Posts Tagged ‘Princess Elizabeth of Bohemia’

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

October 10, 2021

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: (more…)

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