I suppose it is a good thing that these days I end up reading a lot of things that represent the opposite side of various spectra from what I personally believe. It might make me a more rounded thinker. In my last blog I began with a commentary on an on-line American political opinion rag representing the opposite end of the spectrum from my views. This week I’ve been reading the views of one of the more aggressive atheists doing pop philosophy.
A virtual friend asked for comments on Sam Harris’ recent blog, where he talks about how he disagrees with Daniel Dennett, particularly in reference to the matter of “free will”. While I respect both men’s intelligence and eloquence, but I still believe they both have a hold of the wrong end of the stick on this one.
For both of these thinkers the shared premises are that: 1) there can’t possibly be any God; 2) life, the universe and everything need to be explainable in terms of purely physical phenomena, without reference to anything spiritual; 3) intentionality cannot be accorded to random occurrences within the physical universe; 4) human consciousness and volition are in fact byproducts of these random occurrences in the physical universe, and as such are no more than intermediate links in longer chains of cause and effect; and yet somehow 5) human consciousness and volition can serve their own legitimate purposes and have their own inherent values. Where they seem to disagree with each other is how in the world they are going to set about squaring that particular circle.
Dennett’s approach seems to be one of “It’s pretty much an illusion, but we can enjoy the ride for whatever it’s worth anyway.” Harris is more inclined to think that our belief in our ability to choose is causing us to make the wrong choices, particularly if we feel justified in wanting to “get back at” those who do nasty things to us and those we care about. Harris seems quite content to set aside the thorny issue of how people could be free to choose whether or not to promote vengeance as part of their justice system if people are not free to choose whether or not to commit acts requiring judicial intervention to begin with, but that sort of goes with the territory.
In any case, to respond to such a mindset in any rational sort of way, I must dig out a partial theoretical ally of my own, whom I still have some fundamental disagreements with. In my case this would be Immanuel Kant, or just “Manny” for short.
Manny and I agree on some fundamental principles that create their own paradoxes: 1) humans have a combination of rational inclinations and animal drives which influence our actions; 2) the more rational and objective we can be with regard to the standards we set for ourselves and each other, the more likely we are to get along with each other; 3) in order to hold each other morally responsible for anything, we have to assume that there are moral standards “out there” that are more than matters of taste and more than situational conveniences (as a foundational premise for any coherent concept of “human rights,” for instance); 4) traditional religious standards for morality do not provide us with a viable, universal and objective basis for regulating our own behavior and that of others; and yet 5) we need to postulate a certain amount of moral autonomy or transcendental freedom as a presupposition for the question, “what ought I to do?” before we can have any meaningful conversation about standards for human behavior.
Where Manny and I would disagree is in terms of the value of emotions as such, and the inherent trustworthiness of intellect independent of emotions in terms of setting standards for us to live by. But for both of us the necessity of the premises stated above lead back to an open concept of empathy, in turn relating back to some sort of subconscious spirituality holding the whole business together. Neither Manny nor I insist that all other intelligent people must subscribe to the particular dogmas we were raised with in order to remain decent and intelligent people, but neither of us make any apologies for subscribing to a theistic (moderate Protestant Christian) world view.
Manny was sort of aware of his human limitations, but his way of dealing with them was to eliminate as many of the irrational and emotional aspects of his life as he possibly could. In this way he strived to get as close as he could to what he called “the noumenal,” breaking away from the prison of what he called “the phenomenal” world of experiences. As I see it though, Manny was merely an extreme case of what Jungian personality type theorists call an INTJ: As a matter of temperament he was drawn deep within himself most of the time; he was more comfortable existing in an ideal world of possibilities than working with messy physical realities; he wanted to be perfectly rational rather than emotional about everything; and he was an excessively habitual and traditional person, almost to the point of being obsessive/compulsive. He saw the world through the lens of his personality type, and he set out to determine what was rational, moral and desirable for the rest of mankind accordingly. Not that there isn’t a lot of legitimacy to that approach, but there are also other ways of seeing the world, which Manny didn’t pay much attention to.
The primary difference between Manny’s position and my own then is that I would say that what is ultimately right and wrong –– virtuous and evil –– for human kind cannot be considered as a separate question from how the human mind works and how human personalities are constructed. Ethics cannot be purely deontological –– based strictly on what is “out there” without some fundamental consideration for the messy variables that are “in here.” We can’t merely align ourselves with a completely objective model of virtue from the transcendental realm; we need to fix functional virtues that enable us as humans to thrive and develop our understanding of the world around us.
In this regard ethics is a rather different matter from discovering the truth of how many moons there are around Jupiter, or what the melting point of iron is, or even whether or not there is a God. The nature of the question has to do with the nature of how we as organisms and/or as intelligent beings operate in relation to each other. Thus we cannot discover the ultimate virtues of how we should live or what makes actions right or wrong in abstraction from the messy business of everyday human life. This is not to discount the extensive consideration Manny gave to how the human mind works, but it his perspective in considering the workings of our brains seems to have been more one of avoiding the animal impulses and rational mistakes we are all prone to rather than appreciating the beautiful complexities that make us all worthy of appreciation for who we are. That’s just how his mind happened to work.
Rather than bemoaning our lack of objectivity in our human condition and seeking some purely transcendent standard through the closest approximation of pure objective rationality we can muster, I believe we need to embrace our human condition as a gift and from there seek to work out functional rules for maximizing its awesomeness for all parties concerned. In this regard I believe that categorical imperatives need to give way to basic empathy, elements of game theory and awareness of subjective determinants of loyalty. Rather than trying to find a purely rational underlying algorithm as a basis for how we should behave, I believe that ethics needs to start with questions of personal caring, fairness, conflict resolution and necessary preconditions for personal thriving.
OK, I must confess, for all my pseudo-familiarity with Manny here, I’m really not a world class Kant scholar. It might even be that he would have disagreed with me a lot less than I’m assuming here. But the main point here is that when it comes to the matter of “free will” –– at least in terms of how it relates to legal and moral premises –– Manny and I would still be united in opposition to Sam and Dan, a.k.a. Harris and Dennett.
All four of us would agree that we humans are not as radically free as Sartre liked to fantasize, but that doesn’t mean that we are effectively zombies acting entirely according to the dictates of external forces and involuntary internal programming. On the contrary, Manny and I would argue that it’s well nigh impossible to speak coherently about what we’re supposed to do with our lives and how we can justifiably expect others to behave without postulating some degree of moral autonomy as part of our basic premise in the matter.
Now by denying “free will” rather than “moral autonomy” Harris at least may be using ambiguity to his advantage. He may actually be hedging his bets about all of us being “morally insane” in the sense of totally lacking any capacity to choose our courses of action. Manny Kant readily admitted, as do I, that we all are subject to more things “pulling our strings” than we like to admit. There’s no absolute freedom of choice for any of us. If that’s all they mean then there’s really no disagreement on the matter. Manny and I are not trying to say that we are completely self-made men in every regard; we’re saying that we have a certain amount of choice in terms of what we do with what we’ve been given, and it’s what we do with that choice and only what we do with that choice that makes each of us praise-worthy or blame-worthy.
Contrary to reports given in virtually every introductory level college psychology textbook published in the 20th century, recently discovered evidence gives us strong reason to believe that Gage’s doctor was BSing the medical community. The claim that “acquaintances said he was ‘no longer Gage,’” made by a doctor who was trying to milk all the fame and fortune he could out of having treated Gage –– long after the poor fellow passed on as a result of the epilepsy he developed after the dubious treatment he received –– has no substantiation that stands up to critical scrutiny. No such claims of substantial change in personality have been made regarding the two survivors of bullets in the brain from political assassination attempts during my lifetime: Brady remains Brady; Gifford remains Gifford. Certainly they came to behave differently, taking into account the loss of certain abilities, but that doesn’t really make them fundamentally different people.
By way of illustration, if I was driving a car and suddenly a rock were to randomly bounce into the engine compartment –– damaging and disabling one of the fuel injectors and the brake master cylinder –– it would make a major difference in the way the car went down the road, but that would not mean that there had been a change of drivers. So questions of what makes a person essentially who he or she is remains far less decided scientifically than many who have built careers in these sciences would like to believe.
Does this mean that I consider church dogma to be more reliable than scientific investigation of the matter overall? Of course not. Manny and I have already acknowledged that not to be the case. Does that mean that there has to be an immaterial human spirit inhabiting each person’s body? I wouldn’t insist on such based on what evidence I have at least. All I’m saying is that if such a possibility has not been rejected a priori for ideological reasons, it actually makes a fair amount of sense; and by rejecting this possibility as one of the starting premises for their discussion of “free will,” Sam and Dan have put themselves in a rather awkward position. Such is life when one decides what must be the case and proceeds to look for facts to corroborate that perspective.
So as long as I have a choice in the matter, I’ll continue to choose to believe that I have a choice in the matter. And if I get to meet Manny some day we can sit down and talk out our differences on all that other stuff.
Meanwhile a note to all newbies in philosophy, or to any uptight professor in the field who happens to read and wonder how I dare refer to Herr Professor Kant in such irreverent terms: As long as you’re not taking yourself overly seriously, as long as you remain open to rational counter argument, as long as you’re not assuming that those you disagree with are fundamentally stupid and as long as your writing isn’t being officially graded by someone with absolutely no sense of humor, it’s always worth daring to be a bit of an irreverent smart ass in this field. The whole point of philosophy is daring to question ideas that others hold dear, and to do so without fear. I find that it really helps in that process if you get beyond being in awe of those who’ve made names for themselves in the field, and if you can relate to them with a bit of humorous familiarity, so much the better. Yes, Manny Kant himself probably would have been a bit pissed at some foreigner –– who doesn’t even speak German and doesn’t hold any doctorates in the field –– referring to him with a familiar version of his first name like this, but like, so what? If he’s made it to heaven he must be over that crap by now. If he hasn’t, his hypothetical opinion regarding my form of address makes no difference whatsoever.