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Posts Tagged ‘free will’

Charles Darwin

‘. . . . The process of evolution was a process of complexification, of moving from relative simplicity and disorder towards relative complexity and order. . . . It was therefore a process of moving from more probable configurations towards less probable configurations.’

John Hatcher quoted by Kitzing in Evolution and Bahá’í Belief (page 203)

Optimisation – the sceptical view

To recap briefly where we got to last time, in considering the issue of evolution, we reach a point where life seems impossibly improbable, yet it exists. Something seems to be driving it to create increasingly complex forms of life, but we don’t know what. Now I come back to the issue of complexity from two atheists’ point of view before looking at the Bahá’í perspective once more.

A key issue that Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini deal with in their book What Darwin Got Wrong concerns what they call optimisation.

Put simply (page 81):

Evolution seems to have achieved near optimal answers to questions which, if pursued by the application of exogenous filters to solutions generated at random, as the neo-Darwinist model requires, would have imposed searching implausibly large spaces of candidate solutions. This seems an intractable enigma, unless prior filtering by endogenous constraints is assumed.

The standard neo-Darwinian model won’t work, they conclude (page 85): ‘The picture of a blind search winnowed by selection is utterly implausible.’

They have analysed the endogenous constraints within the genome that I referred to last time and are also aware that basic laws of science add in further limits (page 86):

 . . . it seems that only physico-chemical and geometric constraints can explain the narrow canalisations that natural selection must have explored.… [Otherwise] the space of possible solutions to be explored seems too gigantic to have been explored by blind trial and error.

There are still mysteries that remain unexplained, for example (page 89) concerning the angle of wings:

The angles of effective wing stroke are extremely narrow . . . and one wants to question the process through which this narrow wedge of angles became fixated even before there was any real flight.

They give several other examples of optimisation including the foraging strategies of bees, before moving on to a particularly spectacular one: the example of the wasp that zombifies cockroaches with two strategically perfect injections at the exactly right intervals, prior to making its victim the comatose but still alive host and food supply to its young. They go on to say (pages 90-91 – my emphasis):

Not even the most committed adaptationist neo-Darwinians suppose that all kinds of alternatives have been blindly tried out by the ancestors of the wasp … True: wasps have been around for a very long time (some 400 million years, maybe more) but even this is not a long enough time to try out innumerable alternative behavioural solutions, with alternative possibilities conceivable at each step of the behavioural sequence. What, then? No one knows at present. Such cases of elaborate innate behavioural programs… cannot be accounted for by means of optimising physico-chemical or geometric factors.

There has to be some explanation. Whatever it is science hasn’t found it yet but, as scientists, they understandably place their faith in science none the less (page 92):

The problem of finding optimal solutions to evolutionary problems by filtering candidates generated at random would often be intractable. But, as we have just seen, there are some instances of optimal (or near-optimal) solutions to problems in biology; so, if natural selection cannot optimise, then something else must be involved.. . . factors that the progress of science will in due time reveal.

This is an act of faith even so. We’re in Eric Reitan territory here when he writes in Is God a Delusion? (pages 181-182) that:

 . . . atheism is a matter of faith, . . . a way of seeing the world that they have chosen from an array of alternatives about which reason and evidence have nothing to say. . . . Religious faith . . . involves a choice that is no less rational than theirs.

Complexity and Faith

So, what might a religion have to say about this problem that would be just as rational?

Eberhard von Kitzing writes in Evolution and Bahá’í Belief (page 183):

Just as embryonic development consists in the actualisation of the information stored in its genome, evolution based on the existence of a potential order ‘reveals’ the implicit order encoded in fundamental laws of nature.

. . . Because of the gigantic improbability of the result of evolution by chance, today chance as the primary source of complex life is generally rejected. Most modern evolutionary biologists would agree that pure chance cannot explain the complex order of life.

This seems reasonably concordant with where I left Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini just now. Kitzing goes on (page 185-86) ‘. . . as pointed out correctly by Ward, the gradual appearance of order begs the same level of explanation as its sudden emergence: . . . . If complexity needs explaining, it needs explaining, however long it took to get there!’ adding that (page 192) ‘The origin of complex order by chance alone is too improbable for such a possibility to be taken seriously.’

It should come as no surprise at this point (page 194) to find Kitzing pointing out that ‘‘Abdu’l-Bahá proposes the need of a voluntary First Cause to avoid the problem of an infinite regression of causes.’

Picking up on the issue of optimisation, or in his terms ‘complexity,’ Kitzing quotes Hatcher (pages 203-04):

‘. . . . The process of evolution was a process of complexification, of moving from relative simplicity and disorder towards relative complexity and order. . . . It was therefore a process of moving from more probable configurations towards less probable configurations.’ . . . Hatcher concludes that there must be a special kind of force which causes this complexification during the evolution of life on earth.

Hatcher voices the conclusion to which this inevitably leads (page 204): ‘It seems reasonable to call this force “God,” but anyone uncomfortable with that name can simply call it “the evolutionary force”.’

Ultimately (page 206): ‘Although there are differences in the details of the arguments of Hatcher, Ward, Loehle, and the author of this essay, they agree in the conclusion that God’s will is necessary to explain the origin of the complex order of life.’

We each of us have to make up our own minds, on the basis of the evidence as we understand it, where we stand on this issue. My main contention here is to suggest that a religious explanation of evolution is as rational as a materialistic one: to commit to either is an act of faith. Reason alone can only warrant agnosticism.

The Social Consequences of neo-Darwinism:

Having dealt with the main issue, I would like to take a brief look at another aspect that needs to be borne in mind: what has been the impact on culture and society of buying into a neo-Darwinian perspective?

Kitzing makes clear that (page 213):

[‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s] particular interest was in the social and religious consequences of Darwinism as it was interpreted by ‘some European philosophers.’

‘Abdu’l-Bahá has not been the only one to voice such concerns.

David Wallace-Wells, in his book The Uninhabitable Earth, speaks of how Social Darwinism appeals ‘to unequal outcomes as “fair” ones, an already familiar one-percenter view.’ In effect, neo-Darwinism works hard to make bllnd competitive selfishness seem  almost rational and certainly inevitable.

In Alas, Poor Darwin, Hilary & Steven Rose strongly express their concerns (page 3):

The claims of evolutionary psychology in the field of biology, psychology, anthropology, sociology, cultural studies and philosophy are for the most part not merely mistaken, but culturally pernicious.

One of the many examples in the book comes from Charles Jenks (page 44):

Social Darwinists and John D. Rockefeller . . . argued that, since nature shows the survival of the fittest coming out of competition, then society should make permanent the winners and losers. It is only natural to follow natural selection. In spite of such arguments continuously being shown to be logically false and morally suspect, they are, I believe, being continuously made and especially by those trained to avoid them, academics.

One way to fossilise inequality, I suppose.

There is another delusion whose balloon he seeks to puncture: it’s the deterministic one about free will being an illusion. This is rooted in a reductionist view of the mind which Dorothy Nelkin explains (page 18): ‘Evolutionary psychologists…, [c]onvinced of the centrality of the genes, believe that the mind will ultimately be reduced to material properties…’ Ironically, they proselytise their views in the manner of religious evangelists (page 19): ‘Evolutionary psychologists are missionaries, advocating a set of principles that define the meaning of life and seeking to convert others to their beliefs.’

Charles Jenks then spends a whole chapter subverting the idea that this means all we do is determined either by genes or culture (page 31):

 . . . we actually have three variables: nature, nurture and self organisation. For convenience I will label them genes (G), culture (C) and free will (F).

He argues that sneezing is almost completely genetically determined while artistic creativity is one of the most extreme examples of the exercise of free will.

If there were no free will, and everything was determined, then none of us would be responsible for what we do and should not therefore be held to account for it, a proposition that would make it hard to adhere to any workable system of crime and punishment.

Perhaps as importantly, it would make most of us give up the struggle to overcome tormenting mental states such as depression and obsessive-compulsive drives.

Thankfully there is a wealth of evidence to demonstrate that this would be a defeatist delusion. There is a book dealing with a wealth of research that is exactly in line with this.

The Mind & the Brain by Jeffrey Schwartz and Sharon Begley tackles the complexities of the issue in a  most accessible style and marshalls the evidence in an engaging and persuasive way (page 18):

Modern neuroscience is now demonstrating what James suspected more than a century ago: that attention is a mental state . . . that allows us, moment by moment, to “choose and sculpt how our ever-changing minds will work, [to] choose who we will be the next moment in a very real sense . .

The authors discuss in detail various models of mind, highlighting the problems problems with reductionism (page 40):

The basic principles of evolutionary biology would seem to dictate that any natural phenomenon as prominent in our lives as our experience of consciousness must necessarily have some discernible and quantifiable effect in order for it to exist, and to persist, in nature at all.

They introduce us to Chalmers‘ notion that consciousness can be regarded (page 47) as a “non-reductive primitive,” a “fundamental building block of reality”.

It would be impossible to describe all the evidence they adduce to support the claim that volition is real and its exercise can change the brain, i.e. mind alters matter in this case and it cannot be explained as one part of the brain working on another part.

Crucially, they draw on Schwartz’s work with patients suffering from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder who had agreed to combine the therapy with regular brain scans. This work showed (page 90) that “self-directed therapy had dramatically and significantly altered brain function.” His model involves four stages. He concludes (page 94):

The changes the Four Steps can produce in the brain offered strong evidence that willful [i.e. willed], mindful effort can alter brain function, and that such self-directed brain changes – neuroplasticity – are a genuine reality.

In case we miss the full implications of this work they spell them out (page 95):

The clinical and physiological results achieved with OCD support the notion that the conscious and willful mind cannot be explained solely and completely by matter, by the material substance of the brain. In other words, the arrow of causation relating brain and mind must be bidirectional. . . . [M]odern quantum physics provides an empirically validated formalism that can account for the effects of mental processes on brain function.

So, there I will leave the matter for now at least.

In my view, it is as rational to believe in a transcendent driver behind the improbable complexities of evolution, as it is to believe we will eventually find a convincing material one. There may also be good reasons for being more alert to some of the more potentially toxic ways a neo-Darwinian perspective has been contaminating our culture.

Over to you.

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I read an interesting article by Yuval Noah Harari in the Guardian some time ago, entitled The New Threat to Liberal Democracy. Astonishingly, from reductionist premises with which I completely disagree, such as that we have no free will, he arrives at the same conclusion as I do about a key mental skill: ‘renouncing the myth of free will can kindle a profound curiosity. If you strongly identify with the thoughts and desires that emerge in your mind, you don’t need to make much effort to get to know yourself. You think you already know exactly who you are. But once you realise “Hi, this isn’t me. This is just some changing biochemical phenomenon!” then you also realise you have no idea who – or what – you actually are. This can be the beginning of the most exciting journey of discovery any human can undertake.’

This is reflective disidentification in effect. More of that in a moment.

The article, from vastly different premises, confirms my feeling that developing the ability to step back from our automatic reactions is a key skill we need to acquire, but our culture militates against it – in fact, all the subliminal influences in our society are working in the opposite direction.

In Tart’s terms, our ‘trance’, and in Bahá’u’lláh’s words our ‘vain imaginings,’ ’superstitions’ and ‘delusions,’ control us, not because we have no will power, but because we fail to tune into the deepest levels of our being and we invest our trust in false gods.

On top of that, our reptilian brain, the amygdala, drowns out the soul’s whispers with its fear and rage.

What follows may not be entirely coherent as it was only recently, while sitting in the garden with a coffee, that an important penny dropped.

I asked myself whether, in my past attempts to look at what narrows the compass of compassion, eg labelling, the reptilian brain, inequality, power differentials etc, I had missed the more generic point that any kind of identification with a feeling, thought, judgement, self-concept, ego function, by definition:

(a) narrows compassion potentially to zero, and

(b) shallows wisdom to the same extent.

Strong identifications of this kind could lead to a container, whose width is compassion and depth is wisdom, to become the size of a thimble – an obvious but useful symbol. Using reflection to remove these false identifications would create an ocean, by comparison. When you add into the mix how reflection facilitates true consultation as a means of enhancing our simulations of reality through a constructive process of comparing notes with others in a spirit of objective exploration rather than adversarial debate, then the potential becomes even greater. The opposite is also true: failure to reflect impedes consultation and fosters conflict, resulting in impoverished representations of reality.

The other important factor is what we choose as our guiding light. As Reitan points out, simply believing we believe in God is not enough: the God we choose to believe in has to be worthy of worship. To make a god out of our ego or a dictator is a fatal mistake. Even our ideals have to be approached with caution, as Jonathan Haidt in his humane and compassionate book ‘The Happiness Hypothesis’ points out. In his view, idealism has caused more violence in human history than almost any other single thing (page 75):

The two biggest causes of evil are two that we think are good, and that we try to encourage in our children: high self-esteem and moral idealism. . . . Threatened self-esteem accounts for a large portion of violence at the individual level, but to really get a mass atrocity going you need idealism — the belief that your violence is a means to a moral end.

Another recent article in the Guardian by Michele Gelfand points up the impact of feeling threatened on our openness to others.

His core point in terms of this issue is: ‘Analysing hundreds of hunter-gatherer groups, as well as nation-states including the Aztecs and Incas, we found that cultures that experienced existential threats, such as famine and warfare, favoured strong norms and autocratic leaders. Our computer models show a similar effect: threat leads to the evolution of tightness.’

This maps onto my long explored idea that fear narrows the compass of compassion and makes intolerance and prejudice more likely. The narrower the container, the more likely we are to experience feelings of threat and a strong sense of difference between us and other people.

I’d maybe been putting the cart before the horse in seeing the feelings as ultimately causative rather than secondary. The wider we set our compass of compassion, and the deeper our wisdom becomes, the less likely are we to be fearful, threatened and reactively aggressive. When something disturbing happens and it’s a drop in the ocean you feel no fear. When something happens and it’s a drop in a thimble, all hell spills out.

This may be a two-way street, though, in that fear will reduce the size of our container, just as the smallness of the container is conducive to fear. There is, however, no guarantee that an absence of fear would be conducive automatically to compassion, as the combination of narcissism and fearlessness is found in the psychopath.

Where the process starts may be different for different people in different situations. If it is basically true, however, that fear shrinks compassion and reduced compassion fosters fear, and it seems likely, the dynamic I’ve described would create a vicious circle of a most pernicious and self-defeating kind. I still need to clarify these implications.

This is what I plan to do in a later sequence.

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