Barbicane and Lucretius

A reader with the diminutive name of Michael the Lesser writes and asks:

Now the assumption that I hold is that atoms move in orderly and predictable ways. My body is made of such atoms and thus all of the organs involved in making the noise I use to speak should then act in orderly and predictable ways.

Now there is a certain noise that I use to refer to the idea of dog and that is the sound “dog.” So, if I were to be speaking with you and made the sound “dog”, you would understand that the pressure waves were referring to the idea of dog.

Now, how is it that when I will to communicate the word dog in my mind through speech, that the pressure waves that come out of my mouth are the noise that we have agreed upon in language is referring to the idea of dog?

What I’m after is what is the connection between the will in the soul and the movement of the body? If I had sufficient knowledge of all the atoms in my body, given that they are orderly and predictable, could someone predict the movement of my arm before I willed it to move?

Or let me put it into classical terms as best I can, how does my will give the atoms in my arm the final cause to go up?

My comment: I can speak to some of this, but not to the underlying assumption, which I am not sure I understand, much less share.

“Now the assumption that I hold is that atoms move in orderly and predictable ways.”

I am not clear on what you mean here. If you mean that the carbon atom in your liver, let us say, reacts chemically to a hydrogen atom in the fashion carbon atoms are wont to do, fine. This is orderly and predictable.

If you mean that getting an unexpected ulcer due the stress of coming home one day and finding your house has been hit by a meteor and your wife ran off with the mailman, I am not sure that this is predictable in the ordinary sense of the term. There is a psychological component to stress which physics is incompetent to address.

If mean that when you sit down to a piano and play an improvised jazz riff, so that even you do not know exactly which keys you will strike in which order as the spirit moves you, then, no, in no sense of the word is your hand moving a way any mortal man can predict.

“My body is made of such atoms and thus all of the organs involved in making the noise I use to speak should then act in orderly and predictable ways.”

Your physical body is made of physical atoms and the PHYSICAL properties of those atoms certainly can be predicted physically by the physicist in exactly how they will act. If your unconscious body were stuffed into the mouth of the moon-cannon Columbiad constructed by Jules Verne’s fictional engineer Barbicane, Newton could predict with tolerable precision the curve of the ballistic arc and orbit your body would describe when being shot to the moon.

This is You Being Fired to the Moon Quite Predictably

But the physical motions observed by a third party who looks and sees you using your lungs and lips to make air vibrations to speak are the least interest part of your speaking. Surely the meaning of the words is what concerns you as a speaker or you as a listener?

I do not see how that third party could possibly know what your lung and lip motions were to be until and unless he knew what you intended to say, or what language you intended to say it in, or at what volume. This is the part I am not clear on.

I do not see how we get from the pretty obviously true notion that the fall of your unconscious body shot from a cannon can be determined by Newtonian mechanics, to the pretty obviously absurd notion that Newtonian mechanics determine what you are going to say with you call the dog a dog.

In the first case, your unconscious body acts in the same way as a bag of sand. The properties your body has, such as warmth, breathing, and so on, do not influence the ballistic path through a vacuum. The only cause this problem considers is the amount of charge in the gun, your mass, and the gun elevation. The cannon pushes you.

In the second case, you are awake and trying to speak. You have a goal. The goal is the cause of the words you select and the tone of voice you adopt. The goal draws you.

Now, to make matter more complex, let us say you are awake and inside the moon cannon. Impey Barbicane is standing outside with the fuse waiting for you to give the signal. You are afraid that if you do not go through with this outrageous enterprise, the adorable Boston girl you hope to marry will not wed you. Assume for the sake of argument that your fiancee is Debra Paget. You shout, “Fire!”

The Columbiad Moon Cannon Fires

Consider these two sentences: (1) You shouting “fire!” was the CAUSE of you being shot to the moon. It was something you did on purpose in order to impress a girl. (2) The ignition of 400 thousand pounds of gun cotton imparting a velocity in excess of seven miles a second was the CAUSE of you being shot to the moon.

Would there ever be a circumstance where the two types of causation would be confused?

While it is true, from the point of view of physics, that if you had been shot from the cannon with only 399 thousand pounds of gun cotton, you would have fallen short and missed the moon, it is also true that if your fiancee had behaved differently during that highly emotional conversation you had beneath her balcony window, you would not have made such a rash wager, and would not have climbed into the deadly cannon, and likewise would not have been shot to the moon.

Assume for the Sake of Argument that your Fiancee is Debra Paget

But the examination of what went wrong during that conversation under the balcony window is not the province of the physicists, and there is no use pretending it is. You should have asked your friend Cyrano de Bergerac (who has also been to the moon) what to say to the girl, not Isaac Newton. We are talking about two different whole fields of study: poetry is not physics. I should say it is two different universes.

So, to return again to your question: “If I had sufficient knowledge of all the atoms in my body, given that they are orderly and predictable, could someone predict the movement of my arm before I willed it to move?”

I don’t know. Does this someone know you all that well? Is it a friend or a stranger?

Is it Impey Barbicane?

Did he tell you, “When you shout fire, I will move my arm and pull the fuse line to ignite the cannon and shoot you to the moon.” ?

In that case, I think the motion of Barbicane’s arm is not only predictable, you are betting your life on it, because if he fires too soon or too late, you will miss the target. However, fear might cause him to hesitate: in which case you can only predict the motion of Impey Barbicane’s arm if you know his character and his courage.

Now, at this point you might be laughing at me, or wondering if I am laughing at you. Not so! I am perfectly in earnest.

Quite earnestly I tell you that, in order for me to predict how you will move your arm, I must know the circumstances, including what might get you to to move it and what might impede that motion. I have stipulated a circumstance, that is, being shot from an absurdly giant cannon, which bring character and courage into question. In the hypothetical here, the character of the girl, the nature of your feeling for her, and the rash wager you made saying you will let yourself get shot to the moon, also have a bearing on the issue.

Physicists never talk about the character and the courage of the carbon atom making a chemical bond to other atoms. It is a different type of question altogether.

Now, at this point, the local village materialist might say, “But your courage is the product of your adrenal glands; your love for the girl is a product of your testosterone, and the Darwinian mechanisms urging the reproduction of the race….”

Yes, yes, imaginary village materialist. No doubt you will also tell me my desire to make an outrageous wager is one of the chemical properties of gold. Shut up.

Please note this imaginary village materialist is uttering blithering nonsense. It not only does not explain what is going on, it is not related to the topic under discussion, and it proposes that we accept such a large number of unproved and unprovable statements as fact, that it might as well be a new cult worshiping a comet.

The proposal is that not all physical reality, but all topics whatsoever, is and can be addressed by the assumptions and approach of the physical scientists. The imaginary village materialist says not only that “if you cannot measure it, it is not science” he said, “if you cannot measure it, it is not real.” (And, being a materialist, he does not notice that he cannot measure the truth value of any sentences uttered, not even his own, which therefore, by his logic, are not real.) The fact that all topics falling outside the range of physics cannot be addressed using the mental toolbox of physics is ignored by the village materialist. Physics is a deliberate limitation or reduction of thinking processes only to inductions based on observations and only to deductions based on measurable magnitudes.

My suggestion is that merely because complex physical reactions can be reduce to simpler physical reactions when being described from the point of view of physics by a physicist, it does not necessarily follow that actions made for deliberate reasons by spirits, beasts, or people because of their drives, instincts, oaths, goals, loves, fears, reasoned conclusions, or desire to impress the girl are somehow under the umbrella of the physical sciences.

If you want to know what to say to impress the girl, you are better off talking to Cyrano than Isaac Newton.

Do you see what I mean? The Cartesian assumption that physics is anything more than a makeshift tool useful for studying natural philosophy is one I do not grant, and I see no reason for anyone to grant. The idea that physics should or could swallow all other fields of human thought is self contradictory on its face.