“Freedom is Uncertainty”

We are creatures of prediction
Yearning to master an Umwelt
And yet curiosity, like an addiction
Where fixed ways begin to melt
Driven by a fear of the unknown
Seeking novelty within our zone

From whence is freedom born?
Not knowing how the story ends
My own autonomy I have sworn
Sole authorship despite the trends
Thoughts appearing without cause
Predictability should give me pause

The grand illusion of control
When influence is out of sight
Freedom is what defines the soul
But no cause relents, try as we might
This decision must be mine
Interconnected, but not divine

From whence is freedom born?
An unconscious realm of ought
Conflicting desires leave us torn
Within a web of neurons caught
Granted by atoms and the void
Causa sui has been destroyed

Choices forged from deep inside
What does the future hold?
Where does this power reside?
To think it’s me is far too bold
I’m free because I cannot see
My freedom lies in uncertainty

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Irrational Man: An Analysis (Part 3, Chapter 10: Sartre)

In the previous post from this series on William Barrett’s Irrational Man, I delved into some of Martin Heidegger’s work, particularly his philosophy as represented in his most seminal work, Being and Time.  Jean-Paul Sartre was heavily influenced by Heidegger and so it’s fortunate for us that Barrett explores him in the very next chapter.  As such, Sartre will be the person of interest in this post.

To get a better sense of Sartre’s philosophy, we should start by considering what life was like in the French Resistance from 1940-45.  Sartre’s idea of human freedom from an existentialist perspective is made clear in his The Republic of Silence where he describes the mode of human existence for the French during the Nazi German occupation of France:

“…And because of all this we were free.  Because the Nazi venom seeped into our thoughts, every accurate thought was a conquest.  Because an all-powerful police tried to force us to hold our tongues, every word took on the value of a declaration of principles.  Because we were hunted down, every one of our gestures had the weight of a solemn commitment…”

I think we can interpret this as describing the brute authenticity of all the most salient features of our existence that can result in the face of severe forces of oppression.  By living knee-deep in an oppressive atmosphere with little if any libertarian freedom, one may inevitably reevaluate what they consider to be most important; they may exercise a great deal more care in terms of deciding what to think about, what to say, or what to do at any given time; and all of this may serve to make that which is thought about, said, or done, to be far more meaningful and free of the noise and superficiality that usually accompanies our day-to-day goings on.  Putting it this way is not to diminish the heinousness of any kind of violent oppression, but merely to point out that oppression can make one consider every part of their existence with a lot more care and concern, taking absolutely nothing for granted while living in such a precarious position.

And when standing in the face of death day after day, not only is the radical contingency of human existence made more clear than ever, but so is that which is intrinsically most valuable to us:

“Exile, captivity, and especially death (which we usually shrink from facing at all in happier days) became for us the habitual objects of our concern…And the choice that each of us made of his life was an authentic choice because it was made face to face with death, because it could always have been expressed in these terms: “Rather death than…”

This is certainly a powerful way of defining authenticity, or at least setting its upper bound; by saying that you’d rather die than abstain from some particular thought, speech, or action is to make a declaration of what’s truly the most meaningful to any individual given their current knowledge and the conditions of their own existence; and this is true even if their thoughts or actions are immoral or uninformed, for nothing matters other than the fact that one has done so with an unparalleled amount of care and personal significance.

While all of this was going on, the French government and the bourgeoisie were seemingly powerless, undetermined, and incapable of any significant recourse:

“…’Les salauds’ became a potent term for Sartre in those days-the salauds, the stinkers, the stuffy and self-righteous people congealed in the insincerity of their virtues and vices.  This atmosphere of decay breathes through Sartre’s first novel, Nausea, and it is no accident that the quotation on the flyleaf is from Celine, the poet of the abyss, of the nihilism and disgust of that period.  The nausea in Sartre’s book is the nausea of existence itself; and to those who are ready to use this as an excuse for tossing out the whole of Sartrian philosophy, we may point out that it is better to encounter one’s existence in disgust than never to encounter it at all-as the salaud in his academic or bourgeois or party-leader strait jacket never does.”

The sheer lack of personal commitment and passion plaguing so many would certainly help to reinforce a feeling of disgust or even propagate feelings of nihilism and helplessness.  And the kind of superficiality that Sartre perceived around him was (and of course, still is) in so many ways the norm; it’s the general way that people conduct themselves, and not only socially but even personally in the sense that one’s view of themselves and who they ought to be is heavily and externally imposed from collective norms and expectations.

“The essential freedom, the ultimate and final freedom that cannot be taken from a man, is to say No.  This is the basic premise in Sartre’s view of human freedom: freedom is in its very essence negative, though this negativity is also creative.”

This is an interesting conception, thinking of the essence of freedom as having a negative character, although perhaps we can compare this to or analogize this with the general concept of negative liberty (freedom from interference from others) as opposed to positive liberty (having the means and freedom to achieve one’s goals).  Since there are a number of contingencies that can prevent positive liberty from being realized, negative liberty (which could include the freedom to say ‘No’) seems to be the more fundamental or basic of the two.  It makes sense to think of this as the final freedom too, as Sartre does, since physical force and contingency can take away anyone’s ability to do all else, except to say ‘No’ or at the very least to think ‘No’ (in the event that one is coerced to say ‘Yes’).  In other words, one can have a number of freedoms taken away, but nobody can take away your freedom to desire one outcome over another, even if that desire can never be satisfied.

At this point it’s also worth mentioning that Sartre’s writings seem to reflect conflicting views on what constitutes human freedom.  His views on freedom may have changed over the course of his written works or he may just have had two different conceptions in mind.  On the one hand, in his earlier works, he seemed to refer to freedom in an ontological sense, as a property of human consciousness.  In this conception, he seemed to view freedom as the ability of a conscious agent to choose the attitude they hold and how they react toward the circumstances they find themselves in.  This would mean that everybody, even a prisoner held captive, is free insofar as they have the freedom to choose if they’ll accept or resist their situation.  Later on, Sartre began to focus on material freedom, that is, freedom from coercion.  In any case, both of these conceptions of freedom still seem to resonate with the concept of negative liberty mentioned earlier.  The only distinction would be that ontological freedom is the one form of negative liberty that is truly inalienable and final:

“Where all the avenues of action are blocked for a man, this freedom may seem a tiny and unimportant thing; but it is in fact total and absolute, and Sartre is right to insist upon it as such, for it affords man his final dignity, that of being man.”

Along with this equating human freedom with consciousness (or at least with conscious will) is the consideration that consciousness is the only epistemological certainty we have:

“He (Descartes) proposes to reject all beliefs so long as they can in any way be doubted, to resist all temptations to say Yes until his understanding is convinced according to its own light; so he rejects belief in the existence of an external world, of minds other than his own, of his own body, of his memories and sensations.  What he cannot doubt is his own consciousness, for to doubt is to be conscious, and therefore by doubting its existence he would affirm it.  “

Sartre takes this Cartesian position to the nth degree, by constraining his interpretation of human beings with his interpretation of Cartesian skepticism:

“But before this certitude shone for him (Descartes), (and even after it, before he passed on to other truths), he was a nothingness, a negativity, existing outside of nature and history, for he had temporarily abolished all belief in a world of bodies and memories.  Thus man cannot be interpreted, Sartre says, as a solid substantial thing existing amid the plenitude of things that make up a world; he is beyond nature because in his negative capability he transcends it.  Man’s freedom is to say No, and this means that he is the being by whom nothingness comes into being.”

To conclude that one is in fact a nothingness, even within the context of Cartesian doubt is, I think, going a bit too far.  While I can agree that consciousness in many ways transcends physical objects and the kind of essence we ascribe to them, it doesn’t transcend existence itself; and what is a nothingness really other than a lack of existence?

And one can think of consciousness as having some attribute of negativity, in the sense that we can think of things and even think of ourselves as being not this or not that; we can think of our desires in terms of what we don’t want; but I think this quality of negation can only serve to differentiate our conscious will (or perhaps ego) from the rest of our experience.  Since our consciousness can’t negate itself, I don’t think that this quality can negate us such that we become an actual nothingness.

“For Sartre there is no unalterable structure of essences or values given prior to man’s own existence.  That existence has meaning, finally, only as the liberty to say No, and by saying No to create a world.  If we remove God from the picture, the liberty which reveals itself in the Cartesian doubt is total and absolute; but thereby also the more anguished, and this anguish is the irreducible destiny and dignity of man.”

And here we see that common element within existentialism: the idea that existence precedes essence, where human beings are thought to have no inherent essence but only an essence that is derived from one’s own existence and one’s own consciousness.  Going back to Sartre’s conception of human freedom, perhaps the idea of saying No to create a world is grounded on the principle of our setting boundaries or limits to the world we make for ourselves; an idea that I can certainly get behind.

However, even if we remove God from the equation, which is certainly justified from the perspective of Cartesian skepticism, let alone from the lack of empirical evidence to support such a belief, we still can’t get around our having some essential human character or qualities (even if no God existed to conceive of such an essence).  While I agree that of the possible lives that you or I can have, it shouldn’t be up to others to choose which life that should be, nor what its ultimate meaning or purpose is, if we agree that there are a finite number of possible lives to choose from (individually and collectively as a species), given our constraints as finite beings (a thoroughly existential claim at that), then I think we can say that we do have an inherent essence that is defined by these biological and physical limitations.

So I do share Sartre’s view that our lives shouldn’t be defined by others, by social norms, nor defined by qualities found in only some of the possible lives one has access to; but it needs to be said that there are still only a finite number of possible life trajectories which will necessarily exclude some of the possibilities given to other types of organisms, and which will exclude any options that are not physically or logically possible.  In other words, I think human beings do have an inherent essence that is defined to some degree by the possibility space we as a species exist within; we just tend to think of essence as something that has to be well-defined, like some short list of properties or functions (which I think is too limited a view).

“Thus Sartre ends by allotting to man the kind of freedom that Descartes has ascribed only to God.  It is, he says, the freedom Descartes secretly would have given to man had he not been limited by the theological convictions of his time and place.”

And this is certainly a valid point.  What’s interesting to me with respect to the whole Cartesian experiment was that Descartes began by doubting the external world and only by introducing an ad hoc conception of a deity, let alone a benevolent deity, could he trust that his senses weren’t deceiving him.  This is despite the fact that this belief in God would be just as likely to be a deception as any other belief (and so Descartes attempted to solve this problem through invalid circular reasoning).

More to the point however is the fact that we wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between a “real” external world and one that is imagined or illusory (unbeknownst to us) anyway, and so we might as well simply stick with the fewest assumptions that yield the best predictions of future experiences.  And this includes the assumption of our having some degree of human freedom that directs our conscious will and desires; a view of our having some control over what trajectory we take in life:

“He is not subordinate to a realm of essences: rather, He creates essences and causes them to be what they are.  Hence such a God transcends the laws of logic and mathematics.  As His (God’s) existence precedes all essences, so man’s existence precedes his essence: he exists, and out of the free project which his existence can be he makes himself what he is.  “

It’s worth considering the psychological motivations for positing and defining a God that has qualities reminiscent of human creativity and teleological intentionality; that is to say, we often project our human capacity for creation and goal-directedness onto some idealized being conception that accounts for our existence in the same way that we see ourselves as accounting for the existence of any and all human constructs, be they watches, paintings, or entire cities.  We see ourselves giving purpose and functional descriptions to the things we make and then can’t help but ask what our own purposes may be; and if so, then we feel inclined to assume it must be someone other than ourselves that gives us this purpose, finally arriving at a God-concept of some kind.  And lo and behold, throughout history the gods we see in all the religions have been remarkably human with their anger, jealousy, pettiness, impulsiveness, and retributive sense of justice, thus illustrating that gods are made in man’s image as opposed to the contrary.  But this kind of thinking only leads to our diminishing our own degree of personal freedom, bestowing it to a concept instead (whether bestowed to “society” or to a “deity”), and thus it abstracts away our own individuality and responsibility.

Despite the God concept permeating much of human history, we eventually challenged it with the greatest challenges precipitating from the Enlightenment, causing many of us to discover the freedom we had all along:

“When God dies, man takes the place of God.  Such had been the prophecy of Dostoevski and Nietzsche, and Sartre on this point is their heir.  The difference, however, is that Dostoevski and Nietzsche were frenzied prophets, whereas Sartre advances his view with all the lucidity of Cartesian reason and advances it, moreover, as a basis for humanitarian and democratic social action.  To put man in the place of God may seem, to traditionalists, an unspeakable piece of diabolism; but in Sartre’s case it is done by a thinker who, to judge from his writings, is a man of overwhelming good will and generosity.”

And this idea of human beings taking the place of God, is really nothing more than the realization of our having projected qualities that were ours from the very beginning.  This may make some people uncomfortable because they think that by eliminating the God concept, that humans are somehow seeing ourselves as a God; but we still have the same limitations that human beings have always had, with our limited knowledge and our existing in a world with many forces out of our control.  But now we have an added sense of freedom that further empowers us as individuals to do the most we can with our lives and to give our lives meaning on our own terms, rather than having them externally imposed on us (see the previous post on Heidegger, and the concept of Das Man or the “They” self).  Sartre’s appreciation and promotion of this idea is admirable to say the least, as it seeks to preferentially value human beings over ideas, to value consciousness over abstractions, and to maximize each person having a voice that they can call their own.

1.  Being-for-itself and Being-in-itself

“Being-for-itself (coextensive with the realm of consciousness) is perpetually beyond itself.  Our thought goes beyond itself, toward tomorrow or yesterday, and toward the outer edges of the world.  Human existence is thus a perpetual self-transcendence: in existing we are always beyond ourselves.  Consequently we never possess our being as we possess a thing.”

This definitely resonates with Heidegger’s conception of temporality, where our understanding of our world is constrained by our past experiences and is always projecting into the future in terms of our always wanting to become a certain kind of person (even if this vision of our future self changes over time).  And here, Sartre’s conception of Being-for-itself is meant to be contrasted with his concept of Being-in-itself; where the former represents consciousness and the latter non-conscious or unconscious material objects.

As mentioned in my last post, I agree with there being a temporally transcendent quality of consciousness, and I think it can be best explained by the fact that our perception of the world is operating under a schema of prediction: our brains are always trying to predict what will happen next in terms of our sensations and these predictions are what we actually experience (as opposed to sensory information itself), where we experience a kind of controlled hallucination that evolves its modeling in response to any prediction error encountered.  We try to make these perceptual predictions come true and reduce the prediction error by either changing our mental models of the world’s causal structure to better account for the incoming sensory information or through a series of actions involving our manipulating the world in some way or another.

“This notion of the For-itself may seem obscure, but we encounter it on the most ordinary occasions.  I have been to a party; I come away, and with a momentary pang of sadness I say, “I am not myself.”  It is necessary to take this proposition quite literally as something that only man can say of himself, because only man can say it to himself.  I have the feeling of coming to myself after having lost or mislaid my being momentarily in a social encounter that estranged me from myself.  This is the first and immediate level on which the term yields its meaning.”

And here’s where the For-itself concept shows the distinction between our individual self (what Heidegger would likely call our authentic self) and the externalized self that is more or less a product of social norms and expectations stemming from the human collective.

“But the next and deeper level of meaning occurs when the feeling of sadness leads me to think in a spirit of self-reproach that I am not myself in a still more fundamental sense: I have not realized so many of the plans or projects that make up my being; I am not myself because I do not measure up to myself. “

So aside from what society expects of us, we also have our own expectations and goals, many of which that never come into fruition.  Sartre sees this as a kind of comparison where we’re evaluating our current view of ourselves with the more idealized view of ourselves that we’re constantly striving for.  And we can see this anytime we think or say something like “I shouldn’t have done that because I’m better than that…”  We’re obviously not better than ourselves, but it’s because we’re always comparing our perspective to the ideal model we hold of ourselves that we in some sense transcend any present sense of self, and this view allows us to better understand Sartre’s idea that we’re always existing beyond ourselves.

Barrett describes Sartre’s view in more detail:

“Beneath this level too there is still another and deeper meaning, rooted in the very nature of my being: I am not myself, and I can never be myself, because my being stretching out beyond itself at any given moment exceeds itself.  I am always simultaneously more and less than I am.  Herein lies the fundamental uneasiness, or anxiety, of the human condition, for Sartre.  Because we are perpetually flitting beyond ourselves, or falling behind our possibilities, we seek to ground our existence, to make it more secure.”

We might even say that we conjure up a kind of essence of who we are because we’re trying to solidify our existence such that we’re more or less like the objects we interact with in our world.  And we do this through our imagination by projecting our identity into the future, effectively defining ourselves in terms of the person we want to become rather than the person we are now.  However, our imagination is both a blessing and a curse, for it is through imagination that we express our creativity, simulating new worlds for ourselves that we can choose from; but, our imagination is also a means of comparing our current state of affairs to some ideal model, in many cases showing us what we don’t have (yet want) and showing us a number of lost opportunities which can further constrain our future space of possibilities.  Whether we love it or hate it, our capacity for imagination is both the cause and the cure for our suffering; and it is a capacity that is fundamental to our existence as human beings.

“The For-itself struggles to become the In-itself, to attain the rocklike and unshakable solidity of a thing.  But this is can never do so long as it is conscious and alive.  Man is doomed to the radical insecurity and contingency of his being; for without it he would not be man but merely a thing and would not have the human capacity for transcendence of his given situation.”

It seems then that our projection into the future, equating our self-hood with some preconceived future self, not only serves as an attempt to objectify our subjectivity, but it may also be psychologically motivated by the uncertainty that we recognize in both our short-term and long-term lives.  We feel uncomfortable and anxious about the contingency of our lives and the sheer number of possible future life trajectories, and so we conceptualize one path as if it were a fixed object and simply refer to it as “me”.

“With enormous ingenuity and virtuosity Sartre interweaves these two notions-Being-in-itself and Being-for-itself-to elucidate the complexities of human psychology.”

Sartre’s conception of Being-in-itself and Being-for-itself are largely grounded on the distinction between consciousness and that which is not conscious.  On the surface, it looks like merely another way of expressing the distinction between mind and matter, but the distinction is far more nuanced and complex.  Being-for-itself is defined by its relation to Being-in-itself, where, for Sartre, Being-for-itself is, among other things, in a constant state of want for synthesis with Being-in-itself, despite the fact that Being-for-itself involves a kind of knowledge that it is not in-itself.  Being-for-itself is in a constant state of incompleteness, where a lack of some kind permeates its mode of being; it’s constantly aware of what it is not, and whatever it may be, lacking any essential structure to build off of, is created out of nothingness.  In other words, Being-for-itself creates its own being with a blank canvas.

As I mentioned above, I don’t particularly agree with Sartre’s conception here, that we as conscious human beings create our being or our essence with a blank canvas, as there are (to stick with the artistic analogy) a limited number of ways that the canvas can be “painted”, there are a limited number of existential “colors” to work with, and while the future may be undetermined or unpredictable to some degree, this doesn’t mean that any possible future that comes to mind can come into being.  As human beings that have evolved from other forms of life on this planet, we have a number of innate or biologically-constrained predispositions including: our instincts and basic behavioral drives, the kinds of conditioning that actually work to modify our behavior, and a psychology that can only thrive within a finite range of behavioral and environmental conditions.

I see this “blank canvas” analogy as just another version of the blank slate or tabula rasa model of human knowledge within the social sciences.  But this model has been falsified with findings in behavioral genetics, psychology, and neurobiology, where various forms of evidence have shown that human beings are pre-wired for social interaction, and have genetically dependent capacities such as intelligence, memory, and reason.  And even taking into account the complicated relation between genes and environment, where the expression of the former is dependent on the latter, we still have environmental conditions that are finite, contingent, externally imposed, and which drastically shape our behavior whether we realize it or not.

On top of this, as I’ve argued elsewhere, we don’t have a libertarian form of free will either, which means that if we could go back in time to some set of initial conditions (where we had made a conscious choice of some kind, and perhaps a significant life altering choice at that), we wouldn’t be able to choose an alternative course of action, barring any quantum randomness.  This doesn’t mean that we can’t still make use of some compatibilist conceptions of free will, nor does it mean that we shouldn’t be held accountable for our actions, as these are all important for maintaining effective behavioral conditioning; but it does mean that we don’t have the kind of blank canvas that Sartre had envisioned.

The role that nothingness plays in Sartre’s philosophy goes beyond the incompleteness resulting from a self that is in some sense defined by our projection into the future.

“The Self, indeed, is in Sartre’s treatment, as in Buddhism, a bubble, and a bubble has nothing at its center. (but not nihilism)…For Sartre, on the other hand, the nothingness of the Self is the basis for the will to action: the bubble is empty and will collapse, and so what is left us but the energy and passion to spin that bubble out?”

I can certainly see some parallels between Buddhism and Sartre’s conception of the Self, where, for example, the fact that we lack a persistent identity, instead having a mode of being that’s dynamic and based on a projection into an uncertain future, is analogous to or at least consistent with the Buddhist conception of the Self being a kind of illusion.  I also tend to agree with the basic idea that we don’t have any ultimate control or ownership over our thoughts and feelings even if we feel like we do from time to time, and our experiences seem to be just one infinitesimal, fleeting moment after another.  Our attention and behavior are absorbed and shaped by the world around us, and it’s only when we fixate or identify ourselves as a concept, a thought, or a feeling, or a certain combination of these elements, that we conjure up a seemingly objective and essential sense of Self.  While Sartre’s philosophy appears to grant us a greater level of free will and human freedom than that of Buddhist thought, it’s this essential self, this eternal self or identity, interrelated with the concept of a permanent soul that both Sartre and Buddhism reject.

“Man’s existence is absurd in the midst of a cosmos that knows him not; the only meaning he can give himself is through the free project that he launches out of his own nothingness.”

This is one of the core ideas in existentialism, and also in Sartre’s own work, that I most appreciate: the idea that we (have to) give our own lives their meaning and purpose, as opposed to their being externally imposed on us from a religion, a deity (whether real or imagined), a culture, or any other source aside from ourselves, if we’re to avoid submitting the core of our being to some kind of authoritarian tyranny.

Human beings were not designed for some particular purpose, aside from natural selection having “designed” us for survival, and perhaps a thermodynamic argument could be made that all life serves the “purpose” of generating more entropy than if our planet had no life at all (which means that life actually speeds up the inevitable heat death of the universe).  But, because our intelligence and the kind of consciousness we’ve gained through evolution grants us a kind of open-ended creativity and imagination, with technology and cultural or memetic evolution effectively superseding our “selfish genes”, we no longer have to live with survival as our primary directive.  We now have the power to realize that our existence transcends our evolutionary past, and we have the ability to define ourselves based on our primary goals in life, whatever they may be, given the constraints of the world we find ourselves born into or embedded within at the present moment.  And it’s this transcendent quality that we find in a lot of Sartre’s work.

“He (Sartre) misses the very root of all of Heidegger’s thinking, which is Being itself.  There is, in Sartre, Being-for-itself and Being-in-itself but there is no Being…Sartre has advanced as the fundamental thesis of his Existentialism the proposition that existence precedes essence.  This thesis is true for Heidegger as well, in the historical, social, and biographical sense that man comes into existence and makes himself to be what he is.  But for Heidegger another proposition is even more basic than this: namely, Being precedes existence.”

In contrast with Sartre then, with Heidegger we see an ontological requirement for Being itself, prior to even having the possibility for Sartre’s distinction between Being-for-itself and Being-in-itself.  That is to say, these kinds of distinctions would, for Heidegger at least, require a more basic field of Being within which one may be able to posit distinctive types of Being.  It would seem that some ultimate region of Being would be necessary in order for the transcendent quality of consciousness to manifest in any way whatsoever:

“To be sure, Sartre has gone a considerable step beyond Descartes by making the essence of human consciousness to be transcendence: that is, to be conscious is, immediately and as such, to point beyond that isolated act of consciousness and therefore to be beyond or above it…But this step forward by Sartre is not so considerable if the transcending subject has nowhere to transcend himself: if there is not an open field or region of Being in which the fateful dualism of subject and object ceases to be.”

One might also wonder how this all fits in with the question of how a conscious subject can ever truly know an object in its entirety.  For example, Kant believed that any object in itself, which he referred to more generally as the noumenon (as opposed to the phenomenon, the object as we perceive it), was inherently unknowable.  Nietzsche thought that it didn’t matter whether or not we could know the object in itself, if such an inaccessible realm of knowledge pertaining to any object even existed in the first place.  Rather, he thought the only thing that mattered was our ability to master the object, to manipulate it and use it according to our own will (the will to power).  For Sartre, the only thing that really mattered was the will to action, which was primarily a will to some form of revolutionary action, so he doesn’t really address the problem of knowledge with respect to the subject truly knowing some object or other (nor does he specify whether or not there even is any problem, at least within his seminal work Being and Nothingness).

Heidegger was less concerned with this issue of knowledge and was more concerned with grounding the possibility of there being a subject or object in the first place:

“For what Heidegger proposes is a more basic question than that of Descartes and Kant: namely, how is it possible for the subject to be? and for the object to be?  And his answer is: Because both stand out in the truth, or un-hiddenness, of Being.  This notion of truth of Being is absent from the philosophy of Sartre; indeed, nowhere in his vast Being and Nothingness does he deal with the problem of truth in a radical and existential way: so far as he understands truth at all, he takes it in the ordinary intellectualistic sense that has been traditional with non-existential philosophers.  In the end (as well as at his very beginning) Sartre turns out thus to be a Cartesian rationalist-one, to be sure, whose material is impassioned and existential, but for all that not any less a Cartesian in his ultimate dualism between the For-itself and the In-itself.”

I don’t think it’s fair to label Sartre a Cartesian rationalist as Barrett does here, since Sartre seems to actually depart from Descartes’ form of rationalism when it comes to evaluating the overall structure of consciousness.  And there doesn’t seem to be any ultimate dualism between Being-for-itself and Being-in-itself either, if the former is instantiated or experienced as a kind of negation of the latter.  Perhaps if Sartre had used the terms Being-in-itself and not-Being-in-itself, this would be made more clear.  In any case, it’s not as if these two instantiations of being need be separate substances, especially if, as Sartre says in Being and Nothingness, that:

“The ontological error of Cartesian rationalism is not to have seen that if the absolute is defined by the primacy of existence over essence, it cannot be conceived as a substance.”

So at the very least, it seems mistaken to say that Sartre is a substance dualist given his position on existence preceding essence, even if he may be adequately described as some kind of property dualist.

“But, again like every humanism, it leaves unasked the question: What is the root of man?  In this search for roots for man-a search that has, as we have seen, absorbed thinkers and caused the malaise of poets for the last hundred and fifty years-Sartre does not participate.  He leaves man rootless.”

Sartre may not have explicitly described any kind of truth for man that wasn’t a truth of the intellect, unlike Heidegger who had his conception of the truth of Being, but Sartre did also describe a pre-reflective aspect of consciousness that didn’t seem to be identified as either the subject nor anything about the subject.  There’s a mysterious aspect of consciousness that’s simply hard to pin down, and it may be the kind of ethereal concept that one could equate with some kind of pre-propositional realm of Being.  This may not be enough to say that Sartre, in the end, leaves us rooted (so to speak), but it seems to be a concept that implicitly pulls his philosophy in that direction.

2. Literature as a Mode of Action

Sartre places a lot of importance on literature as a means of expressing the author’s freedom in a way that depends on an interaction with the freedom of the reader.

“…the perfect example of what he believes a writer should do and what he himself tries to do in his own later fiction: that is, grapple with the problems of man in his time and milieu.”

As mentioned earlier in this post, Sartre’s personal experience during the time of the French Resistance colored his written works with an imperative to assert humanity’s radical freedom and did so in relation to the historical developments that affected the masses, the working class, and the oppressed.

“It is always to the idea, and particularly the idea as it leads to social action, that Sartre responds.  Hence he cannot do justice, either in his critical theory or in his actual practice of literary criticism, to poetry, which is precisely that form of human expression in which the poet-and the reader who would enter the poet’s world-must let Being be, to use Heidegger’s phrase, and not attempt to coerce it by the will to action or the will to intellectualization.  The absence of the poet in Sartre, as a literary man, is thus another evidence of what, on the philosophical level, leads to a deficiency in his theory of Being.”

And though Sartre may not be any kind of poet, that doesn’t mean his work doesn’t have some of the subjective, emotionally charged character that one finds in poetry.  But, Barret’s point is well taken as Sartre’s works don’t have the kind of aesthetic quality, the irrationality, nor do they make as much use of metaphor, as the majority of popular poets have.

“In discharging his freedom man also wills to accept the responsibility of it, thus becoming heavy with his own guilt.  Conscience, Heidegger has said, is the will to be guilty-that is, to accept the guilt that we know will be ours whatever course of action we take.”

Freedom and responsibility clearly go hand in hand for Sartre (and for Heidegger as well), and this very basic idea makes sense from the perspective that if one believes themselves to be free, then they must necessarily accept that they own their actions insofar as they were done freely.  As for conscience, rather than Heidegger’s conception of the will to be guilty, I’d prefer to describe it as simply a manifestation of our perception of both responsibility and duty, although one can also aptly describe conscience as a product of evolution that tends to produce in us a more pro-social set of behaviors.

The tendency for many to try and absolve themselves of their freedom, by submitting themselves to the conception of self that society or others draw up for them is addressed in Sartre’s 1944 French play No Exit.  In this play, the three main characters find themselves in Hell, being punished in a way that is analogous to that of Dante’s Inferno, in this case taunted by a symbol representing the inauthentic or superficial way they lived their lives:

“Having practiced “bad faith” in life-which, in Sartre’s terms, is the surrendering of one’s human liberty in order to possess, or try to possess, one’s being as a thing-the three characters now have what they had sought to surrender themselves to.  Having died, they cannot change anything in their past lives, which are exactly what they are, no more and no less, just like the static being of things…But this is exactly what they long for in life-to lose their own subjective being by identifying themselves with what they were in the eyes of other people.”

By defining ourselves in any essential or fixed way, for example, by defining ourselves based on the unchangeable past (as all its features are indeed fixed), we lose the freedom we’d have if our identity had been directed toward the uncertain future and the possible goals and projects contained therein.  In this case with No Exit, the characters were defining themselves based on the desires and expectations of society or at least of several members of society that these patrons of Hell deemed high in status or social clout.

And going back to the relation between freedom and responsibility, we can see how one can try and rid themselves of responsibility by holding an attitude that they have no freedom regarding who they are or what they do, that they must do what it is they do (perhaps because society or others “say so”, although it may be other reasons).  This can be a slippery thing to contemplate however, when we consider different conceptions of free will.

While it’s technically true that we don’t have any kind of causa sui free will (since it’s logically impossible to have this in a deterministic or random/indeterministic world), it’s still useful to conceive of our having a kind of freedom of the will that distinguishes between animals or people that have varying degrees of autonomy.  This is similar to the conception of free will that a court of law uses, to distinguish between instances of coercion or not being of sound mind and that of conscious intentions made with a reasonable capacity for evaluating the legality or consequences off those intentions.

It’s also important to account for the fact that we can’t predict all of our own actions (nor the actions of others), and so there’s also a folk psychological concept of free will implied by this uncertainty.  Most of these conceptions are psychologically useful, they play a positive role in maintaining the efficacy of our punishment reward systems, and overall they resonate with how we lives our lives as human beings.

In general then, I think that Sartre’s conception of tying freedom and responsibility together jives with our folk psychological conceptions of free will, and it serves a use for promoting a very functional and motivating way to live one’s life.

“As a writer Sartre is always the impassioned rhetorician of the idea; and the rhetorician, no matter how great and how eloquent his rhetoric, never has the full being of the artist.  If Sartre were really a poet and an artist, we would have from him a different philosophy…”

Although Barrett seems to be pigeonholing artists to some degree here (which isn’t entirely fair to Sartre), it’s true that what we find in Sartre’s written works are not artistic in any traditional or classical sense.  Even so, I think it’s fair to say that postmodern art has benefited from and been influenced by the works of many great thinkers including Sartre.  And the task of the artist is often informing us of our own human condition in its particular time and place, including many aspects of that condition that aren’t typically talked about or explicitly in our stream of consciousness.  Sartre’s works, both written and performed, did just that; they informed us of our modern condition and of a number of interesting perspectives of our own human psychology, and they did so in a thoroughly existential way.  Sartre was an artist then, in my mind at least.

3. Existential Psychology

“Behind all Sartre’s intellectual dialectic we perceive that the In-itself is for him the archetype of nature: excessive, fruitful, blooming nature-the woman, the female.  The For-itself, by contrast, is for Sartre the masculine aspects of human psychology: it is that in virtue of which man chooses himself in his radical liberty, makes projects, and thereby gives his life what strictly human meaning it has.”

And here some of the sexist nuances, both explicitly and implicitly in the minds of Sartre and his contemporaries, starts to become apparent.  The idea that nature has more of a female character is certainly far more justifiable and sensible because females are the only sex giving birth to new life and continuing the cycle, but the idea that the male traits subsume the human qualities of choice, freedom, and worthwhile projects, is one resulting from historical dominance hierarchies, which were traditionally patriarchal or androcentric.  But modern human life has illustrated this to be no longer applicable to humans generally.  In any case, we can still use traditional archetypes that make use of this kind of sexual categorization, as long as we’re careful to avoid taking those archetypes too seriously in terms of influencing an essentialist view of the human sexes and what our roles in society ought to be.

“The essence of man…lies not in the Oedipus complex (as Freud held) nor in the inferiority complex (as Adler maintained); it lies rather in the radical liberty of man’s existence by which he chooses himself and so makes himself what he is.”

And this of course is just a reiteration of the Sartrean existence precedes essence adage, but it’s interesting to see that Sartre seems to dismiss much of modern psychology, evolutionary psychology and any role for nature or innate predispositions in human beings.  One may wonder as well how humans can be free of traditional essentialism in Sartre’s mind while at the same time he assumes some kinds of roles or archetypes that are essentially male and female.  I don’t think we can avoid essentialism in its entirety, even if the crux of Sartre’s existential adage is valid.  And I don’t think Sartre avoids it either, even if he tries to.

“Man is not to be seen as the passive plaything of unconscious forces, which determine what he is to be.  In fact, Sartre denies the existence of an unconscious mind altogether; wherever the mind manifests itself, he holds, it is conscious.”

I’m not sure if Sartre’s denial of an unconscious mind is just a play on semantics (i.e. he’s defining “mind” exclusively as the neurological activity that directly leads to consciousness) or if he truly rejected the idea that there were any forces motivating our behavior that weren’t explicit in our consciousness.  If the latter is true, then how does Sartre account for marketing strategies, cognitive biases, denial, moral intuition, and a host of other things that rely on or operate under psychological predispositions that are largely unknown to the person who possesses them?  The totality of our behavior simply can’t be accounted for without some form of neurological processing happening under the radar (so to speak), which serves some psychological purpose.

“A human personality or human life is not to be understood in terms of some hypothetical unconscious at work behind the scenes and pulling all the wires that manipulate the puppet of consciousness.  A man is his life, says Sartre; which means that he is nothing more nor less than the totality of acts that make up that life.”

This is interesting when viewed through the lens of the future, our intended projects, and the kind of person we may strive to be.  It seems that in order for this excerpt above to be correct, according to Sartre’s (and perhaps Heidegger’s) own reasoning, that we’d have to include our intentions and goals as well; we can’t simply look at the facticity of our past, but must also look at how the self transcends into the future.  And although Sartre or others may not want to identify themselves with some of the forces operating in their unconscious, the fact of the matter is, if we want to be able to predict our own behavior and that of others as effectively as possible, then we have no choice but to make use of some concept of an unconscious mind, unconscious psychology, etc. It may not be the primary way we ought to think of ourselves, but it’s an important part of any viable model of human behavior.

Analogously, one may say that they don’t want to be identified with their brain (“I am not my brain!”), and yet if you asked them if they’d rather have a brain transplant or a body transplant (say, everything below the neck), they would undoubtedly choose the latter.  Why might this be so?  An obvious answer is because their entire personality, all that they value, believe, and know, is all made manifest in the structure of their brain.  Now we may see a brain on a table and have difficulty equating it with a person, and yet we can have an entire human body, only lacking a brain, and we have no person at all.  The only additional thing needed for personhood is that brain lying on the table, assuming it is a brain inherently capable of instantiating a personality, consciousness, etc.

Another aspect of Sartrean psychology is the conception of how the Other (some other conscious self) views us given the constraints of consciousness and our ability to see another person from that person’s own subjective point of view:

“This relation to the Other is one of the most sensational and best-known aspects of Sartre’s psychology.  To the other person, who look at me from the outside, I seem an object, a thing; my subjectivity with its inner freedom escapes his gaze.  Hence his tendency is always to convert me into the object he sees.  The gaze of the Other penetrates to the depths of my existence, freezes and congeals it.  It is this, according to Sartre, that turns love and particularly sexual love into a perpetual tension and indeed warfare.  The lover wishes to possess the beloved, but the freedom of the beloved (which is his or her human essence) cannot be possessed; hence, the lover tends to reduce the beloved to an object for the sake of possessing it.”

I think this view has merit and has a lot to do with how our brains make simplistic or heuristic models of the entities and causal structure we perceive around us.  Although we can recognize that some of those other entities are subjective beings such as ourselves, living with the same kinds of intrinsic conscious experiences that we do, it’s often easier and more automatic to treat them as if they were an object.  We can’t directly experience another person’s subjectivity, which is what makes it so easy to escape our attention and consideration.  More to the point though, Sartre was claiming how this tendency to objectify another penetrates many facets of our lives, introducing a source of conflict with our relations to one another.  Ironically, this could also be described as something we do unconsciously, where we don’t explicitly say to ourselves “this person is an object,” but rather we may explicitly see them as a person and yet treat them as an object in order to serve some implicit psychological goal (e.g. to feel that you possess your significant other).

“He is right to make the liberty of choice, which is the liberty of a conscious action, total and absolute, no matter how small the area of our power: in choosing, I have to say No somewhere, and this No, which is total and totally exclusive of other alternatives, is dreadful; but only by shutting myself up in it is any resoluteness of action possible.  “

Referring back to the beginning of this post, regarding the liberty of choice (in particular a kind of negative liberty) as the ultimate form of human freedom, we can also describe the choices we make in terms of the alternative choices we had to say no to first.  We can see our ability to say no as a means of creating a world for ourselves; a world with boundaries delineating what is and isn’t desired.  And the making of these choices, the effect that each choice has, and the world we create out of them are things that we and we alone own.  Understandably then, once this freedom and responsibility are recognized, they lead to our experiencing a kind of dread, anxiety, and perhaps a feeling of being overwhelmed by the sheer space of possibilities and thus overwhelmed by the number of possibilities that we have to willfully reject:

“A friend of mine, a very intelligent and sensitive man, was over a long period in the grip of a neurosis that took the form of indecision in the fact of almost every occasion of life; sitting in a restaurant, he could not look at the printed menu to choose his lunch without seeing the abyss of the negative open before his eyes, on the page, and so falling into a sweat…(this story) confirms Sartre’s analysis of freedom, for only because freedom is what he says it is could this man have been frightened by it and have retreated into the anxiety of indecision.”

This story also reminded me of the different perspectives that can result depending on whether one is a maximizer or a sufficer: the maximizer being the person who tries to exhaustively analyze every decision they make, hoping to maximize the benefits brought about by their careful decision-making; and the sufficer being the person who is much more easily pleased, willing to make a decision fairly quickly, and not worry about whether their decision was the best possible so much as whether it was simply good enough.  On average, maximizers are far less happy as well, despite the care they take in making decisions, simply because they fret over whether the decision they landed on was really best after all, and they tend to enjoy life less than sufficers because they’re missing many experiences and missing the natural flow of those experiences as a result of their constant worrying.  The maximizer concept definitely fits in line with Sartre’s conception of the anxiety of choice brought about by the void and negation implicit in decision making.

I for one try to be a sufficer, even if I occasionally find myself trying to maximize my decision making, and I do this for the same reason that I try to be an optimist rather than a pessimist: people live happier and more satisfying lives if they try and maintain a positive attitude and if they aren’t overly concerned with every choice they make.  We don’t want to make poor decisions by making them in haste or without any care, but we also don’t want to invest too many of our psychological resources in making those decisions; we may end up at the end of our lives realizing that we’ve missed out on a good life.

“…the example points up also where Sartre’s theory is decidedly lacking: it does not show us the kind of objects in relation to which our human subjectivity can define itself in a free choice that is meaningful and not neurotic.  This is so because Sartre’s doctrine of liberty was developed out of the experience of extreme situations: the victim says to his totalitarian oppressor, No, even if you kill me; and he shuts himself up in this No and will not be shaken from it.”

I agree with Barrett entirely here.  Much of Sartre’s philosophy was developed out of an experienced oppression under the threat of violence, and this quality makes it harder to apply to an everyday life that’s not embroiled with tyranny or fascism.

“…But he who shuts himself up in the No can be demoniacal, as Kierkegaard pointed out; he can say No against himself, against his own nature.  Sartre’s doctrine of freedom does not really comprehend the concrete man who is an undivided totality of body and mind, at once, and without division, both In-itself and For-itself; but rather an isolated aspect of this total condition, the aspect of man always at the margin of his existence.”

I think the biggest element missing from Sartre’s conception of freedom or from his philosophy generally is the evolutionary and biologically grounded aspects of our psychology, the facts pertaining to our innate impulses and predispositions, our cognitive biases and other unconscious processes (which he outright denied the existence of).  This makes his specific formula of existence preceding essence far less tenable and realistic.  Barrett agrees with some of this reasoning as well when he says:

“Because Sartre’s psychology recognizes only the conscious, it cannot comprehend a form of freedom that operates in that zone of the human personality where conscious and unconscious flow into each other.  Being limited to the conscious, it inevitably becomes an ego psychology; hence freedom is understood only as the resolute project of the conscious ego.”

Indeed, the human being as a whole includes both the conscious and unconscious aspects of ourselves.  The subjective experience that defines us is a product of both sides of our psyche, not to mention the interplay of the psyche as a whole with the world around us that we’re intimately connected to (think of Heidegger’s field of Being).

The final point I’d like to bring up regarding Sartre is in regard to his atheism:

“It has been remarked that Kierkegaard’s statement of the religious position is so severe that it has turned many people who thought themselves religious to atheism.  Analogously, Sartre’s view of atheism is so stark and bleak that it seems to turn many people toward religion.  This is exactly as it should be.  The choice must be hard either way; for man, a problematic being to his depths, cannot lay hold of his ultimate commitments with a smug and easy security.”

It’s understandable that most people gravitate toward religion because of the anxiety and fear that can accompany a worldview where one has to take on the burden of making meaning for their own lives rather than having someone else or some concept “decide” this for them.  Additionally, the fear of being alone, the fear of death, the fear of having a precarious existence generally throughout our lives and also given the fact that we live in an inhospitable universe where life appears to occupy a region in space comparable to the size of a proton within a large room.

All of these reasons lend themselves to reinforcing a desire for a deity and for a narrative that defines who we ought to be, so we don’t have to decide this for ourselves.  Personally, I don’t think one can live authentically with these kinds of world views, nor is it morally responsible to live life with belief systems that inhibit the ability to distinguish between fact and fiction.  But I still understand that it’s far more difficult to reject the comforts of religion and face the radical contingencies of life and the burden of choice.  I think people can live the most fulfilling lives in the most secure way only when they have a reliable epistemology in place and only when they take the limits of human psychology seriously.  We need to understand that some ways of living, some attitudes, some ways of thinking, etc., are better than others for living sustainable, fulfilling lives.

Sartre’s atheistic philosophy is certainly bleak, but his does not represent the philosophy of atheists.  My atheistic philosophy of life, for example, takes into account the usefulness of multiple descriptions (including holistic descriptions) of our existence; the recognition of our desire to connect to the transcendent; the need for morality, meaning, and purpose; and the need for emotional channels of expression.  And regardless of it’s bleakness, Sartre’s philosophy has some useful ideas, and any philosophy that’s likely going to be successful will gather what works from a number of different schools of thought and philosophies anyway.

Well, this concludes the post on Jean-Paul Sartre (Ch. 10), and ends part 3 of this series on William Barrett’s Irrational Man.  The last and final post in this series is on part 4, Integral vs. Rational Man, which consists of chapter 11, the final chapter in Barrett’s book, The Place of the Furies.  I will post the link here when that post is complete.

“The Brothers Karamazov” – A Moral & Philosophical Critique (Part III)

In the first two posts that I wrote in this series (part I and part II) concerning some concepts and themes mentioned in Dostoyevksy’s The Brothers Karamazov, I talked about moral realism and how it pertains to theism and atheism (and the character Ivan’s own views), and I also talked about moral responsibility and free will to some degree (and how this related to the interplay between Ivan and Smerdyakov).  In this post, I’m going to look at the concept of moral conscience and intuition, and how they apply to Ivan’s perspective and his experiencing an ongoing hallucination of a demonic apparition.  This demonic apparition only begins to haunt Ivan after hearing that his influence on his brother Smerdyakov led him to murder their father Fyodor.  The demon continues to torment Ivan until just before his other brother Alyosha informs him that Smerdyakov has committed suicide.  Then I’ll conclude with some discussion on the concept of moral desert (justice).

It seems pretty clear that the demonic apparition that appears to Ivan is a psychosomatic hallucination brought about as a manifestation of Ivan’s overwhelming guilt for what his brother has done, since he feels that he bears at least some of the responsibility for his brothers actions.  We learn earlier in the story that Zosima, a wise elder living at a monastery who acts as a mentor and teacher to Alyosha, had explained to Ivan that everyone bears at least some responsibility for the actions of everyone around them because human causality is so heavily intertwined with one person’s actions having a number of complicated effects on the actions of everyone else.  Despite Ivan’s strong initial reservations against this line of reasoning, he seems to have finally accepted that Zosima was right — hence him suffering a nervous breakdown as a result of realizing this.

Obviously Ivan’s moral conscience seems to be driving this turn of events and this is the case whether or not Ivan explicitly believes that morality is real.  And so we can see that despite Ivan’s moral skepticism, his moral intuitions and/or his newly accepted moral dispositions as per Zosima, have led him to his current state of despair.  Similarly, Ivan’s views on the problem of evil — whereby the vast amount of suffering in the world either refutes the existence of God, or shows that this God (if he does exist) must be a moral monster — betray even more of Ivan’s moral views with respect to how he wants the world to be.  His wanting the world to have less suffering in it, along with his wishing that his brother had not committed murder (let alone as a result of his influence on his brother), illustrates a number of moral “oughts” that Ivan subscribes to.  And whether they’re simply based on his moral intuitions or also rational moral reflection, they illustrate the deeply rooted psychological aspects of morality that are an inescapable facet of the human condition.

This situation also helps to explain some of the underlying motivations behind my own reversion back toward some form of moral realism, after becoming an atheist myself, initially catalyzed by my own moral intuitions and then later solidified and justified by rational moral reflection on objective facts pertaining to human psychology and other factors.  Now it should be said that moral intuitions on their own are only a generally useful heuristic as they are often misguiding (and incorrect) which is why it is imperative that they are checked by a rational assessment of the facts at hand.  But, nevertheless, they help to illustrate how good and evil can be said to be real (in at least some sense), even to someone like Ivan that doesn’t think they have an objective foundation.  They may not be conceptions of good and evil as described in many religions, with supernatural baggage attached, but they are real nonetheless.

Another interesting point worth noting is in regard to Zosima’s discussion about mutual moral responsibility.  While I already discussed moral responsibility in the last post along with its relation to free will, there’s something rather paradoxical about Dostoyevsky’s reasoning as expressed through Zosima that I found quite interesting.  Zosima talks about how love and forgiveness are necessary because everyone’s actions are intertwined with everyone else’s and therefore everyone bears some responsibility for the sins of others.  This idea of shared responsibility is abhorrent to those in the story that doubt God and the Christian religion (such as Ivan), who only want to be responsible for their own actions, but the complex intertwined causal chain that Zosima speaks of is the same causal chain that many determinists invoke to explain our lack of libertarian free will and how we can’t be held responsible in a causa sui manner for our actions.

Thus, if someone dies and there is in fact an afterlife, by Zosima’s own reasoning that person should not be judged as an individual solely responsible for their actions either.  That person should instead receive unconditional love and forgiveness and be redeemed rather than punished.  But this idea is anathema to standard Christian theology where one is supposed to be judged and given eternal paradise or eternal torment (with vastly disproportionate consequences given the finite degree of one’s actions).  It’s no surprise that Zosima isn’t looked upon as a model clergyman by some of his fellow monks in the monastery because his emphatic preaching about love and forgiveness undermines the typical heavy-handed judgemental aspects of God within Christianity.  But in any case, if God exists and understood that people were products of their genes and their environment which is causally interconnected with everyone else’s (i.e. libertarian free will is logically impossible), then a loving God would grant everyone forgiveness after death and grant them eternal paradise based on that understanding.  And oddly enough, this also undermines Ivan’s own reasoning that good and evil can only exist with an afterlife that undergoes judgement, because forgiveness and eternal paradise should be granted to everyone in the afterlife (by a truly loving God) if Zosima’s reasoning was taken to it’s logical conclusions.  So not only does Zosima’s reasoning seem to undermine the justification for unequal treatment of souls in the afterlife, but it also undermines the Christian conception of free will to boot (which is logically impossible regardless of Zosima’s reasoning).

And this brings me to the concept of moral desert.  In some ways I agree with Zosima, at least in the sense that love (or more specifically compassion) and forgiveness are extremely important in proper moral reasoning. And once one realizes the logical impossibility of libertarian free will, this should only encourage one’s use of love and forgiveness in the sense that people should never be trying to punish a wrongdoer (or hope for their punishment) for the sake of retributive justice or vengeance.  Rather, people should only punish (or hope that one is punished) as much as is necessary to compensate the victim as best as the circumstances allow and (more importantly) to rehabilitate the wrongdoer by reprogramming them through behavioral conditioning.  Anything above and beyond this is excessive, malicious, and immoral.  Similarly, a loving God (if one existed) would never punish anyone in the afterlife beyond what is needed to rehabilitate them (and it would seem that no punishment at all should really be needed if this God had the power to accomplish these feats on immaterial souls using magic), and if this God had no magic to accomplish this, then at the very least, it would still mean that there should never by any eternal punishments, since punishing someone forever (let alone torturing them forever), not only illustrates that there is no goal to rehabilitate the wrongdoer, but also that this God is beyond psychopathic and malevolent.  Again, think of Zosima’s reasoning as it applies here.

Looking back at the story with Smerdyakov, why does the demonic apparition disappear from Ivan right around the time that he learns that Smerdyakov killed himself?  It could be because Ivan thinks that Smerdyakov has gotten what he deserved, and that he’s no longer roaming free (so to speak) after his heinous act of murder.  And it could also be because Ivan seemed sure at that point that he would confess to the murder (or at least motivating Smerdyakov to do it).  But if either of these notions are true, then once again Ivan has betrayed yet another moral disposition of his, that murder is morally wrong.  It may also imply that Ivan, deep down, may in fact believe in an afterlife, and that Smerdyakov will now be judged for his actions.

It no doubt feels good to a lot of people when they see someone that has wronged another, getting punished for their bad deeds.  The feeling of justice and even vengeance can be so emotionally powerful, especially if the wrongdoer took the life of someone that you or someone else loved very much.  It’s a common feeling to want that criminal to suffer, perhaps to rot in jail until they die, perhaps to be tortured, or what-have-you.  And these intuitions illustrate why so many religious beliefs surrounding judgment in the afterlife share many of these common elements.  People invented these religious beliefs (whether unconsciously or not) because it makes them feel better about wrongdoers that may otherwise die without having been judged for their actions.  After all, when is justice going to be served?  It is also a motivating factor for a lot of people to keep their behaviors in check (as per Ivan’s rationale regarding an afterlife requirement in order for good and evil to be meaningful to people).  Even though I don’t think that this particular motivation is necessary (and therefore Ivan’s argument is incorrect) — due to other motivating forces such as the level of fulfillment and personal self-worth in one’s life, gained through living a life of moral virtue, or the lack thereof by those that fail to live virtuously — it is still a motivation that exists with many people and strongly intersects with the concept of moral desert.  Due to its pervasiveness in our intuitions and how we perceive other human beings and its importance in moral theory in general, people should spend a lot more time critically reflecting on this concept.

In the next part of this post series, I’m going to talk about the conflict between faith and doubt, perhaps the most ubiquitous theme found in The Brothers Karamazov, and how it ties all of these other concepts together.

“The Brothers Karamazov” – A Moral & Philosophical Critique (Part II)

In my last post in this series, concerning Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, I talked about the concept of good and evil and the character Ivan’s personal atheistic perception that they are contingent on God existing (or at least an afterlife of eternal reward or punishment).  While there may even be a decent percentage of atheists that share this view (objective morality being contingent on God’s existence), I briefly explained my own views (being an atheist myself) which differs from Ivan’s in that I am a moral realist and believe that morality is objective independent of any gods or immortal souls existing.  I believe that moral facts exist (and science is the best way to find them), that morality is ultimately grounded on objective facts pertaining to human psychology, biology, sociology, neurology, and other facts about human beings, and thus that good and evil do exist in at least some sense.

In this post, I’m going to talk about Ivan’s influence on his half-brother, Smerdyakov, who ends up confessing to Ivan that he murdered their father Fyodor Pavlovich, as a result of Ivan’s philosophical influence on him.  In particular, Smerdyakov implicates Ivan as at least partially responsible for his own murderous behavior since Ivan successfully convinced him that evil wasn’t possible in a world without a God.  Ivan ends up becoming consumed with guilt, basically suffers a nervous breakdown, and then is incessantly taunted by a demonic apparition.  The hallucinations continue up until the moment Ivan comes to find out, from his very religious brother Alyosha, that Smerdyakov has hung himself.  This scene highlights a number of important topics beyond the moral realism I discussed in the first post, such as moral responsibility, free will, and even moral desert (I’ll discuss this last topic in my next post).

As I mentioned before, beyond the fact that we do not need a god to ground moral values, we also don’t need a god or an afterlife to motivate us to behave morally either.  By cultivating moral virtues such as compassion, honesty, and reasonableness, and analyzing a situation using a rational assessment of as many facts as are currently accessible, we can maximize our personal satisfaction and thus our chances of living a fulfilling life.  Behavioral causal factors that support this goal are “good” and those that detract from it are “evil”.  Aside from these labels though, we actually experience a more or less pleasing life depending on our behaviors and therefore we do have real-time motivations for behaving morally (such as acting in ways that conform to various cultivated virtues).  Aristotle claimed this more than 2000 years ago and moral psychology has been confirming it time and time again.

Since we have evolved as a particular social species with a particular psychology, not only do we have particular behaviors that best accomplish a fulfilling life, but there are also various behavioral conditioning algorithms and punishment/reward systems that are best at modifying our behavior.  And this brings me to Smerdyakov.  By listening to Ivan and ultimately becoming convinced by Ivan’s philosophical arguments, he seems to have been conditioned out of his previous views on moral responsibility.  In particular, he ended up adopting the belief that if God does not exist, then anything is permissible.  Since he also rejected a belief in God, he therefore thought he could do whatever he wanted.

One thing this turn of events highlights is that there are a number of different factors that influence people’s behaviors and that lead to their being reasoned into doing (or not doing) all sorts of things.  As Voltaire once said “Those who can make you believe absurdities can also make you commit atrocities.  And I think what Ivan told Smerdyakov was in fact absurd — although it was a belief that I once held as well not long after becoming an atheist.  For it is quite obviously absurd that anything is permissible without a God existing for at least two types of reasons: pragmatic considerations and moral considerations (with the former overlapping with the latter).  Pragmatic reasons include things like not wanting to be fined, incarcerated, or even executed by a criminal justice system that operates to minimize illegal behaviors.  It includes not wanting to be ostracized from your circle of friends, your social groups, or your community (and risking the loss of beneficial reciprocity, safety nets, etc.).  Moral reasons include everything that detracts from your overall psychological well-being, the very thing that is needed to live a maximally fulfilling life given one’s circumstances.  Behaving in ways that degrade your sense of inner worth, your integrity, self-esteem, and that diminish a good conscience, is going to make you feel miserable compared to behaving in ways that positively impact these fundamental psychological goals.

Furthermore, this part of the story illustrates that we have a moral responsibility not only to ourselves and our own behavior, but also in terms of how we influence the behavior of those around us, based on what we say, how we treat them, and more.  This also reinforces the importance of social contract theory and how it pertains to moral behavior.  If we follow simple behavioral heuristics like the Golden Rule and mutual reciprocity, then we can work together to obtain and secure common social goods such as various rights, equality, environmental sustainability, democratic legislation (ideally based on open moral deliberation), and various social safety nets.  We also can punish those that violate the social contract, as we already do with the criminal justice system and various kinds of social ostracization.  While our system of checks is far from perfect, having some system that serves such a purpose is necessary because not everybody behaves in ways that are ultimately beneficial to themselves nor everyone else around them.  People need to be conditioned to behave in ways that are more conducive to their own well being and that of others, and if all reasonable efforts to achieve that fails, they may simply need to be quarantined through incarceration (for example psychopaths or other violent criminals that society needs to be protected from, and that aren’t responding to rehabilitation efforts).

In any case, we do have a responsibility to others and that means we need to be careful what we say, such as the case with Ivan and his brother.  And this includes how we talk about concepts like free will, moral responsibility, and moral desert (justice).  If we tell people that all of their behaviors are determined and therefore don’t matter, that’s not a good way to get people to behave in ways that are good for them or for others.  Nor is telling them that because a God doesn’t exist, that their actions don’t matter.  In the case of deterministic nihilism, it’s a way to get people to lose much if not all of their motivation to put forward effort in achieving useful goals.  And both deterministic and atheistic moral nihilism are dangerous ideas that can get some people to commit heinous crimes such as mass shootings (or murdering their own father as Smerdyakov did), because they simply cause people to think that all behaviors are on equal footing in any way that matters.  And quite frankly, those nihilistic ideas are not only dangerous but also absurd.

While I’ve written a bit on free will in the past, my views have become more refined over the years, and my overall attitude towards the issue has been co-evolving alongside my views on morality.  The main crux of the free will issue is that libertarian free will is logically impossible because our actions are never free from both determinism and indeterminism (randomness) since one or the other must underlie how our universe operates (depending on which interpretation of Quantum Mechanics is correct).  Neither option from this logical dichotomy gives us “the freedom to have chosen to behave differently given the same initial conditions in a non-random way”.  Therefore free will in this sense is logically impossible.  However, this does not mean that our behavior isn’t operating under some sets of rules and patterns that we can discover and modify.  That is to say, we can effectively reprogram many of our behavioral tendencies using various forms of conditioning through punishment/reward systems.  These are the same systems we use to teach children how to behave and to rehabilitate criminals.

The key thing to note here is that we need to acknowledge that even if we don’t have libertarian free will, we still have a form of “free will” that matters (as philosophers like Daniel Dennett have said numerous times) whereby we have the ability to be programmed and reprogrammed in certain ways, thus allowing us to take responsibility for our actions and design ways to modify future actions as needed.  We have more degrees of freedom than a person who is insane for example, or a child, or a dog, and these degrees of freedom or autonomy — the flexibility we have in our decision-making algorithms — can be used as a rough guideline for determining how “morally responsible” a person is for their actions.  That is to say, the more easily a person can be conditioned out of a particular behavior, and the more rational decision making processes are involved in governing that behavior, the more “free will” this person has in a sense that applies to a criminal justice system and that applies to most of our everyday lives.

In the end, it doesn’t matter whether someone thinks that their behavior doesn’t matter because there’s no God, or because they have no libertarian free will.  What needs to be pointed out is the fact that we are able to behave in ways (or be conditioned to behave in ways) that lead to more happiness, more satisfaction and more fulfilling lives.  And we are able to behave in ways that detract from this goal.  So which behaviors should we aim for?  I think the answer is obvious.  And we also need to realize that as a part of our behavioral patterns, we need to realize that ideas have consequences on others and their subsequent behaviors.  So we need to be careful about what ideas we choose to spread and to make sure that they are put into a fuller context.  If a person hasn’t given some critical reflection about the consequences that may ensue from spreading their ideas to others, especially to others that may misunderstand it, then they need to keep those ideas to themselves until they’ve reflected on them more.  And this is something that I’ve discovered and applied for myself as well, as I was once far less careful about this than I am now.  In the next post, I’m going to talk about the concept of moral desert and how it pertains to free will.  This will be relevant to the scene described above regarding Ivan’s demonic apparition that haunts him as a result of his guilt over Smerdyakov’s murder of their father, as well as why the demonic apparition disappeared once Ivan heard that Smerdyakov had taken his own life.

On Moral Desert: Intuition vs Rationality

So what exactly is moral desert?  Well, in a nutshell, it is what someone deserves as a result of their actions as defined within the framework of some kind of moral theory.  Generally when people talk about moral desert, it’s often couched in terms of punishment and reward, and our intuitions (whether innate or culturally inherited) often produce strong feelings of knowing exactly what kinds of consequences people deserve in response to their actions.  But if we think about our ultimate goals in implementing any reasonable moral theory, we should quickly recognize the fact that our ultimate moral goal is to have ourselves and everybody else simply abide by that moral theory.  And we want that in order to guide our behavior and the behavior of those around us in ways that are conducive to our well being.  Ultimately, we want ourselves and others to act in ways that maximize our personal satisfaction — and not in a hedonistic sense — but rather to maximize our sense of contentment and living a fulfilled life.

If we think about scenarios that seem to merit punishment or reward, it would be useful to keep our ultimate moral goal in mind.  The reason I mention this is because, in particular, our feelings of resentment toward those that have wronged us can often lead one to advocate for an excessive amount of punishment to the wrongdoer.  Among other factors, vengeance and retribution often become incorporated into our intuitive sense of justice.  Many have argued that retribution itself (justifying “proportionate” punishment by appealing to concepts like moral desert and justice) isn’t a bad thing, even if vengeance — which lacks inherent limits on punishment, involves personal emotions from the victim, and other distinguishing factors — is in fact a bad thing.  While thinking about such a claim, I think it’s imperative that we analyze our reasons for punishing a wrongdoer in the first place and then analyze the concept of moral desert more closely.

Free Will & It’s Implications for Moral Desert

Free will is an extremely important concept to parse out here, because moral desert is most often intimately tied to the positive claim of our having free will.  That is to say, most concepts of moral desert, whereby it is believed that people deserve punishment and reward for actions that warrant it, fundamentally relies on the premise that people could have chosen to do otherwise but instead chose the path they did out of free choice.  While there are various versions of free will that philosophers have proposed, they all tend to revolve around some concept of autonomous agency.  The folk psychological conception of free will that most people subscribe to is some form of deliberation that is self-caused in some way thus ruling out randomness or indeterminism as the “cause”, since randomness can’t be authored by the autonomous agent, and also ruling out non-randomness or determinism as well, since an unbroken chain of antecedent causes can’t be authored by the autonomous agent either.

So as to avoid a long digression, I’m not going to expound upon all the details of free will and the various versions that others have proposed, but will only mention that the most relevant version that is tied to moral desert is generally some form of having the ability to have chosen to do otherwise (ignoring randomness).  Notice that because indeterminism or determinism is a logical dichotomy, these are the only two options that can possibly exist to describe the ontological underpinnings of our universe (in terms of causal laws that describe how the state of the universe changes over time).  Quantum mechanics allows either of these two options to exist given their consistency with the various interpretations therein that are all empirically identical with one another, but there is no third option available, so quantum mechanics doesn’t buy us any room for this kind of free will either.  Since neither option can produce any form of self-caused or causa sui free will (sometimes referred to as libertarian free will), then the intuitive concept of moral desert that relies on said free will is also rendered impossible if not altogether meaningless.  Therefore moral desert can only exist as a coherent concept if it no longer contains within it any assumptions of the moral agent having an ability to have chosen to do otherwise (again, ignoring randomness).  So what does this realization imply for our preconceptions of justified punishment or even justice itself?

At the very least, the concept of moral desert that is involved in these other concepts needs to be reformulated or restricted given the impossibility and thus the non-existence of libertarian free will.  So if we are to say that people “deserve” anything at all morally speaking (such as a particular punishment), it can only be justified let alone meaningful in some other sense, such as a consequentialist goal that the implementation of the “desert” (in this case, the punishment) effectively accomplishes.  Punishing the wrongdoer can no longer be a means of their getting their due so to speak, but rather needs to be justified by some other purpose such as rehabilitation, future crime deterrence, and/or restitution for the victim (to compensate for physical damages, property loss, etc.)  With respect to this latter factor, restitution, there is plenty of wiggle room here for some to argue for punishment on the grounds of it simply making the victim feel better (which I suppose we could call a form of psychological restitution).  People may try to justify some level of punishment based on making the victim feel better, but vengeance should be avoided at all costs, and one needs to carefully consider what justifications are sufficient (if any) for punishing another with the intention of simply making the victim feel better.

Regarding psychological restitution, it’s useful to bring up the aforementioned concepts of retribution and vengeance, and appreciate the fact that vengeance can easily result in cases where no disinterested party performs the punishment or decides its severity, and instead the victim (or another interested party) is involved with these decisions and processes.  Given the fact that we lack libertarian free will, we can also see how vengeance is not rationally justifiable and therefore why it is important that we take this into account not only in terms of society’s methods of criminal behavioral correction but also in terms of how we behave toward others that we think have committed some wrongdoing.

Deterrence & Fairness of Punishment

As for criminal deterrence, I was thinking about this concept the other day and thought about a possible conundrum concerning its justification (certain forms of deterrence anyway).  If a particular punishment is agreed upon within some legal system on the grounds that it will be sufficient to rehabilitate the criminal (and compensate the victim sufficiently) and an additional amount of punishment is tacked on to it merely to serve as a more effective deterrent, it seems that it would lack justification, with respect to treating the criminal in a fair manner.

To illustrate this, consider the following: if the criminal commits the crime, they are in one of two possible epistemic states — either they knew about the punishment that would follow from committing the crime beforehand, or they didn’t.  If they didn’t know this, then the deterrence addition of the punishment wouldn’t have had the opportunity to perform its intended function on the potential criminal, in which case the criminal would be given a harsher sentence than is necessary to rehabilitate them (and to compensate the victim) which should be the sole purpose of punishing them in the first place (to “right” a “wrong” and to minimize behavioral recurrences).  How could this be justified in terms of what is a fair and just treatment of the criminal?

And then, on the other hand, if they did know the degree of punishment that would follow committing such a crime, but they committed the crime anyway, then the deterrence addition of the punishment failed to perform its intended function even if it had the opportunity to do so.  This would mean that the criminal is once again, given a punishment that is harsher than what is needed to rehabilitate them (and also to compensate the victim).

Now one could argue in the latter case that there are other types of justification to ground the harsher deterrence addition of the punishment.  For example, one could argue that the criminal knew beforehand what the consequences would be, so they can’t plead ignorance as in the first example.  But even in the first example, it was the fact that the deterrence addition was never able to perform its function that turned out to be most relevant even if this directly resulted from the criminal lacking some amount of knowledge.  Likewise, in the second case, even with the knowledge at their disposal, the knowledge was useless in actualizing a functional deterrent.  Thus, in both cases the deterrent failed to perform its intended function, and once we acknowledge that, then we can see that the only purposes of punishment that remain are rehabilitation and compensation for the victim.  One could still try and argue that the criminal had a chance to be deterred, but freely chose to commit the crime anyway so they are in some way more deserving of the additional punishment.  But then again, we need to understand that the criminal doesn’t have libertarian free will so it’s not as if they could have done otherwise given those same conditions, barring any random fluctuations.  That doesn’t mean we don’t hold them responsible for their actions — for they are still being justifiably punished for their crime — but it is the degree of punishment that needs to be adjusted given our knowledge that they lack libertarian free will.

Now one could further object and say that the deterrence addition of the punishment isn’t intended solely for the criminal under our consideration but also for other possible future criminals that may be successfully deterred from the crime given such a deterrence addition (even if this criminal was not).  Regardless of this pragmatic justification, that argument still doesn’t justify punishing the criminal, in such a way, if we are to treat the criminal in a fair way based on their actions alone.  If we bring other possible future criminals into the justification, then the criminal is being punished not only for their wrongdoing but in excess for hypothetical reasons concerning other hypothetical offenders — which is not at all fair.  So we can grant the fact that some may justify these practices on pragmatic consequentialist grounds, but they aren’t consistent with a Rawslian conception of justice as fairness.  Which means they aren’t consistent with many anti-consequentialist views (such as Kantian deontologists for example) that often promote strong conceptions of justice and moral desert in their ethical frameworks.

Conclusion

In summary, I wanted to reiterate the fact that even if our intuitive conceptions of moral desert and justice sometimes align with our rational moral goals, they often lack rational justification and thus often serve to inhibit the implementation of any kind of rational moral theory.  They often produce behaviors that are vengeful, malicious, sadistic, and most often counter-productive to our actual moral goals.  We need to incorporate the fact that libertarian free will does not (and logically can not) exist, into our moral framework, so that we can better strive to treat others fairly even if we still hold people responsible in some sense for their actions.

We can still hold people responsible for their actions (and ought to) by replacing the concept of libertarian free will with a free will conception that is consistent with the laws of physics, with psychology, and neurology, by proposing for example that people’s degree of “free will” with respect to some action is inversely proportional to the degree of conditioning needed to modify such behavior.  That is to say, the level of free will that we have with respect to some kind of behavior is related to our ability to be programmed and reprogrammed such that the behavior can (at least in principle) be changed.

Our punishment-reward systems then (whether in legal, social, or familial domains), should treat others as responsible agents only insofar as to protect the members of that society (or group) from harm and also to induce behaviors that are conducive to our physical and psychological well being — which is the very purpose of our having any reasonable moral theory (that is sufficiently motivating to follow) in the first place.  Anything that goes above and beyond what is needed to accomplish this is excessive and therefore not morally justified.  Following this logic, we should see that many types of punishment including, for example, the death penalty, are entirely unjustified in terms of our moral goals and the strategies of punishment that we should implement to accomplish those goals.  As the saying goes, an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind, and thus barbaric practices such as inflicting pain or suffering (or death sentences) simply to satisfy some intuitions need to be abolished and replaced with an enlightened system that relies on rational justifications rather than intuition.  Only then can we put the primitive, inhumane moral systems of the past to rest once and for all.

We need to work with our psychology (not only the common trends between most human beings but also our individual idiosyncrasies) and thus work under the pretense of our varying degrees of autonomy and behavioral plasticity.  Only then can we maximize our chances and optimize our efforts in attaining fulfilling lives for as many people as possible living in a society.  It is our intuitions (products of evolution and culture) that we must be careful of, as they can (and often have throughout history) led us astray to commit various moral atrocities.  All we can do is try to overcome these moral handicaps the best we can through means of reason and rationality, but we have to acknowledge that these problems exist before we can face them head on and subsequently engineer the right kinds of societal changes to successfully reach our moral goals.

Neuroscience Arms Race & Our Changing World View

At least since the time of Hippocrates, people began to realize that the brain was the physical correlate of consciousness and thought.  Since then, the fields of psychology, neuroscience, and several inter-related fields have emerged.  There have been numerous advancements made within the field of neuroscience during the last decade or so, and in that same time frame there has also been an increased interest in the social, religious, philosophical, and moral implications that have precipitated from such a far-reaching field.  Certainly the medical knowledge we’ve obtained from the neurosciences has been the primary benefit of such research efforts, as we’ve learned quite a bit more about how the brain works, how it is structured, and the ongoing neuropathology that has led to improvements in diagnosing and treating various mental illnesses.  However, it is the other side of neuroscience that I’d like to focus on in this post — the paradigm shift relating to how we are starting to see the world around us (including ourselves), and how this is affecting our goals as well as how to achieve them.

Paradigm Shift of Our World View

Aside from the medical knowledge we are obtaining from the neurosciences, we are also gaining new perspectives on what exactly the “mind” is.  We’ve come a long way in demonstrating that “mental” or “mind” states are correlated with physical brain states, and there is an ever growing plethora of evidence which suggests that these mind states are in fact caused by these brain states.  It should come as no surprise then that all of our thoughts and behaviors are also caused by these physical brain states.  It is because of this scientific realization that society is currently undergoing an important paradigm shift in terms of our world view.

If all of our thoughts and behaviors are mediated by our physical brain states, then many everyday concepts such as thinking, learning, personality, and decision making can take on entirely new meanings.  To illustrate this point, I’d like to briefly mention the well known “nature vs. nurture” debate.  The current consensus among scientists is that people (i.e. their thoughts and behavior) are ultimately products of both their genes and their environment.

Genes & Environment

From a neuroscientific perspective, the genetic component is accounted for by noting that genes have been shown to play a very large role in directing the initial brain wiring schema of an individual during embryological development and through gestation.  During this time, the brain is developing very basic instinctual behavioral “programs” which are physically constituted by vastly complex neural networks, and the body’s developing sensory organs and systems are also connected to particular groups of these neural networks.  These complex neural networks, which have presumably been naturally selected for in order to benefit the survival of the individual, continue being constructed after gestation and throughout the entire ontogenic evolution of the individual (albeit to lesser degrees over time).

As for the environmental component, this can be further split into two parts: the internal and the external environment.  The internal environment within the brain itself, including various chemical concentration gradients partly mediated by random Brownian motion, provides some gene expression constraints as well as some additional guidance to work with the genetic instructions to help guide neuronal growth, migration, and connectivity.  The external environment, consisting of various sensory stimuli, seems to modify this neural construction by providing a form of inputs which may cause the constituent neurons within these neural networks to change their signal strength, change their action potential threshold, and/or modify their connections with particular neurons (among other possible changes).

Causal Constraints

This combination of genetic instructions and environmental interaction and input produces a conscious, thinking, and behaving being through a large number of ongoing and highly complex hardware changes.  It isn’t difficult to imagine why these insights from neuroscience might modify our conventional views of concepts such as thinking, learning, personality, and decision making.  Prior to these developments over the last few decades, the brain was largely seen as a sort of “black box”, with its internal milieu and functional properties remaining mysterious and inaccessible.  From that time and prior to it, for millennia, many people have assumed that our thoughts and behaviors were self-caused or causa sui.  That is, people believed that they themselves (i.e. some causally free “consciousness”, or “soul”, etc.) caused their own thoughts and behavior as opposed to those thoughts and behaviors being ultimately caused by physical processes (e.g. neuronal activity, chemical reactions, etc.).

Neuroscience (as well as biochemistry and its underlying physics) has shed a lot of light on this long-held assumption and, as it stands, the evidence has shown this prior assumption to be false.  The brain is ultimately controlled by the laws of physics since every chemical reaction and neural event that physically produces our thoughts, choices, and behaviors, have never been shown to be causally free from these physically guiding constraints.  I will mention that quantum uncertainty or quantum “randomness” (if ontologically random) does provide some possible freedom from physical determinism.  However, these findings from quantum physics do not provide any support for self-caused thoughts or behaviors.  Rather, it merely shows that those physically constrained thoughts and behaviors may never be completely predictable by physical laws no matter how much data is obtained.  In other words, our thoughts and behaviors are produced by highly predictable (although not necessarily completely predictable) physical laws and constraints as well as some possible random causal factors.

As a result of these physical causal constraints, the conventional perspective of an individual having classical free will has been shattered.  Our traditional views of human attributes including morality, choices, ideology, and even individualism are continuing to change markedly.  Not surprisingly, there are many people uncomfortable with these scientific discoveries including members of various religious and ideological groups that are largely based upon and thus depend on the very presupposition of precepts such as classical free will and moral responsibility.  The evidence that is compiling from the neurosciences is in fact showing that while people are causally responsible for their thoughts, choices, and behavior (i.e. an individual’s thoughts and subsequent behavior are constituents of a causal chain of events), they are not morally responsible in the sense that they can choose to think or behave any differently than they do, for their thoughts and behavior are ultimately governed by physically constrained neural processes.

New World View

Now I’d like to return to what I mentioned earlier and consider how these insights from neuroscience may be drastically modifying how we look at concepts such as thinking, learning, personality, and decision making.  If our brain is operating via these neural network dynamics, then conscious thought appears to be produced by a particular subset of these neural network configurations and processes.  So as we continue to learn how to more directly control or alter these neural network arrangements and processes (above and beyond simply applying electrical potentials to certain neural regions in order to bring memories or other forms of imagery into consciousness, as we’ve done in the past), we should be able to control thought generation from a more “bottom-up” approach.  Neuroscience is definitely heading in this direction, although there is a lot of work to be done before we have any considerable knowledge of and control over such processes.

Likewise, learning seems to consist of a certain type of neural network modification (involving memory), leading to changes in causal pattern recognition (among other things) which results in our ability to more easily achieve our goals over time.  We’ve typically thought of learning as the successful input, retention, and recall of new information, and we have been achieving this “learning” process through the input of environmental stimuli via our sensory organs and systems.  In the future, it may be possible to once again, as with the aforementioned bottom-up thought generation, physically modify our neural networks to directly implant memories and causal pattern recognition information in order to “learn” without any actual sensory input, and/or we may be able to eventually “upload” information in a way that bypasses the typical sensory pathways thus potentially allowing us to catalyze the learning process in unprecedented ways.

If we are one day able to more directly control the neural configurations and processes that lead to specific thoughts as well as learned information, then there is no reason that we won’t be able to modify our personalities, our decision-making abilities and “algorithms”, etc.  In a nutshell, we may be able to modify any aspect of “who” we are in extraordinary ways (whether this is a “good” or “bad” thing is another issue entirely).  As we come to learn more about the genetic components of these neural processes, we may also be able to use various genetic engineering techniques to assist with the necessary neural modifications required to achieve these goals.  The bottom line here is that people are products of their genes and environment, and by manipulating both of those causal constraints in more direct ways (e.g. through the use of neuroscientific techniques), we may be able to achieve previously unattainable abilities and perhaps in a relatively miniscule amount of time.  It goes without saying that these methods will also significantly affect our evolutionary course as a species, allowing us to enter new landscapes through our substantially enhanced ability to adapt.  This may be realized through these methods by finding ways to improve our intelligence, memory, or other cognitive faculties, effectively giving us the ability to engineer or re-engineer our brains as desired.

Neuroscience Arms Race

We can see that increasing our knowledge and capabilities within the neurosciences has the potential for drastic societal changes, some of which are already starting to be realized.  The impact that these fields will have on how we approach the problem of criminal, violent, or otherwise undesirable behavior can not be overstated.  Trying to correct these issues by focusing our efforts on the neural or cognitive substrate that underlie them, as opposed to using less direct and more external means (e.g. social engineering methods) that we’ve been using thus far, may lead to much less expensive solutions as well as solutions that may be realized much, much more quickly.

As with any scientific discovery or subsequent technology produced from it, neuroscience has the power to bestow on us both benefits as well as disadvantages.  I’m reminded of the ground-breaking efforts made within nuclear physics several decades ago, whereby physicists not only gained precious information about subatomic particles (and their binding energies) but also how to release these enormous amounts of energy from nuclear fusion and fission reactions.  It wasn’t long after these breakthrough discoveries were made before they were used by others to create the first atomic bombs.  Likewise, while our increasing knowledge within neuroscience has the power to help society improve by optimizing our brain function and behavior, it can also be used by various entities to manipulate the populace for unethical reasons.

For example, despite the large number of free market proponents who claim that the economy need not be regulated by anything other than rational consumers and their choices of goods and services, corporations have clearly increased their use of marketing strategies that take advantage of many humans’ irrational tendencies (whether it is “buy one get one free” offers, “sales” on items that have artificially raised prices, etc.).  Politicians and other leaders have been using similar tactics by taking advantage of voters’ emotional vulnerabilities on certain controversial issues that serve as nothing more than an ideological distraction in order to reduce or eliminate any awareness or rational analysis of the more pressing issues.

There are already research and development efforts being made by these various entities in order to take advantage of these findings within neuroscience such that they can have greater influence over people’s decisions (whether it relates to consumers’ purchases, votes, etc.).  To give an example of some of these R&D efforts, it is believed that MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) or fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) brain scans may eventually be able to show useful details about a person’s personality or their innate or conditioned tendencies (including compulsive or addictive tendencies, preferences for certain foods or behaviors, etc.).  This kind of capability (if realized) would allow marketers to maximize how many dollars they can squeeze out of each consumer by optimizing their choices of goods and services and how they are advertised. We have already seen how purchases made on the internet, if tracked, begin to personalize the advertisements that we see during our online experience (e.g. if you buy fishing gear online, you may subsequently notice more advertisements and pop-ups for fishing related goods and services).  If possible, the information found using these types of “brain probing” methods could be applied to other areas, including that of political decision making.

While these methods derived from the neurosciences may be beneficial in some cases, for instance, by allowing the consumer more automated access to products that they may need or want (which will likely be a selling point used by these corporations for obtaining consumer approval of such methods), it will also exacerbate unsustainable consumption and other personal or societally destructive tendencies and it is likely to continue to reduce (or eliminate) whatever rational decision making capabilities we still have left.

Final Thoughts

As we can see, neuroscience has the potential to (and is already starting to) completely change the way we look at the world.  Further advancements in these fields will likely redefine many of our goals as well as how to achieve them.  It may also allow us to solve many problems that we face as a species, far beyond simply curing mental illnesses or ailments.  The main question that comes to mind is:  Who will win the neuroscience arms race?  Will it be those humanitarians, scientists, and medical professionals that are striving to accumulate knowledge in order to help solve the problems of individuals and societies as well as to increase their quality of life?  Or will it be the entities that are trying to accumulate similar knowledge in order to take advantage of human weaknesses for the purposes of gaining wealth and power, thus exacerbating the problems we currently face?