There are a lot of questions we have yet to answer and understand, but one of the most fascinating is the origin and function of our own consciousness. Now is an incredibly exciting time to be able to address that question, because of how much we are learning about the physical workings of the brain. These discoveries inevitably lead to questions of how it came about not just that we walk and talk and think, but how it came about that we feel. Why do we have an experience of the color blue? Why did we evolve to have qualia, or the data we take in when we experience the world with our senses? And how can we understand qualia within the process of the evolution of the human species when qualia are not a logically necessary (aka, dependent) product of the physical (p-zombies!!!!!)?
Well, if you are interested in this question as much as I am, girl do I have a fun little internet debate for you. In February I came across this article by Gentleperson 1:
Consciousness Cannot Have Evolved by Bernardo Kastrup
Which was quickly answered by Gentleperson 2:
Muddled Philosopher: Consciousness Could Not Have Evolved by Jerry Coyne
Which was then replied to by Gentleperson 1:
Dim-witted biologist: consciousness is accidental by Bernardo Kastrup
What a thrilling couple of days THAT was! Also, notice how the titles got more and more insulting as time went on?! Oh, internet. Never change. (Actually, no. Please change. Substantially.)
If you’re looking for a lively exploration of some of the theories of the origin of consciousness, ones outside the religious sphere, these are fun and interesting reads. I also found this debate worth highlighting because it’s a solid opportunity to practice evaluating the merits and strengths of opposing arguments, especially for a topic as complex and still-mysterious as consciousness. How do we think better about consciousness by thinking carefully and critically about the theories of and debates about consciousness?
And if you want a quick summary, well, I aim to oblige: By the end of his original article, Kastrup concludes that panpsychism, or the idea that all matter in the universe is conscious on some level, is the best explanation for consciousness emerging out of a purely natural world. He only addresses this positive claim briefly, however, because he spends his article arguing that a qualitative feature like consciousness could not have been produced from a purely materialistic (which he equates with “quantitative”) process like evolution.
Coyne, on the other hand, defends an evolutionary view of consciousness, saying it could have evolved directly or could have come along as a “spandrel” (a side effect — in this case, a very, very, very useful side effect) in the evolution of other survival-enhancing traits.
So there you have it. Now go use your consciousness to read about theories of consciousness (SO META).