Debating with the Tin Woodman of Oz

Part of an ongoing discussion of final versus mechanical causes:

Dr. Andreassen says:  “Mr Wright’s contention, if I understand it correctly, is that we can directly perceive that these things are not atoms; it is, to coin a phrase, obvious.”

That is not my contention. My contention is this:

There are two kinds of statements.

  1. Empirical statements are statements of physical fact, without any interpretation. They are statements about objects.
  2. Rational or ideal statements are statements about conceptual fact, and include concepts that describe the relation of thoughts or symbols to objects.

For example, a billiard can be heavy or light, round or oblate, but a billiard ball cannot be true or false, moral or immoral, efficient or inefficient, logical or illogical, because these terms all describe the relationship between thoughts, words, symbols and human actions to objects. A word can be false if it does not refer to the object to which it pretends to refer; a sentence can be illogical if the symbols do not follow the pattern of coherence and consistency that objects and concepts follow, and so on.

In physics, all apparently complex empirical phenomena can be reduced to simple statements of Mass, Length, Time, Temperature, Amount, Current, Candlepower. They can be completely described in empirical statements.

Further, all empirical phenomena can be described completely in terms of mechanical causation, that is to say, a description of the external forces moving an inanimate object.

No statement which contains only measurements of Mass, Length, Time, Temperature, Amount, Current, Candlepower can (without slyly or overtly introducing another statement concerning the meaning of these things) convey any information about meaning or purpose or final cause of an event.

Statements about meaning, rational or ideal statements, cannot be described completely without some reference, direct or indirect, to final cause, that is to say, the purpose or the “for the sake of which” of an object or event.

Ergo, since statements of the first type must contain no reference to final causes, and statements of the second type must contain reference to final causes, statements of the first type cannot be reduced to statement of the second type.

Expressed as a syllogism:

  1. Statements of physics are only empirical, defining mechanical causes and quantities.
  2. Statements of meaning are non-empirical, defining final causes and qualities.
  3. Therefore statements of the second type are not statements of the first type.

In order for one statement to be reduced to another statement, it must contain (at least in potential) the information.

  1. Empirical statements, defining mechanical causes and quantities, by design can only be reduced to other empirical statements, namely numerations of Mass, Length, Time, Temperature, Amount, Current, Candlepower.
  2. Statements of meaning contain information, such as true/false, logical/illogical, good/bad, efficient/inefficient, beautiful/ugly, just/unjust, justified/unjustified which by the design of strict empiricism cannot be reduced to numerations of Mass, Length, Time, Temperature, Amount, Current, Candlepower.
  3. Therefore statements of meaning cannot be reduced to empirical statements.

The example used was in a law case, where the defendant on the witness stand gave two answers. In the first, the materialist answer, homicide was described entirely but only in terms of mechanical causes, including the position and voltage of the electrons in the brain, the nerve action causing the motion of the finger causing the fall of the hammer causing the chemical reaction of the gunpowder, causing the flight of the bullet, causing the injury the body of the victim, and so on.

I even gave the exact voltages and positions of the electrons in the brain, including the wavelengths striking the eye, the chemical reactions at the back of the eye, the stimulation of the optic nerve, the presence of microvolts in the Sylvan fissure of the cortex, and so on. What I did not give is the meaning of those empirical facts.

I then gave an example of a rational or ideal answer, which would say the one thing crucial for determining whether the act was murder in the first degree, murder in the second degree, or a justifiable homicide.

Now, I then asked if the first answer, which described the Mass, Length, Time, Temperature, Amount, Current, Candlepower of the brain atoms and the other atoms at the crime scene could give you the information you need to make a proper legal determination, i.e. to understand the meaning, of the event.

The problem is that, for example: “.02 + .03 microvolts = murder in the second degree” is not a meaningful statement. The first half of the equation consists of numbers, representing a magnitude; the second half of the equation represents a concept mitigating guilt. Guilt cannot be reduced to Mass, Length, Time, Temperature, Amount, Current, Candlepower.

All that would be necessary to prove me wrong — since I have made a universal negative statement that NO rational or ideal statement can be reduced to an empirical statement— is to show me a single contrary example.

Let us take the example given of the murder case. I have given the voltages and location of the brain stimuli, or I can give it in any degree of detail anyone requires. All you have to do is show me how .02 microvolts at location A plus .03 microvolts at location B leads, without introducing any statement of meaning that only an observer (including the defendant) could bring, to a statement about the state of mind of the defendant at the time of the act, that is to say, a statement about the meaning of the act from the defendant’s point of view.

Let us continue to answer, or at least address, each of the points seriatim.

“My contention, on the other hand, is that this is an intuition, albeit a very widely shared one, and one which is mistaken.”

Here the good doctor merely misstates the argument made. Intuition? Really?

“In addition, Mr Wright makes the argument that if my thesis holds, then there is no point in listening to me, because I am only a collection of atoms emitting random noises; I intend to show that this is false, because the noises are anything but random even though they are deterministic.”

An ambiguity. “Random” in my sentence means, “purposeless” or “without final cause” or “happening not for the sake of any goal” — it does not mean “happening spontaneously like a virtual particle appearing out of nowhere for no reason.”

“(Quoting me) “Have we not told the thoughts and the passions in the mind of the defendant at the time involved? Of course not. Saying .03 microvolts in the thamalus does not saying what meaning from the point of view of the defendant that neural message held for him.”  But you are merely repeating your original assertion, without adding any additional information to support it! The point is precisely that a [i]sufficiently detailed description[/i] at the atomic level [i]does[/i] contain the meaning, the thoughts, and the passions.”

My comment: The doctor says that my stating my conclusion is stating my original assertion. He is mistaken. My comment was that the statement A “.03 microvolts in the thamalus” and the statement B “This was a crime of passion” do not convey the same information. From this I deduce, I do not restate, that the two statements are of different natures, and incompatible, and one cannot be reduced to the other.

The doctor then restates his original assertion, which is that at the atomic level descriptions of magnitudes and positions of atoms do indeed contain the legal information about the state of mind of the defendant at the time of the crime, and he makes this assertion without offering any additional information to support it.

“(Quoting me) ‘The only way to address the argument is to address the axiom that everything is matter in motion. The problem with the statement is that even if it were true, it does not follow that everything can be reduced to material motions without a loss of meaning. A list of numbers telling the position of moving parts or particles does not tell you what it means, or what purpose it serves.’

“How do you know?”

My comment: I know because it is a deduction from the argument given above. “1+1” does not equal “murder in the second degree.”

Merely asserting that if I added more numbers to the first half of the equation would allow you to derive the second half of the equation is illogical. If “1+1 electron-volts” does not equal “murder in the second degree” then “1+1+1+1 ev” also does not equal “murder in the second degree”; then also “1+1+1+1+1+1 ev” also does not equal “murder in the second degree” and so on for any number of numbers we wish.

Murder in the second degree is the unlawful killing of the human being with malice aforethought without justification in such circumstances as the reason of an ordinary man could be overborne by passion. That is the definition.

The equation of the two sensible statements is this:

Statement A: “Murder in the second degree = the unlawful killing of the human being with malice aforethought without justification in such circumstances as the reason of an ordinary man could be overborne by passion.”

Statement B: “1+1+1+1ev = 4 ev”

Both those statements make sense because they both refer to entities of the same type. However the next two statement below are impermissible, and have no reference in reality:

Statement C: “Murder in the second degree = 4ev”

Statement D: “1+1+1+1  ev =  the unlawful killing of the human being with malice aforethought without justification in such circumstances as the reason of an ordinary man could be overborne by passion.”

Dr. Andreeson continues:

“Have you ever taken a long list of numbers and failed to derive meaning from it?”

My comment: I admit I have never been in a court of law where the position and number of electrons in the brain of the defendant was introduced into evidence. The mental image of doing so would be amusing if it were not grounds for debarment.

The more ordinary procedure would be to talk to the witnesses and judge their testimony, but, of course, if your theory is correct, than a measurement of brain atoms would be able to deduce with scientific precision the guilt and innocence of the parties involved, since guilt and innocence would be reduced to a measurement of Mass, Length, Time, Temperature, Amount, Current, Candlepower or some combination thereof.

I suggest 20 to 25 foot-pounds of unlawfulness measured against 30 meters of malice should produce a ratio of density to the volume of the mitigating circumstances, and the reasonable man standard as applied to the McNaulghten test for temporary insanity will produce exactly 3.14159 electron-volts of non-guilty if the man moves at 42 centimeters per second squared of jealous rage.

This above jest has a sober point: none of the concepts (law, malice, mitigation, insanity, guilt, rage) needed to reason about the subject matter (passion as a mitigation of guilt) have anything to do with any empirical measurement of the physical facts, which (in this hypothetical) are not in dispute.

“I refer you again to your own analogy of the bird’s shape contained within the DNA. The DNA is formless to a human eye, just as a list of numbers is meaningless; but nonetheless the DNA does describe the eagle soaring on the wind.”

The DNA forms the mechanical cause of the eagle soaring. It defines how the wing is built, not what it is for. DNA does not “describe” anything, certainly not the meaning of the final cause of the shape of the bird’s wing. According to the mechanistic account of the universe, there is no such meaning: the eagle wing is not “for the sake of” flying because the wing has only mechanical causes, not final causes.

” You are arguing from incredulity: You do not understand how the meaning can be extracted from the numbers, and therefore it must be, you think, impossible; the meaning must be separate. That-does-not-follow!”

This is another misstatement of the argument. The argument is not that I cannot picture in my wee poor head how to deduce meaningful statements from meaningless statements. The argument is that the nature of the statements is such that they are incommensurable. They have no common ground to which they can both refer as a standard.

(Quoting me) “Let us use the example of a tool, as this is the clearest example. The word ‘tool’ is distinguished from the word ‘object’ only because of the final cause involved. A tool is meant for a task. A hammer is meant to pound nails, a screwdriver to drive screws, a crowbar to pry. You can use a hammer to drive a screw, or a screwdriver to pry, but these uses are outside the design of the tool.” Verbiage, prolixity! You introduce a distinction between tools and objects in language, and argue that because you see a distinction, there must be a distinction in nature.”

My comment: My argument is that you see the distinction as well, except during debates like this one, and that the distinction exists in reality, and that distinction can only be ignored by prolix verbal gyrations having no referent in reality.

But I did not say that the final cause of the tool existed “in nature” — that is an addition you added. Tools are artifacts; they are artificial. The final cause of a tool, strictly speaking, cannot be found in nature.

(Is using ordinary words in their ordinary meaning a sign of prolixity?)

“And in fact you are right, there [i]is[/i] a distinction in nature, but it’s not what you think it is; it rests in the description of the brains of the designer. Your analogy of the sledgehammer-object that comes into being randomly but is indistinguishable from the sledgehammer-tool fails to engage the naturalistic explanation of the tool, because in fact the two [i]are[/i] distinguishable: You just have to examine a different set of atoms. There exists relevant information about the tool which is not found in the atoms that make it up, but in a different set of atoms; it-does-not-follow that no distinction between them can be made without resort to other things than atoms.”

My comment: The good doctor, without noticing it, reintroducing final cause and reintroducing meanings beyond the mere measurements of atom by introducing the brain of the designer, and by expressing his article of faith that somewhere hidden in the brain atoms of the designer is the particular set of atoms that makes the hammer a tool rather than a natural object of no particular purpose.

However, this does not change and need not slow the argument. I propose the thought experiment. Find the hammersmith, find the set of atoms which makes the hammer an artificial tool rather than a purposeless natural object. Switch the brain atoms to a new configuration, but keep the hammer the same. Then switch them back rapidly. The hammer will change from tool to purposeless object to tool to purposeless object over and over again, but not a single physical change will take place in the hammer. Hence, any statement about the final cause of the hammer still is not deducible from the empirical properties of the hammer: which is all I need to show for my argument. Final cause is non-empirical.

“I suggest that you are exhibiting a classic pattern: You look at a model which you dislike, you reason about it using [i]your own[/i] model until you think you have a contradiction, and then you stop, satisfied that your work is done, without considering what the counter to your objection might be. This is not the way to arrive at truth.”

My comment: Dr. Andreassen is also displaying a classical pattern of sophomoric behavior here, which I am too polite to dwell on.

“As a side note, I suggest that a tool designer might well think about people using his screwdriver to pry, and consider whether it’s worth adding some extra metal to make it better suited to that use, or at least ensure it won’t bend into uselessness. But this does not much affect the main argument, except as evidence that the final cause is not to be determined purely by looking at the object.”

My comment: Agreed. This does not affect the main argument.

“(Quoting me) If the handyman suddenly and for no reason says that the sledgehammer is a doorstop, or a screwdriver, or a prybar, he is acting beyond his powers: he is making a statement he does not have the authority to make. If he took the stand in a court of law testified that the sledgehammer was a prybar, he would be committing perjury. The purpose served by the sledgehammer is not up to him. It is not a matter of taste or opinion.” I’m not certain I agree with this; if the judge and jury agreed with him, it seems to me that as a matter of law the sledgehammer would be a prybar.

My comment: This is merely the same subjectivism at one remove. If the finding of the court were overturned on appeal, would all the prybars in the world suddenly flip back to being sledgehammers? Suppose the appelate court were then hit by an orbital-to-surface atomic bomb, leaving only the sledgehammer remarkably intact in the center of the crater. Suppose an archeologist a century later dug it up, saw the shape of the handle and the weight of the head, and deduced that this was a tool used to hammer things and not a prybar. Would the deduction be correct or incorrect?

Or is the question merely silly, because we are dealing with a model of the universe that only admits of mechanical causes?

“But even taking the argument at face value, it-does-not-follow (a rationally designed language would have a single short phrase for this!) that the information about the intended use does not exist in atoms; you can look at the brain of the designer, and a sufficiently detailed examination will tell you what he had in mind for the tool.”

My comment: The doctor again states his article of faith, which he so far has not produced a single particle of evidence to support, that the final causes must exist somewhere in the position and location, charge and mass of the brain atoms of the toolmaker, because all things can be reduced to empirical statements.

The statement is false. If you ask the toolmaker, and he tells you, then you will know what he had in mind. Cutting open his brain will tell you the  Mass, Length, Time, Temperature, Amount, Current, Candlepower of the brain atoms and particles. Not a single symbol, not a single word, not a single thought, not a single abstraction concept, will be visible under the brain microscope. It requires an observer to understand these things, a thinker to think these thoughts.

The mechanical causes of the brain, or the ink on a bit of paper stored elsewhere, do not contain the final cause of the hammer. The final cause is not a physical property, and writing down on paper an opinion about an tool’s final cause, or moving brain atoms in response to stimuli to make a symbol referring to a tool’s final cause, does not make final cause itself a physical property. The only thing physical is the matter in which the symbol is embedded: the cross shape that symbolized a T or the snake-curve that symbolized an S.  Strictly speaking, a “symbol” is a mental concept, not the physical representation of crosses or snakes.  This is because symbols have meaning (otherwise they are not symbols) whereas ink-blots on a page or the motion of brain atoms in response to stimuli, do not have any meaning outside of the context of a reader to read the words or a thinker to think the thoughts.

I ask again: if a man comes across a sledgehammer whose origin he does not know, is he wrong to deduce that this is a tool made for the sake of hammering? Is he not permitted, in the materialist view of the universe, from looking at the thing, noticing the weight of the head and the heft of the handle, and understanding its purpose because he understands the idea of what a hammer is for?

Even if the brain of the man picking up the hammer suffers a brain-atom change that can be described as “1+1+1+1+1 ev” this discription is not the same as, and cannot be reduced to, his testimony, “I understood the purpose of the hammer, for I saw its shape and felt its heft, and because I know the idea of what a hammer is, and I judged the two were alike.”

“You keep arguing that the final cause cannot be determined by examining the atoms of an object; very well; but it-does-not-follow that it cannot be determined from atoms at all. It is rather that the information is not local to the object, being contained in a different set of atoms. “Spooky action at a distance”, if you like! You will observe that even in your theory, you cannot determine the final cause by looking only at the two sledgehammer-things, if the one from your lifeless universe should suddenly be transported to the workman’s shed. Only by looking at human intentions and the history of the two sledgehammers would you be able to say “This is a mere object, while that is a designed tool”. So the objection that the final cause is not contained in the hammer is not sufficient; you must also show that it is not contained anywhere else.”

My comment: I agree that only by looking at the human intentions and history of the two sledgehammers would you be able to say  “This is a mere object, while that is a designed tool” — but, lo and behold, pleased note that we have slyly reintroduced the concept of final cause. To speak of “Human intention” means to speak of an observer (equipped to understand with his understanding) who will understand something called human intentions; and “human intentions” means the meaning of the acts, their purposes, their efficiency, their morality.

However, none of these things (intentions, meaning, purposes, efficiency, morality) can be expressed by any combination of numbered magnitudes of Mass, Length, Time, Temperature, Amount, Current, Candlepower.

Let us make a distinction. Marks represent symbols. A “mark” is a cross or a snake-curve of ink on a page. It is a physical object that can be completely described by physical measurements. A “symbol” is the ‘T’ or the ‘S’ that represents the sharp sound or the hissing sound audible in certain words; and these symbols can likewise stands for or point to other things, such as ‘time’ or ‘subject’. A physical symbol has physical properties: the length of the stem of the cross can be expressed in inches, for example. A symbol has properties like true and false. They differ.

They differ so fundamentally that one cannot be deduced from the other, because the information is not present, not even in an embedded or implied form, from one to the other.

“(quoting me) On the other hand, if nothing has a final cause, then not only are designed and manufactured tools indistinguishable from meaningless and accidental objects, but by the same logic, words are indistinguishable from noise, and the patterns of electrons in a sane human brain are indistinguishable from white noise, or the meaningless scurry of electrons from cloud to cloud during a lightningstorm.” No! Absolutely not! I refer you again to information theory, linked above.”

My comment: information theory measures the bytes of data, not the meaning, which is not something that can be measured. The ink on the page that forms a letter does not form a letter unless there is an observer to read it, and furthermore, it must be an observer who understands the meaning. You are simply conflating the symbol with the referent. An ink stain shaped like a cross or a snake is not a T nor an S unless an observer understands the meaning.

“and to the distinction which, even empirically, can be made between tools and objects, as I described.”

My comment: to the contrary, your distinction was merely an unsupported assertion that since the final cause of the hammer was not in the hammer, it must exist physically somewhere in the empirical universe, perhaps in the configuration of brain-atoms of a toolmaker, because all things are empirical. Yours was a circular argument.

” I also refer you to the mechanical monkey I described on Friday (not Thursday as I thought), which you have not yet engaged with.”

My comment: time prohibits my engaging each argument in the detail I would wish. I did not think you actually meant that as a serious argument.

The difference between a living monkey and the corpse of a monkey pulled on a wire is that the living monkey is alive, i.e., it has a point of view, it is not a dead thing, i.e. not a machine moved by external forces. You make the clumsy metaphor that living things are dead things like machines, but this metaphor overlooks the point of the discussion, which is that living things have a point of view.

A monkey can be said literally to be trying to get food for the sake of avoiding the pain of hunger and the approach of death; a fruit picking machine only by an awkward anthropomorphic metaphor can said to be “trying” to pick fruit for the sake of loyally carrying out its beloved instructions.

” There is a train of thought leading from this monkey to rescuing the appearance (a useful phrase, by the way) of the meaning we experience; but you keep skipping to the end and denying the conclusion I’m going to reach, without engaging even the first step of the chain. If you find this discussion interesting – no blame if you don’t; we all have lives to be getting on with – then I request that you attempt to follow this reasoning.”

My comment: If you could point out to me where the skipping is, or ask a question designed to highlight the point you are trying to make, I will try to find time to answer.

In the meanwhile, please restrain yourself from these unsightly rhetorical flourishes, where you pretend that I find myself not persuaded  by your illogical ideas only out of malice or mental laziness on my part, rather than because they have not been presented logically on your part.

You are the one in this discussion attempting to maintain the dizzying paradox that you are an unliving automaton like the Tin Woodman in Wizard of Oz.

The argument against that absurdity I first heard during discussions about Lucretius in DE RERUM NATURA, many long years ago now. I am not saying that I am right or wrong: I am only pointing out that this is old and familiar territory to me, and this is my one hundredth re-examination of the topic. It is not due to a lack of intellectual faculty that I do not agree with your conclusions. I disagree because your model does not save the appearances: you cannot explain for the sake of what truth you came to your conclusions — because that would be an explanation of final cause, not mechanical cause.

Your philosophy cannot explain you, the philosopher.

If you want to move the argument, I suggest you look to your epistemology and your metaphysics, and tell me on what ground you maintain that no reality except what can be reduced to empirical statements can exist. Then explain the paradox of the statement “no reality except what can be reduced to empirical statements can exist” is itself a non-empirical statement that cannot be reduced to an empirical statement.

Or give me an example, just one, of how to express the difference between first and second degree murder in terms of a numerical value of Mass, Length, Time, Temperature, Amount, Current, Candlepower — and show the derivation.

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