The Argument from Consciousness: Conclusion

This is my fifth and last post in a series on the Argument from Consciousness—the basic form of which should by now be familiar. The argument begins by presenting properties of consciousness which cannot in principle be reduced to the physical. It then argues that the existence of conscious agents with these mental properties implicates the existence of a Nonphysical Conscious Agent as their originating cause.

My previous four posts have presented four of these properties (qualia, intentionality, privileged access and nonphysicality) and demonstrated that they are in fact insusceptible of reduction to the physical. And since the last property—libertarian free will—is one that I have already addressed on this blog in a previous post, the reader familiar with that post is ready to consider how irreducible metal properties constitute evidence for the existence of God.

Irreducible Mental Properties and Theism

Suppose that a safe is robbed and our working hypothesis is John stole the money from the safe. During the investigation we may discover two kinds of evidence. First, we may find John’s fingerprints at the crime scene and a sum of money on him matching the sum that was stolen. This will be a posteriori grounds for the truth of the hypothesis; that is, consequences to be expected if the hypothesis is true. Second, we may learn that John has a history of robbing safes and is also in debt. These will be a priori grounds for the truth of the hypothesis; that is, factors that belong outside the scope of the hypothesis but nevertheless increase its probable truth.

In what follows I am going to argue that the existence of agents with irreducible mental properties provide a posteriori grounds for the truth of the hypothesis of theism and that the hypothesis of theism gives us a priori grounds to expect agents with irreducible mental properties.

A Posteriori Grounds

Naturalism holds that mindless particles organised in various ways by mindless forces is all that exists. Theism holds that, “Mind, rather than emerging as a late outgrowth of the evolution of life, has always existed as the matrix and substrate of physical reality.” [1] It follows that irreducible mental properties are entirely to be expected if theism is true and not at all to be expected if theism is false. And this is because mind, while an intractable problem for the naturalist, is basic to a theistic ontology. God, the Basic Being, is a nonphysical conscious self with mental properties—such as intentionality, privileged access, teleology, rationality and free will. Irreducible mental properties therefore stand in the same relation to the hypothesis of theism as John’s fingerprints on the safe to the hypothesis that John robbed the safe. They are the consequences to be expected if the hypothesis is true and not at all to be expected if it is false.

A Priori Grounds

The Bible, moreover, teaches that God created man in his image. For this reason Abrahamic theists have a priori grounds for expecting irreducible mental properties to be instantiated if God exists. [2] It is no surprise on theism that our most novel and essential feature, our mental life, should be irreducible to the physical. And this is because it is imparted to us by our nonphysical creator. Free will, too, is provocatively suggestive of the imago dei since if man exercises libertarian causation he instantiates in miniature the principle of uncaused causation imputed to God in classical theism.

In Is There a God? Oxford professor of philosophy Swinburne finds further a priori grounds for expecting the existence of conscious agents on theism: If God is unlimited in power and intelligence, it is certain that he could create a universe that contained conscious agents; and if He is perfectly good, it is reasonably probable that He would. Writes Swinburne,

We have some understanding of what a good person will do. Good people will try to make other people happy, happy in doing and enjoying worthwhile things (but not happy in causing pain to others). Good people try to help other people for whom they are responsible (for example, their own children) to be good people themselves. Good people seek to share what they have with others and to cooperate with others in all these activities.

God, in other words, might reasonably be expected to create a universe in order to share with us the good things He has—a mental life, knowledge, freedom, love. All of these things require consciousness. And if all humans are to have access to the greatest good of all, knowledge of God himself, they will need to be able to develop sophisticated metaphysical and theological concepts which will require rational intuition and to undergo religious experiences which require conscious perception. It is therefore credibly probable that agents with these abilities will exist if there is a God but incredibly improbable that they would exist if there is not. [3] The benevolence and omnipotence of God therefore stand in the same relation to the hypothesis that God created conscious agents as John’s debt and criminal past to the hypothesis that John robbed the safe: They are factors that belong outside the scope of the hypothesis but increase its probable truth.

I conclude that the existence of conscious agents with irreducible mental properties provides evidence of two kinds that there is a God who created them.


[1] I am quoting Anthony Flew writing in There Is A God.

[2] We need evidence of John’s criminal past before it can give us reason to expect him to have robbed the safe. Likewise, without independent reasons for thinking that a supreme being of the sort described by classical theism exists, this part of the argument would have no force. However, such independent reasons are available to the proponent of the argument—such as the nine lines of evidence for bare theism presented in Part II of this apologia. Thus the prior probability of the existence of God on evidence X (where God, if he exists, may reasonably be expected to create conscious agents whose existence is otherwise without available explanation) means that X makes the existence of conscious agents more probable. And since the existence of conscious agents with irreducible mental properties also makes the existence of God more probable a posteriori, the coincidence of the two kinds of evidence makes it very probable on the total evidence that God exists and created conscious agents with irreducible mental properties.

[3] Incredibly improbable since, as we have seen in the previous four posts, postulating that mindless particles organised by mindless forces is all that exists leaves us without the explanatory resources to account for our mental life. And of course this is no small matter: That we have a mental life of thoughts and perceptions is the most fundamental fact of human experience and the starting point for every other kind of inquiry.


3 replies
  1. MM
    MM says:

    Ben, these kinds of arguments regarding free will, consciousness and the like are incredibly difficult to comprehend when my mind is so troubled. I have just recently begun to escape from an manipulative psychiatrist who attacked my religious beliefs, and said if I wasn’t able to recover or find meaning or joy without them, then I should commit suicide. He is a fan of Sam Harris and said ‘he usually wins’ his arguments. And he said that he had access to secret research documents that only certain people in the profession have, which proved everything in the brain had been explained for a while now and the soul disproven. He said everything you see online is just philosophical, but he doesn’t have to read it because he already knows its been disproven. Supposedly, it’s been withheld because it is too controversial (supposedly they get this info years before it becomes public). He said, “Even Sam Harris probably doesn’t know this, but if he did he’d be happy.” Thing is, why would he disclose something that was asked to be kept confidential? I feel I may have been manipulated. I don’t know what to believe. The man has caused me a lot of distress for how I was treated and I am suffering from it. Is there really research like this out there that we don’t know about?

  2. Ben Mines
    Ben Mines says:

    Hi MM. I am so very sorry to hear about your experience. Your psychiatrist is a sociopath. I urge you to stop all contact with him and, if you still require it, to seek help from someone else. Any psychiatrist who recommends suicide to a patient is unfit to practice and should have his license revoked.

    He is also demonstrably wrong in his claims about the soul and the existence of God.

    The central arguments for substance dualism (both those presented in this series and the Conceivability Argument) are a priori arguments or metaphysical demonstrations. In other words, they prove their conclusion from first principles. For this reason “secret research” for materialism (which almost certainly does not exist but which if it did exit would by definition cite inductive evidence for materialism) cannot possibly disprove them. And this is because no number of inductive examples can prove or disprove a universal generalisation—a problem in the philosophy of science known as The problem of Induction. Moreover, it can be demonstrated that such evidence is impossible for a number of reasons which I summarise here: On the assumption of materialism, mental states are unquantifiable, irreducible and inexplicable in principle. Therefore, materialism cannot possibly account for mental states and so a comprehensive materialistic description of reality is incompletable. It follows without much further argument that materialism is false.

    Your psychiatrist has also claimed that, “Everything online is philosophical,” with the suggestion that he doesn’t need to respond to philosophical arguments in view of his secret inductive evidence for materialism. Unfortunately for him, this entails an implicit commitment to “scientism” which is widely recognised as incoherent.

    To explain: Scientism is the view that the physical sciences are the only source of valid beliefs about reality. The problem is that scientism is self-referentially incoherent. For the claim, “The physical sciences are the only source of valid beliefs about reality,” is not itself a scientific claim. (There is no experiment which could possibly demonstrate its truth). It is in fact a philosophical claim—a philosophical claim that denies the truth of all philosophical claims including, ex hypothesi, itself. And as Berlinski puts it, such claims, “when self-applied, self-destruct.”

    So your psychiatrist cannot dismiss philosophy with a wave of his hand and rest his case. He will need to make his case in the court of philosophical analysis. And there—as we have seen in the series just concluded—he will have some very heavy lifting to do.

    Your psychiatrist also tells you that he usually wins his debates. That may tell us something about his opponents but it tells us nothing about the force and coherence of his arguments. (It is one thing to win a debate against a patient and another thing to win a debate against, say, Richard Swinburne or Edward Feser). And we have just seen that his position is philosophically incoherent. I think this probably explains why he is resorting to vacuous boasting and laughable conspiracy stories involving secret disproofs of dualism. Rest assured, if he had better arguments, he would be using them.

    So the question arises: Why would anyone resort to such desperate and facile attacks on religion?

    Michael Rea has noted, correctly, I think, that, “Most sensible people would recoil in horror upon hearing that a person of great power and influence had taken a special interest in them and had very definite, detailed and not-easily-implemented views about how they ought to live their lives.” In many cases this horror is unconcealed. The eminent philosopher Thomas Nagel, for instance, has famously written that, “I want atheism to be true. I hope there is no God. I do not want there to be a God. I do not want the universe to be like that.”

    Why do some people feel this way? Consider that if God exists the only rational response is to live a religious life. And living a religious life entails moral prohibitions. And if, what is by no means improbable, one does have a preexisting indisposition to living a religious life, when confronted with entertainable evidence for the existence of the soul or of God he is going to feel the sudden force of massive paradigm pressures that may interfere with his rational adjudication of that evidence—and even his intellectual honesty.

    Whether you love it or loathe it, the fact is that there is very compelling evidence for Christian theism—as I summarise here. And in my view one would have to be deeply disordered, depraved and irrational to see this as anything but the greatest possible good. For while we must, as Socrates enjoined us, “follow the argument wherever it leads,” it turns out to lead to the discovery that what is lying at the very heart of ultimate reality is eternal, indescribable rationality, truth, beauty and love.

    Anyway, MM, I am sorry that this individual caused you so much distress. But I invite you to explore the evidence for the truth of Christian Theism and so discover just how very wrong your psychiatrist is.

    Kind regards and best wishes,

  3. MM
    MM says:

    Long time for a reply, but here goes:
    I told him that I was skeptical of this research because I said: beliefs do not manifests the exact same way every time they’re recalled, and are intermingled with other beliefs. Theoretically, for them to be able to record and inject beliefs, they’d have some kind of technology to manipulate the brain and do that beyond basic stimulators. Beliefs can manifest a number of ways, and if one was to be recorded, it would have to be reinserted the exact same way, in the precise harmony with other intermingled beliefs which are just as fluid and convoluted as the part which was scanned, and likely would be different every time as well. Then, they’d have to know how to separate one belief from another amidst all that mess. The amount of trial and error would be potentially damaging on a human subject and would place this into the realm of unethical research. I’ve read that neuroscience research progress is stalled in many ways because of the invasiveness of it and ethical concerns. He stopped and looked around and said, “Uh, yeah. OK, maybe. I think I understand what you’re saying, but, one argument that there’s no soul is that people get mental illnesses that change their beliefs and religious views, and that proves that they are not spiritual but part of the brain.” Let me know what you have to say to this. I no longer see him, but at the time he said this was a good case that he was ‘right’.

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