God And The Argument From The Mind Part IV

Prerequisite reading: here.

My friend raised the possibility of emergent properties (EPV) as an explanation of how we can achieve consciousness without invoking deity.

Is he right?

In philosophy, emergentism is the belief in emergence, particularly as it involves consciousness and the philosophy of mind, and as it contrasts with reductionism. A property of a system is said to be emergent if it is more than the sum of the properties of the system's parts. More rigorously, a property P of composite object O is emergent if it is metaphysically possible for another object to lack property P even if that object is composed of parts with intrinsic properties identical to those in O and has those parts in an identical configuration.

So, we throw in a pinch of chemicals, a smidgen of electricity, some vast time, and a little serendipity and voila, we get consciousness. Awareness emerges. Sentience happens. The ability to grasp truth, to remember things, to ponder the cosmos, to see logical relationships, to think … and to think about thinking.

Kind of like magic, eh?

This explanation of consciousness is dead on arrival.

Max Delbruk proposes to answer the question of consciousness using emergentism in his book, Mind From Matter: An Essay on Evolutionary Epistemology. After 280 pages of discussing the problem, he says: "To the question of how the mental capacity for such transcendence can have arisen in the course of biological evolution I have no satisfactory answer."

Exactly. Emergentism is hand waving. Drill down beneath the surface, and you strike air.

All emergentism establishes for us is that reductionism fails as an explanation. We knew that already though. We know the mind is more than neural cells. We already established that when we showed the self-refutation of physicalism. And what exactly is the thing that emerges? Is it is a substance or a property? Is it empirically detectable? If not, then is science clueless to explain it?

The EPV view is that something genuinely new comes into existence and supervenes on top of matter (in this case, the matter is the brain). There is a generally accepted principle that something cannot come from nothing. The defender of EPV must present a cause … but he cannot appeal to another mind as the cause. He appeals to the brain. Alas, this gets us back into the problems of physicalism tho. It is self-refuting. Nor is it clear why consciousness emerges and supervenes over some matter but not others. Why does not mind emerge over a nickel or a bowling pin? Why only specific matter?

There is one possible out. Aristotle taught that when something new emerges, it does not come from nothing but from potentiality. When an apple seed produces an apple, the apples were in the seed potentially. Perhaps mind is in the matter potentially; over time, it becomes actual.

This, however, takes the naturalist where he does not want to go. The naturalist will want to explain everything in terms of physical laws. If one admits that the mind is potential in matter, then one can no longer hold that reality is exhausted by the spatio-temporal physical universe. In other words, there is an unseen reality that is not governed by physical laws. How many empiricists do you know who would be comfortable admitting this?

The EPV view fails as an adequate theory of mind because it postulates either the origin of mind from nothing or from potentiality in matter. Both options are problematic. Mind appears to be a basic feature of the cosmos and its origin at a finite level of persons is best explained by postulating a fundamental Mind who gave finite minds being and design. As Calvin put it, the endowments which we possess cannot possibly be from ourselves. They point to the ultimate Mind and ground of rationality himself.


Phil Steiger said…
Here, here! I have always suspected emergent properties to be an epicycle built into metaphysical naturalism designed to explain properties of personhood that it cannot with its own tools.

Exactly ... or to once again use my favorite expression, EPV amounts to "hand waving".

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