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Dr Hugh Murdoch: George Ellis on The Emergence of Mind

Article: Theosophy-Science Group Newsletter, May 2007, p6

George Ellis, was one of the main Speakers at the “From Stars to Brains” Conference in Canberra in June 2005. He is a well known mathematician and cosmologist and a Templeton Prize winner. He spoke on “The Emergence of Mind” both on the floor of the meeting and again giving an inspiring Dinner talk on the subject.

Some Very Brief Notes and Isolated Points from Main Talk – The Emerging Nature of Mind

The brain is the most complex system known. The neurological details involving the functioning of the brain via complexly interconnected neurons are well understood, including how various brain areas correlate with various aspects of consciousness. Nevertheless, the way consciousness itself is generated is simply not understood. Nor do we understand the relation between the mind and the brain: how matter is able to support self-transcendence. Bottom-up and top-down action (i.e. brain on mind and mind on brain) combine to create consciousness – an emergent feature.

Psychotherapy produces changes in long-term behaviour by learning which produces changes in gene expression and hence changes in neuronal interconnection. Human thoughts can cause real physical effects. This is top-down action from the mind to the physical world. It is not included in what physics deals with. For example, physics cannot even characterize the possibility space for chess pieces i.e the set of allowed moves. There is no charge and force field for each kind of chess piece.

Cognition and Platonic Existence

Mathematical Reality is universal. It is explored, not created. It is causally effective by discovery and utilization in science and technology. How does the mind apprehend such Platonic existence? The cumulative understanding of the underlying features of reality is built up by humanity over centuries. Mathematics; Laws of Physics; Ethics; Meaning.


The brain is based in physics but can comprehend and be affected by abstract entities which develop over time in the expanding universe. Some of them are discovered, not invented. The mind can interact with Platonic worlds, i.e with entities of a non-physical nature.

Some Points from the Conference Dinner Talk

1. Ellis draws attention to what he refers to as the extraordinary nature of emergence —

Stars, galaxies, planets, life on Earth, humanity and all its achievements, technology. He asks: In terms of the human brain, how does mind arise out of protons and electrons? How does mind develop through reading DNA? How did all this come about in historical terms from an almost featureless primeval universe? How did the context come to be right for all this to happen?

2. Ellis argues from cosmological history (see next paragraph) that the higher levels must have real causal power. Physics and chemistry have made tremendous progress in understanding the nature of the world around us. Molecular biology shows how complex molecules underlie the development and functioning of living organisms, while neurophysics illuminates the functioning of the brain. In the hierarchy of complexity there are links from each level to the one above. On a reductionist world view, physics is all there is. However, this view omits important aspects of the world that physics has yet to come to terms with. We live in an environment dominated by objects embodying the outcomes of intentional design. This is a simple statement of fact – there is no physics theory that explains the nature, or even the existence of football matches, teapots or jumbo jet aircraft. This situation would remain even if we had a satisfactory physics “theory of everything”. Physics would still fail to comprehend human purpose.

Can one nevertheless claim that physics causally determines uniquely what happens, even if we cannot predict the outcome? This would imply that at the time of decoupling of the Cosmic Background Radiation, the supposedly random positions and velocities of the particles were placed so precisely as to determine, say, the inevitability of the Mona Lisa or Einstein’s theory of relativity. Those fluctuations are supposed to have been random, which means they do not encode any purpose or meaning. However such meaning did indeed come into being. Ever higher levels of interaction and causality arose as complexity spontaneously increased in the expanding universe, allowing life to emerge.

It is plausible that what actually happened was the contextual emergence of complexity: the existence of human beings and their creations was not uniquely determined by the initial data; rather the underlying physics together with that initial data created a context that made their existence possible, leading to the eventual development of minds that are autonomously effective, able to create higher level order embodying purpose and meaning. Physics per se cannot causally determine the outcome of human creativity, rather it creates the possibility space allowing human intelligence to function autonomously. Conditions at the time of decoupling of matter and radiation 14 billion years ago were such as to lead to the eventual development of minds, able to create higher-level order (such as, for example, the Hubble Space Telescope) embodying purpose and meaning.

On this view the higher levels in the hierarchy of complexity have autonomous causal powers, functionally independent of lower-level processes. Top-down causation takes place as well as bottom-up action with higher-level contexts determining the outcome of lower level function and even modifying the nature of lower level constituents … physics per-se can’t causally determine the outcome of human creativity, rather it creates the possibility space allowing human intelligence to function autonomously.

Physics by itself cannot comprehend any behaviour that is adaptive and depends on context, for example, beaver dam-building and the dances of bees. It is plausible that these too emerge at late times in the expanding universe as higher-level autonomous behaviours made possible but not causally determined by the underlying physics and chemistry. The challenge to physics is to develop a realistic description of causality in truly complex hierarchical structures, with top-down causation and memory effects allowing autonomous higher levels of order to emerge with genuine causal powers. Attempts to relate physics to complexity so far — such as chaos theory, complexity theory, take us only a small step on this road.

Ellis notes that some eminent colleagues claim that the abovementioned limitations on physics could in principle be overcome with sufficiently powerful computers. However, he argues back in considerable detail that quantum uncertainty must, in the end, defeat any such attempt. The specific evolutionary outcomes of life on Earth cannot be uniquely determined by causal evolution from conditions in the early universe, or from detailed data at the start of life on Earth.


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