Sunday, October 9, 2016

A few random philosophical thoughts on metaphysics, consciousness, and free will.

Does consciousness originate within the brain, or is there some kind of a generalized consciousness “field” that couple to an individual that gives that individual a subjective conscious awareness? An analogy with the “Higgs field’ of the standard model of particle physics would be apt, where in that case elementary particles get their mass by coupling to the Higgs field.

It is hard to see how science, neuroscience in particular, can satisfactorily answer this, since science is based on making observations in objective realty, and consciousness is subjective.

Many, if not most, of the questions that concern thoughtful humans are metaphysical questions that cannot be answered, or even broached, by the methods of the empirical sciences. Do we have free will? Is there a God? Does our consciousness in survive, in some form, our biological death? Why does the universe exist, or “why is there something rather than nothing?”.

This last question stands apart from the others in than I don’t think a satisfactory answer can even be imagined. As philosophers like to say, what would an answer even look like? Just imagining an answer makes us realize we would need t make use of already existent things

Now to be sure, for some of us, science can tend to suggest, or hint at, answers to some of the above questions. For example, the amazing design of the universe seems to suggest something like the “Einsteinian God” (or gods?). I think many theoretical physicists like to make reference to “God” or a deity when discussing how these physics laws were made to be consistent, and pregnant with deep complexity, although it is usually couched in a somewhat tongue-in-cheek style.

On the other hand, “New Atheist” Richard Dawkins has pointed out, somewhat plausibly to my mind, that biological evolution tends to imply that there is no God, no Designer. Natural selection seems to satisfy all the questions one might have about how life forms are so wonderfully adapted to the biosphere, and since this selection process is “nature red in tooth and claw” (as Charles Darwin famously remarked), if there is a God He/She seems unnecessarily cruel. But the most straightforward response to this is that there is , in fact, no God, no designer.

But when Dawkins goes on to say that there is no evidence of God, or Nobelist Steven Weinberg says that the “more we learn about the universe, the more pointless it seems”, they are on shaky ground. What evidence of a God, or a purpose to the universe, could possibly be found through empirical study of the universe?

Free will is a topic much “in the news” today, at least among philosophers and neuroscientists. I am guessing that the vast majority of people working in these ares would readily say there no such thing as free will. And more often than not, they would add that “science has proved that there is not”. But of course, they cannot act on this, or even convincingly argue for it consistently, since, if their thoughts and actions are compelled, it seems there is no reason to believe what they say is true. We don’t ascribe any plausibility to the output of a puppet. Strict determinism seems to quickly undermine itself.

But let’s not be hasty here. Neuroscience aside, is seems very difficult to see how to escape from the constraints of “Nature plus Nurture” (NpN) since what an organism does would seem to be entirely dues to its “initial state” (its genetic makeup) and its experiences, which in effect add software to the organism.
So, while it is easy to escape from the “physicalist” form of determinism through the inherent uncertainties of quantum mechanics of the microcosm, NpN is a real sticking point for the free willist. In fact, this is even true if the physical universe is non-deterministic.The real thrust of the NpN mechanism is that since the organism has a beginning in time, there can be no agency associated with its decisions other than what has been added onto its physical make up by its time-ordered experiences.

The fact is, it is even hard to specify exactly what free will would even mean. Free will is one of those things that we all “know”, or at least assume, that we and others have. In a sense it is axiomatic. In a way, we say, it is caused, but it is caused by our reasoning processes in our heads. And this seems correct, since the strict determinist has the onus of explaining why reason would have evolved, if it is not to allow an individual organism how to think and act. In a sense, determinism and reason seem to “over determine” the behavior of an organism. If its behavior is unfolding according to necessity, what possible purpose would reason serve from an evolutionary perspective?

The strict physicalist determents has another problem. Recall Laplace’s argument that if he knew the positions and velocities of all the particles in the universe, then the later states of the universe would all be predictable. This is usually brought up in writings as being hopelessly naive, in view of chaos theory whereby the slightest uncertainty in these parameters would quickly lead to the universe being entirely unpredictable. But again, not so fast, chaos theory would completely render to predictability argument wrong. But a chaotic system is still a deterministic system. Conceptually, Laplace would seem to be correct, at least with the confines of “classical physics”.

Quantum mechanics,which certainly seems to well describe the micro-world, does seem to change this, although only according to some interpretations of it. For example, the “Copenhagen” interpretations involves separating the observer from the physical system, and the act of making an observation on a physical system cause it to collapse to a classically describable state. Hence, the overall deterministic nature of the physical universe is under cut by this view.

However, one might argue that if the atoms of the observer are included in the quantum state of the universe, physical determinism still holds. Following this line of argument, it would seem inescapable to infer that there really is nothing that could happen that was not preordained. But again, in this picture, what would be the “reason for reason”, and for consciousness? Truth and necessity seem to be incompatible.

(to be continued)


Rufus Otis said...

As you know, I refuse to label myself "atheist", but rather an agnostic -- I don't think absolute knowledge is possible. When one declares "there is no God", you must have a definition of "God" to establish that there is no such thing. Physical and theoretical sciences are concerned with describing the nature of, and predicting the behavior of "things" that exist. It's as nearly impossible to describe "nothing" as it is to know everything.

So, establishing the existence of "God" depends largely upon what we're talking about. If I define "God" as "that which is", then it becomes a little harder to argue the atheist line than if I define "God" as a man in a robe who lives in the clouds and personally intervenes in human affairs. And where did all this stuff come from? A big bang doesn't explain what "banged". I more suspect (not "know", because I think this knowledge is impossible) that we just don't get it at all... we're looking into a mirror at an abstract painting that's hanging upside down in a dark room -- and we are a gnat.

Rufus Otis said...

One more note... the new HBO series, "Westworld", promises to explore free will, the nature of consciousness, and self-awareness, and morality in an AI world. It remains to be seen if it will address these question in depth and with any originality beyond "The Matrix", "Total Recall", "Vanilla Sky", and other sci-fi stabs at the subject. They already obliquely quoted the Von Neumann AI criterion. A guest asks a madam at the saloon, "Are you real". She replies, "If you can't tell, what does it matter?"

An aside... speaking of Von Neumann, possibly the smarted man ever to live, was a lifetime agnostic, but on his deathbed, citing Pascal's Wager, asked a Catholic priest to perform last rites.

Rufus Otis said...

Imagination and dreams are a difficulty... they seem to exist, but have, in themselves, no mass, position, and don't have to obey any physical laws. But one can't deny their existence -- sometimes as real as things we can touch.

Tom said...

Rufus, regarding your comment "They already obliquely quoted the Von Neumann AI criterion. A guest asks a madam at the saloon, 'Are you real'. She replies, 'If you can't tell, what does it matter?'"

Well, it certainly does matter. As I have written elsewhere in this blog dealing with AI, if an AI system's behavior and responses are indistinguishable from a being possessing consciousness, then we must give that system the benefit of the doubt and assume it "is real". This was beautifully and poignantly illustrated in Star Trek TNG's episode "The Measure of a Man", wherein the android "Data" resists letting them disassemble him.

Somewhere Roger Penrose has pointed out that if we were convinced a computer or an artificial system were conscious, we should not be so blasé about turning it off.