Perhaps the greatest challenge to a naturalistic worldview is explaining consciousness. This difficulty has several aspects. How did experiencing and consciousness evolve? For that matter why would it have evolved? But more troublesome than the evolutionary question is the basic biological one. How can the brain cause sensations and subjective experiences as well as—to put it bluntly—create the mind? Many theists consider this last to be an insurmountable problem for advocates of naturalism.
The Theist’s Own Difficulty
The theist, however, faces an equivalent task. The problem of how mind and matter can interact with each other—much less one cause the other—does not disappear by adopting a supernatural worldview. In fact the difficulty the theist faces may be greater than that faced by the atheist for the simple reason that the theist is committed to a class distinction between spirit & body, mind & matter, to which the advocate of naturalism is not.
The natural scientist adopts the assumption that consciousness is some kind of physical phenomena. If it is a physical phenomena, then it should not be impossible for another physical phenomena to cause it. Understanding how this happens may still be quite difficult, but at least the relationship—between biological brain and physical phenomena of experiencing—is not conceptually impossible. (Of course, understanding how our thoughts can be “merely physical” remains a difficulty, but not an inherently unexplainable one.)
The theist, on the other hand, is committed to a fundamental distinction between matter and mind (or body & soul) that seems to make interaction between the two impossible to conceive.
We know of course (regardless of our worldview) that the interaction occurs. We have a thought (perhaps an idea to go outside and take a walk) and then our body gets up from the sofa, opens the door and goes outside. Whether the thought directly caused the behavior is not as important as the fact that there is some kind of connection between the thought and the behavior.
Note that a connection doesn’t have to be there all the time or every time – we might have the idea to go outside but then, perhaps because we are feeling lazy, fail to get up and go outside. What matters is that there be a connection between thought and behavior that is not merely random. It is clear that is the case. Even when I fail to go outside after having the thought to do so, I’m likely to follow up with other thoughts related to both the initial thought and to what I didn’t do. This sofa is too comfortable, I might rationalize, or I’m feeling too tired to bother getting up, and hey—what’s on tv right now?
The belief that there must be an interaction between thought and behavior, and therefore between mind and brain (since it is the brain, ultimately, which sends signals to move muscles and so on), is one to which both the advocate of supernaturalism and of naturalism are committed. So the difficulty of explaining how such an interaction occurs falls on both. Again, however, the naturalist has the option of interpreting thought as some kind of physical phenomena or activity, which removes much of the conceptual difficulty by placing both brain and mind into roughly the same category. The supernaturalist doesn’t have this option, although they do have the option of moving matter into the mind category, and asserting that matter is really only a kind of mental phenomena, as Bishop Berkeley did. Most theists don’t take this tact, however, and insist on the dualism of mind and matter. (I have discussed Berkeley’s position elsewhere (see Berkeley, Cohen & Materialism).
By insisting on dualism, however, the theist’s difficulties become greater than those of the atheist. The advocate of naturalism does indeed face a perplexing task in explaining how consciousness can come from the activities of the brain. But as a result of their commitment to mind/matter dualism, the task of the theist is exponentially greater.
The Divine Mind Problem
But the theist faces a second and even greater problem. Dualism leaves God in an untenable position as first creator. Since God is immaterial, he has no body; he must be pure divine mind. Which means that, unlike human beings, God can’t rely on any kind of mind/matter interaction to get things done. His mind must create matter without anything to interact with. But how can mind alone do it?
Here’s the crux of the problem. Everytime we think something and then do it, it is the body that does the doing. Say I want to create a house. I develop plans and ideas in my mind, then instruct my body (or those assisting me, whose minds instruct their bodies) on what actions to take. If I want to nail one board to another, it doesn’t get done just by thinking it. I have to (as a mind in the supernatural sense) interact with my body to get my body to hammer the nail. I can’t think the nail into the board. Without matter to interact with, my mind would be completely powerless to accomplish anything other than creating thoughts.
This becomes an insurmountable difficulty for God. God does not have a body for his mind to direct. By thinking, God can create only thoughts. Thoughts can’t accomplish anything on their own: at best thoughts can interact with preexisting matter to get things accomplished—specifically with God’s own material body, if only God had such a thing.
There is simply no way to imagine or conceive how a thought—even the specific thought of a hydrogen atom—could on its own create a hydrogen atom. We know from personal experience that thoughts simply don’t work that way. Thoughts are passive; they are not actions per se. Actions involve activity, activity involves something moving or changing, but God can only think thoughts: he has no interactive parts for his thoughts to use to do any doing.
If we adapt the atheist position that thoughts are somehow physical, then thoughts must be able to interact with matter and must be, in some sense, more than just passive. But abandoning dualism, unacceptable to the theist anyway, only tackles half the problem. Thoughts are useful in an embodied being like us, because they can interact with the brain and the brain interact with the body do the bidding of our minds. But a bodiless being like God is missing both the brain for his divine thoughts to interact with, and the body necessary to put his divine ideas into action.
If you’ve followed me so far, you understand that dualism actually creates severe problems for the concept of a bodiless God. On the other hand, the theist can’t abandon dualism because if thoughts are somehow material then thinking becomes incompatible with God’s immaterial nature.
There is a way out of this dilemma, but to take it the theist has to make like Bishop Berkeley. That is to say, he has to abandon dualism in the other direction and fold the material world into mind in some fashion or another.