The Discovery Institute goddies go after determinism again

October 24, 2020 • 11:15 am

Those who claim that hardly anybody believes in “contracausal” free will, in which the human mind alone can affect the body, giving one the ability to make any of several decisions at a single instant of time, forget how deeply embedded contracausal free will is in the Abrahamic religions. After all, if you can’t “freely” choose your religion or your savior, but are at the mercy of the laws of physics, of what use is Heaven or Hell? The whole Christian myth involves your ability to freely choose what to believe.

And if you believe in contracausal free will, then you must reject physical determinism, for physics is the “cause” to which your decision is “contra”. That’s why so many fundamentalist believers reject determinism, and why the creationist Discovery Institute (DI), peopled with true believers, is lately on an anti-determinism kick, going after determinists like me who attribute all behavior and decisions to the laws of physics rather than some immaterial “will” that interacts with matter. (I’m assuming that virtually all the readers here who espouse compatibilism are also determinists.) Since the DI has failed to overturn the teaching of evolution, they’re turning their attention to free will. But their arguments against determinism are no better than their arguments against evolution.

I pretty much ignore the DI’s bloviations on free will, for there’s a religious motivation for their denial of determinism, but when physicist Sabine Hossenfelder made a no-nonsense post and a video arguing that there was no free will because we’re subject to physical law, that was too much for the DI. (See my take on Hossenfelder’s views, with which I pretty much align, here.) The DI, along with many devout believers, absolutely detest that kind of materialism—I call it “naturalism”, but it’s the same thing—and so they’ve been going after both of us. The latest attack came from the DI’s Evolution News site, with a post by David Klinghoffer called “Science as Oracle—where it gets weird“. And they enlisted Cornelius Hunter, DI Fellow, creationist, and adjunct professor at the evangelical Christian school Biola University, to make a 24-minute video going after both Hossenfelder and me. Klinghoffer simply repeats Hunter, so I’ll deal with the video.

Watch and enjoy! I’ll have a few remarks below. But Hunter really should learn how to pronounce my name. It’s not “Cohen” but “Coyne,” pronounced like “coin.”


Hunter goes off on all kinds of antievolution tangents in this video, failing to stick to the promised critique of determinism. That’s probably because his critique can be summed up very simply: “There’s no evidence for determinism—it’s just a weird and bizarre pronouncement of scientists like Cohen, and constitutes “scientism.”

And that’s pretty much it. Hunter considers determinism “anti-empirical” because of the supposed lack of evidence for it, and, curiously, argues that it also “demolishes epistemology”. Why? Because there’s no guarantee that the laws of physics acting on humans would guarantee that we’d find the truth (is he referring to Jesus?). Ergo we’re not only determined by the laws of physics to say that we have no free will, making that claim unreliable, but we’re liable to make all kinds of false statements because the laws of physics have no obvious connection to finding truth.

I can rebut both of these claims very briefly.

There’s no evidence for determinism. This claim is absurd. The response is that everything on Earth, and, as far as we can tell, in the solar system, in the Milky Way galaxy, and in Universe, has uniformly obeyed the laws of physics since the Big Bang. That’s not a speculation, but an empirical conclusion (see here for some of the evidence). And if everything we know obeys physical laws (we need confine our observations only to Earth, since that’s where God’s Creatures live), then there’s no reason to think that our brains don’t as well. End of rebuttal.

What is odd is that these guys attack physical determinism on the false basis that there’s no evidence for it, but then pull ancient mythologies out of their nether parts and not only claim that they’re true, but base their whole lives and belief systems on them. Biola University is founded on unevidenced but comforting Christian superstition from ancient, redacted, and contradictory scriptures. Well, I’m much more comfortable thinking that the speed of light in a vacuum is the same everywhere in our solar system than I am thinking that Jesus rose from the dead.  I find it vastly amusing that people like Hunter are slaves to religious superstition and yet use a supposed lack of evidence to attack determinism.

Oh yes, and Hunter says that there’s plenty of evidence for contracausal free will! What is it? Merely the observation that we make what looks like “free” decisions!  I don’t need to rebut that, because these “free decisions” are illusions; they don’t rebut determinism.

We can have no confidence that we can find truth if determinism be true. The rebuttal of this can be conveyed in two words: natural selection. Animals, including us, could hardly survive if we had sensory systems that didn’t give us a fairly accurate representation of reality: where the dangers lie, where the food is, what happens if we jump off a cliff. But of course we can be fooled as well: I give plenty of examples in Faith Versus Fact of how our evolved sensory systems, or our beliefs, can be fooled by things we didn’t encounter during our evolution. (A lot of people think, for example, that if you whirl an object around your head on a string, it will continue to travel in a spiral when you let go. And of course there are optical illusions.)

After making a few tepid attempts to rebut determinism, Hunter goes off the rails and takes out after evolution instead, giving two examples of convergent evolution: similar toxic peptides in a tree and in some animals, as well as the possibility of the independent origin of synapses and neurons in ctenophores on the one hand and cnidarian/bilaterians on the other.

I’ve put the two articles he cites below so you can see them (they’re free; click on the screenshots).

In one of the more ludicrous claims that Hunter makes (he doesn’t accept evolution), he argues that convergent evolution—the independent evolution of similar features in independent lineages—is not consistent with evolution, for evolution supposedly claims that structures are “lineage specific”. If features evolve several times independently, he argues, we don’t need the theory of evolution. This is arrant nonsense. There is nothing in evolutionary theory that bars similar features from appearing in two or more independently evolving lineages.

Of course he ignores the copious evidence that the independent lineages EVOLVED as independent. For example, marsupials and placentals, which, according to both molecular evidence and the fossil record had a common ancestor, have nevertheless evolved several examples of convergence in their descendants. The marsupial flying squirrel or mole, for example, bears striking similarities to the placental flying squirrel or mole.

In other words, Hunter’s claim about what evolution is “supposed” to do rests on denying evolution in the first place. He also ignores the idea that common ancestors constrain the materials that can be used for evolution in their descendants, as well as the notion that there are physical and biological niches that often evoke similar responses in independent lineages, like the resemblance of shape and fins in three independent lineages: fish, marine mammals like porpoises, and ichthyosaurs.

Finally, in the paper on neurons, Hunter attacks one sentence because it’s supposedly violates evolutionary theory as well:  “animals frequently use different molecular toolkits to achieve similar functional outcomes”. He gloms onto the word “achieves”, arguing that the word implies that evolution has goals, and of course evolution isn’t goal oriented—which is true. But “achieves” in that sentence simply means that natural selection uses different molecular pathways when a similar adaptation arises. The scientists in the second paper are certainly not talking about teleology!

But the connection between free will and evolution is tenuous here, and I’m not sure why Hunter goes off on a siding, with the Numinous Express, apparently bound for Naturalism Town, suddenly takes the track towards Evolutionville.

Hunter’s mask slips at the end when he tries to explain out why so many smart people—I’m flattered that he puts both me and Hossenfelder in that class—believe in weird and bizarre things like determinism. His answer? He cites 2 Corinthians 4, verses 3 and 4, to wit (from the King James Bible):

But if our gospel be hid, it is hid to them that are lost:
In whom the god of this world hath blinded the minds of them which believe not, lest the light of the glorious gospel of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine unto them.

Yep, Hossenfelder and I, along with every other physicist and determinist on the planet, have been blinded to the truth of free will because we don’t believe in the Christian God. I’m not sure if Hossenfelder is Jewish—though I suspect from her name she’s of Jewish ancestry—but if she is, well, that explains why both she and I might be particularly blind to the truth of the Gospels, and susceptible to Satan’s blandishments about free will.

Jebus, what an argument! Now since the DI people read this website, desperately wanting to discredit me, they’ll see this post as well. They will have an answer to it, too, for their God has given them the truth, and they can’t let a couple of upstart cultural Jews overturn it.

54 thoughts on “The Discovery Institute goddies go after determinism again

  1. … Hunter really should learn how to pronounce my name. It’s not “Cohen” but “Coyne” …

    A blatant instance of anti-Irish bias. 🙂

  2. I only got a few minutes into his rant and had to bail. He’s not engaging the argument but rather surfing over it. Pretty shady.
    He says the laws of physics are assumed by determinists without justification. But he then goes on to say our intuitive sense of free will is all we need to prove it. Well, it’s just the opposite. The laws of physics are well established and the idea that human minds escape from them needs to be justified.

  3. A small but continual irritant is how C/ID folks leap to making arguments a matter of semantics, since (big surprise) words have different meanings in different contexts. So ‘achieve’ being one example here.
    In debates that I’ve had, one learns to try to avoid saying ‘design’, or ‘purpose’. It’s like saying an incantation that summons a lot of distracting babbling noise.

  4. Jeez, let’s start a GoFundMe account to buy C. Hunter a pocket protector for all those loose writing implements.

    Sure hope for this poor schlepper‘s sake that the students at Biola U aren’t into stuffing their adjunct professors into lockers and taking away their lunch money.

  5. Merci Jerry pour cette réponse intelligente et amusante à l’argument pseudo-scientifique de C. Hunter contre le déterminisme. Puissiez-vous et le professeur Hossenfelder demeurer en bonne santé!

  6. This guy just gives the common argument that scientists have so much confidence that they don’t explain everything. Of course, the reason they don’t explain everything every time is because they are building on a large common body of knowledge. His argument is simply silly.

  7. I am an atheist and have no truck with the religious ‘free will’ argument. Also, I have no problem with the notion that choices a person feel she makes have been preceded by neuronal interactions in the brain.

    Even so, how does one square the science with reflecting or backtracking on one’s views, or correct those, once you discover they’re wrong?

    1. It’s just your brain working according to the laws of physics and affected by your environment, including other people. You’re not really “freely” backtracking, any more than you’re “freely” deciding anything. I don’t understand why “changing your mind”, or negating a previous view, is somehow different from any other thought or action you have.

    2. Are you speaking of our notion that we could have done otherwise? Often, when we reflect upon a bad choice we have made, we think about what we “could have” done instead. This is how we learn from our mistakes. We revisit the choosing process, consider what we may have missed, and imagine how we could have done better. This exercise prepares us to actually do better in the future, so it is a valuable function.

      Choosing is a deterministic operation that inputs two or more options, applies some criteria of comparative evaluation, and based on that outputs a single choice. The options are things that we believe we “can” do. And, it is logically necessary that we have at least two of these “I can’s” before we enter the evaluation stage. At the end of the choosing operation, we will have a single “I will”, and at least one “I could have”. The “could have’s” are nothing more than the past tense the “I can’s” that we did not choose.

      So, as it turns out, it will always be true, whenever a choosing operation occurs, there there will be at least one “I could have”, in addition to the single inevitable “I will”.

      The determinist, then, is incorrect to say that a person is mistaken when they say “I could have done otherwise under the same conditions”. To be correct, the determinist may only say that “I would not have done otherwise under the same conditions”.

      So, we can keep saying that “I could have done otherwise”, even in a perfectly deterministic universe. (And at this point everyone else here is pulling out their hair).

  8. So… Hunter would rather rely upon a 400 year old English edited translation of an edited Latin translation of an edited collection of nearly 2,000 year of mostly Greek scraps of correspondence, gossip and hearsay?

    1. Don’t forget the Old Testament, which was written partly in Hebrew, partly in Aramaic, before it was translated into Koine Greek.

  9. Hard to suppress a snigger when he criticizes the “total certainty” of people like Hossenfelder and Coyne! You won’t find any total certainty amongst the ranks of creationists, no siree!

    And on a rather trivial note I would nominate this talk for about the worst use of visual aids I have seen in a long time. What exactly is the point of scrawling all of his supposedly killer points in scrawly writing that’s too small to see?

    1. Not at all defending his arguments but I had no trouble reading his little white board. He used it as a sort of poor man’s slide presentation. A bit more intimate and also an attempt to make his argument appear to be rational and scientific.

  10. I teach the ctenophores-and-neurons story to my students. Hunter misses an important part of the story.

    First, it is not a slam dunk that ctenophores (which have neurons) are the sister group to all the other animals, including sponges and placozoans (sorry you have to look it up) that do not have neurons. Only for that phylogeny is it plausible that neurons evolved twice (or three times): in ctenophores, and in the cnidarians and the bilaterians (everything else). Lots of data (genome sequences) support that phylogeny, but some analyses of the same or other data support sponges as the sister group to the rest of the animals.

    Second, the Moroz & Kohn (2016) article says that it’s unlikely that neurons evolved just once because sponges and placozoans are not expected to lose all traces of a nervous system (if they were descended from that same common ancestor shared with ctenophores, in which neurons evolved just one time). But that history is only unlikely, it’s not impossible. There is evidence that sponges have genes for making many of the neurotransmitters used in ctenophore and bilateral neurons, and that’s consistent with (but again not slam-dunk evidence for) neurons evolving once in the common ancestor of all animals, and secondarily lost in sponges. That kind of secondary loss or simplification is common among parasitic species that evolve very small bodies, but total loss of neurons in large-bodied sponges is shocking.

    So I teach my students that both possibilities are gob-smacking: parallel evolution of neurons and synaptic signalling; or total loss of nervous systems in large-bodied sponges descended from the animal common ancestor. I guess it is a kind of teach-the-controversy approach. I’m holding out for a conclusive phylogenetic analysis, or some very convincing developmental genetic analysis that shows neurons of ctenophores are not homologous with the neurons of other animals. Moroz & Kohn allude to this kind of focus on understanding the embryological (rather than phylogenetic) origins of neurons from specific cell lineages in ctenophore embryos compared to other animal embryos. I haven’t looked to see whether such cell lineage studies have been done in the last 4 years. Maybe there is an answer already.

    1. Hey, this is really off topic, but my Developmental Psychology professor had this quick way of saying that the developing fetus mirrors its evolutionary history (it passed through earlier forms). It went something like “SomethingOlogy follows SomethingElseOlogy”, but I cannot recall what the two -ologies were. Does this ring a bell?

      1. Ontogeny recapitulates Phylogeny. It’s not strictly true. Think of it more as a metaphor. Human embryos never have gills but the branchial arches, which become gills in fish and amphibians, become various organs in the face, neck, and upper chest in mammals.
        Better late than never. I was following a search trail on free will.

      1. If that was aimed at me the thank you! I go on at length sometimes. I used to lurk but not comment much here, but I comment often since the pandemic. I think it’s because I lack direct contact with students and don’t have opportunities to think about ideas and then talk with students about them. It’s not the same in zoom meetings. I wonder if lots of commenters here are experiencing something similar (is overall commenting up or down since March?).

  11. The Discovery Institute seems like such an utterly irrelevant and spent effort. It amazes me that it still attracts people who are still fired up enough to make hollow arguments that tangentially mention actual facts.

    Instead, I’d expect them to get with the conservative program and simply lie! This is where the real ferment is, isn’t it?

  12. Well said, Jerry, on how natural selection favors organisms that have reliable cognitive and perceptual systems. As an engineer, I have to add that intelligent human designers generally prefer deterministic behavior in our components. Because it makes our designs more reliable! Reliability and determinism are friends.

    Compatibilists typically think that determinism as physicists define it is a characteristic of some of the best-supported theories. But it’s important not to confuse determinism-as-physicists-define-it with determinism as conceived by the general public. In physics, determinism applies at all size scales, but causality does not, according to WEIT official website physicist Sean Carroll. The actual physics matters here – not that I have much hope for IDers to learn about entropy and relativity, when they can’t even grasp the outlines of how evolution works.

  13. Thanks for such a great demolition!

    I wonder if Hunter’s assertion that ‘there’s no guarantee that the laws of physics acting on humans would guarantee that we’d find the truth’ is a laboured reference to Plantinga’s absurd argument that evolution equipped us only well enough to be able to escape predators, not to discern the truth about anything. I seem to recall that PCC(E) demolished this nonsense many years ago.

    As for that strange couple of verses in Corinthians, surely they prefigure the much later comment in ‘Mark’ that: “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables so that they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding” (Mark 4, 11-12). Evidence that Christianity was originally an esoteric religion, designed for the lucky initiates.

  14. So, for example, is the “noise” in gene expression real(e.g. Or they are still all determined from the beginning of the universe, and all the stochasticity stuff are just backward illusions?

    And, both being highly-regarded physicists on this site, how does Sabine Hossenfelder’s claim that there are no multiple possible futures jibe with Sean Carroll’s enthusiasm in many-worlds theory? Maybe because all these worlds are still described by a single wave function, so as a whole it’s still single future? BTW, can anyone write down such a wave function for an E. coli, or even a carbon atom?

    I have no interest in God or any “transcendent agent”, as they don’t seem to be needed to explain the world (at least for me, so far). I am just curious what people really mean by “determinism”. There may be a (semantic?) conflation between everything is determined by physics (which I buy) and everything is determined in advance.

    1. I am not a physicist, but I think the distinction you’re looking for is not “everything is determined by physics [versus] everything is determined in advance”, because those two things are the same. I think the distinction you want is “everything is determined by physics” versus “everything can be predicted in advance.” “Determined” is a theory about the system, whereas “predicted” is a model of the system that is fitted to data and then the fitted parameters are compared to real observations of the future state.

      We can’t predict the states of most complex biological systems very far into the future because most are too complex to model in a way that would lead to reliable predictions that could be tested. Noisy gene expression is a good example. We can predict the state of a single chemical reaction to equilibrium in a closed system like a test tube, but not the combined states of thousands of chemical reactions that interact with each other in a live cell. The best that systems biologists can do is predict the state of smaller systems of interacting genes and molecules over short periods of time, like gene regulatory networks that affect the expression of the genes that determine the number and arrangement of cells in a developing tissue in an embryo (small numbers of genes, small numbers of cells, small spatial scale in embryos, over brief periods of time).

      But that doesn’t mean the state of the larger organism is not determined in advance by the physical chemistry of the molecules and forces. It just means our predictive models are limited, especially to prediction only a short time into the future.

      Or maybe that’s not how you were thinking of this. Sorry for the long reply.

      1. Mike, I’m not sure we can say that everything is determined in advance. An event is not fully determined until all of the prior causes that bring it about have played themselves out, and the event has actually happened. For example, suppose that one of the prior causes of the event is a human choice, such as deciding which piece of wood to pull out in a Jenga game. We could never predict this choice from the state of things at the time of the Big Bang. The brain that would be making that choice would not even exist in the universe until 13.8 billion years later. And that brain would certainly be the most meaningful and relevant cause of the choice.

  15. “And they enlisted Cornelius Hunter, DI Fellow, creationist, and adjunct professor at the evangelical Christian school Biola University”.
    Biola, that brings back memories! When I was at Caltech, our football team was so bad that they played Biola. Academically we were a tad better.

  16. Imagine it’s the year 2020 and there is not a single reference to Jesus extant in the world, and that there never has been a New Testament nor has there ever been a single Christian.

    But in the real year of 2020, the Bible is the best book ever, Jesus is the best person ever, and God is the best God ever. How did this all come to pass?

    God made it all happen. It was inevitable. All the actors who had a hand in the creation of the Bible were compelled to do what they did, else no Christianity, no Bible, no Judas, no parables or teachings to show us true morality.

    I can’t see free will at work anywhere in the Bible, just the opposite.

    1. Theoretically, any entity that acts according to his own purposes and his own reasons is behaving deterministically. If someone knew how the entity thought about things, he could probably predict that entity’s behavior. So, a God’s free will would be deterministic, just like our own.

  17. HA! Be flattered “Prof Cohen” (sounds more Jewy maybe?) this cross worshipping honkey donk bunko salesman spent so much time getting his panties in a twist, getting all sand up in his vag., about you. I’d take it as a compliment especially considering he’s wrong. Hilariously wrong.

    And c’mon…who doesn’t believe in evolution, really?

    D.A., J.D. NYC
    -even my dog, pictured, believes in evolution. And bacon.

  18. So believers say everything is god’s plan and nothing can can god’s plan except for free will which would cancel god out – this is called sophisticated theology.

  19. Amazing! One of those things I’ve long meant to track down is what the basis of the pain that stinging nettles inflict is. I think I may have done that once, tho, because I had a vague sense that silica needles were involved, but nothing beyond that. Now, from from the Discussion section of that first Science paper, I learn that some toxic peptides are involved,and further that they fall into one of the families (knottins) of certain of the cone snail toxins, which fascinate me.

    All obliquely on account of the DI. Go figure.

  20. The notion that everything can be explained by the laws of physics is a bit naive. There are three classes of causal mechanisms and they cannot be directly derived from each other.

    1. Physical: Inanimate objects respond passively to physical forces. A bowling ball on a slope will always roll downhill due to the force of gravity.

    2. Biological: Living organisms respond purposefully to physical forces. A squirrel placed on a slope will go up, down, or any other direction where he hopes to find his next acorn or possibly a mate. He is not controlled by the force of gravity, but by his biological drives to survive, thrive, and reproduce.

    3. Rational: Intelligent species can respond deliberately to their circumstances. They’ve evolved a neurology that allows them to imagine alternative ways of satisfying their biological drives and choosing the means by which to pursue their ends. This is where free will shows up. Free will is when someone decides for themselves what they will do, free of coercion and other forms of undue influence (mental illness, hypnosis, authoritative command, etc.).

    Determinism is only valid if it includes all three types of causation. The “physics only” model is incomplete, because physics cannot account for the manipulation of symbols that happens within the brain, and by which the organism’s subsequent actions will be determined.

    Any version of determinism that fails to accommodate a calculated choice is incomplete, and thus invalid. In order to be true, determinism must incorporate the choosing process as a causal mechanism, and with it the commonsense notion of a choice free of coercion and undue influence (operational free will).

    1. “…physics cannot account for the manipulation of symbols that happens within the brain…”

      Do you mean cannot yet account, or that it is impossible for physics to account. Certainly physics cannot yet account specifically for most mental processes, but there is already a pretty detailed understanding of the general pathways that thought occurs, and our knowledge is growing.

      Surely you realize that a squirrel can avoid gravity because it has stored energy. It’s movement is not governed only by gravity, but by the workings of it’s body and the mental processes that are determined by physics. At least that is the most reasonable explanation, and we know of no other reasonable explanation. I’ll go what’s most probable, and I don’t call that superstition.

      1. If you include the life sciences and the social sciences then we can account for pretty much everything. But the physical sciences alone will never explain all behavior.

        For example, the laws of traffic cannot be derived from the laws of physics. Yet the traffic laws do account for certain behaviors of drivers, such as stopping at a red light or driving on the left side of the road in England while driving on the right side in America. Certainly the laws of physics are identical in both countries, yet the driving rules are different.

        So, if physics could explain all behavior, then it should be possible to derive the laws of traffic from the laws of physics. But it isn’t.

        There are separate causal mechanisms that operate at different levels of organization. And they are radically different mechanisms at each level.

        Now, we can rescue determinism by assuming that each of these distinct mechanisms is perfectly reliable in its own domain, and we may assume that every event can be causally accounted for by some specific combination of physical, biological, and rational causal mechanisms. But we will never be able to derive the higher level rules from the lower level rules.

        Michael Gazzaniga, a neuroscientist who participated in the study of patients who had undergone split-brain surgery, pointed out the unique function of beliefs (rational mechanism) this way:

        “Sure, we are vastly more complicated than a bee. Although we both have automatic responses, we humans have cognition and beliefs of all kinds, and the possession of a belief trumps all the automatic biological process and hardware, honed by evolution, that got us to this place. Possession of a belief, though a false one, drove Othello to kill his beloved wife, and Sidney Carton to declare, as he voluntarily took his friend’s place at the guillotine, that it was a far, far better thing he did than he had ever done. ” — Gazzaniga, Michael S.. Who’s in Charge?: Free Will and the Science of the Brain (pp. 2-3). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

        There is both top-down causation (rational to physical, as when our thoughts govern our behavior) as well as bottom-up causation (physical to rational as when our rationality is injured by a blow to the head).

        1. “the laws of traffic cannot be derived from the laws of physics.”

          Again, I have to disagree. In principle physics can account for chemistry and every phenomenon at higher levels. Sean Carroll explains this.

          1. That would be the case if we simply renamed every science “physics”, including the life sciences like biology and the social sciences like psychology, sociology, and economics. But the three main areas of science derive their laws by noting consistent patterns of behavior in the objects they observe. The physical sciences observe the behavior of inorganic matter. The life sciences observe the behavior of living organisms. The social sciences observe the behavior of intelligent species. When they see consistent patterns of behavior they explain it using the notion of “laws”.

            In principle, all objects, whether inanimate, living, or intelligent, are composed of physical matter. But the behavior of the object will change radically when it is organized as a living organism or as an intelligent species.

            Physics cannot explain what it does not observe. In principle, physics cannot explain the behavior of living organisms much less the behavior of intelligent species.

            If Sean Carrol has a different viewpoint, perhaps he could pop over and explain himself.

            1. You have to distinguish between explain in principle and explain in practice.

              In practice, we cannot even predict the weather from first principles, but of course it takes place according to the laws of physics.

              If you don‘t believe that physics explains chemistry, chemistry biology, biology sociology, and so on, then your are advocating vitalism.

              There is a GREAT SMBC cartoon about this, but I can‘t find it now. I do not want to give away the punchline, but it ends in c.l. If anyone can find it, please post a link.

            2. You have to distinguish between explain in principle and explain in practice.

              In practice, we cannot even predict the weather from first principles, but of course it takes place according to the laws of physics.

              If you don‘t believe that physics explains chemistry, chemistry biology, biology sociology, and so on, then your are advocating vitalism.

              There is a GREAT SMBC cartoon about this, but I can‘t find it now. I do not want to give away the punchline, but it ends in c.l. If anyone can find it, please post a link.

              1. 1) You are suggesting that all causation is bottom up. But that requires an ability to explain how the atoms in America decided that we would drive on the right side, while the atoms in England decided that they would drive on the left side of the road. I’m skeptical that you can do that. But, by all means, proceed.

                2) The problem with reductionism is that there is always, at least in theory, an even smaller part of the smallest part. If all causation is bottom up, then you will need to explain why the quarks were interested in having the English drive on the wrong side of the street.

  21. I’m beginning to think that, although the universe is clearly deterministic, the belief in determinism itself is probably superstitious. Reliable causation is self-evident. And if we presume all forms of causation are perfectly reliable within their domain, then every event is certainly “causally necessary”, which means it came about through a perfectly reliable chain (or network) of prior causes.

    So, why would I suggest that determinism itself may be false? Well, it seems that determinism is presented as the belief that we have no control over our choices, our actions, or our destiny. And that belief cannot be supported by the evidence of perfectly reliable causation.

    An empirical view of what is going on seems to center the meaningful and relevant causes of our choices and actions within us. That’s where the causal mechanisms that meaningfully determine our choices is located. And it cannot be shifted to any other objects, objects that are not us, without embracing some form of false belief. For example, the false belief that causation causes things or that determinism determines things.

    The fact is that we, and other objects, cause things. And that we, and other intelligent species decide things, which determines what happens next.

  22. Hmm. Another bit of irony, if I may. Evolution is not consistent with the belief that everything is subject to the laws of physics. While evolution is certainly not goal-directed, every living organism is biologically driven to survive, thrive, and reproduce. A living organism is goal directed. And those biological drives are stronger than the physical laws that govern inanimate matter. Squirrels defy gravity every time they climb a tree. I’ve seen a squirrel fall from a tree, so they are subject to gravity when they have nothing to hold onto. After a minute or so he got up and climbed again.

    Goal-directed behavior began when the first molecule of DNA formed by an accidental combination of chemicals and energy (lightning or volcanic heat). This was not a purposeful act of the chemical elements. But the life form it created began behaving in a purposeful way: acquiring food for energy and using that energy to support reproduction. Purposeful behavior emerged in the universe with the first life forms.

    Accidental variations that sustained life and reproduction survived, while variations that lacked the drive to survive became extinct.

    Eventually, some living organisms evolved a complex brain, capable of imagining alternate realities, perform experiments by trial and error, and gaining more and more deliberate control over themselves and their environment. Like the squirrel, the Wright Brothers were not subject to the laws of physics. They imagined a machine that would allow a man to fly, once again defying gravity.

    With intelligence, we are able to use the laws of physics to accomplish our purposes, for our own reasons. But the elementary particles of which we are made are unable to use us for their purposes, because they have none.

    Our individual neurons are unable to think. Thinking, like walking, is an empirical event taking place in physical reality. But a thought is not a physical object. A thought is a process running upon the neuronal infrastructure. We exist, not as some disembodied soul, but rather as a process running upon our physical body.

    When the process stops, we’re dead, and our bodies become a lump of inert matter.

    So, how do we classify this process? It is not a physical object, but rather a series of rapid changes within the physical object. It is not surprising that we experience it as something distinct from the physical body, because it is a distinct phenomenon. However, it is dependent upon the physical infrastructure to exist, and the physical infrastructure is dependent upon the process to live.

    The problem is not that any physical laws are broken, but rather that the laws of physics simply do not cover everything. For example, social laws also govern our behavior. We all stop our cars at a red light. But there is no way to derive the laws of traffic from the laws of physics without first creating a living organism with an intelligent brain.

    1. Despite supercomputers, we still can‘t predict the weather more than a couple of weeks in advance, and even that is iffy. Do you claim that weather doesn‘t follow the laws of physics?

      As for the Wright brothers, an airplane definitely follows the laws of physics.

      1. The weather is not a living organism, so it passively follows the laws of physics. Weather is deterministic, but difficult to predict because the variables appear to be chaotic. Still, we can model its behavior on computers that help us predict the path of a hurricane, so that we can evacuate the area and save lives. We can’t control the weather, but we can control its affect upon us by knowing its causes and deliberately adapting our behavior. Rational causation is a mechanism that involves the brain modeling reality to predict the likely outcomes of our actions. The modeling and the calculating are a distinct causal mechanism operating according to its own rules (similar to the rules we program into a computer to model the behavior of a hurricane).

        The behavior of the flying airplane is not controlled by the laws of physics. Hopefully, it is effectively controlled by the pilot. The pilot can fly the airplane into the wind, AGAINST physical forces. If we wish to predict the path of the airplane, we simply ask the pilot where she’s going.

        The behavior of the pilot is not predictable by using the laws of physics. It is only predictable by including her biological drive to survive, and her rational decision-making as she flies the plane safely to the location of her choice. Without the biological purpose and the ability to calculate the best way to achieve that purpose, her behavior would be inexplicable.

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