In a role play, Socrates scrutinizes Carl Woese’ work

A plausible and defensible evidence of a new branch of life?

Head of Socrates in Palazzo Massimo alle Terme (Rome)

By Livioandronico2013 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (,via Wikimedia Commons

Critical free-thinking, constantly calling into question whatever prevalent truth a society holds, and the method of questioning a person’s knowledge until evoking in him „aporia,” a state in which he realizes that he actually knows nothing, are the key ingredients of probing alleged knowledge. Unless an eloquent Sophist is led beyond aporia, so that he must provide evidence, we are well-advised not to accept his so-called knowledge. Since we ourselves, using this method, are being considered a threat to a dogmatic society, the groundbreaking but shunned work of Woese and Fox, convincingly establishing a tripartite tree of life, piques our special interest. After all, we realize that if probed by us, they would not end up in aporia. Why is that?

First, Woese evokes aporia in himself. The evidence for the established dichotomy prokaryotes-eukaryotes appears too weak to him, not being based on evidence. This led him to challenge the model by transcending aporia, resorting to knowledge about ribosomal RNA, brought about by scientific method. Scientific inquiry reveals knowledge about what is unknown, returns to the object of research, and is hence the remedy for that state. By investigating the 16S rRNA molecule, present in every organism and a precise long-term clock, Woese harnesses facts rather than purported knowledge. Analogy reveals anomaly. Therefore, by finding RNA pieces in the genetic fingerprints in single-cell organism classified so far as prokaryotes, but absent in all others, a potential third domain emerges. Sophists may be content with this, but, unlike those, Woese and Fox provide evidence. Organisms with such similar genetic fingerprint are of the same unprecedented phenotype of ethane-producing anaerobes. Attempting to induce aporia by asking why these organisms constitute a new and distinct domain, they give a logical answer. In their genetic fingerprint, those organisms are equidistant from both the bacteria and the eukaryotes. Answering another probing question whether those organisms might have evolved from those established domains, they give logical evidence. Earth and life co-evolve, and their being well-equipped for the Archean epoch, those organisms existed along with prokaryotes and eukaryotes.

Should evolutionary relatedness be based on external visible features?

Not only these results let us rely on internal genetic composition rather than morphology when building a phylogeny. How can one judge from mere morphology if independently developed recipes can bring about striking similarities in a dish? Like such two soups  can have the same spiciness, distinctly evolved plants can possess the same number of stamens. How the former approach can be misleading is confirmed by Woese’ and Fox’ research: „The methanogens Woese and Fox had analyzed looked superficially like other bacteria, yet their RNA told a different story, sharing more in common with nucleus-containing eukaryotes than with other bacteria.“ We prefer to determine phylogeny by looking at the recipe, not by tasting the soup.

Phylogenetic tree

How come the results of Woese’s molecular phylogeny were slow to be accepted by the scientific community?

Trying to answer the question why Woese’ theory has been shunned for so long, we may draw a parallel. Like ourselves, Woese is seen as a cranky outsider, presenting an idea threatening an established belief and offending humankind: eukaryotes, to which homo sapiens belong, are no longer at the top of the evolutionary ladder. Instead, they are beging demoted to share a rung with microbes – small wonder some people were reluctant to embrace the new concept.

Unlike ourselves, Woese is reticent and reclusive in nature, shying away from public discussions which might have helped promoting his theory. After all, science needs to be communicated and discussed; instead, Woese signals being at a loss, being in aporia, by hiding in his office.

Furthermore, molecular phylogeny was not fully established. Genetic code could not easily be deciphered, hence the notion of the genome as the recipe for an organism was not ubiquitous. Only with growing computing power, once a genome was sequenced, Woese’s opponents could no longer dismiss genetics as evidential tool.

Only after the mainstream moves forward and comes to a point where scientific ideas ahead of their time become ubiquitously proven and widely embraced, it realizes and revives the ground-breaking importance of those contributions. Evidence wins when the majority of the scientific community is eventually able to recognize it by itself.

We know that the orbit of the Earth around the Sun is not a perfect circle, but instead, quite elliptical, not to say “eccentric”. But how eccenctrically would the Earth travel around the Sun if the Sun’s gravitional field were an inversely exponential gravity field, a so-called Yukawa potential, meaning the potential engergy of a body  with mass m at a  distance R from  another body with mass M follows this equation:

Epot = -k/R * e -R/a

(with k = G*M*m and G as the Gravitational Constant and a determining the slope of the decay of the potential energy towards larger distances which we assume here as 1.5* 10^15 m which means at its actual distance from the Sun the Earh would have a potential energy 0.999900005 of its actual potential energy – not much of a difference really)

instead of the good old and familiarily inversely linear Newtonian one

Epot = -k/R ?

Well, now, who are we to claim that a perfectly linear gravitional field is the only one possible, like a God-given fixed rule, just because it is so convenient and easy to calculate with? No, we are not that smug.

A not really shocking or Earth-shattering answer to this question is provided fully mathematically and in theory here – but, mind you, it is not a bedtime story for Joe the plummer. But if are sufficiently nerdy you might give it a shot and have fun if you can, always in the save assurance that the Earth would not be flung away into space:

Eccentricity of the Earth’s orbit in a hypothetical Yukawa potential

In order to give some background information why this paper seems very difficutl to understand and to make head or tails of: It is a solution of an optional (ungraded) problem set in the Coursera MOOC ‘From Big Bang to Dark Energy’ which simply assumes that the question is fresh in the mind of the reader and the used equations and entities are equally familiar. Hence, the paper might appear all Greek to the reader who is not familiar with the task this paper solves – and those are practically all readers who come here. So my apologies for the hardship. Íf I have enough time I going to revamp the paper so that it becomes understandable more easily for the general audience (still, an audience sufficiently familiar with the physics and the mathematics. That I cannot avoid).


Portrait of Flaubert, circa 1856, by Eugène Giraud

We can assume that historical progress, its driving force or its supposed goal, play an crucial role in the work of  those philosophers and artists whose thoughts revolves around societial advance – in the case of Karl Marx- or for those whose art reflects society, like that of Gustave Flaubert.

In Marx’s work, historical progress has always plaid a pivotal role. The early Marx saw history driven by dialectical progress: History has always advanced only because societal contradictions had caused tensions and has given rise to revolutionary discharge, spawning new states. “The history of all hitherto existing societies in history is class struggles“ (1). „Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman … stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on … a fight that each time ended in a revolutionary re-constitution of society at large“. (2)

The early Marx referred to Hegel’s dialectic. Contradictory states, he denotes as thesis and antithesis cause tensions, and both form a synthesis, a new and better state, in which contradiction merge. In Hegel’s view, history happens on its own accord, and humankind part is to look passively upon history and discern a beautiful truth hidden behind it. Marx rejected the passive part of humankind. For him, humans role was to accelerate history, predominantly by revolutions. The Communist Manifesto emphasizes this a score of times. (3). Marx saw historical progress optimistically.

History in Flaubert’s work has not a pure dialectical character. Contradictions play a role, but they do not end up in a synthesis, let alone a good one. They only lead to catastrophes. Flaubert depicts in his clashes of opposed movements in so far as it is an unembellished mirroring of reality. In „Madam Bovary“, the clash of Romanticism, its idealization of relationships with the reality of life renders the heroine incapable of coping with life. Rousseaus ideal of the natural state of man exposed to society. epitomized in „bovine“ Charles Bovary is bound to fail in an age of Enlightenment. Instead, the Enlightenment – unjust, shrewd but stupid, hypocritical – symbolized by the pharmacist Homais prevails. Historical progress turns out to be far less beautiful and does not advance society in the positive way it was promised. It is ugly. stupid and a lie.

If the plot of Madam Bovary is an indication of Flaubert’s perception of history, it also appeared to him in large parts as dull repetitions. His use of the past imperfect („Charles would return home; he would go out; later, he would have some broth“. (4)) represents habit and repetition, always boding something ill. The dullness is only interrupted by the apperances of stupity (Emma’s actions), hypocrisy (the agricultural fair) and cruelty (Rudolphe).

Karl Marx

Karl Marx, 1875, by John Jabez Edwin Mayall

Flauberts novel shows his absolute disillusionment with history without any hope for progress, let alone for a redemptive final state. This lead him to seeing art as the only remedy: reflect the world perfectly (he spent five years writing ‘Madam Bovary, weighing every word and sentence), all-knowingly and detached (he used the third-person and indirect address frequently), and as it really is. (5) (6). If you encounter history’s ugliness with perfect form, its stupidity with God-like omniscience, its hypocrisy with bluntness, you can rescue yourself from moral corruption. That is Flauberts reaction to dillusionment with history.

Disillusionment with history can be found in early Marx as well. In the Manifesto he already showed a notion of it, expounding how the Bourgeoisie unveils illusions. „The bourgeoisie … has put an end to all … idyllic relations. It has left remaining … naked self-interest … in one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.“ (7)

The later Marx turned away from dialectical historical progress towards economics. There is good reason to assume that disillusionment with history plaid an important role. First, Marx experienced his own disillusionment, noticing that the revolutions of the 19th century did not yield the expected changes (“the peasants wanted land, the workers wanted  wages and jobs, the middle-class wanted power and money” (8)), indicating that class struggles towards equality might  not have been the ‘really real’ of history. Second, in the ‘Manifesto’ he discovered disillusionment in history (“The bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honoured and looked up to with reverent awe.” (9))  towards a burgeoning realization that economics might propel history: “The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the whole surface of the globe .. The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instrument of production … draw all … nations into civilization.” (10). Being dissillusioned, he discovered economics as the actual motor behind historical progress.

Disillusionment in and with history was THE siginificant influence on both Marx and Flaubert. It molded the late philosophy of the one and the art of the other. It lead the philosopher to reconsider it in order to discover the truth and the artist to withdraw from it for good.

Klemens Großmann, June 2013

1) 2) 3) 7) 9) 10) Marx, Engels: The Communist Manifesto,

4) 5) Flaubert: Madam Bovary

6) Flaubert’s letters to Louise Colet

8) Lectures “From Enlightenment to Revolution”, Part 5

9 termidoro

9 Termidoro at the National Convention, by Scuola Frances

“If the mainspring of popular government in peacetime is virtue, amid revolution it is at once virtue and terror: virtue, without which terror is fatal; terror, without which virtue is impotent.”

– Robespierre to the Convention on 5. February 1794 –



Robespierre’s address, representing a brief period, might be taken as an expression what the French Revolution encompasses at its most radical moment: a redefinition of ethics. There is hardly anything more revolutionary. In the interpretation of some historians [1], the Terror is even considered characteristic of the whole event. However, it does injustice to the versatility of the process and its reverberations. Yet, it raises awareness to the question how revolutionary the French Revolution was.

If we were content with the stage of the National Convent under the Jacobins as the gist of the French Revolution, we could indeed, albeit prematurely, argue that it was revolutionary by ridding France of the acien regime, even though not for the benefit of a ruling Bourgeoisie – the Jacobin’s alliance with the sans-culottes and their welfare policy [2] can hardly be seen as bourgeoisie key interests. The dynamics which began in 1789 surely were not dead and done with after Robespierre’s demise. Instead, it created a melting pot for various movements, experiments and first origins, reverberating into the present. Hence, when investigating the question what replaced absolute monarchy, we venture a look into its most significant consequences for the various key social groups.

Prior to the revolution, the nobility had featured themselves by three hallmarks: venal offices, exemption from taxation and feudal landownership. However, these were privileges of societal status, not of economical power [3]. With the shift of the basis of privilege away from birth towards talent and merit, the deprivation of feudal landownership and introduction of state taxation, the pillars of their natural privileges crumbled. Becoming landlords instead of seigneurs, the Nobility’s wealth grew dependent on the incomes of the peasantry. They either had to engage in Bourgeoisie economy, running estates as a business, or distinguish themselves by representative status [4]. The formerly reign of he Second Estate had become less a natural matter of course, but of economical power.

Related to that redistribution of land for the benefit of commoners [5], the life of rural populace was transforming. Whereas their daily lifes maintained a great deal of continuity, both their sensed and factual identity as a occupational stand transformed significantly. By becoming tenants or owners of land, the peasantry experienced an upgrade of self-esteem. Moreover, with market liberation and a national unification of currency and units, they, even though inadvertently, came under the paradigm of economical efficiency. Hence, they were inching towards being entrepreneurs rather than serfs, responsible for their own economical sustenance. Here, we may find the first wellspring of the feeling of freedom and pride farmers in the 19th century felt, spreading to the West frontiers of the United States.

The urban workers, with their alliance with the Jacobins, and their reputation of having saved the revolution [6], may have felt, for the first time, being a political power. By bolstering their self-esteem, their self-conception as a political group awakened. However, their gain was a blanket too small to warm the whole body. While they were granted equality before the law, with the system being reshaped into a market-oriented economy under new owners of the means of production [7], they came under the exploitation of a Nobles-Bourgeoisie economy. Together with social welfare put on the back burner until the latter half of the nineteenth century [8], the mixture of having political clout with still being a disadvantaged group, turned the working class into an entity for later socialist theories and experiments.

While the high clergy, by abolition of divine monarchy, land expropriation and religious freedom, had lost in political, economical and spiritual power, the consequences for common priests were less dramatic. Small parish priests had been relatively poor before the revolution, in particular in the Southeast, and were regarded by the rural commoners as their ilk, dispatched as deputies with cahiers to the Estates-General [9]. With tithes abolished, their income came from state salaries, connecting them with the populace. Religiosity, even though oppressed during the reign of Robespierre, was not smothered for long, and coexisted alongside a national identity. Hence, the priests’ role shifted towards satisfying the spiritual needs of their flock, rather than alleviate physical hardship. However, with the Church losing political power, the may have benefited from dissolving of associations with clerical oppression [10].

Women's March on Versailles01

Women’s March on Versailles, 5-6 october 1789.

For most of the slaves around the globe, the French Revolution appeared to have, for another half century, limited consequences. The abolition of slavery at Saint-Domingue in 1875, a consequence of the slave uprising as an attempt of the Convention to regain control, can predominantly be counted as an act of political necessity, even though many members had a stance opposing slavery. The abolition of it in the Unites States may have had an intellectual link to the pride the Convent took in being the first to have done it [11]. The merit of the French Revolution for the majority of slaves worldwide was, for the time being, a symbolic triumph.

Like workers, women had shown clout in 1789 by marching to Versailles. Albeit at times they assumed the role of the fist, their male co-revolutionaries imposed a passive role on them, that of moral support [12]. In a time in which women were exempt from education, they may be seen as fist and heart, but never as the brain of the revolution – and the revolution was underpinned by ideas. Hence, on the intellectual dimension of political influence, they ended up even less benefiting than the workes, who at least become considered a political entity. In the active dimension of political influence, one might argue that, with their newly granted right to inherit property as a consequence of the abolition primogeniture, women gained participation. However, emancipation in private property is confined to private matters, and therefore, has limited direct consequences in terms of political clout. Hence, by effectively still being kept out of active political participation, the disadvantaged role of women was maintained. Peter McPhee speaks of a ‘subordinate political position’. [13]

Judged by the daily lifes of those groups, it is a tranquil dimension to gauge changes of revolutionary magnitude. From a minimalistic perspective, with workers and women still being under oppression, the peasantry liberated but still toiling away, priests retaining spiritual importance and slaves still in bondage until 1848, it seems that predominantly an exchange at the top layer took place. But that’s myopic; dramatic changes in daily life are spawned by new technologies, less by political changes. Instead, there was a profound change in the legitimization for the ruling of the new elite. Absolute rule by divine grace, formerly awarded by the First Estate, was replaced by right per common and rational consent. Governing by nationalized rationality needs respecting and persuading those governed. Hence, as the most profound change, was a new sense of identity in every citizen based on nationality and the creation of self-esteem in the individual.

Klemens Großmann, September 2015


[1] DW, Locations 1434 ,1439 ,1447
Jean Jaurès, Albert Soboul, Albert Mathiez

[2] MCP, Locations 1472-1474
Jacobins saw things differently. ‘In a single instant you can give the French people a real homeland’, promised St-Just, ‘by halting the ravages of inflation, assuring the supply of food, and intimately linking their welfare and their freedom’.

[3] DW, Locations 1011-1012
Feudal rights were not always very lucrative, and their incidence varied enormously. But there was no doubt of their vast symbolic significance

[4] MCP, Locations 2304-2305
The nobility would fuse with the wealthiest echelons of the propertied bourgeoisie into a ruling elite of ‘notables’ which dominated French politics until the 1870s.

[5] MCP, Locations 2273-2274
many small peasants benefited from the sale of émigré property in small lots after 1792.

[6] DW, Locations 1243-1244
The people of Paris had saved the National Assembly on 14 July, and perhaps in October 1789 as well.

[7] MCP, Locations 2247
French Revolution laid the groundwork for the unleashing of market-oriented agriculture and capitalist manufacturing.

[8] MCP, Locations 2360-2361
No doubt, for the sans-culottes the end of the Revolution left a sense of disappointment and failure. Only between 1848 and World War I were democracy, social welfare, workers associations and rights to education again secured.

[9] MCP, Kindle Locations 982-983
The parish priests were held in high esteem, not least because so many of their deputies had sided with the Third Estate in 1789.

[10] MCP, Locations 2227-2228
Religious toleration was one way in which the Catholic Church could never enjoy pre-revolutionary levels of obedience and monopoly of morality.

[11] MCP, Locations 1229-1230
The deputies congratulated themselves on being the first rulers ever to abolish slavery – which they were, but only through recognizing a fait accompli.

[12] MCP, Locations 2160-2161
Similarly, the protective Virgin Mary of Old Regime imagery gave way to the Marianne of the Republic, now in classical garb and liberty cap, but still a feminine allegory watching protectively over men.

[13] MCP, Location 2163


DW Doyle, William (2001-08-23), The French Revolution: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition.

MCP McPhee, Peter (2015-06-02), The French Revolution, Melbourne University Publishing, Kindle Edition.


Richard P. Feynman

Physicist hero and Nobel laureate, Richard Feynman, was known for not being particularily fond of philosophy. In his Auckland lecture on Quantum Mechanics, he addresses philosophy with the polemic challenge that “if you don’t like the universe as it is, go somewhere else, to another universe where the rules are simpler” [1]. As much as this statement reflects a clear-cut scientific realism, criticizing what he disdained as wishful thinking, this essay takes a more differentiated approach. It is trying to investigate the question how much philosophy, from which physics had emanated, can make contributions to the physical sciences. In trying to argue that science without philosophy runs the risk of being disoriented, it investigates the following question: How could philosophical thinking help avoid physical sciences drifting off into the wrong direction?

Albeit it is the obvious objection that science has to be free to investigate in whatever direction curiosity drives it, there has to be at least one indispensable caveat: that of possessing a method of making its theories falsifiable in Karl Popper’s terms. [2] Introducing at least one deductive component is the safeguard against an otherwise all-inductive paradigm, which might bring science into the danger of churning out conjectures as pseudo-sciences like astrology does. The issue with pseudo-science is probably most trenchantly expressed with Carl Sagan’s quote that “in twenty minutes, esoterism is able to make more claims than science can refute in twenty years”.

Therefore, if science wants to demarcate itself from disciplines which shortcomings it strives to overcome, it depends on logical-philosophical concepts like deductivism, a rigorous tool which has already governed physics. If an empirical case is observed in which classical Newtonian mechanics does not hold, like the constant rotation speed of galaxies at their outskirts [3], science either confines its general validity to special cases, or preserves it by making a deductive argument valid, For the latter, it incorporates another, so far unnoticed premise: Dark Matter both explains the observation and preserves the generality of Newton’s laws of gravity. Hence, philosophical thinking in form of deductivism has already been employed in the physical science, corroborating the evidence of prevalent physical theories.

Making a foray into moral philosophy, it appears unforeseeable what the impacts are of pursuing a scientific endeavor in terms of how much it will harm or benefit humankind. Per default, making scientific inquiry is free from moral questioning. Enrico Fermi’s first successful nuclear bombardment, a precursor for the first nuclear fission by Hahn and Strassmann, was intrinsically driven by the same scientific curiosity as was Newton’s law or Einstein’s relativity, rather than by thinking about how to harness the source of nuclear power.

Las 3 fases de la ciencia thomas kuhn

Thomas Kuhn – the three phases according to science

Along the same lines, one could argue that what those scientists mustered for the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos in 1942 did to develop the first atomic bomb was essentially what Thomas Kuhn calls “normal science”, “puzzle solving”, sheltered under a prevalent paradigm [4]. In case of the atomic bomb, the process was indeed justified by the moral relativism view that what harms the war enemy is ethically warranted. In face of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, that even appeared to have a universal ethical justification.

However, after the bomb had been employed in Japan, and the previous paradigm had come to an end, the ethical question what empowering humankind with such a gigantically destructive potential means came to the fore. Robert Oppenheimer and Richard Feynman suffered deeply through a moral crisis. Obviously, doing “normal science” can pull somebody into something more than just innocent inquisitiveness, and moral relativism can at best overwrite something more substantial encoded in human nature. Could that something be harnessed as a moral compass?

An adopted anthropic principle may come as an aid. It is overwhelmingly more likely that we observe conditions that were conducive to our evolution [5]. Transferred to the question of how much there is a moral compass able to guide what should be done or avoided in science, it may be worthwhile to investigate the following argument: even though science is considered a means of overcoming the boundaries of (human) nature, if we consider the inborn moral compass as part of the natural conditions we observe, according that principle, it seems more likely that natural something is conducive to our well-being rather than adverse to it.

Even though the objection could be that this is about technology rather than physical science, it was predominantly puzzle-solving science who did the decisive work in Los Alamos. The question whether humankind is mature enough to be equipped with the power physical science entails, and which scientific endeavour had better be abandoned remains a philosophical question. Philosophy has a long experience in thinking about what should be done as opposed to what can be done.

Klemens Großmann, July 2014


[1] Richard Feynman on Quantum Mechanics Part 1 – Photons Corpuscles of Light

[2] Poper, Karl. 1902-1994. Lecture 1.2. What is Science?

Falsification, Contra Inductivism : “It is too inclusive. Even pseudo-scientific theorizing (e.g. astrology) could employ inductive reference.

[3] Peacock, John. Transcript for Lecture 3.2. Dark Matter and Dark Energy, page 5

[… ] Where the velocity declines once you reach the edge of the visible galaxy, and you’ve run out of matter. Now, you’re just further away from what matter there is. But the data actually tend to stay flat, so this is the visible matter, and so the difference is dark. So, apparently the outskirts of galaxies are dominated by dark matter. And that’s one of the most direct pieces of evidence that we have for its existence. […]

[4] Kuhn, Thomas S. . The Structure of Scientific Revolutions: 50th Anniversary Edition (S.36). University of Chicago Press. Kindle-Version.

[…] Bringing a normal research problem to a conclusion is achieving the anticipated in a new way, and it requires the solution of all sorts of complex instrumental, conceptual, and mathematical puzzles. The man who succeeds proves himself an expert puzzle-solver, and the challenge of the puzzle is an important part of what usually drives him on. […]

[5] Richmond, Alasdair. Transcript. The Anthropic Principle and Philosophy, page 6

[…] The weak anthropic principle is the one that’s closest to Brandon Carter’s original formulation. And as I’ve kept saying, Carter’s original formulation says the kind of observers we are will set restraints on the kind of conditions that we are likely to observe. We are overwhelming more likely to observe the sorts of conditions conducive to our evolution. […]

Contemporary philosophy shows signs of a potential paradigm shift. A young generation of philosophers is already working interdisciplinary, taking into account current discoveries from fields pertaining to cognitive science. One could argue it be too distracting putting oneself under the pressure of learning about the latest discoveries in other academical fields. My view is that it is indispensable  nonetheless, by providing essential empirical tools. These contribute by corroborating or falsifying ideas of philosophy of mind, or ferreting out points of further investigation.

For example, there exists the notion of access consciousness, coined by the philosopher Ned Block, which is the tip of the iceberg of what we refer to as the wholeness of mental life. [1] Insights from neuroscience confirm the notion that there is no such coherent thing as mental life, rather different parts of the brain, mini-computers, performing distinct tasks. [2] Albeit the model of the mind as coherent iceberg seems debunked, the question remains valid which portions of a particular task is processed on a subconscious and conscious level, respectively. Empirically investigating such issues is particularly fruitful if we have thought a process to be conscious – and it turns out to be not.

For example, a brain fMRI experiment conducted by Soon et al shows that the brain decides on a seemingly conscious act of either moving the right or left index finger up to 10 seconds prior to the moment when a person makes the conscious decision. [3] The obvious conclusion is to assume there is no such thing as free will. [4] Hence, the objection is that the experiment eliminates philosophical concepts rather than challenging them. Cognitive science appears to debunk philosophy of mind and make it widely dispensable. Who needs it if we are robots, merely conscious of decisions not our own?

However, this is a premature conclusion. Lack of free will implies humans be steered by an unconscious instance, neither able to act on their own accord nor to reject actions imposed on them. In contrast, the experiment deals with the decision on which side of the body to move the index finger, not about whether to stir finger at all. It was the test person’s decision to move a finger. Had they decided not to follow the instructors, they would have shown neither of both reactions. The question whether the decision for compliance is subconscious has not been touched upon and remains open.

"Valladolid Rodin expo 2008 Pensador 03 ni" by Nicolás Pérez - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

“Valladolid Rodin expo 2008 Pensador 03 ni” by Nicolás Pérez – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

Hence, instead of eliminating philosophy, such research give clues on a more modest scale. Since the brains decision is made without the person’s awareness, the experiment provides hints concerning the implementation level of the algorithm deciding which index finger to move upon external request. Evidently, this algorithm is implemented beyond access consciousness. Further investigations along the same lines could reveal something about the algorithmic level of the mini-computer, that is, whether or not the algorithm is deterministic or probabilistic. [5] In case it turns out to be the latter, it might in turn even help research investigating whether and how the brain implements instances of Bayes’ theorem.

Admittedly, these topics pertain to cognitive science. Therefore, they do not appear to inform philosophy of the mind. However, the insight about on which level of the mind processes are implemented, consciously or subconsciously, can inform philosophy about the validity and veracity of their hypothetical ideas. The least about which Soon et al can inform philosophy is the evidence for at least one  instance of a subconscious decision-making process. It can only contribute more, by confirming either a much broader scope of the subconscious, or one that is narrowly confined. Either way, assuming they are distinct, we would learn about the portions of both the conscious and the subconscious.

Furthermore, those experiments might provide marginal information regarding the Hard Problem of Philosophy of Consciousness, the gap between perfect knowledge of neurological signal processing, and how of qualia are generated – those conscious experiences we have when smelling the fragrance of a rose. [6] Let’s establish the following premises.

Both qualia and decisions awareness take place at the same level of awareness, and, correspondingly, do signal processing and subconscious decision making. Furthermore, the time by which both are separated involves the gap between signal processing and qualia. Then, investigating the processes between deciding to move a finger and becoming aware of it could narrow down the location of that gap.

Cognitive science can serve both as an empirical tool and as a compass. Making philosophical ideas falsifiable avoids sticking to false beliefs and gives confidence for following up on those which are confirmed.


[1] Mark Sprevak, transcript for lecture 6.1, Dark Matter and Dark Energy, page 5

[…] A third thing we might mean by consciousness, is what the philosopher Ned Block has called ‘access consciousness’. A thought is access conscious if it’s broadcast widely in a creature’s brain, and is poised to interact with a wide variety of the creature’s other thoughts and to directly drive its behaviour. Access conscious thoughts are usually the ones you can report if someone were to ask you, what are you thinking now? Remarkably, not all of our thoughts are access conscious. It’s one of the most surprising and well confirmed findings of 20th Century psychology that the majority of our mental life is not access conscious. Our access conscious thoughts are only the tip of the iceberg in our mental life. […]

[2] Suilin Lavelle, Transcript for Lecture 5.2, Stone-Age Minds

[…] The evolutionary psychologist’s claim, that the brain evolved to deal with lots of specific different problems, commits them to a very particular view of how the mind is structured. This is the modular view of the mind. It means that the mind is a series of mini-computers, each of which is specialized to do a particular cognitive […]

[3] Soon et al, Unconscious determinants of free decisions in the human brain, Nature Neuroscience 11, 543 – 545 (2008) Published online: 13 April 2008, Abstract

[…] There has been a long controversy as to whether subjectively ‘free’ decisions are determined by brain activity ahead of time. We found that the outcome of a decision can be encoded in brain activity of prefrontal and parietal cortex up to 10 s before it enters awareness. This delay presumably reflects the operation of a network of high-level control areas that begin to prepare an upcoming decision long before it enters
awareness. […]

[4] Is free will an illusion? David Bennet quoting Chris Frith in, 17:21:

[…] “Is it possible to predict peoples’ action on the basis of neural activity that precedes their conscious decisions? If so, then free will is an illusion.” […]

[5] Mark Sprevak, Transcript for lecture 7.1, Intelligent Machines

[…] Marr’s second level of description is called the algorithmic level. The algorithmic level concerns how the device solves its task. There are many different algorithms that compute the addition function. Without further investigation, all we know is that granny’s device is using one of them. Different algorithms would involve the device taki ng different steps or taking its steps in different orders. Some algorithms are faster than others and some use less memory. How do we know which algorithm granny’s device is using? […]

[6] Mark Sprevak, Transcript for lecture 6.1, What is consciousness?

[…] We know that your brain stores information, discriminates between stimuli, and controls your behaviour, but we have no idea how your brain produces conscious feelings. We know that we have phenomenal consciousness, and that our phenomenal consciousness has a rich structure, but we have no idea how brain activity produces phenomenal consciousness. This is the hard problem of consciousness; explaining how brain activity produces conscious feelings. […]