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Kenneth Miller on Consciousness and Evolution

Despite Miller's claims, neither human reason nor free will evolved because neither are generated by material processes

Kenneth Miller is a biologist at Brown University who has been very active in his written and vocal support for Darwin’s theory of evolution. He’s neither a materialist nor an atheist – he is a Catholic, and in being one of the rare Darwinists who doesn’t subscribe wholeheartedly to the materialist/atheist paradigm, he allows himself to be used as a token theist by the Darwinists. It helps his career, no doubt, but doesn’t advance the truth. Not an admirable place to be.

Miller’s New Book and What it Misses

In his 2018 book The Human Instinct: How We Evolved To Have Reason, Consciousness, and Free Will, Miller manages a feat uncommon even for Darwinists – even the title of the book is wrong. Neither the human capacity for reason nor for free will evolved, because neither reason nor free will is generated by material processes in the brain. Indeed, material processes are ordinarily necessary for reason and free will in the sense that reason and free will only work when we are free of serious brain injury or disease, but the material brain is not sufficient for reason and free will. Reason and free will involve the capacity to contemplate abstract concepts and this capacity is not, and cannot be, a property of matter. We have spiritual souls and are made in the image of our Creator, and our capacity for reason and free will is the salient characteristic of that image. Immaterial spiritual abilities such as reason and free will don’t “evolve” by Darwinian processes or any other process. Miller should know this – it’s a basic Catholic teaching that whatever the status of the human body vis-à-vis evolution, the human soul is created directly by God and does not evolve.

Miller, who is a highly educated Catholic intellectual and knows this, chooses to deny a basic tenet of the Catholic faith.

He continues his conceptual confusion in his book:

Consciousness… is not a property of matter or even a property of individual cells. In a way analogous to life itself, consciousness is a process generated by the hugely complex interactions of highly active cells within the brain and associated nervous tissue. Consciousness therefore is something that matter does, not something the matter is. This insight doesn’t explain human consciousness anymore than the realization we are made of the same chemical stuff as the rest of existence explains life. But it does tell us where to look. It tells us to keep working, to keep teasing one secret after another out of the overwhelming jungle of connections to generate conscious awareness. And it tells us that if we ever approach an answer it will be based, just like life itself, in the wonders that ordinary matter works within the confines of living cell.

-Kenneth Miller, The Human Instinct: How We Evolved to Have Reason, Consciousness, and Free Will: Miller, Kenneth R.: 9781476790268: Amazon.com: Books

What is Consciousness, Anyway?

Miller falls prey to our modern linguistic and conceptual confusion about neuroscience and the philosophy of mind. Miller doesn’t define consciousness, because consciousness is a notoriously slippery concept that is never coherently defined in neuroscience or in philosophy. What Miller is erroneously referring to as consciousness is in fact arousal. Arousal is the state of alertness of an organism, and no doubt arousal is correlated with the activity of specific neurons and complex systems of neurons deep in the brain.

Most of the time when we use the word consciousness we are referring to some kind of arousal – to be unconscious is to be difficult to arouse. Consciousness also at times is used to refer to knowing – to be conscious of the rain is to know that it is raining. However, when we dream we know the content of our dreams even though in sleep we can hardly be said to be conscious.

“Consciousness” is a clear example of what Wittgenstein called a language game. A language game is the rule-governed meaning that words acquire by their use in ordinary life. Sometimes we use consciousness to mean arousal, sometimes we use it to mean perceptual knowledge and at other times we use it to mean abstract comprehension or carefulness or realization. Whatever its value in ordinary language, “consciousness” has no place in the discussion of neuroscience or philosophy. This is not because we aren’t aware or we aren’t capable of perception or understanding. The problem is that the term consciousness is too vague to be useful in neuroscience or in the philosophy of mind. The meaning of consciousness is so broad – its language game is so convoluted – as to preclude genuine insight.

In my view, the most coherent conception of the mind—of “consciousness”— is that the mind is several powers of the soul. I mean the soul in the Thomistic (i.e., Catholic—Dr. Miller, take note) sense of the form – the intelligible principle – of the living organism. What we moderns call the mind then is the spectrum of powers of the soul that include sensation, perception, memory, emotion, appetite, intellect, and will. It is clear that some powers of the mind, such as visual sensation and visual perception, are mediated by the eye and the brain. From the traditional mechanistic materialistic perspective taken by modern science, there is of course no explanation for how the protoplasm of the eye and the brain give rise to the subjective experience of vision. This impossibility of explanation is not because the eye and the brain do not give rise to vision, but because the materialist paradigm is inadequate to explain how it does so. By embracing a Darwinian understanding of the “evolution” of reason and free will, Miller cast his lot in with the materialists, and thereby can’t even begin to get the neuroscience right.

Materialism as Truncated “Cartesianism”

The reason that materialism is inadequate to explain vision or any powers of the mind is that materialism in the modern sense is really truncated Cartesianism. Descartes proposed that human beings are composites of two separate substances: res extensa and res cogitans. Res extensa is matter extended in space and res cogitans is immaterial mind. While this Cartesian view has some strengths (it provides in my view a satisfactory explanation for near-death experiences), as metaphysics this Cartesian view is woefully inadequate. Material substances are not merely extensions in space — they are composites of individuation and intelligibility (c.f., Aristotelian hylomorphism) and some of the powers of the soul (such as sensation, perception, imagination, and memory) bear an intimate connection to matter that is not adequately explained by Cartesian dualism.

Ironically, modern materialists are Cartesians at heart. They implicitly accept Descartes’ res extensa – an impoverished view of the natural world – and deny the existence of res cogitans. A metaphysical perspective that accepts only matter extended in space and denies the existence of mental powers will necessarily prove inadequate to explain the mind because denial of the mind is the predicate for materialist metaphysics. It is precisely the mind that materialists have tossed in the garbage.

Escaping the Materialist Paradigm

What is needed in Miller’s quest to understand the mind in terms of the brain is not any new scientific breakthrough under the old materialist paradigm. That paradigm precludes any cogent understanding of the mind. To understand the mind in terms of the brain we need to begin with a coherent metaphysical perspective – which is the Thomistic hylomorphism metaphysical perspective offered by Catholicism and traditional Christianity – that Miller tosses out the window with his nonsense about “evolution” of reason and free will. Materialism is not coherent and is thus not adequate as a framework for neuroscience or a framework for philosophy of mind. I believe that Thomistic hylomorphism is the most reasonable approach to understanding the mind and has considerable strengths. The mind is several powers of the soul, which include material powers (sensation, perception, memory, etc.) and immaterial powers (intellect and free will). The human soul is a composite of material and spiritual abilities.

Materialists will continue to run aground on the shoals of the mind-brain problem. It is not of course the only problem materialism faces. Materialism is a catastrophe for physics, chemistry, and biology every bit as much as it is a catastrophe for neuroscience. But the mind-brain problem is a particularly clear example of the failure of materialism to provide an adequate basis for modern science. And it’s particularly disturbing that a Catholic scientist like Dr. Miller – someone who knows better – would parrot materialist and Darwinist nonsense.

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.

Kenneth Miller on Consciousness and Evolution