Complex systems and top-down causation

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.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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24 Responses to Complex systems and top-down causation

  1. Avatar photo GD says:


    On a slightly broader subject (but I think is relevant to Thomas thinking on ‘properties’, people may have noticed a recent paper that infers properties (or qualities) may be separated(?) “Observation of a quantum Cheshire Cat in a matter-wave interferometer experiment”. NATURE COMMUNICATIONS | DOI: 10.1038/ncomms5492). The authors say their experiment “….. the investigation of Schrodinger cats advance(d) the field of quantum information processing and communication”.

    As I have mentioned previously, we are far from understanding Nature, and perhaps we are entering a fascinating Alice in Wonderland world. As is so often the case, the scientists offer a number of opinions on their empirical findings, one of these being ” …. that the weak value is completely general: any weak coupling will result in a shift of the measuring device by the relevant weak value. The Cheshire Cat phenomenon is also completely general and can be applied to any quantum object. These qualities therefore open the possibility for future applications of the quantum Cheshire Cat such as high-precision metrology and quantum information technology”.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      That’s weird. I need an emoticon with a grin separate from the face, but that would be impossible…

      • Avatar photo GD says:

        That’s funny – I thought I caught a sheepish grin when I ……..

        On a serious note, some material I am looking through on Thomist discussions re substance and real entities seem to me to echo some of the remarks in the paper I mentioned – while the cause and its effect, along with many other interesting matters, is food for thought.

        • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


          I sometimes wonder, in trying to understand stuff well beyond my capabilities, such as quantum theory, whether the seemly intractable problems are a question of using the wrong metaphysics… and the wrong theology, of course.

          After all, the mind-body problem (as has been pointed out by folks like Ed Feser) largely occurs because substantial forms were jettisoned by Descartes. Evolution becomes a probablistic nightmare because finality has been excluded. And so on.

          It would be interesting to know what kind of viewpoint a Neo-Aristotelian would bring to bear on quantum theory, and whether it would make it any more comprehensible to the rest of us. Perhaps Ian Thompson has some insights on it.

          • Avatar photo GD says:


            It would be fascinating to hear what Ian Thompson and other experts make of Aristotelian and Thomist thinking – I suspect that experts such as Ian may have developed an outlook that deals with substance and such …. but I would be surprised if they have moved past the usual outlook on scientific laws. An exciting area ….

          • Lou Jost says:

            The lesson I took away from my studies of QM as a graduate student in the 1980s was that indeed, we were using the wrong metaphysics. According to a slim majority of involved physicists today, the most promising metaphysics nowadays is probably the one that everyone outside of QM (and many inside) love to hate: the Many-Worlds interpretation.

  2. My time is a bit scarce so I did not watch all of Ellis’s presentation. I feel that he got off track almost immediately by claiming that the informational content of computer software and input had causal power.

    Causation in a computer is, as far as we can tell, entirely the result of the properties of the physical media involved. This is easiest to see in terms of a tiny region on the hard drive being seen as representing a “1” or a “0” depending on its state of magnetization. The fact that humans interpret a region of magnetized matter as a “1” in no way confers additional causal powers on that bit of matter.

    As another example, take perhaps the simplest digital device for computation–the abacus. In the abacus, arrangements of beads on wires usefully represent numbers, but the physical properties of beads and wires are not altered by such an assignment.

    Mechanical systems are capable of being usefully aligned with abstract numerical or logical relationships, but it is a colossal error to attribute special powers of causation to regions on a hard drive or beads on a wire solely because human minds choose to see them as representing numbers or words.

    In philosophy of mind, this issue is called the problem of intentionality and was first articulated by Brentano. It was famously explored by John Searle in his Chinese Room argument. As Searle points out, informational content in mechanical systems is observer-dependent. What happens in a computer can be a useful simulation of, for example, logical thought. But simulations must never be mistaken for the real thing. A computer can usefully simulate a weather system that includes a storm, but don’t expect the simulation to water your rose bush.

    The kicker in all this is that in our mental processes informational content does play a causal role. Abstractions have real causal impact in the course of our thinking. That is the mystery for the physicalist. Top down causation can be argued for in the case of the human mind, but certainly not for computers.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


      I think the problem you have with the computation instance is in thinking only in terms of efficient causation – the very thing which Ellis (and other complexity theory experts) are combating; though in his case, by avoiding Aristotelian categories I think Ellis hinders one from making the necessary cognitive leap.

      Yes, it’s the magnetic polarity of a computer byte that is the efficient cause of change of output, but the reason it has that polarity is a higher order type of causation – formal causation, in Aristotelian terms.

      One can trace that form back to the human teleology (final causation) that wrote the program in order to word-process, notate music or whatever, but Ellis is concentrating on the hardware-software unit as a closed system. The informational configuration exists in that system, regardless of origin, and dictates the output.

      Even in human top-down causation (such as writing a computer algorithm) it’s the bio-physical processes of the body that are the efficient cause of actions, but they do not define the formal or final causation that make the fingers type program A rather than Program B.

      Likewise, the physics and chemistry of the hard drive (still less the configuration of the hardware) have absolutely no predictive power of the informational configuration of the software.

      Yet Ellis is by no means saying that higher-order causation is independent of lower-levels: a program is not a ghost in the machine, any more than in A-T metaphysics, a human soul is the ghost in a body. A program necessarily exists in a physical form, but as a program it is immaterial, which is why it could be represented as well by beads on a very large abacus as by bytes on a hard drive or holes in paper tape.

      Now, intentionality in the system is indeed entirely human: only we know that the output is a tune, or a weather sim, or whatever. But Ellis, here, is only interested in the fact that the outputs differ objectively according to, not the physical laws, nor even the hardware (though that needs explaining in its own right), but the boundary conditions of the software, whose form is not dictated by the lower-order causation.

      In other words, he’s not making an argument for meaning at all, but merely varieties of complexity… until he gets to intelligent causation.

      • Jon

        If Ellis is simply saying that the chain of causation must account for the human mind as designer of the program, it can be said more simply I think. However, that story must take into account the subjective experience of the human engineer or programmer in planning and foreseeing a particular outcome. Without giving credit to that subjectively accessed reality, the story will just be causation conditioned by the QM probability matrix . . . back through the stream of electrons and into the chemical processes of the human brains involved.

    • Lou Jost says:

      Darek, I agree with you, and I think a similar argument applies to the human mind (individual history plays the role of assigning “meaning” to different brain states).

      • Lou, part of my point is that blind causation does not assign meaning to anything.

        The concept of design is related and may be helpful here. Is an anthill “designed” by ants? No, even though anthills incorporate some sophisticated engineering features. Why do we resist saying that ants and termites design their dwellings? Because we do not believe that insects envision the outcome of their actions or make conscious decisions to steer those actions in a particular direction.

        Are skyscrapers “designed” by human beings? Yes, because unlike ants humans do envision a particular end and consciously direct their actions toward it.

        Likewise, humans consciously assign meanings to symbols and use those symbols as pegs for mental activity. In mathematics we say, “Let X represent the horizontal component of force and Y the vertical” or something similar. Assignment of meaning is a subjectively appreciated process. One billiard ball does not assign a meaning to another billiard ball by bumping into it.

        Victor Reppert, the C. S. Lewis scholar, identifies four phenomena that resist capture in a framework of blind physical causes: intentionality, teleology, subjectivity, and normativity.

        • Lou Jost says:

          Darek, I think the four phenomena you mentioned at the end of your comment are reducible to blind causality, possibly augmented by (blind) boundary conditions. “The water boiled because John wanted tea” is just a useful shorthand for a long chain of blind efficient causes.

        • Lou Jost says:

          To flesh that out a bit, when looking at the whole range of living things, there does seem to be a continuum between intentionality and simpler causal mechanisms. Primates like us, and some other animals, behave as if they had (changeable) intentions, while other animals and plants seem to be describable without that, and there are a wide range of cases which are intermediate. Same with normativity and maybe subjectivity (not sure how that is defined here). This suggests that these phenomena that supposedly resist explanation in terms of blind causal mechanisms are indeed actually based on blind causal mechanisms, but with enough layers of complexity that the connection is hard to trace in detail. If it is true that these phenomena lie on a continuum with obvious blind causal mechanisms at one end, there is little reason to think they are somehow something completely new and fundamentally different from those mechanisms.

          • Lou

            You are considerably more optimistic than the consensus in the philosophy of mind if you fail to see a conceptual difficulty with the four phenomena mentioned.

            “Subjectivity” is word to sum up what David Chalmers famously called the “hard problem” of conscious experience. Look at this from another angle and it becomes the equally famous “other minds” problem. One way to capture it is to remember that observable behaviors and electrochemical brain activity are, at best, evidence of consciousness but not consciousness itself.

            If consciousness were a physical state, it would make sense for me to confirm that I am conscious by checking out my own behavior or an EEG of my brain, which is absurd. I simply know when I am conscious. Same with higher level of conscious activity. Do you have to confirm that you are thinking by going to a mirror and making sure you have a thoughtful expression on your face? Or do you simply know it without any sensory contact with that state? Cf. 1 Corinthians 2:11.

            “Normativity” is often invoked by quoting the quip from David Hume in which he asks how you get from an “is” to an “ought.” This is still a hotly debated topic in philmind to say the least.

            An example concerning the normativity of correct reasoning:

            Physicalists assume that humans have the faculty of reason because it generates reliable beliefs enabling complex adaptive behavior. However, natural processes are all confirmable through observation. We can confirm by careful observation, for example, that respiration results in delivery of oxygen to the tissues of the body.

            We cannot confirm that reason yields reliable beliefs because we must assume that it yields reliable beliefs in order to interpret observations and make scientific confirmations. In other words, in trying to confirm the adaptive value of reason we encounter a “catch 22” that does not occur for natural biological processes such as respiration, digestion, etc. This is why it is conceptually impossible to naturalize the normativity of reason–the existence of correct (as opposed to incorrect) ways of arriving at conclusions.

            • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

              We ended a thread back in 2013 with Lou’s reductionist “nothing buttery” – everything is explained by colliding particles (essentially) in the end, so human decisions are just part of the same continuum with hugely complex intermediate stages.

              The answer them, as now, is that such an “explanation” makes the intelligible (eg, I want a cup of tea) totally unintelligible. “I”, “want”, language itself, the taste of tea, the form of cups etc all either become nothing worth knowing – leading logically to nihilism – or far more likely, one quickly ditches the matter-in-motion speak and gets on with treating all the “illusions” as the only thing that matters.

              The heirachy of intentionality amongst organisms no more proves that the latter is an illusion than the order of snowflakes shows that they are chance agglomerations and their patterns an illusion. It’s only understood by (the lowest order of) emergent higher order causation.

              There is, as I’ve many times said, a profound difference between emergent properties of order (a la Prigogine) and emergent organisation, and also the hidden implications about teleology that may exist in the kind of mechanisms Ellis discusses. Such things are disputible.

              But to deny the significance of emergence ltogether, in the sense of higher order causation of all kinds, is just a bit sad. Nobody who bores people at the pub by telling them they’re “really” just a bag of chemicals worth $5 ever bags themselves up for sale on e-Bay. Autistic or schizophrenic kids who, on way or another, don’t quite get the “illusions” of higher order organisation like mind and identity, are not thereby living closer to the truth.

              So if it’s mindless causes all the way down what are you going to do about it? Denying the existence of God is a trivial solution: one has to deny the existence of everything, and continuing to work, love, or eat is as irrational as continuing to pray.

              As for claiming that science is “true”, what does that even mean if even wanting tea is a train of blind causal mechanisms alone?

              • Lou Jost says:

                Didn’t see this until now. Loving or living does not suddenly become irrational just because we recognize that everything is based on blind efficient causes. In fact, I think the opposite is true–it makes no sense for religious people to live, since in their minds this world is just a temporary impediment to the eternity they will spend with their creator. Why don’t you just give all your stuff away to the poor, and stop working, and just do good works until you starve to death? That would be the sensible course of action for someone who truly believed in Christianity. I have more reason to live, since I know this is all there is, and I find it exciting and interesting.

  3. Avatar photo GD says:

    From some material I have read, I understand the scholastics acknowledge that the active power exercised in an action is a real accident inhering in the agent, and I would assume that the action itself (very exercising of this power) is not an additional and distinct accident, or some distinct reality inhering in the agent. The reality signified by the term ‘action’ inheres in what I may term as the effect, but we are dealing with a reality that comes from the agent and constitutes the effect’s causal dependence on the agent (the agent is causing it). It this contemporaneous dependence of the effect on the agent that the agent itself is truly said to be acting.

    To make sure I have not misunderstood the matter of efficient causation, I will use a quote: “…. when the term ‘is acting’ is predicated of the agent, we have a case of what the scholastics call e x t r i n s i c d e n o m i n a t i o n, that is, a predication which is such that its truth is grounded in its subject’s relation to a reality extrinsic to itself.”

    The example of the Schrodinger cat experiment I provided earlier makes it difficult to (easily and obviously) identify intrinsic or extrinsic factors; the weak force is invoked in the discussion (we may assume with some doubt this is extrinsic), but the measurements indicate a separation of quality from the entity (photon) considered (I am obviously making a simple point). This line of reasoning interests me because I think it may be elaborated into a discussion of entities, qualities with regard to what we often discuss as laws of nature. For example, are things we term laws intrinsic to entities (even of the entities were eventually indentified QM mathematics?) Just how would metaphysics and causation throw light on these matters?

    Jon I think you have at times used efficient causation to deal with scientific observables, so perhaps that is one start in a conversation dealing with science and Thomistic/Aristotelian causation. I understand the reasoning behind the primal cause, and I continue to mull over teleological aspects of nature and I guess (final) form; causality however appears central to the metaphysics and thus may be of greater value in faith science discussions.

  4. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


    A-T metaphysics is, at heart, pretty commonsense in the approach it takes. It’s mainly tricky (a) because we’ve got out of the habit of using it for a few centuries (whilst scienc eprogressed) and (b) it has its own technical terminology which is either opaque to us or, worse, uses terms we use differently. Since I’m no A-T scholar, but have just picked up some of the ideas from Aquinas himself and from Ed Feser’s excellent book of the same name (and a few other things), I’m not the person to quiz on accidents wrt quantum theory!

    One of the books which, I believe, does a lot to relate A-T concepts to modern science is Real Essentialism by David S. Oderberg: it’s on my list to get. Here’s some basic thought that may or may not relate to your post.

    (a) Essential nature/substantial form is what is inseparably intrinsic to something, eg a man having a head. Accidents are what are inessential, eg a man being bald. I’m not sure how the actions done by the powers of the substantial nature related to accidents, except perhaps that a man with the power to walk may or may not be walking at any one time.
    (b) As you suggest, the A-T way of looking at “laws” sees them as properties of things, not something somewhere “out there” they obey. So it would be in the given natures of all bodies possessing mass to be attracted to others according to the inverse square law and gravitational constant – all massive objects have received the same property of their nature (though in theory you might someday find one that hadn’t: the weightless rock!). Whether that can be made to work for all such laws you’d have to ask an A-T-friendly scientist, but at least it has the advantage that something real is at work, rather than immaterial “laws”: it’s actually quite hard to conceptualise a law, and rather mystical really, especially if you detach it from its original basis in God’s law. Where is it? What is it, apart from a mathematical relationship, and why should that govern how real things work? (One could say gravity is a distortion of the space-time continuum, but what is that, after all, but another mystical conception?)
    (c) I rather suspect that quantum theory would be just as counterintuitive under Aristotelian metaphysics – but who knows? Perhaps some of the wierdness problems would be easier to handle. In some ways quantum states seem to represent the basic level at which information is held in the universe – they are the units of formal causation, perhaps. Perhaps through that grins can be separated from cats, or cats from certainty about being alive.

    Causality (ie material, efficient, formal and final) I find a lot easier, because we actually do (and have to) use concepts other than efficient causation all the time, even when we deny the other causes exist. But apart from the extreme reductionism that says that everything is due to the chance interaction of particles, including our belief that our minds, though working from the same chance interactions, can reliably know the fact – apart from that, I say, we work individually almost entirely on final causation, and trust the efficient causes to follow on behind. If I choose to go across the room, my nerves, muscles and bones will cooperate with my intention. Only Cartesian dualism saved the exclusive consideration of material and efficient causes from incoherence, by positing a separate immaterial soul, but that is so much less sophisticated than Aristotelian hylemorphism, and doesn’t help with the higher-levels of causation with which Ellis is concerned, which have nothing directly to do with willed processes.

    This thread, however, does lead to an interesting take on the metaphysics of reductive materialism:
    (a) Only blind efficient causes exist (scientific certainty).
    (b) Ergo higher-level phenomena like mind are illusory.
    (c) We can reach this scientific certainty by the reasoning of our illusory mind.
    I’d say “go figure”, but it would be an illusion!

    • Avatar photo GD says:


      A-T metaphysics seems to me to end up with ‘action is a mystery’ esp regarding efficient causation, but then almost all philosophy ends up with more questions than answers. Phenomenology seems to address this area, but I tend to get lost in the complexity of its deeper thinking. I suppose the point I may try to make is that of discussing a metaphysical stance assumed for scientists and the scientific method in TE (and other) discussions.

      I would say that any scientist who offers opinions that are outside the purview of the physical or biological sciences would need to state her metaphysical preference; it would be incorrect however, to look for a particular metaphysics when considering specific areas of these sciences. The moral of this story (esp for evolutionists) is to stick to the specialist areas of these sciences, but when they (or others) try to use them for any other purpose (including TE, ID etc or theist vs atheist), we should view such attempts as suspect (I include myself in this general critique).

      • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


        I agree that if one defines science as “the study of efficient and material causation”, and is humble enought to remember what is not included by that, many sciences will get along just fine.

        But nowadays the “discovery” of information, and the higher order “emergent” causes withing natural processes, in my view that restriction begins to be a serious handicap. So some work needs to be done on the metaphysical basis of science with some urgency.

        • Avatar photo GD says:

          Jon (a late response – I have not as yet mastered the ability to italicise when pasting from Word),

          In discussions related to intentionality, science and the context (e.g. metaphysical) we consider ideas and data obtained from studies of nature (scientific method) – these often appear to me to miss a central notion – that of the human being involved in such discussions. I have previously touched on a thesis regarding how we may discuss personhood, or ‘what is a human being’ and beliefs when we consider science and faith (and thus apply to all aspects including Darwinian thinking). M Polanyi discusses these matters in “Personal Knowledge” (2012), and the following is a useful quote:

          “Our claim to speak of reality serves thus as the external anchoring of our commitment in making a factual statement…. The enquiring scientist’s intimations of a hidden reality are personal. They are his own beliefs which – owing to his originality – as yet he alone holds. Yet they are not a subjective state of mind, but convictions held with universal intent, and heavy with arduous projects. It was he who decided what to believe, yet there is no arbitrariness in his decision. For he arrived at his conclusions by the utmost exercise of his responsibility. He has reached responsible beliefs, born of necessity, and not changeable at will. In a heuristic commitment, affirmation, surrender and legislation are fused into a single thought, bearing a hidden reality.”

          Polanyi is providing a detailed discussion and insights on the attributes of research scientists, who know by asking questions, and involving themselves instantaneously in beliefs and disbeliefs (doubts). This knowing by seeking what we may not know requires more than an arduous training of an apprentice, but an adult, internalised commitment that is extremely personal. I suggest this is wider than a metaphysical basis underpinning an outlook. We can easily understand why this belief-disbelief context may cause difficulties for people who may feel they can treat science and religion in a similar manner, since faith includes belief, but also provides the substance of such beliefs – for the sake of brevity, we may say science does not have a reliance on faith, but rather a commitment and responsibility from a scientist to his craft.

  5. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Lou Jost @15/08/2014 at 03:05 am:

    Lou, in the context of this thread, either love is a genuine emergent top-down phenomenon (with or without theistic implications), and one loves others for teleological reasons (the good of the other, the joy it brings you or whatever, depending on the kind of love) – in which case it can be described as having meaning;

    Or such emergent properties are a meaningless illusion, and the love is “really” just bottom-up chance collisions of particles: “If it is true that these phenomena lie on a continuum with obvious blind causal mechanisms at one end, there is little reason to think they are somehow something completely new and fundamentally different from those mechanisms.”

    You can’t have it both ways. Love is either not fundamentally different from obvious blind causal mechanisms, which are meaningless, or it possesses something meaningful in a different way, in which case it adds something completely new and fundamentally different. Which is it to be?

    Similarly, top-down reasoning to a desired result is either a genuine emergent phenomenon over and above the bottom-up blind and ateleological cause and effect, or it is an epiphenomenon that is not genuinely able to achieve more than the sum of its basic physical intreractions. It’s hard to see how one can use reason to arrive at any sort of truth truth, if reason itself has no actual existence.

    Of what use is a judgement on the rationality of loving when rationality itself is an epiphenomenon of blind causal mechanisms? One ends up living as if top-down causes you believe to have no genuinely emergent properties do have them. You love as if there were genuine care, express the love as if reasoning and empathy were genuine. I’d say that was actually quite rational (believing reason to be a genuine entity), the sole irrationality being in holding on to belief in blind efficient causes compartmentalized from all the important things of life.

    As for the critique of Christianity, I have to keep pinching myself to remind myself that you claim once to have been a Christian, since I can’t comprehend how anyone could have taught it to you so badly. Since when has “pie in the sky when you die” ever had anything to do with true religion?

  6. Roger A. Sawtelle says:



    You ask, Why should Christians take the trouble to live since they believe that life is an impediment to spending eternity with God?

    Interesting enough this idea did occur to Christians in Thessalonica long ago and Paul wrote a letter to explain that life on earth is not an implement to living in eternity as some philosophers might say. Life in heaven is a continuation of life on earth. The rejection of the goodness of life on earth is also the rejection of the goodness of life with God.

    I am glad that you find life on earth exciting and interesting. That means that life has meaning and purpose, which is the opposite of what Jacques Monod says. On the other hand if you think that the purpose of life is to fulfill some selfish purpose or ideology, I disagree with this.


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