The Devil in Philosophy

In philosophy it sometimes really does seem as if the Devil is in the details, and that this is not just a turn of phrase. The main issues are simple. The details are utterly confusing and there may be no end of them. And the details are devilishly fascinating, almost as if they are a temptation put there to distract us from our purpose.

For success in philosophy it would be important, therefore, to avoid the details wherever possible. They may be largely avoided if we take the view that philosophers are not usually fools, and that we would not need to reproduce their work in order to check it for simple errors. A knowledge of their results is all we would need.

Philosophers make mistakes, of course, but we can account for these by statistical analysis. If a thousand respectable philosophers say one thing and a thousand respectable philosophers say the opposite thing then we know we are dealing with their opinions and not their results. Clearly neither side can make a convincing case. This is all we would need to know, and it is all that they know. We would be free to form our own view. If, on the other hand, approximately all respectable philosophers say the same thing then again we can skip the details, this time by assuming they are all correct and that we are not free to form our own view. Most of the information we would require for this kind of survey can be gleaned from a decent philosophy dictionary.

Inevitably, we would have to study the details carefully if we want to understand the issues thoroughly and join in with all the complex arguments, but we are not going change anything by such study. We are not going to be any better at justifying the theories of dedicated experts than they are themselves, or any better at falsifying them than their equally expert opponents. Or, not unless we think we are a great genius.

For a reliable and rational decision-making procedure on the major problems of philosophy we would only need to be aware where an argument has or has not been resolved. If an argument has not been resolved, and this is the verdict returned by the experts after a couple of millennia of analysis, then it would be hubris to imagine that we could delve into the details of the argument and discover a way to decide the question where everybody else has failed. Where philosophers divide into two counter-posed groups on a major philosophical question, each unable to justify their position well enough to convince their opposition, and each finding that the opposing view is untenable, then we can safely conclude that the question is undecidable. The details would be entirely beside the point. We can trust that a community of dedicated philosophers will have established that the question cannot be decided by a study of the details.

Take the problem of freewill. Do we have freewill? There are three possible answers to this question. Yes, no and some form of compatabilism that would reconcile the dichotomy with determinism. This is two extreme views and a middle way. It is not as if there are twenty possible answers. How hard can the problem be? All we need to do for a solution is to decide which of these three answers it would be most reasonable for us to believe is correct.

In philosophy we have rules for deciding what it would be most sensible to believe. We cannot prove what is true about Reality but it is not a lottery. If a view can be refuted then it is not a winning ticket. If we browse through a philosophy dictionary it soon becomes obvious that neither of the two extreme views on freewill work. Both can be refuted. If it were otherwise then philosophers would have stopped arguing about this issue many centuries ago. The reason for the argument is that neither of the extreme views can be defended in logic, and this is demonstrable. Kant would be just one of many thinkers for whom the failure of extreme views is simply a fact.

The consequence of their mutual indefensibility is that both sides have enough ammunition to overcome the other. The argument continues because both sides are equally weak and subject to the same faults, such that the final defeat of one would be the final defeat of the other. So neither side dare commit fully to victory over the other. Consequently many philosophers, perhaps even most, prefer to bite the bullet and posit some kind of compatabilism. In short, then, the result of centuries of analysis of the freewill problem is the rejection of the two extreme views and an endorsement of compatabilism. We have arrived at the cutting edge of scientific and philosophical research into the freewill problem without having to deal with any details.

Still, the details are fascinating. And this is how the Devil wastes our time, by making them so. If every physical, mental or psycho-physical ‘thing-event’, every momentary state of the physical or psycho-physical universe, is the outcome of a previous state, such that all effects are the result of necessary and sufficient prior causes, a view that physicists generally favour since they find no evidence to the contrary, then we do not have freewill.

We do not like this idea. It does not make sense to us. We seem to exercise our freewill in almost every moment of our life. Perhaps there is no scientific evidence for freewill, and perhaps it would make a mockery of our idea of causality, but we seem to know that we have it. So we are left scratching our heads.

It is an all or nothing decision. It would not work to say that physical processes are deterministic while mental processes are free to bend the rules. The correspondence between our thoughts and our environment is such that physical determinism would ineluctably entail psycho-physical determinism. This is not just to do with neural correlates and microtubules. Tying our shoelaces would be difficult if the causal flow of our thoughts was not causally linked with the flow of events in our world. And even if our thoughts could somehow unfold independently of material processes, it would still be reasonable to believe that every mental state is the direct consequence of a previous mental state. Otherwise what would we mean by ‘mental process’?

Superficially at least, determinism makes sense. There is no scientific evidence showing that anyone believes that they have freewill, just first-person reports, not usually considered reliable evidence in physics. In addition, we see no intra-subjective evidence for events without causes or effects. But we cannot accept this. As sentient beings we know that things are not this simple. We know, or think we know, that we have freewill. We cannot voluntarily un-know this just because our intellect or someone else tells us that the opposite view makes more sense. And we can still raise the question of how, if every event is a cause and an effect, the causal process gets started in the first place.

If we attempt to argue for or against freewill then the details can quickly overwhelm us. For a start we must ask and answer the question of what exactly we mean by ‘we’ when we assert ‘we have freewill’. This is a difficult question to settle. Who or what is it that has this attribute? If it is an attribute, then it is contingent, in which case we could be without freewill and yet still be this same ‘we’. Does this make sense? Yet if it is not an attribute then freewill is what we are, and this idea does not obviously make sense.

It would be tempting to say, hang on, we have not taken into account this argument, this factor, this famous philosopher, this nomic possibility. But this is the trap. The details of the argument are dangerous. They distract us from our purpose, which is to decide between three possible philosophical theories on freewill. Two of them do not work and there would be no point in studying them, so let us discard them and all the complexity to which they give rise. The most popular view among the experts is compatabilism, the idea that we usually look at the freewill-determinism problem in the wrong way and this is causing us to see a dilemma instead of the correct answer.

Is compatabilism any better than the other two answers? There are various forms of it and we can assume that at best all but one of them is no better, since only one can be correct. But which one? We need not delve too deeply. If we can find a form of global compatabilism that has never been refuted, such that as far as anyone knows it works, then it becomes impossible to avoid reaching the conclusion that it would be the most reasonable and plausible answer to the problem of freewill.

There is one well-known form of compatabilism that works. It has many names. Among them would be ‘nondualism’, advaita Vedanta and Middle Way Buddhism. We could call it mysticism or the perennial philosophy. In metaphysics it would be a neutral metaphysical position. In consciousness studies it has been called relative phenomenalism. It is more or less obvious, then, that this is the best of the available solutions for freewill, especially since it is the only one. No other idea works, nobody has shown that this one would not work, and lots of expert philosophers enthusiastically endorse it. Is there really any need to make the issues any more complicated?

The rest of the problem of philosophy are no more difficult if we take the same approach. The perennial result of philosophy is not only that partial, positive or extreme views on the freewill-determinism dilemma are indefensible, but that all extreme metaphysical views are indefensible. Thus the freewill debate is just a local form of what is actually a global debate, relevant to all metaphysical questions. It is likely, then, that they can all be decided at once and by exactly the same method.

Admittedly, we still would not know whether we have decided correctly. Logic cannot finally prove anything about Reality. But we have decided what it would be most sensible for us to believe and philosophical analysis can do no more than this. By rejecting all extreme metaphysical theories we learn little about the theory that remains, but we may nevertheless endorse it as the one that ought to be true according to logic and reason.

We can refuse to accept this result, of course, and turn back to study the details, searching for errors and loopholes. Philosophers have retracing their steps in this way for many centuries, however, and we are far more likely to become lost in confusion than succeed where they failed.

So why do we still argue about whether freewill or determinism is true? Frankly, I don’t know. It is a mysterious thing. It is well known that both these views are paradoxical and yet still they survive and have avid supporters. My theory would be that the details of philosophy can quite easily overwhelm our ability to see the wood for the trees, and that almost all approaches to teaching university philosophy involve studying the difficult details of a large number of theories almost none of which make sense. Academic philosophers seem to enjoy their intricate battle of wits too much to want to simplify it and declare a winner, and so must keep insisting that the issues are too complicated for ordinary people to understand and then keep working hard to make sure they stay that way.

But the facts are simple. There are three possible positions on freewill and two of them do not work. The evidence suggests that the distinction we make between these ideas is a false one, such that they would not form what Aristotle defines as a ‘true contradictory pair’. Why this is not taught in universities is not an easy question to answer, and there is no obvious explanation that would reflect well on the state of university philosophy.

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8 Responses to The Devil in Philosophy

  1. I like that you referred to the Glass Bead Game 🙂

    I think one reason many people still argue over this is because they dislike determinism. It not only strikes at the core of their most cherished views, but also raises (in their eyes anyway) dilemmas about things like moral agency and punishment.

    I find nothing remotely confusing about determinism. That my subjective states seem to conflict with it is irrelevant; my subjective states are not necessarily true knowledge and they go wrong all the time.

  2. Guymax says:

    Yes, the GBG is a remarkable book. But it was a very misleading reference. In hindsight I see that I should not have used GBG as a metaphor for scholasticism. I didn’t think it through properly. I forgot that the game involved the making of connections between music, philosophy, mathematics history and sociology and so forth. This is not at all what scholasticism is about. I’m going to belatedly edit this reference to GBG out since it’s a game I play all the time and find very worthwhile.

    You have an unusual view on freewill. Wouldn’t it allow you to say that you find nothing confusing about eliminative materialism, since your subjective states are not knowledge and ‘go wrong’ all the time?. Is it not confusing that you seem to be able to blink whenever you like?

    Drat. It seems my post failed to be convincing.

  3. Very interesting article; I appreciate your empirical method for resolving antinomies. As someone who doesn’t think compatibilism doesn’t fit with our pre-theoretic intuitions about what free will requires, I am very curious about what you call nondualism. In a quick search I wasn’t able to find anything pertaining to the freewill debate when I searched for nondualism. The two main compatibilist camps that I know of are traditional (Hobbesian) compatibilism, and hierarchical (Frankfurtian) compatibilism. Does nondualism fit into one of these categories, or is it something entirely different? If you have posted an entry on this, would you kindly provide a link? I didn’t see ‘nondualism’ among your tags.

    I think you are right that most professional philosophers today subscribe to compatibilism. My worry is that philosophical inquiry will end too soon, that is, before we reach a possible answer, if we consider a philosophical paradox resolved if a majority of professional philosophers subscribe to one view. Taking a synchronic approach alone seems hazardous, as it doesn’t appreciate the Hegelian process of truth (as much as I despise Hegel in other respects). For example, in 20th century metaethics alone we witnessed multiple changes in the majority opinion, from non-naturalism, to non-cognitivism, to constructivism, and then to naturalistic realism. It seems each position was necessary for us to come to naturalistic realism. I think this should make us hesitate to claim that a philosophical issue is ever solved, even if our “folk philosophical” issues are resolved, and that is precisely what makes the problem philosophical.

  4. Guymax says:

    Thank you for an excellent comment. I’ll try to deal with it all.

    Nondualism is a term usually associated with the doctrine of the late Hindu Vedas or Upanishads. A synonym for searches would be be ‘advaita’, thus the common phrase ‘advaita Vedanta’ to describe this worldview. There are no tags for it here because so far all discussion of it are in the pages, not the posts. (I talk about it at length in ‘From Metaphysics to Mysticism’), I should add a specific post some time. Good idea.

    I agree with all of your second para. The suggestion is not that we should follow fashion in philosophy but quite the opposite, that we should ignore fashion and establish exactly what philosophers agree about and what they don’t in respect of metaphysical questions. This will only become a fashion-hunt if we restrict our research to a short time period or an arbitrary sub-section of philosophers. The changes in fashion that you chart through the twentieth-century are the evidence that we are dealing with opinions and not proofs. ,

    But I take your point. It might look like I was suggesting that we democratise philosophy and make decisions by majority vote. Rather, I was suggesting that we should be on the lookout for where philosophers are voting rather than proving things. This is always where they keep arguing and forever changing their mind. It is in this situation that we can usually assume the explanation is that their positions are equally indefensible or unsatisfactory.

    • My apologies in misstating your view, I see now that I agree with you. I quite like this: “I was suggesting that we should be on the lookout for where philosophers are voting rather than proving things.”

  5. Guymax says:

    No problem. My fault for not being clear in the first place. Thanks for prompting me to add a note.

    I notice I didn’t answer your question above about nondualism as the compatibilist position on freewill. Here is an extract from an essay. Schrodinger wrote at some length about nonduality and nondualism.

    “The physicist Erwin Schrödinger, a founding father of quantum mechanics and active advocate of the advaitan philosophy for forty years, reasoned as follows. Our bodies function as a pure mechanisms according to the laws of nature. Yet we know, by immediate experience, that we are directing its motions, of which we foresee the effects. He finds only one way to avoid this contradiction, proposing ‘the only possible inference from these two facts is, I think, that I – I in the widest meaning of the word, that is to say, every conscious mind that has ever said or felt “I” – am the person, if any, who controls the “motion of the atoms” according to the laws of nature.’ Thus he is forced by analysis to the conclusion, ‘Hence I am God almighty’.”

    • Very interesting solution to the problem of free will, thanks for sharing it. Such a broad scope agent-causal view seems unconfirmed by our phenomenal data, so it has as much support as hard determinism. Unless you factor in spiritual data, which I have heard offered as a reason for the view you propose.

      This reminds me of Einstein’s endorsement of panpsychism, but of course, he notoriously denied the possibility of free will. You seem like someone who would know where the two views diverge. Any thoughts on that matter?

  6. Guymax says:

    My view would be, and I like to think I can justify it in logic, that freewill-determinism is a formal category-error. By ‘formal’ here I mean that in the dialectic it would not satisfy the conditions for a true contradiction. We assume that one of these theories must be true because we assume that they represent the only two logically sound positions. In fact logic shows that neither can be correct. So we end up with a dilemma. We are making a mockery of Aristotle when we make this assumption, such that to apply the law of excluded middle to this dichotomy would be to misuse the laws of thought. And from this misuse would follow ineluctably all the famous problems of metaphysics.

    Freewill-determinism would be a problem only if we start by assuming that one position must be true and one false. This is clearly not the case or we wouldn’t still be arguing about which is which. It is an undecidable problem for the same reason as the question ‘Does the Earth orbit Mars or Jupiter?’ All metaphysical dilemmas would be category-errors, and this would be why they are dilemmas in the first place. This would be the solution for metaphysics.

    It is Schrodinger’s solution. He sees that the distinction between these two positions can be ‘sublated’ if we assume that by reduction ‘I am God’. This is no simple theism, just shorthand for the Upanishadic view, by which all distinctions must be reduced for a fundamental or ultimate view.

    It is this reduction of extreme views that allows the Upanishadic metaphysic to be free of contradictions and dilemmas. This view is often called ‘irrational’, but it is demonstrably more rational than the idea that we must choose between freewill and determinism.

    Because of all this panpsychism can, in one form, be consistent with the idea that both freewill and determinism are false, or ‘inadequate’ would be a better word. Both would be a partial views and not take into account all that they need to take into account. Thus Einstein and Schrodinger can be reconciled.

    As usual I would refer to Kant, and his observation that all selective or partial conclusions about the world as a whole are undecidable. This would be because they are founded on category-errors. The problem of consciousness would be a classic case, but really all these problems are the same problem.

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