Skip to content
Catholic Online Logo

By Andrew M. Greenwell, Esq.

12/16/2012 (4 years ago)

Catholic Online (

Can matter alone explain human consciousness?  Or is matter alone unable to explain consciousness, requiring that we look outside of matter to a transcendent Cause, that is, God, to explain it?


By Andrew M. Greenwell, Esq.

Catholic Online (

12/16/2012 (4 years ago)

Published in Year of Faith

Keywords: proofs of God, existence of God, consciousness, Andrew M. Greenwell

CORPUS CHRISTI, TX (Catholic Online) - How do we think?  How we know ourselves?  In short, where does human consciousness come from?  How do I explain "my selfbeing, my consciousness and feeling of myself, that taste of myself, of 'I' and 'me' above and in all things"?  Where does that something that "is more distinctive than the taste of ale or alum, more distinctive than the smell of walnutleaf or camphor, and is incommunicable by any means to another man," as Gerard Manley Hopkins unforgettably put it, come from?

Can matter alone explain human consciousness?  Or is matter alone unable to explain consciousness, requiring that we look outside of matter to a transcendent Cause, that is, God, to explain it?

Is consciousness, in the words of Emily Dickinson's poem "This Consciousness that is Aware," self-contained, adequate unto itself, explained by matter alone?

How adequate unto itself
Its properties shall be
Itself unto itself and none
Shall make discovery.

Is Mind equivalent to Brain?  Are our thoughts--even those of God--transcendental seeming, but actually nothing but epiphenomena stemming from matter alone?  Is Dickinson correct when she wrote in her poem "The Brain-is wider than the Sky"?

The Brain is just the weight of God--
For--Heft them--Pound for Pound--
And they will differ--if they do--
As Syllable from Sound-

Or, rather, is self-consciousness and mind something more along the lines of that which Gerard Manley Hopkins says it is, in his poem "As Kinfishers Catch Fire," something that relates to "God's eye"?

Selves-goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I do is me: for that I came.   

Í say móre: the just man justices;
Kéeps gráce: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God's eye what in God's eye he is-

Despite the many efforts of empirical scientists wed, in a sort of unholy marriage, to a physicalist or materialist view of the world to try to explain it, human consciousness has refused to be put in a materialistic box.  

Human consciousness remains intransigent, despite all efforts of the empiricist's greedy grasps to grab it and reduce it to a slave of his one-dimensional science.  It remains a wild and untameable "mystery," to the chagrin of materialists, "and one to which materialism signally fails to provide an answer" as Geoffrey Madell put it in his book Mind and Materialism.

While scientists can explain the human brain, they have had fits explaining the human mind.  In the words of J. P. Moreland, materialistic theories of mind "have multiplied like rabbits," to the point where we may be reaching a "Kuhnian paradigm crisis," which could spell a sort of revolution in thought. 

In his book, The Existence of God, Father John J. Pasquini sets forth a short list of these prolific (if sterile) efforts at explaining consciousness: "patterns of electromagnetic activation, brain wave sequences, brain wave collapses, synaptic tunnels, synaptic passages, neural networks, neural excitations, neurotransmittters, quantum waves, quantum discontinuities, and quantum cytoskeletal states, . . . the interaction of bosons and fermions, biological oscillators, and plasma charged particles . . . . trajectory or particles, 'subtle energies,' the excitation of condensates, and the working in unison of molecules, [and] [a]ll forms of electro-chemical processes . . . ."

The sheer number of materialist theories bespeak of failure.  The Grand Narrative of Evolution is faltering, stuttering, even babbling before the mystery of human consciousness, which is nothing but a witness, a whisper, nay, even the image of God.  In the words of Scripture, we might say that that Darwin's more zealous disciples are stumbling upon the truth that the name of the naturalistic explanation of consciousness is "Legion, for we are many."  (Mark 5:9) 

The fact is that you can pile matter, upon matter, upon matter, and time, upon time, upon time, and you still do not get mind, you still do not get consciousness.  Mind, consciousness, the human soul, spirit do not emerge--cannot emerge--from matter.  Even the atheist philosopher Colin McGinn recognizes the problem when he wrote in his book The Mysterious Flame: "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."

If--per impossibile--consciousness could be explained by empirical science, then the "I" of consciousness disappears because it has lost all first person significance.  If a scientist can perfectly describe my consciousness without me, then it follows there is no me, since "me" can be fully explained by matters outside of me.  No longer is consciousness "more distinctive than the taste of ale or alum, more distinctive than the smell of walnutleaf or camphor."  No longer is it "incommunicable by any means to another man."  In short, it is not consciousness.

Also, if consciousness could be explained as purely physical phenomena, then we would have to face the fact that we are not free.  Everything we think, desire, or feel would of necessity follow physical laws.  All of a sudden, our consciousness has become a matter of necessity, of determinism, and moral responsibility disappears, as does the importance of anything we do, and indeed the importance of who I am and of who you are. 

Additionally, if consciousness were a product of matter alone, then what is thought?  Thought would be but a dream, a nightmare perhaps, caused by "an undigested bit of beef, a blot of muster, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato."  It would seem our scientists who disdain the human spirit are philosophical Scrooges in serious need of some ghostly visitations. 

The argument of God's existence from the experience of human consciousness is a rather simple series of steps.  Not all of them are without controversy, and, unfortunately, we are not able to expand on them in this article.  For one effort, we might borrow from J. P. Moreland's article "The Argument from Consciousness":

  1. Mental events (such as human consciousness or thought) are genuine nonphysical mental entities that exist.
  2. Specific mental and physical even types are regularly correlated,
  3. There is an explanation for these correlations.
  4. Personal explanation is different from natural scientific explanation.
  5. The explanation for these correlations is either a personal or a natural scientific explanation.
  6. The explanation is not a natural scientific one.
  7. Therefore, the explanation is a personal one.
  8. If the explanation is personal, then it is theistic.
  9. Therefore, the explanation is theistic.
If the explanation for consciousness or mind is theistic, then the existence of consciousness is witness to a transcendental Cause, and the existence of God.

In his book The Right Questions: Truth, Meaning & Public Debate,  Phillip Johnson has mocked the holy writ of the materialists:

In the beginning were the particles and the impersonal laws of physics.
And the particles somehow became complex living stuff;
And the stuff imagined God;
But then discovered evolution.

Well . . .  doubtfully.  For there is the irreducible fact of consciousness, and, as, in a saying Descartes stated in his Regulae XII: sum ergo Deus est.  I am conscious, therefore, God exists.  If "God is dead," as Nietzsche famously said, then man is dead.  Conversely, if man is alive, then God is alive.  God and God's image go together for the very simple reason that God's image comes from God.

No.  The materialists are wrong.  The theists are right.  I am too sure of "my selfbeing, my consciousness and feeling of myself, that taste of myself, of 'I' and 'me' above and in all things."  And no materialist can presume to tell me otherwise. 

In light of this mystery of human consciousness and the inability of a pure materialistic philosophy adequately to answer it, it seems that we are at the threshold of Faith.

It would be unseeming at the threshold of Faith to turn away, and refuse to hear the words of the child: Tolle lege.  Tolle lege.  Take and read.  Take and read.  It is befitting--more responsible and sensible--to take leave from science and turn to the words of the Gospel of John:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God
He was in the beginning with God
All things came to be through him, and without whim nothing came to be.
. . . .
And the word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.
  (John 1:1-3, 14)

Yes.  This Word, this Logos become man--Christ--makes eminently more sense than particles and their swerve.  Turn not to particles, but to

Chríst--for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men's faces.

Aye.  And in men's consciousness, men's internal faces. 

In Christ, I may hope some day to see God face to face, "my selfbeing, my consciousness and feeling of myself, that taste of myself, of 'I' and 'me' above and in all things" will see God's self-being, God's consciousness and feeling of Himself, that taste of God Himself, of God's I am Who am, of God eminently above and in all things.  (Cf. 1 Cor. 13:12)


Andrew M. Greenwell is an attorney licensed to practice law in Texas, practicing in Corpus Christi, Texas.  He is married with three children.  He maintains a blog entirely devoted to the natural law called Lex Christianorum.  You can contact Andrew at


'Help give every student and teacher Free resources for a world-class moral Catholic education'

Copyright 2017 - Distributed by THE CALIFORNIA NETWORK

Pope Francis Prayer Intentions for DECEMBER 2016
End to Child-Soldiers: That the scandal of child-soldiers may be eliminated the world over.
Evangelization: Europe: That the peoples of Europe may rediscover the beauty, goodness, and truth of the Gospel which gives joy and hope to life.


More Year of Faith

The Happy Priest on the Baptism of the Lord and our own Baptism Watch

Image of

By Fr. James Farfaglia

The consideration of Jesus' baptism, gives us an opportunity to remember our own baptism.  If you do not know the date of your own baptism, it is a good idea to go through your personal files and find out when it occurred.  CORPUS CHRISTI, TX (Catholic ... continue reading

Regret of Judas or Repentance of Peter?

Image of

By Fr Samuel Medley, SOLT

I gave my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who plucked my beard; My face I did not shield from buffets and spitting. HYTHE, KENT, UK (Catholic Online) - I didn't steal any cookies mommy! says a little boy whose mother asked him if he was hungry, wiping the ... continue reading

Pentecost: St Cyril of Jerusalem on The Living Water of the Holy Spirit Watch

Image of

By Catholic Online

The Spirit makes one man a teacher of divine truth, inspires another to prophesy, gives another the power of casting out devils, enables another to interpret holy Scripture. The Spirit strengthens one man's self-control, shows another how to help the poor, teaches ... continue reading

The Wedding Invitation of Jesus: We are Called to Live the Nuptial Mystery Watch

Image of There will be no giving or taking in marriage in the kingdom to come because the very purpose and meaning of marriage itself will be fulfilled. (See, e.g. Mk. 12:18-27) We will be living in the fullness of the Communion of Love with the Trinity. The symbol will give way to the eternal reality, the Sacrament will be fulfilled in the fullness of communion. All of human love will be completed in the Love which lasts forever.

By Deacon Keith Fournier

It is not accidental that the Bible, from beginning to the end, uses marriage as a metaphor and a symbol to reveal the plan of God for the whole human race.  Marriage was God's plan from the beginning as we see in the first book of Genesis. Throughout the Old ... continue reading

The Sower. The Seed. The Field. Understanding the Christian Mission Watch

Image of

By Deacon Keith Fournier

"A sower went out to sow. And, as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky ground, where it had little soil. It sprang up at once because the soil was not deep, and when the sun rose it was scorched, and it withered for ... continue reading

Reflection on the Catholic Catechism: Understanding the Bible Watch

Image of

By Michael Terheyden

How we interpret the Bible is of immense importance! It directly affects what we believe about Christ, the Church, and our faith, but it is also related to many of the grave problems in our society and the world. Yet, despite the gravity of this situation, we have good ... continue reading

Christ the King, the Year of Faith and the Catholic Counterculture Watch

Image of On this Solemnity of the Feast of Christ the King, the Year of Faith inaugurated by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI comes to a ceremonial end. However, in reality, it cannot and will not end, because Jesus Christ is King! The Year of Faith was only the beginning for those who choose to live the Life of Faith.

By Deacon Keith Fournier

We celebrate the Feast of Christ the King. It is one of many opportunities the Catholic Church year offers to each one of us to consider the creature called time, receive it as a gift, and begin to really live our lives differently.  This is one of ... continue reading

The Bones of Peter, the Successor of Peter: Close of the Year of Faith Watch

Image of The bones of St. Peter the Apostle

By Deacon Keith Fournier

On the Solemnity of the Feast of Christ the King, the Sunday which marks both the end of the Church Year and the end of the Year of Faith, inaugurated by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, Pope Francis greeted thousands of the faithful and presided over Holy Mass and the ... continue reading

Fr Randy Sly on Becoming a House of Prayer Watch

Image of Jesus drives the money changers from the temple. 

With hearts clear and focused on our Lord, we can follow the advice of Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Everything starts with prayer. Love to pray--feel the need to pray often during the day and take the trouble to pray. If you want to pray better, you must pray more. The more you pray, the easier it becomes. Perfect prayer does not consist of many words but in the fervor of the desire which raises the heart to Jesus. (Fr. Randy Sly)

By Father Randy Sly

Becoming a House of Prayer is the best discipline we can take on. St. Ephraem of Syria states that Virtues are formed by prayer. Prayer preserves temperance. Prayer suppresses anger. Prayer prevents emotions of pride and envy. Prayer draws into the soul the Holy ... continue reading

Jesus Weeps and Offers the Path to Peace Watch

Image of

By Deacon Keith Fournier

If this day you only knew what makes for peace- but now it is hidden from your eyes. For the days are coming upon you when your enemies will raise a palisade against you; they will encircle you and hem you in on all sides. They will smash you to the ground and your ... continue reading

All Year of Faith News


Newsletter Sign Up icon

Stay up to date with the latest news, information, and special offers

Subscribe to Catholic OnlineYouTube Channel

Daily Readings

Reading 1, Hebrews 10:1-10
1 So, since the Law contains no more than a reflection of the good things ... Read More

Psalm, Psalms 40:2, 4, 7-8, 10, 11
2 He pulled me up from the seething chasm, from the mud of the mire. He ... Read More

Gospel, Mark 3:31-35
31 Now his mother and his brothers arrived and, standing outside, sent in ... Read More

Saint of the Day

Saint of the Day for January 24th, 2017 Image

St. Francis de Sales
January 24: St. Francis de Sales was born to a noble family ... Read More