Materialism and Consciousness: an atheist talks

Consciousness makes evolutionary sense only if one does not start far enough back; if, that is to say, one fails to assume a consistent and sincere materialist position, beginning with a world without consciousness, and then considers whether there could be putative biological drivers for organisms to become conscious. This is the only valid starting point for those who look to evolution to explain consciousness, given that the history of matter has overwhelmingly been without conscious life, indeed without history. Once the viewpoint of consistent materialism is assumed, it ceases to be self-evident that it is a good thing to experience what is there, that it will make an organism better able so to position itself in the causal net as to increase the probability of replication of its genomic material. On the contrary, even setting aside the confusional states it is prone to, and the sleep it requires, consciousness seems like the worst possible evolutionary move.

If there isn’t an evolutionary explanation of consciousness, then the world is more interesting than biologists would allow. And it gets even more interesting if we unbundle different modes of consciousness. There are clearly separate problems in trying to explain on the one hand the transition to sentience and on the other the transition from sentience to the propositional awareness of human beings that underpins the public sphere in which they live and have their being, where they consciously utilise the laws of nature, transform their environment into an artefactscape, appeal to norms in a collective that is sustained by deliberate intentions rather than being a lattice of dovetailing automaticities, and write books such as The Origin of Species. Those who are currently advocating evolutionary or neuro-evolutionary explanations of the most complex manifestations of consciousness in human life, preaching neuro-evolutionary aesthetics, law, ethics, economics, history, theology etc, should consider whether the failure to explain any form of consciousness, never mind human consciousness, in evolutionary terms, might not pull the rug from under their fashionable feet.

Source: Atheist philosopher Raymond Tallis (The Philosophers Magazine)


So what do you guys think?

By John A. David

A student of theology, a bible teacher and a graphics designer. I ramble a lot about Christian faith, apologetics and atheism.

6 replies on “Materialism and Consciousness: an atheist talks”

First thing first…we all can acknowledge that the science of consciousness is a relatively new one, and there are many discoveries yet to be made. I don’t know that we even have a very good working definition of what “consciousness” even is!

So with that said, I think it is a stretch to conclude that consciousness is a bad evolutionary move altogether. Which is to say it is quite possible that there are very good evolutionary / biological reason for it. I am certain that biologists and neuroscientists are not throwing in the towel. They never do.

The second paragraph opens with a major premise: “If there isn’t an evolutionary explanation of consciousness…” and proceeds to appeal to irreducible complexity schemes that would follow such an idea. Well, as I’ve discussed, there is certainly no consensus that there ISN’T a good evolutionary explanation for consciousness, only that we haven’t understood the whole picture yet. Beyond that, scientists have indeed offered excellent explanation for biological phenomena that would otherwise appear to be irreducibly complex.

How could consciousness be a ‘bad’ evolutionary move? Just hoping you can elaborate on what you mean here.
What if consciousness through evolutionary processes is the universe’s way of trying to understand and observe itself? Consciousness also ensures better chances of survival – I can’t imagine the millions of millions amounts of plant species that have existed and died off before we ever knew they were there. These are just two starting points to consider that consciousness was in fact a good move in terms of evolution.

Meh. Ignoring the trouble people have agreeing on what constitutes consciousness, he’s right about the trend in evolutionary psychology and neuropsychology drifting from hypothesis generation into teleology. I guess it must be tempting given the difficulty making testable predictions in that realm. However, I’m also guessing that the author is an opponent of identity theory, based on his language, and his purpose is to cast mind-brain identity in a worse light based on the lack of a demonstrable evolutionary mechanism for the development of consciousness. If so, he should be more concerned about what the neuro-biologists and neuro-psych. guys are doing. Mind-brain identity is their working hypothesis, and since chasing the ghost out of the pineal gland, they have been busily sweeping up the rest of the brain – hence the need to speak of easy and hard problems of consciousness now (they all used to be hard). If the trend continues on that front, it will become very hard to deny at least token identity.

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