On the Emergence of Consciousness

On the Emergence of Consciousness
Annaka Harris

If we want to explain consciousness as an emergent phenomenon, we have to think carefully about what this means. The claim is that when a collection of atoms get configured in just the right way—when the final piece of the puzzle is put in place and the atoms are now doing this particular physical thing—Bam, the lights come on. Suddenly those atoms are not just behaving in a new way we can measure from the outside, there’s also a felt experience of being those atoms.  This is saying that the new, emergent property (consciousness) is not a physical one—it’s a property in addition to all of the physical properties that can be observed from the outside. And this amounts to a form of dualism I can’t subscribe to.

If we use ‘emergence’ to explain consciousness, we’re forced to accept that an altogether new, non-physical, property has been created in the universe. And, as a physicalist, I have to reject that conclusion. But when I do, the only other conclusion to draw is that the dimension of felt experience is always present, everywhere, in all matter. Although highly counterintuitive, I have to admit that this seems like a more rational, less anthropomorphic, view.


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Featured Image: Mark Seton via Flickr