Thursday, July 5, 2007

The Emergent Self

In our next-to-last session at the Quincy Science and Theology conference, Dr. Bill Hasker (Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Huntington University) presented a comprehensive argument for what he calls "the emergent self" (or "soul"). It was a summary of a book that he recent published with this same title.

Here's the problem Bill is trying to tackle. On the one hand, we all experience ourselves as having a mind that can originate ideas, make decisions, and freely move our physical bodies in various ways to accomplish various tasks. At the same time, we also all know that our mind is inextricably connected to our physical brains. In fact, through neuroscience we now have mapped very specific areas of the brain that are in charge of carrying out specific mental tasks.
So the question is, How can our minds be free when they're inextricably tied to a brain that is not (for the physical brain operates according to the laws of physics)?

Throughout western history most people have embraced DUALISM, which views the mind/soul as totally different from physical reality. This view is problematic for a number of reasons, not least of which is that it can't really explain the inextricable connection between the mind and the brain. Rejecting this, many nueroscientists today embrace MATERIALISTIC MONISM which believes the mind/soul is nothing more than a shadowy by-product of the deterministic processes that characterize the brain. This view is also problematic for a number of reasons, not least of which is that it means our sense of freedom is a complete illusion. Indeed, in this view our experience of impacting our brains and bodies by what we think is just an illusion. Thought and choice always follows deterministic physical processes. It never impacts physical processes -- for there is no autonomous "it" to cause anything. (This is sometimes called Epi-phenomenologicalism.)

Against both of these views, Hasker argued that we should view the "mind" as an "emergent property" out of brain processes. As I noted in a previous post, "emergence" is when a physical dynamic system is organized in such a way that the system as a whole acquires a property that none of the constituent parts of the system have. We find it all over the place in nature. Applied to the mind-brain problem, Hasker argues that while every aspect of the brain is physical and determined, it gives rise to mind as an "emergent property," and this property is neither physical nor determined. Indeed, once it emerges, the mind can be the originator of activity, impacting both the physical brain and therefore the body with its mental ideas and choices. So, Bill's view accounts for both the inseparability of the mind from the brain but also the relative independence of the mind and the brain.

I personally think something like Hasker's view must be correct. At the same time, I don't see that it really explains anything. Bill's theory is really just a description of what we experience and a way of saying, "this is true." He doesn't explain how deterministic physical processes (the brain) can give rise to a self-determining non-physical mind/soul. He simply observes that it does.

So here's what I'm wondering. Nobody knows what "matter" is, apart from what matter does. Nor does anyone know what "mind" is, apart from what mind does. And yet, it seems like we consistently forget this fact. We act like we know a great deal about both matter and mind -- enough so that we're very sure they're radically different from each other. This is what gives rise to the mind-body problem that dualism, materialistic monism and the emergent self theory each try to solve.

But what if we didn't start with the assumption that mind and matter are fundamentally different things? It's true that what we call "matter" behaves according to the laws of physics while what we call "mind" seems to be able to transcend these. But what if this difference was merely a matter of degree, rather than a difference of kind? What if the matter that looks like it slavishly obeys the laws of physics is just (what Hartshorne called) "low grade mind?" In other words, what if all material things are in their essence "mind-like," however low-level this mind-quality might be (this is the pan-psychism I referred to in an earlier posts)?

If we think this way, then there really is no mind-brain problem to solve. And it makes Bill Hasker's emergent self theory more compelling, I think. For while it's very hard to see how a free mind/soul could emerge out of brain parts that are themselves completely devoid of mind and freedom, there is no problem seeing how a high-level free mind could emerge out of brain parts that are each low-level mind and exercise low-level freedom.

Just a thought.