Saturday, August 3, 2019

Pragmatism, Naturalized Platonism, and Freewill: A Conversation

[The following is an email conversation I had with Sybok, a reader of this blog. The conversation began in the comment section of my dialogue on the moral argument for God. We wanted to debate the issue of freewill, but realized that we should first consider our different metaphysical and epistemological assumptions, since otherwise those would crop up and divert us. So that’s what we did. Without further ado, here’s our dialogue.]


SYBOK: You ask what happens when we know something is true. Since there's no God, truth can't be a case of mere correspondence where our opinion about something matches God's. But it can't be a simple matter of coherence either, since plenty of coherent statements are pure fiction (The Buffyverse is coherent). Clearly, neither coherence nor correspondence is a sufficient condition for truth. For something to be 'true', it must be coherent, but it must also correspond to... what?

Plato had the answer in his theory of forms. Plato believed that everything, from a triangle to a horse, had an archetypal form that persisted outside time and space. Today we know that horses evolved from non-horse ancestors with many intermediate species that gradually approximated the modern horse; hence there can be no eternal horse-form. But Plato's error wasn't his theory, but its over-application. Horses are synthetic in that they are composed of cells, molecules, atoms, etc. The forms aren't synthetic, but irreducible preconditions for the existence of any synthetic entity. Forms don't change, but their relationships do. Forms have no extension in space-time, but they underpin it. We all know some forms, though not through our senses; and when we know a form, we know it's true.

The forms are numbers, logical relationships and normative principles like Aristotle's law of Identity. Without these, nothing could exist. This doesn't make synthetic things 'untrue' in the sense of nonexistent. Horses are real; but for something to be real it must be compossible; if compossible it must be possible; if possible it must be rational. Hegel erred when he said that all that is rational is real. A rational thing is possible, but unless it's compossible with everything else, it will never be real (unicorns are possible, but aren't real).

To summarize: Something's 'true' when it corresponds to a rational form and something's 'real' if it's compossible.


BENJAMIN: Plato thought that material things are copies of immaterial, more perfect originals. The intuition there would be the picture theory of meaning. So a painting of a horse is about a horse because the two are similar. But similarity theories of meaning have proven quite problematic. An accidental arrangement of clouds might resemble a train, but we wouldn’t say the one is intentionally directed towards the other. So similarity doesn’t seem like a sufficient condition of meaning. In any case, it’s hard to see how immaterial “things” could resemble material ones, so there wouldn’t even be much similarity between the worlds to speak of. Likewise, words don’t resemble their objects (linguistic symbols are digital, not analogue), so there resemblance seems irrelevant to meaning.

I think a Platonist should think of knowledge and truth as having to do with mystical insight and experience. In this fallen domain, there’s only illusion and ugliness, not real beauty, truth, or goodness. The Cave analogy says it all. So Platonism joins up with Gnosticism and the Indian religions. In nature we have faint ideas of what we should be doing and of what should have been. There should be goodness, beauty, and truth, but in contemplating those wishes we’re only vaguely remembering our prior life, in so far as we were one with the Good or with the unified source of multiplicity. When we talk about natural knowledge, then, we’re fooling ourselves just like the captives in the cave fool themselves into thinking they’re dealing with something other than flickers of shadows on the wall.

When we acquire philosophical habits of mind, however, and we focus on rational and ethical absolutes, we encounter ideals and learn to forsake the material copies as we get lost in philosophical explorations. Knowledge, then, really would be akin to falling in love—but with abstract ideas rather than with people or with material objects. We know something, for a Platonist, when we’re possessed with an abstraction and when we’re awestruck by such evidence that there’s a better world beyond nature. Truth and error would be something like the continuum between virtue and vice, a falling short or an approximation, not so much having to do with similarity but with the moral or aesthetic inferiority of the copies to the originals. 

Assuming Darwin showed why we can no longer so easily think of perfect Forms of the various species such as horses or whales, I think a Platonist might be led to pragmatism about many of our categories. There may not be separate Forms of every type of thing we’re inclined to speak about, in part because many of our categories are confused, pragmatic, or subjective. But there may be some Form pertaining to the potential emergence of life in general and thus of all ensuing species. It’s like the difference between an event’s total cause and its approximate causes. When we talk about horses, we’re really talking over-simplistically about life in general, because horses are continuous with all other species, genetically and evolutionarily speaking. What all living things have in common would feed into the Form of life that would account for genuine knowledge of horses and whales. Otherwise, we’re just kidding ourselves, playing with shadows. But what the Form of life would be is hard to say, because we haven’t seen the end of evolution. So we’re largely still in the dark there. At least, that’s how I might reconstruct knowledge as a Platonist, given the difficulties.

One problem remains, I think, that Plato slipped in the normative assessment when he called the source of nature (the sun in the Cave analogy) good. I’m not aware of a compelling argument showing that permanence is objectively better than impermanence or that circles are better than ovals. So even if there were a second, immaterial world out there that bears some metaphysical relation to the perceivable one, I don’t see why that relation would automatically be normative. On the contrary, if anything, assuming nature is flawed, the immaterial source might deserve blame for emanating the imperfections. The problem here would be similar to the one confronting Gnostics as to why the perfect godhead perturbs itself to produce the fallen realm we inhabit. But notice that Gnostics regard the immaterial source of fallen nature as perfectly alien and transcendent, not as superior in any sense we can imagine. From there we’re led to something like cosmicism, not to ancient Greek anthropocentrism.


SYBOK: You remark that it is hard to see how immaterial things could resemble material ones. Well, there are several analogies out there, but I think the best one is the digital analogy. Computers use mathematical algorithms to encode things like pictures, movies, and music into binary data and then decode it back into something the human nervous system can appreciate on request. Granted, computers are themselves material things and the ones and zeros they encode the data into are microscopic circuits on a chip; but I think you get the idea: anything in the physical world can be mapped mathematically. A mathematical representation of a horse would be unrecognizable to us (unless we were like Cypher from The Matrix), but it would still be perfectly isomorphic to the original horse. And if any physical object or phenomenon can be mapped mathematically,  then it isn't much of a leap to suggest that any mathematical thing can be reified or embodied into physical existence. Physicist Max Tegmark argues for just this idea in his book 'The Mathematical Universe'. Tegmark goes so far as to assert that every mathematical form has a physical existence; I'm a bit more conservative on that point, but he could be right.

Aside from mathematics, there are metaphysical principles like Aristotle's law of identity. Obviously the law of identity is not a physical thing, and yet, can you imagine a physical world in which it didn't apply? Even a theist would have to concede that the law of identity precedes God, since without it we wouldn't be able to tell God from an ice-cream cone. On a lower level you have physical constants like light speed in a vacuum and the gravitational constant, as well as quantitative relationships between physical forces like mass and energy. Positivists will argue that all these 'laws' are really just generalizations drawn from many observations taken by scientists, hence not 'laws' in the imperative sense. I agree, but their point falls flat against an atheistic system like mine. Just as the naturalist stops at nature and does not invoke the supernatural to explain where nature came from, so do I stop at the 'laws' (the forms) and feel no need to posit a lawgiver or law-enforcer.

In invoking Plato I didn't mean to endorse his gnostic views. I myself was quite enthusiastic about gnostic religion when I discovered it as a teen and wish I could escape into some perfect pleroma of light, love and knowledge; but I see no sufficient reason to belief any of it and many reasons (some of which you mentioned) for rejecting it. So I don't believe the physical universe to be an imperfect copy of the platonic world of forms. Rather, the physical world is simply 'the word made flesh', to borrow from St. John. Since the physical universe is isomorphic to the forms, the distinction between natural knowledge and mystical insight into ultimate reality is abolished. It's only a matter of following our capacity for logical deduction and mathematical induction to its end. This end is only anthropocentric in the sense that we humans seem to be uniquely endowed with reason (though there could be bizarre, lovecraftian aliens that are better at it than us). But it doesn't lead us to some warm, fuzzy father figure in the sky or a validation of our idealistic longings for justice. It explains the world as it is, but it doesn't point to anything better. Maybe you could call my view 'naturalized platonism'.

I suppose I could concede the Mysterian point that ultimate reality is unintelligible: that God not only rolls dice, but doesn't give a wit for my quaint preoccupation with reason and mathematics. But that's kind of a non-starter. If ultimate reality is unintelligible, then I'm wasting my time trying to understand it. At that point I either shave my head and join some eastern cult that says I can only understand reality by not thinking about it or I just give up entirely and join the philistines in their pursuit of happiness at the expense of knowledge. Ultimately, my naturalized platonism is pragmatic. Even if reality is unintelligible, it's practical to approach it as if it were intelligible.


BENJAMIN: If meaning is the mapping from a physical embodiment to its abstract mathematical form, everything in the universe would be about its mathematical version. Yet we don’t say a horse is about its abstract representation. The universal kind of meaning there would just be information. So assuming there is such a mathematical mapping of everything, a physical horse would indicate what it could be mapped to, in that you could learn about the abstract form from the horse’s material characteristics.

But information isn’t enough for knowledge or for truth. It seems to me this Platonism ends up being even more pragmatic than you suggest, since assuming you’re also dispensing with the mystical and Gnostic parts of Plato’s philosophy, knowledge would have to be a certain use of that mapping. The horse indicates its form and we would know, for example, that horses have four legs, when we exploit the mathematical or logical patterns we detect. So we devise linguistic tools (such as words/symbols and the rules of natural language) and natural selection evolves the brain which likewise processes that information for primarily practical ends (the survival of the species and the organism). To know that the horse has four legs is to be able to recognize and exploit the pattern, with the aid of the cognitive tools at our disposal.

Moreover, if truth isn’t coherence or correspondence, the truth of “The horse has four legs” would again consist in the statement’s utility. By contrast, “The horse has twelve legs” would be wrong in the sense of being useless. There are effective and ineffective uses of tools. The ineffective ones fail to carry out certain social and psychological functions.

That, however, would be a pragmatic theory of cognition that builds on the existence of patterns. Your Platonism would account for those patterns at the metaphysical level, but I don’t see yet how the positing of a map of metaphysical abstractions contributes to a theory of knowledge or truth. What does the metaphysical map add to the use of the information, in terms of supplying us with knowledge? Are you saying there would be no physical or material order without the immaterial one?

Another potential problem for your account is that if you follow rationalists like Plato and Leibniz, and you say that knowledge is something like reason’s recognition of the metaphysically-established information or pattern, you don’t seem to leave room for nonrational knowledge. We know, for example, that the brain has two cognitive systems. One is logical, the other is intuitive. We can either deduce facts based on a laborious process of serial reasoning; that’s the algorithmic kind of thinking. But evolution has equipped us also with the capacity for snap judgments, based on heuristics or rules of thumb. So would you say that there’s no such thing as intuitive knowledge? That knowledge has to be the result of logical thinking?

Another thought I have on this is that there seems a physical version of the metaphysical mapping that you have in mind. According to Leonard Susskind and the holographic principle, everything that falls into a black hole is stored in surface fluctuations on the event horizon. Some physicists go on to conjecture that our universe is actually a hologram inside a black hole, so what we perceive as three dimensions and gravity would be illusions.

One question, then, is whether that cosmological theory would make your Platonism or rationalist metaphysics redundant.

Another, related question is whether calling your view “naturalized Platonism” is arbitrary. In what sense would the abstract forms be natural rather than supernatural? Are they posited by physicists? How is your view monistic rather than substantively dualistic?

Regarding your disinclination to explain the laws of nature or of logic, we should distinguish between the laws or descriptions and the nomic relations or real patterns. You want to explain the material order by invoking an immaterial order. That looks like the Aristotelian move of adding a final cause or purpose to natural explanations, or like the vitalist’s of saying that living things need a life force. Is that extra metaphysical entity really needed to explain what we observe? Once you concede that some pragmatism is needed, why posit more than is needed? In short, does Occam’s razor plus pragmatism threaten your Platonism?


SYBOK: You say that 'assuming there is such a mathematical mapping of everything, a physical horse would indicate what it could be mapped to, in that you could learn about the abstract form from the horse’s material characteristics'. Exactly. This is what Thomas Aquinas meant when he said everything we know, we know through our senses, but that using our God-given reason, we can abstract what we see to arrive at what we can't see. But I hasten to add that, though anything can be modeled mathematically, that doesn't mean every material thing is the embodiment of a mathematical form. This could be so, but as you remarked, it would be a redundant metaphysical speculation. The only forms I insist upon are those that would need to exist for there to be any physical objects at all. Horses are totally explicable in terms of physics, DNA, and natural selection. There's no need for a horse-form to explain the existence of horses; though a horse-form could still exist say, as a morphogenetic field postulated by Rupert Sheldrake. But there would need to be laws of logic, mathematics and physics for the universe to exist and since these things obviously aren't physical, they must be metaphysical.

I am aware that there is a rival model out there being propagated by Lee Smolin. He wants to eliminate the platonic realm entirely by suggesting that the laws of physics somehow evolved over time like organisms do and that mathematics is merely a human creation that we invoked out of a few simple axioms. First of all, I'm not aware of any evidence that the laws of physics evolved (what evidence could there be?) The only time its ever seriously entertained is to account for certain initial conditions at the big bang; but this says more about the credibility of BB theory than the reliability of physical constants. Furthermore, what mechanism could possibly allow for this evolution? Organisms evolve because their DNA is stable, but capable of small mutations here and there. The environment that organisms depend upon for survival and reproduction is always changing, which makes some mutations advantageous for procreation while eliminating maladaptive ones. So what environment do laws of physics live in (wouldn't they dictate the environment rather than adapt to it)? How do they reproduce? What mechanism allows them to mutate? As for mathematics being invoked from a few simple axioms, Smolin would be right if mathematics really were built upon such axioms. Russell and Whitehead tried to build mathematics up from formal logic and failed. David Hilbert tried again sometime later. It wasn't until Kurt Gödel published his Incompleteness proof that it became apparent why all these attempts were doomed to fail. Gödel demonstrated that there are some facts in mathematics that can never be deduced from any set of axioms and hence mathematics could not have been created by humans, but only discovered by us. Gödel, of course, was a platonist.

When I said my platonism was pragmatic, I meant that it validates my desire to know; but it doesn't follow from there that pragmatism is its basis. If a theory satisfied my desire to know, but wasn't internally coherent and didn't correspond to anything I could observe in the real world, I would have to reject it. Positing that the universe is rational and mathematically ordered is strongly supported by the findings of science. Even if our science were purely speculative and wasn't used to create technology, it would still have correspondence to support its claim to knowledge. I suppose you could say that, since science's correspondence with reality depends on its ability to make reliable predictions about it, then it's pragmatic after all. But if you define pragmatism that broadly, then what theory wouldn't be pragmatic? Faith healing maybe (since it doesn't work)?

You bring up a very good point about the distinction between serial reasoning and intuition. Leibniz made a similar distinction. According to Leibniz, when we know something intuitively, we comprehend it as a whole and all at once. When we know something symbolically, we only understand it in a linear, piecemeal fashion. It's the difference between tediously writing out an equation using mathematical symbols and really grasping it. Intuitive knowledge is clearly superior; but notice that I used the equation as an example. There's nothing irrational about intuitive knowledge in the sense that it can't be analyzed and incorporated into our mental map of reality. Many scientific discoveries (such as the ring structure of certain molecules) came about as intuitive flashes of insight. I've had them myself, but once I put them on paper and did the math, I found them perfectly reasonable. I don't know where intuition comes from, but if I had to guess I would say that it's the fruit of long cogitation going on in the unconscious mind. When intuitions rise to consciousness, they only seem to come out of nowhere.

You mentioned holography. The holographic theory of reality is intriguing, especially Susskind's, but it just pushes the question back. If our reality is a hologram or simulation, then it must be a hologram or simulation of something. If the 'universe' is a finite 4D bubble, then there must be some greater reality/multiverse beyond it. If God did it all, what did God?

You question the 'natural' part of the term 'naturalized platonism'. How are the forms not supernatural? I guess it depends on what you consider natural. For me, nature is explicable while the supernatural would be inexplicable. If something can be explained, it isn't supernatural. It's true that I can't explain where the forms came from any more than a theist can explain where God came from; but here's the difference: the theist's God is a person who can arbitrarily interfere with the workings of his creation, while the forms are just abstractions with no will or ability to change. They are more like a pantheist God, which means they aren't supernatural.

You ask whether my platonism is dualistic. Dualism presumes that properties can't emerge (like 'mind can't emerge from matter' or vice versa), but this is demonstrably false. The properties of water (liquid at room temperature, expansive when a solid) emerge from its constituents (hydrogen and oxygen) which have neither of these properties. Leibniz solved the problem of how extension can emerge from non-extension centuries ago:

"Matter is extended; extension is plurality; therefore the elements of what is extended cannot themselves be extended."

In other words: extension consists of repetition with little or no intervening space. Anything which is extended is divisible into parts. If matter is extended and extension consists of repetition of parts, then matter must derive its extension from the repetition of its constituent parts. But then whatever parts constitute matter cannot themselves be extended. Hence it follows that the constituents of matter cannot be material.

Matter emerges from warped space (this is the hidden implication behind General Relativity) and space emerges from an infinite number of unextended mathematical points. I have a demonstration of how time emerges, but that's for later.


BENJAMIN: Are you familiar with John McDowell’s book, Mind and World? I think his way of framing certain problems in epistemology is relevant to some problems I have with talk of the “laws” and “rationality” of nature. McDowell follows Kant and Sellars in distinguishing between the logical space of reasons and the space of laws. Nature is ordered, which means there are regularities or patterns which scientists discover and explain. But nature in general isn’t rational, because the giving of reasons is subject to the rational ideal. Thus, if I said, “Today is Monday but I don’t believe today’s Monday,” you’d be right to think not just that my statement is incoherent but that I’ve demonstrated an ethical failing. This is because in the space of reasons we’re obligated to base our beliefs on the evidence and the facts. There’s no such obligation or normativity in the logical space of nomic relations, that is, in the domain of natural faces.

Some such distinction is crucial because as much as McDowell resists the dualistic implications with his notion of subjectivity as “second nature,” he opens the door to the cosmicist alienation from nature, a point I’ll come back to in a moment. The problem for McDowell is that if there are no reasons in nature, outside the space of reasons which autonomous beings alone occupy, the facts we observe can’t justify our empirical beliefs. This leads to the Myth of the Given (similarly to the naturalistic fallacy, nonepistemic facts can entail epistemic facts) and to Coherentism (only reasons justify reasons), which are equally unpalatable, according to McDowell.

Now, a conservative hack like Dinesh D’Souza would jump all over the claim that the universe is rational, since he takes this as proof that nature must be intelligently designed. As he says in What’s so Great about Christianity?, “Even so, scientists cling to their long-held faith in the fundamental rationality of the cosmos…So where did Western man get this faith in a unified, ordered, and accessible universe? How did we go from chaos to cosmos? My answer, in a word, is Christianity.”

But I take it the reason you want to call the natural order “rational” is that this helps you explain truth and knowledge as the marriage of two rationalities. If our type of reason emerged from a broader type of rational order, we can understand that order because our faculties can’t help but hook up with the underlying rational patterns. But this overextends the word “rational” in something like the way you said we can overextend pragmatism. Nature has no obligation to make rational sense, least of all to some mammals that happened to evolve in one of a trillion solar systems. Indeed, natural patterns clearly aren’t rational in the sense of corresponding to our intuitive ways of thinking, at the subatomic level.

We shouldn’t forget the Darwinian lesson which runs contrary to our anthropocentric bias, the lesson being that an adaptation can be largely accidental yet as effective as if the adaptation had been intelligently planned. We wouldn’t have evolved at all if conditions hadn’t allowed for us to flourish at least for a limited time. If we survive by employing what we call “reason,” that must mean our cognitive faculties can somehow make use of the natural world that sustains us. It’s obviously a stretch to say, though, on that basis, that the universe at large conforms to human modes of thinking. For all we know, the entire span of the intelligible universe is like a lightning flash between two much longer periods of anti-human darkness (as in chaos).

So to reify the human-friendly patterns we happen to be good at detecting (because otherwise we wouldn’t have evolved), and to posit a perfected form of those patterns in a platonic heaven is to humanize ultimate reality. Frankly, even if that turned out to be correct and there were such a formal, logical reality, I’d suggest that our history would oblige us to believe otherwise, to reject anthropocentrism for the sake of maintaining our humility.

I’d go further than McDowell, though, with respect to the outdated notion of “natural laws.” The early-modern scientists were deists who imported the social sense of “law” to their studies of nature, on the presupposition that nature is artificial and thus that it ought to obey the design supplied by its maker. All of which is illegitimate, so why confuse the matter by calling scientific generalizations “laws”? Again, I can see how saying that there are laws of nature might help your epistemology, since the lawfulness of nature can complement that of human reasoning. But that overextends the social concept of lawfulness.

Rationality and lawfulness are both normative, value-laden terms. When cosmicism enters the picture, I think, is precisely when we realize that the upshot of scientific progress is that the natural order is monstrous in being both ordered, on the one hand, and amoral and nonrational, on the other. Hence my zombie metaphor for nature. How does a zombie walk even though it’s dead? It’s both living and dead, like a virus, which should be the stuff of nightmares. Likewise, how is nature ordered without having been created by anyone? No one really knows and indeed I don’t think we can possibly understand how that could be so, because we understand X to some extent by humanizing X.

The fact that we often speak of “natural laws” or of nature’s “rationality,” even though God is long since dead shows that our social instinct runs deep. We prefer to deal with other people, since we evolved to excel at reading each other’s minds and at climbing social ladders. So when we’re confronted with a world of lifeless objects, the hideousness of which is alienating, we’re quick to pretend that nature isn’t so different from us after all. Notice, then, that the more inhuman the natural universe is, the more we can expect human knowledge to be pragmatic.

I have some more direct responses to your last message, but I’ll leave it there for now.


SYBOK: I have not yet read John McDowell, but I just ordered the book you mentioned from my local library on interlibrary loan; though it will likely be 2-3 weeks before I can read it.

What you seem to be suggesting is that the rational can emerge from the irrational: human logic can emerge from a fundamentally senseless cosmos (or should that be 'kaosmos'?) Given the argument for emergence in my previous answer, I would be remiss to dismiss the possibility. From the perspective of set theory (which I resort to a lot in my cosmology), the rational might be conceived as a subset of the irrational: for every rational preposition/syllogism, there are certainly an enormous number of irrational ones. Similarly, for every mathematical equality, there are at least as many inequalities (I'd really like to quantify THAT relationship). Nietzsche made a similar speculation when he said that before our innate sense of logic evolved, there must have been numerous aberrant 'logics' that were weeded out by natural selection; our present sense of logic would then be the winner among many now extinct losers. But wouldn't this suggest that there must be a strong correlation between human logic and the way the universe actually is? Granted, our reason would not need to be perfect—no more than our eyes are perfect—but it would have to be 'good enough' to allow us to negotiate our environment.

I'm glad you mentioned quantum physics. I have a big beef with QM and this would be a good opportunity as any to state my case. According to Heisenberg, we can't simultaneously know both the position and velocity of a particle because when we use an electron microscope to measure either state, the beam of electrons emitted causes the particle to move when they're absorbed into the particle. So far, so good. But then it is claimed that, since we can't measure both of these properties at once, the particle can't have both. Furthermore, since our very method of measurement affects what we are measuring and we can't measure one property without changing the other, the particle can't have any position or velocity until we take a measurement. Now that's just positivism run amuck! We may never develop a method to simultaneously ascertain both the position and velocity of a subatomic particle, but it's just silly for the physicist to conclude from this that the particle can't have both of these properties at once or that it didn't possess either before he/she made the measurement. This is where empiricism ends, and rationalism begins. What cannot be confirmed experientially, can be inferred and demonstrated rationally.


BENJAMIN: I'd say, more precisely, that the rational emerges from the nonrational, not from the irrational. Nature is largely ordered, not entirely chaotic, but that order is inhuman. All you need to prove as much is to reflect on the universe’s size and age, which are beyond our comprehension at the intuitive level. We have numbers which can count that high, but we can’t wrap our head around those magnitudes, because we evolved to grapple with much more parochial matters (surviving in the wild, finding food and mates, raising the young). Maybe there are posthuman creatures that can intuit cosmic facts, in which case the universe to them would be as humdrum as talking or walking upright is for us. But to us the universal patterns are quite alien, contrary to our human-centered conceits and regardless of how well we can calculate probabilities or exploit natural processes with technological applications.

As I’m sure you’re aware, we used to think we were literally central to the universe and indeed that the universe doesn’t extend much further than our planet. In the outer shells of the cosmos were the gods looking down on us, enjoying their perfectly circular orbits. That geocentric model was intuitive but turned out to be a childish fantasy. Likewise, we assumed we were created by gods, but it turned out we evolved largely by natural selection. Nature’s way of creating life is likewise inhuman. The human, intuitive way of doing so would have been for gods to have sex and have offspring or to perform some miraculous act of artistic genius and will the life forms into being.

Those are the kinds of creativity that seem “rational” to us, where again the sphere of reasons is governed by certain ideals. In science, those ideals or values are simplicity, elegance, fruitfulness, and conservatism. More generally, the cognitive ideal is to increase our understanding, where understanding is hardly just the entering into abstract correspondence with facts. We don’t want to be equal to the facts; rather, we want to control them, because we’re interested in ourselves much more than in the outer world. We want to dominate nature to prolong our life and to increase our chance at happiness. Ordinary rationality is bound up with such animal motivations, which is why the main problem with irrationality is that it poses a threat to society. An irrational person (like Donald Trump, for example) is antisocial. He doesn’t just violate “laws of logic” if we think of those as either divine commandments or as rules drawn up to govern moves in a formal system. Rather, the irrational person doesn’t function in the human enterprise; he’s an outsider that should be shunned or destroyed, because we believe that what we normally do is as good as being godlike. Instrumental rationality is normal because it’s programmed into us both by the genes and by our enculturation.  

Incidentally, there’s more than one formal system. There’s bivalent logic and there’s many-valued or fuzzy logic, for example. There are different systems of logic because they model different things, although Platonists will say the systems are fragments of a unified whole, like the myth of the Theory of Everything. I’d say such models are tools meant to increase our knowledge, where knowledge conventionally (exoterically) includes both understanding and the agreement between our representations and the facts they’re about. What I claim is that the world’s religious and philosophical traditions end up decoupling those two things (see mysticism, existentialism, and postmodern cynicism, for example). The more we understand, the less we accept the correspondence theory of truth. To understand (too much, in some respect) is to become skeptical of the human enterprise, to doubt that there’s unconditional merit in humanizing the unknown by projecting human-centered categories onto nonhuman patterns. The more we exchange horror and humility for Faustian pride, and the more we deconstruct rationality in something like the postmodern fashion, the more we appreciate how anomalous we are and how alienated from anything that isn’t us. If we’re estranged from the world, we can’t hope to agree with it. Knowledge, then, is a method for working somehow well within the alien environment we find ourselves in. Thus, the mystical, cosmicist vision goes together with pragmatism, as I say in Pragmatism and Pantheism.

Regarding quantum mechanics, I agree there’s an annoying whiff of positivism in it. I’m hardly an expert on this, but I believe the uncertainty principle has more to do with the complementarity of certain fundamental properties, such as the wave-particle duality. As the Wikipedia article on the uncertainty principle says, ‘Historically, the uncertainty principle has been confused with a related effect in physics, called the observer effect, which notes that measurements of certain systems cannot be made without affecting the systems, that is, without changing something in a system. Heisenberg utilized such an observer effect at the quantum level (see below) as a physical "explanation" of quantum uncertainty. It has since become clearer, however, that the uncertainty principle is inherent in the properties of all wave-like systems, and that it arises in quantum mechanics simply due to the matter wave nature of all quantum objects. Thus, the uncertainty principle actually states a fundamental property of quantum systems and is not a statement about the observational success of current technology. It must be emphasized that measurement does not mean only a process in which a physicist-observer takes part, but rather any interaction between classical and quantum objects regardless of any observer.’

In any case, your bigger, perhaps more interesting claim is that rationalism begins where empiricism ends. Do you want to say more about that and I can respond in the next round? To anticipate, I’m opposed to scientism, but I’m wary of appealing to comforting intuitions. More important than intuitions or cognitive biases are powerful emotional reactions such as horror, angst, awe, and empathy. I’d sooner appeal to them for their aesthetic value than deduce a “rational” system based on evolved prejudices.


SYBOK: Yes, 'nonrational' is better word for what I was getting at. If rationality evolved like everything else, then it had to be one of many rivals thrown out at random. Ultimately then, it would have been the demands of living and reproducing in our environment that distinguished the rational (functional) from the irrational (dysfunctional). I'm aware of non-aristotelian varieties of logic and think they are absolutely necessary if we want to make sense of quantum mechanics. The late David Bohm wrote a book on QM (Wholeness and the Implicate Order) which, in part, uses a non-aristotelian approach to language to develop what I consider to be the most coherent explanation yet of the data. Bohm developed a method of linguistic analysis that he called the 'rheomode' (from greek 'rheo': to flow) which is non-aristotelian because it places emphasis on verbs—processes—rather than nouns (aristotelian essences). I think it was Robert Anton Wilson who suggested that quantum mechanics might be better understood in Chinese since Indo-European languages, being noun centered, tend to presuppose the existence of aristotelian essences, while Chinese places more emphasis on verbs than nouns. Buddhist philosophy, which really flowered in ancient China, tended to explain what Aristotle would regard to be an essence as an emergent property of certain underlying processes. This is the logic behind the Buddhist doctrine of anatman—no-self.

The wave-particle dilemma is, I suspect, a false dichotomy. There are several explanations out there, but so far no proofs. A certain famous scientist (whose name escapes me at the moment) referred to photons whimsically as 'wavicles'. Maybe they simply possess some properties of both, without being either. Since there is nothing like that in our everyday experience, it's impossible for us to imagine what a 'wavicle' would be like; but there are stranger things... My own intuition is that electro-magnetism in general is a sort of amphibious missing link between space and matter, which could account for its ambiguous behavior; but it would be presumptuous to speak with certainty at this point.

But when it comes to certainty, I'm inclined towards rationalism. Empiricism is indispensable for pragmatic purposes, but anyone who's ever experienced a hallucination or lucid dream should know better than to trust their senses. Reason is superior to sense because it allows us to evaluate and interpret our sensations. Reason is active. The senses are passive. Reason can ask questions about what we sense. But even better than reason, is math. The 'truths' of science change with each generation, while mathematical truths are clarified, but never overturned (Newton refuted Aristotle, but Rienmann didn't refute Euclid). This gives mathematics the same aura of certainty that all the holy books in the world possess for the gullible. But whereas every scripture contradicts another (and most aren't even internally coherent), math is universal. Mathematicians agree on nearly everything. There's more consensus in math than even in the hardest of sciences. Religion is a human invention that pretends to be a revelation; Gödel demonstrated that mathematics isn't invented by man, but revealed to him who-knows-how. And if it's true that anything can be mapped mathematically and mathematics is infallible, it follows that we should be able to arrive at an infallible answer to any question by approaching it as a math problem. I spent roughly a decade of my life searching for the one true religion (really, I could teach theology at this point), but I finally found it where I least suspected it would be: in books by Bhaskara, Pythagoras, Euclid, Euler, Leibniz, Fermat, Cantor, and a host of other true prophets. And yes, I'm willing to admit to an aesthetic element in all this. For me, the vision of an ordered, platonic cosmos is a beautiful thing (sans the fatality; though even that is beautiful in a way). I understand that some may see my universe as an uninspiring pocket watch of cosmic proportions bereft of magic and imagination; but then we are only disputing over taste, not truth; and in the arena of taste who can be the referee?

And I would like to add that some of the conclusions that math and reason have led me to are far removed from mundane human intuitions. When I applied mathematics to the question of recurrence, the result so staggered me that for about a week and a half after I was busy toggling the variables in an effort to arrive at a more intuitive solution. It took me about a month after those failed attempts to come to grips with what the numbers really said about the physical state of the universe. Mathematics may seem mundane on the surface, but follow the numbers far enough and they will lead you through the looking glass (there is a reason only a mathematician/logician like Lewis Carroll could write the Alice stories).

You mentioned the threat to society the irrational poses. I would add that it's also a threat to sanity. If the universe is fundamentally irrational (or even just nonrational), then it could be said that, potentially, anything goes. Just as the rejection of objective moral facts threaten to sanction rape, torture and mass murder; so would abandoning an objective criterion for truth open the gates to Hell. If the universe isn't fundamentally rational, then why not God or even three persons in one godhead? Why not an innocent sacrifice to appease this bloodthirsty god? Why not an eternal, unquenchable hellfire where incorporeal souls somehow burn anyways? If there are no rules then, to quote a murderous theocratic tyrant: "Nothing is forbidden & everything permitted". Against a nightmare like this, I oppose the torch of reason. Maybe there are monsters lurking in the darkness, but the light makes me feel safer. How's that for horror, angst, and awe?


BENJAMIN: I’m still not clear on the view of knowledge that emerges from your metaphysical picture. Take the suggestion that quantum mechanics might be better understood in Chinese than in English. But what kind of understanding would that be? All natural languages are filled with values and metaphors that humanize the subject matter. So the result of using any natural language isn’t a purely objective correspondence between the symbols and the facts. Our ordinary thoughts and sentences model things to exploit opportunities (instrumentalism) and to reassure us, enabling us to live well by tamping down on any alienation or despair brought on by the deeper, esoteric kind of understanding (philosophy).

Ordinary, exoteric, mass understanding goes with the flow of conventional projections, so we take for granted the anthropocentric analogies embedded in the meaning of most words in natural language, and we do so to get along in society, to communicate and get work done and forget any unsettling, subversive meta-questions. When we philosophize, though, we encounter the absurdity of that business, of average human life itself. We notice the arbitrariness of our self-serving metaphors and agendas, in view of the universe’s inhuman enormity.

Take, for example, the word “horse.” Regarding the derivation, the dictionary points out that, ‘The usual Indo-European word is represented by Old English eoh, from PIE *ekwo- "horse" (see equine). In many other languages, as in English, this root has been lost in favor of synonyms, probably via superstitious taboo on uttering the name of an animal so important in Indo-European religion’ (my emphasis). So the original use of language was bound up with the protoscientific practice of magic. To name something was to have power over it, which was pure instrumentalism, having less to do with truth than with empowerment and flattering our egos.

To be sure, pragmatism doesn’t entail that all truth is subjective. Some techniques work while others fail, and the objective world has a say in determining that outcome. If you try to build a bridge out of feathers, it’s not going to hold much weight regardless of what you’d like to happen. Utility is mostly up to the real world. But understanding reality at the exoteric, conventional level is largely up to us, and understanding is part of knowledge. Understanding is both outwardly and inwardly pragmatic, we might say. Outwardly, we need to say the right words to get work done. If I say, “Hand me those feathers so I can build the bridge,” whereas I meant to say “bricks,” I’ve picked the wrong word, and if you give me only feathers we’ll fail to achieve our goal. But the power and animistic projections of natural language are also reassuring, so the linguistic aspect of understanding makes the world useful to us, but it also makes us useful to each other.

Again, though, when we adopt a deeper perspective and ask meta-questions, we tend to lose some of that confidence. For example, we begin to doubt our myths and religions, and we even get lost in the tenuousness (chance-dependence) and relativity of our interests and projects. This is the philosophical or mystical level of understanding where the task is to develop a noble character (showing humility, empathy, tragic heroism, dark comedy) and to feel the more fitting emotions than the popular ones (awe, pity, angst, dread, disgust, horror). Rather than just being useful to each other in our shortsighted enterprise of destroying the ecosystem to enrich the aristocrats at the top of our barbaric dominance hierarchies, we understand more deeply when we sacrifice some of our well-being, stand apart from conventional society and marvel at the absurdity of it all. The wise people aren’t just cogs in the machine, so pragmatism isn’t the end of the story.

I go through all of that, mind you, to inquire into your alternative account of knowledge, understanding, and truth. What does your emphasis on math and platonic metaphysics add to epistemology, and where do you think it leads to differences from the above twofold account of understanding?

Regarding mathematics, I note the difference between pure and applied math. Much pure math is useless or inapplicable, but the pure mathematician might expect as much if the goal were to discover some correspondence with a transcendent reality. The more applicable math is to the apparent world, the less it testifies to a world beyond nature. Still, I’m inclined to agree with Lee Smolin’s view that math is only evocative or stipulated, like the rules of a game. We create an elaborate world of abstractions, but because we’re good at following orders or detecting clues, being originally hunter-gatherers and primates that served in rigid dominance hierarchies, we can track down the implications of what we’ve created. Some of that world will apply or lead to new insights and chance inventions, since those abstractions don’t fall out of the blue sky but are inspired by our daily experience where the real world has its say. Many of the abstractions will instead be fanciful. And this is why mathematical “truths” aren’t overturned, because overturning them would be as pointless as refuting the rules of baseball or of Star Wars. Poor games aren’t refuted so much as they’re ignored.

Sports, for example, are simplified competitions, since they follow rules which are special ceteris paribus laws. We edit out or “hold equal” much that would get in the way of pure competition, and we model some aspects of society (the dualism in baseball models the American compromise between individualism and socialism). Many moves are prohibited in a boxing match that wouldn’t be in a real fight. Thus, sports are artificial versions of what Nancy Cartwright calls “nomological machines.”

Mathematical abstractions likewise edit out much of what’s real. If I say, “1 + 1 = 2,” I’m assuming that those two things are identical in type, but in the real world our concepts are mere models which idealize and simplify. Also, the concept of addition presupposes that the overall, cosmic operation isn’t one of dissolution (due to entropy). What seems like a uniting of two things from our limited perspective may amount to a subtraction or nullification in the longer run.

So do we need to add such abstractions to our ontology? Likewise, do we need to think of a platonic heaven of perfect baseball or hockey to make sense of those glorified games that we play? More specifically, do we need to do so to account for knowledge, truth, and understanding? I think you want to say there would be no natural order at all without an underlying abstract, mathematical and perfect one. And reason abstracts from natural messiness only to get to that deeper order. Can you confirm or elaborate on that for the next round? To anticipate my response, I’d say that this nontheistic rationalism doesn’t avoid the existentialist’s point about the absurdity of life, since you concede the inexplicability of the deeper, abstract structures.


SYBOK: Well, the best language to understand QM in is mathematics, but you're right that 'natural' languages are value and metaphor laden human constructs, which make them less than ideal for understanding the non-human. I think mathematics is the only truly natural language and so the only one we can use to describe nature without resorting to metaphor or analogy. No words can ever capture what anything 'is' in the ontological sense. The advantage numbers have over words is that they aren't metaphors or human constructs and don't depend on the peculiar organization of the nervous system. The word 'red' conveys an experience humans have when they are subjected to a certain wavelength of light. It's subjective in the sense that a color-blind person wouldn't have the same experience, nor would an extraterrestrial with a different nervous system. 'Red' doesn't tell us about the thing in itself or essence of what that light is, but only what it is to us. A truly objective, inhuman description of what we experience as red light can only be expressed mathematically as an electro-magnetic wavelength between 622 to 780 nanometers. This is what Plato meant when he said the forms are real while their material expressions are mere shadows on the wall, and why he placed so much emphasis on math; you can't understand anything ontologically unless you've measured it.

You ask what math adds to epistemology? Like logic, it allows us to infer from what we can sense to what we can't. Einstein didn't need to peer into the 4th dimension to know that gravity is the effect of the 4D curvature of space; he simply deduced it through math. Ptolemy could predict where and when a solar eclipse would occur without having to wait and see. Eratosthenes used trigonometry to calculate the curvature and size of the Earth thousands of years before anyone circled the globe.

You ask what do these abstractions (platonic forms) contribute to our understanding which forces us to grant them ontological status? I answer that they give us something external to ourselves that our mind can form a true correspondence to. Even if the mind is an epiphenomenon of the brain, it still has a metaphysical quality about it. So far we have no way of mapping brain activity to specific thoughts and it may in fact prove impossible. So our thoughts aren't physical things, aren't extended in space, and so if the world had no metaphysical (platonic) substructure to it, this would mean that there would be nothing outside of our minds that our thoughts could literally correspond to. As Smolin implies, if there's no platonic heaven, then my thoughts about numbers don't correspond to anything else than some other person's thoughts about numbers; which makes them a game that we just agree to play.

The problem with Smolin's comparison of math with a game is that the rules of real games are arbitrary and evolve over time. Compare the history of chess with that of math. Chess started in India, but now there are dozens of variations of it throughout the world, all with their own peculiar rules and special pieces. There's no particular reason why, in standard chess, a pawn should be allowed to move 2 squares forward intitially; and in most other variations of the game that would be an illegal move. Math did not evolve this way. In Euclidean (flat) geometry, a triangle has 180°, in Reimannian (curved) geometry, it has more than 180°; but this difference is not arbitrary like the chess rule about pawns: the different rules of Reimannian geometry follow from the distortion of a Euclidean surface. To illustrate: the Mayans used a base 13 for their calculations, but that wouldn't stop a Mayan mathematician from arriving at the same results as a Hindu would; the only difference between their sums would be their notation. However, if you tried to pit a Japanese Shogi master against a German Wehrschach champion, they'd end in a screaming match; each accusing the other of cheating. There's just no analogy between the evolution of games and the history of math. Though it's true that Gödel's proof implies that there could be an arbitrary— maybe even irrational—element to math since we aren't able to deduce all of it from a finite set of axioms, this just seems to support the contention that math wasn't invented by bored logicians. To be fair, there have been some valiant efforts made by nominalists to 'de-platonize' math. Harty H. Field makes an admirable try in his little book Science Without Numbers. Maybe someone will one day manage to prove Gödel wrong; but I'm not holding my breath.

So, if mathematics evidently isn't a game humans invented, that means that our thoughts about math must correspond to something outside of our minds, which then forces us to posit a metaphysical, platonic dimension in which these entities do exist independently of our perception or knowledge.

Yes, mathematical models do strip the phenomena they abstract from of all characteristics that are not relevant to the question the model is designed to answer; but that is what makes them so useful. If I want to know what my change adds up to, it's irrelevant that some of my pennies might have buffalo heads on the back of them (unless buffalo pennies become valuable collectibles). However, it's theoretically possible to create a mathematical model of something that includes every wart or eccentricity of the original; isn't this what the transporter technology on Star Trek is supposed to do?

You observe that what appears to be an addition could just as well be a subtraction; quite right! Addition and subtraction are relative and one operation could easily substitute for the other. If I subtract (-2) from 3, I'll arrive at 5 just as surely as if I had added 1 to 4. Similarly, 1 + (-1) = 0, which bears an analogy to what happens when matter and antimatter meet: the result is mutual annihilation (and gamma radiation). By the way, if it turns out that all the various physical forces like gravity/anti-gravity, matter/antimatter etc. perfectly cancel each other out, that would answer the old philosophical question of why there is something rather than nothing: in that case everything would be equal to nothing!

You've understood my position well enough and you are right that nontheistic rationalism can't offer an answer to life's absurdity or offer a purpose. Plato believed in a perfect form of good and justice, but since I've rejected those aspects of his philosophy, I really have nothing to say about normative matters. I can assume some goal is desirable and then use reason to make a plan for realizing the goal, but I can't use reason to choose which goal to pursue. An ethical imperative is 'true' only insofar that it is a means to an end, but the chosen end cannot itself have any ethical value unless it too is merely a means to some further goal. If I want to succeed in politics it would be right to adopt a machiavellian ethic, but there is no reason to prefer worldly success to, say, the salvation of my soul; a goal which would necessitate an entirely different code of conduct.

But the whole idea of moral responsibility hangs on the question of free will, doesn't it? If everything we might do has already been determined by forces beyond our control (whether those forces be deterministic or random makes no difference), of what use would be any code of ethics? Since you've been asking the questions all this time and I've already given my definition of free will way back at the beginning of our conversation,  I'd like to ask what free will means to you. Let's make sure our disagreement isn't just a matter of semantics. I'm familiar with the terms of the debate: libertarianism vs determinism (hard and soft varieties) along with compatibilism which tries to reconcile the two. So what's free will to you? Is it freedom to do what we want or freedom to choose what we want? Or is it something else entirely? I look forward to your reply.


BENJAMIN: It looks like you subscribe to the correspondence theory of truth. So that’s a sticking point. I’d ground the concept of semantic correspondence in a pragmatic stance, not in some metaphysical structure or epistemic ideal. The notion of correspondence is metaphorical, since it means “agreement,” which is a social, value-laden notion similar to “law” in “natural law.” If you take the correspondence to entail only isomorphism (a one-to-one mapping between members of sets), that would amount to something like the early Wittgenstein’s picture theory of truth, which the later Wittgenstein himself refuted.

Your realism about abstract objects seems to rest on your assumption that truth is a correspondence relation, since you say that without the abstract Forms, math would have nothing to correspond to. This is strange, though, since most pure math is indeed a playground for mathematicians. Pure mathematicians are much more concerned with the consistency of their statements than with whether they correspond to anything. Indeed, that’s what makes for the difference between pure and applied math. This is also what led Eugene Wigner to write, “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences,” in which he speaks of the miracle that math should be useful to physics, given how much of math is initially created indeed to be game-like, as something that has aesthetic value and that allows the mathematician to demonstrate his ingenuity.

From Wigner’s paper: “mathematics is the science of skillful operations with concepts and rules invented just for this purpose. The principal emphasis is on the invention of concepts. Mathematics would soon run out of interesting theorems if these had to be formulated in terms of the concepts which already appear in the axioms. Furthermore, whereas it is unquestionably true that the concepts of elementary mathematics and particularly elementary geometry were formulated to describe entities which are directly suggested by the actual world, the same does not seem to be true of the more advanced concepts, in particular the concepts which play such an important role in physics…Most more advanced mathematical concepts, such as complex numbers, algebras, linear operators, Borel sets—and this list could be continued almost indefinitely—were so devised that they are apt subjects on which the mathematician can demonstrate his ingenuity and sense of formal beauty…The principal point which will have to be recalled later is that the mathematician could formulate only a handful of interesting theorems without defining concepts beyond those contained in the axioms and that the concepts outside those contained in the axioms are defined with a view of permitting ingenious logical operations which appeal to our aesthetic sense both as operations and also in their results of great generality and simplicity.”

In Mathematics: The Loss of Certainty, Morris Kline laments the “isolation” of math which took over by 1900. Given the developments of non-Euclidean geometry, he writes, “The realization that even man-made creations, as well as what seemed inherent in the design of nature, proved to be extraordinarily applicable soon became an argument for a totally new approach to mathematics. Why should this not happen with future free creations of the mind? Hence, many mathematicians concluded, it was not necessary to undertake problems of the real world. Man-made mathematics, concocted solely from ideas springing up in the human mind, would surely prove useful. In fact, pure thought, unhindered by adherence to physical happenings, might do far better. Human imagination, freed of any restrictions, might create even more powerful theories that would also find application to the understanding and mastery of nature” (282).

Notice that that’s essentially pragmatic reasoning that Kline offers on behalf of the pure mathematician. I hasten to add, by the way, that I’m personally a very poor mathematician. I’m not at all an expert in mathematics, although I’m interested in the philosophy of math, of course.

When you say, “A truly objective, inhuman description of what we experience as red light can only be expressed mathematically,” that actually strikes me as incoherent, since the very notion of describing anything is already a mere human one. Math is more abstract than natural language and clearly more precise and thus useful in science, but I don’t think we’re escaping our parochial or biological interests by offering any type of description.  

There are some problems with your attempted contrast between math and games. Their histories are irrelevant to whether they’re comparable in the ways Smolin specifies. His point is that the rules are evocative in that once they’re stipulated, the implications become nonarbitrary, relative to the rules. In any case, you’re mistaken about the lack of arbitrariness in the history of pure math. You say, “the different rules of Reimannian geometry follow from the distortion of a Euclidean surface,” but that’s misleading because non-Euclidean geometry wasn’t invented to apply to a non-Euclidean surface. On the contrary, mathematicians were toying with the implications of violating Euclid’s postulates, for at least a thousand years, long before anyone thought there could be non-Euclidean surfaces in nature. Indeed, those earlier mathematicians were trying to prove Euclid’s postulates, by arguing from contradiction; ironically, they proved the opposite of what they intended and didn’t realize it.

But let’s turn to how any of this metaphysics and epistemology bears on the question of freewill. Your determinism seems peculiar in view of your realism about abstract objects, since a theist, for example, who needs us to be absolutely free to make sense of God’s moral commandments could say that once you posit immaterial, perfect forms, you might as well posit an immaterial spirit to account for consciousness. Such a spirit would indeed be just the thing that could have what I’ve called “miraculous freedom.” That would be the will power to resist all possible natural causes, given that they don’t impede the spirit’s control over its body. This would be the freedom to have done otherwise, if given the same external and bodily conditions. The spirit would thus be an absolute sovereign over its conscious states. Indeed, you go as far as to say that “our thoughts aren’t physical things.” Does that mean thoughts are unreal or else somehow perfect, immaterial, or virtually supernatural? So on what grounds would you reject the theist’s contention that we have “libertarian” (absolute or miraculous) freewill?

My view of freewill is compatibilist, but remember that I’m pragmatic about causal explanations (and about rational knowledge in general). When one model proves limited, we need to turn to another one. As Dennett said, we switch to the intentional stance when other vocabularies are counterproductive. So we posit psychological properties to explain what looks like the behaviour of minds, and we posit autonomy, self-consciousness, and rationality to explain what looks like the actions of people.

As to how an autonomous person could be natural rather than supernatural, I discuss this in several articles. See especially The Irrelevance of Scientific Determinism, Yuval Harari on Freewill and Liberalism, Character and Freewill, and Do We Really Want to be Free? To quote from that that third article, “the freedom at issue must be limited to have arisen in the natural order. Instead of being sufficiently independent of nature to be capable of resisting all possible influences, to have always been able to do otherwise than would be predicted from an understanding of the total set of circumstances, a free creature must be only partially able to resist some features of its environment. This is to say the creature would be natural and real, not a ghost, an angel, or a god. The free creature would approximate those absolutes, and its autonomy would play out as a coordination of anti-natural intentions and capacities. This freedom would thus require what we call a mind and a body, a self that sees things its way as often defined against the broader flow of natural events, and an organic interior or sub-world, separated from the broader world not just by a barrier or membrane but by the anomalousness of all its internal processes, which both contribute to the creature’s limited freedom.”

I can say more about my view of freewill next time, but a key point for me is that any natural chain of causes of effects that produces the anomaly of anti-natural behaviour (the real, historical kind of supernature, as it were, namely artificiality that’s meant to replace the wilderness) can be interpreted as the production also of something with limited freewill. All natural freewill is limited, not absolute (not omnipotent), because this type of freedom is embodied, and our bodies are porous and thus not completely isolated from the environment. But because we’re partially independent (due to the blood-brain barrier and the cerebral cortex’s top-down control, for example), in general we need to posit some degree of self-control to explain what we do.


SYBOK: To begin, it would be more accurate to say that I regard correspondence to be a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for truth. Strict correspondence theory presupposes that not only is there an objective world out there for the ideas in our mind to correspond to, but that we have direct access to this real world. I assume there is a world out there distinct from my ideas about it, but I don't think I necessarily have unfiltered access to it. The senses can be deceived, can make giants from windmills. This is where coherence comes in. For something to be true or real, it must correspond to what we can sense, but it must also be coherent with everything else that we've already established to be true.

Mathematics is an interesting case since we can't say it's entirely coherent without positing an infinite number of axioms for it to be coherent with. But how can any human mind contain an infinite number of axioms? The human brain has enormous capacity, but it's not infinite; which implies that it couldn't evoke math from its limited capacity. The day a mathematician succeeds in justifying the truth of every kind of mathematical statement with a finite number of axioms, I'll convert to nominalism; but until then I must concede that either Plato was right or mathematics is incoherent.

Concerning mathematical descriptions: It's true that "an electro-magnetic wavelength between 622 to 780 nanometers" is a description. But the point I wanted to make (but neglected to) was that electromagnetic waves of a given length would still exist even if there weren't a single person to measure them; while the experience of redness depends upon a certain type of nervous system registering a certain wavelength of light. 'Red' is phenomenal, light waves are ontological. Even though most units of measurement are arbitrary, there still exists a certain electromagnetic wavelength (red light) which bears a constant ratio with respect to other wavelengths. It's like the old Zen koan about whether or not a falling tree makes a sound if no one's around to hear it; it doesn't make a sound, but it still causes waves in the air.

I admit that determinism is the weakest link in my system and the one over which I have the most doubt. To be honest, I actually want to believe, more than anything, that my psyche is autonomous from my body and thus not only free from causation, but immortal—but for that very reason I must oppose it with the most vigorous arguments I am capable of producing! Though the evidence for matter over mind is not wanting...I've experimented with numerous drugs and observed their power to either enhance or dull my cognition. Also, let's not confound mind with consciousness. If a mind is simply something that produces thoughts and thoughts are just symbolic representations of phenomena or noumena, then thoughts do not require consciousness; how else to account for the 'unconscious mind'? I'm willing to concede the possibility that the physical world could have a mental substratum to it, but I suspect that consciousness is likely an epiphenomenon that emerges from unconscious forces; and if consciousness emerges from the unconscious, there's no need to explain it by positing a platonic form.

Though even if thoughts are immaterial, this would only exclude them from causality, not necessity. To illustrate the difference: if I tip over the first domino in a line of dominos, they'll all swiftly collapse—that's causality. But if I say "Every squelk is an ort, pooks are squelks, therefore every pook is also an ort," that's necessity. Causality presupposes time and space, but all necessity requires is logic. Thoughts—if immaterial—may not be totally subject to physical causality, but they'd still be bound by necessity and thus deterministic.

If that illustration is too abstract to satisfy your skepticism, I'll give you a real world example: I was raised to believe that the Bible was infallible and every sentence contained in it was literally true. This, of course, became a problem as I started to learn about the facts of the natural world. There came a point when I could no longer accept that Noah's flood was a historical event; nor could I believe in the Bible's infallibility once I had found numerous factual inconsistencies between the gospel accounts of Jesus' life. The problem was that my sect practiced shunning: I knew that if I shared my doubts or just stopped attending services, I would be treated as a pariah. So, disdaining hypocrisy, I tried to believe in spite of my doubts—from which I quickly learned that belief is not subject to free choice. Given what I knew at that point, it was necessary for me to doubt the veracity of the Bible. No act of will—not even when every friendship I had was at stake—could change my beliefs because beliefs are just as necessary and inevitable as physical interactions between inanimate objects like dominos. An experiment: Try to resist thinking of a winged, pink hippopotamus and see what happens.

I have no problem with using different models to explain different levels of phenomena. No one model is going to explain everything any more than a street map can reproduce every detail of a city. But I do like my models to be consistent with one another. Free will might somehow emerge from deterministic forces, but before I accept that I need to have some idea of how it emerges.

You make a distinction between miraculous freedom that is capable of disregarding nature and natural freedom that exists within certain limits dictated by nature. At first this seems like a meaningful distinction, but I believe that it grows out of a misconception. It's said that a coin that is spun around like a top has a 50% chance of coming to rest upon one face or the other; but is this really so? Or is it that I have a 50% chance of correctly guessing which side of the coin will end face up? Pragmatically, this is a trivial question, but philosophically it couldn't be more important. It's true that the two-sided nature of the coin allows it to land on either face, which I guess is what you could call its 'natural freedom'; but does it follow from this fact that it's free to land on either face once I've set it in motion? Or has the outcome already been determined by the force I imparted to it and the surface it is spinning upon?

Now, there's no doubt that a human being can learn to respond, rather than react, to provocations from their environment. We can suppress impulses arising from lust or anger, which makes it appear that we are exercising some freedom. But what if it's only a matter of one impulse neutralizing another? If two spinning coins collide, both will exert some influence on which face each comes to rest upon. Likewise, my ability to say, resist the impulse to take advantage of a lonely young girl with low self-esteem, could be countered by a stronger impulse to behave ethically by treating that girl as an end in herself rather than a means to gratifying my libido. But it doesn't follow from there that I freely chose to not exploit the girl, not anymore then a pair of scales freely chooses which side will go up. In the former case, my conscience proved stronger than my libido; in the latter case one side of the scale was heavier than the other. If, alternatively, I had been born psychopathic and had no conscience to veto my sexual impulses, could I reasonably be held responsible for the consequences any more than a defective scale could be blamed for giving a false weight?

Socrates likened the human soul to a chariot pulled by two horses: one bad and the other good. But what happens if the chariot itself is empty or the charioteer is unable to influence his beasts? From my perspective, it feels like the horses have all the control; I'm just being dragged along for the ride. You could argue that I should identify with not just the charioteer, but the horses as well; that the self from which my will originates is not just my conscious ego, but by greater unconscious mind. That may be true, but it doesn't make me feel any less a victim of forces beyond my control. I mean, if any given action of mine is just the vector sum of various psychological forces within acting upon one another, then you may as well say that slavery is the same as freedom. If 'free will' is just this impulse that we have which compels us to pursue our own private interests at the expense of everything outside ourselves, then an alcoholic has just as much freedom as a teetotal.

The idea of free will may justify our desire to judge people and punish them for doing things we don't like, but it doesn't contribute anything to explaining why they did those things in the first place. 'Free will' is a pragmatic concept insofar as it serves a purpose but, not being a pragmatist, I don't regard it as being a real force in determining human behavior. To be sure, the belief in free will must have a profound effect on the way people behave, but that doesn't make it any more real than Jesus Christ or the Great Pumpkin.


BENJAMIN: When you say, “I actually want to believe, more than anything, that my psyche is autonomous from my body and thus not only free from causation, but immortal,” you assume something we should get clear on, namely the ideal of some kind of dualism, since you speak of the mind’s being “autonomous from my body,” which would make for a curious mix of the mind’s independence and self-control. The self could be free from causation if the mind were an immaterial entity existing apart from its body, but that would leave the mystery of how that self could be autonomous in the sense of having control over itself and its body, since control would require causal influence. If the free self were the proverbial ghost in the machine, the self couldn’t do anything, so the individual wouldn’t have freewill in the sense of autonomy. By contrast, a self-controlling individual would have to be embedded in the world of cause and effect and thus would be a mortal, natural creature.

The kind of freedom I talk about is autonomy. So there’s no assumption of independence from the body except in the natural way in which the brain is isolated, and part of the brain is isolated from the rest of it such that there’s a hierarchy and a system of internal causes and effects. Clearly, no one has complete control over everything that happens within that person’s mind and body, including everything that happens within each organ and cell. All of those subpersonal processes must at least influence our conscious decisions, in the form of moods or background feelings or attitudes. We do indeed identify with our whole body, which is why we fight to defend it. We even identify with much beyond the body, such as with a loved one or a club or social movement.

So the unknown causality that happens within that personal identity doesn’t automatically violate the assumption that the self has limited control over itself. This is because there’s normally a hierarchy and a system in place not only for chemically and mentally processing stimuli for the good of the individual (to maintain homeostasis), but for providing some veto power at the apex of the hierarchy of internal causes and effects. Your example of the drunken person can help explain how this works. The reason we doubt that an intoxicated individual has the same degree of self-control as a sober one is that the intoxicant has invaded the person’s causal hierarchy. Even if the person willingly takes the intoxicant, she can’t entirely foresee what the effects will be; at any rate, the drug acts like a parasite, temporarily possessing the person with a foreign process. Once the effects wear off, the person is back to her normal ways of thinking and behaving, and it’s those with which she identifies.

One of the crucial components of this causal hierarchy is the self’s character. This is like what Dennett calls the self as the center of narrative gravity. Our brain includes a program for telling stories to make sense of events, and we tell the story of our life which features the character of our self. We may play various roles, depending on the social circumstances. Those characters are largely fictions in that they’re unconsciously authored over time and consist of little more than cherished habits of thinking, but they needn’t thereby be pure illusions, lacking any power to explain why we act as we do.

You say, “the belief in free will must have a profound effect on the way people behave, but that doesn't make it any more real than Jesus Christ or the Great Pumpkin.” But suppose you took certain beliefs that generate the conviction that their totality amounts to the mind of Jesus Christ or of the Great Pumpkin, and you plunked that set of beliefs in a suitable body. How would the result not be a real Jesus or Great Pumpkin? If the mind or the self is nothing but a network of thoughts (a character) that serves as an idiosyncratic, isolated mechanism for controlling some of what the host body does—especially in crucial moments when the mind thinks hard in making an important life decision—the belief in that mechanism hardly serves the skeptic’s purpose. On the contrary, that belief is the mental essence of the person in question. So embed such beliefs in a body, safeguard the set of beliefs within the skull so that the beliefs aren’t overwhelmed by stimuli, and you’ve got the makings of an autonomous being.

Notice the difference between the hierarchy of cause and effect that makes up a person, and that which makes for a spinning coin, to take your example. The latter has some inherent properties such as its weight, hardness, circularity, and two-sidedness. The coin can “assert” those properties against the external influence of a hand’s coming along and spinning the object. But the coin lacks the compartmentalization to warrant a psychological explanation in the event of its falling on one side or the other (which is why the coin is an object rather than a subject). The physical explanatory stance will do, because the coin’s properties are naked to the environment. How different is a complex living thing’s body! Just look at the myriad barriers and membranes and hierarchy of compartments that evolved to keep the rest of the world out.

The human brain’s isolated complexity alone necessitates the intentional stance. This isn’t just a pragmatic or an epistemic point. The brain really is isolated and independent, to some extent, and it really has greater control over its body (via the motor cortex) than does the rest of the world, given the body’s real defenses, such as its self-serving membranes and orifices. In fact, the brain is so complex that it amounts to a biological white hole and thus is the origin of what Kant called (freedom as) spontaneity. Neural events may not be created from nothing at all, but their explanation ends with the ceaseless activity of the brain, and their emergence and isolation are crucial to autonomy.

How, though, is our self-as-inner-monologue-and-character free? We’re free in that much of what happens to us is like water off a duck’s back. We stick to the characters we play because they act as ideals that pull us to their center of narrative gravity. Ensconced in the brain and the skull, our mind sits at the top of an internal, physiological hierarchy of cause and effect. We could live with damage to our limbs but not to our brain or our mind. Once our character and capacity for thinking and feeling are drastically altered, so is our way of enforcing a personalized pattern in how we conduct our life. We can enter altered states of mind temporarily, such as when we take a drug, but permanently rewiring the adult self would require a traumatic or otherwise life-altering experience, one that bypasses the body’s and the mind’s defenses.

Falling in love is one example, since the two typically meet each other and form a chemical bond that rewires their priorities so that they decide to start a life and a family together. The mates may be largely different people before and after their creation of a love bond. I’d say there’s little freedom in the events that transform their character and expectations, apart from the indirect freedom involved in their having voluntarily formed characters that are open to the experience of falling in love, in the first place. As the oxytocin begins to take its effect, they have some control over whether to go along for the ride or to back out, depending on the contents of their prior character and personalized habits of thought.

In any case, the rarity of such life-altering experiences shows the extent to which daily life is automated. Again, the automation happens within the normal hierarchy of cause and effect, which means the brain keeps its degree of top-down control, that being the stuff of autonomy.


SYBOK: Well, I was using the disembodied spirit as an extreme case of libertarian free will; but you're right that the idea is incoherent. I suppose that, for me, the only type of free being, who would be worthy of the title, would be someone who was capable of hacking their own brain and making desired changes; much like Timothy Leary's idea of 'the meta-programmer'. They would use their reason, their understanding of psychology and causality to modify themselves instead of their outer environment. But this is just the sort of capacity that seems to be lacking. Humans can transform deserts into gardens and wolves into Chihuahuas, but we remain the same killer apes we've always been. Leary thought it could be done with LSD; but as soon as he made that claim, the US government banned the use of LSD for therapeutic purposes; so his assertion remains a hypothesis at best. And of course you'll have no trouble finding, if you look, people who claim to have exorcized their own inner demon whether it be alcoholism, homosexuality, or whatever else their in-group deemed dysfunctional. But the fact is they haven't changed; they've either learned to cope or just gotten better at hiding their vices. I mean, why shouldn't the ex-drunk be able to have a beer once in a while? If he's really changed then there's no danger in moderate drinking. I've known too many Christians to believe that Jesus ever saved anybody, and I have the same doubts about psychotherapy and Scientology.

Regarding our brain's partial autonomy from its environment and hierarchies of control: I basically agree, though, due to my layman's grasp of neurology, I can't say I fully understand the 'how' of it all. My problem here is semantic. What a compatibilist would call 'free will', I would designate as 'endogenous causation'. Now I know that sounds as pedantic as a 'sapphic soixante-neuf', but I have a reason for it. Visualize a hermetically sealed pocket watch with an everlasting battery that's gears are made from some miraculous alloy that can never warp, melt or break under any condition. Now, certainly the pocket watch was constructed and started by someone, but it could be said that it acts independently of its environment. This pocket watch would actually be more autonomous than any of us could ever be, with our brain-body feedback system, and yet it would be stretching it to call the pocket watch free. It's an imperfect analogy, I know, since it wouldn't be conscious or have thoughts, but the point is that it would be acting according to its own interior mechanism that would be completely cut-off from its milieu. To extend the mechanical analogy further: while the hermetically sealed pocket watch isn't free in any meaningful sense, I think Cmd Data from Star Trek: TNG would qualify as a free agent since, even though he's a machine, he's modified his own programming in a number of episodes. The holographic Doctor from Voyager goes even farther than Data in some respects when he begins altering his personality subroutines in the episode 'Darkling'. Show me a human who can perform feats like Data's or the Doc's and I'll concede that determinism and freedom are compatible.

I'm not sure what you mean about the belief in free will somehow making it true. Someone who believes they are free is far less likely to act on antisocial impulses than one who believes they're an automaton, but the former's belief renders him no less mechanical than the latter; though it does impact his behavior differently. A scrupulous, over-socialized beta-man is no less a slave than his under-socialized alpha counterpart. To be sure, the alpha is captive to his lust, greed and other reptilian impulses; but the beta is also in chains—and not just to the alpha. If the alpha is controlled by his r-complex, then it could be said the beta is driven by the more evolved, pro-social limbic system. His capacity for empathy combined with his neo-cortical self-control compels him to turn down many a sweet meat and actually prevents him from fully exploiting his environment (which includes other people). The alpha is free to take from others and dominate them, while the beta is free to care about others and love them; but neither is free to trade places.

You mentioned the effect trauma can have in altering someone's personality. That's beyond dispute; I've seen it happen and there's an astronomical amount of studies and peer reviewed papers that would back up your contention. The trick would be to somehow 'traumatize' yourself into change (and the 'trauma' need not be bad. Some traumas, like the first sexual experience, can feel very good). But as long as the traumas are accidental or deliberately induced by others for the purpose of brainwashing, then the subject of trauma remains an automaton. You recommended a book to me so, to reciprocate, I'll give you a reading assignment: 'Prometheus Rising' by Robert Anton Wilson.

One of the things that makes Don Quixote so fascinating to me is that, in his madness, he really did seem to become a different person. The psychiatrist William Glasser contends that most schizophrenics do consciously choose to 'go crazy' as a last-straw coping mechanism to avoid a total psychic breakdown. Cervantes is never clear as to what specifically triggered Alonso Quijano to become Don Quixote, but I think I understand. Jesus once said: "If thine eye offends thee, pluck it out". In other words: stop seeing evil and it will no longer distress you. Good people never suspect the existence of evil because, being good, they cannot relate to it. For the pure, all things are pure. Alonso was an idealist; but he was cursed with an evil eye, a cynical intelligence that saw right through the pretenses and self-deceptions of others. But somehow he plucked it out and became the magnificent Don Quixote!

I think you once wrote that Robert Mueller would have to be insane to believe that any case against Trump, no matter how overwhelming the evidence, could ever lead to his impeachment. The question is: given the human capacity to snap under conditions of extreme horror, shock, or disillusionment, is there a way to artificially induce this process in ourselves for the purpose of meta-programming?


BENJAMIN: You raise the distinction between being free to do what you want and being free to choose what you want, and you say that only the latter should count as true freedom. If we could hack our brain and program our personality and abilities, creating ourselves from the ground-up as opposed to inheriting our nature from evolution and from our childhood years, only then would we have true self-control, you suggest.

But the self-programming would have to start from somewhere. Suppose John, an ordinary human, wants to turn himself into a posthuman by hacking his brain and recreating his mind. If that process transfers anything from John into his posthuman version, such as John’s beliefs or goals, the posthuman would inherit the programmer’s bias and not be fully in control of itself, after all.

If instead John transforms his mind into the most neutral program possible, such as a learning network with no presuppositions apart from the skill of interpreting patterns in its environment, the resulting posthuman personality would be determined largely by the contents of the program’s environment. Once again, then, the posthuman wouldn’t have chosen the conditions under which its mind develops. The pre-established environment would have determined some of the posthuman’s beliefs.

Suppose, instead, God creates a fully-formed immaterial spirit ex nihilo. Would that spirit be free in the above sense? Not really, since God would take on the role of the environment in the second scenario. This is why the Garden of Eden story makes no sense as a morality tale, since God would have created Adam and Eve to be vulnerable to the serpent’s temptations, yet God blames his creatures and not himself as their creator.

In short, the notion of choosing your wants is as incoherent as the notion of a self-creating deity. How could God create himself, without leading to an infinite regress? Who is doing the self-creating if the self doesn’t yet exist? Likewise, who or what is choosing the posthuman self prior to that self’s programming? What we’re talking about there is (impossible) godhood or absolute and thus incoherent autonomy rather than a realistic kind of freedom. An absolutely free being would have to be solipsistic: this mind would have to develop only in relation to itself, without being unduly influenced by anything else. (Notice that the hermetically-sealed watch wouldn’t be absolutely free, since it would have been programmed by someone.)

The free self would have to emerge from nothing as a learning program, and develop and complexify based on interactions only with its program. Once the program acquires sufficient egoistic defenses, it might be inserted into a world without fear of being overwhelmed by stimuli. This reminds me of the Hindu or New Thought scenario of an immaterial mind choosing how to incarnate. In any case, it’s not realistic, natural, or what I call “limited” freedom.

“Limited freedom” means we don’t choose every aspect of ourselves. We take for granted, as I said, our cellular processes which we can’t hope to control. And we don’t choose to be born, nor do we choose who our parents are or when in history we arrive or what part of the world into which we’re thrown. That’s part of the existential predicament, which is that we’re not responsible for the preconditions of our being, yet we emerge as morally responsible creatures from those (largely horrific) conditions.

The reason we’re responsible for some of what we do is that we learn how to control some of our thoughts and behaviour. We take the starting point the world give us, namely our parents, our environment, our body, not to mention the Big Bang and the creation of a natural universe in the first place, and those factors combine to form the personalized adult self. We can simplify and say this self consists of an unconscious mind or Id, an ego (a private personal identity or character), and a superego (deference to social conventions, which performs the persona or role we play to cooperate with others). The real self is a balancing act between these elements, and autonomy enters the picture because these elements are largely sealed off from the environment, and they impact each other, shaping the total self. For example, the unconscious self speaks through dreams or drug-induced experiences or art, and the ego can learn from its unconscious side and incorporate that knowledge into its decisions.

As a result, we should say that the most freedom we can expect to have, short of downloading our mind as a learning program into a digital world that we also create, is the freedom to choose some of our wants. For example, if we want to avoid heights, because a childhood trauma has instilled that fear in us, we can confront and overcome the fear. That choice to be unafraid of heights would derive in messy fashion from all aspects of us, from our unconscious impulses, deference to social pressure, egoistic narratives, and rational calculations. All of which would be part of the self rather than the world, given the internal hierarchy of cause and effect, so we could say that the parts of the self would work out how to deal with its fear. This messy self already has some capacity to rewire itself.

Mostly, however, our life is automated. We develop routines to pass the time and rarely challenge our presumptions or modify our habits. The average adult self is like a tank that rolls over the obstacles in its environment, stopping for nothing out of instrumental rationality, pursuing its interests at all costs. Some of those interests are inherited while others are self-created in that they originate idiosyncratically from the personalized behavioural pattern established by that self’s development and ways of thinking.

As I’ve tried to explain on my blog, leaders, followers, and outsiders have different developmental trajectories. Are they all equally slaves? None is absolutely free, since none creates the world in which that self takes on its mature, characteristic, well-defended form. But clearly these types have different opportunities for growth, enlightenment, and self-control. Betas have excessive superegos, for example, since they’re preoccupied with following social conventions. Omegas and alphas have minimal superegos, since omegas dismiss society out of resentment or disgust, while alphas reign over society out of mad lust for power or self-love. So followers might be slaves to the social world in ways that don’t apply to the other two types.

However, even the enlightened individual might be a slave to her disgust for the world that she comes to recognize. She feels obliged to opt out of some domains of the natural and social worlds, because she identifies with a heroic character who’s featured in her self-narrative, and she’s overwhelmed by disgust and pity, because she’s hyper-sensitive and introverted. (There’s a fitting category in psychology, called the HSP, the highly-sensitive person.) She doesn’t choose to become an outsider or an outcast, since this hyper-sensitivity and introversion are probably genetic—which is like saying she doesn’t choose to be human rather than a beetle. But once the world is formed and her adult self is established within that world, that self has some control over what to do with its capacities, including some control over its environment. That’s limited, natural, real freedom.

If there’s no such thing as freedom other than the absolute kind, which would amount to saying that freedom requires omnipotence since it would require total control over the self’s origin, including therefore control over the world in which the self is born, the limited, natural kind of “freedom” would be insufficient. But that may indeed be just a semantic issue—unless there are moral implications even for the self that has only what I’m calling “limited autonomy.”


SYBOK: It's true that our post-human metaprogrammer John would be making changes in himself for foreordained reasons that he perhaps did not choose; but I still contend that this would be sufficient to call him a free agent (in the natural, not supernatural, sense). For instance, imagine that John was born gay but wants to enjoy a relationship with a woman (or he could just as easily be a MGTOW who wants to be gay). Maybe he wants this because his orientation is in conflict with his beliefs or the society he lives in, or maybe he just doesn't like the sex he's attracted to; but whatever the reason, this is what he wants (or, more specifically, wants to want). His reasons for wanting this may be out of his control, but the very fact that he can not only want this, but attain it, would render him free in a way that makes your idea of 'limited freedom' look like determinism warmed over.

Compatibilists defend their position by claiming that, since libertarianism is incoherent, only their concept of freedom makes any sense. The problem I see with this is that though compatibilist freedom may be the only freedom there is in the real world, it isn't the only logical option. Even if people can't deliberately choose to change things like their sexual orientation or their fluid intelligence, there is nothing incoherent about the idea that they could do these things. After all, we know that traits like sexual orientation and intelligence can be changed via brainwashing or trauma, it's just that in these cases it's never initiated by the one who undergoes the change. It's not that my notion of freedom is incoherent, it just doesn't seem to exist; kind of like a unicorn. However, by comparing my coherent but nonexistent concept of freedom to the dubious kind of freedom upheld by the compatibilist, I think I can be excused for seeing myself and everyone else as pathetic automota with delusions of freedom.

You mentioned moral implications and this is another sticking point for me. Since, in the compatibilist system, a person's 'choices' must flow from a character interacting with circumstances which they did not choose, morality becomes a confusing issue. On the one hand I think the compatibilist is perfectly justified in calling a serial killer a bad person and locking him up; but at the same time she contends that this 'bad person' had the 'choice' to behave decently? (talk about incoherence!) One of the pragmatic strengths of determinism is that it liberates us from the justified anger and indignation we must naturally feel if those who wronged us were free to do otherwise. When I finally understood that all those people who either went out of their way to harm me or—even worse—utterly betrayed my trust in them by lying to me or throwing me under the bus, when I accepted that these people quite literally lacked any capacity for doing otherwise, a great burden was lifted from my heart. I realized that it's not only unreasonable and stupid to expect a cat to behave like a dog or a woman to comport herself like a man, it's unjust. Determinism isn't just some sadean rationalization that gives us license to be jerks, it allows us to let others be jerks by staying the hell out of their way! I'm aware that these benefits do not prove the truth of determinism any more than the consolations of Christianity prove it to be true, but it does give me a further incentive to at least regard most other people as irresponsible robots. Ironically, I think I've become a better man—more forgiving, more reasonable—by ridding myself of the notion of free will.

Surely, Skinner's view of humanity—without freedom or dignity—is grim; but is it really any worse than the idea that there are people who choose to lie, cheat, rape, murder and betray—and not because they must, but because they can?


BENJAMIN: The limit case of choosing your own wants is incoherent, since the wants have to have a starting point. If you’re reprogramming your mind, but the program isn’t fully in your control because your interest in changing your mind derives in part from the environment, such as from social pressure to be heterosexual, the reprogrammed mind won’t fully have created itself. So we’re talking about degrees of limited freedom, which is fine by me. I agree that the posthuman mind would have more limited freedom than most of us currently do, because we rarely confront our deepest beliefs or change our mind according to what we really want.

Downloading our mind into a posthuman, largely self-created form, though, would be mostly an exercise in being free to do what we want, not to select our wants. Prior to the reprogramming, we’d have certain interests which we could reinforce by shaping our new mind around them. Yes, we’d be favouring some of our wants, but we’d do so based on wants which aren’t entirely chosen by us. Again, the limit case of choosing all of your own wants is as incoherent as the notion of a self-created deity.

Suppose your mind is changed by brainwashing or head trauma. Neither would be a case of choosing your own desires, since the brainwashers or the physical accident would cause the new shape of your mind. Just because it’s you who would prefer your posthuman self to have certain interests, doesn’t mean we can’t ask why you’d prefer the posthuman self to be that way. Where would your preference for the programmed version come from? Would you be entirely responsible for that choice or would you be reacting to certain instincts or social pressures? If the latter, you’d be getting what you want, not creating all your wants.

If libertarian freedom (choosing all of your desires) is incoherent, as I’ve said, then compatibilism is logically the only kind of freedom. The alternative couldn’t be stated without contradiction or infinite regress.

I can see how determinism would be a relief, since it would deflate certain moral questions. In fact, I’d go further in agreeing with the determinist, since I suspect that freewill is reserved for certain crucial moments of existential awakening, self-confrontation, and heavy-duty philosophizing or therapy, so that most people might as well be subject to determinism. Some “people’s” thoughts and behaviour are so automated they might as well be robots.

So there’s the issue of philosophical elitism. The more we approximate the posthuman programming of ourselves, by introspecting and searching for our true self and striving to live with intellectual and emotional integrity, the more we choose what we want by ignoring extraneous matters and purifying ourselves. If someone’s never philosophized a moment in her life, never doubted how she was raised or if she just goes with the flow of popular culture, for example, she may end up happy but not particularly free. As I say in “Do we really want to be free?” the freest person may indeed be the psychopathic alpha or the alienated omega, since either would be freest from social pressures and roles.

Is it worth insisting on limited freedom, given the prevalence of determinism for the human herd? It’s largely a descriptive issue for me, since I just think we need to posit some degree of autonomy to explain our antinatural tendencies. We couldn’t have so radically reshaped the wilderness to our liking if we hadn’t reshaped our minds as individuals, as we do especially in our rebellious childhood and teen years, and as our ancient ancestors did at the dawn of behavioural modernity. Calling a human adult entirely as robotic as an inanimate object makes the word “robotic” meaningless, since we all have the potential (through self-awareness, introspection, rational analysis, isolation from society, the physiological hierarchy of compartmentalized cause and effect) to create and thus to control at least some of what we think and want and how we act. So I think determinism is an oversimplification.

As to whether freedom makes for a better or worse world, existentialists frequently say that freedom, like reason and consciousness, is more a curse than a gift, since freedom subjects us to guilt and remorse.


SYBOK: Yeah, I suppose at this point I'm just quibbling over degrees of natural freedom. Interpreted correctly, compatibilism doesn't necessarily exclude determinism, so much as say that it isn't the limit of human behavior, but rather its default. On the other hand, I think the view that humans are like inanimate objects to be a caricatured view of determinism (though maybe some determinists really believe that). In any case, by asserting that metaprogramming is at least a possible (though unrealized) form of natural freedom, I've tacitly conceded the compatibilist position.

As I said before, determinism was the philosophical position that I had least confidence in. My motives for adopting it consisted of a lack of empirical evidence and my inability to explain how freedom could emerge from deterministic or random processes. But it could be the consciousness is the answer. I learned two things from practicing meditation: one is that the mind is always thinking and the second is that, since our awareness is so limited, most of the thoughts we are having at any given moment are unconscious. The interesting question that arises from this is what mechanism determines which thoughts emerge into consciousness? Do the thoughts compete with each other in some darwinian competition or do we decide? I think both. If we're distracted and unmindful, whichever thought is strongest will come to our attention; but we also have the ability, during meditation, to observe our thoughts and then consciously select to focus on whichever one we choose.

Are you aware of Julian Jaynes’ theory of bicameral consciousness? Jaynes conjectures that as recently as the Trojan War humans weren't conscious like we are today; rather, their minds were much closer to a schizophrenic's in that they perceived their own thoughts as external voices, as the commands of a god or spirit which they had to obey. If he's right, then perhaps free will consists of our ability to say no to the voices in our heads. In that case, natural freedom would be an evolutionary wildcard that only emerged (at least in the majority of humans) three to four thousand years ago when the complexity of civilization became too much for the bicameral mode of consciousness to handle.


BENJAMIN: It looks we’re winding down this discussion. I believe you went first, so I’ll just add that I think, by definition, the compatibilist position includes determinism. The difference between compatibilism and determinism is that the compatiblist thinks the determinist misunderstands the implications of determinism. The determinist says freewill is incompatible with the view that all events are effects of causes. The compatibilist says the determinist is working with a strawman notion of freewill, such as the one I attempted to show is incoherent (namely absolute freedom, the “self’s” choice of all its mental states—based on which mental states to make up that prior self?).

The more realistic kind of freewill is autonomy, built up naturally as a kind of fortress that stands against the environment. No need to posit an immaterial spirit or supernatural ghost, since the biological body is that fortress. We can turn to biology textbooks for the details of how that fortress is fortified, which is to say how it's isolated and largely (but not perfectly) independent of stimuli and environmental pressures. This leaves the mind within that body some degree of self-control, of initiating its thought processes and behavioural responses. That’s limited freewill, and I’m glad to see you’re open to that concept.

I am familiar with Jaynes’ theory. I think there were some abrupt shifts such as the Neolithic Revolution and the Axial Age, but when it comes to freedom I see no reason not to grant degrees of self-control to people in the Paleolithic period and even to animal species. Again, if the autonomy is built up biologically (rather than theologically or supernaturally), the details are in the body-types, and all animals have some degree of independence just by being alive, by striving to complete their life cycle in opposition to an indifferent world. The existential predicament is shared, therefore, by all creatures. All animals are existential rebels in so far as their genetic programming is set against the broader flow of inanimate, living-dead events. With the emergence of life, those unguided events came together to undermine the natural order, to produce an anti-natural evolutionary process, one that has the potential (via the advent of godlike posthumanity) to destroy star systems and who knows what else, if science-fictional speculations are to be believed.  

Thanks very much for participating in the conversation. I learn a lot by having to think through a viewpoint when I'm challenged by an opposing one.


SYBOK: I would like to thank you as well. You really forced me to think through some of the things I had taken for granted about my position. This discussion has served to broaden both of our intellectual horizons.

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