Determinist Reductionism Sucks – Yet Again

I may have posted this before (from Aug 2022) but was prompted to read and share it today since Kevin Mitchell re-tweeted it.

Like the original Twitterstorm the prompt was a heated dialogue involving Sabine Hossenfelder, this time with Philip Goff (all publicity is good publicity if you’re selling a book I guess) – but a lot of the usual “scientists don’t need / don’t understand philosophers” garbage. Lots of people posting the Dennett meme – no metaphysics-free science, just scientists ignorant of their metaphysical presumptions.

Like Kevin I avoided interjecting until he re-posted this.

“Getting to the bottom of reductionism
โ€“ is it all just physics in the end?”

To which several wags responded “Yes”.
But I responded:

I like it. My short version.
Nothing is “just” anything (other than itself).

Emergent complex stuff depends on – supervenes on, emerges from – simpler foundation layers, but is not “reduced to” or “determined by” (only) the laws, states and histories of those simpler layers.

He uses “historicity” half a dozen times. I tend to use ergodicity, a more formal “system-states” version of the same idea. In emergent layers, history matters, not just current states of lower layers.

Anyway, really just posted to ensure I have a searchable link to it for future writing. Has lots of references to others I’ve used.

The “just” qualifier – disguises some debate about what fundamental physics is anyway – dynamic information patterns rather than matter and energy anyone? Also disguises individual < class < class-of-class ambiguities. (Scientists conflating concepts with empirical realities. Theorising vs ontological commitment when the rubber hits the road.)


And, coincidentally during the same ongoing on-line debate, Kevin Mitchell was lined-up to speak with Robert Sapolsky, infamous for his new book “Determined: Life Without Free Will”. (I’ve tried to avoid the latter, but it might be interesting to see how the dialogue went?)

(Interesting that Sapolsky opens with admitting he takes “an extreme position”. Trolling? – not convinced so far that his story on physical brain manifestations of our developmental life history – and cultural influence on those – actually says anything about our free-will? All obviously influence and constrain how we work without determining it. Continuing. Listening to all of it – the recurring point of Kevin’s in response to Sapolski – examples of the negative cases don’t negate the positive case. It’s not a binary all freedom-and-conscious-will or none. Personally – after Dennett – there is probably less than 0.001% free will in world activities – the kind of free-will worth having is no surprise? Supervisory free-won’t. All the slippery slope of moral relativism stuff is irrelevant, a separate topic. Hypocrisy too – is an evolved “skill”.)


7 thoughts on “Determinist Reductionism Sucks – Yet Again”

  1. Mitchell says agents *determine* their choices:

    “I would say the outcome is not predetermined, its determined by your processes of cognition.”

    “Individuals take all these influences from their past, all this knowledge, and according to their own tunings and predispositions and propensities decide what to do in a given scenario.”

    “…we often have a good idea of why we decide what we do, we can explain our reasons, so its not just unconscious influences…we can trace a line of our own motivation.”

    Note that choices here are explained as traceable to various causes, historical and present, crucially including the agent’s own characteristics. What differentiates this explanatory account of behavior from Sapolsky’s determinism is that Mitchell holds that we could have determined our choices otherwise in a given situation and that there’s “causal slack” at the lower physical level that makes the future “radically open.” Which is why he says he disagrees with Dennett’s free will compatibilism:

    “If universe is really deterministic it makes no sense to talk about choices or agents or doings, there would just be happenings.”

    The question though is how indeterminism adds to agential control and choice-making, what Mitchell says he’s really trying to explain.

  2. And as I think he responded to you, using “determined” in such broad generalised ways, undermines any specific meaning as used by a physical “determinist”.

    And it’s not a matter of “indeterminism” as a binary opposite to “determinism”. There are aspects that are physically determined, and aspects that are decided in other biological and mental levels. (We COULD use the word determinism for all of them, but that would be to miss the point of the debate.)

  3. We routinely talk of explanatory determinants at many levels, e.g., character, crime, health, beliefs, addiction, etc. etc. so an approximately deterministic (causal) perspective needn’t be restricted to the physical level. I call this pragmatic determinism: for something to have turned out otherwise at whatever level you’re looking at, some relevant antecedent condition would have to have been otherwise, so for all practical purposes we can and should be determinists, any indeterminism and/or epistemic uncertainty aside.

    Mitchell seems to think that agents have some sort of ability to choose that transcends the determinants of a choice, thus making it the case they could have done otherwise in actual situations, which is why he parts company with Dennett. Whether or not we have this ability seems to me the crux of the debate about free will: compatibilists deny we have, libertarians say we do.

  4. Yes, in general conversation, but that’s not using the scientists “physical determinism” sense.
    (Kevin qualifies “physically speaking” several times.)

    I recall now why I stopped engaging with you in an earlier life ๐Ÿ™‚

    Looking for (pedantic) disagreement? – I disagree about parting ways with Dennett too – preferring to find constructive integration. I think we’re done here – though I have a follow-up Dennett / Mitchell determinism / compatibilism post in the pipeline.

  5. Sorry! I really do look forward to it since it’s among my main interests and your take can only help me get clearer about things. Staying tuned here…

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