Death
October 8, 2004 6:59 AM   Subscribe

Is death the end?
posted by stupidsexyFlanders to Religion & Philosophy (74 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
 
but yes.
Unless you're religious,
then no.
posted by seanyboy at 7:06 AM on October 8, 2004


Bob Dylan sang that it isn't, and Werner von Braun wrote that it's not, but I don't believe either one of them.
posted by misteraitch at 7:10 AM on October 8, 2004 [1 favorite]


Does it matter?
For that matter, how would anyone know?
posted by willpie at 7:17 AM on October 8, 2004


Did you ever think, as a hearse goes by,
That you might be the next to die?
They wrap you up in a big white sheet,
And bury you down about six feet deep
They put you in a big black box,
And cover you up with dirt and rocks,
And all goes week, for about a week,
And then the coffin begins to leak!

The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out,
The worms play pinochle on your snout.
They eat your eyes, they eat your nose,
They eat the jelly between your toes.

A great big worm with rolling eyes,
Crawls in your stomach and out your eyes,
Your stomach turns a slimy green,
And pus pours out like whipping cream.

You spread it on a slice of bread,
And that's what worms eat when you're dead.
posted by Otis at 7:18 AM on October 8, 2004


The end of what?

Looked at as a four-dimensional object embedded in a higher-order space, your life has death on one side and birth on the other. Its other extents are determined by how far you travelled in 3-space. So you can have a larger life either by being born earlier, dying later, or travelling further. (Hint: for reason of entropy the third of these is by far the easiest.)
posted by nicwolff at 7:34 AM on October 8, 2004 [13 favorites]


What kind of answer are you expecting from this? Surely you're aware that some philosophies say that yes, it is, and some say no, it's not. So presumably you're looking for something beyond that, but what?
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 7:37 AM on October 8, 2004


nicwolff, that is the most amazing thing I have read this week.

But in answer to the question, yes. This life is all we have, and wishing, even wishing *really* hard won't change that.
posted by Capn at 7:40 AM on October 8, 2004


Where did you get that theory, nicwolf? I'm interviewing a professional traveller next week, and it sounds like an interesting question to ask him.
posted by NekulturnY at 7:43 AM on October 8, 2004


If life is the beginning, then death is the end.
posted by SpaceCadet at 7:46 AM on October 8, 2004


life.....ummm....birth!!
posted by SpaceCadet at 7:47 AM on October 8, 2004


Allahu alim.
posted by Mossy at 7:48 AM on October 8, 2004


Let's hope so.
posted by TimeFactor at 7:54 AM on October 8, 2004


SpaceCadet - but what if you die before you're born? Aha!

Some people say marriage is the end.
posted by cell at 7:58 AM on October 8, 2004


Looked at as a four-dimensional object embedded in a higher-order space, your life has death on one side and birth on the other. Its other extents are determined by how far you travelled in 3-space. So you can have a larger life either by being born earlier, dying later, or travelling further. (Hint: for reason of entropy the third of these is by far the easiest.)

Except the problem is when looking at spacetime, a very small amount of time is equivalent to a very large distance. Extending your life by a single minute would extend how far you travelled in spacetime farther than adding an additional 10 million miles to your travels.

(Hint: for reason of entropy the third of these is by far the easiest.)

Is doing something which can extend your life by a minute (let alone months or years—quit smoking, lose weight, get more exercise) really harder than travelling an additional 10 million plus miles?
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 8:01 AM on October 8, 2004


The end of identity, almost certainly yes. Whether you're religious or not. But the genes go on (whether you breed or not—only the combination changes).
posted by rushmc at 8:05 AM on October 8, 2004


nicwolff, travelling would only make your four-dimensional life-trace more wiggly, not larger. Imagine a 2D shape moving through a 3D space at a constant rate relative to the z axis, but varying it's motion relative to the x and y axes -- it's path would enclose the same volume regardless of those x/y motions. One could, however, expand the hyper-volume of one's life by becoming larger in 3 dimensions, or by living longer. Aspiring to live a wiggly life is more amusing, though.
posted by Mark Doner at 8:11 AM on October 8, 2004


Yes, it is. Really.

If a soul indeed decided our personality and behaviour, it wouldn't be vulnerable to drugs like Ecstasy. ;)

[disclaimer: I'm an atheist.]

If you want to turn that into a positive thing, believing that this is the only life we have should inspire and motivate you into making the best of it, and be the best you can be.
posted by madman at 8:11 AM on October 8, 2004


It's not really a theory, NekulturnY, just an observation. Something one of my N-dimensional imaginary friends pointed out.

DA: that's true only for the crudest physical sense of "equivalent". A minute is worth, to a given actor, whatever pleasure he can get out of it. Wouldn't you trade one second of your life for a lot less than 186,282 miles of travel?

Doner: good point, but I used the word "extents" to indicate the sense of "larger" I intended: how big a 4-box would your life fit in?
posted by nicwolff at 8:34 AM on October 8, 2004


Unless we are to take the ptolemaic stance, lives of equal extent would fit in pretty much the same 4D box; our large wiggles will be due to the motions of the earth and sun, and our motions on the surface of the earth will be very small in comparison. Perhaps one could make an existential argument for human space exploration along these lines...
posted by Mark Doner at 8:55 AM on October 8, 2004


The end of identity, almost certainly yes. Whether you're religious or not. But the genes go on (whether you breed or not—only the combination changes).

That and all matter being finite. You die, you decompose, that decomposition feeds new life, repeat ad infinitum.

But this is still a stupid Ask MeFi question.
posted by terrapin at 9:00 AM on October 8, 2004


Well, right, Mark, we're all really sweeping out vast ornate multi-spirals that are barely perturbed by our travels and travails. But there's such a thing as too much perspective and this way lurks nihilism. Let's normalize our wiggles to an arbitrary non-polar radial vector of planet Earth.
posted by nicwolff at 9:15 AM on October 8, 2004


A minute is worth, to a given actor, whatever pleasure he can get out of it. Wouldn't you trade one second of your life for a lot less than 186,282 miles of travel?

Depends on where I'm travelling. For somewhere interesting that I've never been before? Sure. For another 4000 circuits around I-465 (approx. 50 miles)? Nope.

Sure, I get your general point that travel is worthwhile, one of the things that makes life worth living. But there's no point in trying to justify it with pseudoscientific claptrap about "hav[ing] a larger life" in the sense of looking at it "as a four-dimensional object embedded in a higher-order space."
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 9:28 AM on October 8, 2004


Almost. If you wait for the credits to finish there's a little bit more.
posted by bondcliff at 9:33 AM on October 8, 2004 [3 favorites]


People who believe in something after death usually agree that what comes afterwards is significantly different than what came before. Heaven, hell, nirvana, reincarnation as a different entity with no recollection of previous existence, etc.; these are all such qualitative transformations that I don't see how one can argue that death is not the end, of at least one critical stage in your ongoing development as a person/soul/quantum/whatever.

The only way one could argue that it is not the end is to claim that, post-death, we progress to an alternate earth in which everything is the same, except that we all remember our last life. I don't know anyone who believes this.
posted by evinrude at 9:39 AM on October 8, 2004


Because everyone wants to know, how's it gonna end?
posted by robocop is bleeding at 9:41 AM on October 8, 2004


Is arbitrarily accepting a world-view that makes accumulating frequent-flyer miles into some sort of ultimate virtue much better than nihilism?
posted by Mark Doner at 9:53 AM on October 8, 2004


"In a sense, Tipler is attempting to scientifically validate heaven."
posted by weston at 9:53 AM on October 8, 2004


Don't jump, stupidsexyflanders!! We'd miss you.
posted by strangeleftydoublethink at 9:56 AM on October 8, 2004


As a mostly atheist and partial agnostic: I don't know. I'll find out eventually. I don't really have a choice about that. So, I try to enjoy life, so that if I do get hit by a truck or something, I won't regret living the life I've lived. As you might guess, it's very important to me to figure out what my goals in life are and actually do them, aside from just being or trying to be a happy person in general. When I die, I'll find out what happens.

So, basically my answer is: You'll find out. Worry about it then. Enjoy what you have while you have it.
posted by stoneegg21 at 10:08 AM on October 8, 2004


bondcliff wins.

On preview:

I try to enjoy life, so that if I do get hit by a truck or something, I won't regret living the life I've lived.

On the other hand, if you get hit by a truck, you'll be too busy being dead to regret anything, so, no pressure.
posted by majcher at 10:11 AM on October 8, 2004


No. After you die we adjust a few parameters and run you again. Not that you'll have any memory of this, stupidsexyFlanders. Or should I call you stupidsexyFlanders v0.081b?
posted by George_Spiggott at 10:30 AM on October 8, 2004


Is death the end? Probably not. Here's why:

Based on the argument first presented by Descartes in his Meditations, we can be most certain of our own existence. Cogito, ergo sum. This includes, it seems to me, a belief in Free Will: while I can imagine that my senses, even my memories, might deceive me, nothing can change the fact that right now, right at this very moment, I exist and I am choosing to think about whether or not I exist.

However, based on traditional science (which generally posits a mechanist, deterministic universe) one would not expect purely physical processes to develop consciousness. One would certainly not expect the deterministic collisions of particles to result in Free Will.

Therefore, while Quantum Mechanics and related developments in physics *may* eventually provide an explanation for consciousness and free will, based on the best evidence we have at this moment in history, the most reasonable conslusion is that human beings are more than just mechanical machines. There appears to be some non-material aspect to us that makes us more than the sum of our parts. If you wish, you may call this non-physical component of us "the soul".

Does it survive death? We don't know for certain, because the means of interaction between the brain and the soul remains thoroughly unexplained. But if it's non-physical, there's no overriding reason to believe that it is destroyed upon the death of the physical.
posted by gd779 at 10:32 AM on October 8, 2004


> Almost. If you wait for the credits to finish there's a little bit more.

Alan Simthee?! Well, that explains a few things
posted by Capn at 10:39 AM on October 8, 2004


No, not the end. Just time for the judgement.
posted by konolia at 10:43 AM on October 8, 2004


No.

Or, to be more specific, death is only the end of an aspect of you. But I have no proof so that is simply my belief.
posted by widdershins at 10:47 AM on October 8, 2004


Yes, it is.

Talk to anyone who denies that death is the end -- religious or whatever -- and they'll eventually admit why they refuse to believe it. They're scared. All these grand theories about life after death are nothing more than lifelong denial of the inevitable... but if that denial helps people sleep at night, then it's sort of cruel to try to take it from them.
posted by reklaw at 11:12 AM on October 8, 2004


However, based on traditional science (which generally posits a mechanist, deterministic universe) one would not expect purely physical processes to develop consciousness. One would certainly not expect the deterministic collisions of particles to result in Free Will.

Why the hell not? That's a pretty bold assertion, particularly given recent research into the emergent properties of complex systems. Current evidence shows that simple deterministic processes result in all sorts of things you might not expect. Hell, Wolfram found a simple 2D cellular automaton that functions as a Turing complete computer. Add (many, many) more degrees of freedom and consciousness and "Free Will" certainly seem like reasonable outcomes to me.

And that's without even beginning to take quantum phenomenon (which, if you ask me, are a red herring on the question of consciousness) into account.

And never mind that your argument is essentially a simplistic argument from ignorance: I do not understand the mechanism that leads to what I perceive as consciousness; therefore, there must be a soul. That's just silly. I don't understand how overlapping cellular signalling pathways lead to discrete control of the expression of individual genes; nevertheless, you don't see me arguing that there must be a magical invisible life force controlling cell function.

Forget about heaven and earth: there are more things in physics and chemistry, gd779, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
posted by mr_roboto at 11:25 AM on October 8, 2004


True reklaw but although having a strong emotional basis for a belief may justly make that belief suspect, it also does not in anyway "prove" their beliefs to be wrong.

I know you can build a really strong inductive argument why death is the end but in the end it will have as much strength as any other inductive argument (such as that the sun will rise tomorrow) That is, sure you are probably almost certainly right but as long as you still give people that tiny loophole, and with so much at stake, they will take it - and you can maybe claim they are being unreasonable but you can't prove them wrong.

on preview: mr_roboto: next generations science may show gd779 to be right. All he is saying is that current science still leaves an opening for a soul - see my statement above about the loophole.

loopholes shouldnt be underestimated. Some small loopholes in 19th century science grew and developed into what we now call 20th century science.
posted by vacapinta at 11:36 AM on October 8, 2004


Why the hell not? That's a pretty bold assertion, particularly given recent research into the emergent properties of complex systems. Current evidence shows that simple deterministic processes result in all sorts of things you might not expect.

The emergent properties of simple deterministic processes can indeed result in surprising outcomes: but it can never, by definition, result in true choice. Choice requires both indeterminacy (which even complex deterministic processes cannot possess, by definition) and the application of the Will (which brings us into the problem of qualia and back into the problem of consciousness). On preview: vacapinta is right, both about the limits of reklaw's inductive reasoning and about the "loopholes" in the current science.

Talk to anyone who denies that death is the end -- religious or whatever -- and they'll eventually admit why they refuse to believe it. They're scared. All these grand theories about life after death are nothing more than lifelong denial of the inevitable

What a strange claim. Where, exactly, do you get such certainty from? How do you know that death is the end?

When you look at the big picture, you realize that life is still basically a mystery to us. We don't know how life began. We don't know why or how we're conscious and have the ability to choose. We don't know why the universe began. We don't understand why the universe would be capable of generating stable, life-creating order (in fact, all our best theories would have indicated otherwise, if it weren't for the fact that we're actually here). We don't know why the vast majority of human beings have longed for the divine, or why the myths of two cultures will routinely share deep and startling similarities, even though those two cultures couldn't possibly have come into contact with one another.

There's a lot of really strange stuff going on out there. And while I'm as personally repulsed by mysticism as the next scientifically-inclined, materialist-leaning skeptic, even I have to admit that the debate between Cartesian dualism, materialism, and theism isn't nearly finished. At a minimum, if you're convinced that materialism is unquestionable, and that death is clearly the end: well, then you just don't have your eyes open. A lot has changed in the past couple of decades.
posted by gd779 at 11:50 AM on October 8, 2004


All he is saying is that current science still leaves an opening for a soul - see my statement above about the loophole.

Man; there'll always be a "loophole" for something immaterial, invisible, with no observable effect on the material world. Such a thing certainly might exist. Science, however, will never be able to say anything about it one way or the other. This is a fundamental shortcoming of science: it's the difference between physics and metaphysics.

gd779's claim was much stonger: he's claiming that since we currently have no mechanistic understanding of consciousness, there must be a soul. That's not even sound logic. "Next generation's science" will never substantiate this argument. We'll either gain a mechnistic understanding of consciousness, in which case the argument is out the window, or we won't, in which case it's still an argument from ignorance. The scientific method is simply not capable of showing that there exists no possible physical mechanism underlying consciousness. It can distinguish between competing hypotheses regarding the mechanism of consciousness, but that's about the limit of its power.

Unless you're claiming that someone will come up with some sort of experiment that will demonstrate the existence of the immaterial soul. That whole "immaterial" part becomes a bit of a sticking point, because as soon as you can observe its existence experimentally, it becomes material, doesn't it?

The emergent properties of simple deterministic processes can indeed result in surprising outcomes: but it can never, by definition, result in true choice. Choice requires both indeterminacy (which even complex deterministic processes cannot possess, by definition) and the application of the Will (which brings us into the problem of qualia and back into the problem of consciousness).

Says who? You've got a nice syllogism going, now: material processes can never result in "choice", "choice" exists; therefore, there must be an immaterial soul. You're defining your way out of the argument entirely. Your definitions have problems, though. Clearly, computer systems are able to make choices: look at a robot that can avoid obstacles, or a program that optimizes task order. Or neural networks, or animals. I see absolutely no reason why something that we perceive as "will" can't emerge from a complex deterministic system; you can't just define yourself out of the possibility.

And why the hell does choice require indeterminacy? All you need is incomplete information, which is inherent in even moderately complex deterministic systems.
posted by mr_roboto at 12:03 PM on October 8, 2004


gd779:

Your personality is not your soul, or drugs would not effect it.

Your memories are not in your soul, or age and brain damage wouldn't wither them.

The assumption of an afterlife requires an assumption of a spiritual plane for which we have no evidence AND of a non-corporeal soul which the evidence seems to oppose.

Also, your assumption that we have free will is an assumption with no evidence. It's certainly attractive, and even seems to be the case based on how I feel inside, but it's neither proven nor provable.
posted by callmejay at 12:14 PM on October 8, 2004


I don't know. I've never been.

When I get there, I'll email you.
posted by dflemingdotorg at 12:14 PM on October 8, 2004


gd779's claim was much stonger: he's claiming that since we currently have no mechanistic understanding of consciousness, there must be a soul.

That's not what I was saying; in fact I explicitly didn't say that.

material processes can never result in "choice", "choice" exists; therefore, there must be an immaterial soul.

Let's rephrase that: deterministic processes can never result in indeterminate "true choice" (i.e., Free Will), Free Will exists, therefore there must be a non-deterministic (and, based on current science, therefore non-physical) component to us. Now...

Clearly, computer systems are able to make choices: look at a robot that can avoid obstacles... I see absolutely no reason why something that we perceive as "will" can't emerge from a complex deterministic system

I admit that I see also no reason, in principle, why your actions could not be ultimately deterministic, like a robot's. But when I consider myself, I observe that I make true choices: I go to work, or not; I raise my arm, or not; etc. My subjective observation that I can choose to do this or that is almost unassailable.

The next generation of science may well assail the unassailable, but, for now, the most reasonable explanation is that Free Will exists. If Free Will exists, than the traditional conception of mechanistic universe is also necessarily wrong.

"The foolish reject what they see and not what they think; the wise reject what they think and not what they see." -- Huang Po

Oh, and don't forget that science only advances when someone points out that current theories are insufficient to explain observed phenomenon. Postulating theories to better explain the unexplained is what science does, and when you rule out "God and the metaphysical" a priori, you've made a philosophical presupposition, nothing more. And that's a very unscientific thing to do.

callmejay: your assumption that we have free will is an assumption with no evidence. It's certainly... how I feel inside

Well, then it has *some* evidence, wouldn't you say? In a sense, your visual perceptions are also simply "how you feel inside". I'm not saying it's conclusive proof. I'm simply saying that "how you feel inside" is an observation, and like all other observations it should be tested against other observations you make and against other observations made by others. So, let's do that: like you, I seem to feel that I have free will, and everyone else I know feels the same way. So we all report the same observation, just as we would all report seeing the same table in a given room. There is therefore no clear reason why such a universal observation should be "inadmissible evidence": the question is simply, how well does it fit with the rest of our observations?

(To restate my original argument, because this has gotten long: there are obvious holes in the current generation of scientific knowledge that makes it a bit suspicious. And, referring to Descartes, knowledge of our existence and our ability to choose is necessarily the most certain knowledge we can attain. Therefore, I have argued, the current strictly deterministic conception of the universe should yeild in favor of the observation of Free Will. Therefore, Free Will is most reasonable belief at this time. But we must always remain open to new evidence.)

"The physical basis of consciousness appears to be the most singular challenge to the scientific, reductionist world view." -- Christof Koch and Francis Crick, November 4, 1999

Your personality is not your soul, or drugs would not effect it.

Say, in arguendo, that the soul exists; that it interfaces somehow with the material body; and that it chooses within a range of possible options presented to it by the physiology. When the brain is functioning normally, choice is circumscribed by hard factors like intelligence and is influenced by soft factors like conditioning (think Skinner and Pavlov). But it does choose. Wouldn't that account for the effect of mind-altering drugs, while remaining consistent with the existence of a soul?

"At the simplest level, a dialogical model is approximated here. We KNOW that we can use our subjectivity to change our objectivity--we do it when we 'choose and execute' to go over a spelling word list 10 times. We know from neuroscience that we literally 'cut traces' in the brain (i.e. increase statistical probability of specific neuron circuit configuration firings over others). And we also know that our range of subjective choices are essentially (but not exhaustively, in my opinion) determined by our objective factors (e.g. education, linguistic competency). What I see here is a dialogical/dialectical model, in which I can choose (within ranges) which direction to develop ('concretize'?) my objectivity-self. Then, that objectivity makes it easier for my subjectivity to 'take that path again' (or harder to break the habit). This is recognizably habit-pattern creation stuff." - Actually, I lost the attribution of this quote, but I will point out that these words are not mine.

The assumption of an afterlife requires an assumption of a spiritual plane for which we have no evidence AND of a non-corporeal soul which the evidence seems to oppose.

It's called a proposed hypothesis, and if you're willing to reject out of hand (without looking for the verifying evidence) all proposals which require the postulation of things we currently have no evidence for, then don't try doing physics. See also: the anthropic principle and the multiverse; the big bang and the Hartle-Hawking proposal, etc.
posted by gd779 at 12:52 PM on October 8, 2004


Talk to anyone who denies that death is the end -- religious or whatever -- and they'll eventually admit why they refuse to believe it. They're scared.
That's not entirely true. I know you won't believe me, but I'm not afraid do dieing precisely because I believe in the afterlife. Whether or not there is one is a moot point because neither of our opinions change the reality of the (non)existance of the afterlife. And, I know plenty of people who also do not fear death. Actually, I do fear a slow and painful death of torture and pain and suffering- not because of the death aspect, but b/c of the continous pain. Then again, that could just be a chronic illness, but I degress.

Based on the argument first presented by Descartes in his Meditations, we can be most certain of our own existence.
It's been years since I've been in a real philosophy class, but I recall a big problem in his Meditations was his assumption that all thing need a "force" to sustain them, otherwise they'de stop in motion. ie, we need God (or some higher being) or else we'de fade away very quickley. The main flaw was that he didn't know about friction at the time and his theory was the complete oposite of reality, thus negating his proof for God and thus the afterlife. Or am I totally off-base?
Also, a side-note: DeCartes never actually said, "I think, therefore I am," in his written texts. Rather is nicely sums up his rational.
posted by jmd82 at 1:04 PM on October 8, 2004


jmd82: Some people actually believe that Descartes threw in his strangly simple and unpresuasive "proof" of God as a sop, in order to avoid Galileo's fate. That is speculation. What is certain is that the argument I'm using doesn't rely in any way on the argument you're referring to.

Oh, and according to the Encyclopedia Brittanica, Descartes coined the term "I am thinking, therefore I am". I think he even said it that way in his Meditations, but I could be wrong. I know he used the argument there, at least.
posted by gd779 at 1:21 PM on October 8, 2004


here's what always gets me:

let's say your consciousness arises from a complex combination of certain chemicals.

given infinite time, couldn't this certain arrangment of chemicals reoccur? (i'm just sorta assuming the infinite time thing -- i mean, yeah, the universe could ... cease to exist, but I don't know that event would stop time.)

of course, the big problem with that is how we actually move through time. why am I perceiving twenty-five and not twelve?

i'd be curious to read any essays that speak to this sort of thing.
posted by fishfucker at 1:50 PM on October 8, 2004


fishfucker: It sounds like you're talking about Tipler's Omega point theory, which weston linked to above.
posted by vacapinta at 2:01 PM on October 8, 2004


thanks, I'll look at that link.
posted by fishfucker at 2:51 PM on October 8, 2004


gd779's claim was much stonger: he's claiming that since we currently have no mechanistic understanding of consciousness, there must be a soul.

That's not what I was saying; in fact I explicitly didn't say that.


That's exactly what you said! You said:

Therefore, while Quantum Mechanics and related developments in physics *may* eventually provide an explanation for consciousness and free will, based on the best evidence we have at this moment in history, the most reasonable conslusion is that human beings are more than just mechanical machines. There appears to be some non-material aspect to us that makes us more than the sum of our parts. If you wish, you may call this non-physical component of us "the soul".

What I'm reading right there is that absent a mechanism for consciousness, there must be a immaterial "soul", or whatever you choose to call it. This is an Argument from Ignorance: an empty rhetorical device and a logical fallacy.

...there must be a non-deterministic (and, based on current science, therefore non-physical) component to us.

You're also apparently under the impression that science can only deal with processes that are completely deterministic. Every heard of something called "statistics"? Scientists use the mathematics of statistics to understand stochastic processes: processes with random elements. In fact, most science done today is understood in terms of probabilities; it is decidedly nondeterministic.

Or by "deterministic", do you mean "material" or "physical"? It seems like you might not have your terms quite straight.

The next generation of science may well assail the unassailable, but, for now, the most reasonable explanation is that Free Will exists. If Free Will exists, than the traditional conception of mechanistic universe is also necessarily wrong.

gd779: You're missing my point entirely. Apparently nondeterministic systems can emerge from purely deterministic processes. This is a simple physical truth. You can consider the act of conscious choice to be the interaction of one complex system with a larger complex system that contains more information than the first system is able to completely represent. This doesn't mean that you aren't making free choices, nor does it mean that your behavior and responses are predetermined. When my senses interact with the visible world, I do not perceive the underlying biochemical mechanisms. Nevertheless, those mechanisms exist, are well understood, and are (at a certain basic level) deterministic. Why should it be any different for my perception of conscious choice?

And that brings me to my next point: underlying deterministic processes can contribute to the behavior of a stochastic system. So there's an element of chance; not every step in the process of conscious reasoning is purely deterministic. Random inputs come from everywhere: interactions with the environment and with other actors, thermal fluctuations affecting the biochemicals in your brain, maybe even quantum effects (though, like I wrote earlier, I doubt it). Even a stochastic system can be purely mechanical, though: requiring no mysterious, magical, invisible "soul" to explain it's behavior.

let's say your consciousness arises from a complex combination of certain chemicals.

given infinite time, couldn't this certain arrangment of chemicals reoccur? (i'm just sorta assuming the infinite time thing -- i mean, yeah, the universe could ... cease to exist, but I don't know that event would stop time.)


In a system as complex as the human brain, there are so many possible combinations of variables that the chance of two identical configurations arising independantly is vanishingly small. But yeah, you could probably theorize some finite probability for this happening within the age of the universe.
posted by mr_roboto at 2:59 PM on October 8, 2004


However, based on traditional science (which generally posits a mechanist, deterministic universe) one would not expect purely physical processes to develop consciousness.

I don't think that's at all apparent, but we may be defining "consciousness" quite differently.

Your argument seems to boil down to "current science doesn't explain all known phenomena; future science may produce discoveries that allow for a "soul" loophole." Seems very much like the desperate hope of a theist to me. The future will take care of itself; for now, we must utilize what is known today to arrive at the most likely/plausible explanation that it can deliver. Sure, it is foolish to absolutely, positively rule out any changes to the status quo that new information might write, but very few actually do that in practice, so who, exactly, are you arguing against? The fact is that the majority of people make the opposite error and choose their "belief" based upon their desires, not their logic.
posted by rushmc at 3:11 PM on October 8, 2004


::: WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD! :::




No.
posted by samh23 at 3:14 PM on October 8, 2004


not to dogpile on gd779 (who has remained quite civil in the face of the myriad nay sayers in this thread, unlike our dear, departed 111 under similar circumstances), but:

I'm not sure how you're defining "physical" or "non-physical" (or "spiritual").
If a phenomenon interacts with a physical process, how could it be said to not be physical itself? If the way it interacts is of the cause/effect variety, it's deterministic, or statistic, no?

I feel that you base your arguments on a flimsy premise:

a) there exists something, which we'll call consciousness, free will, the soul, or whatever.

b) this something is, by definition, pretty special, so special in fact that plain ole science, which can describe entire galaxies, quarks, the arise of man, etc., can't properly describe it (which isn't surprising, actually, as it's not even properly defined yet).

c) I will call this special thing which interacts with the rest of everything, but doesn't follow its laws, "the spirit".

"Cogito ergo sum" doesn't actually prove that there is free will or anything beyond the sum of all my cognitive processes. Just because I think I hear a little voice in my head doesn't mean it's there. (I'm being flippant, but you know what I mean).

It is logically impossible to distinguish whether or not my actions are caused or not (and wouldn't "free" will be part of a causal chain itself?). It might be morally necessary to suppose so, but that don't make it true.

Personally, I feel that consciousness is (to use a buzzword) an "emergent" property of some living systems, and though you can study how it arises (what its "local" laws are), ultimately it can only be grasped at an aggregate, global level. So we are moral, conscious, decision makers, even though this might just be the sum of millions of neurons firing in sync, the same way that a pot of water can be said to boil at an exact temperature, even though it's just a bunch of hydrogen atoms glued to oxygen atoms moving around randomly.
posted by signal at 3:49 PM on October 8, 2004


I think rushmc lays it out pretty clearly but I also think gd779 is making some good points. Both sides are making some assumptions but I want to point out this one in particular:

a) there exists something, which we'll call consciousness, free will, the soul, or whatever.

b) this something is, by definition, pretty special, so special in fact that plain ole science, which can describe entire galaxies, quarks, the arise of man, etc., can't properly describe it (which isn't surprising, actually, as it's not even properly defined yet).


I think the biggest implicit mistake is to throw in consciousness as just another "thing" in the universe. This somehow presupposes some imaginary, external view in which "we" are viewing stars and galaxies and conscious beings. The truth is that consciousness is the big lens through which everything else is seen. there is no "other" view. It is this thing which writes all the rules, defines all the viewpoints and operates on its own inductive principles. I'd argue that that makes it obviously something very special.

Now when we try to turn consciousness onto decrypting the nature of itself, we have kind of an infinite loop. Consciousness, using the rules about how it perceives the universe, is now perceiving itself perceiving that universe and perceiving itself, in turn perceiving....ad infinitum.

All we have are our thoughts and perceptions, ultimately. Luckily we have found that our perceptions follow all sorts of neat understandable rules which allow us to make predictions about these perceptions. I think what gd779 has been trying to say is that consciousness, identity, far from being a "flimsy premise" is the thing itself, the only axiom we have - all the rest - stars and galaxies, are big bundles of rules.
posted by vacapinta at 4:11 PM on October 8, 2004


Now when we try to turn consciousness onto decrypting the nature of itself, we have kind of an infinite loop. Consciousness, using the rules about how it perceives the universe, is now perceiving itself perceiving that universe and perceiving itself, in turn perceiving....ad infinitum.

Though I understand (and don't rule out) this idea, it's always struck me as akin to saying that an eye could never see itself in the mirror, or see another eye on a dissecting table.
posted by signal at 4:16 PM on October 8, 2004


On preview: YES! Vacapinta gets the gold star. That's exactly what I'm trying to say.

Apparently nondeterministic systems can emerge from purely deterministic processes

This is true. Apparently nondeterministic systems can emerge from purely deterministic processes. However, actually nondeterministic systems cannot emerge from purely deterministic processes.

It sounds like you're coming at this from the perspective of the math department rather than the physics department, which is why you're misunderstanding the terms. For example...

most science done today is understood in terms of probabilities; it is decidedly nondeterministic.

Of course it is. That's because there's a difference in the way the universe is generally perceived to be (through disciplines such as biology) and the way the universe is theorized to actually be, at bottom (through the laws of physics). In a purely deterministic universe, there is no randomness as such. What appears to the neurologist to be random (e.g., "interactions with the environment and with other actors, thermal fluctuations affecting the biochemicals in your brain") was actually predestined from the moment of the big bang.

In a purely deterministic universe, if it were possible to completely understand the laws of physics and to observe all the actions at any given moment in time, all the subsequent reactions could be predicted. Therefore, if every variable in the universe could be accounted for and all of their reactions predicted, any state of the universe could be predicted, prior or subsequent to that given point in time, by mapping the physics behind the changes.

So: deterministic systems can never produce non-deterministic results. Moreover, the experience of Free Will implies neither deterministic inevitability nor statistical chance: we appear to exercise actual choice. Absent a revelatory explanation of the physical basis of consciousness, this is absolutely incompatible with a purely material explanation of the universe. You can have choice or you can have mechanism, but you can't have both.

(As an aside: That's exactly what you said! There is a difference between "there must be a soul" and "the evidence is massively incomplete, but based on what we know right know, the most reasonable conclusion is that there is a soul". I said the latter, you keep saying I said the former.)

Your argument seems to boil down to "current science doesn't explain all known phenomena; future science may produce discoveries that allow for a "soul" loophole."

I am perhaps not making myself clear, since you and mr. roboto both seem to think I'm making the Argument from Ignorance. So I will try once more, and I will simplify a bit.

1) Elements of the world are either material or immaterial.
2) The traditional laws of physics, as they are currently understood, state that purely material processes can never result in real choice.
3) Choice exists.
4) Therefore, the immaterial must exist.

Premise 1 is presumably uncontroversial. Most thinking people would agree with premise 3. If you don't like my conclusion, you must disagree with premise 2.

Which is fine, but let's not say I'm making the "argument from ignorance" (which, as I understand it, says that because something has not been disproved, it must be a reasonable belief). I'm just taking the universe as science tells me it is, and drawing conclusions from that.

I'm not wrong in my interpretation of the traditional laws of physics (any professional physicists around? vacapinta, am I wrong in thinking you work as a physicist?). Therefore, if you want to disagree with premise 2, you must believe that science will one day explain away the mystery of consciousness and choice. That sounds an awful lot like faith.

I'm not saying science won't do it; my inclination is to believe that they eventually will. But let's lose the holier-than-thou pretensions of total knowledge, okay? The mechanists are betting on their faith, just like the theists.

My point is simply that, if you take the current laws of physics as a given, a rational person is compelled to believe in a nondeterministic, nonmaterial element of human beings, which we may call the soul if we like. Repeatedly, I have pointed out that the new physics may change this understanding drastically. This would be very weird, but truth is often stranger than fiction.

To be frank, I sense that mr.roboto (and I know that rushmc) is carrying a heavy ideological committment here.

signal: I'm not sure how you're defining "physical" or "non-physical" (or "spiritual").

Here I'm going to give a personal opinion. The four fundamental forces are non-physical in some sense (they cannot be observed directly, but are instead seen only by their effects; there are few proposed mechanisms to account for their effectiveness). I think the key distinction is, and this will come as a shock, choice. Impersonal laws cannot choose; humans choose; therefore, if there is an element of humanity that is not composed of impersonal laws, then it must contain (at a minimum) the ability to make true choices.

"Cogito ergo sum" doesn't actually prove that there is free will or anything beyond the sum of all my cognitive processes.

That is true. You'll note that while I said that Descartes showed this, I also initially said that I was going a bit beyond where Descartes went. I think that his Meditation (which gave us cogito ergo sum) also proves Free Will, because choosing belief over doubt implies choice. I believe, therefore I may choose, you might say. Descartes did not say that, but I think he showed it.

Moreover, the "sum of all my cognitive processes" should probably prevent the existence of qualia. Yet we perceive qualia, just as we perceive that we choose our actions. What can I make of a "scientific" philosophy that denies the most reliable observations a human can make, not because the observations are contradicted by other, more reliable observations, but just because the particular type of observation is a priori out of bounds? Isn't science supposed to be empirical?

It is logically impossible to distinguish whether or not my actions are caused or not (and wouldn't "free" will be part of a causal chain itself?).

It is also logically impossible to prove the effectiveness of causal chains. See Hume. Furthermore, it is logically impossible to prove the existence of physical reality as we perceive it. See Descartes. Many things are logicaly impossible to "prove". But that's not my point.

My point is that when you include "free" will in the causal chain, it shows that you're either not understanding or more likely not taking seriously the concept of free choice. This reflects an underlying philosophical presupposition: you have presupposed a deterministic, materialistic universe where everything can be reduced to the inevitible sequence of cause and effect. And just because you presuppose it, don't make it true. ;-) In order to make this presupposition, you have to deny the most basic knowledge you use to go about your day: you have to deny your ability to actually choose.

"No man can go that far, and I maintain that a perfectly genuine sceptic has never existed. Nature backs up helpless reason and stops it going so wildly astray." -- Pascal, Pensees B 434/K 131
posted by gd779 at 4:26 PM on October 8, 2004


I guess I have no idea what you're trying to get at. We seem to be talking across each other, which is too bad. You should know, though, that science abandoned the idea of "a purely deterministic universe" about 150 years ago. Strict causal determinism died with Laplace.
posted by mr_roboto at 4:36 PM on October 8, 2004


This is true. Apparently nondeterministic systems can emerge from purely deterministic processes. However, actually nondeterministic systems cannot emerge from purely deterministic processes.

OK; one more thing, while we're at it. If this question hangs on matters of perception, why does anything but appearance matter? After all, you yourself write:

So: deterministic systems can never produce non-deterministic results. Moreover, the experience of Free Will implies neither deterministic inevitability nor statistical chance: we appear to exercise actual choice.

There's that tricky word appear again!

Also, I'm thinking there might be an information theory angle on this question (something about the impossibility of obtaining enough information about a complex system to make meaningful deterministic calculations and the relationship of this limitation to the perception of consciousness etc...) but I don't know the field well enough .
posted by mr_roboto at 5:03 PM on October 8, 2004


gd779: I had a long post, which got lost somewhere in the non-physical universe.

To sum it up:

1) Elements of the world are either material or immaterial.
2) The traditional laws of physics, as they are currently understood, state that purely material processes can never result in real choice.
3) Choice exists.
4) Therefore, the immaterial must exist.


Point 1 states the conclusion in point 4 and seems illdefined (what do you mean by "immaterial"?) and is actually quite controversial (not everybody subscribes to a dualistic worldview); point 2's validity depends on how you define "real choice"(I suspect your definition includes the concept "not a result of physical or causal processes", so is again tautological); 3 is a petitio principii.

The four fundamental forces are non-physical in some sense (they cannot be observed directly, but are instead seen only by their effects;)

Everything would be non-physical by this definition, as all we perceive are effects (i.a.: the molecular composition of a surface causes it to absorb some wavelengths of light, which stimulate my molecules in the photoreceptros in my eye, which stimulate... etc., causing me to see a color.)


In a purely deterministic universe, if it were possible to completely understand the laws of physics and to observe all the actions at any given moment in time, all the subsequent reactions could be predicted. Therefore, if every variable in the universe could be accounted for and all of their reactions predicted, any state of the universe could be predicted, prior or subsequent to that given point in time, by mapping the physics behind the changes.


This is not the position of most modern physicists (but is also certainly not a settled issue). Look up the Copenhagen Interpretation. Basically it says that God rolls dice.

Can you give me your definition of "free will" or "real choice"?
posted by signal at 5:21 PM on October 8, 2004


Yes, definately.
posted by shepd at 7:25 PM on October 8, 2004


For some death is the end, for others another beginning. It's all in your personal outlook, IMHO.

Science notwhithstanding, how ya gonna prove it or disprove it?
posted by kamylyon at 11:15 PM on October 8, 2004


kamylyon, yeah, I can think of it that way.

Death is the beginning of your lack of existence -- full stop. The end of your lack of existence is when the universe collapses on itself.
posted by shepd at 11:33 PM on October 8, 2004


I'm still curious as to what ssf hoped to get out of this question.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 7:36 AM on October 9, 2004


science abandoned the idea of "a purely deterministic universe" about 150 years ago. Strict causal determinism died with Laplace.

That's because it's slowly being replaced by Quantum Mechanics, which isn't yet understood and which I'm classifying as the next generation of science. Besides, I drew a stark picture of pure casual determinism in order to help you understand the meaning of the word through contrast. You'll notice that I also pointed out that whether the universe is strictly determinative, or whether it relies on some kind of statistical chance, the point is the same: if the universe is materialistic (that is, if it is merely the result of particles acting through impersonal, regular laws), then according to everything science knows, you can't have choice, consciousness or qualia. So it turns out to be a distinction without a difference.

If this question hangs on matters of perception, why does anything but appearance matter?

In the two sections you quote, I'm using the word "appear" in two different ways. When I say that a system can be "apparently" nondeterministic, I mean that it looks nondeterministic at first, but on closer inspection we can tell that it is not actually nondeterministic. In the section quote, when I say that we "appear" to exercise choice, I mean that we have observed ourselves actually choosing. Obviously, closer observation could someday supplant that interpretation (as it could any interpretation we currently hold). But the best evidence, right not, is that we do actually choose. And observation, I will point out once again, is the basis of the scientific method, and you have presented no grounds for disregarding this observation.

signal, I don't think you understand the syllogism. Point 1 doesn't imply the existence of the immaterial, it simply states that if something is not material, it is by definition immaterial. You really want to dispute that? With respect to point two, I think you're misunderstanding the meaning of the word "tautology". A tautology is a restatement of an argument in different terms. A word's definition is necessarily tautological to the word being defines, except that defining a word isn't generally making an argument. And since point three relies (and I have exhaustingly explained) on direct observation - more than that, it relies on a form of direct observation that can be shown to produce the most reliable knowledge we can attain - then if I am engaging in circular reasoning, you still have a problem. (Arguably, you have a bigger problem, because you've just granted the conclusion all the strength of that one premise). But I'm not doing circular reasoning, and I frankly am very confused as to why you would think I was.

I really don't know why I'm continuing this conversation. You all have your worldviews, and no amount of careful, technical reasoning will convince you to abandon them. It's just not human nature.

Everything would be non-physical by this definition, as all we perceive are effects

Yeah, I didn't write that clearly. I wasn't saying that the fundamental forces were non-physical, I was saying that the inability to detect something, the inability to see it or touch it or capture it or even understand it, doesn't make it immaterial. No, the key difference is choice, which I can attempt to define for you since you asked. But it's kind of like attempting to define the word "green" - you can describe wavelengths of light, but that only gets at half of the definition. The other half must be experienced, because we have no other words for it. Similarly, choice can sort-of be described, but it is mostly experienced. (And if you've ever done serious mind-altering drugs that took away your ability to choose, you'll understand the definition even more distinctly).

I define choice in contrast to impersonal material laws, which follow predictable mechanical or statistical rules. Choice, therefore, is the indeterminate application of Consciousness and the Will. It is the idea that human behavior, unlike the rest of the universe, cannot be reduced to mechanical rules. (It can be described by statistics, obviously, but anything can be described by statistics - the difference lies in why the outcome is what it is. Particles do what they do because the rules tell them to. People do what they do because they choose to, with their possible choices being circumscribed and influenced, but not entirely controlled, by the rules of nature).
posted by gd779 at 9:06 AM on October 9, 2004


To clarify, I'm trying to point out that indeterminacy alone isn't enough to have choice. Indeterminacy may be the objective gateway which permits choice, but choice requires consciousness and the will. I know that won't make objective sense to you. At least, it won't make sense until you're willing to consult your own subjectivity and make observations about why and how you make the decisions you make. But you (the impersonal you) will not do that, because some people have (bizarrely, as I have tried to argue) determined that all subjective evidence (even if shared and verified by every human on the planet) is inadmissible evidence.

They've gotten so good at seeing the world that they've forgotten they're looking through a lens, and this results in a philosophy which distorts their view, and makes their science unempirical, and therefore unscientific.
posted by gd779 at 9:13 AM on October 9, 2004 [1 favorite]


when I say that we "appear" to exercise choice, I mean that we have observed ourselves actually choosing.

I'm still amazed that people still accept this as a certainty.
posted by majcher at 1:25 PM on October 9, 2004


That's because it's slowly being replaced by Quantum Mechanics, which isn't yet understood and which I'm classifying as the next generation of science. Besides, I drew a stark picture of pure casual determinism in order to help you understand the meaning of the word through contrast...

No. Your philosophy background must be primarily from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, because your conception of the scientific worldview is seriously out-of-date. And I'm not just talking about modern physics (including quantum mechanics, which is very well understood). In the mid-to-late nineteenth century, the deterministic worldview was replaced by a probabalistic, stochastic worldview. While regular, impersonal rules continue to govern the interaction of entities, there is an underlying randomness to the nature of the universe that makes determinism a lost fantasy. Without determinism, there is no challenge to free will. You can keep insisting that a stochastic worldview is fundamentally the same, but it simply isn't.

When I say that a system can be "apparently" nondeterministic, I mean that it looks nondeterministic at first, but on closer inspection we can tell that it is not actually nondeterministic.

Except we can't. That's why people are so interested in complex systems: no matter how closely we inspect them, we can not distinguish them from stochastic systems. That's the entire point.
posted by mr_roboto at 1:59 PM on October 9, 2004


I really don't know why I'm continuing this conversation.

I'm glad you are. Your comments are wonderful to read.
posted by erebora at 2:01 PM on October 9, 2004


We behave in unpredictable ways, complex ways that seem to have no cause other than "choice." This could be because we have free will. Or, this could be a "chaos" effect -- simple rules yielding complex, unpredictable outcomes that are still quite deterministic.

The free will option, though attractive, brings up a score of unanswered questions. We never see anything else like free will. On the other hand, we see tons of examples of chaotic systems (weather, stock market, alife, etc.). So Occam's Razor should prompt us to veer towards that explanation.

On an anecdotal level, I do FEEL like I have free will, but I when I think about it, I can give a causal reason for most of my choices. Why did I pick pizza for dinner tonight instead of chicken? It felt like I COULD have picked either one (which means I can't see anything that forced me not to pick chicken). But I had a bad day, and on bad days I tend to eat comfort food. Why did I pick the red coffee mug instead of the orange one? I like red better (probably because of some childhood association).

The overwhelming FEELING of free will should make one pause, but it's not very helpful. We FEEL all sorts of things that aren't true.

REAL free choice is uncaused (nothing caused the choice, which is what makes it free -- if it had a cause, it would be determined by that cause). To say something uncaused exists is an extraordinary claim. If you're going to make it, why stop there. Why not claim all sorts of other things are uncaused? A universe filled with magic.

I realize that one can't prove causality at all. But assuming it has proven extremely useful. Assuming causation lets us do science. If you reject it, you'd be wise to steer clear of any of science's fruits. Don't walk on a sidewalk; you might fall through.
posted by grumblebee at 2:30 PM on October 9, 2004


your conception of the scientific worldview is seriously out-of-date. And I'm not just talking about modern physics (including quantum mechanics, which is very well understood)

Quantum mechanics is very well understood? You mean someone verifiably reconciled general relativity with QM and didn't tell me?

QM, like much of emerging science, is somewhat useful at the practical level, but at the foundational level we're still facing a lot of inconsistencies and unexplained phenomenon. Or am I wrong?

Without determinism, there is no challenge to free will.

Really? Then please explain to me how my decisions can be simultaneously the result of regular, impersonal rules and the result of personal, conscious choice. For that matter, please explain to me how impersonal laws can result in personal consciousness itself. For extra credit, please explain how the wavelengths of light we call green actually appear to us as "green", the color, when the subjective idea of "color" doesn't exist in physics.

When those explanations can be given in detail and verified, then it can be said that the reductionist, materialist worldview poses no challenge to free will. (Or, more precisely, it can be said that the materialist worldview will have overcome free will). But those explanations cannot currently be given with any confidence. Your belief that science will eventually find answers to those questions is essentially an appeal to the Argument from Ignorance. It's "God of the Gaps" with Science in the place of God.

(Which, again, does not make it wrong or bad. It simply makes it an unproven belief, which you might call "faith").

In the meantime, it should be prima facia obvious that there is a fundamental chasm between impersonal laws and personal subjectivity. Our subjective experiences of consciousness, free will, and the color green simply aren't consistent (at first glance) with a universe ruled by unconscious particles interacting under impersonal laws (either deterministic or probabilistic).

That's why people are so interested in complex systems: no matter how closely we inspect them, we can not distinguish them from stochastic systems.

We can't distinguish them from the outside. In theory, I might not be able to know whether you are the result of impersonal laws or personal choice, because impersonal laws could conceivably result in actions that look like personal choice. But I can, and in fact do, know* that I exercise personal choice. Again, your problem is that you are refusing (for unarticulated reasons) to even consider the subjective experience as valid evidence. Is it unassailable proof? Of course not. But it is a valid data point, and any theory must account for it somehow.

* I can know this in the same sense that I can "know" an apple is solid. I see it, it looks solid, and I feel it and it feels solid. Of course, an apple isn't really "solid" in the sense that it seems at first, but we only know that because technology and science, driven by a desire to explain inconsistent observations, has allowed us to see further than before. But what would you have said to Newton, if he went about claiming (without proof or a explanatory theory) that the apple which had fallen on his head wasn't really completely solid?

On an anecdotal level, I do FEEL like I have free will, but I when I think about it, I can give a causal reason for most of my choices. Why did I pick pizza for dinner tonight instead of chicken? It felt like I COULD have picked either one (which means I can't see anything that forced me not to pick chicken). But I had a bad day, and on bad days I tend to eat comfort food.

grumblebee: That's not a causal explanation, in the physics sense of the word. "Desire" is an unquantifiable emotion, with no place in physics. To go up a level, it's not even a causal explanation from a neurological point of view. Until we can provide, at some level, a detailed and verifiable account of all human behavior, then the reductionist worldview will remain unproven. And, again, such an account wouldn't allow us to say you "wanted" the pizza in any except a metaphorical sense. My car needs gas, but it doesn't "want" it. That's what makes a human different from a machine. Which brings me to your next (and, I think, fundamental) point:

The overwhelming FEELING of free will should make one pause, but it's not very helpful. We FEEL all sorts of things that aren't true.

This is true, but unlike my feeling of, say, morality, my perception of free will is shared by every human being on the planet. If we're all in the same room, we all see the same table, and we all feel the same freedom of will. Our experience of free will is verified by the experiences of others.

Similarly, when I go to sleep I frequently dream, and when I dream I SEE all sorts of things that aren't true. So our visual perception is generally consistent, but not always (I dream or take mind-altering drugs), which should make us doubt it a little. By contrast, our feeling of free will is also generally consistent, but not always (we can take certain mind-altering drugs). How can you distinguish the two sorts of observations? Isn't everything we perceive, at bottom, just a "feeling" in our brain?

To say something uncaused exists is an extraordinary claim. If you're going to make it, why stop there. Why not claim all sorts of other things are uncaused? A universe filled with magic.

The universe is filled with magic. What would you call the fundamental forces? We can't see them, or touch them, or figure out how they work. But every day, I get up and don't float off into space. And the nuclei in my body don't break apart, and my body doesn't collapse into the nothingness it mostly is. It's like an invisible hand that holds everything into its proper places. Sounds like magic to me.

But, again, what separates my belief in free will from unbridled mysticism is that my beliefs are based in observation, confirmed (as much as possible) by reason, and open to revision upon receiving further evidence. Mysticism is what you should fight against in order to preserve the gains of science. I hate mysticism as much as you do, possibly more. This isn't that.

I'm glad you are. Your comments are wonderful to read.

Thank you, erebora.
posted by gd779 at 3:32 PM on October 9, 2004


1) Elements of the world are either material or immaterial.

2) The traditional laws of physics, as they are currently understood, state that purely material processes can never result in real choice.

3) Choice exists.

4) Therefore, the immaterial must exist.


I think I would dispute the implied definitions of and assumptions about both "immaterial" and "choice," neither of which I think exist as you posit them.
posted by rushmc at 10:45 PM on October 9, 2004


My sloppy pizza example was meant to be metaphorical. I was trying to save time and words.

But you're right, a car doesn't WANT gas. I suspect there's a part of us that doesn't want pizza. Instead, we reach for pizza, pick it up, put it in our mouths and swallow it. "Wanting it" is how we describe the feelings that we have while we're performing these actions.

We're far from a 100% description of how the mind/brain works, but we are gradually building up a picture. It sometimes helps to think about really simple organisms, rather than people.

Cars, as you've said, don't have free will. Neither do simple insects. They are basically machines that are pretty well understood. Poke them and they predictably act one way; put food in front of them and the pradicatably act another way.

I suspect that humans are the same, but on a vastly more complex scale. And this is more than just a hunch. It's supported by what we DO know about SOME mind functions that have been deeply studied. It's supported by the lack of specific functions that brain damaged people have.

One of the things that makes the human "system" so complicated is that we have memory. So if you and I are both hungry, and you place a pickle in front of us, you might eat it but I won't. I have different associations with pickles than you do, based on my life experiences.

But hunger is pretty well understood. The human machine needs energy to continue, so it seeks out food. There are many different foods available, so it seeks out a specific food. Why? I think there are easier explanations than free will. Food A is closer (or easier to prepare) than food B. Food A is associated with certain memories. Food A is caught up in the vast part of our brain that processes social information (i.e. The hostess spent a long time preparing Food A, so we'll feel bad if we don't eat it).

All these forces, when combined together, produce a complex, unpredictable result. It's hard (often impossible) for supercomputers to predict results of complex systems, so we should expect the human mind to have trouble predicting them too. Instead, we have the feeling of free will.

I'm not positive or dogmatic about any of this stuff. But it seems a lot likelier to me than the brain being about to manipulate itself without any prior cause.
posted by grumblebee at 7:25 AM on October 10, 2004


it seems a lot likelier to me than the brain being about to manipulate itself without any prior cause

I can understand the difficulty in accepting the possibility of an uncaused cause. It seems so contrary to our experience. But such a thing has to exist, doesn't it? If not, where did the universe come from? Either the universe had an uncaused cause, or it is eternal, which is just as incredible.
posted by gd779 at 11:32 AM on October 10, 2004


If not, where did the universe come from? Either the universe had an uncaused cause, or it is eternal, which is just as incredible.

Any more incredible than an uncaused cause (especially since the going theory by most people is that the uncaused cause is eternal and the effect of the cause is an extention of the cause)?
posted by jmd82 at 12:21 AM on October 11, 2004


For that matter, please explain to me how impersonal laws can result in personal consciousness itself. For extra credit, please explain how the wavelengths of light we call green actually appear to us as "green", the color, when the subjective idea of "color" doesn't exist in physics.

If you're interested in one take on these questions, I'd strongly recommend Dennett's Consciousness Explained. The title overstates what Dennett has done in the book--it's certainly not a complete answer to the questions you pose, but it's a strong start in showing that a materialistic explanation of consciousness is possible--frankly, a better argument than I would have thought possible before reading the book.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 10:11 AM on October 11, 2004


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