Formal System

A site about formal logic, literature, philosophy and simulations. And formal systems!

Epicureanism, Buddhism and the Neuroscience of Desires — March 7, 2015

Epicureanism, Buddhism and the Neuroscience of Desires

Humans are born with (and develop) desires. Some of these desires are detrimental to our short-term or long-term physical/psychological health. We know this yet we nevertheless pursue them.

Epicureanism and Buddhism are one of the few philosophies whose ideal of life is based on an austere lifestyle based on enjoying simple pleasures that are easy to acquire.

These ideas developed in ages where factual knowledge about the basis of human behaviour was minimal. Humans have incredible powers of behavioural self-regulation compared to other animals but, overall, we are still incapable to ignore desires that we know that are detrimental to our health.

Under our current understanding, human behaviour is, like most phenomena, deterministic. Some of the factors that determine our behaviour, like social factors, we can avoid. Yet, biological factors remain mostly outside of our power to change. And these factors determine our behaviour, including our desires.

So what’s a human to do if he desires something detrimental for his health? Most advice stems from the dubious idea that human’s powers of self-regulation can override detrimental desires. A look at the obesity rates in certain Western countries would be enough to disprove that idea. Whether our desire is to eat a particularly unhealthy food that we know it is unhealthy, drink a particularly unhealthy drink that we know it is unhealthy or engage in a particularly dangerous activity that we know it is dangerous, the factors that determine our desire are not often within our power to change. Desires are not rational. One could say that, desires are more akin to axioms in a behavioural formal system. They are impervious to the powers of reason. This impervious quality seems to be proportional to the “intense” of the desire experienced.

So perhaps, sometime in the future, the neural basis of most of our behaviour will develop to the point that we can pinpoint the neural mechanisms underlying a particular behaviour such as desires. If that was the case, then perhaps we could devise a technology that, making use of this neuroscientific knowledge, could allow us to ‘turn on’ or ‘turn off’ desires.

In this hypothetical future, I would see Buddhism approving this technology that would allow us to literally, remove desires that are detrimental to our health. I would also see certain people fearful that this technology would disprove the notion of  free will to sin as the technology would correctly and successfully operate under the assumption that all desires could be turned on or off regardless of the intentions/morality of the individual.

Interestingly enough, while I would expect this technology to change our understanding of the notion of “free will” and the “drive” of human behaviour, I would not expect it to disprove the notion that there is a sort of metaphysical entity called “soul” that drives human behaviour and is the basis of free will. The argument exposed would be something along the lines of “this technology effectively proves that desires are determined by certain characteristics of our brain and that these characteristics can be turned on or off in the same way that any part of a human’s body can be removed. But an individual with the ability to choose whether or not to turn off a particular desire is exercising free will because the act of choosing is free”.

And a counterpoint to that would go along the lines of: “it might seem like free will but the ultimate factor of whether this individual will choose to turn off a particular desire D1 is determined by another desire D2 not by a metaphysical entity. D2 would also be determined by other desire called D3 and so on. But it would not stop at any particular point. This backwards causality would see us go back to the child’s birth and to his mother’s birth and to his mother’s mother’s birth and so on. Eventually, the backwards chain of causality would lead us to the beginning of the universe. But at no point, would the argument for souls be open to surface.”

Does randomness exist in the physical world? — December 27, 2013

Does randomness exist in the physical world?

I have written about determinism before here. But something that I did not mention was that despite all the changes in science since Newton, our worldview is still deterministic. What does this mean? It means that we believe that every phenomenon that exists was previously determined through a causal relationship by another phenomenon. By “phenomenon” I refer to everything that derives from physical processes, which to our knowledge, is everything we know of. Another way of describing our deterministic worldview is that we have no reason to believe that, in the physical world above quantum particles, phenomena happens without a cause. This leads us to the question:

Does randomness exist in the physical world?

When we think about randomness we often think about rolling a dice or flipping a coin and similar phenomena. However, when looked at in detail, the only reason we call rolling a dice random is because we cannot, in practice, predict the outcome of the action (i.e. what number will come up). But in principle, we know that, while the outcome is random in practice, the outcome is fully deterministic. How do we know that? Because we know that the physical events involved in rolling a dice are deterministic themselves. And we have no reason to believe that deterministic phenomena yields non-deterministic phenomena. On the contrary, our reason and empirical observations tell us that determinism can only yield determinism; even if this determinism is not predictable in practice. The arithmetical operation of addition is an example of a deterministic phenomena. If we know the starting conditions (x = 5), (y = 6), we know that the outcome will be (z = 11). But if the information you know is: (x = 2), (y = ???) there is no way you will know what the outcome (z) will be. So it would seem that there are some phenomena that sometimes are random and sometimes are not.

In order to clarify this apparent contradiction, it is better if we split the term randomness in two meanings. We could call the flipping-coin phenomena randomness(1). Random(1) events are only considered random because we don’t have enough information to predict its outcome. So in the case of addition, as long as we have enough information (namely, variables x and y) we can predict its outcome (z). Random (2) events are considered random regardless of the amount of information you have about the event. They are events that happen without a cause. So we might as well say that random (2) events are a-causal. Apart from the sub-atomic realm of quantum mechanics, science has not yet found any instances of a-causal events. They might exist but they seem to be unlikely to exist in the little portion of the universe we inhabit. If random(2) events existed in our world, science, as we know it, would not be successful in predicting phenomena. Our technology would be unreliable. But it is not. So it does not seem to be the case that random(2) events exist in our portion of the universe. And since, random(1) events are deterministic, we can answer to the topic question with a big negative response (while we emphasise that we are not talking about the sub-atomic world).