In Part 8 of this series (which starts here) I discussed, among other things, why the idea of “soul” is superfluous, and I touched on the fact that we humans, soulless as we are, have developed a deep sense of meaning in our lives. In a future post (but not this one), I will discuss how we find meaning, where I think it comes from, and how we can hold on to it.
In this post, however, I want to discuss why getting rid of the soul is not “reductionist” and how a thoroughly material Model of Everything allows for the reality of love, consciousness, and other traits so dear to our humanity. Also, since I hear “reductionist” tossed around so derogatorily—I want to avoid being labeled as one!
As I have asserted in previous posts, emergence represents a spontaneous act of creation. I have claimed that the emergent qualities of “stuff” gives us, among other things—life, love, and our conscious interior lives, as shown in the soon-to-be-completed model below:
I have also implied that emergence is real—that what it produces really exists. But one may wonder, if such notions are real and yet not “in the parts of things”—is my talk of emergence just so much hand-waving and diversion? In what sense can it really be said to be real?
For many folks a purely materialist view is reductionist by definition, it reduces everything in the world, even our experience of the world, to stuff–it views life as “no more than” its component parts. And in a certain sense, I am taking the same position. But I think “reductionism” implies something more, it implies the only qualities that are real are those qualities found in the parts of things, and if I were to take that position, then I would agree it’s a reductionist (or more properly an eliminativist) mistake. To claim that love can be traced to psychological components and functions containing none of the feelings of romantic love and that those components can be traced back into still more base chemical reactions and materials, does not make romantic love unreal. Love is in the wholeness and fullness of loving, and regardless of its lowly make-up, that can’t be taken away.
So how can emergent properties, then, be real? Well, they are as real as anything created by organization and pattern. Circle, line, circle, circle—shall we say the smiley face exists or not?
Though a ’67 Camaro cannot be found in any of its singular car parts–it is not in the tires, or in the steering wheel or even in the cylinders of the engine–and yet one would not be tempted to say that a ’67 Camaro does not really exist.
Nor would we be tempted to say it is by the addition of a new non-material thing that creates its Camaro-ness, a Camaro soul has not been implanted by a divine manufacturer. All you have to do is put the parts together and the Camaro emerges. This is the act of creation of “wholes”—this is emergence.
Now one may rightly argue that the whole, in this case the Camaro, sitting alone in a forest (with a tree having just fallen silently beside it) is not a Camaro at all—that an observer is at least as important as the “pattern of parts”. So let us include in “the whole” an observer—an appreciative driver to make the whole complete. Now we will certainly have to say something about this driver/observer.
For a materialist view to hold together, we need to provide material explanations for things like ideas, numbers, love, and pain—and for those constructs to be considered patterns of matter we need, as in the Camaro example, an observer—but don’t let your minds go all spooky or religious, for we have already seen our observer back in Part 7:
The observer is not a new kind or other kind of thing, the observer is our being-of-evolved-interior-sensing – i.e. the appreciator of the Camaro or the haver of an idea or the feeler of a moral impulse is merely a more developed version of the sufferer of a pain or the enjoyer of a pleasure or the seer of light.
Emergence of awareness and awareness of emergence—this is the necessary loop. This is the realization that ideas are material—underpinned as they are by patterns of chemicals and electricity in brains, while at the same time observed or felt by patterns of chemicals and electricity in brains. If we take away the chemicals, or the electricity, or their particular pattern, we take away the idea.
In the same way love is material, the number 2 is material, fear and pain are material, they are, in each case, underpinned by our brains—they are ideas and sensations materially constructed by patterns of chemicals and electricity—a song is as material as beryllium, carbon, or manganese. Before “The Star Spangled Banner” was written—before the melody and words were conceived and recorded within a human brain, before it was etched into our memories by a chisel of air molecules in a crowded sports stadium—it did not exist. And should all material traces of that song disappear, should all the sheet music and recordings vanish, and should every person who ever knew it perish, should every material trace of it cease to be—”The Star Spangled Banner” would no longer exist.
A song is an idea which is in turn a pattern of matter—Tyson Koska and any idea I’ve ever had is a pattern of matter. Whether the pattern is sustained by quantizable quarks spun into a web of biological chemistry or by any other substrate—what matters is patterns. And just the same way that music emerges by patterns of notes and silences, so do I emerge out of the localization of energy and the vast empty space contained therein. I am a song of matter sung in our concert hall universe.
For me, a helpful way to think about reductionism is to invoke what can be called the Mozart metaphor. A Mozart piano sonata is a wondrous thing, beautiful beyond belief, sonorous, resonant, transporting. But it is also about notes and piano keys. Mozart’s magnificent brain composed the work, to be sure, and then he translated it into black specks on white paper to be translated into strings hit by tiny hammers. We can thrill to a piano sonata without giving a thought to its notes. But we can also open up a score and follow the notes, or play them ourselves, without having the music diminished or demeaned. It is another way of experiencing the whole and, indeed, the only way to have a full understanding of what the sonata entails and what Mozart had in his mind.
What something is, its reality, does not dissipate because its parts are simple or lack certain characteristics. And just as we should not assume a whole has only the potential of its singular parts, we should also learn not to be afraid of simplicity, or should I say, the simplicity of our complexity.
If one wants to say that a materialist cannot account for love or consciousness or altruism or self-transformation—or any of the various “higher-level” aspects of our humanity—then neither can materialism account for color or hardness or sound, since these qualities are not in the parts of things but emerge as a result of higher-level complexities and perceived only by an observer. In fact, matter itself emerges through interconnection and organization, through relationship, through probability, and through emptiness. Though beauty, love, and meaning are revealed as emergent properties, there’s no reason that we may not continue to be moved by beauty, love, and meaning–and to regard them as real.