Conscious Will – The View from Science

Coincidentally, having just read and reviewed the Dennett piece at lunchtime today, after having it bookmarked for a month or two, I picked-up on a Twitter thread between Philip Ball and Sabine Hossenfelder on pretty much the same topic, but based on a piece I also had bookmarked for sometime, by Ball in Physics World.

Despite a period of being seemingly open-minded to philosophy, Sabine seemed to have nevertheless ended-up at what I consider the caricature position of physicists. Since causal effects of conscious will cannot be explained by orthodox physics, it can’t be real. No escaping that causation itself is an elusive concept even if consciousness and free-will can themselves be explained. One thing’s for sure, something in the orthodoxy has to give, whether it’s in physics itself or in the nature of causal explanations. I’m with Dan in the evolutionary nature of causal explanations. Philip at first sight seems to suggest a dualist explanation – that there is something other than physics that explains consciousness:

“Philip Ball argues that “free will” is not ruled out by physics ” because it doesn’t stem from physics in the first place.”

But I see now that’s the editor’s click-bait, maybe not necessarily what Philip is really arguing.

(Continuing, after a full read …)

“[I]s free will really undermined by the determinism of physical law? I think such arguments are not even wrong; they are simply misconceived. They don’t recognize how cause and effect work, and by attempting to claim too much jurisdiction for fundamental physics they are not really scientific but metaphysical.”

Claiming too much jurisdiction for fundamental physics and acknowledging (metaphysical?) claims beyond physics.

“[W]e can have both (physical determinism and free-will). It’s simply a matter of recognizing distinct domains of knowledge.”

Still sounding very dualist? Unless one posits a single metaphysics underlying both domains – sometimes called a dual-aspect monism – a metaphysics that physicists can accept.

“The underlying problem here is that the reducibility of phenomena ” which is surely valid and well supported ” is taken to imply a reducibility of cause. But that doesn’t follow at all. What “caused” the existence of chimpanzees? If we truly believe causes are reducible, we must ultimately say: conditions in the Big Bang. But it’s not just that a “cause” worthy of the name would be hard to discern there; it is fundamentally absent.”

Now you’re talking – evolutionary causation is not “reducible” in the same way as an “atomic” ontology of phenomena that exist.

“There is good reason to believe that causation can flow from the top down in complex systems.”

Absolutely! – so evolved outcomes are a whole history of repeated two-way / circular interactions. (Will we be hearing of non-ergodicity later here?)

“[Avoiding the problematic language of “free” and “will”] Decisions are things that happen at the level of neural networks and they are made using the coarse-grained information available to sensory receptors and neurons. It makes no sense to regard them as interventions in particle interactions.”

“[T]he origins of volitional decision-making lie in evolutionary biology, [this] doesn’t share an epistemic language with Newtonian and quantum mechanics. To talk about causation in science at all demands that we seek causes commensurate with the phenomena: that’s simply good science and good epistemology.”

Anyway he concludes with:

“[Metaphysics] can be fun
and stimulating to debate such things,
but it is not science.”

OK, so he is saying these different epistemic domains are all within science, physics and evolutionary-neuro-biology are such distinct domains. No metaphysical duality as such. No metaphysical claims at all.

But. What makes such domains distinct – emergent-from / supervenient-on – each other has to be an important question? How we come to have an epistemic-ontology, with what exists being dependent on the language of what is known and meant in a given evolved domain.

I could understand science – the physical orthodoxy of science – being sceptical of that being sufficient explanation, but Sabine is wrong to simply give-up on causation at the boundaries of what physics can explain and declare such inexplicable phenomena as illusory.

A well argued piece from Philip. I feel Philip and Dan would find a great deal to agree on.


All my own epistemic-ontology would add is a metaphysical choice. That given that what exists somehow depends on “epistemic language”, that something like “information” – the stuff communicated by language – must underlie all domains, physical science included. In my epistemic-ontology all things and phenomena would be reducible to “particles” (Democritan atoms) of this stuff. Even without going back to metaphysical levels, it’s pretty clear that information is in some way fundamental to both physics and evolution. No?

Interestingly, in the Twitter thread linked above Philip offers this 2013 PNAS paper co-authored by Giulio Tononi (of IIT fame) and edited by Michael Gazzaniga, both referenced here multiple times, most recently in the previous Dennett post. A small and ever more convergent world.


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