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Spirituality, Consciousness, God, Conscious Machines & the Atheist Mind.
CONSCIOUSNESS & SPIRITUALITY
In preparing this article, we wanted to get a sense from the studies currently going on as to where spirituality might be hiding inside our brains. And immediately realized there’s one enormous hurdle to overcome before we can objectively come to terms with these feelings of spirituality in a neurological sense. First we have to find and understand consciousness, however pedestrian and tethered to the ground that sounds in contrast. We take our consciousness for granted, it’s more or less assumed to be part of the package we are born with; but without consciousness there’s simply no perception of spirituality (or anything else) within the brain. Spirituality is like the “wings” - the atheist’s “angels” are his or her soaring inspired imaginings; but our consciousness, that part of us that makes us sentient and aware, has been one of the hardest things to pin down: What it is, how it comes about, where it resides in our mental processes. In fact, consciousness turns out to be no ho-hum subject at all, it’s the very jewel that, when polished up a bit and then a bit more, separates us from the mere objects of the universe and lower life forms such as plants, it gives us self-determination and self-awareness; degrees of consciousness and self-awareness on the other hand may be what separates living creatures into hierarchies, some of which experience spiritual feelings and most of which probably don’t.
Most people probably recognize that consciousness (and by extension, spirituality too) exists only in the brain, there’s none in any other part of the body except as it is recognized by the brain. If you are thinking now of spine-tingling Edgar Alan Poe-esque horror stories about animated and “possessed” disembodied hands searching for their owners, taking vengeance for their owners’ wrongful demise, please accept now that there is not one believable or verifiable instance of any similar thing ever happening to prove there is consciousness anywhere else in us! For example, if your little finger is cut off, that separated finger part has absolutely no consciousness of its own, even if you believed that you felt consciousness (and perhaps a “touch” of spirituality - yes, we punned again!) within it while it was attached to you. And if, as some people do after an accident which causes the loss of a digit (or other limb), you still have the sensation of that missing part of you existing there, that sensation is in your conscious mind and the correlating image your mind holds of your physical self, because it continues to believe in the existence of that “ghost” limb until your consciousness manages to accept the evidence of its demise through new experience and finally lets it fade. Even our so-called subconscious awareness enters through our conscious minds although below a level of attention or deliberate awareness. Perhaps this is where our so-called intuitions come from, those observations we don’t even know we are making that our brains have processed without us even being aware of it.
We can therefore pretty much assert without risking contradiction that without consciousness, without our higher level brain functioning, we would not be aware of, or be able to discuss, an abstract concept like spirituality. And certainly not have imagined or invented the various deities which so often inhabit the spiritual world of non-atheists, not God, nor Santa Claus, Jesus, White Buffalo, Hobbits, leprechauns, goblins, witches, djinn, faeries, golem, Buddha, Mohammed, Yahweh, Allah, Siva, Seti, nothing! We might as well be plants or fungi, which although they react in a limited way to various stimuli, can’t foresee and recognize trouble bearing down on them and - even if they weren’t anchored to the ground by roots - get out of the way. They have no memory as we think of it other than perhaps of a rudimentary intracellular nature that responds to sun and moisture and heat and cold, and certainly no ability to extrapolate what the future might hold, they are simply not conscious in any way we would conceive of. Yet although we are able to do all these things, thanks to our consciousness, amazingly as yet we still have little idea of how it comes naturally to us but not to plants or rocks, it is perhaps more mysterious than spirituality itself.
I. BEGINNINGS OF RESEARCH INTO CONSCIOUSNESS IN THE HUMAN MIND:
In searching for human consciousness (and thence spirituality), we have to crawl inside the very workings of the mind. Imperfect though their tools were, people were searching for these phenomena long ago. Early philosophical manuscripts exist from centuries ago and (in historical terms, more recently) psychological texts about the effects of brain disease, brain injury , and more recently, of neurochemical transmitter imbalances and their effects upon personality and mental states. In earlier days, and sadly sometimes even today, people with certain types of mental disturbances believed they were specially chosen and that they alone controlled certain mystical and metaphysical powers and abilities and claimed to be receiving messages directly from God - or perhaps the Devil.
Thus it’s hardly surprising, that given the mindset of so many communities and all the ignorant people around, research into the brain was treated with suspicion and left alone by serious scientists.
Then all that changed, a little over a decade ago. The Good Sir Francis of Crick, he of the Nobel Prize for being one of the original discoverers of the structure of DNA, proclaimed the idea of using a scientific approach to examine the thinking process. Had this idea come from anyone with less credibility, it might have withered away there and then. But Crick was never inclined to show false modesty or self-doubt, he had become a star in the world of scientific research since his and James D. Watson’s 1960's collaboration in defining the structure of DNA, and in President (“Dubya”) Bush-style politico-speech, he had ‘capital.’ He drew on that capital to insist that it was time to examine the mechanisms that make us thinking individuals, to look for that quality we call “consciousness.” In “The Astonishing Hypothesis,” his 1994 book, he announced: “You, your joys and your sorrows - your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.” Plainly his thesis is that consciousness is a biological process alone. Whether others agreed or not, with his interest he succeeded in making it suddenly respectable for scientists to begin conducting empirical research into the source of our self-awareness.
By cracking open that door, Crick also opened it for the faithful worriers to squeeze through first; they wanted to make sure they planted god securely in the human mind. Galvanized by fear that such research might reveal the soul to be just the result of hardwired neurological interactions, these true believers and “intelligent design” theorists rushed the door. They rounded up and cranked up their own “scientists” and set them to trying to prove that there really was a god behind that “ghost in the machine.” Using modern scientific tools, they actually managed to discover interesting things about the thinking mind, but then in writing their analyses, reverted to old habits and warped (they say “interpreted”) their findings through their prejudiced religious filters with sweeping pronouncements that had no scientific basis whatsoever.
We include these studies anyway because they are instructive and at their hearts have useful data, but we totally reject the religious twaddle, like the giddily breathless claims about finding “God genes,” the blithely dubious assumptions and reverentially inane inferences drawn from faulty deductive reasoning, revealed in questions like : “Why else was such a part put in the brain if it wasn’t put there by God to be able to appreciate him?” Thus we feel compelled to observe: Maybe that God-appreciating part got left out of our atheist brains, or maybe we are using it for some more realistic and useful purpose, or maybe, just maybe we became immune or developed hypocrisy filters to all that religious psychobabble. And maybe, just maybe, we evolved to having something extra in our brains which enables us to see through it all.
Although we’re fairly certain Crick the scientist was motivated by scientific curiosity, we wondered if there might also be a scintilla of desire on his part to catalyze another scientific shakeup, something to bookend the tremors he and Watson caused with that earlier discovery of the structure of DNA. Doubtless, though, his timing also had much to do with the amazing equipment just then coming into use, functional magnetic resonance imaging, positron emission tomography, SPECT scanning machines, for example, and not to mention computers capable of downloading and analyzing this data. Before all this wonderful equipment was designed and invented, living brain studies might as well have been back in the Stone Age of the industrialized era, they happened only as side opportunities on persons undergoing dangerous brain surgery for other reasons, hardly an ideal way to learn about the living brain’s functioning. But with this new equipment we can actually record living and reasonably normal brains in action, complete with a subtext disclaimer: “NO LIVING PERSON WAS HARMED IN THE COURSE OF THESE STUDIES.” We can now get actual readouts which are less subject to innate prejudices, and in their readout format, they give us results that are fairly pure. We wrestle with this recent data to find what it actually means and whether it really tells us what consciousness is.
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