Consciousness / mind

“Emergence” is not a materialistic explanation of consciousness

This is an answer that gets thrown around in discussions about consciousness in non-philosophical (or amateur philosophy) circles. Someone asks how the properties consciousness consists of arise from the world of meaningless matter, and, as a reply, the materialist will state (as fact) that consciousness is simply an emergent process of the brain; once you get a certain level of data processing (computer metaphors are a favorite) you have consciousness. What most recently made me think of this – besides some heated conversations – is Steven Novella’s recent post about the Chinese Room argument. Toward the end of his post he states the following, emphasis my own:

I disagree with the strong-AI epiphenomenalists who argue that consciousness is an epiphenomenon that spontaneously emerges from any information-processing system that crosses some threshold of complexity (like Vger from Star Trek I, or Skynet from Terminator). But I also disagree with Searle and those who argue consciousness is specific to biology. Of course, I further disagree with the dualists who believe that consciousness is not physical at all.

Consciousness, rather, is a specific phenomenon that emerges from systems that contain functionality that specifically contributes to consciousness (spontaneous activity, self-monitoring, self-communication, etc,)

*it should be noted that the characterization in my paragraph does not fit Novella perfectly; he ascribes to a functionalist framework, not simply a certain complexity of processing

Like most claims of emergence there are two ways that it can be taken. The first is simply that consciousness is something intimately related with brain activity; however, this is so trivially true that it’s uncharitable to think this is what the person means. The second way to take it is that the physical activities of the brain generate consciousness in a way that materialism is true; we can look at this as the materialist saying that because consciousness is so tightly linked with brain activity it must be material itself. It emerges as any other case of natural emergence, such as a collection of water molecules leading to liquidity.

But this is hardly reason to believe in a materialist framework; the only motivation we have for accepting it as such is believing in materialism in the first place. We can characterize it in this way: consciousness consists of properties like intentionality, qualia, unity, etc – properties that are obviously distinct from those we use to describe the physical world, such as mass, spin, charge, etc. In cases like liquidity we can see the explanation all the way through – there’s no confusion, no missing piece. Once we understand the chemistry and physics involved everything has been accounted for. We understand digestion wholly with a biological description. This does not seem to be the case with consciousness; a question remains after we have a physical description of brain activity – what makes this activity, for example, feel like something. 

So claims of emergence in the sense above, when used as a defense for materialism, are nothing more than brute faith in materialism. It’s more or less: physical properties —> “emergence” —> mental properties. We can replace “emergence” with “magic” and have the same quality of description. So when people like Novella invoke emergence as if it somehow means anything, they are saying nothing. They are either saying something trivially true or redefining the Hard Problem; neither of those necessitate materialism. Well I guess there is another alternative: eliminativism. But most of us aren’t capable of biting the bullet that consciousness, or, as Dennett would call it, real consciousness, does not exist.



Most importantly, stop using ’emergence’ as a synonym for ‘miracle.’ Or at least stop pretending you’re explaining something by doing so!


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