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The raw deal of determinism and reductionism - Comments

aquilacane's Avatar Comment 1 by aquilacane

Maybe it can only be about the experience of will and not the generation of it. We do not control the direction and speed of a roller coaster but we still get on and enjoy the ride. Your life is a roller coaster that has never been ridden. We don't know how many loops there are, how fast it is, where it goes or for how long but you're on. Are you going to enjoy the ride or wonder if you can steer? Steer where?

Tue, 10 Jul 2012 17:01:18 UTC | #948854

Premiseless's Avatar Comment 2 by Premiseless

I think "trends" are what are most predictable, but outcomes are what display the way the cards fall.

We can say roughly what is going to happen, but not as easily to whom and where.

However humans are fraught with the memes of accountability to confuse their comprehension and so are loath to permit anyone such "get out clauses", except that is for the powerful and affluent. Now why is that? This is the secret about of the ranges of predictables: what at one end of the scale will get you dead, at the other end will get you support and success.

I think it's a weather equation? - but don't quote me on that - it's a Michael Fish thing!

Tue, 10 Jul 2012 19:15:43 UTC | #948863

ShinobiYaka's Avatar Comment 3 by ShinobiYaka

Well, that’s quite a long post, which means that to do the topic justice would require just as long replies, unfortunately I will only be able to address some of your points.

Firstly, in my humble opinion, free will is illusory at a fundamental level, but because we cannot with any certainty model accurately human behaviour, the concept is and will continue to be useful as a working hypothesis, what do I mean by this?

We know that all decisions are actually made before they are presented to the conscious part of the mind, you are somewhat aware of this because you do not know by introspection how any particular thought is formed, why think of one thing and not the other? Why did you choose a particular word or phrase and not some other? So conscious thought appears to be a rationalisation of preformed cognitive processes, however even if we established the exact mechanism involved and it was found that all were deterministic, it would be unlikely that a model could be developed that would simulate behaviour to a precision where prediction would be anything other than probabilistic.

There would be many variables, initial conditions required for accurate simulation would be extremely difficult to acquire with any certainty, in short, free will is simply a convenient concept, and it appears to describe what is happening, even though it might not be an accurate description of reality.

“neuroscience and psychology - seems to "reduce" us to electrical signals in a dense net of neurons.”

Indeed, and if one were to carefully remove chunks of these dense nets of neurons, one will witness the self gradually become extinct, which is why dementia is so feared by many, but that relates to the nature of sentience itself, the self is only a small part of the whole, most of which is entirely hidden from us, at least on a conscious level.

Tue, 10 Jul 2012 19:17:36 UTC | #948864

ccw95005's Avatar Comment 4 by ccw95005

Of course if you go down to quantum level we are all just robots made up of colonies of cells. All our decisions are the result of the structure and connections and chemicals in the brain and could be predicted by a superdupercomputer or God if he existed, within the limits of quantum uncertainty.

What does that have to do with our everyday lives? Nada. It's an intellectual exercise, nothing more.

For all we can tell, in our actual existence we have total free will, unless we get into theoretical mode. You can decide one second from now to raise your right hand, or your left, or neither, or both. Go ahead, try it.

At a higher level, we can ask whether we have been programmed by our life experiences so thoroughly that out free will is limited. No. Your personality characteristics and tendencies have been shaped by nature and nurture, but you still have free will. You can decide to pull the trigger or not. Upbringing and environment have made your decision more predictable, but you can still do either.

Two men. One raised rich and privileged, the other poverty-stricken through life. Each of them brutally rapes a woman. Should the punishment be the same? That's for society to decide. Our sympathies are more with the poor man, but both are simply the product of their genes and environmental experiences. You'll go crazy if you try to ferret out extenuating circumstances for each of them. Each of them had no choice in an ultimate sense, so my opinion is that you deal with the individuals as they are now, and punish them according to the crime, without respect to their background. Of course in the real world, we look at the perp, and show mercy or vengeance at least partly on the basis of whether we like him or loath him.

Tue, 10 Jul 2012 20:53:21 UTC | #948870

Premiseless's Avatar Comment 5 by Premiseless

Comment 4 by ccw95005 :

Of course in the real world, we look at the perp, and show mercy or vengeance at least partly on the basis of whether we like him or loath him.

However liking and loathing is absolutely corruptible in the human brain: see same sex hatreds or gender enslavements or class derision everywhere. Perpetrators are sometimes even raised on high as leadership, promoted to position where their next generations progeny will be afforded high rank and privilege for the duration of whole lifetimes and beyond. There is no morally incorruptible position per se. Even hatreds are often that which they claim to loath: a desire to harm and pain another. Retribution becomes the perpetrator, so very easily by shades of grey and inherited privilege (often built from perpetrating criminal activities in ones family tree at a time when current laws were not the same or more easily avoided).

Needless to say there are some very nasty individuals, by motive, both to perpetrate horrors for the sakes of deviance and also those who would choose to for the sakes of what they would class as retribution. The distance between the two states of mind is probably less, in neuroscience, than we might wish it to be? The cycle is less one of any holy proviso, and more one of delusions and unpredictable events as they befall each of us. Probably most people who do most things think they have good motive or good elements of complete desperation to explain away what unfolds in the often chaotic situations that are our permutation of life experience. Less of us win any lottery for example! More of us lose, in darker shades, despite gambling everything we have on the life we are in, as is everyones remit!

Tue, 10 Jul 2012 22:05:09 UTC | #948872

raytoman's Avatar Comment 6 by raytoman

We learn because links are built between our brain cells (synapses) and pathways established that can persist.

We start by not knowing we can't walk or talk. We then learn we can't walk and talk, we then learn to walk and talk and then we just walk and talk. Examination of our brain s' pathways would show the associated growth in synapses (our billion braincells can end up with a trillion links if we are really smart).

Obviously we inherit a bunch of stuff (like how to circulate our blood) and only find oui about other stuff when we need it (shock to negate pain) but we can control some things and make decisions that effect things and can have free will within limits.

Genes evolved us as a means of reproducing themselves and have formed some new genes that are specific to our species (about 1.8% of out 23,000 or so genes). The new human genes have enabled us to learn faster and better than the other sentient species on our planet but also make it easier to make mistakes. We can learn bad things as well as good things.

Doing the right thing at the wrong time can be very bad or doing the wrong thing at the right time can be very good - sometimes just a matter of timing. Learning to do things autominously can enable an even higher level of capability or we can compound bad decisions to our detriment.

We have become complicated and our thoughts and actions are now controlled by our brain rather than just our nervous system. We are making memes that are more powerful than our genes and I suspect we are the only species that focus so much effort on killing each other and the only species that is superstitious/irrational.

Our brain and our learning capability comes at a high price. A perfectly fit and healthy human can be destroyed by their own brain or by how or what they choose to learn.

Still, who would rather be anything else but human?

Tue, 10 Jul 2012 22:15:07 UTC | #948873

ShinobiYaka's Avatar Comment 7 by ShinobiYaka

Comment 4 by ccw95005

“Of course if you go down to quantum level we are all just robots made up of colonies of cells”

I think it’s a bit more subtle than that, even if we dispense with the concept of free will, it would not make humans mere automatons, it would only mean that our cognitive processes were deterministic not predetermined, no two individuals will respond in precisely the same way in identical situations, although it might be that they would react in similar ways, which is why I think every system so far devised for modelling human behaviour, from Economics to Psychology are at best probabilistic.

Tue, 10 Jul 2012 23:12:47 UTC | #948877

VrijVlinder's Avatar Comment 8 by VrijVlinder

@Comment 3 by ShinobiYaka: if one were to carefully remove chunks of these dense nets of neurons, one will witness the self gradually become extinct, which is why dementia is so feared by many, but that relates to the nature of sentience itself, the self is only a small part of the whole, most of which is entirely hidden from us, at least on a conscious level.

We may not be able to compile that much data on a conscious level, or do not need to. Even though sentience allows to peep in on occasion.

Predetermination, absolut or not absolute? If we know the result of a process then we can absolutely predetermine the outcome under similar circumstances and conditions. Or can we ?

Deterministic sugests a level of predetermination even at a subconscious level. We can be aware of this but can we control it?

A dementia patient who is unaware of their situation may not be suffering as much as one who is and may not care if they have a self.. Not all dementia is the same or occurs in the same way. I would hate to think that life is based on probabilities but I think you may be right.

It may not matter is we are aware or not. By the time we do it is always too late. "I should have seen it coming ". Maybe when it matters the most is when someone is making the call on your life and it's importance to continue or not based on their determination given the probabilities...Predetermining that there is no more they can do.

Wed, 11 Jul 2012 04:23:07 UTC | #948883

Premiseless's Avatar Comment 9 by Premiseless

Comment 6 by raytoman :

Still, who would rather be anything else but human?

This is interesting from a pure science perspective - neuroscience and cognition and how they react with experiences to deliver a sum total RED or BLACK balance to the neuron daily banking systems of the individual life being lived.

Me, for example, have lived neuron RED for the majority of my life experience. This is, of course, an interesting thing to me as to why that might be. No doubt about it, I have played every card and failed to secure a winning streak that enables be to run my own casino, so to speak, in having my neuron balance replenished by others gambling theirs at my advantage. This is, I think, largely the model for the life lived!

I am no exploiter of others and as such maybe this was my downfall, due my particular circumstance likely being of more advantage to myself had I been motivated thus! It is true that some humans have no need to exploit anyone, due their circumstance being less bankered, somehow, against them needing to do so to secure a neuron BLACK balance per se ( their life inherits such a neuron-positive advance as to make the concept irrelevant to their life per se - bar chaos conspiring large losses against them). So here we have a perfect example , in me, of someone with the mind of an inheritor of wealth, born poor so to speak - not feeling motivated to grab at others efforts and loyalties but more in favour of freethinking and equality of choice, but rapidly becoming all too aware his own resources were being eroded and consumed faster than he could replenish them, in real and metaphorical terms - a socially unsustainable equation looming large!

On the other hand, you might, for example have family and others often rallying round for you and constantly providing you neuron chips to rest your head upon an end of day balance - in the BLACK, more days than is not the case - as in the Jeeves and Wooster generation of high brow society. Alternatively your daily neuron bookkeeping might render you feeling responsible for the plight of others neuron balances more often than your own - resulting in a frequent "in the RED" habit of life per se.

Add to this the fact that most humans are notorious for "winners and losers" type dogma, and it does not take a rocket scientist to see how your plight of how you feel will often be levelled against you, in the same way a bankrupt might invoke the displeasures of the casino to whom they are indebted, in spite of them having provided said casino with ALL of their resources/ earnings. The winner (casino owner) displays no thanks for previous "favours" done ( as in winnings taken - as the math said they would) , but a general resentment or tolerance, at best, for favours still expected!

Taking humanity as a whole, it is easy to see how the majority of "casino neuron individuals" will be much of a minority, as compared to the "gambling neuron individuals" and as such there is much room for exploitation of neurons in general. Religion has secured stakes in every society based upon this feature, for example. As an aside, many lives have been enjoyed and lived within religions walls, again in winner/ loser ratios, through theisms casinos built on neuron gambling. - but that's a slight digression.

The stark truth is that more lives are worth the losing ( neuron RED ) than are worth the living ( neuron BLACK) and it is this dissonance ( suspension of the good life) upon what most action is staked. Due this, suspension of reality comes as no surprise to me, as a manifestly dominant feature of human brains per se, the world over. It is no surprise to acknowledge therefore that most are preoccupied, obsessively, with what can be got that is not yet achieved, than with what they already have and are happy to be. Heaven can hardly be a greater deception, when one learns what it truly is: the trickster seducing you into gambling your whole consciousness on a game that can never be concluded. Little wonder such bankers have done so well out of humanity, when they never have to pay out on the results of the race.

And this is another reason for my neuron indebtedness per se: I know when I have been bankered! There are more of us who have than have not, naturally!

Which brings me back to altruism per se! How do I feel?

I'll tell you, with no regrets:

I feel, given the hypothetical choice, that requested I decide:

1) Never having existing, or;

2) Going through the life I have lived.

And given the hypothetical probability that maybe ( for I have no real way of knowing):

3) That my existence has made others unhappier than they would otherwise be, or;

4) That I have in some way contributed to someone else being happier than they would otherwise have been.

I would be bound to select 1 - in all situations that respected the life I must live and 4, if in spite of this I must still live it.

Meantime, I suspect there is some neuron reserve that vaguely hangs upon the hook of "one last gamble" might return a less indebted neuron balance, that keeps one from checking out altogether, plus the 4 above that is always the "exploitative doubts of unknowing" many of us must suffer not unconsciously delivering others a 3 due our easing our own pains of living this RED balance nightmare in its various degrees.

I think this last point relies on tolerance per se, of ones own pains versus unknown altruisms of how not being around might cause pain to others.

One always hopes, of course, otherwise why be around at all, that BLACK neurons are hopefully headed our way sometime someplace - and will stick around for the duration! We all hope it adds up to that in the end! Que sera!

Wed, 11 Jul 2012 09:03:22 UTC | #948892

AgriculturalAtheist's Avatar Comment 10 by AgriculturalAtheist

Seems like an overly complicated argument over an issue that remains to be proven. Free will is a felt, intuitive belief and so its existence and reality is asserted. What mountain of data on this topic, other than a few tantalizing studies that seem to suggest that it does not exist (at least not as we think it does), is there for anybody to account for and trace back through a causal/determined sequence? Or, reduce down to something simpler?

Thu, 12 Jul 2012 03:54:26 UTC | #948950

jimblake's Avatar Comment 11 by jimblake

I think you’ve written the most thoughtful discussion on this topic I’ve seen on this site. You’ve touched on all the relevant issues affecting an understanding of what is really going on. I’d like to add some comments about determinism and causality.

The idea that the future could be predicted from information about the position and movement of all particles and atoms using the laws of physics is something that appeals to our biases about causality. However, even if we could overcome the indeterminacy principle, we still could not predict future events. That is because all we would know is the future position and motions of the particles and atoms, but we wouldn’t know what it means. If none of it meant anything, nothing would happen; it would just be heat energy. Even if we knew what some of it meant from past experience, we couldn’t be sure that some of the meaning hadn’t changed or that some new meaning hadn’t been added.

The meaning of the ordered energy in the universe has been changing and evolving since the Big Bang, by random variation and some sort of filtering or selection process. This meaning is determined by the structure of the complex systems of ordered energy that have been evolving. The energy to make something happen ultimately comes from the Big Bang, but the meaning in the structure of complex systems determine what actually happens. As more complex systems evolved, eventually living complex systems emerged that could create the structure of meaning in real time through learning, visualization, and design.

As the meanings of meanings of meanings in systems of systems of systems became more complex, the effect of the causation became more probabilistic, because there were more things that could go wrong. In order to explain how a stop sign causes a car to stop, we have to resort to discussing information and meaning. There is a high probability that the sign will cause the car to stop, but it’s not as certain as a block wall. If there is any problem transmitting the information or understanding the meaning or any mechanical problems with the car, it won’t stop.

Individual particles don’t make things happen, it’s when they work together in systems that things happen. In the early simpler universe there may have been only one or two things that could happen. In today’s complex universe, with so many complex systems, there is a vast multitude of things that can happen. The reason that we feel that we can make things happen is that we are complex systems, and complex systems determine what happens. We have complex structures in our brains that can be altered in real time to make new things happen.

Thu, 12 Jul 2012 04:38:09 UTC | #948951

Al Denelsbeck's Avatar Comment 12 by Al Denelsbeck

OP: Free will - at least the metaphysical kind - has by comparison done little more than stoked human egos and misled people down unpromising avenues. Indeed, it has done what intelligent design proponents have done; offered a pseudoexplanation and worked hard to justify its intellectual laziness, a paradox if ever there was one. It is tempting to blame religion for this, but religion works with what's there, and free will would never have been so alluring if it didn't appeal to people's desires for power and to people's fear for weaknesses that could be exploited.

Actually, it's fairly safe to say that the concept of free will exists solely because of religion, or to be more accurate, from the idea of a world created and/or intended. Free will is the counterpoint to the idea that an intended or designed world would take away the individuality of humans, making us drones or pawns in a grand design. It also came in very handy to explain away the questions about why a perfect being would produce or allow evil. Humans needed free will in order to accept salvation - without it, we would be destined to play the part we did, and our choices didn't matter.

The problem I have with discussions about free will, determinism, reductionism, and so on, is that every last one of these are terms with poor definitions based entirely on assumptions from long ago. The philosophical concepts attempt to put a fine edge on premises that have always been flawed, while the 'general public' understanding of the concepts, as was indicated within the article, is something only loosely related to the philosophical. People are concerned with free will, not as a philosophical idea, not as a reflection of how our brains work, but only because they resist the idea of doing things against their will. That's the only phrase that really needs to be addressed.

But the deterministic/physical concept of our brains reacting in specific, defined ways does not subvert this in the least - even if we might inevitably decide something, because it is our own brains doing this process we are happy with that decision; it is virtually impossible to be otherwise, so determinism actually supports the idea of "willful intent."

The other thing that wasn't covered too well, while likely understood by the writer, is that the deterministic process of our brains is an ongoing program, constantly altered by the input of our senses, which might include even irritation at some unrelated stimuli or lingering euphoria from last night's session with whipped cream and hammocks. These personal experiences are what we base everything that we do upon, and they're completely unique to us, so even if predictable with enough information, they're still our own.

As I'm fond of pointing out, any film that we watch is determined; the ending will always be the same. But it's not our experience until we see it. So? Every coin toss, every sports ball trajectory, is predictable given enough information, but we relish such "chances" only because we don't know the information, and enjoy the surprise and experience. It only starts to bog us down when we begin to feel that we're trapped by events, rather than building an ongoing story from them. Will we, for instance, say or do something which will impinge on others enough to change their own programs? Let's find out!

Thu, 12 Jul 2012 17:39:26 UTC | #948982

susanlatimer's Avatar Comment 13 by susanlatimer

Hey Zeuglodon,

Jerry Coyne has linked to your OP over on his site, Why Evolution is True.

I thought that you might be interested in his comments and comments from others over there.

Thu, 12 Jul 2012 19:00:49 UTC | #948989

Premiseless's Avatar Comment 14 by Premiseless

An example of collective free will overriding that of the individual per se. However, what's the gamble the few, or individual, at the helm is exhibiting high degrees of bankering, that would in the lower ranks get that same individual/s locked up for some time. From some angles, this could be seen as a conspiracy to coral sex slaves, under legal jurisdiction. Funny how crime and law trespass on each others territory don't you think? It's a free will thing!

2nd link : in case the first blocks (as it seems to at times)

Fri, 13 Jul 2012 07:56:51 UTC | #949038

logicophilosophicus's Avatar Comment 15 by logicophilosophicus

I think the original post is missing something in writing off the word "merely". Any perceived entity may be fundamental or reducible (illusory would be one kind of reducible). It may be the case that something new is discovered by analysis - for example, the explanations of electricity, magnetism and the nature of light involved the new and unexpected electromagnetic field and the equations of Maxwell. On the other hand, explanations may "merely" involve things already known - for example, gamma rays turned out to be "merely" electromagnetic waves, and beta rays "merely" electrons (unlike alpha rays, which required new physics).

Personally I think awareness itself, and probably also volition, will require new physics. I'd certainly regard it as an unwarranted act of faith to assert that the known particles and forces, as of this moment in time, MUST be entirely sufficient to explain free will, intention, purpose, ethics, value and the rest.

Fri, 13 Jul 2012 09:56:04 UTC | #949044

Premiseless's Avatar Comment 16 by Premiseless

Comment 15 by logicophilosophicus :

Personally I think awareness itself, and probably also volition, will require new physics. I'd certainly regard it as an unwarranted act of faith to assert that the known particles and forces, as of this moment in time, MUST be entirely sufficient to explain free will, intention, purpose, ethics, value and the rest.

I'm less convinced free will, ethics and each newborns unfolding human biology; in seeking gradual synchronicity with information received from the entropy, is as elusive of our understanding as we imagine. It strikes me we have overdeveloped brains due our inter species competitiveness repeatedly selecting brains that are good to do this, as well as ones that can be usefully subjected to perform their social machinery "free-less will", for preservation of their free-will positions: over many generations (the haves over the have nots).

The bi-products of this perennial enterprise, I think have resulted in many "accessory emotions" and stuff that keeps the humans "at the coal face" along with the set of those naturally inherited in fights for survival and kin protections. I think we have come so far down this road that we often find each other often unable to distinguish the one from the other and why we have them at all. It's not tough, for example, to find a human brain entirely devoted to a molded lump of matter as if it possesses the force of the cosmos.

Shades of this are all around us, and not so surprisingly, in us! The clear light of the universe is too often polluted by that of human minds everywhere, and through the eyes we see, for us to be sure of what is what. Good then, that here, we have places to share such visions.

Fri, 13 Jul 2012 11:01:51 UTC | #949045

Steve Zara's Avatar Comment 17 by Steve Zara

Comment 15 by logicophilosophicus

Personally I think awareness itself, and probably also volition, will require new physics. I'd certainly regard it as an unwarranted act of faith to assert that the known particles and forces, as of this moment in time, MUST be entirely sufficient to explain free will, intention, purpose, ethics, value and the rest.

I often come across this view. It seems reasonable to some, because when you look at conventional physics it doesn't appear to have what is needed for awareness and so on. However, it doesn't take much thinking to show that this view simply doesn't work.

Firstly, if there is something that seems so strange about awareness that the physics we know doesn't appear to be sufficient, then there is no reason to expect adding more physics will help. The problem is that awareness seems strange and irreducible, so adding more physics which we understand won't assist with removing the strangeness or make it seem any less irreducible.

Secondly, awareness cannot in fact be irreducible. We have evidence of its reducibility from the fact of us being able to talk about it! Talking about it arises from the firing of neurons in the brain, and so awareness must, through its presence, mean that some brain cells are active that otherwise would not be, and therefore there must be some aspect of awareness that involves normal physics, because brain cells don't fire because of magic.

Thirdly, because brain cells don't fire because of magic, there can't be any physical evidence for any new physics. Because brain cells don't break the principle of conservation of energy, any new physics must have effects that when summed up add to precisely zero. It must have the same effect as nothing.

The third reason is called 'causal closure', and is why only a minority of philosophers now accept the idea of dualism, that there is more going on than conventional brain activity.

There is another reason to reject the idea of new physics, and involves the recent discovery of the Higgs boson! This discovery means that we understand physics pretty well up to energies a million million times higher than anything that happens in the brain.

In thinking of awareness and volition as attributes of the mind that need explaining we look at things completely the wrong way. Because we talk about them using our physical bodies and firing brain cells, then our beliefs about awareness and volition have to involve normal quite normal physics.

Fri, 13 Jul 2012 11:06:49 UTC | #949046

Tyler Durden's Avatar Comment 18 by Tyler Durden

Comment 15 by logicophilosophicus :

Personally I think awareness itself, and probably also volition, will require new physics. I'd certainly regard it as an unwarranted act of faith to assert that the known particles and forces, as of this moment in time, MUST be entirely sufficient to explain free will, intention, purpose, ethics, value and the rest.

There is no need to posit "new physics" to explain awareness.

Self-awareness is a product of neurons within our evolved brains; and in particular, mirror neurons, as discovered by Rizzolati, Gallase and Laccoboni while recording actions in the brains of monkeys.

Here's neuroscientist V.S Ramachandran on the subject:

Mirror neurons are also abundant in the inferior parietal lobule — a structure that underwent an accelerated expansion in the great apes and, later, in humans.. As the brain evolved further the lobule split into two gyri — the supramarginal gyrus that allowed you to "reflect" on your own anticipated actions and the angular gyrus that allowed you to "reflect" on your body (on the right) and perhaps on other more social and linguistic aspects of your self (left hemisphere).

Ergo, mirror neurons, the supramarginal gyrus, and the angular gyrus of the brain are clear physical evidence for self-awareness. Certainly not an "unwarranted act of faith", as it's something we can actually pin-down with neuroscience, so no need for new physics.

Also, the Mirror test is an ideal mechanism to explain self-awareness; as is the ability to switch off self-awareness in the superfrontal gyrus - not an "unwarranted act of faith" - no need for new physics.

See also: work by Binet and Bandura with regard to intelligence and self-efficacy. Certainly not an "unwarranted act of faith" - no need for new physics.

Fri, 13 Jul 2012 13:35:59 UTC | #949050

Steve Zara's Avatar Comment 19 by Steve Zara

Comment 18 by Tyler Durden

Certainly not an "unwarranted act of faith", as it's something we can actually pin-down with neuroscience, so no need for new physics.

Something about all this that fascinates me is what is the supposed quality of awareness, or volition, or whatever, that makes one think it requires new physics? The more you look at this problem the stranger the idea of it needing new physics looks. What could a 'needing new physics' quality actually be like? What would it feel like?

My view is that the reason why we end up with a feeling that things aren't explained is evolutionary. There has been no evolutionary requirement for our self-awareness to be so detailed that we know how it happens. There is no need for us to understand how our brain cells interact for us to have enough self-awareness to thrive as humans. So, we naturally experience mystery when we contemplate our own self-awareness. Our understanding of evolution should make us expect nothing else. This doesn't mean that we can never understand how self-awareness arises. We have the phenomenal power of science to help us with this. However, this will never change the fact that self-awareness feels mysterious, because that is the way our brains are constructed. We will come to realise that this feeling of mystery is an inevitable illusion.

Incidentally, I don't feel that I have been given any raw deal because of determinism and reductionism. These two aspects of reality make us what we are. Indeed, it's utterly incoherent to assume that we could exist without them: the alternative is that our minds are some sort of nebulous indivisible blob of something, a ghost in a machine. To me, that idea is the real reduction: It's more wonderful that we are an astronomically complex network of cells than some vague spirit.

Fri, 13 Jul 2012 13:57:30 UTC | #949051

Al Denelsbeck's Avatar Comment 20 by Al Denelsbeck

Comment 19 by Steve Zara: My view is that the reason why we end up with a feeling that things aren't explained is evolutionary. There has been no evolutionary requirement for our self-awareness to be so detailed that we know how it happens. There is no need for us to understand how our brain cells interact for us to have enough self-awareness to thrive as humans. So, we naturally experience mystery when we contemplate our own self-awareness.

I'm beginning to think this emphasis on "self-awareness" is a combination of ego and confirmation bias. We believe that thinking about our thought processes is pretty damn spiffy, but remain unaware of how many things actually take place within our brains that influence our decisions. Is the concept of self-awareness just an example of creating an accomplishment, painting the bullseye around the arrow after it's landed? Which leads to, what are the ramifications of an evolved sense of ego?

I'm very fond of the empirical approach to philosophy, basically asking, "What advancement does this produce?" The supposed recognition of self-reference hasn't really produced anything of value, and instead seems to bog us down in meaningless discussions - while the investigations into neural functions continually show how unaware we are of base influences, ones that we cannot overcome until we stop believing we engage in nothing but purposeful direction.

To my mind, too few people stop to ask the right questions. Though, "Why do we have self-awareness?" might be a good question, we should always recall the trap of potential assumptions and be able to ask, "Why do we think we have self-awareness?" as well. Even the aforementioned Mirror Test does not demonstrate self-awareness, since I don't believe any species inherently recognized themselves - instead, they pieced it together based on evaluating the patterns, which is an entirely different manner of cognitive function. Any form of pain response could be called self-awareness, and that exists even in some pretty simple species.

Fri, 13 Jul 2012 14:45:53 UTC | #949060

Steve Zara's Avatar Comment 21 by Steve Zara

Comment 20 by Al Denelsbeck

To my mind, too few people stop to ask the right questions. Though, "Why do we have self-awareness?" might be a good question, we should always recall the trap of potential assumptions and be able to ask, "Why do we think we have self-awareness?"

Yes, spot on! There is an awful lot of question begging going on. Before we ask how it is possible for X to exist, we first need to understand why we have a belief that X does indeed exist, especially when the supposed evidence for X existing is our thoughts and feelings.

One example I like to quote of how our thoughts and feelings are really hopeless when it comes to understanding how our minds work is the fact that centuries ago, many people believed that feeling came from the heart. If we can be that far out (nearly a foot) about where our mind is, this should lead us to distrust our thoughts and feelings about awareness as being any sort of reliable evidence.

Fri, 13 Jul 2012 14:57:16 UTC | #949064

Bernard Hurley's Avatar Comment 22 by Bernard Hurley

Comment 17 by Steve Zara :

Comment 15 by logicophilosophicus

Personally I think awareness itself, and probably also volition, will require new physics. I'd certainly regard it as an unwarranted act of faith to assert that the known particles and forces, as of this moment in time, MUST be entirely sufficient to explain free will, intention, purpose, ethics, value and the rest.

I often come across this view. It seems reasonable to some, because when you look at conventional physics it doesn't appear to have what is needed for awareness and so on. However, it doesn't take much thinking to show that this view simply doesn't work.

There seems something odd about this argument. Why couldn't the same thing have been said about the photoelectric effect at the beginning of the 20th century? In this case it did take new physics to account for it.

Firstly, if there is something that seems so strange about awareness that the physics we know doesn't appear to be sufficient, then there is no reason to expect adding more physics will help. The problem is that awareness seems strange and irreducible, so adding more physics which we understand won't assist with removing the strangeness or make it seem any less irreducible.

The argument here cuts both ways. It could be taken as an argument for the absolute irreducibility of mental phenomena as you are arguing that if present day physics will does not account for the mental then no physics ever will. One who thought that such reduction is impossible would agree with you here.

Secondly, awareness cannot in fact be irreducible. We have evidence of its reducibility from the fact of us being able to talk about it!

I don't understand what you are trying to say here.It looks like a non-sequitur to me, but I will see if your elucidation helps:

Talking about it arises from the firing of neurons in the brain, and so awareness must, through its presence, mean that some brain cells are active that otherwise would not be, and therefore there must be some aspect of awareness that involves normal physics, because brain cells don't fire because of magic.

I still don't see what you are getting at. I don't think even Descartes would disagree that "there must be some aspect of awareness that involves normal physics." And I don't see that someone who thought that some new physical principles were needed to account for awareness would be committed to the thesis that brain cells can fire because of magic.

Thirdly, because brain cells don't fire because of magic, there can't be any physical evidence for any new physics.

If brain cells don't fire because of magic, then if some new physics is needed to account for it then we would expect to be able to find physical evidence for it. In other words it is, in the end, an empirical fact whether there is any new physics.

Because brain cells don't break the principle of conservation of energy, any new physics must have effects that when summed up add to precisely zero. It must have the same effect as nothing.

This is a very curious thing to say. Couldn't a similar argument be used to preclude any advances in physics whatsoever?

The third reason is called 'causal closure', and is why only a minority of philosophers now accept the idea of dualism, that there is more going on than conventional brain activity.

'Causal closure' is a somewhat vague term. It seems to mean something like "Every event in the physical universe has a description according to which it falls under some universal scientific law." It is quite possible to accept that and to accept either property dualism or substance dualism.

There is another reason to reject the idea of new physics, and involves the recent discovery of the Higgs boson! This discovery means that we understand physics pretty well up to energies a million million times higher than anything that happens in the brain.

Another non-sequitur. You might as well argue that because relativity theory is quite good at describing the behaviour of galaxies that are millions of times larger than elementary particles it must be good at describing their behaviour too.

Fri, 13 Jul 2012 14:59:04 UTC | #949065

Steve Zara's Avatar Comment 23 by Steve Zara

Comment 22 by Bernard Hurley

There seems something odd about this argument. Why couldn't the same thing have been said about the photoelectric effect at the beginning of the 20th century? In this case it did take new physics to account for it.

Yes, but mental functioning is nothing like some unexplained physical phenomena. We know what is involved - particles that obey quantum electrodynamics. We know it's brain cells doing brain cell stuff. There is no explanatory gap.

The argument here cuts both ways. It could be taken as an argument for the absolute irreducibility of mental phenomena as you are arguing that if present day physics will does not account for the mental then no physics ever will. One who thought that such reduction is impossible would agree with you here.

Yes, it does cut both ways. What I'm trying to explain is that it's a bit odd to try to bring in new physics.

If brain cells don't fire because of magic, then if some new physics is needed to account for it then we would expect to be able to find physical evidence for it. In other words it is, in the end, an empirical fact whether there is any new physics.

Yes, but we come up against the success of modern physics and principles such as the conservation of energy. The way we usually search for new physics is to see where conservation of energy seems to be broken. In other words, conventional physics is incomplete. This is how, for example, the neutrino was found. However, you aren't going to find any reputable physicist or biologist who believes that brain tissue somehow breaks conservation of energy. They accept that what brain cells do is pretty mundane in terms of physics. As Sean Carroll puts it, it's all a solution of the Dirac equation.

Therefore, the idea of any new physics comes up against the absence of any sign of it being necessary,

This is a very curious thing to say. Couldn't a similar argument be used to preclude any advances in physics whatsoever?

No, because we are talking about extra ingredients to physics, not new discoveries about how things behave.

'Causal closure' is a somewhat vague term. It seems to mean something like "Every event in the physical universe has a description according to which it falls under some universal scientific law." It is quite possible to accept that and to accept either property dualism or substance dualism.

No it isn't, and causal closure is precise. It means that every physical event has a physical cause. It certainly doesn't work with substance dualism because the extra substance would have to interact with conventional substance, and that breaks closure. It doesn't work with property dualism because property dualism is a load of pig poo. If there are mental properties that co-incide with physical properties, there is no way we could know of them unless they interact with physical properties, and yet the definition of property dualism is that they don't interact. It's equivalent to saying that part of the reason a plane flies is because of invisible undetectable angels. Property dualist aeronautics doesn't work logically, and neither does property dualism.

Another non-sequitur. You might as well argue that because relativity theory is quite good at describing the behaviour of galaxies that are millions of times larger than elementary particles it must be good at describing their behaviour too.

It's not a non-sequitur. This isn't about description, but about new physics, about extra ingredients. We have the ingredients of nature sorted out up to the TeV energy scale. We don't look for new particles at the scale of torch battery energies (which is way above that of the processes in the brain), we slam together beams which have the energies of aircraft carriers.

I still don't see what you are getting at

It's pretty simple. If we express ideas because of physical processes (talking, nerve cell firings), then those ideas must be in our brain cells because something has influenced our brain cells. Talking about ideas isn't an abstract process, it's a physical process. Therefore any new physics must necessarily influence brain cells, and that hits the problem of causal closure, of the Dirac equation.

I will stop there, because this particular argument is at the centre of my book. I can't easily sum up many thousands of words of introduction and explanation in a brief paragraph :)

Fri, 13 Jul 2012 16:11:37 UTC | #949077

Premiseless's Avatar Comment 24 by Premiseless

Following through some of the ideas, supportive of atheism, that fail to build consensus and accessible clarity, one can easily begin to see the room for exploitation due appeals to outside agency that become ever likelier to befall the masses, whose investment of time pondering such things likely offers few rewards, financially or in real terms of understanding. Those who make careers and kindred groups amongst such thought real estate are, I fear, ever likelier alienating their message from those whom they aspire to suggest rely too heavily on easily accessible delusions.

It's clear that even the top biologists for example defer to top physicists over much reasoning. Now this is fine for they who build career and lifestyle out of such pursuits, and it is all good to be frequently moving in such circles of enlightenment, but I wonder how such things translate down the ladder of humanity per se? I really wonder at one point the balance tips irreversibly, to conspire against such individuals, in the highly populated corridors of dogma and double-dealing, where this kind of clarity and appeal to analyse oft meets with derision and a general consensus branding one a loose cannon and rocking the boat against those who are rowing?

Fri, 13 Jul 2012 17:26:19 UTC | #949083

Bernard Hurley's Avatar Comment 25 by Bernard Hurley

Comment 23 by Steve Zara :

No, because we are talking about extra ingredients to physics, not new discoveries about how things behave.

I'm not sure it is possible to make a clear distinction between these ideas. However if we look at modern physics as it is applied in cosmology, we use a curious mixture of relativity theory and quantum theory, without having actually reconciled them. Then the second law of thermodynamics is added in to the mix as it cannot be derived from either as they are both time symmetrical. Incidentally, I quite like Bolzmann's suggestion that the second law is an illusion caused by us experiencing time in the direction of increasing entropy. Speaking of experiencing time, there does not seem to be any reason why we should experience it as flowing rather than, say, experiencing out whole life at once. Maybe we don't need any new physics to deal with this but, if so, it is not obviously so.

No it isn't, and causal closure is precise. It means that every physical event has a physical cause.

Putting it like that is problematical since it assumes that for every event something else which is the cause of it can be identified. That's why I prefer to formulate it Humean terms in terms of descriptions of events falling under universal laws.

It certainly doesn't work with substance dualism because the extra substance would have to interact with conventional substance, and that breaks closure.

Not if like David Chalmers you say the interaction went only one way, from physical substance to mental substance.

It doesn't work with property dualism because property dualism is a load of pig poo. If there are mental properties that co-incide with physical properties, there is no way we could know of them unless they interact with physical properties, and yet the definition of property dualism is that they don't interact.

Well there are several versions of property dualism the most well known being anomalous monism according to which there are no strict psycho-physical laws.

One motivation is to make sense of statements involving reasons instead of causes. Thus on this view "He ate the toast because he felt hungry" is not even a candidate for a causal statement because there is no strict law relating feeling hungry to eating toast. However it can function as an explanation. For causes you have to look to the physics.

Another is the so-called realization problem. Pain may turn out to be realized in a certain way in humans however other animals, aliens or machines may not possess the same structures and yet, under appropriate circumstances, we might still feel justified in saying they are in pain.

It's not a non-sequitur. This isn't about description, but about new physics, about extra ingredients. We have the ingredients of nature sorted out up to the TeV energy scale. We don't look for new particles at the scale of torch battery energies (which is way above that of the processes in the brain), we slam together beams which have the energies of aircraft carriers.

You are mistaking the energy needed for the probe for the energies involved in the processes being investigated. See for instance this quote - it's from Wikipedia but I believe it to be correct:

It is widely believed that any theory of quantum gravity would require extremely high energies to probe directly, higher by orders of magnitude than those that current experiments such as the Large Hadron Collider can attain. This is because strings themselves are expected to be only slightly larger than the Planck length, which is twenty orders of magnitude smaller than the radius of a proton, and high energies are required to probe small length scales. Generally speaking, quantum gravity is difficult to test because the gravity is much weaker than the other forces, and because quantum effects are controlled by Planck's constant h, a very small quantity. As a result, the effects of quantum gravity are extremely weak.

It's pretty simple. If we express ideas because of physical processes (talking, nerve cell firings), then those ideas must be in our brain cells because something has influenced our brain cells.

"2+2=4" is an idea but it isn't anywhere. It may be represented in your brain cells but it does not have to be for you to use it competently. Did you know, for instance, that alligators do not naturally run wild in Norfolk? Is it represented somewhere in your brain cells? Maybe it is now but was it before you read the statement? So did you know it then? The point about knowledge and other ideas is that they are not primarily about representation but about competence. But, although the knowledge is not represented anywhere you would still be able to use it competently. Thus if you came across an alligator while walking your dog you would still be surprised and register this event as something special. Alternatively if someone said he/she saw one you would still display an appropriate degree of skepticism.

..Talking about ideas isn't an abstract process, it's a physical process.

Obviously!

... Therefore any new physics must necessarily influence brain cells, ...

If some new physics is needed to account for the brain then obviously it will involve the brain, but so what?

... and that hits the problem of causal closure, of the Dirac equation.

This last statement just seems like a non-sequitur. Why can't I equally well argue that any new physics "hits the problem of causal closure, of the Dirac equation?" What's so special about brain cells that this problem arises with respect to them but not anywhere else?

Fri, 13 Jul 2012 18:54:45 UTC | #949092

Steve Zara's Avatar Comment 26 by Steve Zara

Comment 25 by Bernard Hurley

Please forgive me, your questions deserve a substantial response, and that is indeed what I am working on!

Just two points:

This last statement just seems like a non-sequitur. Why can't I equally well argue that any new physics "hits the problem of causal closure, of the Dirac equation?" What's so special about brain cells that this problem arises with respect to them but not anywhere else?

The point is that there is nothing at all special about brain cells. Nothing. We have been analysing the kind of physics that goes on in brain cells for centuries and found nothing, absolutely nothing, missing. It's all biochemistry and electrochemistry, and that's it.

The only reason some insist that there must be more physics is that it feels like there must be, and that's no evidence at all, really.

Not if like David Chalmers you say the interaction went only one way, from physical substance to mental substance.

That's nonsense. If it only goes one way, then how the heck can anything we say about mental substance be justified? If mental substance doesn't go to physical substance, then the nerves which fire when you say something about mental substance can't actually be firing because of mental substance!

The thing to bear in mind is that in your brain cells are firing when you think of awareness. Their firing is about awareness, therefore that firing has to be caused by awareness, therefore awareness has to be physical.

When someone says that there is extra physics, they aren't talking about extra abstractions like 2+2, they are talking about real aspects of the world.

There is a serious epistemological gap in such discussions of awareness - when people talk about awareness, there has to be knowledge of awareness behind what they say, and that knowledge has to be because of physical happenings if it's justified to say that there is extra physics.

There are philosophical proofs that such extra physics is simply not needed to explain beliefs that awareness involves extra physics, and because it is not needed for the belief, then the belief can't be considered as evidence for the extra physics.

Anyway, got to stop - this is too addictive. I'll be quite happy to give you drafts of what I am writing for you to criticise at some point - after all, I need to be convincing!

Fri, 13 Jul 2012 21:13:53 UTC | #949117

djs56's Avatar Comment 27 by djs56

Hi,

Interesting discussion, I try not to get too involved because other know a lot more than me, but… I would just like to ask a question or two related to whether or not there can be new physics involved in describing brains. Steve Zara seems quite clear that there can be no new physics.

We have been analysing the kind of physics that goes on in brain cells for centuries and found nothing, absolutely nothing, missing. It's all biochemistry and electrochemistry, and that's it

I have two questions:

First what about the physics of complexity... ? Surely in condensed matter physics, which is way harder than particle physics ;o), it is well known that the cooperative physics of interacting systems can exhibit completely new behaviour not observable in the elements making up the many bodied system. Therefore, why not a new physics related to complexity?

Secondly...

We have the ingredients of nature sorted out up to the TeV energy scale.

well if you think so, but I’m not so sure we have discovered all the possible particles up to a TeV. What about WIMPS and other r candidates.. , The LHC's new particles has a mass of 125 GeV, well below the TeV scales probed by the tevatron for years and years...

We don't look for new particles at the scale of torch battery energies (which is way above that of the processes in the brain),

How much energy does a neutrino have? They have produced loads of new physics over the past decade... I know this second question is probably not so relavent to brains, but all logicophilosophicus said was,

Comment 15 by logicophilosophicus

I'd certainly regard it as an unwarranted act of faith to assert that the known particles and forces, as of this moment in time, MUST be entirely sufficient to explain free will, intention, purpose, ethics, value and the rest.

with emphasis n the MUST.....

Fri, 13 Jul 2012 22:09:16 UTC | #949128

Steve Zara's Avatar Comment 28 by Steve Zara

Comment 27 by djs56

Good questions. The major problem with involving other particles is that they don't interact with things on the energy scale of what goes on in brain cells. The energy of biochemical phenomena is normally well below the volt scale, and involves different forms of electromagnetic interaction - technically quantum electrodynamics. What goes on in biological system is almost all to do with electrons one way or another! WIMPS and neutrinos only interact with matter via the weak force or gravity. That's FAR too small to have any significant effect on the biochemical scale.

The other reason why we don't need to even consider new physics is because we know there is sufficient going on in our brains to explain everything in principle, and by 'explain', I mean that if an alien were to come and investigate our species, they would not even think about trying to involve spooky extra physics. Just seeing that we were biological neural networks would be enough. There is unlimited possible complexity in the neural networks in our heads. We find it hard to explain in any detail what goes on, but we should be in no doubt that there is more than enough information processing resources in our heads to explain what we do and think.

The only reason we suggest that there should be new physics is because we feel that there should be. What I'm trying to show is that those feelings aren't evidence for anything like that at all.

Fri, 13 Jul 2012 22:34:17 UTC | #949132

VrijVlinder's Avatar Comment 29 by VrijVlinder

@Tyler Also, the Mirror test is an ideal mechanism to explain self-awareness; as is the ability to switch off self-awareness in the superfrontal gyrus - not an "unwarranted act of faith" - no need for new physics.

Dolphin love mirrors ,My dogs barked at the mirror until they figure out it was them . One other dog never did. It was funny.

I have tried this test with Gloria's baby, by marking his forehead with lipstick. To see exactly when he becomes aware it is his image.

Very interesting that we are not aware of our selves even with a mirror until much later. The baby seemed to look at me more than himself he did not recognize himself at all.

He started to know it was him about two years old. But I think he thought it was another boy. Every time he cried in tantrum we would put him in front of the mirror and say " look at that boy crying who is he? "

He would stop and look at himself then cry again, then stop and look then cry until he would lose patience and want to hit the boy in the mirror. He did not like the competition even if it was him lol. Then one day he used the mirror to look at himself. It is possible we learn to look at ourselves by copying our parents. Having mirrors at an early age accelerates this process I believe.

What if we are never exposed to mirrors? I suppose water can be a mirror. Self-awareness does not depend on looking at a mirror no?

Fri, 13 Jul 2012 22:48:08 UTC | #949134

ccw95005's Avatar Comment 30 by ccw95005

I think the only reason people are speculating about new physics is that awareness and consciousness are so mysterious. Physicists have made huge strides and their understanding of the nature of reality is mind-boggling and admirable, down to quantum weirdness and the particle zoo and spacetime and I don't know what all. The brain is a physical structure containing an unbelievable number of neurons and connections and chemical interplay and I don't know what all. Now, if we really understood completely how all those parts were arranged and how they interacted and how that unbelievably complex computer functioned - but still didn't have a handle on how consciousness was produced - maybe at that point we might start wondering if there were something else involved, maybe some new physics. But at this point it's like a third grader saying, I don't know how my iPad works - there must be some physical laws that haven't been discovered yet.

Fri, 13 Jul 2012 23:03:45 UTC | #949136