19 Jul 2009

My Solution to the Mind-Body Problem, and the Reconciliation of God’s Sovereignty With Free Will

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Say what you will about Free Advice, but we tackle deep issues on this blog. No chatter about Joe the Plumber here (except when it’s important).

In a previous post, I listed some of the major problems with materialism, which is the view that the only “real” things are atoms and energy, and everything else is subordinate to them. So for example, the materialist says that disembodied thoughts are “really” just patterns of electrical and chemical reactions in your nervous system, and one commenter (Tokyo Tom) went so far as to say that “2+2=4” is just a model we have of the physical universe, which has been falsified by the discoveries of relativity and quantum mechanics.

In the present post, I want to lay out my working hypothesis for how to reconcile the apparently objective laws of physics governing the physical universe, with the equally apparently objective fact that human subjective desires influence events in this physical universe. (In other words, it seems that minds exist and affect inanimate matter, even though staring at the molecular level there doesn’t seem to be mind power coming in from an alternate dimension.) At the same time, my theory will explain how God can be the ultimate Designer of the universe, in which every event happens with His permission, and yet we humans still have free will and can choose to sin or to obey Him.


Imagine a computer programmer who makes a program that simulates a ball moving around the monitor. The program is entirely deterministic; the programmer could tell you beforehand what the exact position of the ball will be on the monitor, at any future time. The ball’s entire life cycle of movements are already embedded at t=0 in the software.

The programmer asks his buddy to sit down in front of the computer and watch the ball. Now here’s the freaky thing: Wherever the guy moves his eyes, that’s where the ball goes to on the monitor. So if the guy stares at the ball, it’s motionless. But then if he slowly starts looking to the left, the ball follows his gaze. He can try to “trick” the ball and suddenly dart his eyes to the opposite corner of the monitor, and BAM the ball instantly responds to his eye movement.

The guy keeps this up for a good 10 minutes, and it never fails. So he is obviously perfectly certain that he is controlling the ball. He hypothesizes that there must be a camera in the computer that notes his eye movements and then translates them into the appropriate pixels to light up on the monitor.

But actually, the programmer tells him that’s not what’s going on at all. The ball’s movements are completely pre-determined by the software. The trick is, the programmer predicted perfectly what his buddy’s eye movements would be. This is inconceivable to the buddy, because how could the programmer have known that RIGHT NOW he would zoom his eyes to the top left of the monitor? And yet, he can call in computer experts who can look over the machine, and they assure him that there is no way his eye movements are transmitting information into the computer. The ball’s movements “originate” entirely from within the hardware and software; there is no mechanism for the guy’s eye movements to influence the state of the machine (in any relevant sense–of course in reality if he flicks his eyes around a lot, the room gets hotter and this influences the computer etc.).

So that’s my theory of how God designed the physical universe to interact with our souls. (As C.S. Lewis said, you don’t have a soul, you are a soul–you have a body.) The physical universe is completely distinct from the spirit world (I’m sorry secularists but that’s an accurate term for what I’m talking about), and the quarks or other elementary particles in it, obey the laws of physics. Maybe our scientists are wrong in the exact nature of those laws, but the point is, there is a body of very economical laws governing physical matter and its behavior.

However, God designed these laws (and the initial state of the physical universe) such that it appears to us that we exercise (limited) control over the material universe. That’s why I can apparently control my fingers as I now type. It’s true, scientists can bore ever deeper into the processes governing the cells in my fingers, and they are never going to see injections of commands coming from my soul. But it sure seems as if my mind controls my fingers, and by the positivist’s own criterion of predictive power, it is a very strong hypothesis indeed.

As far as free will goes, God designed our souls such that we really do have free choice. In principle, our wills are independent of His. Yet God is also omniscient, and so He knew beforehand what we would choose to do when we (somewhat simplistically) think we are influencing the physical universe.

In other words, God had to solve an unimaginably complex problem when designing the universe. It is akin to solving a huge economics model to find the equilibrium. God had to choose the initial state of the universe, and dictate the laws governing those physical particles, such that every human who would ever live, would be fooled into thinking his or her subjective desires influenced the unfolding events, and that things could go one way or the other, depending on the person’s choice. Even though that belief was mistaken, in a sense it would still be true, since the laws of the universe (and its state at any moment) were originally designed with those choices in mind.

As a final point, “miracles” do not occur, in the sense of a violation of the laws of physics. The laws of physics are simply patterns describing how the atoms operate. If Jesus walks on water and thus violates the “laws” of physics, then they weren’t really laws, were they? In my interpretation, Jesus really did walk on water, raise the dead, etc., but nothing miraculous happened at the subatomic level. Rather, God had designed the universe such that these “impossible” (from a normal everyday human viewpoint) events were the necessary unfolding of the laws of physics, preordained from the first moment of creation.


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