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Consciousness is not an emergent property of matter



I have been contemplating consciousness for a long time. Back in high school I wrote a research paper for English class on the topic of consciousness. I argued that it could not be reduced to the mere outworking of physical matter in motion. I remember intuitively just understanding this upon reflection, but I was able to find a book at the library written by a philosopher of science, Dr James Fetzer, arguing that minds are not machines, and human consciousness is fundamentally different from how computers make ‘decisions’ and access memory.1 I understood that this was a vital issue in the debate over worldviews, because if our brains are all we are—if there is no soul—then everything we think and do must be traced back to only physical causes, just as the processes of a computer are.

The materialist dilemma

Since then, I have brought up this issue time and time again in discussions with skeptics and atheists. Once in a while, you will find someone who is willing to bite the bullet and face up to the stark reality that there can be no truly free choices in a materialistic universe;2 however, I have found that to be the exception to the general rule that most people, including atheists, are highly resistant to the idea that we have no ability to make genuine choices. It runs contrary to our deepest intuitions about ourselves. It also leads to an uncomfortable question: if I didn’t freely choose to believe what I now believe, then how can I claim I am being ‘rational’? The concept of rationality (making ‘good choices’ about what to believe based on principles of logic) becomes moot and meaningless if we have no ability to freely make choices or have free thoughts in the first place! (See Monkey minds.)

Emerging from the world of cause and effect

In the search for a way out of this uncomfortable position, I have found that most atheists seem to gravitate to one particular explanation for consciousness: that it is an emergent property of matter which is ‘activated’ by the particular complex arrangement of our brains. According to one science article:

…"emergent properties" or "emergence" refer to those properties that arise from the collaborative functioning of a system, but do not belong to any one part of that system. In other words, emergent properties are properties of a group that are not possible when any of the individual elements of that group act alone.3

The atheist wants to believe that this mysterious ‘emergent property’ of our brains is able to free us from the stark nature of matter that it behaves according to only rigidly predictable ways—according to the laws of physics and chemistry. I have never yet been given any scientific explanation of how this is supposed to work (I don’t believe there are any)! But this is their faith, in any case.

The quantum escape

One avenue that is usually brought into the picture is quantum mechanics. They will usually appeal to a fuzzy notion of ‘quantum indeterminacy’ to claim that, after all, matter is not really predictable, since we have found strange anomalies in the quantum realm that seem to be inexplicable in terms of rigid cause and effect.4 This appeal does not work for three reasons:

First, there are different competing explanations of the results we see in quantum experiments, and it is far from clear which one is truly the correct one, if any. There are both indeterminate and determinate interpretations.

Second, the strange, unpredictable results we see are only observed at the quantum level. This unpredictability does not extend into the macroscopic world of trees, baseballs, mountains and human bodies. In the macroscopic world, experiments on matter are predictable and repeatable; that is exactly why science works in the first place. These atheists want to gloss over the fact that brains, complicated or not, are macroscopic objects, not quantum particles. Whatever is going on in the quantum realm does not change the fact that matter is known to behave predictably according to the laws of physics.

Third, indeterminacy is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for freedom. For an agent to make a free choice, he must be the originator of the choice and in control of it. But if quantum events are truly random, this leaves no room for agency.

Examples of ‘emergence’

What then, can we say in response to this ‘emergent property’ argument? I think it would be very helpful here for us to examine what kinds of emergent properties we do observe. An emergent property, by its very nature, is an outworking of the same universal laws of physics that govern everything else in the material world. For example, some things are soft, and some things are hard. Softness and hardness are not properties of the constituent molecules of an object, but rather these properties ‘emerge’ as a function of the physical arrangement of those molecules. There is nothing magical about this; it happens predictably.

Another example: salt is a particular chemical combination of the elements sodium and chlorine. The emergent property of ‘saltiness’ is not possessed by either of those elements; both sodium and chlorine are highly dangerous, toxic substances on their own. Yet, with the particular chemical combination of sodium chloride, we get the property of saltiness. Once again, this property is an outworking of set laws of physics and chemistry. There is nothing unpredictable or ‘magical’ happening there.

Conclusion: emergent properties are a function of laws

Emergent properties are, just like any other type of physical property of matter, an outworking of laws. The atheist tries to ‘pull a fast one’ and slip something past you when using this argument that consciousness is an ‘emergent property’ that frees us from the otherwise established law of cause and effect. It is a subterfuge because it attempts to use the idea of physical properties to negate the very laws of physics that make these properties possible. It is an inherent contradiction. At its base, the ‘emergent property’ argument fails because it tries to turn physics, and indeed logic, against itself! There is simply no escape: without a supernatural soul, humans are tied down by the laws of physics. We are reduced to automatons, and the implications of this are far-reaching. Showing this to the atheist is a very good way to begin to take the roof off their false worldview.5

Published: 7 June 2018

References and notes

  1. Fetzer, J., Computers and Cognition: Why Minds are not Machines (Studies in Cognitive Systems), Springer Science+Business Media, Dordrecht, 2001. Return to text.
  2. One such individual was the late atheist professor William Provine, who said in a debate, “There is no ultimate foundation for ethics, no ultimate meaning in life, and no free will for humans, either.” Return to text.
  3. Mercer E., What Are Emergent Properties?, sciencing.com, updated 25 April 2017. Return to text.
  4. For a good overview of this, read Jonathan Sarfati’s article on quantum mechanics. Return to text.
  5. Taking the roof off is a phrase coined by Francis Schaeffer in his apologetic or evangelical strategy, which involves showing the unbeliever the inadequacy of their own worldview to explain the facts of the world and the human condition. Return to text.

Helpful Resources

Christianity for Skeptics
by Drs Steve Kumar, Jonathan D Sarfati
US $12.00
Soft cover
Is Human Life Special?
by Gary Bates and Lita Cosner Sanders
US $4.00