Where Things Come From

(This post “gets down”!  Some serious metaphysical speculation occurs.  Tighten your seat belts, or better, pull on your waders for the S#!% gets deep!  As the title would suggest, we discuss very basic things and come to a Quasi Reverential Conclusion.  This is not about god: It’s about something better, something real, something more reasonable.  This post is being published in both the Human Freedom Series (post 15)  and  in The Connection (posts in general).  It is pertinent and accessible to both.  It is a short description and defense of philosophical Holism.  —this post is revised from its original version—)

A Specifically Shaped Protein “emerges” from the linear Code of            the Amino Acid Sequence.  An Rho protein shown above. (diagram from bangscience.org)

“To the ancients, it was reasonable to believe that there were all kinds of fundamentally different things in the world; in modern thought, we try to do more with less.”

Physicist Sean Carroll, author of The Big Picture 

The universe is full of many different things.  These different things have even more different qualities.  Flowers have a quality.  Stars have a quality.  Stars and flowers have qualities that they share.  The color red has a quality, similar to green but also very different.

The “Bleeding Heart”, Dicentra, an early bloomer in central Ohio, has a Quality of its own. (photo by GWW)

In previous posts, I have attempted to argue that all these different difference have “emerged” from from a source not so different, in fact, a lot the same.  “Structure” is the foundation of this contention.  Differences in structure, or the Design, of our basic substance allows this “One Thing, to Become Many Things”.  Not surprisingly, this idea has attracted some criticism.

“The Hidden Galaxy” is normally hidden from our view by our own Milky Way.  It, too, has a quality of its own. (photo courtesy of Arturas Medvedevas)


One of my closest readers and critics is a chemist from western Canada, I believe. Recently he challenged me to specify “emergent”,  as in:  the pieces come together and what “emerges” are abilities and qualities that are “more than the sum of their parts” (my terminology).  He contended that I was calling for some kind of “magical” event and he gave me a situation in chemistry where some atomic elements ‘come together’ and nothing much of significance happens that is new.  I guess they are like a pile of sand; a pile is a way of being ‘together’ but it just sits there, no different if it were half its size or had some slices of pepperoni thrown in.   He asked me to give him an example he could accept.  Here are my attempts.

A car

A car is obviously a complex of atoms.  But, when we talk about cars, we don’t talk

Does the Design of the car ‘hold’or ‘force’ its atoms to behave as it wants them to?  Is there a more subtle and accurate way to think of this coordination of levels?

about atoms.  We talk in terms of “rods and pistons”, “axles and wheels”, “driveshafts, starters and brakes”.  And to talk this way actually works to drive a car, to fix one, to design one.  Biologist Richard Dawkins used this example, in The Blind Watchmaker, to describe the “complexity” he contends exists in a car and its abilities that lay beyond the need for ‘atom talk’.  The point is, first, to talk of these kind of parts (and not the grains of sand in a pile) is effective, it works; and, second, it’s effective because the atoms, usually and normally, don’t interfere with that ADDITIONAL LEVEL of structure.  They (the atoms) are ‘the clay’ that is molded — it would seem; do they ‘call the shots’ here?  Somehow the design has a significant ‘say’; and, in this way, something new and important happens in cooperation with atoms that has never happened before ‘in our neck of the woods’: humans now move across land in great comfort and with significant efficiency.

A living thing

A living thing is my second example.  “Hunting the Elements” is a very enjoyable episode of Nova hosted by technology writer, David Pogue.  David and a biochemist go to a hardware store to buy all the basic ingredients to create life.  Yes, CHNOPS* is common

Almost all the ingredients of life are available at the local hardware. (photo courtesy of Popular Mechanics)

enough to be found there.  You can pile it into one overflowing shopping cart (in their appropriate proportions) and purchase them for a little over $100.  Well, all except the phosphorus, which is obtained amusingly by processing five gallons of David’s urine that he dutifully returns to the men’s room, repeatedly, to obtain.  So, it’s not hard to get the basic pieces for life, the issue is how to ‘get them together’ properly for anything other than dry goods to “emerge”.

In his book, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (“dangerous” because it is so revolutionary), philosopher Dan Dennett discusses the origins of life by citing prominent biochemical theorist and researcher, Manfred Eigen.  “There is an unmistakable engineering flair to Eigen’s thinking”, says Dennett; “His research is a sequence of biological construction problems posed and solved: how do the materials get amassed at the building site, and how does the design get determined, and in what order are the various parts assembled so that they don’t fall apart before the whole structure is completed?”

These living structures do something very different from the chemical elements that

Functioning in Living Structures involves many Levels of Organization.  Diagram from BC Open Textbooks, thanks for its use.

compose them.  These are their Emergent Qualities.  They function to meet needs that preserves their living structure not only through a prolonged period of time but even generation after generation.  Living structures Defend themselves, Ingest additional energy and develop behaviors to Seek it; they Reproduce their structures in what we call “babies” or “offspring”.  Imagine an automobile having babies, seeking gas to refill itself and defending itself from damage.  Or the Sun, seeking additional hydrogen and dividing itself like a single-celled organism.  

Interestingly, cars are now driving themselves (goal-seeking behavior and centralized command)  and working to avoid contact (self-defense) by sensors (sensation) and automatic braking.  Hurricanes ingest additional warmth and moisture and thereby grow.  So, the line between living and non-living is a fuzzy one as Evolutionary Theory demands (a claim by Dennett) and any Holistic Philosophy would advocate.  An accurate science-based philosophy recognizes Science’s Quest to explain all phenomena in a deterministic manner but also recognizes that activity and functioning based on standards to attain goals and needs as also real.  The Activity of Doing Science by living, choosing, human beings must be reconcilable with the Deterministic World science uncovers.

So, through emergence, it’s a very tricky process to get more out of less.

*CHNOPS: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorous, sulfur.

A protein

A protein is my final, and prolonged, example.  I believe it will get us into the murkiest and most subtle areas of “emergence”.   Again, we return to Dennett:

“Shape is destiny in the world of macromolecules.  A one-dimensional sequence of amino acids…determines the identity of a protein, but the sequence only partially constrains  the way the one-dimensional protein string folds itself up.  It typically springs into just one of many possible shapes…This three-dimensional shape is the source of its power…” (my added italics)

Some sequence of code, a message like the following:  A–G  A–G  T–C  G–A A–G T–C (only much longer) becomes a specifically shaped protein as below.  What controls or determines the protein as a specific shape?

An extra “dimension” is added at the level of “protein”; the 3D shape is the emergent property.  The linear sequence of amino acids, “A–G A–G T–C G–A …” , could be maintained at the level of protein with no constraints on the shape that protein takes.  The shape, as protein, could be perfectly circular or many other shapes, and maintain the sequence of amino acids in order.  Yet, the ‘movement’ from a “one dimension” sequence of information, at the level of amino acids, to a determined three dimensional shaped protein is consistent and “Emergent” and, as such, the “source of its power” as a protein.

An Rho protein folded into its “prion-version”.  As such, it becomes a cause of Mad-cow disease and possibly Alzheimer’s.   Its shape as protein is its functional power.  So, from a linear sequence of code, to a three-dimensional protein shape, that is “Emergence”.   Normally, Rho proteins helps in the    transcription of DNA into                                                         functionally healthy proteins.                                                     (illustration from bangscience.org; The Oxford Scientist Magazine)

This emergent behavior in the building of proteins was “a puzzle” noted as far back as 1958 by biochemical researchers.  The famous biochemist, Jacques Monad, solved this puzzle in the early 1970’s, says Dennett.  Admittedly, it is an “abstract” issue, almost beyond the most immediate scope of biochemistry and verging on philosophy.  “That a one-dimensional code can be ‘for’ a three-dimensional structure shows that information is added.   Indeed, value is added.  The individual amino acids have value (by contributing to the functional prowess of the protein)…”, (Dennett and his italics).  Monad describes it as “function is linked to a three-dimensional structure whose data content is richer than the direct contribution made to the structure by the genome” (Monad’s italics).  This added “value“, this “data content is richer” is the reality of Emergence in the world around us.

Emergence is Real, but It Can’t Come From Nothing

Now the hard part.  How to explain these emergent appearances.  Without reasonable explanation, emergence is just magic or supernaturalism.  The claim that All Things Cannot Be Fully Explained In The Terms of Physics, is a claim important to the very basis of this blog, naturereligionconnection.org, and the claim that gives “Emergence” its urgency.  It is a claim repeatedly discussed in the Human Freedom Series of posts.  It is the claim that Explanation by Reduction to ‘less complex levels’ of  physical objects is useful, but limited in its accomplishments.  The concept of “Emergence” must explain how this added “value” and “richness” occurs.  The answer to this is that the emergent property “functions” in a context “larger” and “more complex” than used in the initial description of its components, its “parts”.   

Language is often used as an example.  As when a child is learning, and points and says “doggie”, whatever meager  meaning this may have to the child at this early point, later, when the child knows “cat”, “bird”, “pet”,”animal” and some other related terms, the child is become aware of, and is using, a much richer network of indicators and significance which gives “dog”—a single part— more meaning.

The structure as a whole is greater than its parts taken ind8ividually.


The Keystone: How a Whole can be Greater than the Sum of Its Parts, an ancient example.

Once the keystone is put in place the arch is “far beyond” self-supporting: “a solid arch structure’s yield point is far  beyond realistic loads that structure would ever see.”    The Pont du Gard (Bridge over the Gardon River), Gard, France: built in the 1st century AD, as an aqueduct and bridge.  It carried vehicle traffic until 1996!                                            (quote form interestingengineering.com)

In an arch, once the keystone is set in place, the arch has structural integrity.  Until then it must rely on temporary supports, scaffolding and frames.  This wedged-shaped stone at the top of the arch is the last to be placed and locks all the other stones (the voissor — pronounced vu’swar/) in place.  Remarkably, the keystone bears almost no weight!  The design of the arch is such that the downward force (tension) of the load is conveyedbridge-clipart-segmental-arch-6 outward (compression) through the arch and only eventually and partially downward.  Beneath the keystone there is almost no tension, no downward push.  What is the arch’s load limit?

A design can have great power; it can do things beyond the capabilities of its material organized in a less effective manner.  Diagram of the flow of forces in an arch.  (thanks to warwickallen.com)

“The ability for arches to hold load is far beyond any other structural element, even those today…For the Romans, and even engineer’s today, solid arch structure’s yield point is far beyond realistic loads that structure would ever see“, according to Interesting Engineering blog.

Sorry for the digression on arches,  but here is the point concerning the source of an emergent property:  Yes, it does “emerge” from the structure but only partially.   The additional source of information is from the thing/things around it that benefit from the “emergence.”  A structure, if it is to have Emergent Properties, must have them for a more comprehensive, ‘larger’, structure for which the emergent properties function.            

Therefore, an Emergent Property exists and is good, only to those who use it.        The information necessary for the emergence is contained not only in the structure, but also in the environment in which the structure is to function.         

A car and a protein only have value beyond their atoms due to their design which is useful to us (the car) and useful to living things (the proteins).  Even living things have Emergent Richness beyond their atoms only due to the roles they play, the functions they serve, the things they do for other living things, this planet, and to us, humans, who are starting to become conscious of this.

Outside of that Larger Context —- that arena of their usefulness —- they have no extra value!   Take arches (one last time!) — or arch-like structures:  They are useful to us as schema20arche20longitudinale20interne20anarchitectural technology, but they could certainly be used for similar purposes by other ‘more natural’ objects.  Just Google “arch” and you will get a lot about FEET!  Still, in each case, an arch exists for the thing for which it Functions.  Its value is what it does for the thing it serves.  It only “emerges” for the Larger Context in which it works. 

Folks, this is what is called, Some Serious Philosophical Speculation.  It’s down-right Metaphysics!  And just to make sure you know what “camp” you are in, if you buy the above argument, You are a HOLIST.  You want to make as much of life around you ‘fit together’ in a meaningful (coherent) Unity.  It can be pictured a little like nested bowls or Russian dolls successively packed inside each other; and it sounds a little like religion, this always seeking this greater unity.  And it is; we here at Nature Religion Connection will agree.  Its the basis for a NATURALISTIC REVERENCE.

Exotic Landscape, painting by Henri Rousseau (1908)    Richer qualities emerge, value is added, when objects function for purposes in a Larger Context.

Emergence exists Only for the Thing for which the Function Occurs

Now, automobiles, and life, proteins and arches, did not have to emerge on this planet.  It is a lucky development; lucky for us, I would think.  It has been contended here, at naturereligionconnection, that emergent properties are not in contradiction to the most abstract laws of physics but they are, also, not a necessary outgrowth of them, either.  They are an historic accident, in some ways, and then have become ‘solidified’ by what has developed after them that depends on them.  That will be an important point in this discussion: primitive life stuck, and then much has developed based on it and its discoveries.  Arches worked, and then much has been learned and developed from them.  

Here is Origination, Holistic style: a larger context exists, but indistinctly;  an emergent property comes to exist that fits that context.  The first thing it does is give that environment much more clarity and

old  locks and keys
Emergent properties are like a key that finds its lock.  It opens new possibilities. 

specificity (it becomes an informed environment).  They begin to interact.  The thing and its environment feedback on each other. 

Think of a primitive environment as if it were a rudimentary lock.  No simple key initially exists to turn it.  Many varied formations ‘tried’.  Finally one fit, and opened the lock to its revealed new abilities and qualities (it now really is a lock, for surely locks could not exist without keys to open them).  Maybe, then, yet another round of development of locks and keys occurs, each changing, yet still as lock and key, only better.  With luck and time, if the innovations are ‘rich’ and ‘valuable’ enough,  much can possibly develop.  Our little corner of the universe has a long history — from our point of view — of such fortunate growth.  We can ‘see’ and ‘understand’ the reasons for it.  It is the basis for persons and their informed  “point of view”. **

And this is the answer to an earlier question.  If the DNA code only partially informs (determines) the protein, leaving a three-dimensional shape as a “richer” consequence that “appears”,

Without a key in the lock, the upper pins drop down from the housing into the cylinder, locking it in place.  But with the key, the pins are appropriately lifted allowing the cylinder to turn and the lock to open.”  (diagram and quote from EXPLAINTHATSTUFF.

where does the additional controls, the additional information, come from?  Not any old shape will do, and a regular set of functional shapes of that protein does occur.  Think back to the lock and key.  It is the environment (the lock) that contains the additional information.  It must “select” the key that will turn its tumblers.  And here on Earth, we have been very fortunate; many locks have been opened, and many more keys have been generated.

Dennett uses the example of DNA to make the above point.  “Note that this reasoning does not yield the conclusion that double-stranded DNA must develop, for Mother Nature

Evolution as a series of “retroactive endorsements”.  The present “endorses” the accomplishments of the past.

had no advance intention to create multicellular life.  It just reveals that if double-stranded DNA happens to begin to develop, it opens up opportunities that are dependent on it.  Hence it becomes a necessity for those exemplars in the space of all possible life forms that avail themselves of it, and if those life forms prevail over those that do not avail themselves of it, that yields a retroactive endorsement of this raison d’etre for the DNA language.  This is the way evolution always discovers reasons — by retroactive endorsement” (Dennett’s italics, my bolding).

But some, who are enamored by the laws of physics, insist the basic ways we think about ourselves, and maybe even “life” in general, are mistaken, illusion.  Animals don’t really “Do New Things”, by comparison to the chemicals that make them; they only maxresdefaultappear to, and are, in reality, only prolonged chains of those chemicals reacting.  Humans don’t have ‘Free Will’; they are not ‘Responsible’ for their behavior.  Again, those appearances are ignorance, illusions akin to seeing ‘gods’.  “The world is really long chains of basic causes and it is foolish to speak differently”, they say.

But sometimes, appearances are enough!  As we look out from our position in space and time the world comes together to us.  We are impressed with our own active efforts, and the active efforts of those around us — both human and non-human.  It’s the Tree of Life, with all its related objects and their advancing series of motives, intentions and abilities.  Nature has given us this foundation and it’s panoply of reasons from which we may seek further growth.  We will even learn more physics, and use that knowledge to “Emerge” with greater ability to act and hopefully a more firm understanding of how all things may be able to work together for mutual enhancement.  It appears those opportunities are available to us, but part of the equation is that we try — we act according to the highest standards set in our most prized cultural settings.  For creatures that must ‘see’ an open future, possibilities must “appear”!

“The Smile of the Flamboyant Wings”, painting by Joan Miro (1953)             For creatures with open futures, it is necessary that possibilities “appear”!

**This description of “Origination, holistic style” may sound pretty fishy.  It is rather, but is has a significant history in philosophical thought.  Recently, it was associated with the discussion of ‘when is a thing still the same thing even after it has changed?’ and was a pivotal topic for Wittgenstein, I believe.  Going back to some of the origins of abstract thinking in Greece, it was associated with Plato’s problem of, we might say, ‘what is “a chair”, if every chair that exists is not “the same” exactly — and many do vary dramatically — as any other “chair” that exists?’  In the end these issues come down to the problem of Reference or Representation, I believe.  How is one thing ‘about’ or ‘represent’ another thing?  Reference or Representation seems to be a very different kind of relation than Causation, and therefore a real curve ball for scientific explanation.  And, of course, science is itself a representation of the world.


Logo (detail) by Marty

22 thoughts on “Where Things Come From

  1. A Three-Dimensional Protein “emerges” from a One-Dimensional Amino Acid Sequence

    Err…. amino acids themselves are three dimensional, so three dimensional objects arise out three dimension building blocks … so what? No one is arguing that complex structures arise out of simpler building blocks. And that the complex structures may or may not have more complex actions.

    What you have to demonstrate is that these structures could do otherwise.

    But some, who are enamored by the laws of physics, insist the basic ways we think about ourselves, and maybe even “life” in general, are mistaken, delusional.

    You are using a rhetorical device here, Greg.

    1) It’s not the laws of physics that we are enamoured with or that we that we are even enamoured. It is more that we recognize and accept that cause and effect (physics) shape our actions and thoughts.

    2) If we accept cause and effect shapes our actions (and we in turn shape actions of other “structures”), then it takes some convoluted pleading to claim we could do otherwise.

    3) And finally, it’s all OK, we don’t lose our free will, we never had it in the first place.


    1. In the end, I will argue that freedom is the ability to do more. This is Dennett’ s end definition. Making choices is the method we often use — in the appropriate circumstances— to play our role in these increasing abilities. When scientists Do science, they make choices, it’s part of the method of More Able doing.

      I would suggest you sit down tonight and have a good dinner and some good wine with it. Your molecules will be able to ‘accept it’ but you will not be able to effectively describe your Experience in molecular terms.
      There is something more in our biological and human world than just molecules in motion.

      I will look at that Lambert stuff on 2nd Law. I was looking for a good layman explanation. Thanks for your patience with me. Got to run, the universe is ‘telling me’ it’s work time. (Hard to say “No” to that!)


      1. In the end, I will argue that freedom is the ability to do more.

        Do more than what exactly Greg?

        When scientists Do science, they make choices

        Making a choice is not the issue Greg. It is the nature of the choice that is under question.
        We may imagine various possible outcomes. Those imaginations are shaped by our greater environment. We then might deliberate on those various outcomes. The deliberation is shaped by our greater environment. We then choose based on those deliberations and that choice too, is also shaped by our greater environment.

        So whatever we do whether we classify it as this some nebulous more or not could not have been otherwise.

        That more will require a rigorous definition.

        Evolution by this more will have free will, if we are not careful. Hence Kant’s word jugglery

        There is something more in our biological and human world than just molecules in motion.

        And when you can point to it with your molecules let me know. This is a god of the gaps type argument. We can’t explain therefore we have free will.

        Here’s a question for you. What is so special about the concept of free will, being able to do otherwise, that we should hold on to it?


      2. Maybe it is a “god of the gaps” type of argument: that Science, ‘hard’ science, seems to have a “stance”, a terminological basis, that is great for what it does, but doesn’t do everything. Science gives explanations for things, how they work; but this kind of explanation misses something, sometimes, It doesn’t miss much in describing a car crash, and Some of our Experiences as we are in a car crash, but it does miss some of our personal interests and experience even in that situation.

        How to describe What Is Being Missed is difficult; especially explaining it to some people. You have made that clear by your reactions/arguments. Other people just plain Get It, with little doubt. I have tried to describe It the best I can and in a way that is Respectful of science. My position Can easily fall into mysticism, mere personal desire, ‘jugglery’. From your point of view I have already fallen there, it seems.

        I will take one last shot at The What Is Missed, one last example, that I’m sure you will Not buy, but I want to see your response. I believe I have already used it in my posts but here goes:
        A scientific explan misses the “redness” of red. It can explain when we see red, the mechanics of seeing red, but not the quality of red in itself. We experience this quality and contrast it to the qualities of green, yellow, etc. All as colors — “That” (imagine pointing) quality of red, and “that” quality of Color in general. A sci explan “sands down” that Richness of Experience into only molecules in motion (wave lengths, neurons firing, etc.). Great painting is surely a testimony to the richness of experience color is capable of providing. That’s it.

        In your last comment you asked what I wanted out of the idea that we have Free Will. I think it is: that Some Where Short Of the entire universe. “the buck has to stop”. You were right when you said, ‘why don’t I just accept as “The One Big Thing”, the universe of physics’. I agree, that is the alternative that you are arguing for. And it is true, that is one big thing that we are all part of and from that point of view, there is on free will. The problem is There is No Experience of Red either, from that p.o.v.

        Ultimately, doesn’t it come to No Point of View at all, from the Science Only view. No p.o.v. from Inside the universe, none for any Particular Thing in the universe, Causes just role through us (and any other particular thing) like the ghosts we are, for pure sci. No Free will is shorthand for No Experience. You have already said that with No fw there is also no morality, no responsibility, Coyne says no rationality. I think you are right, From your position, all that And Much More gets thrown out. An Individual Experience has no place in your point of view, the only ‘experience’ is the totality of the universe ‘experienced’ by no one (which is self-contradictory, it seems to me). So, what I want from Free W is the part it tends to play in our way of life that Respects Both Individual Things and The Big Things we are a part of.

        I liked your term “our greater environment” that you used so often in your last comment. The Thing is, “our greater environment” logically has to have ‘two sides’ to it: us/“our” and “the environment “. All the little pieces bubbling up from the bottom and remaining just little pieces (the world for sci) is one side. All the little pieces ‘seen’ or ‘understood’ or ‘experienced’ from the top down — as coming together into a “greater environment” is the other side. “Greater Environments” fit together like nested bowls,.. on and on and on. The experience of “redness” is a Greater Environment. The experience of deliberation is also a GE. The experience of a good wine (“Ah, it has a nice bouquet, hints of cherry and oak…”) is a GE. But then you believe in only one kind of greater bowl, It seems to me that your attempt and mine to “fit all the world together” into “one meaningful and consistent picture” Qualifies (has a quality) as an obvious reality. It’s your point of view; it’s mine. It’s a GE. It’s an individual thing within the larger thing. (some deep metaphysical ‘bullshit’, I’ll admit, but it’s true — makes the most sense).

        Oh, well. There are a number of loose ends to tie up in our discussion and I will try to do that soon. Seems like we are getting to the end of road. We just won’t agree, can’t agree; ‘our molecules aren’t letting us’, as you once suggested. I will take one last run at the 2nd Law thing, I will site some authorities I trust on that issue, but I’m not sure of what it comes to for you.

        Sorry for being so long. But forget about the “could have done otherwise” thing (for a minute) and focus on the “having a point of view” thing. Having p of v’s cannot occur from your science only view. Can it? How does an assembly of molecules appreciate the redness of red?


      3. “Freedom is our ability to do more”, I argue (and Dennett). And you reply, “Do more than what exactly?”

        Do more than humans use to be able to do, last year and year before that. Also, living things “do more” now than ‘we’ could in the Carboniferous Period.

        “Exact standards” for this kind of thing (including ‘emergent properties’) is the method of historical observation. That’s as exact as it is, it’s not doing physics or chemistry! It’s very human. There are some good reasons for the way much of the world “looks to us”, including “free will”. Our “views” have been adaptive. Dennett seems to also suggest that an engineering perspective (like the arches) could be a standard for measuring “our greater ability to Do Things”.


  2. This is an excerpt dealing with the car analogy from my blog

    Well, we were applying a simplified model of our expectations to a more complex system. Quite often we have religious people (and others) saying that a motor car is more than the sum of the parts. Well this may very well be true, but it does depend on what ‘expectations’ model we are comparing it to. Complex systems can (not always) behave more complexly giving us a bigger bang than expected or they can behave antagonistically (opposite of synergism). There is no freedom here, but we might describe it as an emergent property.

    I don’t think you have addressed the issue of, if the car is more than the sum of its parts, what model/method were you using to do the addition and is your method for the addition the right method?


  3. A scientific explan misses the “redness” of red. It can explain when we see red, the mechanics of seeing red, but not the quality of red in itself. We experience this quality and contrast it to the qualities of green, yellow, etc. All as colors — “That” (imagine pointing) quality of red, and “that” quality of Color in general. A sci explan “sands down” that Richness of Experience into only molecules in motion (wave lengths, neurons firing, etc.)

    This reminds me of Auguste Compte’s observation:

    … but we can never known anything of their [stars’] chemical or mineralogical structure; and, much less, that of organized beings living on their surface …

    Little did he know back in 1842, the framework for understanding the composition of stars had been put down a few years ahead by Fraunhoffer.

    Again understanding the optics of a rainbow does not stop us at marvelling at its beauty, similarly understanding how we get these “qualities” from molecules in motion will not diminish the amazingness of life.

    Again by your definition of free will evolution has free will and snow flakes continually make new patterns.

    I don’t see the benefit of believing in tortured definition of free will.


    1. I agree that scientific understanding of optics does not depreciate the rainbow until you start to contend that science objects are all that is real. That is Scientism and one of its worst claims is that all knowledge is scientific knowledge.

      Marc Chagall did not know how to paint scientifically. People know language without us knowing how we do it scientifically. Moral thinking is not scientific thinking. When we appreciate that rainbow, we do so in ways that go beyond the scientific understanding of it; we might write a song, a poem, or create a legend or talk of its hue and subtlety of shades. Is this knowledge?

      If you enjoyed that good bottle of wine and dinner the other day, as I suggested, surely you did not use the language of science to express and appreciate that CONSCIOUS EXPERIENCE of it.
      As you said on your site, romscorner, consciousness is “the hard problem” for science. Yes, that and more.


      1. The HAVING of an experience is different than our Knowledge of that experience. I’m not sure that is true, or at least I’m not sure that is the best way to say that there is a difference between the two.

        I have spent a fair portion of the summer reading Sean Carroll’s “The Big Picture” book. I feel (sort of) betrayed that hard sciences geeks — like a portion of those that hang around WEIT (Why Evol Is True) — have not acknowledged the Threat that this book offers to those with extreme Scientism positions: contentions like Free Will does not exist, or even Consciousness, or Life cannot be reconciled with the second law of thermo.
        That entire book is an effort by a well respected physicist to argue the Compatibility of physics and these “Emergent phenomena”! It is particularly discouraging that Dr. Coyne, author of that site, tried to use Carroll as an authority in support of his Scientism! Carroll’s “poetic naturalism” is resolutely formulated for just the opposite purposes!!!

        The difference between Having an Experience and Knowing About That Exper does not require us to add new objects to our list of physical things that really exist in the world, as long as we do not try to chase out of that list the more complex objects that are studied by forms of science other than physics; things like Living Things, Thinking Things, Experiencing Things, Persons.

        Disappointed that Carroll’s book did not make more of an acknowledged wave in those circles. I followed the No Free Will debates there and saw no sign of it. My defense of that concept in those discussions would have used it and ‘waved it’ like ‘ a red cape before them and gladly pirouetted out of the way of their repeated and incensed charges’. (please excuse the purple prose).


  4. That entire book is an effort by a well respected physicist to argue the Compatibility of physics and these “Emergent phenomena”! It is particularly discouraging that Dr. Coyne, author of that site, tried to use Carroll as an authority in support of his Scientism! Carroll’s “poetic naturalism” is resolutely formulated for just the opposite purposes!!!

    While Carroll’s book is excellent and I would recommend it to just about anyone. It’s a while since I read it; and, Carroll plumbs for a compatibilist’s version of free will, and that is his prerogative. But he did not tackle the problem of could we do otherwise.

    Compatibilists generally don’t. Even in today’s WEIT, the compatibilists seem to acknowledge the fact we can’t do otherwise. In the blog replies we have semantists like Coel dancing around the question … what do we exactly mean by dootherwise. Could the wind have blown in another direction? Could the tornado have destroyed my neighbour’s house? Yes we can imagine these happenings. Could I have done differently … yes I can imagine doing differently, I cannot help but imagine differently and I cannot help but do what I do.


    1. Nice to see you back, Rom! Hope you had a good vacation. I took some time off myself.

      My attempt to make compatible Could Not Do Otherwise and Freedom is….

      Whenever you act, you are programmed and determined to do what you do.
      But, meat computers like regular computers can be programmed to review new info, to have an additional level of response.
      Humans (meat comps) Never face the same situation twice. There are always many differences including what we may have Learned from the last Similar situation.
      We now line up for a very similar putt (situation) but now with a revised program. “Keep your elbow in” we are telling ourselves as we line up to putt.
      We act ,as we CNDO, and this time we hole it.
      We have the Impression that We Could Have Done That the First Time, but that is mistaken.
      We are Designed to review our own behavior, in some situations, and Expected (Trained) to make adjustments (program adjustments) where beneficial.

      That is how we are both caused and free at the same time. We are programmed to reflect and adapt. We are a self-reviewing program.

      Does that answer work? Make any sense?


  5. My attempt to make compatible Could Not Do Otherwise and Freedom is

    My immediate question is why? If you truly accept CNDO, then any freedom we do have is purely semantic in nature.

    Your computer analogy does not work for me. Take AlphaGo for example. Perhaps we could scrub the computer’s data input and start from scratch, and re-input the training. It is unlikely the program would get to the same point (at least by the same path). Mainly because the training would be impossible to replicate identically.

    What you seem to be pointing to, is complexity … but there is no freedom hidden in complexity, only stuff that is not readily understandable.

    Does that answer work? Make any sense?

    For me it is like jamming a square peg into a round hole. Nothing wrong with square pegs and round holes mind; it’s the jamming that does not work.

    The tack you seem to be taking Greg, is confounding the chaotic nature of the universe for freedom.

    I have no need to go beyond can not do otherwise. Accepting this as true, then the rest is word fluff, at least for me.


    1. Rom, sorry but we are at the end. I’ve given you my best shot and you are unmoved. To me, your position seems to make all words, “fluff”. Your position has no place for our words to have “meaning”, our “thoughts” about them and with them to be “rational”, or our “minds” to be changed by anything other than getting pushed or pulled or chemically reacted.

      You are right, it’s a round peg, square hole issue. There is a huge conceptual gap and I will “choose” the side of meaning, experience and communication, while you have “chosen” the side of bumping molecules.

      From your “point of view”, I guess our molecules are just not lined up in the way to have “agreement”. But then, hard determinism doesn’t have any space for “p. o. v.” anyway.
      Thanks for following so avidly and commenting.
      I hope you “liked” some of the things I’ve attempted in these blogs.


      1. What we need is a naturalistic interpretation of thought, meaning and free will, Not a naturalistic dismissal of them! In my opinion.


  6. What we need is a naturalistic interpretation of thought, meaning and free will, Not a naturalistic dismissal of them! In my opinion.

    I would say we need an accurate description of the processes that underlie thought. From there we can decide for ourselves whether we have free will, in the sense of we could do otherwise. If we can’t the all this “structure” business is irrelevant.
    our molecules are just not lined up in the way to have “agreement”
    It’s not that I disagree more that I think your thesis is irrelevant to whether we could do otherwise.. It’s a “quagmire of evasion” as some philosophers might have it.


    1. Rom, “structure” is the attempt to place something In Addition To the causal flow. Causes stumbled into structures and then structures have significance. They last, they help shape the factors — the pieces — that make them. They have Regularities of Their Own. From your position, it is not only structure don’t exist also free will, thought, language and communication! You are right, if we can’t do otherwise, then all that other stuff is nonsense. Including what we are doing now. Why then are we doing it? Let’s stop fooling ourselves.
      Dennett once joked that maybe that is the situation of Trees. A million years ago they Realized they had no real agency, so they decided Quietism was the rational course and they have been their ever since; quiet and accepting the course of the universe passing through them.

      Ironic, to me, is that Coyne is a Biologist. I take it that, in the position of hard determinism, biological laws have no status, no relevance. I think biological laws are Structures that have great relevance to Living Things. What do you think of them?


  7. Why then are we doing it?

    Because we cannot do otherwise?

    Let’s stop fooling ourselves.


    From your position, it is not only structure don’t exist

    This misrepresents my position. Of course structures exist; just that they don’t have free will.
    Of course language and thought exist, but the only thing that makes them “free” is the ignorance of the underlying constraints.

    We can “sensibly” call the absence of certain types of constraint (eg a gun to the head and tumours etc) free will, but that does not negate the underlying fact the universe is unfolding (chaotically) and we are part of that chaotic unfolding.

    Biological “laws” are descriptions of what we observe, they vary in accuracy. You can call them structures if you wish, but that does not make them unconstrained by the unfolding universe.


    1. “This misrepresents my position. Of course structures exist; just that they don’t have free will.
      Of course language and thought exist, but the only thing that makes them “free” is the ignorance of the underlying constraints.”

      Rom, you are making a category mistake. Structures do not exist without Agency. Agency is a minor form of Free Will, a necessary condition but not sufficient one for free will. Language and thought are not ’caused’ by the quantum state of the universe nor neural activity; they are in addition to these. Their Meaningfulness is defined in relation to the systems (structures) that they themselves form: one word by all the others, one thought by all the others. Speech, for example, is just a bunch of sound waves and vibrations —just more collisions — not something with the ability to Convince, Prove, Provoke emotion and action for Good Reasons, according to your theory of Hard Determinism. That is the cat mistake: apples don’t cause oranges.

      If consciousness is an illusion, why do you keep participating with it, as in your above consciously written and advocated position.
      I know you believe, the universe to forcing you to do what you do. Your position is self-contradictory, it seems to me. I’m stopping now, and to say that I’m doing so because of the state of the universe is not a sufficient explanation. It’s true, but way to for in the background to be of much help. I believe that is physicist Sean Carroll’s position. Stay Tune, next ponderous post will be about his book “The Big Picture”!


  8. If consciousness is an illusion, why do you keep participating with it, as in your above consciously written and advocated position.

    Because I have no free choice in this! I am not sure what is so difficult about this. Also please get a handle on the word illusion. I do not use it as a synonym for delusion.

    I know you believe, the universe to forcing you to do what you do. Your position is self-contradictory, it seems to me. I’m stopping now, and to say that I’m doing so because of the state of the universe is not a sufficient explanation.

    It may seem contradictory to you, and that it is primarily because you keep putting your own personal spin on it. The universe does not “force” anything … it can’t even help itself.

    Structures do not exist without Agency. Agency is a minor form of Free Will

    What about snowflakes, the Giant’s Causeway, molecules … they all are structures. So what is this agency? What is the agency free from?

    I find so many non sequiturs in your reply here, I don’t know where to start.

    Sean Carroll did not handle free will well in his The Big Picture … but an excellent book nevertheless.


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