What is a human being?
Materialism 101, Pt. 1
Matthew Connally is a recent graduate of our World Journalism Institute mid-career course, but I first met him in 1992 when he was editor in chief of The Daily Texan, the student newspaper at The University of Texas at Austin. From there he moved on to earn a master’s degree at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and become a pastor in Princeton and a campus chaplain at Princeton University. From 2012 to 2016 he was a teacher and principal in Nanjing, China, and since 2017 has been a pastor at a Houston-area Chinese church.
So let’s review: a Christian on a highly secularized campus newspaper, an evangelical at theologically liberal Princeton and in neo-Maoist China, and (as this essay shows) a critic of Darwinism. Matt is used to being in a minority, and by taking on Darwinism he’s cementing his position as a smart person who doesn’t believe what the smart set still believes—even though discoveries in recent decades about the complexity of cells, the fine-tuning of the universe, and the information coding in and around us have kicked the legs off materialism’s dining room tables.
Here’s the first in an occasional series of essays for our Saturday publication: Materialism 101, Pt. 1, asks: What is a human being? When Matt almost three decades ago was a journalism major and editor, and I was a UT professor, one of his professors and my colleagues stopped at my office, noticed a copy of the Human Life Review, and snorted: “That’s a narrow topic for a journal.” By that she dubbed it an insignificant publication, not like Journalism Quarterly or the American Sociological Review. Please read on, because there’s no topic more important to understanding who we are, and how God made us. —Marvin Olasky
That which we call a soul remains, by any other name that scientists give it, a mystery. For even if they give it another name, they still cannot give it any tangible qualities—nothing to touch or see. So whether philosophers call it “a superseded ontology” or physicists call it “an emergent behavior” or neuroscientists call it “a single integrated entity with a repertoire of highly differentiated states,” etc., all their abstract and esoteric words are still referring to the same thing: that invisible, untouchable phenomenon summed up in the word you.
“Me?” Yes, you. What are you? Are you just a bag of bones or does someone live inside that body? Is the mind that uses your brain in fact the same thing as your brain and nothing more? It seems that no matter how hard Darwinists try, they cannot reduce you to physical stuff.
Nevertheless, that is exactly what the modern scientific establishment insists that human beings are—nothing more than gray matter. As Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the double-helix structure of DNA, put it in 1994, “‘You,’ your joys and your sorrows, your memories and ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.”1
In other words, there is nothing abstract, much less spiritual, to us. Joy and sorrow and personal identity are, literally, physical things just like fajitas are physical things. As MIT Physics Professor Max Tegmark put it in 2017, “A conscious person is simply food, rearranged.”2 Or as Harvard Psychology Professor Steven Pinker explained 10 years earlier, “Scientists have exorcised the ghost from the machine not because they are mechanistic killjoys but because they have amassed evidence that every aspect of consciousness can be tied to the brain.”3
But Pinker was still begging the question: What is consciousness? Concluding that everything that our conscious minds do is tied to the brain—that’s like concluding that everything a driver does is tied to the car. But what exactly is the driver? Answering that question without resorting to abstract, non-mechanical terms and metaphors still eludes even the brightest of minds. Regardless, Darwinists simply assume we are organic machines. As Vernon B. Mountcastle (1918-2015), former Professor Emeritus of Neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University, put it in 1998:
Few neuroscientists now take a non-naturalist position, and still fewer hold to a principled agnosticism on the mind-brain question. The vast majority believe in physical realism and in the general idea that no nonphysical agent in the universe controls or is controlled by brains. Things mental, indeed minds, are emergent properties of brains.4
Now materialism, or physicalism, the worldview which holds that the only things that exist are matter and energy, has been around since the ancient Greeks and today comes in many varieties—dialectical materialism, historical materialism, epiphenomenalistic materialism, etc. Furthermore, Darwinists try to draw distinctions between consciousness, the mind, and rational thought. Add to that the different perspectives brought by psychology, neuroscience, physics, and biology, and getting a grip on the discussion feels about as easy as trying to catch a fly with a pair of chopsticks on a windy day.
Nevertheless, the bottom line is that our universities today presuppose that we are our brains and that we will eventually discover, as a recent Scientific American article title put it, “How Matter Becomes Mind”.5 Why do universities presuppose this? Because evolutionary theory would not be able to explain anything else. As Dr. Richard Lewontin, evolutionary biology professor at Harvard University, put it:
It is trivially true that human cognition has evolved. The human species has evolved from nonhuman ancestors and, if we go back in time far enough, from one-celled organisms swimming in water. Those one-celled organisms certainly did not have human cognition, if they had cognition at all. They did not have a language, they did not decide to create a government, they did not engage in religious worship. Thus it must be that human cognition, like every other characteristic of the human species, has arisen during the continuous course of human evolution.6
Trivially true? Well, it is true that the scientific establishment has fully embraced this position. But it’s also true that they haven’t figured out a non-abstract way to explain what a human being is.
You’re a pregnant state
For example, Christof Koch, former professor of neuroscience at The California Institute of Technology and currently the president and chief scientist of the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle, explained one of the leading theories of consciousness, called Integrated Information Theory (IIT), this way: “To be conscious, then, you need to be a single, integrated entity with a large repertoire of highly differentiated states.”7 That may sound like a terribly foggy theory, and yet Koch is only getting started. He talks of a mysterious “something” that fills the universe—something which he compares to an electric charge. “It is in the air we breathe, the soil we tread on, the bacteria that colonize our intestines, and the brain that enables us to think.”8
Koch calls himself a “covert Platonist”.9 What’s a covert Platonist? It’s someone who tries to cover all their bases by covertly mixing materialism together with pan-psychism. Thus this “something” which fills the universe carries “intrinsic causal power,” and yet it is not spiritual in the classical, immaterial sense of the word.
Intrinsic causal power is not some airy-fairy ethereal notion but can be precisely evaluated for any system. The more its current state specifies its cause (its input) and its effect (its output), the more causal power it possesses. IIT stipulates that any mechanism with intrinsic power, whose state is laden with its past and pregnant with its future, is conscious.10
So … you’re not a soul (or a fairy); you’re a pregnant state. And that mind-over-matter, free-will power to cause your body to do what you want it to do? It’s intrinsic. That’s a word that we will see repeatedly as we examine materialism. We are just intrinsically, innately, naturally conscious.
That’s the same conclusion that another CalTech professor, theoretical physicist Sean Carroll, comes to. Like Koch, he stacks up several layers of abstraction in order to explain consciousness. In 2016 he wrote that it is “a complex interplay of many processes acting on multiple levels.”11 You’re not a soul; you’re an interplay of many processes. In his book, The Big Picture, he concluded that we just have to take consciousness for granted as intrinsic because some complex things “just come into being”:
Consciousness seems to be an intrinsically collective phenomenon, a way of talking about the behavior of complex systems with the capacity for representing themselves and the world within their inner states. Just because it is here full-blown in our contemporary universe doesn’t mean that there was always some trace of it from the very start. Some things just come into being as the universe evolves and entropy and complexity grow: galaxies, planets, organisms, consciousness.12
What? Just follow the grammar and try to simplify that first sentence: Consciousness seems to be a way of talking about the behavior of systems with inner states. In addition to the word intrinsic, there’s also that word state again. Is Carroll’s “inner state” one of Koch’s “highly differentiated states”? Is a state, literally, a clump of neurons inside a skull?
Well, Carroll claims there is no room in the brain for a soul to do anything which science does not already explain. But as we will see later in this series, many other scientists argue that there is not only ample room for a nonphysical/immaterial soul but also overwhelming evidence for one. For now, however, let us just observe that Carroll offers no suggestion as to what consciousness is other than “an intrinsically collective phenomenon”. He calls his worldview Poetic Naturalism.
Many Darwinists retreat to poetic metaphors when trying to articulate their worldview.
Indeed, many Darwinists retreat to poetic metaphors when trying to articulate their worldview. Dr. Alan Jasanoff, a professor of biological engineering and an associate investigator of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT, wrote a book titled The Biological Mind in which he explains scientists’ best understanding of how our bodies become conscious. Yet when it comes to articulating what the mind actually is, the very best he can do is to call it an organic prism. “Our brains are not mysterious beacons, glowing with inner radiance against a dark void,” he wrote. “Instead, they are organic prisms that refract the light of the universe back into itself.”13
You’re not a soul (or a beacon); you’re a prism.
Now perhaps you’re wondering: What about free will? If we are nothing but organic machines, then is our sense of freedom also, literally, food rearranged? Crick said that our “sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.” Is this sense of free will “real”? This question was posed to neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene and philosopher Daniel Dennett at a book-signing at The Boston Book Festival in 2015. Here was Dehaene’s answer:
Dan, I think you and I share this idea that autonomy and free will are genuine, right, in the brain? They are not going to go away with more reductionist neuroscience. I think personally that free will is just a property of the network that I was just describing, that it generates this autonomous state of matter that is self-organized or filtered according to the Darwinian principle that you described, such that it’s okay to describe this machine as having free will. It’s not just what we think usually about free will as something non-determined. It is determined by the structure of the machine, but it is genuinely autonomous. We carry it autonomously in our brains. You agree with that?14
Yes, Daniel Dennett agreed that free will is “just a property of the network,” an “autonomous state of matter that is self-organized or filtered according to [a] Darwinian principle.” There’s that word state again! You’re not a soul; you’re a property … or a state.
Philip Ball, an editor for the journal Nature and a columnist for Chemistry World, says scientists retreat to the word “state” when they don’t know what else to call something. “Yet what a horrible word ‘state’ is anyway: cold and formal while at the same time vague and deceptively pedestrian,” he writes. “We seem compelled to use it without quite knowing what we’re talking about.”15
That would suggest that a lot of these brilliant scientists actually have no idea what they’re talking about. (I didn’t say it. The editor for Nature said it.)
You can still have religion
Darwinists are acutely aware that they have no other choice but to say such things. For the alternative to presupposing materialism is nothing less than classical notions of immaterial spirituality. And since evolution could not touch spirituality (literally), materialism simply must be presupposed. As linguist Noam Chomsky put it, “Assuming that we’re organic creatures, and not angels, we have certain fixed capacities which yield the range of abilities that we have—but they impose limits as well … [Thought] is an aspect of matter, just as electrical properties are an aspect of matter.”16
You’re not a soul. You’re an aspect.
Now rejecting classical notions of spirituality certainly doesn’t preclude one from embracing religion. Remember, for example, many of the religious elite who opposed Jesus were devout Jewish teachers, called Sadducees, who passionately argued that there was no afterlife, nor any such things as souls or angels. They were materialists for whom religion was indistinguishable from politics and the aspiration for a moral authority.
No one better represents such a stance today than Kenneth R. Miller, who is both a devout Catholic and a zealous materialist. A professor of biology at Brown University and co-author of a major high school biology textbook, he has served as an expert witness in a couple of high-profile court cases arguing that intelligent design theory should not be taught as an alternative to Darwinism in public schools. Instead, Miller says that scientists must simply assume a materialistic view of humanity. In 2018 he wrote a book titled The Human Instinct (which is different from his high school biology textbook) in which he began his explanation of consciousness this way:
Let’s assume the obvious, which is that human consciousness is a product of the workings of our nervous system as it interacts with the rest of the body and with the outside world. In other words, that consciousness is a physiological function in the broadest possible sense. What that means, of course, is that consciousness, like every other human characteristic, is a product of evolution.17
The obvious? Well, if our conscious minds did not evolve as physical things through the processes of random mutation and natural selection, then evolutionary theory evaporates. “Of course,” that is unacceptable. Therefore, Professor Miller, like Chomsky and all the others, presupposes that materialism is obviously true. Nevertheless, like all the others, he resorts to abstract language to describe the mind: “Consciousness is a process generated by the hugely complex interactions of highly active cells within the brain and associated nervous tissue.”18 There’s that word process again!
If our conscious minds did not evolve as physical things through the processes of random mutation and natural selection, then evolutionary theory evaporates.
You’re not a soul; you’re a process.
Now, speaking of religion, these presuppositions are foundational not just for Darwinism but also for many moral issues. For example, if scientists presuppose that an unborn child is nothing more than an unenlightened collection of molecules, they can rationalize abortion. Likewise, if they assume that the mind is, literally, an organ, then when that organ “disagrees” with the body’s reproductive organs, they can rationalize gender transformation. When it comes to the nature of humanity, the stakes are in the exosphere.
But, again, the debate has at least as much to do with the meaning of words as with the facts of science. Did you notice in his quote at the beginning of this article that Francis Crick put the word you in quotation marks? After years of wrestling with the issues, he realized the utter futility of trying to articulate an explanation for how people could possibly be explained as “food rearranged”.
So he decided to keep the food and lose the people.
That is to say that after spending the last 20 years of his life studying theoretical neuroscience, he finally concluded that we simply need to erase the very notion of person from our vocabulary altogether. “The view of ourselves as ‘persons’ is just as erroneous as the view that the Sun goes around the Earth,” he said in an interview with The New York Times. “This sort of language will disappear in a few hundred years.”19
This conclusion might put you in a state of panic. After all, in January the U.S. Congress began replacing gender specific pronouns with gender-neutral pronouns—such as replacing father with parent and replacing sister with sibling and replacing he and she with they.20 So today it’s him and her, but if the Darwinists get their way, tomorrow it may be you. Isn't there more to you than just flesh and bones?
1. Francis Crick, The Astonishing Hypothesis (London: Simon & Schuster, 1994), 3.
2. Max Tegmark. Life 3.0: Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2017), 284-285.
3. Steven Pinker, “The Brain: The Mystery of Consciousness,” Time magazine Vol 169 No 5. January 29, 2007. http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1580394-1,00.html
4. Vernon B. Mountcastle, “Brain Science at the Century’s Ebb,” Daedalus Vol. 127, No. 2, The Brain (Spring, 1998), pp. 1-36. (The MIT Press on behalf of American Academy of Arts & Sciences) 1. (https://www.jstor.org/stable/20027489)
5. “How Matter Becomes Mind,” by Max Bertolero and Danielle Bassett. Scientific American, July 2019, Volume 320 Number 6. Pp. 26-33.
6. Richard Lewontin, “The Evolution of Cognition: Questions We Will Never Answer,” An Invitation to Cognitive Science, Volume 4, edited by Daniel N. Osherson, Don Scarborough, Saul Sternberg (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1998) 108.
7. Christof Koch, “A Complex Theory,” in Scientific American: The Secrets of Consciousness, November 18, 2013, (Kindle Locations 1310-1316).
8. Christof Koch, Consciousness (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2012), 132.
9. Christof Koch, Consciousness (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2012), 119.
10. Christof Koch, “Proust among the Machines,” Scientific American (December, 2019: Vol. 321 No 6), 49.
11. Sean Carroll, The Big Picture (New York: Dutton, 2016), 310-311.
12. IBID, 357-358.
13. Alan Jasanoff, The Biological Mind (New York: Basic Books, 2018), 170.
14. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q64daR67PGc at 43:40
15. Philip Ball, Beyond Weird: Why Everything You Knew About Quantum Physics Is Different, (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 2018), 60.
17. Kenneth R. Miller, The Human Instinct (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018), 150.
18. IBID, 168.
19. Margaret Wertheim, “SCIENTISTS AT WORK: FRANCIS CRICK AND CHRISTOF KOCH,” New York Times, April 13, 2004, https://www.nytimes.com/2004/04/13/science/scientists-work-francis-crick....
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