Predictive Brainology

Part of an ongoing conversation. A reader (or perhaps a clockwork collection of inanimate brain atoms) writes in to ask:

“Can one, by knowledge of mechanical causes, say beforehand which way Shakespeare’s pen will go, as it traces words on paper?”

Are we assuming that thoughts are atoms and that the conclusions and deductions and imaginations and speculations of a thought as it thinks are the same as the motions of an atom as it is moved by the impulse of external forces?

With this assumption, you ask whether thoughts can be “predicted” in the same fashion that atoms can be predicted. I submit that the question is based on a confusion of semantics. It is a meaningless and unanswerable question, like a zen koan. Might as well ask how many hours and minutes a pitcher can pour into a cup.

There are two senses of the word “prediction.” One sense is the type of deduction we use to conclude what the outcome of the motion of an inanimate bit of matter might be, provided we have a model that factors in all pertinent vectors of motion. The other sense is a judgment assessing what the action of a person well known to them will be. Scientists make “predictions” of the first type when saying whether two weights of different masses flung from the Leaning Tower of Pisa will strike the ground at the same time. Jurors or member of the Parole Board make a “prediction” of the second type when they assess what punishment, if any, will make the convict fit to be released safely into society again. (If the hypothetical question is being asked about a hypothetical universe that has been hermetically sealed away from reality, so that only scientific facts about inanimate objects can be discussed, and no jurors and no judgments exist, then it is a universe having as little relationship to the real world as the magical fairyland of Oz.) Let us keep this distinction in mind as we proceed.

The motion of atoms can be “predicted” (in one sense of the word) because and only because they are moved by external forces and because they make no motions not accounted for by eternal forces. They are not alive. They do not move on their own. They do not swerve. Atomic motions are defined and determined by the initial conditions in which the atoms find themselves. Hence, knowing the initial conditions allows a physicist to deduce the end result.

One can deduce deterministic events by knowing the initial conditions.

The deductions, conclusions, imaginations, visions, and speculations of a thinking being as he thinks do move on their own and are alive. They swerve. Such thoughts can be “predicted” (in an entirely different sense of the word) by someone who knows and loves the thinker, such as my wife can predict what I am thinking because she knows and loves me. She knows nothing about neural psychology, and not that much about biology. She is not examining my brain or taking the temperature of my left prefrontal lobe.

She does not know any, not one, none of the mechanical causes (assuming there is a tight relation between brain motion and thought processes, which I doubt) effecting or influencing the content of my thought.

But she can predict me. This is because she knows my goals and my preferred methods of approach. She knows my final cause, what I am driving at. This is not a rigorous deduction, it is a judgment call, an assessment based on a thousand unrecalled imponderables. Scientific deduction is not the only mode or method of reasoning open to the human reason: reason includes judgment.

Human actions can be predicted if one has a sufficient knowledge of the ends to which the man’s action aims and the means he has selected to achieve it. Human actions are not determined by the initial physical conditions, but are instead influenced by ideal end conditions, end results, goals or that for the sake of which the act is done. For this reason, human actions are called “indeterminate.” This word is often misinterpreted to mean that human actions break the laws of physics. Rubbish. The word means that the action, whether predicted perfectly or not, cannot be understood without reference to the end conditions at which it aims. ”

“To predict” is not precisely the same as “to understand.” If you see Shakespeare’s hand moving, and you do not speak English, then you will be able, perhaps, to predict the muscle motions from the nerve motions, and therefrom deduce the pen motions, but you will not understand what it means, and you will not “predict” (in the juror sense of the word) what his poem will be, even if you “predict” (in the scientist sense of the word) exactly what his finger motions are.

Why this distinction?

The category “means and ends” applies to human action and human action cannot be described without reference to that category, with the exception of describing biological or ballistic motions of a human body, alive or dead. Because the human action selects means and ends, human action is not determined by initial conditions.

On the other hand, the category “determined by initial conditions” applies to inanimate objects, which react rather than act, and do not select how to act, and do not have ends and do not choose means to achieve those ends.

Atoms are controlled by the past. They are dead. They do not make decisions. They do not have a point of view. The chain of cause and effect goes from past to future.

Humans are controlled by the future. I work and speak and act because I foresee what will happen if I do not work and speak and act. I am a living being. The chain of cause and effect goes from future to past.

No system can map the future-controlled causation of freely willed goal-directed actions onto past-controlled causation of will-less and goal-less dead reactions. Pretending Shakespeare’s hand is not alive is not a legitimate basis for a question.

But we have strayed from the question. Let us ask it again:

“Can one, by knowledge of mechanical causes, say beforehand which way Shakespeare’s pen will go, as it traces words on paper? “

Obviously not. What a silly question. I cannot even imagine why anyone would ever think such a thing was possible. Shakespeare is not a robot. And even if he were, the programmer who programmed him would be the real Shakespeare, and the robot nothing more than an elaborate tool he uses to write down what his genius inspires him to write, and the programmer’s actions are as mechanistically unpredictable as the robots actions are mechanistically predictable.

But let us suppose, for the sake of argument, that you could.

What if you predict one thing, and Shakespeare decides to write something else?

What if Shakespeare is looking over your shoulder, and he has his brain-reading thermometer in your ear, and he is using his own science of predictive brainology to predict exactly what you will predict about him, and he decides merely out of sheer perverse stubbornness to do the opposite of what you predict?

And what if he knows before you make any decision, how you will decide what you will decide when you are deciding to react to the fact that he is deliberately trying to mess up your prediction? Your predictive brain science should be able to deduce before he knows what you will do what and how he will know it, which means that you, in turn, can predict his prediction of your prediction of his prediction of how you will react to his messing up your prediction: and if so, you can mess up his prediction of your behavior before he makes that prediction. But on the other hand, he could predict this of you before you predict it of him. And so on, ad infinitum.

Let us turn away from Shakespeare, to someone less perverse and less willing to mess up our nice science of predictive brainology. Consider Pythagoras.

Can one, by a knowledge of mechanical causes, say beforehand which way the pen of Pythagoras will go, when he discovers the Pythagorean theorem?

Could someone who does not know or understand the Pythagorean Theorem, merely by a close and subtle enough examination of mechanical causes, predict the Pythagorean Theorem before Pythagoras discovers it?

Or would one need a knowledge of, say, the science of geometry to understand and predict the Pythagorean Theorem?

If your answer is that a predictor ignorant of geometry could study the brain atoms of Pythagoras and deduce his famous Theorem without knowing any geometry himself, let me ask this: could someone who does not know the first thing about physics, merely by a close and subtle enough examination of mechanical causes, predict the next great theorem of Stephen Hawkins before Hawkins invents it?

If the answer is again that he could, then could someone who does not know the first thing about physics, merely by a close and subtle enough examination of mechanical causes, predict the next great theorem of  Zephram Cochrane, or Nils Bergenholm, Andrew Jackson ‘Slipstick’ Libby?

(Note to non-Geeks: these persons are imaginary scientists of the future who invent faster than light drive.)

Could our predictor also predict the discoveries of Morlock scientists of A.D. 802701? What about the discoveries of metempsychosis/time travel techniques of Ptath of Gonwonlane of A.D. 200,000,000?

(I will point out that long term predictions are perfectly possible in areas where the pertinent facts are known. I know, for example, that on the date A.D. 10032 November 1 Venus occults the star Regulus; I know that in AD 12,000,000,000  Sol is shrinks to become a black dwarf, and that in AD 100,000,000,000 the Virgo Supercluster is converging into a single galaxy.)

If this predictor would be able, by merely an investigation of mechanical causes, to learn beforehand every discovery to be made by every physicist ever to exist in the future, can he predict the workings of his own brain so as to learn those discoveries from an examination of his own brain atoms without going through the tedious process of determining and deducing the location of the brain atoms of all the scientists yet to be born?

In addition to knowing all the discoveries of physics, our predictor, would, of course, be able to predict all the thoughts of all the sentient beings he might care to know. He could finish all the unfinished symphonies and fragmentary works of antiquity, completing the lost ending of Lucretius, the lost plays of Aeschylus, the Marsyas of Homer, or reaching into the future to read works of art yet unwritten, to examine the titanic novel THOSE WHO ERR by Paxton, or dwell upon the poems of Gwyn Rhys Jones, or study the intricate music of the cyclic dramas of Von Bremen, and the rich dream-imagery of TALIESIN IN LIMBO, or read the opening couplet of Teirney’s great mock romance: Sinbad am I, sailor of Ocean, Sailor of all the Orient Seas…

(Note to Geeks: these are all works of fiction yet to be written, as described by Lin Carter in his allegedly fictional short story ‘Uncollected Works.’)

And, in addition to predicting all the discoveries of all science, our predictor would be able to predict the discoveries, thoughts, subconscious thoughts, forgotten dreams, idle fancies and first drafts and unwritten diary entries of all poets, playwrights, thinkers, philosophers, scholars, as well as of every king, coroner, cabinet-maker, ditcher, delver, exorcist, ecologist, spy, silversmith, slave, and subhuman ever to exist. Amazing what merely the study of predictive brainology would allow one to learn!

Or would this predictor have to be omniscient, and know all of the secrets of the universe not yet discovered by physics, before he even began to make his prediction of what Pythagoras would deduce, much less deducing the discoveries of Zephram Cochrane, Andrew Libby, Nils Bergenholm, Hari Seldon, all the physicists of futurity, including his own discoveries?

If our predictor has to be omniscient before he begins his prediction, we are no longer discussing physics, but have verged into theology.

In other words, by asking whether mechanics can predict Shakespeare’s pen motions, we are asking, in effect, whether an omniscient being can predict the future by merely mechanical means.

My answer is no, not if the omniscient being merely attends to that slim segment of reality covered by physics, and if he ignores that much larger segment of reality covered by philosophy. Physics is a subset of philosophy: our thoughts about the material universe are a small fragment of the thoughts and ideals of the Platonic realm of ideas. We cannot make an accurate deduction of a complex system if we studiously and deliberately ignore more than half of the facts that pertain to the system, namely, the realm of ideas.

I am more likely to find out what Shakespeare will write next by walking up and asking him (“Hey, William! Whatchya gunna write next, eh?”) than any hypothetical semi-omniscient neuro-psychologists is by walking up and sticking a brain-thermometer in Shakespeare’s ear to take the temperature of his medulla oblongata.

In fact, common experience would seem to indicate that the first happens all the time (anyone can ask me what  I will write next) and common experience shows that no one has ever deduced what someone was going to write next by a close examination of physical facts regarding the brain. Since an examination of the physical facts concerning the brain leaves out of the equation the one crucial bit of information, namely, what does Will Shakespeare want to write next, I do not allow that it is even theoretically possible.

How can you make a prediction about what Shakespeare will write if, by hypothesis, you exclude from your prediction his decision about what he is going to write next? How can you examine human consciousness if by hypothesis, you exclude from your examination the human consciousness that is the subject matter of your examination?

How can you make a judgment about what Shakespeare will do next if, by hypothesis, you limit yourself to mechanistic deductions from initial conditions, and do not avail yourself of the tool offered by human reason, namely judgment, to make the judgment? You cannot deduce a judgment any more than you can deduce an inductive conclusion: the mental operation is different. Induction is not deduction. Judgment is not deduction. Deduction is only used for inanimate and determined closed formal systems.

Can indeterminate human actions be foretold in the same way the determinate reactions of inanimate particles of matter to external forces be predicted?

So my answer is not just “no”; it is “hell, no.”

41 Comments

  1. Comment by Rolf Andreassen:

    Since an examination of the physical facts concerning the brain leaves out of the equation the one crucial bit of information, namely, what does Will Shakespeare want to write next, I do not allow that it is even theoretically possible.

    Very well. Thank you, that is the answer to the question I was asking. Then the atoms of Shakespeare’s brain do not obey the laws of physics. For if they did, you could predict their motion, and thereby the motion of Shakespeare’s pen as it moved across the paper. I refer to the unpredictability-by-physics as the “strong free will” hypothesis.

    Now, every time I say this, you have objected that of course the atoms obey the laws of physics (and then we go around on another circle), so it appears that my meaning is not getting across. Consider: If we remove Shakespeare’s free will, soul, mind – the what-have-you that makes the prediction impossible – from the situation, then indeed we can mechanistically predict what the brain atoms will do; presumably they will sit inertly and not move Shakespeare’s hand at all, except for the autonomic functions of the body and perhaps some random twitches. We can see such tragic conditions in any hospital, and arguably a dreamlessly sleeping person is also in such a state. But if you restore Shakespeare’s consciousness, then my predictions will go awry: Newton, Maxwell, and Schrodinger, who are none of them forgotten, tell me that no surge of electrons will go running down the spine, for there is nothing that will mechanically cause it; but lo and behold, there goes the surge, and Shakespeare sits up and asks what’s for breakfast. If the laws of physics held at every level, he would not do so, by your hypothesis; for the laws of physics do not include the will that is the ultimate cause of the event. At some point, therefore, an electron was bent in a path that it would not have followed, if only the laws of unforgotten Newton, Maxwell, and Schrodinger had been at work.

    I hope we can agree on this point at last, and move on. If not, will you please tell me how you can simultaneously have Shakespeare’s brain obeying the laws of physics, and yet not being predictable by their use?

    I do note that the non-physical event need not be large; there is no need to postulate that a thermometer stuck into the brain would start fluctuating between freezing and boiling. Tiny little nudges, an atom’s path deflected by a milliradian, may be quite sufficient. But nevertheless there is an essential distinction between a brain that obeys physics alone, and one where the electrons are moved by someone’s will “like chessmen on a board”.

    • Comment by DmL:

      If matter *can* be influenced by thought, then wouldn’t that mean that the supposed “non-physical” event was indeed somehow part of physics? Is there no room for this in reality?

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      “Very well. Thank you, that is the answer to the question I was asking. Then the atoms of Shakespeare’s brain do not obey the laws of physics.”

      Obviously the brain atoms of Shakespeare obey the laws of nature of physics. I spent at least two paragraphs in the article above explaining the why and the how of it.

      What physics does not predict is how poetic genius works. Indeed, physics by design excludes any discussion of intentional actions, including the intentional acts of poets writing poems and geometers writing proofs, from its study.

      You are conflating two distinct things: (1) the physical description, from an outside point of view, of the motion of brain atoms in Shakespeare’s brain. (2) What Shakespeare, from his own point of view, decides based on his ends and means. After I spend many words and many examples showing how they are not the same, you blithely continue to talk as if they are the same, and, indeed, interchangeable.

      I have asked you if you understood this distinction, even if you do not agree it pertains. From your odd non-responses and zenlike riddles I receive in reply, I assume you do not understand the distinction. If you have any further questions about it, so that I can explain where I have been unclear, please ask. I strongly suggest you go back and read your Aristotle. He might be clearer on the point than I am.

      Otherwise, we have yet to reach a common ground on which to have a discussion, and no discussion can take place, aside from the odd low-comedy farce discussion of me saying “A” and you saying that I said “not-A.”

      • Comment by Rolf Andreassen:

        I don’t think you understand the question I’m asking.

        When Shakespeare decides to write “sea” instead of “host”, he has a reason for doing that. You state that no account of his brain can tell me what that reason is; very well, let it be so. I don’t care about his reason for purposes of this discussion.

        But in addition, there is a physical movement of his fingers holding the pen, so that it moves to trace out s-e-a and not h-o-s-t. That physical movement has a series of mechanical causes:

        The pen is obeying physics; it moves according to the forces acting on it.

        The fingers are obeying biochemistry; they move according to the nerve impulses they receive. Given the impulses, you can use a computer to find out what the pen is going to write, although not why.

        The nerves also obey biochemistry; the nerve impulses originate in the brain.

        So far we have traced back the causality mechanically, by physics.

        At some point, the nerve impulses are due to neurons firing.

        If those firings are due only to mechanical causes, only to the laws of physics, then I can know beforehand what the pen is going to write, by sufficiently skilled application of physics.

        Therefore, if I cannot do so – and you deny the possibility – the neuron firings cannot be purely due to the laws of physics; and therefore, the laws of physics are broken within human brains.

        You appear to think I’m trying to make a complex philosophical point; I’m not. My point is utterly, trivially simple. I almost suspect that when you finally get it, you’re going to say that you couldn’t believe that was my point because it’s so obvious.

        If there is strong free will, then, when tracing the mechanical causes of Shakespeare’s pen’s movements, you will eventually come to a point where something goes one way and not the other without any physical cause. At that point, the laws of physics are broken.

        I can express this as a syllogism:

        A => B
        ~B
        Therefore ~A

        If Shakespeare’s brain obeys physics, I can predict how the fingers will move
        I cannot predict the finger movements (your assertion)
        Therefore Shakespeare’s brain does not oeby physics.

        That’s all I’m saying. It’s not complicated.

        • Comment by deiseach:

          I got lost way back, but isn’t this question sommewhat of a six of one, half a dozen of the other?

          If, by “predicting what Shakespeare is going to write”, is meant that a certain set of electrical impulses or motions of atoms or what you like, which is physically measurable and operates according to what we know of the laws of physics, always means (in a reproducible, accurate, and precise manner that has been adequately demonstrated) that the person (Shakespeare or a five year old learning to write, matters not which) is going to write the letter “s” (as in “sea of troubles”) and not “h” (as in “host of troubles”), then yes – once you make the measurement and interpret the result, you can ‘predict’ that Shakespeare is going to write “s” (and be confirmed a millisecond later when he does so).

          You can even go further and predict that he is not, for instance, going to write “host” (because “host” does not start with “s”). But what you can’t do, it seems to me, is predict from that single impulse that he is going to write “sea” instead of any other word starting with “s” (he might be going to write about a “sheaf of troubles” or a “school of troubles” or a “season of troubles”).

          So unless you’re measuring every single motion of atoms at the time, you can’t predict anything other than the most basic of actions, and certainly not in any “By the motion of the atoms I can predict he’s going to write ‘s’ which means the word will be ‘sea’” fashion.

          And rather than measuring each atom microsecond by microsecond, isn’t it easier to either wait for him to finish writing the word, or ask him what he’s going to write anyways?

          • Comment by Rolf Andreassen:

            My intention was to measure the atoms, every atom, exactly once, and then predict what he will write days or years in advance. For purposes of this inquiry, we needn’t bother with quantum uncertainty; by a wave of my magic thought-experiment wand, I declare the universe to be Newtonian.

            • Comment by deiseach:

              Okay, that’s clear, and I don’t think that such is possible (that is, measure everything once and then say that five years from now at six o’clock on a Sunday evening in July, he will write the word “tulip”).

              I suppose a very strict materialist would say that, given good enough devices and understanding of the principles involved, such could be done? I now await the strict materialists turning up to tell me not to be such an idiot for thinking that it could be done – or conversely, that it couldn’t be done :-)

        • Comment by John C Wright:

          A more complete answer is here (http://www.scifiwright.com/2010/09/cannot-stop-debating-determinists-stop-i-have-no-free-will-stop-send-help-stop-make-me-stop/)

          You think you are making a simple point that I am not getting. I think I am making a simple point you are not getting. This is the way of things during philosophical conversations. It is an illusion. Nothing is simple.

          When the time comes that we can repeat the other man’s argument back to him and he says it matches what he is trying to say, then it can get simple. Until that happens, we are jousting in the fog.

      • Comment by Will le Fey:

        It can’t explain things now… but if we had more information.

        • Comment by Mary:

          That is an assertion of blind faith.

          • Comment by Will le Fey:

            So is asserting that the mind is a non-physical thing.

            • Comment by The OFloinn:

              Well, no. It’s a consequence of Goedel’s law.

            • Comment by deiseach:

              Okay, so we can infallibly determine by our magic atom-measuring machine that when such-and-such a motion occurs, then the word Shakespeare is going to write will be “sea”.

              But how do we measure the choice he made between the word “sea” and the word “host”? Or do we take it that he doesn’t make such a decision, that every action of his comes down to a second by second motion of atoms and is not premeditated or planned or a change of mind?

              • Comment by Will le Fey:

                A change of mind is a change of chemical signals.

                • Comment by Mary:

                  Assertions are not arguments.

                • Comment by deiseach:

                  Yeah, but that’s chicken and egg, isn’t it?

                  Did the chemical signals change after he decided “I’ll write ‘host’ – no, hang on, everyone uses that metaphor, I’ll go for ‘sea’ instead” or did the changed chemicals happen first and cause him to write “sea” not “host”?

                  We can go round and round arguing about this, but until we do invent a brainological measuring machine, and can accurately say “Nope, the chemicals changed first and *then* he wrote ‘sea’” or “Okay, he decided to write ‘host’ and then changed his mind to ‘sea’ and the chemicals changed to reflect that order of events”, we won’t know one way or the other.

                  Then we have to dig down to “Okay, what makes the chemicals change in the first place? Why write ‘sea’ when the natural thing is to write ‘host’?”

                  • Comment by Will le Fey:

                    I don’t know. If one could create an exact replica of Shakespeare down to the quarks, and determine what every single quark, lepton, and boson were doing at the time he did that, maybe we could.

            • Comment by John C Wright:

              “So is asserting that the mind is a non-physical thing.”

              LOL. Saying a non-physical thing is non-physical is not an act of blind faith, it is a tautology. Concluding that mental things have neither shape, location, duration, color or extension is a common sense observation: painfully obvious.

              Saying that despite the appearances, mental things actually belong in the category of physical things on the grounds that someday, far away, in cloudcuckooland over the rainbow, the great and powerful Wizard of Oz will produce the information necessary to prove that the common sense appearance is misleading, and the reality is precisely as Lucretius, Hobbes, and Marx have said is a statement about an unknown and an imponderable. It is not like a prediction that the sun will raise tomorrow: it is instead a prediction that someday someone will discover a law of nature currently unknown to us.

              Making a statement about the unknown based on the testimony of the witness, if you believe in the witness, is indeed an act of faith — faith in the witness. Making a statement about the unknown based on a statement of a blind witness who has seen nothing, THAT, my friend, is an act of blind faith.

              So once again your automatic “tuo quoque” “so are you” “change the subject” reflex has played you false. I strongly urge and caution you to stop using this reflex.

    • Comment by Richard Bell:

      There is a dichotomy between a deterministic system and a predictable one. Just because a system is deterministic (solved equations exist to determine how the system will change, given its current state) does not mean that you can predict it for all time. Newton’s laws of gravitation allow a two body system to be predictable, but the three body problem is only deterministic. Predicting the courses of of three bodies under the influence of mutual gravitation is impossible on the cosmic timescale, as even knowing the masses to the nearest atom and locations to within a single wavelength of light will not be precise enough to keep approximation errors of swamping the predictions, in the long term.

      Predicting the weather is, on paper, really simple. The equations are both known and solvable, and the only problem is collecting the data on the current conditions– which is the sticking point, as there is an insurmountable amount of data to collect. Any bets on whether predicting what the brain will do is easier than predicting the weather?

      Look up Laplace’s Demon.

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      “Consider: If we remove Shakespeare’s free will, soul, mind – the what-have-you that makes the prediction impossible – from the situation, then indeed we can mechanistically predict what the brain atoms will do; presumably they will sit inertly and not move Shakespeare’s hand at all, except for the autonomic functions of the body and perhaps some random twitches. We can see such tragic conditions in any hospital, and arguably a dreamlessly sleeping person is also in such a state. But if you restore Shakespeare’s consciousness, then my predictions will go awry: Newton, Maxwell, and Schrodinger, who are none of them forgotten, tell me that no surge of electrons will go running down the spine, for there is nothing that will mechanically cause it; but lo and behold, there goes the surge, and Shakespeare sits up and asks what’s for breakfast. If the laws of physics held at every level, he would not do so, by your hypothesis; for the laws of physics do not include the will that is the ultimate cause of the event. At some point, therefore, an electron was bent in a path that it would not have followed, if only the laws of unforgotten Newton, Maxwell, and Schrodinger had been at work. I hope we can agree on this point at last, and move on. If not, will you please tell me how you can simultaneously have Shakespeare’s brain obeying the laws of physics, and yet not being predictable by their use?”

      Sir, it is your contention that each and every time a living organism with a nervous system takes a deliberate action, an electron either pops into existence out of nowhere in violation of the principle of conservation of energy, or the path followed by the electron swerves suddenly and for no reason, in violation of conservation of momentum?

      That you would ask me, as if it were some trifling detail not pertinent to the discussion, to agree that all thinking processes of men and animals violate the laws of physics indicates to me that you are making some assumption about the nature of the universe, or man’s place in it, I cannot fathom.

      Let me assure that I do not agree; indeed, I find the whole concept of things happening for no reason to be unintelligible.

      Let me ask you a question in return, which I hope you can answer: on what grounds do you make the assertion that when a Shakespeare is returned to consciousness after a coma or a long and dreamless sleep, that Newton, Maxwell, and Schrodinger tell you that no surge of electrons will go running down the spine?

      Where are you getting this idea that the brain is not a mechanical cause for nerve impulses running down the spine?

      Where have Newton, Maxwell, and Schrodinger ever said that electrons and-or electron momentum in the brain appear out of nowhere and for no reason? Can you quote me from some text where they have said this?

      I cannot tell if this is a belief you have or one you are asking me if I have.

      Are you assuming that “consciousness” is a physical thing made out of electrons? If so, then restoring the consciousness of Shakespeare would restore whatever mass of electrons housed his consciousness, and in any case the electrons would not come out of nowhere for no reason.

      So, no. We cannot simply agree and move on. You are making some fundamental assumption that is utterly opaque to me. Since I do not know what the assumption is that bridges your two sentences, the gap between them to me looks like a leap of logic, a paradox. Please fill in the missing step. How do you get from the axiom that everything happens for a reason to the conclusion that thought processes happen for no reason?

      The laws of physics do not describe thought processes or predict thought processes. The laws of physics describe physics. The things in reality that are not physics, such as, for example, economics or politics or psychology or theology or geometry, do not either follow the laws of physics or break the laws of physics: they have nothing to do with the laws of physics.

      Does a right triangle in Euclidean geometry “break” the laws of physics because the line segments have no width and hence no mass, no energy, and occupy neither space nor time?

      Does this mean all the laws of geometry “break” the laws of physics?

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      Oh, and I asked you twelve questions in the last post. The conversation might emerge from the thicket of confusion into a grove of clarity if you would ponder and perhaps even answer some or all of them. I did not mean the questions rhetorically.

  2. Comment by Crude:

    I’d just like to point out one problem as I see it.

    There’s a lot of talk here about “violating the laws of physics”. But this has to be kept in mind: The laws of physics violate the laws of physics. And by that I mean, physics as understood by Bohr violated physics as understood by Newton, Descartes, and even Einstein – the idea of spooky action at a distance, of measurement playing so decisive a role in results, etc. The examples could be multiplied, and they continue today, because we do not have a universally agreed upon set of physical laws (and we may never have as much, or never know if we had them, if the skepticism of some scientists is correct.)

    I bring this up because I get the impression that this unspoken claim is being made, possibly by both sides: “We know what the laws of physics are, and by the laws of physics (X) is not possible.” I think for both this mostly means that physics, as a rule, never does and never can concern itself with intention, purpose, final cause, etc, and therefore accepting the reality of such things involves some kind of violation of the laws of physics innately. (I think John may qualify this and say that no, it’s not that physics is violated – it’s that to describe something purely by sticking to descriptions of charge, mass, etc is to leave out important and real information.)

    But, to use Rolf’s own example: Let’s say he has John right (and I strongly suspect he does not, but I won’t speak for John), and that when a decision is made, there’s a “swerve”. Would we, if this was thought to be the case, say “A-ha! The laws of physics are busted, broken!”? Or would we say “A-ha! The laws of physics as we knew them were incomplete/incorrect. The laws actually say…!”?

    In other words, this talk of ‘violating the laws of physics’, even in that sense, is a red herring.

  3. Comment by Rolf Andreassen:

    Well, no. Firstly, let’s note that this objection is the reason I started out, a post or two ago, by writing “known laws of physics”. But secondly, by “laws” is meant something deterministic, something that does the same thing every time. If Shakespeare’s behaviour is merely controlled by a set of laws which we do not yet know, then that is not strong free will; it’s just materialism with New Physics.

    Of course, if you mean something like an escape clause: “Atoms behave like this, deterministically, unless influenced by a free will”, that’s something else again; but I would still consider this a break in the laws of physics. Just an allowed break, so to speak – a Saturnalia when the usual rules are suspended.

    The point is whether or not the behaviour is determinable from mechanistic laws. If they are, it doesn’t matter whether we know those laws or not; there’s no strong free will in it.

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      “The point is whether or not the behaviour is determinable from mechanistic laws”

      I will say again: descriptions rational creatures use to describe the behavior of mechanisms is determined from mechanistic laws. If and only if all things (including the reasoning of the rational creatures) were mechanisms determined from mechanistic laws could a description that contained nothing but mechanistic laws be a complete and entire description of reality.

      But the word “description” implies a relation between a describer and the thing described, between a perceiver and the thing perceived. That relation is symbolic or representational. A perception can be false or true; a description can be accurate or inaccurate. The act of making a symbol or making or employing a representation is an intentional act. An intentional act cannot be reduced to a mechanistic description, since mechanistic descriptions by design intentionally exclude all descriptions of intention.

      Therefore no description of a mechanical system, however detailed and complete, can include a description of the intentional act of making or using a description: therefore the mere act of making or using a mechanical description of part of reality demonstrates it is incomplete, i.e. not the whole of reality. QED.

      • Comment by Dave:

        So the incomplete description of Brain Alone will act differently than the complete description of Brain + Mind. Brain Alone acts according to the laws of physics. Brain + Mind must not.

        Right?

        • Comment by John C Wright:

          Wrong. They will act the same. The description of why they act will differ. Brain alone people treat people like manikins, and are therefore sociopaths. Brain+Mind people treat people like people, and are therefore people.

          The brain alone people see motions in the world around them without making any sense of them. Brain+Mind is necessary to make sense of what those motions mean, especially the motions of living things like plants and animals and people.

    • Comment by DmL:

      But why does that have to be an “escape clause.” Why can’t it be determined that for every such thought-input we get this certain physical manifestation. The “law” reacts predictably to the *input* even if the input itself is not predictable. Do you consider it breaking the laws of physics when by sheer will, determination, and great expenditure we alter the course of a rocket enough to “escape” the Earth’s atmosphere?

    • Comment by Richard Bell:

      It is worth repeating that it is completely possible to know all of the laws of physics about something, like the weather, and still be unable to predict it in all but the most general of terms, like the weather.

      We will have some idea of how difficult it is to model the brain when we can scan a fruit fly and then see if an emulation behaves the same way. However, even if Moore’s Law continues to hold, it is expected to take another four years to scan in the first fruit fly brain (taken by processing high resolution digital images of very thinly sliced fruit fly head).

  4. Comment by bibliophile112:

    Mr. Wright, Dr. Andreassen is asking a simple question.

    With only the laws of physics and a complete description of the mechanical state of Shakespeare’s brain (the location of every atom, amount of every charge, etc), can the mechanical properties of the ink-marks be determined, yes or no?

    • Comment by Robert Mitchell Jr.:

      With respect, I don’t believe he is asking that at all. If he is asking anything, he is asking us to disprove that a “meat robot” built using a Shakespeare blueprint will “write” the same plays as Shakespeare did. This is a very odd position, given that the current “Laws of Physics” say that a complete description of anything is impossible (uncertainty, Brownian motion, etc.).

      “Can the mechanical properties of the ink-marks be determined, yes or no?” Of course. Ink has a color and weight, a evaporation point, a freezing point. That answers your question, except it doesn’t because that’s not the question you or him are asking. It’s not a simple question, because you and he seem to have an answer in mind, and we are not giving it to you.

      • Comment by Rolf Andreassen:

        In fact, that is precisely the question I am asking. I am glad to see I’m not expressing myself so obscurely as to be completely incomprehensible.

        Ink has a color and weight, a evaporation point, a freezing point.

        Those are not the properties of interest here. Ink on paper has also an extension, a region where its density is nonzero. I want to know whether that extension – or to put it less obscurely, the shape of the letters – can be determined beforehand; and if not, I’d like you to acknowledge that this means that physics is, for at least some atoms, broken within the brain.

        • Comment by Robert Mitchell Jr.:

          “determined beforehand”, by which you mean that there is a non tangible component of the writing, some “meaning” which can be predicted by, well, you don’t define what is doing the predicting, some black box, which is to say, you demand that the mind not follow the rules of physics. Having demanded that the mind not follow the rules of physics, you demand that I “Acknowledge that this means that physics is, for at least some atoms, broken within the brain.”. Which I will not do, for I understand enough physics to know that physics cannot predict the vector of one gas molecule after a collision, and physics has not figured out a solution to the three body problem. To demand that animate objects be more predictable then inanimate objects is just silly. Crazy even. Put this down, and come back when you have solved the three body problem. This will show you understand physics, as opposed to your current “Magical thinking”.

          • Comment by Rolf Andreassen:

            The mere inability of men to solve ordinary differential equations is not relevant to the question of free will. Either the universe is deterministic (possibly stochastically deterministic; it does not matter to the point) or it is not.

            And I defined what is doing the prediction, twice, in previous comments. Go look back over the discussion, I cannot always be repeating what I’ve already said.

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      “With only the laws of physics and a complete description of the mechanical state of Shakespeare’s brain (the location of every atom, amount of every charge, etc), can the mechanical properties of the ink-marks be determined, yes or no?”

      Let me ask you a question just as simple before I answer. With only the laws of chess and a complete description of the position of the chessman on the chessboard, can the outcome of the game be determined, yes or no?

      I will point out that this question does not admit of a yes or no answer. If the chessmen are in the opening position before anyone has made a move, every possible chessgame is a possible end state from his initial condition. If it is later in the game, and the only possible legal moves result in an inevitable checkmate, then the end result can be safely reckoned from the current position of the chessmen.

      However, since chess is a game, it has a goal. No understanding of the chessmoves is possible without understanding the goal. A chess computer that was programmed with all the rules of chess EXCEPT the rule that the game is over when the king is in checkmate will continue to move chessmen hither then thither on the black and white squares in a meaningless fashion after the game is over.

      Likewise here. Yes, given the same knowledge of physics that an omniscient god possesses, and knowing the motion of every atom and electron in the universe, you could in theory predict what Shakespeare will write next. On the other hand, you could just ask him what he will write next, and he might tell you.

      However, if you deliberately exclude from your consideration one of the rules governing the motions of all the atoms in the universe, in the same way that our chess computer not programmed to recognize checkmate, so too you will make meaningless predictions of the hand motions of Shakespeare if you do not know the crucial information of what he means and intends to write.

      Checkmate is the goal or final cause of chessgames. Here, what Shakespeare intends to write is the goal or final cause of the motions of his pen.

      If your question is based on the assumption that Shakespeare does not have the power to decide what to write and move his penhand and his pen accordingly, that is an assumption I do not grant. The laws of physics cannot tell us what Shakespeare will decide to write any more than the law of harmonic chords in music will tell us what Shakespeare will decide to write, because physics is designed deliberately to exclude from consideration anything to do with decisions and intentions (final causes). Likewise, the laws of music exclude from consideration anything to do with thing having nothing to do with music.

      One cannot describe deliberate intentions using an artificially limited vocabulary which deliberately excludes any words or ideas referring to deliberate intentions.

      Is your question whether the laws that describe the physical motions of inanimate bodies are sufficient to describe the non-physical thoughts of animate entities? Well, I would say that the laws of music cannot describe the laws of perspective–the two descriptive approaches to reality, composing music and drafting pictures, do not overlap and do not affect each other. Likewise, here. Physics is not for studying poetry.

      Can the last line of a sonnet be predicted with the mental toolbox we call physics, a box of tools that not only are not shaped to predicting things like poetry lines, but which are deliberately and consciously designed to be unable to do so?

      The answer there is not just “no” it is “no, of course not.”

  5. Comment by Rade Hagedorn:

    If I understand the good doctor, he is basically making a deterministic argument. If the universe is/were purely Newtonian (as he has made it for this thought experiment) then theroretically his Laplace device which is measuring Shakespeare’s (for the purpose of this thought experiment not really Shakespeare but an unnamed brilliant poet who is still living) brain at a molecular state could ‘predict’ not only Shakespeare’s actions but the actions of the entire universe off of a sufficiently large sample size.

    The size of the calculation and the length of time to complete the calculation as well as the actual Laplace device might need to be extrauniversal for all of this to actually occur — even in a purely Newtonian universe. The Laplace device also has a problem with Heisenberg and Wolpert who would say that it would be both impossible and insufficient to do what the doctor suggests in our universe, but I am certain that he is laying the groundwork for a point.

  6. Comment by lotdw:

    Alistair MacIntyre made the observation in After Virtue that one cannot predict inventions because by predicting them you have invented them.

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