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.

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