We probably all know the phrase, “I think, therefore I am”, even if we can’t remember who said it and what exactly they meant. If the 17th century could have memes, then this line by René Descartes must count as one of the world’s best. Descartes said that his thoughts were themselves satisfactory proof of his own existence, in the face of philosophical doubt about the nature of reality.
Now, I’m interested in Descartes’ premise, “I think”, but with a different conclusion in mind. In the modern context of the debate between Christianity and atheism, “I think” is a profound premise for Christianity. Atheism’s secular naturalistic view of the world demands that everything in the universe must have natural causes originating only in the laws of physics that govern the universe—everything, including life, humanity and thought itself. Therefore according to atheism, human thought must be explicable by the working of the human brain, a biological machine, a sort of squishy computer that takes inputs from our environment through our senses, processes them and produces outputs. One might argue that our whole body, not just our brain, is part of the machine. But the principle is the same, wherever we might choose to draw the boundary of the system. But if our thoughts are purely the product of our brains, then we face a huge challenge: human characteristics that seem to defy the capabilities of computers. Top of the list is self-awareness, which comes with a bundle of characteristics that seem to make us uniquely human compared to computers and animals: consciousness, introspection, language, moral capability and virtue (as well as the capability of tremendous evil), philosophy, art, creativity, scientific comprehension of our universe, ambition and yearning for meaning.
What do I even mean when I say “self-awareness”? I mean not merely a functional identity of “self” as an entity (which animals arguably have), but consciousness and introspection, as well as an empathy of the self-awareness in fellow human beings.
I know I have self-awareness, and I’m confident, by appeal to symmetry, that you do too. Where does it come from? I am an embedded software engineer, so my work is in designing the programs that run in the computing machines of silicon. The computer, running software created by me and many others, takes inputs, processes them, and generates outputs. I have long pondered the question: Could we humans write a program that is self-aware? But first, can we even describe a mechanism of self-awareness? If a human is merely a machine processing inputs to generate outputs, what is the mechanism of self-awareness? Is self-awareness binary (something you either have or don’t have), or are there degrees of it? If a human is merely a machine processing inputs to generate outputs, then it must be possible to create self-awareness in a computer exactly like a human has. But if we can’t even describe a mechanism of self-awareness, we can’t create it.
While comparing the atheist view of the human brain to a computer, one might argue whether the comparison is valid. But according to atheism, the differences are just details. Though they differ in composition, size and architecture, yet if the operation of the human brain is indeed fully determined by the laws of physics, it would be possible to simulate it with a sufficiently advanced computer. Therefore, it must be possible to create both artificial intelligence, and artificial consciousness. According to atheism, surely it’s not a question of if, but merely when.
Yet I don’t find this atheistic view satisfactory. As a Christian and an engineer, I believe that self-awareness is something that cannot be described, measured or replicated in purely naturalistic terms.
I can conceive of software being able to achieve artificial intelligence in the sense of clever analysis of the body of human knowledge. In 2011, IBM’s computer, Watson, competed against humans in the game of Jeopardy! Watson was not even in the world’s top 500 supercomputers, but its hardware and software were designed to answer questions asked in a natural human language—in fact, specifically to play the game Jeopardy! To compete successfully, it had to analyse the meaning of questions, and draw meaningful answers from a huge database of human knowledge, all within seconds. Watson won against its human competitors, an astounding success for artificial intelligence. It greatly raises the bar over IBM’s previous Deep Blue computer’s success in the more specialist domain of chess. But while Watson can process tremendous quantities of human knowledge, it seems profound that it achieves all this capability without any self-awareness. Is there any likelihood that it could develop self-awareness, either accidentally or by deliberate programming? I think not!
Watson may be capable enough to create an illusion of consciousness. We’re coming to terms with our phones listening to our questions and talking back. My phone’s navigation software operates smoothly enough that I’ve found myself referring to it as “her” and commending “her” patience when I take another wrong turn. But intellectually I know it’s just a good anthropomorphic illusion!
I’ve heard self-awareness somewhat vaguely explained as, with requisite hand-waving, “It’s an emergent property of a complex system.” That is, while individual neurons are not conscious, a sufficiently large assembly of them somehow gains consciousness. When it comes to explaining what self-awareness is or a mechanism behind it, we humans are struggling. Furthermore, as human beings, we have the sense that while animals appear to have some sort of self-awareness, it’s not comparable to the human characteristics I listed above: consciousness, introspection, philosophy, art, creativity, and so forth.
Christianity offers a non-naturalistic explanation which I find much more satisfactory: the creation account in the first chapter of the Bible says “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness...’” (Genesis 1:26, NRSV) That is to say, the essential nature of humans cannot be explained purely in terms of biological machinery driven by the laws of physics. We are made self-aware, introspective, communicative, intelligent, creative, artistic, morally aware, relational, purposeful, and with free will and free choice. “Free will” is to say, though we have biologically and emotionally driven desire, we are not slaves to it and can wilfully override desire for a higher purpose. All these are from a non-physical element to our humanity. One might call it soul, or the human spirit. The Bible also says “For what human being knows what is truly human except the human spirit that is within?” (1 Corinthians 2:11, NRSV) In Zechariah it says “...Thus says the Lord, who stretched out the heavens and founded the earth and formed the human spirit within...” (Zechariah 12:1, NRSV) This nature is also known as mind-body dualism or Cartesian dualism, named after none other than Descartes. As such, it would be impossible to reproduce consciousness or these other human characteristics in a purely physical computer. I’m intrigued as to how such a God-given spiritual component might exist in us and interact with our physical brains, memories, senses and emotions. I anticipate that this would be difficult indeed to understand through scientific inquiry alone.
Atheism, being committed to secular naturalism, is definitely obliged to seek a wholly naturalistic explanation of these human attributes. Atheism regards us as merely animals, differing from the rest of the animal world only in degree and not essence. As a consequence of this naturalistic worldview, atheism and naturalistic science will no doubt seek to interpret human behaviour and characteristics purely in terms of a biological machine, while denying our unique God-given attributes. To me, the premise “I think” that Descartes pondered will always be a powerful evidence that we have a divine Creator who has given us many great gifts of mind.