Rex Allen wrote:
> On Sun, Dec 6, 2009 at 11:34 PM, Brent Meeker <> wrote:
>> Rex Allen wrote:
>>> So my point is that:  in a reductionist theory which implies a
>>> physicalist reality with no downwards causation,
>> What defines "upwards" and "downwards".  Why would "downwards"
>> causation make any difference?
> Upwards from fundamental entities and laws.  Downwards from things
> that are composed of fundamental entities and from "emergent" laws.

Doesn't "emergent" sort of cancel out "downwards"?

> So if everything reduces to fundamental entities and their causal
> relations, then there is no downwards causation.
> To quote*** (see below) Paul Davies, from his paper "The Physics of
> Downward Causation":
> "As physicists have probed ever deeper into the microscopic realm of
> matter so, to use Steven Weinberg’s evocative phrase (Weinberg, 1992),
> ‘the arrows of explanation point downward.’ That is, we frequently
> account for a phenomenon by appealing to the properties of the next
> level down. In this way the behaviour of gases are explained by
> molecules, the properties of molecules are explained by atoms, which
> in turn are explained by nuclei and electrons. This downward path
> extends, it is supposed, as far as the bottom-level entities, be they
> strings or some other exotica."
> If downwards causation IS possible, then behaviors can emerge which
> aren't reducible to the fundamental entities and their causal
> relations.  Consciousness might be an example of this.

Of course levels of description, e.g. animals/biochemistry/physics, are 
used because it's inconvenient to translate across levels and is usually 
not necessary in terms of taking action.  But I see no problem with 
saying, for example, a scary story caused an increase in his adrenaline. 
The same events generally have descriptions at many different levels so 
there is a network of relations that can be sliced different ways to 
facilitate our limited comprehension.
> So quoting Davies again:
> "Whilst the foregoing is not contentious, differences arise concerning
> whether the reductionist account of nature is merely a fruitful
> methodology, or whether it is the whole story. Many physicists are
> self-confessed out-and-out reductionists. They believe that once the
> final buildings blocks of matter and the rules that govern them have
> been identified, then all of nature will, in effect, have been
> explained. Obviously such a final theory would not in practice provide
> a very useful account of much that we observe in the world. A final
> reductionist theory would not, for instance, explain the origin of
> life, or have much to say about the nature of consciousness. But the
> committed reductionist believes such inadequacies are mere
> technicalities, and that the fundamental core of explanation is
> captured – completely - by the reductionist theory."
> *** Note that I'm just quoting those passages to save time in
> articulating the points myself.  I'm not invoking him as an authority,
> or necessarily saying I agree with anything else he says in his paper.
>>> nothing means anything.
>> You mean things don't stand as symbols for something else?   That reminds
>>  me of George Carlin's quip, "If we're here to care for other people, what
>> are those other people here for?"
> My point would be, how does meaning reduce to fundamental entities
> like quarks and electrons (or fields, or strings, or whatever).

I'd say it's property of certain groups of elementary particles to react 
to information in certain ways.  A simple example would be my thermostat 
which we might describe as wanting to maintain the temperature at 
18degC.  It would be very difficult but possible to translate this 
anthropomorphized description into QFT.
>>> Things only have the "appearance" of meaning.
>> The above words have the appearance of meaning to me - and so they do have
>> meaning to me.  I don't know what else I could ask for?
> I would ask for an understanding of how it is that they have meaning
> to you.  You seem to take this for granted.  

Far from taking it for granted, I experience it directly.

> I'm thinking of something
> similar to the symbol grounding problem:
> "The Symbol Grounding Problem is related to the problem of how words
> (symbols) get their meanings, and hence to the problem of what meaning
> itself really is. The problem of meaning is in turn related to the
> problem of consciousness, or how it is that mental states are
> meaningful. According to a widely held theory of cognition,
> "computationalism," cognition (i.e., thinking) is just a form of
> computation. But computation in turn is just formal symbol
> manipulation: symbols are manipulated according to rules that are
> based on the symbols' shapes, not their meanings. How are those
> symbols (e.g., the words in our heads) connected to the things they
> refer to?"

This question seems like a conundrum generated by abstracting symbols 
out their context of communication and action and then being surprised 
that you can't say what they communicate or what action they will elicit.
>>> In such a reality, things just are what they are.  If you find some
>>> explanations "good" and others "bad", that's just the epiphenominal
>>> residue of more fundamental physical processes which are themselves
>>> unconcerned with such things.
>> Having predictive theories was no doubt selected by evolution - as well as a
>> psychological to see meaning in things.
> Evolution isn't a fundamental law, right?  There is no "evolution
> field" or particle.  Evolution doesn't "select" anything.  Evolution
> has no causal power.

It's true it's a description and as such has no causal power - but 
neither do any of the "laws of physics". 
> Again, assuming reductive physicalism, the initial state of the
> universe and the fundamental laws of physics (which may or may not
> have some sort of random aspect) completely determines what animals we
> observe in the present.  
If there is some randomness, then the initial state + laws of physics do 
NOT completely determine the present.

> Evolution is just a useful fictional
> narrative that helps us think about what we observe.  A description of
> what we observe, not an explanation for it.

But your own definitions of explanation, with which I agree, only 
requires that it provide comprehension, i.e. grasping together many 
otherwise disparate facts.  So I think you are like the child who has 
discovered he can always ask "Why?" after every explanation.  I'd say, 
"It's descriptions all the way down."
> So I think this was a good example of how you muddy the water with
> misleading language.
>>> In such a reality if you predict an event that comes to pass, both
>>> your prediction AND the event were inevitable from the first instant
>>> of the universe, implicit in it's initial state plus the laws of
>>> physics.
>> That's one theory, formerly more popular than now.
> Hmmm?  Are you referring to quantum indeterminism undermining the
> "inevitable" adjective?
Yes, and spontaneous symmetry breaking.
>>> Looked at in a block-universe format:  the first instant,
>>> you making the prediction, and the predicted event all coexist
>>> simultaneously.  In this view, while your prediction was accurate,
>>> there's no reason for's just the way things are in that
>>> block of reality.  Scientific theories only describe this fact, they
>>> don't explain it.
>>> So what science deals in is descriptions.  Not explanations.  The
>>> feeling that something has been explained is an aspect of
>>> consciousness, not an aspect of reality (at least not reality as
>>> posited by physicalism).
>> But then you need to ask yourself what does constitute an explanation?  If
>> you dismiss scientific models that show you how to make choices and
>> manipulate the world and allow you to predict events, what is it you're
>> looking for?  What's your definition of "explanation"?  Can you give an
>> example of a good explanation?  Does it have to be teleological?  ultimate?
>> holistic?
> So do we make choices?  Or do we just have the epiphenomenal
> experience of making choices?  Given either determinism or quantum
> randomness, what does "choice" mean?
> Do we manipulate the world?  Or do we just have the epiphenomenal
> experience of manipulating the world, when in fact everything we do is
> determined by the initial state of the universe plus the laws of
> physics?
> As for definition of explanation, I'd go with:
> 1.  A statement identifying the reason for, or cause of, an event or state.
> 2.  A statement which is intended to produce a feeling of comprehension.
> 3.  A statement which produces a feeling of comprehension.
> As for "an example of a good explanation"...hmmm.  Well I'm leaning
> towards the idea that an explanation in the sense of definition 1 is
> like "libertarian free will".  It sounds plausible initially, but when
> you really parse it out you find that it's not a consistent concept.
> For the reasons that I gave earlier with the two choices of "things
> just are what they are" and "everything exists and so this exists".
> Which leaves definitions 2 and 3.  In which case a "good explanation"
> is one which does a good job of producing a feeling of comprehension.
Which can be further parsed to note that, first a good explanation is 
relative to what you already know .  And, second, comprehension has the 
connotation of grasping together many things previously thought 
separate.  By this standard Darwin's theory of evolution is a 
tremendously successful explanation.

> And I'm not dismissing scientific models per se.  I agree that it is
> possible to construct models whose "ontologies" are consistent with
> what we observe.  I just doubt that this tells us anything about what
> is ontologically real.
Of we are never certain and we act on the best we have.  Hume said we 
should proportion our belief to the evidence.  That also means we should 
proportion our doubt to the evidence.

> Which is not that radical a claim, I think.  Computationalism even in
> it's physical (non-Bruno) version implies the same thing.  We could be
> in a simulation or some sort of virtual reality, and it would be
> impossible to detect.
But it might be possible to have evidence for it.  A tongue-in-cheek 
example are the continuing problems with getting the Large Hadron 
Collider to work.  It's initial operation has been stalled by a sequence 
of seemingly random errors and events, e.g. most recently a piece of 
bread from a workman's lunch was found to have fallen into a magnet.  
One wag has put forward the theory that we're all in a simulation and 
the simulation of course doesn't go "all the way down" but like 
simulations we write just puts stuff in "by hand" at the lowest level.  
The programmer of this simulation doesn't want us to discover the 
inconsistencies that would be revealed by the LHC and so is contriving 
that it won't work - but thereby is indirectly giving evidence for his 

More traditionally, suppose that the various healing by prayer 
experiments had succeeded BUT only when the prayers were in Persian and 
were to Ahura Mazda.  Wouldn't that imply that Ahura Mazda was a creator 
god and we were living in a virtual reality of his creation?
>>> I don't think that this is usually made clear.  And it seems like a
>>> subtle but important distinction, philosophically.
>>> So I take your point about the schoolmen.  There aren't many practical
>>> applications for the idea that "things just are the way they are".
>>> But still it's an interesting piece of information, if true.
>>> But if physicalism is correct, then how useful are your "explanations"
>>> really?  You *feel* as though it's useful to know about inflation and
>>> the CMB, but underneath your feelings, your constituent quarks and
>>> electrons are playing out the parts that were set for them by the
>>> initial state of the universe plus the laws that govern it's
>>> evolution.
>> Well I haven't used quark theory, but my "explanations" have helped me
>> design a very fast ramjet.  I'd feel a little uncertain about flying in an
>> airliner designed by people who thought aerodynamics didn't explain
>> anything.
> Did "you" design a ramjet?  OR did the fundamental causal laws of the
> universe act though a set of quarks and electrons (whose current is a
> direct consequence of the initial state of the universe) in such a way
> that something which could be interpreted as a ramjet design was
> produced.  And as a side effect, you had the conscious experience of
> designing a ramjet.

>>> "Science is about observations.  Philosophy is about clarity."
>> I'd say science is about making models that predict what is observed and not
>> the contrary.
> That's basically what I said, right?  Models that predict what?
> Observations.  Though, I take your point.
Yes it's roughly what you said about science.  But having read both 
philosophy and science, I can't buy your assessment of philosophy.
>> Since you rambled about consciousness I'll share my speculation about it.  I
>> think people resort to "philosophical" explanations when they don't have
>> scientific ones and when scientific ones are found they stop worrying about
>> the philosophical questions.  At one time people worried about vitality, the
>> life-force, elan vitale, that animated things.  But as more and more was
>> learned about molecular biology, DNA, metabolism, evolution, etc, people
>> stopped worrying about "life".  They didn't explain it.  They only described
>> it and how it worked (in great detail).  The DNA isn't alive, none of the
>> molecules are alive and yet there is no elan vitale either.  The old
>> questions about life just seem ill posed.  Not answered, yet irrelevant.  I
>> think the same thing will happen to "consciousness" that happened to
>> "life".
> I think I've seen this conversation before.  Someone quoted David
> Chalmers' response to Dennett making the same point.  You said that
> Chalmers was a historical revisionist, but offered no evidence, and
> that's where it was left.  AND, I imagine that's where we'll leave it
> also.
> But, for good measure, here part of the Chalmers quote:
> ====
> When it comes to the problem of life, for example, it is just obvious
> that what needs explaining is structure and function: How does a
> living system self-organize? How does it adapt to its environment? How
> does it reproduce? Even the vitalists recognized this central point:
> their driving question was always "How could a mere physical system
> perform these complex functions?", not "Why are these functions
> accompanied by life?" It is no accident that Dennett's version of a
> vitalist is "imaginary". There is no distinct "hard problem" of life,
> and there never was one, even for vitalists.
> ===
>> We will learn to describe consciousness by causal models, we'll predict the
>> effect of salvia and mushrooms on different people's consciousness.  We'll
>> build robots which appear to be conscious.  We'll add electronics to brains
>> based on our predictive models and cure Alzheimer's the same way we build
>> airplanes based on aerodynamics.  And if someone asks, "What is
>> consciousnees?"  he'll be looked at as if he'd asked "Where is the edge of
>> the Earth?"
> Actually I would think that if virtual reality becomes common, for
> example in super realistic fully immersive computer games, that will
> incline people to take a more Kantian view.  A view in which what is
> observed isn't taken to indicate anything at all about what actually
> exists or what actually is.

Interesting point.  More philosophical scientists don't assume their 
theories indicate what's really real.  Bruno even points to the 
impossibility of knowing his theory is correct as an essential point in 
it's favor.

Thanks for the exchange.

"The race is not always to the swift.  But that's the way to bet."
    --- Damon Runyon
> I would especially expect this to be the case if, in this future you
> describe, it turns out that the "multiple realizability" aspect of
> functionalism actually allows many of the strange scenarios that it
> implies are possible in thought experiments.
>> Brent
>> Journalist:  What variable is complementary to "truth".
>> Neils Bohr: Clarity.
> "Kant's teaching produces a fundamental change in every mind that has
> grasped it. This change is so great that it may be regarded as an
> intellectual rebirth. It is capable of really removing the inborn
> realism which arises from the original disposition of the intellect. …
> the man who has not mastered the Kantian philosophy, whatever else he
> may have studied, is, so to speak, in a state of innocence; in other
> words, he has remained in the grasp of that natural and childlike
> realism in which we are all born, and which qualifies one for every
> possible thing except philosophy."  -- Arthur Schopenhauer
> --


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