Tag Archives: emergence

The E-Word

Last night, the wife and I brewed up some nice Medicare mimosas (that’s orange Metamucil with a pinch of MiraLAX for those who don’t know, yet) and sat down to watch a documentary on the desktop. It was my night to choose, so we didn’t watch the National Geographic folks anthropomorphizing the animal of the week. Instead, we watched something interesting on PBS. It’s an old series imaginatively entitled “The Brain”. It’s really very good, except for one thing. Within the first few minutes, the narrator says the E word (emergence), and he just keeps saying it.

I’m prone to let this sort of thing go. Saying a property emerges in the subject of a micro structural description is often a means of stepping over a steaming pile of metaphysics in the path between discussion of the properties of an object’s components, and the properties of the object itself. I can forgive the use of shorthand..

The narrator initially uses this shorthand meaning of emergence. But as things go along, it becomes clear that he also endorses weak emergence. Then he offhandedly states that colors exist in the mind and not in reality, which indicates that he really does have things the wrong way around.

In defense of the narrator, he still isn’t advocating for strong emergence. Strong emergence is the idea that once some threshold condition is met among components of an object, the group of components comprising the object acquires a new property which then takes over the behavior of the object as a whole, and by extension, that object’s components.

This magical event effectively erases, at least temporarily, the properties of the object’s components. While they remain pieces of the whole, they participate in events according to the dictates of the new property. It is only when they fall off the bus, either accidentally, or via our purposeful examination, that they reacquire their individual properties once again.

For instance, neurons generate electrical impulses, regulate their membrane potentials, and secrete paracrine signals until they are gathered in a certain number and arranged in a certain pattern, at which point they exceed the threshold for becoming a mind and begin to do things like experience, think, and remember. As long as we look at the collection of neurons gathered in the threshold number and arrangement, we will see them exemplifying mental properties. If we pull one of the neurons out of the brain or touch a subthreshold group of them with an electrode probe, we see them revert to exemplifying neuronal properties.

Weak emergence differs from the claims above in that it takes those claims to be metaphorical. When we get to the threshold state for the components of an object, we don’t get an actual, new, causal force out of that last brick added to the structure. Instead, it just becomes more convenient to speak of the object as if it had developed such a new property.

In the case of the mind, that would mean that the threshold number and arrangement of neurons simply becomes too difficult to manage descriptively. It makes sense to begin to use mental terminology to describe their collective behavior rather than trying to persist in using neurologic terminology.

In the case of both strong and weak emergence, we generate additional mysteries to solve, and those mysteries appear to be unsolvable. We have no account of how or why threshold conditions are established or met. We have no idea how properties flip on and off in the components and in the designated objects composed by those subunits. The difference between the two positions is that, in weak emergence we have the above difficulties in explaining a metaphor rather than a mechanism.

The root problem however, is not flipping properties. The root problem is the non-relational account inherent in the treatment of objects and their components. We get another glimpse of this inverted view when the narrator of “The Brain” describes colors as constructs of the brain which are absent in reality. If we take the implied structure seriously, then there’s nothing to save neurons from a similar fate. The only difference might be that we have examples of people who live without colors, but no examples of people who live without neurons. However, we do have examples of people who seem happy to live without minds, from solipsists to eliminatrivists.

To clarify, minds are explained by brains which are explained by neurons which are explained by genes. Colors are explained by retinal pigment, neurons, cone cells, and wavelengths of light. The explanations begin with the object in question, and proceed down to the microstructure.

The microstructure doesn’t represent the object like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle or a pile of little homunculi. Instead, the components provide a history of relationships and record of events situating the object of examination in the causal web of space and time.
A couple of examples, in the interest of de-spookifying the statement above. First, take the illustration that the documentary offers for neuronal activity generating consciousness. Our narrator gives the example of the unconscious brain during sleep. In deep sleep, the electrical activity generates a rudimentary waveform on EEG. In REM sleep, when the brain is ostensibly conscious, as well as during wakefulness, the EEG tracing shows a complex waveform. He compares this circumstance to a group of drummers, each initially drumming to their own rhythm. As they listen to each other and begin to coordinate their beats, music emerges.

If the implicit claim really held, John Coltrane wasn’t doing much of anything that any of the rest of us couldn’t do as long as we knew how to work the reed on a saxophone. The drummers can improvise a musical outcome because they understand the object (music) and the components’ (speed and timing of stick strikes on the drum head) relationship to the object composed. That relationship is a series of events involving hearing, drum making skills, proprioceptive experiences and the response of previous brains to frequencies of stick strikes on drum heads. This explains why we can’t play jazz like John Coltrane. We speak of him improvising, but he improvised off of an explanation that situated him in a most musical zone.

More to the point, we can look at the example of neurons and minds itself. Fully developed neurons can’t be placed in a bag, (to borrow from a more gruesome tale offered up by a substance dualist – they are disgusting people), and shaken up to make a brain, much less a mind. The neurons have to go through the developmental process to provide an adequate explanation for the supervening mind. By developmental process, I mean to say the whole history of neuronal development from primordial cells emitting chemical signals in response to changes in membrane polarization to cell migration during gestation, to sensory integration during early childhood. The neurons bear the history of events identified with mental events. The state of affairs is the same as the status of drumsticks and drum heads and drummers regarding music. Those components explain the music because they offer a narrative of events which situates music in the course of events overall. And those specific components pertain to the tune of the day because those components have specific, music related events explaining the components in their turn.

So that’s why I don’t like the E word. When it comes to minds, brains, and neurons, it perpetuates a mystery where there should be none. Worse, it dumbs things down generally, because it substitutes new properties for deep histories.
Problems remain. Dualisms will survive. The hard problem will still wake people in a cold sweat at night (go back to sleep, it’s epiphenomenal). People will still use their minds to insist that we don’t need minds.
Getting rid of the E word solve much.
But it’s a step in the right direction.

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He Baked a Cake with Duty in It

Duties never truly conflict. Unless they are truly categorical. But if they are not categorical, are they truly duties? 

You know what, I gotta take a walk. Forget all that stuff I said before.

– Immanuel Kant (astral form) as related to me, 0300 June 8, 2018


Every act is a political act.

-Cain, to whoever would listen.

A baker in Colorado claims to have managed the feat. He said that the totally gay-free contents of his cake fulfilled his obligation to show love for the Baby Jesus. Because, as everybody knows, the Baby Jesus don’t like the gays. Wait. Strike that. The Baby Jesus loves everybody, so he just don’t like the gayness.

Anyway, this baker loved the Baby Jesus. He refused to bake any cake with any gayness in it, and in doing so, baked into each cake his duty to abide by the wishes of the Baby Jesus.

Some might ask how the baker’s achievement were possible. Cakes are made of flour, sugar, mixing and heat. You will never find respect for the Baby Jesus between the crumbs or under the frosting. But that assessment is not fair.

The folks who ask to see the duty in the cake (God bless their simple hearts) are the same ones who, when told that green experiences reside in the brain, ask to open up a skull to see the green inside. They like to hold the notion of supervenience  upside down, because it seems easier to grasp that way.

But it isn’t so much that neurons and photons and retinal pigments add up to green; the point is that green experiences break down in certain, common ways. Admittedly, the difference is a little tricky to apprehend. It has eluded smarter folks than the poor bastards delving for green things in a pile of brains. Mistakes about the difference have led some very smart people to propose that we can get rid of green, and everything else. Instead of saying “green”, we can just hold up a balance sheet with all the retinal pigments, neurons and photons on it. But then we’ll need a balance sheet for the neurons, photons and retinal pigments, and so on and so on. You can’t get away without primarily localizing things somehow, and you always end up reaching for the balance sheet labeled “green” when you want to indicate “green”, and then you  might as well just say “green” in the first place.

The same mistake about supervenience gives rise to the notion of emergence. Emergence is the balance-sheet scheme for those who just can’t let go of Aristotle (and a very uncharitable reading of Aristotle at that). The only thing on the balance sheet, in the emergent case, is something like a metaphysical time-share: property theoretically without exclusive ownership, but available for occupancy by a variety of occupants in turn. For green, the pigments, neurons and photons tally up to a certain critical point and then begin acting with ‘greenity’, which subsequently begins to explain everything else directly related to green. In the case of the cake, flour, sugar, water, heat, and so on tally up to a certain point and suddenly – cakeity. Ask the obvious question – where does the cakeity or the greenity begin – and the whole thing unravels, just like the more detailed balance-sheet scheme. You circle back to simply saying ‘cake’ and ‘green’, and ‘cake’ and ‘green’ then break down in certain, common ways. Each cake and each green perception has its own, unique identity, without a homogenizing property reaching down to bring it into the categorical fold.

Now we can get around to duty in the cake. Not only will we fail to find specks of duty among the crumbs, but we can’t expect it to pop out of the baking process, or even to be the sum of baking, Bible verses, and love of the Baby Jesus. That’s OK, though. So far, duty fares no worse than green, or cake itself. But it is worse for duty, because duty does not break down in any reliable way. It doesn’t even break down in any definitive way.

The baker baked a cake without any gayness in it, because he loved the Baby Jesus. He told the world, but he would have felt that he was true to the Baby Jesus, even if the baker himself was the only one who knew that there was no gayness in the cake. So then, the duty can’t break down to any relationship between ideas or even attitudes. Maybe it breaks down to just the baker’s attitude toward the Baby Jesus. But then you don’t have an account of the compelling part of the perceived duty, especially regarding gay-free cake.

Loving the Baby Jesus is just loving the Baby Jesus. In itself, the attitude does not contain any obligation. You can’t break down moral obligations (or any other moral “properties”) to a supervenience base. Therefore, we also lack reliable generalizations regarding moral obligations and moral representations.

You can’t even make a cakeity (emergent) case for duties, because duties don’t arguably emerge at some compositionally determined phase. Duties can pop up anywhere along the way, from turning on the lights in the bakery to accepting money for the cake.

The inevitable response to the above observation is an argument from incredulity which refers to the holocaust or infanticide. You can always say that it is morally wrong to throw a baby on the campfire, bake a gay cake, or exterminate a certain group of people, but such statements are always after the fact and are supported by historical fixation of the facts in the acrylic of moral terminology.

After all, moral arguments have been made in favor of all the above activities. And, the moral advocates have not differed with moral opponents of those actions on the factual contents of the actions; they have merely assigned different moral properties to the things and events which can, like a cake or a fire, be said to have a supervenience base, and about which effective theories are possible. In other words, moral ‘properties’ are merely attitudinal ephemera, pinned to the facts of the matter, whatever the matter may be.




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Is a Virus Alive?

life, living matter and, as such, matter that shows certain attributes that include responsiveness, growth, metabolism, energy transformation, and reproduction. – Encyclopedia Brittanica

Close enough, and encompassing the generally accepted criteria: responsiveness, reproduction, metabolism and adaptation. My older son asked the question about viruses the other day. I have been looking forward to this question. It means that he is prepared to understand some things about life which are important. It is a tricky question if considered from the wrong viewpoint. A virus displays some of the characteristics which define a living organism. It can respond to stimuli, attaching to the proper cells and injecting its genetic material through the cell membrane when it makes contact. It can replicate. It can adapt to avoid a host immune response. But it does not have the capacity to metabolize. It cannot, in other words, run its own show. It is entirely dependent on its host organism in that respect. Nor is the virus alone on the gray borders of life. Certain families of bacteria lack some essential metabolic processes which would make them autonomous. They must live inside another cell, and depend on their host’s metabolism to survive. Yet, they too can reproduce, adapt, and respond to stimuli in their environment. Because they have a membrane which is active, biologists are prone to give obligate intracellular bacteria, like mycoplasma and Rickettsia, a break. Most biologists are less charitable when it comes to prions. Prions are mis-folded proteins which replicate by somehow inducing their own conformal change in normally folded proteins with which they come in contact. Prions can reproduce, but they cannot metabolize. They cannot adapt much (although they have managed to pass from cows to humans), but they can respond to their environment, albeit in a very limited way. Still, the difference between the prion and the obligate intracellular bacterium would seem to be one of magnitude rather than quality. Differences in their classification reflect a little bit of membrane chauvinism on the part of biologists. The same prejudice is evident in the gray zone at the other end of the complexity scale. By our criteria for life, is a male angler fish alive? The fish can survive for a short period of time independently, but it cannot carry on its own metabolic processes independently for the long-term. It must rely on a female angler fish. It must quickly sniff out a female and attach itself to her, permanently. The male fish spends most of its existence as a tissue of the female angler fish’s body; its brief, free swimming existence is a transitional aberration. Its ability to adapt is extremely limited. Its existence can be mapped on an algorithm only barely more complex than the one which describes a prion’s lifestyle. So what does differentiate the male angler fish from a mycoplasma bacterium, a virus, or even a prion? A few extra membranes make the only difference. Even our own status as living things is at risk if we apply our criteria strictly. We can certainly reproduce, just like the viruses, obligate intracellular bacteria, prions, and angler fish. But it is questionable whether or not we can independently metabolize. We actually rely on hereditary intracellular symbionts for our primary metabolic process. Without these symbionts, our mitochondria, we could live only minutes on the metabolic processes encoded by our own genetic material. So, we can hardly be blamed for fudging our criteria. We certainly want to call ourselves alive. Since it looks and acts alive, we want to call the male angler fish alive. For practical purposes, we also want to call Rickettsia and mycoplasma alive, as well as viruses from time to time. As for the prions, it is often more convenient to view them as sophisticated toxins rather than living things. And that’s the upshot of my son’s question. The issue of whether or not a virus is alive is only confusing if we consider “life” an actual, efficacious thing. But life is just a category. When we look out across the terrible landscape of things, we see phenomena which cluster about each other by dint of their shared heritage. Our account of our cluster is biology, and our criteria for life provide the outline for our biological stories. This is correct viewpoint on the question of life, and what is alive. But this is not the popular viewpoint. The popular viewpoint attempts to preserve life as a thing, as vital essence or emergent property. Unfortunately, the popular viewpoint is not feasible. It leads inexorably back to the original question rephrased, “where is the life in a thing to be found?” In the end, we find that the essence or the emergent property is explained by the operational mechanisms and properties of the thing in question, but it in turn, explains nothing about the thing; it just notes where that particular thing lies on the vast, terrible landscape of things. Despite its glaring inadequacy, the popular viewpoint remains popular because it seems to save us from losing an idea that we don’t feel comfortable losing. But we don’t need to worry, becoming a category doesn’t vitiate life. We have the things which the category marks clustered around us after all, even if it’s only according to our viewpoint. We can’t escape life anymore than we can climb out of our skins. So, the answer to the question? Sure, a virus is alive – as long as you can explain why.

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