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Comments on "How Can Physics Underlie the Mind?"

Posted By Randall D. Isaac, Monday, July 4, 2016

When I learned that George Ellis had just published a major work, I jumped at the chance to write a book review for PSCF. Springer publishing company only provides an online reader version for reviewers, with a free book after the review is published. But I’ve finally figured out the technical aspects of their reader and I’ve begun to read “How Can Physics Underlie the Mind: Top-Down Causation in the Human Context.” I would like to use this blog as a mean of writing notes to myself as I go through the back and hopefully that will help me write the review. Your comments and questions would be of great help if you are interested in the topic in any way. If not, simply ignore this post and its comments.

Ellis is in the Department of Mathematics and Applied Mathematics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa. He co-authored The Large Scale Structure of Space-Time with Cambridge physicist Stephen Hawking. He has long interacted with scholars such as ASA Fellow Robert Russell, Nancey Murphy, Tim O’Connor as well as Phil Clayton and other advocates of emergence. I have been interested in and persuaded by the ideas of emergence for many years and am eager to learn about some of the more detailed issues connected with it.

He writes that his aim in the book is to “…support the view that, even though physical laws underlie all material entities, there exist higher level causal relations that allow the brain to act as a means of creating theories, searching for meaning, expressing tenderness, and doing all the other myriad things that make us human, without contradicting or overwriting those lower level physical laws. Consequently, physics does not control the mind, it enables the mind. The same is true for genetics and neurobiology: they both to some degree shape what the mind does, but neither by itself determines the outcome, because the mind has a logic of its own…We are genuinely fully human, even though we emerge through the interactions of fundamental particles.”

The book has eight chapters:

1.       Complexity and Emergence

2.       Digital Computer Systems

3.       The Basis of Complexity

4.       Kinds of Top-Down Causation

5.       Room at the Bottom?

6.       The Foundation: Physics and Top-Down Causation

7.       The Mind and the Brain

8.       The Broader View

Springer asked Ellis to write the book in such a way that each chapter could stand alone and be sold separately as well as a complete book. This results in a significant amount of repetition, especially of references, but that repetition is very helpful in gaining familiarity with complex ideas.

So with that as a background, I’ll start to dig in and occasionally share with you his ideas.

Tags:  Ellis  Emergence  Mind  Physics 

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Randall D. Isaac says...
Posted Monday, July 4, 2016
Chapter One: In the first chapter, Ellis defines the basic terms and introduces the fundamental concepts. First is the term “emergence” which Ellis says “occurs when phenomena arise from and depend on some more basic phenomena and yet are simultaneously autonomous from the base. A phenomenon is emergent if it cannot be reduced to, explained, or predicted from its constituent parts.” This is rather obscure and I think the strength of the book will lie in the examples that will be given to illustrate the concept.
In my own field of semiconductors and superconductivity, I find emergence to occur everywhere. The constituent parts of a solid material are atoms and molecules but even a complete knowledge of those parts can lead to a prediction or understand of the phenomena that occur when those atoms are connected in a crystalline structure. Phonons are the most obvious example and one quickly adds electron gas, band gaps in the electronic density of states, holes, excitons, and, for superconductivity, the existence of Cooper pairs which are phonon-mediated coupling of two electrons. Such phenomena emerge only out of the interaction of a large ensemble of parts but do not exist in the parts taken by themselves.
Critics of emergence are quick to point out that these phenomena are insufficient to qualify as true emergence unless they exhibit what is known as “top-down causation.” Are these phenomena fully determined by the atoms and molecules or are the atoms and molecules themselves affected by the higher level phenomena. So if the ensemble-induced phenomena truly represent emergence, it must be shown that these top level entities can cause action at the level of the constituent parts.
Ellis writes “Top-down causation, however, also takes place. The emergent higher levels act down on the lower level to direct what happens at those levels, by setting the context for their action. The actual physical work is done at the lower levels. But what work is done is determined by the higher levels…This intermingling of top-down causation and bottom-up causation allows interlevel feedback loops that characterize genuine complexity.”
This top-down causation is hard to visualize in the condensed matter examples I gave above, though I am personally convinced it exists there. And its existence in the broader sense is the key issue that Ellis addresses in this book.
Ellis continues, “The behavior of the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and cannot even be described in terms of the language that applies to the parts. This is the phenomenon of emergent order: the higher levels exhibit kinds of behavior that are more complex than those the lower level parts are capable of.”
In a way, this seems obvious and it is hardly controversial. The key debate is whether this nevertheless constitutes reductionism, in which everything can be reduced to the laws of nature by which the elementary particles act, or whether there is something more than physics and chemistry that must be added to produce the emergent order phenomena. If the latter, some would argue that a supernatural being or some vital external force must be added. Proponents of emergence seem to be saying that this “something more” arises out of the complexity of the interaction of a large ensemble of constituent parts and not from a separate external force.
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Randall D. Isaac says...
Posted Monday, July 4, 2016
I just came across this article in the NY Times. You may need a subscription to read this:
It is very relevant to the book but with a very different approach. Note the reference to Tom Stoppard's new play "The Hard Problem" in which the character rejects emergence. "She rejects the idea of emergence: that if you hook together enough insensate components (neurons, microchips), consciousness will appear. “When you come right down to it,” she says, “the body is made of things, and things don’t have thoughts.”" I would suggest that this illustrates a rejection of emergence due to an argument of incredulity.
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Arnold Sikkema says...
Posted Wednesday, July 6, 2016
Thank you, Randy, for reading this book and sharing your reflections on it. I have found Ellis to be a reliable guide on whatever subject he addresses, including emergence, and I look forward to your further summaries and remarks. [He wrote "Physics and the Real World" in Physics Today's July 2005 issue, which is excellent.] At $181 (Canadian) I don't think I'll be buying the book just yet, though...
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David E. Singer says...
Posted Tuesday, July 12, 2016
" . . . physics does not control the mind, it enables the mind. The same is true for genetics and neurobiology: they both to some degree shape what the mind does, but neither by itself determines the outcome, because the mind has a logic of its own…We are genuinely fully human, even though we emerge through the interactions of fundamental particles.” This succinct summary projects a freedom of exploration and an invitation for fresh approaches to the mind/body distinction.
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