It is 2014 and we still do not have a comprehensive theory of consciousness, yet transhumanists want to create consciousness on a computer ASAP. In this article I will look at reductionism, supervenience and emergentism and their applications towards a solution to the mind-body problem. I will defend the claim that emergentism must be mixed with supervenience given that we know considerable amounts of information about the human brain and the properties that it produces.
Brain states seem to supervene upon phenomenal states and vice visa. It will be argued that to describe phenomenal states and properties a mix of supervenience with emergentism can help, along with a rejection of reductionism.
I will take a look at concepts dealing with reductionism, supervenience, and emergentism. Necessarily I will look at both the concepts as they are in the philosophy of science and how they can be attributed to the mind-body problem. This means that the concepts themselves can become rather complex in nature and all need a conceptual explanation in the context of philosophy of science and mind. When these concepts are attributed to the mind-body problem they present us with extremely helpful insights into the workings of phenomenal states, properties and consciousness’s relation to the brain and our world.
2. The Problem of Phenomenal Properties and Consciousness
We are subjectively conscious of mental states and properties. Subjectivity brings up a multitude of issues which have not been explained fully yet by neuroscience or philosophy.(Chamers, 1996, Nagel, 1974) Phenomenal properties have a feeling of what it is like to experience them. Why this “what it is like” is attached to a self model still has yet to be discovered. Some philosophers reject the self all together and claim that it is an illusion. (Metzinger, 2003, 2009) Several philosophers and neuroscientists are at the forefront of figuring out what David Chalmers calls the Hard Problem of consciousness and the Easy Problem of consciousness. The easy problem being physics, chemistry and the biology of the brain. The hard problem is thus why does the brain produce “what it is like” to experience a particular attitude or feeling.
In a paper called Attention and Consciousness: two distinct brain processes Christof Koch and Naotsugu Tsuchiya believe that attention is a separate process from consciousness. They site experiments where animals are flashed quickly in front of a subject whose brain recognizes and attends to the flashes yet the subject is not conscious of it. (Koch & Naotsugu Tsuchiya 2007). Christof Koch has been researching the neural nature of consciousness for a number of years now without much success. Another neuroscientist, Antonio Damasio points to the brain stem, body, and ventromedial prefrontal cortex as a solution to the hard problem. Neuroscience is learning more and more about the brain through a list Damasio mentions in his book: neuroimaging including , brain damaged patients, magnetic resonance scanning, positron emission tomography (PET), magnetoencephalography, recording of neuronns during neurosurgical treatments and magnetic stimulation. However in his book The Self Comes to Mind he admits that “the mystery of consciousness is still a mystery, although it is being pushed back” (Damasio, 262)
I will focus on those phenomenal states which we are conscious of and have attention attributed with them. We will look at phenomenal properties and states which can be said to be reduced, supervened, or emerged from brain processes, at the atomic level up to neuronal patterns. I will focus mostly on the easy problems of consciousness; those problems which Chalmers and others refer to as the physical neural correlates of consciousness.
Patricia and Paul Churchland are famous for their elimitivist stance on qualia (what it is like to have an experience). Their helpful incites to the working of the brain through what they coined as “neurophilosophy” will be useful in our discussion of the “easy problems” of consciousness and phenomenal properties. However, some aspects of this paper will ultimately lead us to the harder problems as well.
Philosophy of mind often uses thought experiments to describe the “hard problems”. As materialist Katalin Balog points out; philosophical thought experiments are the “bread and butter of philosophy”. (Katalin Balog, 2010) We will look at the knowledge argument, zombie argument, the Chinese nation thought experiment, Nagel’s What it is Like to be a Bat, The Chinese room argument, and Teleportation.
3. Phenomenal States and Properties
Brain states are said to be phenomenal states when one feels what it is like to experience a feeling, such as pain. The reason brain states can be understood as phenomenal states (qualia) is because neuroscience has yet to bridge the gap between mind and body. 1 That is a brain state which has a feeling to it does not clearly add up to neurons simply doing their job, though it is obvious that neuronal connections and the firing of neurons give rise to phenomenal states and properties. We are left again with the hard problem and easy problem.
Let's take a look at an example of the hard problem called the knowledge argument, commonly referred to as the Mary thought experiment formulated by Frank Jackson (1982). Jackson conjured up the idea of a female scientist named Mary who knows everything there is to know about the brain, brain states, and philosophy. The catch is, is that she is confined to a black and white room, learning everything she knows about the brain through a television, papers, and books. She has never seen the color red, or any color besides black and white. When she leaves the room does Mary learn something new, does she now know what it is like to experience redness?
Some philosophers have argued that with enough words or symbols (Dennet, 1991) she could learn what it is like to see the color red inside the room, while others claim she does in fact learn something new about the brain when leaving the room. This new brain state or property is referred to as qualia or in her case, being one color, a quale. (Jackson, 1982) When a subject experiences a single quale such as the essence of seeing redness; this is called a phenomenal state or property.
Another example of the “hard problem” is the notion of propositional attitudes. These are the feelings one gets when having an attitude towards a proposition. A sentence that claims something like an idea or theory can be said to be a proposition with a certain “what it is like” to have this feeling. Thus propositional attitudes are phenomenal states which need explanation.
In the philosophy of mind many theories have been conjured up about the nature of propositional attitudes, but once you look into neuroscience you will find that they still remain a kind of a mystery, for an attitude towards a proposition or sentence has yet to be explained by means of the neural correlates of consciousness.
That is, like in many cases of the hard problem of consciousness the firing of neurons do not show us how one can have an attitude towards a proposition. Watching someone’s brain under an MRI or CAT scan does not tell you what kind of attitude one has towards a proposition. This is tantamount like that of color experience because not only do we not understand the neural nature of what it is like to experience a certain experience, but we also do not know the neural nature of what it is like to experience propositional attitudes. We only have rough images, or representations from neuroimaging.
It is predicted however that neuroscience will explain away the mysterious nature of both the qualia of feelings and propositional attitudes. Patricia and Paul Churchland among many other philosophers take the stance that like other mysterious biological processes, qualia and propositional attitudes will be explained by biology, mainly neuroscience. They argue that vitalism, the world is flat theory, the world is the center of the universe theory, and so on has been explained away through science, therefore, as mysterious as qualia can be, they will also be explained away through science. The prediction is that neuroscience will render qualia and most of its associated theories wrong, leading to a purely physicalist account of the mind.
4. Reductionism and Phenomenal Properties
The reduction of phenomenal properties come in different flavors. A phenomenal property can be thought of as a brain state which reduces down to the neuronal level, and then down to the atomic level. A brain state such as seeing red is a form of epistemological reduction (Silberstein, 2002) in that seeing red can be reduced to brain properties in V1.
In consciousness studies some have gone further. For example Stuart Hameroff and Roger Penrose have reduced brain states down to the quantum level by holding that neuronal microtubules contain quantum states which can explain consciousness at higher levels, but retains this fundamental form of reductionism. (Hameroff, n.d.) As controversial as this hypothesis maybe, it has yet to be proven wrong. However I will not focus on this theory in this paper because much more research has to be done on this very interesting topic.
The Identity Theory holds that brain states can be reduced down to their neural patterns and only their neural patterns. In defense of an Eliminative Materialism view of the Identity Theory, Paul Churchland in Chimerical Colors: Some Phenomenological Predictions from Cognitive Science shows how the inverted spectrum thought experiment (discussed later in this paper) could be viewed as wrong because it would require the “rearrangement of clumps of neurons” in the brain. While this strong stance for the Identity Theory at face value looks to undermine any sense of the inverted spectrum argument, it seems to me that we still have to understand why and how the rearrangement of neuron bundles give rise to phenomenal qualities and properties.
Functionalism is a theory that suggests that brain states are mental states but denies the existence of qualia, respectfully. It also allows for mental states to be functional states, therefore it does not have to be a brain that produces phenomenal properties. The mechanism that produces phenomenal properties play a function in the overall scheme of the organism/computer or whatever it might be. Thus functionalism allows for multiple realization, that is, complex systems similar but not exactly like us can have phenomenal states exactly like ours. (Levin, 2009, Chalmers, 2002)
In a thought experiment Ned Block devised a theory that if each neuron was replaced one by one in a person’s brain by computer circuits or people with handheld transceivers that the person would feel and respond to the world in exactly the same way. This thought experiment is called the Absent Qualia or Chinese Nation argument. This is an appeal to a kind of reduction of the sort we see with the Churchland’s, but lacking elimitivist materialism. Imagine if a robot body was attached to the nation of china (1.3 billion people [not nearly the 10 trillion synapses in the human brain, but remember - this is a thought experiment]) and all the people of China were given handheld transceivers to communicate the way neurons communicate.
It is theorized that if such a scenario was true that a person or a robot which was hooked up to such a network would have the same functional brain/mind properties as if they had a biological or silicon brain. The network of people with handheld transceivers would technically carry on the same functions as the neural system in humans. While this is a far fetched idea it does bring up a lot of issues. If correct we are looking at a system which probably lacks qualia yet works just fine as if no brain was replaced.
The brain can then be said to be reduced down to the individual neurons (people or silicon) doing their job in a functionalist role, carrying out everyday tasks. Block imagines if someone pinched the robot that the signal would be carried by means of handheld transceivers to the 1.3 billion people also with handheld transceivers, and eventually the people (neurons) will carry out their job and the robot will say “ouch” (Block, 1978, Feser, 2005) The Chinese Nation thought experiment borders on supervenience of brain to mental states, but it can be looked at as a reductionist theory as well because of the causal relations that physical brain states have on the mental states.
Brain states are said to supervene on neurological patterns, however this does not imply monism, dulalism, or reductionism. Brain state X implies that brain state Y must occur in the presence of X. Brain state A, however supervenes on neural pattern B, and so forth, down to levels which must lead back up to brain state X. According to Jaegwon Kim’s account of supervenience physicalism:
“The basic ontological picture implicit in contemporary discussions of the mind-body problem is strikingly different: it presents the world as a multilayered hierarchy consisting of “levels” or “tiers” of entities and their characteristic properties…. The assumption that is widely shared by physicalists is that higher-level properties are in some sense dependent on, or determined by, their lower-level properties.”(Kim, 1996)
It seems to me that in contemporary philosophy of mind a great deal about the human brain is left out. For example if we take a look at the thought experiment of inverted qualia you will not find many examples of philosophers arguing that phenomenal states and properties supervene upon the obviously physical neural correlates of consciousness. The inverted spectrum thought experiment is important in that it makes us think about possible worlds, even our world, where a subject would see inverted colors while their counterpart would not.(Feser,68-70) However this thought experiment does in fact have its advantage of utilizing the imagined non-humans, animal or aliens, that sees X as Y, though it is not clear whether or not their neural, silicon, or whatever structure has the same neural correlates as the individual in our world.
Whatever is the case, if ones sight was inverted where red was green and so on, it simply tells us more about eye sight than that of the brain. The brain will receive different signals to experience the color differently, but there are no new epistemic or ontological colors to be seen. Whether the subject is an animal, alien or human their qualia only changes in the respect that X is now Y and vise versa. We are still left with the hard problem of consciousness because the subject is still experiencing what it is like to experience phenomenal color experience.
Supervenience still stands strong in this case because whatever detectors (eyes) the subject might have is converting a signal to another signal for consciousness to experience. There is no reason to suggest that reductionism has a place in this scenario, unless of course as Paul Churchland points out that color qualia experience is nothing more than activation vectors in the brain. Color qualia A for Churchland equals vector B, they are “correlates”, meaning that B is one in the same thing as A. (Churchland, 2007)
5.1 Weak and Strong Supervenience
Weak supervenience holds that “A-properties weakly supervene on B-properties if and only if for any possible world w and any individuals x and y in w, if x and y are B-indiscernible in w, then they are A-indiscernible in w.” and strong supervenience holds that “A-properties strongly supervene on B-properties if and only if for any possible worlds w1 and w2 and any individuals x in w1 and y in w2, if x in w1 is B-indiscernible from y in w2, then x in w1 is A-indiscernible from y in w2. (Kim 1987.)”2 While weak supervenience can be said to say everything that strong supervenience states, it might make things clearer if we discuss the difference between the two and hold that strong supervenience is in fact different than weak supervenience. (Shagrir, 2009) When we talk about dependence in 2014 we are clearly talking about brain states which give rise to phenomenal states (Churchland, 2007 )
The Zombie argument for a creature which is exactly like you and me right down to the very atoms the body and mind are made of suggests that it is metaphysically conceivable that it can lack conscious experience and qualia. I reference the zombie thought experiment in this section because I believe that consciousness supervenes on the physical. It seems impossible to have a creature which is 100 percent identical to you biologically to lack what we call qualia. This is because brain processes obviously give rise to consciousness and phenomenal properties. That is not to say that phenomenal properties are physical in nature.
It very well could be that phenomenal properties such as seeing red go along with the classical argument for the existence of qualia. But what I am saying is that given this thought experiment it just seems intuitively necessary that a brain which operates exactly like ours down to the very atom must operate in such a way where phenomenal properties supervene upon the physical brain. Although it is conceivable that a brain can be stripped away of its qualia, it does not seem logical that the physical brain can produce anything but phenomenal states and properties in any world. Again I say this because any world which physical brains are identical are just that; identical to ours and must operate the same exact way.
5.2 Local Supervenience
Brain states are said to be locally supervenient if phenomenal property X supervenes on brain state Y, then they are identical to each other. Local supervenience is both easily explained and extremely complicated to grasp at the same time. Locality of properties such as neural bundles giving rise to consciousness within ones brain does not necessarily change if, lets, say, a solar flare where to erupt in another solar system. That is to say that phenomenal states are local and do not change their reliance on lower level properties because of outside forces, respectively.
Negal’s paper What is it Like to be a Bat is not a thought experiment but can used to here to explain the locality of phenomenal states. Phenomenal states are private states which it is like to be that which is conscious. A bat can be said to be conscious of itself in such an alien like form from us according to Nagel. Nagel was an anti-reductionist when he wrote his paper. He states that “careful examination will show that no currently available concept of reduction is applicable to it.” He goes on to explain that one cannot pretend to be a bat; “hanging upside down in an attic” and that “extrapolation” will not give us the feeling of what it is like to be a bat by observation.
While Nagel does not mention Local Supervenience it is obvious that his attitude towards the private nature of human and bat consciousness is real. When sonar property A changes, sonar property B must change as well. However because we can never know what it is truly like to be a bat because of the private nature, or the locality of the bats consciousness. That is why I chose to discuss Nagels What it is Like to be a Bat in this section, because of the locality of brain/mind states within both the human and the bat.
If supervenience needs a physical theory of everything, at the time of this writing, it is far from reality. As Stephen hawking put it in his latest book, the theory of everything might, or must really on model-dependent realism which states that several theories of reality must co-exist with one another. Local supervenience is thus a form of a theory of causation which occurs within our limited universe, a result of the anthropomorphic or evolutionary stance on our minds/brains.
5.3 Global Supervenience
The use of modal logic is the basis for the understanding of global supervenience. For any possible world, B properties must supervene on A properties. That is for any possible world W1 or W2, etc, if and only if B properties supervene upon A properties they can be said to be globally supervenient.
This logic, which borders on a thought experiment is the basis for the argument that any world (universe) that is exactly like ours must have properties that supervene the same way. We can adapt this concept to phenomenal states and properties because it seems that these states depend on B (phenomenal property) in order for A (neural correlates/neural firing patterns) to exist the same exact way they do in our world.
Emergence theory became more concrete as the logical positivists failed at reducing chemistry to physics. They had an even harder time at reducing biological processes to the atomic level. (Blitz, 156) Phenomenal state X, such as seeing red or feeling a pain is a new property from the lower levels of emergent properties of brain states. Emergentism holds that property X (redness) cannot be reduced back down to the neural level. The neural pattern which produces X in V1 and V4 is an emerged property of those patterns, meaning that it is a new property in itself which the lower levels cannot fully explain. For example the neural network which in reductionism and supervenience can be explained by lower levels respectively, cannot be fully explained at the higher level of phenomenal property X.
Emergentism has a history of physicalism when dealing with levels of reality and levels of brain states. Phenomenal properties are thus new properties where emergent laws are essential. Phenomenal properties, if emergent are then irreducible to the lower level of the bundles of neurons which produce it. That is there can be no logical necessity that the lower levels would give rise to the higher levels, however the higher levels are necessarily law like in that a new physical property is born.
Downward causation is acceptable and expectable, however, especially in biological organisms. This downward causation is thus a part of the property of the top emergent level, and need not lead us into supervenience or reductionism. It is striking that by this time of writing there is no explanation as to the workings of the downward causation of phenomenal properties and consciousness, though it does seem clear that consciousness has a downward causation on brain processes, for if it did not I could not be writing this paper because there would be no downward causation of my conscious self.
6.1 Epistemological Emergence
Human knowledge of complex systems is limited in epistemological emergence, in that we cannot describe a system fully because of our lack of epistemic information about the component parts of such a system. We may be able to understand what the complex system does however, but if we look at its component parts we cannot predict for certain what the outcome would be because of our epistemic limitations. 3
For example a plane stripped of wings cannot fly, but how would we know that the cylinder needs wings in order to fly (the emergent property of putting wings on a plane) if we didn’t know anything about wings. We can also take for example the component parts of the brain. If we look at neural bundles we cannot predict exactly the outcome of the system of neurons once they are firing. We would need to be inside the brain to understand exactly that which the complex system’s emerged properties are once up and running. Looking at the bundles of neurons gives us very limited knowledge according to epistemological emergence about their role in brain processes.
6.2 Ontological Emergence
Ontological Emergence would have huge implications for metaphysics and complex systems theory. If true it would show us that mereological supervenience is wrong; on the basis that quantum mechanics is far more unpredictable then the “macro” nature of particles and atoms which the supervenience philosophers rely on. (Silberstein, McGeever, 1999) A couple of striking and profound statements by Silberstein and McGeever are; Ontological emergence means monism without reductionism…either everything is reducible to fundamental physics or it is not…then the entire world of classical objects is somehow ontologically emergent. In short, ontological emergence is most probably a real feature of the world.
If ontological emergence is true, and it is completely compatible with monism we have an interesting situation on our hands. For one, it would be impossible to use basic atomistic physics to explain the world in a reductionism or supervenience way. The mind would then be ontologically emergent in a monistic worldview. However we a have a problem. The thought experiment about teleportation and identity would undermine quantum mechanics if all that needs to be copied would be the macro structure of the body and brain.
Classically this thought experiment is meant to show that there are problems with identity, that teleportation somehow messes up individuality and the self, but I will leave that there and use teleportation to defend supervenience. The reason I want to use teleportation as an argument for supervenience is because it seems to me that all that needs to be copied is the marco-particles and their positions.
Those that want to argue if one person is the same or not after the teleportation can continue on with their claims and arguments, but I don’t want to get into that here. Moving on, if all that needs to be copied is the information of the macro then supervenience still has a place ontologically. It would seem to me that if you teleport someone and forget to say, transport the Broca's area of the brain the traveler would then lose the ability to speak, not because of Silberstien’s quantum mechanics, but because of a huge macro structure which is missing which is part of a person’s identity. (Blitz, 1992 )
7. Conclusion: Phenomenal States as Supervenient-Emergent Properties
I want to try to reject Cartesian Dualism and epiphenomenal qualia while maintaining a kind of physicalist monist position. Epiphenomenal qualia has the problem of being a “by product” of the brain, which means it has no downward causation on the neuronal level. This thesis seems to be self evidently false because we know that when we feel a pain we are conscious of it and then we react to it. It is my belief that emergentism alone cannot account for the properties of phenomenal experience and needs to incorporate a kind of reduction. Supervenience is the answer to these woes because we can clearly see that one state supervenes upon another in the real world. To say that phenomenal properties are only emergent would give them a dualist like nature.
But as the Churchlands point out through their neurophilosophy the brain represents the world physically in many different complex forms. However this does not lead to the claim that emergentism is at all wrong. On the contrary, the Churchland’s accounts of reduction leads them to “networks” and “clumps of neurons”. To me this points to an anti-reductionist theory of phenomenal properties and states. Bridge laws between levels of reality make more sense even in light of some theorists who hold that emergent properties cannot be predicted by the underlying levels.
Once science has bridged the laws required to connect each level of reality to each other it seems evident that supervenience-weak-emergentism is the logical outcome. The human brain will be fully understood by neuroscientists in the near future and the explanatory gap will be bridged and might require a new set of laws dealing with physics. Either way phenomenal properties supervene on physical properties of the brain; meaning that the physical might just explain what we commonly (out of intuition which is similar to vitalism) refer to as unphysical will reveal itself as physical after all.
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1 Loar calls what it is like “phenomenal qualities” which he believes to be inside the brain, while others like David Chalmers would describe what it is like to be “qualia” which for Chalmers is the leading conflict between the mind/body problem creating what is known as the “explanatory gap” (Levine, 1983). See David Chalmers, The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996)
2 See the Stanford online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy at http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/supervenience/#4.1 where it is argued that there is a key difference between strong and week supervenience.