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Cutting Edge

Cutting Edge

Gregory Farrelly FAITH MAGAZINE - March-April 2014

Science and Religion News

Consciousness and the Self

There is a belief among many atheist scientists that self-consciousness, and indeed the concept of the self, is completely explicable in materialist terms; that this is yet another nail in the coffin of theistic belief. Christian doctrine holds that the self results from the divinely created, spiritual, individually distinguished soul. Self-consciousness, of course, will involve physiological and psychological factors and any insights into these will be welcome. We believe that we are still “ourselves”, so to speak, even when unconscious, and that our “selves” continue after death.

''The self and self-consciousness are, of course, not identical. When we are anaesthetised we are not conscious, yet we are still ourselves.''

In the journal Physics of Life Reviews, Stuart Hameroff and Sir Roger Penrose suggest that quantum vibrational computations in microtubules (components of a cell’s structure) are “orchestrated” by synaptic inputs and memory, and terminated by “objective reduction”. Consciousness results from fine-scale activities inside the brain’s neurons. This “orchestrated objective reduction” has received corroboration from a research group in Japan, confirming a “proto-conscious” quantum structure of reality.1 In their paper Hameroff and Penrose write:

In our model, quantum coherence emerges, and is isolated, in brain microtubules until the differences in mass-energy distribution among superpositioned tubulin states reach a threshold related to quantum gravity. The resultant self-collapse, irreversible in time, creates an instantaneous “now” event. Sequences of such events create a flow of time, and consciousness.2

Essentially, they are arguing that a detailed working out of quantum mechanics pertaining to the microtubules could explain our “unitary” sense of self-consciousness.

Susan Greenfield, a professor of pharmacology at Oxford University, holds that the mind consists of the physical connections between neurons, evolving slowly and influenced by our past experiences. This “explains” why each brain is unique. She believes that consciousness is an emergent property of the brain, like the “wetness” of water, the result of molecular interactions.

The self and self-consciousness are, of course, not identical. When we are anaesthetised we are not conscious, yet we are still ourselves. What’s needed is an over-arching philosophical perspective that can account for the human self as a coherent being within the universe, linked to matter, yet not determined by it. In Fr Edward Holloway’s system, mind is that which controls and directs; matter is that which is controlled and directed.

By contrast, the views outlined above seem to ignore centuries of well argued, admittedly sometimes contradictory, explanations of being and reality from philosophy, particularly epistemology (theory of knowledge) and metaphysics (theory of being). While scientific theories can (usually) be tested by experiment and/or observation, philosophical theories are tested by their self-coherence and their conformity with reality. The idea of a sort of “emergence” of complexity, self-consciousness etc, whether described by quantum physics or not, invites the question why the universe allows such self-development, such self-complexification. There is a fundamental distinction between the self as a philosophical reality and self-consciousness as describable by biochemical (and quantum) science.

Questions relating to our free will and its impairment are important, so this sort of research should spur on Catholic scientists involved in neurobiology, and Catholic philosophers/theologians, to enter into a constructive debate with scientists such as Penrose and Hameroff. Both sides need to display humility and a willingness to study what may be foreign to them. Catholic philosophers and theologians must familiarise themselves with current scientific thinking through serious study, and not just settle for a nodding acquaintance with some scientific ideas. For their part, scientists should humbly accept that it may be worth reading what philosophers and theologians have had to say about things such as reality and self-consciousness, accepting that these are philosophical ratherthan purely physical principles.

The Catholic physicist and philosopher Dominique Lambert offers some illuminating considerations:3

Many, many great scientists are writing books on their activities, but books which are in fact philosophical works…Science produces metaphysical questions and, in fact, great scientists tend to solve these problems… The problem is to believe that these solutions belong to science, or to believe that a philosophical solution is given immediately by science. It’s not true. We cannot say biology leads to atheism because we cannot extract from science something that is not scientific. But we can say, for example, that a religious, theological point of view can illuminate scientific research and can help to extract some coherent meaning… In the Catholic Church, we have a theology of creation whose point of view … gives to evolution an additional meaning which is not directly present in thescientific research, but that scientific research is coherent with this point of view.

Printing Cells

As outlined in the previous Cutting Edge column (Jan/Feb 2014), 3D printing of cells offers impressive possibilities for medical treatments and research. In the journal Biofabrication (Vol 6, No 1), Barbara Lorber, Wen-Kai Hsiao, Ian M Hutchings and Keith R Martin outline a technique for printing new eye cells that could be used to treat sight loss. A “proof of principle” work was carried out using animal cells, though more tests are needed before human trials can begin.


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