The Argument from Consciousness

This is the tenth in a series of posts responding to a list of 20 arguments for the existence of god from this article. To be fair, the article does state that these arguments don’t make a case except when taken all together, using the metaphor of a rope, but I am analyzing them individually so I have responses when I encounter the argument later in other sources.

  1. We experience the universe as intelligible. This intelligibility means that the universe is graspable by intelligence.
  2. Either this intelligible universe and the finite minds so well suited to grasp it are the products of intelligence, or both intelligibility and intelligence are the products of blind chance.
  3. Not blind chance.
  4. Therefore this intelligible universe and the finite minds so well suited to grasp it are the products of intelligence.

There are obvious similarities here to the design argument, and many of the things we said to defend that argument could be used to defend this one too. For now we want to focus our attention on step 3.

Readers familiar with C. S. Lewis’s Miracles will remember the powerful argument he made in chapter three against what he called “naturalism”: the view that everything—including our thinking and judging—belongs to one vast interlocking system of physical causes and effects. If naturalism is true, Lewis argued, then it seems to leave us with no reason for believing it to be true; for all judgments would equally and ultimately be the result of nonrational forces.

Now this line of reflection has an obvious bearing on step 3. What we mean by “blind chance” is the way physical nature must ultimately operate if “naturalism” is true—void of any rational plan or guiding purpose. So if Lewis’s argument is a good one, then step 3 stands: blind chance cannot be the source of our intelligence.

We were tempted, when preparing this section, to quote the entire third chapter of Miracles. This sort of argument is not original to Lewis, but we have never read a better statement of it than his, and we urge you to consult it. But we have found a compelling, and admirably succinct version (written almost twenty years before Miracles) in H. W. B. Joseph’s Some Problems in Ethics (Oxford University Press, 1931). Joseph was an Oxford don, senior to Lewis, with whose writings Lewis was certainly familiar. And undoubtedly this statement of the argument influenced Lewis’s later, more elaborate version.

If thought is laryngeal motion, how should any one think more truly than the wind blows?All movements of bodies are equally necessary, but they cannot be discriminated as true and false. It seems as nonsensical to call a movement true as a flavor purple or a sound avaricious. But what is obvious when thought is said to be a certain bodily movement seems equally to follow from its being the effect of one. Thought called knowledge and thought called error are both necessary results of states of brain. These states are necessary results of other bodily states. All the bodily states are equally real, and so are the different thoughts; but by what right can I hold that my thought is knowledge of what is real in bodies? For to hold so is but another thought, an effect of real bodily movements like the rest. . . These arguments, however, of mine, if the principles of scientific [naturalism]… are to stand unchallenged, are themselves no more than happenings in a mind, results of bodily movements; that you or I think them sound, or think them unsound, is but another such happening; that we think them no more than another such happening is itself but yet another such. And it may be said of any ground on which we may attempt to stand as true, Labitur et labetur in omne volubilis aevum [“It flows and will flow swirling on forever” (Horace, Epistles, I, 2, 43)]. (Some Problems in Ethics, pp. 14—15)

Peter Kreeft states that this argument can be defended much the same way as the argument from design, and it is also subject to the same errors. Once again, we have a false dichotomy between intelligence and chance, and once again, we have an unsupported assertion that it wasn’t chance. To be fair, there is at least an attempt to support the “not chance” premise here, as opposed to shifting the burden of proof, and the definition of blind chance is much improved, though perhaps not perfect.

This is another argument that suffers from an infinite regress problem. If our intelligence and the order of our universe requires an intelligent explanation, how much more would an intelligence sufficient to create our universe require an intelligent explanation? And how much more would that explanation require an explanation, and so forth? If god doesn’t require an explanation, and is by definition greater than the universe, why does the universe require an explanation?

However, the argument has a bigger problem: we have all but proven that consciousness is thoroughly tied to the physical brain. Brain injuries change personalities, and our way of thinking of a problem is almost entirely dependent on the chemical processes we are experiencing. Given this evidence, it is hardly thinkable that consciousness is anything but the product of matter. Our intelligence comes from evolution, which is surely closer to “blind chance” than a guiding intelligence, so the argument fails.

Sources for evidence of consciousness coming from our physical brains:


4 thoughts on “The Argument from Consciousness

  1. Infinite regress was the first thing I thought of, as well, but there’s another, more subtle issue with the argument as framed. Saying that the intelligibility and intelligence are the products of “blind chance” is inherently non-cogent, since “blind chance” is an intelligible concept. Not to mention that “blind chance” is not the logical opposite of “intelligence.” Kreeft has presented yet another false dichotomy.

    Premise #2 should actually read, “Either this intelligible universe and the finite minds so well suited to grasp it are the products of intelligence, or it is not.” Of course, the apologist would then be forced to actually support his own position, instead of simply filling gaps with it.

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