More on Naturalism and Consciousness

Dianelos Georgoudis replied at length to my earlier posting on metaphysical naturalism and consciousness, and I would like to continue the conversation. I characterize metaphysical naturalists as committed to the causal closure of the natural universe, i.e., to the claim that natural phenomena, to the extent that they are caused (and not, say, random or brute facts), are caused by natural entities, forces, processes, etc. In other words, to parody the slogan about Las Vegas, what causes things in the universe, stays in the universe.
Dianelos comments:

“I have two observations with the idea that according to MN the universe is a causally closed system. I agree that there is overwhelming evidence that all physical phenomena can be explained using only impersonal naturalistic entities, causes, and mechanisms – specifically excluding any supernatural personal entities such as gods, ghosts and souls. My first observation is that physical phenomena are by far not all the data we have, for there is also our subjective experience of life. My second observation is that the fact that the universe appears to be causally closed does not imply that it is.”

I am puzzled by the first observation because it appears simply to beg the question against MN. Subjective experience appears to me to be a natural phenomenon. Thinking, feeling, imagining, willing, and so forth seem to be activities (voluntary or involuntary) of physical beings accomplished via the functionality of their bodily organs, like breathing or exercising. The phenomena of subjective experience therefore seem to me no more mysterious or otherworldly than tap dancing (less so, if you have two left feet like me). People dance with some body parts, digest with others, and do predicate logic proofs with yet others. To be a counterexample to MN, we would need to experience consciousness in a disembodied context. If Marley’s ghost appeared to me tonight to warn me of the consequences of my sins, and I could not explain the apparition away, as Scrooge tried to do, as the effect of a bit of underdone potato, then, yes, I would regard such a visitation as a counterexample to MN. Clearly, though, all such purported counterexamples—encounters with ghosts or gods—are highly controversial and would not be accepted by naturalists.

The second observation is surely correct. The fact that anything appears to be so does not entail that it actually is so (except maybe for famously “incorrigible” phenomena like seeming to have a headache). Still, it seems plain good sense, even in metaphysics, to say that if something manifestly seems to be so, then we should tentatively regard it as so until and unless we have reason to think otherwise. So, my intention expressed in my earlier post to put the burden of proof onto non-naturalists seems to be justified. How heavy should this burden be? Well, nothing succeeds like success, and methodological naturalism seems an excellent candidate for the most successful heuristic assumption of all time. We assume that natural things have natural causes, we doggedly look for those natural causes, and we keep finding them—broader and deeper ones all the time.

Vitalism was the last outpost of supernaturalism in respectable science, and it expired in the early 20th Century. Prior to vitalism’s last gasp, many supernatural accounts had fallen victim to the realization expressed in Laplace’s quip to Napoleon, “I have no need of that hypothesis.” The fecundity of naturalistic theories and the poverty and failure of supernatural ones led scientists, even pious ones, to stipulate, well before Darwin, that science should focus on “secondary” (i.e., natural) causes and leave discussion of the primary cause (i.e., God) to theologians. In short, the naturalistic research program has succeeded spectacularly and the supernaturalistic one has gone extinct, despite the desperate efforts of “intelligent design” theorists to re-animate the corpse. Generalizing upon the spectacular success of the naturalistic heuristic, it appears that natural causes are sufficient for all caused phenomena in the natural world. That this is the plain appearance of things, requiring proof otherwise, was already obvious to Thomas Aquinas in the 13th Century: “Now it seems that everything in the world stems from sources other than God, since the products of nature have their source in nature; deliberate effects can be traced back to human reason or will as their source. There is no need then to assume that God exists (Summa Theologiae, I, q. 2, art. 3).”

As Dianelos notes, I am deeply suspicious of efforts to elucidate the nature of ultimate reality, for many of the reasons that Kant gave. However, since ultimate questions are inevitably so fascinating to us, and since a rigorous agnosticism is very hard to maintain, I think it is OK if we try to come to the most reasonable conclusions we can, always marking that part of our epistemic maps with “here be dragons.”

So, which is the more reasonable postulate, that reality is ultimately natural or supernatural? As Dianelos puts it:

“Does reality ultimately consist of entities that act and are acted upon in accordance with regular, impersonal, and universal laws (as naturalism has it), or does reality ultimately consist of entities that act and are acted upon in accordance with free, personal, and universal will (as theism has it)? Or alternatively: Is knowledge about reality ultimately based on the former premise or on the latter premise? Are the most comprehensive explanations ultimately based on mechanical causality or on agent causality?”

I opt for the former, as I say, mostly by default, i.e. because of the utter lack of any reason to postulate any other kind of thing. I know that natural things exit; indeed, I know that the natural sciences have had enormous success explaining natural things in natural terms. I am unaware of any phenomena that would be better explained in supernatural terms. Natural causes appear sufficient. In fact, the supernaturalistic explanations I am familiar with seem to be woefully devoid of explanatory efficacy, certainly vis-à-vis accepted naturalistic ones. Supernatural accounts are pretty consistent: their modus operandi is to create a mystery where there is no mystery, and then to invoke some putative supernatural entity, like God or souls, that appears tailor-made to provide a pseudo-explanation for the pseudo-mystery. The “explanation” provided then leaves me even more puzzled than I was before. Inevitably, such “explanations” work by postulating untestable hypotheses invoking inscrutable entities which are asserted to wield occult powers to produce effects in some unknowable way. So, if asked to place my bets about what substantial reality consists of, I say the entities that constitute the space/time universe.

Dianelos says:

“By the claim that ‘consciousness is a scientifically unnecessary concept’ (or, similarly, that ‘experience is a scientifically unnecessary concept’) I mean that the best explanation of physical phenomena need not make use of such concepts, the same way that the best explanation of fire need not make use of the phlogiston.”

This is a bit confusing. We don’t explain fire in terms of phlogiston, because we know that the phlogiston theory is false. An eliminative materialist might compare consciousness to phlogiston, meaning that they are both discredited notions, but I know that Dianelos does not intend to do so in that sense. He continues:

“Conversely we believe that atoms exist in as far as the best explanation of phenomena (of Brownian motion say) requires them. Similarly we know that a monkey’s behavior is best explained by the electrochemical processes in its brain. Now one can name a particular pattern of neuron firings in a monkey’s brain ‘disappointed’ (or say that the behavior caused by such neuron firings evidences that the monkey is disappointed) but such naming conventions add nothing to the explanation; one might as well name the same pattern P342. Indeed, it’s easy enough to anthropomorphize phenomena in contexts where no consciousness is present.”

But there is no one “best” way to explain the monkey’s behavior. It depends on the kind of question we are asking and the kinds of observations we are seeking to explain. The question that Tinklepaugh was asking in the experiment referred to in the earlier post was why the monkey behaved the particular way that it did when it turned over the cup and found lettuce rather than banana. The behavior is readily explicable upon the postulation of mental states—the mental representation of banana under the cup and a consequent experience of disappointment upon finding lettuce instead—and not explicable, or certainly not readily so, in terms of unconscious stimulus-response processes. So we appear to have a clear case of inference to the best explanation, which, in this case, involves the postulation of conscious states. There is no basis for regarding such inference as anthropomorphic unless we assume that only humans are capable of having conscious states.

But is the postulation of consciousness necessary here? Couldn’t we, in principle, explain the monkey’s behavior merely by detailing its physiological antecedents? Sure we could, just as we could explain any piece of human behavior in precisely the same way—hence the philosophical problem of other minds. But if we hold that conscious processes (e.g., thinking, willing, feeling) are fully realized in physical processes (patterns of neuronal firings, etc.), then explanations in terms of consciousness are fully compatible with, and, in fact subsumed by, physiological explanations, which are in turn subsumed by explanations in terms of chemistry and physics. However, the fact that explanations in terms of A’s subsume explanations in terms of B’s does not mean that B’s do not exist or are not useful, indeed, indispensable, at certain levels of explanation.

Why, at the end of the “Gloria” section of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis did Beethoven make the orchestra suddenly go silent while the chorus shouts out the final “Gloria!” into the empty air? Suppose we ask just why Beethoven composed it that way. A complete description of all the relevant states of Beethoven’s brain, qua brain states, as he was composing the end of the “Gloria” would, of course, leave us dissatisfied. We want to know why it seemed aesthetically right to him to suddenly yank the orchestral accompaniment out from under the chorus. We would like to know what he was feeling, i.e., what his musical intuitions were telling him. Surely he realized that the effect would be breathtaking, as indeed it is. But if Beethoven’s artistic intuitions were fully realized in his brain states, then even the creativity of a Beethoven can, in principle, be subsumed under physiological explanation (without thereby obviating explanations in terms of aesthetic intuitions).

Dianelos continues:

“…my argument is not about why or how a material system becomes conscious, nor about the explanatory gap between scientific and experiential knowledge; these are distinct problems on their own right. I simply observe that from science’s point of view the hypothesis that consciousness (including experiential phenomena, states, and processes) exists serves no purpose. If true my premise falsifies all naturalistic ontologies according to which only concepts which are required by science refer to elements of objective reality.”

There appears to be an equivocation in Dianelos’ use of terms like “required” and “necessary.” He seems to equate these terms with “…serves no purpose.” But to say that a concept is not required or necessary certainly does not mean that it serves no purpose. Could we, in principle, produce explanations of monkey or human behavior that make no reference to consciousness? Again, of course we could. Indeed, we often do, even in everyday contexts. Why did Billy Bob drive his F-250 the wrong way up I-45? Because he had a blood alcohol level of .24. But this does not at all mean that scientific explanations that postulate conscious states are never warranted by the evidence or do not constitute the best explanations of a set of data. If such explanations do serve a purpose, then Dianelos’ assertion that they do not is simply false. Do they serve a purpose? Perhaps the more philosophical question is “Could they serve a purpose?” The answer seems to be, plainly, “yes.” There is no reason whatsoever why postulating conscious states cannot be confirmed in the same manner and to the same degree as the postulation of any other unobservable. Why not? Does Dianelos think that the possession of consciousness can have no testable consequences, or that experimental results could never justify the inference to the postulation of conscious states? Why would he think that?

Dianelos responds to my suggestion that perhaps we will someday just stop asking Chalmers’ hard question just as we long ago stopped asking questions about final causes in chemistry and physics. We didn’t stop asking questions about final causes because we discovered that there weren’t any. Rather, we just decided that such questions were pointless and unproductive and that it was a waste of time to ponder them. Dianelos objects:

“But what about other questions, such as which material systems are conscious? Such questions cannot be dropped because they are morally relevant. Correlates will not help us decide whether, say, cockroaches are conscious beings, or whether intelligent computers are conscious. Correlates will not help us decide whether our experience and personal identity can survive the destruction of our brain. Or whether it is reasonable to believe that our brain produces our consciousness in the first place (that’s the second conceptual problem I have pointed out.) So I don’t think naturalism’s problem with consciousness will ever go away.”

But why couldn’t we devise experiments that would give us the means to answer questions about cockroach or computer consciousness? Again, questions about cockroach or computer consciousness appear no different in principle than questions about any other kind of unobservable, and there is no reason to see why such questions could not be addressed with the general types of scientific inquiry we use to answer other such questions. Of course, a computer could be programmed to appear to have consciousness and so might defeat any test we could devise. Likewise, a Cartesian evil genius could defeat any empirical test we might have about anything, but this is no reason to stop empirical testing or to question its findings.

In summary then, I see no reason why there cannot be scientific explanations that legitimately invoke or postulate conscious states to explain observed phenomena. So, Dianelos’ claim that appeal to consciousness is “unnecessary” in science is either false or irrelevant. It is false if by “unnecessary” he means that appeals to or postulation of conscious states can serve no purpose in scientific investigation. They can. It is irrelevant if he means that it is possible to adduce explanations of human or animal behavior that make no mention of conscious states. This is true but it does not follow that there are no scientific contexts in which the postulation of consciousness is warranted and useful.

About Keith Parsons
  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07559081710058635050 Pulse

    Keith defines consciousness as the causal result of mental processes, but Dianelos defines consciousness as the medium of mental processes. This appears on the surface to be a case of taking observed correlations between mental processes and conscious experiences and promoting them to a specific cause/effect order, and this, I believe, is the root of their disagreement. Keith has the upper hand in this debate in that it can be demonstrated that direct manipulation of neural processes separate from sensory perception can alter experiences and behavior. Of course, Dianelos denies this by claiming (curiously) that conscious experience can't be objectively observed.

    I believe that Dianelos' phlogiston analogy is supposed to show that fire is explained scientifically by chemical and thermal processes, not "the capacity to burn" as alchemists would have it. Similarly, behavior is explained scientifically by biological neural processes. Dianelos is claiming that to explain behavior by consciousness (or "the capacity to experience" by his definition) is superfluous in science and therefore unnecessary. But of course this conclusion is valid only if we are to accept Dianelos' definition of consciousness. If, however, consciousness and certain biological processes in the brain are considered synonymous, there is no real reason to discard the convenient concept of consciousness from a scientific standpoint. If even one biological state can be causally equated to a conscious state, then the claim that "consciousness is a scientifically unnecessary concept" is false.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    Pulse makes some good points and gives me the opportunity to clarify some things. As he says, Dianelos and I have to some extent been talking past each other (the inveterate curse of philosophical discussion). As I see it, the phenomena of consciousness should be thought of more as activities or functions than as states or things. This is why it is not only grammatically but philosophically appropriate to employ gerundial forms to refer to such phenomena–thinking, feeling, sensing, imagining, etc. Even consciousness in the sense of a capacity for sensing, imagining, etc. should be thought of more as an active monitoring rather than a passive receptivity. Aristotle was quite wrong to create the image of perception as involving amorphous mental matter passively receiving the imprint of the forms of external things. This image still does harm today. Our sensory apparatus and central nervous system do not just absorb information from the external world like a sponge soaking up water. We highly selectively grab some of that information (ignoring the vast bulk of it), encode it, decode it, evaluate it, classify it, interpret it, and decide how to react to it–all in an instant. And we do this with our brains, nerves, and senses, not with some ghostly, vaporous homunculus called a "soul." As always, the real story we learn from science is vastly more exciting and satisfying than the fantasies of supernaturalism.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16275488047072609654 Baal

    Keith,
    What you say about thinking about consciousness employing gerundial forms strikes a chord with me.

    I have spent many years practising meditation and frequently when learning to meditate, controlling the breath is used.

    Breathing is one of those functions of the body that ordinarily is doing itself, without conscious control, but can be done, willed. It seems that in learning to meditate, using the breath is good precisely because it is such an activity.

    From meditating, one of the insights I got was how, in the same way, our experience of ourself thinking, directing our thoughts, was just another learnt capacity, but the thinking itself was just happening like our breathing.

    Once we learn to direct our thinking we begin to create our sense of self. We create a 'doer' of what is done. A thinker of the thoughts. The self is a narration.

    In meditation one tries to detach oneself from the activity of the mind, stopping identifying as the doer. You look upon the chattering of the mind almost like someone else who you try to tune out, bringing your attention back to your breath.

    Just as breathing happens involutarily and we can learn to consciously control it, thereby creating a self that feels able to control. It is my sense that cognition cogitates and we learn to direct it, creating the sense of a thinking self.

    The 'self' is after the fact.

    Or more properly, as more and more of the activities of the organism are mastered and brought under conscious control, the more is added to the narrative entity that is our identity.

    Now I get to the difficult part.

    It is possible to achieve non-dual states, where all awareness of the activity of the mind and body ceases, and with it all awareness of the world.

    But it is not unconsciousness.

    I think it is more proper to say that the mind ceases creating mental representations of the world and body within the world.

    The difficulty is that nothing can be said about it because all language presumes an agent who acts, or passively, actions that are done.
    Language is an integral part of the creation of the self.

    Even to call it an experience rings false because there is no 'one' to have the experience and no 'thing' to be experienced. No sense of time even.

    The revelation in a sense is when one 'returns'.
    It is as if out of this 'no-thing'ness the world condenses and simultaneously the self appears.

    The reason I intrude upon your discussion is that I have always had difficulty finding terms in our language to talk about meditative states because there are so many assumptions being made that jar with the actual 'experience'.
    Rather, I suspect, as when physicists say that our ordinary intuitions break down when you get to the quantum level.

    When trying to follow Dianelo's reasoning the same sense of wrongness pervaded it.

    It seems to be rooted in the intuition that the self, the agent, is somehow causal or primary.

    To me this is back to front.

    There is first need of activity before the ability to direct the activity can be learnt. Which then allows for the idea to form that there is 'someone' who possesses the ability. Who can then will things to happen.

    Mental activity can be subsumed within the bio-chemical activity of the organism, which is itself subsumed by the physics that underlie the biological and chemical.

    Impersonal physical laws give rise to chemistry. Impersonal chemical activity gives rise to biological activity, which in turn gives rise to metal activity. It is only then that the stage is set for the emergence of a self.

    The description of the willing self as an emergent property seems to be truest to the experience.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16275488047072609654 Baal

    Con'd,
    When I read ancient writings, people's sense of self or ego seems to have been much less sure. They seem to describe themselves at the mercy of 'powers' and spirits that that could possess them, could wrest what little agency they had from them and compel them to act in ways they felt no sense of responsiblity for.
    Their attitude towards these powers was one of fear and and a need for propitiation.

    All the internal forces we 'own' as our lust, anger, fear etc., they personified as spirits, and then untimately gods, who had to be given their due if humans were to have any hope of a life of their own.

    While I know that I can't really 'know' what it must have truly been like, because I have a strong sense of self, a modern ego, I find my meditation practice allows me to imagine the birth of the ego in our ancestors.

    I also experience myself less as a 'Self' but rather in a more protean way. Calling upon different aspects that have been strenghtened and polished over my lifetime as the situation requires.

    In fact, while meditating, I once 'heard' a voice that said "I am many. And we are one."
    This sparked an experience of what I can only describe as ecstacy, which obliterated all sense of self.

    When I read of transcranial stimulation I can't help wonder if in the future we might not have technologies that act as short-cuts to the states that meditators have through years of practice.
    I feel that one of the obstacles to understanding consciousness is that it is subjective and studied as if it were objective.
    Rather like in Eastern philosophy they say one can never know the taste of honey by having someone describe it to you. You have to taste it and then you 'know' honey.

    I am sure I have expressed all this rather poorly. I am conscious that I don't 'speak your language' but I was hoping it might add a different perspective.
    I always find it instructive trying to parse your discussions into terms I am more familiar with. I hope all this doesn't seem too 'out of left field'.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    Keith Parsons says that conscious experiences are activities of physical beings accomplished via the functionality of some bodily part (presumably their brain), and that people digest with some body parts, and experience with some others. The fundamental difference of course is that we observe the stomach digesting, but we don’t observe the brain experiencing. Rather we observe the brain causing behavior. The very question at hand is why, given that causal mechanism, “the lights are on” to use David Chalmers’ expression. It seems then we are back to the issue of easy versus hard problem of consciousness. (Indeed to call consciousness a phenomenon strikes me as a category mistake. Rather, consciousness is what makes it possible for phenomena to exist: In a world without consciousness there would be events but no phenomena.)

    Similarly, when panpsychists claim that thermostats possess consciousness they are not making a claim about activities or about the functionality of thermostats; rather they claim that thermostats have the capacity of conscious experience and, presumably, do have some kind of experience when they function properly. Conscious experiences themselves are clearly not objectively observable as evidenced by the fact that we can’t observe whether thermostats, or for that matter cockroaches or computers, do have them. Similarly we can’t observe a bat’s experience of echolocation.

    Now one can justify the existence of unobservables if the hypothesis that they exist is the best explanation for some observable. When speaking about the inference to the best explanation, the operative word is “best”. The observation of a glass overturned and the milk spilled can be explained both by the existence of a ghost in the house and by the existence of a cat in the house, but given that the latter is the better explanation one isn’t justified to believe in the existence of ghosts. Similarly scientific realists today believe that curved spacetime exists and they do not anymore believe that gravitational force fields exist, because the latter is no longer the best available explanation for gravitational phenomena.

    In this context I claimed that on scientific naturalism the existence of consciousness cannot be the best explanation. Keith shrewdly suggests the case of explaining an artistic decision by Beethoven. As a theist (and an idealist at that) I do believe that consciousness is the best explanation for Beethoven’s decision about that final “Gloria!”, and indeed for all beauty and for all order there is. But my argument here is about the best explanation *on scientific naturalism*. And it seems to me that on scientific naturalism the best explanation are elementary particles blindly and mechanistically churning away in Beethoven’s brain. I think Keith ultimately agrees when he says that Beethoven’s creativity can, in principle, be subsumed under physiological explanation. He adds that this does not obviate explanations in terms of esthetic intuitions. True, but if explanations in terms of esthetic intuitions can be subsumed under physiological explanation then the former cannot be the *best* explanation. Significantly Keith claims that “ the fact that explanations in terms of A’s subsume explanations in terms of B’s does not mean that B’s do not exist or are not useful, indeed, indispensable, at certain levels of explanation.” I think this is a key point. I agree that the B’s can be useful in some contexts, and even indispensable sometimes as a practical matter. But I strongly disagree that the B’s can be said to exist in objective reality. In the case of gravitational phenomena the currently best explanation assumes the existence of curved spacetime and not of gravitational force fields. Nevertheless people find it useful to continue using Newtonian mechanics and gravitational force fields in many contexts (e.g. while engineering an airplane). But nobody who knows about general relativity believes that gravitational force fields exist in reality.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    Perhaps there is an ambiguity in this discussion: Let’s again consider the question of whether an explanation based on mechanistic concepts or an explanation based on personal concepts (i.e. concepts about conscious experience) best explains Beethoven’s creativity. This question may refer to the *event* of Beethoven’s writing music, or to Beethoven’s *experience* of writing music. I see no reason why one should suspect that the event itself cannot in principle be fully explained based only on the mechanistic actions of particles in Beethoven’s brain. What I feel though is that explaining the physical event of Beethoven’s writing the Missa Solemnis cannot be identified with or in some way subsumed to the creative experience of Beethoven’s writing the Missa Solemnis. It seems that there is something more to reality than the physical events themselves that take place in our brain when we write or listen to music – something that is *not* explained by the mechanistic behavior of particles in brains. So perhaps the ambiguity is about what we apply “best explanation” to – do we search for the best explanation for the event or for the experience? If, as dualists believe, the latter is not reducible even in principle to the former then here we have two entirely different questions.

    Which brings me back to my pointing out that the fact that the physical universe appears to be causally closed does not imply that it is. If there is a qualitative/personal dimension to reality beyond the quantitative/physical one, then the question arises about the relationship between these two dimensions, a question that has bedeviled dualists for centuries. My argument is that it is entirely possible for the conscious dimension to cause events in the physical plane, while all events on the physical plane are nonetheless causally closed (i.e. can be explained without the need to assume the existence of the conscious dimension). I find this is a powerful insight, which moreover removes dualism’s main conceptual problem. Finally I note that a naturalist can be a dualist if they assume that the personal dimension of reality too is amenable to mechanistic modeling – this at any rate appears to be the position of Chalmers.

    Some final comments:

    When I say that science does not “require” the consciousness hypothesis, or that the consciousness hypothesis is not “necessary” for science, I simply mean that the best (more predictively powerful, more detailed) scientific explanation of physical phenomena do not use concepts related to consciousness.

    Keith claims that the possession of consciousness can have testable physical consequences. Now, either it is the case that the best explanation for the physical phenomena that science studies can be given only in terms of the mechanistic behavior of elementary particles (in which case the consciousness hypothesis is not necessary), or else the best explanation cannot be given in such terms. The latter case would falsify scientific naturalism as we now know it. It is conceivable that some future development in science would require us to assume a ghost being present in the machinery and affecting it in a way not otherwise explainable, but I think it is a safe bet that this won’t happen. The former case would make it impossible to test for the presence of consciousness, because one cannot scientifically test for the presence of an unobservable the existence of which is not required by the best theories of science. To try to test for the presence of consciousness would be akin to trying to test for the presence of gravitational force fields.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14485509846775012081 Hari Seldon

    DG said "My argument is that it is entirely possible for the conscious dimension to cause events in the physical plane, while all events on the physical plane are nonetheless causally closed"

    How?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    I have claimed that in a dualistic reality it is possible for the conscious dimension to cause events in the physical plane, while all events on that plane remain causally closed. Hari Seldon asks how this might work. I will respond by first presenting two analogies, and then by describing a fairly detailed model of how a theistic version of dualism may work in the actual reality in which we exist.

    The first analogy is a shadow theater. The shadows we observe are in reality caused by the puppeteers and their instruments; on the other hand the shadows themselves may present a causally closed world. So if we only take into consideration information about the shadows we see (the way scientific naturalists only take into consideration physical phenomena) then we need not assume the existence of the puppeteers and their instruments, and will only discuss the internal logic of the shadow play itself. A second analogy would be playing a virtual reality computer game. What we observe in this game is caused by the computer hardware running a particular software program, itself caused by programmers having a particular intention. On the other hand the events in the computer game itself may (and indeed typically are) causally closed, and while playing the game one need not assume the existence of its real causes.

    Let me now describe a working model of an actual dualistic reality. I don’t personally think that this is the best model of reality, but that’s irrelevant. So here is the model:

    According to quantum mechanics a physical system can evolve in many different ways. Only one of these ways will actualize in reality in accordance with a particular probability distribution (as described by the system’s wave function). Let us now consider the entire physical universe at some initial state as such a system. Quantum mechanics describes all possible physical universes that can evolve out of this initial state. Perhaps unbeknownst to many, quantum mechanics allows for the evolution of physical universes that would not be “naturalistic” or “causally closed” in the sense we use the terms, and indeed would strike one as strongly “supernaturalistic”. For example quantum mechanics allows for universes similar to ours but in which many people perform miracles, or where the Statue of Liberty now and then swims around Manhattan, and so on. Let us now define three properties that possible universes can have. The N-property characterizes the universes that would appear to be naturalistic and causally closed under any possible scientific test. So the supernaturalistic universes described above lack the N-property. The G-property characterizes the universes in which God’s will about physical facts would obtain. For example universes in which humans do not evolve according to God’s design would lack the G-property. Finally the H-property characterizes the universes in which the will of humans about physical facts would obtain – within the limitations of the N-property. So a universe in which we found ourselves incapable of moving our bodies according to our will (within the limitations of physical law) would lack the H-property. There is a huge number of possible universes which possess both the N, G, and H properties, and which therefore comport with the physical laws and facts that science discovers, and also with the traditional theistic story of a creator and interacting God, and also with our own experience of life including free will. God continuously actualizes one of these N-G-H universes by randomly picking one out of them (so that there are many physical events which are random and are not caused either by God or by any other person). Here then we have the description of a dualistic reality in which non-physical persons who exist in a separate spiritual realm (such as God and ourselves) freely and massively cause events in the physical universe (via the actualization of future physical facts), while all these events remain causally closed under any possible scientific test.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16275488047072609654 Baal

    "and also with our own experience of life including free will."

    I do not have free will. I am moved by the ends I desire and what I fear.
    These things are given.
    The small amount of freedom I have is made up of the experience I have gathered which can inform my intelligence.
    This allows me to put the brakes on certain desires, but this is not by force of some putative will.
    Rather, I weigh the likely consequences of the course I'm on and if the outcome isn't promising but likely to be unpleasant instead, it will provoke fear which I can marshall to steer myself from the course I'm on.

    Sometimes it means avoiding situations which can derail what little self-control I have.

    Free will is a myth elabourated by Christians over the centuries as an ad hoc excuse to paper over some of the inconsistencies of Judeo-Christian mythology.

    Most Eastern philosophies do without it.

    Why do religions invent heavens and hells if not to substitute for the desires and fears of the world that drive us?

    It is the imagination which allows us to posit the existence of heavenly delights and use them to deny what we relegate to the mundane. Similarly with fears.

    It shows the motive power of desire and fear that even imaginary ones can condition our behaviour.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07559081710058635050 Pulse

    Quoting Dianelos:

    "I have claimed that in a dualistic reality it is possible for the conscious dimension to cause events in the physical plane, while all events on that plane remain causally closed. Hari Seldon asks how this might work. I will respond by first presenting two analogies, and then by describing a fairly detailed model of how a theistic version of dualism may work in the actual reality in which we exist."

    Despite your claims, you don't actually answer the question, "How?" to any satisfactory degree. We're not looking for superficial analogies. We want to understand what you envision as the actual mechanism at work. Your analogies fail to even pierce this question, and your model falls short of adequately describing any sort of mechanism.

    "The first analogy is a shadow theater. The shadows we observe are in reality caused by the puppeteers and their instruments; on the other hand the shadows themselves may present a causally closed world."

    How can the shadows accurately present a world of predictable cause and effect if they are being manipulated by puppeteers? If the shadows are actually controlled by the whims of the puppeteers, then there is no reason to suppose that any event witnessed in the shadows would be causally related to any other event. If, however, we do witness a system of causal relatedness within the shadows, then this is evidence that the puppeteers who created those shadows also exist in a causally closed world. Seeing that Shadow Event A necessarily leads to Shadow Event B seems to indicate that Puppeteer Action A necessarily leads to Puppeteer Action B. How is it that free actions in a (supernatural) conscious dimension give rise only to events that have every indication of being causally closed in the physical plane? Is there some great supernatural conspiracy to make the natural world appear deterministic down to the subatomic level?

    "A second analogy would be playing a virtual reality computer game. What we observe in this game is caused by the computer hardware running a particular software program, itself caused by programmers having a particular intention. On the other hand the events in the computer game itself may (and indeed typically are) causally closed, and while playing the game one need not assume the existence of its real causes."

    The game appears to be causally closed because the software and hardware define specific rules for the game to follow, akin to natural laws. The human programmers who defined these rules may have had their own intentions, but to claim that their decisions are not causally closed simply restates the hypothesis that you are trying to demonstrate, that conscious choice (free will) is not naturalistic. This analogy is circular.

    Continue in next post…

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07559081710058635050 Pulse

    Quoting Dianelos:

    "Let us now consider the entire physical universe at some initial state as such a system. Quantum mechanics describes all possible physical universes that can evolve out of this initial state. Perhaps unbeknownst to many, quantum mechanics allows for the evolution of physical universes that would not be 'naturalistic' or 'causally closed' in the sense we use the terms, and indeed would strike one as strongly 'supernaturalistic'."

    This is a very tenuous assumption that will require a significant amount of evidence to demonstrate. You need to be very careful when you use the word "possible" so that you do not confuse possible states with those which are merely conceivable. Just because something is conceivable does not mean that it is also possible. I can conceive of magical leprechauns, but this does not mean that they can possibly exist. (Well, you might claim that they can possibly exist.) Likewise, I can conceive of a non-naturalistic universe, but this does not by itself mean that such a universe can possibly exist. You must first demonstrate that such things actually are possible. Otherwise, you are merely invoking "God in the gaps" of quantum mechanics.

    "There is a huge number of possible universes which possess both the N, G, and H properties, and which therefore comport with the physical laws and facts that science discovers, and also with the traditional theistic story of a creator and interacting God, and also with our own experience of life including free will."

    In order to accept that the G-property and the H-property are even possible aspects of the universe as opposed to merely conceivable, one must already accept that God's will and human will exist. Your argument is once again circular. You are claiming that free will exists, therefore universes that manifest free will are possible, therefore free will is manifested in some universes, therefore free will exists.

    "God continuously actualizes one of these N-G-H universes by randomly picking one out of them (so that there are many physical events which are random and are not caused either by God or by any other person)."

    As close as I can tell, this must be your claim of the mechanistic "how" of dualism, a single sentence blanket assertion, but it really doesn't hold much water. Assuming that quantum mechanics does in fact operate by actualizing a single state out of all possible states, why must it be God who performs this action? Earlier you claimed that such quantum actualization occurs "in accordance with a particular probability distribution (as described by the system’s wave function)." Is this naturalistic explanation no longer good enough? If God is indeed performing the actualization with regards to particular probability distributions, doesn't this imply that he too is causally closed within the system, behaving in accordance with predictable odds? In fact, if he always selects randomly, doesn't this imply that his own will is moot? After all, willing to roll a seven in Craps has absolutely no bearing on the random lay of the dice. It appears to me that your proposed mechanism for dualism doesn't contribute anything toward a greater understanding of the universe.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    I the previous post I set out to describe how a theistic dualistic reality might work, but Pulse points out that I have not described the relevant mechanisms. A theistic dualistic reality is not supposed to work on mechanistic principles (for example it entails the existence of libertarian free will), so, had I described an actual mechanism then I would have failed to describe a theistic dualistic reality.

    The reason I gave the analogy of the shadow theater was only to demonstrate that if what one sees seems to be causally closed it does not follow that the real causes cannot lie beyond what one sees (i.e. in a transcendental reality beyond what one sees).

    Pulse also argues that I have not given any reasons to justify the truth of the dualistic reality I described. But this was not my intention; indeed I said that I do not myself believe that the model I described represents the best understanding of reality. Rather the intention of my post was this: Many people (theists and atheist alike) believe that theistic dualism suffers from a serious conceptual problem, namely that if (as natural science has pretty much demonstrated by now) the physical universe is naturalistic and causally closed, then it can’t be the case that non-physical persons (such as God and humans and perhaps other spirits too) existing in a non-physical dimension of reality are massively affecting the physical universe through the application of their free will (as theism has it). Indeed it was this broadly held belief which has motivated some theologians to argue that God has middle knowledge about the future. The intention of my post then was to demonstrate that this belief is false, because it is logically possible for reality to be such that 1) the physical universe is naturalistic and causally closed and 2) supernatural persons existing in a supernatural realm are freely and supernaturally affecting the physical universe all the time and at a massive scale. My argument in the previous post (based on an argument that Keith Ward explains in his “God Chance and Necessity”) sets out to demonstrate one possible such model of reality using the best knowledge about the physical universe which modern science has given us. As such it is a simple argument which in a nutshell goes like this:

    According to quantum mechanics, given some initial state of the physical universe the future is not fixed; rather the universe can evolve into a large number of different physical universes [1]. This set of possible universes includes a number which are both naturalistic and causally closed as the scientific method assumes, and in which the physical changes which God freely wills (such as traditional theism describes) as well as the physical changes which humans freely will, obtain. God continuously and randomly actualizes into reality one of the latter number of possible physical universes. Voila: A dualistic model of a reality in which the premises of natural science and of traditional theism are both true. (And in which some premises of metaphysical naturalism, such as that reality works on non-free mechanistic principles, are of course false.)

    [1] So it’s not the case that I “must first demonstrate that such [universes] actually are possible”, for it is a fact that according to quantum mechanics they are possible. Indeed one could in principle compute what the probability is that any one of these universes will actualize in reality. Finally Pulse thinks that according to the model God’s will is also restrained by the relevant probability distribution. That’s a mistaken impression, because we know that there is already a huge number of possible universes which are both naturalistic and causally closed *and* comply with free personal will (for example God’s will that humans according to God’s design should evolve). It’s true that the actual number of possible N-G-H universes depends on the probability distribution, but this is irrelevant, as just one of them suffices for the model to work.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16275488047072609654 Baal

    Isn't that just quantum woo?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04556029151486502505 exapted

    Consciousness is just a catch-all for the persistent and surprising set of semantic brain processes which we have not explained in physical terms. "Consciousness" might be a set of terminal phenomena, it might be an interpretation of some information in nervous systems in an environment, it might more directly be physical activity, or it might be something sort of different. *It* is what needs to be explained.

    I don't think we need to fall back on "consciousness" to explain the mind, I think we need to explain everything included in the category of "consciousness".

    One really confusing aspect of the mind is that it is tempting to try to say things like this: "the brain does the mind", "the brain is the mind", etc. I think our explanations of consciousness are going to be unsatisfying to most people until we more thoroughly understand what the mind is in relation to physical processes.

    So maybe there will be a paradigm shift in the future where information becomes more important that physics. Maybe that would make explanations of the mind more satisfying to more people. I think "consciousness" is mostly a bag of tricks which functions semantically (arguably an illusion, but it depends what we mean by 'illusion').

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14485509846775012081 Hari Seldon

    DG, if I understand you correctly, there is human free will, as far as it respects the probability distributions imposed by physics (QM). However, would you call 'free' a decision that is constrained by an event with 99% probability?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    Hari Seldon said: “ DG, if I understand you correctly, there is human free will, as far as it respects the probability distributions imposed by physics (QM). However, would you call 'free' a decision that is constrained by an event with 99% probability?

    Yes, definitely. Let’s take an example: That I decide to give all my money to the poor is at least 99% constrained by the current physical state of my brain. Nevertheless I am 100% free to decide to give all my money to the poor, as there is nothing capable of stopping me from choosing to do exactly that. In other words the concept of freedom refers to the fact that a particular way of action is open without entailing anything about the probability that I shall decide to follow this way.

    Freedom then gives us the opportunity (but not the power) to transcend the physical limitations of our condition related to how we choose to live, even when such limitations are quite strong. The Biblical “the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak” succinctly expresses the fact of our condition that we often wish to be better persons than we are, but lack the power to achieve the necessary change of mind (or “metanoia” – mistranslated as “repentance”). That’s why all religious traditions teach spiritual exercises the goal of which is to transform our mind and empower us to become the persons we wish to be – to follow that path which by freedom is open to us. For a theist the most basic and in some ways most powerful such exercise is simply to pray.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14485509846775012081 Hari Seldon

    DG, you cannot be 100%-free in the presence of a constraint. A probabilistic contraint is still a constraint.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    Hari Seldon said: “ DG, you cannot be 100%-free in the presence of a constraint. A probabilistic contraint is still a constraint.

    No, it’s not in the relevant sense that free will gives us the opportunity to overcome any such constrain. Here is an example that may clarify what I mean:

    If I throw three dice then the probability of getting three sixes is about 0.5% (that’s an implication of the physical state of the dices). The probability that I will decide to pay my fair share in taxes without taking advantage of loopholes is also about 0.5% (that’s an implication of the physical state of my brain). Here then we have two physical events of comparable probability. Now, it’s not possible for me to realize the first unlikely event; no matter how much I will it I cannot make the three dice come up all sixes. But because I have free will I am given the opportunity to realize – at will – the second unlikely event, for I am 100% capable of deciding to pay my fair share of taxes. So I do possess freedom of will in relation to the physical events which are contingent on my decisions in a way I don’t possess in relation to other kinds of physical events.

    It would be nice to think that one could use freedom of will to demonstrate supernaturalism. Suppose for example that ten like me morally lukewarm theists would come together and decide to all pay their fair share of taxes. Probabilistically speaking this event would be comparable to throwing 30 dice and coming up with all sixes – a miracle. Unfortunately this does not work, for the idea that we would be able to demonstrate supernaturalism just by paying our taxes would greatly increase the probability that we will decide to pay them, thus invalidating the whole exercise.


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