thinking makes it so

There is grandeur in this view of life…

Another Flew over the cuckoo’s nest #3

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The next topic I’d like to discuss from There is a god is that of free will. It’s another one Flew (or ‘Flew’?) says he has changed his mind about.

Third in a series responding to Antony Flew‘s There is a god: How the world’s most notorious atheist changed his mind.1

See also:

Another Flew over the cuckoo’s nest #1

Another Flew over the cuckoo’s nest #2

Free will

Antony Flew: There is a God

Antony Flew: There is a God

Flew describes his previous position on free will and determinism as ‘compatibilism‘:

The compatibilist… maintains: not only can it be consistent to say both that someone will make a free choice and that the sense of that future choice is known beforehand to some future party, but also that free choices could be both free and choices even if they were physically caused to be made in the senses in which they were made, and even when their being made in these senses was determined by some law or laws of nature.2

But now he does not think free choices are physically caused:

A law of nature is… a claim that an occurrence of one particular sort physically necessitates the occurrence of another sort such that it makes its nonoccurrence physically impossible. This is clearly not the case with a free choice.

The argument Flew then gives as to why physical causation and free choice are ‘clearly’ so different is based on the meanings of words – in this case two different senses of ‘cause’:

Given the full cause of, say, an explosion, it becomes impossible for any power within the universe to prevent that explosion. But if I give you sufficient cause to celebrate, this does not necessitate your saying “Whoopee!” It follows from this that not every movement of human organisms can be determined by necessitating physical causes.

You what? He does say more, and we will get there later. But it’s worth stopping a moment to distinguish between two very different possible directions from here. Each direction forks into at least two ‘trails’.

Direction 1:

The two ‘trails’ here each lead to a familiar destination. Both destinations can and do exist. Neither rules out the other. But they are two different things, distinguishable by different verbal descriptions.

Destination 1.1

‘Cause’ as in ‘I give you cause to celebrate’ means ‘reason’ or ‘justification’. I give you a reason to celebrate. If you were to celebrate right now you would be justified in so doing as a result of something I have done. If you were to celebrate – or refrain from celebrating – you would do so voluntarily.

Destination 1.2

‘Cause’ as in ‘the cause of an explosion’ (where the effect – in this case the explosion – was not and did not include a conscious act on the part of any agent) is something which could warrant a scientific explanation, and something for which a scientific explanation – of whatever complexity – would be regarded as sufficient and unproblematic.

For example there is a can of petrol in a shed. The shed is struck by lightning and catches fire. The lightning could be said to be the cause of the fire, as it was the relatively improbable event which sparked it off. The petrol can then exploded as a result of the fire. The petrol would not have exploded if the paper and wood in the shed had not started to burn and so raised the temperature of the petrol and therefore the pressure inside the can to such levels that the can eventually burst and the petrol itself caught fire. So it would be fair to say the lightning caused the explosion. But you could also say the can of petrol itself caused the explosion. If it had not been there the shed would still have burned but nothing would have exploded. The wood and paper inside the shed were also causes in that sense. If asked to identify the single cause, it is possible that more people would pick the lightning, as it was an event. But it is not cut and dried.

If the can of petrol was left there deliberately and negligently – or, conversely, if the can of petrol belonged in the shed but it was the wood and paper which should not have been there – then people might well describe either of these as the cause. The events and conditions leading up to the explosion could have included voluntary acts or omissions on the part of one or more agents (which would be describable as causes under ‘Destination 1.1′), but the explosion itself did not decide to happen.

In this explosion example, ‘cause’ can generally also be replaced by ‘reason’ – in the sense of ‘reason for’ rather than ‘reason to’. In Destination 1.1 ‘cause to celebrate’ could be replaced by ‘reason to celebrate’, ‘cause for celebration’, or ‘reason for celebration’. But the lightning (or the wood, or the paper) did not give the explosion ‘reason to’ or ‘cause to’ happen. Nor did the lightning or the wood or the paper give the petrol can reason to or cause to explode. Whatever it was I did was enough to justify your celebration. But nothing justified the explosion: justification did not come into it.

‘Direction 1′ is about clearly describing two different things. To express the distinction in English may take more than simple substitution of single words, but it can be expressed quite clearly and without mystery.

Direction 2:

‘Direction 2′ is something very different. It is not to do with describing different but compatible things, but about distinguishing between two (or more) different, and incompatible, kinds of explanations of the same thing.

Again we take the celebration example.

Explanation 2.1

This would start from the phenomenology of voluntary action (eg consciously deciding whether to celebrate, given a specific set of conditions) and conclude that there is something about voluntary action which precludes the kind of explanation which is appropriate in the explosion example. In particular there is something about consciousness which in principle disqualifies it as a domain where physical, causal explanations are possible, and which does qualify it as a domain where explanations and entities of entirely different ‘supraphysical’ kinds apply.

Explanation 2.2

This would acknowledge the very same phenomenology but not assume there was anything about it which in principle ruled out a physical or scientific explanation. It would acknowledge that there are obstacles, particularly in that the phenomena to be explained are fundamental to human conscious experience, including the conscious experience of humans engaged in proposing possible physical explanations in the very act of proposing those explanations. But it would adopt the working assumption that these are practical obstacles rather than obstacles of principle. It would be supported in this assumption by the history of success over the last hundred or so years in discovering the mechanisms underlying other aspects of life, for example muscular movement, reproduction and inheritance, the nervous system and so on.

Explanation 2.2 does not necessarily assume that a complete explanation of consciousness will be available any time soon, or that current interpretations (eg those of Daniel Dennett3) are substantially correct or even on the right track. But it assumes the attempt is not misguided, and that there is no sound prima facie or a priori reason to think a purely physical explanation – ie one with no ‘supraphysical’ component – will ever be found.

Now to repeat the quoted passage (with emphasis added):

Given the full cause of, say, an explosion, it becomes impossible for any power within the universe to prevent that explosion. But if I give you sufficient cause to celebrate, this does not necessitate your saying “Whoopee!” It follows from this that not every movement of human organisms can be determined by necessitating physical causes.

This seems to be an attempt to deduce, from the familiar and uncontroversial distinction between Destination 1.1 (cause to celebrate) and Destination 1.2 (cause of an explosion), the self-evident truth of Explanation 2.1 (explanation must be ‘supraphysical’) and the consequent falsehood of Explanation 2.2 (physical explanation is possible).

Which is fallacious surely? More to follow


1 Antony Flew (with Roy Abraham Varghese), There is a god: How the world’s most notorious atheist changed his mind, HarperCollins, 2007.

2 Antony Flew, 2007: 1 above.

3 See for example: Daniel Dennett, Consciousness explained, 1991.

© Chris Lawrence 2009.


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