Why Naturalism Cannot Explain Consciousness


[This is an excerpt from an earlier article]

We humans are conscious. And we are conscious that we are conscious. Rene Descartes put this at the very center of knowledge. Everything else could be questioned. I could be a butterfly dreaming that I am a human. But one thing I know. "I think, therefore I am." It is impossible to deny this without self contradiction.

I think because of our almost universal acceptance of naturalism, we are inclined to just assume that somehow physical things can become conscious. Humans are just moist computers (as Scott Adams says) and we became conscious. Therefore it follows that electronic brains might become conscious at some point as well.

But even conceiving of how physical things might become conscious is an impossible thought experiment. Even hardened atheists like Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker acknowledge the greatness of the problem. Dawkins writes (referencing Steven Pinker's work),


 "In How the Mind Works Steve elegantly sets out the problem of subjective consciousness, and asks where it comes from and what’s the explanation. Then he’s honest enough to say, ‘Beats the heck out of me.’ That is an honest thing to say, and I echo it."
Many laypersons do not see what Pinker and Dawkins see. For the average person, a computer is a sort of magical thing. We see a box with a bunch of circuit boards and wires in it that produces really cool outputs. Ask your iPhone to marry you and the voice comes back, 'Let's just be friends.' That is a witty and funny thing. Almost human. Siri will be conscious soon.

Except, no she won't. Wires and circuits are not magic. Nor is a well written computer code.

Let me take away the 'magic' of your iPhone with a helpful analogy an electrical engineering professor gave me.  My undergraduate degree is in Mechanical Engineering and my university required me to take a couple of circuits classes just so I would not be totally ignorant. In order to explain to Mechanical Engineers how circuits worked, my professor suggested that we think of the flow of electrons through a circuit like water flowing through a complicated canal.

Voltage, he said, can be thought of as the water level. Amperage could be thought of as the water speed. Resisters can be thought of as sharp bends in the canal. Switches can be thought of as a high wall that stops the flow of water. And motors can be thought of as a mill being turned by the flow of water. It was an imperfect analogy but it was helpful to understand what the various parts did.

But let's take that analogy further. Let's suppose (and this is possible) we had a giant canal. Maybe a whole Minecraft sized planet and cover it completely with canals. You construct the canals to make a mechanical computer. There are switches and different paths through which the water can flow. You create a computer code with the canals. If the water flows one way, it flips on a light. If it flows another way, it flips on another light. You could, with various water levels, bends, and forks, create a river that functioned like a simple computer. Give it inputs, and it would give outputs. It really is possible if you had a big enough canal and the workers to modify it.

Now.... make that canal giant. Put it on some imaginary planet of almost infinite size. You could create a river-super-computer. Water flowing that flipped lights on and hit speakers to make pre-programmed noises. You could make that river like Siri. It could make jokes. It could tell you the time. It could tell you the weather forecast.

But... would that river and canal ever be conscious? Of course not. It is water flowing through a canal flipping on lights and noise-making machines. However cleverly you designed the river, it would still be water running through canals. It would never. Never. Be conscious. For that river to suddenly be able to think, "I am a river," would be something wholly un-mechancial. It would be magic. And rivers are not magic.

And neither are electrons.

It is not that we have not figured out the evolutionary step yet. It is that the step is in another dimension. Outside the physical. A step into the spiritual dimension.  This is why Dawkins and Pinker are stumped. The fact that humans are conscious is a magical thing. It cannot be explained by evolution. It cannot be explained by physical processes. We are a river of chemicals and electrons who are aware that we are a river of chemicals and electrons. 

[Update: I also have recently wrote an article explaining why panpsychism doesn't provide an answer to this challenge for naturalists. Read that here.]

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