Thinking Too Far Outside the Box

A previous post (Determinism Aint Scary) noted that various metaphysical problems ensue as soon as we begin positing things outside the physical universe. It is only when imaginatively placed outside the universe that a LaPlacean daemon becomes scary or threatens us with fatalism, as it could in that case actually discern our future if given enough information. There are, however, other disconcerting notions that emerge from this way of thinking and these threaten our very dignity and freedom in their confusion of parts and wholes. We cannot help but make such mistakes when thinking of “the universe” as a whole, because we intuitively posit some position outside of the universe from which we can look at it “objectively,” as a whole. Thus, the very act of picturing the universe actually tampers with its definition, because we create something outside of a concept that by definition includes everything! This plagued physics for a very long time with notions of “absolute space” and “absolute time” (that is, absolute with respect to a frame of reference outside the universe). Ernst Mach and Einstein, among others, showed us why this way of thinking is flawed. “When, accordingly, we say that a body preserves unchanged its direction and velocity in space, our assertion is nothing more or less than an abbreviated reference to the entire universe.” (as opposed to something separate from it)
—Ernst Mach; as quoted by Ciufolini and Wheeler: Gravitation and Inertia, p. 387

It is important to note that we still think of the universe intuitively in the same way that Newton did; that it is a big sphere of matter sitting in an eternal vat of “space” that presumably extends beyond the borders of this sphere of matter and acts as an absolute reference point. However, as we know, there is nothing outside the sphere! The universe is by definition everything that exists. When we try to think of the universe “objectively,” we literally try to make an object or “thing” of it, which is technically a contradiction because a “thing” can only exist with respect to some “thing” else, which we are trying to differentiate it from. Since there is quite literally nothing else but the universe, we simply cannot think about it objectively by intuitively “picturing” it as a “thing.”

Gottlob Frege is credited with establishing that numbers do not apply to things-in-themselves or things “out there,” but rather apply only to concepts, or our mental representations of those things “out there.” Thus, a “card deck” can simultaneously be one deck, fifty-two cards, four suits, a billion atoms, and zero puppies. The number only applies to the concept we choose to see the “card deck” through. When we look at the universe, the one universe, we sometimes make the mistake of applying numbers not to the concept, but to the thing itself. However, “the universe” is not one, because there are no other things to differentiate it from and thus no reason to apply numbers to it at all. This is why the question “why did the universe come about” is unintelligible: it treats “the universe” as a “thing,” and applies the causal axiom to it. Since every event or thing must have an antecedent cause, so must the universe, right? No. This is again looking in on the universe from outside of it, marking its boundaries as a separate thing, and then demanding a cause for that thing. The universe is just all of its parts, and nothing besides (much like the human mind!). It is only when we posit something else, something outside of it, some extra property that is not a product of the sum of its parts that we encounter an apparent violation of causality. Again, the same goes for the mind. It is only when we help ourselves to dualism and view consciousness as some ethereal, epiphenomenal mystery shine that is more than the sum of its parts that we run into problems with causality and determinism. The problem stems from the same cause in both cases: we are literally inside the universe and each of us inside or own mental universe peering outwards, trying to picture it from the outside.

When a naïve Determinist asserts something like “I didn’t control that action. The Universe controlled it” they are again tampering with the definition of the Universe and treating it as a “thing” which can be differentiated from other “things,” like the Determinist himself. However, “the universe” includes that Determinist as an indispensable part. Thus, the above statement makes the same mistake as the following statement: “the ace of spades didn’t have anything to do with my winning the pot. It was the royal flush that did it all!” Because the ace is part of the definition of the flush, the statement couldn’t possibly be true. To the extent that each person is a “thing,” or a part of the universe, they are also causally efficacious. The same confusion of parts and wholes creeps into every attack on human freedom from any given form of determinism. When a naïve Determinist asserts that “I didn’t do it, my genes did,” he is forgetting that his genes are an indispensable part of his physical organism and cannot be neatly set aside as something outside or apart from him, which could possibly oppose or control him—they are him (in part). If the attack is mounted from Logical Determinism, a proponent might say “I didn’t make that decision. The immutable rules of logic, which I did not choose to authenticate, really chose to make that decision.” Once again the Determinist is confusing parts and wholes, and assuming that the “logical rules” part is somehow separate from the whole person and can thus control him. When the Psychological Determinist asserts that “I didn’t choose to have this or that desire, and thus this or that desire is really what controlled my action,” he is again making the same error. Our stock repertoire of desires (our will) is a physical part of us—that is, a part of the very definition of “us” or “a human being.” To say that one part of a human being ultimately controlled the whole human being is like saying that ultimately, the ace of spades (an indispensable part of a royal flush) was the reason why you won the pot. Perhaps the ace of spades was the last card drawn, completing the flush, and thus appearing to make all of the difference between winning and losing, but it couldn’t possibly do this without the other cards in the hand. The various deterministic positions are all correct in pointing to the causal efficacy of the various parts of a human being, but they are wrong to claim that this or that part makes all the difference when in fact it only makes part of the difference. Our genes do control our decisions in part, as do the rules of our psychology as a species, as do our various desires, and so forth—but they do not control our decisions to the exclusion of “us,” because they are us. In fact, the difference between genetic, psychological, or physical determinism is simply that they are looking at the same “thing” from different conceptual levels, just like a “card deck” can be looked at from the “deck” level, the “card” level, or the “suit” level. Asking whether you really made a decision or whether ultimately your selfish genes did, or your will, or the atoms in your body is like asking “what ultimately produces much of the oxygen in our atmosphere, the trees or the forests?” They are the same thing looked at from different levels! Thus, Determinism is only scary when one specific form of it is pictured at the expense of the other forms, or at the expense of the whole of which they are all parts. When they are all looked at together, each of their assertions of causal power are true and in no way contradict an assertion of the causal power of the whole person! The whole person doesn’t need to have created each of these parts in order to safely say that he uses and exploits their causal power. In fact, his causal power as a whole is just the sum of all of the causal power of his parts, working in concert. So why should we be afraid of being controlled by various parts of ourselves? Because we naturally partition off those parts, look at their causal power, and forget that they cannot be juxtaposed with the whole, of which they are a part. Such a juxtaposition would be partly self-referential. This would be like saying that the firing cylinders in your engine are the ultimate cause of the car’s motion. But “firing cylinders” are a part of that car, and thus you would also be saying that “the firing cylinders” are the ultimate cause of “the firing cylinders,” as well as the motion of every other part which comprises “the car.” This is obviously either a question-begging tautology or a causa sui (self-caused event), which is precisely the thing that a determinist is staunchly denying when arguing about free will. Every attack stemming from a form of determinism makes the same mistake of partial self-reference, thus positing a little tautology or causa sui which acts alone to undermine the power of the whole. Classical scholars of Free Will make the same mistake of positing a causa sui in the self, or the conscious mind. However, they don’t need to mark off the conscious mind as a separate thing which has ultimate control over the other parts of a person in order to get Free Will. That conscious mind is those other parts of the person, all working in concert and contributing their causal efficacy to the greater pool of the mind’s causal efficacy.

The intuitive problem comes when we realize that the part of our mind that is conscious of itself is only a sliver of the total operations of the mind, and thus we might be ignorant of how our own parts produce our actions. This is especially worrying to modern thinkers after Freud and others ushered in a revolution in the mind sciences by suggesting that in fact most of the really efficacious parts are unconscious, thus making the explanatory narrative that our conscious minds are privy to quite shallow and incomplete. However, not only do we have the power of introspection, of literally inspecting our internal parts and thus updating the narrative explanation of ourselves, but we also have a conscious part of our minds that is causally relevant. Moreover, all of the parts, conscious and unconscious, are quite literally us, and cannot be separated out and then made to do combat with the whole, as they would then be doing combat with themselves. This would be like saying that the chlorophyll in the trees is the ultimate cause of oxygen production, and that the trees thus don’t cause or control oxygen production at all! In this picture, chlorophyll is somehow controlling or supplanting every other part of the tree including itself!

However, sometimes two parts of a whole can be in conflict, such as each desire vying for satisfaction against every other desire, and so the worry still remains how the conscious mind can be “free” in any meaningful way if it is in conflict with some other part, like the will, which might overpower it. David Hume convincingly put to rest this outmoded conflict between Reason and the Passions, showing that Reason is simply arbitrating disputes between the conflicting passions. The Logical Determinist immediately jumps in and says “aha! The rules of logic arbitrate disputes between the passions, and because the conscious mind cannot determine which passion is strongest or which rules to judge the conflict by, it is not freely making the decision!” However, “freely making a decision” is by definition the action of a conscious mind applying the rules of logic that it is stuck with in the arbitration of disputes between desires without outside interference. Can we even fathom a better system of arbitration than the rules of logic and Reason? The word “freely” in this sentence just means “has the unobstructed power to” apply rules of logic and weigh alternative scenarios, and doesn’t require that Reason somehow have power over the rules of its very operation—it is those very rules incarnate! They cannot be in opposition to each other because they are not separate things. Neither is “the mind” separate from “the passions,” but rather, “the passions” are part of “the mind.” Thus, “the passions” cannot control the mind, because they would tautologically be controlling themselves, along with the other parts. Each passion can do battle with each other passion, but “the will” cannot do battle with “the will” any more than any single passion can do battle with itself. This error is just an artifact of our intuitive ability to separate out elements of a whole and picture them.

There is, however, one apparent exception to this rule: the desire for freedom. This desire does not posit any concrete “ends” in the sense that our metabolic appetite posits the “end” of imbibing sustenance commensurate with the needs of a hunter-gatherer living in the Pleistocene. No, this desire simply requires that the overall organism avoid being controlled overtly by anything outside the organism (such as by another organism). If we were thus coerced, we would not be responsible for our actions and thus could derive no pride, dignity, or social currency from doing them. This desire for pride and dignity is precisely the same thing as our will-to-freedom, and demands that we avoid being controlled by outside influences. However, the human organism has this tendency to discover parts and forget their relations to the whole, making it possible for them to actually worry about being controlled by their constituent parts! We mistakenly look at our genes as somehow separate, somehow not us, and are subsequently appalled at the idea of genetic or any other determinism! Theoretically, this human programming flaw could even turn the will-to-freedom against itself, as one could worry about the strength of this desire relative to the others in the will and interpret the “ends” of the desire self-referentially. For example, if we are stubbornly arguing a given point, and then realize that we are being motivated solely by a desire not to be controlled by the other person’s logic, we could realize that we are in fact being controlled more by our own will-to-freedom and decide to concede defeat in the argument. In that sense, the will-to-freedom is different from any other passion because its demands apply self-referentially, allowing it to appear to do battle with itself (in actual fact it produces many possible actions which conflict or do battle). A Buddhist monk, for example, can use his desire for freedom to sever the tether of attachment between his desires and his conscious mind, thus even severing the ties of attachment between the desire-for-freedom and his conscious mind. The point is that this unique passion exponentially multiplies the possible worlds that a human being can become motivated to imagine, create, or avoid. This is why Camus says that “Man is the only creature that refuses to be what he is.” Man is determined to be motivated by this will-to-freedom so powerfully that after discovering what “man really is,” he can become indignantly unhappy about such limitations and can thus be motivated to refuse to be himself. In fact, the very act of discovering what man really is changes him. Just as positing a reference point outside the universe actually changes the universe to now include that reference point, so the definition of who you really are is changed every time you objectively look upon yourself. Though there are no reference points outside the universe, there are reference points outside each human mind (thank you mirror neurons!), and we can’t help but think so far outside the box of who we actually are that we can get a grasp on what we could be. This doesn’t make a human being omnipotent, but it does mean that he is so free that he could do literally any physically possible action if he thought that failing to do so would prove his lack of freedom and thus threaten his dignity.

Our constituent parts do not conflict with each other, but instead work in amazing concert with each other. The only “conflicts” that arise do so within each constituent part (such as within the will, or within a system of logic, etc), but never do battle with each other! After all, they are in charge of different functions!  Imagine a 747 and its pilot. Is the pilot usurping control over and dominating the 747? Is he the ultimate cause of the flight path? Of course not. The 747’s function is to be utilized by a pilot, and the pilots function is to utilize the 747, both for a common end. The pilot can be, for all practical purposes, “in charge” of the flight path while utilizing or feeding off of the freedom that the 747 affords him. He doesn’t need to be the only cause, to have built the plane himself, or to be the ultimate cause in order to be effectively in charge without “doing battle” with the 747’s freedom to provide mechanical flight. The two powers are not in conflict! The various physical components of the mind evolved similarly for a common end that would be harmed by inter-component rivalry. The case of a man chopping down a tree to make a walking stick is a prototypical example of control and domination because the essential power or “end” of the tree (to fulfill its genetic recipe) has been counteracted. Its power and essence have been usurped as it is no longer a tree, but rather, lumber. The case of a man taming and riding a horse is qualitatively different because the horse is still a horse–it runs, eats, plays, etc. Even more different is the case of a man piloting a plane. He is literally enabling the essence of the plane to be fulfilled! This is not domination, control, ultimate causation, or any other term that a determinist could throw at us because the essential powers in question are being enabled, not commandeered or obstructed. The mind is a collection of causal powers that similarly enable each other to symbiotically function as a mechanism. However, mechanical problems do spring up, in 747’s and in human brains, disrupting the harmony of the synergistic system. We have been examining one such mechanical failure in people’s tendency to confuse the relations between parts and wholes, but interestingly enough, this “flaw” actually provides us even more potential freedom. Isn’t this how biological evolution works–conserving useful errors? If so, then Dan Dennett is certainly right that “freedom evolves.”

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5 Responses to Thinking Too Far Outside the Box

  1. Eric says:

    Hey Jeff, I like the post. I particularly enjoyed your analysis of the will to freedom and its relation to the quote by Camus.

  2. “Since every event or thing must have an antecedent cause, so must the universe, right? No.”

    Schopenhauer makes this same point in The World as Will and Representation Volume 2, perhaps more clearly than I did:

    “In general, then, the law of causality applies to all things in the world, but not to the world itself, for it is immanent in the world, not transcendent; with it it comes into
    action, and with it it is abolished.”

  3. Pingback: Thinking Too Far Outside The Box Pt2 – Debunking the “Homunculus Fallacy” Fallacy « Think On These Things

  4. Pingback: Sam Harris & The Narcoleptic Driver « Think On These Things

  5. Pingback: Freedom From Destiny « Think On These Things

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