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Ellis--Chapter Eight: The Broader View

Posted By Randall D. Isaac, Friday, November 4, 2016

In this final chapter of the book, Ellis succinctly restates his views and admittedly embarks on a polemic for his world-view of emergence. He gives a practical example in the field of learning to read and write and lays out the path for more work to be done. The following excerpts give a hint as to the nature and tone of the book, which for me has been most compelling.

“The conclusion arising from the arguments given in this book is that there are other forms of causation than those encompassed by physics and physical chemistry alone, or even in genetics and neuroscience. Higher levels of structure have causal powers, based on strong emergence of higher level structure and function that can shape what happens in the world.”

“So from where do higher level ideas, theories, and behavior arise, given that they cannot be uniquely determined by physics data in the early universe? The obvious explanation is that they arise from the autonomous behavior of the human mind acting in an intelligent way, supervenient on but not causally determined by the underlying physics.”

“…emergence of higher level causal powers is possible because of randomness at lower levels that allows for selection of functionality on the basis of higher level selection criteria. And that is a form of top-down causation, adapting emergent life to its environment. There are essentially three ways that emergent properties come into being:

·       Self-assembly: emergence in the natural world

·       Natural selection: emergence in the biological world

·       Design and construction in the man-made world.”

 

“…while purely bottom-up effects can produce key ingredients needed for the existence of life, and while they can produce many interesting structures and patterns, what they can achieve is nevertheless strictly limited: it cannot lead to the existence of life. This needs the initiation of the top-down causal transfer of information that is required for adaptive selection to take place.”

“Chance, necessity, and purpose intertwine in the real world around us. Jacques Monod famously claimed that all that matters in biology is chance and necessity. But this misses the key element of purpose or goal-seeking, which is crucial to life.”

“That random processes are a core feature of biological functioning is indicated by many kinds of evidence…At the micro-level, biological systems do not live in a carefully controlled environment: they face rampant randomness all the time. It turns out that they take advantage of the storm of randomness encountered at the molecular level: there is much evidence that molecular machinery in biology is designed to use that randomness to attain its desired results…Randomness is harnessed through the process of adaptive selection, which allows higher levels of order and meaning to emerge. It is then a virtue, not a vice. It allows purpose to be an active agent by selecting desired outcomes from a range of possibilities.”

“[Physiological systems] came into being through natural selection, because they promoted survival. Once in existence, passed from generation to generation by genes and developed in each body by developmental processes, they have specific functions or purposes that are allowed by and indeed implemented through the underlying physics. But that physics knows nothing of these purposes.”

“Chance, necessity, and purpose all occur in living systems. It is the relation between them that is at issue, and this is where information comes in…And how does purpose fit in? An element of randomness at the bottom does not mean that all that happens is just pure chance. Rather it is one of the foundations that, together with necessity, opens up the possibilities of purposeful function and meaningful mental life, realized through physical existence. It does not have to have the connotation of meaningless so often ascribed to it. It is the gateway to variety and possibility.”

“Lower level random processes allow adaptive selection to work, creating purposeful order, on the basis of physical and chemical laws, embodying necessity. Physics provides the possibility space for what happens, but does not determine the outcome. Top-down causation allows higher level causes be what they appear to be: real effective causes that select lower level outcomes. Adaptive selection creates new classes of information and new instances of those classes, e.g., the genetic code and DNA that uses that code. Random fluctuations plus quantum uncertainty provide the freedom at the bottom needed to allow this to happen.”

“It is the existence of random processes at lower levels that enables purposeful actions at higher levels to take place through selection of preferred outcomes according to some higher level selection criterion. This enables processes of adaptation and learning in accordance with the logic of some higher level purpose.”

“Some aspects of complex systems are emergent from the interaction between the underlying particles and forces, but others are not emergent: rather they arise from the nature of the external environment. A crucial point then is that this environment includes abstract Platonic entities, such as mathematical forms and the laws of logic, which are not reducible to or emergent from any physical entities. They do, however, have causal power. They are transcendent entities in that they are timeless and universal, but not of a physical nature.”

“The issue is whether there is real emergence of higher levels, with genuine causal powers in their own right (‘strong emergence’) or whether the higher levels are epiphenomena, with no real power of their own: they are dancing to the tune of the lower levels.”

“The point then is that physics as it currently stands is causally incomplete. It is not able to describe all the causes and effects shaping what happens in the world…Physics at the micro-level has an irreducible random element. This allows higher level selection processes to select lower level outcomes to suit higher level function or purpose.”

“The view put forward in this book has substantial social implications. The bottom-up view of causation has pervaded much scientific thought in general, and so for example has been a major factor in medicine and psychiatry. In each of these areas there has in effect been a long-standing tension between bottom-up and top-down views with major implications for medical practice and effectiveness. The view implied by this book is that it is crucial that top-down effects be taken into account as a major influence, as well as bottom-up (molecular and gene-based) effects.”

One of the last sections in the book is written jointly with Ellis’s wife, Carole Bloch. It explores the implications of the views of this book on “Learning to Read and Write.” It elucidates the nature of bottom-up and top-down causality in field of oral and written language. Essentially, they argue the reading should not be taught bottom-up by first learning syllables and grammar but top-down by seeing the elements of written words in their meaningful context. The details can come later.

Ellis closes the book with this final paragraph: “The daily world in which we live came about by imaginative investigation of possibilities, discarding those that don’t work: the adaptive process that is a central theme of this book, enabled by a modicum of randomness at the macro- and micro-levels, interacting with necessary physical processes. And it is these processes that also allow the emergence of the ordinariness of everyday life: which actually is quite extraordinary. Bottom-up effects are crucial to emergence. Physics underlies all. Nevertheless, the vitality of life, which arises from physics, transcends it.”

Tags:  Ellis  Emergence  Mind 

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David E. Singer says...
Posted Monday, November 14, 2016
Randy, I get the idea of top down, bottom up causation; call it emergence. But I don't follow the logic of how Ellis can arbitrarily sneak in "transcendence," for example. Top down or bottom up, isn't that considered cheating, scientifically speaking? “Some aspects of complex systems are emergent from the interaction between the underlying particles and forces, but others are not emergent: rather they arise from the nature of the external environment. A crucial point then is that this environment includes abstract Platonic entities, such as mathematical forms and the laws of logic, which are not reducible to or emergent from any physical entities. They do, however, have causal power. They are transcendent entities in that they are timeless and universal, but not of a physical nature.”

Or take the paragraph before: “It is the existence of random processes at lower levels that enables purposeful actions at higher levels to take place through selection of preferred outcomes according to some higher level selection criterion. This enables processes of adaptation and learning in accordance with the logic of some higher level purpose.” What does Ellis mean by "higher level selection criterion?"

I'm intrigued by Ellis' arguments but, in the end, I can't follow his logic, using "emergence" to explain "purpose" or "consciousness" seems like using a little sprinkle of pixy dust to explain away the mystery.

I can go along with his conclusion, that physics is not enough, but provides space for transcendent processes to do their work. But it seems he's devoted a lot of words to get to where I'm stupid enough to begin.

Randy, I'm just not smart enough to follow such a complicated approach. It seems to me, Ellis is still invoking forces, elements or whatever, outside the system that science always wants to keep closed. Perhaps I need to start again.
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Randall D. Isaac says...
Posted Tuesday, November 15, 2016
David,

You have a knack of getting to the heart of the matter. Excellent questions. I struggle with these issues too and will try to make some sense of this.

It does seem like Ellis snuck in the concept of “transcendence” but instead of cheating, I suspect that possibly he means something slightly different from what you and I might mean by that term. Given our backgrounds in a highly religious world view, we tend to think of transcendence to refer to that which can exist independently from our universe. It is a spiritual existence or at least something unrelated to the physical world.

In this case, Ellis also says these transcendent entities are “not reducible to or emergent from any physical entities” and “not of a physical nature.” However, it doesn’t seem that these entities have any existence outside of our universe. Would mathematical forms and the laws of logic and other Platonic entities have any meaning outside the scope of the space-time realm of our universe? These are entities that makes sense only in our universe but their existence does not depend on our minds or on the fundamental forces that comprise basic physical laws. So transcendent, I would submit, means not connected with any physical force law but nevertheless existing only within the context of our physical universe and not spiritual entities that would transcend this universe. I may be wrong and Ellis does not spell that out, but I do have difficulty in thinking about mathematical relations and Platonic ideals and this is one way I reconcile his terminology. In other words, these entities are still part of the scientific scope and do not transcend the realm of science.

I do, however, have a problem with these Platonic entities having “causal powers.” I don’t understand that. At first, I thought he might mean that these are causal powers in the sense of our minds comprehending these transcendental entities and that perception having a causal effect. But perhaps he means a more direct cause by serving as boundary conditions on the physical universe. I don’t know that I would have termed that an effective cause, so maybe I am wrong.

The idea of “higher level selection criterion” can be illustrated by a simple example but I admit it gets fuzzy when extrapolated to more complex systems. Consider a balloon filled with helium. The atoms have a distribution of kinetic energy values, the average of which depends on the temperature and the interaction of the atoms with the rubber of the balloon determines the volume and pressure. The rubber material of the balloon serves as a “higher level selection criterion” because it blocks the transmission of atoms with average energy but allows higher energy atoms to diffuse through to the outside. This selectivity reduces the average energy of the atoms and the volume decreases. The atoms are the lower level physical basis for the balloon’s behavior while the rubber material is the high level constraint on the atoms.

Now apply this to the much more complex and interesting case of a biological cell which is bounded by a membrane. Inside the cell is a large ensemble of interacting biomolecules. The membrane has the properties of allowing selective transmission. Waste molecules are permitted to escape the cell while energy-bearing molecules are allowed to enter and the working molecules and bath are blocked from leaving. The membrane can be considered to be a “higher level selection criterion.” Mutations can modify the membrane to change the rate and type of transmission that is allowed. Successful cells will sustain and amplify improvements while punishing detrimental criteria. This is an adaptation of criteria that serve to control the environment in which the biomolecules in the cell do their work.

So far, it’s all biochemical interactions. Ellis goes higher in the hierarchy to say that complex networks of neurons in the brain can bring together sensory perception with action controllers in a remarkable way. Given certain inputs of sight, sound, taste, smell, etc., the brain responds with actions of discerning, acquiring and devouring edible substances, for example. He admits he has not solved the mystery of consciousness but feels that any such explanation would need to include this hierarchy of a still higher level that interprets the sensory input as an existential reality that is able to respond in ways that maintain existence and, even more remarkably, can perceive abstract relationships. I don’t see it as pixie dust since he doesn’t posit the existence of an extraneous material. But I would agree, as I think Ellis would, that we still don’t fully understand how consciousness emerges from our brain. He does argue that it is feasible to think that it does and that such consciousness has the characteristic of free will and self-awareness with the causal power of influencing the conditions for biomolecular activity that underlies our existence.

Not sure this helps much but I hope it’s a start. Make sense?

Oh, let me add one more comment about “purpose.” We tend to think of a purposeful object as being something that results from the conscious intention of an external intelligent agent. However, the term “purpose” is also widely used in the scientific community as simply a “function” or “use” with no statement about intention or lack thereof. So the way “purpose” is used by Ellis may be somewhat agnostic with regard to external agents and merely reflect an important function determined by the system itself, whether reflexively or intentionally.
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David E. Singer says...
Posted Wednesday, November 16, 2016
Your explanation of "higher level explanation criteria" is helpful. But I'm not sure I can easily go along with your assumption that Ellis' "transcendent entities" have no existence outside our universe or that Platonic entities have no meaning outside the scope of the space-time realm of our universe. Does such a statement assume that there are, in fact, other levels of reality or realms where such entities, such as logic, are meaningless? And what can it mean to exist independent of the physical but not of science? Isn't science about investigating the physical? Ellis' statement, to me, suggests that he has, indeed, invoked a realm or reality beyond the physical (science), call it spiritual or not, indicating that he ends where he started, not offering any meaningful guidance about how to explain the reality of consciousness (or mathematics for that matter). Do the laws that "govern" nature emanate from within nature or do they exist outside and apart from nature? That gets to the heart of what transcendence might mean. Or, if we include the mental as part of science, do we have to make a phyical connection or not?
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