Science and the Search for the Soul (2): Not Everything That Exists is Purely Physical

6 December 2012 by Stephan Schleim, posted in philosophy, theory of science

The world is more than just an assembly of physical particles. Pragmatical arguments force us to give up the idea that, ultimately, everything must be accounted for by physics. This allows a pluralistic and complementary view for all scientific disciplines and helps us to avoid a philosophical stance that takes the world to be much more simple than we observe and experience it. Simplicity can be a virtue, but with regard to the sheer complexity of our world it can be a vice.

In part one of this series, I presented two philosophical ideas: First, that people’s minds are just an assembly of nerve cells and their behavior, expressed in Francis Crick’s Astonishing Hypothesis; second, that everything that we see in our world is just made out of three kinds of basic particles interacting via three kinds of forces, the physicalistic account by Sean Carroll. This provoked a lively discussion with so far more than forty comments. In this second part I will explain why not everything that exists is just physical, particularly with respect to the existence of meaning.

Is everything just physical? No

The problem of physicalistic views is that we live in a world with many objects that just are not part of physics (as a scientific discipline). Why do we need biology, psychology, economics, or communication science in the first place? Because we do not get very far if we try to observe, understand, and predict the objects of biology, psychology, economics, or communication science in terms basic physical particles such as electrons, protons, and neutrons. It has sometimes been suggested that (ultimately) all disciplines will be translated into physical language, but we do not have good reasons to believe that this is going to happen.

Contrariwise, there are ever more disciplines with ever more complex objects and I doubt that even physics itself with all its branches and sub-disciplines can be translated into one unified theory. Philosophers investigating the concept of reduction found out that reducing one theory to another is anything but a trivial matter; as far as I know, it is rather the exception than the rule in the history of science.

In our everyday world, we deal with literature, headaches, people, political systems, rumors, and so on. Try to define what a headache is without referring to a subject that actually feels the pain; or try to explain fluctuations of the stock market in terms of basic physics. You can possibly describe the text you are reading now in terms of electrons, protons, and neutrons realized at a certain time in a certain place in your computer, but the same text can also be realized in somebody else’s computer at the same time in a different place. It will be the same text with the same meaning, but not the same physical thing.

There are non-physical things

This is not magic, but simply due to the fact that this text and the particles and forces realizing it at some time in a certain place are not identical with each other. There will be very similar physical states in your computer at other times, but none of them will be a realization of this text, not even resemble it closely. In particular, this text has a meaning that you understand if you are a competent speaker of the English language but this meaning is neither a property of the electrons, protons, and neutrons, nor of the forces they are interacting with.

We have a plurality of descriptions of the world and it is one of the major challenges to understand what the relation is between them. If we want to understand and predict human behavior, then psychology as well as other behavioral and social sciences are a good start to begin; if we want to understand and predict markets, then economics might be the best choice (economists did not seem to be very successful with this recently, though, even regarding explanations after the facts).

Perhaps basic physics constrains psychological and economical processes in the sense that psychology and economics must not contradict physics; but this direction is bidirectional: If we know that a certain psychological or economical process occurs, then this constrains physics in the sense that no convincing physical theory can hold that the process cannot not occur.

Compatibility is all we need

So all that we need between the different scientific kinds of descriptions in order to avoid conflicts is that they are compatible with each other, that they do not contradict each other. If we cannot translate psychological or economical happenings into basic physical language, then this is a problem for the physicalist who states that everything, ultimately, is just physical, and not a proof that these happenings do not exist.

In this second part we have seen how implausible it is to assume that only physical things exist and that this view will not get us far in scientific investigation. It is not only the case that there are no physical descriptions available of most of the things in our everyday world, but there are also examples like the case of meaning that can be realized by many physical configurations without being identical to any of them.

In the third and last part I will also discuss causal relationships as they are investigated and found in many sciences, particularly the behavioral and social sciences, and draw a conclusion about the viability of an agnostic stance with regard to science and the search for the soul.


33 Responses to “Science and the Search for the Soul (2): Not Everything That Exists is Purely Physical”

  1. Balanus Reply | Permalink

    Interesting thoughts, thank you for posting them.

    With respect to meaning: I think, meaning is something that must be individually reconstructed from a given physical pattern produced by an individual. The physical pattern itself carries no any meaning.

    Best wishes

    • Stephan Schleim Reply | Permalink

      Do you really reconstruct the meaning from a physical pattern? Or do you look for structures resembling the meaning you have already learned in the world as you see it?

      Perhaps both, sometimes; I think your idea applies particularly in circumstances where we have difficulty recognizing the meaning of something, for example, when trying to understand part of a mosaic or part of an ancient scripture where the major part is missing; or when typing in our anti-spam captchas. :-)

    • Chrys Reply | Permalink

      »The physical pattern itself carries no any meaning.«

      Isn't that just about what Humpty Dumpty was explaining to Alice?

  2. Balanus Reply | Permalink

    @Chrys

    »Isn’t that just about what Humpty Dumpty was explaining to Alice?«

    Yep, and now I’m explaining it to Stephan... ;-)

    Humpty Dumpty got it right, when he said:

    'When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean--neither more nor less.'

    @Stephan

    »Do you really reconstruct the meaning from a physical pattern? Or do you look for structures resembling the meaning you have already learned in the world as you see it?«

    I’m not sure, is there a substantial difference?

    (I mean, I reconstruct the meaning of a text---which is nothing but a physical pattern---by looking for known structures).

    • Stephan Schleim Reply | Permalink

      Let us emphasize this for the protocol: That you endorse Humpty Dumpty's philosophy of meaning explains much past, present, and future misunderstanding.

      Thanks that you made this clear once and for all.

    • Chrys Reply | Permalink

      As with the mind/brain problem, we are certainly faced to different levels of description when inspecting a given text. There are at least a lower physical level and a higher semantical level to be taken into account. A radical reductionist's view would be that the text in question can impossibly transfer any meaning, just because the high-level concept of meaning is not conceivable on the lower level.

      Of course, the radical reductionist's dilemma is that a text, reasoning that a text cannot transfer any meaning, cannot transfer any meaning.

  3. Stephan Schleim Reply | Permalink

    Very tricky, by the way, that you claim that the physical pattern itself carries no meaning and, at the same time, that the meaning of the text is nothing but a physical pattern.

    Sorry, I forgot that Humpty-Dumpty-logics explains it all.

    • Balanus Reply | Permalink

      @Stephan

      »Very tricky […] that you claim […] that the meaning of the text is nothing but a physical pattern. «

      No, I’m claiming that a given physical pattern is only a “text” in the case we have learned to add some meaning to this physical pattern.

  4. Balanus Reply | Permalink

    @Chrys

    »Of course, the radical reductionist’s dilemma is that a text, reasoning that a text cannot transfer any meaning, cannot transfer any meaning.«

    This sounds funny, but…

    I think, there is no dilemma at all. The meanings of the graphical patterns (i.e., “words”) are already in our brains---and nowhere else. So there is no need to transfer meaning from brain to brain. In fact, it’s impossible anyway.

    • Stephan Schleim Reply | Permalink

      If I believe that discussing with Balanus is like discussing with Humpty Dumpty (at least sometimes) and I put my head in the oven, is then my belief that discussing with Balanus is like discussing with Humpty Dumpty (at least sometimes) in the oven?

      The assumption that "meaning is in the brain" does not explain anything, but calls for an explanation. What does that mean? Where does that meaning come from?

      We certainly have the (psychological) capacity to understand meaning (as long as we are still minimally rational) and if all of our (psychological) capacities are realized in the brain, then the (psychological) capacity to understand meaning is realized in the brain, too. But this does contribute little to nothing to understanding where this capacity comes from and how it works.

    • Chrys Reply | Permalink

      Well, Balanus, your comments on meaning made my mind (or brain?) spin around. It's a rather elusive subject.

      First, I'm willing to concede that it is not meaning what is conveyed in a generic colloquial text. Apparently the concept of "meaning" is inseparably interwoven with the notion of "interpretation". One may certainly say that meaning is ascribed to a text by some process of interpretation which occurs in a reader's mind. However, this statement has no explanatory power unless we can also state the meaning of "interpretation"! At this point, I think, we witness how self-referential use of language gives rise to a process of self-organization, which is reflected by the hierarchical concepts of meta-language and object language.

      Hence I do believe that, in colloquial language, "meaning" is in fact an emergent concept and, moreover, emergence in linguistics may well serve as a valuable case study for emergent concepts in general. One might also conjecture that the mental process of interpreting texts will somehow repeat or simulate the creative process of self-organization over and over, a capability which has to be acquired by conditioning.

      Second, even if it's not meaning, then there is still something else transferred which cannot be reduced to the physical level of description. Just look at the simple message "Hello world!" There exist virtually a million different ways of distributing this message such that its content remains the same--completely independent of the particular physical carrier. This invariable content is not conceivable in terms of physics alone, for this purpose we need conceptions from a higher level of description (related to information theory or the like).

      Hopefully this text is not too confusing and you can still get some meaning out of my words ;-)

  5. Balanus Reply | Permalink

    @Stephan

    »The assumption that “meaning is in the brain” does not explain anything, but calls for an explanation. What does that mean? Where does that meaning come from?«

    It’s not my intention to explain something. I deny that meaning is somehow hidden in a given physical structure. And I deny that there are other than physical processes in a brain.

    Where does the meaning of a graphical pattern come from? And how can this meaning be detected?

    Meaning, I think, is something that has to be ascribed to an arbitrary physical pattern. By doing so, the pattern “converts” to a “word” or “text”. All people who are familiar with the code used are able to reconstruct, at least in parts, the message of the text, which is in fact nothing but a physical pattern.

    Obviously, what we call “meaning” is only a special process in the brain (or a state of the mind).

    • Stephan Schleim Reply | Permalink

      It’s not my intention to explain something.

      That's too bad, because explaining/understanding is one of the essential aims of science.

      I deny that meaning is somehow hidden in a given physical structure. And I deny that there are other than physical processes in a brain.

      So you also deny that there are neurobiological, physiological, metabolic etc. processes in the brain. Too bad, because we have a lot of evidence they are there.

      Obviously, what we call “meaning” is only a special process in the brain (or a state of the mind).

      So far with your speculation... Since you do not want to explain anything, nor can you offer an account of what kind of process meaning in the brain is, this belongs to the realm of metaphysical speculation.

      Next comment, please.

  6. Balanus Reply | Permalink

    @Chrys

    Hm, I’m not sure that I’ve got all the information you have tried to send to me by using just some physical patterns.

    For me, the meaning of your message depends solely on the (intellectual) capability and capacity of my mind. If I couldn’t understand some English, there was no message at all (for me!).

    My claim is very simple, and I think there is no need for an excursion into the linguistics (meta-language…).

    Meaning or semantic information happens, if and only if [;-)] a recipient is able to recognize a given physical structure or event (it’s like pattern recognition: if you have learned how a merle looks like, e.g., then you are able to separate merles from other birds).

    »Second, even if it’s not meaning, then there is still something else transferred which cannot be reduced to the physical level of description.«

    Something non-physical is transferred? How could this happen?

    »Just look at the simple message “Hello world!” There exist virtually a million different ways of distributing this message such that its content remains the same–completely independent of the particular physical carrier.«

    As I said, “content” cannot be transferred, only the respective physical structure (whichever it may be) can be distributed. Whether this structure becomes a meaningful message or not depends solely on the abilities of the recipients. Prerequisite for transforming a physical pattern to a message is the knowledge of the code used by the sender. What we usually call ‘content’ is just a certain physiological process or neuronal activity pattern in the brain. And thus, in your words:

    »This invariable content is not conceivable in terms of physics alone, for this purpose we need conceptions from a higher level of description (related to information theory or the like).«

    • Chrys Reply | Permalink

      »What we usually call ‘content’ is just a certain physiological process or neuronal activity pattern in the brain.«

      Okay, and what about the 'invariable contents of scientific knowledge'?

      It appears you are now up to reduce everything, including physics, to neurophysiology.

      • Balanus Reply | Permalink

        @Chrys

        »It appears you are now up to reduce everything, including physics, to neurophysiology.«

        Yes, indeed. All our knowledge about the world resides only in our brains and nowhere else. This knowledge is transferred horizontally (from woman to man) and vertically (from generation to generation) by using mere physical things (books, papers, letters, sound waves, etc.).

        There are no exceptions.

    • Chrys Reply | Permalink

      @Balanus

      Let's see. If physical knowledge is nothing but neural activity and in turn neural activity can be completely understood by physical knowledge, what do we have? Does the ultimate truth of reductionism consist in the very insight that neural activity is explicable by neural activity?!

      I'd say it was to slip out of exactly this logical trap what Gerhard Roth was attempting to achieve by his distinction between Realität and Wirklichkeit. However, as I don't even know how to express his words in plain English, I still believe Roth is talking nonsense.

      • Stephan Schleim Reply | Permalink

        ...and I once speculated that Balanus may be a pseudonym of Gerhard Roth... or a reincarnation of Humpty Dumpty. :-)

        • Chrys Reply | Permalink

          There is presumably no much hope for you to ever get any approval from Gerhard Roth ;-)

  7. Balanus Reply | Permalink

    @Chrys

    »If physical knowledge is nothing but neural activity and in turn neural activity can be completely understood by physical knowledge, what do we have?«

    Two different meanings of “physical knowledge”?

    (That’s my first idea… I have to think about it.)

    »Does the ultimate truth of reductionism consist in the very insight that neural activity is explicable by neural activity?«

    I’m not familiar with the claims and truths of reductionism. I would say: Neural activity is not explicable without neural activity.

    Makes this sense?

    (I’m glad that you all have some fun despite this very very serious problem :-) )

  8. Balanus Reply | Permalink

    @Chrys

    Second try to give a reasonably answer:

    »If physical knowledge is nothing but neural activity and in turn neural activity can be completely understood by physical knowledge, what do we have?«

    Possibly, we have two different perspectives on neural activity, and/or physical knowledge.

    I’m not sure whether neuronal activity can be “completely understood by physical knowledge”. But I’m convinced that there are no others than physical processes in the brain. That’s the point.

    So, physical knowledge is nothing but neural activity. Neural activities, on the other hand, are based on physical and biochemical processes, the knowledge of which resides in our brain as neuronal activities.

    If we were able to model the neuronal activities associated with a given physical knowledge (state of mind), i.e., if we had the necessary technical skills, than we might have “completely understood” how the human brain works. This would expand our biological knowledge dramatically, but wouldn’t add anything to our basic physical knowledge.

    »Does the ultimate truth of reductionism consist in the very insight that neural activity is explicable by neural activity?«

    Hm, as I have stated above, neuronal activity is explicable by physical and biochemical processes which obey to natural laws. Our knowledge of physical processes and laws resides in our brain and hence in neuronal activities. So we have to use our brain (with its neuronal activities) to study the neuronal activities of other brains.

    Where’s the problem?

    • Chrys Reply | Permalink

      »Where’s the problem?«

      The problem shows up when you try to take reductionism seriously. The reducibility of knowledge to neural activity would imply that every physical statement can be represented by its corresponding neural patterns, i.e., it can, in principle, be expressed by neurobiological statements. On the other hand, the reducibility of the brain to physics would mean that every neurobiological statement can, in principle, be expressed by physical statements about elementary particles and their interactions.

      As a consequence, even if the reductionist program ever succeeds, it will nonetheless fail to establish the desired stratification with physics at the bottom, brain in the middle, and mind at the top. In fact, any of these layers could then be claimed to represent the utmost fundamental one, by just appealing to one the same argument of reduction.

      At this stage it could be of some interest to bring up the notion of a "strange loop". The term was coined by Douglas Hofstadter and denotes basically what his book "Gödel, Escher, Bach" is all about. By and large, I can agree with many of his views, and here is an excerpt:

      My belief is that the explanations of "emergent" phenomena in our brains—for instance, ideas, hopes, images, analogies, and finally consciousness and free will—are based on a kind of Strange Loop, an interaction between levels in which the top level reaches back down towards the bottom level and influences it, while at the same time being itself determined by the bottom level. In other words, a self-reinforcing "resonance" between different levels—quite like the Henkin sentence which, by merely asserting its own provability, actually becomes provable. The self comes into being at the moment it has the power to reflect itself.

      That being said, Hofstadter takes a rather unexpected reductionistic turn in the next paragraph:

      This should not be taken as an antireductionist position. It just implies that a reductionistic explanation of a mind, in order to be comprehensible, must bring in "soft" concepts such as levels, mappings, and meanings. In principle, I have no doubt that a totally reductionistic but incomprehensible explanation of the brain exists; the problem is how to translate it into a language we ourselves can fathom. [...] This act of translation from low-level physical hardware to high-level psychological software is analogous to the translation of number-theoretical statements into metamathematical statements. Recall that the level-crossing which takes place at this exact translation point is what creates Gödel's incompleteness and the self-proving character of Henkin's sentence. I postulate that a similar level-crossing is what creates our nearly unanalyzable feelings of self.

      Hofstadter is by no means easy to understand. In his 2007 book, "I Am a Strange Loop", he tried to clarify some of the topics which he felt to have been widely misunderstood in "GEB", but I never had a look at this one. For some basic ideas I'd rather recommend the complexity book by Melanie Mitchell, a former PhD student of Hofstadter. She also takes a less ambiguous position towards reductionism.

      • Balanus Reply | Permalink

        @Chrys

        »…nearly unanalyzable feelings of self«

        Yes, I agree largely to Hofstadter’s statement.

        The expert you have cited can be found on page 756 of my 4th German edition of GEB (1995… oh my god… I should really try to read it again – and to understand more of it than at that time).

        But why do you mean that Hofstadter has taken an “unexpected” reductionistic turn? Is (or was) Hofstadter in effect an anti-reductionist?

        Hofstadter wrote:

        “In principle, I have no doubt that a totally reductionistic but incomprehensible explanation of the brain exists; the problem is how to translate it into a language we ourselves can fathom.”

        I wrote to Stephan:

        “But I guess this theory [biological theory in language of electrons, protons, and neutrons, interacting via gravitational, electromagnetic and nuclear forces] would be as complex as life itself, so you will have no chance to understand it.”

        Bingo!

    • Chrys Reply | Permalink

      It's great that you already own the book! Hofstadter has indeed interesting thoughts to offer and, in particular, he offers a self-contained way for everybody to see how Gödel comes into play. In the section preceding the one from which the above quotes were taken, he states,

      Looked at this way, Gödel's proof suggests—though by no means does it prove!—that there could be some high-level way of viewing the mind/brain, involving concepts which do not appear on lower levels, and that this level might have explanatory power that does not exist—not even in principle—on lower levels. It would mean that some facts could be explained on the high level quite easily, but not on lower levels at all. No matter how long and cumbersome a low-level statement were made, it would not explain the phenomena in question.

      With this in mind, his subsequent reductionistic turn looks fairly surprising at least to me. Whereas I agree that the hierarchical levels of description and similar "soft" concepts are artifacts resulting from language and, of course, we must not blame nature for the shortcomings of our scientific language, these shortcomings appear as an inevitable consequence of the Gödel incompleteness which is inherent to every sufficiently sophisticated language.

      Perhaps Hofstadter has a slightly different understanding of "reduction", which I may have missed. So I'm not totally sure about his use of this term.

      • Balanus Reply | Permalink

        Okay, I see, thank you!

      • Chrys Reply | Permalink

        P.S. To put it more precisely, the occurrence of different levels of description is clearly not a consequence of Gödel's incompleteness. And undoubtedly there do exist situations where a high-level description is in fact reducible to the corresponding low-level description. But in general such a reducibility cannot be expected as a consequence of Gödel's result, that's the crucial point.

  9. Balanus Reply | Permalink

    excerpt -- not expert ;-)

  10. Markus Dahlem Reply | Permalink

    Stephan, no offense, but there is more flesh and blood in the comments than in your post.

    When you write, just to give you an example, "with respect to the existence of meaning" I immediately think why is he not more clearly focusing on "the existence of meaning".

    If compatibility is all we need, and I agree, then everything that exists should better be made out of three kinds of basic particles interacting via three kinds of forces.

    Don't you agree? Of course you can broaden the concept of existence, but only in a hierarchical manner.

    • Stephan Schleim Reply | Permalink

      I have seen this comment only now, otherwise I would have responded to it earlier.

      If my text had no meaning, you could not have understood it. Why I think that the meaning of the text is not reducible to the physical properties of its material carriers (e.g. the pixels on your computer screen), I tried to explain in the post.

      You leave unclear why we should assume that compatibility entails reducibility, and why there must be a hierarchy of existence (with physics as the most authoritative or basic level).

      Furthermore, how should we test this empirically? Particularly if we have so many counterexamples of entities that we do not even have the slightest clue how to understand in terms of only three kinds of basic particles and forces.

      • Jon Reply | Permalink

        It's a false equivocation to connect "physics" and "physical".

        Meaning is not a "thing". So, attempting to use it as part of an argument that presupposes that "not everyTHING is physical" seems a little misplaced.

        Meaning is a result of a physical process, and not separable from it. Without the physical process, there is nothing to obtain meaning from. Meaning is nothing more than an abstraction used to describe the result of brain synapses. It's not appropriate to treat it as though its some sort of "entity" or something similar. That would be like saying that "loud" exists, even though all it is, is a word, an abstraction representing a relative observation about a physical occurrence.

        I will try to explain a bit, but might not be on the right path in terms of language. Blue doesn't exist, but the light waves that cause the human eye to see blue...do exist. Blue has meaning, but its meaning is only realized because of 1) the physical relationship between the human and the observed reality 2) the physical process of the brain as it receives this information 3) the literal, physical presence of the object (light), without which no meaning could be derived, because there would be nothing to initiate the thought.

        Overall, it seems like what you're really doing is trying to claim that, where there is a relationship between two physical objects/entities, the relationship itself should be treated as its own entity, thus allowing you to call it something that isn't physical. It's not quite circular logic, but it is sort of a figure 8 logic.

        • Stephan Schleim Reply | Permalink

          Thank you for your argument, Jon.

          First of all, I would like to have read more about why you think that it is 'a false equivocation to connect "physics" and "physical".' Physics is a scientific discipline and we can use the adjective "physical" in all kinds of ways: 1) as relating to the body (traditional use, as physics in the past mostly was body-physics), 2) as related to what physics is about, etc.

          Second, the pronoun "everything" is not literally restricted to things (what is a "thing" after all?) but can be broadly related to a situation, life in general, all that exists.

          Third, you start out with your conclusion, while the conclusion of an argument should rather come at its end and be a result of one's premises and inferences:

          Meaning is a result of a physical process, and not separable from it.

          If you start out assuming what you want to show argumentatively, then it is no surprise that you will find that conclusion in the end; it may look convincing at first glance, but it is nothing but begging the question in the first place.

          Your color analogy is wrong: Of course "blue" exists – as a second order property. It is a property of properties of "things". The wall in front of me is blue, actually different shades of blue, while the sky is rather grayish right at the moment. You can ask people to stand in front of the blue wall or give the blue envelope to you; and this is what they will do (if their vision is intact and they have learned which color "blue" refers to).

          That blue is not a direct property of the matter, but the matter's reflection properties, the light and, you forgot, actually also the color context, does not mean that blue does not exist; it does mean, though, that it's not a first-order property of matter (like its mass or velocity, for example).

          To counter your conclusion: Take a painting, for example, da Vinci's Mona Lisa. Of course this painting could not exist without the physical matter that realizes is; but it's not reducible to the physical parts of which it exists. Why? None of the parts has the property of being the painting Mona Lisa. This in itself does not suffice to prove that the painting is not just a physical thing, though.

          For this proof we have to include its aesthetic properties, the person it refers to and, in particular, the context of its generation, that da Vinci painted it. Imagine that you made an atom-by-atom copy of the Mona Lisa painting. Would that be a painting of the Mona Lisa? Yes. Would it be da Vinci's original painting? No. And this in spite of being completely identical physically.

          This already proves that da Vinci's Mona Lisa is not just a physical thing, even without the necessity of arguing whether aesthetic properties or properties of reference or meaning or physical or not; and this difference can have quite dramatic social consequences: Try to sell this physical copy as the genuine Mona Lisa and to prison you go. Then your physicalistic argument will not help you very much, as, I guess, 99,9% of people understand that physical identity of paintings does not mean they are the identical paintings.

        • Stephan Schleim Reply | Permalink

          Meaning is a result of a physical process, and not separable from it.

          By the way, what I have just done is precisely this: Separated a property – in this case "authenticity" – from the physical process/property.

  11. asker Reply | Permalink

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