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This has been a long post series, but that was expected, since I’ve been responding in depth to a 76-minute video. We’re getting close to the end, and there will be about five more posts.

As I mentioned at the start, “Soft Theism” has been a refreshing change for me, since I had been spending most of my time focused on Fundamentalist/Evangelical arguments. I hope this has been productive for you readers as well.

I’d also like to thank Miklos Jako, whose dialogue we’ve been examining, for participating in the comments. I hope that when this series is over he’ll write a guest post to summarize his conclusions.

This is post 16 in a series (part 1), and the topic this time is consciousness, emergent phenomena, evolution, and the miraculous.

Is it natural or a miracle?

Soft Atheist: I don’t believe in breach-of-nature miracles, but I believe life itself is a miracle. Intelligence itself, consciousness itself, ARE miracles. Awareness of the material world, is of a different nature than that world, even though it emerges from it, and correlates with it.

Cross Examined Blog: Life is a miracle? I might agree with you depending on how you define “miracle.”

Are you saying that there’s something supernatural here? Or that science’s natural explanations of life, intelligence, and consciousness will forever be insufficient? If so, you need to back up these claims.

Atheist: I see no reason to distinguish consciousness from any other evolutionary process or to attribute evolution to anything more than natural causes. Consciousness is the inevitable result of a sufficiently large brain. What’s your evidence that consciousness is something separate from the brain? Consciousness is simply what the brain does.

Well, when you examine the brain, you’re examining chemistry, you’re not really examining consciousness. It seems separate to me. And I can’t accept the adjectives, “simply” or “just” or “merely” . . . in a discussion about consciousness. I think consciousness is an extraordinary reality. I think it IS magical, and may never be satisfactorily explained by science.

Sure—label whatever you want as magical, and maybe you’re right that science won’t ever completely explain consciousness. But you seem to imagine something objectively correct about identifying consciousness as special. Maybe someone else sees life evolving consciousness as likely but the evolution of eukaryotes as magical. And many Christians will tell you how remarkable the Cambrian Explosion was. Is this just a bunch of uninformed opinions, or can this be grounded in something we can all agree on?

To have a convincing argument, you must move beyond “Well, to me this is extraordinary.”

Emergent phenomena

I think that . . . thinking is an emergent phenomenon.

Yes, and I think this explains much that theists insist is unanswered and even unanswerable.

The concept of emergence is easy to understand. You can’t make a snowflake or even an ice crystal with a single water molecule. A single water molecule doesn’t have pH or salinity, and it doesn’t have the property of fluidity.

Or take another example: I’ve mentioned lizard brains before. The lizard doesn’t have a poorly developed sense of humor or wit or irony—it has none at all. Our larger brain doesn’t make us like a lizard, just better; it makes us something different. It’s not just better by degree (same features, just better) but by kind (with new features).

The human brain has about 1011 cells. Some animals have brains ten percent this size. Others, one percent. And they all think. But below some point, thinking doesn’t happen. A single brain cell doesn’t think 10–11 times as fast; it doesn’t think at all.

Perhaps it’s like artificial intelligence. A calculator is at one extreme; it doesn’t have AI. At the other extreme would be a computer that can reliably pass the Turing Test. At some point it does enough interesting things sufficiently convincingly that we’ll say that it thinks.

No, it doesn’t think with the same mechanism as a brain, but who cares? If you want to say that this computer has artificial intelligence but doesn’t think and can never think, that’s fine. You’ve just added a “gotta use an animal brain” caveat to the definition of “think,” but you’ve won your argument by moving the goalposts.

The role of evolution vs. the miraculous

Mmmm, well, I notice you used the word “phenomenon.” To some extent, you’re acknowledging the amazing nature of thinking and consciousness. I go one step further and regard it as . . . miraculous.

There’s that word again.

Is life on earth now a miracle? I’ll grant that life is pretty marvelous, but this from Richard Dawkins gives the credit to evolution.

The ratio of the huge amount that [evolution] explains (everything about life: its complexity, diversity and illusion of crafted design) divided by the little that it needs to postulate (non-random survival of randomly varying genes through geological time) is gigantic. Never in the field of human comprehension were so many facts explained by assuming so few.

But [thinking and consciousness being miraculous is] not really evidence, just your personal slant.

Right, right, agreed, I can’t show you hard evidence . . . I don’t think it’s a matter of science, but of philosophy, of interpretation . . . approach . . . mindset.

Again, philosophy is your sanctuary. You hide there to avoid having to provide a convincing argument. But if philosophy to you means you needn’t have evidence, or you benefit from it being unfalsifiable, it’s no longer an asset but a refuge. The more it protects you from the necessity of evidence, the more it hurts your argument. “You can’t get me!” is no argument.

Intelligence: from evolution or from another intelligence?

If the world is intelligible, doesn’t that imply an intelligence behind it?

Not if evolution provides a natural answer.

I agree that we don’t find minds without bodies here on earth.

Right, and we don’t find minds without brains either. That might be a good start, proving that a brainless mind can exist.

Yet it makes sense to me that at the level of a Creator, at the level of an ultimate cause of nature and its laws . . . there is a mind.

You said that intelligence must come from intelligence, but this is just another infinite regression. You’re the we-can’t-have-an-infinite-regression guy, remember? Stated another way, why must human intelligence demand a Creator when you’re content with “just cuz” for the Creator?

I don’t see intelligence emerging on its own, from matter.

But there’s a wealth of evidence in paleontology and archaeology that documents the gradual development of intelligence, without the need for magical assistance. Throughout the animal kingdom we have examples of every stage of cognitive development, from simple sensors, to reptilian brains, to our brains. All the antecedents are in place, so I don’t see anywhere in the process where a prior intelligence would be required.

I’m surprised you’re not aware of this, as you seem to have an inquiring mind. Intelligence did not just “appear” as an entity, it’s a demonstrable by-product of evolution, and there is no real evidence to suggest otherwise.

Animal eyes have independently evolved forty times. Intelligence in animals has also happened more than once—for example, the octopus developed its intelligence independently from vertebrate animals. Intelligence is just another example of convergent evolution, which is the independent evolution of similar traits such as wings (bats and birds) or spiky protection (porcupines and hedgehogs).

If intelligence has evolved more than once, maybe it’s not as miraculous as you imagine.

Abiogenesis and consciousness: unexplainable without the supernatural

Well, yes, clearly the emergence of intelligence occurred, incrementally, through evolution, over a vast period of time. But, for me, two transition points demand some intelligence or creative force outside of nature, namely the point where inanimate matter became alive, and the point where living matter became conscious . . . however indeterminate those points may be.

Why these? Why not the development of the Eukaryota domain of life (cells with a nucleus)? Or the Cambrian explosion? Or the genetic bottleneck roughly 70,000 years ago that reduced the number of Homo sapiens to as few as 3000 individuals? You’re being arbitrary, and if you disagree, show us that abiogenesis and consciousness are objectively the most unexplainable and foundational puzzles and therefore the most in need of a supernatural explanation.

I wonder: what would it take for you to remove abiogenesis and consciousness from your list of showstoppers?

Next: must life have a life force?

Extreme positions are not succeeded by moderate ones
but by contrary extreme positions
— Friedrich Nietzsche


Image from McKay Savage (license CC BY 2.0)

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CROSS EXAMINED After graduating from MIT, Bob Seidensticker designed digital hardware, and he is a co-contributor to 14 software patents. For more than a decade, he has explored the debate between Christianity...