The origin of human consciousness
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?
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.
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
- Hall, A., Results of major new survey on evolution, Press release, Newman University, Birmingham, sciencereligionspectrum.org, 5 September 2017. Return to text.
- Nagel, T., Mind and Cosmos, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2012. Return to text.
- Chalmers, D.J., Conscious Mind, Oxford University Press, Oxford, p. 3, 1996. Return to text.
- Fodor, J.A., The big idea: can there be a science of mind? The Times Literary Supplement 4567:5–7, 1992. Return to text.
- 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.
- Buckley, A., Is consciousness just an illusion? bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-39482345, 4 April 2017. Return to text.
- Dennett, D., Consciousness Explained, Penguin Books, London, p. 21, 1991. Return to text.
- 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.
- Crick, F., What Mad Pursuit: A personal view of scientific discovery, Sloan Foundation Science, London, p. 138, 1988. Return to text.
- Tate, D., Consciousness: a problem for naturalism, Journal of Creation 21(1):29–32, April 2007. Return to text.