Sometimes Gene Callahan Does Not Try Hard Enough

Gene Callahan argues that while evolution can account for many complex attributes, he does not see how self-awareness and consciousness could be the product of evolution. (HT: Daniel Kuehn) His post is brief, but my understanding of what he is saying is that evolution is entirely dictated by mechanistic processes. In other words, evolution can account for human actions, but it cannot account for our consciousness and our self-awareness. It is true that from an evolutionary stand-point, all that matters is that I dodge when a car is about to run me over. Me having self-awareness and consciousness is entirely irrelevant. I think there are two answers.

First, it’s important to realize that while evolution does not care about why I jump out of the way of the car, it is very important that I do. So if my developing self-awareness makes me jump out of the way of cars, then self-awareness is selected for. This is something Gene Callahan acknowledges when he calls self-awareness and consciousness mere byproducts. But I don’t think it makes sense to dismiss the mechanism whereby I jump out of the way of a car. Grasping things is selected for. That’s why opposable thumbs are selected for. It doesn’t make sense to say that opposable thumbs are a mere by-product of evolution with no independent use. Opposable thumbs are the way we grasp things.

Second, Gene Callahan appears to be assuming that there is something special about self-awareness or consciousness. In other words, I think he is saying that rather than having self-awareness or consciousness to make me jump out of the way of cars, my brain could simply be wired to jump out of the way of cars without any of that extraneous consciousness or self-awareness. In other words, he is assuming dualism: You could have a brain to make me jump out of the way of cars without having it endowed with that extra-special thing we call consciousness. But obviously, if he starts out by assuming that there is this extra-special thing called consciousness which doesn’t behave according to the same rules as the material world, it is not saying much that that same extra-special thing cannot be explained by the rules of the material world, one of which being evolution. He’s just assuming his conclusion. That’s not trying very hard.

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