"Religion is a hypothesis about the world: the hypothesis that things are the way they are, at least in part, because of supernatural entities or forces acting on the natural world. And there's no good reason to treat it any differently from any other hypothesis. Which includes pointing out its flaws and inconsistencies, asking its adherents to back it up with solid evidence, making jokes about it when it's just being silly, offering arguments and evidence for our own competing hypotheses...and trying to persuade people out of it if we think it's mistaken. It's persuasion. It's the marketplace of ideas. Why should religion get a free ride"

Greta Christina

Saturday, 26 April 2014

On "The Experience of God" by David Bentley Hart: Part 2 of 3

Prompted by Jerry Coyne’s critiques of David Bentley Hart’s latest book The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss I have bought my own copy as it is apparently the latest sophisticated argument for God that atheists now have to refute in order to qualify for the right to an opinion on the subject and so I have decided to post my own thoughts on this latest ‘best argument for God’.
As Hart’s sub-title implies the book is split into three divisions; Being (the existential question, essentially the cosmological argument), consciousness (or why the “hard problem” of consciousness points to God) and Bliss (The experiential evidence). I intend this to be a series of three posts addressing each in turn so today’s is Consciousness

One would expect that when somebody explicitly denies that they are making an argument from personal incredulity that the substance of what then follows would be something other. Hart does make this claim but unfortunately it is difficult to see his problem with a materialistic view of consciousness as anything but an appeal to complexity and ignorance. For Hart the subjective experience of consciousness seems way too tenuous to be pinned down to the mechanism of the brain and he simply does not believe that neuroscience will ever bridge the quantitative – qualitative gap between a firing neuron and his personal experience of a red rose.
Much of Hart’s issue is that he denies the possibility of emergence the process by which complex systems can arise from large numbers of simple interactions. In the book’s introductory section he suggests that such emergent systems are never seen although, in fact, physics recognises the phenomena at fundamental levels. A wave, for example, is an emergent structure independent of the substrate on which it travels. In a liquid it is explained by the vertical movement of molecules but is described by a mathematical function that is equally applicable to quantum mechanics, in other words a wave is qualitatively different from the components it is made from. In the same way it is reasonable to assume that consciousness could emerge from sufficient numbers of unconscious interactions in the brain or indeed any sufficiently complex information processing structure. Physicist Max Tegmark characterises consciousness as “[…] the way information feels when being processed in certain complex ways” and in Consciousness Explained philosopher Daniel Dennett suggests that it arises from the parallel and reflexive processing of information by the brain.
The jury is far from out on this and neuroscience in its infancy is still taking the commensurate baby steps towards an understanding of consciousness (and the related question of whether or not we have free will) but to suggest it is forever insoluble is premature. For Hart the ”hard problem” becomes easy as his Platonic view of the world allows for the redness of his red rose to have an ideal existence of its own as a qualia available to augment the mere physical presence of the flower and inform a metaphysical consciousness but the paucity of such a view, even if ultimately proved correct, would put an end to the adventure of research into the subject. By discounting the concept of emergence, even though it can be clearly demonstrated to occur, Hart is biasing his argument in favour of a top down teleological view of consciousness and perception that he offers the materialist no reason to accept bar allowing for the supernatural.
”What makes the question of consciousness so intractable to us today, and hence so fertile a source for confusion and dashingly delirious invention, is not so much the magnitude of the logical problem as our inflexible and imaginatively constrained loyalty to a particular ontology and a particular conception of nature. Materialism, mechanism: neither is especially hospitable to a coherent theory of mind. This being so, the wise course might be to reconsider our commitment to our metaphysics”
By this light the results of all scientific enquiry would boil down to “Goddidit!” and render further effort futile.
On the subject of free will Hart is very quick to trivialise, if not outright ridicule, the work of Benjamin Libet who was the first to conduct experiments that suggest the intention to perform an action, as measured by observing the readiness potential in the brain, precedes consciousness of the intent by some 200ms or so which implies that free will may well be illusory and that our decisions are made at an unconscious level. But his criticism is merely a restatement of his conviction that materialism is a flawed philosophy per se which to my mind is just as pre-suppositional and unnecessary as plenty of materialist philosophers would still argue for free will even if it is not the ‘magical’ free will that Hart, presumably, desires.
Using an extension of Alvin Plantinga’s evolutionary argument against naturalism Hart also asserts that it would be impossible for a purely material mind capable of abstract thought to evolve as there would be no natural selection for such an ability. However this is to ignore (as does Plantinga) the fact that features selected for one advantage can become co-opted for another. Abstract reasoning (and even a coherent sense of self) may well be the result of selection for language ability. The capacity for expressing higher order intentionality, the ability to form “what if?” scenarios to plan for imagined hazards and the sharing of strategies were once adaptive advantages that may have required a brain complex enough to accommodate abstract concepts. In short all of the qualities of mind that Hart believes are too difficult to evolve and impossible to understand via naturalism could well be spandrels, by products of features favoured by evolution for other reasons.
The least convincing contention in this chapter is the idea that pure reason is incompatible with a materialist view of consciousness. But, given that we live in a universe that, whether for magical or natural reasons, is comprehensible it would be expected that brains would evolve to comprehend it. The ability to deduce logically is merely an extension of observation and categorisation of the world we inhabit. Hart finally flogs his red rose metaphor to death at this point by suggesting the syllogism “all of the roses in my garden are red, I am observing a rose in my garden, therefore the rose I am observing is red” must require some kind of mystical preternatural knowledge of categories such a rose , red, garden etc. and awareness of categories of rose that aren’t red and plants that aren’t roses. I really hope I am not straw manning his point here (this is one of his more obtuse segments) but all of this seems either experiential (we have learned what constitutes a rose that is red) or linguistic (regardless of whether we know the objects the syntax makes sense: all of the blibblies in my wibbly are flibbly, I am observing a blibbly in my wibbly, therefor the blibbly I am observing is flibbly) and requires nothing transcendental that I can see.
As with his chapters on being Hart’s quest for the spiritual in consciousness lay less in a strong case for God and more in a weak rebuttal of naturalism which is only an irrational philosophy if you accept a priori Hart’s ontological assumptions and incredulity of emergent phenomena. Again, Hart may be correct; his is not a falsifiable assertion as we can always maintain that purely naturalist explanations for consciousness are just around the corner although an atheism of the gaps philosophy is no better than the more commonly heard theistic trope. But he still fails to provide any evidence for theistic gods worthy of petition or worship on the basis of consciousness. Perhaps he will fare better with bliss.


  1. Very good read. I have never had much interest in the god or no god debate, I'm all about can meat think, which it clearly can, and, given Libet plus common sense, free will is an illusion. I have a dog and from him have learnt we are very similar in how our minds work. Emotional response is fascinating, serotonin stretching back in to quite primitive creatures. Kandel also interests me finding memory in sea slugs. Here is where i struggle with humanists. I feel they have taken darwin who aligned us with the other animals and missed this point, perhaps his greatest thought, that we are animals. A dog acts then may suffer trying to understand his actions, and this is how it is with humans. We do, then construct a narrative to support our actions. Libet.

    1. I agree. My intuition is that free will is an illusion. Despite my enjoyment of Dan dennett's work he is trying to defend the indefensible. Either Hart is correct, and he may be, in which case free will is magical or he is wrong and free will cannot be real.
      Interesting allusion to humanism you make; do you think humanism is antithetical to the idea that we are contiguous with other species?