Another Study on Free Will and Neuroscience

These are becoming fashionable!  But this one has an interesting claim.
Like generosity and pettiness, like love and suspiciousness, responsibility is what he calls a “strongly emergent” property — a property that, though derived from biological mechanisms, is fundamentally distinct and obeys different laws, as do ice and water.
What does it mean to say something is emergent?  The concept, as the second link rightly notes, is at least as old as Aristotle, but it has become more significant recently.  From where, though, would such a thing emerge? There are two ways of thinking about an answer to that question.  A thing can emerge in the sense that it can arise from a combination; but it can also emerge in the sense that it can emerge from hiding.  

Now, my question is:  those two senses appear to be different, but are they really?  If we say that the combination is the thing, yet we must admit that reality is structured in such a way that the combination has the potential to give rise to the property.  How is that different from saying that a property embedded in reality is, under the right circumstances, going to come out of hiding?

This is important to the long piece on a new theory of consciousness that I have yet to finish composing, but which I mentioned in discussions with Joseph W. recently.  I think that consciousness is embedded in reality; and the brain is therefore a receiver of something that is already there, rather than a generator as we usually believe.


douglas said...

So our souls, being our metaphysical entity, are brought into the physical world through our brains, like radio waves into a receiver? Interesting. I look forward to your upcoming piece on consciousness.

E Hines said...

A thing can emerge in the sense that it can arise from a combination....


If we say that the combination is the thing....

This strikes me as a bit of a leap. It misses the possibility that the whole from the combination is greater than the sum of the combination's constituents. A loose analogy that illustrates this point is fission of an atom. The whole point of doing this is for the energy that is released. Yet from where does this energy come? The constituents of the fissed (!?) atom don't contain that missing energy. The extra came from somewhere else and was forced into the combination by the combination.

Another analogy might be in the realm of art--or science. A concept arises from thinking about disparate things, seeing a new combination, and from that a larger idea develops.

A difference here, then, might include a property not previously extant in reality that is, as it were, coalesced out of the aether by the new combination. It wasn't hiding because it hadn't existed. Reality has been modified, not our understanding of it. The fission example might seem to be belied by this; however, the prior reality had that forced-in energy diffused throughout the Universe; the constituents' combination took some of that diffuse energy and crammed it into their combination--a change to the reality of the Universe, not merely a rearrangement of some of it.

Of course, a differing opinion might hold that everything that is knowable in the Universe already is known; we just haven't articulated it yet.

Hard, at this point, to tell the difference.

Eric Hines

Grim said...

That's just how Aristotle puts it, Eric: "If something has several parts, but all together it is not a sort of heap, but, on the contrary, the whole is something apart from the parts, then there is a cause of its being one."

My understanding of atomic fission differs from what you say here, but I'm going to follow your framing of it purely for the sake of argument.

If an atom is split, then you have combined two things: the atom itself, and the act of splitting it. The energy released is not in the atom, and it is not in the splitting; but it arises from the combination reliably.

Thus, in this example, there is a third thing that unifies the two things: and this third thing is a reliable feature of nature.

Consciousness seems to me to be like this. The meat is not itself conscious, neither the chemicals nor the electricity that bounce between brain cells. Yet once a sufficient level of complexity arises, consciousness emerges reliably. We can prove that it is reliable because of the unity of the Order of Reason, which we have discussed here from time to time; and we can prove that the receiver has a kind of tuning function, like a television interpreting a broadcast, from experiments that allow us to change people's conscious experience reliably by introducing inert substances (like testosterone injections -- no one thinks testosterone is conscious, but it changes the tuning of the receiver, so to speak).

The unity of the Order of Reason even across species is one reason for believing in this background consciousness that emerges when a given complexity is achieved. Another is sense perception. Your eyes receive light waves, etc., but what is it that unifies the various signals into an intelligible picture of a thing? A thing, in this sense, is exactly what Aristotle was talking about: it is something that is more than just its parts (as a table is more than the pieces of a table would be if they were lying on the floor in a heap). The unifying order is known to us not just in artifacts like tables, but in natural things as well: an ocean emerges from water and salt and fish; a line emerges from many points, none of which are contiguous and all of which together cannot make a line. The line is emergent.

Grim said...

That's the Terrence Irwin and Gail Fine translation of the Metaphysics, by the way.

The thing that holds the table together and unifies it is, for Aristotle, the form: and (this answers Douglas' question) Aristotle believed that the form of man was soul, although the term (anima) means something very different in the Greek. The anima is more the animating force that allows an animal to move about and make decisions.

We might read the anima as different from consciousness, as anima is present in plants and other non-conscious things as well. So, if you want to speak of your consciousness, or mind, or your conscious soul or conscious mind, you can make a useful distinction here. (You could also follow the medieval distinction between "soul" and "spirit," which follows Aristotle's definition of soul, but then attaches an individual spirit. That would make some sense here, as the spirit is the seat of responsibility -- the part the medievals thought to be subject to final reward or punishment.)

E Hines said...

If an atom is split, then you have combined two things:....

Actually, I was beginning that example earlier in the atom's history--its combination from its constituent parts then containing something not present among those parts--the energy that is released later. This is a quibble, though; the combination simply stands in for your splitting.

Either way, that's my point. Something that didn't exist in nature--in the Universe--now exists, through the mechanism of your reliable feature of nature--however it might be called. Even if that thing is simply a better understanding than before, or the rearrangement of the energy in the Universe, or the art or science.

Which might be a backed-into answer to your original question of whether there is a distinction between emergent on the one hand and emerging from hiding on the other.

Eric Hines

douglas said...

Perhaps a better model to examine than fission is the emergence of life from the inanimate physical world. In fact, that's pretty directly related to the discussion. How did we get from amino acids to proteins that metabolized? We don't know, but something triggered the change- some combination of circumstances and materials led to the development of life. Then there's the question of when does life go from a complex biological mechanism to sentience? Thus far, science hasn't offered an explanation that works.

E Hines said...

Thus far, science hasn't offered an explanation that works.

But at least we understand, sort of, the mechanics of fission. So far we still can't provide much of a definition either of life or of sentience. That's part of our problem in understanding how life arose from an apparently inanimate mess of atoms--which ultimately were, themselves, built up from hydrogen atoms, which were built up from...the crap shoot that is quantum particles.

Eric Hines