Mind before Matter: On Consciousness and Naturalism

Naturalism (or materialism) is the belief that everything arises from physical causes or properties. Explaining our consciousness (or our awareness) is a problem for naturalists, since any natural origins are unknown and it’s difficult to determine the levels of consciousness of various sentient beings. How, when, and why did consciousness arise? Which beings were the first to suddenly became aware of their positions on this planet? 

Consciousness is qualitative and cannot be measured independently of the conscious person. It can only be measured when one assesses the state of their own or another’s levels of consciousness. “A human expert still remains the ultimate arbiter of the state of consciousness of another human. This is unlikely to change soon.”[1]

Some naturalists deny we even have a sense of awareness. Atheist philosopher Daniel Dennett has claimed consciousness is a mere illusion, while others have argued that it’s a state of matter, like a gas, solid, or liquid.[2]

But just as truth, joy, fairness, justice, and love are not states of matter, our awareness of our existence is not a state of matter. Many components of the human experience cannot be physically explained. Abstract concepts, numbers, laws, human rights, numerical constants and symbols do not have physical properties. A blank page and one with piano notes physically weigh and feel the same, yet the latter adds intrinsic value and meaning when the pianist plays the piano. Along these same lines, the brain and the mind (or the soul) are different. This assertion is supported by the law of identity, which states that if two objects don’t have identical traits, they’re different. The brain is just a 3-pound clump of tissue with neurons that transmit communication signals. The mind goes beyond that by generating thoughts, dreams, and ideas. One can’t reduce one’s thoughts, ideas, or dreams down to their physical nature because they are not physical. Yet they can attach meaning and explanation to states of matter, going beyond the chemical and neural processes in the physical category to the metaphysical. As Ed Feser has noted, the intellect helps us to truly understand our world, rather than our senses. Hence, the world cannot be explained via materialism. 

Some have also argued for panpsychism, which is the belief that everything is conscious. These people believe that all matter (even to the level of a molecule) is conscious and therefore consciousness did not evolve. It’s always been there. This belief does fit in with findings from the multiply attested double slit experiment, where the presence of an observer altered patterns of wave-like and particle-like photons.

I would argue that panpsychism only pushes the consciousness problem back around 14 billion years to the origins of our universe. Consciousness would have either emerged under such a theory at the Big Bang of inflationary expansion or it would have pre-existed. I argue that of course it pre-existed and has always existed in the mind of our eternal Creator. We have no instances of matter coming before a mind; only mind before matter.

Thank you for your time.

This excerpt comes from a draft of my newest book, “The Power of One.” I hope you enjoyed it!

By: SJ Thomason, Ph.D., Business Administration

[1] Mitra, P. (2014). A new method to measure consciousness discovered. Scientific American. January 7. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/a-new-method-to-measure-consciousness-discovered/

[2] Chalmers, D. (2018). Panpsychism: You are conscious but so is your coffee mug. Mind Matters. https://mindmatters.ai/2018/11/panpsychism-you-are-conscious-but-so-is-your-coffee-mug/

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