The pastor and the steam engine

In many of my recent posts, I could have referred to a story in an old philosophical article. I’ll quote it here, along with some other parts from the article.

From R. E. Hobart: “Free Will as Involving Determination and Inconceivable Without It”:

We have been accustomed to think of a thing or a person as a whole, not as a combination of parts. We have been accustomed to think of its activities as the way in which, as a whole, it naturally and obviously behaves. It is a new, an unfamiliar and an awkward act on the mind’s part to consider it, not as one thing acting in its natural manner, but as a system of parts that work together in a complicated process. Analysis often seems at first to have taken away the individuality of the thing, its unity, the impression of the familiar identity.

For a simple mind this is strikingly true of the analysis of a complicated machine. The reader may recall Paulsen’s ever significant story about the introduction of the railway into Germany. [I have not found the original story.] When it reached the village of a certain enlightened pastor, he took his people to where a locomotive engine was standing, and in the clearest words explained of what parts it consisted and how it worked. He was much pleased by their eager nods of intelligence as he proceeded. But on his finishing they said : “Yes. yes, Herr Pastor, but there’s a horse inside, isn’t there?” They could not realise the analysis. They were wanting in the analytical imagination. Why not? They had never been trained to it. It is in the first instance a great effort to think of all the parts working together to produce the simple result that the engine glides down the track. It is easy to think of a horse inside doing all the work. A horse is a familiar totality that does familiar things. They could no better have grasped the physiological analysis of a horse’s movements had it been set forth to them.

Hobart’s point here relates to free will, of course. This is the point I made in “Can you be the ultimate origin of your own choices?” Hobart makes an explicit comparison later:

After all, it is plain what the indeterminists have done. It has not occurred to them that our free will may be resolved into its component elements. (Thus far a portion only of this resolution has been considered.) When it is thus resolved they do not recognise it. The analytical imagination is considerably taxed to perceive the identity of the free power that we feel with the component parts that analysis shows us. We are gratified by their nods of intelligence and their bright, eager faces as the analysis proceeds, but at the close are a little disheartened to find them falling back on the innocent supposition of a horse inside that does all the essential work. They forget that they may be called upon to analyse the horse. They solve the problem by forgetting analysis. The solution they offer is merely: “There is a self inside which does the deciding”.

This also describes what I called anti-explanations.

I can also recommend reading the whole article for a good exposition of a view of free will that I can get behind. I’ve never spelled out my view and arguments fully on this weblog, but Hobart does most of that here for me. There’s something more I want to say — and I have said some of it — but Hobart’s argument should already prove quite clearly how free will is nothing like contradicted by determinism.


Review: Reinventing the Sacred by Stuart Kauffman

Consider the woven integrated complexity of a living cell after 3.8 billion years of evolution. Is it more awesome to suppose that a transcendent God fashioned the cell at a stroke, or to realize the truth: the living cell evolved with no Creator, no Almighty Hand, but arose on its own, created by the evolving biosphere? The truth is much more magnificent, much more worthy of awe and wonder, than our ancient creation myths.

Reinventing the Sacred proposes a new understanding of a natural divinity based on an emerging, scientifically based world view. Complexity theorist Stuart Kauffman does not propose somehow to insert “god” into a cold, lifeless universe. Instead he argues that the qualities of divinity that we hold sacred — creativity, meaning, purposeful action — are in fact properties of the universe that can be investigated scientifically. (…)

-From the cover blurb

Reinventing the Sacred coverLast week, I reviewed Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos and criticised it for answering the human world/physical universe problem in a way that effectively rejected current science. Fittingly enough, this review features one of the books I think successfully integrates science with humanity, even spirituality.

Stuart Kauffman’s Reinventing the Sacred: A New View of Science, Reason and Religion actually has much more scientific content than one would expect from its descriptions. Certainly, it offers a view of how we could see sacredness as a property of the evolving universe rather than a god outside of it. Continue reading

Dr. Manhattan 2: Reductionism, life, and miracles

A live body and a dead body contain the same number of particles. Structurally, there’s no discernible difference. Life and death are unquantifiable abstracts. Why should I be concerned?


Dr. Manhattan 2

In a previous post, I discussed the metaphysical questions about time, causality and free will raised by Watchmen’s Dr. Manhattan. In this article, I will examine his relationship to matter and life. There are some spoilers again.

After becoming a superbeing capable of manipulating matter at will, Dr. Manhattan has largely lost touch with what the rest of humanity considers important. He feels more at home with inanimate matter, and indeed he shows genuine interest in its impersonal beauty in spite of his disinterest otherwise. He can directly observe at least atomic structures, if not even smaller particles. Meanwhile, he shows indifference even to matters of life and death at a human scale. Life and death are just unquantifiable abstracts.

In other words, Dr. Manhattan’s view of the world is thoroughly reductionist by nature. Continue reading

Review: Thinking in Systems by Donella H. Meadows

Cover of the book Thinking in Systems.I have been studying complexity theory a lot recently (as part of my own research) and read dozens of books about it and all kinds of vaguely related subjects. As such, there wasn’t much in this book that was completely new to me. In spite of this, Thinking in Systems felt like an eye-opener that brought many things together very neatly. It also put some things I’ve known for an even longer time — from reading about sociology, say — into a neat general framework. So many things are systems that operate under their own laws, but we may imagine them to be much simpler to change than that, or to be directly based on individual choices in case of social systems. So this book perfectly plausibly brings thermostats and social inequalities under the same general framework. Continue reading


Pidin esitelmän emergenssistä filosofian opiskelijoiden kansallisessa seminaarissa (FOKS) Turun yliopistolla 14.11.2015. Tämä teksti on saman esitelmän kirjallinen versio, jonka tein ikään kuin luonnoksena hahmottaakseni suunnittelemani puheen rakenteen paremmin.

Tutkin väitöskirjassani emergenssiä ja sitä, miten sitä voidaan selittää informaation kautta. Tässä esseessä esittelen sitä näkökulmaa, josta lähden lähestymään kysymystä. Kyse ei ole niinkään tutkimukseni tuloksista kuin lähtökohdasta. Tässä sanotun ovat muut jo sanoneet ennen minua, vaikka eivät kaikkea yhdessä paikassa. Oman tutkimukseni tarkoitus on kehittää vielä yksityiskohtaisempaa yhtenäistä teoriaa emergenssistä ja informaatiosta.

Ensimmäinen vastattava kysymys on tietenkin se, mitä emergenssi oikeastaan on. Emergenssi on laaja käsite, joka tarkoittaa sitä, miten erilaisissa yhteyksissä jotakin uutta (ominaisuuksia, olioita, systeemejä) ilmaantuu jonkin toisen pohjalta. (Tämä saattaa havainnollistaa asiaa, vaikka emergenssiä se on vain hyvin heikossa mielessä.) Hieman yksinkertaistava sanonta on, että kokonaisuus on suurempi (tai erilainen) kuin osiensa summa. Continue reading

This Looks Cool, But I Also See It as Deep

See here for the Finnish version: Hienon näköistä, mutta minulle myös syvällistä.

This post was inspired by the following video:

Cool, right? Can you see what happens there? A much more detailed understanding than mine is possible, but to the extent that I can describe it, it goes like this: The pendulums swing at different speeds due to the difference in their lengths. Each of them goes its regular way unaffected by the others. But waves form along the length of the row of pendulums nevertheless because of the mathematical relations between the periods of the swings. The pendulums’ movements combine into different patterns that are immediately recognisable to us as patterns. If you follow any individual pendulum, all it does is swing back and forth at its own rate. Any faster pendulum will catch up to any slower one, and this accounts for the changes of patterns. Continue reading