I’ve only recently discovered Ricardo Lopes and his interviews of all kinds of interesting people. Here is one from a couple of years ago of Keith Frankish, the most prominent contemporary champion of illusionism, the idea that phenomenal consciousness is an illusion, that it doesn’t exist, and much of this is him giving the standard explanation of his view.
But there’s a part of this interview I want to focus on relating to emergence. It begins at the 52 minute mark and lasts for a few minutes.
Frankish is largely dismissive of the idea of emergence. He acknowledges the distinction between weak and strong emergence. Strong emergence is the idea that in complex systems, something new emerges from the components of the system, something that, even in principle, cannot be reduced to those components.
The weaker form of emergence simply observes that the reduction from the higher level description to the lower level isn’t obvious, that at some point in the scaling, it becomes productive for us to switch models. In that sense, biology is emergent from chemistry, which is emergent from physics, but nothing about those relationships imply that any new ontological thing is being introduced in between the layers.
Much of Frankish’s criticism is directed at the stronger variety, which I’m fully onboard with. But he’s also largely dismissive of weak emergence, believing that we don’t need the word “emergence” to express these relationships. This actually makes sense for an illusionist. It’s the difference between an eliminative reductionist who dismisses the existence of phenomenal consciousness, and a non-eliminative reductionist who accepts phenomenal consciousness, but as something whose objective nature is radically different from our subjective impressions of it.
In some ways, Frankish’s stance on emergence and reductionism matches that of Adam Frank, who in a recent Big Think piece, argued against reductionism and in favor of emergence. Frank largely ignores the distinction between eliminative and non-eliminative reductionism, although he does acknowledge the difference between strong and weak emergence, promising to address it in a future post. I find it interesting that Frankish and Frank agree on definitions here, even though they’re coming at this with opposing views.
As a non-eliminative reductionist who accepts the concept of weak emergence, I find myself in the middle. The biggest issue I’ve always seen with eliminativism is it seems like a tough stance to hold consistently. Everything in our day to day life is (weakly) emergent from lower level phenomena. It’s the old question of whether we should consider a table to exist once we know it’s “just” a collection of atoms. It’s simply too hard to get by in day to day life without concepts like tables, chairs, animals, and trees.
And the common move of saying a concept is productive colloquially but not scientifically has never made much sense to me. If we find something productive in our everyday life, then it seems like we still want a scientific account of that concept. Simply saying something doesn’t exist scientifically seems like a dodge. Even if the mapping is complex and inconsistent, we still want to understand that mapping in all its inconsistencies.
Even from a scientific stance, it doesn’t seem productive. Again, staying consistent, we find ourselves obliged to dismiss the concept of molecules, atoms, and even elementary particles, much less things like rocks, planets, or stars. In this view, the only thing that exists are quantum fields, although there are people who doubt even they fundamentally exist. Reality might be structure, relations, and processes all the way down.
If so, then eliminativism leaves us with nothing, which just doesn’t seem like a productive outlook to me.
In the case of phenomenal consciousness, my own view is it exists, but what is an illusion is phenomenal consciousness being something separate and apart from access consciousness: information being accessed for verbal report, reasoning, and behavior. In other words, phenomenal consciousness is access consciousness from the inside. They are the same thing seen from two different perspectives. In that sense, we can say that phenomenal consciousness “emerges” from access consciousness. But that’s the view of a non-eliminative reductionist and weak emergentist.
Unless of course I’m missing something?