A Nasty Problem for Emergence

A Nasty Problem for Emergence
bert1
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Posted Nov 28, 2010 - 12:13 AM:
Subject: A Nasty Problem for Emergence
Hello and welcome to the forums. smiling face

Of your work, I've only read "Can we solve the mind-body problem?" and "Hard Questions" (your critique of Galen Strawson). As I understand it, your position is as follows: You do not know how the emergence of consciousness from non-conscious stuff happens; indeed, you argue that it is unknowable either by introspection or by doing science, but you are nevertheless an emergentist. You think the Big Bang was consciousness-free. Is that right?

Whether that's right or not, I would like you to comment on an argument I have made several times on these forums, most notably to John Searle in this thread, but also in this one and here. I also recently discovered a paper "Vagueness and the Metaphysics of Consciousness" by Michael V. Antony which makes exactly the same point, albeit in a more academically rigorous way.

My argument is this:

The emergence of consciousness is typically thought to happen in highly complex and specially structured systems such as brains. The defining properties of these physical systems are vague in the way that baldness and heapness are vague. There is no sharp dividing line between a couple of neurons and a full-blown brain in the same way that there isn't a sharp dividing line between a young man with a full head of hair and that man ten years later when he is bald. Even if we go smaller to the level of an individual cell, we have the same vagueness. Consider an unspecialised stem cell: there isn't a sharp point at which it suddenly becomes the neuron it is destined to be. Presumably, if such vague systems are the material substrate from which consciousness emerges, then consciousness itself ought to be vague in order for it to plausibly map onto the substrate it corresponds to, or is caused by, or is realized by. But consciousness isn't vague. Something is either conscious or it isn't. Either there is something it is like to be X, or there is nothing it is like to be X. If something is aware at all, it is aware. There's no grey area between the conscious and the non-conscious for gradual emergence to occur in. Emergentists have to pick, or find, an exact spot. Either that, or somehow come up with a vague concept of consciousness without failing to talk about what you and I and many philosophers of mind mean by "consciousness". The problem is there simply are no non-vague physical events above the level of the quantum, certainly not, at least, at the highly complex level of even simple biochemistry. It seems to me that if the emergentist accepts that consciousness is not vague, he's stuck with trying to correlate consciousness with some sudden event in nature which, unless he wants to link it to quantum jumps of energy states, is impossible.

Michael V Antony doesn't mention emergence, but his point is basically the same as he is arguing against common forms of emergentist theories:

Antony wrote:
If our current concept conscious state is sharp, and if that concept is correct (at least in respect of its sharpness), then common versions of the identity theory, functionalism, and dualism are false, or at least should be rejected. The common versions, we shall see, are those that appeal to complex physical or functional states in identification, realization, or correlation — that is, states that are sufficiently complex to ensure that their associated physical or functional concepts are vague.


Do you think this a sound argument against typical forms of emergence that look to brains and complex systems for the material basis of consciousness?


Edited by bert1 on Dec 1, 2010 - 1:18 PM. Reason: softened a sentence
bert1
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Posted Feb 13, 2011 - 1:59 AM:

I came across this in another paper by Antony, Are our concepts Conscious State and Conscious Creature Vague? in which Antony quotes McGinn and Searle:

From source Antony:
Vagueness is ubiquitous. Although few would concur with Russell (1923) that it infects all linguistic expressions and concepts, it is uncontroversial that it is extremely widespread. One concept many have judged not to be vague, however, is
consciousness. It is often suggested that concepts like conscious creature(conscious system, etc.) are not vague, that they have no borderline cases. Take, for example, McGinn:

From source McGinn:
…the concept of consciousness does not permit us to conceive of genuinely borderline cases of sentience, cases in which it is inherently indeterminate whether a creature is conscious: either a creature definitely is conscious or it is definitely not. (1996, p. 14)


or Searle:

From source Searle:
Consciousness is an on/off switch: a system is either conscious or not. But once conscious, the system is a rheostat: there are different degrees of consciousness. (1992, p. 3)


Antony also quotes Dennett who says that there are borderline cases. Antony also quotes Papineau who mentions that while physicalist theories of consciousness will involve borderline cases (because of the complexity of physical systems), we don't find corresponding borderline cases of consciousness.

EDIT: Also this blog post from Eric Schwitzgebel:

schwitzsplinters.blogspot.c...ried-about-my-concept.html

In which he is troubled by the apparent non-vagueness of consciousness and considers whether his concept of consciousness may be at fault.






Edited by bert1 on Mar 20, 2013 - 9:08 AM
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