Activitas Nervosa Superior 2009;
Department of Philosophy, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN 55455, USA
Received September 21, 2009; accepted October 14, 2009
Evolutionary explanations of psychological phenomena have become widespread. This paper examines a recent attempt
by Nichols and Grantham (2000) to circumvent the problem of epiphenomenalism in establishing the selective status of
Nichols and Grantham (2000) argue that a case can be made for the view that consciousness is an adapta-
tion based on its complexity.
I set out this argument and argue that it fails to establish that phenomenal consciousness is
a complex system.
It is suggested that the goal of establishing consciousness as an adaptation may be better served by
rejecting the distinction between access consciousness and phenomenal consciousness.
Key words: Consciousness; Complexity; Adaptation
Evolutionary explanations of psychological phenomena
have become fairly widespread, as have critiques of
those same explanations (Barkow et.al 1992, Davies
1999, Fodor 2000, Godfrey-Smith 1996, Grantham and
The search for evolutionary explanations
of consciousness is fueled by questions such as „why
adaptation?‟ (see, for example, Polger and Flanagan
To be an adaptation, consciousness must have
some effects which have been selected for such that
consciousness has evolved via natural selection as
opposed to its presence being explained in other ways
such as an exaptation, a spandrel, or by random drift
and chance. It would help to make the case that
consciousness is an adaptation if there was an obvious
function that it served or effects which it had, however,
the threat of epiphenomenalism makes this difficult.
In this paper, I will examine a recent attempt to
circumvent the problem of establishing the selective
status of consciousness based on postulating a function.
Nichols and Grantham (2000) argue that a case can be
made for the view that consciousness is an adaptation
based on its complexity. Since the only scientifically
respectable explanation for a complexly structured
entity is that of evolution by natural selection, they
conclude that consciousness is an adaptation.
examination of this argument will proceed as follows.
First, I will set out the problem of epiphenomenalism
which motivates Nichols and Grantham‟s argument.
Second, I will present their argument in detail and
objections, roughly, can be categorized as falling under
two general types. The first concerns the character of
functional descriptions of cognitive processes and the
assumption of modularity and the second concerns
questions of consistency.
Questions regarding the need for adaptive explanations