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Consciousness and Emergence

Some philosophers believe that we are confused about the nature of causation and that there are different forms of causation. What form of causal relation are we looking for with respect to consciousness? It does not seem to be of the same kind as when a billiard ball bounces into another. We normally think of consciousness not as an event, nor simply as a series of events, but more like a burning flame, which is being sustained by the brain. We can think of a flame as a causally emergent phenomenon, and its appearance and characteristics seem radically different from the molecules sustaining it. Could consciousness be construed analogously, as an emergent property of brain cells?

Although this looks appealing, there appears to be an important difference between how chemical reactions of molecules cause flames as emergent phenomena and how brains cause consciousness. In the case of the flame, we can tell a story about how it is a higher-level system feature of interacting molecules. We have theories about the physics—molecular formations, radiation of light and heat, and fluid dynamics, for example. The nature of a flame may seem unexpected, and its dance may be unpredictable. We may ponder how it could be explained in terms of molecular chemistry, but once we examine the reactions, we see how the self-sustaining process of oxidation works and the mystery dissolves. The problem of consciousness is not simply that it is unexpected, difficult to predict, or even impossible to precisely predict, as many physical interactions are. It is a problem of a different order. So what do we mean if we say that consciousness is causally emergent? In McGinn’s view, “emergence” is another word for “magic” when it comes to the riddle of consciousness. We would have to think of emergence in a too-radical form because, again, we fail to see how brain processes could cause consciousness. To say they do so through radical emergence is to introduce a technical term without explaining anything. The dance of the flames of a fire has always been intriguing to us, but the fire in the brain is intriguing on an entirely different level, or so it seems.

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