Ever since Kant we have recognized that we know reality only through our experience of it. We have no privileged epistemic access to the Dingen An Sich, the things in themselves. (In fact the presumption that there are many things is just that, a presumption.) All we have is phenomena, how reality appears to us; all we have is our experience. What is of interest, then, is how to make sense of that experience.
Along these lines, Tommy Kelly, a friend in the philosophy club and quite a bright and interesting fellow, has an intriguing comment on my blog post “Is Science a Religion?” In that essay I claim that there is a parallel between scientific observation and meditative experience. Tommy wants to take it a step further and say there is really no difference at all between the two. Here is what he writes:
Reading your article reminded me of a question I’ve had for a while but for which as yet I’ve not been able to figure out an answer. You say:
…religion at its best bears some resemblance to science. The phenomena it concerns are not public in the same way that the subject matter of the physical sciences is. But they are subject to verification. There exist, for instance, quite detailed sets of instructions for meditative practices that produce altered experiential states. …You can think of spiritual practice as a sort of experiment. You have to do the experiment to get the results, just as you do in the physical sciences. Unlike the physical sciences, the results are largely private, not public; but they are not unverifiable.
I agree with most of that, but I’m suspicious of this part: “The phenomena it concerns are not public in the same way that the subject matter of the physical sciences is.” Consider the following two experiments:
Experiment One: Look through a telescope oriented in a particular way.
Result: You will experience a set of phenomena (sights, sounds, feelings, etc.) commonly known as “the rings of Saturn.” Note that these phenomena—your observations—are private. As you peer through the telescope you and only you will “see Saturn.” Nevertheless, someone else can repeat the experiment; and we are confident they will experience their own private observations that, according to our shared language game, are considered the same as yours.
Experiment Two: Kneel down with your back upright then close your eyes and make mental notes—”rising…rising…rising” and “falling…falling…falling”—corresponding with the movement of your abdomen as you breathe.
Result: You will experience a set of phenomena (sights, sounds, feelings, etc.) commonly known as “the first samatha jhana.”(1) (Of course I understate the amount of such practice that is needed, but the point remains regardless.) Note that these phenomena—your observations—are private. As you perform the noting exercise, you and only you will “enter jhana.” Nevertheless, someone else can repeat the experiment; and we are confident they will experience their own private observations that, according to our shared language game, are considered the same as yours.
Generalizing, then, it seems that *all* observations are private. In that case, the private versus public difference doesn’t seem to exist after all. So in what way is science different from religion-at-its-best?
To Tommy I respond as follows:
Yes, all observations are private, but what they are observations of is a matter of interpretation. Some are usefully taken to be public, and others, private. Science treats the former, and religion treats the latter.
The difference between seeing the rings of Saturn and experiencing the first samatha jhana is that all those who see the rings of Saturn consensually agree that what is seen is a set of objects existing independently of anyone’s seeing them; but those who experience the first samatha jhana consensually agree that what is experienced is not one set of objects existing independently of anyone’s experience of it, but rather a state that is experienced only by the experiencer. In other words, there are as many states as there are observers, and each observer experiences his or her own state of jhana, not anyone else’s. (In addition, you can quantify what is seen when you see the rings of Saturn but you cannot (I think) quantify what is experienced when you experience the first samatha jhana.)
We all consensually agree that what scientific observations are of is a reality independent of us. I suppose that we can’t unequivocally prove that it is so, but such an interpretation makes very good sense of our experience, and it works to help us get around in the world and make intellectual sense of it.
What meditators experience, we consensually agree, is private to each meditator. I suppose that we can’t unequivocally prove that it is so, but such an interpretation makes very good sense of our experience, and it works to help us get around in the world and make intellectual sense of it.
So the difference between science and religion-at-its-best is found not in single observations, each of which is indeed private, but in the sense we make of multiple observations by multiple people. It is reasonable to take the objects of science as public. It is reasonable to take the objects of religious experience as private, or at least not public in the same way.
William James, the great American Pragmatist, puts it this way:
Ideas (which themselves are but parts of our experience) become [believable] just in so far as they help us to get into satisfactory relation with other parts of our experience, to summarize them and get about among them by conceptual short-cuts …. Any idea upon which we can ride, so to speak; any idea that will carry us prosperously from any one part of our experience to any other part, linking things satisfactorily, working securely, simplifying, saving labor; is [believable] for just so much, [believable] in so far forth, [believable] instrumentally.(2)
James offers epistemological criteria for what warrants our belief. The idea that the rings of Saturn are public objects links our observations satisfactorily and saves intellectual labor compared to the idea that everyone seeing them observes something different. Similarly, the idea that the first samatha jhana is private to each meditator links our observations satisfactorily and saves intellectual labor compared to the idea that all the meditators perceive the same thing.
James took these epistemological criteria a step further into the metaphysical theory that all that exists is experience.(3) We need not go that far to understand that it is a good idea to examine our experience closely because our experience is all we have. Philosophically, the discipline of Phenomenology founded by Edmund Husserl is a useful method.(4) Practically, the disciplines of meditation, particularly Buddhist Vipassana, are helpful.(5) However we do it, investigating our own experience is a step toward knowing ourselves, the essence of wisdom.
(1) “Samatha” is a form of Buddhist meditation. “Jhana” is a Buddhist term meaning absorption. The first samatha jhana is the first of a series of states of meditative absorption. See The Dharma Overground, “Samatha jhanas.”
(2) James, “What Pragmatism Means,” p. 49. I substitute “believable” for “true” in this passage, as I think James, in his zeal, misuses the latter term.
(3) James, “A World of Pure Experience.”
(4) Wikipedia, “Phenomenology (philosophy).”
(5) The Dharma Overground, “Vipassana.”
James, William. “A World of Pure Experience.” Online publication http://psychclassics.yorku.ca/James/experience.htm as of 21 August 2013. Archived at http://bmeacham.com/whatswhat/OP/James_AWorldOfPureExperience.htm.
James, William. “What Pragmatism Means.” Pragmatism and four essays from The Meaning of Truth, pp. 41-62. New York: Meridian Books, 1955. Online publication http://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/philosophy/works/us/james.htm as of 21 August 2013. Archived at http://bmeacham.com/whatswhat/OP/James_WhatPragmatismMeans.htm.
The Dharma Overground. “Samatha jhanas.” Online publication http://www.dharmaoverground.org/dharma-wiki/-/wiki/Main/samatha+jhanas as of 19 January 2016.
The Dharma Overground. “Vipassana.” Online publication http://www.dharmaoverground.org/web/guest/dharma-wiki/-/wiki/Main/vipassana as of 21 January 2016.
Wikipedia. “Phenomenology (philosophy).” Online publication https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phenomenology_%28philosophy%29 as of 21 January 2016.
I venture to guess that most people are moral realists. That is, they think that rules and principles of morality—that stealing and lying are wrong, for instance—actually exist in some form independently of what anybody thinks of them. By contrast moral anti-realists deny the independent reality of moral rules and principles. They say that moral rules are only social conventions. As evidence the anti-realists point to the fact that different cultures have different moral norms.
An extreme example is honor killing.(1) In some cultures it is considered morally obligatory to kill a woman who has brought disgrace to her family by having sex outside of marriage. This is so even if she was raped; she should not have put herself in a situation where that could happen to her. People in most western cultures consider honor killing hideously wrong. But there is no objective way to decide which one it is, right or wrong, obligatory or forbidden.
If one person says the weather is too hot, and another person says it’s not, there is no way to adjudicate who is right. But they can both look at a thermometer and determine exactly what the temperature is. They can come to objective agreement about the temperature and then recognize that the comfort level of that temperature may be different for different people.
Not so with morality. If you are convinced that honor killing is right, you can admit that other people don’t think so, but you’ll still think you are right and they are wrong. And they will think the same of you. The problem with morality is that there is no objective way to tell which view is correct. That conundrum leads moral anti-realists to say that neither one is correct. There is no moral fact of the matter because morals do not exist in the same way that physical reality exists.
Moral realism makes for a number of bad consequences: morality makes us angry; it promotes hypocrisy; it encourages arrogance; it is arbitrary, because there is no final justification for saying anything is right or wrong; it is imprudent, leading us to do things that have obviously bad consequences; it makes us intransigent, fueling endless strife; and it leads philosophers to waste time on silly puzzles.(2) Moral anti-realism avoids all these ill effects. As I argue elsewhere, we would be much better off speaking in terms of good and bad, the language, roughly speaking, of prudence, rather than in terms of right and wrong, the language of morality.
How would this work in practice? Let’s take a contemporary issue, whether to eat meat or not. Moralistic vegetarians say that killing animals—or at least big farm animals such as cows and pigs—for our benefit is wrong. Being a vegetarian is “the right thing to do” says food writer James McWilliams. It is a “basic moral truth” that we should not kill farm animals in order to eat them.(3) Doing so violates their “right to live.”(4) That’s because, it is alleged, farm animals are “sentient beings.”(5) They are, as philosopher and animal rights advocate Tom Regan says, subjects of a life.(6)
The argument, in abbreviated form, is this: Killing sentient beings needlessly is wrong. Big farm animals are sentient beings. Killing them so we can eat them is needless because there are other ways we can get nourished. Therefore killing big farm animals so we can eat them is wrong.
Now, there are a number of ways we could attack this argument. One is to deny that cows and pigs are sentient beings in the sense of subjects of their lives. They certainly do not pass the mirror test for self-awareness.(7) Another is to deny that we can get fully nourished without eating meat.(8) But the most fundamental objection is the anti-realist one: to deny the first premise. It is not the case that killing sentient beings is wrong, because objective rightness and wrongness do not exist.
As I have argued elsewhere morality is socially constructed or, in technical terms, intersubjectively constituted. It’s not just a matter of convention; we don’t all sit down and agree to abide by certain moral rules. And we do have a sense that moral rules are independent of what any one person thinks they are. But that independence is not the independence of physical reality, which would be there whether we were or not. It is the independence of a set of norms within a community or society. Everybody agrees (more or less) on what they are, everybody treats them the same way and everybody acts as if they are real. So, for members of such a community they are real.
Once you realize the socially constructed nature of morality, you get to choose whether or not to buy into it or not. There is some truth to the Existentialist assertion that you are what you choose. As Sartre says, “[A human being] … is what he wills …. [He] is nothing else but that which he makes of himself.”(9) Whether you should obey the purported moral injunction against eating meat is not predefined. You define yourself as one who does or does not take it seriously.
But what if you do think it makes sense to avoid eating meat and want others to do so as well? What is a concerned moral anti-realist vegetarian to do?
The answer is to appeal to self-interest. You can appeal to the benefits of vegetarianism without guilt-tripping others (which doesn’t work well anyway). Here are some useful arguments that avoid moralistic “shouldhoods”.(10)
- You’ll feel better and be healthier if you don’t eat meat. There is evidence pro and con on this one, but you can certainly advise people to alter their diet and see how they feel. Then they will have a sound basis for deciding.
- Raising meat contributes to global warming because animals emit methane, a greenhouse gas. If you want to reduce global warming, don’t eat meat, because the less demand there is for meat, the fewer animals will be raised for food. This argument appeals to the quite sensible desire not to live in a world of extreme temperature and weather events.
- Meat is an inefficient way of feeding people. We can feed a lot more people on the plants that animals eat than on the animals themselves. If you want to alleviate people’s hunger, don’t eat meat. This argument appeals to our sense of compassion for others, not as a moral duty, but as a way of alleviating our own suffering.
- Many ways of killing animals entail their suffering. If you want to minimize suffering, then don’t eat meat. This argument encourages us to enlarge the circle of beings we take as significantly like us. Again, doing so is not a moral duty. But it enables us to experience more compassion and empathy, which are rewarding in their own right.
Perhaps you can think of other non-moralistic arguments. Appeals to morality are intractable and only create conflict. Appeals to enlightened self-interest are far more likely to result in harmony and in lasting change.
(1) This example is taken from Rosenberg, “Can Moral Disputes Be Resolved?”
(2) Marks, Ethics Without Morals, chapter 4.
(3) McWilliams, The Modern Savage, p. 6.
(4) Ibid., p. 9.
(5) Ibid., p. 6
(6) Animalethics.org, “Subject of a Life.”
(7) Science Daily, “Mirror test.”
(8) See, for instance, Smil, “Should Humans Eat Meat?”
(9) The phrase is from psychologist Alfred Ellis. See Ellis and Dryden, The Practice of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy, p 206.
(10) Sartre, “Existentialism Is a Humanism.”
Animalethics.org. “Subject of a life.” Online publication http://www.animalethics.org.uk/subject-of-a-life.html as of 17 August 2015.
Ellis, Albert, and Windy Dryden. The Practice of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy. New York: Springer Publishing Company, 2007.
Marks, Joel. Ethics Without Morals: In Defense of Amorality. New York and London: Routledge, 2013.
McWilliams, James. The Modern Savage: Our Unthinking Decision To Eat Animals. New York: Thomas Dunne Books (St. Martin’s Press), 2015.
Rosenberg, Alex. “Can Moral Disputes Be Resolved?” New York Times 13 July 2015. Online publication opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/07/13/can-moral-disputes-be-resolved/ as of 13 July 2015.
Sartre, Jean-Paul. “Existentialism is a Humanism.” Tr. Philip Mairet. Online publication http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/sartre/works/exist/sartre.htm as of 10 May 2014.
Science daily. “Mirror test.” Online publication http://www.sciencedaily.com/terms/mirror_test.htm as of 17 August 2015.
Smil, Vaclav. “Should Humans Eat Meat?” Online publication http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/should-humans-eat-meat-excerpt/ as of 17 August 2015.
Do we see reality as it is? The fact that we are subject to perceptual illusion leads some thinkers to assert that we don’t. Instead, we see (or taste or feel, etc.) an illusion concocted by our brains. Donald Hoffman, Professor of Cognitive Science at the University of California at Irvine and a respected researcher, is a popularizer of this view. A couple of recent videos, one on the Science Channel,(1) and another on TED,(2) are entertaining expositions of his thesis that our experience is misleading.
Take this picture, for instance, one of many on his website:
The figure on the left contains various grey patches. Two of them, corresponding to A and B in the figure on the right, appear to be different but are actually identical greys; a photometer would find them to be the same. Hoffman takes this as evidence that the cognitive aspect of our perception (he calls it “visual intelligence”) constructs the greys that we perceive.(3)
The idea that the world we encounter in our everyday experience is not the real world is not new. Ancient Indian philosophy speaks of the world as Maya, illusion, which conceals the true nature of reality.(4) Plato likens us to prisoners in a cave and likens the things we experience to shadows thrown on a wall. The philosopher is one who breaks his (or her) chains and ventures out into the real world to perceive reality truly.(5) Kant said that things in themselves are unknowable; all we know through our senses is the world of phenomena.(6)
What Hoffman brings to the table is not only a wealth of experimental evidence but a plausible account of how we got this way. His thesis is that our perceptual apparatus is wired evolutionarily, not to perceive reality accurately, but to enhance our genetic fitness. What counts is not how well we see reality as it is, but how well what we see helped our ancestors stay alive long enough to mate and have children. And what we see is shaped by “tricks and hacks,” as he says(7), not accuracy.
This account is not merely a “just-so” story.(8) Hoffman has conducted some mathematically rigorous computer simulations that show that creatures that employ strategies tuned to utility outcompete those that employ strategies tuned to objective reality.
Here is a simplified version. You construct a series of simulated habitats, each of which has some quantity of food and water. Then you construct two creatures that will look at the habitats and choose one to occupy. One creature, the truth seeker, looks at the exact quantities of both food and water; it has an accurate perception of reality. Another creature, the simple hacker, just looks for the greatest amount of food and ignores water; it uses a trick, not a fully accurate perception. The truth seeker takes more time and energy to gather its information and make a choice than the simple hacker. The simulation repeatedly pits the two creatures against each other in a variety of habitats. It turns out that the simple hacker occupies the better habitats more quickly than the truth seeker. In other words, it outcompetes the truth seeker. Accurate perception of reality turns out not to be an optimal strategy.(9)
Hoffman and his colleagues have performed many far more complex simulations, pitting not just these two strategies against each other but yet another as well. The truth seeker embodies what they call a naive realist strategy; its perceptions fully match what really exists. The simple hacker embodies a critical realist strategy; its perceptions are limited but still reflect some truth about reality. Both are homomorphic to reality; that is, both have the same shape or structure as reality. The critical realist strategy is just less finely grained than the naive realist one. Hoffman proposes yet a third strategy, which he calls the interface strategy, in which perceptions are not homomorphic to reality. In the simulations, the interface strategy outperforms both of the others. Hoffman and his colleagues conclude that “natural selection does not always favor naive realism or critical realism. … In many scenarios only the interface strategy survives.”(10) In other words, it is entirely possible that our perceptions bear no resemblance to reality at all! (To be clear, Hoffman does not say that the interface strategy always or necessarily wins, only that it can. And that a lot more research is needed.)
So the claim, supported by some evidence, is that it is possible that our perceptions bear no resemblance to reality at all. But Hoffman, in his popular lecture, goes further. He claims that it is not just a possibility but a fact that they bear no resemblance. He says, “There’s something that exists when you don’t look, but it’s not spacetime and physical objects.”(11) And “When I have a perceptual experience that I describe as a red tomato, I am interacting with reality, but that reality is not a red tomato and is nothing like a red tomato.”(12)
Hoffman goes too far here. How can he possibly know that reality bears no resemblance to our perceptions? By his own admission, we have no contact with reality—what Kant calls the Ding an sich, the thing in itself—at all. So there is no way to make a comparison.
What we can compare is not experience with reality, but some experiences with others. Consider the visual illusion of patches of grey above. The reason we think our perception is illusory is that it doesn’t agree with what a photometer tells us. But we know what a photometer tells us only through our experience!
Try this: print this page and then cut out the two patches in question and place them side by side. In that position they will look the same. If you have a photometer, measure them, both in context and side by side. In all cases they will measure the same. You can go to the website of Edward A. Adelson, the originator of the illusion, to see more evidence for their sameness.(13)
There is a reason that we consider our experience of the photometer and our experience of the patches viewed side by side more veridical than our experience of the patches in context. It is simpler and more coherent to assume that the grey colors stay the same and our perception varies by context rather than that the colors actually change when the context changes. And the former assumption leads us to make more successful predictions.
What we take as physical reality is what Willard Van Orman Quine calls a “cultural posit.” His account is picturesque but informative:
As an empiricist I continue to think of the conceptual scheme of science as a tool, ultimately, for predicting future experience in the light of past experience. Physical objects are conceptually imported into the situation as convenient intermediaries—not by definition in terms of experience, but simply as irreducible posits comparable, epistemologically, to the gods of Homer. Let me interject that for my part I do, qua lay physicist, believe in physical objects and not in Homer’s gods; and I consider it a scientific error to believe otherwise. But in point of epistemological footing the physical objects and the gods differ only in degree and not in kind. Both sorts of entities enter our conception only as cultural posits. The myth of physical objects is epistemologically superior to most in that it has proved more efficacious than other myths as a device for working a manageable structure into the flux of experience.(14)
Similarly, the myth of reality as homomorphic, for the most part, to our experience is believable just because it works so well for us. Optical illusions reveal, not flaws in our perception, but how well our visual system is adapted to reality under standard conditions.(15)
(To be fair, Hoffman does have a more complete argument for his view of the relationship between experience and reality, which he calls “Conscious Realism,”(16) but a full discussion of that is a topic for another time.)
(1) Hoffman, “Can We Handle The Truth?”
(2) Hoffman, “Do we see reality as it is?”
(3) Hoffman, “Constructing Shades of Grey.”
(4) Wikipedia, “Maya (illusion).”
(5) Plato, The Republic, 514a–520a.
(6) Kemerling, “Kant: Experience and Reality.”
(7) Hoffman, “Do we see reality as it is?” time 11:45.
(8) Wikipedia, “Just-so story.”
(9) Mark, et. al., “Natural selection and veridical perceptions” pp. 505-506.
(10) Ibid., p. 513.
(11) Hoffman, “Do we see reality as it is?” time 16:22.
(12) Ibid., time 16:59.
(13) Adelson, “Checker Shadow Illusion.”
(14) Quine, “Two Dogmas of Empiricism,” p. 41.
(15) Bach, “Optical Illusions & Visual Phenomena.”
(16) Hoffman, “Conscious Realism and the Mind-Body Problem.”
Adelson, Edward H. “Checker Shadow Illusion.” Online publication http://web.mit.edu/persci/people/adelson/checkershadow_illusion.html as of 19 July 2015.
Bach, Michael. “Optical Illusions & Visual Phenomena.” Online publication http://www.michaelbach.de/ot/ as of 19 July 2015.
Hoffman, Donald. “Can We Handle The Truth?” Online publication http://www.sciencechannel.com/tv-shows/through-the-wormhole/can-we-handle-the-truth-2/ as of 16 July 2015.
Hoffman, Donald D. “Conscious Realism and the Mind-Body Problem.” Mind & Matter Vol. 6(1), pp. 87–121. Online publication http://www.cogsci.uci.edu/~ddhoff/ConsciousRealism2.pdf as of 15 July 2015.
Hoffman, Donald. “Do we see reality as it is?” Online publication http://www.ted.com/talks/donald_hoffman_do_we_see_reality_as_it_is as of 10 July 2015.
Hoffman, Donald. “Constructing Shades of Grey.” Online publication http://www.cogsci.uci.edu/~ddhoff/adelson-illusion.html as of 16 July 2015.
Kemerling, Garth. “Kant: Experience and Reality.” Online publication http://www.philosophypages.com/hy/5g.htm as of 17 July 2015.
Mark, Justin T., Brian B. Marion, Donald D. Hoffman. “Natural selection and veridical perceptions.” Journal of Theoretical Biology #266 (2010), pp. 504-515. Online publication http://www.cogsci.uci.edu/~ddhoff/PerceptualEvolution.pdf as of 15 July 2015.
Plato. The Republic. In Plato: The Collected Dialogues. ed. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns. New York: Pantheon Books, 1963.
Quine, W. V. “Two Dogmas of Empiricism.” The Philosophical Review, Vol. 60, No. 1 (Jan., 1951), pp. 20-43. Online publication https://webfiles.uci.edu/rsmead/PHIL330/Readings/Quine%20-%20Two%20Dogmas%20of%20Empiricism.pdf as of 31 March 2014.
Wikipedia. “Just-so story.” Online publication https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Just-so_story as of 17 July 2015.
Wikipedia. “Maya (illusion).” Online publication https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maya_%28illusion%29 as of 17 July 2015.
Buddhists advise us to act so as to benefit all sentient beings. To understand this advice we need to know what a sentient being is. (We also need to know what benefiting such a being would consist in, but that is a topic for another time.)
“Sentient beings” conventionally refers to the mass of living things subject to illusion, suffering, and rebirth (Samsara). Less frequently, “sentient beings” as a class broadly encompasses all beings possessing consciousness, including Buddhas and Bodhisattvas [who are not subject to illusion and suffering, etc.].(1)
Initially we can say that a sentient being is one that is alive and is conscious of its environment. This definition excludes robots and other machines that detect changes in their environment and respond to them but, we assume, are not conscious. But what is it to be conscious?
In a pre-theoretical way we all know what it is to be conscious, because we are all conscious a good bit of the time. We have what is called “knowledge by acquaintance”(2) of being conscious. But attempts to define consciousness have been legion, and so far there is little agreement. That’s because our language is inadequate to the task. Language is well-suited for talking about the objective world we all inhabit, but not our subjective experience.
By “objective” I mean what is out in the public world that we can all see or hear or touch or sense in some way. If I tell you it is raining outside you can go look and see for yourself whether I am right. By “subjective” I mean what is private to each one of us. Such things as our thoughts and feelings, the particular shades of colors we see and the particular qualities of sounds that we hear are subjective. If I tell you I am thinking of rain you have no way to tell whether I really am or not.
So a sentient being is one that has a subjective, private point of view. The world appears in a particular way to a sentient being, a way that is not accessible to anybody else.
What distinguishes a sentient being from a non-sentient being is that we can imagine being the former but not the latter. Children do this all the time, playing at being cowboys or princesses or any number of other roles that they see adults acting out. First-person literature puts us in the shoes, so to speak, of another person, allowing us to fantasize how it would feel to be that person and how the world would appear to him or her. We can, if we choose, take another person’s point of view.
Obviously it is a lot easier to imagine being another person than being something non-human such as, for instance, a bat(3) or a dolphin(4), both of which rely on sensory modalities far different from ours. But we can at least imagine that the world appears in some way to such beings, even if we cannot very well imagine the specifics. We infer from their behavior that they perceive their world and take an interest in it, that they have beliefs and desires and initiate actions as we do. We can, in a similar way, imagine that worms, insects, even single-celled amoebae are sentient.
Imagining being another sentient being allows us to care about that being. We can sympathetically understand their suffering and their joy. We have compassion for them because we know, or think we know, how it is to be that being. Just as we would like to alleviate our own suffering, we want to alleviate theirs as well.
One might reasonably ask if having compassion is really the best way to alleviate our own suffering. Why open ourselves to the possibility of feeling what another being feels? That just gives us more suffering! Perhaps we would be better advised to close ourselves off and not care about others at all.
Well, closing ourselves off is certainly one strategy for reducing our suffering, just as cultivating compassion is another. But those who have tried both report that the latter works a lot better. Your life is richer and far more fulfilling when you enlarge it. The closed-off path leads to loneliness, despair and pain. The path of compassion leads to connection, hope and delight. And, if the Buddhists are to be believed, it leads ultimately to the perfect peace of Nirvana as well.(5)
There’s only one way you can find out for sure. I suspect we have all closed ourselves off to one degree or another. To find out if compassion works better, we’ll just have to try being compassionate and see for ourselves.
(1) Wikipedia, “Sentient beings (Buddhism).”
(2) James, Principles of Psychology Vol. 1, p. 221, cited in Buck, “William James,” p. 613.
(3) Nagel, “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” p. 438.
(4) Foer, “It’s Time for a Conversation,” p. 36.
(5) Wikipedia, “Nirvana.”
Buck, Ross. “William James, the Nature of Knowledge, and Current Issues in Emotion, Cognition, and Communication.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Vol. 16 No. 4, December 1990, pp. 612-625. Online publication https://www.academia.edu/868783/William_James_the_nature_of_knowledge_and_current_issues_in_emotion_cognition_and_communication as of 23 July 2014.
Foer, Joshua. “It’s Time for a Conversation: Breaking the Communication Barrier Between Dolphins and Humans.” National Geographic Magazine, May 2015, pp. 30-55.
James, William. Principles of Psychology. New York: Holt, 1890.
Nagel, Thomas. “What Is It Like To Be A Bat?” The Philosophical Review, Vol. 83, No. 4 (Oct., 1974), pp. 435-450. Online publication http://www.jstor.org/stable/2183914 as of 29 April 2015.
Wikipedia. “Nirvana.” Online publication https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nirvana as of 29 April 2015.
Wikipedia. “Sentient beings (Buddhism).” Online publication https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sentient_beings_%28Buddhism%29 as of 28 April 2015.
At a recent conference at the University of Texas at Austin Jeff McMahan, a distinguished professor of ethics and the author of quite a number of works on the subject, revealed a shortcoming in much of contemporary ethical thought. The context was discussion of charitable giving and its ethical obligations, and the professor posed a conundrum. There appear to be scenarios, he said, in which one is not obligated to do an act that would produce some good, a praiseworthy act—doing so would be supererogatory, above and beyond the call of duty—but once one has engaged in the act, one is obligated to maximize the good one does. Here are some examples:
- A wealthy person dies and leaves in her will an extraordinary amount of money to her dog. She is not obligated to leave her money to any entity, but once she has decided to give it to somebody or something, it seems morally wrong to give it to a dog rather than to a charity that would benefit human beings. (This is a real case, by the way. The benefactress was Leona Helmsley, and her will made quite a stir in the news a few years ago.)
- You are confronted with a burning building inside of which are a human child and a bird in a cage. It would be quite dangerous to enter the building, and you are under no obligation to do so. But if you do, and you save the bird instead of the child, people would be justified in blaming you for not saving the child.
- You find a person trapped under some wreckage. To save him you would have to clear away the wreckage at some risk that it might fall on you. Again, you are under no obligation to try to save the person. But if you do, you have a choice: you can save him by amputating one of his arms or by moving the wreckage, thereby saving both arms. If you save only one arm, people are justified in blaming you for not saving both.
- You may, if you choose, give money to charity, but you are under no obligation to do so. If you decide to give money to a charity that provides seeing eye dogs to blind people at a cost of several thousand dollars each, you can be blamed for not giving it to a charity that provides cataract operations that prevent blindness at a cost of only a few dollars each, as the latter would provide far more benefit per dollar than the former.
All these scenarios are analogous. They elicit moral intuitions about what is right and wrong, that is, what is morally required, forbidden or permissible. In each case doing something that you are not required to do and that can produce some good puts you in a situation in which you are morally required to choose the greater good. But you could, without blame, have chosen not to do anything. It is the last of the cases above that worried the professor. Faced with the prospect of blame for failure to give to the right charity, you might decide not to give any money at all! That is not an attractive outcome to someone affiliated with charities.
What’s wrong with this picture? Philosophy seeks to find logically coherent principles that describe certain broad aspects of reality, in this case morality. But in these examples the principles are not logically coherent. You can’t be blamed for not doing good, but you can be blamed for doing less good than you could. But doing no good is certainly doing less good than you could. So we have a contradiction: you can both be blameless and blameworthy for doing less good than you could.
When we are faced with a contradiction, it generally means there is a problem with one or more of the premises, so let’s have a look at them. The way to argue from intuitions about cases, according to McMahan, is that first you have an intuition about a particular case and then you generalize from that case to a universal rule.(1) Here is the argument in detail:
- Premise 1: Doing act A will produce more good than failing to do it.
- Premise 2: You are not required to do act A, but you are permitted to do it.
- Conclusion 1: You are not required to do more good than less.
- Premise 3: Act A entails two possible further acts, A1 and A2, which are mutually exclusive.
- Premise 4: Doing A2 will produce more good than doing A1.
- Premise 5: Having done (or at least started to do) A, you are required to do A2.
- Conclusion 2: You are required to do more good than less.
So which premise is faulty? Not 1, 3 or 4, as these are simply facts about the situation, stipulated to be true for the sake of argument, not moral claims. It must be either premise 2 or premise 5, which are mutually contradictory. So it is either false (from premise 2) or true (from premise 5) that you are required to do more good than less. But which is it?
Here is where the shortcoming I referred to above is revealed. Much contemporary moral discourse assumes that there is a moral fact of the matter, a position known as “moral realism.” Moral realism is the doctrine that “ethical sentences express propositions that refer to objective features of the world (that is, features independent of subjective opinion)….”(2) Indeed, in discussion McMahan averred that some actions, such as those in the scenarios above that produce the lesser good, are “objectively impermissible.” A second assumption is that such objective moral rules are logically coherent.
Taking the second assumption first, I suppose someone might argue that objective moral principles do not need to be logically coherent. If so, I reply, they could not provide a reliable guide to conduct, so we might as well ignore them. The practical effect of their being incoherent would be the same as if they do not exist. So we can safely assume that if there are objective moral principles, they are logically coherent.
The problem with moral realism is, of course, how to determine just what those objective moral features of the world are. The professor’s scenarios illustrate the difficulty. Is it true or false that one is required to do more good than less? How can we tell?
Typically, different flavors of moral realism posit different sources of morality and thus different methods of determining what the moral rules are. If you think that moral rules result from the decree of God, for instance, then you will refer to scripture and ecclesiastical authority to find out what they are. If you think that moral rules are simply objective features of the world without reference to their source, then you will rely on moral intuition. And the professor’s scenarios all rely on moral intuition.
But the moral intuitions contradict each other. One intuition has it that we are not required to do more good than less, and the other has it that we are. Could it be that moral intuitions are not a reliable way to find out what objective moral reality is? If so (absent divine decree) we have no way to find out!
No matter which way you look at it—that the moral principles contradict each other or the moral intuitions do—moral realism puts us in a quagmire of uncertainty. We have conflicting moral intuitions but are without a way to resolve the conflict.
Perhaps moral realism itself is the problem. Let’s suppose that the moral features of the universe are not objective, not independent of subjective opinion, and see where that supposition leads us. Well, if they are not objective, then what are they? We do, after all, have moral intuitions. What are they intuitions of?
They are indeed intuitions of moral rules, but the rules are socially constituted rather than independently existent in the way physical objects are. By “socially constituted” I mean that within a community of practice, a social group, a culture or a society everybody agrees (more or less) on what they are, everybody treats them the same way and everybody acts as if they are real. So, for members of such a community they are real. Their reality can be seen in their effects. People really would not blame you for staying out of the burning building, but they also really would blame you for saving the bird rather than the child once you are in there.
Unlike supposed objectively existent moral rules, however, there is no requirement for socially constituted rules to be logically consistent. People are not, by and large, logically consistent all the time, as evidenced by everyday observation and lots of social and psychological research.(3) Social conventions evolved as humans learned to live with each other in groups. They were not derived via logical inference from first principles.
Are they then as unreliable as incoherent objective principles would be? No, because, like most of human activity, they are context dependent. If you are outside the building, you are blameless for staying there. Once inside, however, you can be blamed for failing to save the child. Different contexts have different rules. Human psychology is full of such context-dependent heuristic rules. We would be in sorry shape if we had to reason out, step by step, everything we had to do. Those proto-humans who tried that approach did not become our ancestors.
From all this it appears that considering our moral intuitions as revealing a socially constructed morality makes more sense than as revealing an objective reality. (Of course they are both objective in the sense of being independent of any particular person’s subjective opinion; but socially constructed morality may vary from culture to culture, whereas on the moral realist view morality does not vary.)
The proponents of moral realism can object to this conclusion by claiming that a premise has been overlooked: You are permitted to do less good than more if doing more would entail some considerable risk or cost to you; otherwise you must do more good. When you are outside the building, it would clearly be more risky to enter the building than not. But once inside, neither alternative is more risky than the other. The original risk, having now been taken, is what economists call a sunk cost,(4) and rationally should play no further role in decision-making.(5)
This move weakens the case against moral realism, but does not defeat it. In order to make sense of the conflicting intuitions, the moral realist has to pile on additional premises, making the structure more and more complex. The scenarios above are not the only ones in which moral intuitions conflict. Should you tell the Nazis that Jews are hidden in your house or lie and say they aren’t? Should you allow abortion in order to protect a woman’s personal integrity or force her to have an unwanted baby to protect the fetus’ right to life? What about intuitions that Those People are evil and disgusting and should be exterminated and Our People are good and honorable and should dominate the earth? Depending on which group you are in, you may agree or disagree rather strongly. In each case, in order to make a coherent set of moral rules, you have to add more and more conditions, clauses and stipulations until the whole thing becomes unwieldy. You don’t have to do that if you take morality to be socially constructed; you just accept the inconsistencies because human beings are inconsistent creatures.
But in either case, whether you are a moral realist or not, you need to decide whether you will obey the moral rules revealed in your intuitions. How to decide that is a topic for another time.
(1) McMahan, “Moral Intuition,” p. 110. There is more to the process than this. In further steps you judge how well the universal rule fits with other such rules, go back and forth between the universal system and particular intuitions, and so forth. Here I simplify for the sake of argument.
(2) Wikipedia, “Moral realism.”
(3) See, for instance, the work of Jonathan Haidt and Daniel Kahneman, among others.
(4) Wikipedia, “Sunk costs.”
(5) Thanks to Professor David Sosa for making this point in the discussion.
Haidt, Jonathan. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. New York: Pantheon Books, 2012.
Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011.
McMahan, Jeff. “Moral Intuition,” in Hugh LaFollette and Ingmar Persson, ed., Blackwell Guide to Ethical Theory, 2nd edition. Oxford: Blackwell, 2013. pp. 103-120.
Wikipedia. “Moral realism.” Online publication https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moral_realism as of 28 February 2015.
Wikipedia. “Sunk costs.” Online publication http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sunk_costs as of 2 March 2015.
I am excited to announce my new book, How To Exert Free Will. It is an electronic book, readable on Kindle and various other platforms, and I am making it available for free here: http://bmeacham.com/FreeWill.
Several years ago I wrote a paper on freedom of the will, but soon discovered that it was inadequate. Since then I have been working on a replacement, and this is it. I am grateful to members of the Austin Philosophy Discussion Group and others who have given me good feedback along the way.
The book is an account of the philosophical controversy regarding the topic. Some say our will is not free, but I say that it is and offer suggestions for how best to employ it. After defining what the term “free will” means, the book considers a number of topics: what it really amounts to in practice, whether the world is determined or not, recent research in brain science, the difference between objects and agents, the role of self-awareness and more. I draw on the work of Robert Kane and Daniel Dennett among others. The book ends with practical advice about how we can effectively use our free will and to what end. It considers an important philosophical topic in terms that non-philosophers can easily understand.
Please feel free to download the book from http://bmeacham.com/FreeWill and share it with others. I hope you enjoy it.
(I recently gave a talk at the philosophy club summarizing what philosophy is all about. Here it is for your enjoyment. Disclaimer: My summaries of various philosopher’s ideas are so short as to amount to caricatures. Please do additional research on your own on topics that spark your interest.)
In brief, philosophy is good for learning how to think clearly about a number of important and fundamental topics. The word “philosophy” comes from two Greek words, philia, meaning affectionate love or affinity, and sophia, wisdom. Philosophy is the love of wisdom. The Greeks, starting with Socrates, thought of wisdom in a very practical way: it meant knowing how to live your life, how to conduct yourself in order to live in a good way. Philosophy began as the effort to find out how to live well.
The Branches of Philosophy
As it has evolved Philosophy includes more than figuring out how to live. Some of the many branches of Philosophy are the following:
Metaphysics. The word literally means “after physics.” In the compilation of Aristotle’s lectures, the books placed after the works on physics were called the metaphysics. Metaphysics is now taken to be the investigation of the underlying nature and structure of reality as a whole. In that sense it means that which is beyond physics.
Epistemology, from the Greek episteme, knowledge, and logos, explanation of or study of, considers what knowledge is and how we come to know things.
Ethics, from ethikos, considers questions of human conduct: How should we live? Why should we live like that? What are good and evil? How should we decide that an act is unethical? What is happiness?
Logic, from logos, meaning explanation of, considers what makes conclusions follow from premises and what makes an argument sound.
Ontology, from ontos, being, and logos, the study of, is the study of being. What kinds of things are there? What is it to be in the first place? How is non-being possible?
Philosophy of Mind asks questions such as these: What is the human mind? How does it think? How is mind related to body?
Aesthetics, from aisthetikos, that which concerns feeling, is the study of art. What is art? What makes something beautiful? Is the beauty of music similar to that of a landscape?
Political Philosophy, from polis, the Greek word for city-state, considers the organization of society. How should society be organized? How should decisions be made? What would utopia be like? Is utopia possible?
There are numerous other areas of philosophy: philosophy of mathematics, of science, of religion, of language, of social science, of history. In all of these, philosophy looks critically at the foundations of the discipline, at its presuppositions and its language.
From the time of the Greeks, philosophers have been concerned with three fundamental questions, the first three of the branches listed above:
- Metaphysics – What is there? What is real?
- Epistemology – How do we know what is real?
- Ethics – What shall we do about what is real? How shall we lead our lives? What is our duty? What virtues should we cultivate? How can we be happy?
These three questions are inseparable. Duty, virtue and happiness all require knowledge of goods and evils, and rights and responsibilities, so ethics requires epistemology. Knowledge is always knowledge about something, so epistemology requires metaphysics. And we care about metaphysics because it makes a difference in how we act, so metaphysics has a bearing on ethics.
Metaphysics: An Account of Everything
Even before Socrates, the pre-Socratic thinkers—Thales, Anaximenes and others—began to consider the world in a new way, a way that did not depend on beliefs about gods and spirits to explain how and why things happen. The attempt to explain the world in purely physical terms led these thinkers to assert that everything was made of Earth, Air, Fire, Water or some boundless material that manifested as these elements. Nowadays we look on these doctrines as naive speculation, but at the time they were revolutionary.
According to Plato, what is really real are the Forms, ideas that can be understood by pure intellect. Physical reality is a lesser reality.
According to Aristotle, Plato’s pupil, the primary category is Substance. Form is not separate from particular things.
Descartes asserted a dualism of material and mental substances.
Leibniz asserted a plurality of non-interacting substances.
Hegel asserted Idealism, the idea that spirit (Geist) or mind is fundamental.
Dennett and many other contemporary thinkers assert Materialism, the idea that matter is fundamental.
Alfred North Whitehead says that the fundamental category is Process, not Substance. Processes are both material and mental. According to Whitehead, the goal of metaphysics (which he called “speculative philosophy”) is to “frame a … system of general ideas in terms of which every element of our experience can be interpreted. … Everything of which we are conscious as enjoyed, perceived, willed or thought, shall have the character of a particular instance of the general scheme.”(1)
The rise of experimental science has reduced the scope of metaphysics. We have gone way beyond Earth, Air, Fire and Water. But science itself is based on metaphysical assumptions that are not demonstrated by the scientific method! These assumptions include the following:
- That there is an objective reality;
- That it is ordered in a rational and intelligible way;
- That it is describable by immutable mathematical laws, laws that do not change arbitrarily with the passage of time or in different regions of space; and
- That these laws are discoverable by systematic observation and experimentation.
And some topics worthy of investigation are not amenable to scientific explanation at all:
- The relationship between mathematics, including logic, and the physical world.
- The relationship between subjectivity and objectivity.
- Whether there is a purpose or meaning to it all, and if so what it is.
Epistemology: How We Know
There have been two main approaches to understanding how we know things: rationalism and empiricism. Rationalism attempts to reason from first principles to what must be. Some examples of rationalist thinkers are Plato, Descartes, Leibniz and Spinoza. Empiricism starts from experience rather than first principles. One observes what actually is and forms theories useful for prediction. Some examples of empirical theorists are Aristotle, Locke, Berkeley and Hume. Kant bridges the gap between the two, recognizing that all we know of the world comes through our senses, but claiming that reason can discover necessary categories through which we must experience the world.
Rationalism and empiricism require each other. We don’t reason in a vacuum; first principles are suggested by experience. And to be useful, theories based on experience must be logically coherent and sound.
Ethics: A Guide to Life
Ethics is the practical concern with how to live one’s life. Some of the thinkers about ethics are the following:
Socrates asked questions such as, What is temperance? Courage? Justice? Piety? Virtue?
Aristotle advised us to cultivate the virtues.
The Stoics sought to live in harmony with nature and to be indifferent to pleasure, pain and the vicissitudes of life.
Epicurus advised us to seek the pleasure of tranquility. (His ideas were far from what we now think of as epicureanism, the pursuit of sensual pleasure.)
Kant said we should do our duty according to the dictates of reason.
Kierkegaard, a precursor of the existentialists, advised us to have faith while confronting doubt. Subjectivity is truth, he said, and the authentic life is one based in deep feeling.
Sartre said that we are radically free. We must arbitrarily choose our actions, and in so doing we create ourselves.
As mentioned above,the practical maxims in each of these approaches to ethics are based on a view of the system of things as a whole. Figuring out how to act requires understanding ourselves. Understanding ourselves requires understanding the whole of reality. Hence, ethics cannot be divorced from metaphysics and epistemology.
As philosophy is the attempt to think clearly, and as our language has a great deal to do with how we think, it behooves us to watch the words we use to talk about what we should do or to tell others to do. There are two categories of language in this regard, Goodness and Rightness. The Goodness paradigm uses words such as “good” and “bad” to speak of benefits and harms. In this paradigm, “should” is practical advice. The Rightness paradigm uses words such as “right” and “wrong” to speak of duties, responsibilities and our obligation to obey moral rules. In this paradigm “should” is a moral command. I have written about this distinction elsewhere; here I just want to advise you to notice when people talk about what should be done whether they are in the Goodness or Rightness paradigm, or whether they mix up the two.
Conceptual Analysis and Correction of Conceptual Mistakes
Much of contemporary philosophy in the English-speaking world focuses on conceptual analysis. The attempt to use words clearly is found in all of the branches of philosophy, whether it be to determine what people really mean when they use certain words or to stipulate what the author intends them to mean. Analyzing concepts goes all the way back to Socrates, who asked what courage is or piety, etc.
The modern analytic tradition emphasizes clarity of argument and a respect for the natural sciences. Its aim is the logical clarification of thoughts, which can be achieved only by analysis of the logical form of philosophical propositions. This tradition relies heavily on modern formal logic. It rejects sweeping philosophical systems in favor of attention to detail or to ordinary language. At its most extreme, it regards ungrounded metaphysical speculation as meaningless nonsense.
Stemming from the analytic tradition, but not limited to it, is the idea that the proper aim of philosophy is to correct conceptual mistakes.
The Logical Positivists thought that only statements verifiable either logically or empirically are cognitively meaningful. The goal of philosophy is to prevent confusion rooted in unclear language and unverifiable claims.
The later Wittgenstein asserted that the purpose of philosophy is to break bad habits of thought, which are typically brought about by misuse of language: “Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of our language.”(2)
The Pragmatists, Peirce, James and Dewey, sought to make our ideas clear by focusing on their practical effects.
In all of this lies a useful observation, that clarity of language promotes clarity of thought and mutual understanding. Using words sloppily is not only unappealing but positively harmful.
Some philosophers don’t fit neatly into the categories above. Here are a few:
The writings of Nietzsche contain unsystematic observations about human nature. They are a polemic guide to life.
Edmund Husserl founded Phenomenology, the clarification of aspects of reality from a rigorous first-person point of view. His work is analytical, but it is an analysis of subjectivity, not of language.
Heidegger, Husserl’s student, did ontology from a radically subjective point of view. His work is an ontology of the world as lived in, not just thought about. As a guide to life he advised us to be authentic.
The Value of Philosophy
There are lots of things you can do with philosophy, of varying degrees of usefulness.
You can play interesting intellectual games. Many people find them lots of fun and an agreeable pastime. But sometimes the games become completely trivial and unrelated to real life. A recent New York Times article notes that epistemologists now concern themselves with questions such as how you know you believe you are wearing socks. Not how you know you have socks on, but how you know you believe you have socks on.(3)
In contrast, philosophy can also be of vital importance. Achieving wisdom, knowledge of what to do with your life, is the most important thing you can do.
One thing that is clear from the history of philosophy is that there are no easy answers. Famously, philosophers never seem to settle on something they agree on. Unlike the physical sciences, in which more and more detailed knowledge has been achieved over time, philosophy still talks about the same questions that the ancients did.
But that does not make it useless. All it means is that someone else’s answers to what to make of life are of limited value if you don’t think about the question yourself. For maximum value, for having a firm foundation for both thought and conduct, we each need to figure out for ourselves the answers to the fundamental questions.
(1) Whitehead, Process and Reality, p. 4.
(2) Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, paragraph 109.
(3) Cassam, “Know Thy Self — Really.”
Cassam, Quassim. “Know Thy Self — Really.” Online publication http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/12/07/know-thy-self-really as of 29 December 2014.
Whitehead, Alfred North. Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology. 1929. New York: Harper and Row Harper Torchbooks, 1957.
Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical Investigations. Tr. G. E. M. Anscombe. 1953. New York: Prentice Hall, 1999.
With the notable exception of chaotic systems—those in which slight variations of initial conditions produce widely diverging outcomes(1)—the theory that everything is determined generally entails that future states can be predicted from current or past states of the system under investigation. The possibility of accurate prediction has a distinct bearing on questions of determinism and free will. For the most part, if something cannot be predicted with accuracy, then it is not determined.
Materialists base deterministic beliefs on physical causality, the idea that physical events happen inexorably as a result of prior physical events. Taking human beings to be nothing more than complex aggregations of physical matter, they believe that our sense of free will is illusory, and that all is determined by the past. If we insist that such a view entails that we could fully predict the future, we run into a problem. For any system that engages in substantial interaction with its environment and is complex enough to be interesting, it would be computationally unworkable to predict its future states in their entirety. We might get better and better, of course, but could not achieve 100 percent accuracy. Even disregarding quantum indeterminacy, it is in practice impossible fully to predict the future.
Even so, some insist that it could be possible in principle. If we had a powerful enough computer and enough data, they say, we could do it. This was the view of the Marquis de LaPlace, who wrote,
We may regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its past and the cause of its future. An intellect which at a certain moment would know all forces that set nature in motion, and all positions of all items of which nature is composed, if this intellect were also vast enough to submit these data to analysis, it would embrace in a single formula the movements of the greatest bodies of the universe and those of the tiniest atom; for such an intellect nothing would be uncertain and the future just like the past would be present before its eyes.(2)
LaPlace knew nothing of computers, but LaPlace’s Demon (so-called; he himself did not use that term(3)) takes the place of one. The problem is that, given the openness of systems to external influences, such a computation would mean ultimately that we would need to predict the future of the entire universe. To do so would require a computer with a data store larger than all the items we would need to keep track of, hence larger than the universe. Not to mention that the computer itself would presumably be part of the universe and thus would itself need to be modeled. This scenario ends up in absurdity.
At the quantum level the future state of an individual object or event (at that level, the distinction between the two is tenuous at best) is indeterminate; events can be predicted only statistically. However, the statistical predictions are quite accurate and replicable. This leads some materialists, who believe humans to be entirely physical, to assert that human beings are determined because we can predict physical reality with accuracy. This does not hold either. It is the same as saying that people are determined because given a population of them we can predict how many will choose one thing over another—to vote Republican or Democrat, say. Or that an individual is determined because over a span of time we can predict how often that person will choose one thing over another—to eat vanilla ice cream or chocolate, for instance. But even given the accuracy of such statistical predictions, we are unable to predict a single instance with certainty. We can’t fully predict how a particular person will vote or what food that person will choose at a particular time.
The single instance of person or time is analogous to the single photon fired at the photographic plate in the Double Slit experiment.(4) We are unable to predict where it will be detected, even though we can predict the statistical aggregate quite nicely. And that is the essential point about ourselves as agents, that in every moment there is the possibility that we will do something unexpected.
(1) Wikipedia, “Chaos theory.”
(2) LaPlace, A Philosophical Essay on Probabilities, p.4.
(3) Wikipedia, “LaPlace’s demon.”
(4) Wikipedia, “Double-slit experiment.”
Laplace, Pierre Simon. A Philosophical Essay on Probabilities. translated into English from the original French 6th ed. by F.W. Truscott and F.L., Emory. New York: Dover Publications, 1951.
Wikipedia, “Chaos theory.” Online publication http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chaos_theory as of 21 November 2014.
Wikipedia. “Double-slit experiment.” Online publication http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Double-slit_experiment as of 16 September 2014.
Wikipedia. “”Laplace’s demon.” Online publication https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laplace’s_demon as of 19 August 2014.
No discussion of free will would be complete without mention of Daniel Dennett, a noted compatibilist, one who believes that free will is a reality even though the universe is wholly determined. Leaving aside the fact that the universe is not in fact wholly determined—because quantum indeterminacy is in effect at the subatomic level of reality—his account of free will is instructive, as it analyzes the practical effects of free will, effects that are real regardless of whether the universe is wholly determined or not.
Dennett writes in the tradition of Wittgenstein, who thought that the purpose of philosophy is to break bad habits of thought, which are typically brought about by the bewitchment of intelligence by language.(1) Dennett’s work on the topic is all about deflating exaggerated misconceptions of what free will really is. What do we really mean when we say we want our will to be free? His answer is that we cannot, upon rational reflection, mean that we want it to be uncaused.(2) Instead we want the following:(3)
- We want our actions to be determined by good reasons, not by causes outside our control.
- We want to control our own decisions and actions, not be controlled by someone or something else.
- We want to be free from constraint.
- We want our deliberations to be effective, to have a genuine ability to influence the course of affairs.
- We want dignity and responsibility to be real, not illusory. And we want fatalism and nihilism to be illusory, not real.
All of these depend crucially on the notion of agency, that we are “capable of initiating, and taking responsibility for, projects and deeds.”(4) Dennett calls this view of human nature the “agency metaphor.”(5)
As I have described in detail elsewhere, Dennett sometimes uses a technical term in philosophy, the “intentional stance,” to refer to ascriptions of agency. Dennett observes that we ascribe to others an interiority (my word, not his) much like our own:
[The intentional stance] consists of treating the object whose behavior you want to predict as a rational agent with beliefs and desires and other mental states exhibiting what Brentano and others call intentionality.(6)
Since “intentional” has a perfectly good everyday usage, it is unfortunate that Dennett uses it to describe the stance we generally take toward other people, toward many animals and, figuratively at least, toward some non-living things such as computers. I prefer to call it an agential stance: we interpret others as agents. From that stance, beliefs and desires are quite as real as physical objects:
There are patterns in human affairs that impose themselves, not quite inexorably but with great vigor, absorbing physical perturbations and variations that might as well be considered random; these are the patterns we characterize in terms of the beliefs, desires and intentions [in the everyday sense] of rational agents.(7)
How Agency Evolved
Dennett, being a materialist, has quite an elaborate account of how agency, with its concomitant notions of freedom and responsibility, has emerged through evolution from arrangements of lower-level physical elements. In his model of reality everything is determined at the lowest level, but higher-level agential patterns emerge from the interactions of low-level elements.
He reasons by analogy from the Game Of Life, a simple computer algorithm invented by mathematician John Conway.(8) The universe of the Game of Life is a two-dimensional grid of square cells, each of which is in one of two possible states, alive or dead. Every cell interacts with its eight neighbors, the cells that are horizontally, vertically, or diagonally adjacent. At each step in time, the following transitions occur:
- Any live cell with fewer than two live neighbors dies, as if caused by under-population.
- Any live cell with two or three live neighbors lives on to the next generation.
- Any live cell with more than three live neighbors dies, as if by overcrowding.
- Any dead cell with exactly three live neighbors becomes a live cell, as if by reproduction.
The initial pattern constitutes the seed of the system. The first generation is created by applying the rules simultaneously to every cell in the seed. Births and deaths occur simultaneously at each tick of the programmed clock (in other words, each generation is a pure function of the preceding one). The rules continue to be applied repeatedly to create further generations. Here are two simple seeds:
|Block, a still life, stays the same at each tick.|
|Blinker, which oscillates between two patterns.|
Given an initial configuration of elements, the rules determine unambiguously and invariably what happens at each iteration. At the lowest level, considered from the physical stance, everything is completely determined. But we, like gods from the imagined point of view of the world of the game, can change the initial configuration. As we do so, unexpected patterns emerge. We find gliders, configurations that move in a straight line through the two-dimensional space. We find eaters, configurations that destroy gliders that collide with them. We find puffer trains, space rakes and other oddly-named configurations.(9) When we detect such entities (and they are easy to see), we have adopted the design stance, interpreting what we see as a higher-level pattern that operates according to its own law (i.e., in its own regular way), even though all the patterns are governed by the same fundamental laws.
In a similar way, Dennett says, all the complexity that we know as agential has emerged via evolution from simpler physical forms. The blind trial-and-error of Darwinian selection creates organisms capable of learning and adopting better and better strategies for survival and reproduction.(10) And those strategies depend crucially on belief and desire, properties of agents.
According to Dennett, evolution of replicators by natural selection, combined with the usefulness of the agential stance to predict and explain behavior, is enough to account for what we know as freedom of will.
Is Dennett right? He certainly makes a good case that all the concerns about free will listed at the beginning of this chapter can be explained (or explained away) by evolution, but the details are too many to summarize here. Instead I consider just a couple of points.
The first is self-awareness. The real power of human agency, says Dennett, is our capacity for what I call second-order thinking, the power to take ourselves as objects of observation and thought. He observes that evolution has provided us with practical reason, the ability to anticipate events and to take actions to enhance our chances for survival. Such reason is the result the development of an ever more elaborate ability to recognize patterns, and that ability culminates in second-order thought:
The truly explosive advance [in humans’ ability to go beyond unthinking reflex] comes when the capacity for pattern recognition is turned upon itself. The creature who is not only sensitive to patterns in its environment, but also to patterns in its own reactions to patterns in its environment has taken a major step.(11)
I have asserted elsewhere that our capacity for second-order thinking is the peculiarly human virtue, that which distinguishes us from other animals and the exercise of which can lead to a fulfilling life. Dennett’s assertion is that this capacity is the result of many thousands of years of evolution, a point with which I have no dispute.
Another interesting aspect of Dennett’s treatment of the issue of free will is how much his thinking is like that of American Pragmatists C.S. Peirce and, in particular, William James. James asks, “Grant an idea or belief to be true … what concrete difference will its being true make in anyone’s actual life? How will the truth be realized? What experiences will be different from those which would obtain if the belief were false?”(12) And “the possession of true thoughts means everywhere the possession of invaluable instruments of action.”(13) This method of assessing truth is reflected in passages such as these by Dennett:
The answer [to whether someone could have done otherwise in exactly the same circumstances and internal state] could not conceivably make any noticeable difference to the way the world went.(14)
The useful notion of “can,” the notion that is relied upon not only in personal planning and deliberation, but also in science, is a concept of possibility.(15)
The main thing [in considering whether one could have done otherwise] is to see to it that I jolly well will do otherwise in similar situations in the future.(16)
… what philosophy is for.(17)
These passages all show quite a practical attitude toward philosophical questions and indeed toward philosophy itself. Instead of puzzling over abstract concepts, we look at what difference various answers would make in our dealings with the world. In this approach the pragmatists bear some resemblance to Wittgenstein. Both offer philosophical methods to clean up confusion.
Let’s take this attitude toward Dennett’s fundamental assertion, that all the things we ascribe to agency and to free will can be accounted for in a deterministic universe by the aggregation of lower-level patterns into higher. Compare it to the assertion that I have made, that in an indeterministic universe what matters is not the outcome of a single quantum event, but the overall pattern of many of them.(18) The assertions are basically identical: what matters is agency, which is usefully described and explained at a higher level than fundamental physical units, be they deterministic or not. Hence, whether the universe is deterministic or not doesn’t make any difference to the question!
(Of course, we have very good reasons from physics for believing in quantum indeterminacy. Dennett argues by appeal to analogy and intuition in Freedom Evolves that we do not need to postulate any quantum indeterminate effects on our thinking and decision making in order to have free will.(19) His argument, fascinating as it is, is irrelevant. Such effects do exist, so we might as well take them into account.)
We are again back at the thought that the question of free will is ridiculous. As Dennett says, “We cannot help acting under the idea of freedom, it seems; we are stuck deliberating as if our futures were open.”(20)
But Dennett also notes that it is quite crucial to recognize that our will is in fact free, because we will be much worse off if we think it is not:
Believing that one has free will is itself one of the necessary conditions for having free will: an agent who enjoyed the other necessary conditions for free will—rationality and the capacity for higher-order self-control and self-reflection—but who had been hoodwinked into believing he lacked free will would be almost as incapacitated for free, responsible choice by that belief as by the lack of any of the other necessary conditions. … If [a person] sinks into doubt, or worse, into the conviction that he lacks free will, he is certain to be right: his attitude toward his own opportunities for choice and action will be such that he is essentially disabled as a chooser.(21)
In our own game of life—the one in which each of us is the star player—it makes a lot more sense to assume that our will is free than not.
(1) Dennett, Elbow Room, p. 18.
(2) Dennett, Freedom Evolves, p. 13.
(3) These points are the topics of the various chapters of Dennett, Elbow Room.
(4) Dennett, Elbow Room, p. 169.
(5) Dennett, Elbow Room, p. 61.
(6) Dennett, The Intentional Stance, p. 15.
(7) Dennett, The Intentional Stance, p. 27.
(8) Wikipedia, “Conway’s Game of Life.” You can find several implementations of the game on the internet, should you wish to try it out yourself, for instance at http://www.kongregate.com/games/shaman4d/conways-game-of-life as of 26 Ocrober 2014.
(9) Dennett, Freedom Evolves, p. 39.
(10) Dennett, Elbow Room, p. 30.
(11) Dennett, Elbow Room, p. 29.
(12) James, Pragmatism’s Conception of Truth, p. 133.
(13) James, Pragmatism’s Conception of Truth, p. 135.
(14) Dennett, Elbow Room, p. 138.
(15) Dennett, Elbow Room, p. 148, emphasis added.
(16) Dennett, Elbow Room, p. 143.
(17) Dennett, Elbow Room, p. 18, emphasis in original.
(18) Meacham, How To Be An Excellent Human, pp. 48-49.
(19) Dennett, Freedom Evolves, pp. 97-139.
(20) Dennett, Elbow Room, p. 108.
(21) Dennett, Elbow Room, p. 168.
Dennett, Daniel C. Elbow Room: The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting. 1984. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1997.
Dennett, Daniel C. Freedom Evolves. New York, Penguin Books, 2003.
James, William. “Pragmatism’s Conception of Truth.” In Pragmatism and four essays from The Meaning of Truth, pp. 131-153. 1955. New York: Meridian Books, 1964. Online publication http://bmeacham.com/whatswhat/OP/James_Pragmatism%27sConceptionOfTruth.html as of 24 October 2014.
Meacham, Bill. How To Be An Excellent Human: Mysticism, Evolutionary Psychology and the Good Life. Austin, Texas: Earth Harmony, 2013. Available at https://www.createspace.com/4051825.
Wikipedia. “Conway’s Game of Life.” Online publication http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conway%27s_Game_of_Life as of 22 September 2014.
What if your brain were taken over by a parasite and made you want something you would not ordinarily want? What if it took over your second-order thinking and made you want to want that thing? Would your will then be free?
This is not so far-fetched a scenario as it might seem. There are numerous examples of parasites infecting the brains of animals to make those animals act contrary to their own well-being. Here is one:
The Lancet liver fluke Dicrocoelium dendriticum has a very busy life. As an adult it spends its time in the liver of a cow or another grazing mammal. Here it mates and lays eggs, which are excreted in the host’s feces.
A snail eats the poo, taking in the eggs at the same time. The eggs hatch in the snail and make their way into its digestive gland, where they asexually reproduce. They then travel to the surface of the snail’s body. As a defensive maneuver, the snail walls the parasites up in cysts and coughs up the balls of slime…doing exactly what the parasites wanted it to do.
An ant comes along and gobbles up the fluke-laded slime balls. The flukes then spread out inside of the ant, with a couple of them setting up shop in the insect’s head. When night approaches, the flukes take control. They make the ant climb up a blade of grass and hold tight, waiting to be eaten by a grazing animal. If the ant is still alive at dawn, the flukes release their control and the ant goes about its day like normal (if the ant baked in the sun, the parasite would die, too). At night the flukes take over again and the cycle repeats until the ant becomes cattle food.(1)
It’s doubtful, of course, that the lancet fluke actually wants its host to do anything. That is just a figure of speech. But what is clear is that the ant’s climbing up the blade of grass has nothing to do with its own survival and well-being. Its mind, tiny as it is, has been hijacked by the parasite. If it had enough mentality to reflect on what it is doing, the ant could probably find plausible and compelling reasons for its actions. Perhaps it feels good to climb. Perhaps hanging out at the top of the blade of grass feels tranquil and comfortable. Or exhilarating. We’ll never know. But we can find out find how it feels in our own case, because we too are subject to parasitic hijacking.
Daniel Dennett makes the point that certain memes have the same effect on humans that the lancet fluke has on ants. A meme is a unit of cultural transmission, similar to the gene, which is a unit of biological evolution. Like a gene, a meme is a replicator, except memes replicate contemporaneously between minds rather than historically between bodies.(2) A meme is an idea or information packet that replicates itself by passing from mind to mind. Says Dennett,
It’s ideas – not worms – that hijack our brains. … There are a lot of ideas to die for. Freedom. … Justice. Truth. Communism. Many people have laid down their lives for communism, and many have laid down their lives for capitalism. And many for Catholicism. And many for Islam. These are just a few of the ideas that are to die for. They’re infectious.(3)
Such hijacking might be innocuous and unintended, the product of cultural memetic replication like a catchy tune, or it might be quite deliberate, as in brainwashing or propaganda. For example, here are a few memes that may have been installed in you or someone you know.
- Those of other religions than yours are heathens and infidels and must be stopped at any cost.
- Your form of government is the best one and works for your benefit.
- People of your race (or gender or nationality, etc.) are better than those of other races (or genders or nationalities) and deserve better treatment.
And so on. You can probably think of more. In all these cases, our beliefs can induce us to act contrary to our own well-being (and to our genetic fitness as well, but that is not usually our concern).
But regardless of the effect on our own well-being, when we are so induced we seem to act as we do voluntarily, of our own free will. And yet, something else – our parents, our community, our culture, the information media we are exposed to, the government, the dominant economic class, etc. – determines our will, i.e. what we want, choose and strive for. And furthermore, that something determines our second-order will as well, what we want to want.
I have noted with approval philosopher Harry Frankfurt’s notion that freedom of the will consists in being able to make second-order volitions effective. It is second-order volition – our ability to control what we want based on our capacity for reflective self-evaluation – that distinguishes us humans from other animals. Our will is free, he says, when we succeed in making our second-order volition effective; that is, when the second-order volition actually governs the first order such that the preferred first-order desire is what results in action. When that happens, we judge that our will is free.
But what if somebody else controls our second-order will? Such a thing is quite possible through brainwashing, application of propaganda, and also operant conditioning and behavioral engineering as depicted in the novel Walden Two.
Robert Kane calls such control Covert Nonconstraining Control, or CNC. In cases of constraining control, a person is forced by physical causes to act against his will, for example by being physically threatened or locked up. In cases of nonconstraining control, a person’s will is manipulated so that the person willingly does what the controller wants done. The person is not obviously constrained, but is controlled nonetheless. Examples include operant conditioning, behavioral engineering and other forms of manipulation. CNC, covert nonconstraining control, occurs when the manipulation is hidden from the person being manipulated; that person does not know he or she is being manipulated and perhaps does not even know that the manipulators exist.(4)
When we find out that we have been manipulated we typically feel outraged. Take the fictional account of the fantasy world of Harry Potter. In that world one of the unforgiveable curses is Imperius, by which the witch or wizard controls the victim’s will. It is unforgiveable because it violates one of the most central aspects of our identity, the sense that we are in charge of our choices, and that our choices define (or reveal) who we are. Nobody wants to be a puppet. (The other thing that is central to our identity is how we perceive reality, our own unique point of view. But our perception, seemingly more passive, is not quite so central. Were we to find out that someone had distorted our perceptions, we would feel anger at being lied to, but not, I suspect, outrage at being controlled.)
So is our will free when we are covertly constrained? No, obviously not. Our choices and resulting actions are not ours, but our controller’s. But do we still have free will? In the sense of having the capacity for it, yes.
That capacity – whether or not it is actually exercised at any given time – is rooted in our capacity for reflective self-awareness, or second-order thinking. If your second-order will is determined by someone else, as soon as you know it you can take steps against it. Or for it, if you decide you like it that way. The point is, once you know someone is trying to control you, you have a choice about it. Second-order thinking is, potentially, self-correcting.
Now clearly it might not be so easy to find out. If your manipulator is sufficiently skilled, it might be very, very difficult indeed. You would feel no impulse to find out if you did not even suspect that you might be subject to manipulation.
That’s why philosophy is, in some ways, a subversive concern. Socrates famously asserted that the unexamined life is not worth living.(5) If we desire wisdom we are advised to examine our lives even if there appears to be nothing to be concerned about. A manipulator would not want you to do that, because you might discover the manipulation. Having discovered it, however, you would be better off, as you could then take steps to take back your will.
Eternal vigilance, it seems, is the price not only of political liberty(6) but of freedom of the will as well.
(1) Bennington-Castro, “12 Real Parasites That Control the Lives of Their Hosts.”
(2) Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, chapter 11, pp. 189–201.
(3) Dennett, Daniel C. “Dangerous Memes.”
(4) Kane, The Significance of Free Will, pp. 61-67.
(5) Plato, Apology, 38a.
(6) Berkes, “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty (Quotation).”
Bennington-Castro, Joseph. “12 Real Parasites That Control the Lives of Their Hosts.” Online publication http://io9.com/12-real-parasites-that-control-the-lives-of-their-hosts-461313366 as of 19 September 2014.
Berkes, Anna. “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty (Quotation).” Online publication http://www.monticello.org/site/jefferson/eternal-vigilance-price-liberty-quotation as of 24 September 2014.
Dawkins, Richard. The Selfish Gene, New Edition. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.
Dennett, Daniel C. “Dangerous Memes.” Online publication http://www.ted.com/talks/dan_dennett_on_dangerous_memes as of 19 Sept. 2014.
Kane, Robert. The Significance of Free Will. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Plato. Apology. Tr. Hugh Tredennick. The Collected Dialogues of Plato. Ed. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns. New York: Pantheon Books, 1963.