This is reposted from July 2013 because my long-time friend, writer, mother, and beauty, Leila Miller, asked about this post. I was interested in the mind-body problem, and still am. In my book (Particles of Faith: A Catholic Guide to Navigating Science, Ave Maria Press, Fall 2016), I did not use this thought experiment because I realize now that this exercise does not tell you how to understand the soul, only how not to think of it. But I still like its diametrical simplicity.
I’m in search of fundamental questions, and in the philosophy of mind studies, it seems that there are two basic conclusions as it relates to humans.
#1 The mind and brain affect each other, but the mind is a rational substance beyond the brain, with intellect and free will.
#2 The mind is completely dependent on the brain, emerging from it and reducible to it, all mental states coordinate to a brain state.
The first one rejects materialism while the second one embraces it. Said differently:
#1 No brain, mind still exists.
#2 No brain, no mind exists.
The two have enormous implications for a person. If the mind can still exist without the brain, then we have a soul that lives on after death and religion helps us to prepare for that life to come. If not, then death is the end of the mind and there is no soul, no immaterial beings, no God. Materialism is true, religion is a farce.
I like this thought experiment. It’s my own adaptation of the zombie experiment with some embellishments and constraints, which I’m certain have been hashed out before. The reason I like it is because it addresses the individual. I’ve noticed that philosophers of mind, particularly atheists, tend to pose the questions to the human race in general rather than to themselves. It seems to me that these questions are best posed to an individual about that individual, as opposed to an individual about everyone else. Asking what you think about yourself demands an honest scrutiny and concomitant conviction. It gets straight to the heart of the question — your inner life.
The Thought Experiment
So what’s an android? It is an automaton resembling a human being, a humanoid, a soulless body. (Zombies creep me out.)
Imagine that it is possible to construct an android, right this instant, that has the exact same physical make-up, atom for atom, subatomic particle for subatomic particle, down to the smallest particle of matter, as you.
The replica is not a clone in the reproductive sense; it is not conceived through reproduction and grown, so that although you are both genetically identical, you have different experiences and memories. Neither is it a robot, computerized on the inside and animated by electricity, but covered in silicon to resemble you on the outside. Rather, it is the exact physical replica of you at this instant, inside and out, even the neurons in your brain exactly replicated down to the smallest particle.
There stands you and your android, instantly.
In the next instant, both your body and the android body are punched in exactly the same way, all things equal. Will you and your android respond by force of compulsion in obedience to the laws of physics in exactly the same way?
Do you both step the left foot back 5.347 inches with the heel angled 25.02 degrees outward, and with an exact contoured twist of the abdomen reel back and then step forward as you say, Hey, you didn’t have to punch me that hard! while the right hand raises to the punched spot and the brows furrow precisely to the slope of each hair and trillion other minute details? Or does it do something else? Does it do nothing but fall backwards to the ground like a toppled statue while you step out of the way and wince at the sight of your android falling down lifelessly?
Which do you believe about yourself?
If #1 is true, you have a soul.
If #2 is true, you do not.
But if #2 is true, then neither do you have free will; and if you don’t have free will, you can’t choose what to think; and if you can’t choose what to think, you cannot think freely; and if that’s what think of yourself, then it’s not a thought, it’s your matter obeying laws of physics; and if your thoughts are just atoms moving around, then you are literally in a position to declare that you have reasoned that you cannot reason. You think you cannot think. Where does that leave you?
What if the brain-mind computation is not 1-1?
Even if there are a statistical variety of mind-to-body reactions to a single body-to-mind stimulus, still the reaction is predetermined. As long as the reaction is pre-encoded in the brain, the reaction is produced in the same way. Life is nothing more than the right arrangement of matter, and all that separates you from a rock or a mobile phone is how that matter is arranged. You and your android react, ultimately, no differently to the same stimulus as two identical rocks in the same exact environment do.
As an aside, brain-mind mapping seems impossible to me for no other reason than the fact that it is impossible for anyone else to know my inner thoughts. How would anyone know if what I have in mind is exactly what you have in mind?
What about trees, dogs, and babies?
This is only one thought experiment among many, and if explored it will lead to other questions about conscience, consciousness, and even life itself. It will lead to other questions about the differences in plant life, animal instinct, and rational behavior.
For now it’s enough to remember that trees can’t answer the question and neither can the smartest dog or a newborn baby. But if you are reading this, then you can answer this question. It’s a start.
Are you indistinguishable from your android?
The path you follow after it will largely be set by your answer. One path will lead you to deny God and your own soul. The other path will lead you to God and the responsibility that comes with the freedom of choice.