Wednesday, July 30, 2008

"Too many causes?"

It may seen ironic that I typically find the most compelling points in atheist or so-called "physicalist" writers, given that I'm a Christian. But the simplicity and clarity that these writers more often use makes it easier to get to the heart of something than some of the "squishy" language others use. Consider this bit of simplicity from John Searle, a well known philosopher, discussing why it is we do things:
...we know, for example, that when I raise my arm, there is a story to be told at the level of neuron firings, neurotransmitters and muscle contractions that is entirely sufficient to account for the movement of my arm. So if we are to suppose that consciousness also functions in the movement of my arm, then it looks like we have two distinct causal stories, neither reducible to the other; and to put the matter very briefly, my bodily movements have too many causes.
Replace consciousness in the above, with "the spirit" and you have a pretty good first description of what most theists think is going on. It's just that, for a Christian this is not "too many causes" but in fact a very satisfying conclusion that more than one type of cause is going on, and neither can be reduced to the other.

There is no need to appeal to the complexity of the mind or consciousness to see that there are very often "too many causes" when we ask "why?" Consider the simple child's question: "why does it rain?" There are two distinct answers:
  • Water from the oceans evaporates into the air, later condenses and falls, etc.
  • God makes it rain to provide for us, to give us water to drink, grow our crops, etc.
Each of these answers is "entirely sufficient" and does not "need" the other. There are not too many causes because the answers address different aspects of the "why?" question. One could call the first answer "what causes the rain" and the second "what is the purpose of there being rain?" More than anything, this example gets to the problem of the "watchmaker analogy" in the concept of design vs. cause in the Evolution debate .

In short, we're ignoring part of the "why" for either the watch or the sand. We skip over the need for the "causal" explanation for a watch because as humans, we think of our actions as "design" or purpose and not simply "caused" in the way a raindrop falls from the sky. For human-made objects, like a watch we ask only -"what purpose did the other human have when making this?" But in that Searle excerpt above, we face the fact that when neuroscience and other disciplines progress far enough, science WILL be able to tell us the "causal" why - the complete series of neural firing that addresses "what was the cause for the human actions that led to this watch" - on that I think Searle's view is inescapable. But if that is true, that we are left with two "why's" - "he made the watch to tell time" and the "various synapse firings etc."

Conversely, when we ask WHY in relation to the sand, we assume only the causal answer is relevant because sand was not made by humans. We watch Carl Sagan on Discovery tell us about how stars produce higher elements such as silicon, which end up as dust, and then in planets, etc. Only the "causal" why is addressed. None of it addresses "what was the purpose of the sand, if any?"

Here's the rub. Some scientists (or "physicalists" in philosophical terms) will claim "there was no purpose in the sand." The more precise ones will say "no purpose is necessary to explain the existance of sand." But of course, if we apply the inevitable "causal" explanation to come for why WE do a thing (our neurons firing) that will mean that there similarly is "no purpose necessary" to explain the existence of anything WE do - build a watch, read this blog, go off and watch sports instead, etc.

Cause never "needs" purpose and purpose is not a kind of cause. Science, study of the physical, did not investigate and "conclude" there was no purpose. It simply looks at causes until it has them and then moves to the next physical mystery. The physical study never addressed the question of "purpose" one way or another because it can't.

When a person realizes it is not acceptable to leave that "purposeful why" un-investigated, that's when they realize that one cause just isn't enough.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Backstage at the Evolution Debate: Designed or Human-made?

I used to wonder why Evolution was such a polarizing scientific discovery. It seems to be the driving force behind both a renewed atheist confidence (see "The Blind Watchmaker" and "God Delusion") and a corresponding fundamentalist-theist backlash on science (see the "Intelligent Design" movement). But why evolution? Why is it more of a threat than paleontology, cosmology, neuroscience, or anything else? Why not even something bland and uncontroversial, like geology? Why aren't atheists driving around with famous geologists names inscribed in fish symbols on the back of their cars? And why isn't the Intelligent Design crowd clamoring for equal time when the friendly geologist shows up at school with his rock hammer and a pile of geodes to explain?

The central issue behind the supposed debate over evolution - for both atheists and their opponents alike - is the concept of differentiating "designed" from "naturally occurring." The famous analogy in use is that of a person walking along a beach who stumbles upon a watch lying in the sand. The person would know immediately the watch was designed - that it was fundamentally different from the surrounding sand in which it lay. Folks suggested that similarly, biological forms - species diversity, the eye, whatever - were just as complex as that watch and thus evidence of a Designer (a form of the teleological argument for the existence of God in philosophical terms). When Evolution was discovered, it showed for a fact (yes a FACT) that these biological forms could and did emerge through "natural processes" such as variation (imperfect copies occur with each generation) and selection (only some of the copies survive).

Apparently, a lot of thinkers, particularly atheists, had been stumped by the "watchmaker" argument as applied only to biology. Because they seized on poor old Darwin and biological evolution as somehow different and more profound than any of the other prior scientific discoveries that also explained complex results from natural processes, from star formation to rocks. In fact, the bland and uncontroversial field of modern geology predated evolution by several decades. While James Hutton's prose was dense, Charles Lyell's discoveries later on at Niagara cemented Hutton and in fact became an influence on Darwin. Geology gave us the first real proof of a 4 billion year old planet, not to mention the "inert version" of how constant gradual change and natural forces can result in amazingly impressive, complex structures - from Niagra Falls to the continents to geodes! For some reason, atheists never trumpeted Hutton's or Lyell's discoveries, nor did fundamentalists get as worked up about them (personally I think geodes and canyons are far more demanding of an explanation than a worm or a fish, but I'm not into squishy things). I suppose it's because evolution eventually leads to Humans that made Darwin's version of "natural processes that lead to complex results" get all the attention, and thus the backlash.

Worse, instead of taking on the inherently atheist presentation of science as philosophy, the theist attackers actually adopted the atheist view of science and attacked the detail - evolution itself. But the near complete obscurity of Lyell and Hutton is telling. Geologic theories they developed or which flowed directly from them are probably better known in pop culture - erosion, volcanism, plate tectonics, etc. All of these are at least as threatening as evolution. Yet neither atheists are writing books about how rocks disprove God, nor are theists arguing for equal time in geology classes. This strongly suggests there's nothing in ANY actual science at the heart of these intense debates supposedly about "evolution." The debates are philosophical and/or theological - what IS "design?"

There are plenty of theist proponents who still argue from design on the basis of "complexity in the universe as a whole," such as the fine precision required for universal constants and physical forces in order for matter, let alone us, to exist. Similarly, their dogged atheist counterparts suggest a multiverse or cyclical emergence of universes, that, like evolution (or geology!), produce the variation and forces for selection required so that the complexity and conditions we find ourselves with only seem special because in all the other universes, nothing could emerge to notice them.

The problem with all this, the proverbial man behind the curtain, is that vague concept of "design" in the first place. The flaw with the watchmaker analogy is that it's NOT "design" that we so easily see in a watch lying in the sand. Rather we see that a watch was "man made" while the sand was not. The same is true for archaeologists who can spot ancient pottery shards and stone tools in debris. We're very good at pattern matching. In particular, we can tell whether something was made by us, or those like us. It's not in the thing at all, but because of our point of reference or context that we know. Consider, for example, a piece of modern abstract art. We can tell the difference between that art and a paint spill, but nothing intrinsic in the patterns of paint is the reason. Indeed, what makes abstract art work is the knowledge that it was done that way on purpose.

And conversely, while atheists love to point out things like termite mounds and bee hives, the only reason we know those things were NOT "designed" is because we know so much about termites and bees. And we know how a geode came to be because we understand those forces of geology now too. Without context, we're powerless. Imagine yourself an "astro-anthropologist" of the future, examining only the scant images of structures sent back by a probe or telescope of some totally alien planet. With only the properties of the thing itself, how would you know whether it signified "design?" You'd do what astro-biologists do today when they look for alien life - compare what you find to what you know from Earth and wait for more data to align. That is, you apply the only context you have.

The problem behind all of this is that as we go from humans, to Earth, to alien worlds, to the universe as a whole, we have no real definition of "design" except our own. All we have is a sense that what WE do and therefore a way to detect "human made" or perhaps "made by entities with a consciousness similar to humans." Whether we're looking for design, or looking to rule it out, we first need to know it when we see it.

If we allow only "human made" to be meaningful, we are forced into a circular conclusion on "design" before we start. Since we humans are a product of evolution ourselves, even what we do cannot scientifically be distinguished from anything made by any other product of evolution. There may be a meaningful difference between "human made" and "termite made" but NEITHER would be evidence of "design" (or both would be). If we go back to the watch analogy, either both watch AND the sand suggest design (hmm, sand - back to geology!), or neither one needs it.

So facing the question of design means firstly we must face our own experience of "design" our sense that we "reason" or act on any other thought with a purpose. Calling what we do "design" must either be a delusion, or this capacity is real, and is simply the first proof of a concept of "design" or reason that is "above" human. If "reason" in humans is something emergent, then it cannot be explained (or "explained away") by the underlying constituent elements - further study of humans and their neurons won't help one way or another. That is, if Reason exists, it exists whether reasoning beings exist to experience it or not. Since belief in God, in simplest terms, means only "the universe DOES have intent or purpose or reason behind it" then belief in God is depends on and is suggested by a belief in the reality of Reason. Our ability to Reason itself is then the best (though inductive) evidence we have that reason, design, etc. exists in the abstract. A purposeful God is likely, because, why would reason stop with us? On the other hand only the conclusion that what humans experience as rational thought is a delusion seals the case against God. Dawkins would need to write a sequel "The Reason Delusion." Of course, there's not much point in trying to lay out a rational argument for the non-existance of reason.

The hard part is, our own ability to reason is only suggestive or inductive of a greater reason in the abstract. An analogy can be made in the argument for alien life. We can assume that since we're here, it's highly unlikely we're the only ones who got this far, but it doesn't help answer what the range of other life is like or whether entirely different levels of life and consciousness exist above our own. And that's just for organic life, which at least has some fairly well established definition in physically observable properties. For the much more abstract and ill-defined concept of "design" it's far worse. How can we get beyond our ability to see design and purpose in what we do - the human made - and detect purpose or design in anything else, from an alien world, to a higher life form, to the universe itself?

To start, we need to go back to the only example we have - to "reason" in our own experience. Reason is not found by picking apart the constituent pieces (reason isn't found in our neurons), nor by studying the properties or complexity of the "resulting artifacts" (reason is not found in a watch or a work of art). To find "intent" or "reason" or "design" in what we do, we go beyond the resulting artifacts and constituent elements and use our own experience as context. So, to find reason or design in anything else, in the universe itself, we must go beyond analysis of the "resulting artifact" of the universe itself or of further breakdown of its constituent pieces and their properties. We must establish context in the abstract - a context shaped by our own experience, but one that applies outside of ourselves, one that defines NOT "human made" but "designed."

Is that possible? Well, it's a topic for another post at least.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Who are you?

New Scientist ran a great piece some time ago called "The Big Questions." One of these articles, on "Consciousness" was so filled with intriguing points of debate, and "starting-off points" that I suspect we could dissect it for dozens of posts. It's something I find myself reading and re-reading every few months. The area of the "mind" or "mind body problem" or "neuroscience and conscious" or "ego" or whatever you call it, is going to make the current angst over evolution vs. creation look silly by comparison (I suppose I'll have to get around to that one at some point too, since Creation of any kind, even the kind where humans"create" a painting or a blog entry, tends to suggest an aspect of the debate that is not well covered). Like I said, there are so many angles here.

But for now, the crux of the article above that demands to be addressed first is "you." The concepts of creation, design, intent, purpose -- reason -- are interesting. But before we can debate whether they exist at all, it seems clear that to exist, they each need a "subject" to be the creator, designer, thinker - in short they all need YOU (at least). But as the caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland kept annoyingly asking "who ARE you?" Don't forget Alice's telling answer: "I…I hardly know, Sir, at present…at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then."

To simplify it a bit, constrain the question purely down to the material, and it's still hard to answer. Suppose for an uncomfortable moment that YOU are nothing more than the sum of your thoughts, something emergent from the brain states, neurons, and all that science. If true, even in part, the ironies of ironies, is also true. That is: the more we constrain the definition of YOU to the purely material (that we are "only" the sum of our thoughts or brain states, etc.) then the more it seems the YOU is transcendent -- unconstrained to anything material! That is, YOU (your thoughts, etc.) emerged in the body you now inhabit, but YOU can re-appear in some other form, any form that allows for the same thoughts and consciousness. It's the same YOU, just not tied to the physical you.

This also suggests that as you interact with others, or the thoughts of others (the Word?) - that YOU can be changed - "reborn" as someone else if the change is great enough. And now this is not some metaphor, but hard science. There is no other YOU that is left off in the process. As the article's author puts it:
...these words you are now reading, whose are they? Yours or mine? The point of writing is to take charge of the voice in someone else's head. This is what I am doing. My words have taken possession of the language circuits of your brain. I have become, if only transiently, your inner voice. Doesn't that mean, in a certain sense, that I have become you (or you me)? It's a serious question. Written text is a primitive but powerful form of virtual reality. In the beginning was the word.
There is a freedom there. Everything from what you read, who you interact with, how you engage them and allow their thoughts to engage you -- it all changes you or can.

I guess you could say it blows your Mind.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Freewill - magic?

In another NYT article on the topic of human choice, the central issue of whether freewill exists is pondered. The crux of the issue shows up here:
The traditional definition is called “libertarian” or “deep” free will. It holds that humans are free moral agents whose actions are not predetermined. ... Whatever choice you make is unforced and could have been otherwise, but it is not random. ...

“That strikes many people as incoherent,” said Dr. Silberstein, who noted that every physical system that has been investigated has turned out to be either deterministic or random. “Both are bad news for free will,” he said. So if human actions can’t be caused and aren’t random, he said, “It must be — what — some weird magical power?”

... But whatever that power is — call it soul or the spirit — those people have to explain how it could stand independent of the physical universe and yet reach from the immaterial world and meddle in our own, jiggling brain cells...

There it is right there. Science, almost by definition, results in either "cause" (determinism) or "random" (probability) and nothing else. There is no way to even define or test the existence of "purpose" or "intent" or "choice" or "responsibility" and so on with a scientific investigation.

The real question is then, does that mean all of these are "magic?" Derived or illusory or "emergent behaviors" which we simply name choice to describe the result of a complex system?

And of course, if this is all magic, then so is reason or any thought you have right now. You're not "reasoning" you're just responding deterministically or randomly to a variety of inputs as am I. Does that seem right?

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Well said

Not often that I find myself in such agreement with someone who spent 15 years at the New York Times, but this bit by Chris Hedges is simply amazing in it's strength and quiet passion.

He even sums up with the that quote from Niebuhr, reminding me to put it permanently over there to the right.

Reason vs.emotion sure, but is it a decsion?

In another great example of the mini-revolution going on in the science of how humans think, this article about some scientific underpinnings of morality found in primates appears. If you have doubts about evolution and "social biology" move right along. If not, and like me, you find the science compelling, pause for a moment.

What I find most interesting about the article is NOT the debate about emotion vs. reason that flows for example in this bit:
Many philosophers believe that conscious reasoning plays a large part in governing human ethical behavior and are therefore unwilling to let everything proceed from emotions, like sympathy, which may be evident in chimpanzees. The impartial element of morality comes from a capacity to reason, writes Peter Singer, a moral philosopher at Princeton, in “Primates and Philosophers.” He says, “Reason is like an escalator — once we step on it, we cannot get off until we have gone where it takes us.”
But biologists like Dr. de Waal believe reason is generally brought to bear only after a moral decision has been reached. They argue that morality evolved at a time when people lived in small foraging societies and often had to make instant life-or-death decisions, with no time for conscious evaluation of moral choices. The reasoning came afterward as a post hoc justification. “Human behavior derives above all from fast, automated, emotional judgments, and only secondarily from slower conscious processes,” Dr. de Waal writes.
No, the crux of the issue really is the contention over how the result occurs. Again from the article (emphasis added):

Dr. de Waal’s definition of morality is more down to earth than Dr. Prinz’s. Morality, he writes, is “a sense of right and wrong that is born out of groupwide systems of conflict management based on shared values.” The building blocks of morality are not nice or good behaviors but rather mental and social capacities for constructing societies “in which shared values constrain individual behavior through a system of approval and disapproval.” By this definition chimpanzees in his view do possess some of the behavioral capacities built in our moral systems.

“Morality is as firmly grounded in neurobiology as anything else we do or are,” Dr. de Waal wrote in his 1996 book “Good Natured.”
That is, whether you call the cause "reason" or "emotion" or "approval and disapproval" the definition reduces morality to something causal. That is, there was no free "choice" in the matter of something we inherently view as a choice. Moral decisions in this view seem indistinguishable from any other physical system - billiard balls, rain drops, atoms. The added complexity just hides the contention that no independent choice was involved - any more than an electron "chooses" to orbit a nucleus.

Hmm, start with an assumption that only physical processes are needed to describe and understand physical results (science), and it's nice to know that you end up with nothing but physical processes controlling everything. Is EVERY question really a scientific one?

Monday, July 14, 2008

Is design an illusion?

Listened to an interesting discussion over on Apologia. Sandwiched between a bunch of Philosophy jargon like "well I'm a substance dualist too" was a pretty lively debate on the nature of the mind, and thus, what it means to think, design, intend, or create. Essentially, can our thoughts be reduced to brain chemistry? If so, the impression we have that we "thought up" something, anything is really an illusion.

In fancy terms, the impression we have that we designed it could be called an "emergent behavior." The classic case of this is an anthill or beehive. The ants didn't have a central architect "design" the hive. Each ant just did it's thing according to very simple chemical signals and viola, out comes a very organized looking structure. So, it's possible to think of the synapses in your head as a bunch of ants just doing their thing, firing with some combination of chemistry and electricity. The resulting in consciousness you think you control, is no more your design, than the anthill was to the ants. It just emerged.

The implications of course are huge. Not only is free will out the window, but so is rationality, creativity, and pretty much every human endeavor. Doesn't seem right does it? But of course, at some level all there is in your head are those synapses, and beneath that atoms and other fundamental particles. They may be subject to strange quantum physics, randomness, and uncertainty, but no matter how closely science looks, there won't ever be magic down there - at least not scientifically speaking.

So where does that lead? Everything you think and feel and do is an illusion. You're not much different than a collection of rain drops falling through a complex turbulent storm. Or, is that persistent sense that you do create, design, intend and choose a kind of evidence of something beyond? Is that sense that you had a reason, mean that there is a reason possible?

Sunday, July 13, 2008

"Investing in People"

One common conclusion is that since "things" do not last, our real investment must be in "people" in the lives and loves of family, friends, community, etc. Fair enough, but the point here was never to start knocking what we do with our lives in the first place. This isn't about "materialism" or "ambition." It's simply an observation that pretty much anything we do will vanish at some point.

Even if we focus totally on people, and then measure it by all our ancestors and all human history to come after us. Whether we strive for humanity of the future to become more loving, more open, enlightened, loved, whatever, none of them will last any of the destructions listed here either.

Make it a tower of people and it's a still a tower that's coming down some day.

Just saying...