I made two mistakes in my post. First, I forgot to add a question mark in the title, as I'm not sure whether the question is really that important. I know it's very easy to confuse ourselves and make up dilemmas where none exist, and once we convince ourselves that we are on to something it becomes quite difficult to see what others claim to be obvious. Hopefully a balanced dialogue can decide whether someone is looking at things the wrong way or it's just a matter of opinion. We'll see. Second, I regret having abandoned my civility, I wrote it in the heat of the moment after having read some of Dick's recent posts. Unfortunately it's too late now, although I still think Dick the person is the most difficult obstacle in the way of understanding Dick the thinker.
On the problem, as I see it:
First of all we have to get rid of this conscious/subconscious controversy, it leads nowhere. If you try to understand the mind by thinking in terms of conscious experience you end up with very little of any meaning. I find it a lot easier to look at any living creature and assume that it has a mind which works by principles similar as the ones which govern my own mind. Whether an elephant or an ant has conscious awareness is, as far as I can tell, totally beside the point.
That might need some explanation. For instance, before we eat we think "I'm hungry", then we think "when I'm hungry I must eat", and so on, and we think it's those conscious thoughts that control the physical act of eating. But animals also eat and we can waste a lifetime trying to answer the question of whether they "know" that they are hungry or they are just following their instincts. In my opinion that approach is misleading and pointless, we can say for sure that animals "know" when it's time to eat by simply defining "knowing" as the mental process which controls an organism's reaction to sensory stimuli.
It's quite amazing to look at a newborn baby searching for the mother's breast without any previous training. How does the baby know that that's where the solution to his hunger problem is? The obvious answer is that such behaviour is encoded in the baby's genes. The not so obvious consequence of that answer is, how did such knowledge got there in the first place? At one point in history there was a mammal who didn't have the instinct to search for motherly milk in response to the feeling of hunger. How did that animal find the solution to its problem before it starved to death?
Of course the problem is not that simple, there is a huge chain of intellectual development which, as you pointed out, took billions of years and probably an even greater number of mistakes. But, and I don't understand how any logical person could fail to see this, how did this whole thing get started? When the first mental decision ever was taken by the organism that had the first mind, crude as it was, how did that organism manage to get the right answer if it had nothing to start with?
Another way to put it is to compare our minds with computers. There is not a single computer in this planet that doesn't have some bootstrap code in it. Without the bootstrapping code there's no way in this world you can get a computer to run any kind of application, but the funny thing is that the bootstrap is also a computer program which requires something else that is not a program. That something else happens to be the computer's hardware, which is basicaly a physical encoding of the rules of logic. All "knowledge" that any computer can have can always be reduced to two numbers (1 and 0) and two boolean operations (NOT, and AND or OR). Talk about reductionism!
Like a computer, the mind also deals with knowledge, and all its knowledge must necessarily be reduceable to a very simple set of "definitions" (numbers?) plus a few rules. I hope it's obvious why simplicity is a requirement, any other alternative basically amounts to "it comes from God".
That is the essence of the problem as I see it. At some point in evolution a mind appeared which encoded the right "definitions" as well as the right basic rules, and the rest is history. But what are those definitions and those rules, and how can we be sure that they are really the ones that better correspond with reality? A more subtle question (as if that weren't suble enough :) is, what is the reliability of our mental models when we apply survival-oriented thought to scientific and philosophical questions? Isn't it possible that our rational knowledge is completely tainted by the makeup of our minds which did not evolve to crack the mysteries of the universe?
I think those questions are extremely relevant and, as I said, I fail to see how a logical person could not see them as I do. One possible answer, of course, is that I am the one who is not being logical but if that is the case then it can be easily proved.
So, does all that make any sense?