The Argument from Consciousness: Nonphysicality

This is my fourth post in a series on the Argument from Consciousness. The argument begins by presenting properties of consciousness which cannot in principle be explained on a naturalistic ontology. It then argues that the existence of conscious agents with mental properties that cannot in principle be reduced to the physical implicates the existence of a Nonphysical Conscious Agent as their originating cause. [1] My previous posts in this series discussed qualia, intentionality and privileged access. In this post I will be discussing the intractable nonphysicality of mental states; that is, I will be showing that, unlike our physical properties, our mental properties are in principle irreducible, unquantifiable and insusceptible of evolutionary explanation.

A crucial problem for naturalism is that mental states differ greatly in every important respect to physical objects. This is something that is obvious on even superficial analysis. A desire for roast beef has no length; nostalgia lacks spatial extension; the mental picture of a tiger is without weight. Beliefs, moreover, are true or false and right or wrong—properties that have no meaningful application to physical objects. The flux of brain signals associated with the impulse to commit murder is not immoral; the axons and dendrites associated with the false belief that Shelley wrote The Rime of the Ancient Mariner are not themselves “false.” Nor can the physical structure of the brain (its electrochemical impulses, say, or its neurones) be lucid or confused or naive or cynical in the way that thoughts and beliefs undeniably can be. “How,” asks John Searle, “can we square the self-conception of ourselves as mindful, meaning-creating, free, rational agents with a universe that consists entirely of mindless, meaningless, unfree, nonrational, brute physical particles?” The answer, Moreland suggests, is, “Not very well.” [2] In the following paragraphs, I will detail three reasons for thinking that consciousness is impervious to a naturalistic explanation in principle.

Mental States Are Irreducible In Principle
Reduction in the physical sciences is achieved by distinguishing mental phenomena from more fundamental physical phenomena and giving primacy to the physical phenomena. Warmth, for instance, is reduced to molecular energy in thermodynamics. Thereafter, molecular energy is understood to be what warmth, “really is.” Sensory perception is subjective and can show variation between individuals and species. We therefore move toward a more objective knowledge of the world when we understand it in this way; when we understand warmth as the way in which molecular energy is perceived in consciousness; or understand colour as the way in which electromagnetic wavelengths are perceived in consciousness—and so on. “What the evidence of the history of science shows,” notes Swinburne, “is that the way to achieve integration of sciences is to ignore the mental.” But, as Nagel has shown, an intractable circularity problem arises when we come to the mental itself: We do not move towards a more objective understanding of consciousness along analogous lines when we attempt to understand consciousness as the way in which brain activity is perceived in consciousness: It is incoherent to reduce consciousness to some more fundamental physical phenomenon and ignore the former because the former, consciousness, is the very thing we are attempting to explain.

Mental States Are Unquantifiable in Principle
Physical objects differ from each other in measurable ways. As a result, we can have general laws that relate quantities in all bodies by a mathematical formula. Rather than an exhaustive index of laws (an object of mass n and velocity p colliding with one of mass q and velocity r results in t—and so on for innumerable different cases) it is possible to formulate a single law that, “For every pair of objects in collision the mass of the first multiplied by its velocity plus the mass of the second multiplied by its velocity is always conserved.” The problem for any psychophysical theory of mind is that thoughts do not differ from each other in measurable ways. One thought does not have exactly twice as much meaning as another one; nor could one put a figure on the strength of a remembered odour or weigh the poignancy of a memory. An infinitely long list of psychophysical laws matching every possible brain state to a mental state is impossible in practice and useless in theory. An elegant and simple general law describing the correlation of brain states and mental states, on the other hand, is unachievable in principle. “Above all,” adds Swinburne, “there could not be a formula that had the consequence that this brain would give rise to my mind and that one to yours rather than vice versa. We could discover at most that there were these connections, not why there were these connections.”

Mental States Defy Evolutionary Explanation In Principle
Natural selection is a theory of elimination. It explains why variants thrown up by evolution are eliminated. But it does not explain why they were thrown up in the first place. In the case of physical variants (the countershading of a moth, say) there can be an adequate explanation in terms of a mutation that causes the variant to appear in accordance with the basic laws of chemistry. But our problem is to explain why a particular physical state produces a particular mental state. Natural selection can perhaps explain how, having appeared in evolutionary history, conscious animals survived; and it may explain how they developed a preponderance of true beliefs. [3] But it cannot explain the origination of the most novel feature of human beings: Their conscious life. Moreover, so long as an organism generates the correct behavioural outputs in response to stimuli, it will survive: Functions that organisms can and do execute unconsciously. For this reason conscious states are, strictly speaking, superfluous to evolution and so lie beyond its explanatory limits. [4]


[1] Further argumentation will need to be given to justify the claim that the nonphysicality of the mind makes theism more probable than naturalism. This will be the objective of the last post in this series.
[2] For Moreland’s argument see his Consciousness and the Existence of God: A Theistic Argument.
[3] Note, however, that Plantinga denies this. See his Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism, which I discuss here.
[4] The foregoing is a paraphrase of the detailed discussion of these points in The Existence of God by Richard Swinburne (Chapter 9: Arguments from Consciousness and Morality) as well as Mind and Cosmos: Why The Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False by Thomas Nagel and Moreland’s book cited in [2].

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