The topic of this blog post is reductionism. Although I could currently lose some weight reducing, I am going to write about philosophical reductionism. One of the questions I will try to determine is could I be reduced to atomic and subatomic particles and the four fundamental forces of universe? Another is how to deal with emergent phenomena? Then there are questions that focus around the level of explanation being sought. Other questions are bound to pop up as well.
[This entire post assumes materialism. I do not intend on defending this position right now, but I plan to in a future post]
According to modern physics the world is a combination of particles or sub-particles interacting with each other via other particles, such as photons, that mediate the four known forces in the universe. Particles that stand alone (not made up of sub-particles) are the familiar electron, the muon, and the tau; these are called fermions. Each of these have an associated neutrino with them. All other particles are made up of quarks, such as the proton and the neutron (together they are known as nucleons). There are others, more exotic and much shorter-lived, while the nucleons are for the most part very long-lived particles that make up the nucleus of all atoms. Both are called baryons. Neutrons do decay into a proton, electron, and an antineutrino (oh, all particles have an antiparticle associated with them too), while the proton is not known to decay via any experiment that has been conducted to date, although some do theorize that they do.
The four forces that control all the action we see in the universe are gravity, electromagnetism, the weak nuclear force, and the strong nuclear force. Each of these as mentioned are mediated via specific particles. Electromagnetism are mediated via the photon. The weak nuclear force is mediated via W and Z bosons. The strong nuclear force is mediated via gluons. Finally, gravity is hypothesized to be mediated via the graviton. To date no gravitons have been detected. However, gravitational waves have been detected, and all other known particles are wavy and discrete, so this provides some evidence that gravitons exist beyond theory.
The electromagnetic and the nuclear forces can also be considered as fields. I am not super familiar with quantum fields, but they allow for a far better description of what in reality may be going on. The material particles under this interpretation are excitations of the fields in which they reside. There is also a field known as the Higgs field. This field is what responsible for mass in the universe. Until fairly recently this was another hypothesized entity. But, with the detection of the Higgs boson, this field is now substantiated. I mention fields only to be more up to date to more modern approaches to physics. I am more familiar with quantum mechanics, though.
For the purposes of reducing myself, and I could be wrong, I do not think it matters whether I talk of particles and forces or fields and excitations. Reductionism is the “practice of describing or explaining a complex (esp. mental, social, or biological) phenomenon in terms of relatively simple or fundamental concepts, especially when this is said to provide a sufficient description or explanation; belief in or advocacy of such an approach.”¹ This will be my approach regardless of whether I talk of particles and forces (my approach) or quantum fields and excitations within them. So let me start reducing with no time to spare.
If you start with particles (atomic and subatomic) and the forces, the next level up would be the atomic nucleus. When electrons are capture by the nucleus you wind up with atoms. Once atoms are formed the next level up is the field of chemistry. Chemistry includes the actions of molecules, polymers (chains of molecules or atoms), crystals (have their own field of crystology), or organic compounds (those that contain carbon). The next step up as far as humans are concerned is biology. Biology concerns the molecules that are of use to make living things and viruses (not all define them as living). It also concerns the functioning of cells and organs (including the brain) in higher (not in the sense of superior) life forms. Once you have animals that have behavior the field is called ethnology or psychology in humans (the study of mind). Of course, behavior and all thoughts and feelings are controlled by the brain, so this would be a step down from psychology to neuroscience.
And there is cosmic reductionism. In reverse like the human mind again you start with particles and forces; they combine to make atoms; which combine to make the stars and planets, which are group into galaxies; and then you have clusters of galaxies, and finally you wind up with the universe as a whole, or if there is a multiverse, multiverses would be tops. The study of the universe is called cosmology, hence the term “cosmic reductionism.” So, its use has no woo-woo-ness to it like a cosmic mind or something like that.
Now, I have built up the human mind and the universe from the smallest of objects. Reductionism is usually taken to be the reverse of my procedure above. So, the reduction would go from larger objects to smaller objects, the more complex to the less complex, or the less fundamental to the more fundamental. So, my mind bone (psychology) is connected to the brain bone (neuroscience), the brain bone is connected to the biology bone, the biology is connected to the chemistry bone, the chemistry bone is connected to the atomic bone, the atomic bone is connected to the quantum bone, them are the words of reductionism.
Currently, there are major difficulties in reducing the mind bone to the quantum bone. The biggest step is the first, going from the mind bone to the brain bone. Neuroscience has no overall picture as to how the human mind is produced by the brain. Of course, there is some progress being made in what the brain is doing, and certainly there will be more in the future. Emotions are partly understood, and sensory production is understood to a further extent. There is some progress in memory and structural information on language processing and production, and thought itself is known to reside mostly in the prefrontal cortex. So, the mind bone cannot at this time be connected to the brain bone.
There is great hope in the subfield of philosophy of mind called eliminative materialism that this reduction can occur. Matter of fact, its supporters whole theory is based on this hope. If mind to brain reductionism is not possible eliminative materialism would be false. Eliminative materialism claims that folk psychology is false and the mind is nothing but the brain and its functioning.* I would go so far as to say it eliminates the mind altogether.
I am in sympathy with eliminative materialism because of its reductionist program. But, if the program would be successful, would folk psychology^ cease to exist as some supporters claim? Are we not just zombies then? “Zombies in philosophy are imaginary creatures designed to illuminate problems about consciousness and its relation to the physical world. Unlike those in films or witchcraft, they are exactly like us in all physical respects but without conscious experiences: by definition there is ‘nothing it is like’ to be a zombie. Yet zombies behave just like us, and some even spend a lot of time discussing consciousness.”² Are we mindless creatures since consciousness to a large extent is the mind?
This last question, with our current understanding, would be answered in the negative. We have no complete reduction of mind to brain states. So, as of now we are not zombies and our minds have not been eliminated. But, what if the eliminative materialist program is successful? Does consciousness go away, since it is so connected with the mind. Something that is not conscious† cannot be considered to have a mind, or vice versa something without a mind cannot be conscious. If the program would be completed, I would say no to the second part of above sentence. I cannot see how a complete reduction of mind to brain would get rid of consciousness. Eliminative materialism would switch the explanation for why we think and act as we do, but would not get rid of the phenomenon of consciousness. In other words the desgarding of folk psychology would not get rid of our conscious experiences.
Does a successful eliminative materialism get rid of the mind? Yes, because mind is a term used in the theory of folk psychology because the mind is the site of all our intentions. We would only have brains and theirs states. We would not need folk psychology to talk about our thoughts and actions. We would talk like this: “My brain is doing . . .” However, would we really abandon folk psychology as a way to describe our thoughts? I think eventually we might, but for now with an uncompleted program we are stuck with folk psychology. It is really the only came in town. (Also, see level of explanation below.)
So, the first transition has not been done. What about the second one, the brain bone connected to the biology bone. I think this area is more understandable. We have a better idea of how neurons work via their chemical makeup and activity. We also know how they interact and form larger structures. We even understand something on how the brain develops from a zygote (fertilized egg). Are understanding is not complete, but we do know more on this level than the mind bone to brain bone.
What about the biology bone to the chemistry bone reduction? This is even more understood still. It comes down to atoms as ions combining to form molecules and the chemical interactions among them, such as the structure and actions of DNA (replication and the first step in protein synthesis). There are plenty of other chemicals, such as enzymes that make chemical interactions happen (or happen faster). Enzymes are not only used by the cells of the body, but any chemical that acts to connect or disconnect other chemicals. So, as we move down from bone to bone it seems the more we understand.
Then we have the chemical bone connected to the atomic bone, which leads, finally, to the atomic bone connected to the quantum bone. Actually, the atomic bone is the quantum bone. The only reason I use the atomic bone at all is that they are the components of chemistry, but atomic structure is mainly a quantum bone affair. So, the atom is made up out of a nucleus (made of neutrons and protons) and electrons picturesquely orbiting around the nucleus. I say picturesquely because this is not really correct. It is more like electrons fuzzing about the nucleus. The electrons have no determinate position or momentum (mass times velocity as a vector quantity – length times direction). While electrons are fundamental (no further reduction is possible) particles, the protons and neutrons are made up of quarks.
I have not talked about the four forces and how they figure into reductionism. As far as the mind bone connected down to the atomic bone it is mainly an electromagnetic affair. It is only within the atom that the weak and strong nuclear forces take control. You also find that Pauli’s exclusion principle‡ shows up, which is why electrons cannot occupy the same state, including position. Without this principle there would be no chemical molecules (or at least as we know them). Gravity is a force of its own, and affects all particles and their conglomerates, including photons that do not even have any mass. Gravity is actually less of force in that it is how things move within the fabric of space-time.** The mind bone to the brain bone connection is hardly affected by gravity, but is does hold the human body to the earth without the assistance of outside energy. So, the evolution of the brain is affected by gravity being confined to the surface of the earth at the time it evolved. For a full description you need both forces and particles.
Preliminarily, I accept reductionism as theoretically possible. There is nothing that proves it cannot be done. But, in comes emergent properties, like life from nonlife, mind from brain, society from individuals. A simple emergent property that is still not fully understand is how do you get the properties of water from the combination of two hydrogen and one oxygen. We know that they do produce it, but not how it gives us its liquid properties.
The most important emergent property to me, as far as making a reduction from my mind to particle and forces is the mind bone from the brain bone. In other words, can myself (or anyone) as a person with a mind(?) be reduced to the most fundamental elements in the universe, hence my title. Many claim that we will never be able to figure out how the brain produces mind. Mind here is self-consciousness, sensory perception (qualia, or what it feels like to see an apple, for instance), and intentions (beliefs, wants, etc.).
One argument is the brain is too complex and we ourselves being at the same level of complexity cannot understand it; it takes something of greater complexity to understand the complexity of the brain. This is just an assumption. We currently know no limits to human knowledge, David Deutsch argues that it is infinite. The only possible exception known currently is computational complexity, where it would take an almost infinite length of time to compute an answer, and there is no way to tell when a particular program will stop called the halting problem, which I do not think affects any reduction from mind to brain. So, I discount this type of argument.
Another argument is that what it is like to see something (qualia) cannot possibly be understood in physical terms. We might know how the brain produces qualia, but we can never explain how it feels. But, sensory information is physical. Photons impinging on the retina allows us to see; sound waves moving through the air to our ears causes us to hear; chemical molecules entering the nose gives us the perception of scent; chemical reactions on the tongue gives us the ability to taste; and touch is directly physical by pressure.
It just does not make good sense not to continue to explore how the brain gives us mind. We have no idea what future forms of investigation might lead to particular breakthroughs. Even the complexity of computation maybe beaten back. Computing power is continuing to grow exponentially, and there is also the possibility of building quantum computers, which can explore all possible outcomes at the same time of a computation. There is even fear that one could crack the prime factoring of large numbers used in computer security. One thing a quantum computer cannot do is solve a halting problem, since this is a logical condition, but as I said above I do not think it is an obstacle to reductionism. There are also connection machines, which can operate in parallel. It maybe possible to build parallel distributed processors (PDPs), which have already been used to solve some complex problems, although nothing like the brain has the capabilities to do. However, we still do not know what the future holds.
If eliminative materialism is correct, there is no mind to be emergent in the first place. Yes, we have consciousness, but that is different than the concept of mind. Mind can be defined as “That which thinks, reasons, perceives, wills, and feels.”³ These are all intentional acts. As such they do not exist, so neither does the mind. I think consciousness with qualia is a whole different concept than mind. It is real as real, as the mind is not. And, I claim that it could be a physical manifestation, and no problem for reductionism.
At this stage of the game I am holding on to the possibility that I can be reduced. I do not see emergent properties as an issue. Emergent might only mean we do not know yet. The brain whether mind is emergent or not must be responsible for the mind. There is no separate mind substance, or at least we have no evidence for it, if it would exist. But, we know the brain is physical. So, the mind must be able to be reduce to the brain, and I am getting smaller. And, if eliminative materialism is correct, there is no mind to reduce, so I start out smaller than I thought, when I had a mind.
I will not go into the other bone to bone reducing of other things besides the mind. Mainly, because they do not present as great a challenge as the mind does, and that it would take too much space in this post. But, I do want to move onto explanations and what their for.
I believe different explanations come in at the different levels of reduction. We want particular explanations for how things are at a particular level. So, there is a level of explanation for the quantum bone, the atomic bone, the chemistry bone, the biology bone, the brain bone, and the mind bone.
So, what kinds of explanations are we looking for at the quantum bone level? We want to explain what protons and neutrons are made of and how they are produced, as well as other particles, which contain a two quark combinations rather than the three of the nucleons. We want know the different properties of particles (e.g. charge, spin, mass, etc.). We want to understand the strong and weak nuclear forces and what role they play. We want to know how atoms of different types are produced. We also want to know what are the combined effects of gravity and the quantum size world, but this does not affect the reduction I am hoping to accomplish.
When we move up to the atomic bone, we went to know how to organize the different types of atoms. What are their masses; what are their properties. Are they metals or gases, and are they radioactive or not? What are their isotopes (atoms with the same number of protons, but a different number of neutrons than the standard form)?
And up we go to the chemistry bone. With this bone we want to know how atoms form molecules; how polymers are formed; and how these polymers react with each other. We want to know what the various chemicals are good for; whether or not they are toxic; and what are the reactions when combine with other chemicals. We want to know the chemical makeup of rocks, and planets, and stars. We want to know their quantity on the earth and in the universe.
The biology bone presents puzzles to figure out like how does DNA function and what is its code for making proteins. We want to know the structure of cells, the cell walls and the internal organelles. We want to know how proteins fold and how enzymes work. We want to know how a human develops from a fertilized egg and how we age and die. We also want to know how organs (e.g. heart, liver, stomach) functions. We want to know how to deal with viruses and bacteria, so we would like to know how they work.
Now comes the brain bone. This is the most important bone, and if the mind is not, than it is definitely the most important. We want to know how the brain develops in the womb, and the its continued development as a person grows. We want to know how neurons work, and we want the know how they communicate with other neurons via synapses and chemicals. We also want to know about brain structures and how they function. We want to know how the brain processes sensory information, how emotions arise, and how thought is produced. We want to know how brains store memory and how they produced language. And the biggie, we want to know how consciousness comes about, and what is it for.
Finally we have reached the mind bone. Assuming that the mind does exist, we want to understand our mind and understand the minds of other people, our fellow travelers in life. We want to know why we believe, desire, and intend. We want to know how language figures into our thoughts, and how we communicate to others. We want to know how we make decisions, how feelings affect them, and what free will is for. (I believe free will is a feeling, not a decision making action, and is for initiating action.)
The thing about explanations is we can answer them on their own terms within in particular boney area. We can study neuronic connections, and what neurons, or group of neurons, affect another neuron, or group of neurons. We do mix levels, which to me indicates reductionism is in play to explain the next bone up or down, such as the chemical reactions going on when a neuron fires. Or how the number of atomic electrons influences what other atoms it can react with. The last thing I will say about explanations is that even if we had an ultimate reductionistic explanation, we would still want all the other explanations as well.
Looking at reductionism again, the mind bone is the most difficult to explain, and to reduce it to the brain and its states. Consciousness and sensory perception seems so unphysical that some are led to ask: “How can the brain, whose workings I am not aware of, produce these real qualia?” Above I attempted to show that sensory perception may be entirely physical. But, to ask how it feels to do anything, I believe is nothing but our perceptions of our minds, which are physical, and our environment which is also physical. In other words, to ask what something feels like is a misplaced question. It is nothing but physical, and it feels exactly like it feels, so there is no question to be asked. [I admit this is pretty odd for a questioner to state]
We do not know enough about how the brain works, but our knowledge continues to grow. Will we ever have a cell to cell working understanding of the brain? I cannot rule this out. There have been lots of doubt whether we will understand something, and later on we do find that we understand it. And, if David Deutsch is correct that there might not be an end to our knowledge, which he certainly argues well for in his book, The Beginning of Infinity, it seems like almost a certainty that we will understand the brain and the mind if it is found to exist.
So, the brain and its attached mind, or just brain if there really is no mind, will one day be fully understood. While this could be mistaken, if it is to occur, the reduction of mind and self, since self is ultimately what we our talking about, is completely possible, down to the fundamental particles and forces that ultimately are the universe, maybe even in total. I tag on the last of the previous sentence because we may find that the universe contains more than we know; there maybe stuff beyond our event horizon (where light cannot have reached us). Matter of fact it is probably the situation we are in. Currently, we do not understand dark matter, that we know is there due to observations of galaxy rotations, and dark energy, which is known to exist because of observations of very distant supernovas of a certain type, and that these observations show that the expansion of the universe is speeding up.
Well, it looks like I could ultimately be reduced. And, just in time because I have gain a lot of weight during the holidays.
² Kirk, Robert, “Zombies”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2015 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2015/entries/zombies/>.
* At least Paul and Patricia Churchland’s version, which is the only version I am familiar with.
^ Folk psychology is the description of the mind and thought using our intentions. This is called intentionality in philosophy. Intentions are used in terms like “I think,” “I believe,” “I feel,” ” I want,” and others similar to these. Daniel C. Dennett is a big proponent of what he calls “the intentional stance,” and believes it is a valid tool to understanding behavior, even the behavior of other species, or more wide ranging to include the behavior of inanimate things.
† I believe that all mammals have some form of consciousness. I base this partially on the fact that all mammal brains are similar to ours; it is just that human beings have a larger brain to body ratio than most mammals, and the human brain has a larger prefrontal cortex. The human brain thus can produce a higher form of conscious. We can be aware of our thoughts. More on animal consciousness can be found in my posts – Is Baxter a People Too? and Does Baxter Compute?.
‡ Wolfgang Pauli was an Austrian physicist and is considered one of the founders of quantum physics. He was also known for his belligerent behavior at the lectures he attended. He is famous for the quote – “This isn’t right. This isn’t even wrong.” I am not certain about the origin of this quote, but it supposedly, according to several web pages, was a response to reading a follow physicist’s paper, not blurted out in the middle of a lecture as I remember hearing about it.
** space-time is curved by the mass of all things, but it takes massives objects to be noticed, and the speed of an object of a smaller mass if moving slow enough can curve around say like a planet around the sun, but if it is moving to slow it will be attracted to the surface of the larger object.