August 2, 2021 | Jerry Bergman

On the Origin of Consciousness by Naturalistic Speculation

Consciousness, and How It Evolved, is the Greatest Mystery in the Universe!
It Baffles Scientists After Decades of Research.

 

 by Jerry Bergman, PhD

Last month, New Scientist magazine called consciousness “the greatest mystery in the universe.”[1] The writers in this special issue on consciousness affirm that consciousness resides in the brain, “the most complex thing in the universe.”[2] Theoretical physicist Michio Kaku added that

“The human brain has 100 billion neurons, each neuron connected to 10,000 other neurons. Sitting on your shoulders is the most complicated object in the known universe.” As long as humans have existed, people have sought to comprehend the brain. Although scholars have tried to decipher its codes for centuries, we’ve only scratched the surface.[3]

The more we learn about the brain, the more complex we realize it is, no matter how complexity is measured. Likewise, the more we learn about consciousness, the more complex we realize it is by any estimation. How a three-pound physical jelly-like brain creates the feeling of consciousness “is one of life’s greatest mysteries.”[4] Humans experience consciousness by a sense of self observing and to some extent controlling circumstances. Consciousness includes the ability to form mental pictures of past visual events and mental reconstructions of past sounds, such as a musical performances. Who has not replayed an entire song in their head?

Mention the words “Titanic” or “The Phantom of the Opera” to someone. Invariably, it creates memories of the music or images of the events. Many novelists create a work in their mind before beginning to write. The novel, including all the dialogue and the physical settings of events, begins in the head somehow.

Consciousness is the subjective awareness of a wide variety of stimuli, including pain, “smelling onions frying; feeling humiliated; [or] recognizing a friend in the crowd.”[5] Furthermore, most people understand there was a time when they did not exist, and there will be time in the future when they will no longer exist, at least in an earthly body. In contrast, most animals largely live in the present and are very little aware of their distant past or future, although sensations are stored in memory.

The Definition of Consciousness

Many definitions of consciousness involve simply being aware of one’s surroundings to academic definitions, such as the following by psychologist Gerald Edelmann in 2011:

In the vertebrates, consciousness is a dynamic, integrated, multimodal mental process entailed by physical events occurring in the forebrain.[6]

To say that consciousness is entailed by physical events is obvious but does not explain anything. The question is how do the physical events that occur in the forebrain produce an experience in the mind? We can explain in detail how a dam blocks water flow, or how light triggers reactions in the rods and cones of the retina, and how these sent to the occipital part of the brain for processing. But how do these electrical impulses create the mental picture of what was seen?

We know the brain sees, not the eye. The visual image produced by the signals ends up in the conscious mind, but we have no idea exactly where in the brain that mental picture exists (assuming it can be located at a specific physical location). When I think about the sights of Italy I saw during my last trip there, such as the leaning tower of Pisa, how does this mind-thought translate into the mental pictures that are produced in my mind? I looked at the leaning tower of Pisa. A vivid image of the tower was produced in my mind. How does this happen? And where is it in my brain so that it can be recalled years later in order to be “seen” again? We call this “visual memory” but, as the New Scientist article review below shows, we have no idea specifically where it is, or how it is recalled to enable us to see it again.

Can perception, sensation, conscious experience and communication be reduced to physical neurons?

Scientists Frame the Problem with an Evolutionary Materialistic Worldview

Secular definitions of consciousness are dependent on an evolutionary materialistic worldview, in which every aspect of organisms emerged physically by mutations over time with no design or plan. Materialism reduces everything to the physical. Evolutionary neurologists view “consciousness as a biological phenomenon, one that is a product of both evolution and development.”[7] Darwinian psychologists frame the question in materialistic terms. The story of consciousness, to them, is a biological story. It relates consciousness strictly to brain structure and dynamics “in a manner that is consistent with evolution.”[8]

Next: How the human got its consciousness.

Just-So Stories about the Origin of Consciousness

If the mystery of how a 1.3 kilogram organ can generate the feeling of ‘existing” and “being” is a problem some neurologists believe “can never be solved,” the evolution of the system is a much greater problem. Evolving consciousness only once is very problematic, but evolutionists believe consciousness must have evolved many times: the reason being, they say, that “signs of consciousness have been found in animals from at least three different phyla, suggesting it evolved more than once.”[9] They admit there  “are many ideas about how consciousness arises” in a conscious being, but all are just-so stories that read like word salads.

One just-so story in the New Scientist issue goes like this. Kate Douglas uses analogies and assertions to reinforce her own materialism:

[the] brain evolved to contain a model of how it represents itself. This attention schema is like a self-reflecting mirror. It is what creates the subjective feeling of consciousness. There is no “ghost in the machine” i.e., humans have no soul but are a purely material machine and consciousness is only a “mirage created by sophisticated neural mechanisms in the brain.”[10]

After reading these kind of explanations several times, they still sound like gibberish. They do not even provide ideas as to what empirical research needs to be done.

Douglas proposes another idea. She suggests that the

brain is a prediction machine, meaning that what we perceive is the brain’s best guesses about the causes of its sensory input. As a result, much of conscious experience and selfhood is based on what we expect, not what is there.[11]

Although this may be partly true, it does not shed light on how the brain evolved (if it did). It doesn’t even explain how it might work.

Yet another hypothesis she puts forth tries to reduce consciousness to a simple matter of mathematics and information flow.

Consciousness isn’t confined to brains. It arises in any system as a result of the way information moves between its subsystems. The degree of integration of this information is measured with a metric called phi. Any system with a phi of more than zero is conscious.

Once again, the word salad does not really explain anything, specifically how the physical brain becomes conscious.

Struggling to keep consciousness physical, Douglas presents an idea with a quantum mechanical flair. She proposes that the microtubules that exist in the brain can exist as a superposition of all possible states. This quantum system collapses into a single state when the microtubule mass exceeds a certain threshold, and “The collapse is what creates consciousness.”[12] I find this explanation neither rational nor understandable. How does a collapse of microtubule states create a mental picture of the Leaning Tower of Pisa?

The Emergence of Consciousness from Non-Consciousness

One evolutionary theory only restates naturalistic assumptions, namely, that “the neural structures and mechanisms underlying consciousness were selected during evolution because they allowed animals to plan and prepare for future eventualities.” This allows the “planning of adaptive behavior in a complex, changing environment.”[13] But again, usefulness cannot cause consciousness to emerge from non-consciousness. What mutation switched on the lights in the mind?

All of the evolutionary theories of consciousness discuss why consciousness is very useful (which is obvious), but none of them give a detailed account of how it could have evolved. The main evolutionary theory goes like this: a diverse set of neural circuits evolved that produce various neuromodulators. These systems were selected over evolutionary time for their contribution to longevity and reproductive success. And yet we all sense that many things going on in our minds have nothing to do with reproductive success.

The creation view, by contrast, is rich with mental experience. The brain was designed to facilitate not only survival but also to produce pleasure, such as illustrated by the universal enjoyment of music, dance, and social interaction.

Sometimes our conscious experiences can be annoying. A musical tune that plays over and over in our minds is called an earworm or involuntary musical imagery (INMI). An INMI is a catchy and/or memorable melody that continuously occupies a person’s mind long after it is no longer being heard. Why would evolution do that? If the brain is somehow replaying an electrical process in memory, then how does our sense of self recognize this as a phenomenon?

Multiple or Single Origins?

There exist a variety of conscious experiences in the animal kingdom. Dog owners know the wide variety of expressions and sensations that their pets have, even in sleep. All of this raises the question of when and how did consciousness first emerge. Was it from a single common ancestor? Or did it evolve independently along different lines?

University of Tübingen professor Andreas Nieder takes the multiple-origins view. He says that “consciousness probably emerged separately on multiple occasions, in much the same way that wings appeared separately in insects, birds and bats.”[14] Such an explanation is circular.

Eva Jablonka and Simona Ginsburg take the single-emergence view. In their book The Evolution of the Sensitive Soul, they argue that birds, mammals and all other “vertebrates inherited consciousness from a common ancestor.” If this single-origin theory is to be defended, consciousness must have emerged very early in evolution, around 530 million years ago. They suspect that certain groups of invertebrates, including honeybees and spiders may also have a measure of consciousness. If so, their earliest ancestors evolved consciousness prior to the first vertebrates. It would mean that all animals are conscious to varying degrees.

Editor note: Neither view makes sense unless one already assumes evolution. Are there genes for consciousness? If that were the case, one would expect very different types of consciousness to be observed due to mutations. In the single-origin view, descent with modification would dramatically alter the consciousness on different branches. In the multiple-origin view, the types of consciousness that “emerged” by chance would have nothing in common. The evolutionary explanations also ignore human exceptionalism, which entails many skills and experiences far beyond the need of survival – such as spirituality, creativity, hunger for meaning and purpose in life – and even speculating on the origin of consciousness!

No wonder there is very little agreement in the field. The gradual development of consciousness by chance, regardless of whether it evolved once or many times, is extremely problematic. The main reason for the lack of agreement is that the ideas so far proposed lack empirical rigor from broad observational data. They consist of speculations based on materialist assumptions and prior belief in Darwinian evolution.

Conclusions

Understandably, the-evolution-of-consciousness field is “fraught with disagreements.” The most difficult problem, the “hard problem of consciousness,” is to explain subjective conscious experiences: the redness of an apple, the sound of a guitar, the comfort of understanding a thought. The nerve impulses brought to the brain by the senses do not account for these qualia or internal experiences we feel from them. In her article in New Scientist, Emma Young admits, “Consciousness poses the most baffling problem in the science of the mind…. The puzzle is how a 1.3 kilogram organ with the consistency of tofu can generate the feeling of being.” Cognition experts who have worked on the problem for decades believe this problem “can never be solved – it is beyond the capabilities of human cognition.”[15]

Consciousness is the greatest mystery in the universe in spite of decades of research and speculation. It appears to be spatially located in the brain, and the brain is scientifically recognized as the most complicated object in the known universe. However, speculation in the field is rampant and theories that attempt to explain its function and origin do not easily lend themselves to empirical verification.

We know the site of visual processing is located in the occipital part of the brain, but we do not know, other than in the broadest terms, how it processes or where we “see” visual images. Nor do we know how can we see in our mind’s eye the picture picked up by the retina. This special issue in New Scientist, even though it promises that “we are starting to crack” how consciousness works and the mystery of its evolution falls far short of its overly optimistic claims.

References

[1] Cover title of New Scientist, 10-16 July 2021.

[2] BBC News. 2012. The brain is the ‘most complex thing in the universe’, May 29. https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-scotland-18233409.

[3] Bartucca , Julie. 2018. The Most Complicated Object in the Universe. University of Connecticut Health Journal, March 16. (UConn Today, posted July 20, 2021.) https://today.uconn.edu/2018/03/complicated-object-universe/.

[4] Young, Emma. 2021. Consciousness Expanded. New Scientist, July 10, p. 34.

[5] Young, 2021, p. 34.

[6] Edelman, Gerald M, et al. 2011. Biology of consciousness. .Frontiers in Psychology 2:4, January 25, doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2011.00004.

[7] Edelman, et al., 2011.

[8] Edelman, et al., 2011.

[9] Douglas, Kate. 2021. When did consciousness evolve? New Scientist, February 17, .p. 39.

[10] Douglas, 2021, p. 39.

[11] Douglas, 2021, p. 39.

[12] Douglas, 2021, p. 39.

[13] Edelman, et al., 2011.

[14] Douglas, 2021, p. 39.

[15] Young, 2021, p. 34.


Dr. Jerry Bergman has taught biology, genetics, chemistry, biochemistry, anthropology, geology, and microbiology for over 40 years at several colleges and universities including Bowling Green State University, Medical College of Ohio where he was a research associate in experimental pathology, and The University of Toledo. He is a graduate of the Medical College of Ohio, Wayne State University in Detroit, the University of Toledo, and Bowling Green State University. He has over 1,300 publications in 12 languages and 40 books and monographs. His books and textbooks that include chapters that he authored are in over 1,500 college libraries in 27 countries. So far over 80,000 copies of the 40 books and monographs that he has authored or co-authored are in print. For more articles by Dr Bergman, see his Author Profile.

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