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Excerpt from the Essay of Brian Goodwin, Emergence and Feelings

Brie Stark's picture

An Excerpt from the Collection of Essays: The Next 50 Years, Science in the First Half of the 21st Century (2002)
Excerpt from the Essay of Brian Goodwin

Where Does Consciousness Come From?

    One of the recent arrivals on the scientific agenda is the origin and nature of consciousness.  Clearly, a primary aspect of consciousness is feeling; our feelings, together with our thoughts, constitute the content of our awareness.  Feelings can be about ourselves, such as when we experience pain, pleasure, well-being, or they can be about the outside world, as when we see a crying child, an injured animal, a dying tree.  So within the question “Where does consciousness come from?”  The answer we are forced to give in science is that feelings arise from a particular dynamic organization of insentient matter, such was nervous systems at a particular level of complexity and order.  Our feelings arise as emergent properties from something that has not the slightest trace of anything that could be called feeling or sentience.  And here we face a problem.

    The many examples we have of emergent properties in complex systems all have precursors of the emergent property in some form.  For instance, the rhythmic behavior of ants tending the queen and brood in an ant colony can be described as an emergent property.  This is because we cannot predict that this orderly behavior will arise from the activity of individual ants, which is actually chaotic, and their interactions, in which they excite one another.  Nevertheless, rhythmic behavior is what is observed in real colonies, and it also occurs in computer models that simulate this behavior.  This unexpected order consistently arises in systems organized dynamically in this way.

    What is the dynamic precursor of the collective rhythm of ants in the brood chamber?  It is the activity/inactivity pattern of individual ants.  This pattern is chaotic in the technical sense of the term: There is no preferred periodicity.  However, chaos is made up of a complex pattern of rhythmic components, so it is not hard to imagine that when ants interact by excitation, a preferred rhythm emerges.  There is no miracle here of getting something from nothing.  Nature is consistent, and once we see what happens, we can make sense of the phenomenon in terms of the behavior of the parts of a system and their pattern of interactions.  This applies to the many examples of emergent behavior that occur in solid state physics as well as in biology.

    However, if feelings emerge from matter that has not the slightest trace of what we call feeling, then we are indeed getting something from nothing.  This sounds to me like a miracle.  As a scientist, I prefer to put a tiny bit of feeling or sentience into matter in some form and allow it to get amplified in systems organized in particular ways—a view that has been extensively explored in the writings of such philosophers as Alfred North Whitehead, Charles Hartshorne and David Ray Griffin.

A Science of Quality

    You can see where this leads.  First, there is indeed feeling or sentience in matter, so animism is not so far off the mark.  But there is another aspect of science, just beginning to change, that carries this perspective on feelings and qualities much further.  This change relates to the status of qualities.  There is now evidence that when we look at an animal and conclude that it is nervous or boisterous or detached, we have observing an experience in the animal itself and not simply projecting our own feelings onto the animal.  This evidence arises from studies carried out by the behavioral scientist Francoise Wemelsfelder and her colleagues showing that different people looking at the same animal have a high degree of consensus in their evaluations.  Science is based on such consensus—consensus that leads to the conclusion that what is being observed has not simply subjective but real and objective status.  What develops is a “science of qualities” a method of reaching consensus about such evaluations that the scientific community previously regarded as beyond the scientific pale.

    As noted, our current science of quantities has given us the ability to produce enough goods to satisfy the needs of all of the planet’s inhabitants, but it has left us with a rapidly declining quality of life worldwide.  In the shadow of current science it is possible to see the components of a science of qualities which would restore qualitative evaluation to the place it occupies in our everyday lives, where judgments depend on quality as well as quantity.  This restoration, together with the recognition that feelings belong not only to us but also to the rest of nature, in whatever form, presents us with a dramatically transformed set of possibilities for scientific for scientific knowledge, technology and corporate and political action.

    A shift in scientific perspective of this magnitude is not going to happen overnight, if it happens at all.  It requires new forms of education at a basic level, in which the sciences and the arts are united to keep people whole and in which scientific and technological decision-making require participation by all members of civil society with knowledge joined again to responsible action.  Then the time we are living through now will be seen as a Dark Age indeed, but one in which the seeds of transformation were already present and lying within Earth’s shadow, where Gaia was nurturing them, so to speak.


Michael Cenkner's picture

Ants and mass consciousness


I'm not a biologist. I read How the Leopard Changed Its Spots some years back. In it, Goodwin discusses ants. As I recall, he says individual ants are "incredibly stupid," but as more and more are introduced into the same physical space, at a certain point of density, the hive mind kicks in and e.g. the seemingly cooridinated rhythmic movement occurs.

Can you corroborate this and/or add to it? Do I have this right?