If evolution is true, how can consciousness and free will be explained?

August 2nd, 2016 in science. Tags: , , ,


A lot of christians struggle with the idea of biological evolution because it seems to leave God out of creation. But I think evolution points to God, if we consider some of the findings of neuroscience and psychology.

Evolution and God

I believe the scientific case for evolution is strong, especially the evidence from DNA. Not perhaps as strong as some claim, but enough not to be worth arguing over.

If evolution occurred and if there was no God, then everything we see is a result of the physical environment on earth, the laws of physics and chemistry, and natural selection acting on random processes and mutations. All that we are as human beings has to make sense within that account of human origins.

On the other hand, if God exists and was involved in the creation and evolution of the universe, these same processes could be seen as his way of creating us humans “in his image”.

Examining key features of the human brain and mind may therefore reveal characteristics which are better explained on one or other of these hypotheses. Let’s look at a few (in this and the next post).

What is human consciousness?

We all know what it feels like to be us, but we know very little of what it feels like to be someone else. We experience pleasure, pain, colour and taste, but we don’t know if others experience them the same as we do. We all feel there is some distinct being that is us, even though the particles that make up our bodies and brains are constantly being replaced by new particles.

This is what it is like for us to be human. We are conscious of ourselves, and it seems like we look out on a world where other people inhabit their bodies and look out at us.

It is fair to say that there is no agreement among neuroscientists that we have an adequate understanding of human consciousness – why our brains seem to be “inhabited” by our minds and a sense of self. There seems to be no reason why natural selection would lead to us being conscious.

Neuroscientist Susan Blackmore: “You’ve got a brain made of billions of neurons, and all those neurons are doing is shunting electrical impulses and little molecules of chemicals here and there, back and forth. That’s all they’re doing. How can that be, or give rise to, or be responsible for …. the experience of [colour]?”

Science and consciousness

Science considers the physical world, and many scientists consider that is all there is. But there are difficulties in explaining consciousness in purely physical terms.

How can something immaterial be real?

It is hard to explain something immaterial like our minds and our consciousness in purely materialistic terms – i.e. in terms of matter and space. Neuroscientist Mario Beauregard: “The mind … remains a mystery. It has no mass, no volume and no shape, and it cannot be measured in space and time. Yet is is … real ….”

Science vs experience

We know everything else in the universe by observation, but we know ourselves by experience or introspection. But materialism cannot explain all we experience. From the inside, it feels like we are more than the materialist explanation allows for. Should we reject what we experience just because a materialist scientist cannot explain it? Even the scientist has difficulty maintaining the materialistic view in real life. Susan Blackmore:

“How can objective things like brain cells produce subjective experiences like the feeling that ‘I’ am striding through the grass? …. The objective world out there, and the subjective experiences in here, seem to be totally different kinds of things. Asking how one produces the other seems to be nonsense. The intractability of this problem suggests to me that we are making a fundamental mistake in the way we think about consciousness.”

Why would evolution produce consciousness?

Materialist science can explain many brain functions – how the brain reacts to stimuli, how it categorises information, how it controls our behaviour, etc. But these functions could all be carried out without our consciousness, and often are. So why does the brain generate our conscious experience? If there was more to “us” than our physical brain and body, then we could understand that conscious experience relates to that “us”, but if the material brain is all of “us” then consciousness seems unnecessary and unlikely.

Alternative explanations of consciousness

There are three different ways of understanding consciousness.


Experience can be mistaken, science is the only way to know what’s true, and science says that the brain is all there is, “self” is an illusion, and the mind is just a product of the brain. Francis Crick:

“You, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.”


Our experience of self is to be trusted. Science can only measure the physical, but that doesn’t mean that’s all there is. In fact, there is a non-material aspect to humanity as well as the physical.

Most christians would be dualists, believing that consciousness was created in us by God, and it is this that makes us ‘higher’ than animals.

Non materialistic monism

Philosopher David Chalmers suggests science will only resolve the question if it ceases to be materialistic, and adopts a new approach. Matter is not all there is – consciousness or experience is a fundamental fact of the universe just as magnetism and gravity are. Todd Feinberg: ” …. the mind cannot be reduced to the brain …”.

Are we able to choose between different actions?

Human free will is even harder to explain than consciousness. The logic of determinism is difficult to escape.

If the natural world is all there is, then only natural causes, effects and laws can be effective in everything that happens. This extends to human choice. Our brain processes, like everything else, are determined by previous processes and natural laws. We can do little to control most of these, in fact, there is no “us” outside of these physically determined processes in the brain. Any control we exercise is itself determined by natural laws.

Therefore, many, probably most, neuroscientists believe we don’t actually have the freedom to choose between alternatives, but that the electrical and chemical processes in our brains, which they say are all that is “us”, follow laws that determine our choices.

Yet this is contrary to our experience, and few if any of us can consistently live that way.

The science of choice

Various scientific experiments try to provide understanding. Experiments by Wilder Penfield, and others noted by Mario Beauregard, seem to point to a mind beyond the brain with the ability to choose independently of physical laws. Other experiments by Benjamin Libet seem to show that our brain makes a choice before our conscious mind seems to, indicating conscious choices are determined. However if there is a non-material mind, these experiments cannot measure its action, and so will miss out on observing choice.

It is fair to say that this question isn’t yet resolved scientifically – determinism is an assumption, a logical deduction from materialism, rather than a demonstrable theory.

The freewill debate

Just like consciousness, there is a debate about how freewill should be explained.

Two forms of determinism

Determinism accepts the scientific argument that our brain processes are determined by physical laws. The logical conclusion is therefore that we have no meaningful choice, it just seems that we do. Many psychologists say we cannot live without assuming free will, but nevertheless, it seems clear that we don’t.

William Provine: “Naturalistic evolution has clear consequences that Charles Darwin understood perfectly. 1) No gods worth having exist; 2) no life after death exists; 3) no ultimate foundation for ethics exists; 4) no ultimate meaning in life exists; and 5) human free will is nonexistent.”

However compatibilism is an alternative view that argues that free will and determinism are compatible. This view seems to preserve our experience of free will, but there are no real arguments to support it. And it requires free will to be re-defined to simply mean freedom from external compulsion, which isn’t anything like what most people mean by free will.

Dualism and free will

Dualists, who believe there are non-material realities, can readily explain free will as one of those non-material realities. They cannot explain scientifically how it might occur, but at least they have a reason to accept free will. This would be the normal christian view, although Calvinists may also believe our choices are determined, though for different reasons than the materialists.

Where the rubber hits the road

At first sight, all this may seem to be academic, but whether we believe in free will or not makes a big difference to how we live.

  • Studies show that when people have little belief in free will, they are more likely to behave dishonestly.
  • Our ethics and laws are built on the idea that, unless we are impaired in some way, we are responsible for our actions and generally could decide differently. Without free will, it is difficult to find a moral basis for ethics and laws.

Christians and neuroscience

I think discussion of consciousness and free will are a support for christianity and an opportunity to show that christianity is a better explanation of the world we experience than are atheism or naturalism.

Neuroscience gives us a deeper insight into the way God, via evolution, has made us. (See A revelation of God’s true nature?)

Most people act as if our self is real and all our choices are free. Without this belief, we have no real basis for morality and law, and no real confidence in our close relationships. If this is true, non-believers (materialists, at any rate) are living in ways that are inconsistent with their philosophy. If they are honest, they will recognise this sometimes, though they find it very hard to admit.

If we care for our non-believing friends, we may find opportunities to lovingly point these things out – but sensitively so our behaviour is not ugly and unloving.

Read more

Read about Consciousness and Free will on my other website – Is there a God? – both pages provide plenty of references.

Read about evolution, the evidence from DNA, and A revelation of God’s true nature? on this website:

Next post

How God changes your brain

Photo Credit: moonux via Compfight cc.

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  1. “A mind beyond the brain” seems to imply a soul ? But you have rejected that elsewhere so what are you saying is “mind” ?

  2. Hello again. Good question, and I don’t have a really well worked out answer.
    1. I think we must be composed of more than just the physical, as discussed here.
    2. I don’t believe we have a soul as a separate entity that lives on after the body dies.
    3. But I think, like philosopher David Chalmers, that each human is a body and brain and mind, all in one.
    Can I explain or prove that? No. But it makes sense (to me) of the experience of being human more than the reductionist ideas of many of the neuroscientists.
    What do you think?

  3. If you don’t like the idea of a soul, then maybe our minds are our belief systems that help us make sense out of the information that our brains process.
    For example, some people may see certain patterns of light and shadow and form them into a human face, while others may not see anything in those patterns.
    On a higher level, our mind may be our morality, our sense of right and wrong, formed by our exposure to the human condition and its various emotions, love , joy , pity etc. Although some would argue that emotions are purely brain functions, I like to think they come from a higher process, but like you I can’t prove it.

  4. A succinct apologia for the “soul”, one that explains as clearly as possible in layman terms. I will likely snatch this onto my hard drive for future reference. Much easier than Chardin’s, “The Phenomena of Man”.

  5. Hi West, I think you have described many things our mind does but not what it is. But of course, I cannot describe what it is either!

  6. Hi Bill, thanks for your comment. My post may be easier than Chardin, but probably not as erudite!
    I prefer not to use the word “soul” because the word in the Greek means something more like “life”, i.e. it is the essence of being human and doesn’t exist separately. But many people to use the word to mean something that lives in a person but can exist separately – which isn’t what I think, though it may be what you think.

  7. There is a saying “everything is connected to everything else”, so maybe our minds are that connection, a spiritual internet if you like subconsciously connecting us to every other living thing and God.
    Although the physical internet is material, consisting of servers and wiring, it transmits ideas, hopes , thoughts and feelings as well as information, so perhaps it could be said to contain “the minds of mankind”.
    I’ve no idea how it works for individuals, and if it’s a normal function of the matter in our brains or something else. I referred elsewhere to our “operating systems”, ie a set of instructions that we use to process data, and that is still the closest I can get to the concept of “mind”.

  8. Roger Scruton in “The soul of the world” delves in an interesting way in a matter like this, he writes in Chapter 4 “In the previous chapter I gave reasons for thinking that our self-understanding as persons cannot be replaced by any natural science of the human being. I did not deny that we are animals, or that our behavior and mental life are largely governed by the computational processes that occur in our brains. But, I suggested, we know ourselves, and each other, under a concept that denotes no natural kind and which takes its sense from the network of our free interactions: the concept of the person, itself to be explained in terms of first-person knowledge and the I-to-You encounter.(…)”
    =) it’s only an excerpt of a long explanation he does.
    Neurosciences, biology, in general, may be nice, trendy, but “Humanness” will never be completely within their scope.

  9. Hi West, I think all that may be a little too speculative for me. But of course some would say anything outside the physical science is speculative ……

  10. Is free will really considered a binary by anyone – either you have it or you are just a player piano?
    And how can a materialist be inconsistent with their philosophy? Their philosophy is they are a product of materials – whatever they do is a product of that. How can you be inconsistent with being the very thing you are?
    I’m not sure why people with religion somehow think they have a monopoly on moral actions. As if materialists somehow run red lights because they are outside the morality franchise. Granted, instead of just thinking ‘I’m moral’, a materialist probably spends more time thinking about ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’ and that they wouldn’t like someone else running a red light and running into them. So materialists probably think slower about morality, if that’s an issue. And we all have to be fast paced these days, don’t we?

  11. Hi Callan, thanks for visiting. I’m pleased that you’ve commented as I appreciate feedback. Since you’ve asked a few questions, I thought I’d have a shot at answers, and you can see if you want to discuss further.
    “Is free will really considered a binary by anyone – either you have it or you are just a player piano?”
    I don’t think anyone would deny our will is constrained by physical reality – e.g. I can’t choose to fly unaided, or to play guitar like Hendrix. But after that, I think the question is binary – either we have the ability to choose among different courses of action within those constraints, or we don’t. Do you see some other options?
    “And how can a materialist be inconsistent with their philosophy?”
    I think everyone can be inconsistent with their philosophy. A materialist could do it if their philosophy logically leads to a lack of human free will (because they are simply the product of materials) yet they live as if we have free will. In fact some psychologists say it is impossible to live consistently as if we have no free will. So the question is whether materialism logically entails no free will. I think it does. What do you think?
    “I’m not sure why people with religion somehow think they have a monopoly on moral actions.”
    Some religious people may think that, but I do not. In fact, I think the opposite – that materialist generally behave ethically not very differently to non-materialists. But I do think that it is difficult for a materialist to establish a logical basis for ethics.
    Thanks for your comments. Did you want to discuss further?

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