Theodicy in The Urantia Book

Picture of me blowing smoke

If God is infinite, omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent and wholly good, why is there evil or, if that is too loaded a term, even merely pain, in the universe? This is the fundamental question of what philosophers of religion call theodicy. How can there be evil in a universe governed, ultimately, by an infinite God who must, himself, be good?

I have addressed this question in various papers (see in particular the “Prolegomena to a Future Theology”,  and “Why Free Will?”). Here I want not only to review those answers, but specifically explicate the view of “The Urantia Book” (from now on “the UB” for short) on the theodicy question. It is this book from whence comes the distinction (I do not find it anywhere else in philosophy) between accident, error, evil, sin, and iniquity. Various philosophers with whom I’ve corresponded challenge this five-way distinction. The root of the challenge is philosophy’s implicit assumption that anything bad that happens to us, anything that causes death, pain, or disability, is evil. In short, evil is “any bad-stuff that can happen to us”. That this is mistaken I have pointed out in various ways. For example this conflation often includes even animal death (or pain). But consider; if the dinosaurs had not been wiped out (presumably painfully), we humans would likely never have evolved to be asking these questions.

As I say I have made note of all these objections in various essays. Here my purpose is to summarize the UB’s answer to the theodicy question. The distinction between accident, error, evil, sin, a distinction I find nowhere else, rests on that book’s entire ontology and teleology. In particular the first two categories, accident and error, needs some digression into purpose of the whole of the material creation is, according to that book.

Before beginning, a note about a few common terms. “Human”, “animal”, and “mind” as used here are not limited to creatures that we find on Earth. The UB claims the stars we see in the sky on a (increasingly rare) clear dark night are not a light show for our benefit. “The myriads of planetary systems were all made to be eventually inhabited by many different types of intelligent creatures?” [UB 1:0.2]. By inhabited the book means evolved biological beings on evolved physical worlds. Evolved here implies cosmological (solar), geophysical (the planet) and biological evolution of primitive life and up to the point of minded and personalized beings, in short people. This is the claim although the specific physiology and the entire planetary ecology, physical and biological, can vary greatly from the course taken on Earth. Perforce I take my examples from the human experience on Earth.

A second matter must be born in mind throughout. We tend much to associate evil with pain and death. UB theology hangs together as a piece. As concerns death (I deal with pain below), from the UB’s viewpoint [almost] nobody dies. Yes there is physical death, but that is not death from God’s viewpoint but more like sleep from ours. Everybody “wakes up” somewhere else (I’ll not get into details here see “What is the Soul?”.) as something else. Importantly, in that awakening, the entity recognizes the continuity between the new self and the old one. The new self is immediately aware of having “survived mortal death” as the same self.

This the UB calls this “personality survival”, and its view is in great contradistinction to the doctrines of religious institutions world wide. It should be said that some few mortals do experience physical death and no survival. Such a person would, by their own choice, have become utterly iniquitous — see iniquity below. The UB characterizes this as “cosmic suicide” compared to ordinary suicide or the vast majority of physical deaths. Importantly according to the UB, no one, and I mean no one, experiences cosmic elimination because of the first category, accidents, nor for that matter the second, error. This “matter of fact” assertion of post-mortal survival underlies the book’s theodicy for obvious reasons.

The UB, however, does not lay-out its theodicy in any straight forward manner. It is left to bubble up by implication from the book’s description, broadly, of the nature and character of God, the nature of the time-space domains (our physical and moral universe), and the relation between the two. What follows then is my humble attempt to pull these implications together. Excellent electronic copies of The Urantia Book can be found here for as little as $4

THE FIRST CATEGORY: Accidents, wants the most discussion about what the UB claims is the over-all purpose of the physical universe as we find it. All the other categories (error, evil, sin) rest, ontologically, on this one. This physical universe includes such events as exploding stars, earthquakes, disease, and other such disasters that can and do maim and kill both animals and human beings. How can a “wholly good God” have created a universe in which natural processes hurt us? Why is this “fact of the matter” about the physical universe not evil?

Note that I use the term ‘accident’ here in the old philosophical sense meaning something like “accidents of time”, what moderns call “natural disaster” and becomes “natural evil”, an oxymoron if ever there was one. This category includes all sorts of potentially human (or animal) harming events, classical examples of which include earthquakes and disease, even death due to old-age (body parts wearing out). What all such events have in common is they are the outcome of natural physical processes that have nothing to do with human choice.

I am not talking about the conventional use of the word ‘accident’, for example a person driving a car who accidentally slams on the gas instead of the brake, killing someone. Such an “accident” belongs to the second category, error, I address below. To understand why “accidents of time” are not evil in the UB’s view I must review what the UB says is the point of the physical creation as it stands.

The point of the physical creation, cosmological evolution in time, is to produce, eventually, the “best possible universe”. This is not, by the way, a phrase the UB uses, but it serves, standing-in for “whatever God creates must be the best of its kind there can be.” The UB asserts this, but it happens also to be a logical deduction from God’s infinity. “Best possible” does not entail perfection in every possible attribute, a quality of God’s infinity itself. God must want the best there can be. Simultaneously, what God creates is (or as the UB contends, will be) the best that could be created.

While philosophers of the past (Leibniz for example) have correctly inferred that a good God must create the “best possible universe”, they have [mostly] mistakenly assumed the universe, as it now stands, is that universe. Their view has been that “best possible” is meant synchronically, best now and going backwards and forwards in time forever — or at least as far back in time as the physical universe goes. According to the UB this view is a mistake. Time is an essential ingredient of the process. God intends to produce the “best possible universe” through time. The universe is not complete now as it will be complete in the future. It achieves that state by evolution through time. The UB’s view is diachronic.

In UB terms, “best possible universe” comes out to a condition reminiscent of what Teilhard de Chardin called the Noosphere (the collective mental milieu of the planet) evolving into the universal will-to-do-God’s-will of all the people of the Earth culminating in the Omega Point, the manifestation in the universe of the God-complete. Except that for the UB, it isn’t merely the Earth, but the entire inhabited universe! Literally the entire universe of creatures having freely elected to love one another, and that this condition obtains for all future time. Such a situation precludes war, crime, and other negatives that amount to humans deliberately harming humans.

Even that future however does not preclude “accidents of time”. The perfection implied by God’s doing the “best possible” is moral at least and may extend to other domains, but it does not amount to “infinite perfection”. Nevertheless, the humans of that future era would have long since learned to mitigate the effects of accidents. No one lives in houses that collapse in earthquakes.  Intellectual and economic differential might yet exist, but nobody is poor, all find creative work and so on. According to the UB many changes (physical, mindal, spiritual) occur in the universe when this status comes about. I haven’t room here to sketch them, their description constitutes a goodly part of the book.

Why should the best possible universe be diachronic? God is omniscient and omnipotent. He surely can see that his evolutionary universe will cause pain and death to the creatures that occupy it. Why not just create the best possible universe immediately? Why can’t “best possible” be synchronic? The UB gives us three answers.

First, God already did that. There is a “universe” (the UB means this term in a technical sense. It has parallels in what Max Tegmark in “Our Mathematical Universe” called the “Type I multiverse”) consisting of a billion worlds on which live morally perfect immortal beings. In common with us these beings live “in time” and are not in all possible ways perfect. They must learn, but as concerns the moral, they are immune from error and were created that way. They have a perfect totalizing grasp of any moral situation they might face. They know what God himself would do in their situation and always do that. They do not, indeed cannot, make moral mistakes, though perhaps they may err executing their choice. From this they learn. I am not going to say more about this answer, it is irrelevant to what follows having to do with our universe in which such universe-wide moral perfection plainly is not the case.

The second answer is embedded in the UB’s process theology. The existential God manifests himself in different ways, and one of those ways it calls “The Supreme”, God manifested in timespace, what process theologians like Teilhard thought might be the God. But that manifestation is, presently, incomplete and will not be complete, not be recognized by timespace creatures (persons throughout the universe), until the “best possible universe” is fully evolved. Yet incomplete as The Supreme is now, there is a hierarchy of agency within timespace that has much to do (as do we) with his evolution. I will return to this answer briefly at the end of the essay. It will be the subject of a future paper.

The third answer, the one I am most concerned with here, begins from a certain principle of psychology expressed as “She who learns the most in achieving a goal is the most appreciative of the achievement and what has been learned”. A classic example in Earth-human terms a convert to some religion as compared with someone born into the institution. Converts, it is commonly observed, are more zealous participants in the institution (for good or ill notwithstanding). We see this in many other areas of life. People who “work hard” for what they achieve appreciate it more than those who do not. The greater the personal gap (economic, social, intellectual, spiritual) between the starting and finishing points the greater is the achievement and the appreciation for it. While not philosophically rigorous, this effect appears to be a fundamental feature of human psychology.

In the phrase set out above, the “best possible universe”, its moral perfection (at least), is in someway an outgrowth of the most learning possible among the minds, and particularly the personalized minds, of the universe — all of them. The people who most understand what the “best possible universe” achieves when manifest are those who took part in the achievement. They are those who learned the most about how to create a “best possible universe” (universal love) and what it means to get there. In short, according to the UB, this is the whole point of the physical universe as it stands. God intended the widest possible gap that could, conceivably (and that by God), be crossed.

So what manner of physical universe would give God the greatest possible gap? God can only be purposeful. He cannot do anything without a purpose. The same is true in the main for any minded creature, though to be sure “in the main” here hides many skeletons, but the “greatest gap” lies between the infinite-eternal purposefulness of God and something purposeless. That, is exactly what material physics gives us, a universe of purposeless mechanism. There is no teleology (purpose) in the mechanisms of the purely physical world. This does not mean the physical as a whole is purposeless, but mechanism, physical cause within the physical, is properly purposeless and this is one of the fundamental insights of all science.

Is this as far as God could go to create the most contrast there could possibly be? Although the mechanisms of the physical are purposeless, they are after all, regular, predictable. Would not a greater gap exist between God and a physics whose mechanisms were not only purposeless, but irregular? Yes and no. Could God create a universe of irregular purposeless mechanism? Probably, but not at the same time getting from it evolution to minded-status via that mechanism alone! An irregular physics would preclude the very evolution that is (seemingly) God’s objective — emergence of the intended end without further intervention.

God cannot do the logically impossible. Incompatibility of intent can rise to logical impossibility. God cannot set up an X (the farthest gap) that accomplishes Y (produces the greatest universe) through process Z (evolution of value discriminating free-willed minds) if the nature of the X precludes Z! This universe, our universe, is at the level of physical mechanism, the most unlike God there is while still supporting evolution of the necessary complexity. To get personalizable minds, there first had to be animal minds, and before that ecology and biological evolution beginning with non-minded forms. Before any biology there had to be the right sorts of planets, stars to produce concentrated energy, and for them galaxies, and so on up the chain to the Big Bang.

The evolutionary processes that produce people happen sometimes also physically to kill them and if we include “natural death” stemming from entropy (perhaps the key to the stability (regularity) of purposeless mechanism), always physically kills them! If ignition of a star and evolution of a life-suitable planet are not evil then those same processes cannot suddenly be evil because living beings are sometimes in the way of them. While bad and tragic from the human view these processes cannot at once be good when they foster our existence and evil when they don’t. Humans, and in particular philosophers, must get over this immature straw man. Not everything that is bad in our experience is evil.

What about pain? For complex creatures to evolve there had to be some mechanism that signals damage to some part of a creature’s body, locates the damage, and grabs the creature’s immediate attention. The mechanism worked out (mindlessly) by evolution and not God directly is something we call pain. Can we imagine some other sensory mechanism that achieves the same result? Signaling damage? Yes. Locating the damage? Yes. Immediate attention? No. It is precisely that we can easily ignore every other sensory experience that makes them unsuited to the task. Yes we can ignore pain too, but not so easily.

All of this then gets us to an answer for the category of accidents. The only way to generate the “widest possible gap” and at the same time evolve participants in the making of the “best possible universe” was to evolve those creatures out of purposeless mechanism, which, since it is purposeless (mindless), cannot “take note” of its causing harm to living beings (minded or otherwise). The same regular physical processes that produce stars also produce earthquakes and earthquakes sometimes harm us. Put otherwise, unless one is to claim that all physical mechanism is evil, accidents cannot be evil because they are not the product of processes controlled by any mind, even God’s.

THE SECOND CATEGORY: Error. When we make the move from accidents to error (and then evil and sin) we cross a divide from the mindless to the minded (for the UB’s philosophy of mind see “From What Comes Mind?”). Errors are mistakes made by minds, and not only human minds. A lioness chasing a zebra might zig to the left just as the zebra zags to the right. The lioness misses the zebra and goes hungry. It made a mistake, an error. To be sure this is not a moral error. Only humans can make moral mistakes because only humans discriminate values (Truth, Beauty, and Goodness, see “What are Truth, Beauty, and Goodness”). But moral errors and evil are related in that the former signal the potential for the latter.

Like accidents, error can and often is hurtful, causing pain and sometimes death. The manager who failed to put enough concrete into the wellhead beneath the BP Horizon oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico killed a dozen people, caused billions of dollars worth of damage, and hundreds of years of ecological problems for the Gulf. All of this is bad, the same category of bad that happens when a driver, seeing a child dart out from between two parked cars accidentally slams on the gas instead of the brake killing the child.

Besides such errors bringing about accidents in the common use of that term, there are moral errors, errors entangled with the values, and this is why moral error is potential evil. These vary in severity from the catastrophic to the trivial. You settle down on your couch to watch the big game on TV when a friend calls asking you help getting his car unstuck from a snowdrift. You refuse because you want to see that game. This is a moral error because in a universe where all people are brothers given a “Universal Father” no game is more important than assisting a brother when such assistance is easily (and sometimes even not so easily) within your power. Even if, in the end, your friend gets himself unstuck and no harm comes from it all, you have made a moral mistake.

As “accidents of time” stem from the purposelessness of physical nature, error stems from the perspectival (a term from John Searle) nature of individual minds. Subjective experience associated with brains is necessarily individualized. Although human brains (on Earth) are similar as are the minds that spring from them, each has a narrow individual viewpoint. An individual of necessity directly senses the world only through the deliverance of its own sensory systems. Human individuals may try intellectually to expand their native individuality to gain wider purchase on a theoretical universal viewpoint, but such attempts can never reach full universality. Even intermediate goals (for example the viewpoint of my local community) will not succeed in erasing the limits of my individuality.

Error and accidents have in common their inevitability. It is for this reason that neither is evil. Evolution (and within it the accidents of time) give us ourselves. Our individual perspectives, because they are limited, make mistakes (moral and otherwise). The point of mistakes is to teach us how to do better. When, given a certain set of circumstances, we choose a certain course of action that turns out badly either for us, others around us, or both, under normal circumstances we “learn from the mistake”. The next time we experience the same (or similar circumstances) we choose a different course of action, which of course might also be a mistake, an error. From this we learn yet more. Eventually we come to a course of action that results in few or no bad outcomes.

Error, in particular moral error, is [supposed to be] our great teacher. If some “honest mistake” precipitates a disaster, we are expected to learn from it and not make that same mistake again. God knows that minds evolved out of purposeless mechanism have limited perspectives. It would be impossible for such minds properly to grasp all the implications of every, even most, choice-action. Inevitable error then cannot be evil even though “bad” can clearly follow from it. As pain is intended to grab our attention immediately, error, more precisely its consequences, are intended to teach us about which sorts of choices work and which do not. Such mistakes are “natural consequences” of limited perspective just as stars and earthquakes are natural outcomes of purposeless mechanisms. For this reason, neither is evil.

THE THIRD CATEGORY: Evil. Finally we arrive at genuine evil, actual evil as compared with the potential for evil in moral error. Like error, evil is always a product of some mind. Unlike error, which may or may not have some moral part, evil always has a moral component. Evil is “deliberate error”. It is, if you will, making a mistake knowing that you are making a mistake and choosing (making it deliberate) to make that mistake. It is this choice that always invokes the moral because it is, due to its deliberateness, in opposition to one or more of the values (truth, beauty, goodness). Since the values are the pointer to God’s character that human mind is able to discriminate, anything done in knowing contravention of them is done in opposition to God’s intent and character exhibited in the values. That is what makes it evil!

Evil is characteristically different from error even if its worldly effects are sometimes identical. The error destroying the BP Horizon oil platform killing a dozen men could conceivably have been evil, the potential rising to the actual. The manager making the decision to stop pumping concrete might have done it knowing it would destroy the platform and likely kill people. Crucially, errors teach lessons to those still around after the results have propagated through the world. This includes the mind that committed the error!

Under typical circumstances, a man who makes a mistake, even a moral mistake, not only accepts responsibility for it, but actively works to mitigate its effects. Evil is not usually like that. Others, those who experience its consequences may learn to better prevent or mitigate them, but the one who commits the act already knows it is error. He often commits to disguising his responsibility for the act (a lie, yet a further evil) and not committed to any sincere effort to mitigate its effects.

The deliberateness that characterizes evil does not entail any intellectual grasp of the root ideas of truth, beauty, or goodness in some purely abstract philosophical sense (today even most philosophers don’t understand this). It is enough that the individual involved deliberately acts in such a way as to likely cause death or destruction (including more subtle forms like emotional hurt and so on) and knows this is the case. One need not directly intend any particular death or destruction let alone grasp that the choice is in some sense in opposition to God’s will.

For example a man hijacks a car and leads police on a high-speed chase ending in the death of an innocent bystander. On stealing the car and stepping on the gas, the man did not intend that particular death. He certainly wasn’t thinking of his act’s relation to the value goodness. But he did know (or as we say “should have known”) the act was dangerous and likely would end in some death or injury. He did it anyway and that doing does happen to oppose what is refracted to human consciousness by the value goodness. It is the deliberateness coupled with the contravention of the character of value (in this case mostly goodness) that makes up the evil in the mind of the actor. It is the actor who is evil. We extend the term (rightly so I believe) to the act because (again) it is a deliberate act.

The means by which God has [apparently] chosen to create the “best possible universe” very much rests on the reality of free will in creatures (on Earth called humans) who are potentially sensitive to values. The higher animals also have free will, but since they are not sensitive to values, their free will does not extend into the moral domain. A lion cannot “do evil” as that term is used in the UB. The presence of moral free will coupled with purposeless physical mechanism is, according to the UB, the key to the whole progressive evolutionary enterprise. I address this at length in “Why Free Will”. One often hears criticism of the form: in such a universe as ours, God should have known evil would happen and therefore God himself is evil (knowingly contravening his own values) by creating a universe in which evil would necessarily occur.

The UB denies the necessity of evil, but not the need for its potential. Error (moral or amoral) is unavoidable because evolved perspective is limited, but moral error (potential evil) alone is sufficient progressively to align human choice with the values. Even when such attempts themselves are badly (wrongly) conceived or executed, their outcomes bring home lessons on doing it better next time. The inevitability of error is enough to carry the lesson that free-will attempts at alignment with the values typically leads to better results all around. To get his (and our) “best possible universe” God had to create a universe in which error was a necessary ingredient.

In contrast to error, actual evil is not a necessity in a universe evolving in time however likely it may be. Potential evil is enough to provide the contrast needed for moral choosing: “Potential evil is inherent in the necessary incompleteness of the revelation of God as a time-space-limited expression of infinity and eternity. The fact of the partial in the presence of the complete constitutes relativity of reality, [and] creates necessity for intellectual choosing…” [UB 130:4.14] Actual Evil is always the choice of a personalized mind to do error deliberately.

Even on this planet, rife with evil, we observe that no person is compelled by the world to do evil. The seeming inevitability of evil on Earth is a product of what the UB claims is a convoluted and a-typical (compared with most worlds) history, not to mention confused and immature ideas about God. Evil’s apparent inevitability is a seeming resulting from a limited perspective. Evil on Earth is virtually inevitable. It is in no way metaphysically necessary.

THE FOURTH CATEGORY: Sin. I hope by this point in the essay my reader begins to see a pattern here. Accidents are not the doing of minded beings — primitive and superstitious belief that “God causes” this or that disaster not withstanding. Error entails mind, but not intent to do wrong. Evil entails both mind, and intent to cause harm but not awareness (at least not immediate, present to mind awareness) of the act’s relation to God. Sin is exactly that.

“Sin must be redefined as deliberate disloyalty to Deity” [UB 89:10.2]. Some readers have interpreted this to mean that to sin entails knowing what God’s will is in some particular instance. Under this reading, no human could ever sin because no human ever knows specifically what God’s will is about any single individual act, though we can make well-reasoned guesses in simple situations. But human beings can know what God’s will is generally speaking. Sensitivity to the values, truth, beauty, goodness, give us that. One can then commit evil knowing not merely that the act will likely cause harm, but also that it stands in opposition to one or more of the values and therefore in opposition (however generally) to God’s will. Even that does not quite get us to sin. Our carjacker is not likely to be philosophizing about values and such even if his history includes some awareness of them. Awareness that what he is doing is “in opposition to goodness” is only slightly more universal than merely being aware the act “is wrong” from a cultural viewpoint.

In discussing the subject of sin, the book seems always to associate it with some insincerity. Returning again to our carjacker we can suppose that not only does he know his act is wrong and that it contravenes goodness but that, at least in part, the act is chosen because it goes against the value. The carjacker is not only deliberate about doing harm, he is deliberate about doing it because it is evil and in opposition to God’s goodness.

That additional layer of [im]moral intent renders the act insincere. No external rationale (for example “I thought the police would kill me”) excuses the decision because at least some part of the actor’s motive is the contravention of goodness. Any excuse resting on such explanations would be automatically a lie because some part of the real motive is freely, deliberately, to contravene God’s will. That makes the act deliberate disloyalty to Deity and therefore sin.

THE FIFTH CATEGORY: Iniquity. I said at the beginning of the essay that everyone has a soul and almost everyone experiences personality survival after physical death. Evil and sin both corrode the soul, the later more rapidly than the former. In this, evil and sin are analogous to filling healthy lungs with smoke. Smoking always corrodes lung function but it doesn’t destroy it at once. Lungs can still sustain life up to a certain level of degradation.

Reaching that level can take years. Smokers can quit and at least partially heal their lungs if the damage has not progressed too far. Evildoers and sinners can repent. Evildoers and sinners yet have living souls and quitting sin and evil can, eventually, reestablish their healthy condition. Of course the repentance must be sincere. An insincere repentance is, by UB lights, no repentance at all. “In gaining access to the Kingdom of Heaven, it is the motive that counts.” [UB 140:3.19]. God would have to be a perfect, the perfect judge of motive, and this notwithstanding that human motives are often mixed. He would know that too.

Yet there comes a point with smoke where the lungs become too degraded to sustain life. Likewise repeated choices of evil, and especially sin result eventually (assuming the creature does not physically die before this stage. A 30-year smoker who is yet 10 years from fatal lung degradation can get hit by a bus) in a condition in which the yet-living person loses the capacity to discriminate the values, loses the ability to tell right from wrong and the free-willed capacity to choose what is right. The person has become self-identified with evil and sin to the point where he can choose nothing else. He has become iniquitous and his soul is dead. On physical death, the personality of this person dissolves back into the infinite and nothing survives except, as it were, in God’s memory. UB theology has no Hell. Either you survive and retain a shot at immortality by God’s lights, or you vanish.

“Death of the soul” is a cosmic suicide. Such a state can come about only as a result of repeated free-willed choices by the agent whose soul it is. If an otherwise normal (i.e., not iniquitous) person suffers loss of ability to tell right from wrong as a result of an accident or disease that soul, we are told, is developmentally frozen and survives when that person’s body eventually dies. Cosmic death can be only a product of cosmic suicide. As the soul grows through choosing the true, beautiful, and good (and as I discuss in “What is the Soul” this has nothing to do with intellectual belief), it dies only through the consistent and repeated choice of evil and sin. A soul cannot die by accident. It must be willfully withered to death.

A WORD ABOUT MITIGATION

We live in a relative (nothing to do with Einstein) universe. There is in the mix both good, bad, evil, and even sin. For now, this is just the social fact of the matter. Accidents and errors we learn to avoid. We build structures that don’t collapse in earthquakes, we learn to cure disease, we train so as not to make harmful mistakes. This learning and mitigating should not be controversial. Mitigating real evil is another matter. No human may pronounce judgment on the status of another’s soul, but preventing the pain of further evil on the part of the evildoers is a morally [and can be physically] messy process. Sometimes it is necessary to kill, even to go to war, to prevent yet further evil as this unfolds in time. The problems here are well known. Often evil goes, if not undetected, un-fought until its consequences are spread deeply through the social world. At that point, uprooting them, mitigating the effects, can be costly in dollars and often lives.

At the same time, much that happens on this world still and many others in other stages of development is a product of ignorance-of-relationship. We still go to war not for personal survival but for political reasons. All sub-global constructs (nations) are useful for administrative reasons, but otherwise artificial. We are one world in the sense that we are all, equally, children of God. Yet none of this does away with the need, in particular on this world, to live with these issues and do out best to mitigate their myriad negative consequences. Mitigation of actual evil, sometimes by horrific means themselves evil under normal circumstances, is sometimes among our moral imperatives.

The “best possible universe” entails a “settled world” and by that the UB means an economically, politically, and socially, unified planet. No political or social entity would think of “going to war” against another. We are obviously a long way from this. Nevertheless, given our starting point, we who are here now are supposed to do our best to move the needle, or perhaps set the stage for its movement, or something. Our individual participation in the evolution of the best possible universe might amount to little more than being a good brother, neighbor, citizen, and so on. Being good means also “getting better” as one grows and learns: “Can you not advance in your concept of God’s dealing with man to that level where you recognize that the watchword of the universe is progress?” [UB 4:1.2]. Experience brings us into contact with both error and evil at collective and individual levels. Learning from that, personally is also a part of that present world experience. All of this evolving process is going on from the individual to the grand collective at the same time. We all play some role in it for good or ill.

According to the UB, for reasons rooted 200,000 years in our past, we are, especially given our technological development, among the most (if not the most) benighted planets in the galaxy! Thanks to ubiquitous evil the people of this world literally have an even greater gap than do the vast majority of humans on other worlds in the universe. When we learn to mitigate evil, we are learning much more than others whose lives are not so steeped in it. Believe it or not (remember no one dies) this is supposed to be a good thing!

Imagine you are born into the poorest part of the poorest city (perhaps refugee camp) on Earth. if you grow up knowing nothing of the world outside that place, you might be forgiven for thinking the rest of the world is just like your little part of it. Essentially, that is our situation on this world. This too bears on the book’s theodicy because it is saying, in effect, not only are we on a way to a “best possible universe”, but most other inhabited worlds, if not perfect, are much better off than us now. As it turns out, as concerns a “good God creating a universe with evil”, even the rest of this “relative universe” is doing better (not perfect) in this regard than we are on Earth in the 21st century.

Conclusion

So where now does all of these leave us in the broad issue of theodicy? Events of Earth history (the tip of a very big iceberg, and related to the UB’s extensive discussion of “Process Theology”) does set up the present, particular, problem with evil and ignorance on our world. The UB, while it insists on an infinite existential God has in it a significant Arian thread (see this link for more on Arianism), and this thread bears its own relation to the theodicy question. “If man recognized that his Creators — his immediate supervisors — while being divine were also finite, and that the God of time and space was an evolving and non-absolute Deity, then would the inconsistencies of temporal inequalities cease to be profound religious paradoxes.” [UB 116:0.1].  But as concerns theodicy as this is understood in contemporary philosophy of religion, the over-all tension between the concept of an infinite good God and a relative, partial, incomplete universe of time in which error is inevitable and evil always potential remains the foundation of the UB’s answer to the question.

The matter comes down to this: There is evil in a universe created by a “wholly good God” because that God is not the only actor in the universe. God has (seemingly) decided the “best possible universe” emerges out of his creation (purposeless physical mechanism) in combination with evolved (thanks to mechanistic regularity), perspective-limited persons having free-will, the capacity to sense God’s character (the values), and therefore the ability to choose freely to try to instantiate (bring into the world) that which is sensed. To come out to what really is the “best possible” universe, the free-will (in particular) must be sacrosanct (the real “prime directive”) in the sense that God will never contravene it.

I speak here of course of moral choice. You will learn something if you eat food to which you are allergic; don’t eat that again. But as concerns the “best possible universe” this is about choices that have value-implications and so moral in the broad sense. This life is not some Harry Frankfurt thought experiment where God lets you choose freely if you choose his will, but otherwise intervenes if you are about to do otherwise. Nor does God ever force you to err or do evil let alone sin. If you can freely choose to do [what you sincerely take to be] God’s will (you might be mistaken or botch the try. It is the sincerity of the attempt that counts. Right or wrong, good or bad [outcome] you will learn something) you can also do the inverse. You can choose to do error deliberately (evil) and even choose to do evil knowing full well that your choice contravenes God’s intention (sin).

God cannot, or rather will not, intervene not because He is incapable of intervening, but rather because He cannot get the outcome he wants (an outcome that necessarily must emerge in time) unless all the moral choices of all the agents in the universe are always free of His interference; the choice of the agent and only the agent. That then is The Urantia Book’s answer to the theodicy question. Human beings, especially on this benighted world, are charged to grow up and stop blaming God for evil perpetrated by man.

What are Truth, Beauty, and Goodness?

In many essays of this blog I discuss what philosophers in prior centuries called values:  truth, beauty, and goodness, distinguishing them from facts. I have to sketch these over and over because my approach to a philosophy of mind, in particular any discussion of what distinguishes human from animal mind has to bring up the values. It is the ability to distinguish the values, that is to grasp that truth, beauty, and goodness exist and are discernible, that separates human from animal mind. This essay focuses on the values as such.

Is goodness (or beauty or truth) objective or subjective and relative? This is a question that has vexed philosophers for more than two thousand years. The answer, grounded in my theology (see “Prolegomena to a Future Theology”) is that it is both. It is the point of this essay to show why and how that is the case. What the values are falls out of my theology as does the distinction (made by almost no one in the philosophical community) between what values are and what has them. Goodness is a value. Justice (to take an example I will use below) is usually taken to “be good”. Justice is good (if indeed it is) because it has, embodies, or is an instance of goodness. This distinction holds for all three values. A sunset has beauty, and a proposition like 2+2=4 has truth. In the English language we normally say that justice is good, sunsets are beautiful, and propositions are true. It is this construction that blurs the distinction presented just above just as, pointing at a lit lamp and saying “that is light”, would blur the distinction between light and what is lit.

In the Prolegomena (linked above) I note that from a rational first-principle theism we infer there are three fundamental joints in reality: Matter-energy, mind, and spirit. Matter-energy is the familiar stuff of the material universe, including time. Mind refers not to individual human (or animal) mind, but the phenomenon of mind in the universe. To our experience of course mind manifests individually (see “From What Comes Mind?”). The reason mind so well represents the material world is that mind and the material world both originate in spirit. The point of mind is to represent matter-energy (in the human, biological case, on middle scales) to a subject. The subject is yet another matter I will not much deal with here. See “Why Personality”.

Human mind can, and animal mind cannot, sense something of antecedent spirit-reality, a thin something that is, in effect an inkling of “the character of God” or more precisely qualities of God’s character. Values, their reality, not what exhibits them, are that of which we are aware, by means of mind, is spirit. It is the only such awareness (of spirit) we have. Mind represents the material world to a creature having an individualized subjectivity. The phenomenon that catalyzes a brain’s evocation of a subjectivity is the same everywhere. The quality of spirit that humans can sense and further discriminate in their mental arena is present (everywhere) in the field I have called (again see above linked “From What Comes Mind?”) Cosmic Mind. The lion, or the dog, or the ape, simply do not notice it, do not detect it as a distinguishable facet of consciousness. Animal mind is not up to the task. Being “up to the task” is the identity criterion for human mind.

Values are the unified quality of God’s character refracted into the three primary joints: beauty into the material world, truth into mind as such, and goodness into the intentions (and intentional behavior) of persons (personality being the only spirit-component of our otherwise blended identity — see “Why Personality”). They also happen to be the root concepts of three major branches in philosophy,  aesthetics, epistemology, and ethics respectively.

Beauty is something we experience in sensory qualia and they, in turn are our window on the mind-independent material world. We find truth by mind in mind. To philosophers it is a property of propositions. Propositions are abstractions, mental phenomena, that either do or do not conform to the structure of the world as a whole, spiritual, mental, and material. There is a “fact of the matter” about the relation between General Relativity and quantum mechanics, and about the existence (or nonexistence) of God. Like beauty, truth is not about what is true or which abstractions have more truth, but rather the conviction that there is a consistent way the world is.

Goodness is about the intentions, and subsequently behaviors, of persons. Again it is not about what purposes are good, or how much goodness they have, but that it is possible to align (more or less) our individual purposes with God’s. Goodness is the most difficult value to grasp intellectually because it is the value refracted through reality’s “spirit joint”. Of matter we know much, of mind we have immediate experience, but of spirit we have only the mind-discriminated values themselves and personality which we cannot find (see “Why Personality”).

At the same time goodness is the value with which we most often engage. Persons, by extension their behavior, have (or do not have) goodness, but this is also the case with social institutions which are impersonal, but created by persons. Unlike the other values we project goodness strictly outside (though of course it remains related) its domain, the person. In doing this we invent new words for it, for example ‘justice’, fairness, or fitness. But in each case, though we speak of impersonal institutions, we refer to the doings, present or historical, of people.

There is something to note about the values taken together. As God is unified, the values, while refracted to human apprehension in reality’s three primary joints, must also be unified. Each must be consistent with the quality of the others. Beauty must be both true and beautiful, goodness beautiful and true, and truth beautiful and good. This interrelation between the values, recognized in classical treatments of them, has sometimes been identified with ‘love’ (Christian Agape) and is consistent with the view that they are what we apprehend as qualities of “God’s character”.

Our thin sense of these qualities is only a hazy pointer. It is not a reliable arbiter of what about particulars in the world (human art, propositions, or acts of persons) has these qualities or more exactly to what degree they have them. Values are apprehended in mind, but we recognize they belong to broad categories in the physical (a sunset), mental (a proposition) or personal (some exhibition of human intention) world. Subjective interaction with the world is always perspectival, it has a viewpoint. Perspective is unique to every human being who’s history, not to mention a unique physical ground (the brain) of the mental, ensures that uniqueness.

Each of our individual, already unique by different brains, perspectives color our general value awareness. There is room in the human perspectival range for both broad agreement and much disagreement about what is true, beautiful, or good. Suppose we face a palette of colors and must classify each into one of only three groups, red, yellow, and blue. We might agree about many of the various shades, but when it comes to an orange, I might say it belongs more to the red and you to the yellow. It is because of this colorization effect that we can have different views of say the value content of a sunset (or work of art), proposition, individual act or social policy; whether, for example a particular human action or policy enforced by law, is just.

There is another phenomenon that, to human mind, relativizes the values, time itself. Time, of course, is an ingredient in our own individual perspectives, but it is also a part of the social perspective we share as a culture. We are conditioned not only as individuals but also as a culture. Almost all humans agree there is often beauty in sunsets, but art is a different matter. The people of 17th century Europe expressed a wide variety of views on what makes up beauty in art. Faced with 19th century impressionistic art they might have had the capacity to extend their view of beauty-in-art to include it. But show any one of them a painting by Picasso or Pollack and few would find any beauty in them as many do today. What has happened here? The capacity of present-day individuals (some of them) to respond to beauty in a wider variety of art forms results from broadening this capacity within the evolving culture. The same holds for truth. There was “more truth” in Newton’s theory of gravity than what came before him, but still more in Einstein’s General Relativity.

For another example lets look at justice, not retributive justice but social justice. We take for granted nowadays that universal (in adults) and equal suffrage with regard to selecting political representatives is good because it is just. Justice, in other words, has goodness. But even in the Earth’s best models for the social evolution of universal suffrage (England and the United States) achieved today’s notion of what is just over several (in England’s case many) generations. At each stage of the evolution, the people who lived in those stages thought of them as just compared with prior stages. The situation in the late 18th Century and early 19th when only adult male property owners had an acknowledged political voice was “more just” than the prior condition when only aristocrats had a say, and that in turn more just than when kings alone made all the rules. Fifty or so years later when all adult males could vote there was yet more justice, more goodness (or at least we think so today), in the arrangement and so on.

Political inclusiveness was just, had goodness, in 1800, 1900, and today when all adults can vote. This is possible because cultural relativity conditioned what was just for that time. What was just in 1800 was good in the same way as it is today, yet what framed its just-ness varied from one age to the next. Philosophy’s inability to reconcile the relativity of value as we find it in the world with its seeming objectivity, the nagging suspicion that it is not, at least, purely relative stems from the philosophical failure to distinguish between what the values are and what has, embodies, or instantiates them in the world. This failure in turn results from philosophy’s rejection of God who would be the only possible source of the values as we know them (truth, beauty, goodness) that could ground their existence independently of minds which discover them.

Unlike the qualia set up by physical senses, values are found in human mind as such. No physical pathway connects an “outside source” of value to its discrimination in mind. Because of this it seems plausible to suppose (most philosophers do suppose) that we just invent the values in the sense that they spring into consciousness out of the froth of mind; they are epiphenomena! Humans all recognize them (some more than others) because human mind-froth is, after all, similar from one brain to the next. While this theory does account for different qualities-of-discrimination in different minds (brains differ), it does not account for some of their objective-like qualities.

Beauty seems to be in or of the sunset. 2+2=4 seems to be mind-independently true, while one can argue that slavery is unjust always even if there was a time when it was a compassionate alternative to murder. In our experience, mind-froth produces many mental states: epiphanies, novel idea combinations, fantasies, and so on that we do not take to be mind-independently real. The values are different in this way. Their mind-independence, unlike fantasies, is controversial. This alone suggests that something different may be going on. Cosmic Mind explains both how it is values are mind-independently real, qualities of God’s character, while present only, and differently felt (brains differ), in human mind.

While not epiphenomena, values themselves, like ideas or qualia, are not causal. Values can however, like the others, be reasons for intentions. Indeed if God exists and the physical universe, consciousness, and the interaction between the two is purposeful, the values must be a linchpin of that purpose. See “Why Free Will” for a further elaboration on this point.

Review: Philosophy of Mind by Edward Feser 2006

One would expect a book on this broad subject to leave some dangling issues. Dr. Feser’s sympathies clearly lay with Aristotelian dualism, even theism. He begins with a nuanced statement of Cartesian Substance Dualism. His aim is to explicate the logical strength of substance dualism, aware also of its primary weakness (the “interaction problem”) and then ask if the various alternatives to it, particularly those promulgated by materialist philosophers of the 20th and 21st centuries, are coherent in their own right and if so, successfully defeat dualism’s logic.

As noted in the review (reproduced below with a link to the book on Amazon) Feser spends the bulk of the book on this latter task. He demonstrates that none of the suggested alternatives actually work. Some (eliminativism of two kinds and epiphenominalism) are incoherent, while others (functionalism, behaviorism, and many others) fail to capture the substance of subjective first person experience, in effect explaining it away. Most of these critiques focus on epistemological issues, but some also run into metaphysical issues, indeed the same “interaction problem” faced by Cartesian dualism (see also “From What Comes Mind” and “Fantasy Physics and the Genesis of Mind”).

Having demolished the contenders, Feser asks if there is something else, a different sort of dualism that might work and yet not require or point to theism? His solution is Aristotelian Hylomorphic dualism. Alas, as noted in the review, here he fails but doesn’t seem to notice it. Either the form emerges from the facts of the assemblage that is the brain, or it is added intentionally from the outside. Hylomorphism either collapses into reductive (or supervenient) materialism, or it leads back to something that must stand in the place of, if not be, God. Feser leaves this matter dangling.

Other issues dangle. Feser cites many authors I’ve read, among them David Chalmers, but as I read Feser, he seems to misunderstand Chalmers’ “property dualism”, more or less equating it with epiphenomenalism,  the idea that our mental arena is merely an accidental by-product of brain function with absolutely no causal consequence. It is precisely the point of Chalmers’ property dualism that it does have causal consequence and so is not epiphenomenal but rather a radical emergence.

From the physics of brains alone emerges what amounts to a substance with novel properties, the upward property of subjective experience itself, and a downward causal power, subjective will, on that same physics. Chalmers, being bothered by the radical character of the emergent subjectivity, speculates on panpsychism or various types of monisms that might be embedded in physics and so support such an emergence (see above linked “Fantasy Physics…” essay for details). These various ideas for sources of the phenomenal in a hidden property of the physical are quasi-material in Feser’s taxonomy.

Another matter of interest to me is Feser’s characterization of substance dualism. His sketch is more nuanced than that usually given by his materialist peers but there are other possibilities that yet remain broadly Cartesian. For example, a property dualism supported by the presence of a spacetime field that is not physical but also not phenomenal (or proto-phenomenal).

The field need not be mind as such. It need have no phenomenal/proto-phenomenal properties of its own. Viewed from the material, mind is a radical emergence (upward) and has, as a result of its novel properties, also downward causal qualities. Its appearance, however, its form and nature, is the result of an interaction with this everywhere present (and yes, mysterious) field and not equally mysterious undetectable properties embedded in physics. For a detailed explication of this model see my “From What Comes Mind?”

Of course an “interaction problem” comes immediately forward. This hypothetical field is, after all non-material. But this interaction issue is the same faced by property dualism generally along with panpsychism, and Russelian or dual-aspect monism. All of these theories propose proto-phenomenal properties embedded in micro physics or the universe as a whole, but none ever say how exactly to identify the proto-phenomenal, in what exactly its properties consist. Nor do they speculate on their origin, and how they interact with the physical we know; how exactly they perform their teleological function driving the physical towards [genuinely] phenomenal expression.

Feser notes that materialist philosophers always cite “Occam’s Razor” as reason for rejecting theism and so any sort of substance dualism. He should somewhere have noted Occam’s Razor is supposed to apply to two or more theories that equally explain all the data! Theism answers two of the questions left dangling by quasi-materialisms. It explains why it is we find the phenomenal, any phenomenal proto or otherwise, only in association with brains. It has also an origin story in theistic intentionality, the phenomenon we find at the core of the recognizably phenomenal, our phenomenal, itself!

Quasi-materialisms deny intention in the proto-phenomenal leaving the transition to intention in brains hooked (metaphysically) on nothing. None of this, not the postulation of a field or the proto-phenomenal explains how exactly interaction occurs. The problem with theism isn’t merely the interaction (about which at least “God knows the trick”) equally suffered by all the non-eliminative materialisms. The problem is the postulation of an intentional source of the field supporting intentionality as we experience it. Yes this is a big pill to swallow, but without it we can say nothing about how any of this works anyway. Rejecting the possibility of theism leaves behind more mysteries than it resolves.

Surely suggesting that there is an intentional (minded) source of intentional, subjective mind begs the question. Of course it does! It remains, however, a coherent, possibility! God can not only be conceived, his necessary qualities can be specified to considerable detail (see my “Prolegomena to a Future Theology”). It isn’t clear that the proto-phenomenal can be conceived, and even if we allow its conceivability there seems to be nothing that can be said at all about any  of its qualities.

I said at the end of the book review I would say something about free will. Feser does not mention it. Free will is related to intentionality. The ability to direct our attention purposefully is the core of the matter and some (Schopenhauer) would say it, is the essence of the conscious self! “Mental causation” or in Rescher’s terms initiation is, when not subconscious, agent-directed. We experience our agency as will (and this why the ‘free’ in ‘free will’ is redundant’ see “All Will is Free”). Will’s  relation to “philosophy of mind” should be obvious. We experience our volitional agency in mind, and like qualia and intention, the nature of volitional agency is mysterious, doubly so because it is a mystery on top of a mystery!

I have said much about free will and its associated agency elsewhere in the blog. On the negative side (the absurdity of denying it) see “Arguing with Automatons”, and “The Nonsensical Notion of Compatibilism”. On the positive side, “Why Free Will”, “Why Personality”, and “The Mistake in Theological Fatalism”.

The two best books on the subject are “Free Will: A Philosophical Reappraisal” by Nicholas Rescher and E. J. Lowe’s “Personal Agency”. My own books, “Why this Universe” and “God, Causal Closure, and Free Will” both address the subject.

 

Philosophy of Mind by Edward Feser (2006)

I picked up Feser’s “Philosophy of Mind”, a book in an introductory series, for the sake of little else to read at the time, but I’m glad I did. It is, perhaps the best basic-evaluation of this subject (one of my specialty areas) I have ever read. It doesn’t merely introduce and review the subject. It makes an argument, a point about the present philosophical state-of-the art on the nature of mind, and does it very well.

Feser begins by introducing the subject and settles on representative-realism (the external world is real more or less as we experience it, but what we experience as subjects is nevertheless a representation of it) as the fundamental datum which a philosophy of mind must account. He then moves to examine the various proposals put forth by modern philosophers, some with their roots back in classical Greek times. He begins with Cartesian (substance) Dualism, a rather more sophisticated treatment than is usually accorded by modern philosophy. He shows us that substance dualism rests on more solid logical foundations than is usually acknowledged even if it smacks of being unscientific thanks to its infamous “interaction problem”.

From that point Feser looks at what has been offered as alternatives to Dualism, various materialisms (eliminative, functionalism, behaviorism, pure epiphenomenalism, causalism, reduction and supervenience) and quasi-materialisms (panpsychism, Russelian-monism, property dualism). All of this treatment constitutes the bulk of the book and as he covers each solution there emerges the best taxonomy of philosophies-of-mind I have yet seen. The modern emphasis on qualia is explored thoroughly but he argues that intentionality, even given the representational realism with which he begins, is more important, more central to mind and consciousness, than qualia.

In doing all of this Feser drives home the point that none of the alternatives is without serious metaphysical or epistemological problems. All of the quasi-materialisms, in fact, come up against the same interaction problem as substance dualism, and the others are either incoherent (two sorts of eliminativism), or simply do not get at two core problems: why do we experience anything at all and why does the subject that appears throughout all experience seem so obviously causally potent?

In the last chapter Feser asks if there is anything else that does address the core issue without having to invoke what ultimately comes down to God? His answer is Aristotle’s “Hylomorphic Dualism” (also championed by Thomas Aquinas though his variation relies directly on God). To explain consciousness, to get at its core and resolve the ever-present interaction problem, Feser says all we have to do is reject the contemporary physicalist insistence that material and efficient causes (two of Aristotle’s four leaving out formal and final cause) exhaust causality in the universe. This would be, to say the least, a big pill for 21st Century science, and most of philosophy, to swallow.

Further while Hylomorphic dualism might deal nicely with the epistemological issues Feser everywhere touches, it does no better than the quasi-materialisms concerning the metaphysical. Either the form of the human mind springs entirely from the arrangement and dynamics of physical particles, in which case we are back to reductive or supervenient materialism, or it does not. But if it does not, where does it come from? That physics cannot detect any teleology in the physical universe does not mean it isn’t there. It does mean that it has to come from somewhere other than physics and be prior to individual human minds. We are on the way back to God.

There is also a notable absence. Feser never mentions free will. A discussion might be beyond Feser’s scope in this book, but I’m surprised he did not at least note its obvious relation to intentionality. I will cover this and other implications in a blog commentary.

From What Comes Mind?

This essay is about mind in general, consciousness, the “what is it like to be…” experience. What follows applies to human and animal mind. I include a note at the end about animal mind in particular. My focus is on consciousness as such, why it exists at all and why does it have the form it has. This will not be so much about the contents of conscious phenomenal gestalt, qualia, intentionality, beliefs, memories, and so on.

Many of the essays on the blog impinge on philosophy of mind. Although the assertions, analogies, and connections to philosophy here are mine, they rest broadly on the theory of mind presented by The Urantia Book. It is after all with mind that we experience the mind-represented sensory world, assert propositions, make intentional choices, sense values, and experience our agency.

The Urantia Book’s philosophy of mind is theistic and dualistic, but not in the way of Cartesian or for that matter Thomistic dualism. It does have elements of each of these (although the Thomism is about personality not mind as such) but also shares much with “property dualism” of the sort championed by David Chalmers (The Conscious Mind [1996] and The Character of Consciousness [2010]). The purpose of this essay is to present the theory and note certain relations to philosophies of mind common among present-day philosophers. The theological basis of this theory is to be found here. I begin therefore with property dualism.

Chalmers is at base a materialist. There cannot be any super-natural power in his theory, but there is nevertheless a supra-natural effect. In his view, minds emerge from nothing above and beyond physical brains. No intentional power adds mind to brains, but the emergent mind does, nevertheless, have real powers and potentials that are nowhere present in brains simplicter antecedent to mind’s emergence. These qualities include the form of our subjective arena, its qualia and the ever present awareness of our intentional agency, our will, its power of downward causation.

This is a new type of cause in the universe perhaps best described by Nicholas Rescher in “Free Will: A Philosophical Reappraisal”. Rescher advocates for far more freedom in our intentions and acts than many other advocates of free will (see Richard Swinburne’s “Mind, Brain and Free Will” for a much narrower view). His argument for the unique quality of mental-cause is that it is timeless; he calls it initiation rather than cause, it being simultaneous with its effect. This comes out to the impossibility of ever identifying a “mental cause” independent of a brain-state correlate! There is more on Rescher’s view here.

What manifests in mind (pace Aristotle) are final and formal causes where before mind there were but material and efficient causes. We experience, directly and only in the first person, the causal efficacy of our agent-purposeful-volition. The combination qualia (emergence upward), and agent-intention (downward causation) has been called a “radical emergence” to distinguish it from the more ordinary emergence that produces, from physics, only physical if novel properties. As far as we know the only such phenomenon in the universe, the only radical emergence there has ever been, is mind (see note on emergence at end)!

Chalmers’ must ask: how can this possibly work? Cartesian dualism after all is universally challenged based on a single irresolvable issue, the matter of how a non-material substantive entity interacts with a material brain. Property dualism faces the identical problem. How exactly does physics, without a built in phenomenalism, produce a non-material phenomenalism, and how then does that turn around and become a literal cause, effectively directing (however minimally) the physics of the brain? Chalmers’ answer, and the answer, in variations, of many contemporary philosophers of mind, is that physics is not without built-in phenomenalism (or proto-phenomenalism).

Both panpsychism and various sorts of monisms posit the existence in (the monisms) or the emergence of phenomenal (or proto-phenomenal) qualities from physics (cosmology for panpsychism) alone. These qualities are forever undetectable by physics but are, nevertheless, built-in to physics! There spring immediately to mind two further questions: where exactly, or how, do these phenomenal/proto-phenomenal qualities inhere in physics, and what precisely is phenomenal about them?

To the first question, none has any answer. They could, of course, say “God put it there” but the whole point of the exercise is to find a solution without postulating a minded being having such powers. But if we rule out a minded source we are left at best with a supposedly mindless source of mind. We have done nothing but push the interaction issue to another part of the rug.

The second question is equally vexing. No one wants to say that the fundamental constituents of matter (atoms, quarks, the quantum field, the monists) or the universe taken as a whole (panpsychists) are conscious or minded. The claim is that the phenomenal builds itself up as the basic building blocks (atoms or galaxies) themselves are built up. But they nevertheless insist there is something inherent in these entities that is the real root of the consciousness we have. The problem is that when asked in what do hypothetical proto-phenomenal qualities consist, none can say, or even speculate. It seems that, short of mind as we know it, we cannot say in what the proto-phenomenal consists.

How does my view help? It does not explain the interaction mechanism. It does account for the reason the mechanism cannot be explained by mind of our type. It does, however, account for why we cannot give any account of that in which the proto-phenomenal might consist. We cannot give such an account because there need not be any proto-phenomenal qualities for which to account.

Starting with the property dualism, brains produce subjective-conscious-minds in a way analogous to a radio producing music (compression waves in air that we interpret as music or speech or whatever, but this detail has no bearing on the analogy). Destroy the radio or alter its function and the music disappears or becomes distorted. This is exactly what happens to mind when brain function is altered away from normal working limits; from distortions of consciousness to mind’s destruction. Real minds do not survive the destruction of brains any more than music survives destruction of the radio. From a common sense point of view, it is perhaps legitimate to view the radio as the real and perhaps sole source of the music.

But the radio does not produce music ex nihilo. Rather it interprets information present in a spacetime field in the radio’s vicinity. The radio is the “source of the music” in that it alone is responsible for the conversion, interpretation, or translation of information present in the field from its electromagnetic form ultimately to compression waves in air, an entirely different phenomenon! One way to look at it is to say brains are responsible for the conversion or interpretation of some spacetime pervading field into the form of our consciousness. More accurately, we should say that the field has the power to evoke consciousness from the doings of brains.

The field need not, by itself, have any phenomenal qualities at all. It need not itself be conscious or minded in any sense of those terms any more than the electromagnetic wave is music.  Electromagnetic information isn’t music until the radio makes it so, and the field isn’t phenomenal until the brain makes it so, or at least this is all we need to specify about it. The field is a constant throughout (as far as we know) the universe. Radical emergence is effected from the brain-field combination.

The field I have elsewhere called “Cosmic Mind” (see “Fantasy Physics and the Genesis of Mind”). Perhaps this a poor terminological choice as I do not mean to imply the field is conscious or even phenomenal in some uncharacterizeable sense. It mght be proto-phenomenal, phenomenal, or even conscious, but none of these matter to the model. As far as human beings and human consciousness is concerned the only property the field has to have is a capacity to evoke our subjective experience from our brain-states. If it has other properties, or indeed even purposes, we have no way of knowing.

The field does, however, have to be substantive in some way, not necessarily matter-energy as we are capable of measuring it. Only a substance of some sort can interact with another substance, in this case having an effect, the emergence of consciousness, from a functioning brain.

Being non-material there aren’t any instruments on earth that can detect Cosmic Mind save one. A physics experiment signals a detection of some kind with some physical event whether triggering a photo-detector or perhaps just moving a needle. Brains are detectors of Cosmic Mind. The needle, the event that we experience, is consciousness itself, the product of the detection.

In another, perhaps simpler analogy, imagine some material object (a ball on a pedestal) in a dark room. The ball has certain physical properties (mass, shape, and importantly here it happens to be opaque). Now a point light-source is turned on in the room. The ball now throws a shadow. Nothing about the physical properties has changed. The light-source does not add the shadow to the ball, but the shadow emerges from the properties of the ball (shape and opacity). Turn the light off, the shadow goes away. Remove the ball in the presence of the light and the shadow also goes away. The ball is the sole determiner of the properties of the shadow, but only in the presence of the light!

Mind, in other words, springs from brains as Chalmers envisions it, and this is why it is properly a property dualism. Viewed from the material, it is a radical emergence (upward) and has, because of its novel properties, also downward casual qualities. Mind’s appearance, however, its form and nature, is the result of an interaction. The emergence of subjective consciousness from brains is enabled, effected, by Cosmic Mind. Consciousness is the music produced by brains in the (everywhere) presence of Cosmic Mind.

This model differs from Cartesian Dualism, because the substance of individual mind (its power to affect physics) is derivative!  Cosmic Mind (which need not be anything like “a mind” and is not by any means individual mind) and brains, one immaterial and one material, are the antecedent conjugates. Human (and animal, any mind associated with brains) mind is the result, what brains produce in the presence of Cosmic Mind.

Unlike an electromagnetic field Cosmic Mind is not physical and that quality explains mind’s non-material quality. Cosmic Mind’s postulation accounts for mind’s relation to brains (mind’s physical root) and its subjective first-person-only phenomenology (mind’s non-material root). Qualia would appear to come from the brain side, our representation, via the senses, of the physical world. Intentionality is related to purpose, to final cause, something that doesn’t exist in physics. This quality must somehow be contributed by Cosmic Mind. How does Cosmic Mind interact with the physical? It is nice that brains detect Cosmic Mind, but how exactly do they do that? Aren’t I faced with the same “interaction problem”, perhaps pushed around a bit, as old fashioned Cartesian dualism?

The short answer is yes. It is the same problem, the same also faced by property dualism and panpsychism, and also Russelian, and any dual-aspect monism. The presence of Cosmic Mind is (like Cartesian mind) normally associated, directly or indirectly, with God, but one could leave its final source in abeyance as phenomenal monists and panpsychists do with their protophenomenal properties. None of these other theories ever say what exactly the phenomenal or proto-phenomenal qualities are let alone from where they come. Unlike the quasi-materialistic theories, Cosmic Mind is not (or need not be) phenomenal or proto-phenomenal (let alone conscious) at all. The emergent effect, subjective phenomenalism, only occurs when brains appear — Cosmic Mind being always on the scene. Unlike quasi-materialisms, this explains why we find the phenomenal only in association with brains and why we cannot even speculate about the protophenomenal in physics. It isn’t there to be found.

What about my other promise? Why is explanation of the interaction mechanism forever out of our reach? To support the radical emergence taking place, the field cannot, itself, be material (like the electromagnetic) or we would be back to unsupported radical emergence. Since it isn’t material it remains forever outside the capacity of physics (having only material instruments) to detect. Moreover, since the emergent dualism effected by the brain is also non-material the mechanism producing it is a mix of the physical (brain states) and non-physical (Cosmic Mind). Physics (in this case a synechode for neurophysiology resting on biology resting on chemistry and so on) can only measure the material side and it does! We can measure and find (roughly) consciousness-correlated brain states! What we cannot measure is the evocation subjective experience from their functioning.

What physics wants is an equivalence relation. But proving equivalence relations (for example the equivalence between thermodynamics and statistical mechanics) needs experimental confirmation, physical measurement, of the phenomenon from both ends as it were. This is precisely what is not possible concerning mind.

Where does Cosmic Mind itself come from? I’m a theist for this reason and many others. God covers a multitude of problems. The origin of course, but also the interaction. We can never spell out the mechanism but God knows the trick! Theism has no particular burden here. Panpsychists and monists do not tell us from where come their postulated “phenomenal properties-of-physics”, in what they consist, how they do their work, or how they are even possible within the physics we presently comprehend. Theism addresses all but one of these questions.

If we let materialist philosophers get away with “we don’t know, they’re just there” (concerning the proto-phenomenal) why shouldn’t theists? A non-material field pervading spacetime is no less conceivable than undetectable phenomenal properties underlying physics. One of Chalmers’ suggestions is “psychic laws” in parallel with physical law. Postulating Cosmic Mind answers more questions than proto-phenomenal physics or psychic laws, specifically why we cannot specify, or even speculate about, what qualities the proto-phenomenal has.

For more of my essays on this and related subjects see:

Essays:

Fantasy Physics and the Genesis of Mind
Physics and the Evidence for Non-Material Consciousness
Why Free Will
Why Personality

Books:
Why This Universe: God, Cosmology, Consciousness, and Free Will (2014)
God, Causal Closure, and Free Will (2016)

Note: On emergence

I have allowed in this essay that mind is the only example of radical emergence of which we know, but I believe there are two others, the universe itself, the big bang, and life.  This essay is not the place to go into either, but it is the theme of my book “God, Causal Closure, and Free Will” linked above.

Note: On the subject of animal mind

Since mind is associated with brains we might speculate about where it appears in the development of animal nervous systems. The short answer is I do not know but at least it seems to be present, a “what it is like to be” subjectivity in all the mammals and birds and possibly all vertebrates. If Cosmic Mind is all of a piece, everywhere uniform throughout the universe, how is it that animal consciousness seems less rich than the human? The answer here is on the brain side in the same way the shape of the shadow depends on the ball.

The electromagnetic field is filled with information all jumbled together. It can be made coherent (by radios) through the process of tuning. When a radio is tuned to a particular “carrier frequency” amidst the jumble, all of the electromagnetic modulation around that frequency can be detected and interpreted say as music from one, speech from another and so on. But notice also, that even if we single out a particular carrier, radios can vary widely in the quality of their conversion/reproduction. The sound emerging from older, more primitive, radios contains less of the information than that coming from newer more advanced electronics.

Cosmic Mind need contain only one signal. Being non-material it might as well be undifferentiated as we couldn’t measure any differentiation anyway. But there are, like radios, brains of various qualities. Like an older radio, the mind evoked by the brain of a mouse is less rich than that of a dog, the dog less than an ape, and the ape less than a human all bathed in the same field. This seems to be the case for consciousness as a whole, but is not the case concerning specific qualia. A dog’s aroma qualia are far richer than a human’s, as is a bird’s visual qualia (birds have four types cone cells in their eyes supporting ultra-violet visual qualia). There is nothing surprising about this if qualia in particular are closely tied to the physical root of the subjective arena. Some more primitive radios can be optimized to reproduce a narrow range of audible frequencies better than a more advanced radio even though the latter does a better job over-all.

In accounting for this difference this “Cosmic Mind” hypothesis at least matches the accounting for qualia by panpsychism and dual-aspect monisms. In the latter theories, more primitive brains produce less rich phenomenal qualities from the basic proto-phenomenal building blocks but nothing blocks optimizations in different brains. In both cases, the onus for the quality (richness) of qualia lays with brains. But the quasi-materialisms cannot so well account for intention, purpose (something the higher animals clearly have), unless one posits its proto-presence as well. Such a move puts teleology firmly back into physics, and in that case we are half-way back to theism.

All Will is Free

The goal of this short essay is to argue the word ‘will’ and the phrase “free will” are equivalent. The ‘free’ in “free will” is redundant. All exercise of will is free. There is no “un-free will” although there are un-free actions that aren’t willed.

First let me set some boundaries. I am not trying to establish that free-will is real. This argument is about the ordinary language, conventionally subjective view of our agency. We seem to ourselves (and as self-as-such) to be final arbiters of some physical (bodily) behavior, even if the result is not exactly what was subjectively intended. If with my arm, hand, and fingers, I propel a basketball towards the hoop my goal, to make the ball go through the hoop, may not be what occurs. Nevertheless, it “seems to me” that I, the subjective agent, am the agent-cause of the throw. My agency caused my arm to move or at least this seems to be correct from most people’s viewpoint. My argument below does not hinge on whether libertarian free will is real, but only that it is possible.

We, as agents, seem to make choices. Our [seeming] choices often precede a controlled action (behavior) of our body, and it is those physical actions that are causes in the physical world. These acts are efforts to constrain future possibility to present fact. These causes are NOVEL in the sense that they have, at their beginning a selection by a subject and not merely firing a neuron. A “selection by a subject” is novel because it does not presuppose any prior physical determinant as would the mere firing of a neuron. We are not simply aware of a choice having-been-made. Subjectively it feels like we are the initiator of the choice. A choice resulting in an act of a body seems always entangled with a willing. I decide to order item #26 from the menu before me, and in making that choice I will my vocal apparatus to express it to the waiter. Some would say the vocalization is making the choice and this would be true from a third-party perspective. Subjectively however, we do usually seem to make a choice (decide) before willing an action.

This does not mean there were not physical causes (brain states) before and so impacting the choice or the willing. Nor does this mean there is anything about the experience of choosing and willing, without some brain-state correlate. What’s importantly characteristic of our experience here is that all the prior physical causes together are not sufficient, subjectively, to determine rigidly what is willed; the agent has the final vote, and this vote matters. At least this is what it feels like.

Not all actions of human or animal bodies are a result of willing. Heart beat and breathing come to mind, but there are less trivial examples, including many habitual behaviors and other actions that occur without our thinking about them. Such actions are not ‘novel’ in the sense that I mean that term. They are not sui generis because they are fully determined, that is sufficiently, by prior (neurological) physical causes. Importantly, we do not usually think of ourselves as willing such acts. We are surely not willing a muscle reflex and it does not often seem to us, when habitual behaviors are called to our attention, that we are willing them either.

In addition, even consciously willed acts, if they are free at all, are not free in any absolute sense. It is the body firstly that is the starting point of the physical causal chain initiated in the world. The act is always physical. Once a body acts (freely or otherwise), the causal chains started are beyond that body’s control. In addition acts themselves are constrained by the limits of what the body can do. Moreover, they are limited by what that body’s [seeming] subjective agency recognizes of its alternatives. We cannot do what the body cannot do (for example fly) and we cannot choose from among genuinely available alternatives (physically possible actions we might take) of which we are unaware.

Nicholas Rescher (“Free Will: A Philosophical Reappraisal” 2009) makes a distinction between moral and metaphysical freedom. Metaphysical freedom refers to all the future possibilities that might contingently happen. Philosophers and physicists are used to the idea that the present physical universe is contingent meaning that what has happened might have happened otherwise. Many events might have happened in the universe that did not happen, and more importantly, many future events are possible and we cannot be sure which of these will occur. Metaphysical freedom in this sense has nothing directly to do with willful agency. In Rescher’s view it is genuine and we have access to it, but we have access merely because it is a property of the physical world with which we engage.

By contrast moral freedom comes down to a conscious agent being free to choose from contingent futures without a constraint (agent or otherwise) fixing the agent’s act (and so will) in some specific way. If someone puts a gun to my head and tells me to open the safe I am not morally free in Rescher’s sense. But I am still metaphysically free. I could choose (and so act) to resist the gunman! I will get to the implications of Compatibilism for this argument shortly.

Animals appear to exercise will. Are they also free? I believe the answer is yes, though their freedom, their awareness of potential freedom is more constrained ours. Animals can do what they want in the absence of constraint. In this sense (absent constraint) they are morally free in Rescher’s technical sense. If metaphysical freedom is real, then animals must also be metaphysically free (ontologically speaking). A lioness on the hunt willfully selects between two possible zebras present to its awareness and so willfully acts to chase one of them. But the lioness cannot choose to forgo the hunt and become vegetarian even if there is plenty of nutritious vegetable matter in easy reach. Selecting one zebra and not the other is a freely-willed act, both morally and metaphysically, within the scope of lion consciousness.

Richard Swinburne (“Mind, Brain, and Free Will” 2013) argues that only a rare, deeply considered moral act, is genuinely free-willed. Everything else, despite how it might seem to us subjectively, is determined. Galen Strawson (“Free Will and Belief” 1986) argued that because so many of the past influences on our choices, beliefs, and so on, were not freely chosen, we are not free ever! Strawson’s argument is that unless every influence on a present decision was freely chosen, the present choice cannot be free at all! Strawson does nothing to address the phenomenological (the seeming) or linguistic issue here. He denies the possibility of metaphysical freedom by fiat. But both human language and experience easily distinguish between a seemingly free act and an act that does not seem to be free. Perhaps not always, but if we can make the distinction even sometimes, then metaphysical freedom might be real! If in a long chain of influences not freely chosen a single choice, however narrow, is freely elected then free will is possible.

Assuming Strawson (or Swinburne) is correct in what sense are all of these determined choices “willings” other than merely being a “figure of speech” that has no referrent? If our brain alone fixes what we do in what way are we, our subjective self, willing that act at all? To be sure what seems like the result of a willing might be an illusion. But in that case, not only are we not free, we are not really willing anything either.

This brings me to Compatibilism. If someone puts a gun to my head and orders me to open the safe I am acting unfreely by compatibilist lights, and yet I am obviously willing in the conventional linguistic sense. I must exercise will to move my arm and hand to the safe and dial the combination. According to compatibilists my will is not exercised freely. Here Rescher’s distinction between moral and metaphysical freedom is helpful. The gun to my head makes me morally unfree. Few would suggest that I have a moral duty to resist the gunman. Yet according to Rescher, I remain metaphysically free. I could resist the gunman, or try to escape. These are genuine options in that they are possible courses of action, future potentials not precluded by physics from which I might select. My willing my hand to dial the combination is still an exercise of metaphysical freedom.

‘Will’ and ‘free will’ do come apart in Compatibilism because compatibilists deny that Rescher’s “metaphysical freedom” exists at all. That is precisely the compatibilist’s point. By compatibilist lights, metaphysical freedom in Rescher’s sense is mere illusion. To all intents and purposes, at least as concerns macro-physics, events of universe history are not contingent but fully determined.

If compatibilists are right however, it makes little sense to speak of any willing going on either way. If there is a gun to my head, my brain, and not any willing makes me, my body, open the safe. If there is no gunman, my brain might determine that I finish up some work before going home. Either way, what seems to me to be a free-choice willing (I could leave the paperwork until the morning) is not real but merely a seeming. For compatibilists, there is no will at all, only the illusion of one. Put otherwise, there is no such phenomenon as “unfree will” because there is no real will at all!

If compatibilists are wrong and Rescher is right (it is metaphysically possible to resist the gunman) then any “act of will” is an act of “metaphysically free will” notwithstanding there are many past influences, not freely chosen, impinging it, or even that the choice was not morally free. If agents are metaphysically free, if subjective agents can choose between genuinely alternate futures then the subject, and not merely the brain, becomes a part of the causal chain resulting in a particular future out of many possible. If ‘will’ represents anything more than a figure of speech, metaphysical freedom has to be real.

Compatibilists speak of will as though it was real but by their own lights it cannot be. We seem to perform choice-act combinations by willing. If we don’t “will it” (and I grant that not all acts are willed or free) then nothing happens; no act will issue from a body. Importantly it also seems that no act of a body that is not willed is free; we are not free to suppress a reflex and we easily distinguish between willed and not-willed action under normal circumstances. If every free act is willed, and will is not an illusion, and no un-willed act is free, then no “act of will” can be entirely un-free (fully determined) and the ‘free’ in “free will” is redundant.

Book Review: I am a Strange Loop by D. Hofstadter

This book deserves a lot of additional commentary, but I will keep it short and begin with philosophy of mind’s “elephant in the room”; free will.

Hofstadter rejects free will. No such thing, any appearance to the contrary an illusion. But even worse, it is an illusion on top of an illusion (the agent whose will it is) on top of another illusion, mind, that is subjective consciousness, also illusion or at best epiphenomenal with zero power of downward causation. Of course. What else can he say? He is committed to all of this being nothing more than manifestations of physical process in the brain whose complexity in some unspecified way becomes self-referencing, creating some sort of physical effect (like a harmonic oscillation though he doesn’t say this) that magically transforms itself into our subjectivity. A harmonic oscillation (a complex pendulum) that becomes an unmeasurable (by third parties) interiority.

Despite this multi-layered trickery, Hofstadter uses the word ‘soul’ many dozens of times throughout the book, even calling human beings “spiritual animals” in his conclusion. To what, in this epiphenomenal context, can these concepts possibly refer? Nothing. They are meaningless terms standing for illusory abstractions. Surely he knows that these words, in a non-physicalist context, stand for something purportedly both real (not illusory) and yet non-physical. To be sure, even in their normal context they are vague terms and there is no end of debate among philosophers of religion about what they reference. But all agree they reference something not material. But God is a fantasy to Hofstadter. Words normally associated with “God talk” can be appropriated and made to mean anything one wants. Nothing about ‘soul’ or ‘spirit’ can be real. Although the words are real enough in the English language, they literally can mean nothing what-so-ever as  that to which Hofstadter applies them is ultimately an illusion.

Take beauty, the simplest of the values (truth, beauty, goodness) to grasp because we detect its manifestation in the physical world. Physical things (whether natural or artifactual phenomena, sunsets or art) strike us as beautiful or not but either way the perception of beauty is something that exists only in mind. We seem to see it in the material world, but there is not much controversey about its status as a purely mental phenomenon, coming out, in what would have to be Hofstadter’s view if he is being consistent, as an illusion in an epiphenomena. While having no causal power, our epiphenomenal mind can itself have an illusion about which we might report: “that is a beautiful sunset”. But this is but another behavior determined by the purely physical operation of our brains, a report that happens, magically to coincide with the illusion arising in a causally impotent epiphenomena having no correspondence what-so-ever to any physical quality of the sunset.

This leaves all of what Hofstadter says he values, the memories of a wife he loved deeply, and the children he continues to adore, his close friends, his career, all illusion. Memories are an imperfect mental record of past experience, but experience is nothing but effervescent epiphenomena. They don’t mean anything because meaning is intelligible only to a subject, itself an illusion. He likes to think he acts out of love for his children, but this is impossible unless there is downward causation. Love has an experience that is overtly more than its physiological concomitants. This part of it is quintessentially mental, and therefore epiphenomenal. There is nothing there that has any stake (and in any case cannot be a cause) in the behavioral game.  Like beauty, physics does not find love in the causal mechanisms of the physical world.

If Hofstadter is right, then we might as well be zombies of the sort envisioned by his student (years ago) David Chalmers. Our interiority would seem to belie that. Chalmer’s “philosophical zombies” (P-zombies) have no interiority, but then our having one makes not the slightest difference to anything we might say or do, like “I love my children”. There is no “him” (all illusion) there to love anything, only his brain that determines the verbal report made.

Hofstadter declares to us that he “takes mind seriously”. Another zombie-report forced on him by his brain, just as that same brain forced him to pen that book. This is not “taking mind seriously”. If you take mind seriously, then you have to come out a bit like John Searle (whose critique of “machine consciousness” Hofstadter swipes at here and there throughout the book). Searle takes mind seriously. He says that he cannot shake the feeling that nothing about the entire history of human experience, not to mention the day-to-day experience of individual humans, makes any sense, becomes unintelligible, unless free will, and even personal agency (for Searle at least of a functional and not ontologically real sort) are both real. Searle, being ultimately a physicalist, admits he cannot figure out how this would be possible, but he nevertheless cannot shake the conviction that it is. Hofstadter (Searle and many others also) has another option, one that his  sort of “taking it seriously” prevents him from considering. He could take consciousness, agency, and free will to be real, and conclude that therefore physicalism must be false!

If one takes mind, and provisionally like Searle, free will and agency seriously, if physicalism is false, then one moves on to asking what must be the case about reality as a totality that makes these phenomena possible? What must be true about the universe if these subjective experiences are experiences of real phenomena? This is a question that Hofstadter, like Searle, cannot bring himself to ask.

I Am a Strange Loop by Douglas Hofstadter 2004

Douglas Hofstadter, justifiably famous for “Godel, Escher, Bach” wrote about the much trickier subject of mind and personal identity in this 2004 book. It is one thing to analyze the relation between three applications (their results in Math, visual art, and music) of self-referencing thought, and quite another to analyze the entity doing the thinking. Hofstadter begins with Godel because as it will turn out, his insight into the recursive descriptiveness of number theory from which self-reference was (supposedly) banned by Bertran Russel, becomes his inroad into a philosophy of mind. Hofstadter is a master at describing (without mathematical formalism) what Godel did and why it matters. He is not so good at applying this to mind.

Besides Godel, the author’s other insight comes from the loopy-like nature of recursive entities like infinite halls of mirrors or what happens when you point a television camera at the screen displaying what that camera is viewing. We all have seen these, and from these two things, Hofstadter assembles a theory of mind based on the idea that whatever goes on in the brain at the low and mid physical levels results in some sort of abstractions (perhaps manifested in harmonic oscillations of electromagnetic energy) that from another perspective, are the very stuff of consciousness.

There is nothing particularly new about this. Rejecting religion or other basis for any sort of dualism (and his remarks are rather disparaging in this respect) and declaring oneself a physicalist (there is nothing more than physics) is par for the course and occasionally swatting straw-man arguments to the contrary, is all part of the contemporary game for most of today’s philosophers and scientists. Besides religion he mentions David Chalmers who was, apparently, a student of Hofstadter’s in his doctoral days and rejects Chalmer’s non-religious panpsychism (and along with this presumably Davidson’s “dual aspect” monism as well) which is fine as far as it goes.

Hofstadter’s theory is somatic. Mind arises from what goes on physically in the brain and nothing more. The problem is he never gets to connect up the subjective with anything that can, even in theory, be measured by third parties. This is not to criticize him alone here, no other physicalists (or for that matter panpsychists) manage to do it either, but in this case the author jumps from the neurological layer to the concept of self-referencing abstraction (presupposing consciousness) without pointing to anything in between that might connect the two.

After declaring his theory “explained”, Hofstadter moves on to considerations of how one strange loop-abstraction, the one that fools me into the illusion of a stable “I”, is influenced and modified by others. He is much impressed by Derek Parfit’s thought experiments [supposedly] demonstrating that what we take to be the uncopyable core of ourselves, is nothing but effervescent illusion and can in fact be copied. Moreover, though we cannot copy it today (and may never be able to do that in reality) we can, from our own interiority, find ourselves being partial expressions of other people, their strange loops!

He supposes that our own personal-identities form slowly as we proceed from infant to child based on all the various influences that impinge on us from the world as these come to influence new effects in our own minds. The totality of all this over time results in a relatively stable, but not changeless, personal identity. He moves on from there to suppose that those we hold and know particularly closely (our parents, wives, children, siblings, etc) can cause their own identities to be partly duplicated in our own minds. None of this really makes sense. Of course someone with whom we are close for many years will have a proportionally larger influence over the shape of our phenomenal arena. What he doesn’t seem to appreciate is that this influence takes the same pathways (our interpretation of sensory experience for example) as the initial early development of our own personality. There isn’t any loop in my brain that is a copy (however imperfect) of my wife or children’s identity, only modifications of my own that represent them.

There is much here and I do not doubt that writing “I am a Strange Loop” was a labor of love in more ways than one. It is, as with other somatic theories, even possible that oscillating fields in the brain have a lot to do with consciousness and personal identity. There are still reasons to believe that this is not the whole story.

The Mistake in Theological Fatalism

“God knows everything you’ve done and loves you. God knows everything you are going to do and still loves you” Vern Benom Grimsley

There is a present fashion among intellectuals, a belief they are not free willed in the libertarian sense, that libertarian free will is impossible in a universe of randomness (quantum mechanics) and determinism (everything else). Although this present fashion is rationalized by modern physics, the idea is as old as the Greeks. Democritus (of atom fame) was one of those who believed this, and so the debate has gone on for some 2400 years.

I make no secret of my scorn for this fashion (see “Arguing with Automatons” and “The Nonsensical Notion of Compatibilism”). It is the philosophical equivalent of adolescent obsession with self-mutilation. Philosophers, even atheist philosophers like John Searle (“MIND” 2005 and “Making the Social World” 2010), Nicholas Rescher (“Free Will: A Philosophical Reappraisal” 2009), and Edward Lowe (“Personal Agency” 2006), address the absurdity of this position, though Searle admits he cannot reconcile his epistemological conviction that free will must be genuine with his equally strong metaphysical conviction (grounded in physics) that it is impossible.

In this context, the term ‘libertarian’ is not a political ideology but refers to the idea that some agency, my “I”, is volitional; “at liberty” to cause (in Rescher’s term “initiate” [atemporal cause]) some sorts of neurological activity in my brain. Some entity (often called mind) is the starting point of actions instantiated in the physical world by my body. In effect a subjective agent, I, and not merely neurological activity (which I am not aware of directly) am in command/control of my body, and this I, while resting on neuro-physiology, has some independence from physics; there is a gap between that which chooses, and the physiology the choice precipitates. For this reason, the term “contra-causal will” is associated with libertarianism.

The idea here is that this “I” in command (mind?) does not appear to be a physical entity and so libertarian free will commits to the added idea there is in the universe a “cause of the physical” that is not physical. This idea violates a central principle of physics known as the Causal Closure Principle (see “Fantasy Physics and the Genisis of Mind”). The two ideas, libertarian will and contra-causal will, are therefore associated, but the connection rests on the assumption the “I” is not a physical object. ‘Libertarian’ refers to phenomenology, first person experience, while ‘contra-causal’ cause is a metaphysical idea. “Theological Fatalism” addresses the former and is not necessarily committed to the latter should the “I” happen to be physical (see “I Am a Strange Loop” 2004 by Douglas Hofstadter and Lowe referenced above).

THE PROBLEM

On the other side of the debate, philosophers of religion (also going back to the Greeks) have an escape. God, being omnipotent, knows the trick of making contra-causal (and so libertarian) free will possible in a universe whose only other causes are random or deterministic.

Logicians then framed a puzzle. If God is omniscient, he knows everything that has, is, and will happen. This has to include every choice ever made (and ever to be made) by any minded being, personal or otherwise. If that is the case, if God already knows that when you step into a taquiria you will today order pollo and tomorrow carne asada, how can those choices be free? You cannot avoid the problem by intending to order chicken and then at the last moment changing your mind; God knows you will do that too. This puzzle is called “Theological Fatalism”. Even if God is the source of a third (contra-causal) cause, and “mind causes physics” (Sean Carroll “The Big Picture” 2016, something Carroll of course denies is possible) that cause cannot be free in the libertarian sense because God already knows what the choice will be and can never be wrong about it.

The puzzle is reminiscent of Zeno’s paradox (back to the Greeks again). Zeno said that movement, change in space, is impossible because to move a mile, or a foot, or even a millimeter, one has to go first half the distance, and then half that distance and so on blocking any movement before it begins. Although it seems obvious that we can move, it took some time for philosophers, early mathematicians, to figure out where Zeno goes wrong. The distance between any two points can be divided into an infinite series of smaller distances. Mathematicians demonstrated that one can traverse or complete an infinite series in a finite time. Zeno did not account for time and in a sense the same is true of Theological Fatalism, or at least that is a part of the story.

Before I dismantle this puzzle I want to note that this argument is raised by scientists and philosophers by way of ridicule; God himself is (or would be) inconsistent with free will. Oddly, many present-day theologians and philosophers of religion have accepted the argument and decided that therefore God is either not omniscient or not omnipotent!

If a theologian does not understand that God must be able to do and experience in ways we cannot and that there are logical riddles, transparent to God, we cannot (perhaps never will) fathom, who will? Such philosophers should hang up their philosophy hats and go away. Logically probing how such qualities as omnipotence and omniscience go together and yet provide for free will is one thing. Denying this is possible because they cannot figure out how it works is ridiculous; the pinnacle of hubris!

THE SOLUTION

If God is God then he knows everything that has, is, and will happen throughout time with absolute assurance, never guessing, and never being surprised. His knowledge is immediate and atemporal, it is a knowledge of a sort we know nothing about by experience, nor can we grasp it logically. We can suppose that God’s knowledge must be infinite and perfect, but not what that is like to experience it.

I’ll go further for the sake of the conundrum. Harry Frankfurt is famous in ethics circles for coming up with a puzzle. A mad genius has learned to take over brains and can cause a person to make any decision the genius wishes. Moreover, the genius knows (here is the real genius) what decision you make as you are making it. If your decision is what the genius wants you to do anyway, she need do nothing. But if your decision is about to be what she doesn’t want, she can force you to make the one she wants and do so in such a way that you do not even realize you are being forced! The question is: is your will still free?

The short answer to the Frankfurt question is, I think, yes you are free when you make the decision the genius wants and no otherwise. My point in bringing this up is to note that God has the power (omnipotence plus omniscience) to be the supreme Frankfurt genius! While we appear to be free, we are merely compelled (having no feeling of being compelled) to follow God’s script. But this mistakenly implies a causal relation between what God knows and what we do. No one claims theological fatalism precludes freedom because it is causal . It is rather a logical problem. God does not cause, that is force, us to make a particular choice.  The matter is rather about what God knows in what seems, from our viewpoint to be “ahead of time”. But God’s foreknowledge is foreknowledge only from a human, temporal, perspective. What ever be the limits of human libertarian freedom, even the most dyed-in-the-wool libertarian does not suppose that such limits include contravention of natural law, including time.

In the comments here an interlocutor points out that what God knows amounts to fate, and for this reason we are not free. It is a viewpoint that amounts to a deduction from a universal perspective impossible for us to actually have. Since “God is one” one might argue that everything that, to us, appears differentiated about the universe is all illusion or but a shadow of the singular unified reality. This ignores the manifest, to us, reality of matter and a richly differentiated universe. Both views reflect the same singular reality, some shadow to God, differentiated reality to us. It is from this perspective that we are free even if what we choose is, from God’s universal view fated.

No libertarian claims our freedom is absolute. Just as we cannot contravene natural law, so also we cannot surprise God. So long as (and assuming) mind is a cause in time, the future is genuinely open in time! If from our perspective, always limited to the present, a choice makes a future difference, then our choice is free from within that perspective.

Of course we might still be wrong about this if God is a deceiver, if it is in fact the case (as in Frankfurt’s clever puzzle) that we are not the cause of our choices, or that we are that cause only when we choose what God has foreordained. But if we are deceived then God has to be causing our choices and that is not the crux of theological fatalism.

There is every reason to believe that God (should he exist) cannot be a deceiver (see Prolegomena to a Future Theology). It does seem to experience that our will itself, the subjective mind exercising it, is (provided we are of normal brain) sovereign over choice no matter what choice we make. That God knows what that choice will be does not abrogate its freedom from within the view of our temporally constrained, to the present, perspective.

From our viewpoint, future possibilities from among which we choose (God knows these also) are in fact genuinely open to us because we do not know what God knows. We do, subjectively, choose from among alternatives and “which choice” we make makes a future difference to us and others whom the choice may entangle. This is all a robust libertarian free will needs. The strongest advocates of libertarian will do not demand that no power in the universe knows what you will decide.  Being unable to “surprise God” does not equate to fate from our perspective.

Libertarianism requires only that we cannot know what that power knows and as concerns God’s viewpoint this is surely true.  To say then: “well our freedom is purely perspectival, or stems merely from our limited perspective” is trivially true, but over-simplified. All freedom short of God stems from or exists within some perspective. It is freedom nevertheless because from within any perspective it bears causal responsibility for the particular choice made.

All that libertarianism requires is that subjective agency, the self-aware subject, and not deterministic neurophysiology nor God causally, initiates action from within its perspective and this requirement is fully satisfied in the human experience of willing. We are free in our experience and if “mind can cause physics”, if contra-causal cause is real (possible if God is real), and God is not a deceiver, then we are free in the libertarian sense, from within our perspective, despite what God knows. God knows what we will choose, but so long as his knowledge is not a cause of our choice our will is free within its constrained perspective. Theological fatalism is a false doctrine.