This article responds to April-May posts on Scientia Salon.
“A few [philosophers] have been seen administering a number of discreet kicks to what appears to be the corpse of dualism: Get up, you fat fool, I need you,” (Mark English, “Does Philosophy Have a Future,” May 26). Mike Trites reminds us how remote material monism is from the dualist world view of the large section of the public that rejects physicalism (“What to do about consciousness,” April 23). In an attempt to reanimate the supposed corpse I have extracted from that world view a set of axioms and on them built a dualist theory of evolution.
We know we did evolve but we no longer know how
At www.thethirdwayofevolution.com is published a manifesto declaring the modern synthesis dead. It is endorsed by 30 eminent evolutionists, among them Eva Jablonka and James A. Shapiro. They claim that “The DNA record does not support the assertion that small random mutations are the main source of new and useful variations,” leaving natural selection without any continuous source of variation to work on. Given the caliber of those listed I find it reasonable to regard as dead both the modern synthesis and the population statistics based on it.
We can therefore speculate about evolution freely (within reason)
For lack of any other generally agreed upon scientific theory, we are once again in the pioneer phase of reaction to the discovery that we and all other living creatures evolved, before scientists assumed they had the appropriate apparatus for studying it. We are once again free to speculate about what evolution implies, starting from scratch, with no prior assumptions--provided we stay within reason. Note: please make allowance for me meaning “reason in the light of logic and experience” not “reason in the light of physicalist principles.”
What most needs accounting for
Science accounts very well for what doesn’t evolve: non-living matter. To represent what does evolve, that makes evolved creatures most unlike non-living matter, I select our own capability of consciousness. First, because we’re among evolution’s most recent creations, furthest from when it was limited to creating creatures very similar to non-living matter. Second, because our capability of consciousness is what among the products of evolution is most different from non-living matter. My strategy: account for how consciousness evolved first, then see if that can account for all other kinds of creatures evolving.
I begin by asking, what must be true of the processes of evolution if they can generate consciousness?
What it is that evolves, for us to be conscious
Interaction between matter and consciousness can obviously take place in one direction—hit us and we feel pain. And we experience conscious thoughts driving interactions in the other direction as well. Here are some instances:
When we talk about our feelings, something we experience in consciousness is influencing something physical. It’s being read out in behavior.
When we want to remember something, someone’s name for example, we can “deliberately” initiate a stream of conscious thoughts, each thought leading directly to the next thought, until we arrive at an association vivid enough to be worth “deliberately” memorizing to help us recall the name later. Conscious thoughts in series like this, linked to one another by associations within consciousness such as feelings, can lead to a decision resulting in physical changes to brain chemistry and behavior.
Some experiences show us our bodies and consciousness functioning together:
You feel the urge to urinate, but you say to yourself, “I’ll wait until I get home.” Let’s parse that: First your brain and body registered something physical (or biochemical), an impulse to urinate, and communicated it to consciousness. Left to themselves your brain and body would presumably have acted on that impulse without delay. But something overrode that impulse, something you experienced as a conscious decision to temporarily suppress it.
Given how frequently our bodies and our conscious experiences appear to collaborate closely like this as a single agent, influencing each other, we may reason that what evolved is not the body alone, but this joint agent.
Processes of evolution can transact in both material form and conscious capabilities
If in us matter and conscious thinking evolved together it is reasonable to ask that any theory of evolution account for the evolution of both. Evolution must be able to transact, somehow, in both bodily form and capabilities of consciousness.
Application of Occam’s razor: Thinking equals evolving.
One process--us evolving--involves two agents we don’t yet fully understand—our conscious thinking and living creatures evolving. It is reasonable to consider they may share some of the same nature. More precisely, since it generated us, our conscious capabilities could be a subset of evolution’s capabilities.
This supposition is groundless and gratuitous, I realize, unless it supports other concepts giving us a sufficiently enhanced understanding of evolution. I propose the following:
Evolution and thinking, not being material, can be genuinely creative
We know from our own experience that thoughts have no weight, no location, obey no laws of conservation, in general resemble no manifestations of the non-living matter that physics is restricted to studying. Thinking therefore, and evolving too, may not be entirely subject to the laws of physics--we have no evidence that they are, given limitations in the methods of science. Then, both processes may be genuinely creative, in ways not seen in non-living matter. This is illustrated by how creative evolution appears, single-celled creatures turning into elephants for example, and reptiles turning into birds. Note: the genetic mutation/natural selection combination is being abandoned, can no longer be relied on to account for nature’s creativity.
In us, thinking could be our thoughts evolving
If our thinking involves something evolving, what could that be? I propose, our thoughts. Thinking could be one thought evolving into another thought. That could account for how we can be creative too--how scientists can come up with new hypotheses and design new experiments for example.
If “thinking equals evolving” seems a stretch, that may be because our discourse for how we think and feel is very ancient, while we came across evolution only very recently and probably still think of it as something we created. Think the other way round, of us as a product of evolution, and the idea of our thinking being an offshoot of a capability in evolution can seem more plausible.
New mechanism of evolution
If living creatures evolving is a form of thinking, what is being thought? I propose, species. And where is the physical substrate for the information that defines a species? I suggest, the genome! As species are thought, their supporting data gets recorded in a genome. If that memory gets read back out as thought, and is rethought, as we can rethink an idea we recall from memory, it can inscribe itself back into a genome as information defining a new species.
And the agent that does the thinking? As knowable to us as we, if we were invisible and inaudible, would be to each other—knowable only through our handiwork.
Result—a dualist evolution-based, supernatural-free, natural philosophy
Four main axioms--conscious experience can drive behavior; thinking is something evolving; thinking and evolving can be genuinely creative; and species are thoughts recorded in the genome and subject to being rethought—comprise (along with material science) a new natural philosophy able to account for everything we know about or experience, without resort to the supernatural.
Comparison, physicalism and dualism
Auguste Comte, the guru of Positivist science, banished considerations of volition from the practice of science. Surely this disqualified it from the study of the evolution of volitional creatures such as human beings. It did pursue that study, however, leading to the inevitable consequences—a purely physical mechanism unable to account for the evolution of volition—and, through absence of evidence for volition being mistaken for evidence for its absence, to the doctrines of physicalism.
Over the past 150 years the study of evolution appears to have fallen into the hands of a physicalist minority. In a 2002 survey* published in the American Scientist 78% of 149 participating professional evolutionists declared themselves to be physicalist. Perhaps reflecting their antagonism to any form of dualism professional scientists such as these appear to have used opposition from creationists to justify imposing a physicalist theory on a public still preferring to think of themselves in terms of both matter and consciousness. The response of the public has been a growing disregard for any scientific theory of evolution, spilling over into an antipathy to science in general. Surely this is not a desired outcome.
“Consciousness is… woven into the fabric of reality,” Mike Trites wrote. Can today’s physicalists, released from loyalty to the purely physical modern synthesis, find ways to extend material monism as he suggested to encompass the conscious experiences and observations he celebrated?
*Evolution, Religion and Free Will, Gregory W. Graffin, William B. Provine. Available at . He is currently translating his views into a ventriloquism performance. Shaun lives in the mid Hudson Valley.