When I want to write something (this blog post, for instance), I pick up my pen and start making these squiggly symbols on my notebook, which I type into the blog later on. Simple, everyday thing, right? But how do I do it? I mean, how do I make a change in the physical, material world of matter by the mere will or intentionality of my non-material mind?
This sounds like a really silly question, I know. When you want to write a blessed post, you just pick up a blessed pen and write the blessed thing (using “bless” the same way Whoopi Goldberg used it in one of her movies). What is so strange or philosophical about it? This is exactly what I would have said a week ago before reading up some stuff on the philosophy of mind.
How exactly do I write? The pen is made up of matter. It doesn’t move on its own volition and make words. We know it from physics. We need a cause. Of course, it is my hand that is moving it, controlled by a set of precise electro-chemical reactions. And what is causing the reactions? The neurons fining in my brain — again, interactions in the material world. And what causes the particular precise patterns of neuronal firing? It is, of course, my mind. My neurons fire in response to the ideas and words in my mind.
Hold on, not so fast there, Skippy! My mind is not a physical entity. The most physical or material statement we can make about the mind or consciousness is that it is a state of the brain — or a pattern of neuronal firings. My intention to write a few words is again a spatial and temporal arrangement of some neurons firing — nothing more. How do such patterns result in changes in the physical, material world?
We don’t find this issue so puzzling because we have been doing forever. So we don’t let ourselves be amazed by it — unless we are a bit crazy. But this problem is very real. Note that if my intention of writing resulted only in my imagination that I am writing, we don’t have a problem. Both the cause (the intention) and the effect (the imagination) are non-material. And this line of thinking does provide a solution to the original problem — just assume that everything is in one’s mind. Nothing is real. Everything is Maya, and only one’s mind exists. This is the abyss of solipsism. As a philosophical stance, this idea is consistent and even practical. I wrote a book loosely based on the notion that nothing is real — and aptly called it The Unreal Universe.
Unfortunately, solipsism is quite wrong. When I say, “Everything is in my mind, nothing else is real,” all you have to say is, “I agree, I hear you!” And boom, I am wrong! For if you agree, there is at least one more mind other than mine.
So solipsism as a solution to the puzzle that the non-material intention in a mind can make physical changes in the world is less than satisfactory. Then the other solution, of course, is to say that intentionality is illusory. Free will doesn’t exist; it is only a figment of our imagination. In other words, I didn’t really intend to write this post, it was all preordained. It is just that after-the-fact, I kind of attribute free will to it and pretend that I meant to do it.
Strange as it may seem, there are some strong indications that this statement may be true. I will write another post (with or without free will) to list them.
The current view in thinking about mind and brain is in an analogy with a digital computer. Mind is a program (software), and brain is the a computer (hardware) on which it runs. It sounds right, and seems to explain quite a bit. After all, a computer can control complex precision-equipment based on programs running on it. But there is a deep philosophical reason why this analogy is totally wrong, but that will be another post.