What moved the pawn? The philosophy of physical dualism

© 2002 Graham Little

This paper is not to be read in isolation and takes as the fundamental backdrop the prior papers at this site.


The debate over the existence of ideas has raged for centuries with one of the key issues being how an idea (a metaphysical object) could move something (a pawn, a physical object). The ontology that claimed there were only physical things was called physicalism, and claimed that only physical things could move physical things, all causality was physical, and often suggested also of close proximity. The problem with physicalism is that it intuitively seems to miss the point that I have ideas and they seem to shape what I do, also physicalism does not cope well with issues of thinking, creativity, free will and choice. The philosophy that argued for the existence of ideas was called dualism. The problems with dualism being any understanding of how one could legitimately say that ideas are causal in the universe, what are the causal precedents, with this question itself raising many questions on the very nature of cause, with the analysis of cause frequently leaning back toward physicalism, namely that physical objects are needed to move physical objects and that for cause to be effective the objects need to be contiguous. The situation as outlined above requires several issues be resolved at once.

Resolution of the issues

The papers at this site offer a solution by clarifying what it is we mean and what must necessarily be involved when we discuss cause. As a species, our great strength is we conceptualize, and be systematic analysis of the process of conceptualization there emerges clear definition of cause, and what there must be for the term to be valid. Cause is the relation between classes of relation between classes of events. Using the W Ross Ashby system of immediate and ultimate effects to model conceptualization, then cause is set of immediate effects that underlie any and all ultimate effects.

The foundation of knowledge

The fundamental hypothesis that underlies knowledge and understanding of the universe can be summarized: there are no "ultimate" immediate effects. That is, no matter how convincing the data, no matter how convincing the hypothesis, and no matter how certain our belief, there is no set of immediate effects within the universe that is not a set of ultimate effects. There is no fundamental base to knowledge. This is summarized in the adage; there is always a mechanism. In more formal terms this is stated as follows. If Aè B denotes a correlation of the universe, that is a set of events E (A) and E (B), that occur with such regularity and similarity as to be classified A and B; for example, the sun rising and setting. And if Aè /mè B denotes there is no mechanism operative between A, B. And if Aè c/è B denotes there is no communication channel between A, B. Then: there exists no A, B such that Aè /mè B, or Aè c/è B or both are ever valid. I call this the universal mechanistic postulate; more simply put, there is always a mechanism. The fact that events seem, to us, to occur without a mechanism or in ways we cannot or are unable to conceive is a statement about our ignorance, more precisely a statement about 'what we left behind' when we classified the events used to explain the system. The rule of relations is the limiting factor in the application of this hypothesis, the rule states that for there to be a relation between two events then each event must be independently discernable. If the two events cannot be discerned separately, then there are not two events, and if not, then there can hardly be a relation between them. In fact, events are described as observer dependent and in part defined by the observer. Nonetheless, the hypothesis is not tautological, and does describe a fundamental limit of understanding. Imagine the accelerator and front wheels of a front wheel drive motor vehicle. Now imagine abstracting the relation between the front wheels and the accelerator, we can do this because we can clearly ‘see’ what it is we in fact leave behind, the rest of the vehicle, so we can ‘see’ the relation the ‘front wheel/accelerator’ system makes with the vehicle. We can do the same with the roots of a tree and leaves receiving nutrients, in regard the tree as a whole, etc. I simply argue that all knowledge is of this character.

Cause as a collection of circumstance

This is a quite different definition than any previous, for it defines cause as a description of the mechanism of any event. This is precisely a description of ‘how?’ The question of ‘why?’ remains valid, the ‘how?’ is part of the fundamental description of the static mechanism, the ‘why?’ is an aspect of the dynamic of the system. The ‘how?’ is described by the relations between the system of variables, the description of the mechanisms whereby A becomes B. But as to why this A, this particular A becomes this B, this particular B is a function of the ‘how?’ in conjunction with the values of the variables under these exact circumstances. The question of ‘why?’ then reduces to ‘why these values for these variables, now?’ Because the answers to the ‘how?’ question means that if these values arise then B is a consequence, the system does not have a choice. What does this mean for cause, and for ultimate cause? The why of any event is necessarily traced back to proceeding events, the why of proceeding events necessarily traced back to yet preceding events. The answer to the ‘why?’ question necessarily invoking an ultimate regress. Eventually, the effect of historical events identified as contributing to the ‘why?’ of any event become so removed, and their connection so detached, as to no longer being seen as making an effective contribution to our understanding of ‘why?’ In short, we can only ever know sufficient cause that is the analysis of the most significant of the events leading to the events under investigation. Ultimate cause as a matter of principle is forever beyond our grasp. What does this do for cause in the everyday, sometime humdrum of our existence, cause in the real everyday world becomes a collection of circumstance, a collision of events, with at times devastating consequences, if only I had left home five minutes later or earlier, and if only I had not stopped to get the paper, then the car that hit me would not have… This model of cause, as collections of circumstance is quite in keeping with what is in fact experienced every day.

How does this resolve the issues?

The analysis has cause as a conceptual relation between ultimate and immediate effects. Cause is no longer linear. To understand the ‘causal elements’ in some situation we must identify the variables, understand the conceptual level to which they belong, create ultimate effects affording descriptive explanation, then rank the systems of ultimate effects into hierarchies affording ultimate/immediate effects relations among the descriptive explanations. The cause at one level is then the system of explanations at lower levels in the conceptual hierarchy, and note, all lower levels are implicated, although it may not worthwhile to track back past a certain point in order for us to understand the all cause, both ‘how?’ and ‘why?’ to a degree or level sufficient for our purposes. When this is done as regards human affairs, then the diagrams and explanations offered at this site are the consequence, and these diagrams then contain the describe the ‘cause’ of all human conduct, thought and feeling, all that is human is thus causally described.

Ideas as causal in human affairs

One of the variables in the systems describing human affairs is Thought, defined as that available to attention and distinct from emotions. Thought comes to us as understanding, whereas emotions come to us as sensations, more aligned to sensations and senses than to understanding and description. Within the model there is no necessary structure to Thought, there is no necessary ranking to objects that might be classified beliefs, concepts, values, or ideas, all have the same ranking and bear the same relation to the remainder of the descriptive system. Variations between individuals as regard these factors lies not in the theory but in the values ascribed within the system that describes that person, it is the singular values that are unique and so describe how the person is affected by this value or that belief, such things have no general or generic ranking within the theory and that which is a deeply held belief for one, may be humorous mythology for another. General propositions can and do emerge from the theory and the causal explanations. First among them is the proposition Ideasè behavior. Within the epistemology as developed at the site, and within this discussion this is a valid and extremely important statement, it says that ideas are ultimate effects as regards behavior. Ideas can and do effect behavior, but within the system of epistemology the limitations of this statement are equally important, it does not say that an ‘idea’ (metaphysical) moved or in any other way in and of itself resulted in the action of a physical object (behavior). The arrow between the idea and behavior describes a communication channel, the mechanism whereby one affected the other. The arrow states the direction of the affect, and the reverse cannot be assumed but established independently. The cause of the proposition above is found in the immediate effect linkages that underlie this statement, but this statement is itself an immediate effect of yet higher order descriptions and so can be said to be a causal statement. Ideas cause behavior is thus a proper and valid statement within this theory, but must be understood in relation to the full and complete development of the theory, if prior, naive conceptions of cause are adopted, then the statement is not valid, for ideas (metaphysical) have no inherent mechanism whereby they can result in the movement or change in a physical object.

Physical dualism

The philosophy develops the notion of dualism, that there are metaphysical things, that is there are ideas, and they are causal, but at the same time rigorously defines the conceptual structures of cause and what causal statements conceptually must be and what they cannot be. Physical things move physical things, but metaphysical things are available to consciousness, they can and do shape choices, and do provide the basis of free will. To sum this complexity I have coined the phrase physical dualism to summarize the philosophy. And what moved the pawn? If deliberate, I did. If inadvertent, then chance raised to determinism by my casual, inattentive, inaccurate movements. And would you necessarily know the difference?

What happens when I see?

There is a system of neurons in the brain that are able to interact with photons in such a way as to reconstruct an image of the universe. It is important to understand that this is a physical mechanism. Photons do not carry information; they merely have properties, these properties able to interact with our neural system to create the image. Perception is an observer specific process at this most fundamental level. The visual image is created in the brain; it is part of ‘us’. The separation of ‘I’ from ‘what I am seeing’, introduces the construction of ‘I’. The following notes are reproduced from the paper on a general theory of psychology.

The nature of self and importance of ‘I’

‘I’ is an important object of thought. ‘I’ is that attending. We are not aware of neural functioning, only the consequence of that functioning. A schematic of ‘I’ is shown below, and notes as follows.  

Who watches the watcher?

A traditional objection to ‘I’ observing what ‘I’ see was the problem of the homunculus, that is if that is the process for ‘I’, where is the little person within ‘I’ (the homunculus) who sees the image within ‘I’, and so on, there being an infinite regress. The fundamental diagram offering the explanation of our psychology is diagram 6 as below.

The diagram is fully discussed in Paper 5: Why we do what we do, and the preceding papers on knowledge provide the understanding of nature of the variables and arrows. The diagram is a causal description in relation to higher-level diagrams in the conceptual scheme of things. The previous diagram in this paper, diagram 8 is embedded within this diagram, being an aspect of it. Our visual neurons are part of the ‘reacting part’, RP in the diagram; the existing links of any image with other parts of the brain or nervous system being represented in the brain structures, BS above. In some particular situation we could have the following.

  1. We could be seeing some image, involving RP1 and PP4.
  2. In RP1 we are attending to some part of the image, the rest is ‘there’ (RP4, but not being attended to.
  3. RP2 may involve aspect of our knowledge of the image we are attending to, so implicates memory and our understanding of what it is we are observing and attending to.
  4. RP3 may involve previous similar experiences, may be good may be bad.
  5. RP5 may involve a similar experience in early childhood of which we have no memory; the mental set (RP5) involves no Thought (Th) or Emotion (Em), it merely influences the range of structures invoked with the image (the energy flows).
  6. We can chose to conceptualize what is happening within ourselves, which would be the recreation of the main aspects of diagram 8 within the diagram 6 above, or at least the conceptualization of the elements implicated with the image and our choosing to observe the part in RP1, and no other. If we did that, then we would have a situation where ‘I’ was seeing the image and attending to the RP1 part of it, and ‘I’ was also aware of what ‘I’ am doing and observing.
  7. Diagram 8 above may be currently active only as the kernel in RP6. Our self-concept is active only in triggering some emotions in this situation, and depending on our level of self-understanding, we may be able to become aware of RP6, or we may not. If not, then RP6 will remain as is in this situation until is integrated it into the full diagram represented by diagram 8 above. In this instance, merely ‘seeing’ ourselves watching RP1, would not involve RP6, since we do not understand RP6 in relation to diagram 8 and our overall self-concept.
  8. But is there not an ‘I’? The sense of unity of conscious is an experiential thing, even if attention spread and split we do not sense ‘I’ being split, it is just that ‘I’ is doing several things, but the conceptual explanation of ‘I’ is not a unity, with diagram 8 best being thought of as a program, constantly running in the background, dependent on our self-understanding including only those elements we understand, sometimes coming to the fore, but more often not, but it is always there and can be bought to the fore whenever we choose.

What happens when I want to move?

  1. I know the bridge is washed out, so how do I decide to go the other way home.
  2. I have just been told of the bridge, so it is not habit.
  3. I understand all the implications of the bridge being washed out, I can ‘see’ the consequences if I try to go that way home.
  4. I also know of the other route. I can see it on the ‘scratch pad’ of consciousness. So the question of action is ‘how do I make that happen?’
  5. I also know the sequence: I see myself going to the car, getting in and getting started, I know how to turn left – the usual route is right – so I can see it, and can imagine it, and I know I can make it happen.
  6. When I get to the fork, I usually go right, my reaction is to go right, but I stop it, and turn left. But, I had to attend to what I was doing, for if left to reactions and habits I would have gone right. ‘I’ MADE the left turn.
  7. Without deeply ingrained habit of this nature we would have to attend carefully to every movement. Attention capacity is limited, so having to attend to this level of detail would disable the ability to attend to the broader picture.
    1. For example, trying to thread the eye of a 16-size hook while walking along a rocky river bank.
  8. Pre-potentials are the body preparing itself to act. They could arise in several ways.
    1. Searching for a state, say ‘move left arm’. I know how to do this from the years spent learning how to do it as a child and infant.
    2. Conceptualization of a new action, where the first act is ‘move left arm’.
    3. Completing habituated actions the ‘body’ knows the next act is to ‘move left arm’. Here the term ‘know’ is used in a very general and broad sense, it means that the next likely par of the sequence is to move left arm, but this is not guaranteed, and may not occur, but the ‘system’ of neurons is ready for that to occur.

What happens when I want to do something I have not previously learned?

Silly as it sounds to say, it is fundamental: we cannot do things we do not know how to do. So, what does this mean? It means that if faced with something we do not know how to do, we can and do approximate. We know how to move out left arm. Along with many, many other actions. We acquired this understanding via our childhood and experiences with ourselves; this resulted in a system of ‘responses’, which we can largely control. The term ‘largely’ means that other factors have an influence, so it is not fully under conscious control and will not directly and precisely obey our conscious demand. In physical terms this means that all activities in the brain and nervous system have the potential to affect what happens. If I do not know or have not yet precisely learned, then in the first instance we can and will approximate. Practice then refines this to make it better and better. It gives support to the proposition that it is not practice that makes perfect, only perfect practice. Where the skill involves actions we do not have, where pre-existing habituated actions will not provide the base, then we must break down the skill into components that we can adopt and learn and build the complete skill from there. If the complete skill involves issues of judgment, of a broader nature, then we will not acquire proficiency with the overall skill until such time as we have built the physical skill into our neural networks and are able to depend on them allowing our attention to focus on any issue of subtlety and judgment. Learning to play music to a high level of competence involves just such circumstances.

How do I know how to move my left arm?

When born, the baby does not know, it merely has the potential to move the arm, but that is not regulated or coordinated, it is random. Our long learning as infants enables us much learning experience, a core essential of this devoted to learning how we move what. We know, and by age 8 or 10 we know quite well, at least in the majority of infants. During the early learning, we have to concentrate, we know and we know we know, but we are not able to take it for granted. By adult, the habit is well developed, and its control by consciousness well developed, so that I ‘know’ how to move my left arm. I have no nerves that tell me of the states of the neurons, I sense the internal state, and get the feedback from the arm moving as I want or not. I then work at refining the internal state so that I get the movement I want. An example would be learning to hit a golf ball and produce the degree of slice desired: it demands being able to picture it in the mind, to understand the swing and impact, and then to be able to translate that into the actual swing. Hitting the golf slice desired is quite difficult, and it is not normally possible while having a complex conversation, it requires all of attention to get this right. I know how to move my left arm because during childhood that is one of the things I learned to do. If I do not learn it then, then I cannot do it as an adult. I cannot do what I cannot do: simple and silly as it sounds, it is true.

What has this got to do with physical dualism?

With the learning of core action skills, and with our ability to imagine things, like new actions that get the result better or faster or sooner, etc, then we can ‘see’ how to do something in the face of new challenges or dangers. The fundamentals of our habituated skills can be applied to new situations where we can see how a sequence of those things we know we can do will lead to a new overall result. Our minds ‘see’ and ‘imagine’, part of which is our ability to ‘see and imagine’ action sequences consisting of things we know we can do. So, we do each step in the sequence, and ‘more or less get it right’, with practice, the steps become refined and smoother, and the ragged initial action becomes the smooth flow of the skilled practitioner. Within this: the mind sees ideas, but the translation of those ideas into action is via pre-existing neural structures and it is physical things moving physical things, although the overall guiding framework is the good ideas of how to do it better.


What moved the pawn? I did, in relation to the overall strategy for the game, and I did not have to think about how to move it, only focus on whether or not that was the best move. But my moving the pawn with the ease of habit and instinct was not possible unless I knew and had learned how to move my left arm, since it was my left arm that picked it up and put it down in the new place. I moved the pawn for reasons of strategy, the act of moving being a core nested skill that enabled me to attend to playing the game.