Did evolution design our thoughts?

Science tells us that evolution designed our brain, and our brain makes our consciousness. So our consciousness must be designed by evolution too. (Our consciousness produces our thoughts, our perception of the world, of ourselves and anything else. So all of those must also be designed by evolution.)

You might wonder how evolution could ‘design’ the thoughts in a brain with 80 billion neurons, all of them linking up in 1000 trillion connections. And what about free will? Assuming we have it, how can free will be designed?

To put things in perspective, if our perceptions, our thinking and even our so-called ‘free’ will, are made by our brain, they must also be limited by the elements our brain is made from, and by what those elements are capable of.

Our brain, along with everything else in the material universe, is made from combinations of a mere hundred or so atomic elements; these are governed by a few elementary laws of physics. The structure and behavior of those elements and laws keep the universe’s evolution in relatively narrow channels. Relative to what? To an alternative kind of universe with more elements and laws? Different elements and laws? Scientists suggest the possible existence of many other universes – perhaps an infinite number – each with its own elements and laws. But the evolution of each of these universes would still depend on the limitations of its own unique set of elements and laws, as our universe is. So any consciousness and ‘free’ will would be bound by those elements and laws, as we are.

Even so, looking out from inside a brain with 80 billion cells and trillions of connections between them – the most complex thing we know of in our universe – you might think we still have plenty of scope for thought…until you realize that our consciousness has only the physically real things, made from those few elements and laws, to be conscious of. Those few elements and laws have effectively ‘purpose designed’ our understanding of reality as an experience limited to, and by, physically real things. In a nutshell, our cognitive scope is confined by the stuff that made us.

Our science and our ideas about everything are constrained by the understanding that ‘reality’ is the physical things that evolved in this universe. As part of that understanding, evolutionary science tells us our bodies, brains and consciousness all evolved ‘just’ to maintain the accurate replication and reproduction of genes. (In our limited human terms, to help us survive in a hostile world.) So all the ideas embodied in the words I’m using here – ‘existence’, ‘survival’, ‘hostility’, ‘the world’, our ‘self’, ‘realness’, and any other word you can think of – are confined by the narrow boundaries imposed by those few chemical elements and basic laws of physics. That’s why you can’t imagine a reality made of anything but physically real things.

But what if reality could be made of something other than physical elements and laws? A reasonable enough question, but to answer it we have to step outside the limitations imposed by physically real things. How can we do that?

We already did. As consciousness, we’ve always been outside of those limitations. But we’ve also always been deluded by physically real things into thinking that our conscious reality is somehow ‘the same as’ physical realness. 

Ask yourself: Can physical things think? Can they be conscious? Brains are just physical things, yet science says they ‘produce’ our consciousness. That must mean brains are conscious. If it doesn’t mean that, then brains and consciousness would be two separate things. Are they?

Hold it. We’re not supposed to ask questions like that – it could mean there’s another kind of reality besides our familiar version. A reality that’s not constrained by physical elements and laws. Such notions are sacrilegious in a reality built on physical things.

Although we are conscious, we don’t know what consciousness is, what it’s made of or how it works. Yet it’s the only thing that tells us the world of physically real things exists. It does that by transforming the mindless world of physically real things, into our even more real world of consciousness. (If you doubt that our conscious view of the world is more real than the physical world itself, you lack imagination.) What’s more, consciousness is the only thing that tells us we exist, consciously and physically.

The simple fact is, our understanding of this relationship between our consciously real world, and the world of physical realness, didn’t evolve anywhere near far enough yet to tell us what consciousness actually is. So the meaning of everything in these words is still based entirely on the evidence of the physical world, as are our thoughts, beliefs, behavior and science. And so too is the notion that physical brains produce consciousness. It’s not a scientific fact, it’s a supposition created not by what science knows about consciousness, but by what it knows about the physical world.

We can’t help thinking this way. Because all of our knowledge is a consequence of the limited way we’ve evolved to think of realness as physical things, we’re all reductionist. Most scientists believe that everything – consciousness included – reduces to (and so is somehow made by) atoms and the smaller particles that they’re made from. Yet consciousness refuses to be reduced; an apparently immaterial phenomenon, it has no observable or measurable physical parts or properties. And while some scientists might grudgingly accept that’s the case, they continue their campaign to convince us that our physical brain somehow extends itself to become our conscious experiences of the physical world.

Common sense and introspection might tell us our consciousness is something altogether different from physical stuff, but we’re stuck with the notion that reality is fundamentally physical. It’s instinctive; on levels of our mind below everyday awareness, we’re certain that we ‘are’ a physical body, and with good reason. As consciousness gradually emerged in proto brains, it had no choice but to take itself for just another part of the gene replicating and reproducing process. Millions of years later, we’re totally dedicated to staying alive as the bodies that genes evolved for themselves, and to reproducing those genes as if they were our own.

As consciousness, replicating and reproducing for genes is now our prime directive because we’re conditioned by the evolution of physical things to think that’s what we want. Seeing things some other way would conflict with what bodies and brains evolved to do: look out for the genes that built them. So far as we’re concerned, it wouldn’t make ‘sense’ to see things any other way – but only because it wouldn’t make physical sense. The evolution of physically real things is pulling all our strings.

Another take on evolution. The interesting thing about evolution is that it’s forever changing things. Note the word ‘forever’; it’s a concept we can’t conceive of. It might extend not only into what we think of as the ‘past’ and the ‘future’, but in other inconceivable directions as well. And even through unimaginable dimensions of time, space, and other realities beyond those. This way of looking at the concept of evolution – from outside of our limitations, as it were – pretty much makes anything possible. Perhaps it makes everything possible. Perhaps everything always was possible. Personally I’m convinced that Darwin hardly scratched the surface of what evolution is, and we haven’t even begun to appreciate what it is yet – again because we didn’t evolve far enough yet.

How conscious are we anyway? Apart from the other organisms on this planet that seem to have some consciousness, we have nothing to gauge ours against; we have no way of knowing how valid our understanding of reality is. We might all agree on what ‘real’ means, and share much the same experience of it, but that doesn’t mean human perception is the only way things can be perceived, or anywhere near the most conscious way. The universe we see is 13.7 billion years old and has countless billions of galaxies, each with billions of suns, many with planetary systems. And what about other universes that might exist alongside ours; that could have existed far longer than ours? (Forever leaves plenty of time for anything to have happened.)

The overwhelming odds are that conscious awareness has arisen elsewhere, and some of it could be as far ahead of ours, as ours is ahead of bacteria, with correspondingly more dimensions to its understanding of reality. So it may well have progressed far further than our current understanding of physical realness, and seen far deeper than ‘our’ laws of thermodynamics, entropy, gravity and so on that we assume physical matter has to obey so as not to violate the narrow channels of our limited thinking.

Which came first: consciousness or physical matter? Evolution, so far as science has managed to ascertain, is entirely physical in that it acts on physical things, like bodies and brains, which are just atoms. (A speculative notion that everything has consciousness is known as panpsychism. From there – and purely as a thought exercise – you could wonder if consciousness starts in the smallest component parts of atoms at the quantum scale. Or in the superstrings that String Theory suggests are resonances in fundamental energy that create everything in our physical reality.)

Most scientists firmly resist the notion that consciousness, in any shape or form, could exist independently of physical matter. There isn’t supposed to be anything, anywhere, other than physical matter. (Apart from the consciousness our brain is said to ‘make’.) Neuroscientists are working to try and reverse-engineer consciousness to discover if/how it corresponds with the machinery of the brain. The problem, though, involves figuring out how something immaterial with no physical parts, could be manufactured by something made only from physical parts.

To the knotty question of how or why physical components could even begin to design something exclusively non-physical, remind yourself that everything you are is what your consciousness is. No consciousness, no you; just anonymous atoms. So when you go, where do you go to? Although you think of yourself as physical, it’s when you realize what ‘thinking’ of yourself as physical actually means that things become difficult. The conscious you has no trouble thinking of itself as physical (even though it is a delusion). But can you also delude yourself that the physical you is capable of thinking of itself as conscious?

I’ll end this by saying space isn’t the final frontier – consciousness is. Space is just more of the same old thinking on physical phenomena. The spacetime we perceive is only a few of the physical dimensions that came out of the big bang. The thinking is that there need to be 10 or 11 to make sense of our current physics. Were we to confine our thinking to these physical dimensions and go on trying to wring consciousness from physical matter, we’d go in ever reducing circles and get nowhere. But that won’t happen. Our consciousness will evolve to encompass what now seem like heretical ideas. The dinosaurs that perpetuate old reductionist dogma will die off and be superseded by warm blooded new thinking on the idea of consciousness as a reality that’s more real than physical phenomena.