By way of introduction, I am Kathleen Petty, the second of the team of six representing Dialogue magazine invited to post on this site. I have been a Dialogue reader since its fist issue. Currently I help edit the letters to the editor for the magazine. This is the first time I have posted on this, or any, website, and I am looking forward to being part of this–(cough)–diablog.
In the Spring 2005 issue of Dialogue there was an interesting article by Stephen L. Peck entitled “The Current Philosophy of Consciousness Landscape: Where Does LDS Thought Fit.” (You can find this article posted on the Excerpts section of the Dialogue website.) He focuses on what he calls the “hard” problem in consciousness studies: phenomenal consciousness. (The “easy” problem of consciousness involves finding and mapping the mechanisms of consciousness–how the brain processes information, the neural pathways, how the brain communicates with itself.) Phenomenal consciousness is the “aspect of consciousness identified by that ‘what is it to be like’ feeling that we associate with personal subjectivity.”
Peck summarizes a thought experiment first proposed by Frank Jackson of Australian National University that neatly illustrated the differences between the “hard” and “easy” problem to me. He asks us to consider Mary, a neurobiologist who knows everything there is to know about the brain’s processing of the color red.
She understands perfectly the neural pathways involved in processing red, the frequencies of light that contain red, and how they interact with the eye. She can objectively describe every activity of the brain involved in seeing red. However, Mary is color blind and has never experienced the color red directly. Can Mary be said to understand the color red? Suppose she then has some special surgery that allows her to finally see color. At this point it becomes clear that, despite a completely biological understanding of sensing the color red, there was something else that she never knew about red–the phenomenal character of experiencing red.
He goes on to give an overview of consciousness theory and philosophy which suggests, as he says, “that things are at best unsettled and at worst a mess,” and then presents what he feels LDS theology has to offer on the subject. According to him we can garner three general themes from the scriptures: “(1) The universe contains things that act and other things that are acted upon; (2) Consciousness in its basic form is not created; and, (3) Consciousness can exist without the material world as we know it.”
His discussion is interesting and thought provoking, but some of what struck me is somewhat peripheral to the discussion. To build his case for Mormon thought he quotes Joseph Smith on the subject, of course, but after that B. H. Roberts and John A. Widtsoe. There is passing reference to Orson Pratt, but then he has to jump to Joseph Fielding Smith and Bruce R. McConkie. This suggests to me that it has been a long time since voices from the highest leadership of the Church have had much to say about the matter, perhaps either because they haven’t felt the need or feel uncomfortable with their expertise on the subject. Or perhaps no one is aware that there is a discussion going on.
The question of where consciousness resides–whether it is a product of the brain itself or is separate, as Mormon theology seems to suggest–is actually a very important one. It could come down to what is acceptable as “proof.” ( At this point, in the consciousness debate, there doesn’t seem to be much chance of “proving” anything. It seems to me that a person accepts as a basic premise whether or not something outside the brain can exist or not, and goes from there.) Peck says consideration of this matter comes under the loose heading of the philosophy of biology, and draws from brain science, evolutionary biology, psychology and philosophy. Because of the scientific disciplines involved, it connects to the more general problem of how Mormons regard science and its contributions.
Until fairly recently Mormons have been pretty comfortable with science and technology. They have embraced what science has contributed to health and longevity. They have embraced technology, especially communication technology, as a blessing. Genealogy is done on line. My stake’s most recent conference was a regional one telecast from Salt Lake so a general authority could participate. This comfortable relationship is facing challenges, however.
Science, this process of accumulating knowledge by presenting hypotheses and then testing them, is starting to present possibilities that stretch the moral and philosophical frameworks most of us have grown up with. As examples, consider the following:
Mapping the genome has shown that human DNA is very close to that of not only primates, but just about every other mammal as well. There seems to be a genetic component not only to disease but to personality, and in some cases, toward acts that might be considered “sinful.” What does that say about free agency–it might not be that “the devil made me do it” but that “my genes made me do it.” Or my chemistry or my hormones made me do it.
In our church, gender is considered an eternal characteristic. There is a whole range of genetic conditions that make gender difficult to determine by the usual means–that is, by looking at the body. How do those people, or their parents, decide if they are male and female? And what about the matter of homosexuality–what if it turns out that the chemical or genetic evidence shows conclusively that one doesn’t “choose” to be homosexual?
What about general topic of bio-engineering. What about genetically modified food or splicing genes from animals onto plants. If everything is spiritually created before it is physically created, what is the significance of modifying the physical creation this way?
There is no clearly stated church policy about all the issues regarding reproduction. How does the church feel about left over embryos? Surrogate parents? Genetic manipulation in utero? The abortion of fetuses that show by blood test or ultrasound that they have conditions incompatible with life? Stem cell research?
Now, it may be that these are areas that we, having been taught correct principals, are expected to govern ourselves. It may be also that church members would like a little guidance from the top because they feel their own inspiration in these matters is faulty. I cannot fault church leaders for being reluctant to enter the fray. I doubt a willing and interested person with unlimited time could understand enough to follow and evaluate the arguments and implications of so many areas of science. Science is dominated by experts in smaller and smaller niches. It is hard to be a Renaissance Man in 2005. How can apostles, who have so many responsibilities and other priorities, whose every word will be scrutinized and sent around the world in moments, speak to these very complicated issues? But, how can they not?
It is a fact of life that we as people in a democratic society are expected to make decisions about policies based on science that we cannot understand. In a society dominated by science at the very least there ought to be a discussion about how science works. It isn’t enough to dislike the conclusion, the path to the conclusion must be shown to be at fault. We can’t be in favor of what science proves when we like it, and discard it when we don’t. If we believe that the gospel embraces all truth we at least ought to be wrestling with how uncomfortable truth fits in. At the very least there ought to be a discussion about what the principals are that we hold that pertain to these questions.