As a runner, martial artist and philosopher I have considerable interest in the matter of the will. As might be imagined, my view of the will is shaped mostly by my training and competitions. Naturally enough, I see the will from my own perspective and in my own mind. As such, much as Hume noted in his discussion of personal identity, I am obligated to note that other people might find that their experiences vary considerably. That is, other people might see their will as very different or they might even not believe that they have a will at all.

As a gamer, I also have the odd habit of modeling reality in terms of game rules and statistics—I am approaching the will in the same manner. This is, of course, similar to modeling reality in other ways, such as using mathematical models.

In my experience, my will functions as a mental resource that allows me to remain in control of my actions. To be a bit more specific, the use of the will allows me to prevent other factors from forcing me to act or not act in certain ways. In game terms, I see the will as being like “hit points” that get used up in the battle against these other factors. As with hit points, running out of “will points” results in defeat. Since this is rather abstract, I will illustrate this with two examples.

This morning (as I write this) I did my usual Tuesday work out: two hours of martial arts followed by about two hours of running. Part of my running workout  was doing hill repeats in the park—this involves running up and down the hill over and over (rather like marching up and down the square). Not surprisingly, this becomes increasingly painful and fatiguing. As such, the pain and fatigue were “trying” to stop me. I wanted to keep running up and down the hill and doing this required expending those will points. This is because without my will the pain and fatigue would stop me well before I am actually physically incapable of running anymore. Roughly put, as long as I have will points to expend I could keep running until I collapse from exhaustion. At that point no amount of will can move the muscles and my capacity to exercise my will in this matter would also be exhausted. Naturally, I know that training to the point of exhaustion would do more harm than good, so I will myself to stop running even though I desire to keep going. I also know from experience that my will can run out while racing or training—that is, I give in to fatigue or pain before my body is actually at the point of physically failing.  These occurrences are failures of will and nicely illustrate that the will can run out or be overcome.

After my run, I had my breakfast and faced the temptation of two boxes of assorted chocolates. Like all humans, I really like sugar and hence there was a conflict between my hunger for chocolate and my choice to not shove lots of extra calories and junk into my pie port. My hunger, of course, “wants” to control me. But, of course, if I yield to the hunger for chocolate then I am not in control—the desire is directing me against my will. Of course, the hunger is not going to simply “give up” and it must be controlled by expending will and doing this keeps me in control of my actions by making them my choice.

Naturally, many alternatives to the will can be presented. For example, Hobbes’ account of deliberation is that competing desires (or aversions) “battle it out”, but the stronger always wins and thus there is no matter of will or choice. However, I rather like my view more and it seems to match my intuitions and experiences.

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  1. It’s interesting you put “will” into “hit points”. As a gamer, it made me understand your argument easier.

    But, if you put “will” into “points” or capacity, and define as “a mental resource that will keep control of your body”, it means as long as you can do it, you still have will points. In that way, you related physical body and mental resource. But, sometimes, you have no desire to do something anymore, but your body can still do it. You just simply lack mental strength, but still have physical strength. In such cases, I think your model fails. Because in your model, the fact that you still have physical capacity means you still have mental capacity. It becomes contradictory.

  2. The main evidence that the human will is free is that we can do things that are very easy not to do, like avoiding bad food and doing homework for school. Arkar Kyaw’s point that your model of the will is “contradictory,” is also something I agree with. I would say, however, that the question of the relationship between the mind and the body is a mystery.

  3. I like the Hobbesian model as you present it above. It is similar to that presented by Nietzsche.

    While I am not in as good physical shape as you are, a few months ago I decided that I would walk up the stairs (7 flights) to my apartment every day, whether I wanted to or not, because at my age (66), if I didn’t walk them, I would soon lose the strength to walk them and could never regain it.

    One aspect of my “I” hates walking the stairs and as soon as I begin to climb them, he asks why am I doing this and suggests “good” reasons to relax and take the elevator, as any normal person of my age would.

    Another aspect, the disciplined “I”, over-rules the relaxed “I” and I climb the stairs, but neither is more “I” than the other.

    For the moment, the disciplined “I” has a stronger will, but the relaxed “I” has a will of his own, to be sure.

    Both “I”‘s are very capable of producing good reasons for their points of view.

  4. @Swallerstein
    What is the Hobbesian/Nietzsche answer or model to the questions: What is the relationship between the two “I”s? How many “I”s are there? Is there a different “I” for each temptation to do something wrong?

  5. Socrates Schultz

    The question of will poses an interesting challenge. Since our cognitive mechanism is finite, it is unlikely we possess free (unbounded) will; however, there is sufficient evidence to suggest (to me) that we can exercise limited (bounded) will. As an engineer by both profession and personality, I am a fan of models, especially the tripartite variety and see will as the resolver of head/heart conflict.

    I saw a sign years ago that read:
    “The way to do is to be.” Lao-Tzu
    “The way to be is to do.” Nietzsche
    “Do Be Do Be Do…” Sinatra

    The last is the will… 😉

  6. David:

    I can’t speak for Hobbes or Nietzsche, but there are lots of “I”‘s in “me”.

    I’ve never tried to count them. They tend to fuse and to splinter, to form alliances and then to break them.

    There may be a few constant ones, for example, an internalized father image, who is an “I”. I think that psychologists call that “introjection”.

    Besides if I tried to count the “I”‘s, there would be a new “I”, the “I” who counts “I”‘s and then there would have to be an “I” who counts that “I” and so on in an infinite regression.

  7. Swallerstein:

    Wouldn’t it be easier to just admit that free will is a mystery? You don’t want to say free will is an illusion, so you come up with all these circumlocutions.

  8. David:

    We’re talking on different levels.

    I’m talking about how I experience myself or my selves, while you’re talking about a scientific question.

    I’m not at all sure what the term “free will” means, but Mike’s original post was not about whether free will exists, but about how he experiences his “will”.

  9. swallerstein:
    Science is something that humans do, but animals do not do. When animals have nothing to do they go to sleep. Humans ask questions, and scientific questions are questions about what we observe with our senses. Discussions about Mike’s non-sense experiences are not scientific discussions. We can comprehend free will because we have it, but we can’t define or explicate free will. The question of whether or not free will is an illusion is not a scientific question.

  10. “My hunger, of course, “wants” to control me. But, of course, if I yield to the hunger for chocolate then I am not in control-the desire is directing me against my will.”

    It’s interesting that you put the teleological interpretation of what your hunger is doing to you in scare quotes, as you do for your fatigue. It seems obvious, perhaps, that these are biologically driven forces that are acting on your brain as a whole to make it “want” to do some specifically and obviously biological acts: eat, stop running. And they are in scare quotes because we know that these biological forces don’t have any teleological capacity to act really.

    But you are quite happy not to interpret the biological part of you that is driving you to plan to maintain fitness as a teleological metaphor, but as a real final cause, an act of the will. Is this because this ‘mental’ biological process is related to longer term goals and drives? Do you have a biological urge to kick ass, to run, to be fit and trim?

    We seem to acknowledge these days that obesity is related to, among other things, the easy availability of sugary foods that were scarce in our hunter gatherer times. Our biological drive to eat whenever we can has gone into an uncontrolled over-drive that exceeds the capacity of our (supposed) will to fight it.

    But isn’t our “will” an out of control process in the in the same way? To become super fit when there is no direct survival requirement to do so; to acquire a deadly skill that most of us find we never have need to use; competing in gaming that has no direct relation to the current state of competition for survival – aren’t these too quirks, side effects, excesses, spandrels?
    I’m not sure your characterisation of the more immediate ‘basic’ biological drives, your body’s “wants”, as being significantly different from your brain’s “will”, except in the degree of immediacy in which they act. The body needs food, and tells the brain this, at the slightest hint of needing energy, which in turn causes the brain to “un-willingly” drive the body to acquire food. The body needs rest, and tells the brain this at the slightest hint of fatigue, and causes the brain to “want” the body to stop working out. Your planning subsystem “wants” you to avoid eating and to work out. This seems like competing biological drives in conflict in a brain that is a decision making machine – the immediate drives for bodily needs and the longer term drives that the brain is managing in parallel to all its other tasks.

    But even though all the evidence is only of a biological brain, the fact that the brain acquires longer term drives and establishes longer term goals to reach them, we feel the need to imply there is a teleological brain: a free willed mind. It’s always the body’s “wants” isn’t it, and the mind’s “will”. We see objections to “my brain made me do it” because we don’t like the teleological implication that the physical brain is doing things we feel the intellectual mind is responsible for. Is that simply because of the range or time over which these biological subsystems work?

    It may be more than that. The brain cannot ‘feel’ its own processes physically, the way the brain can ‘feel’ how the finger touches a surface. The brain cannot ‘see’ its own neurons firing the way the brain can ‘see’ a scene from the data arriving through the eyes. When I type these words I can feel the action on my fingertips, and I can see the words appear on the screen. But I cannot feel the neurons in Broca’s area or Wernicke’s area forming and interpreting the language I’m constructing. And introspectively I can’t ‘see’ any deeper than concepts, thoughts, memories, perceptions. Introspectively my view of my brain is of a detached thinking thing. I have the illusion of a detached mind. Like many optical illusions, it doesn’t matter how much I understand this mental illusion intellectually I can’t escape the feeling that I have a free willed mind working away inside my skull. There simply isn’t any evidence of such a thing, and plenty of evidence there isn’t, but the illusion persists. So much so that it’s still the basis of a lot of philosophy.

    Teleology – a philosophical account that holds that final causes exist in nature, meaning that design and purpose analogous to that found in human actions are inherent also in the rest of nature. Do we apply this principle to the brain itself when we compose our theory of mind? Do we have any evidence of any final cause? Is the brain just part of the interacting dynamic machinery? Is the “will” just another biological process?

  11. David,

    I can comprehend hunger because I have it. Science can explain the biological mechanisms that cause me to experience it. I don’t see any barrier to doing this for the will. The brain sciences are doing very well, even in these early days.

    But if you define the will in terms of an unattached mind then I agree it’s difficult to see how science can get at it. I think it is a mistake to define it as such. Why isn’t the will simply a longer term biological drive rather than some mystical entity?

    If you start from the wrong perspective you’ll never get the answer. Your perspective amounts to nothing better than the zombie of Chalmers. If he defines it such that something can be subtracted, the conscious mind, then by that very definition consciousness is something extra, in such a defined zombie. But that’s totally irrelevant to whether or how consciousness is related to a real physical brain. All the theological assertions of a soul and philosophical assertions of a free-willed mind in the world won’t make them real. This is an entirely empirical, scientific question. The philosophy is out on a limb because it’s trying to provide solution using rationalism alone. There are as many possible solutions as their imagined ones with no means of rationally ‘testing’ which is the correct one. Only empirical evidence will tell us what is really going on.

  12. Ron:

    Intelligence is usually a measure of how fast or how slow it takes someone to grasp a theory. But in the case of religion, there is so much anxiety that people are inhibited from thinking intelligently and rationally. People have blind spots and are biased.

    Your blind spot, I suggest, is in the following statement:

    “The brain cannot ‘feel’ its own processes physically, the way the brain can ‘feel’ how the finger touches a surface. The brain cannot ‘see’ its own neurons firing the way the brain can ‘see’ a scene from the data arriving through the eyes.”

    I am intelligent enough to grasp that there is a great difference between knowing about our own thinking and doing and knowing about things from our senses. The former gives rise to metaphysical questions and the latter gives rise to scientific questions.

    The scientific method has a great track record of success in getting answers to scientific questions. Metaphysics has a very poor track record for answering questions. For example: 1) Knowing is the openness of being to the self-manifestation of being. 2) Humans have free will. 3) Humans decide whether a theory is true or just probable after marshaling the evidence.

    The evidence that we have free will comes from the fact that we can force our bodies to do things that are difficult to do. The evidence that we have to decide whether something is true is that we have contempt for people who decide astrologists can predict the future. The theory that free will is an illusion is just a bright idea. There is very little evidence supporting this theory. People who decide this have in my judgment bad judgment.

  13. David,

    Of your three points the first two are assertions. I don’t know how you know they are known to be true.

    I dispute your claim to evidence in the next paragraph. You say “we” have free will and “we” can force…”. The very question is what is this “we” that you refer to. You’re presupposing this freely willed “we” or “I”, and then asserting it is freely will to do things. You have a buried presupposition there that you are in fact freely willing those actions. This is not evidence.

    Computers can decide if something is true or not. They just need a process, a program, to evaluate the data and the data to work on. Humans acquire so much data, experientially, through learning; we develop mechanisms for processing that data that are buried within our brain which to the conscious aware selves looks like freely willed decision making. You are invoking magic.

    “There is very little evidence supporting this theory [of illusory free will].”

    All the evidence of a material world, that our brains are material, that changing the brain alters the conscious experience, that evolutionarily we come from animals that had no brains so that we have always been experiential animals first and that conscious thought is an upgrade, a spandrel.

    All the evidence against that illusion is the mere feeling that it is false. You are mistaking your feelings, your shallow experience of feeling like you have a detached mind, as evidence. That is evidence of the feeling you are having, not evidence of the content of that feeling. The religious believe in God so much they believe it must be true. They mistake the veracity of their feelings about their belief for the truth of the content of the belief. Introspection is not the right tool for the job.

  14. Ron:
    You did not respond to my suggestion that you have a blind spot. I’m saying you don’t grasp the difference between metaphysical questions and scientific questions.

    We observe that we have free will. We ask: What is the relationship between ourselves and our bodies. This is a metaphysical question, not a scientific question, because we don’t observe free will with our senses. We know we have free will because we can make ourselves the subject of our own knowledge. There are four theories: 1) dualism, 2) materialism, 3) idealism, and 4) It is a mystery. # 4 is the theory that I judge to be true because it is supported by the evidence. There is more evidence for # 2 than # 1, but there is even more evidence for # 3 than for # 2.

  15. Is will a deliberation or an expenditure of energy points? Perhaps it is both. The question is like asking – Is breathing inhaling or exhaling? One can freely hold a breath, but only for so long. Likewise, free will in temporal and freedom only exists for a moment, and then it disappears into a determined world.

  16. David Roemer.
    I think Mike is talking about “Will Power” in the sense that we often have brace ourselves to make a special mental and/or physical effort. “Free will” is as I see it, not the same. This is a matter considered in the main by philosophers/psychologists/scientists. Their concern being for instance, if I have to decide, to go either to Paris or Berlin on holiday then am I, or am I not, freely able to make that choice.
    You say that animals do not do science. Well they, perhaps not all, have an instinct of curiosity, which is the fount of all science. If I rearrange my room to a large extent my cat will pause at the door before entering cautiously, and then carefully inspect the items rearranged before accepting all is well. Very rudimentary science, yes, and cats do not do experiments, but they do form hypotheses that such and such is the case and act upon it. She certainly does not fall asleep. This is the rudimentary beginnings of science. If you like to do a little research on The Machiavellian hypothesis as it refers to animals you will see that the mental capacity of many animals is astounding, especially where deception is concerned, again this has surely some connection with scientific method, as we understand it.
    You say the question whether or not free will is an illusion is not a scientific question. The answer to that is the fact that many scientists have engaged themselves with this problem and continue so to do. You might like to have a look at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neuroscience_of_free_will in this connection.
    I am presently re-reading Daniel M Wegner’s “The Illusion of Conscious will” If you have the time and inclination to have a look at it, you may well be surprised

  17. I do like the reference to Hume.

    Tongue -in-cheek, he conceded that some metaphysicians may perceive something simple and continued which they identify as the ‘self’ but he ventured that the rest of mankind were nothing but bundles of perceptions.

    The advantage of the account that there are only desires ‘battling it out’ is one of parsimony – there is no further ‘thing’ postulated as a resource that allows an agent to ‘remain in control of his actions’. As a runner you persist in trying to satisfy your desires for success in races and physical fitness despite desires to forego further physical discomfort or indulge your cravings for chocolates. Everyday talk of ‘will-power’ seems quite appropriate here. But I honestly can’t see what experiences give you good reason to ‘reify’ the ‘will’. And I’m not sure that the fact that this account ‘matches’ with your ‘intuitions’ does anything to recommend it.

    Perhaps you perceive some special resource at work, but I find no reason to think the ‘willing self’ is anything but a bundle of (sometimes conflicting) desires.

  18. Arkar,

    I don’t think my model has it such that physical capacity means that one still has mental capacity, but I probably needed to be clearer. I’d say that the will can enable one to operate up to the point where the body simply fails, but the will might fail before the body does-and usually does. For example, I usually run out of the will to run before I achieve complete physical exhaustion and always before I actually die.

    Now, if I was making a game with Will Points, when they ran out the character would be unwilling to engage in acts requiring will and so would not do so. To go with the hit point analogy, when a character runs out of HP (in Pathfinder being in the negatives but not dead), he might have other resources left (like spells) but he can no longer do anything.

    Or to use another model, a character expends Will Points to chose her actions and when they run out, she cannot make choices anymore. While she might well have Action Points left, she cannot pick how to spend them. Also, the will might be negated-with a fear effect that makes the PC run away even though what she really wants to do is to stay and fight.

  19. Swallerstein,

    A man is almost always divided against himself. 🙂 Perhaps the mind is like a committee?

  20. Ron Murphy,

    Excellent points.

    I mentioned Hobbes because it might be (as you put quite well) that there is no actual decision making of the will sort, just competing factors and the strongest wins. This, of course, strips us of agency and yields responsibility to those factors that push the animal around.

    My cheat to get out of this is usually to go Cartesian. I say “cheat” because this might just replace brain jelly with quivering ectoplasm-that is, it just makes the problems into ghostly problems.

    Naturally, I want to believe in a transcendent self-the real me that is beyond the mere animal meat. But perhaps this is just the pride neurons driving my typing. 🙂

  21. Don Bird,

    Good points.

    I would agree that animals can engage in scientific reasoning-when they investigate they act as we do in many ways. While they do not publish journals or apply for grants, they certainly do seem to do basic science-much as human infants do.

    My husky, a very curious dog, will examine how things (like doors and containers) work and sort them out very quickly. Huskies are often dog Houdinis when it comes to sorting out escape techniques. Or super villains. 🙂

  22. Jim,

    Good points.

    As I experience, it seems clear as my own existence that I have such a will and that I use it to assert control over the other factors.

    Naturally, I want to believe in the will (agency and choice) because it serves as the basis for accountability and my being a person rather than a thing.

  23. Don Bird:
    That is correct. The question of whether or not free will is an illusion is a metaphysical question and one decides whether or not it is true or just probable by marshaling the evidence. As I said, in my judgment there is hardly any evidence free will is an illusion. It is especially clear when we do something that takes a lot of will power. The link you gave does not discuss actions like this at all. It only discusses meaningless motions of fingers for the purpose of doing an experiment.


  24. Mike,

    Yes, I think we all can’t help but cheat. The illusion is so strong because there is no direct introspective access. I’m quite happy to use terms and modes of expressions that would lead an observer to conclude I do think I have free-will. Except when we’re explicitly tacking the issue of consciousness, free-will, the will, other biological and cultural drives.

    Liked your point, “I’d say that the will can enable one to operate up to the point where the body simply fails, but the will might fail before the body does-and usually does.”

    Definitely subsystems each with fairly autonomous functions contributing to the survival of the whole system, which at times have conflicting goals – e.g. long term against short term.

  25. David,

    My original comment was meant to address what I saw as presuppositions in Mikes OP. We’re straying further off topic now, so I won’t respond further here. But I don’t want to pass up your objections – I’m not trying to avoid them. By all means tackle me on my blog if you want to take it further.

  26. A good, short and accessible piece that relates to ‘the will’, ‘the self’, agency and accountability in light of findings in neurobiology by philosopher Patricia Chrchland can be found here:


  27. The following quote from Churchland’s article reveals her blindspot. She does not even grasp the solution to the mind-body problem judged to be true by Catholic philosophers. The only solutions she grasps are 1) dualism and 2) materialism.

    “A rigid philosophical tradition claims that no choice is free unless it is uncaused; that is, unless the “will” is exercised independently of all causal influences – in a causal vacuum. In some unexplained fashion, the will – a thing that allegedly stands aloof from brain-based causality – makes an unconstrained choice. The problem is that choices are made by brains, and brains operate causally; that is, they go from one state to the next as a function of antecedent conditions.”

    Also she doesn’t understand the concept of causality in metaphysics. She thinks cause comes before the effect in the order of time. In metaphysics, cause and effect occur simultaneously. Cause precedes the effect in the order of causality, not time. What Churchland is calling the “will” is what DesCartes called a “little spiritual man.” The solution to the mind-body based on the evidence is that it is a mystery. Hence, humans are embodied spirits.

  28. David Roemer,

    Well, if you take dualism to be all forms of dualism (property dualism and substance dualism) and materialism to be all forms of materialism, then you are mostly right. However, I’m sure she is familiar with Berkeley style idealism.

    While my experience in metaphysics is not exhaustive of the field, the general view of causation tends to be effects follows the cause. Naturally, the are some views of causation in which there is no temporal order (like, for example, some accounts of God’s creation and sustaining of the universe).

  29. Mike,
    There is more evidence for materialism than dualism and more evidence for idealism than materialism. In any case, the only relevance of causality to the question of the relationship between the mind and the brain is the concept of “final cause.” When a human cleans up their room, the “final cause” is having a clean room. Causality has nothing to do with free will. The question we ask is not: What causes me to pick up a broom? The question we ask is: What is the relationship between myself and my body? Churchland’s use of the word “causality” makes no sense to me. In physics, a causal system is one where the energy is constant. If the energy is constant, you can predict the future state of the system.

  30. Pain and pleasure are like the Furies: first one has her way with the soul, then the other and another; blah, blah.

    So, we’re playing a mug’s game: Inside each of us are n-number of little people fighting to take control of the big dumb guy (or gal). Plato misunderstood the problem. He said 3-little-people. It could be 5, 7, 9 or more (but it has to an odd number because the little people make side deals among themselves and bare majority controls). We are our own furies.

  31. David Roemer December 15
    “In metaphysics, cause and effect occur simultaneously. Cause precedes the effect in the order of causality, not time.”

    If cause and effect occur simultaneously then does that not mean in a causal system, that we all exist in a continuous present?
    Churchland seems to accept the notions of cause and effect with no question.
    The principles of cause and effect allow us to talk about the world. However to infer that these principles exist in reality is an unwarranted inference. To speak of cause and effect is to single out two events from what is in fact a continuous system.
    Out of this I see the decision as to whether I go to Margate or Clacton for a holiday is made against the pressure of the whole system in which I am involved and this of course includes my brain which is a development within the system, Evolution decreed that for the purpose of survival it is beneficial if I believe I am absolutely free to choose. However looking back I realise that from the outset I had no choice as to sex, genetic make-up, parents, culture, ethnicity or whether or not I should be here at all. As a ripple on the sea has no choice where it goes or what it does; I suspect I am a ripple somewhere within the system which embraces me and of which I am presently an integral part. From this it seems unlikely that I have free will to do just as I please.
    People who support free will say I could have chosen otherwise. However “Could have chosen otherwise” is in Popperian terms not falsifiable. It is not, that is to say, possible to return to the exact instant when a decision was made, and see if one could have made a different one, no valid experiment can be done in that connection.
    If you want an example of a continuous system consider Meteorology. There are no breaks here and there; the whole thing is continuous without breaks. We do by the imposition of cause and effect succeed in making predictions as to what the weather will be like in the future. These are approximate but most often sufficiently near to accuracy, serve our purposes.

  32. Don Bird,

    You are quite right that explaining free will by saying “Could have chosen otherwise” is not falsifiable. Can you falsify the principle that only falsifiable propositions are true? If not, then it is just a rule. Why should I follow this rule?

    You are also right to say, “principles of cause and effect allow us to talk about the world.” I would express this by saying we can talk about the world because the world is intelligible. Human beings ask questions about what they observe and extremely intelligent humans invent theories or hypothesis. When the questions are scientific questions (Why is the sky blue?) the scientific method always works. When the questions are not-scientific (What is knowing the sky is blue?) there is no track record of success.

  33. David Roemer,

    “When the questions are not-scientific (What is knowing the sky is blue?) there is no track record of success.”

    ‘Knowing the sky is blue’ is first a statement. That’s what it is. If you really meant, ‘What is knowing’, but aimed at a specific example of something to be known, ‘the sky is blue’, which is what I suspect you mean, then ‘knowing’ is the capacity of a human brain to contain some representation of something (typically the outside world, as in this case), however encoded, vague, fluid that encoded representation might be, such that the representation has some correspondence with the outside world.

    Of course this isn’t complete, because your question isn’t complete – i.e. specific – and because any science directed at this sort of problem is incomplete. Science never really has answers that have some absolute truth value. But nor does philosophy or theism (though it is often asserted that thy do).

    Your question contains lots of presuppositions about the meaning of sky, blueness, and no doubt your thoughts on what knowledge is that are different to my brief attempt. If anything I wouldn’t be stretching it too far to say it’s an incoherent question that has some superficial coherence because it looks simple and uses terms we feel we understand, and feel are connected. Not untypical of questions and statements from theists.

    Is this attempt of mine unsuccessful? Is this an example of how the whole of empiricism, naturalism, physicalism, has a no track record of success? I think science is doing quite well at getting on the right track of understanding what knowledge is. But I don’t think philosophy is any more successful, though it does help us think about the problem without actually answering this type of question. There’s much linguistics in there too.

    The odd thing is that this sort of question of yours, when put as a challenge to science, empiricism , naturalism, physicalism, comes most often from theists. Who have no answer whatsoever, and no useful contribution to the intellectual analysis of this type of problem, of philosophy, linguistics, science. It’s all part of the ‘mystery’.

    Most charitably, when looking at these ‘mystery’ issues, I’d say they were poetic, in that they are intentionally vague and incoherent specifically to strike at the emotions by avoiding the engagement of the intellect, which would destroy the moment. Another example often trotted out is ‘love’. I think science is capable of analysing what love is, as a set of physiological states of the brain in response to interactions between people. But that sort of analysis would totally destroy my personal experience of love. Intellectual understanding through science is the only way to answer the questions most honestly and literally.

    Posting these questions as ‘mystery’ is not intended to help you answer them, to know their truth value, or to know the correspondence of the concept with the world. Here’s an example of a review of one particular piece of mystical mumbo jumbo – Rob Bell, one of the fashionable ‘atheist’ theists who take sophisticated theology to new heights.

    So, science can (or will) answer questions such as the one you pose (i.e. by trying to decode it to start with, then trying to understand how the human brain does all this stuff); but mysticism merely uses them without any intention of answering them.

    Less charitable, when ‘mystery’ is supposed to be some answer, and claimed to be an answer that science can’t provide, I’d call it baloney.

  34. Ron Murphy,

    Knowing the sky is blue means more than that light is entering the eye and a signal is going to the brain. It means an awareness of this. What is this awareness?

    I am not “posing” this question as a mystery. I am saying that there is no answer to this question. When animals have nothing to do they go to sleep. Only humans ask questions. Just because a human asks a question, doesn’t mean there has to be an answer. The scientific method only works with scientific questions.

  35. David Roemer,

    “Just because a human asks a question, doesn’t mean there has to be an answer.”

    Then humans have no means of answering at all. I don’t recall any proponent of science saying science can answer all questions. Any proponent of science will know it can’t, since science is performed by humans, who have a finite capacity to know things. Even our collective efforts to know stuff is still limited by the large but finite resources of all scientists that have been and are likely to be, and limited by our ability to access some features of the universe we occupy.

    The typical point made in favour of science is that if science can’t answer it then no human can. This is usually aimed at theists who claim ‘other ways of knowing’, such as Plantinga.

    “The scientific method only works with scientific questions.”

    The scientific method is really a collection of methodologies that humans can use collectively to overcome the flaws in natural human knowledge acquisition capabilities, by being more rigorous and by using instruments to transform data into forms humans can understand. The flaws are inherent to all humans, as far as we can tell.

    i don’t think your question is unanswerable by humans; and I think it’s science that is leading the way towards an answer.

    “What is this awareness?”

    It’s a behavioural artefact. We have an autonomous physical system central control subsystem, which in turn has sensory and motor control subsystems; it has memory; and it processes the data and drives the whole system. In addition to monitoring and reacting to the environment external to the whole system it can observe and activate other systems in the body as a whole. And it can monitor and control to some extent its own internal processes. A system that can see its own ‘thinking’ is self-aware. There seem to be degrees of self-awareness. It doesn’t emerge in human children until they reach a certain age, and is present in some other animals to an extent. Probably the main difference with humans is that they have language with which they can develop finer and more complex conceptual descriptions. In doing so this process feeds back on itself in the system. So someone with little education and practice may not do as much intellectual thinking as someone with lots of practice. This is, after all, once of the claims philosophers make as to why they are particularly good at thinking.

    I don’t know what it feels like to be a bat. But if you ask me what it feels like to be a system that can monitor and process its own processing reflexively, introspectively, with language skills developed to construct complex conceptual models about its own introspective capabilities, then I’d say it feels like this, like human self-awareness.

    Is this answer of mine science fact? Not yet. But I think it’s the best tentative explanation given all the science of how the brain works; and, without any evidence whatsoever of any other explanation that is credible, it seems a reasonable one.

  36. Ron,
    What is your evidence that the conscious knowledge of humans, as opposed to the sense knowledge of animals, is a “behavioral artefact”? The behavior of animals can be observed with our sense of sight.

    Scientific questions are questions that arise from our senses. We don’t know that we have free will and conscious knowledge from seeing, hearing, or feeling. Questions about the human mind are not scientific questions, they are metaphysical questions.

  37. Re David Roemer
    “(What is knowing the sky is blue?)”

    If you agree that “What is IT to know the sky is blue?” is virtually the same question then I can comment as follows.
    Blue is my experience, and by analogy I infer that other humans also have this experience. When electromagnet radiation enters my eye it is processed by my nervous system. In the main the nervous system functions by the transmission of action potentials and chemical transmitters. That is all. The energy in the electromagnetic radiation stimulates this experience of blue within me. The question now arises how is it that all this electrical and chemical process, results in, for me, Blue? The answer to this question has so far as I am aware no explanation which is acceptable to the scientific world at large. In fact it has the name The Hard Problem of Consciousness coined by Philosopher David Chalmers.
    Assuming you basically agree with my rough and ready explanation given above, I would be interested to hear your own stance in this connection, be it scientific, religious, or whatever. Remember I am not talking about the Mind here, but the Brain.

  38. David Roemer,

    “Scientific questions are questions that arise from our senses.”

    Yes. But we often use instruments to transform data into a form our senses can detect. The same for the brain. Open a skull and the senses see a lump of mush with a corrugated surface. But probe it with electrodes, stimulate it, scan it, detect brain waves, and transform these into what our senses can detect, and you start to observe the brain.

    “Questions about the human mind are not scientific questions, they are metaphysical questions.”

    Not really. You might be basing your assertion on your opinion that the mind is something that is inaccessible to investigation. But even that concept of mind is investigate able, by methods of psychology. Psychology, when limited to observing external behaviour, is a black box investigation of the mind, where it wouldn’t matter too much if there was a separate mind or if the mind is in fact a behavioural artefact of the brain. How would you tell without investigating the brain? Doing science on the brain.

    There is much evidence to suggest that the brain is what we once thought of as the mind, such that the mind consists of a dynamic physical brain consisting of physical matter interacting. It’s too much for here, but by all means contact me on my blog, or gmail (same prefix as my ID here) and we can discuss it further.

    Of course you can define something as being inaccessible to science, and conclude, unsurprisingly, that it is inaccessible to science.

    A philosophical zombie is defined as physiologically indistinguishable from human beings, but without consciousness. This is used in arguments against physicalism. Well, sure, if you define it as such. But that presupposes that consciousness is non-physiological in the first place. If physicalism is right then the p-zombie is entirely imaginary defined concept that has no bearing on the question of consciousness. The zombie argument contributes nothing.

    Jackson’s Mary the scientist locked in a black and white environment is defined to know everything about colour, and yet learns something new when she enters a colour world and experiences red. Then the definition of problem that states she knew everything about colour is wrong if the empirical understanding of knowledge through experience is right. The definition is designed to falsify what it is intended to falsify, by presupposing that knowing everything excludes the very experience that is claimed to be new knowledge.

    Define a God as an agent that reveals a Bible, and then use the Bible as evidence of the God? Crazy stuff.

    Define free-will as the ability of a posited mind free of the brain to make choices, and no surprise you have defined the will to be free. The problem with free-will is that the illusion is so strong that even we physicalist can’t actually see or feel the physical brain that is running our consciousness. That’s why we need the instruments of neuroscience to help us.

    Despite the evidence we have so far the brain is so complex and difficult to model that we have a long way to go. But already it is easy to show the many flaws in our introspective perspective that make it unreliable as tool for telling us about the brain/mind problem. Split brain patients are enough to seriously question the whole concept of a unified identity and mind. Altzeimer patients are direct evidence of consciousness being a feature of the brain.

    Unless you assert a ghost in the machine that just happens to reflect exactly what’s happening to its container brain. But if you do, even if there is this mind, it no longer has free-will if so tightly coupled to the brain.

    We don’t know we have free-will, full stop. We feel we have it. But it’s not clear how we could.

    This is the problem with rationalist arguments. You can make up anything you want, and assert it is true; and then conclude some opposing position is proved false. It’s always a presupposition that you’ve built the right conceptual model in the first place – which invariably isn’t the case with the anti-science anti-empiricism arguments like these. It’s all nonsense. Only empirical evidence will tell us what the brain is all about and how it causes us to have the impression of consciousness and identity.

  39. Ron,
    You say,

    “The energy in the electromagnetic radiation stimulates this experience of blue within me. The question now arises how is it that all this electrical and chemical process, results in, for me, Blue? The answer to this question has so far as I am aware no explanation which is acceptable to the scientific world at large.”

    I suppose you mean by the “experience of blue within me” the awareness of the blueness of the sky. The question is not to “explain” this awareness. The question is: What is this awareness? There is no answer to this question. As I said, it is a mystery. You said that this awareness is a “behavioral artifact,” but you did not tell me what evidence you have for this.

  40. David Roemer Dec. 17th
    I think you may be confusing Don and Ron here. I am DON and I see that Ron has used the expression “behavioural artifact” not I, i.e.Don.

    That said Let me put it more crudely. How is it that the blood and meat in a human head can within itself produce to itself the experience BLUE? This is the Hard problem of Consciousness. Maybe it is a red herring, but nevertheless it is a reasonable question which so far science has not explained with any generally agreed theory, rule, or law. Remember I am not talking about The Mind I am talking about The Brain with its meat, blood, chemicals, and electrical conductivity. All I asked is what is your stance to this problem; and yes, there are some who deny it is a problem Dan Dennett is one and there are others whose names escape me at 12,45 AM

  41. Don Bird,

    Don Bird,

    The solution judged to be true by Catholic philosophers for the “Hard Problem of Consciousness” is that there is no solution. It is a mystery. This is the solution that is supported by the evidence. The solution with the least amount of evidence is dualism, next comes materialism, and then idealism. The reason idealism has more evidence than materialism is that we can not imagine that we don’t exist, but we can imagine that the material world is an illusion.

    The best theory is expressed by saying humans are embodied spirits or by saying the human soul is spiritual. Also, one can say humans are indefinabilities that become conscious of their own existence.

  42. David Roemer,

    Mmmm, I see your point. Idealism is the best solution.

    The material world around me is conjured up in my mind. But that means David Roemer is too. Here’s me imagining that he is some human somewhere on the planet, responding on some imagined internet so that his imagined words appear on the imagined screen before my imagined physical body. What a waste of time he’s been. Or, perhaps I should say I’ve wasted my own time trying to convince an imagined character that my very own mind doesn’t want to be convinced? Is the imagined David Roemer disagreeing with me because that’s what my mind secretly wants?

    I wonder what control my Idealist mind has over this imagined reality. Being a mind I think a thought experiment is appropriate. Let’s see if by the shear thought of my Idealist mind I can change the imagined reality. I wonder if I can imagine that David Roemer does not exist, and that the words that this imagined entity injects into this imagined blog can be ignored without any adverse effect on this mind of mine?

    I think I need to more thorough in my test. I wonder if, while ignoring the imagined David Roemer, I can continue to imagine other participants as if they are physical entities in a material world. I know they are not really, but I wonder if I can convince my mind that everything matters, except David Roemer.

    This is powerful stuff. Since I’m the only reality then imagined morality can go to imagined hell. It’s OK to rob banks, kill people, eat babies, fornicate my way to mental oblivion. It’s all OK, because there is only my mind and I can choose to do whatever I want. Would it be immoral and perhaps inappropriate in any way to think David Roemer an idiot? Surely you can’t offend a figment of one’s own imagination?

    What would God think? Hold on, what God? There is no God. He too is a figment of my imagination, just as my imagined material self thought. So, though materialism is an imagined ontology it is correct in its content in that God does not exist either. Fantastic, I agree with my imagined material self. And dualism? Clearly the material aspect of dualism is fake, as is the soul, if God is imagined. That only leaves, …, yes! This Idealist mind of mine. I am the sole existent entity in the universe. I am the universe, since the other universe, the imagined one, is, well, imagined.

    On with some thoughts about the test. I need not respond to the imagined David Roemer, but what if I imagine comments from him continue to appear here in this imagined blog, which I do want to maintain in my imagination? Perhaps there are some things my Idealist mind just can’t ignore into a vanishing non-experience. This is an interesting experiment.

    I wonder what difference it will make if I force my Idealist imagination to continue with its imagined perception of a materialist world, in every detail, except for David Roemer. Surely if I can conjure up a whole physical existence, but make one person vanish from my imagination, and yet have his words appear here, as if by magic, then surely this will be proof of my Idealist mind.

    Wow! Thank you David Roemer. Or rather, thank you my mind for imagining a David Roemer to reveal this to me.

    This idealism gets better all the time. I’m completely self-taught in all I have read. It was me and not Einstein that really came up with those cool ideas. Einstein was just a convenient self-deception use to mull over ideas of an imagined universe. Does my brilliance have no limits?

  43. Ron Murphy,

    Your refutation of Berkeley’s idealism is very acute. Berkeley was sitting on a rock when he asked why God created the rock. Obviously, God created the rock so that Berkeley would have something to sit on. But God could just as easily create the rock as create the illusion that the rock exists. As, you pointed out, it is the existence of other people that is certain. Since you and me discuss things like rocks, there is evidence that rocks exist and that idealism is irrational. What evidence is there that materialism is more rational than idealism? I agree that there is less evidence for dualism than for materialism.

  44. I do not think this is Idealism as per George Berkeley, All he did was to deny the existence of matter I quote “(“I do not argue against the existence of any one thing that we can apprehend, either by sense or reflection. That the things I see with mine eyes and touch with my hands do exist, really exist, I make not the least question. The only thing whose existence we deny, is that which philosophers call matter or corporeal substance. And in doing of this, there is no damage done to the rest of mankind, who, I dare say, will never miss it.”, Principles #35.
    Again he stated (“I do not argue against the existence of any one thing that we can apprehend, either by sense or reflection. That the things I see with mine eyes and touch with my hands do exist, really exist, I make not the least question. The only thing whose existence we deny, is that which philosophers call matter or corporeal substance. And in doing of this, there is no damage done to the rest of mankind, who, I dare say, will never miss it.”, Principles #35
    He did not evade the question of the external source of the diversity of the sense data at the disposal of the human individual. He strove simply to show that the causes of sensations could not be things, because what we called things, and considered without grounds to be something different from our sensations, were built up wholly from sensations. There must consequently be some other external source of the inexhaustible diversity of sensations. The source of our sensations, Berkeley concluded, could only be God; He gave them to man, who had to see in them signs and symbols that carried God’s word.[13]
    Most of this has been cribbed from Wikipedia to save myself poring through books and copying there from.
    Berkeley was the first philosopher I read and I found the idea of Idealism entrancing, especially when it extends to the concept of Solipsism. I was bitterly disappointed when he supported all this fantastic idealistic world as having its grounding or existence if you like, in the eyes of God. What a cop out I thought. Notwithstanding he is a wonderful writer and if we may not agree with him he nevertheless still provides much food for thought when it comes to our existence understanding and functions on this planet. Things are not always what they seem.

  45. Don Bird,

    Solipsist idealism is the ultimate and inevitable outcome of rationalism. It also makes a nonsense of the Theory of Mind, that there are other minds.

    In my idealist solipsist state I do not experience the mind of David Roemer – I cannot tell what ‘he’ is thinking; which is what I would expect, since he does not actually exist except to the extent that my conscious mind imagines it sees words on an imagined screen that are supposed to come from him. Just as I imagine that my wife has a mind, when in fact I’m imagining some physical body that behaves as if it has a mind like mine. There are no other minds.

    But I could wonder, what if there is a David Roemer Mind entity that is feeling, just as I do, that he is a idealist solipsist mind; should I trust this Theory of Mind? This is easily dismissed. When I imagine a material brain, such as yours Don Bird that I am imagining now, such a brain has both conscious and unconscious functions; and this is evidence that in fact my idealist solipsist mind has unconscious functionality too. And if so, then the David Roemer Mind that might be functioning somewhere is part of my unconscious and not actually ‘his’ consciousness.

    This confirms, as firmly as any other possibility, that David Roemer does not exist. When ‘he’ thinks he is a free willed mind, ‘he’ is in fact an un-free aspect of my unconscious mind that fools itself into thinking it is an independent consciousness. Of course I’m only allowing for the possibility that part of my unconscious would delude itself into thinking it was conscious, or that it was called David Roemer.

    So, here I am, this idealist solipsist mind, conjuring up a whole material world, but including a body and brain to house my consciousness, and imagining a Theory of Mind that thinks other imagined humans exist with material brains, excluding David Roemer, and imagining a whole host of scientific ideas that are so strong that I can imagine that one must infer a total materialism in opposition to my idealism.

    This is the only dilemma. A simple dichotomy at each extreme. Total and uncompromising sole solipsist idealism of my own mind, with all its twists and turns that imagine a material world. Or, I can give in to the total materialism, and imagine that the mind I am currently thinking with is an imagined mind, imagined by my material brain. All other possibilities are trivial cowardly attempts to commit to one or the other.

    The commitment to one of the extremes is arbitrary, in the end. And though here I am currently committing to solipsism, I wonder if once again I should commit to the far more interesting materialism, in which I seem able to actually do stuff. The thing is, no matter how much I commit to solipsism I can’t shake off the material experiences. It seems like I get the material experiences whichever way I go – I just can’t tell if it’s imagined or real.

    So why posit a solipsist mind that imagines a complex material world, instead of assuming the material world is all there is? I wake in the morning thinking and feeling I’m material. I stub my toe and feel very material. I feel hunger and thirst. My solipsist mind, if it is all there is, seems pretty hopeless at dismissing these supposedly imagine material drives. And it seems like my solipsist mind, if it exists, has to multi-task really hard to maintain both the imagined material world and the solipsist mind itself. It’s far more parsimonious to say, well if the material world feels that real, accept it as real; and if the mind seems to be a material brain in action, try to figure out how that brain works; and in doing so note all the evidence that the brain isn’t a perfect tool for acquiring knowledge, particularly introspectively, and that many brains have to cooperate to compensate.

    So, either David Roemer doesn’t exist, or he is wrong.

  46. Ron Murphy,

    Why do you have to chose between materialism and solipsism? There is another solution to the question of what is the mind. The other solution is that there is no solution. It is a mystery.

  47. David,

    OK, I’m back in the material world…

    You don’t have to make a choice. But isn’t one forced on you more than another? When you feel hungry do you ask, “Is this my solipsist mind fooling me into believing I have a physical body with needs? Is my solipsist mind experiencing a mental illusion? I’ll not eat for a month and see if my solipsist mind survives.”

    “The other solution is that there is no solution.” Then that, but its own definition, is not a solution either, but simply giving up. Which is pretty much what appeals to mystery are.

    There’s the simple and practical sense in which ‘mystery’ merely means we don’t know yet, but can be used in a context where we are still looking – as science is. But that’s not appealing to mystery as a solution but simply acknowledging a temporary inconvenience.

    And of course you don’t hold to that position of putting everything in a ‘pending’ folder. You do (on various posts on this site) acknowledged the benefits of science; but you have also made statements that seem to support a religious view.

    The only belief system that seems to work is that of materialism and empiricism, where empiricism is about how humans acquire knowledge through their senses and through probing the world, and how their thinking is more of the same, except applied within and on the content of the brain. We are empirical beings. As I’ve said, you have to deny a lot of evolution, biology and neuroscience, and even physics, to suppose that our thinking is anything other than a brain in action. You’d have to deny so much that all your other science would go out the window with it. You really are on the route to solipsism.

    But, just to emphasise the point, this isn’t a proof of anything. I can’t prove that materialism is any more true than solipsism. I can only say that if you act as if materialism is true, and that humans are just a components of that material world, then we get much further than philosophy alone has ever taken us, and we can kick theism into the long grass for being devoid of any use.

  48. Ron Murphy,

    Saying that the human mind is a mystery is not “giving up.” It is what intelligent and rational people say. Intelligence is involved because it takes intelligence to grasp the difference between 1) scientific questions about what we observe with our senses, and 2) metaphysical questions about what we know from our ability to make ourselves the subject of our own knowledge. Rationality is involved because it takes judgment to see that there is hardly any evidence for dualism, materialism, and idealism.

  49. Mike, my view is that when you talk of ‘the will’ it is simply the conflict between what the conscious part of the mind desires and what the rest of the brain has already decided. Hence there is an ‘effort’ by the conscious part to persuade or over-rule the rest. The ‘running out of will’ would be either the conscious part getting ‘tired’ or the other parts getting more forceful (potentially based on input from the muscles being used) depending on which of these two views may be correct.

    The advantage of this view is that it has an explanatory power for addictions and struggle to give up as well as things like running.

    David, “it’s a mystery” suggests we can’t know so it’s pointless to keep on looking. Solipsism is not disprovable, but equally cuts off all avenues of investigation that might yield useful answers. Materialism, while you may not think it to be best evidenced or most likely to be true, is still the most pragmatic approach to take when searching for answers.

  50. Keddaw,

    That is correct. Since the human mind is a mystery, it is pointless and not pragmatic to go on looking for a solution for the mind-body problem. You should face up to the fact that humans are embodied spirits. Assuming materialism is supported by the evidence is irrational. What experiments will shed light on 1) human consciousness, 2) mental beings and abstractions, 3) truth, and 4) the relationship between ourselves and our bodies?

  51. Well David, if I knew the answers to that I’d be in the field getting some more letters after my name…

    But, even on the sidelines I can quite easily imagine experiments to switch off regions of the brain to see if we can figure out which parts are necessary for conscious thought, or will. I have read of experiments to show deeper understanding of ‘truth’ i.e. (very?) religious people react to true statements (you’re sitting on a chair) the same way to religious truth claims.

    As for 4) you’re just not paying attention if you don’t think science has a lot to say about the mind’s relationship with the body.

  52. keddaw,

    The experiments showing humans are not responsible for their actions are based on trivial “decisions,” like when to wiggle your pinky. The subjects say they decided to wiggle their finger at a time T and brain scans show that the brain started acting at T – x. We know we have free will when we do something that is very easy not to do, like sticking to a low calorie diet.

    Are you saying there are experiments showing that the brain of someone who thinks the Earth is flat is different from the brain who thinks the Earth is spherical. I just got an idea for an experiment: Find an aboriginal who thinks the Earth is flat and take his brain scan. Show the uneducated person a globe and explain the truth. Take another scan and compare the results.

  53. David,

    I guarantee there is NO experiment that even remotely suggests HUMANS are not responsible for their actions, otherwise we’d have evidence of the supernatural. People, as we commonly refer to them, may not be legally or medically responsible, but the human whole surely is.

    “We know we have free will when we do something that is very easy not to do”
    All this actually shows is that humans can do things that are not in their obvious short term desires. That I can hold my hand over a flame simply shows that I can generate (if that’s what I do) a goal/aim/desire to do something that overrides the fear/knowledge of imminent pain and, for a short while, the actual pain and associated base reflex of pulling my hand away. In fact, that’d be a great thing to do while having a brain scan, various parts of the brain would light up…

    “…there are experiments showing that the brain of someone who thinks the Earth is flat is different from the brain who thinks the Earth is spherical[?]”
    Not quite. In the experiment I’m thinking of propositions put to people (Jesus is the Son of God, born of a virgin etc.) are answered as automatic facts (the sky is blue etc.) by devout believers, whereas it is evaluated first and then accepted/rejected in people of lesser/no faith. While only a tiny insight it does show one reason why it can be hard to use evidence to convince a devout believer that they are mistaken – they already think they have a hard fact.

  54. keddaw,

    There are two kinds of knowledge: faith and reason. In reason, we know something is true because we can see the truth of it. In faith, we know something is true because God has revealed it to us through the prophetical religions and Eastern mysticism.

    I can’t criticize you for not believing in life after death because faith is a gift from God. We can’t see the truth of the proposition that Jesus is alive in a new life with God. But I can criticize your judgment that humans are not embodied spirits. This proposition is supported by the evidence.

  55. The proposition that ‘humans are embodied spirits’ perhaps deserves elucidation and argument rather than further repetition.

    I can discern that the proposition is intended to point towards Catholic doctrine and the Thomist development of Aristotelian philosophy which informs the same. But, for the benefit of others you would wish to persuade, you might want to explain why the intellect and will of man is immaterial and immortal and the spiritual soul has to be thought of as the ‘form’ of the body.

    None of this follows from an “It is a mystery” response to the mind-body problem nor was it developed by Aquinas in response to said problem (it simply didn’t exist in his day).

  56. Re:-David Roemer

    ‘humans are embodied spirits’
    I would like to get it straight from the very beginning. In that context I would require you to define three things separately.
    1/ Humans.
    3/ Spirits.
    That way we might make some progress. We can accept your definitions and see where they lead or we can treat each separately examining points of agreement and disagreement. “Humans” I think may not present any fundamental problem, where we may disagree or not understand, although it does seem to exclude the rest of the animal world, and I suppose the Plant world, which may present a problem. The words Embodiment and Spirits are not of much importance in my vocabulary and accordingly rarely if ever used. For example, I might possibly say, “Having embodied much alcohol today he is in good spirits.”

  57. Don Bird,

    We can comprehend what a human is because we know everything we do and everything that happens to us. But, we can’t explicate or define what a human is.Humans are indefinabilites that become conscious of their own existence. We have bodies, surely. So, we are embodied spirits or spirited bodies. A spirit is a hypothetical being without mass or volume.

  58. David,

    A small matter perhaps, but I don’t think the neologism ‘indefinabilites’ helps matters. It would seem better that you stick to using existing words that carry the meaning you intend – in this case ‘indefinables’ presumably – rather than inventing your own.

    I am aware of the general idea that there are (as G.E Moore put it) “objects of thought which are themselves incapable of definition, because they are ultimate terms by reference to which whatever is capable of definition must be defined”. Is this what you mean by (aiming to) talk of humans as ‘indefinables’ ( a term you will have encountered in physics)?

    I presume you don’t doubt that we can give ostensive or nominal definitions of ‘human’ – I also don’t think you mean to claim that we cannot give an explication of the concept ‘human’ either by e.g. elucidating its function. Nor do I think you mean to say that ‘human’ cannot be given the ‘logical definition’ of ‘rational animal’ as per the Tree of Porphyry.

    I presume you must mean to say that ‘human’ cannot be given an explicit definition that gets at the ‘essence’ of what it is to be an example of the same.

    But then, isn’t this somewhat at odds with Catholic teaching, where there are quite explicit doctrines about what the essence of Man is (doctrines which your talk of ‘embodied spirits or spirited bodies’ at least points towards)?

  59. jim p houston,

    The word “indefinable” is in the dictionary. Humans can be defined as rational animals, but rationality can’t be defined. The human mind is a mystery. Knowing that this page is white means more than that light is entering the eye and a signal is going to the brain. It means an “awareness” of this. What is this “awareness”? This is a metaphysical question, not a scientific question. The metaphysical answer is that knowledge is the openness of being to the self-manifestation of being. I don’t agree with G.E. Moore on his ideas about concepts that can’t be defined.

  60. David,

    ‘Indefinable’ is indeed in the dictionary yes, that being why I suggested you used its plural noun rather than ‘indefinabilities’. But exactly what one might mean when one says “x is indefinable” in a philosophical conversation isn’t necessarily understood simply by looking in a dictionary, hence the (apparently futile) attempt to solicit some elucidation of what you might mean to say.

    I think I’ll leave you to indulge your penchant for the gnomic utterance and non-sequitur in peace.

  61. jim p houston,

    I don’t need to explain what I mean by the statement “x is indefinable.” I only need to explain the statement that humans are indefinable, which I did. You apparently can’t grasp the concept. The only theories of the mind that atheists grasp are dualism and materialism. They have a blind spot. They can’t grasp the idea that humans are embodied spirits.

  62. David:

    You yourself used the word “indefinabilities”. That why Jim called your attention to it.

    Jim, by the way, is very very good at grasping concepts. If you made a bit of an effort to follow his reasoning, you might learn some philosophy.

  63. swallerstein,

    Religion causes conflict between people, and conflict causes anxiety. Inhibition is a defense mechanism for anxiety, and people are inhibited from thinking intelligently about religion. They have blind spots about particular things. Jim may be very quick to grasp many things, but not the different solutions to the mind-body problem.

  64. “Religion causes conflict between people,”
    You bet it does; some of the most violent and bloody conflicts and acts of savagery and brutality the world has ever witnessed.
    Personally I see the extinction of the Human race has two main causes in the offing. A rogue asteroid or religion.

  65. Don Bird,

    It was the Catholic Church that gave us Western civilization. What gave us the horrors of the 19th and 20th century was the so-called Enlightenment. Before the French revolution, there were only minor skirmishes with mercenaries.

  66. David:

    I was under the impression that it was the Greeks and then the Jews who gave us Western civilization.

    Remember Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, and those Jewish kids called Jesus and Saul of Tarsus?

  67. swallerstein,

    Jesus founded the Catholic Church. After the decline of the Roman Empire, the Catholic Church kept alive the achievements of Rome and Greece, but added the belief that God punishes sinners and was responsible for the rise of science in the West.

  68. David:

    Thank you for the history lesson.

    I’m going to ask Jeremy to let you blog here on the history of philosophy.

    I’m sure that we all, I, Jim, Don Bird, and even Jeremy Stangroom himself need to brush up on our Western Civilization and you seem to be the man who can show us the way.

  69. Socrates Schultz

    There has been a great deal of inquiry into the founding of Christianity, some scholarly, some self serving. Since I am a spectator, not an academic, I will refer you to one source, the Westar Institute’s Seminar on Christian Origins at
    where you will find the eight reports written over four years describing the work of the Seminar.

  70. Socrates Schultz,

    I’m pretty sure the Jesus seminar agrees that Jesus was a Jewish prophet and an exorcist and healer. He preached the coming of the kingdom of God, and his followers swore up and down that he appeared to them after he died. To suggest that Jesus did not found the Catholic Church is to say that Jesus’ followers did not understand him.

  71. David Roemer, The Jesus Seminar is a group of more than one hundred scholars, fellows, each of whom has a view as to the meaning of Jesus and Christianity, many of whom do not agree with your premise. Among the fellows are John Dominic Crossan, Marcus Borg, Karen Armstrong, John Shelby Spong, Karen King… a complete list at http://www.westarinstitute.org/Fellows/list.html

    The consensus I perceive is that there was no virgin birth, no physical resurrection, no appearance after he died, but their views differ.

  72. Socrates Schultz,

    Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossans trace the resurrection of Jesus to within a few years of his death. They don’t believe Jesus is alive in a new life with God. They believe life ends in the grave and don’t believe in the Christian doctrines you listed.

  73. December 22,
    David Roemer

    “It was the Catholic Church that gave us Western civilization.”

    The Catholic Church! My comments of 22nd still stand. Much misery, evil, and falsehoods still emanate from this organisation.
    Have you ever considered the clothing worn by the Pope and those under his command. It is Bizarre in my opinion, and surely has its origin in the desire to put simple beholders of it in awe. Once that is achieved people are more inclined to think something special must come from within all that decoration. Underneath they are still only human beings with all the frailties found in that species. I must make it clear that the Art generated by religious belief is truly wonderful, and is appreciated by many non believers like myself. But that is another question.
    On the occasions I graduated from University I had to wear appropriate clothing. People who had never graduated viewed me, and thought I was very clever; I knew I was not.
    “So may the outward shows be least themselves.
    The world is still deceived with ornament.”
    Bassanio: Merchant of Venice Act 3 scene 2
    Still worth a read to refresh the mind.

  74. An Ape’s an Ape, a Varlet’s a Varlet,
    Tho’ they be clad in Silk or Scarlet.

  75. Don Bird,

    Theodosius (Emperor, 395 AD) once ordered the massacre of thousands of innocent people in Thessalonia for killing a Roman soldier. The Bishop of Milan excommunicated Theodosius. Theodosius was not re-admitted to the church until he did public penance. These high moral values were lost to the West with the French Revolution.

  76. Socrates Schultz


    My closing comment was poorly worded. A more accurate statement is: The consensus I perceive is that there was no virgin birth, no physical resurrection, no appearance after he died, and Jesus never intended to start a Church. That they disagree on finer points, there seems to a consensus on these, possible best illustrated in the Jesus Seminar publication, The Five Gospels.”

    Sorry. Trying to be succinct in commenting, I sometimes omit important details. Thanks for bringing this to my attention.

  77. The Jesus Seminar folks don’t think the empty tomb stories in the Gospels are historically accurate, if this is what you mean by the “physical resurrection.” However, they admit that the followers of Jesus had a religious experience. They admit that Jesus appeared to his followers after he died. However, they don’t believe Jesus is alive in a new life with God.

    They don’t think Jesus founded Christianity, which means that the followers of Jesus did not understand Jesus. There is no evidence for this. The Jesus Seminar folks are exercising bad judgment on this point.

  78. Socrates Schultz

    The Westar Institute, of which the Jesus Seminar is a part, consists of more than one hundred fellows whose views vary. Their positions are demonstrated by ballot questions where they vote as to their personal belief on a particular point. As to whether they are exercising bad judgement is a judgement we each must make.

  79. Re David Roemer

    “I think a better concept than the “will surrogate” is the concept of the “final cause.” If a person decides to clean up their room, the final cause is the clean room. If a person chooses to have an affair, the final cause is sex and fun. If a person declines an offer for sex, the final cause is getting to Heaven or having a clear conscience.”

    You say the final cause is the Clean Room. I would have called it the effect of your decision to produce a clean room. Of course an effect can also function as a cause, as for instance someone smiling at the sight of the clean room.
    Maybe you have in mind Backward causation. You have a desire for a future event i.e. a clean room. This future event causes you at an earlier time to clean up the room. This is Aristotle’s “Final Cause you will be aware” but I don’t think his examples are quite the same as mine. I hope I am not wasting your time here I started writing before I realised we were probably in agreement. Causation is an interesting construct where would humans be without it?

  80. Don Bird,

    A being that begins to exist at some point in time needs a cause. The effect is the being that began to exist. I don’t think you can define the words “cause” and “effect.” I don’t think the concepts of cause and effect sheds any light on free will. For one thing, cause and effect occur simultaneously. If cause preceded the effect in the order of time, then there would be a lapse of time when the cause was not causing anything and the effect was not being effected by anything.

    In physics, a causal system is one where the energy is constant.

  81. Don & David,

    You seem to be jumping threads…

    The oak is the final cause of the acorn and the acorn is (part of) the efficient cause of the oak tree.

    Backwards causation would be efficient causation in which effect precedes cause in time – this is quite distinct from talk of final causes.

  82. The efficacy of the oak as the final cause of the acorn can be made sense of in a theistic worldview perhaps.

    Efficient causes in most conceptions necessarily precede their effects. Kant did talk of the iron ball as the simultaneous cause of the impression on the cushion it sits on. Some would say he was just describing things badly though. But I think most defenders of ‘final cause’ talk would agree that efficient causes precede their effects.

    In a Thomist conception there is room for talking of efficient causes in the world that necessarily precede their effects – striking the match causes it to light. But then in that worldview in an important sense the only real efficient cause is God, without whose active simultaneous causal support, everything would fall out of existence.

  83. I agree that God’s willing of the existence of finite beings keeps the universe in existence. But I must repeat, cause precedes the effect only in the order of causality. The cause does not come before the effect in the order of time.

    A being that is a composition of two other beings, a finite being, and a being that begins to exist at some point in time need causes.

    Humans want to understand what causes things, but this just leads to the indefinability of causality.

  84. Certainly cause precedes effect in the order of causality (that’s true by definition of the words).

    If all you want to do is insist that Divine efficient causation is simultaneous with its effects and that, ultimately, that’s the only fully ‘real’ efficient causation there is I’m happy to grant you that – indeed I already have. I recognise that Aquinas’ ‘first’ cause argument wouldn’t fail just because the universe had no beginning – he admitted the logical possibility of that being so, and would maintain that even if it did not begin to exist at some point in time it would still need an efficient ‘first’ cause to explain it.

    But presumably nobody would deny that in the cases of ordinary cause and effect – of efficient causes within the observable world – cause doe at least seem to always precede effect in time. Turning the key causes the door to unlock and kicking the dog causes it to growl. Cause then effect, in that order, in time. You don’t mean to deny that do you?

    I’m not at all clear what you mean when you talk about the ‘indefinability’ of causality – do you just mean we cannot describe it exactly or what?

  85. jim p houston December 24, 2012 at 12:54 pm
    “Don & David,
    You seem to be jumping threads…
    The oak is the final cause of the acorn and the acorn is (part of) the efficient cause of the oak tree.
    Backwards causation would be efficient causation in which effect precedes cause in time – this is quite distinct from talk of final causes”. 😀
    My understanding of Final cause as per Aristotle is as follows:-
    The final cause: “the end, that for the sake of which a thing is done”, e.g., health is the end of walking, losing weight, purging, drugs, and surgical tools cf Stanford.
    There seems to me to be a similarity between this and Backward Causation where say the desire for a Gold medal in the future causes an athlete to train and run for some years before he/she wins one. So far as I remember we also speak of Teleological causation which so far as I remember is of a similar sense to Backward causation.
    Niels Bohr stated “There is no quantum world. There is only an abstract physical description. It is wrong to think that the task of physics is to find out how nature is. Physics concerns what we can say about nature.
    It seems to me the same can be said of Cause and Effect it only allows us to talk about Reality. So many think it is inherent in Reality, but again it is only an abstract physical description.
    I am probably jumping threads again anyway Happy Christmas to all.

  86. The cosmological argument for the existence of an infinite being (God in the West) is not based on a “first cause.” That idea is based on the principle that a being that begins to exist in time needs a cause. We know an infinite being exists because a finite being needs a cause.

    Humans see the sun rise every morning and ask: What caused this? Humans have a drive to understand everything. I don’t think you can define this term. In any case, cause and effect occur simultaneously. Cause does not come before the effect in the order of time. If there was a time gap, then there would be a cause without causing anything and an effect without being effected by anything.

  87. Hear, hear,

    Merry Christmas one and all.


  88. Have a great Christmas everyone!!

  89. The cosmological argument for the existence of an infinite being (God in the West) is not based on a “first cause.”

    Merry Christmas David,

    Well, there isn’t just one cosmological argument – there are 3 in Aquinas (the first 3 of the 5 ways) and there are others formulated by other thinkers and some of those do rest on the idea of a temporally first cause (I didn’t mean to).

    At least one variant in Aquinas seems like it can be separated from the claim that a being that begins to exist in time needs a cause by virtue of the logical possibility that a contingent thing without a beginning in time could exist – a universe with no beginning could exist but would still need some necessary thing to underwrite its contingent existent in his framework. (I should really get clear on the 3 Thomist arguments though).

    Your favoured cosmological argument seems to put a lot of emphasis on ‘infinity’ is something I can’t pretend to grasp at the moment and I’d be happy if you pointed me to an account of it somewhere.

    As for efficient causality generally – within the world, putting aside talk of God – I just don’t understand the motivation for claiming that cause does not (ever) come before the effect in the order of time. You say that ‘if there was a time gap, then there would be a cause without causing anything and an effect without being effected by anything.’ But an effect is necessarily affected by something simply in virtue of what the word means. And I see no reason to assume a time-gap between cause and effect just because one precedes the other. One might say an event on Tuesday (planting a bomb) caused an effect on Thursday (the explosion). But there’s not really a time-gap in causality here – in-between the two events are chains of cause and effect with no gaps.

  90. As a gamer, I encourage the discussion of Willpower points!

    The old White Wolf game system had permanent and temporary willpower scores.

    Recent research in neuroscience suggests that willpower is an expendable neurochemical resource.

    I’m not an expert in these things, but I highly encourage more-qualified experts to discuss them! I’ll learn a lot!

  91. Y F Rick,

    I’ll have to write a game with willpower. 🙂

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