Ultimate meaning: Physicalism or Thanatology

Once you make a discovery how can you say what it means? Of course, you can simply say what it means to you, personally. But suppose you want to place it within the larger world of our shared meanings, how do you go about doing that?

First you would identify places in that larger world of our shared meanings where your discovery belongs. For example, suppose you discover something about thermoregulation in yaks on Mount Everest, what meaning could you give that? You’ve many choices. You could report it with wry humor as a traveler’s tale. You could report it in medical terminology for its potential relevance to human medicine. You could report it as a scientific finding in biology. In each case you’d use the form of discourse appropriate to that location in our world of shared meanings. You’d probably omit dry humor in a medical report.

Many choices. But what are main ones? I’m going to compare two. One is, the world of science as physicalism. The other is thanatology--what things mean in relation to our anticipating our own death. Physicalism was defined in the first half of the 19th century by August Comte in his Positivism, in which he declared that every discovery should be accounted for in terms of ever-more fundamental branches of science. So a discovery of thermoregulation in yaks would be given meaning in terms of the underlying biochemistry, that chemistry in terms of physics, and physics in terms of mathematics. That operation goes by the name of reductionism. You report on your discovery in terms of the appropriate sciences. Meaning in thanatology, on the other hand, comes from how things look to you on your deathbed, as you look back upon your life, or in advance to forestall regretting on your deathbed commissions or omission you’re responsible for in the course of your life.

How does that work out in practice? Take the issue of free will, for example. What set of terms are appropriate for discussing it. Since that will depend on where in our larger world of meaning it belongs, where is that? For our present purposes, let’s see how differently we’d discuss free will in the contexts of reductionism and thanatology?

Already trouble looms. Which set of terms would you agree to use in discussing free will? Those of physicalism, or those of thanatology? If neither side will give in and use the other’s terms, I have a suggestion—decide which meaning location takes precedence and use that location’s terms. In practice the choice is simple. If you are both young then take science as your context and use reductionist terms. If you are both older use the terms of thanatology. If one of you is young and the other old, find other partners of ages similar to yours, and start over. You can’t discuss free will without agreeing on a context right at the beginning.

The two discourses are so fundamentally different as to actually contradict one another. The discourse appropriate for a scientific context will involve terms like physical determinism--how each event or situation emerges from the one before strictly according to the laws of physics. It will draw on how the addition to modern science of equations governing relativity and quantum mechanics together generate an envelope defining all possible phenomena and how within that envelope there is no room for free will independent of brain chemistry. It may include reference to mental events: physical events can cause mental events such as when pain follows a physical impact, but with the proviso that, not being physical themselves, mental events cannot engage physical forces and act back to make anything physical happen, like drive behavior. The connection can go only one way: mental events cannot register in the brain so the brain cannot know about the mind—what appear to be decisions originating as mental events were actually already arrived in the brain moments before, only then registering in the mind. Experiencing the illusion that we arrive at our decisions first in mind may make us fitter in some way and so have evolved within brain chemistry, but evolution is a purely physical processes and nothing it generates, like the free will in that illusion, can be anything but purely physical.

By contrast, the discourse of thanatology centers around free will--personal agency. We are responsible for our own conscious experiences. We can decide what to be conscious of. Through what we make ourselves conscious of today we can influence what we’ll be conscious of and do in the future. We can judge what to be conscious of today by generalizing from our past conscious experiences. Here’s an example: you think, “From my past travel experiences I think I’d enjoy travel more if I learned about architecture.” So you buy a book on architecture. Your brain is no more than the agent you use to execute decisions you arrive at in consciousness.

Terms for thanatology can be borrowed from the discourse of the Ancient Stoics. For example, “Indifferents” for things in life that may make conscious experience enjoyable but aren’t crucial. For the Stoics these included wealth, status, even loved ones and your own life. By dwelling on loss of indifferents they hoped to reduce the impact that losing these indifferents would have on their consciousness. What mattered more was maintaining in consciousness a self-respect that came from standing up for what you felt was right. We might rather insist on giving priority to our own chosen kind of consciousness. Stoic principles generally are consistent with a thanatalogical approach to life as opposed to the scientific discourse.

The physicalist and thanatologist simply experience existintg in two different worlds. For a physicalist, the free will implied in personal agency--being able to choose what to be conscious of--is prohibited by the universal rule of physical determinism. No way could physical behavior, such as the buying of a book, be driven by conscious experiences knowing about or caring about each other, such as knowing from past experiences in the course of travel that learning about architecture would enrich future conscious experiences. For reductionists, physical behaviors cannot be driven by qualia such as consciously anticipating future conscious experiences, those would have to be accounted for in round-about terms of corresponding events in brain chemistry. By contrast, for a thanatologist all the meaning in the world comes from how conscious selfs can drive behaviors to have effects on other conscious experiences. The reductionist world is like a flat picture someone tells you about projected on a screen on a distant planet, it has no living reality. It has nothing to say about how conscious experience develops in each of us in the course of our lives, it can provide no wisdom about how to enrich future conscious experiences. It literally means nothing.

The two discourses also differ crucially in how they regard time. In the scientific discourse the significance of science doesn’t change much as you age.  In the thanatological discourse time is a major element. In youth you study your own ways of being conscious so as judge what to make yourself conscious of in your present, in later life you enjoy conscious experiences enriched by all the initiatives undertaken by your younger self. On your deathbed you look back and savor how you managed conscious experiences over the course of your life, how well you exploited the capabilities evolved in us for managing mental events and for expressing them in the world around us. Life is a narrative about how through early experiences you discovered your own form of consciousness, about the conscious experiences you then initiated over the course of your life, and how successfully you brought a lifetime of conscious experience to a happy resolution on your deathbed. In this context science is an indifferent. You could create as rich a lifetime of conscious experiences in the time of Shakespeare as you can today, existence of particular technological conveniences or scientific discoveries are indifferents.

Thanatological considerations figure prominently in many belief systems. Much of popular Christianity revolved around what you had to do and think so as to merit entry into heaven after death. Folk psychology assumes personal agency: much of what people do is assumed to be what they consciously chose to do, and other people judge them on that basis. Works of literature usually describes characters as deciding what to do, and often imply judgment as to whether they have lived “good” lives, “good” meaning having made efforts to improve their own conscious experiences and those of other people.

Which qualifies as the better candidate for ultimate meaning? I see no contest. Thanatology is obviously the winner. It is about what we most directly experience, what matters most to all of us—conscious experiences throughout the course of our lives. Science can be no more than part of that. If we all decided to ignore science it would simply disappear. But we will care about our conscious experiences whether science exists or not.

Given that, let’s see how it influences our thinking about another controversial issue—how we evolved  All living creatures appear to dread death, so in some sense all of life is thanatologist. Yet today’s primary scientific theory of evolution is reductionist, built around a mechanism involving only purely physical processes. It seems wrongly situated in our world of shared meanings. Professional evolutionists complain that the public seems repelled by their scientific theory. In such a situation, they might look to locate themselves in the world of our shared meanings anew.  Today’s main alternative evolutionary theory, Lamarckism, does that, it assumes living creatures have some degree of personal agency, that the evolution of species is driven by decisions individual creatures make and habits they adopt. Why do scientists say that is wrong? Not because it isn’t true, not because it could only apply to us humans—Lamarck’s specialty was invertebrates--but because it contradicts reductionism. Reductionism has become what circularity of planetary orbits was for medieval astronomy, a principle more important than what it was meant to illuminate. If we were to come up with a theory of evolution today to account for all of human nature, including our ability to predict outcomes of events and act so as to bring about the outcome we favor, would our theory give greater weight to the universal experience of personal agency or to Comte’s insistence that all our theories be reductionist?

An essay into ontology

Let's dive into ontology. That’s arguments about what the world consists of. Here we ask questions like, is there just matter? Or is there both matter and mind? I like to compare “ontologies” in terms of kinds of processes. Are there only physical and chemical processes. Or are there in addition other kinds processes, found only in living creatures, that to some extent can defy the laws of physics.

Can we tell which of these worlds we actually live in? Not absolutely, it’s a matter of opinion, of personal judgment.

Here’s the critical issue that people give different answers to. What difference would it make if some processes could defy the laws of physics? Novelties would pop up that you couldn’t predict in terms of physical processes acting on prior events. Is that true of our world? That’s where opinions differ. What some people think are novelties other people dismiss as simply physical processes at work. I’m talking about nature: the evolution of species and how organisms develop from embryos to adults. Nowadays these are referred to together as “evo-devo.” So the question resolves into: Has evo-devo created novelties?

That seems a simple question. Let’s consider some examples. How about the appearance on Earth of the first living cell? How about that cell evolving into the far more complex kind of cell we find in our bodies? How about the evolution of a simple microbe, with a thousand or so genes, into elephants and giraffes with genes by the billions? Are these “genuine” novelties, or could you have predicted them from the action of the laws of physics alone?

I’m biased. To me there couldn’t be anything more novel, creative, less bound by the laws of physics, than the appearance over time on Earth of new kinds of living species and what happens during an organism’s development. However we define creativity, that has to be its ultimate expression. Whatever processes are responsible for evolution, they are by this definition creative. So in my ontology, there are in the world besides purely physical processes also creative processes responsible for evolution. That’s the source of any creativity we have, it’s a characteristic that evolved in us.

Arguing for the other ontology are writers of today’s biology textbooks. They insist nature (evo-devo) isn’t creative at all. It’s simply the result of purely physical processes—the mechanisms behind today’s evolutionary theory--given sufficient time to work their magic. That ontology, that all processes are purely physical, controls how evo-devo is taught in schools and expressed in public. We’re assured science has proved that nature is not creative. That’s actually not so. Science can’t yet measure creativity, it can’t pronounce on the issue one way or the other.

Now let’s come up for air. Are you creative? Of course you are. Then creativity is a property of the world you’re a part of. You’re simply one more instance of nature being creative. There, does that help you decide?

I came up separately with the treatment below. I shied away from trying to blend it into the essay above. The essay is about the issues, the treatment below is more about how to think about the issues. 

Arguments about free will resolve into problems of ontology, world view. Specifically, we’re not been able to articulate a distinction between purely physical matter and our experience of conscious thinking that we’re all satisfied by.

Descartes distinguished between matter of all kinds, including everything about all other living creatures, and the human soul which for him came defined by a thousand years of theology. We’ve a much clearer idea of matter than he had but we’re fuzzy about what he referred to as “soul.” We’ve stripped it of its theological connections and secularized it to “conscious mind” but we’ve not yet figured out how it most significantly differs from matter.

I propose a better distinction is between purely physical non-living matter, and life. The issue then is, is the universe such that the source of what we refer to consciousness and free will is us being evolved living creatures?

This distinction changes the ground for discussion. It’s no longer philosophy, it’s primarily biology. More specifically the evo/devo of consciousness. What is conscious experience, as an evolved and inherited biological property? And what must the universe be like for it to support that kind of property? The answer to that may drive changes in ontology. Literally, conscious experience may change the world as we know it.

I think what we all start from is our sense that, in the course of our conscious experiences, we can arrive at decisions through non-physical processes that we tell our bodies to execute physically, and that as a result they do so. We experience our physical bodies behaving as if driven by our conscious decision-making.

This may be explored by distinguishing between what a purely physical brain is capable of, and what’s being claimed for consciousness. But I think that’s a dead end. There’s no aspect of consciousness I can’t make my brain testify to by writing, a physical action, proving to my satisfaction that my brain is privy to everything I can think, including all my decisions. If I can carry out actions through non-physical processes that’s a property of my body-and-consciousness operating as one. The necessary distinction should then be drawn between the properties of that combination, and the purely physical world in which all processes obey the laws of physics.

What do I mean by non-physical processes that defy the laws of physics? Suppose I think up a performance consisting of a series of actions that could not occur by chance in a purely physical universe in a billion billion years, I write it down and then perform it--a conjunction of transcription of conscious decision and physical event with essentially zero probability in a purely physical world--that would be a property of my body-mind combination. Not unlikely enough? Then I’ll come up with another such performance. And another. Eventually, surely, it becomes implausible that my performances could be driven by physical processes acting on past events in line with the laws of physics

In making that point I drew on the language of determinism and probability. What I raised was an instance of novelty of a degree hard to account for in terms of physical determinism. But I think that’s another dead end. I propose we talk about novelty in terms of how we experience it, as creativity. And creativity as a biological property, in terms of how it evolved and gets inherited. And what that tells us about the universe we live in—ontology.

Merely saying, “the evo-devo of conscious creativity” implies that the world includes processes capable to transacting in terms of conscious creativity. Any theory that ignores that possibility, doesm't consider it, is clearly inadequate. That includes the modern synthesis, today's theory of evolution.

This blog item was partly inspired by an email correspondence with Roger Smith, author of "Do I believe in free will?" published in January 2014 but recently posted at academia.edu where I came across it.

I don't think free will is an empirical issue but a conceptual one (on which, certainly, hinges how to conceptualize ethical questions). Thus, I don't think acceptance of Darwinism or not logically affects the question, though to be sure many people may feel that Darwinism, in our societies, enforces determinism. I think natural science thinking is in its conceptual form deterministic. But I believe there are other forms of understanding, and in these other forms free will is viable (and is in fact believed in certain dimensions of society, eg, the legal system).

What I found notable here is that he says, "many people may feel that Darwinism, in our societies, enforces determinism. I think natural science thinking is in its conceptual form deterministic" But despite finding the issue of free will impacted by empirical entities like science and Darwinian evolution he starts out saying, to me it seems in contradiction: "I don't think free will is an empirical issue but a conceptual one (on which, certainly, hinges how to conceptualize ethical questions). Thus, I don't think acceptance of Darwinism or not logically affects the question."

This helps me understand where I stand. For me free will is an empirical. issue. It impacts self esteem and meaning in life. These are painfully involved in our epidemics of depression and anxiety, suicide and opioid abuse, For me, those are empirical isssues demanding attention, and if our philosophers won't engage with them they are shirking their responsibility.

A physicalist or a dualist theory of evolution? Let's negotiate.

As someone who in his early manhood was a physicalist, I know how it feels, that rapture of seeing everything as purely physical, even ourselves, even how all of nature evolved. But in middle age I settled for the common-sense view of ourselves as “volitional” creatures. So now I’d prefer a theory of evolution in accordance with common-sense dualism. We can account for evolution with either a physicalist or a dualist theory, the choice is really one of temperament. But when the temperamental divide is as wide as that between physicalists and dualists it’s hard to compromise. So I propose we negotiate. Like this:

If you’re an evolutionist in a public institution may I, as a representative of the lay public, call on you for professional service?

(If no, goodbye.) If yes, great. On behalf of the lay public I accept that the evidence we evolved is overwhelming. Now we want an origin story to help us understand what that implies about human nature. Would you agree to come up with some evolutionary theories we can select among? We’ll expect you to take into account the traditions we already subscribe to, either accounting for how they evolved or giving us suitable alternatives. Is that agreeable?

(If no, that’s OK, we’ll come up with something ourselves. We know almost four out of five of you are physicalists so of course you prefer physicalist accounts of natural phenomena. But we’re mostly mind-matter dualists and we wanted you to put our wishes before yours. But we realized that might be too much to ask. So goodbye.)

If yes, good. Of course, we’ll expect you to come up with theories accounting for the evolution not only of our physical bodies and behaviors but also of our volition--our conscious experience, our ability to consciously direct our behaviors, and our creativity, which are as real to us as our bodies. You will provide this service?

I've had people complain about this approach by saying you can't vote the truth. But we can, and we do. Minority views are quite often suppressed. Temple Grandin abides by decisions she doesn't understand arrived at by the non-autistic majority around her. Desire for child porn is "true" for those with the desire but is forbidden for the greater good--the same case was made against eugenics, and could be made against anything tending to induce fatalism. The mere fact that physicalism is inscrutable to the majority of people does not make it true.

Can physicalists be persuaded (paid?) to come up with a dualist theory of evolution as a public service? Or are they absolutely compelled to paint human origins in terms of their own passion for physics?

Free will: science vs humanities

Zombies don’t have free will. Any one zombie would know that about itself, that it doesn’t have free will. But how could it tell whether other zombies had free will? What questions would it have to ask them, what experiments would it have to perform on them, to find out?

Actually, this is part of a Turing Test. We’ve set up two rooms, one with zombies in it, and a second one with scientists. We’ve asked both groups the same question—do the members of your group have free will. The test is, from the groups’ conversations, can we tell which is the one consisting of zombies?

Actually, no, this is not a Turing test, there aren’t any zombies, there’s just the scientists, part of a $4.4 million Templeton Foundation four-year project titled “Big Questions in Free Will.” We can eavesdrop on their conversation in “FREE: Why Science hasn’t Disproved Free Will,” a report on the project for the general reader by the project director, Alfred R. Mele, William H. and Lucyle T. Werkmeister Professor of Philosophy at Florida State University.

But if this were the Turing Test, it would be hard to tell the scientists from the zombies. Only once does anyone acknowledge having conscious experience—Mele himself: “I like extra legroom on planes. So right after I buy a coach ticket online, I check the airline website for an exit row seat — first on the aisle and then next to a window. If I find a seat I like, I snatch it up. I do all this consciously.” But everyone else in the book seems to be a zombie, without free will, and eager to show that none of the other zombies have free will either. “Some people say that free will is an illusion. This is a book about scientific experiments that are supposed to prove these people right,” says Mele.

So who else is there in the world, besides zombies and scientists? There’s artists, and members of the humanities. Let’s make up a group of those people. Now we’ve a triad of three groups. Divide that triad into two, between the two groups that are most similar and the one that’s most different. I’ve no doubt, the one’s that’s most different would be the group of artists and members of the humanities. If the scientists represent anyone, they represent not those of us in the arts, but zombies. They’re obsessed with whether or not other people have free will, with trying to identify it from the outside. And that goes for almost everything that gets published on the subject of free will. What free will means to artists and members of the humanities goes unacknowledged.

What free will means to us is, it’s something we each experience, as a vital part of ourselves. We take for granted that other people experience that too. We don’t need to prove they do, we know it. That’s just how human beings are. Why would anyone feel the need to prove it! Unless, like zombies, they didn’t experience it themselves.

I appreciate that, for many scientists, absence of experimental evidence for consciousness and free will means they can’t have physical reality. But, for me, to therefore dismiss consciousness and free will as illusions verges on insanity. Deprive me of consciousness and I could not register anything—almost by definition I can’t register the meaning of something if I’m not conscious of it. So life would be meaningless, I’d become a zombie. But restore consciousness, and life is meaningful again. And much of that meaning is about how I could improve my conscious experience if I did such-and-such. That’s free will. It’s what we do for the prospect of improved future conscious experiences. And from experiencing those improvements we know free will can express itself in the necessary physical behavior. For us free will is a part of our experience, more real than reports of our senses or the findings of science. There is almost no overlap between what consciousness and free will mean to us, and the quibbles of scientists over whether or not they can demonstrate free will in someone else’s behavior by one or another experiment.

Need the humanities respond to the physicalist attack on free will? I think so, to stem the spread of a sickly determinism. And that’s what I encourage in maintaining this site. Response could take the form of asking scientists to identify in a purely physical world any parallel to their being able to ask a question, hold in mind two alternative hypotheses, design equipment around experimental requirements, judge their results, even to apply reason. I believe scientists avail themselves of these operations without acknowledging they can arise only in consciousness, even as the same scientists claim their experiments show consciousness to be an illusion.


Minimal meme: "I’ve a good mind to give up Darwinism for."

I was challenged to say what I mean in a few words. The fewest I could come up with, nine, is the heading above. Here it is a little less condensed:

I’ve a mind good enough to give up Darwinism for.

Here, expanded further:

Because Darwinists can’t account for mind evolving they say it’s merely brain; I value mind too much to accept that.

In other words:

Because quality of conscious experience is my top priority I can’t accept a chemicals-in-a-test–tube origin story like Darwinism.

In more abstract terms:

Being driven by the evidence of my senses to be a dualist I can’t accept a purely physicalist origin story like Darwinism.

Seen from a different viewpoint:

Since what we expect of ourselves is bound to be shaped by the origin story we embrace, I favor origin stories that emphasize the value of conscious experience over alternatives such as Darwinism.


Our choice of origin story should be driven more by the quality of conscious experience it  accommodates than by how well it conforms to current physics.

Here I think lies the basis for controversy over Darwinism;

Darwinists, giving priority to physics, fail to appreciate how much more priority others give to conscious experience, that Darwinism slights.

Here lies a reason for us to endorse two origin stories. Darwinists should call off the bulldogs when rivals appear, allowing for a future reconciliation of competing theories we cannot today imagine.