That Shakespeare is Made of Atoms does not Mean Shakespeare does not Exist

In today’s episode of Philosophy 101, I continue to make a basic distinction first made by Aristotle sometime before 320 B.C. In other words, we are covering ground that was covered two thousand, three hundred and thirty years ago. Such is the nature of so-called progress.

Here are the questions of our friendly neighborhood radical materialist.

Q: I wonder if you could clear up a point: You have made a distinction between materialists and radical materialists. A radical materialist believes that all is matter; could you remind me what an ordinary non-radical materialist believes?

A: Gladly — A materialist believes all things are made of matter, but does not necessarily believe that mental substance does not exist, merely that mental substance will not be found absent a physical substrate: the non-radical he leaves the question open as to whether there is a mental or spiritual or ideal reality. A radical materialist is someone who believes that all things are made of matter and that no mental substance exists.

For example, Lucretius is a materialist, but be clearly believed in the mind and in the gods, but with the caveat that the mind and the gods were made of little subtle aetherical atoms of spirit-substance. Hobbes, on the other hand, was a radical materialist. He described the thoughts and motives of men as a type of clockwork.

Q:1 You say that human actions are not, even in principle, predictable from knowledge of the state of their atoms/quantum amplitudes/string vibrations; and this is not due to any quantum or chaos-theoretic effect, but would hold just as much in the universe of Newton, who is not forgotten.
2 You further say, if I understand correctly, that you know this by a priori reasoning, independent of any observation; that it is a tautology, like A=A.
3 As a consequence, you deduce that no machine, no formal system, can be built to (among other things) write poetry; the reason being that true poetry requires intention and judgement. (I assume you will make no objection to a machine making doggerel; as a side note, there are web pages which take as input some key phrases and spew out a very creditable imitation of postmodernist jargon ‘deconstructing’ those phrases. It’s even easier than bad verse because it doesn’t have to rhyme. Whatever else, I trust we can agree on what this demonstrates about the quality of postmodernist ‘thought’.) You do not deny that one could build an artificial life-form, a living being made of metal, but it would not be run by a brain obeying only physics.
4 Varying the first point and making it more specific, you say that human brains at some level disobey the known laws of physics, and indeed all possible laws of physics – it is not a question of our lack of knowledge, but rather that free-willed beings cannot be reduced to any rule, deterministic or stochastic.

Have I summarised your beliefs correctly?

A: No. Not even close.These sentence above have no relation to my beliefs, and might as well have been plucked at random from out of a mad Chinese Room. I despair of making myself any clearer, but, out of a dogged sense of my duty as  a Philosopher, I till try again.

Everything I say is based on an distinction that you do not make and which I have obviously not explained well enough. Because you do not make this distinction between two things I hold to be incommensurate, you slide back and forth between two meanings ambiguously from sentence to sentence: and to you, it must look as if I am contradicting myself.

To me, it sounds as if you are trying to assert, in an inarticulate way, that all intentional actions, such as the state of mind (malice aforethought) needed to produce a conviction of murder in the first degree, could be reduced to a description of non-intentional reactions of non-living and non-intentional and non-meaningful atomic and chemical and electronic movements.

This is false and obviously false — one cannot add up a sum of non-intentional and non-meaningful numbers and arrive at a sum which is a meaningful and intentional non-number. Likewise, one cannot add up descriptions of meaningless non-actions and arrive at the meaning of an action.

I am not sure how to proceed. You might as well be arguing that the hours of the day Tuesday are made up, not in units of time, but in stacks of tin dog food cans. On the one hand, if it is not obvious at first glance that the concept “Tuesday” is incompatible with the the concept “composed of a stack of tin cans” nothing I say can make it more obvious. On the other hand, neither would any explanation of the original absurdity be any clearer if it were explained in more detail:  “Well, if you just piled up ENOUGH tin cans, and if the pyramid of can was cunningly organized well enough, it could be a high enough pyramid of cans to reach Tuesday. The property ‘Tuesday-ness’ is an emergent property of ‘tincan-ness’.” Except we cannot add together numbers and reach a sum which is a non-number. Numbers added to numbers produce numbers, not non-numbers.

Ah, well. Let me try again, addressing your questions one at a time:

1. “You say that human actions are not, even in principle, predictable from knowledge of the state of their atoms”

No, I never said anything about predictability. Whether or not something is ‘predictable’ has nothing to do with whether or not someone’s actions cannot be described except in terms of intent.

My wife, my guardian angel, and a superintelligent Martian can predict my actions to the last detail. However, (and here is the distinction we must make) if you read a sentence where an action of mine was predicted, that sentence would refer to non-empirical concepts such as the meaning of my actions, my intention, my decisions, my purpose, and, in a word, my final cause — such predictions would contain a word referring to WHY I do what I do.

Example 1: “If you interrupt Mr. Wright while he is playing Dungeons and Dragons, he will be irritated, because he wants to keep playing.”

Example 2: “I predict he will play a cleric: he always plays clerics.”

Compare and contrast “predictions” given above with a prediction like this:

Example 3 “If you fling a cannonball and a feather out of a spacecraft 1000 feet above the surface of the moon, both will describe the same parabola as they fall”

Example 4 “Both will strike the lunar surface at the same time: falling bodies not impeded by air resistance always fall at the same rate.”

The statement Example 1 cannot be understood unless the reader understands the concept “he wants”. Any attempt to reword the sentence so as to eliminate that concept eliminates the meaning of the sentence.

Any description of the mere mechanics of the biological mechanism of irritation, such as the compression waves issuing from my voice box or the tears dripping from my eye, will not convey the nugget of information the sentence is meant to convey, which is WHY I do what I do.

Not only (1) will a description, no matter how detailed, of lachrymose eyeball mechanisms, not tell you why I am upset at having my game interrupted but, (2) it will not tell you that I am upset.

The concept of “upset” is a non-empirical concept.

The inference that a crying man is upset differs from a description that a statue in the rain has water on its cheeks precisely because a human observer who can make the symbolic association or connection between cheek-dampness and an emotion we all of us have shared and can empathize with, makes precisely that association. It is a non-empirical association we all make.

“Associations” or “representations” or the ability of one symbol to stand for a concept or for an object is non-empirical.  It is the thing we humans do in our minds which objects that have no minds do not do.

Contrast the statement Example 1 with the statement Example 4. This statement can be understood, and perfectly understood , without any reference to any non-empirical concept. It is a description of HOW the weights fall. It “predicts” the shape of the fall path and the timing of the surface impact. That is all.

To call both sentences by the same word “prediction” is misleading. The two ideas implied by this one word are not at all alike.

The first idea is a prediction of a non-empirical fact based on final cause (why I am upset) whereas the other idea is a prediction of a formal and physical fact based on mechanical cause (how the weights fall).

Hence your misinterpretation of my position is not even something I know how to agree or disagree.

I never said anything about the (mechanical) predictions of human action because there is no such thing.

There are “predictions” (non-empirical predictions of final causes) which people like my wife or my guardian angel who knows me can make; and there are “predictions” (empirical predictions of mechanical causes) which by definition exclude all human decisions, actions, attempts, willpower. If you throw my body out of the spaceship over the moon, you can indeed “predict” I will fall in a parabola and strike the surface at the same time as a falling cannonball, but this is not a prediction of my actions or my decisions, it is a “prediction” as the ballistic path of my body over which I have no control, and which is the same whether I am alive or dead.

In principle, even a perfect prediction of the motions of every atom in my brain cannot be interpreted to understand my motives unless a human observer “associates” a particular brain atom motion with a symbol that represents a motive of mine.

If he makes the association correctly, he will predict my actions correctly; if he makes the association incorrectly, he will not predict my actions correctly.

This happens to be the case no matter how accurate or detailed his knowledge of my brain atom motions happens to be.

To use a simple example: suppose a bartender knew a customer of his was a melancholy drunk. Whenever the customer’s brain is awash with alcohol, experience tells the bartender the customer will weep rather than rage. A neuro-chemist with a more exact knowledge of where each alcohol molecule might be in the bloodstream will not necessarily make a more accurate prediction. This is because the additional information gathered by empirical science is indifferent or inconsequential to the prediction involved. It does not tell us anything.

From this, I conclude that any observation that depends on an association in the mind of the observer is not an empirical observation. Additional empirical evidence is inconsequential.

You missed the entire point of my “Buck Rogers Helmet” thought experiment. If you know the exact location of every atom in my brain, until and unless you knew what those brain atom positions “stood for” or “represented” or until and unless you knew what concepts to associate them with, my brain would be written in hieroglyphs to you. YOU NEED A TRANSLATOR. And a translator is something that associates a concept (non-empirical reality) with a mark (empirical reality, used as a symbol).

In any case, you with your Buck Rogers Brain Reader helmet would not be able to “predict” my actions as well as my wife. Because Buck would be doing “prediction” type 1 – empirical predictions of meaningless empirical reactions; whereas the wife would be doing “prediction” type 2 — non-empirical understanding of meaningful non-empirical actions.

2. “You further say, if I understand correctly, that you know this by a priori reasoning, independent of any observation; that it is a tautology, like A=A.”

No, not even close. I never said anything even remotely like this.

Rational deduction from first principles or induction from myriad examples, or understanding based on empathy, or moral reasoning based on knowledge gained through the conscience are involved. This is “tautological” reasoning if and only if we are using the word “tautological” so broadly that it encompasses every act of reasoning and ratiocination whatsoever.

I never said we know other people are alive by a priori reasoning. What I said was, “What happens in Shakespeare’s brain if he decides to write ‘a host of troubles’ rather than ‘a sea of troubles’?” — my point here is that any description of the decision making process which eliminates the subject matter being described, that is, the decision, is not only absurd, but risible.

Being able to tell the difference between a human being and a Meet Mister Lincoln manikin is a matter of experience, not of a priori reasoning. A baby does not have the experience necessary to categorize correctly a doll from a real person; a sociopath fails to make this categorization on a moral level; a solipsist speak to you as if he pretends not to be able to make this distinction, despite the fact that the mere fact that he speaks are all shows he does indeed make the distinction. The solipsist is not making an a priori error in logic (a possible universe could exist where he is indeed the only self aware being) he is mis-characterizing the extent of empirical knowledge. He claims all knowledge is strictly empirical, and that since he cannot see you mind with his eyeball, your mind does not exist. Our knowledge that other people exist is a synthesis of experience–the fact is that other people do not act like cunningly constructed manikins, and our conscience tells us it is wrong to treat other people like manikins.

Let us not try to fit everything into a priori and a posteriori knowledge, for this distinction is an awkward one, perhaps false. The knowledge we all have that other people are real, for example, does not fit cleanly into one category or the other.

3 “As a consequence, you deduce that no machine, no formal system, can be built to (among other things) write poetry; the reason being that true poetry requires intention and judgement.”

No, not even close. I never said anything remotely like this.

What I said was that algorithms can formalize any system that can be reduced to a set of rules; poetry is language that breaks the rules of language in an inspired fashion; ergo poetry cannot be reduced to an algorithm. Rule-breaking cannot be reduced to a set of rules. This conclusion was not a deduction from any statement about the nature of thought or the nature of cause and effect.

If we were discussing constitutional law, I would not need to refer to the nature of the mind nor the nature of cause and effect to conclude that Parliament cannot by an Act of Parliament make a law that a later Parliament may not rescind. This has nothing to do with the nature of whether the mind can be described in mechanical terms; it has to do with whether something that by its nature is non-algorithmic is or is not reducible to an algorithm.

Let us suppose for the sake of argument that you believed in miracles. (I realize that you don’t; this is just a hypothetical.) Let us further suppose that miracles were defined as something that breaks the laws of nature (I realize that this is not the definition; this is just a hypothetical.) Would it be possible for a genius smarter than Newton to deduce a perfect formal system of laws of nature that could predict all miracles between now and the Twilight of the Gods? I submit that such a thing would be impossible by the terms of the hypothetical: an algorithm cannot be made to deduce that which cannot be reduced to an algorithm.

I am not sure what is happening in this conversation. Are you are framing your approach ASSUMING that a mechanical version of reality is the only reality that exists? Or, worse, are you assuming that no non-mechanical reality is possible or imaginable? How, then, do you respond when I point to something where the assumption does not apply? Do you merely repeat the assumption again?

For example, suppose we had a mechanical emulation of Shakespeare’s brain, a perfect replica of every nerve cell, every neuroelectric charge, every molecule, every atom, every subatomic particle. Would the emulation of Shakespeare’s brain be able to write Shakespearean poetry?

To you, is this answer an obvious “yes” because you assume that the mechanical description of the brain is the complete description?

Because to me, the answer is an obvious “no” because we have left out the description of the one thing needed to answer the question, which is whether or not the copy of Shakespeare is alive or dead, inspired or not-inspired, a genius or a hack?

To me, I do not see how a copy of Shakespeare’s brain in an electronic format is any different from a very large book filled with a set of arbitrary pen marks that describe to the same subatomic level of detail the position of every bit of matter and energy in Shakespeare’s brain.

But a set of pen marks cannot write poetry, because a set of pen marks is not alive.  Indeed, a set of pen marks does not mean anything unless and until there is a human observer to look at them.

3a. “I assume you will make no objection to a machine making doggerel”

Correct assumption, provided only that we carefully note that the doggerel will only be doggerel to a rational observer, not to a non-living non-self-aware machine.

3b. “Whatever else, I trust we can agree on what this demonstrates about the quality of postmodernist ‘thought’.”

I am overjoyed to find a common ground of agreement. Now if we could only build on arguments on what we both dislike about postmodern doggerel, maybe we could get somewhere.

3c. “You do not deny that one could build an artificial life-form, a living being made of metal…”

Correct. If a mad scientist could do in a test tube what a mother does in her womb, the baby that would come out would be a baby. I deny that the mad scientist could decide or determine the child’s personality characteristics, however, or do any better a job at raising his kids than I would do.

3d. “… but it would not be run by a brain obeying only physics…”

Here we are lost again. I did not say anything of the kind.

Of course the brain atoms would obey the laws of physics. By definition, the laws of physics are a description of the repeated behaviors of physical systems. Any description of the brain as a physical system would be a description of the physics of the brain.

The description of the physical system would not describe the non-physical reality for the same reason telling me the weight and color of ink marks on a page of hieroglyphs in a language I do not read does not tell me whether or not the sentences on that page are true or false.

Trueness and falseness are symbolic properties that relate ONLY to symbols; weight and color are physical properties that relate ONLY to physical things. True is not red or heavy; an apple is not self-contradictory or self-evidence. Symbolic properties and physical properties do not mix and CANNOT BE REDUCED THE ONE TO THE OTHER.

All you assuming that a sentence written in a book or a sentence written in neuro-electric flashes in a brain or a sentence written in electric pulses in a computer or a sentence written the gear positions of a Babbage machine are one and the same with the symbolic meaning of the topic those sentences address?

I submit to you that the physical properties of a word, or the physical properties of the brain actions accompanying a thought, are not the same as the reality to which that word points. If I write the word “snake” on a page, no snake slithers out of my pen and takes up location on the page: and when your eye falls upon the word “snake” no snake jumps up the photons into your eye; and when you think the word “snake” there is no snake physically inside your brain that a surgeon would see if he cut the top of your skull off. If you picture a snake in your imagination, no real live snake climbs into your ear. A word is not the thing that word represents. A thought is not the thing that the thought represents.

Are the thoughts somehow related or correlated to the material or mechanical substrate in which they are embedded? My answer is, in the eyes of a rational observer, a system such as a computer could indeed be arbitrarily contrived so that there was a one-to-one (or a more complex algorithmic) relation between the marks serving as symbols and the ideas the symbols represent. But in the eyes of the physical system, there can be no such relation nor association nor symbolism because physical systems are descriptions of and only of that part of reality (the physical part) which does not have symbols, does not have association, does not have relation, does not have eyes where with to see.

Physics is a language carefully designed to describe and only to describe the inanimate motions of dead things reacting to external impulses. This language by its design cannot describe that part of reality that deals with the intentions and judgment and self-willed or self-caused acts of living and rational beings.

Let me try again: Imagine Mr. A Square of Flatland. He is looking at a cylinder, such as a coffee cup. See from one axis, the cylinder looks like a circle. Seen from the other axis, the cylinder looks like a rectangle. The description of the circle and the description of the rectangle are incommensurate. A “thought” in your brain can be described in terms of the material motions of the physical component, in the same way a word on a page can be described in terms of the mass and color of the ink molecules, and in the same way a circle in a cartoon can represent a coffee cup as see from above. Also, a “thought” in your brain can be described in terms of what the thought means, the symbolic meaning of the rational component, in the same way the same word in the same context the same meaning whether spoken or written, and in the same way a rectangle in a cartoon can represent a coffee cup seen from the side.

Every thought and every symbol and every word has two components: the physical and the mental.

The physical component of the written word is ink; the physical component of the spoken word is compression waves in the air; the physical component of the thought word is neurochemical-electric energy in the brain.

All physical reality can be reduced to mass, length, duration, candlepower, amperage, moles of amount, temperature. No physical description of physical reality makes any reference to final cause, the why and the wherefore.

The mental component is the meaning of the word.

If the word accurately represents what the word is meant to represent, we call it a true word: otherwise, we call it inaccurate; and very inaccurate words we call false. Words that follow the formal structure of reality we call logical; those that do not, we call not necessarily logical or even illogical. Words that reflect higher reality we call beautiful; words that reflect the chaos of hell, we call ugly. False and ugly words that damage the reputation of others, we call slander.  The opposite, we call praise. The ideas in a man’s soul that drive him to do something we call intent. If his intent is not put into words, we call it inarticulate.

A complete and thorough description of  the physical components of  words in any medium tells us NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING about what the word means and whether the word has properties like true and false, logical and illogical, efficient and inefficient, meaningful and meaningless, and so on.

The only way we get the meaning of a word is if we already know what it means and bring that knowledge to the word when we encounter the word. Likewise, you can only interpret a code if you have the key, and then only when the key is written in a language you already understand.

Let us not be looking at the problem like a scientist. A scientist is vowed never to look at the meaning of anything, only at the physical causes of the physical system. It takes a peculiar discipline of mind, a discipline that barbarians, pagans, and postmodernists alike all lack, to look at a falling cannonball on the moon and to NOT ascribe to the cannonball any final cause. Aristotle, great as he was, lacked this discipline: he speculated that weights fall because it is their nature to fall, because they seek or crave or desire the core of the cosmos (which is at the center of the globe).

Let us instead look at the problem as a lawyer. To prove a case in first degree murder, a lawyer must  prove intent to the jury. The prosecution must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant had malice aforethought in his thoughts at the time of the crime.

If the jurors did not admit any evidence of intent whatsoever, if they insisted on treating living men as if living men were merely physical systems, and if they ignored the evidence of the reality around them, they would not and could not see the difference between an innocent and a guilty man. They would be ignoring reality.

If the jurors approached a murder case using the artificially restricted language of physics, a language which, by design, excludes all words referring to intent, then the intent of the murderer could not be proved. In effect, the jury of scientists would not be acting as a jury: they would indeed be derelict, absurdly and comically derelict, in their duty.

4. “you say that human brains at some level disobey the known laws of physics, and indeed all possible laws of physics – it is not a question of our lack of knowledge, but rather that free-willed beings cannot be reduced to any rule, deterministic or stochastic.”

I never said anything even remotely like this. Obviously the molecules and atoms in a human brain obey the laws that all molecules and atoms follow. When Shakespeare decides to write ‘sea of troubles’ rather than ‘host of troubles’ the ink on his pen does not perform any miracles, but inscribes on the paper according to the laws controlling ink molecules; likewise the nerve impulses in his arm obey the laws of biology; likewise the nerve impulses in his brain obey the laws of neuro-physiology. Equally as obviously, no outside observer, not even one who knew the exact position of every particle of Shakespeare’s brain will know WHY he wrote that word unless (1) you ask Shakespeare and (2) he knows the answer and is willing to tell you.

Just because Shakespeare is made out of atoms does not mean Shakespeare does not exist.

Free will is a symbolic or rational property, a property of the mind, and can only be used to describe minds. Deterministic rules are a property of physical systems, and can only be used to describe physical systems. The two have nothing to do with each other, cannot be reduced the one to the other, and are not even on the same topic as each other.

You might as well ask me how many dog food cans the hours of the day Tuesday is made up of; and every time I say that Tuesday is made up of minutes and hours and describes the passage of time, whereas dog food cans are made of tin shaped like cylinders, all that happens is you state again and again that everything is made of dog food cans, that Tuesday is a thing, therefore Tuesday is made of dog food cans.

Time is not tin. Mind is not body. Truth is not red and false is not blue. “A is A” is a statement that does not weight more than three pounds, nor less, because it has no mass at all .

Not everything is made of dog food cans.

Let us not, without due consideration, subscribe to an article of faith that all things are made of matter. Everything made of matter can be described in material terms, and reduced to mass, length, duration, etc. However, mathematical and logical reality, such as the properties of the idea of a triangle cannot so be reduced. Therefore they are not material. The physical properties of a sign or mark that serves as a word or symbol to point to an idea is not the idea to which it points, and cannot be reduced to the physical properties.

For example, if I write “A is A” in blue ink, the law of logic called self-identity does not have the property “it is blue.” If I have the sentence “A is not A”, this self-contradiction, even if it is written in blue ink, does not make the molecules of ink on the page “false molecules.”

Laws of logic do not have blue-ness. It is not a property that can be ascribed to them. Blue ink is neither true nor false. It is not a property that can be ascribed to it.

I hope I have made my position clear, but I fear I can never make it clear until the distinction between mechanical causation and final causation is clear. The distinction is a subtle and technical one, and I have tried to make it as plain as I can.

Please read and support my work on Patreon!