Basic actions?

actionWe do many things by doing something else. You might move across the room by walking and walk by moving your legs. But do you move your legs by doing something else? You might think, yes: by sending nerve impulses from your brain. And maybe you do that by sending around other such things in your brain? But are “you” really doing those things that happen in parts of you?

The priest and philosopher Nicolas Malebranche argued that no-one can really do anything themselves because in order to do something, you need to know how to do it — and we don’t know how to cause all that neural stuff that needs to happen for our bodies to do anything. (He thought God is really the one who does everything.) This isn’t a good argument. To know how to do something must mean knowing how to do that something by doing other things (eg. how to move your hands and fingers while playing the piano). So if you must always know how to do everything, then you must know how to do the things by which you do that other thing: how to make your fingers move, and then probably how to send those neural signals, and then how to do whatever you do to do that; it’s an infinite regression. To make the regression stop, there must be some things we just can do, so that we can do more complex things by doing those things. Continue reading


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

Review: Mind and Cosmos by Thomas Nagel

Mind and CosmosThomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos is subtitled “Why the Materialistic Neo-Darwinist Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False,” so obviously it’s moving in controversial territory. Unsurprisingly, it has been hotly rejected by the orthodox (though not that hotly), and praised by theistic creationists even though it entirely denies creationism and theism. Nagel thinks that Darwinian explanations of evolution cannot explain the emergence of things like consciousness and that a different kind of explanation will be needed.

I’m not crazy about this book myself, but it has some good points, and I have some respect for Nagel himself. I will review it as objectively as I can and in some detail.

It should be made clear that Nagel does not actually question the fact of evolution, merely the explanation that it has been guided by natural selection. For some reason or other, Nagel is not convinced by the power of natural selection to do this. He doesn’t really say why — it’s pretty much just an argument from incredulity. The first chapter does contain enough references to sources I hadn’t read that are supposed to support his views that it left me thinking maybe there’s something there worth looking into, but that something wasn’t given here. Mind you, the only author referenced whom I had really read was Stuart Kauffman, who surely would not support Nagel’s stance. Kauffman thinks self-organisation in addition to natural selection has had a role in evolution, but his self-organisation is something you get free as a surprising result of the known laws, not something you need to add like Nagel supposes. So Kauffman’s view mainly implies everything could have evolved more easily than Darwinism supposes — not less easily. (It should be said that Kauffman does think natural selection without self-organisation would not be enough.) Nagel’s stance that creationist arguments against evolution have brought out good points doesn’t really inspire confidence either, considering what I know of them. 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

Why philosophy is both more and less “naïve” than science

The basic idea of philosophy is to examine those things that are normally taken for granted. This should make it the most critical approach — critical meaning just that, to really consider what the right answer is rather than just accepting something without looking into it, as they say, uncritically. Yet, those using empirical sciences to answer some question can often say with reason that the question should be solved empirically, not by mere philosophical speculation. Suddenly, it is philosophy that is too naïve and not critical enough. How can it be so?

Continue reading