Weblog of the Sydney Traditionalist Forum
In a series of essays at SydneyTrads and The Orthosphere, Prof. Richard Cocks has developed a fascinating account of the “illogicality of determinism.”1 It’s refreshing to see scientism under such spirited attack, and I write this critical response not out of dissent, but primarily out of a desire to promote just this kind of public dialogue.
I used to be a “physical determinist” as Cocks describes the view, but have since recanted my views. Now, I do believe in God, the soul, and free will. But I think the anti-determinist argument he offers can be improved upon.
To begin with, I’m not sure “determinist” is the right term for our opponent. Most modern philosophers would admit that the findings of quantum physics and chaos theory render non-determinism compatible with materialism, if not true.
Likewise, I think terms like “materialism” and “reductionism” are too ambiguous to be useful in this discussion. Materialism may also refer to preoccupation with sensuality, wealth, and power. And reductionism is often held opposed to notions like “holism” that may still appeal exclusively to physical explanations.
According to Cocks, our opponent is committed to the view that “his own convictions are not the result of rational argument, but of physical causes.”2 The key distinction here and the ultimate source of absurdity is not determined versus non-determined, but physical versus non-physical. I suggest simply calling our opponent a “physicalist,” because this term makes it explicit that everything is to be reduced to the physical motions of matter and nothing else.
Cocks is right to point out the utter madness of thinking that values, beliefs, experiences, and thoughts simply do not exist. And of course, as he says, physicalists can only function on a day-to-day basis by acting as if these things do exist. In fact Daniel Dennett is very explicit about this work-around. He calls it the “intentional stance.”3 Though we do not think that anyone has real intentions (apparently because such particles can’t be found in the Standard Model of physics), we pretend they do, because this assumption works in practice.
This is the same sort of trick physicalists are using when they make a big deal out of the fact that most everyday objects are at least 99.9% empty space, since the particles making them up are so tiny compared to the distance between them. This is supposed to shock us into seeing that most of what we think we know is really an illusion, and that Physics is the only source of knowledge of true reality. Both physicalist claims—the emptiness of matter and the emptiness of mind—are really using the same rhetorical slight of hand.
You say this table and my hand are almost entirely empty space. Yet try as I might I cannot move my hand through the table. So what do you mean by “empty space”? The electromagnetic fields produced by the electrons in these objects extend far enough to repel. Using the everyday notion of “empty,” that is, capable of being filled with everyday matter, an empty milk jug is indeed empty, and a filled milk jug is indeed full. The whole claim of matter-emptiness is stupid, meant to lure impressionable minds into the cult of physics-worship.
Dennett and his sort are guilty of the same rhetorical deception. As a sort of shock tactic they tell us: “You think you have desires, but these are nothing but the motions of particles in your brain.” Yet we feel the desire for food and find ourselves seeking it. So what do they mean when they tell us we have no desires? The electronic signals in a brain do everything that a desire is supposed to do.
The slight-of-hand is in the word “just.” They say that desires are “just” the motions of particles. But this is literally false. It’s easy to see why. If desires are nothing but particle-motion, they require nothing more to be desires. But then all objects have desires, because all objects are made of moving particles. The universe becomes filled with intention, because we have jettisoned the whole distinction between mind and non-mind. This is clearly absurd. As long as you admit that terms like “desire,” “intention,” “mind,” and “free will” are at least useful (as Dennett does by promoting the intentional stance) you are admitting that they can be defined in an exclusive way. And if you admit that they can be usefully defined then you admit that they are not “just” atomic motions. This, in my view, is the crucial logical inconsistency in physicalism.
It is appropriate to employ the halting poblem from computer science, as Cocks does, to show that not everything is predictable. This is actually related to Gödel’s Incompleteness, and David Wolpert has proven a similar theorem for all physical systems.4 We must tread carefully here though. Cocks writes: “Any error among the premises will mean that the argument is invalid.”5 The halting problem has nothing to do with “errors” in computing. It has to do with predictability. Even a perfect computer suffers the limitation that it cannot always, given an arbitrary computer, predict whether it will halt.
The significance of this fact is subtle but far-reaching. It means that we humans, as finite beings, can never come to understand and predict every system in the universe. It doesn’t matter what theory we devise or computer we build, we will always suffer this limitation. Wolpert has demonstrated that there is no physical computer to which one can even pose every possible question of prediction. If we interpret our theories of physics themselves as such a physical computer (which the physicalist can’t deny) this means that there are questions about the universe physics cannot pose. Intention, free will, and desire are just a few examples of concepts beyond its reach.
When Cocks concludes “Consciousness does exist,”6 I suspect his opponent will immediately dismiss his argument, saying “Aha! You believe that a magical immaterial spirit must enter our bodies and animate us for us to live. But there is no evidence of anything like this.” They may speak about conservation of energy, the applicability of physical laws, evidence of brain damage changing personality, and so on. I think it is more philosophically sound to speak about souls ‘existing’ in a Platonic sense. No one can deny that mathematics is about concepts that need have no physical basis. But they can deny that they ‘exist’ in the same way that material objects do. If we speak of souls as forms that may or may not be physically instantiated, it is a much harder position to attack (I think because it’s true). We can refer to the hypothesis, for example, that the universe is a simulation and that it is always possible that our souls may be revived in a different simulation in another world.7 The mere possibility of this is enough to show that our essences are independent of matter, and without having to challenge the evidence found by neuroscientists and other biologists concerning these particular material incarnations of our souls.
Many defenders of free will, including Richard Cocks, dismiss evolution as an explanation of purpose. But this is another case where we are playing into a materialist trap. They will immediately ask us to show where God intervenes in the process of evolution. But there is no such evidence, nor does there appear to be any reason to suppose that sometimes God must tweak the results of His work. It seems ultimately more pious to assume that His laws of evolution are perfect and self-complete. Believing that our instincts and traditions were formed by evolution is compatible, I would argue, with the notion that they are given to us by God, since the laws of evolution are ultimately the result of God’s will.
This way of seeing it, however, brings us to a common paradox raised by theologians and atheists alike. Assuming that an omniscient God created the universe, and assuming it evolves according to rational laws, how can we say that human beings are free? God knows every decision we make before we even face the choice.
If this paradox still confuses any philosophers, it only shows how ignorant we have become of the classics of Western thought. In 524 A.D., the Christian philosopher Boëthius provided a useful untangling of this knot. Since God is eternal, it is true that He beholds the entire history of the universe from beginning to end. But to know something is not the same as to compel it. We know past events, such as Napolean’s fateful decisions at Waterloo, without taking away any of Napolean’s ability to make those decision. God’s foreknowledge of the future no more destroys our free will than our own knowledge of the past does.
It may be objected that God not only knows what we will do, but created us to do it. But this still does not destroy the freedom of our decisions. They are free because He gave us the self-sufficient ability to decide. He gave us free will.
That we are graced with free will should be immediately clear, despite the obfuscations of modern sophists. If free will were not real, we would land ourselves in all the nihilistic absurdities Cocks describes. There would be no reason for philosophical discussion because there would be no reason to care. Since no decisions could be made, no evaluations or discussions need be made. Beliefs and actions would be arbitrary.
On the contrary, it is obviously possible to make decisions, and we all do so daily. So it is clear that free will is real, that if there is a God who created the universe then He created one that would give rise to human beings like us, with gifts of rationality and purpose. If these gifts were, as physicalists argue, mere illusions, then only irrationality and purposelessness would follow.
Samuel W. Thomsen is a writer and software developer. His articles have appeared in the Salt Lake Tribune and Studies in History and Philosophy of Science. He actively maintains two philosophical blogs, Wisdom’s Wild Garden and Thoughts of a Recovered Philosopher.
He is currently working on a book which is provisionally titled “Progress Debunked: The Creation-Destruction Balance and Ancient Wisdom’s Primacy”. His thesis applies evolutionary logic to human genes and culture to show that social decay is a necessary consequence of lack of Malthusian population pressures and concludes that traditional wisdom has evolutionary superiority to progressive ideals. The book is scheduled to be released by the end of 2017.