The Strange Case of the One Armed Murderer of Antarctica

Part of an ongoing conversation

A reader with the saintly name of Anna writes in and asks.

Perhaps I should make my question clearer. I am not a materialist. I’m far closer to Idealism, although I have too much appreciation for Incarnational theology to refer to matter or the body as an illusion.

My understanding of free will is that it means a choice is not determined by anything other than the act of choosing. When I say determined, I mean something like “forced”, something like the way that if you draw two sides of a triangle, you have determined the third side – there is one and only one way it can be.

To say that we have free will means that we are not compelled to act according to our motivations, we do not have to do what we want to do. It means that no amount of foreknowledge will give you the ability to accurately predict a choice 100% of the time; God himself cannot know what we will choose except that he sees us choosing it.

Materialism challenges the idea of free will by saying that, in essence, everything that ever happens was determined in the first moment(s) after the Big Bang; that after that initial moment, there was one and only one way that everything could play out (for all of time) according to the laws of physics, just as certainly as there is only one way to connect three points into a triangle once you have drawn those three points.

Now, I have no problem saying that materialism is just plain wrong. But I’ve always figured that this means that there is somehow a loophole in what appear to be immutable laws of physics, or something going on at a level that we don’t understand. That doesn’t bother me – if God can turn one loaf of bread into many, after all, allowing us to make choices and affect what physically happens seems like a relatively minor issue.

But it seems to me that you are saying that the laws of physics *are* immutable, that there *is* only one way things can work out according to those laws, but that somehow there is still free will. This is what I keep trying to understand, because I don’t see *how* both these things could be.

I understand, in an abstract sort of way, your cylinder analogy; I don’t see its application to this question. Yes, we generally talk about either the physical dimension of something or else the moral dimension, without confusing them for each other. Most of our questions about life will be answered by one or the other aspect, without any mingling of the two dimensions. I just don’t see how we answer this one particular dilemma without discussing the relationship between the two; a man cannot choose to verbally insult his neighbor without moving his lips.

This distinction that you try to draw between “determine (push)” and “determine (draw)” is not completely clear to me. By “determine (push)” you might mean something like what I have in mind – that it sets something so that only one option is left? But why would you use “draw” as a modifier/synonym for “determine”? We are drawn in by our motivations?

*

“My understanding of free will is that it means a choice is not determined by anything other than the act of choosing.”

Well, first, what is the support or evidence for this view? I am not disagreeing with it, but it does not seem intuitively obvious to me either.

My understanding of the free will is that it is the thing that man have which allowed them to make decisions, take oaths, make contracts, and be held accountable for their actions; madmen are defective in their will, and it is not free by reason of their madness; children have their will not free yet, and is undeveloped by reason of their age; and beasts do not have free will by their nature, and cannot develop it, and yet this in them is not a defect nor an illness but natural to them. They react by instinct and training, sometimes with wisdom, but never due to thought, reflection, deliberation, or the contemplation of an abstraction or remote good.

A man under duress technically has free will, but we would usually allow that this is a mitigating circumstance, and might hold his conduct blameless which would be blameworthy were that duress or threat not present. Martyrs and stoics are admired precisely because such duress does not impede their freedom of the will: they make the sacrifice and endure the pain.

“When I say determined, I mean something like “forced”, something like the way that if you draw two sides of a triangle, you have determined the third side – there is one and only one way it can be.”

There we agree. Where a man has not two options in contemplation, there is no opportunity for decision, hand no operation of the will. A man being shot out of the moon-cannon of Jules Verne’s fictional gunsmith Barbicane does not have any operation of the will to strike the moon: his body is carried there willy-nilly.

“To say that we have free will means that we are not compelled to act according to our motivations, we do not have to do what we want to do. It means that no amount of foreknowledge will give you the ability to accurately predict a choice 100% of the time; God himself cannot know what we will choose except that he sees us choosing it.”

While this may be true, I do not see why it must be true.

I can easily imagine a situation where, for example, we read of Frodo at the Council of Elrond deciding to bear the dreadful Ring into Mordor, or, later, deciding to spare the life of the wretched Gollum. In order for the story to make sense, what is being portrayed in such scenes must be acts of free will. There is no drama in reading an account of the turning wheels of a machine, or the melting of ice or some other natural processes not involving choice. Drama is choice.

And yet, even as I hold the book in hand, not only do I know that JRR Tolkien has foreknowledge of the fate of Frodo, I know that the pages in my right hand hold the words already written, already immutable. Again, in order to have drama, there must be plot, and plot means there must be a conclusion foreknown to the author, and foreknowable (at least in theory) to the reader, lest the events simply stumble to a halt, making no sense and having no relation to all that has gone before. (Modern experimental or absurdist fiction lacks drama and interest for just this reason.)

So I can see a small example of how it can both be true that an author has control of fate, but the characters have free will. My relation in real life to my Great Author seems likewise.

“Materialism challenges the idea of free will by saying that, in essence, everything that ever happens was determined in the first moment(s) after the Big Bang; that after that initial moment, there was one and only one way that everything could play out (for all of time) according to the laws of physics, just as certainly as there is only one way to connect three points into a triangle once you have drawn those three points. Now, I have no problem saying that materialism is just plain wrong.”

Nor I. Even back when I was an atheist, material made no more sense to me than some pre-Socratic Greek theory saying everything was made of water, or everything was made of air, or everything was made of change, or everything was made of changelessness, or everything was made of cheese. Strict materialism eliminates the materialist, as well as all human life and thought and decision and determination, from the theory. It is a self-impeaching theory. I suppose it has the same eerie allure as Buddhism, which not only says that life is an illusion, but that the self that perceives the illusion is also illusion. How can that be?

Compared to the subtle self-contrary mysteries of materialists, the mystery of the Trinity or the Incarnation seems pellucid.

“But I’ve always figured that this means that there is somehow a loophole in what appear to be immutable laws of physics, or something going on at a level that we don’t understand.”

No. To say that is as much to say that materialism is wrong because it is right.

Materialism is wrong at its basic assumption of ontology: it admits no being aside from material properties of material objects. Nothing else which is said to exist actually exists. Materialism is wrong at its basic assumption of epistemology: its admits of no knowledge aside from empirical and contingent sense impression knowledge.

Both basic assumptions are self-contradictory.

The ontological assumption is wrong because if it were true, then the statement “No being aside from material properties of material objects” would be meaningless, because it refers not to the material property of a material object. “Being” is an abstract concept with no material properties, as is the concept of “statements that are true rather than false” as is the abstract concept of
“abstract concepts” as is the concepts of representation, symbol, sign, thought, or pointing.

The epistemological assumption is wrong because if it were true, then the statement “no knowledge aside from empirical and contingent sense impression knowledge is true knowledge” would be classified as false, because it is a universal statement contingent upon nothing, but instead it holds itself out as a universal applying equally to all places, times, conditions and circumstances.

It is not because there is a loophole in physics that allows men to think and have free will; it is because physics does not define, describe, determine, make models of, investigate, talk about, or look into the thoughts and ideas AT ALL. Physics is about physics. It is the study of the motions of physical objects. It is not the study of abstract universals, human thought, human action, economics, politics, aesthetics, history, or any other field.

Physics, to the degree that it overlaps medicine, may take an interest in the epiphenomenon of thoughts when those thoughts are defective, or study the mechanisms by which they remain healthy, as in the study of neuropsychology. But even that study is not the study of the thoughts themselves. It takes as its subject matter only the mechanics, only the material aspects.

Now, the village materialist says, “but the mechanics is all that there is!”

It is a statement that is untrue, and patently untrue. Economics is not a branch of physics, nor is ethics a study of brain diseases.

So the village materialist backtracks and says, “The mechanics would be all that there is if an imaginary science, not yet invented, were invented which described and defined everything else in reality as if it were mechanics!”

Sure. And everything would be ducks if everything were made of ducks. But since everything is obviously not made of ducks, the assertion that all other sciences, studies, arts, and human thought could be reduced to duckology is an unsupported assertion, and one which, if granted, leads to an immediate self-contradiction. If the theory of materialism is true, mind does not exist, words do not exist, theories do not exist, because none of these things are made of matter nor describe matter; and therefore if the theory of materialism is true the theory is not true.

“But it seems to me that you are saying that the laws of physics *are* immutable, that there *is* only one way things can work out according to those laws, but that somehow there is still free will. This is what I keep trying to understand, because I don’t see *how* both these things could be.”

Well, I am not sure if this is exactly what I am saying. The laws of physics are immutable by definition. That is one of the rules of the game to which we all agree when we sit down to play the game called physics.

The word immutable there means “immutable insofar as physical descriptions of physical things go.”

Every attempt at describing something using ONLY mechanical causes must, by the rules of the game, describe each event as arising out of a prior event, and no other mechanical motions or effects are allowed unless they are defined or described by prior mechanical motions or causes.

Now we get into trouble, because in real life, we always mix mechanical and final cause (the how it was done and the why it was done) without noticing when we switch back and forth one to the other.

Let us contemplate the strange case of the One Armed Murderer of Antarctica.

“Your honor, ballistics can prove this is the bullet from the gun that was the murder weapon; and the fingerprints of the accused are on the weapon.”

This is a statement about mechanical causation. The murder was committed by a bullet striking the victim; the bullet was ejected from a gun; the gun was fired by means of gunpoweder ignited when the trigger was pulled. No question of final cause is involved. We are talking about the mechanics: HOW it was done.

“Your honor, that gun did not go off by accident. The defendant knew, planned, and intended to kill the victim. He was in a jealous rage because he came across the victim in the arms of the defendant’s unfaithful wife.”

This is a statement about mens rea, about the state of mind of the person at the time in question. No question of mechanical causation is involved. We are talking about motive. WHY it was done.

Now consider two possible defense from the counsel for the defense:

“Ladies and Gentlemen of the jury, be lenient. A man who comes sudden upon the scene of his wife in the arms of another man is in the grip of an uncontrollable passion. This is murder in the second degree: he did not plan it. It was the act of an impulse of passion in the heat of the moment.”

Philosophically, this argument is that the man’s free will was impaired in its operation, and that therefore a man who kills in the heat of passion is less blameworthy, and merits a less severe punishment, than a man who kills in cold blood, carefully thinking over the dreadful deed for hours or days before committing it.

It is an argument about WHY he did it, not about HOW.

Consider another possible defense, “Ladies and Gentlemen of the jury, while this is the gun that slew the victim, my client could not possibly be the one who held it, because he was in Antarctica at the time, and since his gun hand was cut off in a horrible helicopter-petting accident on the Ross Ice Shelf.”

This argument has nothing to do with free will, but only with the mechanics of how a man with no arms could pick up and use a gun when he was in a place remote from the scene. No argument will be made as to his state of mind in this round of arguments, only about the mechanics of how it was done.

“Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I intend to prove that this man is indeed the murderer, since he mailed both his gun and his severed hand to his brother Zorba, with the instruction that the severed hand must be holding the gun at the time of the murder, in order that the family honor be avenged. I have here a note written in the defendant’s own distinctive toe-writing with the words, ‘It must be my hand that pulls the trigger!’. I also would like to call to the stand the Mailman of Antarctica, who remembers carrying the package, and getting a signed receipt from Zorba.”

This argument combined elements, speaking in one way about the motive (WHY) and in another way about the mechanics. (HOW).

Keep all this in mind when you ask your question. You seem to be laboring under the assumption that if a really, really, really thorough and complete account or description (what physicists call a model) of the mechanics of HOW it was done would somehow, by elf-magic, also explain and give a convincing explanation of WHY it was done.

It is the elf-magic I doubt.

If instead of a murder trial, we were discussing the motions of jacks on a clockwork, and we saw the dolls representing Punch and Judy go through the clockwork motions representing Punch murdering Judy. Every day at noon and midnight, the Punch doll has its little armed jerked by internal springs and cogwheels and the little doll head of Judy is lifted out of its socket my the carved metal piece representing her hair, pulled by another wheel as it turns.

The village materialist says, “By my deliberately stupid theory of the universe, I hereby declare that I will only look at the gross surface features of all objects in the universe to determine their nature and motions. By the gross surface features, as far as I can tell, the murder of Judy by Punch, and the strange case of the One-Armed Murder of Antarctica, are EXACTLY THE SAME! My theory tells me there must be something like wheels and gears inside the head of the one armed murderer as there are moving the doll arms of Punch and the doll head of Judy. In fact, I therefore must be such a doll, and these words I seem to be saying are actually the meaningless airpressure waves issuing from a cleverly hidden gramophone in my chest!”

Okay. What is wrong with the nutbag theory of the village materialist is his theory of ontology. He defines the only thing to exist to be the gross surface features of reality, and assumes as an axiom that nothing interior exists.

If nothing interior exists, no WHY exists. It’s that simple. There is no motive for the murder of Judy by Punch. There is not even a murder. These things are dolls that go through clockwork motions. The motions have no meaning except to the clockmaker and to whatever children are amused (or horrified) by the little drama carried out when they watch the clock strike. Which means, logically, that only if the clockmaker and the clockwatcher are not of the same nature as the clockworks can the clockwork motions have meaning.

If you take apart the Punch doll you will not find a gear labeled ‘motive’. There is no motive, by definition. Physics only studies those things whose motive, if it exists at all, has nothing to do with their field of study. Newton does not (and using his mental tool called empiricism cannot) do not concern themselves whether rock love the Earth and fling themselves toward it, or abhor a vacuum and fling themselves away from the horror of open outer space above. Newton measures the ratio between mass, distance, and attraction. That is all.

The honest physicist does not do this. He humbly says the tool known as empiricism only can reach gross surface features of reality, and therefore he will remain silent on all questions outside of what empiricism can confirm: he will never talk about WHY only about HOW.

So I do not even understand the question you are driving at. You seem to be asking whether knowing everything that can be known about HOW, will either tell you WHY or will prove that there can be no WHY, since if HOW occupies everything, causes everything, there is nothing left over for WHY to occupy, cause or do.

If that is what you are asking, you are asking a nonsense question. Taking apart every wheel and gear and spring in the Punch doll will not tell you the motive of the daily murder of Punch and Judy.

Likewise, if it were possible to take apart every nerve cell of the brain and nervous system and glandular system of the one-armed murderer and study their gross surface features under the microscope, or take him apart atom by atom and study their gross surface features under an electron microscope, you would never find the nerve cluster labeled ‘motive’ nor the atom labeled ‘motive.’ Motive is not a physical property. You have to talk to the murderer as if he were a person with in interior, a mind, a soul, to discover his motive.

The village materialist might object, “Ah! But if I knew how the words of his thoughts were encoded as blips on the magnetic reels of the tape machine in his mind, I could both predict how the tape would run, and learn the motive.”

Well, no. If you lived in a universe were there were no observers, no people, nothing but manikins and dolls and clockwork jacks moving through the motions determined by blips on a magnetic tape you could do that: but in that universe, there is no motive, no WHY to be found, because every man is Punch, and has no insides, just gears.

If the information of the muderer’s motive could be stored in matter, it would not be a motive. It might be words or symbols reflecting or representing the motive, or brain motions that accompany the thoughts contemplating the motive, but even so, a book has no meaning unless there is an observer to read it, and a brain with no observer to read and to think its thoughts is a dead man’s brain: every atom is still in place, and nothing physically is different, but there is no one home.

“I understand, in an abstract sort of way, your cylinder analogy; I don’t see its application to this question.”

The circle or top of the cylinder represents mind, or the issue of final cause as seen from the vertical direction or dimension, the field of study of philosophy, ethics, politics, law, aesthetics, theology, and, in short, everything aside form physics . The rectangle or side of the cylinder represents body, or the issue of mechanical cause as seen from the empirical direction or dimension, the field of study of physics.

The analogy means to illustrate how it is that the man can be one thing, solid, and his actions be both studied by doctors (to see what forces or mechanisms moved him) and studied by lawyers and ethicists and economists and politicians (to see why he moved.)

“Yes, we generally talk about either the physical dimension of something or else the moral dimension, without confusing them for each other. Most of our questions about life will be answered by one or the other aspect, without any mingling of the two dimensions. I just don’t see how we answer this one particular dilemma without discussing the relationship between the two; a man cannot choose to verbally insult his neighbor without moving his lips.”

I don’t understand the dilemma or why it is a dilemma. Explain it more slowly and simply to me, please. I am not trying to be cute, I actually don’t get it. I have never had this topic come up in any discussion except for a philosophical discussion that tacitly or actively accepted the patently false premise of materialist ontology. No philosopher before Descartes addresses the issue.

“This distinction that you try to draw between “determine (push)” and “determine (draw)” is not completely clear to me. By “determine (push)” you might mean something like what I have in mind – that it sets something so that only one option is left?”

Yes and no. By push I mean there is no choice involved: we are describing the non-voluntary aspects of the situation, the things that must happen because of what happened before.

“We are drawn in by our motivations?”

Let me contrast:

Push means mechanical cause. A spring moved the doll arm of the jack representing Punch to move the toy axe. We speak of the shape and motion of the gears and their forces as what determines the further movement.

We are using the word ‘determine’ in the first sense of the word only: the materialist or mechanical sense.

Pull means those ideas and ideals, passions and goals, that draw our thoughts and inspire our actions. For example, I am drawn by the beauty and perfection of God to love and worship Him; I am also drawn by my self-interest, my fear of hell, and my lust for the pleasures of Heaven; I am also drawn by my very deep passion for honor never to lie or deceive, never to depart from the truth no matter its cost.

These things, God, self-interest, fear, joy, honor, are things that make me think very carefully and care very deeply about how I determine my actions, and what determinations I make. They draw me. I am not forced; I am not pushed;  I am not a doll.

When I am pulled by Love, I am something in a helpless state, or pulled by temptation. However, not all these ideas or images or passions pull equally on all parts of my soul. Sometimes by sense of honor will cause me to recoil from temptation; other time my sense of honor is the carrier of the disease of temptation. In that case, there is an internal struggle.

In other cases, all part of my soul cry out with perfect will, and I am unaware of any struggle, and, because it meets no resistance, unaware of the perfect will that moves me. At such times, we speak of men as having determination. He has determined his action. He action is perfectly determined by the goal before him, the goal draws him and brooks no denial in his breast. He is determined. This is the second sense in which we use the word determined. It refers to the final or mental or spiritual sense.

All the confusion and all the nonsense spawned by Descartes and his epigones issues forth from one fountain: they conflated the two meanings of these two separate and distinct concepts.

 

 

 

Please read and support my work on Patreon!