A "Proof" for the Existence of God, Part 1: The Hard Problem of Consciousness

[Disclaimer: This series is not really going to deliver a proof for God's existence. This is why the word "proof" is in scare quotes. It is, rather, a suggestive line of argument. However, "A suggestive line of argument for God's Existence" isn't a very good blog title. So, the goal of the series is not to arrive at a Q.E.D. moment. It is, rather, to end with a "That's an interesting argument" moment.]

I would like to take you on a Quixotic journey, one you don't see much nowadays. I want to offer a kind of argument for the existence of God.

Now there have been many classical arguments offered for the existence of God, ontological, cosmological, teleological. I would like to offer one from my discipline, let's call it "The Argument from Consciousness."

To start this long argument I want to describe what has been called the Hard Problem of Consciousness.

Now, this description is somewhat silly. All neuroscientific work is "hard." Progress has been effortful and slow. Yet, these problems are considered to be "easy" up against the "hard problem."

So, what is the Hard Problem?

The Hard Problem has to do with scientific accounts of what philosophers call "qualia." Psychologists call it "sensation." Some call it "experience." I'm going to go with the term from my discipline, sensation.

Sensation, as might be guessed, has to do with our sense experiences: Colors, smells, tastes, sounds, and other sensory phenomena.

Now, the "easy" problems dealing with these sensations have to do with identifying the neurological correlates of these sense experiences. And much progress has been made in this area. Grossly we know, for example, that visual sensations are processed in the occipital lobe of the brain and other senses in the parietal lobe. Finer correlates are also known. These mappings of sensory-experience-to-neurological-correlate are called "easy" problems in that we know how to proceed with this research. We just keeping pushing on with our neuroimaging and related research. The finer the picture we can get of the brian the better we will be able to identify sensory-neurological correlates. Progress will require continued breakthroughs, but we generally know how to proceed in this quest.

So what is the "hard" problem? The hard problem has to do with the "Why?" of sensation. Not why we sense generally. That seems obvious: We see, for instance, because it helps us navigate. No, the issue is more like "Why is red the color/sensation it is?" All neural activity is basically the same. The question is why does some neural activity elicit the sensation of purple and other neural activity elicit the color red? When you examine nerve cells or patterns of nerve cells there doesn't seem to be anything going on that could provide an explanation for color sensation (or other senses).

In short, the hard problem of consciousness is hard because we just don't know how to proceed to provide a neural explanation for sense experiences. We don't even know what such an explanation would look like. This makes the problem "hard." We are stymied immediately.

The problem has to do with a disjoint between objectivity and subjectivity. Specifically, the methods of science--our proven explanatory apparatus--proceed objectively. That is, empirically. For most of the things we seek explanations for the empirical stance of science works wonderfully. You want to know where babies come from? Science can explain that. You want to know why ice floats on water? Science can hand you an explanation. But what if you want to know why blue is experienced the way it is? Well, the best science can do is give you a neural correlate: When a subject reports seeing "blue" we see, via neural imaging, activity in Sector W1.89 of the occipital lobe at a frequency of 47hrz for .98msec (I've made this up, it's gibberish; it's just to give you a sense of the coming precision of neuroimaging). All that might sound scientific but if you ponder it, it doesn't explain a thing. A correlation is not an explanation.

This situation arises because there is one thing in the universe that stumps empiricism: Sensation. For where science is objective, public, and empirical, sensation is subjective, private, and experiential. In short, the hard problem of consciousness is due to the disjoint between the method--science--and the object under study--sensation. It is the disjoint between objectivity and subjectivity. How do we bring this gap? How can we provide a scientific explanation for sensation (e.g., why blue looks like blue and red looks like red)?

This, then, is the Hard Problem of Consciousness: It appears impossible to provide a scientific explanation for the "qualities" of sensory phenomena.

(For all this psychobabble the Hard Problem of Consciousness is a very humdrum observation: There is no way you or I can empirically--publicly--verify that you and I have the exact same sensory experience when we look at a rose and say "It's red!" Again, all we will be able to do is identify correlations (e.g., we utter the same color word in the presence of the same stimuli). But these correlations cannot verify that you and I have the exact same color experience.)

To conclude, we start our argument for the existence of God with this observation regarding the Hard Problem of Consciousness: It appears impossible to provide a scientific explanation for sensation. To proceed further along the argument concerning God's existence, however, we will need to strengthen this observation. We'll do that in the next post.

For those interested in a popular exposition of the Hard Problem of Consciousness start with philosopher Colin McGinn's book The Mysterious Flame: Conscious Minds in a Material World.

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4 thoughts on “A "Proof" for the Existence of God, Part 1: The Hard Problem of Consciousness”

  1. I read two essays by Chalmers on the topic after you mentioned him a few posts ago. Intriguing stuff.

    One thing I find interesting regarding sensation/experience is the effect of music. Why does music create an emotional response in the listener? If a song has lyrics, I suppose one could argue that the words have a greater impact on the listener's emotional state. But what about non-vocal music?

    I'm not even sure if this falls into the same definition of sensation as the color question does.

  2. Jason,
    Parts of your question do hit on the Hard Problem. Sounds are auditory sensations. Emotions also fit into the hard problem. For example, I often ask my students what anger "feels like." We can identify the physiological correlates of angry mood states (e.g., heart rate changes, motive tendencies) but the subjective texture of the experience is a private experience.

    BTW, on a practical note, the Hard Problem of Consciousness also explains the frustrations of chronic pain sufferers. Specifically, when doctors are stymied in identifying physical correlates of the pain (generally pain has a correlate, like a site of injury) the the only data for the existence of the pain is the patient's private report. Given that the doctor cannot empirically locate a site/source of pain, the suspicion arises that the pain is psychological in origin. This drives chronic pain suffers crazy. They have legitimate pain and are now, on top of that, considered mental cases as well. The disjoint is again between empirical methods (what the doctor can see) and a subjective symptom (pain). You can't see pain. You can only identify the correlates of pain.

  3. Then there are the really interesting cases of the triple disjoint between sensation, subjective interpretation of it, and physiological reaction to it... Like in brain-damage cases where a patient reports having pain sensations, but not minding it! Or having appropriate physiological responses to familiar faces, but insisting the faces are of strangers... and so on. These are discussed along the way in an article I just read in the latest issue of the journal Faith and Philosophy, "Neo-Cartesianism and the Problem of Animal Suffering." On the web here: http://server1.fandm.edu/Departments/Philosophy/staticpages/Murray/Animal.pdf

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