I was planning to set aside Robert Sapolsky's book, Determined: A Science of Life Without Free Will, having finished it, including an appendix that I wrote about a few days ago. I called that post Neurons and synapses are what we are.
That's absolutely true. If anyone doubts this, hire an unethical doctor to scoop out all of your neurons and synapses from your head and see if anything of you remains. (Spoiler alert: you'll surely be brain dead and almost certainly totally dead also.)
But here's the obvious thing: we aren't just neurons and synapses. We're so much more. Perceptions, thoughts, emotions, actions, everything that emerges from the goings-on of those neurons and synapses. You know the saying. The whole is more than the sum of its parts.
It's important to keep in mind, though, that without the parts, there can't be a whole.
That's why you can't do away with the 100 billon or so neurons in the human brain and have a human mind. Those neurons have to exist in order for the emergent complexity of the brain, mind, and consciousness to manifest.
This is basic neuroscience. So when I saw a comment from frequent commenter Spence Tepper that started off with "Mainstream neuroscience has already rejected the view that consciousness can be reduced to chemistry alone," I thought, this is so obvious, why take the time to say it?
My suspicion is that Tepper was engaging in one of his frequent commenting ploys, which I find annoying: set up a straw man, meaning a fictitious statement that no one actually believes, then ridicule that statement as reflecting a poor understanding of reality.
However, there's another possibility. Spence Tepper doesn't understand the nature of emergent complexity. So since this might be the case, I'm pleased to educate him via some quotations from Sapolsky's chapter, "A Primer on Emergent Complexity."
First, though, some basic observations about scientific disciplines. These reflect the notion of emergent complexity.
Quantum mechanics basically deals with subatomic particles, though quantum effects can be observed in larger entities such as atoms. Then there's physics, which studies the constituents of matter at higher levels of organization (of course, quantum physics is part of physics). Chemistry deals with properties of matter at a higher level still. Biology, still higher. Neuroscience, psychology, sociology -- even higher.
Again, each of these disciplines deal with emergent complexity at a certain level. But none of the levels would exist if subatomic particles didn't.
Here's the passages from Sapolksy's emergent complexity chapter. Not the easiest reading, but fascinating. I love the reference to the road being traveled on being constructed at the same time.
This chapter focuses on a related domain of amazingness that seems to defy determinism. Let's start with some bricks. Granting ourselves some artistic license, they can crawl around on tiny invisible legs. Place one brick in a field; it crawls around aimlessly.
Two bricks, ditto. A bunch, and some start bumping in to each other. When that happens, they interact in boringly simple ways -- they can settle down next to each other and stay that way, or one can crawl up on top of another. That's all.
Now scatter a hundred zillion of these identical bricks in this field, and they slowly crawl around, zillions sitting next to each other, zillions crawling on top of others... and they slowly construct the Palace of Versailles.
The amazingness is not that, wow, something as complicated as Versailles can be built out of simple bricks.* [*footnote says, Note to self: check to see if Versailles is made of bricks.]
It's that once you made a big enough pile of bricks, all those witless little building blocks, operating with a few simple rules, without a human in sight, assembled themselves into Versailles.
This is not chaos's sensitive dependence on initial conditions, where these identical building blocks actually all differed when viewed at a high magnification, and you then butterflew to Versailles. Instead, put enough of the same simple elements together, and they spontaneously self-assemble into something flabbergastingly complex, ornate, adaptive, functional, and cool. With enough quantity, extraordinary quality just... emerges, often even unpredictably.
As it turns out, such emergent complexity occurs in realms very pertinent to our interests. The vast difference between the pile of gormless, identical building blocks and the Versailles they turned themselves into seems to defy conventional cause and effect.
Our sensible sides think (incorrectly...) of words like indeterministic. Our less rational sides think of words like magic. In either case, the "self" part of self-assembly seems so agentive, so rife with "be the palace of bricks that you wish to be," that dreams of free will beckon. An idea that this and the next chapter will try to dispel.
...What makes for emergent complexity?
-- There is a huge number of ant-like elements, all identical or coming in just a few different types.
-- The "ant" has a very small repertoire of things it can do.
-- There are a few simple rules based on chance interactions with immediate neighbors (e.g., "walk with this pebble in your little ant mandibles until you bump into another ant holding a pebble, in which case, drop yours"). No ant knows more than these few rules, and each acts as an autonomous agent.
-- Out of the hugely complicated phenomena this can produce emerge irreducible properties that exist only on the collective level (e.g., a single molecule of water cannot be wet; "wetness" emerges only from the collectivity of water molecules, and studying single water molecules can't predict much about wetness) and that are self-contained at their level of complexity (i.e., you can make accurate predictions about the behavior of the collective level without knowing much about the component parts). As summarized by Nobel laureate physicist Philip Anderson, "More is different."
-- These emergent properties are robust and resilient -- a waterfall, for example, maintains consistent emergent features over time despite the fact that no water molecule participates in waterfall-ness more than once.
-- A detailed picture of the maturely emergent system can be (but is not necessarily) unpredictable, which should have echoes of the previous two chapters. Knowing the starting state and reproduction rules (a la cellular automata) gives you the means to develop the complexity but not the means to describe it. Or, to use a word offered by a leading developmental neurobiologist of the past century, Paul Weiss, the starting state can never contain an "itinerary."
-- Part of this unpredictability is due to the fact that in emergent systems, the road you are traveling on is being constructed at the same time and, in fact, your being on it is influencing the construction process by constituting feedback on the road-making process. Moreover, the goal you are traveling toward may not even exist yet -- you are destined to interact with a target spot that may not exist yet but, with any luck, will be constructed in time. In addition, unlike last chapter's cellular automata, emergent systems are also subject to randomness (jargon: "stochastic events"), where the sequence of random events makes a difference.
-- Often the emergent properties can be breathtakingly adaptive and, despite that, there's no blueprint or blueprint maker.