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Dr. Novella's Evasion Is an "Emergent Phenomenon"


Dr. Steven Novella is a Yale neurologist with whom I have been having a blog debate about the mind-brain question. Dr. Novella asserts that neuroscience has proven the strict materialistic understanding of the mind -- that the mind is caused entirely by the brain, and reducible entirely to it -- is true. I disagree. Although the mind and brain correlate to a high degree, the mind is ontologically irreducible to the brain. I believe that some form of dualism is necessary for a satisfactory explanation of the mind.

I have written several posts about qualia, which is the subjective nature of sensory experiences, such the experience of the color red, or the smell of coffee, or the 'hurt' of pain. The neurophysiological correlates of these phenomena, such as the physiology of retinal mediation of color vision, or the olfactory nerves in the nose that mediate the smell of coffee, or the neurochemistry of C-fibers that mediate pain, can be explained materialistically, but the experience of color, smell, and pain -- qualia -- elides material explanation.

Here is my description of the problem that qualia poses, from a previous post:

Qualia is subjective experience, which is first person ontogeny. You can describe pain, using science or literature or whatever. But the experience of pain is something qualitatively different. There is nothing in science which infers subjectivity -- no "Newton's Fourth Law" by which objective matter produces subjective experience. No material law or principle invokes subjectivity, yet subjectivity is the hallmark of the mind.

Here is Dr. Novella's reply:

This is just a non-sequitur. There is very little in science that reduces down to a specific law. His argument, in fact, is a good example of using hyperreductionism as a straw man. There is higher-order complexity in the natural world - emergent phenomena that are more than the sum of their parts, that cannot be reduced to fundamental laws. Consciousness is one of those things...He also incorrectly uses the term "infer" here. It is true that we cannot measure subjective experience. But we can infer its existence by the behaviors it produces (and from our own subjective experience). We can also say that there is no evidence of subjective experience existing without corresponding brain activity...What Egnor is actually saying is that anything we cannot directly measure (even if we can infer it) does not exist, and therefore we should attribute any of its effects to non-material magic. By this logic quarks cannot exist, so atoms must be made of pixie dust.

Dr. Novella invokes "higher order complexity...emergent phenomena" to elide the deep problem that subjective experience such as qualia pose for materialism. There are two reasons that attribution of subjective mental states to "higher order complexity...emergent phenomena" fails to rescue materialism from the problem of subjectivity:

1) Traditional emergent and higher-order phenomena, such as the 'wetness' of water that emerges when individual water molecules aggregate or the characteristics of statistical mechanics that emerge from individual atoms of a gas, always relate third-person objective phenomena to to other third person objective phenomena, and never invoke different ontologies. Emergence theory proposes, for example, that molecules aggregate in ways that yield movement not readily predicted by the properties of individual molecules, but emergence theory doesn't propose that molecules themselves begin to see colors, smell coffee, or form opinions about philosophical issues. But this is exactly what materialism proposes. The problem with the application of 'emergence' to the mind is that a mental state is not a "higher order state of complexity" of matter. It's a different ontology, a different kind of existence, for which the concept of emergence seems to merely be an evasion of the ontological questions, not a resolution of them.

2) Emergence and higher order complexity are fundamentally observer-dependent subjective phenomena. That is, water atoms don't do miraculous things when they aggregate in order to produce 'wetness'; we invoke 'wetness' to describe what aggregated water molecules feel like. Gas molecules don't magically change their physical properties when they aggregate. But in the aggregate, they seem to us to do things that we have difficulty gleaning from more basic physical properties of the molecules themselves, and we invoke mathematical methods such as statistical mechanics and gas laws (e.g. Boyles' and Charles' laws) to describe the dynamics of gas molecules in the aggregate. They're still gas molecules, doing what gas molecules do. 'Emergence' doesn't really exist without a mind to apprehend it. Emergence is, in a sense, a psychological phenomenon. We infer emergent properties because we wouldn't have predicted large scale properties from small scale properties, yet all of the properties of the system are merely that -- the properties of the system. Material systems just do what they do. Emergence is observer-dependent. Thus, invocation of 'emergence' to explain the mind ironically invokes mind to explain mind. Materialists who invoke emergence in order to explain the subjective properties of the mind merely invoke that which they feign to explain.

Materialism can't explain subjective first-person experience, because materialism posits the existence of only third-person objective things. 'Emergence' gets the materialist nowhere, because emergence offers no explanation for the difference in ontology between first-person subjective experience and third-person objective existence. Furthermore, emergence depends on apprehension of the phenomenon by a mind, which is that which is to be explained.

'Emergence' is applicable to the mind-body problem in only this way: the invocation of "higher order complexity...emergent phenomena" to explain the mind is an evasion that emerges when materialists are asked to explain the subjective nature of the mind.