The objection that the terms ‘consciousness’ or ‘free will’ are used in too many different ways to be understandable is one of the most common arguments that I run into. I agree that it is a superficially valid objection, but on deeper consideration, it should be clear that it is a specious and ideologically driven detour.
The term free will is not as precise as a more scientific term might be (I tend to use motive, efferent participation, or private intention), but it isn’t nearly the problem that it is made to be in a debate. Any eight year old knows well enough what free will refers to. Nobody on Earth can fail to understand the difference between doing something by accident and intentionally, or between enslavement and freedom. The claim that these concepts are somehow esoteric doesn’t wash, unless you already have an expectation of a kind of verbal-logical supremacy in which nothing is allowed to exist until we can agree on a precise set of terms which give it existence. I think that this expectation is not a neutral or innocuous position, but actually contaminates the debate over free will, stacking the deck unintentionally in favor of the determinism.
It’s subtle, but ontologically, it is a bit like letting a burglar talk you into opening up the door to the house for them since breaking a window would only make a mess for you to clean up. Because the argument for hard determinism begins with an assumption that impartiality and objectivity are inherently desirable in all things, it asks that you put your king in check from the start. The argument doubles down on this leverage with the implication that subjective intuition is notoriously naive and flawed, so that not putting your king in check from the start is framed as a weak position. This is the James Randi kind of double-bind. If you don’t submit to his rules, then you are already guilty of fraud, and part of his rules is that you have no say in what his rules will be.
This is the sleight of hand which is also used by Daniel Dennett as well. What poses as a fair consideration of hard determinism is actually a stealth maneuver to create determinism – to demand that the subject submit to the forced disbelief system and become complicit in undermining their own authority. The irony is that it is only through a personal/social, political attack on subjectivity that the false perspective of objectivity can be introduced. It is accepted only by presentation pf an argument of personal insignificance so that the subject is shamed and bullied into imagining itself an object. Without knowing it, one person’s will has been voluntarily overpowered and confounded by another person’s free will into accepting that this state of affairs is not really happening. In presenting free will and consciousness as a kind of stage magic, the materialist magician performs a meta-magic trick on the audience.
Some questions for determinist thinkers:
- Can we effectively doubt that we have free will?
Or is the doubt a mental abstraction which denies the very capacity for intentional reasoning upon which the doubt itself is based?
- How would an illusion of doubt be justified, either randomly or deterministically? What function would an illusion of doubt serve, even in the most blue-sky hypothetical way?
- Why wouldn’t determinism itself be just as much of an illusion as free will or doubt under determinism?
Another common derailment is to conflate the position of recognizing the phenomenon of subjectivity as authentic with religious faith, naive realism, or soft-headed sentimentality. This also is ironic, as it is an attack on the ego of the subject, not on the legitimacy of the issue. There is no reason to presume any theistic belief is implied just because determinism can be challenged at its root rather than on technicalities.
The difference between intelligence and wisdom, (aside from rolling up an D&D character), parallels the distinctions which have been dividing philosophy of mind from the beginning. Intelligence implies a cognitive ability in a technical and literal sense – a talent for understanding factual relations which apply to the public world. The products of intelligence are transformative, but famously amoral. Frankenstein and 2001’s HAL both embody our fear of the monstrous side of technology, of intelligence ‘run amok’ with hubris. This is a rich vein for science fiction. Beings built from the outside in – an inhuman mind from inanimate substance. Zombies, killer robots, aliens. Giant insects or weaponized planetoids. In all cases the impersonal, mechanistic side of consciousness is out of proportion and humanity is dwarfed or under-signified.
Intelligence is supposed to be impersonal and mechanistic though. Its facts and figures are not supposed to be local to human experience. The sophisticated view which developed through Western intelligence not only does not require us to value human subjectivity. It insists, to the contrary, that all human awareness is a contamination to the pristine reality of factual evidence – objects which simply are ‘as they are’ rather than merely ‘seem to be’. All human awareness, that is, except for the reasoning which progresses science itself.
Wisdom, while overlapping with intelligence as set of cognitive talents and skills, is not as clear cut as intelligence. Wisdom does not yield the kind of public results which intelligence is intended to produce, because wisdom is not focused on public objects but on private experiences. Both intelligence and wisdom attempt to step back from the local phenomenal world to seek deeper patterns, but intelligence seeks them from indirect experiences outside of the body, while wisdom seeks within the psyche, within the library of possible personal experiences. The library of wisdom, unlike that of intelligence, is in the language of the personal. Characters and stories which work on multiple levels of figurative association. The privacy of wisdom extends to its own forms, leading to a lot of mystery for the sake of mystery which those minds on the other side of the aisle find deeply offensive. Intelligence only uses symbols as generic pointers – to literally refer to a specific quantifiable variable. Intelligence stacks symbols in sequence as language and formulas. Wisdom uses symbols as poetry and art, evocative images which work on multiple levels of awareness and understanding but not the kind of fixed understanding of intelligence. The understanding of wisdom can be open ended and elliptical, absurd, poignant, etc.
The deepest kinds of wisdom are said to be ‘timeless’. Unlike the high value that intelligence places on up to the minute information, wisdom seems to appreciate with age. Rather than being seen as increasingly irrelevant, ancient stories and turns of phrase are revered and celebrated for their pedigree. There is an almost palpable weight to the anachronistic language and images. The metaphors are somehow more potent when delivered by a long dead prophet. This favoring the dead happens with more modern quotations too. Maybe it’s because they are no longer around to put their quotation in context, or maybe it just takes a while for greatness to make itself known against the background of more ephemeral noise.
In any case, the realm of wisdom is a decidedly human realm of human experience. It is a talent for recognizing and encapsulating common sense and long life, with subtlety and significance for all people and all lives. Wisdom is about being able to appreciate our fortunes as individuals and members of society. Wisdom helps us find an objective vantage point within the history of our personal experience from which to see and evaluate the ups and downs of life passing. Through wisdom, we can see the bigger picture in our own trials and tribulations and the rise and fall of civilizations. We can see how every moment can change seeming fiction into seeming fact and back. Wisdom is subjective and mystical, but so too were many phenomena in the natural world before science. The promise of Western intelligence is to de-mystify they world, to remove subjectivity, but in addressing subjectivity itself the intellect meets its match.
Frustrated with the prospect of decomposing its source into objects, intelligence turns to a kind of inside-out subjectivity in some variety of functionalism. Subjectivity, from the Western perspective of public space as reality, is nullified. It can only be disqualified as an ‘emergent property’ or ‘illusion’ of some other deterministic process of matter or ‘information’ – a side effect somehow, of what already seems to know itself perfectly well and function competently without resorting to any fanciful aesthetic ‘feelings’ or ‘flavors’. If arithmetic or the laws of physics work automatically, then they don’t need a special show of aesthetic phenomena to lubricate their own wheels, yet, thinks the left-brained Western mind, there is simply no other possibility. Consciousness must arise as some sort of accident among colliding collections of complex computations.
This is a problem, since it only pushes dualism from the Cartesian center of tolerance into the ghettos of the untouchable. Subjective experience is now confined in science to untouchable, uncountable metaphysical aethers of simulation; epiphenomenal dead ends which had no meaningful beginning.
The Western mind cannot tolerate being put into a box by any phenomena which it cannot put into a box itself. The irony of modern physics of course, is that all of the boxes which have been piled up so far seem to indicate their origin in circularity. A microcosm of disembodied Cheshire Cat smiles…determinable indeterminisms. On the astronomical scale, suddenly the bulk of the matter and energy in the universe has been re-categorized into darkness. The alchemist caps seem to have reappeared in science, but turned inside out. Western intelligence is no longer explaining the universe which we experience directly as participants, but is devoted to pursuing an alternate universe backstage which just so happens to identify human subjectivity as the only thing in the cosmos which is not actually real.
The current battle over TED, Sheldrake and Hancock is on the front line of the war between public-facing thinkers and private-facing thinkers, between body-space visionaries and life-time visionaries. Both sides play out a reflexive antagonism – a shadow projection which extends beyond the personal. Each side hears the other in their own limited terms, and neither one is able to communicate the missing perspective of the other. The argument continues because both fail to understand the missing piece of their own perspective and their mode of thinking has devolved into an aggressive-defensive vicious circle of un-wisdom and un-intelligence.
At this point in our political and in our intellectual life, the midpoint has been skewed so far from the center (to the West in science, and to the Right in politics), that any proposal which engages other perspectives is seen as extremism. Any new information is mistaken for treasonous compromise. Whether that extremism is in the mechanistic or the animistic direction, the result is very similar.
I would love to see a study done comparing the brain activity of so called ‘militant atheists’ and ‘religious fundamentalists’, to see how really far apart they are. My scientific hypothesis is that no neuroscientist will be able to look at the fMRIs of the two camps in a double blind test and reliably tell the difference. If that were true, what would it mean about protecting science from unscientific ideas if you cannot prove the scientific validity of thoughts from a brain scan?