How consciousness demolished my atheism and saved my faith

Following Daniel Dennett and Keith Ward's debate 'Are We More Than Matter?' on The Big Conversation, Australian Unbelievable? listener Ernest Massey tells how his own journey back to Christian faith came via the argument for God from consciousness. 

I was baptised into the Anglican Church in Australia and was raised in a family which labelled its religion as Anglican. In reality however, ours was a very loose faith. We went to church about twice a year - once at Christmas and then once for some other event, usually a birth, death or marriage. The closest I can remember to praying as a family outside of church was reading AA Milne’s Christopher Robin is saying his prayers.

That said, I went to an Anglican school and became a chorister early on. As a result, I ended up taking confirmation classes during my mid-teenage years, although I was never confirmed. I actually wanted to believe in God but I wasn’t presented with much evidence. I couldn’t will myself to believe and, ultimately, I concluded that blind faith is not a virtue. This meant that I was a committed agnostic by the end of my school years, yet still wanted to be a Christian.

The case against God

Like many people, when I arrived at university I was presented with various arguments against Christianity that I hadn’t previously met. The arguments included:

  1. There is no evidence for God.
  2. Only credulous people who haven’t thought about it believe in God.
  3. The Bible is full of contradictions and can’t be taken seriously.
  4. There are so many different religions with fervent believers. None of these religions can be justified, including Christianity.
  5. Materialism (or Naturalism) is the best explanation for the world we experience.
  6. A perfect God could not create an imperfect world.
  7. For Heaven to be perfect, all the people you love would have to be with you. Since it's possible for someone you love not to be a Christian and therefore not to be in Heaven, it can't be perfect.

Clearly, while some of these are reasonable objections, some of these arguments are also fairly questionable. At the time I heard them, I couldn’t tell the difference. I'll come back to these later.

While I had lost my faith in God, I still believed that the self-sacrificing teachings of Jesus should be followed. I even went to church every Sunday as part of a church choir. However, as most people who have sung with church choirs in Sydney will know, they are full of sceptics who love the choral music but don't necessarily sign up to any of the beliefs.

For a few years I called myself a “Christian Atheist”, but I stopped this when a Christian friend pointed out that picking your favourite part of Jesus’ teachings doesn’t make you a Christian. After that I simply admitted to myself that I was an atheist.

What can we really know?

I've always been a cerebral sort of a person and enjoyed chasing down philosophical ideas in conversation with friends. Around this time I started to discuss some of the classic sceptical thought experiments made famous by the philosopher Rene Descartes. Could we be mistaken about the reality we believe exists all around us? Could we in fact be a brain in a vat, being experimented upon? Is it possible that the life we experience now is nothing more than a dream? Movies like The Matrix and The Truman Show were likewise questioning what our experience of the world really means (the red and blue pill in The Matrix remains a cultural touchstone today).

It was these sorts of questions that led to Descartes’ famous foundational maxim, “I think therefore I am”. Even if we can't know whether what we see around us is true, at least we can know with certainty that 'I' exist, because there is thinking going on. My own philosophical journey certainly led me down this path too.

However, whereas Descartes saw this as a place from which knowledge could flow, it seemed to me that this was where knowledge ended. When I lost my faith, I didn’t assume that the materialism of atheists like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett was the necessary position to adopt - the idea that all that ultimately exists is the material world of matter, energy and physical forces. Rather, I was forced to conclude that there was very little that we could know at all. After all, how on earth can we know that our experience of material reality is true, when it is mediated by something as fallible as our mind?

Questioning everything

However, I didn't want to remain a prisoner of this radically sceptical position. To combat this, I wanted to be able to write down all of the assumptions that we make as part of living in the material world. From there I hoped to be able to work out what to believe.

Along with Descartes, I was comfortable to say that 'I exist' and that 'I think'. In his Big Conversation debate with Daniel Dennett, Keith Ward explains this saying, “consciousness or mind is the best known, most immediately known, and probably ontologically prior thing that exists in its own sake”.

So far so good. The next step I wanted to take was to assume that we can reliably trust our senses and experience. However, I found that this particular step was not possible.

In the debate, when Dennett discusses how experience and consciousness relate he mentions that “not only do your senses deceive you, but sometimes you are wrong about your very own experience”. This presents a tremendous problem, because it falsifies the assumption that we can trust our senses and experience.

For example, delusions can feel very real for some people, to the extent that they are indistinguishable from reality. Even when we are fully in control of our faculties, when presented with an optical illusion or watching a magician, we know that our senses frequently don't relay what is actually going on.

I found that this problem also exists in the reverse direction. We often want to make a priori assumptions that are not based on experience. Dennett described this during the debate as, “unbelievably complex and sophisticated unconscious computations that go in our brain”. In other words, we trust our brain to do things of which we are not conscious.

For example, when catching a ball, we do not consciously calculate the speed and direction of the ball and the subsequent appropriate movements of our hand. Instead the brain performs these calculations unconsciously and almost instantaneously. The brain is also involved in unconscious behaviour in our thoughts. For example, when retrieving a memory we don’t consciously think about which specific neurons need to fire in order for the memory to be recalled. The brain just gets on with it.

If I am so easily misled in my direct experience of the world, and if a great deal of what goes on in my brain is not actually controlled by 'me' anyway, then upon what basis can I start to make definitive claims about the world around me? This inability to formalise the assumptions of living in a material world left me questioning what to believe.

Questioning atheism

As troubling as it was, none of this introspection had yet caused me to think that God existed. However, there was something that troubled my non-belief.

As an atheist, I did have a problem with the idea of the perception of beauty.

For example, in The Big Conversation debate, when Ward discussed consciousness and feelings he talks about how “music is consciously perceived”. He says that, “whatever is going on in my brain to produce me enjoying music doesn’t explain my enjoyment of the music”. As a lover of music, I can relate to what he was saying.

I remember one occasion when I nearly lost my atheism simply whilst listening to a Beethoven symphony and watching the sunrise over Sydney Harbour. I couldn’t understand how such an experience could be explained by a material world without some form of independent conscious awareness. Dennett rejects this by explaining that one can experience consciousness on a scale from “dead-comatose to wide-awake-thrilled” and that “there is no charmed line where this 'something-extra' got added”.

This brings us to the question of what consciousness is. During the debate the so-called 'Hard Problem of Consciousness' was outlined by both Ward and Dennett by considering an ant and how we could tell whether or not the ant is conscious. This question can be asked of other, more ambiguous, entities.

For example, could we know whether a robot behaving exactly like a human is conscious, or simply obeying its programming? (Interestingly, this example is relevant to Dennett's account during the debate of how evolution has built our moral code over time by predicting from experience, feeding back, and learning from mistakes. This explanation is very much a description of how current machine learning algorithms work.)

If we can't be sure whether a very human-like robot is conscious or not, then the sceptic can equally ask how we know whether anyone else in the world is conscious other than ourselves. The idea that other minds exist having the same kind of first-personal experiences as me, is another assumption that isn't necessarily warranted on atheism.

Regaining my faith

It is around this point in my journey that I found myself on the path to 'Deism' (belief in the existence of a God who created the universe). I believe Deism ultimately leads to Christianity but we'll get to that shortly. For now, here are the steps in the argument that led me to reject atheism and embrace the existence of God.

Step 1: We start with the knowledge that we exist and think.

Regardless of what we end up believing or accepting, existentially I don’t believe there is anything else we can definitively know beyond the awareness of our existence - the rest remains assumptions. We could stop here and assume that the world only exists in our imagination, but that doesn’t get us anywhere. So our next assumption is that…

Step 2: We assume that the world that we experience exists.

Unfortunately this statement is necessarily vague but is an assumption made by both the Materialist and Deist and so is hardly controversial in this argument, albeit one that I still can’t fully justify.

Step 3: We reject the assumption that consciousness can be explained by materialist processes alone and is entirely contained within the brain.

This naturalistic assumption would be the next step for the materialist. I believe this is the assumption that Dennett is explaining when he says, “Something just can’t make your life worth living unless it has an effect on your brain; it just can’t”.

However, I don’t agree with this assumption. Admittedly, to reject it without justification would be unwarranted and potentially lead to 'God-of-the-gaps' type arguments in which we insert God into an explanatory gap. Once a natural explanation appears, God ceases to exist. Nevertheless, I believe the Hard Problem of Consciousness alone gives us grounds to reject this assumption in the case of consciousness. There are other reasons too.

The 'Boltzmann Brain' is a concept within a thought experiment that envisages random particles coalescing spontaneously to form all the parts of a fully functioning conscious brain that fluctuates into existence for a short period of time (the length of time would be irrelevant, as memory would be part of the formed brain in the materialist worldview). Of course, it is very unlikely that such a fluke combination of atoms would occur.

However, the level of fine-tuning required for the existence of the chemistry and biology that allows our own brains to exist, means that the universe we happen to live in is magnitudes of probability less likely to exist than the Boltzmann Brain scenario. It follows then that (on a Dennett-style materialist worldview) the conscious experience you and I are having is far more likely to be an illusory experience generated by a Boltzmann Brain than something we are truly experiencing in terms of the material world we perceive. This is a problem for the materialist who consequently has to reject the assumption of Step 2 - the existence of the world we experience.

So, if we are going to accept Step 2, I don’t think we can justifiably assume that consciousness can be explained solely by a materialist account of reality.

Step 4: We assume that our mind is independent of the material world.

This is more or less positing the existence of a soul and is essentially the crux of this whole argument. Essentially this is an argument for ‘Dualism’ - the existence of independent spiritual and physical dimensions of reality. Ward hesitates to wear the Dualist label in the debate because it is a controversial (and unfashionable) position, preferring to describe himself as an Idealist.

The atheist’s main argument against this particular step is likely to be Occam’s Razor, the philosophical principle that simpler explanations should be preferred over more complex explanations. A reality in which the mind and the material world are independent is more complex than a reality in which only one of the two exists. An Idealist rejects the independence of the material world whereas the Materialist rejects the independence of the mind. However, I believe the argument made in Step 3 means that we are actually only left with this one option. Idealism technically doesn’t really need to be rejected as part of this argument because it doesn’t actually interfere with the argument for Deism.

It should be noted that the assumption made in Step 2 (whether the world is experienced only as ideas or as a part of a material existence) is actually a far greater leap than that to the independence of mind and body. In that step we are creating a whole world, not just a single mind. If we were to consistently apply Occam’s Razor we should actually reject Step 2 and assume that reality is simply our imagination. Thus, even if we ignore Step 3, the assumption in this step is no less rational than the assumption that would be made by the Materialist who accepts Step 2.

Step 5: We assume that all other conscious entities we experience in the material world also have a mind.

This same assumption is made by Materialists and so doesn’t really need to be defended here. However, I thought that it was an important assumption to list.

Step 6: We assume that the mind of God exists.

So far, I have argued that it is reasonable to assume the existence of the material world and the existence of the soul, an independent mind. That means that Materialism, a popular worldview among atheists, is false. However, does it go any way to showing that there is a divine mind (God) behind the whole show?

The atheist might again try to apply Occam’s Razor and conclude that the simplest explanation for our reality is the one that does not involve the further existence of a God, an infinitely complex mind. However, I believe applying Occam’s Razor in this case would be a fallacy.

We are not deciding between a world with a God and an identical world without a God. We are deciding between a world with a God that has an explanation for its existence and a world without a God that has no justification for its existence. There are various arguments from contingency often cited for why a world that contains the physical stuff of the Materialist needs an explanation in God. In the case of a world in which minds also exist as independent entities, the existence of an ultimate mind that has brought such a world into existence is an even more natural corollary. Thus we do not actually have comparable scenarios in which to apply Occam’s Razor. In fact, the existence of some kind of mind that created our reality is the more logical of the two scenarios. Thus one accepts the existence of a God.

Why Christianity?

So far I have explained why I believe in the existence of ‘a God’ but this alone does not justify my belief in the Christian God. So let’s return to those objections that influenced me when I first rejected Christianity.

1.       There is no evidence for God.

Quite apart from the numerous other philosophical and evidential arguments that exist, the argument for Deism that I’ve just outlined shows that this objection is false.

2.       Only credulous people who haven’t thought about it believe in God.

This objection is blatantly not true. The many well-educated and intelligent Christians guests on Unbelievable? alone show it to be false.

3.       The Bible is full of contradictions and can’t be taken seriously.

I believe there are some contradictions in the Bible but I think they act more as a reason to take the Bible seriously rather than as a reason to reject it. When I bought into this objection, I saw the Bible as a single book or possibly two books, Old and New Testament. However, as most readers will know, the Bible is a compilation of many books and documents written by different people at different times. I believe the few demonstrable contradictions are simply evidence that the books in the Bible were written by human individuals with their own foibles and agendas. Yet, the points of agreement between so many of the different historical documents constitute evidence that needs to be taken seriously and not rejected out of hand.

4.       There are so many different religions with fervent believers. None of these religions can be justified, including Christianity.

It is true that blind faith in Christianity or any other religion is unwarranted. However, that there are so many religions in the world does not render it impossible that at least one of them might actually be true (and let’s not forget that atheists also make their own exclusive claims about the way reality is). One should therefore consider the evidence for each religion on its own merits.

My own experience and research has led me to believe that the Christian understanding of the world is more reasonable than that of other religions and worldviews, including atheist materialism. Admittedly I have researched only a limited number of other religions and, if someone wants to persuade me that there is more evidence for a different religion, I am always willing to listen.

5.       Materialism is the best explanation for the world we experience.

As I’ve argued in this article, I don’t believe that Materialism can explain consciousness.

6.       A perfect God could not create an imperfect world.

This is a simplified version of the well-known problem of evil. Why would an all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving God allow the existence of evil and suffering? This is one question for which I don’t have a complete explanation. The best I have come up with ties in with my understanding of Heaven (below). I believe that the world is sufficiently limited that the potential for man-made evil can never be beyond redemption. We can imagine some very evil things that someone could do in our world. However, in infinite possible worlds there could exist evil that we could not even begin to imagine. Perhaps God has finely tuned our world to maximise free will while limiting as far as possible the evil that occurs within those parameters.

7.       For Heaven to be perfect, all the people you love would have to be with you. Since it's possible for someone you love not to be a Christian and therefore not to be in Heaven, it can't be perfect.

This was a very personal reason for rejecting Christianity and for me was one of the most significant. My answer to this objection, simply put, is my belief that all people will ultimately end up in heaven. This belief is often referred to as Universalism. I believe it is defensible within the Christian teachings although it is perhaps not quite as simple as I have expressed it here.

A modest sort of conclusion

I wanted to write this article as a response the fascinating Unbelievable? Big Conversation episode between Daniel Dennett and Keith Ward, and to explain why thinking about consciousness led me personally to recover my Christian faith.

I think of myself as a reasonable sort of person and am under no illusions that the arguments I have briefly made here will be enough to convince the average atheist of Christianity or even Deism (though it may serve as part of a cumulative case for faith for some people... who knows?).

By the same token, while I believe I have rationally justified my own belief in God, I make no claim to have proved it; but then, apart from the realm of pure mathematics, ‘proof’ of anything is elusive. It is incumbent on us all to make the best sense we can of the evidence in front of us.

So, whether you are convinced or not by my story and the argument outlined here, I hope you will at least have been made to think. In turn, I welcome rational criticism of these arguments. More than anything else, I hope that this will encourage the Big Conversation that Justin and his guests have begun, to continue to inspire more people to think about the biggest questions in life.

Watch Daniel Dennett and Keith Ward's Big Conversation on 'Mind, Consciousness  & Free Will' 

Ernest Massey lives in Australia

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