When Matter Does Not Matter

I very much like the comic strip Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, but I have a problem with the following comic, and I think it’s important enough to talk about:

It’s a cute comic, and I’ve certainly had the feeling of being the universe’s middle child more than once, but the central idea, that justice, consciousness, and truth are emergent properties of events, brain cells, and facts does not hold.

Perhaps the most defensible of these, from a purely scientific standpoint, is the idea that consciousness is an emergent property of brain cells. But the problem is that it’s very much self-contradictory: it established a priori that a material thing is somehow “more real” than an immaterial thing. We can see the effects of both brain cells and consciousness, and brain cells we can observe directly. There was a time when we could not (or at least a time when it was thought that the brain merely cooled the blood). So how do we know that consciousness is not a separate thing that we simply cannot see? Because it goes away when you destroy the brain? That doesn’t necessarily follow. That would be like saying that dye is an emergent property of light because you can’t see color in the dark.
But perhaps more importantly, the argument itself relies on the distinction it is trying to refute: if it is artificial and false to say that consciousness exists apart from the brain, it is just as artificial to claim that the “brain cells” generate consciousness apart from a functioning human body. No one has ever observed consciousness in brain cells: only in living humans, and by extension, other animals. Therefore, if consciousness is an emergent property, it is not one of brain cells alone, and the argument is on shaky ground. Even shakier ground when you consider that any definition or differentiation of cells on the level of function is determined by the observation of a conscious and intelligent mind. Brain cells might exist without a consciousness to observe them, but they could not be named brain cells.

However, it’s the other two examples where we run into real problems. If there is no justice, but only “stuff that happens,” then how can justice ever arise from “stuff?” That’s not an emergent property, that’s a judgment call by a consciousness. And that judgment call is predicated on the idea that right and wrong exist. If right and wrong do not exist, but “emerge” from “stuff that happens,” then “justice” is a mere preference: a complicated system whereby we prefer some outcomes to others. Now some will say, “Yes! That’s the point.” But what is the justice of this assertion itself? By definition, if it is a fact, it is a fact that is flatly unjust. If true, it leaves us unable to be both honest and just. And justice is closely tied to matters of honesty. In other words, it leaves us in a complete self-contradiction: to be just, I must be honest, but if I am honest, I must acknowledge there is not justice. Therefore, only the dishonest can be just.

Finally, we have the idea that truth is an emergent property of facts, and here is where the contradiction is plainest. Because how do you define a “fact” without saying what is “true?” A fact is only a fact if it is real and actual. If it is true. If it is false, it is not a fact at all. The very idea of facts is predicated upon the notion that “truth” and “untruth” exist. “Untruth” may be the result of an error in judgment or missing information (as in the man with the coins above) and coincidence may simulate truth in the same way. But without the preexisting truth, we have no facts, we have only perceptions, and no way to judge among them.

Why is this important? Well, because it has to do with the truth, and truth is always worth defending. Arguing that truth doesn’t exist is inherently self-defeating, and we have enough other things that want to defeat us. We shouldn’t help them.

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