Dim-witted biologist: consciousness is accidental

Daphnia (crustacean water flea).
It's finally Friday evening and my week's work is done. The past few days have been very productive at all levels, both in my day job in corporate strategy and my evening pursuits in philosophy and science. And so I feel entitled to indulge a bit in something utterly unnecessary but nonetheless fun: to comment on Jerry 'Berry' Coyne's latest attempt to criticize my work.

Indeed, Jerry Berry has found time to post about me not once, but twice in only a few days, in between his demanding, prolific and essential work commenting on the "best and worse Oscar dresses," "six pounds of steak in 13 minutes (not to mention salad, fries, and onion rings)," and the "words and phrases [he] hates." I feel honored to deserve so much attention from such a distinguished polymath, versed in so many distinct fields of scholarship.

The target of Jerry Berry's latest rant and rage has been an essay I wrote claiming that, under the premises of mainstream physicalism, phenomenal consciousness—that is, subjective, qualitative experience—cannot have been the result of Darwinian evolution. The gist of my argument is that, according to physicalism, only quantitative parameters such as mass, charge, momentum, etc., figure in our models of the world—think of the mathematical equations underlying all physics—which, in turn, are putatively causally-closed. Therefore, the qualities of experience cannot perform any function whatsoever. And properties that perform no function cannot have been favored by natural selection.

Jerry Coyne implicitly but unambiguously acknowledges my point that consciousness, under physicalism, doesn't perform any function.

Jerry Berry offers a number of alleged refutations of my claims. He starts by arguing that the qualitative, subjective experiences that accompany the cognitive data processing taking place in our brain may have been merely "byproducts ('spandrels') of other traits that were selected," or "they could have been 'neutral' traits that came to predominate by random genetic drift."

Let us take stock of what he is saying here. To begin with, he is implicitly but unambiguously acknowledging my point that consciousness, under physicalism, doesn't perform any function; it's useless (thank you for admitting to this, Jerry Berry, as this is the critical point). Then, he argues that consciousness could have evolved as a byproduct ("spandrel") of the complexity of the brain or even be a merely accidental feature.

The idea of 'spandrels' in evolutionary biology is a contentious one. Many biologists and philosophers criticize it, including Jerry Berry's much-admired Daniel Dennett. Ian Kluge also pointed out that
We could, of course, argue that consciousness and the sense of free will are biological spandrels, i.e. accidental by-products of other evolutionary developments in our brains. One of the problems with this response is that the whole subject of ‘spandrels’ is bogged down in a definitional debate, i.e. it is not entirely clear what is a spandrel and what isn’t. Worse, all examples of spandrels ... do actually serve a function, i.e. they are necessary to achieve something – but that necessity is exactly what epiphenomenalism denies. (emphasis added)
But let us ignore all this and grant to Jerry Berry that evolutionary byproducts can and do occur. The question then is: Is it at all plausible that phenomenal consciousness is one such a byproduct?

The brain's wondrous putative ability to produce the qualities of experience out of unconscious matter is anything but trivial. It becomes then unreasonable to posit that something requiring such a level of complexity could have been just an accidental byproduct.

I don't think it is. I can imagine that some trivial and relatively low-cost (in terms of metabolism) biological structures and functions could be merely accidental, but the brain's wondrous putative ability to produce the qualities of experience out of unconscious matter is anything but trivial. Indeed, it is nothing short of fantastic, the most stunning thing physicalists claim, the second most important unsolved problem in science according to Science magazine; and now it is a byproduct?!

Physicalists have no idea—not even in principle—how the material brain could possibly produce experience. Therefore, they appeal to—and hide behind—the inscrutable complexity of the brain with all kinds of promissory notes. Phenomenal consciousness—they argue—is somehow an emergent epiphenomenon of that unfathomable complexity. Fine. But if such is the case, it becomes unreasonable to posit that something requiring such a level of complexity could have been just an accidental byproduct of something else. One can't have it both ways.

At this point, Jerry Berry would almost certainly argue that the brain needed to become complex anyway, because natural selection favored higher cognitive ability. And so consciousness just 'came along' for the ride.

We have no reason to believe that the complexity required for more effective cognitive data processing would be the same kind of complexity necessary for the putative emergence of phenomenal consciousness.

But this would just betray Jerry Berry's muddled and clumsy reasoning: it can indeed be coherently argued that the brain became complex because more complex cognitive data processing was selected for, alright. But such complexity was thus meant for, well, cognitive data processing. The latter doesn't necessarily have anything at all to do with the emergence of qualitative experiential states from quantitatively-defined physical arrangements.

We have no reason to believe that the complexity required for more effective cognitive data processing would be the same kind of complexity necessary for the putative emergence of phenomenal consciousness. These are, in principle, two entirely different, even incommensurable domains. I can imagine a bacterium having experiential states, even though bacteria are some of the simplest living organisms. Ironically, Jerry Berry himself helps make this point:
Any sensation in animals, be they bacteria or humans, involves some sort of qualia. For example, what does it "feel like" to the crustacean Daphnia to detect a predatory fish in its pond?
Exactly. Ergo, to argue that consciousness evolved as a mere byproduct of the cognitive complexity of the brain is a rather obvious category mistake: it hides one unknown (i.e. how consciousness evolved) behind another unknown (i.e. how exactly the brain works). Jerry Berry plays this game of promissory notes and hand-waving all over the place, as if it constituted an argument.

Moreover, to say that such a fantastic property as phenomenal consciousness could be a mere byproduct of evolution is tantamount to making evolution unfalsifiable: if organic structures and functions of any level of complexity can evolve whether they are at all useful or not, then anything could have evolved. We might as well throw our arms up and give up on evolutionary theory altogether, for it would allow us to make no discriminations or predictions whatsoever.

To say that such a fantastic property as phenomenal consciousness could be a mere byproduct of evolution is tantamount to making evolution unfalsifiable.

Next, Jerry Berry denies, very emphatically,
that materialism requires all entities to be measurable. Here’s a question: do you have a liver? The answer is based not on measurement, but on observation. I have never heard a definition of "materialism" that requires quantitative measurement.
This is one of those embarrassing passages in which Jerry Berry unwittingly makes painfully clear to the whole world the depths of his philosophical ignorance. Basically, what he is saying here is that, because we experience qualities, then materialism allows for the existence of qualities too, not just quantities. Therefore, my claim that materialism attempts to reduce everything to purely quantitative parameters is wrong.

No, really, this is what the man is saying; I am not strawmanning him, at least not intentionally; I just can't find another way to interpret the passage quoted above and what follows immediately after it.

It is also not my intention to patronize my readers, but since I set out to comment on Jerry Berry's 'response,' I must point out the obvious: the point, dear Jerry, is not that we can't observe our liver without weighing it or placing a tape measure on it; the point is that, according to materialism (or physicalism, whatever you prefer), the liver, in and of itself, is not constituted by the qualities we experience on the screen of perception when we look at it. Instead, it is allegedly constituted purely by particles exhaustively defined in quantitative terms. It is only when we internally represent the liver on our screen of perception that the brain allegedly conjures up, within the boundaries of the skull, the qualities we associate with the liver. It's not a secret, and not even polemical, that this is what mainstream materialism entails. What is surprising is that you—a sworn knight of materialism, of all people—seem to be confused about it.

That a very vocal and aggressive militant materialist manages to misunderstand what is literally the first thing about materialism is quite ironic.

It is peculiar how Jerry Berry's rant illustrates precisely some points I made in previous posts in this blog, just before his 'response' was published. I argued that materialism is plausible to many merely because they don't actually understand what materialism entails or implies. I even specifically addressed the misunderstanding of many that, according to materialism, the qualities of perception are really out there in the world, just thoughts and emotions being somehow generated by the brain. Jerry Berry seems to make precisely the latter mistake, which would be forgivable for a casual reader who is not worried about metaphysics, but not for a man who obviously considers himself a serious participant in the debate. Indeed, that a very vocal and aggressive militant materialist manages to misunderstand what is literally the first thing about materialism—namely, that all qualities are epiphenomenal—is quite ironic.

Piling irony on top of irony, Jerry Berry goes on to quote a passage from the 'physicalism' entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, which he thinks refutes my "definition of materialism." He highlights this segment:
Of course, physicalists don’t deny that the world might contain many items that at first glance don’t seem physical — items of a biological, or psychological, or moral, or social nature. But they insist nevertheless that at the end of the day such items are either physical or supervene on the physical.
Exactly, dear Jerry. This doesn't at all refute my point: it confirms it. You see, according to materialism the liver may "at first glance [not] seem physical ... but ... at the end of the day [it is] either physical or supervene[s] on the physical." And what is "the physical" under materialism? It is entities exhaustively defined by quantities—such as mass, charge, momentum, geometric relationships, etc.—not qualities; the latter are supposedly epiphenomenal. Therefore, "at the end of the day" the liver, too, is constituted by purely quantitative—not qualitative—physical entities, just as I originally claimed and the rest of the philosophy community—including materialists—knows since freshman year. It is embarrassing that I find myself in the position of having to explain to a militant materialist what materialism is.

What seems to be completely beyond Jerry's ability to comprehend is that the dualism between mind and matter he implicitly relies on doesn't exist.

Jerry Berry goes on to cite Patricia Churchland, an eliminativist who claims precisely that certain qualities do not exist at all, the very opposite of the notion—bizarrely claimed by Jerry—that materialism also entails qualities. The man is just all over the place and seems to follow no internally consistent line of reasoning. Indeed, next he claims that "we already have lots of evidence that consciousness and qualia are in fact phenomena requiring a materialistic brain, and that manipulating that brain can change or efface consciousness," which instantiates the classical fallacy of taking correlation for causation. Allow me to elaborate.

What seems to be completely beyond Jerry Berry's ability to comprehend is that the dualism between mind and matter he implicitly relies on—particularly when talking about the effects of "manipulating that brain"—doesn't exist. To an idealist like me, there is no brain outside and independent of mind. Instead, the 'material' brain is merely the extrinsic appearance, in some mind, of the inner mentation of (some other) mind.

Therefore, when a neurosurgeon manipulates one's brain leading to a corresponding modulation of inner experience, or when a drug does the same thing after being swallowed, what is happening is that one kind of mental process—whose extrinsic appearance is the surgeon's probe or the swallowed pill—modulates another kind of mental process; namely, the subject's inner experience. I elaborated more on this in the last paragraph of Section 9, page 25, of this paper.

As such, the causation link from matter to mind that Jerry Berry implicitly relies on to 'prove' his materialism is only valid within his own hallucination of what a non-materialist metaphysics entails. As a matter of fact, Jerry Berry's metaphysical views seem to be fundamentally based on misunderstandings of materialism and misunderstandings of other metaphysics. Philosophically speaking, the man seems unable to think straight or get anything right.

If consciousness is ultimately material—which Jerry knows is the case—then it must have evolved, even if it had no survival function whatsoever; it simply has to have evolved, even if we have no idea how or why. Ergo, Kastrup is an idiot!

A particularly representative illustration of how Jerry Berry thinks is this gem:
I have no idea whether consciousness is a direct product of natural selection or a byproduct of selection on features like our brain. It could be a direct adaptation or it could be a spandrel. We may never know the answer. But if it does supervene on our physical brain, as the evidence clearly shows, then it has evolved, for our physical brain has evolved.
In other words, if consciousness is ultimately material—which Jerry Berry knows is the case—then it must have evolved, even if it had no survival function whatsoever; it simply has to have evolved, even if we have no idea how or why. Ergo, Kastrup is an idiot! Ahh, I envy such a simple, uncritical view of things... it must make life much easier.

Unashamed in a way only blissful ignorance can allow, Jerry Berry continues by completely ignoring the very essay he is presumably criticizing:
I can in fact think of ways that subjective sensation could be adaptive and increase reproduction, thereby being favored by selection. The feeling of pleasure that comes with orgasm, for example, is a qualium (is that the singular of qualia?). And that pleasure is what drives many people to copulate, so people able to experience that subjective sensation would copulate more often and leave more offspring. If you were able to experience pain, and it hurt, then you might be selected to avoid situations that could damage you and diminish your reproduction. There are many ways one could think of that the experience of qualia, which is consciousness, could be the target of natural selection.
This is a surreal form of argument by repetition, for my original essay already carefully discussed precisely how all the functions Jerry Berry is attributing to consciousness can easily be performed without any accompanying experience; it also explained why, under materialism, no experiential state can have causal efficacy as a matter of principle. It's okay to argue against what I said, but to simply ignore it and repeat the original claim is just silly. Or perhaps Jerry Berry simply forgot, already by this point in his post, what I wrote in the very text he is allegedly responding to.

As a matter of fact, there is more reason to be a little concerned about Jerry Berry's memory, for only a few days before he wrote the post I am commenting on here, he had written another one praising my criticism of panpsychism. In that earlier post, he said "Kastrup is quite critical of panpsychism, and for good reasons." But now he seems to have completely forgotten about that, for he writes, "[Kastrup] seems to be adhering to panpsychism." Oh well.

Humor aside, the bottomline is this: alas, Jerry Coyne just isn't a serious participant in any discussion regarding the nature of mind and reality. As Edward Feser put it, everything the man writes on philosophy and religion is an "omnibus of fallacies." It doesn't take Coyne long to run the entire gamut of faulty logic; it's quite remarkable. I suspect he is just too dim-witted in regard to philosophy to realize how dim-witted he is in regard to philosophy (the Dunning–Kruger effect).

Admittedly, this is a rather surprising observation, for the man has published a large amount of worthy material on evolutionary biology, so he can't be generally dim-witted. Yet, his pronouncements on philosophical matters admit no other interpretation. I can only speculate that some people's cognitive skills are perhaps so highly specialized that one becomes a one-trick pony. Another speculative possibility may be that there is something about militancy—Coyne has been an active militant for materialism and atheism for many years—that takes away some 50 IQ points from otherwise reasonably intelligent people. I don't know. I just know that, if Coyne is trying to remain relevant into his retirement by writing multiple rants a day, the raw and naked intellectual level of these rants will just accelerate his oblivion.

Frankly, it can't come soon enough, for he seems to have nothing to contribute but nonsense and animosity. Unashamed idiocy is entertaining, but up to a point.

(Important observation: the demeaning tone of this post, including the mildly disparaging use of a nickname, has been carefully studied—sometimes down to specific sentence structures—to exactly match the tone with which Jerry Coyne writes about other people and their respective ideas, including myself. If anything, this post falls short of matching Coyne's unchecked callousness. If you think my tone goes too far, then please remember that this is precisely my point. My deliberate choice to—contrary to my own natural proclivities—mirror the tone of militant materialists and atheists, such as Coyne, is motivated by reasons discussed here. Beyond all these stylistic considerations, however, the substance of my arguments above should speak for itself.)


  1. I appreciate Bernardo and his work very much.

  2. The 'dim-witted' biologist is an incredibly ignorant human being.
    Excellent piece Mr. Kastrup.
    (You put a smile on my lips!)
    The materialist superstition should be on its deathbed.

  3. While I admire all of your work, I sometimes worry that you spend too much time commenting and thinking about people like Jerry Coyne. A few years ago, I heard him on the Sam Harris Waking Up podcast. They were talking about free will, and Sam starting talking how he doesn't have an illusion of agency. If he pays attention, he just sees each thought as an arising in awareness. Anyone who has meditated or done any kind of introspection will understand this about the nature of thoughts. But Jerry was quite dumbfounded by this and went on to ask questions that showed he had never done very simple introspection into the nature of his experience. After hearing this, I found no reason to take anything seriously that Jerry Coyne has to say about consciousness and conscious experience. I have heard this with other prominent materialist scientists. This connects back to a previous post you made stating that not only do they not understand you, they don't even understand what is meant by conscious experience. I just think that you are probably a busy person and could spend your time in more productive endeavors.

    1. laservius has a point here only that R. Heinlein made it shorter:

      Never attempt to teach a pig to sing; it wastes your time and annoys the pig.

      // Robert Heinlein

    2. I do it for the audience ;-). I know Coyne and his kin are beyond help.

    3. The amount of ignorance they display beggars belief.
      Materialistic evolution is an unfalsifiable pseudoscience. In fact, it is similar to a religious doctrine.

    4. E.Milz, yes that is much more succinct.

    5. "Coyne and his kin are beyond help" - a little too harsh for a metaphysics of idealism. After all, if the mind is free of the burden of a deterministic and aging matter, we have no hard limits on what it may, in time, learn...

    6. I don't think Bernardo has any illusions that he's going to teach devout Materialists anything. As he says, it's for the audience. I found this piece encouraging. In some way I felt personally supported and validated, though not even that is Bernardo's intent here.

      The emperor who has no clothes doesn't need to be convinced of anything. Rather, the bystanders need a finger pointing at the ridiculous display, "Look, the emperor has no clothes!"

      Someone needs to be writing articles exactly like this one. Unless you can show the rest of us that this piece redundant, as someone (very doubtful) has written a better one elsewhere, please, for the rest of us who do need this, don't discourage it.

  4. A bit harsh! But what a great article.
    Thank you for explaining why you chose this particular tone in your “important observation” at the end of the article. Now I understand.
    On a separate note, I just read your excellent afterword (September 2016) to Rupert Spira‘s book on “The nature of consciousness”. It succinctly addresses many of the concerns that I have at my basic level of understanding. I’m also glad that you know Rupert Spira because I’ve been following both of you for several years now. It is actually being so impressed by the afterword that prompted me to find your latest post on Facebook to comment on how much I appreciated it. I know, I will try to catch up.

  5. 'Moreover, to say that such a fantastic property as phenomenal consciousness could be a mere byproduct of evolution is tantamount to making evolution unfalsifiable: if organic structures and functions of any level of complexity can evolve whether they are at all useful or not, then anything could have evolved'.

    (Materialistic) evolution proponents use this tactic all the time. Everything is explained by the theory, either directly or indirectly.

    If you disagree or dare to question them, they start to flourish their favorite catchphrase: 'You do not understand evolution!'

  6. Thanks Bernardo for this entertaining response. Unlike Coyne's effort however, your essay has actual logical substance.

  7. And so intellectually lazy that he can write "qualium (is that the singular of qualia?)," which is no doubt supposed to be funny. Thirty seconds in the OED would answer it: No, it's not. It's "quale."

    But knowing a tiny, misleading bit of Latin grammar goes a long way in some company.

  8. I have been where I am for so long that I'm a "Don't confuse me with your facts because my mind is made up." or "If you have to ask why you wouldn't understand the answer." However I do receive great satisfaction (Is that satisfaction produced as a component of survival or is it the result of a "spandrel"(new word for me)) watching Bernardo take these people to task. It is like many argue evolutionary biology is settled science. Even if that were true from that starting place they seem to make assumptions way beyond the boundaries of what the theory of evolutionary biology covers. If my response is embarrassingly ignorant take into account that after writing this response I am going outside to continue digging a root cellar.

  9. I've been reflecting on this article and I love it. But many times I am left unsure of your goal. In your mind is this for the purpose of impacting humanities world view? If so I applaud your efforts absolutely. Or is this kind of an intellectual game like Chess between people that live in the world of academia and research. Because many times that world seems to be populated by people that the real world is as alien as the world of academia is to us knuckle draggers. I have watched the defense of your 2nd Phd twice and absolutely love it for a number of reasons. One of the things I was intrigued by was the direction you gave your family and it felt like to me like they were inside a church strange to them that they were unaware of the rules. My world as an automation engineer was very similar. On those extremely rare occasions when we were allowed to bring visitors into the control room of a large refinery it felt that way. These were people on both sides of that fence I saw every day that were totally unaware of the reality of the others.

    For me this type of curiosity is normal. I am always very interested in the person behind the facade.