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The Battle Over the Human Mind Split Two Great Thinkers

Charles Darwin opted for a materialist model; his co-theorist Alfred Russel Wallace insisted that the mind was not just the brain

Charles Darwin (1809–1882) and Alfred Russel Wallace (1823–2013) share the credit, technically, for the theory of evolution by natural selection but Darwin became the icon. One reason they parted ways was that Wallace did not agree with Darwin that the human mind was simply an organ that evolved naturally, like any other. There had to be something more to it.

Philosopher Neil Thomas explains:

In his older years Wallace came to reject natural selection as an explanation for the unfurling of all human and even animal life. By then he had transitioned towards the espousal of a form of natural theology; but his initial and gravest misgiving in the 1860s was focused four-square on the mystery of how the human brain could have evolved according to Darwinian lines of explanation. For Wallace it had become so clear that an additional power must have played a role that he thenceforth felt constrained to bid adieu to material modes of explanation. Rather like the adherents of the modern intelligent design trend, Wallace could not see how what is now termed “irreducible complexity” could have been thrown together by the only marginally discriminating forces of natural selection.

It is not difficult to sympathize with Wallace’s doubts. As Michael Ruse recently put it, “mind is the apotheosis of final cause, drenched in purpose … irreducibly teleological.” At the same time, however, Ruse puzzlingly and to me somewhat contradictorily contends, “Why should the evolutionist be expected to explain the nature of consciousness? Surely it can be taken as a given, and the evolutionist can move on … leave the discussion at that.” Wallace was certainly not prepared to accept such cherry-picking evasions and “leave the discussion at that.” And despite Dawkins’s transparent attempt to airbrush Wallace’s “apostasy” out of the historical record, the latter’s century-and-a half old question about natural selection’s inability to create the human mind has been maintained as a live issue by professional philosophers.

Neil Thomas, “How Darwin and Wallace Split over the Human Mind” at Evolution News and Science Today (June 13, 2022)

It’s still called the “Hard Problem of consciousness,” after all, and a materialist solution is nowhere in sight. Not for lack of trying. Some, improving on Darwin, insist that chimpanzees really do think like people if you study them enough (no, they don’t). Others claim that artificial intelligence will soon surpass human intelligence. If so, that would be a credit to human intelligence because we created it.

AI capable of thinking like a human would be a philosophical problem, to be sure, because it would mean both that intelligence can create itself and that it can be instantiated in a non-biological form. However, such a development would not demonstrate that human intelligence is a material thing or that it arose from a material thing. If anything, it would more readily suggest the opposite.

Thomas notes the key role neuroscience has played in undermining a purely materialist account of the mind — an unexpected role for neuroscience, perhaps, but that’s what happened:

Neuroscientist Donald Hoffman, who once worked with DNA co-discoverer Francis Crick in attempting to crack the problem of human consciousness, recently conceded that the nature and origins of consciousness remain “completely unsolved” and may best be termed an eternal mystery. The brusque and decidedly no-nonsense Crick was in the event fated to meet his Waterloo when it came to the subject of consciousness, explains Hoffman. Crick had at first attempted to explain it somewhat airily as nothing but an “emergent” property which “naturally” arose when matter reaches a certain level of complexity. However, he was at length obliged to withdraw that vacuous contention, conceding that there is nothing about conscious experience that is relatable to the physical stuff or material of the brain. Consciousness simply lies beyond our empirical perception and cognitive reach.

Hoffman develops the point further: “At the most microcosmic level the brain consists of subatomic particles which have qualities like mass, spin and charge. There is nothing about these qualities that relates to the qualities associated with consciousness such as thought, taste, pain or anxiety.” To suggest otherwise, continues Hoffman, would be like asserting that numbers might emerge from biscuits or ethics from rhubarb. The bottom line seems to be that we are not only ignorant but, alas, prostrate in our ignorance of the brain’s arcana. Theoretically, of course, there may yet emerge an as yet undiscovered materialist explanation for the brain and human consciousness. But to date we must conclude that today’s science cannot with integrity support such a claim on the evidence presently available.

Both Hoffman and Crick were finally forced to conclude that all purely physicalist theories of consciousness had failed to provide illumination and that the state of consciousness could not be explained in neurological terms, a conclusion powerfully endorsed for more than three decades by distinguished British neuroscientist in his long opposition to what he terms “Darwinitis.”

Neil Thomas, “How Darwin and Wallace Split over the Human Mind” at Evolution News and Science Today (June 13, 2022)

Any physicalist theory of consciousness must reckon with the fact that consciousness deals with information, which is not a material thing and follows different principles from matter and energy.

One outcome in science today is the rise of panpsychism, the view that all life forms participate in consciousness to at least some minimal. Panpsychism attracts many because it allows consciousness to be real rather than illusory (as per physicalism) but it remains in the same general thought world as, say, Hoffman — though not that of Richard Dawkins. Wallace himself, as Neil notes, came to embrace a sort of natural theology. He contributed to a number of streams of early twentieth-century thought, as Michael Flannery’s book Nature’s Prophet (2018) details.

In any event, neuroscience today could marshall as many arguments in support of Wallace’s view of the human mind than of Darwin’s.

You may also wish to read:

Dualism is the best option for understanding the mind and the brain. Theories that attempt to show that the mind does not really exist clearly don’t work and never did. Neurosurgeon Michael Egnor reviews the mind-brain theories for East Meets West: Theology Unleashed. He think dualism makes the best sense of the evidence.


Why panpsychism is starting to push out naturalism A key goal of naturalism/materialism has been to explain human consciousness away as “nothing but a pack of neurons.” That can’t work. Panpsychism is not dualism. By including consciousness — including human consciousness — as a bedrock fact of nature, it avoids naturalism’s dead end. (Denyse O’Leary)

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The Battle Over the Human Mind Split Two Great Thinkers