My Reply to STF’s First Letter

Hi, STF:

Thank you very much for your thoughtful comments.  I can only hope that eventually I will receive equally thoughtful comments from strangers.

So, I’ll try to respond in brief compass to your various points….

Your syllogistic summary of my argument is generally acceptable to me, except that we would probably have to emend #2 in some ways, eventually.  It’s not just that everyone has the experience of observing himself exercising will.  Everyone can have the experience of exercising second-order will:  “I am now going to decide to decide something.”  I think that’s very important.  So, there could be an analogue to Eastern practices of withdrawing from the hurly-burly of ego-determined behavior, and that analogue would be to attempt to do nothing that did not result from a very conscious decision of the ego.  In other words, one withdraws to a state of hyper-attentiveness to acts of will and attempts to will to do nothing that is determined by “external” forces and circumstances.  This would include delaying gratifications of all desires and involuntary impulses, such as eating, excreting, sleeping, having sex, and even breathing.  It’s worth noting also that Eastern practices of ego denial begin with the assumption that there is something like an ego that needs to be denied.   An act of will is required in order to reach the higher plane.

My view about all such practices is that they are likely to be motivated by practical desires and considerations.  That is, one sees a world of ego-determined conflict and attempts to resolve the conflict by withdrawing from the ego.  It’s not that there is an immediate perception of another ego-less world.  By way of contrast, there is an immediate perception of ego-driven and willed behavior in everyday life.

For me, the immediate experience of second-order willing constitutes a refutation of your assertion, or hypothesis, whatever it is, that what we can experience as an act of “free will” is “a description of attitudes about free will and of how brains work.”  It is true that whatever we experience in our subjective life must be consistent with how human brains work.  My guess is that we will never understand how human brains work.  My guess is that there is a feedback loop between material processes and what is called mind or consciousness, that the material gives rise to a something else that is not material and that cannot be explained materially, stochastically, statistically, mathematically, or, in short, scientifically.  And this something else can somehow cause the brain to do certain things.  The something else causes physical events in the neurological system.  That is the incredible, mysterious thing about the dualistic hypothesis, that causation can actually go from the immaterial, or not merely material, to the material.

The hubris of science pertains to lots of scientists and to people like Searle, it is not an essential feature of science.  And the hubris consists precisely in asserting that the dualism I have posited is either not possible, physically or metaphysically, or is so abhorrent to reason that it is not possible.

Your Topic 2 amounts to saying that in a very complex system such as the brain likely is it will be very difficult to distinguish between events that have material explanations that are complete explanations and those that do not.  I think that’s true, but I don’t see how it tells one way or the other as between “monistic” materialism and dualism.  This gets back to the hubris of science.  “There must be a material explanation for the observed phenomena.”  My guess, which often veers into being an assertion, is that consciousness cannot be explained in material terms.  Searle, for example, asserts that it will be explained in material terms.  That’s hubris.  But Searle is emblematic in this regard of a huge class of scientifically inclined brains.  Now, if you ask me the simple question, is it possible that what we call free will is illusory, my answer is, “Yes, of course, that is possible.”  It is very easy for me to conceive of the possibility that my conscious life, as I perceive it, is in some sense illusory, that what is really going on there is a combination of determined and undetermined “elementary” physical events that somehow combine to produce my subjective life.  I don’t have any trouble understanding the theory here, at least in its general outline.  My problem is that the theory appears to be inconsistent with my experience, such as second-order willing.  It really takes a strong act of will on the part of the scientifically inclined brain to want to make this leap.  The abhorrence of dualism is that strong.

Now, it must also be admitted that I don’t like what I take to be the practical consequences of denying free will, but my main difficulty is the dissonance between the theory and not just my experience, but the experience of the people who offer the theory.  To conclude, I think there will be material correlates for subjective experience, prominently including acts of willing, but those correlates will fail to explain the experience.  The very real danger is that the scientific mind will not see the difference between a material correlate, the material precondition for something, and the thing itself.  It’s not as though a dualist doubts that his subjective life will be altered if a lobotomy is performed on his brain.  The hypothesis is that there are two realms that interact with one another, the realm of consciousness and the neurological system.


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