Posting Summary

This posting is Cosma Shalizi's reply (CS5) to Derek Abbott's
posting (DA5).

The Debate Continues: Cosma Shalizi's Grand Monologue

"What controls the brain? The Mind. What controls the Mind? The Self. What controls the Self? Itself." - Marvin Minsky.

This post will deal almost exclusively by the objections raised by Derek Abbott in DA5 (see "Netography" below). The posts of Peter Nyikos and Randall Holmes, while emotionally quite valuable, do not raise many matters needing to be discussed; the former dealt mostly with (interesting) tangents, the latter merely made statements with which, on the whole, I agree.

Let me begin by saying that when, in DA5, Derek wrote the line

I was at first tremendously flattered by the identification. On reflection, however, I remembered that my family has found one "z" sufficient for the last few centuries, and that this must refer to someone else. If you would convey my felicities to Mr. Shalizzi, Derek, I am sure my namesake and I would
both be much obliged.

In CS4 I wrote about how I found the idea of something being too simple for a soul to express itself puzzling, and gave the Schrodinger's cat experiment as an example of a very simple system ideally suited for souls to tamper with. Nowhere did I mention rocks. Derek responded:
If all a soul can do is toggle a few atoms or affect quantum events in a Wignerian consciousness style, then being trapped in a lump of rock and massaging some rock atoms, hardly affects the rock. I am tempted to ask whether, from this perspective, pulling or not pulling a trigger affects a person's body very much, but refrain. Lumps of rock do not seem to present much for souls to do. Derek continues: It would be an extremely boring life for a poor old soul. If the meaning of soul is to solve the problems of free will & self-identity, then it is only appropriate to imagine souls as residing in human bodies. [DA5]

Perhaps souls in rocks have a much higher tolerance for boredom than we do? Perhaps they can find things to do, and are not bored? Regardless, the second sentence presents us with no less than two of those distinctively Derekian ambiguities we have come to know so well. First, there are three distinct issues being talked about in this thread - whether or not people have free will; whether or not they have souls; and whether or not souls could explain free will. There is no a priori reason to reject the idea that we have souls and lack free will, or have free will and lack souls. Second, what does Derek mean by "only"? Does he mean it is appropriate, as in, "It's only fair he second you in seppuku?" This seems improbable. Does he mean "only human bodies, and no other bodies?" Why, in the name of Ghu? What reason does he have for simply excluding chimpanzees and cats, or even paramecia and slime-moulds, from the self-identity and free will sweepstakes? What about the kzin? What about Homo erectus? Homo habilis? The australopithecines? Clarification on these matters, and logical or empirical evidence that my friend's cat Ininni does not have at least as much free will as any human, are eagerly awaited.


What work is being done in picking a state? None that I can think of. Is work being done in deciding which state to pick? Possibly, but on the basis of what little information theory I know, I doubt it.


When in CS4 I said that Nyikos's version of the quantum twiddling soul could well be untestable, Derek responded with
Fine. Then it becomes a religious solution, rather than a scientific one. [DA5]
Let us be clear: Testable != scientific; untestable != religious. 1+2=3 is not testable; it is also not religious. The same is true of

"If the sun rises in the east, then the sun rises in the east"
"All red apples are red, and are apples"
"No white horse is a horse" (which is false)
and even "She is very special."

Further, the hypothesis that the universe is shaped like the inside of a box (advocated by Cosma's Indicopletus in his Christian Topography) is testable, false, and unscientific. The proposition that "Smashing a computer with a hammer will not make it work better" is testable, true, and hardly scientific. Nyikos' solution is not necessarily religious; and being untestable would not, in any case, make it so.


Much to your chagrin, no doubt, I have to say this is a product of over[-]reductionistic hubris. What you are saying is analogous to saying "Fourier transforms require lots of messy computations on a computer, therefore I cannot believe that the pattern of light passing through a simple slit is the Fourier transform of the slit, because there is not enough `room' in the slit to make such a messy calculation." You are confusing the flow of a natural processes [sic], with the man-made abstraction of simulating it with messy calculations. Sometimes there is a "magical" (I would say coincidental) resonance between mathematics and nature. But more often, some very simple and beautiful processes in nature are described only by very ugly cumbersome equations. Do not be seduced by the lust of the sexy-new-age-chaos-math-is-magical Siren charm. It will lead you astray :-). [DA5]

Hubris? Me? I've never failed to make the appropriate sacrifices and libations! Why, just this morning I sacrificed three hours of blank audio tape to the Muses. :) More seriously, what I was attempting to say is that the soul will have to simulate a natural process if it is to figure out how to implement its decisions - and that the process cannot be the nice, simple slit diffraction type of thing. The question the soul's machinery has to answer is, "What do we need to do to which part of the brain to get it to do X", which cannot be answered by some nice, simple process. Counter-examples are, of course, welcome.

Nit1: One is seduced by actions, not lusts.
Nit2: As I pointed out in CS4, Nyikos's instance of these fortunate resonances where the information processing simply "gets done" is perhaps unfortunate. There is a part of the ear, whose name, alas, escapes me at the moment, which effectively does take a Fourier transform of incoming sounds. We are not, of course, conscious of most of the information processing our nervous systems do - what would be the point? - but it takes place nonetheless.


A number of times in DA5 Derek attempts to wriggle out of difficulties by saying that the relation between the soul and the body is a "holistic" one - e.g., side-stepping the whole problem of communication between the two by saying "The body and soul are holistically one, and yet two," and calling it "a natural holistic process." I share the feelings Randall Holmes expressed when he asked "What is the explanatory content of holistic?" [RH2] However, I believe I can answer his question. In this context, "holistic" means something on the order of, "My explanation is deeper than your explanation; so deep, in fact, that I will not present it, or even pretend to be able to answer coherent questions about it, or describe it without using metaphors that refer only to other metaphors. Nonetheless, it is an explanation, and a deep one, and all who think otherwise are reductionists guilty of hubris, whom the Kindly Ones will assuredly get to eventually." This is of course a parody, but not, unfortunately, a terribly extreme one. There may be contexts where saying that something is "holistic" is a meaningful explanation. I don't know of them, but I also don't know enough about holism of the Jan Smuts (?sp?) variety to say whether or not that's worth anything. In the meanwhile, I remain an unimpressed and unrepentant reductionist.


The soul is limited by what the brain could, if left to itself, do. This prevents many absurdities, e.g., speaking fluent Sumerian through an act of will alone. The price is a loss of freedom of action. If the right things are done to my brain - by drugs, disease, Ned the nefarious nervous system, etc. - my soul might not have the option of doing the right thing. Learning, habituation, etc. - the normal operation of the brain - might achieve the same thing. By working the way it does, the brain limits the soul's choices - perhaps to one. [CS 4]

You are forgetting that we are allowing the soul to influence the brain. If you are presented with two physically possible choices, without a soul, your brain's choice is either predetermined by its current state or is random if a quantum event gets amplified. Now with a soul, your brain is biased towards one of the choices so as to reflect your true will. If there are no external impediments (e.g., being drugged out) then your body will carry out your will according to the bias. You see, without a soul, your "will" is not really your own. It all boils down to identity. Your soul is what makes you you. Without a soul, you are controlled by the states your brain happens to be in. Your actions are results of these states that are a product of growing up in a particular corner of this universe. So you become nothing. Your identity is swallowed up and you have the flavor of an all-vanilla-universe. With a soul, however, you can have your own identity - you are no longer vanilla, you are the unique, special, never-before-created, yes, wait for it, Cosma Rohilla Shalizi. Wow. Gasp. You can now play a part in your destiny, even though you are not totally free to speak Sumerian, Kalihari clicking language, Arapaho, participate in all-female mud wrestling or levitate your body.

Again, I must congratulate Mr. Shalizi on his good fortunate in possessing that most wonderful of organs, a soul. The soul does not grant uniqueness, specialty or the property of being never before created, as all of those are possessed by any stray dandelion seed, and even my geode paperweight, to which Derek still denies a soul. Nonetheless, the soul has the remarkable property of transforming a mere aggregation of atoms, shaped by a small part of an immense universe, into an individual with an identity, by supplying that aggregation with decisions which are even more reasonless than the flip of a coin. That, at least, could in theory be accounted for by the force of the flip, viscosity of the air, and the like (see the references to work on coin-tosses and roulette wheels at the end of Ian Stewart's Does God Play Dice?) These free decisions, however, have no cause whatsoever; they are explicitly uncaused. They could just as well have been one way as the other; and Derek is, in fact, claiming for them a remarkable degree of freedom:

Even if we grant the soul the power of choosing between the physically available options, it is far from clear that there are meaningfully distinct options available. [CS4]

You can choose to love me or hate me. You can choose to hate someone, and suddenly decide via free will that you are going to stop hating them and start loving them. It is clear that the options are available. You can choose between chocolate and strawberry ice cream. [DA5]

This is remarkable; I gain a measure of control over my destiny by being flippant. But I will not dispute Derek's facts. People do, sometimes, change their emotions towards the same object from love to hate, or vice versa. They even, occasionally, make conscious decisions to do so. These are not instantly effective. Having trained myself to overcome (and create) dislikes for things ranging from broccoli to room-mates, I can testify that, at least in my case, one can perfectly well think that one ought to like such-and-such, while feeling a strong repugnance for it; a repugnance which declines with effort. (I now like broccoli.) The dispute is not about these facts, but about the explanation for them. When you are sufficiently enraged at someone to attack them bodily, the idea of loving them simply does not occur; I venture to suggest that anyone who quoted from the sermon on the mount while the moneychangers were being expelled from the temple would have been smitten upon the cheek, at least by Peter. Less flippantly, the facts Derek presents in favor of a species of free will worth calling by that naming existing, do not, actually, support that hypothesis. They are at least as compatible with the hypothesis that the most free will can do is vary the time an action is initiated by one eighth of a second either way, and with involuntarism.


When asked in CS4 to reconcile the soul with multiple personality disorder, Derek produced the following gem:

Again, one soul is coping with a disordered brain, but is always there. There is room within theology for more than one "evil soul" to jump into your body, in which case, you now have a more soul related problem. [DA5]

Indeed. Would you be so kind, Derek, as to sketch, at least in outline, a mechanism by which having a couple of souls in your body, evil or otherwise, lead to different allergies, susceptibility to epilepsy, and visual acuity, depending on which soul is in charge? Should you choose to retreat from the demonic explanation for MPD, despite its illustrious history, explain how you reconcile the mere existence of multiple personalities - that is, multiple identities, some of them very fragmentary - with the unity of the soul that, as you so eloquently put it, saves us from the fate of being identity-less lumps of vanilla ice-cream? And while you're working on that puzzle, here is another for you to chew on; I quote from Calvin (1989):

My fellow neurophysiologist Ben Libet has, to everyone's consternation, shown that the brain activity associated with the preparation for movement (something called the "readiness potential", a tiny electrical wave that one can measure atop the frontal lobe starting more than a third of a second before a movement actually can be observed) starts a quarter of a second before you report having decided to move. You just weren't yet conscious of your decision to move, but it was indeed under way; the technician watching the brain waves probably became aware of your decision to move about the time that you did (p. 80.) Calvin gives Benjamin Libet, "Unconscious cerebral initiative and the role of conscious will in voluntary action." Behavioral and Brain Sciences 8:529-566 (December 1985) as his reference; Dennett discusses this in some detail.

In CS4, I wrote,
Thus spake Derek in DA4, which called itself DA3:

DA2: If free will is only an illusion, then you are not responsible
for murder. Hence morally bankrupt.

CS2: True enough, as you're using the words, but only in the same sense that a toaster which electrocutes someone is "morally bankrupt." Normally the phrase implies that you are a Bad Person because you could, in other circumstances, be morally solvent. The determinist (or strictly indeterminist) position says such other circumstances are impossible.

DA3: So Cozzie, you are nothing more than a toaster. That explains everything :-). In fact, whenever you think of a brilliant idea, you cannot even applaud yourself for being clever, because it was only the predetermined movement of atoms in your brain that gave you the idea. So you are only as creative as a toaster. [Derek goes on to say he is a toaster with six slots in his head. This, alas, must be false: household appliances do not, yet, have Net access.]

This is odious, and shall be disposed of quickly. Whether we like involuntarism or not - I don't, for what it's worth - has nothing to do with whether or not it is true. In ordinary matters, we try to find the truth without
prejudice; one who refuses to believe in leprosy because it is horrible, or love because it is not; is at best stupid and at worst mad. Not doing likewise on speculative matters is morally dubious and an intellectual disgrace. Better to be a toaster, than to be guilty of such hubris.

To which Derek replied:

Cozzie. You can't get off that quickly :-) It's not a case of me refusing to believe you are no more than a toaster. I actually value you more than a toaster, with good reason. You're more fun than a toaster, for starters.

I have had to re-read these two passages a number of times to convince myself that I am not committing some horribly blunder; to no avail. Derek, what I was trying to say, as clearly as I know how, is that your refusing to even consider the possibility that you don't have a soul, merely because not having free will does unpleasant things to your ego, is itself abominable. Somewhere in the chain between my mind (or, perhaps, soul) and Derek's response, this has been twisted around completely. To suggest that the fault lies with Derek would be the action of a cad, and thought of seppuku is mildly tempting; but this shall pass, and I'll see about engaging a rather slow child of ten as an editor for these posts. Given this track record, offering advice is presumptuous, so I will merely point out to Derek that he has no means of knowing whether, when off-line, I do things which would put any self-respecting, corrupt and incestuous cannibal to
shame, and degrade me far below a toaster.

I don't have the heart for the rest of the nit-picking I'd had planned, and it doesn't seem terribly important anyhow. Either today or tomorrow I'll post Ryle's attack on volitions, and three articles from Voltaire's Philosophic Dictionary, which, dividing through for advances in brain research, say what I am trying to much better than I could.

Cosma Rohilla ShaliZi
In Real Life:
Eracsez l'infame!

NETOGRAPHY (which lists only posts referred to in this one; see CS4 for a
missing numbers)

Abbott, Derek (
DA2 = <1992Dec2.072250.28853@ etc.>
DA3 = <1992Dec7.00153.19130@ etc.>
DA4 = <1992Dec10.012116.14502@ etc.>
DA5 = <1993Jan28.060216.3230@ etc.>
Holmes, M. Randall (
RH2 = <>
Nyikos, Peter (
PN1 = <>
PN2 = <nyikos.728257400@ etc.>
Shalizi, Cosma - your humble narrator (
CS1 = <>
CS2 = article number lost
CS3 = <>
CS4 = <1jsqik$i1l@ etc.>
CS5 = this post

BIBLIOGRAPHY (CS4 has a far more extensive one)
Calvin, William. 1989. The Cerebral Symphony.