Pencils Falling to the Floor

Last night while I slept I dreamed a dream. And in my dream I saw myself approach two men engaged in a lively conversation. The name of one was Christian. The other was Sam. The conversation had apparently been going on for some time.
This is what I heard:
“Yes, that’s what I said before. That’s all there is, just matter and energy. No spirit, no soul, no god, just matter and energy. If it’s not a physical entity it doesn’t exist.”
“Does your mind exist?” Christian asked.
“Of course,” Sam said. “I have a brain, just as you do.”
“I didn’t ask if you had a brain. I asked if you had a mind.”
“My mind is a function of my brain.”
“And your brain is a physical thing?”
“Gray matter, electrical impulses, and chemical reactions?”
“Yes, but it’s very complicated, you know. Scientists have been studying the brain for a long time.”
“And there is nothing about the mind that is not rooted in the physical organ of the brain?”
“No. No soul, if that’s what you’re asking. All there is is matter and energy.”
“Yes, so you said before.”
“And so I’ll say again.”
“Consistency is good. I applaud it wherever I find it,” said Christian. “But I wonder if you really are consistent.”
“What do you mean?”
“You say your mind is a function of your brain, a physical organ. Does this mean, then, that your thoughts are physical things?”
“No. Thoughts themselves aren’t physical, but they are the result of physical processes.”
“Of the brain—gray matter, electrical impulses, and chemical reactions?”
“Yes. Haven’t we already been through this?”
“I just want to make sure that I understand you. Your thoughts are the result of electrical impulses and chemical reactions taking place in your brain?”
“I guess you could say so, yes,” said Sam. “But it seems overly simplistic to do so.”
“It seems overly simplistic to me, too, although for different reasons. But can you think of any other factors, besides physical ones that have a part to play in producing thoughts.”
“No. Remember, all there is…”
“…is matter and energy. Right. So you said before. And matter and energy are subject to physical laws?”
“Of course.”
“And are things which are subject to physical laws responsible for their actions?”
“What do you mean?”
“When I drop this pencil and it falls to the floor, is the pencil responsible for its action of falling?”
“How could it be? It can’t do otherwise.”
“It can’t fall upward or sideways?” Christian asked.
“Don’t be absurd.”
“Why is it that it can only fall down?”
“I’m sure you know the answer to that as well as I do,” Sam said. “Because of the law of gravity.”
“Which is a physical law, governing physical things?”
“And physical laws cannot be broken? The pencil can’t break the law of gravity and do something other than fall to the floor?”
“No. Not unless a counterforce is applied. A rocket for instance uses a counterforce in its propulsion engine to overcome the law of gravity.”
“But even in such a case we have laws of motion at work?”
“And all things are subject to physical laws?”
“Including the activity of the brain—electrical impulses and chemical reactions—which produce thoughts?”
Sam clearly didn’t like the direction the argument was taking him. “Well…yes…I guess so,” he hesitated.
“And a person is not responsible for his thoughts, since they are the result of physical laws operating on the physical organ of the brain?”
“That doesn’t seem quite right.”
“No? Have we gone wrong somewhere?” Christian asked. “Maybe in our first premise that all there is is matter and energy. Do we need to rethink that?”
“No. I’m sure we’ve got that right.”
“Then what about the second premise that physical things, including the brain, are subject to physical laws?”
“No. That must be right too.”
“Well, then, we do face something of a conundrum don’t we? Given the premises, the conclusion follows. Our thoughts, which are the products of the physical organ of the brain, are things we are not responsible for. The electrical impulses and chemical reactions in your brain have produced the thought that God does not exist. The electrical impulses and chemical reactions in my brain have produced the thought that he does. And neither of us is responsible for the activity of our brains that give rise to these thoughts; but yet you are acting as if we are.”
“What do you mean?” asked Sam.
“You are trying to convince me to change my thoughts about God, trying to convince me that he doesn’t exist, as if I am responsible for my thoughts.”
“Well, you’re doing the same thing, trying to convince me that God does exist.
“True, and I cheerfully admit it! But then I again I believe we’re responsible for our thoughts. I’m acting consistently with my beliefs. You’re acting inconsistently with yours.”
At this, Sam fell silent. He was thinking. Actually, he was wondering if he was thinking. Really thinking. Perhaps what was happening in his mind that he thought was thinking was nothing more than the equivalent of pencils falling to the floor.
“Perhaps we can talk about this again later,” he said at last. “I’m intrigued by what you’ve said. I’ve got some thinking to do in the meantime, though.”


Craig Brann said…
In contemporary ethics, this point is not so directly evaded. From consciousness theory (responsible for Artificial Intelligence) a model is proposed that once the bubbling gases reproduce an image of self (cogito ergo sum) a 'strange loop' ensues, wherein all thinking/reasoning is--at base--circular. Thus, the brain is a complex set of synapses/dendrite ends firing every 'thought' with a self-reflective correspondence. This 'self thinking thoughts in relation to self' is an increasingly common theory of 'persisting identity' or 'self.' Since no thought occurs without 'self-reflection' the self is perpetually constructed/imaged in the bubbling gases.
This gives way to 'self' (constructed by perpetual loops of self-correspondences) generating conscious thoughts about self--namely any thought about I, me or myself.
These thoughts are the first level of freedom/responsibility. It is a nuanced and tricky theory, but the idea is that when the automatic process of self-reference (which produces a sense of persisting self which becomes the basis for epistemology--'not interfering with the identity created by perpetual self-reference' is regarded as epistemically warranted) becomes powerful enough to enable 'consciousness' (the state wherein the 'self' and reality are viewed as distinct though inseparable and in perpetuity).
At the level of consciousness comes responsibility. Here it is supposed, the perpetuity of self and reality as distinct creates a broad enough category of 'possibility' (anything goes/random universe) that the persisting conscious self must bring as many of the sub-conscious correlations of self to reality to a conscious level. The greater this 'self-consciousness' -- sort of van tillian -- the greater the responsibility (and freedom) of the agent.

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