Thursday, December 30, 2004

Wrestling with Decoherence

In my amateur attempts to understand quantum mechanics (QM) I realize I have usually either oversimplified or misconstrued the phenomenon known as decoherence. In my mind, I had pictured decoherence as an interaction of a quantum system with the environment that brought about a collapse of superposition states essentially the same way a measurement did in the Copenhagen interpretation of QM. After renewed attempts to understand this topic, (including reading summaries like this), I should say instead that decoherence is an entanglement of the system with its environment. This entanglement involves a sharing of the degrees of freedom of the original coherent system with its environment which leads to creation of a “mixture”. From the perspective of a potential observer, decoherence takes away the interference aspect of the quantum superposition, but it still doesn’t tell the potential observer that a definite outcome of a potential measurement on the mixture has been realized. So, decoherence may account for why quantum interference effects are not seen in our macroscopic world, but it doesn’t remove the quantum measurement effect/problem from the picture at all.Also, while many believe decoherence lends support to one or another interpretation of the measurement problem, it provides no decisive evidence for any of them.

Now having said this, I have read a couple of papers by one of the leaders in the field, Wojciech H. Zurek. He (along with collaborators) seems to be trying to take the program of decoherence farther in the direction of it becoming a replacement for the concept of measurement. As explained in papers such as this and most recently this (see also this brief summary in Nature), the idea is that multiple observers can sample the environment and gain knowledge of a preferred state of a system in question without direct measurement. Decoherence leads to a dissemination of redundant copies of information about the preferred state into the environment such that an observation of any fragment will do the trick. Thus further progress is made explaining why the objective-seeming classical world arises from quantum physics.

This is very good. To understand how a classical-looking world arises from quantum reality is an important project. But it still is a quantum reality.

Despite my mistakes in understanding decoherence, I think some of the issues I’ve focused on seem relatively untouched. It is still true that quantum interactions (whether an observing system is measuring another system or a fragment of the environment or whatever) have a very different nature than classical interactions. I think the issue is sometimes obscured by terminology. Is the interaction a measurement, an observation, or an information transfer? However you put it, there is more going on in these interactions than the classical causal picture of “A” effecting “B”. One or both systems need to have an additional property in order to have a quantum event. This “ability to measure” or “ability to receive information” property is an integral part of the picture. This is in step with Gregg Rosenberg’s postulate of a receptive property in nature discussed in my recent posts. And it continues to make sense to me that incorporating this important aspect of nature into one’s toolkit will help explain consciousness and also perhaps other complex phenomena which resist a reduction to classical mechanics.

The macroscopic world may look classical, but it doesn’t follow that macroscopic phenomena can be explained classically!

Thursday, December 16, 2004

Q&A with Gregg Rosenberg

Gregg Rosenberg was nice enough to correspond with me via e-mail and gave me permission to post this Q&A exchange we had (his answer actually addresses not just my question as posed below but also the related comments I made on my last post here).

Q: My main question is: have you thought any more about the problem of time? In the book, it seemed a bit of a challenge to link the subjective time of consciousness back to the emergence of time (and space) from the causal mesh at a more primitive level (sections 10.6 and 14.3.2). Now, it's very possible I didn't comprehend some of the arguments there, but I was wondering if there is any other way to address the status of time as something which inherently accompanies (not emerges from) causality and experience?

A: I would not say that I divide time in 'subjective' and 'objective' time. Rather I divide it into 'subjective' and 'intersubjective' time, with intersubjective time being a relativistic construction from the structure of the causal mesh. That is, one must pick a node in the mesh and then back into a structure for time relative to that node, so intersubjective time is not an 'objective' view of time. FWIW, I think this view dovetails fairly well with the treatment of these things in quantum loop theory, which is a theory of physics that I find appealing.

Having two things is always less satisfying than having one, so I can understand why you might find my view a bit unsatisfying. Let me do my best to make it more digestible. The two kinds of time are really directed at answering two entirely different questions,

1) Why does experience contain an asymmetric flow?


2) Why does it work when we assign numerical indexes to natural events to mark their locations relative to one another?

My answer to the first question is: because real flow is needed in the world to carry asymmetric constraint within the causal nexus. Since the carriers are experiential, the flow is a flow of experience. This is subjective time.

My answer to the second question is: because each experiencer is a node in a network, and the structure of the network is such that a temporal index is useful for cross-correlating nodes in the network. This is intersubjective time.

So the two kinds of time are really "about" two remarkably different things, though one is modeled analogically on the other. Since the initial questions are about such different things, "time" is actually a very subtly ambiguous word. That's why the final position I come to has two kinds of time.

I don't personally feel as if this is an uncomfortable answer. I think it fits together nicely within the framework and also with observation and science.

BTW, the signaling system I invoke when trying to reduce spatial direction is intended to be local.

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Rosenberg, Consciousness & Causality (Part 2)

Clearly, I’m a fan of this book. This is no doubt partly because I was already persuaded by the panexperientialist approach to solving the mind/body problem (and I have believed Quantum Mechanics provided evidence for panexperientialism as well). But Rosenberg has added important new strength and depth to panexperientialist ideas by addressing the metaphysical problems posed by causality and showing their connection to the existence of subjective experience in the world. In particular, his system puts forth a credible way to solve the combination problem in showing how experience might participate in causal structures across all levels of nature, including our own “middle” macroscopic level.

In terms of criticism, I was first put off by the fairly complicated nature of the causal model which provided the bulk of the second half of the book. At the level of specificity Rosenberg has given, he has pretty much guaranteed that many details will prove to be wrong in describing our world. There was a part of me that thought the conceptual arguments may have been stronger with less detail (sometimes “less is more”). On the other hand, after getting through it, I thought that the effort could still pay off by showing an example of what to look for as we investigate nature.

To be more specific, it is scientists who need to explicate the receptive/experiential side of nature and find out how it really works. They won’t find anything, of course, until they know what to look for. It is my hope that the irreducible presence of subjective points of view in nature will eventually be taken seriously enough to guide science in new directions. And while it is the case that the “hiddenness” of first-person experience to third-person investigation is an obstacle to investigating this part of the natural world, if Rosenberg is right about the impact the experiential pole has on causality, then it does leave its tracks on nature. Certainly, the interpretation of QM is one area which can be rethought, and the construction of new cosmological theories which include QM will likely be influenced. But I speculate that the other great place to look for evidence of this other aspect of causality is in the area of complex systems. Non-linear dynamical systems display organizational features which are resistant to reduction to micro-physical causation. A new approach may pay dividends here.

My main question about Rosenberg’s approach relates to the concept of time. When giving his examples and diagrams explaining how the effective and receptive properties fit together to form natural individuals in chapters 9 and 10, he pictures this taking place against a fixed background of space and time. Implicitly, space and time are more fundamental entities. Then, in section 10.6, he adds a discussion of how space and time could be seen as emerging from an underlying more fundamental causal mesh.

Here, he says an ingression of an individual from possible to actual is an atemporal process. Then a series of asymmetric connections (he names this a “cascade”) among actualized entities could give rise to time. Then, another step shows how distance in space could be viewed in terms of another set of connections. To make this work, Rosenberg also has to add the ideas of non-local “signals” which propagate between cascades to keep things in sync.

Finally, in section 14.3.2, the attempt is made to link the discussion in 10.6 to the subjective flow of time experienced in human consciousness. Here, he admits the flow of time is not easy to reconcile with the “objective yet panexperientialist” model of nature. So there is a distinction between time in the fundamental picture – Rosenberg decides to call it inter-subjective time (which is derived ultimately from the causal mesh as in section 10.6) -- and subjective time. He then warms up to the existence of subjective time and proposes that this subjective flow “carries” the asymmetry of the causal process which gave rise to time in the first place.

While I admire the effort here, I found this two-fold nature of time somewhat unsatisfying. Rosenberg shows that experience and causality cannot exist without each other, but I would speculate that time itself is part of this relationship in an even more intimate way. There really isn’t any causality or experience except in subjective time - subjective time is the dimension of existence which co-arises with the causal process. There is no “objective” time, and this is OK – we shouldn’t expect any and the notion of true objectivity is an impossibility anyway. Now unlike Rosenberg, I’ve just presented a few bald statements and haven’t worked out anything like a complete competing picture of how this works, so for now I’ll just assert it is a topic worth further thought.

To conclude, I thought this was an excellent and thought-provoking book which really moves the discussion forward toward an improved metaphysics of the natural world. I hope the ideas in it gain circulation.

Monday, December 13, 2004

Rosenberg, Consciousness & Causality (Part 1)

Philosopher Gregg Rosenberg has written a book called A Place for Consciousness: Probing the Deep Structure of the Natural World. The book offers an ambitious new metaphysical proposal for understanding the natural world. It does this by exploring the deep connection between the philosophical problems of consciousness and causality, and then offering a thorough and detailed model for addressing both.

The outline of the book is as follows: first Rosenberg offers his take on the problem of consciousness in the context of contemporary philosophy of mind. Toward the end of this discussion he foreshadows how the issues which need to be addressed in this area connect to the challenges of understanding causality. He then shifts gears to critique past accounts of causality and present his own solution. Finally, he shows the connection between consciousness and causality and how to improve our understanding of both through a unified approach.

From the perspective of a lay reader, I would say that the more background reading you’ve done on these topics, the better you will understand the book. Between my first reading over the summer and my second try recently I read more about causality and this helped. But at the same time, I think there are so many good ideas in the book that I would recommend it to anyone, even if you end up skimming some parts.

It has been somewhat a revelation to me this year to realize the degree to which causality had still posed such a philosophical challenge. We are led to believe that the type of physical theories we have are also good objective causal explanations, but they are not. In showing how the challenges of understanding consciousness and causality are linked and making a proposal for a unified solution, Rosenberg’s book should make it extremely difficult for the reader to consider either topic in isolation from the other going forward.

Below I give a chapter by chapter summary derived from my notes on the book; please note that I can’t claim to be doing justice to the actual arguments here. I will follow this post up with another one containing some concluding thoughts and outstanding questions.
In an introductory chapter, Rosenberg outlines his agenda to provide a place for consciousness within nature. He introduces the term “liberal naturalism” to describe a perspective which looks to uncover some deeper aspects of nature which go beyond physicalism or materialism.

Chapter 2 presents a discussion of the arguments against physicalism. He presents his favorite critique, which builds on ideas which go back to Bertrand Russell and A.N. Whitehead. Physical theories describe quantitative differences and relations, but say nothing about the intrinsic, qualitative nature of being. Conscious experience is constituted by such qualities, and physicalism thus fails to explain conscious experience. As a thought experiment to support this argument, Rosenberg discusses the toy world of the 2-dimensional cellular automaton called the “game of life”. He shows how this toy world is built up from “bare differences” which do not reflect any intrinsic qualities. He then argues that the more complicated physical descriptions of our real world likewise share this shortcoming. I tend to like this argument, and agree with Rosenberg that it is stronger than the “knowledge” argument against physicalism (which, in turn, is stronger than the “conceivability” arguments).
He next spends a chapter detailing and responding to what he sees as physicalist challenges to this argument. Here, I found the discussion rather dense without much additional value-added, and I will be interested to look for responses to the arguments from other philosophers.

Chapter 4 sets out the boundary problem for consciousness. Here Rosenberg discusses something we take for granted – which is the unified and bounded nature of our field of conscious experience. He argues that experience is something which need not necessarily be this well contained. What do we make of the existence of multiple personality disorders? Do sub-components of the brain have any sort of experience? (BTW, see this recent post in Desert Landscapes). This argument prepares us for the discussion of panexperientialism in the next chapters (5&6). By starting with the boundary problem, Rosenberg also wisely introduces at the outset the challenge for panexperientialists (and more modest dual-aspect physicalists) which is usually termed the combination problem. If conscious experience pervades nature, why do certain organized systems have a coherent conscious field (like us) while others appear not to (rocks, galaxies)?

Next, Rosenberg argues the case for panexperientialism while distinguishing it from panpsychism -- the slogan is that experience “outruns” cognition in nature. How can one build consciousness out of parts which lack subjective experience? It is difficult to credit that subjective experience itself could be emergent (see my previous post), although we can more easily understand that certain cognitive capabilities probably are. Anyone who argues experience is limited only to humans (or to suitably cognitive systems) needs to explain why: Rosenberg reviews the candidate explanations for tying experience uniquely to our cognitive systems (arguments from “complexity”, functional arguments, and arguments from biology) and finds them lacking. Panexperientialism is the remaining solution standing.

Still, Rosenberg realizes that adopting a panexperientialist viewpoint leaves us with some key questions and problems (reviewed in chapter 7). Again, accounting for the binding of the perceptual field in space and time remains an issue. But an even bigger problem is that experience seems epiphenomenal. If we assume physics provides a full causal explanation of nature (the causal closure assumption), then if we also conclude that conscious experience exists we necessarily find that it accompanies the physical world, but doesn’t impact it in anyway. Now we know interactionist dualist models make no sense, but a model of the world which says experience and physics somehow move in parallel fashion but never affect each other is also deeply unsatisfying. It seems at this stage we are missing something. The time has come in Rosenberg’s book to shift over to a discussion of causality with the promise of returning to the problem of epiphenomenalism better equipped.

In the second (and longer) part of the book, Rosenberg takes on causality. He starts (chapter 8) by reviewing critiques of the Humean view that what we see as causality is really just a pattern of regularities, not real causal connections based on dependency, constraint or production between events. These critiques include the fact that the Humean view undermines the existence of explanatory physical laws and the fact that the view must presuppose some kind of unity of the world, but it is the assumption of real causal closure which in practice provides the basis for the unity we assume. The Humean view also fails to objectively explain the temporal asymmetry we observe, which seems linked to “real” causality. Finally, Rosenberg asserts that the view has some epistemic problems which lead to extreme skepticism.

So, we need “real” causation (onto chapter 9). If we go back to physics, Rosenberg argues we will find part of the story, but not the whole thing. Physics underexplains causality. Rosenberg argues that association and correlation are shown by physical laws, but while we usually assume they explain causal connections, they really don’t. There is no causal dependency or production going from the state of the system at one point to the state at the next point. One can pretty easily take a Humean view of these laws, but we’ve discussed the problem with taking that route. (I would think that the fact that most laws are time-symmetric lends credence to this argument, but Rosenberg doesn’t use this point, and I infer he thinks the point would be valid even if laws weren’t time-symmetric).

Next, Rosenberg looks at philosophers’ efforts at non-Humean theories of causation, which he specifically classifies as theories of causal responsibility. He thinks these theories get off the wrong foot, because on examination they are not fully objective theories, but somehow fall back on intentional or interest-relative components. (I have thought it is interesting that the implied existence of a subjective point of view is so hard to remove from causation). To get more objective, Rosenberg moves to what he calls a theory of causal significance, which is simpler and has less baggage, compared to causal responsibility. Causal significance focuses on the constraints a thing places on how the world can be, rather than the effects it produces. He frames the difference as one between asking “Why is there something rather than everything?” instead of the usual “Why is there something rather than nothing?”

What types of properties must things possess for there to be causal significance? In a key move, Rosenberg proposes there must be two distinct (though interdependent) types of properties, called effective properties and receptive properties. Effective properties are the sort we usually picture as having the ability to impact other things (and ultimately on us as we investigate the world). It is argued that physics describes these effective properties. But effective properties alone cannot do the full job of real causation. A property of a thing can only be effective if some other thing is receptive to the property’s presence. You can’t have one without the other. And it is this necessary role for receptive properties that other theories have missed.

Further, receptivity is a connective property (and it can be non-local, such as in the case of entangled particles in a coherent quantum system). Importantly, in this model the existence of the receptive pole of causality seems to offer what I would call an extra “degree of freedom” which allows connections to exist at multiple levels of nature, which becomes very important in this overall system. Rosenberg argues that not all causation needs to be at the micro-level of nature, as physicalism assumes. (But the model is not in my view simply asserting some sort of “downward causation”; rather it is a more of a simultaneous multi-level causation). Receptivity can be a shared attribute among multiple systems. This leads to a higher-level causal nexus. In a sense, I interpret receptivity to be something which can provide qualities of organization or participation to a higher level system.

Rosenberg spends several pages detailing this model with notation and diagrams. A few important themes from the later part of the chapter:
When effective and receptive properties are bound together, it creates a natural individual in the world;
The ontology of this model can be considered an event ontology, where the actualization of the natural individual is the event (determination is an actualization);
Individuals seek completion (the filling of their receptive “slots” with effective properties) – this adds a bit of teleology to the model.

Chapter 10 goes over the model again with a toy universe where charge (+ or -) is the only effective property. Importantly, Rosenberg shows how at higher levels of the model, new kinds of laws emerge. He calls these strongly emergent laws, but I’m not sure why—I usually associate the modifier “strongly” with ontological emergence, which I don’t think is what is happening here.

Important ideas from the chapter:
The world as described by the causal significance model is a causal mesh. Causal significance is a system of constraint, and thus implies that an actual world is emerging from a possibility space which itself exists. It is a type of realism with two modes of existence, the possible and the actual; “…causation has no work to do unless there exist real alternatives to actuality.” This metaphysical perspective is compared to the world of quantum mechanics, and to Whitehead. An ingression is a (atemporal) movement from possible to actual.
Late in chapter 10, Rosenberg takes a stab at showing how space and time themselves could emerge from an underlying causal mesh which featured these ingressions. I plan to come back to this topic in my next post.

In chapter 11, Rosenberg returns to the theme that physics underexplains causality. He uses the example of quantum entanglement to show evidence of receptive binding: the system cannot be captured simply from the particles’ physical (effective) properties of mass, spin, charge. He also revisits the game of life world to make the point that physics designates the nature and the regular behaviors of effective properties, but the receptive structure of the world does not ontologically supervene on the facts about low-level effective properties. It is shown by the fact that different sorts of receptive connections could dovetail with the same physical facts. The physical facts suggest the structure of receptive facts, but don’t explain them.

Now it is time to start connecting back to consciousness. In Ch. 12, Rosenberg takes the next key step in his story by introducing the “carrier theory of causation”. Returning to themes from his anti-physicalism arguments in chapter 2, he discusses how physical systems need to be instantiated in the real world; an example is the instantiation of the game of life on a checkerboard or computer. The qualities of the checkerboard or computer “outrun” or are “extrinsic” to the system. If you look at physics, the same thing is true. Physical concepts are circular- they are difference relations which don’t “sit on” anything else. There must be a wider system of properties on which these differences and relations are instantiated. These properties are called carriers. He then argues that phenomenal properties are perfect candidates to be carriers. Phenomenal properties are differentiated yet qualitative and are extrinsic within a system (their nature is not exhausted by the difference relations in the system). So, it is postulated that phenomenal properties are the carriers of the effective properties described by physics.

So what carries receptive properties? An experiential property. Experiencing carries receptivity. Putting it together, a natural individual is one which experiences phenomenal properties. Each event is an individual experience of phenomenal properties. This is a panexperientialist model, where each event in the world is proto-conscious, by virtue of having some sort of experience.

Finally, how do we build up from this to explain human consciousness? Well, each consciousness is a cognitively structured high-level individual with an experiential receptive field.

In Ch. 13, this model is tested for how it addresses problems from recent work in the philosophy of mind. The status of knowledge is discussed: here it is argued that the binding of causal connections provides a kind of direct acquaintance with the world. It is argued that the consciousness model addresses both the binding and epiphenomenon issues from chapter 7.

Other applications of the model to commonly discussed problems follow in chapter 14, including additional discussion of emergence, and the relationship between this model and functionalism. While most forms of functionalism are false, there is a consistency with a more modest sort of non-reductive functionalism. Additional sections address the subjective flow of time and possible contributions to cognitive neuroscience. These sections are brief pointers toward possible future work.

But the real substance of the book is metaphysics, and this is where it makes such a valuable contribution. Chapter 15 is a brief summary of what the theory means for how we should view the natural world and the individuals in it.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Purpose, but not "Higher Purpose"

I want to briefly clarify what I mean when I speculate that first-person purposeful experience is a part of the natural world. Using the word purpose can lead to misunderstanding because it is so often part of the construction “higher purpose”. Because I subscribe to philosophical (or metaphysical) naturalism, I do not believe the world includes supernatural entities or interventions. Thus in investigating the world there is no appealing to “higher purpose” (or “intelligent design”, for that matter).

But I believe naturalism can and should include first-person experience as an ingredient in the fabric of the world (the philosophical position known as panexperientialism). I have further speculated that this experiential element does some work in the world, and this work consists of the modification of natural events to serve the purpose of the participating experiencing system. This happens within a limited scope consistent with our observations of physical phenomena. Further out on a limb, I speculate that it is at the subtle level of quantum events (measurements) that this modification takes place in nature.

Now, I may be wrong about all this, but it won’t be because it is inconsistent with the methods or prior findings of science. The room for my speculations is opened up due to the fact that the prevailing materialist or physicalist versions of naturalism fail to account for first-person experience. And modifying or expanding naturalism to include experience need not lead to any slippery slopes to irrational or supernatural beliefs.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Morals Predate Religion

I haven’t read much lately on evolutionary psychology or game theory, but enjoyed reading this talk by Karl Sigmund on Those who have followed this area even casually know that researchers have offered compelling reasons to think that diverse impulses such as generosity, altruism, cooperation, forgiveness, a sense of fairness, care for reputation and a desire to punish defectors are all grounded in natural selection. The combination of enlightened self-interest and our development as inherently social animals provided the basis for these impulses, which formed the backdrop for the later cultural evolution of moral codes and precepts in oral and written form.

Now, many have written eloquently on the topic of having why it is possible to have morality without religion. See for example this post from AnalPhilosopher. I think it seals the arguments to also note that morality predates religion (unless you are a “young-earth” creationist!)

Many are now studying the origins of religion itself from an evolutionary standpoint, but my impression is that this is a complex subject and there is no consensus yet on key points. However, it is pretty easy to speculate on the advantageous roles religion could have played in strengthening a pre-existing moral system among a social group (it seems obvious to anyone who is a parent): Religion adds both putative authority and a promise of punishment/reward to moral instructions, thereby giving them some extra oomph.

Friday, December 03, 2004

Do Quantum Effects Explain Consciousness?

There is a new posting on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on “Quantum Approaches to Consciousness”. The summary is written by Harald Atmanspacher.

It seems natural that the intriguing features of quantum mechnanics (QM), such as the duality of observing and observed systems and the notion of a collapse of superposition states, would over time get pressed into service to try to shed light on the problem of consciousness. Atmanspacher gives a brief taxonomy of several such efforts.

The aspect of this I’m commenting on is the attempts by several philosophers and physicists to postulate that it is macroscopic-size components of the human brain which implement quantum effects thereby helping explain the mysterious nature of human consciousness as it relates to phenomenal experience and/or free will, etc. I think these efforts are looking in the wrong place to find the connection between QM and consciousness.

Guided by other critiques (like this one), I’m very skeptical that macroscopic quantum coherence can be maintained in the brain sufficient to, say, orchestrate collapses of quantum superposition states which affect whole neuronal assemblies. The evidence I’ve seen from experimental accounts suggests that coherence is very fragile, and that while progress is being made at preserving coherence for larger molecules in the laboratory, the likelihood of the warm, wet brain supporting macroscopic coherence seems the longest of long shots.

Nevertheless, I think quantum effects do provide evidence for the existence of a proto-experiential element within nature (see my previous post). But it seems it must be the case that this is instantiated at the microscopic level where decoherence typically occurs. Then, the question becomes whether and how macroscopic systems are able to leverage this part of nature into something robustly experiential. The answer to this must come from the systems’ functional organization and complexity.

Now, the brain is a compelling unique object in our world – it is the most complex system there is. Furthermore the living cells within our brain have an extremely intricate structure themselves. And therefore I think we can expect that this incredibly complex functional organization forms the basis for the remarkable features of our mind up to and including our reflective stream of self-consciousness.

So, going back to David Chalmer’s separation of consciousness studies into the “easy problems” (explaining the workings of various cognitive sub-systems like sensory perception, memory, etc.) and the “hard problem” (explaining the existence of subjective experience itself): I think QM provides evidence for the existence of a panexperientialist solution to the hard problem at a micro-level in nature. Therefore I think it follows that analyzing the functional organization of the brain and its cells will eventually provide explanations for the easy problems, including what I might call the “hardest easy problem”: the way the brain leverages the proto-experiential nature of its very small parts into the robust consciousness which we humans uniquely enjoy in the world.

I admit I have no idea at this point how this works, but I think the functional coordination of the quantum interactions we know to be occurring at the microscopic level is the place to look for consciousness.

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Methodological vs. Metaphysical Naturalism

Recently there was this post on The Panda’s Thumb (the group evolution blog) introducing a new contributor, Henry Neufeld, whose professional field is biblical scholarship. He is both a theist as well as a defender of evolution. This led to some discussion on the blog about the compatibility of these stances. Also on the relationship between the creationism/evolution divide and the theism/atheism divide see this blog entry from Dispatches from the Culture Wars.

I listened to a talk by philosopher Paul Draper awhile back on the topic of “God, Science and Naturalism”. Part of his talk highlighted a distinction between methodological naturalism and metaphysical naturalism. Now, not everyone agrees on the definitions of these terms, so let me give the impression I got from Prof. Draper. Accepting methodological naturalism means that one accepts that in our collective efforts we should look exclusively for natural explanations for phenomena when investigating the world. One accepts this stance based on the established pattern of the success of this approach, but not because of a pre-commitment to a belief regarding the existence or non-existence of supernatural entities. Some theists are comfortable with this stance. Others feel their personal beliefs are threatened by this stance and advocate a search for signs of God’s interventions when examining the world (unfortunately some of them try to subvert the public education system to try to include this approach). Subscribing to metaphysical naturalism goes the extra step in explicitly adopting a philosophical worldview which rules out the possibility of supernatural intervention. A traditional theist could not take this step and retain a belief in a deity which is transcendent, omnipotent, supremely good, etc.

I think this distinction is helpful in parsing these kinds of discussions. So, if someone supports and defends evolution and the other products of science, but is also a traditional theist, I would think you could assume they support methodological naturalism, but do not subscribe to metaphysical naturalism.
On the other hand, when I’ve said I subscribe to naturalism, I did mean metaphysical naturalism. I’m therefore someone willing to take the step from the success of the methodology to a claim about the truth about the world. Finally, I have explained why such a naturalistic worldview can be consistent with some (admittedly less traditional) forms of theism (see this post).

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Summary of Recent Thoughts

1. A fully deterministic world featuring physical laws of the usual sort would be time-symmetric (i.e. no way to objectively distinguish past from future). In a God’s eye view of the world time would not exist; also, from such a view one would see connections, but not causality. Time asymmetry and causation itself arise from the perspective of a point of view within the world.

2. Quantum mechanics shows us that an indeterminate future is brought into the causal past of the subject of experience as it interacts with the rest of the world.

3. The world is not a machine whose pieces obey deterministic laws with causality linking past to future. The world is a network of pieces which each have a subjective point of view as they interact with each other.

4. A subject’s interactions with the rest of the world constitute experience. Having first person, subjective experience is therefore part of what it means to be something existing in nature.

5. Our own human conscious experience is built up from the fundamental first-person experience of our constituent parts.

Friday, November 12, 2004

Atheists vs. Mysticism

An interesting exchange at The Raving Atheist takes the form of an interview with author Sam Harris. Harris, an ardent critic of traditional religion, turns out to be someone who also embraces Buddhism, meditation, and mysticism. The atheists probe this seeming paradox. The nature of conscious experience turns out to be an important theme here. I look forward to part 2.

Causality vs. Determinism

Regarding the problems with the usual assumption that fundamental objective causality exists in our world, see also this paper by Carl Hoefer which points out the surprising degree of conflict between the notions of determinism and causality.

Thanks go to this website (created by Brian Weatherson) for serving up new papers in philosophy.

Thursday, November 11, 2004

The View from the Inside, Part 2

I was recently struggling to read some recent papers in physics which discussed interesting ideas for building a cosmology from the bottom up using pieces whose interactions obey quantum rules (for instance this one). Then Huw Price came to my rescue with a great new paper -- Causal Perspectivalism -- which covered similar terrain philosophically (with no math!).

Starting with simple thought experiments, Price steadily builds up a compelling argument that time asymmetric causality arises from our status as an agent with a particular perspective in space-time. Causality is not objective. A God’s eye perspective on the world (if indeed such a thing is a coherent notion) would see connections, but not causality. I should mention that this isn’t an extreme subjective relativist argument, since for a wide range of situations, all humans share a homogeneous perspective.

Looking back at theoretical physics, if you generalize from Price’s focus on human deliberative agents to all of physical reality, I think you have a picture consistent with relational quantum cosmology.

Monday, November 08, 2004

Speculative Thought on the Platonic Realm

One of the challenges of naturalism is that, taken strictly, it seems to rule out the existence of ideas or concepts as transcendent entities. Even for scientifically minded individuals, some concepts seem to exist in the sense of our discovering them, even though they are not part of nature. The prototypical examples are in the arenas of logic and mathematics.

I have often been critical of the disproportionate focus in academic philosophy on concepts and language as things of primary analytical interest, as opposed to their being derivatives of our (very complex) interaction with the rest of the natural world. But there are persuasive arguments that some of these concepts seem stubbornly non-reducible to nature.

It occurred to me that a way to naturalize these seemingly platonic concepts would be to picture them as gaining traction from a larger multi-verse. Science increasingly points us to the idea that our observable universe is a part of a larger complex of universes, each with potentially different characteristics along certain dimensions. As we and our world co-evolve, perhaps we reach toward ideas that do find a natural incarnation somewhere in this much larger meta-world.

Friday, November 05, 2004

The View from the Inside

One of the biggest conceptual pitfalls one faces when investigating the truth about reality is the tendency to picture oneself as something essentially separate from the rest of the world. (Another one is picturing self and world as static entities instead of active and evolving). The lesson of naturalism is that the world is an evolving network of related happenings which share the same fundamental character. We humans are embedded in this network.

It follows that it is incorrect to study the rest of the universe as if one was a truly separate and objective observer. We can’t look at the world from the outside. Our perspective is necessarily a view from the inside.

It is interesting to see how this notion of outside and inside viewpoints has played out in the arena of physics.

While Newton understood that motion only has meaning relative to something else, he still assumed one could measure things against an absolute backdrop of coordinates in space and time. The backdrop represented a God’s-eye view of the world. Einstein corrected this picture with relativity. Space and time became intertwined with matter and energy and could no longer be considered separately. There is no “correct” absolute frame of reference – it only makes sense to talk about the collection of reference frames within the world. It seems reasonable that a theory which turned out to give the correct explanations for the phenomena we observe at the cosmological scale had this conceptual feature – after all, our perspective is necessarily a parochial one inside the world.

Interestingly, the other 20th century revolution in physics, quantum mechanics, performs its calculations against a backdrop of time external to the theory. Given that the genesis of the theory was its success in explaining the behavior of the atom in a laboratory setting, this may not seem like a big deal. The measurements of atomic and subatomic phenomena obviously occur in the time frame experienced by the scientist in the lab.

However, in trying to reconcile general relativity and quantum mechanics into a new theory, the conceptual clash between a relational theory with no background space/time and another one which depends on a fixed background makes for a challenge. The work on a new theory of quantum gravity has taken many forms so far. Theorists in the largest part of the field, the various forms of string/M theory, have mostly deferred the issue of background independence so far, thinking the theories are rich enough that a background independent version will emerge in time. Others take the issue more seriously upfront, like the physicists working on loop quantum gravity.

I’ve been very interested to read some papers which preliminarily attempt to describe the universe in a way which is both quantum mechanical and background independent. These ideas implement the relational interpretation of quantum mechanics and are referred to as theories of relational quantum cosmology. I came across this last term in an appendix to Lee Smolin’s essay on the state of progress in quantum gravity theory (see the papers he references, for instance this one by Fotini Markopoulou. As far as I can tell, the idea is that the universe is a collection of micro-level space-time regions (observers) whose boundary interactions follow the rules of quantum mechanics. You build a cosmology from the bottom up, rather than assume there is a top-down quantum description of the entire universe. Time is a local, not a global phenomenon: relational, not absolute.

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

The Problem with Theology

In recently reading some papers by theologians, I was first pleased to confirm that there are contemporary theologians earnestly trying to grapple with science and naturalism in a constructive way. Soon, though, this positive feeling was outweighed by the perennial weakness in the arguments put forth: rather than trying to discover truth through reason, theologians are trying to save what they can of the religious principles they already hold. The traditional term for this project is “belief seeking understanding”.

Now, we all have biases. The same poll data in this election season was read by Republicans and Democrats in different ways driven by wishful thinking. When it comes to the divide between religion and science, I have been biased to look for a worldview which offers scope for reducing the conflict: does this mean I could be misleading myself in this inquiry? Maybe. Perhaps a positive thing about the theologians is that their prejudices are out on the table and not hidden. Sometimes those who subscribe to scientific naturalism are accused as having an undeclared “religious” dedication to their worldview.

But at the end of the day this won’t wash. In our quest for the truth about the world, we must be able to revise or reject received wisdom -- something science does well. Theologians refuse this mandate essentially by definition.

Thursday, October 28, 2004

The God Option, Part 2

In the last post, I discussed the idea that God could be identified with the immanent presence of purposeful experience exhibited by the world as a whole. I bypassed the transcendent creator role which is a usual feature of God’s description. The whole concept of creation is difficult. I’ve always felt that positing a deity as the unmoved mover only begged more questions. And in particular the idea of non-existence followed by magical creation ex nihilo seems unreasonable to me, given my commitment to naturalism.

In thinking about the problem as it specifically relates to my worldview, note my frequent use of the phrase “our world” in the last post.

When I say “our world”, I am referring to the natural universe as we know it (about 14 billion years old, filled with galaxies, undergoing expansion). Now, rejecting creation ex nihilo, it seems likely that this universe arose from some other context, and many physicists would postulate the existence of a multiverse (see my previous post).

So, in thinking about the “God option”: if God is identified with our universe, what do we make of the relationship between our universe and this postulated larger context? Perhaps one could adopt the perspective of ancient creation stories where the world arises from pre-existing entities or from “Chaos.” Then, extending the pantheistic perspective, perhaps we can just extend the identification of God and nature to this larger universe or multiverse, in essence giving back to God a transcendent aspect (this would seem to be a version of “panentheism”). I guess a different way to extend the framework would be to say a multiverse means multiple gods. Now that would be interesting!

These considerations clearly complicate the formulation of a theistic option within the worldview I’m advocating. Still, I think a version of pantheism or panentheism seems reasonable.

By the way, given that I think the more compelling case is for an emphasis on God’s immanence rather than transcendence, the old notion of deism is not attractive. The deist world is too much like the materialist-atheist world with a creator bolted on.

Wednesday, October 27, 2004

The God Option

This post (building on this previous one) explores the theism/atheism landscape assuming one adopts the worldview I’ve been developing in this blog: a worldview of expanded naturalism which posits first-person purposeful experience as a fundamental component of the unfolding sequence of events in the world.

To summarize, in this worldview the traditional forms of both theism and atheism are no longer tenable. Revised forms of theism and atheism would both remain options. However, they are options which are much closer in spirit than in the traditional dichotomy.

Given a commitment to naturalism, there can be no omnipotent transcendent deity who reserves the right to supernaturally intervene in our world. However, most atheists (who understandably reject this notion of God) subscribe to a false worldview in thinking the universe is a machine made of inert matter moving without purpose in space and time. I’ve argued that such a worldview cannot account for first-person experience and is inconsistent with modern (quantum) physics to boot.

The new perspective sees our world as an evolving network of systems whose interactions intrinsically feature first-person purposeful experience. We humans are especially complex and developed systems which are integrated into the network. I think it follows that one can characterize our experience as one of participating in the larger experience of this world.

Now, the idea that the world as a whole is the subject of first-person experience is provocative. Could one use the name God to refer to the experiencing world-entity in this picture? I think you could. It would be a limited God, who is immanent in the process of the world’s evolution, rather than transcending it. But this God is a being much larger than us and our integration into the world could be thought of as our relation with this God. This take on things leads one to an updated version of pantheism.

An atheist option would be to call the larger experiencing world-entity something like “Nature”. One might think it is too limited and impersonal a concept to merit calling it God. Alternatively, one could accept the fundamental status of first person experience as a feature of things in the world and yet reject the idea I posited above of a world-entity which as the sum of these parts has any kind of its own coherent experience.

So, assuming acceptance of this expanded naturalism, the theism and atheism options still exist. However, which ever option you choose, one accepts that we humans are an integrated part of a world which naturally manifests life, consciousness, and purpose, but is devoid of supernatural interventions.

(Coming next: what about God's role as creator?)

Thursday, October 21, 2004


I started to expand and organize my links (over on the bottom right side). Suggestions on good links to add or on format are welcome.

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Dialogue with Geoff Arnold

Over on Geoff Arnold's blog he and I have a brief debate on the nature of first-person subjective experience.

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Whitehead and Process Philosophy

In past posts I have advanced the virtues of the metaphysical worldview described as panexperientialism. To explain the nature of reality and the phenomenon of first-person conscious experience, one is ultimately led to question the assumption that the world is a machine consisting of matter-in-motion. The revised vision is of a relational network of interactions, where each interaction entails first person experience for the participating system.

Now this idea is not without its challenges to work out, perhaps the biggest is explaining how the “experience” of primitive entities like electrons gets scaled up to entities like us. But it is an idea that philosophers plumbing the mysteries of consciousness keep coming back to (almost unwillingly). In my own reading over the last 15 years of books on consciousness by philosophers like John Searle, David Chalmers, Colin McGinn and Max Velmans, I was repeatedly struck by this sequence: first, their arguments would naturally lead their discussions to panexperientialism; next, they might spend a few pages flirting with it; and finally they would find (to me) unconvincing reasons not to make the final leap (see this paper by William Seager which makes similar points). My own conviction has built as I have recently focused on the considerable support this worldview receives from the theory of quantum mechanics (see my previous post).

Now, a panexperientialist metaphysical scheme was proposed by A.N. Whitehead in the 1920’s! The question arises as to why Whitehead’s process philosophy has remained outside the mainstream of philosophy for 80 years.

I think I see a couple of reasons for this.

As set out in 1929’s Process and Reality, it was a hugely ambitious metaphysical scheme. Such schemes (reminiscent of Continental philosophers such as Kant and Hegel) have definitely been out of fashion. Certainly part of the problem is that the book is famously difficult to read. Filled with invented terminology, it is very detailed and elaborate and ultimately somewhat obscure. Also, Whitehead included God as an element in the scheme, which is certainly not a popular move in mainstream philosophy.

Whitehead’s modern adherents, which I believe are exemplified by John Cobb and David Ray Griffin, the founders of the Center for Process Studies, seem to also remain outside the mainstream of academic philosophy. I think this is exacerbated by the fact that their philosophy is coupled to a highly developed and specifically Christian theology. (Also, I’m a bit put off by the way they like to stretch to apply “process thinking” to social/political topics).

With that said, I must emphasize that while I started on my intellectual journey toward panexperientialism before encountering process philosophy, my thinking has been greatly aided by reading Whitehead and some of his intellectual heirs (notably Griffin). I will continue to study it. I also think the more “mainstream” thinkers would benefit from directly engaging process philosophy.

Monday, October 18, 2004

Evolution Sites

For anyone looking at this blog, I want to recommend visiting The Panda’s Thumb and Evolutionblog. These are sites which are fighting the good fight against misguided and/or dishonest attempts to disparage evolution or advocate the non-alternatives of “creation science” or its successor, “intelligent design”.

Of course the need for these efforts is a depressing feature of our cultural landscape. I sure wish that more religious people would explore ways to embrace theistic worldviews which are consistent with scientific naturalism, rather than concluding that evolution and other products of science need to be undermined. What a waste!

Thursday, October 14, 2004

Is Physics Stuck?

Thanks to references on mathematician Peter Woit's blog, I learned there was a powerhouse physics conference last week (“The Future of Physics” at the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics) and the talks were made available on-line. An undercurrent of some of the big-picture talks by luminaries such as Steven Weinberg, Edward Witten, and David Gross was a sense of disappointment over the slowing of progress in theoretical physics.

The remarkable achievements of 20th century physics were relativity theory and quantum mechanics. Relativity theory explained gravity in terms of a geometry of space-time. Out of quantum mechanics grew quantum field theory which was the framework for the standard model of particle physics which made great strides in explaining nature at the microscopic level.

A natural next step was a theory which combined these successes and explained gravity in a way consistent with quantum physics. However, this remains unaccomplished. String theory and its variant mathematical models has been the largest focus of this work (the name comes from the characterization of fundamental constituents as one-dimensional strings, although the theory as moved well beyond that). As far as I have understood (not very far when you are ignorant of the mathematics), string theory was a generalization of quantum field theory which appears to naturally incorporate gravity. Problems include the lack of experimental evidence (hard to come by given the tiny scales of nature where the theory would matter) and the fact that there are a gazillion versions of the theory. A conceptual problem has been the fact that, like quantum theory, string theory presupposed a backdrop of space and time. General relativity incorporated space-time as a dynamical field within the theory itself. There have been more recent efforts which show that space could be said to be an emergent phenomenon within a string theory, but time is still not explained (A theory of dynamics by definition takes place in time, so how could it explain time?).

Loop quantum gravity (LQG) is an alternative program (one might hope it is complementary to string theory, as Abhay Ashtekar said in his brief talk). It goes more directly at the problem of quantizing general relativity in a way which is independent of background space-time, but at the cost of losing as an intrinsic ingredient the successful particle physics theory we already have. Interestingly, the concept of time is also problematic in LQG (on the question of time see my previous post).

In Witten’s talk, he mentioned that string theory doesn’t have the kind of conceptual “core idea” guiding researchers of the sort the principle of equivalence was for Einstein. Some great new insight is needed to jumpstart the future of physics. I venture to suggest that such an insight may come in addressing the still mysterious question of how time enters into physics.

Monday, October 11, 2004

Wright/Dennett Update

Since I commented on this, it is only right that I note that Dennett felt misrepresented by Wright in the article I linked to. Here is Dennett; here is Wright’s follow-up.

I was less interested myself in whether or not Dennett was agreeing with Wright or somehow changing positions (has anyone ever convinced him to change his mind?). I was more interested in focusing on the interview's underlying search for common ground between evolution and scientific naturalism on the one hand and the idea that there could be a sense of purpose infused into the world on the other. I think Wright's article is a case of good intentions coupled with not-so-good execution.

Bohr and Quantum Reality

I attended a talk at Penn by Loyola University (New Orleans) philosopher Henry Folse, who is an expert on the thought of physicist Niels Bohr. Like many non-experts, I’ve made the mistake of only acknowledging a simplified version of the Copenhagen interpretation, due to Heisenberg, which says that one must be agnostic about attributing meaning to the nature of the atomic world outside what is learned in the experimental setting.

As Folse pointed out, Bohr had wanted to ascribe a kind of realism to the quantum world, although it would obviously not be like the traditional objective realism of the classical world of matter and energy. As also pointed out in this Stanford encyclopedia entry, Bohr thought in terms of a relational picture of reality. He apparently never fully filled out this metaphysical picture the way a philosopher might have tried to do, but it is interesting that he thought the interactions of QM could be the basis of a real description of reality.

Thursday, October 07, 2004

Robert Wright's "Planet with a Purpose"

Thanks to Andrew Sullivan's website, I found this on-line article by Robert Wright with a video of a interview segment of Wright and Daniel Dennett. Wright makes good points trying to find common ground between naturalism (especially Darwinian evolution) and the idea that there is some sort of design or purpose inherent in the world. Dennett comes across as unusually pliable in the video. I added a comment post under the username sesser.
-- Actually, I just clicked through and discovered Wright's own site, which has a variety of interesting interviews on topics relevant to Guide to Reality.

Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorems

Like many laypeople, I was exposed to Gödel’s incompleteness theorems some years ago by Douglas Hofstadter (Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid), and Sir Roger Penrose (The Emperor’s New Mind: Concerning Computers, Minds, and the Laws of Physics). For an excellent concise account of this topic, check out this entry in Wikipedia.

Over the years there has been much written on the possible implications of Gödel’s work for larger questions relating to philosophy of mind and artificial intelligence. J.R.Lucas, Penrose, and others have argued that Gödel’s theorems support the view that human intelligence transcends what can be accomplished by computers. Numerous experts in logic and mathematics have entered the debate to deflate these attempts as misguided extrapolations from Gödel’s setting of formal logical systems. Given these responses, I concluded that the Penrose-type arguments are not ultimately successful.

However it seems that one modest, but still important philosophical insight comes from considering this topic. Gödel showed that a consistent formal system cannot be complete in the sense of being able to prove its own consistency. This dovetails with the common sense insight that one cannot have complete objective knowledge of a system of which one is a part. This is why the larger scientific program, based on a methodological simulation of objectivity, runs into limits when it comes to explaining the inherently subjective phenomenon of human consciousness (here is a paper by philosopher Haim Gaifman which makes a similar point).

We humans cannot get outside the world-system and look back at it. Therefore the effort of seeking full objective truth will never fully succeed. We do have true knowledge of the world, but it is grounded in our existence as an experiencing subject integrated into the system.

Monday, October 04, 2004


[UPDATE 16 March 2010: The link to the Silberstein/McGeever paper broke;  I can only now link to the abstract of the published version]
Can something truly new arise in the world? Can a new phenomenon emerge because its underlying constituents reached a special level of complexity? This issue comes up often in discussions of consciousness, but the question of whether truly emergent phenomena exist arises in other contexts as well. I recently read an excellent summary of the topic in this paper by Michael Silberstein and John McGeever.

I’ve always disliked the idea of emergence in the context of accounting for human consciousness. In this case it seemed clear to me that the entire emergence/reduction debate only existed because of the highly dubious metaphysical assumption that the underlying world is the made of up lifeless matter obeying Newtonian mechanics.

As the reader knows from past posts, I believe the solution of the mind/body problem is the position known as panexperientialism. A simplified story of the road to panexperientialism goes like this:

{Belief that first person experience is a real and integral part of natural world}
{Dismissal of emergence as a possibility}

In the paper, the authors argue that the best candidate for (ontological) emergence is the example of the correlation between entangled particles in a quantum context. The next best candidate (but the authors are less convinced) is in the area of complex (non-linear dynamical) systems.
An interesting project is to study whether the most common candidates for emergence in the macroscopic world may in fact follow from quantum mechanics.

Friday, October 01, 2004

Mechanism or Organism?

A.N. Whitehead called his process system a “philosophy of organism” thus distinguishing it from the mechanistic picture implicitly assumed in the prevailing scientific worldview. He believed the assumption that objects in the world were made of an inanimate substance was fallacious and undermined science.

While it has long been clear that biological systems are based in chemistry, which in turn is based on (quantum) physics, the notion that living things and all of their remarkable features can be reduced to physics has remained problematic to this day. Philosophers of biology continue to debate the issue (see this Stanford encyclopedia entry). As an example of a paper on the topic by a skeptic of the orthodox view, see the most recent one by Rich Cameron. (Gratitude is owed again to the resource of David Chalmer’s great web site). I differ from Cameron in that I don’t like an emergence model as a solution, but his analysis of the problem is well presented.

Here’s what I think it comes down to. In realizing that biological systems are grounded in the world of physics, we have two options: first, we can picture organisms as made of bits of dead matter and then struggle to recover what makes their qualities so remarkable; or, second, we could expand our view of the world of matter and energy to include features which make life explicable (and by the way quantum mechanics is pointing us there anyway).

Obviously, I prefer option two.

Thursday, September 30, 2004

Experience, Purpose and Causality

In this post, I propose that a quality of active purpose (not just passive experience) is working at the most fundamental level of reality. This is obviously a speculative idea that I will continue to explore.

In my last post about determinism and free will I asked: “if…all systems in the world have an element of subjective experience, do those experiences do any work?”

Could experience be something which is just “along for the ride” and doesn’t have any impact on the evolution of the world (the philosopher’s term is “epiphenomenal”)? I don’t think so. The idea that experience is epiphenomenal only comes about if you assume that physical causes can explain nature without it. But experience is intimately bound up with time and change. There just is no world without experience.

So, we need to revise our notion of causality to include experience, and then see how our worldview changes as a result. In considering this, I will proceed from analogy with this fact of our own human life: experience is always coupled to purposeful action in the world. My conclusion, then, is that the “work” of the subjective pole of causation (throughout nature) is to modify the interaction to serve the purpose of the system. Efficient causes are thereby joined to final causes.

Now this is very controversial. Most people assume that the only worldviews which include purpose (or function or teleology) are traditional theistic ones. I disagree and say including purposeful experience in the natural world simply can serve to better explain reality.

Recall that the concept of causality associated with scientific naturalism today is a drawn simplistically from classical mechanics (the “billiard ball” world): Physical object A impacts B which impacts C. The program of reducing all phenomena to these building blocks is problematic. An alternative (also simplistic) view of causation could go something like this: Natural system A transmits information to B which in terms transmits information to C. In this chain, the receipt of information is accompanied by experience.

The subject of experience modifies its outgoing information to serve the goal of the system. A sense of purpose enters the network. The potential for modification may be very limited or somewhat more substantial depending on the system (no system has complete freedom). Now just as the idea of sub-atomic particles having a sort of experience seems counterintuitive, the idea of simple systems acting purposefully is hard to imagine. But even if the purpose is extremely simple (act like an electron!), it makes more sense that purpose exists in the primitive systems then to postulate that it only “emerges” later in humans.

Self-organization and other complex behaviors, especially those of living systems, are better explained by this model than by a reductionist billiard ball model. (The reduction of biology to physics has continued to be a controversial topic given the constraints of the usual assumptions of scientific materialism).

Finally, with regard to the free will debate, I offer these thoughts: humans lack free will in the most traditional sense. We are a system entwined in a historically linked network of events which constrain our behavior. Our high-level self-conscious will cannot impose a kind of “mental” causation which overrides our integration into the natural world. However, like all systems, we do modify the events of the world to serve our ends in the way discussed above. This is a kind of freedom, which is an aspect of our being a part of the natural world at a fundamental level -- which is a level below what we can access through our reflective self-consciousness. Our conscious sense of will is a kind of self-monitored approximation of the underlying reality.

Monday, September 27, 2004

My Free Will Problem

I recently read Daniel Dennett’s book Freedom Evolves. In it, Dennett argues from his perspective of scientific naturalism that determinism is true. A large part of the book also offers a well-reasoned “compatibilist” argument that we shouldn’t think this conclusion compromises the effective existence of moral responsibility in our human social/cultural domain. I am comfortable with compatibilism, at least in the sense that I think human morality and responsibility can have a natural basis which doesn’t require believing we have some sort of absolute freedom. But I want to explore the argument for determinism itself here.

Here is a short caricature of Dennett’s argument for determinism:
1. Assume micro-physics doesn’t matter. Assume the fundamental units comprising humans and their environment are small but macroscopic and obey Newtonian classical physics. Of course rule out any supernatural influences.
2. Explain that determinism is true given these assumptions (it’s true pretty much by definition).
3. Put the burden of proof on anyone arguing for free will to explain why the features of quantum mechanics (QM) or some other non-classical aspect of nature can get you out from under the deterministic model.
4. Since nobody has done this convincingly, determinism is true.

Now I’ve made the point that a shortcoming of the worldview usually associated with science is its continued adoption of precisely this kind of outdated classical physical picture of the world. I’ve said we need to expand the naturalistic perspective beyond this picture.

But it still could be that even an expanded naturalism entails determinism. Specifically, I have argued that philosophical and scientific investigations (specifically QM) lead to a revised naturalistic worldview which includes a role for subjective experience at the most fundamental level of reality. But does this mean anything in terms of the free will debate?

Before going further, I should mention one method of using modern physics to argue for free will which I do not endorse. This idea, offered by Roger Penrose, Stuart Hameroff, and Henry Stapp, is that the human brain (uniquely in the macroscopic world) establishes and maintains quantum coherence (through a proposed feature of the structure of neurons), and this explains human consciousness and establishes free will. I don’t buy into this partly because many critics have made a persuasive case that the mechanisms won’t work. But also, I’m skeptical such a capability would have uniquely emerged in we humans (if neurons can “do it”, why not other cells or even single-celled organisms?). Rather, I am inclined to think that while human capabilities result from a special and complex mode of organization, they share a nature which is continuous with the rest of the world, grounded in the most fundamental level of reality. If we do have free will, it may be developed in us to a unique degree, but the kernel of what makes it work will exist in animals, plants, and so on, “all the way down.”

So, returning to the question: given what I believe we know about the nature of reality, including the fundamental role of subjective experience, is there true free will in the world?

Another way to frame the issue is this: if one accepts that there is are good reasons to believe all systems in the world have an element of subjective experience, do those experiences do any work?

I will take these questions up again shortly.

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

The "Problem" of Time

Physicists (as well as philosophers) have had a problem reconciling our experience of time with a big-picture description of how the world works. I have come to see this “problem” as evidence of the fundamental and irreducible character of subjective experience itself.

Recall that while classical physics assumed a background of absolute time and space, Einstein’s relativity theory replaced this with a description in which there was no absolute time. Passage of time was relative to the motion of the system in question. It doesn’t make sense to speak of one simultaneous present for the whole world.

Interestingly, the other major revolutionary theory in 20th century physics, quantum mechanics, still assumed a background time dimension. Note that this theory also was bound up with questions related to the observer’s experience, causing difficulties in interpreting what it meant in terms of a description of the “objective” reality of the world (see my earlier post).

Efforts to formulate a complete physical theory which reconciles general relativity and quantum mechanics without assuming a background time seem to end up dispensing with the notion of time completely. I’m reminded of Julian Barbour’s book of a couple of years ago, which ended up concluding time didn’t exist and our perception of it is an illusion. Now, in his forthcoming book on quantum gravity (online version here), physicist Carlo Rovelli describes a theory which dispenses with time as a foundational concept.

In reflecting on this, I am completely comfortable with the fact that these efforts to create a complete theory which describes reality cannot do so while also including a concept of time which correlates with our intuitions. My thought is that this is an inevitable outcome of trying to formulate an “objective” theory of the world in which we participate. Time is bound up with subjective experience. To incorporate time one must modify one’s theory of physical reality to include as a foundational concept the fact that systems in the world have experience. Time is the dimension of experience.

Friday, September 17, 2004

Does Naturalism Mean Atheism?

No, it need not. But maintaining consistency with naturalism is a significant constraint for a theist.

Even with an open mind toward an expanded or liberal view of naturalism, using the word at all means accepting the truth that our world is a systematically evolving network of related events which share the same underlying fundamental character. This means that there is no room for intermittent supernatural intervention from a transcendent God. It also implies there is no dualism involving souls or spirits which interact with our world. This means no miracles, no intercession to answer prayers, no resurrection, for example.

Doesn’t this mean no God or religion at all?

If you follow the debates on evolution and other hot buttons in the conflict between science and religion you might think so. The most brilliant and eloquent defenders of scientific naturalism, such as Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, are indeed atheists. Those who feel threatened by science are of course those with the most traditional or fundamentalist religious views.

But there is a huge area of religious belief which is not threatened by accepting the truth of naturalism as I’ve defined it. Systems traditionally known as deism, pantheism, and panentheism come to mind. Certainly there are modern Christian and Jewish theological perspectives which are compatible with the findings of science. There are two roles potentially ascribed to God. First, as a transcendent creator: especially for those who think the questions “why something rather than nothing?” or “why this kind of world?” are real and important questions which are not answerable by present or future science. The second role is an immanent presence infused into nature itself: the wonder and reverence we feel in experiencing the world is identified with God’s being in the world.

My point here is just that the polarization which seems to characterize the cultural conflict between science and religion is unnecessary given the large area of concord which can exist between naturalism and forms of theism. I know this perspective is not new news, but it certainly doesn’t get much “air time.”

Thursday, September 16, 2004

More "Naturalisms"

I want to note some other references to the idea of an expanded (or not) naturalistic worldview.

Philosopher Gregg Rosenberg has a new book called “A Place for Consciousness: Probing the Deep Structure of the Natural World” (the on-line version is here, order book here). In the book he uses the term “liberal naturalism” to describe the perspective which lay behind the detailed proposals regarding consciousness and causality he makes in the book. I will post more about this thought-provoking book after receiving the hardcopy I ordered and rereading it.

In contrast to “liberal” naturalism, philosopher Daniel Dennett was recently happy (here) to go along in a tongue-in-cheek way with a critic’s depiction of him as advocating “fundamentalist” naturalism, meaning a kind of narrow conservative scientific naturalism.

Process philosopher/theologian David Ray Griffin is someone who has distinguished between different types of naturalisms in arguing for his theory as a middle way in the conflict between science and traditional Christianity. (See for instance this book which is drawn from recent lectures). He used the following terms: Naturalism(ns) means no ad hoc supernatural interventions by God, but otherwise being flexible on many points; in contrast Naturalism(nati) – “nature is all there is” -- means being committed to an atheistic, materialistic stance.

Monday, September 13, 2004


As a layperson, I am cautious about using (or misusing) terminology. However, since I believe first-person experience is a fundamental, irreducible and ubiquitous part of nature, it is pretty clear that my views concur with a philosophical viewpoint known as panexperientialism (a term due to process philosopher David Ray Griffin). Check out this site featuring links to on-line resources about panexperientialism.

The term “expanded naturalism”, which I introduced in my previous post, can range further than just this view of first-person experience. It implies a perspective which is open to other ideas which could “fit the bill” of extending the viewpoint of traditional scientific naturalism in ways which improve our understanding of the world.

Friday, September 10, 2004

Expanded Naturalism

We need an improved worldview to close the gap in our culture between science and religion. The worldview associated with science is impoverished and inadequate. The phenomenon of our first-person experience cannot be reduced to inanimate matter and mechanism. At the same time, religious worldviews which feature supernatural phenomena are simply untenable. Science has uncovered a compelling pattern of facts revealing our world’s true nature which is not to be ignored.

It has been suggested that science and religion, even as traditionally practiced, can somehow simultaneously be accepted. The idea is that perhaps they are both true but reside in separate spheres or realms of truth. I reject this notion: it is a cop-out. Traditional science and traditional religions are not compatible – they are in real conflict.

Expanded naturalism is my term for an improved worldview which is fully compatible with science, but looks for additional insights which improve our understanding of the world in ways which also serve to narrow the cultural gap. My starting point is to argue that science’s description of the world must begin to formally incorporate the phenomenon of first person experience itself, without which there is no world.

Thursday, September 09, 2004

Relational Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics

While looking up some information on quantum physics recently I was pleasantly surprised to find a reference to an interpretation of QM which I had not seen before. Due to Carlo Rovelli (the physicist who, along with Lee Smolin, has pioneered loop quantum gravity), I found it to be very thought-provoking and philosophically appealing.

Called relational quantum mechanics, it interprets QM by rejecting the idea that quantum systems exist absolutely, and says instead that they only exist as they relate to another system. The interaction between systems is the “real” entity. By taking this approach, a consistent quantum description of an entire world is possible which seems to avoid the problems of other interpretations. It also seems to dovetail with my opinions in the last post regarding what QM implies for our view of reality. I refer the reader to the Stanford Philosophy Encyclopedia entry for a fuller description.

Wednesday, September 08, 2004

Quantum Mechanics, Experience and Reality

Over time I’ve read with interest a number of descriptions of quantum mechanics. While my level of understanding of the topic as a layperson is limited, I have always thought it is important to try to grapple with what the theory implies about reality. Recently, I’ve come to believe that QM provides strong evidence for my view of the role subjective experience plays as a fundamental element of nature.

Brief Sketch of QM

In classical mechanics, specifying the attributes of an object or system at one moment tells you everything you need to know (in principle, anyway) about how the system will evolve in time. It is an objective process, with no need to reference an observer’s experience. Unfortunately, in analyzing atoms and sub-atomic particles and systems, classical mechanics failed, and QM was discovered as the theory which accurately described experimental outcomes.

In QM, after the initial measurement/observation the system does not evolve in a deterministic way. The system spreads out to encompass a wide range of possibilities. A new measurement/observation will cause the system to reveal a particular value, and the quantum mechanical formula which described the evolution prior to the measurement can be seen as giving the probabilities for particular values to be measured.
Between measurements, we cannot specify precise values for attributes such as position, spin, and velocity. (Further, even when a measurement is made, it turns out that certain attribute pairs cannot both be measured with precision).

QM Interpretations

Ever since the early days of the theory, physicists (along with some philosophers) have grappled with interpreting what QM means for how we view reality. Do particles and other objects we thought were familiar denizens of the world objectively exist independent of observation? If they are dependent on observation, does it need to be a conscious human doing the observing?

Different interpretations of QM often can be distinguished by the weight given to the objective “real-ness” of the Shrödinger wave function which mathematically describes the evolution of the quantum system between measurements. The early “Copenhagen” interpretation denied the reality of the wave function and instead stressed its role as a calculator for explaining experimental results. Efforts to interpret QM by assuming the wave function is objectively real have led to the “many-worlds” interpretation, where all of the possible values of a quantum system described by the wave function actually exist, but one observer cannot see them because they take place in different worlds and/or different minds. Of course other efforts to revise or enhance the theory have been made to provide for an objective trajectory for quantum variables while avoiding many-worlds. These efforts have been limited in acceptance since the theory works so well in its current form for experimental applications without need of any change.


Efforts have been made to enhance the interpretation of QM by formally using information theory (one recent example was from physicist Anton Zielinger). Specifying the number of bits of information available in the system and applying information theory can help explain the limits on the observer’s knowledge about the state of the system which arise in the theory. Interpretational difficulties remain: these arise from the fact that the concept of information still embeds in it the question of “information for whom?” as I discussed in an earlier post. (Zeilinger’s underlying perspective remains the Copenhagen interpretation)


I’ve recently started to read about the progress made in the problem of what plays the role of the “observer” in QM. In the original experimental context, it is the human observer, or perhaps his or her macroscopic measuring equipment, which plays the role of the observer. Physicists have presented increasingly effective arguments that there is nothing special about the human being involved: there is a threshold beyond which the interaction with any other system or with the “environment” is sufficient for the quantum system to take on particular values from the set of possibilities described by the wave function. This phenomenon is known as decoherence.

The Implication of QM for Reality

The solution to the interpretation of QM lies in accepting that subjective experience is a fundamental part of nature. It doesn’t make sense to say that objects or systems exist as complete entities independently of their being experienced. (I take experience to be the best term for what in QM is couched in terms of measurement, observation, information exchange, etc). Full description of an entity in the world requires the reality of its being experienced. Decoherence shows that we are not just talking about experience in the form of human consciousness. All systems in the world manifest some form of experience in their evolving interaction with the rest of reality. Conceiving that this is the case is very difficult (what does it mean for an electron to have experience?), but no other conclusion makes sense. For me, this conclusion is buttressed by the fact that I came to believe in the irreducibility and ubiquity of subjective experience as the solution to the traditional mind-body problem independent of QM considerations. I believe this convergence of scientific and philosophical inquiries bolsters the prospects for the success of this worldview.

Friday, August 20, 2004


I will be back after Labor Day. During this time I will be reading about the use of information as a foundational concept in interpreting quantum mechanics, and will post about it in September.

Monday, August 16, 2004

Ethical Implications: Abortion and Animal Rights

In past posts I’ve presented my argument that subjective experience is a fundamental, irreducible and ubiquitous part of the natural world. I have also thought about implications of this worldview for ethics. I’m tentative about addressing such a difficult topic, and I am less well-read on the subject. However, let me introduce the idea that this worldview can indeed inform one’s ethical system, and to illustrate I’ll begin by sketching what it implies in the cases of animal rights and abortion.

The key concept I’m introducing is that the intrinsic, qualitative richness of subjective experience is a good. The greater the number of subjective experiences in the world, the better. Further, more complex and intricate experiences are an increasingly higher good, since they represent a concentration and focusing of the essential quality. Harming or killing something which is a subject of experience is wrong, and is generally a greater wrong the greater the robustness and complexity of that experience.

Now, clearly there are caveats and exceptions to any simple statement of an ethical imperative. In particular, the idea of trying to assess the relative value of different experiences is fraught with difficulty. Another issue that springs immediately to mind is that one should also consider the potential for higher-level experience on the part of a given subject in the future (as in an embryo for example). I’m sure readers can offer many more suggestions and criticisms of what I present here: I would appreciate them.

Animal rights:
Some kind of proto-experience exists in the inorganic world, but it is living things which have the most elevated experience we are familiar with. There is something special about the way a cell “leverages” the potential for experience in the world, and an organism leverages it further. The increasing complexity of nervous systems which evolved in the animal kingdom can be thought of as concentrating further the inherent experiential quality of the universe in a single being. The human being is indeed the pinnacle of the animal kingdom in this respect, and by a large order of magnitude.

While humans have the greatest weight in our ethical system, we must also value animals. And our intuition that animals which have more highly evolved brains and nervous system are of greater value is correct.

Now given our evolutionary heritage, it is natural to propose that it is not per se immoral to kill animals for food and shelter. For the vast majority of our history, it was imperative. However, as we develop the means to survive without resort to animal products, our treatment of animals must change. I am not a vegetarian and I have struggled with this issue. At times the idea that we kill animals just for the convenience and culinary pleasure of it seems repugnant. Other times, the fact that I realistically place a much higher value on human experience than on that of animals ameliorates the vigor of my feelings. I do believe we must at a minimum steadily reduce the proportion of animals used; and we should focus greatest attention on the mammals first. Also, I strongly believe animals have feelings which are similar to ours, if less complex, and therefore an emphasis on reducing suffering in the slaughtering process is right.

For my view, what is important is that an embryo has steadily more human-like experience as it develops (there is no one moment where a fully-formed soul suddenly appears). Interestingly, I believe the intuitions of many Americans on abortion track fairly closely the perspective drawn from my emphasis on subjective experience. Most people intuit that abortion is wrong, but believe it is less wrong than murder. While the case is made difficult by the issue of “potential” mentioned above, a greater value should be placed on the human experience over that of the unborn, all else equal. I would note that even people who are vigorously against abortion rights make an exception if the life of the mother is in danger. Also, a large majority of people feel a late-term abortion is more wrong than an early-term abortion – and many would say a “morning-after” abortion may not be wrong at all. The further along the unborn child is in development, the greater its experience. The Supreme Court made a crude gesture in this area with its distinctions among trimesters, but the idea of putting proportionally greater emphasis on reducing late-term abortions is right.

This lateness-of-term dimension has traditionally gotten less attention in the public debate. This is perhaps because advocates of abortion rights worry about the “slippery slope” potential and feel (I think rightly) that they fare better when abortion is an “all or nothing” argument. But while I can’t quantify the relative reduction of harm which comes from reducing the average term of abortions vs. reducing the number, I feel that it has been underappreciated.

On this issue, as on animal rights, I am not an abolitionist. And my perspective shows this is not a black and white issue. But it is an imperative to steadily reduce the number of and, importantly, the lateness of abortions.

This post only just scratches the surface of a couple of moral issues. While I think the perspective given here is helpful, the balancing of competing ethical interests is not made simple. But as I continue to spend more time on “big” questions about reality, I hope to develop further thoughts on the ethical implications.

Monday, August 02, 2004

Universe or Multiverse?

Having long assumed that there was a single universe, I’ve been intrigued to read about the speculation among physicists about the possibility of multiple universes (mentioned in recent popular books by Brian Greene and Lee Smolin, for instance). Now, I don’t want to get hung up on a terminology issue here – we could say a collection of universes is just a larger universe. Informally, let me say that a universe defined as distinct from ours would have the following characteristics: it is unobservable from our own universe in the conventional sense – none of its particles or electro-magnetic radiation reach us; it could not be visited by us using technologies of the sort we’re currently familiar. (It may be possible to detect using other means – some speculate gravity waves from another universe could reach us). Such a universe could have different fundamental physical laws from our own. Finally, universes may give rise to each other from a process such as inflation or black hole formation: our universe could have a parent universe, or perhaps spawn children of its own. (For now I am not talking about multiple universes in the sense implied by the “many-worlds” interpretation of quantum physics.)

I find it exciting that a multiverse may exist given the promise that we may be able to extend scientific explanation much further than previously thought. The old idea of a single universe which arose in a Big Bang from a singularity was an abrupt and to me unsatisfying boundary on science. Proposing that the world suddenly appeared from a dimensionless point really didn’t say much at all. Now there is hope we may be able to understand how the universe grew out of a previously existing context.

Of course, the multiverse hypothesis continues the trend of science’s steady progress in making our earthly vantage point less special. Not only is our star system but one in huge sea in our galaxy, while our galaxy is but one of a huge swarm in the universe, but now even our universe may be one of a great many. The problem of how the physical constants governing our universe were “fine-tuned” to permit star-formation and ultimately life on earth is placed in a larger context of multiple universes with variable laws.

Of course while the question of the ultimate origin of existence will continue to recede it will not disappear. As long as people feel they can ask the question -- “why something rather than nothing?” -- a mystery beyond normal natural explanation will persist.