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Atheist Admits Human Mind Cannot Be Explained by Darwinian Mechanisms

Thoughtful atheists admit that Darwinism cannot account for the human mind.  In a recent edition of The Philosophers Magazine atheist Raymond Tallis writes

Consciousness makes evolutionary sense only if one does not start far enough back; if, that is to say, one fails to assume a consistent and sincere materialist position, beginning with a world without consciousness, and then considers whether there could be putative biological drivers for organisms to become conscious. This is the only valid starting point for those who look to evolution to explain consciousness, given that the history of matter has overwhelmingly been without conscious life, indeed without history. Once the viewpoint of consistent materialism is assumed, it ceases to be self-evident that it is a good thing to experience what is there, that it will make an organism better able so to position itself in the causal net as to increase the probability of replication of its genomic material. On the contrary, even setting aside the confusional states it is prone to, and the sleep it requires, consciousness seems like the worst possible evolutionary move.

If there isn’t an evolutionary explanation of consciousness, then the world is more interesting than biologists would allow. And it gets even more interesting if we unbundle different modes of consciousness. There are clearly separate problems in trying to explain on the one hand the transition to sentience and on the other the transition from sentience to the propositional awareness of human beings that underpins the public sphere in which they live and have their being, where they consciously utilise the laws of nature, transform their environment into an artefactscape, appeal to norms in a collective that is sustained by deliberate intentions rather than being a lattice of dovetailing automaticities, and write books such as The Origin of Species. Those who are currently advocating evolutionary or neuro-evolutionary explanations of the most complex manifestations of consciousness in human life, preaching neuro-evolutionary aesthetics, law, ethics, economics, history, theology etc, should consider whether the failure to explain any form of consciousness, never mind human consciousness, in evolutionary terms, might not pull the rug from under their fashionable feet.

 (HT to Douglas Groothuis)

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5 Responses to Atheist Admits Human Mind Cannot Be Explained by Darwinian Mechanisms

  1. My own take on this issue is that consciousness per se — that is, the feeling of subjective awareness — cannot itself be favored by natural selection.

    The reason is that natural selection cannot “see” whether an organism is subjectively aware. It only “sees” structure and behavior.

    We can conceive of a human who is structurally and behaviorally identical to a normal human, but lacking consciousness (the famous “zombie” of modern philosophy). Being externally identical to conscious humans, zombies would be neither favored nor penalized by natural selection.

    For this reason, I suspect that consciousness is an epiphenomenon that arises inevitably in information processing systems of a particular type and complexity. Natural selection certainly favors intelligence, and consciousness comes for free as brains are shaped selectively to increase intelligence.

    Having said all that, I think the Tallis article is a mess. If I have time after work tonight, I’ll explain why.

  2. At first glance, Tallis’s article reduces to two themes: the hard problem of consciousness and the argument from incredulity.

    At present, it seems that no one – not science, not philosophy, not religion – has a good handle on what consciousness is. Just what is “the ghost in the machine? Is there a “ghost in the machine”? Not knowing what it is makes it harder to explain why it exists at all.

    The second theme is our trusty old favorite, the argument from incredulity: I cannot imagine how something so complex and mysterious could have come about through natural causes – so it didn’t. The answer to that is that ti could well be a little premature to declare victory just yet since we have no way of being certain that we have exhausted all the naturalistic options. That mental dead-end is just as likely to be a measure of the poverty of our imaginations as it the paucity of possible explanations.

  3. On the contrary, even setting aside the confusional states it is prone to, and the sleep it requires, consciousness seems like the worst possible evolutionary move.

    Let’s not quite set that aside yet, since it’s not at all obvious that consciousness implies a need for sleep or that confusion is impossible without consciousness.

    Indeed, it is a little known fact that hibernating animals such as ground squirrels periodically “wake up” during hibernation in order to get some sleep! Their body temperature spikes from just above zero C to somewhat below normal body temperature and they go to sleep according to EEG recordings. Presumably, sleep is needed to repair/maintain certain neuronal pathways which slowly degrade.

  4. Is there a “ghost in the machine”?

    C’mon Seversky. Do you really think the answer is no? What “ghostless” machine would care, or even have the capacity to ask the question in the first place? The very fact that you’re objecting only demonstrates the point.

  5. SteveB @ 4

    Is there a “ghost in the machine”?

    C’mon Seversky. Do you really think the answer is no? What “ghostless” machine would care, or even have the capacity to ask the question in the first place? The very fact that you’re objecting only demonstrates the point.

    You are missing the point. It solves nothing.

    If we argue that a ‘ghost’ or a little homunculus or an internal observer is needed to explain conscious awareness, all we are actually doing is postulating a mini-version of ourselves, inside our heads, rather like the little alien in Men In Black operating a lifelike automaton from a tiny control-room inside the head.

    But if that little “ghost in the machine” is a conscious entity like ourselves from where does it get its own self-awareness? Is there another ‘ghost’ in the “ghost in the machine”? And another ‘ghost inside that one, and so on ad infinitum?

    In other words, the “ghost in the machine’ explains nothing, it simply pushes the explanation one stage further back, rather like postulating an Intelligent Designer or even God to explain how life on Earth originated. It doesn’t tell us how it was done, how it actually works.

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