Response Summary

This is Derek Abbott's reply (DA5) to Cosma Shalizi's posting (CS4).

CS4 = Cozzie's fourth reply (Cosma Shalizi)

DA5 = Derek's fifth reply (this msg) (Derek Abbott)

The Debate Continues:



CS4: By hypothesis, the soul has energy and momentum; therefore it has a 4-momentum; therefore it has an invariant mass. If this rest mass is zero, then soul must move at the speed of light in all reference frames. This presents difficulties in the way of maintain contact with the body.

DA5: So what if soul moves at the speed of light? An optical computer has light whizzing around inside. Cannot one postulate that the soul likewise circulates at such speeds? Or maybe it is a big standing wave ;-)

CS4: If it has a non-zero rest mass, though, then we have a material substance after all, acting like any other. Derek describes not a spirit proper at all, but a new sort of matter, the spawn of an unholy union between D. D. Homes and James Clerk Maxwell.

DA5: The idea of a material soul is not new, it's called Stoic traducianism. Not only is it heretical, but it spoils the idea of being a non-mechanistic medium. So I would agree with Cozzie that this is probably not the correct option to choose, unless I'm missing something. (Which I'm known to do).

CS4: The idea that something could be too simple for a soul to express itself is - at least to me - odd.

DA5: 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. 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. Cozzie could be right: there could in fact be souls in rocks, but what I am saying is that those souls are in limbo and are therefore of no

consequence to this discussion.

I'm also prepared to hypothesize that souls extend out of our bodies and possibly affect quantum observations in a Wignerian sense. Though I'm not that interested in defending this idea. I could quite easily take it or leave it.

CS4: In PN1, Peter Nyikos, commenting on CS2, wrote

[T]he purely deterministic brain may be a fiction, because of quantum indeterminism whose outcomes may in turn be influenced by "soul" or "spirit," yet it is a choice between outcomes each of which was possible even without the influences of a soul... The choice between two possible QM effects might not have to take any measurable amount of energy.

CS4: I see no reason why the choice need take any energy at all, and with that modification, find this a much better theory than Derek's.

DA5: Why is there no energy required?

CS4: It does not lead to absurdities like calculating the soul's Hamiltonian or its spin eigenstates; it does not gut physics wholesale; it is, in fact, a fine theory, and I attack it with real regret.

DA5: Your heart bleeds and the violins play.

CS4: First: It could well be untestable.

DA5: Fine. Then it becomes a religious solution, rather than a scientific one. Not everything in life has to be testable. You have to take things on faith sometimes.

CS4: Second: ......This implies that the soul can somehow call upon immense computational power from outside the brain, which seems to be used only for the messy details of implementing free will. This is not logically impossible, of course, but it seems unlikely.

DA5: 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, 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 :-)

CS4: As I read them, in both Nyikos's and Derek's formulations, the soul is conscious - another role for the soul will be discussed below. Presumably, my soul's stream of consciousness is my stream of consciousness - the alternative needs a close shave with Occam's Razor if ever anything did.

DA5: No need for a shave: the two streams of consciousness are one. They are contingent & inextricably linked. It's like two children holding hands and swinging each other around in a circle. You need the two kids to create the rotation action and together they map out the same circle.

CS4: Regardless, the soul has a big problem: How does it communicate with the material world? They have said (more or less) how it imposes its free will on matter, but how does it learn about the world?

DA5: How does a rock learn to sink in water? How does light learn to diffract? The free will drive is in the very nature of the soul. It doesn't need to learn. In the same way you don't learn to breath or make your heart beat - it just happens.

CS4: [a long ramble on how soul gathers information on the body in order to make decisions on which atoms to toggle so as to affect choice]

DA5: Again you are making the mistake of (a) implicitly subscribing to a soul-body dualism, whereby the soul is a separate entity from the body and therefore has to monitor it to know what is going on, and (b) reductionistically thinking it calculates like a computer, rather than just being a natural holistic process.

The body and soul are holistically one, and yet two. Like two children, holding hands and swinging in a circle. One cannot perform without the other. One does not need to calculate the other's position - they are both dynamically part of the same movement.

CS4: The soul's troubles are not over once it has information; there are plenty left. The biggest is the free will's lack of freedom. 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 neurosurgeon, 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.

DA5: 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 it's current state or is random if a quantum event gets amplified. Now with a soul, your brain is biassed towards one of the choices so as to reflect your true will. If there are no external impediments (eg. 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 actions are not yours, they are really just part of the universe. Your identity is swallowed up and you have the flavour of an all-vanilla-universe. With a soul, however, you can now have your own identity - you are no longer vanilla, you are the unique, special, never-before-created, yes, wait for it, Cosma Rohilla Shalizzi. 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.

CS4: A person might be habituated into involuntary sainthood. Perhaps this will be taken into account on the Last Day, but neither Calvin, nor Mohammed, nor Augustine make me optimistic.

DA5: I'll put in a good word to Cthulhu, for you :-)

CS4: The point of those two paragraphs is this: 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.

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

CS4: There is also what I like to call the "split soul syndrome" to consider. While differences between the hemispheres of the brain are exaggerated in many popular (i.e. trashy) accounts, the two hemispheres of some split brain patients do appear to be conscious of different things, and even to express different preferences - which means, under the current theory, that they must have different souls. Perhaps the soul splits in two when the corpus callosum is cut? If so, do these bifurcations happen only along the corpus callosum, or elsewhere as well? How small must a piece of brain be before it can no longer harbor a soul - and what happens if, through some miracle, these bits of brain get re-attached?

DA5: The one soul still pervades both halves of the brain and carries on as normal. The brain, however, carries on as two entities. It's the same as when you whole brain is drugged out: the soul still carries on as normal, but the brain can't respond much at all (in this case). Your freedom of action has just been diminished. A split brain simply mucks up your freedom of action in a slightly different way.

CS4: And how on Earth does one reconcile the soul with the existence of multiple personality disorder, and its cure? (I refrain with difficulty from discussing the theological implications.)

DA5: Again, the 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.

CS4: The soul has suffered a tragic decline. As William Burroughs put it in The Western Lands, "The Egyptians say you've got seven souls - fourteen if you're Pharaoh" (from memory). Aristotle was so impressed by the fact he could do arithmetic he concluded humans have one more soul than animals, which muddle along with only two, poor beasts. This "intellectual" or "rational" soul did sums and philosophy. (See Russell (1945), pp. 169-72.) For a long time we thought that everything mental was "in" the soul, but now "We all know that memory may be obliterated by an injury to the brain, that a virtuous person may be rendered vicious by encephalitis lethargica, and that a clever child can

be turned into an idiot by lack of iodine" (Russell (1957), p.90; cf. any introductory book on psychology or neurology). Even the soul's utility as an explanation for consciousness is being attacked (see, primarily, Dennett (1991), and Ryle (1949), Johnson-Laird and Calvin (1989) and (1990) as well.) If this last citadel falls, the only job left to the soul will be injecting free will into our streams of consciousness - somehow. (One imagines quandaries being dropped into a little black box with "Free Will" stenciled on the side, and decisions popping out the other end.) Since Ryle (1949) has thoroughly discredited volitions, this will take a good deal of subtlety - and will still face the problems of data gathering, limitations of freedom, etc.

DA5: This is nothing more than an argument by authority. You appear to be saying that the experts have gradually been attributing fewer & fewer functions to the soul and that by this trend the soul will be redundant before long. I will enjoy this as a cute observation, not as an argument. Doctors attributed fewer and fewer functions to tonsils and it used to be trendy to have your tonsils removed. Now it is realised that they help to protect lower parts of throat from getting infected and so are a good thing. Tonsil removal is no longer trendy.

CS4: Derek asks how something so complex and unpredictable that it cannot know its own future behavior could have goals and purposes. Indeed, in DA4 he goes into Social Darwinist rhapsodies: "We visualize ideas and we set out to achieve them. We are competitive, we achieve and win. If what you are saying is true, then we should really all be uncreative defeatists and say, `there's no point in making any effort as I don't really know what I'm doing and every-thing is predetermined anyway.' But this is clearly not the case. Just look out of your window and see what civilization has achieved." We infer that Derek is not living on the streets of Calcutta - but this isn't the time for those jeremiads. Note that Derek uses "should" in the third sentence in the sense of "would," not "ought."

DA5: It is dangerous to draw conclusions, based on my poor usage of English grammar. Caveat. :-)

CS4: I beg leave, O Kings and Queens, to illustrate with a fable. [Cozzie, then goes off into Alice in Wonderland to tell us, with grace and charm, in a manner we are becoming accustomed to, from this great raconteur, that a thermostat and a control computer are goal oriented and hence no different from human goal orientation.]

DA5: In short, the difference is that we visualize and shape our own goals and then achieve them. We even can change direction, abandon goals and find new ones.

CS4:When Derek asked how something lacking free will could claim it, Frank Adams replied quite simply in FA1. "I can easily write a compute program," he wrote, "which, when executed, insists it has free will. Do you think this means that it does?" Derek's response, in DA3, was "In the case of the computer program you programmed it to make it say that it had free will. But.... [sic] who programmed me to say that I have free will?" Despite my pointing out in CS3 that a) the argument from design is out of place and b) Adams proved what was already clear, that a claim of free will does not establish its existence, in DA4 Derek gave us this gem:

But you programmed the computer to say it had free will.

What programmed me to say I have free will?

My free will?

Ergo, QED.

CS4: Derek's Latin is beyond redemption, but he should see that his own theory of the soul allows an unfree entity to claim free will. His soul, after all, merely interferes with a physical, mechanical brain, deciding which of several possible things it does. Surely, then, a soul-less (i.e., de-animated) but living (i.e., animate) human body is not impossible. Sad though the de-animate's lot is, it would be able to learn the behaviors of society as well as one of us; its brain, which does the learning, is not damaged. It would learn to speak, and might even learn enough philosophy to become indignant - or act indignant, if you prefer - when its free will was questioned.

DA5: If we are to believe reports of "out of body experiences" the body is unconscious & "dead" still, when the soul momentarily leaves.

CS4: But then, how do we answer Derek's question? (You can put your body back on now.) What has programmed him? It is tempting to say, "Nothing - Derek is the snow between the channels of the mind," but that's really not true. Things have programmed him. They include:


* Some 46 chromosomes, product of a 3.5 billion year ecumenical

collaboration between the Rev. Malthus and Father Mendel


* Nine months (more or less) of chemicals from his mother in the womb


* His food and other environmental chemicals


* About two decades (probably not more than three and almost certainly

not less than one) of sensory input, some of it encoding quite

abstract information


* The instruction and example of parents, teachers, peers, passers-by

and other featherless bipeds.

DA5: Those other featherless bipeds must have taught me using their free will :-)

CS4: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. There 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.]

CS4: 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.

DA5: 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.

CS4:One approach is to deny the science, which seems to preclude free will.

DA5: Not at all. One can simply reserve judgment.

CS4: Another approach is to claim that science gives us free will on a platter. The vitalists, quantum mystics, chaotophiliacs, etc., who have infested the soft dark underbelly of the modern mind since, at least, Bergson do not merit serious consideration. (They would not even merit mention were they not so common.) But Penrose, also, thinks that free will and many other goodies will bubble up out of quantum gravity. He may be right; he is a much smarter man and a much better physicist than I, and I cannot follow his arguments.

DA5: He may be right indeed.

CS4: Some try to save free will be redefining it, much as Hegel redefined liberty as the right to obey the police. This procedure has one merit: It can save face.

DA5: That approach is not audacious enough for me. Progress needs audacity.

CS4: Ryle (1949) argues in Chapter 4 that there is no incompatibility between physical mechanism and mental freedom. He offers (pp. 76-77) the analogy of a game of chess - every move made conforms rigidly to immutable laws, but those laws do not determine the course of the game. Or, again, a sentence in full accord with all the rules of English grammar is not determined by those rules.

DA5: An incomplete analogy. It explains how the freedom is allowed but not where it comes from. The freedom is the free will of the chess player or the speaker of English, but he doesn't show how that then connects back to his original point.

CS4: What is left is the view that free will is only an appearance. Spinoza: "Men think themselves free because they are conscious of their volitions and desires, but are ignorant of the causes by which they are led to wish and desire." We have an understandable horror of being controlled, but Ned the nefarious neurosurgeon does not exist. There is no one pulling our strings and cackling at us - or, if there is, He ought to be ashamed of Himself. All of us who are not mad accept limits on what we can do, and if those limits are narrower - much narrower - than we thought - there is nothing to be done.

DA5: I've explained many times why I don't accept this position.


DA5: The doubt is frustrating, isn't it? It's tempting to get a soul identity :-)


I have been reading my old poems, and they were written by somebody else.

Yet I am that selfsame person; or, if I am not, who is?

If no one is, when did he die - when he finished this poem,

or that one, or the next day, or the end of that month?

Was it murder, or suicide, or natural causes?

But if I am he, what prevents me from becoming you

- if indeed I cannot? Is it memory?

I can count the times I recalled the past during the course of a day

on my fingers at its end, and someone else's might have done as well;

or no ones, if I became amnesiac. Is it, then, just habit?

Am I no more than my accumulated tics, tremors, tell-tale gestures, turns of phrase?

Is putting my keys in my right pocket each morning as much me as my love?

How could it be? And how could it be less?

Both are strong; both came without my willing them, without my thinking about them;

and if anything, the first will outlast the last.

And is not love, too, a habit - or rather a bundle of them?

I have fallen into the habits of happiness in her company,

and of pain when she is hurt. But where does this leave me?

I acquired some of these habits, and had some of them pressed upon me

- yet if I am my habits, who was it that got them, and therefore had them not?

And when I loose them - as I have lost the habits of picking my nose,

and of integrating sin(x) into cos(x), and of staying awake in class - do I die?

If they are me, after all, whatever lacks them is not me.

If my body acquired your habits, and yours mine, would we have exchanged bodies

- or would our bodies have exchanged tics?

If our bodies shared exactly the same habits, would one person have two bodies?

Or would we still, somehow, have two people?

DA5: A brilliant piece of poetry. I like it. This is where a soul solves such uncertainty.

CS4: On the other hand, saying, "I am my soul; or rather, a soul, the one right there" seems to help not at all. What is a soul doing with a hand, or two of them, or a body?

DA5: It's all holistic, my friend. It's all part of the order of nature. What is gravity doing with a planet, or two of them, or a galaxy?

CS4: How is it that things can happen to its body to make a soul feel estranged from it former selves? If the soul is changing, does it make sense to speak of the infant and the sage she grows into, or the villain before his conversion and the saint afterwards, as being the same soul?

DA5: You can clearly distinguish any Monet from any Picasso. Even though each Picasso is different, each bears the same character or style. The same goes for souls. A soul has its fixed character & identity, but can spiritually mature or regress. A dusty Picasso is still the same Picasso, whether it gets dirtier or gets cleaned up & restored.

CS4: I dislike all the answers, and find ignorance even more irritating.

DA5: I don't think you've seen all the answers yet. In life, sometimes the answer is to take some things on faith. Those things need not contradict science - just supplement it. Faith is not as irritating as doubt. Suck it & see.

CS4: Incidentally, Derek, I've always though violets were violet, not blue, but have been wrong on these sorts of things before...

DA5: You mean you've never heard the ditty "Roses are red, violets are blue...?" You have lived a sheltered life :-) Happy soul searching.


Abbott, Derek (

DA1 = <>

DA2 = <1992Dec2.072250.28853@ etc.>

DA3 = <1992Dec7.00153.19130@ etc.>

DA4 = <1992Dec10.012116.14502@ etc.>

DA5 = this

Adams, Frank (

FA1 = <>

Holmes, M. Randall (

RH1 = <>

Nyikos, Peter (

PN1 = <>

Shalizi, Cosma - your humble narrator (

CS1 = <>

CS2 = article number lost

CS3 = <>

CS4 = <1jsqik$>


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Calvin, William. 1990. The Ascent of Mind


Dennett, Daniel. 1991. Consciousness Explained


Johnson-Laird, Philip. 1980-something. The Computer and the Mind.

(My copy is temporarily misplaced, so I can't give the date.)


Russell, Bertrand Arthur William. 1945. A History of Western Philosophy


Russell, Bertrand Arthur William. 1957. Why I Am Not A Christian


Ryle, Gilbert. 1949. The Concept of Mind


Stove, David. 1991. The Plato Cult and Other Philosophical Follies