Saturday, December 17, 2016

The Irrelevance of Scientific Determinism

Freewill is a conundrum. We feel free, as though we can control ourselves and decide what to do rather than being forced along a certain path like a leaf blowing in the wind. But we can’t understand how we could be free, because understanding involves positing causes on top of causes and analyzing one thing in terms of something else. A fallen leaf moves along a certain path, because the leaf is blown by the wind. And why does the wind blow? That’s because of differences in atmospheric pressure. But why does wind blow this way rather than that? Well, that’s because the wind encounters objects in its path, including the curled-up shape of the leaf, which create pockets of turbulence and eddies. And why is the fallen leaf curled up so that it spins as it blows? That, in turn is because the leaf is dead, and so water and minerals no longer flow through its veins, preserving its former structure. And so on and so on until the process of understanding one event encompasses the history of life on Earth and the causes of our planet’s formation in the story of the whole universe. The one event of the leaf’s swirling in the breeze pales next to the immensity of what you have to know to understand why that event happened as it did.

Indeed, biologists and neuroscientists already have sufficient knowledge of how the body works, to render nonsensical our feeling that we have freewill. Yuval Harari summarizes some of the relevant findings in Homo Deus. Brain processes, he points out, are either deterministic or random. A neuron will fire either in response to stimuli or spontaneously due to the intrinsic uncertainty of the chemical factors involved such as the timing of the release of neurotransmitters. Virtually never-ending causal chains and randomness don’t leave room for personal autonomy. Moreover, although an action may be uncoerced, we don’t choose our desires. What we want is caused either by our genetic programming, by the formative environment in which we learned how to behave as children, or by the accumulation of our experiences. Desires have unconscious causes, as is shown by the fact that scientists observing brain activity can predict what a subject will do before the subject is consciously aware of her decision.

Also, with respect to what scientists can empirically confirm, there is no such thing as the single, essential self, let alone an immaterial spirit; instead, the brain is divided into regions that have different, sometimes conflicting functions. As Harari puts it, there’s the experiencing self, the part of the brain that processes moment-by-moment stimuli, and then there’s the narrating self, the part that gives meaning to experience by telling us what to think or feel and by ignoring most of the information processed by the experiencing self. We identify with our inner monologue because it adds meaning to our life. “It doesn’t matter that the plot is full of lies and lacunas,” writes Harari, “and that it is rewritten again and again, so that today’s story flatly contradicts yesterday’s; the important thing is that we always retain the feeling that we have a single unchanging identity from birth to death” (299). Finally, says Harari, we cling to the fiction of a soul, of a single self that bears ultimate responsibility for our actions, because we can’t bear the alternative that everything we do is in vain. “Paradoxically, the more sacrifices we make for an imaginary story, the stronger the story becomes, because we desperately want to give meaning to these sacrifices and to the suffering we have caused” (300).  

Instead of challenging the scientific deconstruction of the self, I want to consider two meta-questions. First, is the notion of a scientific theory of freewill even coherent or is instead personal freedom naturally impossible from a scientific point of view? Second, what would a free creature look like in nature, speaking hypothetically? How would this creature’s internal components have to be arranged to liberate it from the rest of the world so that we could reasonably think of it as being both free and real? 

Why the Concept of Freewill is Unscientific

I’ve already suggested the answer to the first question. Just as a miracle is defined as being beyond our comprehension, whereas science is precisely the most rigorous form of human understanding, and so there can be no miracles as far as science is concerned, absolute freedom in nature is antithetical to the way the world works according to science. Indeed, “complete freedom from nature” seems synonymous with “miracle.” If freedom is the ability to do what you want even if the world is attempting to compel you to do the opposite, you have the power to overturn the world, which is preposterous. Of course, this is a strawman interpretation of personal freedom. The idea of freewill isn’t that we can do whatever we want, including, say, taking flight by flapping our arms, or that we can resist the force of every natural cause. Even if the mind is willing, the body may be weak and so we may succumb to some temptation, for example.

Absolute freedom from everything other than the self (or other than the many parts that make up the self) should be distinguished from a more realistic, limited form of freedom. Absolute freedom would entail that the self alone—rather than anything else in the natural universe—is responsible for its actions, because this self operates according to supernatural laws and so the external web of causally-connected events has no bearing on what this self does. An absolutely free person in this sense would look something like a black hole: it wouldn’t be part of the fabric of natural reality, and so no account of natural mechanisms would be relevant to explaining what happens in this person’s inner domain or what might flow into nature from this estranged individual. A ghostly, angelic figure with a mandate from some supernatural realm might be absolutely free. Neo in the virtual reality of the matrix, who channels his knowledge from a higher reality, might likewise be perfectly free from the programs that dictate the matrix’s virtual causes and effects, which is why in the film he can perform miracles such as flying and dodging bullets.

By contrast, limited freedom would be an approximation of the absolute kind and would be due to some natural arrangement of mechanisms. Limited autonomy would require a dichotomy between self and world and even a conflict between them as the self struggles against external forces, controlling itself and the world as best it can and so breaking a prominent causal chain. Taking into account the free self’s relation to the rest of the world would thus necessitate an emergent, psychological or social level of explanation. For example, defying gravity and flying just by willing your body upward would be a case of absolute freedom, since this miracle would violate natural laws and the flight would be due solely to internal causes that are completely disconnected from your surroundings. Limited freedom that achieves a similar end would require a slow learning process, as you come to understand natural laws and how to exploit them. Thus, you might discover how to engineer an airplane that allows you to fly. In the latter case no miracle is performed, but there is an anomaly afoot, a partial disconnect from the environment as you live more and more in your head. Someone with limited freedom isn’t liberated from all physical limitations or from the limits of her mind or body, but this freedom does represent a Gordian knot of complexity so that the flow of outer causality doesn’t just wash through this sort of self; instead, she processes stimuli and meditates on her options so that the outcome of her reflections is dictated largely by the rules of her inner world, which is to say that she’s the primary cause of her actions.

Still, even if we discount absolute freedom as supernatural, limited freedom will likewise be invisible to scientific investigation. A scientist wants to know how events happen. Theories are added to theories as the complexity of causes requires an analysis, a breaking-up of phenomena into parts. The epistemic division can be temporal or mereological. We can explain later events in terms of earlier ones, and so a theory of how stars formed in the early universe can help explain why plants currently grow or why our sky looks blue during the day. We can also explain something’s capacities by examining its parts, and so the star’s current molecular composition can account for the star’s macrophysical characteristics such as its size and temperature. Science deals with facts in those respects, but limited freedom wouldn’t be a purely factual matter. To see this, consider the difference between freedom and independence. A distant galaxy is independent of ours, but it would sound strange to say that either galaxy is free from the other. Autonomy isn’t just the person’s relative independence from the world; the liberated self must be fundamentally at odds with everything else so that the self is thought of as having rights against being coerced even by natural forces, and so that the self’s opposition to the rest of nature has moral significance. For there to be even limited freedom, the world must be somehow in the wrong for abusing the autonomous creature. Scientific explanation, though, is indifferent to moral evaluation, and so “freewill” shouldn’t be part of any scientific theory’s vocabulary.

Harari shows that the concept of freewill is crucial to Western liberalism, but the concept may also help make sense of the earliest evidence of human cultures, such as the practice of burying the dead; any special regard shown to friends and family at the expense of hostile, indifferent, or rival others indicates a belief in limited freedom in the above sense. The belief would be that the loved one deserves to be buried rather than to have its decay be made a spectacle of, because the memories of that departed person’s specialness as a former moral agent should be honoured. Moreover, the idea of limited autonomy may be implicit in any complete account of animal behaviour, which is why illiberal hunter-gatherers attribute symbolic importance to the hunt and ritually thank the animal for sacrificing its flesh so that the hunters might live another day. There’s the sense that all living things struggle against their environment, since nothing cares more about a creature’s welfare than that creature itself, and the nonliving world cares not at all whether it lives or dies. People may be especially free in the animal kingdom, but all organisms are free to some extent, compared to the rest of nature which has no agency at all. Again, this means not that animals can perform miracles, but that they’re constructed in such a way that they can oppose the prevailing patterns in nature. Creatures aren’t supernatural; they’re antinatural: they oppose the world in so far as they make exceptions of themselves and fight primarily for their exclusive benefit.

The determinist may speak as though scientists have been open-minded about discovering a basis for freewill, but this underestimates the scientist’s methodological barrier to recognizing the freedom that might be hiding in plain sight. It’s not as though scientists explored the body’s interior and just happened to find no liberated source of ultimate responsibility for the person’s actions. To the extent that those latter terms carry moral weight, the scientist is professionally obligated to assume that they should be replaced with more operational, quantifiable terms so that the scientist can proceed with the instrumental business at hand of helping to engineer a modern civilization. The concept of moral obligation may be useful to the practice of living well, but science isn’t concerned with that kind of practicality. Scientists want empowering knowledge. In fact, Harari exposes this Faustian essence of modernity when he writes of “the modern covenant.” Modernity, he says, “is a surprisingly simple deal: humans agree to give up meaning in exchange for power” (199). Scientists strip nature of the illusion of meaning, in their act of explaining events in strictly objective, material terms. Liberalism, then, is the religion that compensates for this deadening effect of science. Despite science’s having shown that there’s no real basis for freewill, we persist in assuming we’re free, but that’s just a gratuitous act of modern faith, for Harari. Again, though, this is an understatement. Even if we were relatively free from the nonliving world, scientists would have no business speaking about that aspect of how we relate to the environment; that is to say, scientists would have no grounds to speak thusly of why we relate to the world out of self-interest, and thus why in the limit case we oppose everything but ourselves.

The Obviousness of Our Real Freedom

To see the difference between explaining the natural basis of freedom and recognizing freedom itself, consider what it would be like to create a partially free creature in nature. Again, the goal wouldn’t be to create a magical being that can perform the miracle of withstanding everything nature can throw at it. Instead, pretend there’s no life in the universe and think of what sort of design would be required to assemble the first natural creature that’s liberated in certain striking respects from the overall flow of natural events. To begin with, the creature would have to be shielded from the rest of the world to prevent it from being overwhelmed and to allow the creature to decide how to act by consulting the contents of its inner world. So we’d have to erect a barrier, dividing nature into two parts (from the creature’s perspective), the inner and the outer. Were that barrier impermeable, we would have two universes on our hands, like ships passing in the night, and were the barrier impermeable only in one direction, from the outer to the inner, the creature would be absolutely, miraculously free which isn’t the goal. So the barrier must be permeable in both directions, allowing the inner and outer worlds to affect each other while providing the creature some breathing room to decide how to respond to the environment.

Also, the world inside the creature which is (imperfectly) protected from everything else must be organized to allow the creature to act with autonomy. This means the creature would have to understand that it’s one thing in opposition to everything else and that it can act on a limited basis to further its interests but will be resisted in some ways by the environment. Its thoughts would thus have to be processed by a control center somewhere safe behind its barrier. The creature must be driven to assert itself, to seek advantages to make it happy even if that should entail disadvantaging competitors; otherwise, however free its thoughts might be from the thoughtlessness of purely physical processes, the creature wouldn’t have the audacity to challenge the outer world, say, by studying natural regularities and modifying them to its benefit. This self-directedness might be accomplished by introducing the capacities to feel pleasure and pain, to discriminate between experiences by learning to heed certain enticements and warnings. To more fully liberate itself from baseline causality, the creature should learn to recognize itself as a distinct entity so that it can mentally model itself as an agent in the indifferent world. The creature would be even more fully liberated were its body equipped to apply the thoughts and feelings at its core. Thus, the creature might be outfitted with organs that allow it to sense changes in certain dimensions of the outer world, and also with appendages that allow it to manipulate the causes of stimuli to help improve its experience and living standard.

Such a creature would be naturally real (not magical), detached from that which lies beyond its barrier, motivated to oppose the natural environment in certain respects, and also enabled to apply its self-interested intentions, to make good on its partial liberty by injecting the contents of its mental space into the lifeless or foreign one and even replacing the wilderness as much as possible with an extended barrier. Of course, this creature is precisely what’s evolved in myriad forms on our planet. Cells have membranes, trees have bark, and animals have skin along with fur, feathers, or scales. Cells have nuclei protecting genetic instructions, and an animal has a brain ensconced in its skull to direct its self-interested (if not necessarily selfish) cogitations, as well as wings, fins, or claws to help it get what it wants. Some mammals evolved opposable thumbs, bipedal locomotion, and an enhanced brain which produces self-awareness and the capacity for higher orders of thought. These latter creatures which we call persons are apparently as liberated as real creatures can be. To wit, people have reshaped the planet in the Anthropocene Age, replacing the wilderness with villages, cities, and civilizations; rival creatures with domesticated pets; and jungle law with ideologies and cultural pastimes and enterprises.

Let’s return to Harari’s case against freewill. At each point we can see that far from discounting limited freedom, the mechanisms in question are its preconditions. Brain processes must be deterministic or random or else the creature couldn’t discern its opportunity to systematically oppose nature amidst the chaos that would ensue without the natural regularities which it can nevertheless transcend at the mental and social levels. Every thought and feeling has some cause or other, but the longer the evolutionary history and the more complex the brain, the less tractable becomes any objective account of why a certain mental state arises; hence the need to shift to a perspective that posits the subjective viewpoint which is apparently our brain’s byproduct. In a deterministic universe, the complete explanation of any event would have to take into account every other event, which would be impossible for reasons given in relativistic physics, and which would be fruitless, given the prevalence of natural chaos. In any case, the universe is fundamentally indeterministic (at the quantum level), so the pursuit of complete explanations is wrongheaded. We must choose between models based on their utility, and so a model of organisms that’s consistent with the phenomenology (that is, with the feeling that we have some degree of self-control) can hardly be dismissed—even if the model is unscientific because it introduces a subjective factor.

How can there be a single self, though, if the brain is divided into modules that evolved to achieve different functions? This question can be turned around: How could limited freewill have evolved with no miracles, unless natural selection gradually lengthened the leash, as it were, by adding parts to the brain that make creatures more and more independent, that accrued layer upon layer of internal causes of the creature’s behaviour so that an objective explanation that discounts subjectivity becomes cumbersome to the point of being misleading? We don’t choose our desires if we think of ourselves as exclusively our conscious egos, but we needn’t think of ourselves that way. Evidently there’s an unconscious side to a personal self, as becomes plain when we dream in personally-distinctive ways without being consciously alert while we’re asleep. So neuroscientists have greater access to what’s occurring in the brain than the patient herself: before the patient becomes aware of her choice, experimenters can predict whether she’ll go left or right, by hooking her up to a machine that reads the brain’s electrical activity. This need imply only that her thought originates from one side of herself rather than another; her personhood, that is, her capacity to act as a person with limited freewill in a moral context encompasses her whole brain as well as her whole body. All are needed or are at least convenient in achieving her purposes. Moreover, objectivity and quantification don’t have the high ground when scientists know more about our choices than do their subjects. Strictly objective, impersonal processes didn’t devise scientific methods of inquiry or brain scanners in the first place; creatures that have opposed nature at every turn on moral grounds and that are thus manifestly free from their natural environment have done so.

Indeed, far from showing that freewill is an illusion, science and technology are themselves classic proofs that an anomaly is playing out in this corner of the solar system. Whereas natural systems tend to become more disordered, organisms struggle against entropy by eating each other, robbing the order found in each other’s bodies and ingesting it. Whereas natural processes don’t react to each other with any awareness or design, organisms do and their history isn’t fully explained without some understanding that living things seek to preserve themselves in an environment that can crush them in a billion possible ways and that even requires them to die to make room for more fitting adaptations, as the environment changes. Whereas the interiors of nonliving things, including rocks, planets, and stars, aren’t fundamentally different from their exteriors and can be explained in the same theoretical terms, biological, neurological, psychological and social patterns are irreducibly different from ones found in nature’s lifeless parts; the former require some appeal to subjectivity, to an inner-outer distinction that carries moral weight, or else there’s a crucial point being missed. And whereas natural transformations such as the evolution of star systems don’t indicate that the later forms are liberated from the earlier ones, the spread of extended phenotypes, that is, artifacts, demonstrates precisely the existentially-weighty fact that organisms set themselves against their environment for love of themselves (and perhaps also of their kind).

So if scientific investigation is instrumental in empowering our species to the point of making us infamous for wiping out most of the planet’s biodiversity and displacing lifeless and less-free nature with intelligently-designed cultures, machines, and cityscapes that serve as outer vessels for the contents of our minds, this rigorous search for knowledge further detaches us from the natural processes that have hitherto prevailed. Uncovering the mechanisms that enable us to process information with intelligence and with anti-natural intentions may show that we’re machines as opposed to immaterial spirits—unless you interpret “spirit” as a simplified image of the creature that’s strangely liberated and thus alienated from natural cycles and thus that seeks not homeostasis (that being the evolutionary purpose of less-free animals), but cancer-like growth of the mind throughout the lifeless void. In any event, what science certainly doesn’t show is that people are just physical objects like everything else in the universe. After all, why then wouldn’t rocks or stars practice science to achieve power over the rest of the universe in the name of all rocks or stars?  

The foregoing is what philosophers call a compatibilist picture of freewill, since it assumes that causality is inescapable in the sense that there’s no miraculous, absolute freedom from natural regularities. But these regularities develop something that opposes them, by evolving bodies that simulate foreign, unnatural worlds in the organization of their innards; that is, nature creates organic subworlds, from cells to animals to people and perhaps to societies, each complete with barriers so that we might have expected we wouldn’t miss the existential significance of this emergence. And here Harari may have a point against liberalism despite the ineffectiveness of his premises against freewill. Liberalism may be a modern religion championing liberty, reason, and personal empowerment, but limited freedom as I’ve represented it isn’t a godsend. Just as we can incur back pain for having evolved the ability to walk upright, so too we can suffer from alienation if we don’t retreat to an undignified state of childish delusion, for having been cut off from the world by our inner depths. Thus, another proof of limited freewill is the forlornness associated with grasping that we don’t belong to nature and might as well have been abandoned when we’ve been equipped with ultra-complex, self-isolating brains. Freewill is the ability not just to choose what we want—albeit often at an unconscious level, objective processes notwithstanding as complete causes of mental states, with no reference required to a subjective viewpoint. Freewill is the ability also to travel down the wrong path and it’s the mental space needed to understand that the moral and aesthetic evaluations of the culture-laden worlds we create are ultimately absurd. We’ve been liberated from nature only by accident, and our revolt against the mindless vistas is very likely doomed to be terminated before any absolute triumph has been achieved. Creatures revolt not because we know best but because we’re often selfish and are disgusted with the world as it physically is, so that we’re desperate to replace it with so many reflections of us.  


  1. Acknowledging that with complicated and contradictory cosmologies (creation stories) we are not able to discern what is true that is naturally complex and emergent. Thus "truths" make more sense as a reflections of layered individual and socially conditioned realities than as reflections of the whole. As you acknowledge, attachment to stories is strong for many reasons, among scientists as much as anyone.

    I published an article in Cosmos & History journal in Oct 2016 "Notes on the Existential Underground: the Universe as a Complex Emergent System." It contains what some might consider scientific heresy, but that is only if one is attached to stories rather than ultimate possibilities.

    Thanks for walking us gracefully through so many paradoxes. You mirror bravery and creativity in the unveiling of divine drama.

    - michelle

    1. Thanks, Michelle. Yeah, explaining the concepts of truth or of consciousness is quite paradoxical, because the explanations presuppose them. Truth and consciousness are fundamental to explanation and understanding, so it's hard to get an external viewpoint on them. I give it a shot in a few articles (links below), but I'm still thinking about how best to solve those mysteries. (But how can you solve thinking by thinking?)

      Have you read Stuart Kauffman on emergent systems? I like his perspective in "Reinventing the Sacred" and "Humanity in a Creative Universe," but he uses some pretty impenetrable scientific jargon.

  2. I met with Stu a couple of times while he was at the university of vermont. He's been the most encouraging of my views as anyone I've met. That said, he made it clear he's not willing to put his friendly professional life on the line for principles, and thus clings to science's favorite cosmologies as much as anyone. Convenient if not short-sighted.

    I am familiar with your work. Are you familiar with mine?

    1. Michelle, I see that you're into cosmology and emergence (complex systems). Thomas Nagel's book, Mind and Cosmos, and Paul Davies' pantheism come to my mind in this context. But so too does the problem that the notion that we could explain how something could naturally come from nothing is oxymoronic. There's something pseudoscientific about the likes of Lawrence Krauss's account, for example. The problem is that a rational explanation and especially a scientific model begin with assumptions so that they always end up explaining one thing in terms of something else. The so-called nothing at the start always turns out to be something after all, so the naturalist's work is never done since that something too calls out to be explained in terms of yet something more.

      The pantheism I'm working out on my blog has more in common with religion, aesthetics, and existentialism in that it posits the nonrationality at the base of our worldviews. We take a leap of faith when we say either that a supernatural deity created the universe or that the universe creates itself and evolves for no purpose. And we evaluate those religious convictions aesthetically and existentially: we judge their artistic merits (originality vs cliche, ability to stir the emotions vs obsolescence, etc) and the ethical and pragmatic implications of the type of people those myths turn us into.

      In my view, the nonrational aspect of a naturalistic religion isn't a form of childlike trust in some parental deity, but cosmicist horror in the face of inhuman probabilities that belittle us and threaten to drive us mad. Our insignificance within a universe that will carry on to literally nowhere long after we're all gone is the root of our existential predicament, since we happen to be sentient enough to grasp this unpleasant likelihood. And all our efforts stem from that root, including science and technology, but also psychodynamics (our formation of personal character, as Earnest Becker shows in Denial of Death).

  3. It would take me at least five readings of the the above to get my head around the jargon, which in my impression you have tried to keep to a minimum. Thank you for trying to keep it simple. If absolute freedom were freedom of action independent of one's surroundings then the actual freedoms humans have come from co-dependence on each other and our surroundings. That being so, the oldest human freedom is perhaps changing the human place in the food chain where all creatures depend on each other, which the humans do without knowing what the food chain is and not even having the concept of a food chain, though there may be some vague inference of it in the 5000 year old cave paintings of bison etc-not that we can know why the painters did those art works. From that humans probably assumed that even if the food chain was/is real then us changing our place in it 'should make no difference', but since-as has been proved since-the food chain is integral to all life on the planet then any talk of 'free will'-action without consequence is nonsense. On a more prosaic personal/practical/moral level I seem to remember practical free will in the context of family life consisting of parents saying to their children 'Do as I say, don't look at what I do.'. This always rebounds on the parents by piqueing the childrens' curiosity, and the greater the parental denial of what has been laid down as what can be said vs what parents actually do-with all it's consequences-the greater the potential for schism between parent and child when child becomes an adult.

    1. Interesting, Bearz. Yes, I agree that our anomalous place in the food chain indicates our limited, natural (non-absolute freedom). We're the godlike caretakers of the garden, so that we stand on the precipice of the Sapiezoic aeon, as Grinspoon puts it in Earth in Human Hands (link below). We're not just apex predators but homeless outsiders who can potentially create and destroy whole ecosystems. This is to say we're liberated from some predominant natural processes, and we agonize over our schizophrenic nature since we're constantly faced with the choice to behave more like animals or gods.

      I like Becker's discussion of how the child emerges traumatized from its realizations that its parents are inevitably hypocritical, and that to escape fear of our finitude, contingency, and expendability in nature, the child embarks on a Quixotic quest to forge a heroic character to stand up to the monstrous world. (See Becker's book, Denial of Death for more on that.) Still, this trauma liberates us, I'd say, by walling us off from much of nature by angst and alienation. Formative trauma is the mechanism that separates us from our animal, instinctive nature. Horror begets the autonomous mind, as I try to show in the article below. The sense that we're existentially homeless and out-of-place outsiders looking in is the mark of our freedom.

  4. Race is a social construct.

    1. Well, so are money, human rights, and gods, as Harari points out in Sapiens and Homo Deus. Does that make race unreal? No, fictions and illusions are real, as I say in another context to eliminativists such as Scott Bakker; they're just not what we think they are. Fictions, like other artworks have the power to shape culture. A myth may literally be just a story written down originally on a parchment, just as the concept of race may derive from some physical traits and stereotypes, but then these constructs take on a life of their own; complexity emerges that calls for a higher level of explanation, and so we posit economic, religious, or sociological properties to account for these patterns.

      Culture is full of social constructs, but culture is what makes sentient life worth living. For example, the irrational fear engendered by terrorist attacks exaggerates the threat posed by militant Islamists. But that fear takes on a life of its own, shaping American culture, for example, and largely determining the outcome of the recent presidential election. Democratic culture features a theater of the absurd, so that fictions can have demagogic power.

      If race is a fiction, it's a fiction that bootstraps its way to having real consequences, one of which is that it may be like a self-fulfilling prophecy in driving groups to more tribal, xenophobic, and racist behaviour. Our culture trains us so that if we grow up believing there are significant racial differences, we bring those differences into being. For example, if African-Americans feel the social expectations for them are low, many will act accordingly, and that collective self-pity will in turn call for a sociological explanation that posits something like the concept of race.

  5. Thanks Benjamin for your article. As I was reading you: "Harari shows that the concept of freewill is crucial to Western liberalism, but the concept may also help make sense of the earliest evidence of human cultures..."

    I was wondering: If there is something wrong with Western Liberalism Project (eg. the values of human equality and freedom/freewill rooted in 17th and 18th European Enlightenment thinkers). This Enlightenment "Liberalism" serves as the basis for scientific method which you seem to be saying science cannot prove freewill. So we'd need a radical different model to break out of these old Enlightenment frameworks. I wonder what mental model or framework could replace this 17th century "Liberalism", which drives so much if not all of our modern Western assumptions.

    1. Thanks for reading it. I'm not sure it's quite right to say that the scientific method itself rests on liberal values. Historically, the scientific revolution came after the Renaissance and an individualistic shift in values, but that doesn't mean that epistemically the scientific method depends on liberal assumptions. That would be the genetic fallacy. However modern science originated, it evolved its own standards and procedures so that now it's pretty well autonomous. That's not to say that science is value-neutral. I think science is pragmatic; technological advancement is its main purpose. Moreover, objectification has normative implications: the scientist construes nature as a resource or as a puzzle to solve, and the act of objectification dehumanizes the objective individual as well as the objectified one.

      But some liberal values in particular depend more on scientific findings than the other way around. Once we look and see how the world works, instead of relying on dogmas, we discover, for example, that women are more equal to men than men had presumed for patriarchal purposes.

      Harari's point, though, is that ultimately science will conflict with liberalism, since science will refute, for example, the assumption that we're free. What will replace liberalism? That's the big question. I suspect the post-American ideology will flow largely from Russia and China, and from the right-wing backlash we're seeing across Europe and in Trump's idiocracy. Eastern naturalism plus authoritarian checks not just on America's counterproductive celebration of liberty but on capitalism's tendency to form plutocracies. But who knows? It will likely be shaped also by revolutions in technology. Thus, we can turn to science fiction for reasonable predictions.

    2. Thanks, Ben, for your reply. This Liberalism topic is weighty and I appreciate your posts. I heard a related discussion and thought you might like to have a listen:
      Bernard Henri Levy
      Liberalism is embattled, says the French author and intellectual. As France faces its election year and the rise of the Front National, he argues that liberal politics have helped bring about their own crisis. But should liberals embrace the bans of the Hijab? And how should they respond to Vladimir Putin’s autocracy?

    3. Thanks for the link. BHL reminds me of Bono from U2. If liberalism is embattled, it's not just because it faces illiberal opposition from fundamentalist Islam or from autocratic Russia. It's because most so-called liberals are decadent and hypocritical. That's why they didn't vote in great numbers for Hillary Clinton, not even to stop Trump. It's because they're apathetic and they may have secretly looked forward to the entertainment a Trump presidency would provide.

      Western liberals in what Thomas Frank calls the professional class are consumers, not citizens in the classic sense. They're not actively engaged in politics; they go to rallies like Jon Stewart's centrist celebration of critical thinking and compromise (even after postmodernity has rendered such Enlightenment ideals quaint), and they mistake the tweeting of anonymous snide remarks with patriotic acts of civil disobedience. As I put it on this blog, these liberals are domesticated betas, pets of the establishment. They're most concerned with politically correct issues of identity politics (rights for women, gays, and minorities), but they're not realistic about the natural facts that should halt them in their tracks.

      To wit, science has demolished the basis for many liberal values, which is why liberals are apathetic and ultimately nihilistic. It's why hypocrites like Bono or BHL can spout Christian or socialist slogans about the need to stand up for the oppressed even while their personal wealth and privileges depend on the Western social order which more often than not supports the oppressors.

      I suspect the very notion of a wealthy and powerful philosopher is oxymoronic. I suppose Marcus Aurelius would be an exception, but philosophers should be social outsiders; their insight comes from their objectivity, which is alienating. Philosophers should be losers, not winners. When a so-called liberal philosopher is a prancing winner, something's gone wrong, namely the corruption of the West.

    4. @Benjamin: I see your point that so-called "liberalism" is rotten ("decadent" and "hypocritical") from inside out.

      The liberalism of the professional-, creative-, well-graduated- "class" that Thomas Frank writes about no longer speaks for the common citizen. This argument seems more political than purely philosophical. I get that.

      RE: philosophers who are wealthy or powerful is an oxymoron...
      Is your argument not of the genetic fallacy variety?
      Should we not take the philosophy (the message) on its own merits/value? Not base the message value on the moral flaws of the messenger. Though, I think we could take moral character into consideration of the ineffectiveness of a particular philosophy. Say like saying all men are created equal, but some are less equal than others and not able to be free because they are slaves, "my property". Do we disregard out the US Constitution because many of its writer-policitcal philosophers owned slaves on their plantations and were wealthy? Maybe, we question and revise but discard entirely?

      Not sure if you're Observer article, you linked to, was meant to show the Philosopher-playboy Levy as a "oxymoronic" philosopher OR the oxymoron to your argument itself. The Observer is published by Jared Kushner--D.J. Trump's son-in-law, and millionaire-publisher and now senior advisor to US President-elect Trump.

      Whom do you recommend as an outsider philosophers? Past and present? In addition to Marcus-Aurelius?

    5. This depends on what you want to get out of political philosophy. If you think this philosophy puts us in touch with factual truth, like science, then yes, logically speaking, it would be fallacious to reject some philosophical message based on the way this message originates.

      But I think the most interesting part of any philosophy has more akin to fiction and to religion than to science. Political philosophy, in particular, is more prescriptive than descriptive. In any case, I treat philosophies as works of art, which means the proper standards for evaluating them are aesthetic, not strictly rational. The decadence of Bono or of BHL means that I can't use his generalizations the way I can a favourite movie, novel or song. They don't mean much to me, because the artists are disappointing rather than awe-inspiring as potential prophets.

      The point about the oxymoron is almost linguistic. Someone who loves knowledge will be obsessed with acquiring it and will therefore hardly have time to be a playboy. Thus, the more authentic philosopher will be a social outsider.

      However, this is a simplification. As I say in "Introversion and the Esoteric," we're all partly introverted and partly extroverted. Reading and writing anything of substance--from philosophy to poetry--requires some degree of introversion, because reading and writing are solitary activities. Thus, we're introverted at least when we're in the acts of reading and writing. That should hold for BHL as well. But his fascination with philosophical knowledge seems to compete with a hunger for fame and fortune. Bono isn't a philosopher, but his hypocrisy lies in the evident conflict between his religion and his lifestyle.

      I'm not saying we should dismiss any philosophy that isn't produced by a monk. Most canonical Western philosophers haven't been hermits. Still, some like Nietzsche or Kierkegaard are more antisocial than others, and that lends their ideas (in so far as they're artworks) some credibility. Or there's John Rawls: "Rawls seldom gave interviews and, having both a stutter and a 'bat-like horror of the limelight', did not become a public intellectual despite his fame. He instead remained committed mainly to his academic and family life" (Wikipedia).

      It's like the point made in the movie Ratatouille. A chef should love food and that should mean he or she shouldn't be especially skinny, like the pedantic food critic. Likewise, a lover of knowledge in general shouldn't have time for much extroversion, let alone for fame and gallivanting. Again, the point isn't that good philosophy comes only from hermits. But when a so-called intellectual swings so far in the opposite direction, I'd recommend looking elsewhere for inspiration.

      Of course, an extroverted lifestyle could be consistent with a certain philosophy, such as Epicureanism or Sadism. If liberalism implies that we should be free to seek pleasure, we should expect a liberal to live by that code. But that would mean the liberal isn't a lover of ideas, but has become an ideologue, someone who thinks she knows enough to stop looking for knowledge. The more smug we are, the more likely we'll overlook contrary pieces of evidence. So a true connoisseur of philosophical ideas should be humble, above all.