Synopsis of Andreas Losch’s April 27 YHouse Lunch IAS Talk

On Thursdays at noon Yhouse holds a lunch meeting at the Institute of Advanced Study, in Princeton. The format is a 15 minute informal talk by a speaker followed by a longer open-ended discussion among the participants, triggered by, but not necessarily confined to, the topic of the talk.  In order to share I am posting a synopsis of the weekly meetings.

April 27, 2017 Synopsis of Andreas Losch’s  YHouse Lunch Talk

Speaker: Andreas Losch (University of Bern)

Title: Top-Down Causation
Abstract:  (By the speaker)  “Can the human mind actually control the body? This seems to be an experience we all have every second. Yet doesn’t it imply the existence of a free will to perform its decisions with bodily means? How could this scientifically be imagined, the causal nexus of the physical world provided? Amongst others, Karl Popper and John Eccles – drawing on the ideas of Michael Polanyi and Donald T. Campbell – propagate the idea of a “top-down causation“ as a potential answer. I will discuss the origins, extent and shortcomings of this idea.”

Present:  Andreas Losch, Bob McClennan, George Musser, Naoki Yajima, David Fergusson, Nicholaas Rupke, Ed Turner, Michael Solomon

 Andreas opened with the basic definition of top-down causation, “Can the whole/ the Macrostructure act back on its parts?”  The question of Top-Down causation has been considered by many thinkers.  George Ellis has argued that this exists everywhere.  Others question whether it exists at all.  Andreas noted the views of Karl Popper resonate with his own ideas.  He said Popper believed in the Kantian vision that Man is not just a machine but is an End-in-itself.  Andreas referred to the Is/Ought distinction often associated with David Hume – “Is” relates to a description of the world, “Ought” involves a goal or purpose.  Top-down causation in Popper’s interpretation of it is an attempt to relate Is and Ought, contrary to Hume’s approach.  The question of Top-Down causality is related to the question of “How Can the Mind can exist in a Physical World?”

Andreas described Popper’s ontology of Three Worlds existing, not only the dualistic Cartesian ontology.  The first is the physical world.  The second is the subjective mental world.  The third is the world of combined human understanding, based on both the other worlds. All individual human understanding, the subjective interpretation of reality, is derived from the physical and from the combined totality of human understanding up to this time.  In the physical world, it is thought you can reduce everything to causes at a lower level.  But that does not allow for Top-Down causation.  He described Crystal growth as an example.  A crystal forms because the molecules composing the crystal follow certain rules.  On the other hand, Machines are formed as tools and work only if they are designed properly. Andreas cited Michel Polanyi’s very influential 1968 paper in Science “Life’s Irreducible Structure”.  In this anti-reductionism paper Polanyi argues that the structure of DNA requires the physical laws of chemistry but is itself a higher ordering principle. He described the process of Emergence by which a higher level such as consciousness is dependent on but distinct from the lower levels of physics, chemistry, and bodily functions.  In the same way, the constituents of a machine are harnessed by the design.  Andreas related how he had once asked Michael Polanyi’s son John (himself a Nobel laureate) what he thought of his father’s ideas and was told that since John grew up with those ideas he accepted them as correct.  Andreas spoke of Donald T. Campbell, a reductionist, who attempted to reinterpret Polanyi’s views and incorporate Top-Down causation.  Campbell spoke of “Blind Variation and Selective Retention” to describe not only biologic, but all evolving systems. He described four principles: 1) Higher levels are restricted by lower levels.  2) Higher levels are required to make things work.  3) Emergence.  4) Top-Down Causation.  For example, we can look at the emergence of Jaws in termites.  The worker termite’s jaw works on the physical principle of the lever, which could already be regarded as a top-down concept.  Even more, soldier termite’s jaws are so large the soldiers cannot feed themselves and must be fed by other termites. So, the emergence of the soldier termite’s jaw depends on the larger colony’s organization (top-down).

Andreas included consideration of the short comings of Top-Down Causation.  John Eccles, Nobel winning neurophysiologist and philosopher, in 1951 in Nature “Hypotheses relating to the brain-mind problem” held a strongly dualistic and Cartesian approach, but suggested that hidden dendrites or brain modules might operate in a top-down fashion.  Andreas noted that there are some who discount the process of emergence.  Is nature really structured on levels?  He cited that physical interactions depend on fundamental indeterminism in the physical universe that is only probabilistic.  Popper sees similarities between the way higher level selective pressures are imposed on lower level genetic mutations that are probabilistic.  There is the problem of thermodynamics.  Must thermodynamic laws hold within any framework that includes a nonmaterial mind? The brain processes produce and use up heat and energy.  John Polkinghorne’s concept of “Active Information” attempts to avoid that problem on the quantum level, involving the trajectories of chaotic attractors in chaotic systems.  These systems, however, are considered deterministic, but are very dependent on initial conditions.  So, if you consider the quantum level, non-locality would require the whole universe to determine any action of a chaotic system, and you could interpret this with Polkinghorne as actual indeterminism.  Andreas stopped here noting that he had not resolved the issue, but hoped to stimulate discussion.

Q:  David asked if Popper had revised his views in the 10 years prior to his death in 1994?

A:  Andreas was not aware of any changes.

Q:  Ed asked, Is there room for things outside the physical laws? There is the possibility that laws are broken at times.  This might lead to revising the laws, but might also occur with divine intervention.  The appeal to the quantum universe seems obvious, but Andreas dismissed that.  Why did he dismiss that?  Ed could imagine you could influence the physical world and still maintain a quantum universe. For example, when rolling dice, you must get certain probabilistic total outcomes, but maybe could control the sequence and outcomes of each individual role of the dice.

A: Andreas asked if that was like providence (last week’s talk)?

A: George said you could be a random number generator, but you would still walk out of the casino rich and that is an unlikely event.

Ed responded you could control individual events in ways that don’t violate the laws of probability.

Ed further said, My mind can make me raise my hand and arm but must do it by mechanisms of electro-chemical events.  It would be possible to manipulate quantum events in the world without violating quantum rules for statistical outcomes.

George referred to a Bohmian process. You cannot violate the law but the outcome is extremely improbable.  (I believe he was referring to the de Broglie – Bohm theory that says that in addition to the wave function of all possible configurations described by the Schrödinger equation, there exists an actual configuration even when unobserved.  That configuration is determined by the initial conditions and system boundaries and may depend on the entire rest of the universe.)

Ed replied If you shuffle a deck of cards all outcomes are equally probable.  Could you control the shuffle in a game of Bridge to prevent (or allow) anyone getting all of one suit?

(That would allow a mechanism for “divine” intervention within the framework of a universe bound by physical quantum laws.)

Andreas said he liked the idea that actions in the environment feed back on the world.

Q: Nicholaas returned to crystals.  The properties of the constituents predetermine the structure of the crystal. Why should that not apply to elements?  The Periodic Table predicts what the next element will be and what properties it will have based on the rules governing the addition of subatomic particles to the atoms.  This may be considered a Top-Down process as well.

A:  Andreas said Popper agrees and talks about the giraffe’s neck using the word “purpose”.

Nicholaas noted that the enormous other aspects of anatomy and physiology necessary for the giraffe’s neck are not explained by selection, and Darwin recognized that.

Q:  Andreas returned to the question of whether there are higher levels that affect lower levels?

Q:  Naoki, a scholar of David Hume, contributed that Hume says the meaning of causation requires clarification. Hume questions whether causation is real or is just inferred by us.  You must define causation to determine if you are justified in attributing causation.

A:  Andreas said he believes in causality but knows that belief is a leap of faith.  It works to believe this, though.  He assumes that Hume did not know about the concept of emergence.

Nicholaas mentioned that Blumenbach (Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, 1752 – 1840, an early exponent of comparative anatomy and of racial distinctions) recognized emergence in his writings.  In the history of science ideas such as phase transitions were included to explain what appeared to be supernatural.  If you put ion particles together you magically get a magnetic field.

Q:  Andreas believes there are two options:  1) Keep up the Is/Ought divide – When we assume our belief that our mental activity affects the world is an illusion. 2)  Relate Is and Ought, but then we need some concept like top-down causation.

David offered the critical issue is determinism.  To say the mind can affect the world requires an indeterminate world.  But you could still have Top-Down causation within the confines of a physical deterministic world.  One example is chaotic systems which appear random but are deterministic.

Q: Ed added that there might be an appeal in chaos theory to “strange attractors”, i.e. a state to which systems appear to be drawn.  In chaotic systems some outcomes are favored and others are not.

Q: David asked do we see human action as top-down and is that then a model for divine action?

Q: George asked David if a physical system is deterministic can it still be top-down?

Q: Michael suggested that it appears noncontroversial that I can will my arm to lift, and the mechanism involves physical muscles and nerves.  It also seems clear that my mental state can affect my physical state – if I think of something that makes me anxious my heart rate increases, my breathing changes.  There are innumerable examples of feed-back mechanisms in physiology to regulate bodily functions, and many of these involve mental activity.  All physicians acknowledge that our mental state affects our physical state and ability to recover from injury.  Isn’t this reciprocity both bottom-up and top-down?

Q: George noted that we have never defined top-down.

A: Ed said we usually think of bottom-up.  Everything has a cause.  The event we call World War II can be described starting with string theory, molecules, and working up to societal and nation state events. But we still end up at WW II.

Nicholaas:  The question is whether we must distinguish physical from nonphysical things.

Ed:  Current Natural Science may not recognize any nonphysical things, although maybe Information is nonphysical.

Bob asked what is the “something else” that is going on? Attitudes, beliefs, the weather?

Ed:  We don’t know but could imagine a world like that –  a Harry Potter world where my saying the correct spell results in an action.

Michael:  Isn’t Mathematics a nonphysical entity that is deterministic in the physical world?  And isn’t mathematics the foundation for all our explanations of the physical world?

At this time we stopped our discussion, thanked Andreas for his stimulating presentation, returned our trays, and some of us continued the discussion over coffee.

During that continuation Naoki related that Descartes and Leibnitz had different visions of Truth. Descartes denied one eternal truth saying that God can create eternal truths whenever God wants.  Leibnitz argued there is only One truth and that is God’s perfect truth.  These views represent two demonstrations of God’s existence: 1) The Oncological demonstration – God must be perfect to create an imperfect world and people. And 2) the Cosmological demonstration – Based on causal relationships, God is the first cause.  The concept of God then depends on our Empirical interpretation.

Bob cited the writing of Plotinus, a first century Greek philosopher.  He described the One as transcendent and indivisible, beyond being and non-being.  The See-er is not separate from the Seen.  This One is not a deity and is not involved in creation. He then describes Mathematics not as an existing non-corporeal entity, but as a language.  The number one is a description of something in the world.  And adding one plus one is not the same as the number two.  Two is a new entity.  In response to my suggesting that mathematics is a nonphysical entity that serves as the foundation for all our science, Bob felt that math is merely a language that allows people who speak many other languages to communicate.  In this regard, the laws of Mathematics may not be constant.  The rules that apply to Euclidian geometry do not apply on the surface of a sphere, for example.  (My addition later from Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy under Karl Popper:  Philosophy of arithmetic: “Popper’s principle of falsifiability runs into prima facie difficulties when the epistemological status of mathematics is considered. It is difficult to conceive how simple statements of arithmetic, such as “2 + 2 = 4”, could ever be shown to be false. If they are not open to falsification they can not be scientific. If they are not scientific, it needs to be explained how they can be informative about real world objects and events.  Popper’s solution[36] was an original contribution in the philosophy of mathematics. His idea was that a number statement such as “2 apples + 2 apples = 4 apples” can be taken in two senses. In one sense it is irrefutable and logically true, in the second sense it is factually true and falsifiable. Concisely, the pure mathematics “2 + 2 = 4” is always true, but, when the formula is applied to real world apples, it is open to falsification.”)

Ed recommended that we read Piet’s 2005 paper entitled “Mathematics, Matter, and Mind” in which Piet along with Mark Alport and Max Tegmark debate interpretations of a triangle comprised of these elements. (I have subsequently read this and suggest the paper be the topic of a future lunch meeting.)

Ed asked David what is the mechanism of Providence?  That was not covered in last week’s presentation.  David answered the theology of providence bumps up against two problems, Evil and Divine Action.  We spoke of evil but not of divine action.  If you had an account of how God created the world, then you have constraints inherent in that act of creation.  But if you think of God continuing to interact then you do need Top-Down intervention.


Michael J. Solomon, MD


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