Big Science Questions and the Gospel, Part II: Consciousness and the Soul

Any reasonably intelligent person can understand the principles involved in the search for extraterrestrial life issue that I addressed in my last science post. However, the issue of consciousness is fundamentally mind-wracking and forces us to question some of our basic intuitions. It can get crazy; with some philosophers going so far as to claim that consciousness itself is an illusion, and others claiming that consciousness is almost everything. Consequently, it’s a little foolhardy to do the issue and its relevance to the gospel justice in one post, but I will try. 

The standard position of philosophers and neuroscientists is that consciousness arises from chemistry in the brain. However, a substantial minority hold that things we associate with consciousness such as internal experience and feeling fundamentally cannot arise from atoms and molecules interacting with each other. While our computers are becoming more human-like in terms of processing and even in terms of intuition with neural networks and other AI algorithms, they would argue that our computers are not getting any closer to “feeling” anything or self-awareness.  

One of the most famous thought experiments making this point is called “Mary’s Room.” Mary is a neuroscientist who has lived in a black and white room for her whole life, during which she has spent all her time studying the technical characteristics of the color red. Despite her lifetime of learning, once the door is open and she sees red for the first time she will presumably come to learn something new about red from her own experience that she could not have learned from bits of knowledge. The issue of how consciousness and internal feelings can fundamentally arise from machine-like processes of the brain is called the “hard problem of consciousness,” as distinguished from the “soft problem of consciousness,” which is the question of what aspects of the brain are related to what aspects of our consciousness. The latter is amenable to scientific investigation, the former less so. 

Like a lot of dispositionally religious people I find the idea that we fundamentally can’t get feeling from bits of 1s and 0s more intuitive. However, in a sense we do have a theology that is more physical than some of our Christian counterparts (There is no such thing as immaterial matter. All spirit is matter,” ), so I think there is space for believing Latter-day Saints to hold to the traditional neuroscience view that who we are is reducible to the molecules and atoms in our head, but my intuition and gut don’t buy it. 

I suspect the most professionally prominent Latter-day Saint philosopher, Mark Wrathall of Oxford University, is sympathetic to an “atoms all the way down” view as he has written about religion “after metaphysics,” but I don’t want to put words in his mouth. Similarly, the only Latter-day Saint neurophilosopher of which I am aware, Tarik LaCour, believes this, although his view is more interesting than “consciousness came from atoms,” so go check it out.  

Consciousness is very tricky though; while it’s hard to imagine “feeling” coming from molecules mechanically interacting in our brain, it is also tricky trying to explain what this other thing is. Probably the most commonly held religious view is that a spirit is distinct from the body , but that they interact in some ways, and this also has scriptural support (“the spirit and the body are the soul of man”), but another interesting possibility is that consciousness is a part of matter itself; not so much that rocks “feel,” but that rocks have a part of the thing that, in some form, causes us to feel and be aware. Moses 3 has some potential support for the view that in a way everything has a “spirit” (“for I, the Lord God, created all things, of which I have spoken, spiritually, before they were naturally upon the face of the earth”); it is worth noting that none of the proponents of this view (including noted atheist Sam Harris) that I have read or listened to appear to be religious, but I suspect it has some potential appeal to a certain type of Eastern religious sensibility. 

Those that believe that it’s molecules all the way down sometimes like to make a comparison between consciousness and “vitalism.” In the 19th and 18th centuries many biologists believed that there was special spark in living things that allowed them to create certain substances. Piece by piece science hacked away at the need for some almost mystical life force until just about everything (except for consciousness) could be clearly or nearly explained in a mechanical fashion. In much the same way, they believe that eventually we will be able to explain consciousness after we have hacked away at its different pieces scientifically. 

For example, there are some brain conditions that spooked even me as a devout dualist when I read about them. For example, “alien hand” syndrome is a disorder where somebody’s hand appears to be operating on their own without any intentional effort on the part of its owner, sometimes to the point to where they have to tie one hand down so that the other hand can perform its functions without being hindered by the alien hand. Capgras delusion is a disorder where somebody believes that close friends and family members of theirs have been replaced by somebody in disguise, since they don’t feel the same connection to them that they are used to feeling. Cotard delusion is a related disorder where people (in some cases) literally do not believe that they exist, or that they are dead. These disorders have often been directly tied to a lesion in a specific part of the brain. Consequently, it is likely that different parts of what we mean by self-awareness and feeling can be tied to different aspects of the brain’s physiology, because it leads to some very strange results when they stop working, and that there is no one “seat of the soul” in the brain.  

Still, the difference between vitalism and consciousness is that vitalism was hacked away at piece by piece as chemists learned how to create biological substances in the lab; brain scientists still haven’t been able to create consciousness in a lab from chemical reactions or digital manipulation. Yes, we should avoid a “God of the gaps” situation where we just posit God to explain something that science hasn’t gotten to yet, but this is a pretty big gap, and it’s not clear to me that science is really making any clear progress on explaining how atoms essentially bumping into each other create feeling. I’m open to being proven wrong; I’m not married to my position here, but I’m not sure what being proven wrong would even entail short of creating a completely robust, self-aware artificial intelligence (and even then we have the “other minds” problem), so this is a particular gap that I think religious believers can be comfortable claiming as our own for the foreseeable future.


13 comments for “Big Science Questions and the Gospel, Part II: Consciousness and the Soul

  1. The enigma of intelligence. It is the one area we have no explanation for. What we do know is that you absolutely can’t just align atoms and create intelligence. So what then is it? One thing that has always intrigued me is how life begins and grows. Within our DNA we have this master blueprint for how we are built. But what seems to be missing is the head architect who oversees the whole thing and directs and is spatially aware of all the different parts going on at different places at the same time. It’s as if there is an intelligence that oversees everything and is spatially aware of everything going on at once- a master architect at work and yet we have no means to detect it. DNA is great and all but by itself it has no building power it lacks the very intelligence itself to self assemble. Sometimes we just need to realize that evidence of something isn’t necessarily seeing and witnessing it physically but rather witnessing the result of something that we know only comes because of intelligent information operated by an intelligent architect. In such a manner we can know that spirit does in fact exist and is the medium behind all intelligent life.

  2. Being a blue-collar guy–I like to think of the relationship between consciousness and the brain as water flowing through sophisticated water management system. The system manages the flow of the water–but it doesn’t create the water per se. And if there are problems with the system (e.g., blockage, leakage, contamination, etc.) so that the water doesn’t flow as it should to its various destinations–the water itself is not “responsible” for problems in the system (barring too much or too little rain, that is) even when the outcome may be catastrophic.

  3. All primates are intelligent, several are tool users, and it is likely that nascent self-regard was a trait that had survival value and so therefore persisted and developed. Primate lineage likely from Cretaceous-Paleocene boundary, 63-74 mya (Wikipedia “Primate”) so time field is immense.

  4. “There is no such thing as immaterial matter. All spirit is matter, but it is more fine or pure, and can only be discerned by purer eyes;
    We cannot see it; but when our bodies are purified we shall see that it is all matter.”

    I’ve spent 40 years pondering this 3-sentence slice of scripture; incorporating everything from the Gospel of John and parts of D&C 76, 84, 88, and 93 to particle physics, quantum mechanics, neuroscience, psychology and other areas of study. It is sort of where we must start to take on the topic of consciousness. On the surface it seems simple enough: the dualistic reality of spirit and matter that many believe in is wrong because, well, all spirit is matter. But then Joseph goes on. We can’t see “spirit” the way we can see “matter” (I assume he means here things from rocks to steam) because spirit is fine or pure. We will eventually be able to see spirit when our bodies are “purified” (possibly resurrected or celestialized, but maybe just when our spirit is separated from our mortal body. To me, this latter part makes the most sense, since we go to the Spirit World before resurrection and we don’t want to be walking or floating around there going “hey, where is everybody?” ‘cuz we can’t see spirits.

    For me, this is all both comforting, puzzling, and worthy of study while I’m locked up in my black and white room. Just a few of the questions: is seeing spirit the same as seeing “spirits”, you know, like the dudes in the Spirit World mentioned above? Is this spirit the same as “intelligence”? Is spirit and intelligence the same as “the light of truth” (I’m assuming that the light of truth and the light of Christ are the same, which is in the sun and stars)? Is intelligence(s) the same thing as our consciousness? Orson Pratt taught that, basically, intelligences are this invisible particle that, in and of itself, carried life, light and intelligence. When organized by God into an individual spirit person, these intelligences worked together in harmony to make up that person’s being and consciousness. Brigham Young criticized this sharply (which he did often since Orson was the only apostle who would stand up against BY’s doctrinal silliness like Adam/God), saying that intelligences didn’t have intelligence by themselves, but arose when they were united, as in a spirit child.

    Now, I’m meandering. The point I originally wanted to make is that it might be time to relook at the whole concept of spirit and matter through modern science, the way consciousness is being examined. For example, was Joseph thinking or matter in terms of what has mass? We now know of particles – photons and gluons – that are massless, as far as we can tell. Which side of the matter/spirit spectrum would these guys fall? In addition, the famous double-slit experiment of quantum physics has been conducted with both massless photons and electrons (which have mass) with the same results. When single particles are fired forward in a double-slit experiment, they appear to go through BOTH slits at the same time, forming what looks like a wave pattern on the far wall of the experiment. So, are these particles or waves? Guess what? It depends on if they are being observed! The electrons only become particles when they are being measured. The rest of the time they are, in a sense, immaterial. No, really, I’m not makin’ this up.

    So, here we are, juveniles in the world of science, and we’re already coming up with things that have us question what is immaterial and what is matter, as well as examining the definitions of “fine”, “pure”, and “discerned”. Could we actually be aware in our world of a parallel to the scriptural concept of “intelligences” in photons; which are massless, unseeable, carry a great deal of information, are the source of (physical) light, and are in the sun and stars? And much more. Personally, I don’t even dare tackle consciousness. It would produce ramblings without number.

  5. I’m somewhat persuaded by B. H. Roberts’ approach to the question of intelligence vs spirit. I don’t know if he nailed it down perfectly–but I like the theological ramifications his model. One aspect of his model that intrigues me vis-a-vis this thread are the various stages of embodiment that we experience as we move forward according to plan. It could be that we must be enlarged (through embodiment) by degrees so that we don’t overwhelm our primal intelligence–or consciousness–thereby defeating the whole purpose of being “added upon.”

    And so, with that in mind, is it really any wonder that, as fallen beings, we’re going to have trouble getting the coarse material of our mortal bodies and our primal intelligence to align perfectly? I think one of the important reasons for our being here is to try the flesh on for size–so to speak. And in the process there will inevitably be hiccups and malfunctioning “hardware” and whatnot.

  6. I really like this and really like all the comments so far. Jack, I really like that water / water management system analogy. Larry, so many good questions and topics touched on there.

    As I’ve pondered over these same questions for a long while now, one scripture that really stuck out to me is in D&C 93, defining truth. I remembered it defining truth as – things as the are, as they were, and as they will be.

    But then I read it again a few years ago, and realized that was wrong, what D&C 93:24 actually says is, “truth is *knowledge* of things as they are, and as they were, and as they are to come”

    If truth is *knowledge* then it must be dependent on a knower, and so truth appears to be mind dependent! Wow, what an interesting thought. And then further down we see this defined, “Intelligence” is the “light of truth”. Is truth not what is real? Or in other words isn’t reality the truth? If so, then it seems like the scriptures are implying that reality is mind dependent – that Intelligence / Spirit is the light that undergirds reality.

    This lends support to the interpretation of quantum mechanics that sees the consciousness of an observer being responsible for reality collapsing from a wave of potential into actuality.

    Perhaps then, we might say that as all spirit is matter, if they truly are the same substance with spirit just being more refined, might we then say in the reverse that matter is simply a derivative of spirit or Intelligence, only coarser? Which would be the more fundamental building block, the refined or coarser version of the substance?

    In my mind, this really lends credibility to the idea that Intelligence is fundamental, and that all reality or truth is the knowledge of this Intelligence. Space and matter are the knowledge, time is the processing of that knowledge, therefore time could be construed as synonymous with thinking. Perhaps the idealists were right, and consciousness is fundamental. Everything else is a derivative of the primordial Intelligence, upon which all reality rests.

  7. Steve, I don’t know enough about physics to respond adequately to your comment–but you’ve got me thinking about wondrous things. One thing that comes to mind (nyuk, nyuk) is that the scriptures seem to speak of two fundamental things or principles in the universe: things to act and things to be acted upon. It seems to me that the first of the two — and I’m talking about the universe being boiled down to its primal condition so to speak — is intelligence. And the second is unorganized matter–as per Joseph smith. And if such is the case–then perhaps a long time ago (before there were any galaxies) the Gods figured out how to control and inhabit the unorganized matter in a way that actualizes creation–as you seem to suggest–by means of their intelligence. And if intelligence is indeed the light of truth–then it is something about their awareness — their “knowing” — that animates the matter.

    I can’t even begin to comprehend the mechanics involved is such a process–though I’m hopeful that at some point in our training we’ll be taught about the finer points of creation. But one thing seems clear–in the present–and that is that the Savior does possess a fulness of knowledge and power with regard to how these two principles work together–and that’s why miracles can happen when we strive to worthily act in his name. And as the Creator — and in light of your comment — is it any wonder that one of his names is the Spirit of Truth?

  8. @Rob:Yes, the origin of life is another big science question that we’ll be addressing here, so stay tuned!

    @Jack: Maybe; how exactly the soul interacts with the biological is the crux the matter, but it’s very clear from people with brain damage that the plumbing system is not irrelevant, as you point out.

    @p: Right, it seems reasonable that self-awareness had some survival benefit (even though it costs a lot in calories), but the question is even more basic than the evolutionary one: how do you go from unfeeling atoms to sentience?

    @larryco_: While I’m sympathetic to the view that some of the language of D&C revelation was filtered through Joseph Smith’s cognition, at the end of the day since we believe that it’s the word of God, so I’m also okay with the idea that Joseph Smith didn’t understand the full scientific details of the words that he was receiving because they weren’t his words to understand.

    @Jack part II: I do need to go back and read BH Roberts on this.

    @Steve LHJ: The role of consciousness in quantum mechanics is something I need to dive into more; I’m still not clear on how exactly experimental results from that field do not demonstrate there’s something special about consciousness on a very fundamental level that makes it distinct from some other agglomeration of atoms, but scientists tend to push back on that interpretation, so again I’ll have to dive in more.

    The idealist view is intriguing to me, and I’m also open to that as a possibility; John 1 (“In the beginning was the Word”) seems to support that idea, but we also believe that matter is eternal, so who knows. From a secular perspective, Max Tegmark has made some intriguing arguments that mathematics is the fundamental strata of reality, and that matter essentially is generated from mathematical truths.

  9. Stephen: I meant no disrespect to Joseph. Much of what we have towards the end of the Doctrine and Covenants was not part of what was put in by Joseph Smith when he was alive. After Apostle Orson Pratt was made Church Historian in 1874 he went through Joseph’s writings and drew from many of the things that Joseph said in various letters (like D&C 121), recorded speeches, and discussions. Some of the shorter additions were compiled by Elder Pratt in Sections 130 and 131. The revisions that Orson made resulted in the 1876 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants. I believe that Joseph Smith was inspired in the things that he said and that Orson Pratt was inspired in the selections he decided to include in the D&C.

  10. Stephen C.,

    I think scientists would be open to the idea of emergence or some kind of synergy as an explanation. Even though at bottom everything is atoms or “atoms all the way down” that’s not to say that a certain configuration or matrix of atoms couldn’t produce something that is impossible for unorganized atoms to produce.

    I’m not sure that I wouldn’t agree with that approach myself were it not for the doctrines of the gospel that shed light on our deep past. Even so, it seems that the more we learn about the brain the more complex it becomes–and so I’m left with impression that no matter how we look at the relationship between mind and matter we can’t get away from how miraculous consciousness truly is.

  11. Perhaps consciousness is sort of a Venn diagram of chemistry, biology and physics. The intersection of these coupled with experience creates expanding consciousness.

    Having said this, I remember how bad intuition is as a guiding epistemology.

  12. It’s becoming clear that with all the brain and consciousness theories out there, the proof will be in the pudding. By this I mean, can any particular theory be used to create a human adult level conscious machine. My bet is on the late Gerald Edelman’s Extended Theory of Neuronal Group Selection. The lead group in robotics based on this theory is the Neurorobotics Lab at UC at Irvine. Dr. Edelman distinguished between primary consciousness, which came first in evolution, and that humans share with other conscious animals, and higher order consciousness, which came to only humans with the acquisition of language. A machine with primary consciousness will probably have to come first.

    The thing I find special about the TNGS is the Darwin series of automata created at the Neurosciences Institute by Dr. Edelman and his colleagues in the 1990’s and 2000’s. These machines perform in the real world, not in a restricted simulated world, and display convincing physical behavior indicative of higher psychological functions necessary for consciousness, such as perceptual categorization, memory, and learning. They are based on realistic models of the parts of the biological brain that the theory claims subserve these functions. The extended TNGS allows for the emergence of consciousness based only on further evolutionary development of the brain areas responsible for these functions, in a parsimonious way. No other research I’ve encountered is anywhere near as convincing.

    I post because on almost every video and article about the brain and consciousness that I encounter, the attitude seems to be that we still know next to nothing about how the brain and consciousness work; that there’s lots of data but no unifying theory. I believe the extended TNGS is that theory. My motivation is to keep that theory in front of the public. And obviously, I consider it the route to a truly conscious machine, primary and higher-order.

    My advice to people who want to create a conscious machine is to seriously ground themselves in the extended TNGS and the Darwin automata first, and proceed from there, by applying to Jeff Krichmar’s lab at UC Irvine, possibly. Dr. Edelman’s roadmap to a conscious machine is at

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