Culture Magazine

Emergent Consciousness and Freewill

By Realizingresonance @RealizResonance


Photo courtesy of iStockphoto.


Human consciousness is a unique phenomenon for which explanation remains elusive and controversial, despite prolific discoveries and advances in neuroscience. Traditionally, the debate over the mind-body problem has been between two general paradigms. Materialists, naturalists, and physicalists, (hereafter interchangeable) hold that the explanation for human consciousness is ultimately reducible to the laws of biology, chemistry, and physics. Continually expansive knowledge regarding observable and repeatable correlations between mental states and nervous system function, combined with a solid understanding of human biological evolution, presents strong evidence in support of physicalism. However, dualists contend that mind and body represent two completely different types of substances, and that subjective conscious experience must be explained by the existence of an immaterial soul that can affect, and be affected by, the physical world, but which is inherently different from and not contingent upon it. Dualism is supported by the presence of the qualitative features of human consciousness such as pain, desire, intention and belief, which seem unexplainable in purely physical terms. For many advocates of dualism, the effects of an immaterial force on the material world, such as the intentional actions of a human soul, provide evidence for theism, as it supports the existence of God as an immaterial force in the universe.

Emergentism is an alternative paradigm for understanding human consciousness that attempts to address the evidence, as well as the shortcomings, of both physicalism and dualism. Emergence is the idea that when a system reaches a suitable level of complexity, novel properties emerge holistically, and are more than the sum of the properties of the constituent parts. It is the purpose of this essay to explore a particular flavor of emergentism proposed by Philip Clayton, as well as arguments from J.P. Moreland in opposition to emergentism and his support for dualism and the existence of God. Then I will address the particular problem of freewill and agent causation.

In Philip Clayton’s book, Mind & Emergence, he advocates for an explanation of human consciousness that can serve as a middle ground between dualism and physicalism, which he characterizes as the metaphorical equivalent of traversing the waters between the mythological monsters Scylla and Charybdis. He begins by highlighting the distinction between emergence and the attempt to explain the natural world via reduction. In science, the belief that all phenomena can be reduced to the laws of physics dominated the last century, and it is still the paradigm under which most mainstream science is conducted. However, he argues that the explanatory power of reductionism has fallen short in its ability to account for discoveries like Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, the chaos of complex systems like weather, and Kurt Gödel’s proof demonstrating the inherent incompleteness of mathematics. According to Clayton, emergence offers a different paradigm for understanding the world, in which there are many distinct and successive levels of reality, each operating under explanatory laws that are not entirely reducible to the properties of the preceding level. The phenomenon of human consciousness is an emergent level above the physical biology of the brain under this paradigm.

The concept of emergence itself is not as simple as it first seems, and there are at least ten different flavors discussed in the literature. Robert Van Gulick (2001) categorizes these types on a sliding scale based on the degree of difference between the emergent and the base, from specific value, through modest kind, to radical kind emergence. Clayton just focuses on the differences between two broad categories, weak and strong emergence. The weak version accepts that emergent entities constrain the constituent, or base, entities, but the properties of the emergent entities are derived from the base properties in a way that is empirically obscured. This is sometimes referred to as epistemic emergence, because it holds that the surfacing of novel properties only appears inexplicable to the observer. Strong emergence on the other hand, contends that the novel properties of higher level entities are in fact not reducible to the base properties and that emergent entities can even have their own irreducible causal powers. This is sometimes referred to as ontological emergence, because it holds that the appearances of novel properties are in fact scenarios in which the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

Clayton favors a version of strong emergence, and he specifies eight characteristics for his particular flavor. The first is monism, which though different than materialism, just means there is only one type of substance in the world, and thus is a rejection of dualism. The second is hierarchical complexity, such that “more complex units are formed out of more simple parts, and they in turn become the ‘parts’ out of which yet more complex entities are formed.” (Clayton, 2004, pp. 60) The third is temporal or emergentist monism, in that the hierarchical complexity takes place over time, like in the case of Darwinian evolution. The fourth is that there is no monolithic laws of emergence and different instances of emergence may be radically dissimilar in specific features, yet bear a family resemblance. The fifth is that there are patterns across levels of emergence, for example, for any two levels L1 and L2, L2 emerges from L1 if L1 is prior in natural history, and if L1 did not exist, neither could L2. The sixth is downward causation, such that an emergent level L2 has its own distinct causal powers over itself and the base level L1, and these are not reducible to the causal powers of L1. The seventh is emergentist pluralism, which contends that there may be as many as twenty-eight distinct levels of emergent reality. The eight characteristic of Clayton’s definition of emergence is that mind is an emergent phenomenon that has its own powers of downward causation in its own right.

According to Clayton, the significance of embracing pluralism, in which there are many examples of emergent levels which each possesses their own properties, relations, and causal powers, is to avoid the label of dualism. If the mind were the only example of novel emergence in the world then it would in fact support the dualism. To demonstrate his pluralist ontology, Clayton lays out several examples of emergent phenomena at different levels. An instance of emergence at the level of physics and chemistry is a Bѐrnard instability in fluid dynamics. The instability is produced when the heating of a lower layer of horizontal liquid creates a heat flux that, at a certain threshold, results in the spontaneous self-organization of the molecules into convection cells at right angles to each other. Ecosystems are examples of complex dynamical systems, and they display an emergent stability that represents downward causality because no one organism population can maintain the same kind of stability in solitude. This type of emergence is the result of a complex web of interactive feedback loops, yet the specific features of any given ecosystem are not predictable from the base organisms due to a sensitive reliance on initial conditions. Many other examples of emergence have been demonstrated artificially with computers, like John Conway’s Game of Life, which illustrates how unpredictable patterns can spring out of the lighting and un-lighting of squares in a grid from simple programmed rules based on the status of the neighboring squares.

Having established that there are many examples of emergence that result in new ontological levels of reality, Clayton seeks to explain the human mind as the pinnacle of all emergent phenomena. Human consciousness is realized through emergence, yet no other emergent example can parallel its uniqueness, or explain the amazing characteristic of subjective experience. However, the uniqueness of human consciousness is not only correlated with physical brain states in neuroscience, but the complexity of the human brain and nervous system is unique in the world’s evolutionary history. This further correlates the appearance of human consciousness with the web of emergent phenomena related to systems of increasing complexity. Regardless of the law-like relation to brain states, mental states nonetheless exhibit causal influences which cannot simply be explained by the movement of molecules within the nervous system. The hard problem of consciousness, as suggested by David Chalmers (1996), is the inability of physical correlates and processes to adequately explain qualia, the subjective experience of what it is like to experience the color green or the feeling of pain. Clayton argues that to solve the hard problem, the human mind must be understood in terms of strong emergence in which the brain creates consciousness, and once this phenomenon is realized it possesses novel properties and downward causal powers which are irreducible to the laws of biology, chemistry, and physics. Thus Clayton’s (2004 pp. 143) view of personhood is expressed below:

The emergentist anthropology that results begins with the notion of human persons as psycho-somatic entities. Humans are both body and mind, in the sense that we manifest both biological and mental causal features, and both in an interconnected manner. The mental characteristics depend on the physical, in a manner analogous to other dependency relations of emergent phenomena throughout the biosphere. At the same time, like earlier examples of emergence, they are different in kind from properties at lower levels, exercising a type of causal influence manifested only at the level of mentality.


Pluralistic emergent monism views of reality and mind do not require the existence of God, according to Clayton, but that does not preclude a contradiction of theism. He provides two ways in which the existence of God and a spiritual realm could be consistent with his interpretation of emergence. We could trade mind and body dualism for theistic dualism, that is, God, as the creator and sustainer of the universe, exists outside physical reality yet is not dependent on, nor emerges from, it. Another way to look at God and religion through the lens of emergence is to recognize the spiritual realm as emerging from human consciousness.

In J.P. Moreland’s book, Consciousness and the Existence of God, he addresses various emergentist theories of mind, and he summarily dismisses them all as poor explanations of finite human consciousness. He suggests that emergence has gained popularity due to the inadequacy of the naturalist epistemology to account for mental events, and he argues that if finite consciousness exists then this provides strong evidence for theism. Besides pointing out the many mounting problems for naturalism, Moreland discusses five prominent versions of emergentism, including Clayton’s.

Moreland begins by detailing the naturalist ontology and epistemology, and demonstrating that phenomenal consciousness acts as a sort of Achilles heel for the whole physicalist paradigm. This is because the strength of the naturalist ontology is due to the epistemic value of science. Naturalists believe that empirical observation leads to the discovery of facts and represents the only sure way to know things, according to Moreland. This leads them to conclude that the universe and all of the phenomena therein, are ultimately physical and knowable through scientific investigation. Thus, human consciousness must be explained in purely physical terms, and mental events must be reducible to underlying physical causes. If not, then the naturalist ontology is a paradigm in jeopardy, since it depends so heavily on empiricism for its epistemic superiority. Moreland (2008 pp.2) writes:

It is clear that for the last two-thirds of the twentieth century, mental entities have been recalcitrant facts for naturalists. Indeed, for philosophers who take the issues and options in philosophy of mind to be significantly influenced by empirical considerations, the proliferation of a wild variety of physicalist specifications of a naturalist treatment of mental phenomenon may be fairly taken as a sign that naturalism is in a period of Kuhnian paradigm crisis. The argument from consciousness for God’s existence…provides a way of dethroning the naturalist hegemony. Moreover, by giving a more adequate analysis of an explanation for mental entities, it provides a way out of the crisis and, together with other lines of evidence, offers materials for a cumulative-case argument for theism[.]


The argument from consciousness for the existence of God has three forms, as illustrated by Moreland. They are, inference to the best explanation, ala Richard Swinburne, a Bayesian argument which attempts to measure the statistical probability of one subjective belief over another, and a deductive argument that begins with the premise that “genuine non-physical mental entities…exist.” (Moreland, 2008, pp. 37) The latter deduces that the explanation for the correlations between mental events and brain states are personal rather than natural causes, and if they are personal then it follows that they are theistic. He defends the assumed existence of non-physical mental entities on the grounds that the premise is accepted by the emergentist theories he is seeking to defeat, plus it represents the failure of science to account for such mental phenomena as privileged access, experiential qualia, downward agent causality, and the noetic quality of experience. Moreland supports the idea of personal explanations, rather than natural scientific ones, as superior accounts of consciousness due to the concept of libertarian freedom and action through intentionality. He further argues that once one arrives at the conclusion that personal causes are more appropriate for explaining human agency, then the debate just becomes internal to theism.

Moreland considers Clayton’s pluralistic emergent monism to be the most plausible rival for the dualist’s argument from consciousness, but he offers many critiques as to why it should nevertheless be rejected. He characterizes Clayton’s pluralist ontology as faux naturalism, nothing more than a shopping-list approach that fails in its attempt to explain reality as a series of hierarchical emergent levels, each with its own sui generis, or radically novel, properties. Rather it amounts to a positing of brute, contingent facts, which rely on the ad-hoc notion that emergence is combinatorial novelty that results when suitable complexity is realized in a system; it turns reality into a multitude of mysteriously radical emergences which ends up just giving more evidence for theism . On top of that, Moreland disqualifies Clayton’s depiction of contemporary dualism as a Cartesian straw man, because he erroneously accuses dualism of not being consistent with the advances in neuroscience regarding brain state correlations to consciousness.

Further criticism is presented by Moreland on Clayton’s use of emergence on three fronts. First, emergence itself is increasingly seen by philosophers of mind as a description, rather than an explanation for the problem of consciousness. Second, Clayton’s characterization of emergent properties as being prior in history, dependent, and irreducible to the base level constituencies, yet realized by an unclearly defined degree of complexity. Moreland proposes that the Swamp Man thought experiment, which entails a man named Joe having an exact duplicate in every way, named Smoe, who suddenly appears next to Joe by virtue of a lightning strike hitting a tree stump in a swamp. Since one can imagine the creation of Smoe, who has all of Joe’s mental abilities without the benefit of evolution, then one can reject the need for emergent properties to require basal conditions that are prior in history. Additionally, the irreducibility of consciousness to its physical constituents is not consistent with the requirement that it depend on those constituents for its existence, and Moreland suggests that there is compelling evidence from reports of near death experiences and demon possession that support this view. Moreland’s third objection that, “Clayton’s emergence boils down to an egregious post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy” (Moreland, 2008, pp. 148), comes from its lack of empirical value in regard to its irreducibility and an ambiguous definition of sufficient complexity. Furthermore, Clayton offers no additional insight into the mind-body problem than substance dualism, nor can he justifiably appeal to science now that he embraces ontological emergence, according to Moreland.

He thus concludes that the evidence of an irreducible, substantial person constitutes substance dualism, which in turn is best explained by the existence of God. Moreland would rank strong versions of emergentism, such as Clayton’s, second to dualism, because these theories allow for real, downward causal power of mental states, unlike naturalism. However, he argues that Clayton fails to truly show that downward causation can be explained scientifically, since it defies the principle of causal closure. Without any superior epistemic value, strong emergence is a weaker alternative to theism, because God is the only example of conscious agent causality.

Inference to the best explanation can be used to summarize and evaluate the major evidence for Philip Clayton’s pluralistic emergent monism, in light of the argument from consciousness for the existence of God as presented by J.P. Moreland. The evidence is as follows:

E1: Phenomenal human consciousness exists, and is characterized by, privileged access to mental states, possessed by and dependent on a human brain.

E2: Discoveries in neuroscience demonstrate that mental states are highly correlated to specific brain states and nervous system activity.

E3: Mental states exhibit qualitatively different and novel properties, which are not fully predictable from, reducible to, or explainable in terms of an exhaustive knowledge of brain and nervous system activity on which they depend.

E4: Mental states exhibit downward causal powers in their own right, which are not fully predictable from, reducible to, or explainable in terms of an exhaustive knowledge of brain and nervous system activity on which they depend.

E5: Nature is full of examples of phenomena in which novel and qualitatively different properties emerge when a system reaches suitable complexity.

E6: At least some emergent phenomena observed in nature have properties that are not ontologically reducible to the properties and relations of their constituent parts (strong emergence). In these examples the whole is not just the sum of its parts.


T0: Human consciousness, and it’s mental characteristics exist, because it emerges from complex human brain and nervous system activity, representing a new ontological level that is the apex in a hierarchy of emergent levels of physical reality.


Clayton is starting with the assumption that there is only one type of substance that exists in the universe as the default position, thus rejecting mind-body dualism as a viable option. Although, he also addresses what he perceives to be the inadequacy of physicalism to truly account for a causal role for phenomenal consciousness. Moreland agrees that physicalism has failed to explain consciousness, and sees the new popularity of emergentism as a sign that the strict materialism is a paradigm in decline. He additionally rejects emergence as a plausible explanation for consciousness, because it requires the creation of new ontological levels of reality as brute facts, and this is simply an ad-hoc approach considering the presence of dualism as an already existing rival to physicalism. Moreland’s rival explanation for the evidence is re-stated below:

T1: Substance dualism is still the best explanation for phenomenal human consciousness and emergence just describes the appearance of consciousness, but does not explain it.


Whichever of these rivals reaches the best conclusion, based on the evidence, will also bear on the question of whether or not God exists. Dualism offers better evidence for theism, although emergence is neutral to the question. The goal of this essay is not to address the larger question of whether or not the existence of God can be proved by an appeal to consciousness, or all of the problems with emergence presented by Moreland, but to weigh the rival paradigms for explaining human consciousness against each other. To do that I will focus on a central premise of Clayton’s version of strong emergentism, that mental states have downward causal powers.

The related concepts of human causal agency, intentionality, freewill and choice are obvious traits possessed by persons that are not possessed (to any significant degree in comparison) by any other known entities, organic or otherwise. The novelty of this human characteristic leads Richard Swinburne (1996) to conclude that there are two distinct ways to explain events, physical and inanimate causes, or personal and intentional causes. Framing agent causality within a dualist epistemology is useful for theism because it suggests the reality of immaterial causes that fall outside the realm of what science can explain. On the other hand, science does continue to explain the relationship between mental states and their neural correlates to an increasingly precise degree. These correlations, along with the principle of causal closure, which assumes all physical effects have physical causes, appear to be strong arguments against dualism. The problem takes another turn when one realizes that an acceptance of causal closure means you must also acknowledge that human consciousness is an epiphenomenon; the mind has no real causal powers and is just a passive observer that watches what happens with only the illusion of participating.

Emergentists, like Clayton, attempt to navigate the paradox of consciousness, but as Moreland points out, they have yet to demonstrate why their paradigm has more epistemological value than dualism. Jaegwon Kim suggests that emergentists cannot escape the problem of downward causation that confounds physicalism:

[T]he friends of emergence…[must] show that emergent properties do not succumb to the threat of epiphenomenalism, and that emergent phenomena can have causal powers vis-à-vis physical phenomena…without violating the causal/explanatory closure of the physical domain[.] (Kim 2006, pp. 201)


Kim’s challenge may have already been met by molecular geneticist Johnjoe McFadden’s (2002) Consciousness Electromagnetic Information (CEMI) Field Theory. McFadden says that conscious awareness has been shown to correlate with synchronous neuronal firings in the brain, as opposed to asynchronous neuronal firings, which correlate with unawareness. The synchronous firing of neuron assemblies generates an electromagnetic (EM) field that is endogenous to the brain. This field contains all of the digital information moving through individual neurons, but it collects that information into a holistic field that is both spatially and temporally integrated. This means that the EM field created by active neurons correlates more specifically with consciousness than the physical substrate that produces it. This is because the EM field connects all the different parts of conscious awareness into a complete and complex experience, such that individual neurons carrying discrete pieces of data, some pertaining to visual, auditory, and olfactory information mesh together with memory and emotional information instantaneously. This theoretically solves the binding problem of consciousness leveled by Moreland. The information rich EM field—by virtue of the wave dynamic field effects created by synchronous neuronal firing— is distributed beyond the individual neurons and has the capability to influence further “neurone firing through electrical field coupling.” (McFadden, 2002, pp. 24) This could lead to conscious intended action, or the laying down of memories. McFadden (2002 pp. 37) describes his theory as follows:

Consciousness electromagnetic information field theory: Digital information within neurones is pooled and integrated to form an electromagnetic information field in the brain. Consciousness is the component of the brain’s electromagnetic information field that is transmitted to motor neurones and is thereby capable of communicating its state to the outside world.


The implications of the CEMI field theory for explaining true downward causation, as expressed in human agency, while also meeting Kim’s test of maintaining causal closure, are addressed by McFadden as well. The exact composition of the EM field is determined by the action of individual neurons, yet once the information is uploaded to the field it has its own causal powers that modulate and phase lock subsequent neuronal firing. Self-referential feedback loops from repeated oscillations of EM fields produced by continuous synchronous neuronal firing, allows us to think, evaluate and decide between options before taking action. This is the point at which an EM field pattern is produced that possesses the power to trigger motor neurons into action. Douglas Hofstadter (2007) gives a compelling account of how the integration of many continuous, and self-referential, feedback loops can, by constantly comparing current states to past states, construct a continually updating repertoire of symbolic representations of the world, in which the most pervasive and obvious object would be the self. Thus consciousness is not just an epiphenomenon, for which there is no causal role.

McFadden offers a physical mechanism for explaining purposeful human consciousness that meets the criteria of causal closure, while allowing the paradigm to expand to include a conceptual account of how true freewill can still be possessed at the level of the person. The CEMI field theory presents a good justification for assuming Clayton’s premise in E4, that mental states have top down causal powers in their own right, although it appears to suggest that these powers may not be entirely irreducible. Nevertheless, I believe that the evidence best supports Clayton’s conclusion that human consciousness is an emergent phenomena produced by the suitable complexity of the human brain. The rival dualistic explanation, offered by Moreland, that human consciousness requires an immaterial element, appears a less supportable by Clayton’s evidence. Especially since Moreland makes an appeal to mystery in his characterization of personal causes as beyond empirical explanation. Jeff Johnson has shown that “appeals to fundamental human ignorance” (pp. 6), in the context of the evidentiary problem of evil and the mystery theodicy, simply deflect these problems, and I think Moreland does the same with the problem of human consciousness. The implications that emergent consciousness and freewill have on the question of whether or not God exists is another matter entirely.

Jared Roy Endicott


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Works Cited

Chalmers, David. (1996). The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory. New York: Oxford University Press.

Clayton, Philip. (2004). Mind & Emergence: From Quantum to Consciousness. New York: Oxford University Press.

Hofstadter, Douglas R. (2007). I am a Strange Loop. New York: Basic Books.

Johnson, Jeffery. L. (2008). Appeal to Mystery and the Evidential Argument from Evil. Eastern Oregon University.

Kim, Jaegwon. (2006). Being Realistic About Emergence. In P. Clayton & P. Davies (Eds.). The Re-Emergence of Emergence . (pp. 189-2002). New York: Oxford University Press.

McFadden, Johnjoe. (2002). Synchronous Firing and its Influence on the Brain’s Electromagnetic Field: Evidence for an Electromagnetic Field Theory of Consciousness. Journal of Consciousness Studies , 9 (4), pp.23-50.

Moreland, J. P. (2008). Consciousness and the Existence of God: A Theistic Argument. New York: Taylor & Francis Books.

Swinburne, Richard (1996). Is There a God?. New York: Oxford University Press.

Van Gulick, Robert (2001). Reduction, Emergence, and Other Recent Options on the Mind-Body Problem: A Philosophic Overview. In A. Freeman (Ed.). The Emergence Of Consciousness, (pp. 1-34). Charlottesville, VA: Imprint Academic Philosophy Document Center.

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