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Review: The Why, Not the How, of the Origin of Consciousness

Ventureyra’s new book treats the origin of consciousness as a “first instantiation of a new law of nature”

The origin of consciousness (specifically, human self-consciousness) has long been a difficult issue for the sciences. In his book On the Origin of Consciousness, Scott Ventureyra poses the phenomena as a FINDON — a “first instantiation of a new law of nature.” That is, current cosmology indicates that there was a time in which consciousness did not exist. Now, however, consciousness is a given as a law of psychology. Therefore, at some point in the past, one or more new laws of nature arose involving consciousness.

This is not the only point in the history of the universe for a new law or laws to arise either. When the first life originated, the laws of biology began. Whether these laws are mere emergent properties of matter or not, the fact is that new, describable, collective patterns of behavior, i.e., new laws of nature, emerge throughout cosmological history.

The book takes the reader on a tour of different ways that these FINLONs have been seen and described through recent history, with a focus on the science/theology dialogue.

It is interesting that a book describing the origin of consciousness contains so much introductory material. In fact, the first half of the book could be considered an introduction to the science/theology dialogue on its own. I think the reason for its inclusion is simple — much of the modern academic politics has caused the science/theology dialogue to be eschewed in favor of a NOMA (non-overlapping magisteria)-like split between the two. At best, most commentators want theologians to merely agree with scientists, perhaps adding a theological gloss on top of what scientists have already discovered. The idea that theologians might have something constructive to offer scientists is generally regarded as anathema. Therefore, any attempt to integrate the fields must first spend a significant amount of time justifying itself.

Thus Ventureyra spends the first half of the book defending not only the science/theology dialogue but the idea that this dialogue can, in fact, be a two-way street, without violating the competencies of either partner. Ventureyra himself believes that the structure of the universe favors this kind of interaction. Borrowing from Dembski, he suggests that we live in an “informationally porous universe,” whose nature allows for intervention without violating the integrity of the universe or its laws and physical framework.

On the origin of consciousness, Ventureyra notices that materialistic theories are not in any way advantaged. Saying that consciousness “somehow emerges” from matter is not a material explanation and therefore gains no advantage as a material description. This insight opens up the possibility that the origin of consciousness might have a non-material component. This component might be ever-present alongside or within matter (panpsychism) or it might be an infusion from an external source (classical theism, for example).

Instead of addressing “`how” consciousness arose in natural history, Ventureyra attempts to address “why.” Ultimately, he grounds consciousness on two theological principles—the principle of divine simplicity (that God cannot be divided into parts) and the principle of synonymy (that humans are made in the image-likeness of God). These explain several of the facts of consciousness, including its unified experience, its recursive capability (the ability to be conscious of self), and its irreducible nature.

Ventureyra believes that these principles may lead in the future to a better understanding of the material processes in the history of evolution which facilitated the development of consciousness, which for Ventureyra is not a strictly physical process. That may be the case. However, I think a more likely scenario is that the restless quest for material explanations, far from a boon for science, has, in some fields, clouded our thinking and distracted us from the important questions.

For instance, imagine a situation where a book club is discussing the works of Stephen King. One commenter keeps on bringing up the fact that all of King’s writing was done on a Mac. While this is indeed an interesting piece of trivia, its relevance to the deeper questions is, at best, a diversion. A continued insistence on its relevance would signify that the commentator has not adequately weighted the relevance of the information to the topic.

Knowledge is about fundamentals, not trivialities. If Ventureyra is right, then a focus on the fundamentals may mean that a search for the specific sequence of material events leading up to consciousness is as significant to the outcome as whether a work of literature was written using a PC or a Mac.

Note: This review of Scott D. G. Ventureyra, On the Origin of Consciousness (Wipf & Stock, 2018) was originally published in Communications of the Blyth Institute 1(2):83-84.

Also by Jonathan Bartlett: Prominent psychologist offers a non-reductive approach to consciousness in a journal article. A new edition of Communications of the Blyth Institute highlights mind, consciousness, and machine learning


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Jonathan Bartlett

Senior Fellow, Walter Bradley Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence
Jonathan Bartlett is a senior software R&D engineer at Specialized Bicycle Components, where he focuses on solving problems that span multiple software teams. Previously he was a senior developer at ITX, where he developed applications for companies across the US. He also offers his time as the Director of The Blyth Institute, focusing on the interplay between mathematics, philosophy, engineering, and science. Jonathan is the author of several textbooks and edited volumes which have been used by universities as diverse as Princeton and DeVry.

Review: The Why, Not the How, of the Origin of Consciousness