From Materialism to Emergentism

Now, very oddly (considering how they detest Berkeley), materialists entirely agree with this definition of matter, i.e. they entirely agree that Matter is what is perceived and cannot by its nature perceive. On the other hand of course they deny the reality of consciousness, and claim that unconscious matter is all there is. That is to say, they accept one half of the polar twinship and not the other. They are therefore obliged to claim that consciousness was not there ‘to begin with’ – i.e. at the birth of the Universe or at the start of the Earth. They are obliged to claim that it evolved out of absolute unconsciousness. But such a claim simply does not make sense. Logically it is more absurd than a hole in the ground magically turning into Beethoven’s 7th Symphony, or a still, silent rock turning into a roaring lion, or a hole in the air suddenly becoming Cleopatra. For how can NOT-X transmute into X? It’s a logical impossibility. How do you derive a thing which by definition does not exist from that which by definition is its complete opposite? As both European and Indian philosophers have declared, ‘ex nihilo nihil fit.’

Materialists therefore set themselves the most enormous challenge: How are unconscious molecules even to begin to have conscious experience? There are, however, a large number of accounts claiming to explain in small detail exactly how it’s done. To take just one example – typical except for being more detailed and more skilfully presented than usual — Nicholas Humphrey supposes that animals were, at the outset of evolution, completely unconscious. They evolved consciousness. How? Evolution makes them become increasingly complex, so their senses respond with increasing sensitivity to stimuli. This is due to natural selection, since sensitivity is good for survival. This sensitivity (as yet completely mechanical & unconscious) increases until (hey presto!) the animal becomes conscious of this sensitivity.

Has Humphrey triumphantly proved his case? Certainly not, for it is based on a barefaced fallacy. First of all Humphrey uses the word ‘sensation’ to mean ‘a delicate, but mechanical and unconscious reaction.’ He doesn’t claim these initial processes are conscious. He cannot claim they’re conscious, because he is obliged to start with the non-conscious so as to show how the conscious emerged from it. Then Humphrey suddenly pretends that Sensation 1 (meaning ‘it reacts but doesn’t feel’) spontaneously transforms itself into Sensation 2 (meaning ‘it reacts and does feel’).

Humphrey, I fear, is Marvo-the-Magician. He is introducing consciousness into his account surreptitiously, in the manner of a conjuror concealing a white rabbit up his sleeve. And, like the conjuror, he pretends the rabbit gets created out of thin air, and that thin air is precisely what creates rabbits.

One can consult many of these accounts of consciousness emerging from nothingness. Every account proposes the same conjuring trick, for indeed it is hard to see what – except a conjuring trick — could be imagined. I’m afraid that anyone who takes this seriously is deeply confused.

Can Evolution Create Consciousness?

When I gave a previous incarnation of this paper as a talk, a member of the audience rightly remarked that consciousness is useful for survival. She went on to ask why, therefore, can evolution not produce consciousness. Now it is clear that, consciousness being of survival value, once it appears the laws of evolution are likely to retain it and improve on it. However, there is a fallacy lurking here, namely the assumption that, if anything is useful to survival, then evolution will produce it ex nihilo. Plainly, however, if everything in nature is physical, if there is no such thing as the non-physical, and if consciousness is the opposite of the physical, then consciousness cannot appear in nature, no matter how useful it might have turned out to be. No force in nature can produce something which is counter to its own laws, even if that something might produce an evolutionary advantage.


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