Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Ontology, epistemology and free will

I have been wanting for some time now to write another highly philosophical post that almost nobody reads, and a couple things that have caught my attention in my latest forays in the field of philosophy of mind may provide me the excuse, as I have noted:

·         The inability of the field as a whole to go much beyond Hume. I mean, I’m the first fan of ol’ Davey, and devoted a good deal of my dissertation to his thought, but is this really the best we can do as a culture? As a civilization? As a species? Well, most of what you read out there that doesn’t come directly from the playbook of the Scot comes from Aristotle anyhow, which isn’t exactly breaking news either, so… I do get that some issues never get entirely settled, but the baffling thing about this particular one is that there seems to be only one “official” position, that every philosopher since Plato seem to be discovering anew, and announcing loudly how daring, unprejudiced and deep of a thinker he is for revealing it to the world. It essentially comes down to the fact that there are no innate ideas, and everything that is in the mind has been first perceived (so the mind builds itself through the accumulation of impressions of the external world). Not that original for Hume, as both Hobbes and Locke had already said it almost with the same force, and they were not that original either, as “nihil est in intellectu quod non sit prius in sensu” was already stated in the XIIIth century by that most obscure and marginal figure, none other than St. Thomas Aquinas, only reckoned as Doctor of the Church and the most influential thinker of Christendom in the late Middle Ages and thereafter…  but again, when devoting a good deal of the first book of his Treatise on Human Nature to convince us of what a self-evident truth that is, Hume seems to think that he is being a courageous, bold and innovative thinker, fighting against the obfuscations of “the schools” (the inherited corpus of scholastic thinkers, although the most scholastic of them all was Aquinas, who as we have seen had exactly the same opinion as the Scottish philosopher). You would think stating the predominant position of his age as if it were marginal and obscure was a peculiar trait of Hume, but you read the same statement, similarly accompanied by the claim of being unusually valiant, uninhibited, sagacious and discerning, in Condillac, Brentano, Freud (his Project of a Psychology for Neurologists is a poor remake of the mentioned part of the Treatise with barely the addition of confused references to a mysterious “neuronic energy” that gets “deployed” or “associated” to certain memories –besetzung in the original German, that for some reason the Standard Edition under the supervision of Strachey decided to translate as “catechted” in what has been a much maligned and frankly quite boneheaded choice), Ryle, Russell and practically every recent philosopher of mind.

·         The extent to which two apparently different questions are intermingled. “What is it really out there” and “What can we know about what is really out there” are endlessly confused (may be endlessly confusing), and any philosopher of mind worth his salt jumps from ontology to epistemology shamelessly in any of his writings (as I’ve done in the title of this post, by the way). One would expect Kant to have settled this one once and for all (we can not know what is really out there, so any time devoted to the first question is misspent), and the logical positivist (and the whole thrust of the “linguistic turn”) to have put the last nail on that particular coffin, but…

After some thought, it seems to me that both confusions/ distortions are intimately related, and that they can be explained by a common worldview (you probably know where this is heading) that has developed historically until it came to be seen by any thinking person as the only “sensible”, “rational” one. Let’s devote the rest of this post to make that view explicit and potentially debunk it.
To that extent, let’s think for a moment about the opposite view that all the philosophers of mind were raising against, assuming collectively that it was widely held (while in reality you would be really hard pressed to find a philosopher that actually held it). What is the opposite of thinking that you only find in our mind things that have been previously grasped by our senses? Who has actually defended the opinion that there are those “innate ideas” that Hume so carefully wanted to prove that couldn’t exist? Plato, of course, for whom knowing was really remembering (“anamnesis”), but not remembering just of any previous sensory experience (that is, after all, the same that the empiricists, and the scholastics, and the peripatetics and the stoics were later to defend in opposition to him), but remembering how the “soul”, which was distinctly non-material, had experienced the “ideas” of which material reality was but a mere, washed-down shadow. So Aristotle, the scholastics (harder to explain in their case, but we’ll get to that), Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Condillac, Freud and Ryle (and countless others) are essentially telling us, over and over again, each of them claiming to be uniquely original and perspicuous and contrarian, that there is no soul, no stuff different from everyday matter that can explain how we “know” things, and specially no stuff that can exist independently from the body.

OK, fair enough, I’ll be the first to admit that the idea that there is this “spooky stuff” is problematic, and distinctly in the minority nowadays. I’d just like to point than when you hear that it has been “thoroughly debunked”, “exhaustively disproved by science” and “demonstrated as false by the best and most reliable ways of thinking of our epoch” you may want to take all those authoritative declarations with a grain of salt, as they all come down to a bunch of guys repeating endlessly what Aristotle already said two and a half millennia ago (when, let’s be honest about it, there wasn’t much scientific method going around) but for some odd reason each of them claiming to be extraordinarily original and presenting the claim as the most counterintuitive breakthrough ever presented to humanity. Especially because Science (with a capital S) has surprisingly little to say about “what is really out there”, and every discussion between monism (“there is only one real kind of stuff, namely matter”) and dualism (“may be there is something else than matter, namely minds, which can not be entirely explained in terms of, reduced to, supervenient on or caused by the aforementioned matter”) is metaphysics or, as our forebears liked to spell it, metaphysicks.

Now you will hear (and read) a lot of guys trying to pass their metaphysical speculations as plain ol’ honest-to-god physics (even the very admirable Stephen Hawking did a good deal of that in his quite abominable The Grand Design, but I tend to think the fault lies mostly in his ill-chosen coauthor rather than in the great man’s dwindling capabilities –which, let’s not forget, still have a long, long way to go while still being far above the average man capabilities, including my own), but I encourage my readers not to be fooled by the noise of the multitude, and bear with me for a while. Any sober evaluation of the independent force of the multiple (or rather, multiply repeated) arguments for the implausibility of the existence of anything distinct from matter rests in the end in a single claim: matter (the stuff described by physics without really knowing what it consists in, but again more on that later) is enough to describe, explain and predict what goes around us, so there is no need to “postulate” any additional stuff and, by neatly applying Occam’s razor (of which I’m the first fan), such additional stuff does not exist.

Which is all well and good, and as I just said I’m the first enthusiastic proponent of the thorough and merciless application of the Franciscan friar’s implement, but let’s gain some perspective before we accept such application is pertinent in this case. I think we can all agree that physics and chemistry have accumulated a vast store of knowledge that rings undeniably “true” and that allows us to confidently model  (represent with mathematical tools) how certain entities evolve and, given their current conditions, how they were arranged in the past and are likely to be arranged in the future. Those entities are characterized by being extended in space and having mass (according to Hume, the knowledge about them pertains to quantity, measurable quality and geometry). Negatively, they are also characterized by not being conscious (unless for Galen Strawson, but again more on that later), for there not being “something there is like to be” any of those entities. It doesn’t matter how imaginative we are or how hard we try, we just can’t put ourselves in the place of a rock, a chair, a meteorite or a pool of water and somehow conceive what we would be experiencing. The furthest we can go down that path leads us to intuitively believe that we would be experiencing nothing at all. Such negative definition effortlessly drives our attention to other entities that indeed do have consciousness: human beings all round us, which we can easily imagine as having experiences just like ours, only from a different perspective. Whole fields of human activity have been developed on the premise of making each one of us feel “how it is like” to be somebody else (mainly literature, but it may be argued that it is a common feature of all great art), so I think it is safe to assume such other minds do indeed exist, and are as real as our own (for the record, the opposite opinion, called solipsism, is logically unassailable but ranks low in the list of skeptical arguments that may be true after all so you may legitimately lose some sleep over them).

I think even the most hardheaded physicist or chemist will admit that their disciplines do not have much to tell us about the individual or collective behavior of those other entities (human beings) except in the most limited situations. Being composites of carbon, if you heat them a lot they will burn, and suffer a number of very predictable reactions (with quite adverse effects). Being physical bodies, if you throw them from a sufficient height they will accelerate at the rate of 9.8 m/s each second (and, when they reach the floor, will experience effects potentially as adverse as the ones in the previous case)… I’m sure you get the gist, hard science tells us a lot about how the matter we are made of would behave, but not much about what we call “behavior” (choices initiated by “us”, initiated by what, for a time, were called our “superior faculties”). But no biggie, we have a host of equally scientific disciplines that deal precisely with such actions that are dependent on us having a mind: psychology, economics, sociology, anthropology, political science, whose track record is as resplendent as that of physics and chemistry, that have developed models for understanding human behavior that attain similar levels of precision and reliability and that, given the current conditions of any person or group of persons, can similarly predict both how such persons felt and thought in the past and how they will feel and think in the future.

For those with super-high threshold irony detectors, that was indeed an irony. 

It is not just me that says that the “humanistic” disciplines have a terrible, terrible record reaching any kind of unified conclusion about what is true and what is false in their respective fields, and using such conclusions to produce reliable predictions: I already touched on the results of the initiative by Brian Nosek to replicate some of the better established experiments in psychology (Me flogging a dead horse), and along similar lines I read this most recent post in Aeon: Economics is the new astrology, although this confession by an economist may be more telling: The Money Illusion discovers some truth, (note especially this acknowledgment “People used to mock economists by saying that it wasn’t a science, that it didn’t know anything.  Economists would reply that they knew a few things.  For instance, they knew that free trade is good and that price floors create surpluses.  Now they’ve even abandoned those EC101 ideas, and admitted that their critics are correct.  The field has trashed its own reputation. Economists are implicitly admitting that their profession is an empty shell, completely devoid of knowledge.” And that comes from a reputable economist, Scott Sumner, which has been mostly in the right since I started following him a few years ago). And let’s not forget Economics is the “queen of the social sciences”, the one with most reputable credentials and considered as most serious by almost all the educated public. Nothing really surprising here for regular readers of this blog; when we come to the humanities, the Geisteswissenschaften, it is high time to admit it is “empty shells” all around, which truly “don’t know anything”. In the language of older times, they are all doxa (opinion) and very little episteme (knowledge).

But back to the main argument of the current post, so we have in one hand  some disciplines that have developed solid, valid knowledge to know a portion of how the world around us works (riding the coattails of a methodology which we will call “the scientific method” whose broad outlines can be agreed upon by most practicing scientists, although there may be some differences in the fine details of what constitutes such method which doesn’t need to concern us at this point), the part of the world constituted by stuff describable by “quantities, measurable qualities and geometry”, or to put it shortly, matter. And we have in the other hand a bunch of additional disciplines that so far have been utterly unable to do something similar, so the part of the world described by them (a part of the world characterized by including mind, and/ or consciousness –I won’t enter yet in the discussion of to what extent one requires or implies the other) is not very well understood, and the little understanding there appears to be is highly disputed, and has shown to be unable to produce consistent, reliable predictions, BUT we confidently claim that for all we know the same methodologies and the same basic building blocks that successfully explain the first part of reality (the ones characterized by the lack of mind) are all we need to describe this other part. Well, sorry but no, such claim is unwarranted, and such application is illegitimate. We just don’t know enough (hell, we don’t even know if we know anything at all!) to make such inference.

The position of the materialist monist claiming to have Science (again, with a capital S) on his side reminds me of the drunkard seeking for his keys under the lamppost, because that’s where there is more light, although he most likely lost them on a totally different section of the street. Yes, we have as a species developed a methodology that has allowed us to expand and deepen mightily our knowledge of a part of what surrounds us. But that methodology is of no use to decide if that part is everything that there is or not, especially on the light of the recurrent failures of its intended application to matters of the mind. Coming back to the title of this post (and to Kant’s original insight, that we seem to have mostly forgotten), we have a solid foundation for a materialist epistemology (that it, for an epistemology pertaining to matter, geared to decide what knowledge about matter is true). We have a robust set of criteria for what constitutes well based, sufficiently warranted knowledge in the field of the “natural” sciences (the sciences that deal with objects), but such epistemology almost by definition has very little to say about what are the ultimate building blocks of reality, about what reality “is made of” because by definition that’s the realm of ontology.

Hogwash, you may claim. That “ontology” I speak of is a bunch of confused thinking and smoke and mirrors, and there is no need to question “what reality is ultimately made of”, what we should really direct our attention to is how we can instrumentally manipulate it (that’s what me make models for, to enable us to pick the most salient features, like mass, energy and position, and predict how they will evolve without needing to grasp what they “are” in some mysterious ultimate sense), which is what the natural sciences teach us to do now, and what the social (or mind) sciences will teach us to do in the future, without any need to include in their field of inquiry references to “spooky stuff” like substantially different minds, which lead unavoidably to souls, ghosts, fairies and similar superstitions. The only difference between both (natural and social sciences) is that one is more developed than the other, but with time (and as long as they don’t get distracted with all this nonsense of minds being somehow essentially different from the rest of matter) they will reach a similar level of advancement. The less evolved are just in an infancy crisis, but it is nothing that a good, healthy dose of empiricism, mathematical formalism (although the maths they rely upon rarely go beyond statistics 101 and basic algebra) and looking up to their elder sisters won’t cure.  

I remain unconvinced by such arguments, and I think the need for a good ontology to complement a coherent epistemology is nowhere more clear than around one of the key concepts that separate my (vastly in the minority) view from that of the monist materialists: the possible existence of free will. The monist and I both agree that in a world of pure stuff (a world where only matter really exists, and where a thorough description of matter and its interactions, according to a few, simple, elegant laws, is enough to describe everything that has happened or may happen) there is no place for free will. Where we differ is in the consideration of what really obtains in our world, and thus the consequence we can deduce from it:

·         Materialist monist: the world is made only of matter behaving predictably => there is no free will

·         Me : there is undeniably free will => the world can’t be made purely of matter behaving predictably

Now, we can analyze a bit further the claim that the world is purely made of predictable matter by breaking it down in two subordinate claims, one regarding what there really is, and one regarding what we can now (or put in other terms, one ontological and one epistemic):

·         M1 (O): there is only matter

·         M2 (E): matter behaves in a way that is describable by simple, elegant laws, which allow for no exception. Given the knowledge of such laws, and the state of the Universe in a certain moment, all other states in all other possible moments can be known

Note that the materialist monist needs the two claims to be true, as a material world that is not predictable (that doesn’t follow those simple laws or, in older terms, that is not deterministic, where M2(E) is not true) doesn’t allow him to use the successes of natural sciences in support of the first claim (if there are no universal laws with no exception, all bets are off and all the usual skeptical arguments about other minds not being real or the universe having been created five minutes ago obtain). But remember that all the plausibility of that first claim came indeed from the successes of natural science (in what is an incorrect inference, in my view). I, on the other hand, require just one of the previous claim to be false to be right (both a purely materialistic universe, as long as it is non deterministic, or a dualistic universe would allow for the existence of free will, although only the second one provides a straightforward solution to the problem of consciousness).

However, in the last century Science (with as capital an S as you may dream) has leaned more and more heavily towards “proving” that M2 (E) is almost certainly false. The dominant interpretation of quantum mechanics establishes that there are “uncaused”, truly stochastic, events that no hidden variable can predict (so, in some sense, using Einstein’s sentence, God does indeed play dice). And the hodgepodge of mathematical intuitions and curiosities somewhat petulantly referred to as “chaos theory” allow us to understand how the microscopic effects of such indeterminacies can scale up to have vastly macroscopic consequences that we can observe, measure, but not in any way predict either. The theory presents us, in other words, with incontrovertible evidence that there are highly significant events in nature of a non-linear nature, that to be predicted (specially using finite elements modeling and Fourier series) would required an almost infinitely detailed knowledge of their initial condition. But Heisenberg’s indeterminacy principle sets an unbreakable limit to the level of detail we can achieve, so…

I’m sure a materialist monist could still say “very well, then, we do not live in a deterministic universe, but that kind of indeterminacy doesn’t buy you the space you need for your wishy-washy free will. All you would have is soulless, inert matter behaving sometimes (mostly, I dare say) predictably, and every now and then unpredictably. The occasional (and infrequent, I dare say again) unexpected macroscopically observable indeterminacy is just random chaos, it doesn’t allow for the kind of “character-dependant” “agent-originated” causation that you surely want to claim”. Indeed, I would answer. Just the falseness of the epistemic part of the materialistic vision does not provide me yet with the kind of Universe I think we inhabit. I do need at least the ontology part to be similarly false, as I require more than “soulless” matter, I require true, substantial, non-material minds to get to the kind of free will that I believe we are actually endowed with, and the falsity of M2 (E) does in no way entail, or even point to, the possible falsity of M1 (O).

However, I’ll leave you with three last things to ponder before closing this record-length post:

1.       Once we accept that M2 (E) is false (not just “I’d like things to be this way, so I give more credence to evidence that points towards them actually being so” false, but “the best theory humanity has ever developed to explain how the material world behaves, QED and the standard model, point towards its falseness” false), coupled with the failure of the so-called social “sciences” to predict reliably their supposed field of interest, how warranted M1 (O) turns out to be? (my contention is that not much).

2.       One statement usually derived fromM1 (O) flies in the face of our first-hand experience: according to the purest materialism (remember, “there is only matter”), our own consciousness is illusory. We think we experience and feel and think, but it is just an elaborate ruse nature plays on us (by complete chance, evolution just happened to produce creatures that believe they are conscious, but that are really not, as there could not “be” something as being conscious). The only reason that such counterintuitive statement has not been used as a definitive argument for the falsity of M1 (O) is because “the whole weight of modern science” seemed to be behind it. But if M2 (E) is false ,then the whole weight of modern science is not behind M1 (O) any more, and what seems in the face of it absurd (that we are not conscious after all) may be, indeed, absurd.

3.       Finally, any statement X has its plausibility undermined if we find some features of the world that may explain how X arose and have nothing to do with the truth or falsity of X (that’s the argument materialists have been using against any religious claim since the times of Feuerbach’s Wesens des Christentums, by explaining them as a product of the manipulation of priests, or of the psychological need of humans for an all-powerful father figure, or of evolutionary psychology and the like). Is there, then, some explanation for how M1 (O) got to be so widespread that doesn’t appeal to its coincidence with some set of observed facts? To how it got to be such a central part of the dominant reason of our age (aha!)? well, of course there is. In the transition from Baroque reason to Economic reason it was obviously beneficial for the increase in the social production of material goods to have people’s minds distracted away from a possible afterlife and focused instead into the material betterment of their conditions in this life. And to justify lives devoted more obsessively to the pursuit of material well-being (to the exclusion of anything that could only be detrimental for that pursuit) it was as obviously beneficial to convince them they were but lumps of matter blindly obeying the dictates of their instincts. And of course, the societies that most successfully indoctrinated their citizens in such set of beliefs vanquished the societies that did not espouse them so fully and became the sole survivors of a scenario of inter-societal competition.

I’ll let my readers reach their own conclusions.

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