Ok so watching a film is analogous to the relationship between the brain and mind. Or so the philosopher Heil tells us. It’s an interesting comparison that caused me to stop and think a moment, but somehow I just can’t quite run with it. Perhaps I don’t want to let go of the instinctive belief that my mind has causal powers over how I act; that my desire for a cup of coffee really does cause me to go and make one in the kitchen.
This is how it the analogy goes: you’re watching The Matrix and you have reached the great initiating scene in which Neo, seated in the chair opposite Morpheus, stretches out his hand to take the red pill. Now it seems reasonable enough to assume that as we watch the images follow each other in orderly succession that the image that comes before is causing the image that comes after it to occur. Neo puts the pill in his mouth because he had just taken it out of Morpheus’ hand. But, of course, we’re wrong. No image is causally responsible for the one that comes after it, or any other. The images are caused to appear by the movie projector. It is thanks to the projector that the images appear as they do and follow each other in order. We’re happy to follow the fiction of image-causing-image because that is the simplest way to view the reality before us. That doesn’t mean that it is true.
How does this relate to the relationship to the mind and body? Well, it seems that images are like the mind and the projector is like the brain. The images on the screen are higher-level properties that emerge from the functioning of the projector. In other words our minds (thoughts, impressions, feelings, desires, experiences of colour etc) are properties that come about as a result of the functioning of the brain.
This is not so concerning. It makes sense to me. Where I stumble is with the next step of the analogy. Just as the images on the screen have no power to influence that functioning of the projector (how could they?), the mind has no causal power over the brain. Worse yet, just as one image can’t cause another image in the film to appear (the projector does that) our minds have no power to cause another mental experience.
The upshot of all this? When you want that cup of coffee and walk down stairs to the kitchen to make it, the walking downstairs doesn’t come as a result of the mind’s desire to do so. The mind’s desire is irrelevant. Everything is happening at the level of the brain and its physical processes. All those thoughts and feelings floating around your heard? There are as insubstantial as the smoke puffing out of the steam engine’s funnel; interesting but powerfulness to affect the engine.
When I first learnt about this, I went into a tirade of counter-examples to show that it was wrong, examples from my own experience. But the problem was deeper than I had realised. If the universe is truly a closed physical system, there is no room for a non-physical effect (or property) such as the mind to have any impact on it.
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