Why Materialism Can’t Explain Consciousness

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.

Source: Atheist philosopher Raymond Tallis (The Philosophers Magazine)

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3 thoughts on “Why Materialism Can’t Explain Consciousness

  1. I’m not a scientist, but I’ll take a stab at it.

    A monkey that is raised in captivity is not exposed to the dangers of its natural ecosystem. If that monkey is shown a snake which would be a danger, it exhibits no fear. If they are placed in the same cage, the monkey is at risk of being killed by the snake.

    Take the same monkey and place it in the cage with a second monkey raised in the wild. When you introduce the snake, the wild monkey exhibits an extreme fear reaction which the first monkey learns and will now exhibit whenever it sees a snake, even when the wild monkey is removed. The first monkey has demonstrated a complex form of adaptation, one that you can argue is dependent on some form of consciousness. And it is easy to draw parallels between the interactions of the monkeys and various elements of human consciousness. To me it is a reasonable conclusion that we are a more evolved version of what the monkeys exhibited, just as the monkey’s fear reaction is a more evolved form of what a cockroach does when it perceives danger.

    Unlike religion, science isn’t required to have all of the answers. I’m not troubled that science doesn’t offer an ironclad answer to what consciousness is, given that they still don’t claim 100% certainty as to what causes gravity. Not knowing why gravity works doesn’t stop a scientist from doing tests and forming a hypothesis about how it works. In terms of consciousness and evolution, it’s clear that communication and memory can make you highly adaptable and more likely to survive. Any creature that evolved these capabilities would have a significant advantage over the others.

    Science will probably never be able to point to the event or mutation that triggered evolution of consciousness because it would have occurred many millions of years ago and is almost certainly not preserved in the fossil record. So attempting to critique science because of an inability to explain one specific thing is like trying to critique Christianity because you are unable to tell what, if anything, God had for breakfast this morning.

    • We would like to highlight some assumptions that you need to revisit:

      “Unlike religion, science isn’t required to have all of the answers.” Who says that religion has to have all the answers? Religion does not answer everything. It’s realm belongs to moral realities and finding the true purpose in life.

      “I’m not troubled that science doesn’t offer an ironclad answer to what consciousness is”
      It does not offer specific answers because it is outside its capabilities…Gravity, for example, belongs within it’s spectrum and as such it can form hypothesis (that by the way need to be proven). That’s why science and faith should complement each other.

      “Science will probably never be able to point to the event or mutation that triggered evolution of consciousness because it would have occurred many millions of years ago and is almost certainly not preserved in the fossil record.”
      Fossil records do not provide all the answers…scientist have used other methods to determine what, logically, could had happen millions of years ago.

      “So attempting to critique science because of an inability to explain one specific thing”
      This is not a critique, rather it sheds some light on the limitations of science…It can not provide “ironclad answers” for everything.

      “is like trying to critique Christianity because you are unable to tell what, if anything, God had for breakfast this morning.”
      Your parallelism is not adequate to your argument…

      Thanks for your comments and contributions
      QDVF

  2. I’ve been fasicinated by logic circuits, while I am not an electrical engineer, or a computer scientist, I find it fun to think about how important the actual pathways are to the functionality of the system, while of course taking into consideration logical operators, such as AND, OR and NOT, and the combinations produced with those primitives. The problem, in general I think with trying to argue that there is no such circuit possible for given behavior, is perhaps hard to make at times. Even if I am a “soul” existing in the “world” I most likely cannot prove my lack of existence to anyone. Perhaps I am just a machine 🙂

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