Reductionism, Emergence, and Consciousness

Famed neuroscientist and self-proclaimed ‘romantic-reductionist’ Christof Koch has publicly endorsed a ‘panpsychist’ metaphysic in his latest book (see a short discussion here on my friend Matt’s ‘footnotes2plato’ blog). In other words, Koch believes ‘mind’ to be a fundamental aspect of reality. I have not (yet) read the book, but having read some of his (relatively narrowly focused) neuroscientific studies, I find this insight into his larger philosophical perspective interesting for a couple of reasons.

First, it is encouraging to see a well-known and well-respected neuroscientist take something other than an eliminative materialistic approach to understanding what the mind is and what the brain does. To entertain the notion that what we call ‘mind’ might permeate reality in a deeper way than current scientific methods allow us to appreciate is important, I think. If for no other reason, it is important because it is an admission of our ignorance into the nature of reality. Science is meant to probe reality, but its value is its self-awareness in being an ongoing project, necessarily incomplete. This incompleteness means that we cannot say with any certainty what is fundamental to reality, we can just refine our current picture. And if history is any indication, what we currently consider obvious and self-evident will be turned upside down in a future revolution.

Second, I think it is telling of the reductionistic perspective in general. Reductionism is the assumption that all phenomena are understandable through deconstruction into their components (and the components can be broken into their components etc.). To maintain a reductionistic standpoint and simultaneously take consciousness seriously one is almost forced into the position Koch is apparently taking. In other words, if a) consciousness is real, and b) reductionism holds, then consciousness must go ‘all the way down’.

In contrast, the systems notion of ’emergence’ allows that novel aspects of the universe can come into being without contradicting any preexisting law, but nonetheless having a causal power all their own. When an emergence event happens, the universe does not only shift quantitatively, but  qualitatively as well. Of course, as of yet, emergence deals with the behavior of systems, in other words the ‘external’ materially extended aspect of a system. What is so fascinating about consciousness is that it is an ‘internal’ phenomenon (or, possibly, a relation between internal and external). But while current models of emergence can only deal with the external behavioral aspects of a system, the spirit of the idea includes the possibility of new, and real, aspects of the universe.

My intuition leads me to see both ‘internal’ and ‘external’ as co-emerging and co-evolving aspects of reality. From this perspective, I’m not sure how useful it is to claim consciousness goes ‘all-the-way-down’. If we were to accept Koch’s proposal that it does, and in a way amenable to reductionistic analysis, we are still left with the work of how ‘little-consciousnesses’ come together in an organized fashion to build ‘big-consciousnesses’. Presumably at certain thresholds, consciousness will change in character dramatically, as in a phase-transition. Can we understand these events as nothing more but the sum of the ‘little consciousnesses’? If not, we still need to preserve the notion of emergence, and reductionism will still be insufficient to grapple with these issues.

Koch’s proposed measure ‘phi’ aims, I think, to address some of these issues. I will have to read the book to see where we agree, and where we don’t. First up on the list, though, is his close colleague Giulio Tononi’s recently published book ‘Phi‘ that just arrived in the mail. I imagine it will cover similar ground, and I hope to gain insight into their perspective.


About Joe

I'm a PhD candidate in Complex Systems and Brain Sciences at Florida Atlantic University. I'm currently studying the neural dynamics of visual perception.
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One Response to Reductionism, Emergence, and Consciousness

  1. Interesting point about Koch being lead to panpsychism as a result of his reductionism. I hadn’t thought of it that way, but it makes sense. I also think you’re right to point to the inability of current emergence theories to account for the ’emergence’ of interiority. Interiority would not just be the emergence of a new quality like redness or wetness, it would be the emergence of that which makes quales possible in the first place. I’m looking forward to your reflections on Tononi’s book.

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