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Absent-minded Science, Part IV: The “C” Word and Emergence

by Tam Hunt

At a recent talk I attended at UC Santa Barbara, Professor Marcus Raichle, one of the pioneers of brain imaging, jokingly referred to consciousness as the “C word.” His little joke highlighted the fact that for many working neuroscientists and others who think about the brain, trying to explain what consciousness actually is – as opposed to explaining the various functions of brains – is still a bit frowned upon.

It also seems that many neuroscientists who do think about the “hard problem” of consciousness – the mind/body problem by a different name – believe that once we explain the functions of brains there’s really not much, if anything, left to explain about consciousness itself.

I find in my discussions on consciousness that arguments about “emergence,” well, emerge as a response from critics time and time again. Consciousness is, in this view, simply an emergent property of complex biological structures like brains.

I’ve written a number of essays (and an unpublished book) defending the alternative panpsychist view of consciousness. The type of panpsychism I find compelling is that developed into a comprehensive system by Alfred North Whitehead, Henri Bergson, Charles Hartshorne, David Ray Griffin and many others during the 20th Century. It is growing in popularity, but still a minority view.

The basic idea is that all components of the universe have at least some rudimentary type of consciousness or experience, which are just different words for subjectivity or awareness. The key question for panpsychist theories of consciousness is why some aggregations of matter contain unitary subjects and others don’t (saying “unitary subject” is actually redundant but I want to be entirely clear).

For example, no modern panpsychist that I know of argues that a chair or a rock is conscious – despite the bad jokes often lobbed at panpsychists. Rather, the molecules that comprise the chair or rock presumably have a very rudimentary type of consciousness but the larger objects themselves (again, presumably) lack the kind of interconnections required to become unitary subjects.

The subjects we know best are humans – each of us, in fact, knows exactly one subject intimately: ourselves. Clearly, then, some aggregates of matter do in fact produce a complex unitary subject and we call this our “mind.”

The “hard problem” of consciousness is figuring out the relationship between mind and matter and why some matter gives rise to unitary subjects and why others don’t? Why am I conscious, and you, and my cat, but not the chair or the rock?

We have literally no certainty as to what objects in the universe, other than ourselves, are also subjects because we can only know our own self as a subject. We must, then, use reasonable inference to determine what other objects in the universe are also subjects.

And it is through reasonable inference that we can conclude that panpsychism is a better solution to the hard problem than its competitors. This is a strong statement, to be sure, but I have presented numerous lines of reasoning to support this assertion in previous essays posted in Noetic Now and present some additional lines below.

Does Mind “Emerge”?

The prevailing positionwith respect to the hard problem seems to be some type of “emergence” theory. The basic idea is that mind simply emerges from matter in certain complex forms, just like wetness or solidity or color emerge from matter in certain situations. Jeffrey Goldstein provides a concise and clear definition of emergence in a 1999 paper: “the arising of novel and coherent structures, patterns, and properties during the process of self-organization in complex systems.” [Corning, Peter A. (2002), "The Re-Emergence of "Emergence: A Venerable Concept in Search of a Theory," Complexity 7 (6): 18–30.] There are many other definitions, of course, but this one is good for present purposes.

So, is mind like wetness or other emergent physical properties? To my mind (pardon the pun), the answer is a resounding “no.”

There is a crucial difference. Let's take liquidity. Liquidity is indeed a new feature of molecules that isn't present until the right conditions are present. Hydrogen and oxygen molecules aren't themselves liquid at room temperature. And yet the liquidity of water is entirely explicable by looking at how these molecules interact with each other. There is really no mystery (well, surely some, but not much) in how these molecules combine to form dipolar molecules that attract each other more loosely than in a solid but less loosely than in the constituent gases. In other words, liquidity is pretty predictable, or at least explicable, when we consider the constituents of any given liquid. We're dealing with "outsides" at every step in this process – first the outsides of the individual molecules and then the outsides of the combination of molecules in the liquid.

We can strengthen the point further by considering the fact that both hydrogen and oxygen become liquids of their own if we cool them enough. Liquid hydrogen “emerges” from gaseous hydrogen at -423 degrees Fahrenheit. Liquid oxygen emerges from gaseous oxygen at the comparatively balmy temperature of -297 degrees. Liquidity thus emerges at different temperatures as a relatively straightforward shift in the types of bonds between the constituent molecules.

Consciousness is entirely differentbecause we are not talking about relational properties of the outsides of various substances. We are talking about insides, experience, consciousness, phenomena, qualia, and all the other terms we can use for mind or subjectivity. And when we define our physical constituents as wholly lacking in mind, then it is literally impossible for mind to "emerge" from this wholly mindless substrate. Emergence of mind from no-mind is what philosopher Galen Strawson calls "radical emergence," and he makes basically the same argument that I've made here as to its impossibility in his article“Realistic Monism” and co-authored bookConsciousness and Its Place In Nature.

It is “radical” because the emergence of insides from what previously consisted only of outsides would be the spontaneous creation of an entirely new category of reality. And it is philosophically profligate to suggest that this kind of thing can happen when there are other more plausible alternatives.

Now, maybe impossibility is too strong a word. At this level of abstraction we can't prove anything (can anything be proved, period?). I can’t prove that it is impossible for mind to emerge from matter where it was wholly absent before. So perhaps a better word would be “implausible.” It is highly implausible, then, that the inside of matter (mind, consciousness) would suddenly emerge at some arbitrary midpoint in the history of the universe. Sewall Wright, a well-known American evolutionary biologist, stated it well in the 1977 article “[E]mergence of mind from no mind is sheer magic.” (Wright, S. (1977) Panpsychism and Science, in Cobb, J.B. & Griffin, D.R. (eds.), Mind in Nature: Essays on the Interface of Science and Philosophy, Lanham, MD: University Press of America.)

Colin McGinn, a British philosopher, states perhaps even more forcefully why emergentism fails:

[W]e do not know how consciousness might have arisen by natural processes from antecedently existing material things. Somehow or other sentience sprang from pulpy matter, giving matter an inner aspect, but we have no idea how this leap was propelled. . . . One is tempted, however reluctantly, to turn to divine assistance: for only a kind of miracle could produce this from that. It would take a supernatural magician to extract consciousness from matter. Consciousness appears to introduce a sharp break in the natural order -- a point at which scientific naturalism runs out of steam. (McGinn, C. (1991) The Problem of Consciousness: Essays Toward a Resolution, Malden, MA: Blackwell, p. 45.)

In light of these arguments, isn't it far more plausible that mind is simply present where matter is present instead of emerging for the first time at a seemingly arbitrary midpoint in the history of our universe?

This is the panpsychist position: Where there is matter there is also mind – they are two aspects of the same thing. As matter complexifies, so mind complexifies. (The details become far more complex than this, but this is the basic position).

Alan Watts said it best: “For every inside there is an outside, and for every outside there is an inside; though they are different, they go together.”

It seems, then, that today’s prevailing theory that advocates mind as a purely emergent phenomenon has major problems. But what about those thinkers who come at the hard problem from a less dogmatic or materialistic position?

Ken Wilber, an increasingly well-known American philosopher and social critic who is no materialist, to be sure, argues in his monumental 1995 work Sex, Ecology, Spirituality: The Spirit of Evolution that mind is in fact a case of “novel emergence.” Wilber elaborates in great detail Arthur Koestler’s original idea that all of reality is comprised of holons, which are part/wholes. Holons are parts when they look upward in whatever hierarchy they belong to and are wholes when they look downward. Wilber at times argues for what seems to be panpsychism, and he clearly has strong sympathies with this position.

Yet he also argues for the emergence of mind and the nöosphere more generally. He suggests (p. 100 of Sex, Ecology, Spirituality)that mind and the nöosphere arise through “novel emergence.” And in footnote 13 (p. 540), he explicitly criticizes the panpsychist position that even the most fundamental constituents of reality have some type of mind, writing: “Do atoms possess an actual prehension (Whitehead) or perception (Leibniz)? I don’t know; that seems a bit much.”

It seems, then, that Wilber is not entirely of one mind on this issue. We can argue, however, for the same reasons presented above that it is implausible to suggest that mind is a case of “novel emergence.” Surely if all of reality is comprised of holons, as Wilber assiduously argues, and all holons have an outside and an inside, then this “inside” must be some degree of mind. If it isn’t, then what is it?

In footnote 13, Wilber states that the inside should be described as “depth” rather than mind per se. But this is no help at all. Framing inside as depth seems like an empty well unless we agree that depth is synonymous with mentality. And in other parts of SES, Wilber does suggest exactly this (footnote 25, p. 548, for example): “Forms of consciousness do indeed emerge (as forms of matter do), but consciousness itself is simply alongside all along, as the interior of whatever form is there (from the moment of creation).”

Plausibility vs. Possibility

In closing, I want to reiterate that there can be no certainty in this discussion. If we are intellectually honest, the best we can say is “position x seems better than position y because of a, b, c reasons.” And this is the nature of philosophy more generally – and of science, for that matter, even if this truth is not widely acknowledged.

Yet, for the many reasons I’ve set forth in this series of essays, it does indeed seem that the panpsychist position is better at explaining the hard problem of consciousness than the various types of emergence arguments. And “better” in this case simply means “more plausible.”

This means that for people like me who enjoy the exchange of ideas, the C word will be the subject of much spirited debate for many years to come.

  • Anonymous Icon

    nbtruthman Feb 05, 2011

    " And when we define our physical constituents as wholly lacking in mind, then it is literally impossible for mind to "emerge" from this wholly mindless substrate."

    Interactive dualism is not mentioned as another alternative to materialist emergence. In this concept mind is "outside" as a nonphysical entity, but is still able to interact with the physical brain to produce consciousness in a physical being. Some quantum mechanical theories are along these lines, like Henry Stapp's quantum interactive dualism. Interactive dualism better explains the evidence of psychical phenomena that points to survival of the personality. Of course this area is dismissed by academia.

  • Tam Hunt Feb 05, 2011

    nb, there is a way in which I agree with interactive dualism, but not the way in which you suggest. I can agree in a way with James' position on the brain as a transmitter of consciousness rather than a producer if we think of all things as transmitting the fundamental neutral substrate of the universe - pure information, pure energy, pure consciousness, or whatever you want to call it. This follows the intuition that to have anything at all we must have some ground of being that supports perceptible reality. The question that arises, then, is whether this ground of being has any structure itself? Can this ground of being support any kind of differentiated consciousness, which may bubble up into perceptible reality in the more interesting cases of reincarnation? I find it very hard to accept, for various reasons, that personality truly survives death. But I can identify a plausible rationale, along the lines of what I have just sketched here, for the survival of certain structures, what we may call aspects of personality. And we may explain the more credible reports of reincarnation as the possible survival and bubbling up again of aspects of personality. The reason I find it hard to accept the survival of personality itself is that it would make the entire perceptible world (the physical world) rather redundant. And nature is unlikely to have redundant parallel structures.

  • Tam Hunt Feb 05, 2011

    PS. The strong form of interactive dualism advocated by Eccles and Popper and many others faces the same problem that faces Descartes' less sophisticated dualism: how on earth do two fundamentally different substances interact? Why wouldn't they simply pass by each other like ships in the night? Descartes ran into trouble when he suggested that for some unexplained reason the pineal gland was the seat of interaction. But why would a single biological structure be so unique when it is clearly comprised of the same types of molecules and cells as the rest of our brain?

  • Anonymous Icon

    sharethegoodnews Feb 05, 2011

    I have the certainty of faith. I realize the difference between faith and science. I also recognize similarites. Here are some key points to learning about ourselves. There is so much deep education in the Bible. It is not just a history book. It is a living word. It is the higher conciousness speaking to our conciousness. It is MORE THAN MAGIC. It is the most exciting word to read, because it morphs into whatever you are needing supernaturally if you sincerely (key word) ask God for help or guidance. Proverbs 3 says Trust in the LORD with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths. Be not wise in thine own eyes: fear the LORD, and depart from evil. It shall be health to thy navel, and marrow to thy bones.
    I am also thankful that I don't need a Phd to understand my soul, (the "C" word) or its purpose. Here is a passage from 1 Corinthians 1: For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God. For it is written, I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and will bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent. Where is the wise? where is the scribe? where is the disputer of this world? hath not God made foolish the wisdom of this world? For after that in the wisdom of God the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe. For the Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom: But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness; But unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God. Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men. For ye see your calling, brethren, how that not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called: But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty; And base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen, yea, and things which are not, to bring to nought things that are: That no flesh should glory in his presence. But of him are ye in Christ Jesus, who of God is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption: That, according as it is written, He that glorieth, let him glory in the Lord.
    I hope, through Christ, you can find a soul-deep understanding of this unknowable subject. God's ways are above ours. We will know more when we are perfected through salvation and live with Him after this mortal life phase is over.

  • Anonymous Icon

    nbtruthman Feb 06, 2011

    "The reason I find it hard to accept the survival of personality itself is that it would make the entire perceptible world (the physical world) rather redundant. And nature is unlikely to have redundant parallel structures."

    Why so?

    In any case, in the conceptual system of many spiritual teachings, messages from many apparent discarnates, and many NDE accounts, the next stage of existence is a realm where "thoughts are things", where there are multiple levels of consciousness. Humans carry templates of physical existence with them from Earth lives, but the fundamental substance there is fundamentally different. Mind is preeminent. "Nature" is created by Mind.

    And the evidence of psychical research over the last 130 years points strongly toward separate existence of the human personality. Other explanations appear to me to be rather strained. Data trumps theory if there is a conflict.

  • Anonymous Icon

    nbtruthman Feb 06, 2011

    "The strong form of interactive dualism advocated by Eccles and Popper and many others faces the same problem that faces Descartes' less sophisticated dualism: how on earth do two fundamentally different substances interact? Why wouldn't they simply pass by each other like ships in the night?"

    This with our limited understanding of the scheme of things. I can only repeat that the data trumps theory.

  • Tam Hunt Feb 06, 2011

    nb, when we postulate higher dimensions of reality and assert that "Nature is created by Mind," we are engaging in theory. So if we are engaging in theory, we should use the best tools available in our toolbox. I agree that data trumps theory if we are scientific. But if we are going to engage in theory, we should at least be able to answer questions (at least speculatively) such as I've posed. I'm not saying there are not higher dimensions. I don't know. But it seems to me there are more parsimonious and more naturalistic explanations that avoid ontological redundancy and the problem of non-interaction between fundamentally different substances. Check out Whitehead's solution, a dual aspect oscillating interactionism in which all things oscillate between subject and object. So each actual entity is both mind and matter, two aspects of the same thing, which at least in principle explains the interactionist issue and also avoids ontological redundancy.

  • Anonymous Icon

    nbtruthman Feb 07, 2011

    "I agree that data trumps theory if we are scientific."

    Does this mean you reject as "unscientific" all the empirical evidence supporting though of course not absolutely proving the existence of non-physical entities or souls and a non-physical or spiritual realm? A list would include:
    Esp, psi
    Mental mediumship
    Drop-in communicators and cross-correspondences
    Proxy cases
    Death bed visions
    At-death remote appearances
    NDEs including veridical OBEs
    Physical mediumship

  • Tam Hunt Feb 07, 2011

    nb, I have done a fair amount of reading in psi research and reincarnation and I agree that there is some very good data that suggests these phenomena are not complete hokum. The other areas you mention I have not looked into in great detail. But the key is what we mean by "data": when you use words like apparitions or hauntings you are accepting already with your words that these are supernatural phenomena. And I think this is hasty. We can accept that some strange things have happened but we don't have to agree that the cause is some supernatural phenomenon when there may be more parsimonious and naturalistic explanations. Similarly, with respect to mediumship, can we explain these phenomena through telepathy instead of actual mediumship? In many cases, I suspect we can, as with reincarnation being explicable through some kind of transference of memory or information rather than transference of something like a soul, which is difficult to accept for many many reasons.

    Anyway, I'm not trying to suggest I have all the answers, but I would urge caution in imposing your own theoretical structure on the data in such a way that suggests we know more about the universe than we actually do.

  • Anonymous Icon

    DeboS Feb 17, 2011

    Hi Tam,

    I have often experienced that whenever I expect something good , to happen , the exact opposite of that happens.

    Is their something seriously wrong with my belief system ? Will you please take a minute of your time to let me know why this is happening .


  • Tam Hunt Feb 17, 2011

    Hi Debo, I'm sorry but I don't have any good answer to your question. I find it hard to fit precognition within my worldview, though there is some pretty good data suggesting that at least short-term precog is possible. It seems that your experience is, however, perhaps just bad luck! On a more personal note, I do find that the universe seems to average out good and bad events, so perhaps other good things have happened to you that will balance these bad ones?

  • Anonymous Icon

    Kenos Jun 24, 2011

    Hi Tam,
    I have just joined in this very interesting discussion on the subject of consciousness and emergence, and would like to add this little piece for consideration.

    Consciousness can only be evaluated if the conscious subject demonstrates sensitivity towards the human senses such as sight, sound, smell and so on. However, if a conscious being were to exist that possessed many senses but none common with human, would it be possible to evaluate it's consciousness from a human perspective. For example, if I cannot see, hear, smell, taste or touch it, does it mean it is not conscious. If it cannot see, feel, smell,taste or hear me, does it mean that I don't exist in it's world.

    Would you consider it possible that a far older and more advanced conscious intellegent life form exists alongside of humanity, and we have no comprehension of it.

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