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Science Team Argues, Consciousness Came Before Life

Can the authors take issue with Darwinian evolution claims while maintaining a materialist stance?

On the face of it, it’s a pretty bold hypothesis:

Most scientists and philosophers believe that life came before consciousness. Life appeared on Earth about 3.8 billion years ago; consciousness and feelings, it’s said, evolved later due to complex biological information processing, perhaps only recently in brains with language and tool-making abilities. In fact, though, there’s good reason to think that consciousness preceded life, and was central to making life and evolution possible.

Stuart Hameroff, Anirban Bandyopadhyay, Dante Lauretta, “Consciousness came before life,” IAI.TV, May 8, 2024

It’s sure to raise the hackles of Darwinian materialists everywhere. They are generally committed to the view that consciousness is an illusion (the mind, in their view, is simply the physical workings of the brain).

3d rendering of Human cell or Embryonic stem cell microscope background.

How will astrobiologist and anesthesiologist Stuart Hameroff, materials scientist Anirban Bandyopadhyay, and planetary scientist Dante Lauretta pull it off? Or is this really what it seems?

Here’s a quick summary of the main points of their longish article at Institute for Arts and Ideas:

● Hameroff has collaborated with physicist and philosopher Roger Penrose on the Orch OR theory of consciousness, which forms the basis of the claim. A quantum particle like an electron has no fixed qualities until it is observed (quantum collapse). From that, Penrose argues that the collapse of quantum superpositions into definite states produces consciousness.

On that view,

… consciousness involves a non-computable process – a process which cannot be classically computed. In contrast, familiar, classical reality is algorithmic and “computable.” Penrose therefore concludes that the non-computable process and its attendant conscious “feelings” or “qualia” must come from outside classical physics, namely from quantum physics with its own set of laws.

Hameroff et al., “Consciousness came before life”

● The team invokes the concept of “proto-conscious” OR (objective reduction) events — collapses of the wavefunction — in the early universe:

In the ancient primordial soup, amphipathic molecules are thought to have formed soap molecule-like “micelles,” which envelope the insoluble, oil-like aromatic rings. These micelles were theorized by Alexander Oparin to have become biological “proto-cells,” developed behaviors for survival, and then become cells and organisms. But why would this have happened, long before genes and brains? What would motivate simple creatures’ purposeful behavior to survive?

Hameroff et al., “Consciousness came before life”

That’s a good question and fatal to many origin of life theories. One key way life differs from non-life is that life forms have goals. For example, the amoeba seeks to protect itself; the boulder does nothing to prevent itself from becoming sand. How did that essential difference arise?

Brain: network of astrocytes (glial cells that support neurons).

The team offers a “possible answer”: Some elements of the primordial soup could have reached the threshold of collapse, “resulting in sequences of random, disconnected proto-conscious moments.” Then evolution is invoked, to do the heavy lifting:

Some of these would exhibit positive reinforcement, a primitive form of pleasure. Thus, this mechanism could have served as a feedback fitness function for aromatic rings on amphipathic molecules to arrange within micelles for OR events which increase pleasure and avoid displeasure. Thus, the origin of life may have been prompted and driven by conscious feelings right from the start. Evolution may have worked to optimize, organize, and prioritize more advanced conscious experience involving memory, belief, forecasting, intention and iteration, driven by primitive, and then more advanced forms of pleasure-seeking. Life became the vehicle for consciousness.

Hameroff et al., “Consciousness came before life”

● To find evidence in support of their theory, they hope to study both the Murchison meteorite and asteroids from the dawn of the solar system, especially near-Earth asteroid Bennu, looking for “putative ‘signs of life,’” particularly PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) and nanoglobules (grains of organic materials).

Where does consciousness come in?

What about consciousness? Penrose OR is the most specific scientific proposal for consciousness but is difficult to detect. However, some “signs of life” are pre-conditions for OR and could be detected, e.g. coherent oscillations, quantum optical superposition effects and triplets-of-triplets. If we find such signs of life in a sample, we will expose them to anesthetic gas to see if they are inhibited proportional to anesthetic potency in blocking consciousness in animals and humans. If so, these processes may be considered putative “roots of consciousness.”

Hameroff et al., “Consciousness came before life”

● In their view, then, evolution is not the source of consciousness but the product of consciousness. They admit that their theory is controversial but they argue, “Penrose OR is testable, profound, more sensible than alternatives, and comes from one of the truly great minds of these past two centuries.”

I have passed over many technical details because my purpose is not to critique the theory but to establish what sort of a theory it is. Apart from its apparent demotion of evolution, it is yet another attempt to naturalize consciousness (especially the human kind) by making consciousness a fundamental physics process that originated life.

Yes, the theory is in direct conflict with the Darwinian effort to eliminate the mind, which Daniel Dennett (1942–2024) typified. It will probably survive as a theory because it will sound attractive to panpsychists in science. But it is it is very much a materialist theory. And, as such, it offers no plausible account of human consciousness.

Denyse O'Leary

Denyse O'Leary is a freelance journalist based in Victoria, Canada. Specializing in faith and science issues, she is co-author, with neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul; and with neurosurgeon Michael Egnor of the forthcoming The Immortal Mind: A Neurosurgeon’s Case for the Existence of the Soul (Worthy, 2025). She received her degree in honors English language and literature.

Science Team Argues, Consciousness Came Before Life