I want to update an opinion I’ve had about whether or not first-person subjective experience (FPE) -- the “hard” to explain aspect of consciousness -- is essentially an emergent phenomenon. In the past I believed that FPE is too radically unique a phenomenon to have just suddenly popped into the natural world because, say, the human nervous system reached some threshold level of complexity or functional organization. Even if human-style consciousness is uniquely robust in the natural world, I didn’t think FPE itself could arise in a world lacking some fundamental feature which was a precursor or building block.
It is this belief that helped set me off on the “road” to panexperientialism: the theory that an experiential aspect must be present in all of nature (the term is due to process philosopher David Ray Griffin).
Here is a counter-argument: emergent phenomena of all sorts are ubiquitous in nature, and this should make an account of FPE as emergent more plausible.
On this topic, I recently read A Different Universe, by physicist Robert B. Laughlin. The book is an extended essay stressing the role of emergent organizing laws in nature generally and in physics in particular (where we assume reductionist approaches have had their greatest success). Laughlin argues (compellingly I thought) that the world is constituted by a hierarchy of physical principles of organization, which often cannot be derived from principles governing the parts, and which furthermore are sometimes insensitive to compositional detail. Laughlin presents examples starting with phase organization of materials, from the more mundane (water) to the exotic (involving superfluidity and superconductivity). He then goes on to argue, more controversially, that systems of physical description up to and including relativity are descriptions of collective or emergent organizational principles. Emergence is not just about biology and social sciences, it’s about physics.
So, if “collective principles of organization are not just a quaint side show but everything – the true source of physical law”, what should we take from that? Well, I think it means we lack a well developed modern philosophical system (metaphysics) which is consistent with what we’ve learned about the natural world. The dominant metaphysical interpretation of naturalism is physicalism (the older version was materialism). While there is a vast literature on physicalism which makes generalizing dangerous, I find physicalist accounts to be typically inspired by reductionism and the analogy of mechanism. Emergent phenomena are not to be separately explained, but rather are asserted to supervene on lower level phenomena, and it is further assumed that the lowest level of nature is fully deterministic and causally closed. The fact that quantum physics is not conventionally deterministic doesn’t change this for most physicalists (although it should); they assume it adds a bit of randomizing, but doesn’t otherwise impact the story. I conclude that physicalism doesn’t explain well a world in which emergent phenomena exist at multiple levels of nature.
So, looking back, when I rejected the idea of first-person experience as a true emergent phenomenon, I was assuming that if it were (ontologically) emergent, it would be uniquely so in a world otherwise well explained by reductionist accounts. Therefore I sought an explanation of FPE in terms of simpler experiential ingredients – basically a reductionist account of experience to be (somehow) integrated with the paradigm account of the physical world. But if reductionist accounts are actually inadequate for physical phenomena, then the project is a different one. The goal is to develop a new metaphysics which is consistent with ubiquitous emergence, and then explain FPE in this new context.
In fact, I think it would be most productive to assume all natural systems above the quantum level are emergent – to be a natural system is to have been actualized from an underlying potential. As I recently discussed on this blog (here), the hierarchy of natural systems in the world may be made more explicable by utilizing an event ontology which has two poles: the set of potential realizable properties, and also an actualizing property which binds these into systems. And again I must plug Gregg Rosenberg’s excellent A Place for Consciousness, which presents a detailed proposal in this spirit (my original posts on the book are here and here). By the way, it turns out that his approach, while taking a different road than my old one, still entails a form of panexperientialism!
[As an aside, I recommend the Laughlin book for those interested in this subject matter, but I'll warn that I found it a bit annoying to read. I was put off by the many digressions and modestly amusing anecdotes and also some poor analogies (all meant to increase accessibility to the lay audience, I guess). Part of the problem is that I simultaneously started the latest Richard Dawkins book, which was spoiling me in terms of truly great science writing.]