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.