A conversation with Adam Omary and Roy F. Baumeister

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Adam Omary suggested and organized a conversation between Roy F. Baumeister and me. Roy is the President of the International Positive Psychology Association and author of the recent books The Self Explained: Why and How We Become Who We Are, The Power of Bad, and The Science of Free Will. Here, we discuss some issues surrounding the origin and nature of collective Selves, and whether the principles we see operating in the scaling of minds in biology might possibly be relevant to higher levels such as societies, economies, etc.

The paper I was referring to: “If materialism is true, the United States is probably conscious” by Eric Schwitzgebel who has some other quite interesting papers and books.

The video of the slime mold navigating its environment, which comes from this paper:

17 responses to “A conversation with Adam Omary and Roy F. Baumeister”

  1. HasH Avatar

    Another great conversation. (No offense Omary) I don’t like it when “scientists” defend Panpsychism.

    1. Mike Levin Avatar
      Mike Levin

      I think I’m a scientist, and I defend a kind of panpsychism, for example https://academic.oup.com/nc/article/2021/2/niab013/6334115?login=false and more to come. Not the kind where you paint hopes and dreams onto particles that are successfully described by perfectly good physics. But the kind where the “inanimate” physics we observe is a limiting case of a broader reality in which mental dynamics are primary (i.e., the project that Chris Fields, Karl Friston, Don Hoffman, and a number of others are developing where we will eventually derive what we see as physics from a deeper foundation of 1st person perspective and information processing). That project is more naturalistic, and I think in the end more scientific, than current alternatives that require untenable discontinuities or eliminativist positions.

      1. Cristina Avatar

        I can’t wait to see where this leads, if more discoveries are made by adopting this viewpoint it could be very exciting for the future of science. Thank you for all your videos Dr Levin I always look forward to watching!

      2. HasH Avatar

        My apologies, I am not a scientist, just a civilian fan. I want to clarify what I specifically don’t like about when scientists talk about gods (or god-like entities) within the realm of science. (in conversation Adam, 40:07)

  2. Bruce Avatar


  3. Matt Avatar

    Roy Baumeister seems a bit dubious about the whole thing, or maybe he never thought about things that way;

    Wondering how you would train a country though 😀

    1. Mike Levin Avatar
      Mike Levin

      I think you would train a country with stimuli, like you train other systems. What do countries respond to? Economic signals for example; do they get habituated, sensitized, learn to predict, etc.

      1. Matt Avatar

        I am wondering if the individual parts (us) would recognise there is a training happening at a higher level in that case, probably not.

        How far down do you think we could find traces of agency, like at the atomic level or below? Since it’s a continuum not sure there’s anything at all that lacks these properties.

        1. Mike Levin Avatar
          Mike Levin

          Yeah it’s a great question: can a subunit recognize when it’s part of a larger collective? I suspect there are Godel limits about really knowing what’s going on at the larger scale, but I bet you can gain (inconclusive) evidence that you are part of one. I also bet we know what it will look like: synchronicity (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Synchronicity). As far as how far down it goes: my current opinion is that in this universe, it goes all the way to particles. I see 2 features essential to having any agency (or persuadability, in my TAME framework): goal-directed activity and lack of purely local predictability. Even particles do that, given least-action laws and quantum uncertainty (and yes, least-action laws and quantum randomness are pretty feeble examples of “agency” when judged from a human comparison, but it’s exactly what you expect when you think about what the most minimal, basement example of the agency spectrum should look like). Life is what we call things that scale up those feeble aspects of agency into bigger cognitive light cones and higher IQ’s. Chris Fields and Karl Friston have a much deeper, more rigorous version of this kind of reasoning via the active inference principle (all the way down – see Karl’s work on Particular Physics for example). I asked Chris Fields once whether it was possible to have a world with no least action laws – true 0 agency – and he said that it would have to be a universe in which nothing ever happened – a purely static world.

  4. Tony Budding Avatar
    Tony Budding

    Thanks for posting this. FWIW, it’d be nice to have a transcript generated so we could search for specific ideas and phrasing more accurately. Michael mentioned something about the belief that questions of consciousness or self or free will or panpsychism (I don’t remember the exact line) are empirical. Can you clarify what you mean, because at the same time, the example of the two neurons debating the reality of a grand organization mocked such narrow-minded thinking.

    There are ways to explore the unmeasurable while still honoring science and the exploration of the boundaries of what is actually empirical. We can start by observing persistent phenomena such as determined effort and exploring its boundaries. We can experiment with exploring whether those boundaries can be deliberately influenced (expanded or shrunk). Then we can refine our definitions of those phenomena and hopefully increase the efficacy of our tools and predictions.

    I’ve been fortunate in that I’ve been able to work directly with individuals who are among the top performers in the world in both mental and physical pursuits. I also worked closely with Greg Glassman as he created the world’s first empirical definition of fitness, and helped defend that definition publicly. I helped formulate tests that would allow us to determine the fittest man and woman on the planet. I also studied and worked with a silent Indian monk on the practices and philosophies that lead to complete control of thought waves in the mind. These top performers demonstrate beyond the shadow of a doubt that there are unmeasurable phenomena that can be deliberately changed in order to achieve a particular goal.

    Anthropocentrism is a huge impediment to understanding unmeasurable phenomena. Michael is doing great work to undermine this by showing cellular (non-neurological) intelligence. But there’s more to do.

    The topic of the self has come up many times. The sense of self is layered and modular. There are both ephemeral and perpetual aspects. The primary mechanism by which these modules and layers take on the illusion of being real is attachment. Attachment is completely unmeasurable directly, but its effects can be noticed. As long as our integrated sense of self (which I call the identity) is colored by these attachments, its ability to take alternative perspectives is limited. [FWIW, this is due to the fact that all set-points or agendas for decision-making must be a form of self-perpetuation (any version or aspect of the self can be the object of the perpetuation efforts).]

    Ultimately, the purpose of science and philosophy is to help people live better lives. Most of how we humans define a better life is unmeasurable (love, happiness, relationships, etc). Even knowledge itself is unmeasurable.

    Adam brought up that things aren’t necessarily all or nothing. Our will is free in a similar way to how our free we are physically. Are you free to run a marathon today? Are you free to perform a Maltese on the gymnastics rings? If not, are you free to train these and develop the capacity? In the same way, we can develop our willpower through practice and training in extraordinary ways.

    We don’t have to throw the baby out with the bathwater. We can stay true to science and empiricism to their natural limits, and then we can apply the same rigor to our definitions of the unmeasurable and the reasoning connecting the cause with the effect. But, we first have to acknowledge that there are real phenomena that are unmeasurable empirically yet have knowable rules of cause and effect.

  5. Alain Schaerer Avatar
    Alain Schaerer

    I think you are missing the point of differential advantage.

    Humans tend to believe what gives them an advantage.

    If I want to change someone elses behavior, I am more likely to believe that the person I am trying to change doesn’t have free will, because otherwise, the advantage of me being able to change said persons behavior is being taken away.

    If I want to change my own behavior and outcomes, I am more opt to want to believe that there is free will, because otherwise the environment would have all the power.

    That said, both perspectives can be useful.

    1. Alain Schaerer Avatar
      Alain Schaerer

      Besides that. If I know that my environment affects me, I can change my enviornment. That’s also useful.

      1. Alain Schaerer Avatar
        Alain Schaerer

        If you believe in free will, why would you attempt to change an organisms behavior to regrow a limb?
        I can bring the same argument when you said that people don’t really believe in there not being free will. Your behavior doesn’t seem to be in line with what you said.

        That said again, I argue both perspectives can be useful depending on the situation.

        1. Mike Levin Avatar
          Mike Levin

          I’m not sure I understand the objection. My view is that many systems have a degree of free will (it’s always limited). When we induce an organism to regenerate, we exert our free will to communicate with the system and try our best to convince it to take a different journey through morphospace. Like any act of communication, if it’s successful, it affects/changes/forces the recipient. All of existence is a battle of wills, in a sense. Having free will doesn’t mean you can’t be affected by others, or by their messages. For example, nothing constrains your free will as much as a sound moral argument – once you hear it, you (if you are a moral being) are bound to act accordingly, whether you want to or not. Your own nature as a moral being constrains your freedom, and that is exactly the kinds of things you want your actions to be modified by (otherwise you’re just random – not a useful sense of freedom for us).

          1. Alain Schaerer Avatar
            Alain Schaerer

            I think it comes down to the definition of free will.

            Let me give you an example

            At FP, practitioners will tell their clients to undergo a movement elimination protocol to make sure that nothing interferes with the FP training itself to guarantee the best results.

            Many clients have issues with this, because they are socially and physically addicted to certain other exercise protocols.

            For example, their social circle might be dependent on their sport which means stopping their sport will lead to friend loss which is something not many can overcome. They are not willing to give up their differential advantage, so they don’t actually have free will.

            It gets even harder to convince someone to do FP if they have – let’s say – a yoga studio and make their money with it. Their entire identity is dependent on something that – neurologically (or bioelectrically in general) – interferes with Functionalpatterns training. People like that usually take a biig loop around fp and try to talk down on FP’s results.

            I suppose its similar on a cell level. If you fail to steer a group of cells to change its goal, they might be attached to something else that they can’t let go or influenced by something else.

            Does that make more sense?

  6. Teemu Kupiainen Avatar
    Teemu Kupiainen

    Thank you for the interview. I just sent my daughter a part of it where you tell about retraining frog cancer cells. She is currently looking for a topic for her medical dissertation. I have already told her about your xenobot and planaria research.

    I have a question for you. I would appreciate it if you could answer it briefly. I have asked about the topic from some open-minded friends of mine, including the director of the Neuroscience Center at the University of Helsinki, Eero Castrén. The answers have been positive, but cautious.

    Doesn’t your Planaria/Barium experiment show that planarian cells (in the cell shareholders’ meeting) can communicate more intelligently and efficiently without their brains (their board) than, for example, our own “boards”? Shouldn’t their communication also be conscious and deliberate in order to change their genome? Even with mechanical hypermutation, it would not otherwise be able to create a directly functional model, but it would require many generations.

    Because if so, we have to think about what our own cells think without our knowledge.

    “It is all about the cells.”

    Teemu Kupiainen

    Ps. last summer I searched for two days for planarians from planaria-observation-sites I received from the University of Helsinki’s Natural Science Department. I didn’t find any. Just wanted to say hello. Please, pass on my greetings to them.

    1. Mike Levin Avatar
      Mike Levin

      There are many pieces of data showing that cells can communicate and solve problems without having brains. Whether they do it *better* without brains is not shown to my knowledge (and my experiment doesn’t show that either). And, “conscious” and “deliberate” are very tough to define. We know what it feels like from the internal 1st person perspective to be deliberate, but it’s hard to say what it means from a 3rd person perspective (which is needed to decide if anything, other than ourselves, like cells or a worm or a machine or whatever, is being deliberate). The distinction between deliberate and mechanical is tough to define in a useful way, once you peer inside a brain or other system that makes successful decisions. And absolutely we need to think about what our cells think without “our” (i.e., the left hemisphere’s inner dialog) knowledge. They, and collections thereof inside our bodies, think about many aspects of the physiological and anatomical problem spaces they inhabit. And, if you want to find planaria, you need chicken liver as bait, and a planarian catcher like this: https://www.amazon.com/Windspeed-Planaria-Aquarium-Supplies-Planarian/dp/B091CWKP58/ref=asc_df_B091CWKP58/

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