Annaka Harris’s recent book Conscious: A Brief Guide to The Fundamental Mystery of The Mind (Harper, 2019) is an intriguing work that brings together the fields of neuroscience, physics, and philosophy. Harris introduces her readers to the “problem of consciousness” and seeks to navigate them through a complicated topic. What she means by the “problem of consciousness” is that consciousness is difficult to prove from a scientific standpoint—particularly for those who hold to an atheistic worldview.
Conscious will receive little attention from most Christian audiences, which is not surprising as the author gives no attention to any theological dimensions in her work, despite the massive theological implications of consciousness. Christians, however, should pay attention to Harris’s treatment of consciousness. When considering how a worldview that rejects a creator deviates from Christianity, we must think about how those differences manifest themselves. Exploring Harris’s work helps us do just that.
Harris is a brilliant writer in at least two ways. First, her writing captures the reader with beautiful prose. Harris writes gracefully, weaving stories of her childhood and captivating illustrations together with technical scientific and philosophical jargon. The result of her pleasant writing style leads to her second major strength in Conscious—she writes in a way that a wide spectrum of readers can understand. Readers with limited background in the fields of physics or philosophy are still able to follow Harris’s work. Conscious is a short book at only 110 pages and the limited length also makes this book on a difficult topic surprisingly easy to navigate.
Harris begins her work discussing the complicated nature of determining whether or not consciousness exists. While she admits that all human beings feel as though they are conscious, the reality of their consciousness is difficult to prove. One of her illustrations challenges readers to think about how artificial intelligence might one day mimic human behavior perfectly, but this would all be based on algorithms and coding, not conscious (18–19). The ability of human consciousness to be augmented by parasites, drugs, and medical conditions further complicates the question of whether humans are conscious at all. Harris concludes that the best evidence for consciousness comes from “when we think and talk about the mystery of consciousness” (42). Curiously, Harris makes no reference to Descartes’s famous maxim “I think therefore I am” to anchor this point in a well-known philosophical tradition.
From a biblical worldview perspective, the most significant argument Harris makes concerns not whether or not we have a conscience, but from whence consciousness comes. Harris advocates a position known as panpsychism, which advocates all matter in the universe being conscious at some level. In this view, consciousness is an inherent part of matter. Harris argues that, based on scientific data, panpsychism is the best solution to the “problem of consciousness.” This position, which Harris admits is not currently a part of the philosophical or scientific mainstream, argues that all matter—the cells in your body, rocks, plants, animals, etc.—all have a conscious experience. Their consciousness may not rise to the same level as human consciousness, but they are still conscious in some sense. In arguing for panpsychism Harris quotes philosopher Galen Strawson who says “panpsychism is the most plausible theoretical view to adopt if one is an out-and-out naturalist” (72).
What a fascinating divide in worldview! While Christian philosophers still struggle with defining and understanding consciousness, the question of why human beings possess consciousness is clearly answered for anyone who understands the biblical narrative as truth. God creates humans not only as physical beings but as spiritual beings as well. The human soul is responsible for human consciousness and the soul is a part of God’s design for every human creature.
Harris mentions the concept of a “soul” in only one paragraph of her work. She notes that the innate sense of consciousness experienced by individuals makes it “easy to see how human beings across the globe, generation after generation, have effortlessly constructed various notions of a ‘soul’ and descriptions of life after death that bear a striking resemblance to life before death.” Most readers will agree with Harris, the reasons for believing in a soul are indeed easy to see. Curiously, Harris says nothing more about the existence of souls.
To be clear, Harris is not writing in an effort to attack Christianity or any other theistic worldview. Her work is truly atheistic not anti-theistic. However, it is curious (and unfortunate) that such a capable writer has produced a work that is accessible to the masses yet does not address the dominant belief that consciousness derives from a soul. One wonders if she does not consider the soul to be so removed from scientific inquiry not to merit further discussion.
In any case, Christian readers should take note that naturalism cannot explain why we experience consciousness, a fact that Harris admits (105–110). Naturalists, in lieu of hard evidence for consciousness, build their own systems of faith about why they are conscious. The system of faith advocated by Harris ignores the concept of a soul but affirms the possibility that a lump of charcoal is conscious in some sense. While a broad range of readers may find her work enjoyable and intriguing, her explanation for why we are conscious is highly unlikely to find wide acceptance.
Christians who read Conscious should be reminded anew of the incredible explanatory scope of the biblical worldview. Naturalists may have to adopt panpsychism as the most likely solution for the existence of a consciousness, but the biblical worldview supports a far more simple and elegant solution. We are conscious because God has made us conscious beings. We are conscious of ourselves, of others, and of our Creator who desires us all to use our consciousness to know and enjoy him with all of our being.