26 Jul 2009

Another Analogy for My Solution to the Mind-Body Problem

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Last week, I dazzled you all with my computer analogy that I thought neatly solved the philosophical mind-body problem as well as the theological problem of God’s sovereignty and free will. In the comments, KSralla argued that my approach wasn’t consistent with the Christian conception of God:

Unless God violates his own rules (becoming a lawbreaker), then he must (according to his nature) allow the physical universe to expand and evolve according to these rules, and has in effect banned himself from pervading his physical creation at t=X. That might be an acceptable model if it were consistent with the image of the Judeo-Christian God portrayed in scripture. It is not.

Several Christians have recoiled from my “solution” in this fashion in the past, and so I want to spend today’s post trying to defuse the hostility. (Note that to make sense of today’s post, you should first read last week’s, though you don’t need to read any of the comments to get up to speed.)

First, let me spend a minute explaining that by definition, God can’t break the laws of physics, any more than He can make 2+2=5. What are the “laws of physics”? As Richard Feynman explained in an essay called “The Character of Physical Law,” they are simply the rules that describe the behavior of the objects of our natural investigations. Now because we are fallible, if we ever discover a violation of one of these “rules”–and we’re sure it’s a legit violation, not due to experimental error–then we must conclude, “The rules aren’t what we thought they were yesterday.” Einstein overturned Newtonian physics, but the universe itself didn’t change because of his work.

Now the average Christian, I think, believes that scientists have come up with the “normal” laws of physics and of biology. Further, the average Christian believes that when Jesus walked on water, or raised Lazarus from the dead, that these miracles were violations of those rules. Maybe they were, and maybe they weren’t (I think not–it would make God’s design that much more impressive), but either way, it is nonsensical to say that the atoms in Lazarus’ body broke the laws of physics that day in the tomb. Whatever behavior his atoms did display, must have been consistent with a generalized body of laws that would be the new and improved “laws of physics.”

(In case this sounds too tautologous, note that unless the rules are fairly economical, the study of physics is pointless. The reason it’s so helpful for us to learn “the laws of physics” is that it gives us predictive power; we really do gain insight into how nature operates. But we could imagine a world in which the laws were so broad that onlookers with our degree of mental powers would discern no obvious patterns, and the world would be a chaotic muddle. So part of God’s design is that all of the wonders of the universe have their physical instantiations–apparently!–composed of a small group of elementary building blocks, which obey a fairly sparse set of rules.)

So we see that KSralla’s objection doesn’t make any sense. The standard Deistic image of God–against which KSralla is reacting–doesn’t really work if you think that God created not only space but also time. It’s wrong to think that God created Adam and Eve and everything else, then sat back and waited for His wound-up clock to spin out His design. From God’s point of view, it is all simultaneous; He creates Adam and Eve just as He descends to Earth with a flaming sword in His mouth. (Note that this is also how I deal with Mises’ praxelogical critique of the Western idea of God. Mises asked, why wouldn’t an omnipotent and omniscient being remove all of its felt uneasiness in one action? He does.)

In my view, it’s wrong to picture God as only jumping in once in a while to help out nature to fulfill His plans. “Whoa, those whiny Israelites will be in bondage forever if I don’t do something. I’ll temporarily make bushes impervious to fire and talk to Moses. Then I’ll hang out back in heaven for a while until they need Me to swoop in again and change the charge on electrons in the Nile to turn the water into blood.”

No, that’s not how I picture it at all. Every instant of the history of the universe is intimately infused with God’s presence and action; He is always “intervening.” But in order to allow us to make sense of things, 99.999999% of the time it seems as if nature obeys its “lifeless” rules, and then once in a great while an apparent “miracle” takes place. There couldn’t be apparent violations of the ordinary rules all the time, lest those “rules” would never be perceived in the first place. (Just to clarify, I am not saying that what we call the laws of physics were actually violated during the plagues and so forth. I think those were just unexpected and rare outcomes of the standard rules, given the earlier conditions of the physical universe.)

OK so on to the new analogy, to help make this point: Let’s say I have a stack of blank index cards. With my pencil I start doodling shapes on the cards. Also, I don’t do the first card, and then the second. Rather, I do part of the doodles on, say, the 87th card in the stack, then I do part of the doodles on the 13th card, and so forth.

Finally, when I’m all done doodling, I call my buddy over. I tell him, “I am going to show you a new world in which your body is that of a frog. Your objective is to get from one side of the street to the other, without getting hit by any of the traffic.”

I start flipping through the stack of cards, on which I have drawn the scenes from a game of Frogger. But because I perfectly anticipated what my buddy would will with his mind, I have drawn the scenes such that the frog moves in exactly the way my buddy wants it to. After a few minutes, the novelty wears off and my buddy is dead certain that he is controlling his frog body with his mental desires.

Now, if I stop the demonstration and ask my buddy, “Describe how the cars move?” he will be able to do it. Some cars move really fast, others move slow. But at no time does a car that’s on the top right of the xth index card suddenly teleport to the lower left of the (x+1)th index card.

I hope it is clear that in order for my buddy to be able to play the game at all, I had to build in some patterns for the objects in the alternate world to obey. Did these rules constrain me? Not really; I was free to do whatever I wanted with the pencil and the blank cards. But part of what I wanted was for my friend to be able to test his frogging skills, and he couldn’t have done that if the cars appeared in and out of existence at apparently random spots on the cards. Moreover, it’s clear that the “time” in the frogger world has nothing to do with me; I didn’t even create the cards in order.

This is what I think the actual, physical universe must be like. It’s true, the replacement of a deterministic, Newtonian universe with quantum uncertainty makes the analogy less compelling. But in any event I think it disposes of the claim that my approach somehow limits God’s sovereignty, or limits His creative work to the first week of Genesis.

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