Revenge of the Reductionists

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Mark Kuperberg


1) Rob Wozniak’s presentation was great.  My interpretation of it is that there are these centuries’ old controversies about mind and body and emergence is a way of resolving these controversies.  I agree.


2) The question is, does this resolution rebound to the disadvantage of reductionism?  I would say no.


3) Do we all agree that the only thing that is going on with respect to mental states (conscious, unconscious, whatever) is electro-chemical reactions in the brain?  If we do, then to paraphrase Richard Nixon, “we are all reductionists” (Nixon actually said, “we are all Keynesians”).  The only question then is what kind of reductionists are we?


4) First, Paul’s point:


“What's important about Rob's martian is not ONLY the issue of whether there is a perfect identity between physically observable brain states and internal experience but ALSO the separate issue of whether a description of a brain state FROM THE OUTSIDE will give the outsider the internal experience associated with the original brain state. I, for one, am quite convinced by available observations that the first is the case, there is an absolute identity between brain state and internal experience. I am equally convinced, for the same reason that the second is NOT the case. No description of the state of the brain, no matter how complete, will provide an observer with the "experience" the observed state supports. This can be had only be BEING that nervous system in that state.”


I would say that this is a modern day version of “vitalism’, and I assume that Paul in his Bio classes has some very bad things to say about that theory.


5) Ontology vs. Epistemology: Just as emergence can be a claim about ontology (nature) or about epistemology (science), so can reductionism.  I am an ontological reductionist (which is probably worse than being a liberal).  The “nature” of the brain/mental states/consciousness-unconsciousness is electro-chemical reactions, but this says nothing about how we are best able to understand the brain (epistemology).  I suspect that for a very, very, very (did I say very) long time our understanding of the brain will not be reducible to our understanding of its electro-chemical reactions.  So at a pragmatic level, I don’t think that there is any difference between me and some (but not all) of the non-reductionists out there.  Put another way, there is no contradiction between ontological reductionism and epistemological emergence.  I’m not exactly sure what “surplus meaning” means, but I absolutely believe that for MOST things that humans try to understand, “the level of scientific discourse about higher-level phenomena cannot (given our understanding to date and what we can reasonably expect in the near future) be fully translated into discourse used to describe lower level phenomena”, to quote one of Rob’s slides with my italics added.


6) We now come to Anne’s questions (and I think it is beyond cool that some of the most fundamental philosophy of science questions are brought up by a humanist):


emergence created a problem for the nature of knowing: Because effects are emergent, deduction is insecure. And because effects are emergent, prediction is not reliable. We can't go back (because the loss of information in arriving at "meaning" is not recuperable?) and we can't predictably go forward (because of the complexity of the interactions?). My question is whether, in the universe you've just traced for us, the unpredictability of the future and irreducibility/irreversibility of the present (the inability to reduce a cause to its effects, to play the tape predictably backwards) are the same thing. Do not being predictably predictive and not being reliably deductible arise from the same cause, for the same reason?”


a) Epistemological emergence doesn’t create problems of knowing, it solves problems of knowing - it is a way of knowing (this is the fundamental difference between ontological and epistemological emergence).


b) In thinking about emergent phenomena, I always go back to cellular automata because they seem to me to be a canonical form, and we completely understand how they operate (they are a Max Weberian “ideal type”).  So,


1) In principle you can always predict what the next step will be, but in practice, the calculations may be so difficult that you have to resort to short-cuts (patterns) to understand what is going on.  The fact that the individual steps are totally predictable does not mean that the patterns will be predictable.  The hope is that they will be - ie. that we will have reliable laws tying the patterns together (this is where my fellow reductionist, Doug Blank, deserts the ship).  Doug’s paradigm is basically a full employment policy for computer scientists, and I would like to think that there is something for the rest of us to do.


2) You cannot always recover the past configuration from the current configuration.  This is because it is possible for several past configurations to result in the same present configuration.  The present configuration does not contain all of its past history in it (just as a piece’s position on a Monopoly Board tells you all you can know about what the probabilities are of landing on squares going forward, but it does not tell you anything about how the peice got to its current square).  So, to get back to Anne’s questions, the indeterminacy going forward is NOT caused by the same thing as the indeterminacy going backwards.  The indeterminacy going forward is a practical problem (it is epistemological not ontological - it is not inherent in the nature of the process), but the indeterminacy going backwards can be.