Reason, Naturalism, and Free Will

People familiar with Objectivism will remember an old article by Nathaniel Branden titled, “The Contradiction of Determinism,” (Objectivist Newsletter, May 1963). In it, he argues, not that the doctrine of free will is true, nor that determinism is false. Rather, he argues that if determinism is true, we cannot know it. And the reason we can’t know it is that, if determinism is true, no knowledge is possible at all.

The argument is that knowledge must be validated by a process of reason. Our suppositions about the world are not self-certifying. The mere presence of an idea in your mind does not establish that it is true. Therefore, we have to evaluate our suppositions about the world by means of sensory evidence and other tests, such as coherence. This must be done by a process of reason. But the process of reason cannot be realized by merely mechanical causation of the sort that is expressed by causal laws. Causal laws determine that a certain sort of event results in consequence of a certain sort of prior event, and this sort of determination is entirely different from that of seeing reasons or recognizing logical connections.

For example, an electronic calculator outputs “4” in response to “2+2=”, not because it recognizes that this is logically required, but because it is wired to do so. If it were wired differently, it would produce a different answer. If some of its wiring becomes faulty, it will produce a different answer. Of course, an electronic calculator is not very sophisticated, and so it cannot be expected to correct such errors. We can imagine a more sophisticated machine built with safeguards to protect against errors. But this doesn’t affect the central point, which is that a machine, no matter how sophisticated, does not act on the basis of reasons, but only of causes. A machine transitions from one state to the next on the basis of its previous state in accordance with causal laws. That is fundamentally different from recognizing a logical relation.

If physical causation is fundamentally different from (and incapable of) recognizing logical relations, and if recognizing logical relations is necessary for reason, and if reason is necessary for knowledge, then an entity that operates entirely by physical causation can’t know anything. Therefore, if determinism claims that every human being operates entirely by physical causation, then it implies that no human being can know anything, which includes the truth of determinism (assuming determinism to be true).

Unfortunately, Branden’s statement of the argument is not completely clear. But I think what he intended is more or less as I have stated it. Here is what he says:

Knowledge is the correct identification of the facts of reality; and in order for man to know that the contents of his mind do constitute knowledge, in order for him to know that he has identified the facts of reality correctly, he requires a means of testing his conclusions. The means is the process of reasoning—of testing his conclusions against reality and checking for contradictions. It is thus that he validates his conclusions. But this validation is possible only if his capacity to judge is free—that is, non-conditional (given a normal brain state). If his capacity to judge is not free, there is no way for a man to discriminate between his beliefs and those of a raving lunatic.

And he uses the machine example to illustrate that a machine, even a sophisticated one, would not be using reason and logic. Unfortunately, he does not explicitly contrast physical causation with seeing reasons. Thus, his complaint about the sophisticated machine is only that if its self-correcting safeguards are programmed improperly, it won’t be able to fix them. But one could make a similar complaint about a dull human—or about a smart human faced with a sufficiently complex problem. It isn’t about errors. A human equipped with reason might repeatedly fail to spot a mistake, might be uncreative in figuring out how to test a supposition, or be unable to solve some problem or identify the answer to some question of fact. On the other hand, machines are already much more reliable at identifying certain matters of fact than humans are, and at the rate AI is going, a truly general purpose problem solving and learning machine may soon be with us. But there would still be an important difference—apparently—between any machine and us, which is that a machine does not see reasons or recognize logical relations, and we do.

To get an indication of the difference I am pointing to, consider Wittgenstein’s rule-following argument (e.g., Philosophical Investigations, §§185–205). The argument is somewhat obscure (after all, it’s Wittgenstein), but it is common to suppose that Wittgenstein is issuing a skeptical challenge to say what constitutes one practice, as opposed to any other, being the correct way to apply a given rule in a novel situation. This is how Kripke (in Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language), for example, interprets Wittgenstein. For example, suppose I am applying a rule, “+1”, to generate a series of numbers. Starting with 0, I generate 1, 2, 3, … And now suppose I get to 1000, which I have never counted to using this rule before. What number correctly continues the series? 1001, presumably. But what if I write 1002 instead? Or 10,001? Or 5? What determines that any of these is incorrect?

Kripke’s way putting the challenge is to have the skeptic suggest an alternative rule and ask what determines that the “normal” rule is the correct one, not the alternative. Thus, in the example above, the normal rule would be plus, which would dictate that when I reach 1000, the next number in a +1 series is 1001. An alternative rule might be quus, which acts like plus for quantities less than 1000, but which dictates a result of 5 for any quantity greater than or equal to 1000. Therefore, if quus is the rule, then the next number in a +1 series after I reach 1000 is 5. Now the question can be put by asking what determines that plus is the rule I am following, not quus. After all, if all of my experience up to now has been with quantities below 1000, then the sum total of my past training and behavior is compatible with both rules. What is there to show that I didn’t really have quus in mind all along, so that when I apply +1 to 1000 and get 5, that is completely correct and consistent with what I always intended?

Perhaps we could somehow identify my pre-existing behavioral dispositions or neuronal pathways and show that they would have determined me to put 1001, not 5, so that if I put 5 now, that must be the result of some performance error. But the trouble with this is that if physical dispositions or structures are to be the criterion, then there can be no nonphysical standard by which to say they are ever wrong. Thus, if I put 5 instead of 1001, despite the fact that my physical dispositions or wiring previously would have made me put 1001, how are we to say this is a mistake? Why isn’t the change part of the system? Perhaps we will want to say that certain physical structures became deformed or weakened and thus failed to perform normally, but by what standard are we to say this? Obviously, to say that the standard is that the physical system should realize the rule plus is to beg the question. Indeed, no appeal to any abstract ideal of performance, such as we might find in an engineering specification, for instance, will do, since that amounts to one more rule (like plus or quus) which the system is to follow. The whole problem is that we need a criterion by which to say what actual performance is dictated by an “abstract ideal of performance.” Therefore, to say that a physical system will be correct when it satisfies an abstract ideal, such as an engineering spec, is to beg the question.

Of course, this suggests a direct way of solving the problem, which would be to say that I understand the rule, which is plus, and that I can recognize how to apply it to numbers I have never encountered before (since the application depends on common features of the system of numbers). On this view, the rule is the criterion, and nothing further is needed. A rule is an abstract entity, which I have the cognitive ability to understand and apply. Of course, this solution depends on a lot of nonphysical talk, like “understand,” “recognize,” “abstract,” “cognition,” and for that matter “rule.”

It may be felt that this is a little unsatisfying, even if we don’t mind the nonphysical talk. Shouldn’t there be some criterion for correct application of a rule? In many cases, there might be, depending on the rule (e.g., if it is not fully specified in itself). Also, many rules, especially if they are elaborate or derivative, might be part of systems of rules that interlock, so that the violation of the one rule involves violations of others also. Nevertheless, there must be some rules that an individual can simply understand and apply without any further criterion. This is the point of Lewis Carroll’s famous article, “What the Tortoise Said to Achilles.” Suppose the tortoise has learned the meaning of the material conditional, symbolized by “⊃” (to be read as “If…, then…”). And suppose he agrees to take as given the propositions “P ⊃ Q” and “P”. But suppose he insists that he cannot see that “Q” follows from these. What can Achilles say to compel his assent? Perhaps Achilles will introduce an explicit rule, “((P ⊃ Q) and P) ⊃ Q”, and get the tortoise to agree to this rule. Now since the antecedents of the new rule, “P ⊃ Q” and “P”, are both given and accepted by the tortoise, and the rule is accepted also, surely he cannot avoid accepting “Q”. But of course, in truth if the tortoise could not see before that “Q” follows from “P ⊃ Q” and “P” alone, the new rule will be of no help. Obviously, to apply the new rule requires the tortoise to grasp the principle of conditional elimination that would have enabled him to make the earlier inference. Or in other words, to derive “Q” from “((P ⊃ Q) and P) ⊃ Q”, “P ⊃ Q”, and “P” is just a more elaborate version of the same inference form as deriving “Q” from “P ⊃ Q” and “P”. So, if he could not follow the latter, he will not follow the former. And indeed, if he could not follow the latter, it is hard to see what other rule there could be that would make him see it. The moral is that there cannot be a separate criterion of correctness for every rule. Some logical relations you have to just “see” by the “light of reason.” If there are no logical relations you can understand and apply primitively, there is nothing further to be done. There are some reasoning processes we have to be innately equipped to perform. Otherwise, the reasoning power of the individual can never get going.

(It is noteworthy that something like this is the way Aristotle proceeds to develop his theory of the syllogism in the Prior Analytics. He says that certain basic syllogisms are “perfect” in that what is stated in the syllogism alone is sufficient to make the necessity of the conclusion “evident.” Other, less evident forms are shown to be evident by relation to the perfect forms.)

I have long thought that, for all the ballyhoo about the rule-following argument, it shows no more than what Lewis Carroll already pointed out, namely that if you need a criterion of correct application for every rule, you’re sunk. Some rules and their applications we simply have the power to understand, and, from the standpoint of reason (as opposed to psychology), there is no more to be said about it. Of course, this is not the use to which Wittgenstein puts his argument. His conclusion is roughly that, since there is no internal or individual—“private”—criterion for the correct application of a rule, the criterion is public. To follow a rule is to participate in a custom or usage or institution, and this is why there can be, for example, no private language (since a language is constituted of rules). It is curious that, an individual behavioral or neuronal criterion having been rejected on the grounds that there can be no physical standard of error, a public behavioral criterion is accepted, although it seems to be subject to the same criticism. After all, on the institutional view of rules, if by some mass delusion we all started applying quus instead of plus, there would be no standard by which to say that was an error. Of course, maybe that’s sociologically correct! Maybe that’s exactly what we would do, and do do. Think of linguistic change, for example. Today’s common English usage errors become (annoyingly) tomorrow’s standard usage. But if so, then notice that the supposed proof that a private language is impossible has failed. If an ideal standard of error is not needed for institutional rules, it will not be needed for private rules either. An individual’s private rules could be constituted by his own habits of usage, and errors could be just those performances he would chide himself for, by analogy with public, institutional rules. Therefore, if there can be public rules on this model, there can be private rules also.

However, all this is rather beside the point I introduced the rule-following problem to illustrate, which is that reason is not reducible to causal processes. If there is an answer to the skeptic’s challenge in the rule-following argument, it must appeal to our having the cognitive ability to understand and apply a rule, and this ability is not reducible to behavioral dispositions or neuronal activity—or so I have argued. This is the way in which a machine, if it is governed entirely by processes of physical causation, does not see reasons or recognize logical relations, and so functions in a way entirely different from us. This is not an outré or radical idea. For instance, I think this is just the sort of view of reason that motivates the “anomalous monism” of such a pillar of analytic philosophy as Donald Davidson (see “Mental Events”). Of course, Davidson’s anomalous monism was supposed to show how the two worlds, mental and physical, can coexist despite running on entirely different principles, so that a machine can have reason after all (including freedom!). However, I don’t think Davidson’s theory succeeds in that, and my impression is that few other philosophers have been persuaded either. And Davidson’s theory, even if it were correct, still would deny that reason is reducible to physical causation.

A way of putting my point is to say that reason is not a naturalistic process. I am not particularly comfortable with the term “naturalistic.” I hardly mean to say that reason is supernatural, much less that it is incomprehensible or mysterious. Nor would I call it “unnatural.” I use the term “naturalism” because it seems to be the common term, and I haven’t thought of a better one. What I mean by saying that any phenomenon is not naturalistic is just that it is inexplicable by physical science or causal laws.

It seems to me that naturalism is deeply embedded in the current zeitgeist, to the point of not even being on most people’s minds—not even most philosophers’—as an explicit commitment. It often manifests itself just as a feeling of slight embarrassment or discomfort whenever somebody is so gauche as to violate it. That is, when they violate it explicitly. For, phenomena that at least apparently violate it are ubiquitous. Besides reason, there is qualitative experience (“qualia”), color (whether experienced or not), consciousness, intentionality, signification, and knowledge. I hope the way in which at least most of these are nonreducible is at least vaguely apparent. For some indications of what I have in mind, on qualitative experience and consciousness, see the work of David Chalmers (e.g., “Consciousness and Its Place in Nature”); on color, see the work of C. L. Hardin (e.g., Color for Philosophers); on intentionality and signification, Tyler Burge (e.g., “Perceptual Entitlement” and “Modest Dualism”); on knowledge, Timothy Williamson (e.g., Knowledge and Its Limits). I think it is remarkable that so many people (including myself most of the time) seem to blithely assume that naturalism will ultimately prevail in spite of all the phenomena that appear to violate it. For many of these, I think there is at present no realistic program at all for naturalizing them. I suppose the common assumption of naturalism is a testament to the enormous prestige that now accrues to physical science.

Be all this as it may, in the remainder I want to point out that the claim that reason is non-naturalistic is not the same as the claim that it requires free will or implies that we have free will. This means that, although I agree with Branden that human knowledge requires reason and reason does not operate by physical causation—and indeed must be in some way liberated from determination by physical causation—I don’t agree that the process of reason is necessarily free. Indeed, it seems likely to me that it is not free.

The idea that the use of reason makes us free is most closely associated, I think, with Immanuel Kant. (This is of course a bit ironic in view of Objectivism’s hostility to Kant.) In the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, Kant distinguished between what he called the “autonomy” and the “heteronomy” of the will. The autonomous will is a law to itself: it acts in obedience to laws—universal, rational principles of action—which it gives to itself. The heteronomous will takes its determination from some object outside of itself. Usually, this means some object of desire, such as to be healthy, to be admired, to be wealthy, etc. Thus, the heteronomous will is clearly not free, since it allows itself to be determined by its passions or by other aspects of its empirical psychology (or, sometimes, by irrational “ideals” it cooks up for itself by the ungrounded use of “pure reason”).

(As a side note, notice the identification of the self with the rational will, while the passions are treated as alien. This is a commonplace in thinkers ever since Plato. “You” is your rational ego. Your desires and feelings are not you. I mention this to point out that not everyone has always agreed. For example, Aristotle argues that actions done under the influence of the passions such as anger or lust should still count as voluntary because they are no less a part of you than your reason (Nicomachean Ethics, III.1, 1111a21–1111b3). He says, “What is the difference in respect of involuntariness between errors committed upon calculation and those committed in anger? Both are to be avoided, but the irrational passions are thought to be not less human than reason is, and therefore also the actions which proceed from anger or appetite are the man’s actions. It would be odd, then, to treat them as involuntary.”)

Autonomous action, by contrast, is free. “What, then, can freedom of the will be other than autonomy, that is, the will’s property of being a law to itself?” (Groundwork, Sec. III, 4:447). For the will to be a law to itself is incompatible with its being determined or even influenced by anything else. Not coincidentally, Kant’s supreme principle of morals, the categorical imperative, says precisely that the will should act only on maxims it lays down for itself as universal laws. Therefore, the autonomous will is the moral will, and to act morally is to become autonomous and therefore free. By acting morally, we make ourselves free and give ourselves dignity. For Kant, this is the payoff of morality.

But although the doctrine that reason gives us freedom is (I think) most famously associated with Kant, he is not the originator of it. John Locke had said something similar nearly 100 years earlier: “were we determined by anything but the last result of our own minds, judging of the good or evil of any action, we were not free; the very end of our freedom being, that we may attain the good we choose. And therefore, every man is put under a necessity, by his constitution as an intelligent being, to be determined in willing by his own thought and judgment what is best for him to do: else he would be under the determination of some other than himself, which is want of liberty” (Essay Concerning Human Understanding, II.xxi.49). Unlike Kant, Locke does not explicitly state that the use of reason requires liberation from any predetermination by the chain of physical causation. Nevertheless, this seems implicit in his repeated use of terms like “free”, “unbiased”, and “liberty” in connection with reason.

The linkage of freedom with reason may well go back further than Locke, but that is as far as I have traced it.

Nevertheless, as I’ve said, it does not seem to me that the non-naturalistic nature of reason means that it gives us freedom. The reason is simply that the recognition of reasons and logical relations is not particularly free. Going back to our example of addition, suppose that “2+2=4” is a truth of reason. Is reason free to disregard it? On the contrary, to the extent that it is reason, it is compelled to accept it! It has no choice. And similarly, I should think, for all reasons and logical relations. If reason consists in the power to recognize reasons and logical relations, then it is constrained by this power. It can do no more or less, rather as the visual system has no choice about what visual information to process and how to process it, once the eyes are open and focused on a scene.

This jibes with the point that belief is involuntary. People sometimes speak of “deciding to believe” this or that, but no one literally does this. You cannot make yourself believe any arbitrary proposition simply by deciding to believe it. I cannot make myself believe, say, that grass is red, by a direct act of will—and neither can you. Of course, we can say that we believe in, say, God or whatever, but that is not the same as actually believing. Rather, we believe what we have evidence and reason for, and we do not arbitrarily decide these, either. Strictly speaking, we do not decide them at all, we recognize them. There is a logical reason for this. To believe something is to think it is true. But to think something is true is incompatible with the thought that you simply decided it. Therefore, only considerations that imply the truth of something—reasons, evidence, logic—can be a basis for belief, and these are not up to us. We don’t decide them, we recognize them. (On this point, see Bernard Williams, “Deciding to Believe.”)

The kind of freedom we want when we talk about free will seems to be that we are in some way the initiator of our own decisions and actions. Reason per se does not do that. Therefore, reason per se cannot be the agency of free will. Nor does having reason guarantee that we have free will. Nor would determinism mean that we do not have reason or knowledge (though the sort of predetermination we would be subject to in that case would not be exclusively that of physical causation). It is tempting to suppose that the non-naturalistic nature of reason, its freedom from the chain of physical causation, means that reason itself is free and that we are free through it. But this is just a mistake. There can be kinds of predetermination other than that imposed by the chain of physical causation. Free will requires something more than just non-naturalistic reason.


  • Branden, Nathaniel. 1963. “The Contradiction of Determinism.” Objectivist Newsletter, 2 (5): 17–20.
  • Burge, Tyler. 2003. “Perceptual Entitlement.” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 67 (3): 503–538.
  • ———. 2010. “Modest Dualism.” In Robert C. Koons and George Bealer (eds.), The Waning of Materialism, Oxford University Press, 2010: 233–250.
  • Carroll, Lewis. 1895. “What the Tortoise Said to Achilles.” Mind, 4 (14): 278–280.
  • Chalmers, David J. 2002. “Consciousness and Its Place in Nature.” In David J. Chalmers (ed.), Philosophy of Mind: Classical and Contemporary Readings. Oxford University Press, 2002: 247–272.
  • Davidson, Donald. 1970. “Mental Events.” Reprinted in Donald Davidson, Essays on Actions and Events. Oxford University Press, 1980: 207–227.
  • Hardin, C. L. 1988. Color for Philosophers: Unweaving the Rainbow. Expanded Edition. Hackett.
  • Kripke, Saul A. 1982. Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language. Harvard University Press.
  • Williams, Bernard. 1970. “Deciding to Believe.” Reprinted in Bernard Willams, Problems of the Self, Cambridge University Press, 1973: 136–151.
  • Williamson, Timothy. 2000. Knowledge and Its Limits. Oxford University Press.

40 thoughts on “Reason, Naturalism, and Free Will

  1. Incidentally, the argument that we have to have (incompatibilist) free will in order to be justified in any knowledge claims appears to go back to Epicurus — who appears to have been both an indeterminist and a materialist, though also appears not to have been inclined to the reductionism or eliminativism of Democritean materialism (hedging my bets with “appears” because the interpretation of the relevant passages is highly controversial):

    “We rebuke, oppose and reform each other as if the responsibility lay also in ourselves, and not just in our original constitution and in the accidental necessity of that which surrounds and penetrates us. For if someone were to attribute to the very processes of rebuking and being rebuked the accidental necessity of whatever happens to be present to oneself at the time … this sort of account is self refuting, and can never prove that everything is of the kind called ‘of necessity;’ but he debates this very question on the assumption that his opponent is himself responsible for talking nonsense. And even if he goes on to infinity saying that this action of his is in turn of necessity, always appealing to arguments, he is not reasoning it empirically so long as he goes on imputing to himself the responsibility for having reasoned correctly and to his opponent that for having reasoned incorrectly ….” (from the fragments of On Nature)

    (While I’m an incompatibilist myself, I don’t think this self-refutation argument works, FWIW. The compatibilist position that the causal chain runs through our reasoning rather than bypassing it seems fine as far as it goes.)

    Whether Locke was defending a compatibilist or incomaptibilist conception of rational choice is a tricky question. He sounds incompatibilist in the passage you mention, but his overall account — — is usually interpreted as compatibilist, and I think a case could be made either way. (Anthony Collins certainly thought he was following Locke.)

    I’ve never been sure what “naturalism” means, so I’m unwilling either to embrace or to reject the term. But I think Putnam’s peg-in-hole example — pp. 131-132 of: — already shows that the lower level can’t fully explain the higher level even in the case of inanimate objects, before we even get minds into the picture.

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    • I’ve come to think that “naturalism” only makes sense as a correlative term in a very specific context: it only has application in contexts where someone is making the assertion that something, X, transcends nature. In order to make that assertion, the person making the assertion has to be presupposing a conception of nature such that X transcends it. In that context, a determinate conception of nature may (or may not) be at work. Otherwise, I share the skepticism that both of you express about it.

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    • Sorry to be so long in responding, but I’ve had a house full of out-of-town guests for the past week.

      Thanks for the tip re Epicurus. If I ever knew about that, I’d forgotten. Epicurus actually seems to invoke a contradiction between determinism and knowledge claims that is quite explicit, unlike what I find in Locke and Kant.

      It is also interesting—and a bit surprising—to see Epicurus interpreted as a non-reductionist. If Long and Sedley are right, this goes way beyond the Davidsonian non-reductionism I alluded to in my post (a brand of token-identity theory). It is an emergence theory of at least Searle’s kind, if not stronger. As an interpretation of Epicurus, it seems to have an obvious problem, which is that a major motivation behind Eprcurus’s atomistic “natural philosophy” is to promote ataraxia by dispelling worries about witchcraft, divination, and supernatural causation. Since everything has a natural cause in terms of atomic motion, your enemies can’t hurt you by casting spells, praying to the gods to savage you, etc. But now, if Long and Sedley are right, it turns out that there can be emergent causes that move your body in ways that are not only not predicted by the motions of its constituent atoms, but that imply emergent, novel powers beyond anything that could be compounded out of the powers of the atoms themselves. In that case, there seems to be no reason in principle why there might not be witchcraft, divine prophesy, or special powers of the gods or other spirits. Anyway, if there are constraints that make these things impossible, we now are in need of seeing them spelled out, since the principles of atomic motion themselves no longer fill the bill.


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  3. Thanks for these considerations, David.

    If the machine were alive, even though a man-made device, if the machine had ends including as survival, and its instrumentation and control system were geared to that end with as much life-reflection consciousness as the gearing of humans, then we come back round to the question we started with, and we are left with the question of whether the teleological behavior of this machine is fully ex ante deterministic. (I wonder if the course of biological evolution is considered deterministic. If not, then a living machine [and we too?] equipped with selection over an internal random generator-of-diversity [the GOD module, some quip] would seem not deterministic in that whatever sense.) That is to say, introduction of machine in Branden argument seems problematic in the way Rand’s invulnerable robot is problematic if it is assumed that because the Branden machine is called a machine and because it is man-made, then like usual machines, it is not alive, vulnerable, and autonomous in avoiding injury. Rand’s robot setup was criticized for begging the question of the province of value. She didn’t need the robot argument; one can become persuaded about the life-province of value without the robot loop, such being the argument in AS. A relative of Rand’s value-free robot and Branden’s knowledge-free, logic-free machine is Rand’s talk in her radio-speech of AS of the senses being machine-like and therefore lacking ability to make any errors. I’d have to look up and see who in the history of philosophy first introduced machine-talk in defending inerrancy of the senses (Descartes?). On Epicurus I have a promising book on my shelf titled EPICURUS ON FREEDOM (2005) by Tim O’Keefe, which I still hope to study in this lifetime.


    • I’m not sure I really follow you, Stephen. I don’t mean to appeal to a distinction between life, as being capable of reason, and non-life, as being merely mechanical. I am making the reason–causation split primitive, rather than dependent on anything else (that I know of). So, for all I know, there could be a reasoning machine (which is not alive), and there could be a living organism that is based purely on chemical and mechanical processes. But, if what I’m saying is right, such a reasoning machine would not function entirely by physical causation, and such an organism would not have reason.

      I am not even quite sure whether “seeing reasons” requires consciousness! The contrast I mean to draw is between the sort of causation which is described by scientific laws, such as Newton’s laws or Maxwell’s equations, and the sort which consists in applying logical relations. It is natural to speak of the former as “blind” and of the latter as “the light of reason,” but I have no idea what the conditions are for the existence of this “reason.” This seems to be an area about which little is known—a situation which I think is illustrated by the unsatisfactory flailings of David Chalmers after a theory of consciousness.

      It is not entirely clear that “seeing reasons” is a genuine phenomenon. It is tempting to take the safe, “physics-approved” way out and say that the sense we have of seeing reasons is an illusion, just as determinists say that the sense we have of generating decisions and actions is an illusion. It feels like we generate original causes, but really everything we do is the inevitable result of antecedent causes. Similarly, we seem to see logical relations, but really all of our cognitive activity is a process of blind, physical causation. This seems to me to be Wittgenstein’s conclusion, along with many other philosophers.

      What I like about the rule-following argument is the precision it brings to the question. “Seeing a reason” is vague. What’s the difference, exactly, between seeing a reason and responding to a stimulus? The rule-following argument makes clear what is at issue by taking a clear logical rule, like plus or conditional elimination or transitivity of identity, and showing that it cannot be applied, qua logical rule, by any process of purely physical causation. This doesn’t prove that there is anything non-naturalistic about our cognition, of course; this could still be an illusion. But at least it’s clear what is at stake—what we stand to lose if there isn’t.

      I am intensely aware that it is odd and even embarrassing to be advocating non-naturalism. (I mean, what would Dennett say?) I am saying that there is more out there than is (or ever will be) written in the book of physics (or that supervenes on what is written in the book of physics). It is not through any religious or spiritual impulse that I do so—far from it. I have just gradually come to think that it is true, and moreover, that once one recognizes that it is true, the phenomena that exemplify it are evident all around us. We don’t notice these because we are wearing ideological blinders.

      I have started out talking about this with a relatively weak case for non-naturalism—weak because the reality of reason is subject to doubt in the way I just described. Before the summer is over, I hope to say more and make a stronger case.

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  4. That should be “had ends including its survival . . . .”

    I do agree with Rand-Branden that life-free machines necessarily do not actually engage in even the most elementary logic, but that is for reasons that although sprung from Rand, I’m developing far in ways she had not sensed.


  5. “The relationship of such forms as concept, judgment, and syllogism to others, e.g. causality and so forth, can emerge only within logic itself.”

    “It is commonly said that logic deals with forms only and that it must take its content from somewhere else. However, the logical thoughts are not some accessory over against all this content. Rather, all this other content is merely an accessory compared to the logical forms. They are the ground, existing in and for itself, of everything.”

    That is two cents from Hegel in §24 of THE ENCYCLOPEDIA LOGIC.

    That way of things will not sweep you up I imagine. Against Hegel here, for my part, I take it that the only thing existing in and for itself is life, that (as in my poem Matters) “whirl of mind is life in life,” that there are no recognitions or seeings (or valuations) by anything not life, that life-free existence occasions some states which, when recognized, are instances of some of the elementary logical operations, but that not all elementary logical operations have such existence-occasions where the existence is without life (or machines and their controls descended from living intelligence) among existents.

    It looks to me some very fertile territory you explore here, David. Some work from Centuries 20-21 additional to or related to those you have mentioned, possibly of assistance:


    John Haugland’s “Truth and Rule-Following” in HAVING THOUGHT

    (I’ve got this one, but haven’t read yet.)
    Bradford Skow’s REASONS WHY


    • I’d not think of “seeing reasons” as an illusion even if it were entirely explicable in terms of causal potentials exploited in human constructions. When we design a scientific instrument, we recognize a certain train of causal sequence organized in the instrument would deliver certain information about the trigger, and that physical setup would seem still worth distinguishing from the natural world and not anything false or illusory.

      PS – The spelling of John’s last name should have an ‘e’ – Haugeland.


  6. I’d wanted to comment on this, but (as you know), I’ve been traveling, and haven’t had the chance. I’m still recovering a bit from my travels, but when I do get the chance, I want to run a very different version of the Objectivist argument past you, one that I think gets at the real issue Branden was trying to get at it. But until I do, here’s a question about something you say. I’m particularly curious about the parenthetical:

    I think it is remarkable that so many people (including myself most of the time) seem to blithely assume that naturalism will ultimately prevail in spite of all the phenomena that appear to violate it. For many of these, I think there is at present no realistic program at all for naturalizing them. I suppose the common assumption of naturalism is a testament to the enormous prestige that now accrues to physical science.

    Why is that? (Granted, I got C’s in high school chemistry and physics, but I still feel entitled to my puzzlement.)

    In other words, why do so many philosophers regard naturalism as nearly axiomatic, given (a) the unclarity of the term itself, (b) the absence of any knock-down arguments for it (right?), and (c) the number of things out there that haven’t been “naturalized” (whatever that means), and don’t seem easy candidates for naturalization?

    Is it facile or uncharitable to regard the naturalistic turn as a kind of “equal and opposite” fideistic lurch away from the influence of the supernaturalist religions? It seems awfully simplistic to put things that way, but also awfully explanatory:

    Religion is characterized by appeal to the supernatural. But religion is a terrible thing, and it’s had a monopoly or near-monopoly on philosophy for far too long. The time has come to declare our independence from the intellectual imperialism of theology. The time has come for…Naturalism.”

    Pressed for content, “naturalism” just comes to mean “the non-theological ontology that we get out of natural science.”

    You say that allegiance to naturalism is “testament to the enormous prestige that now accrues to physical science,” which at some level is doubtless true, but is also extremely puzzling. The physical sciences have next to nothing to say about the topics that exercise the philosophical imagination. So there’s something puzzling, at least to me, about someone who thinks, “My gosh, look at the wonders of physics,” and then turns around and says, “Well, with successes like that going on in the Physics Department, I guess we have no choice but to naturalize the mind. Because if physics gives us air travel, well, once we naturalize the mind, our judgments about moral responsibility will become as clear as the Departures monitor at an airport.” Yes, that sounds like an absurd, tendentious series of non-sequiturs. But that’s what naturalism sounds like to me. I’ve just never understood what it is that naturalism was supposed to do for philosophy. So the “prestige of science” explanation only goes so far.

    If the anti-religious motivation really turned out to be the rationale for naturalism, we all seem to be victims of a “meet the new boss, same as the old boss” fallacy. Maybe this is just another kind of fideism, but I’d like to think that things are better than that?


    • I, perhaps like Irfan, have never been inclined to take ‘naturalism’ all that seriously, though it took me a while to appreciate just how little substance there is to it. Its meaning seems to veer between (i) atheism and rejection of immaterial substances to (ii) the view that current physics, and just possibly chemistry, tell us what is real, and whatever doesn’t figure in those sciences must be either reduced or eliminated from our ontology. Maybe somewhere in between is (iii) the view that current natural science provides the only respectable method for finding out what’s true. But the meaning seems to shift unstably between these. I can see no good reason to believe (ii), and (iii) seems either wholly implausible or trivial depending on how the method is understood. (i) is by no means trivial, but is far from a sort of unified view, and can’t really be what people have in mind when they talk about naturalism prevailing despite phenomena that seem to violate it (since hardly anything, relatively speaking, clearly violates (i)). Though I’m not keen on substance dualism, I don’t think there’s a conclusive case even against (i). The notion that (i)-(iii) stand or fall together strikes me as weird. I don’t see good reason to think that if various phenomena resist naturalization in the sense of (ii) or even (iii), we’ll be compelled to be theists and substance dualists.

      I sometimes suspect that Irfan’s suggestion is right, that the rage for naturalism in its various senses has its roots in anti-religious sentiments. I’m not sure that’s all there is to it, though. Part of seems to be a reaction to various forms of idealism and at least apparent anti-scientism, and perhaps to certain sorts of anti-realism in a broad sense. Early analytic philosophy was largely in reaction against idealism, and though analytic philosophy in the 20th century was not invariably naturalist in senses (ii) or (iii), deference to empirical science and impatience with metaphysics long outlasted the refutation of logical positivism. This is the tradition of thought in which most ‘naturalizing’ philosophers were trained, so it’s not much of a surprise if the attitudes of earlier generations get replicated in the newer (there seem to me to be far fewer ‘naturalists’ in ethics and political philosophy now that a few generations have come up in the wake of philosophers like Anscombe, Foot, Williams, and Rawls, who all rejected naturalism in senses (ii) and (iii)). In fact I wonder whether the anti-religious sentiment is less the driving force than just a kind of rhetorical device to block certain kinds of heterodox departures from the scientistic norm. I’m reminded of Searle’s remarks in The Rediscovery of the Mind about the ‘heroic-age-of-science maneuver’; it appeals to pre-existing anti-religious prejudices, but in the service of dismissing views that are entirely compatible with naturalism in sense (i). Searle himself is guilty of appealing to anti-religious myths (as in his dismissal of biological functions on the grounds that Darwin refuted teleology), but his views seem like a perfect illustration of the distance between naturalism (i) and naturalism (ii) and (iii); whatever one thinks about his philosophy of mind, it doesn’t fail because it violates naturalism in sense (i).

      It seems to me that it would be all for the better if people stopped using the general term ‘naturalism’ and opted for less ambiguous labels instead. It might then become less of a surprise or a scandal that reductive/eliminative scientistic naturalism can’t account for much.

      But I’m looking forward to David’s further thoughts on the broader issues here, whatever labels he wants to use.

      Liked by 2 people

    • The cover of Scientific American for July 2019 proclaims HOW THE MIND ARISES – Network Interactions in the Brain Create Thought. That article appears on pages 26-33. The title there is How Matter Becomes Mind. The authors are bioengineer Danielle Bassett and neuroscientist (undergrad was phi and psy) Max Bertolero. The footer “In Brief” reads: “How does the brain give rise to who we are? This question has led to the new field of network neuroscience, which uses a branch of mathematics, graph theory, to model the brain connections that let us read, calculate, or simply sit and tap our fingers. Graph theory, which is also used by chemists, quantum field theorists and linguists, models the physical pathways that build functional networks from which our cognitive capacities emerge, whether for vision, attention or self-control. By understanding networks at increasing levels of abstraction, researchers have begun to bridge the gap between matter and mind. Practical benefits could entail new ways of diagnosing and treating disorders such as depression.”

      This is not hand waving. Whatever one’s formula of naturalism to embrace or oppose, I’m pretty sure that going serious on it requires getting going on what this article is reporting.


      • The problem with that summary is that apart from the lip service paid to “self control,” it leaves no room whatsoever for human agency. The brain “gives rise” to what we are. Brain connections “let us” read, calculate, and so on. Cognitive capacities “emerge,” but if the brain “gives rise” to their actualization, or brain connections “let” the actualizations happen, human beings become a locus for events, but not a source of actions.

        This approach to mind strikes me intensifying the wrong ways of thinking about mental disorder, not generating usefully new ways of thinking about it. Depression is already too reflexively conceived as a disease with a neurophysiological etiology. The legitimate insight of cognitive psychologists (like Beck), to the effect that depression arises from false core beliefs about self and the world, is now in danger of being swallowed up by the claim that the false beliefs arise from brain disorder rather than cognitive acts that the agent controls. This approach to mental health basically treats the whole domain as the monopoly of psychiatrists and their prescription pads. It strikes me as “more of the same,” not something new.


      • There is nothing in that summary that a substance dualist can’t accept. There is certainly nothing that a theist can’t embrace. There is nothing in it inconsistent with denying either that there is nothing more to reality than physics and chemistry (indeed, prima facie the views here reported contradict that claim) or that narrowly scientific methods of empirical experiment and mathematical modeling are the only respectable forms of inquiry. There is no substantive sense of ‘naturalism’ on which it involves nothing stronger than the claim that the natural sciences can tell us things about how things work.


        • Qualification: there’s nothing in that summary that a substance dualist has to accept on pain of inconsistency with empirical science. The language of ‘giving rise,’ ’emerging,’ ‘letting,’ and so on might be taken (as Irfan seems to take it) as making strong metaphysical claims inconsistent with substance dualism (and much else). But it need not be taken that way, and more importantly, it is virtually certain that nothing in the empirical evidence settles whether we have to take it that way on pain of inconsistency with the empirical evidence.

          Note that I’m not claiming that substance dualism is especially plausible. It seems to me to face severe problems, both of the sort that David Potts mentions in his first general argument for naturalism and more broadly, and the standard arguments for substance dualism of which I’m aware seem to be far from compelling. But the problem with substance dualism is not that it’s inconsistent with empirical science, because it isn’t. Caricatures of substance dualism aren’t, but that’s trivial. Substance dualists have no trouble recognizing that the physical causal efficacy of mental states (among other features of mentality) depends on physiology. My claim isn’t that substance dualism is ultimately defensible, let alone the most defensible or plausible view; it’s that one doesn’t show it to be false simply by doing more empirical science.

          A fortiori, scientific accounts like these won’t show that views less metaphysically ambitious than substance dualism are mistaken, either.


        • I wasn’t sure whether you were responding there to me or Boydstun.

          I was giving the Scientific American summary a strong (perhaps slightly uncharitable) reading. After all, it begins by saying that network interactions “create thought.” The claim that the brain “gives rise to what we are,” is ambiguous, but suggestive of grand-scale ontological ambition. So I don’t think it’s greatly unfair to read the summary as a preface to (what the editors and authors regard as) an exhaustive account (ontology) of mind. In other words “network interactions create thought” should be read as “network interactions are constitutive of mind as such.” And the brain’s giving rise “to what we are” should be read as saying: “we’ve finally arrived at the scientific discoveries that make physicalism plausible as an ontology that accounts for everything that needs accounting for (or reduction, or elimination) as far as human identity is concerned.”

          Yes, you could read the same phrases as consistent with substance dualism, but considering the source, I doubt that’s the intent. The ambiguity is better explained by imprecision than by any attempt to leave room for dualism. Read my way, their claims do have the defect I mentioned–the reduction of actions to events. I’m inclined to think that many of Scientific American’s readers would either miss that fact, or regard it as a feature rather than a bug.


          • I’ve been able to finish reading the Sci Am article now. It gives a peek into what research is being done in that lab and its special advances so far. That is, it reports what new has been found concerning internal brain connectivities moment to moment and in development, what early developments are sensitive to social environment, and what resulting connectivities coincide with various neurological disorders, including some mental illness.

            “Like schizophrenia, major depressive disorder is not caused by a single abnormal brain region. Three specific modules appear to be affected in depression: the frontoparietal control, salience and default mode modules. In fact, the symptoms of depression—emotional disinhibition, altered sensitivity to emotional events and rumination—map to these modules. . . . In depression, the default mode dominates, and the afflicted person lapses into ruminative thought. . . . A connectivity pattern in a brain can allow us to diagnose certain subtypes of the disorder and determine which areas should be treated with electrical-stimulation technology.”

            From the presentation in this article, I don’t see anything offhand that would contribute new weight for/against the Union theory, for example, of Ted Honderich or for/against the substance dualism of Descartes or for/against Kant’s case against that dualism. It is safe to presume these scientists take the energy-conservation principle (and second law of thermo) that David Potts mentioned in connection with naturalism (btw, precise energy measurements in the nineteenth century quashed vitalism as I recall).

            There was a surprising statement about determinism in this article. The authors allude to Laplace and remark: “A [future] neuroscientist who knew all the principles of brain function and everything about someone’s brain could predict that person’s mental conditions—the future, as well as the past, would be present inside the person’s mind.” That sounds somewhat like a brain-mind identity assumption, but again, as in the In Brief, there is imprecision and ambiguity here covering hard issues on which the researchers are likely in the same philosophic wondering as the rest of us. The talk of “the future, as well as the past” means from the context only some of the future and some of the past. The deterministic statement is made without any indication of whether these researchers know whether these brain processes could have classical chaos entering in any of these brain processes in a way spoiling pertinent predictability, so I’m unsure how fully physics-informed to take the determinism remark.


          • I was responding to Boydstun, but it occurred to me later that your interpretation was what it was. I’ve no doubt that the authors have something like that in mind. What I deny is that what they’re talking about — empirical scientific work — yields anything inconsistent with dualism. Of course it’s open to a materialist sort of interpretation; my point is that it’s an interpretation. I’d not be surprised at all to learn that the neuroscientists doing the study give it that sort of interpretation, too. But scientists are often philosophically naive, and trying to take what they say as if it were a serious metaphysical account often yields nonsense or mystery. Trying to take what science journalists say as even an accurate report of the science, let alone as a serious metaphysical account, is even more likely to yield nonsense.

            If one wants to say ‘look, this science is evidence that naturalism is true, or at least a productive working hypothesis,’ my response is that while science does typically involve some broad metaphysical assumptions, and scientists often work on naturalistic assumptions, there’s no empirical findings here that are in fact inconsistent with paradigmatically non-naturalist metaphysics like substance dualism. Substance dualism might be utterly indefensible, and empirical fit might be an important consideration in preferring an alternative, but no empirical evidence is going to refute substance dualism. Substance dualism and its rivals are not empirical hypotheses about what we will or won’t experience; they’re metaphysical theories about how to understand the things we do and can experience.

            David Potts mentions some considerations that do seem to involve contradictions between physics and dualism, but I don’t think they’re decisive just as contradictions. For one thing, I take it that there’s some doubt about the strict conservation of energy even in physics. For another, it’s not obvious that dualism really would violate it; perhaps mental-physical interactions involve a sort of energy transfer leaving the total energy of the physical world constant, perhaps the law is merely statistical and not fully exceptionless. Of course one might think that’s all very ad hoc. But it depends on what the antecedent case for substance dualism is. If, as I think, it’s pretty weak, then the charge that such conjectures are ad hoc will have some force; if instead the case is as good as some dualists think, then they would be pretty reasonable hypotheses, certainly more reasonable than any naturalistic alternative. It would be wholly reasonable to say ‘yeah, it looks like there’s a contradiction with the conservation of energy here, but maybe that law isn’t exceptionless, or maybe mind/brain interaction is consistent with it in some way we don’t yet understand; after all, it’s not like the history of physics hasn’t involved serious revisions.’

            More fundamentally, one ought not to forget that a metaphysical realist interpretation of natural science isn’t forced on us by the science alone. If it really turned out that there were ineliminable conflicts between physical science and the reality and causal efficacy of the mind, then one might just as reasonably take that as a reason in support of a form of scientific anti-realism. It hardly seems sensible to take scientific theories as reasons to deny the reality and causal efficacy of the mind; absent the latter, why should we believe the former? (DP’s more recent post is consistent with that thought, I think; this sort of argument might not succeed against determinism, but surely it’s a different matter whether it succeeds against views that deny the reality or causal efficacy of the mental). I’m not convinced that there are or even could be any such ineliminable conflicts. But if there were, I don’t think the ‘naturalistic’ view would be the reasonable one to take. Yet for all practical purposes the science would remain exactly as it is.

            None of that is to say, though, that I disagree with your objections to the article’s claims given a metaphysical realist interpretation.


            • Yeah, I agree, though barring some super-duper argument that really pushes us to dualism, I’d think that even being in jeopardy of violating the conservation of mass and energy is an enormously high price to pay for adherence to a philosophical thesis.

              How is it that we agree on philosophy of mind, but not on the nature of morality? Rhetorical question. I’ll get back to the morality/moral luck discussion tomorrow. Have been temporarily waylaid by a series of Hugo-type interventions, to say nothing of the Super-Duper Summer Cleanup I’m currently engaged in.


  7. To David Potts:

    I agree with the criticisms you make of Branden’s argument. It seems to me, however, that a better version of the Objectivist argument might be formulated along the following lines. (This isn’t actually an argument, but a schematic presentation of a would-be argument.)

    1. If we introspect on our mental states, we directly “perceive” the fact that some of our mental acts are basic, and those basic mental acts are within our exclusive control.
    2. Conceptual analysis tells us that the existence of basic mental acts exclusively within the agent’s control is incompatible with determinism with respect to those acts.
    3. Either the introspective “perception” mentioned in (1) is veridical or it’s illusory.
    4. If the introspective perception mentioned in (1) is veridical, determinism is false (by 2).
    5. But if the introspective perception mentioned in (1) is illusory, human beings are the victims of ubiquitous, inescapable introspective illusion. In other words, we ubiquitously and inescapably think we have control over our mental life, but in fact have no such thing.
    6. Given the account of knowledge (or higher-order concept formation) presented in the middle chapters of Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, higher-order or conceptual-level knowledge requires that introspection be fundamentally veridical. In other words, given the nature of knowledge, an agent in the grips ubiquitous introspective illusion could not have conceptual-level knowledge. (This step of the “argument” is very truncated, but I think the gaps could be filled by anyone familiar with the claims of IOE on “concepts of consciousness” and “abstraction from abstraction.”)
    7. But determinism is an instance of conceptual-level knowledge.
    8. Hence determinism is self-refuting: it either contradicts our veridical introspection of control, or it subjects us to ubiquitous introspective illusion incompatible with knowledge (a fortiori incompatible with knowledge of determinism).

    This quasi-argument obviously leaves a lot to be desired and filled out. It takes (1) as essentially self-evident. It requires sustained conceptual analysis at (2) of a kind that Objectivists haven’t given. But those two steps, at least, would get us to (4).

    Step (5) packs a lot into the phrase “ubiquitous.” It could be that our introspective sense of control is more limited than the argument requires. But if it is ubiquitous, we get (5), which (I think) coheres with the account of reasons you’ve given.

    Obviously step (6) presupposes not only the truth of IOE, but presupposes a specific interpretation of it that makes control central to the mental acts described there. That, I take it, is where the action is, or would have to be, for a defender of the Objectivist argument. But once we get an argument for (6), it’s not hard to get to (8).

    Anyway, regardless of what Branden (and Peikoff) actually wrote, something like the preceding is the argument I think they were actually gesturing at.

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  8. Two tangential thoughts, one that belatedly occurred to me, and one that came to me in passing:

    Has anyone read Joseph Boyle’s 1976 book Free Choice? Apparently, it’s a book-length presentation of the Branden-like thesis that determinism is self-refuting:

    Copies of it used to be a dime a dozen when I was a grad student at Notre Dame. For some reason, I never picked one up (much less read it), and now they’re $233 a copy. An Amazon reviewer complains that the argument is too complicated to follow, but that just perversely convinces me that it’s got to lead somewhere worth going. Of course, a rabbit hole may answer to that description–if you’re a rabbit.

    On “seeing reasons,” this excerpt is only (very) vaguely relevant (if that), but I’m still tempted to quote it. It’s from Martin Goodman’s Rome and Jerusalem: The Clash of Ancient Civilizations, pp. 299-300:

    Jewish culture was more oral than visual: when Jews referred to themselves in Hebrew as understanding a truth or a command, they would say that they had heard it; by contrast, in Latin, as in Greek and in English, the metaphor for comprehension is to “see” the truth. The aural metaphor, however, cannot have been overwhelming in the Jewish mentality, for Philo, writing in Greek, refers repeatedly to a false etymology of the name “Israel” as derived from the Hebrew ish-ra’ah-el, taken to be “he who sees God.”

    The point being simply that metaphors are highly contingent, and we should put some, but not too much stock in them.


    • I haven’t read it, but I’m familiar with the basic gist of the argument from its frequent appearance in other works influenced by Grisez (note that the book was co-authored by Boyle, Grisez, and Olaf Tollefsen). It’s broadly similar to the argument under discussion here, but relies on a more intricately worked out taxonomy of self-referential statements and varieties of self-referential inconsistency; in the summary versions I’ve encountered, it also strikes me as not relying on anything quite like your premise 1, and it doesn’t depend on purported requirements for knowledge, though the focus on self-referential inconsistency is applied to the activity of considering whether determinism is true (and, by extension, considering whether anything is true — so there’s a kind of epistemic generality about it similar to the argument under discussion here). Robert George appeals to it in numerous places; a very brief but easily accessible version shows up about half the way through his reply to Josh Dever here: (a somewhat entertaining exchange between Dever and George in which they mostly talk past each other while making apparently weird generalizations about what “secular” philosophers do or don’t believe). I don’t think the summary versions are likely to offer much insight, since the interest of the argument is in the details, and the summary versions don’t give those. One reason I’ve never dug deeper is that it doesn’t seem to me that logical refinements will strengthen the argument all that much in the grand scheme of things. The basic idea is that deliberation and rational inquiry as we understand them seem to presuppose the falsity of determinism (true, I think, on all but the weakest versions of determinism), but it seems to me that determinism can’t really be defeated that way; for that, we need a plausible and defensible theory of the metaphysics of agency that makes sense of free-will and is not egregiously ad hoc.

      Reviews here, neither of which seem to think the argument quite succeeds:

      ToC and foreword here:

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    • To Irfan and David: Thanks for your comments. I’m afraid I don’t have any thoughts very well worked out on motives for naturalism. But I can think of two common arguments in its favor, the first fairly strong, the second less so, so here they are.

      First is an argument from the conservation of mass/energy. This has been a bedrock principle of physical science for a long time, and it is thought to be an absolute, in that it is never violated. The total mass/energy of any system remains constant in the absence any influences from outside the system. This implies that the physical laws that govern the system are the only ones there can be. Nothing can be added or subtracted except in accordance with the physical laws that govern such events and entail reciprocal events so that the total mass/energy of the system remains constant. For example, there can be no Epicurean “swerves,” since these represent changes in the momentum of the particle, and thus of the system as a whole, without any compensating change of momentum in anything else. This also presents a problem for the idea of time travel, if going back in time would mean that the traveler’s mass simply vanishes, without being replaced by anything else.

      So, a problem with the idea that there are, say, “mind waves” that enable clairvoyance or telekinesis or some such, if these mind waves are not supposed to be realized entirely and exclusively by ordinary physical processes, is that they would introduce energy into the system, by changing a person’s behavior, bending a spoon, or whatnot, in violation of conservation of mass/energy. And it would be a problem for Descartes’s substance dualism, since a nonphysical entity would impose changes on the brain and its processes in violation of the ordinary physical laws. And the same goes for processes of “reason,” “decision,” “focus,” and so on. If “recognizing that 2+2=4” is not realized by entirely physical processes, then it can have no effect on a person’s behavior, on pain of violating the conservation principle. And again, a claim that we have free will, in the sense of being able to originate some action of our own that is not a consequence of antecedent events in accordance with ordinary physical laws, is obviously in serious danger of running afoul of conservation of mass/energy.

      A common way of avoiding this difficulty is to say that, in claiming that certain phenomena are irreducible—such as intentionality perhaps—we don’t mean they aren’t physically realized. Rather, we only mean they can’t be identified with entities and processes as physically described. That is, we can’t say that any matter configured thus and so, operating under such and such physical laws, recognizes that 2+2=4. This would be the anomalous monism idea I mentioned in the original post, now often called “token identity”: not everything is something physical, but everything is realized by something physical. An example is money. It is hopeless to try to physically describe money, because money—money per se—just isn’t a physical thing. But this is compatible with saying that every particular item of money is something physical, such as a piece of paper or metal, a value stored in an electronic computer, etc. The reason money per se can’t be physically described is that it can take infinitely many possible physical forms, and this is why money is not itself physical, although it is always physically realized. A consequence of this is that we can speak of there being nonphysical things without really adding anything nonphysical to our ontology. All the “nonphysical” things supervene on physical things. This doesn’t add anything nonphysical to our ontology because it implies that once all the physical facts are determined, all the facts are determined.

      I assume we are all pretty familiar with the foregoing. The thing is that this token identity scheme will not save your non-naturalistic bacon. Not mine, anyway. It has become the dominant theory, and most naturalists agree with it. More importantly, it is no help in explaining how free will can be an original cause without violating the conservation of mass/energy. It also is no help in explaining how conscious awareness can exist, if conscious awareness has to be made out of physical components such as chemicals and substances that have no conscious awareness. Conscious awareness isn’t like money, something any token of which can always be easily identified with a physical token, such as a bill or coin. What physical token is identical with my current view of my computer screen? It’s easy to say, “some of my brain activity,” but our ideas about exactly what brain activity this is are vague and based on indirect evidence. Worse, although we can say what makes a given physical token a piece of money without much difficulty—basically, it’s money because we treat it as money—we have no good idea at all what makes some of my current brain activity my current view of my computer screen. Certainly not that we treat it as such! Conscious awareness is there regardless of what we say, and it is evidently of a radically different character from anything written in the Book of Physics. So, the prospects for accounting for conscious awareness with the ontology of token identity theory are very poor.

      Does conscious awareness violate the conservation of mass/energy? That will depend on one’s theory of conscious awareness, obviously, but if conscious awareness is supposed to make a difference to a person’s physical actions (and I think it does), then it’s going to be hard to avoid the conflict. But I don’t offhand see any knock-down arguments either way, and this is starting to get overly speculative, so… on to the second argument.

      This second argument is like djr’s naturalism (iii). It says that science simply is the method of all empirical knowledge, therefore all empirical knowledge, in any domain, should be compatible with science, both methodologically (it should employ the methods of science) and in content (its findings should be consistent with—and ideally form a unity with—other scientific knowledge). I think we are seeing this idea, for example, when Karl Popper says that science is just the ordinary method of human knowledge “writ large” and even more when Quine says, “Philosophy of science is philosophy enough.”

      Although this argument seems superficially strong, it really does not make much sense, as several people here have pointed out. The main problem with it, it seems to me, is that it assumes without argument that all domains of knowledge are fundamentally the same: whether physics, chemistry, geology, or psychology, we’re talking about a law-governed domain of publicly observable phenomena, and the task is to catalog the phenomena and discover the laws. But there is no reason a priori why this must be true, and obviously if it is not true, then it is a mistake to shoehorn nonconforming domains into this mold. Reasoning about logical relations would seem to be just such a nonconforming domain. Such reasoning doesn’t work by causal laws of the type that govern electrons or planets, and trying to force it to do so, by behavioristic psychology or even by contemporary cognitive psychology, is bound to be inadequate. The domain of reasons more broadly is liable to be similar. I have in mind reasoning with concepts and reasoning about “internal relations,” for example. However it is we know that orange is more similar to red than it is to green, I doubt such knowledge can be adequately represented in terms of causal laws. The same is likely to go for intentionality, reference, and knowledge itself, if the stubborn resistance of these concepts to conventional philosophical analysis over the past several decades is any indication.

      Concerning Irfan’s version of the Branden argument, I agree that the action of the argument is in step (6), but I’m not sure I really see what that action is supposed to be. If the idea is that higher-order concepts and concepts of consciousness depend for their validity on our having correct introspective access to lower-order concepts and phenomena of consciousness, how is this threatened by the specific illusion of free will? This would seem to mean, for example, that my ability to form the concept of furniture from the concepts of table, chair, sofa, and bookcase is somehow ruined by my illusory notion that my ability to focus on these concepts is my own metaphysically free choice. But why? I think there must be something I don’t understand here.

      I never heard of Joseph Boyle or his book Free Choice, but it reminds me of the books of Archie Bahm. Do you remember those? As I recall, they were everywhere. I had the impression he mailed them on his own to philosophy departments. They mostly looked self-published, and they looked like dreck. There would always be several copies of different Archie Bahm books in the lounge (where they were not snapped up).

      Interesting about hearing as preferred metaphor for understanding in Jewish culture. It is interesting how metaphors of perception are ubiquitous for “understand”: seeing, hearing, feeling, grasping (an Ayn Rand favorite), and perceiving itself. Not sure what it means, but I totally agree that we should be wary of them.

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      • Thanks for that summary, David, which reminds me of why I try so hard to remain agnostic on issues in philosophy of mind (or retreat to a loose sort of functionalism, which amounts to the same thing). In this way, I have little bacon to save, which keeps the metaphorical and literal parts of my life in reflective equilibrium.

        Your comment about Joseph Boyle and Free Choice underscores the somewhat amusing contrast between our graduate school programs. Clearly, no one at the University of Illinois Chicago Circle took Joseph Boyle et. al. seriously, but just about everyone at Notre Dame did. My impression is that Boyle had a pretty good reputation in the field generally:

        The book cover that comes up when you click the Amazon link I sent is misleading: it makes Free Choice look self-published, but it was published by the University of Notre Dame Press, and is now out of print.* As the other David points out, the book was co-authored by Germain Grisez and Olaf Tollefsen, both big names (along with John Finnis) in Catholic philosophical circles. But my guess is that The New Natural Law Theory and The Way of the Lord Jesus were not considered essential readings on the west side of Lake Michigan, as they were on the east.

        Just a quick question: does the name Bernard Lonergan mean anything to you? Asked at Notre Dame, this question would get laughter, followed by a “yes.” I suspect that elsewhere, it would get laughter, followed by a “no.”

        I hadn’t heard of Archie Bahm, but looked him up.

        I’m now trying, unsuccessfully, to imagine a philosophical dialogue between Boyle and Bahm (in Hades, I mean, with Socrates standing nearby, ready to intervene). I’m not sure this is a good idea.

        I think I’ll discuss step 6 of the Branden argument in a separate comment.

        *It occurs to me in retrospect that my claim about Free Choice‘s being a “dime a dozen” is easily misunderstood. What I meant was that it was a dime a dozen at Notre Dame because it was published by the University’s own press, and such presses tend to throw out remaindered copies of books that have stopped selling in large quantities. Every now and then, there’d be a Notre Dame Press Book Sale, where you could buy cheap copies of UNDP books. Often, these were books of interest only to people within (or interested in) the Catholic philosophical tradition–Boyle, Grisez, Tollefsen, Lonergan, Hittinger, Jordan, Newman, Aquinas, Ockham, Abelard….etc. Often, you could snag fairly important books (well, important within those circles) for a dollar or two.

        The contrast between a UNDP book sale and what was on sale at Seminary Co-Op in Chicago was always kind of funny to me (at least in the 1990s, when I was in grad school). I’ll never forget the day when I was in the Philosophy section of Seminary Co-Op, and someone picked up Alasdair MacIntyre’s 1999 book, Dependent Rational Animals (which discusses dolphin behavior to draw lessons about human cognition and behavior), turned to his companion, and had this conversation:

        Chicago Grad Student 1: What the fuck is this shit?

        CGS 2: It’s about…dolphins! He’s into dolphins!

        [Riotous laughter]

        What a difference 90 miles made.

        Liked by 1 person

          • Yes, he was always wanting to meet with “pistols at dawn.”

            Actually, although I worked in a job in that department where I had a fair amount of contact with him, I was never his student and had no idea he was a dualist until the book came out. Somehow, it just wasn’t talked about much. However, looking back, I think you could say that about a lot of the members of that department.

            Anyway, I still have never read the book. I had the impression from one of his students, who became sort of an acolyte, that his argument was grounded on (what I considered to be) a very questionable intuitionist epistemology for doing metaphysics. That was enough to turn me off of it, in the absence of anything further to arouse my curiosity.

            Liked by 3 people

          • Hart was one of my lecturers when I was an undergrad at U. of Edinburgh (junior year abroad). Yeah, I remember the pistols at dawn.


  9. In summarizing the “Branden argument,” I re-imagined it entirely, and made this its sixth “step.”

    6. Given the account of knowledge (or higher-order concept formation) presented in the middle chapters of Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, higher-order or conceptual-level knowledge requires that introspection be fundamentally veridical. In other words, given the nature of knowledge, an agent in the grips ubiquitous introspective illusion could not have conceptual-level knowledge. (This step of the “argument” is very truncated, but I think the gaps could be filled by anyone familiar with the claims of IOE on “concepts of consciousness” and “abstraction from abstraction.”)

    It’s unfair to handwaving to call this handwaving. It’s more like the warm-up exercise I do before I start swimming: when I did it the other day at the pool, someone nearby asked whether I was making an attempt to fly. So it is with this “step” of the “argument.” To repeat something I said in the comment itself: the numbered claims here aren’t the premises of an actual deductive argument, but steps of a would-be argument that someone defending the Objectivist view would have to come up with.

    DP asks:

    Concerning Irfan’s version of the Branden argument, I agree that the action of the argument is in step (6), but I’m not sure I really see what that action is supposed to be. If the idea is that higher-order concepts and concepts of consciousness depend for their validity on our having correct introspective access to lower-order concepts and phenomena of consciousness, how is this threatened by the specific illusion of free will? This would seem to mean, for example, that my ability to form the concept of furniture from the concepts of table, chair, sofa, and bookcase is somehow ruined by my illusory notion that my ability to focus on these concepts is my own metaphysically free choice. But why? I think there must be something I don’t understand here.

    Fair enough. Part of the problem starts further back, at step (5). Here is that step itself:

    5. But if the introspective perception mentioned in (1) is illusory, human beings are the victims of ubiquitous, inescapable introspective illusion. In other words, we ubiquitously and inescapably think we have control over our mental life, but in fact have no such thing.

    And here is my comment on it:

    Step (5) packs a lot into the phrase “ubiquitous.” It could be that our introspective sense of control is more limited than the argument requires. But if it is ubiquitous, we get (5), which (I think) coheres with the account of reasons you’ve given.

    In other words, there are two possibilities here. Suppose that the introspective sense of the control we have over our mental processes is an illusion. The explanation for that illusion (and the basis for asserting the thesis “it’s an illusion”) could either be broad or narrow.

    Broad interpretation: Our introspective sense of control is an illusion because introspection is itself a highly unreliable mode of cognition, so that our introspective sense of control is on all fours with our introspective sense of everything else; there’s no reason to trust any of it.

    Narrow interpretation: introspective error and unreliability is limited to the introspective beliefs we have about the control we exercise over our minds and agency, leaving our other introspective beliefs in tact.

    The Revised Objectivist Argument works much better if we take the broad interpretation. This is what I was referring to when I said that a lot was packed into the word “ubiquitous” in step (5) of the original argument. I meant that step (5) presupposes the broad interpretation above (and presupposes an argument for it).

    A defender of the argument would have to say that in the absence of a good argument for it, the narrow interpretation is ad hoc: there is no good reason to believe that our introspective beliefs about control are a sui generis instance of some localized introspective unreliability that leaves the rest of introspection perfectly in tact. The real source of denials of the veridicality of introspection is a broader assumption about the unreliability of introspection as such. It’s because introspection is itself (generally or ubiquitously) unreliable that our introspective beliefs about control are not to be trusted, not because introspection happens to be unreliable about some one thing, control.

    Suppose we take the broad interpretation, then. In that case, we’re supposing that introspection is generally/ubiquitously unreliable, that our introspective beliefs are just a morass of illusion (on par with Cartesian skepticism about sensory perception as expressed in Meditations 1 and 2). Now imagine that account of knowledge given in IOE is basically correct. And forget what I originally said about focusing on “the middle chapters” of IOE, which was both imprecise and incorrect. Consider the claims of the book as a whole. IOE is not just about concept formation, but about the use of higher-level concepts in inference and cognition: chapter 5 is on definition, chapter 7 is on the “cognitive role of concepts.” Supplement this where necessary with what Peikoff says about the nature of objectivity in chapter 4 of OPAR.

    Given this, the claim is going to be: if you assume that (a) something like IOE‘s account of higher-order cognition is right, but try to combine that with the claim that (b) introspection is ubiquitously unreliable, the conjunction of (a) and (b) entails that we have no knowledge: ubiquitous introspective unreliability is incompatible with an account of knowledge that gives introspection an important role in generating knowledge. But our having no knowledge is incompatible with our having knowledge of determinism.

    Put that way, of course, the argument seems in danger of begging the question: it’s saying that we should deny the broad interpretation of introspective unreliability in order to save IOE. Someone might reasonably ask: Why not ditch IOE?

    I think the claim is going to be that even if you ditch Objectivist epistemology, no plausible epistemology–no plausible account of knowledge–can get off the ground if the broad interpretation of introspective error is correct. Endorsing the broad interpretation of introspective error is almost as threatening to knowledge as endorsing Cartesian skepticism about the reliability of the senses. Given the role of the senses and of introspection in cognition, skepticism about either thing threatens knowledge as such. It’s only by assuming the basic reliability of both sensory perception and introspection (working conjointly) that knowledge is possible at all. But if introspection is basically reliable, and it furnishes evidence of control, then unless we have reason to accept the narrow interpretation, we’re entitled to the claims of the Revised Argument (meaning my version of it).

    I don’t know how clear that is, but when the dust clears, that’s what I think Objectivists–Branden, Peikoff, David Kelley–have really been trying to say all along. The real issue is that on the Objectivist view (as, I think on Locke’s), sensory perception and introspection have nearly co-equal epistemic roles to play. Sensory perception may be in the lead, but introspection is a close second. Given the roles they play, they have a kind of axiomatic status: their reliability is a presupposition of the possibility of knowledge; claims about their unreliability undermine knowledge as such. Whatever else it involves, determinism on this view is an attempt to affirm the unreliability of introspection, an attempt to deny the epistemic agent’s privileged access to her own mental states. That attempt (the Objectivist claim goes), whether in deterministic guise or any other, is bound to be self-refuting.

    So the Objectivist rejection of determinism is really a rejection of something broader: it’s a rejection of views that deny privileged access. Because most or many such views tend to be deterministic, it’s tempting to think that all of them are, so that the “argument against determinism” is no more and no less than that. But in fact, it has a broader target. The failure to see or grasp that (so to speak) explains many of the defects in Objectivist arguments against determinism. The authors of the arguments haven’t grasped that the argument they need has a broader target than determinism. In not mentioning that broader target, they don’t focus on the relevant issue. Or so I claim.


    • Well, you have spent a good deal more time and effort trying to make sense of these guys (Rand, Peikoff, Branden, Kelley, etc.) than I have. And I can see the logic of what you’re saying. But it is odd, if they really are claiming broad introspective failure, that this claim is not more thoroughly discussed and defended. After all, on your interpretation, it is crucial. Also, it looks to me like a fair amount of work is needed to reach it from the claim that free mental choice itself is an introspective illusion.

      For one thing, there are strong arguments for determinism that seem to follow merely from taking seriously a scientific (or even merely rational) view of the world. I’m thinking of the argument I rehearsed (in the earlier post on the Stoics) from causation needing to provide intelligibility and the argument from reductionism: at the level of chemicals, neurons, etc., all causation is deterministic, physical causation, and whatever happens at the macro level must supervene on those deterministic processes. Or in other words, once the micro facts are set, the macro facts must be set too, and the micro facts are set deterministically. In light of these arguments, it’s hard to just say, “I don’t care, determinism is still wrong, because I can observe myself making free choices!” But can you really? I think in all honesty, for myself anyway, it is not crystal clear. It is not, say, like my direct knowledge of the difference between red and bright yellow, or between color and sound. What exactly are the marks of this freedom? I mean, when I act, I do always feel as though it is I who am doing the acting. I feel like the impulse comes from me. It does not feel as though I am being forced somehow to move my muscles against my will. But that is not the same as my actions being free. I also always feel that I could stop any action, I could control myself, and I do feel as though it is up to me which I do. But is this really true? How do I know the feeling is valid? Perceiving my freedom is not like perceiving bright red. So there is scope for illusion here.

      But when it comes to knowing our beliefs and judgments, for example, the case is quite different. First, we do not have the strong arguments from causation and reductionism to motivate us to question our knowledge of our beliefs and judgments. Those arguments are about freedom specifically, not about any other aspect of our mental life. Moreover, if we were systematically wrong about what we think, wouldn’t this have very noticeable consequences for our ability to reason or even to function? If I couldn’t trust myself to know whether it will rain today or not, that would make a difference! I would have to go about planning my day very differently. Or if I couldn’t rely on my knowing whether I think that 2+2=4 or that vitamin deficiencies are bad for your health or that cats are mammals—or for that matter on my knowing what a cat is—my cognitive life would be radically different from what it in fact is.

      So regardless of the question of our being able to introspect evidence of our own freedom, the idea that we don’t know our own minds reasonably well most of the time doesn’t seem to me to have much going for it. At any rate, when it comes to knowing what we think about the world, I think there is an argument that we know it very well indeed. The argument is that, to know what we think about the world, our procedure is to ask what is true about the world. Whatever answer we give is what we think. This seems to be practically a necessary truth. Given the well-known weather patterns of the place where I live (and checking tomorrow’s forecast, etc.), I am pretty damn sure it will not rain at my house tomorrow. I know it is what I think, because it is how I would answer the question of what will in fact happen. (Of course, if I were uncertain whether it will rain tomorrow, I would know that too, because I would consider that it might rain or it might not.)

      This might seem like an odd doctrine, if one is used to thinking of introspection as the deployment of an “inner sense” or searchlight within the mind, thus to “perceive” its contents. But I would say it follows from the sort of “intentionalist” account of the mind that I incline toward. Intentional (representational) states are about something, and what they are about—their content—is not only the most important thing about them for our subjective mental life, it is frequently the only thing about them that we have subjective access to. I know very little about the perceptual state itself by which I am seeing my computer screen right now, but I know gobs about the content of that state. I know it, however, not by examining somehow the state itself (by “looking inside my mind”), but simply by attending to that content. I know my mind, in short, by knowing what it is telling me. And I am afraid it is very hard to know a whole lot else about the mind. Though of course we can. We are subject to sensations and feelings that are not, in my view, wholly intentional. We also can actively generate intentional states, through imagination, memory, and discursive thought. Here the processes are not intentional, but directive. In other words, through some sort of executive power we conjure up the images, etc., and this executive power isn’t itself representational. But what gets conjured is mostly representations. And the same point applies to them, however higher-order they may become: we know them through their content, and typically indeed that is all we know of them. And therefore we can hardly fail to know that content, since it is precisely what they give us. Knowing your own mind, then, when it comes to what you think, is not really very hard. Indeed, it almost cannot be very hard.

      Well, I’ve probably opened a huge can of worms with that last paragraph. But if it is not persuasive or helpful, the paragraph before that should be acceptable and probably makes the point well enough for the matter at hand, which is the Objectivist against determinism.

      Liked by 4 people

      • My initial response to reading that is to say, “yeah.” My second response is to feel a certain resentful irritation as I read this sentence…

        Given the well-known weather patterns of the place where I live (and checking tomorrow’s forecast, etc.), I am pretty damn sure it will not rain at my house tomorrow.

        …and notice that where I live, it’s raining.

        I agree that there is scope for introspective illusion, up to and including the sense that we are free. That implies that (2) in my original argument needs at least as much unpacking as (6), which I’m not going to attempt here. But I think the Objectivist argument (as I would render it) has a certain plausibility on this issue. You say that you feel as though you’re the agent initiating action, but have two doubts: (a) does this really mean that you’re introspecting on freedom?, and (b) why assume that introspection is veridical, anyway?

        On (a), the Objectivist claim is that in many cases, you probably aren’t introspecting on freedom. In ordinary life, we face what might be called derivative or n-order alternatives, e.g., alternatives like “Right now, I could write a comment on my blog right or eat lunch instead.” If I write rather than eat, it may well feel, introspectively, as though I’m the author of the action, and yet “blog or eat” is not the locus of freedom on the Objectivist view. My facing the alternative of “blog or eat at t” is necessitated by my psychological state at t.

        But underlying “blog or eat” is a basic or fundamental choice, what she (Rand) calls the choice to focus (or not). I won’t elaborate on the whole doctrine, which I’m sure you have heard a million times, but the point is, introspection reveals freedom with respect to this basic choice, not with respect to just any old choice. The derivative choices, like “blog or eat,” inherit what we take to be our authorship over them via more basic choices. But it’s the basic choices that are immune from prior causal necessitation, not the derivative ones. That many self-authored choices are necessitated is (on the Objectivist view) the truth in compatibilism: viewed as a snapshot, focusing on derivative rather than basic choices, some of what we do fits the compatibilist script just fine. It’s basic choices that don’t fit it (and do all the work on the Objectivist account). This is why Peikoff, in OPAR, belabors the issue of identifying “the exact locus of human freedom” (OPAR, 55; belabors it: pp. 55-62).

        Issue (a) helps put (b) in focus, so to speak. If you don’t distinguish basic from derivative choices, you probably will be subject to systematic introspective error. You’ll be unable to reconcile your introspective sense of control over your actions with the fact that many of the choices you face are in fact determined by your psychological state at a given time. It will be perennially unclear to you what parts of your mental life (or your life) you control, and what parts are necessitated by factors beyond your control. I think Rand regarded this as a real and consequential confusion that affects ordinary people in ordinary life. It’s much the point of her essay “The Metaphysical Versus the Man-Made.” So she and Branden have a ready answer to this question:

        Moreover, if we were systematically wrong about what we think, wouldn’t this have very noticeable consequences for our ability to reason or even to function?

        The answer is that it has significant consequences that people tend not to notice. The consequences may not arise for things like “2+2=4,” or “vitamin deficiencies are bad for health,” or “cats are mammals.” Those items are too simple, mostly inconsequential, and are mostly believed because it’s conventional to believe them. Nothing much turns on not believing them. The consequences of systematic error arise for things like “I’m just no good at math,” or “My child has autism, and I’m sure it’s because of her measles shot,” or “I need the State to ensure that I am allowed to bring my comfort animal with me wherever I go, because I have a right to this, and if anyone disputes this right, they are hateful, stigmatizing people who should all drop dead.” Etc.

        In other words, the consequences arise through the “psychopathology of everyday life” (a Freudian phrase, but one that Rand could have endorsed). One of the pieces missing from cognitive behavioral theories of psychopathology is a plausible etiology for systematically false core evaluations. The Objectivist account supplies one: People have systematically false core evaluations because they don’t know how to introspect. They don’t know how to introspect because they don’t grasp (or won’t grasp) that they control some parts of their mental life, but not others. They want to control everything, but can’t accept controlling less; or want to control X, but can only control Y; or want to pretend that they control nothing, when in fact they control something. Etc. The result is a world of self-made control freaks and self-made victims. Therapists notice this because it’s what they see, day-in and day-out. But since most people try to hide their neuroses, the “noticeable consequences” only get noticed when the attempts to hide them fail.

        Just to be clear: widespread (“systematic”) error is compatible with the possession of a capacity to track the truth in a systematic way. Obviously, the Branden argument (as I rendered it) is not denying that a society can be in the grips of systematic introspective error with (subtly) noticeable consequences. What it denies is that our introspective capacities, at their best, are systematically error-prone, so unreliable that human beings are incapable of knowledge as such. If that were the case, we (meaning the epistemically best among us) couldn’t know the truth of determinism. But all of that is compatible with widespread introspective failure elsewhere.

        I think I agree with what you’re saying in the last three paragraphs of your comment, but given what you say, I wanted to run a thought by you that I’ve been running past people familiar with Objectivism. The first chapter of Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology opens with this statement:

        Consciousness, as a state of awareness, is not a passive state, but an active process that consists of two essentials: differentiation and integration (p. 5).

        Does that statement strike you as odd to the point of incoherence? It strikes me that way. As you say in your comment, we are subject to sensations and feelings. Being subject to something is a passive state. But the passive, non-directive states of having sensations or feelings are obviously conscious states, and are states that have nothing to do with differentiation or integration.

        It seems to me that the quoted statement seems to imply that non-self-generated, non-directive, passive states like sensations and feelings are not conscious states at all. But that seems completely absurd. It’s as though she were saying that when I’m (e.g.,) in pain, I need to engage in a separate mental act that differentiates the pain from non-pain, so as to be able to identify the pain as pain. Otherwise, I couldn’t be conscious of pain, or put differently, my pain would not qualify as a conscious state. But that seems so absurd that I’m not sure what inference to draw.

        Her claim works a little better, but not much better, on sensory perception. There is a sense in which perception, on the Objectivist view (inherited from Gibsonian psychology), is an active state. But I wonder whether even here, there is an equivocation here between consciousness as involving conscious activity and consciousness as involving neurophysiological activity.

        It doesn’t help matters much to go back into her other writings and track the way she talks about sensation, pain/pleasure, and the subconscious. Some of what she says is obscure, and some seems to contradict the IOE statement above. But none of it helps untangle the mystery of what she’s saying.

        I’m wondering if you can.


        • I’ve stopped caring about most of this stuff (Rand, Objectivist positions and arguments; not philosophy of mind and the free will problem)…


        • Sorry to take a while to reply to this, but I don’t have anything very penetrating to say about it. It’s been a long time since I was really fluent with IOE, so I wouldn’t care to undertake any kind of serious interpretation of any of its statements. It does seem odd, of course, to suggest that we have to be actively differentiating and/or integrating in any event of consciousness whatever, otherwise there is no consciousness.

          However, it is common to note that even the most basic acts of feeling and sensation require change to be registered. We quickly adapt to any constant stimulus, to the point of ceasing to be aware of it. Thus, the feeling of your clothes, the sensation of your body in a chair, background noise, odors, and so forth fade from consciousness if they don’t vary. There is a famous old experiment, which I’ve now spent much too much time trying and failing to hunt up, in which the experimenters glued sticks, about an inch long or so, to participants’ eyeballs, so that the image at the distal end of the stick would fill the participants’ visual fields and be absolutely unchanging. That is, no matter how the participants moved their eyes, the image would move correspondingly, and so the pattern of stimulation on the retina remained static. Even if the image was complex, it apparently completely faded after only a few moments, and the participants went “blind.” Pretty wild. This might be evidence that “differentiation” is required for consciousness: change, not constancy, is what we are conscious of.


          • Maybe. She confuses matters by saying that consciousness is an “active process,” a phrase that either seems trivial or incoherent. If “active process” means “change,” the claim seems trivial. You don’t even need your observation above to save a thesis like that. You just need to say that consciousness involves a causal sequence of some kind.

            If consciousness requires the act of an agent, on the other hand, it can’t be a process the agent undergoes. But she doesn’t want it to be quite an act, either. So the mystery remains. (The metaphysics/meta-ethics of activity and passivity seems to be a problem for Objectivism that Rand never really dealt with.)

            It’s hard to see how a simple sensation of pain involves “integration.” I suppose in some very attenated way, if you lacerate someone, the pain they feel “integrates” discrete sensations into a single cut (maybe), but at this point, I’m free associating rather than interpreting a determinate claim or even making much sense. It just seems to me that if we keep to a univocal sense of conscious action, the sensation of pain is conscious but completely passive, which spells a problem for her. To save the thesis, we need a conception of action or activity that fits the bill, and she doesn’t offer one.

            I happen to be reading a book by a traffic scientist who describes a case of inattention while driving. He describes the case of a motorist who turns the radio on to hear a specific bit of information, then gets distracted (while it’s still on), and misses the announcement (after it’s made). The motorist certainly didn’t differentiate the announcement from the background. But isn’t there still some sense in which peripheral awareness of the announcement is still a form of conscious awareness? Rand seems to be saying not, but also helping herself to a large dollop of “implicit knowledge” throughout IOE. Seems an uneasy combination. (Not that any of this is apt to bother you. I’m just saying.)

            If I undergo but pay little attention to motion parallax while in a vehicle, that is in one sense a form of conscious awareness, but it’s also obviously a passive experience. It’s not clear what Rand wants to say about it, or what her view implies about it. I’d have to re-read Kelley to remember what his view implies.

            Ultimately, the whole thing seems a mess.


            • Irfan, I’ve studied and written some about “differentiation and integration” in Rand’s writings previously. It does not go to your active/passive questions, but gets a way on the d/i history and conception, that might be of interest to you. Here are a couple of excerpts and a link.

              “Herbert Spencer, in his Principles of Psychology, had written: “Under its most general aspect therefore, all mental action whatever is definable as the continuous differentiation and integration of states of consciousness” (1855, 333_; see Smith 1981, 119).”

              “With Piaget’s concept of schema in hand, one reads a little later “A Piagetian schema . . . is always the product of the differentiation, generalization, and integration of earlier schemas . . .” (Flavell 1963, 73). Differentiation and integration, Rand will announce in 1966, are active processes essential to all consciousness as a state of awareness (ITOE 6).

              “That not only integration but differentiation should become highlighted when Rand came to presenting her theory of concepts and definition was natural. Why did she go on to announce at the outset of setting forth her theory of concepts that differentiation and integration are essential in all consciousness? To be sure, it is understandable that she should be setting her view of conceptual consciousness in wider patterns of consciousness. Then too, yes, differentiation and integration are implicit in the idea of consciousness as identification.”



              • This does not go to Rand’s conceptions and intellectual background, Irfan, at least not explicitly, but certainly to the substance of the active/passive in perception at the current stage of philosophy and science. Chapter 6 of Susanna Schellenberg’s book The Unity of Perception (2018) is titled “Perceptual Consciousness as a Mental Activity.”

                “I will argue that perceptual consciousness is constituted by a mental activity, namely, the mental activity of employing perceptual capacities. This is a radical thesis, but I hope to make it plausible. The thesis that perceptual consciousness is constituted by a mental activity marks a profound break with the orthodoxy that perceptual consciousness is to be analyzed in terms of (sensory awareness relations to) peculiar entities. I will show how this new way of understanding perceptual consciousness is not only more in tune with the empirical sciences, but is moreover able to avoid a whole range of problems that bedevil the orthodox views of perceptual consciousness. While the view I will develop generalizes to non-perceptual forms of consciousness, I will, so as to keep the discussion tractable, focus on the case of perceptual consciousness.”


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