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Did Consciousness Evolve to Find Love?

It’s an attractive idea but it comes with a hidden price tag

Yesterday, I noted that if consciousness evolved via Darwinian natural selection, as neuroscientist Michael Graziano claims, it is a side effect of brain development (an epiphenomenon). If so, it is powerless to act. I compared it to hitting a nail with a yellow hammer. The mind is the yellow and the brain is the hammer. So far as the nail is concerned, which of the two matters? In other words, arguing that the mind is powerless to act is self-refuting because the argument itself, if true, is feckless.

But there is a second reason to doubt that consciousness evolved by Darwinian natural selection, a philosophical argument called the Evolutionary Argument against Naturalism (EEAN). The best-known skeptic was probably C.S. Lewis (1898–1963). Today, in its most current and rigorous form, it is proposed by Notre Dame philosopher Alvin Plantinga. Fortunately, it is entertaining as well as informative:

If consciousness (and specifically man’s capacity for reason) evolved by natural selection, then the trait selected would necessarily lead to success in reproducing oneself. The evolutionary purpose of consciousness would be, so to speak, to rut more successfully. But if the purpose of consciousness is to rut, then any correlation between consciousness and truth about the natural world would be coincidental to effectiveness in the mating game.

In a world where consciousness can only evolve as a mating strategy, a correspondence between consciousness and discernment of truth would be a spandrel—mere icing on the cake.

How tight a link might we expect between reproductive success and the contemplation of truth? Not a lot, it would seem, if the experience of philosophy majors on the dating scene is any measure. “Hey, baby—wanna’ read some Nietzsche with me?” is considerably less effective as a dating strategy than “Hey baby—wanna… ?” Well, you get the point.

If consciousness evolved as an aid to reproduction, there is little reason to credit it with any particular effectiveness as a tool for ascertaining truth. It’s an aid to coitus, not contemplation.

One result is that, as before, the more confidently Dr. Graziano asserts that consciousness evolved, the less confident he can be of his argument. If consciousness evolved, then the adaptive advantage consciousness confers is fecundity of a carnal, not an intellectual, kind. If his argument succeeds, it should evoke amorous stirrings. That’s the purpose of evolution, after all—the only purpose when it comes down to it. And if consciousness is a mere tool of human sexual selection, it is mere plumage, a pretty enticement, of no meaning or import otherwise.

Were Graziano (coincidentally!) right about the evolution of consciousness, it would, of course, give the two of you something nice to talk about after the real goal of evolution is consummated.

Besides, a post-coital chat about the evolution of consciousness is healthier than lighting up a cigarette, if less satisfying.


Here are the two earlier articles on Michael Graziano’s approach to consciousness:

Neuroscientist Michael Graziano should meet the p-zombie. A p-zombie (a philosopher’s thought experiment) behaves exactly like a human being but has no first-person (subjective) experience. The meat robot violates no physical principles. Yet we KNOW we are not p-zombies. Think what that means.

Did consciousness “evolve”? One neuroscientist doesn’t seem to understand the problems the idea raises. Darwinian evolution must select physical attributes. If consciousness evolved as a mere byproduct of physical brain processes, it is powerless in itself. Thus Graziano’s theories of consciousness are themselves mindless accidents.

And here is a selection of Dr. Egnor’s articles on consciousness:

In one sense, consciousness IS an illusion. We have no knowledge of the processes of our consciousness, only of the objects of its attention, whether they are physical, emotional, or abstract

Does Your Brain Construct Your Conscious Reality? Part I A reply to computational neuroscientist Anil Seth’s recent TED talk

and

Does Your Brain Construct Your Conscious Reality? Part II In a word, no. Your brain doesn’t “think”; YOU think, using your brain


Michael Egnor

Senior Fellow, Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence
Michael R. Egnor, MD, is a Professor of Neurosurgery and Pediatrics at State University of New York, Stony Brook, has served as the Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery, and award-winning brain surgeon. He was named one of New York’s best doctors by the New York Magazine in 2005. He received his medical education at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and completed his residency at Jackson Memorial Hospital. His research on hydrocephalus has been published in journals including Journal of Neurosurgery, Pediatrics, and Cerebrospinal Fluid Research. He is on the Scientific Advisory Board of the Hydrocephalus Association in the United States and has lectured extensively throughout the United States and Europe.

Did Consciousness Evolve to Find Love?