Sunday, March 29, 2009

Can Mind Emerge from Matter?

The question is equivalent to asking whether or not anything useful can appear by accident. On the surface it might appear so. If a steady drop hollows the stone, as the German proverb has it, nature might form a nice-enough spoon by hammering one end of a narrow stone with droplets long enough. But the object wouldn’t be a spoon until some mind recognized the utility of that shape and at one stroke transformed that hollowed stone into a tool. Yet this transformation wouldn’t actually change the stone physically. It is the mind that does this transformation, this re-purposing as modern usage has it.

Implicit in the very concept of utility produced by chance is that some agency must recognize the utility of an object. Until that happens, the object is simply a fact of nature without meaning. Chance hasn’t produced anything useful yet. The object is thus in an order of indifference. When a utility is discovered in it, it comes to coexist, as well, in an order of purposes and meanings.

The difference between a consciously produced object (A) and one formed by accident (B) is that, in the case of A, A’s future useful function guides its very production. In the case of B a function is discovered after an unconscious process that had no intention whatsoever.

In the evolutionary scheme of origins, mind must be material by definition. It must be a function of the brain. The brain is a chemical machine the parts of which—and the convergence and proper linkage of the parts—had to come about by random events of a chemical nature. In this scheme utility is defined by advantages accruing to the individual in whom the changes take place. That individual is more likely to reproduce than another unluckier creature that lacks those advantages.

In this scheme useful innovation takes place entirely without any other agency than the fact that changes produce advantages in reproduction; by this means they aid the survival of the species.

What’s wrong with this picture? Well, it mixes things up a little bit. The picture presented is actually the same as the picture of the drop-hollowed stone. Concepts such as “advantage” and “survival” are not actually present in the naturalistic description of our origins. We’ve introduced those from the outside. Such ideas properly belong in the order of purpose and meaning. If the life process is an extension of the chemical behavior of matter, we cannot really speak about advantages or of survival; we can only talk about outcomes. It is only from our perspective that survival is a value. It is a judgment, a hierarchical ordering of outcomes entirely missing in nature.

What we are facing here is the improbability of deriving from one order (Y) the emergence of another order (Z). If Y does not already contain or possess Z, it cannot produce it. We want the material and specifically the chemical order to produce the order of purpose and of meaning. But in the material we only ever encounter necessity and chance. Here, of course, I’m leaving the whole subject of life as such entirely unexplored. I’m merely pointing out that you cannot derive perception, thought, will, and imagination from carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and so on.

Attempts to do so ultimately rely on the invocation of complexity. It is the modern way of naming the order of meaning and of purpose. Complexity, however, is ultimately only the very intricate arrangement of the same old components. Complexity theory therefore, logically speaking, demands our acceptance of a magical element that simply “emerges” when enough of the same old chemicals are rearranged intricately enough. No explanation of this emergence is ever provided. Thus no one is ready to say why and how the last element linked to the whole would cause it suddenly to burst into consciousness. We are asked to take it on faith. It’s an empirical observation. Really? Before we take that leap of faith, however, another earlier one is required. We must first accept that only the material is actually real.

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