Consciousness is more familiar to us than any other feature of our world, since it is the route by which anything at all becomes familiar. But this is what makes consciousness so hard to pinpoint. Look for it wherever you like, you encounter only its objects – a face, a dream, a memory, a colour, a pain, a melody, a problem, but nowhere the consciousness that shines on them. Trying to grasp it is like trying to observe your own observing, as though you were to look with your own eyes at your own eyes without using a mirror. Not surprisingly, therefore, the thought of consciousness gives rise to peculiar metaphysical anxieties, which we try to allay with images of the soul, the mind, the self, the ‘subject of consciousness’, the inner entity that thinks and sees and feels and which is the real me inside. But these traditional ‘solutions’ merely duplicate the problem. We cast no light on the consciousness of a human being simply by re-describing it as the consciousness of some inner homunculus – be it a soul, a mind or a self. On the contrary, by placing that homunculus in some private, inaccessible and possibly immaterial realm, we merely compound the mystery.
It is this mystery which brings people back to religion. They may have no clear conception of science; no theological aptitude, and no knowledge of the arguments, down the ages, that have persuaded people that the fabric of contingency must be supported by a ‘necessary being’. The subtleties of the medieval schools for the most part make little contact with the thinking of believers today. Modern people are drawn to religion by their consciousness of consciousness, by their awareness of a light shining in the centre of their being. And, as Kant brilliantly showed, the person who is acquainted with the self, who refers to himself as ‘I’, is inescapably trapped into freedom. He rises above the wind of contingency that blows through the natural world, held aloft by Reason’s necessary laws. The ‘I’ defines the starting point of all practical reasoning and contains an intimation of the thing that distinguishes people from the rest of nature, namely their freedom. There is a sense in which animals too are free: they make choices, do things both freely and by constraint. But animals are not accountable for what they do. They are not called upon to justify their conduct, nor are they persuaded or dissuaded by dialogue with others. All those goals, like justice, community and love, which make human life into a thing of intrinsic value, have their origin in the mutual accountability of persons, who respond to each other ‘I’ to ‘I’. Not surprisingly, therefore, people are satisfied that they understand the world and know its meaning, when they can see it as the outward form of another ‘I’ – the ‘I’ of God, in which we all stand judged, and from which love and freedom flow.
I think this is spot on. It also explains why so often the more militant of the new atheists don't want to discuss freedom or free will.