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Why Be Blinded by Science and Materialism?
Part 6: The machine is in the Ghost -- materialism does not account for consciousness

by Chris Tong, Ph.D.
Dr. Chris Tong


John SearleThe limitations of the subject right now: . . . we do not know how brain processes cause consciousness.

John Searle, The Mystery of Consciousness


The machine is in the Ghost

There is no question that much of the human being can be accounted for in a mechanistic fashion. Much of the body-mind complex is indeed a machine, and our knowledge for how to bring the body-mind into a state of balance draws heavily upon the regularities and laws noticed in the patterns of the machine: Suffering from iron-poor blood? Add back some iron. Suffering from being abused by your mother as a child? Stop projecting that old pattern of “feeling abused” onto all women, and start actively relating to women (including your mother) as who they are, in the present. And so on. All that kind of knowledge is wonderful, but it doesn’t account for “the machine” being conscious.

I used to be a professor of computer science (from 1984-1994). My speciality was in the area of AI (Artificial Intelligence), that is, the creating of programs that perform activities we would describe as “intelligent” if a human being performed those activities. This includes activities such as: problem-solving, learning, design, diagnosis, game-playing, natural language understanding, analysis, etc. One of the interesting things AI researchers learned early on was that people attribute to AI programs all kinds of characteristics that just are not true. A famous early example was the ELIZA program, which attempted to simulate a Rogerian therapist. Here is a sample conversation between a woman typing on a keyboard to ELIZA, and ELIZA’s responses (adapted from p. 186 of Artificial Intelligence):


Woman: Men are all alike.

ELIZA: In what way?

Woman: They’re always bugging us about something or other.

ELIZA: Can you think of a specific example?

Woman: Well, my boyfriend made me come here.

ELIZA: Your boyfriend made you come here.

Woman: He says I’m depressed most of the time.

ELIZA: I am sorry to hear you are depressed.

Woman: It’s true. I am unhappy.

ELIZA: Do you think coming here will help you not to be unhappy?

Woman: I need some help, that much seems certain.

ELIZA: What would it mean to you if you got some help?

Woman: Perhaps I could learn to get along with my mother.

ELIZA: Tell me more about your family.


The thing that most startled Joe Weizenbaum (the author of the program), was the large number of users of the program who were completely convinced that they were “speaking” to a program that was conscious and intelligent, even feeling and empathetic! Weizenbaum himself knew how simple (even simplistic) the program actually was, being comprised of rules for generating canned responses, such as:


RULE 317:

the person makes a first reference to some family member ("mother", "father", etc.),

respond: “Tell me more about your family”.


The materialist who enthusiastically proposes that everything about human beings can be explained materially because so much of the machinery of human beings has been accounted for materially is a little like the people typing away to ELIZA, attributing consciousness to ELIZA because the behavior mimics that of conscious human beings. The ELIZA program is obviously not conscious in the manner attributed to it; it simply is programmed to behave in a way that resembles a conscious human being. Just so, being able to account materialistically for many of the "parts" associated with a human being does not account for the consciousness of that being, although it can account for much of how that (conscious) being behaves. There is a mysterious “gap” that is not being accounted for, between objective behavior, and subjective experience (whether attributed, in the case of ELIZA, or experienced, in the case of ourselves).

But couldn't we resolve the issue by talking about a "mind", a "spirit", or a "soul", and locating consciousness there? It may not be a "material thing", but perhaps it is still a "thing" just not a material thing that has "parts", properties, laws to which is subject, etc. Says Alfred Weber, in discussing the attack on materialism made by Joseph Priestley (a theologian, philosopher, and naturalist who lived from 1733-1804, and who is best known as the discoverer of oxygen), in his Disquisitions Relating to Matter and Spirit:


If the soul, says spiritualism [in countering the materialistic view], is composed of parts, atoms (or, as we should say nowadays, of living cells of gray cortical substance), how can it be felt as a unity? How does it become conscious of the me? This feeling, this perception of the unity which is called the ego, is conceivable only in a real individual, in a unity, monad, or atom, and not in a sum of monads, atoms, or individuals, not in the whole nervous system. For a sum or whole is merely an idea, a mental being; its parts alone have real existence (nominalism). Hence these (the monads, atoms, or individuals making up the nervous system) can feel themselves, each for itself and separately, as unities or I’s; but the nervous system, the whole, cannot, for the whole is not an individual, an objective and existing reality. This, as Priestley himself confesses, is the strongest, and, in fact, the only serious argument that spiritualism can oppose [to materialism]. How can the one arise from the many? He declares that he cannot explain the difficulty, but that, if it really is a difficulty, it exists for spiritualism as well. Psychological consciousness is nothing but plurality reduced to unity, or unity derived from plurality, or, in a word, the synthesis of the one and the many, i.e., an inexplicable mystery. Spiritualism is as unable to tell how a multitude of ideas, feelings, and volitions can constitute the unity of self, as materialism is powerless to explain how a multitude of atoms can form a unity. Hence, spiritualism has no advantage over its adversary in this respect.

Alfred Weber, Chapter 60: “The Progress of Materialism”
History of Philosophy


Weber is exactly right: “spiritualism”, as he calls it, does not account for consciousness either. A “soul”, or “psyche”, or “spirit”, if it has individual form and content (e.g., as the carrier of psychic patterns that carry over into an after-life, or repeat from lifetime to lifetime via reincarnation, or what-have-you) looks simply like an additional (non-material) component of the “body-mind” machine. When the “body” part of the machine drops off at physical death, the “mind” part lives out its destiny in the non-material dimensions of reality. But what, then, grants consciousness to that psychic pattern or psychic machine? As we can see, simply adding a non-material (but still objective) layer to the machine just puts off the question.

There are a couple of other catch-phrases coined by materialists that are worth a moment’s examination: consciousness as an “emergent phenomenon”, and consciousness as “the ghost in the machine”.

Consciousness as an "emergent phenomenon"

When I was an active researcher in Artificial Intelligence, I used to hear on a regular basis the notion that as yet unexplained aspects of human beings such as consciousness were "emergent phenomena"; that is, they spontaneously arose as by-products of a very complex context, illustrating the point that the whole is (sometimes) greater than the sum of the parts. For instance, my colleagues would talk of the massively parallel architecture of the brain with vast numbers of neuron “mini-computers” working simultaneously as the complex context in which something like consciousness could emerge. This, in contradistinction to the (by and large) “serial computer” (one computer) context in which most Artificial Intelligence and cognitive modelling programs had been constructed, to date. So the insinuation was that, with time, and with zillions of computers working in parallel (like the neurons of the brain), we would be able to create conscious computers.

However, “emergent phenomenon” is just a catchy phrase, by itself nothing more than a sound byte. It in no way explains how this emergence takes place. (See, e.g., [Searle, The Mystery of Consciousness; Chalmers, The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory; Shear, Explaining Consciousness: The Hard Problem; and Avatar Adi Da Samraj, Drifted in the Deeper Land] for a discussion of some of the difficulties.) What it does do is appeal to the “mad scientist” archetype that continues to recur in science fiction movies to this day. Here’s how you do it, if you’re a movie director: you create a scientific laboratory that looks incredibly complex zillions of flashing lights, zillions of test tubes, zillions of chemicals being combined, etc. Basically your aim is to completely overwhelm the viewer with the sense of complexity, to the point of what movie critics call “suspension of disbelief”, allowing you to introduce almost anything next. . . At this point, the dead corpse of the Frankenstein monster could spring to life and you’d buy it!

In other words, such phrases tend to be nothing more than conjuring tricks. Use of the phrase, “emergent phenomenon” and appeal to the “massively parallel architecture of the brain” is the same kind of conjuring trick, aimed not at providing an adequate explanation, but at creating suspension of disbelief. If you’ve got enough neurons flashing all over the brain, anything could happen even consciousness!

Consciousness as “the ghost in the machine”

The phrase, “ghost in the machine”, is used to refer to all those aspects of human beings that to date have not been accounted for mechanistically (otherwise they’d be a part of the machine). So this would include a “spirit” or “soul”, and of course, “consciousness”. But, while the phrase, “ghost in the machine”, is not necessarily used in a pejurative sense (in which the “ghost” reference is simply sarcasm, aimed at implying “there is no such thing”), and often instead is getting at what seems to be a mystery, nonetheless, the phrase, “ghost in the machine”, is inherently biased. It is a verbal bias something like the classic courtroom example, “When did you stop beating your wife?” If you never beat your wife in the first place, you have no acceptable answer to the question! If the ghostly or mysterious aspects of human beings are not rightly describable as being “in” the machine, then the phrase, “ghost in the machine”, is misleading. Fundamental questions about reality are often phrased in a way that renders them unanswerable, or puzzling. The conceptual puzzle vanishes when the right question is asked. (Of course, the inherent, mind-dissolving Mystery that is Reality Itself does not vanish, only the conceptual puzzle.)

As we describe elsewhere, there is a view an esoteric Spiritual (and Transcendental) view that does account for the “one / many” dichotomy and the “ghost in the machine”: it is the view that our apparently separate “consciousness” along with our body-minds, and the material and Spiritual dimensions altogether are all arising in the One Divine Consciousness. The sense of being “one being” (despite being associated with a “body-mind” machine having countless parts and personalities: a veritable “society”) is a direct consequence of the One Being being the inherent True Self of all "beings" and "things". We will never discover an objective link between consciousness and body-mind, because the actual connection is subjective (the body-mind is arising in the Divine Consciousness, as a subjective modification of it).

In other words: The ghost is not in the machine. The machine is in the Ghost!

Three different views

Treatments of consciousness fall into one of the following three views:

  • dualism — Consciousness and material reality are two separate "realities", neither reducible to the other. This was the view of many earlier thinkers, including Descartes and Galileo. (Descartes' version is known as "Cartesian dualism".)

  • material nondualism — Material reality is the fundamental "substrate" of all reality. Everything can be explained either as material reality or an emergent property of material reality. This is the starting point adopted by most contemporary scientists attempting to account for consciousness.

  • the nondualism of Consciousness — Consciousness is the fundamental "substrate" of all reality. Everything can be explained either as Consciousness or as a modification of Consciousness, an "apparent object or entity" arising in Consciousness.

The third viewpoint — which is not even considered in the references we have provided above — is the viewpoint of Adidam, as well as a number of the Eastern wisdom traditions (e.g., Advaita Vedanta).

Note that we are not associating these three alternatives with the so-called "mind-body problem". The starting point of the mind-body problem is something called "mind", which is viewed as housing everything that is not obviously "material" (including "consciousness", "soul", "thoughts", "feelings", etc.). But this lumps together (in the package called "mind") something that is fundamentally different in kind (consciousness, which is subjective) with apparatus that may be non-material but still objective.

The more useful and more primal duality to explore, then, is not "mind/body" or "material/non-material" but rather "objective/subjective". These two distinctions tend to be confused by materialists (since they do not consider the possibility of non-material levels of objective reality). If one wants to identify two "sides" of a human being, they are better described as "consciousness" (that which is aware) and "body-mind" (the total sensory apparatus that provides "consciousness" with the perceptual and conceptual objects of which it is aware, including physical, mental, and even "spiritual" objects).

Materialism does not account for suffering and death


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