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The Human Nature Review Human Nature Review  2002 Volume 2: 249-252 ( 25 June )
URL of this document http://human-nature.com/nibbs/02/obrien.html

Book Review

The Emergence of Consciousness
edited by Anthony Freeman.
Imprint Academic, 2001

Reviewed by Dan O'Brien, Ph.D., Department of Philosophy, University of Birmingham, Edgbaston, Birmingham, B14 7AD, United Kingdom.

The Emergence of Consciousness is a reprint of a special issue of the Journal of Consciousness Studies (vol. 8, No. 9-10, 2001). Collected together are eight articles related to the concept of emergence and to its importance with respect to theories of consciousness and the mind. Within, one finds detailed discussion of among other things: reduction, emergence, physicalism, supervenience, and mental causation. More broadly, this book deals with the mind-body problem. Reference is made to all the important contemporary philosophies of mind, from the reductive materialism of Smart to the eliminativism of Churchland (in places, the latter receives rather ironic treatment: “denying the existence of consciousness should not, however, have strong appeal for those with immediate evidence to the contrary”, p.118). Also covered are both emergent and fundamental property dualism; dual aspect monism (the position associated with Spinoza, and more recently Davidson); and the “multi-Revolutions view” in which new ways of conceptualising both the mental and the physical are sought.

The most illuminating paper is that of Van Gulick. He presents a clearly drawn map of the various emergentist and reductive strategies associated with the philosophy of mind. He delineates 10 versions of reduction and 10 versions of emergence. Van Gulick’s paper is, however, an overview, and one of a large and complex field. This paper will help one orientate oneself with respect to the burgeoning literature, but further critical work is required if one is to fully appreciate the debates hereabouts. To assist in this task there is a very comprehensive bibliography.

Let us, then, look a little closer at the particular themes of the book. First, I shall sketch some of the debates that are illuminated, and then move on to consider some of the book’s less successful aspects.

A most important suggestion (Van Gulick / Silberstein) is that there should be a move away from seeing a naturalized philosophy of mind as having a metaphysical choice between reduction and elimination. Rather, there is a continuum, with these two materialist strategies lying at the poles. Certainly, at one end, ontologies such as those concerning demons or phlogiston should be eliminated. However, moving away from this pole, realist philosophies of mind do not have to hold to the kind of reduction advocated by logical empiricists. Logical empiricism holds that: “The most fundamental physical level…is ultimately the ‘real’ ontology of the world, and anything else that is to keep the status of real must somehow be able to be ‘mapped onto’ or ‘built out of’ those elements of the fundamental ontology” (p. 67). With respect to the mind, the strategies that have been followed here include the positing of brute bridge laws in which conscious states are correlated with physical happenings, or identities where conscious states are one and the same as physical states of the brain. It is suggested that, first, such a project has had limited success (there are not many actual convincing cases of such reduction in the scientific literature); and second, the much discussed problems associated with reductive accounts, such as the intentional content of the mental, and the subjective character of consciousness, are highlighted. However, it is claimed that there is another option for the realist. One can reject the logical empiricist quest for the unification of science. One can, as Fodor argues, see the special sciences as autonomous: “adequately representing all the complex features that reality exhibits at its many different levels requires the use of a diversity of theoretical and representational resources beyond those provided by the formal structures of physical science per se” (p.11). Such sciences, then, psychology included, are seen as having a “separate ontological identity”, and thus, various naturalistic philosophies of mind can see conscious mental states, not as being reduced to, but as emerging from the causal flow described by physics.

Emergence is the view that “when material processes reach a certain level of complexity, genuinely novel and unpredictable properties emerge” (p.125). Various interpretations of this claim are considered, the most radical holding to the claim that “there are real features of the world that exist at the system or composite level that are not determined by the law-like regularities that govern the interactions of the parts of such systems and their features” (p.18). Consciousness is not governed by the fundamental laws of physics: “consciousness is a qualitatively new systemic property of the whole that possesses causal properties that are not reducible to any of the intrinsic causal properties of the most basic parts” (p.81). Emergentism is clearly seen as problematic for physicalism. Two problems that are turned to in this book are those concerning mental causation, and the ‘explanatory gap’.

Emergentism seems to lead to a rejection of bottom-up causation and to the acceptance of ‘downward’ causation. Unless one adopts an (unpalatable) epiphenomenalism, conscious mental states must be seen as causally efficacious. However, for emergentists, the laws that describe such causal relations are autonomous with respect to physics. This is seen by many as a worry for physicalism, since the higher order laws (of the mental) may be seen to override the fundamental laws of physical matter, asserting their influence ‘downward’. This runs contrary to the claim that physics is complete, a claim that some see as a cornerstone of physicalism: “physics alone is self-contained; its explanations need make no appeal to the laws of the other sciences, and its laws cover the entities, properties and laws of the special sciences” (p. 87). Various responses and strategies are discussed with respect to this worry.

Many also see an explanatory gap (or gulf) lying between the non-conscious physical states of our brains and the conscious states that somehow arise or emerge from the former. Certain emergent properties, such as the liquidity of water, can be accounted for in terms of the fundamental properties of physics (even though the entities of such a science are not themselves liquid). Conscious mental states, however, are more of a problem. The dualist intuition is strong. It is in countering this problem where the papers in this book are less persuasive.

Hunt and Silberstein suggest that the seeds of consciousness can be found within a physical quantum description of matter. Certain properties of conscious mental states, such as their spontaneity and holistic nature, are shared by quantum effects. Silberstein proposes that quantum mechanics “provide[s] a plausible set of background assumptions for a unified research programme” (p.95). The most radical suggestion is that consciousness should be seen as simply a physical quantum effect. Now, it is not clear how such an account can bridge the explanatory gap, and, regardless of such pessimism, the approach is empirically rash. There is very limited evidence in support of the presence of quantum effects at the neurophysiological level, the level at which most cognitive scientists feel that the gap will be plugged. Hereabouts there is much hand waving and unilluminating technicality: “Perhaps the compound properties throughout the web of the world ‘wink’ in and out of existence through a constant process of coherence and decoherence” (p.86); “I suspect that the fundamental element of the world of which both matter and mind are but aspects, is neither mental nor physical as we generally conceive these categories. My suspicion is based on our best accounts of quantum gravity (such as string theory and M-theory) as well as pregeometric accounts of fundamental reality” (p.90). Much more needs to be done to persuade the reader of the relevance of such quantum considerations.

Moving on, Feinberg rejects the hierarchical model of emergence that sees conscious mental states as holding causal dominion over the physical. Instead, “control of the hierarchy is embodied within the entire hierarchical system” (p.133), and this, he claims, entails that “an entirely physicalist account of the mind-brain is possible” (p.143). However, it is not clear how such a holistic approach avoids the earlier cited problems of mental causation and the explanatory gap.

Feinberg then goes on to suggest that the principle problem for physicalism is that highlighted by Nagel in his famous meditations on what it is like to be a bat. Nagel’s claim is that an objective, third person, scientific theory cannot capture the bat’s (or our) subjective, perspectival, take on reality. Feinberg offers a neurophysiological explanation of this objective / subjective divide, and of intentionality (the fact that our mental states are about states of affairs in the world). He thinks the key to these properties of the mental lies in the fact that the brain is not sensate, and that one cannot be directly aware of one’s own brain, the seat of one’s mind. His first claim is that since we cannot become aware of our own neurons from the inside, then any account of them must be an objective scientific one. Second, for the same reasons, since we cannot direct our attention inward to our neurons, then we must direct it outward, intentionally, to the world. However, both these claims are explanatorily empty. Sure, our brains do not directly refer to themselves, but in Feinberg’s account there is no explanation of just how such intentional, and conscious, access to the world is made possible by the objective physical facts concerning such access.

Similarly underdeveloped is Newton’s (Kantian) claim that consciousness arises through the simultaneous representation of events at different times: “My proposal is that the experiential aspect of phenomenal consciousness is one result of the unification of representations, in the way we actually do this, of distinct temporal moments into a single representational framework, which as a result gains what we call ‘temporal thickness’(p. 54). This is an interesting philosophical point, but without further work it is not clear how it could help to underpin a physicalist story.

As the book progresses, then, the papers become rather more speculative, less clear, and thus, less illuminating. This is highlighted by the (surprising) religious twist in the final two papers. Freeman’s claim is that theism does not have to be wedded to a dualist picture: “The divine element in Christ is now to be understood as an emergent property. Mind emerges from the physical and ‘God-consciousness’ ¾ or simply ‘God’ ¾ is a higher-level property still, caused by and realized in the physical-and-mental-totality of human beings” (p.153). It is also suggested that the supervenience base of such spirituality is not simply the physical states of an individual, but those comprising the social interactions of the community (the ‘Church’). In the final paper, Scott, reflecting on Huston Smith’s Why Religion Matters, calls for a rejection of the current scientistic approach to the philosophy of mind and for a religious investigation into the “mysterious dimensions of human experience” (p.166). Now, I agree that the scientistic assumption that all knowledge must be acquired through scientific investigation is a pernicious influence on the philosophy of mind. And there is much room here for providing an alternative account of what a ‘naturalistic’ account of the mind should look like, and what kind of investigations into the mind are appropriate. However, such a realisation need not result in an empirically or philosophically unwarranted retreat into religion or mysticism.

Such criticisms notwithstanding, this book (and particularly the papers by Van Gulick and Silberstein) can be recommended as a starting point and guide to the various modern views on the place of consciousness in the world, and particularly to the distinction and debate between reduction and emergence.

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© Dan O'Brien.


O'Brien, D. (2002). Review of The Emergence of Consciousness edited by Anthony Freeman. Human Nature Review. 2: 249-252.

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