In a paper entitled "Realistic monism: why physicalism entails panpsychism" (linked on this page and previously mentioned on this blog here), Galen Strawson argues against experience being an emergent phenomena on the grounds that ‘If it really is true that Y is emergent from X then it must be the case that Y is in some sense wholly dependent on X and X alone, so that all features of Y trace intelligibly back to X ’. He contends that this does not apply in relation to the supposed emergence of experience from wholly non-experiential matter.
From this basis, Strawson argues that if experience cannot be emergent from wholly non experiential phenomena then, assuming there is a plurality of ultimates (‘using the term ‘ultimate’ to denote a fundamental physical entity, an ultimate constituent of reality, a particle, field, string, brane, simple, whatever’), then at least some ultimates must be intrinsically experiential.
In this post I am addressing the issue of whether, if it is true that experience cannot emerge (in the sense described by Strawson above) from the non-experiential, then it follows from this that some ultimates must be experiential.
I think another way of characterising experience as something which is not emergent (in Strawson’s sense ), is to say that it is fundamental or a fundamental property. In relation to fundamental properties, Strawson says ‘I’m prepared to allow for argument that an ultimate’s possession of its fundamental properties could be brute in the sense of there being no reason for it in the nature of things, so long as it is agreed that emergence cannot be brute.’
The issue which I don’t think is addressed sufficiently in Strawson’s paper is why a fundamental property need only be associated with an ultimate, rather than a group of ultimates. Although fundamental properties such as mass, spin and charge may be properties of ultimates, there does not seem to be any logical or metaphysical necessity that this be the case. Therefore, it is possible that experience could be a fundamental property of aggregations of ultimates, such as brains.
This view is not unusual. For example, strong emergentists such as C.D. Broad held that consciousness arises from brains as a result of new fundamental principles that operate at a certain level of complexity (note this form of emergence is different from that as defined by Strawson as ‘Y is not wholly dependent on X’ but arises as a result of additional fundamental laws).
Also, David Chalmers argues that experience is a fundamental property which arises as a result of fundamental psychophysical laws, but that this does not necessarily mean that experience is a property of the ultimate constituents of matter:
“ Like the fundamental laws of physics, psychophysical laws are eternal…it may be that in the early stages of the universe there was nothing that satisfied the physical antecedents of the laws and so no consciousness.. [A]s the universe developed, systems evolved that satisfied the relevant conditions… conscious experience accompanied them by virtue of the laws in question” (The Conscious Mind p 171).
However, although there does not seem to be any necessity for experience to be a property of fundamental entities if it is fundamental and non-emergent, this is not to say that this may not be the most reasonable inference. William Lycan makes a related point pungently in this paper:
“If any reduction of mind to the natural order requires a reconception and expansion of physics to incorporate novel entities and principles not motivated by the physical data themselves, then either those entities and principles will be localized where we now take minds to be, viz., in central nervous systems, or like other entities and principles of fundamental physics they will pervade nature. But the former hypothesis, while coherent, is loony. Are the new entities and principles just shy? Whyever would the entities occur and principles apply only in regions of spacetime shaped like the heads of sentient creatures, or be specific to neural tissue, which regions and tissue are specified only at a level of organization far higher than that of microphysics? Why would their occurrence depend on their so much larger molecular environment? The notion is imaginable, but grotesque. And again, how could the microphysicist ex officio explain why the new entities occur just in the small and idiosyncratically distributed regions of spacetime where they do?”
Similarly, Chalmers, whilst conceding that there is no necessity in experience being ubiquitous if it is fundamental, states that such a view avoids the arbitrariness of experience having to ‘blink in’ at a certain level of complexity in a system and that, other things being equal, it seems more natural for experience to be widespread like other fundamental properties- ‘It would be odd for a fundamental property to be instantiated for the first time only relatively late in the history of the universe and then only in occasional systems’ (p297 ).
Lycan’s and Chalmer’s views suggest that if experience is fundamental, then it is likely to be widespread and associated with the simplest of systems. This does not necessarily mean it is likely to be associated with ultimates (eg it could be a property of whole atoms), so further argument would be needed to establish that point.
To conclude, while I don’t think Strawson’s paper adequately demonstrates that if experience is not emergent then it must necessarily be a property of ultimates, I think it can be cogently argued that it is a reasonable, if not the most reasonable, inference that if experience is fundamental it is at least pervasive and associated with simple systems. It seems implausible, arbitrary and unparsimonious to suppose that experience is fundamental yet also rare and wholly dependent on uniquely complex and specialised systems such as the brain.