Friday, February 27, 2009

This + This ≠ ThisThis, but = That

A triangle has three angles equaling 180 degrees, but not one of its sides has an angle.

A circle has a radius and a diameter, but not any one of its points has a diameter.

An atom has a spin property, but no tiger, composed of atoms, has a spin property.

A sample of water freezes at 0 degrees Celsius, but no molecule of H2O freezes.

A brick is red and rectangular, but not any one of its molecules is red and rectangular.

A house has a roof and walls, but no element in the construction of the house has a roof or windows.

A spoken word conveys meaning and elicits a response in a hearer, but not any one of its phonemes conveys meaning or elicits a proportionate response.

In all such cases, while may be the case that the larger, aggregate entity cannot exist without the smaller, composite elements, this does not entail that the former exists because of the latter. The aggregates, thus, enjoy a formal integrity which none of its composite members can bestow upon it.

Indeed, all of the smaller entities are what they are only in reference to their larger aggregate entity's existence. An atom of water is what it is as an atom of water. Even an atom under scientific scrutiny is the atom that it is in connection with the larger aggregate of space cum equipment cum observer. Thus, the aggregate displays as much of a final sovereignty over its members' causal co-relations as it enjoys a formal wholeness that pervades their theoretical content.

Consider Aristotle's claims in Physics II, 9:

As regards what is 'of necessity', we must ask whether the necessity is 'hypothetical', or 'simple' as well. The current [i.e., Empedoclean-materialist] view places what is of necessity in the process of production, just as if one were to suppose that the wall of a house necessarily comes to be because what is heavy is naturally carried downwards and what is light to the top, wherefore the stones and foundations take the lowest place, with earth above because it is lighter, and wood at the top of all as being the lightest. Whereas, though the wall does not come to be without these, it is not due to these, except as its material cause: it comes to be for the sake of sheltering and guarding certain things. Similarly in all other things which involve production for an end; the product cannot come to be without things which have a necessary nature, but it is not due to these (except as its material); it comes to be for an end. For instance, why is a saw such as it is? To effect so-and-so and for the sake of so-and-so. This end, however, cannot be realized unless the saw is made of iron. It is, therefore, necessary for it to be of iron, it we are to have a saw and perform the operation of sawing. What is necessary then, is necessary on a hypothesis; it is not a result necessarily determined by antecedents. Necessity is in the matter, while 'that for the sake of which' is in the definition.

A similar concept plays a role in R. W. Sperry's writings on emergence (which I cite from Timothy O'Connor's essay, "Emergent Properties"). Sperry argues

that the higher-level phenomena in exerting downward control do not disrupt or intervene in the causal relations of the lower-level component activity. Instead, they supervene in a way that leaves the micro interactions, per se, unaltered ("In Defense of Mentalism and Emergent Interaction", Journal of Mind and Behavior 12(2) (1991), p. 230).

Later in the same essay, Sperry elaborates his point by way of considering the molecules in a rolling wheel:

A molecule within the rolling wheel..., though retaining its usual inter-molecular relations within the wheel, is at the same time, from the standpoint of an outside observer, being carried through particular patterns in space and time determined by the over-all properties of the wheel as a whole. There need be no "reconfiguring" of the molecules relative to each other within the wheel itself. However, relative to the rest of the world the result is a major "reconfiguring" of the space-time trajectories of all the components in the wheel's infrastructure. (ibid.)

Sperry's vivid point is that the aggregate object produces empirical changes in the world in a way that, without "violating" the laws of its components, does so to speak outstrip their causal abilities. The wheel can break a vase, whereas its molecules, considered in terms of austere chemical laws, cannot. Indeed, "from a molecule's point of view" there is no such thing as a vase. Therefore it is exceedingly bizarre for reductionists to claim that "our molecules made us x some y" when, in terms of our molecules, there is no y to which x can happen.

For instance, if a reductionist claims that one section of "my" molecules (colloquially called "my arm") caused another section of "my" molecules (colloquially called "my fist") to collide with a section of "your" molecules (colloquially called "your face"), then it should be asked just which molecule or molecules did the hitting and which molecules were mere event freeloaders. If it is objected that the entire "clump" of molecules hit a face-like clump of molecules, this only begs the question of how we delimit (or identify) the guilty clump in molecular terms. In molecular terms, each molecule is doing perfectly what its proper natural laws dictate: clumping with other molecules in a micro-world. Nothing in the law of specific being for a molecule, nor even a clump of molecules, entails that they leap hither and thither from one shocked face to another. Only a being with a higher, enveloping law of specific being--such as a surly human--can do that. Only by already knowing the molecules were metaphysically subservient freeloader's in a human hand's violent action can we correctly specify which molecules were involved in the physical event. Without prior reference to formal substances and their related parts (i.e., humans, hands, faces, etc.), we simply have no reason to describe an arbitrarily selected clump of molecules as "this" or "that" causing "that" or "this". From a wholly reductive, "scientific" point of view, we have no right to stop at the level of molecular clumps forming so-called bodies, since, from the most basic level of analysis, those bodies themselves are but midi-clumps in the macro-swarm of sheer matter-in-motion. Just as for neo-Darwinists, there are not "really" formally distinct species, but only biomass-in-flux, so for the konsequenter reductivist there are no intrinsically intelligible substances (viz., with formal structure cum essential natures), but only undifferentiated Nature simpliciter, or, as I believe J. S. Mill said when parodying Herbert Spencer's evolutionism, one infinite, homogenous It that eternally becomes all things and yet still just remains It.

Obviously, few of us these days can really imagine the world like that. Science, not to mention common-sense phenomenology, unceasingly reveals a world of discrete, dynamic beings co-operating across multiple levels of causation and order. A reductive view of the world is commendable in the same way an expert art historian's critical eye is commendable: by peering in to the tiny details of a work of art, she can discern whether it is a forgery and how it was produced. But if we remain stuck in this posture, without taking a few steps back, we all too easily forget that we are looking at a whole work of art and, moreover, that it is downright beautiful.

It is a mental illusion, inculcated in most moderns and postmoderns, that the micro-view of things "best explains" the phenomena we observe (and cause). But the complementary view--not, you will notice, the competing view--of causation and explanation espoused by Aristotle, Thomas d'Aquino, et al., allows us to break the spell of reductive hypnosis and freely look at the world from a number of complementary perspectives. Specifically, "Aristhomism" enables, nay, liberates us to "be okay with" our amazingly prescient common view of the world, even while acknowledging the micro-structure of reality which exact science illuminates. It is merely a psychological habit in our modernized mind's eye to "zoom in" on atoms and molecules when we "really" want to understand a phenomenon. Meanwhile, if we would, to recall Galileo's simple request, but look through both ends of the metaphysical telescope, we would find a mental freedom to view the world in full, to wit, as a dynamic harmony of contingent but active substances--created finite essences--seeking their fullness of being according to their specific laws of being by means of an "intrawoven" matrix of material, efficient, formal, and final causation. We are conditioned to be reductionistst, but I believe we can, and must, still learn to temper that line of sight with a more so to speak "conductivist" viewpoint.

As an exercise in de-programming, I ask the reader to consider this old tale:

On March 15, 493 in Ravenna, Theodoric invited Odovacar to a dinner, having secretly prepared for assassins to murder Odovacar. The assassins, however, lost their nerve, and Theodoric himself moved in for the kill as Odovacer was seated at the banquet table. With one slash of his sword, Theodoric "lifted his sword and hewed his enemy in twain from the shoulder to the loins," whereupon the former joked that the latter seemed never to have had a bone in his body.

Now, the exercise is this: from which end of the telescope does the story seem more intelligible? From the reductive end that sees a swarm of intrinsically discrete atoms and molecules shifting relative positions, like shadow figures dancing in shadow? Or from the conductive end that sees a violent creature with a name and a sword slicing another man in half, whereupon billions of cells and molecules are sent gushing out? Does it make any more sense to say that a swarm of molecules "were involved in" the naively anthropocentric fictional news story, "Theodoric Goes Halves with Odovacer at Dinner," than it does to say that Theodoric caused billions of molecules belonging to Odovacer to go in wholly unpredictable and grotesquely novel directions?

Hopefully, you see that both accounts make sense of the same event.


unBeguiled said...

Using far fewer words: we get something more from nothing but.

the Cogitator said...


Be careful that when you use fewer words to restate someone's point you end up saying the same thing he wrote.

I will give your slogan (via Goodenough or whoever it was) this much: it gets at some of the truth.

But the point of my post was to illustrate how the formally complete nature of some things is literally irreducible to their constituents. Atoms and tigers, lines and triangles, sound waves and words––these and more are all formally different and mutually irreducible kinds of things. But as a monist (i.e., a materialist/physicalist), you should be loath to admit the existence of metaphysically different kinds of existence. On your view, there only is the physical order of matter as such. All the seemingly formal magic of the world, I think you would say, is just an illusion. At bottom, there really is just a Democritean swirl of atoms. No angels, no God, no me, no you. (I recall from your balls to the wall Youtube sermon that selfless, mindless psychology is part of your atheist gospel.) Once you grant there are formally and irreducibly distinct categories of existents, which cannot all be described under one heading, with one set of terms (spin and the like), you cease to be a physicalist.

A further consequence is that you lose the right to deny free will and abstract intellection on much vaunted "naturalistically methodological" grounds. As Thomas Reid saw in the C18, responding to Hume's materialism, once you grant that qualitatively new powers and structures can emerge from sheer matter (which is the goal of materialism), you start up a sticky slope, as it were. If atoms can make chemicals, and chemicals can make tissues, and tissues can make organisms, etc., then who's to say where it stops? If formally distinct natural powers really can emerge from sheer subatomic fluctuations, and a whole ladder of distinct, irreducible physical laws can build up, then on what naturalistic grounds can one deny free will and intellection have their own higher autonomy as emergent realities from human bodies? This is kind of where J. Searle, an anti-materialist and anti-reductionist, has gotten him: subjective consciousness is a property of human neural tissue just as wetness is a property of H2O. It's an admirable view, and Searle is a great thinker, but, as I believe his own dabbling talks with Thomists in So. California and Dr. Feser's essay indicate, Searle finds himself inexorably drawn to something "more."


unBeguiled said...

to illustrate how the formally complete nature of some things is literally irreducible to their constituents.

I endorse that unequivocally.

But as a monist (i.e., a materialist/physicalist)

Not so. My current position on this is confused and fluctuating. I'm working on it. I am a Naturaist, but Metaphysical Naturalism does not necessarily entail physicalism.

I recall from your balls to the wall Youtube sermon that selfless, mindless psychology is part of your atheist gospel.

What?! I have no clue what you are referring to. I'm not denying it, I just don't know what speach you are talking about.

Once you grant there are formally and irreducibly distinct categories of existents . . . you cease to be a physicalist.

Atheist philosopher Colin McGinn thinks consciousness is irreducible. Atheism does not entail physicalism.

If atoms can make chemicals, and chemicals can make tissues, and tissues can make organisms, etc., then who's to say where it stops?

Not me. I think this sentence and the next are exceptionally well argued by you.

on what naturalistic grounds can one deny free will

I am not dogmatic about this. My position on this has not changed since I read Slaughter House Five twenty years ago, but that does not mean it won't change in the future.

I am skeptical of contra-causal free will because of physics. Currently, a stochastic model of mind makes most sense to me. This view undermines determinism, but in no-sense provides the freedom I think you mean.

the Cogitator said...


Nice hearing from you. I like you, mate.

I had to chuckle when you drew a distinction between naturalism and physicalism. "He called my bluff!" Good to see you're not insane. ;)

I had a roll of chuckles about your reaction to the "Youtube sermon". All I was referring to was the time you gave me a link to Youtube after you endorsed a selfless, will-less life face to face with "the really real". It was a bit evangelical, 's'all I'm saying.

As for McGinn, his (?) mysterion view of consciousness, while commendably honest and non-reductive, does seem like an explanatory show-stopper. Consciousness is, for him, just some dangling reality, with no natural or supernatural origin? Elaborate on McGinn's view, if you could.

I'm glad you like how I wrote about emergentism. Timothy O'Connor has lots of good stuff on agent-causation and emergentism. Hat tip to him for the Reid reference I employed above.

It's nice to hear you are not dogmatic about free will and determinism.

Let me ask you:

1) What do you think I mean by freedom you think I mean?

2) How do you make sense of the, ex hypothesi, ascendant-emergent nature of nature?


unBeguiled said...

Briefly, because I'm in a hurry.

McGinn's view is essentially an argument from ignorance: "I can't comprehend how a bunch of neurons can explain qualia."

He does not postulate anything supernatural, but just argues that we can't turn consciousness in on itself. Feser might make a similar point.

1) I think by 'freedom' you mean we have first cause ability. I think that's wrong. You are free to act as you desire, but you are not free to choose your desires. You may choose to suppress some of your desires, but that is just because you have an overriding desire. Follow that back far enough, and it's electrons and quarks doing what they do.

2) Flight is an emergent property of airplanes. Mind is an emergent property of neurons. Digestion is an emergent property of complex protein molecules called enzymes.

I may have failed to understand the second question. Here I shall be dogmatic: I will not translate the Latin. If you want me to understand you, and I think you do, you ought* to use terminology I understand.

*Don't go there yet.

the Cogitator said...

unBE said: "[1.] You may choose to suppress some of your desires, but that is just because you have an overriding desire. [2.] Follow that back far enough, and it's electrons and quarks doing what they do."

1. What if I have a desire d1 to divest myself of a certain other desire d2? Can I really be said to have d2, since I don't desire to have it, and, consequently "de-desire" its object? Conversely, if I still have d2, can I really be said to have d1? What decides between these antagonistic desires? Brain states? But then, why refer to desires at all?

2. Come now, old chap, you need to stop doing that. I thought we already agreed in this post that once a higher emergent level is attained, there is "no going back" in purely reductive terms. I thought you said you were not a physicalist. "It's all just electrons and quarks doing their thing" sounds like pretty orthodox physicalism to me. My point about emergentism is that dynamic natural order is like blood in veins: living blood flows up in a physically determined "one-way way", but once it passes through vascular valves, it can't just recede back to where it flowed in from. Like a fly in an upside-down Venus flytrap: the hairs let you crawl up and in but not back down and out. Or, if you like, a roach motel ontology. …

As for your recurring point about emergent flight, consider: traffic delays and detours are emergent properties of a huge Broadway debut, but they are not WHAT a huge Broadway debut is. A thing's efficient causal effects may or may not lead to emergent properties, but the thing itself has a formal integrity irreducible to its prior or posterior effects. Otherwise there would be no thing there for effects and causes to pass through, as it were.

As for "ex hypothesi," sorry, mate. That is, by my lights, pretty run of the mill terminology for the kind of talks we have. I'm an egghead, what can I say? Ex hypothesi just means "going on the proposed hypothesis," sort of like "arguendo" means "for argument's sake."

My questton, then, is: on the assumption that big-tent emergentism is correct––which I am only hypothetically willing to grant, since you, and, I think, most emergentists, still have yet to grapple with the intrinsic immateriality of the intellect, as argued for by Aquinas, Adler, Ross et al.––WHY is it that nature "tends to" develop in upwardly emergent complexity? (Interestingly enough, however, Ross himself both argues for the immateriality of the intellect and for evolutionary emergentism. …)

Further, what does it indicate to you that your emergentist instincts hinge upon there being "natural tendencies" in the first place?