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Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Fragile knowledge

In an interesting article published last year, social psychologist Roy Baumeister addressed the question of free will.  After making a few clarifications he introduced a point made by Phillip Anderson: 
 There is no need to insist that free will is some kind of magical violation of causality. Free will is just another kind of cause. The causal process by which a person decides whether to marry is simply different from the processes that cause balls to roll downhill, ice to melt in the hot sun, a magnet to attract nails, or a stock price to rise and fall.
Different sciences discover different kinds of causes. Phillip Anderson, who won the Nobel Prize in physics, explained this beautifully several decades ago in a brief article titled “More is different.” Physics may be the most fundamental of the sciences, but as one moves up the ladder to chemistry, then biology, then physiology, then psychology, and on to economics and sociology—at each level, new kinds of causes enter the picture.

As Anderson explained, the things each science studies cannot be fully reduced to the lower levels, but they also cannot violate the lower levels. Our actions cannot break the laws of physics, but they can be influenced by things beyond gravity, friction, and electromagnetic charges. No number of facts about a carbon atom can explain life, let alone the meaning of your life. These causes operate at different levels of organization. Even if you could write a history of the Civil War purely in terms of muscle movements or nerve cell firings, that (very long and dull) book would completely miss the point of the war. Free will cannot violate the laws of physics or even neuroscience, but it invokes causes that go beyond them.

This reminds me of a point made in a TV interview by the late Richard Feynman back in the early 1980s.  His point was that most people have fragile knowledge. They do not know under what conditions some ideas are valid and when they are not, analogous to some mathematical techniques being applicable in limited domains.  They also don't know how ideas in general or in specific different fields relate to each other.  He also added the there were many pseudo-experts that were practising scientism rather than science.

Mr. Baumeister continues:
If culture is so successful, why don’t other species use it? They can’t—because they lack the psychological innate capabilities it requires. Our ancestors evolved the ability to act in the ways necessary for culture to succeed. Free will likely will be found right there—it’s what enables humans to control their actions in precisely the ways required to build and operate complex social systems.

What psychological capabilities are needed to make cultural systems work? To be a member of a group with culture, people must be able to understand the culture’s rules for actions, including moral principles and formal laws. They need to be able to talk about their choices with others, participate in group decisions, and carry out their assigned role. Culture can bring immense benefits, from cooked rice to the iPhone, but it only works if people cooperate and obey the rules.
Returning to the matter of free will, he concludes:
Self-control counts as a kind of freedom because it begins with not acting on every impulse. The simple brain acts whenever something triggers a response: A hungry creature sees food and eats it. The most recently evolved parts of the human brain have an extensive mechanism for overriding those impulses, which enables us to reject food when we’re hungry, whether it’s because we’re dieting, vegetarian, keeping kosher, or mistrustful of the food. Self-control furnishes the possibility of acting from rational principles rather than acting on impulse.

The use of abstract ideas such as moral principles to guide action takes us far beyond anything that you will find in a physics or chemistry textbook, and so we are free in the sense of emergence, of going beyond simpler forms of causality. Again, we cannot break the laws of physics, but we can act in ways that add new causes that go far beyond physical causation. No electron understands the Golden Rule, and indeed an exhaustive study of any given atom will furnish no clue as to whether it is part of a person who is obeying or disobeying that rule. The economic laws of supply and demand are genuine causes, but they cannot be reduced to or fully explained by chemical reactions. Understanding free will in this way allows us to reconcile the popular understanding of free will as making choices with our scientific understanding of the world.

Reiterating an earlier point:  "Physics may be the most fundamental of the sciences, but as one moves up the ladder to chemistry, then biology, then physiology, then psychology, and on to economics and sociology—at each level, new kinds of causes enter the picture."  The increasing complexity as one moves up that ladder has important implications in the policy arena.  As someone said:
It just goes to show that it's a lot easier to pull off impressive feats of rocket engineering than social engineering.  And yet the saying is "it's not rocket science" when implying something isn't all that difficult. Shouldn't it be, "It's not social science?" 


erp said...

I laughed when you placed chemistry and biology, etc. above physics. When my kid was in college, he referred to non-physicists as mechanics.

Social sciences: a contradiction of terms?

Peter said...

Our ancestors evolved the ability to act in the ways necessary for culture to succeed. Free will likely will be found right there—it’s what enables humans to control their actions in precisely the ways required to build and operate complex social systems.

This won't do. If free will has any meaning at all, surely it enables humans to undermine and destroy complex social systems too. Hijacking the notion of free will to a determinist survival imperative, whether called fitness or success, is just playing with words, no?

Anonymous said...


It doesn't claim that's the only way to use such skills. It instead claims that absent such skills, no complex social systems will be constructed.


The first time Orrin Judd edited one of my comments was when I expounding on almost precisely this theme, that reality is effectively made of such layers, my point being that our social systems are another layer of cause on top of the purely physical layers.

This is why what is frequently called "post-modernism" is popular - it does in fact work in that top social layer. What its proponents forget is your second point, that the higher layer cannot violate the laws of the lower. That's the true error in logo-realism.

Howard said...

erp - I sometimes cringe at the term social science. Another Feynman point was that social science had not yet discovered any laws, but perhaps they would someday. That's the difficulty with greater complexity.

aog - good clarification, re pomo the question is when will people have had enough nonsense.

erp said...

Howard, perhaps it's not so much the complexity, but the forced result that social scientists contrive that is the problem. Natural scientists seek to find the truth no matter where or what it may be, while social scientists determine what they want the truth to be and then twist and bend the facts/truth to fit the sugar plums that dance in their heads.

Peter said...


If all he is saying is that free will lets us do lots of stuff, some constructive, some destructive, that's pretty banal. I think he is trying to say a lot more than that.

But where is the evidentiary connection between free will and complex social systems? E.O Wilson made a career out of showing how complex the social system of ants is, and nobody thinks they have free will. Why is the statement any more scientifically probative than the statement that free will acts as an impediment to building social systems that promote survival? Europe destroyed their complex social systems twice in the last century in rather dramatic fashion. Are we supposed to believe the two world wars were just way stations on a sweeping continuum of evolutionary success?

You guys were on a roll with the opposable thumb and should have quit while you were ahead. :-)

Howard said... scientists determine what they want the truth to be...

All too often this does seem to be the case. This interview concludes:

"The reaction to “The Bell Curve” exposed a profound corruption of the social sciences that has prevailed since the 1960s. “The Bell Curve” is a relentlessly moderate book — both in its use of evidence and in its tone — and yet it was excoriated in remarkably personal and vicious ways, sometimes by eminent academicians who knew very well they were lying. Why? Because the social sciences have been in the grip of a political orthodoxy that has had only the most tenuous connection with empirical reality, and too many social scientists think that threats to the orthodoxy should be suppressed by any means necessary. Corruption is the only word for it.

Now that I’ve said that, I’m also thinking of all the other social scientists who have come up to me over the years and told me what a wonderful book “The Bell Curve” is. But they never said it publicly. So corruption is one thing that ails the social sciences. Cowardice is another."

Also, I'm familiar with this book and am planning on reading the authors latest work soon. (check out the description)

Peter, there are a greater range of choices and behaviors open to humans. Much greater complexity emerges therefrom. It remains to be seen if we can avoid a replay of the last century.

erp said...

"There are none so blind as those who cannot/will not see." I spent a life time in academe with these people and if you've ever tried to have a non-threatening, ordinary discussion of their dogma, you know that it is absolutely impossible.

The closer you get to the kernel of their belief, the more apparent it is that there is nothing there that’s any more “scientific” than the creation myths of aborigines or the tenets of the major religions.

It comes down to a matter of faith.

IMO social science is no different from other cults and religions and should be kept separate from the secular and certainly not allowed to rule our lives as it does now.

Hey Skipper said...

"Social Science" is an obscurantist way of saying "Motivated Reasoning".