Let’s first assume determinism is true, at least with respect to all human actions.
Next, let’s agree that we inevitably talk and think about what we could do, or could have done, even if we end up doing or having done something else. That’s what deliberation is: mapping out what we could do, predicting results, and making a decision. And that is what happens when we are deciding whether to praise or blame someone for what they did: we are assigning value to a behavior that need not have come about. Even card-carrying compatibilists do this. They may say that all behavior is determined, but when they start talking about the faculties or mechanisms in a human being from which free decisions are made, they always end up talking about the general capacities of those faculties or mechanisms, which means the wide range of decisions they are able to produce, in some range of circumstances. I submit that this ends up being disguised talk about being able to do otherwise. Free actions, according to the compatibilists, are actions that stem from faculties that would have behaved differently, had reasons for different actions been present. But that’s just to say I could have done otherwise, if I had had reason to.
So all of us talk seriously about being able to do otherwise, even though the truth is that no one ever can do otherwise. So this serious talk about free will is just so much fiction. But it is useful and beneficial fiction. By pretending that we have free will, and by holding people accountable for what they do in a free-will sort of way, we create systems of incentives and disincentives which then act as causal determinants for behavior in the future. So when you steal my coconut, and we blame you for the theft, and sentence you to cleaning the hut, we make it less likely that you or others who witness your punishment will steal coconuts in the future. It may be true — though how on earth would anyone prove it? — that a society which believes in the fiction of free will ends up with better-regulated social behavior than a society of genuine, “no talk of freedom” determinists, whether hard or soft.
It’s like this. You’re really hungry for beans. But first you need to wash the pot. But then you need a sponge — where is it? Then the phone rings. It’s the guy who took your sponge. Why did he take the sponge, and why is he calling to tell you? Rats, the water is overflowing. Remember, you want the beans. But first, you need to find the pot again; you set it down somewhere. Is that guy still on the phone? Can I find another sponge? And so on.
My friend Kleiner has been trying for years to get me to understand what final causes really are supposed to be. When I’ve talked about them in various classes, I’ve always called them the ‘pulling cause’: a final cause pulls the little acorn into becoming an oak, pulls the embryon into becoming a human, etc. I suppose I gained this understanding through studying early modern philosophers, who routinely ridicule the doctrine of final causes as a clear example of using some later state (i.e., adult oak) to explain the behavior of an earlier thing (acorn). That would be backward causation, and silly and stupid and wrong.
But Kleiner has insisted this ‘pulling’ account is all wrong, and now I think I get it. Aristotle never intends to use later states to explain earlier ones — in fact (I am told), he somewhere denies this is even possible. Instead, when Aristotle defines the four causes, he is identifying four ways in which we might try to account for a thing or its behavior. We might point to the stuff it’s made of, or the way its parts are organized, or what caused it to come into existence, or what the point of its behavior is. And the fact is, we do appeal to accounts of the last sort all the time. We ask, “Why is the dog circling before it lays down?” and “Why is the turle coming to shore?” and “Why do cuckoos lay their eggs in other birds’ nests?” and we expect some answer which points to the fruitfulness of this behavior. And when we do this, we don’t mean to commit ourselves to any sort of spooky backward causation. We are just identifying the function/role/purpose of that behavior. In evolutionary terms, when we’re explaining behaviors or features of organisms, we want to know what purpose the behavior or features serve, such that they were at one time selected for rather than against.
OK. Now consider this very interesting passage from Aristotle’s Physics, book 2, part 8:
“A difficulty presents itself: why should not nature work, not for the sake of something, nor because it is better so, but just as the sky rains, not in order to make the corn grow, but of necessity? What is drawn up must cool, and what has been cooled must become water and descend, the result of this being that the corn grows. Similarly if a man’s crop is spoiled on the threshing-floor, the rain did not fall for the sake of this – in order that the crop might be spoiled – but that result just followed. Why then should it not be the same with the parts in nature, e.g. that our teeth should come up of necessity – the front teeth sharp, fitted for tearing, the molars broad and useful for grinding down the food – since they did not arise for this end, but it was merely a coincident result; and so with all other parts in which we suppose that there is purpose? Wherever then all the parts came about just as they would have been if they had come to be for an end, such things survived, being organized spontaneously in a fitting way; whereas those which grew otherwise perished and continue to perish, as Empedocles says his ‘man-faced ox-progeny’ did.
“Such are the arguments (and others of the kind) which may cause difficulty on this point. Yet it is impossible that this should be the true view. For teeth and all other natural things either invariably or normally come about in a given way; but this is not true of the results of chance or spontaneity. We do not ascribe to chance or mere coincidence the frequency of rain in winter, but we do to frequent rain in summer; nor heat in the dog-days, but only when we have it in winter. So if it is agreed generally that things are either the result of coincidence or for an end, and some things cannot be the result of coincidence, then it follows that they must be for an end; and that such things are all due to nature even the champions of the theory which is before us would agree. Therefore action for an end is present in things which come to be and are by nature.”
The view Aristotle describes, and then goes on to dismiss, is evolution through natural selection. EXACTLY. Some lucky folks happen to get sharp teeth up front, and flat ones in the back, and that works out well for them, and they out-eat everyone else, and the others perish, and the good teeth creatures have kids with good teeth, etc. But Aristotle dismisses this idea because, he says, if an event or thing comes about by chance, that simply means that it does not come about regularly. Anything that comes about regularly, he says, must come about for an end. And that means it is not chancy, but end-related.
I can’t figure out what this means. At first, what Aristotle seems to be ignoring is the possibility that something can first come about by chance, and then become regular (and so lose its chanciness). So the teeth come about, and then it proves to be useful, and so those with them outsurvive the others, etc. Or is he saying that the fact that the feature becomes regular itself indicates that there must be some purpose the feature is serving? That makes some sense. After all, it’s no accident that the animals with the usefully-arranged teeth flourish; it’s the fact that the teeth are useful that explains this. So, in this sense, their flourishing is not by chance. But then why is Aristotle saying there is anything wrong with the natural selection model? That seems to be exactly what the model is claiming. So who does he imagine his opponents to be? Maybe he is disputing the claim that a feature can only seem to come about for a purpose without really coming about for that purpose. But then that would mean that it is simply incoherent to say that the good dentition itself came about by chance, but turned out to be useful. I’m trying to see the incoherence about this, but I can’t. Can’t something come about for no end, but persist because of an end? Is the problem that he is taking the claim “that things are either the result of coincidence or for an end” too severely, and not allowing for mixed cases? That seems to be the problem, though I can’t see what would motivate him to propound this “law” so forcefully.
For whatever reason, I’ve felt the need lately to try to articulate my broader philosophical view. And that’s always fun to share, especially when someone points out problems. So here goes.
CH’s principles of philosophy
1. My metaphysics ought to be continuous with science. I don’t deny that there are significant controversies within science, nor that there will be advances in science which supersede what is now taken as true. But nothing that I come up with about the natural world will be better grounded than what scientists largely presume as they go about doing their research, so it would be foolish not to take advantage of what they have been able to put together.
Chiefly, I draw the following from science:
I. Ontology of masses, events, forces, relations, etc.: I believe that, ultimately, the things that exist, along with their properties and relations, are those described by physics. Everything else is some kind of human invention or manner of speaking. For a wide variety of reasons, we find it useful and illuminating to speak of species, societies, art, rights, opinions, prejudices, colors, mutations, love, and so on, but all of these phenomena emerge, or seem to emerge, out of an overall picture which is itself generated out of the materials physics describes. It is a lot like “cloud-spotting” with a friend: you point out the cloud that looks like a crab, or a horse’s head, and from that description your friend is able to see what you see in it, but some shapes are more clearly identified than others, and none of them have very much to do with what’s really in the cloud. There is something about the cloud, surely, which allows it to be identified as crab-shaped rather than flower-shaped, but the crab-shapedness also has something to do with the perspective you have upon the cloud, together with the various sightings of crabs you have enjoyed, and the similarities between your sightings and those of your friend’s. Another way of putting this: physics tracks the primary properties of the universe, and any property not tracked by physics is a secondary property (or tertiary, if any Lockeans are reading).
(My attitude here is very reductionistic. I just can’t shake the belief that what the big stuff does is determined by the behavior of the smaller stuff which composes it. “Holistic” seems to me a synonym for “magic.”)
II. Denial of both determinism and contra-causal freedom: Small-scale events, like quantum phenomena, are frequently indeterministic: there is and can be no full explanation for why they happen. Somehow, they all sum up to large-scale events which are fully deterministic. Every large scale event can be (in principle) fully explained, and could not have been otherwise. In particular, human behavior is fully determined, and nothing a human does could have been done otherwise.
III. Denial of objective values: the universe does not prefer any state of affairs to any other. Every actual state is equally natural.
IV. Denial of special mental facts: consciousness emerges ultimately from the ontology of physics, and no souls or spirits or irreducible phenomenal properties are required to account for human experience.
2. My account of ethics needs to remain true to my metaphysics. From the above account, I am committed to believing that moral values are in the “cloud-spotting” category: entities of our perception, or secondary qualities, with only a loose grounding in what is real. Indeed, I think the grounding here is very, very loose.
I. Morality is rooted in an error. When we think in moral terms, we assume the truth of contra-causal freedom. We believe people have genuine choices, at least from time to time, and ought to be held accountable for those choices. When we make a claim of the form “I could have done X,” I think we typically mean: if I had been slightly different in my desires or beliefs, or attitudes, I would have done X. That’s true, but irrelevant, since of course I was not different in those ways, and could not have been, given the truth of determinism for large-scale events. So moral thinking requires some “let’s pretend,” or some forgetting (to paraphrase Nietzsche). We may be able to distinguish those determined actions whose principal causes lie outside an agent’s realm of typical control from those which lie within it (compatibilism), and there is some overlap between this distinction and many common distinctions between “free” and “compelled” action, but it’s not a perfect match.
II. But it sure is effective. The interesting thing is what emerges from this sloppy thinking: moral norms, or rules and principles, which go into the constitution of human communities, and then turn around and play real roles in influencing human behavior. Out of ignorance, we unwittingly invent seemingly nonsensical rules (like “You ought not lie,” etc.), teach them to our children, and the belief in those rules then governs, in part, what those children do. And, as it turns out, some rules tend to be better than others at ensuring the survival of those communities, etc. So, in the end, moral talk is ultimately nonsense, but very potent nonsense which has significant effects upon individuals and communities. Humans need this nonsense in order to survive as individuals, and as a species. (Not that there is any “objective value” in this.)
III. Morality is a composite of means of evaluation. Moral thinking consists in a broad mix of ways of evaluating actions – some basic and deontological (“Don’t lie!”, etc.), some more evaluative and consequentialist (“In this case, let’s do X, since most people are interested in doing that”), some aesthetic (“That’s simply an ugly way of behaving as a human being!”), and there may be many others. They are all rooted in what we are taught, on different occasions, for different reasons. When we argue over morality, all of these different means of evaluation play their roles, and often lead to opposing results, or paradoxes, controversies, and perplexities. That is unavoidable. And, again, debating over these conflicting results is a significant activity, to the extent that it leads to real actions, and real consequences. The universe doesn’t care what those consequences are, but individuals typically do.