The Same Inescapable Topic Yet Again

A reader who has far more patience for this long dead topic than it deserves asks:

 I believe that the question that Dr. Andreassen has been trying to ask with the convoluted Mechaspeare thought-experiment is, do immaterial things impact the trajectory of material things? So, for example, if Shakespeare were sitting at a desk and we had the God-like power to instantly analyze the entire physics of the universe would we absolutely know what he would physically do next?

If we would, Dr. Andreassen concludes, then there is no need believe in immaterial things as they add nothing to predictive power. If we wouldn’t, Dr. Andreassen concludes, then in theory, and at some point in the future, physicists could develop an experiment to show that immaterial things exist. He then is interested in how the immaterial things change the trajectory of material things.

I solemnly assure you that I understand the purpose and point and every nuance of Dr Andreassen’s hypothetical. We have flogged that particular horse of conversation to death and then with additional whip strokes torn the carcass from the bones.

The original conversation consisted of very few exchanges, and then month after month after month of impasses, where neither side said or could say anything new.

His disagreement with me is metaphysical, and since does not believe metaphysical questions are meaningful, he can neither ask nor answer meaningful questions about his position.

It was a question I answered two years ago, and again every few months since.

My answer is and was this: Immaterial things do not suffer physical motion from material things nor impart physical motion to material things. Only material things impart physical motion to material things.

You are perhaps imagining that I am saying that a thought is like a ghostly cue ball which strikes a physical eight ball of the brain cells, or that immaterial spirits deflect electrons flowing through the nervous system in some fashion by imparting motion to them from nowhere and for no cause.

Instead, I am saying that the thing which makes a cue ball a cue ball, that is, the rule which tells the player not to knock it into the pocket, is a thing without weight or shape or time or space or motion. It is an idea.

“So, for example, if Shakespeare were sitting at a desk and we had the God-like power to instantly analyze the entire physics of the universe would we absolutely know what he would physically do next?”

The question is ambiguous, and nothing I can do or say can get Dr Andreassen to see or resolve the ambiguity.

Maybe you can. Let me ask.

When you say “the entire physics of the universe” do you mean the physical quantities only of the material dimensions of the physical universe only?

Or do you mean the physical quantities as well as mental and logical and formal qualities of all dimensions of the universe, physical and mental, conceptual, ideal, spiritual, aesthetic, and so on?

If you mean the second, then the answer is not just “yes” and not just “yes, obviously” but is “yes, obviously, why do you even bother to ask?” For if you know everything in the universe (including what people will free will shall do) merely from knowing the physics of the universe, then you live in a universe where everything in the universe can be deduce from the physics in the universe.

In that case, the question is a meaningless tautology. The question in that case is “if hypothetically, I know everything in the universe, and therefore know exactly what Shakespeare will do, will I know what Shakespeare will do?” Yes, obviously, why do you even bother to ask?

But on the other hand, If you mean the first, the answer is not just “no” and not just “hell, no” the answer is “hell, no, and how in the world did you even think to imagine that you could predict the psychology and philosophy and aesthetic judgments of William Shakespeare without taking any of these things into account?”

If you leave out of your model not just incidental factors and not just crucial factors, but the one and only factor you are asking about, then the model cannot predict whatever depends on those factors.

In this case, you are in effect asking whether God Himself, by taking the temperature of Shakespeare’s brain and measuring its diameter can predict whether Shakespeare will pen a happy ending for Romeo or a sad one, the answer is not just “no” and not just “hell, no” the answer is “hell, no, and how in the world did you even think to imagine that anyone, including God Himself, could predict what Shakespeare intends to do while ignoring what Shakespeare intends to do?”

At this point in the conversation, I keep expecting Dr Andreassen to say “Well, I am assuming that I can deduce Shakespeare’s intent, and the contents of his mind and will, by making sufficiently careful measurements of his brain temperature and brain diameter.”

He never does, because he is perhaps unaware of the metaphysical assumptions underpinning his question.

If he ever did, at that point I would ask him whether temperature measures tragedy, or does it measure temperature? I would ask him whether diameter measures happy endings, or does it measure length of the axis?

And, at that point, he might perhaps say that if you measured temperature or some other brain element very, very carefully indeed, you could tell what thoughts a man was thinking.

And I would ask him if there was one temperature per thought, so that 98 degrees means happy ending, but 99 degrees means ‘grab the dagger’ and so on. He might say yes or he might say no, but he might say that it is brain atom motions or some other element and not temperature that determines thought content.

At that point I would ask him, if there is a one-to-one link between every brain quantum and thought quality, what is the nature of the link?

If, for example, one brain cell or other quantifiable element, represents one and only one concept, such as Aardvark or Zymurgy, what is the connection between the concept or abstraction ‘Aardvark’ and the brain cell assigned to represent it? Is this link a physical link?

Or is it a mental and symbolic link? Symbolic link between the symbol and the thing symbolized could be true or false, accurate or inaccurate, depending on the relation between the symbol and the referent.

But a physical link has physical properties only, so it would be some sort of chain made of nerves or electrons, that has mass and occupies space.

If it is a physical link, how can it be weighed and measured?

No one has ever detected these links leading from objects to brain cells to words and images to language to the rules of logic and back to other brain cells. No one has measured them.

At that point, no matter how he answers the question, he finally will have said something even he would acknowledge no one has ever measured.

He is not drawing his conclusion from an experiment. He is not drawing his conclusion from an observation. In other words, he is not drawing his conclusion from physics.

In other words, the conclusion that all conclusions whatsoever about anything in the universe can be drawn from physics is contradicted by itself.

But he has never said this, so we have never reached that point. I am not sure what he would say if asked this particular question.

If we would, Dr. Andreassen concludes, then there is no need believe in immaterial things as they add nothing to predictive power. If we wouldn’t, Dr. Andreassen concludes, then in theory, and at some point in the future, physicists could develop an experiment to show that immaterial things exist. He then is interested in how the immaterial things change the trajectory of material things.

The same ambiguity is present here. Which prediction are we discussing? Are we discussing physical outcomes only, or are we discussing all outcomes, including what Shakespeare thinks and says and the deliberate motions of his living body?

We can predict the physical behavior of Shakespeare, but not mental behavior, if we restrict ourselves (as physics by definition restricts itself) only to the contemplation of the physical behaviors.

This is because if we predict the physical behavior while ignoring the mental behavior then we cannot predict the mental behavior.

I am not saying anything abstract or complex here. If you have an exact predictive model of Shakespeare called Mecha-Shakespeare, and it modeled absolutely all physical properties of physical atoms, including brain atoms, but you do not ask Shakespeare “Say, Will, will Romeo and Juliette have a happy ending or a sad?” you will not hear or know his answer, which is, “I am planning on throwing myself from the top of the Tower of London if philosophers arguing about materialism do not stop bugging me!”

If, on the other hand, we are talking about predicting everything, then we are talking about predicting things physics does not even in theory try to predict, such as the intentions of a man.

What are we talking about predicting?

Our prediction of the ballistic flightpath of Shakespeare’s body if he were thrown from the Tower of London could be excruciatingly accurate.

What he says as his last words, whether it is a curse or a prayer or a poem or a shriek, cannot possibly be predicted by physics because physics refuses to consider the intent of the actor (pun intended).

Intent is not a physical thing, and physics deals with and only deals with mechanical causation. Intent is final causation.

Once our Shakespeare in Midair speaks, of course, the medical properties of his lungs in motion and the physical properties of the sound vibrations in the air, can all be described by physics.

So this answer again, depending on the assumption, is either, “hell, no” or “obviously, yes.”

If physics can deduce all things, including things excluded from the science of physics, using nothing but the scientific method of observation and experiment, then the word ‘physics’ merely means ‘all forms of knowledge whatsoever about all topics whatsoever gained by using any means whatsoever’.

In that case, the set of disciplines outside physics would equal exactly nothing, because all disciplines would be a branch of physics. In that case, yes, obviously, the disciplines outside physics could add no predictive power to the findings of physics because then physics (by definition) is all there is and finds all there is.

But, meanwhile back in reality on this side of Alice’s Looking Glass, physics cannot deduce all things, because it concerns itself with and only with the physical properties of physical objects, and it restricts itself to observations of observable properties.

Assuming physics is not everything, then a physical description of the physical body of Shakespeare including the physical location of every element, atom, and particle in his brain, cannot possibly, even in theory, allow anyone, not even God Himself, to deduce how Shakespeare will decide which means to use to seek the ends he seeks, either when he finishes a poem or throws himself from the Tower of London, because means and ends are not observable properties of physical objects.

Now, again, one might object that in this hypothetical we are assuming that the qualities of nonphysical properties (such as the truth value of a statement, or the artistic value of a tragedy, or the value of man’s life) can be deduced from the quantities physical properties, such as the temperature of Shakespeare’s brain or the alcohol content of his blood. So what happens if we assume physics is everything? What if we assume we can predict how Romeo and Juliette will turn out based on careful measurement of Shakespeare’s moustache and the amount of tobacco he smokes while thinking?

However, the assumption is a blatant self contradiction. It does not even make any sense. It is like asking how many numbers on the number line does it take to reach Omicron, or High C? But Omicron is a letter, not a number, and does not exist on the number line at all, and High C is a note of music. No matter how many numbers you add to a line segment, you cannot make a line segment into a line of poetry or a bar of music.

Likewise, no matter how many quantities you add or subtract to other quantities, you cannot deduce anything but quantities.

Ah, but you might again object that if an intelligent observer or onlooker arbitrarily assigns a qualitative meaning to a quantity, that manipulating the quantity with quantitative operations will allow him correctly to make a qualitative judgment. So, for example, if 5 is assigned the meaning ‘red’ and 2 is assigned the meaning ‘happy’ then 10, which is the product of 2 and 5, will mean that red makes me happy.

At this point, the conversation is merely Alice Through the Looking Glass nonsense, where words are being associated with things arbitrarily, and no rules of logic or rules of grammar exist to make sure the symbol operations in our speech match or parallel the real world operations in our observation.

And, not to beat a dead horse, the observer in the hypothetical is now standing outside the domain of physics, because in order to frame the hypothetical, we need to talk about an observer, and the symbols he contemplates in his mind, and their meaning which he assigns them, whereupon we are no longer talking about length, duration, mass, current, candlepower, temperature or moles of substance of any material thing, not even the material in the brains of the observer. We are talking about truth and falsehood, just and unjust, the logical relation of symbols, the relation of symbols to reality, and the relation of knowledge to topics. In other words, even the discussion about the idea that everything is physics rests on the ideas that can only be talked about if everything is not physics.

Short answer: qualities are not quantities and cannot be expressed in terms of quantities. Matter is not mind and mind is not matter. Final cause is not mechanical cause.

Physics is not everything.


The reason why the conversation is so frustrating, is that the underlying assumption is never addressed.

It is an assumption of ontology. If we assume that only material things properly speaking exist and that thoughts and forms ‘exist’ only in the sense that unicorns do (in speech but not in reality) then the conclusion that physics is everything follows naturally, because the physical properties of objects are the only existing properties.

If we assume contrariwise that not only material things properly speaking exist, however, we cannot conclude that physics is everything.

Dr Andreassen has never discussed his underlying assumption with me, and seems, by his own choice, not to be qualified to have the discussion, because it would be a discussion of ontology, a branch of metaphysics, a discipline he holds in contempt.

He has never once uttered a single argument to assuage, nor even to address, my skepticism about the assumption that only physical properties properly so called have existence.

I have told him half a dozen times that we are at an impasse because this question of ontology must be addressed first before any more discussion on the question of materialism is possible. He never responds.

This is not a case of my misunderstanding a new argument or a new take on an old argument. I am a professional philosopher. It is my field. I am familiar with these arguments. He is not only NOT saying anything new, he is not even giving the old arguments in a rigorous and persuasive way.

So, all modesty aside, I understand materialism, and the arguments for and against it, far better than anyone who had arisen to argue with me here. I have read Lucretius and Hobbes and Kant and Hegel and Marx and the other materialists who invented the idea of materialism.

I got the concept.

But I am skeptical, and no one has made serious attempt at the serious argument to me to assuage my justifiable skepticism.

So, with all due respect, I do not need anyone to explain to me the hypothetical again.