I Am Not A Piano Key: Thoughts on Consciousness

Humanism, Naturalism

Does consciousness require a soul?

In Notes From The Underground Dostoyevsky’s underground man character is pitiful, spiteful and loathsome. Naturally, I relate to him very much. In the book the underground man is railing against 19th century rationalism, the growth of scientific explanations and the beginnings of psychology. Mostly he is railing against the idea that humans can be explained by scientific reduction. The underground man expresses a profound point about human nature. Human beings do not like being reduced to the sum of their parts and they will tell you about it in so many words.

Even if man were nothing but a piano key, even if this were proved to him by natural science and mathematics, even then he would not become reasonable, but would purposely do something perverse out of sheer ingratitude, simply to have his own way…then, after all, perhaps only by his curse will he attain his object, that is, really convince himself that he is a man and not a piano key! If you say that all this, too, can be calculated and tabulated…then man would purposely go mad in order to be rid of reason and have his own way.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes From Underground

Though this would naturally take us down the road to discuss free will and determinism, we will save those topics for another time. The topic for this post is consciousness, specifically, the way theists use consciousness as a god-of-the-gaps argument for the existence of God.

In the year before my deconversion I was going to write on this very topic with the title “In defense of the Soul.” Ironically, it was my thinking about the veracity of my soul that was the final straw to break my faith. Instead I wrote “The Death of a Soul” a year later.

The underground man expresses the theist’s abhorrence of materialism and what for them is reductionist account of humanity. “I am not a piano key,” one can hear them say, “I have a soul, I cannot be reduced to synapses and electrical firings.” How can an atheist materialist suggest that consciousness does not require a soul and ultimately the Animator of that soul? How can consciousness come from purely physical processes?

To be fair even some atheists admit that because theism entails consciousness and materialism does not, yet consciousness exists, this is evidence on the side of theism.

Sidebar: I deeply respect Jeffry Lowder from the above link, and clearly he is not suggesting that theism is correct. He is merely conceding consciousness is built into theism and is not in materialism. I have one rant about the form of the argument,  my problem with attempting to quantify probabilities in philosophy is that one winds up only quantifying one’s biases. If I am an atheist I assume the probability that god exists approaches zero. If I am a theist I assume the probability that god exists approaches one. Therefore the conclusions derived no matter how technical the process used are still based on one’s presuppositions baked into the initial conditions.

Thoughts on consciousness

Let me begin to respond with a strange confession, by admitting my ignorance. Consciousness is such a wildly complex phenomenon and so poorly understood by the scientific community that I feel I am in good company by admitting my ignorance.

I have said before, one does not need to have a complete unassailable explanation to a problem to critique another proposed explanation. The three hardest problems or the largest gaps in scientific knowledge are how the universe began, what jump started organic molecules into living RNA and what causes consciousness. Interestingly, the theist’s answer to these is the same: god. From the atheist’s perspective these are all god-of-the-gaps arguments. Meaning, though we admit ignorance, the gap in knowledge, asserting a more complex solution, god, is not a satisfying solution to the problem. It begs more questions than it answers.


So having admitted my ignorance, I’ll give some thoughts on the way I understand consciousness. I am most certainly a naturalist and a materialist. I have the audacity to say consciousness is not from a soul but rather biological processes.

The idea of consciousness as an emergent phenomenon in complex biological systems makes the most sense to me. When brains (in the case of our evolutionary past) reach a certain level of complexity consciousness emerges as phenomenon. Notice this is intentionally fuzzy. We think of ourselves as conscious of course. We include animals like elephants, dolphins and apes who demonstrate a self-awareness. What about fish? Or an amoeba? I don’t know. And because we don’t understand consciousness well it is difficult to draw a hard line.

Now, I am out on a limb. Others have argued that emergence is a non-answer, including neuroscientist Sam Harris:

Most scientists are confident that consciousness emerges from unconscious complexity. We have compelling reasons for believing this, because the only signs of consciousness we see in the universe are found in evolved organisms like ourselves. Nevertheless, this notion of emergence strikes me as nothing more than a restatement of a miracle. To say that consciousness emerged at some point in the evolution of life doesn’t give us an inkling of how it could emerge from unconscious processes, even in principle.

Consciousness—the sheer fact that this universe is illuminated by sentience—is precisely what unconsciousness is not. And I believe that no description of unconscious complexity will fully account for it. It seems to me that just as “something” and “nothing,” however juxtaposed, can do no explanatory work, an analysis of purely physical processes will never yield a picture of consciousness. However, this is not to say that some other thesis about consciousness must be true. Consciousness may very well be the lawful product of unconscious information processing. But I don’t know what that sentence means—and I don’t think anyone else does either.

At some point in the development of certain complex organisms, however, consciousness emerges. This miracle does not depend on a change of materials—for you and I are built of the same atoms as a fern or a ham sandwich. Rather, it must be a matter of organization. Arranging atoms in a certain way appears to bring consciousness into being. And this fact is among the deepest mysteries given to us to contemplate.

Every chain of explanation must end somewhere—generally with a brute fact that neglects to explain itself. Consciousness might represent a terminus of this sort. Defying analysis, the mystery of inner life may one day cease to trouble us.

Sam Harris

So although Sam argues emergence is a non-answer, we do not currently have a better one. We currently cannot explain how consciousness emerges from synapses firing. But we can observe the fact that it does.

The Cloud Analogy

I like to think of emergence like “the cloud.” When you see advertisements about storing your data (music, movies, documents, etc) in the cloud, what do you think that means? It basically means you have no idea where or how that data is stored. It could be in the US, Europe or on the African continent. You don’t know and probably don’t care as long as you have access to it when you want it. In the networking world a cloud is a symbol for something we do not have information about. It is a place holder.

Similarly, explaining consciousness as emergent phenomenon is a bit of a place holder for something we do not yet fully understand. We suspect that someday we will have a theory that explains how consciousness can come from unconscious mater, but we don’t know what that will look like yet.

The reason I think this is a justifiable position to hold is that science knows very little not only about consciousness but also there is much science does not yet fully understand about complex biological systems such as ourselves.

Evolutionary biologist, Jerry Coyne, has written about how vastly complicated biological systems are. I don’t have the exact quote but he compares biology and physics and suggest that biology is “harder” due to the complex path evolution takes. In fact, in arguing against Intelligent Design rather than ducking the complexity of biology he leans into it, only evolution could explain how complex biological systems are.

Human beings are in effect the pinnacle of evolution, the most complex biological systems on the planet. No wonder we do not yet fully understand ourselves. In many ways we are at the beginning of studying the brain and consciousness.

Physical source of consciousness

Humans experience consciousness in Sam Harris’ words as “irreducibly subjective.” In some way we think of ourselves as something other than our bodies. The ‘I’ floating along with the physical body. Due to the influence of dualism on Western thought rather than analyse this we lean into it and suggest it is due to a soul.

But humans are physical. If a certain medication is administered to a human being, the light of consciousness goes out for a time. If the brain does not receive enough oxygen one becomes unconscious. Victims of brain injuries sometimes experience radical shifts in personality. Consciousness is affected by the physical world not a spiritual one.

Though our unconscious brain comes alive while we sleep there is a real way in which we experience the loss and regaining of consciousness on a daily basis. Our bodies are flooded with chemicals that immobilize us and stop us from being aware of our surroundings. We dream and sleep, awaking in the morning.

At death homeostasis in the body is stopped. The synapses stop firing. The physical body has stopped functioning. Consciousness ceases and unfortunately does not return.

It seems clear that consciousness is produced by the physical even if we cannot yet explain it.

Update: My new favorite blogger, Matthew Ferguson, writes on this very topic in his description of meta-physical naturalism. In it he quotes Keith Augustine who says that mental states are supervenient upon physical states. This means that the mind is dependent upon physical states but not identical to those physical states. In other words, emergent, more than the sum of the parts *but* dependent upon those parts.

The Underground Man’s Perspective

The underground man rightly asserts that we as humans are more than the sum of our parts. We rebel against attempts to reduce human beings to scientific objects. On this point I agree.

Is the answer to assert that we are souls traveling along in these physical bodies? No. Human beings are physical, this is an essential part of being human. That does not mean that we are only the sum of our physical parts.

Human sentience  is painfully unique on Earth and as far as we know in the cosmos. We have value for far more than just the particular set of molecules that compose us. Our intellect and thoughts have great value particularly to one another. We live, we love, we give and this entails incomprehensible value. Secular Grace and humanism represents this well. The care, protection and advancement of human kind is of the utmost importance.

It is true, we are not piano keys, we are humans.


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