The C Word — Consciousness — and Emergence

Absent-minded Science, Part IV

At a recent talk I attended at UC Santa Barbara, Professor Marcus Raichle, one of the pioneers of brain imaging, jokingly referred to consciousness as the “C word.”

His little joke highlighted the fact that for many working neuroscientists and others who think about the brain, trying to explain what consciousness actually is – as opposed to explaining the various functions of brains – is still a bit frowned upon. It also seems that many neuroscientists who do think about the “hard problem” of consciousness – the mind/body problem by a different name – believe that once we explain the functions of brains there’s really not much, if anything, left to explain about consciousness itself.

Tam Hunt

I find in my discussions on consciousness that arguments about “emergence,” well, emerge as a response from critics time and time again. Consciousness is, in this view, simply an emergent property of complex biological structures like brains.

I’ve written a number of essays (and an unpublished book) defending the alternative panpsychist view of consciousness. The type of panpsychism I find compelling is that developed into a comprehensive system by Alfred North Whitehead, Henri Bergson, Charles Hartshorne, David Ray Griffin, and many others during the 20th Century. It is growing in popularity, but still a minority view.

The basic idea is that all components of the universe have at least some rudimentary type of consciousness or experience, which are just different words for subjectivity or awareness. The key question for panpsychist theories of consciousness is why some aggregations of matter contain unitary subjects and others don’t (saying “unitary subject” is actually redundant but I want to be entirely clear).

For example, no modern panpsychist that I know of argues that a chair or a rock is conscious - despite the bad jokes often lobbed at panpsychists. Rather, the molecules that comprise the chair or rock presumably have a very rudimentary type of consciousness but the larger objects themselves (again, presumably) lack the kind of interconnections required to become unitary subjects.

The subjects we know best are humans. Each of us, in fact, knows exactly one subject intimately: ourselves. Clearly, then, some aggregates of matter do in fact produce a complex unitary subject and we call this our “mind.”

The “hard problem” of consciousness is figuring out the relationship between mind and matter and why some matter gives rise to unitary subjects and why others don’t. Why am I conscious, and you, and my cat, but not the chair or the rock?

We have literally no certainty as to what objects in the universe, other than ourselves, are also subjects because we can only know our own self as a subject. We must, then, use reasonable inference to determine what other objects in the universe are also subjects.

And it is through reasonable inference that we can conclude that panpsychism is a better solution to the hard problem than its competitors. This is a strong statement, to be sure, but I have presented numerous lines of reasoning to support this assertion in previous essays and present some additional lines below.

The prevailing position with respect to the above-referenced hard problem, however, seems to be some type of “emergence” theory. The basic idea is that mind simply emerges from matter in certain complex forms, just like wetness or solidity or color emerge from matter in certain situations.

Jeffrey Goldstein provides a concise and clear definition in a 1999 paper: Emergence is “the arising of novel and coherent structures, patterns and properties during the process of self-organization in complex systems.” There are many other definitions, of course, but this one is good for present purposes.

So, is mind like wetness or other emergent physical properties? To my mind (pardon the pun), the answer is a resounding “No.”

There is a crucial difference. Let’s take liquidity. Liquidity is indeed a new feature of molecules that isn’t present until the right conditions are present. Hydrogen and oxygen molecules aren’t themselves liquid at room temperature. And yet the liquidity of water is entirely explicable by looking at how these molecules interact with each other. There is really no mystery now (well, surely some, but not much) in how these molecules combine to form dipolar molecules that attract each other more loosely than in a solid but less loosely than in the constituent gases. In other words, liquidity is pretty predictable, or at least explicable, when we consider the constituents of any given liquid. We’re dealing with “outsides” at every step in this process - first the outsides of the individual molecules and then the outsides of the combination of molecules in the liquid.

We can strengthen the point even further by considering the fact that both hydrogen and oxygen become liquids of their own if we cool them enough. Liquid hydrogen “emerges” from gaseous hydrogen at -423 degrees Fahrenheit. Liquid oxygen emerges from gaseous oxygen at the comparatively balmy temperature of -297 degrees. Liquidity thus emerges at different temperatures as a relatively straightforward shift in the types of bonds between the constituent molecules.

Consciousness is entirely different because we are not talking about relational properties of the outsides of various substances. We are talking about insides, experience, consciousness, phenomena, qualia, and all the other terms we can use for mind or subjectivity. And when we define our physical constituents as wholly lacking in mind then it is literally impossible for mind to “emerge” from this wholly mindless substrate. Emergence of mind from no-mind is what Strawson calls “radical emergence” and he makes basically the same argument that I’ve made here as to its impossibility, in “Realistic Monism” and Consciousness and Its Place in Nature.

It is “radical” because the emergence of insides from what previously consisted only of outsides would be the spontaneous creation of an entirely new category of reality. And it is philosophically profligate to suggest that this kind of thing can happen when there are other, more plausible, alternatives.

Now, maybe impossibility is too strong a word. Granted, at this level of abstraction we can’t prove anything (can anything be proved, period?). I can’t prove that it is impossible for mind to emerge from matter where it was wholly absent before. So perhaps a better word would be implausible. It is highly implausible, then, that the inside of matter (mind, consciousness) would suddenly emerge at some arbitrary midpoint in the history of the universe. Sewall Wright, a well-known American evolutionary biologist, stated it well in a 1977 article: “[E]mergence of mind from no mind is sheer magic.”

Colin McGinn, a British philosopher, states perhaps even more forcefully why emergentism fails:

“[W]e do not know how consciousness might have arisen by natural processes from antecedently existing material things. Somehow or other sentience sprang from pulpy matter, giving matter an inner aspect, but we have no idea how this leap was propelled… . One is tempted, however reluctantly, to turn to divine assistance: for only a kind of miracle could produce this from that. It would take a supernatural magician to extract consciousness from matter. Consciousness appears to introduce a sharp break in the natural order-a point at which scientific naturalism runs out of steam.”

In light of these arguments, isn’t it far more plausible that mind is simply present where matter is present instead of emerging for the first time at a seemingly arbitrary midpoint in the history of our universe?

This is the panpsychist position: Where there is matter there is also mind; they are two aspects of the same thing. As matter complexifies, so mind complexifies. (The details become far more complex than this, but this is the basic position).

Alan Watts said it best: “For every inside there is an outside, and for every outside there is an inside; though they are different, they go together.”

It seems, then, that today’s prevailing theory that advocates mind as a purely emergent phenomenon has major problems.

But what about those thinkers who come at the hard problem from a less dogmatic or materialistic position?

Ken Wilber, an increasingly well-known American philosopher and social critic who is no materialist, to be sure, argues that mind is in fact a case of “novel emergence” in his monumental 1995 work Sex, Ecology, Spirituality: The Spirit of Evolution. Wilber elaborates in great detail Arthur Koestler’s original idea that all of reality is comprised of holons, which are part/wholes. Holons are parts when they look upward in whatever hierarchy they belong to, and are wholes when they look downward. Wilber at times argues for what seems to be panpsychism, and he clearly has strong sympathies with this position.

Yet he also argues for the emergence of mind and the nöosphere more generally. He suggests (p. 100) that mind and the nöosphere arise through “novel emergence.” And in footnote 13 (p. 540), he explicitly criticizes the panpsychist position that even the most fundamental constituents of reality have some type of mind, writing: “Do atoms possess an actual prehension (Whitehead) or perception (Leibniz)? I don’t know; that seems a bit much.”

It seems, then, that Wilber is not entirely of one mind on this issue. We can, however, argue, for the same reasons presented above, that it is implausible to suggest that mind is a case of “novel emergence.” Surely if all of reality is comprised of holons, as Wilber argues assiduously, and that all holons have an outside and an inside, then this “inside” must be some degree of mind. If it isn’t, then what is it?

In footnote 13, Wilber states that the inside should be described as “depth” rather than mind per se. But this is no help at all. Framing inside as depth seems like an empty well unless we agree that depth is synonymous with mentality. And in other parts of SES, Wilber does suggest exactly this (footnote 25, p. 548, for example): “Forms of consciousness do indeed emerge (as forms of matter do), but consciousness itself is simply alongside all along, as the interior of whatever form is there (from the moment of creation).”

In closing, I want to reiterate that there can be no certainty in this discussion. If we are intellectually honest, the best we can say is “position x seems better than position y because of a, b, c reasons.” And this is the nature of philosophy more generally – and of science, for that matter, even if this truth is not widely acknowledged.

Yet, for the many reasons I’ve set forth in this series of essays it does indeed seem that the panpsychist position is better at explaining the hard problem of consciousness than the various types of emergence arguments. And “better” in this case simply means “more plausible.”

This means, fortunately for people like me who enjoy the exchange of ideas, that the C word will be the subject of much spirited debate for many years to come.

Tam Hunt, J.D., is a philosopher, lawyer and biologist who lives in Santa Barbara. His blog, “Thought, Spirit, Politik,” is at

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