Mental Cause

In several essays on the broad subject of free will I have said that there are three types of causation in our physical universe: micro-physical indeterminism, macro-physical determinism, and agent-volition, the last subjectively experienced as the willful exercise of one’s mind’s causal capacity, “mental cause”. I refer to what Aristotle called “efficient cause”, that is the immediate forerunner (or forerunners) of a particular event or outcome taken to mean “that which physically brings that particular event about.” Aristotle defined four types of causes, three of which could be said, sometimes, to have “mental” aspects. A simple example here, a fire in a fire-place, will serve to illustrate Aristotle’s distinctions.

1. The “material cause” of the fire is that out of which it could be made. Wood or paper might work. Water would not. There also has to be some oxygen (or other oxidizer) present and so on.

2. “Formal cause” has to do not with the fire’s material substrate but its shape. Not all arrangements of even qualified materials will successfully light. To make a nice fire place fire, the wood and paper have to be arranged in certain ways. Many but not all possible arrangements will serve.

3. “Efficient cause” is that which physically brings the fire about. It might be a lit match set to paper for example. When physics talks about causes, it is this they are talking about. Importantly, there can be chains of efficient causes. To set my wood pile alight with a match I must first strike the match and light it, then hold its flame under my paper kindling. That last step is commonly called also the “proximate cause” and it is mostly this that this essay is about.

4. Aristotle’s fourth cause, the “final cause” is the reason we have built and lit our fire. We want to get warm. Notice that this cause is only indirectly connected to our fire. Besides starting a fire we might get warm in other ways. We could do physical exercise or put on a coat. The entire set up of the fire from the material (wood and paper), its arrangement, to its ignition, are merely means to this end.

Under normal circumstances, we would always attribute “final cause”, to a desire, aim, or objective (purposeful intention) of the agent to get warm. If “mental cause” (of any sort) even exists, final causes would always, by definition, be mental. “Material causes” (that wood and paper in the presence of oxygen can burn) are not typically thought of as mental. Formal causes (the arrangement of the wood and paper in the fire place) might or might not be mental. The wood and paper in their pre-light configuration is not mental per-se, but the arrangement-design might or might not be. In the case of our fire place an agent is involved, but for example in a natural forest (arrangement of trees) ignited by lightening, it is not. As with formal cause, efficient cause might or might not involve mentality. In the case of our fire place, an agent lights the fire, but in the forest fire, lightening does the job.

Notice that from a third-party viewpoint, efficient (causal) agency remains always a physical object. What lights our fire place is a body with arms and hands that strike matches, and so on. There is no need to assume mental cause is real from an outside perspective. When we get to an inside perspective however the situation is quite different.

WHY DO WE NEED MENTAL CAUSE

What we need is some justification for believing mental cause exists, that it belongs in our ontology and “is real” by virtue of being one of the causes (somewhere in the chain of efficient cause) of [some] physical event. When we observe what we take to be a minded agent (human or animal) we see that the physical effects they engender are always products of a body’s motion. No one disputes the physical connection between the body and the rest of the world. The issue comes down to “what moved the body”? The answer is muscles of course, nerves, and more nerves comprising some part of the brain. The question is, was there something that isn’t a nerve as such (though a nerve would be involved) but something quintessentially mental, perhaps a desire or something like that lying at the beginning of the chain of efficient-causes?

Most people would say that it “seems as though” this is the case. Physics says this seeming must be an illusion because it discovers only two kinds of causes in the universe, the indeterminate and the determinate. To be sure, discovered here means measured. Physics detects, with physical instruments, only two types of causes. Speculation about mental cause goes back as far as the earliest recorded philosophy, but physics has never been able to detect it!

If however there is no mental cause when we seem so strongly to sense that there is, all sorts of philosophical problems arise. Mental cause is not the same as free will, but free will entails mental cause. Physics of course denies free will is real But if I am not warranted in believing my agency can be a cause, at least of my own body’s motion, how am I warranted in believing anything? Belief itself (causal or not) is a quintessential mental phenomenon. If my causal capacity is an illusion why not also my agency, and why not anything I might happen to believe or desire?

We can be deluded about our beliefs being true, but it is difficult to believe we are deluded about having beliefs, and doubly so for desires. The debate isn’t usually about having (subjectively experiencing) beliefs, but rather about their being anything “over and above” brain states. If physics calls my very agency into question (not the illusion of it, but its being something more than brain states) what is it then that has beliefs and desires? Can “brains” be an answer? How do brains, qua brains, come to have beliefs and desires? Do the mechanisms of a clock know the time of day in the sense that a human knows it when she looks at the clock? To deny brain states beneath (the foundation) of our mental states would in this day be absurd. The issue is always ultimately the ontological status of what appears, the subjective, as a result of their presence, and what (if any) downward causal powers the appearance has.

These sorts of issues are but the tip of the iceberg. If mental cause (and so by extension free will) is an illusion then a radical skepticism about everything would seem to be warranted. At the same time, even skepticism, since we must be skeptical of our very agency, is not warranted either. There is a long literature here, but as John Searle put it (The Construction of Social Reality [1995]) nothing about the human experience nor all of human history makes any sense without presupposing free will.

WHY IS MENTAL “EFFICIENT CAUSE” CONTROVERSIAL?

I have given some answer to this above: because physics cannot measure it. It would seem unproblematic to take for granted that physics doesn’t cover everything; it is, as the matter is put, incomplete. But the problem is more subtle than that. The two types of causes that physics can measure (strictly speaking physics cannot measure quantum phenomena directly, but only when these interact with the macroscopic world) have qualities, characteristics, that mental causes lack. These qualities are what explain in the sense of “reveal the mechanism for” physical causation. There is no mathematics in physics, no observation or experiment that would suggest that anything other than prior-physics can be a cause in physics. Even not-directly-observable quantum phenomena are readily observed via these same qualities when they interact with the macroscopic world. Purportedly “mental causes”, by contrast, do not appear to share these qualities. As a result, they cannot be observed from a third party viewpoint, and so no path exists to an explanation of the mechanism of their effect on physics.

Rather than accepting that some mysterious sort of cause that cannot be observed must be real, physicists and most philosophers instead move to strike “mental cause” from the list of causal possibilities in our universe. This is a philosophical move, an induction based on evidence from the only sort of detection or measurement instruments, physical instruments, that exist. The anti-physicalist might respond by claiming that while physical instruments can not in principle measure mental cause, subjective consciousness, literally our phenomenal arena detects them, and this arena is, after all, also a part of the universe along with everything else.

At this point we are thrown back upon the brain which is indisputably physical. We know that the movement of my arm is preceded by nerve impulses in my arm and brain that are themselves indisputably physical. If at the top of this chain of efficient cause there was a mental event that set the chain in motion it behooves the proponent of mental cause to say how, that is by what mechanism, the mental event effects (that is trigger) the first indisputably physical (nerve) process in the chain?

CHARACTERISTICS OF MATERIAL and MENTAL CAUSES

According to Phil Dowe (Physical Causation [2000]) material cause is all about transferring some [physically] conserved quantity momentum, mass-energy, or electric charge. If one billiard ball strikes another momentum is transferred from one to the other. This results in two other observations important in this context. First physical cause is temporal. Causes precede their effects. The transfer of a conserved quantity cannot take place faster than the speed of light. Second, there is a reciprocal impact of the effect on the cause. If one billiard ball gains momentum, the other loses it.

Both of these qualities are absent from mental cause. In this context, distinctions made by Nicholas Rescher (“Free Will: A Philosophical Reappraisal” [2008]) will be helpful. Rescher is aware of the overall relation between consciousness (including mental cause) and brain states. He claims that there never can be any instance of mental cause without the simultaneous existence of some correlated brain state. If we look for a mental event that brings about a brain state, but isn’t itself associated simultaneously with some other brain state, we will never find it. “Mental causes”, in Rescher’s terms are not causes in Dowe’s physical sense.

Mental causes are not, in Rescher’s view, temporal. They are literally (metaphysically) simultaneous with their effect, some brain state. He distinguishes this sort of a temporal cause by calling it “initiation”. Initiation (often intentional but not necessarily so) need not evoke a neurological correlate ex nihilo. It need only slightly modify an existing state. From a third party viewpoint, that modified state would appear a perfectly natural evolution from its own prior state. Nothing would be found to suggest that anything non-physical was responsible for it.

This “a temporal initiation” is possible because in mental cause, no conserved quantity is transferred, and consequently there is no reciprocity. If I elect to pick up a rock and throw it at a window, I can feel the momentum transfer between my arm and the rock, and of course the throw is temporal. But the initiation of the event was simultaneous with the physical brain state that lies at the top of the physically [efficient] causal chain. The evidence that this is so is our experience that there is no reciprocal effect of my choice to initiate a rock-throw back on that initiator. Nothing about the initiation impacts back on the mental cause itself. Of course I may, this being a directed (intentional) initiation, immediately regret having done so. But that is a different, subsequent, thought, not a modification of the original one.

If Rescher is correct about initiation, how can we tell if the choice (mental cause) results (simultaneity being granted) in a correlated brain state or the other way around? We cannot tell based on any physical measurement. Physicalists would say there is no reason not to suppose that the physical is logically (if not temporally) prior. But if Rescher is correct, what then of the mechanism problem?

With regard to mechanism, many speculations seem to orbit about some interaction at the quantum level. The a temporal nature of initiation coupled with a lack of conserved quantity transfer and so lack of reciprocity, are suggestive of quantum entanglement where, on some views (see Ruth Kastner “Understanding our Unseen Reality” [2015]), the same qualities (or lack of them) characterize quantum phenomena. Since we cannot measure quantum phenomena directly, as far as we know, prior to some manifestation in the macro world (the exchange of a conserved quantity) the same qualities as characterize “mental cause” (initiation) might characterize “quantum cause”. The most detailed speculation with regard to mind might be Henry Stapp’s (“Quantum Theory and Free Will [2017]) Quantum Zeno Effect (QZE), mind’s ability to hold or otherwise modify subtle quantum indeterminacy within the anatomical and physiological processes of the brain. True, even QZE does not say exactly how this power of the mental connects up to the physical, but in this case, neither side of the transaction can be directly measured and there are reasons to believe (see the aforementioned Kastner book) that quantum phenomena are also initiations in Rescher’s sense.

WHAT IS MENTAL CAUSE

Above I have looked at mental cause from the physical side. What does it look like from the mental side? Some philosophers have characterized mental cause in terms of beliefs or desires. But beliefs and desires are not mental causes in Aristotle’s efficient sense. They are Aristotelian “final causes” and clearly mental, but not our issue here.  Being a reason is of course mental, but not all of what is mental is also causal. I might want to get warm (my reason for lighting a fire) but not move a muscle to do anything about it. The quintessential efficient mental cause is a volitional act, an exercise of will on the part of a minded agent. In our experience, only mind, the subjective consciousness of an individual, has this ability to act volitionally, for a purpose, and not either indeterminate or determined by prior physics.

Purposeful cause is mental and only mental, and it is causal, that is itself determining of subsequent physics, for example my throwing a rock. As much as I disagree with Schopenhauer, I do believe he was correct in locating will and representation at the core of phenomenal experience, or as we would put these in more modern terms, intention and qualia. Mental cause, in particular our capacity to control intent and by extension a body, is an intrinsic component of our “what is it like to be…” experience.

Qualia are the mental effects of physical (brains) causes (an over simplification but for purposes of this essay I leave it at that, see “From What Comes Mind”). Intention is a mental cause (initiation) of a physical effect. Throwing a rock begins with an intention, but this is also true for subjective states that exhibit no gross physical effects. Suppose on a nature walk you come upon a beautiful flower. You attend to it, visually, perhaps also aromatically at the same time. Suddenly you become aware of a buzzing sound from behind or above your head somewhere. You cannot see what is causing the sound, but without moving your gaze from the flower you have become aware of it. Becoming aware is clearly a mental event which in this case may be comfortably attributed to prior physics (brain states, bearing in mind Rescher’s initiation can work in both directions). Only subsequently do we volitionally attend to the sound, perhaps to identify it. The volitional element entails agent purposeful-direction and so mental cause even if no muscle has moved.

Under normal circumstances, when we are conscious, we are never without both qualia and intention about something. Is it possible one can be conscious without intention, qualia, or both? Advanced Buddhist monks, masters at meditation, claim to achieve the first, but even this being so, they maintain this special state only while meditating. Sensory deprivation might suggest the possibility of a qualia-free consciousness, but people report made-up qualia, images and sounds brains generate (and to which we attend as we do in a dream state) in the absence of external stimulation. Perhaps we cannot be conscious in the absence of qualia.

MENTAL CAUSE AND FREE WILL

Mental cause is necessary but not sufficient for free will. In addition, free will demands agency, a subject whose will it is. An exercise of free willed choice is a volitional act of an agent. It is not either prior-determined, though often influenced, by physics, nor random. It is mental cause directed by agent-purposeful volition, itself quintessentially mental and unique to minded-agency in the universe. To get free will, mental cause must be real, and also subjective agency. The action of the body-agent of a physical event (throwing the rock) is willful only by extension from the [presumptive] mental-agent who is the initiator of that act. A body can sometimes act in the absence of agent consciousness. Such acts are not willful, and typically we do not claim that they are.

The connection between intention (willfulness) and subjective agency is built-in to human language. To speak of intention always implies subjective agency. So free will and mental cause are doubly linked. Free will rests on mental cause, but if free will is not real, there is nothing interesting left for mental cause to do. It is possible there are, for example, subconscious mental causes of which we are not aware (conscious of) and so not willed as such. But if in fact free will (not to mention agency as such) can be subsumed by brain states, there is no reason why subconscious mental cause could not be also.

An exercise of will (volition) by an agent is the quintessential “mental cause”. If free will is an illusion it is hard to understand the point of working to save mental cause. If all of our choices, our behaviors (including purely subjective sorts like “attending to”), are prior-determined by our brains what is left for mental cause to do? When Sean Carroll denies the possibility of free will because “If free will were real it would mean that mind causes physics” (The Big Picture [2016]) he is aiming, really, at mental cause. Free will goes along for the ride because it is the volitional exercise of the causal potential of mind that matters.

Agent volition then, and not beliefs or desires, is the epitome of mental cause. But if volition itself is prior-determined by brain states, and not a non-material (mental) agent, then there is no point to mental cause, the brain can do it all. In turn, mental cause, apart from the free will issue, is usually defended (or challenged) with reference to free will. The possibility of free will is grounded on the reality of mental cause and in addition the reality of the volitional agent able to utilize it. Both of these, in turn, rest on the reality of mind with the “power to cause physics”.

For Every Theist there are One Hundred Materialists

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As concerns philosophy of mind, for every theist, there are one hundred materialists in the present-day philosophical community. Theism, purportedly has many problems, but it does do a nice job explaining the seemingly qualitative difference between subjective experience (that is, mind) and the perceived (and purportedly) mind-independent world. I will return to theism at the end.

Among materialists, for every eliminative materialist (as concerns mind) there are five pure property dualists. For every property dualist, there are ten Russellian monists of one stripe or another and a like number of panpsychists. These last two categories often overlap with some versions of Russellian monism (sometimes called dual-aspect monism) becoming panpsychism at larger scales. There are also monisms that do not become panpsychism, and panpsychisms that do not rest on monisms. While materialist philosophers of these various philosophies of mind talk to one another about the differences in their theories (each intended to overcome specific problems seen in their competitors), none of them ever mention their over-arching issues, problems that all of these various theories have in common. This essay is the result of my attempts to discuss these common problems with several of these philosophers all of which have been met with stony silence.

Each of these materialist approaches to mind is supposed to solve the “problem of mind” without reference to a Deity who would, should he exist, obviously have the power to create both the physical universe and mind within it. The starting point for all materialist solutions is the physical universe (that’s why they are materialisms), in particular “causal closure”. This fundamental principle comes down to the idea there is only physics in the universe and all the physics that now exists came from physics and nothing else. There is another axiom and a few corollaries to the causal closure principle. The other axiom is that only physics (besides being produced by only physics) itself produces only [more] physics. The corollaries are (1) nothing of physical mechanism is purposeful, or “there is no teleology in physics”, and (2) there is reciprocity in physical mechanism. A cause is always in someway changed by its effect. Physics recognizes two sorts of causes in the universe: macro-physical determinism, and micro-physical indeterminism. Both types of cause fully comply with causal closure, axioms and corollaries.

The central problem addressed in all of these theories (except eliminative materialism) is that consciousness, in particular human mind (though applies also to the higher animals), does not appear on its surface to be material at all. Yet mind does very much appear to be a cause productive of physical effects; the manipulation of some associated individual body. If mind emerges purely from physics, is nonmaterial in some sense, and a cause in the physical, then the causal closure principle as it stands is false.

ELIMINATIVE MATERIALISM

Eliminative materialism is the only PoM that does not entail some change to causal closure. Indeed, it does not suffer from any particular metaphysical issue (there being nothing needing any metaphysical ground), nor any problem with property specification or “interaction”, one or more of which, as we will see, plague every other theory including theism. The problem with eliminative materialism is that it achieves all of this by denying consciousness exists. It saves all of causal closure by claiming that consciousness does not belong in the list of real phenomena (ontology) filling our universe, making itself prima facia absurd! It is to overcome this absurdity (and at the same time avoid supposing an existential intentional source of mind) that all the other PoMs were invented!

PROPERTY DUALISM and EPIPHENOMENALISM

Property Dualism is almost always a basis of the other theories except for theism and even here there are sensible interpretations that are largely property-dualistic and not Cartesian substance or Thomistic hylomorphic dualism. Both monisms and panpsychism, at least in many of their interpretations, come out to mind of our sort being a property that emerges from brains. In pure property dualism, there is nothing other than the physics and biology of brains involved, that is causally closed physics as understood by most physicists. Yet in this view, the second axiom of physics, that physics produces only physics is seemingly violated. In one special case, the case of brains, physics produces something that while yet supervening on physical properties displays novel properties, a seemingly nonmaterial subjectivity, and with this the power to cause physics, to cause a physical change in the brain that results in the uncontroversially physical control of a body. This breaks the first causal closure axiom, and amounts to proposing a third kind of cause in the universe, mental-cause.

As with all of these theories there are variations. Some property dualists avoid proposing a third cause with a variation called epiphenomenalism. Here the idea is that consciousness, our subjective, seems real enough from within it, but as concerns the external world, its powers are purely illusory. Brains do produce consciousness, but consciousness does not “cause physics” (Sean Carroll “The Big Picture” 2016). Epiphenomenalism, however, while preserving the first causal closure axiom doesn’t save the second.

Pure property dualism doesn’t suffer from any particular metaphysical or property specification problem. Since mind comes only from brains there is no need for further metaphysical grounding and since only these brain-based minds are at all mental there is nothing to discriminate or specify as concerns the mental properties of anything other than brain-minds. Property dualism does have an “interaction problem”. As noted above causal closure is violated in at least one (epiphenomenalism), and often two directions.

How exactly does the new dualistic entity emerge from pure physics (we have found no other example of such an emergence), and how, by what means exactly, in its bi-directional variation, does it “cause physics” in turn? No one can say. Henry Stapp’s Quantum Zeno Effect is an interesting speculation (mind can partly-constrain wave function collapse in special micro-structures of the brain). QZE only pushes the problem up one level. It is a suggestion regarding what mind does to brains, not how it accomplishes this feat.

RUSSELLIAN MONISM and PANPSYCHISM

Both Russellian monisms (of various sorts) and panpsychism (also of various sorts) are, conceptually, advanced to suggest solutions to this mystery in pure property dualism. How does ordinary physics under causal closure come to have the extraordinary ability to produce something nonphysical and how does that entity come to have causal effect on the manifestly physical brain? Maybe physics isn’t as purely physical as physicists think. Maybe all they can detect and measure is the physical, but physical law has psychic or proto-psychic (I use these terms interchangeably throughout) qualities built into it? Whenever we measure the physical, we are measuring combined physical and proto-psychic qualities.

When brains come along, they produce mind as we know it because these psychic qualities somehow sum up in brains in a way that expresses them in what we experience as subjective consciousness. Supposedly this avoids violating causal closure because what physics calls causal closure already has the psychic built into it. Brains evoking minds are merely the culminating expression of these qualities.

This is, in essence, the core of both the monisms and panpsychism. One-way or another, either at the micro-level or the universe taken as a totality, psychic-potentials in the form of something positive attached to physics, add up to consciousness as we know it when brains come along. These qualities have to be positive. If they are merely potentials, possibilities, then they are no different from all other phenomena presently in the universe including galaxies, stars, life, and so on. All of them were obviously possible, made that way by the conditions of the Big Bang and the cosmological settings.

Yet while monisms or panpsychisms seem to resolve one issue, and not even that very well as we will see, they raise more than one of their own. Where do they come from? How is it “psychic-properties” pervade physics (or cosmology)? What is their origin? Physics, cosmology, itself has the quantum vacuum. There is all this material stuff and process in the universe because the quantum vacuum is unstable and the macroscopic universe, the Big Bang, is the result (see “A Universe From Nothing” Lawrence Krauss 2012). Importantly, the resulting galaxies, stars, planets, and all cosmological evolution at least up to the appearance of life, fall out of our physical equations given the measured cosmological settings. Getting all this requires no extra-influence, no psychic-qualities. Significantly, there are no extra [psychic] terms in the mathematical equations describing any of this.

Monists and panpsychists say the proto-psychic properties are brute, built-in to physics at the micro (monism) or cosmological (panpsychism) scale and what we measure as such in physical measurements already includes the proto-psychic properties. Yet, no psychic-placeholders are needed to represent physical phenomena in our equations. For cosmology, the properties of the big bang, including the values of the cosmological settings, are sufficient to ground (make possible), all of physical reality as we find it, including life. Life’s origin perhaps presents a special problem, but not a topic I will address here (See “Answering Five Questions: The Relation between Science and Religion”). Only mind seems to need something more. Something more that is than the possibilities inherent in pure physics. Other than this, the psychic properties, at any other level, are explanatorily redundant.

Another problem raised by panpsychism and Russellian monism are the properties of the proto-psychic. We can say something about what “psychic qualities” are for our own minds. They are the substance of our experience, our “what is it like to be” and include qualia and intentionality (our free capacity to direct our attention) among other properties. Yet except for a negative characterization “it isn’t that”, none can say anything positive about what these micro or cosmological psychic properties actually are. They are not consciousness. So what are they? Nor can anyone answer the related question: what do these psychic qualities do exactly to physics? How would physics be different if they weren’t there?

The retort here is that these qualities are what they are such that when material organization becomes dynamic and complex enough, subjectivity, mind, emerges. This is after all the reason these speculations exist. But if these psychic properties have no effect on physics until complex brains evolve, this solution becomes ad hoc. If brains are utterly contingent (as pure physics has to claim) then they might not have ever evolved. That being the case, psychic properties in the micro physical or cosmological would have had no purpose what-so-ever, more explanatory redundancy.

On the other hand, perhaps the psychic qualities we cannot describe do something long before life and brains come about. What? They would act in such a way as to push physical evolution towards strengthening the likelihood of otherwise contingent evolution to produce life and eventually brains! If this is the case, then to be clear, teleology, purpose, is put back into physics, the purpose, in this case, of evolving minds! Now we are face-to-face with some purposeful mind behind all of this, or we must accept that, purely by accident, there is attached to physics that which cannot be detected, comes from nowhere (the Quantum Vacuum doesn’t help here), and happens by sheer chance to push cosmological and biological evolution towards mind.

All of this though begs again the question of the mechanism of this influence. A self-respecting chemist will scoff at the notion that any process, even one as finely tuned as a living being or a brain does anything, on the purely physical level, but satisfy the physical equations. Any influence the psychic has would have to be invisible to what pure physical theory addresses perfectly well, for example selecting mutation X over the equally likely mutation Y. Since no such influence can be detected, we face again, although the devoted will object, a manifestly nonphysical phenomenon (except by stipulation that it must be physical because there is nothing else) that has some effect in (and on) the physical. We have, in short, an “interaction problem!”

In short, philosophers put up a placeholder that supposedly explains the capacity of the material world (at the micro or cosmological level) to invoke consciousness from brains, but can say nothing positive about this placeholder. They cannot say how it happens to exist or where it comes from. They cannot describe any of its properties, they cannot say how it manages to work, how it interacts with physics. On top of all this the theoretical edifice must either add teleology back into physics and cosmology or it is explanatorily redundant until brains happen, contingently, to arrive on the scene!

THEISM

Theism is the notion that some minded and purposeful entity, God, exists and has the power to spawn the physical universe by some mechanism (perhaps the big bang), and purposefully direct its evolution towards life and mind. Under theism, there must be a purpose to otherwise purposeless physical mechanism. Since God is purportedly infinite (eternal) and uncaused-cause (unique in the universe [of which the physical is but a part] having no prior-cause), postulating him puts a stop to infinite-recursion of causes.

Theism has an inverse counterpart to Eliminative Materialism, Berkeley-ian style “pure idealism”. The idea is that nothing is real except mind, our individual mental arenas. What “appears to mind” as the external world from the inanimate to other persons, even our own bodies, is put into our minds by God. This idea is not as prima facea absurd as eliminative materialism. It accepts mind, at least my own mind (idealism can drift towards the solipsistic), as obvious and since God is infinite he has the capacity to do exactly what idealism claims he does.

Idealism is even less popular than eliminative materialism because God is needed to make it work. But it has other problems. For example, why should this mind of ours find, what amounts to a simulated mind-independent world, so complicated? It is one thing for God to put a virtual tree outside my virtual window, but as I further explore the tree I discover incredible complications. Not only the tree’s cells their macroscopic (deterministic) intricacies, but all the rest down to quarks and the Schrödinger wave equation. Doesn’t all of this amount to God deluding us about what seems to be a reality independent of mind even if recognized only from within it? For these reasons the preponderance of evidence favors a genuine, mind-independent, world whose properties we discover through application of mind.

A good God would not be in the business of deluding us. If there seems to be a mind-independent world, and if, with mind we appear capable of grasping its intricacies, then evidential experience suggests the mind-independent world is real. At least at middle size scales (roughly dust motes to mountains) there is a remarkable correspondence between the world and its representation in mind.

Besides idealism there are two well-known theistic PoMs, Cartesian-style substance dualism and Thomistic (Aquinas) hylomorphism, the first being much better known than the second. I do not believe either is satisfactory. Hylomorphism is vague about what exactly is formed, or what mind is a form of or in. Cartesian substance dualism has never given enough credit to brains. For Descartes, mind, being immaterial, should in theory be able to float free of any particular instantiation. Why is mind associated always and only with brains?

My own view is closely related to materialistic property dualism adding a catalyst that evokes the nonmaterial mind from the activity of brains. The catalyst (Cosmic Mind, perhaps a poor choice of names) is not mind as such and combining the two (brains and catalyst) is required. For more on this and how it differs from Cartesian dualism see “From What Comes Mind”. My interest here is how theism in general compares with the materialistic theories as concerns their metaphysical issues: origins, teleology, psychic qualities, and the interaction problem.

Regarding origins, brains are physical and come up an evolutionary chain. The catalyst comes, in one-way or another by some direct of indirect route, from God as does the physical universe within which evolution occurs. God, being eternal-uncaused-omnipotent, has no particular metaphysical problems of his own granting his existence for the sake of argument. The question “from whence comes God?” is answered. God comes from God.

The relation between the teleological and causal closure, a problem for panpsychism and Russellian monisms is also solved. Causal closure in physics is true. Mechanisms in the physical are well and truly purposeless. At the same time God has, seemingly, a purpose for purposeless physical mechanism. Universe physical outcomes, governed by the conditions of the big bang and the cosmological settings, do not merely allow for life and later mind, but were intended, deliberately, to deliver them over time. Even if Cosmic Mind has no teleological role before the appearance of brains (I do not assert this to be true, but my argument does not hang on its truth) it is not redundant (as are proto-psychic properties with no teleological impact) because the eventual appearance of brains is not, under a theistic view, contingent.

The description or properties problem, acute for panpsychism and the various monisms, is not an issue for theism because there are no proto-psychic qualities to describe! Stars, rocks, and thermostats have no proto-psychic qualities, nor does the physical universe as a [physical] totality. The equations of physics need no proto-psychic term because there are none to apply. Nothing is psychic until brains evolve and then the interaction between Cosmic Mind and brains evokes subjective consciousness. Notice that this not only includes animal brains, but supports exactly the hierarchy of consciousness that we find on Earth. Lower-order brains have lower-order consciousness. There is something it is like to be a bat, and something less to be a lizard, and less still a fish, and so on. Cosmic mind, uniform throughout the universe, invokes mind only to that level the underlying brain makes possible.

This then brings us to the interaction problem. Theism does little better here than panpsychism, Russellian monism, or for that matter both two-way property dualism and one-way epiphenomenalism. Every PoM apart from eliminative materialism suffers from the same interaction problem! Even so, theism does a little better than the others. Nobody can say how any of these theories (their implied ontologies) work to evoke mind from brains, but theists can say, at least, there is someone who knows the trick. Further we have no reason to suppose that this trick of God’s is comprehensible to the minds invoked by it.

It does no-good for the Russellian monists or panpsychists to argue that they have no interaction problem because the claimed “proto-psychic” properties are built-in to physics and so physical by stipulation. This move is part of the whole point of these theories but it is disingenuous, merely pushing the lump to another part of the rug. The proto-psychic presumably has some impact on what would happen in the physical. Physics would presumably come out differently in its absence. Without being able to say what this impact is, how physics differs thanks to these properties, and merely stipulating that they are physical without distinguishing them from a physics without them, makes them explanatorily redundant.

Of the three problems, metaphysical ground, property specification, and interaction, theism resolves two and makes sense of our epistemic incapacity to resolve the third — God’s powers are beyond our ken. The gap between mind and the doings of the physical brain is intrinsic to the nonmaterial character of mind and the causally closed qualities of physics. Mind cannot be directly probed from the third person perspective, and from the first person, its own origin is phenomenally transparent.

Theism gives something additional that all the various alternative solutions never address directly, free will! Free will is the elephant in the consciousness room (see “All Will is Free”). Pure property dualism can only scratch its head about its appearance, its power, seemingly automatically embedded in mind. Panpsychism and the monisms do accommodate its possibility, but offer no clue as concerns its origin or mechanism. Theism grounds free will.  A free intentionality is possible and exists because a free intentionality with the relevant power put it there, the integral facet of our subjective experience (a truth ironically recognized by atheistic Schopenhauer). It turns out there is a point to everything after all (see “Why Free Will”)

Meanwhile, the PoM consequences of theism fit experience. Why does the evolution of mind in the universe seem to be something more than purely contingent? The intuition is true, mind was intended. Why is mind alone, within a teleology-free physical mechanism, purposeful (intentional)? Because the source of both mind and physics is intentional, minded.  Why does consciousness appear nonmaterial from its own viewpoint and invisible from the viewpoint third parties? Because the catalyst (Cosmic Mind) is not material, but in mind of the biological type, the nonmaterial is grounded in all three of the “fundamental joints” in reality (see “Prolegomena to a Future Theology” and “Why ‘One Size Fits All’ Ontologies Never Work”).

I could go on and others of my papers explore some of this from different perspectives. The point here is that Theism answers questions and resolves ontological and epistemic mysteries much better than do any of the non-theistic PoMs. In fact, these theories leave everything out! Their only reason for existence is to reject theistic explanations. There cannot be a God, so what then supports mind? Is it mysterious proto-psychic properties that have no discernible origin or metaphysical ground that we can find or even speculate about, no properties we can say anything about, and suffer from the interaction problem they were stipulated to avoid?

Of course philosophy must be free to speculate about experiential phenomena from any perspective whether theistic or atheistic. My problem with the atheists in PoM is not that they advocate for their ideas, but in my extensive reading not a single one acknowledges any of the fundamental problems I have here raised. What happens if the proto-psychic is subtracted from physics? Materialists can say only that, while the cosmos would look much the same, mind would never appear. Even if brains evolved, the creatures animated by them would be David Chalmers’ P-Zombies! By contrast, if God were subtracted from the universe, there wouldn’t be any universe at all, but rather nothing. This outcome is philosophically advantageous. It is this common origin of both mind and physics that grounds the metaphysical possibility of their interaction. No, we cannot fathom the interaction mechanism, but under materialist PoMs even the possibility of the proto-psychic is left unexplained.

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 is it 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 Conscious Mind [1996] and The Character of Consciousness [2010]). 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.

The field does, however, have to be substantive in some way, not necessarily matter-energy as we are capable of measuring it. Only a substance of some sort can interact with another substance, in this case having an effect, the emergence of consciousness, from a functioning brain.

Being non-material there aren’t any instruments on earth that can detect Cosmic Mind save one. A physics experiment signals a detection of some kind with some physical event whether triggering a photo-detector or perhaps just moving a needle. Brains are detectors of Cosmic Mind. The needle, the event that we experience, is consciousness itself, the product of the detection.

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, effected, by Cosmic Mind. Consciousness is the music produced by brains in the (everywhere) presence of Cosmic Mind.

This model differs from Cartesian Dualism, because the substance of individual mind (its power to affect physics) is derivative!  Cosmic Mind (which need not be anything like “a mind” and is not by any means individual mind) and brains, one immaterial and one material, are the antecedent conjugates. Human (and animal, any mind associated with brains) mind is the result, what brains produce in the 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? It is nice that brains detect Cosmic Mind, but how exactly do they do that? 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”, in what they consist, how they do their work, or how they are even possible within the physics we presently comprehend. Theism addresses all but one of these questions.

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.