Saturday, March 19, 2011

Conway Morris on the brain as an antenna, and on "a 'time-line' for creatio ex nihilo"

"Suppose we were to think of the brain, which is by implication ultimately 'only' a chemical 'machine', as an 'antenna' that has evolved (convergently!) for life to 'discover' the mental world and thereby become conscious by default. . . . Properties such as memory and sleep clearly have some physical basis.  Neither, however, readily explains such matters as the construction of a 'memory palace' (as by Matteo Ricci), unprompted recall (as in Coleridge's famous instance of a servant girl spouting Latin, Greek and Hebrew, that upon investigation was 'learned' when employed by a savant, but only emerged much later when she was in the grips of fever), or, in the case of sleep, its pre-cognitive dreams.  So too imaging studies of the brain may indeed localize some activities; other activities, however, are far more diffuse, and in no case does the region of neural activity reveal anything of the qualia, be it the chess piece or the antiphonal singing.  Not only that:  even when we feel we are the most intensely conscious, almost the entire brain remains a 'black box', silent and ostensibly entirely unengaged.  And this latter paradox is perhaps less surprising with the discovery that in vegetative states, where by definition there is no brain activity, the patients still appear to be conscious.  That too makes it more believable that in well-documented 'out-of-body' experiences, where the individual may be technically 'dead', conscious experience clearly continues for the simple reason that it is subsequently reported.
"All this seems inexplicable from a panpsychic, let alone naturalist, perspective.  If, however, there is a mental world and the brain is the 'antenna' that makes first contact with it, then not only do we have access to new realities, which the intuition of qualia has long indicated, but we find a world where theological discourse is not divorced, but integral.  It is true that, even if this idea wins further acceptance, it could in principle be applied to any world-picture that accepts the supernatural.  On the other hand, there are rival explanations for our perception of such worlds.  [And] These are notoriously not easy to reconcile with each other, apart from via some syncreistic mishmash, of which the present day supplies some splendid examples.  Christianity, of course, makes some highly specific claims that are built on both Judaic experience and wisdom, but argue uniquely for particular interactions between the divine and the mundane.  These certainly find echoes, resonances and rumours in other traditions, but none approaches (even remotely) the concrete specifications of the Christian claim for the incarnation and the resurrection.  Indeed, so far as they are even entertained, they are rejected as a monstrous scandal, if not an insult.  In addition, but I believe consistently with these tenets, Christianity embraces the concept of creatio ex nihilo.  This too is in conflict with Aristotelian philosophy (which is still the main underpinning of science), as well as many eastern religions.
". . . Yet just as many are deeply offended by the Christian scandal of particularity (although I suspect the scandal tells one more of a given perspective on the world), so scientists are justly suspicious of singularities.  Does this not apply to creatio ex nihilo?  At first sight it does, but the Christian narrative seems to point to instances where, from our stance, creatio ex nihilo has recurred. . . .
"Thus, standing (as I hope I do) within the walls of Christian orthodoxy, I would suggest the most compelling examples of creatio ex nihilo are the incarnation via Mary and the resurrection. . . . But I would speculate that the Transfiguration and Ascension may also help to define creatio ex nihilo, i.e., as the time-line that not only serves to link the incarnation and resurrection, but also points to its culmination.  Our perception of these events is begged in the very term 'time-line', but when we approach the eternal and ineffable our language predictably fails.  A metaphor of a 'time-line' for creatio ex nihilo does have a further advantage, however, in not only reconciling our imagination to the ostensibly impossible, but also reminding us that Christian orthodoxy claims to identify a narrativeone set in a historical context in which the story developed, culminated and apparently ended.  So too the 'time-line' of creatio ex nihilo argues that since its original definition in Roman Judea it has remained temporally accessible to all via the Eucharist but must also terminate in the Eschaton.  At that point, when time ends, we will fully understand creatio ex nihilo."

Simon Conway Morris, "What is written into creation?," in Creation and the God of Abraham, ed. David B. Burrell, Carlo Cogliati, Janet Martin Soskice, and William R. Stoeger (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 188-191 (176-191).

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