Emergent Properties of the Human Brain

This post revisits arguments related to free will and complexity theory. I’ve recently been focused on newer arguments for self-determinism (a compatibilist explanation of free will) but an interview of Daniel Dennett, by CFI, has prompted me to revisit “emergent properties”. If you’re not familiar with my explanation for self-determinism, please consult my home page for several posts on the topic.

The basic premise of hard determinism is a false dichotomy. It asserts that you can’t have causality and make choices too. Too many hard determinists are stuck on this false dichotomy and won’t acknowledge that it’s not either/or. They won’t acknowledge that there are alternative possibilities. Self-determinism is one such alternative.

Daniel Dennett, in an interview for the Center For Inquiry, uses an argument derived from complexity theory. Complexity theory, by the way, is better suited to mind/brain questions than the reductionist approaches favored by hard determinists. For your convenience, I’m including this link to an .MP3 file containing just the section of the interview dealing with free will. The following block quote comes from near the end of the .MP3 file . . .

Most people are quite happy with the idea that things can be colored even though their finest parts aren’t colored. Atoms aren’t colored but things can be red, blue and green — they can really be red, blue and green — it’s not just an illusion that they’re red, blue and green even though the atoms that they’re made of are not any color at all. Things can be alive, like a cell, even though they’re made of parts that aren’t alive. In fact, if it doesn’t work out that way, we’re in deep trouble. So you can make something living out of parts that are not living. You can make something colored out of parts that aren’t colored. You can make something conscious out of parts that are not conscious. Neurons aren’t conscious . . . [and] you can make something free out of parts that aren’t free.

Nature is riddled with emergent properties: especially where there is life. Life itself is an emergent property of organic molecules. Self-aware consciousness, intelligence and, yes, self-determinism, are emergent properties of mental feedback (which is, itself, an emergent property of the brain). Because the emergent property of mental feedback must exist before the emergent properties of (1) self-aware consciousness, (2) intelligence and (3) self-determinism can exist, these 3 higher-level phenomena are at least twice abstracted from the brain. They are emergent properties of an emergent property (mental feedback). You can also take the view that human intelligence includes self-aware consciousness and self-determinism but you’d still have a phenomenon twice abstracted from the brain: an emergent property from an emergent property. This feedback loop, in which we think about what we think, is where choice arises.

I believe, as I’ve already stated here and elsewhere, that self-aware and time-aware mental feedback is transformative: that’s where the complimentary properties of causality and human intelligence interact . . . where self-determinism emerges.

Please forget about free will. It doesn’t exist. Our intelligent interaction with causality produces a more subtle, nuanced, phenomenon: self-determinism. I think of it, more or less, as “direction” or “purpose”. Because of feedback, we can (with varying degrees of efficacy) distinguish between a good idea and a bad idea or something in between and pursue the one we want. These are options — yes, options dictated by causality but options nonetheless — we choose as self-aware, intelligent, human beings. The brain deliberates. That what it does. It couldn’t without feedback. If you insist on a reductionist philosophy that equates brains to rocks, you will never acknowledge the distinctly different modes of response to causality exhibited by inanimate objects and animate beings.

We suspect that abiogenesis somehow transformed inanimate matter into living cells. We haven’t proved it yet. But it’s the best theory we have and most of us are willing to accept it because we know life must have started somehow.

Of course . . . you could say “God did it” and leave it at that. But that’s a cop-out.

In the same way, we know that we are self-aware, time-aware, intelligent human beings who bring purpose and direction to a universe that otherwise has none. Self-determinism provides a theory that uses what we all know to explain how this phenomenon is compatible with causality.

Of course . . . you could say “The Big Bang did it” and leave it at that. But that’s a cop-out.

The philosophical challenge will remain unsolved if we keep trying to explain the impossible notion of the ill-named “free will”. Turn your attention to what we know and can actually point to as real. The true challenge, in light of causality and reality, is to explain the goal-seeking purpose of human endeavor . . . NOT to fatalistically deny it.


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