Jul 30 2012

The Seat of Consciousness

Where is the “seat of consciousness” in the brain? This is often presented as an enduring mystery of modern neuroscience, and to an extent it is. It is a very complex question and we don’t yet have anything like a complete answer, or even a consensus. The question itself may contain false assumptions – what, exactly, is consciousness, and perhaps what we call consciousness emerges from the collective activity of the entire brain, not a subset. Perhaps every network in the brain is conscious to some degree, and what we experience as our consciousness is the aggregate effect of many little consciousnesses.

One way to approach this question (really a set of related questions) is to study different mental states – altered states of consciousness. How those differences relate to brain function are likely to tell us something about the contribution of that brain function to full wakeful consciousness.

A new study by scientists from the Max Planck Institutes of Psychiatry in Munich and for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig and from Charité in Berlin attempts to do just that. They have studied the brain activity of those in normal dreaming and in a so-called lucid dreaming state.

Dreaming is an excellent subject of study for questions of consciousness. I often use dreaming when discussing this topic as an example of an altered state that everyone experiences. While dreaming we have awareness and experience and are forming memories (at least sometimes). When we remember our dreams, however, they don’t quite make sense to our waking selves. Things happen in dreams, for example, that are clearly impossible and yet that does not seem to bother our dreaming self. We are not aware that we are dreaming, despite the weird and dream-like events that are happening. Our dreaming self also just knows things about the context of the dream without the need for that information to be communicated – since the dream world exists entirely within our own brains there is no real distinction between ourself and the world.

At times, however, a dreamer can become “lucid” – meaning they become aware that they are dreaming. They notice the unreal aspect of the dreamworld. Some people can train themselves to have frequent lucid dreams, and to have a high degree of control of the lucid dream. The lucid dreaming state, however, is inherently unstable. We tend to either wake up, or dream that we wake up, which means losing the lucid state.

There are therefore three different states of consciousness that researchers can safely and reproducibly use to study consciousness – waking, dreaming, and lucid dreaming. What the researchers in the current study found was this:

“The general basic activity of the brain is similar in a normal dream and in a lucid dream,” says Michael Czisch, head of a research group at the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry. “In a lucid state, however, the activity in certain areas of the cerebral cortex increases markedly within seconds. The involved areas of the cerebral cortex are the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, to which commonly the function of self-assessment is attributed, and the frontopolar regions, which are responsible for evaluating our own thoughts and feelings. The precuneus is also especially active, a part of the brain that has long been linked with self-perception.”

This study, therefore, supports the idea that a key difference between the wakeful and dreaming state is the lack of self-assessment in the dreaming state. The dorsolateral prefontal cortex is involved with decision-making, memories that are personally meaningful, and other aspects of self-assessment. The frontopolar regions are also involved with planning, maintaining a primary goal, and multitasking.


One thing that surprises me (a bit) about this study is that reality-monitoring was not directly implicated. Reality-monitoring is related to self-assessment – it is the ability to distinguish a memory from an active experience, or something imagined from something that actually happened. It seems that this is impaired in the dreaming state – we are not aware that we are dreaming, and we cannot distinguish imagined memories that are part of the narrative of the dream from actual memories of real events. This process also localizes to the prefrontal cortex (the anteromedial PFC) – so perhaps it’s close enough for fMRI.

Also (and here is why reverse-engineering brain function is so complex) perhaps the activity in the brain regions identified in this study affect the function of reality monitoring. The brain does not appear to be comprised simply of discrete modules that function all by themselves, but networks of modules all interacting with each other. Change the activity of one brain region or network and you will alter the function of other related networks.  Perhaps simply looking at the amount of activity in different brain regions is giving us a very incomplete picture.


The study of the wakeful, dreaming, and lucid dreaming states appears to be a fruitful avenue for addressing questions of consciousness. Of course, it is just one approach to a very complex question. Such questions are best addressed scientifically from multiple angles and perspectives.  This and similar research, however, is all premised on the theory that consciousness (whatever it is) emerges from brain activity.  We are beginning to piece together the various contributions to consciousness of the various networks and modules in the brain. This kind of research will take us very far, but I think in order to fully understand this process we will need to model consciousness. When we have something like a virtual brain running inside a computer, where we can turn on and off different components at will to see how it affects the behavior of the system, we will have another powerful tool for addressing this question. Of course, we will never know what the system actually experiences – only how it behaves and what it tells us it experiences. But the same is true of human research.

43 responses so far

43 thoughts on “The Seat of Consciousness”

  1. locutusbrg says:

    Not being an expert in the field I have several questions. What if any is the working definition for consciousness in neuroscience? it seems to me extremely difficult to come up with a functional definition when we lack the parameters of the question. In my opinion it appears that consciousness is in fact a subjective state defined by human beings based on their experience. I could be entirely off-base about this. Although I am aware of EEG’s, FMRI’s, and pet scan being used to define brain activity. I do not have the experience with the research like Dr. Novella to understand if there is any specific structural knowledge of conscious brain activity versus unconscious brain activity. Again the operational definition makes it difficult to determine exactly what that is. It is my opinion that until we develop a more empirical test, that is complex to define interactive brain function on a much greater level than is currently available, any factual findings or consensus will not happen. Lacking familiarity with the research, I believe most of these questions are pointless given our current level of understanding about brain function. I don’t believe the research is pointless, just the conclusions from them are at best diaphanous.

  2. “The question itself may contain false assumptions”

    I certainly agree. Which brings me to…

    “This and similar research, however, is all premised on the theory that consciousness (whatever it is) emerges from brain activity.”

    The brain no doubt is crucial in the process of enabling human cognition, but I think that rooting around in the brain to see how it “generates” consciousness is the miss the bigger picture, that consciousness is only possible via dynamic interaction with the world, via feedback loops of sensory stimulation and reaction. In a philosophical sense, although we’ve dumped the notion of a disembodied mind, we’re still kind of framing the view of consciousness in cartesian terms; still trying to find our “pituitary gland” only by more complex means. We’re not seeing the forest for the trees.

    What if consciousness is the process and pattern of interaction itself, and more of a phenomenon of nature than a phenomenon of the brain in isolation? The body is not a discrete isolated system – without interaction via eating, sunlight etc it would quickly die, so why should consciousness be different? Then by framing the question as you do above you would miss it. While the lucid dream experiments above are fascinating, and can tell us much on the mechanics of the mind its cognitive processes, they are just studying “consciousness” in a temporarily closed system, the hallucinatory context of which is made of information rooted in prior experience with the world.

    i’d suggest the computer model neuroscientists are working towards, will likewise not tell much unless your flood the brain model with data, i.e. a replacement for interaction with the world. But what of feedback with the virtual world, would that be modelled? How much of the digital nervous system would allow feedback into the digital world? And what you’re studying then is process of an open system, not a closed one. Now *that* would be interesting.

  3. shaskitt says:

    You’re expecting an answer you can understand from a field of study you don’t understand, which is in a process of (among other things) figuring out what the meaningful questions are. As anyone who would even bother reading this blog post would agree that neuroscience is quite complex. Each answer to each little specific question gives us a better framework in which to understand what we’re even trying to learn. You said consciousness was a subjective state. The content of the brain state is subjective perhaps, but not the framework of the state itself. That just doesn’t make any sense. This is what they’re trying to figure out.

  4. DOYLE says:

    It seems consciousness is what it is.If it is an expression of self,of self awareness,then it seems to exist on a continum,wether that is wide awake,dreaming or lucid dreaming.If the brain can produce a reflectiveness of the particular human organism then you have consciousness.Perhaps consciousness has an executive hierarchy,with wakefulness being paramount.

  5. locutusbrg says:

    I appreciate what you are trying to say. My statement was rapid and difficult to read, so easy to mistake my point. What I was trying to say was that better objective tools are needed to even formulate the question. Sure I could be wrong and I would love to know specific examples.

  6. eean says:

    ” When we have something like a virtual brain running inside a computer, where we can turn on and off different components at will to see how it affects the behavior of the system, we will have another powerful tool for addressing this question.”

    This sounds pretty unethical to the poor virtual brain. Luckily we’ll have advanced computerized ethical systems to help us through these murky issues by then. 😀

  7. wim_vandenberghe says:

    In discussions of consciousness, you often hear the term emergence. I’m certain that “consciousness” is a result of the workings of the brain, but it doesn’t really answer what the self is made of. I can see that the brain is matter and that our mental representations projected in the brain are also matter (like the screen I’m looking at), but what is the “sense of self” made of? I’ve recently bought Damasio’s book “Self Comes To Mind”, so I hope to find some direction there.

  8. BillyJoe7 says:

    “I’m certain that “consciousness” is a result of the workings of the brain..but what is the “sense of self” made of?”

    Why do you think it’s any different for the ‘sense of self’ than it is for ‘consciousness’?
    Surely it the workings of the brain also.

  9. @wim_vandenberghe “sense of self” is really three things, one is self-awareness – knowledge that you are an actor in the world, or that your subjectivity itself can be the object of your experience. The second is social identity, the third is consciousness.

    The first two are closely related. Our personal identity in the first instance is built on the scaffold of genetics, which can be thought of as the result of the genome’s interaction with the physical and biological environment of the eons. Our “self” is very much a product of the world imprinting itself on the brain during infancy and puberty, and us reacting by adopting a role within it. The notion of who we are, is fundamentally a product of other people and how we relate to ideas and groups within our social environment.

    The infant brain is economical with resources. If a child is kept in darkness during crucial periods of brain development, their visual cortex will not develop properly, leaving them permanently blind even if they have “functional” eyes. Likewise, if it has nobody to interact with, the parts of the brain involved with identity and self awareness with be used for other purposes. Studies of feral children show that they these features (i.e. fail the mirror test).

    Without self, there can be no self-awareness. Simply awareness and reactive genetics. It is no coincidence that self-awareness is found in mostly social animals (dolphins, apes and elephants).

    In more dramatic language, the self can be thought of as an interface, or dialogue, with the hive-mind of the human superorganism, through which we can see with the sensory system of billions.

  10. PhysiPhile says:

    [quote]What if consciousness is the process and pattern of interaction itself, and more of a phenomenon of nature than a phenomenon of the brain in isolation? The body is not a discrete isolated system – without interaction via eating, sunlight etc it would quickly die, so why should consciousness be different?[/quote]

    I don’t think any educated person really thinking about consciousness makes this claim. I listen to a lot of perspectives on the subject and have never came across an ‘isolationist’.

    There is a desire to understand our self as of now and although we are shadows of experiences the mechanisms that these experiences are processed appear to have rules. In the broadest sense, these rules are constraints put on entropy that allow for very unstable systems such as ourselves.

  11. sonic says:

    I have lucid dreams.
    Sometimes I have to figure out if I have had breakfast so that I can tell if it is a dream or not. That’s a trick I have learned, anyway.
    If that is what is meant by ‘reality- monitoring’, then I’m not surprised that it is not directly implicated. It is not something I go through every time– sometimes I just know I’m dreaming right off– and when I do have to check, I do the checking after I’m aware. (I’m just checking to see if I’m aware of a dream or something ‘real’).

    BTW- once it has been established that I’m dreaming– anything can happen.
    It’s fun… 🙂

  12. wim_vandenberghe says:

    “Why do you think it’s any different for the ‘sense of self’ than it is for ‘consciousness’?
    Surely it the workings of the brain also.”

    I don’t think it’s necessarily different. I’m just intrigued by what David Chalmers coined the “hard problem of consciousness”, i.e. how we have a self that experiences qualia, i.e. not just a brain that registers things and makes perceptual maps of them, which are “easy problems” and obviously physical, but a self that experiences those things. How does that self ’emerge’ and when one says it ’emerges’, what does that mean? For Chalmers, it can’t be reduced to the brain. Damasio, whose book I’ve just started reading, says it is physical. I’m just curious how it works, however it works. 🙂

  13. BillyJoe7 says:


    “I’m just intrigued by what David Chalmers coined the “hard problem of consciousness”, i.e. how we have a self that experiences qualia”

    I’m no expert, but here are my initial ramblings on the subject:

    One of the first things to think about is whether it is possible that you are the only human who has experiences. I think this possiblility can be easily dismissed because, if that were true, you would be the only one who understands what is meant by the word ‘qualia’. However, it is still possible that there are automatons or p-zombies amongst us and I suppose we could expose them by asking them about qualia. Unfortunately there are people who do not understand what is meant by qualia and it would be difficult to distinguish then from p-zombies.

    In any case, if p-zombies are possible then consciousness must be an epiphenomenon of brain function, playing no necessary role in brain function. Or consciousness and self consciousness could be examples of an emergent property. There are many examples if emergent properties which arise as the complexity of a system increases. One example is the emergence of colour as atoms combine to form molecules. Phase transitions in physics can also be thought of as emergent properties. If it is an emergent property, it is likely that consciousness plays an essential role in brain function.

    I think we both agree that qualia are part of, or emerge out of, brain function. It is a puzzle to know exactly what it is, and there are those who, as a result of this puzzle, are tempted to propose that the ineffability of qualia indicate that it is a gift from above. Scientists in general, are reluctant to go with this because, in the past, it has merely stopped progress towards a solution to the problem.

  14. BillyJoe7 says:


    Nicely written.

    “It is no coincidence that self-awareness is found in mostly social animals (dolphins, apes and elephants). ”

    Apparently also Orcas, the European Magpie and one barn owl!


  15. wim_vandenberghe says:

    “Scientists in general, are reluctant to go with this because, in the past, it has merely stopped progress towards a solution to the problem.”

    I agree. It’s just one of those things where I’d really like to know how it all works. As it stands now, “emergent property” sounds a bit too much like the religious “And then a miracle occurs”. It’s a placeholder term that doesn’t really seem to do any explaining, like “idiopathic”.

  16. BillyJoe7 says:


    “As it stands now, “emergent property” sounds a bit too much like the religious “And then a miracle occurs”.”

    Except that properties have been observed to emerge but miracles have not been observed to happen.

  17. PhysiPhile says:


    I agree with wim that the term emergence is starting to sound like…then a miracle happens. In the sense that it doesn’t get us any closer to understanding cognition.

    Everyone knows biology is messy and that you have feedback loops that create complexity – this is seen even in much lower ordered systems like the endocrine or immune system. You saying cognition emerges from lots of nonlinear feedback or action potentials is pretty much inane.

    Looking at the differences in emergent phenomena will tell us a lot more. For example, most emergent events we see in non-biological nature have restraints placed on them by something external to the event so like a whirl pool emerging out of a stream is has it restraints in the rock that create the turbulence. If you remove those rocks the emergent property vanishes. However, biology transfers its constraints via replication so it’s like a self perpetuating emergent phenomena. Understanding the constraints is where I think we should be heading not just saying the obvious “the brain emerges from a high ordered complex network oh and here is chaos and graph theory to make me sound like I’m actually based in logic…”

  18. BillyJoe7 says:


    You’ll have to point out where I gave an opinion on emergent phenomena. I specifically did not do so. I stated that I am no expert and then went to outline what some experts are saying about consciousness (?epiphenomenon ?emergent phenomenon) with lots of qualifiers to boot.

    My point about comparing emergent phenomenon to miracles is that we don’t have any examples of miracles but we do have examples of emergent phenomena. If you don’t think that emergent phenomena in the brain are analogous to emergent phenomena in physics and chemistry, I am happy for you to give your opinion.

  19. Thadius says:

    I have heard a lot about emergent properties lately and I seem to be confused about what that actually means. To me it seems that any property can be called emergent if we don’t yet know what the relationships between all the things that cause it are or we set them aside for the sake of simplicity. What I mean by this is that all phenomenons in biology can be (however impractically) described in terms of chemistry as all biology is made out of molecules. Similarly all chemistry can be described in terms of quantum and particle physics (assuming we have good models). So the distinctions between the sciences are really arbitrary constructs of the institution of science, similarly the delineation between different phenomenon in neural science of consciousness could also be arbitrarily defined by the observers. In this way I see “emergent properties” as a place holder for the connections between more discreet mechanisms in the brain

  20. ccbowers says:

    “In this way I see “emergent properties” as a place holder for the connections between more discreet mechanisms in the brain”

    There are at least 2 types of emergence you have described: there is the one of practicalility, in which different levels lend themselves to more easily explain phenomenon (i.e. that lower level explanation is possible in principle, but impractical to the point of being impossible in practice), and there is the one that you are denying exists: that there are new components to causality at different scales.

    I’m not confident that your dismissal of the second is justified, since this seems to be a problem that even physics has now: having theories that explain on quantum level in addition to macro scales. Biology is much more complex. There also seems be a bit of the continuum fallacy in your argument… perhaps you are correct, but I’m not holding my breath, since it seems that we have a long way to go in understanding before we’ll be able to answer that question

  21. sonic says:

    Emergence is the term used to describe the situation in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

    To understand the degree that ‘reductionism’ has failed-
    read what physicists say–


    A couple excerpts–
    “The challenge, said Giorgio Margaritondo from the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in
    Switzerland, was “to develop a general theory of complex systems, in particular of living systems,
    without relying on a ‘reductionist’ approach, which is based on the illusion that complex systems
    can be explained based on an understanding of their more elementary components”.

    “Reductionism has failed in a grandiose manner,” said Itamar Procaccia from the Weizmann
    Institute of Science in Israel. “To understand macroscopic phenomena, which are all around us,
    we cannot start from strings. Every level of description has its own logic, mathematics and
    phenomenology. A tremendous lot remains to be done even if a unified theory is achieved.”

    At each level of complexity new rules ’emerge’ that can’t be predicted from the constituent parts.

    BTW- physicists will tell you that the ‘standard model’ is flawed.

    Much work ahead to figure this stuff out…

  22. BillyJoe7 says:

    Surely scientists cannot accept that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts – so called ‘strong’ emergence. As wim said, (strong) emergence sounds like we’re saying “and then a miracle happened”. There has to be an explanation. And, if there is an explanation then, of course, reductionism is not dead. And, of course, we are talking here of ‘strong’ reductionism. On the other hand, ‘weak’ reductionism is as undeniable as ‘weak’ emergence. Science tries to solve problems by both a top down and bottom up approach. They have to believe that the two willl meet one day.

  23. Thadius says:

    While you seem yo have a definition of emergence that is quite succinct after doing some reading it appears to me that there are few in the sciences that share the same definition. “Something being greater than the sum of its parts” would logically fallow that events in a system happen with no cause and so far as i can see no one is saying that. I find a much more useful conscription in Vince Darley’s paper Emergent Phenomena and Complexity, the Division of Applied Sciences , Harvard University. In which he describes the difference between emergent and non-emergent phenomenon as the difference in the way we can use computational models to form predictive systems to describe the phenomena. –

  24. Thadius says:


    Darly writes-
    “Emergent phenomena are those for which the amount of computation necessary for the prediction from an optimal set of rules, classifications and analysis, even derived from an idealized perfect understanding, can never improve upon the amount of computation necessary to simulate the system directly from our knowledge of the rules and interactions.”

    This seems to state that emergent phenomena are a category of epidemiological phenomena, in that we describe them this way because it is simply the way we can build models for it. Or rather it is where our understanding of the phenomena is. It says nothing of the “whole being greater than the parts” but rather that we DON’T KNOW ALL THE PARTS but can nonetheless create working heuristic models with powerful predictive power.

    Along those lines, the standard model seems to have been recently vindicated in perhaps the most spectacular fashion ever witnessed at some laboratory called CERN. Perhaps the word flawed is misused, incomplete may be more fitting.

  25. sonic says:

    You are correct. The term emergence can have different definitions.
    Physicists have various opinions about this as well.

    The person who is generally acknowledged as having coined the term is GH Lewes- here is the quote–

    “Every resultant is either a sum or a difference of the co-operant forces; their sum, when their directions are the same — their difference, when their directions are contrary. Further, every resultant is clearly traceable in its components, because these are homogeneous and commensurable. It is otherwise with emergents, when, instead of adding measurable motion to measurable motion, or things of one kind to other individuals of their kind, there is a co-operation of things of unlike kinds. The emergent is unlike its components insofar as these are incommensurable, and it cannot be reduced to their sum or their difference.”

    An example from physics might be superconductivity.

    The definition given in the Darly paper is interesting. He seems to think that any ’emergent’ phenomena could be calculated from reductive principle given enough computing power.

    Here’s what the physicists from the survey said-

    “The new frontier about which we know nothing is how to describe complex systems far from equilibrium in a unified way…. Such systems range from sand piles to biological cells to computers, but it is not clear whether or how the principles of statistical mechanics apply to them.”

    Perhaps you would like Laughlin’s take on the subject (he won a nobel prize in physics)–

    “We can refute the reductionist myth by demonstrating that rules are correct and then challenging very smart people to predict things with them.”


    So while I find Darley’s hypothesis interesting, I’m not convinced it is correct. A demonstration would help.

    — I believe I am quoting the physicist I linked to about the standard model being ‘flawed’. I would agree ‘incomplete’ is accurate as well. It doesn’t cover gravity at all–
    I am aware of the probability that the Higgs has been found– it doesn’t change the situation that is mentioned in the article I linked to- or does it?
    And the Standard Model of particle physics is an incredible achievement. No need to pretend it is more perfect than it is- however- as that would be disrespectful to how good it actually is IMHO.

  26. Thadius says:

    Perhaps I did not articulate Darley’s ideas very well(i’m almost certain i haven’t), but he does not posit that emergent properties can be calculated with enough power, but rather they are defined as properties for which more calculating power does NOT help to understand them. That is that the models we use are not complete enough for outright 1-1 modeling and calculation. Instead we use mathematical heuristics to tap the predictive power of our models.

    I am arguing that in an epistomologic sense we don’t(and can never) have a complete model so some heuristics are always necessary. In the case of particles we cannot have a complete model because actions at that scale are unobservable, (thus probabilistics) . Darley states the same in that there is no delineation between emergent and non-emergent, it is a gradiant based on how complete or incomplete our models are and how we can create predictive computational models from those overlying theories. From this i posit that there still is a theoretically reductionist bent to existence.

  27. sonic says:

    Perhaps I am misunderstanding Darley.
    Here is what I’m thinking–
    From the text–

    “So, emergent phenomena are those for which the amount of computation necessary for prediction from an optimal set of rules, classifications and analysis, even derived from an idealised perfect understanding, can never improve upon the amount of computation necessary to simulate the system directly from our knowledge of the rules of its interactions.”

    He then goes on to claim– “I argue that there is no discontinuous separation between emergence and non-emergence. Emergence is purely the result of a phase change in the amount of computation necessary for optimal prediction of certain phenomena.”

    After defining ‘relative understanding’ he says,
    “Now we need no longer deal with any explicit dichotomy between emergent and non-emergent phenomena. The perceived lack of understanding in the former is really just another way of describing the complexity of the map between initial state and final phenomenon.”

    So he is suggesting there is a continuum from non-emergent to emergent. When a system crosses the line from being more easily computationally predictable using the parts, to being more easily computationally predictable using simulation. This is a continuum– not a discontinuity.

    From this I get that he is suggesting that if anything can be derived from first principles (non- emergence) then anything can– otherwise there would be a discontinuity.
    Further- while he is suggesting that there are situations where simulation will be better than computation for prediction– that is not to say that computation isn’t possible.
    Again- if computation isn’t possible for some set of phenomena- then there is a discontinuity between that set and the set that can be computed.
    He is claiming no discontinuity.

    Am I missing something here?

  28. Thadius says:


    You are misinterpreting the point of computation and simulation. You write:
    “Further- while he is suggesting that there are situations where simulation will be better than computation for prediction– that is not to say that computation isn’t possible.”

    Darley forms his definition of emergence as the amount of computation NEEDED to form a useful simulation, not that one is better than the other. one is used to create the other.

    He lays this out in an equation where s(n) is the “amount of computation required to simulate a system, and arrive at a prediction of the given phenomenon.” while “Our deeper level of understanding for the symmetries of the system…has allowed us to perform a creative analysis and deduce the future state whilst, we hope, circumventing most of the previous-required computation. Let u(n) be the amount of computation required to arrive at the result by this method.”
    leading to his qualification of emergent P’s-
    u(n) /=s(n)=the system is emergent.

    An example of this would be a model of a hurricane. We can create models of hurricanes that are quite accurate w/out incorporating every molecule of water vapor or unit of possible measurable temperature in the system. In fact we can generalize the system so that there are relatively few moving parts and still come to the same predictions a perfect “gods simulation” would come to. This system is on the emergent side of Darley’s phase shift.

    I am arguing that this does not mean that hurricanes(or any other phenomenon) are not inherently emergent phenomenon in the “strong scene” as it is clear that they are made up of smaller water vapor molecules and the interactions between them. It is that those interactions, as points in the computation of our model/simulation are not necessary to come to predictions about the future state of the system.

    You could then argue that at a deeper level in this example, “strong emergence” come about in the explanation of the water molecules themselves, as there is no known mechanism for some of its properties yet we do have very useful simulations that perfectly predict the future states of this system. Therefor u(n)>s(n) and water has emergent properties. This however does not mean that these properties arise from no causal base system and that “the whole is greater than the parts” in any real way, but that we just don’t know about the causal base of the system.

    In conclusion, I believe it is wrong to assume that the causal chain of phenomenon breaks down simply because we do not understand it, even if we have useful models that need not incorporate those lesser (and possibly unknown) links in the chain.

  29. Thadius says:

    sorry: it looks like Darley’s equation did not make it through the html translation. I’ll rewrite it here:

    if u(n) is less than s(n) than the system is non-emergent.
    if u(n) is greater or equal to s(n) than the system is emergent.

  30. sonic says:

    I agree with what you say about Darley’s work.
    I don’t think that Darley is arguing for ‘strong emergence’ either. This is my point. If such a thing existed, then that would create a discontinuity between ’emergent’ and ‘non-emergent’ phenomena. Darley (like you) is saying there isn’t such a discontinuity.

    Here is a link that is more descriptive of what the actual situation in physics today is.

    …”The term emergent behavior refers to the collective phenomena observed in macroscopic systems that are distinct from their microscopic constituents. It is brought about by the interaction of the microscopic constituents with one another and with their environment. Whereas the Standard Model of particle physics described in Units 1 and 2 has enjoyed great success by building up systems of particles and interactions from the ground up, nearly all complex and beautiful phenomena observed in the laboratory or in nature defy this type of reductionist explanation.”

    I believe that when Procaccia says “Reductionism has failed in a grandiose manner,” he is referring to the fact that ‘nearly all complex and beautiful phenomena observed… defy this type of reductionist explanation.’

    I believe this implies a discontinuity. Super conductivity has rules that work (BCS theory). Those rules are not derived from the standard model- nor can they be.

    And that’s what real scientists are saying.

  31. Thadius says:

    And we have already agreed that the standard model is incomplete, so pointing to it and saying that it cannot explain everything-therefor the explanation of BCS theory is non causal (your original point i have been refuting). In fact in the textbook you link to seems, in my opinion to hint that the understanding of BCS falls right in line with the continuum idea of emergence. from page 3:

    “Another concept that will arise in this unit is the notion of a “quasiparticle.” The concept of a quasiparticle arises in a simplifying framework that ascribes the combined properties of an electron and its modified surroundings into a “virtual” equivalent composite object that we can treat as if it were a single particle.This allows us to use the theoretical toolkit that was built up for the analysis of single particles.”

    This is using the heuristic approach described by Darley.

    Now if you do not wish to engage with my points in a philosophical conversation and instead rely on argument from authority (and that’s what real scientists are saying) I am afraid this conversation may be over.

  32. BillyJoe7 says:

    sonic: “I believe this implies a discontinuity.”

    Just because you can describe and predict the formation, evolution, and dissipation of hurricanes on the macroscopic scale but not on the microscopic scale of the interaction of individual molecules contained within it, does not imply that a discontinuity has occurred. It simply means that too much computation is required to do so and, in any case, it is impossbile to know the initial conditions of every item in the microscopic list.

  33. sonic says:

    Thank-you for calling me for my use of authority. I will attempt to clean up my act. Feel free to notice my bad behavior in the future. I need the reminders.

    I agree that the standard model is less than complete.

    Something like the heuristic approach described by Darley is what is being used in the case of BCS. The scientists are using a set of rules for a phenomena that are derived experimentally because they can’t be deduced from the standard model- i.e.. the lower level rules.

    I agree this apparent difficulty might be due to problems in the standard model…
    On the other hand– we must consider the possibility that the standard model isn’t the problem here. It certainly is good at predicting the behavior of the known particles. Very accurate.

    I don’t know how this plays out. The promise of the standard model– “Once we know the fundamental particles and their interactions , we will be able to derive all the other laws—” seems to be unfulfilled.
    I don’t know if that is correct philosophically- but I do think it is correct practically.

    If there truly are strong emergent properties– would that be a problem philosophically?
    One thing- it seems if there are strongly emergent properties- we will have to learn about them from experiment and observation.

  34. Thadius says:

    I apologize if i was overly offended.

    The philosophical problem with strong emergence that I find is that it posits or at least points to a magical relationship between the lower order parts of a system and the higher “emergent properties” I do not believe in magic, so it is hard to swallow this ramification of strong emergence. There is probably a way around this, but i have not seen it articulated.

    I have however found other philosophical problems for emergence, In A NEW PROBLEM FOR ONTOLOGICAL EMERGENCE BY DANIEL HEARD of the Department of History and Philosophy of Science University of Cambridge 2005, Heard takes the position that ontological emergence which resembles (to me) strong emergence, creates a problem in that it creates multiple and contradictory truths that must be accepted for one phenomenon described as emergent….I think! I’ll have to reread this one a few times.

  35. sonic says:

    You didn’t offend. You were correct to point out my error- and I do thank-you for it.

    Anyway– I’m not sure that strong emergence implies magic. I have no personal objection to the notion that the universe has different rules at different levels of interaction/ complexity. It is feasible that there are rules of organization such that certain phenomena might emerge regardless of the material being organized.
    It might be that the universe is as wacky as the basic experiments of quantum mechanics indicate- I don’t know.

    I know of a number of philosophies. I like them all. But none of them are perfect fits for the database of knowledge I have. And each can work just fine.
    I’m currently philosophically quite ambivalent.

    This ambivalence- like all else- shall pass.

    Later— and good luck with the Heard paper.

  36. BillyJoe7 says:

    “Thank-you for calling me for my use of authority. I will attempt to clean up my act. Feel free to notice my bad behavior in the future. I need the reminders.”

    The “argument from authority” fallacy occurs when someone quotes the opinion of an expert who is not an expert in the subject he is being quoted on; or when someone quotes an expert whose opinion is contrary to the consensus of experts on the subject in question; or when someone quotes an expert when there is no consensus of experts on the subject in question.

    This has been your modus operandi. 😉
    I’m glad you’ve seen the light. 🙂

  37. Mlema says:


    let me help you here. The argument from authority is simply a means to try to defend a stance by pointing to the fact that bonafide experts concur with that stance.

    What you are describing is the argument from authority being used fallaciously, as when someone defends his stance by calling upon the authority of someone who’s not an expert (so you’re right in your description there)

    So, sonic hasn’t committed a fallacious use of the “argument from authority”. Thadius has simply called him on using authority to defend his own views. thadius and sonic are both aware that the argument from authority is a logical fallacy BECAUSE: in pure logic things are neither true nor untrue based on the consensus of experts.

    and please, let me back up my instruction with some authority:

    no need to thank me! 🙂

  38. Mlema says:

    here’s how emergence vs. strong emergence has been described to me:

    in emergence, if there were a way to know (or if you do know) all the components of a system and everything affecting it, you are able to predict what will happen. Like a riot in the street. If you were able to figure in all the factors of the setting where it happens and the age, psyche, etc. of the participants, and the laws of psychology, you would be able to guess what might occur with those people in that place at that time, even though the riot might seem to just arise mysteriously. So, we might not know or even be able to know all the things we’d need to know to predict the riot emerging. The nature of a riot isn’t something that is somehow impossible to imagine emerging because the riot isn’t really different from the individual phenomena that comprise it.

    strong emergence would be something like the experiential element of consciousness, because the nature of that element is essentially unlike that from which it arises.

    maybe also life emerging from non-life. I don’t know about that nobody’s ever described that as strong emergence to me, I just thought that one might be an example too.

    Either way “emergence” is just a noun used to refer to one thing coming out of another. When we have no inkling how that might happen, we use the descriptive term: strong emergence. big deal, explains nothing – just another way to give a scientific-sounding term for one thing coming out of another without us knowing how. Like executive function is a function of the brain we used to call things like decision-making, or putting off gratification, etc.. Some scientists believe that one day we’ll fill in the missing knowledge that will connect the known to the unknown in every circumstance. I believe this is in some cases a failure to see the “differentness” of some various things (hey, y’ think any scientists will be interested in coining a new term for the measure of highly divergent emergent phenomena? Differentness? If anybody wants to use that, send me a nickel.)
    But anyway, I call this belief in the future omnipotence of mind: emergence in the gaps ha ha hahaha

  39. Thadius says:

    first- what a thread!

    Second- BillyJoe7, the argument from authority is a logical fallacy because; a person in a position of authority, who puts forth a claim, has no advantage over anyone else who puts forth a claim. These claims must be evaluated on the merits of the evidence supporting said claim and any conclusions drawn from this evidence. Any counter arguments must be derived from the original claim, or evaluation of the evidence for the original claim. In other words: A claim must stand on its own, regardless of who made it or who supports it.

    To site others that support your claim, or to show that your claim is derived from work by others who might have “authority” is not a logical fallacy. This line of reasoning allows for questioning of premises in a fair way consistent with the first paragraph of this post.

    What i was referring to and what Sonic was referring to was simply the last line of his post- “that’s what real scientist are saying.”

    All his citations and examples were perfectly legit as part of his arguments.

  40. Thadius says:


    I think that strong emergence, as a stand alone explanation for specific phenomenon, itself does not imply magic, but the idea of discontinuity between non-emergent and emergent phenomenon does. If there is any way in which all lower level aspects of a system have no bearing on the higher level traits of that system, than we must assume that the higher level traits come from nothing. That is assuming that all aspects of the system are known, including all environmental variables, as these would be considered part of the system that can be known.

    I propose that emergence, in any form, can be reduced to interactions between lower order interactions, and is most prominent when we do not understand the extent of these interactions, even if we can derive basic laws that are useful in predicting the higher order phenomenon of a complex system.

    The Heard paper shows this in the context of network topology. Network topology is concerned with the arrangement of nodes in networks. In his paper he explains how nodes within networks that show “scale free topography”. In these networks specific nodes will link to other nodes more frequently if they are connected to more nodes, even though there is no descriptor that will predict which individual node will eventually have more connections to other nodes. There is no predictive set of attributes to a single node that sets it aside from any other outside of the network, however, within the network nodes with more connections will establish even more connections in the network. This is how most free communication networks present themselves (which is actually in my field of studies:0) In this way, both ‘strong’ and ‘weak’ versions as we have been describing are met. We do not need to know the individual properties of nodes to make a prediction of the pasterns of connectivity that will present themselves in the system, but there are undoubtedly specific aspects of the individual nodes that could predict which (if looked at in direct comparison) nodes would create more connections. If you have ever read Gladwell’s popular book “Tipping Points” you are aware of the “connectors” which would serve as the low level explanation of nodes in one of these networks.

    BTW Steve Novella is definitely the epitome of this “example” of the “connected node” as-bridge between emergence and non-emergence in a “scale free network” AKA the internet.
    Go SGU!

  41. BillyJoe7 says:


    It seems you disagree with me, Mlema, and wikipedia.
    This is my understanding:

    The “Argument from Authority” is fallacious if:
    1) the authority is not an expert on the subject in question
    2) the authority gives an opinion contrary to the consensus of experts on the subject in question.
    3) the authority gives an opinion when there is no consensus of experts on the subject in question.

  42. sonic says:

    Here is a mathematical approach to emergence that you might find less problematic–

    I’m not sure that strong emergence implies non- causality. It would just mean that the universe has rules for ensembles that don’t exist for the parts. I’m not sure why that couldn’t be. Of course I’m not sure how relativity could be either…
    And let’s not even start about the Aspect experiments… 🙂

    Anyway- I prefer to have the evidence change my philosophy rather than the other way around. And at this point it seems that this emergence stuff might be real. I’m attempting an agnostic position– perhaps that will help me understand.
    Perhaps not…

    “It was the differentness of consciousness that led the researcher to consider strong emergence as a possibility.”
    And now we have a sentence using the new term… 🙂

  43. Mlema says:

    sonic you owe me a nickel

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