Nowadays, the physical, natural, and medical sciences are progressing at rates that would have no doubt impressed the likes of legendary physicists Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein had they been around to witness them. The advances that we’re seeing in subdisciplines like cognitive neuroscience and aerospace engineering are so astounding and unprecedented that they continue to forge comparisons with magical feats witnessed only when one reads a work of fiction or watches a cartoon featuring a favourite superhero. Soon, diseases like Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia, epilepsy, Parkinson’s, Huntington’s, and a host of others will be rendered treatable through neuronal transplantation and our celebrated and esteemed astronauts will be traversing the surface of the moon and even Mars equipped with a robotic exoskeleton designed to assist physical movement around the joints. It all sounds freaky and somewhat scary, doesn’t it?
Absolute knowledge gained through scientific inquiry is morally and ethically neutral though the same cannot be said of the individuals who appropriate the archetypal models of their day to come to various conclusions about an objectified reality. Scientists are people too, each with their own set of beliefs, aspirations, motivations, and wishes. Some of the more prominent and intellectual amongst them have axes to grind and workable theories to defend. What all of these prevailing factors reveal is that there can be no consensus agreement regarding the nature of reality and for the purpose of this article the reality of the rich, multifaceted, and operative stream of mental life we call human consciousness. In daring to traverse the nebulous cloud of scientific stellar space, it should immediately become evident that any cosmological understanding of human nature rests precariously upon the shoulders of the individual scientist. Depending on formative influences these shoulders can be narrow, single-sided, and basic or wide, polygonal, and comprehensive.
These personal perspectives are best represented by an iron ladder with individual rungs where the bottommost one connotes the most rudimentary or reductionist approach and the uppermost the dualistic and fatalistic one. At the bottom stand the scientists who believe that the most evolved and complex streams of life activity like human behaviour and the mentation responsible for decision-making and belief are merely inconsequential by-products of chance events involving only the rudimentary laws which mediating simple electrical and chemical activity. Other scientific terms that have been used to describe the towering mount of human nature and consciousness as a bastard child of lower-order determinism are epiphenomenalism and eliminative materialism. From this angle, theories of causation governing more sophisticated biological organisms only exist on a subatomic or atom level; in fact, the whole action loop of sensory feedback and motor adjustment to achieve environmentally-based goals expressed by these dynamic systems of being can be reduced to an agglomeration of organizations and reorganizations occurring in microstructures to deal with an ever-changing environment.
Higher up along the ladder we find scientists espousing cosmological vantage points much more hospitable to our socio-philosophical comprehension of human nature. These outright reject the lower forms by postulating that causation must be perceived in the context of the emergent properties of the respective organism as a whole. In these categories or rungs we could probably place scientists with religious or spiritual leanings who are very uncomfortable with the non-existence of determinism in higher mental processes. According to the just mentioned persons, the act of relegating causation to the biological level excuses all human beings from moral and ethical agencies engendered by the development of civilization and culture. Moreover, holding onto material and reductive views of physical processes quintessentially means that humanistic concepts like choice or free will are non-existent. Is this an acceptable and feasible belief to embrace in a modern world where order, dynamic hierarchies, and exoteric codes of social and moral conduct are supposed to reign? The scientific conscious that proceeds with the human construct of conscience in mind is disenchanted by reductionist notions that demean universal or romantic love by professing that it is merely an influx of cortical activity in one area of the brain or that the act of contemplative prayer is “nothing but” the excitation of inestimable interneurons in another. When taken as entirely separate agencies, neither the physical nor the mental can decode the mysterious nature of human perception and cognition. The answer lies in more holistic interpretations that sketch out how higher forms of causation proceed from and operate independently of the rudimentary biological systems that birthed them.
Fortunately, there are many parallels existing in the inert physical universe we can call upon to understand nested hierarchies of causation where a higher and more complex functional system will manifest original and emergent properties not autochthonous to the order immediately preceding it. One of these is the spatiotemporal concept upon which modern anatomical physics bases the sum of its mathematical premises. Anything operational in the third dimension can move forwards and backwards, up and down, sideways and diagonally, and in a number of other ways. On the other hand subsistence in the two-dimensional world is less supple and mutable and involves the discernment of colours, measurements, impressions, and shades contained in the more limited trajectory of flatland. Finally we have the monocular universe of single dimensions, a rather uneventful and uninteresting plane of horizontal and vertical lines void of curves or any other spatiotemporal anomalies or alterations. The third dimension contains and comprehends everything in the second and first; the second knows of the first but not of the mightier and more comprehensive third; and the world of single dimensions knows of nothing other than the unswerving or unbending line of possible points within it. Essentially, what we have is a nested hierarchy of lower and higher-level elements separated by degrees of freedom. Within this specific hierarchy, constraints and physical laws that delimit all possible interactions in a lower-level system are inevitably transcended by the reorganized complexity of a higher-level and more comprehensive one.
We can easily transpose this little blueprint to the phenomenal world of nature with its phylogenetic kingdoms to garner a better understanding of how higher cognition or mentation can mediate behavioural patterns that are themselves couched in much lower biological and physical operations. For instance, unicellular organisms like some prokaryotes and fungi carry our processes indispensable to life like respiration and binary fission that individual molecules comprising the entire unit cannot do of their own accord. Any molecular biologist comfortable with the theory of higher causation would freely admit that the dynamic configuration of molecules facilitating cellular activity at that level isn’t directly contingent on the basic elements which make up the organism itself. By surmounting conditions at the rudimentary level, the organism has spawned a more complex set of functional conditions that can operate above constraints bounding lower-level elements to a set of physical laws. This intermediary view of higher determinism standing between the rungs of reductionism and dualism acknowledges innovation and novelty of more dynamical systems and higher processes in nature that might emerge as a result of symbiotic or predatory interactions and defends the humanistic impression that once spawned, the higher cognitive faculties command interaction loops between the organism and its environment in a most dynamic, intelligent, and meaningful way. As a holistic and humanistic archetypal model of determinism, it applies to all levels of creation and defines each level in terms of the complexity of nonlinear interactions and degrees of cosmic freedom. It is usually referred to by scientists and philosophers as the emergence or dynamical systems theory.
For the neuroscientist, the evolution of this particular theory has been a godsend for it has enabled a systematic and comfortable examination of the neural, biological basis of human cognition as well as the moral agencies and individual accountabilities that go with it without having to resort to the disenchanting and stark reductionism that the radical materialists are avid fans of. Now, let’s take a brief look at the illustrious nucleus of their studies; the most complex piece of matter in the universe, the human cerebral cortex. In this miniscule space of about 2-4mm, we find one hundred billion neurons and one trillion synapses interconnected like leaves on the branches of a sequoia tree. In fact, the concentration of grey and white matter is such here that the only way that evolution could proceed with its moulding of the modern Homo sapien without having to enlarge the size of the skull was to scrunch it up into a gelatinizing heap comprised of bulges called gyri and furrows called sulci.
If we were to make a comparison based on microcosm and macrocosm, the cerebral cortex is to the human body what a black hole is to the heart centre of intragalactic space. The sheer density of its neuronal connections explicates perfectly why it’s one of the most intricate, nonlinear, dynamical systems known to the greater cosmos and why it can attain sublime degrees of freedom unfamiliar to all other living organisms co-habiting the planet. It’s the instrument that makes us who and what we are what we might become. Without it we never have been able to speak and internalize spoken language, to read or reread our favourite works of fiction or nonfiction, to imagine certain beautiful and titillating scenes, or to juxtapose a unique event in our lives with an archetypal classical myth of the proverbial heroic journey. Furthermore, reliving experiences of merriment with loved ones that have left their subtle footprints on the sands of our being through the cognitive faculty of memory would have been impossible. Ultimately we would never have been able to become the complex and sometimes unpredictable bundles of biological and psychological impulses that make us unique in the eyes of consensus reality, and to assemble complex socio-political hierarchies and relationships within communities upon which our technologically driven civilization is based. In short, we wouldn’t be human.
Perhaps the best way to comprehend how the theory of emergence operates in the phenomenal world is to equate the brain with a bee hive; in such a comparison, the individual bees will connote individual neurons and the colony itself–comprised of the queen, the workers, and the drones–are the human brain. Bees are primarily communal creatures and all of their time and energy is spent engaging in targeted and selective activities assessed as those that might guarantee the survival of the entire colony. Their individual powers of discernment are commendable. Some will defend the nest against predators; others will scout for pollen and nectar or possible nesting sites; and others still will remain in the nest for the sake of tending to the developing larvae. Age is an instrumental factor that dictates the type of work an individual member of the colony will engage in; hence during their ephemeral six-week lifecycle, bees will have assumed all the supporting roles which constitute bee culture. Despite the individual roles ascribed to each, bees will frequently work together to come to some consensus agreement about which flowers offer the highest-quality and most wholesome pollen or which crevices and orifices make for the best nesting sites. With respect to the latter, recent studies conducted by a group of London scientists have demonstrated that group affirmation is offered in the form of a ritualistic dance performed by all members of the community. Thus, decisions regarding the location of possible nesting sites are rendered final only after the scouters offer the colony a unanimous gesticulation. By engaging in such vigorous and meaningful rapport with one another, bees are guaranteed to make the best possible decision for the swarm in the least amount of time possible.
Looking at the bee colony as a whole, it appears that each bee is first subjected to a set of extrinsic stimuli inextricably linked to the environment before it responds accordingly. To address the likelihood of emergence we must discern whether the collective behaviours of the bee colony express a higher and more comprehensive degree of operative freedom from the physical laws which govern an individual member of the colony. Can higher and more complex order of behaviours evolve from lower and more rudimentary ones? In juxtaposing individual and collective aptitude in bees, we can safely conclude that the collective will of the bees, whether consciously or unconsciously rendered, can rise above ‘cosmic accidents’ and the contingencies of chance events to effectively and swiftly locate the most fitting site for habitation. This, dare I say it, is a phenomenon that any solitary bee could probably not accomplish. From the relentless, sympathetic, and nonlinear interactions between identical organisms operating in a world of chaotic antipathies, we get a dynamic system able to work efficiently and cooperatively with the prevailing circumstances to ensure the survival of life. The answer is obviously yes.
The ability to survive and develop a multifaceted pathway of interactions with a fluctuating, protean environment is an overarching feature of all complex and dynamical systems. How this occurs in the natural world isn’t all that hard to comprehend. Basically constraints or hindrances placed on existing interactions between a dynamic system (usually an organism) and its environment produces what we might call a crisis in self-esteem. To temper the interference and re-establish equilibrium with its surrounds, the system’s interactive elements are spurred to the investigation of developing new, coordinated actions that inexorably transcend all interactive patterns hindered by the crisis. This paradoxical active and passive state of esteem is strikingly reminiscent of the alchemical nigredo, a stage in the Great Work where an old form must be destroyed for a newer, purer, and more comprehensive one to rise anew from the putrefying matter in a retort or alembic. During the modification phase the individual elements pertaining to the dynamic system recoordinate and forge a new relationship of interactions that is far more complex and inventive than the one just succeeded. Once the new dynamical form has concretized and become fully operational, the lower order properties upon which the newer aggregate of higher-order patterns have been synthesized organize and increasingly reorganize themselves in accordance to upper-lower relational constrictions. Consequently, a greater degree of freedom and meaning can emerge with higher-order configurations that do not apply to the lower and more fundamental ones.
Looking at the evolution of the human cerebral cortex and all life from such an angle, we see that all complex forms of organization embody a tangible “memory” of their preceding operative incarnations in the manner that a beautifully crafted Russian matryoshka doll contains within it numerous replicas of decreasing sizes. The increased efficiency, complexity, and multifaceted modes of operation demonstrated by these higher and more evolved dynamic systems and their causal emergent properties are no doubt the result of trial-and-error interactions of prior “incarnations” where repetitive cycles of organization and reorganization progressively garnered greater and greater freedom from the slime of elementary inertia.
Let’s probe the meandering course of evolution for a sweet second or two. Isn’t it funny that a country like contemporary Australia, decreed by the West to be the youngest culturally, happens to be the same land on which organic life first appeared some 3.5 billion years ago? At that time, the country was floating over North Pole, thousands of kilometres from where it finds itself today. Mother Nature (life), together with her foremost assistants, flaura and fauna, made their debut in the Land Down Under–or Over, as it might have been known then. Scouring the planet’s evolutionary history, we see that she started with single-celled organisms called prokaryotes before moving onto cells with a nucleus called eukaryotes. She was a little unsure in the beginning, testing the waters with the creation of soft-bodied animals that probably weren’t the best vehicles to carry the miracle we call life. Later, during a phase of geological history known as the Cambrian explosion (c. 545 million years ago) she decided to incorporate shells and skeletons in the bodies she designed and used those as a general blueprint. Experimentation started in the depths of the tropical seas with jawless fish, molluscs, tetrapods, crustaceans, and reptiles.
The Golden Age of the Earth had begun, fuelled by the merits of artistic vision and fierce individuality. It wasn’t long before Mother Nature became possessed by the idea of inducing many more innovative and creative ways of being; her amphibians dared to test the physical limits of their own reptilian genetic makeup by climbing out of the water. The Herculean effort worked, and before long the uninhabited green land, so heavily carpeted by tropical rainforest, was abreast with land reptiles, bats, and insects. All animals belonged to one of two groups; the herbivorous feasted on plants and trees and the carnivorous on anything that moved. An increase in atmospheric oxygen hit Mother Nature so hard in the head that it were as if she’d fallen down a flight of stairs and sustained a permanent brain injury. She became careless, fearless, and bold. Her will was schizophrenic, self-destructive even. She became the stuff of nightmares; dinosaurs, flying reptiles like pteranadons and a monster-like raven with teeth and claws named Archaeopteryx that palaeontologists mistook to be the first bird.
The disappearance of dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous period (c. 65 million years ago) coincided with the appearance of the first primates, but it wasn’t until about 4.4 million years ago that they actually stood erect on their hind feet and became bipedal creatures under the “incarnation” of the slimly-built hominid Australopithecus Aferesis. Sadly hominids weren’t too well equipped to deal with the fluctuating environment and became extinct about a million years later. The first Homo sapiens replete with anatomical modernity, a well-developed brain, and bipedal locomotion appeared two hundred thousand years ago. Thus it took roughly 3.5 billion years for the most dynamic functional system of all–the human cerebral cortex–to come about. During that time each new level of development attained by Mother Nature was heeded by a new and exclusive set of emergent properties. Using this very simple rationalistic model, neuroscientists engaged in research today can speak freely and openly of thinking, perceiving, understanding language, consciousness, and all other causal emergent properties and faculties associated with the human cerebral cortex without having to entertain the absurd notion that they’re nothing but inconsequential side-effects of neurophysiological singularities.
Or are they…