Mental Cause

In several essays on the broad subject of free will I have said that there are three types of causation in our physical universe: micro-physical indeterminism, macro-physical determinism, and agent-volition, the last subjectively experienced as the willful exercise of one’s mind’s causal capacity, “mental cause”. I refer to what Aristotle called “efficient cause”, that is the immediate forerunner (or forerunners) of a particular event or outcome taken to mean “that which physically brings that particular event about.” Aristotle defined four types of causes, three of which could be said, sometimes, to have “mental” aspects. A simple example here, a fire in a fire-place, will serve to illustrate Aristotle’s distinctions.

1. The “material cause” of the fire is that out of which it could be made. Wood or paper might work. Water would not. There also has to be some oxygen (or other oxidizer) present and so on.

2. “Formal cause” has to do not with the fire’s material substrate but its shape. Not all arrangements of even qualified materials will successfully light. To make a nice fire place fire, the wood and paper have to be arranged in certain ways. Many but not all possible arrangements will serve.

3. “Efficient cause” is that which physically brings the fire about. It might be a lit match set to paper for example. When physics talks about causes, it is this they are talking about. Importantly, there can be chains of efficient causes. To set my wood pile alight with a match I must first strike the match and light it, then hold its flame under my paper kindling. That last step is commonly called also the “proximate cause” and it is mostly this that this essay is about.

4. Aristotle’s fourth cause, the “final cause” is the reason we have built and lit our fire. We want to get warm. Notice that this cause is only indirectly connected to our fire. Besides starting a fire we might get warm in other ways. We could do physical exercise or put on a coat. The entire set up of the fire from the material (wood and paper), its arrangement, to its ignition, are merely means to this end.

Under normal circumstances, we would always attribute “final cause”, to a desire, aim, or objective (purposeful intention) of the agent to get warm. If “mental cause” (of any sort) even exists, final causes would always, by definition, be mental. “Material causes” (that wood and paper in the presence of oxygen can burn) are not typically thought of as mental. Formal causes (the arrangement of the wood and paper in the fire place) might or might not be mental. The wood and paper in their pre-light configuration is not mental per-se, but the arrangement-design might or might not be. In the case of our fire place an agent is involved, but for example in a natural forest (arrangement of trees) ignited by lightening, it is not. As with formal cause, efficient cause might or might not involve mentality. In the case of our fire place, an agent lights the fire, but in the forest fire, lightening does the job.

Notice that from a third-party viewpoint, efficient (causal) agency remains always a physical object. What lights our fire place is a body with arms and hands that strike matches, and so on. There is no need to assume mental cause is real from an outside perspective. When we get to an inside perspective however the situation is quite different.


What we need is some justification for believing mental cause exists, that it belongs in our ontology and “is real” by virtue of being one of the causes (somewhere in the chain of efficient cause) of [some] physical event. When we observe what we take to be a minded agent (human or animal) we see that the physical effects they engender are always products of a body’s motion. No one disputes the physical connection between the body and the rest of the world. The issue comes down to “what moved the body”? The answer is muscles of course, nerves, and more nerves comprising some part of the brain. The question is, was there something that isn’t a nerve as such (though a nerve would be involved) but something quintessentially mental, perhaps a desire or something like that lying at the beginning of the chain of efficient-causes?

Most people would say that it “seems as though” this is the case. Physics says this seeming must be an illusion because it discovers only two kinds of causes in the universe, the indeterminate and the determinate. To be sure, discovered here means measured. Physics detects, with physical instruments, only two types of causes. Speculation about mental cause goes back as far as the earliest recorded philosophy, but physics has never been able to detect it!

If however there is no mental cause when we seem so strongly to sense that there is, all sorts of philosophical problems arise. Mental cause is not the same as free will, but free will entails mental cause. Physics of course denies free will is real But if I am not warranted in believing my agency can be a cause, at least of my own body’s motion, how am I warranted in believing anything? Belief itself (causal or not) is a quintessential mental phenomenon. If my causal capacity is an illusion why not also my agency, and why not anything I might happen to believe or desire?

We can be deluded about our beliefs being true, but it is difficult to believe we are deluded about having beliefs, and doubly so for desires. The debate isn’t usually about having (subjectively experiencing) beliefs, but rather about their being anything “over and above” brain states. If physics calls my very agency into question (not the illusion of it, but its being something more than brain states) what is it then that has beliefs and desires? Can “brains” be an answer? How do brains, qua brains, come to have beliefs and desires? Do the mechanisms of a clock know the time of day in the sense that a human knows it when she looks at the clock? To deny brain states beneath (the foundation) of our mental states would in this day be absurd. The issue is always ultimately the ontological status of what appears, the subjective, as a result of their presence, and what (if any) downward causal powers the appearance has.

These sorts of issues are but the tip of the iceberg. If mental cause (and so by extension free will) is an illusion then a radical skepticism about everything would seem to be warranted. At the same time, even skepticism, since we must be skeptical of our very agency, is not warranted either. There is a long literature here, but as John Searle put it (The Construction of Social Reality [1995]) nothing about the human experience nor all of human history makes any sense without presupposing free will.


I have given some answer to this above: because physics cannot measure it. It would seem unproblematic to take for granted that physics doesn’t cover everything; it is, as the matter is put, incomplete. But the problem is more subtle than that. The two types of causes that physics can measure (strictly speaking physics cannot measure quantum phenomena directly, but only when these interact with the macroscopic world) have qualities, characteristics, that mental causes lack. These qualities are what explain in the sense of “reveal the mechanism for” physical causation. There is no mathematics in physics, no observation or experiment that would suggest that anything other than prior-physics can be a cause in physics. Even not-directly-observable quantum phenomena are readily observed via these same qualities when they interact with the macroscopic world. Purportedly “mental causes”, by contrast, do not appear to share these qualities. As a result, they cannot be observed from a third party viewpoint, and so no path exists to an explanation of the mechanism of their effect on physics.

Rather than accepting that some mysterious sort of cause that cannot be observed must be real, physicists and most philosophers instead move to strike “mental cause” from the list of causal possibilities in our universe. This is a philosophical move, an induction based on evidence from the only sort of detection or measurement instruments, physical instruments, that exist. The anti-physicalist might respond by claiming that while physical instruments can not in principle measure mental cause, subjective consciousness, literally our phenomenal arena detects them, and this arena is, after all, also a part of the universe along with everything else.

At this point we are thrown back upon the brain which is indisputably physical. We know that the movement of my arm is preceded by nerve impulses in my arm and brain that are themselves indisputably physical. If at the top of this chain of efficient cause there was a mental event that set the chain in motion it behooves the proponent of mental cause to say how, that is by what mechanism, the mental event effects (that is trigger) the first indisputably physical (nerve) process in the chain?


According to Phil Dowe (Physical Causation [2000]) material cause is all about transferring some [physically] conserved quantity momentum, mass-energy, or electric charge. If one billiard ball strikes another momentum is transferred from one to the other. This results in two other observations important in this context. First physical cause is temporal. Causes precede their effects. The transfer of a conserved quantity cannot take place faster than the speed of light. Second, there is a reciprocal impact of the effect on the cause. If one billiard ball gains momentum, the other loses it.

Both of these qualities are absent from mental cause. In this context, distinctions made by Nicholas Rescher (“Free Will: A Philosophical Reappraisal” [2008]) will be helpful. Rescher is aware of the overall relation between consciousness (including mental cause) and brain states. He claims that there never can be any instance of mental cause without the simultaneous existence of some correlated brain state. If we look for a mental event that brings about a brain state, but isn’t itself associated simultaneously with some other brain state, we will never find it. “Mental causes”, in Rescher’s terms are not causes in Dowe’s physical sense.

Mental causes are not, in Rescher’s view, temporal. They are literally (metaphysically) simultaneous with their effect, some brain state. He distinguishes this sort of a temporal cause by calling it “initiation”. Initiation (often intentional but not necessarily so) need not evoke a neurological correlate ex nihilo. It need only slightly modify an existing state. From a third party viewpoint, that modified state would appear a perfectly natural evolution from its own prior state. Nothing would be found to suggest that anything non-physical was responsible for it.

This “a temporal initiation” is possible because in mental cause, no conserved quantity is transferred, and consequently there is no reciprocity. If I elect to pick up a rock and throw it at a window, I can feel the momentum transfer between my arm and the rock, and of course the throw is temporal. But the initiation of the event was simultaneous with the physical brain state that lies at the top of the physically [efficient] causal chain. The evidence that this is so is our experience that there is no reciprocal effect of my choice to initiate a rock-throw back on that initiator. Nothing about the initiation impacts back on the mental cause itself. Of course I may, this being a directed (intentional) initiation, immediately regret having done so. But that is a different, subsequent, thought, not a modification of the original one.

If Rescher is correct about initiation, how can we tell if the choice (mental cause) results (simultaneity being granted) in a correlated brain state or the other way around? We cannot tell based on any physical measurement. Physicalists would say there is no reason not to suppose that the physical is logically (if not temporally) prior. But if Rescher is correct, what then of the mechanism problem?

With regard to mechanism, many speculations seem to orbit about some interaction at the quantum level. The a temporal nature of initiation coupled with a lack of conserved quantity transfer and so lack of reciprocity, are suggestive of quantum entanglement where, on some views (see Ruth Kastner “Understanding our Unseen Reality” [2015]), the same qualities (or lack of them) characterize quantum phenomena. Since we cannot measure quantum phenomena directly, as far as we know, prior to some manifestation in the macro world (the exchange of a conserved quantity) the same qualities as characterize “mental cause” (initiation) might characterize “quantum cause”. The most detailed speculation with regard to mind might be Henry Stapp’s (“Quantum Theory and Free Will [2017]) Quantum Zeno Effect (QZE), mind’s ability to hold or otherwise modify subtle quantum indeterminacy within the anatomical and physiological processes of the brain. True, even QZE does not say exactly how this power of the mental connects up to the physical, but in this case, neither side of the transaction can be directly measured and there are reasons to believe (see the aforementioned Kastner book) that quantum phenomena are also initiations in Rescher’s sense.


Above I have looked at mental cause from the physical side. What does it look like from the mental side? Some philosophers have characterized mental cause in terms of beliefs or desires. But beliefs and desires are not mental causes in Aristotle’s efficient sense. They are Aristotelian “final causes” and clearly mental, but not our issue here.  Being a reason is of course mental, but not all of what is mental is also causal. I might want to get warm (my reason for lighting a fire) but not move a muscle to do anything about it. The quintessential efficient mental cause is a volitional act, an exercise of will on the part of a minded agent. In our experience, only mind, the subjective consciousness of an individual, has this ability to act volitionally, for a purpose, and not either indeterminate or determined by prior physics.

Purposeful cause is mental and only mental, and it is causal, that is itself determining of subsequent physics, for example my throwing a rock. As much as I disagree with Schopenhauer, I do believe he was correct in locating will and representation at the core of phenomenal experience, or as we would put these in more modern terms, intention and qualia. Mental cause, in particular our capacity to control intent and by extension a body, is an intrinsic component of our “what is it like to be…” experience.

Qualia are the mental effects of physical (brains) causes (an over simplification but for purposes of this essay I leave it at that, see “From What Comes Mind”). Intention is a mental cause (initiation) of a physical effect. Throwing a rock begins with an intention, but this is also true for subjective states that exhibit no gross physical effects. Suppose on a nature walk you come upon a beautiful flower. You attend to it, visually, perhaps also aromatically at the same time. Suddenly you become aware of a buzzing sound from behind or above your head somewhere. You cannot see what is causing the sound, but without moving your gaze from the flower you have become aware of it. Becoming aware is clearly a mental event which in this case may be comfortably attributed to prior physics (brain states, bearing in mind Rescher’s initiation can work in both directions). Only subsequently do we volitionally attend to the sound, perhaps to identify it. The volitional element entails agent purposeful-direction and so mental cause even if no muscle has moved.

Under normal circumstances, when we are conscious, we are never without both qualia and intention about something. Is it possible one can be conscious without intention, qualia, or both? Advanced Buddhist monks, masters at meditation, claim to achieve the first, but even this being so, they maintain this special state only while meditating. Sensory deprivation might suggest the possibility of a qualia-free consciousness, but people report made-up qualia, images and sounds brains generate (and to which we attend as we do in a dream state) in the absence of external stimulation. Perhaps we cannot be conscious in the absence of qualia.


Mental cause is necessary but not sufficient for free will. In addition, free will demands agency, a subject whose will it is. An exercise of free willed choice is a volitional act of an agent. It is not either prior-determined, though often influenced, by physics, nor random. It is mental cause directed by agent-purposeful volition, itself quintessentially mental and unique to minded-agency in the universe. To get free will, mental cause must be real, and also subjective agency. The action of the body-agent of a physical event (throwing the rock) is willful only by extension from the [presumptive] mental-agent who is the initiator of that act. A body can sometimes act in the absence of agent consciousness. Such acts are not willful, and typically we do not claim that they are.

The connection between intention (willfulness) and subjective agency is built-in to human language. To speak of intention always implies subjective agency. So free will and mental cause are doubly linked. Free will rests on mental cause, but if free will is not real, there is nothing interesting left for mental cause to do. It is possible there are, for example, subconscious mental causes of which we are not aware (conscious of) and so not willed as such. But if in fact free will (not to mention agency as such) can be subsumed by brain states, there is no reason why subconscious mental cause could not be also.

An exercise of will (volition) by an agent is the quintessential “mental cause”. If free will is an illusion it is hard to understand the point of working to save mental cause. If all of our choices, our behaviors (including purely subjective sorts like “attending to”), are prior-determined by our brains what is left for mental cause to do? When Sean Carroll denies the possibility of free will because “If free will were real it would mean that mind causes physics” (The Big Picture [2016]) he is aiming, really, at mental cause. Free will goes along for the ride because it is the volitional exercise of the causal potential of mind that matters.

Agent volition then, and not beliefs or desires, is the epitome of mental cause. But if volition itself is prior-determined by brain states, and not a non-material (mental) agent, then there is no point to mental cause, the brain can do it all. In turn, mental cause, apart from the free will issue, is usually defended (or challenged) with reference to free will. The possibility of free will is grounded on the reality of mental cause and in addition the reality of the volitional agent able to utilize it. Both of these, in turn, rest on the reality of mind with the “power to cause physics”.

Book Review: The Universe in a Single Atom

Picture of me blowing smoke

We’ve all heard of or noticed it… The solar system: a sun and planets, mostly empty space. The atom: a nucleus and electrons, mostly empty space. As above, so below! The analogies are in-exact, but they still serve to illustrate that the stuff of the universe is mostly empty. That part is true unless you count fields. Fields aren’t made of atoms but they do pervade empty space. In this book there isn’t much discussion of fields, though they are mentioned. Mostly the book is about consciousness, but I’m going to focus on the metaphysics of Buddhism as the Dalai Lama summarizes it because as must be the case it grounds the Buddhist view of consciousness, identity, and has implications for the matter of free will.

It all begins with that emptiness. It is worth quoting some key passages here because they hold in their language the key to their truth and error.

“At its [the theory of emptiness] heart is the deep recognition that there is a fundamental disparity between the way we perceive the world, including our own existence in it, and the way things actually are. In our day-to-day experience, we tend to relate to the world and to ourselves as if these entities possess self-enclosed, definable, discrete, and enduring reality. … The philosophy of emptiness reveals that this is not only a fundamental error, but also the basis for attachment, clinging, and the development of our numerous prejudices.”

“All things and events, whether material, mental, or even abstract concepts like time, are devoid of objective, independent existence. To possess such independent, intrinsic existence would imply that things and events are somehow complete unto themselves and are therefore entirely self-contained. This would mean that nothing has the capacity to interact with and exert influence on other phenomena.”

“Effectively, the notion of intrinsic, independent existence is incompatible with causation. … Things and events are ’empty’ in that they do not possess any immutable essence, intrinsic reality, or absolute ‘being’ that affords independence.”

“In our naive or commonsense view of the world, we relate to things and events as if they possess and enduring intrinsic reality. We tend to believe that the world is composed of things and events, each of which has a discrete, independent reality of its own, and it is these things with discrete identities and independence that interact with one another.”

Is his eminence correct about our ordinary, commonsense way of seeing things? I do think my automobile is a discrete particular I can positively identify in part because it endures through time. But those existence (enduring through time) and identity (my car, is a different particular from your car) criteria exist only because a mind (mine or yours) abstracts them from the concrete reality of the object. Independence here (in both the commonsense and philosophical view) implies only independence of a particular from mind. The object exists and has certain characteristics that I can name, but I do not create them. Nor, however does it imply that there endurance is any more than temporary, for a time, and that one day they will cease to exist.

Obviously automobiles can interact with the world causally. Certain of their properties, mass for example, have causal implications. If all the Dalai Lama is saying here is that no object, no event, is permanent, eternal, then this is but a trivial truth. It seems to his eminence that “independent existence” entails changelessness, not merely “mind independence”. Of course he is right that material object or event is eternal, but that does not mean it lacks all independent existence if only “for a time”. The object is not empty, even though it is temporary.

I do not agree with a lot of what Graham Harman believes, but he does handle this issue well. In summary:

1. Everything (material things, events, thoughts, intrinsic and extrinsic relations, etc) is an object.
2. Every object has both an essence and dispositional properties. The dispositional properties can be enumerated and quantified, the essential properties never entirely known.
3. Even given #2, objects and their essences are temporary. They come into existence at a time and go out at another time.
4. It is through their dispositional properties, not essences, that objects interact causally and relationally.

Harman claims to be a realist albeit from a continental background. While he need not represent here the majority opinion in modern philosophy he is comfortable with objects having an essence which does not participate in events (causally or otherwise) and at the same time dispositional properties that do. I suppose what makes this possible is temporal dependence, something the Dalai Lama denies is possible for essences. Because no eternal object exists (East and West [mostly] agree), they cannot (in the Lama’s view) therefore have essences. In the Western view (if one holds there are essences), this object, essence and all, had a beginning and will have an end. Putting this another way, the one physical phenomenon to which essences relate, or in which essences participate, is time!

Another quote is telling: “By according intrinsic properties of attractiveness, we react to certain objects and events with deluded attachment, while toward others, to which we accord intrinsic properties of unattractiveness, we react with deluded aversion.”

If there is one thing all modern western philosophy has in common it is the assumption that there is such a thing as “mind-independent reality”. The debate in Western terms is over what can be said or known about the mind-independent world, not its existence. To a realist, real objects (whose dispositional properties are discoverable by mind) exist and have all their properties, essential or otherwise, prior to and independent of their apperception by any individual mind, human or animal. Not all objects are like this of course. Thought-objects (Harman a big fan) of course do not, but even some material objects. A particular automobile, once built and prior to its someday destruction, is mind-independent now, but its origin in the past, its coming into existence as a mind-independent object, cannot have been possible without some mind’s intervention in the causal stream.

Who today, in the Western tradition, would say that attractiveness was an intrinsic property? It is in the Western sense, a relational property between some (possibly) presently-mind-independent object’s dispositional properties and some mind! One of the insights of modern science is that the mechanisms of the mind-independent universe (essences or not) are teleology-free (see “Fantasy Physics and the Genesis of Mind”)! Attractiveness, by contrast, is implicitly teleological. It is attractiveness for the purposes of some mind whether for some pleasure, survival, or merely aesthetic appreciation.

In the Dalai Lama’s view, the ground of all reality is empty of all properties. At this ground, there is no distinction to be made between mind-dependent and mind-independent reality. All are equally empty. His eminence takes this to be a fundamental truth. So when we get to what amounts to an illusion of a differentiated world he does not, other than superficially (from within the illusion) distinguish between mind-dependence and mind-independence, emptiness all!

There is yet another problem. The emptiness doctrine might be incoherent. If the fundamental ground of everything including space and time is emptiness where does all this illusory stuff come from? That is to say where does anything that can have illusions come from? Emptiness at least implies quiescence. Not only must it be free of any real, mind-independent, stuff, it is free also of any process. Nothing happens! How is it that anything comes to be at all?

How does the emptiness doctrine impact the matter of free-will? If the differentiation of everything is an illusion, then that we (an illusion) have an effective will must also be illusion. One of the great differences between Hinduism, and especially Buddhism, as compared to Judeo-Christianity and Islam is that the former religions aim at being a “vessel of the divine”. The personal goal of those religions is to realize the emptiness of all that is. The net result is quiescence, merging with emptiness as a drop of water merges with the ocean. Will, among our illusions, has nothing therefore to do. In fact doing anything, willing anything is counterproductive, and precisely what leads to desire and misery. It isn’t that God wants us to do nothing, it is that like everything else God is empty. Technically speaking there is no “divine” only the empty ground of all that is.

Western religions, by contrast are religions of action. God and the universe are not nothing. They have positive existence. The goal of these religions is to bring what God wants (ultimately for us to love one another) to fruition and this takes place only when we freely will (of our own volition) and so act (or attempt to act) to bring that state about now and in the future. If free will does not exist (not because all is empty but because only brain-states have any causal efficacy) obviously this would be impossible; impossible that is to “freely choose” to do God’s will.

If a transcendent God of a sort envisioned by Western religions exists (this is not to say the real God would in all qualities be what is said of him in Western holy books see “Prolegomena to a Future Theology” for a less conflicted portrait) not only must free will be real, it must be the linchpin of the process for getting from the present to the future God intends (see “Why Free Will?”). But why would an omnipotent transcendent God set things up this way? Why not just make the universe the way he intends it to be from the beginning? The answer can be inferred from our sensitivity to values (see “What are Truth, Beauty, and Goodness?”) free will itself. What God intends must be that universe resulting from the mass-exercise of value-sensitive minds freely electing to instantiate (literally “make instances of”) the values.

If the Dalai Lama’s metaphysics of emptiness was true, and everyone on Earth achieved union with it, human history would end; everyone would starve to death! By contrast if the transcendent God exists, and everyone freely chooses, to the best of their evolving capacities, to do his will (the collective instantiation of truth, beauty, and goodness being love) the life of every individual on the world would be paradisaical! Because we (who are not illusions in this view) are partnering with God, freely choosing his way rather than what might be our own, the universe ends up better (apparently) than what God could have done by himself because all value-discriminating wills in the universe are freely on board!

The Universe in a Single Atom by the Dalai Lama 2005

Who can critique the Dalai Lama? He is a smart, wise, man with a curiosity about pure science, and a pragmatic streak about technological applications. Should they benefit mankind, alleviate suffering, they are good. The Dalai Lama seems to have wanted to write this book thanks to a life-long fascination with science coupled with insights of his years of Buddhist training. He tells us as a boy growing up he had no training in western science whatsoever, but he was fascinated with a few (first-half 20th century) examples of western technology belonging to his predecessor. As a young man, once vested in his office, he availed himself of a new-found access to many of the world’s greatest minds, philosophers, scientists, artists, and so on. He has gone on talking and learning from great minds ever since.

After this introduction, the book looks at the physical (cosmology, quantum mechanics, relativity) and then life sciences. I was hoping he would not get into a “Buddhism discovered it first” argument, and mostly he does not. He comes close on the subject of quantum mechanics but I think mostly because at the time, the people from whom he learned it still took seriously the idea that individual human minds (for example that of a researcher) could be responsible for wave-function collapse. If this were true (the idea has long been put to rest as concerns individual minds) the tie-in with the Buddhist mind-first world-view and deep exploration of that first-person (consciousness) world would indeed be strong.

Even within quantum mechanics his eminence is sensitive to the great gulf between the western scientific paradigm and the focus of Buddhism. He well illustrates these differences while pointing out to scientists that much of what they take to be the “structure of reality” is a metaphysical assumption. It does not follow necessarily from scientific methodology which so well illuminates structure as concerns the physical world.

But this same methodology can say very little about consciousness. It is with consciousness that he spends much of the book examining the views of modern brain-science and how they might relate to Buddhist discoveries. The views of these different worlds stem as much from the purposes of their separate investigations as the technique; empirical 3rd-party evaluation versus highly-trained rigorous introspection. Becoming a master monk takes as many years as obtaining a PhD in physics (more in fact), but he mis-uses the term ’empirical’ here. What the monk does and what the monk learns in the doing should not be dismissed by western science, but it is still subjective and for that reason not empirical. He advocates for joint research. Neuro-scientists together with trained monks, he thinks, might help unlock some of the mind’s mysteries. He also is aware that not all mysteries are unlock-able!

In the book’s penultimate chapter he uses the then-new technology of genetic manipulation to plead with the scientific community to take it slow. He wants us all to be asking the right questions concerning the long term affects of the possibilities on our humanity. Here the contribution of Buddhism is the importance of compassion, of constant awareness of the mission to alleviate suffering. He is very good at identifying frightening possibilities in the technology and lists them. At the same time, aspects of the field, the need to produce more food, provided it isn’t motivated purely by financial gain, can be good. In his last chapter, his eminence returns to the same subject, a cooperation between science and Buddhism’s focus on bettering the human estate, not only physically or biologically, but socially, psychologically, and spiritually.

The book is full of interesting philosophical implications I will perhaps explore on my blog. These have more to do with physics, cosmology, and what western philosophy calls metaphysics than with consciousness which Buddhism takes more or less for granted. The idea that the stuff of the universe is fundamentally phenomenal suffuses all schools of Buddhism, while in the West the idea, while not unknown, is viewed with great suspicion. Where consciousness is concerned, his emphasis falls on intentionality, our capacity to direct our attention, but he never mentions free will. Like consciousness itself, perhaps Buddhism takes free will for granted.

From What Comes Mind?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Note: On emergence

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

Note: On the subject of animal mind

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

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

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

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

Adventures In Quantumland by Ruth Kastner: commentary and review

Picture of me blowing smoke

Ruth Kastner has made another effort to explain the “transactional theory of quantum mechanics”. My Amazon review of this excellent book is included below with a link to her text. In this commentary I address one technical aspect (or consequence) of the theory and separately her more speculative ideas in chapters 6 and 7 (both mentioned in the review). Her first attempt at explaining her ideas to a lay readership, the book “Understanding our Unseen Reality” 2015 is reviewed here.

The technical issue is I hope straight forward. In Dr. Kastner’s scheme, energy is not transferred, nor a spacetime event realized until a virtual or “incipient transaction” becomes a “real transaction”. Incipient transactions happen between any potential emitter of some quantum of energy, and all the possible absorbers of that quantum (the atoms that could absorb it) throughout the universe! They happen outside of spacetime and so their instantaneous virtual interaction throughout the universe is not at issue here.

What is at issue is that as I read her, no real transaction can begin until one of the emitter (offer wave) absorber (confirmation wave) pairs is promoted to a real transaction. A photon cannot be emitted until it has a determinate absorber destination! How does this idea work if the absorber is an atom in the detector of a telescope on Earth, and the emitter is a star in a galaxy 10 billion light years distant? How could there have been an actualized transaction between a star and a telescope that did not exist when the photon was emitted? I have identified two separate problems here.

First, the confirmation waves come from absorbers capable of absorbing the photon which, at the time of its emission, might have been an X-ray photon. But by the time of its real absorption by some atom in our telescope detector has been stretched way into the red end of the spectrum. It is possible that our red-capable absorbing atom could not possibly have produced a confirmation wave for an X-ray photon.

Secondly, at the time of the emission, the atom that ended up in the detector of the telescope might have been anywhere in the vicinity of the Earth/Sun system such as it was at the time, perhaps a just coalescing mass of hydrogen gas and dust swirling around a proto-star. How did that lucky atom end up in our telescope and not in the center of the Earth, or the moon or anywhere else in the solar system? Further the spatial relation between the proto solar system and our emitting star would be completely different than it is now 10 billion years later. But when we trace the path of our captured photon it always appears to have made a beeline (least time) path between the emitting star and that particular place in space where the Earth (and our telescope) just happen to be 10 billion years after emission.

I suspect Dr. Kastner has an answer here, or I am misunderstanding something about what she means about emission requiring an actualization between offer and confirmation waves. I hope she will address a query sent to her. If she does I will update this blog entry with her explanation.

In her chapters 6 and 7 she goes off the rails speculatively speaking. Her aim in chapter 6 is free will. There is nothing here that hasn’t been said before by others (broadly a theory called dual-aspect monism, see my “Fantasy Physics and the Genesis of Mind”). Kastner begins by demolishing the anti-free-will arguments of David Dawkins and others of a similar type. She does a marvelous job from the viewpoint of the idea’s epistemological absurdity. If there is no free will, then Dawkins’ book isn’t really “his” and so on. In this she is entirely right even to pointing out that the view reduces us to automatons, something I have said for years (see my “Arguing with Automatons”).

Kastner points out that if nothing else, quantum mechanics shows the universe is not fully deterministic. Quantum mechanics “makes room” for free will. That’s fair enough. She also recognizes that “making room” and “the phenomenon” (free will) itself are two different things. Why? Because free will is not merely not-determined (indeterminate) but purposeful. Free will introduces teleology and if not for the universe as a whole then at least for the free-willed individual. Choice is always exercised “for a purpose”, and this is something quantum mechanics doesn’t address unless…

Kastner’s next move, the metaphysical move, is where she goes wrong. Perhaps, she says, quantum phenomena are not merely indeterminate. Perhaps they are also proto-volitional; there is in the phenomenon that which leads directly to the human sort of free will through some ascending volitional hierarchy? Something is “built into physics” that bears the germ of volition. She is, in effect, saying: we have a mystery here (free will) and we have a mystery there (Quantumland), perhaps one mystery is the explanation of the other? Now she emphasizes that this move is pure speculation but what is the point of it other than to fix a source of volition in a universe that is otherwise determinate and indeterminate at the same time, but not volitional.

No one (including Dr. Kastner) asserts that virtual quanta are conscious, but nor can anyone (including Dr. Kastner) tell us in what exactly, besides the non-teleological behavior described so well by mathematics, this proto-volitional consists! What is even a single “identity characteristic” of a proto-volition? In what way does (or even might) proto-volition contribute to quantum measurement outcomes? Where would a proto-volitional term fit into the equations of quantum mechanics? If there is no place for it why say it (volition) might be there other than the purely metaphysical need to have it start somewhere coupled with the metaphysical assumption that there is nothing more to the universe than the physical (including Quantumland).

To put the matter another way, Quantumland is speculation but not “empty speculation”. There are observables, particles communicating at seeming space-like distances and being in two places at once. A “foundation to macrophysics” outside of spacetime makes perfect sense in this context. Raw space and time can be seen to emerge from its seething processes. Quantumland explains a lot. It gives us part of the mechanism of spacetime emergence, and it removes the mystery from many of its emerging observables.

By contrast there is no observable that demands volition at the microscopic level. That volition (or proto-volition) is to be located there explains nothing about the mechanism of [much later] emerging consciousness. Free will is expressed only by or through consciousness (human or animal) as far as we know. The speculation here is empty of content. Nothing stands as an example of a property that ultimately adds up to consciousness or the volitional will of consciousness.

Quantum mysteries are encountered at just the point where they enter spacetime, but volition is not encountered in any obvious way until we reach all the way up to macroscopic brains. This is not to say that quantum phenomena are not involved in producing consciousness. It would surprise me if they weren’t! But this does not mean that quantum phenomena are themselves volitional or even proto-volitional there remains no teleology in physics.

This then brings me to chapter 7 where there is a related problem. The problem in chapter 6 is the emptiness of the speculation, the ad hoc quality of throwing volition into Quantumland because materialism has no other place to put it. In chapter 7 the problem is an induction fallacy. That Eastern metaphysics refers to a world beneath (or above or beyond) that of our physical senses, a world that is the source of the physical, does not mean they are talking about Quantumland! A Buddhist or Hindu using the word ‘energy’ and a physicist using the same word are not necessarily talking about the same thing (Dr. Jacob Needleman pointed this out to me a long time ago using “The Tao of Physics” [Capra], one of the books Kastner mentions in this chapter). Of course they could be talking about the same thing, and if you read enough of both you can cherry pick qualities from each that seem to overlap. Kastner does this in this chapter.

At the same time, Dr. Kastner gives herself the clue to their difference. The “spiritual traditions” all ascribe some sacredness to that which underlies our ordinary reality, but she doesn’t fully grasp the implications. Sacredness is intrinsically teleological. The source of our ordinary reality according to the “spiritual traditions” is purposeful, and being indirect products of it, we human beings have some relation, some responsibility to that purpose. But in no wise does it make sense to say we have any responsibility to Quantumland (nor does Dr. Kastner say such a thing), and this is precisely because Quantumland is not teleological.

Kastner must realize this implicitly as she reminds us multiple times that her ascription of volition to Quantumland (chapter 6) has no bearing on her physical theory as such. But nor is the traditional ascription of sacredness to “the other” some sort of mistake on the part of such traditions. It is a necessary quality of the other to which the traditions refer; a demonstration (as it were) that they are not speaking of Quantumland! There is nothing wrong with calling attention to the fact that spiritual traditions refer to “another reality” underlying our ordinary experience. Quantumland is also another possible reality underlying the macrophysical. But they are two different kinds of “other reality”.

If materialists wish to insist that the sacred sort of other doesn’t really exist, I can only say that until such time as there are observables that pick one theory out over another the same can be said of all the competing quantum others advocated by physicists and philosophers today.

I will leave things here because after all neither of these chapters bears in any way on the transaction interpretation of quantum mechanics as a physical theory. Unlike in her addenda to this latest book, Dr. Kastner isn’t resolving any paradoxes in these chapters. Indeed the misapplied logic (chapters 6 & 7) and misunderstood metaphor (chapter 7) is all on her side; though again and to repeat, none of this has ought to do with the explanatory value of the physical theory.

Adventures in Quantumland: Exploring Our Unseen Reality. Ruth Kastner 2019.

In (2015) Ruth Kastner, a physicist and philosopher, published “Understanding Our Unseen Reality”, a layman’s version of her earlier “The Transactional Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics” (2014). This book, “Exploring Our Unseen Reality”, is something of an addendum to that earlier work. It is really two books in one. The first half (roughly) is the book, while the last half is a collection of papers authored by Kastner, and sometimes collaborators, each addressing a specific (usually in more technical terms) issue covered in the book’s first half. Kastner frequently refers back (by chapter and page) to her earlier book. It isn’t necessary to have read the earlier book, Kastner makes her overall case perfectly well in this book alone using minimally more technical language (really symbols) to which she introduces us. On the one hand, this book’s explication of the theory’s main points and implications is brief. On the other hand, Dr. Kastner has had a lot of practice explaining the transactional interpretation and this latest attempt is clear and succinctly expressed.

Beginning with the basics Kastner moves us through subjects that are important to understanding her with a particular emphasis on the fact that her theory does not demand (I get the impression she encounters this idea a lot) that some mind be present to “collapse the quantum wave function”. To be clear, there are wave functions that minds do collapse. the ones that end in a quanta-absorbing event in one of our sensory neurons (and from there up the chain to our brains). In general, however, wave collapse is the result, the completion, of a measurement and that means a transaction between a quantum emitter and some absorber whether that absorber is in an eye, a brain, or the detector of some instrument.

The key to the theory is that the transfer of a quantum (measurable energy) requires an interaction between an emitter and absorber. There are two sorts of interactions here, incipient and actual. Incipient interactions happen between an emitter (an “offer wave”) and every potential absorber in the universe (“confirmation waves”), literally every atom that can absorb a photon of that particular energy. It doesn’t matter if these potential absorbers are near to or far from the potential emitter (in the incipient stage nothing has been yet emitted). Every incipient potential occurs instantly and simultaneously throughout the universe. One of these “offer wave/confirmation wave” (confirming that some emitter is ready to emit) “incipient transactions” wins out (remember this has taken place in zero time and across all space from our viewpoint in timespace) and becomes an “actual transaction”. The photon is emitted generating the beginning of a real singular timespace event propagating at the speed of light, and ends when the winning absorber receives the photon. The absorption constitutes a measurement because energy is transferred between the emitting and absorbing atoms. The transaction is complete.

If Dr. Kastner is right here, her theory has implications as revolutionary as the original insight (energy is quantized) resulting in the first generation of quantum mechanics. It would mean that no real photon can leave an emitter until a real absorber is selected out of the incipient possibilities. Personally I do not see how this can be. What if the absorber, the one that completes the transaction, is at the business end of a telescope while the [real not incipient] absorbed photon was emitted from a star 10 billion light years away; long before that telescope existed? There are several potential issues here and I suspect Kastner has an answer, but she does not explicitly address this. See my blog for further discussion.

In the final chapters of the book Kastner gets speculative about quantum mechanics and mind or more specifically the possibility of free will. This is not the “mind collapses the wave function” business, but its opposite. Not only does quantum mechanics give us an escape from absolute macroscopic determinism (fair enough) but rather that the quantum realm is somehow proto-volitional. The last chapter explores some speculations on the potential analogy between Kastner’s Quantumland (beneath spacetime) and various ideas present in ancient Greek and Eastern (Hindu and Buddhist) metaphysics. Kastner follows others, citing references, in all of these speculations. I have problems with both of these ideas, but this is not for a review and Kastner is sedulous about these being purely speculative, having no direct bearing on the transactional theory as such.

Following her last chapter, Kastner gives us an epilogue calling attention to (and thanking) her predecessors in the explanatory thread leading to the transactional interpretation, followed by an addendum in which she addresses several long standing “quantum paradoxes”. Her aim here is to show that they are not paradoxes at all, but bad interpretations of data even apart from the transactional theory, and that the transaction idea can make paradox resolution easier to grasp.

In summary an excellent if abbreviated explication of the “transaction theory”. In response to her previous book I said that Dr. Kastner’s theory is the only one I’ve ever encountered that “explains quantum mysteries without explaining them away”. Having read this book I see no reason to change my mind.

Why “One Size Fits All” Ontologies Never Work: Horgan, Harman, and DeLanda

There are three books from contemporary philosophers advocating for “one size fits all” ontologies. Each of them is strikingly different. In this commentary I’m going to focus on the meta-philosophical issue of a problem common to all of these ideas and by extension, all “one size fits all” ontologies. Ontologists do one of two things. They describe or catalog “what exists” or “what is real”, or they try to say something about the foundational qualities or properties of reality; what is “most fundamental” about what exists. All three of these philosophers are doing “what exists” sorts of ontologies.

As always, the three books I discuss are listed below with links to their editions on Amazon. Each title (except Horgan, I’ve linked my separate review of him here) is followed by the text of the review I posted to Amazon. I write these commentaries because their issues are out of place in a book review as such.

I’ll begin quickly with Terrence Horgan whose book “Austere Realism” I’ve reviewed separately (see link above). Horgan is the extreme minimalist. There is for him only one object that fully exists in the universe, and that is the universe in total (he calls it the ‘blobject’). Everything that we humans envision as existing (atoms, stars, animals, artifacts, and our own minds) exist only as affectations of language, a “fashion de parler”. As affectations, and for pragmatic purposes such “existence talk” is all well and good, but it is false to move from there to an ontological commitment; to the literal existence of any of these things. But Horgan is also a realist. The differentiation within the blobject (or of the blobject) are real. They are “mind independent differentiations” of the blobject. They are not “objects in their own right” but merely variations in the one object.

I’ve written before about Graham Harman here, and his collaborative work with DeLanda here. But I haven’t written about this particular book, “Object Oriented Ontology” in which Harman tries to address an issue I brought up in my review of other books, his “ontological idea” seeming to pop out of nowhere. In this book Harman describes more or less where his OOO idea comes from. It reinforces my idea that while proclaiming himself a realist he somewhat straddles the line between realism and anti-realism.

Harman’s approach is exactly opposite that of Horgan. Everything, stars, governments, ideas, relations between ideas or things, arbitrary sets, fictional characters, events, all real, all distinct objects. His is the ultimate ontological plurality but he is careful to say that while all are objects, not all objects are of the same sort. Some for example, like fictional characters, are real yet do not exist. Harman’s goal is a univocal causality. If rocks, governments, corporations, and ideas can be causes what does this say about the nature of causation in general?

Of the three authors, DeLanda’s ideas are the easiest to reconcile with common sense. Basically he observes that most differentiated things in the universe are composed of other things. They have parts that are extrinsic to the phenomenon of which they are parts. That means such parts can be removed and replaced by something similar (but not identical) and still retain their identity. In addition, these things composed of parts can become parts of other wider or larger things exhibiting new causal potentials.

As concerns ontological commitments, for Horgan, planets and governments do not exist as such, only the blobject actually exists but it happens to be differentiated into recognizable particulars that we can label in any way we see fit for pragmatic and scientific purposes. Horgan is interested mostly in what makes scientific discourse (say about stars) true even if stars do not, strictly speaking exist.

DeLanda agrees with Horgan that governments and stars do not belong in a strict ontology. What exists are assemblages each existing in a hierarchy of assemblages. Presumably the hierarchy goes all the way up to Horgan’s blobject, and all the way down to protons. But DeLanda does manage to clearly distinguish between social assemblages having physical expressions and potentials (governments, banks), and physical assemblages like stars and galaxies. What is important in both cases is that it is the assemblage that has ontological gravitas because it has causal potentials whether those are the potentials of a government or an asteroid.

Neither Horgan nor DeLanda are “essentialists” as concerns either what does or does not “strictly belong” in an ontology. There is no “hidden center” or essence to what belongs in ontology. If we had a complete description of everything (which for various reasons, linguistic, and perspectival, we cannot have) we would have fully exhausted being. Harman says no, that each object has an essence or being that we cannot even in principle ever exhaust. This includes “real objects” that do not exist like fictional characters. It is precisely this essence to which an object’s qualities are attached. Like objects have like qualities but their essence makes them individual. Objects are not merely “bundles of properties” described by a spacetime worm. Properties inhere in something and the being of that object, what makes it real, is whatever that something is.

Horgan is after the truth and meaningfulness of scientific discourse. He establishes this even in the face of his extreme ontological claim, and I believe this may be his point; “even given the blobject, science can be true”. Harman is after causation and he gets there but at the cost of an ontology as copious as Horgan’s is sparse. To make it all work, Harman’s objects must be divided up in various ways, much depending on what amounts to the classical distinction between mind and the mind-independent world. Harman does give us a nice account of fictional characters, but not really different from yet another “new realist” Maruzio Ferraris (reviewed here) who gives us the same account without the causal metaphysics. I am not sure how DeLanda would handle fictions. They surely have expressions in the physical (books, films) but I am not sure they could be said to have causal properties of their own. Certainly not outside minds that encounter and interpret the physical expressions.

Horgan and Harman are the two strictest “one size fits all” ontologists, DeLanda is less so, but even viewed as a one size fits all proposal, assemblages require little ad hoc maneuvering (Harman) or stipulation (Horgan and Harman) to fit in with most if not all of our experience. The common sense fact is that almost everything is made of other things. None of these views address mind very well though to be sure all are implicitly physicalist so brains are surely objects, assemblages, or proper differentiations of the blobject.

Harman, taking us back to Heideggar, claims that the contents of consciousness are all objects. This works fine as concerns sensory representations, even beliefs and memories. It is less clear how attitudes and intentions are objects. To the extent that both amount to ideas they have an object-hook. Both intentions and attitudes have causal properties. Ideas can lead us to actions. If that qualifies them for object-hood, so be it.

DeLanda’s ontology is “one size fits all” in the form of things and not the things themselves. He does not insist that literally everything real (fictional or otherwise) is an assemblage. By contrast Harman and Horgan do claim that their ontologies cover everything. That they likely do not is demonstrated by how they must each be twisted to make them work. For Horgan, scientific truth, even epistemology in general, floats free of the “true ontology”. For Harman, objects must be distinguished into partly overlapping classes or kinds, universals like existing and non-existing, symbiotic and dormant, real and sensual (both of these last categories real in the strict ontological sense), and so on.

Only Horgan claims there is literally but one existing thing. Harman counts literally everything (remember even thoughts and arbitrary relations) as real objects but must then divide them up into many categories to make the idea come out. Why not merely objectify the category and claim that these universals are the foundation of the real? For DeLanda it is a structure of relations that is [almost] universal, but what emerges from such a structure is, like Harman, both distinct and real provided we are careful to distinguish between the abstraction naming it (star, or government) and the reality (an assemblage) of its composition and history.

Horgan and Harman are “ontologies of the now”. Neither takes much account of time. Time is involved in the differentiation of the blobject (Horgan) of course and objects (Harman) come, go, and change through time, but neither theory demands time to make its basic point. Only DeLanda’s ontology demands time because both the coming-to-be of assemblages and their impacts have intrinsically temporal dimensions. Assemblages include as a proper part their own history and possible future effects on events, other assemblages.

Though each of these ontologies are different they all suffer from a species of triviality. If literally everything is an X, then to say that “only Xs exist” is a difference that makes no difference. Horgan shows that scientific truths can remain firmly grounded even in the face of a stipulated truth: “all is one”. Harman’s idea is also, ultimately, a stipulation. He can’t really deliver an equivocal causation, only one that can be “thought of” like that. If all cause lies between categories (the real and the sensual) that doesn’t tell us much about it. It also might be that there is something important about the difference between the categories and not merely the objects in them. Non-arbitrary categories (perhaps material particulars and some universals) might indeed exist, while arbitrary ones (random sets, trivially contingent relations — “taller than”) do not.

Harman’s distinction between the important and the trivial is also arbitrary. What appears dormant or unimportant from our perspective might be symbiotic from another. DeLanda’s triviality is a little different. Remember that each of these philosophers is a materialist and so ultimately, whatever should be both “real and exist”, it must begin with atoms that are surely assemblages. So while Harman and Horgan’s ontologies ultimately come down to stipulations, DeLanda’s, by contrast, is observational, and if he is right, if everything is some part of everything else (the universe at least), his observation must be true (at least of the material world) and so is also trivial.

In the end none of these “one size fits all” ontologies fit the universe of our experience because the universe is not a one size fits all arena. If there is a God then there are three fundamental mind-independent joints in reality (see Prolegomena to a Future Theology), spirit, mind (not individual minds but the phenomenon of mind in general), and matter — the material world experienced by individual minds. Even if there is no God and individual minds emerge only from the functioning of brains (i.e. brains are sufficient, a dubious proposition disallowed by physics — see Fantasy Physics and the Genesis of Mind), it is prima facia absurd to assert that mind is material, even more absurd to say it doesn’t exist. Individual minds, once emerged, have an impact on the unfolding of events. Mind is not physical and yet causally efficacious notwithstanding that what propagates its causal effect in the physical is a physical body controlled by a mind.

Aside from these three authors (Ferraris does not try to construct a universal ontology) I haven’t encountered another “one size fits all” ontology. If I do in the future I am confident that like these three any truth it contains will be but a trivial truth.


Austere Realism by Terrence Horgan 2008
See my review and commentary here

Assemblage Theory by Manuel DeLanda 2016

Manuel DeLanda’s book is a mature attempt at explaining what “assemblage theory” is and its relation to the philosophical sub-discipline of ontology. Assemblage theory can be applied to other philosophical domains but first you have to understand what it says about what there is. To put it in its simplest form, most things in the world are assemblages. They are (1) made of parts that might be exchanged for sufficiently similar parts (parts are “extrinsic”), (2) have properties and potentials that the parts do not have other than as the assemblage, and (3) they can, in turn, become parts of larger assemblages having novel properties and potentials in part made possible by the contribution of its sub-assemblages.

Assemblages are rather intuitive in fact. We are all familiar with many of them. We are a part of some of them, and it is natural to see in the world differently scaled phenomena (from atoms to galaxies, even the universe) that all appear to be assemblages. DeLanda then begins from a place that matches most intuitions about the world, and he does not insist that everything that is MUST be an assemblage. There are things of the world that are not, but by-in-large very much of our familiar world consists of assemblages.

DeLanda then explores many of these familiar things as encountered through human history. He explores tools (machines), people themselves, language, cities, society, wars, and so on. A particular point he wants to make is that every noun I used in the last sentence is a made-up “making real” (reification or “to reify”) of things that don’t really exist simpliciter. DeLanda understands that to make up these concepts is perfectly legitimate for ordinary discourse, but he is not committed to “their existence” as these things. Rather his commitment is to the assemblages from which they are composed and the higher-level assemblages they can and do contribute to composing. To understand an assemblage we name, “the government”, or “the market”, we really have to understand what it is made of (more assemblages) and how it comes to affect the wider world, other assemblages in which it participates. It is the assemblages and their expressions that “are real” as far as ontology is concerned.

The examination of human institutions is followed by a chapter on the doing of science; the best encapsulation of “philosophy of science” I’ve read! He moves down from social reality to particles, atoms, and molecules in order to introduce us to the concept of a “diagram” by which not only can assemblage be described (its history) but also what future paths in could (possibility) and is likely (disposition) to follow. DeLanda moves away from social phenomena for the sake of simplicity. Future paths for a molecule are vast but still restricted compared to that of a city or person. In theory it is simpler to understand what he is driving at on this level and its significance can be felt in philosophy and other disciplines. Importantly, the same principles apply whether we are talking about a protein or a nation.

He gets a little technical here in the last chapters. Simpler or not I could follow all of this only because I’ve had just enough mathematics background to get the difference between the levels and types of mathematics he talks about here. Some readers will have trouble with this though DeLanda nowhere USES mathematics; there are no formulas or mathematical demonstrations. His aim is to show us that there are mathematical tools that can be applied to assemblages describing their history as well as dispositions and possible futures. DeLanda is keen to show that assemblage theory as philosophy is (can be) firmly grounded in mathematics. Again as from the beginning, this makes intuitive sense. That mathematics can be applied to the regularities of the universe is well known. If those regularities are “qualities of assemblages” it makes sense that math can be used to describe them.

All of this then comes together very well in this book. I have read and reviewed others of DeLanda’s books, but this is the one to get if you want a grounding in his idea from the fundamentals on up.

Object Oriented Ontology by Graham Harman 2018

In reviews of earlier books by Harman I complained that his “object oriented ontology” (OOO) seemed to pop out of nowhere. He never (before) tells us how ideas preceding it, those of other writers, built up to his central insight. He seems to be making an attempt to correct that lacuna in this book. I think he succeeds in the effort to enlighten us about OOO’s origins, but my issues with the substance of the theory itself are not here resolved.

Harman begins by introducing a distinction between truth and knowledge along with their relation to the doing of philosophy. For him philosophy is not about truth or knowledge though it seeks and approaches both. Instead it is about reality which cannot, nevertheless, be approached directly but only indirectly. With this he begins to give the reader an introduction to his version of realism which is not very realist as I understand that term. But nor is Harman an anti-realist in the traditional sense. Rather he seems to straddle the fence.

The mind independent world is perfectly real and filled with particulars (objects), this being the realist thread. However we never encounter those objects directly but through their qualities, sensual qualities (he should have used the word ‘sensuous’ here not ‘sensual’ but I’ll let you look up that difference), which are qualities of the object as it is reflected in the content of our consciousness. The tree in the yard is a real object. The tree in my mind is its sensual counterpart. But neither the tree in the yard, nor the counterpart in our mind ever reveal themselves fully to us. They are “real”, but their core is always hidden. This is the anti-realist thread in Harman.

In Chapter two Harman gives us the key insight that also belies his Continental inclinations. Philosophy is metaphor and theater. He doesn’t mean here play acting. He means that to do philosophy the philosopher must replace the metaphor with herself to understand what it reveals about the real object. Even the metaphor never completely succeeds in exhausting the object, but it gets us further into it than does any literal or scientific statement. Harman knows that language is metaphorical. In fact (for Harman) the literal tells us less than the metaphorical. No word or collection of words captures everything about that which they denote. But he rejects the notion that language alone is responsible for failing to grasp everything. There is always more to the object, real or sensual, than we can ever know.

From this beginning he investigates social and political discourse and then returns to a more detailed view of objects (real and sensual), their qualities, and the relations between them. Harman divides his ontological universe into four different types, the real and sensual objects, and their real and sensual qualities. He does a pretty good job on the objects and the sensual qualities, but I have trouble understanding what a “real quality” can be since like the real object, real qualities also withdraw from direct contact. Harman does a good job of analyzing fictional objects, and we are introduced to his distinction between passive and symbiotic object-relations. Again (as in other of his books) Harman insists that symbiotic is not only about importance to humans, but in fact it always seems to end up being that in the final analysis.

His ultimate target in this part of the book is physical causation (like two billiard balls colliding, though the idea is supposed to apply to causation of all sorts). Even billiard balls do not make contact directly but through their sensual qualities. This part of OOO makes no sense to me unless “sensual qualities” are taken to be something independent of mind. I suppose this interpretation is possible, but Harman does not make his thought clear here at all.

The book moves then to challenge some of Harman’s peers who have accused him of stealing ideas from others. He focuses on Deleuze and Foucault arguing that their views, which some have taken to be foreshadows of OOO are not really that at all. Following this he reviews the work of a number of young philosophers who have broadly adopted an OOO orientation. Harman does a good job here of sketching both the similarities and differences between his work and the others reviewed.

It is not until here, near the end of the book that Harman lets drop his disdain for matter something strange for a realist. He explains himself a bit more in the last chapter, but his explanation fails to bridge a gap. It may be true NOW that there is no undifferentiated matter in the universe. Everything is differentiated and hence all are objects. But this was not the case in the opening Planck times of the universe when there was nothing but undifferentiated radiation. Harman’s ontology, even if it captures the universe’s present (and I don’t think it really does) misses its history, something for which ontology should surely account. In this latter part of the book he also lets slip that all relations between objects are also objects. He has said this in other books, but other than this one parenthetical aside, he doesn’t elaborate on this claim at all.

In the end, this book does the job of explaining the origin of Harman’s OOO idea and some (but not all) implications. I remain not a fan. There is too much about OOO that seems ad hoc to me, but after all, differences of opinion are what keep philosophy going and as Harman notes at the very beginning we do not get all the way to knowledge or truth, but only aspire to find ways to get closer to both.

Book Review: “Ontology and Metaontology”

As with most of the philosophy I review there are matters, lines of inquiry, alternate points of view, that illuminate more to be done, or resolve issues raised, that are not appropriate in the context of a book review. A review should focus on what the author says and perhaps how (s)he gets to what is said, not on differences of opinion between author and reviewer. And so I publish book reviews on Amazon, and then republish them here along with a link to the book for my reader’s convenience, and commentary whose purpose is dredging up those differences of opinion.

The first question that comes to my mind is the relation between metaphysics and ontology. The authors do not address this very much other than to say that the latter is usually considered to be a sub-discipline of the former, but no relation is clearly delineated. As a result an issue I noted in the review is the authors attribution to ontology (an alternative “fundamental question”) of a question I normally associate with metaphysics; the “fundamental ground” of what is real. If ontology is about “what is real” or “what exists” independent of mind (including such mind-managed entities as propositions, numbers, and sets), it only gets to be about the fundamental ground of what is real if, as some ontological systems do claim, that fundamental ground is the sole existent entity, everything else being nothing more than various assemblies of it and “are real” only in a derivative sense.

But while trying to understand what might be real even of the assemblies (natural and artifactual kinds for example) surely mind itself is among the [presumably] “natural kinds” for which we must account. Drs. Berto and Plebani ignore this singular question choosing instead to narrow their survey to a few well-worked channels of thought about reality “besides mind”. Idealism (everything is mind) is ignored because their focus is on what can be said of “mind independent” reality. Taking for granted that there is such a thing, we can characterize it in variously useful ways, and thus reject idealism. But even if idealism itself is false, the question of what exactly mind is matters a great deal.

Natural kinds like stars and animals, and artifactual kinds like chairs and statues are, after all, physical particulars while propositions and numbers clearly are abstractions and the mind-independent status of abstractions surely depends on the status of mind itself? If mind “substantively exists” then we can argue about the ontological status of abstractions. If mind does not exist (eliminative materialism) or is merely epiphenomenal illusion, then abstractions cannot in principle have any “mind independent” status.

On the matter of “fundamental ground” there is no explicit discussion of the distinction between substance and process ontology. The authors come at their subject mostly from a “substance viewpoint” but they do also address the ontological status of events which are processes. They address the causal status of agency versus process in events, but the chicken and egg problem (are all substances process or is process merely the causal interaction of substances) is not specifically covered.

I have another small issue with this book. When reading books on ontology written in the last few years (this one in 2015) I look for references to E. J. Lowe who, in my opinion, was among the best thinkers on this subject (he passed away quite young in 2014 or so). I rarely find him, but these authors do cite him (from a 1989 book) in their examination of particulars. But the authors discuss not only particulars, but kinds (classes), tropes (or modes), and global universals (all are after all well-worn ontological subjects). Yet they make no mention of Lowe’s “Four Category Ontology” (2006) in which he brings each of these four elements into harmonious and logically consistent relation. Of course Lowe’s is but one idea among many, but it is the only recent treatment (and I have looked having read many of the authors they cite in the text) that so neatly ties them all together. There should have been at least some mention of Lowe’s book.

Meanwhile, despite these shortcomings, this is a good read. The authors address only a tiny slice of the whole ontological field, but they do a good job with that slice, broadly illustrating how ontology is done and the salient factors that enter into it.

Ontology and Metaontology by Francesco Berto and Matteo Plebani (2015)

I’m not much for reading “overview books” in philosophy, they tend to be over simplistic and misrepresent as much as they enlighten. Once in a while a title appeals to me and this one looked rich enough to be worth a read. It was.

Dr.’s Berto and Plebani (“the authors” from here on) begin very deliberately setting out the distinction between ontology from metaontology. The former (covered last in the book) is about answering the question: what things are there in the universe, or what kinds of things are there, and are “kinds” (for example) among the things there are? As it turns out trying to answer such questions, since they are so fundamental to what we take our experience to be about, raises many questions of procedure. From what set of assumptions do we begin to address such issues and by what methodology? These latter questions are the subject of metaontology.

In a moderate length book covering a 2500 year-old field, the authors cannot possibly address all the viable proposals for answering these questions. They choose several lines of thought taken to be the dominant contemporary themes of the field in the analytic tradition and follows them out. Beginning with what they entail for the procedural questions, and then using each of the various meta-positions to address the main questions of ontology proper: material things (natural and artifactual), abstract things (propositions, numbers, sets and classes, fictional characters), and events. They do a superb job tying the procedural approaches covered in the first half of the book to the meat of the subject in the second. They never answer the question “what is there” but then they are not advocating a particular ontology, rather showing how the possible set of answers follow from different approaches to the subject. The book illustrates how different meta-approaches affect the possible range of answers to the ontological questions themselves. He is successful here, but the reader does have to pay attention.

There are a few holes (and yes the ontological status of holes is addressed) in the presentation. Ontology is a sub-discipline of metaphysics and the authors do not ever clearly distinguish between them; not that this is easy to do in any case. For example, they present “grounding theories”, as the idea that the big question of ontology is not “what there is” but what is the “fundamental ground”, the “basic stuff” of “what there is”? As I understand it, the matter of grounding is the core of metaphysics and not ontology per se, though to be sure the line between them is very ill defined. They also note from the beginning that matters of mind are not at issue. Propositions and the quality of redness are mental phenomena. The ontological question is would we still, hypothetically, count them as entities in the universe if minds did not exist? Fair enough, but the ontological status of mind itself is controversial in philosophy. Some discussion of this question from the viewpoint the metaontologies he covers would have been interesting.

In the telling of all this, the authors include many dozens of references from philosophers of the 19th and (mostly) 20th Century. The book’s bibliography is a who’s who of metaphysical and ontological thought, and yet there is far more left out (God theories, ontological commitments in Continental philosophy, or Eastern philosophies are ignored) than included. Again I do not fault the authors for this. They had to find a way to narrow the material or the book would be a thousand pages long. This is a superb book for philosophy students at the undergraduate level who have an interest in these questions. It can be read by anyone however and does not presuppose any familiarity with the presented material.

Review: Two Books by Wilfred Sellars

Usually I begin these book reviews with a little extra commentary; some examination of a philosophical issue I thought inappropriate to go into in the book review itself. I’m sure there are such issues in Sellars’ work for me, but having read these two books I am not confident enough in what Sellars was talking about to say very much. Sellars is certainly no antirealist, but I’m not sure he would call himself a realist (in Searle’s terms) either. He is one of the premier philosophers of logic and language in the thread leading from the Vienna circle through Wittgenstein, and on to Quine, Tarski, and Sellars himself.

Perhaps we could call him a “linguistic realist” as he seems to believe that it is through the acquisition of language that a human child comes to distinguish joints in the world. For Sellars, perception (the five senses) occurs in pre-linguistic children but is at that point inchoate, a jumble of impressions in which nothing is clearly distinguished from anything else. Perhaps the first “joint in the world” the child recognizes as such is its own mother. If my reading of Sellars is correct, the child first distinguishes its mother from the rest of the world when it first connects the word “mom” (even if it cannot yet vocalize it) to that object. In other words, for the child to recognize its own mother, in an intellectual sense, it must be able to “think linguistically”.

I have a big problem with this idea because only humans have such abstract language and yet animals, adult higher animals, clearly have a very sophisticated ability to discriminate “joints in the world”. A dog could not catch a Frisbee if it did not, and even a chicken knows enough to associate dark cool places with the prospect of more juicy insects and so on. Could a philosopher as brilliant as Sellars have missed such an obvious counter example to his connection between language and perception? I wouldn’t think so… It is possible I am interpreting him incorrectly.

Naturalism and Ontology

I have never before given such a low rating to a book by a professional philosopher of Sellars’ reputation. I also wonder about the value of reviewing a 40 year-old book whose author has long since passed on. But for the sake of my few followers I’ll deliver here, keeping it short.

Sellars says his analysis of language, reference, meaning, and truth (in descending order the main topics of this book) is needed to formulate a consistent (contradiction-free and perspicacious) naturalistic ontology. He takes the truth of naturalism for granted (most philosophers do these days) and while recognizing the term applies mainly to scientific method uses it as a stand-in for “materialism” throughout. I’m being rather loose with the word ‘throughout’ as he barely mentions naturalism or ontology (though repeatedly rejecting anything Platonic) beyond the book’s introduction!

In point of fact, Sellars never directly connects up his theory of reference to ontology, other than insisting that only a nominalism can be right. Sellars’ focus is on the role words (names, descriptions, declarations) play in language. His analysis proceeds through illustrations in formal logic which, while not individually complex, become overwhelming as they go on page after page. I’m guessing a full half the text of the book consists of these formal statements.

Overall the book is based on a series of talks. He says in his introduction that the first three chapters are straight from the talks, while the remainder of the book is more heavily edited to make the whole work come together. Yet the last two chapters of the book are a series of exchanges (unedited correspondence) he had with another philosopher and the book ends following the last of these. He does not ever conclude by summarizing anything. Indeed in the middle of the book there is another page of commentary (from a philosopher not named) criticizing Sellars’ whole approach. He is surely brave to put this in. Nowhere does he respond to this critique, and in point of fact, at least in my opinion, the critic’s approach more sense than Sellars’ view!

I got into this book because Terry Horgan (“Austere Realism” see my review) mentions him a lot and it strikes me that Horgan’s view of how language works, what makes ordinary statements true or meaningful, is derived from Sellars’ work. Horgan however (right or wrong) produces the summary, a synthesis of language’s relation to ontology, with which Sellars should have ended this book. Having read this, do I understand how Sellars links language to meaning and truth? Yes if vaguely. What about ontology as such? No, not at all.

Science, Perception, and Reality

This is my second review of a Sellars book (see “Naturalism and Ontology” also reviewed). I have the same problem here I had with the other. Like that other book, this one is something of a collection of separate essays on the same theme; the relation of language to action, thought, and the correspondence between perception and the mind-independent world.

A carefully crafted collection of related essays on the title’s subject, it is nevertheless very difficult to grasp what Sellars is trying to say overall. To my mind this is a stylistic problem and I imagine that students of Sellars familiar with more of his ideas generally will get much more out of this than did I. We are all used to the mechanism of “flashbacks” in novels. But imagine a novel in which a first level of flashback results in yet another deeper flashback and then one more. When the author returns from the last flashback where is the reader dropped off? One level up? Two? Or back to the original story thread?

In every chapter of this book Sellars begins with a brief statement of his intent and then, before explicating it more fully, informs the reader that certain preliminaries must be taken care of first. Such preliminaries end up nesting to two or more levels and (along with covering various objections and alternatives) occupy 90% of the chapter’s material. By the time Sellars gets back to the main thread, not only am I lost, but I come away with the suspicion that some of those preliminaries are used to introduce definitions and points of view, themselves often controversial, on which his final theses come to hang.

None of this confusion on my part has to do with disagreements in viewpoint. I read a lot of philosophers with whom I disagree but I understand nevertheless what claims they are making and arguments for those claims. From this book, and the other is the same, I come away understanding certain points of detail but not, overall, what Sellars is trying to say about his subject. Yes I get that Sellars believes the correspondence between perception and the mind-independent world, our capacity to discriminate “one something from another” goes through language. Yes I get that our “understanding”, our very ability to have thoughts “about” something, depends on language, but I have yet to figure out what sorts of ontological commitments he draws from this approach.

Sellars is clearly one of the great thinkers in the century-long thread of “linguistic analysis” in philosophy, but while a great thinker, he is not a perspicacious writer.

Guest Post: A Scourge of Bad Theology: Overcoming the Atonement Doctrine

By Byron Belitsos

The domains once known as Christendom have long been steeped in civil violence and warfare, and even occasional acts of genocide. The scourge of war also pervades our earliest scripture. One is shocked, for example, to learn that Jahweh calls for ruthless warfare against Israel’s neighbors, epitomized by Joshua’s campaign of virtual genocide against the previous occupants of the Promised Land. Many other stories of armed conflict are found in the Deuteronomistic History. The Hebrews were frequent aggressors, but they just as often were overrun by neighboring empires. The hapless Jews fought internecine battles as well. In Exodus, Moses orders the execution of 3,000 followers because of their idol worship (Ex 32:28). And, during the harsh period described at 1 Kings 15, for example, Judah and Israel engage in an ongoing vicious civil war, with competing religious ideologies at stake.

Pre-modern Christian institutions followed a similar pattern in the name of the Christian God, sometimes called the Prince of Peace. Christian leadership fomented the crusades, the Inquisition, and the witch-burnings. During the Reformation, Catholic fought Protestant in decades of devastating warfare. In modern times, two great world wars were waged by nominal Christian nations against one another. In the U.S., almost all Christian denominations supported the War in Vietnam until Martin Luther King denounced it, and only a few church groups aggressively opposed several dozen other military interventions and the more recent wars in the Middle East.

In many of these cases, points out scholar Robert J. Daly, the combatants exceeded the boundaries of “just war” theory, while still feeling themselves to be acting consistent with Christian belief.[1] Daly suggests, and I agree, that bad theology and mistaken beliefs about God lie behind such violence—at least in part.

If indeed there is such a correlation, one source of this mistaken theology seems fairly obvious. The theological error that offers the most ideological support for structures of violence down through the millennia is Paul’s atonement doctrine, which was in turn a logical extension of the sacrificial and purification rites of the ancient Hebrews.

Here, for example, is a characteristic statement of this teaching [bold emphasis mine]: “[We] are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith.” (Rom 3:23–25) Throughout his epistles, Paul points to blood atonement as a core meaning of the cross, offering along the way a wide array of creative metaphors and rhetorical devices to support the idea.

[1] Robert J. Daly, “Images of God and the Imitation of God: Problems with Atonement,” Theological Studies, Vol. 68, Iss. 1, (Mar 2007): 36-51. This compelling article by Daly inspired much of my argument in this essay.


The Pauline idea of blood redemption pervades the Gospels as well, where we read for example that Jesus “gave his life . . . as a ransom for many.” This stark idea can be found at Mark 10:45, who we now know in part based his Gospel after the writings of Paul. Matthew quotes this very same line at Mt 20:28, most likely copying Mark. We find blood atonement ideas in John as well, though much less so in the Gospel of Luke

The general atonement concept, especially as abstracted from Paul’s writings and elaborated by his successors, amounts to the idea that God deliberately intended Jesus’s violent death. In its most extreme form, Jesus’s sacrificial death (and his victory over death by resurrection) was seen as being planned by God from the beginning of time, or at least from the time of Adam’s default. Later theologians extended this idea into a crystallized dogma, especially in the West.

In his masterful book on the atonement idea in Judaism and early Christianity, Stephen Finlan calls the doctrine “crazy-making theology.”[1] For, if your God demands violence—if at God’s level certain acts of brutality are sometimes necessary—we humans can feel justified in engaging in violence at our level.

“No wonder there seems to be a widespread tendency to take violence for granted in human affairs,” laments Daly.[2] After all, we are to imitate the ways of our God, but must we mimic a God who demands the bloody sacrifice of his only son?

Defining the Doctrine of Atonement Classic atonement theory can be understood as God’s “honor code.” God is in charge of all power transactions with his creatures, governing their behavior as a matter of divine honor. Each time collective human sin or some other offense damages or offends God’s sense of honor, a payment to restore God’s favor must be made through a sacrifice or some form of purification. Otherwise, sinful humanity will be subjected to a divine verdict against it, and must undergo a serious punishment. For example, in Genesis, God had to make humanity as a whole pay for its corruption through a great flood (Gen 6–9).

Later in the Hebrew history, sacrifices and purification rites became essential features of cultic practice, and they often entailed extreme violence. In Deuteronomy 3:13-16, God commands that if a town worships idols, “you shall put the inhabitants of that town to the sword, utterly destroying it and everything in it—even putting its livestock to the sword. All of its spoil you shall gather into its public square; then burn the town and all its spoil with fire, as a whole burnt offering to the Lord your God.” [Emphasis mine.] In other words, the destruction of the town is a sacrifice, a burnt offering that honors God and induces him to restore his favor. The payment of the sacrifice also functions like a propitiatory gift to God.

[1] Stephen Finlan, Sacrifice and Atonement: Psychological Motives and Biblical Patterns (Fortress Press, 2016), p. 120.

[2] Daly, page 45.

Other examples of this kind are common in the Old Testament. At Samuel 21, God sends a famine on the land, then tells David that it has occurred because “there is bloodguilt on Saul.” God ends the famine after seven of Saul’s sons are “impaled . . . before the Lord.” Only then does God lift the blight.

According to Finlan, “Costliness was necessary to the sacrificial gift being effective.”[1] Paul grew up amidst the sacrificial cult of Jerusalem as a Pharisee, and he instinctively understood this equation. Paul must have reasoned that, if humankind as a whole was to be saved, a very expensive transaction was needed as a payoff to expiate its sins once and for all. Otherwise, why was an uneducated Galilean—a powerless man who had been crucified like a common criminal—appear to him as a risen savior? Why else would this marginal person have to die such a cruel death, only to be resurrected?

The most effective payment Paul could imagine would be for God to offer up, as a sacrifice, his only Son. Jesus, as God incarnate, was a large enough offering that he alone could propitiate God’s violated honor. In other words, Jesus’s death was deemed a sacrifice that was sufficient to permit God to reconcile sinful humanity to himself, and thereby create a new covenant with all humanity. Jesus’s suffering was needed to save us, for God’s love alone cannot save us.

Doing Away with Bad Theology

Today many of us believe that the doctrine of the atonement through the shedding of Jesus’s blood is entirely erroneous, truly an embarrassment. How can it be consistent with Jesus’s idea of God as a true and loving Father? In effect, this doctrine teaches that God’s infinite love is secondary to a requirement for a sacrifice to appease him for man’s offenses.

No wonder these crude ideas get downplayed once a mature Trinitarian theology evolved in the fourth century. “Such inner-trinitarian tension fails to appropriate the insight that, in sending the Son, the Father is actually sending himself,” says Daly.[2] In other words, the idea of atonement is not only barbaric, but is also a monstrous logical contradiction.
It is most unfortunate that this primitive notion—that Jesus’s death is a divinely ordained ransom—gets mixed up with Paul’s other insights, many of which were brilliant. Among these is what might be called Paul’s “cosmic iconoclasm,” in the words of biblical scholar Brigette Kahl. The revelation of the risen Christ on the Damascus road, she says, exploded Paul’s universe. He will never again see the old world he once inhabited, and is blind for three days. Paul eventually realizes that God had “changed sides,” shattering the prevailing images of a divine order that, in Paul’s immediate experience, included

[1] Finlan, p. 26

[2] Daly, p 50. He goes on to say: “It might be seen as a battle between the idea of Incarnation and the idea of atonement/sacrifice. . . . What would happen if we were to remove the idea of atonement? The vibrant  Christianity of the East that, although founded on the same biblical and patristic origins as that of the West, based its theology of salvation . . . much more on theologies of theosis/divinization rather than on Western-type atonement theories.”

Hebrew accommodation to Roman rule and its pagan state religion. All around Paul were images (statues, coins, and temples) that depicted Caesar in the role of the universal Father, or pater patrie. Conquered peoples like the Jews must pay tribute to this deity, submit to unjust Roman law, and even permit Roman surveillance of their most sacred rites. As Paul sees it, the God of the risen Christ carries out a great reversal. Those who were once the enemies of this false idol of empire, the oppressed subjects of imperial rule—both Jew and Gentile—now have a much greater God who favors them instead of the rulers. The great revelation to Paul portrays to him a God of justice and mercy for all, the true universal Father. This is the original God of Abraham. This was that God who before the Law was promulgated by Moses, only requiring a simple faith. This revolutionary insight leads Paul to declare that Jew and Gentile alike are now liberated from both the Hebrew Law and the Roman oppressor through the love of God through Christ. Jesus died to rehabilitate those at the bottom of the social hierarchy, who have immediate access to the Kingdom and are justified in God’s eyes by simple faith.[1]
I would only add that this picture of Christ’s work on Earth is the kind of inspiration we need today, once we leave behind the bad theology of Paul’s mistaken atonement concept.

[1] Brigette Kahl, “Reading Galatians and Empire at the Great Altar of Pergamon,” Union Seminary Quarterly Review, 2005.

Review: Terence Horgan “Austere Realism”

As I noted at the top of my Amazon review (see inclusion below), Hogan’s “Austere Realism” and Graham Harman’s “Object Oriented Ontology” are, near as I can tell, exact inverses of one another. Harman’s view is that everything is real, everything is an object. Every star, planet, building, book, nation, thought, and all their relations, a virtual infinity of relations between everything and everything else taken individually and in sum. “All objects”. Horgan’s view it the exact inverse. For Horgan there is only one ontologically genuine concrete object in the universe, that being the universe taken as a whole, across all time, what he calls “the blobject”.

Both theories, in their own way, amount to saying the same thing. Whether “all is one” or “literally everything is an object”, both declare that “everything is the same”. On a strictly ontological level, there is no distinction to be made anywhere. This is not to say that the two theories say the same thing, not at all. But because they are both at the extreme ends of the metaphysical spectrum they both collapse all distinction and end up explaining nothing.

Horgan doesn’t mention Harman; not in the book nor the copious end notes. None of Harman’s books are even listed in the bibliography. I am surprised. Although the polar opposite of Horgan’s ontology, I would think the common feature of “being at the extremes” of ontological speculation would be worth a mention. I have dealt with Harman in several book reviews and essays here on the blog. Now it is Horgan’s turn.

In my review I do point out that Horgan’s book has two purposes; to set forth his “blobjectivism” and to show how, even if there is but one concrete particular in the universe (the universe itself) this idea is perfectly consistent with talk about a multiplicity of objects. “The United states dollar is the primary reserve currency on Earth” is true even though “the United States”, dollars, currency, and “the Earth” do not strictly exist. The same is true for more purely physical assertions. “Mars is the fourth planetary orbit outward from the sun” is true though there is no Mars, planets, orbits, or the sun. These statements can be true because their truth lies in semantic contexts that only “indirectly correspond” to some as yet unspecified phenomena of the “mind-independent world”, something both Horgan and Harman must accept as real or they wouldn’t be “realists” at all.

It is the social construction of language and so the presence of varying semantic contexts that make such statements true. They are true not because the things they purportedly reference (planets, money) exist, but because they meet the semantic standards of speech concerning posits about distinctions that exist only in a mind-dependent way. This connection between ordinary speech and ontology is a nice touch, but what is it about these “pseudo object posits” that makes them unreal ontologically speaking? Horgan points to vagueness (which he also calls boundarylessness) and the “Special Composition Question” introduced by a short detour through the work of Peter Van Inwagen. Much of this Horgan illustrates with what philosophers call “sorites problems” the most famous of which (and perhaps because of this Horgan doesn’t use it) is the “ship of Theseus”.

Theseus has a ship made from wooden planks. At some point one of the planks rots and must be replaced with a new piece of wood. Is it still the same ship? What if two planks are replaced, or ten, or all of them? Somewhere along the process some people would say that it is no longer the same ship though others would disagree. But the point is there is no definite point where the replacement of just one more plank makes a different ship. This observation suggests that the ship of Theseus (and most everything else) is vague and it is an axiom of Horgan’s ontology that “vague objects” do not actually exist as such. There is no such object as “the ship of Theseus” even though Theseus (who also does not exist) is plainly sailing in something.

The “special composition question” is related to this but has to do with what is and is not a proper part of a larger construct. Does a chair (some chairs) have parts? Does it have legs, a back, a seat, and perhaps arms? The chair is subject to sorites issues; if I remove a leg and replace it with another is it the same chair? But also we notice that legs, arms, seats, and backs, not to mention chairs, are all made of atoms. Perhaps the only real parts of anything are the atoms. A chair (Van Inwagen’s famous example) is nothing but “atoms arranged chair-wise”. It has no other proper parts because they are all merely atoms arranged leg-wise, seat-wise and so on.

So what does Horgan say is the chair in the mind-independent world? He says it doesn’t exist. It is not a “proper part” of the universe. Instead, what he believes, is that the blobject, the whole universe just is in some particular spatiotemporal location arranged chair-wise. Instead of a composition from atoms on up, the key insight for Horgan is that the differentiation goes from the top down. The mind-independent “whole universe” happens to be differentiated into everything that we take to be mind-independent about the world and according to Horgan (he is explicit here) this differentiation is both real and precise; not vague.

Yet, since the blobject is differentiated into something or other not-vague (chair shaped, rocks in orbits, suns, gas clouds, radiation) literally everywhere, and all of these differentiations have effects (gravitationally or otherwise) on other differentiations around them, how is saying what Horgan says any different from saying that all of the differentiations, taken mind-independently, are simply real objects with a genuine compositional structure? If the blobject’s everywhere differentiations are not vague, where comes from that vagueness he uses to insist that suns, rocks, gas clouds, and chairs don’t really exist? If the blobject differentiates precisely and the differentiations are mind-independent, the vagueness can only come from what is not mind-independent, namely the machinations of mind both pre-linguistic and linguistic!

The problem comes fully around to bite Horgan when he speculates on mind itself. If there is mind in the universe, the blobject also is differentiated spatiotemporally into minds! Mind itself, our phenomenology taken as a whole (Horgan suggests) is also a differentiation of the blobject and for that reason precise, though the contents of any given mind, for example propositions, can still be vague. But even with this little escape for vagueness’ sake, Horgan seems committed to mind-independent mind!

This result does not appear to have given Horgan any pause, but I think it is enough to show that there are difficulties with his view he does not address in the book. In the end philosophy is always trivially right when it takes positions at the extremes of ontology or epistemology. One cannot in the end refute a pure idealism, nihilism, solipsism, or a realism that says, one way or another, that “everything is the same”. In the end Horgan is not wrong. Nor is Harman. But Blobjectivism, like Object Oriented Ontology, is a difference that makes no difference! As concerns the “mind-independent world” saying everything, including all properties, are localizations of the blobject is the same as saying that all the localizations are real and exist. As goes ontology, Horgan (though not Harman) need not worry about baldness, nations, money, or even language since none of these phenomena are strictly mind-independent.

Austere Realism: Contextual Semantics Meets Minimal Ontology. Terence Horgan 2008

Interestingly this book is a counter point and the ultimate theory is exactly the inverse of Graham Harman’s “Object Oriented Ontology” (see my reviews of various Harman books). Ironically, the universality of their views cause both philosophers the same problem. If what exists is univocal (everything is an object [Harman] or there is only one object [Horgan]) you explain everything while explaining nothing. However delving into such philosophical matters is not the purview of a book review and I will talk more about this in my blog. Meanwhile, one of my criticisms of Harman is that he never really tells us why or how he came to his position, a complaint I cannot level at Horgan as that telling is the very purpose of this book.

Horgan first introduces us to realism in general and then austere realism. He spends roughly one third of the book (at the beginning and again at the end) characterizing austere realism and in particular his version of it, something he calls “blobjectivism”. Roughly two thirds of the book he spends not on his ontological theory as such but on how that theory relates to statements in ordinary and scientific discourse. If we want to say that planets, stars, buildings, and nations do not exist, how is the scientific statement “Earth occupies the third orbit outward from the sun” or the economic observation “the U.S. dollar is the world’s primary reserve currency” true? He says such statements are true not because the “objects” they purportedly name exist, but because talk of these categories only “indirectly corresponds” to the mind-independent world. The indirection goes through the process of conceptualization.

Much of the book is an exposition of this process works; how it is that many statements in ordinary and scientific discourse can be true even though the objects they purportedly talk about do not really exist. His direct argument for their non-existence has to do with vagueness, what he also calls the boundarylessness of discursive subjects, and the related “special composition question”. In stipulating a mind-independent world he also stipulates that no mind-independent object can be vague or boundary-less. Vagueness can always be made to look inconsistent. He gets into this issue by introducing what philosophers call “sorites problems” (take a man with 5000 hairs on his head. If I take away 1 hair is it still the same man? And this is only the beginning of a sorites problem). Anything we might call “an object” within the universe is subject to this sort of breakdown. Horgan insists that this being so, none of these postulated things exist in the mind-independent world. Objects of the mind-independent world cannot be intrinsically vague.

Horgan slides between mind-independence that cannot be vague, and discourse following general and not-fully-specifiable linguistic standards (themselves vague), to what he calls the vagueness of linguistic posits about the world. The problem here, the problem Horgan doesn’t seem to see, is that all the vagueness is mind-dependent. There isn’t any vagueness about the man with 5000 hairs in the mind-independent world. The vagueness enters only when mind directs itself at analyzing the concept of that man. Horgan is quite correct I think in that all that is mind-dependent is vague. I believe this is necessarily so, though Horgan does not (and says so). Nevertheless these indirectly corresponding posits cannot be real though propositions about them can still be true. Besides introducing us to the blobject, the point of the book is the [mind-dependent] connection between Horgan’s ontology and the correctness of ordinary talk thanks to semantic context and indirect correspondence.

To my mind, Horgan fails to appreciate some of the implications of his ontology. For him, the stuff of the mind-independent world are not parts of something greater but rather spacetime localisations, differences, of “the one concrete particular that exists”, the blobject. If this is the case, and he says this, these spatiotemporal localisations must be precise, not vague! There are many issues arising here I will leave for another venue (see my blog), but the bottom line is that if they are not vague we might as well call them objects! It isn’t that Horgan is wrong (let’s say). It isn’t that ontology cannot be as austere as he claims. But it doesn’t matter. Giving an inch here is worth a mile. If spatiotemporal variations in the blobject are real and precise then conceptualizing those variations as objects, saying “they exist” and “directly correspond” (in Horgan’s semantic scheme) to mind-independent particulars amounts to saying the same thing.

Still all in all Horgan does a great job putting this together. I gave the book four stars not because of philosophical issues but because Horgan’s writing is not as clear as it might be. There are many long sentences with multiple and parenthetical clauses. Sometimes his argument is a little difficult to follow. But what was worse, the Kindle version of this book (the version I have) has a serious problem! This is not the author’s fault. The publisher was way too casual with this conversion. There are a lot of end notes in this book. A considerable amount of detail in the author’s exposition is in the end notes! But while the notes are flagged in the text, flags are not made into links. You cannot press on an end note and go to the note as as is conventionally the case in most of the Kindle books in this and other non-fiction genera. Such features are, after all, part of the point of e-books! This is a serious omission in a scholarly work like this, and makes the whole, if you really want to see the end notes as they come up, way more difficult than it should be.

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.