On Emergence, Intelligence, Consciousness, and Free Will


Emergence is the central idea that can explain a wide variety of complex phenomena that resist analysis through reductive reasoning, such as intelligence, consciousness, and free will.


Intelligence is a property that emerges from a sufficiently large, interconnected, hierarchical system that specializes in pattern recognition and prediction. The emergent property we call intelligence is characterized by the ability to simultaneously identify patterns and predict upcoming sequences at widely divergent levels of complexity, from the simplest patterns of raw sensory data up to the most complex meta-patterns imaginable. The degree of intelligence of a system is generally measured by the level of complexity at which it can identify patterns and make well-tested predictions. A common, though not required, characteristic of intelligent systems is the ability to interact with the outside system and effectuate changes that give predictable results. This allows for much more effective testing, disambiguation, and refinement of pattern identifications, and is directly analogous to the difference between the ability to perform controlled experiments vs. having to rely on natural experiments. However, just as macroeconomics and astronomy are still sciences, despite their inability to perform many controlled experiments, so an intelligent system is enhanced by, but does not require, the ability to effectuate behavior in order to be characterized as intelligent.

An intelligent system must receive inputs (sensory input) from an outside system (such as the real world) that exhibits structure and some degree of predictable patternicity in both the sequence of inputs (temporality) and across sensory modalities. Each component of the system (a cortical column, in the case of the mammalian brain) must be able to process the pattern of inputs (either from the senses, or more commonly, from lower and higher level components), identify the most likely pattern represented by the current sequence of inputs, predict the upcoming sequence of inputs, and communicate this prediction, both downward to the lower-level component producing the sequence, as well as upward to higher-level components. Each component must use higher-level components’ predictions as input to help resolve ambiguities in characterizing the pattern represented by noisy input from lower levels. Each component should treat successful predictions as confirmation of the current sequence-to-pattern mapping, but should treat falsified predictions as grounds to attempt to find a new pattern that fits the current input sequence. Any changes in the currently identified pattern should be communicated to all higher-level components, so they can treat the change as a prediction failure as well.

See also On Intelligence, by Jeff Hawkins


Consciousness is a property associated with, but not identical to, intelligence. It is characterized by (and commonly defined as) self-awareness. In terms that don’t involve circular definition, this means that a conscious system must be able to use as input its own internal states, and must be able to exhibit intelligent behavior (pattern-recognition and prediction, see above) with regards to that data, just as with external input. Because the inputs (internal states) are directly affected by the process of analyzing those states, conscious entities have, by definition, a degree of behavioral control over their inputs. Whether and how this control is exercised is dependent on the level of free will (see below) of the system. However, a system need not exhibit free will to exhibit a significant degree of consciousness: even a completely pre-programmed system, equipped with a proper feedback/regulatory system based on internal states, would be considered conscious to a very rudimentary degree.

As with intelligence, consciousness is not a binary attribute, but should be measured in degrees. It also does not require a human level of intelligence: an animal should be considered to have a level of experiential consciousness, to the extent it can (presumably) identify the pattern of internal states as what we would call a “feeling”. Many such animals also exhibit a degree of self-consciousness, as demonstrated by their ability to recognize themselves in a mirror. Social animals (primates and cetaceans, for example) also exhibit social consciousness, in that they can use their own instinctual behavior (such as arousal states, the facial flush of embarrassment, etc.) as an input toward intelligent understanding of the social situation. And, of course, human-level consciousness is characteristically associated with an ability to combine the awareness of internal states with rational deductive and inductive reasoning, and separately with the ability to use language to further refine the ability to understand, explain, and thereby predict one’s own behavior.

As with intelligence, consciousness is a property that emerges gradually with the increasing complexity of a properly organized system. It is likely that many of the same organizational principles that contribute to intelligence are also responsible for the emergence of consciousness. However, consciousness remains a more difficult property to study.

Free will

An intelligent system, particularly one with self-consciousness, needs to be goal-directed to function effectively. As mentioned before, free will is not a necessary attribute of intelligent and/or conscious systems: such a system can be pre-programmed, through evolved instinct or programmatic design, with certain goals, homeostatic ranges, internally reinforced behaviors or outcomes, etc. To the degree a system is solely controlled by such genetically-determined attributes, and/or by its immediate external environment, it does not exhibit free will. However, if the system is sufficiently intelligent and self-conscious, it becomes possible for the system to examine and change its own goals. This process is very familiar to us as humans: many of the most important parts of our lives are the times when we are attempting to determine what we want for ourselves.

As with intelligence and self-consciousness, free will is an emergent property, in that it does not arise from any single source. Rather, it is the product of a large number of complex interactions between innate drives and predispositions, values and goals imparted externally from sources we are emotionally attached to, and the complex interplay of personal experience and the processes of consciousness.

While the sources of free will are most easily expressed in human terms, it is not a uniquely human trait. As with intelligence and consciousness, humans exhibit free will to a greater degree than any other observed system. However, animals also exhibit free will to some degree, and there is no reason to think that an artificial system, if it is complex enough to exhibit sufficient intelligence and self-consciousness, and if it is given the freedom to modify itself, would not also exhibit free will.


4 Responses to “On Emergence, Intelligence, Consciousness, and Free Will”

  1. TV Says:

    Great first post Scott — way to dive in!

    So, if this means that you’ve achieved a level of comfort about the possibility of an organic basis for intelligence, consciousness, and free will, what comes next?

    A fair number of people I read way back placed much greater emphasis on language and behavioral responses to language use among entities that recognized their mutual (generally, physical) “similarity” as drivers for the emergence of consciousness, then choice/free will, then empathy/ethics/discrimination, et al.

    If as you say all three of these “higher” functions are matters of degree, then the fact that most creatures tend to have a much weaker regard for dissimilar (but possibly equally if not more intelligent/sentient/deliberative) creatures raises some troubling questions — esp. if as you speculate those functions were indeed to emerge in something bigger/stronger/smarter than us, something that didn’t find us especially similar…*

    *Although this sounds like an invitation to explore your final “artificial systems” question, the only advice I can give you from personal experience is: beware of mixing these kinds of interests together with things you learn at work 😉



  2. scottleibrand Says:

    Very interesting questions…

    I agree that it is quite difficult to really understand the degree and nature of intelligence/consciousness/sentience in other dissimilar creatures. One example that comes to mind is that of cetaceans (whales and dolphins). I think most of us can recognize them as being quite intelligent, but their world is just so different from ours that it’s quite difficult to find a basis for communication (beyond a basis level), and even more difficult to figure out just how advanced they might be in certain ways. (For example, there are some interesting hypotheses out there that cetaceans may be considerably more advanced than we are with regard to certain types of emotional intelligence, empathy, etc.)

    While I think we need to do a lot more work to better understand and interact with other intelligent beings, I am less concerned about the dissimilarity problem with regards to artificial systems. Absent contact with an extraterrestrial intelligence, the only likely source of such intelligence is through systems created by humans. Since there will by necessity be such a close interaction with such a system as it is created and developed, I think there will be a lot more mutual understanding there…

  3. TV Says:

    That’s a comforting thought, perhaps — but then some people have an awful lot of close interaction with large numbers of roughly similar-sized I/C/FW candidates, albeit with the opposite/de-sensitizing effect (dairy agrobiz workers, commercial fishing/whaling folk, etc.). Let’s hope you’re expectation is borne out!

    You’ve probably already seen this but just in case, you might some elements of this interesting:



  4. Eric Says:

    So, are you thinking that each of these is built on the previous?
    Intellect => Consciousness => Free Will? Or do you think there is a difference at all, perhaps they are just increasing levels of refinement in your theorem set?

    It is a staggering concept that these kind of … non-real (?) systems could have ever developed in organic physical structures. Once you have a system such as this, it becomes way more believable that the second system could be developed by the first, in emulation of the first. But that first start up… wow.

    Carrying the points about consciousness onward into empathy is also an interesting concept.

    It has been my experience that hunters have more empathy for other humans than non-hunters. (Ymmv) I know one guy that posits our inner city youth would be better served if they were allowed to go into the country to slaughter animals often, instead of being forced to listen to messages of peace, love and harmony from the local school system.

    Of my own selfwill, I choose not to hunt (a late developing squeamishness about ending a life that I don’t plan on eating.) Yet I used to enjoy killing things. Sometime in the process one day, the thought crossed my mind of what my own flesh would feel like were it to be torn by flying bullets, and I had to quit pulling the trigger.

    Empathy, by itself seems to be counter-productive to survival. Yet, we all have it to some degree or other. But why?
    As I think of it now, I’m wondering if empathy is closely linked with a desire for teamwork. Which is, perhaps, the longing to be part of something bigger than oneself. Which would allow the member of that group to survive much easier than an individual out on his own. But what would encourage that to happen?

    Dogs have a great empathy for humans. I’ve heard that a dog has a greater ability to empathize with his master, than the man’s own children have. This empathy has made (my opinion) dogs into the second most successful species on earth. It developed along about the time man domesticated the dog, and is what allowed that domestication to succeed. Other animals of similar (or greater) intellect have not been able to fit into our lives and share our success so readily. Witness the story about the chimpanzee that was killed today because he was savaging a friend of his owner. A chimp is more intellectually developed than a dog, was trained for years to fit into a space humans had made for him, yet was unable to do so.

    I dunno. Do you think these things, Intellect, etc, really are all hung together some way?

    (Sorry I didn’t post a more rational discourse)

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