/body dualism is the idea that the mind and body are independent of one another but linked together somehow–they are not the same substance or material. In other words, the death of the body does not necessarily mean the death of the mind. This is in contrast to materialism, which is a form of monism (assertion that there is only one type of substance, material or essence) and the idea that the mind is merely an artifact of the activity of the physical brain.

For a quick example of mind/body dualism, let’s look at the novel version of Altered Carbon. In that novel, the main character, Takeshi Kovacs, previously served as an Envoy, a political/espionage/military operator tasked with handling senstive missions for the UN (which is hinted at being responsible for human government across planets). Note that the TV show alters what an “Envoy” is substantially. Because the fastest way to travel is to have your mind uploaded and sent as pure information before being downloaded into a new “sleeve” (slang for both “natural” and artificial bodies), part of Envoy training includes a number of mental adaptations and cognitive trainings desgined to make the Envoy especially effective no matter what sort of sleeve he is in. Though this does not necessitate belief in mind/body dualism, it certainly suggests such–it goes unquestioned that the uploading and downloading of minds creates an absolute continuity of consciousness and being–even being downloaded from an old backup means only a loss of recent memories, not a loss of self. If you would like to look at this approach in all of its terror and nuance, consider the effect on selfhood of dementia, Alzheimer’s or amnesia. For our purposes, however, Altered Carbon seems to treat the mind and body as separate–the mind can be separated from the body and rejoined to a new body and, because the mind half of the equation is the true self, the download to the new sleeve simple incarnates the mind again.

As a side note, Altered Carbon (both show and book) deals somewhat with Christian views on mind uploading and “resleeving”–though the book really only treats a conservative view that mind uploading (though apparently permitted by God under the laws of the universe) somehow condemns the person uploaded and downloaded to hell (regardless of their own intent or say in the matter).

The idea of dualism between mind and body is deeply entrenched in Christian thought, but I’m not sure that it’s fair to say that it is necessary to the faith. In the Old Testament, the Jews speak of “going down to Sheol”–a very depressive and Mesopotamian-style view of the afterlife as existing as a shadow of the living self that, at least in certain references, may be intended only as metaphor. Elsewhere, there are indications that an afterlife does await at least those who are righteous.

Certainly, in the time of Jesus the Sadducees taught that there was no afterlife, and some Biblical scholars assert that the idea of an afterlife developed mostly in the folk practice of Judaism rather than through the “official” theologies of the faith. I don’t find the Scriptures particularly determinative on this front–again we reference the Sadducees, but Jesus also points to the Scriptures as evidence that they are mistaken in the denial of the afterlife.

On the other hand, Jesus does not talk about heaven in the colloquial sense we tend to think of it in in modern American Christianity–as the place you go to experience the afterlife. Jesus talks about the Resurrection, and many passages seem to indicate that that Resurrection would be bodily and incarnate. At least some of the medieval theologians believed the Resurrection to be bodily on a restored Earth–if you look at the marginal illustrations in certain manuscripts, you’ll see wolves coughing up limbs so that they may be reunited with their owners in the Resurrection. If I am not mistaken, a large part of the Christian practice of burial (aside from being at least partially inherited from Jewish practice) is based on belief in the bodily Resurrection–or at least doubt about the ability to be resurrected if your body had been utterly destroyed.

Much of our dualistic (as in mind/body duality; dualism can mean a number of other very different things in religion) thought comes from the writings of Paul (here, for expedience in argument, I’m using “Paul” to mean the collective writers of the Pauline Epistles). There is much scholarship on Paul’s background in Platonic philosophy (i.e., the philosophies expounded upon by Plato) and the extent to which it influences his theology. I’ll just make a few points about this.

Platonic philosophy is staunchly dualistic; it posits a realm of the “Forms” where the perfect version (or Form) of each thing that exists in the perceivable (embodied) world resides. Everything that we experience around us is an imperfect instantiation (incarnation, we might say) of a perfect Form. The chair you’re sitting in right now; it’s an emanation many times removed from the perfect Chair that exists in the realm of the Forms. Perhaps the most famous explanation of this idea is in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave.

In 1 Corinthians 13:12, Paul tells us that “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face.” If this doesn’t line up well with the Allegory of the Cave, I don’t know what does.

Elsewhere, Paul makes much about the difference between flesh (often categorized as weak and sinful) and spirit (desiring to be more righteous but constantly tempted by the desires of the flesh). In Romans 8:1-4, Paul writes, “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.”

Paul’s words in Romans mirror at least some statements made by Jesus. In Matthew 26:41, in scolding the disciples for falling asleep in the Garden of Gethsemen, Jesus tells them, “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”

Of course, the language above in context is not just about the disciples, for Jesus himself immediately goes away again and asks the Father to spare him from the suffering to come–it seems reasonable to assert here that Jesus is struggling with the temptation of his own Incarnation here, as he does before he begins his ministry.

As I said above, my own experiences have given me intuition that there is a divide (but also a dialectic relationship) between mind and body. And we’ve all, I think, had experiences of being young and hormonal–feeling the tug of fleshly desires against our better judgment. At the end of the day, it’s not a difficult argument to make that Christianity assumes mind/body dualism, with its focus on the perceivable world and the unseen God. Of course, there are monist (though not necessarily materialist, though there could be, I suppose) Christians–as a footnote, John Milton was one such. He believed that spirit was a more refined version of the same material substance all around us. To what extent that view is a matter of semantics, I am unsure.

Why does all of this matter? Admittedly, for the most part, much of the monist versus dualist debate regarding mind and body may be fodder for the theologians and not much more. At the same time, though, there are very complex issues surrounding one’s stance on such a matter, and some of these may affect ideas that directly impact how your order yourself on your journey to follow Jesus.

Here’s the rub: I think it’s far easier to make a mind/body dualism argument for Christianity (and existence in general)–this matches with my understanding of scripture, of Jesus, of my own experiences, and of church tradition. The existence of mind/body dualism should tell us that there is some important to that split and that both mind and body are valuable. We must remember, that, even as Jesus talks about the difference between the flesh and the spirit, he himself Incarnated as an embodied spirit in flesh as the crux (forgive the pun, reader and God) of God’s redemptive plan–a combination of flesh and spirit that God viewed as somehow fundamental to God’s plan.

And yet, there is a strong temptation to belittle the flesh and laud only the spirit. When we think of the physical world as a fallen, sinful, irredeemable place and only the spiritual having value, we are forgetting that God created the physical world, too, and called it “good,” that God created first bodies into which God’s spirit was breathed to create humans, that our goal in sanctification is not to mortify or disavow our flesh in embracing spirit, but to bring the spiritual heaven into being as an embodied physical heaven through our following of Christ.

Failing to do so leads to a failure to be proper stewards for the Earth as we’ve been called to, leads us to ignore the different experiences of embodiment humans because of perceived racial divides instead of celebrating that diversity as purposeful and meaningful but in need of greater justice, leads us to take a Gnostic approach that rejects the world instead of trying to heal it.

Yes, sometimes we may need our spirit to overcome our flesh, the mind to be over matter. But the end goal is a righteous and proper relationship between mind and body, spirit and flesh, just as the end goal is a righteous and proper relationship with each other, with God, and with all creation.

Let me attempt to bring this back to mind uploading. To really work in a meaningful way as the singularists seem to argue, mind uploading requires a dualist approach when it comes to mind and body. A monist, materialist, approach dehumanizes saying that destroying you and booting up a program that operates convincingly as you is just as good. The dualist approach, however, would say that the digital uploading and downloading of consciousness (assuming for the sake of argument that we could be sure of consciousness) is the severing of the bond between the mind and one body and the instantiation of the mind in another body, with the continuity of the existence of the mind providing the philosophical bridge that overcomes the third criticism I voiced above.

Even in such a situation, many dangers lie in even a dualistic mind uploading paradigm. We would risk seeing our bodies as fungible, seeing them as useful only for their functionality instead of what they mean as part of who we are. We would risk seeing all physical things as subordinate and relatively unimportant compared to ephemeral data–and this dehumanizes as well. We would forget to see the value of protecting things as they are–of healing what is–rather than simply replacing it. This is a direction modern society already pushes us; mind uploading technology would simple urge us farther down the path.

So, the mind uploading idea–especially in speculative fiction where it is usually accompanied by appropriate dystopic ideas and (often) a cyberpunk aesthetic–reminds us that we need both flesh and spirit, and we need to paradoxically hold the value of each in tension.

A Rebuttal to Materialist Science

Yesterday, I came across an article (“Are you sleepwalking now?”) on the digital magazine Aeon that I could not help but respond to, because it seems to be such a patent example of someone misusing science to “prove” things well beyond science’s ken.

The article is here: It is well written and certainly thought-provoking, so it’s potentially worth reading on its own. More to the point, it is required reading for this post.

To practice what I preach, here’s my fair disclosure at the beginning, in case this is the first of my posts that you’re reading. I’m a faithful progressive Christian who believes in both science and God. As an existentialist theologian and somewhat of an epistemological pessimist (I’d say “healthy skeptic,” I believe that personal consciousness and experience is the foundational starting place of examining metaphysical questions. Hence why I might take the article so personally, though I think that my arguments stand on their own and I’m explicitly trying to go out of my way (unlike Dr. Metzinger, I think) to admit to what I believe that cannot be proved and what does or does not actually meet with standards of scientific inquiry.

The article was posted on the 22nd of this year by Dr. Thomas Metzinger, a professor at the university of Mainz, where he teaches theoretical philosophy with a focus on the philosophy of the mind (the subject of his article). He has written numerous books, given a TED talk and is undoubtedly a highly-intelligent person well-versed in the subject matter.

Nevertheless, I have to take issue with the assertions he makes in his article.

The article begins with what I can only describe as a masterful metaphor for the movement of “thoughts and ideas” from un- or subconscious to conscious, one that equates them to the motion of dolphins traveling at speed, occasionally breaking the surface of the water and often under it.

From there, Metzinger poses the questions he believes he can answer. He writes, “Philosophers of mind often fall into the trap of assuming that goal-directed, rational thought is the paradigmatic case of conscious cognition. But if we are only ever partly aware of what is happening in our own minds, surely we can’t be in absolute command of our thoughts, let alone causing them? Is it ever possible to distinguish between mental actions, which we can direct and select, from the more general category of mental events, which simply happen to us? In what sense are we ever genuinely mental agents, capable of acting freely, as opposed to being buffeted by forces beyond our control?” (emphasis Metzinger’s).

This question perhaps the most fundamental philosophical question when it comes to thinking about the mind. Experientially, I think that we can agree that we have thoughts that we would assert we have consciously and willfully called to mind and formed and those thoughts that seem to be generated spontaneously and inexplicably—in other words, the conscious and the subconscious.

The only complaint that I have with Metzinger’s formulation of these questions is the rhetoric that subtly slips in to begin his arguments from the inception of the question. On the other hand, this is easily forgivable as something most, if not all, of us are likely to do even unintentionally.

The next paragraph begins Dr. Metzinger’s tenuous assertions. Relying on the “empirical findings” of neuroscience and experimental psychology in mind-wandering, he asserts that, “Much of the time we like to describe some foundation ‘self’ as the initiator or cause of our actions, but this is a pervasive myth” (again, emphasis is Dr. Metzinger’s).

Here’s my first complaint: there is no description of these “empirical findings.” Dr. Metzinger does not explain what experiments have been conducted, whether they are peer reviewed, whether they have been replicated, what the specific results are—or, really anything other than that they exist and we should allow him to interpret them for us. This is not evidence; this is the basic rhetorical technique of asking the audience to rely on your authority as evidence enough.

The first sentence of the following paragraph gets to the heart of the matter: “Mind-wandering research suggests that we need to get rid of naïve, black-and-white distinctions such as ‘free-will’ versus ‘determinism’, ‘conscious’ versus ‘unconscious’, and what philosopher’s call ‘personal’ versus ‘subpersonal’ processes (roughly, accounts of cognition that look at the whole person’s reasons and beliefs, versus those based on biological or physiological functions).” What!?! How did we go from “empirical findings” suggesting that there are a lot of subconscious activities going on to positing that we should look to a solely biological basis for consciousness? This is a logical non-sequitur in the extreme.

Nevertheless, the statement is revealing: it’s a 21st Century version of the “bag of chemicals” argument made in the early 20th Century (i.e., that all of our thoughts and actions are really the result of chemical reactions in body and brain without any real volition or self) so readily rebutted by G.K. Chesterton in Orthodoxy.

Rather than solely referring to Mr. Chesterton (whose arguments should most definitely be read), I’ll point out a few of the specific problems: (1) lack of any evidence for this provided; (2) lack of consideration of the broader findings of neurological research (which I’ll refer to in more detail in a moment); (3) the solipsism and circularity of the argument (how is it that Dr. Metzinger is so special as to realize the falsity of the illusion and then to explain it to others by random chance of his own mental events)?; (4) the complete and willful ignorance of the human experience. We might phrase the last objection in terms of Occam’s Razor: which is more likely, that when we feel we are exercising our will we are or that there are multiplicative, subtler and (so far) inexplicable mental processes going on that cause this illusion?

In the case of neurological research that seems to point to other than a solely materialistic explanation for cognition, I’d point you to Dr. Mario Beauregard’s The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Case for the Existence of the Soul in counterargument. In that book, Dr. Beauregard (a neuroscientist rather than a philosopher) explains how in certain experiments regarding addiction relief, it has been shown that the active cognition of the mind can actually alter the material function of the brain over time by creating new neural pathways. The whole topic of “neuroplasticity,” which is showing us that our brains remain more subject to change in adulthood than we previously thought, seems to cut against Dr. Metzinger’s argument.

As a caveat, when Dr. Metzinger says we ought to get rid of “black-and-white distinctions,” I think he’s right in that we need more complex and nuanced ways to think about the topic of free will as some interaction between personal volition and influence (or perhaps deterministic) influences. But this is nothing new in the philosophy of the mind (or theology, for that matter) and I’ve myself argued for such a position in previous posts. But when Dr. Metzinger’s seemingly-suggested resolution is to ignore one half of the equation entirely, we’re stepping backward instead of forward.

The logic further falters as Dr. Metzinger continues, writing: “As the dolphin story hints, human beings are not Cartesian egos capable of complete self-determination.” I would remind you that the dolphin story is a metaphor, by itself it cannot logically hint at anything except the to extent that it can be shown that the metaphor validly represents the things it is trying to explain (though this article contains none of that).

There’s a glimmer of reason after this, though, where Dr. Metzinger says, “Nor are we primitive, robotic automata. Instead, our conscious inner life seems to be about the management of spontaneously emerging mental behavior. Most of what populates our awareness unfolds automatically, just like a heartbeat or autoimmune response, but it can still be guided to a greater or lesser degree.”

I’d like to point out in the above that Dr. Metzinger wisely uses the words “seems to be” to indicate that he is speculating here. The problem, though, is that despite these subtle hints about the actual logical foundation of his argument (being very slight), he presents most of his ideas as authoritative through the rest of the article’s language.

For sake of time and space, I’m going to skip a few paragraphs where Dr. Metzinger discusses the positive and negative effects of daydreaming. He continues, “My view is that the mind-wandering and the DMN [what he calls the default-mode network of the active parts of the brain during rest periods) basically serve to keep our sense of self stable and in good shape. Like an automatic maintenance program, they constantly generate new stories, weaving back and forth between different time-horizons, each micro-narrative contributing to the illusion that we are actually the same person over time” (this time, emphasis is mine).

Again, Dr. Metzinger begins with words of speculation (“My view is…”) but then makes assertions as if they are fact. He’s put the cart before the horse here by assuming that the idea of the self is an illusion rather than a reality. And he’s done that without any evidence whatsoever. It seems here, as I think has become fashionable for some intellectuals investigating the still relatively terra incognita of the mind, to assume a Buddhist sort of worldview and then force the science to fit that mold. But the Buddhist idea that the self is an illusion is a religious and philosophical idea, not a scientific one. There is no defensible logic to starting with that assumption and working backwards. That’s simply not how science works.

The truth will out, as they say, and it certainly does in the next paragraph. Dr. Metzinger writes, “I should come clean at this point and confess that I don’t believe in any such entity or thing as ‘the self’” (emphasis mine). It’s a little late in the game here to make that confession—honest scholarship starts with a confession of biases that are known to the writer and probably unknown to the reader so that the reader can read critically. I think that this drives home the disingenuity on Metzinger burying the language of speculation with such extensive assertions of truth.

But it’s the assertion itself that is so ironic—who is making the confession if there is no self? The sentence, under Metzinger’s argument, is itself nonsense. And therein lies perhaps the biggest problem with the materialist approach to the mind—even the people who maintain that position cannot (and do not seem to try to) live as if it were true. The only way it is possible to interact with the world is through an understanding of self. That understanding may see itself as more or less connected to everything around it, but no one acts or thinks without reference to an “I.” If that “I” is an illusion, then there’s really no “I” to make the discovery that it is an illusion in the first place. Hence the circularity of this kind of logic.

To drive the weakness of Dr. Metzinger’s philosophy home, he then refers to “evolutionary psychology,” that perennial favorite of materialist thinkers like Richard Dawkins and Stephen Pinker. Evolutionary psychology is the field of making unfalsifiable assumptions about the development of the brain (and therefore mind) according to subjectively selected “societal needs” and then presenting those assumptions as fact. Dr. Metzinger joins in by arguing about the societal role of the “fiction” of the self, how “[h]umans have evolved to be a bit like method actors,” and asserting that “The self-as-agent is just a useful fiction, a neurocomputational artefact of our evolved self-model.”

This statement is unfalsifiable by scientific method because consciousness and self are, by their very nature, subjective. And yet, Metzinger presents his assumptions as the inevitable conclusions of science despite the fact that true scientific method (nor basic philosophical logic) would touch such a conclusion with a 10-foot pole. Further, Metzinger delicately (and probably quite deliberately) avoids issues like the “hard problem of consciousness” by simply denying that there is one.

In a further bout of spontaneous honesty, “But just as there is no ‘real’ character, there’s also no such thing as ‘a self’, and probably nothing like an immortal soul either.”

Metzinger is, for such an esteemed scholar, remarkably willing to conflate belief with fact and then to work backward from there.

I think it is sufficient to stop with a detailed rebuttal of Metzinger’s argument there, as the rest of the (lengthy) article simply repeats the same logical errors, rhetorical slight-of-hand and materialism as religious belief (in that it is the given from which all other inquiry begins) as science.

On the one hand, perhaps it is the arguments of the religious that have generated this kind of reactionary response. When we deny the usefulness of science because of religion (which, as I’ve often argued, we oughtn’t) it seems a natural (though not logical) response to use science to deny religion. And that’s really what these kinds of arguments are ultimately about (otherwise, why explicitly deny the existence of an immortal soul when the very argument makes such a distinction meaningless).

Frankly, I’m tired of it, on both sides. I’m tired of atheist materialists trying to claim philosophical and metaphysical truth through science and I’m tired of fundamentalist Christians denying evolution because the Bible doesn’t mention it.

To be clear, I have no problem with atheists saying that science leads them to believe in a solely materialist explanation for existence—they’re well within their right to draw that conclusion, even if I think it is the wrong one, just as some are led to faith because of their interpretation of metaphysical likelihoods based on science. Reasonable people may disagree, as we lawyers like to say. It’s when they claim that science proves their belief that I become offended as a person of deep faith who nevertheless is willing to make careful distinction between what science shows us (and often defers to science to inform theology) and what must be left to faith and belief.

At the same time, I’m upset both by the closemindedness and bad theology of those who question science based on Scripture that in no way asserts that that’s a proper (or even valid) way to analyze the world and the fact that, knowing I’m a Christian, many people with whom I’d like to have a real (and respectful) conversation about these kinds of topics will not listen logically because they somehow assume I’m that kind of Christian.

As I’ve said many times in the past, science is simply not equipped to answer metaphysical questions, which unfortunately must be relegated to the realm of belief, conviction, uncertainty and doubt. Let’s use science to examine and explore the material world, to learn what we can about all that we can. But let’s also admit when science is of no use and properly categorize those beliefs about the metaphysical as matters of faith, no matter who they come from, believer or not.

Skepticism in Faith, Part 2: Logical Skepticism

For the first post in this series, click here.

We talked about a general skepticism of what we can know and how we know what we know in the last post. From this point on, we’re going to take the position that, despite our inability to be absolutely certain about our knowledge, we humans are capable of gaining “functional” knowledge of at least some things—that is, knowledge that approximates capital “T” Truth closely enough that we can reasonably rely on it.

Under that position, the next point of skepticism I’d like to discuss is a healthy skepticism about the ways in which we achieve knowledge and about claims made about the limits (or lack thereof) about certain paths to knowledge.

Let’s talk about science. I must first admit that science does an excellent job of telling us how the world works. However, I would argue that we must maintain skepticism about the extent of science’s ability to tell us about existence, particularly when it comes to the spiritual or metaphysical.

Reputable science requires implementation of the scientific method.[1] Under scientific method, the researcher/investigator must be able to create testable predictions about the object or process under study, a falsifiable hypothesis that may potentially be disproven through experimentation. If the predictions cannot be evaluated in a way that actually tests them, scientific method cannot be applied.

In a way, scientific method follows with a form of epistemological skepticism. Despite talk about the “laws” of physics and such, science doesn’t actually prove things in the way we laypersons tend to think of proof. Instead, science steadily disproves alternative explanations until we reach explanations that seem to be creeping ever closer to reality, but never absolute certainty (although close enough to treat it as such—by this point, Newton’s laws are as much a certainty as is possible).

Science, and particularly theoretical physics (which I greatly enjoy learning about so long as you don’t ask me to do any calculations), does often start with a theory based on observation and testing for refinement, but the testing of theories still involves attempts to disprove them to see whether they survive such analysis.

Here’s the issue where skepticism of the scientific method (as a general example of what I’m calling “logical” skepticism) comes in: some purport that science “proves” things that cannot be falsified by experimentation. Here’s a short list of examples:

(1) The existence of God. There’s not a scientifically testable hypothesis here. Yes, you can have a hypothesis, but it’s only as good as something like “I speculate that the color blue looks the same to me as it does to other people.”

(2) The materialist worldview. Again, this is a hypocritical application of science to try to “disprove” the existence of a spiritual reality; science isn’t equipped to answer those questions and those who use materialist to assert the absence of a spiritual reality have created an atheistic religion around science; a certain threshold of honesty has been crossed. To me, just the fact that there are very intelligent scientists who say “science made me a believer” and also very intelligent scientists who say “science made me an atheist” reveals the failing of science to definitively answer such questions.

(3) Near-death or mystical religious experiences. The problem here is in the name; it’s an experience, and thus not fully communicable between individuals. That said, the thrust of materialist science has been to “prove” that such experiences are actually the result of chemicals affecting the brain (ketamine for one) or electromagnetic effects on the same (the famous “God Helmet” experiment). Scientifically, those types of experiments are flawed in that they can demonstrate correlation but not causation (which takes us back to Mr. Hume, interestingly)—they can say, “we notice high levels of ketamine in the brains of people who later claim near-death experiences,” but they can’t logically claim that that means that ketamine was the cause. It could be possible that a near-death experience causes a release of ketamine in the brain; we just can’t know. Further, many experiments of this nature have been shown to be irreproducible, a key factor in scientific theory—a group of northern European scientists attempting to recreate the “God Helmet” study concluded that the results came from bad scientific method and the power of suggestion upon test subjects, not electromagnetic fields.

(4) Qualia. The “thingness” of subjective conscious experience. Both philosophy and science have thus far proved of little help in the analysis of experience. This is a natural consequence of the existential fact that we do not have the ability to share our own experiences with others and are therefore inhibited by the constraints of language from making deep comparisons of subjective experience between individuals.

Perhaps advances in science and scientific understanding will help us to answer some of the questions above with experiments I simply cannot conceive of with the knowledge available. However, I choose to believe that there is a damn good reason the most important questions are not readily answerable, and I think that that reason points to God’s purposefulness. I digress; we can discuss that another time.

It has become popular among certain scientists, like Steven Pinker, to create new fields of science starting from preconceived suppositions about the way the world works and using the new field to support those suppositions—“evolutionary psychology” is, I think, the foremost offender in this field. If you’re not familiar, evolutionary psychology seeks to explain modern human psychology as the result of greater or lesser degrees of evolution, in a similar way to the evolution of the human physiology. Now, admittedly, the theories of evolutionary psychologists could be absolutely true (though I strongly doubt it). The problem is that they sell the field as science. We don’t know enough about the psychology of ancient homo sapiens and his predecessors to do anything but speculate about the origin of our own psychologies, much less create a falsifiable hypothesis that can be tested—the conditions in which to test such theories have long expired. Interesting ideas to be sure, but it remains disingenuous to call them science.

It is only fair, as someone who believes in both science and faith and sees the relative boundaries for their application to certain questions, to apply the same sort of logical skepticism to faith.

At the end of the day, faith is the belief in certain answers to questions we cannot otherwise answer. That does not mean that we should look only to faith and tradition to answer every question about the world around us.

In the first of two points I want to make about logical skepticism in faith (with, of course, particular reference to Christianity), let’s talk about the Book of Genesis.

There is a trend among evangelical Christians, particularly in America, to believe in the literal truth of the Bible. Having read some of my other posts, you should know that I do not ascribe to, and passionately resist, such a belief as a necessary (or even beneficial) aspect of Christian faith.

Genesis gives us a creation story that, if read for allegory and metaphor, actually doesn’t clash much with what science tells us about the Big Bang, evolution and other well-supported theories about the physical origins of matter and life. Adam Hamilton has written some good work going through the ways in which faith and science coincide in Genesis; I believe that this is in his Making Sense of the Bible but I’m not sure as I write this post.

And yet, many Christians want to read Genesis as a literal explanation of Creation. Here’s where logical skepticism comes in:

First, let’s apply some logical skepticism to Biblical literalism in general. The doctrine asks us to believe that every book in the Bible was written directly by God through some form of automatic writing in the humans that penned it. I would not say that God could not do this (that would be foolish), but experience indicates that this doesn’t seem to be God’s usual modus operandi. Of course, using strict logic, this is not a question that can be definitively answered.

So, let’s consider some additional thoughts. When Jesus speaks, he usually tells stories and uses metaphor (see my earlier posts on Ambiguity in Scripture for an examination of how this makes his words more powerful and effective); rarely does he speak in a straightforward and plain manner—when he does, it is almost certainly a command to love.

If we want to result to hard literary criticism, we can note definite stylistic differences in books of the Bible, sometimes competing purposes or concerns (each of the Gospels recounts many of the same events but with different perspectives, motivations and goals) and even different underlying ideologies (like Platonism in Paul’s epistles). While God is certainly capable of using different approaches and different purposes between books, multiple authorial voices may be a better explanation.

Historically, we can point to the different periods of writing of the books of the Bible—Paul didn’t have access to the Gospels, for instance—and the long history of the compilation of the certain books that form what is accepted as the canonical Bible with the selection of certain texts over others, concerns about forgeries, dubious authorship and poor copies all along the way. We didn’t have the Bible as we commonly think of it until rather late in the 4th century.

One that needs little explanation: If we take Jesus’s statement that we ought to cut off body parts that cause us to sin literally, we ought to have a lot more amputees.

Again, none of this disproves the position of Biblical literalism and infallibility, but the evidence taken together makes it highly unlikely that such a position can stand under its own weight.

More important, because it applies not only to the question of Biblical literalism but to theology in general is that any theological system must maintain internal consistency; it should not contradict itself. When we take literally both the Old Testament events in which we are told that God endorses wholesale slaughter and Jesus’s command to love our neighbors as ourselves, we have problems in logical consistency.

I have heard many seemingly-commonly-held theological positions within Christianity that openly court such contradiction. Take “God cannot stand to be in the presence of sin”, for instance, a statement that is sometimes used to explain the need for Jesus’s redemption. The very statement is self-contradictory, because Jesus spends most of his time (all of it really) in the presence of sinners. If Jesus is wholly human and wholly God, the statement cannot stand. That it begins with “God cannot…” should be our first clue. We can’t rightly talk about “God could not”, though we might talk about “God does not” (or, correctly, “God does not seem to”).

To combine our skepticisms of both science and theology, when there is dispute between science and scripture, we ought to rely on the science to tell us how the world works and our faith to explain to us how existence works. I believe in evolution as the likeliest explanation for how humans became humans, but that doesn’t tell us why there are humans, or why, in a cosmic sense, there is life at all. I believe that we should incorporate new scientific understandings into our understanding of God—if God created the world in a certain way, why might God have done that? The synthesis of science and faith can do much more for us than vainly attempting to pit the two against one another.

But this brings me to the ultimate point: logical skepticism gives us some intellectual honesty. The tendency to question whether certain evidences prove something (much less how they prove it) protects us from logical fallacies.


[1] There are some competing theories of scientific methods, such as the “anything goes” approach espoused by Karl Feyerabend, but these I think are sufficiently held to be “out in left field” by the scientific community at large to be largely discounted.