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Throwing Baseballs, Causation, Quanta and Neurons
June 23, 2021
by William P. Meyers

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How do you explain complex things?

"My guess it shares a flaw with many other philosophical thought-experiments: too much thought and not enough experiment." — Patricia S. Churchland, Neurophilosophy, p. 369

As far as I know, the two most confusing things in the Universe are the human brain and the human mind. Clearly the mind and brain have a relationship to each other, but nailing down that relationship, in understandable detail, continues to elude us despite advances in psychiatry, psychology, and neurology.

Consider a baseball. Simple enough, right? With a mass of just over 5 oz, or about 145 grams, it contains a number of atoms that is hard to guess (since the exact ratio of the elements in the materials (cork, leather, thread) varies). The number can be written out, but is beyond normal human comprehension. But if you did know the number of molecules, and assumed they average out to the complexity of carbon atoms, you could calculate the number of neutrons, protons, and electrons in the baseball. Now, suppose we really want to understand the baseball. Then the quantum physics of each neutron, proton, and electron, and all their interactions with each other, would need to be calculated. Those are very complex calculations for each particle, often involving infinities. So with a supercomputer you could calculate the quantum probabilities of a few of the atoms. With all the supercomputers in the world, you could not specify the state of a single baseball.

And yet, somehow, perhaps with a little practice, almost anyone can throw a baseball well enough to get it in the strike zone, at least a fair percentage of the time.

Baseball's history is strangely parallel to the history of atomic and quantum physics. It developed from earlier games, but first reached a modernish form in the 1830s. When the first professional leagues formed, in the 1870s, Maxwell's equations of electromagnetism were first becoming popular. By 1900, when Max Planck shared the first quantum postulate, most modern rules of baseball were in place. In 1925 when modern quantum physics was born with wave mechanics and matrix mechanics, baseball was in its golden age, from which we may tell of the remarkable player Babe Ruth.

Yet quantum physics has had no impact on baseball as a game. All that quantum physics going on inside the baseball does not affect its trajectory when moving through the air. Physics developed in earlier eras does affect a ball: friction with the air, inertia, spin, etc. In fact, you cannot predict the position of an atom in a thrown baseball with quantum physics calculations. You need to know the ordinary velocity of the baseball and the extent to which its ordinary surroundings could change its trajectory, like whether Babe Ruth is at bat, or some 6 year old just learning to swing.

With this analogy firmly in mind, let us wade (once again) into the mind-body problem. Based on my total knowledge of the world, I have no doubt that as I write this essay neurons and their synapses are functioning in my brain to produce the thoughts that are embodied in my finger muscles, the downward acceleration of keyboard keys, and the electronic codes that will show up (after posting) on this (coming) web page.

I seem to be in control of my own mind, but how exactly my memories interact to produce this or anything else I write remains a bit of a mystery. Well, quite the mystery. The best current theory is that memories are stored in neural synapses, and as neural impulses flow around my brain they are modulated by the memory synapses in such a way as to produce coherent language, whether I speak it or type it.

People tend to confuse levels of organization with causation. Once they settle on a level of organization as the causal level, they tend to ignore causes at higher levels. This leads to a great deal of confusion in discussing the mind-body problem of philosophy, the relationship between neurology and psychology, certain types of physical causation, and certainly sociological causes. Being careful with language, thinking, and analysis is crucial to understanding complex systems with multiple levels of organization that might be causal in varying circumstances.

So is thinking caused by neurons? As Wittgenstein might say, this sentence itself can cause mistakes. I would say that neurons are required for thinking and participate in thinking. But if a catcher signals a pitcher to pitch a curve ball, what neurons can be said to cause the pitcher to send the right neural impulses to his muscles to throw the curve ball? If I memorized something as a school child, and another person says the first part of the phrase, and I join in the second part of the phrase, and we both laugh, did one or more of my neurons or synapses cause that? Almost everything I do is in reaction to other humans. Are their neurons and synapses my causes?

I believe some day humans, or at least some humans, will have a far better understanding of the human mind and its physical basis in the brain. That will require considerable work. The work should be informed by a helpful philosophical analysis.

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