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Why Consciousness Couldn’t Just Evolve from the Mud

Kastrup, a panpsychist, is sympathetic to the basic intuitions behind the idea that there is design in nature (intelligent design theory)

In a recent podcast, “The Evolution (or Not) of Consciousness”, neurosurgeon Michael Egnor interviewed philosopher and computer programmer Bernardo Kastrup. Dr. Kastrup has been, in Dr. Egnor’s words, “leading a modern renaissance of metaphysical idealism”—that is, reality is essentially mental rather than physical.

Of course, Kastrup’s view is parts ways with the dominant materialist perspective in science. But growing numbers in science are becoming curious about or comfortable with his panpsychist perspective. In the interview, he is sympathetic to the basic intuitions behind intelligent design theory but he and Egnor have very different conceptions of what underlies the universe.

Michael Egnor: And so can consciousness have evolved by a Darwinian mechanism?

Bernardo Kastrup: I think by definition it cannot. By the way we define matter, it could not have evolved because it performs no function. Our physicalist account of reality entails that it is the measurable quantitative properties of matter that are causally efficacious. In other words, it’s mass, spin, charge, momentum that leads to effects, that leads to the dynamisms of nature, to the chains of cause and effect. And consciousness, that qualitative state that seems to accompany the quantitative dynamics of physicality, by definition cannot have causal efficacy…

That’s the definition of consciousness and matter under a physicalist metaphysics. So if it cannot produce an effect, if it’s something that simply accompanies the material dynamisms of the world, it could not have been favored by natural selection. And then of course, what materialist Darwinists would say is that it doesn’t need to have an effect in order to evolve. Even if it has no selective advantage, it could still have evolved. And I think this basically renders evolutionary theory, unfalsifiable. Because if something, as presumably complex as consciousness can evolve, even if it has no function, even if it’s not selected by natural selection, then anything at all could have evolved and we might as well just throw our arms up and start over.

Michael Egnor (pictured): That’s actually a fascinating perspective because what you’ve described is in fact, what Darwinists tend to suggest, that consciousness is epiphenomenal. But you’re right. If something as remarkable as consciousness could take place without natural selection, then anything could take place without natural selection, and then what role does natural selection have in the explanation for nature?

Bernardo Kastrup: Exactly. You see, they’re forced into two alternatives. One, consciousness is strongly emergent. In other words, it’s something that comes into being only when there is sufficient physical complexity, like the complexity of the brain. In other words, consciousness is something very complex. So they may appeal to that, but then they cannot explain why that complexity that leads to consciousness evolved because presumably it’s a very different type of complexity than the complexity required to manipulate data at the cognitive level, without accompanying experience. There’s no reason to think that these two complexities are the same. They’re incommensurable.

So the other alternative they have is to say, well, it doesn’t need to be very complex for consciousness to accompany physical dynamisms and therefore it could have just come along, even if it was not selected for, because it doesn’t need to be complex. Well, that immediately puts you on the field of panpsychism, cosmopsychism, and idealism, which also defeats materialism. So it’s very difficult to see how the metaphysics of materialism can survive together with newer Darwinism. I personally think that it’s the metaphysics of materialism that we have to get to rid of.

Note: Kastrup has clashed with Darwinian evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne on this topic. See: No, consciousness cannot be just a byproduct: Philosopher Bernardo Kastrup responds to biologist Jerry Coyne’s claim that consciousness could be a mere by-product of a useful evolved trait.

Michael Egnor: What do you think of intelligent design theory?

Bernardo Kastrup (pictured): I do not know enough about it to really make an intelligent comment. I am ashamed to confess to this. But what I read about it, the limited reading I spent on this, suggests to me that there is nothing crazy about it. It seems a very reasonable thing to imagine that there are organizing principles in nature that have a causal influence on the organization of genomes in the course of evolution. And that we may not be aware of these organizing principles yet. I mean, that’s a fundamental assumption in science, that there are patterns of organization out there that we don’t know yet. That’s why we do research. That’s why you try to find out more about how the universe works.

So I think it is reasonable to imagine that the supposedly random mutations at the root of evolution may after all, not really be random, they may comply to certain patterns of organization, some organizing principles in nature, that we still do not know very well. I would say that evolution by natural selection does happen in the sense that species evolve into other species through the accrual of genetic mutations. But I think to say that these genetic mutations are random at root is a baseless statement to make. We just do not have enough data to run a randomness test to see if these mutations are really random. For all we know they are following certain coherent and consistent patterns through the course of evolution. And we do not know what the causal agency behind those patterns might be, but I think it’s prudent to say that we do not know as opposed to saying that well, they are definitely random, because that’s something we simply cannot know. It’s just a prejudiced statement by definition.

Note: Kastrup and Egnor discussed atheist philosopher Jerry Fodor’s book, What Darwin Got Wrong (2010), in which Fodor (1935–2017) discussed the vacuity of natural selection as a concept. Kastrup offered some thoughts from his own work on evolutionary paradigms, sing computer programs:

Bernardo Kastrup: My own perspective, and this is not Fodor’s perspective, my own perspective is that materialists have used the concept of natural selection as if it was a force in nature. That is, as if it was a level of explanation. And I believe, and Fodor or seemed to come at it from this perspective, that natural selection is not a level of explanation. It doesn’t mean anything. What means things is the physical constraints that each organism has as to what it’s capable of doing and the natural history of that organism and the population that it’s in. Natural selection is nothing above and beyond that…

What I can share with you is that, my first PhD back in 2001, half a life ago, was in computer engineering. And I did run for a while in my life, experiments, computing experiments with genetic algorithms, cellular, [inaudible 00:11:35], neural networks, but applying an evolutionary paradigm to that. So as to force a certain architecture or a certain optimization structure to change and adapt according to some cost function that was determined by the surrounding environment in that computer simulation. And it was impressed on me from that time, that fitness principles clearly seem to happen in those simulations.

If you change the function that gives you the cost, you get completely different organizational structures, completely different paths for solving a problem. So I’m not skeptical of that. What I am skeptical of is the randomness of the mutations that underlie the process. My intuition is that the mutations aren’t random. Randomness after all, is just an acknowledgement of causal ignorance. Everything in principle is caused, but when we don’t know what the cause is, and we can’t discern any pattern, we say it’s random. But that’s all there is to it, it’s ignorance. I suspect there are organizing principles that steer the mutations down some roots, some avenues that may increase an overall cost or reduce an overall cost function or a teleological target, so to say. This is what I suspect.

Later, Kastrup offered some thoughts on how he understands God:

Bernardo Kastrup: I don’t think God is self-reflective. I don’t think it is metacognitive. I don’t think it tells itself, Oh, I’m doing this now. And I’m going to do that. I don’t think that’s what’s going on. I think there are experiential states underlying nature, they are felt. They may be even omniscient. But I tend to think they are instinctive, not premeditated. So when I say it’s getting warm or getting cold, what I mean is the universe may instinctively knows whether things are going a direction that is not planned because there is no planning, but which minimizes, some felt cost function, or maximizes it some felt desire function. And it never knows beyond what is right in front of it. But it knows whether what’s happening right now is conducive to that increased pleasure or reduced cost or not.

And it may influence things. There may be an organizing principle that influences things based on this experiential instinctive reaction at the most fundamental level of nature. This is what I’m suggesting.

Michael Egnor: And it’s kind of an interesting perspective that falls out of our conversation that strikes me as something quite relevant, is the richness of the idealistic perspective on metaphysics. In contrast with the materialist perspective. There’s so much profound, fascinating stuff in the idealist perspective and materialism is really just an impoverished mistake.

Note: Here is a paper Bernardo Kastrup has published on panpsychism.

Further reading on panpsychism:

Consciousness cannot have evolved. How many joules of consciousness would make you a human instead of a chimpanzee? How many more joules of consciousness would make you a genius?

Why is science growing comfortable with panpsychism (“everything is conscious”)? At one time, the idea that “everything is conscious” was the stuff of jokes. Not any more, it seems.

Why some scientists believe the universe is conscious. They’re not mystics. But materialism is not giving good answers so they are looking around

No materialist theory of consciousness is plausible. All such theories either deny the very thing they are trying to explain, result in absurd scenarios, or end up requiring an immaterial intervention. (Eric Holloway)

Panpsychism: You are conscious but so is your coffee mug. Materialists have a solution to the problem of consciousness, and it may startle you.

How can consciousness be a material thing? Maybe it can’t. But materialist philosophers face starkly limited choices in how to view consciousness.


Can machines be given consciousness? A prominent researcher in consciousness studies offers reasons for doubt.

Show Notes

  • 00:28 | Introducing Dr. Bernardo Kastrup
  • 01:05 | Did consciousness evolve?
  • 03:35 | Two alternatives for Darwinists
  • 05:00 | Intelligent design theory
  • 07:15 | Jerry Fodor on natural selection
  • 10:52 | Random mutations
  • 13:31 | Intelligent design evolution

Additional Resources

  • Bernardo Kastrup’s website
  • Jerry Fodor at Wikipedia
  • What Darwin Got Wrong by Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piatteli-Palmarini at Amazon

Podcast Transcript for Download

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Why Consciousness Couldn’t Just Evolve from the Mud