thinking makes it so

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Posts Tagged ‘causality

Reductio ad Professor Plum

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I found myself talking last time about a lot of things I don’t really understand: Alonzo Church’s proof of the ‘halting problem’ displayed by Turing machines, and Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem. All because Stuart Kauffman’s book Reinventing the Sacred leaves me cold and confused.

[Fourth in a series on Stuart A Kauffman’s Reinventing the Sacred which began with Reinventing the sand dune.]

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Another Flew over the cuckoo’s nest #4

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Having distinguished between two different senses of the word ‘cause’ (as in eg ‘cause of an explosion’ and ‘cause to celebrate’: see Another Flew over the cuckoo’s nest #3), Antony Flew next introduces two corresponding kinds of determinism.

Fourth in a series responding to Antony Flew’s There is a god: How the world’s most notorious atheist changed his mind.1

See also:

Another Flew over the cuckoo’s nest #1

Another Flew over the cuckoo’s nest #2

Another Flew over the cuckoo’s nest #3

Determinism

Antony Flew: There is a God

Antony Flew: There is a God

Because of these two fundamentally different senses of the word ‘cause’, Flew believes we can distinguish two correspondingly different senses of ‘determinism’. One is determination by physical causes and the other is determination by moral causes.

If an action is fully determined by physical causes, then the agent did not choose to act as he or she did, and, at the time the action happened, could not have prevented it from happening.

But explaining an action by reference to moral causes presupposes the agent could have acted differently:

Desires and wants are certainly not irresistible conclusions as such. Most of us are sufficiently disciplined sometimes to refrain from doing things we very much want to do.2

Failing to make this ‘fundamental and crucial’ distinction between physical and moral determination is what misleads

many people… into concluding that all explanations of conduct in terms of any kind of cause, physical or moral, supports an all-excusing doctrine of universal physical necessitation. This would mean that it was physically impossible for any to have behaved in any way other than the way they did.

To avoid errors like this takes

a logical analysis… of the three intimately associated notions of being an agent, having a choice, and being able to do something other than what we actually do.

He then distinguishes between a ‘moving’ and a ‘motion’:

A moving is a movement that can be initiated or quashed at will; a motion is a movement that cannot. The power of moving is an attribute peculiar to people, whereas entities incapable of consciousness or intention can only manifest motion.

An agent is a creature who

can and cannot but make… real choices between genuine alternative possibilities.

Whereas ‘motions’ constitute physically necessitated behaviour, an action by an agent involves one or more ‘movings’:

…the sense, the direction, and the character of actions… are that, as a matter of logic, they necessarily cannot be physically necessitated (and as a matter of brute fact, they are not). It therefore becomes impossible to maintain the doctrine of universal physically necessitating determinism… [Emphasis added.]

I have read this passage several times (from the chapter entitled WHERE THE EVIDENCE LEADS) and each time I am baffled by what seems to be an assumption that determinism can be refuted by an examination of how words are used. But that is the gist of the argument.

Let me try a thought experiment. Imagine that scientists have discovered the mechanism underlying voluntary action in humans. Conscious choice is explained as a function which evolved to provide optimal behavioural flexibility in a complex environment while minimising the survival risk of procrastination. Choice between options is effectively competition between strategies. Because it is a competition, there is generally a winner: the winner is the strategy which is chosen. But the ‘winning’ takes place in a context of self-consciousness, and that is just what conscious choice is – no more and no less.

If some respond by saying that free will is therefore an illusion, so be it. Others might say it is a matter of different levels. At the level of the conscious subject, that conscious subject is exercising free will, because this is just what free will is. At the level of neurological events, what happens is physically caused in ways that fit known scientific laws.

I am not suggesting that the explanation contained in this thought experiment is either true or false. Nor am I suggesting that if it did turn out to be true, I would take it in my stride as if it changed nothing. But I do not understand how any examination of how we familiarly describe our voluntary actions can possibly prove that an explanation like the one in the thought experiment will never ever be discovered. After all, it is not as if there is any alternative explanation of voluntary action available which avoids the perhaps regrettable consequence that free will could be described as an illusion.

The assertions in the passage quoted above, with their ‘as a matter of logic’ and ‘as a matter of brute fact’, are just assertions – that free will is not an illusion and therefore cannot be described as such. Even if they assert what we want to believe, they are still armchair philosophy of the worst kind.

Read on for more monkey business

References

1 Antony Flew (with Roy Abraham Varghese), There is a god: How the world’s most notorious atheist changed his mind, HarperCollins, 2007.

2 Antony Flew, 2007: 1 above.

© Chris Lawrence 2009.

Another Flew over the cuckoo’s nest #3

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The next topic I’d like to discuss from There is a god is that of free will. It’s another one Flew (or ‘Flew’?) says he has changed his mind about.

Third in a series responding to Antony Flew‘s There is a god: How the world’s most notorious atheist changed his mind.1

See also:

Another Flew over the cuckoo’s nest #1

Another Flew over the cuckoo’s nest #2

Free will

Antony Flew: There is a God

Antony Flew: There is a God

Flew describes his previous position on free will and determinism as ‘compatibilism‘:

The compatibilist… maintains: not only can it be consistent to say both that someone will make a free choice and that the sense of that future choice is known beforehand to some future party, but also that free choices could be both free and choices even if they were physically caused to be made in the senses in which they were made, and even when their being made in these senses was determined by some law or laws of nature.2

But now he does not think free choices are physically caused:

A law of nature is… a claim that an occurrence of one particular sort physically necessitates the occurrence of another sort such that it makes its nonoccurrence physically impossible. This is clearly not the case with a free choice.

The argument Flew then gives as to why physical causation and free choice are ‘clearly’ so different is based on the meanings of words – in this case two different senses of ‘cause’:

Given the full cause of, say, an explosion, it becomes impossible for any power within the universe to prevent that explosion. But if I give you sufficient cause to celebrate, this does not necessitate your saying “Whoopee!” It follows from this that not every movement of human organisms can be determined by necessitating physical causes.

You what? He does say more, and we will get there later. But it’s worth stopping a moment to distinguish between two very different possible directions from here. Each direction forks into at least two ‘trails’.

Direction 1:

The two ‘trails’ here each lead to a familiar destination. Both destinations can and do exist. Neither rules out the other. But they are two different things, distinguishable by different verbal descriptions.

Destination 1.1

‘Cause’ as in ‘I give you cause to celebrate’ means ‘reason’ or ‘justification’. I give you a reason to celebrate. If you were to celebrate right now you would be justified in so doing as a result of something I have done. If you were to celebrate – or refrain from celebrating – you would do so voluntarily.

Destination 1.2

‘Cause’ as in ‘the cause of an explosion’ (where the effect – in this case the explosion – was not and did not include a conscious act on the part of any agent) is something which could warrant a scientific explanation, and something for which a scientific explanation – of whatever complexity – would be regarded as sufficient and unproblematic.

For example there is a can of petrol in a shed. The shed is struck by lightning and catches fire. The lightning could be said to be the cause of the fire, as it was the relatively improbable event which sparked it off. The petrol can then exploded as a result of the fire. The petrol would not have exploded if the paper and wood in the shed had not started to burn and so raised the temperature of the petrol and therefore the pressure inside the can to such levels that the can eventually burst and the petrol itself caught fire. So it would be fair to say the lightning caused the explosion. But you could also say the can of petrol itself caused the explosion. If it had not been there the shed would still have burned but nothing would have exploded. The wood and paper inside the shed were also causes in that sense. If asked to identify the single cause, it is possible that more people would pick the lightning, as it was an event. But it is not cut and dried.

If the can of petrol was left there deliberately and negligently – or, conversely, if the can of petrol belonged in the shed but it was the wood and paper which should not have been there – then people might well describe either of these as the cause. The events and conditions leading up to the explosion could have included voluntary acts or omissions on the part of one or more agents (which would be describable as causes under ‘Destination 1.1′), but the explosion itself did not decide to happen.

In this explosion example, ‘cause’ can generally also be replaced by ‘reason’ – in the sense of ‘reason for’ rather than ‘reason to’. In Destination 1.1 ‘cause to celebrate’ could be replaced by ‘reason to celebrate’, ‘cause for celebration’, or ‘reason for celebration’. But the lightning (or the wood, or the paper) did not give the explosion ‘reason to’ or ‘cause to’ happen. Nor did the lightning or the wood or the paper give the petrol can reason to or cause to explode. Whatever it was I did was enough to justify your celebration. But nothing justified the explosion: justification did not come into it.

‘Direction 1′ is about clearly describing two different things. To express the distinction in English may take more than simple substitution of single words, but it can be expressed quite clearly and without mystery.

Direction 2:

‘Direction 2′ is something very different. It is not to do with describing different but compatible things, but about distinguishing between two (or more) different, and incompatible, kinds of explanations of the same thing.

Again we take the celebration example.

Explanation 2.1

This would start from the phenomenology of voluntary action (eg consciously deciding whether to celebrate, given a specific set of conditions) and conclude that there is something about voluntary action which precludes the kind of explanation which is appropriate in the explosion example. In particular there is something about consciousness which in principle disqualifies it as a domain where physical, causal explanations are possible, and which does qualify it as a domain where explanations and entities of entirely different ‘supraphysical’ kinds apply.

Explanation 2.2

This would acknowledge the very same phenomenology but not assume there was anything about it which in principle ruled out a physical or scientific explanation. It would acknowledge that there are obstacles, particularly in that the phenomena to be explained are fundamental to human conscious experience, including the conscious experience of humans engaged in proposing possible physical explanations in the very act of proposing those explanations. But it would adopt the working assumption that these are practical obstacles rather than obstacles of principle. It would be supported in this assumption by the history of success over the last hundred or so years in discovering the mechanisms underlying other aspects of life, for example muscular movement, reproduction and inheritance, the nervous system and so on.

Explanation 2.2 does not necessarily assume that a complete explanation of consciousness will be available any time soon, or that current interpretations (eg those of Daniel Dennett3) are substantially correct or even on the right track. But it assumes the attempt is not misguided, and that there is no sound prima facie or a priori reason to think a purely physical explanation – ie one with no ‘supraphysical’ component – will ever be found.

Now to repeat the quoted passage (with emphasis added):

Given the full cause of, say, an explosion, it becomes impossible for any power within the universe to prevent that explosion. But if I give you sufficient cause to celebrate, this does not necessitate your saying “Whoopee!” It follows from this that not every movement of human organisms can be determined by necessitating physical causes.

This seems to be an attempt to deduce, from the familiar and uncontroversial distinction between Destination 1.1 (cause to celebrate) and Destination 1.2 (cause of an explosion), the self-evident truth of Explanation 2.1 (explanation must be ‘supraphysical’) and the consequent falsehood of Explanation 2.2 (physical explanation is possible).

Which is fallacious surely? More to follow

References

1 Antony Flew (with Roy Abraham Varghese), There is a god: How the world’s most notorious atheist changed his mind, HarperCollins, 2007.

2 Antony Flew, 2007: 1 above.

3 See for example: Daniel Dennett, Consciousness explained, 1991.

© Chris Lawrence 2009.

Every event must have a cause?

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Can anyone out there help me with this?

I responded to another blog which made the assertion ‘Every event must have a cause…’. You can follow the conversation here: http://christianscribbler.wordpress.com/2008/11/01/apologetics-the-cosmological-argument-for-god/. Unfortunately the conversation closed down.

The writer claimed that the proposition ‘every event has a cause’ is analytically true, and that’s what I cannot understand. I can understand the different claim that ‘every effect has a cause’ is analytically true, and I would probably agree. I also understand (just about) Kant’s claim that ‘every event has a cause’ is a synthetic a priori, and as such a precondition for objective knowledge. But I cannot understand what grounds someone might have for claiming it is analytically true.

I am not saying the claim is nonsense, just that I cannot understand it. Can anyone shed light on it?

© Chris Lawrence 2008

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