A Contemporary Defense of the Good
In spite of the modern rejection of a natural ethics as presented in the previous post, theologian John Haught argues for a morality rooted in nature. Haught argues that for us to connect our moral life to the natural world, we would have to “…discern in the cosmic process some general aim or purposiveness with which our own life might be morally aligned” (God After Darwin, 126). In the ancient and medieval worldviews of Aristotle and St Thomas, the connection between nature and ethics appeared to be obvious. Every natural creature as well as every human ethical act could be understood in terms of seeking an end or fulfillment.
But Haught contends that in spite of the apparent chasm between nature and human ethical striving, we can develop a metaphysics, compatible with science, that presents the cosmos with meaningfulness coinciding with human striving. For this purpose he draws on the “process theology” that stems from the metaphysics of Alfred North Whitehead.
Haught acknowledge that the ruthlessness in nature seems to exclude the possibility of some overarching purpose in the universe. He mentions that most theologians attempted to find meaning in human experience in spite of the meaninglessness of the non-human natural world. But Haught credits Whitehead for developing a cosmology that unites our human striving with the whole history of the universe. Haught contends that Whitehead’s philosophy and the process theology that flowed from it perceives the universe as a process in which all the contrasting and conflicting occasions merge into harmony of contrasts that expresses an intense cosmic beauty.
The shaping of the universe expresses an “aesthetic cosmological principle” by which the elements are being brought into harmony. This idea is different from what some have called the “anthropic cosmological principle,” which sees the whole universe as leading toward the emergence of the human race. The aesthetic principle sees the whole process as leading to the production of beauty of which the emergence of humanity constitutes an aspect. As Haught phrases it, the emergent beauty that stands out in our terrestrial experience is “…the emergence of life, subjectivity, freedom, consciousness, and community” (128). As the universe grows in complexity, it most probably grows in consciousness, not only on earth, but throughout the universe.
The correspondence of complexity and consciousness was be taken up in earlier posts on consciousness (July 7- September 6, 2018.) In this current post I am contending that good can be seen beneath what appears as an overwhelming evil in the physical world.
The point that I tried to make earlier, is that good consists in the fulfillment of the aesthetic principle. Consciousness slowly becomes embodied in nature. The process happens all too slowly in terms of a human life span, but it is happening. This embodiment of consciousness presents itself to us most obviously in the physical and cultural evolution of the human species.
As stated in the earlier posts, consciousness while the most universal and familiar of topic, eludes attempts to provide analytical understanding. Yet, consciousness stands out as the most essential condition for anything that we might call good. Materialism reduces consciousness and therefore all good, to an accidental product of blind, indifferent, unconsciousness physical events. But my thesis affirms the reasonableness of holding that consciousness precedes the evolution of the human brain, which becomes a channel of consciousness. If this view, as opposed to the materialist view is correct, then goodness is real and the meaning of our life consists of promoting that which is good aesthetically and ethically
In the following posts I will strive to show what the priority of consciousness has to do with Biblical religion, how it can also provide meaning for those without religion, and how it enhances our understanding of environmental ethics, economic, and social ethics.
The undermining of a providentially ordered universe and where we stand today.
In the nineteenth century, many social economic and cultural events undermined the
notion of a world that is providentially ordered. The most important event philosophically was probably the publication of Darwin’s Origen of Species (1859), which not only led many thinkers to the notion that there was no need to posit a God-Creator, but that the brutality of the process is incompatible with such a God.
A post-Darwin natural morality emerged with a theme of “survival of the fittest.” Herbert Spencer, who coined the term, applied it not only to Darwin’s biological natural selection, but also to economic and social policy, an idea that came to be known as “Social Darwinism.” Industrialist, Andrew Carnegie, expressed his debt to Darwin and Spencer for providing an ethical and philosophical background for his industrialization and the harsh living conditions that accompanied it. Carnegie justified any harm done to people and to the environment by trusting that “All is well since all gets better.” The optimistic thinking of the Enlightenment was not abandoned, it was just projected into the future.
The social reformers who saw the need to reverse the fortunes of the working class believed that they had to act contrary to the principle of natural selection. They believed that rather than live by the “law of the jungle,” our humanity required us to take care of the weak and the poor. Rather than follow a “natural law,” morality involves acting in spite of nature, or even against nature.
Two examples, one from the late 19th century and the other from the late 20th century illustrate the divorce of morality from nature in the wake of Darwin. The first is William James, who referring not to a natural morality, but to a natural spirituality, said that such a thing is impossible. The romantic view of nature that flourished in the 18th century is built on an illusion. In his lecture, “Is Life Worth Living,” he emphasized the role of religion in an affirmative answer to the title question. But he agreed with those who held that “the physical order of nature, taken simply as science knows it, cannot be held to reveal any one harmonious spiritual intent. It is mere weather…doing and undoing without end.” James, whose background was scientific biology and psychology, asserted that “Our science is a drop, our ignorance a sea.” As an interesting aside, James loved nature, and hiking and camping were among his favorite activities.
Morality requires some degree of spirituality since free will cannot exist without some independence of the mind from the brain. In James’s one essay on moral theory, “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life,” he explicitly rejects the notion that we can find the good in the nature of things. Rather, the good is simply what conscious beings, human or divine, claim to be good. Therefore, the highest good is to create a moral universe, or as he also calls it, a moral republic, in which as many claims as possible can be satisfied. In James’s pluralistic view, we may try to connect as many things as possible, but some things will remain unconnected. When the material world perishes, as it ultimately must, we may hope for salvation in a non-material realm.
The second example of divorcing morality from nature is Richard Dawkins, an uncompromising atheist and materialist, who nevertheless holds that we can create morality by opposing nature. In his 1976 book, The Selfish Gene, he argues that all living things are disposed to preserve, not their own individual life, but the genes that they carry. In the process of natural selection, the only genes that survive in the long run are those that direct their hosts to replicate themselves. So if parents, of any species, sacrifice themselves for the sake of their offspring, their genes will survive. The genes of parents, or potential parents, who do not care about their offspring, will die with the individual organisms. So every organism that has survived so far has a strong inclination to pass on its genes. But human beings alone have the ability to act contrary to the “selfish gene.” As was stated in an earlier post, we may act contrary to the natural inclination to preserve our genes out of either individual selfishness, or out of an altruistic care for those who are not in our genetic line. Much moral thinking after Darwin holds that if the good exists at all, we can find it or create it only apart from nature or even contrary to nature.
John Haught, however, argues for a morality rooted in nature. Haught argues that for us to connect our moral life to the natural world, we would have to “…discern in the cosmic process some general aim or purposiveness with which our own life might be morally aligned.” In ancient and medieval worldviews of Aristotle and St Thomas, the connection between nature and ethics appeared to be obvious. Every natural creature as well as every human ethical act could be understood in terms of seeking an end or fulfillment. But Haught contends that in spite of the apparent chasm between nature and human ethical striving, we can develop a metaphysics, compatible with science, and that presents the cosmos with meaningfulness coinciding with human striving.
In my next post I will try to explain Haught’s reconstruction of a natural ethics.
The undermining of a providentially ordered universe and where we stand today. In the nineteenth century, many social economic and cultural events undermined the notion of a world that is providentially ordered. The most important e
Chaos as the Default Mode
Building on John Haught’s insights, as presented in the previous post, I offer a variation on the theme of creation and chaos by affirming that if there is a God-Creator, He does not need to create chaos; chaos is the default mode that exhibits lack of creation. If God is a perfect being, all-in-harmony, then nothingness is all-in-division, complete chaos and disorder.
My description rests on the assumption that “nothingness” remains unthinkable. But if we can imagine nothingness and creation ex nihilo, the first stage of creation would be all-in-division. The process of world-formation would consist first of drawing the most elemental particles into more harmonious configurations such as atoms, then molecules. Once life begins, the story becomes much more interesting, at least for us living creatures on earth.
Atheists, as described in an earlier post, see the ten billion years from the big bang to the beginning of life on earth, and the 3.5 billion years from the beginning of life to emergence of human scientists, as a prodigal waste of time, and evidence that there is no creative intelligence at work. But during this time the heavy elements such as carbon formed in stars and exploded and scattered throughout the universe. These explosions produced the earth with all of the right stuff to allow life to begin.
In both physical and biological evolution two factors oppose each other. The opposing forces include the tendency toward cooperation that accounts for molecules, then cells, ultimately organisms working together to sustain life. But countering the move toward cooperation we find the competitive tendency to see the other as an enemy to be avoided or destroyed.
On the level of inert matter, the elements appear to be impenetrable and repel each other. But they also form bonds and become parts of more complex atoms and molecules. At the level of life on earth, organisms fight to the death for survival, but also form symbiotic communities and develop in complexity. In biological evolution two factors oppose each other. We can see this dual tendency from the most fundamental particles up to and including human society.
Inert matter is impenetrable; organisms fight to the death for survival. The conflict takes place between the original nothingness, the all-in-division, from which beings are called and the harmony to which they are called. The tragic irony consist in the fact that the more reality and integration that an entity has, the more destructive it can be in its pursuit of self-preservation. So the process from non-being to being exhibits the best and the worst.
In the preceding paragraphs I used some problematic phrases such as: “drawing the most elemental particles into more harmonious configurations,” “the harmony to which (beings) are called,” and “pursuit of self-preservation.” These expressions constitute anthropomorphic metaphors, and as I pointed out earlier, materialists also use such metaphors. As Hawking and Mlodinow say of their own work, it makes use of “model-dependent realism.” Whatever view we have of reality, it must be filtered and formulated by human understanding and language. The “inner” working of non-sentient entities remains hidden from us. Even within our conscious life we do not understand the movement of the impulses on which our consciousness depends, for example the impulse that travels from our conscious choice to type a word to the movement of our fingers on the keyboard. Physiologists can explain the movements from the brain to the fingers, but only from the “outside”
Randomness occurs in the firing of neurons in our brain and nervous system but unless we suffer from a debilitating disease, we are able to harness the neuron-firing enough to move meaningfully through life. A materialist might counter that the consciousness is a mere by-product of the neuro-physiological events rather than a power that causes or even directs the impulses. Some refer to consciousness as an “epi-phenomenon” meaning that, in Bertrand Russell’s analogy, consciousness can no more move the nerves than the smoke from the chimney of a locomotive can move the train. The only advantage that this theory has going for it is its ability to maintain the materialist world-view. But even Leonard Mlodinow, in a book emphasizing the predominance of randomness in determining the outcome of whatever happens in life, affirms the ability to put forth effort.
When scientists look at elements from the outside, they can discern both randomness and law. Without randomness there would be no change and therefore no evolution. Without lawfulness, there would be no preservation of change and therefore no science, and no scientists or other living things. The contrast and sometimes conflict between randomness and lawfulness does not constitute a dualism between nature and spirit. A very brief historical synopsis of dualism can help situate the contrast that I am presenting. A dualism between matter and spirit pervaded much, but not all, of ancient and medieval thought. For example, Plato compared the study of philosophy to dying because its purpose was to free the soul from the distractions and limitations of the body. Although official Christianity rejected the view that matter and spirit were in radical opposition to each other, some forms of Christian asceticism saw the need to subdue the body through fasting, suffering, and deprivation, so that the soul could be free.
By contrast, The Enlightenment provided a view of nature as divinely ordered so that Newtonian physics and Jeffersonian democracy were possible.
In my next post I will deal with the nineteenth century undermining of a providentially ordered universe and where we stand today.
The Goodness of Nature and the Shroud of Evil
Traditional notion of good
The pre-Darwin worldview allowed for a less problematic understanding of the relation between being and good. We can think of Plato’s notion that The Good is beyond being, but serves as the source of all other being. In Plato’s analogy the Good is to the world of ideal forms what the sun is to visible reality. Just as the sun serves as the cause of the material world and makes it visible, the Good causes the forms and makes them knowable.
The forms are more real and more perfect than the visible objects that constitute inferior copies or images of the forms. Compared to visible things the forms are more real and share more perfectly in the ultimate form, the Good. That which is bad is less real than that which is good.
In presenting a traditional understanding of the goodness of reality, I am not trying to make a case for it. Rather, I am trying to set it in front of us so that it can become a basis for comparison.
Aristotle, in his Nicomachean Ethics defined the good as that at which all things aim, and all things aim at the fulfillment of their nature. Something is bad if it lacks a quality that belongs to the fulfillment of the things purpose. You cannot have a good race horse that lacks speed, or a good workhorse that lacks strength. To use human examples, a good quarterback cannot lack arm strength, and a good surgeon cannot lack manual dexterity. In all of these cases we are not talking about moral good and evil, of course, but about qualities that enable an animal or a human to achieve its intended purpose.
The relation between purpose and good, which is found in all of nature and in non-moral qualities in humans, is also found at the level of human morality. Aristotle defines a human as a rational animal, and a good man or woman is one who has actualized the human potential for rationality.
Good moral qualities constitutes virtues which consist of habits of living according to reason, and in most cases involve avoiding the extremes of excess and deficiency, For example the virtue of temperance in eating means that a person eats the right amount of food relative to the needs of the individual person rather than eating too much or too little. Courage consists of the quality that enables a person to face danger when reasonable and avoid both cowardliness and rashness.
A bad person fails to actualize the ability to live reasonably, which means virtuously. Living reasonably is the defining characteristic of a human being. Unlike the virtuous persons, morally under-developed persons would not control their own passion and desire or learn to live justly in society.
Goodness, for us, means actualizing our nature as human beings. Since being is good, we become better by actualizing our potential for the kind of being that we are. In this worldview, moral evil, like all evil, is a lack, a failure to become a fully actualized being.
The affirmation of the goodness of being finds one of its fullest expressions in the metaphysics of St. Thomas Aquinas (1225 -1274). Being and good are coextensive; whatever is, is good.
The concepts of being and good are distinct in that the idea of good adds something to the idea of being, namely, the relationship to a will. St. Thomas called the relationship between reality and God’s will essential. Since he believed that God is the creative source of all that is, everything that is created is good because God loves it. For us humans, the relationship between being and our will is not essential. In our case, we can love all reality because it is good.
But as pointed out in an earlier post, and as our lived life screams at us, the world does not look like the product of a Creator who made all things good. The problem of evil asserts itself in every discussion of the good. For St. Thomas, if all being is good, evil must be non-being, a lack of something that ought to be.
We can think of physical evils such as blindness, although we ordinarily do to use the term evil, but rather misfortune. For us to lose our eyesight is a misfortune because sight is a normal part of a human being’s experience. We love our eyesight and see it as a good. A premature death is a misfortune because we view life as good. All the bad things that happen to us from the loss of property in a fire or flood, to the loss of a relationship, are bad precisely because that which is lost is good. The evil consists of the lack of something that we deeply wish to be there.
Moral evil, as stated above in the discussion of Aristotle and virtue, is the lack of a quality that ought to be part of a human beings character.
The Thomistic view, that being and good are coextensive, includes the affirmation that being and truth are also coextensive. Just as “good” adds relationship to a will to the concept of “being,” so “truth” adds relationship to a mind. The world is understood as rational and “legible” because it flows from the mind of God. This is not a “creationist” idea in the sense of biblical literalism.
Although St. Thomas lived six centuries too early to know about evolution, his understanding of creation is compatible with evolution. Of course it is not compatible with a materialistic interpretation of evolution. The principle idea of God’s creative mind and will does not refer only to the beginning, whether the beginning is a very busy week in 4004 BC, or the Big Bang of 13. 7 billion years ago.
The essence of the notion of God as a Creator means that in spite of all of the disorder, there is an underlying order that makes the scientific study of evolution, as well as evolution itself possible. The problems for anyone who sees creation as the work of rationality and love is challenged today more that they would have been in the Thirteenth century. The universe as we know it is almost infinitely vaster than anything that could have been imagined in the days before Galileo. The enormity of chaos, violence and irrationality is also almost infinitely greater.
The world revealed to us by contemporary science does not resemble the ordered world of Aristotle in the golden age of Greek culture and learning, nor of St. Thomas in the flowering of medieval learning in the 13th century. It doesn’t even resemble the Newtonian view that inspired the Enlightenment when Alexander Pope wrote, “And God said ‘let Newton be’ and all was light.”
The happy age of light was thrown back into darkness by the grim details of Darwinian evolution and into confusion by the discovery of quantum physics and relativity. The violent and unhappy state of affairs that we humans subjectively judge as evil seems to be simply the way things are. Affirming the reality of “good,” much less an all-good Creator, become more and more problematic. Quoting Alexander Pope again, the more apt metaphor for realty might be:
Thy hand, Great Chaos, lets the curtain fall
And universal darkness covers all.
The key question consists of whether or not the pervasiveness of darkness, both physical and metaphorical, precludes the possibility of a powerful and good Creator. Two easy, but perhaps feasible, solutions would be to deny the darkness or to deny the Creator. The first solution deals with the problem of evil by making evil an illusion or a subjective human attitude. The second solution does the same with the problem of good.
Here I will follow the lead of those who acknowledge the reality of brute fact in the formation of the universe, and especially of the brutality of the evolution of life on earth, and yet maintain a rational belief in a Creator God and the reality of the good.
Theologian John Haught, who was cited in several posts, leads the way on this line of thinking. Haught supports the notion of God who is not a designer. If we think of God by analogy to a human designer, say of landscapes, cars, or clothing, we think of one who makes a careful plan before working it out in the material world.
But as Haught points out, the history of the universe, especially the evolution of life reveals novelty and surprises. As a theologian, he advises us to look for God, not in some primal past as a designer, but rather, in his phrase, “up ahead” in the novelty and surprises that evolution has to offer. He contends that to be a Creator, God must not only create order, but must also create chaos. A design would be a fixed plan, but from chaos new realties can be born.
In my next post I will try to build on Haught’s insights, except that I will argue that God does not need to create chaos.
Science and the possibility of belief in God and in free will
For centuries, before the ascendancy of physical science, theologians struggled with the question of predestination and free will. If God knows everything that will ever happen, in fact if God causes everything that will ever happen, how can humans be free? If God knows that you are or are not saved, there is nothing you can do about it.
With the development of modern physics from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century, physical determinism replaced divine predestination as the cause of all things. Many of those who believed in God saw Him as a cosmic mechanic who set up the laws of the universe, started it running, and then had nothing else to do. In this view, we humans never had anything to do either, since every event, including those in our brain, has a physical cause, and free will is an illusion.
In the twentieth century the development of quantum physics and the uncertainty principle changed the way that many scientists look at the physical universe. Chance events take place at the sub-atomic level so that the physical world is not absolutely determined. These events can affect DNA causing the chance variations that are essential to the notion of biological evolution.
As stated in the previous post, some scientist believe that statistical probability makes determinism at the macro level as firm as the old mechanistic determinism, and so they reject random events and free will. On August 1 and August 8 I posted my take on the ideas two such scientists, Sean Carroll and Kristof Koch. Here, I will look more generally at the implications of indeterminism.
The idea of indeterminacy turns the world of physics as well as the world of theology upside-down, since neither the laws of strict determinism nor the mind of God controls all that has happened or will happen. Indeterminacy neither proves nor disproves the reality of God, but it allows that, if God is real, He can intervene in the events of evolution. Similarly, indeterminacy does not prove or disprove human free will, but it allows that there could be a conscious agency that intervenes in the events of our own brains.
Unlike the closed view of strict mechanistic determinism that prevailed up to the end of the nineteenth century, a contemporary view of uncertainty allows for the possibility of spiritual agency in the physical universe. The thoughts summarized in the preceding two paragraphs are argued cogently by biologist Kenneth R. Miller in Finding Darwin’s God, Chapter Seven,
“ Beyond Materialism.”
Miller states, as did theologian John Haught, that science cannot reveal whether God is real and whether there is purpose in the universe. But Miller contends that much of the atheism and materialism associated with science results from some scientists projecting their personal view on their science and hence on the universe.
Miller sees the universe, as revealed by science, to be perfectly compatible with belief in God, and that there is no need for gaps to be filled by magic and miracles. The world is incomplete in the sense that it is still developing, but it is logically complete in structure, especially as revealed by Darwinian evolution.
Miller interprets the statement in Genesis, that God created humans according to God’s own image and likeness, to mean that our mind is fit to study science and to progress in comprehending the structure of the universe.
While Miller and Haught see contemporary science as liberating us from a mechanistic view of nature, American philosopher William James (1842 – 1910) had struggled with the notion of free will when mechanistic determinism enjoyed supremacy among scientists - before the advent of quantum physics.
The problem took on a further complication in James’s time because most of the thinkers who rejected materialism posited a notion of God as the “Absolute.” This notion included the idea that God is all-knowing and all powerful and therefore controlled everything in the universe, past, present, and future.
James recognized that this notion of reality left no more room for human agency than did the materialistic notion. In an argument that bears on the notion of the Absolute, as well as whole religious argument against evolution, James observed that God, as experienced in religion bears little resemblance to the notion of a designer who controls every aspect of creation and guarantees a neat outcome.
James describes reality as a battle ground on which our salvation is possible but not guaranteed. Facing the evil of the world, we may succumb to the nightmarish view, or even the suicidal view, that our world is evil beyond hope.
But if we take up the challenge and believe in a hopeful outcome, we make the hopeful possibility become a reality. James proposed belief in a God who could take strength from our little efforts. Although the influence of anyone of us is small, together we are integral to any outcome of the world. A world that involves danger and struggle fits our nature better than a world with no hope and even better than a world with no risk. As James sums up his view in his essay “Is Life worth Living?”
If this life be not a real fight, in which something is eternally gained for the universe by success, it is no better than a game of theatricals from which one may withdraw at will. But it feels like a real fight,---as if there were something really wild in the universe which we, with all our idealities and faithfulness, are needed to redeem; but first to redeem our own hearts from atheisms and fears.
For James, the notion of God and humans struggling together to create and redeem a world is more compatible with religion and with human nature than either a hopeless materialism or a smug God who creates effortlessly while we look on as spectators.
Although James’s account of God would not be satisfactory to most classical theologians, it would fit the view of some process theologians. More importantly, whatever value James’s idea has for theology, he does show that a chaotic world, in which suffering, risk, and loss are real, is compatible with historical religion.
The above arguments intend to show that, contrary to naïve theists and atheists, belief in God is compatible with a Darwinian world-view with it slowness and with the intermingling of good and evil. Biblical religion does not portray God as a designer who makes the world easily out of his own substance. Rather, God can be hoped for as a Creator drawing the world out of nothingness, through all-in-division, toward a harmony whose fulfillment is up ahead. Scientists can continue to explore the world and bring it into ever more general laws, whether the scientists believe that all reality is a random arrangement of things in the vastness of time and space, or whether they believe that there is a rational purpose leading the way.
While the former view would seem to call for a philosophy of the absurd, the latter view is more hospitable to the project of science. James contended that theism is a more rational view than any of its opponents. Of course, we cannot assume, without circular argument, that the more rational view is true.
My very first post outlined the opposition between a spiritual worldview in which consciousness precedes nature, and the materialist view in which consciousness is a small and relatively insignificant product of matter.
For the spiritual view, evil presents a major problem. For the materialist view, evil does not constitute a metaphysical problem, but merely consists in our subjective discontent with the way things are. The spiritual view assumes the primacy of what we call ‘the good.” The materialist view sees the good as our subjective approval of some situations. The next post will explore the idea of good in a world shot through with evil.
Stop Blaming Free Will
(I was originally going to place the following paragraphs as an aside in the section on evil. But it might fit better after the recent posts defending the reality of free will.)
I will briefly address an argument from theodicy used by some theists to explain evil. Without necessarily affirming a literal interpretation of Genesis or denying evolution, they affirm the theological tenant that God created the world good, but that evil resulted from free will. To express this idea in popular terms, God could have kept the world good, as He intended it to be, but in order to have a creature who could love Him freely, He endowed us humans with free will and we misused it bringing evil into the world.
I maintain that we should stop blaming free will for evil. The most obvious reason for asserting that this explanation falls far short is that it does not address the chaos, suffering, and horror that abound in nature apart from any human agency. But it even fails to explain human moral evil. If free will were the cause of all evil, we could expect that the “default” mode of every human being would be good, and that evil acts would require an act of will.
But as William James had pointed out, free will takes effort, whereas following our impulses does not. James argues that “attention with effort” constitutes the essential meaning of an act of free will. “The essential achievement of the will, in short, when it is most ‘voluntary’ is to ATTEND to a difficult object and hold it fast before our mind (emphasis in the original).
Without free will, or if we fail to develop our ability to attend to difficult ideas so that they may govern our actions, we sink into evil behavior. It does not take a firm resolution or any special discipline to be greedy, lustful, lazy, or envious. By contrast, it takes a life-time of training to develop our free will and to become virtuous. So free will stands as one of the good things that we need to take account of rather than an explanation of evil.
The Key Question of Free Will
The issue of free will is closely linked to the meaning of consciousness because the whole question of free will asks whether consciousness can determine matter without being completely determined by matter. Put more specifically, can the conscious subject decide on particular brain events without the decision having been predetermined by other brain events?
For example, consider a person who resolves to improve his or her fitness by taking up running. It seems, from the person‘s point of view, that the resolution causes the mind to focus on health and fitness so that physical changes takes place. The person now devotes time and energy to running on a road or track, time that would otherwise have been spent on some sedentary activity such as playing with a computer. But was the origin and continuation of the resolution caused by some other physical brain event of which the person had neither awareness nor control?
I will compare my thoughts with those of Christof Koch in his book Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist. (Koch is a highly respected neuro-scientist, protégé, collaborator, and friend of Francis Crick).
Koch offers as a definition of free will: “You are free if, under identical circumstances, you could have acted otherwise. Identical circumstances refer to not only the same external conditions but also the same brain states” (Koch, 92). He considers debates on the reality of free will to be futile since we cannot go back and do things differently.
I think that his observation about the futility of debates on free will stems from his definition rather than on the real possibility of free will. His definition looks backward, “Could you have acted differently?” This definition sets up a sure failure for free will since, to the best of my knowledge, no free will theory would say that we are free to change the past. What’s done is done.
But free will takes on a different meaning when we apply it to the future. The question of free will can be restated as: “Can I, through ‘attention with effort,’ make my future different from what it would be without such effort.”
The phrase, “attention with effort,” flows from William James and his notion that ideas control action and that through effort we can determine which ideas control our action. This understanding need not slip into futility since it has a real impact. Suppose a young person heard this idea from someone whom she respects and tries to apply it to her life. Would this notion not make a difference in the way she lived? The practical significance of this question can best be understood by reviewing William James’s description of free will.
According to James, every idea has some bodily expression and ideas either instigate or inhibit muscular movements. Since we generally have several ideas at any one time, some contradicting others, we act on the most dominant one. We are free if and only if we can, by effort, make a chosen idea dominant by deliberately attending to it.
For example, a person who has a plate of fried chicken in front of him may eat it without effort since the dominant idea is how good it tastes. But if the same person turns his attention to the desirability of clean arteries and a healthy body weight, he may, through effort, make this healthy image dominant and so change his eating habits. The whole question of free will comes down to whether “we,” our conscious selves, can determine the ideas that we attend to and the amount of effort that we can exert to maintain the attention.
If the materialists are right, then the whole process of “attention with effort” originates in molecules of which we may not be consciously aware, and “we” are mere spectators of a process over which we have no control. We cannot prove that the materialists are right or wrong. However, it is reasonable to believe that we can, perhaps to a very small degree, choose what we think is good, pay attention to it with effort, and thereby make our lives different from what they otherwise would be. If this assumption is true, then we have a free will and consciousness has a degree of control over matter.
Koch offers two reasons to doubt that consciousness can exert control over matter. The first reason is based on the conservation of energy. Anything that happens in the physical world depends on the existing energy. Nothing happens without using some amount of energy that constitutes the physical universe. So the neural correlates of thought, the physical conditions necessary for any thought, depend on some physical event. They cannot originate from any non-physical entity, even if there are non-physical entities.
Koch leaves an infinitesimal crack in the closed neuro-physical system that may provide an opportunity for free will, but he considers the degree of freedom to be insignificant, and on a practical level, indistinguishable from mere chance. In describing the one opportunity for free will, Koch refers to the view of Karl Popper and John Eccles, advocates of free will, that “the conscious mind imposes its will onto the brain by manipulating the way neurons communicate with each other in the regions of the cortex concerned with the planning of movement.” According to the Popper-Eccles view, the mind need not supply the physical energy for the movement of the chemical signals, but it can “direct traffic” by promoting activity in theses neurons and preventing it in those.
But Koch argues that such influence is possible only in quantum-mechanical states in which there is a certain probability that a synapse will or will not switch. According to his argument, the mind cannot change the probability, but it might determine what will happen on any given event. Control over a single event does not change the probability that the person will act this way rather than that way. But, we may ask, if the mind can control this one event, might it also influence the next one and the one after? Could this type of influence, over time, not change the probability?
Koch follows up with further arguments against the feasibility of free will (Koch 105-105). He cites and describes experimental evidence that brain activity that instigates an apparent act of will, actually begins before the actor is aware of making a decision. In Koch’s example, a person indicates the instant that he or she decides to move an arm. The actual movement of the arm coincides with the moment of their awareness, but EEG information shows that the process has started prior to the decision. This experiment implies that what we feel is a free choice is, in fact, the result of brain activity of which we are unaware.
However, free will is not about a single action but about a life-time of habit formation. In the case of the arm movement experiment, it might be just as well if unconscious neuro-physical events choose the moment to move an arm. But there are many human activities in which it is crucial to choose a particular act at just the right moment. Such examples abound especially in sports.
For example, if a baseball player is deciding to steal second base, he must pick the right moment. If he leaves a second too early he might get picked off; a second too late and he will be thrown out. So an unconscious physical brain event, which occurs before the actual steal attempt, might serve him better than slower conscious deliberation. But a baseball player has spent a lot of time deliberately developing the habit of running bases. He has chosen to develop these habits, therefore he has chosen the neural pathways that enable him to seize the moment without deliberation.
The deliberate development of habits applies to all sports, music, dancing, cooking, hunting, and many other activities. We may freely choose to spend time developing these skills. When time sensitivity is not an issue, we are free to the extent that, over time we can choose how we develop our habitual behavior. The habits serve us well when we must act “in the blink of an eye.” While the above description does not “prove” free will, it does provide a feasible belief in free will that survives Koch’s argument against it.
A further look at Koch reveals that he himself believes in free will. He affirms a "compatibilist” notion of free will, which means that you are free if and only if you can follow your own desires and preferences. For example, smokers who wish to stop smoking are free or not free depending on whether they are able to follow their desire to stop. Some can and some can’t. But even in the case of those who successfully follow their desire, the desires themselves stem from biological and psychological events over which the person has no authorship. (93).
The person who wishes to smoke would be free if he were allowed to smoke without limitations and prohibitions. The same holds true of those who wish to express their preference for unlimited acquisitions, sexual encounters, or physical expression of anger. In Koch’s case, he not only wants to be able to express his desires and preferences without coercion or prohibition, but also specifies what he wants his desires to be. (I assume that this is also true of Dennett, Carroll, and most other materialists in spite of their theory).
It is worth quoting Koch at length to show his position regarding free will.
After rejecting both classical determinism that sees the future as already fixed, and also rejecting the notion that an immaterial “soul” can influence matter, he concludes:
“I’ve taken two lessons from these insights. First, I’ve adopted a more pragmatic compatibilist conception of free will. I strive to live as free of external and internal constraints as possible. The only exception should be constraints that I deliberately and consciously impose upon my self, chief among them constraints motivated by ethical concerns; whatever you do, do not hurt others and try to leave the planet a better place than you found it. Other considerations include family, health, financial stability, and mindfulness. Second, I try to understand my unconscious motivations, fears, and desires better. I reflect deeper about my own actions and emotions than my younger self did” (emphases added).
Who or what is the “I” that “strives,” “deliberately and consciously imposes,” and “tries?” It seems that if consciousness has no autonomy, we can only hope that our molecules will do these things or, depending on the molecules, hope that they don’t. A dogmatic materialist may argue that Koch has gone soft in the paragraph quoted above. But, on the contrary, the hopeful resolute paragraph may simply show the limitation of materialism.
Sean Carroll, in his brilliant book The Big Picture, calls his view of reality “poetic naturalism.” He means that there is one reality, the natural world as defined by contemporary physics, but there are many ways to talk about it. The many ways of talking constitute the poetic part of poetic naturalism.
One of the best ways to explain what he means, as well as to relate to these posts, is to take the issue of free will. Now in his view, events at the atomic level, which he refers to as the level of the quantum wave, determine everything that can and must happen. These include events in our brain including those that we commonly attribute to free will. He rejects any randomness in the physical world as well as anything being influenced by a non-physical entity. Therefore, our notion that we make choices constitutes an illusion. But the poetic side of his view allows us to talk about events as if they were chosen.
For example, he writes: “It’s up to you and me and every other person to create meaning and purpose for ourselves. We can decide that what we want to do is to devote ourselves to something larger—but that decision comes from us.” (p. 390)
And: “ The upshot is that getting things right---being honest with ourselves and others---facing up to the world and looking it right in the eyeball--doesn’t just happen. It requires a bit of effort.
The emphases were not in the original, but highlighted here to show that he speaks the language of free will.
According to poetic naturalism, what we talk about as decisions and exertions of effort are in reality determined by events at the level of quantum waves. We could not do otherwise, for better or worse, than what we do. In fact even the “we” is an illusion, but according to the poetic side of Carroll’s view, we can talk about “us.”
To give a more simplified, but I believe fair, example of poetic naturalism, take a person who has been out in cold weather. She may say, “Jack Frost is biting my toes and fingers.” Now we all know that what is really happening is a transfer of heat form her extremities to the surrounding environment. But we know what she means by Jack Frost – we can talk about her experience in this way. I think that for poetic naturalism, free will is on the level of Jack Frost.
The only way that a person can say my example of Jack Frost is unfair, is if free will in fact constitutes something more that just a way of talking about physical events.
I will write about free will in a future post in relation to Kristof Koch. My next post will be on Sean Carroll’s view of consciousness.
Musings on consciousness.
Consciousness stands as a necessary condition for purpose and free will. (For now, I will leave aside the questions of the reality of God and human immortality.) But the notions of purpose and free will require that consciousness has real effects in the natural world. Otherwise we are ineffective spectators of the results of natural processes that take place at the micro level. Many scientists hold just that, namely that free will is an illusion and what we think are free acts are the result of electro-chemical processes going on in our brain.
Among those scientists who hold this view are Kristof Koch with his “Romantic Reductivism,” and Sean Carroll with his “Poetic Naturalism.” Other prominent scientists who hold the naturalistic reductive position are the late Stephen Hawking and Francis Crick. Maybe the majority of scientists hold this view, but that does not matter. Although I respect scientists and scientific consensus, the question of consciousness goes beyond science.
Sean Carroll believes that physics has explained consciousness, and in this he joins the old “new atheists” such as Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett. Philosopher Thomas Nagel argues that consciousness cannot be reduced to an object of physical science; Kristof Koch, neurobiologist and protégé of Francis Crick, admits that science cannot yet explain consciousness, but believes that it has the capacity to explain it in the future. I want to analyze and explicate the views of Nagel, Carroll, and Koch, but first I will present my own take on the problem. (Not that I imagine myself to be in the same leagues as the fore-mentioned).
Most of the attempted explanations of consciousness explain the neural conditions necessary for human consciousness. But they leave out the unique subjective experience of humans including the physicists and philosophers who do the analysis. Carroll dismisses this problem while Nagel and Koch grapple with it. From the point of view of the physicist, the question can be framed: How can something that is not physical move something that is clearly physical, such as the electrons that compose our neurons? The answer of the reductionists is simply that something non-physical, even if it exists, could not move something physical. Such movement would contradict the law of conservation of energy.
I see the major premise of the reductionist argument to consist in this: Whatever exists can be an object of physical science; and whatever cannot be an object of physical science cannot exist. So a common position of reductionism holds that consciousness cannot be anything apart from properties and processes of the brain. Furthermore, consciousness cannot exert a physical effect on the brain, and therefore our thoughts, choices, and values depend on physical activity in the brain, these conscious experiences can only be the effect of physical event, never the cause. As Kristof Koch sums up the reductionist position. “No matter; never mind.”
I join those who contend that consciousness is unique and not reducible to physics. When scientists study the brain you can think of at least three distinct aspects of the study. There is the object of scientific knowledge gained through instrument-aided experiments; the physical processes going on within the brain of the scientists; and the consciousness of the scientists of their knowledge. Physicists can reduce biology and chemistry to physics. The reduction includes the structure and processes of their own brains. But what about consciousness including their own. It is unlike any object of physical science.
In my next posts I will consider the reductive arguments of Sean Carroll and Kristof Koch.