Emergence and a Strange Thing called Human Choice

More complex things “Emerge” from a background of simpler things, argues the diversely talented physicist, Sean Carroll, in his book The Big Picture. It is a “secretly profound idea that there are many ways of talking about the world, each of which captures a different aspect of the underlying whole,” he writes. (1) (This is a follow-up post, see Things Emerge for initial ground work.)

(The Caltech Physicist, Sean Carroll. Photo from Physics Forum.)

Let us now consider an application of this idea of Emergence to a real-life situation.

In no way does a single atom choose, and it seems hard to imagine how a collection of atoms could do much better, we can state rhetorically. But Choice does exist, argues Carroll, and “it would be difficult indeed to describe human beings without it.”(3)  A basic tenant of Carroll’s Poetic Naturalism is that each “way of talking”, each emergent and “effective theory,” has its own vocabulary, its own ontology of objects, that it describes with consistent and orderly relations.  I am confused by the contentions of radical reductionists and eliminativists.  They want to think about “persons” and undoubtedly use the idea in their everyday life, yet make theoretical contentions that exclude central parts of what seems to be “personhood.”  You cannot eat your cake (pizza) and have it too.

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(If all we do is determined by causal forces far different than the qualities of good pizza, then arguing about ‘best pizza’ is an empty charade, as would be debating free will.)

Carroll contends that they make a category mistake.(4)  They illegitimately mix two ways to talking.  Physics-talk or person-talk, “either vocabulary is perfectly legitimate, but mixing them leads to nonsense”, he contends.

It is confused to say, different electromagnetic wave lengths cause us to see different colors. It is no help to say different patterns of neural activity causes us to see them; at least we should say, color is associated with these physical events.

Another example of this confused way of thinking, I believe, occurred recently on the WEIT blog.  A light-hearted debate arose over which is better pizza, Chicago style deep dish or NY style thin.  Coyne—the defender of a form of “determinism”—jumped in to advocate for deep dish; being from Chicago, it’s his favorite.  But I commented, raining on this light-hearted parade, that “Who cares?”  “If humans have no free choice in the matter and are not responsible for their likes and dislikes (as Coyne believes), then what is the point of debating; other than the fact that the debaters can do no other than what they do—debate. It is a debate whose outcome is already determined and whose terms are ungrounded. So what is the point?” I concluded.

So at the Level of “person-talk”—at which this pizza debate took place— there must also be talk of some things or qualities more or less like what we call “texture,” “spiciness,” “aroma,” “flavor” (sensation terms) More essentially, “person-talk” seems to need ideas something similar to “responsibility,” some talk and reality of “social roles,” a concept of “us” or “our people,” “choice and decision,” “antecedents and consequences,” and then of course a variety of “things that are not persons.” All these are the concepts that make talking of “persons” important and coherent: all these are ideas and qualities at that level. This will be a topic returned to, here in The Connection: What is person-talk?

Carroll’s contention is, being a no-free-willer, no-true-chooser AND debating what is the best pizza, is nonsense, pointless, vacuously circular.  How can physics explain your preference of pizza? The two sets of terms just don’t match up.

Humans Do Choose

Choice is a deeply human characteristic, Carroll says. I think it would be best to say “person,” because humans in comas, or with extreme mental deficiencies, do not make choices.  Persons are deeply characterized as “choice-makers.”

Carroll gives us a simple example.  In the morning, you walk to our closet to choose a shirt for the day.  Should I choose this blue one or that yellow one, you wonder.  “That is a decision you have to make,” he says, “you can’t just say, ‘I’ll do whatever the atoms of my body were going to do.” (5)

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(Choosing is not just a mental act, it is built into the way we live.)

Two points about this.  First, I would like to emphasize that your choosing is not just an issue in your head —as if it were only a mental state and possibly an illusion.  If you are standing in front of your “closet,” you ought to be thinking about “choosing.” That situation is built into the physical design of your house:.it is built into the way we live.  Our mental perspectives is necessarily connected to the physical arrangement of the environment.

Your wardrobe hanging in front of you is equally a physical thing that is all about choosing from among it.  Driving down the road, every intersection is a choice-opportunity. At a grocery store, aisle after aisle of choice-opportunities, and on and on. It is deeply confused to think you could take human beings and our ways of life and just pluck out the idea of “choice” (switch this mental state) and still have something nearly the same.

This issue goes deeper still, The rudiments of choice go back into biology, into single-celled organisms and plants in general.  They and their environment—from Our point of view—are Structurally Organized to create optimal ‘choices,’ rudimentary ‘decisions.’ To us, their environment to them would seem limited, and their responses often predictable. That is ‘proto-choice.’ A creature far more sophisticated than we might think the same of our decisions, but our decisions do not seem that way to us! There is a very “deep” and complex relationship between living things and Their Environment, the two are very much designed for each other. That environment (as it seems to the organism) and that living creature are not part of the vocabulary of physics—physic’s talk is at least several “levels” down the scale of complexity. It is far more abstract.

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Person’s “choose” because they have incomplete knowledge.  That is our condition.         Wikipedia diagram.

Secondly, and the point Carroll emphasizes, no matter what a physicist might know will happen next, You Don’t.  As you stand in front of that closet, Choice is real for you because you are limited in your ability to know.  Carroll says it is a matter of “epistemic access”.  It is “the unavoidable reality of our incomplete knowledge (that) is responsible for why we find it useful to talk about the future using the language of choice…”  “None of us knows the exact state of the universe, or has the calculational power to predict the future even if we did”, he writes; “we know about the rough configuration of our bodies and we have some idea of our mental states…given that incomplete information…” we choose and “it’s completely conceivable that we could have acted differently.” (6)

The Conclusive Point

This is the conclusive point, to my way of thinking.  We have strong evidence, as Carroll argues, that the course of our world is (in some sense) predetermined.  Its course is physically necessary, but we do not have practical access to that knowledge.  From our limited and inclusive participation in that world we have been rightly designed to act as if the future is open and that our choices are significant there in.

I think that the wide-ranging physicist, Sean Carroll, has brought us a long way in our consideration of Emergence. Whether I will agree with his final conclusions, I am not yet sure. I have a suspicion that he may be too physics-oriented. Physics is vital, but so are many other ways we talk and act.

Notes— A few page references: 1) 93  2–4) page 379  5) 380,  6) pages 380-1

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When we are Particularly Impressed with the Beauty, Coordination and Good Fortune of Our World.       Logo by Marty.

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