Consciousness and Downward Causation

For many people, the phenomenon of consciousness is the best evidence we have that there must be something important missing in our basic physical description of the world. According to this worry, a bunch of atoms and particles, mindlessly obeying the laws of physics, can’t actually experience the way a conscious creature does. There’s no such thing as “what it is to be like” a collection of purely physical atoms; it would lack qualia, the irreducibly subjective components of our experience of the world. One argument for this conclusion is that we can conceive of collections of atoms that behave physically in exactly the same way as ordinary humans, but don’t have those inner experiences — philosophical zombies. (If you think about it carefully, I would claim, you would realize that zombies are harder to conceive of than you might originally have guessed — but that’s an argument for another time.)

The folks who find this line of reasoning compelling are not necessarily traditional Cartesian dualists who think that there is an immaterial soul distinct from the body. On the contrary, they often appreciate the arguments against “substance dualism,” and have a high degree of respect for the laws of physics (which don’t seem to need or provide evidence for any non-physical influences on our atoms). But still, they insist, there’s no way to just throw a bunch of mindless physical matter together and expect it to experience true consciousness.

People who want to dance this tricky two-step — respect for the laws of physics, but an insistence that consciousness can’t reduce to the physical — are forced to face up to a certain problem, which we might call the causal box argument. It goes like this. (Feel free to replace “physical particles” with “quantum fields” if you want to be fastidious.)

  1. Consciousness cannot be accounted for by physical particles obeying mindless equations.
  2. Human beings seem to be made up — even if not exclusively — of physical particles.
  3. To the best of our knowledge, those particles obey mindless equations, without exception.
  4. Therefore, consciousness does not exist.

Nobody actually believes this argument, let us hasten to add — they typically just deny one of the premises.

But there is a tiny sliver of wiggle room that might allow us to salvage something special about consciousness without giving up on the laws of physics — the concept of downward causation. Here we’re invoking the idea that there are different levels at which we can describe reality, as I discussed in The Big Picture at great length. We say that “higher” (more coarse-grained) levels are emergent, but that word means different things to different people. So-called “weak” emergence just says the obvious thing, that higher-level notions like the fluidity or solidity of a material substance emerge out of the properties of its microscopic constituents. In principle, if not in practice, the microscopic description is absolutely complete and comprehensive. A “strong” form of emergence would suggest that something truly new comes into being at the higher levels, something that just isn’t there in the microscopic description.

Downward causation is one manifestation of this strong-emergentist attitude. It’s the idea that what happens at lower levels can be directly influenced (causally acted upon) by what is happening at the higher levels. The idea, in other words, that you can’t really understand the microscopic behavior without knowing something about the macroscopic.

There is no reason to think that anything like downward causation really happens in the world, at least not down to the level of particles and forces. While I was writing The Big Picture, I grumbled on Twitter about how people kept talking about it but how I didn’t want to discuss it in the book; naturally, I was hectored into writing something about it.

But you can see why the concept of downward causation might be attractive to someone who doesn’t think that consciousness can be accounted for by the fields and equations of the Core Theory. Sure, the idea would be, maybe electrons and nuclei act according to the laws of physics, but those laws need to include feedback from higher levels onto that microscopic behavior — including whether or not those particles are part of a conscious creature. In that way, consciousness can play a decisive, causal role in the universe, without actually violating any physical laws.

One person who thinks that way is John Searle, the extremely distinguished philosopher from Berkeley (and originator of the Chinese Room argument). I recently received an email from Henrik Røed Sherling, who took a class with Searle and came across this very issue. He sent me this email, which he was kind enough to allow me to reproduce here:

Hi Professor Carroll,

I read your book and was at the same time awestruck and angered, because I thought your entire section on the mind was both well-written and awfully wrong — until I started thinking about it, that is. Now I genuinely don’t know what to think anymore, but I’m trying to work through it by writing a paper on the topic.

I took Philosophy of Mind with John Searle last semester at UC Berkeley. He convinced me of a lot of ideas of which your book has now disabused me. But despite your occasionally effective jabs at Searle, you never explicitly refute his own theory of the mind, Biological Naturalism. I want to do that, using an argument from your book, but I first need to make sure that I properly understand it.

Searle says this of consciousness: it is caused by neuronal processes and realized in neuronal systems, but is not ontologically reducible to these; consciousness is not just a word we have for something else that is more fundamental. He uses the following analogy to visualize his description: consciousness is to the mind like fluidity is to water. It’s a higher-level feature caused by lower-level features and realized in a system of said lower-level features. Of course, for his version of consciousness to escape the charge of epiphenomenalism, he needs the higher-level feature in this analogy to act causally on the lower-level features — he needs downward causation. In typical fashion he says that “no one in their right mind” can say that solidity does not act causally when a hammer strikes a nail, but it appears to me that this is what you are saying.

So to my questions. Is it right to say that your argument against the existence of downward causation boils down to the incompatible vocabularies of lower-level and higher-level theories? I.e. that there is no such thing as a gluon in Fluid Dynamics, nor anything such as a fluid in the Standard Model, so a cause in one theory cannot have an effect in the other simply because causes and effects are different things in the different theories; gluons don’t affect fluidity, temperaturs and pressures do; fluids don’t affect gluons, quarks and fields do. If I have understood you right, then there couldn’t be any upward causation either. In which case Searle’s theory is not only epiphenomenal, it’s plain inaccurate from the get-go; he wants consciousness to both be a higher-level feature of neuronal processes and to be caused by them. Did I get this right?

Best regards,
Henrik Røed Sherling

Here was my reply:

Dear Henrik–

Thanks for writing. Genuinely not knowing what to think is always an acceptable stance!

I think your summary of my views are pretty accurate. As I say on p. 375, poetic naturalists tend not to be impressed by downward causation, but not by upward causation either! At least, not if your theory of each individual level is complete and consistent.

Part of the issue is, as often happens, an inconsistent use of a natural-language word, in this case “cause.” The kinds of dynamical, explain-this-occurrence causes that we’re talking about here are a different beast than inter-level implications (that one might be tempted to sloppily refer to as “causes”). Features of a lower level, like conservation of energy, can certainly imply or entail features of higher-level descriptions; and indeed the converse is also possible. But saying that such implications are “causes” is to mean something completely different than when we say “swinging my elbow caused the glass of wine to fall to the floor.”

So, I like to think I’m in my right mind, and I’m happy to admit that solidity acts causally when a hammer strikes a nail. But I don’t describe that nail as a collection of particles obeying the Core Theory *and* additionally as a solid object that a hammer can hit; we should use one language or the other. At the level of elementary particles, there’s no such concept as “solidity,” and it doesn’t act causally.

To be perfectly careful — all this is how we currently see things according to modern physics. An electron responds to the other fields precisely at its location, in quantitatively well-understood ways that make no reference to whether it’s in a nail, in a brain, or in interstellar space. We can of course imagine that this understanding is wrong, and that future investigations will reveal the electron really does care about those things. That would be the greatest discovery in physics since quantum mechanics itself, perhaps of all time; but I’m not holding my breath.

I really do think that enormous confusion is caused in many areas — not just consciousness, but free will and even more purely physical phenomena — by the simple mistake of starting sentences in one language or layer of description (“I thought about summoning up the will power to resist that extra slice of pizza…”) but then ending them in a completely different vocabulary (“… but my atoms obeyed the laws of the Standard Model, so what could I do?”) The dynamical rules of the Core Theory aren’t just vague suggestions; they are absolutely precise statements about how the quantum fields making up you and me behave under any circumstances (within the “everyday life” domain of validity). And those rules say that the behavior of, say, an electron is determined by the local values of other quantum fields at the position of the electron — and by nothing else. (That’s “locality” or “microcausality” in quantum field theory.) In particular, as long as the quantum fields at the precise position of the electron are the same, the larger context in which it is embedded is utterly irrelevant.

It’s possible that the real world is different, and there is such inter-level feedback. That’s an experimentally testable question! As I mentioned to Henrik, it would be the greatest scientific discovery of our lifetimes. And there’s basically no evidence that it’s true. But it’s possible.

So I don’t think downward causation is of any help to attempts to free the phenomenon of consciousness from arising in a completely conventional way from the collective behavior of microscopic physical constituents of matter. We’re allowed to talk about consciousness as a real, causally efficacious phenomenon — as long as we stick to the appropriate human-scale level of description. But electrons get along just fine without it.

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421 Responses to Consciousness and Downward Causation

  1. Neil says:

    Why do anti-free-willers make such a big deal about the word “free”? It means absence of duress, nothing more.

  2. Abalieno says:

    Ok, the more I think about it the more I’m persuaded Sean Carroll’s opinion expressed here is fundamentally dishonest (meaning it’s “cheating”).

    In the body of the article his thesis is “an inconsistent use of a natural-language word”. A logical contradiction that rises from a misapplication of the linguistic system, leading to that logical error. You confuse two different levels, so it’s only consequent that what you obtain is false.

    But then in the comments I think he commits just the same error he described.

    “So I certainly could have done otherwise, consistent with all the information I actually have but no other information.”

    But this says nothing of Determinism and Free Will. You cannot simply “slice” the information to some arbitrary individual level. If we speak of Free Will we speak in the context of the system of reality, and not in the context of a limited subsystem we artificially isolate.

    It’s like saying that a domino tile has Free Will because if the domino itself causes the next to fall it’s obvious that it itself was the cause.

    Of course this is just another linguistic trick. You have to explain the difference. A “choice” is something that CHANGES a causal chain, not something trapped in it. Free Will has to be possible ONLY if, from the point of view of the overall rules of the system, something new happens. That’s what we call science.

    Is this type of compatibilism just a linguistic trick? Because I do actually have a compatibilist theory that is stronger than this silly one.

    Are we really down to change the meaning of the words just to be able to state something controversial?

  3. John O'Neall says:

    Great post! It cleared up something I had not entirely understood when I read the book, which I liked very much. Thanks.

  4. Leslie Allan says:

    I think Sean is right in pointing out the different levels of explanation at the macro and micro levels and how ignoring this leads to endless confusion and obfuscation on the debate over free will.

    How does free will look at this macro level? In a recent paper at http://www.RationalRealm.com/philosophy/metaphysics/freewill-compatibilism.html I argued that freedom of the will is a characteristic of an autonomous, conscious agent who can reason and deliberate about alternative courses of action. I go on to show how free will is compatible with determinism and how, in a deterministic universe, an agent “could have done otherwise”.

  5. Bee says:

    I’ve TRIED VERY HARD to not discuss this in my book. (Not quite successfully.) But here’s a point of confusion that I do discuss which I’ve found to be widely spread in this downwards causation-story: It’s the problem that the typical system we deal with in daily life combines processes on many different energy scales. That’s very different from the examples we normally deal with in effective field theory. The confusion then comes about as follows: if consciousness is a high-level (low resolution) phenomenon, and I can decide to (say) turn on a particle collider that probes much lower levels (higher resolution), that must be downwards causation!

    Well, if you know how effective field theory works, it clearly isn’t, it’s just that different resolutions are good for different regions of the system. Otoh, to be fair, we also don’t have any mathematical framework to deal with these systems. Though I think that at least in principle there should be some kind of adaptive mesh version of eft, no?

  6. M. El Dardiri says:

    Well.
    Consciousness can be measured , it’s not an all or non process … we have a plethora of scales to measure levels of consciousness objectively…
    Also consciousness can be controlled from complete induced coma to the ‘assisted interview’… think about your level of consciousness pre and post a cup of coffee…
    I would indeed have more confidence in a theory on quantum fields if the author ponder it after a cup of coffee… because coffee affects your level of consciousness about your existential state (of your atoms)
    The concept of an olive pitter was proposed as an analogy to the process of consciousness … a very complicated machine that perform an apparently simple process that you as a human can do it without machines.
    Here the parts of the machine (low end) are causing the outcome (high end)
    Evolution might have caused our reticulater activating system(low end) to be shaped the way it is to reach the outcome state of consciousness (high end) because this would make us better hunters/gatherers .. but that wouldn’t imply downwords causation I suppose. Not because it violates the temporal causality but because it’s a simpler and more logical explanation..

  7. Kevin says:

    I figured I would put my two cents in on free will here. Sean, I think the free will topic is the only thing I’ve disagreed with you on. I think the compatibilist version of free will only causes confusion, because it doesn’t refer to what most people FEEL they have when they think about free will. I also think it’s completely unnecessary to need to hold onto the term “free will”. I never need to proclaim my “free-will” or use the term to describe what anyone else is doing. So I don’t see any problem in getting rid of a term with so much baggage. Humans simply process information and act accordingly. I don’t need to use the word ‘freedom’ there. So compatibilism is unnecessary here.

    Most people feel that they are the authors of their thoughts and actions, which is to say they feel that they have the libertarian version of free will (if that wasn’t the case, Christianity for example, would make no sense). They feel they author their thoughts and actions in the sense that they don’t think they are simply the unfolding of the universe. As an example, imagine I send someone a letter and told them to wait to open it at a specific date and time, a week into the future say. Now, when they open it, imagine I have typed out word for word their thoughts of the last five minutes, including their actions over that period. In principle, this could be done and this is going to shake the type of freedom that they feel they have (Any possible randomness that may have actually been present is irrelevant). However, by simply paying attention, it’s blatantly obvious that all our thoughts are simply popping into awareness. We are no more responsible for our next thought than we are for our height. From here, I think the compatibilists have simply changed the subject and when someone claims free will is an illusion, they respond as though we’re saying the compatibilist version is an illusion. We’re both talking about different things here.

    So I think that by paying more attention to ourselves, people would have a more clear and accurate perception of ourselves. We are simply the unfolding of the universe, and I think if everyone understood that, we would look at each other with more compassion. It wouldn’t make as much sense to get as mad as we do at people. Of course, being stern and using punishment may be pragmatic in many cases since it can deter certain behaviors. But to think someone DESERVES punishment and to hate at a deep level doesn’t make sense under this view of people. I don’t think compatibilism helps here in any way to illuminate the fact that we are simply the unfolding of the universe. In fact it seems to me that compatibilism inexplicably encourages us to forget about this fact. A fact that is profoundly different than the internal model running in peoples heads about theirs and others behavior.

    Honestly, compatibilism many times feels to me like an attempt to make us feel special about ourselves and to justify more hateful attitudes towards others.

  8. James Cross says:

    Upward/downward duality may be much like wave/particle duality.

    To slightly modify Einstein:

    “It seems as though we must use sometimes the one theory and sometimes the other, while at times we may use either. We are faced with a new kind of difficulty. We have two contradictory pictures of reality; separately neither of them fully explains the phenomena of consciousness (light), but together they do.”

    It is a failure of the classical model of mind/body. The terminology breaks down. Upward and downward don’t really exist. We are dealing with something else.

  9. Chris Port says:

    ‘There is no reason to think that anything like downward causation really happens in the world, at least not down to the level of particles and forces…’

    Isn’t designing and building a Large Hadron Collider a prima facie example of downward causation to sub-atomic levels? 🙂

    Although I’m being slightly facetious here, there’s a more serious underlying point. Without the Anthropic Principle, is there any such thing as causation, scale or hierarchy? If consciousness isn’t the primary yardstick of measurement, what is?

    ‘Transgressus pontem phantasma, natura sumit theloneo. Res loquitur ipsa per nobis.’

    (In schoolboy google latin: ‘Crossing the bridge of phantoms, nature takes its toll. The thing speaks for itself through us’).

    Ever since the dolosus servus (tricky slave) of ancient comedies we’ve had a literary tradition of wily servants and unworldly masters.

    Reductionism would have us believe that physical reality is a tricky master and consciousness its deluded slave.

    However, in tragic (entropic) reality, quite the perverse is true. There’s literally nothing more stupid than physical reality.

    Like a naked emperor on an invisible throne, consciousness would be the laughing stock of reality if it had any other wits about it.

    However, unlike human slavery, there’s no injustice here because sub-atomic particles (ghostly excitations) don’t care. Only we do. This is the crux of poetic naturalism.

    For the record, I’m a dualist (though not in the Cartesian sense). I know that mind is matter and consciousness an emergent illusion/magic trick.

    I don’t believe in magic. But I have to believe in tricks. Otherwise I’d walk around disbelieving in myself (which, as an evolutionary strategy, would be quite short-lived).

    Put another way, as a ‘lyricist physicist’ (for me, words are a form of stochastic maths), I don’t so much believe as suspend my disbelief . I would be as stupid as a stone to do otherwise.

    As a Wittgensteinian, I strongly agree with your warning about the confusions caused by switching language games in mid-sentence (wilfully guilty as above). However, some confusion (or, at least, mystery) is the toll we pay for phantom meanings (i.e. analogies) since ‘the thing-in-itself’ can only ever be inferred.

    We just need to be very careful about our analogies, especially when arguing. Bad arguments tend to happen when people aren’t debating the same analogy (i.e. most of the time). The problem is, precise isomorphism is also precisely meaningless…

    As for New Mysterianism (not to be confused with Old Mysteronism) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bV8YbLvGrb0

    “To the rational mind, nothing is inexplicable; only unexplained.” ~ Doctor Who

    But explaining consciousness doesn’t actually demystify it.

    Consciousness is a biochemical bundle of sensations which combine to produce the illusion of self.

    Science demystifies the illusion (i.e. how it works). Art remystifies the self (i.e. how it feels). Philosophy demystifies the self by remystifying the illusion with meaning.

    It’s worth noting here that only illusions can have meaning. Without consciousness, reality is meaningless and unworthy of study.

    Since (I argue) science has nothing to say about meaning, it has very little to say about consciousness other than “This is how it works”. The ‘consciousness problem’ is not how it works but what it means…

    As long as there is meaning, there will be mystery 🙂

    Measuring the Dark…

    When all mysteries are explained away
    men will still lie awake in winding sheets
    – mere ghostly shapes in the fabric of space –
    measuring the dark with their small heart beats.
    Master of fears, hearing nothing singing,
    do not ask “Who is this who is coming?”

    The Scarlet Palimpsest

    They seek it here, they seek it there.
    Those scientists seek it everywhere.
    Is it in atoms? Or is it in us?
    That damned elusive consciousness!

    Surviving Rothko

    I have seen the void.
    There are no words there
    are no words at all.

    Oh Rothko, did you
    square it with colour
    when the horror called?

    I brush with boyhood
    nightmares, speechless as
    lovecrafty terrors

    mirror the stars in
    squid-ink; those hell-ponds
    are bricked wishing wells.

    When that fish-white hand
    returns from the dead,
    I cry but don’t yell

    because it is mine.

  10. John Merryman says:

    Might it be that the dynamic is upward causation, in that whatever elemental energy is propelling the system, it is trying out all paths and options. While “downward causation” is the emergent forms essentially pushing back down and giving structure to this dynamic.
    For example, in society, organic social energies push outward and propel it forward, while the social norms, cultural traditions and civic requirements push back, as a “downward causation.” Keeping in mind that the premise of a collective soul or deity likely grew out of this group identity/structure. Thus the premise of a “creator/father figure” as ultimate downward causation.
    The essential element of sentient consciousness also pushes our minds forward, while it is the emergent structures of feedback from the environment and consequent thought patterns that give focus, direction and definition to this elemental desire. Which continues to push through increasingly structured systems of thought.
    So nature is upward causation, while nurture is downward causation.

  11. My theory (as a lay person/writer who is simply interested in exploring what we don’t know) is that consciousness has something to do with entanglement, perhaps morphic resonance, which is also something we’re unable to identify in a microscope but is there. I’d be interested in any viewpoints from physicists on that.

  12. Tom Clark says:

    Sean says:

    “The dynamical rules of the Core Theory aren’t just vague suggestions; they are absolutely precise statements about how the quantum fields making up you and me behave under any circumstances (within the “everyday life” domain of validity). And those rules say that the behavior of, say, an electron is determined by the local values of other quantum fields at the position of the electron — and by nothing else. (That’s “locality” or “microcausality” in quantum field theory.) In particular, as long as the quantum fields at the precise position of the electron are the same, the larger context in which it is embedded is utterly irrelevant.”

    This suggests we don’t need to know anything but microphysics to predict, say, the position of a particular electron in my arm 24 hours from now. Chemical, biological, behavioral and psychological regularities (“the larger context”) are simply higher level expressions of what the underlying microphysics entail. Higher level regularities don’t have any independent, ineliminable predictive contribution to make about the position of my arm and therefore don’t need to be taken into account to predict the position of the electron in question, even though they might be convenient short-cuts in such predictions. Plausible? And does anyone know of a proof of this conjecture?

    Of course such regularities will be *consistent* with underlying microphysical laws, but whether they are literally superfluous when it comes to predicting future states of affairs is a different question.

    As for conscious experience (subjective qualitative states), Sean assumes it can be accounted for by the fields and equations the Core Theory (“arising in a completely conventional way from the collective behavior of microscopic physical constituents of matter”) but neither he nor anyone else has provided such an account as far as I know. Which is not to say that either substance or property dualism is necessarily the case, but only that consciousness might not be a straightforward entailment of microphysical goings-on. So perhaps we shouldn’t assume that it is.

  13. Abalieno says:

    And I see more comments that continue to repeat the mistake of explaining compatibilist positions by confounding the “macro and micro” levels.

    Nope. Why no one sees this explicit contradiction? Including Sean?

    You cannot put together theories that consider Determinism on the level of a complete description, and Free Will on the level of “common use”. This is a disservice to legitimate compatibilist positions.

    If you describe Determinism in a certain context then the idea of Free Will needs to adhere to the SAME context.

    These incompatibilists argue that if all human thoughts and actions are the result of sufficient prior causes, then we could not have acted otherwise than what we actually did. In this essay, I tried to show that this line of reasoning is mistaken. To the extent that incompatibilists are referring to the way we ordinarily speak about free will, I argued that their analysis is misconstrued.

    Nope, YOU are mistaken. You use “determinism” on one level, then commit the obvious mistake of adding the convenient caveat: “the way we ordinarily speak about”.

    That’s unacceptable. If you use rigorous language on one hand you cannot swap to “common use” the moment it becomes convenient. “Incompatibilists” use rigorous logic and terms, and come to that logical conclusion. You swap arbitrarily context and say THEY are mistaken? Come on.

    I showed that for the person in the street, lack of restriction and not contra-causality is the central meaning of ‘free will’.

    So we use Science on one side and then “the language of the person in the street”. Really?

    Are we really to the point where a compatibilist position is just a game of changing the meaning of the Free Will term? Has the discussion really fallen to this low level of wordplay?

  14. zarzuelazen says:

    To understand consciousness, you really do need to see the big picture 😉 The only way to do this is to carefully look at the structure of *all* knowledge (not just physics), and investigate how all the different knowledge domains fit together – to solve the ‘jig-saw’ puzzle of knowledge- fit the *known* pieces together first, and it then will be much easier to see where the remaining pieces slot in – you will see where these fit in when you look at the grand pattern here:

    http://www.zarzuelazen.com/CoreKnowledgeDomains2.html

    The left-hand column shows all the knowledge domains of ‘mathematics’. The middle-column shows those of ‘physics’. And the right-hand column shows those of ‘mind’.

    Knowledge domains can be grouped into triples. Upper – structural level, middle – functional level, lower – signal level. Upper > lower (increasing complexity).

    Consciousness slots into upper-right box (‘Phenomenology’).

    Consciousness can be understood by analogy to all knowledge domains in corresponding positions (upper boxes of triples)- look down page in right-hand column:
    ‘Consciousness(identity) > Personal psychology (drives/motivations)>Art/Communication(symbols)’
    Now look left across top-row:
    Consciousness(identity)>Particles (fields)>Computation(information)

  15. Moe says:

    As a molecular biologist, I definitely agree that the human mind works largely the same way as hammers and nails do, just a lot more complicated.

    The guy in the Chinese Room actually understands Chinese just as well as anyone else on earth does, as long as you include the computer, the program, and the room as part of the definition of his ‘mind’. Any isolated part of any person’s brain also can not understand Chinese, only when it all works together is that possible. There are plenty of people with unusual cases of isolated brain damage that clearly demonstrate that ‘knowing what you are doing’ is quite different from what most people think it means.

    However, I think the side discussion of ‘free will’ and Sean’s assertion that he could do ‘something different’ makes zero sense if the Multiple Worlds Interpretation is correct ( and it is likely correct ). You couldn’t have done something different, you already did all possibilities. There were ‘choices’, and all of them were taken.

    ALL of the possibilities actually happen. Once your brain has become entangled with different possible outcomes, then each version of you is limited to only remembering the past of the branch it is in.

    When you make a delayed choice quantum eraser experiment, you don’t change the past, or the universe by observing something. The result is that you current brain has become entangled with multiple incompatible current worlds with different pasts.

    Say a group of 1000 people start walking up a street that forks every 100 meters, and those forks also keep forking, until there are 1000 streets. The people can go either way at each fork, but should divide groups are evenly as possible. At the end of the road, each of them is alone on their own street, and they are in all possible locations.

    They can not see the other people, and have no idea which people went where. But looking backwards, they each know exactly where they came from, and how to get back there. The past is clear, and that is all your mind can ever really be aware of.

  16. zarzuelazen says:

    Moe:

    “When you make a delayed choice quantum eraser experiment, you don’t change the past, or the universe by observing something.”

    Are you sure about that? Perhaps when you become aware of the micro-information consistent with a choice you made (macro-information), you’ve just made a measurement that locks-in the state of the universe right at the beginning of time itself – perhaps your choice has determined the state of the universe at the big bang? In quantum physics, the past isn’t neccesserily fixed at all.

  17. Moe says:

    “perhaps your choice has determined the state of the universe at the big bang? In quantum physics, the past isn’t neccesserily fixed at all.”

    It hasn’t determined the complete state of the past, it has only limited your viewpoint of the past.

  18. Coel says:

    Hi Ben,

    If there’s one thing generally agreed upon in discussions about “Free Will,” it’s that, whatever it is, it’s a property that explicitly distinguishes between humans and aircraft autopilots.

    I would agree with you in rejecting any version of human-exceptionalist compatibilism that says that we have free will but that aircraft autopilots do not.

    I could also agree with you that a lot of philosophers get confused over that, while regarding themselves as compatibilists. Part of the problem is that many such people are still hankering after moral realism.

  19. Ben Goren says:

    Patrice Ayme:

    You seem to confuse chloroplasts, one of three types of plastids, characterized by its high concentration of chlorophyll, and chlorophyll, a molecule.

    No, I’m well aware of the difference. But the manner in which you accused me of ignorance clearly demonstrates you completely missed my point.

    The researchers did great work in measuring the energy budget of chlorophyll at atomic scales, and, retrospectively unsurprisingly, discovered that Newton gives you the worng answer — a very common theme at atomic scales, which is why we have Quantum Mechanics in the first place.

    At subcellular scales — that of chloroplasts — the difference is still going to be there, but less noteworthy. At cellular scales, it’s almost moot. And at the scale of a potted houseplant, it’s waaaay beyond our ability to measure.

    Let me also be in the painful position to inform you that Quantum effects probably enables DNA to evolve faster and smarter than classical mechanics would allow (as Lamarck had guessed!).

    Sorry, but Lamarck’s intellectual failing had nothing whatsoever to do with the speed at which evolution occurs, and there’s nothing even vaguely remotely Lamarckian about Quantum Mechanics.

    As a rule of thumb, if you think something weird about Quantum Mechanics has any significance at human scales, you’re worng, very, very, worng. You need QM to explain diffraction gratings (the rainbows you see in CDs and DVDs, for example). You need QM to explain lasers, but not once the light leaves the resonant cavity. Modern IC engineers need QM to design circuits. Cryptographers need to know a bit of QM, both because quantum computers are potentially very good at factoring prime numbers and because you can use entanglement to ensure nobody’s eavesdropping on a communication. But, aside from that sort of thing, you could live your entire life blissfully ignorant of anything other than Newton perfectly fine.

    zarzuelazen:

    “…as evidenced by the success of professions ranging from psychology to sociology to anthropology to political science to marketing. ”

    (chuckles). These fields are not at all successful. In fact I would go so far as to suggest that they’re mostly full of …. 😉

    Sorry, but you’re way off base here. Your casual dismissal of the entire mental health profession is uncalled for and beyond the pale, to begin with. The humanities might have higher proportions of PoMo nonsense than other college departments, but there’s still incredible amounts of truly solid science there. And if you think marketing is ineffective, you’re a danger to yourself every time you open your wallet.

    John Merryman:

    So we can predict the future by relating sources of energy, to their likely directions, based on the variability of the systems around them.

    Eh, you desperately need to get caught up on what Sean has said and written about the entropic arrow of time. Your formulation of it as energy flows is grasping towards the right answer, but rather far away from it.

    Neil:

    Why do anti-free-willers make such a big deal about the word “free”? It means absence of duress, nothing more.

    In a legal context, yes. But do a survey, at least in America, asking why bad things happen to good people, and an overwhelming number of respondents will cite Free Will as an excuse for the incompetence and / or malevolence of their favored pantheon.

    Tom Clark:

    As for conscious experience (subjective qualitative states), Sean assumes it can be accounted for by the fields and equations the Core Theory (“arising in a completely conventional way from the collective behavior of microscopic physical constituents of matter”) but neither he nor anyone else has provided such an account as far as I know.

    We don’t need such an account to know that that must be the case. It is overwhelmingly demonstrable that your consciousness can push around electrons. And we know all the ways that electrons can be pushed at the scales at which humans push them. Were there some other method of pushing electrons, even indirectly through some obscure chain reaction, the LHC would loooooooong since have made gazillions of particles associated with that force. The LHC hasn’t; ergo, consciousness is consistent with the Core Theory. (Or it could be that everything we think we know about physics is worng, but that’s just a garden-variety conspiracy theory, like maybe I’m just a brain in a vat.)

    Mikki Morrissette:

    My theory (as a lay person/writer who is simply interested in exploring what we don’t know) is that consciousness has something to do with entanglement, perhaps morphic resonance, which is also something we’re unable to identify in a microscope but is there.

    Sheldrake’s “morphic resonance” has no bearing on reality whatsoever. At least, not outside of poetry or other types of fiction. And brains are far too hot and big for quantum entanglement to be at play. Quantum collapse for a system with the characteristics of a brain happens in some insanely short amount of time that Sean can tell you off the top of your head…something like a quadrillionth of a second, maybe less.

    Or, another way to phrase it: brains are entirely classical mechanisms. Neurophysiologists don’t use Quantum Mechanics for a reason.

    Moe:

    The guy in the Chinese Room actually understands Chinese just as well as anyone else on earth does, as long as you include the computer, the program, and the room as part of the definition of his ‘mind’.

    This is a point that bears repeating, for it clearly demonstrates the source of the types of confusion that philosophers tend to create for themselves. Similarly for the philosophical zombie; it presupposes that it even makes sense for an entity to be able to report its internal state without having an internal state to report.

    zarzuelazen:

    Are you sure about that? Perhaps when you become aware of the micro-information consistent with a choice you made (macro-information), you’ve just made a measurement that locks-in the state of the universe right at the beginning of time itself – perhaps your choice has determined the state of the universe at the big bang?

    The type of magic you describe represents such a gross violation of conservation that I’m surprised you even thought to seriously propose it.

    Coel:

    I could also agree with you that a lot of philosophers get confused over that, while regarding themselves as compatibilists.

    If not only your definition of “Free Will” is unique to you, but your definition of “compatibilism” as well, isn’t it time for you to start questioning your choice of words and the wisdom of playing Humpty Dumpty with them?

    Cheers,

    b&

  20. Leslie Allan says:

    Abalieno criticizes my version of compatibilism thus:

    ‘Nope, YOU are mistaken. You use “determinism” on one level, then commit the obvious mistake of adding the convenient caveat: “the way we ordinarily speak about”.

    That’s unacceptable. If you use rigorous language on one hand you cannot swap to “common use” the moment it becomes convenient. “Incompatibilists” use rigorous logic and terms, and come to that logical conclusion. You swap arbitrarily context and say THEY are mistaken? Come on.’

    Abalieno, from what you say, I’m not sure whether you read the arguments I present in my paper at http://www.rationalrealm.com/philosophy/metaphysics/freewill-compatibilism.html or just the Conclusion that you quoted from. Did you look through sec. 7 of my paper where I provide a counterfactual analysis of “could have done otherwise” and talk about its two different senses? You see, it’s me who is claiming that incompatibilists have redefined the term “free will” by giving it a metaphysical overlay that is just not there.

    Let me put it this way. The incompatibilists argument is like a physicist claiming that “This table is not really solid” because tables are made up of mostly empty space. Sure, the space between atoms and within atoms in tables is mostly empty. But when we say to someone that this table is solid, we are not referring to its atomic constituents. We are talking about its property of not being easily deformed by a force (amongst other things). It’s the same with “free will”. When we say that John freely married Joan, we are not talking about neuronal firings in the brain and their sufficient or insufficient physical causes. We are talking about whether John was coerced, was of sound mind, etc.

    Sure, it’s fine to say that “This solid table is made up of mostly empty space”. And it’s fine to say that “John’s decision to marry Joan had causal antecedents going back to the big bang.” However, it’s just nonsense to then conclude that this table is not “really” solid” and that John did not “really” marry Joan of his own free will.

    You see, when a hard determinist argues that we don’t have free will and moral responsibility, on the surface it appears they are saying something of consequence, something of relevance to the way we speak about free will and about what goes on in our law courts. In actuality, I am arguing, incompatibilists have adopted the language of theologians and philosophical substance dualists and just assumed that that is how we ordinary folk, lawyers and judges speak. Yes, how we ordinarily speak about free will and moral responsibility is important because when incompatibilists use the terms “free will” and “moral responsibility” in their own special way, they cease to be relevant to our judgements about freedom and morality. Just like the naive scientist who objects that tables are not really solid.

  21. Daniel Kerr says:

    I feel like Jerry Fodor’s “Special Sciences” tackles the problem pretty well. Downward causation doesn’t seem to be a practical hypothesis (granting it’s plausible) since it would be likely impossible to express the emergent phenomenon of consciousness in any tractable way in physics. As a proponent of qualia, I don’t like downward causation at all. I prefer interpreting the hard limit of strong inference devices (as described by David Wolpert) as dividing the universe and every subset of it into “inferrable” and “un-inferrable” categories. Qualia is a property under the latter category for any such subset. I find this satisfying enough and provides absolutely no need for expanding a physical theory to “account” for consciousness. It already does to the best of its ability.

  22. Paul Torek says:

    @Sean:
    Well said on all counts. My only beef is that in the linked piece on “philosophical zombies”, you’re not hard enough on the idea. Here is a nice short explanation of why philosophical zombies are inconceivable.

    @Coel:
    We don’t have to have special physics (or metaphysics) apply to us to be “special” in ways that matter to us. Neither gods nor physicists get to dictate our values. Humans are special to humans, and that’s all that matters.

    @Abalieno:
    No, freedom is the information that *constitutes you*, making a difference in the world. If whether A or B happens depends on your preferences, then it’s your choice.

    @Kevin:
    Prediction of one’s actions (unless the predictor is an adversary) isn’t as scary as it might look.

  23. Ben Goren says:

    Leslie Allan:

    When we say that John freely married Joan, we are not talking about neuronal firings in the brain and their sufficient or insufficient physical causes. We are talking about whether John was coerced, was of sound mind, etc.

    The technical legal term is clearly distinct from the common / philosophical / theological term. In law, it’s defined as being free from the coercion of other humans. Did John marry Joan because he loved her or because her father was holding a shotgun to his back?

    Again especially consider the typical answer to why bad things happen to good people. Coercion is clearly irrelevant in that context.

    Cheers,

    b&

  24. Leslie Allan says:

    Ben Goren says “The technical legal term [“free will”] is clearly distinct from the common / philosophical / theological term. In law, it’s defined as being free from the coercion of other humans.”

    Yes, the legal term is distinct from the theological term. That’s my argument. I’ve discussed with some hard determinists who maintain the opposite: that the law courts assume the libertarian contra-causal meaning of “free will”.

    Distinct from the “philosophical” term? Which “philosophical” term? That of the compatibilists or the incompatibilsits? And then there are variations under each of these umbrellas. Sure, you may say that the distinctions you make are “clearly” so. But I’d want to see an argument from you for thinking so. I think the arguments are clearly the other way. I draw a basic etymology of the term “free will” in Sec. 2.1 of my paper and then go on to draw upon a number of common usage examples. I do encourage you to read my paper.

  25. John Merryman says:

    Ben,

    I didn’t say we can’t predict the future, I only said that it has to occur, in order to be determined.

    Maybe I should repeat that;

    Events are FIRST in the present, then in the past. There is no determination, without occurrence.

    As for arrows of time, events go from being in the future, to being in the past, while the physical process moves from prior to succeeding events, thus past to future. For example, individuals go from birth to death, i.e. their lives go from being in the future, when they are born, to in the past, when they die. Meanwhile the species moves onto the next generation, shedding the old. Past to future.
    Think in terms of a factory; The product goes start to finish, while the production process points the other way, consuming raw material and expelling finished product. As well as radiating excess material and energy, especially wages and profits.
    Entropy only applies to fairly inert material in a closed set, settling into equilibrium. Nature though, cycles between mass falling inward and radiation expanding outward. Even black holes radiate enormous amounts of energy.
    For entropy to work, the positive and negative charges powering this dynamic would have to be neutralized.
    All of this occurring within what we refer to as the present. Duration does not extend beyond it. These events coalesce, like mass and then radiate out the energy forming them. Duration is the present, as these events cycle.