Determinism and Reciprocal Causation


An argument which proves too much, proves nothing.” ~M.M. Mangasarian

Carl Popper popularized the concept of scientific falsifiability. He asserted that a hypothesis, proposition, or theory is observably valid only if it is falsifiable. This criteria has become a fundamental test of scientific validity. Here’s Wikipedia’s definition:

Falsifiability or refutability of an assertion, hypothesis or theory is the logical possibility that it can be contradicted by an observation or the outcome of a physical experiment. That something is "falsifiable" does not mean it is false; rather, that if it is false, then some observation or experiment will produce a reproducible result that is in conflict with it.

Causality, as a proposition, states that every material effect must have an adequate antecedent cause. This is a falsifiable scientific principle, easily proven by observation or experiment.

Determinism, as a proposition, states that for everything that happens there are conditions such that, given them, nothing else could happen. This is a philosophical assertion that is not scientifically falsifiable for complex organisms, like humans (as opposed to inanimate objects): it can not be proven by observation or experiment. However, it isfalsifiable for inanimate objects.

This distinction between inanimate objects and animate beings is often overlooked (i.e. ignored) by hard determinists. They would have you believe that physics recognizes no causal difference between a brain and a rock: that both are just collections of atoms controlled by causality in exactly the same way. They, in effect, deny possession of their own minds and with foolish certainty sacrifice common sense to the altar of physics.

Knowledge is a relatively safe addiction; that is, until it becomes idolatry. Certainty is an illusion. It's not determinism versus free will; one or the other. That's a false dichotomy. There are other possibilities: ones you're likely to miss if you take the wrong approach. And hard determinists are taking the wrong approach. The fact is, physics is concerned with the inanimate universe. Biology is concerned with animate life. Physics deals with simple inanimate objects. Biology deals with complex animate organisms and beings. Physics is amazing and glamorous . . . but it's the wrong discipline to apply to the question of free will.

Eugene Wigner was a Hungarian-American theoretical physicist and mathematician. He won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1963 for “his contributions to the theory of the atomic nucleus and the elementary particles, particularly through the discovery and application of fundamental symmetry principles". Wigner is important for having laid the foundation for the theory of symmetries in quantum mechanics as well as for his research into the structure of the atomic nucleus. Wigner is also important for his work in pure mathematics, having authored a number of theorems.

In his famous and thought-provoking essay, “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences”, Wigner mentioned the inanimate nature of physics 5 times:

  1. “The physicist is interested in discovering the laws of inanimate nature.”
  2. “However, the point which is most significant in the present context is that all these laws of nature contain, in even their remotest consequences, only a small part of our knowledge of the inanimate world.”
  3. “It should be mentioned, for the sake of accuracy, that we discovered about thirty years ago that even the conditional statements cannot be entirely precise: that the conditional statements are probability laws which enable us only to place intelligent bets on future properties of the inanimate world, based on the knowledge of the present state.”
  4. “It surely is not a "necessity of thought" and it should not be necessary, in order to prove this, to point to the fact that it applies only to a very small part of our knowledge of the inanimate world.”
  5. “A much more difficult and confusing situation would arise if we could, some day, establish a theory of the phenomena of consciousness, or of biology, which would be as coherent and convincing as our present theories of the inanimate world.”

Note, in particular, that last one (#5). The possibility of understanding the many phenomena of life is a far-off dream and far from assured compared to the progress we've already made in physics. Biology deals with animate, phenomenal, complex systems. Physics (everything else) deals with inanimate, physical, matter/energy . . . not because of some arbitrary classification but because they are fundamentally divergent.

The difference between physics and biology is an important one. Any single cell in your body (of which there are over 200 kinds) includes more processes and performs more functions than any single inanimate object in the universe. Furthermore, our bodies contain more of these cells than The Milky Way contains stars -- and that doesn't even take bacteria into consideration. We are complex systems of complex systems. Animate beings (most notably, humans) are unlike anything else in the universe and dwarfs the inanimate universe in complexity.

Reciprocal causation (a.k.a. feedback) is a fundamental principle of biology found in many processes such as epigenetics and neurophysiology. With reciprocal causation, an action is both cause and effect (Richard C. Francis, Epigenetics, page 124). It is not limited to biological phenomena and, contrary to intuition, is not a violation of causality. Reciprocal causation (I’ll use the word, feedback, from here on out) is central to complex systems and their emergent phenomena such as consciousness and life itself.

Here’s how Wikipedia defines feedback:

Feedback is a process in which information about the past or the present influences the same phenomenon in the present or future. As part of a chain of cause-and-effect that forms a circuit or loop, the event is said to "feed back" into itself. Ramaprasad (1983) defines feedback generally as "information about the gap between the actual level and the reference level of a system parameter which is used to alter the gap in some way", emphasizing that the information by itself is not feedback unless translated into action.

Conscious intelligence is not “all in the brain” – it’s an amalgam of feedback between 3 components: the brain, sensory organs and environment. If you never had any one of these 3 components, you could never develop consciousness or intelligence.

Triadic reciprocal causationis a term introduced by Albert Bandura to refer to the mutual influence of feedback between three sets of factors: personal (e.g., cognitive, affective and biological events), the environment and behavior. He groups the brain and sense organs under “personal factors” (which also include experience and genetics) but the interplay between brain, sensory organs and the environment are still maintained. Because of triadic feedback, our behavior influences the environment, dynamically altering it – as it alters us – in a perpetual feedback loop.

How accurately any of this reflects reality is a matter of opinion. We simply don’t know enough about the brain to understand even simple processes – much less complex ones like self-aware intelligence or free will. What it suggests to me is that trying to explain biological processes with physics is like trying to observe the moon with a microscope. You need the whole picture: not a narrow focus. The material reductionism of physics is the wrong approach to a complex system; and the human brain is the most complex system in the universe. A neuron may be amenable to physics but a brain is not. Physics can certainly make contributions to neuroscience but, overall, the brain and its attendant phenomena are the purview of biology, not physics.

What I doknow is that the central role of feedback, in life, introduces myriad opportunities for the emergence of amazing phenomena unlike anything else in the inanimate universe: abiogenesis, reproduction, regeneration, replication, respiration, digestion, circulatory and other autonomous systems, motility, reflexes, instincts, epigenetics, sensory perception, symbiosis, immunology, evolution, consciousness, intelligence and, yes, free will.

Just because the brain is deterministic at the microscopic scales of physics does not mean it must also be so at macroscopic scales. It's not surprising that the potential for emergent phenomena driven by dynamic feedback systems are so easily missed (or dismissed) by the physicist’s narrow focus – a case of not noticing the forest for the trees. Emergent phenomena is a fact of nature -- life itself is a an emergent phenomena -- and the feedback-rich systems of the brain are fertile grounds for emergent phenomena like consciousness, intelligence and imagination: why not also free will (choice)?

The hard determinist’s insistence that free will violates causality and/or determinism is a false dichotomy stemming from the misapplication of physics to biological processes. There are other possibilities. I think the dynamic process of intelligent feedback produces reciprocal causation and enables choice by making our thoughts both cause and effect. Reciprocal causation, is a non-linear mode of causality in which an action can be both a cause and an effect: a dynamic feedback loop that feeds off of itself, like Uroboros: the ancient Egyptian mythological serpent, swallowing its own tail. Such a process is ripe for producing the emergent phenomenon of free will, despite the false dichotomies of physical reductionists who reduce thought to neuronal activity.

If you make the scientifically unfalsifiable claim that free will is impossible because brain activity is causally deterministic at microscopic scales (molecular or neuronal), then your linear thinking is really painting yourself into a corner because ALL brain activity (like memory and reason) are causally deterministic at microscopic scales. If you thus consider free will impossible, then so is reason. And if reason is impossible, how do you know anything at all? That’s just nuts. Remember, an argument which proves too much, proves nothing. I’m suspicious of, and dissatisfied with, any scientifically unfalsifiable claim – particularly one that talks me out of possession of my own mind.

It is with feedback that we are self-aware. Feedback provides context. Feedback informs our decisions. Consciousness and intelligence are impossible without mental feedback. We may not yet be able to prove it but I think reciprocal causation offers plenty of potential for free will to emerge from intelligent feedback – just as surely as consciousness and intelligence do. I mean, it seems like a minor feat compared to conscious intelligence. We are self-determined and responsible for our actions. We are far from puppets on strings.


© Copyright 2012



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Replies to This Discussion

Thanks for this; I think it takes me to a higher level of understanding.

The material reductionism of physics is the wrong approach to a complex system; and the human brain is the most complex system in the universe. A neuron may be amenable to physics but a brain is not. Physics can certainly make contributions to neuroscience but, overall, the brain and its attendant phenomena are the purview of biology, not physics.

I think that eventually it may be possible to apply physics to these complex questions; so I wouldn't say it's always the wrong approach, but it is (and probably always will be) a much less efficient way to describe and understand animate behavior. I see these disciplines hierarchically, such that physics describes reality at the lowest, most detailed level possible, while a list of higher and higher levels of generalization and understanding might go like: chemistry, biology, neurology, and then (at present) less scientific disciplines like psychiatry, sociology, and even philosophy. E.g. we could say that the physics of cosmology started partly with the philosophy (as ridiculous as it is) that it's "turtles all the way down", or that reality is all about earth, sky, fire and water (and similar).

I believe Daniel Dennett described free will not so much in terms of a separate entity apart from the brain, but (something like) in higher level terms of what behavior (and even what decision making) is possible, based on reality and the perception of reality. (I'm really paraphrasing according to my memory here and I don't mind being corrected.) This may be another way to view the role of "feedback" in determinism, in the sense that one can only behave in ways that are possible in reality and based on one's personal perception of that reality.

(Please don't mind me if I'm not saying much here! Could be I'm just speaking my new thoughts out loud, and I'm not sure yet how much sense it really makes, er, at the higher, social level of me trying to communicate with my readers.)

The hard determinist’s insistence that free will violates causality and/or determinism is a false dichotomy stemming from the misapplication of physics to biological processes.

I think that the most significant reason why the debate about free will is important is because it's rooted in the argument about the existence of soul, spirit, etc. as a separate (ala supernatural) entity. Acceptance of the supernatural (e.g. God) makes it easy for people to assume that they have an eternal soul that will never die. This is where the huge difference is between how science describes ego (or personal existence) in the physical brain versus how ego (or soul) exists separately (i.e. in duality) from any scientifically described, physical brain and reality.

I think that the absolute, all or nothing assertion that a soul-based self exists outside the physical realm leads to a pretty absolute, restricted definition of Free Will. On the other hand, I'll bet that the scientific definition of Free Will (if it ever actually comes to be) will never be absolute, but will always be dynamic (and is currently merely philosophical), i.e. it's not yet (and may never actually become) a truly, scientifically described phenomenon.

The hard determinist’s insistence that free will violates causality and/or determinism is a false dichotomy stemming from the misapplication of physics to biological processes.

I like this explanation of the level of complexity of a discussion of Free Will. It is clearly a lot more scientifically inquisitive (even if still largely philosophical), compared to the absolute, no-brainer definition of Free Will by dualists/super-naturalists. For the record, I currently believe that Free Will is an illusion but seems to exist and feels like it exists... which is good enough for me! It's scientifically undefinable in the same sense that one divided by zero is undefinable. The question of Free Will itself is just not yet (and perhaps never will be) a valid, scientific question.

No one has actually defined Free Will in scientific terms, or how to measure it yet. Nor reason, for that matter.

And finally (sorry, guess I'm still speaking out loud here), I think our eventually-agreed-upon definition of these things like soul and free will, even if unscientific, may become more important if/when we're able to create artificial intelligence, or if some rogue organization or country starts messing with human genetics in ways that cause different kinds of intelligence and consciousness, and what kinds of animated agents and organisms we learn to create deserve a legal "right to life", and so on. (Oh no, don't get me started!)

Hey Pope Paul,

Thanks for your considered reply. There's been a lot of interest in free will lately and a lot of books about it too. I'm afraid free will has been taking a beating but I obviously disagree. I see plenty of potential for free will.

Have you read much on Interbehaviorism?  Sounds like you might find it interesting.

EJOBA Article on Behaviorism and Interbehaviorism and Science - not a bad article to introduce the topics

No, Colleen, I haven't . . . but I'm checking out that link right now . . .

I see that the article is mostly concerned with delineating exactly what should constitute behavior science. There's even some question if the discipline will survive in its current form. I notice that behaviorism is also concerned with avoiding reductionism (as I am, with free will).

Although I'm infatuated with the subject of free will, I try (intentionally) to avoid philosophy, psychology, behaviorism, physics, etc., as much as possible and base my argument on common knowledge. I want to appeal to what people understand and experience personally.

Yes the article does concern itself with the field and branches of the field, etc.  I couldn't find one that just focused on a good description of interbehaviorism (other than some books that I have).  In any case, I mentioned it because it does talk a lot about "the feedback loop" that you mention.  The environment causing us to behave and us changing the environment.

Hi Colleen,

That similarity IS a key one, isn't it? Cause and effect loses it usual meaning in such a loop. That, to me, is the likeliest place for free will to arise. Causality, in the inanimate universe, is normally linear. But with conscious intelligence, memory retains the past while imagination plays out future scenarios. Causality faces influences not possible with inanimate matter. Conscious intelligence INTERACTS with causality and this produces phenomena that can't be realized by mere REACTION to causality (as is the case with inanimate matter).

It's confounding how science recognizes human consciousness and intelligence yet seems hesitant to acknowledge free will. If the human brain can produce intelligence, shouldn't free will (choice) be a part of that? How can intelligence exist without choice?

I didn't really want to get too much into this because a) this seems to be a group for those who really believe in free will and b) I can see that you're far more interested in this topic than me and I find that inspiring and wonderful, c) I know that the personal experience of "free will" can be quite powerful, and d) I love that you recognize the dynamic nature of behavior.  I do, however, disagree on several points, and at this point feel that it's appropriate to respond to your seeming frustration with science. 

To me, free will is a concept that we perhaps consciously experience, but it is not it's own power or force.  It cannot be seen or measured.  As a scientist (and I am but one), I fear that a complete and total embrace of free will as its own force is no better than the embrace of a god as the cause of events in your life.  The danger here is that we stop searching because someone labeled an observation or experience.  I find that interbehaviorism, while there is more to know and discover, provides a nice theoretical model for this "feedback loop" that is consistent with what we do know of behavior on a smaller scale without imagining or inventing something extra.  This to me is more parsimonious, and it keeps our science in the realm of what can be seen and measured.  My other fear is the general sense that anyone can make any decision in any situation.  Because of "the loop," we can only do what we know to do in those circumstances.  I, therefore, find that free will, if it exists as a separate force at all, can never be equal.  We do not all have the same histories nor do we have the same behavioral repertoires.  In addition, we do not all have the same information and even if we did we would all deal with that information in different ways based on our behavioral histories.  This then begs the question of just how free this free will is. 

Science cannot study free will, because to do so would be no better than tooth fairy science.  It's bad science to go out and study how something works (especially when there's a ton of disagreement in terms of how to operationally define that something) when you have no proof that it exists in the first place.  I'm all for people thinking outside of the box and pushing us to find new ways to measure things we never imagined existed, but I choose to remain skeptical and always searching until there is more substantial, direct evidence.

Side Note: I understand that your definition of free will is likely different than mine, and that might be where we find disagreements.  The above view is completely based on my experience as a behaviorist; I measure and change behavior; I focus on function not form; I look at behavior dynamically; I measure behavior over time; I measure the environment, the behavior, the effects the behavior has on the environment, and the subsequent behavior; I find patterns; I do this all without referencing mental constructs.

Free will is a god-awful term to use for the ability to make decisions. Our genetic inheritance and experience are largely determined by causality. We are definitely not free of causality. I don't believe in libertarian free will. I believe in self-determinism: a modest form of free will that follows naturally from our intelligent ability to interact with causality. We definitely don't act independently of causality.

Why are phenomena like consciousness and intelligence perfectly normal things but it's unacceptable to think we use them to make decisions based on what we know and what we desire while simultaneously anticipating and preparing for their causal consequences?

That's all I think free will is: the intelligent ability to chose our own course into the future based on our anticipation of causality. Self-determinism.

I posit that even a robot with advanced intelligence could behave similarly, and therefor seem to have free will. If that means that robots can really have free will, then I'll agree with your definition of it. Am I understanding you correctly?

Or perhaps another way to ask a similar questions is, could there be any such thing as degrees (or percent) of free will, based on (say) what parts of a human brain are functioning properly? Is it an all or nothing thing? Are there limits to free will based on each one's intelligence and/or quality of consciousness?

Sorry if I sound sound nit-picky, or unread! (I really haven't read much about it, so I'm only speculating on these things.)

Hmmm . . . a robot, huh? Well, I think there needs to be some non-spooky mechanism for personal choice. Personal choice is based on your person: who you are. It is not independent of causality: it's influenced and confined by it. I believe that mechanism is feedback (reciprocal causation).

At any given moment, there are multiple streams of causal factors in your mind: memory/experience, external stimuli, imagination, deliberation, etc. that are constantly sliced and diced. Causes and effects, in this process, lose their meaning as they are integrated into a unified "perception". The decisions we make are then based on these perceptions. This is how we interpret causality and anticipate the future: both of which are necessary components of decision-making.

A robot would need a similar non-linear mechanism that integrates past experience with present stimuli and potential (imagined) futures.

Would the robot then have free will? Who knows what free will really is? I prefer the term, "self-determinism". Which can be summed up as the ability to make personal choices that intelligently advance us into the future. Success is measured by how closely our actual future aligns with our anticipated future.

I can agree about the difference between the physics or material reductionism interpretation as applied to complex systems.

Yet here's someone on 'free will' vs determinism from an unusual source... an old yogi.  (not that I buy into the supernatural part of it...but he does make a valid point.. (imo of course)

"Predestination versus free will: a will is free only so long as it has not acted. Once it acts, then that very act becomes binding on it. The second time it acts, it does not act as a free will, but as a “calculating will” for it carries the experience of the first act with it. And calculating will is not a free will, but a limited will. The very creations or acts of a free will work as limiting factors upon it and guide in its future, activity. So, the more world one has, the more his will is guided it in its future activity. So, the more experiences one has, the more his will is guided and thus limited. And this is real predestination."...

It is said that 'you are what you eat'.... it could also be said.. 'you are what you think'.. and as the yogi mention.. you are what you do'.  What you take in shapes and molds you.  There's nothign 'woo' about this.   A neural scientist might only add the even the initial action wouldn't be completely free as it had 'limiting' factors in play.



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