thinking makes it so

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Posts Tagged ‘reductionism

Physics into physics won’t go

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I’ve read Chapter 4 of Stuart A Kauffman’s Reinventing the Sacred several times in the hope that I’ll finally get the point. But I still don’t. The chapter is called The Nonreducibility of Biology to Physics. But each time I read it I end up thinking that if he’s right that biology isn’t reducible to physics then physics isn’t reducible to physics either.

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Not thumping but pumping

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One of the frustrating things about Reinventing the Sacred is that it keeps flip-flopping between condensed accounts of areas of science and mathematics I don’t understand well enough and logical leaps which don’t seem justified. So I keep flip-flopping in turn between wondering if it’s my ignorance that’s the problem and wondering if the logical leaps really don’t make sense.

[Follows Reductio ad Professor Plum as fifth in a series on Stuart A Kauffman’s Reinventing the Sacred which began with Reinventing the sand dune.]

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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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Heath Robinson goes to Church

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Stuart Kauffman

Stuart Kauffman

I talked last time about left-handed amino acids and right-handed sugars. This was one of the examples of ‘emergenceStuart Kauffman mentions in his book Reinventing the Sacred. I now want to talk about his computing example, because I really don’t get this one.

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

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Left over right and right over left

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I spoke last time about what I thought was one of Stuart Kauffman’s points in Reinventing the Sacred. This was that although you could explain for example a sand dune in terms of subatomic particles (by way of grains of sand and then silicon and oxygen ions), you couldn’t do the same thing if you started with a living organism. The living organism is an emergent real entity while the sand dune is not.

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Reinventing the sand dune

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I have just finished reading Stuart A Kauffman’s Reinventing the Sacred. I agree with some of it, but with some of it I profoundly disagree. It could be that I disagree most profoundly with the profoundest part of it.

Stuart A Kauffman

Stuart A Kauffman

The last few chapters are quite moralising. But it’s not really the sentiments I reject. Kauffman’s heart seems to be in the right place. It’s his logic that worries me, some of which could be quite dangerous logic.

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Serious about delusion #2

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Does it matter if matter is mind or mind is matter – or shouldn’t I mind?

Second in a series responding to Keith Ward’s Why there almost certainly is a God: Doubting Dawkins1

See also Serious about delusion #1


Keith Ward

Keith Ward

Carrying on from the previous post I shall take it as read that Ward is essentially right in characterising Richard Dawkins as a materialist who thinks

we can know that mind is reducible to electrochemical activity in the brain, or is a surprising and unexpected product of purely material processes.

We can remain agnostic as to whether Dawkins’ materialism extends to thinking that only material entities exist.

Ward’s next step is to cast doubt on materialism by undermining the concept of matter:

To most philosophers, materialism has looked like a non-starter. Most of us do not want to deny that material things exist. But we are no longer very sure of what ‘matter’ is. Is it quarks, or superstrings, or dark energy, or the result of quantum fluctuations in a vacuum? …Some physicists, such as John Gribben and Paul Davies, in their book The Matter Myth2, argue that matter is a sort of illusion or appearance produced by some mysterious and unknown substratum in interaction with the human mind.

Roger Penrose, the Oxford mathematician, even thinks that the laws of physics may need to be radically revised, so that they take account of the important role of consciousness in the nature of the world.3

What is the point of being a materialist when we are not sure exactly what matter is?

…[M]aterialism no longer has the advantage of giving us a simple explanation of reality.

There are at least three different threads here which need to be separated.



First, one can take the view that mind is reducible to electrochemical activity in the brain, or, more generally, that it is a product of material processes (ie processes taking place within matter), without knowing exactly what matter is. To take a less contentious example, one could hold the view that the opening of stomata in the underside of a leaf is the result of purely material processes, without committing oneself to whether the matter those processes are occurring in is ultimately quarks, superstrings, dark energy or quantum fluctuations. A materialist who believes that mind is reducible to material processes is claiming there is no fundamental difference between the type of full explanation which might in principle be given of mental phenomena and the type of full explanation which might eventually be given of stomatal function – or indeed of rainfall for that matter.

Next, taking Ward’s summary of the Gribben/Davies argument at face value, if ‘matter’ is an illusion produced by a ‘mysterious and unknown substratum’ interacting with the human mind, then, to take the most ‘physical’ of the three examples above, if rainfall is caused by anything, and that cause cannot be in ‘matter’ (because matter is an illusion), the cause must be somewhere in that mysterious and unknown substratum. Ditto for the opening of stomata. The ‘materialist’ claim would therefore be that, assuming the Gribben/Davies argument, mind itself has its cause(s) within that same mysterious and unknown substratum. Or, conversely, that if that substratum can generate rain and stomata – presumably by features of the substratum interacting with other features – then it can also generate mind. That same mind would then interact with other features of the substratum to create the illusion of matter.

The point is not that any of this is necessarily true, but that it is not obvious why the Gribben/Davies argument (as summarised by Ward) should be any more fatal for a ‘materialist’ approach to mind than it would be for a ‘materialist’ approach to stomatal function or rainfall.

The last thread is Penrose’s view that the laws of physics may need to be revised to take account of the role of consciousness in the nature of the world. Again taking Ward’s summary at face value, this would, if true, certainly have implications for an explanation of mind in terms of material processes. If the laws of physics themselves somehow depend on mind, this would suggest that mind might indeed be an ‘ultimate and irreducible feature of reality’.

But a view like this could at the very least be described as ‘a very recent, highly contentious, minority philosophical world-view’ – just as Ward described Dawkins’ own hypothesis.

La lutte continue…


1 Keith Ward, Why there almost certainly is a God: Doubting Dawkins, Lion Hudson, London, 2008.

2 John Gribben and Paul Davies, The matter myth, Penguin, 1992.

3 Roger Penrose, The large, the small and the human mind, Cambridge University Press, 1997.

© Chris Lawrence 2009.

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