Metaphysicians of causation have been known to ponder the possibility of causal action-at-a-distance: that is, whether or not it is possible for one event to causally influence another over a spatio-temporal gap. It was common among Early Modern philosophers to insist that causation requires a ‘nexus’ – roughly, a point of contact between cause and effect. (This thought under-wrote many of the objections of principle contemporary critics to Cartesian Interactionism.) Such a view, indeed, is not unreasonable: the idea of causal influence crossing a spatio-temporal gap ‘unmediated’ by some force or other is, to put it bluntly, spooky. On the other hand, however, potential cases of action-at-a-distance have been postulated in certain Quantum Mechanical experiments, most notably the Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen/Bohm experiment. Naturally, the interpretation of the observations in such experiments are debated, but nevertheless a prima facie case for spooky action-at-a-distance exists.
Philosophers do like a bit of Lewis Carroll. When Humpty Dumpty exclaimed to Alice, “There’s glory for you!” and meant “there’s a nice knock down argument for you!”, Donald Davidson took it as an illustration of how intention can override convention in determining what one said. When the Tortoise said to Achilles to use logic to force him to accept Z, given that If A and B then Z, Barry Stroud and Robert Brandom (among many others) took this to indicate something important about meaning and inference. And there have been various occasions when the Jabberwocky has been wheeled out to illustrate some point about sense or nonsense.
A recent article in Consciousness and Cognition continues the debate over Benjamin Libet’s famous free will experiment.
In 1983 Libet showed that before subjects announced their decision to perform an action (and hence, or so Libet assumed, before deciding to perform an action) their motor cortex was already preparing the way for the act in question. Libet concluded:
“These considerations would appear to introduce certain constraints on the potential of the individual for exerting conscious initiation and control over his voluntary acts.” (Libet et al. 1983) Continue reading “I didn’t do it, my brain did.”
First there were genes. Then there were memes. But is there a third kind of replicator? In this week’s New Scientist meme theorist Susan Blackmore boldly proposes, “[w]e’re close. We’re right on the cusp.”
A replicator is an entity that makes hi-fidelity copies of itself. Genes do this and it is due to the different extents to which genes enable their hosts to survive that we get biological evolution. The origin and continued existence of life and intelligence was famously explained by this process one hundred and fifty years ago. Meme theorists propose that the same process underlies cultural evolution, where (on some accounts) the replicator of that process is the so-called ‘meme.’
In her article Blackmore warns us that “electronically processed binary information” is coming to exhibit the same characteristics as genes and memes, and so is coming to be a new kind of replicator. As a selection process this may not be so unlikely: a form of selection on the servers that sustain the internet…why not? But Blackmore goes much further: “The temptation is to think that since we designed search engines and other technologies for our own use they must remain subservient to us. But if a new replicator is involved we must think again.”