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.