Thursday, 9 January 2020

When Religion Makes Grief More Difficult

I've just read the following article:

When Religion Makes Grief More Difficult.

It says:
Most Americans grew up with a Sunday school image of God as a protector/punisher, and go through their lives without ever questioning that image. For some, a profound loss or trauma can inspire deeper exploration, but for those don’t – or won’t — question their faith, trying to make that image fit with actual human experience is like trying to put a square peg into a round hole.The square peg is a belief in divine reward and punishment. The round hole is the way life actually works. By the time most of us are young adults we have observed that the good are not necessarily rewarded and the bad are not necessarily punished. Real human experience proves that it just doesn’t work that way.

People have a propensity to subscribe to extreme positions.  Further, others tend to assume if you disagree with their position then you must subscribe to the precise opposite e.g. you disapprove that the bottom 80% of people in the USA only have 11% of all wealth?  Then you must be a communist who is in favour that everyone has precisely the same wealth!  And of course the same applies to concepts of God and an afterlife.  You don't subscribe to the notion that the Universe and our lives are pure happenstance, that we are merely sophisticated biological robots with no free will whose lives have no ultimate purpose?  Then you must believe in a personal God as a protector and punisher; that if you are good you will go to Heaven, if you are bad you will go to Hell.

Personally my beliefs are more along the lines that reality as a whole is somehow infused with awareness, and indeed a manifestation of awareness. And all things, all events, everything that has been, everything that will be, is infused with ultimate meaning. A meaning that eludes us in our daily day to day existence, but whose existence might be very briefly glimpsed with peak experiences and mystical experiences.  But this awareness underlying reality, or all pervading spiritual presence, is not some personal being that watches over us and requires us to worship it.

I don't want to argue about the issue of an appropriate "God" though.  The point I'm making is that people should think more about what they believe, and avoid believing something simply because most others in your camp believe it. 
We need to adopt more nuanced positions. 

Tuesday, 7 January 2020

Reasons not to scoff at ghosts, visions and near-death experiences

The following article is not my own. The author is Andreas Sommer who is a German-born historian of science and magic who runs the Forbidden Histories website. The original article can be found here.


‘If the fruits for life of the state of conversion are good, we ought to idealise and venerate it, even though it be a piece of natural psychology; if not, we ought to make short work with it, no matter what supernatural being may have infused it.’
From The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902) by William James
There is a long tradition of scientists and other intellectuals in the West being casually dismissive of people’s spiritual experiences. In 1766, the German philosopher Immanuel Kant declared that people who claim to see spirits, such as his contemporary, the Swedish scientist Emanuel Swedenborg, are mad. Kant, a believer in the immortality of the soul, did not draw on empirical or medical knowledge to make his case, and was not beyond employing a fart joke to get his derision across: ‘If a hypochondriac wind romps in the intestines it depends on the direction it takes; if it descends it becomes a f–––, if it ascends it becomes an apparition or sacred inspiration.’ Another ‘enlightened’ enemy of other-worldly visions was the chemist and devout Christian, Joseph Priestley. His own critique of spirit seership in 1791 did not advance scientific arguments either, but presented biblical ‘proof’ that the only legitimate afterlife was the bodily resurrection of the dead on Judgment Day.

However, there is good cause to question the overzealous pathologisation of spiritual sightings and ghostly visions. About a century after Kant and Priestley scoffed at such experiences, William James, the ‘father’ of American scientific psychology, participated in research on the first international census of hallucinations in ‘healthy’ people. The census was carried out in 1889-97 on behalf of the International Congress of Experimental Psychology, and drew on a sample of 17,000 men and women. This survey showed that hallucinations – including ghostly visions – were remarkably widespread, thus severely undermining contemporary medical views of their inherent pathology. But the project was unorthodox in yet another respect because it scrutinised claims of ‘veridical’ impressions – that is, cases where people reported seeing an apparition of a loved one suffering an accident or other crisis, which they had in fact undergone, but which the hallucinator couldn’t have known about through ‘normal’ means. The vicinity of such positive findings with ‘ghost stories’ was reason enough for most intellectuals not to touch the census report with a bargepole, and the pathological interpretation of hallucinations and visions continued to prevail until the late-20th century.

Things slowly began to change in about 1971, when the British Medical Journal published a study on ‘the hallucinations of widowhood’ by the Welsh physician W Dewi Rees. Of the 293 bereaved women and men in Rees’s sample, 46.7 per cent reported encounters with their deceased spouses. Most important, 69 per cent perceived these encounters as helpful, whereas only 6 per cent found them unsettling. Many of these experiences, which ranged from a sense of presence, to tactile, auditory and visual impressions indistinguishable from interactions with living persons, continued over years. Rees’s paper inspired a trickle of fresh studies that confirmed his initial findings – these ‘hallucinations’ don’t seem inherently pathological nor therapeutically undesirable. On the contrary, whatever their ultimate causes, they often appear to provide the bereaved with much-needed strength to carry on.

Rees’s study coincided with writings by a pioneer of the modern hospice movement, the Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, in which she emphasised the prevalence of comforting other-worldly visions reported by dying patients – an observation supported by later researchers. Indeed, a 2010 study in the Archives of Gerontology and Geriatrics addressed the need for special training for medical personnel regarding these experiences, and in recent years the academic literature on end-of-life care has recurrently examined the constructive functions of death-bed visions in helping the dying come to terms with impending death.

Kübler-Ross was also among the first psychiatrists to write about ‘near-death experiences’ (NDEs) reported by survivors of cardiac arrests and other close brushes with death. Certain elements have pervaded popular culture – impressions of leaving one’s body, passing through a tunnel or barrier, encounters with deceased loved ones, a light representing unconditional acceptance, insights of the interconnectedness of all living beings, and so on. Once you ignore the latest clickbait claiming that scientists studying NDEs have either ‘proven’ life after death or debunked the afterlife by reducing them to brain chemistry, you start to realise that there’s a considerable amount of rigorous research published in mainstream medical journals, whose consensus is in line with neither of these popular polarisations, but which shows the psychological import of the experiences.

For instance, although no two NDEs are identical, they usually have in common that they cause lasting and often dramatic personality changes. Regardless of the survivors’ pre-existing spiritual inclinations, they usually form the conviction that death is not the end. Understandably, this finding alone makes a lot of people rather nervous, as one might fear threats to the secular character of science, or even an abuse of NDE research in the service of fire-and-brimstone evangelism. But the specialist literature provides little justification for such worries. Other attested after-effects of NDEs include dramatic increases in empathy, altruism and environmental responsibility, as well as strongly reduced competitiveness and consumerism.

Virtually all elements of NDEs can also occur in psychedelic ‘mystical’ experiences induced by substances such as psilocybin and DMT. Trials at institutions such as Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and Imperial College London have revealed that these experiences can occasion similar personality changes as NDEs, most notably a loss of fear of death and a newfound purpose in life. Psychedelic therapies are now becoming a serious contender in the treatment of severe conditions including addictions, post-traumatic stress disorder and treatment-resistant depressions.

This brings us back to James, whose arguments in The Varieties of Religious Experience for the pragmatic clinical and social value of such transformative episodes have been mostly ignored by the scientific and medical mainstream. If there really are concrete benefits of personality changes following ‘mystical’ experiences, this might justify a question that’s not usually raised: could it be harmful to follow blindly the standard narrative of Western modernity, according to which ‘materialism’ is not only the default metaphysics of science, but an obligatory philosophy of life demanded by centuries of supposedly linear progress based on allegedly impartial research?

Sure, the dangers of gullibility are evident enough in the tragedies caused by religious fanatics, medical quacks and ruthless politicians. And, granted, spiritual worldviews are not good for everybody. Faith in the ultimate benevolence of the cosmos will strike many as hopelessly irrational. Yet, a century on from James’s pragmatic philosophy and psychology of transformative experiences, it might be time to restore a balanced perspective, to acknowledge the damage that has been caused by stigma, misdiagnoses and mis- or overmedication of individuals reporting ‘weird’ experiences. One can be personally skeptical of the ultimate validity of mystical beliefs and leave properly theological questions strictly aside, yet still investigate the salutary and prophylactic potential of these phenomena.

By making this quasi-clinical proposal, I’m aware that I could be overstepping my boundaries as a historian of Western science studying the means by which transcendental positions have been rendered inherently ‘unscientific’ over time. However, questions of belief versus evidence are not the exclusive domain of scientific and historical research. In fact, orthodoxy is often crystallised collective bias starting on a subjective level, which, as James himself urged, is ‘a weakness of our nature from which we must free ourselves, if we can’. No matter if we are committed to scientific orthodoxy or to an open-minded perspective on ghostly visions and other unusual subjective experiences, both will require cultivating a relentless scrutiny of the concrete sources that nourish our most fundamental convictions – including the religious and scientific authorities on which they rest perhaps a little too willingly.Aeon counter – do not remove

Andreas Sommer

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

Friday, 13 December 2019

If my Essence is an Enduring Self

Throughout our lives, our interests, demeanour, and intelligence and so on will gradually change. Just contrast ourselves as we are now to when we were children.  And even on a day to day basis, and perhaps even from one hour to the next, our moods will change. But, despite this, speaking for myself I cannot help thinking of myself as an enduring being. That is to say, I cannot help thinking that I am the very same person that has undergone all these changes. If I am in a despondent mood, but then hear some good news and my mood consequently undergoes a vast improvement, it seems to me that I am the very same self that experiences these differing moods.

If this is correct than I am not to be equated with these various differing moods, thoughts, or other psychological states. Rather I am a self that underlies and undergoes these differing psychological states. That is to say, I am not the mere sum of various experiences, I am the author or experiencer of all these various experiences. My psychological states constantly change, but I remain the very same self throughout these differing psychological states.

This even extends back to when I was a child.  Despite the fact that as a child I had differing pre-occupations, interests, intelligence and so on compared to now, I still feel I am that very same self.

I suggest that this is simply the commonsensical conception of the self. After all, we don't assume we cease to exist after drinking a few beers due to the consequent change in our emotions and cognitive abilities, only for our selves to return when we become sober.

It may seem here I am belabouring the obvious.  But, in fact, most philosophers and scientists, since they are materialists, do not believe in such an unchanging self.  They do not deny that we have a sense of self and a sense that our selves are enduring.  But, they think that this is simply an illusion.  They believe that a person's "self"  is cashed out entirely by their psychological states.  And since our psychological states constantly change, we must quite literally not survive from one mood to the next, or indeed, strictly speaking, not even survive from one second to the next (see an essay by me here where I attempt to demonstrate materialists are obliged to deny the existence of an enduring/persisting self).

Is such an enduring self consistent with the notion that the brain somehow produces this self? Consider that my brain changes all the time. My psychological states also change all the time. So perhaps we might suppose my brain creates my psychological states. But if my self underlying these psychological states remains unaltered i.e I am the very same self despite my thoughts, emotions etc all changing, can the brain still create such a self?

I do think there is a difficulty here.  Yet I'm sure that the vast majority of subscribe to such an enduring self, yet also think it's commonsensical to suppose we simply cease to exist when we die.  Are they being consistent though?

Edited to add:  I was doing a search on the net on this issue, and I note that Bernardo Kastrup has penned some similar thoughts in the following article:

Conquering the fear of oblivion

Sunday, 3 November 2019

A Causal Consciousness, Free Will, and Dualism

Consciousness is necessarily causally efficacious

It is widely believed by scientists and philosophers, and even the scientifically educated public, that all change in the world is wholly a result of unbroken chains of physical causes and effects. Voluntary behaviour will constitute no exception. More importantly, even the direction our thoughts take will also constitute no exception. But, at least in regards to our thoughts, this does not seem to me to be tenable. Let's see why.

If the scientists and philosophers are correct the direction in which our thoughts develop are not influenced by our consciousness, for they are purely a result of chains of physical causes and effects; presumably the underlying neuronal activity.  Consider, though, that one knows in the most immediate manner possible that oneself is conscious. This awareness, moreover, is not an instantaneous thing, it must be smudged out in time. Hence, one might entertain the thought, 'yes, I know for certain I myself am conscious', even if not expressed explicitly in words. Could this thought, this realisation, be purely due to chains of physical causes and effects without one's actual consciousness playing any role in the fruition of this thought? No, because this certainty, this thought, is clearly due to one's immediate and direct apprehension of one's own consciousness. In other words, it is simply incoherent to suppose one could be certain of one's own consciousness through physical chains of causes and effects alone.  At least in this instance, consciousness is an indispensable ingredient and cannot be causally irrelevant. 

But, once we have understood and agreed with this, the thesis that only physical causation applies in the direction of our thoughts, unravels.  We know that it is false.  For it is scarcely likely that consciousness plays a role in this one thought -- 'yes, I know for certain I myself am conscious' -- but purely chains of physical causes and effects are wholly responsible for all our other thoughts.  It is surely reasonable to infer consciousness is an essential ingredient in the direction of all our thoughts. 

What, though, if I speak out the words, 'yes, I know I am conscious'? Here, unlike my thoughts, I cannot have certainty. Perhaps my thoughts do not cause the verbal expression of such thoughts. That it is just a wholly unrelated fact that everything I think and mentally choose is reflected in the verbal and physical expression of such thoughts and choices. In other words, that I find myself in this body that, contrary to what it seems, I have no control over whatsoever, but nevertheless behaves exactly as if it does! Apart from the outlandish nature of this suggestion, we need to remember that unbroken chains of physical causes and effects were supposed to be universal. If my thoughts are not subject to such unbroken chains of physical causes, then presumably what those thoughts appear to directly cause -- namely the neural correlates and behavioural manifestation of such thoughts -- will also not be so subject.

The causal efficacy of consciousness is not compatible with materialism

The reductive materialist might claim there is no incompatibility between a causally efficacious consciousness on the one hand, and on the other, that all change is the world is characterised by unbroken chains of physical causes and effects. He justifies this by maintaining that conscious experiences, such as our reasoning processes, are literally identical to physical processes in the brain. If a train of thought is literally identical to some physical processes, and these physical processes have causal powers, then it necessarily follows that the train of thought has causal powers too.

So, he will claim that my argument is question-begging since I am assuming at the outset a position called dualism. Dualism is the idea that consciousness is not the same thing as a material process, even though it still might be created by such material processes.  Interactive dualism, in addition, holds that the body affects consciousness with consciousness, in its turn, affecting the body. It's the commonsensical position that we all tend to instinctively believe (even materialists tend to admit we are all instinctively interactive dualists). So, what if reductive materialism is correct. Does my argument still apply?

I have argued in various places elsewhere e.g. here, that I do not regard reductive materialism as being tenable. But, even if it were tenable, reductive materialism cannot circumvent my argument. Let's now see why.

Let's suppose that when we reason something through and reach a sound conclusion, we have the following mental chain:

i) a → b → c → d → e

And, simultaneously, we have the following correlated physical chain in the brain:

ii) A → B → C → D → E

The materialist claims that “a” is identical to “A”, “b” is identical to “B” etc. But, nevertheless, we have two different accounts of how a/A progresses to e/E. In "i", we have a train of reasoning which, when we attain an understanding of something, will have involved rational connections between thoughts. In "ii", we have a chain of physical causes and effects in the form of interactions of physical particles that can be mathematically described by the laws of physics. If any type of materialism is true, then everything has the ability to be explained in terms of the physical as exemplified in account "ii". Account "i" is simply not required since physical laws, which describe physical processes, make no reference to reasoning, nor indeed do they make any reference to intentions, desires, plans, or any other aspect of consciousness. But, it then follows that reasoning something through is causally irrelevant. Hence, identifying reasoning and the rest of our mental life with physical processes doesn't allow us to escape from the conclusion that our consciousness is causally irrelevant. However, as I’ve already explained, this is surely rendered false if we are not to undermine the complete certainty in the existence of our own consciousness.

As an aside, this constitutes an additional reason why reductive materialism could not be correct. Reductive materialism, by definition, only allows physical causation, therefore consciousness, in and of itself, cannot make a difference. But, if the above argument is sound, it must do so.

Various Objections

I do not believe my argument can be circumvented. But, for the sake of completeness, I shall now look at four of the commonest objections that have been advanced against interactive dualism.  That is to say, that have been advanced against the notion that consciousness in and of itself could be causally efficacious.

1. Conservation of Energy

People often assert that if consciousness causally influences the underlying neural activity, then the principle of conservation of energy must be violated. Imagine a billiard ball that starts rolling on its own accord without anything, such as another ball, impacting upon it. Then, if the rest of the world is unchanged, we would have an overall increase in energy that will equal the kinetic energy of the moving ball. Similarly, it is maintained that for consciousness to initiate any material processes instead of any antecedent physical causes, the total energy of the system will be increased. In both cases, conservation of energy is violated.

We need to take a step back here and remind ourselves that current science wholly leaves out consciousness in its description of reality (see a blog post by me). I think, though, that this will eventually be remedied and a theory will be dreamt up that will reveal consciousness to be non-reducible. However, this will be a radical break from existing theories since we are admitting into the domain of science that which is very different from the structure and function that it currently describes and investigates.

The important point is this: any such theory will have consciousness having an impact on the world. Will such a theory, therefore, entail an ever spiralling increase in total energy? Let's consider what is being said here. Essentially, they're saying, we have no idea how consciousness exists and what possible theory will accommodate it, but whatever that theory might transpire to be, a causally efficacious consciousness will result in an increase in the total amount of energy in the world. But, since we have no idea what form such a theory will take, how on earth can they know this? Why on earth can consciousness not use up energy that is matched by a corresponding depletion of energy elsewhere? I submit no-one is in any position to claim that this cannot happen. Certainly, at the very least, they must provide a justification for their allegation rather than simply stating it.

2. How can the immaterial impact on the material?

A related objection is that an immaterial consciousness is wholly different from the physical realm, so how could consciousness affect the physical, or indeed vice versa? I think the idea here relates to the fact that consciousness has no location, no mass, no physical properties whatsoever. So, how could it affect that which does have a location, a mass and other various physical properties? Underpinning this is the notion that all influences must be physical chains of contiguous causes and effects. So, how can consciousness, which has no location, no mass and so on, possibly influence the physical realm?

I suggest that the people who voice this objection have a certain view of reality where only certain types of regularity are permitted; namely a mechanistic view of reality where all changes are captured by such contiguous physical chains of causes and effects. Essentially, they hold the view that A influences B because there is some innate power in the world that travels from A to B and necessitates change in B.

But, why must reality be limited to such regularities? Why must causes be contiguous? What permits us to a priori rule out a reality that admits influences from consciousness, or indeed even mystical principles, or magic and so on? Note that in saying causes may not need to be contiguous, we are not contradicting any physical laws. Rather, we are contradicting the mechanistic view of reality, which at best is a presupposition of science, or at least it was a presupposition of science back in the 17th and 18th Centuries. Physics simply tries to model reality based on observations in the past to predict events in the future. We call these regularities physical laws. I do not believe we can impose a priori constraints on the patterns we find there, that is we cannot say reality must conform to contiguous causes. Empirical investigation should guide our beliefs rather than a priori presuppositions. Should we dismiss the phenomenon of entanglement because it contravenes such assumptions? And, if we don't, then the alleged universality of contiguous physical causes and effects is refuted. Where one exception is found, we can surely not be surprised if we find others. For an elaboration on this topic, I recommend people read this blog post by myself.

3. No influences apart from physical processes have ever been detected

It is often claimed that only material influences in the brain have ever been experimentally detected. The implication here if there were any influence from a non-material consciousness, then it would have been experimentally detected by now.

We need to bear in mind here that neuroscientists are almost exclusively materialists, and certainly, they will assume that only physical causation is at work in the brain. But, that strongly suggests that any influence from consciousness is simply not being looked for at all. Any firing of neurons will simply be taken for granted to have been caused by prior physical events. We also need to bear in mind that any influence from consciousness might well be minute since very small changes can cascade to larger and larger effects. In which case, even if they were looking, our functional MRI's lack the resolution to make any assertions in this regard.

4. Experiments by Libet et al

Experiments by the neurologist Benjamin Libet and others appear to imply that our conscious decisions do not cause our voluntary acts, rather it is the state of the brain immediately prior to the conscious decision that is the real and sole cause of our behaviour. Here is a youtube video briefly outlining Libet's experiment.

So, the experiments seem to suggest that instead of my thought, my decision, flexing my wrist, it was prior activity in my brain. In the original experiment, this prior activity occurred around a third of a second before the conscious decision. Libet himself thought that a role for the will was still present in the form of the veto, or what has been termed "free won't". This veto refers to the fact that even after the initiation of this brain activity, we still have the power to stop ourselves from flexing our wrist. Moreover, this veto is not likewise initiated by its own prior brain activity, hence seemingly representing a genuine power of consciousness.

There have been many objections made against Libet's experiment. I won't go into them here since, recently, there's been news of a claim that we have been mistaken in our interpretation of the significance of this prior brain activity. Go here. It seems, in a nutshell, that the prior brain activity held to cause the decision is largely an artefact of the methods used to analyse the data.

Free Will and Determinism

Having now established at the very least a limited role for the causal efficacy of consciousness per se, and, in addition, seen that the various objections to an immaterial causal consciousness have no bite, can we conclude that we have "free will"? One might think obviously yes, indeed I would count myself as one of them. However, it is frequently claimed that free will involves more than a causally efficacious consciousness. Why is this, and is this claim justified?

Consider the claim that our behaviour is purely the inevitable result of chains of causes and effects stretching back to the distant past. Such a thesis is referred to as causal determinism. Typically, these chains are regarded as physical chains. However, since I have concluded that consciousness plays at least some role, then this is untenable. But, what about mental chains of causes and effects, or a combination of physical and mental chains? Perhaps one's psychological state at any given moment compels all future psychological states? In which case, at least in principle, our behaviour will be just as predictable as that which pertains within the physical realm.

In fact, a great deal of our behaviour does appear to be predictable. For example, the vast majority of us, on spotting a wad of £20 notes on the ground, would stoop down, pick the notes up, and stuff them in our pocket. If someone is parched and water is available, then it is pretty predictable they will have a drink. It is predictable that I will argue against materialism, and not for it. More generally, the more we get to know a person, the more we will be able to predict his behaviour or the views he will express. Does the predictability of our behaviour entail we lack free will?

We need to be leery here of a logical fallacy called affirming the consequent. To give an example:

1. If the lamp is broken the room would be dark.
2. The room is dark.
3. Therefore the lamp is broken.

This is invalid. For example, the lamp might be switched off. Likewise, from the fact that physical processes, which lack free will, are predictable, we cannot definitively conclude that our behaviour, although also often predictable, also lacks free will. Further information is required: namely, whether the predictability of our behaviour is derived from the same type of causes that are responsible for the predictability found in the physical realm.

To cast some light on this question, let's consider the behaviour of objects as described by physical laws. They are typically regarded as being constrained to behave the way they do. In other words, they couldn't possibly behave otherwise than what they do. For example, if the Earth were to suddenly stop in its path around the Sun and start jigging up and down, this would be regarded as miraculous. It's not just the case that it would never happen, rather it seems it could never happen.

Does the same apply to our apparently freely chosen behaviour? Consider the case of ignoring the wad of £20 notes on the ground and simply walking on by. Unless one is rich, it would be irrational to do this and it would never happen, not even if we reran the Universe countless times. But, could it happen?

I think people are often confused here in that they conflate would never with could never. Simply because people may inevitably choose a certain action -- for example to quench their thirst if they are parched -- this does not mean that they could not do otherwise. There is nothing external to consciousness that compels people to pick up that glass of water. Rather the individual decides to do so. But at least he has the capacity to not pick up the glass, even though inevitably he will pick it up.

Further, the idea of a mental chain of cause and effect wholly accounting for the procession of our thoughts and decisions is suspect in any case. It is implied that such a chain will be similar to a physical causal chain, such as exemplified by a chain of dominoes falling on each other. However, in a so-called "mental chain", although the prior links in the chain play some role in one’s current mental state, that doesn’t seem to me to be the full story. Consider when we think something through. The path our thoughts follow in our chain of thought is not just dictated by previous links, that is it’s not just dictated by something already understood. It is also affected and guided by a contemporaneous unfolding understanding derived from our non-material selves.

In addition, we should also bear in mind that physical chains of causes and effects presuppose that there exist genuine impersonal forces in nature. Perhaps, though, something like gravitational force and the other 3 forces, simply do not exist any more than centrifugal force does (physicists do not consider centrifugal force to be a real force). I address this issue here. If indeed there are no impersonal forces that compel reality to behave as it does, then it may be that there is no explanation why reality exhibits the patterns it does – it is just a brute fact. The pertinent point here is that if we do not even know that the physical realm is constrained to behave the way it does, we can infer nothing about any alleged constraints on free will.

So, I conclude we have compelling reasons to suppose that the predictability of our behaviour stems from a differing ultimate cause to that within the physical realm. Hence, this causal determinism argument gives us no reason to doubt our free will.

Free will and not wanting what we want

There are those who have argued that one's desires or interests themselves are not amenable to one's control. In short, I cannot want what I want. For example, I am interested in various philosophical issues. But, I have very little interest in celebrities. I cannot instead choose to be interested in celebrities and uninterested in philosophy.

At least as an objection to the whole concept of free will, I regard this argument to be preposterous. If I could so choose to be interested in celebrities and not in philosophy, then I would be changing my essence, what I essentially am. It is no restriction on free will if it results in my self changing. In response, the free will detractor might then argue that one did not choose to be the self or essence one is. However, this seems to implicitly suppose we are purely material beings that came into being sometime between conception and birth, both of which I have argued against and do not accept. If my essence is non-material, then I am not a result of the accidental collocation of impersonal forces. Rather, I am self-defined, so to speak.

Nevertheless, this “not wanting what we want” argument does at least have a degree of merit. For it seems we could have more control over our wants and desires without it apparently impacting on our essence. For example, surely our free will would be enhanced if one could choose not to feel anger under certain circumstances? Or, if one could choose not to be addicted to unhealthy foods? These and countless other examples point to the fact that our free will is more restricted then we would ideally like it to be. But it does nothing to establish the notion that we wholly lack free will.


I do not believe my argument for the causal efficaciousness per se of consciousness can be circumvented. Nevertheless, for the sake of completeness, I also considered the various arguments that have been advanced that contend our consciousness, at least if considered to be distinct from its underlying neural activity, cannot be causally efficacious. I do not believe they pass muster. Indeed, the first two arguments -- namely, the alleged violation of the conservation of energy and the impossibility of the immaterial affecting the material -- appear to be ill-thought-out, to say the least. So, we have good reason to suppose our consciousnesses are causally efficacious per se, and no reason, so far as I can see, to doubt such a conclusion.

Of course, such a causally efficacious consciousness does not manifest itself constantly. Much of our behaviour is on what might be labelled auto-pilot. When we're walking somewhere, we're not consciously thinking about putting one foot in front of the other. When playing tennis we do not consciously think of the type of stroke to return. But, we do decide to walk to a particular destination, and we do decide to play a game of tennis. And this is what is important. For it is scarcely any threat to our autonomy that we are not subject to the necessity of having to think of every step we take and every tennis stroke we make.

Finally, what about free will? Does a causally efficacious consciousness constitute free will? It is my consciousness and not any prior physical activity in the world that makes choices. But, of course, our behaviour is nevertheless often perfectly predictable. However, I have argued that this doesn't impact on our free will. I conclude that under any reasonable conception of free will that we have it.

Wednesday, 23 October 2019

Perceptual illusions show our minds construct reality


This is Richard Wiseman. He's a skeptic of the paranormal. I think he's especially fond of perceptual illusions as they show how easily people are fooled. The message he's essentially trying to convey is: 'you think you've seen something weird? Look at how easily we're fooled!'

Perhaps so.  But I think it also shows that we might sometimes be unable to see the unusual and anomalous in our visual fields.  Allow me to explain.

We don't just passively see what's out there. All the light that enters our eyes simply gives us a flat 2 dimensional plane of various shades of colour. However, we seem to immediately see a 3D world with objects at various distances. How so?

The answer is that it's derived from our familiarity with the world. In our experience of reality, familiar objects have certain sizes and a certain appearance. The mind uses this background experience to quite literally construct what we see out there. So, even though only a 2 dimensional plane of colour is actually immediately given, we seem to see directly a world in 3D -- a world populated with familiar objects at various distances.

To reiterate, this construction crucially depends on what we're used to seeing. Hence, when we introduce an anomalous object such as an unusually large-sized drinking glass, our minds will be wanting to see it as a normal-sized glass. So, they will be a propensity to see the glass closer and smaller than it really is. However, other cues in the environment normally alert us that what we are seeing is an anomalously large version of a familiar object. But here, in this gif, those other cues are absent, so we naturally see it as a normal-sized glass that is closer than it actually is.

But, what's interesting is that if we were to see something unfamiliar to us, something we've never seen before, there will be a propensity to see it as something more familiar. The upshot of all this is that there might be more unusual and anomalous phenomena out there than we suppose, but we just can't see it.

I suspect it might also have implications for what we appear to see during something like a near-death experience. If our vision in an afterlife realm works anything like normal vision, then our minds with their implicit expectations will shape and mould what we actually perceive.

A similar post by me written a few years ago: 
Are Perceptual illusions always necessarily illusions?

Friday, 18 October 2019

Reminiscing about Old Photographs

            Photo is of Ironmongers in Maidenhead in 1900

It is a sobering thought to reflect that in 200 years’ time, in 2219, we will all have been long dead. No-one alive at this future time will remember us. For the vast majority of us nothing we write is likely to have survived. It'll be as if we had never existed. Indeed, time eventually renders us all anonymous.

But, what if a photograph of us still existed? Even if people 200 years hence don’t know our name or who we were, they might reminisce and wonder what we were thinking when the photograph was taken, what our life was like, what it was like to live in the early 21st Century.

Likewise, when we look at old photographs, say from the late 19th or early 20th Centuries, we too may connect to the past. It may initiate an emotional response in us, a whimsical reflection in what it was like to live in those times, how they viewed the world, their preoccupations, what their day to day lives were like.

Perhaps they were worried about their jobs and how to get promoted; perhaps they worried about making ends meet; perhaps they worried about their relationships with spouses, girlfriends, boyfriends, or work colleagues. All the everyday concerns that people have, which, when viewed from our perspective 100 years hence, seem no longer important. We are looking at a world that has now disappeared, we are looking at people together with all their preoccupations and everyday concerns, which no longer exist.

What were they feeling when their photograph was taken? Photographs taken back then will have been very few and far between, so they will have been aware their photographs might attract some attention. Perhaps it is even possible for one or two of them to have speculated that people in the future -- perhaps a 100 years hence -- are viewing them “now” just as the photograph were taken. A moment gone just as the shutter clicks, but yet a moment also captured that might last for hundreds of years.

Without photographs we would, to a large measure, be emotionally shut off from the past. Viewing old photographs, that frozen moment in time, allows us that emotional identification.

Tuesday, 1 October 2019

The Limits of Science

Why can't science tell us why the Universe exists and why physical laws take on the form they do?

Here's an analogy.

Consider the game of chess. Let's suppose one knows nothing about how to play the game. By playing against a chess computer one can gradually discover the rules of chess by trying various moves and seeing which moves the computer will permit you to make. But, discovering the rules of chess tells us nothing about why the pieces are allowed to move the way they do, least of all of who invented the game of chess and why. Nor do we know how the computer works. Why and how does it register certain moves as illegal?

Likewise, discovering the physical laws that describe or govern our physical reality tells us nothing about why physical laws are as they are. Nor can it tell us why there is a Universe at all. Such questions simply do not reside within the scope of science.

(The above is a slightly simpler version of my What philosophical questions does science answer?)

When Religion Makes Grief More Difficult

I've just read the following article: When Religion Makes Grief More Difficult . It says: Most Americans grew up with a Sunday sch...