Saturday, April 05, 2008

The poverty of reductionism

I've been flaming away on Overcoming Bias about reductionism, trying to articulate what I think is a sensible and obvious position that nobody else seems to have, or understand, or even wants to engage with. Oh well. It is not all that original -- it has similarities, at least, to various forms of emergentism and Platonism. But I don't want to do philosophy if it relies on parsing narrowly defined schools of thought, that is extremely boring. Let's put it this way -- I feel that there I've got some insight into the nature of reality that is staring me in the face, that almost everyone else is missing, and I feel an overwhelming urge to try to communicate it.

On reflection, it's pretty obvious why my approach is falling on deaf ears. The more simpleminded and popular views serve obvious functions. Reductionism is what drives scientific explanation, and standard dualism lets people believe in immortal souls and all that jazz. What market niche does emergentist neoplatonism, or whatever it is, serve? TBD. In the meantime, I've collected my flames in one place.

Starting here:

Here's a question for reductionists: It is a premise of AI that the mind is computational, and that computations are algorithms that are more or less independent of the physical substrate that is computing them. An algorithm to compute prime numbers is the same algorithm whether it runs on an Intel chip or a bunch of appropriately-configured tinkertoys, and a mind is the same whether it runs on neurons or silicon. The question is, just how is this reductionist? It's one thing to say that any implementation of an algorithm (or mind) has some physical basis, which is pretty obviously true and hence not very interesting, but if those implementations have nothing physical in common, then your reduction hasn't actually accomplished very much.

In other words: let's grant that any particular mind, or algorithm, is physically instantiated and does not involve any magic non-physical forces. Nonetheless, it is mysterious how physical systems with nothing physical in common can realize the same algorithm. That suggests that the algorithm itself is not a physical thing, but something else. And those something elses have very little to do with the laws of physics.
Previous attempts to articulate something like this:

Asymptotically approaching religion

Independence Day

[update: and here: Ultramaterialism]

I used to argue the pro-reductionist side on Telic Thoughts. I still believe myself to be on the right side of that particular debate -- the anti-reductionists there wanted to believe in disembodied spirits that were creating the world, designing life, and infusing meaning. That sort of dualism is just retarded. But there seems to be something missing from the standard forms of reductionism, which I keep trying to get my fingers on.

More here:
I posted this in the last thread but didn't get much response, so I'll try again:

Here's a question for reductionists: It is a premise of AI that the mind is computational, and that computations are algorithms that are more or less independent of the physical substrate that is computing them. An algorithm to compute prime numbers is the same algorithm whether it runs on an Intel chip or a bunch of appropriately-configured tinkertoys, and a mind is the same whether it runs on neurons or silicon. The question is, just how is this reductionist? It's one thing to say that any implementation of an algorithm (or mind) has some physical basis, which is pretty obviously true and hence not very interesting, but if those implementations have nothing physical in common, then your reduction hasn't actually accomplished very much.

In other words: let's grant that any particular mind, or algorithm, is physically instantiated and does not involve any magic non-physical forces. Nonetheless, it is mysterious how physical systems with nothing physical in common can realize the same algorithm. That suggests that the algorithm itself is not a physical thing, but something else. And those something elses have very little to do with the laws of physics.
And here:
"Algorithms are made from math" -- indeed, mathematical objects of any kind also have the peculiar properties that I noted. A hexagon is a hexagon no matter what it's made of. A hand is a hand not because its composed of flesh, but because it has certain parts in certain relationships, and is itself attached to a brain. Robotic hands are hands. While there is nothing magically non-physical going on with minds or hands, it does not seem to me that a theory of hands or minds can be expressed in terms of physics. This is the sense in which I am an antireductionist. There are certain phenomena (mathematics most clearly) which, while always grounded n some physical form, seem to float free of physics and follow their own rules.
And here:
I wouldn't call my view "vintage Platonic idealism", but maybe it is, I'm not a philosopher. I'm not saying that forms are more primitive or more metaphysically basic than matter, just that higher-level concepts are not derivable in any meaningful way from physical ones. Maybe that makes me an emergentist. But this philosophical labeling game is not very productive, I've found.

And here:
Brian Macker: Mysterious was maybe the wrong word. Let's say rather that physical reduction just doesn't help explain some higher-level phenonmenon.

Your swing example is interesting. There are obvious physical similarities between the two systems (rotation, tension, etc) even if the two swings are made of different materials. But consider the task of adding up a column of 4-digit numbers, You do it on pencil and paper, I use a calculator. There is nothing physical in common with these two activities, but surely they have something in common.

However algorithms (especially running ones) and flexibility do not "exist" unconnected to the physical objects that exhibit them. Just like the other guy pointed out the number four doesn't exist by itself but can be instantiated in objects. Like a four having four tines.
I agree with this.
The concept resides in your head as a general model, while the actually flexibility of the object is physical.
These concepts that reside in my head are funny things. Presumably they have a physical incarnation in my brain, but they probably have a rather different incarnation in yours. And if we could talk to silicon-based lifeforms from Altair, we would probably find they have a concept of "four", and maybe even one of "flexible", which is similar to ours but has nothing physical in common with ours.

You don't have to consider this mysterious if you don't want to. But it suggests to me that the reductionist way of looking at the world is, if not wrong, not that useful. You could know all about the states of my neurons' calcium channels, and it would not help you understand my argument.
And here:
Quarks, the only allowed causally efficacious entities in the universe, have a lot to answer for. Quarks are causing the US economy to falter, quarks are killing our soldiers in Iraq, quarks are behind communism, nazism, racism, and people who drive too slow in the fast lane. Quarks made me write this obnoxious and inane comment. Damn you, quarks!
And here:

Have to agree about Chalmer's ideas about zombies being the most deranged around, and I guess that is a polite way of putting it. They make no sense whatsoever. However, his view is not the only alternative to reductionism, and you would do yourself and your project a favor if you engaged with some of the more plausible forms, such as emergentism.

Consider "squareness". It is a property of many physical objects or systems, but it doesn't depend on what those objects are made of. It relies on the physical configuration of the object's components, but not on the physical properties of the components. If you had a quantum-level simulation of the universe, it wouldn't tell you when squares appeared (unless you also had, within the simulation or outside of it, something with the about the same computational power of the human visual system). It is a non-physical concept, but implemented, incarnated, and intimately tied to the physical. If you removed one of the sticks or pencils or iron bars making up the square, it wouldn't be a square any more. But it wouldn't make sense to talk about a zombie-square, which would be a physical object in the same physical configuration that somehow is not a square.

And here:

Z M Davis - my point is that there are versions of non-reductionism or weak reductionism that do not depend on or imply supernatural forces. That's the sort I'm interested in, anyway. The zombie argument is a paradigm of how not to explore the conceptual space between strict reductionism and outright religious dualism.

I'll say again that the zombie argument is inane...and the fact that people who expound it have fame and tenure indicates that the quarks are cruel, arbitrary, and capricious.
And that is more than enough for now.

1 comment:

poke said...

Your views sound like mainstream analytic philosophy to me. See functionalism, supervenience, etc. What you term "ultramaterialism" is a marginal view in philosophy. It's best exemplified by Dennett and Churchland who are generally used as foils (reductionists who go too far) by other philosophers.

I'm personally well within that ultramaterialist camp; I'm an eliminative materialist, determinist and a moral skeptic (I wish more of us would bite this last bullet instead of flailing around). But I'm willing to admit it's not the mainstream.

I found your characterization of ultramaterialism interesting. I consider science "impersonal" in nature; by which I mean it's radically orthogonal to human interests. When we answer a question in science, usually the answer makes the question defunct, rather than providing something "culturally satisfactory." Science sort of runs questions off the road rather than answers them. I think the bad taste it leaves in our mouths is desirable.

I'd recommend Paul Churchland if you want to explore ultramaterialism further; he argues against the mind-computer analogy (preferring biologically accurate models) and wants us to replace common sense with science. The only person I know who talks about the unease you feel with ultramaterialism (and its desirability) is Ray Brassier; a philosopher who works in the Continental tradition and is unfortunately prone to obscurantism.