Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

I tend to think of the universe in a simple matter

  1. Nov 13, 2005 #1
    I tend to think of the universe in a simple matter.
    There are tons and tons of atoms, particles, strings, whatever, and these things interact to make up stuff.
    That's pretty much the extent of it.

    Take art, if you think about art in a physical way, it's just a mass of paint molecules, smeared over a canvas. But to a human, it's a beautiful salvador dali piece with lots of ties to all sorts of eras and concepts and emotions.
    The sentient beings who perceive this painting, are analogous to robots, biochemechanical (:P) beings that react in a certain way because of their brains chemistry and their bodies biology.

    But regardless, the point of my thread is this;
    Is there a relation between the matters physical states, and the mental "object" that the matter creates?
    Do you think we can one day empirically measure the subjective states of a human being?

    If all things in the universe do stem from particles or whatever, then all the answers must also lie in the physicality of things. Or not?

    To give some help, think of a car engine.
    The car engine cannot be explain yet, in any meaningful sense, via the quantum mechanics that run it.
    We can only explain it subjectively, but then again, if an alien race came to earth and saw a car engine, and they were intelligent, they should've been able to figure out what to do with it and how it works.

    Can really all levels of reality be explained by the lowest levels? Say quantum physics or string theory.
    Or can a subjective thing like a painting, only be explained by a conscious being, with the capability to see?

    Do you personally think that science and objectivity will answer this question, or that subjective thought and reasoning is the only way to solving it?
  2. jcsd
  3. Nov 21, 2005 #2
    There is no good reason now to prefer, as the first choice path, a program which hold that consciousness is above science. Sure there is little prospect to think that an account of consciousness could ever be complete but-while working in the frame set by actual acception of rationality, having also supervenience inside-it is possible in principle to offer a picture which can be labeled 'objective' (though some properties of consciousenss might be strongly emergent, even non physical in the case of some subjective experiences).

    The actual research in neurology points toward a close correlation between the physical (more exactly the neural network of the brain) and the mental states. In other words the observed neural network of the brain seems to be necessary to produce conscious experiences (I said 'seems' for no one can discard altogether idealism though we have much more pro reasons for realism). Additionally the cartesian dualism has too many problems so at least currently there is no reason to prefer as the first choice program one which postulates that there exist a 'mental substance' totally independent of the physical.

    But is the actual data sufficient for saying that ALL subjective experiences can be reduced to the working of the neural network of the brain (all mental states being merely the physical state in which the neural network is in, property dualism being excluded)? In my view we are far from having the sufficient reasons for this...there is still plenty of space for property dualism (where some subjective experiences are non physical, additionally strongly emergent, though totally supervenient on the neural network; in the most general case supervenient on the most basic laws of physics). There is even space for different forms of interactionist dualism, different from the cartesian dualism however (see for example Libet's essay http://www.imprint.co.uk/pdf/Libet.pdf [Broken]).

    There are mathematical difficulties indeed, possible forever insourmountable, but in principle the car engine can be explained by the quantum mechanics. The real problems begin at even higher complexity levels where strong emergence could be a real possibility, that of living creatures for example, as Paul Davies think (see Paul Davies' essay here). This in no way implies with necessity property dualism in the case of consciousness is true but as much as the 'multiple realizations' processes are important possibilities (as it is the case now), very different structures producing exactly the same subjective experiences, it is highly acceptable to think that at least some subjective experiences could be non physical, apart from being strongly emergent, though totally supervenient on the physical.

    Still early days, all we can say clearly is that, currently at least, the physicalist view has much more 'pro' arguments to fully deserve to be the first choice program (but remaining open to the possibility that QM or other micro laws could play a major role into producing conscious experiences and to strong emergence; to property dualism, even to some forms of interactionist dualism, in the case of consciousness).

    The most rational path for the scientfic quest, in my view, were to remain open to the possibility of strong emergence (even property dualism in the case of consciousness) whilst still trying to obtain functional reduction as the main research program (functionalism, see also Putnam's considerations, is a much acceptable alternative than the mere identity theory; it remains open to the possibility that some features of consciousness might be non material whilst continuing to pursue a weak reductionist path as the first choice program, fully compatible also with the identity hypothesis).

    Simply denying the possibility of strong emergence and property dualism as some scientists do now (see for example Motl's view on strong emergence) basically without other justification than 'reductionism (to the most basic known laws of nature) worked well so far' is not at all the wisest solution. For me denying apriori strong emergentism is as silly as denying the possibility of theories using non local hidden variables using the so called 'no-go' theorems (it is finally accepted even in the scientific circles that those theorems are not at all so representative as was once thought as a sure truth). Unfortunately for the reductionists the future can still be full of surprises...
    Last edited by a moderator: May 2, 2017
  4. Nov 21, 2005 #3


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Homework Helper
    Gold Member

    Hi Octel, interesting post. I think you ask a good question. I've seen others wrestle with the same concepts. The response by metacristi provides an interesting reference (Paul Davies essay) which tries to differentiate between "weak emergence" and "strong emergence". I think differentiating the two concepts is necessary to further this discussion.

    Looking at the car engine example, I can't think of a single property of the car engine or the operation of that engine that isn't also a function of the natural laws at the quantum mechanical level. The kinetic theory of gasses models molecules as ping pong balls and can explain how those things behave as the air and gas enter the engine, burn, and exit the engine. Similar theories regarding the strength of materials can predict how materials behave under stress and temperature at the atomic level. So I'd agree with meta regarding this where he says:
    Note: Saying quantum mechanics (strictly speaking) might be incorrect here since that is a specific theory that tries to explain atoms and molecules. It’s not important that the theory is quantum mechanics, or string theory or whatever else might be on the horizon. What's important is that there is a set of natural laws which govern the operation of a car engine. No additional theories such as emergence are needed.

    What the Davies paper points to, and I've seen others point to this, regards what he defines as "strong emergence". Here's what Davies says:
    Here's what I understand from that description and the rest of the paper: In strong emergence, at the atomic level, it might be impossible even in principal, to determine properties of a macroscopic collection of molecules. Hopefully someone else can correct this if I'm wrong, but it would seem that true emergence (strong emergence) is only something that might happen at the molecular level where properties of the macroscopic "thing" which is created by those molecules can't be derived, even in principal, from the interaction of the molecules. Davies uses large protein molecules as an example later in the paper. Other examples I've seen regard condensed matter physics. There are those who would disagree that strong emergence thus defined even exists, though I personally don't know enough to vouch for it. In any case, it seems among scientists, even strong emergence is a highly debatable concept and reductionism is still the preferred philosophy.

    What I find interesting is your suggestion here:
    Question: Can't the painting itself be defined only by the colors, material the paint is made from, the canvas the paint adheres to, etc…, can't that all be defined by very simple, reducible physical laws? I believe so. The painting itself is a conglomeration of mass which has the ability to absorb and reflect light. If we only need very simple physical laws to describe the painting, then the painting is just the sum of the parts or a "weak emergence" as Davies would point out. However, our experience of this painting is separate and distinct from the painting itself. Our experience of the painting is what may or may not be reducible to the constituent parts. IMHO, we need to clarify the difference between the painting being emergent and the perception of it as being emergent.
  5. Nov 22, 2005 #4
    There is nothing wrong that an reductionist approach [to the most basic laws + properties of components at that organizational level] is currently the first choice program in science, no doubt. The real problem begins only when it is claimed that strong emergence is an impossibility, this is a too strong claim which does not have currently sufficient justification. Let's better see what the future could bring for us without making any apriori pronouncements...At most we can say that it is very difficult to make a difference between phenomena that are so complex (or chaotic) [which we cannot show them now, with sufficient reasons, as being still reducible] and strongly emergent phenomena. Even if Paul Davies is wrong when he puts the lower limit of strong emergence roughly at the DNA level this in no way implies that strong emergence is an impossibility at even higher organizational levels (for example Chalmers would disagree with that, for him the only strongly emergent phenomena are some aspects of consciousness).

    Actually there are enough scientists and philosophers who argue for strong emergence; this is a good sign that the 'orthodox' dogmatism seen in some scientific circles is not accepted with resignation. John Searle for example, though an opponent of property dualism, actually argues for the strong emergence of some aspects of consciousness, this in spite of the fact that he says that consciousness is merely the functioning of the neural network (no characteristics of consciousness are non-physical)! In other words a mere computer simulation, no matter how complete, cannot by itself raise conscious experience (at least a part of it).

    Or the Nobel Prize winner for Physics Robert Laughlin when he argues that some very complex phenomena might be strongly emergent and thus it would be a much better tactics to study the emergent phenomenon itself instead of focusing mainly on reduction, better focus on the 'whole' and on the emergent organizational level instead on its parts at the lower organizational level. As I said in other post of mine on this site even Feynman advocated roughly the same tactic, a 'compartimentalization' of science upon the organizational level, without bothering too much on reduction (though keeping the reductionist approach as the first choice research program in science).

    Because we arrived here we must clarify the fact that strong emergence of consciousness for example, though fully compatible with property dualism even with some variants of substance dualism, is not equivalent with them! Some phenomena / characteristics of highly complex systems might be strongly emergent but this does not automatically imply that they are 'non physical' or that 'substance dualism' is unavoidable!

    Strong emergence applied to consciousness merely implies that some of its characteristics are irreducible logically to the laws governing the neural network of the brain + the characteristics of the neurons + some conditions at limit (not to mention GR, QM and other 'lower' laws) not that qualia is non-physical. Even Laplace's demon could not know the strongly emergent phenomena apart from direct observations / own sensations at the organizational level where they exist (even if he knew the exact laws and the positions of all the individual components of the lower organizational levels, at all times).

    The only way to know the characteristics of a strongly emergent phenomenon is to observe / perceive directly the organizational level where it exists (economics for example is a candidate to strong emergence, its premises related with human consciousness are phenomenally obtained, it is very difficult to show how could economics be reducible, even in principle, to lower organizational levels).

    In other words strongly emergent phenomena are very weakly sensitive to the laws governing the lower organizational level, though totally supervenient on them (no contradiction with them). The same is valid for consciousness, there might be distributions of neurons (very distinct), many in fact, at the lower organizational level which produce the same strongly emergent phenomenon (subjective experience).

    Thus strong emergence is fully compatible with property dualism when applied to consciousness but it is also compatible with Searle's view or that of functionalists. It is the greater number of distinct distributions at the lower organizational level, some of them totally different (for example using silicium based components and very different architectures), which seem capable to produce the same conscious experience (this at least from what we know now) which makes even property dualism to be also fully acceptable (though of course not as the first choice program in science currently). My argumentation in no way implies a claim that strongly emergent phenomena surely exist, not at all, actually remain to be seen, but we must be open to the possibility that some complex phenomena might be so. Strong emergence is (still!) a valid path of further research, why block legitimate research programmes based only on tradition?
    Last edited: Nov 22, 2005
  6. Nov 22, 2005 #5


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Homework Helper
    Gold Member

    Hi Meta, I'd agree that "strong emergence" is a possibility which should be taken seriously. As you say, Laughlin is one of the strongest advocates. It seems we may need a discussion on the definition of "strong emergence" though. The one Davies provides seems like a good starting point.

    I rather like that one, but it could use some additional definition as I'm not sure exactly what may or may not be considered a strongly emergent system in those terms. I'd like to pick it apart and discuss if you don't mind.

    1. "higher levels of complexity" meaning a larger volume or larger mass of some mechanism. An example would be the difference between a single neuron and an entire brain. The brain is more complex and contains many neurons, so it is a "higher level". Another example would be the difference between a single trader on Wall Street versus all trading done on Wall Street. All trading done on Wall Street is more complex and contains many traders, so all trading is at a higher level.

    2. "genuine causal powers that are absent from the constituent parts." meaning there is an ability (causal power) that something at a higher level has which can not be attributed to (is absent from) the actions of the constituent parts.

    3. "… wholes may exhibit properties and principals that cannot be reduced, even in principal, to the cumulative effect of the properties and laws of the components." meaning the higher level (whole) must exhibit some property, or some phenomena must emerge which can not come about from the interaction of the constituent parts.

    In other words, a strongly emergent phenomenon must not be reducible to the constituent parts. The emergent phenomenon must exhibit properties that are not reducible to the interaction of the constituent parts. Would you agree with this definition?

    Note that I don't believe "weak emergence" can be thought of in those terms. Weak emergence seems to be more of an acknowledgement that complex behavior can arise from very simple rules which govern the interaction of its constituent parts. Weak emergence is reducible. Would you agree with that?
  7. Nov 22, 2005 #6
    I especially like this, I agree with everything that has been said in the thread though.
    It seems that this all comes down to perception.
    If all things non sentient, non conscious and non living in the universe is weakly emergent, and all consciousness is strongly emergent, then the strongly emergent property might just be a lack of knowledge about how the subjective states stem from the physical matter, and not an actually strongg emergent property.

    In other words, there is no qualatative difference between a real strong emergent brain, and a brain that is weakly emergent, because nobody will ever be able to prove that it is not strongly emergent.

    or do you think maybe we will?
  8. Nov 24, 2005 #7


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Homework Helper
    Gold Member

    Tough question, octel. Suggesting the mind is strongly emergent and not reducible certainly is attractive. If we're to prove strong emergence though, we'll need to have a way of formally reducing the brain to its constituent parts and then we'll need a measure by which we can determine if such a reduction results in the loss of the phenomenon or not. It seems to me the method of formally reducing the brain to its constituent parts doesn't exist yet. Step one is to have people agree to such a method. Step two is to introduce a measuring tool to determine if such a reduction results in the loss of some given phenomenon. If we then prove the mind is strongly emergent, we have a real problem to tackle. I honestly have a hard time believing the mind is not reducible but I might be convinced.
  9. Nov 25, 2005 #8
    Well its very difficult to have a cristal clear idea of what every author means :-) , this is a very difficult topic, here are some lines reflecting my own views over this subject. Minimally defined a process (or a property) is emergent if it does not exist at the immediately lower hierarchical level (that of its components) and cannot be 'guessed' easily 'apriori', though in principle maybe it is reducible theoretically to this lower hierarchical level (including the laws 'governing' it). That is being emergent, in the minimal interpretation, is also fully compatible with theoretical reductionism, at least in principle, at a lower organizational level.

    Strong emergence of a phenomenon, in my acception, means the impossibility, even in principle, to make the complete logical reduction to the laws governing an inferior hierarchical level + the characteristics of all the constitutive parts of that level + some [usually presupposed unique] conditions at limit + some 'bridging principles' applied to smaller components. Even a 1:1 simulation on a computer is not helpful, the only way to realize that the strongly emergent property exist being its direct observation in the real world (or perceive it subjectively-in the case of some subjective experiences of consciousness).

    Related with this problem John Searle [in the case of consciousness] makes the difference between 2 types of reductionism: causal and ontological. Thus when discussing subjective experiences and consciousness in general he wrotes somewhere: "...though causally reducible [my note: in other words consciousness supervenes on the physical, the neural network of the brain] it is ontologically irreducible ,....a complete description of the third person objective features of the brain would not be a description of [my note: ALL] of its first person subjective features...[for ex. a vague, diffuse, sensation of discomfort, envy, hate etc]".

    In my own terms I think his 'causal reduction' is caught well by the term 'supervenience on the physical', the neural network of the brain more exactly, and its 'ontological irreducibility' by the term 'strong emergence' as I've defined it above (in Searle's view even a one to one computer simulation in terms of dynamics of the lower organizational level cannot raise by itself some subjective experiences, thus we cannot say that consciousness is a weakly emergent phenomenon).

    Further Searle's says that consciousness does not have causal powers beyond those of its neurobiological base indeed but he argues additionally, enough persuasively, that we are still fully entitled to talk of 'downward causation', thus epiphenomenalism and, more generally, the problem of how could some non-physical properties supervenient on the physical produce downward causation are avoided.

    I think Paul Davies says roughly the same when he argues that life might be a strongly emergent phenomenon: life is caused entirely by the lower hierarchical levels, life and the laws of complexity governing it (yet to be found) do not involve vitalism or supernatural, being however strongly emergent; some of the properties of living creatures being not reducible logically, even in principle, to the 'lower' laws of chemistry and physics (though these complexity laws could be found on a purely phenomenal base, we can know them by direct observations at the higher organizational levels); this being the way nature works, stop, a new basic principle of nature. There is nothing magical here and certainly this type of strong emergence is fully compatible with evolution through natural selection, Behe's definition of 'irreducible complexity' used by his version of Intelligent Design program being very far away.

    The attempts of some scientists to claim that [strong] reductionism is granted, at least in its 'in principle' form, that everything can be reduced in principle to the lowest laws of the universe is far from having sufficient reasons though of course it deserves provisionally the status of first choice research program. As a digression here, but relevant to a great extent to the discussion reductionism vs emergentism, after reading Motl's reviews of some books at amazon.com, one of them concerned with the possibility of strong emergence, his thoughts regarding the pilot-wave interpretation of QM, his intransigency towards loop quantum gravity and yes especially his huge misconceptions regarding the philosophy of science (see for example his comments to Kuhn's book 'The structure of scientific revolutions'- I myself do not agree with the incommensurability thesis but underdetermination and theory ladenness are enough to make me be very cautious to the emphatic claim that science will ever be cumulative and that we know for sure that science lead us to the Truth, in absolute) I recommend to all people I know to read the books he rated very low, labeled as being 'a waste of time and money' :-). There is a 'law' among scientists the so called 'Law of Ortega' stating that the adavances of science have been made by a huge number of average scientists making very small steps ahead, the real breakthroughs being made by real 'giants'. Well the history of science show us that these 'giants' were also enough good philosophers, capable to work well outside the 'orthodox paths' of their times, personally I do not think that the next huge 'breakthrough' will be made by too rigid scientists, on the contrary those 'working' usually [also] well far from the 'normal science' of their time are much better placed, indeed there is no sufficient reason to even think now that the science of tomorrow will ever be cumulative, only some minimal epistemological loss being always possible (as Motl takes for granted)...

    Now I think it would be interesting to go even further with the problem of reductionism / emergentism of conscious experiences, the most promising example, from what we know now, of a possible strongly emergent phenomenon (as I've defined it above). In what follows I will write some characteristics of consciousness (some of them incompatible) admitting minimally that the mental is not something totally different from the physical (or that 'everythnig that is' were purely mental) and overlooking the different variants of [still tenable] interactionist dualism. Further I'd try to identify various existing positions regarding the nature of consciousness by indicating the properties with which they agree.

    0. Consciousness has properties distinct from those of the [far enough] sub-components (it does not exist at the neuronal level, even at the level of some higher agglomerations of neurons).

    1. Consciousness has only physical properties.

    2. Some properties of consciousness are non physical.

    3. Consciousness has strongly emergent properties (irreducible logically, some subjective experiences for ex.).

    4. Consciousness has at most 'weak' emergent properties.

    5. Consciousness is supervenient on the physical (in particular I mean here supervenient on the neural network of the brain).

    6. Consciousness is not supervenient on the neural network.

    7. Consciousness is incapable of downward causation (epiphenomenal).

    8. Consciousness is capable of downward causation but it has no causal powers in addition to the causal powers of the underlying neurobiological base.

    9. Consciousness is capable of downaward causation having genuine causal powers which cannot be explained in terms of neurobiological base.

    From what I understand we have (the numbers in parantheses are in doubt):

    a. The british empiricists of the early 20-th century accept ---> 0 + 1 + 3 + 5 + 9

    b. Chalmers ---> 0 + 2 + 3 + 6 + (9)

    c. identity theorists ---> 0 + 1 + 4 + 5 + 8

    d. non reductive physicalists (holding that some properties of consciousness are non physical but nonwithstanding this their downward causal powers are explanable, at least in principle, though today no such explanation exists, in terms of neurobiological base) ---> 0 + 2 + 4 + 5 + 8

    e. John Searle ---> 0 + 1 + 3 + 5 + 8

    f. property dualists (minimal) ---> 0 + 2

    g. functionalists (minimal) ---> 0 + 5
    Last edited: Nov 25, 2005
  10. Nov 26, 2005 #9
    Something is amiss, because we have never observed nor measured a subjective state in a labratory or experiment.
    Why, in this day and age, and why, when we have such and understanding of matter, energies etc, would something as big as consciousness go amiss?
    Yes, we have observed many times the physical interactions in the brain when someone has an emotion, thought or processing information, but none of this includes the actual experience the person has.

    If we take the simplest example of the subjective world; dreams.
    A person is seeing images, even hearing sounds, and at the time he believes them to be happening.
    If we use the reductionist approach, we get down to neurons and the brain, but what we end up with is not at all the dreams themselves.
    Sure, the information the brain carries we are unable to see, but even if we could, we wouldnt have had the experience itself.

    Like lets say the brain works in a receiver/sender environment, where there is an interpreter that sends information to a receiver, which is then experienced by the brain.
    Well, we may be able to duplicate such a receiver, and send then information to it, then see the dreams physically.
    But what we have done is only duplicating the physical process, we haven
    t duplicated the "dimension" that holds the dreams for the person.
    I cant think of any analogous examples to this because well, there are none that we know of.
    But say that we number the properties of a dream.
    1. The dream
    2. The neurons
    3. The receiver
    4. The sender
    5. The person (including the physical brain)

    The neurons 2. interact in the the person 5. to create the dream 1..
    If we replicate 2-5 we get the dream 1. but in such an experiment the dream 1. would only be a pseudo dream 1. it wouldnt be the actual layer of the physical world that the person is seeing.
    So finding out what this layer is, is the most important thing.
Share this great discussion with others via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook