Monday, September 8, 2008

Telekinesis and the unreality of artefacts

Telekinesis is not within our power. How can we formulate this fact? Well, it's a bit tricky. The natural way of formulating is to say that no human thought has a physical effect outside the body except through an extra-mental bodily movement (this formulation leaves open the possibility that the mind is a part of the body). However, we can, just by thinking about it, change the positions of needles on gauges on a neural scanner. And if Christians are right, it is possible to pray mentally for a physical effect, and have the physical effect occur by a divine intervention. Moreover, we want to insist that just as one person can't do telekinesis by herself, so too a dozen can't do it together.

One way to handle the neural scanner concern and to extend to the case of multiple agents is to say that whenever human thoughts have a physical effect in virtue of their content, they do so through causing at least one an extra-mental bodily movement. The case of miracles can be handled, perhaps, by adding a qualifier "except for miracles".

Now, suppose that tables, chairs and other artefacts exist. Then, I think, the existence of an artefact depends crucially on what people think: it depends on the intentions of the artificer and what other people plan to use it for. We could imagine a physical object just like a chair but which can survive the loss of all of its legs, because its purpose is quite different from the purposes of a chair. Whether that object exists or whether a chair exists in its place depends on what people made the object for, and/or what they plan to use it for. Likewise, whether one is making a palisade—a single object—or a series of upright pointed sticks tied together depends on one's intentions for the project. If, for instance, one is planning to untie all the sticks and use them as spears as soon as the enemy approaches, then what one has made is a bunch of spears tied together for ease of storage, and one has not made a palisade. Thus, the number of artefacts depends on the contents of our thoughts.

Facts about what artefacts exist depend crucially on the content of what people think. Since many artefacts, including the ones in the above examples, are physical objects outside of human bodies, it follows from the above, that if there really are artefacts, then the contents of thoughts can affect what kinds of and how many physical objects exist outside of human bodies. Moreover, this happens without any miracles, in the ordinary course of things. Hence, if there really are artefacts, there is something very much like telekinesis.

Of course, nobody really thinks there is some miraculous multiplication or aggregation, respectively, of objects when a bunch of spears tied together or a palisade, respective, is made. The reason for that is that we realize, perhaps inconsistently, that artefacts are not real things.

There is a way out of this argument, and this is to assume compositional universalism. But that faces at least one serious problem, as an earlier post has shown.


Enigman said...

I happen to think your premise might be too uncertain, for it to support your conclusion. Some empirical studies have shown that thoughts can directly affect things beyond the thinkers' bodies, for example, and it is not clear that such could only be occurring (if it does) via divine intervention.
Maybe the mind affects the brain via micro-psychokinesis, but can also affect other systems that way; I don't know... The brain would be having an amplifying effect, and the connection with the brain might be primary (e.g. the paranormal effects might only occur when there is some normal perceptual connection)... or something like that; the whole area is rather messy.

Enigman said...

...or what if God had created only a sort of structured gunk, along with our individual souls? That seems quite possible, and yet then there would only be one physical object – the universe - on a view that demanded that objects be serious objects (logical objects?), but that seems like a very unnatural use of the word ‘object’?

Whereas we might expect, language being the tool it is, that our predicates would be for the most part imperfectly definite (such that we could make them more definite if required). And we might think that numbers of objects would naturally depend on our predicates (the number of the Fs clearly depends upon what counts as being F). If so then we should not be that surprised to find the number of objects varying with our thoughts? (although this area is also messy, I find:)

Alexander R Pruss said...

There would still be multiple objects: there would still be us.

I think the possibility that physics might push us in the direction of thinking that the physical universe is one big object is a real one. (But I think such a push should be rejected, because I think each separately identifiable living organism is an object.)

In any case, even if one does not agree that the socially constituted "objects" like tables and chairs are not really objects, a distinction is needed between the objects whose identity is independent of our identification and those whose identity is dependent on our identification.

And, plausibly, there must be some objects whose identity is independent of our identification. For, persons are prior to identifying any objects. It would arguably be circular if persons were dependent on the identification of objects.

Enigman said...

Of course, nobody really thinks there is some miraculous multiplication or aggregation, respectively, of objects when a bunch of spears tied together or a palisade, respective, is made. The reason for that is that we realize, perhaps inconsistently, that artefacts are not real things.

We take 7 spears and tie them together, and we have 7 spears tied together. We do not think that there is an extra object brought into existence - because we are thinking of objects in terms of spears, which we had just been counting. We do think that there is now a bundle of spears. And we certainly don't think that there were 0 objects there, on the grounds that the spears were themselves artifacts...

Enigman said...

Incidentally, I'm reminded of the puzzle about how many triangles there are - e.g. one is asked that question when being shown six black triangles, all pointing upwards and arranged in another triangle (3 at the bottom, 2 in the middle, 1 at the top). I usually think of the number 6 automatically, then add the 3 white trianges between them, and the big triangle they are arranged in.

Then I realise that there are also 3 triangles around each of the white ones. Now, it is not that there are not really any triangles, but that we naturally notice only a few objects (determined pragmatically). Of course, in a pure mathematical sense there were no triangles there (or perhaps infinitely many?), only approximations to them, but I think that the true answer is 13, not 0 (or aleph-one) triangles, because that was clearly what was being asked for.

Anyway, in the sense in which spears are not objects, maybe we are not either. Maybe we are God's artefacts, and there is only one object (God) and it doesn't move (but exists timelessly). But that seems more like poetry than philosophy. And maybe there are a numberlessness of objects, but they are all spacetime points in a proper class of possible worlds (so big because there are no metaphysically serious limits to their possible properties)... Such seriousness does not seem to get us anywhere?