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

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Introduction

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

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

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

The Argument

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Consequences

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Understandable Inconclusiveness of Metaphysics Part II

Picture of me blowing smoke

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Physics and the Evidence for Non-Material Consciousness

selfie

There is an old story of the net and the fishermen. A net having a weave that lets any object smaller than 10 inches long slip through it. Fishermen cast the net in the lake and harvest fish always ten inches long or longer. The fishermen mistakenly conclude that there are no fish in the lake smaller than 10 inches. Philosophy 101 students easily recognize the fishermen’s mistake. If there were fish in the lake smaller than 10 inches they would slip through the net.

Now imagine that there is some constraint on these fishermen that prevents them from weaving nets any more finely than they have. Is there any other means by which they might acquire evidence of fish smaller than ten inches long? As it happens there is. They can take some of the larger fish, keep them alive in captivity, and mate them. If successful, they would see that fish lay eggs, eggs hatch into little fish, and little fish, properly fed, grow into fish ten or more inches long! Having done this sort of thing many times, our fishermen can correctly induct, from many particular observations, that there are indeed fish in the lake smaller than ten inches because those smaller fish are the descendants of the bigger fish and one day will become bigger fish themselves.

Although the analogy is imperfect, physics, that is the present state of our body of science, has something in common with that net. Our senses and all the instruments and physics we can derive from them are physical. No matter how refined we make our instruments they are physical things and cannot measure or detect anything that isn’t also a physical thing. Quantum mechanics doesn’t help here. Ruth Kastner (“The Transactional Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics”) goes so far as to conclude that the solution to various quantum puzzles is to locate quantum phenomena outside of spacetime. But they remain very much physical nevertheless. As indeterminate quantum phenomena emerge into spacetime they become deterministic, fully participating in the time-bound causal web, subject to causal closure.

No one, even died-in-the-wool physicalists, deny that there is any logical proof of the absence of anything real that isn’t physical, but nevertheless most commit themselves to the proposition that no non-physical entity can be real based on the capacity of physics to be self-explanatory. There are also those who simply define ‘reality’ in such a way as to preclude anything that isn’t physical from being real, and therefore chalk up anything historically adduced for such reality to utter illusion, a mirage.

As with the problem of the net, we ask if there is any possible evidence for there being something real in the universe that isn’t physical? Unlike with the fish, we cannot merely encompass some part of the physical and watch it to see if it produces something non-physical. We can try of course. Experiments and observations have been going on since Newton, some would say since Galileo, without such a transformation ever being witnessed. Scientists and philosophers have long conceded that the non-physical, should it exist, cannot in principle be detected and measured with physical instruments, the only kind we can build. They further concede that it is, technically, an inductive error to conclude there is nothing other than the physical in the universe based on this incapacity alone.

What warrants that further conclusion is the observation that physics is causally closed on itself. It is one thing to concede that we could not in principle measure anything non-physical. But when we measure that which is physical, we discover that these measurements alone fulfill all explanatory requirements for the present state-of-the-universe. Physical causes and nothing but physical causes result in all the effects we can measure throughout the cosmos. Physical causes result only in physical effects and physical effects spring from nothing more than physical causes.

For my purposes, as with physics, ‘reality’ is associated with causal efficacy in the physical. Anything that is or can become a cause in the physical is real. Cause is to be taken to mean “contributing cause”. It need not be the sole cause, nor the physically proximate cause. To be a cause it is only required that some physical effect is the ultimate result. The causal closure hypothesis is related to the observation that physical effects have, at least, physical proximate causes. All measurable physical effects seem to have, immediate antecedents that are also physical. But this does not preclude the existence of non-physical causes. For a non-physical cause to be real, it is only necessary that an observer be able to connect up a purported cause and an effect measurable in the world. I will have more to say about this “connecting up”.

Among modern philosophers there are some (Chalmer’s, Nagel, Lowe, Haskers, Foster, O’Connor, and others) who push back on the physicalist claim. They argue that there is reason to believe that there is something both real and non-physical in the universe, specifically consciousness, that is a subjective through which we experience anything at all including our observation of the physical. Physicalists rejoin that this phenomenon, consciousness, is not a “non-material reality”. It is merely a way of viewing the material itself. A rain cloud looks very different from above and below, but both views are merely different perspectives of the same single thing. We confirm this assertion by tracing, physically, from the top to the bottom of the cloud and determine that it is the same entity viewed two different ways.

This does not appear to be possible as concerns consciousness. No physics has ever traced, physically, all the way from subjective experience to the physics (technically biology — brain states) that purportedly underlies it. Many (mostly scientists) argue that we just haven’t got there yet and we will someday make that tracing. Others, many more of them philosophers, argue that the physicalist rejoinder is more hubris than reality. That it might turn out impossible, in principle, to ever make that mapping. Of course this doesn’t mean brain states have nothing to do with consciousness for obviously they do. What it means is that consciousness is not (or may not be) merely “another view” of brain states.

I am not going to address those arguments here but I am going to explore the question whether or not this phenomenon we call consciousness is in fact evidence and in what way it is evidence for the existence of something real that is beyond the reach of physics because it is non-physical.

For any evidence to be evidence, the phenomenon for which it is adduced has to be real. There cannot be evidence for anything that is by definition unreal. At the same time any evidence, if it is evidence of anything at all, has to emerge from, or become available to, our subjective experience as observers. The evidence must appear in consciousness. From our own subjective points of view there is no evidence of anything in the universe, physical or otherwise, that doesn’t emerge in or through our experience — aided or unaided by instruments or quintessentially mental formalism like logic.

How do we fare here as concerns consciousness? Its reality is one of the matters in question. The independent reality of consciousness is controversial. We cannot demonstrate, physically, that it is real. On the other hand, as all evidence of any kind emerges through experience it seems strange to insist that our experience is nothing but illusion. What happens to the evidential status of physics itself if the consciousness that interprets physical evidence as such is only an illusion? Can evidence be real if the status of the “evidence interpreter” is not? What happens to the truth status of the proposition “physics is causally closed” if the subjective arena asserting that proposition is an illusion?

This threat to the veracity of physics is a real problem for physicalists who insist that consciousness cannot be real. It at least suggests that it might be real, that its reality cannot be ruled out by fiat and might have to be accepted for the sake of our seeming capacity to comprehend the world.

The evidence for the non-material character of consciousness also emerges in consciousness! An idea cannot be weighed but it nevertheless appears that ideas are instrumental in the process of moving our bodies and thus our capacity to control aspects of the world confirming the correspondence between experience and physics. All of human society, our technological infrastructure, political institutions, and history are a function of this relation between quintessentially non-material ideas and the physical world. Somewhere in the distant past lies an ancestor, a hunter-gatherer who carried a club and a piece of chipped flint. Having both of these objects and a knowledge of making rope or twine from plant stems, this ancestor thought to attempt tying the flint and the club together producing something novel and more utilitarian than either the flint or club alone. An idea became a physical thing, an ax, through the controlled (purposeful) movement of a body that tied the flint and club together.

Many of the actions we take appear, to experience, related to the ideas we have. Using our bodies, we can pattern the physical by mapping ideas onto it. This is what I spoke of above as a “connecting up”. That I use an idea, a mental picture perhaps of some intended physical end-product, along with appropriate motions of my body, to produce that end product. The connection between the idea and the end product is obvious and immediate to us. It is not a connection between the physical and something non-physical outside of ourselves (magic unicorns perhaps), but between ourselves (subjective experience), our bodies, and the final physical output. We understand that our physical hands fashioned the physical end-product and that our hands moved in response to physical nerve impulses. The connection backs up to what it was that set those nerve impulses in action; a non-physical idea coupled with a non-physical intent to attempt its implementation (a mapping) in the physical.

We take this relation so “for granted” that mostly we do not even notice it. The productive conjunction between ideas and objects, mediated by bodies, means that ideas are real. Through the mediating influence of the controlled body ideas are causally efficacious. This could not be so if ideas were nothing more than illusions. True ideas have correlative brain states that are physical, but we do not subjectively manipulate brain states. We juggle ideational contents of subjective consciousness directly and these have a quintessentially non-material character.

The non-material quality of ideas is not of course proven by their association with physical actions whose consequences are also manifest in consciousness. Deterministic brain states not manipulated in consciousness might result in both ideas (and all of consciousness) and movement thus explaining their apparent connection. If this were true however it would have to be true about every product of humanity from the first struck flint to the space station and for that matter all the institutions and historical contingencies resulting in the present state-of-the-world. A staggering set of deterministic coincidences for which we, that is subjective experience, can take no credit whatsoever.

One cannot have this both ways. Either the subjective arena has no causal efficacy whatsoever or there is here a genuine connection between non-material cause and physical effect. If we wish to suspend judgement on this dilemma we yet must acknowledge that subjective experience does at least rule out physicalist declarations of its impossibility. Our experience counts as enough evidence for the reality of the non-material to question the physicalist assertion that there cannot possibly be anything other than the physical in the universe. Subjective experience seems to be telling us that the non-material is real and the entire history of human civilization at least warrants our concession to the possibility.

The evidence suggests, if it does not formally demonstrate, that something real and non-material is possible and obtains inside the otherwise physical universe. Consciousness (broadly speaking) is that reality. All of the philosophers cited above are materialists but not physicalists. They share with the physicalists a conviction that everything inside the material universe, including consciousness, takes origin in nothing more than the physical. They break with the physicalists in asserting the non-physical can, in fact, emerge from the purely physical and that in this universe, consciousness is that non-physical emergent entity.

Once emerged, they assert, the non-material cannot be fully traced-back to the physical. Subjective experience is not merely another viewpoint, another way of “looking at” something physical, but a novel thing in itself. Once it comes to be, from out of the physical, it can no longer be fully reduced to the physical. This view is called “property dualism”. Two phenomenon, mind and physics, but ultimately a single source, physics. But this view has its own problem with the contents and qualities of experience. Even if the non-material cannot be reduced in any logical way to the physical (more or less the position of all the philosophers cited above) it must, nevertheless originate from nothing more than the physical and this means that some evidence of the transformation from physical to non-physical should lie in the physical past, in the history of the universe. That no such evidence has ever been observed is not proof that non-material origins are not purely physical.

To date no mechanism has been discovered in physics that would plausibly result in such a transformation. If it is true that no such mechanism exists, physics is really causally closed, then the emergence of the non-physical from the physical alone is not possible and no historical marks are there to be found!

Every one of these property dualist theories of the non-material amounts to presupposing either an opening in causal closure or an invisible (to physics) set of causal laws or properties in the physical that add the qualities (to physics) required to produce the non-material. The first approach implies some evidence of itself within physics as noted in the previous paragraph. None has been found, and none of our present theories of the world require any provision for it.

Metaphysically speaking, the second approach is no less supernatural than the hypothesis of a divine being. It may lack the being’s anthropomorphic qualities but its presence and interaction with the physical are no less inexplicable. The “coming to be” of these psycho-physical laws (Chalmers’ term) wants explaining, and their interaction with the physical is no less a mystery than the interaction problem posed by a substance-dualism of mind or for that matter God. For a more detailed treatment of this issue specifically see my “Fantasy Physics and the Genesis of Mind”

To wrap up I summarize what I hope I have accomplished.

1. Physics can measure only the physical.

2. Physics leaves in abeyance the question of some non-material reality inside the physical universe. It remains logically possible. Physics has no evidence for it, but all physics can assert with authority is that explanations of indisputably physical phenomena require no reference to it.

3. There are subjective observers inside the physical universe. These observers all have bodies made of matter and subject to measurement by physics. But they also have “subjective experience” whose qualities are not subject to physical measurement.

4. Either the qualities of subjective experience are not real or they are real and can make some contribution to physical cause; they can configure physical cause (movement of a body) to produce physical effects patterned by a non-material idea. The non-material idea can be mapped to physical reality or put conversely physical reality can be patterned, configured, by non-material ideas.

5. Either the whole of human history and achievement is a blind accident or non-material ideas are causally efficacious and therefore must be real.

In “An Epistemological Argument for Free Will” I argue that free will is real and our experience warrants that belief. None of what is discussed above impinges directly on free will. Our ideas might be both real and non-material without our having free will. The connection between ideas and the physical might, after all, be fully determined even if ideas are in fact the initial patterns of the physical result. But the subsequent free will argument does rest, metaphysically, on the reality and non-materiality of consciousness.

An Epistemological Argument for Free Will

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Epistemology is that branch of philosophy that has as its subject the various concepts we label ‘knowledge’, ‘truth’, ‘belief’, and also about how we come to “know something”. I begin with a phenomenological observation:  I believe I have free will. I appear to exercise it, to manifest my will by controlling my body.  Throughout my lifetime my experience suggests to me that I have exercised choice that was not coerced upon me nor determined in the same way that physical events are determined, but instead were determined by my-self, metaphorically an entity that sits about 2 inches behind my eyes.

This is a phenomenological observation. The epistemological issue is: do I have knowledge of freedom or is it a phenomenal illusion?  Is my belief in the ontological genuineness of free will justified? Is that belief knowledge? If the proposition “free will is real” is true, any freely made choice would constitute its truth maker. But surely this begs the question because the free-ness of the act is the very matter at issue.

The knowledge of which I speak above cannot be analytic. It isn’t the same sort of thing as my knowing that two plus two must equal four. Rather, it seems to me that my life’s experience, for example my decision to compose this essay, has been a series of choices from an often broad set of alternatives of which I was aware and the the particular choices I made resulted in a history that might easily have been different. Not only my own choices, but those of my fellows near and far, proceeding back into the early reaches of human society could, had they been made differently, resulted in various possible worlds, contingent histories some only moderately different and others vastly different from the history of the world as it has unfolded.

I write here about what philosophers call “libertarian free will” and not merely compatibilism, a doctrine that seeks to establish something to call “free will” even in the face of determinism (and micro-indeterminism) . In that case, we are free when we seem (illusion?) to be able to do “what we want” even if that desire too is determined (or random) and not freely chosen in the libertarian sense. This is not what most of us mean when we speak of free will. We speak of being direct and original causes, volition-directed causes that are not merely the appearance of “bringing into existence” by our agency, but actually are brought about by that volition. If such a thing is real, then determinism must break down in one place.

If free will is genuine, there must be some phenomena with which causal chains begin without having been determined by some physically prior state of the universe, but only by the choice of a volitional agent. Causal chains are what drives event-unfolding. We identify joints in the history of unfolding events. Places where a particular cause directed the unfolding such that in the absence of that cause things would have turned out differently. If free will is real, there should be joints that have no sufficient deterministic causes and simultaneously are not merely indetermined. They would be sufficiently determined by a volitional purpose originating in an agent. Can we identify such joints?

Of course not every joint in the course of history can be related to free will. Natural processes also influence history. In fact some of the characteristic differences between natural processes and human action seem further to support a judgement for the genuineness of free will. The causal chains that yield up a particular volcanic eruption can easily be traced back thousands, even millions of years. But the causal chains that result in a particular human choice, say to pull a trigger and kill someone in cold blood, cannot be indisputably traced back farther than the decision itself. Yes we speak of reasons, individual history, desires, etc, but even these cannot be definitively connected to the choice to shoot or refrain from shooting in the same way that a “hot spot” under the pacific ocean can be definitively connected to the formation of an volcanic island a million years later. When the hot spot formed the volcano became inevitable unless the Earth was destroyed in the intervening years.

As concerns the trigger, our intuition, based on years of having made and unmade (changed our minds) decisions ourselves, it seems that the inevitability of its being pulled was not determined until the instant in time at which it was pulled. This does not imply that the decision is not associated with a physical correlate, a brain state.  The ubiquity of this association is the crux of our problem from a third party perspective.

Note that to deny even the possibility of free will and to assert that what we think are genuine choices are only pseudo-choices because what we actually choose is determined by what amount to a natural process (whether a just antecedent brain state or going all the way back to the big bang), requires a metaphysical assumption not required by advocates of free will’s genuineness (though they too have assumptions that come in at a later point). It requires one to assume that there is nothing more than a deterministic physics in the universe. Making a case for illusion demands a prior commitment to free will’s impossibility. By contrast accepting the possibility of free will based on the phenomenal appearance of it  requires only that we not accept the prior commitment.

Setting the Problem

If I step to the edge of a cliff to admire the view, I am aware that I can take another step in the same direction and fall off the edge plummeting to my death. Alternatively, I can step backwards away from the cliff, or turn around and walk away from it. Each of these choices makes a difference in the world. Stepping off the cliff will initiate causal chains having many consequences for my family, friends, and people who do not know me, but must become involved in the outworkings of my death: police, funeral directors, etc. If I walk away from the cliff other causal chains will begin. I will go back to my work and discover something that makes my employer millions of dollars they would never have otherwise had.

I am certainly not coerced by any external force.  No one has a gun to my head. Yes at this time I have a desire to remain alive and engaged with the world, and this desire is one of perhaps many reasons for my stepping back from the cliff, but a reason is not a cause. I am fully aware of this and other reasons for choices I make every day, but at the same time I am aware that I can (and have in my life) choose in opposition to reasons. My reasons clearly justify (or not) my choice after the fact but they do not determine, that is compel me, to make that choice.

All the same many philosophers (and scientists writing as philosophers) deny that free will is real. They base this denial on observations (measurements) of the phenomena of the physical universe. They discover all these phenomena to be “causally closed” meaning that physical effects come only from physical causes and physical causes have only physical effects. A third quality associated with causal closure is reciprocity: an effect has a reciprocal impact on its cause. If a moving billiard ball strikes a stationary one momentum is exchanged and the direction and speed of both balls is changed. Reciprocity is important because it is often the quality actually measured by science. There are often cases where we can observe (measure) a cause but not detect some effect — perhaps our instruments are not sensitive enough. But we do measure some change in the causal agent and from that change we can infer the effect that could not be measured directly.

The “free will” business, if it truly existed in the full libertarian sense violates these three principles. If I make a choice, and nothing prior in the physical universe determined that choice, then something to which I refer as a self must exist and have to power to initiate physical chains of causation without there having been any prior determining physical cause of that chain (see note on the self at the end of the essay), the ubiquitous presence of correlative brain states notwithstanding. That the history of the cosmos leading to us and our particular lives at this time is the result of chains of physical cause and effect is not particularly controversial. Whether we speak of gravity, colliding masses, electromagnetic energy, or the actions of human agents, the forces that propel history forward are all physical.

To initiate either of the causal chains envisioned from my position on the cliff’s edge I must move my body. It is my body, a physical thing, whose interaction with the rest of the physical world engages with the causal web. I don’t know anyone who disputes this. Free will, if it exists, is antecedent (metaphysically) to such motion even if the choice is simultaneous with it physically. The issue is not that my body isn’t the physical agent of potentially alternative causal change but that there is something else that is the agent of that body’s action, something not physical, a self with the power of volition, initiating novel causal chains by moving a body! Not only is the exercise of volition undetermined it is fundamentally uncaused by any antecedent physical cause or effect. The cause originates in the agent.

The “not physical” part is the crux of the problem. We certainly find physical bodies and in this respect our causal powers are much like those of any inanimate object in the universe. If I throw a rock that breaks a window, the rock is the agent of the window’s breaking, and my arm is the agent of the rock’s movement. Momentum was imparted to that rock by my arm, both physical and no different than two rocks colliding in outer space exchanging momentum and thus velocity in precisely predictable ways. So as we trace back physical effects in the universe, we find only physical causes including the movement of arms. In this tracing, we account for everything that happens since the big bang. There is nothing left over for free will to explain. Quantum mechanics does not help us either. It is true that quantum phenomena introduce indeterminism into the causal web, but while quantum phenomena might provide some metaphysical space for a hypothetical free will to operate, they are not characterized by any volitional purpose. If there is such a thing as free will, volitional agency, the agent must be non-physical because we cannot find it in any catalog of physical cause-effect relations going all the way back to the big bang.

Why don’t we find the agent? Because its presence and power violates the principles of causal closure. Being “original cause” of a physical effect (movement of the body) there is no prior cause of which it, the choice, is an effect. Significantly, from an epistemological viewpoint, there is no reciprocity. When my arm moves with the rock in my hand I am imparting momentum to the rock and there is a reciprocal resistance from the rock. I can feel the rock pushing back (as it were) on my arm as the rock gains momentum. But I have said that the “original cause” of the arm’s movement was an uncaused choice. The movement of my arm has no reciprocal effect on the choice to move it, a choice which is immediately past and unaffected. This is the evidence that the original cause, the choice, is not physical. Physics doesn’t find such causes in the catalog of the physical because there is no reciprocity to measure.

Free Will is Impossible (supposedly)!

I am familiar with three general arguments as concerns the illusory nature of free will, one logical, one epistemological, and one empirical. The logical argument is simply that free will is impossible thanks to causal closure and that is the end of the matter. That we appear to be free willed must be illusion because there is no logical way for a causally closed universe to produce it. This argument entails of course that it is not physically possible for a causally closed physics to produce a non-physical thing, but it is more. It notes there is no connection by which the doings of the physical can be mapped to the non-physical because the physical’s closure is axiomatic. This argument ignores question of what it is that is having this illusion and by implication extends to consciousness in general and self-consciousness in particular. Everything that we take to be our inner lives is illusion. None of the other arguments even matter as they can pertain to nothing other than a fantasy.

The empirical argument revolves around the experiments of Benjamin Libet in the 1970s. Libet found that a detectable brain state preceded a subject’s report of having made a decision. But the subjects in Libet’s experiments were very constrained as concerns their decisions. Even under natural circumstances it is common to find a decision associated with a just prior qualia or a mental event such as the emergence into consciousness of a reason. But that we act because of a reason does not mean the reason causes in any physical sense the motion of a body. How could a reason, a mental thing if ever there was one cause a physical thing anyway? We understand pretty much what reasons are. They have no magical property of initiating causal chains in the physical. But some entity appears to have that power and to choose a particular act from among alternatives whether for reasons or not. It still should not be surprising that there is some “set up”, some change in the content of consciousness, detectable in a brain state, just prior to many of our decisions. The decisions themselves remain free willed.

The epistemological argument begins by noting that naive human experience proves unreliable as concerns the “true workings” of the world. This argument relies on a duplicitous maneuver, deliberately conflating perceptual reliability at every size level (graining) of the cosmos. It is true that our naive senses are not reliable as concerns the workings of the very large: the cosmos, galaxies, the physics of stars. Even the sun seems, after all, to go around Earth! Likewise with the very small. The sub-atomic and atomic worlds, even up to the realm of simple life like bacteria which are made of many atoms, are all beyond our ability to explain given only our unaided senses. But there is a middle range on which our sensory systems are focused and about which it conveys remarkably reliable information. If you make a turn on a trail and come upon a lion, your next decision, for good or ill, had better assume that there is indeed a lion in front of you. Even primitive man knew what substance composed a sand storm. Even believing some god caused the wind, they knew that the wind was blowing sand!

This is a range of sizes, from roughly mountains to grains of dust at which our sensory experiences, the content of consciousness that emerges from our perception of these things, can be taken to be reliable under normal circumstances. As it happens, our own recognition and implicit reliance on the freedom of our will occurs at exactly this level. As concerns the freedom to initiate original causal chains in the physical we are strictly limited to our bodies and these uncontroversially occupy the middle ground of reliable perception and inference. Although we cannot rule out the possibility that our seeming to have free will is not a reliable indicator of its reality, there is nothing about the nature of our experience of it, the experiential world of our bodies which it seems to control, that suggests that it is anything other than free.

The Theistic Alternative

How has philosophy dealt with this issue? One way is to posit something in the vicinity of God who is, like the volitional agent not physical but nevertheless both the source of the physical and the volitional power of a causal agent. Theism puts everything together. There is a physical universe whose mechanisms are purely physical, and there are free-will-endowed agents who can initiate uncaused causal chains. Both are real and their combination in the physical universe is made possible and takes origin (directly or indirectly) in God. But this option leaves something to be explained.

How does God, who is presumptively non-physical, have the power to “make the physical” and further make a non-physical entity, the conscious agent, with the power to interact with the physical and originate uncaused causal chains within it? What is the mechanism of this creation? We notice that the interacting physical and non-physical have, under this metaphysical alternative, a common origin. This at least grounds the possibility of interaction even if it doesn’t explain either how it works or how the two sides were made to begin with. As concerns mind and free will, the theistic alternative is associated with what is called “substance dualism” because mind has qualities that do not emerge from the physical alone.

Philosophers who believe that there are meaningful questions that are in principle unanswerable often have this sort of question in mind. We become self-conscious as non-material agent-observers constrained to physical bodies in a physical universe. Our phenomenological universe lies within the physical universe whose only mechanisms we can sense (often aided by instruments) are the physical ones set in motion by the fact (or the act) of creation. God, should he exist, is not measurable, not detectable physically. Even hypothetically speaking we should expect this to be so. To understand how, by what mechanism, God interacts with the physical we would have, ourselves, to transcend the physical, to be able to examine it as it were from the outside.

Intellectually, God’s reality is an inference based on our observation of causal closure in the physical when coupled with an acceptance at face value of the reality of free will. We are able, at least in principle, to grasp the possibility of original creation (of the universe) because we know ourselves to be “original creators”. In our case the power of uncaused cause is limited to the movement of a body while in God’s case (we suppose) there are no limits other than the consistency of logic, but we do not know this. If we wish to take the theistic route, we only know that whatever the limits of God’s powers, they are at least sufficient to generate the physical universe and self-conscious observers with a limited free will. In the final analysis, as concerns the mechanism of both creation and interaction between the physical and non-physical once created, no answer from our perspective is possible. God presumably knows the trick or we wouldn’t be here, but that is as much as we can say about it (see note on God at the end of the essay).

Naturalism, Physicalism, Materialism, and Property Dualism

Philosophers (not to mention scientists) generally do not like the theistic alternative. Often they cite “occam’s razor” and a somewhat more modern expression in a famous statement by Albert Einstein that “A theory should be as simple as possible but no simpler”. By this Einstein meant to call attention to the requirement that a theory actually explain the phenomena it covers. If it fails that requirement its simplicity is irrelevant! But the aim of the philosophical objection to theism is to remove the theistic demand for an entity that is in principle beyond detection by science. Not only does assuming this entity raise the “interaction problem” (the matter of just how the physical and non-physical interact), but also other metaphysical, epistemological, and ethical questions none of which can be verified or falsified by any physical measurement (see note at end of essay). If the free will that seems justified to our experience could be explained (and not merely explained-away) without reference to a non-material agent with the capacity to produce that power in, or in some sense grant it to, an otherwise physical agent that would be a simpler theory.

But the presently popular non-theistic alternatives also fail to fully explain the seemingly strong epistemological warrant for free will. I review these in the context of a useful distinction between physicalism, naturalism, and materialism. A very good and in depth review of these doctrines can be found in an excellent book by John Foster “The Immaterial Self: A Defense of Cartesian Dualism” (1991) and another, “The Emergent Self” by William Hasker (2001). Also see my essay expanding further on this: “Fantasy Physics and the Genesis of Mind”

Physicalism is a metaphysical doctrine. It states basically the real physical, the stuff that can be measured with physical instruments (including the quantum background which cannot strictly be measured but is presumptively physical all the same), is all there is. Further there is no such thing as evidence for any real non-physical thing because, by fiat, there is no such a thing as a non-physical thing! As one might imagine, physicalists are often associated with the “consciousness and free will are an illusion” position. A few have struggled to find some way to warrant the reality of consciousness (failing other than to say “we just don’t know how it works yet”) but free will is even more difficult because it would so obviously, being “uncaused cause” represent a violation of physicalism!

Naturalism is an epistemological doctrine related to physicalism. It says that there is nothing, no phenomenon in the universe (including consciousness and free will if either should exist) that cannot be explained by reference to physical mechanism. Naturalism is related to physicalism in that if physicalism is true, it would follow that anything that is real in the universe has to come from nothing more than (and thus be explained by) the physical. If naturalists do not deny the reality of consciousness or free will (they frequently do however), then the burden on them is to explain these things in purely physical terms. In this, they have not succeeded.

Materialism takes another path. Like physicalism it is a metaphysical doctrine and it shares with physicalism the assertion that all the phenomena of the universe must begin from nothing more than the physical. But it denies that everything the physical can produce is subsequently explainable in purely physical terms. What materialism does is deny that physical causes can have only physical effects. It opens causal closure asserting that complex physical processes can result in emergent phenomena that, once emerged, cannot be explained in physical terms. It is significant that the only phenomena that count here, the emergence of which materialists speak, happens to be consciousness and phenomena associated with consciousness including free will! Such emergence from the physical is called “property dualism” because while the mind emerges from the physical it exhibits properties that are not physical and cannot be explained (reduced) to purely physical terms.

Materialists are fond of citing other emergent phenomena in the universe. A common example is water. Liquid water has properties that are not to be found in oxygen or hydrogen alone. Water’s special properties only emerge from a set of conditions involving water molecules, pressure, and temperature. But it is significant that liquid water and its properties remain incontrovertibly physical as are the water molecules, hydrogen, and oxygen that compose it. In fact, the properties of liquid water are the outcome of the special shape of the water molecule, and that shape, in turn, is indeed the result of the properties of hydrogen and oxygen. In theory then it is possible to predict the properties of liquid water from the properties of hydrogen and oxygen alone if we understood them well enough. This is even more obvious as concerns the water molecule. Understanding the implications of its physical chemistry would tell us what liquid water was like, and under what conditions it would form, even if we had not encountered it before.

This is the problem with all the examples of emergence cited by physicists or philosophers. All of them are physical with the exception of the one that wants explaining here, consciousness and free will. That these things are an example of just another emergence like water is part of what is at issue. In 300+ years of physics since Newton no physicist has ever observed physical causes resulting in non-physical effects. If materialism is true then this must be possible but that it is possible and that it has actually happened in the case of consciousness (and free will) is an assumption not grounded by the slightest physical evidence. As a metaphysical inference, it has no more empirical standing than God and it suffers from an analogous set of problems.

Property dualism has an interaction problem! How the physical results in the non-physical is the inverse of the problem of how a non-physical God can create the physical. Similarly, the reverse holds in that the question of how it is that non-physical mind can control the physical is the same problem from either the theistic or the property-dualistic direction. It is not controversial that a brain state is the proximate cause of my moving my body. At issue is what causes (if it is a freely willed movement) that brain state! Property dualism explains this no better than substance dualism. In both cases something quintessentially non-material becomes a cause in the material universe.

The philosophical issues with theism stem from having to suppose there is a supernatural being. The philosophical issues with materialism stem from the absence of any observable power in physics to produce anything non-physical let alone a non-physical uncaused cause! Property dualists can only assume that this must be possible just as theists, in the final analysis, can only suppose that God must be real. Theists can only wave their hands and say “God must know how to do it because we experience it.” Materialists can only wave their hands and say “physics must be able to do it because we experience it.”

The epistemological problems are identical in substance and property dualisms. The nature of the subject and the relation between what seems to manifest as a “willful agent” and consciousness is identical. There are even parallel ethical issues. In the case of theism the ethical issue revolves around what responsibility we have to God should he exist. In the case of property dualism there is a question of whether we can be held responsible for anything as there is no guarantee under property dualism that free will is genuine even if consciousness is!

So the theistic alternative posits a “magical being” while the materialist alternative posits either “magical properties of the physical” or special relations between physical particulars that have a magical (non-material) effect. Neither explains how, that is the mechanics of the mechanism, by or through which free will, uncaused cause, comes about in a physical universe governed by the strict causal closure we observe in physics. The theistic alternative at least posits a being with the power to perform the trick, but we are no closer to knowing how the trick is performed either way.

We are back, therefore, where we began. Free will seems real enough in our experience and beginning by rejecting its possibility renders experience meaningless. But we cannot empirically identify causes that could not have been purely physical thanks to those always present correlative brain states!  Either we accept by assumption that it is real (restoring sensibility to experience), or we deny that free will is real and live with the fact that we cannot explain either how or why it seems to be. For my two cents a belief that “free will is real” is true, is justified by the absence of reciprocity in our experience of its exercise, and this despite the fact that, other theism, no adequate metaphysical ground for it has yet been articulated. To my mind the task of philosophy is to explain what grounds our experience. We can explain why the sun seems to go around the Earth even though it doesn’t. But we have not yet explained why we seem to have free will if in fact we do not.
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NOTES

The many issues raised by the theistic alternative are discussed at some length in my two books (Amazon Kindle Books) “Why This Universe: God, Cosmology, Consciousness, and Free-Will” (2014) and “God, Causal Closure, and Free Will” (2016).

The SELF: The idea of “a self” is highly controversial in philosophy. There are many explanations advanced for what appears to be a self. Even more than as concerns free will, philosophers almost universely accept that a self is an illusion. I cannot get into this argument in the space of this essay, but I note that almost every philosopher, even categorically denying that a self exists, continues to use language implying a self when discussing free will, consciousness, and any other subject having a subjective aspect. I deal with the nature and reality of the self, personality, extensively in the two books noted above.

GOD: Actually we can infer much more as concerns the nature of God because human consciousness has access to values: truth, beauty, and goodness. I have no time to cover this ground here and it has little direct bearing on the epistemological evidence for free will. Again I refer the reader to my two books listed in the first note above.