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Emergent Properties of the Human Brain

This post revisits arguments related to free will and complexity theory. I’ve recently been focused on newer arguments for self-determinism (a compatibilist form of free will) but an interview of Daniel Dennett, by the Center for Inquiry, has prompted me to revisit “emergent properties”. If you’re not familiar with my explanation for self-determinism, please consult my home page for several posts on the topic.

The basic premise of hard determinism is a false dichotomy. It asserts that you can’t have causality and make choices too. Too many hard determinists are stuck on this false dichotomy and won’t acknowledge that it’s not either/or. They won’t acknowledge that there are alternative possibilities. Self-determinism is one such alternative in which human intelligence, via reciprocal causation, interacts with, instead of merely reacts to, causality.

Daniel Dennett, in an interview for the Center For Inquiry, uses an argument derived from complexity theory. Complexity theory, by the way, is better suited to mind/brain questions than the reductionist approaches favored by hard determinists. For your convenience, I’m including this link to an .MP3 file containing just the section of the interview dealing with free will. The following block quote comes from near the end of the .MP3 file . . .

Most people are quite happy with the idea that things can be colored even though their finest parts aren’t colored. Atoms aren’t colored but things can be red, blue and green — they can really be red, blue and green — it’s not just an illusion that they’re red, blue and green even though the atoms that they’re made of are not any color at all. Things can be alive, like a cell, even though they’re made of parts that aren’t alive. In fact, if it doesn’t work out that way, we’re in deep trouble. So you can make something living out of parts that are not living. You can make something colored out of parts that aren’t colored. You can make something conscious out of parts that are not conscious. Neurons aren’t conscious . . . [and] you can make something free out of parts that aren’t free.

. . . Nature is riddled with emergent properties: especially where there is life. Life itself is an emergent property of organic molecules. Self-aware consciousness, intelligence and, yes, self-determinism, are emergent properties of mental feedback (which is, itself, an emergent property of the brain). Because the emergent property of mental feedback must exist before the emergent properties of (1) self-aware consciousness, (2) intelligence and (3) self-determinism can exist, these 3 higher-level phenomena are at least twice abstracted from the brain. They are emergent properties of an emergent property (mental feedback). You can also take the view that human intelligence includes self-aware consciousness and self-determinism but you’d still have a phenomenon twice abstracted from the brain: an emergent property from an emergent property. This feedback loop, in which we think about what we think, is a form of reciprocal causation and, I suspect, is where choice arises from. The theory of reciprocal determinism, developed by renowned psychologist, Albert Bandura, emphasizes the interdependence of person and environment. Here’s what Wikipedia has to say about it . . .

Reciprocal determinism is the idea that behavior is controlled or determined by the individual, through cognitive processes, and by the environment, through external social stimulus events. The basis of reciprocal determinism should transform individual behavior by allowing subjective thought processes transparency when contrasted with cognitive, environmental, and external social stimulus events.

Actions do not go one way or the other, as it is affected by repercussions, meaning one’s behavior is complicated and can’t be thought of as individual and environmental means. Behavior consist of environmental and individual parts that interlink together to function.

. . . I believe, as I’ve already stated here and elsewhere, that self-aware and time-aware mental feedback is transformative: that’s where the complementary properties of causality and human intelligence interact — that’s where self-determinism emerges.

Human intelligence evolved to interact with causality: it recognizes and anticipates causality. If you consider the properties of causality and of human intelligence, you’ll see how they’re complementary. Causality, in the inanimate world around us, is highly predictable because it unfolds with time and produces repeatable results. It is persistent and consistent: unidirectional and repeatable. Science depends on this fact to formalize empirical observations and experiments. People depend on this fact to interact with the world around them. We influence the external environment as the external environment influences us. Cause and effect, in certain ways, become indistinguishable. This is interaction, not reaction. Human intelligence produces an entirely different mode of response to causality: interaction. Contrast this to the strictly reactive mode of response for inanimate objects.

Free will, as most of us think of it, doesn’t exist. Our intelligent interaction with causality produces a more subtle, nuanced, phenomenon: self-determinism. I think of it, more or less, as “direction” or “purpose”. Because of feedback, we can (with varying degrees of efficacy) distinguish between a good idea and a bad idea or something in between and pursue the one we want. These are options — yes, options dictated by causality (reciprocal causation) but options nonetheless — we choose as self-aware, intelligent, human beings. The brain deliberates. That what it does. It couldn’t without feedback. If you insist on a reductionist philosophy that equates brains to rocks, you will never acknowledge the distinctly different modes of response to causality exhibited by inanimate objects versus animate beings. With reciprocal causation, cause can become effect and vice versa: cause and effect lose their meaning and reaction becomes interaction.

We suspect that abiogenesis somehow transformed inanimate matter into living cells. We haven’t proved it yet. But it’s the best theory we have and most of us are willing to accept it because we know life must have started somehow.

Of course . . . you could say “God did it” and leave it at that. But that’s a cop-out.

In the same way, we know that we are self-aware, time-aware, intelligent human beings who bring purpose and direction to a universe that otherwise has none. Self-determinism provides a theory that uses what we all know to be true to explain how this direction and purpose is compatible with causality. By interacting with causality, human intelligence blurs the difference between cause and effect in a way not possible with inanimate objects.

Of course . . . you could say “The Big Bang did it” and leave it at that. But that’s a cop-out.

The philosophical challenge will remain unsolved if we keep trying to explain the impossible notion of the ill-named “free will”. Instead, turn your attention to what we know and can actually point to as real. The true challenge, in light of causality and reality, is to explain the goal-seeking direction and purpose of human endeavor . . . NOT to fatalistically deny it.


© Copyright 2011 AtheistExile.com
eMail: AtheistExile@AtheistExile.com


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Hard Determinism: A False Dichotomy

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:

  1. “The physicist is interested in discovering the laws of inanimate nature.”
  2. “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.”
  3. “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.”
  4. “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.”
  5. “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.


© Copyright 2012 AtheistExile.com

Self-Determinism: Manipulating Events

The Internet is amazing. It hosts media of all kinds. Anybody can communicate with anybody. And you can find out anything you want to know. It’s huge and complex but we don’t need to understand how it works to know that it does. In the same way, we don’t need to understand how the brain works to know that it does. Its electro-chemical machinations, while interesting, aren’t necessary to understand in order to know that the brain deliberates. That’s what it does.

Neuroscience can’t yet explain how the brain does what it does but it has made some intriguing discoveries. One such discovery is numerous feedback mechanisms in various modules of the brain. It’s this mental (intelligent) feedback that has led me to an interpretation of (the ill-named) “free will” that explains human purpose: I call it “self-determinism”.

The philosophical conundrum with “free will” has always been the notion that it necessarily violates a fundamental law of nature: cause and effect (causality).That’s a false dichotomy. It’s not either/or. There are other possibilities. I hope to convince you that, because of intelligent feedback, self-determinism can explain our ability to manipulate events (purpose): not despite causality but, rather, because of, and in concert with, causality. The challenge is in overcoming philosophical objections. I hope, this time, my explanation succeeds.

By the way, I get the impression that some people think it’s “arrogant” of me to attempt an explanation of “free will”. That’s ridiculous. Everybody’s got an opinion. This one’s mine. If that disturbs you, I suggest you look within for the reason.

Causes aren’t monolithic: they’re discrete. Normally, cause and effect are constantly repeated (or repeatable) with predictable results. Scientific experiments rely on this fact. Outside the quantum realm, causality is universal. You can’t cite an effect without a cause. Like time, causality is unidirectional; flowing from the past, through the present, to the future. Cause comes first, then its effect: the sequence is invariable. This means effects have no influence on their causes. But with intelligent feedback, effects can have an influence on future instances of their causes if we learn from them and prepare for those future instances. If we succeed, we’ve altered the path causality would have otherwise taken. And that takes purpose: self-determinism.

Because of these properties of causality (unidirectional sequence and repeatable predictability) intelligent feedback gives us a virtual, temporal, advantage over causality when we interact with it. With intelligent feedback we can examine events and tie their effects to their causes and deduce the preceding sequence of events. We understand consequences. But the real empowerment of self-determinism comes from our mental ability to extrapolate cause and effect into the future to manipulate anticipated events to suit our own purpose(s). That is self-determinism. We use our intelligence to prepare for — or even control — cause and effect. Cause and effect are not violated. But because of our preparations, we manipulate how it unfolds.

Take Amsterdam, for instance. It is below sea level. Causality would normally dictate that it be under water. But it’s not. Because of our intelligent, proactive, interaction with causality, Amsterdam remains dry. Did we violate causality to accomplish this? Of course not. We intelligently used causality to accomplish it. Causality does not have purpose(s). It doesn’t think. It doesn’t care if Amsterdam exists or not. But we do. We served our own purposes and altered future events (causality) accordingly.

We find this easiest to do with materials and phenomena we readily understand. And what we readily understand are materials and phenomena with consistent, persistent, properties. We can reliably manipulate sand and gravel, wood and metals, air and water, elements and chemical compounds but reliably manipulating people is a different matter. I believe the difficulty boils down to the two different modes of causal response between inanimate matter and animate beings. The inanimate mode of response to causality is passive and predictable. The animate mode of response to causality is interactive and unpredictable. It’s the difference between a rock and a brain. Inanimate matter is easier to manipulate because it’s easier to predict. Animate beings are more difficult to predict because they’re more complex and possess properties, such as intelligence, motility, respiration, digestion, etc. that inanimate matter does not.

As human beings, we interact with the external world intelligently. In other words, we interact with causality intelligently. That means we learn from it, understand it and use it for our own purposes. Feedback is the key. It empowers us by mentally rendering causality bi-directional. We learn from the past to manipulate the future. It’s really just that simple. We can understand consequences and act accordingly. There’s no advanced philosophy needed to explain away man-in-the-machine, mind-brain, dualism because there is none. Just simple facts that anybody can understand.

Self-determinism requires no violation of causality because it’s the properties of causality (unidirectional sequence and repeatable predictability) that facilitate our intelligent interaction with it. Causality gives us a fundamental means by which to understand the world around us. The fact that we use this understanding to manipulate the world around us is empirical proof that we interact with causality intelligently and with purpose. And that means we really do make choices that serve our own purposes — because causality has no purpose. We don’t progress arbitrarily . . . we progress with purpose. That much seems transparently obvious and undeniable. You can claim it’s an illusion, if you like, but you can’t substantiate your claim. The fact is that, in actual practice, civilization takes “free will” for granted and pursues its goals as needed. We all act as if we have “free will”. We take credit for our achievements. Everything we do presumes purpose. In contrast to human purpose, nothing causality does presumes or indicates purpose in any way whatsoever. It’s pretty cut-and-dry when put in the proper perspective.

So I’ll ask: “How does our manipulation of the world around us NOT demonstrate purpose?” Were we really scripted, since the beginning of time, to fly jets into the Twin Towers? Are we really automatons programmed, somehow, at the moment of the Big Bang? That’s what you’re asking us to believe if you insist causality is necessarily violated by “free will”. I say we are what we appear to be and that any assertion that self-determinism is an illusion is based on the erroneous assumption that it must violate causality. That is a false dichotomy which hastily and unnecessarily rules out other possibilities like deliberate, proactive, interaction with causality: self-determinism.

If human brains deliberate and if causality is a law of nature, then they are obviously compatible. Self-determinism explains how. Intelligent feedback extends determinism to self-determinism. It is a compatibilist explanation of what “free will” really is. It is compatible with causality and is, in fact, an extension of it: extended, primarily, by intelligent feedback.

Intelligent feedback makes us self-aware, future-aware, manipulators of events . . . and events are what causality is all about. This manipulation of events gives us a modest power over causality: the power of purpose. That is self-determinism. The only kind of “free will” we have. And the only kind we need.