Explaining Purpose

In discussions about self-determinism, some hard determinists dismissively parade opinion as fact. Their conviction trumps their rational integrity. We all need to be mindful that just about everything to do with free will and determinism is, thus far, a matter of opinion.

Almost 400 years ago, René Descartes claimed that, unlike the human body, the mind has no physical properties or spatial dimension: thus it can not be examined in the same way as the physical body. Today, we think of self-aware human consciousness as an emergent property of the brain but we still don’t know how or why it emerges.

Unless you’ve been living in a cave, without access to media of any kind, you’ve probably noticed increasing numbers of news stories about consciousness and its associated properties (like intelligence and free will). The neurosciences have taken an interest in what was, until recently, a philosopher’s pastime.

Thanks to modern imaging technologies like fMRI and CAT scans, scientists now have ways to observe certain limited kinds of brain activity without having to open the skull of a living person. Although cleverly designed experiments have led to many theories about consciousness, new facts have been slow in coming.

Given the near-total mystery of consciousness, it is foolish to think we know much about its many properties, such as: self-awareness, intelligence and decision-making. No matter what your position on “free will”, it consists mostly of conjecture. The point being that almost everything about consciousness is a matter of opinion. Anybody claiming to know the answers is, in fact, confusing opinion with knowledge.

As I’ve tried to convey in the past, I believe that self-determinism offers an explanation for how we make choices and pursue purpose in a mechanistic, deterministic, universe. The key points of self-determinism address the usual objections of hard determinists. In the list, below, I first cite the hard determinist’s objection, then follow it (in parentheses) with self-determinism’s answer . . .

  • Causality means the inexorable cascade of all events is inevitable. (Not so! Animate beings and inanimate matter have different modes of response to causality. The law of causality: “Every material effect must have an adequate antecedent cause” does not dictate a single, monolithic, mode of response — nor a single potential future for animate beings.)
  • Because all events are inevitable, free will is an illusion. (That’s a false dichotomy assuming a single mode of response to causality. There are other alternatives such as dynamic, intelligent, interaction with causality.)
  • Consciousness is entirely driven by deterministic, electro-chemical processes in the brain. (That’s a myopic, reductionist, point of view attempting to address a subject better suited to complexity theory. Consciousness is an emergent property of the brain. Thanks to mental feedback, we think about what we think about. This intelligent process is transformative and makes us self-aware, future-aware, manipulators of events.)

Causality’s cascade of events is NOT inevitable when intelligent human beings get involved with those events.

“Every material effect must have an adequate antecedent cause” does NOT necessarily mean that a cause must have one and only one effect or that it is inevitable. The universe is not perfectly deterministic. The indeterministic quantum realm exerts an influence on the classical realm. The subatomic release of photons , the rate of radioactive decay, the quantum fluctuations that make up most of the mass of the universe (including your body), the workings of lasers and electricity . . . all these things involve quantum uncertainty. Yes, they’re highly consistent and reliable, overall, but not perfectly so at all points of time. Hell, even the universe itself began with a quantum fluctuation and was entirely chaotic in its earliest stages. The point is that the universe, while highly predictable, is not perfectly deterministic. For example: photons exert predictable pressure upon impact (think of solar sails) but their initial subatomic release was entirely random. Their effect on interstellar dust and gas is predictable in general but not perfectly deterministic.

Secondly, the law of causality does not mean there’s only one possible mode of response to events.  Inanimate matter responds to events mechanically and very predictably but animate beings are complex systems that respond to events in individual, unpredictable ways. There’s a huge difference between a rock and a brain.

Also, it occurs to me that maybe Descartes had a legitimate point. I’m not sure about this but if every material effect must have an adequate antecedent cause, what about abstract effects? How material is an abstraction like consciousness or choice? How “physical” is it? If consciousness is an emergent property of the brain and it must exist before intelligent self-awareness can emerge from it, then self-awareness is at least twice abstracted from the brain. How does abstraction affect causality? Self-awareness is certainly not the same tangible, material stuff as the brain — yet we know it exists. Intelligent mental feedback, it seems to me, has all the transformative properties (self-awareness and abstraction) one would imagine is necessary for the emergence of choice and purpose: of self-determinism.

I don’t know what free will is, so I can’t say whether or not it’s an illusion. But I do believe that self-determinism is not an illusion.

I claim that human civilization is jam-packed with purpose — despite causality’s utter lack of purpose. You and I and social groups of all sizes have both unique and shared purposes. It comes from somewhere other than causality. It comes from us. We interact with causality and deliberate and decide what is important to us. We pursue purpose in almost everything we do. That’s empirical proof of choice.

Just because “consciousness emerges from deterministic, electro-chemical processes in the brain” does not mean that choice is equally deterministic.

Emergent properties are transformative phenomena that result in properties not shared by their constituent parts. Animate beings are made from inanimate matter. Life is an emergent property of organic compounds. Minds are made from neurons that are not conscious. Consciousness is an emergent property of the brain. I believe choice and purpose — self-determinism — are also emergent properties of the brain concomitant with self-awareness.

If you think about it, “self-awareness” and “mental feedback” are practically paraphrases of each other. Mental feedback is the mechanism by which we become self-aware. We are self-aware because we think about what we think about. I believe this is the transformative process by which we deliberate and make choices . . . it’s where the emergent property of self-determinism emanates from.

Is self-determinism a fact? I don’t know. Maybe it fits reality well or maybe it doesn’t. It’s just an explanation for the observable fact of human purpose. The problem with hard determinism is that it takes another observable fact — causality — and turns it into a false dichotomy by placing unnecessary restrictions on it. Animate beings do not respond like inanimate objects. With self-aware intelligence, it is possible to proactively interact with (recognize, understand, anticipate and use) causality instead of merely mechanically reacting to it. Instead of explaining human purpose, hard determinism simply denies it and dismissively labels it an illusion.

Human purpose and causality are both observable facts. They must, therefore, be compatible. Hard determinists simply side-step the philosophical challenge with false dichotomies. They’ve managed to talk themselves out of ownership of their desires, purpose, choices and actions. They’ve taken the simple concept of causality and, by placing unnecessary restrictions on it, made it even simpler. As Einstein once famously stated: “Everything should be made as simple as possible: but not simpler.”

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9 thoughts on “Explaining Purpose”

  1. In the end we must use both subjective and objective analysis to understand more about a world that we can only see and feel a very small part of. We can’t see and feel purposes, for example. We can only infer them, subjectively.


    1. Yes, I agree, Roy.

      We use both but CAN’T use only one. I mean, because of our limited senses and brain, it’s not humanly possible to be perfectly objective and it’s not desirable or sane to be perfectly subjective.


  2. * it seems you’re coming awfully close to attributing the state of the universe to an “intelligent regulator”*
    Not really. More likely (and over-simply) over endless time the strategies by which its elements have evolved to anticipate the necessity to react to each other (defensively, cooperatively, etc.) have become the equivalent of intelligent and purposeful responses.
    And it’s clear that nature’s consistent behavioral probabilities – that we observe as lawful – are so because there’s likely a logical self-regulatory process involved.
    Even if these concepts (and Hoffman’s version is only one example of such anticipatory theories) hold value for deists, theists, etc., that’s their problem. It’s like saying that biological self-engineering is wrong because it gives value to a creationist’s version of self design.
    The universe is responsible for its own evolution, and if seen as godlike, its in its consistently self regulated re-creation. Big question is where these energetic particles and their strategies came from and what sort of universal culture retains, disseminates and evolves them. (But in spite of some theories to the contrary, I’m fairly sure that these somethings did not come from nothing.)
    And again, there’s much more to be said about he topic, but I’m still evolving my own version of its understanding.


    1. I forget which discussion it cropped up in but somebody said something like “many physicists are uncomfortable with quantum physics because it leads to the conclusion that consciousness creates reality.” I know that at least one school of thought leads down that path but there’s another camp that claims wave function collapse is statistical, not actual. I’ll cite Wikipedia here:

      In quantum mechanics, wave function collapse (also called collapse of the state vector or reduction of the wave packet) is the phenomenon in which a wave function—initially in a superposition of several different possible eigenstates—appears to reduce to a single one of those states after interaction with an observer. In simplified terms, it is the reduction of the physical possibilities into a single possibility as seen by an observer. It is one of two processes by which quantum systems evolve in time, according to the laws of quantum mechanics as presented by John von Neumann. The reality of wave function collapse has always been debatable, i.e., whether it is a fundamental physical phenomenon in its own right or just an epiphenomenon of another process, such as quantum decoherence In recent decades the quantum decoherence view has gained popularity and is commonly taught at the graduate level (e.g. Cohen-Tannoudji’s standard textbook). Collapse may be understood as an update in a probabilistic model, given the observed result.

      I, personally, just can’t accept the notion that reality is subjective, dependent on the observer. I think that there’s just too much going on that we don’t yet understand and that it’s too much to accept something so strange when our understanding of it is so limited. Surely, at some point, an objective, physical, reality will be scientifically upheld.

      It seems to me, Roy, that much of your comment relies on a subjective reality.


  3. What I can add to your response at the moment is that the universe obviously has found ways to regulate itself (or its systems) intelligently. And in the process, regulative purposes are acquired. The raw materials of life are useless without strategies extant to allow them to make proactive choices. Those strategies will have had to evolve earlier, rather than to pop up serendipitously when chemical compounds accidentally provoked the strategies to form. There’s more to say, but now’s not the time.
    First read the paper I sent for another view on awareness, etc. (I can’t reference it here as it seems to be no longer on the net.)


    1. So you think the universe and its systems are intelligently regulated — as opposed to self-organized within the constraints of physical laws? The modern cosmological view has quantum fluctuations in the Big Bang responsible for the distribution of the heavens. The initial universe was an entirely quantum one: a rapidly expanding soup of subatomic particles. Although it’s curious that the quantum realm includes data and consciousness, it seems you’re coming awfully close to attributing the state of the universe to an “intelligent regulator”.

      I’m about two-thirds of the way through Hoffman’s paper on Conscious Realism (page 22 of 36), but haven’t yet seen how it relates to your ideas (not that you’ve fully expressed your ideas yet). What exactly, is the connection you’re making?


    2. Okay, I finished reading Hoffman’s paper on Conscious Realism. He didn’t make clear (to me), until the end, that he attributes consciousness to the universe itself. Here’s the paragraph (page 28 of 36), under the heading, “9. Conclusion”, in which he states outright his basic premise:

      Something does exist whether or not you look at the moon, and that something triggers your visual system to construct a moon icon. But that something that exists independent of you is not the moon. The moon is an icon of your MUI, and therefore depends on your perception for its existence. The something that exists independent of your perceptions is always, according to conscious realism, systems of conscious agents. Consciousness is fundamental in the universe, not a fitfully emerging latecomer.

      While it’s true that this model has some advantages (including a mathematical “proof” of the possibility of spectrum inversion) over the prevailing physicalist model, his basic assumption is a LOT to swallow. I’m not sure I can agree with him. But I’m still absorbing it all. Maybe in a week or 2, I’ll have a more firm opinion of his paper.

      Anyway, I see that you probably were claiming intelligence (consciousness) as part and parcel of the universe. As an atheist, what bothers me most about Hoffman’s theory is that a universe with consciousness “built in” is pretty damn close to a pantheistic view of the universe. As such, it also holds value for deists and theists who would stretch the implications to cover their own needs.

      I found myself wondering if Hoffman’s ideas were inspired by “The Matrix” or by Star Wars (“May the force be with you.”). At any rate, the topic is fascinating. It turns just about everybody’s notion of reality on its head.


  4. Living objects make active and reactive choices. Nonliving or the apparently inanimate make only, or by definition, the reactive choices.
    Not to assume however that among the apparent inactive there aren’t others who’ve attained at some point an ability to live, or to proactively choose.
    Also, while you recognize the nature of our human purposes, it’s not a certainty that we’re universally alone in having them. There are arguments to be made concerning the nature of awareness in the universe – no Gods and the like – more simply a form, or forms, of anticipatory and thus purpose finding energy.


    1. I’ve never actually run across an argument for energy as intelligent lifeforms although I have read and seen science fiction which depicts them. I’ve often found it interesting that quantum mechanics includes “data” as a property of (subatomic) matter and that consciousness appears to have a causal correspondence (measurement collapse) to the physical world. Why would data and consciousness play ANY role in the physical world? I mean neither are really needed unless there’s an intelligence to the universe (i.e. your “awareness in the universe”) to make use of them. Remember, intelligent human beings didn’t come along for many billions of years after the Big Bang and the raw material for life (as we know it) comes from the death throes of stars — and it took many millions of years before the first stars died. So, what possible purpose could there have been, in the early universe (when the laws of nature were laid down) for data and consciousness?

      I know that’s kind of a stretch but it’s something I’ve wondered about . . .


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