The Failure of Emergentism

When it comes to conceptualizing the origin of consciousness, the non-theological possibilities are limited, in the largest sense, to either emergentism or panpsychism. Either awareness came about at some point in the history of the universe through evolutionary accident, or it was here all along. Like gender preference, handedness or the ability to see Magic Eye 3D images, the trait of being able to conceptualize the irreducibility of awareness appears to be innate rather than learnable. There may be exceptions, but for the most part, people who are very interested in scientific approaches to consciousness are fixated on it as an emergent medium rather than a fundamental principle. This medium is presumed to have developed from, or is an emergent property of the communication of zoologically relevant facts to a neurochemical computer.

There is nothing wrong with emergence which follows inevitably – i.e. a bumpy ride emerges from a flat tire, but the idea of a metaphysical universe of colors, flavors, people, etc “emerging” as a data compression schema is absurd because it can’t be justified in any way. If the laws of physics can generate a functioning immune system without this kind of aesthetic theatrical presentation, then the bumblings of an unremarkable hominid looking for some food and shelter should certainly not require that such a thing would or could emerge.

The problem, as Raymond Tallis discusses in his book “Aping Mankind” is that most people approach consciousness retrospectively – after the fact. It’s easy to make a story, given that consciousness does exist, which makes its existence seem plausible to itself. Trying it the other way however, with a prospective view of consciousness in which we start from the universe which physics gives us – devoid of experience and aesthetics, and see how you can get from a wavelength of electromagnetic activity to the color ‘blue’. Why blue? Why not xlue or itchy#7? Why not simply retain the frequency in its precise quantitative form? Consciousness as an emergent property of data processing makes as much sense as installing a TV camera in a CPU so that it can look at a diagram of its own activity on a tiny TV screen, or including a beautifully designed dashboard inside a computer driven car.

To use an example of a bumpy ride emerging from a flat tire as a defining image for emergence may not be entirely fair. Something like the sound of whistle emerging from the articulation of lips and breath may be a better representation of what inspires legitimacy for the emergentist view.  The flat tire example isn’t a straw man however, because the point that emergence must require mechanical justification is just as true with whistling as it is with driving on a defective wheel, but the wheel example exposes the logic of that requirement simply and clearly. The whistle example is more seductive. The emergentist can say “Aha! You see? You could not have predicted that a whistle sound could appear just from this kind of mechanical process of lips and breath, yet there it is!”

This would be compelling, except that the whistle sound is dependent upon a sense of hearing. Mechanically, there is a quantitatively measurable difference, I am sure, between the material resonance of a whistling exhale and a non-whistling exhale, and that measurable difference corresponds to the sympathetic resonances of walls, floors, eardrums, etc. The pattern may indeed be statistically significant. There is a sudden change in the behavior of matter when the exhalation is compressed in such and such a way, and that can be understood mechanically, and reproduced with a simple notched tube.  Still – there is no mechanical reason why any of those transmissions of acoustic data would be rendered as any kind of experience, let alone as sonic experience.

Rather than the an emergent property of machine behaviors, consciousness makes more sense as a localization of sensitivity that has diverged from primordial pansensitivity. The ancestor of human consciousness cannot be only an aggregate of unconscious mechanisms as mechanism itself can only arise from a meta-lectic of sensory-motive capacities: to be and do, to know and evaluate.

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  1. Timothy M
    July 30, 2014 at 3:47 pm

    It seems that you’re confusing emergentism with a form of naïve vitalism, which is not an idea that is taken seriously anymore. I don’t think you can make a claim about the “failure of emergentism” since it is usually compatible with the physicalist view of reality. The idea is not that virtual reality detaches from physical processes and attains its own efficacy (as with vitalism), but that virtual experience is the immanent plane on which these processes occur. The emergent virtual sense is the crucial and irreducible site of these processes.

    • July 30, 2014 at 4:36 pm

      I’m not thinking of emergentism that way. I’m pointing out the circularity of making a distinction between virtual and non-virtual is itself an expectation within conscious understanding, and has no meaning in an ontological sense. Here is a more recent blog post that might help clarify:

      Emergence is not a solution.

      It is easy to say that consciousness is an emergent property of physics or of information, but when we look more closely at emergence, what we are really talking about already is the appearance of a phenomenon which we do not expect. This becomes a problem if we try to apply it to consciousness itself, since we would have to remove the existence of our own expectation from the equation, and the idea of physics emerging from itself for itself becomes meaningless. It’s like saying that hide and go seek is a game which is hidden in hide and go seek.

      It’s confusing enough to allow us to impress ourselves (‘Emergence’ sounds better than ‘Magically appears because of natural reasons’) but it has no explanatory power at all. An airplane’s ability to fly may seem emergent to us because we don’t think of the parts of a plain as being able to fly, but any part of a plane can be thrown into the air and will remain aloft for some period of time. We see that different objects fall differently depending on the wind and their shape (leaves in the wind, birds in the sky), so that it is not really such a huge stretch that powered flight could emerge from moving correctly shaped objects at the right speed.

      Consciousness is not like an airplane. No part of the brain seems to include feelings, flavors, sounds, etc. There are only ordinary cells, doing ordinary biochemistry – nothing which would entail a subjective presence. I think that the philosopher David Chalmers said it perfectly:

      The first is my claim that consciousness is a nonphysical feature of the world. I resisted this claim for a long time, before concluding that it is forced on one by a sound argument. The argument is complex, but the basic idea is simple: the physical structure of the world—the exact distribution of particles, fields, and forces in spacetime—is logically consistent with the absence of consciousness, so the presence of consciousness is a further fact about our world. – ‘Consciousness and the Philosophers’: An Exchange by David J. Chalmers

  2. Timothy M
    July 31, 2014 at 12:58 am

    I still don’t think we are talking about the same kind of emergentism. I don’t believe emergentism necessarily entails a distinction between virtual and physical processes. We are accepting neither substance- nor property-dualism here. I think the important difference to be noted is between ‘strong’ and ‘weak’ emergentism. It seems to me you are trying to refute ‘strong’ emergentism, which is not quite different from naive vitalism. ‘Strong’ emergentism holds that virtual reality emerges out of physical processes and thereby becomes autonomous from them. I am not accepting this theory.
    ‘Weak’ emergentism, however, is fully compatible with both the physicalist and the reductionist view of reality. It holds that all higher-level processes are in principle reducible to lower-lowel physical processes. There is no ‘magic’ and no detachment from physical reality. Therefore, there is no physical distinction between the virtual and non-virtual. The difference with ‘weak’ emergentism is that the entirety of lower-level processes do not serve as a feasible explanatory principle given their complexity. ‘Weak’ emergentism describes more of an epistemological position than an alternative view of physical reality. I think Bedau gives a good explanation of this concept:
    When weak emergence arises, the actual underlying local micro-causal processes are so complex that, in principle, complete and accurate explanations of macro-behavior are all incompressible. The emergent phenomena that arise from complex synergistic micro-causal explanations are explanatorily incompressible for the naturalistic epistemic agent (Bedau, 453).
    It is indisputable that phenomena are reducible to lower-level physical processess. The problem is that for an epistemic agent the complexity of these processes is impractical as an explanatory principle. You ask “Why not simply retain the frequency in its precise quantitative form?” My answer is, how could you? How could you conceivably comprehend the complete system of physical processes underlying an event as it occurs? ‘Weak’ emergence’ allows a viable explanation for these higher-level processes, particularly within phenomenological inquiry.
    I think the topic of reductionism is relevant here since it is compatible with ‘weak’ emergentism. However, it’s important to make the distinction between good and bad reductionism — or as Dennett says, good and ‘greedy’ reductionism. The issue is not with with good reductionism, since in principle it agrees with physical monism. ‘Greedy’ reductionism, however, attempts to explain the micro-causes of observable higher-level processes at an impractical level. The point is not to explain these processes at their most basic, physical level of “cranes,” but rather to explain them without the use of supernaturalistic “skyhooks.”
    Therefore, I don’t think you’re justified to say that emergentism has failed since you have not made the distinction between ‘strong’ and ‘weak’ emergentism and treat ‘strong’ emergentism as the only version.

    • July 31, 2014 at 3:03 am

      “I don’t believe emergentism necessarily entails a distinction between virtual and physical processes”

      Neither do I, but every form of emergentism requires a primary context and a context which ’emerges’ from it. What that really means though is that it is all really the primary context (physics, information, nature, doesn’t matter) but that the secondary context is one which is surprising to us because of our limited access to understand its origin. What I’m saying is that doesn’t work for consciousness if consciousness is necessary for the effect of that surprise. Unconsciousness cannot be surprised.

      ” ‘Strong’ emergentism holds that virtual reality emerges out of physical processes and thereby becomes autonomous from them. ”

      Right, but no, I’m not assuming anything like that. I use the airplane example since it illustrates a clear case where the machine seems to have a new property which the parts do not have, but that property is in no way autonomous from the parts. My critique is that the airplane example shows how inappropriate this very ordinary, weak emergence is to base a theory of awareness or qualia on.

      “There is no ‘magic’ and no detachment from physical reality.”

      The magic is smuggled into the the beginning assumption that something other than consciousness can discern between higher and lower level processes. By taking levels of description for granted, the entire phenomenon of awareness is made redundant from the start, and then we get distracted by the irrelevant side issues within engineering and systems theory.

      “The difference with ‘weak’ emergentism is that the entirety of lower-level processes do not serve as a feasible explanatory principle given their complexity.”

      Right, but complexity itself is also a function of consciousness and its ability to bracket a given phenomenon as its own isolated context, or as part of a larger set of interacting contexts. Without consciousness, what is discerning where a phenomenon leaves off and another one begins? Consciousness is not complex, it is fantastically simple. Pain hurts. Pleasure feels good. No lower-level processes need be involved.

      “When weak emergence arises, the actual underlying local micro-causal processes are so complex that, in principle, complete and accurate explanations of macro-behavior are all incompressible”

      I understand, but it’s only projecting our own human mental limits onto the cosmos. To say that consciousness is incompressible to physics yet ultimately reducible to physics is to invoke a non-physical “compressibility” without any justification.

      “It is indisputable that phenomena are reducible to lower-level physical processess. ”

      Not true. I dispute that entirely. It is physics which is reducible to ‘lower’-level sensory-motive phenomena.

      “The problem is that for an epistemic agent the complexity of these processes is impractical as an explanatory principle. ”

      It doesn’t matter. A practical explanatory principle requires only the usual quantitative methods of compression, not the invention of an entire cosmos of unexplained aesthetic qualia.

      “You ask “Why not simply retain the frequency in its precise quantitative form?” My answer is, how could you? How could you conceivably comprehend the complete system of physical processes underlying an event as it occurs?”

      The same way that Deep Blue plays chess, by ordinary information processing: Silent, invisible, intangible notifications of quantitatively coded events. Recursive enumeration. Spanning tree protocols. Besides, even if you could not accomplish what a human body does to survive with only quantitative methods (although I can’t see what’s so special about a hominid’s survival that requires Disneyland inside its skull), that certainly does not entitle us to conjure qualia into being. If computation can’t run a human body unconsciously, then there wouldn’t be human bodies, that’s all. It’s begging the question to just say that the computer needs to do a heavy task so invents qualia out of thin air.

      “Therefore, I don’t think you’re justified to say that emergentism has failed since you have not made the distinction between ‘strong’ and ‘weak’ emergentism and treat ‘strong’ emergentism as the only version.”

      I appreciate your civility and focus (something of a rarity in my philosophical opponents it seems to me), but I think that you’re underestimating how fundamental my criticism of emergentism goes. It has nothing to do with physics or information theory or philosophy, but with simply clarifying what is and is not possible without any form of awareness.

  3. Timothy M
    July 31, 2014 at 7:42 am

    I think I understand your argument better now. I suppose for the most part I even agree with you. The ’emergence’ of consciousness is redundant since it is only for consciousness that something can first emerge. It’s a self-reflexive description of the same thing. I feel that the word ’emergence’ can render itself problematic in many ways. Would you say that consciousness could be described better as an epiphenomenon of physical processes, or would that too be redundant?… I suppose my point simply is that I don’t reject emergentism completely on the basis that I think epistemological emergentism can still be maintained. The fact that our mental faculty is limited in understanding complete physical processes certainly doesn’t make those processes any less complex, however our experience of phenomena doesn’t immediately lend itself to that totality. I suppose, moreover, that it depends to some extent on how you interpret reality — that is, from a correlationist or a speculative realist point of view. If it’s the former, then perhaps science will have to finally accept a pan-experiential ontology as the primary basis of inquiry. In this way, phenomenology would be the indispensable starting point and end point of knowledge, and epistemological emergentism would perhaps make more sense. If it’s the latter, then we can abandon the principle of sufficient reason and make claims about the existence of the world independent of the mind. The problem is how to estrange oneself from the deadlock of making such claims that inevitably arise from thought.

  4. October 22, 2017 at 2:15 pm

    What is misleading here is the apparent disregard for the clarity of how an organism’s cellular architecture first differentiates and then progressively integrates self – non-self material existence and sensible energy channels that reliably induce physically independent systems and behaviors based on gene-environment interaction. From the point of view of human conscious experience, the details of this process are spiritual and not directly perceivable, i.e. are only indirectly aspects of consciousness through motivational states representing the real-time culmination of phylogenetic with ontogenetic computational imperatives. In other words, while consciousness is certainly not required for living systems to evolve and importantly to attain the capacity for niche construction, I argue that the human experience of linear, reflective, and social contemplative conscious streams relies on the maturity of a virtual reality superimposed upon dictated re-presentational reality which only emerges given a suitably protected developmental period where the organism’s neural system may automatize information processing (procedural, sensory, and emotional) chunks whose meaning exists in the emergent integrated culture and are not perceivable to dis-integrated processing systems. single cells. or influenced directly by DNA. So the conscious experience mediating macroscopic interaction has been presence all along in the organism, but becomes critically extended and elaborated as the computations required for recognizing distinctions draw on the integration across sensorimotor modalities and motivational states with respect to objects in a conceptual rather than physical world to provide a fitness advantage in the organism. To summarize, the argument that consciousness is unnecessary to accomplish the needs of the human species fails because it has been present for all multicellular species as the fundamental substrate distinguishing the unified entity from the sum of its’ independent components (failure to integrate defining cancer among other things), and requires the special conditions found in the stability of niche constructed reliant (domesticated) processing to manifest.

    I realize that what I just typed is not very clear or coherent, as a couple of different threads emerged, all related, but to make that relation evident as an argument would take some time that I’ll only invest if someone is actually going to see this since the last post was 3+ years ago. . ..But to put it in a sentence: the experience and computations of “human conscious experience” are but an elaboration of the general stage that emerges where and when the dis-integrated microscopic capacities and reflex arcs leave off in the arc of evolutionary development .

    • October 22, 2017 at 5:46 pm

      For me the issue of emergence is not at the level of human psychology, it is at the level of physics and metaphysics. Physics cannot have any metaphysical ‘elaborations’, such as feelings, sensations, thoughts, etc. Physics is about the motion of objects: particles, molecules, cells, bodies, All physical forces and fields are really abstractions which have been inferred because of our observations of how objects or material instruments change shape, position, or velocity in our perception.

  1. October 1, 2013 at 9:33 pm
  2. December 20, 2013 at 10:33 pm
  3. December 10, 2014 at 1:52 pm
  4. April 25, 2015 at 9:31 pm

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