Friday, December 23, 2011

Point Five: The Self

The Last Point Varghese discusses is the self. You and I.

Once again he writes, "Once we acknowledge the fact that there is a first-person perspective, “I,” “me,” “mine,” and the like, we encounter the greatest and yet the most exhilarating mystery of all. I exist. To reverse Descartes, “I am, therefore I think, perceive, intend, mean, interact.” Who is this “I”? “Where” is it? How did it come to be? Your self is obviously not just something physical, just as it is not just something supraphysical. It is an embodied self, an ensouled body; “you” are not in a particular brain cell or in some part of your body. The cells in your body keep changing and yet “you” remain the same. If you study your neurons, you will find that none of them have the property of being an “I.” Of course your body is integral to who you are, but it is a “body” because it constituted as such by the self. To be human is to be embodied and ensouled. 

·         [David] Hume assumes that “myself” is an observable state like his thoughts and feelings. But the self is not something that can be thus observed. It is a constant fact of experience and, in fact, the ground of all experience. 

·         The most fundamental reality of which we are all aware, then, is the human self, and an understanding of the self inevitably sheds insights on all the origin questions and makes sense of reality as a whole. We realize that the self cannot be described, let alone explained, in terms of physics or chemistry: science does not discover the self; the self discovers science. We realize that no account of the history of the universe is coherent if it cannot account for the existence of the self."

And that concludes the five points of Varghese that he believes point to the existence of a supreme Mind, or God.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Point Four: Thought

The next point Varghese uses that would suggest that God exists is the concept of thought and its supraphysical nature.

·          He writes, "How is it that, from childhood, you can effortlessly think of both your dog Caesar and dogs in general? You can think of redness without thinking of a specific red thing (of course redness does not exist independently, but only in red things). You abstract and distinguish and unify without giving your ability to do these things a second thought. And you even ponder things that have no physical characteristics, such as the idea of liberty or the activity of angels. This power of thinking in concepts is by its very nature something that transcends matter. 

·         Once you think about it for a few minutes, you will know instantly that the idea that your thought of something is in any sense physical will be seen as unthinkably absurd. 

·         The point here is that, strictly speaking, your brain does not understand. You understand. Your brain enables you to understand, but not because your thoughts take place in the brain or because “you” cause certain neurons to fire. Rather, your act of understanding that eliminating poverty is a good thing, to take an instance, is a holistic process that is supraphysical in essence (meaning) and physical in execution (words and neurons). The act cannot be split into supraphysical and physical, because it is an indivisible act of an agent that is intrinsically physical and supraphysical. There is a structure to both the physical and the supraphysical, but their integration is so total that it makes no sense to ask if your acts are physical or supraphysical or even a hybrid of the two. They are acts of a person who is inescapably both embodied and “ensouled.” 

·         Supercomputer calculations and mainframe transactions performed in response to data and instructions are purely and simply a matter of electrical pulses, circuitry, and transistors. The same calculations and transactions performed by a human person, of course, involve the machinery of the brain, but they are performed by a center of consciousness who is conscious of what is going on, understands what is being done, and intentionally performs them. There is no awareness, understanding, meaning, intention, or person involved when the computer performs the same actions, even when the computer has multiple processors operating at superhuman speeds. The output of the computer has “meaning” for us (the weather forecast for tomorrow or your bank balance), but as far as the bundle of parts called the computer is concerned there are binary digits, 0’s and 1’s, that drive certain mechanical activities. To suggest that the computer “understands” what it is doing is like saying that a power line can meditate on the question of free will and determinism, or that the chemicals in a test tube can apply the principle of noncontradiction in solving a problem, or that a DVD player understands and enjoys the music it plays."

So the question arises, "How can we as nothing more than matter and electrical impulses construct thought to contemplate complex matters such as the questions of why that arise?" From a purely materialistic and naturalistic stand point it seems rather outlandish to suggest that pure matter can convert itself into a being that is not only alive, but a being that is capable of understanding. To go even further, how out of the millions of species that have existed in our planets history, only one species seems to be able to carry out these higher order processes. To describe how this happens without intelligence already existing in some form or another, it would seem to me, to be the same as to suggest that it happened by magic.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Point Three: Consciousness

Ok it's been a long time coming due to finals but here is Varghese's point three from Appendix A of There Is a God. Again most of this is taken directly from the book but I find it to be quite thought provoking nontheless.

·         He writes, "Consciousness is correlated with certain regions of the brain, but when the same systems of neurons are present in the brain stem there is no “production” of consciousness. As a matter of fact, as physicist Gerald Schroeder points out, there is no essential difference in the ultimate physical constituents of a heap of sand and the brain of an Einstein. Only blind and baseless faith in matter lies behind the claim that certain bits of matter can suddenly “create” a new reality that bears no resemblance to matter. 

·         In contrast to Dennett, Sam Harris has strongly defended the supraphysical reality of consciousness. “The problem, however, is that nothing about a brain, when surveyed as a physical system, declares it to be a bearer of that peculiar, interior dimension that each of us experiences as consciousness in his own case.” The upshot is startling: “Consciousness may be a far more rudimentary phenomenon than are living creatures and their brains. And there appears to be no obvious way of ruling out such a thesis experimentally.” To his credit, Dawkins acknowledges the reality of both consciousness and language and the problem this poses. “Neither Steve Pinker nor I can explain human subjective consciousness—what philosophers call qualia,” he said once. “In How the Mind Works Steve elegantly sets out the problem of subjective consciousness, and asks where it comes from and what’s the explanation. Then he’s honest enough to say, ‘Beats the heck out of me.’ That is an honest thing to say, and I echo it. We don’t know. We don’t understand it.”  Wolpert deliberately avoids the entire issue of consciousness—“I have purposely avoided any discussion of consciousness.'"

Of course we don't know how or why consciousness came to be. Similar to what I said for point two I echo with consciousness. We have only ever seen consciousness in action through living beings. Nonlife has never produced consciousness. Perhaps consciousness is what we should ultimately define as life. In anycase there may be some natural process behind it but at this point in time I feel it is safe to say that an equally likely idea is that there is some form of intelligence behind it. Call it God or whatever you like but I would certainly shy away from calling it impossible.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Some Atheist Scientists With Children Embrace Religious Traditions

I am taking a break from the 5 points of Varghese for a week or so because I don't have time at the moment due to my last round of finals approaching. However, I felt this was an interesting article that I would like to share. It kind of counters the beliefs held by some "New Atheists" like Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris that religion is a bad thing and children should not be exposed to it at a young age. I could go into a lot more detail on that point as I disagree with it, but I'll just post the article and get back to studying. Enjoy.

"What happens when atheist scientists have kids? Do they expose them to religious traditions and institutions?

I surveyed nearly 1,700 natural and social scientists at elite American universities, and approximately half expressed some form of religious identity, whereas the other half did not. Then I interviewed a scientifically selected sample of 275 of these scientists, to ask them how they feel about religion. I found that nearly one in five (17 percent) of those who are atheists and parents are part of a religious congregation and have attended a religious service more than once in the past year.

Why would this be? Research I conducted with sociologist Kristen Schultz Lee (University at Buffalo, SUNY) showed just how tightly linked religion and family are in the United States--so much so that even some of society's least religious people find it important to expose their children to different religious choices. Our research challenges the assumption that parents who engage in religious socialization always hold religious beliefs themselves.

The atheist scientists interviewed cited personal and social reasons for introducing and integrating religious traditions and institutions into their children's lives.
Their reasons include:
• Scientific identity - Study participants wish to expose their children to all sources of knowledge (including religion) and allow them to make their own, informed choices about a religious identity.
• Spousal influence - Study participants are involved in a religious institution because of influence from their spouse or partner.
• Desire for community - Study participants want a sense of community (moral or otherwise), even if they do not personally hold religious beliefs.
To me, one of the most interesting findings was the discovery that some atheist scientists not only want to expose their children to religious institutions, but they also cite their scientific identity as a reason for doing so.

We expected these individuals to be less inclined to introduce their children to religious traditions than they are. But it turns out they want their children to know about different religious traditions because it is more consistent with their identity as a scientist to expose their children to all sources of knowledge. They want their children to be "free thinkers." Yet it is also important to them that their children don't abandon skepticism in the course of their religious education.

One study participant, a chemist raised in a strongly Catholic home, said he came to believe later in life that science and religion are not compatible, but what he wants to pass on to his daughter-- more than this belief --is the ability to make her own decisions in a thoughtful, intellectual way.

"I ... don't indoctrinate her that she should believe in God," he said. "I don't indoctrinate her into not believing in God." Like other atheist scientists who are parents, he has exposed his child to a variety of religious choices so he does not inadvertently indoctrinate her with atheism.

We hope the study's findings will help the public better understand how our professional and family lives can interact with our religious lives. We also hope they will serve to remind us that there is greater diversity in how atheists approach religion and childrearing than stereotypes might lead us to expect."

Elaine Howard Ecklund is a sociologist at Rice University, director of the Religion and Public Life Program, which is part of the Social Sciences Research Institute, and a Rice Scholar at the Baker Institute for Public Policy. Her most recent book is Science Vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think (Oxford University Press, 2010)

Some Atheist Scientists With Children Embrace Religious Traditions