February 21, 2019 | 28 Comments
Somebody Has To Pay The Consciousness Bill
The first problem that I dealt with concerning emergentism was the problem of how unconscious matter becomes conscious. I have previously argued against the idea that subjective awareness can arise from unconscious material. The idea is absurd since it implies that something can arise from nothing. That thought can arise from things that do not have it. The only way the emergentist can get around the problem is to say that matter has a rather quasi-supernatural ability to create consciousness out of nothing, which is a very extraordinary claim.
After all, suppose a person were able to go to any unconscious material and make it become conscious at will. That would be like going up to a scarecrow in a field or to a zombie of Chalmers’ description (if one were to exist) and making these things suddenly become subjectively aware. This then would be an ability to create something out of nothing. It would be automatically creating the extra phenomena of consciousness in addition to the immediately pre-existing matter in motion within the environment.
In a similar way, if unconscious matter when assembled in a certain way automatically produces consciousness, then it would have to produce the mental phenomena out of nothing. Otherwise, if the matter just remains as originally assembled, in the form of the brain and/or other organs for example, without anything mental arising from it, then no thought and perception processes would take place.
People don’t have the ability to make insentient things conscious at will. So why would unconscious matter have this ability to produce consciousness straight out of its absence? It seems impossible to overcome that difficulty. Now I am going to focus on another related problem in emergentism that is rarely addressed in discussions. This problem will also reveal just how ambiguous, vague and difficult it is to hold the materialist view that the brain is the conscious perceiver and thinker.
First of all, most philosophers of mind, including emergentists, want to say that in addition to mental states, such as sight, hearing, tastes, thoughts, emotions, memories etc., that there is an underlying bearer of these mental activities. It makes sense that if we have mental states that we also have something that has those mental states; or that there is a conscious subject or self that possesses our conscious states. If one has mental states then there is a conscious perceiver and thinker behind that subjective experience.
Secondly, both materialist and non-materialist approaches in the philosophy of mind agree that perception, awareness and thought depend on the brain and body being healthy and functional. There are, of course, different parts of the brain as modern neurology has illuminated that enable the different faculties of mind to operate well. The visual cortex of the brain, for instance, enables a person to have vision. The temporal lobe of the brain enables a person to hear and process language. The limbic system of the brain enables one to experience memories and emotions. It’s evident that the mind depends on the brain in order to carry out its mental activities and to carry them out very well. So the question for the philosopher is this; is the brain the conscious subject? Or, is the brain only the instrument of the conscious subject?
The emergentist evidently wants to say that it’s the brain that is the conscious subject. Now let us suppose this is true and that somehow the materialist can override the problem of getting consciousness out of unconscious material. Well, the materialist has, once again, another think coming [ed: sic, and funny]. If the conscious thinker and perceiver is something material like the brain then this problem immediately arises: how do the conscious states relate to the whole brain (or good portion of the brain) and to the various smaller parts of the brain? For instance, the emergentist wants to say that my brain perceives red, or thinks about Christmas. Does that mean there are electrons inside my brain perceiving red or thinking about Christmas?
Since the materialist identifies the conscious subject with a physical object and since physical objects are divisible and can (at least) almost always be divided and broken down into smaller and smaller parts, the question of how conscious states relate to the smaller elements of the brain becomes a big problem. For convenience, I will refer to this difficulty as the “divisible parts problem” in materialism. This problem was hinted by Leibniz. How does subjective experience relate to the smaller components of the brain if the brain is the conscious subject?
There are at least two possible answers the materialist can give to this problem: one, the emergentist can say that at a certain level, there is no consciousness and thought going on with the smaller parts of the brain like the subatomic particles that compose it as such. Strictly speaking with this alternative, while it may be correct to say that my brain perceives red or remembers an event, or thinks about Christmas, none of the miniscule parts like the subatomic particles are thinking, remembering or perceiving anything.
The other alternative for the materialist is to advocate a kind of panpsychist position and say that no matter how much one breaks down the brain into smaller and smaller parts, each conceivable part of the brain is subjectively aware at least at some level. Given this position, even the electrons, protons and neutrons inside the brain would be conscious and have a piece of my consciousness. Both of these possible answers have serious difficulties.
An Emergent Panpsychist
Now before examining both positions, let’s be clear about one thing: consciousness is not the same thing as behaviors. While behaviors like talking, writing, facial expressions and bodily movements naturally manifest to us that a person is conscious, the subjective acts of awareness themselves (like seeing, hearing, touching, thinking, willing, remembering or imagining) are not the same things as talking, writing, moving limbs and making facial expressions. So the problem here is not whether we can have a material object that can act or behave intelligently like constructing a robot or computer that can project language and behavior well. Rather, it’s whether a material object can effectively have subjective awareness and thought. Of course, we have robots nowadays that are programmed to behave in an intelligent manner but none of these machines have consciousness. So there’s a big difference between the two.
Let’s take the first possible answer that it is sensible to say that my brain bears my thoughts but not any of the miniscule components bear consciousness. This position may be explained by an analogy. Just as the Lego blocks may not each be cubed shaped, but the whole composition of them put together however may form a roughly cubed object, so it is the same with the brain having consciousness while none of its miniature parts have that trait. What is true of the parts is not always and necessarily true of the whole. Hence, we have to avoid the so-called fallacy of composition or always thinking that what is true of the whole is necessarily true of the parts. In this case, what is true of the parts, like the subatomic elements lacking consciousness is not true of the whole since the brain as a whole (or good macroscopic portion of it) is conscious. With this theory, consciousness simply emerges as an overarching property or phenomena from the brain as a whole. This is analogous to the saying that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
This position is very problematic for several reasons. One, there is an epistemological problem with asserting the whole brain is conscious while all its miniscule parts lack it. How can we know from the simple proposition, that the brain is the conscious subject and that subjective experience has to have this type of relation to the brain and its parts? (This is something always to remember by the way, that the general idea that the brain produces consciousness is an ambiguous proposition open to different interpretations and that this idea is often promoted in an ambiguous manner by materialists!)
Is it possible that no matter how one breaks down the brain into smaller parts, one will always have a tiny conscious perceiver? It does no good to merely assert that the microscopic parts of the brain aren’t conscious and then rebut all skepticism of it as a “fallacy of composition” particularly when it may be indiscernible what the relation would be between mental states and the miniscule parts of the brain. Besides not all reasoning from parts to wholes is a fallacy of composition. If each part of a chair were composed of iron then we would automatically know that the whole chair would also be composed of iron. It’s that simple. The fallacy of composition only applies to scenarios where what is true of the parts is not true of the whole like assuming that since each brick is 3 inches by 5 inches wide that the whole wall of bricks is going to be 3 by 5 inches wide.
Secondly, if none of the miniscule parts of the brain are conscious then how is the whole brain or good portion of it going to achieve consciousness? It seems that if none of the parts of the brain are subjectively aware of anything then neither is the brain going to be aware of anything as well. We know that each Lego block lacks consciousness within a Lego castle. And we know that a Lego castle as a whole doesn’t have consciousness either. What’s true of the parts is also true of the whole in considering the Lego castle. So why would the brain be any different from an unconscious Lego castle? Why would it be the case that unconscious components create a conscious material thing while in other cases unconscious components don’t create a conscious thing? Where is the explanation? If the living brain were to lack consciousness then naturally that would imply that none of brain’s components have that trait either. So how can the brain be said to be “conscious” if none of its smaller parts have that feature?
Besides, if one starts with nothing but unconscious components then it seems one must end up with only an unconscious composite object, no matter how complex the assembled thing is as such [ed. see this on the abacus-as-brain]. No matter how one connects the unconscious Lego blocks, one is only going to get an unconscious object altogether whether it’s a Lego castle or a Lego spaceship. In a similar way, if subatomic elements are unconscious, and are incapable of experiencing subjective awareness, then consciousness would never arise from the subatomic particles even when organized to form a brain. To get consciousness from parts that are incapable of having consciousness seems tantamount to getting something from nothing.
How is it possible to get consciousness out of bits of matter and energy that are incapable of having that attribute themselves? It’s understandable how a set of Lego blocks can be used to form roughly a big cube even if not all the Lego blocks are cubed shaped. Each of the Lego blocks put together would contribute the overall cubed shape of the Lego configuration.
It’s also understandable how other properties besides shape may arise with more complex material structures like “wetness” being felt with water. None of the water molecules taken individually have “wetness” since nobody can have a sensation of wetness from one water molecule. But several water molecules put together to form a drop of water can produce a sensation of wetness in our minds. Nevertheless, it doesn’t seem to make sense how a collection of microscopic materials incapable of awareness and thought can somehow be put together and create something that’s conscious. If none of the parts of the conscious self are aware of anything then how can the self be said to be conscious? I don’t know what it would mean to say that the whole brain or a good portion of it is conscious but none of its microscopic parts are conscious any more than I wouldn’t know the meaning of a Lego castle perceiving red colors while none of the Lego blocks perceive the red. No one has a clear idea of how such a relationship could work.
Perhaps the emergentist, for the all reasons mentioned above, may discard the position that the whole brain is conscious but none of its smaller parts are conscious and embrace the other alternative. The emergentist then can take the other position that no matter how one breaks down the parts of the brain there’s always an individual conscious perceiver. If the emergentist takes this position, then her position seems to lead to panpsychism (the theory that all matter is conscious). After all, if electrons, protons and neutrons are capable of being aware of things at a certain level then why not say that all matter is conscious? So with this position, even the electrons are conscious and perceive something.
Can’t We All Work Together?
But this position has problems as well. How would all these conscious, perceiving parts of the brain interact to produce unified conscious states? How would the subjective states of subatomic particles, for example, just “glue together” and form my unified conscious experience of several colors, sounds, dimensions etc.? Two persons have their separate brains in their separate spaces and their conscious experiences do not connect and form a greater level of thought and awareness. So why should microscopic bits of matter form greater levels of perception and thought by merely being put together in a certain way? This seems to be quite fantastic, if not impossible.
This problem can also apply to the former position mentioned above. The emergentist could say that while subatomic parts of the brain aren’t conscious, that other larger units of the brain are conscious like brain cells. In which case how would these divisible units of the brain, whatever they may be, somehow connect and form greater levels of unified consciousness? This particular issue is sometimes called the “combination problem” and historically William James used it as an objection against panpsychism.
Regardless, how the materialist answers these problems, whether he accepts the idea that a whole object can be conscious while its parts aren’t conscious, or the more panpsychist position that the whole and all conceivable parts are conscious, things even get more complicated when one seriously considers everyday acts of understanding and memory.
Memory and understanding are a serious puzzle regardless of how the materialist accounts for consciousness. For instance, one understands the truth that “2+2=4”. If my brain is the conscious subject and if it’s really my brain that understands “2+2=4” to be true then does that mean that there are subatomic particles in my brain that are each subjectively understanding “2+2=4”? If not, then how would my brain as a collection of subatomic particles be able to understand “2+2=4”? Or, if subatomic particles can understand simple mathematical truths then why would one need a brain to think and understand these same mathematical propositions? And the same can be said of memory, if one remembers a certain past event and if the individual atoms in the brain cannot remember anything by themselves, then how is the brain as a whole going to remember any event?
Moreover, because the materialist identifies the conscious self with a material object we couldn’t even know what would constitute an “individual” conscious perceiver since material objects can (at least) almost always be cut down into smaller and smaller components. Do we have as many conscious perceivers as left and right hemispheres of the brain? As many conscious perceivers as there are brain cells? Do we have as many conscious perceivers as quarks in our brain? Regardless of how the materialist answers this issue, he would seem to be needlessly duplicating many conscious bits of matter just to explain our everyday experience and this isn’t desirable if one tries to follow Ockham’s Razor. And why do we need to hold that the conscious self is really divisible, in some form or another, into several conscious selves composed of matter?
The emergentist or property dualist view that the brain is the conscious subject, as one can see with careful reflection, is saddled with several difficulties. The problem is, in summary, if the conscious self is material then how would the conscious states relate to the whole and its parts? Would the whole brain or a good chunk of it be the only thing that’s conscious? Or do we have a conscious subject no matter how much we break down the brain into smaller parts? Do we have good reason to believe that if none of the subatomic particles of the brain are capable of remembering and understanding concepts that the brain altogether will produce a person with memory and understanding? These questions are difficult to answer for the materialist. In my opinion, these problems reveal the fact that materialism undermines the notion of a bearer of consciousness altogether.
Say It With Soul
One serious advantage behind the idea that persons have a “soul” or an immaterial conscious self is that this notion avoids all these problems within emergentism. Because souls are not composite objects that can always be divided into smaller and smaller parts, and are not things that gain or lose parts throughout time, one doesn’t have to face all these troublesome paradoxes that are within the standard materialist model.
So when one perceives a red apple, or understands “2+2=4” with the aid of the body, no one needs to worry about whether a tiny “particle” of the soul perceives the red apple, or understands the math, because it is senseless to say that the soul is a construct of smaller parts that are connected together and that can be gained or lost in time. An immaterial self cannot have “parts” like the way the brain or any material object does as such. When one perceives a color, or understands simple arithmetic it is simply the soul or mind that perceives the color, or understands the mathematical proposition, and it doesn’t get complicated beyond that. With the notion of the soul, the mind would be a single unified, non-composite and indivisible bearer of consciousness that is not vulnerable to the “divisible parts problem” in materialism.
Of course, people can always raise objections to any idea including the idea of the soul or mental substance. But between the emergentist notion that the brain or body is the conscious subject versus the idea that the conscious subject is immaterial, I’d much rather endorse the notion of an immaterial conscious self and not have to deal with the mess of how can consciousness relate to a divisible, physical object as its bearer. Overall, one can see why I share in Leibniz’s skepticism of the idea that a material object can be a bearer of consciousness.