The Problem of the Soul, Self, Spirit, Mind, and “Ghost in the Machine”

Celebrating René Descartes, the first modern philosopher, and his famous phrase Ego cogito, ergo sum, we call our model for mind the Ego. It is implemented with our experience recorder and reproducer (ERR).

Our two-stage model for free will we call the Cogito. Our model for an objective value, independent of humanity and earthly bioethics, we call Ergo. And our model for knowledge we call the Sum.

The Ego is more or less synonymous with the Soul, the Self, or the Spirit – Gilbert Ryle’s “ghost in the machine.” We see it as immaterial information. An immaterial self with causal power is almost universally denied by modern philosophers as metaphysical, along with related problematic ideas such as consciousness and libertarian or indeterministic free will.

Descartes’ suggestion that animals are machines included the notion that man too is in part a machine – the human body obeys deterministic causal laws. Although for Descartes man also has a soul or spirit or mind that is exempt from determinism and thus from what is known today as “causal closure,” Cartesian dualism was the first step to eliminative materialism. 

But as all critics of Descartes do, we must ask, how can the mind both cause something physical to happen and yet itself be acausal,? How is it exempt from causal chains coming up from the body?

Descartes’ vision of undetermined freedom for the mind is realized since our immaterial thoughts are free, whereas our actions are adequately determined by our will. This combination of ideas is the basis for our two-stage model of free will.1 It is a model of agent causation. New causal chains originate as ideas in our minds. Once evaluated and chosen they are adequately determined to lead to willed actions. This is a model for self-determination.

The “self ” or ego, the psyche or soul, is the self of this self-determination. Self-determination is of course limited by our control over matter and energy, but within those physical constraints our selves can consider ideas, decide to act on one and take full responsibility for our actions.

The Self is often identified with one’s “character.” This is the basis for saying that our choices and decisions are made by evaluating freely generated alternative possibilities in accordance with our reasons, motives, feelings, desires, etc. These are in turn often the consequence of our past experiences, along with inherited (biologically built-in) preferences. And this bundle of motivating factors is essentially what is known as our character. Someone familiar with all of those preferences would be able to predict our actions with some certainty, though not perfectly, when faced with particular options and the circumstances. The self is the agent that is the cause for those actions.


Einstein to Heisenberg: What, No Paths? What, No Photons?

Heisenberg tells us that in 1926, Einstein asked him about Einstein’s theory of light quanta (photons). At that time, Einstein’s radical theory was 21 years old, and had been accepted by almost all physicists, because it had explained the Compton effect in 1923 and had disproved the Bohr-Kramers-Slater theory, which denied photons, of 1924.

[Heisenberg described their talk.] On the way, he asked about my studies and previous research. As soon as we were indoors, he opened the conversation with a question that bore on the philosophical background of my recent work.

“What you have told us sounds extremely strange. You assume the existence of electrons inside the atom, and you are probably quite right to do so. But you refuse to consider their orbits, even though we can observe electron tracks in a cloud chamber. I should very much like to hear more about your reasons for making such strange assumptions.”

Heisenberg explains that he substituted the observable frequencies of spectral line emissions – as “representatives” of the unobservable electron orbits. But there is a great difference between not being able to observe electron paths and declaring they do nor exist.

“We cannot observe electron orbits inside the atom,” I must have replied, “but the radiation which an atom emits during discharges enables us to deduce the frequencies and corresponding amplitudes of its electrons. After all, even in the older physics wave numbers and amplitudes could be considered substitutes for electron orbits. Now, since a good theory must be based on directly observable magnitudes, I thought it more fitting to restrict myself to these, treating them, as it were, as representatives of the electron orbits…”

“But what happens during the emission of light? As you know, I suggested that, when an atom drops suddenly from one stationary energy value to the next, it emits the energy difference as an energy packet, a so-called light quantum. In that case, we have a particularly clear example of discontinuity. Do you think that my conception is correct? Or can you describe the transition from one stationary state to another in a more precise way?”

In my reply, I must have said something like this:

[Heisenberg says simply that he and Bohr “Do not know.” He cannot say that he believes in Einstein’s light quanta, although by this time most quantum physicists had come to accept the ides of photons as particles, as well as their having wave properties!]

“Bohr has taught me that one cannot describe this process by means of the traditional concepts, i.e., as a process in time and space. With that, of course, we have said very little, no more, in fact, than that we do not know. Whether or not I should believe in light quanta, I cannot say at this stage. Radiation quite obviously involves the discontinuous elements to which you refer as light quanta.

[Heisenberg could not then see how his quantum mechanics, with its emphasis on the material particle properties of energy and momentum, can explain wave properties, which Bohr sees as described in terms of the complementaryproperties of space and time.]

“On the other hand, there is a continuous element, which appears, for instance, in interference phenomena, and which is much more simply described by the wave theory of light. But you are of course quite right to ask whether quantum mechanics has anything new to say on these terribly difficult problems. I believe that we may at least hope that it will one day.

“I could, for instance, imagine that we should obtain an interesting answer if we considered the energy fluctuations of an atom during reactions with other atoms or with the radiation field. If the energy should change discontinuously, as we expect from your theory of light quanta, then the fluctuation, or, in more precise mathematical terms, the mean square fluctuation, would be greater than if the energy changed continuously. I am inclined to believe that quantum mechanics would lead to the greater value, and so establish the discontinuity. On the other hand, the continuous element, which appears in interference experiments, must also be taken into account. Perhaps one must imagine the transitions from one stationary state to the next as so many fade-outs in a film. The change is not sudden—one picture gradually fades while the next comes into focus so that, for a time, both pictures become confused and one does not know which is which. Similarly, there may well be an intermediate state in which we cannot tell whether an atom is in the upper or the lower state.”

[Einstein is quite correct that Heisenberg is talking about what we subjectively know—epistemology— and not about what is—ontology—what is going on in objective reality.]

“You are moving on very thin ice,” Einstein warned me. “For you are suddenly speaking of what we know about nature and no longer about what nature really does. In science we ought to be concerned solely with what nature does. It might very well be that you and I know quite different things about nature. But who would be interested in that? Perhaps you and I alone. To everyone else it is a matter of complete indifference. In other words, if your theory is right, you will have to tell me sooner or later what the atom does when it passes from one stationary state to the next.”


Albert Einstein

Werner Heisenberg


The Mind and the Quantum Wave Function Are Both Pure Abstract Information. Is This Panpsychism?

Light waves are often compared to water waves. Quantum probability waves, but this latter is a serious error. Water waves and light waves (as well as sound waves) contain something substantial like matter or energy. But quantum waves are just abstract information – mathematical possibilities.

The quantum probability amplitude is pure information. It is neither matter nor energy. When a wave function “collapses” or “goes through both slits” in the dazzling two-slit experiment, nothing material is traveling faster than the speed of light or going through both slits.

Open with motion control

We shall argue that the particle of matter or energy always goes through just one slit, although the popular Copenhagen interpretation of physics claims we cannot know the particle path, that a path does not even exist until we make a measurement, that the particle may be in more than one place at the same time, and other similar nonsense that deeply bothered Einstein as he hoped for an “objective reality.”

A large number of panpsychists, some philosophers, and some scientists, believe that the mind of a conscious observer is needed to cause the collapse of the wave function.

Open with motion control

The Conscious Observer in Quantum Mechanics

Alfred North Whitehead: Continuous Infinite Fields or Finite Discrete Particles?

Alfred North Whitehead was an English mathematician (best known among scientists for his work with his student Bertrand Russell on the Principia Mathematica). But in philosophy and theology, Whitehead is best known as a philosopher whose later work at Harvard included his Process Philosophy and the subsequent development of a Process Theology.

At Harvard, Whitehead supervised Willard van Orman Quine‘s Ph.D. thesis on the Russell and Whitehead Principia Mathematica. Russell and Quine would become giants in the twentieth-century fields of logical positivism and logical empiricism. Although logical positivism and later analytic language philosophy overwhelmed Whiteheadian “process” thinking in philosophy departments, Whitehead’s “process theology” has grown strong in divinity schools around the world. And “Whiteheadian” physicists. impressed by Whitehead’s analysis of events in space and time in special relativity as organic “occasions.” are prominent in debates about the role of quantum mechanics in consciousness and panpsychism.

Whitehead’s “philosophy of organism” analyzes the perception of experience as a continuing series of discrete “events” that are created and destroyed. He goes beyond the simple materialist view of elementary particles interacting in space and time, merely following the laws of classical and quantum mechanics. Beyond the atomic particles and the electromagnetic and gravitational fields, and beyond the conservation laws for energy and momentum, Whitehead sees an “organic” evolutionary process of creation and valuation.

We need to understand what it is exactly that Whitehead thinks is being created and why it can serve as a basis for values. We will argue that Whitehead’s process is “organic” because it explains evolution, not merely biological evolution but the cosmic evolution of the galaxies, stars, and planets as well as the creation of all matter from the primordial elementary particles.

In addition to his deep understanding of mathematics, Whitehead may have understood the development of modern physics better than any living philosopher in his day. He saw the greatest invention of the nineteenth century as the invention of the method of invention, namely the scientific method and newly created scientific information, but even more deeply, the means by which novel ideas of all kinds are created.

Whitehead identified four great novel ideas as the new nineteenth-century foundations of physical science, fields, particles, conservation principles, and evolution. The great question for Whitehead as a mathematician (and for Einstein as a physicist) was “Is nature continuous or discrete, fields or particles, infinities or a finite number of objects?”

Whitehead wrote in his great book Science and the Modern World,

One of the ideas is that of a field of physical activity pervading all space, even where there is an apparent vacuum. This notion had occurred to many people, under many forms. We remember the medieval axiom, nature abhors a vacuum…Thus in the seventies of the last century, some main physical sciences were established on a basis which presupposed the idea of continuity.

On the other hand, the idea of atomicity had been introduced by John Dalton, to complete Lavoisier’s work on the foundation of chemistry. This is the second great notion. Ordinary matter was conceived as atomic: electromagnetic effects were conceived as arising from a continuous field…The notion of matter as atomic has a long history. Democritus and Lucretius will at once occur to your minds. In speaking of these ideas as novel, I merely mean relatively novel,..In the eighteenth century every well-educated man read Lucretius, and entertained ideas about atoms. But John Dalton made them efficient in the stream of science; and in this function of efficiency atomicity was a new idea. The influence of atomicity was not limited to chemistry. The living cell is to biology what the electron and the proton are to physics.

The remaining pair of new ideas to be ascribed to this epoch are both of them connected with the notion of transition or change. They are the doctrine of the conservation of energy, and the doctrine of evolution.

The doctrine of energy has to do with the notion of quantitative permanence underlying change. The doctrine of evolution has to do with the emergence of novel organisms as the outcome of chance. The theory of energy lies in the province of physics. The theory of evolution lies mainly in the province of biology, although it had previously been touched upon by Kant and Laplace in connection with the formation of suns and planets.

Meaning and Information, Gottlob Frege’s Sense and Reference, Intension and Extension in Epistemology

In response to a commentor’s question, today’s lecture is more Great Problems and Metaphysics than Free Will. I am hoping that this lecture will also serve to show how the Information Philosopher website should work for its users.

Information philosophy hopes to go “beyond language and logic” because words are always ambiguous and dependent on their context.

Knowledge can be defined as information in minds that is a partial isomorphism (mapping) of the information structures in the external world. Information philosophy is a correspondence theory.

Sadly, there is no isomorphism, no information in common, between words and objects. This accounts for much of the failing of analytic language philosophy in the past century.

Although language is an excellent tool for human communication, it is arbitrary, ambiguous, and ill-suited to represent the world directly. Human languages do not picture reality. Information is the lingua franca of the universe.

The extraordinarily sophisticated connection between words and objects is made in human mindsmediated by the brain’s experience recorder and reproducer (ERR). Words stimulate neurons to start firing and to play back any similar experiences that include relevant objects and events.

Neurons that were wired together in our earliest experiences fire together at later times, contextualizing our new experiences, giving them meaning. And by replaying emotional reactions to those for similar earlier experiences, it makes then “subjective experiences,” giving us the feeling of “what it’s like to be me” and solving the “hard problem” of consciousness.

Gottlob Frege drew a distinction between the reference (denotation, name) and the sense (meaning, concept) of a word. But few know that Frege limited the “sense” to the everyday meaning attached to a word by the users of their language. Frege also described the “idea” or “representation” (Vorstellung) that would form in the mind of the message receiver. This, he said, would be different in every mind, since it is dependent on the peculiar experiences of each person. See Frege, Sense and Reference, p.212-213.

Frege’s distinction is the difference between intension and extension in the works of  many philosophers, including the difference between internalism and externalism in epistemology.

Getting to Know How to Use the Information Philosopher Website, Books, and Online Lectures

The goal of the Information Philosopher website is to provide free resources online that are beyond the reach of those without faculty academic privileges like mine.

It is also to teach a new method for the study of problems in philosophy, physics, biology, and psychology that goes beyond debating issues and interpretations. Words alone are too ambiguous to resolve the deepest questions facing us.

This new method of examining information structures, their communications and processing of information, provides new insight into the nature of reality and our place in the universe.

We all are dynamic and growing information processing structures. We can learn at every level in the human body, from the miniature molecular machines in our cells to the thinking in our minds/brains, how information controls the organization of matter one particle at a time.

Hundreds of webpages on thinkers and many more on problems are massively hyperlinked, allowing you to navigate effortlessly between closely related pages. It has a glossary of technical terms to help beginners appreciate the debating details.

Einstein’s lifelong search for a Unified Field Theory ended in the thought that fields may only be averages over large numbers of particles

Einstein in his later years grew pessimistic about the possibilities for deterministic continuous field theories, by comparison with indeterministic and statistical discontinuous particle theories like those of quantum mechanics.

Although Einstein initially was a strong critic of quantum theory and its implications for indeterminism and a statistical nature of reality, from the 1930’s on he never said that quantum mechanics is “incorrect” – as far as it goes – only that something else would likely be added to quantum physics in the future, making it “complete.”

As early as 1930, Einstein marveled at the logical strength of the theory, especially its formulation by Paul Dirac, “to whom, in my opinion, we owe the most perfect exposition, logically, of this [quantum] theory.”

To Leopold Infeld he wrote in 1941,

“I tend more and more to the opinion that one cannot come further with a continuum theory.”

In his 1949 autobiography (he called it his obituary) for his Schilpp volume he wrote an extensive analysis of his criticism of the quantum theory, repeating the concerns he had first developed in 1935. It is worth looking at them completely here.

I must take a stand with reference to the most successful physical theory of our period, viz., the statistical quantum theory which, about twenty-five years ago, took on a consistent logical form (Schrödinger, Heisenberg, Dirac, Born). This is the only theory at present which permits a unitary grasp of experiences concerning the quantum character of micro-mechanical events. This theory, on the one hand, and the theory of relativity on the other, are both considered correct in a certain sense, although their combination has resisted all efforts up to now. This is probably the reason why among contemporary theoretical physicists there exist entirely differing opinions concerning the question as to how the theoretical foundation of the physics of the future will appear.

Will it be a field theory; will it be in essence a statistical theory? I shall briefly indicate my own thoughts on this point.

Physics is an attempt conceptually to grasp reality as it is thought independently of its being observed. In this sense one speaks of “physical reality.” In pre-quantum physics there was no doubt as to how this was to be understood. In Newton’s theory reality was determined by a material point in space and time; in Maxwell’s theory, by the field in space and time. In quantum mechanics it is not so easily seen.

(“Autobiographical Notes,” in Albert Einstein: Philosopher-Scientist,Ed, Paul Arthur Schilpp, 1949, p.1, in German and English)

Einstein’s dream of a continuous field theory was fading fast.

Einstein wrote his friend Michele Besso 1954 to express his lost hopes for a continuous field theory like that of electromagnetism or gravitation…

“I consider it quite possible that physics cannot be based on the field concept, i.e:, on continuous structures. In that case, nothing remains of my entire castle in the air, gravitation theory included, [and of] the rest of modern physics.”

quoted in Subtle is the Lord…, Abraham Pais, 1982, p.467

The fifth edition of The Meaning of Relativity included a new appendix on Einstein’s field theory of gravitation. In the final paragraphs of this work, his last, published posthumously in 1956, Einstein wrote:

Is it conceivable that a field theory permits one to understand the atomistic and quantum structure of reality ? Almost everybody will answer this question with “no”…One can give good reasons why reality cannot at all be represented by a continuous field. From the quantum phenomena it appears to follow with certainty that a finite system of finite energy can be completely described by a finite set of numbers (quantum numbers). This does not seem to be in accordance with a continuum theory, and must lead to an attempt to find a purely algebraic theory for the description of reality. But nobody knows how to obtain the basis of such a theory.

The Meaning of Relativity, 1956, pp.165-66