International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

Mind and Emergence: From Quantum to Consciousness

by Philip Clayton

Introductory Essay by George Ellis

One of the key issues in the science and religion interaction is the question of reductionism and emergence: Can all physical entities, including ourselves, be regarded as “nothing but” the sum of their component parts, with higher level properties such as consciousness being mere epiphenomena, and with all the real action taking place at the lower physical levels? Or do higher levels of reality emerge from the lower levels in such away as to have real causal powers in their own right, neither derivable nor understandable from the properties of lower level entities? 

This question arises in particular as regards the mind: Is our belief in our mental powers an illusion, because what happens in the mind is in reality determined by properties of neurons and genes? If this were to be true, it would undermine the kinds of higher views of the nature of humanity that are central to religious and spiritual world views. The meaningful nature of our lives would be shown to be illusory, for in the end we would be just machines within no real control over our minds or lives.

This book by Philip Clayton discusses these issues in depth, presenting emergence [60-62] as a world view which is a viable alternative to physicalist and dualist views of the mind-body relation.  He sees this view as solidly grounded in an evolutionary perspective on biology, able to provide a scientifically based view of the nature of humanity that adequately realizes our full humanity.

These themes have been heavily contested by philosophers, who have proposed views ranging from strong reductionism to both weak and strong emergence. Clayton gives an in-depth introduction to these approaches with a strong historical perspective. He presents five different meanings of emergence and relates them to the crucial issue of downward causation, which he calls “the most important defining characteristic of emergence “ [49].

He then discusses how this operates in the natural sciences (Chapter 3), considering the physics-chemistry relation, computers, biochemistry, and evolution. He then discusses this all in relation to the mind (Chapter 4). Here he presents a wager [140] that the ultimately victorious account of mind will not be forced to abandon a place for mental causation, but will also not invalidate or make irrelevant the scientific study of the brain.

The final chapter (`Emergence and transcendence’) relates this all to metaphysical issues that have to do with the emergence of mind This is where the naturalism-theism issue comes to the fore. Here he considers the limits of scientific enquiry and naturalistic explanations, and goes on to develop a theistic viewpoint on emergence and its relation to concepts of divine action.

Overall the book defends both strong emergence and makes the case for a transcendent nature of mind. The subjects dealt with are notoriously difficult in philosophical terms and a full appreciation of what is going on demands an understanding of the scientific processes involved. Clayton is well prepared to deal with both sides of the issue and the book will amply repay careful study.