Re: Consciousness

From: Howard J. Van Till (
Date: Thu Nov 15 2001 - 10:01:04 EST

  • Next message: John W Burgeson: "Fw: Re: Consciousness"

    >From: John W Burgeson <

    > The question posed is this: "Is consciousness real?"
    > The philosopher Michael Polanyi posits the reality of consciousness, and
    > advocates its ontological irreducibility to physics and chemistry by
    > appeal to the concepts of emergence, boundary conditions and the like.
    > And the physicist-clergyman Polkinghorne asked this question, "If
    > chemistry is physics writ large, can we be as sure that biology is
    > chemistry writ large."
    > The question of consciousness then follows; "Is consciousness biology
    > writ large?"
    > While there are certainly orthodox Christian theologians who would answer
    > Polkinghorne's question with a "yes," Van Till being one, I believe, I am
    > not aware of any that would assent to the second question. It would
    > appear that the atheistic community, represented in this case by Dawkins
    > and Weinberg, would assert a "yes" to both questions.
    > My own view is that both questions deserve a "no" answer, or at the very
    > least, the first is "probably no" and the second an "absolutely no."

    1. Is chemistry physics writ large?

    2. Is biology chemistry writ large?

    3. Is consciousness biology writ large?

    I suppose I could become comfortable with the answers, "Yes, yes, & yes."
    But only if the meanings of physics, chemistry and biology were taken to be
    something more than portions of the scientific enterprise. What I would take
    each of these terms to signify is a portion of the Creation's "operational
    economy" (defined in a manner similar to what I call the universe's
    "formational economy") that roughly corresponds to the interests and
    competencies associated with the scientific disciplines of the same name.
    With that understanding, "physics," "chemistry," "biology," and
    "consciousness" each represent some portion or aspect of the Creation's
    "being" -- what the Creation is and what it can do. In the order listed,
    each represents something more inclusive than the category preceding it.

    But perhaps it would be more fruitful to reverse the order of comparisons
    and ask,

    4. Is biology consciousness writ small?

    5. Is chemistry biology writ small?

    6. Is physics chemistry writ small? (Ouch! That was difficult for a
    physicist to write :-)

    Back to Burgy's original question: Is consciousness real?

    Yes, Burgy, mine is. How about yours?

    Each of us knows (by experience) consciousness long before we know biology.
    In time, however, we learn that our experience of consciousness requires a
    lot of "biology" (in the sense noted above).

    As we come to know more about the Creation's biology we learn that it
    requires a lot of "chemistry" (in the sense noted above).

    As we come to know more about the Creation's chemistry we learn that it
    requires a lot of "physics" (in the sense noted above).

    Perhaps this ordering and this way of looking at things avoids the extreme
    reductionism (or "nothing buttery") of "consciousness is nothing but
    biology," "biology is nothing but chemistry," "chemistry is nothing but
    physics," and "the universe is nothing but matter."

    Howard Van Till

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