Friday, April 25, 2008

My Wife the Philosopher

Another thought by my wife:
The theory of human determinism - plausibly, that human decisions are entirely shaped by heredity and environment - appears self-defeating in this sense: it lacks the force necessary to compel belief. An intellectual argument for determinism, by its very nature, will remain compellingly unconvincing. Insofar as the theory claims to be true, it is self-defeating in that the firm belief in the validity of the argument for determinism is itself determined. It is, it seems, difficult to be vindicated in believing one’s argument for determinism is true when the firm belief in the validity of the argument for determinism itself is supposedly determined by hereditary or environmental factors. One wonders, can a theory of determinism properly even claim to be true?

But the apparently self-defeating nature of a theory of determinism is not its most important weakness. Instead, the most compelling reason a theory of human determinism is inadequate is due to the violence it does to basic data of human experience. The phenomena of acts of love, regret, and questioning among countless other human acts (e.g., acceptance, courage, cowardice, doubt, faith, forgiveness, gratitude, hope, impiety, integrity, justice, loyalty, mercy, piety, remorse, repentance, responsibility, restraint, sin, tolerance, etc.), are foundational experiential data that any theory of determinism must radically reinterpret in favor of a theory-driven (as opposed to observation-driven) cheap plausibility. A theory of human determinism is not really a theory at all; rather, it is something more akin to blind ideology.

One’s prior commitment to a theory can never serve as the starting point for an explanation of an encounter with some datum of experience. A person must look to the datum itself that one wants to investigate; only after the datum has been understood with its own characteristic features and in a way not failing to do justice to the experience, can one then seek to relate it in some grander theory.

Consider an act of love. What is presupposed if love is to have real meaning? In the experience of an act of love itself, certain things outside the experience are presupposed as real in order to make the experience meaningful. One such thing is freedom. Love presupposes freedom. Insofar as one asserts that an act of love is determined by hereditary or environmental factors, however, the intrinsic meaningfulness of the act is destroyed. What would be an act of love where the act was determined and not a free gift of self? What would this mean? The very architecture of the term – much less the act – loses its meaning when this essential presupposition is denied; but this is what determinism does. Love without freedom is no longer love. Now, a determinist might respond that this is fine. Love as we believe we experience it – as a free act – is just an illusion, the evidence to the contrary. What we call love is something other than what we experience it to be. But why should we accept this? Why should we alter the presentation of the evidence of our experience? Our experience of the datum of an act of love is the regulating moment, not one’s prior commitment to a theory that must do violence to our experience in order to justify itself. This latter approach is ideology, not science. It is to construct reality, not to be receptive to it.

Similarly with regret: what is the meaning of an act of regret, what is an experience of regret – which is always essentially temporally ordered to some event in the past – in which the event for which we experience the regret (that to which our regret is ordered) could not have been otherwise? If the past event is determined in such a way that one’s power to have influenced the outcome of the event is removed, then in what sense can one regret one’s own action in the event? It is important here not to conflate regret with guilt. One can indeed feel guilt regarding one’s participation in the determined event. One could even admit that the guilt-feeling itself could be determined. But we must distinguish between a guilt-feeling and being guilty; to feel guilty is not synonymous with being guilty. This can be seen in the case with the criminal who does not feel guilt for his past act, but nevertheless a judge and jury rightly convict him for his crime; his being guilty is different in real meaning from his feeling guilty. This realization illumines something important about regret too. We usually consider that apologizing corresponds to feeling regret for something for which one is responsible. Now, the determinist may claim that feeling regret can be determined. But once again he does violence to the relevant datum of experience. When we experience regret we just do experience it as regarding something that could have been otherwise by our own power. The determinist must deny this possibility and must instead seek to redefine this regret as an illusion. Once again we see the determinist allowing his theory to alter the data to save his theory.

Consider that even in asking a question is freedom presupposed. The very act of genuinely asking a question presupposes a certain freedom; a questioner assumes the ability of the one questioned to carefully consider which of some alternatives is the case. But this ability to carefully consider, the ability to deliberate, itself suggests the real power to perform an action according to one’s choice – in the immediate case, to choose between alternative answers. What is this power if it is not somehow what we call the freedom associated with the will (this is not to suggest that the exercise of free will is limited to the exercise of choice)?

Might it be that our experiences of the acts that strictly presuppose freedom, and our experience of freedom itself, simply outweigh any claim for determinism? Could we not, in this light, suggest that perhaps the only real reason for doubting so fundamental a conviction as the reality of the freedom of the will is merely that it seems incompatible with determinism, a theory that alters the data of human experience to better comport with itself?
Umm, wow.

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