[Searle] proposes the argument that it is unlike evolution to confer upon us complex and extremely resource-expensive capacities that serve no function. Which is true, but has little enough to do with free will, which he appears to conflate with two other distinct properties: Consciousness and rational calculation. It is clearly resource expensive to have a brain capable of planning, making inferences, abstracting, formulating general principles, and so on. But it is not very mysterious what the evolutionary value of such capacities might be—especially in an arms race against your fellow primates once everyone has passed a certain cognitive threshold.
Now, there is an interesting evolutionary point to be made here about consciousness. You can say: Look, if the functional benefit all comes from the “plumbing,” as Searle has it—the neurons firing away to plot the best spear trajectory toward that mammoth, in strict accordance with physical laws—then you might well ask why that has to be conscious. Couldn’t the brain do all that calculating without there being something it’s like, subjectively to perceive, experience, and think about the world? And so you might think that if evolution has given us minds that are conscious on top of all this, then consciousness can’t merely be an epiphenomenon of the plumbing—it has to make a causal difference that yields some selective advantage. And here I’ll just say… we don’t know. Consciousness could well be a spandrel. That is to say, it may just be that when you have a sufficiently complex information processing system made of the particular kind of physical stuff our brains are composed of, the processes involved will have some kind of subjective character. If conscious mental activity just is brain activity, and not some kind of strange excretion from it, however, then they have precisely the same causal properties, and it’s just a confusion to describe it as “epiphenomenal.” (Aside: Maybe “causal properties” is the wrong way to describe it. The usual picture is that event A has properties in virtue of which it causes event B—but as Hume noted, the “causes” relationship between them here is kind of a black box; all we actually see is the succession. There would be a neat sort of symmetry if consciousness were in the black box.) Whatever the case may be there, we just have no reason to think it “cost” evolution anything to add sentience as some kind of bonus feature on top of the capacities for planning, strategy, and so on. If a brainlike system with these capacities—able to merge input from many sense modalities and abstracting from them for various purposes— is necessarily conscious, for reasons we don’t fully understand, then the cost of consciousness is just the cost of the capacities. Or to put it another way: The alternative picture is that evolutionary selection pressure might have produced these very strategic zombies—like vastly more complex insects, say, all stimulus-response with nobody home— but then some mutation won out that added this further feature, consciousness, to the system, because it yielded some additional improvement. And that just doesn’t sound quite right, does it?Sanchez and Searle, whatever their disagreements, are both trying to argue from a scientific/materialist point of view that our minds and brains and consciousness can only be rationally explained as the result of some biological evolutionary process. From that perspective, Sanchez is quite right to suggest that self-consciousness must be conceived of as arising from a purely natural process, or as he describes it, "That is to say, it may just be that when you have a sufficiently complex information processing system made of the particular kind of physical stuff our brains are composed of, the processes involved will have some kind of subjective character." That, in essence, is the argument most neurological researchers are looking for evidence to support - that somehow, by some unknown material process, consciousness manages to arise in the brains of living creatures, and from there it evolves in accordance with the usual processes of natural selection and genetics and ends up creating culture and philosophy and even science itself.
I have to point out how un-scientific this "hypothesis" is, first of all. I say that it is unscientific because there is no specific mechanism proposed for the production of self-conscious existence within a living organism, merely some vague notion that it "just happens" when enough "information" is processed through biological tissues. It makes me wonder if any of these people have even thought through the basic scientific idea here. On the most basic level, this isn't even a scientific idea at all, it's indistinguishable from a religious idea. Step one: process information through a biological medium. Step two: magic. Step three: self-conscious experience appears.
Because the logic of this magical thinking is reputedly "scientific" does not make it any less magical. Part of the problem with the scientific approach here is that science can't objectively measure "self-consciousness". It's not something any experiment can prove, without resorting to some form of "self-reporting". A scientist can approach a test subject, and ask, "are you self-conscious?" and the test subject will presumably answer "yes". But the scientist can't independently determine if this is true. If the test subject were trying to fuck with the scientists, and answered "no", the scientist wouldn't be able to prove him wrong. Any test of brain function and cognition, communication, etc., can be explained perfectly well without the presence of self-consciousness, so none of that could be used to "prove" that the test subject is actually self-conscious. So scientists do a little "cheat". They just presume that all human beings are self-conscious, because they say so. It's not entirely irrational, but it lacks any scientific foundation. But it enables them to get along with their research, and to pretend that it's actually hard biological science rather than some kind of self-reporting survey from Cosmopolitan Magazine.
That issue aside, the central thesis here is still interesting, but again, not well-thought out. The notion that "information processing" somehow produces self-consciousness lies at the heart of nearly every scientific theory of consciousness, both neurological and philosophical. It's what allows some scientists to suggest that human beings are selfconscious, whereas some much smaller life forms, such as insects or bacteria, are not. They process much less "information" through their nervous systems, and hence, they somehow fail to achieve the magical "threshold" which produces consciousness.
This approach fails to offer any explanation for why consciousness should be limited to information processed through biological entities, and why there should be any limit whatsoever on the amount of information necessary to produce consciousness. If consciousness is indeed produced by material means, it is the product of the basic physics of living organisms, and not some magical property that only living organisms possess. I think neurological researchers need to be reminded that the same laws of physics, electromagnetism, quantum mechanics, chemistry, and information processing apply to all forms of material existence, and that there are no special laws of physics for biological organisms. Carbon atoms have some very interesting properties that allow them to form complex molecules, but there is no distinction between information that is processed through such molecules and information that is processed through silicone, or any other medium. In fact, "information" is ubiquitous to the entire universe, and "information processing" goes on large and small in every material process in nature.
In fact, one of the more interesting ways of looking at the universe is as a vast "information processing" system, in which every electron and photon is seen as "information", such that even the basic properties of matter and the laws of the physical universe are instances of "information processing". This isn't some wild theory, it's widely accepted and a basic fact of science. So when neuroscientists propose that consciousness is created by "information processing" in the brain, they don't realize that by the laws of physics there's no distinction to be made by that form of information processing, and the information processing that goes on in a star, in the weather, or in an exploding quasar. If information processing produces self-consciousness, then each of these, and even the entire universe, and every element within it, should be self-conscious.
Nor should there be any limit to the amount of information processed for it to produce consciousness. at least until we get down to Plank limits (10^-34). There's no reason why the information processed by a single electron should not produce some similarly minute "self-consciousness", in that it can also produce light, magnetism, gravity, and all the other elemental forces and fields of nature. One could certainly argue that the consciousness produced by such non-biological mechanisms would have a different quality fo experience. It would certain not be "human". But there's no good argument I can think of that it wouldn't have the basic character of "self-consciousness" that biological mechanisms have.
And so, this basic idea of neurologically-based consciousness has a problem, if it is to be used to somehow explain away or contain the experience of human consciousness, because there's no good reason to confine materially-produced consciousness to biological mechanisms of information processing. If a computer processes information, why should it not also produce an internal, subjective, conscious experience to go along with it? Why would such an effect only come into being if carbon molecules, rather than silicone ones, were the medium for information being processed? One cannot simple create magical rules to go along with the magical "step" that creates consciousness from material information processing. If that occurs, it has to occur universally, or it's just magical thinking.
Which means that by the scientific logic of consciousness being produced by material processes of "information processing", the entire universe is actually conscious in a way that we can hardly imagine. Our own information processing system - the brain and nervous system - is pretty powerful and complex, but it's nothing compared to the power and complexity of the earth's weather system, or the sun, or the galaxy, much less the universe itself. If each of these organized entities produces "consciousness", then the self-conscious sense of being they possess must be so immense that it would be as incomprehensible to us as our own consciousness would be to a flea.
In fact, we end up with the problem of overlapping conscious identity. Not only could electrons be said to have some level of "consciousness", but so could atoms, molecules, bacteria, cells within our own body, organs made of cells, and of course, the body as a whole. Each of these structures could have a kind of individual consciousness that is composed of many smaller consciousnesses acting as a collective. Thus, each of the cells in our own bodies can enjoy a consciousness of their own, and yet we as the whole body can enjoy a larger consciousness that is not merely the sum of the parts, but is the result of all the information processing that is shared between them - such as our nervous system. And the wider the "net" of shared information, the greater the consciousness that is created. Human society could be seen as a living organism with its own consciousness, based on the massive amount of information exchanged between individuals. Each individual would be only vaguely aware of the greater consciousness they were a part of, and yet that "being" would actually have its own self-conscious sense of identity.
What kind of conscious identity would we ascribe to the entire universe, then? What kind of self-conscious experience would such a "being" have? Well, it would seem to me indistinguishable from our concept of "God". It would be a consciousness that is the product of all the information that is processed throughout the entire universe. That consciousness would feel itself to be connected to and composed of everything that exists. It would fulfill all the basic descriptive requirements of a God-like being. It could even have plan, have intentions, have a will. It could act according to those intentions and that will, just as we do, but in a far more comprehensive manner, since nothing would be outside of itself, and everything would be a part of itself.
So in taking this kind of scientific explanation for consciousness to its natural conclusion, we end up with God after all. It may not be entirely the same God as all religions have proposed, but it's not much different in its basic characteristics. In fact, the "sense" that many people have that God exists could actually be explained as materially real, as a product of our own consciousness being aware of the greater consciousness of which it is a part. There could well be serious misjudgments in religion about the nature of this God, and his "intentions", but the sheer existence of Him would seem not only logical, but inevitable.
One has to wonder if "atheistic" scientists who think neurological explanations for consciousness renders the concept of God obsolete realize that it accomplishes exactly the opposite - it makes the reality of God-consciousness inevitable an unavoidable. At least, I'm not sure how they could rationally argue otherwise. Scientific atheism may well end "proving" the existence of God by their own efforts to disprove Him. One has to enjoy the sheer irony of that.
Of course, I'm not suggesting that any of this is actually how consciousness comes into being. I'm not personally of the school that thinks consciousness is the result of some material process in the physics of matter. But it's interesting to note that even if it is, we can still presume that God-consciousness exists, and even argue that all consciousness is "connected" within a greater consciousness, of which we are merely a very small part. In which case, what exactly has been "disproven" by science, even if it succeeds in its wildest dreams of demonstrating that consciousness is an epiphenomenon of material nature processing "information"? At worst, it merely suggest that God is the creation of nature, rather than the creator of nature, rather than that no God exists. And yet, according to modern physic's Big Bang theory, even this might not be the case, in that "information" could have preceded the Big Bang in a metauniverse from which the Big Bang arose. If so, then whatever information existed in this metauniverse, or even the infinite multi-universes proposed by some theorists, would produce an even greater "God-Consciousness" that could act, even creatively, to produce universes within itself. Our own universe could have been one of those "creations" of such a God, or even one of the lesser Gods within it. If the absolute God is defined as the "set of all sets" of information, and the consciousness such information produces is God's personal self-conscious sense of identity, then this allows for not only lesser Gods of various parts of that whole , which might appear within the absolute God, but for a conscious relationship between all those conscious parts and the conscious whole.
I would be willing to bet that rather than going down this road, atheistic/materialist neuroscientists and the philosophers of consciousness who based their ideas on science would probably want to abandon the notion that "information processed by brains produces the epiphenomenon of consciousness". Many of them are so repelled by the idea of "God" that they'd rather abandon such ideas than give even the slightest support for them. But what alternative hypothesis would they replace it with? I can't think of one. Maybe someone else out there has thought this through already and has some ideas.