(This is post 14 in the series on Freedom. Thank Goodness that “Goodness” has been given a physical base in Reality, and that this Blog Series on Freedom and Mother Nature is nearing its end! In this post, Structures in nature will be given credit for the new things and abilities that exist beyond the world as only physics. Freedom is based in Structure and Design and the quality of these will be described. Some structures exhibit enough complexity for not only a degree of freedom but also “experience”, “self-experience” and “deliberation”, and this enables additional freedom. Also, our favorite golfer, philosopher J. Austin, will be visited one last time. These are difficult topics and I regard these blogs as an approach that will hopefully merit some discussion and refinement. The text below is accompanied by many great images, I think, and is worthy of perusal , I hope Originally published 5/24/19.)
In this universe, where do new things come from? That is the question we have approached repeatedly in this blog series; more specifically how could a creature be free? That is definitely, “a new thing”. We all should agree, this show started with a bang. In its opening millionths of a second, quarks and electrons formed. A few millionths later, “quarks aggregated to produce protons and neutrons” and in minutes these collected into nuclei. After 380,000 years, the outward rushing ‘debris’ had slowed and cooled (by its standards) and most electrons had been “trapped in orbits” around nuclei, leaving the universe “almost completely helium and hydrogen”, the first atoms. So reports the CERN Lab.
Each of these — quark, electron, proton, neutron, nuclei, atom — are Structures. This hard science is not a specialty of mine, and it is interesting that the number of physicists with opinions on matters far afield of physics (it would seem) — Free Will and the Meaning of Life — have become prominent in current debate on these obscure topics. Maybe, the obscure attracts the obscure! All should agree that the physical origin of the universe is still the underlying character of all that is. But, whence all the diversity? It “appears” that many diverse qualities have come from very few. Like ‘trying to get blood from a turnip’, the terms of physics seem to give no logical access to, for example, the terms we use to describe ourselves and other living things.
Theists continue the tradition of ‘explaining’ these added and ‘richer’ qualities in Supernatural terms: Something metaphysically different must be present. And when these abilities ‘soar’ to the height of language-use (“meaning”), gaining and having “knowledge”, and the supposed ability to be “Free and Responsible”, well, that constitutes an Intellectual and Cultural Crisis! Or, maybe just, our society would be better off with some additional consensus on fundamental issues.
Ironically, we here at naturereligionconnection agree with the theists, no logical route exists from Causation/Determinism to Freedom, but, we then continue, add the crucial factor, Structure or Design. It is the reality and character of Structure that is the Naturalistic Explanation for the “emergence” of the many diverse qualities that we see and experience in our world, including Freedom.
Foremost, among Structures is Life and Language, or the linguistic communication among Persons. It is the reality and character of these two forms, along with their many-many minor and contributing intermediate forms, that brings the world beyond its stripped-down reality of pure physics! They allow our favorite golfer, philosopher John Austin, to appropriately believe that a putt like the one he missed could be made in the future, and that he will be completely determined in each case. Freedom is Compatible with being caused, in some cases.
Structure is the Key
Structure is huge in science, and in everyday life. It would seem to be a simple idea, but it is shrouded in, at least, philosophic controversy. Engineers are very familiar with
structure and represent the straightforward and obviously important aspects of the idea. A bridge must have structural integrity; it must be able to stand on its own and do its job — function. Engineers design bridges and inspect them, which highlights the premeditation, the research and development, and the standards and principles involved in structures. For these reasons, structures often involve designers who are conscious agents with purposes of their own, and their designs exist in a human society.
Our curiosity, and the controversy, starts to rise at this point. Do structures exist in nature? Are structures in nature designed? Is “structure” and “design” synonymous? It would seem that The Solar System is a structure, along with the anatomical systems of plants and animals. Is “structure ” and “system” the same thing? Is the Carbon Cycle a structure? RNA and DNA are clearly structures that function. So are bee hives and termite mounds and yet clearly no individual insect designs them. This blog is an exploration of t
Structures, like the two above, display a very systematic character. They function. Are they tightly enough organized to determine their parts? Yes, in some ways, but if each ‘fell apart’ would their parts continue to exists? Probably, yes.
For the two structures above, if they ‘fell apart’, it is clear that the amino acids would maintain their character and the inorganic and organic elements of the carbon cycle would at least temporarily persist. But DNA and the C-Cycle are integral parts, themselves, of larger systems. We all know that the specific organization of amino acids is the essence of DNA’s character as information to all living things. The functioning of the carbon cycle is vital to The Biosphere as a working unit. It would seem that the significance of structure has increased from the original examples of tornado and solar system. DNA and the c-cycle have important properties as working structures in the roles they play in ‘larger’ processes.
Here at NatieRel, our sense of the reality of tight structures is buoyed in the anatomy of living things. Here, parts are subordinate in a larger functioning unit. Our sense of the Ontological Significance of Structure sky-rockets when we contemplate ant and termite colonies, the schooling of fish and the flocking of some birds. Some scholars contend that language-using humans are the most social of all living creatures! In each of these cases, significant emerging qualities exist for these creatures but only as they are participants in their larger structural settings: organs in a body, army ants in a colony, persons in a society, fish in a school.
Structures attain a seemingly increased level of complexity when they appear to “deliberate”. Persons clearly have a sense of themselves as “deliberating”, but we also have this impression of a variety of other things. Does your pet dog deliberate? Do computers, chimpanzees, birds “deliberate to make decisions” about what to do next? To fly here, to sing now, to search for food next, are these deliberation, even if “determined deleberation” as Dennett argues for? In each case these structures seem to have a “deep reservoir of potential behaviors”; a variety of ‘motives’, ‘needs, ‘goals’ to which they set their parts aworking.
Traditionally, in many cultures, “God”,or something closely akin, was said to have designed or created things in nature. The emphasis here being on “the act of creation” and not on premeditation and certainly not on a process of research and development. Some of the various origin stories from around the world and through time might make a worthy topic for a blog series. I already have a familiarity with some of them, but the point here being, none of these tales are scientific theory nor a philosophical analysis of the character that a structure or design must have, at least according to some philosophers.
Scientifically, it is the Theory of Evolution and its combination with Genetics that form “the Modern Synthesis” that is the accepted view of design in biology. It uses the logic of science and an overwhelming abundance of evidence to explain the proliferation, continuation and variation of living forms. Forms are structures, but even in science controversy exists. Leading biologist, Richard Dawkins, has argued with his associate, philosopher Daniel Dennett, that design is only “apparent” in nature, not real because it needs a conscious designer. Dennett contends design is real and perpetuated by Natural Selection. He admits it is only perceived from the point of view of Persons and not form the point of view of the Universe ‘seen objectively’. But, persons are real, he argues.
Dennett has made much of the science of Artificial Intelligence and robotics to further understand, and then present, the concept of “Structure” (or “design”) as
real and as ontologically significant. Interestingly this work has confirmed some of what traditional idealist philosophers have contended going as far back as Plato, Aristotle and Leibniz, but in this new way. Part of the issue of Agency (Doing and not just Having Been Done To) and Free Will (Decision-Making, in some significant form) is being practically approached in AI and robotics. One of Dennett’s favorite
examples is the design and performance of machines like The Mars Rover. This Rover is so far from its makers that it must function largely on its own. It must have its purposes built into it, must ‘know’ what it is ‘looking for’, make ‘decisions’ and even ‘problem-solve’ to some extent. It is “designed to make the most of its opportunities”, says Dennett. It is shocking, to an old guy like me, how quickly self-driving cars are being developed and even deployed!
In a Structure, The Whole is Greater Than the Sum of Its Parts
I have called structures, “Virtuous Circles” (see posts 6 and 7). Structures are designs that are self-enclosed to a significant degree. Within that closure, they are defined and characterized in their own terms. It is in this ‘hot house’ of closure that important new relations arise and qualities emerge. A classic example is an organism. Its
parts are defined in relation to each other and in relation to what they do, their functioning. This interrelationship of parts is so tight that no part — heart, brain, kidney…— can exist long outside this system of functioning. The parts of The Mars Rover are made in accordance with, and defined by, their function in their “home” setting, their associated mechanical parts. When these parts work well by having good design and proper working order, they initiate/originate New Things into the world. First, they introduce the ‘thing’ that they do; and second, they introduce Value. When structures function they do so well or poorly, better and worse. So, Structures not only allow Doing and Origination into a naturalistic ontology but also value! That is why we say, “a bridge should have structural integrity.“
An important development in cultural history, and part of the origin of scientific investigation, was the shift away from “essences” as explanation. Essences were famously mocked by Voltaire, in his novel Candide (1759), where he had the medieval doctor ‘explain’ opium in very pompous Latin as having “an essence to cause sleep.” This is what it does to us and it ‘explains’ this in the terms of persons: “causes sleep”. This was rightly mocked as not being informative; it does not show how it works. As an explanation, it is A Vicious Circle; opium is its ability to cause sleep, not how it causes sleep.
But from the point of view of a person, it does show that it works. “Opium”, in this way, Refers to us and is information. Information is more than causation. Reference is the relation to the world that a Structure has in addition to causation! It is the designs extension, by definition, beyond the borders of its body, to “that” which appropriately, by design, influences it. Opium is part of our information environment, the umwelt, and allows us an avenue of experience to Analyze opium into terms that are not personal, terms that are more objective (see post 9).
That ‘something out there’, referred to us as “opium”, exists and it works on us, that allows us to analyze ‘that opium’ into very different terms –— terms of chemical elements and their structure, not the structure of persons. So, Action Precedes its Analysis!
The action of a structure is based in a level of complexity. Dennett contends that this relationship that is ‘in our own terms’ is a “virtuous circle” because it is the information relationship of reference, the That and not the How. This is what was meant in post 11 (Science Lags Behind) by “Analysis is parasitic on Action”. “Action” is behavior in accordance with a design. It is an origination. And thus—-
— It is Free!
This is how new phenomena come to exist ‘above’ the level of the objects of physics and chemistry. Action according to design exhibits a degree of freedom.
So this is how Bird Song comes from physics. It is not incompatible with those laws, but it is also not deducible from those physical laws. There is definitely an element of chance, indeed, good fortune for the birds and us.
Within the laws of physics there is some “elbow room”, no matter how briefly by cosmic
standards, for local regularities, cycles, patterns to appear, and found and supplement further regularities, cycles, patterns as if a set of nested bowls. In our little local ‘hot spot’, Agency, in the form of a feed-back system with abilities foreshadowing personhood, has appeared based in self-replicating entities. We call this feed-back system, Mother Nature, for good reasons. Her process of Natural Selection has ‘sought’ to “turn ‘noise’ into signal”, says Dennett. She has carried forward a process of generate and test, ‘seeking’ to find further ‘opportunities’ to enhance Life’s formation, its In-formation.
Natural Selection has toyed with many forms (structures) of communication and, surely, bird song was a form approaching human language in its complexity. Mother Nature experimented with many ideas, or as Dennett calls them, “free-floating rationales”. Bird song and human language are two that stuck.
So, for any structure, its relation to the world around it is not simply causal, it is also informational. The information relations are the causal relations that matter to the structure and the jobs it is designed to do. It is “caused by special interest events“, and so it is “determined” by its design to do its job, says Dennett. The structure can be Caused Rightly for its design, like when a person is convinced to act by good evidence, and it can be Caused Wrongly for its structure, as when a person is knocked off the road by a truck.* And, some causal forces are of no significance at all to it, as photons are of little significance to the human body
or to a bridge spanning the Mississippi. Other causal forces are indistinct to it; an animal at its dried watering hole with a felt thirst does not distinguish between the seasonal drought that dried the hole, or the day’s forces of evaporation or global climate change.
Structures are “highly resistant to micro-level ‘noise’ and (some) random perturbations”, but they also encounter causes completely overwhelming to them, as were the effects of the comet that struck the earth 60 mya destroying the environmental structure necessary for dinosaurs. A structure, and its designer, are “finite (like us) so it cannot follow a policy of considering everything that might be relevant to its interests all the time” (Dennett). There is no point, usually, in designing structures for rare and overwhelming possibilities.
*Caused Rightly by the truck, would be to react reflexively and avoid the collision, or the brunt of it.
Teasing Out the Possibilities
Structures work on the world that matters to them, in their terms. Modern socialized, language-using humans should work on the world “rationally”, “responsibly”, and “socially” in order to achieve their goals. This is our design. Other animals work on the world efficiently, at least, to attain their goals. The same could be said for plants and even functioning, designed, inanimate objects. Natural Selection established designs for living creatures including humans. But with persons, it is also our self-considered, and reconsidered, functioning, that has further modified our structure. Socially, humans have functioned to select new skills
and new forms of living together (both are themselves structures) along with the principles, rules, and laws suggested by them. Ancient humans chose and were caused to choose agriculture as a new form of life. The same can be said for industrialization, of which the implications are still being discovered. For Persons, this is—
—-An Additional Degree of Freedom.
Since structures are real, these languages and principles are equally real. They were Implicit in structures as “free floating rationales”, argues Dennett. It was the deliberation of humans, the “determined deliberation” of humans, that first made Explicit these Implicit principles. For example, in our reconsideration of our behavior the self-enclosure and circularity of this structure of person and society became the basis for our sense of “individuality”, “self”, “experience”, “self-experience”, “agency” and “responsibility”. Though, it is important to realize that this “Reflection” is ultimately ‘a hall of mirrors’ argues Dennett. there is no necessary end to systems reviewing systems, no end to “meta” questioning, no individual physical-like thing (no homunculus) as ‘the light at the end of the tunnel’ of self-reflection.
This is how in a world of causes, as envisioned by the hard sciences, persons do legitimately “have” experiences, opinions, reasons and preferences. Structures are real, and for Persons — our form of social structure — these experiences must then be reported, discussed, and agreed upon. Consensus is one of our highest standards (See post 6). Some three thousand years ago, when abstract thoughtfulness gained launch momentum (at least for western culture), Socrates and Plato agreed that Truth, Goodness and Beauty were the ultimate standards of reality. If we can add Efficiency, then we can say these first great explores of structure were half right. Those standards may be the goal for our “informed” world, even if not the world of our Super Scientist.
The Information Relationship
The information relationship cannot be discarded from an ontology. If it is, we leave no logical basis for the Doing (the origination) of anything new, let alone the Doing of scientific research and its decisions with all the logically attached concepts like “testing”, “knowing”, “proving”, “experiencing”, “measuring”, “theorizing”, “evaluating”…
In a coherent ontology, a Structure must intervene in the causal chain at key points to create phenomena autonomous enough to be recognized by us and described by us as significantly distinct from their background in the universe as a causal net without breach.
“Life” is one of those key points and so are the ‘things’ we call a “person”. These two structures are extremely convoluted, so much so that, to us, they tend to display a significant autonomy and thus seem to act in terms unique to them. They are the most basic relation to the universe for humans as the finite and limited structures that we are. This autonomy is significant enough that the Theory of Evolution is the accepted science, in the terms of life, for living things. History, sociology, and cognitive psychology function in that way as sciences for humans and their culture. All of these forms of knowledge resist the reduction of their subject matter to simply chemistry or physics terminology. This is how acting according to one’s design tends to resist complete reduction to terms that ignore design and structure. But, admittedly, there is that further part of what is real — that ultimate physical background.
“I Should Have Holed That Putt!”
On the particular occasion, when Austin missed his putt, the causal forces of the universe working up and through ‘him’ were not aligned to cause the putt to be made. Of course,
“him” is used in a loose sense here, as the collection of atoms, waves, chemicals and mechanical structures ‘experienced’ as him by himself and his society. Austin’s belief that it could have gone otherwise, is mistaken. He did try his best and it didn’t happen, but his belief in its possibility was not mistaken. That belief is based in his structural character and in his confidence that he is a well-enough designed golfer that putts such as the one he missed, in general, are well within his normal capabilities. Structures do not always and automatically succeed. They break down. They work well enough but not perfectly: there can be an accumulation of forces beneath their normal ‘recognition’, there can be a deterioration in the working order of their parts. there can be the intervention of an overwhelming force. Structures are limited in their design and ability. They are part of that world (the informed world) that is full of “possibilities”, “probabilities”, “chances” and “vagueness”.
Austin’s belief in “the possible” has a purpose to serve in that ‘more subjective’ world the next time he faces a similar putt. He must believe that “that putt, now” can possibly go in. He should “just ‘keep (his) head down’ (like any good golfer) and keep on deliberating; it’s (his) best chance of arriving at the decisions (and outcomes) he’d like to arrive at”, concludes Dennett. This is our situation far beyond golf. We are well designed complex structures and many of our concepts rightfully refer our deliberations to the crucial components (of whatever is the matter at hand) in the ‘more objective’ world that is our ultimate physical background. It is how we “can” succeed in a complex universe were the causal forces of that universe are passing through us.
That we “experience” and are thus prone to “failure”, “opportunity”, “possibility” and “breakdown” may seem to be a weakness for complex structures, but it is also the “meat of life” for these finite creatures who exist within a more ‘infinite’ network of physical causes.. Finite structures, in general, maintain a basic integrity through a period of time and a range of events, but do not remain exactly the same, nor do they need to. They do their job the best they can and eventually return into the background. This is what finite structures do: They have an individuality; they try, change and then pass away. The most complex finite structures, like Persons, do much the same except they also “care”, and “hope” that upon passing away to have “made a difference”.
In the final posts of this series, this series finally ends. Like all good structures, I hope this series hangs together and does its job of convincing readers of the limitations of scientific reduction and of the “elbow room” (Dennett’s phrase) for Freedom. In these last two posts, our astounding relation to our causal background will be described, with shocking implications for our broadest and most objective interpretation of our situation as persons. These implications will throw new light on “freedom” and generate a revised definition for it.