Precepts to use in everyday life

1. Think for yourself, 2. Be yourself, 3. Speak up, 4. Feel free to agree and disagree, 5. Be honest with yourself and others, 6. Be open-minded, 7. Avoid being judgmental and 8. Question everything - even your own thinking.

TOK Essay Titles November 2018

Wednesday, December 8, 2010


Natural and Human Sciences (The problem of consciousness, Part 6)

Here's the original question: is consciousness something irreducibly subjective and private (like the dualists believe) or is it something outward – a physical manifestation of inward states linked to our brain functions and nervous system?

We propose two theories to explain the mystery without (hopefully) explaining it away:

1. Consciousness is an 'emergent property'
2. Consciousness is 'built into' our body functions

Consciousness is an emergent property
This idea runs counter to the scientific/materialist belief that consciousness, and for that matter all biological life, is reducible to its individual physical parts; and it appears to address the ‘explanatory gap’ pointed out by Jackson that science can’t explain everything in terms of physical facts/causes. 
The idea of ‘emergence’ is related to the development of the ‘science’ of ‘chaos’ and ‘complexity’ (click on the picture above for further information).  These theories depend on a specific understanding of causality that is not based on the traditional reductionist thinking.  You do not take apart a complex system such as a rat to see how the different components work in order to cause the rat to function.  Instead, you look at the system as a whole.  Applied to consciousness, there is a sequence of physical causes to take into account, but these do not follow the 'top-down' series of events whereby conscious behaviour originates from a prior set of physical causes.  Rather, we must look in a 'bottom-up' way at consciousness as a whole in order to come to grips with the nature of the mind.  This approach allows us to think that we are somehow more than the sum of our parts.
Chaos theory
In its simplest form, chaos theory presents the idea that simple systems or organisms display behaviours which are too complex to analyse in terms of their constituent parts and yet present underlying patterns or rules as part of their complex behaviour.  We have to study the interaction between the units to explain their complex behaviour. 
For example, take one ant.  On its own, it appears to behave randomly.  Add another ant and again they seem to behave in a similarly unpredictable fashion.  Add a group of ants and things start to happen: they begin to display organised behaviour, working towards the same end for the whole colony.  This complex behaviour of ants is an emergent property.  One ant on its own is not intelligent; intelligence somehow resides in the collective; it is based on the existence of a set of physical conditions or simple rules (chain of causes and effects?) that makes their communal behaviour possible.  The complex behaviour is somehow over and above the physical facts necessary for the ants’ communal behaviour, but wouldn’t exist independent of them.
Complexity theory
Complexity theory, on the other hand, suggests that complex systems and organisms often produce very simple outcomes; outcomes which can be explained in accordance with the capacity for their individual constituent parts for ‘self-organisation’.
For example, consider the millions of people that that make up a nation and interact to create a society.  Just by looking at one single person, you couldn’t tell that he would be able to operate with other people in this way to create this nation or this society.  Nationhood or society takes on a life and identity of its own by means of the interactions of the individuals who live within the nation.  Without the physical fact of individuals’ existing within a nation, there couldn’t be a national identity.  We can’t predict what a complex system like a society will evolve into, but this only serves to underline the mystery of life.
Perhaps, consciousness is neither a private realm of subjectivity, nor simply a public expression of internal brain states; it is an emergent property.  That is, it needs various physical facts like the features and functions of the brain, the nervous and muscular system and a set of simple rules, but cannot exist independently of them.  These individual parts interact, according to the rules and consciousness spontaneously emerges.
There are definite problems with these theories.  For example, where do these 'rules' come from?  Moreover, what sort of property is an 'emergent' property, if it isn't physical or mental?

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