Review (Part Four): The Experience of God—Being Consciousness Bliss, by David Bentley Hart


The mechanistic vision of reality holds that material forces are inherently mindless; intrinsically devoid of purpose.  Consciousness, on the other hand, is everything that matter is not:  directed, purposive, essentially rational.  Materialism and the fact of consciousness cannot be reconciled.

The materialist point of view means making no accommodation for any spiritual reality.  But historically, down through the ages philosophers and theologians and thinkers generally have understood spiritual reality to be “the pervasive reality in which matter had to participate in order to be anything at all.”  Consciousness was explained by that paradigm.

Hart summarized classical understanding of the philosophy of consciousness by these points of analysis:


Qualia is that irreducibly subjective feeling of “what it is like” to experience something.  Hart refers here to the private impression one has of a sensible reality.  Pain might be caused by some exterior, objective instrumentality, but the subjective experience of that pain is not an objective item open to general scrutiny.

Abstract concepts

Physical reality external to the self is not discerned merely as a fact of physical presence.  One’s consciousness brings abstract concepts concerning that physical reality to bear, in perceiving it.  Hart uses a red rose as an example.  In one’s consciousness, it is perceived as a discrete object; as an object of a particular type; as an object taxonomically distinct from other objects; and so on.  All of these are categorical distinctions brought to bear upon the physical object, which render it understandable, and these categories are provided by abstract conceptualization in the consciousness.  We don’t merely obtain a sensory impression of the red rose.  A purely mechanical material system could not provide those categories.

Related to this is the idea that some notion of form must pre-exist the sensory perception.  A materialist might argue that the forms which enable these categories of thought derive from “physical condensations of experience;” that is, that the accumulation of sensory impressions and our learning from them over time give rise to the forms of thought.

The trouble with that argument, however, is that before those sense impressions begin to accumulate, there has to be some prior existing conscious framework for those accumulating sense impressions.  As Hart puts it, “the synthesizing work of comparison is only possible by way of some prior conceptual grammar.”  We have here echoes of Plato and Augustine, among many others.  The mind can abstractly conceive of the perfect isosceles triangle, but no perfect isosceles triangle exists in physical reality.  And yet, when perceiving a physical triangle, we readily categorize it with the form already abstractly held by us in our consciousness.

Mathematical concepts, and abstract concepts such as beauty and justice, or intelligible ideas like infinity, or the grasping of logical truths, or fantasy and fancy and speculative thought; or letting one concept lead to another under its own momentum – all of these are beyond explanation from a purely mechanistic or materialist explanation of reality.


Reason, understood as proceeding from one premise or proposition or concept to another, requires a pre-existing logical syntax, which, according to Hart, necessarily contains real semantic content.   Reasoning cannot be the product of mere physical events of biochemistry.  A neuronal event can occur as a result of physical necessity, but not logical necessity.

It is not enough to say, as materialists must, that physical interactions accumulate to the point that they can give rise to concepts.  What is missing from such a formulation is that there had to be some conceptual framework in place before the first physical interaction could be given meaning.  A conceptual structure has to be in the mind before even the first physical interaction.  It is the conceptualization in the mind that enables successive logical inferences, not merely sensory inputs building upon experience of prior sensory inputs.  Abstract thinking precedes experience, it is not the result of experience.

Transcendental conditions of experience

Consciousness must be distinct from material mental events for us to have any continuous experience of anything at all.  Hart refers here to the categories in the mind which are not connected to particular things, but are “transcendent,” by which he means abstractly applicable to all particular things.

An example is the concept of causation.  We may perceive smoke rising from a fire, and conclude that the fire causes the smoke.  But we could not do so without the prior concept of causation.  One’s senses perceive a sequence of events.  But one’s mind perceives a consequence, one from another.  “The categories that connect all things in a rational arrangement cannot be the noetic residues of sensuous experiences that, through sheer accumulation, arrange and interpret themselves.”


Hart refers here to the philosophical concept that the mind has a power to direct itself toward something.  The mind orients itself toward a specific object, purpose, or end.  One’s perceptions of material reality—one’s sense impressions—are a product in part of the mind’s intent toward such perception.  There is an interactivity between the sense impression and the mind’s intent concerning the objects of that perception.   The mind actively imposes on the perception an idea of what that sensory perception is about.  Consciousness is more than merely passive reception of sense impressions.

Materialists hold that physical reality just is; that it is devoid of purpose or meaning.  It is therefore not directed toward any ends at all, therefore no element of intent is in play.  If materialism were true, then all physical events that intrude onto our awareness would be perceived as distinct, unconnected, and random.  But they aren’t.  Our consciousness orders those events in such a way that we derive meaning from them.

Unity of consciousness

Hart uses the familiar comparison to a computer, but he is not saying merely that a computer is not aware of the information it contains.  He is saying that in themselves, they do not contain any semantic information at all.  What he is getting at is that all those ones and zeroes contained in silicon chips are not communication in themselves.  They are merely physical markers, symbols, just like letters in ink on paper.  The semantic content is not in the medium for the symbols, but in the intentional consciousness of the one who places the symbols, and, presumably, the one who receives them.

The point is that there is no higher function within the computer to process the symbols, so that the computer is conscious of their content.  We refer to a computer’s “memory,” but the word is misleading.  A computer’s “memory” is only the storage bank of symbols.  No remembering takes place.  “A computer no more remembers the files stored in it than the paper and print of this book remember my argument to this point.”

Those among AI enthusiasts who would contend that consciousness arises from computation have it backwards.  Hart writes that “all computation is ontologically dependent on consciousness.”  The electrical activity in a computer is not calculation.  The meaning ascribed to a particular combination of electrical vectors is a matter of the consciousness of the programmer of the machine, and the resulting symbols acquire meaning ascribed to them by the consciousness of the one who acquires the symbols.  As for the assertion that electrical activity in a computer is calculation (or even, thinking), “one might as well attempt to explain the existence of the sun as the result of the warmth and brightness of summer days.”



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