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The Emergence of Consciousness

I love reading philosophy. For years, I’ve yearned for people with whom I can discuss all the things I’ve read and the thoughts I’m constantly mulling over about this universe. I’m constantly on the way to wisdom — hence this blog and the ideas in it.

In the last year or so, this has even led to listening to philosophy podcasts. One I listened to a couple months back about consciousness left me miffed. I’ve been reading a lot about psychology, Buddhism, philosophy of mind, evolutionary theory, and nonlinear dynamics/complexity theory in the last few years, so I’ve got a lot of interest in these questions, not to mention my educational background in phenomenology. Consciousness is an interesting thing to ponder. It’s both the heart of and engine of all of our experience as well as one of the most profound mysteries of our mind.

Unfortunately, these philosophers didn’t see it with quite this open-minded wonder. They dismissed the idea of consciousness being an emergent process out of hand, preferring rather more staid ideas about the soul or panpsychism (the idea that consciousness exists in everything and can somehow aggregate). They even pish-poshed scientists who study these issues in depth. In some regard, this is precisely my experience with and what I would expect of types schooled in a more theological background in philosophy, like these men were.

The problem with emergent properties is that the term is vague, and it’s difficult to explain. I recently was reading about all the non-linear dynamics at play in a hurricane: the hot air, the moisture, the cycles of cooling air falling, and the churn of it rising again as it warms. This set of conditions (and I’m sure several more that I’ve overlooked in my brief and only marginally informed description) are a system with emergent properties.

Perhaps a better example is one that occurred to me as I walked home tonight. Have you ever heard that no two snowflakes are the same? I can’t speak to this assertion, and I would have to presume that such a theory is unverifiable — there’s no way to measure and compare every snowflake that falls, even in a minuscule flurry. However, it wouldn’t take many observations to note the wide variation in forms and that it’s extremely unlikely for any two snowflakes to be the same. However, the complexity of such a simple, small thing shows the power of nonlinear dynamics. A few variables can combine with strong sensitivity to small changes that can lead to an elaborate array of different results. These complex formations are emergent properties dependent on those variables.

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Now, if we can consider snowflakes as possessing emergent properties due to nonlinear processes at work, how could one even dismiss considering emergent properties as an explanation of the elaborate array of nonlinear processes at work in the human brain — various modules, neurotransmitters, and bioelectric currents, all coming together to create experiences that are more or less holistic experience (ignoring the aspects that are completely cut off from conscious awareness)? In fact, as a nonlinear system, these wholes that arise as some sort of sum of all these elaborate interactions must be emergent properties. The metaphysical discussion has to be tacked on top of that; it cannot simply replace the evidence based on ideological assertions or conceptual arguments. I’m reminded here of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. If consciousness is explored only in terms of concepts and arguments, it will be woefully misrepresented as pure reason in ways that have disconnected themselves from the observable data on the matter. This is simply no manner for philosophy to behave especially in this scientifically more advanced day and age than that of even 30 or 40 years ago.

This post is a bit of a step away from the standard discussions of this blog, but I hope it gives many new things to think about. If you have questions or want resources to look into these questions yourself, please contact me, and I’ll do my best to speak to these further or point you to better experts than myself.

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