The “Secretly Profound” Idea of Emergence

cropped-img_34702-e1565808476815-2
(Complex Forms with Numerous Qualities Have Emerged From Microscopic Structures with Limited Qualities.    Drawing by Marty)

So, what is “Emergence”, anyway?  This is the second passage on it and it’s time to say — more explicitly — what it is.  After all, we all kind of know what the term refers to, or do we?

Many chemists and physicists do not like the term.  “What is its point?” For example, if you take the CHNOPS chemicals and mix them just right, Life “results” or “occurs” or “is caused”.  Why say life “emerges”?  What is added?  It sounds unscientific, spooky-like. 

wright
(The Alchemist in Search of the Philosophers’ Stone, painting by  J. Wright of Derby , 1773)

Yet, noted physicist, Sean Carroll has written an entire book (The Big Picture) pretty much dedicated to this concept.  “There are many ways of talking about the world, each of which captures a different aspect of the underlying whole”, he writes.(1)  This vision of reality is “innocuous-seeming but secretly profound” and he calls it “Poetic Naturalism.”  What is vital is that all these “stories” must fit together.  “Higher level” ways of talking must be consistent with those ‘below’ it.  He then declares, “One pivotal word enables that reconciliation between the different stories: emergence.”(his italics, 2)

Emergence is as much a logical concept as it is a physical one.  Carroll cites 19th century French philosopher Auguste Comte as the first to explicitly delineate a “hierarchy of sciences”.(3)   We all tacitly acknowledge this hierarchy, with not much dissent.  Physics is “the most microscopic and comprehensive level; out of that emerges chemistry, and then biology, and then psychology, and finally sociology”, Carroll summarizes Comte’s view.  But here is the controversial part, each layer does not ‘collapse’ into those below it because each “way of talking” or each “effective theory” — as Carroll also calls them — is valuable and logically autonomous in itself.

media2f1752f1752381f-767e-4b41-9220-8a2794e5d26b2fphpuzodjm
(Not quite the idea of a Hierarchy of Sciences, but the general idea of a hierarchy of  existence has been around for a long time.  It has been called The Great Chain of Being. The above is Thomas Acquinas’ fourth argument for the existence of God, the argument from degree: there must be a lowest and highest degree of Mindfulness, Spirit, or forms of existence.. Thanks to Chegg Study for diagram.)

For example, the chemistry and neurology of the brain will someday “explain” all the ‘truths’ of psychology we might want to say, but Carroll disagrees.  “The emergent theory (in this case, psychology, gww) describes true features of the system that might be completely hidden from the microscopic point of view”, he argues.(4)  He contends emergent theories are additional knowledge of the system; more precisely, they are knowledge of “useful ways of talking” about it.(5)  The microscopic theories do not say, or explain, all that is worth saying about the system.

What is this “usefulness”?  It seems to be a shift in, a build up of, perspective.  In fact, Carroll cites Ludwig Boltzmann’s explanation of entropy: Entropy is “a way of counting how many possible microscopic arrangements of the stuff in a system would look indistinguishable from a macroscopic point of view.”(6) 

For example, what we refer to as “the sky” is a physical situation with high entropy ; many different atomic and sub-atomic layouts (descriptions) of any particular view of the sky could be possible and accurate. They would all “look the same” to us; each could be (as far as we are concerned) whatever the actual atomic configuration was. “The sky” is not a highly organized “thing;” but for what we would call “more complex or more highly organized phenomena”—like a living thing or a human society—far fewer atomic descriptions of it could be accurate, fewer would be, or look, the same to us. They have low physical entropy, and therefore a much more exact and limited range of atomic description.

In that sense, a point of view has now become integral to this vital scientific principle; microscopic occurrences can be taken, or have significance, in different ways!

When we describe the world from the point of view of physics — with its objects and laws — it is, as if, persons don’t exist.  Physics is not a ‘human’ perspective.  It is universal and, therefore, almost totally abstract.  Physics “ignores” all the many layers of complexity that we humans deal with constantly.  No macroscopic ‘solids’ or ‘fluids’ stand out to it; no color or sound, no feelings or meanings, no living things, no perceivers, are conceptually present in its vocabulary.  For physics, these ‘things’ do not exist except as crude, initial, data that is in need of analysis.  They are “subjective phenomena” for which their ‘true nature’—their microscopic sub-structure—can be discovered. This is just what Carroll is arguing against with his advocacy of “Emergence” and the different “Levels of Effective Theory.” There is more to our world than its atomic structure. Gee, that seems rather obvious!

6727193557_2f591a9113_o-min
(“Where is Waldo?” as the popular book series asks. He is not in this portrayal of the movement of the basic particles of the universe as obtained following a high speed collision in a super collider.  “Waldo” is an idea from a vocabulary far different than particle physics.  Image thanks to pixabay.)

“Physics is the simplest of all the sciences,” Carroll says, “not ‘simple’ in the sense that the homework problems are easy, but simple in the sense of Galileo’s trick of ignoring…”(7)  He says, some make of this that “if we completely understand the microscopic level,…we know everything there is to know…Whatever (macroscopic, gww) questions you might have can be translated into the microscopic language and answered there.”(8)

Carroll agrees, in one sense; all the ways we talk about ourselves (if it is legitimate talk) must be compatible.  So, ‘our’ behavior, as a system of atoms, is predictable and determined by the laws of physics and chemistry.  The idea of “You” is “not a part of our best theory of atoms” or any other microscopic object.  Carroll continues, “you are an emergent phenomena, meaning that you are an element in a higher-level ontology that describes the world at a macroscopic level.”  As “You”, it is “perfectly appropriate to talk about wants and feelings and desires” and also choices.  “Those are all real phenomena in our best understanding of human beings”, he concludes.(9)

So, atoms don’t have wants and feelings, nor do waves in a quantum field.  Even though ‘you’ are made of such things, and understanding ‘you’ as a particular collection of them, can predict, “in principle”, all the movements of ‘you’. We can still legitimately say ‘you’ have wants and feelings. 

Nor are wants and feelings caused by atoms.  That is a mistaken way to talk, says Carroll.  It is incoherent; it is mixing two vocabularies.  Wants and feelings are caused by other elements at the vocabulary level of ‘you’ (10), things like ‘need’, ‘instinct’, ‘ambition’, ‘expectation’, ‘socialization’, ‘desire;’ these cause wants and feelings.   Atoms (or quantum fields, or whatever) only interact with other things of their kind. Each way of talking is at its own emergent level.

db868d36b8a14cf0af47cf58d95c31d3_500_500
(The movement of these collections of particles can be predicted and described by physics, but the terms “predator and prey”, “cheetah and gazelle”  would not appear in that vocabulary, nor any emotion or need these creatures might be feeling.)

This is Emergence, I believe: it is an ‘unfolding’ of potential, not a necessary sequence of caused objects.  It is our good fortune that from a microscopic world of quantum waves or sub-atomic particles more complex unities appeared.  It did not need to happen and it is a somewhat rare occurrence in the universe, apparently.   But, on our special planet, it did happen, and  from our point of view, as rational humans, many emergent properties and abilities needed to emerge for us to get to our current situation.   We can trace ‘our’ origin to the Big Bang, but there is a huge gap from there to humans going to the moon and sending robotic explorers into deep space.  Also, humans have a reasonable understanding of the entire universe at a microscopic level, and we live to write about all this and consider the significance of these accomplishments.

So, the connection between the Microscopic World and the various Macroscopic Worlds (“ways of talking” about the micro) is not causation, but “usefulness”and “emergence” according to Carroll.  It is how the microscopic order is ‘taken’, ‘used,’ that matters to Poetic Naturalism.  There are some patterns among these microscopic structures that stand out to us—in addition to abiding by all physical laws—as if they were our ‘shadow,’ a trail of more complex patterns that are us, ourselves Emerging through all the levels.

Life, consciousness, animal societies, human language is what can possibly evolve from the simplified nature revealed in the hard sciences.  Useful ways of talking about the microscopic add new properties, new abilities and new objects that are “autonomous” and meaningful on their own, because they are a set of interrelated structures, functions, and qualities. “The emergent theory is autonomous (it works by itself, without reference to other theories)”, and “truly new”, contends Carroll. (11)

That is a nice thought!  It is real and legitimate to understand the universe as useful to us as persons.  Emergence allows us, literally, to see this, and the concept of “emergence” allows us to understand that we do fit in this universe as a qualitatively rich and complex place.  We can look out and see it, hear, smell and feel these developments.  We can also try to understand these emergent wonders.

jan-bruegel-the-elder-and-peter-paul-rubens-allegory-of-the-sense-of-smell
 (OUR WORLD OF NUMEROUS QUALITIES AND COMPLEX OBJECTS.  Allegory of the Sense of Smell, painting by Peter Bruegel the Elder and Peter Paul Rubens, 1617.)

A Puzzle To Be Solved?

I am not sure Sean Carroll has solved the problem of the relationship of one level to another. As a physicist, he speaks out strongly for the a dominant role of that version of reality. But physicists are persons too, and perhaps primarily. Maybe the social and historical level of “Effective Theories” will in the end be just as significant as the hard core physical? After all, physics has itself changed its view of “ultimate reality” often. The self-reflective process of human history maybe the most reliable understanding of our human condition, but a very open-ended one.

IMG_4852
(THE WORLD EMERGING IN MY BACKYARD, photo by GWW.)

So, there is more to the universe than atoms in motion.  The next post will provide Carroll’s basic examples of how the universe “emerges” from these atoms.   The universe becomes more than its basic stuff, and is “for our purposes”, “useful” and ‘significant’ to us!   Two important mechanisms or structures for emergence will be described: coarse-graining and fractal organization.

69.1894_ph_web-1
(Prades, the Village (1917)  Painting by Joan Miro.  “Intense color, light, space and form are used to express the artist’s emotional state,” guggenheim.org.  Or is it another “useful” description of the world.)

Notes: From Carroll’s The Big Picture:  1. page 93   2)  94  3) 104  4) 108  5) 108   6) 227  7) 25   8). 108   9).113 10) 113  11) 106-7

12)  Compatibilism is the idea that higher qualities and abilities are compatible with a Deterministic Universe.  Just because physics knows a lot about the movement of the basic particles and quantum waves of the universe, does not mean that there are not still more interesting and significant things to be said about those microscopic realities.         13. page 17

cropped-img_34702-e1565808476815-10
naturereligionconnection.org

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.

1371589622878
(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)

chongqing_highway_070617
(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.

1280px-cognitive_bias_codex_en.svg_
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

cropped-img_34702-e1565808476815-11
When we are Particularly Impressed with the Beauty, Coordination and Good Fortune of Our World.       Logo by Marty.

New Things “Emerge”

“Huston, We have a problem,” was astronaut Jim Lovell’s famous call to Earth. Let’s put in a similar call. Somehow we humans get colors, joy, death and freedom from a washed out bunch of subatomic particle. That is getting a lot of Qualities out of much less substance. (See the preceding posts for the ground work on this theme.) I know it takes a bunch of math, to get from there to here, but is it ever really enough? Here is someone who can help.

51zaexatvyl._sx342_

Sean Carroll is a noted physicist from Cal Tech.  Known for his wide ranging interests and knowledge, he also has a desire and ability to share his expertise with a broader audience—me and you. He has written The Big Picture, a book from 2016 that exemplifies his versatility and desire to communicate.  Its subtitle is “On the Origins of Life, Meaning and the Universe Itself.”  Yes, wide ranging.

So, in the very broadest sense, Where do all the different things around us come from? Dr. Carroll will help us answer that question.

Physics and the ‘hard’ sciences are not my forte, so I needed to tackle this book — some 450 pages of it — to solidify (or refute) the claim that interesting and more complex objects “emerge” from the quantum fields and sub-atomic particles that are now known to be “the basis” of our world and the universe (“itself”). We all know that all things are matter and energy, but we sure have a lot more to say about “things” than just that!

(Maybe Breughel and Rubens were wrong! Maybe all the difference in the world is NOT what really matters. The Sense of Sight, painting by Jan Breughel the Elder and Peter Paul Rubens, 1617.)

Carroll is a “Compatiblist”, a philosophical position that argues that both the objects of physics are real and significant, and so are the objects of our ordinary world that we call ‘people’, ‘zinnias’ and ‘the Atlantic Ocean’, to name but a few.  The microscopic and the macroscopic largely fit together without too much tension, he believes (1).  In The Nature Religion Connection, this is also our belief, but how does it happen? How are we both “persons” and swarming masses of sub-atomic particles, for example? Carroll believes we can be these two seemingly different kinds of things without too much confusion.

free-will-big-cover
(Note each letter suspended from a puppeteer’s string.)

Others do not believe the world around us does has so many different and wonderful kinds of things and abilities! Radical Reductionists believe that since the objects and laws

of physics underlay everything, macroscopic objects lose their status (in some important sense) as real, or legitimately significant (2). Too much of the way we think of these macroscopic objects does not fit with our ‘scientific vision’, they claim.  Neuroscientist and famous atheist, Sam Harris contends that ‘free will’ is an illusion and the choices we make are caused by mechanical forces outside us and in.  There is no free will, no freely choosing, therefore, we should eliminate such talk.  

Biologist Jerry Coyne, University of Chicago,, believes we do not freely choose and, therefore, talk of ‘responsibility’ and ‘morality’ is also unfounded (see his popular blog, Why Evolution Is True, or WEIT).  These folks are called by Carroll not only reductionists — macro objects are really micro objects — but also “eliminativists.” 

(A double-petalled Zinnia from the garden of Greg and Sheri. Is a flower still a “flower” if we speak of it only in atomic terms? Photo by GregWW.)

Their position has undeniable cogency; why talk about ‘the same thing’ in two very different ways?   For example, a Zinnia is a collection of sub-atomic particles and also a biological object with needs, satisfactions and efforts.  Which way of talking is more important, which way is true?  Should we talk in both ways? If so, how do they fit together? After all, atoms in themselves do not have needs; they do not even have a color, yet the above zinnia seems beautifully orange and has a need for sunshine.

The flavor and attitude of this eliminativist claim might be captured in this famous quote by Ernest Rutherford, the experimental physicist who in 1909 was crucial in discovering the structure of the atom.  He not only diminished the significance of macro objects but also the less fundamental sciences; he said “all of science is either physics or stamp collecting.” (3) If you want to really know how things are, study physics, that was his rather arrogant contention.

gold-foil-experiment-diagram-rutherford-jj-atom-substance-1909
(Rutherford’s famous gold foil experiment.  “All science is either physics or stamp collecting,” he said.)

I must admit that I feel a significant degree of confusion about this connection of the microscopic to the macroscopic world. How much can we eliminate  from a particular discourse, or change the discourse entirely, and still be talking about the same thing?  To me, a flower exhibits some distinct qualities different from inanimate objects, and this is the historically recognized belief.  People make “choices” and are “responsible” for their actions, we also believe, but such talk has no place when considering atoms.

And aren’t these empirical claims; don’t we just see it? A flower has color; it grows, blooms, makes seeds that then reproduces “itself” in a very similar flower—its offspring.  We can manipulate its breeding and encourage the enhancement of some traits by contrast to others in the offspring.  We know there are “laws,” “rules,” by which this happens.  It is called the science of biology.  So, is a “flower” still a flower if we decide to speak of it only in atomic terms?

The Power of Physics

Some day, our knowledge of physics may expand to the point that the behavior of all things may be predictable in advance.  Crazy to think, but Carroll says that, “in principle,” that day is already here!  Physicists now possess accurate and detailed knowledge of the workings of the universe but also “an effective theory of the everyday world.”(4)  He calls it “the Core Theory” and it is “the specific set of fields and interactions that govern our local environment.”  He continues, “Everything we want to think about human beings has to be compatible with the nature and behavior of the pieces of which we are made” and then adds an interesting proviso, “even if those pieces don’t tell the whole story.”(5)

That is the crux of the entire debate.  What sense can be made of that proviso?  How can the particles and forces that compose us at the most basic level behave as physically predicted, yet, not be all that is worth saying?  What more can be added that does not fall into silliness and superstition?

Here is  the equation that puts ‘the nail in the coffin’; it is the physics that is the basis for the prediction of all that happens around us, and with us, in our macroscopic world.  Its called “the path-integral formulation of quantum mechanics”.(6)   It was pioneered by Erwin Schrodinger but this is the “compact and elegant” formulation of contemporary physicist Richard Feynman, reports Carroll.

IMG_5379[3184]

Carroll has added to the equation the solid lines and descriptions that distinguish the different sections of this formulation: “quantum mechanic”, “spacetime”, “gravity” etc.  In general, the equation describes “the quantum amplitude for undergoing a transition from one specified field configuration to another, expressed as a sum over all the paths that could possibly connect them.”(7)  That is what W is, it is the amplitude of a wave expressed as an integral that is “summing up an infinite number of infinitely small things”: “the possible things the field can do in between the starting and ending, which we call a “path” the field configuration can take”, says Carroll.

I can assure you, the above equation is not the style in which his book is written.  If it was, I would not have gotten beyond page one!  The above equation is the only one to appear and it does so in an appendix as an effort to give the reader a taste of the unvarnished work of contemporary physics.  It is amazingly impressive stuff, and Carroll contends that its accuracy and specificity is such that even if in the future scientists come to think of its components in very different ways, this formulation will still be true in its own terms and for the domain to which it applies forever! (8) Vive la physique!

Some Things Emerge

Interestingly, Compatiblists are themselves Eliminativists concerning some issues.  Carroll argues that our most basic framework for understanding what is real is physics with its Core Theory, exemplified by the above equation.  This eliminates any good reason for talk of gods, souls, ghosts, or mind (as something beyond the physical) and even what he calls the “strong emergentist” position (which will be discussed later).  They all are incompatible with physics and the evidence that supports it.

800px-proton_quark_structure.svg_
(Protons and Neutrons establish a new set of standards by which to consider the world. A level up from the world as quarks and gluons.  “A proton is composed of two up quarks, one down quark, and the gluons that mediate the forces “binding” them together.” Wikipedia)

He does offers us a list of objects that do legitimately “emerge” from the more basic and simpler underlying pieces of the Core Theory.   This is where we start to return to the Core Theory as not telling “the whole story.”  This “whole story,” he says, includes (9): protons and neutrons, stars and light, life, multicellular organisms, consciousness, language and abstract human thought. These are an ascending hierarchy of abilities and complex objects (we might say) that spell out what is possible from the simplified world of physics.

But, there are more mundane examples of emergence. An automobile is composed of atoms, but they are seldom mentioned. To design a car, its atomic substructure is not referenced. To build a car or repair one, only its functioning parts at the macroscopic level are referenced. Things like “pistons,” “bumpers,” “drive shaft,” “chassis,” “brake,” “accelerator” are used because these terms are most useful and are obvious to us. To drive a car, we never consider its subatomic structure! This is a dramatic example of emergence, and thanks to biologist Richard Dawkins for it.

 

f1.medium
(Our first Eukaryotic Ancestor.  Diagram of the merger of free-living Spiochette and an Archaebacteria.  Out of Two came One. Thanks to PNAS, 2006)

How do these higher level objects form valuable additions (beyond physics) to our understanding? This is “that crux of the problem” mentioned earlier.  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 (10).  Carroll is, philosophically, a Naturalist; this is his basic commitment to science as the doorway to what is real “at the deepest level.”  Then, when he adds the “other ways of talking”, “emergent theories” and capturing “the whole story”, he admits he has now become what he calls “a poetic naturalist”. (11) 

“Poetic naturalism is a philosophy of freedom and responsibility,” he very pointedly declares (12).  Though physics captures the universe fundamentally, there are other “useful ways of talking about certain subsets of the basic stuff”.  They are useful to us for various reasons.  First, “it would be horrendously inconvenient if ” to explain anything “we were to list a huge set of atoms and how they were arranged.”(13)   Second, and most importantly, “we really do learn something new by studying emergent theories for their own sake, even if all the theories are utterly compatible” (with physic’s theories). (14)

So we are Both vast conglomerations of particles and scientific forces, And persons who ‘eat, love and pray,’ to borrow the current phrase. In the next passage, let’s apply the Idea of Emergence to these two different kinds of “Us” and see how that works out!

1371589622878
(A taste of what is to come: If all we do is determined by causal and atomic forces far different than the qualities of good pizza, then arguing about ‘best pizza’ is an empty charade.)

 

 

Notes— Since this post is a review of aspects of this book, I thought a few page references would be appropriate.  I did attempt a close read of this material and it is a respected work.   1) page 379   2) page 19   3) 105   4) 177-9   5)       6-7) 437   8) 179   9)  102  10) 93  11) 15-19   12) 21   13) 108   14) 108 

cropped-img_34702-e1565808476815-11
When we are Particularly Impressed with the Beauty, Coordination and Good Fortune of Our World—-Even in Dreary Times. Spring, Where are You?     Logo by Marty.

Gradualism and The Great Chain of Being

There is A Great Chain of Being

How did it all start? Where did all the different things come from?

We have been considering this big and broad question and have come to some conclusions. To think that in the beginning “Something came from Nothing,” is fruitless; no “god” can help us, for that concept is as mysterious as the problem we started with. (See previous passage.)

So, we have agreed that “More has come from Less” and that is, in deed, the modern answer. We are all quite familiar with the idea that, in some sense, everything is “just” matter and energy. The noted physicist Sean Carroll was quoted in the previous passage, that in a very important way, everything is gravity, electromagnetism, electrons and nuclei.

(Depiction of The Big Bang. You can’t say much existed here. Though, in these first few seconds/nanoseconds a whole lot of a couple kinds of things were really cooking! Thanks to nbcnews.com)

But it should be pointed out very quickly, that what we seek here—in the Nature Religion Connection—is not a scientific explanation of our ordinary world, but a re-enforcement of much of it. Too often a scientific explanation is a reduction of a very ordinary and important thing into terms very much unlike it. “Color” is electromagnetism. A “person” is a biological human animal. “Consciousness” is really neural activity, and Purposes do not exist at all in the world as understood by our most basic sciences.

Yes, many intelligent people believe that the hard sciences, with the help of Darwin and evolution, have chased Purposes (teleology or goals) from nature. “Life is pointless, in a cosmic sense,” they contend. But, this position comes to nonsense, and these thinkers “should add, for consistency’s sake, that science has also demonstrated the unreality of colors and of life itself…Atoms are all there is, and atoms aren’t colored, and aren’t alive either,” contends a philosopher more formally introduced below.* That the character of scientific explanation has its limitations is what should be concluded and that is an old and persistent contention among some philosophers (and scientists) going back at least into the 17th century and Rene Descartes.

Nor does The Connection seek religious supports and explanations for many of these important ordinary ideas. Persons are unique because of their relation to God, it is said, and their possession of an immaterial “soul.” Consciousness and life are themselves “Spirit” and not simply matter. Of death it has long been said, ‘The spirit passes from the body.’

Both Science and Religion have to be re-aligned. Here at Nature Religion Connection we seek a viable modern philosophy, one that has great respect for the accomplishments of science, but also a sense of its limitations. Not quite the same can be said for religion; there we seek something more like a re-invention and a rehabilitation of religion’s still existing archaic forms and habits.

Gradualism

So let us return to our topic, Where does all the variety of the world come from? How does it happen? It has Evolved, we have concluded, through enhancements in structure and design. And Evolution does not allow just anything and everything to appear; there is a very long and connected Chain of developments. It is getting More from The Less that immediately preceded it, a gradual bumping up.

Yet, a few things still stick in our “craw” on this topic of More from Less. Is not there a “leap” from non-life to life, from matter to consciousness, from neural activity to ‘seeing color,’ from things being caused to things that freely choose, to name just a few such stark contrasts. What of “the gap” between “good” and “evil”?

Daniel Dennett, of Tufts University in the Boston area, is a guiding light for the Nature Religion Connection.

But, in reality, there are no drastic gaps, there are only shortcomings in our intuitions and imaginations, argues Dan Dennett, one of the leading philosophers and commentators on our times.

On the above topic of the problem with some scientific explanations, Dennett contends there is “an equivocation” evident among biologists, for example. “Talk of functions and purposes is really only shorthand, a handy metaphor, and that strictly speaking there are no such things as functions, no purposes, no teleology at all in the world,” biologists are forced to awkwardly contend in the end, says Dennett.* They admit that really ‘eyes’ are not for seeing, ‘hearts’ are not for pumping; each—and all—are merely a clump of atoms with no further implications, no more to be said beyond the laws of physics.

Dennett disagrees; there is much worth saying beyond atom-talk. On all the drastic contrasts listed above, he insists that there are between them a series of Gradual Changes, slight adjustments, incremental installments that create slightly different things, sometimes more complex things, more capable molecules, states, and creatures. There is more we should understand as real, than what physics may contend. “Evolutionary processes brought purposes and reasons into existence the same way they brought color vision (and hence colors) into existence: gradually.”* Billions of years of tiny attempts form the evolutionary road to where we are today. Gradualism is one of the principles of our viable modern philosophy.

(Representation of “a spherical-shaped, measles virus particle,” courtesy of the CDC Its size is approximately 20 to 30 millionths of a millimeter.)

For example, viruses occupy a gray zone, neither alive nor dead. Viruses both reproduce and are incapable of reproducing on their own. We can, in a sense, appropriately call them “a bug,” as in “flu bug.” Yet we know they do not eat (metabolize). They are sort of alive, as are early stage fetuses and brain-dead patients. There are different “levels” at which we find it useful to describe many objects.

The Great Chain

Sensitivity and consciousness are other examples of borderline phenomena. In our ordinary world, we tend to think of a continuum of creatures who possess lesser and greater degrees of “mindfulness”—of consciousness and sensitivity. An ant is like a little person, in some ways. It is full of intentions, scurrying about with jobs to do, goals to achieve. Many of us feel a twinge of regret if we step on one. ‘Oh, it must have felt pain,’ we say, but we acknowledge that the ant is not a full-blown person or consciousness when we kill a hundred of them with insecticide when they invade our kitchen.

(At the center of The Tulip: “Pistil, Color, Petal,” photo by GregWW.)
Two Old Dogs

A plant is even less sensitive than an ant, but the family dog ranks way up there —fully conscious (?), loyal, nearly a person. This continuum of growing consciousness, abilities, and ‘person-ality’ is what Dennett calls “a deep fact, the kind you build a theory on.” This fact reflects the history of the evolutionary appearances; a fact recognized in western culture starting as far back as Aristotle and very prominent in the middle ages. There is a Great Chain of Being.

This Great Chain started with God at the top and ran down to angels, humans, animals, plants and finally most inanimate objects. It was thought to be the manifestation of God and Value into the world. In this sense, Gold was thought to be “the highest” mineral; the Lion the highest animal, and the Rose or Oak the highest plant. The King and Queen were the most valuable and god-like of humans. The Sun, Moon and the Planets were thought of as “the most noble” objects, ‘the eternal orbs.’

(The medieval social order was meticulously outlined in The Chain. Notice in this rendition, Actors rank just below Beggars and just above Thieves.)

Of course, this Great Chain is “a top-down model of creation,” points out Dennett. Initially it was used as a central argument against Evolution. “Only Absolute Wisdom could create lesser wisdoms and abilities. From Absolute Ignorance (inanimate matter) no creation occurs,” argued a prominent 19th century English critic of Darwin. Nonetheless, the chain exhibits an awareness of the Gradualism in nature, especially biology. Today’s best understanding of it is as The Tree of Life.

(The History of Ancestry among living things is generally agreed to demonstrate (in many cases) a growing degree of complexity of Design and increases in Ability.

What does this Tree of Life, this Great Chain, really show us? It shows us Life Evolving from non-life, Purposes gradually rising from pointlessness, Advanced Civilizations starting out as bacteria, and Consciousness as a product of insensate materials. In 2017, Dennett wrote his book From Bacteria to Bach and Back (The Evolution of Minds) to demonstrate how it is possible for Whole Things to be More Capable than the Pieces That Compose Them: more intelligent, more free, more responsible, more loving (at least sometimes).

An Enhanced Imagination

Finally, Dennett contends that if you are still skeptical of gradualism and a believer in metaphysical leaps, you need to up-date your intuitions and imagination. A “bottom-up” vision of creation is readily available in fields beyond evolutionary biology.

For example, machines can, now, think! Not only do we have home computers that help us write, calculate, find information and organize ourselves, but we have specialized computers that write first-class music, play chess and solve puzzles too complex for human researchers. Alan Turing’s first modern computer broke the German submarine code (The Enigma Code) back in WWII.

(IBM’s Deep Blue computer beats world champion in 1996. Deep Blue was capable of considering 200 million possible chess positions per second. Thanks to IEEE Spectrum.org for photo and info.)

The so-called “miracles of God” are rivaled on a daily basis by modern science and technology. Doctors replace organs, artificially inseminate pregnancies, and study the body’s interior through various scans and pictures. Scientists read the genetic code of living things and search deep into outer space for signs of other life. Ordinary people routinely communicate with each other in real time across countries and continents.

Dan Dennett, himself, has participated in this enhancement of our imagination by convincingly arguing that humans are very fancy, evolved, biological machines, and that soon human designed machines (robots) will come to be considered “persons,” though not biological persons.

Robin Williams as The Bicentennial Man, 1999 movie.

All these are “intuition shakers” and “imagination stretchers” contends Dennett, and they facilitate the belief in what was once considered merely a shameful, godless fantasy: The Bottom-Up Creativity by the Gradual Accumulation of Design. Yes, we have gotten More from Less Gradually through the process of Evolution.

What new and larger system or creature might we be able to imagine ourselves a part of?

Shame, shame! Now here is a kind of critter that didn’t do much with the opportunities life afforded them! But what a chauvinistic thing to say! Hey, they persist!

*From Dennett’s Bacteria to Bach and Back, page 38, 34 and 37-38.

GETTING MORE FROM LESS at The Connection! —–Logo by Marty

Traditional religion can be replaced by rational ideas

 

brown painted infrastructure beside trees
Sagrada Familia (Holy Family) Basilica under construction since 1882. Barcelona Spain

(INTRODUCTION: This is the initial post for this blog, “naturereligionconnection.org”.  This post has a long and personally significant history.  It initially appeared as a letter to the editor in the Columbus Dispatch in late 2007.  I was gratified by the response.  That Sunday morning the phone rang several times, early, and I ignored them, cursing “those damn telemarketers.”  After several more calls I finally answered to find a lady asking it I was the author of this morning’s letter.  She went on to explain how moved she was, literally, saying she shouted, “Yes!” at one point while reading, and leaped up from the couch.  The following week I received a half dozen letters expressing appreciation for my effort.  A Sunday School teacher wrote that he intended to use it with his teen-age group to provoke discussion.  One scrawled and rambling letter explained how I was going to Hell.  This current post is a slightly revised version of that original, letter.) 

 

Sometimes in presidential races, religion becomes a topic.  That was the case in 2008 and especially in the Iowa caucus.  Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney spoke passionately about his religious beliefs because they were apparently adversely affecting some Iowans.  The editor of our local Columbus newspaper interviewed E. Gordon Gee, President of The Ohio State University (Columbus Dispatch 12/2/2007) who hopes we can “restore civility and thoughtfulness to politics.”

The first obstacle cited, by Gee, to this “more civilized political discourse” was religious prejudice and ignorance.  Gee is a Mormon, as is his friend Romney.  He said it was “hogwash” to think that Romney would govern differently, or that he, Gee, would administer a university differently because of their religious belief.

Here at NatureReligionConnection, we believe that, but also that there is more to say.  We think it is ‘hogwash’ that there is so little civil and thoughtful discourse about religion. Politics aside, the Christmas season was then in full swing and that, too, made it an excellent time to ask: how is it that so many of us hold so many different, so many contradictory, so many fanciful religious opinions?  If Gee and Romney want thoughtful political discourse then let us start a thoughtful discourse about religion to accompany it.

For example, Mormons believe that in the year 1823 in Palmyra, New York, (not exactly a ‘mecca’ of religious activity!) an angel named Moroni helped Joseph Smith obtain buried golden tablets that were written in an ancient language about an ancient people that once lived there.  Mormon, the author of the plates, was a prophet and historian for these people, the Nephites, who had come from Jerusalem to the New World in 600 B.C. by boat.

In the New World, the Nephites created a great civilization, eventually destroyed but not before Jesus Christ came to them soon after his resurrection and personally ministered to them.  Joseph Smith used special stones (the Urim and Thummim) that came with the plates and allowed him to translate them into the Book of Mormon, the sole source of this ‘history.’  After the translation, the angel Moroni took the tablets back for safekeeping, but not before they were shown to 11 witnesses (see the front of the Book of Mormon for their testimony). Mormons believe that the Nephites are the ancestors of Native American Indians.

That’s a unique twist on Christianity, and—for good reasons—most of us don’t believe it, unless you were born in Utah.

ancient architecture asia buildings
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Another belief that most Americans don’t hold:  In the year 610 A.D. Muhammad was fasting and praying in a cave outside of Mecca, now Saudi Arabia.  He wished his people to possess a book like the Jews and Christians and finally on this occasion, after days of prayer and abstinence, the Angel Gabriel appeared and ordered him to “recite.”  He could not, so the angel took him in something like a bear hug and held Muhammad till breathless and again ordered him to “recite.”  But nothing came forth.

Finally, after releasing him from a third embrace, Muhammad, gasping for breath, found the opening words of the Quran tumbling from his mouth.  Muslims don’t believe that Christianity is wrong but simply that it is incomplete, that the Quran completes the teachings about God.

We don’t believe that story either, certainly not in any literal sense, but one billion people from North Africa through the Middle East and deep into Asia do, and many of them now live in the United States and Europe.

In the name of Allah, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful:                                                      All Praise is due to Allah, Lord of the Universe.

“The Opening”  of the Quran, Surah Al-Fatih

Finally, a story that many Americans subscribe to.  It’s a familiar story and one that profoundly moves us especially during the holiday season.  We won’t repeat it in detail; it too involves angels, ancient events, a special book, ascension into heaven, a pregnancy without sex, and a god who was also a man.  Of course, this story is just as hard to believe.

Many Americans do believe, it’s our story, but of course intimate familiarity is the primary criterion for belief in any religion.  If you were born and raised into it, you believe it.

But it is more than intimate familiarity that is at work, it is also the feelings of connection, metaphysical insight and deeper purposes engendered by religious beliefs that is cited by believers as evidence of truthfulness.  All serious Mormons, Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus, etc. feel the validity of their faith; and since this feeling is had by all it is no proof to any for their specific stories.

It’s time to say what we believe.   Here at The Connection, we believe that ethics and morality are real things but are degraded by supernatural explanations.  We believe that the “faith” of religious believers is really their intuition of their actual involvement in something that is larger than themselves, that is the source of meaning, and that is of immense value.

A small but significant discourse is underway centered around courageous biologists and other theorists, who seek to gain our assent through reason and evidence that is accessible to all regardless of place of birth and socialization.  Traditional religion can be replaced, and interestingly it is the science of biology that is leading the way.  The design of the natural world, always the best argument for the existence of God, is being understood by evolutionary theory to be “That Large Thing” mentioned above.

IMG_0494
Backyard Tulip and The Tree of   Life    (picture by Greg WW)

 

It is the Tree of Life, and we humans are incorporated in the inner relations of this Biosphere.  As physician and medical researcher, Lewis Thomas wrote, “the earth is a loosely formed, spherical organism.”  So, it is with scientific justification that we can, with affection, admiration and even awe, look to our planet and gain inspiration.  It is Mother Earth, of which we are a part: Our planet is a massive and irreplaceable piece of living art.

If this scientific discourse can continue and expand, and if each of us have the courage to examine our own basic beliefs, we, here at the naturereligionconnection, believe that traditional religion can be replaced by more rational and uniform ideals.  Mother Nature’s human creatures will then have a sounder basis for civility and thoughtfulness in our political relations.

20151001-whaun-0393
Termite mound in Africa (thanks to Hauns in Africa for photo).  Opening post photo is the Catherdral in Barcelona, Spain, Sagrada Familia.  Designed by Architect Antoni Gaudi, construction began in 1882 and is expected to be finished in 2026!  Its resemblance to a termite mound is sometimes acknowledged.

 

cropped-img_34702-e1565808476815-11
Logo drawing by Marty!