Dear Princess ‘Ishka,
One of the most fascinating topics in philosophy is the “mind-body” problem. In a material world, described by empirical sciences, mental phenomena like consciousness, subjectivity, reflection, etc. still strike quite as an oddity. It seems hard to describe first-personal mental states with the third-personal language of the physical sciences.
“Emergentism”, as I understand it here, in its mainstream version, is a unifying metaphysical theory of mental and physical phenomena. It holds that experimental sciences describe the world reliably and that nothing exists independently of its material form. However, depending on different levels of complexity, different assets of particles and contextual organizations, matter assumes different and respective properties. Aggregates present properties that their individual components lack (supervenience) and new “emergent properties” are irreducible to “more basic properties”: they can’t be explained exhaustively with them and they have a “causal force” of their own, independent of the causal force of “more basic properties”.
The ambition of emergentism is to explain consciousness and solve the mind-body problem with emergent properties. Just like the liquidity of water supervenes the properties of its single molecules, so does consciousness supervene billions of neurons. All mental phenomena are emergent properties of a particular organization of matter, they are irreducible and they participate to processes of causation “on their own”.
It is not my intention to question specific emergentist theories. However, I would like to propose a quartet of objections to its mainstream understanding, at least to open the path to different interpretations of the mind-body problem. Here they are:
- Underdetermination: Emergentism risks to put on the same scale completely disparate phenomena, like the liquidity of water and consciousness. Liquidity is about the states of matter and can be described as the outcome of specific interactions of particles. Consciousness, on the other hand, needs a “first personal scale” about the complexity of mental states and their degree of “unification” in a subjective point of view. I can’t imagine any explanatory chain connecting these two scales, and emergentism doesn’t provide any. If we abandon the idea of a scale, but still hold emergentism, emergent properties would be arbitrarily popping up here and there without any criterion other than weak analogies and without any actual theory. Either with or without a scale, emergentism seems to have a problem in determining the difference among emergent phenomena.
- Overdetermination: Emergentism gives a unified character to consciousness: consciousness is “one property”, just like liquidity. However, I wonder whether liquidity is indeed one single such property: what if we simply categorize a state of water that is much more complicated than what we perceive? We see liquid water becoming solid or a gas, and we need liquid water to drink. But don’t we see the redness of a tomato turning to brown or staying yellowish in the same way, also knowing that we need red tomatoes to eat? And isn’t the redness of a tomato the outcome of a particular reflection of light, just like the liquidity of water an outcome of a conformation of water molecules?
What I am trying to say is that “liquidity” as “one single property” might just be an effect of how our senses developed over evolutionary time to spot drinkable water, but could indeed be much more complicated than that and far less unified. In the same way, consciousness might require an extremely complicated explanation accounting for interrelations between conscious beings, its coming in degrees and in different kinds. To say that consciousness is one single property without further elucidations, is to illicitly overdetermine it.
- Explanatory Powerlessness: Emergentism doesn’t give any actual explanation of how emergent properties arise, as part of the axiom of irreducibility. However, this attitude risks to “reify” labels, which might just be useful categories in reality and nothing more than that. Emergentism doesn’t really explain consciousness, it limits itself to postulate that at complexity X we obtain property Y, but it remains silent about the connection between X and Y, about what constitute the complexity of X and about what kind of property Y is. At best, emergentism tells us that the names we use for such things as liquidity or consciousness stand for concrete things, but more in the guise of a blind reassurance, rather than with explanatory power.
- Sidestepping: Emergentism sidesteps the big challenge of the mind-body problem: consciousness is first-personal, whereas matter and its properties can be described only third-personally. If consciousness becomes an emergent property of the brain, we should be able to describe it as a function, or one of its features, but we lose its first-personal character.
These are (roughly) the reasons why I am not yet an emergentist. As I said before, I am skeptical about the possibility of giving a unified solution to the mind-body problem. From my point of view, we have just a kaleidoscope of unified stories about the world: physics gives us one, chemistry another, and also biology, history, anthropology, sociology, etc. Sometimes, these stories are interlocking, but sometimes they just respectfully ignore each other. Most of them exclude consciousness from their explanations, usually because it is not needed. But consciousness is undoubtedly part of this world, and it is worth inquiring into its nature with appropriate tools, which are most probably not those of the empirical sciences (not even neurology).