In Part 7. of this series (which starts here), I discussed the emergence of sensing, or as I titled it, “The Inner Life of Living Things.” I argued that an organism’s inner-sensing of the outside world, over billions and billions of years of evolution, has accumulated a complexity (in our species) that yields such characteristics as consciousness, moral compulsions, and the ability to perceive “meaning”. This perception of meaning is the primary reason you’re reading about it on my Meaning o’ Life blog.
Now if we and all other beings/creatures/organisms in our world seem terribly well designed to you, keep in mind you’re seeing billions of years of accumulated change all at once—and only the changes that “worked.” What you’re not seeing is the vast majority of evolution, changes that had no effect or hindered survival. Why? Because those organisms never made it.
So to recap, here is the Model of Everything (thus far):
If you’re like me, you’re thinking—ok, yeah, all that makes sense, so what’s that next level of the MoE? (for surely there must be more). And there is more, plenty more. But I need to pause here because this notion of our minds and the whole of human experience being the result of “just stuff” really makes some people crazy. Many folks will want to insert something new and non-material here. They will make distinctions between brain and mind—or body and soul. They will argue that the brain is a kind of vehicle housing a ghostly inhabitant. In fact, they appear to think that what is non-material is somehow better, more special, than the mere material.
I don’t know why people are prejudiced in this way—perhaps material is too mundane, too common. They will argue that since chemicals and electricity cannot love, there must be more at work than chemicals and electricity in love. And in a certain sense, they are right—”something more” is going on—but that more is “an emergent property of chemicals and electricity”—that is, characteristics that are supported by the pattern and complexity of chemicals and electricity (but not by some magical extra ingredient).
To my thinking, if love and consciousness were not the result of brain functions/structures, why, if I poke you in the brain, can I so easily screw-up your consciousness or emotional state? A well targeted stimulus can bring on predictable sensations and emotions. I zap you here—you smell grapes; I tingle this part—you experience inconsolable grief—and if I snip out that part over there, you’re no longer capable of maintaining relationships with other human beings.
And it’s such a smooth gradation to consciousness. Do we not see that some animals have lesser-developed consciousnesses and interior-sensing lives than we do? Don’t dogs exhibit social behavior; don’t chimps and crows demonstrate problems-solving skills; haven’t we observed rudimentary morality in Bonobo societies? Don’t disease and neurological defects create less conscious versions of ourselves? Isn’t a new-born baby less conscious of the world and her personal, interior life than you or I, and isn’t it by the smoothest of gradations—as brains develop—that we see infants become conscious of the world and of themselves? If the brain is not the origin or source of consciousness, where does it come from; how does it get there; and why does it appear in every way to be in the brain? Is someone playing tricks on us!?
It seems to me that since consciousness is certainly not an all-or-nothing state of mind, and since “levels” of consciousness are dependent on the complexity, developmental stage, and health of the brain, it makes a dualistic view such as vehicle/driver (or vehicle/rider, or vehicle/whatever) seem wholly untenable to me.
Emergence makes non-material needless. We do not require a new, foreign, or extra thing to explain a property that’s not in the old thing or in the old thing’s parts. Just as water and amino acids and protein molecules need not feel pain or feel hunger in order for an organism to feel those sensations, neither does memory, emotion, logic (and pain and hunger) need, singularly, to be conscious to create consciousness. That’s just what happens when they get together—that IS emergence. No chemical driver sits in a vehicle of sub-atomic particles to make chemistry, and no élan vital sits in a vehicle of chemicals to invigorate life.
Parts doing things together—things they could not do apart—properties that arise through relationships, through connections—that is emergence.
Pain is a great example; pain really does hurt. Pain is not just a signal in an animal brain that says, “Your are now hurting, please stop what you are doing.” Pain hurts, and it can be excruciating, crippling, debilitating. But as I’ve said chemicals do not feel pain; hydrogen does not hurt; ammonia does not suffer—neither do they see, hear, or smell. These sensations can be reduced to non-sensing chemicals but we do not argue, therefore, those sensations do not exist. If any sense at all can exist without positing a soul or spirit—then consciousness, morality, and love can exist without it as well. We need to stop regarding stuff as lowly—or perhaps we need to stop regarding the lowly as lowly. If you ask me, there are great heights beneath our feet.
NEXT: Part 9. Contra-Reductionism