Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Saving Reduction

Reductive explanations are at the heart of effective scientific investigation. And yet in the past I’ve argued that in the case of first-person experience (FPE), a normal approach to physical reduction will fail. A reduction of experience to wholly non-experiential parts will eliminate what we seek to explain. Equivalently, the ontological emergence of FPE from wholly non-experiential parts is incoherent. This argument was at the heart of the Galen Strawson paper linked to in the last post.

Now emergence and reduction are difficult topics. But it appears to me that attempts to give an account of genuine ontological emergence for any phenomenon must fail, given an assumption of physicalism.

This case is argued by William Seager in a recent paper appearing in the JCS (full text unfortunately not online). Seager argues that candidates for emergence, assuming a normal physicalist worldview, are really only epistemological or explanatory forms of emergence. For a contrasting view which defends a notion of “weak” ontological emergence consistent with physicalism, see this paper by Jessica Wilson in the new online philosophy conference. On my first read, my impression is that Wilson’s approach (which invokes reduced degrees of freedom as a way to define emergent structures) is of limited metaphysical help in terms of my interest in this topic (note she is not taking on the case of consciousness per se in this paper).

The problem is you can’t seem to get something ontologically brand-new in the macroscopic realm from mereological combinations of classical physical objects.

But what if we could reduce things to elementary entities which had a richer ontology? Could we then “save” reduction as an explanatory method for consciousness (and perhaps other difficult-to-explain phenomena)?

I’m going to cut this post short, because I know I’m repeating myself. I think the answer is yes, if we adopt an event ontology in which the fundamental entity is an actualization of a possibility. Science has already discovered these fundamental events in the form of quantum measurements. A network of such events offers a framework upon which the rich phenomena of the world, including conscious individuals, can be composed.

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