Friday, February 27, 2015
Monday, February 23, 2015
I’m in a dilapidated vacation home in the mountains. Broken, disused furniture is scattered about, and to judge by the view through the huge picture windows it’s somewhere in Colorado or Montana. My father is there and a few other people, but I’m not quite sure who.
That morning there’s been serious seismic activity, and I explain to my father that I can tell from the tremors that Godzilla is coming. My father generally seems to believe me, but has some lingering doubts.
Outside in the distance we can see a few other vacation homes, but for some reason we know they are all empty, abandoned even.
It’s a sunny day with fluffy white clouds here and there against the blue sky, but the colors through the window are a bit bright and technicolor, almost as in a move from the seventies.
Then suddenly I see Godzilla off on the side of the one of the mountains. But I can’t see him completely: only parts of his body protrude now and then from the cloud cover, only to disappear again.
Somehow I know that this partial appearance, Godzilla’s game of hide and seek, is for the movie, to create audience suspense. So we’re watching the making of a movie, behind the scenes as it were, but it’s clear we’re not supposed to be there.
We get down low behind the furniture because we don’t want Godzilla to glimpse us through the window.
The earth is shaking more and more: Godzilla is getting closer.
The suddenly I see three huge monkeys outside, dozens of stories tall, coming from the other direction. They’re walking slowly in single file like Buddhist monks. They are attired in traditional Chinese aristocratic garb, making them look like gargantuan versions of the Monkey King from Journey to the West. They proceed slowly, only about a kilometer away.
We are crouched down very low behind the furniture. Now that the monkeys have appeared, to be seen would be even worse, because although Godzilla’s appearance is just part of the movie, for some reason nobody is supposed to see the three monkeys. It is some kind of forbidden secret.
Sunday, February 15, 2015
“Christian moron”, “religitard”, “sky fairy”, “medieval superstition”, “imaginary sky friend”--these are just a few of the words that get spat in one’s direction these days if one acknowledges one is a Christian.
It didn’t use to be like this, back, say, before Sam Harris published The End of Faith in 2004 and effectively launched the New Atheist Movement. Harris, Richard Dawkins, a few other writers and a gaggle of comedians all soon joined up in gleeful support of insulting religious people. Educated citizens were no longer to be civil toward those who didn’t recognize the truth Harris and Dawkins spoke. The New Atheists’ policy of confrontation and insult supposedly had a good purpose besides: it would snap people of faith out of their “silly nonsense”.
A handful of popular books and a lot of TED talks later, the protocol has shifted between atheists and people of faith. Specifically: the former must go out of their way to demean the latter (there are a handful of useful terms and soundbites for doing this) and the latter are to retreat to the margins of society, eventually to disappear.
Though there are signs that the New Atheist dog has had its day, there is also contrary evidence that the movement and its methods continue to gain support among the partly educated. So while most professional philosophers, sociologists and scientists now reject Harris’ and Dawkins’ extremist cultural thinking outright, many “bookish” members of the public continue to take their cues from these New Atheists. And various entrenched New Atheist ideas--that religion is something society must “get over”, that people of faith are at fault for the world’s wars, that religious people are brainwashed and inherently reactionary--these continue to spread like wildfire over the Internet and in the “liberal” press at large.
Such rabid anti-religious proselytizing has its risks. If religion, as the New Atheist leaders have insisted, is at the root of most of our evils, then it won’t take long before many of the their followers start believing that religious people themselves are evil. And should be gotten rid of.
This has happened in history before of course, both during the French Revolution and later under many of the communist regimes. People of faith were persecuted, imprisoned and often executed because of a dominant ideology that claimed to serve Reason and Progress. To have faith, during these periods of political terror, was seen as something inherently “outdated”, part of a backward “past” that we were all “moving beyond”.
Sound familiar? As a Catholic who blogs frequently, I don’t know how many times I’ve been told in recent years that my thinking on this or that subject was “outdated”, that I should “grow up” or “get over it” because society is now “moving beyond that”.
I often have to point out in reply that at age 49 I’m pretty grown up, that I’ve spent a lifetime of study, living in different cultures, and that in fact I used to be an atheist--but learned better.
I said that anti-religious indoctrination of the New Atheist sort had its risks. Last week in North Carolina a man nearly my age, Craig Hicks, a militant New Atheist, murdered three Muslim neighbors he’d previously argued with over parking. The Muslim sisters he killed had told their father on previous occasions that their neighbor Hicks clearly hated them for who they were: Muslims. Hicks’ Facebook posts show a slightly more equal-opportunity hate: both Christians and Muslims in his mind were a serious social problem to be met head on.
Whether Hicks’ action was a hate crime or not is still being debated. Other neighbors have claimed he argued with them too over parking issues. But there’s the rub, no? He didn’t finally execute the other neighbors.
I believe that what the New Atheists have created is a hate movement. Under cover of science and “rationality”, they’ve managed to promote a virulent but socially sanctioned bigotry. I strongly suspect Hicks is an example of how this bigotry may build up in individuals until it finally leads where bigotry usually leads: criminal violence.
I don’t at all believe that atheists as such are inherently violent people. I do believe, however, very strongly, that those who support the New Atheism are largely motivated by a deep-seated personal hatred for people of faith. The New Atheism is different from simple atheism. All one needs do is look at the way New Atheist writers write and talk about religion. And their followers, generally less polished, are even more direct in their fury.
This is not the case with atheists in general. It certainly wasn't the case with those I knew back in the years before 2004. The atheists I knew then had personal or intellectual reasons they didn’t believe, but were not likely to see people who did believe as a menace to be gotten rid of.
Though I consider atheism a normal part of the modern West, I see the New Atheists, who are actually anti-theists, as a dangerous and almost cult-like movement motivated more by hate than by the rationality it claims to serve.
I am writing this post today for other believers. Because I think that we as people of faith need to learn to quickly identify, label and respond to the kinds of tag words New Atheists typically throw around. We need to condemn these terms as bigotry as soon as they appear. This is what I mean by labeling. We need to say aloud: “That is a bigoted term.” And as for responding, personally, I’ve come to believe that we must then swiftly cut off further discussion with those who use such language. We must literally walk away or refuse to respond further to them. Especially if they defend their language or double down on it.
Identify, then, is to recognize clearly when you are dealing with New Atheist-inspired ranting. Labeling is to open your mouth or start tapping at your keyboard to point out immediately that such language is bigotry. Responding is to indicate that one isn’t going to discuss such important issues with a bigot.
Among bigoted terms I include those I opened with: “imaginary sky friend”, “medieval superstition”, “Christian moron”, “religitard”. There are others of course--some used more often against Muslims or Jews or people of other traditions. But these are the ones I usually run up against.
I’ve spent a lot of time this past year debating my Catholicism online, arguing history and ethics with folks apparently hardwired with the idea that progress is by definition making people of faith like myself go away. This is usually rather ironic for me, because on other issues I often agree with my debate opponents. Typically, in economic and various other areas, I’m on the political left. But still, for them, certain of my social or historical ideas make me the Enemy.
Yes, such debates and online wrangles are often tiresome and circular. The sad fact is that my opponents usually know very little about the faith they’re trying to erase. And they refuse to recognize besides how the Judeo-Christian tradition is the historical root of their own precious notions of human rights. They are often historically shallow, as if world history began in the 18th century.
But although I get tired of these discussions, I also recognize them as a necessary part of living in the trenches of a cultural war the New Atheists started--a war we cannot avoid. So these little “debates” with friends and others are arguably important, because the war in general is important. But how best conduct ourselves?
In online or verbal debate the other person may strongly disagree, that goes without saying, they may even got rather hot under the collar, but once they start referring to people of faith as “morons” or “insane”, or once they start referring to God as “your imaginary friend”, they should be told that such language is bigoted, and if they continue with it the discussion should be cut short. Why? Because in the current social climate people of faith should no longer let such anti-religious bigotry slide by as a part of “normal debate”. It is not normal debate, no more than it would be normal to start referring to African Americans or immigrant groups with slurs during a discussion of relevant social issues. When others attack one’s dignity directly, trying to stress a lower (social or mental or cultural) status, that is bigotry, quite simple.
The New Atheism is doing everything it can to paint religious people as 1) stupid, 2) full of hate, 3) outdated. What would one call it if a group were seeking to paint, say, Asian immigrants as stupid, belligerent and outdated? One would call it bigotry. New Atheism practices a similar bigotry, in this case against a huge population of people spread over the world: religious people. An excellent brief post at Philosophy out of the Box sums up this bigotry well (the comments by Kevin Stern following the post are also very useful):
Atheism becomes bigotry when it makes prejudicial statements about religious people. Prejudice is prejudice and intolerance is intolerance, and both are irrational regardless of who commits it. Despite its scientific pretensions and its pronouncements of love for reason, many atheists offer arguments laden with logical fallacies[,] hasty generalization, strawman arguments, and most of all ad hominem attacks.
Aside from the ethical sewer that bigotry leads to if unchecked, there is the further issue of how historically inaccurate, how tendentiously selective, New Atheists’ depictions of religious people usually are. Just look at their dismissive treatment of Christians, who are supposedly uneducated, motivated by hate or living in the past. Negating such bigoted propaganda, Christians are not known for stupidity (only look over the role of Christians in intellectual history, even modern history), they’re among the world’s most active in helping those in need (i.e., sharing love rather than hate), and they are definitely not outdated (they happen to currently exist, in the modern world, in huge numbers).
In The God Delusion, one of the veritable scriptures of the New Atheist movement, Richard Dawkins makes the astonishing claim that he can find little evidence of Christians winning Nobel Prizes in science. This is important because, in physics or chemistry, winning the Nobel is proof positive of serious achievement. Communities with a high number of Nobel laureates are necessarily on the cutting edge. Dawkins’ guiding assumption in The God Delusion is that fellow scientists nearly all agree with him on religion. He writes: “The only website I could find that claimed to list 'Nobel Prize-winning Scientific Christians' came up with six, out of a total of several hundred scientific Nobelists.” (126) Here Dawkins demonstrates the kind of shoddy “research” New Atheists do to back up their flippant assertions. The “only website I could find”? The facts are otherwise, as Dawkins surely must know. One 2002 study, Baruch Shalev’s 100 Years of Nobel Prizes, finds that 73% of Nobel laureates in chemistry, 65% in physics, and 62% in medicine self-identified as Christians.
How many of Dawkins’ half-educated readers are led to believe Christianity and science are incompatible because of the Master’s unfounded claims? More Nobel winners in science have self-identified as religious than not, and most religious laureates have self-identified as Christian. Why is Dawkins allowed to get away with such unfounded claims? I suspect it is because the great majority of his readers pick up his book already deeply biased against religion. As the writer is a scientist, they are willing to believe any mud he cares to fling. Without checking.
Another obvious area the New Atheists are dead wrong is in their claim, which has been repeatedly disproved, that most of the wars over history have been caused by religion. But I’m not even going to bother addressing this here: the hypocrisy of it is almost nauseating when one puts it next to the death tolls officially atheist governments ran up in modern times. (A recent book on the problem by scholar Karen Armstrong, Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence, raises the pertinent questions and shows up the shallowness of the old atheist canard about war.)
In any case, historical facts carry little weight once a movement gains traction--especially if that movement is based on contempt for some cultural other. I recently see “imaginary sky friend”, to refer to God, appearing in interviews and articles not even related to atheism, as I see increasing references in public discourse to “insane Christians” (as if insanity was a defining characteristic of the group) or to Christians or other religious people “still living in the Stone Age”--as if we were not actually part of the modern world. Offhand insults like these need to be called out, and refuted.
Some might find that these terms or insults do not constitute actual bigotry. For one, I’ve been told that since Christians are supposedly the “dominant” group in America, they can’t be victims of bigotry because “they control things”. Uh-huh. Aside from the fact that Christians obviously do not in fact “control America”, this says nothing essential about the nature of bigotry. It is only a comment on the relative social position of different kinds of bigots.
Second, some might insist the term “imaginary sky friend” isn’t bigoted because, after all, the person using the term doesn’t believe God exists and so is right to refer to God as “imaginary”.
I strongly disagree.
When someone uses “sky fairy” or “imaginary friend” to refer to God, they are not doing so to show others they don’t believe. They are doing so as a way of insulting anyone who does believe. These terms are meant to insinuate that I as a believer am somehow childish compared to them: just like many children, I have my “imaginary friend” because I haven’t “grown up”. Whereas nonbelievers, in this register, are no longer stuck in the silly nonsense of childhood.
Repeatedly insinuating that some group of adults is inherently childish is a kind of bigotry. It was bigotry when men used to insist that women were inherently childish. It is likewise bigotry to insist that religious people are childish.
Referring to God as an “imaginary sky friend” is bigoted moreover because it is not commensurate with the subject at hand. It shows a lack of recognition for the important role belief in God has played in the long unfolding of our history as a culture--regardless of whether or not one believes oneself. As a term it is meant to demean all those who have taken the question of God seriously (virtually all philosophers in the Western tradition) even as it shows historical shallowness on the part of the person using it.
For these reasons I’m inclined to cut off discussion with someone using this slur in the same way as I’d leave a dinner table where people were using racial slurs. One shouldn’t dignify bigotry with one’s presence.
Am I maybe wrong here? In fact I’ve often hear from debate opponents that I shouldn’t be so sensitive about these insults--that imaginary sky friend or religitard or Christian idiot are “just words”.
Of course these are the same people who go ballistic when they hear someone using a racial or anti-homosexual slur. Then it is suddenly no longer “just words”. Then it is time for someone to lose their job.
Well, in my mind my left-leaning friends are right to stand strong against racial or anti-homosexual slurs. It’s just that slurs against religious people are also examples of bigotry. And the New Atheists have been coining and promoting such bigotry to the best of their ability for a decade now. And in general the liberal press has given them and their followers carte blanche to do so.
Anti-religious bigotry, like any form of socially sanctioned hatred, will feed on itself and only get worse until, as I’ve said, it leads where bigotry always leads: to violence and oppression. The momentum behind this vicious cycle will only be broken when people of faith loudly call out New Atheist bigotry for what it is and shun those who insist on using it.
Many thanks to the Freedom from Atheism Foundation for bringing my attention to probably the sharpest response so far to the Craig Hicks case, “The Chapel Hill Murders Should Be a Wake-Up Call for Atheists”, by Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig. Learning of the murders, Richard Dawkins tweeted the following: “How could any decent person NOT condemn the vile murder of three young US Muslims in Chapel Hill?” Breunig brilliantly underlines how Dawkins’ very response reveals the shallowness of his understanding of culture. In a few sentences she makes clear just why the New Atheists are not to be trusted when they offer visions of a better social order based on atheism:
Dawkins takes the obviousness of his moral frame for granted; he doesn't feel the need to offer an earnest denouncement of these murders because he does not honestly believe any person could view them as an outgrowth of a system decent people like him are a part of. But this is a persistent problem with the New Atheist movement: Because it is more critical of religion than introspective about its own moral commitments, it assumes there is broad agreement about what constitutes decency, common sense, and reason. Yet in doing so, New Atheism tends to simply baptize the opinions of young, educated white men as the obviously rational approach to complicated socio-political problems. Thus prejudice in its own ranks goes unnoticed.
Exactly. Dawkins and Harris and their millions of secular fans do not understand culture well enough to realize just how constructed our social ideas are. Our modern Western sense of decency and common sense, as well as our concept of human rights, is the product of a very complex cultural history. It is not “natural”, and Dawkins, who has grown up and continues to live in a culture deeply shaped by its Christian background, is naive to assume that these common values will continue to prevail once one has aggressively turned one’s back on the tradition out of which they grew. There is good reason our modern concepts of human rights and individual liberty arose in Western Europe, i.e., in a Christian civilization, rather than elsewhere. Dawkins, in a very fundamental sense, is biting the hand that feeds him. While he benefits from his privileged social milieu, his angry followers, raised in less “decent” surroundings, may easily turn to less “decent” ways of expressing their anti-religious grudge--a smoldering and irrational grudge Dawkins and Harris glibly fan.
Sunday, February 8, 2015
"I met a man. I met a man. I let him throw me round the bed. And smoked, me, spliffs and choked my neck until I said I was dead. I met a man who took me for walks. Long ones in the country. I offer up. I offer up in the hedge. I met a man I met with her. She and me and his friend to bars at night and drink champagne and bought me chips at every teatime. I met a man with condoms in his pockets. Don’t use them. He loves children in his heart. No. I met a man who knew me once. Who saw me around when I was a child. Who said you’re a fine looking woman now. Who said come back marry me live on my farm. No. I meat a man who was a priest I didn’t I did. Just as well as many another would. I met a man. I met a man. Who said he’d pay me by the month. Who said he’d keep me up in style and I’d be waiting when he arrived. No is what I say. I met a man who hit me a smack. I met a man who cracked my arm. I met a man who said what are you doing out so late at night. I met a man. I met a man." --Eimear McBride: A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing
I’m about halfway through Eimear McBride’s edgy novel of youth A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing. My friend Duncan Chesney, who’s read more grim modern European writing that I’ll ever read, recommended it as the stand-out book of his last six months of reading. I had to take it up.
McBride creates a sinewy idiom all her own to narrate this work. As Duncan put it: “There’s hardly a grammatical sentence in the whole book.” That’s an exaggeration, but certainly there are many pages where one has to work through a kind of clipped telegraphy--a whole new English McBride has created. It’s a jarring and pleasurable labor. Her prose hews halfway between speech and something like stream of consciousness, integrating dialogue with a deep and hard-hitting transcription of a young self in perilous balance. It's a rare accomplishment--rare in that such aggressive handling of language doesn’t usually succeed as it does here. Though McBride isn’t aping Joyce or Beckett, she does continue obliquely in something of an akin Irish tradition. But her Irishness is different: a suffering and fighting feminine voice very much its own.
I’ve read nothing on McBride or her background, deciding just to read the book first. I’ve only checked her age, to see what generation of writer I’m reading. She’s now 38, but wrote the novel in her late twenties. It apparently took her seven years to get the book published, the sort of trek that many masterpieces have had to undergo before being noticed.
I’ve no idea how autobiographical McBride’s book is. It is however a Bildungsroman of sorts, the tale of a girl growing up in a small town, raised in a household with no father, suffering through school as the younger sister of a brother with learning disabilities (the mother refuses to acknowledge this fact and so very likely makes things worse for all involved). The family is Catholic, though at first not very devout.
Eros is a wrenching force in this book. At age thirteen the narrator is introduced to sex by an uncle visiting from out of town, an experience not so much traumatic as awakening, leading her to use her newfound knowledge to rebel. She proceeds with her rebellion by throwing herself into one random sexual encounter after another--rough trysts which both liberate and degrade her. The idiom McBride has invented is brilliantly suited to the mix of trauma and release such a rebellion entails.
I’m only half finished with A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, but the newness of this prose pushed me to write out some reactions forthwith. It isn’t every day one is moved by something new in narrative.
Saturday, February 7, 2015
With their posting of yet another stridently anti-religious piece today, “Is religion evil?” by Michael Ruse, I have decided to boycott the online news journal Salon. I regret that it’s come to this. But Salon’s editorial decision to continue running such New Atheist demagoguery as Ruse’s piece, the fact they’ve made such articles a standard weekly feature, gives me no choice. I’m not averse to reading atheist writers, nor to reading criticism of religion, but there’s now a kind of atheism flooding the Internet that spills over into outright bigotry. Salon has clearly chosen to promote this New Atheism, and for many months now has offered virtually nothing from progressive religious voices on religion. I’ve written the editors on their lack of balance in this, but got no reply.
I posted the following comments after the Ruse piece and will send a version of them to Salon’s editors tomorrow.
As both a Catholic and a person on the political left, I've been reading Salon for years, reading it almost daily, and have appreciated the work of many of your sharp contributors. As a blogger, I've linked Salon articles numerous times--probably more than I've linked any other online news journal.
But no more. Over the recent year I've seen how the clear editorial decision to post regular anti-religious pieces has shaped the basic meaning of Salon in the online press. Your New Atheist pieces (yes, I think there's a very clear distinction between the New Atheists and other atheists) are among the shabbiest content you post. And they're specifically aimed at convincing people that my religion is 1) moronic and 2) antisocial. I know otherwise.
I've written the editors about this slanted policy (rare to nonexistent pieces from progressive religious writers), but have gotten no reply. And the New Atheist content keeps coming. Weekly.
I'm taking Salon off my bookmarks and will no longer link Salon articles from any medium. I'll also blog my decision and do my best to get other moderate-minded, intelligent people to stay away from Salon. In a year I'll check back to see if things have changed.
There are plenty of religious bigots in the world, and plenty of secular bigots as well. Salon has become a hub for these latter. The pieces featured over the past year are shrill and shallow.
I'm hoping other religious readers here will join me rather than continue to put up with these weekly bigoted rants.
Monday, February 2, 2015
The foundational or primary gesture of all art is mimesis. Almost equally primal, a secondary gesture, is defamiliarization. The practice of art is an ongoing play, or struggle, between these two. It is in large measure an heuristic struggle.
Defamiliarization gains more prominence in modern art. It becomes crucial as gesture in societies where ideology is more pervasive in its seizure and co-option of the world. To defamiliarize is of course to break this false familiarity.
Heidegger’s thinking on art reveals the real significance, for human beings (Dasein), of defamiliarization.
Sunday, February 1, 2015
"But even if one were willing to accept the perplexing claim that a smartphone could be conscious, could you ever know that it was true? Surely only the smartphone itself could ever know that." --Oliver Burkeman
In recent decades philosophers and scientists have been engaged in an ongoing and often bitter agon over the nature of consciousness, and there is no end in sight. At issue are some of the most tantalizing and potentially fruitful intellectual conundrums we face: a complex of philosophical/scientific problems that some hope will eventually erase the borders between philosophy and science. I’m not among these latter, but wherever one stands in this debate it’s clear that it delineate the border between philosophy and science in fascinating ways.
Last week The Guardian published one of the best introductory articles I’ve seen on the subject (Oliver Burkeman: “Why can’t the world’s greatest minds solve the mystery of consciousness?”). Without trying to summarize the ground Burkeman covers (go read the article yourself: it’s well worth it) I might minimally say that two rough positions taken up by recent contenders are: 1) We are in some way fundamentally different from robots or zombies (David Chalmers); 2) There is no fundamental difference between us and robots, only differences of degree or sort (Daniel Dennett).
I’m with Chalmers in this spat, though as yet there’s no scientific route to decide who is more likely right. Which is little surprise: there’s no scientific route to deciding many things.
One of the problems with Dennett’s position (and that of others) is that it establishes too low a threshold for what counts as consciousness. In my own lexicon (which I’m sure Chalmers would have problems with too) consciousness is not necessarily present with the mere feeling of pain (as is suggested in the article) but rather arises with the capability of knowing “I feel pain”--the I here being in part a product of my own pained being’s recognition that there are other beings in existence.
In other words, for myself the problem of consciousness immediately raises the thorny problem of I-ness, how we experience that I-ness which then in turn experiences what are called qualia. Qualia (singular quale) are basic irreducible perceptions like the color green, the taste of a certain chocolate, or the pain of a crushed finger. It is, after all, our experience of qualia that poses what Chalmers has famously called “the hard problem of consciousness”. The hard problem is hard because--and this is difficult to phrase clearly--although there “is something that it is like” to experience a particular color, or a particular chocolate, that consciousness experience, that somethingness, cannot be reduced to a mechanistic explanation. Or: Though neuroscience might be able to explain how the brain stores and accesses memories, and might be able to explain a host of other brain functions as well, there remain irreducible qualia that are not subject to such explanation, nor are they subject to comparison between conscious beings (there will never be any way of knowing if my red looks like your red).
Some scientists (Dennett again) insist that there is no hard problem of consciousness to begin with, or that if there are hard problems they are elsewhere--precisely where Chalmers sees the “easy problems”.
Without being able to elaborate much here, my own interest in this debate relates to the question of the degree to which consciousness entails subjectivity, and how consciousness itself, and qualia themselves, might be related to language or semiotics. I’d tentatively argue that full consciousness is only possible on a ground of something like an experience of selfhood.
Many have theorized that human selfhood, a person’s feeling of I-ness, arises initially through interaction with others (usually beginning with the recognition that one is a distinct being from one’s mother) and is then further established through the acquisition of language--that I-ness is, in large part, attendant on one’s learning and living within language. Your sense that you are you, then, that you are one being possessed of selfhood, arose not only via your physical singularity as an independent body, but also via a kind of dialectical back and forth with language. You are an individual physical Homo sapiens (a brain and body separate from others) that has been infected by language, which created means of a more complete parcelling out of the areas of your individual self as well as of your perceptions of the world. It is on this double ground that you slowly developed the innerness that characterizes full human consciousness.
One may grasp the crux of the issue of what I mean by “full human consciousness” by considering an experiment that should never be done. As follows: Were it possible for a Homo sapiens to be raised in an environment with no other humans or animals (fed and protected within such an artificially limited environment) we’ve really no way of knowing if full consciousness (or even what sort of consciousness) would develop. Certainly language would not develop. Would loneliness? Very likely not. Nonetheless, were the hand burnt on this same Homo sapiens, he/she would jerk it back in reaction. But such pulling back in pain would not, in my view at least, constitute full consciousness. The feeling of pain (or hunger, or satiation) is different from the experience of full consciousness.
This problem I pose here of full human consciousness is not exactly the same as the problem of consciousness per se, but it does at least clarify things by getting at what we humans experience as consciousness. It is this base state, after all, from which we always begin; it is from this ground that we always ask our questions, always approach more general problems in the field. And I’m convinced it is highly doubtful we will ever escape this base state to attain an objective perspective on the other problems of consciousness we might raise--such as, for instance, the question of animal consciousness. This is the kind of philosophical issue I believe the likes of Daniel Dennett don’t take seriously enough.
The problem of consciousness is important for a host of reasons. Many ethical problems are implicated in how one approaches it. For one: If our humanity lies in our conscious selfhood, our ability to experience I-ness, does this mean that those who have not yet attained consciousness (say, the unborn or the severely retarded) or those who have lost consciousness (say, those in coma) are not truly human? As a Catholic, I would insist that No, in fact these are all humans, because humans are in any case endowed with a soul. Of course I’m well aware that this Catholic position is not at present scientifically provable (although research of NDEs continues to provide “troubling” data supporting the possibility of an identity principle independent of the body), and so cannot be part of this particular scientific debate. But the Catholic position is worth raising here if only because it underlines the hard questions remaining for secular ethicists. Namely: If our humanity lies in our conscious selfhood, can those who lack consciousness have any rights? And on what grounds?
Posing the problem of consciousness also leads inevitably to speculation as to the consciousness of animals and machines--a realm of inquiry fraught with both a troubling history (speculations that animals are mere automata) and a troubling future (cf. the possible threat posed by artificial intelligence).
What sense of I-ness do animals have? It is hard to know, though everyone sees that animals can interact with others as others. Does such interaction imply consciousness? If so, to what degree or of what kind?
Apart from I-ness, what is it like to be, for instance, a bat? This is the question posed in a classic paper by philosopher Thomas Nagel. Part of the upshot of the question is that regardless of advances in science, we will never be able to know. No amount of neurological understanding of how a bat’s brain works will ever tell us what it is like to be one. And that problem, again, relates to Chalmers’ posing of the hard problem.
Most scientists now agree that many species of animals have consciousness. I would argue, again, that for animal consciousness to be real it must relate to a kind of self against which perceptions can be experienced. Insects, then, very likely lack consciousness because the insect brain is merely a neural center for managing response to different kinds of stimuli. Here already, however, I run into the challenge that certain thinkers would pose: “On what grounds do you say, Eric, that your human brain is not itself merely a neural center for managing response to stimuli?” Or again: “Is not your laptop likewise a kind of digital center for managing response to stimuli? On what grounds do you know your laptop isn’t conscious?”
My answer to both these questions would again relate to I-ness or selfhood. When Nagel asked what it was like to be a bat, that was a fruitful question, but I don’t think it would be fruitful to ask what it is like to be a butterfly or an iPhone 6. Because there is likely no consciousness present in a butterfly to experience being a butterfly, the question of what it is like to be one approaches the question of what it is like to be a mushroom. Neither the butterfly nor the mushroom has a self to experience its being, and the same goes for an iPhone.
Though many creatures doubtless attain rudimentary consciousness, there are myriad remarkably complex creature that very likely do not. The interesting question is why some creatures do have consciousness, and how they have it.
Will machines ever really attain consciousness? In fact, as my above remarks hint, some theorists in the field are trying to pre-empt the question by insisting that machines already do have consciousness--that your television, for instance, is conscious. I would say this claim (which I find ultimately flippant) merely erases the the problem of consciousness. Which is perhaps the point such thinkers are trying to make. They seek to invalidate the problem from the get-go. Indeed, some theorists insist that many of the “mysteries of consciousness” don’t constitute valid problems in any case (cf. again Dennett). I think they are wrong.
As to the questions of whether machines can think, we of course have the test Alan Turing proposed in a 1950 paper--what has come to be called the Turing test. This question as to whether machines “can think” is not quite the same as the question of whether machines may ever be conscious, but it is definitely strongly related.
One of the best answers to those who are existentially enthusiastic about AI (those who believe we are on the verge of having real and authentic one-to-one relations with machines) is still to be found in John Searle’s Chinese room challenge, where he clarified the difference between thinking machines, which merely simulate thinking, and real thinking. Searle’s general argument is that thought means being able to understand and experience, as a self, the meaning of what is being communicated. Again, for Searle, I-ness is the question, or: What is the nature of that entity that understands its responses (rather than merely computes “correct” responses)?
A being may claim consciousness, and mimic it quite convincingly, without actually possessing it, but any being that thinks it is conscious is necessarily so. The takeaway? Verifying consciousness from outside is well nigh impossible.
In general, the crux in these debates tends to reside in the contrasting definitions of consciousness being put forward. If there is a “problem” of consciousness or not, and where the hard and easy problems lie, largely depends on how consciousness is defined. Which is why the participants are so often speaking past each other. Whereas for me those who say my cell phone is conscious are merely ignoring the problem, for them I am talking about a problem that doesn’t properly exist.
There are no clear answers to many of these questions. I stick with my position that consciousness is grounded in an identity--or, more minimally, that some experience of selfhood must exist for anything like true consciousness (at whatever level, including the level of qualia) to be present. The fully conscious being is a being that knows itself as an I (with the attendant awareness of others this implies), experiences itself in an innerness which necessarily has access to an outerness (both the outerness of the world and that of other selves). Animals are very likely participants in consciousness, though I believe the human experience of self grounded in language is of a quite different order from that which animals experience. The question of whether computers may ever attain consciousness seems to me as yet entirely open, and it seems very possible that it will always remain open regardless of how artificial intelligence may advance.
A final question: If animals participate in some way in consciousness and we participate more fully in it, is it likely that an even fuller participation in consciousness is possible in the universe? As a Catholic, I believe the answer is Yes--and that the endpoint of full consciousness is God. In a scientific register, I believe the answer is also Yes: there seems no reason to assume that consciousness may not be deepened or enhanced, and of course consciousness may very well exist elsewhere in the universe, at whatever degree of complexity.
There are many issues I’ve left out here (I haven’t discussed philosophical zombies, for instance) and I’ve perhaps been amiss in not more directly addressing certain challenges that might be made to my assertions regarding how the consciousness debate relates to the different problems of I-ness or selfhood. Further, I’m aware my depiction of Chalmers especially is lacking or maybe misleading (for one, in recent years is not exactly a skeptic regarding the possibility of machine consciousness). But I’ve tried to keep things at a basic level, and so have had to leave out much.