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.