Posting Summary

This posting is Derek Abbott's reply (DA6) to Cosma Shalizi's posting (CS5).


The debate continues:

CS5> What controls the brain? The Mind. What controls the Mind? The Self. What controls the Self? Itself. - Marvin Minsky.

CS5>Let me begin by saying that when, in DA5, Derek wrote the line
I was at first tremendously flattered by the identification. On reflection,

Bertrand was indeed very clever so you should be flattered. That's the good news. The bad news is, he was also so clever that sometimes he couldn't see past the straw (men) in his eyes.

CS5>however, I remembered that my family has found one "z" sufficient for the last few centuries, and that this must refer to someone else.

But two z's looks more jazzy. Why do arguments always have to be so utilitarian? But seriously, sorry for the slip.

CS5>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.

There is some confusion here as I answered you with a two-pronged approach. On one hand I was saying that souls possibly reside in non-human objects, however this is not useful to our debate as we are talking about free will and self-identity. We do not gain any ground by considering souls in rocks, as there is not a lot a soul could do. One the other hand, I was conceding that souls in humans may extend out of the body to affect objects in a Wignerian Schrodinger cat sense. So it's not a very big stretch of the imagination, from this, to conjecture that souls could indeed be in objects -- but who cares?

CS5>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.

OK, let us allow souls to be in rocks. Now, what is the point you wish to make?

CS5>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.

Well put. However we must be careful of reductionism. All three concepts could be inseparable.

We must accept that free will exists, otherwise too many things become meaningless and you may as well be an electric toaster, a purple geode
or a follicle under an ape's armpit instead of a human. Without free will what makes you you? Without free will can we really make the distinction between premeditated murder and murder under diminished responsibility? What is love without free will? Does your partner really love you, or is just the way the atoms in her brain happen to be determined that programmed her to say "I love you"? What is identity, self-control and uniqueness, without free will? Would you ever consider marrying an android or giving your life for one? What is the difference between a decision to behave and being punished into behaving, without free will?


As you have pointed out yourself, we may be able to scientifically test free will one day, by modelling a free will-less brain and seeing if it behaves differently or not. But until that day, we must a priori accept free will, in the same way that we accept that matter is not an illusion. The grounds on which we accept that matter is real, are no more absurd than the grounds on which we accept free will.

In the same way that a Greek skeptic might deny matter and hence everything becomes absurd, so the same happens if we deny free will. We need the concept of matter to make sense of the world and likewise we need the concept of free will to make sense of the world.

In the same way that my mind is open to the possibility that we may one day discover that matter doesn't really exist and our sense of "solid objects" is only an abstraction (like our sense of colour) and that the universe is one big virtual reality machine that happens to beam energy down to form the images that we are all composed of, so likewise my mind is also open to the idea that one day we may find that free will is just a virtual feeling.

But until that day happens (if it does), I must hold dear to both matter and free will. They give us hope. For without them we clutch at mere straws.

CS5>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.

True to a point. But, I've disposed of the soul+no free will option, if we accept that a priori belief in free will is no more absurd that a priori belief in matter.

This now leaves the free will+no soul option. This can easily be disposed of as free will cannot be mechanistic, therefore cannot be contained by matter alone. (We have discussed this at great length in earlier posts, and I think we agreed on this).

So this brings us to the free will+soul option, where soul is defined as the non-material identity that imparts the free will into the material brain.

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.

It depends how a state is picked. Do enlighten me on the "mechanics" of how this happens, then we can decide if energy is taken up or not.

CS5>Further, the hypothesis that the universe is shaped like the inside of a box (advocated by Cosmas 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's solution is not necessarily religious; and being untestable would not, in any case, make it so.

You are twisting words here. True, smashing a computer is not a scientific activity in the sense of status quo science. However, the effect of a hammer on a computer can be scientifically tested. You are confusing "usefulness" with "scientific." Similarly, to trust an untestable solution (eg. Nyikos' free will idea) is an act of faith and hence in the religious domain.

CS5>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.

Imagine you knew nothing about Fourier transforms and had never seen a slit pattern before. You would scratch your head and shake it, saying "boy, I can't understand how those photons knew how to bounce off that slit to create that complicated pattern"

I'm suggesting we are making the same mistake with the soul/brain interaction. There is nothing to "know," it just does it. It just happens to be a few dimensional orders higher than the slit problem, so is difficult to visualise.

Does a growing plant leaf know about fractals & affine transformations? No, it just does it.

Does an electron compute what states it must flip into? No, it just does it.

How does a ball flying through space keep remembering that it is supposed to "move in a straight line unless acted upon by a force"? It doesn't. It just keeps moving like magic. But it's the magic of nature.

CS5>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."

Of course it's deep. That's why it's stumped people for centuries! I'm demonstrating, however, that I'm being no more absurd than the idea of an electron "knowing" which state to flip or which way to go in quantum potential theory.

CS5>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

You sound as if you are asking me for a simple example. OK, take a mobius band. It has one side. But the band can be considered to be made up of lots of 2-sided strips all glued together. Now a mind that is being over reductionistic and worrying too much about the 2-sided segments may say "that's weird, here are lots of individual little 2-sided segments that individually "know" nothing about being one sided, and yet together they are one sided."

This concept of "know" is an artificial concept caused by the reductionism. It's not really there if you consider the whole thing with a holistic view. [BTW, I might be misusing sacred terminology here. I'm not talking holism in the sense of new age or medicine. By holism I just mean the opposite of reductionism, if there is a better word please correct me].

Imagine a universe with one electron in it. How does the electron "know" the Pauli Exclusion Principle? Is it stamped on it in red ink? :-) No. We've just created a false dilemma, via over-reductionism.

Another example is a spectrum analyser. It grabs a signal, within a finite window of time, and then takes the Fourier transform. However, the problem is the result is spurious, because the transform of the time window becomes inseparable from the transform of the signal. The two get mixed up. The error is quite large, as you well know, because of the richness of harmonics in a step function.

The same effect happens with reductionistic reasoning that compartmentalizes a complex concept into lots of windows or pigeon holes. We then make transformations to simplify the concept in a form that is easier to visualise (this is how we solve problems all the time: choose the transform that makes the solution simplest).

Now, the problem arises when the compartments themselves get mixed up in the transformation process. For simple problems where it is easy to choose natural boundaries, that are there anyway, reductionism works. Obviously, as classical physics did a lot of that quite successfully.

But for complex problems, where natural boundaries are not obvious or maybe even non-existent, reductionism fails abysmally.

Dualism is just a two-level form of reductionism. Plato made the mistake of separating concepts (such as body & soul, substances & properties etc) where he shouldn't have. Some things were just meant to go only hand-in-hand. Plato's thinking has caused a lot of pain throughout history. It's amazing how insidious Platonic dualism became, popping up in all sorts of unlikely places like a wolf in sheep's clothing.

CS5>In the meanwhile, I remain an unimpressed and unrepentant reductionist.

That'll be twenty days on bread and water, till ye repent m'boy :-) But seriously, science is starting to go through a paradigm-shift from the analytical to the synthetic, from reductionism to holism. I guess complex systems like the environment, are causing us to rethink how we tackle scientific problems. Reductionistic analysis was fine in the old days when we considered relatively simple problems, but these days science is scratching around for new tools and philosophies to tackle some of the bigger problems.

Repent now from thy reductionism, or regret it later. You may get left behind.

CS5>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.

Yes, free decisions are uncaused in the sense of not being locked into a causal chain in the material world. I like to refer to this as being mechanically uncaused. However, free decisions are caused by something from beyond mere materialism: the soul.

Now, as to how the soul works is another question. Let us find answers to more pressing questions like "how does gravity work?" first, and then one day these more ethereal questions might be soluble.

At the present time, due to lack of answers, gravity is just a "magical" as soul.

So a more useful thing to study might be why we have souls rather than how they work. In life, "why" is always more important than "how."

CS5>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?

Just because the brain has a disorder, doesn't mean that the soul has. When you're dead, your brain has a big lack of identity, but your soul still retains it.

CS5>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)

When I tried chewing, I couldn't help spitting it out:-) But seriously, assuming that they set up the equipment properly and that the data itself
is not discreditable, the first difficulty that comes to mind is if there is a pulse to initiate arm movement, where is the pulse that initiated
his lips to speak to say he made a decision? Is there a third of a second difference between this pulse & his lip movement?

How did they measure the 1/3rd of a second? How did they decide what the start of arm movement was?

Have other workers repeated their results/made critical comments?

CS5>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.

And you have no way of knowing whether or not I have the FBI reporting to me on your nefarious activities.

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.>
DA6 =This.
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.