“Consciousness Cannot Have Evolved”

“Consciousness Cannot Have Evolved” February 9, 2020

Bernard Kastrup, at iai, recently wrote an article setting out that consciousness, as far as strict materialists are concerned, cannot have evolved:

The overwhelmingly validated theory of evolution tells us that the functions performed by our organs arose from associated increases in survival fitness. For instance, the bile produced by our liver and the insulin produced by our pancreas help us absorb nutrients and thus survive. Insofar as it is produced by the brain, our phenomenal consciousness—i.e. our ability to subjectively experience the world and ourselves—is no exception: it, too, must give us some survival advantage, otherwise natural selection wouldn’t have fixed it in our genome. In other words, our sentience—to the extent that it is produced by the brain—must perform a beneficial function, otherwise we would be unconscious zombies.

One problem with this is that, under the premises of materialism, phenomenal consciousness cannot—by definition—have a function. According to materialism, all entities are defined and exhaustively characterised in purely quantitative terms. For instance, elementary subatomic particles are exhaustively characterised in terms of e.g. mass, charge and spin values. Similarly, the behaviour of abstract fields is fully defined in terms of quantities, such as frequencies and amplitudes of oscillation. Particles and fields, in and of themselves, have quantitative properties but no intrinsic qualities, such as colour or flavour. Only our perceptions of them—or so the materialist argument goes—are accompanied by qualities somehow generated by our brain….

However, our phenomenal consciousness is eminently qualitative, not quantitative. There is something it feels like to see the colour red, which is not captured by merely noting the frequency of red light. If we were to tell Helen Keller that red is an oscillation of approximately 4.3*1014 cycles per second, she would still not know what it feels like to see red. Analogously, what it feels like to listen to a Vivaldi sonata cannot be conveyed to a person born deaf, even if we show to the person the sonata’s complete power spectrum. Experiences are felt qualities—which philosophers and neuroscientists call ‘qualia’—not fully describable by abstract quantities.

But as discussed above, qualities have no function under materialism, for quantitatively-defined physical models are supposed to be causally-closed; that is, sufficient to explain every natural phenomenon. As such, it must make no difference to the survival fitness of an organism whether the data processing taking place in its brain is accompanied by experience or not: whatever the case, the processing will produce the same effects; the organism will behave in exactly the same way and stand exactly the same chance to survive and reproduce. Qualia are, at best, superfluous extras.

Therefore, under materialist premises, phenomenal consciousness cannot have been favoured by natural selection. Indeed, it shouldn’t exist at all; we should all be unconscious zombies, going about our business in exactly the same way we actually do, but without an accompanying inner life. If evolution is true—which we have every reason to believe is the case—our very sentience contradicts materialism….

In other words, what the author calls the ‘functions of consciousness’ aren’t the cognitive tasks performed by consciousness, but simply those visible to consciousness—i.e. reportable through conscious introspection. Why call these tasks the ‘functions of consciousness’ if they aren’t what consciousness does, but merely what it sees? According to this argument, phenomenal consciousness expressly isn’t the causative agency behind these tasks—for the article excludes the causal efficacy of qualia from the definition—but merely their audience. As such, this theory is somewhat beside the point, as far as the survival value of having qualia or the evolutionary origins of phenomenal consciousness proper.

The impossibility of attributing functional, causative efficacy to qualia constitutes a fundamental internal contradiction in the mainstream materialist worldview. There are two main reasons why this contradiction has been accepted thus far: first, there seems to be a surprising lack of understanding, even amongst materialists, of what materialism actually entails and implies. Second, deceptive word games—such as that discussed above—seem to perpetuate the illusion that we have plausible hypotheses for the ostensive survival function of consciousness.

Phenomenal consciousness cannot have evolved. It can only have been there from the beginning as an intrinsic, irreducible fact of nature. The faster we come to terms with this fact, the faster our understanding of consciousness will progress.

It’s worth reading the whole piece for expounding a particular view; it’s not long, though I find it problematic. Essentially, the TL;DR is that consciousness, as understood in terms of the qualitative qualia (the subjective experience) is not functional and cannot be causal, and therefore cannot have evolved in the manner that material, functional living things or parts of living things do. Evolution cannot account for qualia, and thus consciousness as a whole.

There are several counterpoints that could be made to this, such that one can consider the following:

  1. Eliminating qualia (as thinkers like Dennett do).
  2. Equating qualia to physical events (more than just supervenience).
  3. Claiming that qualia are compositional and have internal structure.
  4. Arguing that qualia do have functional dimensions.
  5. Arguing that abstracta can be causally potent.

There is some overlap here, as one might imagine. I will give you just a tiny synopsis of each one here.

  1. Eliminating qualia (as thinkers like Dennett do).

Daniel Dennett is one of the most famous of eliminative materialists:

“[Qualia] have seemed to be very significant properties to some theorists because they have seemed to provide an insurmountable and unavoidable stumbling block to functionalism, or more broadly, to materialism, or more broadly still, to any purely ‘third-person’ objective viewpoint or approach to the world (Nagel, 1986). Theorists of the contrary persuasion have patiently and ingeniously knocked down all the arguments, and said most of the right things, but they have made a tactical error, I am claiming, of saying in one way or another: ‘We theorists can handle those qualia you talk about just fine; we will show that you are just slightly in error about the nature of qualia.’ What they ought to have said is: ‘What qualia?'”
–Daniel Dennett, “Quining Qualia

In “The Eliminativist Approach to Consciousness“,  espouses a similar sort of eliminativism and reductionism, and pulls on quotes from Dennett, Chalmers, Rothman, Bensinger, Frankish and others. Check it out. It’s also worth checking out the SEP (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy) entry on eliminative materialism, and the section on arguments concerning the phenomenal.

2. Equating qualia to physical events (more than just supervenience).

This is pretty similar to the previous section. I will also wrap up the idea of causal potency with this section, too. To understand where I am going, it is useful to know what epiphenomenalism is: the idea that consciousness is like the natural byproduct of the machinations of the brain in the same way that steam is the byproduct of a kettle. The conscious mind, then, is a later reflection of what the brain has already experienced or decided. As the SEP states:

Epiphenomenalism is the view that mental events are caused by physical events in the brain, but have no effects upon any physical events. Behavior is caused by muscles that contract upon receiving neural impulses, and neural impulses are generated by input from other neurons or from sense organs. On the epiphenomenalist view, mental events play no causal role in this process. Huxley (1874), who held the view, compared mental events to a steam whistle that contributes nothing to the work of a locomotive. James (1879), who rejected the view, characterized epiphenomenalists’ mental events as not affecting the brain activity that produces them “any more than a shadow reacts upon the steps of the traveller whom it accompanies”.

The importance of mentioning this is that an argument against epiphenomenalism is that abstract thoughts do have causal efficacy: that experiencing something can cause the experience to do something tangibly physical. As the SEP continues:

The development of consciousness must be explainable through natural selection. But a property can be selected for only if it has an effect upon organisms’ behavior. Therefore, consciousness (both qualia and intentional states) must have effects in behavior, i.e., epiphenomenalism is false. (See Popper and Eccles, 1977; James (1879); Romanes, 1896)

One way of doing this is equating conscious experience to the physical (and thus causal) events. Mary’s Room/The Knowledge Argument seeks to shos that qualia are, indeed, irreducible non-physical in ontology, and so any arguments against these are pertinent here. You could write a book just on this section, and SEP does a good job of discussing it here. The point of this overview piece is that there are arguments for qualia being reducible, whether you adhere to them or not.

3. Claiming that qualia are compositional and have internal structure.

Kristjan Loorits argues in “Structural qualia: a solution to the hard problem of consciousness“:

[T]he threat of dualism can be avoided and the hard problem can be solved by accepting the first and the third theses while rejecting the second one. In other words, I will argue that the objects of physics and other natural sciences can be indeed fully analyzed in structural terms, but that so can be consciousness. More specifically, I will suggest that the apparently non-structural and monadic elements of consciousness, namely the qualia, are in fact compositional and have an internal structure. According to my proposal, which is based mainly on the work of Francis Crick and Christof Koch (Crick and Koch, 1998Koch, 2004), the components of qualia are unconscious associations and the structures of qualia are the structures of networks of these unconscious associations. I will argue that those structures can be also described in neural terms and thereby identified with certain neural patterns. Shortly, according to my view, qualia can be analyzed in fully structural terms and identified with certain neural patterns.

Check it out for more on how he argues that. This is, naturally, a subsection as to whether qualia are physical events because hey have compositional form.

4. Arguing that qualia do have functional dimensions.

Again, the SEP looks into the are of functionalism with regard to qualia:

Functionalism is the view that individual qualia have functional natures, that the phenomenal character of, e.g., pain is one and the same as the property of playing such-and-such a causal or teleofunctional role in mediating between physical inputs (e.g., body damage) and physical outputs (e.g., withdrawal behavior). On this view (Lycan 1987), qualia are multiply physically realizable. Inner states that are physically very different may nonetheless feel the same. What is crucial to what it is like is functional role, not underlying hardware.

Read that section for a little more exposition.

If qualia can be shown to exist in some ontological sense and can then be shown to have function, then this lends credence to the claim that they can be selected in, in evolutionary terms. Even if they are purely abstract objects, if they supervene on the physical or have some relationship to the physical, then evolution can certainly play a part in their development. Of course, the history of discussion of qualia is littered with the battlefields of functionalism.

5. Arguing that abstracta can be causally potent.

And again, connected to previous ideas of functionalism, we have the subject of causal potency. This is the purview of those arguing about the ontology of abstract objects. One of the claims oft-made is that abstracta are causally inert. But this is not a settled issue. As the IEP (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy) states:

The intuition underlying the functionalist view is that the function of a mental state is its defining feature. Mental states are defined in terms of the causal role that they play in the entire system of the mind—that is, in terms of their causal relations to sensory stimuli, behavioral outputs, and other mental states. By defining mental states in this way, functionalism avoids many of the objections aimed at philosophical behaviorism, an early 20th century theory of mental states that defines them simply in terms of their input-output relations. Moreover, because a causal role can be defined independently of its physical realization (that is, because functional states are multiply realizable), functionalism avoids many of the objections aimed at the type identity theory. Rather than define pain in terms of C-fiber firing, functionalism defines pain in terms of the causal role it plays in our mental life: causing avoidance behavior, warning us of danger, etc., in response to certain environmental stimuli.

 And we return to epiphenomenalism. Whilst there are good arguments for epiphenomenalism, there are also arguments against it, and these lead to concluding that qualia are causally potent in the physical world:

The worries about epiphenomenalism are no less troublesome for the naturalist than are the worries about panpsychism. Intuitively speaking, qualia are important aspects of our mental lives. The itchiness of an itch makes us scratch, the delicious taste of chocolate leads us to reach for another piece, the wrenching feeling of grief erupts in a flood of tears. But if qualia are physically irreducible, then it seems they must be left out of the causal explanations of our actions. We typically assume that the physical world is causally closed; all physical events, including bodily movements, can be given complete causal explanations in wholly physical terms. Unless we reject causal closure, then assuming we do not want to embrace the possibility of causal overdetermination, qualia have no role to play in the causal story of our actions.

My point is not to lay out conclusively and extensively the whole array of arguments here, because that would take a number of books. The point is, rather, to establish that an article such as the subject to this piece hides myriad un-established conclusions. There are plenty of arguments that can be used to show that consciousness (including qualia, or in discounting it) can be explained in the context of evolution (by natural selection).


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