July 7, 2006 | David F. Coppedge

Evolving Consciousness Without a Soul

A paper tackling the theory of consciousness begins,

Any scientific study of consciousness is based on the premise that phenomenal experience is entailed by neuronal activity in the brain.  Given this premise, an adequate theory of consciousness must be consistent with physics and with evolutionary principles.  Nonphysical or dualistic forces or processes must be excluded, and neural mechanisms of consciousness must emerge ontogenetically and provide adaptive advantage to a species via the ongoing exchange of signals among brains, bodies, and environments.  Ideally, a theory of consciousness should propose neural mechanisms that account for its various features, which range from the multimodal characteristics of conscious scenes to the emergence of a first-person perspective.  An adequate theory should also consider whether certain of these features are susceptible to a quantitative analysis.

Unfortunately, Seth et al., writing in PNAS,1 admitted that a fully quantitative theory seems elusive, and “a satisfactory theory is likely to be one that combines both qualitative and quantitative elements.”  They surveyed various approaches to understanding consciousness as an emergent property of physical neurons, but admitted in the end, the complexity of the mind-body problem is intractable to simple approaches:

The various dimensions of relevant complexity discussed here require different strategies for their quantitative characterization.  Although we have considered several presently available candidate measures of the balance between differentiation and integration in the spatial domain, measures appropriate for the analysis of neural systems in the temporal and recursive domain remain to be adequately specified.

They add, “Given that consciousness is a rich biological phenomenon, a satisfactory neural theory of consciousness must avoid reductionistic excess.”  Any theory that relies on one measure is likely to be excessively reductionistic, they explain.  “Even so, some aspects of consciousness are likely to resist quantification altogether.”  That’s why an evolutionary, naturalistic theory of consciousness is likely to be “one that consists of a combination of qualitative and quantitative elements.”


1Seth et al., “Theories and measures of consciousness: An extended framework,“ Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, 10.1073/pnas.0604347103, published online before print July 3, 2006.

Is it any wonder that when science restricts itself to physical causes, it comes up with physical explanations?  It is any wonder that such explanations are often reductionist and unsatisfactory?  (Notice that these scientists are not against reductionism per se – just excessive reductionism.)  C. S. Lewis argued that modernism is not an inductive enterprise, but deduction from a prior commitment to the position that matter is all there is.  Here, in the opening sentences of this paper published by the National Academy of Sciences, they have just shown themselves guilty as charged.
    Consciousness is one of the greatest enigmas of all to an evolutionist.  What is this seemingly immaterial phenomenon that gives us our sense of self, duty, purpose, longing and choice?  Why does our consciousness so often look beyond itself and mere survival, and ask questions about ultimate meaning?  Why can it deny itself and defy survival for altruistic purposes?  Why does it create art and music, and sense a source to whom it is responsible?  The problem of consciousness has baffled theologians, philosophers and the man in the street since Adam (ever notice the “Wherever you go, there you are” sensation?)  The mind-body problem is one of the biggest of all philosophical problems.  The body clearly influences the mind, and vice versa, but what is the nature of the connection?  Just what is this thing we call consciousness?  Descartes was sure it was nonphysical (I think, therefore “I” am), but the atomists and some Enlightenment elitists wanted to include it in the physicalist box along with everything else.  Unquestionably, theologians have always considered human consciousness as something “other” than physical stuff, whether calling it soul or spirit.  (This is different than the life principle animating animals, since they [as far as we know] do not manifest the human qualities of self, rationality, choice, religion and true altruism.)  Today’s evolutionary biologists say to all the great thinkers of history, “Step aside, we can tackle this one,” assuming that MRIs and better instrumentation and math will improve their chances of success.  Their record shows otherwise.
    So-called scientific psychology is a mishmash of conflicting opinions and paradigm upsets.  In the late 19th century, consciousness was “in.”  During the behaviorist fad, it was “out.”  Now it’s “in” again, but in a reductionist, evolutionary sense.  Freud invented the idea that consciousness was mere foam on a sea of Unconsciousness that actually controlled our behavior, but now Freudianism is out.  (One could ask, was his theory generated by his Unconscious?)  No matter the fad, no matter the presuppositions, no matter the bravado the naturalists display, consciousness continues to defy reification.  The very idea of a conscious mind trying to understand itself as collection of matter in motion seems inherently self-contradictory.  Yet the evolutionist must live with this contradiction and try to make the best of it.  It’s no surprise, therefore, that these authors ended up procrastinating their scientific theory of consciousness into the never-never land of The Future and admitted that it will probably never be quantifiable.
    The theory of consciousness sought in this paper is part and parcel of the evolutionary world view.  But what if evolution is wrong?  Why should one accept their stated presuppositions?  The fact that they have no answer argues against accepting their premise.  Think about it.  See?  You just illustrated our point.
    One cannot get from observation of the physical world to consciousness without the key, and the key is inferring a Mind that can create minds.  Out of nothing, nothing comes.  When you throw away the key, even if you’re having fun wandering around, you’re lost.

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Categories: Human Body

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