I find myself drawn to dualist notions of reality. There’s not much chance of an afterlife if the mental and physical can’t be separated. I’m betting with Pascal. It seems to be the no-lose option. Unless of course at some stage in the future we’re all reconstituted by time-machine and a committee of atheistic humanists decide who can best assist the construction of heaven on earth.
Physics reduces all problems to the language of mathematics. Gödel has demonstrated what we can probably all intuit, that no complex mathematical system can contain its own explanation unless it is infinite. To me, a numeric infinity is entirely a mental construct. With Gödel, I would take the infinite outside the mathematical, that is the physical, system. In the beginning was the Word. The physical world is the Word made flesh. The Word is descriptive language, not Mathematics. Concepts and virtues are permitted outside the system, and not just as shadows on the cave wall.
I seem to understand myself better too if by viewing the physical and mental as two discrete categories. I’m not saying that there aren’t linkages. The correct philosophical category for me might be dual aspect monist. I fully expect, as the brain scientists steadily map neural activity, that every mental state will be seen to correlate to a physical state. Every physical state will be caused by a prior physical state under the laws of Physics, perhaps with some quantum uncertainty at the smallest levels which from all observation is random. And so any room for mental agency would seem to be zilch at best.
But let’s start from the other viewpoint. We all inhabit our mental universe while living in space and time. Sitting in a comfortable chair, I never stop thinking until I fall asleep, and then I dream. Awake, I recall events, sights, sounds, smells, tastes and touches with a vividness which makes me feel that the mental sensation is actually reliving that physical past. Do I choose what to remember? That raises the question as to if there is more than one ‘I’. I think there is. I’ll continue to call the mental ‘I’ and the physical ‘me’ in this piece of introspection, even if that does make the mental the subject. That’s how it feels. If there are no apostrophes around the personal pronouns, then it’s indeterminate which one I mean. When I am doing something I like doing, than ‘I’ am not free, because the act was caused by ‘me’. ‘I’ can recall the sensations with pleasure or disappointment afterwards. If I do something spontaneously, and then regret, am ‘I’ to blame?
I was reading Marcus du Sautoy recently about what can we know. He, a mathematician and brilliant thinker, believes his atheism to be a decision he has made. He also accepts that such a decision has implications as to how he views life, just as the opposite one does for believers. I am not sure if I ever made a decision to be a theist. Christened as a baby into the Anglican church, followed by Sunday school, Bible Class, Confirmation and with a love of both the liturgy and the hymns, it’s difficult to tell. The furthest I can go is to say that ‘I’ now try to live my life accountable to a Creator, to the extent that ‘I’ might have a choice. The two things conferred on ‘me’ by that are in the summary of the Commandments, to love God and to love thy neighbour as thyself. I’m sure most atheists feel strongly too their duties to others. Many would argue that lack of belief in God makes them more determined to tackle injustice. Believers would argue with St Francis that knowing what can be changed, and being accepting of what can’t be, makes for a better mental life. Perhaps these thoughts are at the core of the decisions made either way.
Yes, I do believe a spontaneous act by ‘me’ is something ‘I’ should feel accountable for. ‘I’ should have built better self control into ‘me’.
Is all this negated if our mental capacity is zilch? I think it probably would be, which is why I want to take the mental outside the constraints of the physical system. If there is an eternity, then Alpha and Omega are at the same point. The story unfolds which includes our thoughts and actions. These will correspond to the physical state of our brains, but more importantly includes the texture of sensual experience and the reflection of our conscience. All actions are inextricably linked, perhaps similarly to eternal quantum entanglement. The thoughts are no less real for that. The uncertainties collapse just the once, at the end of time, which is the beginning. Have we thus made the God who makes us?
I do the Times crossword and Killer Sudoku each day. It feels like ‘I’ do the crossword and I do the Sudoku. Equations can be beautiful, and perhaps that’s one of the edges where the two realms meet. But I don’t believe God did the Maths before creation. He said what he wanted. He saw what he and ‘we’ had thought and made it real. The story is fundamental.