Monday, 11 August 2014

God and human minds

This is a post I wrote in a discussion board 11 years ago in 2003.

There seems to be this universal misconception amongst atheists that there is no evidence for a God. I intend in this post to refute this notion. To make it really simple, throughout this post I'm going to assume a materialist perspective, or at least a materialist based perspective i.e. physical reality is primary, and minds or consciousnesses are somehow derived from this primary physical reality.

We can just use the minimal definition of "God" as a mind or consciousness, albeit a mind very large or unlimited in scope.

Now one might argue that given that God is a mind or consciousness, it might be a good idea to provisionally suppose that the nature of any evidence for God's mind may be of a similar nature to the evidence for our minds.

So what evidence do we have for the existence of other minds? I would suggest that we do not see other peoples’ minds directly. If we look into a living brain we will only ever see various physical processes operating according to physical laws. You can of course simply declare that minds are identical or are a function of these physical processes, but still that assertion itself is just a stipulation. The pertinent point here is that we could only know that other people are conscious by literally partaking in their conscious experiences. Which we don't.

Nor do we have any scientific evidence that other people are conscious. Now people might find this a very surprising assertion. After all many scientific entities are invisible, but we do not dispute their existence. This is because we can infer their existence from their effect in the world. So if minds have an effect in the world, then why can't minds play a role in some scientific theory describing the world?

The thing about invisible scientific entities like electrons is that we can infer their existence because electrons play fruitful roles in our theories describing the world. Or to put it another way, electrons are causally efficacious. They need to be supposed to exist in order to explain some aspect of reality (for the pedants out there I agree this is not strictly true, but I'm trying to make it simple!).

Being materialists we suppose that the world is physically closed. By this I simply mean that everything that ever happens is wholly explicable in terms of prior physical causes. In particular, there is no non-material mind affecting processes in the brain. Physical processes in the brain, like everything else in the Universe, can be wholly understood as an unbroken chains of physical causes and effects. In other words everything that ever occurs in our brains, and hence by extension all our behaviour, can be completely described with reference to the physical laws of nature.

This being so, minds are not required for an understanding of our behaviour. To have a scientific understanding of our behaviour it is sufficient that we have knowledge of all facts accessible from the third person perspective. By a third person perspective I mean that anyone with unimpaired sense and instruments could potentially corroborate. This would then include neurons firing in a living brain, but would not include mental states such as emotions since emotions cannot be seen, only the effects of emotions can be seen.  So the totality of our behaviour can be explained with reference to third person facts.

As an aside this is why minds can never be scientifically explained. Minds can neither be perceptually sensed nor play a fruitful role in our theories describing the world, therefore from a scientific perspective they are superfluous. Thus within any materialist based understanding of the world, it simply has to be arbitrarily stipulated that they are identical to, or are a function of, or are somehow derived from physical processes within the brain. Sort of like a faith if you will.

A couple of things to point out here. If we can neither perceptually perceive other peoples’ minds, nor scientifically prove the existence of other peoples’ minds, then what justification do we have of supposing other peoples’ minds apart from our own exist whatsoever? I would simply suggest the obvious answer here. Namely we infer other peoples’ minds by noting that other peoples’ behaviour is very similar to my own. I know in my own case that my behaviour is apparently a consequence of my internal mental states; therefore it is reasonable to assume that other people in turn possess internal mental states. Another point is that simply because minds (defined, if you like, as the phenomenal aspect of physical processes in the brain) are not required to scientifically explain our behaviour, this doesn't mean that everyday explanations of our behaviour are redundant. Sure, one could explain why I get up to make myself a cup of coffee in terms of purely physical processes occurring in my brain, but we can also provide an explanation in terms of intentions (e.g. I need something to keep me alert). These explanations are not incompatible; rather they apply at different levels.

A related point is that simply because the world is physically closed this does not necessitate we do not have free will. It’s true that our behaviour is wholly determined, or to use a better term, described by physical laws. But this need not imply at all that we are hapless puppets dancing to the tune of the physical laws of nature. To suppose this you are thinking of physical laws as somehow necessitating change in the world, where as it is more appropriate to think of physical laws as simply describing change in this world. But once we have adopted this latter view then the physical laws of nature do not compel our behaviour, rather they describe our freely chosen actions!

Now, having got all the foregoing out of the way, we can at last address the issue of the evidence for the existence of a God. The essential point is this. Just as a complete physical description of the physical processes occurring in someone’s brain, and thereby accounting for their behaviour without reference to any consciousness, doesn’t necessitate that that person is not possessed of a mental life, so does the fact that just because the Universe and all change within can be accounted for in terms of physical laws, this doesn’t mean to say that consciousness is not associated with the physical Universe as a whole. Indeed, just as we have differing levels of explanations for peoples’ behaviour in terms of either physical laws, or in terms of the intentions of minds, so it may be possible to have differing levels of explanation for processes in the Universe as a whole, either in terms of physical laws, or in terms of what we might describe as a metamind or “God”.

Notice that whether it is in fact legitimate to infer the existence of a metamind or "God" will depend upon the character of the Universe as a whole. But the assertion of every atheist I have ever met is that there is no evidence whatsoever for any “God”. They are indeed quite emphatic in this assertion. But this position simply cannot be maintained as it is clear that the characteristics of the physical Universes as a whole could have been less suggestive of an associated meta-consciousness than what we actually witness. We just simply need to consider logically possible Universes. One might imagine for example that it could have been logically possible for us to have subsisted in a Universe where no physical laws at all pertained, and we found ourselves existing in a bodiless state experiencing a stream of random perceptual experiences through our senses.

But even if we are to suppose that such a Universe were somehow not logically possible, it certainly seems that we could have subsisted in a differing Universe from the one we find ourselves in, but which didn’t exhibit the regularities exhibited by our Universe. Regularities, don’t forget, which can be captured by our scientific theories written in the language of mathematics. At least in physics these theories need not depict a literal state of affairs, and in the past have found to be limited in their scope e.g. Newtonian mechanics. Notwithstanding this, our theories still work in the sense of accurately predicting the cause of our perceptual experiences. One almost gets the impression that the Universe is contrived in such a manner that intelligent sentient beings are just to say able to do this! After all, we can easily imagine a Universe not exhibiting any patterns, or if it did exhibit patterns those patterns not being amenable to mathematical investigation or being too abstruse for us to discern.

It should be noted that I am not arguing that the existence of a “God” is proved, nor that the existence of a “God” is as likely as the existence of other people, nor even that the existence of a God is even likely. What I have just done is to demonstrate that even under a materialist interpretation of the world, it is not only possible to believe in a “God”, but that the characteristics of the world go someway towards lending some evidence for a God. If I am able to do this by assuming a materialist framework, then a fortiori I will be able to do this under any other metaphysical interpretation of the world, such as for example immaterialism.




Monday, 4 August 2014

A list of my favourite novels



How much I actually like a novel seems to bear very little relationship to how much other people like them, at least going by Amazon's customer reviews.   Most novels I start reading I just give up after the first few pages.  Also, where as the vast majority of customer reviews are 5 stars,  for the minority of novels that I actually manage to finish, I would give only an average of 3 stars.  So when I give 5 stars people can be assured I really did like the novel concerned.

The following list of books are the best novels I have read in my life and I would emphatically give them all 5 stars. A good proportion feature time travel!

I have 2 lists, the first list being novels for adults and the second list novels for children.  Clicking on the picture of the book will take you to the relevant Amazon.com page.  Clicking on the title of the book underneath the picture will take you to the relevant page on the UK version of Amazon.

PS Might have made a bit of a mess here.  I'm having to experiment with html code but desirable end results do not appear to be best served by an experimental approach.  So the pictures won't be evenly spaced etc.

Novels for Adults

 

 

James Clavell - Shogun

James Clavell - Shogun

Tim Bowler - Apocalypse
Tim Bowler - Apocalypse

















Felix J.Palma The Map of Time
Felix J.Palma - The Map of Time














Robert Steele Gray Survivor

Robert Steele Gray - Survivor
















Will Hubbell - Cretaceous Sea
Will Hubbell - Cretaceous Sea















Ken Grimwood -- Replay
Ken Grimwood -- Replay
















Tim Powers - The Anubis Gates
Tim Powers - The Anubis Gates

















John Wynham - The Day of the Triffids

John Wynham - The Day of the Triffids
















Isaac Asimov - The End of Eternity
Isaac Asimov - The End of Eternity















A.J. Cronin - Hatter's Castle
A.J. Cronin - Hatter's Castle















A.J. Cronin - Grand Canary
A.J. Cronin - Grand Canary
















Novels for Children 

 

 

 
Enid Blyton -- The Secret Island
Enid Blyton -- The Secret Island















Enid Blyton - The Magic Wishing Chair Again
Enid Blyton - The Magic Wishing Chair Again

















L. Frank Baum -- The Marvelous Land of Oz
L. Frank Baum -- The Marvelous Land of Oz

















Philippa Pearce - Tom's Midnight Garden
Philippa Pearce - Tom's Midnight Garden



















Enid Blyton - House at the Corner
Enid Blyton - House at the Corner
















Enid Blyton - The Enchanted Wood
Enid Blyton - The Enchanted Wood
















C.S. Lewis - The Last Battle
C.S. Lewis - The Last Battle