(“Virtuous Circles” are natural systems that have attained some autonomy and generative power. New things happen — emerge — within the various circles, because the components of a circle are defined and function in relation to each other as FeedBack Loops. In this 8th post in this series on Human Freedom our goal is in sight! Humans can have a limited version of Free Will. In the last post, we saw that the Circles refer beyond themselves. But within the circle, the interaction of their reflectively defined parts is automatic and deep in presuppositions. In this post we will explore the concepts of Information and Causation, and find out that they are importantly different. “Information” is a deep reservoir of presuppositions from which a designed object functions. “Information is design worth getting”: Dennett. “Causation” is much more apparent. First published 01/16/2019)
Information and Causes in the Circles
How do the Virtuous Circles of organism – environment, organ – organism, and person – society work? What are their consequences? We will find that through them organisms and their environments build complexity and ability through time. This occurs through the increasing accumulation of information and its use. We, persons, are the most sophisticated information users, “informivores” so to speak. And being informed is different than being caused.
We can all agree, information is important to persons, animals, and
plants. Dennett goes so far as to say, even a virus is a microscopic agent — an actor and not simply something acted upon. He quotes biochemist and theorist, Manfred Eigen’s use of action terms: “the virus needs…it must arrange…The virus gets the cell to...it is a programme that is rehearsed down to the smallest detail.” To which Dennett comments:
These “molecular machines perform their amazing stunts, obviously exquisitely designed” but, “all that purposive hustle and bustle, and yet there’s nobody home.” They are “an impersonal, unreflective, robotic, mindless little scrap of molecular machinery (that are) the ultimate basis of all the agency and hence meaning, and hence consciousness, in the universe.”
Why are viruses both purposive yet mindless, reflective (of their environment) yet unreflective (thoughtless) at the same time? Because they are near a crossroad;
“informed” and not simply caused, not alive but almost.
So, let us approach this thorny topic with this opening suggestion: the difference between being informed to act, and being caused, is a lack of transparency. Too much is occurring for the virus to be understood as a simple billiard ball ricocheting from a simple collision. There is “exquisite design” in the virus and this design has its other side; the exquisite information in the environment that is its necessary accompaniment. There is a lot built into these acts; there is a deep reservoir of presuppositions. Informed acts lack the transparency of caused events. There seems more to be discovered, at least to the scientist.
To that point, if organisms are information using systems, which they are, then by definition they are necessarily connected to their environment. Their design necessitates the corresponding information in the environment. Their design, and the component parts that form it, point outward: They Refer to ‘things’ beyond them. Remember, “information is design worth getting” (Dennett). It’s a package deal:the structure of the object and the information in the environs to which it responds. It’s a dynamic relationship: “horizontally”, “vertically”, and in time.
To the previous post, Nature Reflects, my brother the biologist, confessed his enjoyment and affirmation to all but to one point. “The environment causes organisms”, he said, “and it doesn’t go the other way around”. But Dennett’s theory of information necessitates a revision of this tenet of biological science, that I believe is sanctioned by Richard Dawkins, one of today’s preeminent evolution theorists.
So, the occurrence of the first organism was (in an important way) the occurrence of the first environment, and to understand the increasing complexity of organisms their environment has to become equally complex. In this sense, environments are not static and they cannot be understood as a simple, constant input. They are not in a causal relationship with their organisms, but in a feedback relation!*
Environments, like their organisms, are not a solid and persisting ‘billiard ball’, lacking in complexity other than some simple factors like mass and velocity. The relationship between virus and environment is deep and circular; it is filled with presuppositions; more parts must be below the surface, smaller, simpler, slowly approaching THE DESIRED SIMPLICITY WE SEEK IN CAUSAL IMAGES: THAT GAME OF POOL with its permanent components of balls (objects), and its smooth velvet surface, resilient bumpers and six consistently placed pockets (environment)! It is akin to the simplicity we know existed early in the universe, a simplicity that still exists in most places and exists even here on Earth, from a particular point of view. That the earth is composed of atoms and the forces of physics, is as true from its point of view as is the reality of organisms from a different point of view. It’s conceivable that with the additional coordination and evolution of persons, art and morality can become increasingly objective!
In the following post, the primal Circle of Organism and Environment will continue to be explored. Mother Nature’s constructive powers, as existing on this small planet, continue to work to close the gap between the lived-in environment of an organism and the broader, more ‘objective’ environment that is its foundation. This Tale of Two Environments also reveals the origin of our — the Human Person’s — ability ‘to know’ as well as ‘to do’.
*I will admit this is a difficult point concerning causation by contrast to feedback. I will be giving it further thought and exposition in the future.
(In the previous post, my brother the biologist objected that the environment is an objective structure to which the organism must adapt or pay the consequences. In this post, number nineinthe series on “Freedom and Mother Nature”, I will suggest a revision in this orthodoxy based on The Nature of Information. Each Virtuous Circle is likea system of organs that function in relation to each other AND DO SO by referring to their overall purpose, the unity of the organism (a clam, for example), AND each organ refers to the chemical processes and engineering structures that embody its particular purpose (the mechanics of digestion in that clam, for example) — see post six, Virtuous Circles I. In this post I will try to clarify this complex situation by contending that every organism has, actually, two environments, and it is in the least ‘objective’ of these that its information lies. This is the organism’s information environment where it exists as a phenotypeand where natural selection operates, and learning operates if possible for that organism (not the clam!) Acting under the influence of Information will turn out to be the key to human freedom! First published 01/17/2019)
The Two Environments
Environments are not static. This revision in biological orthodoxy starts with the recognition by us, scientifically astute persons, that there are actually two environments!Other organisms ‘have’, ‘live in’ (are aware of ) simplyone environmentand that is the one that is full of information for them. That environs is “home” and full of “competition”, “food”, “enemy”, “mate”, “sleep”, “nurture”, “rain” and an array of other such signals, or lack of, depending on the organism. This is the umwelt (post 5); its “reflective” environment and it is very species’ specific. Imagine the world for a clam — it is not rich in information, and the clam’s structural complexities are correspondingly
simple — by comparison to the world for the family dog. The dog’s ‘world’ is immensely richer in both number and sophistication of ‘objects’, contrasts, wants, needs, routines and abilities. Therefore, The dogs ‘internal’ complexities that utilize this informationmust be equally rich.
It is in this “reflective” environment that the Virtuous Circles lie. It is here that organisms of various complexity and intelligence live with their environments filled with their signals; the information necessary to make their internal structural complexities ‘gears’ that actually take hold of ‘other gears’ in their world. This good fit between an organism and its environment is the umwelt, but it should not be taken as a perfect fit. There are “‘bugs'” in every organism’s structure, and ‘gray areas’ and “‘noise'” in the environs that interfere or make signals ambiguous. Even for the family dog, much — from our point of view — is beyond or below their concern, irrelevant to them. Do they even perceive it?
By contrast to this umwelt,the second kind of environmentis far more ‘objective’ and completely universal — it is everywhere and applies to all. It is only we, scientifically sophisticated persons, that acknowledge it, and it can be taken to consist of very few qualities and objects, and that depends on how ‘objective’ one wants to be. Biologists, like my brother, want to hold it to traits as objective as temperature, precipitation, altitude, and basic topography. Chemists like to think of it in terms of the 93 or so basic elements that exist naturally on our planet. Physicists have an even more austere universe.
In fact, for this more ‘objective’ universe, planet or environment, it can be said that nothing much changes. My brother is right; if one wants to be the most severe kind of “Reductionist”*, you will argue that all that changes are positions for
minute objects barren of all but a few very basic and simple qualities. Things just get shuffled around and maybe ‘clumpier’ or less ‘clumpy’! In philosophical lingo, Dennett has called this “Greedy Reductionism”, if this is all that you believe ‘really’ exists. Others call it “Hard Determinism”. It is legitimate in one way; it’s what he calls “taking the physical stance” toward the world. But other approaches also have their validity as a point of view and are more mindful of some
of the information available in the world. For example, if some one yells, “Run, fire!”, a physical scientist — as scientist — analyzes this as vibrations in the air or vibrating vocal cords and eardrums, or electrical activity in part of the brain. But that scientist, as person, will (also?) recognize its meaningand get the hell out!
*”Reduction”: the idea that everyday, macro objects are, or are also, the micro objects of chemistry, physics, physiology and neurology. Of course, we all know this is true in very important ways, but the devil’s in the details.
Mixing the Two Environments: “Run, fire!”
Now let me jump ahead here, and try to anticipate a common misunderstanding. You
should keep the world as analyzed by the scientist, separate from the world of the scientist as a person. Vibrating vocal cords and waves in the air should NOT be pictured as impinging upon A Person — a fully socialized, responsible, lab coat-wearing, language-using human scientist — causing him/her to run. That is a category mistake! You are illicitly mixing the two environments: our world as analyzed scientifically and our world for persons — our world from the point of view of science and the world as the Virtuous Circle of person and society.
If you want to think of this fire scenario in terms of the scientifically analyzed world then keep it going all the way through! Waves in the air don’t hit upon A Person, they vibrate a membrane and then are turned into electrical neural signals by very delicate bones riding on this membrane and then, soon, there is a bunch of electrical brain activity and, eventually and very soon, a lot of muscle contractions in the legs.
No ‘person’— as a unique kind of social, emotional and political object — involved. No Meaning or Decision or Fear involved. No Linguistic Information at all, or humanly understood “dangerous” situation.
Be consistent, it’s a science world (“level”) all the way through, from ‘the exclamation’ to ‘its receiver’! It’s like a line of dominoes tumbling and, maybe, in some areas they are more tightly spaced, and in others less so, but keep it all one kindof thing.
On the other hand, from the perspective of a Person, they were “incited” to run, provoked not caused, by the meaning of the words and their socialization as a language-user and member of that society of persons. Meanings do not cause us to do anything; they are the information upon which we make decisions!
A More Useful Picture of The Relationship between the Environments
If we are going to be “more mindful of information in our environment”, we are back at the necessary and circular relations of the terms embodied in the various Virtuous Circles. So, let us focus on the Referenceto a goal or purpose — ‘above’ each Circle — and Reference to various mechanisms and processes — ‘below’ it — that ‘carry it out’, instantiate it. In that sense, organisms and their environs expand not only ‘horizontally’ (as self-referring parts in a Structure: heart, lung, brain…,for example), but ‘vertically’ also. They are a connected package in this sense too. Here at naturereligionconnection, we said, they “Reflect”. They refer to further ‘environs’ of objects, ‘above and below’, BUT are NOT caused by those: They are about them. That is how you remain consistent, by keeping these “levels” or “ways of considering things” separate.
But what does this relation of reference come to, and what is this “above and below” talk? Or, what does this relation of the two environments come to? I fear
that some are thinking that the umwelt, the more species’ specific environment, is illusory. Well, it is true that from the strictly physical point of view (of physics and chemistry) the umvelt does not exist. Dennett contends that Persons do not exist in the world as described by physics, but nor do ‘trees’, ‘electric garage door openers’ and all these other ‘objects’. ‘Persons’, and other macro objects, ‘exist’ as a point of reference for the scientist to distinguish which set of micro interactions to focus on as the analysis of that object. These objects exist “practically”, we can say, and not “theoretically” for the scientist. They are operating procedures for persons but not ‘totally’ there from other points of view. Dennett calls them “user illusions” that allow us ‘access to’,or correspondence with, the microscopic levels of ‘our’ world.*
*I need the scare quotes on “our” because strictly speaking “persons” do not exist in a completely microscopic world.
“Persons are as Real as Money”
I, also, fear that some will think that I am beginning to show my true colors. All this talk of ‘above’ and ‘below’, of limitations to causal relations, of transcendent purposes and objects and goals is tipping my hand as a SuperNatualist. If “persons” don’t exist at the molecular level of description, then how could they be real at all? Surely, I must be simply asserting some kind of soul or other such figments.
I am not. The essential point of this blog — naturereligionconnection.org — is to convince you that organizational structures exist on this planet that allow increasing layers of complex interactions to occur between unique objects defined and functioning at each particular level and ‘only’ referring to the different objects at the surrounding layers. This is how biological objects ‘really exist’ in relation to the designs and functions they are about. This is how human artifacts and human freely chosen actions ‘really exist’ but are not totally described by neural interactions, or other causal networks. Their design is realand it works (functions and has purpose) for a world that is, also, chemical, atomic, electromagnetic, etc.
In that sense, Persons are as real as money, for example, says Dennett. Money is only paper or figures in a ledger, but in another important sense it really moves, motivates, organizes, determines the lives of people living in a particular kind of society. It’s a social and interpersonal object. “Person” ,”money”, and also “the game of baseball” is real,“as real as anything”, contends the physicist, Sean Carroll*; it’s a way we structure ourselves in a certain situations.Free Will and Responsibility are parts of the way we Structure persons, too. Each organize us into larger and somewhat more autonomous units, as Persons in a Society of Persons.
*”The air in a room … we can describe it by listing the properties of each and every molecule, or we can speak incoarse-grained termsabout things like temperature and pressure... It would be silly to say that temperature isn’t real because the concept doesn’t appear in some fine-grained vocabulary.” For an excellent short and clear presentation of these issues, see Carroll’s Free Will Is as Real as Baseball.
So, Persons are real, and the world of hard science does not completely describe their character and function. They are real at a different level of organization, the level of person and society. The following posts will describe how Mother Nature has asserted herself and begun ‘to fill the gap’ between the two environments here on the planet Earth with increasing levels of complexity. These levels are necessary for Persons and create a form of Free Will that is vital to our thinking.Free Will and deterministic causes will be found to have some compatibility.
(Nature is a massive force of production. She has created, and still is creating, a vast FORMation on this planet. That is why we can say that when we ACT for good reason, we are being InFORMed. It will be suggested in this series that acting according to our designand relying on our in-formation is the basis for Human Freedom.
In this post, Number Ten in the Series, Mother Nature’s expansion on this planet is described. From post nine, the theme will be developed that in our two environments Nature’s formation has grown with an internal coherence and an accumulation of powers. The general structure of our living world will feature a vagueness, a lack of solid boundaries and absolute end-points and origins. It is in this realm that complex accumulations of functions are the norm. Being a person in a society of persons, and having a mind in a mindful society, is the utilization of Nature’s accomplishments for our (and Nature’s) purposes. It is the contention here, at naturereligionconnection.org, that this is a worthy pursuit, worthy of a modest veneration of both ourselves and our planet. Originally published 1/25/19)
Mother Nature Asserts Herself !
Each organism actually lives in two environments. One, the more ‘personal’ world which is ‘home’ to it and full of its ‘fears’, ‘food’. ‘competitors’, ‘mates’, ‘enemies’ and often much more. This has been called the “umwelt”, or ‘sign-filled surroundings’. It is where information lies for that organism. The other is an environment of which most organisms are not aware; it is very impersonal, objective and universal to all living things. It contains no signs or meanings but does contain causal forces.
We now understand the history of these two environments. Evolution is the gradual
and persistent expansion of the various forms of life —and their umwelten — further and further into the domain of the more impersonal and ‘objective’ environment. The various “umwelten” have transformed the world of impersonal molecules into a panorama of signals and significances.
At this level of biological events, never did an organism exist without the information (the environment) necessary to make its parts pertinent. And never did an environment exist through time that was not changed by the organisms that composed it. The first organisms not only lived in their environs of information but, also, slowly filled the more objective environment with oxygen — a new factor, and today plants attempt to hold oxygen in balance with carbon dioxide. Eventually, decomposers created soil and its nutrients. Jungles, forests, and reefsevolved to teem with life interacting with its other living forms. As argued in Nature Reflects:spiders built webs, beavers built dams (and ponds resulted), birds nests, and humans built cities and now change the very temperature of the planet! The Earth is now, very importantly, Life’s Planet.
In fact, historically, “Evolution is all about turning ‘bugs’ (design inefficiencies) into ‘features’, (and) turning ‘noise’ (interference to signal or ambiguity) into (clear) signal” (my parenthetical additions:GWW). Natural Selection is “the gradual, purposeless, nonmiraculous transformation of…(the earth) … over billions of years”, writes Dennett. Mother Nature’s process is filling in the earth (the objective environment) with her products, and doing so with increasing sophistication! The ‘more objective’ and impersonal environment is fading further and further into the background as additional layers of biologic complexity and description are added. Mother Nature is sculpting her form here on Earth!
It is as if some communication is going on. Natural Selection is not the ‘normal’ one way push of a cause. It is no simple and repetitive ‘this, then that.” The two pieces — organism and environment — presuppose each other and, in that
sense, are a “circle”of interaction by function and by definition. Creature and environment had to evolve together and it is the language of genetics that is the medium for this ‘conversation’. Person and society of persons, had to evolve together, and the codes of human language are the medium for these changes. The organism’s organs and the whole organism evolved together and are linked to their various environments throughout history by theirgenetic material, which is the record, or language, that records the outcomes of this history. Humans, using our genome and spoken language as the record of this history of interaction, have proliferated and created a tremendous technology through the increasing utilization of the opportunity of the objective environment, turning it into umwelt — more signal and sign. This is a process of “in-formation”, Dennett tells us. Life is a focal point of organization and within it all various forms continue its structure.
These umwelten contain the Virtuous Circles and thus the very Research and Development processes and equipment that expand the umwelt’s range further into the
more ‘objective’ environment in this small corner of the universe and over the past sixty hundred million years (six billion). Natural Selection is at work. Writes Dennett:
“Evolution by natural selection churns away, automatically extracting tiny bits of information from the interactions between phenotypes (whole, equipped organisms) and their surrounding environments … Over time, designs are ‘discovered’ and refined… Thanks to these encounters with information … Darwinian lineages ‘learn’ new tricks by adjusting their form … They are, then, in-formed, a valuable step in local Design Space”.
And, these processes continue and expand at the design levels of some organisms and especially humans. Creatures that learn, not only adapt their form by Natural Selection from generation to generation but also, says Dennett, they…
“…inform themselves during their own life-times by their encounters with their environments, becoming ever more effective agents thanks to the information they can now use to do all manner of new things, including developing new ways to further informing themselves … The rich get richer.”
This is a circular and self-enhancing process. The analogy of the one-way interaction of billiard balls — simple causal relations — is no longer pertinent.
And just as this process has grown in scope and sophistication, so also we can speculate about its origin. Strange to say, in a sense, never did life suddenly evolve from non-life! Scraps of life, cruder forms of its marvelous design, had to exist before italong with
the information in their environment that “triggers”, is “read” and is “used”, is “answered by” these “semi-hemi-demi-agents”, as Dennett playfully called them. And the same is true of the signals and information used by agents. It too is refined, specified and explored to find more subtle signals, clearer information and more helpful patterns.
Mother Nature’s Evolutionary Process draws no hard and fast lines. We, persons, are exquisitely designed and this corresponds to our information in the environment that must accompany us. A human social organism has now evolved. We and this modern environment of ours is just the more full-blown, enhanced versions of the simpleragentsand their environments that came before. Evolution is the theory of how these “packages”, these Virtuous Circles, appeared and progressed through history.
Human Freedom is then an outgrowth of this living world. Relying on life’s information, an accumulation of abilities has developed of which we are the beneficiary. Relying on our intimate association with and within this living structure, we are designed to act, and then use our special pattern-recognition faculties to not only recognize patterns in the Nature around us but also in our own behavior. In the following posts, this form of freedom will be more completely described.
(This is Post number lucky Eleven in this Series on Freedom and Mother Nature. 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. First published 01/29/2019)
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!
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 the Societyof 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 istheir 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”.
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
The 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
necessarily contains information pertinentto 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
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.
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
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…
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
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).
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
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
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
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.Weanalyze an organism in terms of
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 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 fromwhat 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 abilitiesof 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 thisconfusion of the abstract for the concrete is the way, I believe, we can think of Free Will and Determinism as beingCompatible, 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.
In philosophical language, epistemology comes before ontology. How could we know some kind of basic compositional thingexists (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 meaningin 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.”
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 sayshe 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….
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 complexover its analysis into ‘simpler’ parts or terms.
Finally, do not think that the position here being outlined makes the more complex
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
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!
(Well, we solved the Problem of Human Freedom in the previous post! All in a days work here at naturereligionconnection.org. —- actually, all in more like a years work! It is a rather peculiar solution, I will admit, and this post — number twelve in the series on Freedom — will review the solution and discuss some of its further implications in Light of the Modern Precedent of “I Could Have Done Otherwise!” First published 5/10/2019)
“Could I have done otherwise?”
There is a famous precedent in the modern debate on Human Freedom. You ask, “In a precise setting of circumstances in the past, could I have done otherwise than I did?”“Hard Determinists” are zealous defenders of the “scientific image of the world”.* They contend, “No, you could not have done otherwise. Your behavior was determined by causes to be what it was, no options were available.” They, then, project this post factum reality into the future and contend we have no Freedom. In effect, you are ‘only’ a billiard ball in a succession of billiard balls reacting, or you are a ‘trillion’ little billiard balls and still in a necessary succession but now only protracted; these are analogies we have used often in this blog series. That little word “only” will turn out to be the pivotal point: What-goes-in is only What-comes-out?
Believers in Human Freedom and Responsibility have generally contended that this position must be denied, that under those exact circumstances, somehow, you had options, possibilities: “‘I could have done otherwise!’ How else could I be responsible for my action unless I originated it, at least in some significant sense?” In some ways, maybe the point of this contention is that New Things are possible: What-comes-out is different from What-went-in.
Many of these believers in freedom have asserted “gods” and “souls” or some other counter-causal basis for freedom.** A 20th century French philosopher posited an “elan vital”, a “vital force” that inhabits only living things distinguishing them from the strictly caused world of the inanimate. Other believers have banked on the character of Consciousness as not explainable in scientific terms; it is an inherently different kind of “thing” than objects in, or explained by, science. A major school of philosophy, today, holds this position: Consciousness is not a scientific property, yet it is undeniably real.
A famous modern British philosopher, John Austin, set the stage for this Free Will
debate in this way (paraphrased): He was golfing. He had this putt. He missed it, but he could not help himself from thinking,“I should have holed it; I could have holed it, under the exact same conditions; I could have made that very putt.” He went on to clarify that it was not that he wasn’t trying hard enough, he was. And that if you lined up ten putts just like it, he would make them, or nine of them. “I could have made it, under those very conditions,” he concluded.
Was he right to think that he could have made that putt under the exact same conditions in which he missed it? All Determinists say, “Absolutely not:The exact same conditions, the exact same outcome. “ Now determinists will also clarify that “exact same conditions” means physical conditions, for what else is there? Austin’s position leaves the impression that there is something morethan just the physical conditions of wind, grass, speed, muscle movement, balance, impact, brain waves, neural signals….
Philosopher Dan Dennett has broken new ground in this debate. Though most of us, including philosophers and scientists, do accept the Compatibility of a caused universe and human freedom, Dennett has worked out a detailed and innovative defense of the position that you are caused to do what you have done, but were also free when you did it and free when you act in similar situations in the future.
*Famous “hard determinists” are Sam Harris, atheist and neuroscientist, also biologist J. Coyne —blog: Why Evolution is True. They believe persons have No Free Will.
**”counter-causal basis for freedom”:Some have tried randomness, and the uncertainty now embraced at the atomic level. Dennett argues against these attempts at Free Will by these routes. In general, I take it that this new physics allows more predictability at the macro level, not less.
Humans “Can” be Free and Caused at the Same Time
Dennett agrees with the Hard Determinists; “In those exact circumstances in the past, you could not have done otherwise”, but he also believes there is solid ground to believe we are a free and responsible personin our actions, that is, for most of us and in most of our situations. When the chain of causation passes through and includes our unique structural properties such as our deliberative processes and their chosenactions, we are both free and caused. This position is called Soft Determinism or Compatiblism, and it is based in a belief in the ontological significance of Structure. Dennett is claiming that we can think of “deliberation”, “choice”, “thought” and our resulting “actions” as freely done, and as relying upon logic, evidence, investigation, concentration, decision, and in general all our unique structural and design features,yet also be caused and determined! This is“determined deliberation” and it is a process similar to the hand calculator pictured earlier. Structure and this “determined deliberaton” will need to be clarified because it is not our normal concept of “thinking”.
“In those exact circumstances of the past”, indeed you had to do what you did, miss the putt. “Under determinism nothing can do anything other than what it in fact does”, says Dennett. But, he quickly adds that you will never face those circumstances again, not exactly. “People … are not only morecomplicated than anything else we know in the universe, they are also designed to be so sensitive to the passing show that they can never be in the same micro state twice”, says Dennett. And further, what we, persons, are interested in — as structures with significant autonomy — is not the exact, precise, situations, but a kind of situation In General. That is why Austin spoke about ‘lining up similar putts’ and when he sank them, they offered ‘proof’ that more than just the actual — missing the putt — is possible.
My deliberations and their chosen actions ‘can’ be free because Structures ‘can’ Function. Dennett explains that we
need some kind of “looseness” to exist in the world. Following David Hume, the famous 18th century British thinker, this “looseness” prevents ‘the possible from shrinking too tightly around the actual‘. After all, basic to the way we live is the idea that, for example, “a dog ‘can‘ bark” or “a coin toss ‘can‘ come up heads or tails”.An “openness” exists and is expressed in the little word “can”, even though only one of the options will be the outcome: barking or not barking, head or tail. That is the “looseness”, we do not know which!
It is our limitation that necessitatesthat we live in a world that has “options”and “accidents”, where we “make choices”, where some things are “avoided”, where some things are “probable”, where we “do things” and “make a difference”! In fact, it is our limitations as a finite structurewithin the universe (the physical system that
we are a part) with our limited ability to know things, that necessitates that any one creature or object, really, every creature and object, stand out as distinct from its ultimate background, The Universe as an Uninterrupted Fabric of Causal Necessity. Without our limited perspective, all would simply be as a domino among dominoes, falling! It would be a rather bland place, indeed.
Wow, I do love it when I write like that last paragraph! I hope its not too ‘purple’, and What a bombshell! From the point of view of a Super Scientistoutside the universe and ‘looking’ back at it with knowledge of all its forces and objects and their lawful interaction, no future event would be unknown to them. There would be no ‘accidents’,no thing that was ever ‘avoided’, no ‘probability’ in any coin toss, no ‘freedom’ to ‘choose’ one ‘option’ or another! This Super Scientist knows the universe as one giant and highly abstract structure, within which all lesser structures have lost their integrity and have been ‘dissolved’.
(In the next post, Structures 2, the crucial characteristics of structures will be discussed along with their implications for the “Could not have done otherwise precedent”. Also, the limitations of the Scientific World View will be approached once again. This will help clarify the point of post 11, that “Science Lags Behind” and that Structure clarifies the difference between the strictly causal approach to the world of Hard Determinism and the Soft Determinists who argue that structures mediate causal forces and yet, themselves, are strictly organizational, physical designs!)
THE ULTIMATE STRUCTURE OF THE UNIVERSE? There are 10 dimensions in our universe, claims Surperstring Theory. “Oh, there I am, next to that ‘D’ shaped blue congregation to the right; I’m waving. Can’t you see me?” (Image from Wikipedia Commons)
(In the previous post on Human Freedom, we argued that for Freedom to exist, “the possible must not shrink too tightly around the actual”. There must be a “looseness” in the world even if it is based in a Person’s Limited Nature and abilities. In the current post, Number 13 in the series, we will contrast Our Limits with the Ideal Limitlessness of Science! Finite Structures like a coin toss and a dog “can” do things — like come up Heads, or bark — but do not always do so. These options exist only to us ordinary humans (Thank Goodness!) and not for an Ideal Science. Persons have the ability to do something different the next time they are faced with a similar, but not the exact same, situation. First published 5/12/2019)
When the Dog Barks
I have limited knowledge of the behavior of my dog. I cannot predict every time she will bark, or in my case, howl — a beagle. This is why we say, a dog “can” bark: it does not always bark, and maybe does not even “have to” bark ever, and when its does bark we may not know why. When the one option does happen, the dog barks for example, we are confirmed that it “can”, and “can” investigate
and determine the causes why it did then. If we are highly successful, it will be a step in the direction of making that dog less autonomous, less distinct from its environment than previously. We “can” say, “Under those circumstances, the dog will bark, always!” Our world is determined, in that way.
It is even conceivable to take a coin flip that came up “heads” and ideally reconstruct the scenario that caused its occurrence. But this is where the difficulties start of multiply for us. These difficulties, maybe, are a good thing because for an intelligence far superior to ours no coin toss, horse race or Power Ball Lottery outcome would ever be unknown and unpredictable! This far superior intelligence would be something like a Super Scientist.
Science relies on an ideal perspective.
A controlled environment allows the scientist to alter the independent variable and then observe its effect on the dependent variable. That Controlled Environment is an artificial situation; it is “seen” as a closed causal system, from outside, in its totality, with all pertinent causal forces knownandaccurately measured. This works fabulously in many, many, particular settings. It tells us why the dog barked, but even with the coin coming up heads, there are difficulties.
In real life, difficulties exist in controlling the environment, and then accurately knowing and measuring the forces and factors involved. What makes every toss unpredictable to us is the large number of factors involved and then their “looseness”. Each toss is thrown a different height, different rotation, different wind, humidity, landing surface, coin … Dennett cites physicists reporting on the limitations of accurate measurement: Even in a pin ball game, the ball bouncing numerous times off two or three bumpers, each bounce with slightly different angles and speeds, all in a split second or two, presents a formidable challenge to precise measurement and prediction. Any inaccuracy in measurement is amplified as the chain of reactions lengthens. Often the
act of measuring, itself, introduce variance in the process.
It can be argued that these are only practical problems and capable of resolution. The practice of science is sound and this has been clearly indicated by the very character of our modern achievements. Ideally, it often seems this science-vision of the world can be expanded into the most reasonable world view, but when we do, the practical problems only worsen.
The measuring problems increase. Over very large systems, all the necessary measurements cannot be made at once. Any imprecision would ramify massively.
And who does the measuring? In the ideal image of science, “the knowing mind” is outside the system to be known. Traditionally, it has therefore been thought of as the “objective” point of view in contrast to more “subjective” visions. That is accurate, in the sense that it presents a world without subjects: ‘Things’ that are observers, thinkers, communicators; ‘things’ that have feelings, perceptions, and — in general — any ‘thing’ that ‘experiences’. This image of the world has no place for The Doingof Science, only the results of the ‘hard’ sciences. It lacks “the logical space for reasons”,
says Dennett following noted philosopher of science, Wilfred Sellars. Scientists must consider evidence on logical ground, decide among options, reason, and ponder the possible. This Absolutist Vision of Science is, therefore, very Im-Practical. There is no place in it for the Practice of science or the Doing of any particular thing in any terms other than causation. Pushes and shoves, pulls and attractions, electrical currents, chemical reactions, all “can” and do happen, but this is not Thinking, Reasoning or Acting. It is the Structure of human society that facilitates the structure of Persons that Do these things that are then associated with their physical causes. This is the argument against ‘hard’ determinism; it is “greedy reductionism” and is incoherent when it discusses language, reasoning, and belief as if they are only physical causes. It is incoherent because these very reductionists use language and reasoning to try to Convince Us, not cause us, to Rightly Change our Beliefs and Actions.
In the following post, The Character of Structures 3, a structure’s ability to mediate causal forces, without Supernatural abilities but only physical organizational powers, will be clarified. Structure allows new things into our causally driven world, and turns the place into A Grand Series of Amazing, and sometimes amazingly horrifying, Events. It’s not all just dominoes and dominoes falling!
(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 thepremeditation, theresearch and development, andthestandards 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 socialof 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, theyare definedandcharacterized 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 orpoorly, better and worse. So, Structures not only allow Doing and Origination into a naturalistic ontology but also value! That is why we say, “abridge 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 doesto 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 ViciousCircle; opium is its ability to cause sleep, not howit causes sleep.
But from the point of view of a person, it does show thatit 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, bydefinition, 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 rightfullyrefer 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 oftime 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.