Consciousness and Intelligent Design

Michael Egnor

David Chalmers has a thoughtful blog post about the growing importance of the problem of consciousness in the debate over intelligent design. Chalmers, a leading philosopher of the mind, is a particularly clear and honest thinker, and his elaboration of “the hard problem of consciousness” alone warrants much gratitude from those of us who are trying to formulate a vocabulary for the thoughtful discussion of the problem of consciousness.
Chalmers is not a theist, but he believes that consciousness is a fundamental property in the universe, in the same way that matter and natural laws are properties in the universe. In that sense, he is a dualist. He does not, however, believe that the necessity for an immaterial explanation for the mind poses a problem for Darwinism:

The problem of consciousness is indeed a serious challenge for materialism. In fact, I think it’s a fatal problem for materialism, as I’ve argued at length… [b]ut it simply isn’t a problem for Darwinism in the same way. Even if one rejects materialism about consciousness, Darwinism can accommodate the resulting view straightforwardly.

Chalmers explains:

The simplest way to see this is to note that the “hard problem” does nothing to suggest that consciousness doesn’t lawfully depend on physical processes, at least in the sense that certain physical states are reliably associated with certain states of consciousness in our world. Even if materialism is rejected, there is still good reason to believe that there is such a dependence, via laws of nature that connect physical processes and consciousness. But if so, there is no problem at all with the idea that evolution can select certain physical states, which yield certain states of consciousness. If interactionist dualism (on which consciousness has a causal role) is true, evolution might even select for certain states of consciousness because of their beneficial effects. And if epiphenomenalism (on which consciousness has no causal role) is true, consciousness can still arise by evolution as a byproduct. Perhaps the thought that consciousness is a byproduct is unattractive, but if so the problem lies with epiphenomenalism, not with evolution.

I think that it’s reasonable to infer that Darwinism can be consistent with an immaterial understanding of the mind, if the mind lawfully depends on physical processes. Yet there are deep problems with the concept of lawful dependence of the mind on matter.
“Lawful dependence” in science has always been restricted to correlations between manifestations of third-person objective ontology. Lawful dependence correlates things. The correlations are generally quantitative, described by mathematics. A moving magnet (third person ontology) induces electrical current (third person ontology), in accordance with Maxwell’s equations.
We have no experience whatsoever with lawful dependence of subjective ontology (feelings, beliefs, desires) on objective ontology (mass, location, charge) in any way that approaches rigor. In fact, we have no experience with “lawful dependence” of subjective ontology on anything.
It is very difficult to imagine how “lawful dependence” would work for the relationship of first-person objective ontology on third-person objective ontology. How could we express the hypothetical “lawful dependence” of my love for my cat on the neurochemistry in my limbic system? Would the lawful dependence be expressed quantitatively by mathematics? How would subjective experience be quantified? In “cat love” units (“purrs”)? What form would the mathematical description take? Algebraic equations that describe constant love? Differential equations that relate fickle love? Integral equations that sum up my love? Changes in what, measured how? How would the equations relate the (putative) codependence of my cat love on serotonin gradients, axonal transmembrane potentials, and cortical glial architecture? “Lawful dependence” looks a lot better in the abstract than in the concrete. You see the problem.
We can perhaps lawfully correlate behavior with material processes (e.g., I scratched his little chin at a rate of 1 Hz. when my cingulate serotonin level was 1 picogram/cubic mm). But this “lawful dependence” fails utterly. As Chalmers has pointed out so cogently, subjective first person ontology is the salient characteristic — the Hard Problem — of the mind. Yet my behavior (scratching his furry little chin) is third-person, not first-person, ontology. If we were to try to express genuine subjective ontology (my actual feeling of cat-love) quantitatively in a way that would rise to “lawful dependence,” it seems to me that we inevitably would end up merely documenting the behavioral correlations of subjective ontology with brain states, which would not really establish a dependence of genuine subjective states on brain states. We would merely be bleaching out the subjectivity, and replacing it with an objective template fabricated to elide the inherent problem of constructing a lawful dependence of one kind of ontology (subjective) on a qualitatively different kind of ontology (objective).
I don’t even know what lawful dependence of mind on matter could look like.
So even if Darwinism in theory could account for the evolution of an immaterial mind by “lawful dependence” on matter, it’s not clear how lawful dependence of mind on matter could take the form of a scientific law. And the lawful dependence of behavior on brain matter would elide, not explain, the hard problem of consciousness. Behavioral correlation with brain function we can do, and we already do, a lot. The paradigm for much of modern neuroscience is the empirical study of correlation between behavioral third person ontology and neuro-anatomical-electro-chemical third person ontology.
The only lawful mind-matter dependence relevant to subjectivity that I can imagine would be some permutation of the assertion that “matter causes subjective experience,” without quantification, genuine specificity, or any real insight. Substitution of the materialist creed “matter causes subjective experience” for “lawful dependence” doesn’t get us anywhere.
Thus, without genuine lawful dependence of immaterial mind on matter, the “evolution” of the immaterial mind could only be tacked on to the Darwinian construct ad-hoc, and could not be explained in any meaningful way by it. In that way, it must be admitted, the Darwinian explanation for the mind wouldn’t differ substantively from Darwinian explanations for countless other aspects of living things. Darwinian ‘explanations’ leave most things unexplained in any meaningful way.
I believe that the relevance of the problem of consciousness to the problem of the origin of biological complexity is deeper than the question about the adequacy of Darwinism to “account” for the immaterial mind. The issue that links the ID debate and the debate about the mind is this question:
Can matter alone generate (apparent or real) agency?
Living things are replete with evidence for agency, and most people believe (and have always believed) that the agency is immaterial. Most people have ascribed that agency to God, in the various ways that they have understood Him.
Darwin (and his acolytes) proposed something radical: the apparent agency in the structure and function of living things is generated entirely materialistically. The Darwinian assertion is this: there is no need to invoke a mind (a designer) to explain biology.
Yet the adequacy of matter to generate agency (or apparent agency) is fundamental to both the problem of consciousness and the problem of the origins of biological complexity. If immaterial explanations are necessary to explain the agency inherent to the mind, then the view that immaterial explanations are necessary to explain the agency apparent in living things gains considerable traction. If the modest specified complexity inherent to this blog post requires an immaterial mind, then it is reasonable to infer that the luxurious specified complexity inherent to biological structure and function requires an immaterial mind — an intelligent designer.
It’s an old question that gets to the heart of this issue: is the ultimate reality behind existence more like mind, or more like matter? All agree that existence is replete with evidence for agency, real or not. If Darwinists are right, agency in biological origins is only apparent and can arise without immaterial causation. If ID proponents are right, agency in biological origins is real and likely requires immaterial causation (we’ll leave out Crickian/Dawkinsean theories about alien ant farms, for now).
The intelligent design debate is one manifestation of a deeper debate about philosophical materialism. The problem of consciousness is a skirmish in this debate, and it is a skirmish in which those who are open to immaterial explanations for some aspects of nature are likely to have the upper hand. The problems with the materialistic Darwinian explanation for life are enormous, but are cloaked in arcana of biological jargon. The problems with the materialistic explanation for the mind are more accessible, and are much more difficult for advocates of philosophical materialism to elide.
Nature is replete with evidence for agency. As Chalmers cogently has pointed out, it’s very difficult to explain agency — the mind — materialistically. An adequate explanation of existence seems to require causation at some level by immaterial agency. Intelligent design theorists would agree.
Agency is real, and it leaves fingerprints. Immaterial fingerprints.

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.