Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Consciousness - can it be a material phenomenon?

Granville Sewell has an interesting post and thread over at Uncommon Descent on consciousness, and the lack of an adequate current explanation for it. Here was my comment:

In The Spiritual Brain, Mario Beauregard and I devote Chapter 5 to the problem of materialist explanations of consciousness, as per Edelman, Koch, et cetera.

There are various materialist theories of consciousness. None address the "how" question effectively - probably because consciousness isn't a material phenomenon.

Materialists keep looking for material causes for the same reason that the guy who lost a dollar on Maple Street is looking for it on Main Street - because there is more light there, not because he is more likely to find it there. Quite the opposite, actually.

Re natural selection, anyone can invent a just-so story about how a given trait (monogamy, polygamy, adultery, rape, serial spouse murder) can be explained by natural selection. A modest amount of imagination suffices to invent just the cave man scenario where that specific form of behaviour paid off. I don't know why the theorists don't just write Clan of the Cave Bear novels.

Consciousness is especially problematic for natural selection theorizing because - unlike sex - it is rare. Many mammals and birds, and perhaps some reptiles, probably have a limited form of consciousness. We humans are the only creatures we know of in which the trait is highly developed. So clearly it is not a common part of the vast arsenal of creaturely survival.

That shouldn't be a surprise. Mere "consciousness" of prey and predators can be achieved - as it in fact is - by vast varieties of life forms that do not have or need brains, let alone consciousness (in the human sense).

In fact, one can go further and point out that many threats to survival and reproduction (suicide, organized warfare, non-parenting lifestyles, et cetera) only become possible with the advent of consciousness.

In any event, consciousness probably occurred rather suddenly. What of the very old burials where the body is placed in the fetal position, or with grave goods suggesting that the dead would live again? If things like that occurred comparatively suddenly, the process was not Darwinian.

But remember, there is more light on Main Street ...

The thing to see is that materialism is not applied to consciousness because it is a useful paradigm but because it is the only paradigm the materialist has. He cannot allow himself to consider any other approach and will - as recent events show - attempt to prevent others from doing so.

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