An essay into ontology

Let's dive into ontology. That’s arguments about what the world consists of. Here we ask questions like, is there just matter? Or is there both matter and mind? I like to compare “ontologies” in terms of kinds of processes. Are there only physical and chemical processes. Or are there in addition other kinds processes, found only in living creatures, that to some extent can defy the laws of physics.

Can we tell which of these worlds we actually live in? Not absolutely, it’s a matter of opinion, of personal judgment.

Here’s the critical issue that people give different answers to. What difference would it make if some processes could defy the laws of physics? Novelties would pop up that you couldn’t predict in terms of physical processes acting on prior events. Is that true of our world? That’s where opinions differ. What some people think are novelties other people dismiss as simply physical processes at work. I’m talking about nature: the evolution of species and how organisms develop from embryos to adults. Nowadays these are referred to together as “evo-devo.” So the question resolves into: Has evo-devo created novelties?

That seems a simple question. Let’s consider some examples. How about the appearance on Earth of the first living cell? How about that cell evolving into the far more complex kind of cell we find in our bodies? How about the evolution of a simple microbe, with a thousand or so genes, into elephants and giraffes with genes by the billions? Are these “genuine” novelties, or could you have predicted them from the action of the laws of physics alone?

I’m biased. To me there couldn’t be anything more novel, creative, less bound by the laws of physics, than the appearance over time on Earth of new kinds of living species and what happens during an organism’s development. However we define creativity, that has to be its ultimate expression. Whatever processes are responsible for evolution, they are by this definition creative. So in my ontology, there are in the world besides purely physical processes also creative processes responsible for evolution. That’s the source of any creativity we have, it’s a characteristic that evolved in us.

Arguing for the other ontology are writers of today’s biology textbooks. They insist nature (evo-devo) isn’t creative at all. It’s simply the result of purely physical processes—the mechanisms behind today’s evolutionary theory--given sufficient time to work their magic. That ontology, that all processes are purely physical, controls how evo-devo is taught in schools and expressed in public. We’re assured science has proved that nature is not creative. That’s actually not so. Science can’t yet measure creativity, it can’t pronounce on the issue one way or the other.

Now let’s come up for air. Are you creative? Of course you are. Then creativity is a property of the world you’re a part of. You’re simply one more instance of nature being creative. There, does that help you decide?

I came up separately with the treatment below. I shied away from trying to blend it into the essay above. The essay is about the issues, the treatment below is more about how to think about the issues. 

Arguments about free will resolve into problems of ontology, world view. Specifically, we’re not been able to articulate a distinction between purely physical matter and our experience of conscious thinking that we’re all satisfied by.

Descartes distinguished between matter of all kinds, including everything about all other living creatures, and the human soul which for him came defined by a thousand years of theology. We’ve a much clearer idea of matter than he had but we’re fuzzy about what he referred to as “soul.” We’ve stripped it of its theological connections and secularized it to “conscious mind” but we’ve not yet figured out how it most significantly differs from matter.

I propose a better distinction is between purely physical non-living matter, and life. The issue then is, is the universe such that the source of what we refer to consciousness and free will is us being evolved living creatures?

This distinction changes the ground for discussion. It’s no longer philosophy, it’s primarily biology. More specifically the evo/devo of consciousness. What is conscious experience, as an evolved and inherited biological property? And what must the universe be like for it to support that kind of property? The answer to that may drive changes in ontology. Literally, conscious experience may change the world as we know it.

I think what we all start from is our sense that, in the course of our conscious experiences, we can arrive at decisions through non-physical processes that we tell our bodies to execute physically, and that as a result they do so. We experience our physical bodies behaving as if driven by our conscious decision-making.

This may be explored by distinguishing between what a purely physical brain is capable of, and what’s being claimed for consciousness. But I think that’s a dead end. There’s no aspect of consciousness I can’t make my brain testify to by writing, a physical action, proving to my satisfaction that my brain is privy to everything I can think, including all my decisions. If I can carry out actions through non-physical processes that’s a property of my body-and-consciousness operating as one. The necessary distinction should then be drawn between the properties of that combination, and the purely physical world in which all processes obey the laws of physics.

What do I mean by non-physical processes that defy the laws of physics? Suppose I think up a performance consisting of a series of actions that could not occur by chance in a purely physical universe in a billion billion years, I write it down and then perform it--a conjunction of transcription of conscious decision and physical event with essentially zero probability in a purely physical world--that would be a property of my body-mind combination. Not unlikely enough? Then I’ll come up with another such performance. And another. Eventually, surely, it becomes implausible that my performances could be driven by physical processes acting on past events in line with the laws of physics

In making that point I drew on the language of determinism and probability. What I raised was an instance of novelty of a degree hard to account for in terms of physical determinism. But I think that’s another dead end. I propose we talk about novelty in terms of how we experience it, as creativity. And creativity as a biological property, in terms of how it evolved and gets inherited. And what that tells us about the universe we live in—ontology.

Merely saying, “the evo-devo of conscious creativity” implies that the world includes processes capable to transacting in terms of conscious creativity. Any theory that ignores that possibility, doesm't consider it, is clearly inadequate. That includes the modern synthesis, today's theory of evolution.

This blog item was partly inspired by an email correspondence with Roger Smith, author of "Do I believe in free will?" published in January 2014 but recently posted at where I came across it.

I don't think free will is an empirical issue but a conceptual one (on which, certainly, hinges how to conceptualize ethical questions). Thus, I don't think acceptance of Darwinism or not logically affects the question, though to be sure many people may feel that Darwinism, in our societies, enforces determinism. I think natural science thinking is in its conceptual form deterministic. But I believe there are other forms of understanding, and in these other forms free will is viable (and is in fact believed in certain dimensions of society, eg, the legal system).

What I found notable here is that he says, "many people may feel that Darwinism, in our societies, enforces determinism. I think natural science thinking is in its conceptual form deterministic" But despite finding the issue of free will impacted by empirical entities like science and Darwinian evolution he starts out saying, to me it seems in contradiction: "I don't think free will is an empirical issue but a conceptual one (on which, certainly, hinges how to conceptualize ethical questions). Thus, I don't think acceptance of Darwinism or not logically affects the question."

This helps me understand where I stand. For me free will is an empirical. issue. It impacts self esteem and meaning in life. These are painfully involved in our epidemics of depression and anxiety, suicide and opioid abuse, For me, those are empirical isssues demanding attention, and if our philosophers won't engage with them they are shirking their responsibility.