Book Review: The Universe in a Single Atom

Picture of me blowing smoke

We’ve all heard of or noticed it… The solar system: a sun and planets, mostly empty space. The atom: a nucleus and electrons, mostly empty space. As above, so below! The analogies are in-exact, but they still serve to illustrate that the stuff of the universe is mostly empty. That part is true unless you count fields. Fields aren’t made of atoms but they do pervade empty space. In this book there isn’t much discussion of fields, though they are mentioned. Mostly the book is about consciousness, but I’m going to focus on the metaphysics of Buddhism as the Dalai Lama summarizes it because as must be the case it grounds the Buddhist view of consciousness, identity, and has implications for the matter of free will.

It all begins with that emptiness. It is worth quoting some key passages here because they hold in their language the key to their truth and error.

“At its [the theory of emptiness] heart is the deep recognition that there is a fundamental disparity between the way we perceive the world, including our own existence in it, and the way things actually are. In our day-to-day experience, we tend to relate to the world and to ourselves as if these entities possess self-enclosed, definable, discrete, and enduring reality. … The philosophy of emptiness reveals that this is not only a fundamental error, but also the basis for attachment, clinging, and the development of our numerous prejudices.”

“All things and events, whether material, mental, or even abstract concepts like time, are devoid of objective, independent existence. To possess such independent, intrinsic existence would imply that things and events are somehow complete unto themselves and are therefore entirely self-contained. This would mean that nothing has the capacity to interact with and exert influence on other phenomena.”

“Effectively, the notion of intrinsic, independent existence is incompatible with causation. … Things and events are ’empty’ in that they do not possess any immutable essence, intrinsic reality, or absolute ‘being’ that affords independence.”

“In our naive or commonsense view of the world, we relate to things and events as if they possess and enduring intrinsic reality. We tend to believe that the world is composed of things and events, each of which has a discrete, independent reality of its own, and it is these things with discrete identities and independence that interact with one another.”

Is his eminence correct about our ordinary, commonsense way of seeing things? I do think my automobile is a discrete particular I can positively identify in part because it endures through time. But those existence (enduring through time) and identity (my car, is a different particular from your car) criteria exist only because a mind (mine or yours) abstracts them from the concrete reality of the object. Independence here (in both the commonsense and philosophical view) implies only independence of a particular from mind. The object exists and has certain characteristics that I can name, but I do not create them. Nor, however does it imply that there endurance is any more than temporary, for a time, and that one day they will cease to exist.

Obviously automobiles can interact with the world causally. Certain of their properties, mass for example, have causal implications. If all the Dalai Lama is saying here is that no object, no event, is permanent, eternal, then this is but a trivial truth. It seems to his eminence that “independent existence” entails changelessness, not merely “mind independence”. Of course he is right that material object or event is eternal, but that does not mean it lacks all independent existence if only “for a time”. The object is not empty, even though it is temporary.

I do not agree with a lot of what Graham Harman believes, but he does handle this issue well. In summary:

1. Everything (material things, events, thoughts, intrinsic and extrinsic relations, etc) is an object.
2. Every object has both an essence and dispositional properties. The dispositional properties can be enumerated and quantified, the essential properties never entirely known.
3. Even given #2, objects and their essences are temporary. They come into existence at a time and go out at another time.
4. It is through their dispositional properties, not essences, that objects interact causally and relationally.

Harman claims to be a realist albeit from a continental background. While he need not represent here the majority opinion in modern philosophy he is comfortable with objects having an essence which does not participate in events (causally or otherwise) and at the same time dispositional properties that do. I suppose what makes this possible is temporal dependence, something the Dalai Lama denies is possible for essences. Because no eternal object exists (East and West [mostly] agree), they cannot (in the Lama’s view) therefore have essences. In the Western view (if one holds there are essences), this object, essence and all, had a beginning and will have an end. Putting this another way, the one physical phenomenon to which essences relate, or in which essences participate, is time!

Another quote is telling: “By according intrinsic properties of attractiveness, we react to certain objects and events with deluded attachment, while toward others, to which we accord intrinsic properties of unattractiveness, we react with deluded aversion.”

If there is one thing all modern western philosophy has in common it is the assumption that there is such a thing as “mind-independent reality”. The debate in Western terms is over what can be said or known about the mind-independent world, not its existence. To a realist, real objects (whose dispositional properties are discoverable by mind) exist and have all their properties, essential or otherwise, prior to and independent of their apperception by any individual mind, human or animal. Not all objects are like this of course. Thought-objects (Harman a big fan) of course do not, but even some material objects. A particular automobile, once built and prior to its someday destruction, is mind-independent now, but its origin in the past, its coming into existence as a mind-independent object, cannot have been possible without some mind’s intervention in the causal stream.

Who today, in the Western tradition, would say that attractiveness was an intrinsic property? It is in the Western sense, a relational property between some (possibly) presently-mind-independent object’s dispositional properties and some mind! One of the insights of modern science is that the mechanisms of the mind-independent universe (essences or not) are teleology-free (see “Fantasy Physics and the Genesis of Mind”)! Attractiveness, by contrast, is implicitly teleological. It is attractiveness for the purposes of some mind whether for some pleasure, survival, or merely aesthetic appreciation.

In the Dalai Lama’s view, the ground of all reality is empty of all properties. At this ground, there is no distinction to be made between mind-dependent and mind-independent reality. All are equally empty. His eminence takes this to be a fundamental truth. So when we get to what amounts to an illusion of a differentiated world he does not, other than superficially (from within the illusion) distinguish between mind-dependence and mind-independence, emptiness all!

There is yet another problem. The emptiness doctrine might be incoherent. If the fundamental ground of everything including space and time is emptiness where does all this illusory stuff come from? That is to say where does anything that can have illusions come from? Emptiness at least implies quiescence. Not only must it be free of any real, mind-independent, stuff, it is free also of any process. Nothing happens! How is it that anything comes to be at all?

How does the emptiness doctrine impact the matter of free-will? If the differentiation of everything is an illusion, then that we (an illusion) have an effective will must also be illusion. One of the great differences between Hinduism, and especially Buddhism, as compared to Judeo-Christianity and Islam is that the former religions aim at being a “vessel of the divine”. The personal goal of those religions is to realize the emptiness of all that is. The net result is quiescence, merging with emptiness as a drop of water merges with the ocean. Will, among our illusions, has nothing therefore to do. In fact doing anything, willing anything is counterproductive, and precisely what leads to desire and misery. It isn’t that God wants us to do nothing, it is that like everything else God is empty. Technically speaking there is no “divine” only the empty ground of all that is.

Western religions, by contrast are religions of action. God and the universe are not nothing. They have positive existence. The goal of these religions is to bring what God wants (ultimately for us to love one another) to fruition and this takes place only when we freely will (of our own volition) and so act (or attempt to act) to bring that state about now and in the future. If free will does not exist (not because all is empty but because only brain-states have any causal efficacy) obviously this would be impossible; impossible that is to “freely choose” to do God’s will.

If a transcendent God of a sort envisioned by Western religions exists (this is not to say the real God would in all qualities be what is said of him in Western holy books see “Prolegomena to a Future Theology” for a less conflicted portrait) not only must free will be real, it must be the linchpin of the process for getting from the present to the future God intends (see “Why Free Will?”). But why would an omnipotent transcendent God set things up this way? Why not just make the universe the way he intends it to be from the beginning? The answer can be inferred from our sensitivity to values (see “What are Truth, Beauty, and Goodness?”) free will itself. What God intends must be that universe resulting from the mass-exercise of value-sensitive minds freely electing to instantiate (literally “make instances of”) the values.

If the Dalai Lama’s metaphysics of emptiness was true, and everyone on Earth achieved union with it, human history would end; everyone would starve to death! By contrast if the transcendent God exists, and everyone freely chooses, to the best of their evolving capacities, to do his will (the collective instantiation of truth, beauty, and goodness being love) the life of every individual on the world would be paradisaical! Because we (who are not illusions in this view) are partnering with God, freely choosing his way rather than what might be our own, the universe ends up better (apparently) than what God could have done by himself because all value-discriminating wills in the universe are freely on board!

The Universe in a Single Atom by the Dalai Lama 2005

Who can critique the Dalai Lama? He is a smart, wise, man with a curiosity about pure science, and a pragmatic streak about technological applications. Should they benefit mankind, alleviate suffering, they are good. The Dalai Lama seems to have wanted to write this book thanks to a life-long fascination with science coupled with insights of his years of Buddhist training. He tells us as a boy growing up he had no training in western science whatsoever, but he was fascinated with a few (first-half 20th century) examples of western technology belonging to his predecessor. As a young man, once vested in his office, he availed himself of a new-found access to many of the world’s greatest minds, philosophers, scientists, artists, and so on. He has gone on talking and learning from great minds ever since.

After this introduction, the book looks at the physical (cosmology, quantum mechanics, relativity) and then life sciences. I was hoping he would not get into a “Buddhism discovered it first” argument, and mostly he does not. He comes close on the subject of quantum mechanics but I think mostly because at the time, the people from whom he learned it still took seriously the idea that individual human minds (for example that of a researcher) could be responsible for wave-function collapse. If this were true (the idea has long been put to rest as concerns individual minds) the tie-in with the Buddhist mind-first world-view and deep exploration of that first-person (consciousness) world would indeed be strong.

Even within quantum mechanics his eminence is sensitive to the great gulf between the western scientific paradigm and the focus of Buddhism. He well illustrates these differences while pointing out to scientists that much of what they take to be the “structure of reality” is a metaphysical assumption. It does not follow necessarily from scientific methodology which so well illuminates structure as concerns the physical world.

But this same methodology can say very little about consciousness. It is with consciousness that he spends much of the book examining the views of modern brain-science and how they might relate to Buddhist discoveries. The views of these different worlds stem as much from the purposes of their separate investigations as the technique; empirical 3rd-party evaluation versus highly-trained rigorous introspection. Becoming a master monk takes as many years as obtaining a PhD in physics (more in fact), but he mis-uses the term ’empirical’ here. What the monk does and what the monk learns in the doing should not be dismissed by western science, but it is still subjective and for that reason not empirical. He advocates for joint research. Neuro-scientists together with trained monks, he thinks, might help unlock some of the mind’s mysteries. He also is aware that not all mysteries are unlock-able!

In the book’s penultimate chapter he uses the then-new technology of genetic manipulation to plead with the scientific community to take it slow. He wants us all to be asking the right questions concerning the long term affects of the possibilities on our humanity. Here the contribution of Buddhism is the importance of compassion, of constant awareness of the mission to alleviate suffering. He is very good at identifying frightening possibilities in the technology and lists them. At the same time, aspects of the field, the need to produce more food, provided it isn’t motivated purely by financial gain, can be good. In his last chapter, his eminence returns to the same subject, a cooperation between science and Buddhism’s focus on bettering the human estate, not only physically or biologically, but socially, psychologically, and spiritually.

The book is full of interesting philosophical implications I will perhaps explore on my blog. These have more to do with physics, cosmology, and what western philosophy calls metaphysics than with consciousness which Buddhism takes more or less for granted. The idea that the stuff of the universe is fundamentally phenomenal suffuses all schools of Buddhism, while in the West the idea, while not unknown, is viewed with great suspicion. Where consciousness is concerned, his emphasis falls on intentionality, our capacity to direct our attention, but he never mentions free will. Like consciousness itself, perhaps Buddhism takes free will for granted.

Review: Philosophy of Mind by Edward Feser 2006

One would expect a book on this broad subject to leave some dangling issues. Dr. Feser’s sympathies clearly lay with Aristotelian dualism, even theism. He begins with a nuanced statement of Cartesian Substance Dualism. His aim is to explicate the logical strength of substance dualism, aware also of its primary weakness (the “interaction problem”) and then ask if the various alternatives to it, particularly those promulgated by materialist philosophers of the 20th and 21st centuries, are coherent in their own right and if so, successfully defeat dualism’s logic.

As noted in the review (reproduced below with a link to the book on Amazon) Feser spends the bulk of the book on this latter task. He demonstrates that none of the suggested alternatives actually work. Some (eliminativism of two kinds and epiphenominalism) are incoherent, while others (functionalism, behaviorism, and many others) fail to capture the substance of subjective first person experience, in effect explaining it away. Most of these critiques focus on epistemological issues, but some also run into metaphysical issues, indeed the same “interaction problem” faced by Cartesian dualism (see also “From What Comes Mind” and “Fantasy Physics and the Genesis of Mind”).

Having demolished the contenders, Feser asks if there is something else, a different sort of dualism that might work and yet not require or point to theism? His solution is Aristotelian Hylomorphic dualism. Alas, as noted in the review, here he fails but doesn’t seem to notice it. Either the form emerges from the facts of the assemblage that is the brain, or it is added intentionally from the outside. Hylomorphism either collapses into reductive (or supervenient) materialism, or it leads back to something that must stand in the place of, if not be, God. Feser leaves this matter dangling.

Other issues dangle. Feser cites many authors I’ve read, among them David Chalmers, but as I read Feser, he seems to misunderstand Chalmers’ “property dualism”, more or less equating it with epiphenomenalism,  the idea that our mental arena is merely an accidental by-product of brain function with absolutely no causal consequence. It is precisely the point of Chalmers’ property dualism that it does have causal consequence and so is not epiphenomenal but rather a radical emergence.

From the physics of brains alone emerges what amounts to a substance with novel properties, the upward property of subjective experience itself, and a downward causal power, subjective will, on that same physics. Chalmers, being bothered by the radical character of the emergent subjectivity, speculates on panpsychism or various types of monisms that might be embedded in physics and so support such an emergence (see above linked “Fantasy Physics…” essay for details). These various ideas for sources of the phenomenal in a hidden property of the physical are quasi-material in Feser’s taxonomy.

Another matter of interest to me is Feser’s characterization of substance dualism. His sketch is more nuanced than that usually given by his materialist peers but there are other possibilities that yet remain broadly Cartesian. For example, a property dualism supported by the presence of a spacetime field that is not physical but also not phenomenal (or proto-phenomenal).

The field need not be mind as such. It need have no phenomenal/proto-phenomenal properties of its own. Viewed from the material, mind is a radical emergence (upward) and has, as a result of its novel properties, also downward causal qualities. Its appearance, however, its form and nature, is the result of an interaction with this everywhere present (and yes, mysterious) field and not equally mysterious undetectable properties embedded in physics. For a detailed explication of this model see my “From What Comes Mind?”

Of course an “interaction problem” comes immediately forward. This hypothetical field is, after all non-material. But this interaction issue is the same faced by property dualism generally along with panpsychism, and Russelian or dual-aspect monism. All of these theories propose proto-phenomenal properties embedded in micro physics or the universe as a whole, but none ever say how exactly to identify the proto-phenomenal, in what exactly its properties consist. Nor do they speculate on their origin, and how they interact with the physical we know; how exactly they perform their teleological function driving the physical towards [genuinely] phenomenal expression.

Feser notes that materialist philosophers always cite “Occam’s Razor” as reason for rejecting theism and so any sort of substance dualism. He should somewhere have noted Occam’s Razor is supposed to apply to two or more theories that equally explain all the data! Theism answers two of the questions left dangling by quasi-materialisms. It explains why it is we find the phenomenal, any phenomenal proto or otherwise, only in association with brains. It has also an origin story in theistic intentionality, the phenomenon we find at the core of the recognizably phenomenal, our phenomenal, itself!

Quasi-materialisms deny intention in the proto-phenomenal leaving the transition to intention in brains hooked (metaphysically) on nothing. None of this, not the postulation of a field or the proto-phenomenal explains how exactly interaction occurs. The problem with theism isn’t merely the interaction (about which at least “God knows the trick”) equally suffered by all the non-eliminative materialisms. The problem is the postulation of an intentional source of the field supporting intentionality as we experience it. Yes this is a big pill to swallow, but without it we can say nothing about how any of this works anyway. Rejecting the possibility of theism leaves behind more mysteries than it resolves.

Surely suggesting that there is an intentional (minded) source of intentional, subjective mind begs the question. Of course it does! It remains, however, a coherent, possibility! God can not only be conceived, his necessary qualities can be specified to considerable detail (see my “Prolegomena to a Future Theology”). It isn’t clear that the proto-phenomenal can be conceived, and even if we allow its conceivability there seems to be nothing that can be said at all about any  of its qualities.

I said at the end of the book review I would say something about free will. Feser does not mention it. Free will is related to intentionality. The ability to direct our attention purposefully is the core of the matter and some (Schopenhauer) would say it, is the essence of the conscious self! “Mental causation” or in Rescher’s terms initiation is, when not subconscious, agent-directed. We experience our agency as will (and this why the ‘free’ in ‘free will’ is redundant’ see “All Will is Free”). Will’s  relation to “philosophy of mind” should be obvious. We experience our volitional agency in mind, and like qualia and intention, the nature of volitional agency is mysterious, doubly so because it is a mystery on top of a mystery!

I have said much about free will and its associated agency elsewhere in the blog. On the negative side (the absurdity of denying it) see “Arguing with Automatons”, and “The Nonsensical Notion of Compatibilism”. On the positive side, “Why Free Will”, “Why Personality”, and “The Mistake in Theological Fatalism”.

The two best books on the subject are “Free Will: A Philosophical Reappraisal” by Nicholas Rescher and E. J. Lowe’s “Personal Agency”. My own books, “Why this Universe” and “God, Causal Closure, and Free Will” both address the subject.

 

Philosophy of Mind by Edward Feser (2006)

I picked up Feser’s “Philosophy of Mind”, a book in an introductory series, for the sake of little else to read at the time, but I’m glad I did. It is, perhaps the best basic-evaluation of this subject (one of my specialty areas) I have ever read. It doesn’t merely introduce and review the subject. It makes an argument, a point about the present philosophical state-of-the art on the nature of mind, and does it very well.

Feser begins by introducing the subject and settles on representative-realism (the external world is real more or less as we experience it, but what we experience as subjects is nevertheless a representation of it) as the fundamental datum which a philosophy of mind must account. He then moves to examine the various proposals put forth by modern philosophers, some with their roots back in classical Greek times. He begins with Cartesian (substance) Dualism, a rather more sophisticated treatment than is usually accorded by modern philosophy. He shows us that substance dualism rests on more solid logical foundations than is usually acknowledged even if it smacks of being unscientific thanks to its infamous “interaction problem”.

From that point Feser looks at what has been offered as alternatives to Dualism, various materialisms (eliminative, functionalism, behaviorism, pure epiphenomenalism, causalism, reduction and supervenience) and quasi-materialisms (panpsychism, Russelian-monism, property dualism). All of this treatment constitutes the bulk of the book and as he covers each solution there emerges the best taxonomy of philosophies-of-mind I have yet seen. The modern emphasis on qualia is explored thoroughly but he argues that intentionality, even given the representational realism with which he begins, is more important, more central to mind and consciousness, than qualia.

In doing all of this Feser drives home the point that none of the alternatives is without serious metaphysical or epistemological problems. All of the quasi-materialisms, in fact, come up against the same interaction problem as substance dualism, and the others are either incoherent (two sorts of eliminativism), or simply do not get at two core problems: why do we experience anything at all and why does the subject that appears throughout all experience seem so obviously causally potent?

In the last chapter Feser asks if there is anything else that does address the core issue without having to invoke what ultimately comes down to God? His answer is Aristotle’s “Hylomorphic Dualism” (also championed by Thomas Aquinas though his variation relies directly on God). To explain consciousness, to get at its core and resolve the ever-present interaction problem, Feser says all we have to do is reject the contemporary physicalist insistence that material and efficient causes (two of Aristotle’s four leaving out formal and final cause) exhaust causality in the universe. This would be, to say the least, a big pill for 21st Century science, and most of philosophy, to swallow.

Further while Hylomorphic dualism might deal nicely with the epistemological issues Feser everywhere touches, it does no better than the quasi-materialisms concerning the metaphysical. Either the form of the human mind springs entirely from the arrangement and dynamics of physical particles, in which case we are back to reductive or supervenient materialism, or it does not. But if it does not, where does it come from? That physics cannot detect any teleology in the physical universe does not mean it isn’t there. It does mean that it has to come from somewhere other than physics and be prior to individual human minds. We are on the way back to God.

There is also a notable absence. Feser never mentions free will. A discussion might be beyond Feser’s scope in this book, but I’m surprised he did not at least note its obvious relation to intentionality. I will cover this and other implications in a blog commentary.

From What Comes Mind?

This essay is about mind in general, consciousness, the “what it is like to be…” experience. What follows applies to human and animal mind. I include a note at the end about animal mind in particular. My focus is on consciousness as such, why it exists at all and why does it have the form it has. This will not be so much about the contents of conscious phenomenal gestalt, qualia, intentionality, beliefs, memories, and so on.

Many of the essays on the blog impinge on philosophy of mind. Although the assertions, analogies, and connections to philosophy here are mine, they rest broadly on the theory of mind presented by The Urantia Book. It is after all with mind that we experience the mind-represented sensory world, assert propositions, make intentional choices, sense values, and experience our agency.

The Urantia Book’s philosophy of mind is theistic and dualistic, but not in the way of Cartesian or for that matter Thomistic dualism. It does have elements of each of these (although the Thomism is about personality not mind as such) but also shares much with “property dualism” of the sort championed by David Chalmers. The purpose of this essay is to present the theory and note certain relations to philosophies of mind common among present-day philosophers. The theological basis of this theory is to be found here. I begin therefore with property dualism.

Chalmers is at base a materialist. There cannot be any super-natural power in his theory, but there is nevertheless a supra-natural effect. In his view, minds emerge from nothing above and beyond physical brains. No intentional power adds mind to brains, but the emergent mind does, nevertheless, have real powers and potentials that are nowhere present in brains simplicter antecedent to mind’s emergence. These qualities include the form of our subjective arena, its qualia and the ever present awareness of our intentional agency, our will, its power of downward causation.

This is a new type of cause in the universe perhaps best described by Nicholas Rescher in “Free Will: A Philosophical Reappraisal”. Rescher advocates for far more freedom in our intentions and acts than many other advocates of free will (see Richard Swinburne’s “Mind, Brain and Free Will” for a much narrower view). His argument for the unique quality of mental-cause is that it is timeless; he calls it initiation rather than cause, it being simultaneous with its effect. This comes out to the impossibility of ever identifying a “mental cause” independent of a brain-state correlate! There is more on Rescher’s view here.

What manifests in mind (pace Aristotle) are final and formal causes where before mind there were but material and efficient causes. We experience, directly and only in the first person, the causal efficacy of our agent-purposeful-volition. The combination qualia (emergence upward), and agent-intention (downward causation) has been called a “radical emergence” to distinguish it from the more ordinary emergence that produces, from physics, only physical if novel properties. As far as we know the only such phenomenon in the universe, the only radical emergence there has ever been, is mind (see note on emergence at end)!

Chalmers’ must ask: how can this possibly work? Cartesian dualism after all is universally challenged based on a single irresolvable issue, the matter of how a non-material substantive entity interacts with a material brain. Property dualism faces the identical problem. How exactly does physics, without a built in phenomenalism, produce a non-material phenomenalism, and how then does that turn around and become a literal cause, effectively directing (however minimally) the physics of the brain? Chalmers’ answer, and the answer, in variations, of many contemporary philosophers of mind, is that physics is not without built-in phenomenalism (or proto-phenomenalism).

Both panpsychism and various sorts of monisms posit the existence in (the monisms) or the emergence of phenomenal (or proto-phenomenal) qualities from physics (cosmology for panpsychism) alone. These qualities are forever undetectable by physics but are, nevertheless, built-in to physics! There spring immediately to mind two further questions: where exactly, or how, do these phenomenal/proto-phenomenal qualities inhere in physics, and what precisely is phenomenal about them?

To the first question, none has any answer. They could, of course, say “God put it there” but the whole point of the exercise is to find a solution without postulating a minded being having such powers. But if we rule out a minded source we are left at best with a supposedly mindless source of mind. We have done nothing but push the interaction issue to another part of the rug.

The second question is equally vexing. No one wants to say that the fundamental constituents of matter (atoms, quarks, the quantum field, the monists) or the universe taken as a whole (panpsychists) are conscious or minded. The claim is that the phenomenal builds itself up as the basic building blocks (atoms or galaxies) themselves are built up. But they nevertheless insist there is something inherent in these entities that is the real root of the consciousness we have. The problem is that when asked in what do hypothetical proto-phenomenal qualities consist, none can say, or even speculate. It seems that, short of mind as we know it, we cannot say in what the proto-phenomenal consists.

How does my view help? It does not explain the interaction mechanism. It does account for the reason the mechanism cannot be explained by mind of our type. It does, however, account for why we cannot give any account of that in which the proto-phenomenal might consist. We cannot give such an account because there need not be any proto-phenomenal qualities for which to account.

Starting with the property dualism, brains produce subjective-conscious-minds in a way analogous to a radio producing music (compression waves in air that we interpret as music or speech or whatever, but this detail has no bearing on the analogy). Destroy the radio or alter its function and the music disappears or becomes distorted. This is exactly what happens to mind when brain function is altered away from normal working limits; from distortions of consciousness to mind’s destruction. Real minds do not survive the destruction of brains any more than music survives destruction of the radio. From a common sense point of view, it is perhaps legitimate to view the radio as the real and perhaps sole source of the music.

But the radio does not produce music ex nihilo. Rather it interprets information present in a spacetime field in the radio’s vicinity. The radio is the “source of the music” in that it alone is responsible for the conversion, interpretation, or translation of information present in the field from its electromagnetic form ultimately to compression waves in air, an entirely different phenomenon! One way to look at it is to say brains are responsible for the conversion or interpretation of some spacetime pervading field into the form of our consciousness. More accurately, we should say that the field has the power to evoke consciousness from the doings of brains.

The field need not, by itself, have any phenomenal qualities at all. It need not itself be conscious or minded in any sense of those terms any more than the electromagnetic wave is music. Electromagnetic information isn’t music until the radio makes it so, and the field isn’t phenomenal until the brain makes it so, or at least this is all we need to specify about it. The field is a constant throughout (as far as we know) the universe. Radical emergence is effected from the brain-field combination.

The field I have elsewhere called “Cosmic Mind” (see “Fantasy Physics and the Genesis of Mind”). Perhaps this a poor terminological choice as I do not mean to imply the field is conscious or even phenomenal in some uncharacterizeable sense. It mght be proto-phenomenal, phenomenal, or even conscious, but none of these matter to the model. As far as human beings and human consciousness is concerned the only property the field has to have is a capacity to evoke our subjective experience from our brain-states. If it has other properties, or indeed even purposes, we have no way of knowing.

In another, perhaps simpler analogy, imagine some material object (a ball on a pedestal) in a dark room. The ball has certain physical properties (mass, shape, and importantly here it happens to be opaque). Now a point light-source is turned on in the room. The ball now throws a shadow. Nothing about the physical properties has changed. The light-source does not add the shadow to the ball, but the shadow emerges from the properties of the ball (shape and opacity). Turn the light off, the shadow goes away. Remove the ball in the presence of the light and the shadow also goes away. The ball is the sole determiner of the properties of the shadow, but only in the presence of the light!

Mind, in other words, springs from brains as Chalmers envisions it, and this is why it is properly a property dualism. Viewed from the material, it is a radical emergence (upward) and has, because of its novel properties, also downward casual qualities. Mind’s appearance, however, its form and nature, is the result of an interaction. The emergence of subjective consciousness from brains is enabled by Cosmic Mind. Consciousness is the music produced by brains in the (everywhere) presence of Cosmic Mind.

Unlike an electromagnetic field Cosmic Mind is not physical and that quality explains mind’s non-material quality. Cosmic Mind’s postulation accounts for mind’s relation to brains (mind’s physical root) and its subjective first-person-only phenomenology (mind’s non-material root). Qualia would appear to come from the brain side, our representation, via the senses, of the physical world. Intentionality is related to purpose, to final cause, something that doesn’t exist in physics. This quality must somehow be contributed by Cosmic Mind. How does Cosmic Mind interact with the physical? Aren’t I faced with the same “interaction problem”, perhaps pushed around a bit, as old fashioned Cartesian dualism?

The short answer is yes. It is the same problem, the same also faced by property dualism and panpsychism, and also Russelian, and any dual-aspect monism. The presence of Cosmic Mind is (like Cartesian mind) normally associated, directly or indirectly, with God, but one could leave its final source in abeyance as phenomenal monists and panpsychists do with their protophenomenal properties. None of these other theories ever say what exactly the phenomenal or proto-phenomenal qualities are let alone from where they come. Unlike the quasi-materialistic theories, Cosmic Mind is not (or need not be) phenomenal or proto-phenomenal (let alone conscious) at all. The emergent effect, subjective phenomenalism, only occurs when brains appear — Cosmic Mind being always on the scene. Unlike quasi-materialisms, this explains why we find the phenomenal only in association with brains and why we cannot even speculate about the protophenomenal in physics. It isn’t there to be found.

What about my other promise? Why is explanation of the interaction mechanism forever out of our reach? To support the radical emergence taking place, the field cannot, itself, be material (like the electromagnetic) or we would be back to unsupported radical emergence. Since it isn’t material it remains forever outside the capacity of physics (having only material instruments) to detect. Moreover, since the emergent dualism effected by the brain is also non-material the mechanism producing it is a mix of the physical (brain states) and non-physical (Cosmic Mind). Physics (in this case a synechode for neurophysiology resting on biology resting on chemistry and so on) can only measure the material side and it does! We can measure and find (roughly) consciousness-correlated brain states! What we cannot measure is the evocation subjective experience from their functioning.

What physics wants is an equivalence relation. But proving equivalence relations (for example the equivalence between thermodynamics and statistical mechanics) needs experimental confirmation, physical measurement, of the phenomenon from both ends as it were. This is precisely what is not possible concerning mind.

Where does Cosmic Mind itself come from? I’m a theist for this reason and many others. God covers a multitude of problems. The origin of course, but also the interaction. We can never spell out the mechanism but God knows the trick! Theism has no particular burden here. Panpsychists and monists do not tell us from where come their postulated “phenomenal properties-of-physics”, or for that matter even in what they consist. The latter question I have answered!

If we let materialist philosophers get away with “we don’t know, they’re just there” (concerning the proto-phenomenal) why shouldn’t theists? A non-material field pervading spacetime is no less conceivable than undetectable phenomenal properties underlying physics. One of Chalmers’ suggestions is “psychic laws” in parallel with physical law. Postulating Cosmic Mind answers more questions than proto-phenomenal physics or psychic laws, specifically why we cannot specify, or even speculate about, what qualities the proto-phenomenal has.

For more of my essays on this and related subjects see:

Essays:

Fantasy Physics and the Genesis of Mind
Physics and the Evidence for Non-Material Consciousness
Why Free Will
Why Personality

Books:
Why This Universe: God, Cosmology, Consciousness, and Free Will (2014)
God, Causal Closure, and Free Will (2016)

Note: On emergence

I have allowed in this essay that mind is the only example of radical emergence of which we know, but I believe there are two others, the universe itself, the big bang, and life.  This essay is not the place to go into either, but it is the theme of my book “God, Causal Closure, and Free Will” linked above.

Note: On the subject of animal mind

Since mind is associated with brains we might speculate about where it appears in the development of animal nervous systems. The short answer is I do not know but at least it seems to be present, a “what it is like to be” subjectivity in all the mammals and birds and possibly all vertebrates. If Cosmic Mind is all of a piece, everywhere uniform throughout the universe, how is it that animal consciousness seems less rich than the human? The answer here is on the brain side in the same way the shape of the shadow depends on the ball.

The electromagnetic field is filled with information all jumbled together. It can be made coherent (by radios) through the process of tuning. When a radio is tuned to a particular “carrier frequency” amidst the jumble, all of the electromagnetic modulation around that frequency can be detected and interpreted say as music from one, speech from another and so on. But notice also, that even if we single out a particular carrier, radios can vary widely in the quality of their conversion/reproduction. The sound emerging from older, more primitive, radios contains less of the information than that coming from newer more advanced electronics.

Cosmic Mind need contain only one signal. Being non-material it might as well be undifferentiated as we couldn’t measure any differentiation anyway. But there are, like radios, brains of various qualities. Like an older radio, the mind evoked by the brain of a mouse is less rich than that of a dog, the dog less than an ape, and the ape less than a human all bathed in the same field. This seems to be the case for consciousness as a whole, but is not the case concerning specific qualia. A dog’s aroma qualia are far richer than a human’s, as is a bird’s visual qualia (birds have four types cone cells in their eyes supporting ultra-violet visual qualia). There is nothing surprising about this if qualia in particular are closely tied to the physical root of the subjective arena. Some more primitive radios can be optimized to reproduce a narrow range of audible frequencies better than a more advanced radio even though the latter does a better job over-all.

In accounting for this difference this “Cosmic Mind” hypothesis at least matches the accounting for qualia by panpsychism and dual-aspect monisms. In the latter theories, more primitive brains produce less rich phenomenal qualities from the basic proto-phenomenal building blocks but nothing blocks optimizations in different brains. In both cases, the onus for the quality (richness) of qualia lays with brains. But the quasi-materialisms cannot so well account for intention, purpose (something the higher animals clearly have), unless one posits its proto-presence as well. Such a move puts teleology firmly back into physics, and in that case we are half-way back to theism.

Review: Deacon “Incomplete Nature”

The book here is 6 years old but only recently reviewed by me. Somehow it escaped my attention until now. This is one of those books that no short review could do justice. I said so much in the review, but I will stand for now on what I wrote in it albeit I emphasize that it is summary, oversimplified, and confusing because terms like “teleodynamic” are not defined (in the review) not to mention a half dozen other terms that Deacon creates for the sake of necessary abstractions with which to continue the narrative. In the book, every one of these new terms is carefully explained, defined, and justified.

In this commentary, I’m not going to expand on or further clarify the review but rather say something about what “isn’t there”, something I think Dr. Deacon will appreciate. In “Singular Universe and the Reality of Time” the authors build a case that amounts to saying what is important about the way the universe turned out is the particular historical path followed by its events. At different points of the universe’s history different things might have happened, but what should be informing present science, theories about origins and destinies, is what actually happened. The material world is contingent; things might have happened otherwise, but they happened to happen the way they did and that way was not only perfectly compatible with the regularities of physics but just as likely to have happened as any other outcome compatible with those regularities. The question of why things went one way rather than another can be asked, but not answered (if even then) until after the fact.

This view is perfectly compatible with Deacon’s account of the rise of life and consciousness but Deacon emphasizes what Unger and Smolin leave out. As goes life and mind what didn’t happen, that is what was excluded and made impossible (or improbable) by what did happen, is the real key to understanding how the particular path that is history came out as it did. As in “Singular Universe”, from any given temporal viewpoint, we can no more predict what exactly will be excluded in the future than we can predict what will happen. Why certain possible histories were precluded can, again, be answered only after the fact. While this viewpoint may make it possible to more fully understand the relation between basic physics, the origin of life, and the nature (and causal efficacy) of consciousness (a case Deacon makes well), it doesn’t in the slightest demonstrate that the path actually taken was accidental.

Since historical outcomes (and exclusions) were just as possible as alternatives that “might have been”, if in fact such outcomes were not literally accidental, there would be no way to tell. To put it another way, if God wanted to make physics do the maximum possible work (sans intervention) to result in life and consciousness, the possibility of this pathway, this set of exclusions (emergent constraints resulting in emergent attractors), perfectly lawful and equally likely, would be the very sort of process involved. Because the information bearing nature of the final outcome is the result of possibilities subtracted away from the infinite possibilities present at earlier stages it stands out only after the fact. Rather than there being no evidence for teleology added up-front, there couldn’t be (evidence) by presupposition because what happened was always one possibility among others.

Deacon is a materialist and insists that his theory at least suggests how life and consciousness could arise out of nothing more than the regularities of physics. He insists that his theory explains these phenomena without resort to anything but physics and he is right, in a way it does. But the theory relies on the fact that the “telos” of the physical process appears only after-the-fact and that renders anything non-accidental (provided it does not violate the regularities of physics) occurring before-the-fact completely invisible.

But perhaps this is a superficial criticism. It can be applied to any purely physical theory whatsoever. Deacon has a bigger problem. Truly an absence, a hole for example, is not a material thing; neither substance nor process. So we have an easy route from physics to non-materiality. It is less clear how absences are causes, formal or efficient (the two levels Deacon relies upon). Surely they can contribute to efficient causes (contributory cause) by being one of a combination of circumstances that together are a cause. They can also be a component of formal causes, of the form of a thing that determines its causal efficacy. But I cannot think of an example where absence qua absence is the sole, single, cause of anything efficient or formal.

Further, consciousness, at least as I experience it, while it might emerge as a result of constraints resulting in an important non-material absence, an attractor (surely these do have a role to play) in association with other causes, is not itself an absence, but a positive; a presence. It is the most present phenomenon to my experience because it is my experience, my subjective perspective. But nowhere in Deacon’s book does he manage to explain how a causally efficacious non-material presence (not absence) emerges. This is merely another way of saying “the way our experience is and not some other way”, but either way you phrase it, Deacon doesn’t arrive at it. In Deacon’s view, consciousness has to emerge from a constraint that emerges in an attractor. But attractors are empty, while consciousness, that is subjectivity, is not.

Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter (2011)

This is a great book! For years now I’ve read books by scientists and philosophers addressing the origins of life and consciousness. Many often point to “self organizing” phenomena in the universe (a simple example, simmering water in a pot organizing itself into columns of bubbles, or the way in which water flow in a chaotic rapid can here and there form stable whirlpools) and claim that life’s origin, and eventually even consciousness, are nothing more than complex examples of this process. But none of them make the attempt to cross the divide between these simple regularities and the far more complex nature of life and mind.

In this long book Dr. Deacon uses every page to meticulously build argument upon argument and example upon example in an effort to show exactly how this might be possible both for life and consciousness. His key insight, carefully crafted and expanded all the way along the narrative, is that it isn’t what is present in any particular material organization that matters, but rather what is absent; what the structure of any given complexifying phenomenon constrains away. It isn’t what happens that matters so much as what the evolving structures (structure here should be understood as both stuff and process) prevent from happening. To take a simple and non-dynamical example, a house functions as a home not because it has a certain structure but because that structure precludes it being something else, a boat, a bridge, or a pile of rubble.

Deacon begins by setting a very high bar. He insists that any theory of life and its origins respect its extraordinary complexity and the near impossibility of the dynamic relations between its parts falling together accidentally. Similarly with consciousness he insists that any theory of mind takes into account its patently dualistic nature and causal efficacy. Mind cannot be illusory or epiphenomenal. Life and mind are both teleological (purposeful, end-directed) by nature and he insists that the appearance of teleology in life and mind be accommodated in any theory of its origins and functions. But he also insists that all of this be accounted for by the laws of physics and in particular, the second law of thermodynamics. He spends a chapter explicating and rejecting a generalized theory of homunculi, that is solutions requiring anything, structure, process, or information, imposed from the outside. Somehow, we have to get from physics to mind while recognizing that mind is not physics. Instead, in his view, the solution amounts to a foreground/background reversal. It isn’t the physical stuff or process that results in life or mind, but rather what physical evolution (non-living, then living, then mental) constrains out of possibility.

Deacon carefully crafts his argument focusing on the physical concept of work and the logic of attractors. In physics, work is possible only when there is a thermodynamic gradient. In unbounded (having no formal boundary like a cell wall) physical dynamics, thermodynamic gradients, under the right conditions, can become morphodynamic; taking on a shape (the self-organizing process) that serves to increase the efficiency of thermodynamic dissipation. But in bounded systems (in the first instance boundaries formed by natural conditions having nothing to do with life) a new type of dynamic becomes possible, one that reduces dissipation internally in exchange for increased dissipation between the bounded system an the outside. This is the beginning of teleodynamic organization. He is careful to note that “telos” here is not something imposed from the outside, but rather the appearance of end-directedness stemming from the emergence of the constraints against dissipation on the inside. Once a teleodynamic emerges, other teleodynamic constraints can emerge from it compounding constraint upon constraint which, when viewed after the fact, amount to a compounding of information.

This then is the core of his theory which he then traces up from proto-life to life and from life, via Darwinian evolution (which never adds information, but rather selects out information emerging in compounded teleodynamics relevant to the [then] present environment) to mind. In each step it isn’t what happens or what exists that matters so much as what is progressively constrained or prevented from happening. I want to emphasize that this statement is a highly simplified summary of Deacon’s far more complex but clearly enunciated argument. In the end, mind has causal efficacy because it is itself a hole, an attractor, and by disturbing the metaphorical shape of its own attractor (constraint on constraint on constraint) affects the underlying (metaphorical) shape of the attractors (now neurological) that support it.

This is a book to which no short review can do justice. It is well argued and written for a general audience with a basic grasp of physical principles. Readers with a grasp of high school physics will do fine. But does he succeed? In his last chapter he notes that even the emergence of human social systems, government, economics, even values, amount to further constraints that operate to reduce entropic dissipation in the social system that bounds them. All of this makes perfect sense in the context of his fundamental insight, but he never explains why it all should come out as the experience of subjectivity that we have and not something else with equal capacity to dynamically constrain. This however is not a shortcoming in the basic argument. The emergence of all these constraints (and thus the attractors they manifest) can only be recognized after the fact. Before the fact there are always other possibilities. In short, Deacon goes farther than anyone else in crafting a pathway leading from physics to mind.

Arguing with Automatons

selfie

Introduction

There is no metaphysical middle ground between libertarian free will and automatonism. I stress the metaphysical here because there is phenomenological (psychological) middle ground that backs up into the epistemological. By “phenomenological middle ground” I refer to what I take to be most people’s every day experience with making choices. If you step into a taqueria and for a moment do not know if you “feel more like” chicken, beef, or pork, you think about it and choose one. We each make these (and many other) sorts of decisions throughout our day. In this process I (for I can in the end only speak for me) do not feel impelled by something, some combination of events in my past, to make one particular choice over another. I had chicken last week, so this week I’ll take the steak, or perhaps I liked the chicken so much I choose it again. Whether you are committed to libertarian free will philosophically the choice of chicken, steak, or pork, feels at least superficially free. Whichever choice you make you are at the same time aware that other choices (and so futures) were potentially open to you.

I will not further address this experience of phenomenological freedom because it is conceivable that you can genuinely believe you are free without actually being free just as genuinely believing you are Napoleon reincarnated does not mean you are Napoleon reincarnated. The issue then is not whether the alternatives appear open to you but whether they actually are open. Although you might have chosen beef or pork and have done so in the past, on this occasion something stemming from your past (indeed going all the way back to the big bang) determined that you would choose chicken and this determination was (usually is because otherwise the phenomenological room would also disappear) at least entirely subconscious if not in fact unconscious. On this occasion you were going to choose chicken just as on prior occasions there were determinations that led to your choosing steak or pork at those times. Automatons are entities that sometimes appear to make free decisions from a purely behavioral viewpoint, but which we know not to be free because we understand all of what leads deterministically to those choices; that is, we know all of what underlies the behavior both necessarily and sufficiently.

In this paper my goal is not to defend a view of libertarian free will as I have done that before here in this blog and other places. What does interest me here are two related things. First does it make any sense for a human being with free will to argue or debate with an entity who appears to be a human being but lacks free will? Second, if no human beings have free will does any debate or argument between such entities have any meaning or significance? I am thinking of the following scenario. Two human beings are having a debate. The thought of the first being is freely expressed through speech in a language that both know. That speech, having some meaning in the common language the other being grasps in her thought, leads to a free decision in the thought of the second being to accept the argument of the first being or to reject it and freely offer a counterargument of her own. Note the freedom involved here would entail the second being might have, besides agreeing or offering a counterargument, instead have chosen simply to be quiet and abandon the discussion among other options. What is crucial to meaning here is the respondent understands the semantic relation between the argument presented and her response whatever that turns out to be. “The semantic” is important here because the relation is not about the brain states of one party invoking brain states in the other, but rather subjective states of consciousness whose form and content do not resemble brain states.

The Argument

An automaton is a “state machine”. Some combination of parts each having various but finite numbers of states in which they can reside together determine what the automaton “does” at any given moment. The parts here can be mechanical, electromechanical, or of any other constitution that can express a “state”. Automatons today range from such trivial devices as automated floor cleaners to sophisticated computers in which software initially constrains possible “states” expressed in hardware; servomotors controlling a driver-less car or making chess moves on a game board. Every automaton begins in some first state when it is “turned on” and that state evolves in time from that point depending on what the automaton experiences in its inputs. Inputs include what it senses of the world’s response to its outputs (for example a chess move) which become further inputs. Not only do modern automatons “adapt” their behavior (within the range of mechanical possibility) by responding to their various inputs (given the potentials embedded in their programming), and that behavior can appear unexpected from the viewpoint of a human observer.

That these behaviors appear unexpected does not mean they are not fully determined (causally) by the automaton’s present state including all present inputs. In all the automatons we build from thermostats to self-driving cars and game playing computers we take this “ultimately determined” status for granted. We know that if we examine the machine’s workings in fine enough detail we will find exactly which combinations of states determined any particular behavior, that those states were sufficient to cause the behavior in question, and that those states were recursively determined by prior states (plus inputs) back in time to the machine’s first state. Because we know exactly how one state causes another we assume there is nothing more to the behavior of the automaton than its history of prior states. We assume that is, the automaton experiences no internal subjectivity. If two such automatons were to have an argument of some sort, a third-party would see what looked like our argument response between two humans illustrated above. But we have good reasons to believe that despite the behavioral similarity there is no subjective, semantic, understanding occurring in either of them.

Back in the 1970s there was an automaton named ELIZA. Today there are far more sophisticated automatons, but ELIZA is illustrative for my purposes here because it was specifically designed not so much to “be intelligent” but to mimic intelligence passing the Turing test. Simply stated, the Turing test proposed that a machine would or could be taken to be intelligent if in interacting with a human being, the human could not tell if it was interacting with a machine or another human. But the Turing test proved a little easy to pass under domain restricted circumstances and ELIZA was proof of that.

ELIZA’s domain was psychotherapy of the lite sort in which a therapist speaks one-to-one with a patient. Humans (students) were the patients and asked to talk (type) to their therapist.

Patient: I’m not sleeping well lately.
ELIZA: Have you any idea why?
Patient: I’m having bad dreams.
ELIZA: What are the dreams about?
Patient: My mother.
ELIZA: Tell me about your mother.

A simple program by today’s standards ELIZA found subjects, verbs, and objects in patient sentences and wove questions around one or more of them. If the program could not find any specific word to incorporate in its reply it output something more general like “why?” Most patients could tell that ELIZA was a machine but only after enough interaction that they realized ELIZA’s answers weren’t getting at anything. But initially, and in brief transactions, many patients thought they were speaking (typing) to a human being. But here’s where it gets really interesting for this argument. There came a point in work with ELIZA that some students, even knowing that ELIZA was a machine, not only continued to interact with it (some for long sessions), but reported experiencing therapeutic value! Some students said the sessions reduced stress and helped them think about their lives. The sessions “had meaning” in the broad sense, they had significance to the student.

The first question we want to ask is: were these interactions of meaning or significance to ELIZA? We assume not. We normally take it there is “nothing it is like” to be ELIZA, there is no consciousness there, no free will, no subjectivity. All of ELIZA’s replies are necessarily and sufficiently determined by a few hundred lines of code controlling the CPU and memory registers of a non-conscious automaton. One alternative view (taken by Chalmers and others) is there is something minimally “to be like” ELIZA, there is some subjectivity there though we cannot, from the human viewpoint “get at” what it might be like. Thomas Nagel (“What is it Like to be a Bat” 1974) deliberately chose an example (the bat) that to most people would have a subjective experience of some kind. Nagel’s argument is that it is in principle impossible for us to access bat-experience subjectively. His conclusion is taken to apply to any other subjective experience including that of other humans.

What would happen if we made two ELIZA programs interact? From a third-party perspective it would be a conversation between a therapist and a patient, that is two persons. But we know that this is not the case. We can explain all the behavior of both sides with reference to nothing but algorithms and programmable hardware, and we have good reason to believe that these are both necessary and sufficient causes of the observed behavior. We wouldn’t normally think to say that either side experienced any “therapeutic value”, semantic understanding or indeed had any internal experience of the interaction at all. Why not? Two reasons. One is that we do not impute any consciousness to ELIZA, and not having any consciousness, ELIZA cannot have and will at all. We normally take for granted that some consciousness is a necessary ground of any sort of willing. Will is only experienced, only exists, subjectively and never, like Hume’s cause, in the third person. My theme here focuses on the will so I want to stress the causal determinism (both necessary and sufficient) of the combination of algorithm and hardware is what robs the automation of anything that could conceivably be called “will”.

Now suppose we substitute real human beings for the two ELIZAs but stipulate that neither has a free will. The interaction is, in a manner perfectly analogous to “algorithm and hardware”, causally determined by states of the brains of the two humans. This causal relation is both necessary and sufficient to bring about every question and response there being no genuine “will” about it. So what is different about these two cases? Why (and where) can there be meaning and significance in the humans but not the automatons? The difference is the humans are (or could be) conscious – I stipulated only that they had no free will.

In the literature on free will and philosophy of mind one often finds that deniers of free will are not always deniers of consciousness. That is, although there is no genuine will there is experience, something subjective, and meaning arises in that arena. But consciousness itself is problematic for the same reason as free will. As Sean Carroll (“The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself” 2015) put it “thought can’t cause physics”. But if consciousness is real, then by some mechanism physics causes thought, subjectivity, and that should be equally impossible. There is, to put it bluntly, no more evidence in all of modern science that physics causes thought (subjectivity) than there is (from a third-party perspective remember the two ELIZAs) that thought causes physics. Consciousness and free will are two sides of the same coin.

If consciousness is real, and therefore experience can have meaning, then one must hold that physics causes [nonmaterial] thought. Rejecting this leaves only epiphenomenalism or eliminative materialism. The first makes experience (the subjectivity we experience every day) an illusion, while the second says it isn’t even illusory but nonexistent, something experience itself makes incoherent. Think of having a few orgasms in some clinical setting. The clinician asks you “which orgasm was the most powerful?” You say “the second.” The clinician, monitoring the behavior of every nerve in your body, says “No, my instruments tell me the first was more powerful.” The question comes down to who are you going to believe? The report of the clinician or the orgasm qualia you experienced? I stress here that it isn’t the orgasm, the measureable biological phenomena of nerve and muscle, but the subjective quality of the experience that matters.

The above example applies to qualia in general, but orgasms are particularly individual and subjectively qualified. It would be absurd to hold the third-party measurement had logical priority over the subjective experience. The quality of an orgasm is in its subjective experience and nowhere else. It would also be absurd to hold that an orgasm was illusory (epiphenomenalism) or nonexistent (eliminative materialism). An “illusory orgasm” is no more possible than a “square circle”. But none of this means there isn’t some brain state associated with every experience including experiences of thinking or choosing. If subjective experiences (think orgasms) are real, if they mean anything to a subject, there must be at least a logical separation between brain states and subjective experience. This is the gap so well described by David Chalmers (“The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory” 1996 and “The Character of Consciousness” 2010), and that forces one to accept a property dualism of some sort.

In his 2015 book “Free Will a Philosophical Reappraisal” Nicholas Rescher asks us to consider that there is some brain state literally simultaneous with “the thought”. The question is not which is physically antecedent (and so causal) but logically antecedent and so initiating. Rescher is a materialist, so his scheme must work from the side of physics. He argues the relation between physics and thought is not causal in the normal sense that physics understands it. Instead of a cause he calls it an initiation. He makes two distinctions here. Initiations are atemporal. Rescher (a process ontologist) holds an “event view” of cause in which events unfold (cause) other events. What is important about all event unfolding is its temporality. Events have duration (however short or long) and “causing events” must precede result unfolding in time. By contrast, initiations are simultaneous with their physical expressions. Crucially they are not “events”. Rescher calls them “eventuations”. In Rescher’s view the eventuations go both ways. Brain states eventuate thoughts, and sometimes a certain class of thoughts we commonly call choices or decisions eventuate brain states.

Although Rescher does not try to resolve the mystery of the interaction metaphysically he doesn’t have to. What he shows is the reasonableness of the relation going both ways. If physics can evoke consciousness, then consciousness can, correspondingly, evoke physics. A second consequence of initiations is that there is some brain state just before a decision or choice in thought which is not sufficient to guarantee evocation of the brain state correlated with the thought. Of course the “thought correlate” is compatible with that prior state. It must be one of the following states that can evolve from the prior state. That it does evolve requires the prior state (or some other compatible prior state) but also the initiating thought which remember by Recher’s view is not strictly a cause. This is important because the neuroscientist need not accommodate any thought. One brain state (an event with temporal duration and so causal powers) is traceable backwards through (temporal) series of other brain states, the prior unfolding into the latter (as in ELIZA) without ever detecting the inflection point where a thought had non-temporal control.

Rescher’s distinction gives us the possibility of free will but at the cost of some logical dualism. If one accepts such a dualism then there is no unique problem with free will. But if one rejects all dualism in favor of eliminative materialism, then not only free will, but consciousness itself (and so subjective orgasm) is impossible. The only escape from such a trap is the ad hoc move of declaring that physics causes thought but not the other way around. There is no particular reason to believe this is the case however for even in this view, the basic metaphysical problem of the mechanism remains. If someday neuroscience does resolve the matter of how physics causes consciousness and demonstrates its sufficiency, it is reasonable to suppose they will discover at the same time how it is that consciousness [sometimes] causes (eventuates) physics.

My original statement “no metaphysical middle ground between free will and automatonism” has now come to the identity between eliminative materialism and automatonism. We have no reason to suppose that consciousness is real (think orgasm) and free will is not. Each must interact with physics in what might well be the same mechanism, some non-temporal cause not yet identified but that crosses Chalmers’ gap. But where does all this leave us on the meaningfulness of arguing with automatons? If you accept that consciousness is in some sense real then there is no choice but to accept some dualism. Once you accept that, there is no reason not to think that libertarian free will of some capacity is real also. If you reject this and insist on eliminative materialism then neither free will nor consciousness is real, and you must accept this in the face of that very experience that leads you to this conclusion. In short, the conclusion is incoherent and that means eliminative materialism is an epistemological nihilism.

Epiphenomenalism fares little better here. There are no epiphenomena in the physical universe apart (purportedly) from consciousness itself, no evidence that physics can cause epiphenomena. If consciousness is epiphenomenal so are its contents including judgments, thoughts, and everything built upon them; our mathematics and all of what we take to be empirical knowledge. Suppose we (and who is this “we” given the epiphenomenal nature of consciousness?) use our mathematics and science, build a real (not simulated) airplane, step into that airplane and it flies.

Is our flight experience something real (remember the orgasm) or also an epiphenomenal illusion? If illusion, what mechanism (the interaction problem) entails such a reliable connection between the illusion and the world? Physics produces an illusory phenomenon able, nevertheless, to make discoveries and use them to engineer devices that can only work if the discoveries (mental phenomena after all) match purportedly independent physics across time. Planes don’t only fly occasionally or by happenstance. Properly designed, built and maintained they fly every time. The only alternative to this extraordinary coincidence is there is no “independent world” at all.

What saves epiphenomenalism from metaphysical nihilism is that they must hold (being materialists) that it isn’t anything subjective (in this case discoveries and their connection to application) resulting in these engineering marvels, but brain states determined in an engineer’s deep past. None of what we take to be “subjective experience”, for example thoughts about airplane wings, can have any causal relation to the production and flying of airplanes. Experience tells us this is patently absurd. Rescher’s notion of initiation might help here but physics (and traditionally materialism) does not recognize any atemporal cause.

If eliminative materialism or epiphenomenalism is true then human beings cannot be anything more than complex automatons whose “initial state” goes at least as far back as conception. Possibly it goes back further, but just as an automaton cannot know what states of the world led to its being “turned on”, it would be impossible for humans to know one way or another if what fixes [illusory] choices goes back any farther than conception of your body.

Either way, it doesn’t matter because there is no you in anything that you do, choose, believe, or think. There is your body of course, but what issues from it is no different in principle than what issues from ELIZA or for that matter a robot floor cleaner. There is no reason for any conscious and free willed being to accept anything that issues from you as anything more than properly (let us say) formed propositions in the English language. The signs (words) carry standard meanings to the conscious recipient but the issuer counts for nothing being unable to have any “genuine opinion”, that is subjectively (though it may falsely report having such opinions), to consider one way or another.

Note that this does not mean that propositions expressed by automatons are not true. They may well be true, but if they are it is purely by chance that such truth is expressed through this particular channel compared to any other. There is no reason to credit the source other than to recognize the expression came from this source. The expressive vehicle has no “stake in the game”. It makes perfect sense to take the propositions of automatons seriously in the same sense that it makes sense to take a chess move by Big Blue seriously. But at the same time, it makes no sense to further argue or debate an automaton or give it credit for being clever. As clever as their behavior might appear to us (who have consciousness and free will) the cleverness (though not the truth) is imputed to the automaton by us.

Consequences

So what happens if you debate an automaton and as a result your argument and alters its behavior? Nothing is going on other than your output becoming its new input and deterministically re-vectoring the automaton’s report. There isn’t any mind there to change and arguing with it becomes nothing more than a game played with the objective of affecting the course of its behavior. One might interact with ELIZA merely to try to invoke a particular response. But note that an automaton (or other determined entity) changes our free minds all the time. How many books have I read whose contents have persuaded me to alter my opinions or beliefs? Of course we normally assume that a conscious free-willed person writes the book, but there is no reason this must be the case.

Being free willed I allow the arguments (by accepting as valid and good and choosing to alter my beliefs, behavior, motives) in the book to have the impact on me that they have. Linguistically, crediting the book with “changing my mind” is merely (usually) a proxy for according its author that credit. But the book is neither conscious nor free willed and yet the book, by my reading, and not its author, is the proximate cause of my change of opinion.

At the end of the day then debating an automaton simply makes no sense. Winning such a debate is like winning a chess match against Big Blue. On the conscious side it might be satisfying and it provides new inputs to the automaton, but we have not thereby altered any mind. No person acknowledges any “good argument” on our part. If the automaton has a designer she might come to recognize something novel about my argument. I might be impacting some mind at second order here, but among the foundation pillars of materialism an insistence there is no designer.

So what do we do with an entity who looks just like a free willed person but claims to be an automaton? There are three possibilities: 1) the entity is lying, 2) the entity is mistaken, and 3) the entity is an automaton. Notice the three alternatives concern only the status of the free will claim. An automaton can produce true propositions. Theoretically, a mind might fruitfully engage with an automaton, even learn something from it. But fruitfulness is precluded if the subject at issue is or inevitably involves the no-free-will claim. As it turns out, most philosophical issues are entangled with the no-free-will claim. Obviously metaphysics and epistemology touched above, but also ethics (any subject having any socio-political import; anything on our world involving interaction between entities that look like people) and aesthetics (can an automaton experience beauty?); all the classic philosophic sub-disciplines.

If the entity is lying there is no point in arguing because we do not know the motivation behind the lie and thus even a knock-out argument serves no purpose. If the entity is an automaton then again there isn’t any point arguing because no argument exists that would make the truth other than it is. Big Blue is an automaton no matter how hard we try to convince it otherwise. Indeed we might cause Big Blue to report that it isn’t an automaton, a mistake by the machine. Reporting free will (or consciousness) when none exists does not change the fact of the matter. We have done nothing more than caused a deterministic system to mis-adapt in a small way, a Pyrrhic victory if ever there was one. Big Blue’s mistaken report need not affect its chess playing skills.

That leaves “being mistaken” by a conscious entity. Here at least there is, presumptively, a mind to be changed. In theory, some argument can affect it, could make the conscious entity recognize that it must in fact be free willed. While possible, such an argument isn’t likely to be found. Why? Because the individual concerned believes the falsehood (often asserted by authorities like physicists and philosophers) “there is nothing but physics” and “thought cannot cause physics” (even bearing in mind the causal distinctions made above). Ironically many of these same authorities see no inconsistency in physics causing thought. We cannot prove the reality of free will or even consciousness in any logically rigorous way any more than we can disprove it. Human beings (I speak biologically here) who claim “no free will” believe this (typically) for metaphysical reasons. If physicists are correct as far as they (all science) can legitimately claim and there is nothing but physics to be found by physical means, then the only possible evidence of the reality of consciousness and free will is what we experience subjectively in the daily business of our lives.

Either we assume that human beings on Earth who deny any free will are mistaken by intellectual error, a choice (free willed) to accept a falsehood, or we take them at their word and they are not, in fact, free willed. If we take the second alternative, continued interaction is nothing more than a game played with a sophisticated ELIZA. Of course in our real world, some mix of the these is also possible. Some of those who report lacking free will are simply mistaken, while others might genuinely lack it. But all of this only matters to free willed human beings on one side or the other. If a free willed being mistakenly believes she has no free will, she might be enlightened, liberated, saved by our interaction with them — however unlikely this is. If the being on one side has no free will, really is an automaton, arguing with it about this is a waste of time.

By contrast if there is no free will on either side, then everything is a “waste of time” because all interaction would be meaningless; epistemological nihilism. There would be nothing “to know”, only what determined physical behavior, a process physics does correctly recognize as purposeless and therefore also metaphysically meaningless. Why should all of us automatons bother to do anything at all? The answer should be plain. The capacity to ask that last question cannot issue from a true automaton. To an automaton, the answer must be determined, perhaps “to maintain its existence”; not a rationale or purpose (of a mind) but a blind switching of state. To question the meaningfulness of existence presupposes some subjectivity whose experience, and so existence, it is. If subjective experience is real then physics causes (perhaps atemporally initiates as in Rescher) thought, and though obscure there is no a priori reason why thought shouldn’t cause (initiate) physics by the same mechanism.

The Understandable Inconclusiveness of Metaphysics Part II

Picture of me blowing smoke

“Scientists inevitably make metaphysical assumptions, whether explicitly or implicitly, in proposing and testing their theories — assumptions which go beyond anything that science itself can legitimate. These assumptions need to be examined critically, whether by the scientists themselves or by philosophers — and either way, the critical philosophical thinking that must be done cannot look to the methods and objects of empirical science for its model. Empirical science at most tells us what is the case, not what must or may be (but happens not to be) the case. Metaphysics deals in possibilities … only if we can delimit the scope of the possible can we hope to determine empirically what is actual. This is why empirical science is dependent upon metaphysics and cannot usurp the latter’s proper role.”  E.J. Lowe “The Possibility of Metaphysics” 1998 Emphasis in the text.

 

In part I we saw the ultimate question “what must be true for the universe of our experience to be the way it is?” can be framed with or without reference to consciousness. For a nontheist physicist or philosopher who assumes there is nothing more than physics to explain there remain questions whose answers, while remaining implicitly physical, nevertheless lay beyond what physics is qualified to address. Typically, these are questions about cosmological origins (the origin of the big bang, the cosmological settings, and the lawful regularities so well described in mathematical terms) or the fundamental ground of quantum mechanics. Also included here would be the origin of life though this in a more restricted way than the others.

Most physicists understandably ignore the matter of consciousness in their work. After all, the big bang, our present “cooled down” universe, and life, predate consciousness of any biological variety by billions of years. The universe presents much to be studied and many unanswered questions besides consciousness. But those questions too have metaphysical implications because questions themselves arise in consciousness and have implications lying outside the measurable qualities of the physical universe. Avoiding the issue of consciousness permits focus on a more restricted set of answers to the “what must be true” question at the cost (possibly) of biasing the set of reasonable answers against consciousness. What is necessary for the universe to be what it is apart from consciousness might no longer be sufficient if consciousness is added back in. Nevertheless there is, presumably, much in and about the universe whose metaphysical grounds do not demand any attention to consciousness other than implications arising from the process of explanation. The mechanisms of the physical after all are antecedent to consciousness, but their explication is not.

Physicalism, the metaphysical doctrine that physical processes and substances are all that exist in the universe simpliciter. Physicalism entails a denial of consciousness, that is, there is nothing in the universe that is non-physical. The apparently non-physical subject must be an illusion. The philosophical incoherence of such a stance should be obvious. Although many illusions have physical explanations (for example a mirage) even these are had by subjects whose purportedly illusory nature is left out of the explanation. How does an illusion have experience, or perhaps we should ask what precisely can experience be if illusions can have it? Nevertheless, many physicists and philosophers take physicalism seriously. But it is one thing to accept that a physical phenomenon must have a physical explanation, while being quite another, and metaphysically irresponsible, to declare there are no nonphysical phenomena.

Naturalism is the doctrine that explanations for all physical phenomena need refer only to physical processes and substances. By itself this does not entail physicalism, but typically naturalism combines with physicalism by insisting that only what can be explained physically is real. Most naturalists are also physicalists. Naturalism masks the possibility of the nonmaterial by suggesting to complete physical explanations for the physical means there remains nothing more to explain. Put another way, there is nothing left for the nonphysical to explain. Another implication commonly accepted by naturalists but not entailed by naturalism is epistemological in nature; namely that knowledge of the physical, and what may truly said of it, can be determined only by physical measurement.

Metaphysically speaking, naturalism divorced from physicalism, is on the most solid foundation as concerns our present grasp of universe phenomena. Even if one were to believe there is a teleological component (for example a God’s purpose) for the universe, a causally closed and intrinsically purposeless physical mechanism remains possible. Purely physical explanations for the physical can in fact be complete explanations while discounting any talk of purpose as redundant.

Materialism is the doctrine that while all phenomena in the universe (including consciousness) have purely physical antecedents, it is nevertheless possible for purely physical processes to result in what appear to be irreducible (to physics) nonphysical phenomena, notably consciousness. Materialism is not committed to physicalism except as concerns origins even if such phenomena are not conceptually reducible to physics. This is to say that materialists who are not physicalists are not committed to the idea that consciousness is illusory or unreal. Materialists are committed to naturalism as concerns the purely physical, but they concede that from the subjective side, a purely natural explanation for consciousness may not in principle be possible. Materialists reject the epistemological implication of naturalism, that knowledge can only be acquired of the physical by physical measurement.

Cutting across these metaphysical distinctions are the epistemological notions of realism and antirealism. Most scientists are realists (there is a special exception here for quantum mechanics where realism has a technical definition linked to hidden variable theories). They believe that there is a world independent of human subjective experience, and that subjective experience (coupled with measurement) accurately informs us about composition and processes of the independent world. If our best ideas (given realism) are not in any literal sense absolutely true about those constituents, they at least approximate this truth and gradually draw (perhaps asymptotically) to it as the scientific enterprise progresses. The most troubling metaphysical response from antirealists is that the connection between what we see in our heads and what is happening in the world independent of our heads seems magical or arbitrary. Realists point to predictions derived from measurement bearing out in the world. Airplanes fly. Antirealists rejoined that some set of incompatible natures might be true of the independent world that nevertheless allowed (or explained) the same outcomes.

The argument is important to scientific work because it bears on the interpretation of phenomena related to extreme or edge cases as concerns the present status of science. Realists point out that away from the edge cases, that is within our technological capacity to experiment, there are measurements from many different perspectives. The set of metaphysical possibilities entailed by any one overlaps those of others in such a way as to cancel all but a few possible ways the independent world could be. The answer to the “what must be true” question, at least as concerns the vast number of common phenomena, is mostly if not absolutely, fleshed in. While conceding that this is not a logical proof of correspondence between theory and world it is enough to persuade most scientists of the non-arbitrariness of the connection between the mental and independent physical whatever its underlying metaphysical reason.

Scientific method has a more technical term, “methodological naturalism”. Related to naturalism in that it is the methodology by which science earns naturalistic explanations. The process begins with physical observation and measurement of physical phenomena. From the observations, science develops theories and if possible, experiments to confirm or refute them. At least this is the traditional and still frequent approach that science takes. Scientists added another approach beginning roughly in the last half of the 19th century. Theories drawn from applying mathematics to the physical world became the foundation for either experimental or purely observational searches for the physical outcomes predicted by the theory or for other phenomena that ruled out those theories. The best theories, even before any attempt at confirmation or refutation are those that predict testable necessary outcomes. Philosophically, and at least as concerns strictly physical phenomena subject to physical tests, this all makes perfect sense.

That experiments or observations can confirm or refute theories about the physical world relies on the correctness (again the realist correspondence with the independent world) of a principle, the “Newtonian Paradigm”. This asserts that a given bounded or isolated system will behave like its unbounded (real) counterpart, if the environment surrounding the bounded sufficiently matches the conditions impinging on the isolated phenomenon when taken in its natural context. If all the physical causes, events, or states of affairs that impinge on a conceptually isolated physical subsystem are properly emulated in an experimentally isolated physical subsystem, the two will behave alike. What exactly constitute sufficient limits varies depending on the phenomenon under study.

Realist scientists accept that the success of the predictive power of methodological naturalism also means that we do manage to identify the appropriate boundary conditions much of the time. But not always. In the latter cases, experiments or observations are inconclusive and it remains for science to try again. The signal, the sign that a sufficient set of limits is found is the close match between unambiguous prediction of physical consequences and their experimental and observational confirmation.

There is another assumption implicit in the Newtonian Paradigm and that is that time is real and some part of the sufficient collection of limits that cancels out (typically though not always) because it applies equally everywhere. Every experiment and every observation takes place in time as do the phenomena themselves. That time moves differently in different reference frames is not much controversial these days nor should it be. But time nevertheless moves in the same direction in every reference frame except where, at the speed of light frame of photons and potentially other massless particles, time doesn’t move at all.

The Newtonian Paradigm and methodological naturalism only work to deliver explanations for conceptually isolated subsystems of the universe. If a system has no known boundaries, we cannot construct or even conceptualize suitable limits required by the Newtonian Paradigm. The physical universe, taken as a whole, is such a system. As observers in the universe, we have no grasp of possible impingement on the universe from outside it. There are a few good scientific theories about the origin of the physical universe; the origin of the big bang itself. ‘Good’ here means these theories make unambiguous physical predictions that are hypothetically observable by present (or soon to exist) instruments.

While strictly beyond the limits of the Newtonian Paradigm, all the good theories still rely on time’s reality, literally that time existed prior to the big bang. Theories that deny the reality of time or assert time begins at the big bang (or the illusion of time in consciousness is conceived as going back to the big bang) cannot possibly have physical consequences stemming from events or states of affairs before the big bang! Because they have no unambiguous consequences in the observable universe such timeless theories of the bang’s origin are, like much metaphysical speculation, open ended and utterly underdetermined by physical evidence. Multi-universes of varying types (see especially Max Tegmark’s “Our Mathematical Universe” (2014) for a very good review of them), colliding M-Branes, or a fortuitous (for us) fluctuation in the quantum vacuum.

Even if time remains real our theories do not reach to testable outcomes before the event of the big bang, only outcomes viewed in the aftermath of it. Unlike every other event from galactic formation to atomic decay the Newtonian Paradigm applies because we can observe and measure both what passes before and what after in time. As concerns the origin event of the universe there can be no unambiguous observation of the before because there was only one such event and it is now past. Our best theories might have observable consequences now and some of these narrow the possibilities of what was before. Because they all unambiguously rely on the reality of time, they confirm the reality of time!

Concerning another of the edge cases, the quantum realm, the situation with regard to the Newtonian Paradigm is a little different. We cannot be sure the limits of force and quantity that we apply with physical apparatus, are relevant to the quantum realm. This is not to deny that quantum phenomena are physical. But it may turn out that not all of what is physical is subject, in principle, to the measurement limitations of macroscopic instruments.

All of our instruments measure, one-way or another, by exchanging energy with the environment. We know that quantum phenomena result in energy transfer as their effects interact with our instruments. But unlike ordinary phenomena, bound in our experiments by emulating the energy exchange between them and that which is outside, we do not know, for the quantum realm, if any energy transfer occurs before interaction with our instruments. The instruments measure the outcome of quantum phenomena but not what happens prior to those outcomes. Although quantum systems are small, as with the big bang, we cannot view what happens to quanta before an energy exchange takes place. We can measure quantum outcomes, but not their causes or prior states-of-affairs. We do not know, as a result, what the relevant boundaries producing the effect are. As in cosmology, the upshot is an underdetermined plethora of theories lacking unambiguous predictions that would confirm or refute them.

One of the debates currently animating cosmology and impinging on the matter of cosmological origin has to do with the presence of infinities in the physical universe. Two kinds of infinities come up in cosmology, singularities, and the possible infinity of the universe as a whole. Infinities are mathematical constructs. If, like Max Tegmark (“Our Mathematical Universe” 2014) you believe the physical universe is a mathematical construct, then physical infinities are at least conceivable and ruling out their physical possibility is problematic if the universe’s governing mathematics necessarily includes them. Black holes might instantiate genuine singularities and, in the past, the big bang might have been a physical singularity. The universe might be infinite in extent.

Roberto Unger and Lee Smolin (“The Singular Universe and the Reality of Time” 2014) unhesitatingly declare there are no physical infinities. Despite the deep connection between mathematics and physics there is no observational evidence to support the idea that what is possible in mathematics must be possible in the physical universe. As deep as the regularities in physical process may go and so be subject to mathematical description, there is no guarantee that they go all the way to infinity.

Unger puts the basic issue this way: “Everything that exists in nature, including the universe and all of its phenomena and events, results from other events and phenomena in time. Everything, as Anaximander wrote, turns into everything else, under the dominion of time.

How then could the infinite come to exist, given what we see and know of the workings of nature? The universe might be indefinitely large, and some of its rudiments indefinitely small. Its history may extend indefinitely back into the past and far into the future. There is, nevertheless, and infinite difference between indefinite largeness or smallness and infinity, or between indefinite longevity and eternity, which is infinity in time.

No natural event analogous to an process that we observe in nature could jump the gap between indefinite largeness or longevity and infinity or eternity. … Consequently, the infinite could exist only if it always existed.” [Under/Smolin 2014 pp 315].

An epistemological argument that we, that is human observers, could never demonstrate a physical infinity by any empirical means and therefore never know there are (or were) physical infinities is as ironclad as an argument can get in philosophy rooted in science. We can never know, in the sense that science yields knowledge, if a physical infinity existed. By their nature all of our instruments, and any instruments we might conceivably build are finite and can measure only finite qualities and quantities. It cannot be possible ever to measure an infinity. In his “Hidden in Plain Sight VI: Why Three Dimensions” (2016) Andrew Thomas notes that no infinity has ever been observed in the universe. It is a safe bet that none ever will be seen. The epistemological argument precludes our ever observing infinity but not its metaphysical possibility. Alas Dr. Thomas did not address the question of whether an infinity instantiated in three dimensions was physically possible.

As concerns the infinite expanse of the cosmos, most cosmologists accept this argument for the limit of our possible knowledge and for other reasons tend not to believe the physical cosmos is literally infinite. But physics is less sure about the physical instantiation of mathematical singularities. Might there be an ontological argument against the possibility of physically instantiated singularities? Since there could be no experimental measurement of infinity we cannot know if any particular property or combination of properties of the observed universe is (or are) an entailment of a physical infinity. If we derived entailments, necessary effects of a physical infinity mathematically, and they turned out to be physically impossible, we would have strong ontological reasons to reject the possibility of physical infinities.

We divide possible singularities into two types; singularities which might exist at the center of black holes, and the [possible] singularity of the only “white hole” in our universe, our big bang. It seems reasonable to link the hypothetical infinity of the present material universe to that of the big bang. Could an infinite universe proceed from anything less than an infinite initial event? If the big bang was not infinite (as Unger, Smolin, and many other cosmologists for various reasons now believe) then the material universe, however great its extent must also in the end be finite. If we can rule out the infinity of the big bang we also rule out the infinity of the cosmos.

What would be the effect in the physical world of a physical infinity at the center of a black hole? We can measure the size of a black hole’s horizon, also its mass, spin, and charge. None of these is infinite. As concerns real cosmological phenomena, black holes and the big bang, differentiated matter-energy destroyed by the extraordinary physical conditions of these events leaves but three broad properties to consider, density, temperature, and pressure. Would there not be measurable physical effects of an infinite quantity of any or all of them? Can a physically instantiated infinity have subinfinite physical effects as measured at some distance from the infinity? What does distance from infinity mean for a physical universe of three observable dimensions? Could the present universe we observe today coexist with instantiated infinity?

The physics and cosmology I’ve read is not encouraging. If the mathematics of relativity did not point at infinity this debate would not be continuing. Some physicists do believe the math signals something that exists or at least might have existed. Equally many note there is (indeed can be) no physical, empirical, evidence that all mathematical expressions represent phenomena in time. Yet in all the literature I’ve explored no one has addressed the question of the physical implications of instantiated infinity.

Some theories enable physics to dismiss the matter. One approach is to declare that at infinity the normal regularities of pressure, temperature, and density simply vanish. As a result, there are no finite physical effects of infinity. Of course there is no empirical evidence (nor could there be for epistemological reasons noted above) that such an unintuitive outcome should hold and if it did, the presence or absence of instantiated infinities could not be distinguished. There aren’t any testable results that would support any distinction.

String theorists might suggest that instantiated infinities are confined to compactified unobservable dimensions. As such they have no implications, that is necessary consequences, for the four dimensions of spacetime in which we live. In Fashion, Faith, and Fantasy In the New Physics (2016) Rodger Penrose challenges the view that events in string theory’s compactified dimensions would have no implications for the stability of our spacetime. Either way string theory is not helpful here. If Penrose is right, then infinities cannot hide in compactified dimensions. If he is not right, the possibility of infinities hidden in compactified dimensions is redundant as concerns the physics of the observable universe. As with vanishing properties their existence has no testable (confirming or refuting) outcomes. We are returned to the basic question; what would be their effects if they existed?

Even if black holes contain no singularities the question of the big bang and the potential infinity of the universe remain. A hypothesized physical infinity at the big bang suffers from some of the same potential problems as physical infinities in the center of black holes. As space expanded following the big bang event the radiation cooled yielding, in temporal order, nucleosynthesis, and then (380,000 years later) neutral atoms leaving behind the light we now see as the Cosmic Microwave Background. But why would a literally infinite big bang ever cool? Wouldn’t an infinite singularity supply an infinite amount of heat and pressure (gravity possibly nonexistent in the absence of anything with a rest mass)? Why would we expect the universe to cool no matter how much (or for how long) it expanded? In mathematics if you subtract 1 or even infinity from infinity, you still have infinity. If one is going to hypothesize a literal physical infinity would it not have to behave as its mathematical counterpart? If it did not, on what basis could we claim that it was infinite?

Is what follows from the hypothesis of a physical universe of infinite extent coherent? A few philosophers have explored consequences of the idea (an infinite number duplicate yous living lives on duplicate Earths, regions of the universe filled with mint jelly, Boltzman brains, etc). Most cosmologists do not believe the physical universe is infinite. Present models of the universe’s origin do not infer infinite quantities of matter-energy. The universe did cool as it expanded; evidence, if anything is, of a subinfinite big bang. While not a knock out argument, it is consistent with the general assumptions of the Newtonian Paradigm that we ignore what is not needed in an explanation. We’ve met the redundancy of infinity in all the hypotheses claiming that instantiated infinity has no unambiguous outcome in the physical. The same applies to an infinite expanse of matter-energy. It is redundant as concerns any observed phenomena.

Unger sums both epistemological and ontological issues this way: “The problem in supposing the world to be infinite or eternal, or both, is not just that we could never know that the world is infinite or eternal, given the infinite difference between indefinite largeness or longevity and infinity or eternity. The problem is also that the overall character of nature would be at odds with nature as we encounter it piecemeal, through science as well as through perception.” [Unger/Smolin 2014 pp 317].

Solving the riddle of infinities, either ruling them out, or showing their necessary existence, would tell us if mathematics grounds natural law or merely describes it. If mathematics controls what happens, then we live in a universe in which time emerges from interacting a priori timeless abstract structure and physical infinities are coherent. If mathematics merely describes the universe then time is real and fundamental, a primitive ingredient of a historical unfolding and there are no physical infinities thanks to the infinite gap between indefinitely large, small, long, or short, and infinity. But that gap does not address physical consequences of physical infinities should such exist. Unger notes that we cannot measure any infinity inside the explorable universe, but he directs his argument through epistemological considerations at the incoherence of physical infinities rather than the impossibility of their outcomes.

Unless physicists conclude for theoretical reasons (as there never will be any empirical reasons) that there are (or would be) consequences to physical infinities that are physically impossible (that is antithetical to all that we see), the metaphysical argument alone is not sufficiently strong. It cannot be because without that demonstration our theories can accommodate what we see with or without infinities. The metaphysical argument is suggestive and perhaps helpful if it puts physicists on the track of some theoretical examination of the physical outcomes of physical infinities, but it does not resolve the matter of infinities by itself. It cannot as long as alternate possibilities remain conceivable.

Not everything that is conceivable is physically possible though it might well be logically possible. This is an important distinction that epistemology and metaphysics presents to physics. It is important because the debate over infinities rests on the conceive-ability of the alternatives. A “knock out” argument against infinity rests on discovering the physical impossibility of their outcomes under conditions in which no empirical determination of that impossibility is possible. The track record of even theoretical physics is inconclusive here. It is possible (again logically conceivable) that at infinity all the physical laws we know are suspended or that instantiated infinities hide in compactified dimensions. In those cases, a physical universe containing physical infinities would look no different from our universe today if for no other reason than any consequence (including none) of a physical infinity is possible and nothing can be ruled out. If the mathematics did not already point to infinities, cosmologists wouldn’t be having this debate.

In 1998 William Dembski published “The Design Inference: Eliminating Chance through Small Probabilities”. He followed, in 2001 with “No Free Lunch: Why Specified Complexity Cannot be Purchased Without Intelligence”. His subject was not the cosmically large or the unreachable smallness of the quantum domain, but the origin and evolution of life. Living organisms fall comfortably midway in size between cosmic and quantum scales. Life presents itself in clearly bounded subsystems open to investigation by science. Biology rests on chemistry and chemistry on physics. Advances in the biological sciences through the past century show the applicability of the Newtonian Paradigm to life. In the 19th century Darwin’s theory of [biological] evolution provided a ground for explanation of life’s evolution, but never its origin. Even as concerns evolution however, Darwin’s work is incomplete. Some of its predictions are well confirmed by experiment and observation, but not all of them.

The problems here are not those of the very large or vanishingly small. They do not involve impossible measurements of infinity or phenomena that exchange no energy. Like the cosmos, we cannot observe the origin of life on Earth in the deep past. But there is no logical reason we could not watch life’s origin on other planets, or reproduce the phenomena in the laboratory. To date we have achieved neither. Rather these problems stem from the dramatic difference in the information content of living organisms compared to any nonliving subsystems of the universe.

Darwin’s theory asserts the environment of any given time selectively filters random changes in life’s information content. Changes inimical to an organism’s survival in its [then] environment are eliminated because those organisms (and those changes) fail to reproduce. By contrast changes that, by chance, happen to make the organisms reproduction more likely are added to the sum total of information present in that organism and its descendants. It was Darwin’s contention that information present in today’s living organisms was thus slowly assembled over the billions of years of evolution on Earth.

That evolution does take place is today indisputable, but all the observed examples involve a reshuffling of existing information, not the selective collection of new information. No one has witnessed the evolution of a more complex organism from a simpler ancestor. Although such development, increasing complexity achieved accidentally, is not precluded by the laws of physics, Dembski’s work casts doubt on the probability of accidental changes generating the sheer amount of complexly specified information in the variety of life on Earth even over the course of a few billion years.

The same considerations apply to the origin of life from nonlife. The information gap between even the most complex nonliving and the simplest unambiguous life is enormous. Modern biological science has proved there is nothing unnatural about life, only matter-energy in an extraordinarily fine-tuned balance behaving in accord with the laws of physics. I bring up the problem that Dembski poses to physics because it is an example of another blindness to metaphysical implications of physical phenomena present in modern science.

Dembski does not claim the “Abrahamic God” created life and fostered its evolution to present forms. What Dembski shows with mathematical rigor is that life’s origin and present status are unlikely to have occurred by chance. Chance is statistically, but not absolutely, precluded  Of course Dembski does believe that life and then evolution as we have come to experience it, if it is not the result of random chance must be, in part, the product of some intelligence. The intelligence need not be God, but something antecedent to life on Earth is surely entailed. There is nothing in Dembski’s core assertions that rules out a physically embodied designer, an alien intelligence, or some form of anomalous monism.

It is to the great shame of the modern scientific community that the implications of Dembski’s work are not at least properly understood and followed out. He is accused of having made no testable predictions, but the core of his work is not a theory but an observation. His observation concerns information, its quantity and quality (what Dembski calls “specification”). Present scientific consensus does not dispute the values with which he begins. Theirs is strictly an irrational (and emotional) rejection of the implications of Dembski’s observation. He may even be wrong! To decide someone will have to replicate his work and show where he makes his mistake. No one in the scientific community has taken on that task.

Physics often accuses philosophy, particularly metaphysics, of painting “castles in the air”. I have shown that physics, tied down by the physicalist assumption, paints many of its own castles whose only qualification for admission to the ranks of physical theory is that their imagined objects are physical. That such objects exist is no more demonstrable or refutable than the existence or nonexistence of God. But physics correctly establishes a universal characteristic of the physical world. The Newtonian Paradigm works when appropriately applied because the mechanisms of the physical are blind and not teleological. That this insight is the basis of a false induction, that there is no teleology imposed from outside the physical, is beside the point. Anomalous monism is false.

The only evidence of teleology in the physical world comes from cosmology, the values of the cosmological settings. All the cosmological “castles in the air” are unverifiable tries to escape the teleological implications of those settings. The settings define the entire landscape of the physically possible in our universe. On this, at least, scientists are agreed. Galaxies and living organisms are possible. A universe of mint jelly is not. The mass-energy of the big bang, given these settings, sets up the regularities of “natural law”. Physics and cosmology have well shown that these alone are sufficient to structure the universe down to the planets and their atmospheres. What physics has not demonstrated is that these regularities alone are sufficient to jump the information-gap between nonlife and life, or that they fully account for the accumulated information we see in the living world around us. If they are inadequate to these two tasks, they cannot be sufficient to explain subjectivity emerging from life.

What is “the Soul”?

blackhatsmirk

In all the other essays in this blog, as controversial as they might be, I could at least argue from some part of the content of our experience. Whether or not libertarian free will is real (or even possible) can be debated, but most people at least do admit that it seems like it is real and that we exercise it. The same is true of values: truth, beauty, and goodness. Are they illusions? Do we make them up, deliberately invent them? Perhaps we really detect their presence, they are real and stem from the same source as consciousness itself.

When it comes to the soul, however, we are at a loss. Simply put we experience nothing what-so-ever of our soul. Now philosophers of religion and theologians will perhaps disagree with me here, but their world is quite mixed up as concerns the soul. Mostly they use it as a word to mean just about anything they want having some bearing on what they take to be our “experiential core”. ‘Soul’ has been used as a synonym for ‘essence’, ‘personality’, ‘mind’, and any combination of any of them even including the body. I do not believe the soul is any of these things. To put it bluntly, we do not experience anything of the soul.

If we do not experience it, why should I think there is a soul at all? The answer has to do with the conviction that God, if he exists, must be both infinite, good, and the source of personality. If “God’s purpose” has to do with personality’s progressive alignment with the “will of God” as described in my first and third books, and more briefly my blog essay “Why Free Will”, then it doesn’t make sense if, on material death, the personality simply vanishes from the universe never again to be expressed. If we are supposed, progressively, to become perfect, like God, in a spiritual sense, this process certainly is not completed by the end of a very short (in cosmic terms) mortal life. What is the point of the fixed temporal reference of personality (see “Why Personality”), of all that we acquire, if it vanishes after a few score years on Earth?

If all this process has a point then personality must somehow survive mortal death. When we die our brain-based consciousness is obliterated, but not the information, the pattern configured into it by God. There is no consciousness here, something that we might best relate to having surgery under general anesthetic. In that case, consciousness (along with its configuring personality) is placed into a deep sleep. With no consciousness in which to operate, personality simply ceases to experience anything, and that includes the passage of time. But as our brain-based consciousness returns to wakefulness, the personality is again expressed.

The inference that there must be a soul if God is real is one of the “consequences of Infinity” I discuss at length in my books and here in “Prolegomena to a Future Theology”. In this case, a consequence that lies strictly beyond our subjective experience. Unlike personality, whose direct apprehension skirts the edge of our self-consciousness and must be present to explain, for example, recursive self-consciousness, the soul doesn’t have to be there at all as far as we, that is our personal selves on Earth are concerned. In short, it has nothing to do with our mortal lives.

Following material death consciousness ceases, but after some unknown duration we wake up again. The person emerges in association again with mind, that is, a consciousness produced by contact with Cosmic Mind (see “From What Comes Mind”). There is also, I presume, some vehicle of expression, something analogous to a body recognized by other persons as the locus of the individuality that is our-self. The vehicle isn’t material by our present reconning but it can be seen and identified by the expanded perceptual systems of its own type. Other post-mortal persons can see and discriminate one another from some environment. In this new case, the mind isn’t brain-based, but rests on something not material, not measurable by physical instruments, and within a vehicle with which the new person-mind combination can express itself. What kind of stuff is that? Is it the same “spirit stuff” of which God is made? I do not know and as we cannot detect it, we cannot say much about it. But if non-material reality actually is real, a part of the Universe’s fundamental ontology, there can be any number of levels or layers or types of “non-material stuff” between God and the material world with which we are familiar.

So we have “the person” and we have a consciousness (likely greatly expanded over our present matter-based version), and a vehicle of expression, but so far no memories. As I noted in my “Why Personality” essay the person has no purchase on its identity without memories which, in our case, are brain-based and so vanish when we die. This, I believe is where the soul comes into the picture. It is, if you will pardon the metaphor, the lifeboat, the escape mechanism that retains memory of the mortal existence. Memories with which we are re-associated when we “wake up”.

What memories? All of them? In our present estate the soul must evolve, grow, along with us even if we experience nothing of it. It is something like a baby within us albeit a baby we do not experience. Possibly it contains all of our memories, God must remember them after all, but I do not think so. Human life is filled with experiences of no spiritual value, that is no bearing on the free willed choice to “do God’s Will”. Experience of physical pleasures are obvious examples, but there are many others. What does have bearing on our future, what is of “spiritual value” are the experiences we have as result of instantiating (or attempting instantiation) of one or more of the values (see “What are Truth, Beauty, and Goodness?”) the only “stuff of spirit” with which we, with our brain-based minds, have contact. I hypothesize (and this is purely a speculation) that the memories we retain and wake-up with are the instances of value choice we make during our mortal life. Every time we make a positive spiritual choice, a choice to fit or instantiate some value into the world (more precisely to attempt that instantiation since we are not always successful and often only partly successful) that choice is recorded in the soul.

If true, this has interesting consequences. Notice in describing this mechanism I have said nothing about any intellectual belief in the reality of God. Atheists and theists alike make “spiritual decisions”, choices based on and for “reasons of” truth, beauty, goodness, or some combination of them. We commonly relate these to “the moral” and choosing “the moral” in any given instance has nothing directly to do with the intellectual baggage carried by the choosing individual. It might seem that “a believer” has more reason to make value-laden decisions than “an unbeliever”, but this is only theoretical. There are, in real life, many atheists who make more of these decisions than many theists. All of them have a soul.

Suppose we take two normal people (atheists or theists it doesn’t matter). One of them makes some value-instantiating decision on average every day of her life, at least those in which she was aware of herself and values. Lets say she had 50 years of such experience since becoming “self-aware” and before she dies or dementia degrades her brain enough to destroy her sensitivity to values. Our other person, on average, makes only one value entangled choice once every month over the same 50 years.

Upon waking in the post-mortal life our first candidate will retain some memory of every day of those 50 years, more than 18,000 memories. Even those she has forgotten in the mortal life will be available to her. By contrast our second candidate will have memories of 600 days of his previous life. Our two candidate’s status, as concerns personality, consciousness, and expressive vehicle when they wake is the same. But one of them retains far more memories of her prior experience (even if she was an atheist and never attended a church in her life) than the other even if he believed in God and attended church every week! To the extent that “going to church” motivates you to make more spiritual decisions the experience is of value. If it does not then, as with what you believe about God, it makes no difference what-so-ever.

Although this is the variation that recommends living a better, more value-entangled, life on Earth, I do not know how much of a difference it makes in the end. Like two siblings born 3 or 4 years apart, the difference in ages makes a considerable difference in their comprehension of the world for a few years, but by the time 30 or more years have elapsed the age difference is washed out. This is the meaning, I believe of Jesus’ parable of the harvest. Everyone gets the same thing in the end. Even a 75 year life on Earth is but 28,000 days. It might take trillions of days measured in Earth-time to reach some provisional end to the process of “becoming perfect as God is perfect”, more than enough time to obliterate the difference of a few thousand memories. But in the early times of the post-mortal career, there will be a difference. Our first candidate will advance in the program more quickly than the second.

I would make two quick observations before ending this. First philosophers have debated the nature of such identity transfers or duplication. Usually these are cast in terms of clones or star-trek-like transporters, but the notion has been applied to God. Does God move the person (and/or soul) from Earth to somewhere else, or does he use his omnipotence and perfect memory simply to recreate them? While such thought experiments are indeed puzzling as concerns clones or transporters they amount to a difference that makes no difference as concerns God. God is not subject to the second law of thermodynamics. Either way, the resulting copy, if that is what it is, is perfect, suffering no degradation whatsoever. From the subjective view of the individual no difference could be discerned. Either way, we will wake up aware that we are the same person who lived another life in another place and that the memories we find in the contents of our new consciousness belong to that person, us.

Second there inevitably arises the question of soul death. Can a soul die? Since it is non-material I do not think it can suffer death by accident or be murdered. But if free will is genuine, we must be able to commit suicide, to choose not to continue in the post-mortal adventure. Suicide of this sort is probably very rare if it ever happens at all in the post-mortal experience, but it must be possible if we are genuinely free. There is nothing to suggest that the post-mortal experience is timeless, the soul is not immortal in an unqualified way. On the other hand, I am not sure simple cosmic-suicide is possible on Earth. We can kill our body, but in that case the automatic life-boat mechanism kicks in and that person/soul combination survives having developed up to the point of physical suicide. In the next life, we begin where we left off here whether we were 80 or 10!

It might be possible to kill our souls on Earth through consistent, repeated choices of evil, choices in opposition to what is represented by the values. If we are (individually) evil enough, so steeped in evil that we lose the capacity to discern values altogether, we also lose the capacity to know right from wrong, and not just most of the time but always. We become, in short, iniquitous! It is possible (though I do not know) that in such a case our souls can wither and die. From that point on, in the life of that mortal, no survival raft exists and such personality vanishes (perhaps merging back into the infinite as a drop of water merges with the ocean) on physical death. Notice that this suicide entails the repeated exercise of free will choice. A single horrifically evil decision would not seem to be enough to obliterate the soul. Accident or disease, the degradation of the physical brain to the point that value discrimination is no longer possible, might freeze the soul in its present status at that time in the life of the individual, but God well knows that the individual has not chosen this outcome of his or her own will and the survival mechanism remains operative.

My speculative story ends here. I have gone into these things in more detail in my books (the first and third). More importantly it is there connected up with what we do experience of spirit. I emphasize here, in conclusion, that this is nothing but a speculative story based not on direct experience but on inference from basic assumptions about the nature of God and the purpose of experience, in particular the point of free will in a physical universe of purposeless mechanism. I tell this tale because it fills a hole in the theology I describe in my first book. If God’s “perfect universe” takes billions of years to complete, then the short mortal experience, something usually less than 100 years, we have on Earth cannot be the end of the story even though we have no experiential (subjective or otherwise) evidence of this mechanism’s operation.