Skip to main content

Arguments From Consciousness for God's Existence

A number of contemporary Christian philosophers think there's a good argument for God in the phenomenon of consciousness, including Richard Swinburne, Robert M. Adams, J.P. Moreland, and Victor Reppert. There are at least two forms of the argument.

The first argument postulates God's activity as the best explanation for why our concious states are correlated in a lawlike way with certain brain states. Thus, it's utterly mysterious why one set of brain states actualizes experiences of, say, the color red, rather than some other set of brain states, if God doesn't exist. For if the natural world is all there is, then the conscious states of the color red are indentical to or otherwise reducible to physical states in the brain. But if so, then there should be no mystery: just like any other scientific phenomenon in the physical world, once you know the physical basis of phenomenon, there is no residual mystery why *that* physical state gives rise to *this* phenomenon. E.g., once you hear the scientific story of heat as molecular motion, it's no longer mysterious how heat, as opposed to, say, cold, is caused by molecular motion. Not so with our experience of red. For once you hear the scientific story about c-fibers firing in the brain, there's *still* a residual mysteriousness as to why *that* brain state gives rise to *this* experience of red. Therefore, if the lawlike correlation between brain states and conscious states is to have an explanation, it must be in terms of something beyond the natural world. And God is the best explanation. The idea is that God creates the lawlike correlations, and if he felt like it, he could've correlated the different brain states with our experience of, say, red. Call this 'The Correlation Argument'.

The second argument postulates God as the best explanation for the mere existence of consciousness. This argument has various forms: some try to argue that we have immaterial souls that can survive the death of our bodies (at least in principle), and posit God as the best explanation of the existence of souls (where else could they come from? The Big Bang? Evolution?). But a weaker version brackets the question of whether we have souls that can survive the death of our bodies, and just focuses on the fact that consciousness is extremely difficult to make sense of if the natural world is all there is. For consciousness has properties that don't seem reducible to the properties of physical objects. Therefore, since conciousness can't be accounted for purely in terms of the physical world, it must have a cause in terms of something beyond it, and the best candidate for such a cause is a god. Call this 'The Soul-Stuff Argument".

In effect, both arguments have the following five-step strategy. In Step One, they tell the naturalist that the kinds of entities in their ontology are limited, of necessity, to very few, and only have a limited set of properties (viz., the entities describable by the language of chemistry and physics). In Step Two, they point out that they must therefore explain all phenomena in the universe in terms of just those entities. In Step Three, they argue that certain phenomena (e.g., consciousness, the correlation between certain conscious states and certain brain states) can't be explained in terms of just those entities alone. In Step Four, they assert that theism is the only plausible view that has an ontology that's adequate to explain those phenomena. And in Step Five, they invite you to conclude that theism is true.

I think these arguments are both flawed, and that the flaw in each occurs at Step One, i.e., that the kinds of entities in the naturalist's ontology are necessarily limited to those describable in the language of chemistry and physics. This is because there is no good reason why the naturalist must accept the miminalist ontology foisted upon him by the theist. And if not, then the options for the naturalist aren't "(i) shoehorn all phenomena into a limited ontology of fundamental entities described by chemistry and physics or (ii) believe in gods and souls and become a theist." For there is a sensible third option, viz., (iii)* postulate more entities in your basic ontology*. Let me elaborate on this reply.

Recall the different versions of naturalism discussed in a previous post. Thus, there is Conservative Naturalism, which claims that the natural world can be exhaustively defined in terms of the language of contemporary chemistry and physics (or some revised account of chemistry and physics not too dissimilar from their current construals). By contrast, Moderate Naturalism allows abstract objects to be a part of the ontology of the natural world, and Liberal Naturalism goes further to include not only abstract objects, but further attributes of concrete objects that allow non-physical properties to be a part of their essence.

In light of this account of the varieties of naturalism, we can state the underlying dubious assumption in both The Correlation Argument and the Soul-Stuff Argument: both assume that Naturalism entaills Conservative Naturalism. That is, both arguments assume that if certain aspects of conciousness can't be accounted for in terms of the language of contemporary chemistry and physics, then we need to bring in such exotica as immaterial substances, such as souls and God (who, after all, is supposed to be just a "great big" unembodied soul).

The reason why this is a dubious assumption is because Naturalism *doesn't* entail Conservative Naturalism. But if not, then we have more options on the table before positing God if it turns out that some aspects of consciousness can't be accounted for in terms of the world described by the language of chemistry and physics. Thus, instead of the following false dichotomy of options implied by the Arguments From Consciousness:

CN: the world is composed of all and only things exhaustively desribed by the language of chemistry and physics.

T: the world is composed of two kinds of substances: purely phsyical substances and purely immaterial substances, and these two sorts of substances are distinct entities.

There are really three that are relevant:

CN: the world is composed of all and only things exhaustively desribed by the language of chemistry and physics.

LN: the world is composed of just one kind of substance, and its essence has both physical and phenomenological or protophenomenal (or at least representational or protorepresentational) attributes (an alternative version of LN: the one kind of substance is neither physical nor mental, but but the physical and mental are composed of it).

T: the world is composed of two kinds of substances: purely phsyical substances and purely immaterial, mental substances (conscious minds), and these two sorts of substances are distinct entities.

But if so, then before the theist can infer God and immaterial substances as the best explanation of conciousness, he must not only rule out CN (Conservative Naturalism), but he must *also* rule out LN (Liberal Naturalism). And this he hasn't done. But if not, then since both versions of the Argument From Consciousness only rule out CN (at most) before inferring T, both are unsound.

Now I know you're thinking that LN is a weird view. But the problem is that Theism is *at least* as weird as LN. But if so, then it seems that the Christian philopher is in trouble. For it seems that he'll never be able to say why we should prefer T to LN. For *LN explains consciousness at least as well as T*. To see this, let's see how each of the two arguments from consciousness fare in light of replies from the standpoint of LN:

I. The LN-based reply to the Soul-Stuff Argument: LN allows that the features of experience are not reducible to the *physical* aspects of natural objects, yet they are nonetheless reducible to the *phenomenal* (or perhaps protophenomenal) aspects of natural objects, and the latter are just as essential and basic to natural objects as the physical aspects. Thus, consciousness *is* reducible to the basic properties of natural objects postulated by Liberal Naturalists. But if so, then the key premise of The Soul-Stuff Argument is undercut.

II. The LN-based reply to the Correlation Argument: According to some versions of LN, such as Spinoza's version -- or more recently, David Chalmers' version -- natural objects have both physical and protophenomenal attributes as a part of their essence. Furthermore, the protophenomenal attributes are inherently representational, and they accurately represent the physical attributes. Think of the fundamental stuff of the universe as information. Now information can be expressed in physical form or phenomenal (or protophenomenal) form; indeed, perhaps each form is just a different side of the same coin. if so, then it's *not* mysterious why certain brain states are correlated to certain phenomenal states in a lawlike way -- if the latter is just a sort of "mirror" of the former, then it couldn't have been otherwise! if so, then LN explains the correlation between the physical and the mental, in which case the key premise of The Correlation Argument is undercut.

If what I have said above is on track, then *even if you grant* that the phenomena highlighted by the Arguments From Consciousness, these points, by themselves, don't yet give you an argument that points to God as the best explanation. Let me belabor the point a little bit more. Suppose we treat the phenomena of the Arguments From Consciousness as data, and LN and T as hypotheses attempting to explain the data. Thus, suppose we have:

Data:

D: The phenomena of (i) the mere *existence* of consciousness, and (ii) the apparently contingent yet lawlike *correlation* between conscious states of one type and brain states of another type.

Hypotheses:

CN: the world is composed of all and only things exhaustively desribed by the language of chemistry and physics.

LN: the world is composed of just one kind of substance, and its essence has both physical and phenomenological or protophenomenal (or at least representational or protorepresentational) attributes (an alternative version of LN: the one kind of substance is neither physical nor mental, but but the physical and mental are composed out of it).

T: the world is composed of two kinds of substances: purely phsyical substances and purely immaterial, mental substances (conscious minds), and these two sorts of substances are distinct entities.

Now the problem is that even if you think that P(CN/D) is extremely low, you don't *thereby* have reason to think that P(T/D) is greater than 1/2. For since you would expect D if LN were true about just as much as you would expect D if T were true, it looks as though T and LN are roughly equally probable, if all the evidence we have is D; that is, P(LN/D) = P(T/D). But if so, then the Arguments from Consciousness, whether individually or collectively, don't make theism more likely than not.

Thus, it appears that LN should be a real headache for theists. For LN explains the phenomena highlighted by both formulations of the argument from conciousness at least as well as T. Therefore, even if LN is weird it's *no weirder* than theism, and its view of the mind as a distinct immaterial substance that interacts with the brain. Indeed, the fact that LN doesn't suffer from the interaction problem that plagues substance dualist accounts of the mind (not to mention the hypothesis that God -- an immaterial substance -- interacts with the world) seems to give it a slight *advantage* over theism in explaining the phenomena in question. But if so, then the arguments from consiousness don't give us sufficient reason to accept T -- LN stands as a nasty obstacle between CN and T. And if that's right, then the prospects for a successful argument for God from consciousness looks pretty bleak.

To sum up: Arguments From Consciousness point to the existence of consciousness and/or its contingent yet lawlike correlation with certain brain states as a problem for naturalists. Their strategy is to get you to accept a very minimal ontology, and then say that if you can't shoehorn everything into it, then the only way out is to become a theist. Many naturalists attempt to tackle the argument head-on, accepting the costraints of explaining everything (including consciousness) in terms of this limited ontology, but then arguing that they can do so. My strategy is different and easier: just *broaden your ontology*, so that there are more fundamental properties to get the explanatory work done.

Comments

Wes said…
I think LN would be a lot easier to swallow if we could say something more about the "one substance" that is said to exist in the universe. It is hard to think that after I have described all of the physical properties of, say, a glass of water, there is still more to its "essence" than that description.

But maybe this isn't so troubling . . .

I don't have a problem saying that there are real properties that are not physically definable and that have causal powers. For instance, I feel that it is a perfectly appropriate account to say that green frogs were naturally selected, not in virtue of a particular pigmentation system the frogs have, but in virtue of the non-physical property "being green" (any system of coloring that could instantiate the property "being green" would have worked). Predators didn't overlook green frogs in green grass in virtue of the fact that frogs have g-order coloring systems, but in virtue of the non-physical property "being green."

Does this make me a MN or LN? I think the property "being green" is always instantiated by something physical (so, I would say I lean heavily towards token physicalism), but I don't say that "being green" is physically definable. Is there something about token physicalism that should keep me from accepting MN or LN?
exapologist said…
Hi Wes,

It's tough to say more about LN, but some writers have helpful things to say. For example, David Chalmers' book, The Conscious MInd. However, the virtue of the argument (if indeed it has any!) is that one need not accept LN in order for the argument to work. Rather, all that's required is to accept that the hypothesis of substance dualism, or of theism isn't *more* plausible than LN. So one could remain a Conservative or a Moderate Naturalist, and yet say that even if one were to become conviced that neither CN or MN can account fo the existence of consciousness or its correlation with certain brain states, you wouldn't thereby have sufficient reason to become a substance dualist. So the theist has their work cut out for them. They have to show us why we should prefer theism to LN. But then I can't see any way to do this. For *that* view seems even weirder than LN (immaterial substances? immaterial substances that interact with material substances? how is that view *more* plausible than LN? Hmmm....).

In any case, those are my thought about the Argument from Consciousness at the moment.
Ron said…
This is an interesting post. From reading Victor Reppert's book it can be seen that his Argument from Consciousness depends upon the naturalist assuming a very limited ontology; 'Conservative Naturalism' as you've called it. While a naturalist could take a more liberal view, the question I have is how he or she could justify it. Why should there be anything like consciousness or mind-like stuff in the universe? One can ask the same question about material stuff as well, but since materialism has eclipsed idealism, this remains a big problem for naturalists. Information cannot be something foundational in a naturalistic worldview because information is the product of mind. How does the naturalist escape from the prison of materialism?

In regards to LN, I don't see why it has to be "LN" versus theism. A theist can believe in LN or substance dualism. In either case, doesn't God better explain the mental stuff?

This post was a good read. It makes me want to read more philosophy of mind stuff.
exapologist said…
Hi Ron,

While a naturalist could take a more liberal view, the question I have is how he or she could justify it. Why should there be anything like consciousness or mind-like stuff in the universe?

Hmm. Well, why shouldn't there be? As you say, one could ask the same thing about material stuff as well, but my answer to both is, "because it's always been here".

Now one could say that we need a reason for why it's always been here, or that the stuff of the universe had a beginning, and therefore needs a cause, but those replies depend on the cogency of the Leibnizian and kalam cosmological arguments, respectively. But I've argued in several posts that those arguments have defeaters. So why can't the stuff be eternal, just like a god?

information cannot be something foundational in a naturalistic worldview because information is the product of mind.

Why not? The kind of information in play here is not the sort of information in an english sentence, or Dembski's (actually, Geisler and Anderson's) notion of specified complexity.

In any case, even if it was that kind of information the idea is that information is just one side of the coin. The other "side" is matter. So one could equally say that the information side is just a reflection of the matter side, in which case the matter is not derivative of the information.

In regards to LN, I don't see why it has to be "LN" versus theism. A theist can believe in LN or substance dualism. In either case, doesn't God better explain the mental stuff?

True enough: a theist can accept either LN or substance dualism. The criticism is meant to be an undercutting defeater, not a rebutting defeater, in which case it leads to suspension of judgment about dualism, and not disbelief about it. But why is theism a better explanation? Remember, it's part of the essence of stuff, in which case it isn't an "add on" or "emergent". If the stuff's always been around, why do we need an explanation at all?

This post was a good read.

Thanks!

Best,

EA
Ron said…
Ex,

Like you said this goes into another argument, but I just don't see how one can think that both material and mental stuff are eternal just as God is claimed to be eternal. You seem to be saying that the ground of being for the naturalist is everything just as the ground of being is God for the theist. I think there are some key philosophical problems with this but since this post is about consciousness I'll refrain from commenting about that here. (Unless you want me to, of course)

The fact that mental stuff is here does help theism in that if naturalism is true than conscious life is accidental. Why would the universe contain this kind of stuff in the first place? That this type of information preceded conscious life in this universe might go to show that consciouness is something more fundamental than accidental. Is that is the case, then isn't God a good explanation of why it is there to begin with? A purely material universe is conceivable just as no universe at all is.
exapologist said…
Hey Ron,

Yeah, it'd be better to discuss the matters you mention in the comment threads of the posts of, e.g., the cosmological and design arguments, if you'd like to pursue a discussion on those topics.

About naturalism and the accidental nature of consciousness: Hmm. This seems to spill over into matters cosmological and teleological as well, no? Off the cuff, though, I don't see the problem. We get consciousness from evolutionary processes. Those processes are deterministic, or quasi-deterministic (the relevant notion of chance in a deterministic or quasi-deterministic universe is epistemological, not metaphysical). So the evolution of consciousness is virtually inevitable, given the past plus the laws of nature and the fundamental constants being what they are.

Where'd we get the laws and fundamental laws, and the values for our constants? Why not postulate that they're necessarily what they are (of course, they'd be a posteriori necessities, but so what? So are lots of other necessities)? If that's unsatisfactory (as, e.g., van Inwagen thinks), then why not a multiverse?

What would the orderly structure governing the multiverse come from. Why not say it's brute? It's just as satisfactory as positing brute functional complexity in the mind of a divine designer, no?

Robin Collins doesn't like this sort of reply, but his basis for his worries is pretty dubious.

Again, these points spill over into issues regarding the cosmological and teleological arguments, but this is a rough sketch of how I'd respond.

Best,

EA
Ron said…
Yeah, I'll have to look at your stuff on the cosmological and teleological arguments.

On the subject of consciousness, even if one postulates that mental stuff, like color, is just a property of matter from the beginning, one still has a problem with consciousness. Consciousness is an assemblage of matter that can somehow perceive these states and internally feel certain things. That the universe would first have these sort of mental things from its inception and then evolve creatures that would be about to know about all of it gives the intuition that it was planned or thought up this way beforehand.

Naturalism seems to say that it is all brute fact and had to happen this way because of the natural laws. That may explain all the physical matter interactions but what about consciousness? If it emerges from matter, it is still at the heart something immaterial. My mind may emerge from my brain but it is not indentical to it. Why should this exist rather than us all being philosophical zombies?

Liberal naturalism on this issue seems to be for people who can't accept conservative or hard materialist naturalism anymore but don't want to give up naturalism. A Divine Mind which perceives everything about you and I and the Andromeda Galaxy makes more sense if consciousness is tied into the fundamental essence of things than a 'just so' story.

I'm curious about what you think of all this. :)
Ron said…
I'll read that link you posted sometime soon.

Popular posts from this blog

Epicurean Cosmological Arguments for Matter's Necessity

One can find, through the writings of Lucretius, a powerful yet simple Epicurean argument for matter's (factual or metaphysical) necessity. In simplest terms, the argument is that since matter exists, and since nothing can come from nothing, matter is eternal and uncreated, and is therefore at least a factually necessary being. 
A stronger version of Epicurus' core argument can be developed by adding an appeal to something in the neighborhood of origin essentialism. The basic line of reasoning here is that being uncreated is an essential property of matter, and thus that the matter at the actual world is essentially uncreated.
Yet stronger versions of the argument could go on from there by appealing to the principle of sufficient reason to argue that whatever plays the role of being eternal and essentially uncreated does not vary from world to world, and thus that matter is a metaphysically necessary being.
It seems to me that this broadly Epicurean line of reasoning is a co…

Notes on Mackie's "Evil and Omnipotence"

0. Introduction
0.1 Mackie argues that the problem of evil proves that either no god exists, or at least that the god of Orthodox Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, does not exist. His argument is roughly the same version of the problem of evil that we’ve been considering.
0.2 Mackie thinks that one can avoid the conclusion that God does not exist only if one admits that either God is not omnipotent (i.e., not all-powerful), or that God is not perfectly good. 0.3 However, he thinks that hardly anyone will be willing to take this route. For doing so leaves one with a conception of a god that isn’t worthy of worship, and therefore not religiously significant.
0.4 After his brief discussion of his version of the problem of evil, he considers most of the main responses to the problem of evil, and concludes that none of them work.

1. First Response and Mackie's Reply
1.1 Response: Good can’t exist without evil; evil is a necessary counterpart to good.
1.2 Mackie’s reply:
1.2.1 this see…

Notes on Swinburne, "On Why God Allows Evil"

Notes on Swinburne’s “Why God Allows Evil”

1. The kinds of goods a theistic god would provide: deeper goods than just “thrills of pleasure and times of contentment” (p. 90). For example:
1.1 Significant freedom and responsibility
1.1.1 for ourselves
1.1.2 for others
1.1.3 for the world in which they live
1.2 Valuable lives
1.2.1 being of significant use to ourselves
1.2.2 being of significant use to each other

2. Kinds of evil
2.1 Moral evil: all the evil caused or permitted by human beings, whether intentionally or through negligence (e.g., murder, theft, etc.)
2.2 Natural evil: all the rest: evil not caused or permitted by human beings (e.g., suffering caused by hurricanes, forest fires, diseases, animal suffering, etc.)

3. The gist of Swinburne’s answer to the problem of evil: God cannot – logically cannot -- give us the goods of significant freedom, responsibility and usefulness without thereby allowing for the possibility of lots of moral and natural evil. This is why he has al…