Mind and Cosmos – Thomas Nagel – Part 1

I do not often feel sorry for the authors of books I read. Indeed, to have a book published is a fine thing. And Thomas Nagel is a Professor at the University of New York, while I’m just a humble blogger. But, as I read it, I did feel sorry for him. Because to challenge the current scientific view without straying into theology is hard,  very hard. He makes a good effort but it doesn’t altogether come off.

Because Professor Nagel has one serious problem and that is a lack of faith. Obviously, as an atheist, he lacks faith in God. Early on in the book he states:

…theism – which is to be rejected as a mere projection of our internal self-conception onto the universe, without evidence.

But he also lacks a faith in science. Now, faith in God and faith in science are very different things. What I mean by faith in science is an understanding that, even if we don’t understand how things work now, this doesn’t mean that we won’t in the future. Early on in the 20th century the prevailing view was that almost everything scientific was known, or soon would be. More than a century later we wouldn’t dream of thinking such a thing. This is especially true in the study of the brain. Until fairly late on in the 20th century the only way to see inside the brain was to cut it open. Now we have imaging techniques which allow us to see what the brain is doing in a general way but these are far from perfect. Nagel’s view is, because we have no scientific explanation for how the physical workings of the brain translate into actual thoughts, ideas and awareness (consciousness) it is not possible that there can be one.

I don’t agree. You are reading this page on a screen made of millions of individual points of light. The information is held on a database on a huge server somewhere in the world. Yet it (hopefully) makes sense to you. This is called emergence. The ideas and words emerge, not just from the technology but also from our understanding of language. So, out of this strange collection of squiggles on the screen your mind can make sense of what I am trying to say. In a way that we don’t yet understand the collection of nerves, electrical and chemical impulses that happen inside our brain organize themselves and emerge into what we call consciousness. But let’s start with something simpler…

sandcastleImagine you walk onto a beach. You see this sandcastle. Now the sandcastle has clearly emerged from the sand around it. It is made of the same stuff. You don’t think: ‘Oh someone brought it from their car and put it there’. But neither could you think: ‘This is something that happened by chance’. It is fairly obvious that an external force, probably in the form of a child with a bucket and spade, came and forced the emergence of the sandcastle from the beach. Even a natural sandy object, such as a dune, is formed by wind and sea. So there has to be external influence for emergence to happen.

In the human mind we start with the genetic code. This amazing blueprint starts us off and lays the outline of who we are. But then, of course we have our nine senses. Now, until just over a year ago, I thought we only had 5 and I’m forever in the debt of The Rev. Shaun Lambert for pointing out the extra four. Altogether, they are:

  1. Sight
  2. Hearing
  3. Taste
  4. Touch
  5. Smell
  6. The awareness of inside our own body.
  7. The awareness of our own thoughts
  8. The awareness of the awareness of our own thoughts
  9. The sense of the presence of God.

Number 6 is fairly obvious. I’m sitting here thinking that I might want to go and visit the loo (that’s the bathroom to everyone on the other side of the Atlantic). If this feeling becomes strong enough I will get up and walk down the corridor. This sense is not always reliable. I can fool myself into thinking I’m hungry quite easily. Sportsmen and dancers develop this sense to an extraordinary degree.

Number 7 is also quite easy. We are aware of our own thoughts. Mostly we ‘hear’ them as a verbal stream. My best and most creative thoughts are usually pictures or diagrams and I can ‘see’  these ideas and reproduce them in the outside world. Each one of us can do this in different way because we can ‘sense’ our own thoughts.

Sense number 8 is an awareness of our awareness. This is a bit like listening in on a conversation. I’ll give you an example:

A few weeks ago I felt I had far too much to do at work. Then I had an e-mail asking (well telling) me to do some more things. At this point I got quite annoyed and started an internal stream of thought telling myself that I could not do any more and he needed to stop being so bossy. I was aware of all of this using sense 7. This went on for a while. Then sense number 8 began to become aware of this stream. It looked at these thoughts and found them childish and petty. This dampened down my annoyance enough to give me time to think that my manager was also under pressure and was generally a reasonable person and I needed to find a way to resolve this without making the problem worse.

This is clearly a good outcome but it can easily go the other way. Naturally, we tend to think our own thoughts are reasonable and our awareness of them will reinforce this. Sense 8 is not always good at distinguishing between healthy, positive thoughts and thoughts which will damage us. Which brings us to..

Sense 9: The awareness of the presence of God. I would say that almost all human beings have this sense, otherwise how would we know the difference between beauty and ugliness? Unless the ugliness threatened us in some way it would all be just the same. Just as there are people who lack the sense of sight or hearing there will be people who literally cannot sense God. But, I suspect, this is fairly rare. From time to time those of us who have faith have a pure sense of God, unconnected with anything else but He seems to work most effectively with Sense 8. St Paul puts in very well:

We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.

2 Corinthians 10:5

Because, of course, God must be invited into our thoughts, just as we must open our eyes to see.

So, how does this work? How do we take captive our thoughts? I’ve drawn the diagram below to try and explain.

Thoughts

The black line is the outside of our mind. The gaps are where our senses meet the outside world. The coloured areas are the parts of our brain which interpret these experiences. The blue arrows represent the process going on in the everyday story earlier in this blog. I see (by reading e-mails)  and hear instructions to do certain tasks. These trigger certain thoughts which borrow the hearing interpretation area to become a verbal stream. I then become aware of these thoughts and invite God in by prayer to help me resolve the situation. The awareness of God influences this self awareness to bring me to a slightly different outcome from that which I would have reached on my own. This outcome is then sent back to the hearing interpretation area to become another verbal stream which becomes part of the conversation I have with my manager.

So consciousness emerges from the input of all these senses working on the substance of the brain. The only mystery in all of this is how we ‘hear’ God. Nagel suggests that matter, all matter has a protomental aspect. This is fairly close to Lewis’ idea that all matter is somewhere between the purely physical and the divine, that we are (to quote Lewis again) half Angel, half animal.

And these are not just philosophical ideas. Modern brain imaging techniques allow us to see different parts of the brain working as we think. And, as shown in ‘How God Changes your Brain’ (see previous blog post) faith in God really does change the structure of your brain, grows and shrinks different parts. And this awareness of God makes us aware of certain values outside our own needs and desires. Which brings us very neatly to the final part of Professor Nagel’s book. But I’m going finish this post now and leave that discussion for the next one.

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Some more useful reading:

A (fairly) easy book about how the brain works:

‘A Users Guide to the Brain’ – John Ratey

Still the best book about ordinary people’s experiences of God (unless you know better) is:

‘The Varieties of Religious Experience’ – William James

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