Consciousness as an Argument for God

Of late I've been reading Antony Flew's There is a God: How the World's Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind, and in one of the appendices of the book he gives space to Roy Abraham Varghese to "supplement" his (Flew's) reflections and respond to some of the arguments of the prominent atheists. 

While I've heard many arguments for the existence of a non-physical intelligence as the source of the universe (i.e., God), I've never heard it put quite like this. Varghese writes:

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In considering our immediate experience, let us perform a thought experiment. Think for a minute of a marble table in front of you. Do you think that, given a trillion years of infinite time, this table could suddenly or gradually become conscious, aware of its surroundings, aware of its identity the way you are? It is simply inconceivable that this would or could happen. And the same goes for any kind of matter. Once you understand the nature of matter, of mass-energy, you realize that, by its very nature, it could never become "aware," never "think," never say "I." But the atheist position is that, at some point in the history of the universe, the impossible and the inconceivable took place. Undifferentiated matter (here we include energy), at some point, became "alive," then conscious, then conceptually proficient, then an "I." But returning to our table, we see why this is simply laughable. The table has none of the properties of being conscious and, given infinite time, it cannot "acquire" such properties.

At first glance it sounds compelling. It doesn't seem intuitively likely that a table could somehow develop awareness of its own existence, that it could develop the sophisticated cognitive structure that marks conscious life. At the same time, I haven't worked through the science of Varghese's claim. Can any readers comment on this? 

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J Cosgrove
3 years 7 months ago
My guess is that atheists would say that this is a false analogy or metaphor or whatever. The marbles or table would never gain consciousness but that a different path took place for other molecules in the universe from simple to slightly more complex in a series of steps. One of these steps or a series of these steps led to replicating molecules, then another series of steps led from these replicating molecules to life. Another series led to more complex life. An additional set led to even more complex life with very intricate neural networks. And finally one of these very complex neural networks became conscious and self aware. A rather simple explanation for an extremely complicated process. But of course when one looks at the details, this series of steps is impossible without guidance by an Intelligence. There is no known scientific or natural process that could account for the progression but the atheist will assert there must be because it happened. How do they know it happened? Because it exists and it must have happened naturally since there is no God. In other words they beg the question. They assume a state or a set of conditions without any proof because it is essential to their belief system. Now we have many Christians including many Catholics who also believe this. We recently had a discussion on this on your blog about science and proof for God: http://americamagazine.org/content/ignatian-educator/should-believers-use-science-make-case-god These Christians use the pool table analogy where God set up the balls and then hit the balls and everything else afterward was the result of one ball hitting another an incredible number of time till we appeared. God took a vacation after the initial striking of the ball for the rest of time except to have Jesus born and resurrected but other than that, He is missing in action. Prayer is a joke, the Mass is a joke, the Bible is a joke, miracles are a joke etc. Why? Because God did it all from scratch at one instant. Not the God of Catholicism but the God which a lot of so called Christians and Catholics worship. They don't realize that it makes a mockery of their religion. But it is the God they want to worship, not the God who chose to reveal things to us about Himself. In other words they tell God how He had to do it to deserve their worship.
Stephen McCluskey
3 years 7 months ago
Varghese's thought experiment reads like a specific variant of the (generally discredited) argument from design against evolution. By posing the question of how a marble table—described as "undifferentiated matter"—could become conscious he ignores how matter has gradually become differentiated. Within millions of years of evolutionary history matter has become differentiated into simple organisms; into more complex organisms with simple nervous systems; and then into organisms with sufficiently complex central nervous systems to sustain consciousness. To quote Dobzhansky's epigram, inscribed on the floor of Notre Dame's Jordan Hall of Science: "Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution." By posing such a simple model of undifferentiated matter without considering the processes by which matter is transformed, Varghese has provided a sadly weak defense of religious faith.
J Cosgrove
3 years 7 months ago
the (generally discredited) argument from design against evolution.
I have been following this discussion for over 20 years and have yet to see any argument that discredits the argument from design about evolution or any other area.
Within millions of years of evolutionary history matter has become differentiated into simple organisms; into more complex organisms with simple nervous systems; and then into organisms with sufficiently complex central nervous systems to sustain consciousness.
It is fairly certain that this happened. It is at best speculation as to how it happened. Any assertion that it happened by naturalistic means is essentially "begging the question" since there is no evidence that it could ever have happened by any process/mechanism known to man.
Dobzhansky's epigram, inscribed on the floor of Notre Dame's Jordan Hall of Science: "Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution."
Sad, that Notre Dame has this in their hall of science since there is no science that can explain evolution. Certainly not what Dobzhansky recommended, namely Darwinian processes. Dobzhansky's statement is actually an absurd statement since nothing in biology requires one to know anything about evolution. What is related somewhat to what is called micro-evolution is modern day genetics and this is absolutely necessary. For example, many young earth creationists have become medical doctors and they can potentially make fine doctors since they believe in micro evolution or genetics. But how species originated is not an issue in biology of any consequence.
Tim O'Leary
3 years 7 months ago
Stephen - I think the argument is not about design but ontology. The key question is - does matter and energy as described by science have within its properties anything that could be considered awareness or consciousness (and the connected reason and will)? If it is not in each atom, then how does it come into being along the way, since even the most complicated material substances are still composed of matter and energy. The typical response from materialist scientists is to deny things they cannot measure and call them illusions. But, that is really a covering up of a gap in their understanding, or a denial of what they experience. There are inherent contradictions in this way of looking at things. For example, many scientists are fundamental determinists (e.g. the physicist Brian Greene) and deny free will, since their theories cannot account for it (it is outside physical laws, for instance). Yet we all experience free will, and free thought is just a component of free will (as we decide where to go next with our thoughts). But, here is the contradiction: if free will is an illusion, then free thought is an illusion, then all output of free thought is an illusion (which would include science). That would mean that we could never know if we did not have free will. It cannot be logically eliminated. I do believe the Varghese's argument is compelling, in that it is inconceivable to see how the immaterial substances consciousness, awareness, reason and free will can come from material substances, unless the scientific understanding of matter is very incomplete (which would affect many other scientific assumptions). It would be like adding an infinite number of zeros and hoping (with time and complexity, etc) to get to the number 1. As to the design theory, I would say it is more out of fashion than that it is discredited. The design theory of Aquinas and scholasticism has not been addressed in any complete way by the criticism of Paley's watch etc. most critcisms completely miss the point of the arguments. I highly recommend this book from Edward Feser: Scholastic Metaphysics: A Contemporary Introduction.
Bruce Snowden
3 years 7 months ago
How intriguing Anthony Flew’s “Yes God!” re: the Solid Marble Table. What is a Solid Marble Table? Penetrating its solidity I see it as a conglomerate of internal fixtures, all moving in predetermined patterns, microscopic hinges in, on, and by which a process resides. It is a communal process, a community of entities, forming strategic friendships that turn interior movement, into visible solidity without a reduction in innate and hidden fluidity, its initial form, which remains intact. This is truly a marvel, imaging a Master Engineering Architect, utterly beyond natural or human Managerial Skills. The heavens proclaim the glory of God, the incalculably vast fling of the cosmos bows humbly before the God of the SOLID MARBLE TABLE!

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