Wittgenstein, Physics, and Free Will

October 14, 2013 Leave a comment Go to comments

JE: My experience from talking to philosophers is that WIttgenstein’s view is certainly contentious. There seem to be two camps. There are those seduced by his writing who accept his account and there are others who, like me, feel that Wittgenstein expressed certain fairly trivial insights about perception and language that most people should have worked out for themselves and then proceeded to draw inappropriate conclusions and screw up the progress of contemporary philosophy for fifty years. This latter would be the standard view amongst philosophers working on biological problems in language as far as I can see.

Wittgenstein is right to say that words have different meanings in different situations – that should be obvious. He is right to say that contemporary philosophers waste their time using words inappropriately – any one from outside sees that straight away. But his solution – to say that the meaning of words is just how they are normally used, is no solution – it turns out to be a smoke screen to allow him to indulge his own prejudices and not engage in productive explanation of how language actually works inside brains.

The problem is a weaseling going on that, as I indicated before, leads to Wittgenstein encouraging the very crime he thought he was clever to identify. The meaning of a word may ‘lie in how it is used’ in the sense that the occurrences of words in talk is functionally connected to the roles words play in internal brain processes and relate to other brain processes but this is trivial. To say that meaning is use is, as I said, clearly a route to the W crime itself. If I ask how do you know meaning means use you will reply that a famous philosopher said so. Maybe he did but he also said that words do not have unique meanings defined by philosophers – they are used in all sorts of ways and there are all sorts of meanings of meaning that are not ‘use’, as anyone who has read Grice or Chomsky will have come to realise. Two meanings of a word may be incompatible yet it may be well nigh impossible to detect this from use – the situation I think we have here. The incompatibility only becomes clear if we rigorously explore what these meanings are. Wittgenstein is about as much help as a label on a packet of pills that says ‘to be taken as directed’.

But let’s be Wittgensteinian and play a language game of ordinary use, based on the family resemblance thesis. What does choose mean? One meaning might be to raise in the hearer the thought of having a sense of choosing. So a referent of ‘choose’ is an idea or experience that seems to be real and I think must be. But we were discussing what we think that sense of choosing relates to in terms of physics. We want to use ‘choose’ to indicate some sort of causal relation or an aspect of causation, or if we are a bit worried about physics still having causes we could frame it in terms of dynamics or maybe even just connections in a spacetime manifold. If Wheeler thinks choice is relevant to physics he must think that ‘choose’ can be used to describe something of this sort, as well as the sense of choosing.

So, as I indicated, we need to pin down what that dynamic role might be. And I identified the fact that the common presumption about this is wrong. It is commonly thought that choosing is being in a situation with several possible outcomes. However, we have no reason to think that. The brain may well not be purely deterministic in operation. Quantum indeterminacy may amplify up to the level of significant indeterminacy in such a complex system with so powerful amplification systems at work. However, this is far from established and anyway it would have nothing to do with our idea of choosing if it was just a level of random noise. So I think we should probably work on the basis that the brain is in fact as tightly deterministic as matters here. This implies that in the situation where we feel we are choosing THERE IS ONLY ONE POSSIBLE OUTCOME.

The problem, as I indicated is that there seem to be multiple possible outcomes to us because we do not know how are brain is going to respond. Because this lack of knowledge is a standard feature of our experience our idea of ‘a situation’ is better thought of as ‘an example of an ensemble of situations that are indistinguishable in terms of outcome’. If I say when I get to the main road I can turn right or left I am really saying that I predict an instance of an ensemble of situations which are indistinguishable in terms of whether I go right or left. This ensemble issue of course is central to QM and maybe we should not be so surprised about that – operationally we live in a world of ensembles, not of specific situations.

So this has nothing to do with ‘metaphysical connotations’ which is Wittgenstein’s way of blocking out any arguments that upset him – where did we bring metaphysics in here? We have two meanings of choose. 1. Being in a situation that may be reported as being one of feeling one has choice (to be purely behaviourist) and 2. A dynamic account of that situation that turns out not to agree with what 99.9% of the population assume it is when they feel they are choosing. People use choose in a discussion of dynamics as if it meant what it feels like in 1 but the reality is that this use is useless. It is a bit like making burnt offerings to the Gods. That may be a use for goats but not a very productive one. It turns out that the ‘family resemblance’ is a fake. Cousin Susan who has pitched up to claim her inheritance is an impostor. That is why I say that although to ‘feel I am choosing’ is unproblematic the word ‘choice’ has no useful meaning in physics. It is based on the same sort of error as thinking a wavefunction describes a ‘particle’ rather than an ensemble of particles. The problem with Wittgenstein is that he never thought through where his idea of use takes you if you take a careful scientific approach. Basically I think he was lazy. The common reason why philosophers get tied in knots with words is this one – that a word has several meanings that do not in fact have the ‘family relations’ we assume they have – this is true for knowledge, perceiving, self, mind, consciousness – all the big words in this field. Wittgenstein’s solution of going back to using words the way they are ‘usually’ used is nothing more than an ostrich sticking its head in the sand.

So would you not agree that in Wheeler’s experiments the experimenter does not have a choice in the sense that she probably feels she has? She is not able to perform two alternative manoeuvres on the measuring set up. She will perform a manoeuvre, and she may not yet know which, but there are no alternatives possible in this particular instance of the situation ensemble. She is no different from a computer programmed to set the experiment up a particular way before particle went through the slits, contingent on a meteorite not shaking the apparatus after it went through the slits (causality is just as much an issue of what did not happen as what did). So if we think this sort of choosing tells us something important about physics we have misunderstood physics, I beleive.

Nice response. I agree almost down the line.

As far as the meaning of words go, I think that no word can have only one meaning because meaning, like all sense, is not assembled from fragments in isolation, but rather isolated temporarily from the totality of experience. Every word is a metaphor, and metaphor can be dialed in and out of context as dictated by the preference of the interpreter. Even when we are looking at something which has been written, we can argue over whether a chapter means this or that, whether or not the author intended to mean it. We accept that some meanings arise unintentionally within metaphor, and when creating art or writing a book, it is not uncommon to glimpse and develop meanings which were not planned.

To choose has a lower limit, between the personal and the sub-personal which deals with the difference between accidents and ‘on purpose’ where accidents are assumed to demand correction, and there is an upper limit on choice between the personal and the super-personal in which we can calibrate our tolerance toward accidents, possibly choosing to let them be defined as artistic or intuitive and even pursuing them to be developed.

I think that this lensing of choice into upper and lower limits, is, like red and blue shift, a property of physics – of private physics. All experiences, feelings, words, etc can explode into associations if examined closely. All matter can appear as fluctuations of energy, and all energy can appear as changes in the behavior of matter. Reversing the figure-ground relation is a subjective preference. So too is reversing the figure-ground relation of choice and determinism a subjective preference. If we say that our choices are determined, then we must explain why there is a such thing as having a feeling that we choose. Why would there be a difference, for example, in the way that we breathe and the way that we intentionally control our breathing? Why would different areas of the brain be involved in voluntary control, and why would voluntary muscle tissue be different from smooth muscle tissue if there were no role for choice in physics? We have misunderstood physics in that we have misinterpreted the role of our involvement in that understanding.

We see physics as a collection of rules from which experiences follow, but I think that it can only be the other way around. Rules follow from experiences. Physics lags behind awareness. In the case of humans, our personal awareness lags behind our sub-personal awareness (as shown by Libet, etc) but that does not mean that our sub-personal awareness follows microphysical measurables. If you are going to look at the personal level of physics, you only have to recognize that you can intend to stand up before you stand up, or that you can create an opinion intentionally which is a compromise between select personal preferences and the expectations of a social group.

Previous Wittgenstein post here.


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