Two of humanity's greatest and seemingly eternal enigma's, life and consciousness, have no solid scientific explanation yet. I like to put emphasis on the "yet" in that sentence because science never stands still and human curiosity knows no bounds.
image by ElisaRiva - source: Pixabay
In this post I'd like to briefly discuss the term "emergence" as it's understood in science:
emergence occurs when "the whole is greater than the sum of the parts," meaning the whole has properties its parts do not have. These properties come about because of interactions among the parts.
For example, the three phases of water are seen as "emergent properties" of its molecules: a single molecule cannot be seen as a liquid, gas or solid, and only when truly large numbers of these molecules interact with each other, these properties come into existence. The solidity of ice is an emergent property of water-molecules.
Emergence usually only occurs with extremely large numbers of individual parts and is therefore strongly associated with so called complex systems. The cell is biology's smallest "unit" of life, as well as a complex system all by itself. "Life" used to be explained as some sort of mysterious, as of yet undetected substance, a "life-essence", so to speak, but nowadays scientists mostly agree that life is an emergent phenomenon or property of the many individual chemical components that make up the cell's complex system of interacting parts.
Ice crystals at window - source: Wikimedia Commons
In the same manner consciousness or mind is explained as an emergent phenomenon caused by the complex electrochemical interactions of neurons and chemicals in the brain. Different thoughts or states of mind can be explained by the changing emergent properties of said complex cerebral system, just like the many beautiful and diverse ice-crystals seen on windows in winters all around the world, are different emergent structures of the complex interactions of water-molecules. Different physical characteristics of the many diverse life-forms could be seen as different emergent forms of the interactions in a complex system of cells with different functions.
Many physicists, chemists, biologists and other scientists now subscribe to this idea of emergence to begin to try to explain our greatest mysteries, being life and consciousness, and how they began to exist. I also lean toward this train of thought, as it's the best we can hope for using only the scientific method, which in my opinion is the best method to describe the best approximation of reality as we experience it. Still... There's this nagging feeling that this somehow is a cop-out. It "feels" like saying that we don't really understand what we're talking about and explain it away by saying: it's just the result of simple parts spontaneously forming ever more complex structured wholes...
This feeling, I guess, is caused to a great degree by the fact that there's no solid, universally agreed upon scientific explanation of these great mysteries. It's just something to think about, as we have done for as long as we exist. Emergence in itself is a very interesting concept to wrap your mind around, and is something found in any complex system, even the system we call society; it can be argued, for example, that the January 6 insurrection was an emergent phenomenon...
I'll leave it there and invite you to listen to a conversation on the very question if consciousness is emergent; I found it very interesting indeed, and it features one of my favorite scientists, Sean Carroll, who also has a podcast called "Mindscape" that you can find on his YouTube channel.
1. Sean Carroll: Is Consciousness Emergent?
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