My morning coffee, free will and the mind-body problem

All the unknown laws of nature

It is early in the morning, and I am having my first mug of coffee today. I wonder how it arrived on the desk in front of me. Perhaps this mug of coffee today resulted unavoidably, inevitably, from the causal chain of events following a collision between two atoms 13.7 billion years ago. In a hard, deterministic world, it could not have arrived consequent to any purpose, for in such a world there can be no purpose. So, it could not possibly be that it was a conscious, abstract thought in my mind which initiated a variety of otherwise unrelated actions which led to this mug of coffee before me now. In such a world, it could not be that it was my abstract purpose alone that initiated the otherwise unrelated actions necessary to that purpose. My thoughts and perceived purpose could, in a material world, only be illusions. Perhaps if Genghis Khan had been born a day earlier, I would be having a masala chai with yak’s milk instead.

Or perhaps, just perhaps, it was in fact my free will, expressed as an abstract purpose, which, somehow, initiated and directed diverse interactions in the material world which resulted in my mug of coffee.

The “laws of nature” we acknowledge are restricted to the material world. They govern the behaviour of everything material (matter, energy, fields, waves, “dark” things, “strings” and even space). Interactions between the immaterial and the material are denied and therefore not subject to the laws of nature. This is a trifle self-contradictory since the laws themselves are abstract and immaterial. To claim that the laws emerge from the material world itself is somewhat specious since it requires the material world to be causeless and omniscient. It invokes simultaneously the God of Existence, his father the God of Random Events, and his uncle the God of Causality. Moreover it does not make the laws any less abstract. What then could be the unknown, causal, laws – also presumably laws of nature – which enable abstractions to cause actions in the material world and deliver my morning mug of coffee?

Wider than the mind-body problem

The mind-body problem has been a matter for philosophers for at least 2,500 years from pre-Aristotelian times.  It’s modern formulation can be traced to the writings of René Descartes, and especially the letters written to him by Princess Elizabeth of Bohemia between 1643 and 1650. She was a remarkable woman from a remarkable family, and it is her formulation which so clearly describes the issue recognised as the mind-body problem today.

She wrote, 370 years ago:

….. how the human soul can determine the movement of the animal spirits in the body so as to perform voluntary acts—being as it is merely a conscious substance. For the determination of movement seems always to come about from the moving body’s being propelled—to depend on the kind of impulse it gets from what sets it in motion, or again, on the nature and shape of this latter thing’s surface. Now the first two conditions involve contact, and the third involves that the impelling thing has extension; but you utterly exclude extension from your notion of soul, and contact seems to me incompatible with a thing’s being immaterial…

Nowadays the mind-body problem is seen as the unknown relationship between physical properties and mental properties. It is often broken down further into component parts:

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Humans have (or seem to have) both physical properties and mental properties. People have (or seem to have) the sort of properties attributed in the physical sciences. These physical properties include size, weight, shape, colour, motion through space and time, etc. But they also have (or seem to have) mental properties, which we do not attribute to typical physical objects These properties involve consciousness (including perceptual experience, emotional experience, and much else), intentionality (including beliefs, desires, and much else), and they are possessed by a subject or a self.

Physical properties are public, in the sense that they are, in principle, equally observable by anyone. Some physical properties – like those of an electron – are not directly observable at all, but they are equally available to all, to the same degree, with scientific equipment and techniques. The same is not true of mental properties. I may be able to tell that you are in pain by your behaviour, but only you can feel it directly. Similarly, you just know how something looks to you, and I can only surmise. Conscious mental events are private to the subject, who has a privileged access to them of a kind no-one has to the physical.

The mind-body problem concerns the relationship between these two sets of properties. The mind-body problem breaks down into a number of components.

    1. The ontological question: what are mental states and what are physical states? Is one class a subclass of the other, so that all mental states are physical, or vice versa? Or are mental states and physical states entirely distinct?
    2. The causal question: do physical states influence mental states? Do mental states influence physical states? If so, how?

Different aspects of the mind-body problem arise for different aspects of the mental, such as consciousness, intentionality, the self.

    1. The problem of consciousness: what is consciousness? How is it related to the brain and the body?
    2. The problem of intentionality: what is intentionality? How is it related to the brain and the body?
    3. The problem of the self: what is the self? How is it related to the brain and the body?

Other aspects of the mind-body problem arise for aspects of the physical. For example:

    1. The problem of embodiment: what is it for the mind to be housed in a body? What is it for a body to belong to a particular subject?

The seemingly intractable nature of these problems have given rise to many different philosophical views.

I see the mind-body problem as a part of the much wider issue of the relationship between the material and the immaterial. Existence has at least two categories; the material and the abstract (immaterial). I take this as being fundamental since even the most determinedly deterministic view accepts that the material world complies with certain “laws of nature”. These “laws”, or patterns of behaviour of material things, are not in themselves material but abstract. The immaterial must therefore exist in the universe too, and not only as illusions of the human mind. The material world dances to an immaterial tune irrespective of human minds. Where do these abstract laws of nature reside? How does the ball know when to fall? We have no clue as to how or if the laws of nature are embedded in every fundamental particle or wave or field. But every particle or wave or field knows and complies with the laws of nature. This wider problem, of which the mind-body problem is a sub-set, is that of how the immaterial can act upon or be acted on by the material.

How can something abstract cause interactions between material things in the material world? Not just random interactions but actions with a purpose inherent in the abstract thought. Where the forces of nature are harnessed to my abstract purpose of creating a mug of coffee. The laws of physics, or of any science, are incapable of dealing with an interaction between the abstract and the material. In modern physics the usual solution to new problems would be to postulate a new fundamental particle or a new, mysterious, dark, field. We still don’t know what mediates gravity and so we postulate the graviton or gravity waves. We postulate all manner of photons, which are sometimes fantastical particles without mass, and sometimes waves, or sometimes both, as the mediators of electro-magnetic radiation. Which unknown waves or which dark mysterious field should we say interacts with which massless mind particle? As with gravitation or electromagnetism is there such a thing as a thought field? How does causality work, if at all, between an immaterial thought and purposeful actions in the material world? What mediates abstract thought into material actions?

My mug of coffee is a philosophic conundrum

My purpose is an immaterial thing in my mind. The universe has no apparent purpose. None of the laws of nature or physics that we know of are themselves imbued with purpose. I usually have a mug of coffee first thing in the morning. Sometimes, I have a cup of tea. I perceive that it is an entirely free choice I make every morning. I feel no coercion from past events. It is usually – but not always – a mug when I have coffee and a cup when I have tea. I could have coffee in a cup, but I mostly choose not to. My exercise of free will seems unencumbered. My conscious thought initiates actions in the material world towards a purpose which I define afresh every morning. Without that purpose, those actions would not occur. I can break down the production of my mug of coffee to at least ten different completely unrelated actions, initiated only by my conscious purpose. Whereas the first cause for the creation of the universe is beyond our understanding, the thought in my mind serves as the first cause for the events required for the creation of my mug of coffee. The laws of physics are always complied with, but the laws of physics do not – cannot – provide a purpose or an initial cause. In empirical fact, the laws of nature are being intentionally manipulated, as material actions, for an abstract thought to achieve an equally abstract purpose. My empirical observation is that I (where my identity and consciousness are themselves abstract) make a choice in the immaterial world, and this is translated, somehow, into actions connected only by my purpose in the material world.

The conundrum lies not in how I choose but in how my choice is then put into effect. How does my conscious, apparently voluntary, immaterial, thought of drinking coffee rather than tea, cause the various subsequent, purposeful, physical, material actions in a material world, which result in my drinking a mug of coffee some 10 minutes later? My thought – to have a mug of coffee in the near future – appears to be an abstract and immaterial thing, generated in my mind. It is not itself made up of the material neurons and electrical flows in my brain at that moment but is something else. It may be the pattern of neurons and signals in my brain and my body. A pattern of the relationship of physical, material things, is itself immaterial. The pattern – which I call thought – is, for want of any more precise word, abstract. The laws of nature are all patterns governing the behaviour of material things, and are, just like my thoughts, abstract and immaterial.

Free will gives purpose

Determinism is a worldview which requires that all events be determined completely by previously existing causes. Events are defined only in the material plane. In fact, abstractions are only permitted as a sub-class of material existence. Every event can only be a reaction and therefore there can never be an initiating event. This, in turn, requires that there be no beginning and no end. Infinity and endlessness, which are merely labels and incomprehensible to human cognition, are brought into play. Determinism presupposes, of course, the fact of material existence, that time exists, and that causality must apply. But there is no room for the existence of anything abstract. Thought, consciousness and free will are all abstract and so they must be illusions since they cannot interact with the events in a fixed material world. However, there is an inherent self-contradiction here. Even if existence is restricted to material things, the laws of nature they are required to comply with are themselves immaterial and abstract. Even if all the laws of nature were embedded within every particle or wave or field, laws are themselves abstractions.

The process we call science is all about what is caused by what. It also presupposes that causality applies. Science is enabled, but also strictly bounded, by its assumptions. The laws of nature and the laws of physics (which are our approximations to the laws of nature), specify how current events in the material realm are caused by preceding events in that same realm. Current and past events are then causes of future events. Truly random events are, by definition, without cause and therefore cannot be permitted to exist. A strictly deterministic world allows no random, causeless events. It follows that in a deterministic world there can be no purpose in the interminable, inevitable chain of cause and effect. The cold equations of the laws of nature describe how effects must inevitably follow from causes. They can have no purpose except, perhaps, the self-serving one that causality must apply. But even admitting that would mean the subordination of material events to the abstraction called causality. No ism is ever capable of penetrating a fundamental, founding assumption. Therefore, all isms rely ultimately on magic for their fundamental assumptions. Compared to all the other isms, determinism merely shifts the boundary at which magic starts and replaces gods and magic with other magical incomprehensibilities. Invoking an incomprehensible endlessness needs the magical assumption of existence – but only of material things – and merely ignores the issue of how things were created or came to be. I may not believe in any particular gods, but I find the arguments for replacing conventional gods by invoking a God of Existence together with a God of Random Events and a God of Causality quite unsatisfactory.

Hard determinism allows no free will. All events, including everything that all living things do, are then just inevitable reactions to preceding causes. Human free will, which implies choice of future action, cannot exist. All thought, and consciousness itself, become illusions of perception caused by the physical state of neurons and electrical impulses in the brain. In fact, abstract things are just not allowed as a class of existence. In this worldview everything must happen because of what happened before. Everything in the future is already predetermined and nothing can happen for any imagined purpose. What was, has fixed what is. What is in the now, fixes what will be. The inevitability of a fixed future in a hard deterministic world not only makes purpose impossible, it also renders purpose to be a meaningless concept. But illusions too are something abstract, and a hard determinism which denies the abstract becomes self-contradictory.

If purpose is real, then existence must allow both the material and the abstract. If purpose exists, then thought and consciousness are real. If purpose is admitted, then there is free will. And if free will is allowed then abstract thoughts can cause and initiate actions in the material world.

It is the immaterial which rules the material

There are those – materialists, determinists, and their ilk – who would claim that all things including abstractions and thoughts and mind and consciousness are ultimately material things. Thus, a thought is just a particular, transient, fleeting state of neurons and their electrical signals in a brain. A thought, says the materialist, is then just a particular pattern of those particular material neurons and their signals. I note that a brain has some 100 billion (109) neurons and there can be an exchange of up to 1000 (103) signals per second between any two neurons. Consider that just the 52 cards in a pack give rise to 52!  (8×1067) combinations which exceeds the number of all the 1050 atoms existing on earth (of around 1080 atoms in the known universe). A snapshot of the state of a brain then involves a particular combination of an incomprehensibly large number (at least 1012 elements and 1012! combinations) of possible combinations. I note, in passing, that any pattern, whether of material things or immaterial, is itself not a physical thing but an abstraction in a different dimension to the physical things. This pattern of a particular state of the brain, which is said to be a thought, is itself abstract. It is more than a little far-fetched to claim that my thought was just an inevitable illusion which appears to forecast and initiate a future which was already determined. Hard determinism cannot explain how my illusion of drinking coffee in the future led to the creation of a real mug of coffee that I am now drinking.

The material world we know of follows immaterial rules we call the laws of nature. Immaterial thoughts in the minds of many living things initiate and cause changes to the material world but we do not know how the immaterial intentions are mediated into the material world.

And if causality still applies, then there must be unknown laws of nature which allow abstract events to cause actions in the material world.


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