From Natalie Wolchover at Quanta:
The existence of agents — beings with intentions and goal-oriented behavior — has long seemed profoundly at odds with the reductionist assumption that all behavior arises from mechanistic interactions between particles. Agency doesn’t exist among the atoms, and so reductionism suggests agents don’t exist at all: that Romeo’s desires and psychological states are not the real causes of his actions, but merely approximate the unknowably complicated causes and effects between the atoms in his brain and surroundings.
Hoel’s theory, called “causal emergence,” roundly rejects this reductionist assumption.
“Causal emergence is a way of claiming that your agent description is really real,” said Hoel, a postdoctoral researcher at Columbia University who first proposed the idea with Larissa Albantakis and Giulio Tononi of the University of Wisconsin, Madison. “If you just say something like, ‘Oh, my atoms made me do it’ — well, that might not be true. And it might be provably not true.” More.
If we have even gotten as far as that, we have made progress, after a century or so. We have established that the main difference between life and non-life is life’s drive to stay in existence. Consciousness, a separate subject, is our awareness of that fact.
See also: Would we give up naturalism to solve the hard problem of consciousness?