Where do our minds come from? Why is there consciousness attached to certain complex physical systems? Mental phenomena are so utterly unlike physical phenomena that many people have found it strange that they exist in such a close relationship as the one we observe between our minds and our bodies. How can this be explained?
What I call the noetic argument for God’s existence, also called the argument from consciousness, says that the best explanation for the existence and embodiment of our minds is found in the creative design of God. This argument has been growing in popularity over the last few decades, and variations of it have been advanced by philosophers such as Richard Swinburne, Robert Adams, and J.P. Moreland.
(You can find a lengthy and pretty technical article defending the argument from consciousness by Moreland here, if you’re interested. I will try to make my presentation of it a little more accessible.)
Here is a basic way of formulating the noetic argument:
- Consciousness exists and is correlated with certain physical phenomena.
- If consciousness exists and is thus correlated, it either has a natural scientific explanation or a supernatural explanation.
- It does not have a natural scientific explanation.
- If consciousness has a supernatural explanation, then God exists.
- Therefore, God exists.
The conclusion follows logically from the four premises. So as usual, if the premises are true (or more plausibly true than false), then the conclusion is as well.
By consciousness I mean the various sorts of mental experiences we have, understood as irreducibly non-physical phenomena. Generally speaking, there are three options for accommodating the fact of our conscious experience in one’s worldview. Either:
- consciousness exists irreducibly (property or substance dualism), or
- it can be reduced to physical phenomena (reductive physicalism), or
- it simply does not exist at all (eliminativism).
I have written about the existence and non-physicality of mental phenomena at length in a previous series of posts, so here I want to look at things from a slightly different angle by considering the alternatives to dualism.
Eliminativism is the view that there actually are no such things as mental phenomena, and that we are all deluded into thinking that there are by antiquated attempts to explain human behaviour. Honestly, I cannot evaluate it as anything other than absurd. It is the belief that there are no beliefs. I think it represents the pinnacle of human capacity for self-delusion.
Consciousness and qualia exist. To say that they we are merely fooled into thinking that they exist when they do not, that the mental phenomena we experience are illusions, is simply incoherent. An illusion is itself a subjective experience. There can be no illusion if there is no one to experience the illusion and nothing there to be experienced in the first place.
So consciousness exists, and it must therefore exist either reducibly or irreducibly. There are differing definitions of what it means to reduce mental phenomena to physical phenomena. I construe reductive physicalism broadly as any theory which effectively says that mental phenomena are really just physical phenomena (arranged appropriately), whether or not they can provide necessary and sufficient conditions for when a mental state is realized. This encompasses functionalism, as well as type and token mind-brain identity theories.
Reductive physicalism is little better than eliminativism, however – it simply fails to accommodate the evidence that mental phenomena really are non-physical. Our conscious experiences have essential properties, such as their first-person privileged access and subjective quality, which simply cannot be construed as “physical” by any reasonable definition of that word. These theories have other problems, but they can generally be traced back to this one.
The failures of reductive physicalism are what have led philosophers of mind to the position of eliminativism. John Searle, commenting on the trend towards this extreme position, said this:
“Earlier materialists argued that there aren’t any such things as separate mental phenomena, because mental phenomena are identical with brain states. More recent materialists argue that there aren’t any such things as separate mental phenomena because they are not identical with brain states. I find this pattern very revealing, and what it reveals is an urge to get rid of mental phenomena at any cost.” – John Searle
The decline of reductive physicalism is also now leading to an increase in the popularity of non-reductive variants. Usually these are formulated in terms of emergence. The idea is that mental phenomena emerge as a new kind of behaviour in complex physical systems. Weak emergence denies that this process involves any genuinely novel properties: it seems to me that this is just a form of reductive physicalism that doesn’t even bother giving an explanation for how the reduction occurs.
Strong emergence, on the other hand, admits that the new level of phenomena involves new properties which are not reducible to the lower-level properties of the complex system. This, of course, is just an acceptance of property dualism.
Given that the alternatives are to accept, reduce, or eliminate, I find the only tenable position is to accept that consciousness exists and is irreducibly non-physical. Since the fact that our mental phenomena are correlated with certain physical phenomena is not contested, this justifies the first premise of the noetic argument.
Explanations of Consciousness
The way that consciousness is correlated with physical states of affairs in our embodied existence is not plausibly taken to be a necessary fact. We can easily imagine inverted qualia worlds (possible worlds where people experience blue where we would experience red and vice versa, for example) and even absent qualia worlds (possible worlds containing David Chalmer’s philosophical zombies).
Because physics makes no reference to the subjective qualities of consciousness, any of these worlds is on par with ours as far as the physical realm goes. Therefore, it is arbitrary and ad-hoc to assert that the mental-physical correlations in our world are metaphysically necessary: there would be just as much justification for claiming that different correlations were necessary, if they happened to be true. So consciousness attached to biological life is a contingent feature of reality.
Now the principle of sufficient reason steps in, requiring an explanation for these contingent mental phenomena. Since I have argued for the PSR and its corollaries in a couple different posts now, I will just restate the cost of denying it: one must also deny the validity of all abductive and inductive reasoning, a highly anti-scientific and irrational move. So consciousness must have an explanation.
My claim in the second premise of the noetic argument is that this must be either a natural scientific explanation or a supernatural explanation. By natural I mean the opposite of supernatural: involving only entities within our spatiotemporal material universe, as opposed to entities transcending our universe.
Since science is the rational and empirical study of nature, it seems to me that the only satisfactory natural explanation will be a scientific one, an explanation in terms of the laws of nature. Anything else would be to admit that consciousness is a mysterious and unfathomable aspect of nature which does not operate according to regularities, as the rest of nature does. (Indeed, if we follow C.S. Lewis’s insightful characterization of nature in his work Miracles, this would exclude consciousness from being part of nature by definition.)
So if the only natural explanation was non-scientific, this would be a serious concession of deficiency on the part of the natural explanation, and inference to the best explanation would then favour the supernatural one. And since the explanation must be either natural or not (that is, supernatural) – those are the only options – this justifies the second premise.
Natural Scientific Explanation of Consciousness
Philosophical naturalism is the belief that there is nothing beyond the universe. Everything that exists is either a part of our spatiotemporal material universe, or if not, it is completely dependent on entities that are. The explanatory appeal of naturalism comes from what J.P. Moreland calls its Grand Story, its sweeping account of how everything came to be from the basic principles of nature.
The Grand Story of naturalism is this: from the hot, dense matter and energy present in the early universe, quarks and electrons formed into atoms, resulting in a thin gas of mostly hydrogen as the universe expanded; under the influence of gravity this gas collapsed into stars and formed galaxies; nuclear fusion in stars produced heavier elements allowing the formation of planets and simple organic compounds. And all of this happened according to the laws of physics.
Then on at least one planet, some prebiotic organic compounds happened to form into some kind of primitive self-replicating molecule or system, and life began. But there is no life force, no special principles governing living things: biology is just chemistry, and chemistry is just physics. The mechanisms of evolution led to an increase in biological complexity over billions of years, which eventually led to where we are today. And again, all of this happened according to the laws of physics.
The great explanatory power and scope of the Grand Story makes it a compelling view for many people in modern society. But despite its appeal, it doesn’t work. It does nothing to explain consciousness. Every form of reductive physicalism has failed – indeed, it seems evident to me that attempts to reduce the mental realm to the physical can never succeed, even in principle – and that leaves us with genuine non-physical phenomena that are not found anywhere in the Grand Story.
In the article that I linked above, Moreland argues convincingly that any move to amend the Grand Story to include these non-physical phenomena is somewhat ad-hoc. The whole point of the Grand Story is that everything can be reduced to a few basic physical principles, and consciousness can’t. Consciousness is not at home in naturalism; it doesn’t fit in. And this is a problem for naturalism, because consciousness is at home in the best alternative explanation, theism.
To maintain a claim on explanatory superiority, naturalism wants to be able to explain consciousness while retaining the theme of reducing everything to a few fundamental natural laws. Ideally, in order to do that, it should have the following features:
1. Mental phenomena are necessitated by and entirely dependent on physical phenomena.
2. Because they are entirely dependent on macroscopic physical phenomena, mental phenomena have a discernible spatial location and extent.
3. Physics is causally closed; physical phenomena are not affected by mental phenomena.
4. Failing that, at least mental phenomena operate according to passive cause-and-effect; they have no active power to cause events of their own volition.
5. Mental phenomena, like physical, should be built up from basic units into more complex ones, and the natural laws governing their behaviour should operate on the basic units of both the mental and the physical realm.
1. It isn’t at all plausible to think that the mental-physical correlations we observe are necessitated by the laws of physics. The correlations seem entirely contingent, and within naturalism they have to be postulated as arbitrary brute facts. Moreover, it is not clear that mental phenomena are entirely dependent on the physical realm – some features of our conscious experience are especially difficult to explain that way.
(For a clear explication of one such feature, see the section “Intentional states and rational inference” in this article by Victor Reppert, especially regarding the indeterminacy of meaning if naturalism is true.)
2. It is also not clear that mental phenomena can be properly said to have a spatial location or extent. They may be correlated with physical phenomena that are located in this way, but that is not the same thing as being located themselves.
3. If consciousness is epiphenomenal (which is required for physics to be causally closed) then it cannot influence the fitness of an organism for natural selection in any way. This means that any conscious experiences produced by evolution are entirely accidental, and it is very unlikely that they form into a coherent and understandable picture of the external world. Even if consciousness is not epiphenomenal, since evolution orients our consciousness for survivability and not truth, our experiences and knowledge of the external world are suspect.
4. If on naturalism there is no active causation, then we have no free will, rationality is an illusion, and the justification for all of our beliefs (including the belief in naturalism) is undermined.
5. By all appearances, the reduction of consciousness to more basic units cannot be carried out very far, and consciousness needs fundamental causal relations between complex physical systems and various mental phenomena in order to be explained. The laws of consciousness are going to be far more complex than the laws of physics, and not at all similar to them.
So in order to adequately explain consciousness, a naturalistic account has to make a number of adjustments to the Grand Story that significantly harm its elegance, simplicity, and internal consistency. In fact, it seems likely to me that any addition of laws of consciousness to the fundamental structure of nature will create a further fine-tuning problem, greatly increasing the weight of the teleological argument for God’s existence. Naturalism looks increasingly implausible in light of consciousness.
Now, in the next section, I will argue that there is a good alternative explanation of consciousness provided by theism. Given an available alternative, abductive reasoning makes it rational to disbelieve the natural scientific explanation, supporting the third premise of the noetic argument.
Supernatural Explanation of Consciousness
The fourth premise in the noetic argument is that a supernatural explanation of consciousness entails the existence of God. My justification for this premise is again an inference to the best explanation: out of all supernatural explanations for our experience of consciousness, the best one is that it has been created and designed by God.
We can consider a few different supernatural explanations for consciousness. One is panpsychism, essentially the belief that everything is a little bit conscious, and that our consciousness is somehow built up out of all of the little bits of consciousness in the matter that composes our bodies.
Panpsychism, however, is completely deficient as an explanation. I simply cannot conceive of any way that consciousness itself could be built up from smaller units. Even most of my conscious experiences and thoughts cannot be broken down very far into more basic sensations or meanings. And it is completely left as a mystery why, if everything has a little piece of consciousness, those pieces combine into a unified consciousness like our own, rather than remaining as disjoint sensations diffuse throughout the universe, or combining further into larger conscious systems.
Others might turn to explanations such as pantheism, the belief that the universe just is God (or more usually, the universe is the impersonal Absolute Being, and All is One), or panentheism, the belief that the universe is a part of God or that God is like the soul of the universe.
I don’t think these beliefs offer that much better of an explanation for consciousness than panpsychism, as they just assert that our consciousnesses are in some mysterious way part of the cosmic consciousness. Furthermore, they have numerous other problems, among which are: i) they fail to answer to the cosmological, teleological, axiological, and ontological arguments for theism, ii) they do not well account for the clear distinctions that there seem to be between the many different things that exist, and iii) there does not seem to be any reason that God should exist in such a mode.
But theism, the belief that there is a personal and transcendent God who is distinct from the universe he created, offers a clear and powerful explanation for the existence and embodiment of finite consciousnesses. Because God exists prior to and independently of anything else, he can create and design the universe, along with any conscious minds that he wishes to embody as living biological creatures within that universe. Moreover, as I discussed in the previous post, he has perfectly good reasons to do so: a universe containing embodied conscious life allows for the realization of many different forms of goodness and beauty.
The explanatory superiority of theism is in its ability to invoke the intention and volition of God to design consciousnesses distinct from himself. None of the other explanations can do this. It seems fairly obvious to me that God is the best supernatural explanation of consciousness (as well as the best explanation overall), supporting the fourth premise.
So my conclusion is that the existence of our finite consciousnesses provides strong justification for belief in a powerful transcendent consciousness, one who through his creative intent is the source of all of the capabilities of our own immaterial minds. In a way, this makes the noetic argument and the teleological argument very similar: both ultimately are inferences to a transcendent designer. When you consider them together, I think they provide very potent evidence for belief in God.
In my next series of posts I will explore the axiological arguments for God’s existence: inferences to God as the ground of all objective values, and the origin of our ability to know them.