Argument from consciousness

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The argument from consciousness is an argument for the existence of God based on consciousness.

Philosophical summary of the argument

The argument may be stated in inductive or deductive form[1]

Inductive form

Given theism and naturalism as live options fixed by our background beliefs, theism provides a better explanation of consciousness than naturalism, and thus receives some confirmation from the existence of consciousness.

Deductive form

  1. Genuinely nonphysical mental states exist.
  2. There is an explanation for the existence of mental states.
  3. Personal explanation (PE) is different from natural scientific explanation (NSE).
  4. The explanation for the existence of mental states is either a PE or a NSE.
  5. The explanation is not an NSE.
  6. Therefore the explanation is a PE.
  7. If the explanation is PE, it is theistic.
  8. Therefore, the explanation is theistic.

Theists such as Robert Adams[2] and Richard Swinburne[3] have advanced slightly a different version of this argument which focuses on mental/physical correlations and not merely the existence of mental states.


The first premise, assertion that non-physical mental states exist, implies a dualist view of mind. Therefore, one serious line of attack is to argue the case for physicalism about the human mind.[4] Moreland takes the arguments for the first premise and refers to classic defenses of dualism. However, the first premise is rejected by many philosophers of mind. Frank Jackson, known for the knowledge argument in support of dualism about the mind, comments on the debate between physicalist and dualist conceptions of mind:

Much of the contemporary debate in the philosophy of mind is concerned with the clash between certain strongly held intuitions and what science tells us about the mind and its relation to the world. What science tells us about the mind points strongly towards some version or other of physicalism. The intuitions, in one way or another, suggest that there is something seriously incomplete about any purely physical story about the mind ... Most contemporary philosophers given a choice between going with science and going with intuitions, go with science. Although I once dissented from the majority, I have capitulated and now see the interesting issue as being where the arguments from the intuitions against physicalism—the arguments that seem so compelling—go wrong.[5]

If one is willing to accept the first premise that reductive forms of physicalism are false, then the argument takes off. Thus, one could think of Moreland as making an argument that tries to move a person from "rejecting physicalism" to "accepting theism". The crucial step in this move is the fifth premise, which asserts that naturalism can not account for non-physical mental states. A simple critique of this premise is offered by Andrew Melnyk:

Naturalism can easily explain how the universe came to contain physically irreducible conscious occurrences. It can do so by supposing that, among the fundamental laws governing the universe, there are some according to which, whenever such-and-such complex nonconscious occurrences occur, so-and-so conscious occurrences occur; perhaps such a law says that, whenever a human brain attains a certain kind and degree of complexity, a pain is experienced. Given such laws, the capacity for consciousness that some creatures enjoy, like the capacity for breathing, can be explained as having arisen through natural selection. Through mutation, some creature was born with a brain of the requisite kind and degree of complexity to generate conscious experiences; and then, because these experiences increased the creature's fitness, such creatures were selected for.[6]

However Moreland charges that such attempts to accomade consciousness within an atheistic worldview are ad hoc and contrived and fail to take into account many features of conscious experience.[7] Moreland spends much of the book defending this premise against philosophers, such as Michael Martin, who accept pluralist naturalism. He also critiques contemporary philosophers of mind such as John Searle, Timothy O' Connor, Colin McGinn, David Skriba, Philip Clayton and Jaegwon Kim, who attempt to account for consciousness.

Finally, one can also question premise seven: why does a personal explanation have to lead to monotheistic (as opposed to deistic or polytheistic) accounts of intention?[8] However, Moreland maintains that questioning these minor premises is of little consolation to the naturalist as they essentially constitute intramural theist debates, and that for most westerners theism is the only viable candidate to accommodate personal explanations. Similarly Occam's razor can be applied so only one personal agent is required.

Notes and references

  1. Both these are following J. P Moreland "The Argument from Consciousness" in The Rationality of Theism ed Paul Copan and Paul Moser, London:Routeledge (2003) ISBN 0-415-26332-8 and J. P Moreland "Consciousness and The Existence of God"
  2. see Robert Adams "Flavors, Colors and God" reprinted in Contemporary Perspectives on Religious Epistemology OUP (1992) pp225-40
  3. see Richard Swinburne The Existence of God Oxford:Clarendon (1979) Ch 9; The Evolution of the Soul 183-9 etc.
  4. Melnyk, Andrew (2007). "A Case for Physicalism about the Human Mind"
  5. Jackson, Frank Cameron (2003) "Mind and Illusion", in Minds and Persons, Cambridge University Press
  6. Melnyk, Andrew (2007). "Naturalism, Free Choices, and Conscious Experiences"
  7. Moreland,J.P. (2007). "Argument from consciousness"
  8. Steven J. Conifer (2001). "The Argument from Consciousness Refuted".