On the Possibility of Libertarian Free Will

This is a brief attempt to show that while remaining unlikely, the existence of Libertarian Free Will is not an impossibility within the bounds of our current scientific and philosophical understanding.

My aim is to identify both the possibilities and any problems with them that need tackling.



First we need to acknowledge that there are effectively two causal systems in play in the world:

1) the deterministic system of our macro-scale, aggregated, classical physics. Let us call this the D-system.

2) the indeterministic system of micro-scale quantum physics. Let us call this the I-system.

It is uncontroversial that there are brain processes that operate in the D-system, unfolding deterministically. Let us call these D-processes. It may also turn out to be the case that there are brain processes that operate in the I-system, unfolding indeterministically¹. Let us assume this to be the case and call these I-processes.

For our purposes we need to imagine a D-process D  that assesses a range of possibilities from which the agent is to choose. It doesn’t matter if D is a conscious process or not. What matters is that left alone, will evolve deterministically.

However, in this case D initiates an I-process I that consists in the agent’s imagining of the future, to aid in its decision. We might characterize this event as D requesting data from I, and I returning data to D.

Since the I-system is indeterministic, the data returned will be random. It will however be constrained within the context of the data request (so for example, a request for data on choosing between cheese or chocolate is more likely to return imaginings of taste or waistlines than it is of drowning or London buses).

Data returned from I may or may not be novel with respect to previously existing data available to D. If the data is novel, then depending on its practical feasibility, it may provide additional possibilities from which D can select. Therefore the unfolding of D without the novel data from I may differ from the actual unfolding D with the novel data from I.

From this, we can see that one component of Libertarian Free Will is possible, consisting in the ability of an I-Process to return data to a D-Process, freeing the D-Process from the determinism of the D-System by way of a swerve from the deterministic system to the indeterministic system. However, this implies a random swerving, which is not good enough for Libertarian Free Will. So we will continue.



It is reasonable to suggest that the more data that is returned from I, the more likely it is that D will go on to select a possibility that only became available due to that additional data.

It may also turn out to be the case that the I-system operates in a non-temporal environment². Let us assume this is the case.

Given this assumption, the amount of data returned from I cannot depend on a variable set by D that results in a determined amount of time for I to complete the task. We say this because the amount of time used by the I-process – being that it is a-temporal – is always zero. The I-process takes place outside of both a spatial and a temporal structure.

If not determined by a variable set by D then perhaps it is reasonable to think that the amount of data returned from I is determined by something intrinsic to the I-process itself. It could be this variability in the I-process that corresponds to the conscious effort of the will, providing the non-random element of the swerve.



So if an agent exercising free will does so within the I-system, this not only implies that a function of the agent – its imagination – resides in that system, but that at least a part of that which defines its character as an agent – its strength of will – does so too. The question then becomes that of how a semi-persistent character trait can retain its integrity in an indeterministic environment.

I’ll return to this in a future post.



¹ c.f. quantum biology
² c.f. quantum gravity and emergent spacetime


Metaphysical Foundations (Pt4)

Click here for part one of this series.

Part three in this series sketched-out an idea for a fundamental ontological division in the Universe. It suggested a sub-Planckian base to reality (coined the Potentiat), and a super-Planckian extension to that base which we observe as the emergent macro properties and phenomena of physics (coined the Instantiat).

This division is not one of substance. The only substance proposed is the content of the Potentiat, and when that content obtains certain states, the additional macro-scale contents of the Instantiat with which we are familiar through observation emerge: spacetime, all its contents, and further emergent levels of properties and phenomena.

So by referring to the content of the Potentiat as “substance” we are not saying that it is physical, and by referring to the content of the Instantiat as “physical” we are not saying that is is substance. Substance here is that which fundamentally exists in non-emergent terms, and physical is the bottom layer of that which emerges. Insofar as the the emergent content and workings of the Instantiat (which are the targets of all science bar Quantum Gravity), we assume a physicalist position. Only then do we extend our ontological commitments, and this is only in response to physicalisms failure to account for the phenomena of quantum mechanics, experiential consciousness and libertarian free will.

As before it is important to note that the ideas presented here do not claim to be anything more than metaphysical speculation. They are guided by my understanding of mainstream scientific models and philosophical arguments, but they are not facts, nor personal beliefs.

What I’ve coined the Potentiat is the Universe below the Planck scale, or more accurately the pre-scale Universe, since the Potentiat is non-spatial. It was previously suggested an approach to the nature of the Potentiat called panprotoexperientialism.

The idea of consciousness as fundamental has a long history in the form of the philosophical position of panpsychism, and panprotoexperientialism is a variation on that. Panpsychist positions are usually regarded as an anti-realist position, not only granting our conscious experience metaphysical primacy, but also denying the existence of the objective world (not only does the tree make so sound when it falls, but with no-one to observe it, the tree ceases to exist at all).

The version of panprotoexperientialism suggested here is not anti-realist, or more accurately, it’s target means it’s not, because that target is not the Instantiat but the Potentiat.

In the Potentiat we have a metaphysical base that is both proto-experiential (because individual experiencing agents form within it), and proto-physical (because the Instantiat emerges from it). Nothing in the Instantiat on the other hand need be experiential (or even dual-aspect experiential) to accommodate consciousness. Rather the Potentiat should fulfill this role in addition to its role of being the source of the Instantiat.

So here we have a metaphysical monism, where from the single source of the Potentiat emerges both the Instantiat and also what we will call Consicats: individual bound instances of consciousness.

We’ve also previously discussed the Potentiat in terms of a geometric and topological object. The Potentiat consists of the overlaid uninstatiated shapes that the object could take according to the rules that govern it. The Instantiat is the particular shape that obtains, and the temporal unfolding of the Instantiat consists in a sequence of those shapes.

In common with theories like Loop Quantum Gravity and metaphysical ideas like the simple Game of Life and Gregg Rosenberg’s Theory of Natural Individuals, causation here is rooted in the structure and relations of this object’s nodes, each with a differing configuration and number of connections to its neighbours.

The specific rules that govern the scheme are a matter for the various models that posit them, but we might conjecture features that could be explanatory under the system proposed here, or at least that might serve as examples of the kind of features that would do that. If we go beyond a two dimensional visualization of the Potentiat until we have not just the geometry and shape of the object in mind but the topology as well, then we might imagine some interesting features.

Presumably there will be parts of the whole that are topological simple with minimal connections between nodes, and others that are exceedingly complex with tangles and loops. The properties of these structures will relate to whether and what they Instantiate both at the bottom layer (waves, particles) and in subsequent emergent layers. However, we should also note that causation might work in both directions, with the emergent layers influencing further development of the Potentiat’s structures from the top down, and creating more complexity there. This means the suggestions here need not be fully reductionist in outlook..

Judging complexity is itself a thorny issue, but by most measures the brain is a highly complex object and so would presumably be supported by an equally complex structure in the Potentiat. Perhaps experiential consciousness might be associated with a peculiarity of that proto-experiential base structure?

We might imagine features like closed loops to fulfill this role. Nodes might become isolated from the rest of the system, making only a one-way flow of information possible and corresponding to the same features of subjective experience.

Similarly, the closed structure might contain enough internal nodes to form other structures within. These might have differing properties to each other, but be bound by their mutual containment, and perhaps reinforced by their constant association. This might provide potential solutions to the Binding or Combination Problem that is common to all panpsychist theories.

Turning to libertarian free will, if we assume that it can only be initiated by Consciats, then it also seems reasonable to suggest that devoid of them the Universe would see the Instantiat sequence unfold from the myriad Potentiat possibilities in a very particular way.

This is not to say that the unfolding of the Potentiat would be a deterministic process. The first emergent level of the Instantiat remains quantumly indeterministic in its effects, but without Consciats and the free will process amplifying and directing those indeterminacies, the perturbations of the system would be small and non-cumulative. This means the Instantiat sequence would always quickly and easily settle back to the path through the Potentiat possibilities that conforms to the Principle of Least Action, which is already generally regarded as a fundamental property of the Universe.

This is just akin to saying that without consciousness and free will, the Universe is practically deterministic, but with them it is not, and that free agents influence the path that the Instantiat sequence treads through the Potentiat.

An analogy for this is an old-fashioned Choose Your Own Adventure book. The book is undoubtedly deterministic because it has already been written before it’s opened by the player, but the free choices of the player shape which entries in the story occur in that particular reading. The book as a whole represents the Potentiat, and the particular story told the non-determined Instantiat. The reader represents a Consciat.

To embrace the fact that there are multiple Consciats in the real world, we might update our Choose Your Own Adventure book to a Multi-User Dungeon on a computer, and to represent Universe before consciousness arose, we might image an automated demo mode running through the story, but each time taking the first option displayed because it expends less energy that way.

As with all analogies, ours has to stretch and fail somewhere, and an immediate thought is that here the player or players are outside the system, whereas Consciats are very much embedded in it.

There is more to say here, on how and why consciousness and free will might have evolved, and on how that process could be driven by the protoexperiential nature of the Potentiat, It might also be useful to look at some of the details of the various theories of quantum gravity and philosophical ideas on causation to compare their features. Further we need to look at possible processes of data transfer between Instantiat, Consciats and Potentiat involved in the proposed processes of experience, cognition (yet to be addressed) and free will.

However, this series was only meant to be a single post and has gone on long enough! I’ll turn to these topics in new individual posts.

I hope you’ve enjoyed coming with me on a speculative journey, and that even if you disagree fundamentally with my suggestions, that I might have illustrated how modern scientific ideas actually open-up these issues, rather than close them as some physicalists would have you believe.

Metaphysical Foundations (Pt3)

Click here for part one of this series.

Part two of this series was mostly concerned with physicalist assumptions in the free will debate. This third part will return to the wider metaphysical speculation.

Note that the descriptions here are merely the musings of an armchair blogger. They are not beliefs, they are suspicions. With that in mind, if you’re still interested, read on.

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First let’s zoom right out and taking a look at what current scientific understanding might suggest in regards to the metaphysics and ontology of the Universe.

We’ll start with the idea that quantum mechanics suggests a fundamental ontological division: there is that which is physically instantiated and that which is mere potential. Yet at the same time it suggests that in both cases events therein have active roles in the world.

While considering these two parts of reality, it’s important to keep in mind that this division is illusory in respect to location and substance. There is only one Universe (the capital U denoting that I am including any possible multiverse theories under this heading), and the differences I’ll be suggesting are in scale, not in temporospatial location or primitive (i.e. non-emergent) substance.

The first ontological category I want to consider consists of all everyday objects ranging from galaxies, planets, chairs and bacteria, all the way down to molecules, atoms, protons, and quarks. These are all things that are instantiated above the Planck scale in emergent spacetime and are therefore measurable and interpreted as objectively “real” in a physical sense. For that reason I’m going to refer to this macroworld as the Intantiat. It also consists of things that are less familiar as we move downward in scale toward that boundary, like briefly-instantiated virtual particles.

Within the Instantiat, both upward (reductive) processes, and downward (non-reductive) processes determine the unfolding of events, and that unfolding is probabilistic in accordance with most interpretations quantum mechanics. Therefore I am very much holding that ultimately determinism is false. the Universe is fundamentally indeterministic in nature. What we observe in the macroworld is a faux-determinism; the observed averaging-out of the enormous amount of interactions involved in macro events.

The second category consists of that which is not instantiated: potential counterfactuals, or – from the point of view of the Instantiat – things that might have been or might be. This realm I’ll refer to as the Potentiat. This is the Universe as considered at the sub-Plankian scale, and is best visualized holistically, each component of the whole a node in a single object: the all-possibilities-present block Universe.

The Potentiat has neither spatial nor temporal position. In physics terms it is background independent. Its “properties” are only its internal topological & geometric relations. This is in accordance with certain approaches to quantum gravity, like Loop Quantum Gravity. Both space and time emerge from the Potentiat in the same way that other fields and their particles do.

Now imagine looking down at this sub-Planckian microworld from the macroworld above with a bird’s eye view. From this high vantage point one can visualize the Potentiat below as a fuzzy sea of possibilities. The surface of the sea is an overlaid surface of fundamental physical fields at their zero point energy level, and thus fizzing with quantum fluctuations. It appears as a foam. And towering from this foamy surface are the soaring spines of the instantiated macroworld excitations in the fields that we call point particles. And indeed from our bird’s eye view, the peak of each wave excitation does indeed appear as a dimensionless point. Collections of these spiny structures swarm as they interact with each other, forming the skeletal structure of the things we perceive as macro objects.


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The Potentiat is also where objects like photons and electrons seemingly “disappear to” when they are not interacting with each other. So when we say that a photon takes “every path” from emitter to detector in the famous double-slit experiment, it is in the Potentiat that all those paths consist. In terms of the mathematics of quantum mechanics, the Potentiat is modeled by the imaginary axis on the complex number plane (see here for my brief attempt at an explanation).

If one now imagines moving down to the nodes of sub-Planckian microworld, and then outwards to an external god’s eye view, one can now imagine the related geometric nodes of the Potentiat allowing for potential shapes that the Potentiat as a whole could obtain.

So the Instantiat can be seen as a single obtained state from the myriad possible Potentiat states. Its state is no more “real” than the Potentiat states, but it differs in that it has super-Planckian scale and the emergent spaciotemporal physicality that comes with that status.

Each possible shape that the Instantiat could take maps to a bitmap snapshot of a potential physical Universe state. In quantum mechanical terms each shape is a possible Universal Wavefunction. the Instantiat is the measurable universe we experience, and the Potentiat consists of all the counterfactual universes of a Many-Worlds-like Interpretation of quantum mechanics (MWI is normally considered a deterministic theory, but I will come to that later).


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As the Instantiat shifts from state to state, each shift is a quantized moment of emergent Planck-time mapping to a different Universal wavefunction.

One can also imagine an overall shape for the Potentiat, which is an overlaid combination of all its possible shapes.

The relationship between the Potentiat, Instantiat and an evolving worldline might be illustrated with an analogy. Imagine a computer monitor. The Instantiat is a still image on the screen: a contingent configuration space of active and inactive pixels.

A worldline is an ordered sequence of these Instantiat pixel maps evolving according to a set of laws determined by the geometry of the Instantiat within the Potentiat (i.e. how individual shapes can and cannot transform within the Potentiat shape viewed as a whole). So in the analogy a worldline is a like a movie playing out on the screen.

The Potentiat on the other hand is a non-contingent configuration space of each and every possible configuration of pixels that could be displayed on the screen, all displayed simultaneously: a white noise.


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So how does experiential consciousness and libertarian free will fit into this picture? Firstly let’s define libertarian free will in the context I’ve given:

“Libertarian free will consists in the possibility of non-random interventions in the otherwise faux-deterministic unfolding of the Instantiat

As previously suggested, a possible mechanism for free will may be something like a class of mainstream theorized phenomena that occur at the Planck scale boundary and result in seemingly ex nihilo particle creation. Under the picture described here, that boundary is the interface between the Potentiat and the Instantiat.

Is it possible that such a phenomenon might be exploited by the brain to tip the balance of probabilities against faux-determinism? We already know that evolutionary processes exploit Planck-scale quantum effects  for their own ends, and I’d argue that it would be surprising if a system as complex as the brain does not do the same to some extent or other. For the purpose of speculation, let’s assume here that such a phenomenon exists and can be exploited by the brain.

Opponents might say that such physical effects are too small in scope to make a difference to events at the macro scale. This worry might be addressed by positing some process of amplification in the brain, much like the amplification of macro systems seen in the butterfly effect (although it would have to also be directed rather than chaotic).

2013 08 03 Comma in the Back Garden

There is a more worrisome problem still. While the unfolding of events in the Instantiat is completely determined, the influence that the Potentiat has on that unfolding via particle creation is by contrast completely random, and a random influence is not sufficient for free will.

However, note that we have not said the the Potentiat itself is random in its nature, only that the direct (i.e. non-emergent) influence it has on the Instantiat is random. Of the intrinsic nature of the Potentiat itself we know little or nothing.

So if free will consists in the directed and amplified ex-nihilo creation of matter with source Potentiat and destination Instantiat, then perhaps experiential consciousness consists either at the border between the Instantiat and Potentiat, or in the Potentiat itself.


If so, and if conscious deliberation is an aspect of experiential consciousness, then it would be the workings of the Potentiat itself that afford the definitions “free” (non-random and non-determined) and “will” (interventions) as defined above.

Of course, the definition is “non-random and non-determined” is a tricky one. Are the two concepts not a binary affair with an excluded middle? Again, locating the experiential consciousness and its free will in (or partially within) the Potentiat may help here. Although the Potential’s nature remains a completely open question, if we look at its effects like superposition, along with its nature as painted here, there is a suggestion that some logical principles like the excluded middle may not apply in the way that we are familiar with when observing the world at the scale of the Instantiat. Perhaps the dichotomy of determinacy and indeterminacy is – for a Potentiat-based will – a false one.

As for experiential consciousness itself, here we might turn to theories of consciousness outside the scientific mainstream but still metaphysically conceivable. Traditions like Panpsychism and the related Panprotoexperientialism (or Panprotopsychism) become attractive.

These theories place abstractions and imagination not only at the heart of conscious experience, but also at the foundational level of reality, although there are also formidable issues to overcome, like the combination or binding problem.

Next time I’ll turn to speculation on consciousness and the workings of the Potentiat in more detail.

For Part 4 Click Here.

Metaphysical Foundations (Pt2)

In the first part of this article I laid down some foundational principles to guide me as I move from philosophical beliefs and metaphysical suspicions to more speculative ideas on consciousness and free will.

Here, as I approach the tricky subject of phenomenal conscious experience (or as I’m about to call it from here on out, just plain consciousness), I carry with me two central beliefs. Firstly that the Universe is amenable to explanation by science (a weak form of positivism), and secondly that whatever we find at the smallest scale of reality should inform us about what will emerge at the larger scales (a weak form of reductionism).

A third uncontroversial belief is that our scientific understanding of foundational physics is incomplete.

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Additionally, I adhere to three speculative but mainstream scientific ideas about how the Universe works.

Firstly, that our current best-fit theories of general relativity and quantum mechanics will eventually be superseded by a better-fit theory of quantum gravity. Secondly that space and time will be shown to be emergent properties of an underlying sub-Planckian realm. And thirdly, that this entails that reality at the most fundamental level consists in a non-spaciotemporal all-possibilities-present block universe of some sort.

Whatever wild and wacky ideas I have in regards to consciousness, they must at least adhere to these principle beliefs and fit with the theories described that I suspect have merit. They’ll be no god-smuggling or wizardry here, despite how it may appear  to some.

I say this because some physicalists appear to regard any deviation from the that position to be veering inexorably towards belief in the supernatural, and I’ll start this discussion with a negative thesis defending non-physicalist accounts of both consciousness and free will from that accusation.


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The physicalists I’m talking about are not the likes of “A-Team captainDan Dennett or his fellow philosophers with similar opinions. Despite any metaphysical preference, all of them are all no doubt well aware of the problems with each position.

Rather I’m mostly referring to various science popularisers (many of whom are scientists themselves) who have an anti-theist agenda. They would appear to want to stamp on any ideas of consciousness being anything but a part of our current physical ontology, or free will being anything but an illusion in a “deterministic” universe, because they believe those concepts to be central to theistic belief.

(I put determinism in scare quotes because the framing of the free will debate in terms of determinism is actually a good hundred years out of date. Since quantum mechanics came on the scene, the likelihood of any truly deterministic system is increasingly small, although the random element introduced doesn’t automatically help those on my side of the argument.)

Although I sympathise with the motives of these individuals, I am highly dubious that theistic belief plays any necessary role in either consciousness or free will. Both are metaphysical concepts that reach far wider than that, and neither appear to say anything about the existence or otherwise of any god or gods, or the supernatural generally.

This is because unlike those concepts, neither consciousness nor free will make any claim to be immune to the laws of physics. One may will to fly unaided, but not even theistic accounts deny that gravity will have the last laugh. The only theistic claim on consciousness and free will is that they are divinely granted, and that the latter is uniquely granted to humans.

And here lies the true problem I think. Theism is seen as inexorably linked to anthropocentrism, and free will (and thus by association non-epiphenomenal consciousness) is seen as part of that discredited tradition. Yet in truth there are all sorts of abilities and traits that have uniquely evolved in humans, yet are not seen in the same light. One might as well blindly deny the existence of complex language because that uniquely human adaption is portrayed as divinely granted in the Biblical tradition.

Just because we now know we have an insignificant place in the cosmos, doesn’t mean that we are not contextually ‘special’. On this planet at least, we are indeed so, as evidenced by you’re reading and comprehending this article, whereas no other creature nor system can. That’s not anthropocentrism, it’s just the facts.


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Although some of these science popularisers might understand the philosophical arguments that show that physicalism is far from certain, I doubt many of the people who follow them do, because it’s something rarely discussed outside of philosophical literature. This gives the general impression to the thinking person that science has closed the door on these issues, which is certainly not the case. To claim otherwise – whatever the merit of the motivation – is nothing more than unscientific presumption.

So while some expect that free will can be explained using our current physical ontology alone, others like me suspect that we need to understand reality at the sub-Planckian scale before we get a grip on these concepts. However, there is actually no good evidence either way, and various problems for both options.

The evidence offered by most physicalists – that provided by neuroscience – is unsatisfactory in the extreme, because as worthwhile and useful as that venture is, it completely misses the target of this discussion. Neuroscience investigates the neural correlates of consciousness, but not phenomenal consciousness itself. In layman’s terms it investigates the brain, not the mind, and to claim the two are the same is simply begging the question.

If our subjective experience is somehow illusory, then neuroscience misses the target because the target is not there and physicalism is true. If on the other hand our subjective experience is non-illusory, then it misses the target because mind and brain are not identical.

Neuroscience is as far away from explaining subjective conscious experience as the computing field of artificial intelligence is away from creating it, and of course, the two problems are probably related. What seemingly magic ingredient do we need to add to make our computers ‘spark into life’ as it were? What clock speed, instructions per second, number of transistors, or logical connections will be required before a computer wakes up and says “who am I?”?

To move on to a positive thesis regarding consciousness and free will I will now need to make the assumption that they are not illusory. Of course, this in no way prejudices the debate as to whether that is actually the case, but it is necessary if one is to try to find a place for them in the natural order, and is justified by virtue of both being – at first sight at least – universally experienced phenomena.

I have already written a short piece on what I consider to be the most promising class of mainstream theoretical phenomena in physics and cosmology for finding a physical basis for non-epiphenomenal consciousness and free will. The particular examples I gave were seemingly ex nihilo particle creation at black hole event horizons in the form of Hawking radiation, and the same result in accelerated reference frames via the Unruh effect. Although the former seems completely off the table insofar as occurring within the brain, the latter might not be (although I am speaking from ignorance here rather than insight!). And more importantly (since the latter remains unlikely) the very existence of such a class of what I’ll call boundary phenomena suggest that there might be more examples to be found in the future.

Non-epiphenomenal consciousness is dependent on (phenomenal) consciousness, and free will is dependent both of those and also on cognition, so it might seem odd to start with an idea on free will rather than for example, qualia. But it seems best to start my search here, since if boundary phenomena is free will’s hook into the otherwise deterministic/random super-Planckian realm, then that would provide a clear signpost as to where we should look for the other phenomena on which it depends.

This is not a case of simply picking those phenomena to begin the search because it conveniently leads to areas I already found ripe for picking at consciousness itself. Rather, I know of no other mainstream process could account for the ‘uncaused causes’ required to sustain the notion of non-epiphenomenal consciousness and free will.

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Additionally, situating some aspects of consciousness at this scale is no longer prohibited by quantum effects being too fragile and fleeting for use by warm wet macro-biological systems. As I’ve touched on elsewhere, the field of quantum biology is blossoming, both in areas already supported by experimental evidence like photosynthesis and bird navigation, and more speculatively with ideas on DNA mutation. If there is evolutionary advantage to be had by the brain utilizing the sub-Planckian realm via quantum effects, then there’s a good chance nature will have done so. I will explore ideas on what such an advantage might be later.

So the next step for me in this series of posts is to try to integrate, or find suitable locations (really just scales, but I will say more on this, also later) for the two sets of fundamental phenomena we take as constituting reality. The first are those identified by objective scientific data; i.e. the properties of fundamental particles, their fields, and their relata or governing laws. The second are those identified by the evidence of the subjects who directly experience them, with their virtue being assessed by their universality, i.e. cognition, phenomenal consciousness, and free will.

In the next part, I’ll begin to tentatively make suggestions for the above project. I’ll try to find any aspects of the phenomena I’ve identified that might provide constraints and clues as to where they might reside and how they might function and interact. At the same time I’ll be sure not to resort to using any theory or phenomenon outside of mainstream speculative science.

Wish me luck, I’ll need it!

For Part 3 Click Here.

[last updated 14 September 2013)

Metaphysical Foundations (Pt1)

In this post and the next I’m going to lay down some of the few metaphysical beliefs, suspicions and desires that I have, for the sake of clarity in my statements elsewhere, my own introspection, and an attempt to explain why so many of my other views are ever-shifting and non-committal.

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It should be noted that not a single one of my beliefs, either presented here or elsewhere, are non-contingent, or true articles of faith. I don’t even believe one hundred percent that either the objective universe or my subjective experience is real, so from here on in, any non-qualified statement about belief translates to some extremely high, but non-certain probability.

I’m not going to get this done in one sitting, so I’ll begin with some of the basics before moving to the more interesting stuff next time. These are the foundations on which any metaphysical positioning on my part needs to be based.

First off, I think it’s fair to say that I take a weakly positivist view. In other words, I think that most phenomena (certainly consciousness and free will if they exist) in the Universe (and I use the term here in the largest sense, inclusive of multiple universes, extra dimensions etc.) are in principle, and almost certainly in practice, functionally explicable by science. This includes phenomenal consciousness and (if they exist) qualia, non-epiphenomenal consciousness and incompatibilist free will. This is not to say that science is the only relevant sense in which phenomena can be understood, but it should at least be one way.

(As I have explained elsewhere, I take anything that is posited to exist outside of the universe (like the god of Abrahamic religions) to be beyond the scope of scientific investigation. I consider any speculation regarding such things to be futile, and any claimed knowledge of them, either objective via divine books (lol) or subjective through personal divine experience, to be misguided. On ideas where god is the Universe, or nature in some sense, I remain skeptical but open.)

Second is a belief that’s flipped over the years, as my own take on what it means has changed, but I think it’s fair to say in at least a weak sense that I’m a reductionist.

It’s not that I believe every property of every system at every scale of the universe is explicable by referring to the workings of the lowest level alone. So for instance, I have no problem with ideas of top-down causation. Rather I believe that ultimately, the foundations of the ‘reality’ we perceive and measure should inform us how and why the properties of that ‘reality’ emerge at all.

Thirdly, I believe that our scientific understanding of the world is incomplete. This is, of course, an uncontroversial statement, but the key element is that our foundational understanding is incomplete. We have no proper understanding of the underpinnings of the rest of our theories, because we have no proper understanding of how the universe works, or of what it consists, at  scales smaller than the Planck length.

In other words, in all likelihood, our current best theories – quantum mechanics and general relativity – are wrong. Not wrong in the logical sense that two plus two doesn’t equal five, but wrong in the sense of being only approximations of at least one deeper theory, in the same way that classical Newtonian gravity is only an approximation of Einstein’s General Relativity.

This fact strongly colours the other beliefs and ideas that follow, because we know that quantum mechanics and its unintuitive effects arise from energy fields that are grounded at a scale below the Planck length.

When combined with even quite weak reductionism, it should be obvious that we cannot sensibly commit to any metaphysical position with anything even approaching certainty. In fact, I’d argue that any weighting at all amounts to little beyond personal preference. All metaphysical positions remain highly speculative, including the dominant one, physicalism.

So, given the above, how should we approach forming metaphysical opinions that aren’t simply biased reflections of our personal preferences and wider views?

Again I’d suggest it should be obvious that we start at the places of closest approximation to the target. Here the target is currently physics at the Planckian and sub-Planckian scales, so our closest approximations are quantum mechanics and general relativity, and to have an informed metaphysical opinion, one needs to think hard about what the observed phenomena associated with these theories might suggest.

With that in mind I’ll now move from my “beliefs” to mainstream foundational scientific theories and ideas that I strongly suspect are true.

When we talk of a theory of quantum gravity that will succeed both quantum mechanics and general relativity, what we are effectively talking about are the laws that govern, and the ontology that consists in, the universe at the scale of the Planck length and below.

One thing considered a requirement of a fully-fledged theory of quantum gravity is that it be  background independent. This is because general relativity will need to be derived from it, and general relativity (unlike quantum mechanics) is itself background independent. All this means is that like general relativity with its spacetime manifold, the equations of quantum gravity need to completely capture the evolution of the systems they describe without reference to a coordinate system of an ontological unit outside of the theory.

With Loop Quantum Gravity, background independence naturally falls out of the theory, but it is also achievable with string theory via the holographic principle in the form of AdS/CFT correspondence.

The upshot of this is that space and time are almost certainly emergent phenomena. At scales smaller than the Planck scale, they are expected to dissolve. Therefore we can say that at its foundations, the universe is both non-local and non-temporal, and of course, this is borne out in effects at larger scales above where we see both special and temporal separation being no barrier in the strong correlation of entangled particles in quantum mechanics.

This opens up interesting and counterintuitive possibilities for the notion of causation in the world when we consider again (and we should never forget!) that we are talking about fundamental truths at the bottom of reality. For instance, Loop Quantum Gravity is based on spin foam (itself based on the topological causation intrinsic in Penrose‘s spin networks), and alternative notions of causation have been posited by the likes of Gregg Rosenberg in his Theory of Natural Individuals as an essential base for understanding how consciousness may fit into the natural world.

Considering a non-temporal source for the temporally-ordered macroscopic phenomena that emerge from that base also holds the possibility of accommodating multiverse predictions that come from the likes of the Many Worlds Interpretation of quantum mechanics, or the vast number of possible Calabi-Yau manifolds in String Theory. This is because without time, one can think of the sub-Planckian realm as an Eternalist block universe, with all possible pasts and futures present simultaneously.

As Rosenberg has indicated, once one conceives of this, the most basic question we can ask of the Universe – why is there something rather than nothing – morphs into “why is there something rather than everything”


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So, to summarize, I believe in the following:

– a weak form of positivism in regards to consciousness and free will
– a weak form of reductionism
– foundational scientific incompleteness

And I strongly suspect the following are true:

– a background independent theory of quantum gravity will replace QM and GR
– space and time are emergent phenomena
– the Universe is a non-spaciotemporal all-possibilities-present block universe

Ultimately, in examining our closest approximations to foundational truths,  one is rendered powerless to deny that all we think we ‘know’ is challenged. This applies not only to our current physical ontology, but also the notion of causation itself. With that in mind, I find it quite flabbergasting when otherwise rational and articulate thinkers declare that the basics of our theories are in some sense complete. In fact, the basics are the very thing we are missing.

That’s all for now folks, but next time out I’m going to get more speculative, as armed with the foundational beliefs and suspicions above, I approach the seeming conundrum of consciousness.

For Part 2 click here.

[last updated 14 September 2013)

A defense of non-epiphenomenal consciousness and free will.

[NOTE – this is re-post from the original incarnation of this blog.]

The existence of non-epiphenomenal consciousness and free will are two different, but related issues. Both are disputed by those of a physicalist persuasion, and both find themselves lacking any place within our current scientific understanding of the world. Indeed, they not only have no place, but also run contrary to a key precept of modern science: that there is no such thing as an uncaused cause.

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In the classical Newtonian picture of physics, the processes that lead to a particular brain state are governed by deterministic laws of nature. If in principle we could perfectly describe a starting brain state, then by extrapolation using those laws, we can predict with certainty a subsequent brain state. Quantum mechanics overthrows this view, revealing that fundamentally, all processes are probabilistic in nature. Instead of predicting with certainty, instead  we only have a probability that one result will win out over another (even if in macroscopic systems there are so many quantum elements that the law of averages means the probability is very high indeed). This introduces a random element to the possible evolution of systems over time, but doesn’t necessarily help with defending free will. A random result is not necessarily a free one.

This fundamentally random, but practicably deterministic state of affairs is what we observe in every area of nature we’ve ever cared to study. Physical processes alone are sufficient to explain the evolution of systems in time. So what role could mental processes have if they exist at all? And even if there is a role, by what conceivable mechanism could a mental process affect a physical process?  This is the problem of defending non-epiphenomenal consciousness.


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Beyond questions of the efficacy of conscious systems looms the even more unlikely notion of traditional incompatibilist free will; a concept seemingly so contrary to what we know about nature that most philosophers and scientists appear to have abandoned it altogether. And it’s not difficult to see why. The suggestion appears to be that not only does the mind play a role in the evolution of brain states, but that it can also derail the chain of cause and effect by somehow tipping the probabilities in favour of what would otherwise be a vanishingly unlikely alternative options.

Given those facts, how can defenders of causally efficacious mind and free will construct a believable argument for their existence?

To be taken seriously, both non-epiphenomenal consciousness and free will are desperately in need of a viable mechanism. Without it, both are rightly open to attack as being only explainable by supernatural forces. And to be viable, I would argue that any proposed mechanism would have to both conform to our current best-fit scientific theories and be robust enough to be considered mainstream.

Some may claim that such questions are outside the scope of science altogether, being that evidence for their existence is purely subjective and therefore unverifiable by the scientific method. With most such phenomena I would agree. For instance, believers in gods may try to claim that their experience of the divine counts as evidence, while others use subjective experience to underpin all sorts of dubious pseudoscience and quackery. So right away, I should make it clear that  I consider non-epiphenomenal consciousness and free will worthy of explanation for one reason alone: they are – at first blush at least – subjectively universal phenomena. Even the most ardent physicalist must admit that without further reflection, we appear to have both. That of course is not proof – appearance often misrepresents reality – but it is I think, at least reason to investigate as best we can with an open mind.

An axiom attributed to ancient Greek philosopher Parmenides and later made famous in the modern Western world by William Shakespeare in King Lear says that “nothing comes from nothing“. The antithesis of this idea is the idea of creation ex nihilo, or “out of nothing”. The gods of many religious traditions are supposed to have pulled off such a trick at the beginning of the universe, and – unfortunately for defenders of non-epiphenomenal consciousness and free will – it’s a trick that agents seemingly also need to perform every time they exercise free will. They have to introduce or create some new event that is neither random nor wholly dependent on prior physical causes.

However, modern science has put that axiom under pressure, leading us to question whether it really is such a self-evident truth. It’s not that science has shown that matter or energy can be created ex nihilo (indeed, that would violate another key idea in physics; that of the conservation of energy enshrined in the first law of thermodynamics) but rather that modern science now suggests that the very concept of nothingness may be meaningless.

The quantum fields that make up the universe, such as the electromagnetic field and the Higgs field all have a ground state – a lowest possible energy configuration – slightly above zero, making them subject to quantum fluctuations. This is the case even in a complete vacuum, hence the name vacuum energy, although the property as applied to each field is known as zero point energy. But a vacuum is the only physical (i.e. non-abstract) definition of nothingness that makes sense within the bounds of the universe, so physically-speaking there is no such thing as nothing.

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Because excitations in quantum fields are one and the same as point particles in the standard model, this vacuum energy manifests as the creation of virtual particle/antiparticle pairs that briefly pop into existence and immediately annihilate each other. This fact applies not only to the vacuum or to space, but to every part of the universe. This vacuum energy can be thought of like the fizzing surface of a liquid, with each bubble being that brief pair of particles that burst into existence only to almost immediately pop out of it again, although it is important to note that this energy is usually both unmeasurable and unavailable to macroscopic processes – it is not some mystical energy field one can use to justify belief in dubious phenomena!

In technical terms, these particles exist for a time shorter than the Planck time, which means that due to the time-energy relationship in Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, they remain unmeasurable and insubstantiated in the physical world. Hence the label virtual particles as opposed to actual particles we can measure.

However, just because they are virtual, one shouldn’t imagine that they play no role in the physical world. Not only have experiments shown them to be most-likely responsible for proven phenomena such as spontaneous emission, the Casimir effect, and the Lamb shift, but they are also generally thought to mediate the interaction of real particles in quantum field theory. For example, the exchange of virtual photons underlying the interaction of electrons in electromagnetism.

The only way these virtual particles can achieve actualisation and gain any kind of permanence is to draw on the energy in the surrounding environment, whilst avoiding mutual annihilation.

One situation in which this is thought to be possible is in the extreme environment of a black hole. These gravitational sink-holes bend space so severely that even the fastest moving objects in the universe – photons of light – do not have sufficient escape velocity to avoid falling into their clutches. This results in the formation of a boundary, or event horizon, from which no matter or energy can escape.

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Now consider a particle/antiparticle pair that forms at the event horizon of a black hole. In simple terms, if one of the pair forms inside the event horizon and the other on the outside, then they will not be able to interact and annihilate, and drawing on the gravitational energy of the black hole, they actualise. So both an observer on the interior of the horizon, and one on the outside witness the emission of particles as radiation. This is known as Hawking radiation after physicist Stephen Hawking who first conjectured its existence.

As previously stated, this isn’t really ex nihilo creation of matter or energy, because the creation process is driven by the intrinsic zero point energy of quantum fields, plus the energy of the surrounding system. Thus the principle of conservation of energy also means that the system involved must lose some of its own energy, or in the case of black holes the equivalent mass. In this way black holes starved of infalling matter are though to slowly but surely evaporate.

Another consequence is that the more mass or energy a system has, the greater the mass or energy of the particles that can be emitted. So whilst there are also hypothesized micro black holes, produced primordially in the early universe and perhaps still existing today, the Hawking radiation they would emit would consist only of low mass particles like electron/positron pairs or photons, which are massless and their own antiparticles. (Note that even in normal black holes, Hawking radiation is dominated by photons).

But black holes are not the only situation where this type of particle creation can occur. In theory, any energetic phenomena that forms an event horizon can perform the same trick.

One such phenomenon is known as the Unruh effect, and is a logical consequence of Einstein’s realisation that the gravitational force is equivalent to acceleration. Here an accelerating system gains kinetic energy from the gravitational field which then – from the point of view of an observer in the same relativistic reference frame as the accelerating system  – results in a radiation bath in that internal frame, as particle/antiparticle pairs actualise before annihilating. And just like the black hole case, because an accelerating system creates an event horizon (the reason for which is beyond the scope of this piece), the equivalent of Hawking radiation is also witnessed by observers outside that horizon.

In both examples, we have the formation of an event horizon creating a one-way barrier between an enclosed volume of space (the interior of the black hole and the relativistic reference frame) and the rest of the universe.

So, returning to consciousness, we have – superficially at least – an interesting parallel. In both, the external environment can influence the enclosed internal worlds via the flow of information into them, but from within those enclosed internal worlds one is only able to observe the external universe rather than interact directly with it. However, via a phenomenon such as Hawking radiation, that internal world is able to exert a physical influence back on its environment. By analogy, these phenomena correspond to a mechanism for non-epiphenomenal consciousness.

Now, I’m certainly not suggesting that consciousness resides in microscopic black holes – I’ll leave that to Romulan starships! Nor am I saying that the Unruh effect is responsible. I simply don’t have enough knowledge of physics or mathematics to surmise or calculate how small objects at short distances may or may not produce the acceleration necessary or an event horizon local enough. And I strongly doubt there is anything in mainstream neuroscience to offer as a framework for such effects in the brain.

I’m only suggesting that such seemingly ex nihilo creation would not-so-long-ago have been thought impossible without supernatural intervention in the world, but that zero point energy opens-up the possibility of a variety of effects that might – at least conceivably – be exploited by evolved systems.

Under those speculative lights, the mere possibility of horizon-enduced particle creation in connection to consciousness and the brain would provide a high-level explanatory mechanism for non-epiphenomenal consciousness. And if such creation could be directed and (perhaps chaotically) amplified, one might see how such internally-produced nudges might pave the way for free will.


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At such low energies, any such creation would have to be in the form massless particles like photons, and whilst this might bring its own problems in accounting for how they might deliver the needed nudges to existing processes, on the other hand, such effects should in principle be measurable and therefore testable. It should be noted that there is already some speculation about the role of photons in the brain, though stressed that this is not mainstream.

Of course, even if there is something in my speculation, many issues might remain unresolved, such as the hard problem of consciousness and how the mental domain might manage to muster and direct its will; not to mention under what ontology and laws consciousness itself might operate internally.

Also, there is danger here in stepping too far with speculative ideas. Scientists and rational thinkers are wary of any non-physicalist speculation on consciousness, I suspect because to do so opens the door to all sorts of religious and pseudoscientific nonsense that are neither objectively testable or even subjectively universal. So it’s important to not speculate more than a single step beyond our current knowledge, and to do so without any preconceptions of where one is heading.

But with that caution in mind, I still think it’s fair to say that this class of phenomena in physics at least shines a light into the domains in which we should search for clues. And even if such speculation proves fruitless, it serves to illustrate how science continually surprises us with unexpected phenomena. So while admitting that the existence of non-epiphenomenal consciousness and free will remain improbable, we should not lose hope. Closing the door on what are our most universal and all-encompassing experiences of reality – that our minds interact with and affect the physical world – is premature.

To be free again? How free will is not dead yet.

[NOTE – this is re-post from the original incarnation of this blog.]

The New Scientist website is running an interesting article on a recent experiment that casts further doubt on the non-existence of free will. You can read the original article here.

If the possibility that your decisions are not free comes as a shock to you, it’s worth considering that from a purely scientific point of view, our current understanding of how the universe works at a fundamental level leaves absolutely no room for anybody or anything to be a self-creating causal agent.

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The reason for this is that the known laws of classical physics are deterministic, and even if you discard these in favour of the more fundamental laws of quantum physics, you find that the only non-deterministic part of the theory, namely the wave function in the Schrödinger equation, only throws a component of complete randomness into the mix, and frankly, complete randomness is no better for free will than complete determinism.

So back in the 70s, when Benjamin Libet studied the brain during free decision making and found correlated activity before the volunteers reported they had made the conscious decision, some interpreted this as good evidence that free will was indeed just an illusion created by the mind.

That’s not to say that huge numbers of scientists necessarily take that view. The majority of scientists are practical people who simply follow the evidence and avoid interpreting their results too much, an approach that some refer to as “shut up and calculate”. Most are content to leave any metaphysical speculation to philosophers and armchair commentators like myself.

But among philosophers themselves, there are probably many of a physicalist persuasion who previously looked to Libet’s results as supporting their view, and that line of evidence looks like it’s beginning to disappear. This includes those of the compatiblist view, which for me is the same as saying there’s no free will at all.

Personally, I believe that the hypothesis that free will is an illusion is an extraordinary one in the face of all our subjective experience to the contrary, and that, to quote Carl Sagan, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”.

For me, free will should be assumed to exist, even if that means we need to accept that something major is missing or incorrect in our understanding of fundamental physics. And since consciousness itself is still far from being fully integrated into our understanding, there is still plenty of room.

The whole subject of consciousness, free will, and fundamental physics fascinates me, and there’s a whole host of literature by philosophers who deny it exists and those that would like to preserve it. I see this as philosophy at it’s most useful, probing the edge of our scientific understanding, and suggesting ideas on what logic dictates could be possible against what’s not.

I hope to write a lot more on this subject in more detail when I have time, hence the lack of links in that last paragraph. So hang on to your armchairs! ;)