Lest you think that my last post was merely whimsical (which seems a popular word here recently) have a look at the following YouTube talk by George F Ellis (quoted in that post), whose speciality as a physicist is complex systems.
The clip has lessons enough, but I want to draw out a couple of things not necessarily obvious (or even deliberately implied) in it.
The overriding point, which Ellis makes himself, is that science in the twenty-first century is quite incapable of dealing adequately with reality whilst it continues to insist on a metaphysics of single causality. Ellis calls this “bottom up”, but in metaphysical terms it’s material-efficient causation. True to his promise in the quote from the last post, he provides examples from many fields of “top-down” causation, and indeed several different varieties of it. These include both informational and “teleonomical” (inherent teleological) factors, which correspond to Aristotelian “formal” and “final” causation.
One interesting point made is how such causes constrain, but do not negate, the efficient causes. This I’ve pointed out many times before, the textbook example being the written message that is embodied in, and is consistent with, the efficient causes of “natural laws”, whilst being immaterial in itself and, most importantly, not reducible to those laws. This is particularly notable when, as in some of Ellis’s cases, more than one “top down” cause is operating at once. For example, a human intelligent choice may operate through many biological feedback loops and algorithmic processes, but without in any way overrriding their normal operation.
This seems to be a useful lesson at the theological level, regarding those perennial issues of “coercion” of the will, and so on. Whilst pretending to understand God’s modi operandi would be arrogant, scholastics like Aquinas (who were sensible enough hold on to Aristotelian top-down causation!) were also insistent that God’s actions are only analogously like ours. He has reason, but does not reason as we do. He wills, but only analogously to our will.
Picture his action as being as different from our intelligent causation as the latter is from the biological feedback systems it governs. Ellis gives us (if not deliberately) good reason to suppose that if God’s own causation operates at a higher level than, say, human will, he can indeed constrain it, but whilst allowing it to remain thoroughly itself. He no more has to coerce the will than you have to break the laws of physics to run a computer algorithm.
Another important thing to observe is that Ellis is operating entirely within the “naturalistic” framework in discussing these sophisticated mechanisms, referring to “emergence”, “boundary conditions” and so on – in this he’s following the footseps of people like Michael Polanyi. Not a pixie in sight. Nevertheless, at several levels such ideas inevitably load the dice in favour of theism – which is no doubt why many of his colleagues try to manage without them. Aristotle believed in no personal God, but could not explain teleology (or anything else) without an unmoved Mover. Thomas’s developments on his thought showed how difficult it was to maintain the idea of a First Mover apart from an intelligent, personal and ethical Being – that is, the unique and perfect God.
The first reason that top-down causality is God-friendly is that it’s hard to conceive in principle that inanimate nature should inherently tend towards the emergence of information- and purpose-driven processes without these things being somehow antecedent to their material causes. Particles shouldn’t end up thinking about particles, however long they are given. That, I suppose, is why it’s more common to deny the truth of human (or animal) purpose than to accept it as a true outcome of blind processes.
More specifically, though, every case of “top-down” causation Ellis describes is dependent on the emergent boundary conditions just happening to be such as to facilitate new levels of causation. That’s true whether considering his lowest-level case of the emergent properties of matter (like the instability of “wild” neutrons compared to their perfect stability in atoms) or his highest level, the creative intelligence of humans, a phenomenon so unlikely that we have only seen it occur in one species. It’s fine tuning all the way down, it appears.
A particular instance of this is in his treatment of Darwinian evolution. On the face of it, he appears to be saying that natural selection is done and dusted, non-mysterious and (as it were) inevitable given the universe we’re in. That may well be the case (our universe being extraordinarily special), but the fact that the environment, under certain condions, can be a source of information for change does not by any means guarantee that it is so, or that it is so outside quite severe limitations. Those questions are the empirical ones that others study. You’ll maybe note that he deals with Darwinism strictly at the conceptual level of adaptive selection, with reference to population genetics. A host of questions about neutral theory, the limits of selection, the limited range of possible mutations and evolutionary pathways, etc, are all relevant to how comprehensive Darwinian evolution actually is in the real world.
But the most important issue, theistically, is his thowaway line, towards the end of the section on evolution, about the open question of just how information got into life to begin with, to start evolution going. The point of this is not so much to say, “We don’t yet know how life began”, or even, “It’s hard to conceive how life could have begun”. Rather, the issue is that the environment can only act as a top-down informer of evolution because of the irreducibly highly sophisticated system of life on which it operates. One could use any of his mechanisms as an illustration.
For example, computer algorithms are an example of top-down information constraining physical processes. But regardless of how the algorithm came to be, it would do absolutely nothing unless run on highly-constrained hardware, which the algorithm itself did not produce. Similarly, information in the environment only interacts with life in an evolutionary framework because it corresponds to the innate ability of living things to generate potential variations to match such information, which is the old question of the arrival of the fittest. A rock will sit in the same environment forever and erode, but never evolve. An organism that cannot generate a huge range of viable and potentially adaptive variations (ie the right variations to correspond to environmental input) will simply become extinct, and evolution does not account for the ability, even if it can be shown to account for all the outcomes of that variation. To put it another way, the environment may ask informative questions, but living things provide the answers in a way nothing else could.
One more thing of particular interest to The Hump’s agenda. Ellis talks of his top-down processes being “autonomous” of the levels below. But the relevant question in the Q&A at the end makes it clear that he’s talking about nothing like the “free creation” trope of nearly all the science-faith theoreticians from Peacocke to Polkinghorne, and their TE followers, but only about the independence of top-down processes from bottom-up determination. That in itself is an important and true point.
Only in the case of human will is there a true correlation of his “autonomy” with “freedom” – and here he is clearly of the belief that humans really do have free-will. And why not? It’s only the determinism inherent in post-Cartesian science that renders genuine choice problematic, or its non-existence anything to be preferred. Nevertheless, the realisation that, at one level or another, nearly all the interesting and beautiful things in our cosmos are not determined by the movement of particles is rather liberating to us, I find.
We may talk about “order” being necessary if the universe is to be reliable, but that’s really just polemic that doesn’t stand up to close scrutiny: not one of us wants an entirely predictable and orderly universe, especially if that order renders all our experienced freedom illusory. The glory of our world is the existence of the varied and the unexpected against a background of order … indeed the surprising prevalence of systems on the edge of chaos and therefore persistent but alterable is another of those fine tuning mysteries.
But as I hinted above, if God’s top-down organisation of his oikonomos, his household, is just the highest of a whole universe-full of top-down means of causation acting orthogonally to each other, then there is plenty of room both for my freedom and God’s greater freedom. And there’s ample room for the world to be doing God’s will, for his purposes, with no jeopardy to even the highest level of natural top-down causes.