Thursday, January 3, 2019

The Mind Body Problems

SciAm writer John Horgan is plugging his latest book, Mind-Body Problems: Science, Subjectivity and Who We Really Are. You can read it online for free.

It does not actually solve the mind-body problem, but rather tells you about an assortment of characters who are trying.

Check out his website, or an EconTalk interview of him.

Machines appear deterministic (until chaos, at least), while human minds do not. If you believe in the reductionist scientific program, then it should be possible to look at smaller and smaller scales until determinism disappears.

That is exactly what we see, of course. Mechanistic determinism disappears at the atomic level.

When you point this out to anti-free-will advocates, they say you are looking at randomness, not free will. You are supposed to recognize it as random because you cannot predict it.

Isn't that how you are supposed to recognize free will? The hallmark of free will is that someone else cannot predict the action.

One of Horgan's arguments is that the existence of free will is implied by the observation that some people have more of it than others. Okay, I accept that. But then he cites babies as having not very much free will.

No, I think toddlers have more free will than adults. Maybe not newborn babies, but by age 1.5, they make dozens of decisions a day, completely autonomously.

Horgan's main argument is that free will is essential for his entire outlook on life. He has figured out how to dispense with God and religion, but not free will.

Sabine Hossenfelder rips into one of the ideas that Horgan is pursuing:
I recently discovered panpsychism. That’s the idea that all matter – animate or inanimate – is conscious, we just happen to be somewhat more conscious than carrots. Panpsychism is the modern elan vital.

The particles in the standard model are classified by their properties, which are collectively called “quantum numbers.” The electron, for example, has an electric charge of -1 and it can have a spin of +1/2 or -1/2. ...

Now, if you want a particle to be conscious, your minimum expectation should be that the particle can change. It’s hard to have an inner life with only one thought. But if electrons could have thoughts, we’d long have seen this in particle collisions because it would change the number of particles produced in collisions.

In other words, electrons aren’t conscious, and neither are any other particles. It’s incompatible with data.
A comment relates this to an ancient argument:
I think it's interesting to relate it to Galen's argument against atomism. He claimed that (i) atoms cannot be conscious, since they are unchanging, (ii) no combination of unconscious parts can be conscious, (iii) we are conscious. Therefore, we cannot be combinations of atoms.
This issue drew a surprisingly large number of comments, with some defending panpsychism.

Some view consciousness and free will as mere illusions. I think that view degenerates into life being meaningless, but some intelligent folks say it anyway.

If you believe in consciousness and free will, it seems plausible to me that the quantum mechanics of electrons and other particles could play an essential role. Otherwise, consciousness and free will would have to arise in classical deterministic machines, and that is even harder to imagine. I think that Bee has fallen for a version of Galen's fallacy.

Update: Lubos Motl sides with panpsychism. His argument is that if there is human consciousness, and if we are all made of atoms, then those atoms must have tiny bits of whatever consciousness is.


  1. I have never understood the mystification surrounding mind/body concepts and relationships in humanity, there is no separation, there never has been. Looking in the mirror or at a photograph can be an understandably weird sensation at first, you are looking at yourself from a perspective outside of yourself not from within yourself as you are accustomed. But, why is that mystical or deserving of any real consideration once you know what it is? It merely is your being confronted with the fact that you are not the center of existence, that you are finite, that there are views and perspectives outside yourself that contain you and that you yourself do not contain, i.e. you aren't the center of the universe, get over it.

    First of all: logically there is a clear dependency. There is no mind without a body, there can be a body without a mind. I'm waiting for someone to observably produce a mind without a body to prove this dependency incorrect.

    Second of all: Mind is a self awareness capable of distinguishing itself from everything else, it's what the brain does.
    Mind is an action or continuous process, much like running, walking, rolling, flying. You can't have a mind without a functional brain anymore than you can have running or walking without working legs, and certain preconditions like gravity, friction, and a surface to walk on. People asking questions like "But where exactly inside the brain is the mind?" It's a poorly worded question, you might as well ask, "Where in the legs exactly is the 'running' or 'walking' located?" If you can't explain HOW something does something, at the very least you can admit what is doing the something.

    Functioning brains are located in functioning bodies which can sustain them...has anyone ever seen otherwise?

    Functioning bodies are a precondition for functioning brains containing functioning minds ...has anyone ever seen otherwise?

    Environments that permit functioning bodies are a precondition to functioning bodies even existing at all, which may contain functioning brains which are a precondition to generate/contain minds. To date, I am not aware of any exceptions violating this logical hierarchy, outside of spiritual/supernatural appeals, which are not observable or scientific.

  2. As to the entire uncertainty argument ad nauseam being relevant or not to free will, I ask: Why so? We often engage in games where we intentionally play for fixed objectives (predetermined motives or outcomes), and yet we don't claim the people playing the game have no mind or lack free will, lack of absolute freedom often leads to new more considered and efficient strategies or creative solutions that work within finite frameworks (you can't just throw unlimited amounts of money and resources at the problem and call it solved). Since the measurable world is entirely finite, this is actually a good thing as it allows us to solve actual finite mortal problems we encounter such as food and energy production, as opposed to next to useless imaginary infinite god-like problems such as anything to do with dithering about black holes and having next to pointless unobservable congress with them.

    Many parts of human society function to intentionally make people's choices more weighted or predictable so that interactions with large numbers of people can be more predictable, and thus less chaotic and more manageable (road signs, street markings, content labels, behavior protocols, etc). This is not seen as being mindless or pointless, quite the opposite in the wider context of civilization, as in civil society you really don't want people deciding on any given day to start driving on the opposite side of the road, or calling red stop lights green, as this minimizes needless death and tragedy which makes at least some things more predictable... in a good way.

  3. As for the academic 'let's bitch about conflict, humans are so bad!' diatribe, it's hand wringing virtue signaling at its worst. It's almost as bad as teenagers singing about how much they know about love and how life is so tough on them.

    If you have a chessboard with two players engaged in a simplistic game with a single defined deterministic objective (winning the game by a fixed set of rules), with a very limited number of possible moves, you create a de-facto conflict, an artificial divergence of differing perspectives as they look in opposite directions caused by the fact that each player views the game from their own side of the board, and a bewildering number of ways to achieve the same predetermined objective when taking their own actions, and the responses of the opposing player into account. What is true or good for one player is not necessarily good or convergent with the goals of the other player, this is the underlying inescapable logical and biological truth behind conflict and existence that academic elitists like to wax indignant over. This is also patently obvious for anyone who has played chess, sports, cards, or merely making a living, you have to compete and risk failure to play, and all strategies are not equally useful to all people, all people are not equally adept at all strategies... Yet when arrogant scientists with their illustrious wall of obscuring sheepskins contemplate the 'game' of lowly human consciousness, they suddenly think there is an easily deterministic objective conclusion within their grasp to vanquish all the evils of the belligerent humanity they so depend upon. In short, they want everyone to play poker and have everyone win every hand...equally. If it wasn't so sad and childishly naïve that might almost be cute.

    Considering that there are actually very few if any rules of human conduct that can't or haven't already been violated if the 'consciousness' so decides (and they always do), there therefore are no fixed set preconditions for a mathematical determination of objective conclusion or victory even as a possibility to calculate. The number of possible outcomes at each choice a single person makes dwarf all possible chess moves combined by many magnitudes, combined with the fact that every one of those choices (big or small) will eventually interact with well over six billion interacting players (each with differing priorities and perspectives) who may or may not be competing or collaborating or just tuning out (at any given time) for well over six billion differing objectives (many unknown even to themselves on a conscious level) which are constantly changing with life experiences, swinging moods, and maturity... laying any type of mathematical certainty over humanity like a piddling heuristical electron spin description is just empty bullshit.

    Perhaps the mathematical priesthoods should go back to doing something somewhat more useful, like cheating at cards and dice, tabulating angels dancing on pin heads, reading the entrails of birds, and drawing up horoscopes for the wealthy and gullible.