Emergence and Consciousness

Authored by: Robert Van Gulick

The Routledge Handbook of Emergence

Print publication date:  March  2019
Online publication date:  March  2019

Print ISBN: 9781138925083
eBook ISBN: 9781315675213
Adobe ISBN:


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Consciousness is at once the most familiar aspect of mind but also the most mysterious. It is a ubiquitous feature of our daily lives, and yet we lack a clear understanding of how it fits in to the larger world. As Thomas Nagel (1974) noted, “Consciousness is what makes the mind-body problem really intractable”, and thus it is the focus of many mind–body debates. Critics of physicalism argue that it is unable to adequately explain consciousness, while physicalists have offered many specific theories that aim to do so. Whatever their degrees of success, an air or mystery remains about how the “trick might be done”. Both sides of the debate agree that explaining consciousness as part of the physical world seems to involve special difficulties, and thus a wide variety of ideas and concepts have been invoked to explain the relation of consciousness to the physical, including identity, reduction, realization, panpsychism and emergence. Can the notion of emergence help us understand the nature and basis of consciousness and explain how it fits into the larger world? And would viewing it as emergent confirm or refute physicalism? The answer depends in part on how key concepts are defined. “Consciousness”, “emergence” and “physicalism” can each be defined in a variety of ways, and thus the question of whether or not consciousness is emergent is ambiguous, as are its implications for physicalism.

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