There. Computer engineer and philosopher Bernardo Kastrup just said it; it’s the title of his recent piece at Institute of Art and Ideas. According to Darwinian evolution, consciousness comes to exist in this way:

The overwhelmingly validated theory of evolution tells us that the functions performed by our organs arose from associated increases in survival fitness. For instance, the bile produced by our liver and the insulin produced by our pancreas help us absorb nutrients and thus survive. Insofar as it is produced by the brain, our phenomenal consciousness—i.e. our ability to subjectively experience the world and ourselves—is no exception: it, too, must give us some survival advantage, otherwise natural selection wouldn’t have fixed it in our genome. In other words, our sentience—to the extent that it is produced by the brain—must perform a beneficial function, otherwise we would be unconscious zombies.

The problem he sees is that consciousness—as experienced—isn’t like bile or insulin at all. For one thing, it cannot be understood in the quantitative terms essential to materialism and theories of evolution deal in material things:

However, our phenomenal consciousness is eminently qualitative, not quantitative. There is something it feels like to see the colour red, which is not captured by merely noting the frequency of red light. If we were to tell Helen Keller that red is an oscillation of approximately 4.3*1014 cycles per second, she would still not know what it feels like to see red. Analogously, what it feels like to listen to a Vivaldi sonata cannot be conveyed to a person born deaf, even if we show to the person the sonata’s complete power spectrum. Experiences are felt qualities—which philosophers and neuroscientists call ‘qualia’—not fully describable by abstract quantities.

Indeed. One wonders: How many joules of consciousness would make you a human instead of a chimpanzee? How many more joules of consciousness would make you a genius? It soon becomes clear that quantitative measurement is not a useful way to understand consciousness.


Kastrup himself favors a form of panpsychism (cosmopsychism) according to which the whole universe is conscious and we are dissociated personalities within it, which is why we are aware only of our own consciousness:

So, for idealism to be tenable, one must explain—at least in principle—how one universal consciousness gives rise to multiple, private but concurrently conscious centers of cognition, each with a distinct personality and sense of identity.


And here is where dissociation comes in. We know empirically from DID [dissociative identity disorder] that consciousness can give rise to many operationally distinct centers of concurrent experience, each with its own personality and sense of identity. Therefore, if something analogous to DID happens at a universal level, the one universal consciousness could, as a result, give rise to many alters with private inner lives like yours and ours. As such, we may all be alters—dissociated personalities—of universal consciousness.

Sounds crazy? The main thing to see is that the field of consciousness studies is in deep trouble and Kastrup’s is actually one of the more plausible suggestions. For example, some argue that consciousness is a material thing, even though it deals in entities like pi or “fairness,” which are not material things. Others think consciousness an illusion, without troubling much about whose illusion it is. That has reminded some commentators of an old proverb: If the self is an illusion, whose arthritis is this?


We can count on many more interesting discussions of this subject on account of a current, historic contest between two theories of consciousness, Global Workspace Theory (GWT) vs. Integrated Information Theory (IIT). Stay tuned.


Article published at Mind Matters