Thinking of Catwoman

Part of a horrifically never-ending conversation. I am astonished that anyone is still interested in this topic. But, as it so happens, three people asked me the same question in the same day. I will answer all at once, if my powers allow.

I have followed this conversation with great interest for years, and I must admit that I sympathize with those who are confused by your position on brain atoms.

The atoms in your brain do different things if you choose to think about Justice rather than Catwoman. Right? And they’re doing different things because of your choice about which topic to ponder. If those two things are true, it sure seems reasonable to say that your immaterial choice resulted in physical motion of brain atoms, and since Newton’s laws don’t include a factor for immaterial choice, therefore Newton’s laws have been broken. Somewhere in the system, a particle went in a different direction than predicted by F=ma, because of your choice.

Incidentally, that is exactly what I believe. I think that rational thought is a literal supernatural miracle. I think that I’m on the same page as CS Lewis, as he described his argument from reason in Miracles (if I remember correctly).

Now, I think (please forgive me if I’m putting words in your mouth) that your point is that Newton’s laws are not violated in the case of rational thought, for the reason that the laws are not intended to apply to that case. In other words, it seems to me that you are agreeing that Newton’s laws do not describe the physical system of the brain, but you say that’s not a violation of Newton’s laws because they are not meant to apply to that system.

But I have virtually zero confidence that I have correctly taken your meaning.

Good question, indeed, an excellent question. I will try to explain as best I can.

The atoms in your brain do different things if you choose to think about Justice rather than Catwoman. Right?

Let us assume so for the sake of argument, right.

And they’re doing different things because of your choice about which topic to ponder.


The word ‘because’ here is ambiguous. It is used in two different senses.

It is upon this distinction that my argument rests, and upon this distinction that the opposition flounders in confusion. I will try my best.

In one sense, when I am describing the reaction of inanimate objects to outside forces, as in a Newtonian physical system, ‘because’ refers to the efficient prior conditions of matter which lead up to the current condition of matter.

That is, we say the eight ball fell in to side pocket ‘because’ the cue ball struck it at such and such an angle with such and such a velocity, and so on. The event can be described completely in terms of the physical abstractions of mass and motion over time by Newtonian laws.

In unliving physical systems, the ‘because’ is the history of the physical causes which rest in the past, and a description of the chain of causes and effects leading to the present. And, presumably, the chain can be extrapolated into the future, if a sufficient information is at hand, such the location and mass of the other billiards on the table. Every link in the physical chain can be abstracted to a quantity of some physical unit (mass, length, duration, temperature, current, candlepower, moles of substance).

In the other sense, when dealing with living things, ‘because’ refers to the grounds of their actions and the relation of those grounds to the consequences, such as the aim for a certain foreseen good or the aversion for an foreseen evil. In this context, the word ‘because’ refers to the final cause or goal or end result which the action attempts to achieve or avoid, and details the judgments about means used to achieve those ends.

That is, we say a chessmaster moved his rook in front of his king in order to block the check from the enemy queen, and to threaten that queen in return. The move has meaning only if we know that the purpose of the game is to check the king.

So we say the chessmaster made that move for the sake of protecting his king and threatening his opponent’s queen, and we can assess the efficiency and elegance of the move, or the lack thereof, by contemplating the tactical situation of the board, the relative value of the chessmen, and rank the available possible moves in a hierarchy of possibilities.

In sum, we look at his end, which is checkmating the opposition, and at his means, which are his chessmen, their possible moves given the rules of chess and the situation on the board.

Each judgement can be analyzed as a value judgment derived from the formal overacting value judgment which underpins all value judgments, which is that all actions seek a good, real or imaginary.

Not a single link in the hierarchy of grounds and consequences, means and ends, can be defined as a quantity, since they are not interchangeable, nor can they be added nor subtracted, multiplied nor divided.

We cannot talk about them in the same way as we talk about physical ‘because’.

A determinist says that the first description of things, the list of physical quantities, can exactly and precisely define the second description of things, the evaluation of means and ends.

In the example given above, since billiards have a standard mass and table surface, the game is described entirely by the position and motion of the balls. It is an entirely Newtonian game.

Since chess abstracts (that is, ignores) all physical properties away from the game except the two dimensional grid of the board, the game is entirely formal: everything you need to know about a chessgame can be summarized in two parallel columns of notation describing the chessmen position at the end of each move. It is an entirely non-Newtonian game.

In the example above, the eight ball recoils from the cue ball with an equal and opposite force ‘because’ (sense one) the cue ball struck it. But the rook valiantly hurls itself in front of the threatened and cowering king ‘because’ (sense two) he is legally required by the game rules to avoid check, of which blocking the check is one way; and at the same time it is efficient to block the threatening queen while counterattacking her.

In your example, you ask whether a given brain atom will move to the left rather than to the right ‘because’ I think of Catwoman rather than Justice, this motion being done in such a fashion that Newton’s laws can find no prior material cause.


In effect, you asking whether a new atom (or some force of matter or energy) comes into physical being out of nowhere by a miracle when I think of Catwoman or of Justice and shoves my previous thought atom, which otherwise would travel in a straight line, to the left (for Catwoman) or to the right (for Justice).


Or, if you are of a materialist bent, you conclude that if no new atom comes into being out of nowhere by miracle, that this thought and all other thoughts are either helpless byproducts of physical motions or thought atoms, or thoughts do not exist at all.

But notice that you slide across the ambiguity I mention.

Let us call the two different senses of the word ‘because’ by two different words: sense one we will call ‘because-when-shoved-by’ and sense two we will call ‘because-in-pursuit-of’.

Are you asking, (sense one) “Do the atoms in your brain do different things because-when-shoved-by your thought of Catwoman?” or are you asking (sense two) “Do the atoms in your brain do different things because-in-pursuit-of thoughts of Catwoman?”?


Let us look at sense one and sense two in detail.

Sense one assumes that my thought about Catwoman is an atom with a given force and position and motion. In that regard, sense one assumes the conclusion of the argument: namely, that thoughts are matter, that qualities are quantities.


There are two possibilities here, both absurd. Possibility A is that there is something like a billiard ball in my head painted with a picture of Catwoman the way the eight ball is painted with an eight. The atom is not Catwoman, nor my image of Catwoman, but is something that points to, reflects, or represents my imagine of Catwoman.

Possibility B is that the atom is Catwoman, that they are one and the same, and the physical properties of the atom are the only properties Catwoman has.

Dark Knight Rises Catwoman Promo

Possibility A assumes that the relationship between atom and thought is the same relationship as exists between the word and the thing the word represents. This relationship is called ‘symbol’. A word can be honest or it can be dishonest. It can be fair or unfair. It can be beautiful or ugly. It can be efficient or inefficient. It can be good or evil. Or it could be any gradation or combination of these qualities, and more.

But there is no such thing as an honest billiard ball or an honest atom. There is no unfair billiard ball, or an inefficient one, or an evil one. The relationship between word and object is symbolic relationship, and cannot be a physical magnitude. It is not something that has weight or occupies space and time.

So Possibility A is the same paradox of asking me how my thoughts move my thought atoms at one remove: if the materialist makes the answer that my thought atoms ‘represent’ my thoughts, then my thoughts are not made of atoms, but made of something else to which the thought-atoms refer the way a symbol refers to an object without being that object.

Possibility B is absurd on its face. If you cut open a man’s brain, a lot of little homunculi representing men and toys representing objects do not fall out, nor is there is little man representing himself seated in a small room two inches behind his eyes, which he stares out of like portholes.

So the question of whether the atom moves ‘because’ (sense one) because-when-shoved-by makes no sense if the next word in the sentence is not ‘atom’ or at least some sort of a physical thing.

The word ‘because’ (sense one) can only link a physical thing moving to a prior physical thing that moved it.

What about sense two? Do my brain atoms move in pursuit of Catwoman?

Certainly my thoughts move in pursuit of Catwoman, just as eagerly as Batman pursues the feline felon across the rooftops of Gotham. If we knew the rules of thought, if there are such things as rules of thought, we could take the happiness which all men seek as the victory condition of the game, and deduce what hierarchy of goals and means, judgments and valuations made me deem it worth my while to think about this topic or any topic.


But to ask if a particular atom in the particular section of a brain cell in my cortex has a desire to contemplate lovely yet wicked make-believe supervillainesses is like asking whether rocks fall to the ground because they are lonely for the embrace of Mother Earth. It is a question that assumes a goal-seeking behavior when none can be attributed.

So the answer to your question is simply no.

In sense one, the brain atom moves presumably because another brain atom pushes it. (I say presumably, because no one has ever seen this done). This in turn is caused by other biological and biochemical reactions which in turn come from the nutrition I take in by eating, which chemical energy indirectly comes from the sun, which is the product of a long chain of stellar evolution leading back to the Big Bang. At no point along that fifteen billion year long chain of cause and effect is there any thing, even one action which moves without an equal and opposite reaction. All links in the chain of historical cause obey the laws of Newton. Nowhere anywhere in those links is there an atom or a group of atoms correctly called Catwoman, because she is not real, and not made of physical forces or substances.


To be sure, there are things called stories which refer to this imaginary being, and even real live actresses who pretended to be her by a process we call make-believe. But technically speaking, these are images or representations. They stand to Catwoman in the same relationship that the picture, drawn in ink, in my yellow Euclid textbook downstairs on my bookshelf of Proof I.47 stands to the right triangle contemplated by Pythagoras. They are images or representations.


In sense two, that mysterious thing called my mind contemplates Catwoman for a variety of reasons, none of which bear too close an examination. To speak of my thoughts carrying me along or doing their thinking without me, or, (in the case of Catwoman, my unlawful libido carrying me along), is something of a metaphor, and like all metaphors, misleading if taken  literally. What goes on can be likened metaphorically to an external force acting on my thinking, but is it ultimately a subjective sensation; something I do, not something done to me.

So now we reach an even deeper mystery. What is the relation between because-it-reacts-to-a-push and because-it-pursues-a-good?

Everyone in this conversation seems to assume that it is a one-to-one relation, that the thought atom in position A in my brain represent thought A, and that to make me think thought B, all we need to do is move the atom to position B. The assumption is that if I think of Catwoman, and you cut open my brain, you will find a tiny doll of the catwoman in my head, or if I think of Justice, you will find some tiny immaterial and indescribable concept that does not occupy time or space.

The Preferred Weapon of Womankind

Speaking of a doll of Catwoman…

So far, no one to my satisfaction has established any relationship at all.

As far as I can tell, the two methods of the describing things, telling me the physical motions in the past that led up to the physical motions of the present, versus telling me the goals sought and means selected and the values and priorities used to make those judgments, have nothing whatsoever in common. There are no little pictures of evil supervillainesses on the little billiard balls in my brain.

Neither method of description is complete. Neither method excludes the other.

That is not quite true: the one case where the physical method of description supersedes the deliberative method is when the brain is damaged. We can say that a man has a disordered brain which prevents his proper thinking due to specific medical brain conditions. However, even in this case, it is only the lack of ability to think that is being discussed, not the content of thought.


Sometimes I think of The Shadow, y’know.

Let us push this deeper mystery of the relation of cause-and-effect to grounds-and-consequences one step.

In Newtonian physics, there is only one timeline, because there are no decisions, no possibilities, no regrets, no might-have-beens. The cause and effect chain comes from the past and defines the present.

But in any description of human decisions, we cannot avoid agreeing, tacitly or openly, to the concept that involve a human mind confronted by a decision meet a vision of two possible futures, at the end of which are two alternate goods he might seek, or two alternate means he might use to seek them, and he must choose one or the other. The one he chooses become real and the other one sinks into the imaginary condition of might-have-been, an alternate timeline.

If I take the righthand path at the crossroad, looking back, I can trace every step of the chain of cause and effect all the way back to the dawn of time, with no break, and no violation of Newton’s Laws, neither at this crossroad nor at any prior. Likewise, if I had taken the lefthand path, looking back would discover no break nor violation of the laws of cause and effect.

From the point of view of the righthand path, the lefthand path is a might-have-been, and might-have-beens do not exist in the world described by physics. Likewise, from the point of view of the lefthand path.

If I were a billiard ball, the lefthand path would have been impossible for me to decide to take, if the cue ball pushed me to the righthand path, for the simple reason that billiard balls do not chose paths. The village materialist is someone who wants to pretend for the sake of argument that he is a billiard ball, without acknowledging that billiard balls do not pretend, and do not argue. He argues that if we are billiard balls, we have no choice but to move as billiard balls do. His argument is true, granting his premise that we are billiard balls, but he cannot answer why any sane man grants that premise?

At this point, let me confess I am not one of those intellectuals who is so in love with a theory that I ignore reality. If any theory of mine came to the conclusion that the act of decision making were an illusion, and there were no flaw in the logic, I would have no choice but to reject the axioms of the theory as false. That human beings make decisions (including the decision of whether or not to believe a theory that says we do not make decisions) is a primary and indubitable axiom. We all know it by direct experience. There is no arguing with it, because the act of arguing itself is an act of one type of decision making.

So the descriptive method of physics describe a world where time is strictly linear, coming from the past to the present, with no action that is not accompanied by an equal and opposite reaction. But the descriptive method of judgments posits a universe where time is shape like a Samnian Letter, a Y, a fork, a bifurcation, with different futures at the ends of the arms of the decision point at the crossroads.

I submit that these two pictures of the universe are both exactly correct, and that there is no conflict between them. It depends on your point of view, or, rather, it depends on which method of description you are using to describe which event in which way.

Let us turn with a wince to the now notorious hypothetical of Shakespeare and Mechaspeare , his mechanical twin brother.

By hypothesis, they both occupy the identical parallel material universes, with each atom in the exact place in one universe as it is in the other. Both universes operate by the same rules. On the same night in Michaelmas of 1602, the two poets pick up their quill pen and write Hamlet.

Shakespeare decides that, due to Hamlet’s fatal uncertainty, Ophelia Hamlet dies, Laertes dies, Claudius dies, Gertrude dies. The motions of his hand and arm can be described with perfect precision by a doctor, the motions of electrons and atoms in his brain by a neurologist, the chemical energies of his digestive tract by a biologist, their chemical composition by a botanist, the ultimate source of energy by an astronomer. The entire chain of cause and effect reaches back to the dawn of time, without a single atom moving in violation to Newton’s Law that every action has an equal and opposite reaction.

Meanwhile, Mechaspeare decides that Hamlet disguised as a shepherd goes to live in the Forest of Ardenne, where he falls in love with a shepherd lass whom he does not recognize as Ophelia in disguise. Claudius, while marching with an army to capture the absent prince in the forest, happens upon a holy man who convinces him to put aside his worldly concerns and assume a monastic life. A Greek goddess of marriage pops up to marry at least four couples, and the ghost of Hamlet’s Father weds her. Once again, the motions of his hand and arm can be described with perfect precision, as can the motions of electrons and atoms in his brain, the chemical energies of his digestive tract, and so on back to the dawn of time. Not a single action can be found that happens without a mechanical cause, because that is the way the physical universe works.

In both cases, this is a matter of point of view. At Michaelmas of 1602, looking forward from Shakespeare’s point of view or Mechaspeare’s, the possibilities are open of a happy ending to the play or a tragic one. Looking at Shakespeare’s decision from our point of view in the Twenty-First Century, the matter is fixed and unchangeable. It is a matter of historical fact that Hamlet ends tragically, for so the poet wrote it. Looking at the mechanics of how the pens moved in reaction to how the muscles moved in reaction to how the brain atoms moves in reaction to how the digestive tract moved in reaction to how food chemicals were formed in reaction to how the sun particles fused in reaction to the command of God at the Big Bang to bring forth Light — from the physicist’s point of view, there is no decision making, because decisions do not and cannot exist in a purely material and purely physical universe, which is the only universe physics is meant to describe.

To say that Mechaspeare cannot write a happy ending because the pen-strokes in his case would violate the law of inertia is lunacy. Did Shakespeare’s pen violate the laws of inertia by penning the unhappy ending? Is the pen even aware of whether the ending is happy or not?

You cannot say that Mechaspeare’s decided on a happy ending because an atom pushed that thought into his value system, because value system can only be described in terms of grounds and consequences. Nor can you say that a gloomy Hamlet shoved Shakespeare’s pen to make the ending unhappy, because imaginary people do not shove things.

If Shakespeare had been a billiard ball, he would write the sad ending because the cue ball of tragedy pushed him, and Mechaspeare, also a billiard ball, would write just exactly likewise. But if Shakespeare is Shakespeare, he can write whatever he damn well pleases.

But you might say, “Whoa! But by hypothesis, in a physical system, in all the initial conditions are the same, all the results must be the same in a parallel universe!”

To which I would say only that this is a potent metaphysical argument, but it is based on pure supposition, since we have no empirical knowledge of parallel universes. They exist only in hypotheticals like this one.

If we say hypothetically that the parallel universe must by definition stay parallel unless the laws of Newton are broken, we have once again assumed the conclusion of the question under discussion.It is like saying hypothetically that Shakespeare is a billiard ball. Yes, if Shakespeare were a billiard ball, he has no choice but to react to being pushed by cue balls just like a billiard ball; but if not, then not.

I prefer to say that hypothetically, the physical description of both universes is an inexact abstraction, and the real consequences, if examined, should be in the make believe parallel universe are just the same as they are in this one: namely, that we both see humans making decisions and we see physical forces moving inanimate objects.

The reason why this debate goes in endless circles is that each side starts with a different fundamental assumption about the nature of reality. My assumption is that reality can be described in two ways, physically and mentally, both equally valid each for its own purpose, and neither one stepping on the toes of the other. The assumption of the materialists (and at least one dualist) is that there can be only one way to describe the universe, the physical way.

I am not, like Descartes, a dualist. I do not think matter and mind have independent substances. I am a methodological dualist, however. I hold that the categories of human thought make it impossible for any rational being to avoid speaking of physical things in the language and metaphors of physics, as if time is linear; and likewise no one can avoid speaking of human actions in the language and metaphors of decision-making, as if the future is bifurcated. I hold that this inability to avoid these categories is due, not to some imperfection of human reasoning, but to the nature of reality itself, and that therefore acknowledging these categories to be inescapable acknowledges the true nature of objective reality.

That assumption is an ontological or epistemological assumption. Naturally, it cannot be addressed unless we discuss ontology. But that will have to wait for some distant day.

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