Fantasy Physics and the Genesis of Mind

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Physics rests on the “causal closure principle” (CCP). The CCP has three legs:

CCP(1): Physics comes only from physics.
CCP(2): Physics produces only physics.

Together these say the physical effects we observe come only from prior physics, and physical causes (using cause in its common language sense) produce only physical effects.

CCP(3): There is no teleology in physical mechanism, no goal-directedness. CCP(3) is something of a corrollary of the first two legs. Physical relations and interactions are either determinate or indeterminate, but either way they are not “before the fact” directed at particular outcomes.

If God does not exist, the only philosophy of mind (PoM) consistent with all three legs of the CCP is eliminative materialism. Every other nontheistic PoM that rejects eliminative materialism and accepts that mind cannot be logically reduced to physics, violates the CCP in one or more ways.

PoM theories that claim mind exists in some sense of that word, that mind is real and emerges from ordinary physics without anything “in principle undetectable” (QM aside) added to physics to make it happen violate CCP(2) but not CCP(3).  They assert, plainly enough, that physics results in something that is in some sense non-physical, but mind’s emergence is just as accidental (contingent) as all other [physical] emergent phenomena (from stars to liquid water to life).

PoMs claiming that physics is incomplete, that something else must be added to ordinary (measurable) physics to make mind emerge (dual-aspect monism and panpsychism of various sorts) violate both CCP(2) and CCP(3).

Only theism can both accept all the CCP while accommodating mind’s reality (and for that matter libertarian free will). Theism also grounds our conviction of agency which nontheistic theories universally deride. I write about theism extensively but my purpose in this essay is to show that the [supposed] problems with theism for physics and PoM are no worse than those of nontheistic PoMs. This is to say both suffer from equally serious metaphysical and epistemological problems.

Being inaccessible to empirical (or for that matter logical) demonstration (or falsification), a “God hypothesis” is a speculative solution, a curve drawn arbitrarily to fit points (mechanistic nature of the universe joined with free will for example). Other speculative solutions, so it is claimed, are equally possible and equally impossible to confirm or deny. In fact however it is more difficult than it seems to come up with these alternative solutions. Speculative solutions that fit all the points (the mind-independent world and everything in experience) and remain logically coherent are difficult to invent. Many have tried. Like theism, atheistic attempts at solving the mind problem are also data-free speculative solutions because the data, mind emerging from brains, cannot be observed!

Physicists are often eliminative materialists (nothing emerges strictly speaking) or reductive-materialists (only an epiphenomenon emerges).  Only eliminative materialism is fully compliant with the CCP and logically coherent, but it is also the solution that is most prima fascia absurd from the subjective viewpoint it denies exists! Reductive-materialism either violates CCP(2) if epiphenomenal-mind is taken to be something real or it is logically incoherent! Physics causes the external conditions of a mirage, but the illusion that is the mirage happens only in a mind. An illusion presumes a subjective experience in which the illusion occurs.

The view that a non-material mind emerges from ordinary physics violates CCP(2)! The idea is coherent because mind is not taken to be an illusion. The problem is that no physicist has ever seen a physical phenomenon emerging into (or as) a nonphysical one. We see physics emerging from physics all over the universe from galaxies and stars to liquid water to life, but all of what comes of these events (causes and effects) is physical! The retort from physics is that we do not see any other non-physical emergence because the one such thing that has happened in the universe is the very mind we are trying to explain. Mind is the evidence that physics can produce mind. Surely this argument is circular? It plainly begs the question to say that the evidence physics alone can explain the appearance of mind is mind!

There are a few philosophers who follow the physicists here (John Searle, Bob Dole among others), but many philosophers see problems in this approach. First there is the circularity already mentioned, but in addition, this solution (whether it includes a role for quantum mechanics commonly cited by both physicists and philosophers) entails that mind’s appearance is contingent. Not only might it not have appeared in the universe, something every materialist accepts, but its appearance is mysterious. The mystery applies to mind in general, and individual minds in particular. Why is consciousness ubiquitous in animals with complex nervous systems?

Troubled by these problems, materialist philosophers seek solutions that remain [purportedly] physical while, at the same time, channeling universe evolution towards consciousness and by doing so taking its mystery away. But every one of these solutions violates CCP(2) and CCP(3)! The idea that universe evolution is directed is plainly teleological! This is what prompts philosophers (and some physicists) to grasp the straw of quantum mechanics,  but this (I will argue) doesn’t help them.

To explain genuine mind in a Godless universe there are dual-aspect monisms (Henry Stapp, Donald Davidson, Thomas Nagel) and panpsychisms (David Chalmers, Philip Goff, John Leslie). Under normal circumstances both of these theories would count as metaphysical, that is not physical theories at all! They are physical not logically, but merely by ancestry. Purportedly they remain physical (or physics grounded) because their novel (never specified) qualities can only have originated in the big bang!

Dual-aspect monisms make the claim that physics is incomplete in the sense that there are additional fundamental properties in micro-physics not yet (and perhaps never to be) discovered. The physical in this view includes the mental in a proto-property form. This undiscovered addition is not conscious; atoms are not aware. Nevertheless the qualities of this extra-physics direct event unfolding towards that which yields consciousness. Working backwards from consciousness, this channeling must also encompass the preconscious stages of life’s evolution and the origin life throughout the universe. To our empirical experience, only life, some life, becomes conscious, and that only as it gains the right sort of complexity following millions of years of evolution.

If dual-aspect monism of any sort was true however, we would expect its effect to show up in the equations describing the regularity of physical evolution. There is no such term in the equations of macro physics so to say that this extra aspect of the physical is a part of physics surely begs the question.

This is why I think so many philosophers grasp at quantum dynamics to locate proto-mental qualities. We cannot directly measure quantum phenomena until they interact with the macro physical world, and quantum phenomena, technically, are not random but indetermined. Perhaps (so they speculate) we can locate the proto-mental in the difference between ‘random’ and ‘indeterminate’, in effect shielding teleology from possible detection? But surely a proto-mental is not the only possibility accounting for the restriction from random to indeterminate (see note on this distinction at end of essay).

Furthermore no one (physicist or philosopher) has been able to say what properties the proto-mental has, how they restrict random to indeterminate, or how the indeterminateness of the quantum phenomena we know push the macro universe towards consciousness. Even Henry Stapp’s “Quantum Zeno Effect” addresses only the narrow interface between brain and the human type of consciousness. Even if this speculative connection turns out to be a measurable phenomenon, no one has suggested how the physical world accommodates it. They all seem to agree that the proto-mental cannot be conscious in the sense that we experience it, but that tells us nothing of what properties it does, or even might, have and how they work!

What all of these theories entail however is that the mental (the proto-mental at least) must be antecedent to the physical! If it has a downward influence on the physical, which these views entail, it has to be ontologically real! Where does it come from? If the foundation of the universe is physical, what is it in or of the physical that grounds the proto-mental? The idea of a proto-mental here is not incoherent by any means. But it’s coherence largely depends on there being something about the fundamental ontology of the universe that isn’t physical! Moreover something that directs with intention!  Teleology is here introduced something the more honest of the philosophers admit they cannot seem to avoid.

For these reasons, dual-aspect monisms violate CCP(2) but they also violate CCP(3) because whatever else the extra might be it is clearly teleological. Instead of the universe ending in one state or another driven only by contingent process, the extra-physics channels evolution toward a specific outcome! It is therefore purposeful in the sense of being goal-directed.

Panpsychism is the converse of dual-aspect monism. It isn’t that mind builds up particle by particle thanks to some undiscovered property of particle physics, but rather it is the universe taken as a whole that comes to embody the extra physical qualities. Philip Goff (in a paper) neatly distinguishes two forms of panpsychism, micro and cosmo versions. Micropanpsychism is much like dual-aspect monism. The mental is attached to physics at the particle level but it isn’t effective except as contributor to a totalizing affect of the cosmos. Micropanpsychism has dual-aspect monism as a foundation but asserts that its impact is felt only in relation to the whole universe. You might think of this like neurons and brains. Every neuron in your brain is a foundation of brain functionality. But mind doesn’t show itself other than at the level of the whole brain, or at least large parts of it. In Micropanpsychism, the properties of the whole emerge from properties of the parts.

Cosmopanpychism abandons the dual-aspect foundation and asserts it is only the universe as a whole that reveals proto-mental properties. This view needs no micro-alteration to physics. Mind emerges from brains the way stars emerge from gas clouds because special properties of the totality, properties described by laws parallel to those of physics, are able to invoke it. Somehow, the entire universe acquires properties (usually not taken to be conscious as such) that come to direct physical evolution, and then biological evolution, towards consciousness.

This idea clearly violates CCP(3) (it is teleological) but is precisely an attempt to avoid violating CCP(2).  It is unsuccessful because the panpsychist claim is essentially that from the total state of the universe there emerges a parallel collection of qualities (properties and laws) that evoke mind from brains!  At one level or another, physics results in non-physics and so violates CCP(2). Besides Goff, David Chalmers is a proponent of this view.

For the cosmopanpsychists the “mental qualities” do not (typically) amount to the emergence of a literal Cosmic Mind, a “thinking universe”. Such a view would amount to substance dualism at the level of biological mind! But the philosophers who assert this do not, with one exception that I know of, specify what any of these properties are. As is the case with all the other theories, none of the qualities that supposedly effect the transformation nor any part of the mechanics of their interaction with the other-than-mental are anywhere given.

The exception here is John Leslie who asserts the property or quality characterizing this emergence is goodness. We normally think of goodness as a quality of the character of persons and so, by extension, of their minds. Emerging with the big bang is not only purposeless physical mechanism, but a parallel quality of goodness. A universe pushed in that direction is so pushed because goodness is a quality of it from the beginning, and mind is good!

To get the job done, any of these extras must, necessarily, be effective. It does no good to say that something besides the physics we know, something that is nevertheless physical (or quasi-physical), might or might not push cosmological evolution towards life and life towards consciousness. If the operation of these extras is itself contingent then what would be their point? To do the job they must not only have the necessary power, but that power must result in their goal-directed effect. The extra-in-physics, its goal-directedness, must be logically antecedent to the physics we measure that does not, in any aspect, appear goal-directed.

Where does antecedence come from? Since all of these philosophers are materialists, it must originate, with everything else, in the big bang. But there is nothing in the physics of the big bang that contains anything of the mental, anything of this extra there, and certainly nothing to which we can point that bears value; goodness. The big bang is a quintessentially physical event. What is  the proto-mental property in physics? How does it arise from within an other-than-mental physics and yet be logically antecedent to physics?

The extra-in-physics, under any of these approaches, hangs, metaphysically, on literally nothing! In John Leslie’s view, not only is universal mechanism goal directed, it is also moral! For him, morality happens to pop into the universe with the big bang and it is this quality that underlies drift towards the mental. How, presumably in the absence of any mind, has this direction become good? Even if it is, how does goodness effect the direction of physical contingency?

Does physics itself have an analogous problem with this last point? Where does the physical universe come from? Why is there any physics at all? Physicists have an out. They have the quantum vacuum which, while purportedly physical, cannot in principle be directly probed. This boundary layer between physics and nothing insulates physics. As concerns physics itself, and anything it gleans of quantum phenomena, the CCP is not violated. It is for this reason, I think, that so many philosophers reach for the quantum straw. We have already seen that this move is ad hoc. Moreover it goes against that which we have discovered about quantum behavior. No “mental term” is needed in the equations of quantum mechanics any more than in macrophysical equations, and goal-directedness is not implied by any of our multiple quantum interpretations.

To be fair, many of the philosophers who propose the solutions outlined above recognize that these suggestions violate the CCP. All claim (often citing Occam’s Razor) that violating the CCP is less onerous than supposing there is, for example, a God who knows the trick of making all of this work out the way it has. Working out a way, that is, for purposeless physical mechanism, mind, and even libertarian free will, to coexist in the universe. What troubles me about these philosophers is their refusal to admit that these problems (what brings about cosmological mental properties. How precisely do they interact with physics) are in some respects more mysterious than God! At least God can be supposed to “know the trick”.

Perhaps in the greatest twist of irony,  many of these minds have thrown up their hands and returned to idealism, abandoning the CCP entirely! Not only is the mental logically antecedent to physics, it is ontologically prior! The above mysteries are resolved because mind causes physics and not the other way around! The irony is that, in essence, this is what theism has claimed all along! I should not need to point out that in God’s absence, the metaphysical ground, prior to physics, of the mental is unfathomably mysterious!

How does a “God hypothesis” avoid violating CCP(1) with particular regard to free will? Doesn’t a genuinely (libertarian) free will entail (as Sean Carroll has put it in “The Big Picture”) that “mind causes physics”? In a narrow sense yes, theism violates CCP(1) but theism has an out. Mind is presupposed after all and constitutes the one exception to CCP(1) in the universe! The Theist is free to change CCP(1) to read: “physics comes only from physics and mind”. This move doesn’t help the physicalist because for her, the issue is the emergence of mind from physics without presupposing mind. They can, of course, say that mind is the only exception to CCP(1), but that surely begs the question, there not being any other evidence that physics can do this.

The change to CCP(1) is not circular in Theism. Yes mind is an exception. It is in truth a cause of physics. But here mind is presupposed. CCP(1) is not violated because mind doesn’t emerge only from physics. The exception, that part that evokes subjective experience from brain activity, comes not from physics but by some indirect route from God. It must be indirect (I do not believe God personally manages emerging individual minds) because God is changeless while mind, individual mind, changes with time. Mind’s direct source (besides brains) must be inside time.

Theism does not violate CCP(2) because physical mechanism still produces only physics. The result of mind-producing-physics, say the movement of my arm, remains physical. Theism does not violate CCP(3) because physical mechanism remains perfectly purposeless. Purpose as such remains entirely in mind. Notice that CCP(3) does not say that the physical universe has no purpose, only that the local operation of its mechanism (macro and micro)  is purposeless.

The goal of this essay has been to argue that nontheistic notions of mind’s emergence (or lack of existence) have problems equal to or exceeding the problematic aspects of theism. Let’s review.

God is a fantastical being. Positing his existence demands at the least an addition to what physicists take to be the only ontology of the universe; the physical. A God hypothesis demands that this entity has the power and knows the trick to producing the physical as well as causing minds to arise from the physical work of brains and interact downward with the material world. This mystery cries out for a physical explanation; at least a suggestion of what it is about the physical that makes that connection. Theism does not supply this physical answer, but nor does physicalism or any of the extra-physical theories covered above.

On first blush, the extra-physical ideas demand less addition to our fundamental ontology. The physicalist theories demand, if not technically an addition to ontology, at least that the physical can do that which no observation, no experiment, has seen it do; bring about something nonphysical. The extra-physical theories do demand a new, non-material addition to ontology. It isn’t God, but yet it must have the power to bring life and then mind about. Not only must it have this power, it must surely succeed. If the emergence of consciousness remained contingent and might not have happened the extra-physical qualities of the universe would be redundant. Further, any direction, anything other than absolute contingency, implies a teleology that has to be antecedent to the physics it influences!

The atheist philosophers who hold such theories recognize that they do move partway towards God (at least a Deistic version of him). In effect they are a “functional God”. But if there is no real God, then in what, metaphysically speaking, do any of these properties cohere? If you add to this stand-in the property of “having purpose”, and to backstop an infinite chain of prior cause, being first (and so uncaused) cause, you pretty much have gone all the way to God. In the end, the purely physicalist theories are nonsensical because mind is both prima facia obvious and non-physical. The extra-physical theories, if they do not need all the qualities of an “Abrahamic God”, require enough of these properties (non-materiality, purpose, antecedent cause) to be equally fantastical! When, in addition, you accommodate the problem of these mysterious properties emerging, literally from nothing, you end at a full-blown God concept that is at least deistic if not fully theistic.

Updated Dec. 2018


Note on the distinction between ‘random’ and ‘indeterminate’

The distinction is important in quantum mechanics (I believe) because quantum phenomena come out in a well known and repeatable probability distribution even though there is no reason, no cause that we know of, why they should not be actually random. An electron could, theoretically be anywhere in the universe but there is a 99.9% probability that it will be found in bounded range of locations.

Here is a mundane macrophysical example I hope captures the idea. Imagine a fair six-sided die. Any face from 1 to 6 can come up with equal probability. The die is random within the confines of possibility (even an electron cannot be outside the universe). Now suppose you have a heavily-loaded die in which two sides, 1 or 6 are likely (and repeatedly) to come up on 90% of the throws, but within that 90% a 1 or a 6 are equally likely. That die is no longer random, but it is indeterminate.

 

Review: The Order of Time by Carlo Rovelli

By sheer coincidence I published the essay, “What is Time”, shortly before reading Carlo Rovelli’s book. Rather than writing additional commentary here, I put a pointer to that essay. While it does not address Rovelli directly (I hadn’t read him yet) it covers the points made in the review included below. But I do not want to discourage people from reading this excellent book. It is always good to understand the arguments of authors with which you (in this case I) happen to disagree. One cannot claim to be a well rounded philosopher without understanding what it is that those you disagree with are saying.

The Order of Time by Carlo Rovelli (2018) Amazon review

Like consciousness, time is a subject that no philosopher or physicist has ever managed to nail down completely. Thanks to their slippery character, being so close to us (the first one IS us) they are endless sources for fountains of speculation. In this book, Rovelli’s subject is time, but consciousness comes into this narrative as well.

Rovelli is a “time denier”. OK, that’s being a little unfair but not by much. What he denies is that there exists an independent, fundamental property or quality of the universe that is time. Of course the universe is full of movement and change, events unfolding into other events. His basic position is that time emerges into our perspective, our viewpoint, from these phenomena, but it is merely an illusion. The movement is real, the changing is real, but the time in which all of this seems to occur is nothing more than a manifestation of human (possibly animal) mind and the illusion, in turn, is supported by the entropy generated in the functioning of our brains.

The book (not long read) is divided into three parts. In the first Rovelli covers the various sub-disciplines of physics and their temporal implications (or lack thereof). He begins with classical physics (the equations work backwards in time), and moves on to General and Special Relativity, and quantum mechanics. Here he demonstrates that our simple intuition of a universal time flowing from past to future is untenable. Time, mind-independent time, if it exists at all, cannot be like that. In part two he further demolishes time. Not only is it not what we think, in and for physics, it doesn’t really exist at all; even the present is an illusion! In part three, he puts time back together for and in the perspective of an subjective viewpoint.

He argues it is the fact that we view the world from a perspective, that when we perceive the world we inevitably blur the details into a sort of summary or gestalt for our perspective, that causes time to appear to mind, The physics supporting that appearance comes down to thermodynamics. Human time, brain time, is “thermal time”. Certainly Rovelli thinks thermodynamics (in particular the 2nd law) is real, but while responsible for what consciousness perceives of time and so a real enough subjective experience, from the 3rd party perspective of physics, change is real, but time is a mirage.

This book is written for a lay audience. There is almost no math in it (what there is appears in footnotes), and it defends a view common to much of the physics and philosophy community. To be sure Rovelli differs a bit from some of his peers. He argues that relativistic “block time” is no more a “true portrait of objective time” than any other theory. In Rovelli’s view remember there is no such thing as “objective time”.

In 2015 a philosopher (Roberto Unger) and a physicist (Lee Smolin) wrote “The Singular Universe and the Reality of Time”. This book (reviewed by me on Amazon) makes precisely the opposite case from that of Rovelli. Of course they recognize what Relativity and quantum mechanics imply about time, but they maintain, nevertheless, that a notion (and reality) of objective, “universal time”, is more fundamental than any other phenomena of the universe, even more than space! Rovelli mentions this book in a footnote and admits that Unger and Smolin’s view “is defensible”, but he leaves it there and never addresses what is defensible about it.

The Unger/Smolin book goes against the grain of 95% of today’s physicists. Personally I agree with Smolin and Unger. The fact (thanks to limiting effect of the speed of light) that we cannot map our present to any present in a remote galaxy, or even the nearest star does not mean there is no present there, in fact everywhere. Something is happening, NOW, everywhere in the universe. We do not know what it is, but that does not mean the present isn’t real as Rovelli believes. Had Rovelli directly addressed Unger and Smolin I would have given this book another star. Had he not mentioned them at all, I would have taken another away.

In summary this is a decent and well written book advocating for a particular view of time (or no time) that I happen to think is wrong, but what do I know? It happens to be the dominant view in physics today. Rovelli is a well respected physicist and a good writer. Those of you interested in the subject will find this book valuable whether you agree with the author or not.

What is Time?

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Philosophers and physicists have developed conventions for speaking of time, but none of these ever say precisely what time is, or even if it is mind-independent. Space-talk is vague also, but not as vague as time talk. We can conceptualize space as a container in which objects exist in various relations of distance and direction. This may not be a complete physical description, but it describes space’s functional role. The structure of space is controversial, but there isn’t much disagreement about its mind-independent existence (Kantians and idealists excepted). This is not the case with time.

We say that time is a one-dimensional container along which we can place not objects, but events. Events can have various temporal distances from one another, but only one direction; from past through present to future. Once an event is fixed in time, past, no “new event” can be placed at an earlier time. This fixity on one side of the present, contrasted with a converse openness to contingency on the other is a central property of time. But it is because this quality is so ridged, and so universal, that it seems to disappear into the phenomena that occur within it.

In examining this hypothetical container we discover that from the present we can only discern evidence of what came before, in the past. We can project certain regularities into the future, but unlike the past for which records or markers exist in the present, there are no records or markers visible for the future. We also notice that from the viewpoint of our experience it is always “the present”. Unlike space within which we are patently able to move to different locations subjectively (in our experience) and objectively (from the viewpoint of third parties) we are not able to experience, or directly observe, anything other than a present moment in which movement and change is the only constant.

Change always occurs in the present which never moves off the unfolding flux of events. Put another way, where that flux is, is the present. This leads a large coterie of philosophers and physicists to say time isn’t an identifiable property of our universe. The causal net, process, is real, but time is nothing but a mirage in subjective mind, a way to interpret the net’s unfolding. That net is, after all, unfolding as patterns of brain states simultaneous with its evolution everywhere else. Consciousness rests on this same causal link.

Philosophers talk about time in tensed (A-series) and non-tensed (B-series) language, the ‘A’, ‘B’ business made up by a Scottish philosopher named McTaggart back in 1908 who argued that time didn’t exist because all talk about it was circular or inconsistent. “Tensed time” means there is a reference, an index, which is always our own subjective experience now. Events will happen in the future, happen in the present, and having happened are now past. Subjectively there is a “flow of time” from future through present to past. A-series talk focuses on subjectivity; a description of how we sense time.

Tenseless time talk is discrete. Event ‘X’ happens earlier or later or simultaneous with event ‘Y’. When speaking in these terms, it doesn’t matter where we are among the event relations. X can be earlier than Y whether our now succeeds Y or is somewhere between X and Y. If our now precedes both X and Y we can project their temporal relation without indexing it to our present temporal position. B-series talk is objectively focused on temporal relations independent of mind. Neither “A” nor “B” talk commits one to a particular view of time (existing or not) as such.

PRESENTISM

Most physicists (and philosophers) are either ‘presentists’, ‘eternalists’, or a particular combination of the two. Neither view commits one time’s mind-independent existence. Presentism relies on a certain idea about what “is real”. A real is something that you can “go to”. You can go to Mars, Mars is real. But you cannot go to the past or the future.

Time, whatever else it is, is not something you can “move around in”. only the present is therefore real. Presentism makes unsurprising our plain inability to move around in time. It accounts for our always-in-the present experience, but it remains non-committal about the physical reality of time as distinguishable quality of the universe.

Presentists have no problem talking about the past. There are plenty of markers or records in the present that signal past events. Importantly the events signaled are not occurring now, but their records, evidence of their happening, persist into, and become a part of, our present. That the intervals between past events and their present records seem to be real gives Presentism most of its philosophical trouble.

Marks or records relate time to truth and facts (see “Truth and Truthmaking”). The proposition “Julius Caesar died on March 15, 44 BC” is true because he did in fact die on that day. But is it the fact of his death in the past that makes the proposition true, or is it the record of that death persisting into the present to which the truth is connected? If we had no record of his death today (as is true of so many nameless historical passings) we would not be able to say that any fact (past event or present record) anchored the truth of the proposition.

Yet we also want to say there were events in the past, for which we have no records, whose facticity would make propositions about them true if records of them persisted to the present time. We discover new facts about the past precisely when we discover that certain present “states of affairs” are records of those events.

Facts are immutable. Time is so universal that immutability alone is sufficient to assign the event to the past. Part of what we mean by past is that some “state of affairs” came to be in just the way it did when that time was the present, and by so coming to be, became a fixed actual while before its occurrence it was only potential. Caesar’s murder was contingent, not necessary. It might have been that all the perpetrators and Caesar were present at the time and place, but some other event took place “there and then” that thwarted the planned deed.

Events happened as they did, but might have happened otherwise. Happening fixes their being, their facticity. Once they have happened, they cannot have happened any other way. This “locking into place” of what were, until now, only potentials, fixing events, is one of time’s salient properties.

Presentism’s recognition of records or markers in the present as evidence of events or states of affairs no longer real, must then connect these markers with the events they purportedly represent. It is something of a paradox to say the vibrant life and events of ancient Rome on the day of Caesar’s death, a present undoubtedly real to them at the time, has become unreal in our time while all the same, some part of the events of that day have perdured through the interval between that day and now. That perdurance is, after all, how we come to connect them up, to assert that they are evidence of past events. These markers have remained real, although often changed, in the interval since they came to exist. Such changes as they undergo (for example the gradual degradation of a ruin), have a continuity traceable to a prior present. Does it matter then if we say the past is also real but fixed?

Since unicorns are not real, saying “this unicorn is bigger than that unicorn” makes no sense. An analogous problem exists for Presentism concerning temporal intervals. If the past is not real what does it mean of two past events that one took place one year (or one minute) before the other or that some other event, a war for example, lasted thirty years? Records of these events are all real at the same time, now, but how can two events no longer real have a real interval between them? We can of course say that this record “came to exist” some years before that record, but is such a statement comprehensible if the past is no longer real?

ETERNALISM

Eternalism asserts that the past, present, and future are real even in and for the present. Eternalism does not commit one to saying that time is real, but rather measuring temporal intervals is never absolute and what looks future to our perspective might be past in another. Eternalism has swayed physics since Einstein’s publication of his theory of Relativity which has some strange and counterintuitive implications for our measurement of time. From within a reference frame (a physical system moving broadly together) time measurement by the speed of light seems identical. But when we look from one frame to another, frames moving faster than our own have slower moving time and vice versa.

This observation means that between frames it is impossible in an absolute sense to say that one event occurred earlier, later, or simultaneously, with another event in a different frame. Fixing a “time line” for events is possible only relative to the observing frame, not over all. Years of experimental work have indeed proved that a clock ticks more slowly in a frame that moves faster (relative to the speed of light) through space than in one that moves slower. Clocks also tick more slowly more deeply in a gravity well. There cannot now be any doubt about these observational results. This has led many philosophers and physicists to conclude there can be no such thing as time in an over-arching sense, only relative times specific to individual frames of reference.

Eternalists do not believe they can “go to” the past or the future in their own frame except for the trick of leaving their frame and going to another where time is slower then returning to the original frame. It would seem as though you have gone to the future (of the frame to which you have returned). In reality, this amounts to waiting out a certain number of clock ticks in the original (temporally faster) frame by spending time in a temporally slower frame.

Eternalism avoids committing itself to the present being in some sense special over-all. Of course it is special to us, and everyone agrees that psychologically it IS special because our subjectivity is limited to it. We are conscious only and always “in the present”. The “reality of the future” in Eternalism is a matter of some faith. It falls out of the mathematics of Relativity, but cannot be experienced observationally other than the trick of “waiting out” another frame’s clock ticks while in a temporally slower frame.

While there are events already past in some other frame that appear to lay in the future of our frame (and vice versa), those events are never observed until their light reaches the observing frame. It is an axiom of our space-time geometry that when the record of an event reaches us through space, our recording temporally succeeds its occurrence. No matter how the “pace of time” varies between any two frames, one frame cannot view an event in any frame before the event happens.

All of these considerations (a much oversimplified sketch) have led many philosophers and physicists to infer there is nothing to time at all, nothing other than a psychological response to motion (and cause) in space. One state of affairs unfolding into another needs some interval and we can assemble that unfolding  (within a frame) into a “time line” of “earlier” and “later” states of affairs. Julian Barbour in “The End of Time” (1999) accepts as an axiom of his faith that the future is real and already populated with “states of affairs” presently invisible to us. This leads him to advance a theory in which events of the present not only rest on a past and present foundation but are pulled into their new arrangements by the already settled reality of the future.

For Barbour, time simpliciter is not real, but there is a present everywhere. There is a fixed landscape of future events towards which the present, everywhere, unfolds. His landscape is filled with peaks and valleys the depth of which represent the probability of a given event or state of affairs unfolding in just that way and not another. Barbour does not deny that to us, it appears as though events flow onto this future landscape, but he insists that this is merely appearance, psychological time. Instead, the landscape fixes the distribution of “future states of affairs”.

STANDING NO-TIME ON ITS HEAD

What is it that we suppose time does for us? It allows for motion of course, and therefore cause. To cause requires time. Yet as in Barbour’s theory, we need not, as a result, think that time is a mind-independent property of the universe. In “Time, Tense, and Causation” (1997), Michael Tooley asserts that time is nothing more than a psychological expression of cause. He believes the present and past are real (though not the future) because causal unfolding happened in the past and is happening now, in the present. But like Barbour he believes that time, as such, does not exist. The present is real to experience, and the past is real because events, now fixed, happened, but time is real only to mind.

For Tooley, time is not a property of our universe, but motion and cause are properties of our universe and creatures such as ourselves report this unfolding of the causal web as time. Tooley rejects the physical reality of block time because in his view, the future is not real. There are no events there (yet). But his view does not escape the problem of simultaneity. He concedes that it is not possible, in principle, to place every event in the universe on a single time line. It makes no sense, for example, to say that “the universe is 13.8 billion years old”, something that can only be true (made true by our temporal relation to the big bang) from our specific frame of reference.

In a recent book, “The Order of Time” (2018) Carlo Rovelli more or less agrees with Michael Tooley about causal process, in Rovelli’s description “change and event unfolding” being the real phenomena that manifests in human psychology as a passing of time. Rovelli concedes that this experience is real enough and founded on thermodynamics, but outside of it, there isn’t any time at all, not even a present!

In “The Singular Universe and the Reality of Time” (2014) Roberto Unger and Lee Smolin take the opposite tack. Their claim is that time is not only mind-independently real, but the most fundamental and over-arching property of our universe. Space can literally come and go in cycles of gravitational collapse and big-bang creation. These cycles are possible because time goes backwards and forwards indefinitely.

Precisely because time is the universe’s fundamental property and, as Unger puts it, “drenches everything” it is a property that cannot be isolated, but is implied by its effect: Motion and cause occur in our universe and history is a particular path taken from the big bang to now, through time. The present universe is a combination of all the space-time paths taken in its history. These paths are real from their beginning notwithstanding they are forever fixed behind their leading edges. Time is not a phenomenon in the universe, but rather the environment in which the universe and its properties cohere. Time is real, because it is the stage on which cause, event unfolding, forms our totality.

It is a truism that the physical sciences can only measure phenomena of the physical world. All our instruments, and the means by which instruments report what they detect, are physical! It is a theorem of causal closure that physical phenomena result always and only in physical effects, and that those effects therefore arise from physical phenomena alone. Instruments and the phenomena they measure both conform to the same physical law. It is precisely the nature of measurement to convert or map one phenomenon (form of energy) that we cannot measure directly into another which we can. Laws remain the same, but phenomena become distinguishable because their interaction energy is convertible.

All of these variously converted phenomena are inside the universe. But time is not inside the universe, it is a fundamental quality of the universe. Everything we know, the instruments and the phenomena they measure are drenched with the same time. We can measure intervals of time by counting harmonic oscillations (from orbits of planets to vibration in atoms), but cannot map time the way we map energy conversions because all of those maps occur within a common ocean of time.

Since cause and time are so closely associated does it make any difference to say that time emerges from cause (Tooley) or that cause is possible thanks to time? Functionally, perhaps not, but each view has philosophical consequences. Assuming time is an ocean embedding everything else (including space) allows Unger & Smolin to reject an unverifiable multiverse.

If time is the universal ocean of the physical then our universe and its special properties is the present variation of a succession of universes each of which inherits characteristics from its prior ancestor. Present characteristics are traced from former characteristics through a temporal interval of extreme (but not infinite) pressure and heat (the big bang). This lets Unger & Smolin imagine that characteristics of the ancestral universe might one day be recognisable in this one. The transformation from one universe to another, unlike the multiverse, is hypothetically, a testable hypothesis.

Global time is yet another outcome of the Unger & Smolin thesis. The universe has the same age in every frame because different time measurements, intervals, can be mapped to one another. Clocks in our frame say the universe is 14 billion years old. This might be 10 billion years in a faster (through space) moving frame as measured from our own, and 15 billion in a slower moving frame. Yet from within all frames the recombination event (in our frame 380,000 years after the big bang) occurs at 0.00275% of the temporal distance between the big bang and that frame’s present.

From the viewpoint of any frame then, all the events of the universe can be fit, proportionally speaking, in the same order in every frame! We can, in other words, map our 14 billion years into the measurements in the other frames while keeping the same order of events. In the Unger and Smolin view, it is conceptually possible to place every event in the universe on a single time line. That the universe has a certain “global age” that is the same in all frames becomes meaningful.

THE THEOLOGOCAL VIEW of TIME

Imagine an alternate possible universe that, at first glance, looks much like our own in that all the stars, galaxies, and planets are distributed in space exactly like they are for us in the real world. But in this alternate universe, there is no time and so no change. Everything is static, nothing moves. Of course this isn’t physically possible, a star could not be a star if in stasis. We are imagining here. In our imaginary universe there is no such thing as a light-year because there are no years, or for that matter hours or any other interval of time.

In our universe we can measure distance by time because we know of a phenomenon, light, that never varies in its speed through the vacuum of space. But we cannot do this in the imaginary universe because nothing moves, there is no change. There can be no speed which always involves distance and time. But there can be a concept of miles, or feet, or meters because defining those magnitudes need not involve time.

Now suppose you live in this universe (again, you cannot, but let’s imagine that a subjective view exists and has experience) on the planet Earth. Suppose you have the means to visit another star, say Arcturus. For simplicity let’s call a light-year 6×10^12 miles (it’s a bit fewer than that but I want to keep the math simple). Arcturus is 37 light-years (again the real figure is a bit less) from Sol. That comes out to 2×10^14 miles. In our imaginary universe Arcturus is that distance, in miles, from Sol even though light-years do not exist. But if you had the means to transport your consciousness to Arcturus, you would, in our timeless universe, cross the distance instantaneously. No time can elapse because there is no time. Want to go from Arcturus to Antares? Another instantaneous transition in space. Why stop at stars in our own galaxy? Visit Andromeda or any other galaxy in the universe, all instantly. Notice the jump from Sol to Arcturus to Antares, to any galaxy all, takes place timelessly. No time elapses in the entire multi-jump transaction.

Here is the point of the thought experiment. You could visit every star and galaxy in the universe instantaneously and that amounts to saying “at the same time”. This makes you omnipresent. You can literally be everywhere in space simultaneously. Supposing you could have experiences (yes, real experience demands time, but again we’re imagining) in all of these places. Not only could you visit everywhere simultaneously, you could remain in all places indefinitely! You would have the experience of everything everywhere simultaneously. You would be omniscient. By extirpating time from our universe creatures like ourselves gain two of the three infinite powers normally ascribed only to God.

God being infinite and eternal is “outside time”. Eternity is not merely “endless time” it is, as with my thought experiment above, something entirely different. In the Unger & Smolin view there is no eternity but time does go backwards and forwards indefinitely (not infinitely, leaving a hanging ontological question addressed only by a “God hypothesis”). But the story of a universe created by God, as near as our metaphysics can put it together puts time in exactly this same role. It is the ocean that governs our universe over-all.

We live in a “time governed universe”, meaning exactly what Unger & Smolin mean by time, an over-arching environment in which the objects, processes, and notional regularities that describe them, are all time-dependent. The mathematics of basic physics works both forwards and backwards in time, but our actual physics, the macrophysics of our universe, does not. God may be “outside time”, but we live in a “time drenched” creation.

Nor should we assume from this theological view that time and eternity are, necessarily, the only two facets of the universe. Besides eternity and time it is possible there are other creations, ontologies that are other-than-eternal, yet not time-bound. But while this is a metaphysical possibility thanks to God’s infinity, there is nothing more we can say about such regimes should they exist. We are stuck in time and cannot detect, that is measure, anything other than time-bound phenomena as Unger & Smolin claim. Even to say “God is eternal” is only a placeholder (We have no sense of what eternity is really like) albeit one made reasonable by the philosophical demands of infinity (see my “Prolegomena to a Future Theology); a causeless, eternal, starting point grounding rational thought.

Yet there is something more here, something ignored by physics and philosophy, for which theology accounts. In both the “time does not exist” and the “time is the ocean” views, we should not expect to be sensitive to time simpliciter. A fish is, presumably, not aware of the ocean in which it swims. How are we aware of time? The philosophical community universally credits our time sense to consciousness in general. Brain processes occur on the leading edge of the causal web with all other process. It makes sense that our experience takes place with time always in the background, and this for animals as well as humans. But for human beings, time is more than background.

Animals live in the present and have memories but these are not connected to abstract ideas of past, present, and future. Human beings not only live in time like the animals but we are abstractly aware of time. Given that everything in the physical universe of our experience is “drenched in global time”, how is it that we are able to distinguish or identify time as a distinct quality of our experience at all?

What theology gives us is personality (see my books and the essay “Why Personality”). Human consciousness is able to distinguish time because human mind amalgamates a changeless pattern. Mind, consciousness is drenched in time and so constantly changing like everything else in the universe, but personality (not our identity but the temporally fixed facet of it), remains fixed. Personality provides the contrast (changeless in the presence of otherwise ubiquitous change) by which we distinguish time itself.

Just about every philosopher disagrees with me and insists that personality (agency being merely another affect of consciousness) changes with everything else. All of these thinkers universally fail to distinguish personality from character, personality’s expression in consciousness and behavior. Character changes, but the personality centered in that character does not. This is how I know that I, the same person, persist (or perdure) through all the character and bodily changes I’ve experienced throughout my life. My body changes, my mind changes, my character changes, but I, the person, have not changed. I am the same person experiencing all of these changes throughout my lifetime.

How is it possible that this miracle of changeless pattern exists in a universe in which all else changes in the ocean of time? It exists and can exist because it comes direct from God who is infinite and changeless and is therefore the only possible source of it. Indeed it is the only phenomenon in the universe of our experience created directly by God and is the real meaning of the phrase “in God’s image”, that is, our being personal. All else, all the rest of the finite creation, including life and consciousness, arises indirectly. God remains the ultimate cause of everything, but the physics we experience, including its embedding in time, has come about indirectly, beginning at some fundamental level through a chains of physical cause.

I go into this subject in much more detail in my books and linked essays, but it is worth pointing out here that the higher animals, while conscious and sensitive to environmental clues occurring in time do not separate time from the other dimensions of their experience. Animals experience time in the same way that they experience values (see again the Prolegomena linked above). They are immersed in them (and it), but because animals are not persons they cannot distinguish time (or values) from their unified experience. A lion is not abstractly aware of being the same lion today as she was yesterday. Animal mind, like human mind apart from the personality pattern, changes along with everything else.

Personality may be the changeless benchmark by which we recognize time as such, but theology gives us something else with regard to mind-independent time. It entails the reality of the future! For Unger, Smolin, and Tooley, the future is not real because there are no events there; the causal nexus is, by definition and experience, the present. But theology fixes one event in the future. It is necessary, if there is a God who is God, that the time-universe has some purpose, some end state that must, also necessarily, come about. This would not be the end of time, but rather the achievement of some intended state of affairs in time.

From the principles of God’s infinity and human sensitivity to values, we can infer that this end must ultimately involve goodness, love, between all persons and become the best possible universe! We do not know what the physical state of the universe will be then, nor do we know by what contingent path it will arrive at that state. But that it must arrive eventually is certain and that fixes an event, the achievement of God’s purpose for time, in the future. If that is the case, the future must be real.

CONCLUSION

Everything in our physical universe, including the physics itself must have a causal beginning. Physicists point to the quantum vacuum, but if Unger & Smolin are right, time itself conditions or constrains this regimen. Physics cannot cause time, rather time is the environment in which physics takes place. But something must then ground time itself, something Unger & Smolin lay aside as brute and un-analyzable. They are correct. Without a “God hypothesis” we cannot make sense of a “beginning of time” even while making sense (the quantum vacuum) of a “beginning of space”.

I am happy with a theological underpinning that makes time real, an ocean that characterizes our universe. Most philosophers and physicists are happy to assume, from our inability to observe any but time-bound phenomena, that time is an illusion arising from motion which underlies cause. It was satisfying to discover a philosopher (Unger) and physicist (Smolin) who are not so flip and recognize that time is the real foundation of our universe. But even, assuming they are correct, to identify time with the over-arching environment within which the system that is our physical universe works, is only a metaphor. It is not to say anything about of what, exactly, time consists.

Time isn’t a substance any more than cause is a substance, but it isn’t a process either. To say it is the foundation on which cause, process, rests is only a metaphor though apt. The exchange of conserved quantities that underlies physical cause is properly a mechanism, and time plays an enabling role. But physical cause is effected by exchange of various conserved quantities and often the transformation of one such quantity into another. By contrast time enables all these uni-vocally. To “exchange conserved qualities”, whether charge, momentum, or energy demands time. Time mediates all of these exchanges, but that is to say nothing more than that they all occur in or through time.

Thanks to time’s global character, physics can safely ignore it. The “time factor” appearing in equations is a stand-in taking duration into account. But as far as concerns physics nothing more needs to be said about “global time”. It is nothing more than a manner of speaking. But if Unger, Smolin, and indeed Theism are correct, such a view, while enough to support calculation, misses an important characteristic of the reality of our physical universe. While it is possible to understand phenomena within the universe without supposing global time is real, it is not possible to understand the universe as a whole. Of course theology enriches this insight, but even without it, Unger & Smolin are, I believe, correct in that we cannot understand the facts of our cosmological history unless time is real.

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 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 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 (see  also “From What Comes Mind?”). 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. Dual-aspect (Russellian) monisms (Davidson, Nagel) or panpsychism (Chalmers, Goff) 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.

John Searle: Seeing Things as they Are

selfie

I gave this book 5 stars in my review and possibly I should have left it at 4. Not only is Searle a bit over confident about consciousness in general (this is not the book’s focus but he does review his position because most perception happens in consciousness), and the validity of his somewhat circular argument for the nature of perception. However for other reasons (I am after all a realist philosopher) I do believe that his description of what it is that perception delivers to mind is correct, and he very effectively compares and contrasts that description to most of the other dominant philosophical threads on the subject. Thus even if his own view is not so perfectly supported, his demolition of competing views is effective.

Searle’s work dovetails with that of Maruzio Ferraris just about perfectly. I mention this in the review, but I want to say something more about the connection here. Both philosophers might be called “common sense realists” despite their emerging from radically different backgrounds; Searle from Anglo-analytic realism, and Ferraris from Continental anti-realism. For Ferraris, the evidence that our senses present (Searle’s term) already structured mind-independent reality is its unamendability. In terms of “objective ontology” a tree cannot be wished or for that matter simply pushed out of your path. In relation to subjective ontology (what vision presents to mind) you cannot simply “see it” ten feet to the left. By contrast, if you close your eyes and merely imagine the tree, you can, in your imagination, move it anywhere you wish. Reality (Ferraris again) also provides affordances. With the proper tools, you can cut the tree down and make a shelter from it. In Searle’s terms, mind-independent reality responds to (fits) our acts upon it.

I have two more books from Searle to read, the subject being social reality. I expect to find more parallels with Ferraris. For Ferraris, the ontologically objective basis of social reality is located in documents, from constitutions and laws to parking tickets and restaurant menus. One of the first things Searle mentions among constructed social phenomena is money, one of Ferraris’ recorded documents whether represented in bills, coins, or bits in computer memory. I expect to find these parallels because both Ferraris and Searle are genuine realists as compared to “speculative realists” like Harman and Meillassoux. For genuine realists the bottom line, the philosophical starting or ending (depending on which way you look at it) has to be, well, logically prior and already structured mind-independent “objective reality”. If realism is true, then all realists have to agree on (start or end with) the same mind-independent reality. This is clearly not the case with the “speculative realists” (see my “Problems with Object Oriented Ontology” and its links). Harman and Meillassoux come to different and mutually exclusive conclusions about what constitutes the mind-independent world because they are not fundamentally realists at all.

Seeing Things as They Are: A Theory of Perception (Kindle Edition 2015)

A very good book. Searle’s focus is on perception, particularly vision, but he brings the other senses in as well. He begins by reviewing what he calls the “bad argument” which he claims has misled philosophy for the past few hundred years. His review of the “bad argument” is straight forward but its badness springs directly from its opposition to his own view which he calls “direct realism”, a term he prefers to “naive realism” which nevertheless also fits his position. Searle’s view is like a glass of cool water on a hot day. I would call it “common sense realism”, but M. Ferraris has already adopted that phrase for his “new realism”. The two views have much in common, but Ferraris’ focus is not perception as such. I have reviewed a few of Ferraris’ books elsewhere on Amazon.

In an early chapter on consciousness in general Searle burnishes his materialist credentials by declaring (at least as concerns life on Earth) that consciousness is necessarily associated with brains (which is uncontroversial), but he also declares that brains alone are sufficient to produce consciousness, something that no one (on Earth) knows for sure. This precisely why there is a “hard problem of consciousness”. He repeats this claim a few times but his theory of perception does not hang on it. Another quibble is that he is a little sloppy as concerns statements of cosmological fact. In one of his examples he says “I look at the star and know it ceased to exist millions of years ago”. He could only mean “I look at the stellar explosion” (a nova or supernova) and know it ceased to exist millions of years ago.” If he “sees the star” then the light of its demise has not reached us yet and he could not know that it has already ceased to exist.

Searle begins by recognizing that when we experience something visually, what we have is a “subjective ontology”, a phenomenal experience that philosophers for centuries have called a “sense datum”. The “bad argument” comes down to the belief that this sense datum is really all we KNOW and that for all we know there is nothing about “objective ontology”, the structure of the mind-independent world, to which we have access unless the sense datum represents the objective to the subjective. What has confused philosophy for centuries is the matter of how (or if) this representation actually works. Searle’s argument here is very simple. Our senses, particularly vision and touch, do not merely represent the world, but PRESENT it, presentation being a special case of representation. What constitutes presentation specifically is that there are “conditions of satisfaction” for the presentation. If I see a tree, the sense datum is satisfied (and so presented and not merely represented) by there being an actual tree where I see it. This accounts for hallucinations. If the identical sense datum is hallucinated then the satisfaction criteria are not met, no tree is present where I appear to see it.

Presentation is causal with the direction of cause going from world to mind, objective to subjective. Response (what Searle calls “direction of fit”), on the other hand goes from mind to world. Searle also gets a bit into “action” because it happens that its connection between mind and world is the inverse of perception. Cause goes from mind to world and the “direction of fit” from world to mind. This ties in beautifully with Ferraris’ concepts “unamendability” (perception) and affordance (action). Searle recognizes the matter of will, free will, comes up here but he demurs. I would like to see him talk about it somewhere.

Searle goes on to flesh out perception with a distinction between basic presentational properties like shape, color, motion, and so on, and those properties that require background knowledge on the part of the receiver. Perception is hierarchical. This accounts for the distinction between seeing a shape and color (basic perception) and seeing “an automobile”, and further up the hierarchy (additional background), recognizing “my car”. Importantly, “conditions of satisfaction” lie all the way up the hierarchy and they really apply TO THE OBJECT. The base phenomenology is not only a black object of such and such a size, but a car, and furthermore, it really is my car! All of this makes perfect sense to me, but then I am also a realist. It is hard to imagine not living one’s life in a realist mental environment. If you are about to step off a curb into a lane of traffic but have a visual experience of a black object about the size of a car hurtling down the same lane towards you, you likely ASSUME that the object IS a car and that it makes sense not to step into the lane. You take for granted that the object is being presented and not merely represented to you.

Philosophically though, Searle’s perception requires two assumptions. First that your brain and sensory system are operating within normal parameters, and second that the mind-independent world is genuinely structured AS PRESENTED. It is this mind-independent structure (including I believe its causal relations) that constitutes the “conditions of satisfaction” of the presentation which rests also on the causal relations between perception and the perceived object! For Searle to get his theory of perception out, he has to presuppose that the world is real and already structured having causal properties. The apropos structure must be present to be presented. This is the very assumption that anti-realists want desperately to avoid and it makes Searle’s argument circular. Because of the causal properties, the demand that we live AS IF the world is presented breaks the tie in favor of Searle’s position (and against anti-realism), but I do not recall him acknowledging this circularity..

Apart from this omission, the book is a very refreshing departure from all the anti-realism I’ve been reading lately. It is not a long or very technical read. I highly recommend it.

Problems with Object Oriented Ontology

Graham Harman is a popular guy in philosophy circles these days. Sometimes associated with  Maruzio Ferraris, Manuel DeLanda, and Quentin Meillassoux as one of the “New Realists”, he is also, with DeLanda and Meillassoux, known as a “speculative realist”. Although this essay is mostly about Harman (I have written about Meillassoux and Ferraris elsewhere on the blog) I first try to provide some perspective on them as a group.

All four emerged (in their fundamental epistemology and ontology) from late 19th and early 20th century continental anti-realism with its own roots going back to Kant. All four accept that from our inescapable subjective viewpoint we cannot in the end simply assume that, as concerns the appearance of an external world, what we see is what we get, a view called “naive realism”. Even non-continental realist schools recognize this in theory. Some analytic realists agree there is a “representation problem” but discount that it blocks-out as much of the mind-independent world as anti-realists claim. This partly explains their drift in a scientistic direction. John Searle (“Seeing Things As They Are” 2015) by contrast defends naive realism (he calls it “direct realism”) by distinguishing between presentation (what the senses, especially vision and touch, deliver) and representation. Among other things presentations cannot be manipulated at will (connecting up with Ferraris’ concept of “unamendability”) while representations can be manipulated. I will have a review of Searle’s book soon, but for now back to the continentals.

Of the four philosophers named above, only Ferraris has shaken fully loose of the anti-realist cloud (see my article on anti-realism). Ferraris takes a position that what you see is close to what you get. The mind independent world is self-structured (stars, galaxies, primitive life) is all real and already jointed long before mind comes along to recognize and react to the joints. That mind does recognize and react to the joints is a phenomenon fully within the process of world-self-structuring. Mind is a means (not necessarily the only means) of mediating between sensory input (evolved) and behavioral response which partly directs the future of that organism and its community. Ferraris does not think that fish-mind, lion-mind, bird-mind, and human-mind, all mediate the joints in the same way. But the structure of all these forms of consciousness do reflect mind-independent joints, those the animal’s survival depends upon. The evidence for this is the way those world-structures push back at us as well as the manipulative potentials their regularity affords to mind. Ferraris’ ontology is fully real then.

Epistemologically speaking, mind is not merely guessing at what might be “out there”, but knows it at a graining suitable to its daily navigation about the world. Human mind knows the natural world from a far more sophisticated viewpoint yet remains analogous to the viewpoints of higher animals. But humans are in addition able to frame their own abstractions, additional joints, on top of the natural world making recursive use of the affordances (Ferraris’ term) given to us by the regularity of the resistance (we cannot change the past, running into a wall hurts, we cannot fly merely by wishing it), of the world. For Ferraris both the resistance and affordance are epistemological evidence that ontology is “more or less” what epistemology represents.

Meillassoux and Harman are different. I think DeLanda belongs in this group but I have read but little of DeLanda and must limit myself to points he makes in his jointly authored book (“The Rise of Realism” 2017) with Harman. Harman and Meillassoux have not shaken themselves free of the anti-realist fog. In the end, neither can accept that what seems real and jointed about the mind-independent world to consciousness very much likely is real and that the independent joints are close to where we perceive them to be! This is the reason this group are “speculative”, a fitting moniker. If we do not have a good reason to believe the mind-independent world approximates what it appears to be, then in the end the best that can be done by ontology is to speculate about it and hope the speculation serves to enhance insights in some other arena of philosophy or science.

Of the two Meillassoux (from his major work “After Finitude” [2010]) is the more careful analyst. He begins in essence with a traditional anti-realist assumption; the Principle of Sufficient Reason is not necessarily true of the mind-independent world. He concedes that it appears to hold and that it must indeed hold for long periods (essentially an anthropic argument) but in the end he concludes that it need not necessarily hold out beyond what we can perceive in space or in time. That’s fair enough. He starts with an assumption and traces it to a logical conclusion. I think he is wrong because his fundamental assumption is wrong (I’m a realist theologian after all) but I do not fault the quality and professionalism of his reasoning from assumption to conclusion. He reminds me, in style not content, of some modern analytic philosophers like Lowe (recently deceased), Chalmers, Searle, and Deacon among many others.

Harman does not seem (anywhere that I can find) to build his ontology he rather asks us to accept a purely speculative proposal in the hope that it will be useful. Like Ferraris, Harman believes the mind-independent world is already structured as concerns particulars, that is there are particulars along with various relations between them. But Harman asks us to accept for the sake of argument) that “the real” is made up of nothing but individual objects. Further, ‘object’ includes everything from atoms to asteroids, stars, events of all kinds, and thoughts. The last includes both subjective relations (that tree over there as I experience it) and fantasies (the pink elephant I see floating in front of me).

Objects must exist before they can have properties through which they have relations with other objects. Thus Harman introduces an essence or haecceity but it seems to do nothing except stand in for “that which has properties” and grounds its causal potential. The object’s properties, even the complete history and future of its properties (and relations into which they enter) down to the finest detail, does not exhaust the being of the object. This is one place where DeLanda diverges, but for Harman, something is deeper than the object’s complete history and it comes down to the object’s being or essence. Being in his context seems to be a placeholder for “that which must exist but cannot be known”!

From the moment an object exists it has properties that enter relations with other objects through their properties. These relations too are objects as real as their relata, and further, the properties are also objects with their own haecceity, further properties, and so relations. If this looks like the beginning of an infinite regress it is and Harman has no real answer for it. What he offers is the observation that objects do not persist indefinitely. Objects and relations can come and go, sometimes transform into new objects or cause there to become objects that until that time did not exist. But none of this avoids the regress problem. Even considered syncronically (at a point in time), every property and relation in the universe is itself an object related to every other relation and object in multiple ways. This is already a well-neigh infinite number of objects. Physicists estimate there are 10^80 protons in the universe. That makes the number of relations (all objects) between protons alone 10^80^80! But nowhere (in the four books I’ve read) does Harman make a case for the object-hood of properties. The sun is hot and my hallucinated elephant is pink, but hotness and pinkness are not objects in any normal uses of that word. Anything that can be bounded, anything whose joints can be delineated, is an object. But while my pink elephant can be bounded, its pinkness cannot in any way that Harman makes comprehensible. Harman has a problem with universals.

Harman sets this problem aside and moves on however. While all of these objects are equally real (ontology) they are not all “equally important”. Harman knows that importance can be importance to human mind or animal mind but he also suggests a possible mind-independent measure of importance in the form of a “symbiotic object”. Objects of all kinds come and go. Some never persist long enough to express causal relations but most have at least some small effect on their environment. The encounters between properties in their multiple relations, have causal implications for Harman that he calls a species of non-theistic “occasional cause”.

Some few of these object-relations have widespread and long-perduring outcomes. For example (mine, not Harman’s) the iron asteroid that struck Earth 5 billion years ago forming Earth’s core, producing a magnetic field, fueling future tectonic processes, and perhaps even creating our moon with all of its knock-on (hence symbiotic) effects, would be an “important object” that uncontroversially predates mind (on Earth at least). But where to place symbiosis? Start with the asteroid, but then it also has to be the asteroid-Earth-relation, the event (another object) of the impact, and so on. One symbiotic object produces many following object-event-relations. Does the symbiosis apply to all of them? I don’t think Harman would have a problem spreading out the symbiotic credit as it were, but the flatness of his ontology prevents him from drawing any hard lines. Any event, no matter how trivial (like the gravity of any mass) must have some effect on the world-line of any larger event with which it has now, or had in the past a relation. Harman is explicit about all of these objects (not only records in the present) being equally real even if only at some past time.

Here’s where it gets tricky. Even that subset of events with enough world-line effect merely to be recorded such that they appear as present records (physical evidence of their reality, not only formal documents) of past events may or may not be symbiotic in Harman’s view. Surely some recorded events (and by extension their records) were, and perhaps continue to be, more significant than others. There is a continuum of importance. Further, the effect of an event, any event, on a larger world-line spreads out towards the future resulting in an infinitely fine continuum of importance. Ontologically then there is nothing to divide the important from the unimportant (a classic sorites problem). The only relations in which mind-independent objects exhibit a property of importance are mind-dependent objects (see ‘sensual-objects’ below). I do not see how Harman can defend a line between unimportant and important without eventual reference to mind? The asteroid impact predated mind, but its importance stems from its causal impact on the evolution of mind, and in particular human mind, becoming aware of it.

Harman also introduces us to “dormant objects” which are more problematic than symbiotic objects. A “dormant object” emerges from its constituent relations but does not participate in any relations of which it is a constituent. A dormant object “has no effects”. Is such a thing even possible? An object must exist to have properties, but once it exists it immediately has properties and these enter into relations. There are no objects (mental or otherwise as we shall see) that do not immediately have properties and just as immediately (or at least at the speed of light) enter into relations. Perhaps such relations are trivial (analogous to the gravity of a proton) by our lights but they cannot be nonexistent.

In the end there is a top-of-the-chain relation between every particular and every other particular in the universe. This is not an “all is one” view like that of Heidegger or Whitehead because the relation of everything to everything else is no more or less real than the relation between any two atoms or thoughts anywhere in the universe. It is possible, given all the spatially or temporally extended relations, even the most trivial of events will turn out to be symbiotic when viewed over wide enough scales. Again Harman has no way to draw a line other than by “significance to mind”.

Harman also distinguishes between “real objects” and “sensual objects” where ‘real’ here means “mind independent”. The pink elephant floating in front of me is a sensual object as is the relation (resulting in a cognitive acquisition) between my mind and a mind independent tree. Both of these objects are (or might be) causally efficacious; having an influence on a subsequent world-line. If I see the pink elephant while driving I might swerve and cause an accident. If I am driving down a dirt road and see a tree in the middle of it I had better swerve to avoid an accident. I have no problem with this distinction, but it risks un-flattening Harman’s ontology. It at least takes a small step towards an ontological dualism (mind vs everything else) he wants very much to avoid. The move adds epistemology to ontology. The “objects of our minds” are like any other object except that they are ours, belong to an individual subjectivity, while all the other objects are not ours, not a property of a subjectivity! If this is, for Harman, an epistemological distinction without ontological weight, then we cannot possibly know, but only claim by speculative fiat, that all objects, sensual or otherwise, are “equally real”. I do not see how he can have it both ways.

Also problematic is Harman’s claim that “matter doesn’t exist”. I cannot find a way to make sense of this claim in the context of his “Object Oriented Ontology” (OOO). At first I thought perhaps he was suggesting the quantum wave function is the “real real” (some physicists believe this) and matter is merely a second-order by-product. But he doesn’t much talk about the wave function and he cites an example of two tectonic plates opposing each other “rock to rock” which seems material enough to me.

Another possibility is that Harman makes no room for universals. Red doesn’t exist only individual red objects. ‘Animals’ are not an object, only particular animals. But Harman considers sets to be good sensual objects and “classes” or “kinds” are merely another way to refer to sets. Red perhaps doesn’t work here because it is purely sensual, but ‘animals’ does. ‘Animals’ is a concept and so a sensual object. But it is not like the pink elephant because there are mind-independent individual animals tieing the sensual object to the mind-independent realm. Why can’t matter be a property common to some non-sensual objects?

Maybe this claim is about relations? Being (objects existing) entails relation and perhaps in the end relations (mental or entirely mind-independent) are the only objects we can talk about. But that wouldn’t imply that matter didn’t exist only that it might not exist. Relations are not made of matter but some of their relata might be. If existence is logically prior to properties and relations but we cannot grasp all of that in which this existence consists, who is to say that matter is not a part of the essense of some objects? From inside the phenomenal, direct access only to sensual objects, nothing entails or even implies that some non-sensual objects are not matter. OOO must remain ambivilant about this and this is not the end of the problem. Relata, for example non-sensual rocks, are also relations (between atoms) and they in turn are relations (between particles) and so on (infinitely alas) and so in the end there are no relata only relations and Harman is, in effect, defining matter away.

Haecceity seems to be something of a substitute for matter at least as concerns traditionally material objects. OOO here comes down to “there is a mind independent real but in the end we can never experience or embrace the core of it only its effects; manifestations in properties and relations.” But even granting this, the immateriality of properties and relations then cannot stand as evidence for or against the ontological genuineness of matter! If we cannot know “the core of being” then we cannot know that some of it is or is not matter.

I return to the question of what Harman gets out of this? The point of ontology is to be useful at least to other philosophical arenas (epistemology, ethics, aesthetics) and perhaps human endeavor in general whether in the hard or soft sciences, arts, politics, and so on. One thing he might get is univocality of cause. Harman says that cause is fundamentally “agent cause” because an object’s causal potential is some part of its withdrawn essence. But an object’s causal potential expresses through its properties and their relations with other objects. The agent (essence) is the secret of an object’s causality, but what objects manifest to one another are their properties and what mind recognizes of cause is revealed in object-relations.

Physical cause and mental cause are both “occasional” outcomes of relations derived ultimately from properties manifest by being. If this is so then “causal agency” is, ontologically speaking, an assertion of faith, a speculation. All that we know of cause is more suitably described in event or process terms. The ontological (object) status of events or discrete process has no epistemological bearing. Proposing a universal causal manifestation in relations (however grounded in a haecceity we cannot know) tells us nothing new. If everything is a relation, how could cause not express itself in or thru relation? Individual essences, events, and relations are all objects of equal ontological status. Cause therefore belongs to everything equally.

Like the continental tradition generally, Harman takes an interest in the social sciences. In “Immaterialism” (2016) he offers us an example of applied OOO in the form of a corporate history. A corporation is, after all, an object like everything else. It has a historical duration. It has relations to people, events, recordings (documents), and such; the stuff of its daily doings (all objects). Corporations also have relations to later historical events (more objects). The corporation he chooses is the Dutch East India Trading Company, known in Harman’s book by its Dutch initials VOC.

The VOC is an interesting choice because it has a clearly bounded history (1605 to 1795). It illustrates an object’s coming into existence and going from it. At the same time, undergoing many transformations and a participant (not to mention instigator) in many historical events, it shows the ability of objects to transform without thereby ceasing to exist and become new objects at every turn. He also explains here symbiotic objects and dormant objects using the same object, a document (policy statement) introduced by the corporation’s most notorious Governor-General in 1619.

What makes this document symbiotic? It had a far reaching effect on the actions (decisions taken by directors, employees, and so on) of the VOC for the next hundred years as compared (I suppose) to most of the thousands of other documents (minutes of board meetings, policy statements, and so forth) generated during that time; a clear “disproportionate effect”. How then could it also be dormant, an object with “no upward relation”? Harman tries to throw a little too much in here I think. The document was first dormant because it had no particular effect on the actions of the corporation until a few years after its introduction.

But how could Harman possibly know this? He does not know of any immediate effects precipitated by that document, but he cannot claim that there weren’t any. Sitting in the room, when the document was introduced were a pair of investors. One ran home immediately to his wife and said: “The governor general is a monster. We must sell everything we have and divest ourselves of VOC stock now!” The other investor likeways ran home to his wife and said: “that man is brilliant. We must divest of everything elsewhere and double down on VOC!” Now Harman might reply that yes after all there is no absolute but only relative dormancy. That my example is hypothetical and does not come down to us in the historical record (another object) is evidence that relations can be more or less fecund. But such a reply makes importance “importance to human mind”. Only humans care about documents or for that matter “the historical record”. What makes this document important is that it had disproportionate effect, over time, on the decisions of human beings and those, in turn, effected the lives of other humans. Our judgments of relative importance or unimportance are always judgments (themselves always sensual objects) with respect to their effects, ultimately, on other humans.

Immaterialism is given over to much detail on the doings of the VOC and in particular its doings after the introduction of that document. I can only imagine the idea is to show how relations can play themselves out. But in giving us this admittedly interesting history and connecting it up to a particular document Harman does no more than give us a description of decisions (on the part of people) and events (naval battles, enslavement, genocide) that read like a history told by any other historian. Harman neatly divides up traditional objects (cannon, ships, documents), people (decision makers and their decisions), and events (naval battles, invasions) that stand out primarily because they have come down to us in the historical record. Of course Harman ignores many records so he can thread these particulars together in a cohesive story and not write a thousand page book. The problematic part is that in describing all of this, Harman uses the conventional language of objects, relations, and events. Whether all of these are ontologically objects, makes not the slightest difference to the story. Whether or not a particular naval battle or act of genocide had a withdrawn essence that we cannot know simply has no bearing. “Everything is an object and all objects are equally real” doesn’t add anything to our grasp of this history.

Like Meillassoux, Harman is stuck behind the anti-realist wall. There is no hole in the wall for Meillassoux. His conclusions are purely inferences based on an epistemological assumption (the Principle of Sufficient Reason is true only for epistemology and not for ontology) about ontology. This restricts him to a very limited and tentative set of speculative conclusions about the nature of the mind-independent world. Mind independent contingency (for example) entails time and space apart from our mental categories. Beyond this, he cannot say anything about the structure of the extra-mental other than that it appears stable (for now) and is of necessity entirely contingent.

Harman also is not able to say very much about what is mind independent beyond that it is real and divided up into objects having infinite relations. Of course he can distinguish between rocks, rock concerts, and pink elephants because their properties vary, but these distinctions, these joints, are picked out by mind. Harman insists that they are real independent of mind, but his ontology supports this assertion only because every possible object-relation is real. Harman can go a bit further than Meillassoux because, while the mental arena cannot contact the core of any object, it does contact relations, and we are able to explain much using a language of relations as Harman does with the VOC. There is, in effect, a hole in Harman’s wall that lets [some] relations through to mind. The external relation between the tree and me invokes a sensual-object, my perception of the tree, in my mind. This is what allows Harman to say anything at all about the mind-independent world.

Harman’s mind-independent world is therefore a little richer than Meillassoux’s but on the other hand Meillassoux reasons himself to what he concludes about the world from a few assumptions. Harman simply intuits a solution and hopes that other work (like history, political science, art) will demonstrate its usefulness. Only Ferraris manages to get past the wall altogether by connecting up unamendability (a fixed past and the constraints of natural law) and affordance (opportunities, realizable potentials) the world presents to us and so realizes that there is no wall, only a screen, and the screen lets much through to mind which evolved in response to its transparency.

Review: Hicks, Postmodernism

Not a long or profound review here but I put it up because the topic has come up a lot lately on various philosophy forums. One can trace the development of postmodernism all the way from the Greeks, but in our era, it all begins with Kant and the question of “what we can know?”. It is an epistemological position, about truth and what we can know of it. There are both Anglo-analytic and continental expressions of it, but the dominant thread runs through continental antirealist philosophy. As the history of Western philosophy progressed the notion of what we could know, how we could recognize truth became narrower and narrower. Eventually someone thought: “well if there is nothing we can know for sure, no truth that we can be absolutely sure of, perhaps there isn’t any such thing as truth that can be known at all”. From there it was but a small step for the next philosopher to add: “It doesn’t matter that we try to approach truth. Since we cannot know what it is, or even in what direction it lies, we can call anything we want ‘truth'” and with this, postmodernism was born. If you don’t like postmodernism (I don’t). If you think it leads down a dangerous path; “getting what you want matters, truth does not, any lie is justified and the ends always justify the means” (I do), then this is a book for you. Hicks skewers postmodernism with both humor and philosophical rigor.

Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault (Kindle Edition 2010) by Stephen Hicks

Not often I get to say of a non-fiction book that I didn’t want to put it down and was sad when I reached the end. Except for a sense of the movement’s nihilism, I didn’t know much about Postmodernism, but Dr. Hicks has covered the ground. He begins with a broad brush of what postmodernism stands for metaphysically (anti-realism), epistemologically (skepticism), ethically (collectivism in the social, educational and political sphere) and aesthetically (the meaninglessness of art and criticism). One gets the impression that he knows the subject well. His attention to detail is that of the scholar and even the true believer, but he hints slyly at the movement’s absurdity even here. From his review he goes backwards and traces the roots of the movement beginning with Kant’s response to the Enlightenment in an attempt to shore up the authority of the Church, and up through Rousseau, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Fichte, Nietzsche, Marx, and then Heidegger to the later 20th century with Foucault, Derrida, and Rorty. There are many other voices mentioned along the way (Kierkegaard plays a role as does Freud). Besides philosophers he traces political movements of the left and the right in opposition to the Enlightenment’s development of capitalism resting on individualism.

In the last chapter HIcks returns to Postmodernism proper and its absurdity from the metaphysical and epistemological to the political and aesthetic. In 200 hundred years every political and social consequence of anti-Enlightenment philosophy, every prediction and political hope has singularly failed. Postmodernism is the response to this failure by philosophers who come to the conclusion that if the foundation and development of the anti-Enlightenment movement over 200 years is rotten the only thing left to do, besides admit that you are wrong, is attack and destroy what the Enlightenment produced. Even Nietzsche (who Hicks returns to illustratively at the end) presciently suggests that one can take anti-realism and nihilism too far leaving the postmodernists to “quote Nietzsche less and Rousseau more”. Not only is Postmodernism nihilistic, it is destructively so, the bitter fruits of jealousy over the failure of collectivist anti-realism and seeming political, economic, and social success of Enlightenment realism, rationalism, and individualism.

An excellent review, thorough, scholarly, and easy to read. I find Hick’s style both serious and humorous at the same time. Superb!

Review: N. Rescher “Free Will”

I’ve read two books by Rescher. The first “Process Philosophy: A Survey of Basic Issues” (2000) I did not review for Amazon because there is no Kindle version and I managed to find the complete text as a PDF or online read here. This book inspired my essay “Process, Substance, Time, and Space”. Rescher’s examination of the free will issue, often the gorilla in the room for philosophy of mind, epistemology, and metaphysics, not to mention ethics, is nothing short of thorough and well articulated. Another of my essays “An Epistemological Argument for Free Will” was written prior to my reading Rescher’s “Survey” or “Free Will”. It addresses some of the same issues, but Rescher does a much better job.

In the review I mention Lowe (“Personal Agency” 2006), but I didn’t want to add my own philosophical commentary to a book review. Here I will note again the two works are complimentary. Although Lowe is a substance and Rescher a process ontologist, the compliment arises because Lowe’s focus is metaphysical, while Rescher’s is phenomenological and epistemological. Lowe’s book is directed more towards establishing the metaphysical possibility of free will in a deterministic and/or random (quantum) universe. He looks at causal process and asks what freedom means, what it must accomplish, its “existence criteria” to be called free and willful (purpose directed) in the context of a causal universe. By contrast Rescher gives us an explosion of distinctions in types, kinds, or categories of experience in which we explicitly and directly recognize the freedom and willfulness of our acts. For Lowe it is about what we understand freedom to be, while for Rescher it is about how we experience it. Along the way, Lowe must, perforce, delve into the epistemological, while Rescher only rarely touches on the metaphysical.

Free Will: A Philosophical Reappraisal, Second Edition (Kindle Edition 2015)

This book has been out on Kindle for over a year and a half now and I am its first reviewer. I suspect this has something to do with its $40 price which is frankly obscene for a Kindle book. My opinion here casts no aspersions on Amazon for it is the book’s publisher who sets the price. This is a particularly greedy publisher especially as it appears that a bit of sloppiness crept into the production here but I will save that at the end.

Sometime ago I reviewed a book on the same subject by Richard Swinburne (“Mind, Brain, and Free Will”) and in that review I said that Swinburne “conceded too much to the determinists.” Having read Rescher now I come away with the conviction that even in my own writings, with a much more expansive view of freedom than Swinburne, I have conceded too much to the determinists!

If this is not the best book I’ve ever read on the subject of free will it is a very close second to that of E. J. Lowe, “Personal Agency” 2006 (it’s a tough call). I was surprised to discover that Lowe is not cited in the book’s bibliography. Lowe’s focus is more metaphysical, the nature of agency, while Rescher aims squarely at the phenomenological, the subjective qualities of free will, but their thought runs in parallel streams detectable throughout the book. Rescher’s arguments are thorough. He spends the first 2/3 of the book making distinctions and investigating what free will would have to be like if it existed. His first and most important distinction is that between metaphysical and moral freedom. He does not mean what either of these terms normally connote. “Moral freedom” for Rescher is commonly addressed by what philosophers call Compatibilism, the notion that an act is done without constraint from outside the actor, like a thief with a gun to your head ordering you to open the safe. For Rescher, moral freedom is simply the freedom to act free from “undue external constraint” whether or not the act has any traditionally moral implications. Metaphysical freedom, by contrast, is the freedom to choose, to make a decision prior to an act, and that such a choice arises from the deliberation, “the thought” (conscious or subconscious, though not unconscious), of the decider. In contemporary philosophy, Compatibilism is a response to the fashionable notion that Rescher’s “metaphysical freedom” is impossible, not supported by physics. Rescher stands the matter on its head and notes that moral freedom, the possibility of a “freedom to act” (in a manner fully compliant with physics, not to mention the limits of one’s biology) depends on having a prior freedom to deliberate (even subconsciously) and choose. Even with a gun to your head you have “metaphysical freedom”. You can deliberate over alternatives like fighting off the thief. That you would not actually succeed, are likely to die, is what revokes your moral freedom, but deliberation, the choice to deliberate, remains available. The choice “in mind”, prior to any final decision to act, is “metaphysical freedom” in Rescher’s sense.

Rescher raises many issues usually addressed in the negative. Besides making important and obviously useful distinctions here, He effectively demolishes many of the challenges to free will like Galen Strawson’s claim that for a decision or act to be free every input to it, including every motive, belief, and inclination of the actor would have to have been both consciously and freely chosen going back to the earliest life of the actor. Rescher also demolishes the notion that one could, in principle, trace the neurological basis of some particular choice or action back indefinitely in the history of the actor, and addresses various interpretations of the infamous Libet experiments. He points out and argues extensively and well that without some stopping point in the thought of the actor not only is there no room for freedom, but consciousness itself becomes pointless. Without eventually referencing thought itself, there is always something that is left out of the description of most human behavior. That such “leaving out” is an inevitable outcome of a purely physical description, is evidence that something genuinely important is being missed.

It is not until the book’s last two chapters that Rescher addresses the metaphysics of “metaphysical freedom” as he understands this. His case here is entirely circumstantial, but convincing nevertheless. He notes explicitly that there can be no empirical demonstration of free will one way or the other. He argues that broadly speaking evolutionary advantage accrues to animals the more they have the power to choose and revoke choice in thought prior to acting. Mind and brain exist together in lock-step such that there is never a “mental eventuation” without there being some correlative brain activity. The mental is not causal in the traditional sense but “initiating”. Exactly what the difference is here is not really explained but at least one difference is initiation’s lack of temporal precedence. At no time is there a mental eventuation (there is a distinction Rescher makes between “events” and “eventuations”) without a corresponding brain activity. Rescher is, in the end, a materialist. From the traditional metaphysical viewpoint he argues that free will, like the consciousness (capacity to think) underlying it, is simply emergent from physics through biology (Darwinian mechanism) and that therefore there is nothing mysterious about it metaphysically speaking. The agent herself emerges from the bundle of tropes that constitute her consciousness. That we do not know (and can never discover because it is not strictly causal) precisely the mechanism by which thought takes control and initiates does not mean it doesn’t happen. He argues persuasively that the entirety of our experience not to mention the subjective meaningfulness of consciousness itself suggests that it, that is free will, is real, and it is always rational for us to proceed on that basis.

While I thoroughly enjoyed this book I did notice a curious production issue. There are places in the book where whole paragraphs (sometimes two or three successive paragraphs) are lifted from one part of the book and placed in another. At first I thought this a curious stylistic device as in each case the following discussion takes different turns. But as it began to happen more and more, not only between successive chapters but inside chapters and in the last case even within the same subsection, I began to wonder if this was not a production error on the editor’s part?

Nobody interested in the free will problem from one side or the other should be without this book. Dualists and monists of all stripes will find if not a complete answer to their questions, a host of useful distinctions and considerations bearing on the problem. It is unfortunate that it is so expensive. The publisher is doing the community of philosophers-at-large no favors here.