Science and the Enigma of Consciousness–Part 3 on John Polkinghorne

John Polkinghorne has a higher view of science than most scientists. He sees science not merely as a technique for understanding the physical world, but as the preeminent example of our human capacity for understanding.

Polkinghorne perceives a remarkable interplay between the human race and the rest of the created order—a dance in which humans seek ever-deeper knowledge, and the universe proves accessible to our seeking. It is not a given that humans would indulge themselves in this search, or that they would experience any degree of success.  We might, like all the other creatures, be without notable curiosity beyond what we need for survival; we might be curious and yet lack the capacity to go beneath the surface; and the universe might be mute, random, and impenetrable. The success of science is thus a reason for wonder, and (to those who believe in God) for praise. So this is who we are, and this is the world we live in!

For all his love of science, Polkinghorne does not see it as the last word (or heaven help us, the only word) in our search for understanding. In my previous post I pointed out that science has little or nothing to say about beauty, art, ethical behavior, or the practice of science. These are fundamental to our nature (and, as Polkinghorne notes, fundamental to the practice of science) but science knows almost nothing about them.

There is a habit of mind that treats such matters as froth. The Real Stuff, by this way of thinking, is matter and energy. What cannot be measured, tested, and replicated is like bubbles on champagne—appealing, ephemeral and non-essential. I suspect every one of us has been infected by this habit of thinking. Even we English majors are tempted by the thought that Shakespeare was a pretty writer but Einstein probed the depths of reality.

Polkinghorne sees that this is bunk. And nowhere does he point it out more clearly than when he writes about consciousness.

“It is a remarkable fact that our minds have proved capable not just of coping with everyday experience but also of penetrating the secrets of the subatomic world…. Yet where in that world described by science can we locate the mind itself? ….  There is an ugly big ditch yawning between scientific accounts of the firings of neural networks, however sophisticated such talk may be, and the simplest mental experience of perceiving a patch of pink.” [Beyond Science, p. 53]

Our awareness of pink—our consciousness of ourselves and our environment—is the most obvious and fundamental fact of our existence, says Polkinghorne. So are our awareness of making choices, our knowledge of our own beliefs, our experience of pain or pleasure, our perception of color or form or music. These are mental events that every child knows intimately. Yet they remain beyond the realm of science, simply because they are inherently wrapped in the individual’s experience. We may agree that cutting ourselves is painful, but we really have no way to share pain or to know whether the pain we feel is the same as the pain others feel. There is no object called pain, only my pain. Consciousness cannot be objectified.

Polkinghorne’s point is that science simply does not have the tools to explore a vast domain of obvious and fundamental reality. It is as though we were explorers who had traveled to the most remote parts of the world but lived next door to an off-limits park—familiar because we see into it every day, but nonetheless impenetrable and unmapped. The self-conscious scientist, meditating, deciding, experimenting, daring, loving his subject, makes sense of the physical universe—but he cannot by the same techniques make sense of what he himself is doing, feeling and thinking.

Much to his credit, Polkinghorne is not willing to throw consciousness in a bin labeled “impenetrable” and forget about it. He insists that any comprehensive account of the universe must put these obvious and essential aspects of daily life in a prominent place—especially so because they are so closely tied to our capacity to know anything.

“An account of reality without a proper account of mind would be pitifully inadequate.” [Beyond Science, 72] That is what concerns Polkinghorne—an account of reality. Science, more than any other field, has contributed to it. But the larger project takes us beyond science. “We have to be realistic enough, and humble enough, to recognize that much of what is needed for eventual understanding is beyond our present grasp.” [73] “It would have been impossible to understand superconductivity without the revolutionary discoveries of quantum theory, which so substantially modified the Newtonian account of what matter is like. Consciousness is surely a much more profound phenomenon than superconductivity and its understanding may be expected to call for correspondingly much more radical revision of contemporary thought.” [65]

Polkinghorne is thoughtfully dismissive of attempts to account for consciousness through materialist explanations. He thinks using computer processing as an analogy is hopeless. (Where, in these accounts, is the programmer?) He doubts that evolution fully accounts for the mind, since it is not clear that consciousness has any survival value, and at any rate it is very hard to account for the survival value of, say, music, or quantum mechanics. “Our scientific, aesthetic, moral and spiritual powers greatly exceed what can convincingly be claimed to be needed in the struggle for survival, and to regard them as merely a fortunate but fortuitous by-product of that struggle is not to treat the mystery of their existence with adequate seriousness.” [Beyond Science, 64]

At the same time, he believes that our bodies—our brains, our synapses, our neural networks—are intrinsically involved in thinking. Given what we know about the genetic basis of mental illness, the effect of mind-altering drugs, the bizarre effects of brain damage, we can hardly think of the mind as a substance sitting on top of the brain. The mind must be in the brain, even while the brain does not begin to explain the mind. Polkinghorne speculates, in very general terms, how we might integrate our understanding though what he calls “a dual-aspect monism.” By this he means something like the wave/particle aspects of light—two coexisting modes of a single substance. But Polkinghorne admits that he can offer no more than a glimmer of understanding.

Even when thinking “beyond science,” Polkinghorne remains a scientist—hopeful that by working together we can someday understand what seems impenetrable. Knowledge is not a matter of opinion. We reach it together, as a human community. To do that, however, will require more than science as we know it.


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One Response to “Science and the Enigma of Consciousness–Part 3 on John Polkinghorne”

  1. Paul Vander Klay Says:

    Again, a lovely summary. Thank you so much for taking the time to do this and for sharing it with us. Blogging is often rather quiet, but don’t confuse quiet for unimportant.

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