Could Consciousness Have Evolved?

I suspect the article that I’m about to write is going to annoy almost everyone, except for those who enjoy exploring genuine mysteries, even mysteries that challenge their existing beliefs.

Consciousness is a very woolly term, so lets focus on just one particular aspect of it, with which we’re all too familiar — the experience of physical pain. Now I ask you; could the experience of physical pain have evolved?

If you’re a “fundamentalist” Christian, you’ll answer “no”, since you will choose to believe that nothing significant can evolve. If you’re a materialist, you’ll likely answer “yes, of course it can — it did evolve”. Both of these answers are actually based on a combination of faith and misunderstanding.

Christians often misunderstand the theory of evolution by natural selection completely, making widly incorrect or irrelevant statements such as “complex beings cannot evolve by chance” (irrelevant, if you understand the theory properly) or “something as complex as the human eye could not have evolved” (incorrect). Evolutionary processes take place whenever the basic necessary conditions are in place; we can even program such conditions into a computer and literally evolve arbitrarily complex computer programs, limited only by the processing power and memory of the machine we’re using. Once the initial conditions are put in place, including a process mimicking natural selection that weeds out programs that are not fit for the purpose of their designated task, the evolution of a “well-designed” computer program takes place without human intervention.

I can well imagine, while I type this, a fundamentalist Christian picking apart my sentences and trying to explain to him or herself why they don’t make sense. If you’re that person, don’t waste your time like this. Instead, read a book that explains natural selection, genuinely try to understand it, and afterwards explain why you feel it’s wrong.

Materialists, on the other hand, are likely to feel that since we evolved and since we experience pain, the experience of pain has evolved. Let’s look at what’s wrong with this reasoning.

In my podcasts I’ve argued that a feeling, such as the feeling of pain, needs to be regarded as a separate entity to the processes of the brain that produce that feeling. I won’t reproduce my full explanations here, except to suggest listening to my podcasts and looking up the Knowledge Argument on Wikipedia. There is no clear reason why all our physical reactions to pain should not have evolved, including everything that happens physically in our brains. But the “inner” feeling of pain — that’s another matter. A truly matter-based machine, such as ourselves in the view of the materialist, should not have any inner sensation of pain, no matter what goes on with its senses, nerves, brain and facial expressions or vocalisations. And yet, we do have an “inner” experience of pain.

Materialists are prone to saying that consciousness is an emergent property of the brain, or that consciousness occurs when a system becomes “self aware”. These statements are pseudoscientific — no real meaning can be extracted from them. Materialists believes this kind of thing because they think — wrongly, as I explain in my podcasts — that the alternative is to say that we have a soul which affects the workings of our brains.

Suppose the inner sensation — the actual emotion — that goes along with inner pain had really evolved. At what point on the long evolutionary road from inanimate matter to us did this matter start to feel pain? And again, I’m not talking about sensing damage to itself and processing information relating to that damage; I’m talking about the actual emotional experience of being in pain. Did the ability to experience pain in this way suddenly appear when we reached a certain level of complexity? If so why; at what level of complexity did this occur and what caused it to occur? At what point did we go from having no inner emotional experience of pain (or anything else) at all, to having some merest smidgeon of inner emotional experience? Or do even atoms have some sort of primitive pain-like sensation, which was steadily magnified as our complexity increased?

Both ideas seem absurd, and these kinds of considerations force materialists to get into saying things like “our emotions are an illusion” or “the emotions and the brain are the same thing” — again, pseudoscientific, irrationalist statements, if you really think it through.

The problem goes away to a large extent if you postulate the existence of a sort of primitive, unfeeling consciousness as the basis of the universe. This consciousness expanded in complexity and began to experience all kinds of more complicated sensations as the universe progressed, in exactly the same way that the material universe is imagined by materialists to have started out as some sort of primitive singularity, which gradually developed increasing complexity.

The material universe, from this point of view, constitutes one set of sensations that this consciousness (which is really us) has diversified into experiencing.

I think this kind of theorising sounds unscientific only because science has so little explored this idea that it has allowed everyone else to adopt the language involved and mould it to their own ends. We do, after all, experience emotion, and if we’re honest, we’re more certain of that than of any fact in the material universe.

Does this point of view suggest that God exists, that telepathy is possible or that we can contact the ghosts of our ancestors? No, absolutely not, although admittedly it’s probably kinder to a belief in some sort of a God than materialism, which really does make the notion of any sort of god utterly ridiculous. The only thing that’s currently labelled as “superstition” by materialists which this theory seems to me to make more plausible, is the notion that we might survive our own bodily deaths — albeit probably not in a form that would please many Christians or spiritual people.

However, I created this site in the hope that we can gradually move away from talking about what we want to believe and move towards what we can figure out logically, and ultimately translate into hard science with experimentally verifiable predictions.

I’m not talking about ridiculous experiments in psychokinesis here, or anything like that; I’m talking about the development of a theory that starts with our experience as its basis rather than any notion of “matter”, moves from there to show how our notion of matter arises and why space as we perceive it must have three dimensions, finally going on to explaining why we observe the particular fundamental particles and forces that we do observe — including hopefully experimentally-verifiable predictions about the observable universe.

I sometimes like to watch videos of Professor Richard Dawkins debating the truth of evolution with Christians. Let’s be clear — evolution is true in the same way that a table is a table; but there’s a whole other level to both the table (the fact that it’s ultimately made of space, interacting fields and subatomic particles following the bizarre laws of quantum physics, for a start) and evolution. This fact should not encourage us to sway into superstition.

What strikes me about these videos of Dawkins is that none of the Christians who debate with him appear to understand evolution by natural selection. Dawkins appears to suspect that if they did understand it, they’d agree that it was true. I think many of them probably indeed would. I suspect that most people who fully understood the ideas that I’ve tried to put across here and in my podcast would agree that they were true if they fully understood them — but most people do not really want to fully understand them, since they contradict almost everyone’s core beliefs — whether you’re a “spiritual” person or an atheist.

What if — just, what if — the truth about the universe was more interesting and more glorious than any of the simplified views held by either religious people or most atheists? As soon as you start saying “it must be like this, I just feel that it’s like that”, you move away from whatever the truth might turn out to be. To have a chance of dealing with the truth of any particular subject (I’m talking here about truth in the scientific sense), you have to firstly commit to using logic and rationality, and secondly to investigating the matter very thoroughly. You have to accept that you’ll never actually fully get to the bottom of anything; truth is a journey. You also have to accept that there are many things — most things, in fact — that you will simply never know. The correct scientific response to those things is not to jump to a conclusion and stick to it, but to simply say “we don’t know yet; let’s consider investigating”.

One last remark — in case you’re wondering, no, I’m not trying to start a cult! I don’t have many answers here; most of what I have are questions and suggestions about things we can investigate. But I believe in calling a spade a spade; if there’s something that doesn’t fit with any of our existing scientific theories — and the existence of emotion, in my view, clearly doesn’t — let’s carefully examine the underlying presumptions of our theories before we find ourselves fitting a square peg into a round hole.

2 thoughts on “Could Consciousness Have Evolved?

    1. John Post author

      Hi Vinaire,

      Looks like a really good course! I once took some philosophy courses (to augment my physics degree), but in retrospect I think it’s much better just to study physics, read a bit of philosophy and figure out yourself what it might mean in terms of physics. Philosophers tend to confuse themselves will lots of words that never actually say anything testable, it seems.



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