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Why the Mind Cannot Just Emerge from the Brain

The mind cannot emerge from the brain if the two have no qualities in common

In a recent podcast, neurosurgeon Michael Egnor talked with Robert J. Marks about the mind and its relationship to the brain and about different theories as to how the mind works. One of the theories they discussed was emergence, the idea that the mind emerges from the brain.

Here is a partial transcript with some notes:

10:04 | The idea of emergence

Robert J. Marks (right): Wouldn’t a materialist ideology require that the mind be an emergent property of the brain?

Michael Egnor: Well, it might even limit us with respect to the idea of emergence. That is, materialism would only be completely consistent with an emergent perspective if the emergent thing was material. That is, if some kind of immaterial soul emerged from brain activity, then that wouldn’t even be a materialist view.

I think that emergence is a very problematic concept. I don’t think it’s a very useful concept in philosophy of mind.

Robert J. Marks: I can also attest that in the field of artificial life that emergence, in the sense of emergence of digital life has really fallen short of doing anything…

11:26 | The wetness of water

Michael Egnor (left): It basically doesn’t do any lifting. It’s essentially the invocation of magic. And there are two very serious problems with the concept of emergence in philosophy of mind.

There are emergent properties that are accepted. A classic example is the wetness of water. It’s emergent in the sense that if one studies water rigorously from the standpoint of physics, there’s nothing about it that is particularly wet.

You can study the quantum mechanical attributes of oxygen and hydrogen and all the chemistry and physics of water and not come out of that with anything that suggests that it’s wet. But when you put real water in front of you and dip your finger in it, it’s kind of wet. So people say that wetness is an emergent property of water.

The thing is, with the philosophy of mind, if the mind is an emergent property of the brain, it is ontologically completely different. That is, there are no properties of the mind that have any overlap with the properties of brain. Thought and matter are not similar in any way. Matter has extension in space and mass; thoughts have no extension in space and no mass. Thoughts have emotional states; matter doesn’t have emotional states, just matter. So it’s not clear that you can get an emergent property when there is no connection whatsoever between that property and the thing it supposedly emerges from.

The other problem with emergence is even more fundamental: When you think about the wetness of water as an emergent property of water, you are really talking about a psychological state. That is, you are saying, psychologically you didn’t expect water to feel wet but by golly, it does. So that’s emergent. But you can’t explain the psychological state [of perceiving wetness] itself as emergent.

Note: Karl Popper was attracted to the idea that the mind emerged slowly from the brain due to natural selection though he offers it with considerable hesitation:

My conjecture concerning the origin of mind and the relation of the mind to the body, that is the relation of consciousness to the preceding level of unconscious behavior, is that its usefulness — its survival value — is similar to that of the preceding levels. On every level, making comes before matching; that is, before selecting. The creation of an expectation, of an anticipation, of a perception (which is a hypothesis) precedes its being put to the test.

If there is anything in this interpretation, then the process of variation followed by selection which Darwin discovered does not merely offer an explanation of biological evolution in mechanical terms, or in what has been slightingly and mistakenly described as mechanical terms, but it actually throws light on downward causation; on the creation of works of art and of science; and on the evolution of the freedom to create them. It is thus the entire range of phenomena connected with the evolution of life and of mind, and also of the products of the human mind, that are illuminated by the great and inspiring idea that we owe to Darwin.

Karl Popper, “Natural Selection and the Emergence of Mind” Delivered at Darwin College, Cambridge, November 8, 1977, at

Show Notes

00:37 | Introducing Dr. Michael Egnor, Professor of Neurosurgery and Pediatrics at State University of New York, Stony Brook
01:32 | We can use our minds to understand our minds
01:55 | What defines a good theory of the mind?
02:26 | The mind vs. the soul
03:51 | The self-refuting theory of eliminative materialism
07:12 | A reasonably good explanation that fits the facts
08:09 | What theories of the mind make sense?
08:32 | A materialist perspective of the mind
10:04 | The idea of emergence
11:26 | The wetness of water
13:27 | Qualia — the way things feel
14:17 | Two problems of explaining consciousness
15:40 | Panpsychism
17:49 | Dualist theories of the mind
18:29 | Cartesian dualism
20:00 | Hylomorphism
21:17 | Comparing theories of the mind
25:32 | The emerging field of neuroscience and its effect on theories of the mind

See also: Why eliminative materialism cannot be a good theory of the mind. Thinking that the mind is simply the brain, no more and no less, involves a hopeless contradiction. How can you have a proposition that the mind doesn’t exist? That means propositions don’t exist and that means, in turn, that you don’t have a proposition.

Next: The mind’s reality is consistent with neuroscience. Egnor also takes a look at how dualist theories of the mind differ from each other.

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Why the Mind Cannot Just Emerge from the Brain