5. Argument from Consciousness

by Blake

There are some things in this world that are such an integral part of our daily existence that we don’t notice what mysterious anomalies they are.  One such anomaly is our consciousness.  Think for a moment about your mind (as opposed to your brain).  The mind is really a singular thing in this world in that it contains consciousness.  Consciousness consists of sensations, thoughts, beliefs, desires and volitions and we experience nothing else remotely like it in this world.  While everything we experience in this world is physical, this is a distinctly nonphysical (and yet very real) thing.  But there are other curious properties that also make it unique, such as the subjective feelings associated with it – when you look at the color red, you get a real sense of the redness of red, rather than just detecting a particular wavelength of light.  Or consider the ability of consciousness to have thoughts about another thing.  Nothing else we know of has this property of aboutness.  To the Naturalist, who believes the world is nothing but what we experience in the natural world, consciousness fits awkwardly among everything else.  What is the origin of consciousness?  Why isn’t it like everything else?  There is a vast array of mental phenomena planted right here in the middle of this natural world and the atheist worldview cannot reasonably account for it.

We can account for how material things came about – smaller bits of material combining in different ways to form atoms, then molecules and so forth.  But it is difficult to see how consciousness could have come about.  It is a whole other type of thing.  Combining material in any which way will only give you more and more complex combinations of material.  What reason is there to think that it could ever give you consciousness?  How could a particular combination of atoms that make up the brain give rise to our entire mental lives?

The Christian believes that there is a mind that created the universe and that it created humans in the same image.  You can see how well the fact of consciousness fits in within the millennia-old Christian worldview.  In this worldview, a consciousness (rather than material) made another consciousness.

The fact that consciousness is a difficulty for Naturalism is well acknowledged by Naturalists and atheists themselves:

“There is an embarrassing absurdity in [naturalism] that is revealed as soon as the naturalist reflects and acknowledges that he believes his naturalistic theory of the world… I mean he cannot say it and consistently regard it as true.” – Barry Stroud

“Evolutionary theorists have suggested that ‘conscious intelligence’ is an evolved trait, but they have never shown how a nonphysical variation could arise [in the first place] to be selected by physical contingencies of survival.” – B.F. Skinner

“Whatever one may think about the possibility of a designer, the prevailing doctrine – that the appearance of life from dead matter and its evolution through accidental mutation and natural selection to its present forms has involved nothing but the operation of physical law – cannot be regarded as unassailable.” – Thomas Nagel

One way in which the Naturalist deals with consciousness is by saying that although consciousness may be unlike anything else in this world, it is just a brute fact that lies in a category of its own.  Sui generis is the term often given, which comes from Latin meaning “of its own kind.”  Here we have a thing completely unlike any other thing in this world and we cannot see how it is connected to this world, but we will call it just a brute fact in its own category.  This seems like a cop-out.  Couldn’t you explain any supernatural miracle with the same rational?  (Perhaps Jesus walking on water, or the resurrection itself could be explained away as sui generis.)  You cannot close the case on phenomena that don’t fit into your worldview by simply using the label, “special exception.”  It must somehow be incorporated into your worldview, or your worldview must be altered to accommodate it.

Another way a Naturalist deals with consciousness is by reasoning that when neurons fire in the brain, consciousness supervenes on them and this renders consciousness just a secondary property of the neural firings.  The analogy made is that of water.  Water is composed of molecules which are just two atoms of Hydrogen and one atom of Oxygen.  A single water molecule does not possess the property of liquidity, but when you have a collection of these water molecules, the property of liquidity supervenes on them.

But the water/liquidity relationship is different than the neuron/consciousness relationship in that scientists understand why the structure of water causes the property of liquidity.  J.P. Moreland describes this explanation:

“Liquidity may be understood as the property of flowing freely, which, in turn, may be characterized in terms of friction, flexibility of bonding angles, degree of spatial compactness, and so forth.  In short, liquidity is a structural property and, as such, liquidity constitutively supervenes “upon” a collection of water molecules.  There is no causal relation here.  Liquidity just is a feature of nonrigid motion constituted by a subvenient base.  Thus, it is plausible to deny a “link” between liquidity and a swarm of water molecules.”

In the case of the neuron/consciousness relationship, although neuroscientists have found some correlation between simple brain states and simple mind states (such as pain), no description analogous to water has been possible.

Neither the Theist, nor the Naturalist has any idea how consciousness came about, but they each have an opinion on the origin of consciousness.  To the Naturalist, that origin is matter.  To the Theist, that origin is another consciousness.  Both explanations are extraordinary, but the latter is more plausible than the former.