29 July 2016

A Layered Approach to Reality. Part II.2

In this part of the essay I continue to explore how different layers of description of the world relate to each other, but begin to look for more fine detail. I particularly want to draw out how applicable it is to use descriptions from different scales to comment on each other. This is because a favoured strategy of metaphysical reductionists is to argue that because classical physics is deterministic, that the whole universe is deterministic. This eliminates in one foul swoop everything that makes human beings interesting, e.g. consciousness, intention, imagination, and relationships. In this views freewill, morality, and aesthetics are also eliminated. Could there be a more depressing and uninspiring vision of humanity? So here, I want to show that, given the dynamics of our levels of description, that metaphysical reduction simply does not apply and we can find much better and much more interesting ways to talk about the world.

  • Lower level descriptions are more general and apply more widely to the universe as a whole; higher level descriptions more specific and apply more narrowly to subsets of the universe.
  • Lower level descriptions are more susceptible to be described in mathematics; higher lever descriptions require the use of narrative.

Comte's original hierarchy of science was based on levels of generality and complexity. This basic insight holds.

Lower level descriptions ideally say very precise things about the building blocks of the universe that apply at all times and places. The current fundamental descriptions we have are not complete. We don't know, for example, how matter and energy look inside a blackhole or at the moment of the Big Bang. However, we do know, for example, that all electrons have the same mass and charge; they all interact with other forms of matter and energy in identical ways. Electrons can be in a variety of states of spin and energy that are precisely specified. So when dealing with one electron at a time, we can be very accurate and precise in our descriptions, but we are almost never dealing with one electron at a time. In bulk matter we are typically dealing with in the order of 1020 electrons at a time, at a minimum. And all of those electrons are interacting with each other and everything around them, all the time. In which case we have to generalise. 

Because building blocks are identical and follow lawful or law-like patterns over time, their behaviour is susceptible to being expressed as mathematical equations. But once we make structures from building blocks this becomes difficult to sustain. As structures get more complex and their behaviour is less patterned and less predictable, it is more difficult to express that mathematically without introducing simplifying assumptions or generalising. Once structures are not identical, then mathematics begins to lose its usefulness as a descriptive tool because the equations become too complex or there are too many equations to solve simultaneously. Also in the real world there is non-local coherence: everything depends on everything else. Everything evolves together, which is difficult, if not impossible to model. 

As we go up levels of structure to more complex entities we find disjunctions. A cell is made up of molecules which are self-similar. For example, a cell uses a certain range of phospholipid molecules to make its outer membrane, each of which is broadly similar. But each cell is unique and no two cell membranes are identical. Of course cells from the same organism are very similar, but not identical in the way that the lipid molecules in its membranes are similar, and very far from the way that the atoms that make up the molecules are identical. Most cells produce tens of thousands of proteins, each with a complex structure and unique function. A mathematical model of a cell would require tends of thousands of equations to describe the role of each of these complex molecules. 

Once the units of a structure cease being identical it becomes impractical to express their behaviour in mathematical form without introducing simplifying assumptions. Very often the assumptions are of the nature that non-identical things can be treated as identical for the purposes of approximation. In the case of the different descriptions of a gas (in Part II.1 of this essay) the lower level description pays attention to individual molecules and produces many equations or equations with many variables. The higher level theory treats the gas as a single entity and requires a small set of simple equations. The higher level description describes the behaviour of the gas on a higher level of organisation, without reference to its nature as a collection of molecules. The ideal fluid is infinitely fine grained, so a real gas made of molecules only approximates a fluid. But the approximation in this case is better than the limits of our ability to measure such differences. However the equations can be accurate at very coarse grained levels, such as describing the flow of traffic on a motorway, at some cost to precision.

The behaviour of an organism, by contrast, has to be described in terms of narratives. Where it is modelled mathematically, as in Game Theory or Economics, gross over-simplifications and even false assumptions must be made to make the equations manageable. In economics (which supposedly describes the economic behaviour of human beings) the scaling up of the mathematical law of supply & demand from one product to the level of a whole economy requires the assumption that the economy has exactly one product and one customer (See Debunking Economics). A gas physically approximates an ideal fluid. Hence the simplified mathematics is useful. In the case of economics the a post-hoc rationalisation is required to make the equations work. The ideal to which human behaviour is supposed to approximate, i.e. the "rational consumer", is based on a vast misunderstanding of human beings. This is why economic forecasting is so infamously unreliable compared to genuine scientific models. 

  • Lower level descriptions can only produce generalisations about higher levels of description, not complete descriptions.
This is one of the most important conclusions about levels. The idea that lower levels determine higher levels is known as supervenience. However it is apparent that supervenience is not a good fit for how our descriptions work. Lower level descriptions circumscribe possibilities above; they place broad limits on what is possible through structure, but they do not specify which of the possibilities will manifest.

For example, the behaviour of atoms is deterministic, so chemistry is deterministic on the atomic level. Which chemistry actually takes place in a chemical system is determined by many factors: temperature, pressure, concentration, availability of reactants, external energy sources. Some of these factors are themselves emergent properties that belong to the domain of chemistry. These higher level factors are not necessarily deterministic (because they are emergent and have properties that are not determined by the lower level). So determinism on a lower level does not necessarily translate to determinism on a higher level, because emergent properties are causally effective on the level they emerge at. 

The atomic description of chemistry tells us what chemistry is possible, and can allow us to analyse what chemistry has taken place retrospectively. But if we set up a complex mixture of organic compounds, we cannot predict exactly which reactions will take place or to what degree they will consume ingredients. All we can do is make generalisations about what is possible, or about the probabilities of various outcomes, and then observe what actually did happen.

This is partly because in any complex system we do not have perfect knowledge. The more complex the units of structure, the less predictable they are. Any given atom is completely predictable to the limits of our ability to measure. A person can be wildly unpredictable. There are still limits to what a person can do based on parameters set by the fact of being made of septillions of atoms arranged in hierarchical structures and living in the kind of universe we do; as well as limits from the chemical, biological and psychological levels. Superman or Harry Potter will never be realities. But humans cannot be described in mathematical terms. Attempts to do so are inaccurate because the assumptions required to make us fit into mathematical expressions are, on the whole, false or falsifying. 

This means that we ought not even to expect lower level descriptions to determine what happens at higher levels. As we go up levels, mathematical rigour falls away and uncertainly creeps into our description. At some point the use of narrative takes over and becomes more useful.

From lower level knowledge we can only generalise about higher levels. Emergent properties cannot be guessed at, even with perfect knowledge of the lower level.

  • The further apart levels are, the more general the generalisations.
Because structure contributes to the picture, a description of building blocks becomes less and less relevant to higher level structures as we go up the levels. Building materials allow us to generalise about the bounds of architecture, but atoms are too far removed from the domain of architecture to have much to tell us. This is despite the clear contribution to the physical properties of building materials that atoms make. When we leap over levels, the contribution a lower level description makes is drastically reduced.

To put it another way, if level one allows us to generalise about level two; and level two allows us to generalise about level three; we would expect that level one could only generalise about level three in the broadest terms, i.e. generalisations about generalisations. We are made of atoms, but so what? The fact that we are made of proteins, phospholipids, and nucleic acids is more apposite to our behaviour since mountains and stars are also made of atoms. The fact that we are made of cells more so still. Atoms place limits on how proteins can form, but do not determine which proteins our cells actually use, or explain why some cells use different proteins. Amongst other things this is because of natural selection, a high level process/description. The properties of atoms don't directly contribute to our behaviour.

There's still no way to smuggle in the supernatural as an emergent property—we still cannot break the laws of physicsbut neither are we completely defined by the lowest level of description (or reality). Of course physics and chemistry are the backdrop for all life (and all other bulk matter), but the backdrop is not the play. Nor is the stage. Nor even the actors. The play combines all three in motion and is greater than any of its components. 

  • If structure reductionism works at all, it becomes less plausible or applicable the further up the hierarchy.
It is doubtful that any structure reductions work, but for the sake of argument we can allow that some structures might be reducible. Some might (or do) argue, for example, that all of chemistry can be comprehended by physics. The argument does not seem to work for biological organisms. Organisms are real structures in their own right. It's not at all clear that organisms can be reduced to chemistry, even in principle, because chemistry does not describe the causal potential of organisms as structures. That has to be done on the level of biology, or higher.

So if we find structure reductionism plausible at all, it is more likely to be plausible when trying to collapse one low level to another lower level. At higher levels the plausibility drops off precipitously; and in biology it is not plausible at all. So the plausibility of reducing chemistry to physics does not generalise to all levels. Processes or descriptions from lower levels do not explain or determine higher levels.

  • Higher level descriptions usually say nothing about lower levels.
Downward causality is a major problem area. Some emergentists argue that higher level structures can causally affect lower level structures. It's certain that human societies causally affect the individual humans in them, but this may be because we have misunderstood the levels. The individual human is not so much a distinctive level of organisation as they are a simplifying assumption. As the Nigerian proverb goes, It takes a village to raise a child. In other words when describing these levels we don't go from individual cell to individual organism, we go from cells to species. The individual isn't a level on their own, they are part of a level which includes their social circumstances. Indeed non-local coherence applies on higher levels also. A person's behaviour only makes sense in a social and physical context.

However plausible downward causation seems on a social level, it seems implausible at any lower level. Atoms do not influence the properties of quarks, etc. If there is any downward causality, then it must be short range. A human society may well influence a human individual living in that society, but a human society cannot influence the cells that make up a human being.

Although philosophers argue about it, I don't see downward causation as essential to structure antireduction. There may well be examples of it, but does not force us to generalise. If lower level properties do not propagate up the hierarchy then downward causation, if it exists, may be a domain or level specific property. Since it is clearly not present at the lower levels it may even be an emergent property.

As we will see in the next instalment of this essay, causation itself is a problematic concept.

  • A lower level description cannot specify or anticipate an autonomous higher level property.
Chemistry allows for life to emerge, it does not specify how it will emerge or ensure that it does. If, for example, the proponents of the Warm Alkaline Hydrothermal Vent Theory of the origins of life manage to create a laboratory model which leads to self-sustaining, self-replicating chemical reactions within cells that constitute a metabolism; they will still not have demonstrated that this is how life actually got started on earth. Chemistry only provides us with a general description of the possibilities of biological processes. It aims at a comprehensive general account of interactions between atoms and molecules. If this were not true then we would already know exactly how life got started because we understand chemistry and even biochemistry extremely well. Perfect knowledge of chemistry would still not get us closer to the solution. It might even be unhelpful because it would include more possible routes to life and still not provide us with a means of choosing between them.

So when people declare that they simply cannot see how to get from brain to mind as an emergent property as though this is a valid argument against antireductionist approaches to mind, we ought to just reply "Duh!". The nature of emergence is that it's not clear how any given structure is going to behave or what properties it might have based on studying the level below it. The higher up the levels we go the less clear things will be because the elements are complex. This will be a problem for research on the mind which focusses solely on the brain. It's not that lower levels tell us nothing about emergent properties, but without a study of the mind's properties on the level of the mind, we won't get the full picture. We've hardly begun to systematically study the mind or the brain.

Buddhists will sometimes claim to have been studying the mind for 2500 years. However, Buddhists theories of mind are thoroughly mixed with myth, legend, and mysticism. Some of the traditional observations are interesting starting points, but it remains to be seen how well they stand up to proper scrutiny, or what proper scrutiny will look like. I suspect that disentangling Buddhist ideas of the mind from the obfuscating cultural elements might be more effort than starting from scratch.

Inherent limitations of descriptions at different scales are what require us to adopt levels of descriptions. Thus at the outset of considering this theory, we do not expect that lower level descriptions will suffice to explain higher levels features or properties. Indeed we expect that as the scale increases descriptions will cease being applicable.

The rules of chess specify the board, the pieces, how the board is set up, and how the pieces move. But those rules do not specify how any particular game plays out. Higher level concepts such as strategy, positional considerations, or material advantage also contribute to the decisions players make.

And this leads us to one of the most important corollaries of this approach to describing reality.

  • Properties, such as determinism, do not propagate upwards through layers.
Bulk matter does not possess any of the properties of individual atoms. The behaviour of individual atoms is completely deterministic, but put together a few septillion of them, arranged in a hierarchy of structures, and the behaviour of them may or may not be deterministic. If what we make from matter is a planet, then determinism may still hold, even if the scale and complexity makes precise description difficult. If on the other hand we make an organism, then neither the properties nor the behaviour of the organism are determined by the properties of the atoms.

In the chess analogy the rules of the game are simple and entirely deterministic. But because decisions on how to move are partly determined by what moves are possible and partly by strategy, position and material the game itself is not deterministic. Nothing about the rules of the game favour a defensive over an attacking strategy for example. Either may be successful according to what defines success in chess. Nor must a game inevitably play out to the bitter end. Once a player becomes convinced they will lose, they may resign. This is allowed by the rules, but not determined by them.

  • Arguments about freewill, aesthetics, values, morality or other high level properties based on fundamental physics are incoherent.
it is incoherent to say, that because physics is deterministic, that there is no freewill.
Freewill, aesthetics, values, and morality are all concepts that only make sense at the level of human beings, since they rely on the high level property of self-aware consciousness. I've previously argued that the individual is not the best way to think about humanity. Any description of an individual human inevitably ignores non-local coherence and contains simplifying assumptions that are not valid. People come in groups. So the domain of these particular properties is the human society. All the statements and generalisations about layers apply: lower level theories may generalise, but not determine or specify; the more layers between the domains the more general and less applicable are the descriptions, and so on. Because of this, it is incoherent to say, that because physics is deterministic, that there is no freewill. And this is before we are reminded that Libet's conclusions have been debunked (See Freewill is Back on the Menu). 

Metaphysical reductionists ignore all the layers, collapsing them down to the one at the bottom. They argue that what appear to be new properties at higher levels are either aggregates of lower level properties or illusions. In practice this does not work, so they have to argue in two stages: 1) that reductionism is possible in principle and 2) because it is possible in principle, we can treat it as the actual case. The fact that in practice such reductions simply don't work is ignored and ignoring the failure of a theory in practice in favour of a theory in principle is not physics, it is metaphysics, and not even good metaphysics. Structure reductionism is not a scientific theory, it is a secular metaphysical conviction (very like a religious conviction).

On the other hand reactions to metaphysical reductionism can also be unproductive. Romantics confuse us through denying that reason plays a role in these domains. In the Romantic view all that matters is the present moment, emotion, and aesthetics. Relativists try to undermine decision making processes by reducing the salience of all facts to the lowest common denominator. Neoliberals argue that self-interest is the only applicable principle in the conduct of human affairs. Neoliberalism becomes a kind metaphysical worldview, so we get NeoDarwinism and the "selfish gene" which is Neoliberalism (if not Ayn-Randism) applied to biology. Nor are these ideologies mutually exclusive. But none of them is realistic. Nor do these few examples exhaust the variety of approaches to understanding the world. Psychoanalysis has been elevated to a worldview these days. As have Marxism, Feminism, and so on. 

  • The Universe has no purpose, but human beings may do.
One of the problems with a reductionist ideology is that it leads to nihilism. There is no design to things, no greater goal for the universe. The universe just is, it just unfolds. There are patterns to how it unfolds, but no direction. The universe has no purpose to fulfil and no plan for us. It makes no sense to talk about purpose in relation to the universe. Physical laws are just mechanistically going through the motions that were initiated at the big bang or perhaps earlier.

But this applies to a particular domain. It's a story about physics. It's many layers removed from human experience. There is no reason to presume that the domain of physics can inform our own human sense of purpose. In fact having outlined the relations between layers of description, there is reason to presume that it does not inform our lives. The properties of physics do not propagate upwards through the hierarchy. So the lack of teleology in physics need not apply further up the hierarchy.

Living things, for example, do seem to have a purpose, to wit, staying alive and propagating themselves. Persistence of life is the purpose of living things. It's not a conscious purpose, nor should this statement be misconstrued as animism ("everything is alive") or panpsychism ("everything is conscious"). A pattern for organisms of all kinds is that they carry out actions which have persistence as a consequence. Every organism consistently does this. Life persists and has persisted in an unbroken chain for roughly 3.5 billion years. On the other hand life has evolved into myriad forms, not because it is aiming at something, but because it expands to fill ecological niches as they become available, exploits new metabolic pathways, and responds to changes in the environment. So the persistence is not necessarily aimed at some goal, it is persistence itself which is the goal. 

For self-aware creatures, and mainly I'm speaking about humans here, this purpose is, or at least can be, conscious. We generally know that we are performing actions aimed at our own persistence. We even consciously plan how to optimise our lives. This distinction in purpose is part of what creates a new level for human beings. Our purpose is to some extent shared with all life. We share basic purposes related to staying alive: seeking water food, shelter, a mate, etc. But we also have the ability to reflect on our lives and desire them to be lived in service to some ideal or in the context of some larger purpose. In fact most of us feel the need for this. It is possible that this ability and the resultant need can be explained in terms of functions we evolved; but it cannot be reduced to the properties of our parts or properties we share with other animals.

Because we are talking about two very different levels of description, it is not incoherent to speak of a universe without purpose and human beings with purpose. The dynamics of layers mean that we expect differences like this. It might even make sense to speak of a hierarchy of purposes, though I'm not arguing that it does.

  • Our approach to "levels" is anthropocentric.
The idea of levels in science has always been linked to increasing specificity with respect to human beings. Those sciences that aim to specify what human beings are and how they work are at the top of the hierarchy,  while those that only say general things about the world are at the bottom. 

This isn't necessarily problematic. Our search to understand the universe is complemented by the quest to understand our place in it. Trying to understand our relation to the universe makes sense on the level of being human. It's a high-level oriented activity. And as such it will most likely produce narratives rather than mathematics. It will not determine the lower levels.

However, we can also see life and sentience as offshoots of the mainstream of layers of complexity. From chemistry, the mainstream continues up through geology to cosmology, i.e. planets, solar systems, galaxies, clusters, and finally the universe as a whole, with the possibility of a multiverse (which to date is post hoc metaphysical speculation that helps solves some equations).

Life, as far as we know, occurs only on planet earth. Science fiction aside, the types of chemical compounds and reactions that can result in stable macro-molecules that can reliably replicate is quite restricted. As are the kinds of energy gradients that can drive the process. And while basic consciousness and even intelligence is quite widespread in the animal kingdom, our level of intelligence is orders of magnitude higher. While proto-language and other proto- features can be found in other species, none have the full range of fully developed mental faculties that we have. And for all we know, we may be unique in the universe (and given the laws of physics even if there were another intelligent form of life we would probably never know it).

So we are a unique outcome of the unfolding of the world. And as such we deserve close study. 

  • We are still stumped by how mind fits into this picture.
My examples so far are drawn from physical science or analogies to the physical world for a good reason. I don't understand mind. A lot of people claim to understand mind. A load of speculative books with titles like Consciousness Explained have been written. But none of them does explain consciousness. At best they produce a plausible speculation on how the mind might work. On the other hand some people claim we'll never be able to explain mind. Someone whose professional reputation and career are predicated on them understanding the mind cannot afford to admit ignorance. So a variety of speculative theories are produced to fill the gap. It's hard to know what to take seriously. Some of my touchstone intellectuals are Oliver Sacks, Antonio Damasio, Joseph Le Doux, Thomas Metzinger, George Lakoff, Mark Johnson, Sean Carroll, Robin Dunbar, Justin Barrett, Richard H. Jones, and John Searle (from fields including neuroscience, linguistics, physics, evolutionary psychology, and philosophy).

One of main problems in understanding this domain might be terminology. For example, John Searle has pointed out (1992) that if we reject mind/body dualism, we cannot continue to talk about "mental properties" and "physical properties", or "mental causation" and "physical causation", as though they are ontologically different. By rejecting dualism we are rejecting the ontic distinction between mind and body. The reason the language problem persists that the dualism is intuitive and non-dualism is counter-intuitive. We have kept using the familiar terminology of dualism without really thinking about the implications of this. As Searle says:
"The vocabulary is not innocent, because implicit in the vocabulary are a a surprising number of theoretical claims that are almost certainly false." (1992: 14)
It ought to be possible to make an epistemic distinction in how we understand different types of experience without implying an ontic difference. But the mind-body language we are forced to use almost inevitably implies a substantive difference, if not to us, then to the majority of our readers. Ironically Searle notes that he is accused of being both a materialist and a dualist when he is neither.

If one says "the mind is the brain", the assumption is that one is a physicalist. Physicalism is routinely defined by (tacitly) dividing the world into mental and physical and discarding the mental. Physicalism is not a unified mind-body view; it is a dualist view in which one side of the dualism is disposed of or ignored. Idealism disposes of the body instead, but still rests on prior dualism. A truly monist approach would not be able to make an ontological distinction between mind and body and thus could not reduce one to the other. However, as with unified properties like matter and energy; or space and time, we may make an epistemological distinction.

Another observation from Searle is that the subjective/objective distinction has an epistemic sense and an ontic sense. An important corollary of this for meditators is that we may well find that the distinction falls away at certain stages of the path, but this does not mean that it does not exist! What goes on in someone's mind is still subjective and private, even if they are awakened. We are too eager to reason from private knowledge to public reality and it seldom works. So if someone says that they can no longer distinguish themselves as a distinct person, this does not change everyone's point of view, it only changes one person's point of view. A change in the way we understand experience the world does not change reality. I no more have access to arhat Daniel Ingram's mind than he has access to mine.

If we are going to understand mind then, according to this view, we need to study the mind qua embodied mind. We cannot make an ontic mind-body distinction, even if an epistemic distinction is useful. For the moment we do not understand how the brain produces subjectivity, but it does happen in the brain. There is no other option.

~ Conclusions to Part II. ~

This (for me) newly discovered way of looking at the world, which combines substance reductionism and structure antireductionism, seems like an extremely promising way to make progress in understanding life, the universe, and everything. Within this framework we make ontic distinctions and epistemic distinctions. Our structure antireductionism has to be epistemic. My view is that collective empirical realism—the investigation of patterns of experience, combined with comparing notes—strongly implies ontic antireductionism, i.e. reality itself has a hierarchy of structures which force us to adapt our descriptions of reality at different scales. Collective empirical realism does not give us metaphysical certainty.

Some may feel that ontic structure antireductionism goes too far, that we cannot be sure about other minds, but that leaves them with the challenge of explaining experience in the absence of mind-independent objects. To date I find those explanations uninteresting and unconvincing. 

If there is a transcendental reality then there is no way for us to know anything at all about it. No knowledge is possible and therefore no discussion is possible. Speculation about transcendental realities is pointless. I'll say no more on this subject.

We have a serious legacy problem in philosophy and in Buddhism. Ontological dualism pervades our language and often our thinking. Some varieties of monist ontologies are based on cut-down dualism rather than genuinely transcending dualities. We can posit no ontic mind/body (i.e. mental/physical) distinction, however useful an epistemic distinction might be. In Buddhism we have descriptions designed for one domain routinely applied across the board; and we have he false axiom that existence = permanence. Buddhism also employs metaphysical reductionism. 

The beauty of this combined approach is that we can have our cake and eat it. We can fully acknowledge and embrace Naturalism without thereby capitulating to metaphysical reductionism or metaphysical determinism. The laws of physics are never broken, but they allow for a vastly wider scope than is admitted by reductionists or determinists. Nor are we forced to deny the existence of such interesting human qualities as freewill, purpose, or consciousness. We can allow for novelty, complexity, and even mystery without opening the door to supernaturalism, teleology, vitalism or any of the other problematic non-scientific explanations of events. 

If we adopt this as the background against which Buddhism has to make sense, then it certainly places limits on which aspects of the tradition we can retain and which we cannot. But it leaves open possibilities for genuine knowledge obtained through our practices, with the caveat that not perceiving a subject/objective distinction does not mean that such a distinction does not exist

However there is an important area of description to address before attempting a synthesis and this is causality, which will be the subject of the fourth instalment of this essay.

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