Mental Cause

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Review: The Big Picture


This is my Amazon review of Sean Carroll’s “The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself”. Although I am a theologian, I read a lot of books by atheist/materialist scientists. In my reviews of these books, I leave religion out if they do. But Dr. Carroll’s book is as much about his scientific theme as it is a book explicitly critical of religion all the way through. In the following review I mention this only briefly, but I have written also a longer piece here in the blog covering this ground more thoroughly. The link will take you to it. Meanwhile here is a link to Carroll’s book on Amazon. Hope you enjoy the review. —

Sean Carroll’s book has two broad themes. The first is to explain to us how it is that everything we observe in the universe, including all of what makes up human experience, emerges from the physics that lies at the heart of the universe, what Carroll calls “the core theory”; quantum field theory and the “standard model” of particle physics. Here he makes the case that what exists is what emerges from very special (low entropy) conditions in the universe’s past. It all comes down to the the second law of thermodynamics, the fundamental forces and the fact that the universe is far from an equilibrium state. In this he does an excellent non-technical job of describing how it is that the universe we find produces so much complexity from but humble beginnings. As he moves up the chain of complexity (emergence and phase changes) he applies the same principles of development to everything from galaxies and stars to life, consciousness, and the complex mentality of human beings. He admits that we have a much better explanation of the emergence of stars and even life from physics and chemistry than we do for the emergence of consciousness from biology. But he is confident his model works all the way to the top.

In his second theme, Carroll is concerned not only with establishing that physics tells the right story, but that it is the only story and no other story is reasonable. Put another way, by his lights, any other story is highly unlikely. By this he doesn’t mean that we don’t use different languages to speak of particles, biology, or feelings, but that nothing besides emergence from purely physical roots is going on as concerns consciousness, moral sensibility, and the seeming appearance of free will. Since the argument that there is more than physics going on here comes mostly from religion, he pointedly and repeatedly criticizes it claiming it has no genuine bearing on anything real. To be sure he doesn’t claim to know that there is no God, only to have established (he believes) that God’s reality is very very unlikely. One wonders why he feels the need to be so forceful about this, but the reason is clear enough in the book’s last section where he attempts to make sense of experiences that (to many) most strongly suggest that there is something besides physics going on; meanings in life, love, moral choices, desires, a sense of self, and what seems to us to be robust free will. To explain these, he applies the same model of emergence and phase change to consciousness and from there to all things mental. He confidently asserts that all of these things are nothing more than “a way of talking” about phenomena that are, in the end, nothing but physics.

What perturbs me about this second theme is certainly not his desire to mention (at least) and critique the competition but that he critiques such a straw man version of it. Time and time again he demonstrates his grasp of the nuances of physics while criticizing grossly superficial and unnuanced notions of what religion is and what it says.

There are other recent mainstream books that cover much of this same ground as concerns cosmic evolution, life, and even consciousness. Dr. Carroll is good here. He writes well, non-technically, and does an good job of stretching the idea of emergence into the human experience. That this is a part of the whole story is undoubtedly true, but it is unwise to declare that it is the whole story, or even likely the whole story, without knowing the whole story (which he admits is not known), or at least appreciating what the competition actually says.

Critique of Sean Carroll’s “The Big Picture”


Sean Carroll has written a book, “The Big Picture, On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself“. In it, he weaves two themes together. The first theme is that everything in the universe from stars and galaxies evolved to human consciousness, meanings, and values is rooted in a process of emergence that is, in turn, grounded exclusively in what he calls the “core theory” (quantum field theory plus the “standard model” of contemporary particle physics), the second law of thermodynamics, and the “past hypothesis” (the early universe was in a very low-entropy state). The second theme is simply that no other theory, in particular that there is a God and our experience of the universe is partly a product of his designs, is at all reasonable because it is highly unlikely. My short Amazon review of Carroll’s book is here. This essay is a more detailed critique of his approach to that second theme.

Throughout the book Dr. Carroll makes much of “Bayesian inference“, a process by which one comes to refine probability assessments. If, for example, I ask you what is the “prior probability” of a fair coin coming up heads on a single toss, you would naturally say 50%. Now you flip the coin and it comes up tails. The question here is “is the coin fair”. You are asked, given your new data, to reassess your estimate of “prior probability”. One throw is not going to make a difference. If I throw the coin 10 times and it comes up tails 7 of them then what? Seven tails is not all that unlikely even given a fair coin. If after 1000 throws the coin comes up tails 699 times, you think that 50% prior probability was wrong and indeed the coin is not fair. This sort of reassessment works because we can count events. We can compare what we count with what we think should happen and reevaluate our original position. Carroll applies Bayesian reasoning to God, to the probability that he exists. What, exactly, is he counting here? Not events certainly.

Actually, he isn’t counting anything. He offers assertions made about God alongside various philosophical challenges already prejudged to count for or against the likelihood of God’s existence. These aren’t data exactly, but assertions about the world, some sensible and some not. Their sensibility is nowhere independently evaluated, nowhere placed into any context that might change how we think they count for or against God.

Dr. Carroll is too casual about what counts and in what direction it counts. Most of his examples are negative, Hume’s “argument from evil” and the historical fact of there being many different views of God for example. “Why not make himself plain” asks Carroll? That there are reasonable answers to those questions besides God’s non-existence he does not mention. He does adduce a few pieces of evidence in God’s favor, for example the fact that every people comes up with some sort of view of him even if it varies greatly from culture to culture. But his sympathies clearly lie on the negative side here. With regard to Hume’s “argument from evil”, he does allude to the matter of “free will”. He speculates that it might be important to God (though not to us apparently) but fails to appreciate its potential as a part of a full explanation (perspective in this case) in much of what he counts against God’s likelihood. As it happens, free will turns out to be a lynch pin issue for Carroll’s view.

Dr. Carroll is a materialist. He warns us constantly to be alert to cognitive bias, but fails to appreciate his own. He believes that if a phenomenon cannot be measured (at least in potential) by physical instruments ending in our sensory experience, that is intersubjectively by third parties, then it cannot be real. His argument for this is not merely that we don’t find anything but the physical with physical instruments, but what we do find actually explains everything (at least in potential) and so there remains no room for anything other than the physical. Even if such an other were to exist, it has no impact, no physically measurable interaction, with the physical! Why then would we need to posit it?

How did Carroll get here? He tells the story of being a little boy and wanting very much to project causal power directly from his mind to objects lying outside him. He wanted to “bend spoons”. What boy doesn’t? After a while he realized that this is just not something humans are given to do. But he mistakenly concludes (eventually) that if our mind’s cannot bend spoons then they cannot affect any change in any material reality. Coupled with this assumption is Carroll’s affinity for the present view in physics that there aren’t strictly causes in the universe. Of course it is perfectly reasonable for us to talk of cause, a convenient fiction, but really all that is going on in the physical world is the evolution of physical states, this being a natural product of time and the thermodynamic arc from a low entropy past to a high entropy future.

At that point in his life however his materialistic leanings must have been well formed because he missed one obvious alternative; that mind does in fact affect the disposition of matter-energy in exactly one place, in the functioning brains of creatures advanced enough to be conscious! He ultimately justifies his rejection by declaring that nothing of such an influence can be measured. That part is true, we can (as in quantum “virtual transactions” with which Carroll is comfortable) only measure their effects, in this case the subsequent behavior of a body.

We can measure all sorts of goings-on in the brain and we have done an amazing job of tying subjective states to certain kinds of brain-state correlations. But there is no guarantee that in all that we detect, some part of it, some part of what we do in fact measure, is actually caused by something non-material. All we see is physical activity and correlations. If some small part of the complex resonances of the brain were influenced by something that was not in fact material, how would we ever tell? Late in the book, in his chapter on free will, Carroll denies that libertarian free will is even possible precisely because if it was it would entail that some non-material entity made a difference to some material phenomenon. This is a crucial juncture for Carroll’s thought. If there is even one place in which a non-material entity (like a mind) has an influence on the physical world then that influence would be a genuine cause, not merely an evolution from a prior state because that trigger (’cause’ being a good name for it) is not fully determined by any prior state of the universe. This is why libertarian free will is the fulcrum on which Carroll’s whole argument hangs. If he is right and all states of the universe are evolutions from prior states, then libertarian freedom is impossible. But if libertarian free will is real, if we can be uncaused causes, then physics cannot be the ultimate explanation of everything. In particular there has to be something, at least in one place, where as he puts it, “ideas cause physics”.

Why should we, that is physics, accept that there is “one place” in the universe where genuine cause exists? We do not find it anywhere else, why should we believe it happens in relation to the behavior of our bodies? We cannot bend spoons with our mind, why should we think that our minds have an antecedent causal relation with the material entity we call our brain and from there (uncontroversially enough) our body? I can’t bend spoons by staring at them, but I can grab them in my hands and bend them. Why should physics accept that subjective mind is an effective cause in the latter case and not the former? The reason is simple enough, because it is the one place in the universe that we seem to experience it! We experience ourselves being causes, even original causes via control of a body and only via that mechanism. Perhaps this is illusion? Indeed this is entailed by Carroll’s claim that libertarian free will is impossible. But as we look around us in the world and ask from where, if anywhere, new causal chains seem to emerge, the answer is plain, from people.

Carroll asks, if God is so important (as most religions claim he is) then why isn’t his activity in the universe more obvious? Why are we able to tell the complete story of cosmic evolution in physical terms without seeming to leave anything out? Here he is being a bit disingenuous. There is one place, one source, through which God’s influence can be discerned, in the behavior of people, the only locus of genuine original cause in the physical universe. Carroll certainly would ask “where besides people”, and the answer is “nowhere else besides people”! Only people have libertarian free will and it is only by exercise (and by certain exercises and not others) of this will that God influences the world. Why God set things up this way is another question dealt with at length in my books. The issue as concerns Carroll is that he misses the possibility that God did indeed set things up this way, and in so doing renders original cause in the physical (our choice to act ends after all with a behavior of a physical body) compatible with a causeless physics.

Free will is the crux of the answer to the question of why God doesn’t “make himself plain” as Carroll puts it. Doing so would abridge exactly that power, libertarian free will, whose exercise does (loving one another) or does not (killing on another) incrementally bring the world into alignment with God’s desire to evolve a physical universe transformed from a pure competition for survival to one of universal loving cooperation. Done in this way, in the end, a physical universe of love comes about through the free willed choice and not coercion of genuinely independent minds. The combination of purposeless physical mechanism, libertarian free will, and perception of values (truth, beauty, and goodness) in mind go together. God (should he exist) has to be capable of direct and personal action in the physical. Perhaps he does this on occasion, but such occasions are either beneath our notice (see below on life), or very rare, enough so that we can effectively discount their effect in the day by day unfolding of physical process.

Certainly we do not detect the “influence of God” in much of human behavior. But it doesn’t have to be detected in every act. It is enough if it is present even sometimes. What would “the influence of God” look like? Suppose I act to do some kindness, some good, to a person I have every reason to hate. I do this good (let us suppose) for no other reason than that I believe he, like me, is a “child of God”. That sort of decision, taken freely, results in the sort of action that infuses God’s spirit (however much or little of it) into the world. That is what it would look like, people doing good and especially so when they would seem to have every reason to do the opposite.

Because our subjective minds are the one place in the universe over which some non-material entity has some antecedent causal control, the behavior of our bodies, also connected to those minds, are the material locus of novel causal chains. Of course not all of these chains need originate in an attempt to infuse the world with God’s spirit. It is enough that some do! It is also not necessary that any intellectual belief in God (as in the example above) underlie the act. It is enough that the act reflects some one or more of the values truth, beauty, or goodness. Every act of kindness, of unselfishness, of reverence for truth, or creation of beauty, is part of the process of infusing God’s spirit into the world. God doesn’t “make himself plain” precisely so that such acts fully and freely belong to us.

What about a believer who says “God ordered me to kill that man”, or “God has ordered that all heretics be put to the sword”. Put plainly, such declarations are false, lies, and for two reasons. First because the values, God’s spirit detected by our minds, are truth, beauty, and goodness. Killing might sometimes be necessary for material reasons (self defense for example) but it cannot ever reflect the “will of God”. No act that does not reflect one of more of the values results in a behavior that infuses God’s spirit into the world. Second, God doesn’t order anyone to do anything good or evil. That is what free will is for. God provides only spiritual pointers. A decision to do anything with or about them, positive or negative, is entirely up to us.

The general thrust of Carroll’s argument is that what physics has discovered about the universe must be true. This doesn’t mean the discoveries are the complete story of everything by any means. What he means here is that they must be a part of the truth and indeed a major part as concerns the cosmos over all. He notes that we live in a universe that, in its deep past, had a very low-entropy. Whether or not this was the literal beginning of our universe of some stage of a longer process he, and we, do not know, but at some point in the past entropy was very low. Thanks to this beginning, combined with the forces of the “core theory”, and the fact that the universe is not yet in thermodynamic equilibrium, we live in an age of developing complexity. From Carroll’s viewpoint, everything from the gathering of primordial particles into atoms, stars, and galaxies, to the appearance of life, consciousness, and love, is all merely the physical evolution of contingent (it might have happened otherwise) complexity thanks to the potentials made possible by the settings and regularities (laws) coupled with that moment in cosmological history in between a very low entropy beginning and a very high entropy future.

I have no doubt that the physical complexity we find around us, from stars to other people, even our own brains hangs on exactly what Dr. Carroll claims here. That is, the thermodynamic arc, coupled with the core theory not only allows for all of these possibilities, but also that they are indeed physically constructed (emerge) from them. Carroll is not alone here, a number of recent books, including one of my own, builds on the phenomenon of emergence.

In building complexity Carroll notes that, from our viewpoint, as the evolution of the physical results in information being compounded upon information we find value in describing phenomena at different levels. There are many examples of this. His favorite (an uncontroversial example, another being the relation between Newtonian mechanics and General Relativity he also mentions) is the language of “gas laws” (temperature and pressure) to describe the same phenomenon as are described at the level of individual molecules with “statistical mechanics”. Same phenomenon, different languages.

In truth, this transformation of viewpoints does carry all the way up from physics to chemistry, biology, and even sociology. The reason such language transformations work in these cases is precisely because we are able, as observers, to measure these phenomena! As we study the behavior of social systems (or gasses), we are able to measure what the people (or molecules) physically do, where the money (in paper or bits) flows, how ideas are exchanged. All of this has to do with observable (measurable) behavior. In fact, as I noted above, it is in observing the behavior of persons, assuming libertarian free will to be genuine, that we sometimes (if we know what we are looking for) detect the influence of God in the physical universe.

But Dr. Carroll confidently asserts that the same phenomenon is going on, that is, what we have is nothing more than an “alternative language”, as concerns such subjective phenomena as feelings, thoughts, qualia, and decisions. He insists, that these are “nothing more than ways of talking” about physical phenomena that can be measured (at least in potential), and that once we have actually measured all of them we will discover that there is nothing else to be said about subjective experience. He insists that one day we will, from a third-party perspective as observers, be able to explain ourselves in the same way that we connect up statistical mechanics to the gas laws and Newton with Einstein.

Plainly there is a difference here, a difference of which Carroll must be aware. Unlike the phenomena described by Boltzman or Einstein, we are not third party observers of subjective experience. By definition it is individual, subjective, available only in the first person. What makes our internal states different from such things as the gas laws is that they cannot be intersubjectively quantified. They can’t be measured by third parties. Of course we can measure the obviously physical phenomenon that underlie their appearance, the functioning brain, but we can never “connect up” a pain quale or a belief with a neural event in the same way as we can connect individual molecules with their average collective behavior because we cannot measure the other [subjective] side.

Solipcism (the notion that I alone am real or genuinely conscious and everyone else is some part of my dream), isn’t much taken seriously, but that we can entertain the notion and that we do not find it obviously incoherent demonstrates the uniqueness of our subjectivity, its inaccessibility from the outside. We can find correlations between neurons and subjective content, but we can never be sure that subjective content is “nothing more” than neurons because we can’t quantify the gap. We can measure that more C-fiber firing correlates with more intense pain, but we cannot show why chemicals spewing across a synapse should manifest as the subjective quality of pain.

In a later part of the book, Carroll declares that, like libertarian free will, there can be no such thing as post-mortal existence. He says there is nothing in physics, in the core theory or anything we observe to support this idea. Of course he is correct. There is nothing in physics to suggest any such a thing is possible, but the claim as concerns such survival has nought (usually) to do with physics. True, there are doctrines that say our bodies are ressurected. Those doctrines are, to put it bluntly, wrong. If anything survives mortal death it isn’t a physical entity. How the survival mechanism might go, I address in another essay. But whatever the mechanism, it has nothing to do with physics. Carroll claims there is nothing in physics that supports any concept of a post-mortal life. Limited to the idea of a physical post-mortal survival he is right. But he isn’t addressing the real issue which is the possibility of a non-physical survival mechanism. Science has no business being anything but neutral on this matter.

Carroll here isn’t content merely to claim that a post-mortal experience is impossible. He derides it with a story of a man who, upon dying, goes to heaven and decides to spend his days endlessly having sex, eating, and playing golf. Eventually the man grows bored and begins to contemplate suicide. Carroll’s story, meant to be humorous, is akin to a kindergardner who, having been told that her career aspirations will require another 20+ years of school, imagines that those 20 years will be filled with finger painting, naps, and story-time! Really Dr. Carroll? You are far past kindergarden and you cannot think of anything more adventurous and compelling as concerns growth toward perfection than more of the same, more finger painting, naps and story time? You could not imagine something more robust? Does death alone perfect us in God’s eyes?

In another shot at a straw man, Carroll asks, if God created us, a single planet populated by creatures that can (rightly or wrongly) contemplate him, why go on to create the rest of the physical universe of billions and billions of galaxies? The rejoinder here seems pretty obvious. The doctrine that we are alone in the universe, alone “created in God’s image” is, like the notion of a resurrected body above, simply wrong, another 2000 year-old notion whose time is long past. The universe is, or will be, inhabited. To be sure I am not speaking of every rock being populated, but billions of rocks have conditions suitable for life even as we understand it. Given that God seems to be intent on making over the universe based on the free will choices of suitable creatures, all of those rocks, if they are not already inhabited by personal beings (whatever their physiology) are evolving in that direction! This speculation leads to some testable predictions.

Let us say, broadly speaking, that there are three general mechanisms by which life appeared in the universe. The first is simply random accidental association, what most scientists on Earth today believe. That this is highly unlikely, but nevertheless possible (that is physically possible) is granted. Secondly, supposing God exists, perhaps he arranged things at the beginning of the universe such that life would not only be possible, but likely to arise in all (or most) more-or-less supporting environments. The assembly of life remains, in this view, strictly accidental, but now more of “an accident waiting to happen”, a not-uncommon accident once certain environmental conditions are met; conditions found in many places throughout the universe. This view is suggested by notions like the “anomalous monism” of Donald Davidson and Thomas Nagel, or panpsychism from David Chalmers. Carroll would undoubtedly note (and I would agree with him) that there is no evidence in physics for either of these views. The third possibility is that God (directly or indirectly) has a hand in initiating life (which evolves by Darwinian mechanism from that point forward) on each life bearing world.

In the first scenario, we expect life to be very rare. Of the billions and billions of potentially inhabitable worlds only a very few would exhibit life at all, and even fewer a life that advances to consciousness. We might also find once-living-now-dead worlds where life managed to begin but was snuffed out as environmental conditions evolved unfavorably. Mostly, however, we would expect to find no life present or past on most worlds.

The second scenario results in a much different outcome. Life would be everywhere (or nearly) in every supporting environment. We would also expect to find many once-living-now-dead worlds because life starts itself easily when conditions are right, even if they are not destined to remain so. Mars is a seminal possibility here. It is widely believed that the Martian environment was once life-supporting, but evolved away from that state. If this second scenario is true, then we would expect to find evidence of ancient and extinct past life on Mars. We would also expect, since God had a hand in this scenario, that any planet whose conditions were such as to support highly complex and conscious life would eventually do so. We might stumble on such a world in a primitive age prior to the evolution of complex forms, but if we could follow the planet for a few billion years and its geophysical evolution continued to be supportive, we would expect conscious life to evolve.

In the last scenario we would expect something very different again. We would expect either that a world is dead, having no present or past life if the present environment is not life supporting, or the world has life and both the physical conditions and that life always evolves to consciousness. On every world where life is to be found, consciousness follows eventually. Why? Because God “knows the end from the beginning”. Why would he initiate life on a world (for example Mars) that was destined to lose the capacity to support it? If God starts life on a world, he would know that world will evolve geophysically in parallel with biological evolution and eventually come to support complex (and conscious) life. This is not to say that every living world has at this time evolved complex life, but under this scenario, it will.

Even given the second or third scenarios above, there is no guarantee, indeed it remains highly unlikely, that we will ever be able to detect such life across light years of space. There are too many variables, and at least one of them, is not even on the minds of astronomers and astrobiologists. Why, if life is started where it has the potential to become conscious, have we not yet found evidence of it? There are three broad possibilities.

1. Life on the remote world has not reached an electronic stage or is not industrialized in a way that leaves detectable pollutant traces in its atmosphere.
2. Life on the remote world has reached an advanced and electronic stage but we cannot detect it because: (a) it is far away and the signals haven’t reached us yet, or (b) the signals, having reached us are just too weak to distinguish from any background.
3. Life on the remote world has reached an advanced stage, but it is not and will never become electronic.

The last is a distinction to which scientists and philosophers alike seem oblivious. They assume that “advanced life” is necessarily concomitant with industrialization and electronic signalling; a very provincial assumption. From God’s viewpoint an “advanced civilization” would be one in which all or most people freely choose to attempt to do his will, to love others and be generally successful in the attempt. It would be a world that has (among other things) long relegated such phenomena as war, bigotry, and crime to its distant past. There is nothing about this sort of advancement that entails electronics. I discuss this at some length in my first book, but the bottom line is that there is nothing about Earth’s particular historical path that suggests anything similar is implied by the notion of “advanced civilization” on other worlds.

I hope I am not being unfair to Dr. Carroll. He has contemporaries in the scientific community who become apoplectic at the mention of God. Carroll does not become apoplectic. He tries to make room for such a possibility while rejecting it as “highly unlikely”. He is brave enough, and does manage, to put his finger on the crux of the matter. If libertarian free will is real, then physics must be incomplete. By itself this wouldn’t prove that God exists, but it would, in Bayesian terms, set his prior-probability very high. Rather than accepting that libertarian free will is real, the evidence being our subjective experience of it, his cognitive bias leads him to reject it, essentially denying what must be his own experience. He is far from alone in this. To me there is considerable irony in scientists and philosophers (ordinary folks mostly don’t think about it) freely denying their freedom.

Carroll has a very nice website and blog. I have tried on occasion to engage him as concerns these matters, but he has been disinclined to respond. His cognitive bias is, after all, very strong. If there is a discussion of his book on his blog I will let him know about this critique in a comment. I don’t imagine I will hear from him, but I am open to being surprised.

Early Comments on “The Big Picture” by Sean Carroll


Sean Carroll has released a new book, “The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself” Penguin Random House 2016. He was interviewed about his book by Clara Moskowitz, Scientific American’s senior editor for space and physics.

I have not yet read Dr. Carroll’s book, but in the process. This little essay is not a critique or review of his book. I’m sure I will get around to that when I have finished reading it. But the over-all point of Dr. Carroll’s book as it is introduced in the Sci. Am. interview titled “Godless Universe: A Physicist Searches for Meaning in Nature” and stated clearly in his prologue is pretty clear. He aims to fortify the not uncommon idea among contemporary scientists and philosophers, that the physical universe is all there is and that the only evidence that really is evidence of anything fundamentally real is physical evidence.

Now I like Dr. Carroll. Never having met the man, I have enjoyed another of his books and numerous of his essays. He is an eloquent writer. He works hard to find room for mind, meaning, and free will in the physical universe which is, to give him credit, something many of his contemporaries merely explain away. In my own books I have tried to show that the physical universe is not enough, not a sufficient cause, to be declared the sole origin of these things. Dr. Carroll is not alone struggling with this “fitting together”, and indeed contemporary metaphysics and epistemology, not to mention popular physics and cosmology, is awash with ideas about how it is that a purposeless physical mechanism coexists in the universe with what appears to be agent directed purpose!

In this little essay my only aim is to comment on Dr. Carroll’s answer to the first question put to him by Ms. Moskowitz, and a short quote from the prologue to his new book reinforcing the intent of that answer. My purpose here is merely to point out that in these very straightforward statements as concerns the naturalistic part of what he calls “poetic naturalism”, he ignores the claims of those, like me, who do not accept that the only evidence of what is real is physical evidence, and instead rails against a straw man version of it.

The first question and answer of the interview goes thus:

Q: Just because we have no evidence of another realm of reality beyond the physical world, how can we conclude it doesn’t exist?

A: It’s not a matter of certainty, ever. I would make the argument that if there were a supernatural element that played a role in our everyday life in some noticeable way, it’s very, very likely we would have noticed it. It just seems weird that this kind of thing would be so crucial and yet so difficult to notice in any controlled scientific way.

In the prologue to the new book, Dr. Carroll reinforces this idea.

“There is much we don’t know about how the world works, but we have extremely good reason to think that the Core Theory is the correct description of nature in its domain of applicability. That domain is wide enough to immediately exclude a number of provocative phenomena: from telekinesis and astrology to survival of the soul after death.”

I want to unpack these statements beginning with the last. The “Core Theory” to which he refers (his capitalization) is quantum field theory and the “standard model”. These, along with General Relativity account for what we know about the physics of the big bang and all of modern physical science, including cosmology, quantum mechanics, chemistry, and biology.

Let’s look at the three “provocative phenomena” he names. Telekinesis is the ability to move physical objects with the mind unassisted by the natural body (as is common) or brain implants and wires that replace damaged nerves — and thus move the body. We can indeed scratch this one off the list because it concerns physical objects whose movement can be measured physically! Astrology is the notion that the physical planets and stars have subtle effects on our bodies and otherwise (in some quasi-deterministic way) influence the course of our lives. Well, we know the moon and sun at least have some gravitational impact on us, but astrology is normally taken to refer to more far-reaching impacts. We can scratch this one off the list too because the planets and stars are, after all, physical things. Their influence on us can be measured, and there isn’t anything there.

The last claim is problematic. Perhaps Dr. Carroll is thinking of the Catholic doctrine that one is resurrected “in body”, certainly a physical thing. We can measure bodies as they decay. We often cremate them! We are justified in ruling this out. But Dr. Carroll surely knows that this is not the only interpretation of “survival of … death.” He specifically refers to “soul” which he does not define but is commonly taken to be something immaterial. So what Dr. Carroll is telling us is merely that there is nothing in physics that supports any sort of physical survival of death, not of a body, and not of a “physical soul” whatever that might look like. But if, as asserted by most faiths, the soul (and like metaphysics and epistemology there are no end of theories among theologians as to just what this might be) is non-material (a quality of common agreement among theologians) then there would be no way to tell, physically, if it survives material death or not. If Dr. Carroll is telling us that there is nothing in physics that supports the notion of an immaterial soul I am sure he is is quite right. But that isn’t at all surprising if it isn’t a physical entity.

In his answer to the interviewer, Dr. Carroll simply declares that no one has noticed the influence of a “supernatural world” on our everyday lives. This claim despite thousands of years of testimony to the contrary; testimony to the impact of “the spirit” on individual lives. Surely he cannot be unaware of these claims? He means “physical influence” of course as he finishes up by saying that he finds it strange that something [purportedly] so crucial to our lives would not be detected by science, that is by physical measurement! Yet it is precisely the contention of all those thousands of years worth of testimony that this influence is not physical! Dr. Carroll is too well educated and has been around too long not to know this! Not to know that his answer addresses nothing but a straw man. He presupposes that the influence of a “supernatural influence” would be a physical influence and says there is no evidence for that!

In both claims, Dr. Carroll begs the question of evidence to get his point across. The hidden assumption in both the prologue and his answer to the interview question is that physical evidence is the only evidence that is evidence of anything! Of course Dr. Carroll is not alone here. He shares this assumption with 98% of the working analytic philosophers and scientists of the present day and indeed the last century. One could say he is doing no more than burnishing his materialist credentials here because, after all, in spite of his matter-only ontology, Dr. Carroll is going to argue that there is nevertheless freedom and meaning to be found in our lives, both phenomena being controversial among that same group of thinkers.

So with apologies to Dr. Carroll for calling out his fundamental assumption based on an interview and his prologue, I enthusiastically plunge into his book. As I said, he writes well, and his thoughts are insightful. I look forward to seeing how he puts meaning and freedom together from within the purposeless cosmos! I will report again when I have finished.