Michael Battalio

Monday, July 02, 2007

Serious conversations... (part 1)

A bit of a disclaimer, this is the first in series of serious blog posts about religion and philosophy. If you have ever chatted with me about philosophy and religion and very much disagree, be prepared for that to continue.
These are my responses (Edited, of course, to offend as few people as possible; although offense is inevitable with me.) from a conversation I am having with an atheist friend of mine about the meaning of life, consciousness, physics, the kitchen sink, religion and a couple of moral issues thrown in to boot.
Before every single religious person starts chomping at the bit, let me say this is not an argument about whether there is a God. This is more philosophical in nature. Also let me say that my unnamed friend is one of the most moral, responsible and decent people I have ever met, so no one take the high ground until you’ve read the entire series, and still don’t take it then either. This first entry is about consciousness and religion, kind of.

My friend had just had a conversation about consciousness with a group of neuroscientists and chemists. Everyone, except my friend, agreed that even if one could describe to the last atom the entire human body, one still wouldn’t have a description of the person. In essence, a human consciousness is more than the sum of its parts. Consciousness transcends the physical even though it is common knowledge that imbalances in brain chemistry can dramatically affect one’s personality (consciousness), and thought is simply electricity jumping across neurons in the brain. My friend was astonished that even without religion being mentioned there seemed to be some implication of it, and my friend asked for my insight. (And some lovely insight I have.)

Here is my response:
Christianity, and probably most other religions, forgets that there are other religions, other philosophies, other points of view, and so the faith doesn’t realize what would be common sense to someone with a similar religious background is crazy to someone with another way of viewing the world. Just because religion wasn’t mentioned in the conversation doesn’t mean that’s what everyone implied. This being America, and America being rather self centered, they might have assumed you realized it was in some sense a religious conversation.
It comes down to this. Assume religion is right, assume a soul exists. If they were referring to the soul of a person and not just their consciousness in your conversation, then they are right. I think we would agree that despite all those crazy people on tv, there is no way to quantitatively describe the spiritual realm, assuming it exists at all. Now assume religion is wrong, and they were talking about a soul. You were right. This argument is purely religious and not what we are talking about.
Now assume they were talking about human consciousness. This is certainly philosophy and has nothing to do with religious faith. I am thinking right now; I have consciousness; I exist. No religion there. I would, the next time you speak with them, ask them this: does human consciousness, not the soul, transcend the physical? Does human thought amount to more than some endorphins and electricity? Is the whole greater than the sum of its parts? That makes sure you are both talking about the same thing, nothing religious about it. (Keep in mind Christianity takes the human consciousness and soul to be two completely different things. You can screw up one and save the other for instance. This is why there is ambiguity in your conversation.)
I assume you want me to answer those questions I just asked. Well, I can answer them in one word, maybe. It’s something that would have to be tested. You would have to describe every smallest unit of the human brain (molecule, atom, quark, whatever the fundamental particles end up being), run a model, and see if the human brain you just modeled did the exact same thing as the model a percentage of the time that could be attributed to quantum fluctuations. (I would assume that by the time we come up with that much computing power we will be able to also predict what percentage quantum mechanics would skew results by.)
Do I believe it could be possible to completely map out a brain’s neural pathways and reproduce my consciousness exactly without any more input? Yes, I see no reason it wouldn’t be possible. Might it be impossible? Yes to that as well. In actuality, I’ve come to accept that there is no way to know until it’s tested. It isn’t common sense to me either way. Might personality differences arise out of quantum mechanics? Certainly. (That might be a really interesting thing to do research on actually.) Do I believe the soul transcends physical description? Yes, but I am a religious person, and I don’t think that’s what you are talking about.

[So, we concluded that consciousness doesn’t necessarily transcend the physical, but it might. I would need a bit more proof one way or another to persuade me, but it would be cool to talk to a computerized version of myself.]

Next, look for a discussion of profanity in society.

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