Tag Archives: Emergence

Free Will and Fatalism

In my last two posts, I have argued that we don’t have the contra-causal free will that most people vaguely think we have. A good friend read the posts and told me, “Beagle, beagle, beagle: your logic is impeccable, but you’re not going to convince anyone. We feel we have free will and we must act as if we have it.”

Before I respond, let me digress to the amazing world of emergent phenomena. Emergence happens when a system composed of relatively simple things gives rise to something more complex and usually unexpected. For example, thought arises out of the interaction of billions of neurons in our brains. Each neuron has only the most rudimentary awareness of its immediate environment, and no idea what we’re thinking about. Yet, coherent thoughts emerge. Who could predict this would happen?

It’s so mysterious that it’s tempting to call thought an illusion, but it’s not. Not quite. (If an illusion has the power to act on itself, can it really be an illusion? Read I Am a Strange Loop for more fun with this.) In fact, unless you are a biologist or chemist, it is more useful to consider people’s thoughts than to focus on their neurons.

So it is with free will. It’s useful to think of compatibilist free will (the sort of free will I argue we do have) as an emergent property very similar to thought, of which it is a close cousin.

It would be a shame to give up on thinking because thoughts are “nothing more than” the firing of neurons. In one sense that is all they are, but in an important sense thoughts are much more than that. They are specific patterns of firing, which can be analyzed and cultivated much more effectively if we forget about the neurons.

Same for compatibilist free will. Even though it is “nothing more than” an emergent property of cause and effect in our brains, it would be a shame to be as utterly fatalistic as that seems to warrant.

The fact that our free will subject to cause and effect is no reason to give up on life. Cause and effect is good. Who wants to be random?

Bean Farming, Atheism and Altruism

BohnanzaI spent last Friday evening in friendly competition with other freethinkers, playing Bohnanza.

In this game, you try to farm more beans than anyone else by playing the right bean card at the right moment. What makes it interesting is that you can strategically trade cards with other players to get what you want. You can even donate them.

Why would you donate a card to an opponent? The reason explained to me (I was a first-time player) was that you must play your cards in the order they appear in your hand, so a donation can clear away a card that’s interfering with your optimal sequence.

Anyone who grew up with me knows that I like to win at games — especially strategy games. So it might come as a surprise that my first donation was simply because I saw that another player could profit from my card. It did me no immediate good whatsoever.

“Here you go,” I said. “No strings attached, but if you get the opportunity to give back, remember that you owe me one.”

Some of the more experienced players seemed taken aback.

But in fairly short order, my beneficiary donated a card to me.  It was obvious to him and to everyone else that if one gained a reputation for reciprocating donations, then more donations might follow. If instead one greedily accepted donations but never repaid them, then the generosity would stop.

Other players started to make altruistic donations, too. In fact, they became commonplace. Without exception, this group of godless freethinkers were careful to repay their debts, even if they never asked for the debts in the first place. People wanted allies because even if a trade were time-delayed, not strictly obligatory, and maybe not exactly even, it still gave both parties an advantage they would not have had otherwise.

In the end, thanks to the faithful reciprocation of my friends, I won the game.

Thus did altruism emerge from selfishness, in this game as well as in life.

Geocentrism and Free Will

The first topic I wrote about in this blog was artificial consciousness. The last post, with its pictures of watches, has me thinking once more about the mechanisms of thought.

Everyone agrees that we think with our brains, but most people believe that there is more to thought than the mechanistic interactions of atoms in our skulls. After all, they argue, we have free will (what could be more obvious?). Nothing that operates solely by the laws of physics could result in free will, so there must be something more — a non-material spirit that superintends our thoughts.

As an aside, I note that some have argued that the randomness of quantum physics gives enough wiggle room in neurochemistry to allow for free will. I don’t buy it. What could be less free than randomness? Randomness might leave room for insanity, but not for the rational free will that most people feel they have.

What most people mean by free will is that they have a free choice in a given situation, and they could truly take one action or the other.

I suggest that there is no evidence for this beyond our strong feeling that it’s true. How could there be any evidence? Once we’ve made one choice, the other is forever unavailable, because that moment in time, with all its conditions, will never exist again. It is beyond the reach of any experiment.

In fact, there is evidence that we do not have a non-material spirit that is able to affect the physical world. I’m thinking of prayer studies, which have failed to demonstrated that prayer has any effect.

We feel that we have free will, but feelings do not constitute reliable evidence. After all, the feeling of knowing is merely a brain state. As I related here, that brain state can be induced by means ranging from drugs to self-delusion. We all know people with strong feelings who are dead wrong.

What makes our feeling of free will so hard to shake is that we are in the middle of it. I am reminded of the geocentrists of old (and today!) who, living on a giant ball hurtling through space at almost 67,000 miles an hour and spinning at 1,000 miles per hour at the equator, were absolutely convinced that the ball was not only stationary, but immovable. (I do not mean to insult anyone who believes in free will. I only mean to say that I see a similarity with belief in geocentrism, which I am about to explain.)

How could geocentrists be so certain? It was because they were on that giant ball, moving with it. Plus, their bodies had evolved to be acclimated to the movement. If survival had depended on evolving sense organs that could detect movement through space, either they would have evolved or we would not be here to know that they hadn’t.

Because they lived on Earth, geocentrists had no clue that it was at the mercy of gravitational forces that were slinging it around faster than anything they had ever conceived of.

I think it’s the same with our perception of will. Because we are glued to our thoughts, we don’t realize that they are at the mercy of the laws of physics. We think we are the center of our will, when in reality we are just part of a much larger, possibly centerless, whole.

My Philosophy of Life

Tonight I will attend a party where each person will get the mic for 5 minutes to answer the question, What is your philosophy of life? This is my answer; what’s yours?

* * * * *

What can we aim for if not to be as deeply happy as possible?

Of course, finding happiness is not simple. Doing whatever feels good at the moment is probably the surest way to long-term unhappiness. If you always get what you want right away, you’ll learn why no child is as miserable as the spoiled child. I know I’m happiest when I’m striving for something, not when I’ve got it. I suppose that’s why we never give up striving.

Also, most of us can’t be happy if the people we love are not happy too, so that complicates matters further. The more socially conscious of us are also happiest when we know we have done our part to make society better, even if that involves personal sacrifice.

So things are pretty tangled up. When a string is tangled, it can be helpful to see how it got that way. Same for happiness. How did it come to be so complicated?

I would answer that question with two related ideas: evolution and emergence. I’ve found that those twin concepts are at the root of just about everything. Evolution explains how things developed and emergence explains why they mean what they do.


Evolution is itself built on two ideas: descent with modification and survival of the fittest. In other words, things are always changing and whatever variants work best are the ones that create the next generation. We’ve all heard of evolution as it pertains to living things, but when it comes to a philosophy of life I think the evolution of ideas is even more important.

We humans think we’re smart, but consider for how many millenia we were stumbling around in the dark. People were trying out various ideas and, in hindsight, they weren’t doing much better than trying things at random, each idea a modification of the last. The Earth is the center of the cosmos, it’s flat and the Sun is a god. And let’s kill everyone who disagrees. No, wait — the Earth is a sphere and at the center. Hold on — the Sun is the center of it all. And it’s not a god. But let’s still kill people who believe there are other worlds with life on them. Oh — we just realized that the universe has no center. Or maybe it does. And maybe it goes on forever. Or not. And hey! We now think there are a couple billion Earth-like planets in our galaxy alone. So chances are good that life has developed elsewhere after all. And maybe there are 10 dimensions, not 3. Or maybe 11…

One idea descends from the next. We’re always pushing the boundaries in one direction or another.

What makes all this randomness converge on something that can contribute to a meaningful philosophy of life? It’s the second component of evolution: survival of the fittest. The closer an idea matches reality, the more firmly lodged it is. It persists to inform the next generation of thinkers. That’s how we got to the scientific method: not because we were smart enough to know that it’s the best way to sniff out the difference between truth and error, but because we were so clueless that we tried just about everything else first.


After all, we are but recycled dust. Recycled star dust, to be sure, but still dust.

And that leads to the second thing that explains everything: emergence. Emergence is when one phenomenon gives rise to a phenomenon at what is in some sense a “higher” level. In most cases, you could study the lower-level phenomenon at a detailed level for a thousand years and never guess what would arise from it.

Who would guess, by studying brain cells, that they are the woof and warp of the very thought you are applying to them?  Who would guess, by studying color or sound as a phenomenon of physics, that it has anything to do with personal pleasure? Who would guess that an economy whose very cornerstone is personal freedom and no central planning, would end up with more of every imaginable good and service, and better apparent planning, than every centrally planned economy that has ever been tried?

These counter-intuitive results pale in comparison to the greatest emergent phenomenon ever: that unconscious genes would “selfishly” maximize their own chance for replication by chemically motivating their hosts to behaviors that are the exact opposite of selfishness, such as altruism and eusociality. The mechanism is a delicious, hundred-layer cake of one emergence on top of another.

And that’s why happiness is so complicated. It arises counter-intuitively from emergent phenomena that, in turn, are the product of random evolution — both biological and philosophical — that isn’t even done yet. Once we understand that, we can relax and enjoy the wonders that are playing out every day.

For those of us who enjoy philosophy, contemplating such mysteries is a large part of what makes life worth living.

Simple Explanations

About a week ago, I had a dream that was unusual because it centered around a philosophical thought: complicated things often have simple explanations.

The dream was doubtless brought on by a conversation I had had concerning the Myers-Briggs personality types. In my own experience and in the experience of several people I know well who have taken the Myers-Briggs test, it yields an uncanny description of one’s personality. Yet, it does so by asking just a few dozen yes/no questions by which it measures where you fall on just four scales: extroversion/introversion, sensing/intuition, thinking/feeling, and judging/perception. (You can take the test for free in about 3 minutes here. Once you do, click on the Self-Awareness and Personal Growth link to see your personality profile. See if you don’t agree it’s amazingly accurate.)

The day after my dream, I thought about the spiral of the chambered nautilus. You may have heard that it follows the pattern of a golden rectangle — said to be the most pleasing rectangle to the human eye. What makes it “golden” is that the sides are in a special proportion: if you remove a square whose side is the short side of the rectangle, then the rectangle that remains will have the same proportions as the original. In this figure, the outer rectangle’s proportions appear again in the pink rectangle, once the blue square is removed.

Golden Rectangle

You could repeat the process on the pink rectangle, removing a square whose sides are length b, and leaving a smaller rectangle whose sides are again in the original proportion.

Keep doing that, and connect the corners of the squares with a spiral, and you get the so-called golden spiral.

Golden Spiral

Enter the chambered nautilus. Here’s an actual specimen, showing how well its shell really does fit a golden spiral.

Nautilus Spiral

Now for the point.We see this and it seems miraculous. We jump to a million-horsepower explanation like “There must be an omniscient God who designed it!” However, a much simpler explanation does just as well.

To see it, reverse the process by which we pared the golden rectangle down into smaller and smaller golden rectangles. Instead of paring down, build it up by adding successive squares. At each stage, we have the same overall shape as we did in the previous stage. Likewise for the proportional layout of the inner “chambers” (except now we have one more of them). You can now imagine that if there were a creature who made himself a spiral shell, and whose body maintained the same proportions as it grew, then a golden spiral would be the inevitable result. It seems miraculous, but it’s really simple.

I have a feeling that there are simple explanations of many seemingly complex or surprising phenomena, if we’ll just tune ourselves to look for them.

The Selfish Gene – Part 5

<< Previous in this Series: The Selfish Gene – Part 4 (Chapter 10)

Chapter 11 – Memes: The New Replicators

The ideas in this final chapter have penetrated popular culture more thoroughly than everything in the previous ten chapters combined. That’s fitting, because it’s is all about how ideas penetrate popular culture!

This is the chapter in which Dawkins coined the word meme to mean a replicating unit of cultural evolution. Examples include “tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes, fashions, ways of making pots or building arches.” Amusingly, the word itself has evolved additional meanings, but this is where it all started.

The first 10 chapters of this book explained how genes, which can neither think nor decide, have managed to construct (wait…they can’t manage either, but you know what I mean) have managed to construct elaborate machines that execute strategies for their self-propagation. We call those machines bodies, and the strategies include surprising ones like altruism.

The limitless variety of bodies and strategies all started with one or a few self-replicating molecules, which soon spawned mutants, which then competed with each other, and here we are.

But why limit the discussion to self-replicating molecules? What if the replicating units were ideas?

Everything we have seen about genes would apply to the replication of ideas. Ideas would mutate as they were passed from one body to the next. The mutants would accrete strategies for increased replication. The survival of host-bodies would be of little consequence compared to the survival of copies of the ideas. Ideas might form alliances to reinforce each other.

And this is exactly what we see. Ideas are passed down in a culture just as genes are transmitted through a population. Some ideas are beneficial. Others can only be called infectious.

Sometimes we say that an idea “takes on a life of its own” and that’s a very apt description.

As Dawkins puts it, “Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain in a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation. …memes should be regarded as living structures, not just metaphorically but technically. When you plant a fertile meme in my mind you literally parasitize my brain, turning it into a vehicle for the meme’s propagation in just the same way that a virus may parasitize the genetic mechanism of a host cell.”

I’ll illustrate using the Christian religion, since I’m familiar with it.

Like any religion or philosophy, Christianity is not just one meme, but a constellation of them. Each of the 10 Commandments is a meme, the virgin birth is a meme, the resurrection is a meme, and so on. These memes ride together on the chromosome we call the Christian faith, in symbiosis.

Each of these memes spawns diverse mutations over time, and thus diverse strains of Christianity arise. The faith now occupies many niches in the ecosystem of ideas, very much like species have evolved to occupy physical niches. Just as strains of animals diverge through evolution so much that they can no longer mate with each other, different branches of Christianity have split so completely that some do not recognize others as Christian.

Sometimes, the Christian chromosome has been crossed with other world-views, resulting in syncretic religions like Santeria.

Let’s look at one of the Judeo-Christian memes: life after death. This one has mutated considerably. It all started with the concept of Sheol — a sleepy, dreary sort of place to which we  all descend at death. Even the patriarch, Jacob, expected to go there (Genesis 37:35), and so could the wicked (Numbers 16:33). God was there (Psalm 139:8) but its denizens were unaware of him (Psalm 6:5). It was a place of “no activity or planning or knowledge or wisdom” (Ecclesiastes 9:10). Basically, you were asleep.

Asleep? So who cares?

Everybody goes there? So why should I worry about it?

Obviously, the Sheol meme does not have much replicating power. We should not be surprised that the Jews who believed it were not proselytizers. But the meme mutated and over the next few hundred years the mutations overwhelmed the original in the meme pool.

The idea of godly people being rewarded by an eternity of bliss, but the ungodly suffering eternal separation from God, was one of those mutations. The reason this meme was more powerful was that it contains the motivation for its own replication. You want to tell your loved ones how to avoid hell and go to heaven.

Further mutations arose. Eventually the Catholic church enumerated 7 deadly sins and specific punishments for them. Pride was the most serious, and punishable by breaking on the wheel in hell (warning: very disturbing content). Lesser sins got you boiled in oil, thrown in snake pits, smothered in fire and brimstone, etc.. How far we have wandered from the sleepy meme of Sheol!

Some liberal branches of Christianity carry another mutation, which sees heaven and hell as conditions we create for ourselves here on Earth.

The spread of these memes is only tangentially related to their truth or falsehood. As Dawkins establishes earlier in the book, any self-replicator will be successful to the extent that it possesses three characteristics: longevity, fecundity, and copying-fidelity. By all three measures, fundamentalist faiths have the upper hand.

A meme that emphasizes a life-long “relationship with God” and severely penalizes apostasy will have a longevity advantage over memes that encourage a live-in-the-moment approach. We have already seen that the hell meme is more fecund than the less fearsome ideas about the afterlife. A faith based on a foundational text has an inherent copying-fidelity advantage over a faith that extols free inquiry.

If truth or falsehood have little to do with the success of a meme, what is to become of us? In a culture that has a strong dose of the rationalism meme, another meme that can be shown to be ridiculous may eventually be shamed into extinction, but one thing on which we can all agree is that people (other people) have a nearly unbounded ability to believe the ridiculous.

Some memes have done their human hosts much good. The meme of participatory democracy has unarguably improved human well-being where it has taken hold. The technique of mass production is also a meme, and has vastly improved our standard of living — while, some would say, nearly extinguishing other beneficial memes.

Will the good memes or the bad memes prevail? That is an open question, and I’ll speculate on it in an upcoming post. [Done, here.]

The Selfish Gene – Part 4

<< Previous in this series: The Selfish Gene – Part 3

Chatper 10: You Scratch My Back, I’ll Ride Yours

Continuing to blog my way through Richard Dawkins’ classic, The Selfish Gene, I’ve arrived at Chapter 10, which is about animals living in groups.

Most fascinating for me was how the Selfish Gene idea relates to altruism in the social insects classified as hymenoptera. What makes these bugs such oddballs is their asymmetric degrees of genetic relatedness. Quoting Dawkins:

“A hymenopteran nest typically has only one mature queen. She made one mating flight when young and stored up the sperms for the rest of her long life — ten years or even longer. She rations the sperms out to her eggs over the years, allowing the eggs to be fertilized as they pass out through her tubes. But not all the eggs are fertilized. The unfertilized ones develop into males. A male therefore has no father, and all the cells of his body contain just a single set of chromosomes (all obtained from his mother) instead of a double set (one from the father and one from the mother) as in ourselves. …

“A female hymentoperan, on the other hand, is normal in that she does have a father…”

A male gets 100% of his genes from his mother, so the Selfish Gene hypothesis neatly explains why males sacrifice all for their queen. From the standpoint of a male’s genes, saving the life of his queen is exactly equivalent to saving his own life. In fact, it’s better because she will continue to pump out more copies of those genes for the rest of her life.

Things get even more interesting with the sterile females (the “workers”). On average, a female shares 3/4 of her genes with her sisters. That’s because they have identical genes from their father (remember, he only had one set of genes to contribute), and an average 1/2 of their mother’s genes in common.

Although sisters share 3/4 of their genes, their mother passes only 1/2 of hers to her daughters (the father contributing the other half).

Thus, females are more closely related to their sisters than to their offspring!  Selfish gene theory correctly predicts that they would be willing to forego having babies, and devote their lives to caring for each other instead.

If you want to read more about this, you can google eusociality. Wikipedia’s article has a helpful section on its evolution. (They observe that Darwin was puzzled at how it could have evolved, but correctly anticipated that a rationale might be found someday. That day arrived with the synthesis of Mendel’s discoveries in genetics and Darwin’s ideas of natural selection.)

There’s much more in this chapter, including birds who are willing to call a predator’s attention to themselves by raising an alarm to their flock, ants and aphids in symbiosis, and animals that invest energy grooming each other.

The upshot is that many examples of altruism that seem to be contrary to evolution are anything but.

>> Next in this series: The Selfish Gene – Part 5