In addition to consciousness, we also experience intention and purpose. We experience these within ourselves, and we can effectively interpret the actions of others by presuming that they too embody the same qualities. Philosopher Bryan Magee gives an example. If the human body sitting across the room from me raises itself out of its chair into an erect position, transports itself across the room to a table, locates a silver box, removes acigarette, and places it into its mouth, I know that these events are occurring because the embodied object that I call a person wants a cigarette. I know what the other person is doing even if I have never smoked a cigarette in my life. Magee observes that if we were to try to give a purely scientific account of this event in terms of atomic motion and molecular transactions, it would be totally incomprehensible.” We simply cannot understand other people as consisting of matter alone. Pinker admits that “human behavior makes the most sense when it is explained in terms of beliefs and desires, not in terms of volts and grams.”
The materialist or “objective” understanding of human experience seems inadequate because we experience our lives as a unity. I have a multitude of different feelings and thoughts and experiences, but I experience them all within a single unified field, what Kant somewhat grandiosely calls the “transcendental unity of apperception.” The matter that makes up my body changes constantly, and yet I remain the same person. First I was young, now I am middle-aged, and one day I will be old, but through all these transformations I remain “Dinesh.” If I meet my college roommate, whom I haven’t seen for twenty-five years, at the airport, I might be surprised to see that he now has gray hair and weighs a lot more than he used to, but I don’t react to this by saying, “Who on earth are you?” I recognize that he is still my old roommate, no matter how much his physical constitution may have deteriorated over the years.
Our self-conception is strongly rooted in memory of past experiences, without which it is not clear that the “self” would retain any meaning at all. Imagine if I could not remember the experiences that I had yesterday, or five minutes ago, or if I wasn’t sure that those experiences were had by the same person. In such a case I could not meaningfully speak of “my” past or “my” future, and my sense of identity would completely collapse. Through our memories of the past and our expectations for the future we maintain both continuity and singularity through our lives. Our lives have an a priori unity that we have no reason to disregard in our self-understanding. Therefore the idea that we are merely an assembly of changing chemical interactions is both unbelievable and absurd.
The materialist understanding seems to be guilty of a crude form of reductionism. Physicist Paul Davies explains this by way of an analogy: An electrical engineer could give a complete and accurate description of an advertising display in terms of electric circuit theory, explaining exactly why and how each light is flashing. Yet the claim that the advertising display is therefore nothing but electrical pulses in a complex circuit is absurd.”16 Davies’s point here is that a human being is a collection of atoms in the same way that Shakespeare’s plays are collections of words or Beethoven’s symphonies are collections of notes. It hardly follows from this, however, that Othello is nothing more than words or that the Fifth Symphony is no more than an assembly of notes. There is a holistic unity to Othello and the Fifth Symphony that seems ignored in describing them in this way. So too are human beings made up of atoms and molecules, but that does not even begin to describe the unity we experience in our everyday lives.