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Is Consciousness Emergent? A Test to Prove It

The whole is greater than the sum of its parts!
How come when you mix water and flour together you get glue…
And then you add eggs and sugar…
And you get cake?
Where did the glue go?
You know darned well where it went!
That’s what makes the cake stick to your butt![1]
— (Anonymous email to the author)

So, is a cake simply a recipe of flour, water, eggs, and sugar? No, the cake emerges from the interactions of its parts!

Science has for the past 300 years been involved in the analysis of systems. That is, science has reduced the larger system, such as the human body to its component parts in order to understand how it works. This method has served us well for a long time, but there are situations where it utterly fails. How does an assemblage of essentially dead pieces of matter conspire to become a living conscious being? Are we really more than the sum of our parts? It would appear that we are—that we humans, a complex system, have properties that do not exist in the parts that comprise us. There appear to be emergent properties that cannot be predicted from an understanding of the components. To get at these new properties, it does no good to keep looking at the pieces. One must take a systems-level approach if we are to understand emergent complexities.

Particle physics deals with the very small parts of atoms and their even smaller components. The atom is the nonreducible piece of matter that gives an element its unique characteristics.

The element, oxygen, is essential for all animal life. However, the nucleus of an oxygen atom is composed of still smaller particles called protons and neutrons, both of which are identical in all the different kinds of atoms. How does complex uniqueness arise from such particle identity? Properties (or attributes) of oxygen seem to magically arise from particles that do not themselves have those properties. The protons that create gold are exactly the same as those that create any other element, including the carbon on which our life is based.

We shall return to physics shortly. For now, let us look a step above atomic physics to chemistry. The atom is still in play here, only now we add one additional ingredient to the mix—the electrons that form a cloud around the protons and neutrons. A gold atom is a gold atom[2] even without its shells of electrons, so of what use are the electrons? They allow for chemistry, which is simply the study of how atoms join to make various kinds of matter.

The electrons are the glue that holds atoms together. Take two gases—one, our old friend oxygen and the other—say, hydrogen. If glued together by their cloud of electrons, a completely new substance emerges—life-giving water.

The protons, neutrons, and electrons are each all identical whether found in hydrogen, oxygen, carbon or gold, so why are these elements so different? An even bigger question is why is water so different from its component elements? The compound, water, is much greater than the sum of its parts, just as the elements, oxygen and hydrogen, are much greater than the sum of their parts. Something greater emerges when parts come together. This is obviously true in our everyday world as an overly simplified analogy shows—wood and nails come together to make a house. It is still wood and nails, but somehow also more than that! When two simple things interact, they seem to take on more significance than either possesses in themselves.

Now, let us leave the relatively simple world of chemical components and rise to another level of combinations. Take several chemical elements and compounds—say, oxygen, carbon, water, and an assortment of others, stir vigorously and you get conscious life. We know this happens because we can reverse the process by taking a living thing apart and reduce it to its components. At one level of reduction, you get various types of cells. Reduce the cells and you get chemical compounds. Reduce the chemical compounds and we arrive at atoms, then protons. All protons are identical, so just how were they made to live? There is nothing in a proton that would predict life!

Scientific analysis is reductive—it can explain how life is reducible to protons. Something else will have to explain how life and consciousness emerge from those protons. We have at least two choices for explaining this emergence: someone added a soul or mind to the mixture of dead matter, or it is simply the result of a different kind of new ingredient in the recipe—namely, the interactions among the parts.

Is it possible to conclude which of these two options might be true? Yes, it is and that is the subject of this essay.[3] We can do so by hypothesizing that consciousness will emerge in a system that is not yet conscious—say, the computer.

If we hypothesize that human consciousness is emergent, can we say the same about machine consciousness? Moreover, if we can, what does that mean for competing theories such as the religious theory of a soul or the philosophical idea of a dualistic mind independent of the body?

Having been involved in supercomputing for many years in my former profession, I have always thought that computers would eventually get so powerful (based on Moore’s Law)[4] that they would attain and even surpass human intelligence and become conscious.

In 1950, Turing[5] developed a test to see if a person could discern whether a human was communicating with a machine or another human. In his experiment, a computer and a man were on one side of a wall, a judge on the other side, all linked by tele-typewriters. The idea was that if the judge had a discussion with the entities on the other side on the wall, using natural language, and could not tell if he was conversing with the machine or the other man, then we would have to attribute intelligence to the machine. This has been done and the machine was, indeed, sometimes able to fool the man.[6]

A more recent test was that of chess, where the man knew he was playing against a machine. Still, the chess-playing computer was intelligent enough to defeat him—intelligence proved!

Not so fast—the attribute the computer was displaying was brute calculation speed. It could calculate all possible next moves and choose the one most likely to defeat the man. Brute speed of calculation is not intelligence. Moreover, it is certainly not consciousness with the ability to be self-aware, reason, and express emotions similar to those of human beings. A much more rigorous test will have to be developed to prove such consciousness.

Now, here is our hypothesis: consciousness will emerge in a computer given enough component parts (as in the above discussion).

If the hypothesis is not proved, all that means is that we may not have yet attained the critical mass of parts necessary for the emergence of consciousness. We can keep trying with more advanced computers.

However, if the hypothesis is proved, it will signal the demise of the ghost in the machine (i.e., a soul or independent mind). Mind/body dualism will be shown to be false and the scientific and philosophical materialistic emergence theory of consciousness will have been proved correct.[7]


Note: This article is partially derived from my book: Stilwell, Gary. Where was God: Evil, Theodicy, and Modern Science. 2009.

[1] This bit of humor is to help introduce the concept of emergence to a general audience. It means that, from the combination of its parts, there is something greater that emerges that could not have been predicted by analysis of all the parts. See examples in the text.

[2] A totally ionized gold atom would have no electrons, yet it remains gold. However, this total stripping of electrons could only occur at tremendously high temperatures. In normal conditions, an ionized atom is missing very few electrons.

[3] The subject of this article is not consciousness itself; rather it is showing that there can be an empirical test to prove that consciousness is emergent and not the result of a separate entity such as a dualist mind or soul. That is, if consciousness will emerge from a complex machine, the need for such dualism to allow consciousness is disproved.

[4] Moore’s law says that computing power will double approximately every two years. Such exponential growth will rapidly supply the parts necessary for the emergence of consciousness, if the hypothesis is correct.

[5] Named for Alan Turing’s “Computing Machinery and Intelligence” in Mind. 1950.

[6] The Loebner prize in given every year to the creator of an artificially intelligent machine that can come closest to fooling a panel of judges. No one has yet fooled them all, but the latest winner fooled 25% of them. Loebner will give the silver prize to the first one to fool all judges. The gold prize is reserved for a more complex experiment than the Turing test. I doubt that even this test will be sufficiently rigorous to prove intelligence, let alone, consciousness. Nevertheless, such a test can be theoretically developed and it would either prove my hypothesis, or not.

[7] “The ghost in the machine” phrase has been around for a long time. However, Gilbert Rile used it in his 1949 book, The Concept of Mind, to deny mind/body dualism. Rile was the teacher of Daniel Dennett, whose important 1991 book, Consciousness Explained, claims that consciousness does emerge from completely naturalistic and materialistic processes. I propose a test to prove it.