Thursday, October 30, 2008

Did Russell plus Whitehead make a pair a docs?

Someone actually read the comments previously posted and inquired as to whether any writer of note (or any writer at all) had ever said anything that could even remotely trigger such speculative mumbo jumbo. So my reply was somewhat as follows:

I presume (that) you are aware of the writings of Alfred North Whitehead, scientist, mathematician and philosopher. I’m informed that the evolutionary history of life suggested to Whitehead that there is an ever present urge which can be interpreted as purposive. It can be seen as an aim to greater richness of experience or “higher modes of subjective satisfaction.” This doesn’t mean every step in evolution involved an increase in richness of experience of the entity being evolved. It does infer that from the foundations of the universe there was the possibility (not the inevitability) of all sorts of experience, including self-conscious experience that we know in ourselves. Whitehead comments that "Scientists animated by the purpose of proving that they are purposeless constitute an interesting subject for study."

Actually I hadn't known until I looked it up that Whitehead had said anything remotely relevant to my musings here, but it's nice to feel I'm not as far out as others might have somewhat accurately assumed.

Although I mentioned Russell in the heading for no particular reason.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Reckless or Feckless Musings

The default or (as far as we're aware) unanticipated purpose of the universe may simply be to expand and increase its propensity for the creation of undirected or self-directed purposefulness.  
But, paradoxically, might we then anticipate the proliferation of separately purposeful mechanisms to arrive at a stage where their cross-purposes come into serious play - and hence the necessity for mutually recognized strategic directives? 
And should we then expect or at least hope for a further stage to be a largely cooperative universe consisting of the ultimate in superorganisms?
And if we aren't anywhere near this stage in this wee corner of the cosmos, can't we still presume that such supremo organisms already exist in other corners, given the endlessness of space and time?

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Free Will - Choose It Or Lose It?

More thoughts on choices, freely made or otherwise, and as a follow-up to my previous post, The Devil Made Me Do It:

Even if all events are predetermined - purposefully or simply inevitably - our mechanisms as life forms are required to go through the motion of calculating probabilities involved in selecting from our available options before action is taken - and it's that process we call choice. To argue that the choice may not have been free and therefor not a choice at all begs the question of what to call the process, if not one of engineering that choice. So free or not, we are required to choose our actions, consciously, automatically or by any measure of predictability.
And can't we say, for example, that a mechanical object such as a computer makes choices?  Based on differences in input, different results have become, in effect, choices.

What does this have to do with the question of will?  Only a realization that choice and freedom of choice are not the same concept.

Because it seems that every time the question of free will comes up, for whatever current reasons, the profoundly silly idea also recurs that we may not then be responsible for our actions - and thus not deserving of punishment for things we couldn't have helped doing. But responsibility refers to choices made, and the basis for such choices that, if altered, could have brought different results.
And predetermined or not, the introduction of both possible and probable consequences, short or long term, as options available to our calculating processes, will effectuate commensurate changes in the outcome of those calculations and of any actions to follow.

So even if it has been "predetermined" that we will want to alter the prospect that certain behaviors will be attempted or repeated, we will nevertheless be able in some degree to affect that behavior of others accordingly, even if that is part of the process some would like to call their destiny.  Because most of us at least have sensed no predetermined motivation not to so  choose.

Free or not, choices will continue to be made and consequences considered in that making.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Pair of Dice Lost?

There were discussions at two sites recently concerning decision making in the brain and how the results might help us in answering the philosophical question of the existence or non-existence of free will.

My comment on the first site and repeated on the other was as follows:

There’s no reason to assume we don’t have free will just because we aren’t conscious of the decision making process. There’s still a decision process that our brains are just as free, or not free, to make one way or the other (assuming they were at all free to make decisions to begin with). The ability to consciously choose what information to look at, that then becomes part of the basis for making unconscious inferences, is where the nexus of the free will dilemma sits. Are those conscious choices predetermined, or at least an inevitable consequence of physical laws governing cause and effect? That’s the real question, and there has so far been no reliable answer except that on balance we can expect to be better off by acting as if we have free will, regardless of our philosophies.

Comments on both sites inevitably turned to the themes dealt with in these philosophies - determinism, pre-determinism, non-determinism, inevitability, dualism, the supernatural (et cetera). I also referenced an article on the following site indicating physicists still could not agree on whether nature is inherently random or only appears that way:

In no way do I intend to dig into any of these areas in this post, except to note I had also pointed to some aspects of these concepts directly related to any free will hypotheses:

Both dualism and determinism allow for the supernatural.
Free will and the uncertainty principle ultimately, in my view, don’t.
Because supernatural concepts will invariably posit an omniscient or omnipotent presence in nature.

One can agree or disagree, but for purposes of this post, I'm going to assume the above are correct (despite some odd quibbling that omniscience can give itself limits). And also assume we cannot be 100% sure that the universe is either determinate or indeterminate - even though we can be closer to sure it was not predetermined than that it was.

And I'm going to propose my own framework for the unraveling of this great "free will" conundrum. And it is not at all the same as, for example, the proposal by Daniel Dennett that “determination is not the same as causation, that knowing that a system is deterministic tells you nothing about the interesting causation - or lack of causation - among the events that transpire within it,” - thus making a distinction between determined and inevitable, although I can agree with that proposition. (Nor did I get any initial input from the John Searles of this world - the need to behave as if our wills were free has been with me since before most of these others were born.)

Here, in sum, is my proposition:

What we most likely have is a universe of non-determinant and non-predictable inevitability.

Why I propose that the above will lead us closer to an understanding of what has seemed an unresolvable paradox from any perspective will be a subject of subsequent posts. And I don't doubt that others can have made a similar proposal somewhere, but if so, I haven't found one and am not knowingly copying someone else's concept. Certainly my reasons will be my own as much as any of our thoughts are independent of their prior influences.

And will those reasons be as good as I may have deluded myself into believing they are? Can I really depend on a certain facility to unmask the obvious? Stay tuned.

Fast forward to some notes I made elsewhere relevant (I hope) to the above questions:

My view of the key to the free will versus inevitability paradox:
Even if the future was inevitable (and the uncertainly principle would argue otherwise), that "inevitability" could only be known in retrospect. And this only means that whatever could have been avoided, and resulted in a different "inevitability," was not avoided. But also this present state of being was doubtless the result of some things that were in fact avoided that would have otherwise led to a different "inevitability."

(People such as the philosopher Daniel Dennett would perhaps call this consistent with the views of a compatiblist. And looking at some of the material about him will no doubt inspire me to think of aspects of my proposed dissertation that I might not have otherwise - but that's the whole idea and legitimate purpose of any research of other's opinions.)

So the concept of inevitability does not in itself require that there is no free will - yet also does not eliminate the possibility that free will is nevertheless an illusion. It simply, in my view at least, affirms the necessity and the wisdom of continuing to act as if we do have that type of choice.

And in any case we are ultimately concerned with predictability, and in that endeavor we have to factor in a certain amount of probability as to cause and consequence and a certain understanding that our choices are constrained by the same limiting factors.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Eden's Paradox?

I had proposed earlier that we, and life forms before us, have evolved calculating mechanisms which, when predicting future consequences from an assessment of their causes, have assumptions built in that causation in nature is purposeful - that we have in effect the will of nature to contend with. I should have added at the time that these mechanisms (some call them cognitive modules) need to operate from the further and somewhat contradictory assumption that we have the freedom to contend with nature's will.

So we seem always at cross purposes when these conflicting "wills" inevitably complicate attempts at an accurate determination of the future. This may also add up to a certain built-in distaste for paradox. Especially as we can't know when or even if either of these assumptions is correct.

Let's complicate this even further: If the assumption of purpose has led to a belief in gods or spirits, then you are virtually compelled to consider them as part of the explanation for any questions concerning life and nature. You "can't not" involve them in any of your calculations. Worse, they will have become factual considerations - no longer possibilities.

So would you then be able to ignore both these "facts" and the assumptions that "made" them into facts in any attempt to re-examine the correctness of your original programming, or even accept there was such a program from the beginning? Just how do you question a "truth" you know for a "fact" to be self-evident?

It would appear there is only one answer to this and perhaps to any other paradox: You (and I) can know nothing to any degree of certainty unless we concede that nothing at all is certain. (Probably.)

But if we have a will that can contend with nature's offerings, we'd be wise to see that as both our and nature's purpose - as life forms are likely nature's only construct with both will and purpose.

And as they say here in the Garden of Hawaii, "that's why hard."

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Hyperactivity Afoot

Dr. Wilson's response posted below, raised a question that made me think of a possibly helpful answer. I'll post that here as well.

"But if there ARE these biologically based presumptions that natural events have a purpose, then they have in effect posed questions about what is behind that purpose and why. So these detection devices may now appear as costly byproducts for reasons that involve their misuse over the ages as attempts to understand our own purposes as necessarily connected to some purpose in nature. Religious mythology has so far appealed to many of us as having the best answer, but it has given us answers to the wrong questions. Because in the process we have been unaware of what there is within us that has prompted these ongoing questions and their so far unsatisfactory answers.

If we can come to understand that we already have what amounts to a built in belief that nature has a set of laws that do effectively govern us and "punish" us when we don't follow directions, and to understand what is prompting the search for a purpose behind these laws, rather than for, perhaps, the laws that serve our own human purposes, then this detection device won't turn out to have been a costly byproduct after all.It will have eventually led us to asking the right questions and the possibility of answering them through a more scientific process."

Well, I know what I was trying to say, even if you don't.

But I do need to point out that after reviewing at least some of the literature, the concept Dr. Wilson referred to as the hyperactive agent detection device postulates that we do have a bias toward suspecting such causative agents at work, supernatural or otherwise, but this concept doesn't envision the origin of such bias being from the same biologically built in "premises" (perhaps as cellular algorithms) that I have proposed exist, and would have existed since calculating mechanisms devoted to predictions sprang into life (pun intended).
Better Belate than Never

OK, I got a reply from Dr. Wilson today that makes me feel a lot better about my ideas. Here is the response:

Dear RoyNiles, There is nothing dumb about the issues that you raise. Everyone should know that when I don't reply, it is for lack of time, not lack of interest, and certainly not because I regarded a comment as dumb. With respect to memes, they are defined in a variety of ways, some broad and others narrow, as I describe in my first blog. There is definitely a process of cultural evolution (not everyone agrees, in part because the concept has a complicated past), which involves some cultural variants spreading at the expense of others, but these cultural variants need not be like genes in every respect. See Richerson and Boyd's "Not By Genes Alone" for the best discussion of memes and cultural variants, in my opinion. I usually avoid the term, although I used it in my blog to say that religions (and other cultural systems) are good at managing their internal environments.
Continuing my response to your comment, your point about built-in calculating mechanisms is also well taken. Numerous evolutionists think along these lines, such as Scott Atran (In God's we Trust) and Pascal Boyer (Religion Explained). These are broadly classified as "byproduct" theories of religion, because the elements of religion are hypothesized to evolve by genetic evolution for reasons that have nothing to do with religion, and then become the basis of religion. Your idea (if I understand it correctly) is close to what is sometimes called a "hyperactive agent detection device." I regard these ideas as quite plausible but a major issue needs to be addressed: Even if these elements of religion are byproducts as far as genetic evolution is concerned, how are they functioning (or not functioning) in their CURRENT form? One possibility is that they continue to function as costly byproducts without delivering any benefits to the religious believer, like a moth to flame. Another possibility is that they have been woven into highly adaptive current-day religious systems. Most current-day adaptations were the byproducts (or exaptations, to use a word coined by Stephen Jay Gould) of past ages.

There was no response to some of the other stuff that I had added - mainly to be provocative - and that's probably all to the good. It was the feedback in general that was sorely needed and has now been gratefully received.

Friday, February 29, 2008

In Awe of the Obvious

I asked this question on David Sloan Wilson's Huff Post blog yesterday and he hasn't answered. I didn't think it was particularly dumb, but perhaps to him it seemed just dumb enough: 

"Two small quibbles, perhaps: First, I note that you make mention of memes here as if there really were such things, when other prominent scientists (Steven Rose for one) appear to regard that concept as fanciful and more importantly, essentially untestable. Your hypotheses won't necessarily suffer, regardless, but I'd like to know or at least understand if and why you find it tenable. And I've heard Dennett speak of them with a certain reverence which is almost embarrassing.
Second, I've learned much from your other writings, but I've not seen (or have missed) any discussion of the possibility that religion differs from other social and mythological constructs because we, and life forms before us, have evolved calculating mechanisms, that, in predicting future events from an understanding of their causes, have a built in premise that every cause in nature is purposeful - every act had some form of intent behind it. In fact, I doubt that organisms would have survived and evolved without at least that initial assumption enabling quick decisions be made where immediacy is crucial.
It's not that I believe this assumption is correct (I don't) but there are more reasons to believe organisms would have had more advantage sticking to the use of that premise than have had reason to find it a disadvantage.And if you're involved with a super-organism that has found ways to turn that assumption to advantage by tapping into such an unlimited source of power, and the laws and strictures that would seem to accompany it, you have a huge competitive advantage over almost all who rely more on themselves for such powers. Does this make any sense to you as something worthy of further consideration in this particular project?"

Maybe the awkwardly put 'memes' reference put him off? Or perhaps it was too much to propose that groups could tap into a power that existed mostly in their imagination. Maybe mass delusion and self-delusion have no lasting effects. They may last a longer time than we have to wait, but that's perhaps an academic question - and I'm not a recognized academic.

I did add this later today in any case:
"I do feel that I have leave to make a last comment about something that every one should know from Biology 101: Virtually all life forms capable of replication have some sort of calculating mechanism to make at least rudimentary predictions, and virtually all of these are seeking answers based on some form of "what and why" questions, even if not yet some form of when and where, and later who and how. And it's the nature of all questions to have some sort of premise that enables the what and why to exist. And that existence doesn't need to have depended on an understanding of the concept or the nature of any part of this process. Questions looking for a reason in this mechanical sense are at the same time looking for what we would call a purpose. In other words the organism doesn't look for a reason separate from a purpose. Signals that would point to one or the other are virtually the same at that stage. So to argue that calculating mechanisms DON'T have premises of one sort or another built in, if only to allow them to work at all, is just plain silly. And to hold that in any case one of the first premises needed for the operation to begin was not involved with purpose, or used purpose in a selective way to begin with, is even more silly."
I knocked that off rather quickly, but I stand by the sentiments expressed. I suppose I could have added that in a fight or flight response, potential prey may need to assess from at least previous experience why an animal may be sitting up in the next tree. Or the fly to assess the purpose of an upraised swatter. One can't calculate "why" anything without a mechanical version of that concept somewhere in the working parts.
If an organism "wants" a chance to survive, it has to get a certain percentage of its decisions and predictions right. But It hasn't a chance in hell if it can never ask the right questions.
3-1: In response to another post related to apes versus humans, I added the following:
"What makes you so certain that apes (and other sentient beings) don't have some instinctive need to behave in accordance with some apparent encouragement from nature for correct behavior, and discouragement for crossing boundaries that other apes seem to feel should not be crossed. How do you know the one ape is not right about what his fellow apes feel and not capable of having some glimmer of why that could be?

That doesn't mean there is (or is not) such a natural force - only that all life may be predisposed to feel there is. None of you seem to have given that possibility any serious consideration - you may say otherwise but all I've seen is baseless speculation in that regard - with the apes left out except to discuss an innate moral sense seen only as evidence that ours as well does NOT come from the gods.But any suggestions as to why we and the apes may have this strong sense that it does are just dismissed as biologically baseless superstition. Superstition it surely is - biologically baseless it is surely not.

You may think you have some advantage over other atheists and agnostics in your factual understanding of religious belief. You may in fact be seriously wrong where they are merely ignorant. 

And in case you're assuming I think moral sensibilities come from some force in nature, I don't. What they come from in virtually all species, consciously or not, is from a fear that there is such a force to contend with. 
Simplistic? Sure. Obvious? Apparently not. Underly complicated? By the standards of academia, yes."

Long ago when I heard the call of wild wolves, I wondered about who or what they might think they were calling to - and why.
I lived with Indians at the time who told me they were calling to the moon. There's little doubt now that they were.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

The Devil Made Me Do It

Excerpts from comments recently made by Jesse Bering, 
Director of the Institute of Cognition and Culture, Queens University, Belfast, in an Edge symposium:

"Psychologists now know that human beings intuitively reason as though natural categories exist for an intelligently designed purpose. Clouds don't just exist, say kindergartners, they're there for raining." Also, "a mind designed by nature cannot be changed fundamentally."

Because a purposeful nature suggests a planned nature, and that suggests a controlled nature, such an instinctive surmise seems relevant to the ever stewing debate concerning determinism versus free will - with perhaps a dash of compatibilism thrown in and stirred by agents of the supernatural.

But eschewing the supernatural, we may still believe that the laws of cause and effect make events inevitable even if not predestined by intent or purpose. Yet in reality, we must act as if consequences are not inevitable and choices are necessary - even if made for us long ago by circumstance.

And we must act as if we can somehow determine or postpone our fate, while at the same time instinctively turning to "fate" as an explanation for any failure of those actions.

And some of us with religious beliefs must nevertheless act as if our gods have no real control over our actions - even if we believe that one or more of those gods are the cause of an inevitable or predestined fate.

And (obviously) this is because our innate calculating mechanisms force us to make choices, regardless of any philosophical or other belief that such choices were not ours to make. So it would seem my missionary father was right - that our gods do help those who help themselves.

And it occurs to me there was no real point to this post, but I was forced to write it anyway.