10. Stealing Horses – The Problems of Volition



            Supposedly in the old West, stealing horses was a capitol offense. So if you’re arrested as a potential horse thief and the sheriff asks you if you stole the horse you’re going to say “no”. This may or may not be a lie, but suppose it is and the truthful answer is “Yes”. The question we are concerned with here is what has to happen for the “yes” to become a “no”, not so much about the nature of the neurological process but how it could be that the mind, spirit, or will might possibly be involved with the lie or determine the response to the sheriff’s question. We pose a moral dilemma here because it seems to immediately invoke many of the problems of mind including cognition and volition, even though the fundamental problem of response generation need not involve a moral decision.


            If you say “yes” and “no” slowly and note the differences in the speech muscles involved it is easy to see that the two phoneme strings involve processes which differ mechanically and thus require different patterns of underlying neurological activity. We don’t use the same neurons for both responses because the muscle activity is different for each response. This in turn must correspond t a difference in the patterns of activity in the higher motor centers perhaps up to and including the primary motor cortex.  The first question here then is what is the smallest number of higher order cells, wherever they may be that can possible generate a “yes” or “no” response?


            It would be convenient for dualists of any sort if the answer was one cell; that is, if there was a single master neuron somewhere whose activity could generate a complicated neuro-muscular response.  This would be simpler because it would require less knowledge and interference on the part of the mind. The problem is that if the mind is to interact with the body then it must know where to go, what to do and when to do it. Some how the interactive mind must learn to drive the neuron or neurons that generate “no” in English or “nyetsay in Russian. Those who advance any version of interactive dualism must at least explain how all this happens. Of course it is unlikely that there is a level of the system where the activity of only one neuron is sufficient to produce a linguistic response. What we have instead are complicated interacting networks that produce the complicated patterns of activity required for even the simplest response.


The problem of the mind having to know the brain is not limited to interactionists however.  Any sort of theory of mind, spirit, soul; etc. faces the same difficulties. The extra non-corporal entity must somehow know what the brain is up to if it is part of or knows us. How does my mind know what I am thinking, feeling or even saying? And if it doesn’t why is it my mind, soul or spirit? But continuing with our first problem, interactive dualism, we see that the interactive mind must have a great deal of knowledge about how the brain works if it is to effect its operations. This sort of dualism essentially maintains that there are little miracles occurring in our nervous systems, immaterial influences on material substances and in material systems which determine what we do. Notice also that any believer in free will, let’s call them “volitionists”, faces the same sort of problems even if they do not advance anything beyond a theory of an immaterial faculty of will. How and where does this faculty operate? Is there suppose to be some sort of moral decision center in the brain where our wills operate. How did the volition faculty discover this decision center? How does it influence it?


It would be convenient for the dualists if the brain contained a number of single cell activators located in identifiable decision or behavior generating centers so that the mind can more easily learn what to do and when and how to do it. Let them base their theories on assumptions like these, let them finally say that what they mean by their theories is that the mind acquires or is created with a detailed knowledge of the brain so as to be able to interact with it or at least know what’s going on in it. Let them place their bets here because their requirements are unlikely to be met and the issue might then be resolved. The brain is a complicated system, comprised in operation of many complicated subsystems consisting of many networks with intricate processes underlying their operations. Most of these complicated operations are acquired as a result of learning experiences or physical development. How does the mind know how the brain works? How does the mind learn the brain?


How is it that my mind knows what I hear? We have a rough idea what the brain is doing, but what is the mind doing when I listen so that the mind presumably understands what is being heard? How does my mind know English, how did it learn it? Let us assume there is some mental aspect of understanding an English language utterance, something that is not resolvable at the physical level. How is this supposed to work? Does the mind interpret the sound waves, or does it operate off neurological signals? Comprehension certainly depends on both, the stimulus and neurological operations must both be there.  We would tend to assume that the mind uses only the internal brain states in understanding- some people “hear” voices that aren’t there.  But given that internal processes cannot transmit qualia, (See “Qualia” above) how does the mind know that a particular pattern of neurological activity is a sound and not a visual experience?


Dualisms survive because we do not easily grasp the notion of the brain as a system or as a system of systems partly because of ignorance but also because human beings aren’t very good at conceptualizing systems in total due to the limitations of our cognitive make up. As noted before, our cognition functions mostly with the immediate, with the particular not the general, with (perceptual) objects rather than processes. We work around these limitations with language and other epistemic tricks and tools but the fundamental problem remains.  We can’t imagine the whole movie at once, and similarly we can’t really conceive of complicated interacting systems either.  If a system is rendered simple conceptually, if we aren’t thinking about subsystems and subordinate processes all at the same time, then it is easy to imagine that it somehow involves something more than is readily apparent because the system based requirements for this something more are not readily apparent.  Superstition is rarely complicated, except perhaps in theology where the stories are sometimes developed following human themes.


(It is unclear whether an information based system can ever be other than instance and thing specific, whether an information based system can really handle process in total, say by parallel processing or quantum computing, or indeed if any cognitive system can, assuming there is such a thing as cognitive non- information based system. ((Cognitive here is again probably best defined in terms of the potential for syntactic agency; smart things can exhibit complicated behavior using internal resources only. If they can do only one thing, they’re not very smart; if they can learn to do many, they essentially become human. ))


It might seem as though the easiest way around these sorts of problems and to preserve some sort of dualism is epiphenomenalism. But aside from providing some sort of explanation for some non-physical aspect “mind” it is hard to see what epiphenomenalism is suppose to accomplish. According to this theory, no non-corporeal entity controls anything; the brain controls everything including the epiphenomenal generation of some non-physical aspect of mental states through its operations. But presumably these epiphenomenal elements are variable; there isn’t just one mental state, so the proponents of this view must use more than just brain states to explain the variability of the mental because this variability and most importantly its qualitative variations cannot be explained by brain states alone. ( See “Qualia”.) But once you admit to something else being involved, say for example sensory transduction processes, the proponents of epiphenomenalism must now admit that all sorts of chemical, biochemical and biophysical processes generate mental states. When and where does it stop? If photons hitting the retina generate mental states, why not photons hitting a photoelectric sensor? Does this have an epiphenomenal aspect as well?


Epiphenomenalism faces the same problems of consciousness and causation as all other dualistic theories of mind, the fact that causation is unidirectional makes no difference. The problem with any and all dualisms is the problem of the integration of the mind and body at the systems level. And what, incidentally is a mental system? Are there pieces of mind, building blocks for the mental which are integrated into systems or mental phenomenon?  Are their pain mental pieces along with visual mental pieces out of which we form some sort of mental constructs like a pain in the neck or the image of an apple? Why isn’t all this just absurd?


Perhaps it will be seen as absurd once we realize that we really can’t talk about most theories of mind because it is really the brain under most theories that is doing the talking. Theories of the immaterial cannot manifest themselves in talk produced by material sources. Your brain can’t know anything about your mind even if you think you do. There is no way for these mental phenomena to determine the information that is driving the linguistic behavior that is mind talk without some sort of miraculous intervention in the physical processes that determine intelligent behavior. There is then really no dualism except interactive dualism and this is a theory of miracles.