Friday, June 08, 2018

Response: On Emergentism and Consciousness

On, Paul Price wrote an article arguing that consciousness cannot be a property that emerges from matter. According to Price, consciousness has the property of freedom of choice, while emergent properties are solely derived from laws of nature, and therefore do not have real freedom. Therefore, consciousness cannot emerged out of nature. Since that is the case, the more sophisticated atheism that utilizes emergentism is left without an explanation for human consciousness. But is this actually an argument that we should use, and is it sound?

With the failure of Neo-Darwinian materialism to account for higher level immaterial things like the mind, as demonstrated by Thomas Nagel in Mind and Cosmos, emergentism is the current theory in vogue. In Nagel's emergentism, matter itself has inbuilt mental properties which, when constituted in for example a human being, will give rise to consciousness. This does not mean that everything has consciousness, for the whole point of Nagel's emergentism is not that all matter has consciousness, but that all matter has the potential when properly constituted to produce consciousness.

If we assume Nagel's theory of panpsychism to be correct (for the sake of argument), would Price's argument actually hold true? I would suggest not. If matter in itself has mental properties, then it would stand to reason that the emerging consciousness would have true freedom of choice. Yes, things that emerge emerge in a manner consistent with laws, but that does not mean that the thing that emerged is therefore constrained by laws. [Otherwise we would commit the logical fallacy of composition.] Since Nagel would presumably hold that one of the metal properties [of matter] is the freedom of choice, therefore the individual consciousness that emerged will also have and will express freedom of choice. The beauty of emergentism is that matter itself, since it has not been properly constituted, does not express mental properties since consciousness has not emerged, and it is therefore for all intents and purposes without consciousness or cognition, but it can [sortof] explain how an individual person can come to possess consciousness, cognition and value.

Now, one may disagree with Nagel's emergentism, which I do. But it cannot be denied that Nagel's emergentism has produced answers that are somewhat plausible to account for many immaterial things from an atheistic point of view. The problem with Nagel's emergentism is that his emergentism is actually a form of pantheism more than atheism, with all its attendant problems. But as an explanation of consciousness, I think Nagel has done a decent job of explaining it while remaining (nominally) an atheist. It is for this reason that I think that Price's argument fails, because his argument is formulated against pure materialism, which is not what emergentist philosophers like Nagel actually hold to and believe.

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