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How Did “Wanting” Things Emerge?

Agency (“wanting” or “deciding” things) is as hard a problem in physics as consciousness

Rocks don’t resist becoming sand but plants resist, by various strategies, becoming insect food. Animals, of course, try to stay alive and many of them, like the octopus, show unexpected intelligence in doing so.

We humans take “wanting” things to extremes. Some of us might spend a lot of time thinking about matters entirely unrelated to survival, like whether Captain Picard ages well in the new Star Trek knockoff.

Captain Picard is a composite invention, an abstraction for which ageing is a mere character concept discussed at meetings. Never mind, some of us might want that abstraction to be portrayed in a certain way. All life forms seem to need and want things; the most intelligent ones want more complex and less obviously necessary things.

At New Scientist, we are told that wanting things is a “superpower” that physics can’t explain:

At its simplest, agency is relatively easy to define. “It is just the notion that certain systems in the world have intentional states, desires to bring stuff about,” says philosopher Eleanor Knox at King’s College London. “We’re clearly systems like that.”

Richard Webb, “Your decision-making ability is a superpower physics can’t explain” at New Scientist (February 12, 2020, (paywall )

But what else has agency and what does having agency mean? Physicist Sean Carroll at the California Institute of Technology poses the dilemma for New Scientist:

“We see agents that make choices and exert a causal influence on what happens in the world, and then science comes along and says, ‘You’re actually a bunch of particles or atoms and you’re just obeying differential equations’,” says Carroll. “What we want to figure out is how those things can both be true at the same time.”

Richard Webb, “Your decision-making ability is a superpower physics can’t explain” at New Scientist (February 12, 2020, (paywall )

Carroll thinks that every decision any entity makes sparks alternative universes. Many observers prefer to assume, more simply, that agency can somehow arise from matter over time (emergence). That sounds simple enough in principle. But the main problem with emergence is the difficulty of seeing how a natural entity can produce another entity with an altogether different nature from itself, as Michael Egnor explains:

The thing is, with the philosophy of mind, if the mind is an emergent property of the brain, it is ontologically completely different. That is, there are no properties of the mind that have any overlap with the properties of brain. Thought and matter are not similar in any way. Matter has extension in space and mass; thoughts have no extension in space and no mass. Thoughts have emotional states; matter doesn’t have emotional states, just matter. So it’s not clear that you can get an emergent property when there is no connection whatsoever between that property and the thing it supposedly emerges from.

News, “Why the mind cannot just emerge from the brain” at Mind Matters News

For example, suppose a dog produces a puppy who can be shown to be a mathematical genius. Analysis of canine genetics might help us account for any number of unusual puppies—but not that one. In such a case, we could not use emergence as a magic wand. And that is not an impossible scenario; it is precisely what happened with human intelligence.

Philosopher Bernardo Kastrup, arguing against a simple “emergence” theory, doesn’t see how things like consciousness can be measured the way conventional entities of mass and energy are measured: “There is something it feels like to see the colour red, which is not captured by merely noting the frequency of red light. If we were to tell Helen Keller that red is an oscillation of approximately 4.3*1014 cycles per second, she would still not know what it feels like to see red.”

Agency poses the same sort of problem as Kastrup raises with consciousness: We could, perhaps, measure the intent (agency) of a real estate agent to sell a house and of the prospective buyer to defer the decision but we may find ourselves developing new metrics. And how do we measure the agency of a bench scientist intent on making a new discovery?

We do have some clues, of course. Carlo Rovelli observed in New Scientist that agency is time-oriented. Unlike laws of physics, it affects the future, not the past. And cosmologist Paul Davies points out that living things, unlike non-living things, manipulate information.

But wait. Information is measured in entirely different ways from matter and energy. Walter Bradley Center director Robert J. Marks likes to ask, what is the difference in mass or energy between a CD full of information versus an empty one? For that matter, what is the difference between the weight of critical information on the CD and of useless information? Or between a good idea and a bad one?

New Scientist tells us that others are scratching around the same territory. But it seems as if they have set themselves an apparently impossible goal, as expressed by philosopher Jenann Ismael at Columbia University:

In the end, success will be a naturalistic understanding of human beings that seems to answer to our own conception of who and what we are, in ways that support things that matter about us, like moral responsibility and our sense that when we’re making a decision, that decision is playing an indelible and pivotal role in what we do,” says Ismael.

Richard Webb, “Your decision-making ability is a superpower physics can’t explain” at New Scientist (February 12, 2020, (paywall)

But again, wait. A naturalistic understanding of the human beings means that we are merely evolved apes whose behavior can be accurately predicted by natural selection acting on random mutation so as to randomly result in the survival of our species. That’s what naturalism is. And all it can be.

The problems we are discussing arise because naturalism simply does not make sense any more. Whatever explanation satisfies will not be a form of naturalism. But we can hardly blame New Scientist for trying to save the naturalism. It’s the business they’re in.

Further reading on the idea that the human mind simply emerged from a randomly complex brain:

Why the mind cannot just emerge from the brain. The mind cannot emerge from the brain if the two have no qualities in common. (Michael Egnor)


Bernardo Kastrup: Consciousness cannot have evolved. How many joules of consciousness would make you a human instead of a chimpanzee? How many more joules of consciousness would make you a genius?

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How Did “Wanting” Things Emerge?