When a complex orderly phenomenon such as consciousness arises in matter, it is these days often ascribed to a mysterious emergence of properties implicit in those of its material substrates. But really it goes the other way. Consciousness – ordered form in general – does not emerge from the material substrate of our world. It rather immerges thereto, from elsewhere. Novelty of all sorts is added to history from without.
Matter is of course capable of expressing such phenomena, or they could not ever be manifest in it. Consciousness, then, must in that sense be natural to matter. But this would seem to indicate that matter has a rather more interesting and altogether spookier character than it had been our custom to suppose for about 400 years, up until about 1920.
Materialism argues that if you arrange a sufficient quantity of dead pebbles in just the right way, the arrangement will somehow wake up. Put as starkly as that, the notion is absurd. Dedicated to the idea that matter is just dead stuff, committed materialists have responded to the absurdity by rejecting the notion that their own consciousness actually exists.
Other more sensible philosophers of mind have suggested instead that the pebbles may not be altogether dead, after all, but rather somewhat lively: more like seeds, perhaps. This is the panpsychism of Whitehead, Hartshorne, and company, who treat all physical events as moments of experience, broadly construed. The panpsychist suggestion is not that electrons have the same quality, complexity, or depth of experience that animals do, but rather that the exchanges of information that occur in transactions between particles – that is to say, between particular events – such as the transmission of momentum or charge can be treated as exchanges of meaning, as well as of form: as occasions of knowledge or feeling, albeit quite basic.
The idea has appealed to a number of physicists, among them Henry Stapp and John Archibald Wheeler, with his “it from bit,” a neat apothegm capturing the general idea that a quantum of actuality – an it – is a bit of information that has been specified.
Panpsychism – like its progenitor, Aristotelian hylemorphism, or as we could call it in English, it-bit-ism – does furnish a liveliness in matter that is altogether missing from materialism. It proposes that occasions of animal awareness are different from those common to more basic sorts of particles not in kind, but in (vast) degree. It gives us a way to understand how matter could subvene mind, and thus how mind could supervene upon matter, without help from any deus ex machina, and without recourse to mystery. If matter is inherently lively, and mindful (however dull it may usually be), then there would seem to be no insuperable problem treating the matter of our bodies as either alive or conscious. Under the panpsychic or hylemorphic supposition, we can understand the relation of life and mind to matter in a way that does no violence to our most fundamental intuitions about things – that, indeed, harmonizes rather satisfactorily with our chthonic animism: the deep and universal hunch that the world and its denizens are all somehow, and essentially, alive and aware.
We can see that if you arrange lively seeds in just the right way, you’ll get animal awareness. But there’s still a problem: where does that arrangement come from? The particles of which a brain is constituted do not carry in themselves the specifications for that brain. They carry, they embody, only their own formal specifications. Just as a sodium atom can’t be an atom in a molecule of salt without the whole molecule of salt, so a neuron of a brain can’t be of that brain without the brain. The whole can specify its parts, but not vice versa. An arrangement of lively seeds can’t be actual in any one, or therefore any many, of the seeds themselves. The arrangement is different from its seedy constituents.
Complexity theorists cope with this difficulty by recourse to the concept of the strange attractor: a basin in configuration space that, because its surface specifies configurations that are mathematically more stable than those of the surrounding landscape, has the effect of accelerating actualities toward or about its central well. Aristotle’s term for it is entelechy, that nisus in all things toward their telos, their final end, their goal or resting place.
So far so good. The strange attractor or entelechy do not however solve the problem of the origin of form, but rather only name and limn it. To point out that strange attractors are built into the math of this world, so that it everywhere manifests an entelechy toward their (approximate) actualization, is to specify the explanandum, rather than its explanans.
Whence the math of this world? That math cannot explain itself, cannot specify itself. This is a fact of logic – and of metaphysics, too, for math cannot choose, cannot act or effect. Acts can and do all have mathematical character, but math cannot itself characterize acts. Math is not an agent.
The math of this world, then – its form and character – cannot originate from any mundane source, and cannot originate its own concrete instantiations. Thus the forms of our world cannot emerge from it. They must rather immerge to it, and from elsewhere.