The Neuroskeptic has an interesting post on a paper challenging theories of mind based on strong emergence.
A new paper offers a broad challenge to a certain kind of ‘grand theory’ about the brain. According to the authors, Federico E. Turkheimer and colleagues, it is problematic to build models of brain function that rely on ‘strong emergence’.
I’m familiar with IIT (Integrated Information Theory), and as many of you know, I’m not a fan. To be sure, integration is crucial, but in and of itself, it isn’t sufficient. It matters what the integration is for. IIT strikes me as a theory attempting to explain how the ghost in the machine arises. Since I think the ghost is a mistaken concept, the theory seems fundamentally misguided.
I’m not really familiar with the Free Energy Principle, although it comes up in conversation from time to time. The link discusses a Bayesian understanding of the brain, which seems plausible enough, although I’m not sure how strong emergence necessarily fits in.
But the reason for this post comes from a quote from the paper:
A system is said to exhibit strong emergence when its behaviour, or the consequence of its behaviour, exceeds the limits of its constituent parts. Thus the resulting behavioural properties of the system are caused by the interaction of the different layers of that system, but they cannot be derived simply by analysing the rules and individual parts that make up the system.
Weak emergence on the other hand, differs in the sense that whilst the emergent behaviour of the system is the product of interactions between its various layers, that behaviour is entirely encapsulated by the confines of the system itself, and as such, can be fully explained simply though an analysis of interactions between its elemental units.
I occasionally note that I consider emergent phenomena to be just as real as the underlying phenomena that it emerges from. Temperature is just as real as particle kinetics, that is, it remains a productive concept in our models. There’s often a sentiment to regard such emergent phenomena as an illusion, but that doesn’t strike me as productive, since too much of what we deal with is emergent. Such an attitude can leave you questioning whether anything other than quantum fields and spacetime exist.
Emergence, for me, is strictly an epistemic concept. It’s more about what our minds can cope with and understand than anything ontological. It’s simply a point in the hierarchy of phenomena where it becomes productive for us to switch to a new model, a new theory to describe what’s going on. This understanding matches up with weak emergence.
On the other hand, strong emergence is an ontological assertion. It’s a statement that something wholly new comes into existence from the lower level phenomena, something that can’t be reduced to its constituents and interactions, even in principle. This type of emergence strikes me as far more problematic.
While I do think emergence is an important concept, I usually resist it as an explanation by itself for anything, particularly something like consciousness. Certainly what we call consciousness is emergent from neural activity, but simply saying that doesn’t seem like an interesting or useful explanation. It matters a great deal how it emerges. When we understand that emergence, similar to the way we understand how temperature emerges, then we’ll have something useful.
What do you think? Am I too dismissive of strong emergence? Or of IIT? Anyone familiar enough with the Free Energy Principle to succinctly describe it?