The universe, as they say, gave me an opportunity recently to read a couple of books on Zarathustra and Zoroastrianism. (Why we seem to want to personalize such events and attribute agency to them is a topic for another time.) A few years ago I had traveled to Uzbekistan and seen for myself the land in which Zoroastrianism first arose, so I jumped at the opportunity to learn more. This essay is a summary and interpretation of what I found out. Don’t take it as an authoritative account of Zarathustra’s teachings; it’s just an account of some things that seemed noteworthy to me.
Nobody knows for sure quite where Zarathustra lived or quite when he taught, but his origin may well have been in the Khorezm region of what is now Uzbekistan, near the western end of the great Eurasian steppe.(1) The region is dry and dusty. The once mighty Amu Darya river, known to the Greeks as the Oxus, is just a brown trickle. In Zarathustra’s time the region was no doubt wetter and more fertile, as the massive Soviet diversions of water for irrigation were far in the future.(2) Zarathustra’s culture was nomadic and pastoral, and his circumstances seem to have been modest. In one of his hymns, he prays that God will reward him with a mere ten mares, a stallion and a camel.(3)
Zarathustra is appropriately called the First Prophet. He spoke of themes later to be found in Judaism, Christianity and Islam: a single universal God, the battle between good and evil, the devil, heaven and hell, and an eventual end to the world. He addressed a people who venerated fire and worshipped the ancestral deities of the Indo-Europeans, a host of gods, demons and spirits. In contrast, he proclaimed some radical ideas:(4)
- There is only one God, not a host of them. God is named Ahura Mazda, roughly “Lord Who Is Wise,” and is a god of goodness.
- All the other gods and deities that people worship are merely attributes, partial glimpses, of Ahura Mazda. Evil deities such as the spirits of war, destruction and greed are reflections of humanity’s baser tendencies. None of them are to be worshipped.
- The source of goodness in the world is Asha, often rendered as “truth”, “reality” or “righteousness.”
- The source of evil in the world is the Lie (Druj), untruth or deception. Later personified as a supernatural being, Angra Mainyu, the concept seems at first to have been of an abstract principle. Angra Mainyu means a mind or mentality (mainyu) that is destructive or malign (angra).(5)
- Each individual has a free choice between good and evil. Following the path of goodness leads to happiness in this life, and following the path of the Lie leads to destruction. In addition, there will be a happy existence after death for those who follow goodness and an unhappy existence for those who do not.
Zarathustra denounced the practice of animal sacrifice as cruel, opposed the ritual use of the plant haoma (the soma of the Rig Veda in India), and did not preach the adoration of fire. In other words, he rejected the religion and rituals of his time, and he thereby earned the scorn and hostility of his priests and his ruling princes and warriors. He was denounced, expelled from his community, cut off from his family and clan and forced into exile. He traveled to Balkh, in today’s Afghanistan, where he found a warmer reception and became the court priest, living out his days in peace.(6)
After Zarathustra’s death, elements of the old religion came creeping back. Deities became more prominent and the use of haoma was reinstated, as was the ancient cult of fire, a tradition that continues to this day. By the sixth century B.C. the religion of Ahura Mazda had become the official state religion of Persia. Interrupted by the defeat of Persia by Alexander of Macedonia (one hesitates to call “Great” such a ruthless megalomaniac), the religion had a resurgence after Alexander’s empire broke apart, but became more and more ossified and rigid, with a proliferation of rules, a complicated set of purity laws and severe persecution of those who failed to obey.(7) After the Arabs took over in the seventh century and Islam became the official religion, the religion of Zarathustra gradually waned, living on today in communities of Parsees (Persians) in India and in scattered places throughout the rest of the world.
So why study it, if it is so obscure? Because some of its foundational concepts are still of great relevance.
Consider Asha, variously translated as “reality” and “truth.”(8) According to Dr. Jenny Rose, a professor at Claremont Graduate University, “Asha can be translated as ‘order’ or ‘arranged in cosmic cohesion,’ and thus ‘right’ in the sense of ‘as it should be.’”(9) The ancients blurred the distinction between reality, truthful statements about what reality is, and normative statements about what reality ought to be, but the point is that according to this conception there is an order or cohesion to what is real. If we could discern that order and live in harmony with it, our lives would be good, that is, fulfilled and happy.
And we can indeed discern that order, because it is seen in the biological systems that surround us and in which we live. Zarathustra recognized and valued the ordered systems of nature, which promote growth and well-being. He says, “He who cherishes Thy Way with the Good Mind is himself a promoter of abundance and prosperity.”(10) Professor Rose comments,
The good thoughts, words and actions of the ashavan [one who adheres to Asha] lead to blessings, increase, peace, wholeness and continuity of life for the individual, the community, and the land. In pursuing this course, the ashavan is emulating the increase-producing activity of Ahura Mazda, who brings benefits to the highest degree, expressed in the epithet spento.toma, ‘most beneficial’.(11)
The language here is all in what I call the Goodness Paradigm, which evaluates courses of actions in terms of observable benefits and harms rather than adherence to moral rules.(12) Zarathustra embraced what we now call Permaculture: the observation and mimicry of natural systems to create abundance.(13) The ethically good choice, the choice that promotes human flourishing, is to live in harmony with how nature works. Care for the elements – later Zoroastrianism had rules for civic hygiene and against pollution of the waters – prefigures our modern concern with healthy ecology.(14)
The opposite, interestingly, is not disharmony but the Lie (Druj), a deception or misrepresentation of reality that renders one incapable of making good choices. Unlike the Vedic morality of India in which the opposite of order is merely its absence, and unlike the Classical Greek belief that it is just ignorance that causes us to make bad choices, the evil portrayed in the earliest Zoroastrian scriptures is a forceful expression of ill will. The dregvant (one who adheres to Druj) actively chooses evil thoughts, words and actions, perpetuating cruelty, violence, ill treatment and acts of wrath and oppression.(15) Lots of things cause harm – natural disasters, wild animals, disease and so forth – but what is truly evil is the deliberate human intention to cause harm. The Lie destroys trust and tears apart the fabric of community. What’s worse, the liar becomes incapable of perceiving and acting on what is truly good, good for him (or her) as well as everyone else.
Again, the basis of ethics is the observed consequences of one’s actions. The Zoroastrian religion soon enough became full of laws and prohibitions, but the earliest insights are just common sense, couched in the desire of Ahura Mazda for human welfare. Good thoughts, good words and good deeds (humata, hukhta and hvareshta) are what is good for human beings.(16) And, by the way, notice that it starts with good thoughts. “As you think, so shall you become” is nothing new.(17)
The cosmology of Zoroastrianism is a standard dualist view of good versus evil. In the earliest writings, Ahura Mazda, the Wise Lord, is the source and creator of everything. Angra Mainyu, destructive mentality, is something like a deficiency or perversity that causes the good mentality, Spenta Mainyu, to be deceived. Later, Angra Mainyu is raised to the status of an independent being who is opposed to the Wise Lord; in other words, Satan as opposed to God. There are various theological interpretations of these two beings, disputes about which have unfortunately been the cause of wars and persecutions. Is the Devil an independent being, co-equal with God? Is God the supreme creator and the Devil one of the creatures, albeit a particularly powerful one? In either case, the world we live in is seen as a battleground in which one must choose sides.
But there is another conception, rooted in an ancient mysticism of the steppe: that both Good and Evil, God and the Devil, have their source in unity. According to researcher Tohir Karim of the Tashkent University in Uzbekistan, it is Time (Zrvana) that is the underlying or originating force that makes possible both good and evil. To be clear, this concept does not appear in the Zoroastrian scriptures; Karim cites instead the legends and traditions of Khorezm.(18) He says
At the basis of all … is the image of time, the powerful force which organizes the system of objects and events in the material world, provides for the sequence of events, and sets the whole universe in motion. Even the gods are believed to be powerless before time, as the gods, too, are seen as only a product of time as it proceeds. … [Time] was considered to exist before the material world, outside of nature, and to set nature in motion …. Zrvana (Time) in the course of its progress initially created two spirits. They were not the creators of the universe, but the results of the efforts of the powerful Zrvana.(19)
There are two ideas of note here: that all is change, and that all is one.
Time, the ongoing succession of events, is what makes everything possible. Everything changes from moment to moment. This notion of constant change echoes Heraclitus and prefigures the modern process philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead. What is ultimately real is not substance, but process. We, the living, are not anomalies in a fundamentally dead universe. We are elaborations of a life that extends down to the tiniest elements.
That Time generates all things also echoes the many strains of mysticism that assert a unity that underlies the plurality of manifestation that we live in every day: the Way of Taoism, the Brahman of Hinduism, the Original Mind of Buddhism, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Oversoul, the Ein Sof of Jewish Kabbalah, the Godhood of the Christian mystic Meister Eckhart, the Gnostic All, the One Being of Sufism.
It is beyond the scope of this essay to explain mystical unity. Please refer to Chapters 11 through 13 of my book. I just want to examine one aspect of it. Typically the mystics say that both good and evil are aspects or manifestations of the One, and that the purpose of being human is to realize our unity with that One. It is a mistake, they say, to get caught up in dualistic struggle as if one side or the other were ultimately real. But if that is the case, why should we favor goodness over evil? If neither are the ultimate reality, why prefer one over the other?
Zarathustra suggests an answer: Because aligning yourself with the good gives you a better chance of experiencing oneness than not. You have to be alive to realize your mystical unity with the All, and it is the good that promotes life, not evil. Evil is ultimately self-destructive. (Of course I am extending Zoroastrian teachings here, which were religious and ethical, not mystical.)
What is good is analogous to light; and what is bad, or harmful, is analogous to darkness. If you live in darkness, you can’t see very well; your strategies are limited because of lack of information. They may be brutally effective for a while, but are ultimately self-defeating. It is more efficacious in the long run to live in the light, and it is much more pleasant as well. Light and dark endlessly alternate, it is true, and the alternation is all part of the whole. If you live in that knowledge, then you are enlightened. If you don’t, then turning toward the light will make it more likely that you will come to that realization.
If mysticism does not appeal to you, however, or even if you find the religious world view itself, mystical or not, distasteful or merely unlikely, the Zoroastrian ethic still makes abundant sense. Zarathustra espouses what I call the Goodness Ethic, which tells us how to live a happy, harmonious life: cultivate good thoughts, good words, and good actions.
(1) Karim, pp. 201-204.
(2) Wikipedia, “Amu Darya.”
(3) Kriwaczek, p. 212. The Gathas: The Hymns of Zarathushtra, 44:18.
(4) Ibid., p. 2013.
(5) Wikipedia, “Angra Mainyu.”
(6) Kriwaczek, pp. 213-214.
(7) Ibid., pp. 217-219.
(8) Wikipedia, “Asha.”
(9) Rose, p. 9.
(10) The Gathas: The Hymns of Zarathushtra, 49:5.
(11) Rose., p. 17.
(12) Meacham, “The Good and the Right.”
(13) Michael, “What Is Permaculture?”
(14) Rose, p. 18.
(16) Ibid., p. 17.
(17) Bruce Lee. https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/381647-as-you-think-so-shall-you-become as of 22 November 2013.
(18) Karim, p. 185-186.
(19) Ibid., pp. 210-211.
Karim, Tohir. Traces of the Sacred Avesta. Tashkent: Gafur Guliam, 2007.
Kriwaczek, Paul. In Search of Zarathustra: The First Prophet and the Ideas That Changed the World. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003.
Meacham, Bill. “The Good and the Right.” Online publication http://www.bmeacham.com/whatswhat/GoodAndRight.html.
Meacham, Bill. How To Be An Excellent Human. Austin: Earth Harmony, 2013. Available at http://bmeacham.com.
Michael, Patricia. “What Is Permaculture?” Online publication http://patriciamichaeldesign.com/WhatIsPermaculture.htm as of 22 November 2013.
Rose, Jenny. Zorastrianism, An Introduction. London. and New York: I.B. Taurus, 2011.
The Gathas: The Hymns of Zarathushtra. Tr. D.J. Irani. Online publication http://www.zarathushtra.com/z/gatha/dji/The%20Gathas%20-%20DJI.pdf as of 20 November 2013.
Wikipedia. “Amu Darya.” Online publication http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amu_Darya as of 20 November 2013.
Wikipedia. “Angra Mainyu.” Online publication http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Angra_Mainyu as of 20 November 2013.
Wikipedia. “Asha.” Online publication http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Asha as of 21 November 2013.
My daughter died recently. In this essay I tell the story of her death, not to evoke your sympathy or condolences or to induce you to feel sorry for me – although those things are perfectly normal responses – but because there is a philosophical point to be made. I had communication with her after her bodily death. I have reason to believe that I know some things about what happened to her and what she did after that event. In this essay I present the evidence for those startling assertions. Please reserve your judgment until you have read to the end.
Just the facts
On September 15, 2013, Katherine Claire Hiles (her name from a previous marriage) was driving west out of Nelson, British Columbia on Route 3A, a two-lane road, with her wife, Mireille Evans. At 3:26 p.m. about 15 kilometers from Nelson near the intersection with Curtis Road a vehicle crossed the center line and struck Katy’s car, killing her instantly. She was taken to a nearby hospital but could not be resuscitated. No alcohol or drugs were involved. Mireille was bruised and scratched, but otherwise physically unharmed. The other driver also sustained injuries, but lived. Police say that he does not remember what happened. At the last instant Katy turned her car to the right, taking the full brunt of the impact on herself and sparing Mireille. Police say that a trained race-car driver could not have avoided the collision. Katy’s death was immediate, and there is no reason to believe that she suffered any pain.
I did not find out about this until the next day, when some officials from the Texas Attorney General’s Office showed up at my door to tell me. I immediately called my wife, who hurried home, and we called a few friends.
Before I tell the rest of the story, I need to give some background about Katy. 31 years old at the time, she had been studying Native American spirituality for several years with a group of women in British Columbia. Specifically she studied the ways of the Lakota, in the tradition of Wallace Black Elk. Her teacher, Kat McCooeye, is a woman of Celtic, Huron and African ancestry who was raised by Native peoples in northern BC and who has been authorized in the lineage of Wallace Black Elk to teach the tradition. Katy was deeply committed to this path, very knowledgeable about its teachings and practices, and a member of a strong community of women and men who participated regularly in sweat lodges and other ceremonies.
An extraordinary communication
My wife had an appointment that day with a spiritual healer from Chile. I do not have permission to reveal the healer’s name (not that she has refused; I just haven’t asked, as she has gone back to Chile), so I will call her M. M speaks very little English, and our friend Casey translated. M had been told about Katy’s death and told me to come into the treatment room as well. There were thus four people present: M, Casey Bledsoe, Patricia Michael and I, Bill Meacham. Neither Patricia nor I had ever met M before.
M said Katy was in good hands, with a grandfather figure who was helping her through her surprise and confusion.
Now, unbeknownst to me, the previous day just after Katy’s death her lodge sisters had come to the hospital where Katy and Mireille had been taken. One of the women, Jessica Bamford, has told me that they could sense that Katy was still present and a bit confused. One of them said to her, “Katy, darling, you’re dead.” Katy replied, “Oh. That’s why I can see Grandpa.”
None of us in the treatment room had any knowledge that that exchange had taken place. Here are two entirely independent reports that Katy was in the presence of a grandfather figure after her body had died.
(By the way, I, as her father, am extremely grateful that she was greeted and cared for by a wise, competent elder male.)
M then said that Katy said something about running. M asked whether I had run with Katy when she was young. I was puzzled and said that we had climbed trees together, but had not run. M said no, there was something about running. Then I remembered a game I used to play with Katy when she was little, four, five and six years old or thereabouts, a game we called Run-Past. I would sit on the couch, and she would run past me as I tried to grab her. Of course I acted quite clumsy and failed most of the time, and she would shriek with laughter as she got away. Occasionally I would catch her and toss her around and nuzzle her, humorously saying I was going to eat the little girl. It was lots of fun.
There was no way M could have known that. There was no way Casey, our translator could have known that.
M then told me that Katy said she had gone first and that she had promised to take care of me when I died, but she had deceived me.
A year earlier, on a previous trip to Canada, I had talked to Katy about my own end of life. I told her that at some point I would most likely get old and die and that I wanted her to be with me when that happened. She said of course she would, but asked me please not to do it any time soon.
Now Katy was telling me that she was not going to care for me as I died. Again, there was no way that M, whom I had never met before, could have known about my conversation with Katy a year earlier, nor could Casey, whom I had not told about it.
Then Katy, through M, told Patricia some things and said that we would meet again. At the end, Katy said that she was trespassing for this brief time to talk to us, implying that she was breaking a rule against talking to those of us still in our physical bodies. The conversation with her ended.
How can we explain these messages that seem to have come from the dead? To me it is obvious that they were indeed messages from Katy, who was still alive in some form after her physical body died. Materialists deny the possibility of such a thing. They say that the mind is merely a byproduct of the brain, and when the brain dies one’s mind – one’s subjectivity, one’s personhood – dies with it. To maintain their view, I suppose, they would have to say that what I heard from M was coincidence or dissembling. That seems unlikely to me. Or that I am lying, which I’m not.
There is no way to know with the certainty that objective science gives us which interpretation is correct. And even if we grant that it is more likely that Katy really did talk to us after her physical death than that the healer somehow guessed what she had no way of knowing, that does not tell us for sure about anybody else’s death. We have only one data point, one communication that purports to come from beyond the physical world that science investigates so well. From this one data point we cannot confidently say that everyone lives on after physical death. Maybe only some people do. Katy had undergone rigorous training. Maybe only those with such training live on.
We can’t ethically do a replicable scientific experiment. We can’t pick a group of people who have had spiritual training and a control group who haven’t and kill them all suddenly and see which ones survive on the other side and in what way.
There is some additional evidence for the assertion that at least some people live on after physical death. There are numerous other stories like mine, of people who had physically died communicating with the living, revealing things that the person facilitating the communication could not have known. No doubt many such stories are the result of wishful thinking, delusion or outright charlatanry. But all of them? We could find fault with each one, but the likelihood of lots of people all coming up with the same falsehood seems slim.(1)
In any case, we do have objective verification of my story. Four people, Casey, Patricia, I and M herself, heard what M reported that Katy said. Katy’s mother and sister can verify that I used to play Run-Past with her. Patricia can verify that I had talked to Katy about my end of life. And we have two independent reports, separated in time by almost a day and in space by two thousand miles, of Katy’s being in the presence of a grandfather figure. I am not making this up.
What we have here is some data that contradict the materialistic dominant scientific paradigm.(2) I have speculated elsewhere about what might replace that paradigm(3), but discussing ontology is not my aim in this essay. My aim is just to tell the story and see what it might imply for us, the living.
What follows includes some things told to me by people in Katy’s lodge. I am inclined to believe what they say about her. Because M’s independent report of her being with a grandfather corroborates their testimony that they heard her say she could see Grandpa, I assume the truth of their other reports as well.
The rest of the story
I am extremely grateful, after I had received the shocking news from some guys I did not know, that Katy spoke to me and Patricia. I am completely convinced that she was there in some form, after her physical form was dead, to talk to us.
Patricia and I went up to Canada. There was a ceremony of washing the body, there was a cremation, there was a big public memorial and celebration of her life, all of which was helpful in dealing with our grief.
She died on a Sunday, and we got up there late on Wednesday. Earlier that day, four days after Katy’s death, the women and men in her lodge had done a ceremony and had prayed and sung sacred songs to help the soul pass on from its intermediate state to the next. They said that at that time Katy passed on and became a spirit, specifically an eagle spirit. The eagle is very important to her lodge and to the tradition of Wallace Black Elk. She had been learning the ways of the eagle; and on the fourth day, she became a spirit being in the form of an eagle.
Seven days after her death I participated in an inipi, a sweat lodge ceremony, at which Kat McCooeye was the water-pourer, the person who leads the ceremony. This was to have been Katy’s first time pouring water, the most important role in the ceremony. Katy usually tended the fire that heats the rocks. She wasn’t there, so I did that job.
The sweat lodge is found all over North and Central America. In Mexico it is a permanent structure made of stone, called temazcal. In the Lakota tradition it is a rounded hut made of saplings over which are draped blankets or animal skins. You kneel down to crawl in, then hot rocks are brought in from the fire, the door flap is closed, and you are in complete darkness. The leader pours water on the rocks, creating steam and making it very hot in there, beats on the drum, and leads the group in prayer and sacred songs. It’s very intense. My experience has been that in that extreme physical environment whatever is not essential in your mind goes away; and when you pray you speak from a very deep, authentic place in yourself.
There are several rounds, in between which they open the door. In the third round they sang songs to call in the spirits. Kat said that the eagle spirits would come in, and Katy would be among them. I waited with eager anticipation for some profound feeling or sensation, but none came. Then I saw in my mind’s eye her face, as if from a distance. That was nice; that was good.
We did that, we came home, and several days later our Sufi group had a chanting ceremony, called zikr. I typically drum for the zikr on my dumbek, and this evening I was deep into drumming while my friend played guitar and the group chanted various sacred phrases. I was absorbed, in a sort of trance, concentrating only on the drumming. I idly thought of Katy as an eagle; and I saw in my mind an eagle flying around, circling in the air. It circled closer and closer and then came and looked me right in the eye. Its eye was a golden yellow. It looked at me and then went on. At the time I didn’t think about it, but the next day it occurred to me that Katy was telling me, “Dad, I’m over here now. I’m in this form now.”
(And by the way, the eyes of a mature eagle are yellow.(4) I looked it up.)
In the sweat lodge, Kat had said “Katy is here. Katy says that she’s really happy, because she’s an eagle sprit and she gets to serve the people 24-7. She doesn’t have to sleep.”
So in the space of seven days Katy died instantly, was met by grandfather, learned what she needed to learn, became an eagle spirit, appeared in the sweat lodge, and expressed happiness at being able to be of continuous service. And later appeared to me in my semi-trance to reassure me that she was still around.
Well done, Katy!
I am astonished and delighted that she made the transition so quickly and smoothly, and to such a good place. And that her idea of a good time after death is to be of service continuously. She found herself an excellent gig! I am extraordinarily proud of that girl. She was prepared. She did it, impeccably.
I am proud of her. And, I can’t tell her that. She’s a spirit and I’m here. I am a mammal. I need touch. I want to hug my daughter and feel her and look her in the eye and tell her how proud I am of her. But I can’t do that. I am very grateful that she contacted us after her physical death and that I know what happened to her on the other side. I am simultaneously elated that she made such a spectacularly successful transition and heartbroken that she’s not here any more.
In the Phaedo Plato has Socrates say that the true philosopher should be cheerful in the face of death. “Those who really apply themselves in the right way to philosophy are … preparing themselves for dying and death,” he says.(5) When I was an undergraduate I thought the idea quite morbid and unappealing, but now I see the wisdom in it. We probably can’t all go in such an elegant way as Katy, nor to such an elevated state of being. But it is plausible to think that we will all continue in some form after the physical body dies.
Just as there is a being who is you on this side, a subjective state of mind, a point of view that acts, so there will be a you on the other side. You won’t have all the physical stuff you have here. But you will have memories, feelings, attitudes, a point of view and your own way of being in the world, your own way of approaching and interacting with whatever surrounds you. Your world will be different, but you will be there. What qualities of character would help you in that condition? You’ll still be you. What kind of person would you like to be?
Appendix: How I deal with it emotionally
One of my teachers said that how long it takes grief to heal is a function, not of the amount of time that has passed, but of the quantity of tears that have been shed. I have been fortunate to have ample opportunity to cry, in fact to bawl my heart out. That’s what ceremonies are for, and time with friends. As I say in more detail in the chapter of my book titled “The Overlooked Adaptation,” the discharge of painful emotion is a healing process.(6) It is our body-mind-spirit’s way of removing tensions and mental pollutants that get in the way of exuberant enjoyment of life. The sweat lodge in particular was a good place for crying away grief, as well as pounding away rage and shaking away terror. For a time, in between bouts of emotional release my mood was grey. I was surrounded by gloom, and I knew it, but it seemed even less interesting to try to do or feel something else. That gloom has now lifted, and I find myself with enjoyable things to do and fun people to be with. And then the tears come again. I don’t try to push them away, nor do I try to prolong them. I just let them take their course, and after a while I raise my head to the present again. All we have is now.
(1) Grimes, The Fun of Dying, p. 22.
(2) Wikipedia, “Paradigm shift.”
(3) Meacham, “Being Human in a Conscious Universe” and “Matter, Mind and Metaphysics.”
(4) Nye, “Bald Eagle Frequently Asked Questions.”
(5) Plato, Phaedo, 64a.
(6) Meacham, How To Be An Excellent Human, pp. 117-127.
Grimes, Roberta. The Fun of Dying: Find Out What Really Happens Next. Greater Reality Publications (http://greaterreality.com), 2010.
Meacham, Bill. “Being Human in a Conscious Universe.” Online publication http://bmeacham.com/whatswhat/BeingHumanConsciousUniverse.htm.
Meacham, Bill. How To Be An Excellent Human. Austin: Earth Harmony, 2013. Available at http://bmeacham.com.
Meacham, Bill. “Matter, Mind and Metaphysics.” Online publication http://www.bmeacham.com/blog/?p=951.
Nye, Peter. “Bald Eagle Frequently Asked Questions.” Online publication http://www.learner.org/jnorth/tm/eagle/ExpertAnswer05.html as of 22 October 2013.
Plato. Phaedo. In The Collected Dialogues of Plato, 2nd printing. Ed. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns. New York, Pantheon Books, 1963.
Wikipedia. “Paradigm shift.” Online publication https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paradigm_shift as of 22 October 2013.
I delivered a lecture and led a discussion the other night on “Being Human in a Conscious Universe” at a joint meeting of INACS and IONS Austin. I’m pleased to say that the lecture was well received and the discussion lively, but the paper is a bit too long for a blog post. Instead you can find it here: http://www.bmeacham.com/whatswhat/BeingHumanConsciousUniverse.htm.
In the copious literature about consciousness produced by philosophers in the past fifteen or twenty years we find mention of zombies. A philosophical zombie (as opposed to the slow-witted, bloody, undead ones in the movies who like to eat people) is a hypothetical creature used in thought experiments to elucidate what consciousness is. It is supposed to look and act just like a human being but lack subjective experience. David Chalmers defines it thus: “A zombie is physically identical to a normal human being, but completely lacks conscious experience. Zombies look and behave like the conscious beings that we know and love, but ‘all is dark inside.’ There is nothing it is like to be a zombie.”(1) As Philip Goff describes it,
A philosophical zombie version of you would walk and talk and in general act just like you. If you stick a knife into it, it’ll scream and try to get away. If you give it a cup of tea it’ll sip it with a smile. It uses its five senses to negotiate the world around it just as you do. And the reason it behaves just like you is that the physical workings of its brain are indiscernible from the physical workings of your own brain. If a brain scientist cut open the heads of you and your zombie twin and poked around inside, she would be unable to tell the two apart.
However, your zombie twin has no inner experience: there is nothing that it’s like to be your zombie twin. Its screaming and running away when stabbed isn’t accompanied by a feeling of pain. Its smiles are not accompanied by any feeling of pleasure. Its negotiation of its environment does not involve a visual or auditory experience of that environment. Your zombie twin is just a complex automaton mechanically set up to behave just like you. The lights are on but nobody’s home.(2)
Sounds a bit ridiculous, right? Why would somebody postulate such thing? They do so in order to refute the idea that everything is at root physical, that conscious experience is nothing but brain cells firing in certain ways. The notion of a philosophical zombie is a weapon in one of the skirmishes of the ongoing mind-body debate. If we can conceive of such a thing as a philosophical zombie, the opponents of physicalism say, then physicalism must be false. Here is the reasoning:
- According to physicalism, all that exists in our world (including consciousness) is physical.
- Thus, if physicalism is true, a logically possible world in which all physical facts are the same as those of the actual world must contain everything that exists in our actual world. In particular, conscious experience must exist in such a possible world.
- In fact we can conceive of a world physically indistinguishable from our world but in which there is no consciousness (a zombie world). From this (so Chalmers argues) it follows that such a world is logically possible.
- Therefore, physicalism is false. The conclusion follows from 2 and 3 by modus tollens.(3)
This chain of thought has provoked lots of heat but little light. Can we really conceive of a philosophical zombie or do we only think we conceive of it? If we only think we conceive of it, isn’t that conceiving of it? If we can conceive of it, does that make it logically possible? Does logical possibility have any bearing on what actually exists? Is the concept self-contradictory? Is the argument circular, assuming as a hidden premise what is to be proved? The questions go on and on. That they can’t be answered should serve as a clue that there is something out of whack in the very foundations of the controversy.
In fact the bickering about zombies is a red herring, a distraction that serves no purpose. The philosophical concept of zombie is not only ridiculous but meaningless. By definition such a zombie is an exact physical duplicate of a human being that acts exactly the same as a human being. Hence, there is no possible way for anyone to distinguish a zombie from a human being. As William James says, “What difference would it practically make to any one if this notion rather than that notion were true? If no practical difference whatever can be traced, then the alternatives mean practically the same thing, and all dispute is idle.”(4) There is no practical difference between saying that someone is a zombie and saying that someone is a human being, so the distinction is meaningless. The concept of zombie is completely useless.
The distinction between zombie and human being seems to be reasonable only because we mistake experience of subjective (private, internal) objects and events for experience of objective (public, external) objects and events. In both cases we are conscious of something. Because more than one person can be conscious of something objective, we mistakenly act as if more than one person could be conscious of something subjective. But they can’t. Only one person can be conscious of something subjective, namely the person whose subjectivity it is. We act as if positing an entity that is just like a human being but lacking consciousness is like positing an entity that is just like an able-bodied person but lacking an arm. The two are not at all similar, and it is a kind of category mistake to treat them as if they were.
Because the concept of philosophical zombie is meaningless, it has no bearing on the question of how mind and matter are related. We’d all be better off if we quit wasting our time in idle disputes about it.
(1) Chalmers, “Zombies on the web.”
(2) Goff, “The Zombie Threat to a Science of Mind,” p. 6.
(3) Wikipedia, “Philosophical zombie.”
(4) James, “What Pragmatism Means,” p.42.
Chalmers, David. “Zombies on the web.” Online publication http://consc.net/zombies.html as of 21 August 2013.
Goff, Philip. “The Zombie Threat to a Science of Mind.” Philosophy Now magazine, #96, pp. 6-7.
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.
Wikipedia. “Philosophical zombie.” Online publication http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philosophical_zombie as of 21 August 2013.
Originally printed in the May 2013 edition of Humanity & Society.(1)
Last week my daughter drove over a bent signpost in the road, and it flipped up and smashed a hole in her car directly under her seat. It ripped the car up, but fortunately she was uninjured. Then I found out that teenagers in her rural area sometimes leave booby traps like that on purpose, just for laughs. Imagine my outrage!
What puzzles me is that they don’t even stick around to see the results. (If they did, they’d probably quit doing it.) What kind of society do we live in that fosters such anonymous malice? I can understand walking around with a chip on your shoulder and getting into a fight with someone who pisses you off. Even if that person is merely a trigger and not the real cause of your anger, at least there is some personal connection, another human being at the end of your fist. But to set an anonymous ambush? The perpetrator has no connection with the victim, and in fact deliberately avoids connection. What is that about?
Systems theory offers a heuristic clue: the problem contains the solution. Perhaps the very anonymity is not only the symptom but the cause. Humans need contact with other humans. We are, as ethologists say, obligatorily gregarious. We need close, warm contact with others as much as we need food and water. If we don’t get essential nutrients, we suffer; and if we don’t get them long enough we become deformed. Likewise, if we don’t get close, warm contact we become socially deformed; and that deformity plays out as malevolence that, in its very anonymity, contains a hidden cry for help.
Research tells us how social and political structures exacerbate or mitigate the isolation that causes such harm. But it does not tell us how to open our hearts and hear the inchoate cries of those who feel compelled to lash out to assuage their own pain. Could I enter imaginatively into the lived experience of the perpetrator, and reach out to that person with compassion? Could I put aside my outrage—or at least deal with it in other ways—and see that person not as my enemy but as a fellow member of the human family? If I could, it might begin to heal me and to heal hurtful social structures as well.
(1) Meacham, Bill. “Anonymous Malice.” Humanity & Society, May 2013, vol. 37 no. 2, pp. 192-193. Online publication http://has.sagepub.com/content/37/2/192.full.pdf as of 25 May 2013.
I was recently interviewed about my book on the Rag Radio program on KOOP-FM, and you can listen to it here:
If that doesn’t work, you can listen to or download it here as well:
To download it, right-click the link (Mac: hold down the Option key while clicking the link) and select Download or Save. To listen to it, just click it. Depending on your browser, it may just start playing or it may ask you if you want to open it or download it. It is a big file, so if you have a slow internet connection it could take a long time to download.
Advance notice: I’ll be having a book-signing event at BookPeople in Austin on September 10. Mark your calendar if you will be in town.
Here is a thought experiment for you: What if there aren’t really any moral rules? What if moral rules, unlike physical objects and events, do not actually exist independently of us?
What if God (however you conceive that entity) does not exist and hence can give us no commands? (This is the view of the atheists.) Or, if God does exist, what if God does not command us to do (or not do) anything? (This is the view of many deists.) Or what if there is in principle no way of knowing whether God exists and hence no way of knowing what the divine commands might be? (This is the view of the agnostics.)
Furthermore, what if there is no unseen realm of moral rules, obligations, rights and responsibilities existing independently of us? (This is the view called “moral anti-realism.”) What if morality is only constructed socially; and, being socially constructed, can be socially deconstructed if we like?
How then should we figure out how to live our lives? Or, since “should” often refers to a moral rule or obligation, what would be the best way or even a pretty good way to figure out how to live our lives?
In the absence of moral rules we would have to use a form of reasoning I call ethical inference to argue from factual premises to recommendations. For example:
- People who eat a balanced, nutritious diet are healthier than people who don’t.
- Sarah wants to be healthy.
- Therefore, Sarah should eat a balanced, nutritious diet.
That “should” is a recommendation of prudence, not a moral command. It is in what I call the “goodness paradigm” of language instead of the “rightness paradigm.”(1) The goodness paradigm makes recommendations instead of giving commmands; and it does so on the basis of the observable effects of our actions, rather than an appeal to moral rules. Such recommendations do not follow with deductive certainty, but are the result of practical reasoning. If the premises are true, reasonable and appropriate, then the conclusion follows with enough practical credence to warrant acting on it.
The first premise of the ethical inference is factual. We can assess its truth by making observations, administering surveys, performing scientific experiments and so forth. That is one of the advantages of the goodness paradigm, that its claims can be objectively verified.
The second premise is also factual, but it pertains to a person’s desires or intentions. If Sarah has no desire to be healthy, then she has no reason to follow the advice.
So the philosophical question becomes, what should we desire? Or, if we don’t like the term “should,” what is the best thing (or even a pretty good thing) to desire with sufficient intensity that we are moved actually to strive to achieve it?
The ancient Greeks had an answer: eudaimonia, often translated as “flourishing,” “happiness” or “fulfillment.” What we all by nature want and try to achieve is to survive, thrive and feel happy and fulfilled. Thinkers as diverse as Kant and Socrates agree that this desire is fundamental and essential to all humans as rational beings that have needs.(2) And if you disagree and think something else is more to be desired, then consider that in order to fulfill that desire, you would have to survive and thrive at least enough to be able to attain it. (And once you attained it, you would, I presume, feel happy and fulfilled.) So functioning well enough to survive and thrive is the fundamental aim of all of us.
Given that premise, the philosophical question becomes an empirical one: what enables us to flourish? How are we constituted, how do we function, what is good for us and what are we good for and good at? In short: What is human nature?
We can answer the question about human nature in two ways, idiosyncratically and generically. By “idiosyncratically” I mean that each of us has certain talents and abilities, and it makes sense for us to pursue and nurture the talents we have, and not the ones we don’t. If someone has a talent for music but not much athletic ability, that person will be more successful in life and happier by practicing music than by practicing basketball. The opposite would be true for a musically inept athlete.
By “generically” I mean that there are certain functions and abilities we all have by virtue of being human. Hence, it makes sense for us to nurture and expand those functions and abilities. And what are they? Well, I have written a whole book about the subject; it’s a bit much to summarize here. But one thing is common to both the idiosyncratic and generic approaches: self-knowledge.
Inscribed on the temple to Apollo at Delphi were the words “Know Thyself.”(3) That’s not a moral command; it’s just good advice. And it is probably the best advice any of us will ever receive.
(1) Meacham, “The Good and the Right.”
(2) Versenyi, “Is Ethical Egoism Really Inconsistent?”
(3) Wikipedia, “Delphi.”
Meacham, Bill. “The Good and the Right.” Online publication http://www.bmeacham.com/whatswhat/GoodAndRight.html.
Versenyi, Laszlo. “Is Ethical Egoism Really Inconsistent?” Ethics, Vol. 80, No. 3 (April, 1970), pp. 240-242. Online publication http://www.jstor.org/stable/2380274 as of 12 October 2010.
Wikipedia. “Delphi.” Online publication http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Delphi as of 10 May 2013.
Most philosophers, going back to David Hume, assert that you cannot derive normative statements (saying that you ought or ought not to do something) from descriptive statements (saying that something is or is not the case). I disagree. I have written about the topic before, and recently gave a talk to the Philosophy Club about it. I have posted a video on YouTube, and you can download the presentation itself here: http://www.bmeacham.com/whatswhat/PDF/OughtFromIs1a.pdf. Here is the video:
Your comments are welcome, as always.
The other day we had an interesting discussion in the philosophy club (not an unusual occurrence) about which is more fundamental, matter or mind. The pro-matter folks were saying that consciousness is based on physical events in the brain and that without the complicated network of neurons found there we would not be conscious. Hence, matter is fundamental. The pro-mind folks were saying (I am paraphrasing) that without consciousness the question would not, indeed could not, even arise. The only thing we know with certainty, they said, is our own consciousness; everything else is secondary. Hence, mind is fundamental.
This sort of question is metaphysical. It is not something that can be settled by experiment; it is a question of how we frame the conceptual schema within which we conduct experiments and interpret their results. Distasteful as it is to those who want all their knowledge grounded in rigorous empirical inquiry, metaphysics is unavoidable.
Take the findings of quantum physics, often cited by the pro-mind camp. Depending on how we set up our experiments, we can demonstrate that light is composed of discrete particles or that it is not discrete at all but a widely spread-out wave.(1) These two ideas are contradictory: how can something be both individually distinct and continuous at the same time? And yet the experimental results are unequivocal and have been replicated time and again. If you set up your experiment to detect particles, you find that light is composed of particles. If you set up your experiment to detect waves (see, for instance, the famous double-slit experiment, you find that light is a wave. “You can choose which of these two contradictory features to demonstrate. The physical reality of an object depends on how you choose to look at it.”(2)
Before any observation is made, the object of your observation is said to be in a superposition of possible states, or in a state of indeterminacy. Only when it is observed does its physical state become definite (particle or wave). And, as I have pointed out elsewhere, you cannot predict in advance the precise description of that state (such as where a specific particle will be detected); you can predict in statistical terms the configuration of a great number of observed states, but that’s all.
The pro-mind camp takes all this as evidence of the primacy of consciousness, that our conscious choices somehow determine what physical reality is. Others object that there are other interpretations of quantum physics that make no such ridiculous assertion.
The most established of the many interpretations of quantum physics is the so-called Copenhagen interpretation, formulated by Neils Bohr and Werner Heisenberg at the Institute for Theoretical Physics of the University of Copenhagen in the 1920s. There are several versions, but they all assert that an observation produces the property observed. The “observation” does not have to be conscious. An observation takes place whenever a microscopic atomic-scale object interacts with a macroscopic large-scale object. When a piece of film records the location of a photon or a Geiger counter emits a click upon detection of an electron, this version of the Copenhagen interpretation says that an observation takes place.(3) Hence, say the pro-matter folks, mind is not so primary after all.
The least speculative Copenhagen interpretation does not commit to an ontology (an assertion about what really exists) at all. It says merely that “quantum mechanics … deals only with probabilities of observing, or measuring, various aspects of energy quanta, entities that fit neither the classical idea of particles nor the classical idea of waves.” In this restricted view, quantum mechanics does not actually describe reality independent of human observers, but merely describes the probability of certain observations taking place. Regarding ontological speculation as useless, this view is summarized by the slogan “Shut up and calculate!”(4)
In a less restricted form, the Copenhagen interpretation does describe what really exists, but asserts that only observed objects or events exist. Werner Heisenberg says that experimental results are things and facts just as real as any other phenomena in daily life. “But the atoms or elementary particles themselves are not real; they form a world of potentialities or possibilities rather than one of things or facts.” John Wheeler says “No microscopic property is a property until it is an observed property.”(5) Again, in this account “observation” refers to the interaction of an atomic-scale object with a large-scale object.
But we can’t get rid of the conscious observer so easily, say others. John von Neumann showed mathematically that a Geiger counter isolated from the rest of the world would also be in a state of indeterminacy. If another instrument that detected the state of the Geiger counter were placed next to it but also isolated from the rest of the world, it too would be in an indetermined state. Von Neumann showed that no physical system could collapse a superposition to yield a particular result. And yet whenever we look we see a particular result, not a superposition. Only a conscious observer, concluded von Neumann, can cause an indetermined state of superposed probabilities to become a single, determined, actuality. Only a conscious observer, not merely a macroscopic large-scale object, can actually make an observation.(6)
The Copenhagen interpretation has at least these three variants, and there are other interpretations as well. The Many Worlds interpretation says that every time a quantum-indeterminate event could go either of two ways it in fact goes both ways, each one producing a separate universe. On this view there are countless worlds, each causally isolated from the others, and countless more are being created at every instant.(7) David Bohm proposed that there really are discrete particles that exist independently of human observation, and a “quantum force” or “quantum potential” guides each particle to its destination. The quantum force on an object instantaneously reflects the state of the entire universe. Where the particle is detected looks random to us only because we cannot know its original position and velocity.(8) There are numerous other, less well-known interpretations of quantum physics.
I am not going to judge which of them is correct, or more correct than the others. I just want to point out that all of them conform to the observed facts. There is no experiment we can perform to determine which one is correct, because they all predict the same phenomena. They are not so much scientific explanations as metaphysical speculation.
And so is the debate about which is more fundamental, matter or mind. The answer can only be metaphysical.
David Chalmers refers to the “hard problem” of consciousness: Why should physical processing give rise to a rich inner life at all?(9) The pro-mind camp takes the difficulty of answering that question to be evidence for the primacy of mind, but the question could equally well be turned around: Why should something purely mental give rise to anything physical at all?
I’d like to offer a third alternative, which I have written about before: Panpsychism, the idea that everything has an aspect of psyche or mind to it as well as its material aspect. That is not to say that mind is somehow more fundamental than matter; it’s called Panpsychism only because we already assume everything is physical. I suppose it should really be called “Panphysicopsychism,” because it asserts everything is composed of both matter and mind, that everything has both an objective (physical) and subjective (psychical), or mental, aspect.
In the absence of experimental verification, how shall we judge the adequacy of these three metaphysical theories? There are several factors that determine whether it is reasonable to regard a theory or an explanation of events as true.(10) Let’s take a look at each in turn.
Congruence. A true theory is congruent with our experience. It fits the facts. I would say that what is true corresponds to reality, but we don’t have contact with reality other than through our experience, so I use the term “congruence” instead. In the case of the three metaphysical assertions, they all fit the facts, so this factor doesn’t help.
Consistency. A true theory is internally consistent. It has no contradictions within itself, and it all hangs together elegantly. Here I think Panpsychism has an advantage. If you take matter to be primary then it is indeed a conundrum how subjectivity, or mind, arises from it. If you take mind as primary then it is a conundrum the other way. But if you assume that mind and matter are equally fundamental, then the “hard problem” goes away. Of course physical processing gives rise to a rich inner life, because everything physical has an internal, subjective, or mental side as well as its objectively observable side.
Coherence. A true theory is coherent with everything else we consider true. It confirms, or at least fails to contradict, the rest of our knowledge, where “knowledge” means beliefs for which we can give rigorous reasons for considering them true. Panpsychism appears at first glance to fail this criterion, but that appearance is false.
The principal objection to Panpsychism is that it is not coherent with what we know because it does not give a reasonable account of obviously non-living things. In our everyday world we find rocks, asphalt, silverware, tables, chairs and all sorts of other things that show no evidence of being alive or having any sort of awareness of their surroundings. If we take our everyday experience as veridical, then Panpsychism certainly does not cohere with it. But modern science tells us that our everyday experience is not the ultimate truth of things. Seemingly solid and inert objects are composed of atoms and subatomic objects that have lots of space around them and are constantly in motion. Their solidity is held in place by the interplay of a variety of forces. At the subatomic level reality is teeming with activity. And, as we discover from quantum physics, it is plausible to say that subatomic reality is fully real only when observed. The panpsychist view is that observation can be taken as a fundamental feature of reality.
I refer to the process metaphysics of Alfred North Whitehead, which considers the ultimate constituents of reality to be events, not inert substances. He calls them “occasions of experience.”(11) Each occasion has an experiential aspect and an objective aspect, the former being its experience of its surroundings, and the latter being its appearance to other occasions. The fundamental units of reality, which occur at the sub-microscopic scale of quantum events, are what observe other events and thus bring actuality out of potentiality.
I know that’s awfully cryptic. See my blog post “Dead or Alive?” for more details. The point is that this metaphysical interpretation of reality, which places both experience and physicality at the root of everything, is quite coherent with the findings of quantum physics.
Usefulness. A true theory is useful. It allows us to gain control of the world and to make accurate choices about it. When we act on the basis of the theory or explanation, our actions are successful. This is the Pragmatist view of truth, and it is much more than a crude rationale for the ideology of the prevailing social class. By “world” I mean both the world of physical things and the world of ideas, of theory. What is true is what works to organize both our practice and our thought, so that we are able to handle reality effectively and to reason with logical rigor to true conclusions. In this regard, Panpsychism succeeds pretty well. Its usefulness consists, not in its application to mastery of the physical world, but in its ability to bring together everything we know into an overarching conceptual framework. It provides a coherent story that unifies all the elements of our experience and knowledge, leaving nothing out.
The materialist view has a hard time including experience. The idealist view (so-called because it gives primacy to ideas in the mind) has a hard time including physical stuff. Panpsychism includes both.
Whitehead says that the aim of metaphysics is to frame a system of general ideas that can be used to interpret every element of our experience. By “interpret” he means that “everything of which we are conscious, as enjoyed, perceived, willed or thought, shall have the character of a particular instance of the general scheme.”(12) It is undeniable that things in our experience are material. And it is undeniable that we experience them. Both matter and mind are equally fundamental; and Panpsychism, which embraces both, is the best metaphysical framework within which to understand them.
(1) Rosenblum and Kuttner, Quantum Enigma, pp. 59-61.
(2) Ibid., p. 67.
(3) Ibid., p. 100.
(4) Wikipedia, “Copenhagen interpretation.”
(5) Rosenblum and Kuttner, Quantum Enigma, p. 104.
(6) Ibid., p. 184.
(7) Ibid., pp. 161-163.
(8) Ibid., pp. 163-165.
(9) Chalmers, “Facing Up to the Problem of Consciousness,” pp. 10-11.
(10) Meacham, How To Be An Excellent Human, pp. 243-248, “Truth.”
(11) Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, p. 176.
(12) Whitehead, Process and Reality, p. 4.
Chalmers, David J. “Facing Up to the Problem of Consciousness.” In Jonathan Shear, ed. Explaining Consciousness: The Hard Problem. Cambridge: MIT Press (A Bradford Book), 1997. Online publication http://consc.net/papers/facing.html as of 9 April 2013.
Meacham, Bill. How To Be An Excellent Human. Austin: Earth Harmony, 2013. Appendix D, “Truth,” is available online at http://www.bmeacham.com/whatswhat/Truth.html.
Rosenblum, Bruce, and Fred Kuttner. Quantum Enigma. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.
Whitehead, Alfred North. Adventures of Ideas. 1933. Reprint. New York: The Free Press, 1967.
Whitehead, Alfred North. Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology. New York: Harper and Row Harper Torchbooks, 1957.
Wikipedia. “Copenhagen interpretation.” Online publication http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Copenhagen_School_(quantum_physics) as of 6 April 2013.
I hope I’ll be forgiven for bringing up the topic of free will yet again, because in a sense it is a ridiculous question. The most cogent statement I have found on free will is this:
We need not enter into a philosophical debate between free will and determinism in order to decide how to act. Either we have free will or it is determined that we behave as if we do. In either case we make choices.(1)
The point of a philosophy for real life is to figure out how to make those choices, not whether we have the ability to do so. The fact is, we all act as if we have free will, regardless of what we say we believe about it.
In another sense, however, it is not ridiculous. In a recent psychology experiment subjects were found to be more prone to cheating after having been exposed to arguments denying that we have free will.(2) Neuroscientists debate how findings that much of our behavior is determined should affect judicial concepts of blame, responsibility and punishment: if we can’t help what we do, we don’t deserve blame, so what role should punishment play? (The answer is to go for rehabilitation to modify future behavior instead of punishing past behavior.)(3) Whether or not we believe we have free will does have consequences; hence, we need to try to resolve the issue.
The debate about free will is whether we have it and how it works if we do. It is a conundrum because we appear to live in a deterministic universe. Ever since antiquity or earlier people have noticed that some aspects of their world recur with great regularity. Apply fire to something, and it invariably gets hotter. The sun always rises in the east and sets in the west. Through the application of the scientific method of discovery we have found laws of nature that consistently operate in the same way, so much so that we say that physical nature is determined by those laws. By “determined,” I mean that given a configuration of physical elements and the invariant laws of nature, we can confidently predict precisely what will happen next. The argument against free will says that if all of nature is determined, and if we are part of nature, then we are determined. We think we have the ability to choose freely what we do, but that ability is an illusion.(4)
To assess this argument we need definitions of the concepts of determinism and free will.
The definition of determinism is easy. Determinism, according to philosopher Daniel Dennett, quoting Peter Van Inwagen, “is the thesis that ‘there is at any instant exactly one physically possible future.’”(5) On this view, events succeed each other according to rigid, predetermined laws; and if we knew enough about the facts of the universe at any given time and the laws of nature, we would know with certainty what would happen next.
The definition of free will is a little more complex. First let’s take “will.” Philosopher Robert Kane, who has made a career of studying the issue, lists three meanings of the term:(6)
- What we want, desire or prefer to do. This is called appetitive will, because it has to do with our appetites.
- What we choose, decide or intend to do. This is called rational will, because it has to do with reasoning and deciding.
- What we try, endeavor or make an effort to do. This is called striving will.
All three are teleological, oriented to an end or purpose (telos in Greek). In using our will we desire, intend or try to make something happen that is not happening yet, or to make something that is already happening continue to happen. They are all oriented to the future. Clearly we human beings have will in all three senses.
(Parenthetically we might ask whether animals have will. Certainly even the most primitive of animals seem to have desires and to make efforts to approach or avoid things in their environment. Whether they have any rationality depends on how complex they are. It is hard to imagine a single-celled amoeba envisioning possible courses of action and choosing among them. It is not so hard to imagine an elephant or an ape or a whale doing so. I suspect that, like most of reality, the ability to think and choose ranges on a continuum from minimal to maximal; and humans are on the maximal end of the scale.)
The question is whether the will we have is free. I adopt Kane’s definition of free will:
Free will … is the power of agents to be the ultimate creators (or originators) and sustainers of their own ends or purposes. … To will freely … is to be the ultimate creator (prime mover, so to speak) of your own purposes.(7)
Will has to do with wanting, choosing and striving to attain ends or purposes. We humans are very good at achieving goals, at accomplishing our ends and purposes. But who or what gets to set the goals? To say that our will is free is to say that at least in some cases we ourselves, not something other than or external to us, choose what ends or purposes we strive for.
We can list the philosophical positions regarding free will by combinations of assertions about determinism and about free will. Let’s represent the proposition that the world is entirely determined as D and the proposition that it is possible to have free will as F. To make sure we have all our bases covered we can put them together systematically and label each combination. Then we can decide which combination most accurately describes reality. Here are the combinations:(8)
|D true||F true||Compatibilism|
|D true||F false||Hard Determinism|
|D false||F true||Libertarianism (a philosophical, not a political, term)|
|D false||F false||Hard Incompatibilism|
We can immediately rule out the first two. It is not the case that all of nature is determined. Quantum physics has demonstrated as well as anything can be demonstrated in science that at the tiniest level of reality events are indeterminate. By this I mean that the outcomes of events cannot be predicted in advance, except in statistical terms. An initial configuration of things and forces does not determine a specific subsequent configuration. Instead it has the possibility of evolving into more than one configuration. In the world that we experience, only one of those possible configurations will actually be observed to happen, and we cannot predict in advance which one it will be. Mathematics can describe the probability of a range of outcomes, but cannot predict a single outcome. Please see my blog post “Entangled!” for more details. The thesis that there is at any instant exactly one physically possible future is simply false.
So now we have to decide, in a world that is not fully determined in advance, whether and in what way free will is possible. I have hinted at an answer in another blog post, “Beyond the Causal Veil,” in which I describe how quantum indeterminacy operates inside the brain.
To summarize: The brain does its work by means of transmitting electrochemical impulses through neurons. A neuron receives many incoming impulses from other neurons and sends out impulses to many other neurons. Some of the incoming impulses are excitatory, tending to make the neuron “fire,” or send out an impulse; some of them are inhibitory, tending to make the neuron fail to fire. (A neuron either fires or it does not; there is no in-between state.) When a neuron fires, neurotransmitter chemicals travel from one neuron to another across the synapse between them. What causes the neurotransmitters to be released into the synapse is the entry of calcium ions into nerve terminals. If enough calcium ions hit their receptor sites within a nerve terminal, the terminal releases the neurotransmitters; otherwise it doesn’t. Calcium ions and the channels through which they travel are small enough that quantum indeterminacy is in play. Calcium ions might or might not hit their triggering sites; hence, a given neurotransmitter might or might not be released; hence the receiving neuron might or might not get excited (or inhibited).(9)
Since brain functioning is the physical aspect of how we perceive, move, react and make decisions, this means that our decisions and actions are not fully determined by what has happened in the past.
So if we are not fully determined, then we have free will, right? Well, maybe not. There are some objections from those who say than that even in an indeterministic world we still have no free will. (This is Hard Incompatibilism in the matrix above.)
The most common objection is that if our actions are caused by randomness then we are just as unfree as if they were caused by determinism.
The sort of indeterminism afforded by modern physics is not the sort the libertarian needs or desires. If it turns out that your ordering soup is completely determined by the laws of physics, the state of the universe … and the outcomes of myriad subatomic coin flips, your appetizer is no more freely chosen than before. Indeed, it is randomly chosen, which is no help to the libertarian.(10)
My response is this: what matters is not the outcome of a single quantum event, but the overall pattern of many of them. What appears to be random when you look only at individual events reveals patterns when you look at them in aggregate. Micro-units of quantum indeterminacy cohere into larger arrangements that are not random. We can see this on the physical level in the interference pattern, the stripes of lightness and darkness, in the double-slit experiment.(11) When we are considering human agency and will, we find patterns as well, patterns that are best described in agential terms, as I said in the first of this little series. The patterns of beliefs, desires, aversions and intentions that we ascribe to ourselves and others are at a higher level than the individual neural events which underly them, and obey different laws.
Patterns of calcium-ion events within a nerve terminal are inputs to patterns of nerve terminals releasing neurotransmitters, which are in turn inputs to the firing of adjacent neurons. Activities of individual neurons are, as Ray Kurzweil has described, inputs to yet higher-level assemblies of pattern recognizers composed of multiple neurons.(12) The nesting of patterns within patterns continues up to higher and higher levels of complexity, at the apex of which we recognize ourselves and others as agents motivated by beliefs, desires, intentions and plans.
Another claim is that my account of neural functioning is misleading, that quantum indeterminacy does not propagate upwards to observable behavior.
Given the high concentration of calcium ions in the terminal, it’s extremely likely that the net effect is zero—for every ion pushed away by a quantum event, another is pushed toward. If this were not the case, we would be dying of heart attacks before reaching puberty, since neurons that drive the heart muscle must be subject to the same quantum effects.
It’s an example of biological fault tolerance. Critical systems like neurons—cells in general—are resilient to error through physical redundancy (multiple vesicles, multiple binding sites per vesicle, multiple calcium channels, thousands of available calcium ions per neuron).(13)
Good point. If quantum uncertainty underlies all brain functioning, why does most of that functioning happen in foreseeable, regular ways? Why do some patterns of neural firings—those that govern our heartbeat, for instance—happen quite predictably, while others, such as those that correspond to our making a free choice, do not?
There is a saying in brain science, “cells that fire together wire together.” When the firing of neuron A is, repeatedly and persistently, input to neuron B’s firing as well, a metabolic change takes place such that neuron A becomes more likely to be effective in causing B to fire.(14) The brain, composed of living cells, changes (a process called brain plasticity)(15) to make the repeated pattern more likely. In such a case the probabilities involved in neural firing are adjusted to make it extremely likely that the regularity will persist. That’s how come our heartbeat is not interrupted by quantum fluctuations.
But this does not happen in cases of free choice because there are conflicting patterns of cells firing together. Here is a common example: suppose you are hurrying to a very important meeting with a client and your boss, a meeting that will have a big impact on your career. You pass a person lying by the road injured and bleeding. You want to be compassionate and stop and help the bleeding person, but you also want to be on time for your meeting. In such a case your goals, ends and purposes are in conflict. There is no routine pattern of neural firing that is so highly probable as to be determined and certain.
In this case, where there is no future outcome that is far more highly probable than any other, the effect of the quantum indeterminacy at the lowest level is magnified rather than damped out. When you must make a choice, the choice is not determined in advance. Nor is it merely random. Conflicting emotions and thought process go through your mind. You have good reasons for hurrying to your appointment, and you have good reasons for stopping to help. You have to choose, and it is not just a matter of flipping a coin.
Kane lists three criteria by which we recognize that a choice is made freely, on our own:(16)
- We have good reasons for our choice.
- We choose as we do for those reasons.
- In choosing we define ourselves as a being who wants to act for those reasons more than for any others.
These three conditions are satisfied in either case, whether you hurry on or stop to help. Whichever choice you make, afterwards you can legitimately say that you, not your brain cells, made the choice, because you had good reasons for your choice and you acted for those reasons. And that is true even though you did not know and could not possibly know ahead of time which choice you would make.
That’s how free will works in an indeterminate universe, not by magically flouting physical laws, but by conforming to them.
Note carefully the third condition. When you choose one way or another, you are making it more likely that you will choose the same way if a similar issue comes up again. You reinforce certain neural patterns, making them more likely to fire together in the future. You help create your future self.
What kind of choices do you want to make? What kind of person do you want to be?
(1) Fisher and Ury, Getting To Yes, p. 53.
(2) Tierney, “Do You Have Free Will? Yes, It’s the Only Choice.”
(3) Greene and Cohen, “For the law, neuroscience changes nothing and everything.”
(4) Historically determinism has also been associated with the idea of a supernaturally powerful God who makes things happen, but I am ignoring that question for now.
(5) Dennett, Freedom Evolves, p. 25.
(6) Kane, The Significance of Free Will, pp. 26-27.
(7) Ibid., p. 4.
(8) Wikipedia, “Free will.”
(9) See Meacham, “The Quantum Level of Reality,” for a more complete exposition of the quantum aspects of neural functioning.
(10) Greene and Cohen, p. 1777.
(11) Meacham, “The Quantum Level of Reality.”
(12) Kurzweil, Ray, How To Create a Mind, p. 80.
(13) Bjerke, Gary, “A Response To ‘Beyond the Causal Veil.’”
(14) Kurzweil, Ray, How To Create a Mind, pp. 79-80.
(15) Chudler, Eric H. “Brain Plasticity: What Is It?”
(16) Kane, The Significance of Free Will, p. 137.
Bjerke, Gary. “A Response To ‘Beyond the Causal Veil.’” Online publication http://files.meetup.com/119694/MDG_FREE_WILL_03_11_13.pdf as of 5 March 2013.
Chudler, Eric H. “Brain Plasticity: What Is It?” Online publication http://faculty.washington.edu/chudler/plast.html as of 11 March 2013.
Dennett, Daniel C. Freedom Evolves. New York, Penguin Books, 2003.
Fisher, Roger, and William Ury. Getting To Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In. NY: Penguin Books, 1991.
Greene, Joshua and Jonathan Cohen. “For the law, neuroscience changes nothing and everything.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London B (Biological Sciences), Vol. 359 No. 1451, pp. 1775-1785. Online publication http://rstb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/359/1451/1775.full.pdf as of 7 March 2013 and http://www.wjh.harvard.edu/~jgreene/GreeneWJH/GreeneCohenPhilTrans-04.pdf as of 08 October 2010.
Kane, Robert. The Significance of Free Will. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Kurzweil, Ray. How To Create A Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed. New York, Viking: 2012.
Meacham, Bill. “The Quantum Level of Reality.” Online publication http://www.bmeacham.com/whatswhat/Quantum.html.
Tierney, John. “Do You Have Free Will? Yes, It’s the Only Choice.” New York Times, March 21, 2011. Online publication http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/22/science/22tier.html as of 23 March 2011.
Wikipedia. “Free will.” Online publication http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Free_will as of 4 March 2013.