Where Jacob Needleman Goes Wrong in “Why Can’t we be Good”

Jacob Needleman wrote “Why Can’t we be Good?” in 2007. I read it in 2017. He was a professor of mine at San Francisco State in the late 1970s. The only philosopher of religion at SFSU I took a few classes of his. Only a few. Despite a shared belief in the existence of God we disagreed about almost everything else. I see that this has not changed between then and 2007. Some of this disagreement figures in my formal review (for Amazon) of the book included below. Here in my philosophical commentary, I want to say more about it, and in particular some of that which stems from my personal experience with Jacob Needleman.

First to set some context. Needleman believes God exists. So far so good. In “Why Can’t we be Good?” he is a little vague about his concept of God vascilating between the transcent “Abrahamic God” of the world’s three major monotheisms, and something else, a “God in us”, a thread present in many religions (including the monotheisms) and emphasized in more recent movements characterized as “New Age”. I think Needleman believes that both views of God can be real at the same time which is fine by me, but in this book he is very unclear about distinguishing between the two concepts.

As is true of virtually all of today’s philosophers of religion and theologians terms like ‘person’, ‘spirit’, ‘soul’, and [less often] ‘mind’ can be used interchangeably. I am not concerned with these indistinctions here except to mention them because their blurring together does happen in this book. I am concerned rather with a problem specific to Needleman’s thought, something I came up against almost from the moment I met him and is very clearly stated in this book. One could even say it was the central point of the book. At root, the first and fundamental problem for me is that Needleman believes a genuine relationship with God (and recall he is vague about what or more precisely with whom such a relationship occurs) is a difficult achievement demanding, among other things, much study, perhaps years, and more than this, it requires the competent help of a guide, a genuinely enlightened person who can guide you through your studies. Needleman is quite clear that whatever else is necessary to successful achievement of that genuine connection, a guide, is also necessary.

How Needleman arrived at such a position I can only speculate. Having known him, my speculations might be very close to the mark. But whatever it was that brought him to this position (he does leave hints to it in the book), Needleman grew up into young adulthood and an advanced education in philosophy at a time in which the mystical and New Age ideas that fuel his viewpoint had gained a popularity in the culture of this time, something they still maintain today though far less frenetically. I think Needleman had the good fortune to seek his fortune in somewhat New Age philosophy at a time when this came to be much in demand.

In Needleman’s view, without the guide (and a guide is not the only requirement) we are literally incapable of a “genuine, deep, moral decision and action”. With the possible exception of moments of great crisis (that even this is a problem for the whole idea he just does not see) we have no real free will in the moral domain because we are all asleep, disconnected from the god within (and without). This is why we “cannot be good”. Everything we do (morally) we do out of habit or culture accretion. No moral decision really belongs to us. Needleman simply discounts what it is moral free will really represents. Not some phenomenon that requires study, but opportunity to improve the very connection Needleman asserts we don’t have by what we decide to do! Needleman does point out that one who seeks to strengthen the connection to spirit must be sincere about it, and that sincerity must lead to some action. That is all well and good except that for Needleman, any action we take that seems good is merely the outcome of our life’s moral accretions that do not by themselves get us to where we must be although such action is nevertheless (like sincerety and the guide) a necessary part of the process.

If Needleman discounts free will on the good side, he must also discount it on the bad and he does, declaring unhesitatingly that all evil in the world is the result of our disconnection from spirit. From deliberately sending tourists who ask for help in the wrong direction to ordering the construction of death camps and murdering entire communities, all of this merely a consequence of being unaware of our “true selves”. I find this notion both absurd and obscene. Needleman’s mistake also causes him to blur the distinction between error and evil. If I work in a chemical plant and accidentally open the wrong valve, perhaps I cause an explosion somewhere in the plant, a mistake, error. If on the other hand I freely open that same valve knowing it will cause that explosion, that act is not an error but evil! The difference is plain, but Needleman cannot get to it because he discounts moral free will in all but enlightened persons.

Needleman is correct about sincerity and doing something, that is acting to (freely) do the best good you can (even if it is only a small good) when a situation to do good presents itself and even if much of what you actually do is done out of habit or cultural accretion. Sincerity entails a willingness to try taking action when you can. When you do this, three things happen: (1) you become incrementally more sensitive to such opportunities for action, (2) acting becomes a little easier, and (3) your action becomes incrementally more adroit and fully free. You can call this progressive development “the working of the spirit” or just chalk it up to “practice makes perfect”. Either way, if you persist, eventually the process itself will awaken you. See my “Why Free Will”.

Notice that none of this is particularly intellectual. It is spiritual and not intellectual development. Needleman would be right to assert that the intellectual can support the spiritual. Once you are sincere and acting, study and guidance can reinforce the process, but they cannot be necessary to it.

“Why Can’t we be Good” Jacob Needleman 2007

In the interest of full disclosure, Jacob Needleman was a professor of mine at San Francisco State University where I did my philosophy MA in the late 1970s. I had a few classes from him and found we disagreed about almost everything. I will try not to get into all of that in this review, but some of it cannot, perhaps, be helped. I see the basis of our disagreements in 1979 are very much in evidence here in this book written in 2007.

In “Why Can’t we be Good?” Dr. Needleman takes stock of the evil in the world, much of it obviously the result of human behavior both now and for thousands of years past. He certainly notes that humans do also behave in what passes for goodness in their daily lives. Many of us love our children and do our best to raise them lovingly and there are instances of human action, tens of millions every day all over the world that pass for civil and often “beyond the requirements” of civil behavior. So why he asks are we not doing even better? Why does the world appear steeped in evil?

His argument is that we are not better because we have lost sight of what “real goodness” means because we have forgotten our fundamental connection to the spirit forces (God transcendent, God embodied in “our self” [often blurring these ideas]). He admits that sometimes, in crisis, we act on a “higher, genuine, moral level” but most of the time, the best we can do is merely acting our of reasonably good habits we’ve acquired from our culture, and just as often (perhaps more) we act in downright evil ways. His central claim is that we cannot find (re-discover) this connection by our-self. To re-acquire our consciousness of the fundamental connection demands a teacher, a guide, which always takes the form of some already enlightened person who can both point us to the various holy-literature (be they Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, etc) traditions where the connection is revealed but also help us to understand and interpret what exactly the traditions are trying to tell us. Without this guidance, we are, Needleman tells us, ultimately helpless. Putting it bluntly, we must study what it means to be good and appropriate these teachings into our inner being to even begin approaching genuine moral action.

If this all sounds a bit new agey “I can’t help the world without first helping myself” it is, but Needleman is more sophisticated than that. Besides a “teacher”, the student seeker must sincerely want this for him or herself. We are not in the realm of magic incantations that make us over in one fell swoop. Of course even the new age teachings also note this. What Needleman adds is his recognition that no matter how lacking we are in genuine morality, we must nevertheless try, that is act, in the world of our daily existence. We must act to do the “best we can” as we travel about our daily lives interacting with others however weak and habitual those actions might be. We must practice, not only in our studies, but in life. Only by these things, sincerity, study, and action, can we re-awaken our consciousness of the connection between ourselves and that relationship to the cosmos that results in genuinely deep, and not superficial, moral behavior.

But while Needleman is correct about the need for action, I do not believe he grasps its overriding significance. Because we (most of us) do not know who we really are our “moral free will” is minimal to non-existent. We are hemmed about by habits and cultural acquisitions, social accretions that render us incapable of genuinely free moral choices (except possibly in times of crisis). For Needleman this applies as much to evil as good. He twice quotes Socrates declaring “No man does evil intentionally”. All evil in the world (he says) stems from our disconnection (culturally induced) from the reality we are meant to know. Socrates (at least as quoted here) and Needleman fail to distinguish between error (the truly inevitable outcome of our limited perspective and cognitive abilities including all that we cannot know lying above our intellectual pay grade) and evil. The latter is precisely “error deliberately (that is freely) chosen”! It might be true that “no man does error intentionally”, but evil is evil because it is intentional!

The same must be true of “the good”. Certainly there is a continuum of moral choice from the trivial to the profound. But even our “good habits” were not always habits, we had to allow them to become habits at some time in our earlier life. The same holds for the accretions of our culture. Some of these are certainly harmful and others good. If, on balance, we have adopted (for ourselves) more good ones than bad, this too must be the result of genuinely moral choices all along the trajectory of our lives. The sincerity of the seeker, something Needleman notes is necessary for any sort of success, must already have been a freely made moral decision or it wouldn’t be “sincere”!

A better choice for a title for this book might have been “Why Can’t we be Better”, but that’s less dramatic and would put Needleman in the position of admitting that, provided we are sincere and we do the good that we are able to do now, we will grow incrementally better — practice makes perfect. A guide, should you be lucky enough to find a real one, can be helpful, but cannot be necessary. My applause here goes to Needleman’s emphasis on action, something he talks about more than either of the other two “necessities”, the guide and the sincerity of the seeker. Forty years ago I don’t remember this much recognition of the importance of acting, but then my memory certainly deceives me. In any case he has it here. Included in early chapters are some nice exercises people can actually do together that simulate “the ethical” in the “theater of the mind” as Needleman puts it. Easy to read, not technical. Will it help you along your “quest to be good”? Well it can’t hurt!

Prolegomena to a Future Theology

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“Prolegomena: a preliminary discussion; introductory essay, as prefatory matter in a book; a prologue” — http://www.dictionary.com

Most of these blog essays rest on a theology but briefly explicated. I have written in more detail of it in the two books “Why This Universe” (2014) and “God, Causal Closure, and Free Will” (2016). This essay is an attempt to state it more succinctly and then clearly relate it to the rest of my interests in philosophy. In my books and essays I’ve argued that theology, and in particular, this set of axioms and theorems, provide the best explanations for certain aspects of our (that is human) experience both phenomenologically and historically. In this essay I’m not going to argue about any particular experience (except perhaps as example) but rather the relation between this theology and the overall viewpoint of my philosophical ruminations.

Modern philosophy seems shot through with antirealism which not only refuses to recognize a basis for correspondence between subjective experience and the “in-itself out there” external to it, but denies even that it is rational to think there might be a correspondence. This includes even such logical frames as the Principle of Sufficient Reason, self-identity, and the Principle of Non-contradiction. Some antirealists argue that while these three pillars of rational thought are essential to us, to making sense of subjective experience, we are not justified assuming they apply to the “in-itself external” or even that there is an in-itself external independent of our temporal subjectivity. As concerns God it simply isn’t possible for antirealists to assume they can say anything positive. If we cannot say anything meaningful about our immediate externality, how much less could we possibly be able to say about God who would have to be at a further step removed?

Any serious theology then must begin from a realist perspective. The point of “God talk” is to get something out of it for philosophy. We want to see if assuming God exists improves insights into other questions. What questions? Broadly, questions about the nature and origins of our experiential world and experience itself and how the two of them go together, that is what relation or relations, do they have? Many philosophers today will say that such questions are not meaningful in the sense that they have any correspondence to anything real either mental or physical. There cannot be any relation between what exists and what doesn’t exist, God, with unicorns falling into that latter category.

In what follows I use the personal male pronoun ‘he’, ‘his’, to mean God. I do this only when the reference is obvious and to avoid having to repeat ‘God’ or ‘God’s’ over and again. My use here is by convention only and not meant to imply that God is a man (or woman). The personal pronoun does, however, imply person-hood or I might have used ‘it’. This particular implication is to be fleshed-out later in the essay.

Why do [most] philosophers and scientists say “God doesn’t exist”? There are two justifications: (1) physics finds nothing to suggest that anything besides physics exists, and (2) every “proof of God” advanced in the history of philosophy is flawed. The first objection is easy to discount. Essays in this blog address it, but the bottom line is that physics cannot hope to “find evidence” for anything purportedly non-physical. In the view of most theoretical speculation about God, his would be an existence (implying a reality) outside physics on the simplest grounds that he created physics (if he did not create physics, then he is not God). But physics can only be about the physical. All instruments, and ultimately our sensory apparatuses, are physical and can only detect and measure physical phenomena. The notion the “physical absence of evidence” for the nonphysical has any relevance to the matter of God’s existence is nonsensical. I note this does not mean that God exists either. It means physics (science generally) is in no position to say.

The second objection is more telling. Even besides physics, no proof of God’s existence (a proof being something that takes place in logic and has meaning only in the mental arena of persons) is to be had. Why? If God exists “the mental arena of persons” is (like physics), a phase of some total creation. The logical universe is consistent. Given Godel’s incompleteness theorem, it is not possible to prove every possible truthful proposition of the system. “God exists” is a possibly truthful proposition of the system that cannot be demonstrated from within the system. Tellingly, as there is no proof, there is no disproof either. God is not logically impossible.

To derive philosophical value from God, that is to justify or even suggest that assuming God exists makes sense in relation to broad philosophical questions, I proceed in a reductive style and end in an “inference to best explanation.” I assume God exists and has certain necessary qualities or he isn’t God. From those we draw consequences and then evaluate those outcomes against our experience subjective and objective. This amounts to phenomenology (and by extension all the powers and limits of language we use to discuss it) and what physics has discovered about the universe. If we get that far and none of the consequences appears to contradict our experience, the last step is to evaluate those consequences against the sum total of our subjective and collective experience. To do any of this we presuppose that we can say something meaningful about God; that we are able (again supposing God exists) to express propositions whose content could be true (not inconsistent with experience). Such propositions would have a truth maker (see “Truth and Truthmaking”) which would be God.

So we begin by supposing there is a God who is the source of being, the material universe, ourselves, and anything else there might be in whatever sense being is something real including God. God must be his own cause and further he must be the only self-caused entity in the universe, and ‘universe’ here cannot be merely the physical world in which we find ourselves. The physical world is underlain by space (possibly quantized) and drenched in time. God must be the source of both space and time, and thus must in some sense be “outside it”. If God is God, then he must be able to act (or by choice refrain from acting) to effect anything not logically impossible, anywhere in his creation whether at a time and place or across all time and space. A traditional miracle, might serve as an example of the former, while the constancy and universality of “natural law” could be an example of the latter. If God is real, then “to exist” entails some relation to God however indirect that relation might be.

None of this is to say that, from the human perspective, we have anything resembling a satisfactory grasp of what existence or being is like from God’s perspective. If some realm “outside time”, with God as the source of it (and himself), exists, we cannot, from a perspective within time, say anything about it. It is, so to speak, above our pay grade. All we can do is postulate its existence analogous to the way in which physicists postulate a “quantum realm”, though that remains physical. Why should we then postulate this realm? If God exists outside time, then we must include a something “outside time” in our ontology. At the least we must propose a “placeholder”.

Whatever being is, God must exhaust it. God’s perspective cannot be perspectival. His must be the “totalizing perspective” that totalizes. If God is God, then he is also the origin (perhaps indirectly) of mind and so there is some relation between perspectival consciousness, and the creator. Whatever we take consciousness to be its existence is a part of the overall creation. The creation includes everything including our subjectivity. Not only that but it is reasonable to suppose there is a relation between consciousness and the material world it seems to sense. The outstanding problem of realism, the mystery of its representation of the material world, should not be a mystery at all, even if the mechanism remains unexplained, because God is the source of both.

If the foregoing were not the case, there would be something “more than God”, something outside God, and that is impossible if God is really God. What that means for us is that we are in fact able to say something meaningful about God even if what we say, our ideas, propositions, and so on, have only the slightest correspondence to what God is for himself. This is not to say that everything we might imagine about God corresponds to anything real. Like unicorns, some of what we imagine about God might have no correspondence to reality what-so-ever. But all the same, correspondence must be possible.

If God is God, then being is univocal. Matter, mind, values, time, space, and anything else that can be said “to exist” has, ultimately to come from God and be able to interact with God and itself. From the human viewpoint there can be many legitimate joints in reality: past present and future, matter and thought, natural and artifactual kinds, or universals and particulars. By contrast God knows every possible joint, and the whole simultaneously. Substances, processes and all their relations must all exist and be fully present across all time to God.

If this is all the case then it is reasonable (rational and warranted) to believe that Principle of Sufficient Reason, self-identity, and non-contradiction apply all the way up the chain of reality to God. They are structurally integral to our thought because they are structurally integral to the universe itself. In theory God himself could deceive us about this, but such deception would entail a schism in reality, the nature and operation of mind would be effectively incompatible with the rest of creation violating the univocality of being. Such a God, would not be God.

To put it in a positive form everything God creates must be consistent with him. The self-consistency of natural law in the physical is one reflection of this, but it would beg our question to infer from the physical to the rest. It would be possible for the physical to be consistent and mind be inconsistent, delivering false perceptions (for example). But in fact the deliverances of mind seem not to be false. To be sure they are incomplete thanks to the limitations of our sensory apparatus, the “aspect (perspectival) nature” of our perception, and [human/animal] mind’s constraint by time. It is from these that seeming inconsistencies arise. They are inconsistencies from our viewpoint. Consciousness, in someway made to exist by God, might not grasp all universe structure (physical or otherwise). But what it does grasp is real and structured in the external (the for-itself) much as it is perceived in the internal (the for-us).

I will now sum all the foregoing in a few brief statements of what, positive, we can say about Deity even while we have every reason to believe that what we can say encompasses but little grasp of its full nature. If our grasp of material reality does not exhaust its being (Harman and many others), how much less of God’s reality can we grasp with the human mind? Yet we can say the following: God must be unqualifiedly infinite, outside time and space (he is their creator). He must be self-caused cause and capable of doing anything that isn’t logically impossible. He must be logical and this means not inconsistent or internally contradictory in any measure.

God is not only able to act, he is free willed absolutely. Absolute here means there are no constraints on his action, and free must be in a robust volitional sense. God can choose deliberately and purposefully. Other than logical consistency there can’t be any limits to both the choice or choices God makes. Nothing limits his ability, within (at a particular time and place) or across all time, to act and bring into being (“make real”) that which he desires. He must therefore be omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent, and all of this notwithstanding that he can elect to self-limit provided self-limitation is not inconsistent with his infinity. He might choose (for example) not to act in the material creation throughout all of eternity, but he cannot choose to be unable to act.

God is, in short, God. He can do anything, see anything (whatever “see” means to God), anywhere in time and across time. This implies that if there is some point (purpose) to all of what we experience and everything else there is, God knows what that point is. Moreover, in some far distant future from a perspective within time, that envisaged end point, God’s purpose, must come to pass! I can say more. Even that end point is but the completing of a phase for example “perfecting the material universe” (see my essay “Why Free Will”). God must have further purposes, infinitely many. All the foregoing, as best I can express at this point, follows from the necessity of God’s being infinite, willed, and internally self-consistent. These, in turn, imply constancy throughout eternity — which at least includes “all of time” whatever that might mean. Constancy, in turn, is chosen, freely, by God who knows what it means (omniscience) to “choose for eternity”. I want to stress that all of these qualities are theological axioms, a self-consistent system from which we can derive further (theorems) claims.

If it is axiomatic that “if God is purposeful, his purposes must come to pass”, what the first theorem says is that God must be purposeful and his purposes must be changeless across all time. There can be purposelessness in phases of the whole creation. Physical mechanism, the slavish behavior of the physical world described by physical law, is properly purposeless. But the existence of this mechanism, as such, cannot be purposeless.

Purpose and will are two sides of the same coin. Even in the limited context of human will, we cannot will anything purposelessly, even if the only purpose we have is merely to exercise will. For God to have created anything purposelessly is a logical contradiction because infinity includes purpose as a member of itself. A unified God must not only have purpose, but his purposes cannot be contradictory. All of God’s purposes must point at some internally consistent outcome. Further, his purpose(s) cannot have changed since the beginning of the material world (at least) nor will they change into the indefinite future. This does not mean the content of his purposes are all available to our cognitive grasp. If today humans can grasp more of God’s purpose (not that they usually do) than the human beings of thousands of years past, it is because our intellectual scope has expanded, not because God’s purposes have ever changed.

Purposefulness is a quality of mind. It is precisely one of the strategic discoveries of the sciences that the inanimate ingredients of the material universe, from its basic laws down to the behavior of stars and rocks described by them, are not purposeful in their interactions. The mechanisms of the physical world are not purposeful. This does not mean the whole (a whole which includes mind), is not “for a purpose”, a distinction largely ignored today. Life as such is only metaphorically purposeful. The behavior of non-minded life is rule governed (albeit more complex rules) like the inanimate parts of the world. Literal purpose appears only with mind. God, being purposeful, must be minded. This does not mean that we can have anything of a grasp of his mind compared to ours.

Similarly God must be personal. Nothing exists that isn’t related in someway to God, and that must include human beings and their minds. But there are many kinds of relations. Living entities with minds have some relation to God that inanimate objects do not have. But while all minds (even animals) experience subjective relations to other minds (the indirectness of this experience is another matter), human beings experience relationships not merely indirectly but directly “person to person”. As human beings we find ourselves not only minded, but personal (see “Why Personality”). The possibility of direct relationship (distinct from relations) is grounded in personality, something humans are as well as being minded. Although we cannot find personality when we look for it [this problem has a long philosophical tradition (see also “Realism and Antirealism“), personality has positive properties that condition human mind and we cannot have positive properties that God lacks.

But just as mind in general has common qualities, so too does personality. The possibility of a direct relationship, between persons, is one of those qualities. Personality then reveals the possibility of a new relation not available to non-personal mind, a direct relationship with other persons, including the person of God.

This, by the way, is why all the pundits of the present age are wrong when they say that if we met a race from another planet we would have no point of connection with which to grasp their nature. Presumably any race intellegent and sophisticated enough to travel between stars (or even cast a comprehensible signal) would be personal. Apart from the problems of language and the mechanics of communication, we would have no problem relating to them different as their character expression might be.

God must be perfect with perfection understood in a technical sense. Because God is the final source of everything, all distinction in the universe, what is real is dependent on some relation to God. What has no relation to God (unicorns for example) is not real. From this it follows that a degree of reality, that is how real something is, is proportional to its alignment with or semblence to God. The more something is like God, the more real it is. Perfection is then by definition being exactly like God, something only possible for personalities. Why? Because even a minded entity (say a lion’s mind) lacks a connection, lacks a direct relationship, to God, the person-to-person relation that only human beings have. Again this does not mean that persons can become God. It means they can become like God in the sense of sharing the character expression of his personality.

Perfection is much broader than the previous paragraph implies. In general phenomena are “more real”, more perfect, the more like God they are. Stars and rocks are as real, as much “like God” as stars and rocks can possibly get. They don’t get any more real than they already are. Minded life is a little more like God by virtue of being in the “minded set” of things in the universe, things that share mind with God. Personally minded life is one step closer still. Personal mind has a power (several, see “Why Personality”) that non-personal mind lacks, it can elect to be “as much like God as possible”. Personal mind can choose that course as a purpose, something animals cannot do.

A rock cannot become more than a rock, and even a minded lion cannot choose to be a “better lion”, or for that matter be vegetarian. But personality adds a new dimension to the notion of developing perfection, hence enhanced reality, not only living with the personality as given, but by purposefully choosing to enhance it. A person can choose to become “more like God” than she was when she first awakened to her personal status. Only a human being, a personalized mind, can do this.

Those are the theorems. God is purposeful, minded, personal, and perfect. I have said nothing about being good. It is tempting to derive God’s necessary goodness from the axioms and theorems. Whatever else evil is, it is disruptive. Evil is characterized by destruction (of many sorts) and something positive must exist to be destroyed. So existence, being as such if nothing else, must be antecedent to evil. “God’s first thought” cannot therefore be evil and by the infinity and consistency axioms there is no evil in anything God does. We can call that good but it is a goodness that is, like perfection, true by definition, by its alignment with God. That good is merely a word and might represent doings of God that look anything but good to us. God could still be perfect, and good, by definition, if he created everything, and lastly persons, merely to torture them.

The enhancement of personality would make as much sense to an evil (by our standards) God. Inanimate life experiences no pain, in fact nothing at all. Minded life (I ignore for now what complications might arise for non-minded life. I do not believe it has any more experience than the inanimate see “Physics and the Evidence for Non-Material Consciousness”) experiences pain, and personal mind experiences pain of many more kinds than the merely physical.

The conviction that God is good, by our own standards, emerges first from human experience itself. The further claim that God must be good comes from that experience coupled with the axioms and theorems. The human (and not animal) experience to which I refer concerns what philosophy (since the Greeks in the Western tradition) calls VALUES. Over thousands of years of patient philosophical investigation, the values separate into three distinctive but related types; Truth, Beauty, and Goodness. They relate in that each expresses the others in some qualifiable sense. They are distinct because they each express themselves to mind in a different way.

It is an important phenomenological assumption of this theology that we detect, and not merely invent, values. But there is a distinction (rarely recognized in modern philosophy) between values and what has them. The values as such each have one another. Truth has Beauty and Goodness. Besides having one another, each of the values also reflect into subjective experience in complex ways. No two persons experience (detect) them in exactly the same way in the same sense that qualia vary (slightly in normal brains) from person to person. What is important to keep in mind is that values appear to us, that is to subjective consciousness, as the conviction that these three qualities exist. There is beauty, truth, and goodness. Values as such are NOT about what is true, beautiful, or good. What appears to be true, beautiful, or good in our experience is what has (or might have) values.

Beauty expresses itself chiefly through the physical world. The perception, recognition, of Beauty in the physical world is something like a quale, like red, except not associated with individual sensory apparatuses, but with the presentation of the physical world reflected in subjective experience. It is because no two humans experience the value identically that we disagree about what is beautiful, that is, what has Beauty. We agree only that beauty exists, some things (characteristically objects or arrangements of objects) have it.

Truth is value expressed in mind as such. Propositions are true if they have Truth, but because we all sense Truth a little differently there will always be room for argument about what propositions, exactly, are true.

Goodness is value reflected in the acts and the motivations of persons. As non-minded life is only metaphorically purposeful, animals can be only metaphorically good. They can act in ways that, like purpose in non-minded life, are good from our anthropocentric viewpoint. Only persons can be good, can elect to be motivated by and act in accordance (applied act by act or to a life over-all) with what that person detects of Goodness. Like Truth and Beauty, those motives and acts vary thanks to our differential appreciation for what constitutes Goodness (and our skill in acting it out). Of the three values, Goodness is the most difficult because it concerns the person herself and not something the person experiences in her environment.

The values are all positive; they exist, and therefore have a relation to God. Like everything else, they must, directly or indirectly, come from God. Their detection, recognizing their reality, in human mind is therefore a detection (recognition) of some tiny facet of God’s character. Values reflect God’s character (however weakly perceived that reflection) into mind. Since God must be unified and consistent, the character of God reflected into mind must be God’s actual character. Not all of it, but that part of it (however small) we can detect! It is for this reason that God must be good.

Love, that is the Christian idea of agape, the desire to do good to others, is an attitude of persons that is the mereological sum of all three values. This love is not an emotion, but an expression of the flavor of all the values taken together; the flavor of Spirit!

If Truth, Beauty, and Goodness are God’s character reflected into mind individually and totalized as love why should only human minds detect them? I have noted before that a lion cannot choose to be more than a lion, but it also cannot choose to become less or other than a lion. Animal mind has truth, beauty, and goodness, all mind must. But these are simply among the qualities of animal consciousness. What it is like to be a lion includes its truth, beauty, and goodness, but they are transparent to the animal.

A lioness can choose between alternate zebras to hunt, but it cannot choose to do anything because it is good or beautiful or true. Lion mind has truth, beauty, and goodness, but only a human being can recognize their existence as such. Perhaps values recognition is something, a power, that personality adds to mind. In any case, clearly only human mind, only persons, can choose (and so act) based on recognition of the existence of the values.

Does evil have a relation to God? I said above that evil was a negative, a taking away or disruption of logically prior being. The issue is complicated by the conflation (not least in modern philosophy) of accidents, error, and evil. If two stars spiral together and obliterate each other, neither experiences anything let alone evil. If there was some planet, harboring living beings, close to the event, those living beings would be destroyed as soon as the gamma ray burst reached them (possibly many thousands of years after the event). Those living beings would experience the pain of being blotted out and thus evil by today’s common understanding. But recognizing evil (as contrasted with its experience) is possible in human mind alone because evil is not a phenomenon in physical space and time via mind. Among other things, it is a negation of the flavor of the values.

Animals experience evil, pain, but not that it is evil any more than they recognize that pleasure has goodness. Evil is a negative of goodness or truth, or beauty, just as cold is not something positive but rather the absence of heat. Only humans can distinguish evil as such because only humans discern values. But the unity, consistency, and infinity of God require us to recognize that evil is not something positive, but a relative lack, an absence or diminution of value.

There is an important difference in my analogy between cold and evil. In theory it is possible to have an “absolute absence of heat”, a temperature at which all molecular motion ceases; zero kelvin. But there is no analogous “absolute evil”. If evil is a relative absence of goodness, then an absolute evil would be some state of affairs that has no relation what-so-ever to God, and that is impossible. An existing (real) object, process, state of affairs must have some relation to God. A reality having no relation to God cannot exist. The further exploration of “the nature and explanation of evil” in theology is called theodicy, and again I have no time for it here, but it is explored in my books and the linked essays.

This then is the summary and any future theology cannot go forward without respecting these minimal boundaries beginning with the infinity and unity of God. Notice that no part of the above sketch relies on the contents of “The Bible” (Old or New Testament) or any other holy book. In this view there are no literally holy books, only books (some books) whose content is mostly about God. But these contents are the work of human beings. Some of this content is representative of God, that is consistent with the content of this introduction.

If I can start from a premise of God’s infinity, self-causation, unity, consistency, and reason that a god who lacked any of these qualities would not be God, then so can others even down through history to times when people thought much more about God than they do now. But what we now can say in terms borrowed from mathematics, physics, philosophy, and logic could, in the deep but recorded past, be expressed only in poetic metaphor. He who “sends his rain upon the just and the unjust” is consistent and the phenomena of the physical world do not play favorites. He who “knows of each sparrow who falls from the sky” is omniscient, and so on.

There is also much content in the holy books that is not representative. God cannot ever have been angry or jealous (human traits). In particular, as concerns the New Testament, the Atonement doctrine, presently a pillar of every Christian variation, cannot be true. God’s relation to his creatures cannot have changed, from his viewpoint, from before the death of Jesus on the cross to a time after that event. Our view of our relationship to God can and should change, but there has been no variation from God’s side.

One can look at the Old and New Testaments together as a historical tracing of the evolving God concept from polytheism to a monotheistic “king of the tribe” to “the Father of the individual”. In between there is fictionalized history (more fictionalized the farhter back it goes), and outright mythology (the creation). All of what these ancient texts say about the mechanisms of the physical world is nothing but speculative mythology. I note that technically this is also true concerning distant origins (big bang, emergence of life, mind) today though we can be much more sure of the foundations that underwrite present-day speculation. Some parts of holy books were written (in their time) for purely political purposes, to solidify the power of a nascent church by securing the loyalty of the flock. In the New Testament, the Book of Revelations is just such a piece.

Professional theologians also are not referenced here. Why not? Because modern theology has lost its way, and become blind to these principles. For example, it has become more or less settled by philosophy that we, that is human beings, cannot make sense (do not have the necessary cognitive apparatus) of the idea that a God outside time could interact with the universe at a particular time and place if he so chooses. As a result, modern theologians, instead of accepting that the mechanism allowing such interaction is beyond our ken but that God knows the trick, instead take the hubristic view that if we cannot grasp such a thing it must be impossible and therefore God is not outside time and space, that God is not omnipotent, or if he is, he is not omniscient, and so on. Today, such nonsense (such a god could not possibly be God) is taken seriously by most theologians and philosophers of religion. All false teachers!

These first principles enable distinctions to which modern theology is blind. For example, they allow us to distinguish between what is and what is not representative of God in the holy books that have come down to us through history; those that serve as the textual foundations of large religious institutions. First principles also let us distinguish between religion as such (the individual relationship to a personal God) and religious institutions like the Catholic Church (and all the other major religious institutions on Earth).

As holy books are just books, religious institutions are merely human institutions like corporations, governments, and other social organizations. They differ in claiming to be institutions dedicated to religion, but otherwise they are purely human and subject to all the errors (including interpretations of their founding texts) and potential evil (corruption in various forms) of all other institutions. To the extent that these institutions foster the personal relationship between individuals and God reflected in the social activity of the institution they are doing their job. To the degree that they claim a “special authority” to intercede between man and God, they are both misrepresentative of God and false.

A full theology will eventually arrive at a concept of the Trinity. God remains the one, unqualifiedly infinite, Father. Two persons share some qualified phase of infinity with him providing an escape (for the Father) from what would otherwise be a distinction-less infinity. The Trinity grounds the differentiation of reality, the distinction between mind and personality, and the purposelessness of physical mechanism. It is not personal, but the unified fusion of the three infinite (two of them qualified) persons. Besides their fused relation the three persons provide for a relationship between qualified equals on a deity level. This is the first and primary relationship of the universe. It sets a pattern, persons acting in concert as the foundation of the process of bringing about God’s purposes. Of the Earth’s monotheisms, only Christianity has advanced as far as the Trinity, though I think Christianity is mistaken in much of what it believes about the Trinity’s nature, role, and the natures of second and third “persons of Deity”. Among the qualified mistakes (qualified because they are not entirely wrong) is the matter of just who was (or is) Jesus? Another question I will not deal with today.

What about an “after life”? Supposedly the craving for immortality (even if impossible) has been among the drivers of all religion from the most ancient on down to the present-day. All of it nothing more than wishful thinking for no other purpose (ultimately) than grounding a mistaken belief in “life after death”. Theology must surely address this question, and I do not do so here. I have discussed this in my “What is ‘The Soul'”. There is also the matter of the real relation of God to human history and exactly what we are to do with our vague perception of values. From the moment animal mind had the potential to recognize the values it became personal-mind and gained the power of choice based on values perception. That power has to be some part of the mechanism by which God’s purposes are brought about in time. See my “Why Free Will” for further discussion of this. All of this leads to a theological grounding of ethics and aesthetics.

These are all subjects an advanced first principles theology can address. It has not been my purpose to demonstrate or prove anything here, but rather to state the first principles. I have briefly sketched the application of those principles to a few theological issues, and I have shown, I hope, that they can be useful in piecing together a new and better human appreciation of the otherwise constant relationship between human persons and God who is our Father.

Harvey Weinstein and the Matter of Sexual Consent

Google+ and Face Book are all a twitter (especially Twitter) over the Harvey Weinstein news. No one in this second decade of the 21st Century should be surprised there is sexual predation (of various kinds) in the entertainment industry, (of course not only entertainment, and not only in the U.S). This sort of thing has been going on for thousands of years, and “entertainment industries” (along with a few others) are particularly known for it. There were casting couches long before women were even allowed to act on a public stage! Joseph Goebbels of Nazi propaganda fame had perhaps the most infamous casting couch in all of the world for a decade or so. Now it’s Harvey’s turn. The surprise here, like that of actor Bill Cosby, was not that such behavior occurs, but rather the lengths (depravity and illegal acts) to which it went and the time over which it was able to remain only rumor in the public view.

My question here is not ethics. I am not aiming at what should be the case but at a description of what is the case. What is the case includes a cultural context. It assumes that adult men and women understand (either by direct experience, experience passed down from peers or mentors, and by other indirect means) the cultural context in which they have grown up and now circulate. My question is, given this cultural context, and in particular the cultural context of the modern global “entertainment industry”, at what point in a social encounter between a man and a woman (this might be a man and a man or a woman and a woman. Sexual orientation is immaterial) has there been a sexual consent between the parties involved?

In particular I have the following scenario in mind. A man and a woman run into one another in some public place (typically this turns out to be a big hotel or convention center with hotel attached). They engage in conversation. At some point in the conversation the man (typically) invites the woman to a private meeting in his room. For now I leave open whether the invitation was open ended, “come in for a night cap”, or given some specific non-sexual rationale, “I would like to talk to you about project X”. But this certainly makes a difference to the implications of consent.

In the context of present western culture, an open ended invitation to a private meeting strongly suggests a sexual motive on the part of the inviter. It doesn’t matter if the inviter is a person with whom the invitee has no prior relationship, or they are related as (roughly) employer/supervisor (presently or in the future). If the invitation is open ended, sex is implied and consent is at least provisionally given if the invitation is accepted. ‘Provisional’ comes down to “awareness and assent to the [future] possibility of some sex. The later is signaled by accepting the invitation. I’m not going to be specific about what ‘sex’ comes out to. For my purposes any non-accidental contact between bodies still clothed is the beginning of sex.

Even where there is explicit consent, “consent to what exactly” remains unspecified. Human sexuality can take some strange turns. I am going to accept the principle that a genuine sort of free will is in play on the part of each of the parties. Philosophers call this compatibilism. It means “you are free if no one is forcing you to choose by putting your physical well being in jeopardy. If one party has been incapacitated or is otherwise unable to make a knowing (not necessarily rational by all standards) assent to subsequent behavior amounts to rape. A sexual encounter that isn’t rape tends to unfold in stages. If there is provisional consent it must be remade at each stage of the process. Provisional consent becomes actual consent when each and every step of awareness of possibility is accepted. Either party may “withdraw consent” at any stage. A sexual encounter need not begin as rape to become rape.

Does any of this change when the invitation is not open ended? A non-open ended invitation typically involves an excuse to  meet in private that isn’t sexual. The difference in terms of our subject depends on the legitimacy of the excuse. It is not enough that it is not a lie. To make a difference there must be good reasons why the matter cannot be discussed or seen in a more public place. If the excuse is to look at art, and the invitee is an art dealer, there is diminution of any consent  (implied, provisional, or otherwise) of a sexual nature. Yet each person must, under the circumstances, be at least aware of the potential for sexual engagement. But in this case, awareness and accession in the form of accepting the invitation need not imply any sexual consent.

In the supervisor-employee case the invitation itself is, at least now in the public face of American corporate culture, including the entertainment industry, already ethically compromised. Supervisors (and employees or potential employees) are just not supposed to do that. That it is done must only strengthen the sexual implications of the invitation from the cultural perspective. In the physical context in which these meetings typically occur (Western hotels) there is almost no reason why business cannot be discussed in a place other than a private room.

Excuse or not it remains true that such an invitation must remain suspicious from its inception. Being given an excuse is not justification for being blind (or turning a blind eye) the the strength of the socio-cultural implications of such an invitation. While we should not assume that a motive (desire for the job) by itself implies even a provisional sexual consent, cultural norms have to count for something! It cannot be that young women older than about 16 can be unaware of sexual predation.

It might be illustrative here to examine this situation where one party is a child. The presumption here is that, if not sufficiently old (and so culturally experienced), the individual concerned will lack the capacity to make a knowing decision as concerns either a private meeting or for that matter anything proposed or attempted in such a meeting. This is especially true precisely because it might be very difficult for a child to resist even purely psychological pressure to consent from the adult even knowing, however vaguely, some of the proposal’s implications. Can this consideration (which to everyone seems reasonable) not apply to the power relation between a significantly powerful adult employer or supervisor and a much younger, if still technically adult, person? It seems reasonable to say that it could. There might be a continuum of provisional consent from a “vague notion something sexual is intended” to “full knowing assent” depending on both the experience (taking age into account) and motives of the invitee. But the achievement of adulthood itself implies “some knowing” consistent with the social circles in which one travels.

Of course sexual harassment (and propositions that are not harassment in the legal sense because they are not unwelcome) happens in many contexts outside hotel lobbies and rooms. Literally on the street it occurs between the harassed party and an unknown person we call a “pervert”. But it also occurs in more formal social settings, an office, or restaurant perhaps where an employer speaks the words “the promotion is yours if you sleep with me (in some as yet unspecified private setting)”. Of course, intent is (or should be to an adult) clearer in these cases. Accepting the offer (because the sexual motive is so strongly implied or even made explicit) in these circumstances amounts to more than mere provisional consent. It does not mean that consent is open ended. It remains true that what the proposing party has in mind might, when the time comes, be unacceptable to she (typically) who accepts the initial proposal.

This last consideration does not change merely because the propositioning party holds potential (present or future) power over the invitee. The degree of “provisional consent” being given depends, in the final analysis, on the strength of the implied sexual motive. That information is cultural. When the proposal comes from a party who has power (financial, political, or otherwise) over the invitee cultural conditions, especially in but not confined to the entertainment industry, virtually guarantee that some sexual motive is implied even where there is an ostensible, non-sexual, excuse. There remains a potential continuum of “provisional consent”. Even where knowingly given it is not open ended.

Given a powerful manager-employer the degree of consent comes down to capacity (affected by age and innebriation) and prior experience. A 60 year old employer propositioning a 25 year old employee (who accepts) might imply a minimal provisional consent. The same acceptance on the part of a 45 year old employee implies a much more robust consent. The 25 year old might not have (though she is presumed to have) “an awareness” that there is a sexual implication in the invitation. The 45 year old will of a certainty be aware.

So I ask how does this all apply to what Harvey Weinstein did to young actresses for years? On Harvey’s side, the first proposition (to an adult actress) is not, technically, harassment. To be harassment, the proposal must be unwelcome and there is no way for the proposing party to know this until he (typically) is rejected. Once rejected, further proposals constitute harassment as understood in today’s corporate culture, including the entertainment industry.

Harvey’s [metaphorical] crime was not propositioning young actresses in exchange for favors. It was the extent, frequency, and blatancy of his proposals followed (sometimes?) by sexual requests of a aberrant nature after provisional consent (actress goes to his room) is secured. There is a saying that goes back to the twelfth century when the Catholic Church decided that celibacy was to be the order of the day among clergy: “If you cannot refrain, be discreet”. Harvey is guilty of being indiscreet.

Did Harvey commit an actual crime? If he propositioned anyone under age, he did. If he incapacitated his intended even by merely permitting her to drink too much “of her own free will” (if one or both parties are incapacitated, subsequent sex is non-consensual anyway), he did. If he talked his way into an actress’s room and raped her, obviously he did. Harvey stands accused of all of these literal crimes, but the most of the complaints against him do not include any of these. Men (including Harvey) inviting women to hotel rooms without accompanying criminal behavior is far more common than any of these crimes. The issue comes down to what, by culture, adult women should know when a man invites them to a room.

There is a recent story of an actor doing an interview in a crowded hotel restaurant. Noise made the interview difficult. The actor suggested the interviewer (a woman as it happened) come to his room to finish. Here is the punch line: he was so concerned about the implications of the invitation that he offered to bring a third party of her choosing to the room. Here we have a legitimate reason to leave the public place and no sexual implications were intended. This story, heart warming as it is (and true the actor is David Schwimmer), is a rare exception. Young actresses invited by senior authorities in their culture to a private meeting should know by the time they get to be young actresses, that some sexual motive is implicit in that invitation.

Can I be wrong about this? Can it be, perhaps, that the most I can claim is that these actresses were aware of sexual implications, but were not thereby consenting (even provisionally) to “some sex”? I do not think so. Awareness plus acceptance of a proposition likely to have sexual intent amounts to, if anything ever does, consent to the possibility of some sex. It is by no means a final consent to sex, but the excuse that one simply “had no idea” is patently absurd.

Reflections on BEING

Being is one of those ideas only philosophers worry about, and not even all of them. There’s a good reason for that. I’ve recently read a few philosophers who touch on the subject. Harman and DeLanda debate what being is in “The Rise of Realism” (2017), while Umberto Eco devotes a chapter to it in his “Kant and the Platypus (1997), and Meillassoux touches on it in “After Finitude” (2015). Eco’s essay ties the others together and points out that being appears to mind only against the possibility of “not being”, and that concept presupposes language that discloses limits to our capacity to rationalize experience. Eco is clear however in that being, should it be more than a mere fantasy of mind, must precede mind. It must be, ontologically, mind-independent, though it becomes visible only to mind and by way of a linguistic shadow.

I am not convinced of that last part. A shadow yes, a blindspot to mind like the blindspot on the human retina caused by the placement of the optic nerve. But it is a phenomenal blindspot and prelinguistic; a genuine epistemological limit. At the same time it is no mere coincidence the recognition, the conceptualization, of this blindspot happens only in humans who also notice that it necessarily reflects itself in language.

So what am I talking about? As philosophers discuss it this purported ontological reality splits into two levels, the particular, and the universal. In the particular philosophers speak of an essence that lies at the core of every particular in this universe, from quarks to all their assemblies both natural and artifactual taken as discrete objects. Every rock, grain of dust, star, animal, statue, and more. Harman extends object-ness to every mind, thought (even outright fantasy), and relation, even to such arbitrary sets as my right arm, the statue of liberty, and the present queen of England. The being of these particulars is what, in addition to their properties, histories and relations, makes up their individual existence.

This being is sometimes associated with what medieval scholars called “haecceity”, or “thisness”, distinguishing particulars from those otherwise identical. The question comes down to whether this impenetrable essence exists mind-independently, or is merely a mirage a product, ultimately, of the nature of human, language-using, consciousness. It has to be human mind specifically because there is no evidence that higher animals (who I take it have sophisticated subjective arenas adapted to their way of life) concern themselves with being. They do not recognize any blindspot.

Harman says every particular, even imaginary ones, have being. DeLanda denies this. In DeLanda’s view, if we could (and we cannot) know every micro detail about some particular object, if we could know its entire history, including details of all its relations with other objects, if we could literally exhaust all of what could theoretically be known about an object, then we would exhaust the object, encompassing all of what that object is leaving nothing left over. Harman insists that even that would not exhaust the object itself; haecceity is logically prior to everything else. So who is right here? It seems to me that ontologically this is a tossup. Both DeLanda and Harman concede that “knowing every micro detail” is an impossible goal. Mind comes up against a limit. We cannot ever know every detail so how can we be sure there is something left over? Perhaps DeLanda is right in that being lies at this asymptotic limit. It is nothing more than a word standing for “those details we can never know”.

An honest ontologist has no business insisting on residual being one-way or another. Epistemologically the situation is different. Like being itself, only humans, using language, concern themselves with epistemology. Recognizing a “limit to what can be known” about any particular is in part to accept that something more might lie beyond “what can be known”. To label that possibility ‘being’ is simply to name that which we cannot know but perhaps is. What this represents ontologically is indeterminate, but for human mind, recognizing that a blindspot exists, being seems a reasonable and possibly useful hypothesis. It is reasonable, because we cannot communicate (language) without presupposing existence. Useful because it gives us a reason to reject idealism, to assume there is a mind-independent world.

This brings us to the universal. As associate the particular with haecceity, the universal relates to something the scholars called quiddity. Quiddity is the aboutness of something, that which is common to its type. Kitty cats and lions are both feline. What justifies our carving out this class and assigning to it both kitty cats and lions but not poodles? Today most people would answer with DNA, jaw and tooth shapes, claws, and many other morphological features, but the scholars knew about most of those as well. Their interest was in the logical principles that characterize classes or kinds and what must be the case, ontologically, to make the classification work.

Like haecceity, quiddity might be no more than a stand-in for those principles and if we could theoretically know every one of them down to their finest detail, there wouldn’t be anything left. But what is interesting about quiddity is it applies up the whole chain of nested classes to the whole universe. It is the something in the question “why is there something rather than nothing?” What is common to everything there is (we can debate the details of that if we want) and does not belong to what is not? That would be being.

So what does everything that exists have in common? Trivially, they have existence. Is there anything more to it than this? Once again human mind cannot resolve the ontological question. At least everything that exists must, perforce, have existence. But are existence and being simply synonyms, or must something have being to exist? It doesn’t matter here any more than it did for particulars.

We cannot in principle exhaust existence (witness the endless debate in which philosophers engage on “what exists”) so how could we hope to discover, in any positive way, what might be left over if we did exhaust it! But in this case, we fare no better epistemologically. Mind at least can grasp the particularity of particulars. Human mind can become aware of a blindspot, the inability to encompass every detail, but at least as concerns the particular we are justified in creating a word for “that which we cannot know about this”. As concerns the universal, we cannot even to that or if we do, it cannot be justified.

As concerns the global being, even human mind has nothing to grasp onto. Metaphysically speaking there can be nothing to grasp onto because unlike a particular rock or even thought, mind itself is a part of that universal. Mind exists in some sense and so “has existence” (and so being if everything else has it) in common with everything else. This also holds for language which also exists and has existence (at least) in common with everything else. To be able to speak about something presupposes being able to distinguish that something from everything else. But as concerns universal being, that which everything has in common, is to presuppose a reality-foundation (or reality concept) for which in principle there are no distinctions to be made. Existence alone is uni-vocal, something everything has in common, how much more so being if there is indeed any such thing.

Where does this leave us on the matter of being? I would say in an ambivalent position. I believe every language has some equivalent to the English verb “to be”. In English this construct and its conjugates applies to material objects (“that is a horse”), and actions, attitudes, or states (“to be creative”, “to be good”, “to be a disaster”) whether those of the physical world or strictly the subjective arena (“to be depressed”). It might perhaps be this broad application that persuades Harman to grant equivalency of existence (being an object) to everything from rocks to thoughts and all their relations (“to be taller than”). But perhaps this is merely an affect of language and should not be counted in an ontology?

If I teach my daughter the word cat, and eventually she displays an ability to tell cats from other animals, has she implicitly understood quiddity or is she merely learning to identify the morphological characteristics that distinguish cats from other animals most of the time? Suppose if she comes to know a particular cat as “Ben”. Has she thereby grasped the notion of haecceity or merely understood that “Ben” is one particular cat easily distinguished from others by subtlties of size, coloration, and so on? Eco insists that all of human language automatically and necessarily involves a generalization from the particular to the class, at least as concerns naming things, but as it turns out in many other contexts as well. Even grasping the idea that Ben is a “particular cat” implies there are “other cats” who are not Ben.

From how we use ‘being’ and how we try to talk about it using language we should infer nothing more than that it names, by implication, or gives some reference to our mental blindspot, that which we suppose exists in the form of something we cannot know, something our cognitive capacities cannot in principle encompass. There must be such a blindspot. Why? Because everything that we are counting as subjective experience and the world in which it is immersed has existence in common. We cannot get outside this commonality to distinguish it from anything else. It is the something that we cannot name because it has no particular about which to generalize and applies equally to being in the universal and the particular. Is there anything in common between all cats besides their various biophysical properties (including for example being born of other cats), with characteristic behaviors and relations?

Concerning thinking and experience (including the experience of thinking) if there is a common factor besides the properties we could theoretically come to know (and bearing in mind that even in theory we cannot come to know every micro detail of those properties), it might as well not be there. ‘Being’ stands for the blindspot. It stands for something that might exist (ontologically) besides all the micro details of properties, relations, and history (Harman), or it stands for the theoretical sum total of such properties which we can only asymptotically approach (DeLanda).

As concerns anything that philosophy might explore it doesn’t matter. What the notion of being delivers, philosophically, is purely epistemological; there must be a blindspot, there are things the human mind cannot know and because we cannot know them (like Rumsfeld’s “unknown unknowns”) we cannot name them. We can only refer to them indirectly with being.

So why does this blindspot belong only to human experience? Eco thinks it is language, the necessarily limited product of limited mind, that reveals the blindspot we call being. I do not believe this is correct. It is only a coincidence that human beings recognize the blindspot and happen to have language that we use to try to make sense of it. I agree with Eco that only a “rational animal” with a sufficiently powerful language, can attempt some evaluation of the blindspot, but I think we develop the language, words like ‘being’, because there is something about our prelinguistic experience that suggests the need.

Does lion consciousness then lack such a blindspot? No, there is a blindspot in all animal consciousness, but it is invisible to even the higher animals. There is nothing in what it is like to be a lion that suggests anything like the need for an idea of being. It isn’t that lions don’t have “the language”. They don’t have any need for such language because there is nothing about the way they experience the world that suggests it.

If it isn’t language that reveals the blindspot, what then is it? The key here is personality, in oversimplified terms the agent that appears to itself as a locus of experience. As Hume famously noted (and thus put a stranglehold on philosophy since his day) we cannot find our personality when we look for it, we only find our own minds (perceptions, memories, and so on). Hume was technically correct. His mistake was concluding that therefore, there was nothing there. Hume also derided being. He is one of those philosophers who simply does not believe mind might have “blindspots”, a philosophical hubris shared by many philosophers down to the present day.

But the blindspot that makes personality invisible is not the same as the one obscuring being though the principle underlying both is the same. You cannot analyze that which you do not ‘transcend’ is the sense of “rising above” or in some sense being “distinct from”. We cannot evaluate being because everything in the universe, including mind, takes part in it equally. It might as well not be there because it, should it even be real, is a common denominator of all mind-dependent and mind-independent reality. By contrast, we cannot evaluate personality because we are it and we cannot distinguish ourselves from ourselves. But unlike being, personality must exist because it is that in our experience which is partially distinct from mind and thereby provides for the possibility of self-evaluation of mind. It is only “partially distinct” because it exists in some sense in and expresses only through mind. No matter what we, as agents, experience or choose we experience and choose in mind. This partial transcendence explains why a first person analysis of mind always ends in philosophically slippery speculations that are not ever definitively closed. Unlike lions, we are reflexively aware of mind, but because we are “personalized minds” we cannot distinguish the personal from mind as such.

I have written much more on the subject of personality and its relation to mind in other essays. See “Why Personality”, “Why Free Will”, and “Physics and the Evidence for Non-Material Consciousness” among others. My point of raising it here has only to do with why it is that humans, persons have any epistemological purchase on being at all. As I have already noted, this purchase is something of a negative quality. We experience a hole, an empty place in our examination of experience and unlike personality, we cannot ever know if that emptiness represents anything positive that belongs in our ontology.

Searle on the Ontology of Social Reality

This is a very natural pair of reviews. Both focus on the same subject, the social world and how such social phenomena come about be they marriages, sporting events, cocktail parties, governments, or money. He is not concerned with the history of these things, but their ontological structure and how that structure is brought into existence. Searle devotes particular attention to how language, a special social phenomena with correspondingly unique properties. It is precisely language, particularly its capacity to make declarations (“I anoint you King”), and that these declarations can be compounded, that bring about both informal (cocktail parties) and formal (governments, money) social institutions. Language is not necessary to social organization as such. Higher animals engage in social behaviors without the benefit of language. But social behaviors are not institutions. Only humans create institutions, and declarative language is both necessary and sufficient. As Searle puts it, once you have language you already have [at least one] a social institution.

Naturally this raises some epistemological issues. Searle doesn’t much address libertarian free will in the earlier book, but in the later he has to address it because he recognizes that the obligations and powers of institutions, even abstract ones like money, ultimately devolve onto individuals. But obligations and powers stemming from the declarative utterances of individuals (many of course codified into such things as laws and constitutions) simply make no sense if their creation and subsequent behavioral acceptance was determined by physics. I would take the successful creation of functioning and persistent institutions to be evidence of the metaphysical genuineness of free will, but Searle refuses to go there, asserting nevertheless that it might be an illusion. He does not note that if illusion, nothing of philosophy makes any sense either.

At the end of the later book Searle addresses the subject of rights. He seems to recognize that there is no such thing as a “natural right” or “absolute right” outside of a social context. The consequences of being unarmed and meeting a hungry lion on the savanna should put paid to the idea of natural or absolute rights, but he wants to give a sensible context to the terms even within a social context. He tries, but I’m not sure he succeeds. Perhaps this is but a linguistic disagreement between us. Even to communicate the concept of a natural or absolute right requires language, and as Searle points out this puts the notions squarely into a social context from their inception.

The Construction of Social Reality (1997)

In an earlier review of a later book (“Seeing Things as they Are” 2015) I said Searle’s argument for “direct realism” was a bit circular. In this earlier book, he addresses that very circularity.

This book is about the physical and conceptual structure of social reality, such things as money, marriage, government, corporations, and cocktail parties. Searle points out that many animals live and cooperate in packs and so exhibit a “social reality”. All it takes to be social is for two people, or animals, to do something together. If you and I decide to go for a walk together, that, our walk, is a social fact. If we agree that a screwdriver is useful for driving screws, our agreement takes place in a social and linguistic framework in that we both know what screwdrivers and screws are for. But neither the walk, nor the screwdriver are institutional. Walking is something that humans are able to do by their physical constitution and the same goes for the screwdriver’s ability to drive screws. But other objects (coins) can also drive screws and if they can do that it is also thanks to their physical constitution.

Institutions are different. Money is not valuable intrinsically because of the properties of colored paper. It is valuable because it is embedded in an institution that applies symbols to physical things (like printed money) granting them powers they do not have merely as a product of their physics. These symbolic applications can be compounded endlessly yielding more and more complex institutions into which subsequent generations are born and raised against a background of these already symbolized and so constructed social realities. Language, that which we use to assign these symbols, is itself a socially constructed phenomenon and special because it is the institution that originates in a pre-linguistic but already social (in the animal way) context. Apart from the bodies that utter them, words work because they are symbols from the beginning. Paper colored and printed in a certain way by a certain institution (a mint) is, after all, physical. The government itself rests, ultimately, on something physical, a constitution, which is recorded in one form or another. Records (whether in language on paper, pictures, bits encoded in a computer, or uniforms conveying certain assigned powers to their wearer) are often the “at bottom” physical manifestations of our symbolic institutions. Every dollar bill is a record. Here (as I suspected) Searle and M. Ferraris (“Documentality”) come together. All of these are physical RECORDS that constitute the foundations of “from that point on” persisting social institutions. We connect the raw physical thing to the constructed institution by language.

If all of this seems too quick and over simplified, it is here in this review, but not in the book. Searle takes us through the argument that social institutions are, step by step, constructed by such symbolic assignments. “X has power to Y in context C” being the fundamental form of all institutional facts. This structure can be infinitely recursed. “Y’s” can become “X’s” and “C’s” can become “Y’s” generating symbolic constructs (social facts) recursively and Searle takes us through numerous examples demonstrating how it is that our complex social reality can be generated from the same structure which, when fully unpacked, and except for language, always finds its bottom in some physical X. Thus society grows out of the physical foundations of the world and is continuous with it.

In the book’s last three chapters, Searle connects all of this to the ontological reality of the physical world and our shared experience. Physical reality must exist in order that any statements about it are intelligible, and specific forms of physical reality (like Mt. Everest or the screwdriver) must exist and be shareable, part of our “public reality”, or we could not be sure, when we communicate (a social phenomenon) that our meanings are ever understood. If I say “the cat is on the mat” we take for granted that we know what we mean by ‘cat’, ‘mat’, and ‘on’, not to mention an enormous background of experience in physical and social reality such that we understand and agree on a reasonable range of contexts for cats, mats, and so on. Searle essentially argues that it is our capacity to communicate and construct social realities out of physical realities, that demonstrate the independent correspondence between our epistemic categories and the external world. None of this would work if not for mind-independent things structured much as (if not always exactly) we take them to be. Our capacity to communicate rests on the correspondence between language-reflected concept and mind-independent fact.

I would give this book six stars if I could. Searle is exceptionally good at getting at what he means in plain English. Anglo-analytic philosophy at its best, and about a meaningful subject!

Making the Social World: The Structure of Human Civilization (2010)

This book written in 2010 amounts to a reprise of Searle’s earlier “The Construction of Social Reality” (1997) which I have also reviewed. In the introduction to this book Searle says there were a few issues not sufficiently clarified and his aim is to clarify them.

The two books are about the same length, but Searle manages to say much more in this one about language, free will, and the sensibility of “human rights” outside formal institutional contexts. How does he manage this feat? In the earlier book he very carefully constructs his primary insight into the structure of social institutions and carefully demonstrates its application to a wide range of social phenomena like cocktail parties, sports, money, and government. In this book, he is able to state that fundamental argument more succinctly (he’s had a lot of time to work with it after all), embedding it more firmly into a clarified examination of the nature of human language as it relates to the development of social phenomena. As a result, there is nothing in the first book that isn’t also in this second one, but for some readers the main argument, the structure of all social contexts, might be stated a little too quickly here. I had no problem with it, but then I had already read the earlier book.

But despite the extensions and clarifications here, Searle still leaves a few things not clarified. He distinguishes between negative and positive rights. “Free speech” is a negative right because it requires nothing else of others besides letting me speak my mind. By contrast, a right to clean water (a UN declaration says this is a right) is a positive right because it puts an obligation on everyone else in the world to contribute to providing such a right. Searle rightly points out that positive rights are thus more problematic than negative rights, but he does not note that the UN declaration of such positive rights puts the onus of obligation on governments rather than mere individuals. He also uses a strange example, the right (in the context of the social institution of marriage) of a spouse to be consulted by their spouse before the latter commits to some life changing course of action. This is not a negative right as he seems to cast it, but a positive right, the corresponding obligation being on the spouse contemplating the act.

Finally, Searle tries to make sense of the notions of “natural” and “absolute” rights, those that exist by virtue of our being human beings outside any social context. I do not think he clarifies these ideas fully. An unarmed man encountering a hungry lion on the savanna will be eaten by the lion ninety nine times out of a hundred and that puts paid to any such thing as “natural rights” outside social contexts.

Despite getting a little loose with the notion of “human rights” at the end of the book, this is a superb portrait of the ontological structure of social reality. In a last section, Searle points out that most social scientists do not think that a grasp of social ontology really helps them with their work but they are mostly wrong about this. Most social science (for example) begins by assuming language and then asks how social reality is constructed with it. By contrast Searle notes that once you have a language, you already have a significant social context.

Book Review: Mind: A Brief Introduction by J. Searle

Below is the text of my Amazon review of John Searle’s “Mind”, an introduction to the philosophy of mind published in 2004. In this book Searle does a superb job of analyzing the structure of our mental processes, but he runs into problems trying to get a handle on free will and personal agency. Rather than comment on these two issues as a part of this review I have written an article on the subject located here.

“Mind: A Brief Introduction” by John Searle 2004

Another good book from a good philosopher, Searle’s review and proposals concerning the philosophy of mind. He sets out reviewing the dominant threads in the development of philosophy of mind noting and striking at their particular weaknesses. Searle dismisses property and substance dualism but also strikes at the weaknesses of various branches of materialist thinking on the subject. He then proposes his own theory, one that is fundamentally materialistic (physics being for Searle the ultimate basis of all things), but different in that it takes mental properties seriously but rests them firmly on what amounts to “the power and functional purpose of brains”.

Searle is an honest philosopher. He states his assumptions, makes clear his reasoning, and knows when his approach to the subject hits a wall that he has not (perhaps yet) found a way round. In this book, like everyone else, he cannot reduce-away the gap between the objective ontology of brains and the subjective ontology of experience. He points out that while every other phenomena in the physical universe can be both logically and physically reduced to some more fundamental phenomena, subjective experience cannot be logically reduced precisely because it is subjective while everything else is objective, public. Of course he assumes that there is some underlying, solely physical, foundation which will become known in time.

The book covers consciousness taken as a whole, a gestalt, and also intentionality (the “about-ness” of our thinking), the aspectral nature of all consciousness, emotions, desires, beliefs, and with these also acts: decisions and volitional control of the body. There is also a chapter on the unconscious, and that too fits perfectly well into his view of what mind is.

Searle runs into two other barriers not normally acknowledged by other philosophers. In a chapter on [libertarian] free will, he says that from a psychological point of view, free will must be real, but from his own view that consciousness is just what the brain does in the same sense that kidneys filter blood, he admits that he cannot figure out how free will could work. He alludes to a popular view that quantum mechanics might have something to do with this, but is honest enough to admit that this idea still does not really answer the question.

The other barrier is that of personal identity, the conviction that although my body and character change I remain, to myself subjectively, the same person today as I was a month or a decade back and that I can plan for the future when, presumably, this same person will still be around to enjoy the fruits of present labor. Here he addresses the “continuity of memory” theory to personal identity and accepts that this is important but is insufficient to explain the phenomenon. That these are MY memories still presupposes some “I” whose memories they are. He denies the “I” is substantive, but merely a functional hypothesis that we must have to make experience intelligible. He admits that he does not know how to get deeper into it than that.

The book is well written (could Searle do otherwise?) with little formality. His assumptions and arguments are clearly made in plain English. It isn’t an encyclopedic introduction to the philosophy of mind, but it does touch briefly on the main threads of the field as explored by Western philosophers for the past 300 or so years. His own theory, well expounded, illustrates how subtle and problematic some of the questions in the field can be. A good read. Highly recommended.

Comments on “Mind” by John Searle

In a wonderfully written book, “Mind” (2004 — see my Amazon review here) John Searle introduces us to issues in the philosophy of mind and promotes his own version of a theory of mind. While carefully rejecting present views of dualism (substance and property versions), and a larger set of variations grounded in materialism. He proposes his own view grounded, in the end, in materialism, but claims to avoid all the problems with other versions. What makes his version materialistic is that he assumes both the necessity and sufficiency of brains to be causally responsible for consciousness, that is agent subjectivity and intentionality. In large part, it is because of the causal relationship that presentation to consciousness via sensory experience, and causal action by an agent who can “make things happen” that the “interaction problem” (the “mind-body problem”) largely disappears in Searle’s philosophy of mind.

But it never completely disappears. Searle runs into problems with free will and personal identity that the theory fails to accommodate. Free will does fit into his view of mind as it relates both to the individual and the collective. It has “conditions of satisfaction” that can be easily specified in Searle’s terms. Personal identity is far more problematic. I discuss both below.

While the necessity of brains to consciousness is these days not controversial, Searle’s assumption of their sufficiency begs the question in the debate between dualists (particularly substance dualists) and materialists, including Searle. It is precisely the point of the debate here that no one has established sufficiency of brains to minds, and it turns out the whole debate turns on what evidence there might be that brains are insufficient. It turns out the evidence, not proof, comes from physics itself; the causal closure principle!

Searle implicitly recognizes this “begging of the question”. At the end of chapter 4, having said that he belives his arguments fully refute the various materialist variations he explores, he says this about dualism.

“Notice that these arguments still leave dualism as a logical possibility, though I think extremely unlikely, that when our bodies are destroyed, our souls will go marching on. I have not tried to show that this is an impossibility (indeed I wish it were true), but rather that it is inconsistent with just about everything else we know about how the universe works and therefore it is irrational to believe in it.”

I do not believe he really “wishes it were true”. If he did, he might have found a more sophisticated version of the argument. He also says, in the same conclusion to chapter 4 that as goes the two ontological realms (the mental and the physical), “No one has ever succeeded in giving an intelligible account of the relationships between these two realms”. Part of the purpose of this essay is to give such an account consistent with his structural analysis of mind. In the end, the precise mechanism of the connection remains a mystery, but in my view, it is no longer a connection between realms. One problem is that by “how the universe works” Searle is speaking of the discoveries of science, starting with physics. In physics, there simply is no evidence of any positive reality added from elsewhere (besides brains) that could constitute consciousness some separate thing added to physics. Physics finds no other realm and that is certainly true! There is no other realm that physics can possibly detect. But for physics to declare, blithely, that “nothing other than physics exists” obviously begs the question, something even physicists (those not pushing some vested interest) admit. This blatant assumption impacts both substance and property dualism.

Property dualism is a materialism where brains are necessary and sufficient causally, but what they cause comes, inexplicably, to take on a being of its own. Property dualism says that a new ontological realm emerges from physics, and once emerged has independent properties that are ontologically objective and yet remain interactive with physics. Property dualism springs from materialism and either proposes a new, fundamentally different ontology springing (who knows how) from the material, or it falls into epiphenomenalism. The core of this view falls into the same trap as many nondualistic (materialist) explanations, the naked assumption that “nothing but physics” is manifesting any such ontologically novel realm.

As for substance dualism, Searle refers explicitly to a strictly Cartesian version. In this variation, God in some direct way imposes mind on bodies. Brains are not even directly involved, although even Descartes recognized that some connection must exist between them. This view leads to all sorts of distractions (souls, disembodied minds) that are not, in fact, entailed even by a “mind realm”. Searle believes the whole idea of an ontologically objective “mental realm” (substance or property) is the root of dualist problems and he is right, but for some of the wrong reasons. His reasons stem, mostly, from belief expressions that come down to us through the history of religious institutions. These beliefs are vague and confused and may not properly distinguish between mind, soul, person, or spirit. All this vagueness was present in Descartes, and everyone (dualist or anti-dualist) since Descartes has simply imported it into their idea of what dualism must entail. Property dualism of course looses the disembodied soul notion but still comes out to an ontologically objective “realm” that brains produce. I agree with Searle, this is the wrong way to look at it.

There are more sophisticated versions of a proper substance dualism argument, but it remains the case that some of what is substantial about substance dualism has to come from something that is itself nonmaterial. This typically ends in God because that is what humans have thought must ground anything nonphysical. Once you have God, the physical too becomes grounded, and the fact of interaction between whatever it is that constitutes the mental and the physical is no longer a surprise. Nevertheless, the mystery of the interaction mechanism remains. But we need not go as far as God to paint a more sophisticated substance dualism; we can start with physics. The principle of causal closure stated briefly is that physics comes from and produces only physics. Subjective experience, being in its essential nature nonphysical, cannot emerge from physics, at least not physics alone!.

Consider a radio, powered up, properly functioning, playing some music. The music issues from the proper functioning of the radio in a way analogous to subjective mind’s issuing from our brains. Clearly the music (technically pressure waves of a certain type) is not the radio itself. But there is no music realm, only music which stops (or becomes distorted) the moment the radio stops functioning properly. Note now the properly functioning circuitry of the radio is 99% responsible for the music, but not 100%. There is something else, in this case a physical electromagnetic wave, that carries information to which the circuitry of the radio is (through a complex convolution of electron perturbation) sensitive. The important point here is the music is not merely added to the radio the way Descartes added mind to body. That is why, in the case of the music, there is no realm. The radio is responsible, the cause, of the music, and brains are similarly the cause of consciousness.

Consciousness is not added to brains, but stems from them. However, the radio while necessary is not sufficient to produce any music at all without the information bearing (and electron perturbing) radio wave to which its functioning circuits are sensitive. The music (strictly speaking the configured pressure wave) is the expression of that sensitivity transformed through the radio’s circuitry. Something to which the brain is sensitive results in a metaphorical interpretation we experience literally as experience. There is no realm because mind as such is not added from the outside to brains. Mind, subjectivity, springs from brains in response to or as a result of (transformed by brain circuitry) sensitivity to something nonphysical that must, nevertheless, exist inside the physical universe.

We must posit something, we need not go all the way to God, existing inside (is a part of) the physical universe that has three qualities. 1) It cannot itself be physical. 2) it must be able to affect brains, or put another way, brains must be sensitive to or detect this something. 3) it must be everywhere in the physical universe such that where ever the right circuitry comes to be in the universe, a subjective experience, attached to that circuitry, appears in or rather as some subject. This “hybrid-substance dualism” says this: Consciousness emerges from brains. Consciousness is not added to brains from the outside but emerges in functioning brains themselves in conjunction with or as a result of (causal) interaction with some entity that is not itself material.

Why not material? Because the material alone, the brains, cannot invoke the nonmaterial which is the essential characteristic of a subjective awareness! This is my core assumption, and I justify it not by religion but physics! No physics has demonstrated the emergence of a nonphysical phenomenon from nothing but physical forerunners (causes). It is also a fact that the only seemingly nonphysical phenomenon we know is consciousness, subjectivity, itself. Given what it is physics is competent to explore, the physical, and that we have a manifestly nonphysical subjective experience that is clearly reliant on brains, the only legitimate assertion physics can make about mind is that we cannot possibly know if physics is sufficient to produce it. This does not prove “physics doesn’t produce it”, but it also gives us no justification to say that it does.

In both of my books and a few essays here on the blog I call this entity “Cosmic Mind”, but that has the unfortunate connotation that it is itself a thinking entity or that it amounts to panpsychism. Neither is the case. Perhaps a better name might be “Cosmic Mind Field” (CMF). Existing in time and pervading all space. It is nevertheless not a panpsychism because it evokes consciousness only in brains, not rocks, individual living cells, or thermostats. But it must function as a field (albeit not electromagnetic) because it performs where ever functioning brains are present and evokes a continuum of consciousness from brains of varying levels of complexity.

Perhaps there is “something it is like to be a fish or a lizard, but we have good reason to believe that whatever that is, the consciousness of lions, apes, and parrots is richer, and that of humans richer still. Like two radios of different quality, the more primitive brains invoke a more primitive and limited consciousness in the same way the lower quality radio reproduces less of the information present in the electromagnetic wave.

This picture allows Searle’s view of consciousness to go through. Brains being causal entities evoke consciousness. There is no mystery of “causal mind” because brains do all the causing. Searle’s analysis of “aspectual intentionality”, qualia (aspectual perception), belief, desire, the subconscious, and so on all can go through as he supposes they do. My proposal avoids the Cartesian “realm business”. Mind is not some realm imposed on bodies, but stems from them. At the same time it resolves the causal closure dilemma. Mind is nonphysical because its invocation from brains isn’t entirely physical but depends on the brain’s sensitivity to the CMF.

But what is that exactly? It is precisely because the only handle we have on objective (mind-independent) ontology is perceptual and therefore physical that we cannot say. We cannot detect the CMF with physical instruments, nor conceive of any experiment that would isolate it from other phenomena because we can only so isolate physical phenomena! CMF sensitivity is common to all consciousness. There is nothing that we have from within consciousness that isolates the effect of the CMF because consciousness is that effect. But human consciousness at least effects a partial escape from this. I will come to that a bit below.

The Free Will Problem

In Mind Searle runs into two problems he cannot fit into his analysis, free will and personal identity. As concerns free will Searle admits he cannot reconcile even a causally efficacious consciousness with free will on the brain side. On the psychological side, from within subjectivity, he cannot shake the conviction that free will must somehow be genuine. We presuppose it in everything we do and every utterance we make. Does my model help us here? I could always say that free will is just a power (more in man than in fish) that consciousness has. Searle would rightly object that this doesn’t explain anything new. It doesn’t explain the ontological ground of the freedom. How in a universe of random (quantum) and deterministic phenomena does anything (even the nonmaterial) become free in the volitional sense?

This is both a physical and a metaphysical problem. It’s hard enough to accept that physics alone is sufficient to cause consciousness. Now it also happens that this consciousness is volitional, its choices neither determined nor random (both purposeless) but now directed and purposeful? The CMF is becoming extraordinary indeed.

The metaphysical issue is not merely the possibility of volition in the universe, though that is one issue. Like consciousness, free will must be possible as its exercise supports our entire intentional state. As with consciousness, free will’s possibility is something physical law makes room for. What physical law demands is that physical causal chains have some physical starting point. Physics allows its macro-deterministic behavior to arise from randomness, the quantum vacuum. If physicists were being honest, they could not rule out that something else, something not visible to scientific method, can also start causal chains.

Volitionally initiated causal chains, the causal part, all begin with some macro-physical starting point; for example the motion of a hand or a speech act. They are not causal chains until that point. But physics cannot preclude that, perhaps simultaneous with neural activity, a volitional act neither determined nor random, initiates that chain. It is, in other words, logically possible that physics alone is not enough to explain the appearance of a third source of causal chains; volition. Not only is this logically possible, physics itself recommends the conclusion. In centuries of sophisticated experiments and observation physics has found only determinism and randomness. Why should physicists concede the possibility of a type of cause they cannot, even in principle, detect? Because unlike other hypothetical entities (ghosts) and powers (remote viewing), free will is presupposed in virtually every decision we make as human beings. Volitional capacity is the closest thing to “obvious in our experience” besides experience itself. Not only must we presuppose it, our entire culture, language, art, institutions, cleverly designed experiments, and engineering feats, all imply free will.

In “Making the Social World” (2011) Searle devotes a chapter to language and the commonalities and differences between pre-linguistic and linguistic mind. He lists five possible types of “linguistic utterances”: Assertives, Directives, Commissives (e.g. promises), Expressives (e.g. apologies), and Declarations (e.g. “I pronounce you husband and wife”). The first four of these all have pre-linguistic forms (beliefs, desires, intentions, and emotions respectively) but Searle says that Declarations, making something real (e.g. a married couple) merely by declaring it, has only a linguistic form. Searle does not recognize that free exercise of will is precisely a pre-linguistic declarative. It “makes something real” by willing it, and has the same “two directions of fit with the world” as declarations.

One freely chooses (Searle’s “prior intention”, “will-to-world fit”, “world-to-will” cause) and then freely acts (“intention-in-action”, “world-to-will fit”, “will-to-world” cause). The “conditions of satisfaction” for free will are the same, indeed a combination of, those of perception and action, homologous to linguistic declarations. If I think I am free, that belief can only be true if I really am free. If I act freely and introduce into the world a new [physical] causal chain that action is satisfied only by a genuinely new causal chain initiated by a free choice. If this analysis is correct, then free will is a property of consciousness in the same sense as intentionality and the CMF must, in some sense be its metaphysical ground.

The Identity Problem

Searle demurs on free will’s “ontologically objective” reality, but he cannot bring himself to do the same for agent-identity. To be conscious, to have purposes, to choose, are, in human experience, the consciousness, intentionality, and volitional elections of an agent. All of our experience presupposes agency, some singular identity that recognizes the change all around it by reference to its constitutive changelessness. Searle doesn’t use the word ‘changeless’, but his examples are telling.

He shows that memories do not explain the phenomenon. There is an image in my mind from when I was two. I believe it is real because my parents explained to me once what it was when I was a little older. But then there is a gap and the next memories (few) I have are of events taking place when I was four. Gradually, the gaps become smaller and the number of memories grows, but gaps persist here and there even to recent times. And yet, I have the unshakable conviction, as much as the conviction that a persistent “I”, the same person, have existed since that earliest memory.

I had that memory and I have all the other memories, the same I despite gaps in the memory record spanning years! What about the future? I can plan for a future, say going to graduate and postgraduate school to become a philosopher. I can act today so eight or ten years from now I, the same I who today applies to graduate schools, becomes a philosopher. Looking backwards from that time, I will be the same person who filled out those first applications. I will recognize this. If my brain has functioned normally throughout that time, its truth (reality-representation) is immediately apparent. The “conditions of satisfaction” for changelessness are met.

Searle believes it necessary to posit some functional entity that stands for this “I”. He does not hesitate to declare that it cannot be a substance, but something must stand antecedent, logically anterior, to consciousness itself. As we experience it, agency is inseparable from our (that is human-subjective) exercise of will. Both the freedom and the will in “free will” seem, in our phenomenal arena, to come from, to be the will of, my agent-self, my “I”.

Is Searle’s “functional entity” helpful here? What does it mean for a functional entity to be changeless? How does this property emerge in a universe where everything else from physics to thought is constantly in flux? How does a functional entity dependent in some necessary sense on both a changeable brain and changeable consciousness gain this quality? Searle’s suggestion is merely a stand-in, but the qualities it must have suggest more.

Functions are processes. A changeless process is logically impossible. The agent can only be a substance whose persistence, at least, is logically possible. If that is the case agency cannot take origin in mind. The always-changing cannot produce changeless substance any more than physics alone can produce nonmaterial mind. Agency is always experienced and expressed in mind, but its metaphysical source must be external to it.

It is this substantial agency that makes possible the capacity to partially escape otherwise transparent subjectivity, something it appears only humans can do. By this I refer to our capacity to analyse mind itself. Lions have some sense of individuation from the world, but do not exhibit any ability to think about their consciousness as such. Only humans do this, and while language seems to be necessary in the exercise of this capacity it isn’t sufficient for its appearance. Even though what we experience of our own identity is experienced only in and through mind, only the existence of something in someway distinct from mind can provide a sort of “binocular perspective” that enables us to say something about mind itself, to describe our subjectivity (to ourselves or others) as if, as it were, from a third person perspective. I have much more to say about this in my essay “Why Personality”.

 

Putting it All Together

Both free will and identity raise extraordinary ontological issues. For mind, it seems an extraordinary coincidence that this CMF happened to be around to evoke consciousness from a certain organization of matter, especially as both the consciousness and the life on which it rests were contingent. Not only is the CMF implicated in consciousness (which at least we can suppose is generated by brains as music is generated by the radio), but also volition, something for which physics and philosophy cannot even account for logically let alone physically!

Identity is even more remarkable. It is one thing to suppose that some nonmaterial reality can arise out of the purely physical. It is even more of a stretch to demand that an entity that never changes in time arises in a time-drenched universe in which everything else changes! The absurdity of these impossibilities ends in two extreme positions, denial that nonmaterial phenomena exist, including consciousness, or that its existence must be purposeful. This is to say the antecedent presence of the CMF, is not an accident, but produced for the purpose of causing consciousness with free will when the right material organization comes along. Of course this has further teleological implications.

Searle insists that all explanations find their ground in physics, material reality, but he is left with three problems resulting from this demand; the mind-body problem, free will, and timeless agency. Starting with consciousness as such we have Searle’s assertion that it is just “what brains do” but he knows his explanation does not cross the gap. Anomalous monism (Davidson, Nagel) or panpsychism (Chalmers) also fail to bridge the gap. If, as these philosophers insist, mind is nothing more than an expression of undiscovered physics then we should find evidence in physics for the emergence of something (besides mind which begs the question) even minimally nonphysical.

My own solution, the CMF, doesn’t get to the details either, but it explains why what we seek is not found in physics. It isn’t there. If the CMF and brains interact (which they seem obviously to do) then either we are back to impossible physics, or there is a third entity responsible for both. When we discover interaction between two otherwise discontinuous phenomena in the physical world we take this discovery to be evidence of some third phenomenon that mediates the interaction. In proposing such an entity, a common source of physics and mind, we are doing nothing new philosophically speaking.

The CMF makes consciousness possible, evoking subjectivity from brains, but by itself doesn’t give us free will. If free will, obviously exercised in and by mind, has a ground it must come also from our third entity. That entity must itself be willful, purposeful. It is reasonable to locate free will in mind, a power of consciousness, because its operation fits perfectly into Searle’s structural analysis of intentionality in language and both exhibit constraint by time. We choose only in the present and both the choices made and the conscious arena in which they take place are constantly changing.

But the same cannot be said of human subjective agency. This also exists in time and expresses in mind; I am here in the universe after all. But unlike everything else agency does not change. Our consciousness is always changing and our will (free or not) can act only in the present, but all this change takes place within a phenomenology of changeless self. This is such an extreme problem for Searle that he proposes a functional entity in some sense independent of both mind and physics. But just as we never see physics resulting in the nonphysical, it cannot yield up a changeless entity antecedent even to mind. Moreover, it is this agency that enables us to reflexively examine mind itself, something it could not do if it was not in ontologically distinct from mind.

Function resting on a constantly changing consciousness cannot be changeless. Unlike volition, changeless agency cannot be a product of the time-constrained CMF. Our antecedent and ontologically objective source must also be a timeless agency, able to add this agency to time-constrained mind. With this step we are all the way to a personal God outside time.

Granted this is a truncated argument. Searle is honest enough to admit that substance dualism remains logically possible but rejects it on the grounds that it adds nothing useful to the philosophy of mind. But Searle does not get any closer to the secret of subjectivity emerging out of physics alone other than to insist that it does. The dualism I propose takes nothing away from his analysis of the structure of consciousness as we experience it. My analysis of free will (above) shows that Searle’s basic insights about mind remain sound. Free will fits into his ideas about the relation of mind to language, better in fact than in his own analysis!

While not popular with physicists or philosophers, God, like dualism, always remains logically possible. Moreover, while theism does not explain the details, it does account for free willed nonmaterial agency outside physics. It tells us why physics cannot find these in physics itself but yet experiences (presumably in the minds of physicists and philosophers) them in a physical universe otherwise governed by deterministic process resting on the randomness of quantum mechanics.

That we have agency and do exercise free will is so obvious to me that I will make the extraordinary claim that what motivates most free will and agent denial is not physics as such which says only “physics cannot account for it”, but precisely that accepting the ontological objectivity of free will agency too easily opens the door to theism. Of course physicists and philosophers will greet this claim with derision but the fact remains that, in the end, only God can provide the ontological ground for both free will and agency.

 

Searle’s Quantum Mistake

In a chapter on free will (of the libertarian sort) Searle runs into something of a wall. He concedes that psychological freedom must be real, but he cannot reconcile this with what is ultimately physical biology (brains) both necessary and sufficient to produce consciousness, the arena in which psychological free will operates. He speculates on a popular suggestion, that quantum behavior, some quantum randomness essential to the brain’s function, is in some part responsible for a genuine (ontologically objective) volitional will. Searle knows that randomness is not volitional freedom, but he says that it is possible that something about the brain transforms the randomness into volitional freedom in agent consciousness.

But he doesn’t like this solution because it makes the brain different from all other organs in that only the brain requires quantum processes in its role. I believe he is mistaken here. There is good reason to suppose that life itself rests to some degree on quantum phenomena. Every bacterium, amoeba, or living cell in an organ of the body lives because quantum phenomena are an intimate part of the mechanics of living processes. The brain then would be no different from any other life in this respect though it may (I suspect does) further constrain (in Terrence Deacon’s sense, see “Incomplete Nature”) the quantum processes necessary for life. That is the brain utilizes quantum processes in some quantitatively or qualitatively “enhanced way” as compared to life in general, but it is no longer unique in its dependency on quantum process generally.

Suppose I am right here. Does it help us answer the free will question as concerns biology? No. There always remains the gap between physics and the subjective experience. How do “enhanced quantum constraints” become volitional, or for that matter subjective? The interaction problem always remains. But my suggestion does clear one of Searle’s objections to the involvement of quantum phenomena with the phenomenal experience of consciousness and free will; quantum processes are essential to life generally.