Consciousness is not an emergent property of matter


Published: 7 June 2018 (GMT+10)

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

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?,, 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 $17.00
Without Excuse
by Dr Werner Gitt
US $10.00
Is Human Life Special?
by Gary Bates and Lita Cosner
US $3.50

Reader’s comments

Gert P.
Thanks Paul. You use the word soul without defining it first, assuming that everyone is on the same page. It seems to me that you believe we are body and soul? Genesis teaches us that Adam were made from the dust of the earth and then Yahweh breathed into him His spirit, and then he became a living soul. (body + spirit = living soul) This soul as used in Genesis and your use of the word soul does not seem to correspond? Some say we are body, soul and spirit deriving it from passages like 1 Thess 5:23. This shows the need to define these things first.

You accept free will as fact, but it is a debatable subject. We have, but to what degree? We are all bound by sin. Romans 7 describes the "war within". we are slaves to sin. A slave is bound and not free to choose or decide. The decisions we make as fallen human beings are generally poor. Even more so in our BC days when we did not have God's spirit. Satan steal, kill, destroy and deceive. Just look at this whole origins debate, people blindly follow evolution. It requires God's mercy and the working of His spirit, we are unable to come to the truth ourselves. So the concept of rationality, free will, logical argumentation and those thing becomes a real dilemma as there is a spiritual side to it which affect it's "efficiency" and "accuracy".

A physical breakdown of the body and the brain (thus many medical conditions) cause a serious reduction in consciousness, free will, rationality and logical argumentation. Even to the point where it fails all together, despite having a "supernatural soul". Which begs the point of view of the materialists. This whole thing becomes as clear as mud.

I don't think I agree with your article, there is much more to debate. Sorry for disagreeing, thanks for your service in Christ!
Paul Price
Gert, thanks for writing in. After reading your comments, I am afraid your position is "clear as mud". Are you trying to say you disagree that humans have a supernatural soul? Please see this article.
Robert W.
Materialism fails to explain the unity of consciousness. The nature of the problem is demonstrated by a well-known thought experiment. In this, due to advances in medical science, doctors are able to remove your brain whilst keeping it alive and maintaining consciousness. As they separate the nerve endings from your body, you lose physical sensation, but are still conscious and able to think.

The supposedly conscious parts of the brain are then divided in half. The only nerves that are damaged are those connecting the two hemispheres, and consciousness is unaffected, as no anaesthetics are used and a steady supply of blood and oxygen is maintained throughout. The two halves of the brain are then placed into two new bodies that do not contain brains. All of the nerves to which those brain halves would normally be attached are then re-connected. The question is: ‘What would you experience after this experiment and through which body?’

The materialist could not say that you would be conscious through neither of the new bodies, because the matter that was assumed to be ‘you’ has been kept ‘alive’ throughout. It would also be illogical to say that one of the brain halves would be you and the other would not, because both came from the brain that was assumed to be ‘you’ in the first place. There is only one logical alternative: you would be conscious through both of the new bodies.

However, we now have a clear contradiction. There is a unity of consciousness, as the events in the two brain halves are experienced by one person. However, there is no physical unity, as the two brain hemispheres are now as separate as two different brains. If there is a unity of consciousness, but no physical unity, consciousness cannot be the attribute of something physical.
Paul Price
Just to play 'devil's advocate': I think the materialist would claim that the 'epiphenomenon' of consciousness would be lost as soon as the two halves were separated (since consciousness is claimed to be a result of the working together of all the parts of the brain). What are the nerves being connected to in the new bodies that had no brains? How do you function with only half a brain?

But still, there are some pretty interesting cases out there of people functioning with loss of significant portions of the brain. It does seem to cast doubt on the materialistic explanation of consciousness when we see people with functional consciousness who have lost, or never developed, full brains. Thanks for your interesting input.
Robert W.


The scenario assumes that consciousness continues and, biologically speaking, there is no reason why it would not. The brain is split in two when the corpus callosum is completely severed to deal with extreme forms of epilepsy. People also remain conscious, even after a stroke disables a whole hemisphere. This second point illustrates a further defect with materialism: it cannot account for personal identity.

Imagine, for example, that A represents all of the matter from a human brain that is assumed to be conscious. To the materialist, therefore, A represents an individual conscious being, like you or me. Now, let us also imagine that this individual has two strokes. After the first, c (one half) is unable to function at all. As soon as it is able to function again, however, b (the other half) is similarly affected.

In terms of consciousness, the materialist would have to conclude that there were three distinct periods of time, during which -

1. b and c were conscious;
2. only b was conscious; and,
3. only c was conscious.

If I were A, b and c would be parts of me. As a materialist, therefore, I would have to conclude that I would be conscious throughout. However, the matter that is assumed to be conscious in time period 2 is completely different from the matter that is assumed to be conscious in time period 3. In short, if the same person is conscious, but different matter is involved, that person cannot be composed of matter.
Paul Price
Oh, I see now. I was unaware that we had known instances of the brain being severed in two and consciousness was maintained ("split brain"). That is actually extremely powerful evidence! I found this paper on the topic after searching it. Thanks again!
graham P.
Hi Paul
An excellent thought provoking piece. Werner Gitt and others, friendly, or actually part of the biblical movement have argued coherently that computers require a body of information to run: that this information isn't a property of matter either.
IE, to say that our mind isn't a computer, and therefore we're superior, is a bit confusing: a note written on a paper napkin exhibits the same extra-physical properties. the coded, grammatical, information bearing a message is in the realm of the supernatural, as Gitt argues.

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