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Navigating the Labyrinth
on August 26, 2012
Professor Robert Kane enters the labyrinth of the philosophical debate over the problem of free will and very meticulously recounts the arguments and counterarguments of the leading theorists on the subject before coming out the other side by affirming that probably we do have some free will "in the things that matter most to us"--decisions about practical courses of action to take given a variety of options. He steers clear of the debate over the nature of consciousness and glosses over neurological functions, concentrating more on the philosophical issues than on hard science. That is fine, as far as it goes. After all, he is presenting the subject as an introductory university course in philosophy, not as a seminar on the latest findings of brain science. If in fact the latter had been his goal, he would no doubt have introduced in-depth views from leading contemporary neurobiologists, who join the debate more from a scientific than a philosophical point of view. In his bibliography you will not find names such as Ramachandran, Newberg, Damasio, Gazzaniga, Penfield, Joseph, and a host of other scientists that one could list, some of whom one might have thought Kane would have at least mentioned. Of course, philosopher/biologists, too, run the gamut from determinists to proponents of free will. What they have in common is that as scientists they base their conclusions on scientific data and the facts that such data suggest rather than on the niceties of philosophical debate. With Kane, one sometimes one has the feeling of being in the presence of medieval theologians arguing over how many angels can stand on the point of a pin. He is, perhaps, asking the wrong question, or at least framing it in terms that preclude some answers. Instead of asking, "Do we have free will?" he might better enquire, "How does the brain make decisions." But then, this would not be an introduction to a discussion on a philosophical issue, but a scientific review.
To be sure, Kane does give a nod to neurobiology in his chapter on Free Will and Modern Science. Here he suggests that Self Forming Actions are choices that we can make while conflicting possibilities exist in the brain simultaneously. Very briefly, and discounting all the objections from logic introduced by skeptics of this conclusion, we can state that the factor that implies free will in this case is that the agent (oneself) is consciously or subconsciously considering the options right up to the point of deciding to act on one or the other option. This tug of war continues until a neural overload causes the brain decide on I am not a trained philosopher, and I have read but a fraction of books of the ilk cited in the bibliography to "Problems in Philosophy." With this in mind, I offer my observations with the humility fitting a lay reader. Right off, I will say that this is a dense book. I gave it two close readings, taking copious notes, before attempting a critique. Initially, I was attracted to the book after reading a short review in which the critic summarized McGinn's hypothesis by stating that the author believes that some philosophical questions are simply beyond the cognitive ability of human brains to answer in a definitive manner and ipso facto are scientifically unverifiable. Since this has been my own belief I was eager to gain more insight into McGinn's reasoning.
McGinn begins his analysis by pigeon-holing possible solutions to certain "unsoluble" philosophical questions into his DIME model for devising logical theories of abstract concepts. There are four possible avenues of enquiry, he posits. Reason can pursue the generally futile "D" methods of Desconstruction to break the problem down into smaller units that are thought to be the "smallest basic units" of scientific enquiry or philosophical truth; the "I" or Irreducible positions simply take the problem for granted as a "fact of life" which we can accept without attempting to solve an inherently insoluble question. "M" or Magic/Divine Interventionist lines of enquiry dismiss the problem out of hand as supernatural and "inherently unreasonable." "E" Eliminitive solutions not only conclude that these questions are insoluble, but that they are impertinent to our pragmatic interests as well, and therefore should be shunted to the end of our "to do" list of problems facing us. Professor McGinn assures us that these four are more or less the totality of avenues of enquiry open to the use of "scientific" methods or logic to devise theories of the "truth" behind the type of phenomena he analyses in the book. To escape these "dead ends" in attempting to provide answers to abstract philosophical questions McGinn proposes his theory of Transcendental Naturalism, a position which readily admits that the human brain is incapable of fathoming these questions despite the fact that they have "natural" solutions- solutions that are "reasonable" but inherently beyond the capability of the human mind to resolve, now or in the future, at least not to the general satisfaction of his fellow philosophers and scientists, among whom he includes himself. The brain can only interpret the exterior world through processing sense impressions; it can never experience reality beyond this. It is incumbent on philosophers, therefore, to consider some questions "closed" to further investigation. After breezing through a review of how TN can provide the most reliable fall-back position for closure on questions of Consciousness, Self, Meaning, Free Will, the A Priori, and Knowledge, McGinn rests his case. He has shown, to his satisfaction at least, how these things are beyond the "epistemic capacity" of humans to solve. This conclusion was a bit more pessimistic than I had bargained for. My take on the subject was not that we can't know the answers to these questions, only that we can't know at the present stage of enquiry.
McGinn subscribes to the belief that nothing is more real than the material world, and only science can interpret the world in a logical manner. Mysticism is merely an illusion. Of course, one can contest the idea that the brain is ultimately controlled by the "physical" interaction of chemicals and neurons by an argument ad absurdum, which is only facetious on the surface level, by reducing these chemicals to atoms and the atoms to sub-atomic particles, which again can be reduced to pure energy waves. But we are getting ahead of ourselves. At this juncture it can be argued more persuasively that the mind indeed does create reality. But we are getting ahead of ourselves.
Between readings of Problems in Philosophy I happened upon Dr. Andrew Newberg's Why God Won't Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief. Whereas McGinn argues that the brain simply is not capable of any "valid" knowledge beyond that provided by sense impression of the "real world," Newberg argues the opposite. He and his co-authors posit that the mind/brain has a neurologically driven "cognitive imperative" to make sense of the world through the cognitive analysis of reality and to seek answers to such philosophical questions as McGinn places beyond our reach. In fact, they believe, the brain is hard-wired specifically for that purpose. Conscious reason, they point out, is by nature slow, linear, and limited by rules of logical discourse. (More of less McGinn's CALM model of scientific enquiry, which we don't need to review here.) While all knowledge of the world outside our minds is processed by our brain, which "interprets" sense impressions, thereby limiting the knowledge of the "real world" beyond our senses , it is no less true that our mind also creates cognitive impressions of itself and the external world by the mental processing of internally generated thoughts, ideas, concepts, etc . "What we think of as reality," writes Newberg, "is only a rendition of reality that is created by these internally generated thought impressions. .....All perceptions exist in the mind. The earth beneath your feet, the chair you're sitting in, the book you hold in your hands may all seem unquestionably solid and real, but they are known to you only as secondhand neurological perceptions, as blips and flashes racing along the neural pathways inside your skull. If you were to dismiss spiritual experience as `mere' neurological activities, you would also have to distrust all of your own brain's perceptions of the material world. On the other hand, if we do trust our perceptions of the physical world, we have no rational reason to declare that spiritual experience is a fiction that is `only' in the mind." The mind considers and processes ideas, thoughts, and, yes, philosophical questions in an interior process, often involving subconscious "non-linear" logic. This, in fact, is one important facet of the process of solving those types of questions that McGinn represents as beyond our capacity to answer. It can appear to us "magical" or illogical only when viewed through the lens of logic or "objective reality" as we think we know it.
Newberg does not dismiss "mystical" knowledge as scientifically invalid and outside the domain of either philosophical or scientific enquiry, as does McGinn. To Newberg, knowledge obtained subconsciously during a state of altered consciousness can be as valid a source of knowledge about reality as are sense impressions received from outside the brain during our ordinary state. Newberg posits a natural neurologically driven process for obtaining extra-sensual perceptions of reality. He theorizes that the brain can reach an "overload" of input through an excess of sense impressions from the outside world or through various meditative practices, for example, and at a certain point it can be flooded with a "mystical" sense of contact with an Absolute Unitary Being, which brings on a state of ecstasy and well-being. This state of altered consciousness has survival value for the species in that it can provide a base for establishing ethical and moral norms and giving meaning and direction to our life. Regardless of whether these experiences reveal "truths" about the objective world, the brain perceives them as real. Since they are no less reliable than our sense impressions to interpret the world to us, they are as valid as, or at least as important to, our perception of the "real" world as the "normal" sense impressions interpreted by our brain. They have a logic that only seems to defy the "objective" formal logic of conscious reasoning, and neurologically these "revelatory experiences" are as true as those reached through consciously applied logic as a means to answer philosophical questions. In essence, this process exemplifies a type of the "divine intervention" that McGinn so abhors, only Newberg concedes that the "divine" aspect may be "all in our mind." Newberg himself explains his concept of the divine: "...God cannot exist as a concept or as reality anyplace else but in your mind. In this sense, both spiritual experiences and experiences of a more ordinary material nature are made real to the mind in the very same way- through the processing powers of the brain and the cognitive functions of the mind. Whatever the ultimate nature of spiritual experience might be- whether it is in fact a perception of an actual spiritual reality, or merely an interpretation of sheer neurological function- all that is meaningful in human spirituality happens in the mind. In other words, THE MIND IS MYSTICAL BY DEFAULT. [Caps mine.] We can't definitively say why such capabilities have evolved, but we can find traces of their neurological roots in some basic structures and functions, primarily the autonomic nervous system, the limbic system, and in the brains' complex analytical functions."
McGinn is not so sanguine about including mystical experiences as valid for determining truth. He is filled with existential angst at not finding a logical theory to answer his "perennial questions" of philosophy. His hypothesis of Transcendental Naturalism comes over as a cop-out to relieve this impasse. But while he rejects out of hand any "divine" intervention in human affairs and dismisses "mystical" experiences as unreliable sources of information about reality, he does offer a disclaimer to his perplexing quandary. "What TN offers," he writes, is ontological breathing space, the freedom to accept what is terminally baffling." In his discussion of the "paradox" of a priori knowledge, for example, he explains, "If TN is to be in the running, therefore, it needs to show that the apparent paradox is unreal, that this is a case of an impenetrable possibility rather than that of a demonstrable impossibility." McGinn admits that all of his "insoluble" questions may be only "apparent paradoxes." After 135 pages of demonstrating how the brain is incapable of solving some basic philosophical questions through the use of conscious reason, McGinn grudgingly admits that the brain or the genes comprising the brain may be intrinsically equipped to do so subconsciously, or that they already have an innate a priori resolution to these problems, which is nevertheless hidden from conscious access. Hidden deep within a footnote to the next to last chapter McGinn notes: "My speculative guess," he writes, "is that the brain employs only a small fraction of its representational machinery in the maintenance of our conscious beliefs; the rest is devoted to performing tasks of which we have, and need, no awareness. Among these tasks, I am suggesting, are some that rely upon representations of the brain's own deep principles of functioning, including those that relate to mental phenomena." And that is a far as he will go into "mystical" experiences. He stands on the edge of the cliff, at the base of which lies the abyss of subconscious knowledge, but he doesn't trust that the bungee cord of reason will pull him back to safety. Philosophical theory, he staunchly affirms, can only be valid if it stands up to the scrutiny of "scientific" measurement or logic based on science.
Newberg does take the plunge- but not blindly. He knows that "the best that science can give us is a metaphorical picture of what's real, and while that picture may make sense, it isn't necessarily true. In this case, science is a type of mythology, a collection of explanatory stories that resolve the mysteries of existence and help us cope with the challenges of life. This would be applicable even if material reality is, in fact, the highest level of reality, because despite science's preoccupation with objectively verified truth, the human mind is incapable of purely objective observation. All our perceptions are subjective by their nature.... All knowledge, then, is metaphorical; even our most basic sensory perceptions of the world around us can be thought of as an explanatory story created by the brain." By extension, it might be interesting to infer that this metaphorical explanatory story created by the mind is the first part of the New Age idea that we "create our own reality." The second part is that we further "construct" our perception of reality in the mind by analyzing and processing these sense impressions as theories, ideas, concepts, etc.
As for his take on subliminal subjective perceptions, Newberg has found "evidence of a neurological process that has evolved to allow us humans to transcend material existence and acknowledge and connect with a deeper, more spiritual part of ourselves perceived of as an absolute, universal reality that connects us to all that is." This is the state of mystical union sought by mystics of all ages and all cultures.
Psychologically, this is achieved through the process of reification- "the ability to convert a concept into a concrete thing, or, more succinctly, to bestow upon something the quality of being real or true. In its neurological definition, the term refers to the power of the mind to grant meaning and substance to its own perceptions, thoughts, and beliefs, and to regard them as meaningful." Given the subjective nature of both sense perceptions derived from the exterior world and the interior perceptions of the mind, it would be hubris to allow the former as "scientific" and reject the latter as "mystical." Neither science nor mystical experience can lay claim to a full disclosure to "truth." Rather, they are equally valid and similarly limited. In summary he writes: "...neurology can reconcile the rift between science and religion by showing them to be powerful but incomplete pathways to the same ultimate reality. Back to McGinn. All that is lacking, according to McGinn, is a logically verifiable theory of the philosophical questions he poses. And without a theory, we can only grope futilely in the dark. Well, that may be an insoluble dilemma for professional philosophers, but it is only a bump in the road for neurologists. They are turning up new evidence almost daily of the neurological sources of our perception of reality. This new knowledge can be transforming. It can completely change the way we view ourselves and our mental capacity for navigating through life.
Another of McGinn's pet peaves is that not only can we not access the knowledge leading to a unified theory of abstract questions which lead to the "truth," but that we will always be unable to do this because of the immutable make-up of the human brain. He cites the millennia long stagnation of the philosophical quest as compared to the rapid advances in science and technology to prove his case. It seems that professor McGinn has come up a day late and a dollar short on this issue, too. Years ago scholars suggested various rather more pragmatic reasons for the lag of philosophical progress vis a vis advances in technology. In Aldous Huxley's The Perennial Philosophy, published in 1944, it was suggested that much of the vocabulary of modern philosophy was simply not available to theorists before the industrial revolution was under way, and philosophers didn't have a suitable frame of reference for developing theories based such new disciplines as neurobiology, psychology, or psychiatry, for example. Moreover, the majority of educated people were more interested in the new technologies than in philosophy in the nineteenth and on into the twentieth century. Today, this inequality is being addressed by scientists and philosophers alike.
I am writing this review while sitting on the beach in Ecuador. I brought with me the books under review and another book I happened to pick up in a garage sale before leaving the States that plays right into the themes we are discussing. This latter book is; The New Brain: How the Modern Age is Rewiring Your Mind, by Richard Restak, M. D., published in 1993, ten years after McGinn's book came out. Restak shows how modern medicine and technology is revealing the remarkable plasticity of the brain. Moreover, recent discoveries and revelations in neuropharmacology and technology that are on the near horizon will enable physicians and scientists to improve our physical and mental performance, cure neurological defects, and control behavior and even the physical make-up of our neurological system, as well as manipulate genes. Even now (in 1993 when the book was published), as Restak illustrates, experiments made possible by brain scanning technology "dissolve the previously firm boundary between inside and outside, mental and physical, voluntary and involuntary." This is the very point his fellow neurobiologist Andrew Newberg brings out in his book, published just two years previously. Heaven knows what advances have been made since then. "One thing is certain," writes Restak, "Our brain's organization will undergo greater changes during the next several decades than at any time in our history. And technology will continue to be the compelling force behind those modifications. Most important, the changes in our brains brought about by technology will continue to provide us with the challenge of retaining our freedom and sense of identity while simultaneously utilizing soon-to-be-available techniques to vastly expand our mental horizons."
It would be disengenous to claim that McGinn wrote before the evidence presented by such scientists as Newberg and Restak was widely disseminated. Rather, one must conclude that McGinn is held hostage by the preconceived notion that whatever is beyond the scope of philosophical theory to propose and science to explain is inherently unknowable. He is caught in a dilemma like those Medieval scholastics who argued about how many angels can stand on the point of a pin. He needs a paradigm shift, or as philosopher Suzanne Langer would say, "He is asking the wrong questions." (See her seminal book, Philosophy in a New Key.)
"Beware the man of one book," or, to quote Emerson, "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." Two stars for your stubbornness of sticking to your guns in spite of all the evidence to the contrary, Professor McGinn.
the action to be taken or the idea to settle on. The fact that the agent himself was undecided until the last minute and that whichever choice he made would have been willed and endorsed by him (perhaps subconsciously) defeats the objection that the action was undetermined by him. Thus, in at least some situations we have free will. That is the gist of the argument, anyway.
In summary, while this book is indeed an excellent introduction to the philosophical issues of free will, it is a bit too "scholastic" in its exclusion of the findings of neurobiology to be relevant from a scientific point of view. I give Kane five stars for doing what he states is its intention, and only two because of his shortcomings in discussing modern scientific discoveries in brain science. In balance that leaves three stars.