That Ghost in the Machine

by Rebecca Bynum (August 2011)

Why seek ye the living among the dead? (Luke 24:5)

Like many people, I often watch crime dramas on television to pass the evenings and I’ve noticed a subtle change lately as to how dead bodies are described. A few years ago, all crime dramas referred to the murder victims’ remains as “the body.” It was universally recognized that the body at the time of death was no longer a person; the locus of personhood had either fled or had disappeared. The person was no longer there. Nowadays, however, the detective often as not will grill the murderer with sentences like: “We know you killed Julie. Where is she? Her parents want to bring Julie home.”

Now, at first this might seem like a poignant way of putting things, designed to appeal to the conscience of the fictional killer, but it is now so widespread, I am convinced that something else is afoot and that is a widespread confusion between levels of reality. These dramas seem to be affirming the claims of material reductionists that the person is the body and nothing more. Death simply indicates a body has been broken beyond repair, so that theoretically, when we learn to be master repairmen of our bodies, we will then never die. This, I suppose, is also the logic behind cryogenics – the body is all that exists of personhood.

I also watched a NOVA program on dreams in which Sigmund Freud was briefly mentioned only to be thrown overboard by scientists (the new priests of our age) who ridiculed the very idea of mind, let alone that mind could contain levels like a subconscious. After watching an hour of mice, cats and humans all fitted out with electrodes on their heads while they dreamt, it was deduced that mice dreamt about a typical mouse day like running a maze. Cats dreamt about typical cat day of catching mice and humans were similarly rehearsing their own hypothetical futures. Evolution, you see, has equipped animals like us with the ability to practice in our dreams the problems we will encounter in our waking life.

There was no acknowledgment of the subconscious, and certainly no superconscious, only the waking and sleeping brain, which, these scientists seem to assume, is also the locus of personhood. All the complex symbolism of dream life was put down to the random firing of electrical impulses without the slightest trace of doubt. The pioneers of the study the human mind were dismissed as so many quacks, as mind was deemed to have no reality apart from the brain. It seems that scientists, when confronted with reality that doesn’t fit their material model, often simply dismiss it. Raymond Tallis, a neuroscientist himself, explains how neuroscience cannot even account for the basics of perception for it cannot explain how the gaze proceeds outward, let alone explain the personhood of the one who does the gazing.

A good place to begin understanding why consciousness is not strictly reducible to the material is in looking at consciousness of material objects — that is, straightforward perception. Perception as it is experienced by human beings is the explicit sense of being aware of something material other than oneself. Consider your awareness of a glass sitting on a table near you. Light reflects from the glass, enters your eyes, and triggers activity in your visual pathways. The standard neuroscientific account says that your perception of the glass is the result of, or just is, this neural activity. There is a chain of causes and effects connecting the glass with the neural activity in your brain that is entirely compatible with, as in Dennett’s words, “the same physical principles, laws, and raw materials that suffice” to explain everything else in the material universe.

Unfortunately for neuroscientism, the inward causal path explains how the light gets into your brain but not how it results in a gaze that looks out. The inward causal path does not deliver your awareness of the glass as an item explicitly separate from you — as over there with respect to yourself, who is over here. This aspect of consciousness is known as intentionality (which is not to be confused with intentions). Intentionality designates the way that we are conscious of something, and that the contents of our consciousness are thus about something; and, in the case of human consciousness, that we are conscious of it as something other than ourselves. But there is nothing in the activity of the visual cortex, consisting of nerve impulses that are no more than material events in a material object, which could make that activity be about the things that you see. In other words, in intentionality we have something fundamental about consciousness that is left unexplained by the neurological account.[1]

Clearly, we are dealing with a situation much like the time when the Church was confronted with facts which did not conform to its approved model of reality and was forced to deny those facts and to suppress them. Materialism can never be an adequate model for the whole of reality because it cannot account for consciousness, much less the person who is conscious of his consciousness and who values it.

The larger question is, why should scientists continue to insist that we look for the higher realities among the lower and to deny the reality of mind and value? For their model of the world to work, there would be no difference between the dead and the living and yet they cling to that model with brute tenaciousness, belittling all who might point out its inadequacies as unrealistic dreamers.

Scientists continually ask us to deny the reality of our own experience and put every human mystery down to the “complexity” of the brain. But no matter how complex the brain is, it could not teach us during the night season, as sometimes occurs in normal human experience, without a higher level of consciousness being involved. Human morality could not progress, neither individually nor collectively, without higher values being sought as realities. Truth can only be sought if one believes in Truth and the ability of human beings to attain ever higher and more integrating levels of truth. Those who have not experienced ascending value cannot claim there is no such thing anymore than one could claim Berlin does not exist because he hasn’t been there. And the fact remains that the higher one ascends in the realm of value, the further one can see, or rather, the deeper one can see into the nature of reality. This is as true of the moral realm as it is of the physical realm.

It is true because, while the values (Truth, Beauty and Goodness) are absolute, the human pursuit of value is inherently progressive. As one pursues Goodness, one becomes more moral (personally possessing more good), and the same is true for society at large. When man rejects the reality of value, the reality of Goodness, then the pursuit of that reality ceases, and moral progress comes to an end and degeneracy begins.

It seems self evident that if you convince human beings that they are nothing more than beasts, they will very soon begin acting like beasts – snarling and fighting over scraps like wolves, tearing into each other’s lives with spiteful disregard for human feeling. Selfishness reigns today because people have become convinced, due to the unceasing efforts of  our Darwinian scientists over the last century, that there nothing is higher than physical pleasure or personal power for which to strive. But it seems to me, if you convince people they are nothing more than machines whose decisions are ultimately meaningless, then you create something much worse. There is no limit to the tortures machines may inflict upon other machines even if they must call upon “the greatest good for the largest number” in order to justify it.

American technology, for example, has developed tiny drones which look and fly like hummingbirds[2] and can hover near windows or perch upon windowsills in order to peer into homes, or follow their subjects around undetected, and there are unconfirmed rumors of drones being able to peer through walls entirely. Since drones are already being used on our Southern border, it will take a strong government to be able to resist the temptation of turning this technology on its own citizens. Unfortunately for us, America has had an almost unbroken succession of weak and divided governments with vacillating leadership since the end of the Second World War. A brave new police state will be within the grasp of our government soon and our scientific philosophers will have offered no defense, indeed have offered encouragement of it. For if we are will-less machines to begin with, we have no freedom to lose.

The majority of scientists will continue insist that Truth can be found in matter as though the mere accumulation of facts alone could account for the integration and meaning of mind, the prioritization of value, and the persistence of personhood amid the continually changing nature of the material brain and body. This is not to suggest that science itself must be overthrown, simply that scientist have to realize their area of specialty (matter) is not he whole of reality. Philosophers and theologians are beginning to reassert their own ascendancy within their dominions and to push back the encroachment of this brand of pseudo-science. The whole of man is not found in the material mechanism of the body, and ultimately, human truth must be sought in that which is higher than mind – not lower. Once again  the age old struggle between life and death, freedom and bondage is playing out. For freedom to prevail, man must begin to grasp the nature of free will, reject the ridiculously confident assertions of materialism and once again begin to marvel at the ghost within the machine.


[1] Tallis, Raymond  “What Neuroscience Cannot Tell Us About Ourselves” The New Atlantis Fall 2010
[2] Watson, Julie “On the Wings of Technology: Hummingbird Drones” Associated Press, Feb. 28, 2011

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Rebecca Bynum contributes regularly to The Iconoclast, our Community Blog. Click here to see all her contributions, on which comments are welcome.


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