Freedom: Scientific Knowledge Lags Behind


(This is Post number lucky Eleven in this Series on Freedom.  And at last the point has arrived….Persons are free because Mother Nature has assembled enough In-Formation to give us the complexity to be a machine that reinterprets its own programs!  I hope that is not too hyperbolic, but it sure seems COOL!  When we experience according to our design, this is Freedom and is based on our acting upon our Information.  This world is turning out to be a better place, a more fortunate place, than often thought:  it is Amazing and downright Venerable, if only we could come to realize it.)

Is an organism and its environment related in a way that is no more than like a gear in a clock work?  (Image from, Thanks)

Scientific Knowledge Lags Behind

Persons can be free because our knowledge of our world and ourselves supplements our ability to act, not replaces it. 

Hypothetically, we have great reason for imagining the behavior of all things to be explainable and predictable by scientific law.  We all know that the laws of physics apply to all things and as we are hurled about in an auto accident or fall from a ladder, that fact is doubly clear; but as we ‘choose’ who to marry or even where to go to eat,  it’s not so clear.  Yet, we can imagine a computer, programmed, to accumulate a tabulation according to standards of desirability, coming to a conclusion — attaining a threshold — and declaring: “She’s the one!”  So, designed objects — like a computer — are predictable too: Their behavior is caused!

Jazz exemplifies the significant combination of extensive training (design and programming) and improvisation (review and modification of programming: R&D).  “What is a brain…but a computer, and what is education but a form of programming?” rhetorically asks biologist R. Dawkins.

Same for us. Human persons are highly designed biologic machines; Mother Nature has seen to that.  As pieces of society, we are also highly programmed.  Musicians train for years, carpenters too.  Our freedom lies in two places: the experience of our complexity and our opportunity to review and revise our own program!

Organs and Organism, Organism and Environment, Person and Society of persons: Each are structures — feedback loops — for the production of increasingly complex designed objects.  The products of these Virtuous Circles of interaction attain a level of integration that is worthy of actions and explanations in their own terms, to a significant degree.  This is their moment of creativity.  They function more complexly ,”do new things”, new properties “emerge”.  An eye is a unique object, it is understood by the biologist as that which ‘sees’ and thus involves lens, retina and receptors, but this functioning does not exist in a world of sheer physics or only chemistry.  Scientists use the functions — the acts — we experience As Persons, to guide their research for chemical and atomic substructures.   But, persons, animals, plants, as whole entities (as phenotype) and as complexes of various functions, resist an easy reduction to terms other than their own.

We can imagine such reductions, and everyday, scientists work to discover particular reductions, but practically, we have not accomplished any Grand Reduction: The world is not REALLY, or ONLY chemicals or subatomic particles.  For example, we all know we are made of six chemical elements (“CHNOPS”) but as we look at them piled in a hardware store cart (all but one is available there) we should probably be struck by the vast difference between us and that pile, and we cannot mix it up and bake even the simplest living thing.  Physicist Sean Carroll tells us, in his wonderfully concise and clear article — Free Will is as Real as Baseball,  that though in principle we can imagine knowing the quantum states of all the universe’s elemental particles, in practice, it can never be accomplished.  These Grand Reductions, what Dan Dennett calls “Greedy Reductionism” as opposed to the practical and partial reductions we thrive upon, evade us.

That is an important clue to understanding how persons are Free.

Anticipating the direction  of this argument, it can be said at this point that what is missing from the hardware store cart mentioned above is not any of the ingredients of life, but its structure.  We know the ingredients, but we do not have their organization; we cannot yet attain the blue print.  How things are put together is more important than what they are made of.  This is the sense of the term “information” used in this series and, of course, borrowed from Dan Dennett: “information is design worth getting”. 

In a world of only atoms, talk of ‘persons’ has no place.  Talk of ‘a heart’ has no place.  It’s a category mistake — see post 9.

Yes, there is a sense in which all the most complex objects and functions did “arise” from atoms, but that process is described by Evolution and Evolution is not greedily reductionist.  It explains the functioning of increasingly complex unities through their use of information.  They have enhanced design, structure.  This leaves them their integrity, but also connects them to various substructures.  In the theory’s terms, I believe this means “phenotypes” are real and they do real work in the world, and their cause, their substructure — genes — are also real.

So, the better question is not whether things like color or human choices are real, but what is their relationship to subatomic particles and other such objects of science.

Dennett is a philosopher and theorist in artificial intelligence, biology and cognitive science.  He contends there are three “stances” we take toward the world to cope with the incongruence — the fact that we cannot explain the world all in one way.   Each stance explains its kind of object in terms somewhat unique to them, but also those terms indicate a dependence on levels ‘beyond’ them.  These are the physical stance, the design stance and the intentional stance.  Note, the term “stance” indicates acts or behaviors on our part that are based upon the complexity of Persons and our ability to have some ‘freedom’ to choose, if nothing else, what stance they take in trying to understand things in the world.  We can shift our point of view!

The Physical Stance

hqdefaultThe objects of the physical stance and their interactions are apparent.  It is the game of pool (post 8) with its permanent and independently existing objects that have no internal complexity (the balls) and an environment (the table) equally  unchanging, independently existing and simple. There are few presuppositions (intentions) here with these objects and the causal relations are clear — just bumping, speeds, masses and angles.

Now it should not be mistaken that these physical objects, like atoms or elemental particles or even biochemicals, are difficult to understand in one way; we use complex math and lengthy formulas to describe them; but they are not complex in other ways: They are highly predictable, they have only a few kinds of internal parts, and they lack any of the richer, vaguer qualities we find in many other objects in our world. A world simply of these qualities — space, mass, time, attraction, repulsion, charge, chemical bonding — is a pretty bland place.  It’s like static on a television screen: It lacks meaningful form.

The Design Stance

The design stance is more complex.  Its objects are “in-formed with a significant structure that corresponds to their environment that

Known for its highly formal, multi-stepped, nesting behavior, the digger wasp (Sphex) will repeat its entire routine if any part of it is disrupted.  It is designed and strictly programmed.  “It is very ‘sphexish'”, term coined by D. Hofstadter, cognitive scientist. See internet for videos of the famous digger wasp nesting experiment.

necessarily contains information pertinent  to that internal structure.  They are not independent of each other — the designed object and its environment.  This is the environment as Umwelt (see post nine).  For example, the structure and design of most of our modern automobiles are for use with our nicely paved roads and highways, their environment. The canine teeth of the predator are pertinent to the soft flesh of the prey.

The designed object is also different from the physical object by being based on a presupposition, its purpose. This purpose is not always apparent.  Thus, the ways a designed object may interact with its world is often less clear than the interactions seen from the physical stance.

A major question about the possibility of freely chosen actions lies in the above two paragraphs.  In what sense is the organism both independent of, and dependent on, its environment, at the same time!  This seems clearly to be contradictory.  Interestingly, its resolution will lie in an organism’s, and our own, limited point of view; Its stance.  From one point of view, the organism should simply dissolve into its background, another cog in a machine-work, a collection of particles awash in a particle-bound mass.  But from another point of view, we are incapable of “seeing” this, incapable of believing that we do not have choices, cannot make decisions based on logic and evidence, and not be simply caused to them.  Dennett contends that “we act under the ides of our own freedom”.  It’s a “user’s device”, like an computer icon that accesses certain programs.  It makes the universe more friendly to our participation in it as thinkers, difference- makers, and responsible actors.

The Intentional Stance

Hello Rita!  Don’t lose any more fingers! (an inside joke as example of presupposit-ions in intentional objects.)

The intentional stance is even less transparent, often much so. (post 9).  It works with objects that are designed and have a “deep well” of presuppositions — varied purposes and abilities.  They correspond to an environment full of information that is related to each of these possible activities and purposes. But, the information here is not clearly ‘labeled’, so to speak.  What parts of the world are pertinent to, informative for, which activities and purposes of these intentional objects?  Therefore, the acts of these objects are not highly predictable.

More complex intentions inform this society, too: “Higher-ranking male gorillas form stronger relationships with infants, regardless of whether they are related.”  (thanks to Elsevier for quote and photo)

The “deep well” of presuppositions in these intentional objects form a structure that presupposes some hierarchy, some prioritization, of activities and purposes.   They have “gone meta” by “piling up stacks of representations” (Dennett) that are more abstract ‘considerations’ of  their situations. Without this hierarchy,  the intentional object would have little coordination of action or unity of being.

Persons are the primary example of intentional objects, but computers that play sophisticated games of chess or write music or diagnose diseases or can converse with people, are also examples, to some extent.  So are other primates and mammals that live socially and exhibit complex mating, status and hunting behaviors.

The objects at each of these ‘levels’ — physical, design, and intentional — have behavior that is individually explainable and  predictable scientifically in theory, but with increasing difficulty in practice Each are more complex than the previous: pool balls ricocheting on a table, a clam opening and shutting its shell, a person exhorting  another to do their best.

Levels of Complexity

      M.C. Escher: Development II                At each layer in this depiction, subtle and coordinated developments arise. (Thanks to Escher Foundation)

Richard Dawkins is one of our leading evolution theorists.  He contends that there is a “ladder of complexity” and that this contention is so commonplace and obvious “to be almost platitudinous.” * Yet the “ladder’s” character and implications are important to make clear.

“When explaining  the workings of a motor car we forget atoms…as units of explanation, and prefer to talk of cylinders and spark plugs”, he says, and “At every level the units interact with each other following laws appropriate to that level, laws which are not conveniently reducible to laws at lower levels.”

The “rungs” on this ladder of complexity form “a hierarchy”, Dawkins says.  Starting from “fundamental particles below the atomic level up through molecules and crystals to macroscopic … (objects).”  A “new set of rungs” is added by living things: “proteins…

Partial organic hierarchy: diagram.  (from Toxtutor)

intracellular membranes and organelles, cells, tissues, organs, organisms, populations, communities and ecosystems.”  Here at naturereligionconnection, we have argued for an additional layer for humans, somewhat

Persons exist together so closely as to form a single transcendent organism, similar to, but more enhanced than, a colony of termites. (Image from Azernews)

similar to the population or ecosystem mentioned by Dawkins, the human social organism. 

In Dawkins’ ladder we see many of the elements that have been referred to in this Freedom series as Virtuous Circles.  Organ and Organism is specifically listed, but also Organisms and Ecosystem has been broadened, here, to the Circle of Organism and Environment in general.  Dawkins is also the inventor of the term “Meme” which is  associated  with the formation and transmission of ideas, in a more biologic fashion, in individuals and societies (post ten).

Nature has “gone meta”!  How seriously should we take these larger forms of integration and what is their character and mechanisms?  Is the Earth’s biosphere sufficiently integrated to be, itself, considered an organism?  This Blog Site will investigate that possibility.       (diagram from SOCRATIC)

Society and persons has been the designation in these blogs for this social and intellectual loop — this human social organism.

These Virtuous Circles, are various “levels” of complexity, I have argued. The connection within and between the levels is information.  An organism is formed,  it has a working structure.  It is, also, “in-formed” by its  environment; just as  organs are in-formed within that organism.  Similarly, a person is informed by the society of persons around them.  Each — organism and organs, society and persons — is a complex circular interrelation based on the design of a transcendental object (post seven), the organism or the society,  realized in the objects that in-form it, the organs or the persons.

This is one of the most controversial claims made in this blog and in this series,  that higher levels of complexity Feed Back on the lower levels that form them.  The word that could have been used is “inform”, and not simply “form”, them.  This is  Dennett’s definition of information and it has an exciting element to it that is seldom

Information is a shape that exists in reality.  “Discobolus”, originally by the 5th century BC Athenian, Myron.  (thanks to list25 for image)

recognized.  “Information” is, literally, a shape, an on-going structure, that exists in the world and builds around it the series of its objects.  More thought and research here at naturereligionconnection needs to be devoted to the degree of integration, and its character, for these various informed structures of living things and even complex nonliving systems.

Today’s biological science is good with building up some higher levels of functioning, like herds, flocks, colonies, populations and ecosystems;  and it establishes some of the mechanisms higher levels ‘work down’ to influence the lower levels that build them.  In the terms of this blog, and in the thinking of Dan Dennett, this is the completion of the circle.  

Purely physical processes only sometimes do this, but living processes exist in feed back loops necessarily.  The blind forces of Natural Selection, once having established a new benchmark in complexity, then competes with its own accomplishment in the realm of phenotypes, to meet and surpass it.  In Dawkins’ theory of the Meme, this is clearly true.  Once someone has invented the wheel, everywhere they go with it, it is clearly infectious!  Wheels catch on!  Dennett contends that the connections and neural pathways in our brain change, re-align themselves when a child learns its native language, another example.   More clarity is needed on these feedback influences.

These are “Virtuous Circles” and not “vicious” because this circularity is a bit of self-enclosure, a bit of autonomy.  Each forms a “level” of interaction not reducible completely to the levels ‘below’ it.  We use to say that this was uninformative — to explain a thing by only talking about it or very kindred things — it was a ‘vicious circle’, but now we see the necessity philosophically and scientifically to acknowledge levels of complexity and thus the significance of all the different sciences that correspond to each level and to allow for the reality of each level’s own, and our own,  creative or “emergent” behaviors as crystals, proteins, cells, organisms

How can we meaningfully think of the writing of a book except as the product of a complex feedback loop involving a Person and their natural, social and historical environments.

and all the way through the levels of complexity up to language users as scientists, artists, inventors, and cultural and moral beings.   These are the spaces of biochemical, biological and sociological interactions that are not completely described as chemical reactions.  Human sociological and psychological actions that are not completely described or predictable in terms of biology or biochemistry, let alone physics.

*All quotes of Dawkins in this section are from his book The Extended Phenotype.

The Limits of Reduction

Why can these higher levels of designed and intentional objects not be completely reduced to the elements of the physical level?  First, they are too complex for us to understand, at least now.  We find it impossible to ‘build up’, construct, from the simpler objects and more regular interactions of chemistry, to the actions of even viruses (post 8) , let alone the more complicated creatures such as plants and animals, for example.  We even find it

We all know that water ‘is’ hydrogen and oxygen.  At different temperatures different qualities emerge: It is ice, solid, steam, gas, and liquid.  Water “can” be all these things. (image from Electrochemical Society)

impossible, but much closer to reality, to ‘build up’ from the objects and laws of physics to the objects and laws of chemistry, because, even in chemistry, new qualities appear, new abilities “emerge.”  That is the second reason: growing complexity is the opportunity for the emergence of events and states that have significance in themselves.  They form structural levels that are interconnected by definition with other qualitatively kindred objects.  “Fear” for example, is meaningful as connected to “joy”, “nervousness”, “happiness”, “shock”, “dread” and not its eventual causal association to the firing of certain neurons in a certain area of the brain.  Color, choice, hunger, belief, reproduction and and a million other such “objects” have vocabularies of their own while also “referring” to different levels;  they “point beyond” their own vocabulary, and in that way emerge by comparison.  “‘Emerge’, important word that,” writes Dawkins.

What we can do, and what we do all the time, is work and understand things in the other direction: ‘from top down.’ We start with the complex functioning and activity, and understand it in terms of its simpler parts.  We analyze an organism in terms of

Image result for diagrams of the parts of the eye
We start from the more complex and analyze it into parts.  We do not know how to build up from chemistry to get even the most simplest form of life, least an eye.  (Thanks to  All About the Eye)

its organs, for example.  We then take the functioning of each organ and analyze it in relation to the chemicals and engineering that carry it out.  It’s “reverse engineering” says Dawkins and Dennett.  We do this in the ‘harder’ sciences like astronomy and chemistry.  Copernicus, Galileo and Tycho Brahe discovered the regularities of positions and some of the most general systematic principles (like the sun is in the center and planets orbit in fairly straightforward ways) and then Newton reversed engineered to understand the  detailed laws (inertia and gravity) of the solar system, a larger more tightly connected, complex object.


The Complex is THEN Analyzed

This is the point: To think that people don’t have Free Will, don’t Make Choices and are not Responsible — in some significant sense — is to be confused about our ability

To think that a color is ‘less real’ than the wave length we analyze it to, is….”how does that saying go again?”

to Analyze Things and our ability To Do Things.  We have great ability in both, but Analysis is parasitic upon Doing.  We are not able to actually construct from what we contend is ‘real’ (molecules, the quantum state of elementary particles) the objects and experiences that started our quest for understanding in the first place (a color, an emotion, a person, a tree, an eye).  Or similarly, we are not able to predict the behavior, character or abilities of the more complex from the character and abilities of the more simple things that compose them.  The great mathematician and philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead, called this the confusion of the abstract for the concrete. In future centuries we are apt to revise our scientific theories (the more abstract), but our concrete and complex experience of things will still be the basis for these new analyses —  as that ‘finger pointing outward’.

Analysis is parasitic on doing.  We act with a degree of Freedom when we experience our world at our level of complexity (the umwelt), and then another degree of Freedom when we analyze that experience.  The universe as strictly subatomic particles lacks, for us as persons, all but the most rudimentary Information.  As actors and finite knowers, it offers us too little to be helpful without the many intervening layers of complexity (all the structural levels and their design innovations) that have been constructed upon it by Mother Nature.

Avoiding this confusion of the abstract for the concrete is the way, I believe, we can think of Free Will and Determinism as being Compatible, though there is still more to add.  I believe that this is Dennett’s position, to some extent.  We can tear apart (analyze) far more than we can build up from the pieces we then get, and this fact should seriously influence our thinking on these abstruse but basic philosophical topics.

The wise old Owl is nocturnal.  Symbol of  Minerva. the Roman Goddess of Wisdom, it only flies at night. (Roman coin)

In philosophical language, epistemology comes before ontology.  How could we know some kind of  basic        compositional thing exists (like elemental particles) if those ‘existing’ objects (by their definition and character)  give us no opportunity ‘to know’ them or anything else.  Persons are creatures that “know”, we seek to know the world around us.  We act, and that is a complex event.  Shouldn’t the world we come to know (ontology) be compatible with, be able to foster and produce, the activity of knowing it (epistemology)?  “Knowing” is one of the many complex acts that loses meaning in any attempt to understand our universe without an appreciation of its many Structural Levels of Complexity, that growing ladder of enhanced abilities and the agents/objects inherent to each.

Yet that is the dilemma.  It is very trendy, now, to embrace the laws of physics, chemistry and genetics and baldly, blithely assert that “humans have no free will.”  An understanding of Virtuous Circles allows us a way to escape this dilemma.  It allows us to Act First, and then Analyze those actions into the elements and laws of genetics, chemistry and physics.  We can imagine the world as a causal net that is not breached, but we, as agents and actors, are always one step ahead of our knowledge of ourselves as atoms and chemicals.  As the German philosopher, Hegel, declared in about the year 1800:  “The owl of Minerva flies only at night.”

At the end of the day, after we have acted, after complex events have occurred, knowledge takes wing and understands it.  Interplay of Casual Objects, painting by Ilya Zomb (Zombin) (2011)

A final point should be reiterated.  The objects of a level of complexity are self-referent and thus self-enclosed.  For example, the terminology of biology is self-referential: predator-prey, producer-consumer, organism-environment, fungus-plant-animal, etc.  But it also “refers” ‘outward’ — to other levels — but in a much less defined way, a less necessary manner. 

For example, a color is a concrete and complex thing.  How do we analyze it?  Primarily, and in everyday life, we start by distinguishing  a network of color words.  We know one color by comparison to all the others; as has been contended here, we know it in its own terms: “a color is a color”.  And strangely, this is useful.  This set of contrasting terms — “red”, “yellow”, “green”, etc; or a different set, rojo, amarillo, verde, etc. — takes logical precedent over the individual identification of a color instance in the world, the ‘outward’ reference.  “That”, the child points, “is red.” But before we say she knows “red”, the child must be competent at using a larger group of color terms and in a variety of circumstances.  She must be able to pick out red, then yellow, then red again, then blue….

Experienced color as a set of distinctions.

So, the set of color words does ‘point out’ —refers— beyond itself, but whether they indicate ‘a color’ instance in the world, or ‘an electromagnetic wave length’, ‘a set of rods and cones’, or a ‘activity in a brain area’,  depends on our purposes!  All these are true and useful concepts of  ‘color’.   But, if we do not acknowledge the experience of each and the role they will play for socialized, rational persons, it becomes a confusion of the above mentioned:

significance of the experience of the more complex over its analysis into ‘simpler’ parts or terms.

Finally, do not think that the position here being outlined makes the more complex

Color and its associated wave lengths.  Both are real.  (from teachers pay teachers)

objects (or acts) sacrosanct.  When these events or acts are analyzed by scientific activity, that understanding of their mechanics may lead us to revise our opinions about the implications of, and basis for, those complexities.  For example, in the initial post of this series on Freedom, our respect for scientific activity led us,  here at naturereligionconnection, to reject the notion that ‘the self’ is like ‘a soul’ completely independent of natural forces.  Or, in the example above, maybe some day we will find it useful to stop using color words and teach our children to identify different electromagnetic wave lengths.

So, Persons are ‘Free’, but in a way that is different from what is often thought.  It is more effective to think of ourselves as machines (computers) that have evolved enough

In the sociology of knowledge, which is a form of epistemology, this circular process of reflection is referred to as “Reflexivity”.  Dennett also uses that term.  (diagram from cxpartners, thanks)

complexity to Reflect on our own behavior (program) and make incremental changes in it.  Persons can use their position in the complex interaction of persons, to shift their point of view to not only “view” themselves from ‘outside’, from the point of view of another person, but also consider other processes in nature in this more objective way.  Epistemologicaly, “Reflection” shifts from a system of circular definition to its other aspect, thoughtfulness.**  It generates ‘higher’ levels of more abstract objects and ‘lower’ levels of constituent objects, even if only in our imaginations.  Scientifically, they would then have to be tested in the world.

So, our experience of the complex is in this way subsequently analyzed, but this order of occurrence is vital.  First exists the experience, this is our action according to our design: We act — experience — under the influence of information.  This is when we are free.  We are in the present.  When we think of ourselves as atoms or chemicals or ,even, in terms of socioeconomic groups, we only do this subsequently and to enhance our ability to act more freely in the future.  Don’t be confused into thinking that these atoms and chemicals (or even socioeconomic categories) are more real than, or even primary to, us as actors!

** For this position, thoughtfulness turns out to be an internalization of the social process of using language to communicate with others.  It is talking to ourselves!  It is asking questions and answering them ourselves and in that process creating additional layers of meta considerations (Dennett).


In the following posts, an added twist will be explored.  The outside and “more objective” world will once again impress itself on persons, and the prospect for persons to “mistake” and “do moral wrong” will be briefly distinguished.

Thanks for your patience, this series has been a long haul but I have become far clearer on these basic issues than ever before.  I hope it has at least plucked a few sympathetic chords with you!


          SEEKING BALANCED CONTEMPLATION     painting by Ilya Zomb (2008)  (thanks to the artist for the use of these wonderful pieces!)