November 11, 2013

Human Consciousness and the Transcendental Argument

I was watching a video earlier in the week featuring Alvin Plantinga (which is always a pleasure). In it, he constructs an argument as to why he believes that the human consciousness exists. Unsurprisingly it is a modal based argument, but I'll attempt to summarize as best I can (Please refer to the above link if you think what I said doesn't make any sense).

His basic point is that one's consciousness is distinct from one's body. The fundamental premise of the argument is that if A is the same as B, and what is true for A is true for B. Likewise, if something can be shown to be true for A and shown to be not true for B, then this proves that A and B are not the same thing. He does this by way of the property of existence. Naturally, if A can exist while B doesn't, than A is different than B. This doesn't include a corpse, since one could argue that a corpse isn't really a body anymore. However, it does seem possible to have one's mind within a different body. He uses the example of a story where a man wakes up one morning to find himself in a beetle's body. This seems to be a perfectly feasible world to him.

All of that said, I think the example of the beetle actually undermines his point. He isn't really saying that there exists a possible world where someone can go to bed as a human and just wake up as a beetle, but because this is so fantastic, it is difficult to accept his point of it being a possible world.

I think a better allegory would be the transference of one's mind into either a computer or another's brain. If the naturalist is correct in terms of the nature of our consciousness, that is that it is essentially a really sophisticated computer program, then it should be perfectly feasible to download that program into a computer, assuming sufficient memory, computational abilities, and that the program was translated into a language the computer can read. However, if this is true, then my consciousness can exist apart from my body and is not simply reducible to my brain.

This got me thinking again about the transcendental argument. This argument is as follows:

  • Naturalism believes that there exists nothing that transcends physical reality (N -> ~t)
  • There exists some object t which transcends physical reality (t)
  • Therefore Naturalism is false (~N)
We can refer to many possible object "t"s as transcendentals. Many such instances have been suggested, including math, logic and morality. I also suggested information and thoughts as a transcendental some months back.

Now I believe that Plantinga's argument enhances my point about thoughts being a transcendental, especially since it would move it beyond mere thoughts to specifically consciousness itself. After all, Plantinga's intention is to demonstrate the logical possibility of the soul, and the soul is the ultimately what the transcendental is trying to demonstrate to begin with: the existence of the ultimate soul, God. Once one establishes the possible existence of the mind apart from the body, then the possible existence of a mind with no body at all becomes obvious.

A comparison of the mind/consciousness to a transferable program has another important philosophical ramification as well: the need of the body. All information requires a medium to influence the physical word. I may have a mediumless thought in my own mind, but in order for me to but that thought out into the world, it requires some kind of physical medium. An algorithm after all is not tied to a computer, but needs a computer for it to be executed. Likewise, our minds may require a physical medium to be present in the physical world, and rather than our minds being reducible to our brains, it is better to think of our brains as such a medium.

Indeed, I have often found it strange, upon historical reflection, when an atheist claims that our minds relationship to our brains disproves the biblical account of the soul. However, in ancient Mesopotamia which the the context of the ancient Hebrews, it was believed that the soul was part of the heart. While the Hebrews connected our consciousness to the wrong organ, they still connected it to an organ. Thus such a relationship is perfectly consistent with the Hebraic understanding of the soul (anatomy? No. Soul? Yes).

In conclusion, I think that the Transcendental Argument is a powerful argument for the Christian, and recognizing that one can demonstrate the reasonableness of a belief in the soul strengthens the argument even more. 


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Chandra Lawrie said...

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