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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics


Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Emergentism Cannot Explain Minds or Life

Contrary to the hype of some neuroscientists, we have no understanding of how the human mind could arise from the matter in the brain. We know exactly why a wet towel drips when we squeeze it, but we have no understanding of why something as marvelous as a human mind could arise from some mere arrangement of neurons in the brain.

But some philosophers have offered a simple explanation: the idea of emergence. The idea between emergence is that when matter is combined in certain ways, there can emerge new properties that could never be predicted. Some philosophers called emergentists claim that human consciousness can be explained as such a property.

In explaining the idea of emergence, an emergentist will typically give an example involving water. Water is composed of hydrogen and oxygen, and neither has any such property as wetness. But when oxygen and hydrogen are combined to make water, then we have something with the property of wetness. It is claimed that such a property could never be predicted by just analyzing hydrogen or just analyzing oxygen.

According to the emergentist, this example shows that amazing new properties can arise when matter combines in different ways. The emergentist tells us that human consciousness is simply such a property, a property that just arises from certain complex combinations of matter.

But this reasoning is not sound. The human mind is not a property of the brain or a property of the body.

In general, a property is a simple intrinsic characteristic of something, which can be completely expressed by giving a single number. For example, the properties of a rock are hardness, weight, height, width, length, and depth. Each of these simple properties can be expressed by a single number. (You may not think hardness can be expressed by a number, but there is something called the Mohs scale used to express the hardness of rocks). We might also think of the color of the rock as being a property, although that requires a simplification (since the rock will actually be multiple colors). If one makes such a simplification, then that color can also be expressed as a single number, such as a number on a color scale. Even wetness can be expressed by a single number (we might, for example, create a wetness scale of 1 to 10, and reasonably assign liquid water a value of 10, and a thick soup a value of about 5).

But the human mind is not a simple characteristic that can be numerically expressed by a number. When we consider all of the facets of the human mind (memory, intelligence, personality, emotions, spirituality), we certainly do not have anything like a simple characteristic that can be expressed by a number. The human mind is also something mental, something much different from a physical property such as width, weight, or wetness.

In light of such facts, the argument of the emergentist falls apart. It may sound persuasive to make this shallow, sketchy comparison:

When we combine hydrogen and oxygen, we see the emergence of a new, unexpected property of “wetness.” This can help explain how our consciousness could suddenly arise from the combination of certain types of neurons.

But it does not at all sound convincing to make this deeper, more complete comparison.

When we combine hydrogen and oxygen, we see the emergence of a new, unexpected property of “wetness,” which is a simple, physical property that can be expressed by a single number. This can help explain how certain combinations of physical neurons could produce human mentality that is not physical, extremely complicated, and not capable of being expressed by a single number.

Obviously the latter argument does not work. Our minds are not at all a property. They are far too complicated, multifaceted, and functional to be a property, which is a simple physical thing, like a single facet of something.

An additional reason for rejecting "mind is a property" reasoning comes from near-death experiences. In these experiences a person will often report floating above his body, and looking down on it. A property is something that cannot be separated from the object with which it is associated. So it would be absolutely nonsensical to say something like, “The rock is on the left side of the room, but the length of the rock is on the right side of the room,” just as it would be nonsensical to say, “I have your bicycle in my garage, but I have the weight of your bicycle in my kitchen.” But judging from near-death experiences, it is possible for a human mind to be separated from the brain, at least briefly. Since properties can never be separated from their associated objects, such experiences supply an additional reason for thinking that the human mind cannot be considered a property of the brain.

Some thinkers try to use the concept of emergence to explain the origin of life. In such a case we have what is essentially an appeal to magic, similar to someone who wants you to believe that a living rabbit can be pulled out of a magician's empty hat.

If you doubt this, try this thought experiment. First imagine a thinker named John who believes that a nice livable log cabin has formed in the woods from fallen logs, through a complexity-producing process that he calls emergence (this is actually a more modest claim than the claim of life emerging from mere chemicals by a process of emergence, because even the simplest living thing is far more complex and functionally coherent than a log cabin). Then imagine a thinker named Jim who states that the log cabin has formed from fallen logs, not through emergence but simply through magic. Now, what is the difference between the idea of John and Jim? There isn't any. They both have the same idea, which they have expressed using different words.

The Edge.org web site has just released its annual question with responses by the usual cast of professors. In response to the question, “What scientific term or concept ought to be more widely known?” a physicist gives a quite vacuous statement of emergentism (emergence is not actually a scientific concept, but a philosophical concept). You can prove that his statement is just hocus-pocus talk without any real explanatory power, by simply noting that whenever he uses the word “emergent” it is just as if he is using the word “magical,” and whenever he is using the word “emergence” is it just as if he is using the word “magic.”

So, for example, the author states the following:

There is magic in our world, but it is not from external forces that act on us or through us. Our fates are not guided by mystical energies or the motions of the planets against the stars. We know better now. We know that the magic of life comes from emergence....It is the emergent qualities of this vast cosmos of interacting entities that make us us..The ladder of emergence precludes the necessity for any supernatural influence in our world; natural emergence is all it takes to create all the magic of life from building blocks of simple inanimate matter. Once we think we understand things at a high level in the hierarchy of emergence, we often ignore the ladder we used to get there from much lower levels. But we should never forget the ladder is there—that we and everything in our inner and outer world are emergent structures arising in many strata from a comprehensible scientific foundation.

If we substitute the word “magic” for “emergence” and “magical” for “emergent” (as in the boldface modification below), there is no real difference in the content of what is stated:

There is magic in our world, but it is not from external forces that act on us or through us. Our fates are not guided by mystical energies or the motions of the planets against the stars. We know better now. We know that the magic of life comes from magic....It is the magical qualities of this vast cosmos of interacting entities that make us us...The ladder of magic precludes the necessity for any supernatural influence in our world; natural magic is all it takes to create all the magic of life from building blocks of simple inanimate matter. Once we think we understand things at a high level in the hierarchy of magic, we often ignore the ladder we used to get there from much lower levels. But we should never forget the ladder is there—that we and everything in our inner and outer world are magical structures arising in many strata from a comprehensible scientific foundation.

Our physicist has simply given us abracadabra thinking masquerading as something more profound, because of the use of the words “emergent” and “emergence” rather than “magical” and “magic.” He discusses a “ladder of emergence” without saying anything about how one level of complexity could arise from the previous one; so it's just kind of “rabbit from the magic hat” type of talk.

Below is a visual showing the type of magic assumptions involved in this “ladder of emergence” depicted by the physicist:



Truth claims like this smell more like sorcery talk than science talk. To explain life and Mind, we need a lot more than Harry Potter hocus-pocus.

The basic mistake made by emergentists is to confuse a description with an explanation. Imagine you live on a planet where horses and cars suddenly appear out of thin air. You might formulate a “principle of sudden appearances” to describe such events. But you would be fooling yourself if you then tried to evoke this “principle of sudden appearances” as an explanation for these strange events. An explanation only occurs when we describe preceding causal factors that made the appearance of something likely. Similarly, an emergentist errs when he submits his “principle of emergence” as some kind of explanation. It may be correct to say that marvelous things suddenly appear in the history of the universe, and to generalize that into some “principle of emergence.” But you do nothing to explain why such things happen by evoking such a principle – doing that would be confusing a description with an explanation. 

Having mentioned magic, I would be remiss if I did not include a link to the following relevant vocal by the great Doris Day:

Postscript: It is possible that this idea of emergence could be the seed of an important insight or theory, if the idea was fleshed out quite a bit. So I don't mean to entirely dismiss the idea. But I do think that unless quite a bit is done to beef up such an idea, it's not much of an insight. You're not throwing much light on things if you merely keep describing improbable events in the universe's history, and use a common word such as "emergence" to describe such things.