Reasons to Believe

Explaining the Mind-Related Features of the Cosmos

Are big-picture belief systems or worldviews—like fighters in boxing—vulnerable to knockout blows? Can certain issues or problems prove so intractable that they render a worldview unviable as a belief system?

Christian thinkers over the centuries have generally viewed the deductive problem of evil1 as a potential defeater for Christian theism. Thus Christian philosophers and apologists have worked vigorously to show that the presence of evil is not logically incompatible with God’s attributes of omnibenevolence and omnipotence. Even today some atheist philosophers concur.

What is known as “the hard or intractable problem of consciousness,” however, may now stand as a potential defeater for the secular worldview of naturalism. A number of leading naturalistic philosophers have candidly admitted that the so-called mental phenomena of the cosmos are quite mysterious and pose substantive challenges to a purely physicalist explanation of nature.2

In his most recent book, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False, eminent philosopher Thomas Nagel concludes that Darwinian materialism has failed as a comprehensive scientific explanation for reality. Nagel rejects both reductionistic and emergent physical explanations for consciousness, stating that “consciousness is the most conspicuous obstacle to a comprehensive naturalism that relies only on the resources of physical science.”3 An ardent atheist with no predilection toward theism, Nagel also states: “On a purely materialist understanding of biology, consciousness would have to be regarded as a tremendous and inexplicable extra brute fact about the world.”4

Thomas Nagel is a notable academic scholar at New York University and an authority on the philosophy of mind. His words carry weight. Concerning the grand evolutionary theory that purports to explain all life through solely natural means (appealing to the workings of physics, chemistry, and biology), Nagel declares: “It is an assumption governing the scientific project rather than a well-confirmed scientific hypothesis.”5 Later he says about materialistic Darwinism: “I find this view antecedently unbelievable—a heroic triumph of ideological theory over common sense.”6 And he insists: “I would be willing to bet that the present right-thinking consensus will come to seem laughable in a generation or two…”7

Theism’s Better Explanation

Unwilling to entertain a theistic explanation for consciousness, Nagel instead prefers the rather mystical view of panpsychism––the mind or soul are universal features in all things.8 However, a powerful theistic case for consciousness can be made. Contrary to physicalism and mysticism, Christian theism and the existence of the biblical God provide a rational explanation for the presence of conscious beings in the universe.

Assuming the worldview of atheistic naturalism, one must conclude that the conscious mind of human beings (with capacities such as personal mental states and intentionality) ultimately came from a source that is (in and of itself) mindless and nonconscious. From this view, the natural cause of humans’ mind, personhood, reason, and conscious awareness itself lacked these qualities. In other words, humans, the personally conscious effect, can reflect back on the nonpersonal, nonconscious universe (the cause), but it cannot reflect on us. Thus we can know the cosmos in a way that it cannot know us. This effect would be exponentially greater than its cause.

One can see why the attempt to explain personal self-awareness from a naturalistic perspective has apparently reached a dead end. As Nagel’s book informs us, naturalistic philosophers of mind admit they have no idea how personal consciousness emerged from nonconscious matter. Therefore, it is safe to say that consciousness—whether conceived as reductionistic or emergent—does not fit in the purely physical world of naturalism.

How does the Christian theistic worldview better account for consciousness? Christian philosopher Gregory Ganssle offers a succinct explanation:

"If God exists, then the primary thing that exists is itself a conscious mind of unlimited power and intellect. This mind has its own first-person perspective, and it can think about things. The notion that such a mind, if it creates anything, would create other conscious minds that have their own first-person perspectives and can think about things is not a great mystery."9

Thus, while naturalism faces the inexplicable mystery of consciousness, in a theistic world self-conscious awareness is an anticipated and common feature. In fact, the God of historic Christianity is understood as being super-personal (one divine What [essence] and three distinct Whos [persons]). He is the source of all personal consciousness—which is a far more robust explanation than nonpersonal physicalism or impersonal mysticism.

When considering the human mind, personhood, reason, and selfawareness, it is much more reasonable to conclude that these features ultimately stem from a source that possesses all these incredible qualities exponentially. And it is important to recognize that this proposed theistic explanation for the world’s conceptual realities is not a god-of-the-gaps form of reasoning. Rather, it is an inference drawn from the worldview that best fits the data and possesses greater explanatory power and scope.10

Table - Explaining the Mind-Related Features of the Cosmos

Naturalistic Worldview

Christian Worldview

Persons emerged from impersonal and unintelligent natural processes and forces.

As a super-personal (Triune) being, God created human beings as personal and intelligent creatures.
Mindless and/or nonconscious natural processes produced beings with minds that are self-conscious.
God's infinite, eternal, and self-conscious mind produced the finite self-conscious minds of his creatures.
Human rational faculties and sensory organs came from a blind, nonrational survival mechanism.
Human rational faculties and sensory organs were created in the image of the all-wise God.
Blind, impersonal, and nonmoral natural forces are the sources of human moral conventions.
God is a perfect moral being, and his holy character is the source and foundation of all moral goodness.
Epistemological Content
Information, knowledge, and truth emanate from a blind, impersonal, and unintelligent natural source.
Epistemological Content
Information, knowledge, and truth emanate from an infinitely wise and rational God who is Truth.
Beauty and elegant theories came from blind, purposeless, and accidental natural processes.
Beauty and elegant theories came directly from God's creative power and infinitely wise mind.
Human Value
Humans are the product of valueless, purposeless, and accidental natural processes.
Human Value
Humans have inherent dignity, moral worth, and absolute rights because they bear God's image.
Human Volition
People emerged from mechanistic natural forces beyond their personal volitional control.
Human Volition
People were created with free agency by a God who has supreme freedom of choice and action.
Human Meaning
While there is no ultimate meaning to life, there may be subjective meaning in life by choice.
Human Meaning
Human beings find their ultimate meaning, purpose, and significance in their Creator and Redeemer.

For a fuller comparison of the worldviews of naturalism and Christian theism, see Kenneth Richard Samples, A World of Difference: Putting Christian Truth-Claims to the Worldview Test (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007), 214.

Subjects: Consciousness

Kenneth R. Samples

I believe deeply that “all truth is God’s truth.” As an RTB scholar I have a great passion to help people understand and see the truth and relevance of Christianity’s truth-claims. Read more about Kenneth Samples.

1. For a discussion of the problems of evil, see Kenneth Richard Samples, 7 Truths That Changed the World: Discovering Christianity’s Dangerous Ideas (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2012), 191–216.

2. See Paul Copan, Loving Wisdom (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2007), 105.

3. Thomas Nagel, Mind and Cosmos (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 35.

4. Ibid., 45.

5. Ibid., 11.

6. Ibid., 128.

7. Ibid.

8. According to Nagel, panpsychism is the view that “all the elements of the physical world are also mental.” Mind & Cosmos, 57.

9. Gregory E. Ganssle, “Dawkins’s Best Argument against God’s Existence,” in Contending with Christianity’s Critics, ed. Paul Copan and William Lane Craig (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2009), 81.

10. See Table.