Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Dialog with Howard Pattee - Part 2 - Determinism vs Probability

Howard Pattee's 2008 paper "Physical and functional conditions for symbols, codes, and languages" is available for download here. I recently re-read it in detail and engaged in what was for me an interesting and rewarding email dialog with Howard.

This is the second in a planned multi-part posting that includes portions of our email dialog.

Click for Part 1 - His 2008 Paper

Click for Part 3 - QM and Chess Analogy

Click for Part 4 - Property Dualism

Click for Part 5 - Flatland and Higher Dimensions


At the time I wrote my Oct 16th email (excerpted below), I had carefully re-read the first three sections of Howard's paper.

For Blog readers who have not yet read the original paper (and to remind those who have), and to provide context regarding our long-standing differences of opinion as to causality, determinism, and the arbitrariness of symbols, here are the titles and initial paragraphs of each of the first three sections of Howard's paper:
1. Epistemology and terminology are problems for biosemiotics
There are classical epistemic problems that have troubled the greatest minds for over 2000 years without reaching any consensus. This is the case for conceptual dualisms, like discrete and continuous, chance and determinism, form and function, and especially the mind-body problem that has persistently puzzled philosophers, and is still a central issue for philosophy, psychology, artificial life, artificial intelligence, and cognitive science. It is also closely related to fundamental issues in physics, the information-energy relation and what is known as the measurement problem. All of these problems are related to a category I have generalized as symbol-matter problem.
Biosemiotics, virtually by definition, cannot escape these problems. In my view, the central difficulty with the historical mind-body problem is that philosophy approached it from the wrong end of evolution. The many concepts and terminologies that have been invented to describe thought and language at the highest evolutionary levels of human cognition are not conceptually or empirically clear enough to adequately describe symbolic control at the cellular level where this duality first appears, and where it is simple enough to understand. Because my education began as a physics student, I learned that one must thoroughly understand very simple problems before one could even think clearly about more complex problems. …
2. The rules of symbols and the laws of matter have incompatible epistemic assumptions.
Let me begin with two epistemic assumptions that are a common source of misunderstanding. Models of symbol systems and material systems are based on incompatible epistemic assumptions. Physical laws ― the laws of matter and energy ― are based on the principle that any candidate for a law must give the same results for all conceivable observers and for arbitrary changes of reference frames. These conditions are called invariance and symmetry principles. Physical laws seek to describe those relations between events over which individual agents, whether single cells or humans, ideally have no control or freedom to make changes. Laws must appear universal and inexorable. By contrast, any candidate for a symbol system is based on the condition that all individual agents, from cells to humans, ideally have complete symbol-writing freedom within the syntactic constraints of the symbol system.
In other words, physical laws must give the impression that events do not have alternatives and could not be otherwise (Wigner, 1964), while informational symbolic structures must give the impression that they could be otherwise, and must have innumerable ways of actually being otherwise. Semiotic events are based on an endless choice of alternatives, not only in symbol sequences but also in codes that interpret the symbols. It is just those innumerable alternatives, selected by heritable propagation, that are the prerequisites for evolution as well as for creative thought. …
3. How can symbols and codes be free of physical laws?
This question is a second common source of misunderstanding about the symbol-matter problem. It is a belief among many scientists and philosophers that because physical laws are universal and inexorable there is in principle no room for alternative behaviors, in particular, the freedom of symbolic information, and ultimately free-will. This is a belief with a psychological basis that long predates the discovery of physical laws. It is rooted in the concept of causality ―the feeling that every event must have a cause. Aristotle and Lucretius could not accept indeterminism long before Laplace and Einstein. ...

The following excerpts are from an email from Ira Glickstein to Howard Pattee (Oct 16, 8:25 AM) and his reply (Oct 16, 12:51 PM)

[IRA GLICKSTEIN] Howard: thanks for uploading this paper. I am currently reading it in detail and am up to section 4. You make a very strong case for indeterminacy and arbitrariness of symbols. Of course, I accept that our human brains, even when assisted by highest technology sensors and computers cannot determine the future of evolution and natural (or even artificial) selection.

However, if (a BIG IF) time and space are finite and discrete (as, apparently are the quanta of matter) THEN (I would like to believe and therefore I do believe), at the Big Bang when a finite amount of matter/energy and space-time and the finite, Universal, and unchanging Laws of Nature originated, there were (and therefore still are) only a finite number of possible states of the Universe.
[HOWARD PATTEE] The issue of determinism vs probability does not depend on discreteness. It depends on the nature of laws and what we call states of a system. There is no empirical evidence that the state of a system is exact. It is a probability distribution according to most interpretations of QM. Born even argues that classical models are probability distributions.
The laws may be unchanging but still only probabilistic, as well as the states.
[IG] Thus, the sequence of formation of our Universe and ultimately of life and it's associated symbols, were (and are) fully determined.

I guess we are each too old to modify our basic beliefs.…

[HP] At least I can claim that all of the empirical evidence that I have acquired is consistent with a probabilistic universe. I have never come across any evidence of strict determinism. I have only experienced events with very good statistics.

I agree, however, that faith in determinism and God cannot be disproved by empirical evidence.
[IG] Meanwhile, THANKS again for being such an important part of my intellectual and personal life. …
[HP] Keep thinking. Howard
Ira Glickstein

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