Ethical Realism

March 12, 2010

What is Emergence?

Filed under: metaphysics,philosophy — JW Gray @ 4:53 am
Tags: , , ,

Scientists want to find out what causes minds and morality even though these things seem clearly different from the rest of reality. Philosophers have thought of three main answers to explain their existence: One, they are non-natural. Two, they are reducible to physics (atoms and energy). Three, they are emergent phenomena. I will discuss each of these possibilities.

The Non-Natural Explanation

The non-natural explanation for phenomena is unpopular among philosophers because it seems too mysterious. If minds or morality has a non-natural origin, then were could they come from? Here are a couple of possibilities:

  1. God created them.
  2. They always existed.

God created them.

The view that God directly creates minds and morality is popular among laymen because it’s a pretty simple sounding idea. God did it, end of story. However, this answer might give up too quickly. We don’t want to say God directly created something that could be explained by the natural world. For example, people might have thought lightning was directly caused by God at one point in time, but this is clearly a poor explanation for the existence of lightning.

It might be that God created the entire universe. In that case lightning, minds, and morality would have been created by God indirectly, but we don’t want to say that God is the best explanation for creating any of these things when some natural explanation could also be available.

They always existed.

It is possible that minds and morality have always existed as eternal parts of the universe. Philosophers sometimes argue that platonic forms are the best explanation for a phenomena, such as mathematics. However, it seems strange to say that minds or platonic forms are eternal parts of the universe.

The Reductionist Explanation

We often find out that objects come from other parts of the universe. Water is nothing but H2O, for example. What we think of as water is actually H2O. Some philosopher hope to find out that everything is reducible in this way. They want to find out that physics is the only real part of the universe and everything is reducible to physics. Most philosophers find this to be plausible for chemistry, but it isn’t entirely clear that biology, psychology, or morality could be reduced in this way.

Are minds reducible to physics? In fact, it seems very strange to say that minds are nothing but some system of particles and energy. We experience our mind’s existence as being unified in space and time. In order to have a thought, we have to exist for more than just a millisecond. In order to see a picture, each piece of visual data must be brought together as part of a larger visual field. We don’t just see a dot of green. We see a large picture. We experience the world in a first person perspective. Such a perspective can’t be found in a system of particles.

If our mind is reducible to physics, then it would seem to be a massive illusion. I could understand the idea that colors are an illusion. Maybe colors are just an illusion caused by a neurological reaction to the world. Perhaps our experience of water is also an illusion. We experience water as being “wet” and “liquid,” but perhaps water is really just a bunch of particles floating about. But how could a mind be an illusion? No one could experience such an illusion, so it doesn’t seem possible for the mind to be an illusion.

Is morality reducible to physics? It also seems strange to say that morality is nothing but particles and energy. If morality is reducible to physics, then our ordinary experience of morality is an illusion. For example, I experience that pain is bad when I feel it. But pain can’t be an illusion because it’s nothing but an experience. An illusion is a deceptive experience, but there’s nothing deceptive about pain. Pain is nothing but a bad feeling.

In conclusion, to say that minds or morality is reducible to physics is implausible. We don’t experience these things as being reducible, and the reality of minds and morality is, in part, our actual experiences.

The Emergence Explanation

The idea of emergence is that certain physical states or systems lead to irreducible elements of reality. Those states or systems are greater than the sum of their parts For example, it seems reasonable to think that our brains give us minds. Brains might be fully understood in terms of physics, but it gives rise to minds, which are not fully describable in terms of physics. We can’t describe what pain feels like in terms of atoms moving about.

Morality also appears to be emergent. Once we get pain, then we also get something new–moral facts. Pain is “bad,” so causing pain willy nilly is wrong. Certain physical and psychological facts give rise to moral facts. Once we can cause pain, moral facts exist. (There are other morally relevant facts other than pain, but I’m just giving an example.)

In order to understand emergence, we need to understand in what sense minds and morality seem to be “irreducible.” I suggest that it could be irreducible in the following ways:

  1. Irreducible level of description.
  2. Irreducible from the causal origin.
  3. Irreducible sort of causation.
  4. Irreducible sort of substance.
  5. Irreducible sort of property.

Irreducible level of description.

Almost all philosophers agree that the mental level of description is not reducible to a description of physics. However, it is possible that this is just a fact about our language or our understanding of the world. The mind might not be describable entirely in terms of physics even if the mental level of description is causally irrelevant. (Atoms and energy might be the only causal parts of the universe.)

I agree that there are different levels of description, but I think that minds and morality are more than just an irreducible level of description. They are causally irreducible in some sense. This position will be discussed in detail below.

Irreducible from the causal origin.

Minds are not identical to the physics found in the brain. It might be that minds are caused by the physics, but minds seem to be more than the sum of their parts. When we see other people we could wonder if they have a mind. If their behavior is based on nothing other than atoms and so forth, then we might suspect they don’t have minds, just like we have no reason to think that computers or robots have minds when their behavior is entirely explainable in terms of the physics.

The same seems to be true of morality. We know pain is bad because of how it feels, so pain does not seem to be entirely describable in terms of physics. We want to avoid pain because of how it feels, not just because atoms are moving about.

Irreducible sort of causation.

The causation of minds and morality isn’t entirely describable in terms of physics as we know it. Some new causal interactions seem to take place when minds or morality exist. Minds allow us to make decisions based on observation and morality allows us to make decisions based on the badness of pain.

Irreducible sort of substance.

Descartes suggested that minds and matter are two different substances. Each substance is mutually exclusive part of reality. Minds are eternal and have no location, but matter is transitory and has a location. This “substance dualism” requires us to accept that physics and minds are both totally unrelated, and are therefore irreducible to each other. If morality is an eternal realm (platonic forms), then morality would also seem to be a different substance from material reality.

Philosophers have pretty much unanimously rejected substance dualism because the mind and body interact, but substance dualism seems to make it impossible for them to interact. We see from light hitting our eyes, and we can raise our hand through an act of will. If mind and matter are totally different parts of reality, then they can’t touch, so they can’t interact.

There is a similar problem with platonic forms. It seems impossible to know what is good or bad when values consist of an eternal non-material part of reality.

Irreducible sort of property.

Some philosophers have suggested that reality can have different sorts of properties. The brain could have material properties (location, mass, etc.) but also have mental properties (perception, reason, etc.) It seems reasonable to think that pain has both mental and moral properties. Pain is a feeling, but there’s also something bad about it. It could have a property of having intrinsic disvalue, for example.

John Searle criticized property duelists for claiming that mental properties don’t do anything. Saying something has both mental and physical properties doesn’t seem very interesting if the property in question is causally irrelevant. However, I don’t think that mental properties are causally irrelevant.

In conclusion, it is plausible that minds and morality are irreducible in the sense of having an irreducible level of description, a unique causal influence, and irreducible sorts of properties.


Philosophers are often eager to point out that minds and morality are “physical” phenomena. That means that minds and morality are causally tied to the rest of the universe, such as atoms and energy. However, minds and morality seem to be more than just the movement of atoms. If they are emergent features of reality, then they are more than the sum of their parts.

Some people think that the universe described by scientists is meaningless. They think that our mind can only be explained in terms of having a supernatural soul, and morality can only exist from God. However, emergence is one way to understand how our universe is meaningful, contains minds, and contains morality without any supernatural elements.

I have not fully argued that minds or morality are emergent elements of reality within this discussion, but I have defended such a position in the past. I have written the following essays related to emergence:

  1. Searle’s Philosophy of Mind
  2. An Argument for Moral Realism
  3. Objections to Moral Realism Part 1: The Is/Ought Gap
  4. Objections to Moral Realism Part 3: Argument from Queerness

1 Comment »

  1. […] mathematics. I believe that minds and morality are both irreducible elements of reality. They are emergent phenomenon that arises from matter in motion combined with undiscovered laws of physics. Mathematics […]

    Pingback by Emergence: A New Worldview of Reality « Ethical Realism — May 14, 2010 @ 11:10 pm | Reply

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