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Emergence Redux

In a very thoughtful essay that deserves its own post, vjtorley writes:

As someone with a background in philosophy, I’d like to make a few brief comments on the issues raised [in the Materialist Poofery” post]:

Regarding reduction, emergence and supervenience: these philosophical terms have multiple definitions in the literature.

One place where I might suggest that people begin is Dr. Richard Cameron’s brilliant dissertation, Teleology In Aristotle And Contemporary Biology: An Account of The Nature Of Life – especially pages 254 to 279. I think Richard Cameron’s work will be congenial to contributors of all points of view, as he has something that will please nearly everyone here: he is both an avowed Aristotelian (and hence a believer in final causes) and a thoroughgoing Darwinist.
One point which Cameron makes is that belief in emergence is perfectly compatible with very strong varieties of reduction:

Again, however, emergentists need not fear and may positively endorse the search for this type of a reductive account of emergent novelties. They may affirm the existence of causal correlations between basal conditions and emergent properties strong enough to support the formulation of laws and theories that microcausally explain the emergence of emergent novelities. Nevertheless, there remains clear sense to the emergentist’s claim that having a well confirmed explanatory theory of how Xs give rise to Ys does not entail that Ys are ‘nothing over and above’ Xs. Ys may still constitute a genuine – and in a sense still to be defined an irreducible – addition to the ontology of the world conceived only in terms of the Xs (p. 269).

The only kind of reduction which is fatal to emergentism is reduction by property identity, as when one property is actually equated with another – for instance, the temperature of an ideal gas can be defined as the mean kinetic energy of its molecules. Thus “[a] candidate emergent property qualifies as a genuine emergent novelty if and only if it is not identical in kind to a kind of property which can be had by the component parts of the system from which it emerges in isolation from structures that type” (p. 270).

Cameron regards Aristotelian final causality as a genuinely emergent property, which is causally efficacious in the world – in other words, he believes in and argues for the reality of top-down causation.

Thus Aristotelian final causation (or the possession of intrinsic ends), which Cameron regards as the defining property of life, is a strongly ontologically emergent property for Cameron. The property of final causation, although causally dependent for its existence on the interactions between the physical parts of an organism, cannot be identified with any of these interactions, either singly or in combination; also, this property possesses causal powers which are not found in the parts and their interactions.

Cameron is not a vitalist; as he makes plain throughout his work (see p. 40), he believes that the property of being alive depends for its existence on the interactions between the physical parts of an organism. Thus:

It is a fundamental claim of emergentists, recall, that emergent properties and their powers are causally dependent upon the interactions of base properties and entities… (p. 278).

A good discussion of the property of supervenience can be found in the article, Supervenience in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

A short extract:

The core idea of supervenience is captured by the slogan, “there cannot be an A-difference without a B-difference.” … A-properties supervene on B-properties if and only if a difference in A-properties requires a difference in B-properties — or, equivalently, if and only if exact similarity with respect to B-properties guarantees exact similarity with respect to A-properties.

Now, in this sense, the property of being alive clearly supervenes upon the properties of an organism’s parts: it is not possible to have two entities with the same physico-chemical properties, where one is alive and the other dead.

As regards consciousness, I personally would be happy to say that it supervenes upon the properties of an animal’s brain and central nervous system (some scientists would add the interactional properties between the animal and its environment to this list of underlying properties, but that has little bearing on the point here). To say otherwise would imply that there could be two animals with the same physical properties, where one animal possesses consciousness and the other lacks it.

I do think, though, that there is a kind of reflective consciousness which is unique to human beings – no other animal, as far as I know, says to itself: “Isn’t consciousness a wonderful thing!” I don’t regard this kind of consciousness as a supervenient property.

The boundary between humans and other animals is notoriously difficult to specify in scientific terms. I would recommend Moti Nissani’s Web page at http://www.is.wayne.edu/mnissani/ for an overview of the recent literature, presented in a highly attractive form. Nissani’s lecture, Can Animals (Especially Elephants) Think? is especially illuminating.

Nissani tentatively concludes that elephants do not understand simple causal relationships (e.g. I need to lift the lid of the bucket to get the food) and that both chimps and elephants do not realize that people can see. In other words, they lack what psychologists call a “theory of mind.”

If Nissani’s conclusions hold up, there are some pretty profound differences between humans and chimps – and presumably, other animals as well.

Much has been made of the feats of Betty the crow, who can fashion a hook to get a piece of meat. At first blush, this seems to indicate rationality; but can Betty justify her actions if we ask her, “Why did you do it that way?” Does she evince any capacity for critical thinking?

Critical thinking is not something yu can put in a box. It cannot be identified with a single process or set of processes; rather, it requires one to take a step back from one’s accustomed ways of thinking and re-evaluate them.

It is my contention that critical thinking must be treated as an essentially open-ended process, and that to treat it otherwise would be fatal to the scientific enterprise. Engaging in critical thinking involves more than just looking up a Web site on logical fallacies and “running through the list” to see that one’s own reasoning is immune from any fallacy. For the enterprise of critical thinking is a never-ending quest: new ways of thinking are continually being discovered and evaluated, and new flaws in people’s thinking are continually being identified.

What has all this got to do with (i) science and (ii) materialism? Suppose that the enterprise of critical thinking turned out to be an emergent property of the human organism, which additionally supervenes upon the brain’s neural network properties, so that (theoretically) two individuals with the same neural architecture, placed in the same environment, would necessarily have the same thoughts. Since the brain itself is finite, the enterprise of critical thinking, if generated by the brain, would then be limited in terms of the number of “creative moves” we could make, and also the number of flaws of thinking we could spot, at any given point in time. In other words, even critical thinking would be algorithmic. For my purposes, it does not matter what kinds of algorithms we engage in during critical thinking – heuristics, Turing procedures or what have you. The point I am making is that on a materialist account, even our critical thinking would have systematic blind spots, at any given time.

What would that mean, in scientific terms? It would mean that there are probably scientific hypotheses out there which our brains are unable to dream up, because they’re wired the wrong way. It also means that there are flaws in our hypotheses that we’re unable to spot, because of our neural limitations. Finally, it means that there are scientific hypotheses that we’re attached to, for the wrong reasons – could Darwinism be one of them? Haha – that hold an unreasonable sway over our thinking, but our brains are too set in their ways for us to consider the possibility that some other hypothesis might be right instead.

In other words, on a materialist account, science itself is a make-shift enterprise, and we have no particular reason to believe that we’ll move any closer to the truth with the passage of time. We could easily get side-tracked in our task and stuck up a scientific blind alley. There could be all sorts of reasons why we fail to discover the truth, and the much-vaunted success of the scientific enterprise over the past 400 years could be just a lucky accident which ends tomorrow. Mauka claims that “[i]ndividuals with better brains tend to survive and reproduce better than those with addled brains,” but even a “better” brain may not be able to come up with the right hypothesis, and practical survival skills are not the same as the skills you need to dream up the Theory of Relativity. Also, materialism entails that at any given time, we all probably accept a large number of scientific hypotheses on irrational grounds.

Materialism also implies that like it or not, we’re probably doomed as a species within the next 200 years. Sooner or later, the complexity of our problems will outstrip the capacity of our finite brains to meet them. Global warming is already giving us enough of a headache; after that it’ll be something else (ocean acidification?), and we’ll probably be laid low in the end by something out of the blue that our stupid brains didn’t see coming.

Now, most scientific materialists believe all this stuff anyway; they just don’t let on, for fear of alarming the populace. If challenged, most of them will retort: “So what? Science may be riddled with blind spots, but it’s the best procedure we’ve got. What’s your alternative? Blind faith? The Inquisition?”

No, my alternative is a scientific enterprise which works better than modern science, because it is slightly more modest: it enquires about everything except one question: how is it that we are able to reason critically? If we forego asking this question, and just assume that critical thought is unbounded, we can avoid the skepticism that materialism led us into.

For it is my contention that it was precisely the brash attempt to put critical thought in a box as part of a scientific quest to explain everything within a materialist paradigm that got us into trouble in the first place. If we do that, and try to make critical thought supervene upon brain processes, then we have to identify critical thought a finite algorithm or set of algorithms, which may fail to properly grasp the cosmos we live in.

But if you are prepared to just assume at the outset that critical thought is an open, unbounded process which is not limited to a set of algorithms, then if you are a scientist, you will feel confident that your mind can handle any task the world throws at it. You will expect that as you make further discoveries, you come closer to the truth. You will realize that there are flaws in your thinking, but you will also realize that you (or your colleagues) are fully capable of spotting them, with time, patience and argumentation. You will expect the spirited exchange of opposing ideas to bear fruit, and help people to sharpen their thinking.

Of course, you will encounter many limitations in your thinking – such as your inability to think in 18 dimensions. But then you will step back, ask yourself why – “My poor brain sees the world in three dimensions” – and design devices (computers) that enable you to get around the limitations of your brain. In other words, using your unbounded mind, you will be able to step back from your brain and overcome its deficiencies.

So there’s the choice. Accept as an “article of faith” that critical thought is a universal tool that is applicable to any problem in the material world, and you can do good science, but you won’t be able to explain everything, because you’ll never know how you think. That’s your one “blind spot” as it were: you can understand the world, but you can never hope to understand yourself.

But if you insist on explaining everything, you’ll explain yourself away too, and cut yourself – and your science – down to size. Gone is the magical quest for Truth; all our kludge of a brain can hope to do is make a set of lucky guesses that might get us through the next 200 years – or might lead us up the garden path. Some science!

Now, a scientist could accept as an “article of faith” that critical thought is a universal tool, without asking why (methodological agnosticism). That’s reasonable. But if he/she asks, “What kind of entity would guarantee that I can think straight?” then he/she is asking a metaphysical question, not a scientific one. In that case, the only satisfactory answer is: a Being whose nature it is to know everything that can be known. (”But how does it do that?” – Don’t ask me! And why should we expect to understand the answer the answer to that question, anyway?)

A Being like that, if it designed the cosmos, is likely to have made the world’s problems tractable to our minds, so we don’t have to waste our time wallowing about some unforeseeable environmental Armageddon. We just need to stay sharp and proactive.

I’ll conclude with a quote from the late Canadian neuroscientist Wilder Penfield, whose research led him to reject supervenience on empirical grounds:

The electrode can present to the patient various crude sensations. It can cause him to turn head and eyes, or to move limbs, or to vocalize and swallow. It may recall vivid re-experiences of the past, or present to him an illusion that present experience is familiar, or that the things he sees are growing large and coming near. But he remains aloof. He passes judgment on it all. He says, “Things seem familiar,” not “I have been through this before.” He says, “Things are growing larger,” but he does not move for fear of being run over. If the electrode moves his right hand, he does not say, “I wanted to move it.” He may, however, reach over with the left hand and oppose the action. There is no place in the cerebral cortex where electrical stimulation will cause a patient to believe or to decide (Wilder Penfield, 1975, “The Mystery of the Mind,” p. 77, emphasis mine).

Well, materialists, the ball’s in your court. The empirical evidence is actually against you, and if you were right, science wouldn’t be much of an enterprise anyway. Not sharing your narrow mindset, I am confident that science will indeed discover the Truth about the world – even if who we are will always be a mystery to us.

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