Saturday, July 24, 2010

Spiritual Appreciation Is an Emergent Property

This post arose from a conversation I had with my wife after we had just seen the terrific new play in New York City, "Freud's Last Session". This two-man play is about a possible encounter between an aging and ill Sigmund Freud, a lifetime hard-core atheist, and C.S. Lewis. Lewis was a former atheist who as a young adult underwent a religious conversion, found Christ, and went on to write books with concealed Christian messages. The most famous of these is the children's book, "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and The Wardrobe", in which The Lion is a symbol of Jesus Christ. In the play, Freud and Lewis have a wonderful, spirited exchange about whether God exists, and how we can know the answer.

My wife asked me how I, as an atheist, view the wonderful aspects of life not readily explained by science: the majesty and mystery of our universe, the beauty and force of nature, our aesthetic appreciation of this natural beauty, and of music and art, and our ability as humans to be moral creatures, and to experience love and, yes, even Grace. As I thought about this question, I was reminded of the mind-brain problem addressed by scientists and philosophers who study consciousness: how does the squishy, gray, three-pound human brain, containing c. 100 billion multiply-connected neurons, give rise to the apparently incorporeal qualities of consciousness and ability for intellectual thought and language that are unique to human beings? This is of course one of the two great mysteries of our time (to me, the other great mystery is what the extremely weird but clearly correct physical theory, termed quantum mechanics, really tells us about the structure and function of the universe).

But investigators of consciousness have a very useful concept to describe, in a general way, how mind arises from the brain. In their view, mind/consciousness is an emergent property of the brain; i.e., ethereal mind somehow emerges from the very complex biochemical and physical properties of the brain. So it seems to me that the counter to those who insist that some sort of Higher Power up there has given us all this great stuff, is that development of the Earth with all its beauty, along with biological evolution on the Earth, all proceeded according to strictly scientific principles. And then all that we treasure about human beings, including consciousness, language, morality, the ability to appreciate beauty and to love one another, somehow arise as emergent properties of the qualities and experience of human beings who live individually and collectively upon the Earth.


JSM447 said...


I just read "The Grand Design" by Stephen Hawking. If you haven't read it, it's a must. He and his colleagues, but especially professor Hawking is getting very close to articulating something really important. Still not quite there, but very close.

I went back and re-listened to and read some of Hawkings' earlier work which amazed me just some years ago . . . and in the shadow of his latest, "M-theory", his ealier works already seem simplistic.

It's fair to say Hawking is an atheist . . . because the whole premise of the scientific method in ascertaining an answer to how we got here etc., is to really answer the question with the scientific principles/theorems advanced without a gap requiring a further undefined power or premise, such as "God," not already encapsulated within those scientific principles.

The Grand Design left me a real hankering for more from the mind of Stephen Hawking. I suspect he may be the most brilliant human being ever.

JSM447 said...

Just posting for notice of any follow up.