This morning I looked up into the sky and saw several hundred geese flying in a formation that appeared to be a single undulating mass. It reminded me of the schools of silver fish I have seen while diving in the Caribbean that also seem to move as a single mass (those who have seen Finding Nemo know what I am talking about).
These bird and fish behaviors along with hurricanes are often used by materialists to demonstrate the idea of “emergence.” When the “whole” of a given phenomenon appears to have properties that are more complex than its constituents, the whole is said to be an “emergent property” of the constituents. With that in mind, here is a question:
Which of these things is not like the others with respect to “emergence”?
A. A flock of birds
B. A hurricane
C. A school of fish
D. Subjective self-awareness
If you picked “D. Consciousness” give yourself a star. The standard emergentist view of consciousness goes like this: The electro-chemical processes in the brain evolve in complexity, and at some unspecified point in that evolution consciousness arises. Thus mental events “supervene” on physical events, which means that subjective self-awareness is an “emergent property of” the sophisticated electro-chemical system in the brains of higher animals.
Why is this emergentist account obviously different in principal than emergentist accounts of flocks of birds, hurricanes and schools of fish? The answer lies with our old friend vera causa, also known as the principle of sufficient reason. Under this principle, you can’t just say X causes Y unless you are prepared to demonstrate the causal link between X and Y. Astrology is a classic example of the violation of this principle. An astrologer says the stars and planets are aligned in a particular way, and that alignment causes X phenomenon (e.g., you will get a promotion at work). Of course, there is absolutely no causal relationship whatsoever between the alignment of stars and planets and whether your boss is going to promote you, and therefore astrology violates the principle of sufficient reason.
How does the emergent “explanation” of subjective self-awareness violate the principle of sufficient reason? For any given proposition, the principle is expressed this way:
For every proposition P, if P is true, then there is a sufficient explanation for why P is true.
We can see how this principle is in operation with respect to birds, fish and wind:
Birds: Birds instinctively fly in formation; when those formations are sufficiently large the birds move in response to various inputs, including primarily the strength of the wind, and collectively those movements result in the phenomenon. We might not know all of the details, but we can see how in principle the movement of the birds could result in the formation.
Fish: Same as birds.
Hurricane: Hurricanes are examples of weather, and we have a fairly good understanding of the causes of weather, including temperature, barometric pressure, etc. We can see how, in principle, those factors can combine to cause the phenomenon called a hurricane.
Conversely, we can see how the principle is not in operation with respect to subjective self-awareness. As Thomas Nagel has said the “mental” is fundamentally different from the “physical.” The burden is therefore on those advancing an emergentist theory of consciousness to explain how “physical” events can cause “mental” events. So far, no one has brought forth even plausible speculations about how this could happen. This is not surprising because it should be clear that the mental is not in fact reducible to the physical, which means that reductionist accounts of consciousness are not, in principle, plausible.
For every proposition P [consciousness is an “emergent property” of the brain system] , if P is true, then there is a sufficient explanation for why P is true. Until materialists come up with a sufficient explanation for why the mental can, in principle, be linked causally with the physical, the “emergent property” explanation is more like astrology than astronomy. While it purports to be an explanation, it in fact gives no reason to believe why X causes Y. It is a confession of ignorance disguised as an explanation, a fancy of way of saying nothing but “Poof! It happened.”