Consciousness is Non-Material

One must conclude that consciousness is non-material. For (1) it cannot be found in the brain. (2) It cannot be observed, understood or explained how neurochemical stimuli might turn into conscious experience. (3) It cannot be explained how conscious experience might evolve out of unconscious matter. (4) No model can be either made or imagined of an actual perceiving consciousness. (5) Conscious experience is not the sort of thing science can deal with, for the everyday, every-instant elements of conscious experience, i.e. the overwhelmingly real qualia, are beyond scientific explanation or analysis. (6) Conscious events don’t happen within physical space. But they would have to do so if materialism were correct. So what and where is the ‘space’ of consciousness? (7) There is a profound interdependence between consciousness and time.

Consciousness is, in terms of materialist science, an impossible object: it has an inside but no outside; it perceives but cannot be perceived, two features which are inexplicable to science. In other words, though the brain is made of material elements and can be investigated by material instruments, consciousness on the other hand is plainly not made of material elements, and therefore cannot be investigated by material instruments. Science is not equipped even to apprehend the existence of a ‘thing’ of this kind let alone either to investigate or to explain it.

Dennett writes: ‘Only a theory that explained conscious events in terms of unconscious events could explain consciousness at all.’ This is fallacious thinking, for as Uwe Meixner points out, this statement is no more true than ‘Only a theory that explained physical events in terms of nonphysical events could explain consciousness at all.’ Nothing could make it clearer what the basic dogma of physicalism is, and why it is a dogma, not a rational finding. As Meixner remarks,

The scientific arguments against dualism all have the same […] form:
Let X be a kind of entity that is claimed by dualists [to exist].
In the brain no entity of the kind X can be discovered by using purely the methods of science.
Therefore there is no actually existing entity of the kind X.
I shall call [these kind of] arguments ‘Gagarin arguments’.

For, as the reader will recall, when Yuri Gagarin hurtled above the Earth in his little space-ship, he triumphantly radioed down to the Soviet state that there was no God to be seen up in space.

In certain circles, if one points out that materialism cannot explain everything, one is accused of being a ‘mysterian’. This is hardly an ‘accusation’, however. Contrary to many of our most celebrated contemporaries, science is not an ideology which states that everything is made of matter. Science is a method of inquiry into the mystery of Being. The true scientist has an open mind. And of course I am entirely pro-science. Science is exciting because it may take us (and often has) to completely unexpected new realms. We should not regret having mysteries to solve, for, if you forbid mysteries, then no-one will ever again discover anything.


On the other hand, science (like any other human activity) has its limitations. The Sufis tell a tale of Nasruddin, seen in his front garden one morning, scrabbling about in the sand. His neighbour, walking up the street, pauses at his front fence and asks: ‘Nasruddin! Have you lost something?’ ‘Yes,’ he replies, ‘my very precious ring – you know, the one my father left me.’ The neighbour joins in his search, and now there are two of them scrabbling about in the sand of the front garden. Time passes and eventually the neighbour straightens his back with an ‘Ouch!’ ‘Nasruddin,’ he says, ‘are you sure it was here that you lost it?’ ‘Oh no,’ says Nasruddin, ‘ I lost it in the front hall.’ ‘Well, why are you looking for it out here?’ ‘There’s more light here.’

Science can search only where its tools can operate. But what if that’s not the right place at all?

Patricia Churchland claims that science ‘has empirically demonstrated that only physical things and events exist.’ This is absurd. It is like someone who, after dredging the oceans with a net that has a quarter-inch mesh, declares that ‘Science has empirically demonstrated that only fish larger than a quarter of an inch exist.’

In fact however I’m suggesting that there aren’t just fish in the sea, there are things that no net could catch. As Stephen Priest writes:

[…] Descriptions of my existence and the theories of science are antithetical: I have a capacity to make choices, science is essentially deterministic. I have a past, present and future, science is tenseless. I have a psychological interiority, science only ever explains physical exteriority. Science cannot explain me [this conscious being] because I am the opposite of what science says there is.
© Graham Dunstan Martin 2010

Berkeley, George (1972) The Principles of Human Knowledge with Other Writings,
ed. G.J.Warnock (London: Collins).
Borges, Jorge Luis (1998) Collected Fictions (London and New York: Allen Lane).
Dawkins, Richard (1991) The Blind Watchmaker (Penguin).
Dennett, Daniel (1993) Consciousness Explained (Penguin).
(1994) ‘Instead of Qualia’ in A. Revuonso and M. Kampinnen, eds. Consciousness in Philosophy and Cognitive Neuroscience (N.J.: Hillsdale).
Dretske, Fred (2002) ‘A Recipe for Thought’, pp 491-9 in David J. Chalmers (2002)
ed. Philosophy of Mind (Oxford: OUP).
Eddington, Sir Arthur (1928) The Nature of the Physical World (London: Cambridge
University Press).
Genoud, Charles (2009) ‘On the Cultivation of Presence in Buddhist Meditation’,
JCS 16, X-XIX, pp 117-28.
Herbert, Nick (1985) Quantum Reality: Beyond the New Physics (London &
Melbourne: Rider).
Hofstadter, Douglas (2007) I am a Strange Loop (New York: Basic Books).
Humphrey, Nicholas (2000) ‘How to Solve the Mind-Body Problem’, JCS VII no 4,
pp 5-20, 98-112.
Lucas, J.R. (1973) A Treatise on Time and Space (London: Methuen).
McGinn, Colin (1991) The Problem of Consciousness, (Oxford and Cambridge,
Mass.: Blackwell).
Martin, Graham Dunstan (2005) Does It Matter? the Unsustainable World of the
Materialists (Edinburgh: Floris).
Meixner, Uwe (2004) The Two Sides of Being (Paderborn: Mentis).
Priest, Stephen (1998) Merleau-Ponty, (New York: Routledge)
(2000) The Subject in Question: Sartre’s Critique of Husserl …, (London and
New York: Routledge).
Radhakrishnan, S. & C.A.Moore (1957) ed. A Sourcebook in Indian Philosophy
(Princeton: Princeton University Press).
Schrödinger, Erwin (1958) Mind and Matter (Cambridge and New York,
Cambridge University Press).
Smythies, John R. (1993) ‘The Impact of Contemporary Neuroscience […] on the Philosophy of Perception’, pp 205-231 of Edmond Wright ed. New
Representationalisms (Avebury: Ashgate).
Taliaferro, Charles (1994) Consciousness and the Mind of God (Cambridge and New
York, Cambridge University Press).


The Cartesian Gulf

It is a frequently heard complaint that Descartes divided matter from mind, leaving it impossible to comprehend how the two, being so different, could interact. One aspect of his claim was that matter is allegedly spatial, while mind is non-spatial. He was however (as Princess Elizabeth of Bohemia told him at the time) quite wrong about the non-spatiality of the mind. The mind is certainly non-spatial in some respects, but spatial in others. It must be so, otherwise we could not understand spatiality, ‘see’ or ‘grasp’ it with our consciously observing eyes and minds, be able to measure it in the world around us. Probably also we could not have invented (or should it be ‘discovered’?) mathematics. After all, we see space all around us: as Kant pointed out, it’s one of the fundamental categories of our understanding. This could not be so unless our consciousnesses were in part spatial.

But where is the mental space which our thoughts, feelings and sensations inhabit? It’s certainly not to be found in the scientist’s physical world-space. So where is it? A part of the answer may be that this question is the wrong way round. We can ask where the separate parts of our experience are vis-à-vis our phenomenal field, but we cannot ask where the latter is. The mind is not located; it locates. For it is quite plain that our conscious experience locates the elements of the phenomenal field (including our own bodies) in relation to itself. In this respect the mind is like the Universe. This too has no location: space, time and whereness are all within it. Subject also to the same presumption, the Universe too, like consciousness, has an inside but no outside.

That mind is partially spatial, however, just might help the problem about how mind and matter interact.

The Question of Time

The question of location leads to that of temporal location. As has often been noted, there is an intimate – perhaps an exclusive – relationship between consciousness and time. No ‘time-force’ has yet been discovered in the natural world by science, and hence the forward flow of time is (so far) inexplicable in terms of physics and sensible only in terms of our conscious experience. Thus we may read:

The laws of Newtonian mechanics and electromagnetic theory are indifferent to the direction of time. If at a certain instant we were to reverse all the velocities of all the constituents of a Newtonian system, the system would proceed to ‘unwind’ and run backwards, and would be in exactly the same position at date t after the reversal as it had been at the date -t before reversal. If we were shown a film of a Newtonian system we could not tell whether the film was being run forwards or backwards. This contrasts [...] with films of human activities, biological processes or the phenomena of thermodynamics. If we see men walking backwards, or plants growing smaller and smaller and contracting into seeds, or a cup of warm tea separating itself into hot raw tea and cold milk, we know that we are seeing the film the wrong way round. But if we saw the planets all going backwards in elliptical orbits, there would be nothing to indicate that anything was amiss. [...] There is no direction of time implicit in Newtonian mechanics, as there is in human activity, in biological process or in thermodynamics.

Yet time in Einstein’s system is one of the basic dimensions of the Universe. And without that forward flow, an apparent nonsense is made of the Universe’s past and future history, namely its existence in the form of events.

Given the apparent absence of a ‘time-force’ from the world as seen by science, it has (rather naturally) been suggested that we inhabit a ‘block Universe’, in which everything is determined in advance from beginning to end. In this case, time would be one of the dimensions, but its whole extent would be entirely determined in advance – like the motionless All of Parmenides and Zeno. There would then be no longer any sense to ‘before’ and ‘after’, and movement in time would be non-existent – except that living creatures, pinned by their consciousness to a moving but always present moment, would traverse time, experiencing the ‘illusion’ of living through time from past to future.

So much for the deterministic picture favoured by some scientists and philosophers. However, if we compare the dimension of time (as experienced by living beings) to the three spatial dimensions, we find that unlike them it is monodirectional. In all spatial dimensions one can travel freely in both directions; in time alone is one confined to a single direction, from past to future. Moreover, although the other dimensions allow motion in two directions, time compels motion in only one direction. There is a directional lock. On account of this feature, I shall refer to time as being a half dimension. The past already exists and appears unchangeable; the future is as yet fluid, uncertain, unknown, the realm of possibility not of immutability.

It is evident that, without this uncertainty of the future (dependent on the ‘half-dimensional’ nature of time), one of the most important elements of our experience could not exist even as a possibility. For, if events are to occur in the true sense of events, i.e. as choices between alternatives, then it is clear that we cannot live in a block universe. A universe which provides either free will or its semblance must necessarily permit the future to be as yet uncertain. In that case, necessarily, our consciousnesses are important for a double reason: as (1) the criteria of ‘before’ and ‘after’ and as (2) the vehicles of choice between alternative outcomes, these two features being mutually dependent.

The special link of time with consciousness thus appears to be important at a profound level. Consciousness is intimately locked together with time, which is one of the fundamental dimensions of the Universe itself. Now of course, as is universally recognized, questions of meaning or purpose are outside the remit of science. No matter: this is a metaphysical question, not a scientific one. Here we have the suggestion that, as far as time is concerned, the Universe itself is set up in such a way as to permit consciousness to act meaningfully and purposefully. This feature of the Universe must surely be incomprehensible to the materialist / determinist, and in this respect it resembles Priest’s question (quoted above) as to why the created Universe contains subjectivity at all. In an entirely material Universe, (1) subjectivity and (2) the half-dimensionality of time are both superfluous to the point of incomprehensibility. All this suggests, once again, that consciousness is a fundamental element of the Universe we actually inhabit.



How Many Senses?

Conventionally there are five senses. But actually there are about ten, i.e. sight, hearing, taste, smell, touch (the traditional five); but also heat-&-cold, pain, proprioception, muscle-sense … (The authorities on this subject seem to be uncertain just how many we should list.)

Every one of these ten senses is completely different in its Suchness from any of the others. Taste isn’t the same kind of thing at all as hearing; the sense of colour just doesn’t resemble the sense of touch in any way. The sound of a trombone just isn’t anything like that utterly other sort of thing the smell of violets. In short, sensory experience is amazingly various, while on the other hand the physical processes in the brain are all of a kind. Richard Dawkins himself says so most distinctly. . Thus (1) firstly we cannot tell how any sensation arises into consciousness (as I have been saying), secondly we have this further problem: (2) how do you get ten disparate kinds of sensation, each more different than chalk from cheese, out of one same-type physical brain process? No, more different than that – than the taste of cheese from the squeak of chalk on a blackboard.

Now, contrary to majority opinion, all this is most encouraging. Materialists will admit the flimsiness of their case; or rather on the contrary they’ll call up a team of philosophers and get them to change the goalposts. When certain scientists tell us that matter is all, and that therefore consciousness must be material too, they do this on the basis that their material instruments cannot detect consciousness. But of course this merely shows the limitations of material instruments. Consciousness is invisible to the material instruments of science. So maybe consciousness is not a material thing, not in the last resort subject to physical processes, but some other sort of reality.

And let us be frank about this conclusion: it is a hopeful conclusion, because it suggests that the Universe is a much more interesting place than materialists assert. Maybe the brain is not the mind but the mind’s computer, just that very useful machine that my mind uses in the daily activities of life. It is quite astonishing that so many of our contemporaries continue to assert that materialism is actually a preferable stance.

Qualia before Quanta

What is the nature of the contents of the phenomenal field? Though experience is quantistic to some degree, it is qualistic to a much higher degree. Thus quantitative activities such as enumerating, listing and defining are experienced within the phenomenal field. As we saw under the heading ‘What is Matter?”, it is activities such as these which science employs in its exploration of the world. But qualistic experiences such as I have been pointing to above are perhaps even more frequent, indeed omnipresent in the phenomenal field. Experiences of this kind cannot be quantified, taken apart, dismantled like bits of machinery, reduced to abstractions, words or properties, without losing their very nature. As is succinctly argued by Stephen Priest:

Consciousness, subjectivity, freedom, qualitative facts, concrete experience and individuality are metaphysical features of reality that cannot just be cleared up by science. They are so utterly antithetical to the scientific concepts of matter, objectivity, determinism, quantification, abstraction and generality that it is hopeless to suppose that, say, the theory of evolution, neurobiology or physics will have anything explanatory to say about them. The idea has to be given up that reality is mostly objective or essentially objective and conscious subjectivity a minor epiphenomenon (or nothing at all). There is no objective explanation for subjectivity, and subjectivity, far from being nothing, is the lived reality that we are.

One might justly compare the qualistic experience to a landscape, the quantitative approach to a map; the former is the full-scale, living, dense, actually experienced reality, the latter is a selective outline or plan, a mere skeletal diagram entirely derived from the former, and necessarily excluding the greater part of it. As Priest also writes,

The problem for science is why there should be subjectivity at all. Why is the universe not just an objective universe? No amount of scientific experimentation or mathematical modelling is going to solve this problem. Empirical experiments treat their subject matter as observable, but subjectivity pertains to the observing, not the observed. Mathematical modelling depicts the quantitative, but subjectivity is qualitative.

People are over-credulous about objectivity. It is a construct. There can be, in the nature of things, no reports of anything at all except those which are subjective. This is because there is no such thing as strict objective truth. Take science, for instance. Science is based upon observations. Observations require an observer. An observer does not observe unless he or she is conscious. A basic condition of consciousness is that one is locked within one’s own private awareness. To achieve ‘objectivity’, conscious scientists are required, and (like everyone else) they cannot see through other people’s eyes or hear through other people’s ears. In practice therefore they have to come to a majority agreement as to what they have observed. ‘True objectivity’ therefore is not available; we shall have to make do with its real meaning — namely the product of agreement between subjectivities. So-called objectivity derives from subjectivity, and is entirely dependent on it.

Moreover, ‘We never encounter physical objects without the encounterer […]’ In other words, the presence of consciousness is always verified; it is matter which needs verification, not consciousness.

The Misleading Nature of Language

While emphasizing the qualistic nature of experience, I must point out that we are often misled by the fact that language normally conceals that nature. The concrete experience of the world around me at this moment is felt by my various senses in a qualistic way. The words I may use to describe such experiences are on the contrary an abstraction from these rich and concrete experiences. For that is the nature of words, which are in their fundamental nature abstract, general and selective.

Words are abstract in the very precise sense that they pick out ‘qualities’ from experiences. (This being the original sense of the Latin verb abstrahere = to withdraw, pick out.) So as to ‘describe’ a swimming pool, I may abstract from it a number of qualities. I may say it is blue, cold, wet, has a stone path round it, that the water has a wavy motion, etc. Loosely we call this ‘a description’. But we should note that each of these qualities is general, since there is an infinity of things to which each word (‘blue’, ‘cold’, ‘wet’, ‘stone’, ‘motion’, etc) may be applied. All sorts of objects of different kinds may be termed ‘blue’ for instance, yet none of these objects necessarily resembles any other except in this one respect of being called ‘blue’. Moreover there are an infinity of shades of blue, none of which is specified here. Each word is also selective, in that the pool possesses an infinity of features, yet we have selected (‘picked out’ or ‘withdrawn’ from it) only this tiny number. Strictly speaking, we could in principle go on describing the pool for ever; and the same is true of any natural object whatever. There will always be something more to say. Each quality is also imprecise, in that the single word ‘blue’, ‘cold’ or ‘wet’ is used to cover a large number of different shades of blue, degrees of wetness, a vast range of temperatures, and so forth. Words are (1) general, (2) selective and (3) imprecise, and this is fundamental to the way they are. To say they ‘describe’ real-life objects is misleading, for there is plainly nothing picture-like about these ‘descriptions’. Words merely point at the object in question, rather in the manner of a signpost, label or aide-mémoire. They in no way ‘reproduce’ or ‘evoke’ experiences; when ‘turning an experience into words’, the content of the experience itself is always lost, and replaced by abstract elements extracted from its wholeness. The philosopher must, therefore, be exceedingly careful not to confuse what he often calls ‘properties’ (blueness, swimming-pool-ness, waviness) with qualia, and so to mistake abstractions for the real dense experiences of ordinary life, the latter being, in the proper sense of the word, ineffable. It is all too easy to let language lead us astray. A ‘property’ is an abstraction: it is simply an element of reality verbally abstracted from experience and thereby divested of its dense qualistic suchness.


Is consciousness “in the brain”?

Let us turn now a slightly brighter light on consciousness itself . As Darwin’s bulldog T.H.Huxley wrote: ‘How it is that anything so remarkable as a state of consciousness comes about as a result of irritating nervous tissue is just as unaccountable as the appearance of the Djinn when Aladdin rubbed his lamp.’

This is the famous ‘explanatory gap’. For as is well known, neuroscientists have never discovered the location of consciousness. This is simply a confirmation of the fact that consciousness should be defined as percipere = ‘what perceives and cannot be perceived’. Nor have neuroscientists discovered the locations of long-term memory and tacit memory – which is also a very interesting fact, though I shall have no space for it here. Moreover, no-one has discovered how the sense information travelling along the neural pathways in the brain is transformed into conscious experience. This is a part of the famous problem of qualia.

The arguments about qualia are of course well known, but perhaps I shall be forgiven if I repeat the essence of them here. For we need to establish (1) the inadequacy of the materialist causal model and (2) some important features of the phenomenal field.

Qualia is of course the term for the lived density of experience: the ‘feel’ and ‘look’ of colours, the ‘feel’ and ‘flavour’ of sounds in all their infinite variety, the felt texture of objects, the rich (but literally indescribable) tastes and odours of things. Qualia are the raw sensory material of conscious experience, they are what we feel and how we feel it. They are the essential substance of all our experiences, but they are incommunicable to others, because we have no means of transmitting these ‘feels’, these ‘experiences’, directly from one brain to another. Talking about them is quite inadequate. For instance, how do you describe the slightly flushed golden-green of a James Grieve apple , or its completely individual ‘James-Grievish’ flavour? How do you describe the sound of Johnny Hodges’ alto sax or Cootie Williams’ trumpet? How do you describe the taste or the smell of coffee – or the difference between the smell and the taste — to someone who has never experienced them? You can appeal only to other people’s similar experiences — provided they have had them. If we haven’t had the experience of a particular quale, then we cannot imagine it.

Now how does the machinery in the brain produce this living experience? The answer is We don’t know. One can track the electrochemical message conveying “Feel this as CRIMSON!” a certain distance through the brain. But then there comes a blank wall. How does this physical message actually make whatever unknown something that does that kind of feeling feel it? WHAT does it do to WHAT so as to make WHAT perceive the experience BRIGHT CRIMSON? The answer is that none of these WHATS can be found in the physical brain, and the whole business of experiencing a quale is completely mysterious. As indeed is the whole business of experiencing anything at all. Experience itself is the great mystery.

There is an absolute gulf between the electrochemical message and the subjective experience of CRIMSON (or of COLD or WET or ANGRY or anything you like). The experiential side of the process is completely invisible to the scientist. He can’t see my seeing — or hear my hearing — or feel my pain. His material instruments just stop providing any information at this point. Once something passes from the world of physical process over the threshold of consciousness, physical instruments fall silent, cease to operate. The transformation of the physical neurochemical message into the experience is completely invisible to the scientist, and there is no way of seeing how, under any conceivable circumstance, it could become visible.

This frightens some materialists so much that they issue specious denials of this otherwise universally admitted fact. D. M. Armstrong, for instance, in A Materialist Theory of Mind claims that

There is nothing that it feels like to see something, or touch something or taste something.’

Daniel Dennett likewise claims in Consciousness Explained, that qualia don’t exist, they merely seem to. Evidently Dennett doesn’t understand about ‘seeming’. Seeming is what appears to consciousness; and what appears to consciousness cannot be doubted to so appear. It is the source or origin of its so appearing which may, depending on circumstance, be supposed to be illusory or not. But (supposedly illusory or not) what is experienced is indeed experienced.

What is the logic behind these two astonishing denials? Both these philosophers are determined to adopt the materialist doctrine. They are exceptionally clear-sighted about this, however, in that they think that subjective experience, qualia, etc, have to be denied because otherwise their existence would actually disprove materialism. Their position therefore vindicates mine, since it shows what you have to deny, to be that kind of materialist: namely, the evidence of your senses. Since your senses are the source of all your information, you are thereby denying the facts themselves and the source of those facts. As Democritus wrote,

Intellect to Senses: ‘Ostensibly there is colour, sweetness, bitterness; actually only atoms and void.’
Senses to Intellect: ‘Poor intellect! You get your evidence from us, and you hope to overthrow us? Your victory is your defeat.’

The same error is being repeated 2400 years later.


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.


Models & Machines

In science, you can always model the object of your interest. You can make a physical model, for instance, which can move, out of an energy supply and bits and pieces which (separately) don’t move. Or you can make a mathematical model (often of extraordinary complexity). But can you make a model which has conscious experience out of things that don’t? No, you can’t. One can safely utter the challenge: ‘Construct out of unconscious elements a machine which will have conscious experience.’ It is impossible to imagine how such a task might be performed. When I was in discussion some few years ago with an artificial intelligence expert, he seemed to admit this fact; but claimed he lived in the hope that, suddenly, for no discernible reason, one of these days, one of his complicated electronic machines might become conscious. The magician would have produced a white rabbit without himself knowing how; or perhaps we should write that some unknown source had produced the white rabbit for some unknown reason. However, if in fact (and most improbably) such a thing were to happen, and if on further investigation no material cause could be found, then, since we would have no materialist explanation of the manifestation, we should still be left with the possibility that some non-material event had occurred.

Wishful materialist though he is, the same insoluble problem is met by Hofstadter at the end of I am a Strange Loop, a book whose ambition is to make feedback seem a plausible model for consciousness:

What would make a loopy abstract pattern, however fancy it might be, constitute a locus of interiority, an inner light, a site of first-person experience?

He has, I fear, no solution to offer except wishful thinking and the persuasions of style. As is well known, Colin McGinn, in despair at the impossibility of modelling and hence grasping consciousness in a ‘scientific’ fashion, suggests that we are constitutionally incapable of understanding it.

The impossibility of modelling consciousness is a real problem for materialists. Humphrey’s difficulties, described above, are another instance of this point. An exceedingly interesting article by Fred Dretske contains ‘a recipe for making a thought’. His premisses seem to be not only ‘If you can’t make one, you don’t know how it works’ (which seems, I think, reasonable enough), but also ‘Anything that can’t be made can’t possibly exist.’ But this amounts to saying (1) ‘anything that can’t be imitated can’t possibly exist,’ and also (2) ‘Anything that I don’t understand can’t possibly exist.’ Whether the first of these propositions is true or not I am not concerned to argue here. The second, however, cannot possibly be true; and indeed the impossibility of modelling consciousness proves it.

What Dretske’s proposals really demonstrate is as follows: they show the limitations on materialism: we are well able to model material objects – for we are modelling them out of concrete matter or abstract mathematics. But we shall find it impossible to do the same with immaterial phenomena such as thoughts, hopes, fears, emotions or qualia. Still less with consciousness, in whose phenomenal field these experiences have their being. In short, you cannot either model percipere out of percipi or derive the former from the latter. For the two are the ontological opposites of each other.