Tuesday, April 13, 2021

How can we comprehend the emergence of consciousness?


It seems common for consciousness to be viewed either as an inexplicable mystery or as something we will only be able to comprehend if advances in science can explain how thoughts – a rich inner life - can somehow be created from matter. However, the problems we have in comprehending the emergence of consciousness may stem from our habit of thinking in terms of a separation between mind and body.

The idea of mind as separate from body has been part of Western philosophy for a long time, but is commonly referred to as Cartesian dualism after René Descartes (1596–1650). Descartes who famously said, “I think, therefore I am”, concluded “I knew that I was a substance, the whole essence or nature of which is to think … [that] does not depend on any material thing”. These days, not many people believe consciousness to be a substance, but dualism still seems to linger on in much discussion about consciousness.  

Descartes reached his conclusion after going through a process of considering what sources of knowledge could not be doubted, and discovering that he could not doubt that he was thinking. In his book, The Metaphysics of Emergence, Richard Campbell suggests that Descartes was on the right track in observing that he was unable to doubt that he was thinking:

“If I seriously think that I am not thinking, what I am thinking is pragmatically self-refuting.” (283)

Descartes error arose when he asked himself, “What then am I?” after observing that he could not doubt he was thinking. As Campbell points out, that question “presupposes that he takes himself to be some sort of thing”.

(Campbell’s discussion reminds me of the part of the long speech Ayn Rand had John Galt make in Atlas Shrugged in which Galt proclaims the axiom that “existence exists”, and that consciousness is “the faculty of perceiving that which exists”. Galt adds “a consciousness with nothing to be conscious of is a contradiction in terms” (1015). Readers who are allergic to Ayn Rand will be pleased to note that Campbell’s book contains no references to her, or to Objectivism.)

Before going further I should note that Richard Campbell is an emeritus professor of philosophy at the ANU. The Metaphysics of Emergence was published in 2015.

Campbell asks what conclusion we can draw from the observation that we cannot doubt we are thinking. His answer:

“Thinking that one is thinking, being aware that one is aware, has to be at least a meta-level operation, interacting with the processes of more basic awareness.

To understand what Campbell is getting at here, it may be helpful to have some knowledge of the general line of argument he develops in his book.

  • In the preface, the author explains that he has come to the view that any satisfactory account of the emergence of complex phenomena has to begin with recognition that “processes underly what seem like stable enduring entities, and therefore should be accorded priority over them”.
  • Campbell argues that everything is fundamentally in process. That line of argument is opposed to the dominant tradition of Western intellectual history (began by Parmenides) which views entities as the norm. The view that everything is a process presents us with the challenge of explaining the emergence and apparent stability of enduring things, whereas under the dominant tradition change requires explanation.
  •  Campbell suggests that Plato may have misrepresented Heraclitus in claiming he said, “You cannot step into the same river twice”. Heraclites may have been trying to convey the insight that the river stays the same even though it consists of changing waters. Campbell suggests that rivers exemplify “that the continued existence of things depends on their continually changing”.
  • The view of stability as the norm led to a focus on particular entities and the “matter” of which they were comprised. Since matter itself seemed to be comprised of entities (atoms and sub-atomic particles) it seemed to follow that everything was composed of entities (countable things). However, advances in physics make that view no longer tenable.  Although sub-atomic particles are often still talked about as though they are well-defined micro-entities, they behave more like processes than entities. Entities can no longer be accorded the role of the primary way of being.
  • Entities, including living things, can be best understood as special cases of generic processes constrained in certain explicable ways. Entities are minimally homomerous – they exist in fixed portions or units. If you cut a cow in two the result is not two smaller cows.
  • Many types of dynamic system retain their distinctive properties even though their constituents are replaced over time. That points to the importance of the constituent processes in maintaining the system.
  • Living creatures perform actions. Interactions between internal and external processes binds them together as cohesive entities and enables them to behave as integral wholes. Their actions are an emergent phenomenon – resulting from the interaction of many processes.
  • As Aristotle recognized, talk of actions carries implications of teleology – actions are directed towards some goal or end. In the case of simple multi-cellular organisms, goal-directedness is directed toward survival, but does not carry any implication of conscious choices or purposes. “The recursive self-maintenance of an organism is what requires the category of action to be predicated of it as an integrated action system and provides the necessary condition for other kinds of action which are directed at ends other than survival.” (176)    
  • As evolution proceeds, living creatures become capable of performing selective actions in response to differences in their environments. In relatively simple organisms, those actions are instinctual rather than choices involving deliberation or calculation. Selection becomes more significant in more complex creatures which need to choose between fighting and fleeing, or whether to search for food or find a mate. Complex organisms can learn by detecting that some action they have performed is in error.
  • The appropriate question regarding motivation is what makes an organism perform one action rather than another, rather than what makes it do something rather than nothing. Living organisms cannot do nothing, or they cease to exist as living beings.
  • When an organism has the ability to learn which kinds of action yields rewards and to select actions on the basis of that learning it seems reasonable to say that it can evaluate the projected outcomes. As organisms become more highly developed, goal-seeking activity becomes increasingly self-directed, more flexible, and more generic (not confined to specific task routines). The behaviors of many species of non-human animals indicates that they have some awareness of their surroundings.
  • The consciousness of humans evolved from the awareness displayed by other animals. Primate awareness includes elaborate event representations in which experience across many sources including bodily feelings are integrated and can be remembered. However, primates seem to lack the “fundamental defining capacities” to develop language skills (unless raised by humans) and do not express any kind of self-description.
  • Human evolution went through several stages: a mimetic culture employing the whole body as an expressive device; the mythic stage in which spoken language evolved (arguably to meet specific cognitive and cultural needs); and the theoretic stage beginning around 5,500 years ago with invention of the first writing systems. The theoretic stage is characterized by “institutionalized paradigmatic thought” – using external symbolic devices to store and retrieve cultural knowledge.
  • One’s sense of oneself is an aspect of consciousness that seems to be distinctively human, although some species of apes and elephants can recognize an image in a mirror as their own. “Our individual self-understandings are informed by our autobiographical memories, whose meaning depends on a shared oral tradition.” (290) Our consciousness of ourselves has been shaped by cultural and institutional factors that influence how our brains develop and function. While we talk metaphorically of the evolution of modern humans, this is not evolution in the Darwinian sense. A child born today differs little genetically from one born 60,000 years ago.
  • The development of human brains is strongly influenced by personal experience. Cultural interactions play an important role in determining the way the brains of children develop. They do not reach their mature architecture until adulthood. 

Some further explanation can now be given of what Campbell meant by writing that being aware that one is aware has to be at least a meta-level operation, interacting with the processes of more basic awareness. He is suggesting that when he detects something with one of his five senses there is more than one operation going on:

I am actively eliciting and processing those sensory inputs, and at the same time reflectively experiencing the qualities of that awareness. If that is right, then the way many philosophers today pose the issue of experience – how is it that certain complex physical systems are also mental – is misconceived. The situation is not that there is one phenomenon which has two aspects: one physical; one mental. Rather, experiencing is an on-going self-organizing activity which involves two distinct types of process: exploratory sensory activity (which is both bodily and neural); and another higher-level process operating upon the former. Being self-organizing, these interactions essentially involve feedback. That is why humans’ consciousness is reflective, reflexive, and thereby self-aware.” (283-4)

Before concluding, I should make clear that I prepared the above summary to improve my own understanding of the line of argument in Richard Campbell’s book. I hope it is a reasonable summary, but it not a substitute for reading the book. I am publishing this article in the hope of encouraging others to read the book.

I would also like to mention that I was prompted to read The Metaphysics of Emergence by a comment made by Robert L Campbell, a psychologist, in his review (published in JARS) of Harry Binswanger’s book, How We Know. I am pleased that I was given that prompt to read the book because I have a long-standing interest in explanations of consciousness - for example, see my comments on Alva Noё’s book, Out of Our Heads, published on this blog over a decade ago.


We cannot doubt that we think. That seems to me to be a profound observation. We may have reasons to doubt that what we are thinking at any moment is related to reality, but we cannot doubt that we are thinking. We are aware of both the flow of inner experiences – thoughts and feelings – and of our experience of the world in which we live. Thinking about our experience of the world enables us to contemplate the goals we seek, to make choices in pursuit of those goals, and to learn from experience. Our observations of the world tell us that many other animals also engage in similar processes - which imply an awareness of their surroundings. We have no problem in understanding that their awareness emerged/evolved to help them to survive and reproduce. Our human consciousness is just another step in that evolutionary process. Awareness of our own awareness has emerged to help us to flourish as individuals in the cultures in which we live.

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