Thursday, June 14, 2012

Emergence, Temporality, Consciousness

This is continuance of my prior post, “Individuals in Process Philosophy,” and works through  related issues. There, I argued that there is a sense in which an actual event is not an “individual.” It is an “individual” in the sense that an individual event exists, but more than the individual event is real because of the implications of temporality, and thus the term “individual” is problematic in process philosophy.

Instead of appealing to the reality of temporal relations, one could appeal to absolute "emergence," which is to say that under certain (efficient) causal conditions additional effects occur. This is epiphenomenalism and a common reading of supervenience. But this is only partially helpful, because the explanation reduces to the claim of constant conjunction, and does not get us beyond bare empiricism. Rather, if we accept that causality can be integral, that is, that causal power is something the fuses and merges, then an emergent phenomena is just the birth of something new. Its novelty is more than irreducibility or concurrence.

I argue against the idea that conscious awareness per se is a case of a causal phenomena, and thus I dodge that part of the debate about epiphenomena or super-vening phenomena having causal power or not. For those just tuning in, that is the debate about whether conscious intention is an illusion or causally efficacious.  Instead, I say that conscious awareness is a sign for underlying biological processes that do have causal power, and conscious awareness is limited to an explicit semiotic mediation. Its new power is the ability change how the underlying semiotic system is represented. That is, its like a program that decides to rewrite part of itself in a new programming language and recompile it, even though the underlying hardware is the same. An important dis-anology is that adopting or changing a symbolic system, e.g., a language or culture, alters the underlying hardware or neurology.

Now, if we want to get more complicated, by the way, I will change an earlier sentence to "An event is such by virtue of its relations to its past and future." Temporality is now grammatically possessive, which is to say that temporality is relative. How relative? Ultimately that is an empirical question. If temporality is the relating of an event, which is the whole of temporal relations of past, present, and future, which are not unidimensional or simple, then time is relative. This is why Bogost’s Alien Phenomenology idea is not new to me, and I did not invent this perspective.


  1. Excellent points. Describing temporality as grammatically possessive allows for both similarity and difference in experience. I find it especially apt for describing some of my own experiences with Chinese language, where the grammar functioned in relation to a different geography of time. I say "functioned in relation" because the grammar provided certain ways of describing the world while omitting others, while at the same time it also felt like the world influenced the structure of the thought (in any case, I prefer to avoid chicken-versus-egg arguments in these situations and instead recommend Cassirer).

    But aside from explicitly spoken languages, we see different temporalities at play in many different situations. Time, like language, can play many games. The rules of the game depend on the grammar, but the rules can also change. I would be very curious to hear what you have to say about the possibility of moving between grammars of temporality: if such movement is possible, and if so, what might enable us to do so.

  2. Linguistically, it works similarly to how it does scientifically. When we switch cosmological measurement systems, our fundamental understandings of reality change. That is not to say that the two are identical--I'm no Rorty--but I wanted to emphasize that my points extend beyond mere phenomenological description. Practically, we are open to new meanings and ways of thought that were closed to us before, because we may engage personally novel structures of possibility, which are essential for the imaginative projection of meaning. As I have argued here and in print, the past is the source of meaning, the present is its interpretation, and the future is its projection of present anticipation in light of the past. If we have new structures of possibility available to us, then we can make creative temporal links previously unknown. This is obvious to cross-traditional thinkers and rigorous comparative philosophers, who often must present the metaphors by which to think the flow of inferences are well as the simple "argument". Those who do not engage in this type of work might not realize how many root metaphors they take for granted.

  3. The status of individuals in a process ontology is something I've explored in connection with Harman's object-oriented ontology. Harman points to process ontologists like Whitehead and says they ignore the irreducible individuality of things (as withdrawn objects) in favor of the flux between them. I've argued against this characterization of Whitehead, since while it does have some relational implications when time is factored in, it is primarily an ontology of organisms, of emergent forms of individualization. Organisms, of course, are born and die. They exist in time, they become and perish. But the actual occasions realized in the course of an organic life form, to the extent that they are drops of experience and not inherited memories or unactualized ideals, do withdraw from the rest of the world. As drops, as satisfactions of subjective valuation, they are absolutely unique in the universe. They are novel creations. Whitehead famously describes this process as Creativity, where "the many become one, and are increased by one." But immediately after deciding to prehend a world never experienced before, the occasion is overcome by time and transformed into a novel prehension of itself in the organic context in which it belongs. Finite occasions, in other words, are constantly being negated in the course of time by what surrounds them. Some call this "entropy" and say it rules the universe. I say, though finite things are swallowed whole by the world-soul, that this divine occasion cannot die because its life includes death (i.e., it is the Life of life).

    Individual novelty becomes objectively immortal and is unified in the consequent experience of this divine occasion. However the concrescence of this cosmic occasion is ongoing. Its unity is never settled. There is no rest, even for God, since the divine, like finite occasions, must also deal with the power of Creativity, always provoking new values by unsettling past establishments of order. Whitehead's is truly a process ontology, and not just a process cosmology. Not just the universe, but God too remains forever in the making. There is no God and no Cosmos, strictly speaking; there is cosmogenesis and theogenesis. The Creator is a process of creation.

  4. Just as Matt posted his comment as a blog post, I am posted my response to it here, wherein I make a clarification. I have already made it once or twice, but I want to be clear, for otherwise I would fall to the critique that "all are relations."


    I wanted to add, since I added it late and it might be overlooked, that the event does become fully actual and thus individuated. However, only the even as past is such. From this perspective, there is a sense in which non-temporalist metaphysics treat the present as if it were the past. Actuality and individuation is an existential thing, but there is more to nature than existence; there is reality, e.g., possibility and law.

    As for that bit about the past, I'm getting that from Royce, if I recall correctly.

  5. Jason...I have been checking out these posts from time to time so I am not sure if this has been covered or not... But I wonder if the "process" thought could be even more process-ee (to coin an ugly word). I wonder if chance can come closer to the top of the discussion and maybe even help explain emergence--or some problematic aspects of emergence. My wondering comes down to two ideas. The first is that if the "process" (scare quotes of course)has some element of chance/chaos/possibility throughout then a slightly different causal story can lead into the emergence narrative--that is sometimes more palatable to the uninitiated. I have taken to calling this initial integral part of chance in the process "acausal" (borrowed from Victor Stegner). By acausal, I mean that the transition from whatever component parts/relationships of the process combine to create an emergent property (function, relationship, etc.)at least one part of that is a-causal (if by causal we are thinking Aristotle's four--it is not one of them). The chance here can be causal (here back to 4 causes) in this transition or it can be carried along with other parts/relationships in the transition into an emergent property. But it is just possible (and maybe experimentally real hope) that something a-causal (in my sense) can be causal in the traditional sense by being responsible for an emergent property/relationship. I got this idea from several different scientists (one ecologist, two zoologists, and a geneticist...they did not walk into a bar) who seemed to be saying something like this--though well enmeshed in traditional causation (both metaphysics and language). The second idea then is linked to this. If my hypothesis were the case then "novelty" need not be a category assigned only or even mostly to the "novel" emergent property/relationship. This would have the dual benefit of avoiding leaps (always bad I think) that are later explained away in some fashion or worse yet glorified as an opening to slip some version of XXX in to the explanation (XXX being whatever yours or my favorite causal thing might be). The other benefit being that there are now some connections that can be experimented upon that really bring process and chance into science. There are several issues--both good and bad--but I will stop there and see if anyone has a comment to my comment.

  6. Mike,

    I agree completely, but am also puzzled. I thought this was implied in what I have written, but perhaps it is not. As I would have phrased it, though this might not be the same, just because something is a potentiality does not mean that its realization has been achieved. Only in achieving a realization is something "causal" in the usual sense. This might sound counter-intuitive, but as I have been thinking "potentiality," it is possible to have activity without causality (without an effect that changes actuality, or shall I say secondness with completely degenerate thirdness). This would happen principally because 1) another potentiality inhibits that one, or 2) the conditions are not sufficient for the higher realization to occur. The term that I have seen used for this is "structural causation." That is, this "remainder" appears non- or a-causal until combined with other potentialities in certain ways.

    Empirically, I think one example would be lattice properties, e.g., crystal lattices in electromagnetic harmonics. The material can be exactly the same, but a change in structure can produce remarkable new effects.

  7. Further thoughts,

    What I propose does not reduce to formal causation per se, unless formal causation is to include both whatness and arrangement. Since whatness and arrangement can vary independently, per the crystal example, I do not think this should be reduced to just a formal cause, which is most appropriate the whatness.

    Another thought on "novel". When I write
    "novel" and "creative," I am usually thinking "new" and "creation/genesis/production," respectively. This are not the same, and I think your words rely on it. "Novel" as "new," or as "genesis" or as "structural change" are prima facie each really distinct.

    I am convinced that there is more to your post than I am grasping, and thus I would welcome you to comment further and rephrase your words even if you seem to be repeating yourself. I know that I am newer to these issues, and you are very, very well versed in them.