Essay / Philosophy

The Argument from Consciousness

Consciousness is among the most mystifying features of the cosmos. Geoffrey Madell opines that “the emergence of consciousness, then is a mystery, and one to which materialism signally fails to provide an answer.”[i] Naturalist Colin McGinn claims that its arrival borders on sheer magic because there seems to be no naturalistic explanation for it: “How can mere matter originate consciousness? How did evolution convert the water of biological tissue into the wine of consciousness? Consciousness seems like a radical novelty in the universe, not prefigured by the after-effects of the Big Bang; so how did it contrive to spring into being from what preceded it?”[ii] Finally, naturalist William Lyons argues that “[physicalism] seem[s] to be in tune with the scientific materialism of the twentieth century because it [is] a harmonic of the general theme that all there is in the universe is matter and energy and motion and that humans are a product of the evolution of species just as much as buffaloes and beavers are. Evolution is a seamless garment with no holes wherein souls might be inserted from above.”[iii]

Lyons’ reference to souls being “inserted from above” appears to be a veiled reference to the explanatory power of theism for consciousness. Some argue that, while finite mental entities may be inexplicable on a naturalist worldview, they may be explained by theism, thereby furnishing evidence for God’s existence.

The Nature of the Mental

I believe those who argue this way are correct, and in what follows, I shall say why I think this way. As a preliminary, I shall assume a commonsense understanding of mental states such as sensations, thoughts, beliefs, desires, volitions and the selves that have them. So understood, mental states are in no sense physical since they possess five features not owned by physical states:

(a) there is a raw qualitative feel or a “what it is like” to have a mental state such as a pain;

(b) at least many mental states have intentionality—ofness or aboutness—directed towards an object;

(c) mental states are inner, private and immediate to the subject having them;

(d) they require a subjective ontology—namely, mental states are necessarily owned by the first person sentient subjects who have them;

(e) mental states fail to have crucial features (e.g., spatial extension, location) that characterize physical states and, in general, cannot be described using physical language.

The Argument from Consciousness

As mentioned in the introduction, many believe that finite minds provide evidence of a Divine Mind as their creator. If we limit our options to theism and naturalism, it is hard to see how finite consciousness could result from the rearrangement of brute matter; it is easier to see how a Conscious Being could produce finite consciousness since, according to theism, the Basic Being is Himself conscious. Thus, the theist has no need to explain how consciousness can come from materials bereft of it. Consciousness is there from the beginning. To put the point differently, in the beginning there were either particles or the Logos. If you start with particles and just rearrange them according to physical law, you won’t get mind. If you start with Logos, you already have mind.

To expand on this, at least four reasons have been offered for why there is no natural scientific explanation for the existence of mental states (or their regular correlation with physical states):

(a) The uniformity of nature. Prior to the emergence of consciousness, the universe contained nothing but aggregates of particles/waves standing in fields of forces relative to each other. The story of the development of the cosmos is told in terms of the rearrangement of micro-parts into increasingly more complex structures according to natural law. On a naturalist depiction of matter, it is brute mechanical, physical stuff. The emergence of consciousness seems to be a case of getting something from nothing. In general, physico-chemical reactions do not generate consciousness, not even one little bit, but they do in the brain, yet brains seem similar to other parts of organisms bodies (e.g., both are collections of cells totally describable in physical terms). How can like causes produce radically different effects? The appearance of mind is utterly unpredictable and inexplicable. This radical discontinuity seems like an inhomogeneous rupture in the natural world. Similarly, physical states have spatial extension and location but mental states seem to lack spatial features. Space and consciousness sit oddly together. How did spatially-arranged matter conspire to produce non-spatial mental states? From a naturalist point of view, this seems utterly inexplicable.

(b) Contingency of the mind/body correlation. The regular correlation between types of mental states and physical states seems radically contingent. Why do pains instead of itches, thoughts or feelings of love get correlated with specific brain states? No amount of knowledge of the brain state will help to answer this question. For the naturalist, the regularity of mind/body correlations must be taken as contingent brute facts. But these facts are inexplicable from a naturalistic standpoint, and they are radically sui generis compared to all other entities in the naturalist ontology. Thus, it begs the question simply to announce that mental states and their regular correlations with certain brain states is a natural fact. As naturalist Terence Horgan acknowledges, “in any metaphysical framework that deserves labels like ‘materialism’, ‘naturalism’, or ‘physicalism’, supervenient facts must be explainable rather than being sui generis.”[iv] Since on most depictions, the theistic God possesses libertarian freedom, God is free to act or refrain from acting in various ways. Thus, the fact that the existence of consciousness and its precise correlation with matter is contingent fits well with a theistic personal explanation that takes God’s creative action to have been a contingent one. God may be a necessary being, but God’s choice to create conscious beings and to correlate certain types of mental states with certain types of physical states were contingent choices, and this fits nicely with the phenomena themselves.

(c) Epiphenomenalism and causal closure. Most naturalists believe that their worldview requires that all entities whatever are either physical or depend on the physical for their existence and behavior. One implication of this belief is commitment to the causal closure of the physical. On this principle, when one is tracing the causal antecedents of any physical event, one will never have to leave the level of the physical. Physical effects have only physical causes. Rejection of the causal closure principle would imply a rejection of the possibility of a complete and comprehensive physical theory of all physical phenomena—something that no naturalist should reject. Thus, if mental phenomena are genuinely non-physical, then they must be epiphenomena–effects caused by the physical that do not themselves have causal powers. But epiphenomenalism is false. Mental causation seems undeniable and, thus, for the naturalist the mental can be allowed to have causal powers only if it is in some way or another identified with the physical. The admission of epiphenomenal non-physical mental entities may be taken as a refutation of naturalism. As naturalist D. M. Armstrong admits, “I suppose that if the principles involved [in analyzing the single all-embracing spatio-temporal system which is reality] were completely different from the current principles of physics, in particular if they involved appeal to mental entities, such as purposes, we might then count the analysis as a falsification of Naturalism.”[v]

(d) The inadequacy of evolutionary explanations. Naturalists are committed to the view that, in principle, evolutionary explanations can be proffered for the appearance of all organisms and their parts. It is not hard to see how an evolutionary account could be given for new and increasingly complex physical structures that constitute different organisms. However, organisms are black boxes as far as evolution is concerned. As long as an organism, when receiving certain inputs, generates the correct behavioral outputs under the demands of fighting, fleeing, reproducing and feeding, the organism will survive. What goes on inside the organism is irrelevant and only becomes significant for the processes of evolution when an output is produced. Strictly speaking, it is the output, not what caused it, that bears on the struggle for reproductive advantage. Moreover, the functions organisms carry out consciously could just as well have been done unconsciously. Thus, both the sheer existence of conscious states and the precise mental content that constitutes them is outside the pale of evolutionary explanation. As Howard E. Gruber explains:

the idea of either a Planful or an Intervening Providence taking part in the day-to-day operations of the universe was, in effect, a competing theory [to Darwin’s version of evolution]. If one believed that there was a God who had originally designed the world exactly as it has come to be, the theory of evolution through natural selection could be seen as superfluous. Likewise, if one believed in a God who intervened from time to time to create some of the organisms, organs, or functions found in the living world, Darwin’s theory could be seen as superfluous. Any introduction of intelligent planning or decision-making reduces natural selection from the position of a necessary and universal principle to a mere possibility.[vi]

For these reasons, consciousness provides evidence for God’s existence and against evolutionary naturalism.[vii]


[i] Geoffrey Madell, Mind and Materialism (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1988), p. 141.

[ii] Colin McGinn, The Mysterious Flame ( N.Y.: Basic Books, 1999), pp. 13-14.

[iii] William Lyons, “Introduction,” in Modern Philosophy of Mind, ed. by William Lyons, (London: Everyman, 1995), p. lv.

[iv] Terence Horgan, “Nonreductive Materialism and the Explanatory Autonomy of Psychology,” in Naturalism, ed. Steven J. Wagner, Richard Warner (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1993), pp. 313-14.

[v] D. M. Armstrong, “Naturalism: Materialism and First Philosophy,” Philosophia 8 (1978): 262.

[vi] Howard E. Gruber, Darwin on Man: A Psychological Study of Scientific Creativity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974), p. 211.

[vii] For more on this, see J. P. Moreland, Consciousness and the Existence of God (London: Routledge, 2008).

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