Is Consciousness the Sort of Thing That Could Have Evolved?Researchers Simona Ginsberg and Eva Jablonka have written a book attempting to trace the evolution of consciousness
Evolutionary biology is a veritable geyser of story-telling. “Just-so stories” is the term evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould used to describe the many fables that biologists concoct to account for the astonishing specified complexity of living things.
Of these Darwinian fables that plague evolutionary science, neuroscientist and developmental biologist Emily Casanova has noted,
While modern [evolutionary] hypotheses may seem a little less far-fetched [than children’s fairy tales], they are no less fanciful—in part because modern scientists are sometimes so focused on “What adaptive advantage could this trait possible give?” rather than determining how said trait could have arisen and been passed down by other means. In addition, so often these hypotheses are untestable, so in actuality they’re not even “hypotheses”. They’re just interesting thoughts.Emily Casanova, “The Absurdity of “Just so Stories” in Explaining Evolution,” at Science Over a Cuppa (May 22, 2016)
It is inevitable that Darwinian story-telling would be applied to the most remarkable and scientifically intractable characteristic of higher animals—consciousness. How is it that some living things, and especially man, became conscious?
Believe it or not, there is actually a discipline in science called “evolutionary consciousness.” Two of its prominent practitioners, Simona Ginsburg and Eva Jablonka,, have published a book on their research. Here’s the introduction to an excerpt from the book:
What is consciousness, and who (or what) is conscious — humans, nonhumans, nonliving beings? Which varieties of consciousness do we recognize? In their book “Picturing the Mind,” Simona Ginsburg and Eva Jablonka, two leading voices in evolutionary consciousness science, pursue these and other questions through a series of “vistas” — over 65 brief, engaging texts, presenting some of the views of poets, philosophers, psychologists, and biologists, accompanied by Anna Zeligowski’s lively illustrations.
Each picture and text serves as a starting point for discussion. In the texts that follow, excerpted from the vista “How Did Consciousness Evolve?” the authors offer a primer on evolutionary theory, consider our evolutionary transition from nonsentient to sentient organisms, explore the torturous relation between learning studies and consciousness research, and ponder the origins and evolution of suffering and the imagination.Introduction to Simona Ginsburg and Eva Jablonka, “How Did Consciousness Evolve? An Illustrated Guide” at The MIT Press Reader (June 24, 2022)
Ginsburg and Jablonka begin their essay with the obligatory paean to Charles Darwin (1809–1882) in a flowery rehash of the theory of common descent and heritable variation with natural selection. Then they ask: how did consciousness evolve?
Interestingly — and this is quite unusual for evolutionary biologists (who are generally ignorant of metaphysics and classical philosophy of any sort) — they invoke the ancient philosopher Aristotle’s classification of the souls of living things. Aristotle proposed that souls can have three general powers:
– powers necessary for basic functions of life (e.g. nutrition, excretion, growth, reproduction, etc.), that is, a vegetative soul
– powers necessary for sensation and locomotion, that is, a sensitive soul
— powers necessary for abstract thought (i.e., intellect and will), that is, a rational soul.
They propose that an evolutionary transition from vegetative to sensitive to rational souls has taken place. That is, evolution from unicellular organisms to non-human animals to human beings.
They then ask, “What single tangible property marks all living things that have consciousness,” and their answer is: unlimited associative learning. They propose that unlimited associative learning is the “transition marker” to the evolution of consciousness. They then proceed with the usual confabulations about selective advantages conferred by learning. It’s a lot of rhetorical flourish with vanishingly little logic or science.
Their hypothesis goes awry in several obvious ways:
- They correctly note that a salient characteristic of consciousness is intentionality, which is the capacity for a thought to be “about” something. The difficulty with intentionality for any materialist (Darwinian) theory of consciousness is that there is no acceptable materialist account for how a mental state can be intentional — that is, how a mental state can be directed at something, how a thought can have aboutness. There is, after all, nothing about matter that inherently refers to anything else. A rock or a clump of protoplasm isn’t “about” anything. So how could a solely material creature have a thought about something if no part of that creature can be about anything?
The materialist inability to account for intentionality is well-established. Here’s the problem: Darwinian mechanisms (natural selection acting on random mutations) can operate only on matter. Only material organisms can vary heritably and either survive or fail to survive. Hence, Darwinian mechanisms can’t account for powers of the organism that have no material explanation. Limbs and organs might evolve but intentionality of thoughts can’t evolve, because there is no credible materialist explanation for intentionality to begin with.
- In addition to the problem of intentionality, the capacity of human beings to reason and use intellect and will is an insurmountable obstacle for Darwinian theories of the evolution of consciousness. As Aristotle and scientists and philosophers who have followed his thinking have noted for millennia, the human capacity for abstract reasoning is inherently immaterial. No material explanation for the human capacity of reason is even conceivable.
For example, how can human beings contemplate “infinity” using physiological (material) processes in the brain? All material processes are finite and could not thereby account for thoughts about infinity. Nor can material processes explain the perfection inherent in certain mathematical concepts, such as triangularity. All material instantiations of triangularity are imperfect — lines aren’t perfectly straight and angles in actual (material) triangles don’t add up to exactly 180 degrees. Yet our abstract understanding of triangularity is perfect, in the sense that we understand triangularity as involving straight sides and 180 degree sums of angles. Philosopher Ed Feser has a nice lecture on how abstract thought points to immateriality of the mind.
- There is abundant neuroscientific evidence that human reason is not a material power of the brain. The work of Wilder Penfield, Roger Sperry, Benjamin Libet, Adrian Owen, and Justine Sergent, among many others, points to the immateriality of the human capacity for abstract thought.
Ginsburg’s and Jablonka’s invocation of Aristotle fails because Aristotle’s psychology depends critically on his metaphysics, which is anti-materialist and thus wholly incompatible with Darwinian materialism. And of course Aristotle’s metaphysics points to God’s existence (the Prime Mover Argument), a conclusion that would cause considerable angst in any evolutionary biologists’ seminar. If Darwinists are to invoke Aristotle, they must invoke hylemorphic metaphysics, which is utterly incompatible with crude Darwinian materialism and inherently points to … an Intelligent Designer.
So the real question about the evolution of consciousness is not “how did consciousness evolve?’, but rather “did consciousness evolve?” The answer to this question is no, Consciousness did not evolve and could not evolve. It entails powers of the mind that cannot be explained via the materialism on which Darwinism crucially depends.
The existence of consciousness, and particularly the human capacity for reason, points unambiguously to creation by God, Who intelligently designed all of nature and each of our souls.
You may also wish to read: Did minimal consciousness drive the Cambrian Explosion? Eva Jablonka’s team makes the daring case, repurposing Hungarian chemist Tibor Gánti’s origin of life studies. The researchers point out that life forms that show minimal consciousness have very different brains from each other. Behavior, not brain anatomy, is the signal to look for.