Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Claims about the Nature of the Mind

Shadow play
Shadow Play, Helsinki, 2005

Sante Sensei has started a blog. He has a couple of posts up about emergence and free will. He's discussing the contention—by neurobiologists and other people working with the plumbing of the brain—that the mind is an emergent property of the brain, and that it can be, in theory at least, completely understood by understanding the physical processes that go on in it.

There are a quite a few very hairy philosophical questions involved, particularly with regards to free will, determinism, and randomness. From the neuroscientists' point of view, the brain is either a deterministic system, or a random one. As Sensei points out, it is not immediately obvious how determinism or randomness can be reconciled with the notions of intention and volition—free will, that is.

I've gotten into a few discussions about these same topics here, and posted some of my thoughts on the matter.

My main beef with any claims about the "essential" nature of the mind—that it is nothing but blind firing of axons in a fully deterministic system, or a partially random system, or that it's an emergent property of complexity, or that it's the action of an immaterial soul, or that it's an irreducible property of the universe, and so on and so forth—is that none of those claims really add anything to our understanding. They're just words. On their own, they're claims with no implications, much like the "weakly theistic" claim that there is a God but He is outside the Universe and has no effect on it whatsoever. If that's the case, then who cares?

What's more, these types claims are unfalsifiable. How would you demonstrate the metaphysical contention that the mind is an emergent property, or, for that matter, its opposite, that there is no such thing as an emergent property? What is this whole mind/brain duality anyway? Couldn't we treat the two as two sides of the same coin? How is "emergent property" different from "Goddidit," other than being somewhat simpler? How does this 'emergence' happen? What does it imply? As far as I can tell, not a damn thing. That makes them pretty much meaningless, in my book.

It's only when you start piling stuff on top of these basic contentions that implications start to appear, and most of the time the stuff you're piling on is more tractable with various conceptual tools that we have at our disposition. For example, most Christians would claim that the mind is action of an immaterial and immortal soul, and that God wants that soul to return to Him through His grace, therefore, you should A, B, and C. That posits a whole bunch of new entities—a God with volition, a state of being separated from God (bad) and united with Him (good) and so on and so forth. All of these have more surface area to latch onto, to examine what's really being said, and on what basis.

I don't care for metaphysics. I'm not all that interested in demonstrating metaphysical claims through argument. Instead, I'm perfectly happy to accept any of them, and then look at the contentions that follow, instead. If those contentions say something meaningful about the world, awesome, I'll keep the metaphysical assumptions in that context. If not, I don't have much use for them, and even less use for the metaphysics. Usually there's more meat in that discussion.

Finally, I don't think that free will is incompatible with either determinism or randomness. There was a pretty good discussion of it on a NY Times blog lately. Here's another way of looking at it—a thought experiment if you will. And no, it doesn't have "quantum consciousness" in it, even though it starts out with a weird possible implication of quantum physics. And yes, I did lift the premise out of Signal to Noise by Alastair Reynolds.

Let's suppose that the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics is correct. That is, that every potentiality is an actuality in some universe, and that at every instant, our universe diverges into an infinity of other universes, each of which is just a little different from the others. So there are an infinity of Petteris typing on this blog; some of them will finish this post, others will thing better of it and scrap it, and so on and so forth.

Let's further suppose that a brilliant physicist named Zahra invents something she calls the Higgs Resonator. The Higgs Resonator is a device that connects two universes at the point of their divergence, and allows Zahra to pass information between these two divergent universes. She can put a webcam in both universes and talk to her counterpart through it. Before Zahra makes the connection, she is pointing a webcam at herself. A nanosecond after it, the Zahra she sees on her screen is infinitesimally different. Then things start to diverge. She can even introduce divergence between the universes, say by putting a Geiger counter and a lump of mildly radioactive material next to the webcam, and deciding that whichever version of her registers a click first will be the first to say "hello."1

Suppose Zahra already made this invention, but just hasn't gotten around to publishing it. In fact, on February 17, 2011, she created 100 Higgs resonators and started following the goings-on in the diverging versions of her home country, Libya, through them. In particular, she's observing how Saif al-Islam Qaddafi, the son of Colonel Muammar Qaddafi, is behaving in each of these universes.

She tabulates the results on November 19, 2011, the day Saif got captured in this version of Zahra's universe.

In 82 of the universes, Saif decided to side with his father and enthusiastically cracked down on the revolutionaries, and in 63 of those universes the crackdown succeeded. In 6, he scarpered for Saudi Arabia as soon as things got seriously uncomfortable. In 7, he led a coup against his father and attempted to negotiate with the revolutionaries. In 5, he convinced his father to go into exile in Venezuela. In 4 of those, he joined him in exile, and in 1, he stayed in Libya to help a peaceful transfer of power from his clan to make room for a new, democratic Free Libyan government.

This is a random distribution. Zahra would have seen a very similar table had she decided to observe, say, the pattern of rainfall in Saint-Jean de Lys. Being a physicist, she concludes that the so-called acts of will of Saif al-Islam Qaddafi were really no more than diverging quantum potentialities actualizing in the tiny sample of divergent universes she was observing.

Except I don't think so. I contend that each individual version of Saif, in his line of psychological continuity, made choices. He could have chosen otherwise: in fact, 99 of the other Saifs did, some in dramatic ways, others in more trivial ones. One of the Saifs should be hailed as a hero of uncommon courage and wisdom and one of the fathers of a new and better Libya; 82 of them should go in the dock. The fact that there was a random distribution of Saifs does not in any way cancel out the moral responsibility of any individual one.

Nor does the mechanism of his acts of will make any difference to the moral calculus. Maybe Saif is right, and the mechanism is an immortal soul created by a transcendent God. Maybe Zahra is right, and it is all just axons firing, driven by blind, mechanistic biochemical processes. Maybe Sante Sensei is right, and it was a non-physical, irreducible property of the universe at work.2 Maybe the Pastafarians are right, and it's all the doings of the Flying Spaghetti Monster and His noodly appendages, playing the mother of all practical jokes. It doesn't make any difference.

Okay, so much for Zahra and the Higgs resonator. Let's drop them, and only consider the Saif we know of. We might still live in a quantum multiverse, or we might not. Even if we don't and the paths not taken only exist as hypotheticals and counterfactuals, we still have potentialities crystallizing into actualities. Saif is still morally responsible for the actions he took vis a vis February 17. He is still thinking, feeling, experiencing, choosing, and acting. Only a universe that is not only deterministic but fully nonrandom—which has no potentialities at all, only actualities that have or have not yet happened—is incompatible with free will. That's John Calvin's bleak universe, where God has preordained everything and chosen His own in the beginning of time, and there ain't a thing anyone can do about it.

We already know we don't live in that universe.

Ultimately, the concepts of "free will" and "consciousness"—just like "emergence" or "irreducible quality" or "atman" or "brahman" or "animus," or, for that matter, Vasubandhu's "appropriating consciousness"—are mental constructions invented by us to explain and communicate our experience. Any philosophy rests on unprovable metaphysical assumptions, and will break down when you attempt to apply it to an area where its conceptual framework doesn't work. Ratiocination can only get us so far.

I don't believe the question of what the mind is in a metaphysical sense is tractable with the tools of philosophy or science at all, even if we might be able to discover a good deal more about the how of it. There's an unbridged and I believe unbridgeable gap there. What is it that emerges, or is an irreducible nonphysical quality, or an atman or animus, or dies and is reborn (or not?)

I don't know. I don't believe it can be known, at least in the conventional sense of knowing. Is there some other way of knowing, one that cannot be communicated with the usual methods of discourse and argument? I don't know that either, but I am inclined to believe there is.

That is why I keep coming back to face the wall.

Further reading

Alastair Reynolds: Zima Blue and other stories
1The radioactive decay of an individual nucleus is a quantum event. You can predict statistically that, say, there's a 50-50 chance of a nucleus decaying within the next 10 seconds in your sample, but there is no way to predict which nucleus, or exactly when. There's nothing different at all about the nucleus that happens to decay compared to any of the others. So in your two divergent universes, it's vanishingly unlikely that the two Geiger counters will register a click at the same instant.
2How can a non-physical property act on the physical universe, though? Isn't something that's capable of acting on the physical also, by definition, physical?


  1. I have done some neuroscience research, but lost even the little interest I used to have in the "nature of mind" debates. There are countless books and articles on the topic and most people are very strongly fixated on their particular views. Materialism and emergence (whatever it means) seem to be the most common fixations for scientists.

    In quantum systems, the way you measure determines the particular features that you will see, and then you lose the other features. Ultimate reality is beyond the measurements. It seems to be a bit similar with world views and philosophies.

  2. That's pretty much how I see it too.

    Yet I spent a few hours writing this up. Go figure.

  3. Well, thinking is not evil, as a certain sensei has remarked...

  4. Probably not. It's funny, actually, going over this again made me realize how big that damn mystery really is. Perhaps that's helpful.