Science, Determinism and the Status of Volition

This article discusses the issue of volition versus determinism in the context of modern science and its doctrine of mechanistic reductionism.

Determinism Newtonian versus Aristotelian

Firstly, the term determinism to a classical physicist means ‘determined by the universal laws of mechanics’ (Newton’s Laws, if you prefer). But Newton and modern physics are describing what determines the position, velocity, momentum, acceleration of a particle at any moment in time. So given the laws of motion and give a particle with a velocity (direction+speed) and the rate at which it is undergoing acceleration (a constant change in velocity), we can fully predict its position (relative to a selected frame of reference). No one (with the possible exception of quantum physics) is denying this. The laws of particle motion are determined by the nature of particles and the nature of the forces in the universe which affect their motions at any point in time.

Aristotle would say that the actions of an entity are determined by its nature. What it can do by virtue of its nature (its potentialities) and what is is able to do in a given context (its possibilities) are all determined by its nature qua that form of being (or substance). Assuming the classical physicists understanding of the nature of particles of ‘matter’, the physicist is justified in his deterministic conclusions regarding the state of motion of a particle whose motion is fully constrained by Newton’s laws of motion and force (universal gravity and laws of conservation of mass and energy).

If physics stopped here, we might have no quarrels with its doctrines (although Aristotle would have quarrels with virtually all of the assumptions underlying classical laws of physics). But classical physics is driven by an additional set of priori assumptions and a series of conclusions based on those assumptions.

Materialist Reductionism

Modern science, including the science of biology is rooted in the doctrine of materialist reductionism.  This doctrine is based on a set of a priori assumptions regarding the ontology of physical existence.

The first assumption is this: ‘All entities in the universe consist entirely of various combinations of the same fundamental subatomic particles. All complex objects (from molecules to living beings) are merely aggregates of such particles.

Secondly, therefore, all of the causal possibilities of entities (thus characterized) are merely the aggregate sum of the actions of their elemental parts, i.e., their electrons + protons + neutrons).

Finally, since all of the laws of motion of these particles have been fully proven and experimentally verified to be subject to the very same Newtonian laws of classical mechanics, and no others, all actions of all entities, regardless of their complexity are therefore reducible to the sum-total of the simple actions of their primitive subatomic particles (their ultra-components).

This is not a set of absolute truths proven by science. It is a doctrine about the ontological nature of all of reality, based on knowledge of the laws of a single substance: matter. The precise meaning of the concept of matter is actually quite unclear. If by matter physicists mean ‘everything made up of electrons, protons and neutron’ (presumably true of all known complex entities and substances) then reductionism is a mere tautology.  But materialist reductionism goes beyond this premise and holds that all of the laws of animate beings are deducible to the laws of inanimate entities, such laws constituting the science of physics (and possibly of chemistry insofar as chemistry is entirely reducible to the laws of physics).

Matter: What is its Ontology?

To understand and address materialism, one must begin by asking just what is meant by the concept ‘matter?’  Is an electron an instance of ‘matter’? Do we know that qua matter it is identical (again qua matter) with a proton (qua matter) or a neutron (qua matter)? The modern physicist does not know how to answer such a question and has boldly given up all attempts to do so. Why, because he has given up ontology (metaphysics), the discipline that seeks to identify the nature of being qua being.  In this case, for example, the being of an electron qua matter versus the being of a neutron qua matter. To the modern scientist, ontology is metaphysics, and metaphysics is (in his mind) mysticism (an attempt to go beyond the evidence of the sense).  Therefore, to even ask ‘What is an electron?’ is essentially meaningless.  For there is nothing in the modern concept of an electron that is not reducible to its quantitative dimensions measured in terms of time, space and force (or field dynamics).   The answer is a set of equations.  For the modern physicist, beneath the equations there is no ‘mysterious ontology’, no being beyond the equation itself and its mathematical semantics.  Thus mass is nothing more than the measurement of an objects resistance to acceleration.  Beyond the mathematics, there is no reality to investigate.

Thus we see that to avoid the problem of answering ontological questions, the physicist practices the technique of reification of mathematical entities and laws.  A thing is its mathematical properties.  All attempts to ask why the mathematical properties are what they are, is to wander into the meanness realm of ontology and metaphysics.  In the current case, matter is simply defined as ‘that which obeys the mathematical laws of classical mechanics,’ clearly a circular definition from the point of view of the philosopher, but the only answer possible, from the point of view of the mathematized physicist.  Through this technique of mathematical reification, modern science has conceptually returned to the Neoplatonic ‘new science’ of the Renaissance, to the science of Descartes and Galileo, arguing that the nature of extended being (‘matter’ or res extensa) is fully understood by modeling it mathematically and regarding its mathematical (geometric) properties as its essence. Thus the ultimate ontology of matter and motion is fully mathematical.  Note: A discussion of  the Neoplatonic roots of modern science is presented in greater depth in my article in this bioperipatetic blog entitled  Aristotle and the Philosophical Crisis of Quantum Theory.

For Aristotle, the answers to ontological questions are found by examining the nature of the substance or being under inquiry.  By a being’s nature, we (those of us who agree with Aristotle on this issue) mean its essential principles of being that underly the sort of substance or being it is.  Again, with Aristotle, until we understand its essential nature, its fundamental ontology, we do not have a science regarding that category of substance.

Pursuing an Aristotelian analysis of the concept of ‘matter’ as held by modern science is impossible, since matter, to the modern scientist is a concept that, by definition, has not ontology.  But if we return to the Cartesian-Newtonian concept of matter, we have a chance to investigate its ontological grounding.  For that concept of matter assumes that matter has at least the property of being extended in space and, for many scientist from Newton to Einstein, may have such additional properties as solidity, impenetrability, and exist in structural forms such as  as particles or waves, and above all possess the property of mass, which is, apparently inter-convertable with its potential energy, as Einstein showed in his famous equation E=mc².   Energy itself exists in many different forms, including electromagnetism, gravity, and molecular bonds.

Now modern Newtonian-Einsteinian science asserts that all that exists are particles in motion.  Though particles may take on wave-like properties and vice-versa.   The important principle is that the dynamics (motions) of  of matter (with its ontology of particles and waves as its forms undergoing acceleration presumably in response to mechanical forces)  are all that exist and, being that these principles are all that underlying all entities, these principles must ultimately explain all phenomena within the known universe.

Yet science has failed repeatedly to truly and satisfactorily explain many complex phenomena, such as the behavior of complex molecules,  organisms, and even important cosmic phenomena, such as galactic forces and dynamics, not to mention the absolutely challenging phenomena of consciousness, a class of phenomena essential to the being and practice of science itself as a human institution.

If there were no higher level laws that exist and that reliably explain and predict these complex phenomena, then scientists might be justified in arguing that we must all wait for the reductionist program to complete its plan to explain all complexity in the universe in terms of the simple laws of particle and wave physics.   But such is not the case, such higher level laws do exist and are fundamentally capable of explaining complex phenomena at  their higher level, although they cannot be reduced to the laws of physics alone.   Many, we now know, are emergent, and exhibit capabilities that transcend the limitations of the simple physical laws of their infrastructure.

Since such laws to exists and are cognitively efficacious in enabling prediction and understandability in the chemical, biological, and cognitive sciences,  there is no philosophical, ontological justification to assume and demand that all actions of all entities be methodologically reducible to the simple laws of the actions of their atomic substrata. To demand materialist reductionism as the only allowed form of explanation in science is, therefore, to countenance and demand a doctrine of faith, a doctrine held as dogmatically as the faith some have in the existence of God as the universal principle controlling the universe.  Yet many scientist still cling, even proudly, to this faith in reductionism, as they do to faith in mechanistic determinism.

Reductionist Epistemology

Reductionism and Determinism as a ‘Faith’:

Do I exaggerate?  Faith that all of the properties of living organisms and therefore the science of biology itself would ultimately be reduced to the laws of physics and chemistry was embraced at least as far back as research in experimental medicine, pioneered by the great Claude Bernard, who  in 1865, first identified life as a creative force manifesting vital properties that appear upon scientific analysis of living organisms will ‘doubtless’ eventually be reduced to physics and chemistry.

To-day[sic] we differentiate three kinds of properties exhibited in the phenomena of living beings: physical properties, chemical properties and vital properties.  But the term “vital’ properties’ is itself only provisional; because we call properties vital which we have not be able to reduce to physic-chemical terms; but in that we shall doubtless succeed some day. – from An Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine, by Claude Bernard, (1865), English translation published by Dover Publications in 1957, p.93.

The modern attempt to reduce human behavior entirely to actions of the brain and nervous system.  In the Introduction of his famous book ‘The Organization of Behavior: A Neuropsychological Theory,’ D. O. Hebb states:

We can take for granted that any theory of behavior at present must be inadequate and incomplete.  But it is never enough to say, because we have not yet found out how to reduce behavior to the control of the brain, that no one in the future will be able to do so.

Modern psychology takes completely for granted that behavior and neural function are perfectly correlated, that one is completely caused by the other. There is no separate soul or life-force to stick a finger into the brain now and then and make neural cells do what they would not otherwise.  Actually, of course, this is a working assumption only — as long as there are unexplained aspects of behavior. It is quite conceivable that some day the assumption will have to be rejected.  But it is important also to see that we have not reached that day yet: the working assumption is a necessary one, and there is not real evidence opposed to it.  Our failure to solve a problem so far does not make it insoluble.  One cannot logically be a determinist in physics and chemistry and biology, and a mystic in psychology.  – from Introduction to The Organization of Behavior, Page xiii.

Implicit in Hebb’s statement is the idea that determinism is equivalent with mechanistic determinism, the kind of determinism used by the sciences of physics, chemistry, and (presumably) biology.   Hebb argues that the only alternative to this form of determinism requires the introduction of mysticism  Mysticism and mystic are left undefined in his position as they are in most attacks on non-reductionistic science by scientists from the days of Bernard to the scientists of the modern 21st century.

Below is an even more explicit quote from the great neuropsychologist, Karl Lashley, asserting that reductionism is ‘the faith’ to which all biologists and psychologists subscribe:

“Our common meeting ground is the faith to which we all subscribe, I believe, that the phenomena of behavior and mind are ultimately describable in the concepts of mathematical and physical sciences.” from “The Problem of Serial Order in Behavior” (1951) by Karl Lashley, reproduced as chapter 30 in The Neuropsychology of Lashley

Norbert Weiner, the father of cybernetics has written that ‘faith’ is a precondition for the very institution science as such:

I have said that science is impossible without faith…without faith that nature is subject to law there can be not science.  No amount of demonstration can ever prove that nature is subject to law….Inductive logic, the logic of Bacon, is rather something on which we can act than something which we can prove, and to act on it is a supreme assertion of faith. It is in this connection that I must say that Einstein’s dictum concerning the directness of God is itself a statement of faith.  Science is a way of life which can only flourish when men are free to have faith. — from The Human Use of Human Beings, New York, Avon Books, 1967, pp. 262-264

Criticism of Reductionism as ‘Militantly Doctrinaire’:

More recently Paul A. Weiss, while Professor Emeritus, The Rockefeller University, criticized the modern biologist for succumbing to the doctrine of reductionism as the exclusive source of scientific knowledge in any field of science.

Unfortunately, in their aversion to the supernatural, the scientific purists…fostered a militantly doctrinaire “reductionism,” which axiomatically prescribed that all the relevant macro information  about nature must, and eventually will, be derived completely from adding up and piecing together the microinformations about the smallest sample units.  Never mind that physics had to give up that claim gradually …The life sciences have failed to follow suit and break out of the strait jacke of t doctrine for which their own subject matter furnished the most telling disproof. — from 1+1≠2 by Paul Weiss, published in  The Neurosciences: A Study Program, (1967) p. 801.

Criticism of Reductionism as a Pragmatic, Limited Tactical Convenience:

When reductionism is used as a limited (and intentionally limiting) technique for research and analysis, its consequences my merely stultifying with respect to the true possibilities of understanding their subject matter, particularly in the biological sciences.  To this point Paul Weiss writes:

Let us then be emphatic: True, scientific history has grooved our habit of explaining group behavior in terms of the interactive behavior of quasi-independent unit actors, whether molecules or men.  Yet this pragmatic, conceptual artifact has serious limitations and once we reach the limits of its we must relax our historical commitment to exclusive legal recognition of conclusions arrived at analytically and must concede equal explanatory status to collective statement of fact in their own right. … Both conceptually and historically, reductionist description is a secondary and limited tactical convenience. Its limits are to be determined empirically and not by prejudice. — from 1+1≠2 by Paul Weiss, in  The Neurosciences: A Study Program, (1967) p. 815.

Reductionist Faith and Prejudice in Biology as Epistemological Error:

Doctrinaire faith and prejudice can have epistemological as well as practical consequences, deleterious to objective scientific thinking.  In his paper on the relationship between biology and consciousness, Dr. Robert Efron defined reductionism as follows:

[The] principle of reductionism asserts that every action of a living entity will be accounted for, described by and deduced from thos laws of physics which are entirely derived from a study of inanimate entities; that is, it assert that there are no fundamentally different principles of action (causal factors)  found in living as contrast to inanimate entities.  — from Biology without Consciousness–and it’s Consequences, published in Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, Vol. 11, N0. 1, Autumn 1967 p. 11

Efron discusses at length in the above paper the epistemological fallacies often used by biologists to defend the validity of their faith in reductionism, and the consequences of these fallacies for the science of biology.

Blind faith in the reductionist position has not merely led biologist into blatant self-contradiction.  It has led them into a complex manipulation of concepts to camouflage that contradiction.  They have adopted an epistemological method which makes it appear that reality does conform to their arbitrary beliefs.  This epistemological method is well known:  It is called “definition-switching.”

In principle, the method consists of arbitrarily defining the contradiction away.  The reductionist attacks the definition and usage of every word which has historically referred to an action 0f a living entity: “memory,” “reflex,” “free will,” “cognition,” etc. The then redefines that same word so that it will be applicable to an action of an inanimate entity.  By using this epistemological technique, he deludes himself into thinking that inanimate entities have the same properties that are found in living organisms, that a common denominator has been found, and that the problem of reduction is “solved.” – from Biology without Consciousness–and it’s Consequences,  p. 18

A similar technique is used by some doctrinaire reductionists who explicitly or implicitly define ‘determinism’ as synonymous with ‘mechanistic determinism.’ This is, as I have argued above, a case of circular reasoning, in which mechanistic determinism, as the only “recognized” form of determinism is used as its definition. According to Aristotelian metaphysics, determinism, properly understood, simple holds that the actions of any entity (or being) are determined by its nature as that form of being (or substance).  A thing cannot act in contradiction to its nature and therefore all of it actions are constrained by the principles underlying its nature.

Doctrinaire Reductionism: Its Healthy Scrutiny by Modern Science.

So the physicist is acting on faith not science and reason when he demands absolute loyalty to the doctrine of materialist reductionism. Some of today’s greatest scientists, who are opposed to doctrinaire reductionism, assert that recent scientific research and analysis proves that materialist reductionism is applicable only to limited cases, and that even the fundamental phenomena of physics, such as charge, magnetism, density, wave and even space itself, are not reducible from classical (nor even quantum) physics, but are instead emergent phenomena which possess their own laws that transcend those of their underlying infrastructure. See in particular, ‘A Different Universe: Reinventing Physics from the Bottom Down‘ by Robert B. Laughlin, winner of the Nobel prize in physics for his work on the quantum Hall effect.

Contra-Reductionism: All Physical Laws are Emergent:

Here is one of my favorite passages from Laughlin’s book:

“The myth of collective behavior following from the law is, as a practical matter, exactly backward. Law instead follows from collective behavior, as do things that flow from it, such as logic, and mathematics. The reason our minds can anticipate and master what the physical world does is not because we are geniuses but because nature facilitates understanding by organizing itself and generating law.” — p. 209

Laughlin is making the powerful (and to classical physicists, shocking) argument that the laws of physics are all emergent and can only manifest themselves when huge quantities of matter (atoms) aggregate in such a way that the laws will emerge. They are laws caused by the effects and consequences of organized aggregation (such as is found in solids, crystals, liquids and gases). In sum, rather than being reducible (to underlying subatomic laws), the laws of physics (as well as chemistry and biology) are all emergent.

Life, Consciousness, Volition and Science

Volitional consciousness, is the power to freely choose how one selectively organizes the evidence of once senses into the next level of cognition: the conceptual level, a level which requires adopting (what Kurt Goldstein calls) ‘the abstract attitude’, the attitude of viewing what is present in terms of what is not present and is only possible, and then to concretize this abstraction in the form of a word, a symbol that stands for that abstract identification. This level of consciousness is not possible for animals.  The bioperipatetic hypothesizes that volition is an emergent capacity growing out of but transcending the the capacity for sense perception.  By transcending, is meant in this hypotheses that to operate at the level of conceptual consciousness requires a fundamental breakthrough that cannot be reduced to perception (though it rests upon and presupposes perceptual conscious to supply its evidence).

Consciousness as a Precondition for Science Itself.

Clearly all of science itself depends upon human thought as the exercise of volitional cognitive engagement with the world.  All scientific methods depend on concepts of and actions of consciousness, specifically volitional consciousness: perception, observation, examination, hypothesis, measurement, analysis, theory, testing, deduction, induction, validation, proof, disproof, etc.  A lucid statement of this principle was written by J. R. Smythies, in his paper “Aspects of Consciousness:”

All my scientific observation has been obtained by a conscious process and if I deny my own consciousness I saw off the branch on which all science rests. — from Beyond Reductionism: New perspectives in the life sciences, The Alpback Symposium 1968, p. 233.

To be a scientist and to practice science is to be a human exercising these cognitive faculties all of which depend on the possession of a volitional form of consciousness, a form of consciousness that can grasp abstractions, develop concepts from the evidence of ones senses, i.e., from ones perceptual contact with the world, and to understand and formulate theories of the world in conceptual terms based man’s powers of induction, logic, deduction,  and  ultimately based on perceptual evidence.

The Scientific Basis of Perceptual Consciousness

Science must embrace the validity of the senses as axiomatic for any scientific investigation of the world to be possible. This is an epistemological principle required by any valid philosophy of science. Though science is not a substitute for philosophy, least of all for the philosophy of science or the philosophy of nature, it is important and valid to ask of science a causal explanation for how our senses function in such a way as to yield objective knowledge of the external world and our physical relationship to it.  For an example of a scientific analysis of the causal basis for how our senses provide us with reliable contact with the physical world, see my posted masters thesis, The Causal Basis of Perception.  This thesis (published in 1975) relies heavily on the theories of James J. Gibson and his wife Eleanor Gibson as well as on the experimental and philosophical work of Dr. Robert Efron.

Copyright © 2014 by bioperipatetic.  Published on February 8, 2014 @ 19:25

Latest revision: August 2, 2016 @ 11:28 am

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