Mind-like Features in Nature mere Anthropomorphism?

Ever since I wrote my post on how the mathematical order of the universe serves as evidence for a divine mind, there is a very curious line of argumentation which I have seen employed against it which, paradoxically, suggests that maybe the emphasis upon the qualitative uniqueness of human consciousness maybe responsible for the failure of these arguments to convince.

mind-body2As the debate progresses the discussion inevitably turns on the question as to what do I mean by the “mind-like” qualities which a rationally ordered universe exhibits. Often one would be accused of “seeing patterns that aren’t there”, or mind-like features which is nothing more than anthropomorphic projection, etc.

It seems however that such arguments are grounded upon an implicit assumption which Christian apologists themselves may have unwittingly fostered: The assumption that mind-like features (or human subjectivity/consciousness) are so qualitatively unique that they can’t possibly be applied to anyone, or anything, else. If mind-like features or consciousness are so qualitatively unique that only humans can possess it, then is it surprising that they can’t possibly discern it in nature, or anywhere else?

Functionalism and the Multiple Applications of Mental Concepts 

Suppose, following Daniel Dennett and other functionalists and reductionists about the mind, there is nothing so qualitatively special about human consciousness or human subjectivity, the mind just is a set of certain objective functional features, e.g. information processing system, cognitive capabilities, etc, which can be applied to anything which “performs the same functions” or “exhibits the same objective traits”, e.g. A.I. any other system which exhibits the same traits. Thus, consciousness is not a qualitative binary, yes or no, which someone, or something, possesses, it comes in various degrees and types which resembles each other in their complexity, extent, etc.24-09f11 Functionalists use the term “multiple-realisability” to describe the idea that the same “mind-like” features or cognitive system can be “realised” or applied to many other different mediums or entities, other than humans.

From here it is pretty easy to see how Daniel Dennett can in fact be enlisted for the cause of theism. If being mind-like is simply a matter of possessing a certain rational/cognitive structure, then one can immediately infer from the rational structure or the universe a “like mind” governing the cosmos. If one objects that this is merely a mind like and not literally a mind or otherwise one would be guilty of anthropomorphism, etc, etc, then we can push Dennett’s argument that a mind just is this ordered structure or system without any special remainder or qualitatively exotic extra “qualia” needed to make something a mind.


Conclusion: Personality and the Eye of the Beholder

This of course is not a novel argument. The mathematician and philosopher Raymond M. Smullyan, as well as Asian philosophers, has already noted a similar point. In Smullyan fictional dialogue, Is God a Taoist? one merely needs to substitute “personal” for “mind-like” to see that more or less the same point is being made.

Mortal: There is one thing about your self-description which is somewhat disturbing. You describe yourself essentially as a process. This puts you in such an impersonal light, and so many people have a need for a personal God.

So because they need a personal God, it follows that I am one?

Of course not. But to be acceptable to a mortal a religion must satisfy his needs.

I realize that. But the so-called “personality” of a being is really more in the eyes of the beholder than in the being itself. The controversies which have raged, about whether I am a personal or an impersonal being are rather silly because neither side is right or wrong. From one point of view, I am personal, from another, I am not. It is the same with a human being. A creature from another planet may look at him purely impersonally as a mere collection of atomic particles behaving according to strictly prescribed physical laws. He may have no more feeling for the personality of a human than the average human has for an ant. Yet an ant has just as much individual personality as a human to beings like myself who really know the ant. To look at something impersonally is no more correct or incorrect than to look at it personally, but in general, the better you get to know something, the more personal it becomes. To illustrate my point, do you think of me as a personal or impersonal being?

Well, I’m talking to you, am I not?

Exactly! From that point of view, your attitude toward me might be described as a personal one. And yet, from another point of view — no less valid — I can also be looked at impersonally.

When personhood, or subjectivity/consciousness, is taken as absolute qualitative special, it is little wonder that we cannot “see” a like personhood in the world except in ourselves. Only when we reduce human subjectivity to something much less special and unique, something more objective and universal, can we apply it outside of ourselves. (Perhaps we can compare the problem of discerning a divine mind behind nature to the philosophical problem of “other minds” or discerning the existence of other minds in other people. I would like to see this analogy developed.)

The trend in Christian apologetics is to “enchant” nature, to attempt to heighten the world’s specialness to match our own. I am suggesting that maybe to reveal God’s presence in nature, we should go the opposite direction instead, not to enchant nature or the world, but to disenchant our human consciousness and subjectivity, that we might not in our arrogance think that there is something so uniquely special about human minds, and but that it exists outside in the world, in a world made by a Divine Mind, if we could but sacrifice our introspective narcissism and turn without and just look.

2 thought on “If Human Minds are Unique, how can we see the Divine Mind in Nature?”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *