In this essay, I shall consider a popular view in the philosophy of mind known as emergentism. Emergentism is a type of materialist view that says that the brain or some material in the body directly creates consciousness or more specifically that the brain is the bearer of mental states. Emergentism says that the brain, in addition to having physical or natural properties like size, weight, shape, electric charges, etc., the brain also has mental properties. This theory essentially differs from other theories like substance dualism and idealism where the conscious subject is seen as an immaterial substance of mind that somehow interacts or at least correlates with the brain. Before examining some of the problems of emergentism, a couple of things need to be pointed out.
First of all, in order for emergentism to be minimally a coherent idea it has to assume that consciousness in all its forms is distinct from the brain and other material beings. By Leibniz’s Law of Indiscernibility of Identicals, or by the principle that if two things differ in their features, then they cannot be the same entity, mental states are not identical with physical objects since they essentially differ in their features.
While material objects may have certain features like weight, size, definite measurements, divisibility, electric charge, gravitational force, being composed of smaller bits of matter, etc., mental states do not have any of these features and are therefore not strictly identical with the brain or with any material object. This holds true even if mental states are produced by the brain. After all, a causal relation does not imply an identity between consciousness and the brain just like fire producing smoke does not indicate that smoke is identical with the fire.
As a matter of fact, the way the materialist typically lays out the causal relation between consciousness and the brain implies a real distinction between consciousness and the brain. The materialist wants to say that the brain causes consciousness to exist but not the other way around and this implies a real distinction between the two entities. So emergentism, in order for it to be intelligible, has to be essentially property dualism or the idea that the brain has mental properties in addition to physical properties.
Secondly, it is often argued that since both science and experience point to the fact that the mind depends on the functions of the brain that the theory of emergentism must be true. But the problem with this argument is that the dependency of consciousness on the brain is logically compatible with other theories like idealism, substance dualism and dual-aspect monism. So emergentism is not the only theory available to explain why consciousness depends on the brain. Moreover, much of the debate about the philosophy of mind doesn’t revolve around the idea that there are correlations between brain states and mental states since that is granted by nearly all thinkers, but rather about the nature of the conscious subject.
The fact that the brain can have an impact on one’s mental life is not proof that the brain literally is the conscious subject just like the appearance of temporal flow is not proof that time actually flows. For the conscious self could be something that is distinct from the brain and the brain simply impacts the conscious self and enables the conscious self to carry out her mental life while being embodied.
While emergentism may appear to be the commonsense view of the mind and body, it is however saddled with serious problems. If one identifies the conscious self with a material object then certain problems immediately arise such as how can unconscious matter become conscious? How can a material object be clearly defined as the conscious subject? How is free will possible with emergentism? There are many problems with emergentism, but I shall only focus on a particular problem with it, viz., the problem of getting consciousness out of unconscious material.
How can unconscious matter become conscious? This problem can be illustrated in different ways. Many scientists believe that the animal kingdom started from primitive life forms like cells and bacteria and that all this evolved into more complex, conscious animals. We also know that human beings begin as a single zygote cell lacking consciousness and then later becoming conscious as they physically grow and mature. We can also illustrate this problem with science fiction scenarios and futuristic questions like will A.I. robots become subjectively aware? Could a scientist with an enough knowledge and skill, create a Frankenstein monster?
This problem is also brought forth by the famous philosopher and mathematician G.W. Leibniz who made an argument against materialism relating to this subject. Leibniz calls us to imagine a complex windmill and says that all we can observe is simply the mechanical workings of the windmill. He argues that from the mechanical operations of the windmill there is no reason at all to think that consciousness could arise from it. In other words, simply putting material parts together and having them work as a cohesive whole does nothing to explain why any thought and perception processes should arise.
In other words, the underlying metaphysical problem with unconscious matter becoming conscious is this: how can something come from nothing? If we start out with no conscious beings whatsoever, then how are we going to end up with something conscious? If a mad scientist were to try to create a Frankenstein monster starting with material that has no mental activity within it then shouldn’t the experiment end up with only organs and brains that have no consciousness in them? It’s like if one starts with nothing but orange Lego blocks then one will only get different objects composed of orange Lego blocks and not blue blocks. In similar way, it seems that if one starts with nothing but unconscious material then one will only get unconscious material in the end no matter how one assembles the material together. After all, from the lack of consciousness comes the lack of consciousness. From nothing, nothing comes. Non-existent things have no causal powers and no effects in the world, and non-existent things simply cannot bring themselves into existence.
So how might the emergentist answer this problem of getting something from nothing or mind from unconscious matter? According to JP Moreland, who has written extensively on the mind and body problem, there is one possible solution that the emergentist can offer to explain how matter can become conscious. The materialist could say that consciousness does not arise from nothing per se, but rather from potentiality. This idea of “potentiality” or “potency” comes from Aristotle. According to Aristotle, in order for things to change, they must have a potentiality or capacity within them to change from one thing to another.
How Aristotle would explain why a piece of paper becomes ashes through fire, is that paper has a potential or capacity to transform from being a sheet of paper to a pile of ashes. Notice the change doesn’t occur from nothing nor does the change come about from a thing presently being itself, the change occurs because the thing has an ability to transform into another thing or take on new properties. So the materialist could say that matter can become conscious because it has a “potential” or inner capacity to become subjectively aware.
Moreland doubts the idea that matter can have a potential to become conscious. He thinks that the problem is that it is vague and unclear how matter may have a potency to become conscious. Nonetheless, in my mind, there are at least two major problems with the solution that matter has this “Aristotelian potency” to become conscious. One, the Aristotelian theory of potentiality assumes a certain A-theory of time, and secondly, the idea that material beings can become conscious actually takes the Aristotelian notion of potentiality a step further beyond itself and implies that matter can create something out of nothing.
Let’s look at the first problem. The Aristotelian notion of potentiality and the theory of hylomorphism relies on the presentist theory of time. Take for example, a piece of a paper turning into ashes through burning up. If the paper has this potentiality in it to become a pile of ashes then this assumes that time is a series of passing moments in which only the present moment is real. This is because in order for a thing to become something else then that thing has to cease to exist and become absorbed into the new thing. So at moment 1, one has a piece of paper and that moment ceases to exist and then moment 2 comes into existence and the paper is burning; and finally moment 3 comes into being and now the paper has become a pile of ashes. Notice that in order for the paper to become the ashes the paper has to cease to be and become absorbed into the new thing. Hence, if there is to be any real metaphysical becoming then one must endorse a presentist theory of time.
However, things are different when one grants a B-theory of time where all past, present and future events are equally real. Does the paper literally become ashes with a block time theory? The answer is no. This is because the whole series of events are equally existent and so the paper cannot be said to ever be annihilated and become absorbed into the new thing. So when we see the pile of ashes at moment 3, the paper still technically exists at that earlier moment 1, and so the paper cannot be said to literally become the ashes with a B-theory of time. Hence, an Aristotelian notion of potentiality is unintelligible given a block universe theory and this seems to be at least one reason why the B-theory of time undermines materialism. Hence, not one collection of material that was once originally unconscious could be said to later become conscious given a B-theory time. After all, if the materialist cannot posit a potency in matter to become conscious with a B-theory of time then the only alternative left for the materialist is the problem of getting consciousness out of nothing or from its complete absence.
Nonetheless, leaving aside how the B-theory may undermine emergentism and the notion of potentiality, let us assume, for the sake of argument, that the presentist theory of time is true and that things really “become” other things. The materialist could say that since only the present moment is real, that it may be intelligible to say that matter can become conscious. At moment 1, there only lies this collection of unconscious matter and then that moment ceases to exist and now this same collection of matter organized a certain way is now conscious at moment 2. But the problem with this is that we no longer have matter becoming something else that is strictly similar to paper becoming ashes. Instead, we actually have an instance of creation out of nothing.
In the normal process of material things appearing to become other things like water into ice, paper into ashes, honey into crystals, one has a situation in which one begins with material and then ends with material in a different formation. But to say that matter has the ability to become conscious or to produce consciousness is tantamount to saying that matter has the ability to create something out of nothing or to create something without simply configuring any pre-existent material.
Consciousness in itself is immaterial; it is not composed of matter or energy. It makes no sense to say that my thoughts about Missouri are composed of two electrons and one proton and weigh a miniscule amount. So if matter creates an immaterial thing like consciousness then it would have to create it ex nihilo. It may be for the materialist, that when matter comes under a certain structure like the brain then we can expect mental states to occur; but the mental states themselves cannot be identical with any material structure or formation like the brain. In other words, the material in any form would be producing something wholly in addition to itself if it were producing consciousness. And that is essentially a form of creation out of nothing particularly if we are assuming that all matter was originally unconscious from the start. How can matter or material substance produce something out of nothing?
Another way to illustrate this problem is to think about David Chalmers’ “zombie thought experiment“. Chalmers calls us to imagine a world where people are alive and have identical brain states and behaviors like normal people but whom all have no consciousness. These people are thus “zombies” since they have no subjective awareness and thought going on. Is it logically possible for there to be a person with identical brain states and behaviors and be alive like a normal person and yet have no thoughts and awareness? It certainly seems so as Chalmers points out because there’s no logical contradiction in the idea of a person being alive and having identical brain states and behaviors and yet having no consciousness. The idea of a zombie or a person with similar brain states that lacks consciousness is thus not a contradictory idea like a “circle-square” or something that’s a circle and at the same time not a circle but a square.
It’s evident that when we see other people with normal behaviors (and brain states going on) we can reasonably assume they are also conscious. However, the real difference between a zombie and a conscious person is not some missing chemical or some different material or bodily formation, the real difference lies in that one living organism has subjective awareness and the other does not! Therefore, since consciousness is a unique phenomenon in its own right that differs from matter and energy and the different structures and states it can take as such, then it seems that if matter creates the mind then it would have to create the mind out of nothing just like how some people think that God created the universe out of nothing about 13 billion years ago (or 10,000 years ago).
But then how can matter have this god-like power to create something out of nothing? How can it really just push consciousness from complete non-being to being? How can we expect that given a certain material structure and formation that perception and thought will immediately arise? And why does consciousness arise only from certain material structures and not from other ones like a heap of sand? If consciousness could all the sudden come into existence when a living brain is formed then why doesn’t consciousness jump into existence with other material forms like a calculator or a Lego castle? This is a problem with the traditional materialist notion that when the right states and formations of matter are met that consciousness all the sudden comes into existence. It is essentially a problem of how can we bridge the gap between non-being and being and make something that is totally non-existent become something real and existent. To my knowledge there is no reasonable solution for the materialist in this regard.
There is, of course, another possible idea known as panpsychism or the theory that all matter is conscious at least at some primitive level. In the case of panpyschism, there would not be this problem of getting something out of nothing or deriving consciousness from unconscious matter since all matter would be conscious from the beginning.
With panpsychism, consciousness simply develops as material bodies develop and evolve. Now panpsychism is another idea altogether that differs from traditional materialism or emergentism and I will treat it more thoroughly in another article. But even if we were to accept the panpsychist solution, it would only switch the problem from “how can unconscious matter become conscious” to “how can primitive conscious matter move to more intellectually developed conscious matter?” In other words, panpsychism seems to only complicate things only in a different manner. Nevertheless, my point remains the same, if the materialist or emergentist assumes that matter is initially unconscious and that it can later become conscious then this view is saddled with the severe problem of how can consciousness be moved into existence out of nothing by merely configuring matter.