Determinism and Reciprocal Causation
“Intelligence organizes the world by organizing itself.” ~Jean Piaget
“An argument which proves too much, proves nothing.” ~M.M. Mangasarian
“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” ~Albert Einstein
Carl Popper advocated the concept of scientific falsifiability. He asserted that a hypothesis, proposition, or theory is observably valid only if it is falsifiable. This criterion has become a fundamental test of scientific validity. Here’s Wikipedia’s definition:
Falsifiability or refutability of an assertion, hypothesis or theory is the logical possibility that it can be contradicted by an observation or the outcome of a physical experiment. That something is “falsifiable” does not mean it is false; rather, that if it is false, then some observation or experiment will produce a reproducible result that is in conflict with it.
Causality, as a proposition, states that every material effect must have an adequate antecedent cause. This is a falsifiable scientific principle, testable by observation or experiment.
Determinism, as a proposition, states that for everything that happens there are conditions such that, given them, nothing else could happen. This is a philosophical assertion that is not scientifically falsifiable for complex organisms, like humans (as opposed to inanimate objects): it can not be proven by observation or experiment. However, it is falsifiable for inanimate objects.
This distinction between inanimate objects and animate beings is often overlooked (i.e. ignored) by hard determinists. They would have you believe that physics recognizes no causal difference between a brain and a rock: that both are just collections of atoms controlled by causality in exactly the same way. They, in effect, deny possession of their own minds and with foolish certainty sacrifice common sense to the altar of material reductionism. Albert Einstein warned against such doctrinaire edicts when he said, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”
Knowledge is a relatively safe addiction; that is, until it becomes idolatry. Certainty is an illusion. It’s not determinism versus free will; one or the other. That’s a false dichotomy. There are other possibilities: ones you’re likely to miss if you take the wrong approach. And, with their emphasis on the material reductionism, hard determinists are taking the wrong approach. The fact is, physics is concerned with the inanimate universe. Biology is concerned with animate life. Physics deals with simple inanimate objects. Biology deals with complex animate organisms and beings. Physics is amazing and glamorous . . . but it’s the wrong discipline to apply to the question of free will.
I hate using the term, ‘free will’: it suggests we are free of causality. We are greatly influenced by causality but not absolutely so. To me, free will — at minimum — requires the ability to make choices. We are goal-seeking creatures who daily demonstrate individual and group purpose. We plan and execute plans. That means making choices. The challenge is to explain how. There are causal differences between rocks and brains. By denying this fact, hard determinists are erecting a false dichotomy that makes things ‘simpler than possible’.
Eugene Wigner was a Hungarian-American theoretical physicist and mathematician. He won the Nobel Prize in Physics for “his contributions to the theory of the atomic nucleus and the elementary particles, particularly through the discovery and application of fundamental symmetry principles“. Wigner is important for having laid the foundation for the theory of symmetries in quantum mechanics as well as for his research into the structure of the atomic nucleus. Wigner is also important for his work in pure mathematics, having authored a number of theorems.
In his famous and thought-provoking essay, “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences”, Wigner mentioned the inanimate nature of physics 5 times:
- “The physicist is interested in discovering the laws of inanimate nature.”
- “However, the point which is most significant in the present context is that all these laws of nature contain, in even their remotest consequences, only a small part of our knowledge of the inanimate world.”
- “It should be mentioned, for the sake of accuracy, that we discovered about thirty years ago that even the conditional statements cannot be entirely precise: that the conditional statements are probability laws which enable us only to place intelligent bets on future properties of the inanimate world, based on the knowledge of the present state.”
- “It surely is not a “necessity of thought” and it should not be necessary, in order to prove this, to point to the fact that it applies only to a very small part of our knowledge of the inanimate world.”
- “A much more difficult and confusing situation would arise if we could, some day, establish a theory of the phenomena of consciousness, or of biology, which would be as coherent and convincing as our present theories of the inanimate world.”
Note, in particular, that last one (#5). The possibility of understanding the many phenomena of life is a far-off dream and far from assured compared to the progress we’ve already made in physics. Biology deals with animate, phenomenal, complex systems. Physics deals with inanimate, physical, matter/energy . . . not because of some arbitrary classification but because they are fundamentally divergent.
The difference between physics and biology is an important one. Any single cell in your body (of which there are over 200 kinds) includes more processes and performs more functions than any single inanimate object in the universe. Furthermore, our bodies contain more of these cells than The Milky Way contains stars – and that doesn’t even take bacteria into consideration. We are complex systems of complex systems. Animate beings (most notably, humans) are unlike anything else in the universe and dwarfs the inanimate universe in complexity.
I believe the fundamental reason for the divergence between physics and biology is because inanimate objects and animate beings have different modes of response to causality. According to the laws of physics, inanimate objects are highly predictable: given the relevant variables, science can predict outcomes with a high level of accuracy. But animate beings are another matter entirely. They are far less predictable and this lack of predictability increases with the complexity of the organism in question (humans being the most complex).
For brevity’s sake, let’s stick to humans. The properties of human intelligence evolved to take advantage of the properties of causality: namely, it’s linear, sequential, alignment with time (temporality) and its repeatable predictability (consistency). Because causality flows with the unidirectional arrow of time and produces consistent results, we can have a measure of confidence in our ability to anticipate and prepare for those predicted results. The many simultaneous external streams of feedback between us and the environment (the present) is augmented by internal mental feedback from our memories and experience (the past) in a non-linear process known as ‘reciprocal causation‘. Causes and effects — internal and external, past and present — combine in our brains to produce a “homogenized” perception of reality. Our decisions (choices) are then based on those perceptions. In effect, causes and effects integrate and lose their differences. The resulting choices we make are simultaneously causes and effects.
I suspect that reciprocal causation is where the “window of opportunity” for human purpose (self-determinism) exists. This is how choices are made without violating causality . . . because, for us, causality isn’t merely in the moment; sequential, linear and simple — it’s augmented by past experience; reciprocal, non-linear and complex. Reciprocal causation represents the most advanced known mode of response to causality because it allows us to interact with it in complex ways through myriad, simultaneous, feedback streams: internal and external, past and present, with an eye toward the future. The causal difference between a rock and a brain is radical and immense. Our ability to recognize, remember, understand and anticipate causality provides a rich internal environment not present or possible for inanimate objects. The difference is interactivity as opposed to mere reactivity: reciprocal causation as opposed to linear causation. Intelligence incorporates the past, present and future to anticipate and prepare for causality — thereby providing us a temporal advantage over causality. When you think about it, how could you have intelligence without anticipating causality?
Reciprocal causation is a fundamental principle of biology found in many processes such as epigenetics and neurophysiology. With reciprocal causation, an action is both cause and effect (Richard C. Francis, Epigenetics, page 124). It is not limited to biological phenomena and, contrary to intuition, is not a violation of causality. Reciprocal causation is central to complex systems and their emergent phenomena such as consciousness and life itself. The operative mechanism in reciprocal causation is feedback between us and our environment.
Here’s how Wikipedia defines feedback:
Feedback is a process in which information about the past or the present influences the same phenomenon in the present or future. As part of a chain of cause-and-effect that forms a circuit or loop, the event is said to “feed back” into itself. Ramaprasad (1983) defines feedback generally as “information about the gap between the actual level and the reference level of a system parameter which is used to alter the gap in some way”, emphasizing that the information by itself is not feedback unless translated into action.
Conscious intelligence is not “all in the brain” – it’s an amalgam of feedback between 3 components: the brain, sensory organs and environment. If you never had any one of these 3 components, you could never develop conscious intelligence.
Triadic reciprocal causation is a term introduced by Albert Bandura to refer to the mutual influence of feedback between three sets of factors: personal (e.g., cognitive, affective and biological events), the environment and behavior. He groups the brain and sense organs under “personal factors” (which also include experience and genetics) but the interplay between brain, sensory organs and the environment are still maintained. Because of triadic feedback, our behavior influences the environment, dynamically altering it – as it alters us – in a perpetual feedback loop. This transformative process is where, I believe, human purpose is formed.
How accurately any of this reflects reality is a matter of opinion. We simply don’t know enough about the brain to understand even simple processes – much less complex ones like self-aware intelligence or free will. What it suggests to me is that trying to explain biological processes with physics is like trying to observe the moon through a microscope. You need the whole picture: not a narrow focus. The material reductionism of physics is the wrong approach to a complex system; and the human brain is the most complex system in the universe. A neuron may be amenable to physical reductionism but a brain is not. Maybe someday but not now. Physics can certainly make contributions to neuroscience but, overall, the brain and its attendant phenomena are the purview of biological sciences and complexity theory, not physics and material reductionism.
What I do know is that the central role of feedback, in life, introduces myriad opportunities for the emergence of amazing phenomena unlike anything else in the inanimate universe: abiogenesis, reproduction, regeneration, replication, respiration, digestion, circulatory and other autonomous systems, motility, reflexes, instincts, epigenetics, sensory perception, symbiosis, immunology, evolution, consciousness, intelligence and, yes, free will (which, to me, is more akin to goal-seeking human purpose than to libertarian volition).
Because the brain is a complex system, what is deterministic at microscopic scales need not be so at macroscopic scales. Self-organization, adaptation, feedback, emergent properties and other phenomena lead to systems that are more than the sum of their parts. Life itself is a self-organizing, adaptive, emergent phenomenon of organic compounds. Given the feedback-rich systems of the human brain, life seems a much more improbable emergent phenomenon than does intelligent free will. After all, we already know the brain is fertile grounds for emergent phenomena like consciousness, intelligence and imagination: why not also free will? Can you even have intelligence without free will (making choices)? Or maybe it would be better to think of free will as a prerequisite component of intelligence.
The hard determinist’s insistence that free will violates causality and/or determinism is a false dichotomy stemming from the misapplication of physical reductionism to biological processes – most notably, the failure to recognize that causality can have a reciprocal mode with animate beings not possible with inanimate objects.
I think the dynamic process of intelligent feedback produces reciprocal causation and enables choice by blurring cause and effect; obviating their differences. Reciprocal causation, is a non-linear mode of causality in which an action can be both a cause and an effect: a dynamic feedback loop that feeds off of itself, like Uroboros: the ancient Egyptian mythological serpent, swallowing its own tail. Such a process is ripe for producing the emergent phenomenon of free will, despite the false dichotomies of physical reductionists who reduce thought to mere neuronal activity.
If you make the scientifically unfalsifiable claim that free will is impossible because neuronal activity is causally deterministic, then your linear thinking is really painting yourself into a corner because ALL neuronal activity (like imagination and reason) are causally deterministic. If you thus consider free will impossible, then so is reason. And if reason is impossible, how do you know anything at all? That’s just nuts. Remember, an argument which proves too much, proves nothing. I’m suspicious of, and dissatisfied with, any scientifically unfalsifiable claim – particularly one that talks me out of possession of my own mind. We need to make things as simple as possible; not simpler.
It might prove to be that we really are causal automatons living the illusion of free will. It might also prove to be that life is just the first in a string of physical phenomena emerging from complexities only possible with living beings in viable biospheres such as Earth. I believe there’s a natural explanation for free will and that it’s most likely to come from a mechanism, such as reciprocal causation, evolved to interact with and anticipate causality. Feedback is the key to reciprocal causation. It is with feedback that we are self-aware. Feedback provides context. Feedback informs our decisions. Consciousness and intelligence are impossible without mental feedback. We may not yet be able to prove it but I think reciprocal causation offers plenty of potential for free will to emerge from feedback – just as surely as consciousness and intelligence do. I mean, it seems like a minor feat compared to conscious intelligence itself. I believe we are self-determined, have purpose, make choices and are responsible for our actions. The challenge is to explain how; not to deny it.
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