Predictability, Determinism and Free Will

In ordinary language, the concepts of predictability and determination are taken to mean roughly the same thing: if something is predictable, then it has definite causes that determine it to be the way it is; conversely, if something has definite causes that determine it to be the way it is, then it is, in principle, predictable. In philosophy, however, these are distinct concepts. Something that is deterministic need not be, in principle, predictable, and again, conversely, something that is predictable need not be deterministic. I will use two examples to illustrate this point, remarking on the second statement first, as I think it is the less significant of the two.

First, we will examine quantum physics. We would like quantum physics to be deterministic and may even have good reason to suggest that it must be, but at this point, we cannot say that with any certainty that it is, in fact, deterministic. Still, even supposing that it is not deterministic, we can use probability based models to predict, with sufficiently high precision, what the results, or outputs, of a quantum system will be.

Second, and I think more importantly, we can look to the universe at large. If we assume that the universe is entirely deterministic—which again we cannot say with any certainty but have good reason to think that it is—then it does not follow that everything in the universe need be predictable, in principle. We could say that a super-being with all the information about every single particle and its momentum could, theoretically, predict the state of the universe at any given time, but if we add materialism to this deterministic universe, this suggestion becomes meaningless. So let us think of it this way: if we want to model a system, we can represent each part of that system in a computer program. In order to do this, we will need to map each bit of information onto its own bit of computer coding, in a one to one fashion. Put simply, if we want to model a system with 10 components, we will need 10 bits of computer code, each mapping one of the ten components*. But we cannot do this with the universe at large. By definition, we need to map every single particle in the universe onto its own bit of computer coding—how can we do this? We have already exhausted every single particle in the universe by defining our system to be modeled—we simply have no particles left that could make up the computer coding for our program. Going back to our system of 10 components: if our universe only contains 10 particles, then we cannot model this system except by using the system itself as the model, but then we aren’t really modeling it, we are just watching the original system play out naturally. In this way, we can see that, even if our universe as a whole is deterministic, we still cannot, in principle, predict everything that is going to happen, because we, in principle, lack the means to do so, excluding the existence of non-physical super-beings.

To drive this home, I am going to borrow a quote from Richard Feynman:

It’s again this chess game business. If you were in just a corner where only a few pieces were involved, you could work out exactly what’s going to happen. And you can always do that when there’s only a few pieces, so you know you understand it. And yet, in the real game, it’s so many pieces you can’t figure out what’s going to happen. So there was a kind of hierarchy of different complexities. It’s hard to believe—it’s incredible, in fact most people don’t believe—that the behaviour of, say, me, one yack-yack, and you, nodding and all this stuff is the result of lots and lots of atoms all obeying these very simple rules.

To conclude, in a way, I want to remark on the relation between determinism, predictability, and our naive conception of free will. Part of the naive conception of free will is that we can, in principle, act in unpredictable ways. It simply is not the case that someone external to me could predict my own own behaviour with perfect precision. Often, the view of determinism, and its lay-equivocation with predictability, is seen as an attack on this conception of free will. But using the argument above, we see this need not be the case. We will never be able to predict the state of the universe at large, and if we cannot do say, we may always be misdefining one of the variables that we use to predict a local, closed system (i.e., for the purpose of this example, a human brain). Determinism does, in fact, have profound implications for free will if it turns out to be true, but they are much more subtle than they might seem at first glance.

*This is an oversimplification. We would also need computer coding for each of the laws describing the relations between the different components, but we will see that we need not even invoke these to illustrate the point.

An Introduction to the Problem

The problems of consciousness are many, and equally varied, but I think it would prove useful to put forth a rough description, nonetheless.

What it comes down to is the following: there is something that it is like to be a conscious being. You can describe the brain as much as you like and abstract away from the details, but all of these purely physical, third-person accounts seem to inevitably miss some crucial element, namely consciousness itself. Brains can instantiate causal relations, we know that. Brains can control behaviour, we know that, too. But how do physical brains give rise to subjective, mental contents? This is the most fundamental problem that all of the remaining issues derive from.

Everywhere else we look in the universe, we see physical entities and nothing more, we see objectivity. In a way, the entirety of scientific discovery, in crude form, is dependent on this, so how are we even to approach the problem at hand? All of our traditional tools of measurement, of explanation, of prediction rely on roughly deterministic, objective natures. Consciousness alone stands in the face of this, or at least it appears to. We would like to find a theory that accounts for this, but how is not at all clear. In fact, it could be said that conscious existence is one of the few remaining problems in science for which we do not even know how to ask the question. This should help to explain all of the contradictory accounts that are thrown around on a day to day basis. It helps explain why so many resorted, in desperation, to dualism. Life would be a lot simpler if there were some mysterious substance just out of reach that could do exactly what we need it to. But this is probably not the case, and most modern theorists understand this. Equally, it helps explain a great deal of the contemporary resistance to the downfall of materialism (or physicalism, if you prefer). Materialism is all that we know, it seems, are we not lost if we give up on it? From a more reflective point of view, though, and with time, I think these perspectives can be overcome.

To the cry of desperation of the materialist, think of this: physicalism is not all that you know—you know of your own conscious mind much more soundly, even if in an irritatingly limited manner. To the dualist, not all avenues of inquiry have been exhausted. In fact, we likely have barely scratched the surface of this enormously complex phenomenon. Where we go from here, I do not know, and it is probably anyone’s guess, but we at least have some idea of what we need to think about, and the work of others before us will allow us to avoid their pitfalls and misfortunes. This is, I think, the greatest question that lays before us as a species, and I think we may—finally—be prepared to tackle it head on.

via An Introduction to the Problem.

Quick Thought

This is mostly in response to a particular brand of materialism named eliminativism, which posits that no conscious states exist at all. The only reason for this stance that I can come up with is: the success of the sciences seems sound, and there is seemingly nowhere in these theories for subjective, conscious experiences to reside. Therefore, there is no subjective, conscious experience.

To this, I ask: Do we let our existing theories dictate reality, or do we let reality dictate revisions of those theories?

The Conscious Mind


David Chalmers’ The Conscious Mind is an interesting turn in the search for a fundamental theory of mind. It may come as a surprise that a fundamentally dualist approach underlies a current, academic theory. That said, this book, as has been noted elsewhere, can be divided into two more or less self-contained sections. The first section offers a firm refutation of the reductive materialistic approach that seems to dominate the field. The second section represents Chalmers’ attempt to propose his own foundations for a new theory that does not rely on the false assumptions of reductive materialism.

The first section relies on five key arguments, two of which I will comment on here.

The first of these is the (in)famous argument from philosophical zombies. This argument is based on a thought-experiment in which one conceives of an identical copy of a human being, except that this copy does not actually experience anything. That is, there is nothing that it is like to be this copy. From the outside, it certainly appears conscious, and would even say that it is conscious upon inquiry; nonetheless, it would lack anything that would recognizably be a conscious mind from the first-person. The point about this argument, that is often overlooked, I believe, is that it only seeks to refute logical supervenience, not the more familiar natural supervenience. Logical supervienence suggests that a higher-level property is fully entailed by lower-level properties. Natural supervenience suggests merely a lawful connection between lower-level properties and higher-level properties. In another way, logical supervenience implies that, given the lower-level facts, the higher-level facts could not have been any other way, in any possible world. Natural supervenience, on the other hand, leaves this possibility open. For example, it is perfectly reasonable to assert that the law of gravity could have been different from what it is. In another possible world, with all the same physical facts, an object on an equivalent earth might accelerate in free fall at 15 meters per second squared, instead of 9.8 meters per second squared, as it would on our earth. The full force of this argument, then, only says that the physical facts alone do not explain conscious experience, there are further fundamental laws that we need to call upon (laws that Chalmers later calls “psychophysical”). This argument alone can be seen as a sufficient refutation of reductive materialism, since the latter does not assert any further fundamental laws.

The second argument, which I personally find more indicative of the problem, comes from asymmetric epistemology, which I have previously remarked on in altered form. At its most simple, this argument relies on the fundamental difference between physical and phenomenal explanation: that the former is done in the third-person, while the latter is done in the first-person. Even if we knew all the physical facts about the universe, we would not be in a position to postulate experiences being associated with any objects. We could certainly claim that some organisms claimed to be conscious, but this would be indirect evidence at best. This, I think, is the most fundamental argument against reductive materialism because, as I’ve asked before, given this asymmetry, why would we ever expect a materialistic account to reveal consciousness to us?

Now, on to the second part. This part concerns itself with the construction of a theory of consciousness that is free of the influence of materialism. At its heart, this theory differs insofar that it postulates phenomenal experience as a fundamental concept, much as mass-energy and space-time are fundamental in the physical sciences. However, Chalmers tries to distance this view from panpsychism, which states that everything is conscious (however, he later admits that this possibility is not too unreasonable, or even unlikely). The most individuating idea presented is his principle of organizational invariance, which states that any copy of a conscious being, with the same abstract causal structure, will have qualitatively identical phenomenal experiences. In short, his theory could be seen as a sort of non-reductive functionalism that relies on experience as a fundamental. Experience is ubiquitous, then, but only as long as the appropriate causal relations are in place. What counts as appropriate causal relations remains to be seen.

The remainder of the second part is less convincing, but is useful nonetheless as an intellectual enterprise. That said, his treatment of the interpretation of quantum physics leaves much to be desired.

All in all, this book was more than worth the time I invested in it. Even if his theories turn out to be false, they will be no less pivotal in our quest for understanding one of the most puzzling, mysterious, and all around frustrating aspects of life. As Chalmers himself states from the outset, “If some ideas in this book are useful to others in constructing a better theory, the attempt will have been worthwhile.” As for me, I think that his sentiment has been affirmed.

Five out of five stars, recommended to any and all who seek a better understanding of their conscious experiences.

A Commonsense Objection to Reductive Materialist Explanations of Consciousness

Materialism, at its simplest, asserts that all things are physical in nature, and nothing more than physical. Consciousness, then, will someday be reduced to nothing more than physical relations instantiated in the brain. The problem herein lies with the respective perspectives of consciousness and physics. To quote Chalmers (again): “Experience is information from the inside; physics is information from the outside.” All that physics tells us is the relations between entities, from the third-person. For example, a proton is defined only by how it interacts with other entities.  Physics has nothing to say about what a proton is, in the simplest sense of the word. For all we care, it could be an amorphous blob that has the charge, mass, etc. of what we call a proton. Conscious experience, on the other hand, is directly linked to these intrinsic qualities, or what it is like to be something, from a first-person perspective. Why, then, would we ever expect physics to reveal consciousness to us?

Mary’s Room and Non-Reductive Materialism

Mary’s Room and Non-Reductive Materialism.

The article above is, in my opinion, a very impressive account of, and response to, the “Mary’s Room” thought-experiment. I don’t necessarily agree with the labels the author gives to his ideas, but I can see the merits of each nonetheless.

My personal response to this article is reprinted below:

I agree with almost everything you say here, but your arguments seem to suggest that you’re more of a neutral monist than a strict materialist (specifically the assertion about two sides of a coin). What I am wondering, then, is what distinguishes you from neutral monists? In another way, how is it that objects can have both objective and subjective facts, but still be only physical in nature? Why can’t these objects be fundamentally neither physical nor mental, but capable of giving rise to either property?

via Mary’s Room and Non-Reductive Materialism.