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Mind and Emergence: From Quantum to Consciousness by Philip Clayton

Mind and Emergence: From Quantum to Consciousness by Philip Clayton

Tuesday, August 29th, 2006

Mind and Emergence: From Quantum to Consciousness by Philip Clayton (Oxford University Press) Strong claims have been made for emergence as a new paradigm for understanding science, consciousness, and religion. Tracing the past history and current definitions of the concept, Clayton assesses the case for emergent phenomena in the natural world and their significance for philosophy and theology.  

Complex emergent phenomena require irreducible levels of explanation in physics, chemistry and biology. This pattern of emergence suggests a new approach to the problem of consciousness, which is neither reducible to brain states nor proof of a mental substance or soul.

Although emergence does not entail classical theism, it is compatible with a variety of religious positions. Clayton concludes with a defense of emergentist panentheism and a Christian constructive theology, akin to process theology, consistent with the new sciences of emergence.

The idea of emergence has developed as an alternative to reductionistic views of scientific explanation.  In the classic definition of el-Hani and Periera, they identify four features generally associated with the concept of emergence:

  1. Ontological physicalism or ontological monism: all that exists in the space-time world are the basic particles recognized by physics and their aggregates. Clayton substitutes ontological monism as a way avoiding the reductionism of physicalism.  Clayton argues that reality is ultimately composed of one basic kind of stuff.  Yet the concepts of physics are not sufficient to explain all will forms that this stuff takes — all the ways it comes to be structured, individuated, and causally efficacious. The one quote stuff unquote apparently takes of forms for which explanations of physics, and thus the ontology of physics are not adequate.  We should not assume that the entities postulated by physics complete the inventory of what exists.  Hence emergentists should be monists and not physicalists
  2. Property of emergence: when aggregates of material particles attain an appropriate level of organizational complexity, genuinely novel properties emerge in these complex systems.
  3. The irreducibility of the emergence: the emergent properties are irreducible to, and unpredictable from, the lower-level phenomena from which they emerge.
  4. Downward causation: higher-level entities may have a causal effect of their lower-level constituents

The idea of emergence has been applied to many specific scientific fields such as physics and biology.  Levels of emergence have been seen within the natural world and in theories of emerging consciousness.  Emergence has been seen as a pattern that crosses scientific theories and may be the basis for a metatheory.  Emergence is also about patterns that are in transitions between sciences and interdisciplinary knowledge in general, (systems theory, social systems, cultural systems, arts, history, evolution) and philosophical concepts generally.  Lastly there is the idea of emergence as a metaphysical theory which is inclusive of all the other levels of meaning. 

Clayton recognizes eight characteristics to his theory of emergence: 

  1. Monism: there is one natural world and eight out of some sort of undetermined stuff.  Whatever this stuff is it is a neutral and does not assume subject/object duality.
  2. Hierarchical complexity: this world appears to be hierarchically structured: more complex units are formed out of more simple parts, and they in turn become the parts out of which yet more complex entities are formed.  The rapid expansion of solid empirical work and complexity theory now allows us to quantify the increasing complexity, at least in some cases.
  3. Temporal or emergentist monism: this process of hierarchical structuring takes place over time: Darwinian evolution, and some forms of cosmological evolution move from the simple to the more complex.  Because new amenities emerge in the process, Clayton joins Arthur Peacock in advocating the label of emergentist monism.
  4. No monolithic law of emergence: many of the details of the process of emergence — the manner of the emergence from one level to another, the qualities of the emergent level, the degree to which the lower controls the higher etc. — vary greatly depending on which instance of emergence one is considering.  The idea of emergence should thus be viewed in terms of family resemblance rather than as a considered process.
  5. Recognizable patterns across levels of emergence: as the theory now stands it is possible to recognize and defend certain broad similarity shared in common by most of the various instances of emergence in natural history.  Clayton proposes five in particular for any two levels: where level two emerges from level one:

a)      Level one is prior in natural history.

b)      Level two depends on level one, such that if the states in level one did not exist, the qualities of level two would not exist.

c)      Level two is the result of a sufficient degree of complexity in level one.  In many cases one can even identify a particular level of critical complexity which, when reached, will cause the system to begin manifesting new emergent properties.

d)      One can sometimes protect the emergence of some new or emergent qualities on the basis of what one knows about level one.  But using level one alone, one will not be able to project the precise nature of these qualities, or the rules that govern their interaction or their phenomenological patterns, or the sorts of emergent levels to which they in turn may give rise in due course.

e)      Level two is not reducible to level one in any of the standard senses of reduction in the philosophy of science literature: causal, explanatory, metaphysical, or ontological reduction.

  1. Downward causation: Clayton also defends the more controversial idea of downward causation: in some cases phenomenon at level two exercise a causal effect on level one which is not reducible to a level one causal history. This causal nonreducibility is not just epistemic; in this sense and that we cannot tell the level one causal story. It is ontological: the world is such that it produces systems whose emergent properties exercise their own distinct causal influences on each other and on at least the next lower-level in the hierarchy. If we acccept the intuitive principle that ontology should follow agency, in cases of emergent causal agency, justify us in speaking of emergent objects such as organisms, agents in natural history.  The emergent properties are the new features of existing objects, for example, conductivity is a property of electrons assembled under certain conditions; immersion objects become centers of agency on their own behalf, cells and organisms may be composed of smaller particles, but they are also objects of scientific explanation in their own right.

  2. Emergentist pluralism: some may argue that six entails basic dualism however Clayton disagrees downward causation does mean that the position is pluralistic, in so far as it asserts that really distinct levels occur within the one natural world and that objects on various levels can be ontologically primitive, that is they can be entities in their own right, rather than being understood merely as aggregates of lower-level foundational particles, ontological atomism.  But to call this position dualist is to privilege one particular emergent level — the emergence of thought out of sufficiently complex neural systems — among what are at least twenty eight distinct emergent levels.

  3. Mind as emergent: the philosophical view Clayton proposes is not equivalent to dual aspect monism, a view that traditionally implied that there is no causal interaction between mental and physical properties, since they are two different aspects of one’s stuff.  By contrast the present view presupposes that both upward and downward influences are operative in consciousness.


Clayton reviews ideas of emergence in the natural sciences and neural science, also includes a speculative chapter of theological reflection about the relationship of emergence and transcendence.  Clayton’s overall argument consists of two distinct parts.  The first part defends the theory of strong emergence as the most accurate description of what occurs in the evolutionary process from quarks to cells to brains to thought.  On the other hand, life appears different enough from nonliving physical systems, and mental properties appear different enough from their neural substrate, that duelists have been inclined to view them as different kinds of substance altogether.  But scientific work on the origins of life and on the neural correlates of consciousness has undercut arguments for the explanatory incommensurability between the two sides.  Differences remain, but not dichotomies.  On the other hand, the aspirations for a complete reduction to microphysics have not been realized.  To the contrary, the natural world increasingly reveals distinct levels of organization, with each level characterized by its own irreducible types of causal influence and explanation. The conclusion is not that scientific study is futile or misguided; it is that scientific study reveals a vastly more complicated world, with vastly more complex interactions between different levels of organization, than the reductionistic program ever envisioned.  Attempting to balance these various considerations led Clayton and to an emergentist understanding of the relations between the various levels, and hence between the sciences and that study them. 

The case made about science in the first part of Mind and Emergence is independent of the case of the transcendent mind explored in the last chapter.  Nonetheless the more speculative argument developed and grews naturally out of what came before.  Suppose one grants that animals manifest distinct forms of awareness not found elsewhere in the natural world, and that humans evidence mental qualities unparalleled in other animals. And suppose that one concludes that something like the theory of strong emergence provides the best account of these mental properties and their causal role in the world. It seems hard to deny that these two conclusions lead inevitably to the confrontation with some of the big questions of philosophy — questions about agency and freedom, about higher-order levels of mind, and about transcendent or divine mind.  Debates about such topics are necessarily speculative; one will not be able to achieve the levels of certainty that one attains in more science-oriented topics.  Nevertheless, discussions of dualism, reduction, and emergence are so clearly connected to certain of the enduring philosophical questions that only a loss of nerve would keep one from following the line of argument as far as it leads.

But something bigger is at issue in combining the first and the second parts of the argument: the relationship between the scientific and non- scientific factors as humans seek to understand their place in the universe. The exponential growth of scientific knowledge, perhaps more than any other single factor, has transformed our sense of who we are and what kind of world we inhabit.  Given sciences astounding success, it is natural to assume that the growth of scientific knowledge will be limitless, that in the end nothing will lie outside its purview.  Some embrace this prediction with melioristic exuberance; others recoil from what appear to be its dehumanizing effects, opposing the advance of science on all fronts.

Emergence as presented by Clayton maintains a middle course between these two responses: it is both a response to scientific successes and failures and a prediction of the long-term outcome.  The question at issue is not whether nature manifests itself in distinct levels of phenomena but whether the natural sciences will eventually be able to comprehend all of the levels that are relevant for a causal explanation of phenomena in the universe.  Clayton suggests that the evidence, and not an outmoded science-phobia, supports a negative answer.  Some levels of reality are ideally suited for mathematical deterministic explanations, macrophysics for example; others for explanations of that are mathematical but not deterministic, quantum physics for example; but others for explanations that focus on structure, function, and development, such as the biological sciences from genetics to neurophysiology, for example.  But at other levels laws play a more minimal role and idiosyncratic factors predominate; hence narratives tend to replace measurements and prediction becomes difficult at best.  It appears that much of the interior life of humans, and what ever social interactions or creative expressions are based on this interiority, falls into this category.  Social scientists can reach shared understandings of psychological and cultural from, and thus achieve a growth of knowledge over time.  The natural sciences contribute a good social science — but not by making it a mere extension of themselves.

The ladder of levels of complexity does not end here, however.  Persons ask questions about the meaningfulness of the natural and social worlds in which they live and move.  Once again, a level of explanation becomes a part of a broader whole, and thinkers are invited to participate in the quest for knowledge in the next higher level.  Without doubt the questions rise to a level beyond the social scientific.  But does the possibility of discerning better and worse answers keep up with the questions, or do they now outstrip all human capacity for rational evaluation?  To take an analogous example, cosmology poses questions that, it seems, a physical science could never answer: what is the source of the Big Bang?  Is there a multiverse, why do certain laws hold across all of its diverse regions?  In short: when one follows the line from our emergent mind to transcendent mind, does the reach of the`questions exceed the grasp of discussable answers? 

The continuing explosion of scientific knowledge in the twenty first century will tempt many to conclude that beyond the reach of natural science there is no knowledge, only opinion and affect.  The emergence argument that Clayton has traced in this book though certainly not the only alternative, shows why the equation of knowledge to natural science is mistaken.  As tenuous as our grasp may be a knowledge, that is proposals that are open to intersubjective criticism and assessment, when the questions extend beyond what is empirically decidable, critical discussion by no means has to come to an end when the boundaries of physics and biology are reached.  Indeed, does not rational debate of the really big questions — debates not dominated by appeals to tradition, force, or absolute authority — become increasingly important as the human mind continues to expand the limits of its knowledge, and then knowledge of its limits, in an age of science?


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