6 Jan 2009

Deleuze and Posthumanism Paper, Part 4 "Emerging Minds", of "Do Posthumanists Dream of Pixelated Sheep?"

Part 4: "Emerging Minds"

We will consider only the most relevant features of emergence theory, so not to become burdened by the details of the debate. To explain emergentism in general, we draw from the diverse ways it has been articulated; but finally we turn specifically to the work of William Hasker.

According to Timothy O’Conner and Hong Yu Wong, emergentists are ‘physical substance monists,’ because they believe that fundamentally there is one homogeneous ‘stuff’ that underlies all of reality. However, uniform units of stuff may aggregate hierarchically into various orders of organization. To each strata belong its own unique, characteristic, fundamental, and irreducible properties & laws that emerge from the lower-levels of organization. As unique, these properties & laws are only found within their respective levels, and not in the layers below. We might describe this hierarchical relation with the following formula: level B is emergent from level A, if B is made-up entirely by A, while possessing certain properties & laws which are neither deducible-from nor exhibited-by level A.

As a simple visualization of emergence, we might imagine two lines meeting at a right angle.

Such formations bear the property of perpendicularity; and, let us consider a law governing their aggregation: ‘two right angles join by aligning and coupling at an endpoint.’

If we can imagine more-and-more of these right angles linking together (while retracting our vantage-point so to view the larger aggregations), we discover that, if the process were to continue on the microscopic layer, then a new property gradually emerges on the macroscopic stratum: linearity.

A more relevant example is biological life. We might know all the properties of the chemical constituents of an organism and all the mechanical laws governing the interaction of its parts. Yet this knowledge will not account for how the organism as a whole behaves: it somehow has a life all its own, residing at a higher level, which cannot be reduced-to or explained-by its lower-level material constitution. We might know everything possible about the chemical components of a rabbit, for example. Yet, we cannot conclude from this information the direction it will hop if startled. Also, these higher levels exhibiting independent laws and properties are capable of ‘downward causation:’ the higher levels may have causal effect on the lower ones.[i]

In his book The Emergent Self, William Hasker provides a more detailed account specifically of how the mind can emerge from lower-level neuronal activity. He draws from the writings of two recent emergentists. From neuroscientist Roger Sperry, he derives the notion of the downward causal influence on the neural processes out of which the mind emerges.[ii] (The image below exhibits two types of causation: intra-ordinal and trans-ordinal causations).

If causation occurs exclusively within one layer, it is intra-ordinal; and, if one stratum has causal influence upon another, it is trans-ordinal. When a higher level emerges, it does so on account of the lower level’s particular organization upwardly-causing it to come into being. Interestingly, for Sperry, the higher level can act independently of the lower level, and it may have an uncaused downward influence upon its substrate. In other words, not all instances of downward causation are first caused by rearrangements of the lower level’s constituents. Hence, on account of the emergent entity’s own free will, it may alter itself by changing the organization of its own substrate.

By means of downward causation, then, our independent minds may alter themselves by tinkering with their own lower-lever neuronal constituents. Yet, Hasker notes that the mind/body relation is complicated by our minds’ dependence on our neural substrates. From Karl Popper, then, he obtains the idea that the emergent mind is both distinct from the brain, but yet inhabits it: if the brain were to be transplanted, the same mind would then occupy a new body.[iii] Moreover, Hasker rejects a Cartesian dualistic position that says the mind is somehow a separate element ‘added to’ the brain from an exterior metaphysical realm. He believes that mental properties “manifest themselves when the appropriate material constituents are placed in special, highly complex relationships.”[iv] He offers the analogy of magnetic fields, which he says are distinct from the magnets producing them; for, they occupy a much broader space. The magnetic field is generated because its “material constituents are arranged in a certain way – namely, when a sufficient number of the iron molecules are aligned so that their ‘micro-fields’ reinforce each other and produce a detectable overall field.” Once generated, the field exerts its own causality, which affects not only the objects around it, but even the very magnet itself. Hence Hasker’s analogy: just as the alignment of iron molecules produces a field, so too the particular organization of the brain’s neurons generates its field of ‘consciousness.’[v] As being a field, the mind has physical extension, and is thus not akin to Descartes’ mind. Rather, the emergent consciousness-field permeates and haloes our brain-matter, occupying its space and traveling along with it.[vi] Because this ‘soul-field’ is in one way inherent to the neuronal arrangements, but in another way is independent to them, he terms his position emergent dualism.[vii] Thus, he remains a mind/body dualist without encountering Descartes’ difficulty in accounting-for the interaction between the mind and brain. Furthermore, Hasker explains that the emergent consciousness-field may “exercise libertarian free will” and thereby modify and direct the physical brain’s functioning.[viii]

It is not entirely clear whether or not Hasker’s theory of the emergent self is compatible with Moravec’s pattern-identity theory, because we do not know what Moravec would say about a consciousness-field. He merely claims that the mind emerges from both the patterns of the neuronal activity and also from the processes of digital software simulating those activities. We incorporate Hasker’s theory merely to account for the sort of dualism suggested in posthumanist theories of the body & mind and of selfhood.

Also, supposing our minds may take the form of a digital code, we might wonder if there is an implicit metaphysics which holds that all of reality is digital coding, because that way mental uploading would require that no substantial change be made to our minds; rather, it would merely move the location of one same code. Such a position could eliminate the difficulties in explaining the conversion process, because instead of transformation there is but transportation. In his article, “Digital Metaphysics,” Eric Steinhart describes such a vision of reality. We will not here evaluate the scientific research he adduces, because we are more interested in the philosophical claims they support.[ix]

Steinhart argues that “ultimate reality is a massively parallel computing machine,” made up of very tiny ‘monadic’ computers spread throughout what he calls a computational space-time.[x] These monads are not exactly like our personal computers. They perform ‘primitive natural operations’ in conjunction with their immediately-neighboring monads, making-up a ‘massively parallel dynamical system.’ The execution of their operations transforms concrete states of affairs, and he calls these executions ‘programs.’[xi] When the monadic computers run their programs on the microscopic level, “macroscopic observables emerge.”[xii] We might consider Hasker’s example of the magnetic field: particular operational interactions of the iron molecules determine (that is to say, they calculate) how a magnetic field emerges on a higher level. Each iron molecule, then, is ‘programmed’ to act in such a way that when aligned with other iron atoms, they together produce (through metaphysical computation) the magnetic field. They are computers insofar as they behave as though given logical instructions (for example, ‘if in the vicinity of other aligned iron atoms, draw yourself closer and contribute to their emergent magnetic field’). Thus, every such monad computes its modification of its own inhabited space at a given time. This is what Steinhart means by ‘computational space-time:’ everything within time and space computes the content of its spatiotemporal location by acting in accordance with its preset logical-laws of behavior (its ‘programs’).

Hence, “physical phenomena emerge from the interactions of monads running programs.”[xiii] Physical things, then, are the patterns of the monads’ interactions. A pattern is an appearance that exhibits some spatiotemporal invariance (a regularity), which we might illustrate with the law-like behavior of the magnet’s iron atoms.[xiv]

Higher-order patterns, such as ‘analog phenomena,’ may emerge from lower-order ones; however, reality at its basis is a digital pattern. (For now, to illustrate analogical phenomena emerging from a digital sub-structure, we might recall the straight line that emerged from a rectilinear succession of right angles). In other words, phenomena with a seemingly continuous nature, such as waves for example, result from the ‘averaging’ or ‘blurring’ of microscopic discontinuous (digital) transitions.[xv] Granted, Steinhart does not further elaborate in this essay his perplexing theory of digital metaphysics; yet, it remains our best means to account for the digital reductionism implied in Moravec’s thinking. Steinhart contends that all reality is digital at base (whatever that might mean) and that things emerge according to the computational patterns (the programs) of this fundamental digital stuff. If so, then our minds would be higher-level patterns constituted by codable digital operations whose emergence at the site of the human brain would be no different than their emergence at the location of computer hardware, so long as the patterns of operation are the same in both cases.

Because the digitality of reality (and of mind) proves to be a central presupposition in Moravec’s mental uploading theory, we therefore will thoroughly examine what precisely digital is, by contrasting it with its counterpart, analog. To guide our examination, we will rely upon Gilles Deleuze’s extensive writings on their distinction; as well we turn to computational theory. By doing so, we will offer two critiques of the digitalist foundation for Moravec’s mental uploading, a procedure lying at the “center stage of the posthumanist philosophy.”[xvi] Some recent artificial intelligence theories criticize digitalism by demonstrating the necessity of carefully incorporating analogical computation in order to replicate human thinking. If this is so, then Moravec’s digital proposal is insufficient. Deleuze claims that analog and digital must discordantly confront each other, so that thought and selfhood may become. According to this latter theory, Moravec’s uploading would be incapable of transferring a human mind, because our selfhoods and thoughts are in a continual state of unpredictable alteration. To arrive upon these conclusions, we first analyze analogical and digital as it is treated in four specific domains: replication, computation, animal language, and aesthetic communication.

[i] O'Connor, Timothy and Hong Yu Wong, "Emergent Properties", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2006 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2006/entries/properties-emergent/.

[ii] William Hasker, The Emergent Self, (London: Cornell University Press, 1999), p.180.

[iii] Hasker, p.187.

[iv] Hasker, p.189-190.

[v] Hasker, p.190.

[vi] Hasker, p.192.

[vii] Hasker, p.194.

[viii] Hasker, p.195.

[ix] Also, explaining these scientific technicalities is far beyond your author’s capabilities.

[x] Eric Steinhart, “Digital Metaphysics,” in The Digital Phoenix: How Computers Are Changing Philosophy, (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1998), p.117.

[xi] Steinhart, p.119.

[xii] Steinhart, p.119.

[xiii] Steinhart, p.119.

[xiv] Steinhart, p.123.

[xv] Steinhart, p.123.

[xvi] Krueger, p.80.


  1. Emergentism largely occurs in physics as a result of the form of a system. For instance, the magnetic field of a current carrying wire is due to the space-time form of the electrons in the wire (see http://en.wikibooks.org/wiki/Special_Relativity/Simultaneity,_time_dilation_and_length_contraction#Evidence_for_length_contraction.2C_the_field_of_an_infinite_straight_current )

    The physical theory of Geometrodynamics attempts to reduce physical effects to form whilst the theories of process physics attempt the opposite. Both extremes have been unsuccessful to date.

    Steinhart's digital emergence is vexing because it misses the point that there is no information without physical representation. T|he charges that are the physical reality of a computer program will only have real emergent properties if they produce real, emergent physical effects. So a computer would only have a mind that was not just a collection of charges if the charges formed a real physical effect.

  2. PS: thank you for a clear exposition of ideas on emergentism!