Friday, October 26, 2018

Will it end? [In which I have breakfast with John Horgan]

Taking a selfie with a book on
your face is more difficult than
you may think.
I had breakfast with John The-End-Of-Science-Horgan two weeks ago, and I’m beginning to think it was a mistake.

I had backed out from an after-lecture-dinner two days earlier for which I felt guilty already, so I may have forgotten to mention I actually don’t eat breakfast. To make matters worse, I arrived late that morning because once I stepped into the shower, I noticed there were no towels in the hotel room. And when I had finally managed to dry my hair and find the place, I had to prevent an excited New Jersey taxi driver from having John pay my bill. Then we watched the taxi-man write down my credit card information in sloth-motion.

To celebrate this shitty start into the day, I ordered a coffee, just to learn that John doesn’t drink coffee. Which I should have known because he wrote about his coffee-fast on his blog. Evidently, I didn’t read this. Or maybe I did but immediately forgot about it. Either way, I’m a bad person. Even more so because John promptly also ordered a coffee. Caffeine-free, but still, now I had become somebody’s bad influence. And caffeine-free coffee, I hope y’all know, isn’t actually caffeine-free.

Luckily, the morning improved thereafter. John turned out to be a really nice guy who will cheerfully explain why science is over, which reminds me of the time I accidentally sprinkled herbal salt on a strawberry-jam sandwich. Indeed, he turned out to be so nice that now I was feeling guilty for spending Saturday morning with a nice guy somewhere in New Jersey while my husband watched the kids 4000 miles to the East.

If that makes you think my brain is a pretty fucked-up place, it gets worse from here on. That’s because to work off all that guilt, I did what you do to make authors happy: you go buy their books. So, once back in Germany, I went and bought “The End of Science,” 2015 edition. It was not a good idea.

Horgan’s book “The End of Science” was originally published 1996. I never read it because after attempting to read Stuart Kauffman’s 1995 book “At Home In the Universe” I didn’t touch a popular science book for a decade. This had very little to do with Kauffman (who I’d meet many years later) and very much to do with a basic malfunction of my central processing unit. Asked to cope with large amounts of complex, new information, part of my brain will wave bye-bye and go fishing. The result is a memory blackout.

I started having this in my early 20s, as I was working on my bachelor’s degree. At the time I was living in Frankfurt where I shared an apartment with another student. As most students, I spent my days reading. Then one day I found myself in a street somewhere in the city center without any clue how I had gotten there. This happened again a few weeks later. Interestingly enough, in both cases I was looking at my own reflection in a window when my memory came back.

It’s known as dissociative fugue, and not entirely uncommon. According to estimates, it affects about one or two in a thousand people at least once in their life. The actual number may be higher because it can be hard to tell if you even had a fugue. If you stay in one place, the only thing you may notice is that the day seems rather short.

These incidents piled up for a while. Aside from sudden wake-ups in places I had no recollection of visiting, I was generally confused about what I had or had not done. Sometimes I’d go to take a shower only to find my towel wet and conclude I probably had already taken one earlier. Sometimes I’d stand in the stair case with my running shoes, not knowing whether I was just about to go running or had just come back. I made sure to eat at fixed times to not entirely screw up my calorie intake.

Every once in a while I would meet someone I know or answer the phone while my stupid brain wasn’t taking records. For what I’ve been told, I’m not any weirder off-the-record than on-the-record. So not like I have multiple personalities. I just sometimes don’t recall what I do.

The biggest problem with dissociative fugue isn’t the amnesia. The biggest problem is that you begin to doubt your own ability to reconstruct reality. I suspect the major reason I’m not a realist and have the occasional lapse into solipsism is that I know reality is fragile. A few wacky neurons are all it takes to screw it up.

What has any of this to do with Horgan? Nothing, really, but it’s why I didn’t read his book when it came out. And then, when I met John, he unwittingly reminded me of times I’d rather have entirely forgotten.

Back then I took records of my episodes. It looked like it was primarily popular science books that would bring them on, so I stopped reading those. This indeed mostly solved the problem. That and some pills and a few years of psychotherapy. I can only guess why I never had issues with textbooks, maybe because those tend to be rather narrowly focused.

In any case, for ten years the only thing I read besides textbooks was cheap novels, notably Dean Koontz, whose writing is so repetitive and shallow that I have blissfully forgotten what those books were about. Then, in late 2005 Lee Smolin handed me a draft of his book “The Trouble With Physics” which would appear the following year. And what was I supposed to tell him? So I read Lee’s book. My memory lapses came back with a few months delay, but they were nowhere near as disruptive as earlier. And so, thanks to Lee, I slowly returned to reading popular science books.

With the self-insight that age brings, I’ve noticed my mental health issues are strongly stress-related. I’ve also learned to tell first signs of trouble. The past months I’ve worked too much, traveled too much, and said “yes” too often. It took me two weeks to make my way through the first 50 pages of Horgan’s book. It’s not going well. And so I think for now I better go back to reading Chad Orzel’s new book “Breakfast With Einstein.” Because that’s an easy read about things I know already. I’m sorry, John. Don’t take it personally.

Having said this, I thought it would be good to write down some thoughts about the supposed end of science before reviewing Horgan’s book (should I ever manage to finish it). But first let me show you an advertisement:


I don’t particular like American comedy (neither the intended nor the unintended kind) because I tend to find it unfunny. But this guy with his blender makes me laugh every time. Not sure why, maybe it’s his glassy stare.

In case you’ve never encountered these videos before, it seems to be an advert series featuring an old white guy shredding electronics with his awesome blender. “Will it blend?” he asks and infallibly ends up with a pile of grey dust.

I now picture Horgan stuffing science in his blender, pushing the button asking “Will it end?” This thought-experiment teaches us that science will end as infallibly as the Amazon Echo will blend. Because everything will end. You, and I, and John Horgan, and, yes, even Donald Trump’s complaints about the evil media. Entropy increase will get us all, eventually.

So, yeah, science will end.

But that’s not the interesting question. The interesting question is whether it’s ending right now. On the death bed, flatlining as we speak.

As most scientists, I am willing to argue the opposite, though not because I see all that much progress. On the opposite, it’s because I see so little progress. Scientific research today works extremely inefficiently because scientists waste time and money chasing after well-cited publications in high-impact journals. This inefficiency is problematic, frustrating, infuriating even. But it implies that science has untapped potential.

Whether making science more efficient is possible and whether it would actually make a difference I don’t know. I’ll see what John has to say about that. Which I should have done before I wrote my book.

I’m a bad person. And I promise I’ll read his book, eventually.

130 comments:

John Anderson said...

Sounds similar to a problem that fighter pilots have when overloaded with signals from instrument displays and audible information throught the radio. One pilot never heard his wing man say that an enemy aircraft was on his tail. Trying to process too much. When possible, take an afternoon nap.

JimV said...

"I suspect the major reason I’m not a realist and have the occasional lapse into solipsism is that I know reality is fragile. A few wacky neurons are all it takes to screw it up."

That surprised me because I reached a different conclusion from a similar result. Many years ago I saw a pickup truck parked in a small lot between back alleys behind a department store. The lot was bounded by a single chain strung between blocks of wood. I think they were railroad ties, sunk vertically into concrete to over half their length. The truck was parked halfway out of the entrance/exit, facing out, with its right side next to one of the ties, almost touching. The driver started the truck to leave, and tried to make an immediate right turn into an alley. Up high in his truck he couldn't see the tie. The truck would not move right, blocked by the tie. The driver gunned his motor and with a loud "sprang!" the right-side door of the truck caved in and gave enough clearance for the truck to drive away.

The driver forgot the tie was there, but the universe didn't. The tie and the universe were real, despite what the driver's neurons thought.

Thanks for the post. I've always thought a book of your essays and general observations would be a good seller (with me, anyway).

Tanner said...

Interesting how relative humor is to the individual. I always thought German humor was remarkably unfunny, especially when compared to the Anglican variety.

naivetheorist said...

bee:

nice column.

maybe you should make some videos where you put pop science books into the blender and see what happens. in fact, you could put in several such books together and they would probably make as much, or as little, sense as they do individually. In fact, all of the articles i've ever read by physicists on consciousness or free will would not lose any coherence if they were read AFTER they have been blended.

btw - i hope you're planning on taking a vacation after you book 'tour'. it must be exhausting.

naive theorist

Sabine Hossenfelder said...

naivetheorist,

Haha, now I am super tempted to get one of those blenders and see what it'll do to Greene's Elegant Universe!

Uncle Al said...


dissociative fugue ( in a pill! Ambien (Zolpidem)). Optical migraines are a lightshow and a lesson in diffusion. Stress causes both. It is better to give than to receive. doubt your own ability to reconstruct reality, formalized and incessantly broadcast as Lügenpresse. Be your own cause.

Theory will publish something and offend somebody, thus zero-risk and assured citations – fundable! Experiment can fail. View any Frank Gehry edifice, do it the other way. When up to your chin in a lake of boiling blood, consider the shoulders upon which you are standing.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6RLHPaZUuyc

Matthew Rapaport said...

Good point. I've always thought that "scientific antirealism was a bit of an oxymoron. The whole point of methodological naturalism is to get those pesky neurons out of the picture

Steven Kurtz said...

I had a couple of interactions with Horgan during the past five years or so. They pertained to bio-physical limits on a finite planet, with radiation the main input into a largely closed system. He was hard headed, and a techno-optimist. But...he plays ice hockey, so he's ok. ;-)

Bill Benzon said...

Loved this! I published an essay review of The End of Science some years ago. The title is "Pursued by Knowledge in a Fecund Universe". Here's the abstract:

In The End of Science John Horgan, himself a devotee of science, argues that the stock of fundamental scientific truths is limited and that we have discovered most of them. What has come to an end, I argue, is a certain view of the world which sees reality as reducible to simple laws about simple systems underpinning the superficial complexity of phenomenal experience. On the contrary, reality is fundamentally complex and reductionism is doomed. The universe is fecund in that it has evolved multiple Realms of Being, with the later ones being implemented in the former.

Download at SSRN, https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1938347
Download at Academia.edu, https://www.academia.edu/8790205/Pursued_by_Knowledge_in_a_Fecund_Universe

Perhaps you should try some peppermint schnaps or some Earl Grey tea?

sean s. said...

... I know reality is fragile. A few wacky neurons are all it takes to screw it up.

Well, actually reality is quite robust. All it takes are a few wacky neurons to screw up our grasp on reality, but reality itself is quite stable. It is what it is.

Science will not end as long as there are curious children who grow up to be curious adults. Fear not.

sean s.

Bill said...

Didn't some German composer guy invent the fugue?! Seriously, having read your book and your blog I'm still fuming over how a native German speaker can write better than I can.

Theophanes Raptis said...

There are no "bad persons" - because nature already knows such relentlessnes that would make any person to step backwards. There can be though, misled persons - on the true essence of Nature as well as the true nature of themselves, something inconceivable outside of the hardship and the strain of a fearless existence amidst a totally indifferent universe. There was a deep reason after all for Nietzsche's once call towards a "gay science"...

Lawrence Crowell said...

Will science end? Yeah sure, as George Harrison put it, "All things must pass." If nothing else our species may be gone before terribly long, and without humans there is no science.

Physics might come to an understanding of the foundations up to some limit that we can observe or even think. Either that or it may fizzle out in a great muddle of quibbles. The subject might become in time more of a "service science" by fusing with other sciences such as biophysics.

It would not surprise me if science in time loses the importance it has held as the leading world view. It is entirely possible our descendants may be devoted to regreening this planet in the wake of our making a mess of everything. Science might not be so highly regarded in such a future. The middle ages are sometimes called the age of faith, and that has receded, and it is not impossible the same will happen with science.

@ Al, I get the optical migraines about once a year. About three years ago I had one that blinded me utterly as I could see nothing but a mandala of patterns and colors.

deepak said...

Nice column. Never realised they popular science books could be so dangerous for your health. Maybe they should come with a statutory warning.

On a different note, its funny that you don't find American humour funny. As far as German humour is concerned all I'm familiar with is "Didi's", but otherwise never really thought of Germans as being into humour. Maybe your humour is of the strong, silent type ...

Sabine Hossenfelder said...

If it's of any comfort for those of you who are offended that Americans don't make me laugh, I also find German comedy unfunny. And since you now want to know just what I think is funny: This is the most hilarious video I can think of.

Unknown said...

Ever since the world ended
There's no more black or white
Ever since we all got blended
There's no more reason to fuss and fight
Dogmas that we once defended
No longer seem worthwhile
Ever since the world ended
I face the future
With a smile

Mose Allison

AndreasWinsnes said...

Hope the text was not meta-ironic (though it was funny to read it as meta-irony). Remember great minds like Dirac, Gödel, John Nash, Boltzmann, Oppenheimer, Cardano, Pauli, etc.

Besides, being normal is apparently rather abnormal:

https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/mental-illness-is-far-more-common-than-we-knew/

It's still progress if 100-500 years pass between each major new discovery in physics, but if it takes over $10 billion dollars to conduct experiments that discover/confirm something really surprising or revolutionary in the future, then one can argue that John Horgan has kind of won the argument already, kind of...

Bruce Rout said...

Great read. Thank you. Please take care. I'm a Canadian. We don't have a sense of humour. It is very tragic.

jamjam said...

You might have good reason to be comedy-resistant:

Let's hear the bad news first. Laughter, according to various researchers, can lead to syncope (fainting), arrhythmia, and cardiac rupture. In asthmatics, laughing can trigger an attack. Laughing can even cause pneumothorax, a collapsed lung. People with cataplexy, a rare condition tied to narcolepsy, may suddenly lose all their muscle strength and collapse during a fit of laughter. ...

(http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/inkfish/2014/08/29/laughter-ok-medicine-unless-kills/#.W9Sq6etHaK0)

Anthony Verbalis said...

Well, maybe the end of physics. But maybe not.

I find it kind of hard to think it's the end of science when we have a Svante Paabo reconstructing a complete Neanderthal genome from DNA fragments. Or is that not science?

Or take medical research. I probably would not be around today if not for that.

And even if it is the end of science, would it not be a good thing if we could use it in a way that would solve more problems than it creates? Thinking about multiverses about which we can never know anything really doesn't help achieve that goal. Except maybe if it keeps some physicists from working on something really dangerous in this Universe.

Michael John Sarnowski said...

I think my head would explode if all that went through it all the time.

David Schroeder said...

That dissociative fugue is a rather alarming condition. It's as if the person loses awareness of their surroundings. Perhaps it has a genetic basis.

Only once did I ever lose consciousness while not in a sleep state. I used to pack my bicycle in my VW Beetle by removing the front wheel and placing the rear end of the bike in the back seat, while the front fork and handlebars rested upside down on the front passenger seat. While visiting my brother and his wife I leaned into the car from the drivers side, forgetting the bike was there, and impacted the side of my forehead very hard against the exposed forks.

Everything went black and I had no sensory input. Somehow the autonomic nervous system kept functioning, as my brother said I was wandering aimlessly around the steep driveway with a blank expression. When consciousness returned I became aware of blood streaming down my face from the forehead wound. My brother immediately drove me to a clinic to get stitched up.

Peter Shor said...

I've read The End of Science and found it very entertaining (although I disagreed with many of Horgan's points).

But let me try to give you some advice to try to help preserve your sanity.

If I remember correctly, after the first two chapters, which serve as an introduction to the book as a whole, all of the chapters stand on your own, and are more or less independent. So there's no real reason to try to read it all at once — you can wait until your mental processes have recovered from one chapter before starting the next.

Uncle Al said...

@Bee - Comedy, by an ex-pat Harvard mathematician,

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6fFnJNC0K0w
... But first...

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QL6KgbrGSKQ
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bH1e8uZzTaY
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hoEVPt
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HxNUKUzx_K0Vk9nE
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HxNUKUzx_K0

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eC7zESDfGTA
...very naughty

Euphonium said...

funnier still...
https://www.youtube.com/watch?annotation_id=annotation_800801&feature=iv&src_vid=JzZAjIx_yac&v=67IqeB0JLs4

Greg Feild said...

Don't be the last to know!
🙂

Phillip Helbig said...

The past months I’ve worked too much, traveled too much, and said “yes” too often.

More to come:

"The years between fifty and seventy are the hardest. You are always being
asked to do things, and yet you are not decrepit enough to turn them down."

---T. S. Eliot

Phillip Helbig said...

"If it's of any comfort for those of you who are offended that Americans don't make me laugh, I also find German comedy unfunny."

Fawlty Towers is funny. Black Adder is funny, especially the Elizabethan episodes. (They must be watched in the original language, though; the German versions are even worse than most dubbed stuff, which is pretty bad already.)

David Schroeder said...

Perhaps all is not lost. Something has appeared on the far horizon of the LHC data, that might not be a mirage, though it's borderline. Here's an analysis by Tommaso Dorigo:

https://www.science20.com/tommaso_dorigo/how_to_interact_with_dark_matter-234902

Anthony Verbalis said...

Well, I do like the blender videos. So, once again, reading your blog is entertaining and even sometimes educational for this former (long ago) physics grad student.

But I want to address your "occasional lapses into solipsism". I too have considered having these, but there is one type of experience which keeps me from it. For example, sometimes I forget that something is not plugged in, and am totally surprised when I press the button and nothing happens. My mind, both the conscious and unconscious parts, are totally convinced that the (blender, for example) device is going to spring to life, but nothing happens. I don't see how this could happen if my mind is controlling everything.

So yes, there is a real external world. You're welcome.

Sabine Hossenfelder said...

Anthony,

That your mind is everything doesn't imply that your mind controls everything.

sean s. said...

"That your mind is everything doesn't imply that your mind controls everything."

Actually, it does. If your mind is everything then there is nothing else. Certainly there would be nothing else to control anything.

sean s.

Sabine Hossenfelder said...

Sean,

Nothing controls anything. Things are as they are and that's that.

sean s. said...

Bee;

Ah, so those words you just posted, they just appeared of their own accord?
You didn't choose them?

And gravity does not control the shape of large masses?
Spherical is merely very popular?

; )

I suspect we are using the word "control" differently.

sean s.

sean s. said...

Anthony;

Your comment reminded me of a debate I had in the '90s with some philosopher from New Mexico; he was advocating for solipsism.

My argument was that three things make solipsism untenable: annoyance, frustration, and surprise: things that happen that we don't want, things that don't happen that we do want, and unexpected happenings.

If the mind is everything, then annoyance, frustration, and surprise cannot happen. But, to our annoyance, frustration, and surprise: they do.

sean s.

Denis Boers said...

Sabine,

I've been wondering for a long time now how you reconcile your conviction that there is no free will with your personal experience of agency ? I don't intend to start a debate, am just curious.

Sabine Hossenfelder said...

Sean,

We may well be using the word "control" differently, but either way you define it you will notice that your supposed objection does not hold water. The world is what it is and whether what you refer to as "you" can change anything about it is irrelevant for the question whether it's real.

Sabine Hossenfelder said...

Denis,

It doesn't matter whether you have free will or not, you still make decisions. You have to; you cannot not make decisions. You are processing information that you receive and you act on it. This has nothing to do with free will, but it's agency. (Pretty much what "agents" do in computer simulations.)

sean s. said...

Bee: “We may well be using the word ‘control’ differently, but either way you define it you will notice that your supposed objection does not hold water. The world is what it is and whether what you refer to as ‘you’ can change anything about it is irrelevant for the question whether it's real.” (emphasis added)

I completely agree with that emphasized sentence: the world is what it is and whether what we refer to as “us” can change anything about it is irrelevant for the question whether it's real. That is exactly correct.

But I was trying to make a different point (and obviously failed).

Let me try again:

You wrote to Anthony: “That your mind is everything doesn't imply that your mind controls everything.

And you wrote to Denis: “It doesn't matter whether you have free will or not, you still make decisions. You have to; you cannot not make decisions. You are processing information that you receive and you act on it. This has nothing to do with free will, but it's agency. ... ” (emphasis added)

If your mind is everything, then there is nothing apart from your mind.

If your mind makes decisions, if it possesses “agency” then your mind is making decisions that are acted on.

Can there be decisions that are not acted on? Only if they are overruled by yet other decisions that are acted on. So in the end, if your mind makes decisions, then those decisions are acted on. These actions effect control on things.

So: if your mind is everything, then there is nothing apart from your mind. Decisions made by your mind are acted on by your mind, effecting control on whatever your mind makes decisions about.

If your mind is everything then everything your mind controls is itself, which means it is controlling everything.

To me: “Nothing controls anything. Things are as they are and that's that.

If that is the case, then your mind cannot act as an agent. Agency implies control; agency is an aspect of executive function.

Could there be parts of the mind outside the control of the mind? If the mind is everything, then no. There’d be nothing to impede the mind from controlling itself entirely. If there is a part of the mind outside the mind’s control, then there must be something to reality outside the mind limiting the mind’s decisions and actions.

I am not arguing here for Free Will, nor that everything can be controlled.

I am arguing that believing that the mind is everything is incoherent. It’s an idea we may entertain from time to time, but at the end of the entertainment, we need to send that idea packing and go on with real life which is not merely in our mind.

sean s.

Anthony Verbalis said...

Sean S.;

Interesting argument. Having experienced (frequently) frustration and annoyance, I must admit that those two never seem to impress me as an argument for an external world. Surprise, however, does.

I am searching for a reason why. Perhaps the solipsist in me thinks that the world that I create has no obligation of being an ideal world. Perhaps I am a "bad person" (much as Sabine describes herself, unconvincingly, a "bad person"). If so, I would expect to be frustrated and annoyed at times, the result of my inadequate mental creation of my universe.

That difficulty does not account for surprise. With surprise, the Universe reminds you that it is still really there, regardless of your inadequacies and expectations. And that my genuine expectations have not created it.

Sabine Hossenfelder said...

Sean,

"Decisions made by your mind are acted on by your mind, effecting control on whatever your mind makes decisions about."

Not everything you make decisions about is actually controlled by you. Incidentally, as I have the occasional lucid dream, I would find that pretty boring. More to the point, you keep insisting on using both the words "agency" and "control" in ways that ultimately don't make sense. Look, you are trying to "rule out" solipsism by declaring that if there was nothing than your mind, you should be able to change the world at your will. That's just a faulty conclusion, regardless of exactly how you want to define agency or control and so on. Look, you can't even control most of your reflexes.

I have had such discussions many times and in the end it always comes down to people who insist on fighting about the meaning of words. I am not interested in such debates. More to the point, if you think solipsism has been ruled out by your ingenious insight, I recommend you go and enlighten the philosophers of the world. Best,

B.

sean s. said...

Anthony: “Perhaps the solipsist in me thinks that the world that I create has no obligation of being an ideal world.

If solipsism is true, there cannot exist something to prevent you from “creating” the world you want to have. It is your creation without limit and must be what you want it to be.

Perhaps I am a ‘bad person’ ... If so, I would expect to be frustrated and annoyed at times, the result of my inadequate mental creation of my universe.

This assumes the existence of something outside your mind influencing or limiting the world your mind “creates”; this is contrary to solipsism. If solipsism is true, then the world of your mind must be adequate because it’s just what your mind “wants” and there is nothing to prevent your mind from getting what it wants.

Annoyance and frustration, like surprise, remind us that the Universe is still really there, regardless of our wishes and expectations. And that our genuine expectations have not created it.

sean s.

Anthony Verbalis said...

Sean: "If solipsism is true, then the world of your mind must be adequate because it’s just what your mind “wants” and there is nothing to prevent your mind from getting what it wants."

I accept this argument against solipsism. I suspect however that many who are sympathetic to solipsism are disturbed because, at least subconsciously, they find the world of their minds not adequate. I can see it possibly as a defense mechanism, retreating into a "world" where problematic others do not really exist.

My first introduction to the idea of solipsism was long ago, when I read the book "Breakfast of Champions" by Kurt Vonnegut. One of the characters in this story was driven insane by a variety of solipsism. I still have the book, and may read parts of it again.

I can understand that all any of us really can know is our own mental representation of the Universe. Still, whatever else this representation is capable of, it is "driven" by events in a real Universe, and with the help of real others can give us a pretty damn accurate picture of this external Universe.

sean s. said...

Anthony; I think your last comment is pretty accurate. There are those who find the world’s difficulties too much to handle. They retreat into one kind of fantasy or another, solipsism is probably only one of those. I suspect we all do that from time to time. I know I do.

As we said when I was in the Navy: Life sucks; and then you die. Of course there are many great things about life, but humans seem to recall the bad times more clearly than the good. Maybe that’s some kind of survival adaptation. Certainly, in the military it is.

Anyway, reality is, and is as it is without regard to our wants. C’est la vie.

sean s.

Sabine Hossenfelder said...

Anthony, Sean,

You are still falsely assuming that the solipsist has free will or control about anything. As I said above, there are laws of nature, and in the case of solipsism these are the laws of the solipsist, so to speak. This may or may not be what he or she "wants". There is no reason why that law has to be so that this "want" agrees with the "is".

Anthony Verbalis said...

Sabine: "You are still falsely assuming that the solipsist has free will or control about anything."

"Falsely" according to you. You have no proof against free will. It is rather the mental consequence of your ontology of exclusive materialism.

But even solipsism is not exclusive materialism. There is not a glimmer of explanation in physics of how exclusive materialism could produce even one mind, solipsistic or otherwise.

I don't see how objective measurements could possibly account for subjective experience. It's as if someone would say something like 'well, this photon falling back to this energy level explains why the color blue looks like it does'. There is a profound disconnect here, which Erwin Schrodinger zeroes in on when he describes the "Principle of Objectivation" (Mind and Matter, 1944). Science has advanced because it simplifies by excluding subjectivity as much as possible. It (the scientific method) does not say or mean that subjectivity therefore does not exist. It certainly does not say that the scientific principles discovered as the result of its use must be able to go back and explain what had been (mostly) excluded at the start. To believe that this would be possible would be a matter of faith.

So, I don't understand how invoking determinism and a supposed lack of free will is relevant in defending the possibility of solipsism. And, if it is (relevant), then this would be another reason for me to reject exclusive determinism.

Sabine Hossenfelder said...

Anthony,

What I am saying is that you are making an additional unnecessary and unjustified assumption, namely that there such such a thing as free will. I don't know what you mean by "materialism", I'm a physicist and can merely tell you that what we already know about the laws of nature tells us there is no such thing as free will and it's not necessary to explain anything. Insisting that there must be free will anyway is like insisting that there must be a god just because you'd like that better.

Steven Kurtz said...

A.V. writes:

"You have no proof against free will."

This is the Negative Fallacy. Non-existence cannot be proven in open, complex systems.

A.V. continues:

" It is rather the mental consequence of your ontology of exclusive materialism."

If anyone can evidence non-material/physical/energetic existence, they'd likely win a Nobel Prize. There are no known examples of calorie free minds, emotions, thoughts, etc. Calories are energetic.



JimV said...

Dr. Hossenfelder's comment about the free-will assumption makes sense to me. Even assuming some sort of free-will, though, I don't think solipsism is mathematically falsifiable. Whatever we have, realism or solipsism, it has given us the concepts of consciousness and subconsciousness, multiple-personalities per mind (perhaps that is what causes some fugues, other personalities housed in different neurons take over--under realism), sadomasochism, the desire for drama, the desire for challenge, and the desire for surprise. From those elements one could construct a solipsistic concept to explain frustration and surprise. For example, the god-like mind of a solipsist, able to create as detailed a simulation of reality as this, should also be able to split itself into an unknowing participant and a watcher. The participant can play chess with the possibility of losing, without which chess is not interesting. The watcher can observe the participant like the author of a play watching the drama being enacted, with one actor improvising; both being parts of the same mind.

Realism is not falsifiable either. The parts of it we don't currently understand, such as fugues and dark matter, always have the potential of being explained materialistically.

(Some things can't be explained under any system, such as why some specific thing exists, rather than something else. Example: why is the scent of a rose not the scent of an orange, and vice-versa? This makes them not worth worrying about in my opinion; that's just the way things work in this universe, real or simulated. Certain chemicals have certain scents to certain biological systems.)

Given that both are detailed and consistent enough to seem real, realism seems like the simpler explanation to me. Still, I think it is useful to conceive of as many possibilities as one can, and to be aware there may be more that one can't yet. But what do I know? Not much for certain, but I have a lot of opinions anyway.

Anthony Verbalis said...

Sabine Hossenfelder: ,“I don't know what you mean by "materialism"”

According to Wikipedia: ,“Materialism is a form of philosophical monism which holds that matter is the fundamental substance in nature, and that all things, including mental aspects and consciousness, are results of material interactions."

I certainly believe that matter is a fundamental substance in nature, but to think that it can account for the mental aspects of the Universe is a category error, as I have indicated above. Therefore physics alone cannot give us a complete picture of reality.

Sabine Hossenfelder: “I'm a physicist and can merely tell you that what we already know about the laws of nature tells us there is no such thing as free will and it's not necessary to explain anything.”

I'm a human being who knows some physics (much less than you), but thinks that physics alone cannot explain everything of importance to human beings. It actually cannot explain what is most important to us, which is our conscious awareness of the Universe.

Erwin Schrodinger: “our unawareness of the fact that a moderately satisfying picture of the world has only been reached at the high price of taking ourselves out of the picture....[leads to] the astonishment at finding our world-picture “colorless, cold, mute”. Color and sound, hot and cold are our immediate sensations; small wonder that they are lacking in a world-model from which we have removed our own mental person”

Since physics cannot explain what is most important to us, I have reason to doubt its current implication that free will cannot exist. In order to be convinced, I would have to see that there would be some consequence (experimental or otherwise) of the complete non-existence of free will.

You do an action. Afterwards, you think, 'I could not have done otherwise'. Of what value is such a view? How could it be possibly shown that you could not have done otherwise? Until it can be, I will consider the existence of at least some degree of free-will the default position which needs to be shown in error by actual experience. It is not so much because I would like this to be the case. It is mainly because I do not view the materialistic ideas and achievements of physics to be complete in the important sense illustrated by Schrodinger's words. So, on matters involving and dealing with conscious experience, I am not convinced by arguments which depend entirely on the incomplete world-view of physics.

opamanfred said...

I am not sure I want to step in this debate about free will, but I think we should all keep a healthy degree of skepticism here. I find it exceedingly difficult to believe claims that we can rule out free will (a psychological phenomenon) on the basis of ... the standard model of particle physics. It's worse than trying to prove smth about motorcar engines by using the SM, which nobody obviously does. It does not work, there are too many layers of description in between, and thus too many ways to get astray, in ways that you cannot even start to imagine. As someone said: in general, impossibility proofs only prove our lack of imagination...

Second, and perhaps most important, I still have to read your definition of free will. That would be a good starting point.

Sabine Hossenfelder said...

opamanfred,

Well, then I suggest you try to figure out which levels there are supposedly in between that make any difference. And yes, before you attempt an argument please read my definition of free will. I have expressed myself utterly clearly and I am pretty tired of having to argue with people who don't bother to find out what I am saying to begin with.

opamanfred said...

Sabine,
Of course, one cannot quantify the number of levels so easily. Bu I do not know of any other "predictions" about social/psychological sciences based on fundamental physics. Why not then? Why do you think you can deduce something about free will but not about other human behaviors? After all, you must think that free will is a kind of hallucination (we believe we have it, but in reality it does not exist). Why can't you use basic physics to explain other schizophrenic hallucinations then?
The reality is that we cannot even predict human behavior by looking at a brain MRI, let alone by speculating about the SM! I'm not saying that you are wrong (not even...), I'm just trying to preach for some humility.

As to the definition, sorry but I do not spend my time perusing your blog from a to z. I might have missed that, and it would be nice to repeat it.

Sabine Hossenfelder said...

opamanfred,

I have explained here why free will is incompatible with what we already know about the laws of nature. I have explained here why it is irrelevant that we cannot in practice make higher-level derivations from the standard model. The upper level laws are either consistent with the standard model, in which case they are implied, or they are wrong. We already know this. As to what I mean by free will, I have spelled this out most clearly here. Please notice that I do not need to define free will to demonstrate it cannot exist. I merely need to demonstrate that some necessary requirements (defined in mentioned reference) cannot be fulfilled. Best,

B.

Lawrence Crowell said...

In checking here it is curious this end of science discussion has treadled into the issue of free will. This takes us into matters that might go beyond physics, or that might imply some sort of panpsychism in nature. Physics invokes postulates or physical axioms that in themselves are “self evidently true” and which might be considered metaphysics. Physics is best if it has some minimum of metaphysics, but it is hard to argue that physics is completely free of metaphysics. The postulates of a theoretical physics are not themselves derived from other foundation principles in the theory, and are derived only if there is some deeper substrate of foundations with more general postulates.

The existence of free will in nature is problematic. John Conway and Simon Kochen derived the free will theorem https://arxiv.org/abs/quant-ph/0604079 that illustrates if free will exists in an observer it is ultimately a property of all nature, including the most elementary of particles. Interestingly Lucretius, an atomist of the late Roman Republic period circa 45 BCE, argued there must be some sort of swerve in the mechanics of atoms for there to exist consciousness or free will. We might look at this in a number of ways. Dan Dennett would say the free will theorem is a good development for it makes little sense to think an electron has free will. David Chalmers conversely would see this as a near confirmation of the panpsychism scheme. Certain quantum interpretations are sympathetic to a panpsychism, in particular those that are ψ-epistemic. This would include Bohr's Copenhagen Interpretation and now the most recent Qubism of Chris Fuchs. If you have argued with Fuchs you know he is resolute on this, where mental consciousness performs a Bayesian regression on a quantum system such that the quantum state is only a mental way of knowing about nature through observations. The converse are ψ-ontological interpretations such as the Everett-Deutsche many worlds interpretation (MWI) and the Bohmian beable or subquantal particle. Ψ-epistemic interpretations are open to the idea mental consciousness fundamentally exists with free will.

I worked a theorem which illustrates, modulo a problem, that quantum mechanics can't be demonstrated to be either ψ-epistemic or ψ-ontological. This seems to work, but not for two state systems. I think however quantum interpretations are not provable. I think quantum interpretations are unprovable Gödel statements that result from axiomatic incompleteness of quantum mechanics. It we think about it, a quantum measurement is a way that some system with a large number of quantum states encode qubit information of a smaller system with few quantum states. This is a large N-limit on a general problem with a quantum system encoding its own quantum information. Quantum interpretations all center around the difficulty with making how a quantum measurement outcome manifests itself. So I think it may be fundamentally undecidable whether any particular quantum interpretation is true. Just as the Euclid fifth axiom is undecidable, its removal leads to a plethora of geometries, and we have like a choice of quantum interpretations we might invoke, if needed to explain some physics.

This might then mean, thinking of the free will theorem, impossible to know whether consciousness and free will exists. Dennett claims consciousness is a sort of illusion, while Chalmers (his Chinese room argument etc) that consciousness is some fundamental entity in the world. I remember a little saying that Issac Asimov wrote:

Matter over mind, doesn't matter
Mind over matter, never mind.

Steven Kurtz said...


On Nov 4, 2018, at 1:22 AM, Anthony Verbalis wrote:

According to Wikipedia: ,“Materialism is a form of philosophical monism which holds that matter is the fundamental substance in nature, and that all things, including mental aspects and consciousness, are results of material interactions."

I certainly believe that matter is a fundamental substance in nature,


S.K. : Energy is physical as well, and monistic materialism must include it in my view.

A.V. continues: but to think that it can account for the mental aspects of the Universe is a category error, as I have indicated above.

S.K.: What you think is not evidence. It is the onus of the claimant to provide evidence of a non-physical realm of existence. I already pointed out that asking for proof of *non-existence* is The Negative Fallacy.

https://www.logicallyfallacious.com/tools/lp/Bo/LogicalFallacies/145/Proving-Non-Existence

Proving Non-Existence - Logically Fallacious
Demanding that one proves the non-existence of something in place for providing adequate evidence for the existence of that something. Although it may be possible to prove non-existence in special situations, such as showing that a container does not contain certain items, one cannot prove universal or absolute non-existence.

Steve Kurtz

Sabine Hossenfelder said...

Lawrence,

The sane conclusion to draw from the so-called "free will theorem" is that since particles don't have free will, we don't either.

JimV said...

"...physics alone cannot explain everything of importance to human beings. It actually cannot explain what is most important to us, which is our conscious awareness of the Universe."

(I sense that our host is getting tired of this discussion so I should not be prolonging it; however I will make this last attempt and fine myself via the Donations button for it.)

As I tried to suggest above, and in the thread about burying free will, physics/materialism has a strong potential of being able to predict exactly which forces/fields/particles/etc. can combine in which ways to produce any biological sensation, if not now, in the future. No system, none, can explain why a particular sensation (such as the scent of a rose) "feels" the way it feels. That's just the way things work in this particular universe, whether gods created it, a solipsist created it, or it just existed all by itself. But how it "feels" is not important at all, to me anyway. The important thing is that physics gives us something we are able to experience; that we feel something (e.g., pain from a hot stove).

Example: there are two icons on my computer screen. I click one and the program does one thing, click the other and the program does something different. The important characteristic is that the program is able to detect (experience, feel) which icon I click. I don't know (or care) how this "feels" to the computer; but if it didn't feel anything it wouldn't know which icon I clicked (according to my definitions of feelings and experience).

(And yes, a computer program can make decisions, just as we can when playing chess. In fact, the computer can probably beat us playing chess. What does he computer feel like as it experiences a decision based on the configuration of the chess board? Not important, to me anyway.)

Probably the disconnect here is somewhat semantic, as usual, conflating biological emotions, which in my view is how evolution happened to program many of our responses to our environment (see Antonio Dimasio), with experiences in general.

Lawrence Crowell said...

When wearing a physicists hat I would say generally that particles have no consciousness or free will. It would seem silly to think that quantum particles have some tiny unit of awareness or free will. Further, quantum mechanics as a system of linear state spaces and linear operators appears to have less conscious life to it than the deadest of door nails. This would be my stance if I were to state that physical principles tell us ultimately everything there is about the world.

The philosopher in me, which is smaller than the physicist, gives me a bit of pause. No matter how successful our physics is, even if in the near future we have quantum gravity and cosmology and so the entire universe we observe tied in a neat package, there is no proof that physics is all. Physics does rely upon a measure of axioms or postulates that have some metaphysical input. We are ultimately faced with the Münchhausen trilemma, where all truth is based on either self evident axioms, some infinite regression of principles (turtles all the way down) or on a loop of syllogisms or circular argument that is a great tautology. Of course one has to be careful not to run away with this, such as Jacques Derrida, or an ancient philosopher upon noting something similar to this committed suicide. However, a bit of humility is in order; where for instance while science can't disprove the existence of God, even if science gives us little (or no) evidence that such exists. However, we can't use science to prop up atheism. By the same we can't say based on physics there absolutely does not exist oddities in this world, such as conscious free will --- even if it turns out some tiny unit of that is held by particles.

Some ψ-epistemic interpretations of quantum mechanics push the idea of consciousness of an observer as fundamental. Qubism in fact borders on solipsism in this regard. So there are those in the physics world out there who are promoting interpretations (Zeh with many minds interpretation!) that very much invoke the centrality of consciousness and the ability to make choices by free will.

I am not an up holder of panpyschism, and honestly it does appear cleaner and more crisp if there is no free will, certainly if there does not exist tiny units of free will particles possess. So from a physical perspective it would seem preferable, though not proven, to assume free will is a sort of illusion and that Dan Dennett is right that consciousness is an illusion.

sean s. said...

Anthony;

To Sabine you wrote: “You have no proof against free will.

Nor need she, or anyone else. If you believe in free will, it’s your job to demonstrate its reality; no one has to “prove” it doesn’t exist. That was Steven Kurtz’s point, and it’s quite valid.

There is not a glimmer of explanation in physics of how exclusive materialism could produce even one mind, solipsistic or otherwise.

I think the topic of the mind is not really appropriate to physics; no more than questions about life. These belong to other disciplines.

All things must be consistent with physics, but the explanations often will come from chemistry, biology, etc. Much of your comment to Sabine on Nov. 3 makes the same error. It is just wrong to think physics can or should be able to explain all things.

More importantly, we can’t account for the mind by invoking supernatural, immaterial phenomena without being able to account for supernatural, immaterial phenomena first. Good luck with that.

I don't see how objective measurements could possibly account for subjective experience.

I don’t see how invoking inexplicable, supernatural, immaterial phenomena can account for anything.

So, I don't understand how invoking determinism and a supposed lack of free will is relevant in defending the possibility of solipsism. And, if it is (relevant), then this would be another reason for me to reject exclusive determinism.

With regard to solipsism, free will is irrelevant.

sean s.

sean s. said...

Sabine;

I was uncertain how to respond to your comment at 12:44 on Nov. 2. I took your earlier comment (1:32 AM, Oct 31) as indicating you had no interest commenting further on solipsism; clearly I was wrong.

I am not interested in fighting about the meaning of words either, but I don’t see anyway to discuss these kinds of topics without using words; so I try to stick to their commonplace meanings and avoid disputes over word meaning.

You are still falsely assuming that the solipsist has free will or control about anything.

Free will is not relevant to my argument against solipsism. Anthony’s argument has gone to a place I cannot agree with.

From this point forward, nothing I write to you assumes or needs the existence of “free will”.

... there are laws of nature, and in the case of solipsism these are the laws of the solipsist, so to speak.

Laws of nature are simply descriptions of what we observe in nature and perhaps how we explain the behavior of things we observe.

If solipsists are right, if their minds are “everything” then the laws of the solipsist describe nothing more than the behaviors of their minds BECAUSE their minds are everything. If the mind is everything, then the mind IS nature; the mind fully encompasses nature. For the solipsist, nature and the mind are the same things.

I can understand why I am unable to touch my left elbow with my left thumb; my body is merely a thing created by nature, and the laws of nature control what the parts of my body are capable of.

If the mind is everything, then there is NOTHING that can deny the solipsist’s mind whatever it wants. That is the reason that the “want” must agree with the “is”; the want is a property of the mind that creates the is. If the mind is everything, then whatever is must be wanted.

JimV made an interesting comment: “... the god-like mind of a solipsist, able to create as detailed a simulation of reality as this, should also be able to split itself into an unknowing participant and a watcher.

If such a god-like mind were to “split itself” then that would be because it WANTED to; again the want creates the is.

JimV’s comment is in the same category as the possibility that pigs fly at night, or that elves paint frost on the grass. All possible, but all lack any good reason to think they are likely. Why would anyone believe that a god-like solipsistic mind want to do as suggested? It’s possible of course, but there’s no reason to think it likely. Why would anyone want to experience something they don’t want to experience? The idea is internally contradictory.

JimV also wrote “Some things can't be explained under any system, ... This makes them not worth worrying about ...

I agree completely. My effort has been to show that solipsism is one of those things that make so little sense as to be unworthy of worry about.

To borrow Peter Woit’s line: solipsism is not even wrong.

sean s.

Sid said...

An enlightening conversation indeed . Even though 99% of what Sabine writes about on science is beyond my comprehension the 1% i do “get “ is worth the price of admission. Alas, when it comes to philosophy Sabine misses the boat . Philosophy always leads science and not the other way round . The core fact regarding man and what makes us human are beyond the scope of whatever science and physics can answer . What defines humankind beyond anything else in the physical universe is love . You cannot love without free will. I
However you chose to dice and slice this into your equations , formulas etc you cannot account for it . When you can teach a robot to “ love “ Sabine then you may have a case , until then - Man is not a physical being having a spiritual experience , Man is a spiritual being having a physical experience . Blessings.

Phillip Helbig said...

"Philosophy always leads science and not the other way round."

Two quotes by George Ellis (for whom I have tremendous respect, but who gets off too easy in Sabine's book):

"You cannot do physics or cosmology without an assumed philosophical basis."

"Philosophy has to give way to observations."

And then there is Fred Hoyle; I heard the following quote from Richard Ellis (a very famous astronomer and former Plumian professor; no relation to George, as far as I know): "Oh you damned observers, you always find extra things." :-)

sean s. said...

Lawrence's comment (at 2:46 PM, Nov 04) says it pretty well. There are a few nits one could pick, but nothing that would really matter here. Well said.

sean s.

Anthony Verbalis said...

Well, Sid, YOUR comment was worth the price of admission (although I learned from others as well, notably Lawrence and opamanfred). I believe that Schrodinger was saying something similar, that despite all the successes of science, it is limited and incomplete. Having taken the subjective out of the picture (except for the unavoidable matter of making measurements!), it can no longer speak with any authority about things like love and free will.

But, having enjoyed this exchange, some might not be pleased that I am not quite finished. If you believe that free will does not exist, then the whole concept of truth itself is on shaky grounds. For example, you cannot really blame me for my heretical (from your point of view) opinions, because (according to you), I had not the freedom to do otherwise. Of course, some might have been annoyed (even angered?) by my statements, but they also could NOT have done otherwise. Notice that (according to them), the truth or falsity of my arguments would not be a relevant factor. It would simply be that they had no choice but to view my statements as "false".

So what does "false" even mean in that case? I await enlightenment.

sean s. said...

Anthony;

A “false statement” means a statement that makes claims or assertions that are inaccurate; they are inconsistent with reality or misrepresent the actual state of things.

... you cannot really blame me for my heretical (from your point of view) opinions, because (according to you), I had not the freedom to do otherwise.

Assigning blame has nothing to do with truth or falsity.

Notice that (according to them), the truth or falsity of my arguments would not be a relevant factor.

Exactly, which is why your prior sentence was incorrect. Free will has nothing to say about truth. Nothing.

Supposing there is no free will, then whether you could have chosen what you said tells us nothing about its truth or falsity. Even you say that!

sean s.

JimV said...

I'll have to pay a double fine for this, but it might possibly be helpful to some unknown person reading this thread to list the things which people who question the existence of free will, such as myself, *don't* mean:

They don't mean that people cannot be held responsible for their actions which are not being done under coercion. "Under one's own free will" is fine as a legal term. (I think I speak here for most of us; there are a few outliers whom I disagree with on this.)

They don't mean that there is no possible random element involved in decision-making. (I think there is, because it would have been a good idea for evolution to provide one.)

They don't mean that people don't make their own decisions--based on the information they have and the rules of logic they have grasped (or not grasped). It means the process by which they make decisions is either deterministically fixed or random, or a mixture (as I think) of the two, and therefore is predictable in advance (at least statistically, in the case of random) in principle, given complete data about the situation.

They don't mean that people can't change their minds, or regret a decision they just made, such as prolonging a comment thread.

They don't mean that atavistic emotions play no part in decision making.

The main thing, in my opinion, that we mean is that once you consider the elements of a decision-making process, by a human or by a flow-chart or by a computer program, you tend to ask yourself, "where do I need to insert something magical called "free will" and what does that even mean?"

I can make a computer program want to produce certain kinds of results over other kinds by the decision-making procedures I give it, just as evolution has programmed certain wants into me. If that computer program has free will under someone's definition of the term (which as I say I don't really comprehend except in the afore-mentioned legal sense) I am then willing to adopt that definition and say, yes, humans have free will. It's the people who say humans have something magical called free will and a robot (an autonomous robot) can't that lose me. As usual, I think there is a lot of semantics involved, whereby people use the same terms but assume they mean different things.

Steven Kurtz said...

A.V.:

"So what does "false" even mean in that case? I await enlightenment."

And the list awaits your evidence that anything other than energy-matter-information exists. Without that, claims you and others make about unfettered and non-physical free will, love, blessings, etc are likely the result of internal algorithmic and feedback driven imaginings.

Enjoy them as they are unavoidable!

Sid said...

Jim V
Semantics aside Computers are programmed . If you can program a computer to “ love “ in every sense that humankind calls something called “ love “ then I will say yes , free will as I believe it to exist is just an internal alglorithmic feedback driven imagining as Steve K puts it .Until then ................. ( and less we miss the point that if you can do this then you have inserted a designer into the process )

jon said...

SEAN S.

"Assigning blame has nothing to do with truth or falsity."

Hopefully you're not a judge in a court of law...

Anthony Verbalis said...

Free will denial means exactly that. It means that I must think and do whatever the Universe has in store for me. I cannot do otherwise. Even my thoughts at this moment would be the result of deterministic laws, and I could not have chosen to have any others. I am not free to 'change my mind' as the result of free will decisions based on experience (including the special case of experiment). Every decision I make could not have been otherwise.

This would be true for all others as well, including the free-will denier. His thoughts could not be otherwise. If those thoughts include the idea that his thoughts are true, then they must be true only because the Universe has conspired to place the denier in some sort of privileged frame of reference.

I claim however that knowledge of truth can only come from observations and free-will decisions concerning the meaning of those observations. I don't claim infallibility, and reserve the right to “change my mind” based on free-will decisions to do so. I claim the freedom to pursue a truth that is not pre-determined.

Now, I am finished, and will get on with life. Lots of free-will decisions to make today.

sean s. said...

jon, hopefully you are not a teacher.

sean s.

sean s. said...

Anthony, there is a lot of wiggle-room between the extremes of absolute free will and complete determinism.

However, "the idea that one's thoughts are true" and "knowledge of truth" are very different.

Perhaps you "claim the freedom to pursue a truth that is not pre-determined" because you have no choice.

sean s.

JimV said...

"Free will denial means exactly that. It means that I must think and do whatever the Universe has in store for me. I cannot do otherwise. Even my thoughts at this moment would be the result of deterministic laws, and I could not have chosen to have any others. I am not free to 'change my mind' as the result of free will decisions based on experience."

In other words, that commenter didn't either see, understand, or believe anything I wrote about what I mean as a free-will denier, almost as if he had no free will to accept that a different point of view exists based on the experience of seeing it. I will increase my fine to add this: computer programs can make different decisions based on increased experience. The best example of this is the program AlphaGo, whose third version learned strategies for the difficult game of Go by playing itself, and now can beat the best human players. It learned from experience. Perhaps AlphaGo has free will. Well, nobody tells it where to place the next stone; it does make its own decisions (which often go against what Go grandmasters have long considered to be the best strategies; maybe it is the grandmasters who don't have the free will and haven't learned well from experience).

Again I wonder, what is this magical free will (aside from the legal meaning) and what does it add to a rational or irrational decision-making process? It can't just be a random element, a lot of computer games and other games (D&D, bridge) have that. I suspect it is undefinable/unmeasurable and hence neither provable nor falsifiable nor necessary. That's what I'm denying: that "free will" apart from legal responsibility/agency has any useful meaning that would distinguish human decisions as magically different from others.

To add to the list of things I don't mean: that everything that has or will happen was inevitable. See random element. (I thought that was implicit in my previous list, but maybe not implicit enough.)

(Triple-fine time--fines get bigger linearly in my current decision-process. Experience has shown that constant-value fines aren't enough of a deterrent. This is getting expensive, but it's towards a good cause.)

Steven Mason said...

Sean wrote: If you believe in free will, it’s your job to demonstrate its reality; no one has to “prove” it doesn’t exist.

Anyone who makes an assertion of fact is on the hook to prove it. If I say, "God doesn't exist," that is an assertion of fact and I would have to prove it. But I can't prove it. If instead I say, "There is no evidence that God exists," I could support that. (I'm an atheist and that is actually what I say.)

Similarly, if someone asserts that free will doesn't exist, he's on the hook to prove it. Both positive and negative claims carry the burden of proof. My opinion is that we don't know enough about consciousness to lean one way or the other on the question of free will. As far as I'm concerned it's still an open question. Some people point out the apparent contradiction between a nondeterministic consciousness existing in a deterministic universe. I'm not comfortable drawing conclusions from apparent contradictions when there's still so much we don't understand.

For many people, giving up belief in free will is as painful as giving up belief in God. If free will turns out to be an illusion, it's a much more convincing illusion than God.

David Bailey said...

It seems to me that if you deny that humans have free will, you also have to deny that they can do scientific experiments. Say you measure some quantity Y as a function of X and report that the relationship is linear. If you didn't have free will to choose the values of X you used to measure Y, but used a brain algorithm, then that algorithm may have made you to choose points that happen to fit a straight line, or indeed it might have forced you to write down the 'result' without doing the experiment at all!

That may sound contrived, but imagine trying to program a robot to perform open-ended blue sky research.

Phillip Helbig said...

"Similarly, if someone asserts that free will doesn't exist, he's on the hook to prove it."

No. It's not who asserts something first, but the type of the assertion that matters. For the same reason, no-one is asked to prove his innocence in court.

Steven Kurtz said...

This third mention of The Negative Fallacy is hopefully my last. Apparently S.M. is determined to be impervious to it. Inadequate knowledge and evidence is never sufficient to assert non-existence in open, complex systems.

Sabine Hossenfelder said...

Free will is incompatible with what we already know about the laws of nature. Trust me when I say this is not a conclusion I arrived at easily. If you don't understand why I say free will doesn't exist because particle physics, I recommend you look up what is known as the "causal exclusion argument."

Sid said...

Jim V
AlphaGo is programmed . You now have brought a designer into the equation .
Magic doesn’t exist Jim .
What does love add to a rational or irrational decision making process ?

Sid said...

Sabine
As I have stated previously my grasp of physics is minimal at best so please accept my apologies if my question is redundant .
“ Where do the laws of nature come from that tell you that free will cannot exist “ ?
I can grasp that in an infinite universe of infinite possibilities that every decision is possible .
I will read the “ casual exclusion argument “ and see if I can understand that . Thanks

Sabine Hossenfelder said...

I don't know where the laws of nature come from. I also don't know how it matters. They work.

sean s. said...

This seems to be the clearest expression of the Causal Exclusion Principle:

“... the causal exclusion principle, ... stipulates that events cannot have more than a single sufficient cause.”

https://www.iep.utm.edu/causal-e/

Even if true, sometimes the single sufficient cause is a combination of necessities: a typical fire is caused by combination of adequate fuel, oxygen, and heat.

If we realize that combinations of things can be the single sufficient cause, then the causal exclusion principle loses its force against free will. Ordinary decision making can arise from a combination of things (including a hypothetical free will); and it is that combination that is the sufficient cause, not any one of the contributors.

Of course, this bumps up against a problem this thread has been dancing around: how to define free will. Must free will be a “sufficient cause” or could it be only a contributor?

“Causal overdetermination” has been considered, but this tends to occur in situations that are coincidental; a house burned down because, at the moment the arsonist lit their fire, lightning struck the house.

sean s.

JimV said...

Some people can jump high, Some can't. Some can make good decisions. Some can't. Some can do scientific research. Others can't. Where does free will enter into this? Does it mean you could have jumped higher, you could have made better choices, you could have done scientific research, you just didn't choose to?

I use computer programs a lot as examples of doing things in a mechanical way which were once thought to be impossible without the magic of human intelligence. There are still a lot of things computers can't do. The computer (laptop, phone, tablet) you are using now probably has a dozen processors (registers that can do calculations and logic). Your brain has about 80 billion neurons and trillions of synapses. Shouldn't you be amazed at what such simple machines can do with so much less computing power, rather than demanding, as some people do, that you won't believe in the power of mechanical computation until it can do blue-sky research?

I've been asked about "love" a couple times in this thread. I am not a mind-reader and don't know what you mean: sexual attraction, which simple creatures such as nematodes can do; parenting instinct, which many fish and reptiles can do; pack or herd instinct which most mammals have? All these things could be programmed into self-reproducing robots.

Then there's the magic of the "designer". Here's one of the great designers of all time, founder of the General Electric Company: Thomas Edison. He used trial and error. Thousands of trials, to find a practical light-bulb filaments and battery components. If it doesn't work, throw it away and try something else; if it does, reproduce it for now and try to make it better in the future. That's the big secret of design. Haven't you noticed how designs (engines, cars, phones, buildings, etc.) have evolved over history and even over your own lifetime? Hasn't science itself also evolved? I worked at GE doing mechanical design of turbines for many years. That's what I saw happening.

None of this takes away from what you are and what you can do. Your brain is a nano-tech computer, developed over billions of years by trial-and-error evolution, over a thousand times more powerful than the biggest, most expensive super-computer yet made. You are doing your best with what you have. The fact that what you can do is not magic and is explainable mechanically by science doesn't make you more or less wonderful. Try to be happy with what you have and not demanding more--if you have the free will to do that. (I don't.)

(Quadruple fine times 1.5 preaching factor = 60 euros.)

Steven Mason said...

Phillip wrote: It's not who asserts something first, but the type of the assertion that matters.

I never said anything about the order of assertions. I said both positive and negative claims carry the burden of proof. If I claim that free will exists, I have to prove it, and if I claim it doesn't exist, I have to prove it. Or, at the very least, I have to offer my evidence. Sabine has offered evidence for her assertion about free will, but in my opinion she hasn't proven it.

Steven Kurtz wrote: This third mention of The Negative Fallacy is hopefully my last. Apparently S.M. is determined to be impervious to it. Inadequate knowledge and evidence is never sufficient to assert non-existence in open, complex systems.

Requiring proof for a negative claim is not a fallacy, so in my case you're tilting at windmills. I am not "asserting non-existence," so I don't know what you're talking about. On the question of free will, I'm saying that I have "inadequate knowledge and evidence" to make an assertion either way. More audaciously, I think it's safe to say that no one can prove that free will exists or doesn't exist.

I've often wondered why so many smart people seem to be in such a hurry to take a position on free will when there is so much we still don't understand. When I say "I don't know," I get criticism from both sides. Apparently I'm "impervious" to the evidence on both sides. For whatever it's worth, I'm biased to the negative side, that we probably don't have free will. But I still consider it an open question.

Sabine wrote: I recommend you look up what is known as the "causal exclusion argument."

I'm familiar with that.

Sabine wrote: Trust me when I say this is not a conclusion I arrived at easily.

I'm uneasy asserting a conclusion either way because there is still so much we don't understand. On a philosophical/emotional level, I don't care either way, perhaps because of my background. I was raised Catholic but converted to atheism in my teens. It was easy for me to give up the notion that humans are God's special creation as well as the notion of an afterlife (not that I would mind an afterlife, but that's wishful thinking). It was easy to accept that humans are animals and it would be just as easy to give up the notion of free will.

If we don't have free will, I'm grateful that we nevertheless move in a direction that most people would call "progress." Unfortunately, progress doesn't necessarily protect us from self-inflicted catastrophes. Some scholars like Jared Diamond are "cautiously optimistic" (i.e. our situation is not hopeless), while others like John Gray are pessimistic (i.e. it's probably hopeless). On the question of free will, I'm not certain, but if you ask me if humans are naturally good at assessing their short and long-term best interests, I'm quite certain they aren't. We're emotional animals with some capacity for abstract thought, and that's a heady cocktail.

Sid said...

Jim V
Without free will there are no “ good decisions “, there are only decisions .
However you posit the computer analogy it is still bringing a designer into the process.
You cannot program love . You can program a computer according to what you believe love may be and only what you believe love is and you will only have programmed a grain of sand from all the beaches of the world .
It really doesn’t matter if you believe free will exists , you and everybody else live their lives each and every day of this mortal coil as if free will does exist . It is the only way that humanity can live and therefore that makes it real . Everything else is just an endless unprovable debate .

sean s. said...

Sid, please tell us why we "cannot program love". what is it about "love" that makes you believe it is unprogrammable?

sean s.

Sid said...

Sean
When you can measure and quantify love then I suppose you may be able to write that into code . Until then ..........
. You cannot love without freewill. It is what separates humanity from everything else in the physical universe . You live your life everyday believing you are making freewill choices as has the rest of humanity from the beginning of time . Whatever intellectual argument you may have that says that free will does not exist is unprovable and the decisions you make everyday contradict that intellectual belief . Freewill is real and any argument against it is meaningless because it proves nothing and the choices you make everyday prove everything .

Steven Mason said...

Sid wrote: When you can measure and quantify love then I suppose you may be able to write that into code.

You've heard the aphorism that "love is a verb." Or as Forrest Gump would say, "Love is as love does." Consider the song from Fiddler on the Roof, "Do You Love Me?":

Do I love you?
For twenty-five years, I've washed your clothes,
Cooked your meals, cleaned your house,
Given you children, milked the cow.
After twenty-five years, why talk about love right now?

Much of what passes for love is simply doing things for another person. Indeed, that's why it's ridiculously easy to pretend to love someone - plenty of smart people have been deceived. If love can be measured by behavior, that doesn't seem like an insurmountable obstacle for coding.

Sid wrote: You cannot love without freewill. It is what separates humanity from everything else in the physical universe.

Do dogs love their human masters, and do dogs have free will? Humans aren't the only animal that mates for life (assuming that is one way to measure love).

Sid said...

Steven
If you believe that love is simply people doing things for each other then who am I to argue with that , and yes , you can probably put that into code and there you go , a replica human . Problem solved .

Steven Mason said...

Sid wrote: If you believe that love is simply people doing things for each other then who am I to argue with that?

I'm not looking for an argument, but I was hoping you could offer an interesting insight about love. Can you think of a way to give, show or prove love other than doing things?

Humans are a social species of animal, so love doesn't seem mysterious to me. The same could be said about "good." Like any decision we make, it works with or without free will. Either way, we make lots of bad decisions, largely because our short-term desires tend to win over long-term considerations. What sort of test could you devise to demonstrate that "good" or "love" requires free will?

Sid said...

Steve
Unless you are dead then you are doing something , Love requires life to be active .
Tests only work if you can measure and quantify . Love cannot be measured or quantified therefore testing is of no worth .

We could posit an example of two family units . Each have a child . They are both in equal poverty and suffer from starvation . In the first family the mother gives her food to the child at the expense of her own hunger to give the child a better chance of survival . In the second family the mother starves the child by not sharing the food and gives herself a better chance of survival . What separates the first mother from the second mother ? I will say that love separates them . Try program that into a robot .

sean s. said...

Sid;

Try program that into a robot .

The hardest part of your hypothetical is figuring out how to make robots that have children. The rest is easy enough.

How do I know? Because we’re doing it now.

Self-driving cars are robots. An we’re already programming them to protect others without any regard for their own welfare. They are already exhibiting the behaviors of love, through pure programming.

So we can put this whole topic of “love” away. Been there, done that.

sean s.

Sabine Hossenfelder said...

I was hoping someone would point out the obvious, but since that doesn't seem to be happening, allow me to say that not everything that goes on in a person's brain results in an action. Programming a machine to perform certain actions as that of a human hence will not necessarily create the same internal states as that of the human. In other words, if you program a robot to act as if it was in love, that doesn't mean it actually is in love.

Having said that, this is of course entirely irrelevant to the question whether or not you can write a computer code for love. For all we presently know about the laws of nature, you can in principle do that. In practice, however, presently no one can do it, and no one has an idea whether it will one day be possible.

sean s. said...

Sabine;

Programming a machine to perform certain actions as that of a human hence will not necessarily create the same internal states as that of the human.

That is certainly true, but until we can observe and characterize those internal states, all we can say is that some people or robots appear to have love. That appearance will be found in their behaviors.

If a non-terrestrial intelligence is ever encountered, how would we determine if they were capable of love? Unless we can observe internal mental states, all we have to go on is their observable behavior. If they act like they have love, then we’d reasonably say they in fact do have love.

If we were able to observe their internal mental states (and our own), and those turned out to be radically different, but their behaviors and ours matched our understanding of love, would we say they were experiencing a different emotion, or merely experiencing the same emotion in their own internal way? Which explanation would be most useful?

If we can program a robot to behave as if it is capable of love, why would it matter what their internal state was as compared to our own?

And for clarities’ sake: to “have love” and to “be in love” are different. The former is an attribute or a capability, the latter is a circumstance.

sean s.

JimV said...

"Programming a machine to perform certain actions as that of a human hence will not necessarily create the same internal states as that of the human."

I tried to cover this point previously when I wrote about roses smelling like oranges and vice-versa. How something is experienced as an internal state seems less important to me than the actions that internal state is intended to produce. When I press a key to type this, how does Windows feel as it detects that key, translates it to ASCII, and passes it to Google Chrome? I don't care, but I maintain (a) that a feeling is just a way of experiencing, and if Windows felt nothing it would not detect the keypress; and (b) the feelings humans have, e.g. pain and love, were programmed into their nervous systems by a billion years of trial and error (inherited from precursors), just as Windows was programmed (also by trial and error and inheritance--how many Windows versions and updates have there been?).

Another way of explaining this point: there can be many different ways to accomplish something. One can do an Olympic high jump with a straddle-roll or a Fosbury Flop. The medal goes to whomever clears the highest bar, regardless of the technique. No doubt these methods feel differently as one goes over the bar. The accomplishment itself is what is important.

Whether I expect humanoid androids to be developed by humans and whether it would be useful to do so are different issues. My best guess currently is that the human race has reached its level of incompetence (See Peter Principle) and its civilization will probably collapse within the next 100 years, leaving a lot of things undone, useful and not.

(Disclaimer: management is not responsible for opinions and guesses in this comment, which are solely those of the commenter.)

Sabine Hossenfelder said...

I don't know what you mean by "they have love", it looks like verbal gymnastics to me. And we can measure internal mental states. Maybe not very well, but we can, and we'll get better at it. To insist that observed actions are sufficient to determine mental processes is just wrong.

Steven Mason said...

Sabine wrote: I was hoping someone would point out the obvious, but since that doesn't seem to be happening, allow me to say that not everything that goes on in a person's brain results in an action.

In the context of love, actions are the only way to give, show or prove it. If I'm wrong about that, I hope someone can point it out.

Regarding internal states, well, love is a series of decisions to commit oneself to the welfare of another person. Isn't love like any other decision we make for a long-term commitment? We can plainly see that people "fall" in and out of love. Sometimes we don't understand why we love someone or don't love someone. Pop psychologist Angela Duckworth would say that love requires "grit."

Years ago I read a study about fMRI scans of people looking at photos of loved ones and strangers. When people looked at loved ones, the fMRI lit up in a consistent, recognizable pattern. Someone might point out that the fMRI is a crude way to detect the "internal state" of love that doesn't involve an action, but in fact the scan is measuring a reaction. Actions take place in the brain.

Sabine wrote: if you program a robot to act as if it was in love, that doesn't mean it actually is in love.

But isn't that precisely how humans do it? Don't we program ourselves to act as if we are in love, when we make the decision to love someone? Isn't 90% of that program already written for us by the culture we live in, and we just follow it, with maybe 10% left over for customization and personal preference?

Here in the US, I am constantly amazed at how strongly people resist various kinds of love, when I see no difference between them. For example, there is still strong resistance to homosexual love and marriage.

Sabine Hossenfelder said...

Steven,

You are now conflating "action" with an internal "reaction". You are either trying to backpedal on your earlier claim that love is people doing things for each other, or you are expressing yourself very, very unclearly.

Steven Mason said...

Sabine wrote: To insist that observed actions are sufficient to determine mental processes is just wrong.

I don't think anyone has said that. Earlier, I pointed out how ridiculously easy it is to pretend to love someone.

How does the decision to love someone differ from other decisions involving long-term commitments? Consider a person who, each day for thirty years, goes to work, volunteers at the local hospital, and practices the cello. Decisions about loving someone, working, volunteering, and playing an instrument, involve an ongoing series of decisions to continue or stop the commitment. Every long-term commitment has pros and cons. Even when we love someone or something, there are plenty of days that we don't feel love and don't want "to act as if we are in love." And yet, on those days, we "follow the program" in spite of the "internal mental processes" urging us not to.

For some reason, this reminds me of the TV show "The Biggest Loser," where obese contestants follow a punishing program to lose weight. All of their internal mental processes are screaming to "STOP!" The only thing that keeps them going is their drill sergeant, the pressure of being on national TV, and a sizable cash prize.

Also, there's a great short story by Stephen King titled "Quitters, Inc." It begins with a man who wants to quit smoking and moves toward making him a better, more loving husband. It's an interesting exploration of how to tweak those internal mental processes.

Steven Mason said...

Sabine wrote: You are now conflating "action" with an internal "reaction". You are either trying to backpedal on your earlier claim that love is people doing things for each other, or you are expressing yourself very, very unclearly.

Just because an action is internal (in the brain), that doesn't make it any less of an action. I'm not backpedaling; I'm merely elaborating and clarifying. And there are still a thousand other details I haven't mentioned. In a forum like this, posts have to be short and oversimplified.

As for expressing myself unclearly, well, we'd all have to share beers and talk for two hours before we could expect to make any real headway on a complex topic like this. Some of the things you've said aren't clear to me, either, but that's to be expected and I don't fault you for it.

sean s. said...

It is interesting how far this thread has drifted. “Love” came up in a spurious defense of free will: that love requires free will. Free will came up in a question about to Sabine’s “occasional lapse into solipsism” (which probably happen to a lot of people). Strange how our minds work.

Sabine wrote, “I don't know what you mean by ‘they have love’...

OK, let me rewrite that question I asked to remove the offending phrases.

If a non-terrestrial intelligence is ever encountered, how would we determine if they were capable of love? Unless we can observe internal mental states, all we have to go on is their observable behavior. If they act like they are capable of love, then we’d reasonably say they are capable of love.

I think the question is clear; there are no verbal gymnastics involved.

... we can measure internal mental states. Maybe not very well, but we can, and we'll get better at it.

Agreed, but we cannot do this except under special circumstances. Outside the lab, in ordinary life, we rely on observed behaviors because there we cannot observe internal mental states.

To insist that observed actions are sufficient to determine mental processes is just wrong.

If I ever do that, you’d be right to correct me. But I haven’t. Observed actions are all we normally have to tell us anything about mental processes. They are not determinative; they are indicative.

... love is people doing things for each other ...

It is not unusual in English for one word to have multiple, related meanings. The term “love” in English can refer to behaviors or it can refer to the emotion or internal mental state that prompts those behaviors. Because we normally cannot observe internal mental states, we normally infer them from their outward signs: facial expressions and behaviors.

Love is not unusual in this.

And as my hypos about a non-terrestrial intelligence try to illustrate, if behaviors are consistent with “love” then we’d reasonably say the actor is capable of love.

sean s.

Sid said...

Sean
Aside from the point you made regarding the problem of robots conceiving children , you also missed the dilemma of how robots will also suffer from starvation and be put into a survive or sacrifice situation . A self driving car avoiding accidents is about as poverty stricken analogy of love as I can imagine , really ?
A person can love without performing an observable action . Example . The starving mother lets the child eat her food so the child may survive at the expense of the mothers hunger . The mother doesn’t do or say anything that can be measured or quantified . How would an observer know this is an act of love ?
Been there , done that . I don’t think so , you are a million miles away .

Sid said...

Sean
Love is not a spurious defense of free will , it is the ultimate expression of free will . Free will needs no defense , you live it every day as does the rest of humanity . Your arguments are meaningless because they are unprovable. An intellectual workout is all it is at best .

JimV said...

For those who are not aware, self-reproducing artificial robots exist as we discuss this. They extract resources from their environment to power themselves and grow, and to make new copies of themselves. Their externally-observable behavior is very simple (they would not hesitate to let a copy starve, unlike some fish and most mammals who have more complex programmed strategies for species survival), but their internal engines are extremely complex. Like many designed things, they were copied directly from nature. They are at the opposite end of a spectrum from AlphaGo, whose internal behavior is not too hard to understand (although again it was copied from nature, with some development), but whose external behavior baffles Go grandmasters.

The basic principle is that things that nature developed over billions of years of trial and error are not magic and can be duplicated artificially, provided we have the time and resources to make the effort. This principle has worked in thousands of cases, which convinces me that it is valid, although there will always be more difficult cases which we don't have the capacity to succeed with.

When I was a child, the family of my best friend was fostering another child for a while. One day he asked us, "What is the sky made of? Does it just go on, clouds and blue stuff, forever?" I didn't fault him for that, although my friend laughed. People don't know what they don't know. One thing that might expand people's perspectives would be to teach simple computer programming in elementary school and more advanced techniques in high school. (Perhaps some countries do this already.) Besides being useful, it teaches logic and to consider all cases. The first time the computer does what you told it to do but not what you thought you told it to do is a revelation. How to do online searches for new information and to check preconceptions would also be a good course. (Despite a lot of experience with the former and some with the latter, I still make mistakes, though.)

sean s. said...

Sid;

A self driving car avoiding accidents is about as poverty stricken analogy of love as I can imagine ...

Now you’re just being silly. My example is precisely on point.

The nature of the sacrifice is irrelevant; risky acts taken without regard to one’s own well-being and for the benefit of others can be programmed into robots; they are being programmed into them now. And this will only increase over time. Robotic aircraft already exist, robotic ships and trucks (lorries) are not far away. Warehouses and factories are full of robots.

A person can love without performing an observable action . Example . The starving mother lets the child eat her food so the child may survive at the expense of the mothers hunger . The mother doesn’t do or say anything that can be measured or quantified .

Your example is an observable act. “Letting” someone do something observable (take food from your meal) is itself an observable act.

Free will needs no defense , you live it every day as does the rest of humanity .

I’m sure you think this is true; you just can’t help yourself.
Me? I realize the truth: that our choices are constrained and limited; often laden with dire consequences or simply predetermined.

If they were not, I would have used my flying car this morning to fly from my Zeppelin-home to a near-by space-port to take an FTL trip to Betelgeuse.

But alas, no. Nature does not permit what I will to do. So I rode my bicycle to work instead. In the sub-freezing cold. Rats!

sean s.

Anthony Verbalis said...

Sid, you said it well. Free will needs no defense. Free-will denial, on the basis of an incomplete theoretical world-view, is what must be proven. Just as Sabine rightfully rejects some physical theories because they have no chance of experimental verification, I reject free-will denial for the same reason. I view free-will denial itself as a exercise of free will, and I hold nothing against adherents of this choice, provided they act in everyday matters as if they did have free will.

Sean S., you are correct that our choices are constrained by deterministic factors. Some choices are more probable than others. But you cannot extrapolate and claim that there is no free will within these constraints. How much? I do not know. But if you do extrapolate so, you are making an extraordinary claim, which requires extraordinary proof.

Steven Mason said...

Sean wrote: The term “love” in English can refer to behaviors or it can refer to the emotion or internal mental state that prompts those behaviors.

There are many good points you've made in this post. I'll respond to this one because I'd like to add something.

We've been discussing the "programming" of love. I suggested that perhaps 90% of love is programmed by our culture. We largely follow a program, certainly in our external behaviors. I'll also suggest that even with our emotions and internal mental states, we are largely following programs given to us by our culture. Human emotions about love are hardly universal and unchanging; they can range from actual love sickness to cold pragmatism. What do all stalkers have in common? They "love" their victims. And I'm fond of the humorous aphorism, "It's just as easy to love a rich man as a poor one."

I can tell you from the stories I heard from my grandparents and parents that some of what passed for love and wooing in the 1930's, 40's and 50's would seem disturbing today, even criminal. Conversely, some of what passed as deviant and criminal - e.g. homosexual love - is considered normal today (at least partly).

A girl raised on a steady diet of romance novels and movies might condition her emotions and internal mental states, setting herself up for disappointment. How does a man show love to a woman? I recall a line from the movie "Lars and the Real Girl," when one brother explains to the other brother that a real man doesn't cheat on his woman. A simple enough "program," but for some men perhaps difficult to follow. In other times and cultures, men could have multiple wives, concubines and mistresses, and "love" them all.

I guess what I'm trying to say in a long-winded way is that the emotions and internal mental states associated with love are largely programmed by culture. In a large, complex culture like ours, people have a range of "programs" to select from.

Sean, I liked your analogy of the non-terrestrial intelligence. I'm hoping that someone will offer an interesting and challenging response to it, but I'm not holding my breath.

Discussing love may seem like topic drift, except for the fact that Sid insists that love requires free will and is the ultimate expression of free will. I suppose that's a tenuous connection, because no matter what we may or may not demonstrate about love doesn't really demonstrate anything about free will. I think that Sid's insistence that love requires free will is simply a philosophical foundation for him, and as such requires no proof or even any evidence. Sid is the Descartes of Love, proclaiming, "I love, therefore I have free will."

I think Sid is funny, but maybe that's because I'm an American who appreciates American humor. :-)

Steven Mason said...

Sid wrote: A person can love without performing an observable action. Example. The starving mother lets the child eat her food so the child may survive at the expense of the mothers hunger. The mother doesn’t do or say anything that can be measured or quantified. How would an observer know this is an act of love?

It's my turn to say "really?" A mother giving her food to a starving child is an observable action. C'mon, Sid.

Sid wrote: Your arguments are meaningless because they are unprovable. Free will needs no defense.

Doesn't it seem the least bit suspicious to you that you require proof from anyone who challenges your claim that free will exists, while you say that your claim needs no defense (i.e. no proof or evidence)? Do you see the double standard?

At this point, there is no proof that free will exists or doesn't exist. There isn't a scientific consensus on the matter. Your personal certainty seems to be based on some kind of wishful thinking. I'm human, so I admit I'm biased to prefer having free will, but I try not to let that cloud my objectivity. I acknowledge that some evidence points in the direction of our not having free will.

If it turns out that we don't have free will, I wouldn't be upset, let alone devastated. It is what it is, and no matter what it is, I can always fall back to the undeniable fact that humans can experience joy, even if that joy is a self-induced delusion of consciousness. A pleasant if brief existence is not the worst thing I can imagine. (In Richard Bach's novel "Illusions," there is the metaphor of watching a movie and suspending belief.) If I desire meaning and purpose in life, that's easy: Work to make the world as pleasant as possible for everyone. Oh dear, that sounds suspiciously like love. :-)

Sid said...

You realize the truth ? You cannot prove this truth . This is an endless debate that goes round and round . Until you can prove that free will does not exist then the reality of the choices you make each and every day is the only reality and the rest is just an intellectual workout .
Free will is free until proven otherwise .

Sabine Hossenfelder said...

Anthony,

I am not "denying" free will, I am simply telling you it is incompatible with experimentally well confirmed theories. As I already said above, please look up the causal exclusion argument. We already have a theory for the human brain, it does not contain free will, you cannot have a second theory that arrives at other predictions, that would be logically inconsistent.

Steven Kurtz said...

A.V. postulates yet again using The Negative Fallacy. This is akin to religious belief. Reason isn't possible with leaps of faith. All that needs to be done is agreement on a semantic difference re the chosen definitions involved in this ridiculous discussion. What is "love"? The history of human poetry, art, music, literature...describes the varieties of definitions. But nobody can demonstrate calorie free love, nor thought, nor disembodied anything. Thus, prior physical states are the Occam's Razor best explanation of their origin. All the anecdotes proferred are subjective verbiage which do not rebut physicality.

Sid said...

Steven M
If you observe a starving child eating the mothers food and there is no action of any kind from the mother for you to observe the how do you deduce the mothers motivations ( love ) from this non action ?
No double standard Steven , this is a science blog , my free will actions everyday are my proof . Where is the proof beyond intellectual arguments that my freewill belief that is shared with collective humanity from the beginning of time is an illusion . ?

Steven K
If you believe that physicality is the only reality then it’s not surprising that you would find the subject of love to be a ridiculous discussion .
Love is not to be reasoned with and it will pass straight through physicality so I can sympathize with your intellectual rejection of its reality .
Que Sera Sera

Sabine Hossenfelder said...

Sid,

I have already repeated that several times, but here we go again. Free will is ruled out because it is incompatible with experimentally well-established theories. You are simply ignoring this, which amounts to denial.

Steven Kurtz said...

I suspected Sid would chime in.
Re:
"If you believe that physicality is the only reality then it’s not surprising that you would find the subject of love to be a ridiculous discussion . "

Please present your scientific evidence to the Nobel committee that any non-caloric/energetic/chemical idea, emotion, etc. exists. Theists do like wise, please! The world is waiting for revelation.

Sid said...

Sabine
Yes , I get that . Of course it is a theory that other philosophers disagree with , you choose to accept the theory .
Does the theory explain where the mental / physical came from ?
If the physical is all there is then we can assume according to the Causal argument that the Laws of Nature are a product of the physical , if not , then which came first ? If the argument is that we are all just products of a determined physical process without any freewill then the laws of nature must also be the same . So how does the physical produce the laws of nature that produce the physical ?

sean s. said...

Anthony;

Free will needs no defense.

All claims about the world need “defense” (which I take to mean justification, proof, etc.) Free will is no exception. If it’s so obviously true, then “defending” it (justifying it) should be easy; but it’s not.

... you are correct that our choices are constrained by deterministic factors. Some choices are more probable than others. But you cannot extrapolate and claim that there is no free will within these constraints. How much? I do not know.

I agree; whatever free will we have, it can and would have to operate within the constraints. That has been my position; I do NOT claim there is no free will within these constraints.

Like you, I don’t know “how much” freedom we have within our constraints, but I do know that sometimes the constraints are quite severe. I do not reject the possibility of “constrained free will”.

We may be like dogs on leashes: free to act within the reach of our constraints (leashes). Some have long leashes, some have short. Some are leashed in barren places with little opportunity. Some are leashed to a refrigerator door and can get into lots of mischief.

But the leash is always there.

Sabine justifies her argument against free will with the “causal exclusion principle”. I commented on that here (10:05 AM, November 08) to the point of why I think it is inapt with regards to free will. Free will cannot control nature, but it can contribute to choices/decisions.

sean s.

sean s. said...

Sid;

You realize the truth ? You cannot prove this truth .

Not only can I prove it, I did so. My will is constrained and limited. Otherwise I would have used my flying car this morning to fly from my Zeppelin-home to a near-by space-port to take an FTL trip to Betelgeuse.

But I can’t. No one can. Do you have proof to the contrary? Nope.

Sid, have you ever actually been with someone literally starving? I have. Starving people often drift off and fail to pay attention. So, if I see a mother do nothing while her child takes her food, I cannot conclude that she is doing so from love, she may just be unaware. Ten minutes later she may look down, see her food gone and beat her child to death. So much for love.

The challenge you raised was to program robots to do acts we associate with love, acts YOU associate with love. That challenge has been met.

The rest of this is just you’re thrashing around trying to evade that outcome. Probably because you are incapable of giving up on free will; you lack that freedom.

Whatever freedom you think you experience, it happens within constraints nature or circumstance imposes on you. Freedom; real freedom, comes from recognizing that fact, if those constraints permit you to. I’m doubtful you can.

sean s.

sean s. said...

Sid;

If the physical is all there is then we can assume according to the Causal argument that the Laws of Nature are a product of the physical , if not , then which came first ? If the argument is that we are all just products of a determined physical process without any freewill then the laws of nature must also be the same . So how does the physical produce the laws of nature that produce the physical ?

First: the “laws of nature” do not “produce the physical”; laws of nature simply are our descriptions of how things behave according to our observations.

In general, your question is the mystery of where everything came from. Clearly something must be first, and that First Something must be – in some sense – eternal. There’s no reason I know of that the First Something can’t be “merely physical”. No mystical phenomena or persons are required by any evidence I know of.

Whether or not this excludes free will is entirely dependent on how one defines free will. A constrained free will is not excluded at all; not even if everything is merely “physical”.

sean s.

Steven Kurtz said...

"In general, your question is the mystery of where everything came from. Clearly something must be first, and that First Something must be – in some sense – eternal. There’s no reason I know of that the First Something can’t be “merely physical”. No mystical phenomena or persons are required by any evidence I know of."

Thanks, Sean, for honing in on an *assumed* beginning. Until a spacio-temporal boundary of reality can be evidenced, "eternal" and infinite seems the best assumption to me. A singularity is an assumed start point of *one* universe. (That may or may not be all of reality.) It must be energetic for a bang to erupt, in my view anyway. A teleology from that point onwards/outwards would still include animal behavior! I'm referring to those observed laws, not to any purpose.



Sid said...

Sean
I believe your flying car analogy fits into the “you cannot will what you will “ statement . Of course nobody can just will anything into existence but we can certainly “ do what we will “ . If this makes this constrained freewill in your mind so be it . I’m not interested in arguing over the meaning of words . I define freewill for the sake of this debate as an undetermined freedom to choose my actions .

You posted an analogy of being able to say that aliens were capable of love by their actions , that observing was enough to identify the quality we call love . I gave you an example where it is unidentifiable and is only known by the person , the starving mother , and it is therefore not possible to produce this in a robot because you don’t even know it exists to begin with .
Granted what I take to mean love and what you take to mean love may be manifest themselves in different forms . Again , so how do you program this into a robot ? , you claim that a self driving car that can in essence self destruct is an example of love . Does the car understand why it is committing this act of sacrifice or is it just doing what it is programmed to do ? Does the starving mother understand what she is doing or is it just what she is programmed to do ?
We both understand this debate is as old as the hills and we are not ploughing any new fields here . I stand by love as the ultimate expression of freewill and my everyday reality and the choices that I believe I freely make as proof of this belief . You or nobody else have produced anything of any scientific worth that can even remotely claim to have made my belief obsolete .

Sid said...

Steven K
So we don’t know what the fundamental basis of anything is , we only have points of reference that we have reached but not gone beyond
If freewill is rejected based upon the predictability of physical laws then unless you can prove that the laws of nature are fundamental and there is nothing beyond them then your rejection of freewill is only a reference point that you have not gone beyond . We can quite easily say that the laws of nature are a manifestation of freewill and therefore freewill is fundamental . How can we do this ? Our everyday reality and humanity’s understanding of itself from the beginning of time says that freewill is fundamental to humanity . If the laws of nature are only mathematical constructs to explain reality then we can also say that freewill is also a human construct that reveals a deeper reality beyond the laws of nature .

JimV said...

There are many species of fish which will protect and feed their young. This is an instinct which evolution found, by trial and error, which makes it more likely for that species to continue to exist (and evolve). How many children would survive to adulthood if humans had not inherited this instinct from precursors? I know in your case your children are wonderful, but have you seen how the neighbor's children behave and how much work they cause? (I know the instinct can carry over to other people's children, but it tends to be stronger among one's own pack.)

One of the things that can be eventually developed as programs become more complex is self-programming: the ability to learn from experience. AlphaGo has this ability, as do humans. Also, the more complicated a program is, the more things it can evaluate to make decisions, which is to say, the more it understands what it is doing.

Nature shows us a spectrum of these abilities. Dogs can understand up to a few hundred spoken commands. Chimpanzees can figure out how to use simple tools to solve problems. Humans happen to be at the top, so far, in that spectrum. To think that makes us uniquely special is the same as a random lottery winner deciding that he won because the universe loves him and wanted him to. Somebody had to win.

Again, these instincts and abilities do not become less real the more one understands them, although the myths about them do.

No one can be forced to believe in science, or that 1+1=2, for that matter. Science is merely what makes the most sense due to the most evidence. E.g., fish protecting their young, and AlphaGO deciding, among all the empty places on a Go board, where it will put its next stone. As Uncle Al reminds us, look. (He also shows remarkable will to stay out of these endless discussions. I wish I had that. I wouldn't have to pay the huge fine I owe for repeating myself over and over and making Dr. Hossenfelder have to waste time moderating such comments.)

Steven Kurtz said...

Sid:
"Our everyday reality and humanity’s understanding of itself from the beginning of time says that freewill is fundamental to humanity ."

SK:
Whatever is fundamental to humanity is fundamental to all life barring evidence of non-physical anything. I rest my case. Your case is that semantics, verbiage, concepts, etc. about emotions, souls and the like is evidence. Science requires verifiable, sharable, affirmative evidence. The Negative Fallacy has not been rebutted. The onus is on the claimant.

Sid said...

Steven K
I have not used the words - emotions- souls and the like - , I recognize that this is a science blog and I try to stay within a science framework , so those words stay with you .
Science doesn’t do the non -physical . The evidence / absence line is applicable here . I gave a perfectly good example of something being present -Love , in the analogy of a starving mother , that is completely invisible to science . Because science cannot measure and quantify it does not mean that it doesn’t exist . Best pick up the case and find another spot to rest it .
As far as the negative fallacy , well , that works both ways so that can be discarded also.

Steven Kurtz said...

Sid:

"love" isn't an emotion and a word? I give up.

Sid said...

Steven K
No Steven , emotion may well be an expression of love but it does not define love . A little bit of Shakespeare goes a long way -

Love is not love

Which alters when it alteration finds,

Or bends with the remover to remove:

O no; it is an ever fixed mark,

That looks on tempests, and is never shaken;…

Love alters not with [Time’s] brief hours and weeks,

But bears it out even to the edge of doom.

Emotions may and will change but love is unchanging . Sort of like energy maybe .

JimV said...

po·et·ic li·cense
noun
the freedom to depart from the facts of a matter or from the conventional rules of language when speaking or writing in order to create an effect.

Sid said...

Jim
Well Jim , if the Bard rubs you up the wrong way then I’ll throw in the poetic license of a rather well respected physicist who had a word or two to say about super determinism ..... Physics isn't the most important thing. Love is.” Pure poetry . Pure reality .

Steven Mason said...

Jim wrote: po·et·ic li·cense

Unus e verbo, multis argumentis