15 October 1997
Thank you for your letter of 1 October, and your essay on units 1 3 of The Possible World Machine, 'The Mind: Materialist or Dualist?'
One of the problems with the free will debate is that it is not always made clear what kind of 'free will' is in question. In presenting the stark options of a 'machine' versus a 'roulette wheel', I would accept that on either view a fully deterministic universe, or a universe allowing for a certain degree of indeterminacy in the physical processes that govern our decision making there would be scope for talk of 'free will'. The real question is what we want from the concept of 'free will'.
I would argue that (in our naive innocence) what we want is two things: 1. Given the prior state of the universe, it is not fixed by deterministic physical laws what actions my body will perform. 2. When I act, my action is determined by my choice. The trouble is that 'my choice' is an event which must either be fixed or not fixed by deterministic physical laws and the prior state of things. Either my making that choice is fully accounted for as a product of the machinery grinding away, or there is a random event that breaks the chain of causes and effects somewhere along the line.
Of course, even if determinism is true, then included in the determining factors are my prior 'free' decisions. This is how, a compatibilist would argue, one can give meat and substance to the claim that I am responsible for the decisions that I make. I own up to the fact that my past decisions were mine. But once again, this is talk of 'responsibility', talk of 'freedom', not the kind of responsibility or freedom that would meet conditions 1. and 2. above.
Now to your essay:
You begin by positing a 'life force', and then deriving the consequences of that hypothesis. You give an eloquent account of how one would view the mind-body problem on that basis. But my question is, What grounds do we have for accepting the hypothesis in the first place?
As it happens, this week I have been doing work on the Presocratic atomists, Leucippus and Democritus. These philosophers made a sharp break with the work of their predecessors in positing a universe goverened entirely by efficient causes and effects. All there exists, the atomists claimed, are atoms in perpetual motion and the void through which they move and collide.
Previous philosophers had seen the need to posit an intelligent principle (such as Anaxagoras' universal 'Mind') which exercised a teleological role in directing the processes of blind cause and effect towards the formation of a cosmos from a prior state of chaos. The atomists jettisoned the notions of Mind, Intelligence or World Soul as so much unnecessary baggage. They did not ask where the motion of atoms came from (as Aristotle was later to do). As far as they were concerned, it was not a question on which the philosopher had any rational grounds for speculating or theorising.
In essence, the world of modern science is the atomist's world of efficient causation. A central role in ths picture is played by Darwin's theory of evolution (see Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene and The Blind Watch Maker). All teleology, on this orthodox view, is ultimately to be accounted for in strictly non-teleological terms.
There are pockets of resistance. I am not thinking now of Bible Belt 'creationists' but of philosophers such as Errol Harris, who has sought to develop an up to date version of Hegel's metaphysics of nature. (Harris insists that evolution could not take place in the absense of what he terms a 'nisus towards wholeness and integration'.) Or, going back into the relatively recent past, there is the French philosopher Henri Bergson's Creative Evolution.
The first question I would put to you is this. Is it possible to give an argument for the 'life force' theory, or are you presenting it as simply something we have to take on faith, in the face of the unthinkability of its alternative? Why is the alternative unthinkable? This is one place where I would like to hear more.
In deriving the consequences of the life force theory, your main interest is in the 'question of the soul's immortality'. But I would press Descartes' question: what is the nature of the inner? Is it conceivably identical with the outer, with matter? This is a question which would arise even if neurological investigation finally succeeded in disproving Descartes' own version of mind-body dualism, in which the train of efficient causation within the brain leads back to the pineal gland, where the animal spirits get a mysterious 'push' from a non-physical source.
There are many ways in which one might hope to 'survive' after one's death. I naturally hope that I shall survive in my published work and my influence on my students; that my work as a philosopher will not have been 'in vain'. More importantly, I hope that my children will prosper and eventually have children of their own, and I like to think that a little part of me and their mother will survive into the succeeding generations. All this would seem to be possible on a view of the universe that does not posit an additional 'life force'. So perhaps my last question to you would be, What is it to me, that in addition to all this, the universal life force within me is immortal?