[Editor’s note: By coincidence, two questions about consciousness arrived on the same day. I am including both Q & As below]
Is consciousness immaterial?
Yes, consciousness is immaterial. How could self-awareness be a physical thing? It is a sort of epiphenomenon. There may be brain activities associated with consciousness, but it is hard to even define consciousness, never mind measure it. Such unmeasureable things are not material. To be conscious is to be self-aware. To be conscious is the have a sense of “I.” I believe this. I am a carpenter. When we say this we are expressing our consciousness. Consciousness is not a material or a quantifiable thing. There are some hard-line philosophical materialists who say that non-material things are not real. Therefore, they deny the reality of consciousness, as it is a non-physical thing.
What does Biblical Christianity say about consciousness? How should Christians respond to the hard problem of consciousness in neuroscience?
The word consciousness does not appear in the Bible in any of its translations as far as I know. Arguably, the idea of consciousness is a human construct. What is consciousness? I need a definition, honestly, before I can provide a solid biblical answer.
Here is my best shot at a simple generic answer. The idea of consciousness is an assumed thing in the Bible. That we are “conscious” is a necessary underlying idea to the kinds of things the Bible even talks about. If we are not “conscious,” then Biblical questions and Biblical statements do not really make much sense. In Deuteronomy 30:19-21 God calls us to “choose life.” If humans are not self-aware, if humans are not conscious, then what would this request even mean? Peter in Acts 2:38-41 called on the crowd to “save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” If we are not conscious, what does this charge by Peter even mean? The idea of consciousness is an underlying, unstated assumption, without which the very idea of religion and justice and redemption and salvation do not even have any real meaning.
About neuroscience, I have written extensively. Please do a search for the word at my web site. To put it extremely succinctly, neuroscience, more than probably any other branch of science, is dominated by true philosophical determinists. These are scientific materialists who are fully given over to the worldview that denies the existence of any non-physical, non-measurable reality. Such people are not a good place to go to have discussions about consciousness. Such folks who deny the existence of consciousness a priori will not be able to give you any helpful insight into your question. Our response to the neuroscientists, at least the majority of them is to begin the discussion by their acknowledging their presuppositions and their willingness to throw out this presupposition (a very dubious prospect). Otherwise, discussion with such people on this topic is a waste of time. Those who philosophically deny the very existence of something are not in a place to discuss the properties of that thing.