Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Emergent Materialism

Been reading up on (strong) emergence. Trying to figure out why this is even called 'materialism' - the impression of "because if they admit it's not materialism most of the people they want to convince will drop it like a rabid squirrel" is hard to shake.

As ever, Fodor provides the convenient essential summary.

Maybe the hard problem shows that not all basic laws are laws of physics. Maybe it shows that some of them are laws of emergence. If that’s so, then it’s not true after all that if Y emerges from X there must be something about X in virtue of which Y emerges from it. Rather, in some cases, there wouldn’t be any way of accounting for what emerges from what. Consciousness might emerge from matter because matter is the sort of stuff from which consciousness emerges. Full stop.

It would then have turned out that the hard problem is literally intractable, and that would be pretty shocking.

Well, points to Fodor for noting that emergent materialism does not offer some 'materialistic explanation' of (for example) the hard problem of consciousness, but is in fact the positing of a limit of explanation. One problem I have is: In what way does "Y emerge from X" if we're admitting that there's nothing "about X" which is the reason Y emerges from it? It's those laws of strong emergence which is responsible for Y, not X itself, which makes the use of the word "emergence" seem like some sleight of hand.

Not to mention, emergent materialism re: mind in any way seems like a suicidal for any would-be naturalist. So there exist these special laws that "kick in" for certain configurations of matter, and suddenly you have these irreducible and novel properties/traits? This is starting to sound like formal and final causality, but more muddy. Worse, the idea that there are these laws of strong emergence directly related to minds, just waiting around for the right configurations of matter to show up?

Nah. If you want to be a proper naturalist, reductive materialism is the only game in town. Pity it's downright incoherent.


Steve said...

On the topic of strong emergence, I listened to this edition of philosophy tv with Barry Loewer and Timothy O'Connor. Neither defends a materialist view of strong emergence --Loewer is a physicalist who doesn't like strong emergence while O'Connor defends it but is a dualist and theist.

I don't think you would learn much new, but they are very articulate speakers.

Crude said...

Thanks for the link, I'll have a look.

As I said, what gets me here isn't strong emergence itself, but the connection of it with materialism or physicalism. The existence of 'basic' laws that deal exclusively with the mental would something.

Steve said...

I agree with you that it doesn't seem like a sensible move in the context of materialism.

Allen said...

Interesting post.

It seems to me that the key problem with emergence is that if consciousness can "emerge" from matter in the sense that Fodor mentions, then why can't it emerge from nothing at all?

After all, what did "matter" emerge from?

As you say, "It's those laws of strong emergence which is responsible for Y, not X itself".

So why wouldn't you keep the laws, keep Y, and discard X as unnecessary.

Once you have the experience of a rock, what further purpose does the "real" rock serve? It's redundant.

As is the case with dreams. When I dream of a rock, upon waking I don't wonder where that rock is. The dream of the rock was all there was to that rock. There is no real rock that "caused" my dream experience of it.

And, I would suspect the same is true of our experience of the waking world.

Besides, if you posit the existence of a real rock to explain your experience - then you've just started down an infinite regress of explanations. The rock explains your experience, but what explains the rock? And then what explains the explanation of the rock? And so on.

But, you've heard it all before, so I'll stop there!

Crude said...

Well, I'm getting at a roughly similar point when you say 'Keep Y, discard X' (in this case, the matter.) How is this 'emergent materialism' when the matter is expressly not what anything is 'emerging from'? Sure, maybe you can say that what's happening is that the matter has now changed in some fundamentally drastic way in accordance with this law-of-emergence. But then, you can also go the Hasker way of saying 'Actually what happens is at level X, you get a whole new substance in its own right'.

I'm actually somewhat sympathetic to idealism, insofar as it starts with something we know exists, so to speak. As someone else once said, if you push me into a corner where I have to deny my mind or deny the rest of the world, hey - mind 1, world 0.