Today, when scientists examine the question of our inner human life and why it exists, they attempt to solve a conundrum called the “Hard Problem of Consciousness.”
In a nutshell, here’s the question: why do we even have an inner life?
Why did evolution see fit to give human beings the ability to reflect, to be self-aware, to meditate, to dream up and create entire civilizations, to make poetry and sculptures and symphonies, to build buildings and societies, to ponder the universe itself? No other mammals seem to have those advanced abilities, after all—so why do we? Did we just evolve that ability to self-reflect and contemplate the future, and if so, why didn’t other creatures? Does any other being in the natural world have those faculties, and if not, where does our inner consciousness come from, and what is its purpose?
Two opposing camps have tried to answer these questions—the materialist philosophers and those who believe that something exists beyond the physical.
The materialist camp, who sometimes call themselves physicalists, think that consciousness emanates solely from matter. When the brain dies, they say, so does the human consciousness.
The other camp believes that consciousness comes from somewhere beyond the merely physical—but their belief is not just some new-agey, “woo-woo” spiritualism. Instead, the scientists who take this position compare consciousness to sub-atomic particles—unseen and without measurable physical properties, but provable and existent nevertheless.
Interestingly, this important philosophical debate over the Hard Problem of Consciousness has revived and re-emerged only within the last quarter-century—but the Baha’i teachings addressed it a hundred years ago:
If we accept the supposition that man is but a part of nature, we are confronted by an illogical statement, for this is equivalent to claiming that a part may be endowed with qualities which are absent in the whole. For man who is a part of nature has perception, intelligence, memory, conscious reflection and susceptibility, while nature itself is quite bereft of them. How is it possible for the part to be possessed of qualities or faculties which are absent in the whole? The truth is that God has given to man certain powers which are supernatural. How then can man be considered a captive of nature? Is he not dominating and controlling nature to his own uses more and more? Is he not the very divinity of nature? Shall we say nature is blind, nature is not perceptive, nature is without volition and not alive, and then relegate man to nature and its limitations? How can we answer this question? How will the materialists and scholastic atheists prove and support such a supposition? As a matter of fact, they themselves make natural laws subservient to their own wish and purpose. The proof is complete that in man there is a power beyond the limitations of nature, and that power is the bestowal of God. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, pp. 17-18.
Abdu’l-Baha said “The truth is that God has given to man certain powers which are supernatural. … in man there is a power beyond the limitations of nature, and that power is the bestowal of God.”
This claim—and yes, it’s a very big one—cannot be proven scientifically. It ventures far beyond the physically-bounded limitations of the scientific method. But we can approach the question scientifically, which means ruling out other possibilities in a rational manner until the only possible answer becomes apparent. So let’s begin by asking, as the philosopher David Chalmers has done for the past quarter-century, what makes human beings conscious?
Modern science has conclusively demonstrated, for the past two hundred years or so, that everything in the natural world results from the provable outcome of understandable natural processes like evolution. In that regard, most scientists see humans as part and parcel of the world’s natural systems—simply one of the cogs in Earth’s vast machinery of life. Perhaps people represent the most advanced species (although that may seem debatable, given our behavior toward one another), but still, in the view of most current scientific thinking, we’re just one of the many manifestations of nature itself.
This scientific view came about primarily because of the work of Charles Darwin and a host of other evolutionary biologists in the 19th Century. Darwin’s theory of natural selection attempted to show that higher-order life forms transmute and evolve from lower-order ones—an accepted fact for almost all contemporary science. Now, scientists in the 21st Century, with the added advantage of genetic research, have proposed an “Extended Evolutionary Synthesis” that modifies Darwinian theory by incorporating new knowledge about the myriad ways DNA influences the natural selection process.
A very important recent discovery heavily informs the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis theory—epigenetics, the heritable phenotype changes caused by external or environmental factors. One scientist describes the DNA-driven human genome as our “hardware,” and our epigenome—the sum total of all the chemical compounds attached to our DNA—as the evolutionary “software.” We now know that the software, affected by outside forces, can cause the hardware to malfunction, or perhaps to function even better than it normally would. So can you inherit your father’s war-related PTSD, for example?
Yes, you can. How do we know all this? Many research studies have begun to show the powerful and as-yet little-understood effects of epigenetics. One in particular studied 20,000 children of Union soldiers from the Civil War, and found that the sons of soldiers who became prisoners of war in harsh Southern prisons had, on average, a ten percent higher probability of dying in any given year than those whose fathers hadn’t been captured. The early deaths of the sons came mostly from stroke and cancer—and daughters of the prisoners of war were not affected.
Obviously, we have much more learning ahead of us regarding the influence of trauma and hardship on our genomes. But the early discoveries have begun to help us understand something crucial: we’re not only the result of our inherited DNA, as the simple combination of physical genomes when the sperm and the egg create a new being. This purely mechanistic view has now started to fade away. Many other factors, some not yet discovered or even hypothesized, and many that surpass the merely material, contribute to our totality as individual human beings.
Although few have yet recognized it, these discoveries have conclusively shown that we humans have much more to us than what matter alone could possibly create.
So we now know, with increasing scientific certainty, that part of us—the unseen, the unknowable, the mysterious and the mystical—extends far beyond mere biology. We are much more than the sum of our parts. The Baha’i teachings have a highly sophisticated explanation of all this, which supports the scientific findings and also delves into the spiritual:
… man is dual in aspect: as an animal he is subject to nature, but in his spiritual or conscious being he transcends the world of material existence. His spiritual powers, being nobler and higher, possess virtues of which nature intrinsically has no evidence; therefore, they triumph over natural conditions. These ideal virtues or powers in man surpass or surround nature, comprehend natural laws and phenomena, penetrate the mysteries of the unknown and invisible and bring them forth into the realm of the known and visible. All the existing arts and sciences were once hidden secrets of nature. By his command and control of nature man took them out of the plane of the invisible and revealed them in the plane of visibility, whereas according to the exigencies of nature these secrets should have remained latent and concealed. According to the exigencies of nature electricity should be a hidden, mysterious power; but the penetrating intellect of man has discovered it, taken it out of the realm of mystery and made it an obedient human servant. In his physical body and its functions man is a captive of nature; for instance, he cannot continue his existence without sleep, an exigency of nature; he must partake of food and drink, which nature demands and requires. But in his spiritual being and intelligence man dominates and controls nature, the ruler of his physical being. Notwithstanding this, contrary opinions and materialistic views are set forth which would relegate man completely to physical subservience to nature’s laws. This is equivalent to saying that the comparative degree exceeds the superlative, that the imperfect includes the perfect, that the pupil surpasses the teacher—all of which is illogical and impossible. When it is clearly manifest and evident that the intelligence of man, his constructive faculty, his power of penetration and discovery transcend nature, how can we say he is nature’s thrall and captive? This would indicate that man is deprived of the bounties of God, that he is retrograding toward the station of the animal, that his keen superintelligence is without function and that he estimates himself as an animal, without distinction between his own and the animal’s kingdom. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, pp. 80-81.