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Colin McGinn on the Emergence of Consciousness

But in the case of consciousness the Darwinian explanation does not tell us what we need to know, for the simple reason that it is unclear how matter can be so organized as to create a conscious being. The problem is in the raw materials. It looks as if with consciousness a new kind of reality has been injected into the universe, instead of just a recombination of the old realities. Even if minds showed no hint of design, the same old problem would exist: How can mere matter originate consciousness? How did evolution convert the water of biological tissue into the wine of consciousness? Consciousness seems like a radical novelty in the universe, not prefigured by the after-effects of the Big Bang, so how did it contrive to spring into being from what preceded it.

This big problem manifests itself countless times a day. Every time a sentient organism comes into existence, its consciousness freshly minted, we have the same transition from insentient matter to “mindedness.” Cells combine and grow during gestation until the brain is mature enough to decant experiences: At first this clump of cells is without mentality, and before you know it there is consciousness throbbing away in there. Where does it come from? What manner of secretion is this? How does mere meat turn itself into conscious awareness? Once you were just insentient cells, no more aware of anything than your liver is now. Today you are brimming with consciousness. How did you make the grade? What catapulted you into consciousness? There must be some kind of natural process behind this astonishing leap, but this process is obscure.


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