Explaining the Ontological Emergence of Consciousness

In Mihretu P. Guta (ed.), Consciousness and the Ontology of Properties. New York: Routledge. pp. 109-125 (2019)
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Ontological emergentists about consciousness maintain that phenomenal properties are ontologically fundamental properties that are nonetheless non-basic: they emerge from reality only once the ultimate material constituents of reality (the “UPCs”) are suitable arranged. Ontological emergentism has been challenged on the grounds that it is insufficiently explanatory. In this essay, I develop the version of ontological emergentism I take to be the most explanatorily promising—the causal theory of ontological emergence—in light of four challenges: The Collaboration Problem (how do UPCs jointly manifest their collective consciousness-generating power?); The Threshold Problem: (under what circumstances do UPCs jointly manifest their collective consciousness-generating power?); The Subject Problem (which object is the bearer of emergent phenomenal states?); and The Specificity Problem (what determines which specific phenomenal state is generated?) In response to these challenges, I arrive at the following picture of ontological emergence. When UPCs that are parts of a suitably complex sensorimotor system become entangled, they jointly manifest a subject-forming power (where subjects are deeply unified composites of the UPCs responsible for generating them). The emergent subjects thereby formed exhibit a novel causal power: the power to generate phenomenal states, which they themselves instantiate: states that “interpret” what is going on in the brain.

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Phil Woodward
Niagara University


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