Per the naturalistic (atheistic) account of the universe, some 14 billion years ago the universe expanded from a single point in a tiny fraction of a second. About ten billion years later, Earth formed from condensed dust, ice, and gases. Eventually, life arose by the natural process of chemicals murkling around. These original “simple” organisms begat, over the next few billions of years, a multitude of life forms. To survive, organisms had to respond to their environment by regulating what came into and what was kept out of the cell. Each life form had the responsibility of engaging in physiological acts such as ingesting food, digesting and assimilating nutrients essential for life, and expelling the waste products.
An organism does not need a brain to perform any of these basic physiological necessities. Most of the living world exists just fine “unencumbered by the thought process.” The plant kingdom, which numbers a half-million or so species, proliferates without any nervous system whatsoever. Animals mostly have some sort of nervous network, even if it is limited to light detection or tactile sensation. Probably only a fraction of a percent of all animal species produce anything that we could even generously label as mental process.1 Just to sense and react to external stimuli requires little that would correlate to any degree of consciousness. Humans, at least, evaluate sensory input with cognitive powers; we have capabilities beyond stimulus-response existence.
Determining just where mental activity actually starts in the animal kingdom is debatable. Animal nervous systems range from nothing (e.g., sponges) to very rudimentary systems capable of sensing light or movement (e.g., starfish), to brains of all sizes and capacities. The record of intelligence in a variety of non-human animals, from octopi to dolphins to parrots and to chimps is often remarkable. But at what point do we say that consciousness appears? In part, it depends on what aspect of consciousness we’re talking about. The African Grey Parrot, capable of exceptional learning tasks, might live to be 80 years old, but it will never realize that it is growing old, that eternity looms ahead, or that it is amoral with respect to being nice to its owner.
Our point here is not to discuss how much alike or apart we are from other animals with respect to our mental abilities. Our point is to wonder just how it is, under the naturalistic view of the world, that purely chemical and physical processes somehow created thought. Per the evolutionary account, a sophisticated brain, such as we possess, with abilities in abstract reasoning and moral and aesthetic sensitivity, is a luxury, not a necessity.2 It seems odd that such a brain would develop. Even if we acceded the unlikely proposition that an organ as complex as a brain could evolve by chance, when and where did it get its power to transcend the physical world and enter the realm of the mental?
More than Just Complexity
What is it about a brain that can produce thought? Is it just a matter of neural complexity, or is some transcendent process in play here? Mental life is more than its component electrochemical signals; it is not merely a necessary outcome given the carbon atom with the opportunities it affords for forming complex molecules. We often read claims that sound like this:
The important point about the standard evolutionary story is that the human species and all of its features are the wholly physical outcomes of a purely physical process If this is the correct account of our origins, then there seems neither need, nor room, to fit any non-physical substances or properties into our theoretical account of ourselves. We are creatures of matter. And we should learn to live with that fact.3
We are nothing more than a collection of molecules going about according to the laws of physics and chemistry. There is no such thing as “thought;” what appears so is merely an illusion [note: an illusion is a thought]. There is no right or wrong, no goal or order to be found, no place we’re headed as a species. We’re just part of the continuum of atomic dust coming from the Big Bang on the way to the Heat Death.
The first quote is “real;” the second I made-up as a compilation of typical sentiments that one often hears or reads from those holding the materialist position, the message being that the universe is a purely physical, self-organizing affair. Given the laws of physics, life must emerge, and said life would have the appearance, but not the reality, of actually “thinking.” All we really do is behave, not think—we might think we have something called free choice, but, in reality, that’s an illusion also. Is this view credible?
One thing we can say for sure: if this view is true, we would have no way of knowing it. If indeed we have only apparent mental life, then we wouldn’t have the wherewithal to make that judgment. We wouldn’t have the capacity to make that judgment without a transcendent mind. We need a mind both to allow for our understanding and also to have a non-material reference basis for our judgments about the material world. The second point is very important. Materiality cannot judge itself to be material, for it is within the system of materiality itself. The mental can appraise the material, but the material cannot appraise itself. It would be like a book commenting on its own contents. The author can do that, but not the book itself.
To aver that we have no mental life is to demonstrate that we do. If we truly had no mental life, we would not be able to say that we had no mental life.
Hierarchies of Organization
One way of explaining or accounting for mental events is that they are just the products of underlying physical processes and therefore nothing special in themselves. Are higher levels of organization, including the complexities of brain that allow for consciousness and morality, indeed no more than necessary manifestations of lower levels of organization? Let’s sort this out by looking at multiple layers of structure and complexity throughout the universe. Our point in delving into the following exercise is to establish that each increasing level of complexity requires a new specification of information, and is not reducible to levels below. Let’s look at organizational hierarchy of the sciences and determine if the preceding necessitates each higher level.4
physics chemistry biochemistry biology cognitive psychology theology/ethics/philosophy
Each discipline has its own rules, areas of inquiry, and modes of investigation. True, atoms form molecules and molecules form organic arrangements that in turn comprise living systems, but each level specifies information not inherent in lower levels. All of chemistry is not physics; all of biology is not biochemistry. Each discipline considers an increasingly broader purview of nature. Psychology, in terms of the study of mind, can only exist if biology exists first, but only some of psychology is biological. At the highest level, we consider issues and questions that often have little to do with the physical universe at all — matters of morals, religion, and values.
Consider another example, the hierarchy within the discipline of biology:
biochemistry cell biology physiology taxonomy behavior/ethology population biology/ecology
For example, entomologists study insects at various levels. Some might study the biochemistry of pheromones that insects use to communicate for mating. However, you could determine the molecular structure of a pheromone and its chemical properties, but you wouldn’t know how the insect uses it in the wild. Perhaps a researcher studies the digestive physiology of mosquitoes, but that’s still “skin-in” biology, doing lab studies. Field (“skin-out”) biologists study what the whole organism does in real life. They might study nest-building, foraging, preying, mating, and such. The largest sweep of the net, so to speak, comes from the ecologists and population biologists. Ecologists study all the features of the environment that affect insect distribution. Population biologists want to predict how many millions of gypsy moths will emerge next year, and where.
There’s more than atoms involved
The point of all this is that each level of study has its unique features and modes of inquiry; one level is not merely a function of the previous. The biochemical and cellular make-up of an insect will provide limits to the possibilities for that insect’s options of life, but it will not uniquely determine what that insect will do. The insect is more than its constituent cells and structures; each higher level of organization has distinct properties of its own that are only determined at that level. For example, the hundred plus species of wasps in the genus Philanthus will have nearly identical biochemical and cellular make-up, yet the structure and behavior of each species is unique and not interchangeable with other Philanthus.
The whole discussion of hierarchies is meant to show that as we increase in complexity, each level of organization — from subatomic particle to atom to molecule to protein to cell to tissue to organism to mind to person — is not predetermined by its constituents. We are not merely animated molecules, dictated by the laws of physics. We have the distinct qualities of personhood, though every one of us is made of the same stuff.
We all have the same quarks, electrons, and subatomic particles. We are all made of the same atoms and molecules. We begin to differ very slightly at the biochemical level, as the information specified in our DNA differs. We still all have nearly the same cells, enzymes, and tissues, though in varying quantity. Various skin colors all have the same pigments, just different amounts. Even humans and chimpanzees share 99% of the same genome. Information specification is a matter of cell biology, and is not reducible to properties inherent in the nucleotides themselves, or their constituent atoms. Most importantly, we all have minds that interact uniquely with the world within the context of our genome to produce an individual person.
I have set out some examples or ways of looking at levels of organization of matter in the universe. At each new level, we find new characteristics, properties, and capabilities not inherent in the previous level. The properties of atoms are not the properties of subatomic particles. The capabilities of a cell are far greater than its constituent biochemical make-up. When we get to the level of organism, we encounter a new possibility, that of sentient being, or beings with consciousness. If these beings are human persons, then we have a unique level of organization not available even to other primates. Humans have moral capacity, and this distinguishes us from all other forms of matter in the universe.
Humans have the quality of personhood, that is, the capacity and reality of being an autonomous moral agent, a being with what we call “free-will,” or exercise of mind that advances us beyond stimulus-response form of life common to other animals. Even if it is true that some other animals do share with us, in some limited way, some reasoning capacity, the game ends when we come to morality. Yet, this morality abides in beings very little differently from many other primates. Whence, then, comes this “difference that makes a difference”?
Let’s phrase the problem this way: a physical universe that lacks any life but only has gases, stars, dust, etc., has no individual entities. Any galaxy or star is inanimate, and would not know if it were switched with another. There is no entity answering to a separate individual. The universe (before humans) was homogenous with respect to entities; there was just the cohesive universe. The concept of the individual person, where each being comprises his or her own universe, is a novelty that resides outside the capacity of a physical universe to produce. Such a being can only owe its existence to a higher level — to a transcendent God — and not to a lower level — the physical matter of the universe. Physical matter alone could not impart the information and complexity necessary to create a person.
What causes these jumps in complexity?
Here is where we tie the moral argument, the nöological argument, and the concept of hierarchies together. The difference between any two levels of the physical world makes a huge jump when we move from organic molecules to life itself. Any form of life is vastly more complex than any form of non-living matter. We encounter another great leap when we rise from life to sentient life, but still we have not isolated human persons as unique. To do this, we must invoke the level of morality and its constituent mental underpinnings. We have the capacity of abstract, representational thought, grammar, aesthetics, self-control, and spiritual values such as love and mercy. All these non-physical entities together create what we identify as a person. Many of our animal friends have personalities, but they are not persons. They are not autonomous moral agents responsible for their thoughts and behaviors. They have no relationship to God. They have not the capacity to develop the fruit of the Spirit. Spiritual, moral life surely occupies the highest hierarchical rung. It is an aspect of mind, and beyond the capability of a purely material world.
As sentient, moral beings, we should pause here for a moment to reflect on the meaning of this for ourselves. We have claimed that we alone of all life forms have the capacity to know who our creator is and to interact with Him. Adam learned this when he examined the other beasts and found not a one that corresponded to him (such is the meaning of the archaic phrase, “an helper meet for him” until God created Eve. Adam and Eve were persons, unique individuals made in the image of the Divine Person. We exercise the highest possibility of our personhood when we worship and serve our Creator. If we fail to use our personhood for Divine purposes, then we insult the God who gave it to us and effectively make ourselves non-persons, otherwise known as base animals.
Whence Comes Morality?
If we return for a moment to the materialist view of the formative physical universe, we would find that it would seem a very unlikely place indeed to spawn non-physical entities such as mind. What in the gaseous clouds of nebulae would lead us to think that it headed toward developing life, let alone mind, let alone moral life? Even materialist atheists concede the improbability of this development:
Consider the universe before beings came along: the odds did not look good that such beings could come to exist. The world was all just physical objects and physical forces, devoid of life…We have a good idea of how the Big Bang led to the creation of stars and galaxies, principally by the force of gravity. But we know of no comparable force that might explain how ever-expanding lumps of matter might have developed into conscious life.5
If we consider the same situation, but as an act of creation of God, then however the universe came into existence, we would expect that the universe would contain persons. God would have the power (efficient cause), the necessary physical materials (material cause), His own Personhood in whose image we are made (formal cause) and the purpose to create beings, to magnify His glory (final cause). Given a creator God, the appearance of human persons is expected and consistent. A universe without God (even allowing its impossible physical existence) would not produce such. The far likelier conclusion is that we live in a universe caused by an omnipotent, spiritual, eternal Person. The contributions of the axiological (consciousness) and nöological (moral) arguments add the icing to the theological cake provided by the cosmological and teleological arguments.
This completes our discussion of arguments for the existence of God. We will turn next to the question, “Which God?”
1 The great majority of animal species are invertebrates, such as many forms of worms, insects, spiders and other arthropods, jellyfish, snails, corals, sponges, crustaceans, and so on. Vertebrates (amphibians, reptiles, fish, birds, and mammals) only account for about one or two percent or so of all species, and only a fraction of these could be credited with anything like thinking. Possibly a third of all animal species are beetles.
2 The human brain, which accounts for only about 2% of body weight, consumes 20% of its energy. An advanced brain is a very expensive tool to carry around, and unless it has a specific survival advantage, cannot be accounted for by evolutionary theory.
3 Paul Churchland, Matter and Consciousness (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1982). Quoted by J.P. Moreland, “Searle’s Biological Naturalism and the Argument from Consciousness” in William Lane Craig, ed., The Philosophy of Religion (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers Univ. Press, 2002).
4 Nancey Murphy and George F.R. Ellis, On the Moral Nature of the Universe (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996). The first few chapters of this book have an excellent discussion of the concept of hierarchy in nature.
5 Colin McGinn, The Mysterious Flame: Conscious Minds in a Material World (New York: Basic Books, 1999). Quoted by Moreland in “The Argument from Consciousness” in Paul Copan and Paul Moser, eds. The Rationality of Theism (New York: Routledge, 2003).