Why choose this book? Review

Read Montague's Why choose this book? combines topics such as computational neuroscience, reinforcement learning, mind/brain, brain imaging, physics, evolution, perception, and a range of behaviors including addiction, trust, and regret to begin to describe how organisms assign value to available choices and make decisions. For it’s breadth, it is a very accessible read. I found what took me time getting through the book was continually pausing to consider the implications of what was just presented. He substantiates his writing with many references for further study.

Montague makes a materialist statement on page 222: “...But the unsettling point, and perhaps the one not to write home about, derives from the unnerving message about meaning at the heart of my book: All meaning is physical.” He also presents Stephen Hawking’s quote from A Brief History of Time: “Even if there is only one possible unified theory, it is just a set of rules and equations. What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe?” Montague never answers this question, but argues that for the brain to have evolved to become a valuation machine, then it must be composed of (and have a history of) submachines which also encode value.

He does not touch on spirituality or mention God, but by this assessment, a theist could say that “God is in the details” and I am curious to hear what the theists say about this statement. Can it lead to anything other than predetermined Calvinism? Alternatively, the concept of “value” for the atheist materialist may not be so difficult from an evolutionary perspective when value is simply a measure of success of the survivors surviving. The difficulty for the materialist to provide evidence against God is that documenting all the values that go into a decision from the sub-atomic to brain level is impossible. Oh well, it still makes for interesting modeling work and conversation!


Gordon J. Glover said...

Tom, this book sounds like an interesting read, but before I could make any coherent comments on that statement you quoted, I would need to know a little more of the context.

I don't believe that "all meaning is physical" - even though I do think that all meaning manifests itself through material pathways - even those things we experience as feelings and sensations have chemical pathways. But obviously a theist would have to acknowledge a metaphysical reality that lurks behind those things that interact with our 5 senses.

Your question about determinism is difficult. If God exists independantly of and outside of time and space, as Christian theology supposes, then I have a hard time believing that His interaction with the cosmos is sequential. In other words, the universe must look to God like it would to us standing on the event horizon of a black hole, or hitching a ride on a photon. Time for us would cease to exist, and all of "time" as observed by us would "pass" as a single instant. And if God sees all of time, from Big Bang to Big Crunch/Heat Death, as instanteous, then what is there for God to learn - since learning implies the gradual accumulation of knowledge? And if there is nothing for God learn, then He must have either complete knowledge of every state of all 10^80 particles in the universe during the entire course of their natural history. And if God's knowledge is absolute, then every material interaction between every particle has already been determined by His foreknowledge.

I've struggled with this since High School, and I don't expect to ever "solve" it. My own personal Calvinism has been somewhat tempered by Reading folks like Carl Sagan and Steven Hawking. I see God's providence more as the impersonal unfolding of natural law, and less as a personal interaction between creator and creation - but on the metaphysical level, God is somehow personal. On the physical level, the universe is really just a "system" with an initial state (singularity) and some rules (the 4 fundamental forces of nature) and the flow of time. Yet despite all of this, on the metaphysical level I can still make concious choices that are MY choices and nobody elses. I can feel emotions that are MY emotions and nobody elses. I'm not merely a computer running a program that responds to input via our 5 senses - even though my physical being has no will of its own.

The anthropomophic descriptions of God in the Bible are obviously contextualized for our benefit - how else could we relate to a singular being? While they can help us with our theology (knowledge of God) by helping us relate to our Creator, they don't really help us answer these modern questions raised by our current understanding of the cosmos.

As you know - these are the paradoxes theists must deal with. I personally, feel privilage to ponder them. Even in pondering them I demonstrate the ability to transcend the material determinism that theism seems to imply.

Have you read the "Intelligent Universe" by James Gardner? I'm reading it now and it ounds very similar to the Montague book.


7K said...

Could lead to Buddhism? Don't they sort of see "God in the details." Or Monism: "God is everything." Pantheism: "Everything is God."

Theists, I would guess, would tend to separate God from the material, as Mr. Glover aptly does. Of course, T. Jefferson put God completely out, by his Deist conception of reality.

Calvinists do argue God and salvation, it seems, from a near-total predestination view. There are some beautiful truths gleaned from this approach: but it yields a very stark and dark picture of the Deity. Based on very good scriptural exegesis Calvin basically dooms all unbelievers to eternal punishment outside of any good they may have done in life.

Follow that with the theologian Arminius who set up an even more morbid picture: even those who are saved can, by exercise of free will, depart from God and go to the sinner's gloom and doom. Thus, these two camps thrash out these ideas like Irish Protestants vs. Catholics.

My understanding of Modernism is that its empiricism encouraged the splitting of these kinds of ideas into opposing forces. The scientific mind seeks through reductionism (simplify, simplify)to arrive at absolutes. But the Occidental people understood yin and yang, and sought to find the balance of polarities. Predestination and free will are polarities: yet they both seem to obviously exist side by side.

God may know everything I will ever do (I think he does): omniscience. Yet, I have this very real feeling that I am choosing the words I'm putting down here, hatching them spontaneously out of my free will. Somehow, then, I am aware of a kind of coexistence between the two, so I can't completely side with either Calvin or Arminius. Reality is one coin with two sides (sorry for the cliche).

Tom said...

You guys ever see The Matrix? ;-)

Panentheism is a new word to me.

It seems there are three choices:
1) Deism - A supernatural force set the natural world in motion and let it go.
2) God is all matter and energy - We are part of the God machine.
3) God manipulates matter - Predeterminism/Free Will discussions ad nauseam.

Cliff can maybe present a 1b - a God that started things up, let it go for a while, then became human to experience death to give us immortality, and then...?

As far as God manipulating matter, it seems any iota would toss free will out the window.

But even Deism and atheism are awkward here. Let me explain with an example. I employ evolutionary algorithms frequently as an optimization method in my work. Now, the random number generator will give me random numbers to mutate and recombine individuals, but the sequence of random numbers is repeatable if I give the random number generator the same seed. The point is, starting from some state and hitting the GO button will always result in the same output.

By this argument, my need for a cup of coffee, my love for my wife, and these letters I am typing are simply an unfolding of that initial state, the Big Bang. Predetermined. The only way it could be undetermined is if there truly was randomness in nature. Now that's a toughy. By all appearances this is true, but how can anything be truly random? Is this why physics is prevented from becoming unified?

But now, back to the theist side, with this case of randomness in nature, the randomness would have to be free of God's control (otherwise we wouldn't call it random now, would we). But then randomness would be over God and that can't be, so God must be random. So, you guys can explain the Trinity, all you gotta do is explain how God is simultaneously random, omniscient, and omnipotent. Oh, and omnipresent, too.

Tom said...

Gordon, Thanks for the "Intelligent Universe" recommendation. I'll put it in the queue. I'm currently reading your book.... Dude, we gotta talk.

Tom said...

Gordon, I realize after a short night's sleep that my "Dude, we gotta talk" statement can be read too many ways. What I mean to say is that there is a lot there for us to hammer out and I hope it makes for a good exchange either in the public forum or our blogs or email.

Gordon J. Glover said...


I think you will like the Gardner book.

And thanks for clarifying, "dude, we gotta talk" - 'cause I initially took that as:

Dude, you're totally f'd up - but I think I can fix you if we just dialogue a little bit.

But your second take sounded a little better than your first.

BTW, I finished my video series. You can see Part 3 here:

You know me - always ready to talk!


Cliff Martin said...

Been out of the loop for a bit ... personal issues. This topic is excellent, Tom. I hope I can keep up with you guys. I feel inferior when I launch into metaphysics.

I want to deal with just one aspect in this comment: what I will call “Randomness, by design”. Are you familiar with the work of John Conway and Simon Kochen on the “Free Will” of subatomic particles? They have developed mathematical and experimental proofs to the notion that electrons operate with free will the result of which is, they say, “even an omniscient mind, capable of knowing about everything, would still me unable to predict the position of the particles. The potential for freedom is built into the system.” (This quote is from Seed magazine, December, 2006, p. 51. A google search for “Seed "electrons have free will"” will provide ample blog discussions, though I don’t know if the article itself is available on the internet.) Of course, calvinist leaning theists like my friend Gordon would say that such a suggestion is way out of bounds. But for me, and my thoughts about God and the cosmos, I was elated to read these ideas. For me, here is what they suggest may be true:

It is as though God built into the cosmos at is root level, through the uncertainty principle of quantum mechanics, a concealed truth that would help us late day thinkers unravel his cosmic plans. It is as though we have the proof (potentially, at this point in time of course) before us that God designed the universe at is inception to be beyond his manipulation with respect to natural causes. It is as if he is saying “I did not rig the system, I did not write the script, and here is mathematical proof that I could not have done so even if I had wanted to!”

If, out of genuine randomness, forces naturally arise more powerful than death and decay, if goodness evolves that ultimately overcomes evil, then this cosmic experience is laden with purpose and meaning in the very outplay of randomness. There are, of course, many underlying suppositions in my thinking. But randomness is at the heart of what I believe is happening in this cosmos. And this notion of Conway and Kochen, really just an extension of the uncertainty principle, fascinates me as much as anything I’ve read from science!

So I have no problem with Tom's evolutionary algorithms. I would only suggest that the Creator understood the power of life, love and goodness playing out on a randomness stage, and he knew about the "predictable" effect of those random number sequences. It was all he needed to know.

Tom said...

Cliff, thanks for the references to Conway and Kochen. I am not familiar with their work. Yet more to put into the queue...

Since the topic of randomness in nature is not really part of Why Choose This Book?, please use the next post for this discussion. Thanks!