…or on to a stage. Erik Strandness explains why God continues to stand behind the question of consciousness

Consciousness is a topic of interest to philosophers, theologians and scientists alike. It is the ‘hard problem’ for the philosopher, evidence of image bearing for the theologian, and a threat to materialism for the scientist. Consciousness sets humans apart from the rest of the natural world but more profoundly makes an ‘examined life’ worth living. It is therefore an issue of profound practical and theoretical interest.

Which academic discipline has the best explanation for consciousness? Is it possible to merge the “big three” into a satisfactory metaphysical accord? Unbelievable? teamed up with the Panpsycast podcast to bring us a recorded debate which addressed this very issue. The title of the conference was ‘The Mystery of Consciousness’ and featured panellists from each discipline including former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, neuroscientist Anil Seth and philosophers Laura Gow and Philip Goff.


Who am I?

Descartes’ famous statement: “I think, therefore I am” succinctly described the conclusion he reached after completing his journey of radical doubt. He discovered that the subjective ability of humans to contemplate revealed that at least one thing was true – “I am.” Descartes’ end point, however, was only the beginning for those of us who want to know who that “I” is? As Goff pointed out there are three basic possibilities.

The first is that the “I” is nothing but complexified matter (materialism). The second is that the “I” is a manifestation of a larger universal consciousness (panpsychism). And the third is that the “I” is a separate entity from the physical world (dualism). But is there a fourth possibility? Could it be that the “I” is the image of a greater “I Am”? 

I think, therefore, am I? (materialism)

The materialist/physicalist position was represented by philosophers Anil Seth and Laura Gow, both of whom acknowledge that consciousness is a mystery that may never be completely solved but believe that as we accumulate more scientific data, we will find that it has a material origin. Seth stated his optimism this way:

“Consciousness, conscious experiences which do seem very mysterious, stand the promise of being explained in terms of physical things, material things, the wet-ware inside our skulls. Which is not to say that it’s locatable in particular atoms, it could be an emergent property, it could be something that the collective has.” (Seth)

Seth believes that materialism can issue an explanatory promissory note with the guarantee that it will be paid back with scientific interest at some future date, and that we can trust materialism because it has an outstanding scientific credit rating when it comes to explaining the mysterious. Seth, although denying that he is a reductionist, explained that while big problems like consciousness can be daunting, they are manageable when broken down into their constituent parts. We don’t solve the problem but rather dissolve it. Seth stated it this way:

“We naturalise life by dividing and conquering and so instead of the hard problem of consciousness we should focus on what I call the real problem of consciousness…Instead of treating consciousness as one big scary mystery - How is it that a table is unconscious, but Philip is conscious…(Instead) we should say in what ways is Philip conscious. What are the properties of the conscious experiences that he has?” (Seth)

The problem with his reasoning is that consciousness is not just a neurophysiological tree, but rather a forest populated by quantum science, anthropology, sociology, psychology, religion and medicine, all of which must be accounted for if one is to maintain a healthy ecosystem. Consciousness isn’t a particular phenomenon to be explained but the metaphysical basis for everything else. It isn’t an isolated issue to be solved by philosophers, theologians or scientists, but is the very reason they contemplate, worship and experiment in the first place.

Seth equated the concept of consciousness with that of elan vital, the life force that was once believed to inhabit living organisms but is now known not to exist. While science may have purged itself of the elan vital, its increased understanding of the inner workings of the cell has revealed a highly complex information processing system which inconveniently raises the possibility of a meddling metaphysical mind. Science may have rid the biological world of the elan vital but has replaced it with an intelligent vital

Naming, claiming or explaining?

Gow refers to herself as a physicalist and adheres to a scientific understanding of consciousness, but believes that the differences between the competing theories comes down to semantics. She believes that our worldviews determine the language we use to describe consciousness and that the debate isn’t really about what it is, but about what we call it. Consciousness becomes merely a metaphysical label we place on that which we don’t understand.

 “The identification of consciousness with a neuro process isn’t going to come through neuroscience. In a way, I think it’s a decision…We’re never going to discover that neuro-processes are conscious, were going to have to decide that they are.” (Gow)

The problem with her thinking is that humans don’t want to just name it and claim it - they want to explain it. Goff, while recognizing that each discipline utilises different vocabularies, discourages us from putting theories into linguistic boxes, and encourages us to find a unifying lingua franca to promote intellectual free trade between the disciplines.

I think therefore the Universe thinks (panpsychism)

Goff has become an effective panpsychic populizer. He believes that mind or consciousness is the fundamental reality behind the Universe. A theory that is made plausible by the universality of subjective experiences.

“Consciousness isn’t something we discovered looking down a microscope or in a particle collider, we know about consciousness not from experiments but from our immediate awareness of our own feelings and experiences.” (Goff)

Goff acknowledges that science is an important tool for investigating consciousness but has its limits and must therefore must be philosophically supplemented. 

 “You can’t make coherent sense of the idea that the subjective qualities of my experience could be wholly accounted for in a purely quantitative vocabulary of neuroscience.” (Goff)

Consciousness, for a panpsychist, is a brute fact of the Universe governed by a set of psycho-physical laws like gravity. This explanation sounds plausible until you go back to the definition of consciousness and realise that you have inconveniently transformed the “I” into an “It,” subjectivity into objectivity, and individual experience into group think. The mysterious larger universal consciousness of which we are a part becomes a thought bubble above a cartoon cat, indicating a thought is in progress but leaving its content conveniently empty. 

Goff likes panpsychism because it accounts for “both for the quantitative data of physical science and the qualitative reality of consciousness”. The beauty of panpsychism is that it allows a scientist to work in a lab and yet still retreat to an ashram for the weekend, and it gives permission for the spiritual person to dabble in Darwin and yet have religion without all the theological baggage


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I think therefore I am (dualism)

Descartes is credited with the concept of substance dualism, a theory that posits two fundamental substances in the universe, mind and matter. Physicalists and panpsychists alike aren’t very fond of substance dualism because they prefer to adhere to the precepts of Occam’s razor and recognize only one fundamental reality.

Dualism is also a problem for religion because instead of viewing spirit and matter in lock step it often sees them at odds with one another. Matter is reduced to evil flesh and spirit elevated to godliness. The physical world becomes an illusory maya that prevents us from recognizing our atman is spiritual brahman. And our upadana (attachment) to material things prevents us from achieving nirvana.

While each worldview tips its hat to both mind and matter, the bigger problem is explaining how they interface with one another. Gow pointed out that the physicalist/materialist must explain how non-conscious stuff creates conscious stuff and the panpsychist must explain how conscious stuff creates non-conscious stuff. 

Inter-facing the problem

Materialists, respecting the mystery of consciousness, offer the olive branch of emergence, a ghost in the machine that gets conjured up whenever you get enough neurons together for a séance. This theory suggests that as matter accumulates it generates something immaterial and the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts. It seems to me, however, that individual physical parts can only form something immaterially greater if there is input from a mind. For example, the parts of a barbecue can’t cook a steak until a mind reads the instructions and puts them together. So rather than eliminating a mind, I would suggest that emergence absolutely requires one. Emergence as it turns out is a poor man’s spirituality. Mysterious yes, but more of a nuisance to the materialist because its illusory nature keeps fooling people into believing in ghosts. Emergence, rather than a scientific theory, is a metaphysical diploma bestowed on matter to show how smart it is despite a lack of evidence that it ever attended classes. 

Panpsychists bestow an inherent consciousness on all subatomic particles and posit increasing computational power as they come together in specialised collections such as the brain. Consciousness then interacts with matter through primal psycho-physical laws which cannot be proven but just observed. A psycho-physical law turns out to be nothing more than the observation that mind can influence matter, but says nothing about the mechanism of that interface. The dualist, while not having to explain the origins of either, still doesn’t have an explanation for how they interact.

In search of a missing person

While the hard problem of consciousness is most often discussed in scientific and philosophical terms, it’s interesting that humans feel the need to venerate it. The mystery of consciousness for many, rather than an academic pursuit, turns out to be a spiritual quest. Is it possible that the interface question is really one of a religious nature? 

The reason that consciousness is so mysterious is because it is difficult to explain its subjectiveness. The intimate experience of “I” implies that personhood is a key component of consciousness. It would therefore make sense that solving the mystery of consciousness could just as easily be described as a search for a missing Person. 

God spoke, therefore I am. I hear, therefore God is. 

As a Christian who has been immersed in the sciences my whole life, I want evidence that a Spirit can communicate with a physical world; I want proof that something immaterial can be manifest in a material way; I want to be assured that the transcendent can be known in the immanent. The good news is that we have seen this phenomenon demonstrated for millennia but have taken it for granted because it’s so commonplace. What am I talking about? Human speech. 

Speech begins with an immaterial thought, which is converted into physical form by taking the air in our lungs and forcing it across vocal cords, vibrating the air and sending out physical sound waves. Those sound waves are then received by the eardrum of another person, sent to the brain and reconverted into the same immaterial thought. Magically, an immaterial thought becomes a physical reality and then is reconverted back into the same immaterial thought in the mind of another. The interface is the spoken word.

Stunningly, the Bible introduces us to a spirit God who spoke a physical universe into existence; his immaterial thought became physical words and filled the universe with divine discourse. God formulates a thought and makes it physically real through speech and the only creatures capable of understanding what has been said are beings equipped with the divine voice recognition software of consciousness. It is an incredibly powerful metaphysical metaphor for what we already observe in the real world and may give us clues about the nature of the material-immaterial interface. And God said… may be the most profound philosophical, scientific, and religious words ever written.

Ex cogitatio

If the physical world represents God’s spoken thoughts, then we can better appreciate why Paul told us that God’s invisible attributes could be known through the things that have been made. When we hear a babbling brook we are eavesdropping on a stream of divine thought. When we hear the heavens declare we are listening to celestial contemplation.

While we often think of God’s creation as ex nihilo (out of nothing), I think it is more helpful to think of it as ex cogitatio (out of thought). If we just focus on God creating the universe out of nothing, we miss the far more profound biblical truth that the world is comprehensible because it started out as God’s thought. Since God spoke his mind, we find beauty, information, order and complexity in the world. Nature then becomes the common language we share with God and every other human being on the planet. (I explore this idea more in my book God Spoke: Bridging the Sacred-Secular Divide with Divine Discourse).

Dissonance of cognition

Consciousness is not just an interesting place to think and pray but is also a den of robbers. It is often a hideout for psychoses, emotional pain and despair, all wandering its hallways in search of healing. So, while explaining consciousness is academically interesting, it is far more important to discover which one can exorcise those demons. 

Materialism can only offer happy chemicals for chemical unhappiness. Panpsychism has the difficult task of rearranging sad electrons. Christianity, however, provides a more holistic approach to treatment, because it sees humans as an intimate unity of the physical and spiritual. And since we are both God-breathed and “good” physical creations we have a vast therapeutic arsenal at our disposal, including pharmaceuticals, psychiatry and prayer. 

Intellectually dissecting consciousness is an interesting academic exercise, but when our cognition becomes dissonant it needs healing, and it won’t be in a lab or classroom where the therapeutic value of these theories will be tested, but in the pit of despair. 

“Come to me, all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Matthew 11:28-29)


Watch the full episode of this show here.


Erik Strandness is a physician and Christian apologist who has practised neonatal medicine for more than 20 years.