Life with purpose

64 Replies, 3739 Views

Life with purpose

Phillip Ball

Quote:Biologists balk at any talk of ‘goals’ or ‘intentions’ – but a bold new research agenda has put agency back on the table

Quote:Yet is our sense that the macrophage has goals and purpose really just a narrative projection? After all, we can’t meaningfully describe what a macrophage even is without referring to its purpose: it exists precisely to conduct this kind of ‘seek and destroy’ manoeuvre.

One of biology’s most enduring dilemmas is how it dances around the issue at the core of such a description: agency, the ability of living entities to alter their environment (and themselves) with purpose to suit an agenda. Typically, discussions of goals and purposes in biology get respectably neutered with scare quotes: cells and bacteria aren’t really ‘trying’ to do anything, just as organisms don’t evolve ‘in order to’ achieve anything (such as running faster to improve their chances of survival). In the end, it’s all meant to boil down to genes and molecules, chemistry and physics – events unfolding with no aim or design, but that trick our narrative-obsessed minds into perceiving these things.

Yet, on the contrary, we now have growing reasons to suspect that agency is a genuine natural phenomenon. Biology could stop being so coy about it if only we had a proper theory of how it arises. Unfortunately, no such thing currently exists, but there’s increasing optimism that a theory of agency can be found – and, moreover, that it’s not necessarily unique to living organisms. A grasp of just what it is that enables an entity to act as an autonomous agent, altering its behaviour and environment to achieve certain ends, should help reconcile biology to the troublesome notions of purpose and function.
'Historically, we may regard materialism as a system of dogma set up to combat orthodox dogma...Accordingly we find that, as ancient orthodoxies disintegrate, materialism more and more gives way to scepticism.'

- Bertrand Russell


[-] The following 2 users Like Sciborg_S_Patel's post:
  • stephenw, Mediochre
Quote:... we now have growing reasons to suspect that agency is a genuine natural phenomenon. Biology could stop being so coy about it if only we had a proper theory of how it arises. Unfortunately, no such thing currently exists ...


Oh, I think there may be plenty of theories but not what most biologists would consider to be a "proper theory". Seems to me that such a "proper theory" would require that agency must be reducible to "natural" (i.e. physical) components. We might end up arguing in parallel to Paul's Free Will waste of time thread.
I do not make any clear distinction between mind and God. God is what mind becomes when it has passed beyond the scale of our comprehension.
Freeman Dyson
[-] The following 3 users Like Kamarling's post:
  • Typoz, tim, Sciborg_S_Patel
(2020-11-16, 01:40 AM)Kamarling Wrote: Oh, I think there may be plenty of theories but not what most biologists would consider to be a "proper theory". Seems to me that such a "proper theory" would require that agency must be reducible to "natural" (i.e. physical) components.

It does seem like a mountain of work just to confirm even the limited agency observable in cells.

Even slime molds apparently can arguably learn, and some - including the Nobel biologist George Wald - have wondered about the capacity of other uni-cellular life forms.
'Historically, we may regard materialism as a system of dogma set up to combat orthodox dogma...Accordingly we find that, as ancient orthodoxies disintegrate, materialism more and more gives way to scepticism.'

- Bertrand Russell


(2020-11-16, 01:12 AM)Sciborg_S_Patel Wrote: Life with purpose

Phillip Ball


This seems to be yet another (be it more sophisticated by far) attempt to derive conscious agency in nature including ultimately of Man from an ultimately mechanical process the most fundamental aspect of which is Darwinian random variation plus natural selection. This approach uses the also questionable notion of "emergence". Of course no room for any "mystical" notions of soul or spirit. Good luck, but I don't think this approach will solve the Hard Problem or explain paranormal phenomena like NDEs. 

Quote:Here, then, is a possible story we can tell about how genuine biological agency arises, without recourse to mysticism. Evolution creates and reinforces goals – energy-efficiency, say – but doesn’t specify the way to attain them. Rather, an organism selected for efficiency will evolve a memory to store and represent aspects of its environment that are salient to that end. That’s what creates the raw material for agency.

Meanwhile, an organism selected to avoid predation or to forage efficiently will evolve an ability to generate alternative courses of action in response to essentially identical stimuli: to create options and flexibility. At first, the choice among them might be random. But organisms with memories that permit ‘contemplation’ of alternative actions, based on their internal representations of the environment, could make more effective choices. Brains aren’t essential for that (though they can help). There, in a nutshell, is agency.

It might not have happened this way, of course. But such a picture has the virtue of breaking down the complex faculty of agency into simpler processes that don’t depend on highly specific (or even ‘organic’) hardware. It also reflects the way that complex cognition often seems to have evolved from a mash-up of capabilities that arose for other purposes.

At the very least, the latest research suggests that it’s wrong to regard agency as just a curious byproduct of blind evolutionary forces. Nor should we believe that it’s an illusion produced by our tendency to project human attributes onto the world. Rather, agency appears to be an occasional, remarkable property of matter, and one we should feel comfortable invoking when offering causal explanations of what we’re observing.

.......................................

You might say that a blind, mechanical story is still available for the bird’s nest, but it just needs to be a bigger story: starting, say, with the origin of life and the onset of Darwinian evolution among not-yet-living molecules. But no such baroque and fine-grained view will ever avoid the need to talk about the agency of the bird – not if it’s to have the true explanatory power of supplying a ‘why’ to the existence of the nest on this oak branch. Agency is one of the classic examples of an emergent property, which arises from, but is not wholly (and perhaps not at all) accounted for by, the properties of more ‘fundamental’ constituents.
[-] The following 5 users Like nbtruthman's post:
  • Typoz, Raimo, tim, Kamarling, Sciborg_S_Patel
(2020-11-16, 04:59 PM)nbtruthman Wrote: This seems to be yet another (be it more sophisticated by far) attempt to derive conscious agency in nature including ultimately of Man from an ultimately mechanical process the most fundamental aspect of which is Darwinian random variation plus natural selection. This approach uses the also questionable notion of "emergence". Of course no room for any "mystical" notions of soul or spirit. Good luck, but I don't think this approach will solve the Hard Problem or explain paranormal phenomena like NDEs.

Yeah I think it's fruitless in some sense, though I do think there is something promising about the way Information serves as something of bridge between what we might call "skeptic" and "proponent" thinking.
'Historically, we may regard materialism as a system of dogma set up to combat orthodox dogma...Accordingly we find that, as ancient orthodoxies disintegrate, materialism more and more gives way to scepticism.'

- Bertrand Russell


Just reminds me of the contorting done in physics over the past 50 years with String Theory, multiverse, etc.

Functionally it feels more akin to a brand of constrained philosophy as if set up by a doctorate committee to its doctorial candidates:

1) Please develop a plausible theory to explain the origin of the universe while ensuring
2) that the theory fits within the prevailing physicalist worldview

This points me back somewhat to Paul's search for a description of a free decision.

1) Please provide a description while ensuring
2) the description fits within our current understanding of logical, mechanistic processes

The constraints (the second condition in my examples) seem incoherent to me since we continue to prove over and over that our present understanding of "things" is too limited to demand such constraints.  Same thing seems to apply for me in this requirement that consciousness be "emergent".  Doesn't mean that some exotic physics theory (e.g., multiverse) isn't true, doesn't mean a free decision is an actual thing, nor does it mean consciousness can't be emergent; but why limit the possibilities from a position of ignorance?
[-] The following 4 users Like Silence's post:
  • nbtruthman, Brian, Kamarling, Sciborg_S_Patel
(2020-11-16, 06:24 PM)Silence Wrote: Just reminds me of the contorting done in physics over the past 50 years with String Theory, multiverse, etc.

Functionally it feels more akin to a brand of constrained philosophy as if set up by a doctorate committee to its doctorial candidates:

1) Please develop a plausible theory to explain the origin of the universe while ensuring
2) that the theory fits within the prevailing physicalist worldview

I agree though there is value in Information being used to describe agency. Even the creator of IIT, Integrated Information Theory, has said that if his theory is correct there's a space for a conscious decision maker unconstrained by the causal chains of the past. It's also been said that IIT, if true, would mean computionalism is false.

It would be nice if we could skip past all this and start looking at theories involving Psi as a reality, Consciousness as irreducible, and so on. But the current Mechanistic Dominant is several hundred years in the making and won't be undone without some of this middle-road type thinking.
'Historically, we may regard materialism as a system of dogma set up to combat orthodox dogma...Accordingly we find that, as ancient orthodoxies disintegrate, materialism more and more gives way to scepticism.'

- Bertrand Russell


[-] The following 2 users Like Sciborg_S_Patel's post:
  • Brian, Silence
(2020-11-16, 06:24 PM)Silence Wrote: Just reminds me of the contorting done in physics over the past 50 years with String Theory, multiverse, etc.

Functionally it feels more akin to a brand of constrained philosophy as if set up by a doctorate committee to its doctorial candidates:

1) Please develop a plausible theory to explain the origin of the universe while ensuring
2) that the theory fits within the prevailing physicalist worldview

The two examples of this which stand out for me are:

1). The Fine Tuning debate.
2). The Origin of Life debate.

Both have physicalists grasping at ridiculously flimsy straws.
I do not make any clear distinction between mind and God. God is what mind becomes when it has passed beyond the scale of our comprehension.
Freeman Dyson
[-] The following 4 users Like Kamarling's post:
  • Raimo, nbtruthman, Brian, Sciborg_S_Patel
(2020-11-16, 08:47 PM)Kamarling Wrote: The two examples of this which stand out for me are:

1). The Fine Tuning debate.
2). The Origin of Life debate.

Both have physicalists grasping at ridiculously flimsy straws.

What surprises me about Fine Tuning is that the stuff physicist Bernard Haisch talks about in support of Idealism doesn't often rate a mention, namely things like 4 out of 100 photons bounce back rather than pass through a window.

That to me is mind boggling, and every time I think about how there's no way of knowing which 4, only 4:100 on average, it makes me think there's a Consciousness involved. That plus the usual stuff about finely tuned constants would, IMO, convince most neutral laypersons that *something* is going on. Maybe no[t] "God" in the usual sense, maybe the Simulation Hypothesis...but something odd for sure...
'Historically, we may regard materialism as a system of dogma set up to combat orthodox dogma...Accordingly we find that, as ancient orthodoxies disintegrate, materialism more and more gives way to scepticism.'

- Bertrand Russell


(This post was last modified: 2020-11-17, 03:41 AM by Sciborg_S_Patel.)
[-] The following 3 users Like Sciborg_S_Patel's post:
  • Kamarling, Smaw, Brian
(2020-11-16, 09:02 PM)Sciborg_S_Patel Wrote: ... it makes me think there's a Consciousness involved. That plus the usual stuff about finely tuned constants would, IMO, convince most neutral laypersons that *something* is going on. Maybe no[t] "God" in the usual sense, maybe the Simulation Hypothesis...but something odd for sure...

I get really frustrated when people get hung up about whether or not there's a God behind it. Because we are then into belief in (or rejection of) religion. So for people from both extremes - atheist and religious - the God of religion is the only concept of a fundamental consciousness. There's no consideration of philosophical alternatives - it is all down to dogma.

The simulation hypothesis is an example of what I'm talking about. Whenever I've come across it I wait for the words "natural explanation". In other words, Some super-intelligent species created a computer simulation of a universe which explains why the laws are so perfectly contrived. But the super-intelligent beings had to have evolved in a Darwinian process (of course) in their own natural (physical) universe. Talk about can-kicking but it goes on all the time.
I do not make any clear distinction between mind and God. God is what mind becomes when it has passed beyond the scale of our comprehension.
Freeman Dyson
(This post was last modified: 2020-11-17, 03:45 AM by Kamarling.)
[-] The following 3 users Like Kamarling's post:
  • Typoz, nbtruthman, Sciborg_S_Patel

  • View a Printable Version
Forum Jump:


Users browsing this thread: 1 Guest(s)