Religion and “Consciousness” Apathy

Abstraction SpectrumAbstract words help us talk quickly and simply — well, unless we disagree on their meaning. At times like that, we can see that the abstract words are contrived. “Consciousness” is just such a contrived word — especially if we take a stance like this: “Well, it is a word, so it must exist. So now we just have to discover what it is.”

Ned Block (b. 1942), a philosophy of mind professor once at MIT and now at NYU is interviewed in this 5/18/2015 post at Scientia Salon.

Block calls “consciousness” a “mongrel concept” because of its many different, easily conflated meanings and thus requiring careful distinctions between these meanings to make any conceptual advances.

I have said the same about other highly abstract words including “faith” and “religion”. In my post on “The Myth of Definitions” I suggested that the first step to making cognitive progress on disagreed abstractions is to agree on the various meanings, and then to add an adjective to the abstract word to distinguish these meanings.

Using adjectives, Block wants to introduce three fundamentally different sense of consciousness:

(1) Phenomenal Consciousness: the internal experience of a sensation — obviously shared with other animals. Requiring no language.

(2) Monitoring Consciousness: Awareness of self and our own thoughts and pains and perceptions.

(3) Access Consciousness: When our cognitive systems reflect upon phenomenal consciousness. Other animals can do this too.

OK, I did not enjoy the article, because I don’t really enjoy the topic. It is too hard for me. And I can’t see why I should care about it.  Perhaps my meditative experiences are what occasionally draw me back to such articles — a desire to think about the complexity of mind.  But inevitably, on reading them, I quickly return to my state of apathy for the philosophy of consciousness.

Sure, I have a few opinions about consciousness: I am certain that we hugely exaggerate how conscious we think we are — we exaggerate our Access Consciousness (using Block’s term). But that one supplement to the normal view of consciousness is about all I feel I need for now– unless someone can show me how the other concepts should matter to me.

So why do this post?  Well, I think many people treat religion and certainly religious words the same way I treat consciousness:

I have friends who believe in “God” but don’t care about the details because the idea of life after death or a need to be good is enough for them. Likewise, I know religion-free folks who don’t care about the Bible or the Qur’an arguments, because it is so obviously clear to them that there is no loving, controlling, miracle working super spirit. So they don’t care to get into all the other abstractions and minutia.

Question to readers: Do you see why I have written about consciousness here?  Do you care?



Filed under Philosophy & Religion

15 responses to “Religion and “Consciousness” Apathy

  1. Do you see why I have written about consciousness here?

    I’m not quite sure. But I’m guessing it is similar to why I stopped reading that Scientia Salon post about halfway through.

    Do you care?


  2. I think you wrote about it because it intrigues (and troubles) you. I do care. Epistemological questions are always important questions.

  3. I’ve only ever tried to take two philosophy courses. I gave up on both of them after a week or so. One of them was taught by Ned Block. I thought it was tripe and left after the second class.

    He’s part of a generation of philosophers who got stuck on the “cognitive revolution” of the 1960s-1970s, which at root was trying to prove the materialist position on the mind/body problem. Their research program dead-ended around 1980, but instead of finding something else to work on, they keep recycling the same verbiage. Unfortunately they got all the tenured philosophy positions in the good universities, and so have wasted decades of potential American philosophical progress.

  4. Sabio: I care. Though my brain hurts when I try to wrap it around the abstract notion of “consciousness”.

    May I offer an editorial suggestion?
    A sentence could be reworked for clarity and seems to contain a few grammatical errors.
    “Perhaps is my meditative experiences, that I occasionally draw me back to such articles, but on reading them I quick return to my state of apathy for the philosophy of consciousness”.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts in your post.

  5. “I know religion-free folks who don’t care about the Bible or the Qur’an arguments”

    Do you mean arguments using (or about?) the Bible or the Quran or arguments found in the Bible or the Quran?

    The reason I’m asking is because there are no arguments in any of these books, especially in the Quran. I recently took a look again in the Quran and, again, I found it such a boring collection of trivia: “Indeed, those who disbelieve […] they will not believe. Allah has set a seal upon their hearts and […] for them is a great punishment.” Brrr…I’m scared! That kind of thing is supposed to make someone afraid or something? 🙂 As for the Bible, I recently read, again, the best version of the genesis. That’s a bit more fun, because the artist is a good one.

    Now, you ask, “why have I written about consciousness?” Well, like in John Lennox’s “argument” involving his aunt Matilda, from which he infers that there is a god (because only god knows why his aunt baked a cake), it is only god (or gods) who knows (respectively, know) why you have written about consciousness. Perhaps, just like Lennox, we can, from this, infer that gods exist. (We can infer existence, but not uniqueness.)

    And more to the point, I probably have the same apathy for the philosophy of consciousness. Now, how do we know that Ned Block also has an apathy and is only publishing papers in journals such as ” Trends in Cognitive Sciences” because he has to? Many of us, professors, publish not because we want to say something, but because our institutions demand so. The more we publish, the more we count. There are universities that count number of pages or assign some idiotic numbers to every person such as the h-index. According to google, his number is 42.

    BTW, you lost me on the various senses of consciousness. My mind is numb. That stuff requires a PhD or something to be understood.

  6. Apparently there’s a gene that inclinates humans toward mystical/God experiences. I think consciousness is the infolded aggregate of the genome articulated through the chemical awarenesses of the human body. For the senses this is no problem, but I think people want their personalities, their identities, their meaning in life to belong to a different order. But personality is the aggregate of biological behavioral systems, and identity is the measure of those aggregates reflected in the introjected value-structure systems of the local society or tribe to which the organism belongs. I think one thing I don’t agree with is reductionism of things to the chemical, rather a sense that phenomenon ultimately enfold and unfold from neurobiochemical substrata.

  7. @neurofrittered
    You claim that “apparently, there’s a gene that inclinates humans toward mystical/God experiences”.
    Well, that’s very interesting.
    But do we have indications/evidence (proof?) for this other than speculations? I, too, happen to think that is very likely (very plausible), but have geneticists actually identified such a gene?
    Any references?
    (I’ve read a book once, Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast: The Evolutionary Origins of Belief, by Lewis Wolpert, but found it unconvincing (and wrote a review, “Good questions, but … no answers, and shaky logic”, 10 Aug. 2006, that can be found on the link above).

  8. @neurofriend
    First, we have no agreed definition of religion (see all my other posts), yet alone finding a “gene” for it.

    @Takis: howdee

  9. @Sabio:
    — First, I tend to be a bit more confident in my definition of religion, but I’m speaking for myself. I know the characteristics and symptoms of religion, or, if you like, of what I call religion, and these include (i) the fact that a religion tends to become stronger when evidence against it increases, and (ii) a religion is not necessarily belief in the supernatural but, for me, belief without questioning, such as that the “State will take care of me”. (Nationalism is a form of religion too.) And more… But let us not stay at this.
    — Second, there are many people who do have definitions for religion. And these people have thought about it more than I have.
    — Third, I agree that before we can talk about a gene for religion, we must agree on what we mean by religion.
    — Finally, I was intrigued by neurofrittered’s claim, and this is why I asked. I’ve always “believed” (definition: believe=assign a non-negligible probability) that religion (whatever that is) must have a biological basis. But, to be fair, neurofrittered used the adverb `apparently’, indicating he’s not sure, but he may have more evidence or references than what I have.

  10. I don’t think there’s any hard evidence. I’m not sure we’ve been able to determine to what extent archetypal human experiences are encoded in the genome. Certainly so much of what we’ve anthropomorphized has roots in chemistry and the evolutionary impetus. “Love” is one of the more obvious experiences that can (and in my opinion should) be commonly understood to be genetic/neurobiological bonding behavior and not something supranormal. I think it’s more beautiful to think that such grand and common human experiences as love and faith are encoded in the substratum of our genetic heritage. Others I suppose would just see it as foolish, reductionistic, or something else. But that’s okay. It’s my hope that that will eventually be supported by culture/science. I’m just a humble layperson though, so I don’t know for sure.

  11. @ Takis,
    Define it, test it and then publish it. THEN, a conversation is useful. Otherwise, agendas are all I see emerge. Either way, I will let you two fellows discuss.

  12. @ neurofrittered,
    With your jargon, I can tell we deal in very different thought paradigms.

  13. @Sabio:
    I thought neurofrittered had some references, something new, that’s why I jumped into this. Well, I, too, want to assign significantly positive probability that “there is a gene for`religion”, but I am not an expert, neither have I been able to read anything satisfactory. Oh well, I will keep hoping for it…

  14. I wouldn’t expect us to share thought paradigms. Nevertheless, I appreciate your thinking and presentations. It seems we think about many of the same things, but in different ways.

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