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The Divine Imprint: Finding God in the Human Mind (Russell Stannard)

SPCK, London (2017)

ISBN: 978-0281078103

Russell Stannard was the first Professor of Physics to be appointed to the Open University and one of the university’s founding spirits. Now retired from the O.U., he is also a lay preacher and author of numerous books on science and religion. Russell is perhaps best known for his Uncle Albert books in which he manages to teach highly complex physics to children. The present book is a beautifully written account of the link between science and religion. In an endorsement, the psychologist David Myers of Hope College, Michigan, writes

Russell Stannard is a master at explaining big ideas in simple prose. He is also one of the world’s great communicators at the boundaries of science and faith.

This new book bears very good witness to this claim. Always crystal clear, it ranges far and wide throughout the sciences, but I shall focus upon psychology.

Russell opens by noting that, in the UK and Northern Europe, religion is in decline. He suggests several reasons for this, such as in earlier times there was not much else to do on a Sunday apart from going to church and he continues (p.1):

....there has been a substantial increase in the general level of prosperity. Health levels have improved and life expectancy has been substantially extended. This doubtless encourages people to feel more self-sufficient and consequently in less need of the comforts and support offered by religion.

But he notes that probably the single most important factor in the decline in religion is the rise of science and the implicit, if not explicit, assumption that religion and science are in conflict.

So, reflecting on the book’s title, how is one supposed to find God’s presence in the world? As a foundation of the book, Russell suggests that the existence or not of God cannot be decided by experimenting on the natural world. (Incidentally, Russell once wrote a book on trying to do controlled experiments on the efficacy of prayer.) Rather, he infers God’s hand from, amongst other sources, observations on the natural world.

Russell devotes much of the book to psychology, not surprisingly coming out in favour of Jung over Freud, and giving a thoughtful account of evolutionary biology and psychology. He goes to great length to be fair to evolutionary psychology, putting the case very well for a secular understanding of brain and mind with its help. He shows just how much insight can be derived from evolutionary psychology and then describes its short-comings. If the human brain/mind is part of a glorified gene perpetuation machine, what sort of properties would we expect it to exhibit? The author notes that it does indeed possess precisely those properties that appear to have been shaped to maximize genetic perpetuation. However, it also exhibits properties that would not be expected on such a basis, indeed some being quite the opposite of this. He associates these properties with God and describes them as ‘God-like’.

It might be argued that this is a version of the ‘God of the gaps’, i.e. God comes to the rescue when scientific explanation reaches its limits. However, this would not be fair since the book does not simply fall back on God to explain the gaps but also fits the whole picture including the process of evolution to the notion of a creator. As a suggestion for another book, the author might like to look at the life-history of individuals and see the limitations of, for example, neuroscience and behaviourist accounts.

Russell describes the argument from biological design, most usually exemplified in that an eye is so perfectly suited to its function that it suggests a designer. However, he notes that gradual emergence of complexity through evolutionary stages provides an alternative explanation. Similarly, the fine-tuning of the universe suggests the hand of a super-intelligent creator having the emergence of intelligent life in mind but then the idea of a multiverse with ours being just one amongst millions of others offers an alternative, albeit not a very parsimonious, explanation.

A foundation of the book is represented by the following quotation (p.19):

To a much greater extent than other animals, we are self-aware. We are able to reflect on what we are doing. There is no need to act as blind robots. We can go against inherent, instinctive behavior if that is what we decide to do, perhaps in response to some higher demand.

In his search for God, Russell places a principal focus upon mental events and the phenomenon of the emergence of consciousness, writing (p.39):

Consciousness is a mystery. By that we do not mean a puzzle awaiting a solution. We are using the word ‘mystery’ in the sense of something that is likely always to lie beyond human understanding.

He continues (p.157):

Claiming that biology gives rise to consciousness when there is a complete absence of any explanation as to how this comes about becomes a matter of faith rather than science.

This is very true and, as the philosopher Jerry Fodor noted, we not only do not know how to answer this ‘hard question’ of consciousness, we don’t even know how to frame the question properly.

Russell notes that it is a perfectly reasonable assumption that, just as he has conscious experience, so too do other individuals. It would be the height of egocentricity to assume that there is only a single witness to the experience of consciousness and yet we have no proof that anyone else apart from ourselves is a conscious being. Others might be zombies acting as if they are conscious. Russell argues that, in terms of genetic perpetuation, all the behavioural actions of an individual might be explained perfectly well in terms of movements of biological matter in space and time, the business of the biological sciences. In principle, a designer of an artificial human would never need to worry about how to introduce consciousness into his or her invention since it would do everything just fine by employing only biological materials. Such physical movements are all that is required to survive and reproduce, so why conscious awareness and any subjective conscious feelings?

He writes (p.52):

According to materialist philosophy, consciousness is of secondary importance. It is something that just happens to run in parallel to what really matters, namely what is going on in the physical brain. It is dismissed as an epiphenomenon.

On the topic of the passivity of conscious awareness implied by epiphenomenalist theories, Russell argues (p.57):

Why waste valuable time and effort contemplating various alternative courses of action when, according to the materialist, none of them can be taken?

Russell would seem here to dismiss implicitly alternative philosophies of mind, since epiphenomenalism is not the only model or even the most popular model advanced in neuroscience these days. Identity theory probably is most representative and Russell’s criticism might not apply if identity theory provides a better account. According to identity theory, the mind is the brain expressed in another language. There is no aspect of mind, conscious or unconscious, that does not have a one-to-one representation in the activity of the physical brain and the conscious mind can be considered to be the cause of behaviour just as can the biological brain.

Although describing correlation, Russell considers the issue of causation from the physical domain to the mental, e.g. someone taking paracetamol and noting a relief from headache. In contrast, he considers someone making rational decisions and suggests that (p.159):

It is now a case of mental decisions being made and these leading to the appropriate physical actions.

Identity theory would reject such causal sequences of either biological→mental or mental→biological, since in identity theory terms, the mental is the biological expressed in a different language. By analogy, you don’t have an (English) house and at the same location a (French) maison, since the maison is the house expressed differently. Wave- particle duality in physics is also given as a possible analogy.

This theory might offer insight but then it might not! Just suppose that, at a certain level of brain complexity, consciousness emerges in parallel with brain activity. Conscious thoughts accompany certain brain states corresponding one-to-one with them. It could be that this combination proves better at making adaptive behavioural choices than the brain without this emergent property. However, this model still suffers from the problem of understanding how ‘hot’ consciousness emerges from ‘cold’ inanimate matter. Let us put the latter problem to one side for the moment.

Such things as simple reflexes might well be explicable with no resort to consciousness. Indeed, just try putting your hand under a hot tap and see how quickly you pull it back. It is well under way before there is any conscious perception of pain. Psychologists are showing more and more evidence that quite complex goal-directed behaviour can be executed in the absence of any conscious insight into the cause of the behaviour. None-the-less, there are situations that call for full conscious insight, e.g. resisting temptation or dealing with completely novel situations. In such cases, the conscious mind is in the driving seat and it is possible that the brain-mind identity combination is best at solving them.

Russell then turns to the closely-related issue of free will and discusses the famous experiment of Benjamin Libet, which appears at first to undermine the role of conscious agency in determining behaviour. Frankly, I have no idea what the expression ‘free will’ means but I feel that I possess it to a limited degree and at least I have some idea as to what it is not, i.e. strict determinism by genetic and environmental factors. As I argued some years back (Toates, F. (2006) ‘A model of the hierarchy of behaviour, cognition, and consciousness’. Consciousness and Cognition, 15(1), 75-118), a task of the kind used by Libet would hardly require much in the way of conscious resources and might well have been relegated to a low-level control. Where free will (whatever it means!) seems to enter the picture is in, for example, Libet’s participants slowly weighing up the pros and cons of participating in the experiment in the first place.

Although Russell briefly mentions near-death experiences (NDEs), my feeling is that his case could be much strengthened by a deeper consideration of paranormal phenomena, such as NDEs, out-of-body experiences, telepathy and remote viewing. There is an extensive literature on such topics, pointing to the reality of gaining information by paranormal means. The conservative Christian position seems to regard the investigation of such phenomena as akin to dabbling in shady phenomena such as Ouija boards and Victorian séances in dark rooms. I wonder whether this has rubbed off on Russell.

It is fascinating to note that the author describes the assumption in physics that everything that has ever been is still available in some form, a sort of universal memory. Interestingly, those having had near-death experiences commonly report a life review in which their life experiences and the experiences of those they have influenced flash before them. Could this represent tapping into some informational source outside the physical brain? Like with so much else in this book, the mind boggles!

In summary, I strongly recommend this book.

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