Friday, March 27, 2015

The Evolution of Consciousness

Sal Cordova at Uncommon Descent talks about how reflecting on the phenomenon of human consciousness as a high school student led him to doubt the Darwinian story:
I remember sitting in class and the biology teacher gave the standard talking points. But for some reason, the fact I was conscious did not seem reducible to evolutionary explanations. Strange that I would even be perplexed about it as a high school student, but I was. That was the beginning of my doubts about Darwin…

Years later, when I related the story to Walter ReMine, he explained to me that consciousness poses a serious problem for evolution.

He said something to the effect, “Say an animal has to flee a predator — all it has to do is run away. Why does it have to evolve consciousness in order to flee predators?” Mechanically speaking the animal can be programmed to flee, or even hunt, without having to be self-aware. Why does it have to evolve consciousness to do anything for survival?

Why would selection favor the evolution of consciousness? How does natural selection select for the pre-cursors of consciousness? I don’t think it can. Ergo, consciousness didn’t evolve, or it’s just a maladaptation, or an illusion — or maybe it is created by God. Materialists can say consciousness is an illusion all they want, but once upon a time, when my arm was broken in a hang gliding crash, I felt real pain. It would have been nice if consciousness were an illusion back then, but it wasn’t.
Somehow, at some point in our embryonic development consciousness arises, but how does a particular configuration of material stuff generate it? Dead people have the same configuration of matter in their brains (unless they suffered a head injury) that they had before dying and yet before death they were conscious and after death they are not. Why? What's missing after death?

How do physical processes like electrochemical reactions in the brain produce a belief, or a doubt, or understanding? How do atoms whirling about in our neuronal matrix give rise to our sense that the distant past is different from the recent past? How do chemical reactions translate a pattern of ink on paper into a meaning and how do firing synapses translate electrical pulses into the sensation of red? Not only does no one kno0w the answers to these questions, it's very hard to see how they even could have an answer if our material brain is the only entity responsible for them.

Consciousness is an incredibly intriguing phenomenon and not only is there no explanation of it in a materialist ontology, there's also no explanation for how it could ever have evolved through purely random physical, material processes.

Cordova has more at the link.