Review: The Geography of Morals by Owen Flanagan

Picture of me blowing smoke

The reviews published here in the blog are but a few of those I write for Amazon. I republish here because these books leave dangling philosophical implications, interesting to me, that isn’t appropriate to note in a book review. But few books reviewed and commented upon here give me as much dangling bait as this one. As always, the full Amazon review and link to the book are included below.

Flanagan says there are two moral roots, biology (evolution) and culture. He is missing the third root, human mind’s contact with spirit, a concept I promise to flesh out below. Here I will say that this contact has nothing to do with the pronouncements, moral or otherwise, of existing religious institutions, but with a property unique to human mind. 

Consider this: humans murder other humans. We say this is wrong (the inverse of right) and perhaps evil, the inverse of good. Every human society on earth avers this moral principle with few exceptions permitted. War is one exception nearly, but not entirely, universal. “Honor killings” among some peoples who do not deserve the appellation “civilized” (I am not even as much a moral relativist as Flanagan) is another if rarer exception. Chimpanzees, it is well documented, also sometimes murder other chimpanzees. Yet, we, that is humans, do not think of this as wrong. We say that chimpanzees are amoral. Being mere animals (though we share 98% of our DNA with them) they are not, we say, able to tell right from wrong. 

Why, having emerged (biologically) from the animals, do humans possess a conviction (which animals do not) that there exists a right and a wrong, a good and an evil? I refer here not to any conviction about specific wrongs, even murder. Apart from murder, there are numerous (as Flanagan so well shows us) culturally varying ideas of rights and wrongs. Why are humans in particular convinced that such things as rights and wrongs, or moral better and worse, in the abstract exist? I am not referring here to phenomenal experiences whether pleasurable or painful. As organisms we are biologically directed towards pleasure and away from pain. This is true of animals in some ways even more than humans. But only humans come to attach a moral facet to the experience, a conviction not only that I like pleasure more than pain, but that there is an abstract moral quality to pleasure lacking, or inverted, in pain.

The conviction cannot come from biology. We are animals. Could the 2% difference between our DNA and chimpanzees alone explain it? That 2% has a lot to do. We do not, after all, look much like Chimpanzees. Surely, the ubiquitous (at least widespread) belief in rightness and wrongness, a moral direction, lends itself to the fitness of larger, more complex societies. Yet Darwinian selection pressure comes (as we know) from outside the organism, even the community of organisms. If the conviction that a moral direction exists, exerts selection pressure, the conviction cannot be an illusion. If we merely “make it up” (the conviction is illusion), yet more of those humans who have it pass on their genes, we have a case, contra Darwin, in which fantasy, having no mind-independent counterpart, is biologically adaptive!  

What about culture? Of course, our specific notions of right and wrong are cultural. But the cultural evolution of moral specificities presupposes the belief in a moral direction, a better and worse.. Chimpanzees have been around on earth much longer than humans. They live in complex (for animals) societies. Yet, they have not evolved any socially-determined moral specificities other than the default “rule of the strongest male”. 

The moral particulars Flanagan so eloquently describes evolve from both biology and society. But the conviction that there ought to be moral particulars (and vaguely the direction particulars take over historical time) comes from the human mind’s sensitivity to, apperception of, values: truth, beauty, and goodness. Like morality abstractly as compared to specifics, the values are not the truth of particular propositions, or the beauty-content of particular configurations of the material world, or what particular acts, people, or concepts (like justice) are good. They are, rather, pointers in the direction of such things. They constitute our only phenomenal access to spirit, which from the human viewpoint, comes out to sensitivity to the moral quality of God’s character. 

Take justice (civil, economic, or criminal) for example. All cultures revere justice, and while what constitutes justice varies greatly between cultures, most strive for something resembling fairness which, in its turn, is also expressed in various ways. The vast majority of the world community would say that summary execution, the “justice” of Islamic terrorists, is not really justice at all, and they would be right.

Justice is not the value “goodness”. Rather, justice has goodness if a particular expression of it has something of the flavor of that value. Perhaps (in a criminal context), life imprisonment for a capital crime is more just (has more goodness) than execution. But execution after a fair and honest trial based on indubitable evidence is more just than summary execution! It isn’t the particular, nor even the concept “justice” that is supplied by our phenomenal experience of values, rather the conviction that there is something called goodness, and justice has [at least] some of it. From the human viewpoint, goodness is absolute only in the limited sense that it is mind-independently real. Our sensitivity to spirit has but the barest inkling of value-flavors as these would seem from God’s viewpoint, while the goodness content of anything (abstract or otherwise), as perceived by us, is a judgement of individual mind and subject to the relativity of individual (and socio-cultural) perspective.

I have written extensively on this. For a deeper discussion of the relation between values and mind see “From what comes Mind”, and “What are Truth, Beauty, and Goodness” among other articles. Here I sketch the briefest summary of it all. There is a field in spacetime that, in conjunction with brains, is the source of mind, that is phenomenal consciousness, the “what is it like to be..” experience. The richness of consciousness is proportional to the capacity of the underlying brain. Mammals, richer than reptiles, dogs, cats, and some birds, richer than mice, and chimpanzees richer than all the rest, except the human. The richness of the human experience includes sensitivity to the values, to spirit, something transparent to animal minds, and it is this sensitivity that constitutes the conviction that there is a “moral direction”, that some specific moralities are (or can be) theoretically better (meaning more true, beautiful, and good) than others. 

The conviction that there is a moral direction does not automatically (or even often after much thought) produce correct judgments concerning the value-content of particulars. There are, even between cultures, often broad agreements over the truth, goodness, or beauty of particulars. Just as often there are disagreements over which morality has “more goodness”, which artform or natural phenomenon “more beautiful”, of what human notions of the universe are “more true”. In our day to day, culturally embedded experience, we agree (mostly) on only two things: the particulars are relative (even within a culture), and yet values have an absolute quality to them. 

Think of an old fashioned magnetic compass. The pointer never locks-on to “the north” (leaving aside “magnetic north”)  but floats vaguely in its direction.  Looking at a compass, we never know exactly in what direction lies north, but it does give us an approximate direction, and by implication (the needle is not completely random), a philosophical reason to believe that  “the north” exists.

Truth, beauty, and goodness are properties of the universe (not merely the physical universe which would make beauty the only value) whose reality we apperceive.  We do not merely make them up, individually or collectively. We do “make up” the particulars, individually for ourselves, and collectively for society. The particulars are relative, to each other, and to the direction of the value pointer. Some particulars are “better than” others because they better reflect what we sense of the reality of truth, beauty, and goodness.  

What moral thinkers down through the ages have noticed is that particulars chosen because they are more aligned with [what we perceive to be] the value compass tend to have better and longer-lasting social outcomes. It is also true that the conviction of truth, beauty, and goodness’s reality, their objectivity, does not impart objectivity to our evaluation of their instantiation in particulars. The reality of a value direction is, like the material world, independent of human mind, though it is sensed, on earth, only in human mind. Moral particulars emerge (socially and individually) when social situations arise that appear to involve sensed values, particularly, in the case of morals, goodness. 

Theism, grounding value apperception, is the tool Flanagan needs to complete his project. 

  1. It explains why humans can be moral, immoral, and amoral, while even the most advanced animals only have the last. 
  2. It explains the direction (however slowly things change) of moral evolution in human communities. It gives him his “ought from is”, not in detail (particular moralities) but as concerns their general direction towards more truth, beauty, and goodness. 
  3. It provides the reason for individual moral striving by answering the “why should I” question. In the long run, we are not dead. This life is but a phase of a much larger project in which we personally continue to participate. 

I have not here discussed personal survival of material death (an implication of my theism, see “Prolegomena for a Future Theology” and “What is the Soul?”), but I note that Flanagan’s favorite alternate cultural example, Buddhism, answers this same question with reincarnation. According to the Karma doctrine, we are all living in something like John Rawls’ (“A Theory of Justice” 1971) “original position”. None of us know into what social status we are reborn (analogous to “Pascal’s wager”). Wise in this life to follow a moral course that maximizes our chance for a good (in the sense of less onerous)  “next incarnation”.  

The Geography of Morals by Owen Flanagan (2019 reprint)

Some might see this book as an apology for moral relativism. It is not that, exactly, but does struggle with that notion because Dr. Flanagan cannot quite get what he wants here. What he wants is an appreciation for the utility and value (to human-well-being) of various moral particulars as found in cultures around the world. In addition, he wants to select out of this collection those particulars that are good for humanity as a whole, where “goodness” is not measured solely from the viewpoint of any particular culture nor by utility alone.   

He cannot get what he wants, because the cultures chosen to illustrate his points are themselves selected from a certain range of what is, to us steeped in Western European culture, already acceptable. The Buddhist doctrine of “no-self” and its moral implications is acceptable, as is ancient Roman Stoicism. By contrast, leaving unwanted babies exposed to the elements to die (also ancient Roman practice), or Wahabbist beheading of infidels, is not.  

The book is divided into three parts. In the first, the author explores what he takes to be the two-roots-of-morality: biological evolution to human status with all its attendant adaptations for survival for the first nine-hundred-and-ninety-thousand years of human existence, and the cultural (social) accretions of the last ten-thousand years. This allows him to identify what he calls the moral or ethical “possibility space”. Yet (as he admits throughout the book) from these two alone he cannot identify an unambiguous “ought from is” (a well-known conundrum introduced by David Hume in the 18th Century) without the selection bias introduced by his chosen examples.

In the book’s middle third Flanagan chooses one emotion, anger (with manifest roots in biology), and explores its moral possibilities across his cultural examples. Anger, however, is one of the negative emotions that all cultures understand is better limited (at least) under normal circumstances. The issue in focus here is whether anger, its expression, is ever morally justified, a virtue. It is easy enough to construct examples in which some action, taken “in anger”, results in a genuinely just outcome. Yet Flanagan understands that every culture seeks either to extirpate anger or at least to limit its expression, and that such expression as might be permitted makes sense only, if at all, because of some prior circumstance that warrants anger in the first place! The moral complications engendered by negative emotions like anger are good perhaps for cross-cultural comparisons, but not very good at helping to understand the more limited variation in positive moral virtues like compassion which seem universally to be welcome. 

In the final third the author returns to the theme of finding some universal “oughts” from the combination of biological (which the world shares) and cultural roots. He shows us that, broadly speaking, almost every culture agrees that it is better for all if each individual is kind, honest, just, compassionate, and so on rather than envious, hateful, insincere, and selfish. He also uses this section to explore the implications of concepts of the self to moral motivation, But he can never answer the question of why, exactly, I should choose this “better course” if, in my personal opinion, I am better off (economically, politically, sexually, whatever) doing bad? He puts his finger right on the heart of the problem:  there can be no ultimate answer if, as J. M. Keynes noted, “in the long run, we are all dead”. 

Flanagan does what he can with the tools he has. Although he does address religion in the context of cultural and social forces, like Keynes, he believes that in the end, we are all dead, and this belief, shared by the vast majority of his peers, leaves him with little more than some interesting cultural comparisons, a description of, as he calls it, the “moral possibility space”. I will address the tool he lacks, and its implications for biology, culture, and morality in my blog.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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