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Consciousness and mind as emergent phenomena or

emergent properties of the brain.


Abstract: The mind cannot be an emergent property of the brain or any other physical system, since emergent properties and emergent phenomena are psychological in origin, and require the pre-existence of an observer's mind in order to become manifest.


Emergent properties and emergent phenomena

A frequently used materialist argument against the existence of the mind as a non-physical continuum is to claim that it is an 'emergent property' or 'emergent phenomenon' of the brain.

The definition of emergence given in the Dictionary of Philosophy of Mind is

Emergence - Properties of a complex physical system are emergent just in case they are neither (i) properties had by any parts of the system taken in isolation nor (ii) resultant of a mere summation of properties of parts of the system.

Thus a boat which drifts northwestwards in response to a southerly wind and a current flowing from the east is not exhibiting emergent behavior, whereas the products of chemical reactions could be considered emergent. To quote the Dictionary of Philosophy of Mind:

"Consider the following chemical process: CH4 + 2O2 --> CO2 + 2H2O (Methane + oxygen produces carbon dioxide + water). For Mill, the products of such chemical reactions are not, in any sense, the sum of the effects of each reactant. While the mechanics underlying chemical reactions are understood well enough today to render Mill's point dubious, we can see why the above chemical reaction would impress Mill and his contemporaries as significantly different in kind from the Composition of Forces for moving bodies. In the case of the chemical reaction, the resulting compounds exhibit properties significantly different from those of the reactants. For instance, methane is violently combustible, whereas carbon dioxide and water are not. This contrasts sharply against the case of a north-westerly moving object being propelled by two forces--one towards the north, the other towards the west--insofar as the subsequent motion is so obviously decomposable into the effects of the conjoint causes. A very live possibility to consider in connection with these examples is that an enhanced understanding of the processes that underlie some observed property of a system may show that system not to be an example of emergence. That is, an increase of knowledge about the way certain effects are obtained may reveal that certain effects are decomposable into the effects contributed by subcomponents of that system. Mill's chemical examples fail as properly emergent for just this reason. With the development of quantum mechanical explanation, we have been able to see how chemical reactions are composed of additive properties of individual electrons (McLaughlin, 1992, p.89)."

Note that in the case of a chemical reaction, the attribution of emergence differs according to the extent of knowledge of the observers (19th century bucket chemists versus 20th century quantum physicists).

Nevertheless, it is still commonplace to think of certain phenomena, such as biological systems, as as showing complex behavior which somehow emerges uncreated out of far simpler behaviors such as the chemistry of carbon compounds.

The Game of Life as an emergent phenomenon.

One of the most familiar examples of emergent behavior is exhibited by cellular automata, such John Conway's Game of Life and its variants (eg Brian's Brain).  These are available as animations on the web:

The Game is what a computer programmer would nowadays define as an object, which consists of a datastructure (the two dimensional pixel array) and associated algorithms (the rules which determine whether pixels switch on or off according to the state of their neighbors).

The algorithms are extremely simple:

  • A dead cell with exactly three live neighbors becomes a live cell (birth).
  • A live cell with two or three live neighbors stays alive (survival).
  • In all other cases, a cell dies or remains dead (overcrowding or loneliness).

Amazingly,  out of these simple rules operating on a simple datastructure, a complex system of gliders, oscillators etc appears.

But is this really an emergent phenomenon?  If the gliders were to emerge out of the screen and glide around the top of our desk (as distinct from being pixel patterns gliding around our PC desktop),  then we should have to concede that something had emerged.  But all we can say is that an appearance has emerged. 

So, from where has the appearance emerged?

If we search carefully,  we come to the conclusion that we cannot find the complex behavior within the object. The movements of the pixel-structures are algorithmically compressible, with no remainder, back into the rules that generated them. There is no mysterious addition of procedural complexity.

The two-dimensional pixel array remains an array of pixels in two dimensions - it hasn't suddenly changed its nature and become a cube or magically sprouted chess-pieces.

Yet we can't deny that we have observed a phenomenon which has properties which 'look different' and 'feel different' from its constituents.

But if the phenomenon hasn't emerged from the object, then the only other place from which it could have emerged is the mind of the observer.  We are therefore left with the conclusion that emergence is a psychological, not a physical phenomenon. The pixel array is 'nothing but' sequentially illuminated squares on the computer screen. All else is imputed by mind.

David Chalmers makes a similar point in his notes on emergence , quote:

"The notion of reduction is intimately tied to the ease of understanding one level in terms of another. Emergent properties are usually properties that are more easily understood in their own right than in terms of properties at a lower level. This suggests an important observation: Emergence is a psychological property. It is not a metaphysical absolute. Properties are classed as "emergent" based at least in part on (1) the interestingness to a given observer of the high-level property at hand; and (2) the difficulty of an observer's deducing the high-level property from low-level properties"

So we can dismiss all claims that consciousness, mind and awareness are emergent properties of matter or brains, because we need the presence of a mind for emergent properties and phenomena to appear in the first place. The subjective activity of the mind of the observer, together with the 'objective' procedures and the structures upon which they operate, is an irreducible component of emergent  phenomena.

The behavior of cellular automata gives a vivid illustration of the three levels of dependent relationship, as discussed in the article on sunyata :

(1) Gross dependent relationship - the dependence of phenomena on their causes (the algorithms or rules of production).

(2) Subtle dependent relationship - the dependence of phenomena on their perceived parts (the pixels which go to make up the emergent structures).

(3) Very subtle dependent relationship - the dependence of phenomena on imputation by mind.

Emergent all the way up and all the way down?

In addition, the article on sunyata demonstrates that instead of viewing the world in terms of 'things',  we should understand all phenomena in terms of three types of relationships - causal, organisational and imputational.

The universe consists of relationships and only relationships. To ask what the participants in these relationships are in themselves only leads to paradox.

One interesting aspect of emergent phenomena is the different causal and organisational relationships which appear at different levels of investigation.

For example, ecology emerges out of biology, which emerges out of chemistry, which emerges out of physics, which emerges out of mathematics, which emerges out of the mind contemplating the empty set.

Each level of investigation has its own explanatory relationships, yet if we check carefully there is no 'added extra' coming from the side of the objects. (Everything is algorithmically compressible without remainder, there are no mysterious ingredients added as we progress from lower levels to higher levels).

The only place from which these relationships/phenomena can emerge is the mind. Hence we are again forced to conclude that these emergent phenomena are psychological phenomena.

So, even the relationships themselves are imputed by mind and have the nature of mind.

- Sean Robsville

'...All systems subject to the laws of physics can be simulated by algorithms. Hence any system which cannot in principle  be simulated by an algorithm must have a non-physical component...'

Arguments against Buddhism
' ....People get spiritual experiences under the influence of electromagnetic fields such as Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS),   and from psychedelic drugs such as mescalin, LSD, Psilocybe semilanceata and Amanita muscaria. All these transpersonal experiences are simply delusions caused by disruption of the normal electrochemical activity of the neurones.'

' ...Yes and No. There's no doubt that people experience other realms of reality under the influence of TMS  or psychoactive drugs. In these conditions the functioning of the brain is indeed abnormal.  But - you've got to ask yourself - what is the purpose of the normal functioning of the brain? The brain is a device which has evolved by selection of the fittest (not the most truthful) to project the delusion of the inherently-existing self onto the mind. This delusion of a permanent, unchanging self is 'imputed' over the ever-changing transitory collection of biochemical building blocks that makes up the physical aspects of a sentient being. Disruption .... by biochemical or biophysical agents, enables the mind to temporarily push the doors of perception ajar and peek beyond mundane biologically-determined appearances.... '

Artificial Intelligence (AI)
'...Computationalism or philosophical AI, (sometimes also known as Strong AI),  which is the view that all human mental activities are reducible to algorithms, and could therefore be implemented on a computer...'

'...The internal states, inputs and outputs of an automaton have no inherent meaning. Any meaning (semantics) must be assigned from outside the system...'

The very subtle mind
'...The mind is neither physical, nor a by-product of purely physical processes, but a formless continuum that is a separate entity from the body. When the body disintegrates at death, the mind does not cease. Although our superficial conscious mind ceases, it does so by dissolving into a deeper level of consciousness, called 'the very subtle mind'. The continuum of our very subtle mind has no beginning and no end....'

'It has often been remarked by physicists and chemists that the universe is very sensitively tuned to allow life to exist.  If certain physical and chemical constants were just a fraction out from their observed values, life could never have arisen.'

Was Albert Einstein a Buddhist? ... some interesting links.

Empty set - the origins of number
' the final analysis the entire number system has been generated by the play of mind on emptiness, in the complete absence of the need to refer to any material thing, or things, which are being counted.  Numbers are therefore fundamentally devoid of inherent 'Platonic' existence..'

'Epiphenomenalism avoids some of the absurdities of the behaviorists by claiming that consciousness and thought-processes do actually exist, though only as epiphenomena generated by the physical activities of the brain. However,  thoughts have no causative functions!  The illusion of free-will remains precisely that - an illusion'.

Feud between Science and Religion
'Many (most?) scientists believe religions to be irrational, obscurantist and anti-scientific  The problem goes back to Galileo, who discovered that the earth goes round the sun, rather than vice-versa as stated in the Bible.'

Formless mind
'The description of the root mind as 'formless' doesn't just refer to its non-material nature, but it emphasises that it is unlimited, non-mechanistic and totally free from any structure or topology. . In Buddhist psychology the root mind is non-physical and non-algorithmic.  The mind cannot be understood in terms of circuit diagrams and flowcharts. It is pure awareness.'

Mathematics - Its unreasonable effectiveness in science and engineering
So we are left with something of a mystery. According to the physicalist worldview, the mind (including mathematicians' minds) is an epiphenomenon of matter which has evolved solely to ensure the survival of the selfish genes which code for it. Why should this 'top-level' phenomenon have such intimate access to the 'bottom level' phenomena such as quantum physics? After all, the two levels are supposedly separated by less well-understood (in some cases) explanatory layers such as evolutionary psychology,   neurology, cell biology, genetics, molecular biology, and chemistry.

'Metaphysics means, literally,  'beyond physics'.  Metaphysics deals with phenomena which are either more basic than physics, or beyond the reach of physical methods of analysis and understanding.'

Mind - experiencing its non-physical nature
One of the quickest ways to convince yourself that the root mind is not physical, (and is not therefore limited by one birth and one death), is to meditate on the formless nature of the mind.

Non-algorithmic phenomena
'The great difficulty in talking about non-algorithmic phenomena is that although we can say what it is in general terms that they do, it is impossible by their very nature to describe how they do it.  (If we could describe in a stepwise manner what was going on then we could write a computer program to perform the task).'

Parietal Lobe and the physical basis of religious experience
To the average Westerner, deliberately cultivating the idea that your ego doesn't exist as a fixed entity may seem weird and scary, but in fact it can be immensely liberating.   As one of the researcher/meditators taking part in the study said "It feels like a loss of boundary. It's as if the film of your life broke and you were seeing the light that allowed the film to be projected"

Particle physics
Basically, what quantum theory says is that fundamental particles are empty of inherent existence and exist in an undefined state of potentialities. They have no existence 'from their own side' and do not become 'real' until a mind interacts with them and gives them meaning.

Qualia the physical/mental interface
'The Buddhist does not doubt that the brain does some very sophisticated ordering of its incoming nerve impulses into the datastructures which are the objects of knowledge.   But when all is said and done, those datastructures remain as objects. They are not themselves knowledge, neither are they that which performs the function of knowing.'

Sentient beings
What make a sentient being different from an automaton?

Stern and Gerlach's magnet
'One of the earliest demonstrations that the choice of observation imputes qualities on a quantum system (rather than merely observes what is already there) is due to Stern and Gerlach.'

Sunyata (shunyata)
The ultimate unfindability of the real nature of all phenomena - their lack inherent existence, is usually referred to by English-speaking Buddhists as 'emptiness', which is a translation of the Sanskrit word Sunyata (sometimes spelled Shunyata). According to David Loy the English word emptiness has a more nihilistic connotation than the original Sanskrit. The Sanskrit root su also conveys the concept of being swollen with possibility [LOY 1996]. It is therefore most important not to confuse emptiness with total nothingness. Emptiness implies the potential for existence and change.

If we regard Buddhism as a combination of a philosophy, psychology and religion, then how much mileage can we get from the first two aspects before we have to start invoking religious faith?

Christian versus Buddhist worldviews

Buddhism in Everyday Life
The Daily Meditation