Does quantum indeterminism defeat reductionism?

After writing a piece on the role of metaphysics in science, which was a reply to neuroscientist Kevin Mitchell, he pointed me to several of his articles including one on reductionism and determinism. I found this interesting since I hadn’t really thought about the interplay of the two concepts. Mitchell argues that if the world is intrinsically indeterministic (which I think it is), then that defeats reductionism. We likely agree on much of the science, and how the world is, but nevertheless I largely disagree with his article.

Let’s start by clarifying the concepts. Reductionism asserts that, if we knew everything about the low-level status of a system (that is, everything about the component atoms and molecules and their locations), then we would have enough information to — in principle — completely reproduce the system, such that a reproduction would exhibit the same high-level behaviour as the original system. Thus, suppose we had a Star-Trek-style transporter device that knew only about (but everything about) low-level atoms and molecules and their positions. We could use it to duplicate a leopard, and the duplicated leopard would manifest the same high-level behaviour (“stalking an antelope”) as the original, even though the transporter device knows nothing about high-level concepts such as “stalking” or “antelope”.

As an aside, philosophers might label the concept I’ve just defined as “supervenience”, and might regard “reductionism” as a stronger thesis about translations between the high-level concepts such as “stalking” and the language of physics at the atomic level. But that type of reductionism generally doesn’t work, whereas reductionism as I’ve just defined it does seem to be how the world is, and much of science proceeds by assuming that it holds. While this version of reductionism does not imply that explanations at different levels can be translated into each other, it does imply that explanations at different levels need to be mutually consistent, and ensuring that is one of the most powerful tools of science.

Our second concept, determinism, then asserts that if we knew the entire and exact low-level description of a system at time t  then we could — in principle — compute the exact state of the system at time t + 1. I don’t think the world is fully deterministic. I think that quantum mechanics tells us that there is indeterminism at the microscopic level. Thus, while we can compute, from the prior state, the probability of an atom decaying in a given time interval, we cannot (even in principle) compute the actual time of the decay. Some leading physicists disagree, and advocate for interpretations in which quantum mechanics is deterministic, so the issue is still an open question, but I suggest that indeterminism is the current majority opinion among physicists and I’ll assume it here.

This raises the question of whether indeterminism at the microscopic level propagates to indeterminism at the macrosopic level of the behaviour of leopards. The answer is likely, yes, to some extent. A thought experiment of coupling a microscopic trigger to a macroscopic device (such as the decay of an atom triggering a device that kills Schrodinger’s cat) shows that this is in-principle possible. On the other hand, using thermodynamics to compute the behaviour of steam engines (and totally ignoring quantum indeterminism) works just fine, because in such scenarios one is averaging over an Avogadro’s number of partlces and, given that Avogadro’s number is very large, that averages over all the quantum indeterminicity.

What about leopards? The leopard’s behaviour is of course the product of the state of its brain, acting on sensory information. Likely, quantum indeterminism is playing little or no role in the minute-by-minute responses of the leopard. That’s because, in order for the leopard to have evolved, its behaviour, its “leopardness”, must have been sufficiently under the control of genes, and genes influence brain structures on the developmental timescale of years. On the other hand, leopards are all individuals. While variation in leopard brains derives partially from differences in that individual’s genes, Kevin Mitchell tells us in his book Innate that development is a process involving much chance variation. Thus quantum indeterminicity at a biochemical level might be propogating into differences in how a mammal brain develops, and thence into the behaviour of individual leopards.

That’s all by way of introduction. So far I’ve just defined and expounded on the concepts “reductionism” and “determinism” (but it’s well worth doing that since discussion on these topics is bedeviled by people interpreting words differently). So let’s proceed to why I disagree with Mitchell’s account.

He writes:

For the reductionist, reality is flat. It may seem to comprise things in some kind of hierarchy of levels – atoms, molecules, cells, organs, organisms, populations, societies, economies, nations, worlds – but actually everything that happens at all those levels really derives from the interactions at the bottom. If you could calculate the outcome of all the low-level interactions in any system, you could predict its behaviour perfectly and there would be nothing left to explain.

There is never only one explanation of anything. We can always give multiple different explanations of a phenomenon — certainly for anything at the macroscopic level — and lots of different explanations can be true at the same time, so long as they are all mutually consistent. Thus one explanation of a leopard’s stalking behaviour will be in terms of the firings of neurons and electrical signals sent to muscles. An equally true explanation would be that the leopard is hungry.

Reductionism does indeed say that you could (in principle) reproduce the behaviour from a molecular-level calculation, and that would be one explanation. But there would also be other equally true explanations. Nothing in reductionism says that the other explanations don’t exist or are invalid or unimportant. We look for explanations because they are useful in that they enable us to understand a system, and as a practical matter the explanation that the leopard is hungry could well be the most useful. The molecular-level explanation of “stalking” is actually pretty useless, first because it can’t be done in practice, and second because it would be so voluminous and unwieldy that no-one could assimilate or understand it.

As a comparison, chess-playing AI bots are now vastly better than the best humans and can make moves that grandmasters struggle to understand. But no amount of listing of low-level computer code would “explain” why sacrificing a rook for a pawn was strategically sound — even given that, you’d still have all the explanation and understanding left to achieve.

So reductionism does not do away with high-level analysis. But — crucially — it does insist that high-level explanations need to be consistent with and compatible with explanations at one level lower, and that is why the concept is central to science.

Mitchell continues:

In a deterministic system, whatever its current organisation (or “initial conditions” at time t) you solve Newton’s equations or the Schrodinger equation or compute the wave function or whatever physicists do (which is in fact what the system is doing) and that gives the next state of the system. There’s no why involved. It doesn’t matter what any of the states mean or why they are that way – in fact, there can never be a why because the functionality of the system’s behaviour can never have any influence on anything.

I don’t see why that follows. Again, understanding, and explanations and “why?” questions can apply just as much to a fully reductionist and deterministic system. Let’s suppose that our chess-playing AI bot is fully reductionist and deterministic. Indeed they generally are, since we build computers and other devices sufficiently macroscopically that they average over quantum indeterminacy. That’s because determinism helps the purpose: we want the machine to make moves based on an evaluation of the position and the rules of chess, not to make random moves based on quantum dice throwing.

But, in reply to “why did the (deterministic) machine sacrifice a rook for a pawn” we can still answer “in order to clear space to enable the queen to invade”. Yes, you can also give other explanations, in terms of low-level machine code and a long string of 011001100 computer bits, if you really want to, but nothing has invalidated the high-level answer. The high-level analysis, the why? question, and the explanation in terms of clearing space for the queen, all still make entire sense.

I would go even further and say you can never get a system that does things under strict determinism. (Things would happen in it or to it or near it, but you wouldn’t identify the system itself as the cause of any of those things).

Mitchell’s thesis is that you only have “causes” or an entity “doing” something if there is indeterminism involved. I don’t see why that makes any difference. Suppose we built our chess-playing machine to be sensitive to quantum indeterminacy, so that there was added randomness in its moves. The answer to “why did it sacrifice a rook for a pawn?” could then be “because of a chance quantum fluctuation”. Which would be a good answer, but Mitchell is suggesting that only un-caused causes actually qualify as “causes”. I don’t see why this is so. The deterministic AI bot is still the “cause” of the move it computes, even if it itself is entirely the product of prior causation, and back along a deterministic chain. As with explanations, there is generally more than one “cause”.

Nothing about either determinism or reductionism has invalidated the statements that the chess-playing device “chose” (computed) a move, causing that move to be played, and that the reason for sacrificing the rook was to create space for the queen. All of this holds in a deterministic world.

Mitchell pushes further the argument that indeterminism negates reductionism:

For that averaging out to happen [so that indeterminism is averaged over] it means that the low-level details of every particle in a system are not all-important – what is important is the average of all their states. That describes an inherently statistical mechanism. It is, of course, the basis of the laws of thermodynamics and explains the statistical basis of macroscopic properties, like temperature. But its use here implies something deeper. It’s not just a convenient mechanism that we can use – it implies that that’s what the system is doing, from one level to the next. Once you admit that, you’ve left Flatland. You’re allowing, first, that levels of reality exist.

I agree entirely, though I don’t see that as a refutation of reductionism. At least, it doesn’t refute forms of reductionism that anyone holds or defends. Reductionism is a thesis about how levels of reality mesh together, not an assertion that all science, all explanations, should be about the lowest levels of description, and only about the lowest levels.

Indeterminism does mean that we could not fully compute the exact future high-level state of a system from the prior, low-level state. But then, under indeterminism, we also could not always predict the exact future high-level state from the prior high-level state. So, “reductionism” would not be breaking down: it would still be the case that a low-level explanation has to mesh fully and consistently with a high-level explanation. If indeterminacy were causing the high-level behaviour to diverge, it would have to feature in both the low-level and high-level explanations.

Mitchell then makes a stronger claim:

The macroscopic state as a whole does depend on some particular microstate, of course, but there may be a set of such microstates that corresponds to the same macrostate. And a different set of microstates that corresponds to a different macrostate. If the evolution of the system depends on those coarse-grained macrostates (rather than on the precise details at the lower level), then this raises something truly interesting – the idea that information can have causal power in a hierarchical system …

But there cannot be a difference in the macrostate without a difference in the microstate. Thus there cannot be indeterminism that depends on the macrostate but not on the microstate. At least, we have no evidence that that form of indeterminism actually exists. If it did, that would indeed defeat reductionism and would be a radical change to how we think the world works.

It would be a form of indeterminism under which, if we knew everything about the microstate (but not the macrostate) then we would have less ability to predict time t + 1  than if we knew the macrostate (but not the microstate). But how could that be? How could we not know the macrostate? The idea that we could know the exact microstate at time t  but not be able to compute (even in principle) the macrostate at the same time t  (so before any non-deterministic events could have happened) would indeed defeat reductionism, but is surely a radical departure from how we think the world works, and is not supported by any evidence.

But Mitchell does indeed suggest this:

The low level details alone are not sufficient to predict the next state of the system. Because of random events, many next states are possible. What determines the next state (in the types of complex, hierarchical systems we’re interested in) is what macrostate the particular microstate corresponds to. The system does not just evolve from its current state by solving classical or quantum equations over all its constituent particles. It evolves based on whether the current arrangement of those particles corresponds to macrostate A or macrostate B.

But this seems to conflate two ideas:

1) In-principle computing/reproducing the state at time t + 1 from the state at time t (determinism).

2) In-principle computing/reproducing the macrostate at time t from the microstate at time t (reductionism).

Mitchell’s suggestion is that we cannot compute: {microstate at time t } ⇒ {macrostate at time t + 1 }, but can compute: {macrostate at time t } ⇒ {macrostate at time t + 1 }. (The latter follows from: “What determines the next state … is [the] macrostate …”.)

And that can (surely?) only be the case if one cannot compute: {microstate at time t } ⇒ {macrostate at time t }, and if we are denying that then we’re denying reductionism as an input to the argument, not as a consequence of indeterminism.

Mitchell draws the conclusion:

In complex, dynamical systems that are far from equilibrium, some small differences due to random fluctuations may thus indeed percolate up to the macroscopic level, creating multiple trajectories along which the system could evolve. […]

I agree, but consider that to be a consequence of indeterminism, not a rejection of reductionism.

This brings into existence something necessary (but not by itself sufficient) for things like agency and free will: possibilities.

As someone who takes a compatibilist account of “agency” and “free will” I am likely to disagree with attempts to rescue “stronger” versions of those concepts. But that is perhaps a topic for a later post.

97 thoughts on “Does quantum indeterminism defeat reductionism?

  1. Schlafly

    I have trouble with your definition of reductionism. You say if you knew everything about a system, you could reproduce it. Knowing everything includes location, but not behavior at time t+1.

    Knowing location is not even meaningful, depending on your quantum interpretation. And if you don’t know what the system is going to do, then what makes you think you know everything?

    You later say “there cannot be a difference in the macrostate without a difference in the microstate.” That is really the heart of reductionism. It is central to all of modern science, but is really just an assumption that could turn out to be false.

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      Hi Schlafly,

      You later say “there cannot be a difference in the macrostate without a difference in the microstate.” That is really the heart of reductionism. It is central to all of modern science, but is really just an assumption that could turn out to be false.

      Agreed, it could turn out to be false, and that would then overturn reductionism. So far, though, it seems to be the way the world is.

  2. Brent Meeker

    I agree with your analysis of Mitchell’s idea. But I think you pose to strong a definition of reductionism, “Let’s start by clarifying the concepts. Reductionism asserts that, if we knew everything about the low-level status of a system (that is, everything about the component atoms and molecules and their locations), then we would have enough information to — in principle — completely reproduce the system, such that a reproduction would exhibit the same high-level behaviour as the original system.” The problem with this is that even if the macrostate can be computed from the microstate, indeterminism means the reproduced system may not exhibit the the same high-level behavior. Microscopic inherently random events, like K40 decay in your bloodstream, may become amplified to change high-level behavior (e.g. Schroedinger’s cat).

    Another problem, which Mitchell raises but I agree draws inconsistent conclusions from, is that complete knowledge of microstates is impossible given quantum mechanics. Holevo’s theorem and the no-cloning theorem imply that you can never know more than half the information to reproduce a micro state. A modern version of metaphysics needs to recognize this.

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      Hi Brent,

      The problem with this is that even if the macrostate can be computed from the microstate, indeterminism means the reproduced system may not exhibit the the same high-level behavior.

      Yes, agreed, indeterminism means that two identical systems would diverge in their behaviour. But that’s just as much the case if we start from the macroscopic description as if we start from the microscopic description. What I’m arguing is that, so long as we can replicate the macroscopic state from the microstate (and if we can’t then, well, that’s rather weird), then we can never be in-principle worse off knowing the microstate but not the macrostate.

  3. Marvin Edwards

    I haven’t read Mitchell, but I agree with you that the notion that “a cause that has prior causes is not really a cause” does not work. It is a test that none of the prior causes can pass. Therefore it is an invalid requirement.

    Reductionism does not work because there are at least 3 distinct classes of causal mechanisms: physical, biological, and rational. Each operates at a different level of organization and each has its own rules. It is quite possible that quantum mechanics is a fourth level, operating deterministically by a set of rules that we simply do not yet understand. But, in any case, the fact that each level operates by its own rules means that we cannot predict the behavior of a higher level from the behavior at a lower level, as we can demonstrate here.

    Inanimate objects behave “passively” in response to physical forces. Place a bowling ball on the side of a hill and it will always roll down hill. Its behavior is entirely governed by the law of gravity.

    Living organism behave “purposefully”, they are driven biologically to survive, thrive, and reproduce. Place a squirrel on the same hill and he may go up, down, or any other direction where he expects to find his next acorn, or perhaps a mate. The squirrel’s behavior is not governed by gravity, but by its biological needs.

    Intelligent species behave “deliberately”. Their evolved brain is able to imagine alternate possibilities, evaluate their options, and choose what they will do next. This “choosing what they will do” is called “free will”, because it is literally a freely chosen “I will”.

    How do we know that we cannot derive deliberate behavior from physical laws? Well, the simplest demonstration is that we cannot derive the laws of traffic from the laws of physics. The laws of traffic clearly govern the behavior of intelligent species, like us, but in America everyone drives on the right side of the road, while in England everyone drives on the left. Yet the laws of physics are identical in both places.

    Reductionism does not work. While physics is able to explain why a cup of water flows down hill, it has no clue as to why a similar cup of water, heated, and mixed with a little coffee, hops into a car and goes grocery shopping.

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      Hi Marvin,

      … the fact that each level operates by its own rules means that we cannot predict the behavior of a higher level from the behavior at a lower level,…

      Are you then disagreeing with my thought experiment about a Star-Trek-style transporter device and a leopard? Suppose the transporter device knows everything about low-level atoms and molecules, and uses that information to replicate a leopard. Would not the replicated leopard be a leopard, manifesting leopard behaviour? If so, then we can — in principle — predict leopard behaviour from the low-level state.

      Reductionism does not work. While physics is able to explain why a cup of water flows down hill, it has no clue as to why a similar cup of water, heated, and mixed with a little coffee, hops into a car and goes grocery shopping.

      But, as I argued in the article, no-one proposes a version of reductionism that demands that the high-level behaviour must be translatable into the language of the low-level behaviour. That’s not what anyone who argues for reductionism means by the term.

    2. Marvin Edwards

      We assume the transporter would copy the material as currently arranged, and then start up the processes wherever they left off. This would copy all three levels of causal mechanisms.

      I think we exist in the processing. When the processing stops, our life stops, and all we have then is an inanimate lump of matter. So, its not just the atoms, but what they happen to be doing at that time and place, that must be transported to the new location.

      All three causal mechanisms may be presumed to be deterministic, such that any event might be fully explained by some combination of physical, biological, and rational mechanisms.

      The importance of the rational causal mechanism (where we find free will) is that our behavior is calculated using our beliefs. Michael Gazzaniga pointed out the importance of beliefs this way:

      “Sure, we are vastly more complicated than a bee. Although we both have automatic responses, we humans have cognition and beliefs of all kinds, and the possession of a belief trumps all the automatic biological process and hardware, honed by evolution, that got us to this place. Possession of a belief, though a false one, drove Othello to kill his beloved wife, and Sidney Carton to declare, as he voluntarily took his friend’s place at the guillotine, that it was a far, far better thing he did than he had ever done.”

      Gazzaniga, Michael S.. Who’s in Charge?: Free Will and the Science of the Brain (pp. 2-3). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

    3. Coel Post author

      Let’s presume that the transporter copies — in an instant — every atom and molecule, and their positions and how each atom is moving (or copies all the wavefunctions, if one prefers). [Obviously this is impossible, but this is a thought experiment.]

      If the replicated system would then go on to manifest all the high-level behaviour, then that’s all that is needed for reductionism to hold — at least, the forms of reductionism that people defend.

      You’re right, a lot of what is important is in the patterns and processes, but if one copies all the atoms, including what each atom is doing (how it is moving), then the patterns and processes — including Othello’s thoughts — are also replicated.

    4. Marvin Edwards

      “but if one copies all the atoms, including what each atom is doing (how it is moving), then the patterns and processes — including Othello’s thoughts — are also replicated.”

      That seems indisputable. But you’ve explicitly discarded the most significant claim of reductionism, that everything can be explained using only the laws of physics, which remains a false claim.

    5. Coel Post author

      But you’ve explicitly discarded the most significant claim of reductionism, that everything can be explained using only the laws of physics, which remains a false claim.

      But reductionism only claims that the low-level account is AN explanation. It does not say that that is the only explanation, nor that any and all explanations can be arrived at using only physics.

      The fact that, if one entirely replicates the low-level state, then the high-level behaviour is manifest, is indeed ONE explanation. That is, it provides one “if a, b, c … , therefore …” statement.

      Reductionism most definitely does not say that, if you use only the laws of physics and the langauge of physics, then you can arrive at all the high-level-language explanations of the “the leopard was hungry” form. That form of reductionism is so obviously and trivially wrong that it’s not what anyone means by reductionism.

    6. Brent Meeker

      “Reductionism most definitely does not say that, if you use only the laws of physics and the langauge of physics, then you can arrive at all the high-level-language explanations of the “the leopard was hungry” form. That form of reductionism is so obviously and trivially wrong that it’s not what anyone means by reductionism.”

      I’m not so sure about that. I think you could, in principle, arrive at the prediction, “This bunch of atoms is going to act like a leopard that is hungry.” Since the laws of physics include quantum indeterminacy you can’t predict exactly what the leopard will do, but the empty stomach and nerve signals and hormone levels will tell you it’s hungry.

    7. Coel Post author

      I think you could, in principle, arrive at the prediction, “This bunch of atoms is going to act like a leopard that is hungry.”

      Yes, that’s true, but only by invoking higher-level concepts such as “hungry” and “leopard”. Those two concepts are not in the language of physics, and there is no way one can add physics language (pressure, temperature, mass) together to arrive at “hungry”. There is no formula (and cannot be any formula): “pressure times mass = hunger”. That sort of reductionism does not work (though no-one ever claims that it does).

      What you can indeed do — given a low-level replication that then manifests high-level behaviour — is then interpret the resulting behaviour and develop high-level terminology such as “hungry” in order to interpret what you see, and then give high-level explanations such as “the leopard is hungry”.

      … but the empty stomach and nerve signals and hormone levels will tell you it’s hungry.

      True, but only once you’ve developed higher-level concepts including “stomach”, “nerve”, “signal”, “hormone” and “hungry”!

    8. Brent Meeker

      True, but those high level concepts all derive from inventing language to describe high level observations. You only know what “hungry” means or a leopard by observing that expends effort to eat something and you empathize with your own feelings. So while there is a lot of randomness between the micro level and the evolution of perception, language, and the invention of the word “hungry” I don’t see that the concept, independent of language, doesn’t follow…unless you simply deny that “concept” is something that can’t be physical.

    9. Coel Post author

      True, but those high level concepts all derive from inventing language to describe high level observations.

      I agree with you entirely. You are expounding the forms of reductionism what work, that are how the world is, and which underpin science.

      The point is that some stronger forms of “reductionism” have been proposed (and have been widely discussed within academic philosophy, though they have never had much traction within science). Such forms argue that one should be able to go beyond observing high-level behaviour and inventing high-level concepts, and should be able to find “formulae” that will describe the high-level concepts such as “stalking” purely in terms of low-level language.

      These forms of “reductionism” don’t work, but that muddies the whole debate because the forms of reductionism that have been refuted are ones that no-one holds to, and the forms that people advocate (as in your comment), are ones that have not been refuted.

    10. Marvin Edwards

      Reductionism is not as innocent as you suggest. People feel threatened by the notion that they are being controlled. If reductionism did not pose that threat, then no one would find it interesting enough to discuss.

      Reductionism attempts to shift control from us to the atoms from which we are made. Suddenly, any freedom that we have requires that those quarks have freedom, and we end up with the notion of quantum indeterminism. Which is most likely an incorrect notion. It is more likely that quantum particles behave deterministically, but according to rules that we have not yet discovered.

      Matter behaves differently according to how it is organized. Inanimate matter behaves passively in response to physical forces like gravity. A bowling ball placed on a slope will always roll downhill. But a living organism behaves purposefully. It is driven to survive, thrive, and reproduce. A squirrel placed on that same slope may go up or down or in any other direction where he hopes to find his next acorn, or perhaps a mate. He is not governed by gravity, but by his biological needs.

    11. Coel Post author

      Reductionism attempts to shift control from us to the atoms from which we are made. Suddenly, any freedom that we have requires that those quarks have freedom, and we end up with the notion of quantum indeterminism.

      I don’t think that that’s a driver for notions of quantum indeterminism. The ideas of quantum indeterminism arise because that’s what we observe. Yes, the possibility of hidden variables remains, but Bell’s inequalities makes this difficult.

      Reductionism isn’t about shifting control or negating high-level volition. It’s just about tying different levels together.

      Matter behaves differently according to how it is organized. […] a living organism behaves purposefully.

      Agreed.

      A squirrel placed on that same slope may go up or down or in any other direction where he hopes to find his next acorn, or perhaps a mate. He is not governed by gravity, but by his biological needs.

      It’s both. The squirrel is still subject to gravity, and all the physical behaviour and the physics-level explanations hold just fine. The squirrel goes up a slope (against gravity) because of energy driving that climb. Inanimate stuff can do the same (moisture rising upwards owing to the energy of sunlight).

      Nothing about the high-level explanation negates or invalidates the low-level explanations; and nothing about the low-level explanations negates or invalidates the high-level explanations. That is the message of reductionism.

    12. Marvin Edwards

      I think the distinction I’m trying to make is that the squirrel can use physics to achieve his ends. But physics has no ends to achieve. The causation is top-down, not bottom-up.

    13. Coel Post author

      I think the distinction I’m trying to make is that the squirrel can use physics to achieve his ends. But physics has no ends to achieve.

      Agreed so far.

      The causation is top-down, not bottom-up.

      The phrase “top-down causation” is usually taken to mean a stronger thesis, namely that one could not give a low-level account of the behaviour. Thus, even if one had a perfect low-level description of a squirrel, then one could not — even in principle — use it to reproduce the high-level behaviour, because something would be missing. No-one has ever produced a good scheme for how top-down causation would work, one way would be a dualistic account where an animal’s “soul” caused matter to move in ways that could not be accounted for in physical terms. If one can give both the high-level and the low-level accounts of the squirrel, then that’s just standard reductionism.

    14. Brent Meeker

      Daniel Dennett has made the best reply to this in his book “Elbow Room”. Free will is consistent with reductionism because it reduces your action to who you are. To your genetics, your experience, your learning, your values, that are all encoded in those atoms in your brain. They are who you are. It’s silly to think of decisions coming from somewhere else as being you. It’s like trying to deny responsibility for your actions by saying, “My atoms made me do it.”

    15. Coel Post author

      Agreed, we have an intuitive “dualistic” tendancy to think of “myself” and what “I” did as being distinct from all the low-level stuff that adds up to “me”. The best way of thinking about ourselves is as deterministic AI robots (programmed by our genes, past environment, et cetera). What “we” do is very much the product of what we physically are, but it is still “us” that is doing it.

    16. Brent Meeker

      “Suppose the transporter device knows everything about low-level atoms and molecules, and uses that information to replicate a leopard. Would not the replicated leopard be a leopard, manifesting leopard behaviour? If so, then we can — in principle — predict leopard behaviour from the low-level state.”

      There’s a difference between predicting that the duplicate will behave like a leopard and being able to predict it’s actual, specific behavior. I think the former is true: being a leopard and having leopard behavior is a classical thing. But the not the latter. A leopard has K40 atoms in his blood and even if you duplicated all of his environment, the duplicates behavior would quickly diverge from the original. That’s the sense in which QM breaks deteminism. I don’t think that breaks reductionism, because it just add randomness and nobody thinks randomness is that extra magic that produces emergence.

    17. Coel Post author

      Hi Brent,

      That’s the sense in which QM breaks deteminism. I don’t think that breaks reductionism, because it just add randomness and nobody thinks randomness is that extra magic that produces emergence.

      Yes, I think we’re pretty much agreed here — QM breaks determinism, but does not break reductionism.

  4. Marvin Edwards

    An example of top-down causation would be a college student who decides to forego the party tonight in order to study for her chemistry exam tomorrow. Having set her intent upon studying, she will review her lecture notes and the textbook, deliberately modifying her neural associations so that the answer will come to her mind as she encounters the questions on tomorrow’s test.

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      People can, of course, use terms such as “top-down causation” in different ways, but that example would not be “top-down causation” as the term is generally used. Everyone (including reductionists and determinists) would agree that your example is a valid explanation.

      “Top-down causation” is generally held to be a more radical thesis: it asserts that the low-level account is insufficient, in that it is not — even in principle — sufficient to predict future low-level behaviour, but that in order to do that you’d need to bring in high-level information.

      In other words, top-down causation asserts that in order to model low-level behaviour (e.g. physics), you need the high-level account (e.g. psychology, her state of mind and intentions), and that the low-level account itself would not work in the sense that one could not use the laws of physics to predict the behaviour of low-level particles. There’s no evidence at all that this is the case.

    2. Marvin Edwards

      We observe a car stopping at a red light. Can we explain this event using only the laws of physics? The laws governing this behavior are social laws, specifically the traffic laws. In America, the traffic laws require all cars to drive on the right hand side of the road. In England, the traffic laws require all cars to drive on the left. We assume that the laws of physics operate the same in America as they do in England. So, it is impossible to explain this difference using the laws of physics alone. The traffic laws would be another example of top-down causation.

      To explain this event requires an understanding of the biological drives to survive, thrive, and reproduce, plus the rational calculation that the best way to accomplish that purpose is to stop at the red light (and to create the rules of traffic that govern the driving behaviors).

    3. Brent Meeker

      The laws of physics include quantum randomness. So there’s no special difficulty in explaining why the English drive on the left side of the road and Americans on the right. You just have to go back to earlier times when the convention was first adopted.

      I once had an Englishman explain that it arose from walking and English gentlemen passed right-side-to-right side to avoid having their swords clash. I told him that was a good explanation since it explained why Americans passed left-side-to-left-side…to prevent their six-shooters from clashing.

    4. Marvin Edwards

      Cool explanation of the left/right driving. My personal opinion of quantum indeterminism is that it is a problem of prediction rather than unreliable causation. If they were a little easier to observe we might discover that they follow strict, deterministic rules of behavior. Each level of organization plays by its own set of rules because the causal mechanisms are unique to that level. There are probably at least four distinct levels: quantum, physical, biological and rational.

      In order to rescue the deterministic nature of the universe, we would assume that each level of causal mechanisms are perfectly reliable within their own domain, and that every event can be reliably explained by some specific combination of quantum, physical, biological, and/or rational causation.

      Random and chaotic events are, in my opinion, strictly problems of prediction and not of causation.

    5. Brent Meeker

      Right. So the inability to predict the driver stopping at the red light, says nothing about the efficacy of a causal explanation from the micro-level.
      Incidentally, if QM is not random then measurement of entangled particles can send signals faster than light; and hence send signals into the past.

    6. Marvin Edwards

      I could be wrong, but I’m of the opinion that there is no past. The past does not exist in empirical reality other than as a historical record of the present. The future does not exist in empirical reality other than as a prediction or plan we have in the present.

      So, sending signals into the past would be physically impossible, because nothing is where it was a few moments ago. Earth is revolving and hurtling through space around the Sun and the Milky Way galaxy is moving through space as well.

      If entangled particles instantly reflect each others changes, then that’s just what they do. That would be the “natural law” at that level. It’s just how things work. We don’t know why anything works the way it does. All we can do is describe what we observe.

      It seems to me that gravity should also qualify as “spooky action at a distance”. The only reason it isn’t spooky is because we’re used to it and we all take it for granted.

    7. Brent Meeker

      LIGO will be disappointed to hear the waves they detect didn’t travel from distant events. Do you also deny that light travels into the future? Which means that when we see it, it came from the past.

    8. Marvin Edwards

      I think you’ll agree that we will never detect the waves or the photons until they arrive here, and in the present. Then we infer the history of their origin in another time and in another place. When we say they “came from the past” we are speaking metaphorically, not literally. The past is not a different place that we can visit as if it were an actual distance to be travel. The past is everything in the present when it was in a different location. And that’s why time travel is a delightful fantasy, but a logical and physical impossibility. Time travel requires moving everything back to where it was, as if you were rearranging all the furniture, everywhere.

    9. Coel Post author

      We observe a car stopping at a red light. Can we explain this event using only the laws of physics?

      If that question is: could we, given full knowlege of the low-level state of the system 30 seconds earlier, predict that the atoms in the car would be at the location and moving in such a way as to amount to “stopped at the red light”, then yes, we could indeed predict that from physics.

      Yes, that would require something that equates to knowledge of traffic laws, but that would be encoded in the low-level state of the driver’s brain.

      So, it is impossible to explain this difference using the laws of physics alone

      But it is possible to explain that using the initial state of the (low-level description of the) system.

      The traffic laws would be another example of top-down causation.

      Again, that’s not what top-down causation means — unless you are denying that we could indeed predict the location of the car’s atoms from the prior low-level state.

    10. Marvin Edwards

      1) We seem to have different ideas about what “top-down” causation means. To me, top-down causation means that a higher level causal mechanism is exercising control over a lower level causal mechanism. For example, the social traffic laws are causally determining that the car stops at the red light. I’m curious how you define top-down causation.

      2) I believe that it is impossible to predict that the car will stop at the red light by examining the atoms in the car and in the driver. All of the atoms would like to continue through the red stop light due to the physical law of inertia. They have no reason to stop (and no ability to reason). The reason to stop only emerges when the atoms are organized into a machine that reasons, the driver.

    11. Coel Post author

      I’m curious how you define top-down causation.

      Here’s my definition from a couple of comments ago: “Top-down causation” is generally held to be a more radical thesis: it asserts that the low-level account is insufficient, in that it is not — even in principle — sufficient to predict future low-level behaviour, but that in order to do that you’d need to bring in high-level information.

      I believe that it is impossible to predict that the car will stop at the red light by examining the atoms in the car and in the driver.

      You’d need the rest of the system also (so, the traffic lights, the driver’s eyes, the car’s brakes, etc). One is considering the same system, just giving a low-level description rather than a high-level description. Why wouldn’t the low-level description lead to the same prediction (amounting to “stopped at traffic lights”) as the high-level description? Surely both should predict the same thing?

      The reason to stop only emerges when the atoms are organized into a machine that reasons, the driver.

      Yes, agreed, the organization of the atoms in the low-level description is indeed an utterly crucial part of the description.

      There’s nothing unusual in that suggestion — for example, whether carbon, hydrogen and nitrogen atoms are arranged in the pattern “cyanide”, or in the pattern “protein”, makes a big difference to how it acts.

    12. Marvin Edwards

      Coel: ““Top-down causation” is generally held to be a more radical thesis: it asserts that the low-level account is insufficient, in that it is not — even in principle — sufficient to predict future low-level behaviour, but that in order to do that you’d need to bring in high-level information.”

      Marvin: That’s exactly what I’ve been claiming. Accounting for the atoms will never predict stopping at the red light, because all of the atoms are looking to continue their forward motion due to the physical law of inertia.

      Coel: “One is considering the same system, just giving a low-level description rather than a high-level description.”

      Marvin: It’s actually a different system. The atom itself is a system consisting of protons, neutrons, electrons, etc. The driver of the car is a different system, different in nature, from the atom (quantum causal mechanism). The driver is a living organism, a system in which purposeful behavior has emerged (biological causal mechanism). The driver is also an intelligent species, a system in which deliberate behavior has emerged (rational causal mechanism).

      The behavior of the atoms is being controlled by (Level 1) the rational calculation that survival depends upon stopping at the light, (Level 2) the biological drive to survive, thrive, and reproduce, and finally (Level 3) the physics of pressing the foot upon the brake pedal and the physics of the cars system of response to braking.

      Coel: “. Why wouldn’t the low-level description lead to the same prediction (amounting to “stopped at traffic lights”) as the high-level description? Surely both should predict the same thing? ”

      Marvin: I think the causal mechanisms at each level (physical, biological, rational) operate according to different principles. As Michael Gazzaniga would say, “You’d never predict the tango if you only studied neurons.”

    13. Coel Post author

      It’s actually a different system. […] The driver of the car is a different system, different in nature, from the atom …

      You’re misunderstading what “the system” is, the system is everything that is relevant. We are comparing high-level and low-level accounts of the same system. If something (e.g. the driver) is relevant to the high-level account of explanation/causation then it is also an essential part of “the system” as viewed from the low-level account.

      So “the system” includes the car, the driver, the red light, other traffic, the car’s brakes, everything. Given that, you’ve not given a reason why the low-level account would not arrive at the same prediction (car’s atoms are in a state amounting to “stopped at the lights”).

      Or, putting it another way, supposed we had a Star-Trek-style transporter device that knows only about (but everything about) stuff at the level of atoms and molecules. And we use it to make a replica of the system at a time 10 seconds earlier (where again, that “system” includes everything). We could then — in principle — use that complete low-level account to make the prediction (car’s atoms are in a state amounting to “stopped at the lights”) that is the same as the expected behaviour from the high-level account.

      You’ve not given a reason why that would not work, and yet the claim that it would not work is what is usually meant by “top-down causation”.

      (Though again, missing out key parts of the system from the low-level account would of course mean the predictions would differ — everyone is agreed on that.)

    14. Marvin Edwards

      I suppose a side-question would be how one would go about building a transporter. Star Trek suggests to us that it would be possible, but perhaps it is a logical and physical impossibility, like time-travel.

      But returning to the problem of whether duplicating the relative position and trajectory of each atom would be sufficient, there is an intuition that it should be sufficient.

      However, the description of the position and trajectory of each atom would be meaningless. And the brain big enough to carry that data could not be born in the natural way. That’s why our brains take an alternate route, dealing with a model of reality consisting of much larger objects than atoms and just the significant events.

    15. Coel Post author

      The transporter-replication thought experiment indeed cannot be done, of course, but it is a good way of clarifying concepts such as “reductionism” and “top-down causation”.

  5. vampyricon

    I could be wrong, but I’m of the opinion that there is no past. The past does not exist in empirical reality other than as a historical record of the present. The future does not exist in empirical reality other than as a prediction or plan we have in the present.

    This would commit you to solipsism, as relativity showed that simultaneity, and hence “the present”, is an observer-dependent notion. Defining an objective present is only possible if you define a region infinitesimally small. If the past and future do not exist, then neither does anything apart from you.

    Reply
    1. Marvin Edwards

      Empirical observation suggests that the present is not “infinitesimally” small. I suspect it would have at least the range available to short-term memory and all the long term data accessible from there.

  6. Robin Herbert

    It does seem to me to be a clash of definitions. Kevin MItchell appears to mean by ‘reductionism’ ‘causality only occurs at the microscopic level’.

    Also, free will is usually used in a number of different ways. I define free will as:

    I have free will if it is at least sometime true that, as I consider some future course of action:
    1. More than one of some alternate courses of action is still possible for me and:
    2. The main proximate cause of my taking a particular course of action is my conscious intention.

    I can’t really think what else it would mean. As such it is not necessarily incompatible with physics but might be if hard determinism was true.

    If someone thinks that free will is compatible with hard determinism then they are only using the term in a different sense than I am rather than disagreeing with some fact about the world.

    If someone says that even if every single thing they do and say in their entire lives was already inevitable before they were born they might still have free will then I don’t think it is really sensible to use the term in that sense, but we can disagree on the way we use terms.

    In my definition I can’t see that [2] is incompatible with any version of physics, however [1] is incompatible with hard determinism.

    If I were to find that hard determinism was the case then I would simply accept that I have no free will, however I don’t see that it would make much difference to the way I live my life. So maybe it doesn’t matter.

    Reply
    1. Brent Meeker

      Free will consists of our inability to predict our actions. And if you consider the evolutionary causes of the development of brains, you can see that this is a feature, not a bug.

    2. Robin Herbert

      Hi Brent, As I said, people understand different things by the term. I stated what I meant by it and that is all I mean by it, but you mean something else.

    3. Coel Post author

      If someone thinks that free will is compatible with hard determinism then they are only using the term in a different sense than I am rather than disagreeing with some fact about the world.

      The term “free will” always has had two meanings:

      1) The “freedom” to will ones will, independently of causation or physics.
      2) The freedom to act on ones will, free of social coercion.

      For meaning 2, the fact that ones will is a caused product of the past is irrelevant. Most “free will” debates seem to result from people talking past each other by using the different meaning.

    4. Marvin Edwards

      I believe the freedom is in the choosing. We choose what we will do. We experience many wants and desires. But when, where, how, and whether we will satisfy a desire is normally a calculated choice. Since we are the objects performing the calculation, and it is our own interests that are used to weigh our options, the most meaningful and relevant cause of a particular “I will … ” turns out to be us. And no other object in the physical universe.

  7. Robin Herbert

    With top down causation, here is how I understand it:
    Someone builds an automaton out of wood and steel balls and this automaton implements the first few steps of Eratosthanes Sieve, so that you tip the steel balls into the top and at the bottom they fall into buckets so that the binary of 13 is represented.
    He then builds this out of steel and uses balls of marble, tips the balls in and they fall into buckets so that the binary of 13 is represented.
    He repeats this by using perspex and glass balls – again the binary of 13 at the bottom.
    The principle by which we are getting this representation of 13 at the bottom has nothing to do with the micro state. We could understand this principle completely without knowing anything about the micro state. Anything we could learn about the microstate would add exactly nothing to our understanding of this principle. This principle could work exactly the same in some other universe that worked by different physics.

    This would be a case of top down causation.

    Reply
    1. Robin Herbert

      Or, to put it another way – suppose you have a transporter that can transport a person down onto a planet so that he is the same person with a different micro-state.

      That is something that could be done in principle.

      Could the transporter do that only knowing the micro state? I doubt it.

    2. Coel Post author

      suppose you have a transporter that can transport a person down onto a planet so that he is the same person with a different micro-state. […] Could the transporter do that only knowing the micro state?

      You’re asking, could the device select one of the microstates that map to a given macrostate, but without knowing anything about the macrostate. No, it couldn’t. But again, that is not top-down causation.

    3. Brent Meeker

      Knowing the microstate in each case would not add anything in terms of the number produced (although it would add things about vibrations and heat etc). But it would INCLUDE the macrostate information necessary to predict the number produced. So there is not top-down causation, there is just a top down description that leaves out unnecessary information.

    4. Robin Herbert

      That seems to miss the point.

      You could predict the number from running a suitably fine grained simulation of the system and then construct the macro state at the end, but that would do *nothing* to help you understand what principle was involved in getting that number.

      On the other hand you could construct the initial macro state from the micro state and then predict the end result from there, but you couldn’t do that unless you first understood the principle by which the number you reached, which you would not have from just understanding the underlying principles of the micro system.

      So the cause of the balls falling into those particular buckets at the bottom is not included in the micro state.

      And, again, anything you know about the microstate adds nothing whatsoever to your understanding of the cause of the balls falling into those particular buckets.

    5. Coel Post author

      You could predict the number from running a suitably fine grained simulation of the system and then construct the macro state at the end, but that would do *nothing* to help you understand what principle was involved in getting that number.

      Reductionism is not asserting that the high-level concepts are unncessary, or that one can properly understand high-level behaviour without knowing anything about high-level behaviour.

      Really, it’s a much more mundane concept, simply asserting that a replication of a microstate is sufficient for macrostate-behaviour to be manifest.

    6. Robin Herbert

      And, before anyone says anything, my saying the principle is completely separate from one instantiation of it does not imply any sort of dualism or Platonism or anything of the sort, only that there are causal principles that operate at a higher level and do not depend upon any specific micro structure (although any micros structure that could implement them would have to have certain properties)

    7. Coel Post author

      The principle by which we are getting this representation of 13 at the bottom has nothing to do with the micro state. We could understand this principle completely without knowing anything about the micro state.

      In your scenario, all you are saying is that there are multiple microstates that would suffice as the same macrostate. Which is true, but the microstate is still all important. You would still need the device to be in one of the small number of microstates (compared to the set of possible microstates) that would be functionally equivalent from the top-level point of view. I wouldn’t see this as top-down causation.

  8. Brent Meeker

    Given the microstate you can also construct the macrostate at the beginning. So the microstate includes the knowledge you say allows you to understand the causal function. But that understanding draws on a lot of other knowledge outside of the structure of the machine. It includes the laws of physics and thing about the environment. “Understanding” is something you do, not something inherent in the machine. It’s essentially making explanatory connections between what the machine does and things you already knew.

    Reply
  9. Robin Herbert

    You wrote:
    “Given the microstate you can also construct the macrostate at the beginning. So the microstate includes the knowledge you say allows you to understand the causal function”
    No, it doesn’t include that knowledge. If you had the final microstate, how would you even know what that number was? Or that it was even a number?

    The principle by which that number results is not inherent in the machine, it is something that is entirely separate to that machine. If there never had been our laws of physics then there could have been some separate law of physics causing exactly the same end condition.

    Reply
  10. Marvin Edwards

    I think “free will” is literally a freely chosen “I will”. The “will” is a specific intent for the immediate (“I will have pancakes”) or distant (“last will and testament”) future. We routinely have several things that we want to do, which requires us to choose which of those options we “will” do. The choice sets our intent, and that intent then motivates and directs our subsequent actions.

    The “free” part refers to specific sorts of constraints that prevent us from making this choice for ourselves. Coercion, as in the classic “gun to the head”, subjugates our will to the will of the person holding the gun. A significant mental illness causing hallucinations, or impaired reason, or an irresistible impulse, may also effectively remove our control. Being manipulated by someone else, or being in an unequal relationship (parent/child, doctor/patient, commander/soldier) would also be kind of things that our choosing needs to be “free from” in order to be called a free choice. These are typically the things that would be raised in court to remove a person’s responsibility for their actions.

    The “free” part can never be taken to imply an impossible freedom. There is no such thing as “freedom from causation” or “freedom from oneself” or “freedom from reality”.

    The reason “freedom from causation” is impossible is that every freedom that we have, to do anything at all, requires reliable cause and effect. Freedom is the ability to reliably cause some effect. For example, a bird’s freedom to fly requires that the flapping of her wings provides sufficient lift to raise her body into the air.

    So, the notion of “freedom from causation” contains a self-contradiction, and that creates the long-standing paradox that will only be resolved by restricting those things that free will must be free of to constraints that choosing can in fact be free of.

    Reliable causation gives us predictability. Predictability gives us control. Control gives us freedom to do what we choose.

    I think that assuming reliable causation at all levels (quantum, physical, biological, rational) simplifies things. At each level we get a new playing field with its own rules or laws of nature. Quantum indeterminacy is probably a matter of not knowing the rules yet, a problem of prediction rather than causation.

    The main problem with reductionism is that it theoretically has no bottom. We used to think that the atom was the smallest part. What’s to say that our quarks are not also made of yet smaller particles, and they of yet smaller parts, down to the smallest part of the smallest part. And each level playing by its own set of rules.

    Reply
    1. Robin Herbert

      As I said, the problem is one of definition. There is ‘free will’ as in ‘no one is holding a gun to my head’ but I don’t think this is what is usually meant in these sort of discussions.

      I gave the definition that I use above and I think that it is probably what most people mean by it.

      I don’t see why the definition I gave would require freedom from causation, because causation does not imply determinism. Indeed the ‘will’ part of it more or less implies causation of some sort ‘I caused such-and-such’. And we can have reliable causation without determinism (which I define as ‘there is always only exactly one next state’.

      I still think that the answer is that we don’t know if we have free will.

      Here is my test – I am standing in front of two buttons marked A and B trying to decide which to press.

      If it is still, at this time, possible to press either A or B and if the proximate cause for my eventual action is my conscious intention then I have free will.

      If only one action is possible for me, ie it is already inevitable which button I will press then I don’t have free will.

      If my conscious intention is only an illusion and the decision was made unconsciously and presented to my consciousness later then I don’t have free will.

      I don’t think it is possible to make a call on existing evidence which is the case.

    2. Marvin Edwards

      There are several things going on there. I’ll take them one at a time.

      First, you correctly say that the context of free will is “as I consider some future course of action”. In other words, free will is about the mental operation of choosing what we will do. And this is something that happens in empirical reality, that is, choosing is not an “illusion”.

      Second, you say that free will can mean that “More than one of some alternate courses of action is still possible for me”. So, what is a “possibility”? A “possibility” is something that “can” happen, but we don’t know yet whether it “will” or “will not” happen. A possibility exists solely in the imagination. We cannot drive a car across the possibility of a bridge. We can only drive across an actual bridge. However, we cannot build an actual bridge without first imagining an actual bridge.

      The terms “possibility”, “can”, “ability”, “option” and probably many others exist to deal with uncertainty about what will happen. Causal necessity means that only one thing “will” happen. But it does not mean that only one thing “can” happen.

      In fact, at the beginning of every choosing operation, there must be, by logical necessity, at least two real possibilities, two things that “can” in fact happen. Things that “can” happen may never happen. Things that “could have” happened are always things that never did happen.

      The fact that a possibility never happened does not imply that it was ever impossible. The fact that we didn’t choose that option does not logically imply that it was an impossibility, but only that it was not the possibility that we chose to actualize.

      The conflation of what “can” happen with what “will” happen is a form of figurative language. We take the fact that something will not happen and think that “it was AS IF it could not happen”. But that’s an error.

      Third, you correctly point out that free will implies that “The main proximate cause of my taking a particular course of action is my conscious intention.” I would only interject that free will is about consciously choosing what that intention will be. There may be conscious intention without a decision involved, which would not relate to free will.

      Fourth, I have to disagree with this statement: “And we can have reliable causation without determinism (which I define as ‘there is always only exactly one next state’.” Reliable causation means that there is always only exactly one next state. And if that is determinism, then it is implied by reliable causation.

      Fifth, let’s examine that test. We have two buttons A and B. Assuming this is a meaningful choice, then there will be reasons for and against option A, and also reasons for and against option B. Also, by logical necessity (required by the operation), it must be the case that “we can choose A” is true and “we can choose B” is also true (even though we cannot choose both). Both A and B are considered “real” possibilities because if we choose A we can successfully implement A, and if we choose B we also can successfully implement B.

      At the beginning of our choosing operation we always have two “can’s”, two things that can happen if we choose to make them happen. Why? Because it is impossible to choose between a single possibility. There must always be at least two real possibilities for the choosing operation to proceed.

      So, we weigh the likely benefits of our two options, and find that one suits us better than the other. At the end of the choosing operation, we have precisely one thing that we “will” do, and at least one thing that we “could have” done.

      In short, whenever a choosing operation shows up in a causal chain, “I could have done otherwise” is always TRUE, but “I would have done otherwise is always FALSE.

      The cool thing is that, while causal necessity means that there will be precisely one actual future, within the domain of human influence we get to choose that one actual future from among the many possible futures that we imagine.

    3. Marvin Edwards

      Robin: “If everything that we do or say was already inevitable before we were born then “I could have done otherwise” is always false.”

      In every choosing operation two things are true by logical necessity: (1) there must be at least two real options to choose from (for example: A and B) and (2) it must be possible to choose either one (“I can choose A” must be true and “I can choose B” is must also be true).

      At the end of the choosing operation, assuming “I will choose A” is true, then “I could have chosen B” will also be true. Or, if “I will choose B” is true, then “I could have chosen A” will be true.

      What I “will” do is constrained by what I “can” do. But what I “can” do is only constrained by (1) the options that I imagine and (2) my ability to implement each of those options if I choose to do so.

      Any option that I can implement if I choose to do so, is considered a “real possibility”, even if I never choose to implement it (converting a possibility into an actuality).

      Although it seems counter-intuitive, the fact of what I “will” do, never contradicts, the fact of what I “could have” done. Both are true facts.

    4. Brent Meeker

      It depends on what X is and why is was inevitable. If X= walk on water, then it has nothing to do with free will. Nor if X= not give up my wallet to the gunman who says, “You money or your life.”. But if X=do something contrary to my values and reason, then that’s perfectly compatible with free will.

    5. Coel Post author

      If everything that we do or say was already inevitable before we were born then “I could have done otherwise” is always false.

      That actually depends on what one means by “could have done otherwise”. If one means “could have done otherwise, had every particular of the situation been the same”, then no, we couldn’t have done otherwise. But if one means “could have done otherwise in a roughly similar situation”, then yes one could have done otherwise, and ones mental attitudes would have been part of determining which outcome happened.

      It’s actually the latter question that we are asking ourselves, when we ponder stuff and reflect on our actions, since we are never going to be in an “every particular identical” recurrence, whereas we will be in lots of “roughly similar” recurrences.

    6. Marvin Edwards

      The reconciliation between “it was inevitable that I would not choose X” and “I could have chosen X” is straightforward. What “can” happen is not the same as what “will” happen. The reconciliation is only prevented by failing to take into account the distinction between what “can happen” and what “will happen”.

      The purpose of the notion of what “can” happen is to provide a logical token for dealing with uncertainty. While we may safely assume that only one thing “will” happen, we do not know yet what that thing is. For example, we’re on the highway and see a traffic light way up ahead. “Will” it be red when we get to it or “will” it be green? We don’t know. So, we remain alert to both of these real possibilities.

      “Possibility” and “can” and “ability” are all mental tokens for dealing with something that may or may not happen. We know that one of these possibilities was inevitable from any prior point in eternity. But that information is not helpful because we still don’t know which real possibility will become the single actuality.

      So, we have invented the notion of possibilities, things that can happen, but, then again, they might never happen at all. And in every case of choosing we have precisely this kind of uncertainty. We know what we “can” choose, but until we finish reviewing our options, we will not know what we “will” choose.

      In choosing between A and B, for example I can choose A is considered “true”. I can choose B is also considered “true”. But I don’t know which one I will choose until I have thought it over to see which choice is best. One of the two things that “can” happen definitely will happen. The other definitely will not happen. At the end, my choice is what I have decided will happen, and the other is the one that could have happened.

      I cannot logically say it could not have happened, because “I can choose A” and “I can choose B” were both true at the beginning, and “I could have” is nothing but the past tense of “I can”. So, if “I can” was ever true previously then “I could have” will also be true.

      Is this contrary to determinism? No. Because “I could have chosen X” always logically implies that “I DID NOT CHOOSE X”, and that is exactly what determinism said would happen, that I would not choose X.

      But determinism can never imply that “I could not choose X”, because “I can choose X” was true by logical necessity at the beginning of the choosing operation.

      Basically, we make a logical error when we conflate what “can” happen with what “will” happen. And that error is the source of the inaccuracy of our description of what determinism can assert (“I would not have chosen otherwise”) and what determinism CANNOT assert (“I could not have chosen otherwise”).

    7. Robin Herbert

      Brent:

      “It depends on what X is and why is was inevitable. ”

      Under determinism every single thing that happens was inevitable. So, if determinism is the case then every single X is inevitable and there is only one reason why it was inevitable – because determinism.

    8. Brent Meeker

      But what’s free will depends on what the causes. Nobody thinks it’s blocking free will that determinism means you will not walk on water.

    9. Marvin Edwards

      Robin: “Under determinism every single thing that happens was inevitable.”

      Correct. Determinism asserts a world of perfectly reliable cause and effect, where every event, from the motion of the planets to the thoughts going through our heads right now, was causally necessary from any prior point in eternity. This is a logical fact derived from the notion of reliable causation.

      However, it is neither a meaningful fact nor a relevant fact to any human scenario. It tells us nothing more than Doris Day did when she sang “Que sera, sera. What will be will be”. What I will inevitably do is exactly identical to me just being me, choosing what I choose, doing what I do. And that is not a meaningful constraint. No one experiences reliable cause and effect itself as a constraint. They only experience certain specific causes as constraints: handcuffs, jails, a guy pointing a gun at our head telling us what we must do to avoid getting our head blown off.

      All of the useful information we get from the notion of reliable cause and effect comes from knowing the specific causes of specific effects. These causes are relevant because we can do something about them. But there is nothing we can do about causation itself.

      In fact, every freedom we have, to do anything at all, REQUIRES reliable cause and effect. Without reliable cause and effect, we could never reliably cause any effect, and would have no freedom to do anything at all.

      Robin: “So, if determinism is the case then every single X is inevitable and there is only one reason why it was inevitable – because determinism.”

      No, that’s incorrect. Causation itself never causes anything. Determinism itself never determines anything. Causation is the concept we use to explain the interaction of objects and forces as they bring about events. Determinism simply asserts that the behavior of these objects and forces is reliable, and predictable, according to some simple or complex mechanism that we might discover and put to practical use, like predicting the weather.

      But only the actual objects and forces that make up the physical universe can cause events to happen. The notions of causation and determinism are neither objects nor forces.

      We, on the other hand, are actual objects. And we can apply force to other objects in our environment, as when we chop down trees to build houses to keep us warm in Winter. We cause stuff. But causation never causes anything. And determinism never determines anything.

    10. Robin Herbert

      Marvin,
      You wrote:
      ‘The reconciliation between “it was inevitable that I would not choose X” and “I could have chosen X” is straightforward. What “can” happen is not the same as what “will” happen. The reconciliation is only prevented by failing to take into account the distinction between what “can happen” and what “will happen”.’

      But under determinism what “can” happen is entirely and in every way identical to what “will” happen. If you are taking about a case where there is a distinction between what can happen and what will happen then you are not talking about determinism.

    11. Marvin Edwards

      Robin: “But under determinism what “can” happen is entirely and in every way identical to what “will” happen.”

      I am saying that is not the case, and explaining why that is not the case. In a world of perfectly reliable cause and effect, everything that will happen will happen as the reliable result of prior causes. Within the domain of human influence (stuff we can make happen if we choose to), the most meaningful and relevant prior cause of our deliberate acts is the act of deliberation that precedes them.

      The act of deliberation uses the notions of “things I can do” to figure out what is our best option. The best option then becomes “the thing I will do”. Outside of the act of deliberation, the notion of “things I can do” does not apply. So, if you are taking the long distance or external view, you won’t see any “can’s” or “possibilities”. In that view, determinism can only speak of what will happen and does happen. In that view, determinism must remain silent as to what “can” happen.

      It is only when you take a look inside of the working mechanisms of an actual person that you observe the internal clockwork. Here we find the brain organizing sensory data into a model of reality consisting of objects, forces, and events. It remembers and learns from events. It experiences biological needs, like hunger, and imagines different ways to satisfy that need in its physical and social environment. It manipulates the model to imagine different scenarios and how they are likely to play out. It eliminates scenarios that it knows it cannot accomplish and labels them as “impossible”. The remaining scenarios are real possibilities, things it “can” do if it choose to. And it chooses from these possibilities what it “will” do to acquire the food it needs to satisfy its hunger.

      Within the internal workings we see the function of the notion of “possibilities” and the notion of what “can” happen and what “I can do if I choose to”. And while we are in this view we also discover reliable cause and effect happening internally.

      Each notion that occurs within the choosing process is also causally necessary from any prior point in time. This means that each “I can” and each “real possibility” (something I can accomplish if I choose to) that occurs internally is causally necessary from any prior point in time.

      And this means that every one of the “I can’s” was causally necessary, which logically implies that each “I could have” was causally necessary as well.

      So, if you’re thinking that determinism eliminates multiple possibilities, then it may surprise you that instead it guarantees them.

      Within the domain of human influence, the single inevitable future will be selected from among the many possible futures we can imagine. That’s how the rational causal mechanism works.

      And we cannot make determinism work without including all three macro causal mechanisms: physical, biological, and rational. The rational causal mechanism includes operational free will, which is also deterministic because choosing is a deterministic operation.

    12. Robin Herbert

      Brett:
      “But what’s free will depends on what the causes. Nobody thinks it’s blocking free will that determinism means you will not walk on water.”
      No of course not.

      But determinism implies that it might be impossible not to pick up a pencil that is sitting on your desk right in front of you. What would the causes of that be?

      You might say “values, reasoning” but if determinism was true then it would already have been inevitable that you picked up that pencil one hundred years before you were born when your values and reasoning did not exist.

      So the cause of you having to pick up that pencil would be the microstate of the universe at all times prior.

      And again, if you are happy to say that you picked up the pencil of your own free will, even though it was inevitable that you picked up the pencil back when the first stars were forming, then you are just using the term in a different sense than I do. And that is fine.

    13. Brent Meeker

      Do you see no difference in the case that I just picked up the pencil because I wanted a make a note to myself versus a man with a gun to my head said, “Pick up that pencil or else.”? They may both be determined, but in the second case I didn’t pick up the pencil out of my own free will (and any court would agree with me….so it’s not a meaningless distinction).

    14. Robin Herbert

      I already pointed out that there is confusion caused by using different meanings interchangeably. When we talk about free will as in “no one held a gun to my head” we are using it in a different way than when we are talking about the philosophical problem of free will.

      For instance if someone is pointing a gun at my head then I always have the option of disobeying and letting them shoot me.

    15. Marvin Edwards

      There is one definition of free will that makes sense. It is commonly understood and correctly applied by nearly everyone when assessing someone’s personal responsibility for their actions. I call it the “operational” definition because it is actually applied in practical applications, like legal cases. Free will is when someone decides for themselves what they will do, while free of coercion and other forms of undue influence (mental illness, hypnosis, manipulation, etc.).

      The other definition of free will, the so-called “philosophical” definition, claims that a person’s choice must be free of reliable cause and effect (“causal necessity”). This definition creates a paradox by contradicting itself. The notion of freedom subsumes the notion of reliable cause and effect. Without reliable causation we have no freedom to do anything at all. So, the philosophical definition is a bit of silly nonsense that true philosophers would wisely sweep out the door.

    16. Brent Meeker

      Right. Without determinism (at least most of the time) one’s will could not be effective. A Daniel Dennett puts it, operational free will is the only free will worth having.

    17. Robin Herbert

      Marvin

      You wrote:

      “That actually depends on what one means by “could have done otherwise”. If one means “could have done otherwise, had every particular of the situation been the same”, then no, we couldn’t have done otherwise. ”

      You are still saying that an indeterministic system can have no causal necessity but this is not the case. Suppose I have a simulation of some simple particles moving around a box and then I can create a compression wave going through them.

      A person watching this could derive an expression to tell how the wave moves through the gas and would be able to predict it’s future

      If there was some source of true randomness then I could call that source and add a slight random alteration to some of the particles (as a tiny deviation will quickly diverge to a large deviation). In this case it would be completely impossible to predict the future microstate of the particles, but it would still be perfectly possible for a person to derive an equation for the wave and predict its path.

      That is a counter example to the premise that there can be no causal necessity in an indeterministic system.

    18. Robin Herbert

      Brett

      “Right. Without determinism (at least most of the time) one’s will could not be effective. A Daniel Dennett puts it, operational free will is the only free will worth having.”

      See my answer to Marvin above. Causation does not imply determinism. Indeterminism does not imply randomness (except perhaps at the very lowest level)

    19. Brent Meeker

      If determinism didn’t hold then causation would not be reliable and the connection betwen your will and you action would be mediated by causal, but random links. So your will and action would not be aligned.

  11. Robin Herbert

    Coel

    “That actually depends on what one means by “could have done otherwise”. If one means “could have done otherwise, had every particular of the situation been the same”, then no, we couldn’t have done otherwise. ”

    And this is why I couch my definition as a statement about the future rather than a statement about the past.

    I am looking at two buttons, A and B deciding which one to press. My feeling is that both actions are possible to me, right now in this situation and not in some other roughly similar situation.

    If I knew that determinism was true then I would know that it was completely impossible for me to press at least one of those buttons and I will know that if I press button A then it was never possible for me to press button B.

    If we are looking at two buttons and thinking “It is possible for me to press button A and it is also possible for me to press button B” then we are making the assumption of libertarian free will.

    Reply
    1. Marvin Edwards

      Robin: “I am looking at two buttons, A and B deciding which one to press. My feeling is that both actions are possible to me, right now in this situation and not in some other roughly similar situation. If I knew that determinism was true then I would know that it was completely impossible for me to press at least one of those buttons and I will know that if I press button A then it was never possible for me to press button B.”

      So, all that you need to do is to determine which button is impossible to press, and press the other one. Let me know how that works out for you.

    2. Robin Herbert

      Marvin,

      I am unsure of what point you are making here.

      Do you agree that, if determinism is true, and you are looking at two buttons deciding which one to press next, then at least one of those buttons will impossible for you to press next?

    3. Marvin Edwards

      Robin,
      I am saying that it is impossible for you to choose either A or B without believing at the outset that it is in fact possible to choose either A or B. One cannot begin the choosing operation by asserting that one of the two options is impossible. If that were the case, then we would simply choose the single possible option at the outset.

      The whole purpose of the notion of “possibilities” and things that “can” be done is to deal with the uncertainty as to what the single inevitable choice will be.

      We don’t know whether it is A that is deterministically “impossible” or whether it is B that is deterministically “impossible”. So, we must assume that both are real possibilities and that we can choose either one. And that is what these terms are used for. They are tokens in the choosing operation. They are necessary cogs in the choosing machine. To suggest that only one possibility is real breaks the choosing operation. And, the choosing operation has given us a survival advantage, so we don’t want to break it if we don’t have to.

      Note that I put “impossible” in quotes. I do this because there is no such thing as “deterministic impossibility”, because determinism is not about possibilities, and has nothing at all to say about them. Determinism is always only about what will in fact happen.

      The notion of a possibility exists solely in the imagination as part of the machinery that deterministically causes choices.

      And any use of terms like “can”, “might”, “may”, “ability”, “possibility”, “option”, and similar notions, throw us back into the context of uncertainty about what will in fact happen.

    4. Robin Herbert

      Marvin:

      “I am saying that it is impossible for you to choose either A or B without believing at the outset that it is in fact possible to choose either A or B. One cannot begin the choosing operation by asserting that one of the two options is impossible. If that were the case, then we would simply choose the single possible option at the outset.”

      I don’t see why you have to believe they are both possible. If one of these paths are already impossible to me, but I don’t know which that doesn’t stop me from pressing a button.

      I would be interested in your response to the question – “Do you agree that, if determinism is true, and you are looking at two buttons deciding which one to press next, then at least one of those buttons will impossible for you to press next?”

    5. Marvin Edwards

      Robin: “Do you agree that, if determinism is true, and you are looking at two buttons deciding which one to press next, then at least one of those buttons will impossible for you to press next?”

      I disagree. Determinism has nothing to say about what can or cannot happen. Determinism is about what will happen.

      If we try to make determinism about what can happen, we break the choosing operation, because it is impossible to choose between a single possibility. There must be at least two real possibilities at the start of the choosing operation.

    6. Marvin Edwards

      Robin: I don’t see why you have to believe they are both possible. If one of these paths are already impossible to me, but I don’t know which that doesn’t stop me from pressing a button.

      Which button do you push? How do you go about choosing the possible button and avoiding the impossible button?

    7. Coel Post author

      Hi Robin,

      I am looking at two buttons, A and B deciding which one to press. My feeling is that both actions are possible to me, right now in this situation and not in some other roughly similar situation.

      However, in the time it takes you think that, your brain is passing through oodles of different microstates. Indeed, every time you think a thought, you’re likely in (something like) an Avogadro’s number of different microstates during that time.

      So the analysis “given determinism, in this exact state, I can only do X” is pretty irrelevant since you’ll only be in that state for a nanosecond. Necessarily, what you’re doing is contemplating the likely outcomes given a range of similar but non-identical situations.

    8. Robin Herbert

      Marvin

      “I disagree. Determinism has nothing to say about what can or cannot happen. Determinism is about what will happen.”

      Again this seems to be a clash of definitions. As I understand determinism there is only exactly one next state and so there can only one possible next state.

      You are talking about a definition in which there is more than one possible next state.

      If there is more than one possible next state then obviously libertarian free will is not ruled out.

    9. Marvin Edwards

      Robin: “Again this seems to be a clash of definitions.”
      Indeed. This is about the definition of “possibility” and “can”.

      Robin: “As I understand determinism there is only exactly one next state and so there can only one possible next state.”
      The premise is correct, but the conclusion is incorrect. There is exactly one next state, so there “WILL” be exactly one next state. The fact that there is exactly one next state does NOT logically imply that there is only one “possible” next state.

      Whenever we are uncertain as to what that next state WILL be, we invoke the notion of what that next state CAN be. We’re driving down the highway and see a traffic light some distance up ahead. WILL it be red or WILL it be green when we get there? We don’t know. All we know is that it MIGHT be red and it MIGHT be green when we arrive. Those are TWO REAL POSSIBILITIES. They are TWO different POSSIBLE futures. So, we will remain alert as we approach the light until we can determine the SINGLE INEVITABLE thing what WILL happen.

      Now, as we approach the traffic light, I say to you, “Hey, why did you slow down back there?” And you say, “I saw the traffic light and it MIGHT have turned red by the time we got to it.” And I say, “But it didn’t turn red! Therefore it was always impossible that it would turn red.” And you say, “Yeah, but it COULD HAVE been red instead of green.”

      The logical fact that the next state (the color of the light when we arrived) was inevitable from any prior point in eternity, NEVER IMPLIES that the light being red was NOT POSSIBLE. It only implies that it WOULD NOT happen.

      Robin: “You are talking about a definition in which there is more than one possible next state.”
      And that is why determinism cannot address the notion of what CAN happen, but may only address the notion of what WILL happen.

      The notion of what CAN happen is part of the mechanism we use to deal with our uncertainty as to what WILL happen. If we were certain as to what WILL happen, then the notion of POSSIBILITIES would not arise.

      If we were certain as to what we WOULD choose at the beginning of the choosing operation, we would not begin the choosing operation.

      Robin: “If there is more than one possible next state then obviously libertarian free will is not ruled out.”
      I don’t know what “libertarian” free will is. But the notion that determinism rules out multiple possibilities is clearly false.

      I’m fairly confident that free will, defined as a choice we make for ourselves while free of coercion and undue influence, is not inconsistent with the notion of a world of perfectly reliable cause and effect. And if determinism limits its assertions to “every event is the reliable result of prior events” then we have no conflict between the two notions.

      We empirically observe ourselves and others making choices every day. We empirically observe reliable cause and effect and take it for granted as we exercise our freedoms. How can two empirical observations be incompatible?

    10. Robin Herbert

      Coel,

      “However, in the time it takes you think that, your brain is passing through oodles of different microstates. Indeed, every time you think a thought, you’re likely in (something like) an Avogadro’s number of different microstates during that time.

      So the analysis “given determinism, in this exact state, I can only do X” is pretty irrelevant since you’ll only be in that state for a nanosecond. Necessarily, what you’re doing is contemplating the likely outcomes given a range of similar but non-identical situations”

      I am not sure I understand.

      I can’t see how my “right now in this situation” can be interpreted as a statement about an instant in time. Let’s say my “right now in this situation” comprises, say 6 seconds and there are n consecutive microstates (where n is a vast number (for continuous time perhaps infinity) then my statement is about those n consecutive micro states. Under determinism those n microstates will all determine each other and hence the next n consecutive micro states and so on.

      And so it will still be true under my definition that “right now in this situation” if determinism was true then at least one of those buttons is already impossible for me to press.

    11. Brent Meeker

      Perhaps we should reflect on the facts that this kind of strict determinism is (a) both impossible to apply and (b) false. So any conclusion drawn from the premise “If determinism is true…” that doesn’t recognize those two facts is is just logic chopping. Even if there were no K40 in your blood and you were a perfect automaton, your behavior would still be unpredictable…even to you. You are bombarded with environmental effects as well as internal randomness which cannot be taken into account by anyone. So you can only be approximately deterministic in any operational sense.

    12. Coel Post author

      Hi Robin,
      You are right that, under strict determinism, there is only one outcome “possible”. But that’s not that relevant to human pondering and human thoughts about “could I do otherwise?” because the human cannot calculate the outcome from the microstate.

      From the point of view of the human, multiple outcomes are “possible” in the sense that multiple outcomes are compatible with what the human knows about the situation. Further, the human pondering is one of the “inputs” that could well affect the outcome.

      Thus, again, coming back to the phrase “I could have done otherwise”. It means, simply, “had I desired to do otherwise, then that desire could have prevailed”. And that’s true. It is not contemplating a different outcome in an identical situation, it is contemplating a different outcome in a similar situation where the human’s brain state had been somewhat different. And that matters, since the reason we ponder such “could have done otherwise” scenarios is that then affects our brain state in future situations.

      So, again, whether we “could have done otherwise” comes down to what one means by that.

    13. Marvin Edwards

      Robin: “Under determinism those n microstates will all determine each other and hence the next n consecutive micro states and so on.”

      Correct.

      Robin: “And so it will still be true under my definition that “right now in this situation” if determinism was true then at least one of those buttons is already impossible for me to press.”

      Incorrect. Both buttons, A and B, are “possible” to press. You can confirm this by pressing button A a few times and by pressing button B a few times. So the following statements are all TRUE:
      You have the “ability” to press either button.
      You “can” press either button.
      You “might” press either button.
      It is “possible” for you to press either button.
      You “can” press button A.
      You “can” press button B.
      What you “will” do will be causally determined by your choice.
      It was inevitable, from any prior point in eternity, that it would be you, specifically your own choosing, that causally determined which button would be pushed.

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