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.

Answering 5 Questions: the Relation Between Science and Religion

The work of another, even a work unread, can suggest new blog material. On Twitter, one philosopher I know called attention to another, Dr. Gregg Caruso, whose primary interest appears to be arguing against the reality of libertarian (or contra-causal) will.

I have not read Dr. Caruso’s books, but titles like: “Free Will and Consciousness: A Determinist Account of the Illusion of Free Will” (2012) or “Exploring the Illusion of Free Will and Moral Responsibility” (2015) imply a position contra-free will. I have written about what I take to be the self-defeating absurdity of the position in  essays on this blog and in my books (see “Arguing with Automatons” and “The Nonsensical Notion of Compatibilism”).

Dr. Caruso has also written “Science & Religion: 5 Questions” (2014) in which he asks questions of some 50 scientists and religionists. I have not read this book either, but its description on Amazon does list what I take to be the thrust of the questions, providing me with an opportunity to explain my own views on this subject.

1. “Are Science and Religion compatible for understanding cosmology, biology (including the origin of life), ethics, and mind (brains, souls, and free will)?” And “do Science and religion occupy non overlapping magisteria?” I lump these two together as they appear to be different approaches to the same question.

2. Is Intelligent Design a scientific theory?

3. How do various faiths view the relation between science and religion?

4. What are the limits of scientific explanation?

5. What are the most important open questions, problems, challenges, confronting the relation between science and religion?

The questions as phrased are over-broad. Look at question #1 which includes everything from cosmology to mind-entangled disciplines like ethics and references to souls. Questions like this seem set up to make one side or the other look foolish. The literature is rife with confusion on this subject (see “What is ‘The Soul'”). Nor do any of the questions hint at any distinction between religion as it pertains to the individual and religious institutions. The dictionary is not helpful here. In modern terms, an individual’s religion is nothing more than an institution into which they are born or join later in life. The word ‘faiths’ in question #3 seems clearly to mean institutions, but questions #1 and #5 are ambiguous on this distinction.

There is definition of religion going back to the Greeks. Your religion is your relationship to God however you conceive it. This definition implies a distinction between “religion as such” and “religious institutions” (if any) to which you happen to belong. If there happens to be a personal (Abrahamic style) God, then we, being persons, each have some individual relationship to him whether we recognize it or not. This relationship is personal and except for ethics (via morality) has little direct connection to any of Dr. Caruso’s questions. Of course an individual’s intellectual interpretation of that relationship (even that it doesn’t exist) is another matter.

By contrast, religious institutions are social (interpersonal) and physical things like banks, schools, and offices. They have documents, buildings (see Searle below and Maurizio Ferraris), leaders, and members (customers). Religious institutions differ from the others only in that they purport to be about God. (there are exceptions. Buddhism in its original form denies the reality of anything like a God with whom one can have a relationship and yet remains a “religious institution”).

There is only an accidental relation between the teachings of the institution and the individual’s relationship to God. By-in-large, the individual accepts for her own belief system the teachings of the institution. Such intellectual acquiescence impacts the comprehension of the individual’s relationship to God, what they take to be their “personal religion”. But it does not actually alter the relationship as it is (or would be) from God’s viewpoint.

These two meanings (institution versus relationship) of ‘religion’ are literal. A further, metaphorical meaning, might or might not refer to God, but to whatever one takes to be a “founding world view”. This metaphor is captured in utterances like “science is my religion” meaning that science (what the individual takes it to be) is the foundation, the set of propositions on which every other belief (consistently or not) rests. There are many of these metaphorical religions. Almost anything over which human beings can obsess can become one. I will not be concerned with these metaphors here, but I note that if the individual’s intellectual foundation is a God-concept then the metaphor becomes a literal personal religion.

Besides being ambiguous about religion, question #1 is vague about science. Are we speaking of physics, chemistry, and biology, or psychology and “social science”? Are these all ‘sciences’ in the same sense of that term? I suspect not. In fact, what separates the hard from the soft sciences is the latter are in one manner or other entangled with the doings of minded beings while the former are not. The hard sciences are strictly about the material world and discoveries are (or would be) valid even should no minds exist in the universe. But if mind did not exist, there would be no psychology nor any other of the “social sciences”. It is this intrinsic mind-entanglement that makes them problematic, quasi-sciences.

If God is real, then the personal relationship is real even if one denies it. One can say “I have no father” suggesting various possible metaphorical meanings, but they remain only metaphors. If you are a living vertebrate, you must literally have a biological father. The failure to make this distinction between different meanings of ‘religion’ muddies questions 1 and 4 which are otherwise different ways of asking more or less the same question. I will keep this distinction in mind throughout the essay.

Question #1. To the first part, The short answer is NO, To the second, YES. Science (hard science) is about the material world. Religion is about the relation between human beings as subjective entities and God. Religion (personal or institutional) has no business saying anything about physical mechanisms other than that God is ultimately their source.

The greatest and most important insight of hard science is that physical mechanisms are free of teleological encumbrance; they are purposeless! This does not mean the existence of the physical as such is purposeless. God (if he exists) might have a purpose for a physical universe of purposeless mechanism (see “Why Free Will”). Religion has no business making pronouncements about any detail of physical mechanism, while science has no business declaring God’s non-existence based solely on its evaluation of physical mechanism whose [possible] overall purpose science is not qualified to evaluate.

Mind, whatever it is, complicates this picture because science is done in mind by minded entities. Clearly mind of the individual variety with which we are familiar is a part of the universe. There are minds in the physical universe. But whether mind itself is physical, or takes origin solely from the physical is problematic. The methods of science so well adapted to explicating purposeless mechanism are ill suited to evaluating purposeful mind. Purpose enters the universe through mind.

If God is real, then substance dualism is possible and not problematic except for the infamous “interaction problem” (see “Fantasy Physics and the Genesis of Mind”) which science is not qualified to resolve other than to say the interaction must take place in brains whose material mechanisms are within its scope. Nor is there any reason to believe that religion (or philosophy) is qualified to explicate the interaction. My relationship to God does not require that I understand how mind is evoked from (or evokes) events in my brain. There are several related interaction problems. I will not concerned myself with their details here (see essay linked just above).

The first question throws together so much it is impossible to answer it straightforwardly. For example libertarian free will (or the illusion of it) is something that only appears, like purpose, in association with minds. Science (meaning the “hard sciences”) by itself suggests that such a thing is impossible, but then again as John Searle says (“MIND” 2005, “Making the Social World” 2011, and “The Construction of Social Reality” 1997) nothing about human experience makes sense unless libertarian free will is genuine (Searle being an atheist admits that he cannot resolve this riddle). Indeed, accepting that a contra-causal (meaning that, as Sean Carroll puts it, “mind causes physics”, something Carroll denies — see  “The Big Picture” 2017) free will must be genuine is among the strong philosophical reasons to believe there must be [something like] God.

Ethics (also lumped into question #1) only makes sense in a free will context and resides in mind where decisions of moral import originate. Ethics is a social reflection of morality. It entangles the physical world only after some free willed choice made in mind. There is nothing for science to do here other than to illuminate the limits of what is possible given the bodies our minds control are physical. This includes, for example, the discovery that certain disease states of the brain might make ethical evaluation impossible by the consciousness evoked in such brains.

The contemporary notion that we can derive an ethics scientifically is ridiculous. Ethics, being about the interactions of the bodies of minded persons can be described by [soft] science and [soft] science can help to determine the reason-ability of various ethical ideas,  but ethics cannot be logically derived from science in any normative sense.

Question #2. Intelligent design is a hypothesis but not scientific because it implies purpose-directed (i.e. not purposeless) mechanism underlying certain observed physical phenomena. That doesn’t mean it has nothing to contribute to the debate. Intelligent Design is not Creationism!

Dr. Caruso’s book includes William Dembski (“No Free Lunch” 2001 and “The Design Inference” 2006) as a contributor. Dembski concedes his belief in an Abrahamic God, but his work does not commit him to this detail. Dembski’s point is that an accidental origin of life and its evolution (on Earth) to its present state is highly unlikely.  Dembski’s hypothesis is a statistical argument from empirical data — life’s extraordinary information content! It looks to Dembski like intelligence is involved in the process, but he is strictly committed only to the unlikeliness of its being an accident.

Dembski can easily get what he wants in a Darwinian context. His work only requires that not all genetic mutations are random! If I drop 1000 coins onto a floor and then deliberately flip 10 of them, will any statistician (looking only at the result) dare to say that the distribution of heads and tails is not random? If over 3 or 4 billion years 99% of mutations were random, but 1% were not, how would we from our present perspective ever tell the difference?

The origin of life (like the origin of the big bang and the value of the cosmological settings) is a special case. Physics entails that a contingent origin of life must be possible. Dembski concedes this. His claim is that such a beginning is unlikely and he makes a well argued case for that view. He does not insist that therefore an Abrahamic God must be responsible for it. Dembski exposes the unreasonableness of the near universal belief of science that life originated and evolved to its present state entirely by accident. That no one has come up with an alternative between accident and intelligent design is not really Dembski’s problem.

Question #3. The problem here (“faiths” referring to “religious institutions”) is that all the [major] faiths are based on “holy books”, the writings of their founders usually (but not always) taken to be divinely authored in some direct or indirect manner. The people (and leaders) of these faiths have, by in large, absorbed the idea that their textual sources are infallible. Not every religious institution on Earth believes this basic falsehood but to one extent or another, they hold the value of all parts of these texts to be roughly equal.

In these texts, statements consistent with a first principles theology (see “Prolegomena to a Future Theology”) are admixed with others that plainly contradict them. Moreover, these books (in particular the Bible) purport to tell not only the history of the faith, but of the world beginning with its origin and all of history between then and their writing. Some of this exposition concerns mechanisms of the physical world. They are all pre-scientific and should not today be taken seriously, other than as [possibly] great literature! I return to this in my answer to question #5.

Question #4. This question is implicitly answered above in my reply to question #1. To be brief, the scope of the sciences is the purposeless mechanism of subsystems of the physical world. Strictly speaking scientific method (methodological naturalism) cannot be applied (experimentally) to the universe as a whole. It cannot be applied, for example, to discover if the physical cosmos has a purpose in the mind of some god.

Because the mechanisms (events) of subsets of the physical are purposeless they behave always in the same way under the same relevant conditions. It is this consistency that enables mind (in which and by which the scientific method is deployed) to explicate the mechanisms themselves through observation and, where possible, experimental tuning of conditions. None of this has to do with the question of whether a god has brought all of this cosmos about or how that god might relate to minded observers arising within its physical context.

Once science turns its method on mind itself ambiguities necessarily appear. Mind isn’t [apparently] material for one, but it is unambiguously purposeful. There is nothing preventing a purposeful mind from starting different causal chains under identical material conditions. Science can address the material roots of mind, but applying itself to mind as such can never complete its explanations. This doesn’t mean it cannot help to narrow mysteries about the nature of mind’s relation to brains, but it cannot remove them as it can with regard to the behavior of the macroscopic physical world.

Question #5. This question is the most equivocal between the two literal definitions of ‘religion’, personal versus institutional. Conflict between “the faiths” and science will not end until the institutions (and by extension their leaders and members) give up the false claim that their texts are the work of God (see “Misquoting Jesus” Bart Ehrman 2009). There is a ready substitute (at least philosophically) in a “first principles theology” (see Prolegomena linked above).

Once institutions identify in their texts that which is consistent with first principles (legitimately discovered by human beings; there are a few qualities we can infer about God) the rest is free to be interpreted as literature. Literature has value, culturally and otherwise, but as science, as a description of the mechanisms of the physical world, it is only speculative fiction. Indeed, and for the same reason, “the faiths” have as much conflict with one another as they do with science. Different holy books contradict one another as much as they contradict themselves. The real God, like the real physical universe, must be free of intrinsic contradictions!

Science has, in the end, the easier job here. It must merely give up the claim to any authority on the question of God’s reality leaving all the rest of science unchanged. Because they are automatic, the purposeless mechanisms of the physical world can be explicated without reference to God (see “The Blind Watchmaker” Richard Dawkins 2006). But this truth has nothing whatever to do with the question of whether the cosmos as a whole is the product of a design having a purpose for purposeless mechanism observable and manipulable by purposeful mind!

Mind itself, its subjective qualities, is the evidence, albeit not scientific evidence, there is something more to reality than science can legitimately address. Because this evidence, experience itself, is not scientific the individual scientist is free (though ironically we might ask how so?) to reject, intellectually, the conclusion that there must therefore be something more than physics. But such a rejection is philosophical and not scientific. Speaking as a scientist, one should stop asserting there is not or (in some claims) cannot be, anything more than physics.

There is no question #6 but one comes neatly to mind. “What, if anything, can religion say about the purposeless mechanisms of the physical universe”? In “The Goldilocks Enigma” (2008) Paul Davies, speaking of “fine-tuning” from the cosmological settings to the geophysical evolution of the Earth, notes that “if God is real, none of this would be surprising”. This is what religion in its institutional form can say about physical mechanisms. Their existence as such is not mysterious; there is an over-all purpose to their being just the way they are, a  purpose to physical purposelessness!

What purpose, or what range of purposes? Religion can address these questions (see “Why Free Will” linked above), but doing so takes us immediately away from physical mechanism into mind and mind’s sensitivity to values, our only (and strictly mental; subjective) contact with spirit; the character of God. It should not be surprising that we must account for purposeless mechanism, purposeful mind, and mind’s sensitivity to values, in any inference towards an answer to such questions.

Institutional religion however does disservice to its flock if it claims absolute authority to specify every detail of what it can reasonably infer of God’s purposes. This is the same disservice done by scientists who claim that science as such rejects God’s reality. Religion must face its own limitations. It is it not qualified to make pronouncements regarding physical mechanisms, and it can never declare its interpretations, inferences, and conclusions about the relation between persons and God final! Philosophically it faces the same insurmountable “interaction problem” as does physics, though unlike some physicists (see “The Beginning of Infinity” David Deutsch 2012), it does not assert that mind must in the end be able to resolve every such question.

I would like to add one note tying this subject to what I take to be Dr. Caruso’s view that contra-causal and libertarian (not the same concept but always found together) will is physically impossible. None of the answers given above make sense if a robust libertarian freedom, at least for human mind, is not presupposed. Yes philosophers have constructed a conundrum called “theological fatalism” in which libertarian freedom is rendered impossible by the very infinity (omniscience) of God claimed by religionists (see “The Mistake in Theological Fatalism”). Here I note only that the matter is resolved by observing that human freedom is limited both as to conceiving and to acting in time while God’s foreknowledge is not. The outcome of this from our perspectival viewpoint is that God’s knowledge is not a cause of our choice. God’s knowledge also includes all possibilities from which our choice might be made. It is because we have real freedom from our perspective within mind that any choice, and in particular moral choice (the only domain in which our freedom is absolute) has any real meaning.

So following Searle, I have to say that nothing about the human experience, including all of its social history (including religion in both senses distinguished here), makes sense unless the robust reality of a libertarian free will is presupposed! I differ from Searle however. I do not automatically also suppose that this cannot be right because of the philosophical claim that this is impossible as no evidence of contra-causal cause has ever been found by physics.

It is my contention that the manifest freedom I exercise in dozens of choices made every day (most trivial, some of import) is that evidence! I concede that this is not scientific. This evidence, should it be evidence, exists in, and is only available to, subjective mind. Freedom is the quintessential manifestation of my agency, the central quality of my experience (noted ironically by Schopenhauer “The World as Will and Representation” 1844). There is in effect only one example of it in the universe, the connection between subjective consciousness and brains. But while brains can be studied by science, the experience they effect cannot except by report which is physical and can not evoke experience as such!

If then I take my experience of free will to be real then its [seeming] physical impossibility must mean that there is something else going on in the universe, something that must in some sense be independent of physics! If such considerations ultimately point to the conclusion that something like God must exist, then so be it. My aim is philosophical rigor based on experience, not rejection of possibility based on illegitimate philosophical induction on the part of physicists.

Prolegomena to a Future Theology

selfie

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

Updated in April 2019 to smooth rough edges, remove less relevant material, and shorten up.

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

I did not invent this ontology or theology. It comes from “The Urantia Book” first published in 1955 by the Urantia Foundation and now in the public domain. There are now superb e-book versions for less than $4, one of them linked above. My own contribution is to organize but a fraction of the content of The Urantia Book’s theological system into a form that I can subsequently use (in my books and the many other essays of this blog) to relate the ontology and the theology to problems in contemporary philosophy.

Joints in Reality

As this paper is primarily an explication of the theology, I will only briefly address the ontology it implies. What follows here is not a presupposition of the theology, but an inference from it. This is to say if God is something like or has something like the positive qualities ascribed to him below, then something like this ontology must obtain.

The entirety of all that is real can, in the final analysis, be divided into three distinct but interacting domains; Spirit, Mind, and Matter-energy. It is said that “God is Spirit”, but whatever else it is that constitutes Spirit we have little ability to know. Little however is not none, and one quality Spirit must have is the power to have been the source of the two other domains.

Mind here is not taken to be individual human minds, but broadly the phenomena of mind in the universe. Mind is expressed as animal mind including the human and perhaps in other ways throughout the universe. As a domain, however, Mind can be taken to be a kind of reality as real as, but also different from, Spirit and Matter-energy.

Matter-energy is the domain with which we are most familiar because even mind of the human sort rests on top of it. It is because Mind in some sense intervenes between Spirit and Matter-energy that localized mind, the sort of mind we have, is capable of comprehending and manipulating Matter-energy relations.

Crucially 1) Spirit is the source of both Matter-energy and mind, and 2) everything that is, everything that exists is either Spirit, Mind, Matter-energy, or some combination of the three. Minded animals are a common example of the combination of Matter-energy and Mind. Human mindedness in particular is also sensitive to the reality of values, truth, beauty, and goodness. This is the only direct phenomenal access we have to “what we can know of Spirit”.  It is because human mind is sensitive to values, that we can choose to be “led by Spirit”.

Theology is Realism

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

Any serious theology then must begin from a realist perspective. God’s existence supports a direct realism (see John Searle “Seeing Things as they Are”). If God is real, human mind can be substantive in someway or other, and can be presupposed to be designed to perceive and manipulate the structure of the world.

We are here philosophers. The point of “God talk” is to get something out of it for philosophy. Does assuming God exists and ascribing logically maximal qualities to him improve insights into other questions. What questions? Broadly, questions about the nature and origins of our experiential world and experience itself  and how the two of them go together, that is what relation or relations, do they have? Many philosophers today will say that such questions are not meaningful; they do not correspondence to anything real and therefore cannot have a truth value. There cannot be any relation between what exists and what doesn’t exist, God, with unicorns falling into that latter category.

These philosophers will say there is an infinite number of such possible metaphysical claims and no way to discriminate between them. I do not believe this is correct. Not just anything will do. To accommodate all of our real experience, sensory, intentional, directed, only some possible imaginings will work, and in particular, when you add also moral convictions like the social reality of duty, only one works. But before I can defend that assertion I must set forth the one. That is the purpose of this paper.

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

Dispensing with Arguments Against

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

The second objection is more telling. Even besides physics, no proof of God’s existence (a proof being something that takes place in logic and has meaning only in the mental arena of persons) is to be had. Why? If God exists “the mental arena of persons” is (like physics), a phase of some total creation. The logical universe is consistent. Given Godel’s incompleteness theorem, it is not possible to prove every possible truthful proposition of the system. “God exists” is a possibly truthful proposition of the system that cannot be demonstrated from within the system. We cannot prove, from within our perspective, that which by stipulation if nothing else must lay outside our perspective. Tellingly, as there is no proof, there is no disproof either. God is not logically impossible.

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

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

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

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

If the foregoing were not the case, there would be (or could be) something “more than God”, something outside God, and that is impossible if God is really God. If there is or might be something outside of God the metaphysical question of its source would be meaningful. God could not be the source of anything that was “beyond or antecedent to him”, and in that case wouldn’t be God in the first place.

What that means for us is that we are in fact able to say something meaningful about God even if what we say, our ideas, propositions, and so on, have only the slightest correspondence to what God is for himself. We must be able to assert true positive propositions about God even though they represent but a small slice of his being. This is not to say that everything we might imagine about God corresponds to anything real. Like unicorns, some of what we imagine about God might have no correspondence to reality what-so-ever. All the same, correspondence must be possible. If nothing else, we can say that if God is God he must be at the top of the chain of being. All being, including God himself, must proceed from God.

If God is God, then being is univocal except as concerns God himself. Matter, mind, values, time, space, and anything else that can be said “to exist” and isn’t God must ultimately originate from God and be able to interact with God and itself. From the human viewpoint there can be many legitimate joints in reality: past present and future, matter and thought, natural and artifactual kinds, or universals and particulars. By contrast God knows every possible joint, and the whole simultaneously. Substances, processes and all their relations must all exist and be fully present across all time to God.

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

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

Axioms and Theorems

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

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

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

I allude to will and purpose above. God must be purposeful, have purpose (even many purposes). Humans experience includes both willfulness and purpose. Human beings cannot have what God lacks. If we are willful and elect purposes so can God and because of the infinity and consistency axioms God’s will must be unqualified (other than by logical contradiction) and his purposes consistent throughout all time. His purposes must be changeless.

There can be purposelessness in phases of the whole creation; purposelessness for a purpose. Physical mechanism, the slavish behavior of the physical world described by physical law, is properly purposeless. But the existence of this mechanism, as such, cannot be purposeless.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Values and Goodness

Those are the theorems. God is purposeful, minded, personal, and perfect. I have said nothing about being good. It is tempting to derive God’s necessary goodness from the axioms and theorems. Whatever else evil is, it is disruptive. Evil is characterized by destruction (of many sorts) and something positive must exist to be destroyed. So existence, being as such if nothing else, must be antecedent to evil. “God’s first thought” cannot therefore be evil and by the infinity and consistency axioms there is no evil in anything God does. We can call that good but it is a goodness that is, like perfection, true by definition, and unlike perfection, can conceivably be in conflict with our own judgement.

Perfection is abstract. It exists relative to some standard. Goodness has an emotional component that speaks for itself independent of a standard. God’s goodness is but indirectly related to our perspective, on what has goodness from our point of view. It is rather related to the notion that there is such a phenomenon as goodness in the first place.

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

It is an important phenomenological assumption of this theology that we detect, and not merely invent, values. But there is a distinction (rarely recognized in modern philosophy) between values and what has them. The values as such each have one another. Truth has both Beauty and Goodness for example. Besides having one another, each of the values also reflect into subjective experience in complex but distinct ways. No two persons experience (detect) them in exactly the same way analogous to how qualia vary (slightly in normal brains) from person to person.

What is important to keep in mind is that values appear to us, that is to subjective consciousness, as the conviction that these three qualities exist. There is beauty, truth, and goodness. Values as such are NOT about what is true, beautiful, or good. What appears to be true, beautiful, or good in our experience is what has (or might have) value.

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

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

Goodness is value reflected in the acts and the motivations of persons. As non-minded life is only metaphorically purposeful, animals can be only metaphorically good. They can act in ways that, like purpose in non-minded life, are good from our anthropocentric viewpoint. Only persons can be good, can elect to be motivated by and act in accordance (applied act by act or to a life over-all) with what that person detects of Goodness; what she takes Goodness to be in a particular case. Like Truth and Beauty, those motives and acts vary thanks to our differential appreciation for what constitutes Goodness (and our skill in acting it out). Only persons can act for the sake of Values.

The values are all positive; they are a part of our universe and therefore have a relation to God. Like everything else, they must, directly or indirectly, come from God. Their detection, recognizing their reality, in human mind is therefore a detection (recognition) of some tiny facet of God’s character. Values reflect God’s character (however weakly perceived that reflection) into mind. Since God must be unified and consistent, the character of God reflected into mind must be God’s actual character. Not all of it by any means, but even that small part must be consistent with the rest. The quality of the values we recognize as such cannot be inconsistent with the rest. It is for this reason that God must be good.

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

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

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

Derivatives

The Problem of Evil

Does evil have a relation to God? How is there evil in a universe created by an infinite good God?  Evil is a negative, a disruption of logically prior being. The issue is complicated by the conflation (not least in modern philosophy) of accidents and error with evil. If two stars spiral together and obliterate each other, neither experiences anything let alone evil. If there was some planet, harboring living beings, close to the event, those living beings would be destroyed as soon as the gamma ray burst reached them (possibly many thousands of years after the event). Those living beings would experience the pain of being blotted out and thus evil by today’s common understanding but this is not exactly what evil is from a theological viewpoint.

Evil as such (as contrasted with the experience of its effects), like error and unlike accidents, begins in human mind alone. Unlike the Values, evil is not a phenomenon in physical space and time.  Among other things, unlike error (a bad choice made by a human mind) evil is a deliberate negation of values. Mind introduces evil into the world by freely choosing to negate the Values whether Truth, Beauty, or Goodness. Once such a choice is made and acted upon the typically negative consequences of the act on others we also call evil.

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

There is an important difference in my analogy between cold and evil. In theory it is possible to have an “absolute absence of heat”, a temperature at which all molecular motion ceases; zero kelvin. But there is no analogous “absolute evil”. If evil is a relative absence of goodness, then an absolute evil would be some state of affairs that has no relation what-so-ever to God, and that is impossible. An existing (real) object, process, state of affairs must have some relation to God. A reality having no relation to God cannot exist. The further exploration of “the nature and explanation of evil” in theology is called theodicy. There is discussion of it in my books. Here I will note only that the solution to the “problem of evil”, rests on the distinction between accident, error, and genuine evil.

Holy Books and Teachers

No part of the above sketch relies on the contents of “The Bible” (Old or New Testament) or any other holy book. In this view there are no literally “holy books”, only books (some books) whose content is mostly about God. But these contents are the work of human beings. Some of this content is representative of God, that is consistent with the content of this introduction. Much is not.

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

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

One can look at the Old and New Testaments together as a historical tracing of the evolving God concept from polytheism to a monotheistic “king of the tribe” to “the Father of the individual”. In between there is fictionalized history (more fictionalized the farhter back it goes), and outright mythology (the creation). All of what these ancient texts say about the mechanisms of the physical world is nothing but speculative mythology.

I note that technically this is also true concerning distant origins (big bang, emergence of life, mind) today though we can be much more sure of the foundations that underwrite present-day speculation. Some parts of holy books were written (in their time) for purely political purposes, to solidify the power of a nascent church by securing the loyalty of the flock. In the New Testament, the Book of Revelations is just such a piece.

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

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

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

Personality Survival

What about an “after life”? Supposedly the craving for immortality (even if impossible) has been among the drivers of all religion from the most ancient on down to the present-day. By some lights, all religion is nothing more than wishful thinking for no other purpose (ultimately) than grounding a mistaken belief in “life after death”. Theology must surely address this question. I do so in “What is ‘The Soul'”.

God and History

There is also the matter of the relation of God to human history and exactly what we are to do with our vague perception of values. Has God directly intervened in human history? How would we know? From the moment animal mind had the potential to recognize the values it became personal-mind and gained the power of choice based on values perception. That power has to be some part of the mechanism by which God’s purposes are brought about in time. See my “Why Free Will” for further discussion of this. All of this leads to a theological grounding of ethics and aesthetics, but if God is not to short-circuit free will his interventions must be subtle and few. What evidence might there be?

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

Searle on the Ontology of Social Reality

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

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

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

The Construction of Social Reality (1997)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mind: A Brief Introduction” by John Searle 2004

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

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

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

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

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

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