Sunday, August 31, 2014

My take on Cognitive Dualism

Understand that this may not be exactly what philosopher Roger Scruton meant in his essay on Cognitive Dualism. What I write here is my interpretation of his idea.

I have always been mystified by the concept of free will. Even though I am firmly convinced that all conscious beings (well, at least humans) have free will, I have never been able to see any way that we can have it, in view of two highly convincing arguments for determinism (that may in some sense be the same):
  • Type 1, According to which all motions in the universe are determined by the laws of physics. In this view, the atoms in any brain are determined in a self consistent manner with all the other matter and energy in the universe. There is no room for free will in this mechanistic picture. Not surprisingly, this version of determinism seems to be prominent among physicists.
  • Type 2, Which would determine animal behavior even if Type 1 can be gotten around (which I think it can). This corresponds to the complete determination of a person’s actions, behavior and thoughts by a combination of that person’s genetic makeup (“hardware”) and the persons experiences after birth (and the memories of those experiences). Hence there is no room for free will in this picture. This version of determinism seems to often be held by those in the social sciences.
It would seem to me that it is hard to escape the conclusion that a person’s actions are entirely determined by Type 2 (I tend to think that Quantum Mechanics (QM), which implies that causeless transitions and motions occur, undermines, and allows an escape from, Type 1 determinism).

But this leaves a troublesome inconsistency. What role would reason and consciousness play in deciding what course of action to take? It seems that a reason for an action is redundant if genes/experience would determine what one would do. It is like an “overdetermined” quantity in mathematics.

We humans are seemingly “programmed” to look for causes of all actions and motions. If I understand Kant in his “Critique of Pure Reason”, he maintains that the idea of cause and effect is built into the human brain. That things have causes is, in a sense, an axiom within the human brain.

But what if not all phenomena have physical causes? As I mentioned, QM suggests that causeless transitions occur, for example the causeless dropping down of an electron in an excited atom to a lower energy state, giving off a photon of light. Of course, there is a cause of the transition in the sense that the electromagnetic interactions is responsible for the transition, it is just that there is no reason why the electron “decided” to make the transition at a given time. It is a statistical thing, just as it is with the familiar idea of radioactive decay and the half life concept.

Another physics consideration: in QM, a photon can manifest either wave or particle aspects, depending on the context of it’s interaction with a given experiment or observation. So we have an example of a hard science being content with two incommensurate models of a physical entity.

OK, perhaps by analogy we could argue that there are two incommensurate ways of looking at the world:

View 1: Cause and effect, the mechanism of physics, the complete determinism of inanimate objects and energy. In this view, animals are collections of atoms all obeying laws of physics, and there is no room for free will. In particular, consciousness itself is a deep mystery__unless as many physicists do, it is argued that a machine of a threshold complexity can lead to the emergence of consciousness. A big problem here is that this latter idea is untestable, since consciousness is subjective, and only resides inside the mind of a given person. It cannot be objectively accessed by methods of science.

View 2: Free will, consciousness, and reason are an entirely distinct picture of the nature of human life (maybe to some extent, animal life also). In this view, some actions of conscious entities are not caused by physics mechanisms. This perspective is separate and obviously incompatible with view 1. Free Will would simply involve the “causing” of an action by the concomitant effects of reason and consciousness on the part of a being. (Of course, no doubt many actions, perhaps the majority of them, are in practice not undertaken because of reasoning, but are undertaken rashly or impulsively without much thought being involved. Perhaps such actions fall under the category of Type 2 determinism.)

Yes, it might seems that the two views have to be relatable, or reconcilable,  in order to make sense to us beings “trapped” in a realm where all things seem to be caused. But, taking the cue from the aforementioned photon’s dualistic nature in QM, isn’t it plausible that the two views must simply co-exist, in full recognition of their incommensurate nature? 

To explore a little further the implications of this cognitive dualism model: Consciousness is not caused by any physical mechanism, but simply is. A conscious being can choose, through its free will, to use, or not use, reasoning processes to decide what to do. 

The physical world, in the absence of any conscious beings within it, is purely, strictly, deterministic. Many process that would occur are chaotic and hence “unpredictable”, but are still deterministic (a coin toss is chaotic, and hence unpredictable, but no one can doubt that the dynamics of the coin is absolutely determined by Newton’s laws). The cosmologist Andre Linde has pointed out that the Schrodinger equation for the entire Universe does not depend on time, but that this changes when conscious beings enter the picture. Novelty in the universe thus requires the decisions of conscious beings.

Bertrand Russell’s phrase in “A Free Man’s Worship” (which has had a very great effect on me all of my life) that we are “accidental collocations of atoms”, is thus dubious, since there are no accidents in a strictly physics-determined universe. Time and chance in such a universe are superfluous concepts.

But what qualifies as a conscious being? Is an amoeba or a slug a conscious being? I doubt it. There must be a threshold degree of consciousness, in some sense, in order for novelty to emerge.
(to be continued)