Chalmers and emergence


My problem with ’emergence’ has led me to an old post by David Chalmers (here), where he analyzes a number of definitions of the word. I have no quarrel with his various takes on emergence but I was reminded of how I disagree with his take on consciousness. Or at least probably would disagree if I could understand that he was saying about consciousness.

So, in his first definition of emergence which he says is “ deeply implausible”, in the whole universe the one single solitary thing that may not be deduced from the properties of the parts is consciousness.

Emergence as “inexplicable” and “magical”. This would cover high-level properties of a system that are simply not deducible from its low-level properties, no matter how sophisticated the deduction. This view leads easily into mysticism, and there is not the slightest evidence for it (except, perhaps, in the difficult case of consciousness, but let’s leave that aside for now). All material properties seem to follow from low-level physical properties. Very few sophisticated people since the 19th century have actually believed in this kind of “emergence”, and it’s rarely what is referred to by those who invoke the term favourably. But if you mention “emergence”, someone inevitably interprets you as meaning this, causing no end of confusion.

He goes on through other definitions with increasing usefulness until finally he is dealing with a special case that would be fitting only for designed (or metaphorically designed) systems.

Emergence is the phenomenon wherein a system is designed according to certain principles, but interesting properties arise that are not included in the goals of the designer. … We can view evolution as teleological at the level of the gene – as in Dawkins’ theory, for instance. Then the appearance of complex, interesting high-level properties such as intelligence is quite emergent. We also can reconstrue evolution as teleological at the level of the organism (this is perhaps a more straightforward Darwinian view of things). On this construal, the most salient adaptive phenomena like intelligence are no longer emergent, but the goal of the design process. However, this view does open up the possibility of other kinds of emergent phenomena: firstly, non-selected-for byproducts of the evolutionary process (such as Gould and Lewontin’s “Spandrels”); secondly and more intriguingly, it allows an explanation for why “consciousness” (or “subjectivity” or “qualia” or whatever) seems emergent. Raw consciousness doesn’t not seem to have been selected for, as it doesn’t play any direct functional role (though it does have functional counterparts; this is a subtle issue, but remember we’re talking about the way things seem, not the way they are); but it somehow emerges as a byproduct of selection for adaptive process such as intelligence.

Chalmers is tip-toeing around something here. He either believes that consciousness to deducible from the properties of neurons and their connections, in which case why make an exception, or he doesn’t. And does he believe that consciousness has a function and that function can be selected-for or doesn’t he? Who knows! More in next post.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *