The origin of human consciousness

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Published: 12 July 2018 (GMT+10)
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Robert Fludd’s concept of human consciousness (a seventeenth century physician)

A recent survey by Newman University, Birmingham, is very revealing.1 1 in 5 UK atheists and 1 in 3 Canadian atheists are sympathetic to or even strongly agree with the statement, “Evolutionary processes cannot explain the existence of human consciousness.” They are not alone. In his book, Mind and Cosmos, philosopher Professor Thomas Nagel argues that the Darwinian process could not produce consciousness.2 (Being an atheist, however, he still clings to the belief that some as yet undiscovered natural process gave rise to it!)

Computers and intelligent machines might be very fast calculators but, ultimately, they only process information and make decisions determined by a program: they follow instructions blindly. In contrast, human beings are conscious, having a mind which is aware of both itself and its environment. We have perceptions, thoughts, feelings and beliefs, and make choices based upon them.

According to Professor Stuart Sutherland’s International Dictionary of Psychology,

“Consciousness is a fascinating but elusive phenomenon: it is impossible to specify what it is, what it does, or why it evolved. Nothing worth reading has been written on it.”3

Cognitive scientist Professor Jerry Fodor would agree. He wrote,

“Nobody has the slightest idea how anything material could be conscious. Nobody even knows what it would be like to have the slightest idea how anything material could be conscious.”4

It is appropriate for Sutherland and Fodor to express these sentiments as it would seem impossible for chemical reactions in the brain, however complex, to give rise to anything more than a sophisticated computer. Philosopher Professor Colin McGinn asks, “How could the aggregation of millions of individually insentient neurons generate subjective awareness?”5 The answer is that there is absolutely no reason to believe that they could.

Just an illusion?

Atheists sometimes argue that consciousness is simply an illusion. Cognitive scientist Professor Daniel Dennett is one. He wrote, “We’re robots, made of robots, made of robots.” Our brain cells, he says, are simply robots that respond to chemical signals. The motor proteins they create are robots. And so it goes on.6 But, since no science has ever demonstrated this to be true, it is no more than an assertion of Dennett’s godless materialistic worldview (see Consciousness is not an emergent property of matter). In fact, he rather hoists himself with his own petard by stating, “human consciousness is just about the last surviving mystery”.7 How can he speak authoritatively about something which he acknowledges he doesn’t understand?

Professor Susan Blackmore also maintains that consciousness is an illusion but her admission, “We can’t even begin to explain consciousness” renders her view wholly unscientific too.8 How can she possibly know the nature or origin of something that she can’t explain?

Twisted reality

Atheism requires of its advocates that they constantly think and act in ways that are contrary to that which appears to be plainly true. According to Francis Crick, the co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, “Biologists must constantly keep in mind that what they see was not designed, but rather evolved.”9 Nature appears to be designed; but, he says, we should view it as if it isn’t. Biological machines appear to be irreducibly complex; but Richard Dawkins tells us that we should believe that they’re not. We appear to be conscious beings; but atheists tell us that this is just an illusion. We all have a sense that we’re responsible for our actions; but, we’re told, this is not so and, in reality, our ‘moral choices’ are simply determined by brain chemistry.

True reality

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As usual, the known facts fit the biblical account of creation far better than they fit the evolution story. Even secular philosophers acknowledge that consciousness appears to transcend science and naturalistic explanations.10 Not only can they not explain it, but they can’t even define it. In contrast, the Bible provides a wholly satisfactory framework upon which to build an understanding of human nature.

According to the Bible, we are much more than a body, a biochemical mechanism. When we were created we were given an immaterial soul and a spiritual nature (Genesis 1:27; 2:7). Prior to the Fall (Genesis 3), our actions (the activities of the body) would have been entirely under the control of this immaterial aspect of our being. Now, due to sin, we battle with the desires of the flesh and can be dominated by addictions and lusts.

The good news, however, is that Christ died so that we might be set free. Even in this life, we can regain, in some measure, the control that Adam and Eve originally possessed (Romans 6:6; 7:24–25). And, in the next life, we will possess a sinless soul after that of our saviour, and a sinless body with which we will glorify Him for eternity.

References and notes

  1. Hall, A., Results of major new survey on evolution, Press release, Newman University, Birmingham, sciencereligionspectrum.org, 5 September 2017. Return to text.
  2. Nagel, T., Mind and Cosmos, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2012. Return to text.
  3. Chalmers, D.J., Conscious Mind, Oxford University Press, Oxford, p. 3, 1996. Return to text.
  4. Fodor, J.A., The big idea: can there be a science of mind? The Times Literary Supplement 4567:5–7, 1992. Return to text.
  5. McGinn, C., Can we solve the mind-body problem? In O’Connor, T. and Robb, D., eds, Philosophy of Mind: Contemporary readings, Routledge, London, pp. 438–457, 2003. Return to text.
  6. Buckley, A., Is consciousness just an illusion? bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-39482345, 4 April 2017. Return to text.
  7. Dennett, D., Consciousness Explained, Penguin Books, London, p. 21, 1991. Return to text.
  8. Blackmore, S., The grand Illusion: Why consciousness exists only when you look for it, New Scientist 2348:26–29, 22 June 2002. Return to text.
  9. Crick, F., What Mad Pursuit: A personal view of scientific discovery, Sloan Foundation Science, London, p. 138, 1988. Return to text.
  10. Tate, D., Consciousness: a problem for naturalism, Journal of Creation 21(1):29–32, April 2007. Return to text.

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Reader’s comments

Gert P.
Thank you for the article. I unfortunately have to disagree with regards to what the Bible teaches. To argue that Genesis 1:27; 2:7 teaches that we were given an immaterial soul is to misrepresent the plain words of that text. Gen 1:27 does not speak about an immaterial soul. You are injecting your own words into this text. The only thing one can conclude from Gen 1:27 is that we were made in His image, nothing more, nothing less. By what means, it does not elaborate. By concluding that it is through an immaterial soul is a conclusion not supported by the text.

Neither does Gen 2:7 teaches that we were given an immaterial soul. It teaches that we were given the breath of life (not some immaterial soul) and we became a living soul. Note, we became a living soul. We were not given a soul. Or to equate the breath of life we received to an immaterial soul is to bend that word into a meaning which is not supported by the Bible.

Not sure how you can conclude that the Bible teaches that we were given an immaterial soul. It is not supported by the Bible. Yes we have consciousness and consciousness started in Gen 2:7 and it has something to do with us being made in His image (Gen 1:27), but not through the receiving of some immaterial soul. It is words foreign to those passages and a conclusion not supported. Also watch out that you don't substitute the words soul and spirit with each other as if they are synonyms, they are not. Many Christians do and articles on Creation.com also does, however if one does a study on the meaning of these words as given by the Bible the only conclusion to draw is that they do not mean the same and can not be substituted with each other.

Faithfully His
Gert
Philip Bell
Dear Gert,

The author did not intend to imply that that Genesis 1:27 teaches that human beings were given an immaterial soul. That verse refers to “when we were created”. Regarding Genesis 2:7, however, and the distinction between Adam 'becoming' or 'being imparted with' a soul, the plain language does indeed teach the former. Indeed, the Apostle Paul writes: 'Thus it is written, “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit' (1 Corinthians 15:45; emphases added).

Nevertheless, this distinction between 'becoming' and 'impartation' (re: the soul) relates to the broader discussion of the bipartite versus tripartite view of human nature. You clearly favour the former since you wrote, "watch out that you don't substitute the words soul and spirit with each other as if they are synonyms, they are not." This is an issue on which sincere evangelical Christians hold different opinions. Some scholars (contemporary ones and some from centuries ago) agree with you that man is bipartite (dichotomous) with a material body and an immaterial aspect (soul/spirit; both words employed interchangeably) and find scriptural support for this; my colleague Jonathan Sarfati is of this opinion as he has pointed out in his writings. However, other evangelical scholars point to verses of Scripture that seem to indicate that man is tripartite (e.g. 1 Thessalonians 5:23); Dominic Statham takes this view. However, CMI has no corporate position on this issue.

Sarfati discusses "The components of man", both "Extra-biblical evidence for the non-material soul" and the "Dichotomous vs trichotomous view of man" in his commentary, The Genesis Account, pp. 302-309 (see creation.com/store for order details).

Kind regards.
Eddie C.
"Twisted Reality" might be better titled "Twisted Delusion". It truly amazes me how deep this delusion is becoming and how far it is separating people along ideological lines. While materialist are telling us that we must deny design, irreducible complexity, and consciousness the same thing is going on in the social realm where we're being told to deny what is evident about gender, sexuality, abortion, and so on. Things cannot get much uglier than Michelle Fox's celebration of abortion on her Netflix show that occurred on July 4th. Its hard for me to imagine how a person comes to the conclusion that abortion is morally acceptable, but its even harder for me to imagine how a person could become so delusional in their thinking that they actually celebrate it. Romans 1 though tells us that as people deny who God is, deny his creation, deny his sovereignty, that their minds will become depraved and they will take pleasure in things that are obviously corrupt. Those of us who see these things happening should realize that what is occurring only serves as additional evidence of the sovereignty of God and his Word.
Ben M.
This was a great article. However, like Gert I too find the conclusion problematic. If humans have an immaterial soul that their consciousness derived from then what did God really mean when He told Adam "Thou shalt surely die" if he ate the forbidden fruit? Genesis 2:17. Did He mean "thou shalt surely go to heaven or hell"? If so then that renders the word "death" meaningless. If God was really telling Adam that after biting the fruit there wouldn't be a break in his consciousness, but his conscience mind would simply transition from one place to another, then why use the word "death"? Some may argue that God meant the death of Adams body. But this makes no sense considering that one can supposedly feel both the pleasures of heaven and the pain of hell after one has detached from their mortal frame. If I can still feel then that renders having or not having a "body" meaningless. Going back to Genesis 2:17, since we're talking about Adam sinning we're not talking about going to heaven after "death". So what God is really supposedly saying to Adam is "Adam if you bite this fruit I'm going to stick you inside of a burning furnace for all eternity." If this is what God meant by "death" then there is no death. There is only eternal life in one place or another. Adam would not "die". Which is exactly what Satan told Eve in Genesis 3:4 "you will not surely die". If this is so then the Christian world is inadvertently teaching that it was Satan, not God who was telling the truth in the garden of Eden. This is what I find troubling about the traditional belief that we have an immaterial soul. It makes Satan out to be some kind of a hero and God and His word are rendered logically incoherent.
Philip Bell
Re: the meaning of "You will surely die" (Genesis 2:17) and the consequences of Adam and Eve's rebellion, this included the experience of guilt, condemnation and spiritual death (separation from fellowship with God) as well as physical death; see: Why did God impose the death penalty for sin?
Aiden B.
Astounding article! I often think how horrible it would be if the atheists/evolutionists were successful in brainwashing the majority (or all) of students in thinking consciousness is an illusion as they believe. If you have to be an atheist/evolutionist, you have to deny your God-given consciousness and replace it with wishful thinking as "It had to evolve somehow" or “Over time we should have the answer." Keep in mind, those are faith-based statements and certainly not science. The logical conclusion is, God created consciousness as told in Genesis, his word.
David C.
If consciousness is an illusion, atheists still have a problem. This means that I have absolutely no basis for trusting anything I learn from it. So much for reason, intellect, education, and pretty much everything else atheists pride themselves on.
Joey B.
Very interesting topic, I’ve seen it before but how do you argue with people who say they think free will is just an illusion and we are nothing more than, as that other guy states, robots... What would be the most optimal way? I find this to also be an extremely weak topic for atheists/evolutionists.
Richard S.
This interplay reminds me of Aristotle's dispute with Plato. Plato claimed that the form or idea of a thing is the only element of being that is real. The experienced entities themselves was degraded from the purity of the design or idea itself. Aristotle countered that ideas an unformed matter where never encountered in the real world; but only in combination in inseparable unity. This conclusion would indicate that the idea of the thing and its being brought into reality is comprehendible in, say, sculpture where the form and substance were united by the artist. Aristotle then turned to Heraclitus who was fascinated with movement (panta res) and brought him to the conclusion that there must be a prime mover who set all thing in motion. Genesis presents a much simpler case: dust and mist make up the unformed substance. God;s breath give shape and character to the clay and makes a living soul. So far, Aristotle is happy; but there the subject of creation of man ends and we are introduced to the study of human nature through observation of what the Living Soul of Adam and of Eve teaches us about ourselves and forms the richest source of knowledge on the subject of human nature, including its similarities as an image to meet God's assigned task of dominion, as well as his capacity for sin. The quest for information that would reveal something central to God's nature greets us with silence. The further pursuit of the knower's power to know is not addressed, so far as I have discovered, anywhere in Scripture. It's off limits in the same way that the tower builders of Babel were not permitted to rise so high as to look God in the eye and size him up. The subject to the Bible is mankind and his relationship to his Maker. Then, silence.
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