Science and the Search for the Soul (1): Psychology, Physics, and Metaphysics


Are humans nothing but a conglomerate of physical particles behaving in accordance with physical laws? Can we show that the existence of a soul and an afterlife are scientifically impossible? Is agnosticism a viable alternative? My proposal to overcome a deadlocked metaphysical debate.

“You,” your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. As Lewis Carroll’s Alice might have phrased it: “You’re nothing but a pack of neurons.”

This is The Astonishing Hypothesis, the basic idea the neuroscientist Francis Crick (1916-2004, Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine 1962) explained in his homonymous book on consciousness, first published in 1994. The subtitle of the book, “The Scientific Search For the Soul”, does not refer to the identification of an immaterial entity that religious and spiritual doctrines sometimes refer to. Instead, Crick tries to explain human perception, emotion, cognition, and behavior scientifically, particularly by means of brain research.

Many philosophers from ancient times until today have speculated about the existence and function of a soul, others have tried to avoid metaphysical conundrums by referring to the human “mind”, which may be understood more innocently as the set of our mental capacities, such as calculating, feeling, deciding, and so on – mental capacities whose triggers and consequences we commonly can observe, in ourselves as well as others.

A major knowledge gap: The mind

In spite of the successes of the cognitive and neurosciences of the recent decades, it is still a challenge to understand the mind and consciousness, called one of the major knowledge gaps in a special edition of Science in 2005, together with such questions as what the universe is made of and whether there is extraterrestrial life.

One of the particular problems of consciousness is already the definition of the phenomenon in the first place – and this does not only apply to consciousness, but to our psychological processes in general. Psychologists are trained to operationalize their theoretical constructs, they provide definitions suitable for experimentation and observation. Examples are attention, conflict, desire, or personality. Subsequently they can investigate them and perhaps even make predictions about human behavior; but psychologists are usually not metaphysicists speculating about what these processes “really” are.

There is no simple brain-mind-mapping

Neuroscience has not helped to solve this problem so far. The hope that modern methods of brain research might allow us to “carve nature at its joints” in the domain of psychology has not been fulfilled. Perhaps you have already heard that the next edition of the North American handbook of psychiatric disorders expected to be published next year, the DSM-5, does not give one single positive example of a neuroscientific definition of a psychological disorder, although it lists about 400 of such pathological conditions. In the related domain of psychiatry, thus, “carving nature at its joints” neuroscientifically has not been successful so far; but let us stick to psychology here.

Instead of clarifying the psychological ontology, the entirety of our psychological processes, many neuroscientists reproduce the sometimes fuzzy or ambiguous concepts such as “reason” or “emotion” and report brain correlations for them. However, our brains do not seem to work in such a way that there are unique patterns of cellular processing that correspond to at least some psychological processes.

The patterns found are subject to a lot of variability due to, among others, general metabolic processes, individual differences, and other sources interfering with the measurement technology. It may be that future neuroscience will provide better methods to identify unique patterns of our mind in the brain. Given common views on the brain as realizing the mind this is actually what we would expect, but for the time being this remains somewhat optimistic speculation.

From physics to people

Does this mean that we have to remain silent about the nature of the mind or the possibility of the existence of a soul? The physicist, science writer, and blogger Sean Carroll argues that the basic physics underlying our everyday life is completely understood and consists of three kinds of particles, electrons, protons, and neutrons interacting via three forces, nuclear forces, gravity, and electromagnetism. He claims – see also this video of his great talk at The Amazing Meeting 2012 in Las Vegas – that Quantum Field Theory leaves no possibility for any additional kinds of particles or forces on the level of our everyday life.

Here I have to admit that I have hardly more knowledge of modern physics than what I have learned at High School, perhaps with a bit of superficial extra knowledge of the philosophy of physics; but for the sake of my argument, let me just assume that Carroll is right. From the said physical understanding he derives the impossibility of the existence of a soul or an afterlife. In his own words:

Claims that some form of consciousness persists after our bodies die and decay into their constituent atoms face one huge, insuperable obstacle: the laws of physics underlying everyday life are completely understood, and there’s no way within those laws to allow for the information stored in our brains to persist after we die. If you claim that some form of soul persists beyond death, what particles is that soul made of? What forces are holding it together? How does it interact with ordinary matter?

If this conclusion is correct, then physics would show that certain spiritual and religious beliefs common in some cultures are wrong; more astonishingly, physics would actually already have shown this decades ago without those believers noticing or adapting their beliefs. Before I continue, let me clarify that I do not know any convincing arguments in favor of immaterial souls or the possibility of an afterlife; but so far I was convinced that this problem is not solvable and that it is thus best to remain undecided, a position sometimes referred to as agnosticism (see also this brief exchange on the stance of agnosticism regarding life after death between Adam Frank and Alva Noë).

Serious ramifications or a humble alternative?

Thus, if Carroll’s conclusion that modern physics rules out such possibilities is correct, then we should expect serious ramifications. Not only for scientists and philosophers it is important to avoid contradictions in their theories and belief systems. However, I think that even if his presentation of modern physics is correct, his conclusion is not mandatory: For if the physics underlying our everyday life is completely understood and this understanding is based on the three kinds of particles and forces, all we can require is that theories about processes or phenomena of our everyday life do not contradict physics.

You may ask yourself what the difference is and whether it is important. In philosophy, there is a stance called physicalism that holds that everything that exists is (ultimately) physical, or that all that can be explained can be (ultimately) explained physically, just to give you two variants, one about existence (that we might call “ontological”) and one about explanations (that we might call “epistemological”). Again, similar stances have been proposed already ages ago. As I understand Carroll, he is a modern (and intelligent) physicalist of some sort. While he admits that there is still much that we do not know, he obviously gives physics a special status, as the physics underlying our everyday world has implications for this world.

In the second part I will argue that physics is not the only academic discipline that has a say about which entities exist. Physics cannot force us to exclude other sciences but all we need is compatibility.


43 Responses to “Science and the Search for the Soul (1): Psychology, Physics, and Metaphysics”

  1. Markus A. Dahlem Reply | Permalink

    Maybe Sean Carroll should have been a bit more carefully phrasing this. But as I understood this part of his TAM talk, there is simply no way to transmit the stored information from our brains to somewhere else so that you memories can persist after we die (a sudden death, let's assume this for clarity).

    Physics cannot rule out that information is stored always along on a backup soul-drive -- sort of. However, we have to require out that the synchronization should be done by the known forces. It is more then likely thus, that we would have noticed that by now. Maybe in analogy to pre-established harmony there is pre-established synchronization. Or something else compatible with physics.

    Thus, there is still some room for believe, I guess. But of course many of the very old stories told by religion---like the one of Virgin Mary, or that something like the soul is being transferred right after death---are simply not compatible, hence nothing but a busted myth. Quite something we should expect, shouldn't we?

  2. Martin B. Reply | Permalink

    I never got what is so special about the mind that it could not be perceived as as purely physical phenomenon. So I would describe my views as physicalistic. This may be due to quite a bit naivity, but I never saw a convinicing argument that would make a mind-body dualism necessary.

    How could a mind that is not physical interact with the physical brain? By definition, a non-material mind cannot interact with matter. Isn't a purely physicalist view the null hypothesis that should be accepted since there is no evidence for a seperate dimension or seperate matter from which our minds are made of? (At the same time we should be agnostic about these views, of course, since we cannot disprove non-existence of these things, etc)

    There is no evidence for a non-material mind, phenomena like out-of-body experiences can be triggered artificially (you certainly know quite a lot about these things, Stephan), there is a continuum of mental capabilities in the animal kingdom which makes it intuitively plausible that our consciousness is a just a advanced way of signal processing.

    So maybe neuroscience is not advanced enough to answer the question if psychological processes are just patterns of very physical neuronal activity yet, but the notion that the mind is somewhat detached from our physical world makes assumptions that are not compatible with what we know about our world. So physicalism would also meet Occam's Razor.

    I'm sure all these questions have been discussed much more thorougly before and may have been answered already but due to my almost complete ignorance of philosophical literature I have to think them through just for myself.

    To be honest I'll also have to go back and try to understand the examples you gave in favor of a layer of consciousness that cannot be described in terms of some kind of "applied physics" (like chemistry is just electron physics and molecular biology is mostly just organic / polymer chemistry).

    • David Reply | Permalink

      To be honest I’ll also have to go back and try to understand the examples you gave in favor of a layer of consciousness that cannot be described in terms of some kind of “applied physics”

      Stephan mentioned understanding of sentences as an example which is not reducible to physics. If it were, there would be some sentence phrased in purely physical vocabulary which would be the correct translation of, say, "Someone claims to have completely understood the 'Phenomology of the Spirit'". (Note that, like Stephan, I take a reduction of the desired kind to be a translation that takes any statement of the language of the science which is to be reduced to a sentence in the language of physics. Also, minimally, this translation would need to be a homomorphism wrt the relation of (logical) consequence.)

      That this task may not be easy to carry out can be seen when looking at a far simpler example. Take the sentence "This computer calculates approximations for π". Nobody doubts that the calculations carried out by the computer are made up of purely physical processes, yet it is mysterious what the physical meaning of calculating an approximation for π might be. There are infinitely many (if only trivially) different ways of doing so, and it seems that even details completely irrelevant for the computation, like which memory cell the computer uses for the intermediate storage of a certain value, would possibly have to be taken into account. In general, the physical meaning of calculating an approximation for π would need to take account of any possible implementation of any possible algorithm on any possible machine of any possible architecture. It is all but certain that only the finiteness of the universe could keep such a description from becoming infinite. At any rate, even if it were possible to give it, it seems that not the slightest insight could be expected from such a translation and it seems safe to conclude that, although it will of course always be realised by some physical process, calculating an approximation for π is, essentially, not a physical matter at all.

      The argument is easily seen to carry over to any kind of activity which is essentially algorithmic. Since understanding language is certainly achieved using some (set of) algorithm(s), it applies to this activity as well.

      • David Reply | Permalink

        Puh, "Phenomenology" of course. And "this task" in the following paragraph of course refers to the task of giving the translation of the sentence.

      • Stephan Schleim Reply | Permalink

        I agree with the main thought of your argument, but I would appreciate more specificity regarding some aspect:

        Even if we assume that everything is physical in a certain sense, how should we prove/confirm this assumption? The two of us seem to agree that our understanding of the world is mediated by language; language that gives structure to our perceptions. This is the epistemical level.

        So if we take for granted that language is our fundamental way of making sense of the world (particularly the language of scientific disciplines and philosophy) and if we assume that this language, when used correctly, corresponds to the world in some sense, isn't there then a pressure to drop physicalism when we are unable to describe the whole world in physical language?

        Why not take pragmatism at face value and accept, at least for the time being, that the world obviously is not merely physical, due to the success of chemical, biological, ... psychological, ... sociological etc. language?

        Nobody doubts that the calculations carried out by the computer are made up of purely physical processes…

        Well, what "nobody doubts" may be metaphysical speculation. What is "purely physical process" taken to mean here? If the necessary and sufficient conditions for something being a purely physical process is that it can be described in purely physical language (according to Carroll, perhaps in terms of the three kinds of elements and three kinds of forces), then even the computer example you are invoking might not work.

  3. Ellis Reply | Permalink

    The whole may be greater than the sum of the parts (value-added) but ultimately it is still just parts.

  4. Stephan Schleim Reply | Permalink

    I mostly agree, Markus; the holy texts I read seemed to be so full of contradictions that I could not make much sense of them. There has been research on the concept of "soul" and the ideas of a resurrection in both, philosophy and religious disciplines, but I am not familiar with it and thus would not like to comment on it.

    Maybe in analogy to pre-established harmony there is pre-established synchronization. Or something else compatible with physics.

    A kind of pre-established synchronization is actually something I have in mind, too, but I still have to work this out. Regarding Carroll's view, I will get more explicit on this and his central argument (and mistake, I think) in the second part to be published soon.

    • Michael Blume Reply | Permalink

      Dear Stephan,

      you wrote: "the holy texts I read seemed to be so full of contradictions that I could not make much sense of them." I'd just like to add that all outcomes of evolutionary processes (such as life, organs, cultures etc.) tend to be "full of contradictions" - or our perceptions of them. This could be simply due to historical factors (such as human males sporting nipples) or as a residue of adaptive behaviors (for example fear and curiosity struggling within ourselves, allowing for a range of behavioral options). Many religious traditions (as i.e. the Talmud) are even actively promoting diverse and seemingly contradictory statements of leading rabbis in order to enforce ongoing debate, learning and improvement. I'd go so far as to say that any religious (or philosophical, political...) tradition void of any ongoing contradictions would inevitably stagnate and disappear in (bio-)cultural evolution. It seems that evolutionary processes are working by bringing up (balanced) diversity, not uniformity.

      • Stephan Schleim Reply | Permalink

        I don't know whether life is really full of contradictions or whether this is only true of our perception of life.

        In terms of success though, ambiguity may actually be quite a useful geature. If this is what you mean, then I agree. If a text/a theory is so multifaceted that virtually everybody finds his or her own truth in it, then it might be endorsed by many more people.

        So far so good – this is the description of the situation but what should we do about it? I always thought that science and in particular philosophy aim at increasing clarity and consistency, avoiding ambiguity and contradiction. If I look at the literature about emotion, for example, it seems hopeless to agree on a definition of what emotions are; yet "emotion" is a pervasive concept in contemporary psychology and cognitive neuroscience (and many disciplines beyond). Perhaps it is such a successful concept not in spite of its ambiguity, but in virtue of it; another example may be consciousness.

        What is your stance on coping with ambiguity and contradictions in science and philosophy?

  5. Stephan Schleim Reply | Permalink

    Martin, Occam's Razor is an often abused idea – its intention is to prevent the multiplication of entities without necessity and there can be quite some disagreement on what is necessary to take account of the phenomena.

    In one popular formulation, the intention is to choose that one theory out of two competing theories T1 and T2 that can explain the observations equally well but is more parsimonious with regard to its postulated entities. As far as I know, it is almost never the case that there are two such theories that only differ with regard to the parsimony of entities, but not with regard to their explanatory power. So, for most debates, Occam's Razor is a useless means.

    If you want to do the test (and also to answer your question what is so special about the mind), then compare how many psychological phenomena physical theories can explain and/or predict (answer: virtually none) and how many psychological phenomena psychological theories can explain and/or predict (answer: quite some).

    So there is virtually no competition between physical and psychological theories except in the mind of some physicalists; from a pragmatical point of view, it is ridiculous to think that we can reduce psychological theories to physical theories; we cannot even reduce biological or chemical theories (and possibly not even all physical theories) to some basic physical theory.

    That is why we need those other disciplines in the first place, because we get virtually nowhere when our theories are reduced to the three kinds of particles interacting via the three kinds of forces in chemistry, biology, ... psychology ... sociology, economics etc.

    The rest is mere metaphysical speculation, in my opinion.

  6. Kinseher Richard Reply | Permalink

    Bungle:
    As long as a scientist can not explain the nature of ´consciousness´ completely, no statements to the nature of an afterlife should be made.

  7. Martin Holzherr Reply | Permalink

    Compliment on the clear presentation of the implications of the present pysical knowledge for metaphysical questions.
    I agree that the question whether physics has serious ramifications depends on the status of physics for the explanation of the world.
    Ultimately anything we sense, any change we observe and any of our actions is guided by physical laws.The fact that we do not have a simple brain-mind-mapping to our disposal does not alter this fundamental view.

    Rescuing beliefs in magics and supernatural things by postulating that there are still things we do not know ist a weak defense. Furthermore, there are fewer and fewer things we do not know

    • Stephan Schleim Reply | Permalink

      What do "ultimately" and "guided by" mean here? And how do we know this?

      Even if the world were ultimately guided by physics, this is a useless assumption if it does not allow us to observe, understand, and predict the behavior every-day phenomena including people.

      Rescuing beliefs in magics and supernatural things…

      …is not the topic of this blog.

  8. Chrys Reply | Permalink

    As is the case with many physicists, Carroll's thinking appears to be limited to the category of forces and matter. His message is simply what Carl D. Anderson already had in mind by claiming that "the rest is chemistry". Physics, however, isn't made up of forces and matter, it is made up of language. And, therefore, the question whether a certain complex phenomenon can be completely understood by the laws of physics actually means to ask whether the language of physics bears a sufficient amount of "complexity" to express the said phenomenon in a formal way. Here the word "complexity" can be given a rigorous interpretation within a framing of algorithmic information theory.

    The whole issue is related to the question whether a certain theorem can be derived from a given set of axioms. In fact, Gödel's first incompleteness theorem can be proven in terms of "complexity". Once we accept that the language of physics is basically math, we have as well to accept that incompleteness will inevitably show up in physics somewhere. For example, we have no reason to expect that the complex phenomenon of life in biology can ever be described by a reduction to the established laws of physics.

    • Markus A. Dahlem Reply | Permalink

      But is that really what Carroll claims? Or the majority of physicists for that matter. A reductionism? The term is only in Stephan's tags, but it seems to me that he things that it is reductionism what it is about. It is not to me about this.

      Incompleteness is something I can well live with for I rate being self-consistent higher (I always wondered why, and in private life, it may be the other way round at times ...).

      Now what Carroll is saying---or I hear him saying, I only know this video and his textbook "Spacetime and Geometry"---is that any other theory better be compatible with the known forces and matter, ie, being cross-consistent.

      If we think of science as a single big theory and put completeness first, we will have an inconsistency somewhere (that is, how I understood it, but I never really got into Gödel's work).

      But what if we think of science as a collection of theories (like an atlas for a topological space is a collection of charts) and single out from the one theory we call physics a every-world subset, namely the three forces and matter, and demand that other theories must not violate these? We chose this subset, because it seems to be the language we are best adapted to.

      In this atlas (way of doing science), all charts either share this one singled-out intersection (three forces and matter) or the intersection can be empty (well, a question is, whether in such a case it could be in any way related to medicine apart from ethical questions, of course).

      I probably need to give this a more thorough thought, but this is the intuitive way, I understood this debate. Reductionism is not part of it, or is it?

      And it's a specific choice not really a necessity.

      • Stephan Schleim Reply | Permalink

        Now what Carroll is saying … is that any other theory better be compatible with the known forces and matter, ie, being cross-consistent.

        That's actually what I hold (please wait for part 2 for the other details) but in his blog post on the topic that I keep quoting from in our discussions (and that you seem not to have the time necessary to read) this is not what Carroll claims, namely:

        All we need to account for everything we see in our everyday lives are a handful of particles — electrons, protons, and neutrons — interacting via a few forces — the nuclear forces, gravity, and electromagnetism — subject to the basic rules of quantum mechanics and general relativity. … That’s a remarkably short list of ingredients, to account for all the marvelous diversity of things we see in the world. (The Laws Underlying The Physics of Everyday Life Are Completely Understood)

        This is an epistemic variant of physicalism par excellence and it entails a reductionism in the sense that all statements of all other scientific disciplines investigating objects and processes of our everyday lives can be translated into (= reduced to) physical language of the three kinds of particles and forces.

      • Stephan Schleim Reply | Permalink

        But you are right, Markus, that most physicists do not care about reducibility – they know that it is an exaggerated idea to be able to reduce all sciences to physics; and they can do their physical work without being puzzled about this riddle.

        Thus, physicists are not physicalist; Carroll is both, though, as I think he does quite explicitly state in the given quote where he elaborates his ideas in more detail.

      • Chrys Reply | Permalink

        Well, at least I was under the impression that Carroll reflects more the views of Carl Anderson than those of Phil Anderson ("More Is Different").

        What I was trying to emphasize is that we should not be too surprised to find certain limitations to what can really be understood by the established laws of physics. Simply because of the Gödel incompleteness that is inherent to the mathematical formalism which underlies these laws. On contrary, we should actually expect to encounter this kind problem if things get complex.

        Let me note that one should carefully distinguish between complicatedness and complexity. Whereas the former addresses the aspect that some tasks cannot be accomplished in practice for purely quantitative reasons, the latter means that some new quality shows up, which can be formally expressed in terms of Kolmogorov complexity.

        As far as we can say, in self-organizing processes an increase of Kolmogorov complexity may happen. But, loosely speaking, Kolmogorov complexity measures the information content required for a description, or model, of a phenomenon. Thus it is not an observable of the phenomenon itself.

        So, if physics fails to provide a full understanding of biological phenomena, then this is not because of some mystical forces or substances in living organisms, rather it is because a description of the organizational structure in living beings needs more information content than can be expressed by or derived from the laws of physics. Again, there is no magical deficiency in nature, it's merely an issue with language and information theory.

        • Stephan Schleim Reply | Permalink

          So, if physics fails to provide a full understanding of biological phenomena, then this is not because of some mystical forces or substances in living organisms, rather it is because a description of the organizational structure in living beings needs more information content than can be expressed by or derived from the laws of physics.

          Just out of curiosity: Do you think that one can distinguish empirically between the two alternatives that science cannot provide a full understanding of a phenomenon because 1) it is mystical and 2) it needs more informational content than can be expressed in the laws of science due to its organizational structure?

          Again, there is no magical deficiency in nature, it’s merely an issue with language and information theory.

          I am not talking about magic – but "merely an issue with language" sounds a bit sloppy, given that language is our foundational means to describe and make sense of the world?!

          • Chrys | Permalink

            Similar to the case of luminiferous ether, an alleged élan vital cannot, in my opinion, be ruled out on an observational basis. Both are eventually ruled out by convention.

            Concerning the rôle of language, here "language" is to be understood in the widest sense. That is to say, any formal system of rules which is used to code and to communicate information content.

            The contents of science are determined not only by the patterns which are described, but also by the structure of the language used for description. There is no true objectivity in science, intersubjectivity of scientific findings is the best we can achieve. And intersubjectivity clearly demands that some sort of information content has to be communicated among individuals, so that science can never be independent of its lingual structure.

            As for the somewhat controversial notions of "emergence" and "reduction", for instance, they are not found in nature. The proper use of these concepts is (or at least should be) restricted to situations where two hierarchically ordered descriptions of some phenomenon are compared. Then "emergence" or "reduction" refer to these descriptions (belonging to language), not to the phenomenon (belonging to nature).

    • Stephan Schleim Reply | Permalink

      Good points, but I do not understand how you go from Gödel's incompleteness to the irreducibility of life.

      • Chrys Reply | Permalink

        I had tried to give some explanations on what I mean in my previous comments. Anyway, mentioning Gödel is presumably more confusing than enlightening.

        To put it simple, one may say that algorithmic information theory indicates that the laws of biology (the "theorems") cannot be derived from the principles of particle physics (the "axioms").

        Likewise, for the same reason the rules of psychology cannot be expected to be deducible from the principles of neurobiology.

  9. David Reply | Permalink

    isn’t there then a pressure to drop physicalism when we are unable to describe the whole world in physical language?

    Why not take pragmatism at face value and accept, at least for the time being, that the world obviously is not merely physical, due to the success of chemical, biological, … psychological, … sociological etc. language?

    No objections.

    Well, what “nobody doubts” may be metaphysical speculation. What is “purely physical process” taken to mean here?

    Certainly; this was more of a rhetorical formula than a seriously descriptive statement.

    The statement was meant to be about any given token of a computation. I do not doubt that the actions of a computer during a certain computational process could be described satisfactorily in purely physical language, and even more than this might be possible, like a fairly good physical characterisation of all possible computations of a given computer. My doubts pertain only to the general notion of a computation, be it the bare concept of a computation or that of a computation of some particular object. And of course such a physical description of some token of a computation, or even all computations possible on a certain computer would reveal nothing about the concept of a computation as such. It's the other way round: identifying the physical descriptions as descriptions of computations relies on the fact that they fall under this concept.

    I want to add some general thoughts which do not properly belong to the reply.

    Moving back to human thinking again, it also may of course well be possible to explain the structure of the human brain and the way it works and how it realises certain states of mind to some considerable detail (and considerable progress has certainly been made). But at some point the question would become how universal a description of the neurological correlates of certain concepts can be; is there some statement in the language of neurology (and, ultimately, physics) that describes the brains of all and only those people thinking about, say, cheesecake? And can it do so in some coherent manner, i.e. without simply giving the disjunction of the descriptions of the brains of all individuals in the state of thinking about cheesecake? (Supposing a coherent description were possible for any individual brain at least.)

    Further, even if all these issues were resolved, the problem would still be that the human brain is - or so I should think - merely an accidental realisation of its cognitive abilities. So these abilities could well have been realised by some other architecture. If it is held that mathematics and the laws of nature are universal and would have to be accepted by any possible, perhaps extraterrestrial, intelligence, there seems to be need for some conception of understanding and accepting a mathematical theorem or proof or some law of nature that goes beyond the accidental structure of the human brain and would have to pertain to any possible physical realisation of a mind.

    • Stephan Schleim Reply | Permalink

      Well, there are a couple of tricky questions you refer to.

      One is: How stable are the (physical, biological, ...) realizations of our psychological processes? How stable are they within the individual, how do such patterns of realization generalize to other subjects? I have actually wondered about this question already when I wrote a paper on mind-body-supervenience as a philosophy student. I recently submitted corresponding research proposals which both received excellent peer reviews but were turned down by the committees anyway. So it may take a bit longer until I can work on my own answer.

      Another one is: What do we learn about the mind (or the meaning of ideas/concepts) when we understand what realizes them (physically, biologically, ...)? Some EEG researchers in the US once had the idea to investigate a couple of geniuses including Albert Einstein with EEG while thinking about their theories. So one instruction was: "Please think about classical Newtonian mechanics, Professor Einstein." Another one was: "Now please think about relativity theory, Professor Einstein."

      The results were never published, to my knowledge, and there are only some documents in archives that are now investigated by historians of science (such as Michael Hagner or Cornelius Borck). It might have been an interesting finding about the psyche and brain of Albert Einstein to find some meaningful difference, but who on earth would really have believed that we would learn something new about Newtonian mechanics or relativity theory when comparing Einstein's EEG signals while thinking about these theories?

      By analogy, why do some people now think that we learn something about ethics when investigating brain correlations of people when making moral decisions?

  10. Balanus Reply | Permalink

    Some answers to frequently asked questions:

    »Are humans nothing but a conglomerate of physical particles behaving in accordance with physical laws?«

    Yes, of course, -- but a very special “conglomerate”.

    »Can we show that the existence of a soul and an afterlife are scientifically impossible? «

    That’s a somewhat strange question. We might better ask: Is there any scientific evidence or indication for the existence of a soul and an afterlife? Then the answer is, no.

    »Is agnosticism a viable alternative? «

    Not really. That’s because humans are nothing but a very special conglomerate of physical particles behaving in accordance with physical laws.

    @David wrote:

    »Stephan mentioned understanding of sentences as an example which is not reducible to physics.«

    I do not know what “is not reducible to” means in this instance. If it means, for example, that the properties of water or a gas are not reducible to the elementary particles, in the sense that we cannot determine the properties of elementary particles by studying the properties of water (or a gas), then I would agree.

    But IMO, understanding of sentences are clearly based on physics (i.e., natural laws) (as are the properties of water or a gas), because human beings are nothing but a very special conglomerate of physical particles behaving in accordance with physical laws.

    • Stephan Schleim Reply | Permalink

      Fine, Balanus, under the assumption that human beings are nothing but a conglomerate of physical particles you just concluded that humans are nothing but a conglomerate of physical particles.

      This is logically sound, of course; it is even tautological.

      Congratulations.

    • Stephan Schleim Reply | Permalink

      P.S. If you keep rehearsing this mantra all day long every day, perhaps it becomes even more true – super true – superdoubleplusplus true. :-)

  11. David Reply | Permalink

    I do not know what “is not reducible to” means in this instance.

    Strange enough, regarding the fact I made explicit in my first comment what I take a reduction to be:

    I take a reduction of the desired kind to be a translation that takes any statement of the language of the science which is to be reduced to a sentence in the language of physics. Also, minimally, this translation would need to be a homomorphism wrt the relation of (logical) consequence.

  12. Balanus Reply | Permalink

    @Stephan

    No, Stephan, I do not conclude that humans are nothing but a very special conglomerate of physical particles behaving in accordance with physical laws. This is my (perhaps metaphysical) basic assumption derived from and/or based on (scientific) observations of the nature.

    Btw, many basic truths are tautological in some ways, aren’t they?

    • Balanus Reply | Permalink

      I mean, I do not conclude that humans are nothing but a very special conglomerate of physical particles behaving in accordance with physical laws because humans are nothing but a very special conglomerate of physical particles behaving in accordance with physical laws.

      • Stephan Schleim Reply | Permalink

        But this sis exactly the point, Balanus, that you SHOULD conclude that human beings are nothing but a conglomerate of physical particles GIVEN conclusive arguments in favor of this conclusion

        You call it a BASIC ASSUMPTION somewhere; and that's what it is , an assumption, and an implausible alltogether. That's what I like most about Crick's stance in this book , that he calls it a HYPOTHESIS

        Carroll is wrong and I will discuss this case more clearly in part 2. iIf you cannot wait, then please look up the link to his post that I referred to in my discussion with Markus Dahlem.

  13. Balanus Reply | Permalink

    @David

    »Strange enough, regarding the fact I made explicit in my first comment what I take a reduction to be:«

    Okay, I see, thank you.

    But where’s the problem? Who claims that
    »objects and processes of our everyday lives can be translated into (= reduced to) physical language of the three kinds of particles and forces«,
    as Stephan stated? (my emphasizes)

    What Carroll is saying, in my opinion, is that objects and processes of our everyday lives are based on the three kinds of particles and forces, and nothing else. No additional metaphysical “forces” do appear when our bodies are formed by the interaction of the three kinds of particles and forces. In other words, we have no reason to make assumptions about additional metaphysical forces.

    • Chrys Reply | Permalink

      For my part, I feel that Carroll overemphasizes the importance of his "basic laws" to our understanding of what we encounter in everyday life.

      Science will certainly push forward along [...] the much more jagged and unpredictable frontier of how the basic laws play out in complicated ways.

      Indeed, can we hope to get any noticeable insights into the awing fractal structure of a romanesco cauliflower from Carroll's "basic laws"?

      • Balanus Reply | Permalink

        @Chrys

        I also find higher-level laws more important for our everyday life than elemantary physics. But these laws emerge from the basic physical laws without any additional mystical ingredient.

        Growth patterns can be scientifically investigated, there is no need to remain agnostic to this research field.

        Look out your window and admire the diverse hexagonal structures of snowflakes… it’s purely physics.

        (I know that you know that!)

    • Chrys Reply | Permalink

      @Balanus

      At any rate, one should not forget that the laws of physics do not apply to nature in a strict sense, rather they apply to certain theoretical models which were written down in a more or less mathematical language. Thus, in my opinion, saying that "it's all physics" does not have exactly the same meaning as saying "it's all nature". Inasmuch as your goal is to expel the supernatural -- which has undeniably a metaphysical twist -- the latter appears somewhat preferable.

      N.B. There is a theory which states that if ever anyone discovers definitely that odd things are going on in the Universe, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable.

      Shamelessly stolen from Douglas Adams ;-)

      • Joker Reply | Permalink

        As we all know:
        "There is another theory which states that this has already happened."

        My guess:
        @Balanus was not replaced, but he thinks he still lives in the primitive universe.

      • Stephan Schleim Reply | Permalink

        I would say that scientific laws are generalizations of our observations, thus human constructs, constructs of people who try to systematize and understand what is going on in the world.

        Balanus is a biologist who thinks that everything is physical, ultimately, even people. So if he thinks that, why don't we wait until he formulates his biological theory in language of electrons, protons, and neutrons, interacting via gravitational, electromagnetic and nuclear forces. If he succeeds, he has at least a singular example in favor of his position, if he doesn't, it is mere speculation and wishful thinking – at least for the time being.

        • Chrys Reply | Permalink

          I'd even say that empirical scientific laws come out from what can be called reverse engineering of observable patterns.

          As the science of patterns is mathematics, this depiction elucidates particularly why physics can't do without math. Though it may sound deprecatory to those who consider themselves the bold seekers for truth in nature.

  14. Stephan Schleim Reply | Permalink

    P.S. I just saw that there is a workshop on laws of nature at my university on December 17, including a talk by the organizer, Mathias Frisch, titled Why Physics Can't Explain Everything.

  15. Balanus Reply | Permalink

    @Stephan

    »Balanus is a biologist who thinks that everything is physical, ultimately, even people. So if he thinks that, why don’t we wait until he formulates his biological theory in language of electrons, protons, and neutrons, interacting via gravitational, electromagnetic and nuclear forces.«

    Okay, if you can wait some billion years… But I guess this theory would be as complex as life itself, so you will have no chance to understand it.

    However, and much more important, such a theory would by no means provide any gain in knowledge. That’s because it would only deal with particles, atoms, ions, energy, electromagnetic waves, chemical compounds, physical forces, chemical processes and so on occurring in space and time.

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