If you have ever fished before, you will know what it looks like (though not how it feels) to be a fish out of water, flopping around helplessly as you drown in the air. It’s one thing that convinced me that fishing is as cruel as hunting, and calling it a sport needlessly turns human beings into callous killers who are unresponsive to the despair of other creatures with which they share the planet. The fact that we can think this way, even if many do not, and hold ourselves responsible for the misery we may cause by our decisions, is a vital aspect of what it means to be human. Yes, I know, other animals can feel distress at the misery of their fellows, and domesticated pets, like dogs, seem to have a second sense to catch the moods and miseries of their masters. But only humans, so far as I know, can think that causing such misery is wrong, something that, if avoidable, ought to be avoided.
As I think about these things the farther and farther I get away from the determinism that seems to underlie many of the theories of human action that seem to be favoured by those who take science as foundational for our understanding of the human, and the more I feel like a fish out of water myself, floundering around with ideas that are foreign to me, and that I find increasingly rebarbative and unintelligible. I also feel that the apparently self-contradictory attempt to empty of significance all the words that refer to our ability to make decisions and in some sense to be the originators of our actions, despite the fact that in explaining this we inevitably use words that are redolent with the same ideas of agency and decision, really represents a sort of floundering of its own. Determinists like Sam Harris think that if we were to “give up” the notion of “free will” and instead think of what we normally think of as actions, originating with us, as merely occurrences in the chain of cause and effect, we would “recognise” a number of things, but especially that the language of responsibility, praise and blame, punishment and reward, is based on nothing more than illusion, and that, by “giving up” these illusions we will, in the end, become more humane, and “create” kinder societies, since we will “see” that people are not really responsible for what they do, for either the “good” or the “bad” things that they do, and that “recognising” this will lead us to “treat” them with more gentleness and consideration.
At the same time, though, we think that “freedom” is a great “value”, that people should be left to make “decisions” about their own lives, that they should not be limited and circumscribed by laws, unless such laws are “designed” merely to make sure that when people are making “decisions” they do not limit the ability of others to do the same. But yet the making of “laws” for “purposes” which we can “entertain”, and thus “control”, by mechanisms “designed” to channel people’s energy in “socially approved” directions, implies the ability to make decisions and to originate acts which the deterministic theory itself seems to deny. Indeed, when you stop to think about it for a moment or two, the whole business of “theory construction” in this connexion and its consequent deployment in “arguments” “designed” to “convince” others by “reasons” is in fact directly contrary to the theory itself, which thus undermines itself. Because there can be no reasons, as such, in such a deterministic world, but simply causes, and if we cannot choose, because choice implies that we are somehow freely able to do so, we cannot really give reasons either, for what are reasons, if they are not meant to provide justification – and not merely a causal theory of why one behaviour occurred instead of another – why one course of action would be preferable to another?
Now, mind you, I don’t know how to argue for the kind of freedom which seems to underlie our language, and perhaps, in the end, the determinists are right, and language is no more than a system of causal triggers that prompt people (well, members of the species H. sapiens sapiens) to respond in certain predictable ways. I do not even know whether we have to have incompatibilist and not merely compatibilist free will, though I tend to agree with Derek Parfit that only the latter is necessary for morality (see On What Matters, vol I, 258-263). (I want to stress, lest I be misunderstood in what follows, that, when I speak of determinism, I am speaking of the kind of determinism that does not even provide room for compatibilist free will or free choice, something that, in fact, simply makes no sense to me.) But when an individual instance of this species “argues” that this is all that there is — that is, that “we” are deterministic systems through and through, merely skin bags of molecules that are in some sense higher level billiard balls in complicated causal interaction with their environment — no “reasons” can be thought to be being “given” for “believing” that the world is composed in such and such a manner. On this bare bones determinism all that the language of “argument” can contain are stimulus patterns “designed” to evoke particular responses.
When I consider things in this way, I have a deeper appreciation for Alvin Plantinga’s argument that naturalism defeats itself, something that I had always thought of as a piece of scholastic mummery. But when you realise how many words need to be put in scare-quotes when trying to express a purely physicalist theory of mind, it seems that self-defeat cannot be far away. For, on the naturalistic assumption, how do you speak in terms of knowledge, reasons, and justification — all those words that imply rational control of the contents of one’s mind — without subverting the determinism that underlies it? While I have not read Plantinga’s argument recently, it seems clear, not that Plantinga wants to deny that we can know things, and that we can confirm them by theory construction and confirmation, but that this ability implies what determinism denies, namely that we do have these abilities to give rational consideration to our beliefs, and to hold them for reasons rather than just because these “beliefs” have been caused by circumstances in the world beyond our control. Of course, I do not want simply to deny that compatiblist free will is also an acceptance of determinism, whilst permitting scope for the notion of free choices and decisions. But I find I cannot make sense of any of the words that apply to our knowledge and understanding without there being some sense in which we can be said freely to decide, based on reason and evidence. And if what we are calling reason and evidence consists merely links in a causal chain, then the question arises why we should call the result of all this ‘knowledge’.
Of course, the other side of this is just to say that the process works. Scientific “method” works by weeding out theories that simply do not work, so the outcome of the sifting process of theory construction, confirmation or falsification, and further theory construction, confirmation or falsification, iterated endlessly, must at least reflect what is “really” “out there” in the world, and therefore our brain contents can be said to be in some correspondence with the way things really are. Now, while I haven’t thought this through, it seems to me that the problem is more serious than the determinist can admit. Perhaps that is a result of causative factors too; but it is more likely the result of a failure to consider the implications of the language being used. Since the determinist has problems with the whole idea of believing things for reasons (even though some of them apparently cannot see this) – reasons being different than causes, just as the knee-jerk reflex is different from the act of kicking a football through the goal posts — all the naturalistic determinist has to go on are the causative factors behind the occurrence of beliefs. But how do you speak intelligibly about such causative factors if the language of causation goes all the way down as well as all the way up?
It is considerations such as this that leads me to think that Tom Nagel has much more reason on his side in his recent book Mind and Cosmos than many seem prepared to allow. Of course, he is wrong, I believe, about evolution, and expresses in his subtitle more than his concerns give him a right to claim, but he has, nevertheless, put a question to the naturalistic programme that needs to be answered. So long as we abstract from mind, as science learned in the 16th and 17th centuries to do, there is nothing to hold up the progress of scientific discovery. The problem with science up to the point when the scientific revolution kicked in, is that the scientist began, as Descartes did, with human consciousness; and if you layer the physical world with human consciousness you end up with a hodgepodge which is neither beast nor fowl. Colour the world with feeling, and with the emotional cathexis that various items in the sensory field have for the individual, and science can get nowhere, for it all ends up being about human beings, and in order to find out about the physical world you have to shed all your human responses to things, and merely become a mirror which reflects the world from any point of view (the view from nowhere, as Nagel calls it) – which goes a long way towards explaining Leibniz’s monads, or the objects of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus. This was the problem, as Koestler saw in his history of early scientific cosmology, The Sleepwalkers. Kepler, for example, could not separate his cosmological theories from Platonic ideas of the five perfect solids. Even when he realised that the planets orbited the sun in ellipses, and that his observations did not confirm his preconceptions, he still struggled to fit them into ancient metaphysical schemata.
However, if we continue to abstract from mind in dealing with mind itself, then we are likely to be faced with the opposite problem, of trying to fit mental language into the language of physics, even when it does not fit. So when Nagel argues that “the materialist neo-Darwinian conception of nature is almost certainly false” (the subtitle of his book Mind and Cosmos) he is arguing, not that physics is wrong about the physical world, but that extending that paradigm to the description of the nature of mind is simply wrong — almost certainly false, as he puts it — a point that he puts fairly clearly in the following words:
What this means is that if we hope to include the human mind in the natural order, we have to explain not only consciousness as it enters into perception, emotion, desire, and aversion but also the conscious control of belief and conduct in response to the awareness of reasons—the avoidance of inconsistency, the subsumption of particular cases under general principles, the confirmation or disconfirmation of general principles by particular observations, and so forth. This is what it is to allow oneself to be guided by the objective truth, rather than just by one’s impressions. It is a kind of freedom—the freedom that reflective consciousness gives us from the rule of innate perceptual and motivational dispositions together with conditioning. Rational creatures can step back from these influences and try to make up their own minds. [Mind and Cosmos, 84]
I find myself agreeing with him, because I cannot see, either, how we can allow for all the language that I have placed in scare-quotes above without acknowledging that it provides us with a “kind of freedom,” as Nagel puts it with restraint.
I think I’ll leave it at that, except to add that I had begun this post thinking that I would speak about how like a fish out of water I felt having transferred my blog from a free-standing one to one associated with Free Thought Blogs. I was going along quite nicely by myself, and finding some modest reward in feeling that I was speaking to a group of people — not large, but not exiguous either — who were at least sometimes on the same wavelength with me. What it allowed me to do was to explore ideas that were important to me, and to develop them either fully or only in part, as I was moved to do so. I guess I never did work well as the member of a group. In the church I was either ultra-orthodox Anglo-Catholic, and thus a thorn in the flesh of those who wanted to see the church move gradually into modernity, or, after Elizabeth and I met and married, ultra-radical, and thus a thorn in the flesh of practically everyone, though someone who attracted a small amount of support for a conception of Christianity that was, in some sense, godless, whilst it retained the trappings of tradition that formed a narrative basis for godless living.
So, moving into a group context, such as Free Thought Blogs, has raised all the ghosts that I thought had been firmly laid — something that has brought me face to face, in a way that I would have rather not have happened, with the loneliness at the heart of my life since Elizabeth died. It was this floundering that I set out to explore with you here, and then found myself thematising it through my disagreement with the kind of determinism that seems to be regnant right now in the new atheist community, a determinism that has a tendency to isolate me more and more. For I cannot see my life through that lens (especially the kind of lens that denies even compatibilist free will). It is simply inaccessible to me. People talk about determinism, and that simply distorts everything that I thought was important about both my relationship with a remarkable young woman, but about that woman herself, who shaped and fashioned a life so deliberately and with such care that her distinctiveness was unmistakable, and the richness of her personality made such a vital contribution to my own life and to the lives of others who came into contact with her. Yesterday, this sense of floundering around in a reckless world of gales, completely out of my element, came to a focus, and led me almost to despair. I even thought — and this may yet happen — that it was perhaps time for me to bid blogging adieu. Time will tell. But whatever happens, it will be because I have reasons to do something, not because I was tossed willy-nilly into the maelstrom of causation over which I have no control at all. Like a fish out of water I may be, but my floundering is to some purpose, and that came out in what I have written. My present sense of disorientation is not just the product of causative factors over which I exercise no control, a view which, I think, simply trivialises the human, and, as I think about this process of trivialisation, I can understand why religious people respond with such horrified disbelief to the desiccated world that this deterministic view of the mind seems to provide. This aspect of Nagel’s critique of naturalism seems to me undoubtedly right, and I wonder why scientists, who benefit from abstraction from the human, should then turn their sights back on the human and try to apply the same abstraction to the human, the same abstraction from the human which allowed them to explore the natural world so successfully, which, by applying it to the human, threatens to undercut the very human creativity and control which is exemplified so fully in the scientific endeavour.