Intelligent Design Mind

“My atoms made me do it” is NOT true?

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From Natalie Wolchover at Quanta:

The existence of agents — beings with intentions and goal-oriented behavior — has long seemed profoundly at odds with the reductionist assumption that all behavior arises from mechanistic interactions between particles. Agency doesn’t exist among the atoms, and so reductionism suggests agents don’t exist at all: that Romeo’s desires and psychological states are not the real causes of his actions, but merely approximate the unknowably complicated causes and effects between the atoms in his brain and surroundings.

Hoel’s theory, called “causal emergence,” roundly rejects this reductionist assumption.

“Causal emergence is a way of claiming that your agent description is really real,” said Hoel, a postdoctoral researcher at Columbia University who first proposed the idea with Larissa Albantakis and Giulio Tononi of the University of Wisconsin, Madison. “If you just say something like, ‘Oh, my atoms made me do it’ — well, that might not be true. And it might be provably not true.” More.

If we have even gotten as far as that, we have made progress, after a century or so. We have established that the main difference between life and non-life is life’s drive to stay in existence. Consciousness, a separate subject, is our awareness of that fact.

See also: Would we give up naturalism to solve the hard problem of consciousness?

13 Replies to ““My atoms made me do it” is NOT true?

  1. 1
    Barry Arrington says:

    Yet another materialist “explanation” for consciousness: “It’s all emergent-y and stuff.” How is this one different from the last one?

  2. 2
    Charles says:

    but merely approximate the unknowably complicated causes and effects between the atoms in his brain and surroundings.

    Except that, although “unknowably complicated”, the “surroundings” impinging at the atomic level on the brain, are empirically random. This randomness is the basis for quantum random number generators, which sample the quantum state to get a random seed.

    But our brains are anything but random (not the same as confused or obtuse). We can even “lie” (knowingly choosing to fabricate plausible falsehoods – we see it here often, now don’t we), neither real nor random, something that random atomic or quantum interactions can never do.

    However the “effect” of emergent consciousness may be described, regardless, the “cause” is always everywhere random, and randomness can not cause non-random effects.

  3. 3
    Origenes says:

    They say coarse-grained macroscopic states of a physical system (such as the psychological state of a brain) can have more causal power over the system’s future than a more detailed, fine-grained description of the system possibly could.

    Psychological states are not coarse-grained macroscopic states of a physical system.

    Macroscopic states, such as desires or beliefs, “are not just shorthand for the real causes,” … “but it’s actually a description of the real causes, and a more fine-grained description would actually miss those causes.”

    There are macroscopic and fine-grained descriptions of physical systems, but desires and beliefs are not captured by macroscopic descriptions of physical systems.

    “… we do want to attribute causal properties to higher-order events [and] things like mental states.”

    That’s understandable, but don’t call mental states “coarse-grained macroscopic states of a physical system” just because you desperately want there to be nothing but matter.

    Hoel and collaborators have been developing the mathematics behind their idea since 2013. In a May paper in the journal Entropy, Hoel placed causal emergence on a firmer theoretical footing by showing that macro scales gain causal power in exactly the same way, mathematically, that error-correcting codes increase the amount of information that can be sent over information channels.

    And so? Is the link between error-correcting codes and desires or beliefs supposed to be an obvious one?

  4. 4
    Phinehas says:

    I don’t get it. If the macroscopic states are fully created by, dependent upon, and reducible to the underlying chemistry and physics, how does this really change anything? And if they are not, then how can materialism be said to obtain?

  5. 5
    Origenes says:

    Tononi and colleagues hypothesize that the scale of peak causation should correspond, in the brain, to the scale of conscious decisions; based on brain imaging studies, Albantakis guesses that this might happen at the scale of neuronal microcolumns, which consist of around 100 neurons.

    One question is: why would we consider 100 interacting neurons to be any more rational or capable of making conscious decisions than e.g. 2 interacting neurons? Why is it that materialists hold that complexity helps their narrative? Why are many blind non-rational particles any more rational than a few?

    Causal emergence is possible, Hoel explained, because of the randomness and redundancy that plagues the base scale of neurons. As a simple example, he said to imagine a network consisting of two groups of 10 neurons each. Each neuron in group A is linked to several neurons in group B, and when a neuron in group A fires, it usually causes one of the B neurons to fire as well. Exactly which linked neuron fires is unpredictable. If, say, the state of group A is {1,0,0,1,1,1,0,1,1,0}, where 1s and 0s represent neurons that do and don’t fire, respectively, the resulting state of group B can have myriad possible combinations of 1s and 0s. On average, six neurons in group B will fire, but which six is nearly random; the micro state is hopelessly indeterministic. Now, imagine that we coarse-grain over the system, so that this time, we group all the A neurons together and simply count the total number that fire. The state of group A is {6}. This state is highly likely to lead to the state of group B also being {6}. The macro state is more reliable and effective; calculations show it has more effective information.

    And Hoel holds that ‘effective information’ is a real cause. IOWs the macrostate unifies information from lower levels and makes into ‘effective information’. More than the sum of the parts.
    Even if we assume that this is true, there is no ‘causal emergence’ in the sense that something is constructed independently from the lower level. A macrostate can only unify and make effective what is being offered by lower level blind non-rational particles. Surely there is no rational choice here.
    IOWs ‘effective information’ cannot explain rationality. As per usual in materialist narratives we have blind particles in motion behind the steering wheel.

  6. 6
    Seversky says:

    If you take a whole lot of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and all the other elements that make a human being and dump them in a bucket and all you have is a bunch of atoms in a bucket. Arrange those atoms to form all the more complex molecules, proteins, cells, organs that make up a living human being and we observe consciousness and intelligence. Kill that human being and the consciousness and intelligence disappear and are never observed to exist apart from that physical substrate. No, we don’t have a step-by-step materialist account of how consciousness is formed. We don’t even have good understanding of what consciousness is from either a material or an immaterial perspective. What we do have is a lot of observational evidence that consciousness and intelligence are strongly correlated with material, biological structures. Some of us may not like it for various reasons but if we’re going by the evidence, as we all think science should, then we’re stuck with it, at least until somebody comes up with something better.

  7. 7
    Seversky says:

    And, referring to a point made on the other thread on gender, how many here consciously chose their sexual orientation? How many sat down one day and, after considering the matter at length, decided to be gay or straight? I suspect most if not all simply became aware of their preference as they grew. But if it was not our choice then how was it decided?

    And how many here honestly think they could change their sexual orientation just by an effort of will. If none, then what price free will?

  8. 8
    Barry Arrington says:

    Sev:
    “No, we don’t have a step-by-step materialist account of how consciousness is formed.”

    If by “no step-by-step materialist account” you mean not even the first clue about how the physical could cause the mental, then you are correct.

  9. 9
    kairosfocus says:

    Folks, Typically — in this context of chance + mechanical necessity:

    “emergence” = Poof, magic.

    KF

  10. 10
    Origenes says:

    Seversky @6

    Sev: No, we don’t have a step-by-step materialist account of how consciousness is formed.

    The situation is actually much more worse than that.

    Sev: We don’t even have good understanding of what consciousness is from … a material …. perspective.

    Even worse, the problem is similar to not “having a good understanding” how letters self-organize into the works of Shakespeare. The solution is the realization that this is simply not what letters do.
    Blind particles in motion are not capable of free responsible rationality. Unfortunately they do not have what it takes.
    Contrary to your assessment, this is not a matter of not having a “good understanding” or not having a “step-by-step materialist account”, this is about a proposition being utterly incoherent and inconceivable.

  11. 11
    JDH says:

    Seversky said –

    And, referring to a point made on the other thread on gender, how many here consciously chose their sexual orientation? How many sat down one day and, after considering the matter at length, decided to be gay or straight? I suspect most if not all simply became aware of their preference as they grew. But if it was not our choice then how was it decided?

    And how many here honestly think they could change their sexual orientation just by an effort of will. If none, then what price free will?

    Seversky, My desire is not to offend you with an insult – but don’t you see the bad logic you applied in your statement. You issued a straw man argument, confounded it with a self created argument ad populum, and then based major conclusions on it.

    You hold up as evidence that no one sat down and “decided to be gay or straight” as evidence that there is NO contribution of the free will in deciding to be gay or straight. Do you not understand anything about the feedback loops and demonstrated plasticity of the human brain? The area of sexual orientation is too volatile and throws up too many automatic offenses to use to study this issue of the will and trained habits. Let me instead turn to something slightly less controversial. The issue of mental health.

    I am sure that no one sits down one day and decides to have OCD. It is a terrible affliction which affects many super intelligent people and makes them suffer because of physical reactions to absurd considerations. No one sits down one day and decides to have inordinate fears correspond to the presence of arachnids, crowds, germs, avocados, or certain numbers. No one sits down one day and decides to believe that a compulsive behavior such as retracing their steps, washing their hands 6 times, or locking and unlocking the door 5 times will alleviate the problem that something bad is going to happen if they don’t do it. Now all of the anxiety and bad reactions of OCD patients are real and physical. They exhibit elevated heart rates, release of adrenaline etc. which are all physical effects. By your logic these people should all give up about figuring out how to use their WILL to RETRAIN their bodies to avoid the obsession and give up the compulsions that make up the behavior.

    But it simply is not true (by established scientific medical evidence ) that these people have no hope. They can volunteer to allow others to expose themselves to their trigger, and then consciously decide to make day by day progress to avoid the compulsion. This simplified description of exposure response therapy – I yield to a qualified psychologist to explain it in more precise terms – actually works. It is completely dependent on the WILLFUL participant of the patient and is able to reverse the physical reactions which accompanied the trigger. This seems to me to say we have more free will than many are willing to acknowledge to train our body to physically react. Whereas no on can decide on a given day to be free of an obsession, by lots of work and WILLFUL participation, one can retrain his physical body in how to respond to purely external phenomena. Not wanting to offend others, I leave as an exercise to the reader the obvious extension of these well documented findings in the area of OCD to the area of sexual orientation. Most people will not be willing to go there, not because of rationality, but because they do not like the obvious logical conclusions. As someone previously stated on this thread…

    Some of us may not like it for various reasons but if we’re going by the evidence, as we all think science should, then we’re stuck with it, at least until somebody comes up with something better.

  12. 12
    LocalMinimum says:

    Seversky @ 7:

    If many horrific accounts about the US penal system are to be believed, homosexuality can be trained. Furthermore, it can even become a societal norm, as practiced by ancient Greece.

    This would, of course, remove it from being a necessarily immutable feature of one’s identity…unless you’re willing to argue the conversion can only go one way; or that a disproportionate number of criminals and ancient Greeks possess the “gay gene”. I feel this would be counterproductive.

  13. 13
    Phinehas says:

    Sev:

    And how many here honestly think they could change their sexual orientation just by an effort of will?

    I do.

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