P H I L O S O P H Y P A T H W A Y S ISSN 2043-0728
Issue number 120
9th September 2006
I. 'The Last Infirmity of the Noble Mind' by Richard Schain
II. 'To Decide or not to Decide, That's Not The Question' by Pierre Pouget
III. 'An Argument For Remaining Agnostic About God's Goodness' by John Alexander
The place of mind in nature is a recurring theme in philosophy. Contemporary
philosophers seek a reconciliation between naturalism, the view that all that
occurs in the universe falls under the laws of nature, and the belief that
human beings inhabit a different order of reality: to use a phrase adopted by
John McDowell (Mind and World, Harvard 1994) human beings operate within the
'logical space of reasons'. The task is seen as demonstrating that the clash
between the world of causes and the world of reasons is apparent rather than
real, that we can and indeed must belong to both worlds simultaneously.
In his latest article for Philosophy Pathways, Richard Schain looks at the
phenomenon of fame and our desire for fame, arguing that it arises from our
neglect of the value of thought and mind, as having a role which is not merely
functional -- enabling us to pursue this or that material satisfaction -- but
final, representing our place within the eternal scheme of things. Each of us
is important because our minds and thoughts are important, in themselves.
In complete contrast, Pierre Pouget presents an overview of research into the
process of decision making which appears to cast doubt on our intuitive belief
that we have access, though introspection of our thought processes, to the true
causes of the decisions that we make. Pouget presents these findings as a
consequence of the rejection of belief in a non-physical soul. It is clear,
however, that a philosopher intent on reconciling reasons and causes would
regard this as a somewhat tendentious description.
Finally, John Alexander looks at the theologian's 'problem of evil', arguing
that insofar as we are relying on empirical evidence alone we have to suspend
judgement concerning whether God, if such a being exists, is all good, all evil
or somewhere in-between. At one stroke, this silences any further discussion of
the problem of evil because we simply cannot say with any degree of certainty
whether the 'omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent' God of the theologians
could or could not have made a world such as ours.
I. 'THE LAST INFIRMITY OF THE NOBLE MIND' BY RICHARD SCHAIN
'The desire for fame is the last infirmity of the noble mind.' This saying from
antiquity has a more profound meaning than may be evident at first glance. It is
an indication that individuals do not regard their own individuality in a
sufficiently serious manner. There is a widespread belief in our culture that
if one does not have an impact on his society, his life is without
significance, he is a non-entity. This feeling seems to be instinctual in many
people since they will go to any length to affect, in one way or another, the
world around them. The desire for fame, in all its variegated manifestations,
symbolizes this need to feel that one's essential being is a function of his
effect on his milieu. The concept of intersubjectivity, popular in philosophy
today, is a non-pejorative way of expressing the same idea.
Kant's characterization of a person's existence as a speck of sand in an
infinity of time has been amply confirmed by the scientific study of the
physical universe. It is impossible to conceive that an individual in his
physical being can have any significance in the cosmos -- it is absurd of
imagine otherwise. Thus the persistent attempt of individuals to develop a
circle of influence and thus transcend their own miniscule being. The reality
is, however, that this effort is not worth the trouble since a hundred, a
thousand, a million specks of sand have little more significance than one
alone. A sand castle on an endless beach in an infinity of time is soon erased
by the elements.
A genuine sense of self-valuation cannot come from one's effect upon society.
At best there is the transitory sensation of victory when one has made his mark
in the world but this feeling soon passes. There soon appear new conquests,
greater discoveries, more brilliant expositions that need to be undertaken.
After Alexander conquered the vast Persian empire, he became obsessed by the
thought of how many more conquests were still necessary. There are few
successful persons who do not experience similar feelings. Fame is usually a
fraud, rarely does the famous individual fully deserve the accolades given to
him and he experiences the need to justify his reputation by new
accomplishments. There is nothing more pathetic than a 'successful' person
trying to duplicate his successes, often in areas where he is little capable of
doing so. 'Fame enslaves the Gods and Men' is a saying attributed to Heraclitus
who, at the dawn of philosophy, perceived the vacuity of worldly success. Even
if the attribution may be doubtful, the idea was present among those who valued
The quest for fame arises from a lack of valuation of the self. A person who
values himself or herself does not dissipate energies by engaging in activities
that will bring fame. Human beings are entities that generate thought, thinking
reeds as Pascal neatly put it, and it is in their thoughts that they find their
reason for being, not in plaudits arising from their milieu. What is thought? By
now it is abundantly clear that thought can only be a metaphysical phenomenon.
Generations of neurologists, psychologists and computer analysts have had no
more success in locating a physical basis for thought than did the eminent
pathologist Virchow looking for the soul in the hundreds of brains he
dissected. There is simply no way for science to explain the basis of human
thought. Because of this, there has been a subtle and often not so subtle
effort by white coat philosophers to disparage the concept of self and even
deny its existence. If there is no such thing as a metaphysical self, only an
assortment of stimulus-response phenomena welded onto an instinctual behavioral
apparatus, then little is to be gained by considering this fictitious entity. It
is more rewarding to assert one's will to success and the many-faceted forms of
power that stem from it.
But the self exists. Descartes' much-maligned dictum, 'I think therefore I am,'
is a more profound thought than the carping of his critics. The profoundest
person in the history of American philosophical thought (HDT) wrote that the
meaning of life lies in our thoughts, all the rest is just the wind whistling
in the trees. Thoughts give one a place in a metaphysical plane of reality that
is not obtained solely through physical or psychological experiences. Speaking
and writing are natural means of developing and clarifying one's thoughts.
However, activity arising from the desire for fame is merely the extension of
the animal herd instinct into the more sophisticated life evolved in
civilization. There is really no difference in kind between the yearning for
professional, political or artistic recognition and a wolf wishing to lead or
even just be part of a pack of wolves. (And woe to the lone wolf who does not
fit into the pack.) As in any pack phenomenon, a key factor in the desire for
fame is the acquisition of sexual power; this is well known among authors and
academicians. This feature and accumulation of wealth are the main consequences
of fame -- for whatever they are worth.
The appearance of thought is one of the miracles of life, analogous to the
emergence of life itself. Biologists can explain how life develops but not why
such an improbable event should have occurred in a purely physical universe.
Even if life appeared by chance, it is incomprehensible why the earth should
not be swarming with simple life forms instead of the incredibly complex and
fragile organisms that now exist. Bacteria are far more fitted for survival
than is Homo sapiens. Most incomprehensible of all is the phenomenon of
thought, which defies understanding using physical models. Inescapably, thought
must exist on a different plane of being. Once one rises to the consciousness of
this 'metaphysical' plane of being, then a new world-view becomes possible, one
that is not purely a function of the vagaries of the social milieu.
Every developed mind is a remarkable occurrence revealing a sphere of reality
that goes beyond the material universe. When one considers the many facets of
thought -- imagination, rationality, values, will, emotions, one is awe-struck
by the phenomenon of the mind, and even more so by one's own mind with which
the individual is acquainted in a unique manner. We need to have reverence for
our own minds, for our souls, to fall back upon a more traditional term. It is
only the constraints of scientism with its insistence upon an exclusively
material reality that inhibits the thinking individual from an appropriate
valuation of his own inner self.
The valuation of self is the key to combating the scourge of excessive
ambition, which is another way of denoting the desire for fame. The bitch
goddess success takes her toll on the human personality. The only ambition that
can be allowed free rein is to live the life of the mind, the bios theoretikos
of antique Greek philosophy. The individual must center his ambitions on his
own mind. Ambition focused elsewhere is a road map to a downward direction of
life and degradation of the human potential.
It is probably a form of hubris to think that we limited creatures could have
an exact conception of the place of the mind in a metaphysical realm of being.
However, one need not denigrate the self by imagining it to be fictitious, or
at best, a speck of sand in a limitless universe. A more appropriate conception
is that of a microcosm mirroring a macrocosmic reality. 'Atman is Brahman' is
the way Hindu scriptures succinctly puts it. Elsewhere I have utilized a
metaphor I call the pointillist canvas of eternity in which every living being
is imagined as a brushstroke contributing to the entirety of the canvas. Time
and space are the dimensions within which the canvas exists; there may be
others of which we have no conception as yet. Each brushstroke may be
considered as essential to the integrity of the canvas. A flaw may well appear
on it when one does not develop his mind to the fullest extent possible.
The metaphor of a pointillist canvas of eternity provides a convenient
framework for certain articles of faith to which I subscribe. These are the
metaphysical nature of my mind and its importance in the universe. These
beliefs have arisen from rational consideration of a long acquaintanceship with
life. Furthermore, I have come to think that human beings are thrust into a
physical universe in order to gain the experiences necessary for development of
the mind. The process is never complete; there is a need for continual
experience as long as an individual human life exists.
No doubt there can be psychological reasons put forth to undermine the point of
view here expressed. There will always be a Freud or Skinner ready to demolish
metaphysical thought. The cult of scientism has dominated philosophy ever since
technology has been mechanizing civilized life. But a philosopher betrays his
vocation when he is willing to subvert metaphysics for the sake of the prestige
of scientific methodology. The philosopher should wear a robe, not a white coat.
The very essence of philosophy is the discovery of the metaphysical mind. When a
philosopher trades this in for an uncertain membership in the institutions of
science and takes on the herd habits accompanying them, he has abandoned his
high calling in the cosmos. He has given in to the last infirmity of the noble
1. Richard Schain, In Love With Eternity, 2005
(c) Richard Schain 2006
Web site: http://rschain1.tripod.com
II. 'TO DECIDE OR NOT TO DECIDE, THAT'S NOT THE QUESTION' BY PIERRE POUGET
Investigations and Controversies of the Concept of Decision-Making
'The beginning of wisdom is the definition of terms.' -- Plato
If decision referred to the 'soul' examining the decision processes has nothing
to do with the laws of nature and the scientific methods.
The relation between the body and the mind is not a contemporary subject of
discussion. Around 2500 BCE, the ancient Egyptians believed in distinctions
between aspects of the body and the 'self'. Even though they did not believe in
a simple dualism between the body and the mind, they described five parts: the
ka, the ba, the akh, the name and the shadow or shade. Each of the aspects of
the ancient Egyptian 'self' was unique, yet interrelated with the other four
elements. Several outstanding representations of this aspect of ancient
Egyptian 'self' have been preserved over centuries. The sculpture of a man
named Nedjemu is one of them. As historians understood it, the figure doesn't
represent Nedjemu as a walking man. Rather this statue was intended as a
substitute repository for the spirit or 'ka' of Nedjemu.
The very idea of representation may suggest a separation, really a distinction
between the thing and the image of the thing or the body of the dead man and
its image sculpted in stone. It is difficult to say without a doubt, that
ancient Greeks when looking at an Egyptian sculpture like that one, would have
thought they were looking at a walking figure rather than a representation
suggesting a separation between body and mind. In fact, around 500 BCE the
ancient Greeks and pre-Socratic philosophers were strongly influenced by the
philosophical cult of Orphism which described the soul and body as united by an
unequal compact; the soul is divine, immortal and aspires to freedom, while the
body holds it imprisoned. Pherecydes' pupil, Pythagoras, was one of the first
to connect Orphism throughout with philosophy and the philosopher most
responsible for spreading Orphism throughout Greece. Soul and number
characterized Pythagoreanism throughout antiquity. In this perspective, the
soul doctrine determined moral conduct and the number theory purported to
explain aspects of the structure of the physical world.
Plato, according to Aristotle, adopted the theory of dual first principles and
the number-substance notion of the Pythagoreans. But as his Heraclitean views
compelled Plato to recognize a gradational reality, downwards to sensible
things, Plato modified his theory so as to achieve a procession of being from
first principles and the mediation of mathematicals between ideas and
particulars. Plato called universals 'ideas.' But Plato's reorientation of
thought towards mathematization and towards a doctrine of the soul permitted
some fruitful developments and led to Aristotle's view.
It is probably true that contemporary question about the concept of decision
starts with Aristotle's definition of mind in his book De Anima (On the Soul).
For Aristotle, psychology was a study of the soul. Insisting that form (the
essence, or unchanging characteristic element in an object) and matter (the
common undifferentiated substratum of things) always exist together, Aristotle
defined a soul as a 'kind of functioning of a body organized so that it can
support vital functions.' In considering the soul as essentially associated
with the body, Aristotle challenged the Pythagorean doctrine that the soul is a
spiritual entity imprisoned in the body. Aristotle's doctrine is a synthesis of
the earlier notion that the soul does not exist apart from the body and of the
Platonic notion of a soul as a separate, nonphysical entity.
However, it seemed to Aristotle that the individual's freedom of choice made an
absolutely accurate analysis of decision processes impossible. Since the time of
Plato, Aristotle and the Pythagoreans, the debate about the possibility of a
complete analysis of the decision processes has remained strong and is
particularly relevant today. It is not surprising that a central and complex
philosophical or biological notion has to depend on the historical context in
which this notion is defined. As we have just briefly discussed, the concept of
mind and its association with the body was revised and modified throughout
antiquity. However, what is very surprising is that the 'concept of decision'
which has been examined as a central notion in the study of the relation
between the body and the mind or later as a central concept in psychology has
varied much less. In another words, we may observe that the definition of
psychology has changed dramatically since Aristotle whereas the concept of
decision appears to be barely unchanged.
NATURE AND MEASURES OF DECISION PROCESSES
Choosing, selecting or deciding
In common sense, the decision process is alternatively defined as 'the ability
voluntarily to decide to perform one of several possible acts or to avoid
action entirely' (Encyclopaedia Britannica), or as the process of solving a
problem. Such a problem is specified by a set of possible states of the
environment or possible initial conditions; a set of available experiments and
a set of possible outcomes for each experiment, giving information about the
state of affairs preparatory to making a decision; a set of available acts
depending on the experiments made and their consequences; and a set of possible
consequences of the acts, in which each possible act assigns to each possible
initial state some particular consequence.
The problem is dealt with by assessing probabilities of consequences
conditional upon different choices of experiments and acts and by assigning a
utility function to the set of consequences according to some scheme of value
or preference of the decision maker. In this perspective, an optimal solution
of the problem consists of choices of an optimal decision function, which
assigns to each possible experiment an optimal act that maximizes the utility,
or value, and a choice of an optimal experiment. A multiplicity and a variety
of adaptation of this normative definition of the decision can be found in the
literature (Dippel, 1994; Damasio et al., 1996; Wilson, 1999: Berthoz and
Weiss, 2006), however all of them refer to a notion that can be defined with
intrinsic properties and presuppose the potential measurability of the decision
processes. The main point, which is still making debate for all these
definitions of the 'essence of decision' is not whether there is a decision
process because this state exists, but rather to know if this act is refers to
what we understand as decision or not.
In the next section I'll introduce some characterizations of the notion of
'essence of decision' which may be opposed in the role of decision and describe
how this definition may lead to reconsider the study of decision.
Decision as an emotional expression
Empiricism designates the theory that all knowledge is derived exclusively from
experience, as either explicitly or implicitly, external sensation,
representation or inferences. In psychological application, empiricism
signifies the theory that the phenomena of consciousness are the simple product
of sensuous experience.
In the historiological link between senses and decision processes, Sensism is
one particular form of empiricism, which focuses on the link between sensation
and ideas. Sensism, which is found in Empedocles and Protagoras, was given its
first psychological and systematic form by Locke (1704), though Bacon (1626)
and Hobbes (1679). For Locke all simple ideas derive from external experience
(sensations) and all compound ideas (modes, substances, relations) from
internal experience (reflection). Substance and cause are simply associations
of subjective phenomena. However, Locke admits the existence, though he denies
the demonstrability, in man of an immaterial and immortal principle, the soul.
Berkeley (1753), accepting the teaching of Locke that ideas are only
transfigured sensations, subjectivizes not only the sensible or secondary
qualities of matter (sensibilia propria, e.g. colour and sound) as his
predecessor had done, but also the primary qualities (sensibilia communia,
extension, space, etc.), which Locke held to be objective. Berkeley denies the
objective basis of universal ideas and indeed of the whole material universe.
Hume (1776) agrees with his two empiricist predecessors in teaching that the
mind knows only its own subjective organic impressions, whereof ideas are but
the images. The supersensible is therefore unknowable; the principle of
causality is resolved into a mere feeling of successiveness of phenomena; its
necessity is reduced to a subjective feeling resulting from uniform association
experienced in consciousness, and the spiritual essence or substantial being of
the soul is dissipated into a series of conscious states. Locke's sensism was
taken up by Condillac (1780), who eliminated entirely the subjective factor
(Locke's 'reflection') and sought to explain all cognitional states by a mere
mechanical, passive transformation of external sensations. The French sensist
retained the spiritual soul, but his followers disposed of it as Hume had done
with the Berkeleian soul relic.
Neurophysiological evidences for an emotional contribution in decision making
Although derivatives of the sensist approach have not disappeared, the idea has
substantially changed during the 20th century largely due to the developments
within the neurological field. One of the first and most famous cases of
so-called 'frontal lobe syndrome' -- was the patient Phineas Gage, described by
Harlow (Harlow, 1848, 1868, and Damasio, 1996). Phineas Gage was a railroad
construction worker, who survived tan explosion that blasted an iron-tamping
bar through the front of his head.
Before the accident, Gage was a man of normal intelligence, energetic and
persistent in executing his plans of operation. He was responsible, sociable,
and popular among peers and friends. After the accident, his medical recovery
was remarkable. He survived the accident with normal intelligence, memory,
speech, sensation, and movement. However, his behavior changed completely. He
became irresponsible, untrustworthy, and impatient of restraint or advice when
it conflicted with his desires. The case of Phineas Gage paved the way for the
notion that the frontal lobes were linked to social conduct, judgement,
decision-making, and personality. A number of instances similar to the case of
Phineas Gage have since appeared in the literature (Ackerly & Benton, 1948;
Brickner, 1932; Welt, 1888). These patients had normal intelligence and
creativity before their brain damage. After the damage, they begin to have
difficulties planning their workday and future, and difficulties in choosing
friends, partners, and activities. The actions they elect to pursue often lead
to losses in diverse areas, e.g., financial, social standing, family and
friends. The choices they make are no longer advantageous, and are remarkably
different from the kinds of choices they were known to make in the pre-morbid
period. These patients often decide against their best interests. They are
unable to learn from previous mistakes as reflected by repeated engagement in
decisions that lead to negative consequences. In striking contrast to this
real-life decision-making impairment, problem-solving abilities in laboratory
settings remain largely normal. As noted, the patients have normal intellect,
as measured by a variety of conventional neuropsychological tests (Bechara,
Damasio, Tranel, & Anderson, 1998; Damasio, 1994; Damasio, Tranel, & Damasio,
1990; Eslinger & Damasio, 1985).
According to modern sensism, decision making involves evoking an emotion from
recall or thought about a previous emotion and eliciting a somatic response.
The 'thought' of gaining or losing a certain amount of money can trigger a
somatic response, and so does the 'thought' of taking a drug in the case of a
drug addict. This overall somatic state provides signals to the brain which
participate in two functions. (a) it provides a substrate for feeling the
overall emotional state, (b) it provides a substrate for biasing the decision
to select a response (Damasio, 1996). In this point of view, a decision process
is thus related to an emotion as a process of a higher stage, in the same way
that an emotion is related to a feeling. The fundamental psychological
condition for decisional acts is, therefore, the contrast between feelings, and
the origin of the first decisions is most probably in all cases to be traced
back to unpleasurable feelings that arouse external movements whose results are
contrasted pleasurable feelings. A decision is distinguished in such cases from
an emotion only by the fact that the former has added to its emotional
components an external act that gives rise to feelings, which, through contrast
with the feelings contained in the emotion, bring the emotion itself to an end.
The richer the ideational and affective contents of experience are, the greater
the variety of the emotions and the wider the sphere of decision.
Decision as an experimental question
The exact observation of decision processes appears to be difficult in the case
of decisional acts that come naturally in the course of life. The only way, in
which a thorough psychological investigation can be made, is, therefore, that
of experimental observation. To be sure, we can not produce decisional acts of
every kind at will, but we must limit ourselves to the observation of certain
processes which can be easily influenced through external means and which
terminate in external acts.
Experimental measures of the decision process
One classical experiment used to examine the decision processes in laboratory
is called reaction-experiments. In this experimental context, a simple decision
process is incited by the presentation of a stimulus -- e.g visual, auditory,
tactile -- which is followed by a specific motor reaction -- e.g. eye movement
toward the stimulus, button pressing, arm movement -- produced by the subject
in reaction to the perception of the stimulus. Instead of just measuring the
motor reaction to the stimulus, the reaction-experiments have been used to
examine a second and more general significance besides that mentioned. By
measuring the motor reaction time these paradigms have been described as able
to furnish means for the measurement of certain neurophysiological and
psycho-physical processes. The primary significance of these types of
experiment, however, consists in the fact that each one includes a decision and
that it is therefore possible, in this way, to infer with sufficient exactness
the succession of psychical processes in such a decision, and at the same time,
by the deliberate variation of the conditions, to influence this succession in a
Eye movement reaction time is one particular but very well documented case of a
simple task that has been and is still intensively used in numerous laboratories
in cognitive sciences and more particularly in psychology, neuropsychology, and
neurophysiology (for instance: Krauzlis, 2005; Trillenberg et al., 2004; Leigh
and Kennard, 2004; Pierrot-Deseilligny et al., 2003; Schall, 2002; Carpenter,
2000). The basic experiment may be described as follows: a stimulus, usually a
visual spot, is presented on a screen and at the moment when the stimulus is
perceived by the subject -- human, patient or non-human primate -- an eye
movement that has been determined upon and prepared before, as, for example, a
saccadic movement (brief movement of the eye), toward the stimulus has to be
executed. The psychological conditions in this experiment correspond
essentially to those we may refer as a simple decision act. If the measure the
interval that elapses between the presentation of the stimulus and the
execution of the movement is realized, it will be possible, by repeating such a
simple trial, to collect sufficient results of an objective measurement of the
saccade reaction time which may furnish some information for the constancy or
possible variations of part of the decision processes. This information is
especially useful because numerous parameters of the stimulus can be
manipulated and thereby the course of the decision itself varies.
Such an experimental manipulation may, indeed, be introduced even in the simple
form of the experiment just described, by varying the brightness of the
stimulus, which may vary the detectability of the stimulus. For instance, if
the stimulus is bright, the detection of the stimulus is usually faster than
when the stimulus is dark and the time to produce the eye movement toward the
stimulus is usually reduced. Using similar paradigm eye movement,
reaction-times have been found to vary on the average between 100ms to 400ms,
with a mean variation of ~20ms for the single observations (Carpenter, 2000;
Prablanc and Jeannerod, 1974; Brooks, 1975; Findlay and Walker, 1999; Becker
and Jurgens, 1979). As we just described by manipulating the one properties of
the stimulus, we may make sensorial and motor reactions the starting points for
the study of the development of decision processes. By manipulating the physical
properties of the stimulus an experiment may furnish a way of passing from
simple to complex decisions.
The chronometric experiments familiar in experimental psychology under the name
of 'reaction-experiments' have been and are extremely used in context of
laboratory (Krauzlis, 2005; Trillenberg et al., 2004; Leigh and Kennard, 2004;
Pierrot-Deseilligny et al., 2003; Schall, 2002; Carpenter, 2000 + Logan +
Donders). As we briefly discussed above, this type of experiment has been used
as an aid in the analysis of decision processes, furthermore this type of
experiment is also largely used, as means for the investigation of the temporal
course of cognitive processes in general.
Decision as a neurophysiological question
While systematic observations of decision processes can be made in context of
laboratory, simple and unique measure of reaction time does not directly allow
us to describe the physiological causes of such decision. Because species like
macaque or other non-human primates are able to produce similar action to human
beings, examining the neurophysiological substrate of monkey brain appear to be
a extremely rich option to understand the neuronal basis of the decision
processes in context of simple decision act. More precisely by using
extracellular recordings in macaque, neurophysiologists have recently focused
on the question whether or not the neuronal response may not only describe but
may be able to predict some decisions processes. In the last decade, the neural
correlates of decision making have been reviewed so often that a brief review of
reviews had necessitate a very sharp selection. The primary goal of the present
section is to introduce to the non-specialist readers part of findings about
the decision processes, which have been advanced in the field of
Because, in the end, a decision process has to depend on neuronal activity -- I
would not have been able to type these words with my fingers without any
neuronal signal -- theoretical and findings in neurophysiology may shed light
on some crucial aspects of the decision processes (Schall, 2005; Schall, 2004;
Glimcher et al., 2004; Rorie et al., 2005). Neuronal signal that come closest
to encoding the output or monitoring of a decision-making process have been
found in areas of the brain involved in motor control: the SMA (Romo et al.
1997; Salinas & Romo, 1998b), M1 (Zhang et al, 1997; Shen & Alexander, 1997;
Salinas & Romo, 1998a), the lateral intraparietal area (Shadlen & Newsome,
1996), the Frontal eye field (Schall & Hanes 1998, Schall 2001), the Superior
colliculus (Pare.. Kofk), the caudate (Haruno et al., 2005; Platt, 2002 ), the
globus pallidus (Gambarian et al., 1971), the cingulate cortex and the
supplemental eye fields (Fleck et al., 2005; Critchlev, 2005; Ito et al, 2003;
Schall et al., 2002). How can cortical activity reveal the way brain functions
in the process of deciding? Why is one act selected rather another? Finally
when such decision happens, how can it be related to psychometric variables
such as reaction time? All of these three questions are intensively examined in
the field of neuroscience today. In the next session, I'll present some aspects
of these studies.
To stay with the eye movement aspect of the measurement of decision processes,
we may ask what happened when many stimuli appear in the richly textured visual
world, but we can only look at these targets one at a time, picking some as
important and ignoring others (Schall et al., 2004; Sato et al., 2003; Thompson
et al., 2005). This selection must be accomplished by passing visual information
from the sensory systems to the motor systems of the brain. While a strong
debate still exists in neurophysiological field concerning the role of
different region in the brain in context of decision, most agree that a
relationship between the behavioral choices and the activity of individual
neurons may be measured in different regions -- visual, somato-sensory, middle
temporal or frontal regions -- of the brain (Rorie et al., 2005; Krug, 2004;
Brody, et al., 2002; Romo et al, 2003; Romo et al., 2001; Opris et al, 2005;
Stuphorn et al., 2002). For most of these studies the activity indicatea that a
perceptual decision can be based on a correlated activity of a small population
neurons (Schall et al., 2000; Shadlen et al., 1995; Shadlen et al., 1996).
Furthermore, recent studies have demonstrated that electrical stimulation of
cortical sensory areas may be used to probe how brain activity relates to the
process of deciding. (Brody et al., 2002). For instance, electrical stimulation
of somatosensory cortex of monkeys cannot be distinguished from a natural
fluttering stimulus on the finger.
While most of the neurophysiological studies we just briefly presented were
focused on 'How' the neuronal correlate may describe some part of the decision
process, 'Why' such a decision is made and it's neuronal correlate, appears
also as a crucial question. A key insight to understand the brain mechanism of
'Why' a decision is made, was the discovery that animals and humans will work
to obtain electrical stimulation delivered to certain parts of the brain (Wise
et al., 1992; Schaefer et al., 1992). Since then, several studies have
documented the influence and representation of reinforcement in the brain. For
instance, neural activity in sensorimotor as well as limbic structures is
modulated by the probability magnitude or kind of reward that a monkey receives
and such modulation can guide adjustments in behavior (McCoy et al., 2003).
Neural activity more explicitly signaling the receipt withholding or unexpected
delivery of reward has been found in several brain structures (Brown et al.,
1999; Ito et al., 2003).
To date the decisions that neurophysiologists have studied are not really like
these decisions at an introspective level. The decisions that we are beginning
to understand are much more deterministic: stimulus and prior probabilities
influencing behavior in a predictable fashion. The question which is still
causing debate is whether by examining the brain states at a time (t), we may
be able to determine not only brain states at time (t+1), but also the complex
dynamic systems that produce such complex decision making. The question raised
above is by itself debatable and for some recent psychologists and philosophers
if this question does not necessarily dissociate decision and determinism, it
may involve reconsidering the potential association between decision, free-will
ILLUSION OF CONSCIOUSNESS AND DECISION PROCESSES
As Schopenhauer and, following him, some modern philosophers declared the
decision in itself is an 'unconscious' occurrence, which comes to consciousness
only in its result, as the decisional act (Schopenhauer, 1836, 1839). In this
case, obviously, the inadequate observation of the decision process preceding
the act, has led to the assertion that no such process exists. In a series of
controversial experiments first reported in 1973, Libet and colleagues indicate
that the decision to perform a muscular act is made prior to the awareness of
the decision. In other words, and in Libet's view, we become aware of a
decision only after the decision has already been made. For Libet, the
subjective present always lags the objective present. It means that any
thought, feeling, sensation, or action always occurs objectively before we
become aware of it subjectively and hence there is no possibility that we can
avoid it. This includes any choices or decisions that are made. We inescapably
live in the objective past so that the objective present and future are
completely beyond our control. This is that everything that happens must happen
before we can become aware of it.
For instance, you can try for yourself to hold out your hand and, after a short
interval, decide whether to move it left or right, or else up or down. If you
pay attention to what goes on, to the decision as it is experienced. Do you
believe -- can you believe -- that your hand did not move in response to your
choice? Nonetheless, that seems to be the conclusion to which Libet's evidence
points. The face-value interpretation is that the experienced choice is some
sort of illusion: it occurs after, and therefore cannot affect, the generation
of the impulse that causes the finger movement. If anything, the conscious,
experienced choice is some kind of epiphenomenon, a reflection in experience of
some underlying process, and it is the underlying process, not the decision,
that accounts for the way the finger moves and perhaps also for the way the
decision is experienced. If we generalize this, we get the disturbing thought
that our actions never depend on our conscious reasoning or decision-making.
Libet's conclusions have often been taken to be in contradiction with the
hypothesis of identity between mental and neural states. This has granted him
support from some (Eccles, in Popper & Eccles, 1977) and opposition from many
(Churchland, 1981a, 1981b; Glynn, 1990; Danto, 1985; Nelson, 1985; Wood, 1985).
Libet's beliefs on free will have been attacked for being out of step with
mainstream neurosciences and for dabbling in dualism (Wood, 1985; Gomes, 1999;
Bolbecker et al., 2002). In fact, most modern scientists, believing in causal
chain of events, would say without hesitation that there are causal neural
antecedents of any conscious decision. However as we mentioned above
determinism is not predictability. This question of free will brings us to the
beginning of our questioning, for some authors a true free will implies a
dualistic ontology for some others this assumption is not necessary.
The search for neural correlates of decision processes -- specific systems in
the brain that correlate directly with states of decision -- has become an
active area of research in recent years. Methods such as single-cell recording
in monkeys, brain imaging and electrophysiology in humans have generated a
wealth of data. The topic of this article was intended to introduce in an
interdisciplinary manner these issues from physiological, psychological, and
philosophical perspectives. The rapid development of such research in recent
years makes it likely that question about how and why such decision processes
is generated in the brain, is possible. When can we infer that some brain
region or activity underlies decision processes? That question has caused
considerable controversy. Though recent empirical findings are widely accepted,
debate continues about the evidence and its interpretation.
Such debates are common at the leading edge of any scientific effort.
Biochemists two decades ago found it useful to develop a set of explicit
criteria for the identification of proteins, and a similar set of high criteria
may help build a working consensus on what would constitute adequate evidence
for the brain basis of decision processes in the field of cognitive science.
Operational distinctions can be made to define what a decision processes is. It
is legitimate that asking questions about decision may raise the question about
free-will, responsibility and morals. If the decision processes are described
at a neuronal level, following by definition the law of nature and the
causality principle it is also legitimate to ask the question about the
consequences of such decision processes. Antonio Damasio says in his book
Descartes' Error, that 'The fact that acting according to an ethical principle
requires the participation of simple circuitry in the brain core does not
cheapen the ethical principle. The edifice of ethics does not collapse,
morality is not threatened, and in a normal individual the will remains the
will.' But because as some authors noticed (e.g. Dennett, 1991) simple brain
circuits don't prima facie generate moral decisions, this comment suggests we
at least ought to take a look at the philosophically perennial issues of
free-will and determinism, as well as reductionism and emergence.
We may argue that if the concept of decision falls to science, what would
happen to our sense of moral agency and free-will? If any simple or complex
decision process is reduced somehow to mere matter and motion, what would
happen to our appreciation of love and pain, and dreams and joy? If conscious
human beings were just animated material objects, how could anything we do to
them be right and wrong? These are among the fears that fuel the resistance and
distract the concentration of those who are confronted with attempts to explain
consciousness. A certain pragmatism and emergence of working at a different
level is tolerate by the community of neuroscientists when they make models and
propose mechanisms of decision. At least in my knowledge there is not yet in the
field of neuroscience a powerful theory that we think might be fundamental and
universal, a theory for which if the states of the brain were measured, all
subsequent states of the system are predictable and determined. Furthermore,
regarding the most extreme point of view, neuroscientific determinism has so
far failed to be established empirically. For this reason, a common view is
usually to think in favor of attributing free-will to an individual fact as the
default position. The question of rejecting a null hypothesis would probably be
disputed as to what degree of proof is required to reject the absence of free
will. In any case, an ethical concept of the decision-making would probably
involve simultaneous work at several levels, going back and forth in a
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(c) Pierre Pouget 2006
Center for Integrative & Cognitive Neuroscience
Vanderbilt Vision Research Center
Department of Psychology
Nashville, TN 37203 USA
III. 'AN ARGUMENT FOR REMAINING AGNOSTIC ABOUT GOD'S GOODNESS' BY JOHN ALEXANDER
Theists define God as having certain characteristics; omnipotence, omniscience,
omnipresence, and complete goodness. In order to square their belief in this
type of God with the existence of evil, they often argue that the existence of
evil is consistent with God's complete goodness because He has knowledge that
we do not have that explains and justifies the existence of evil. (Adams, Hick,
Penelhum). However, we have no evidence-based reason to support the knowledge
claim that God is completely good, or completely evil, or somewhere in between,
regardless of the knowledge He possesses. A completely evil God can explain the
existence of evil as well as a completely good God, or a being somewhere in
between. The evidence supports all three of these possible alternatives. All
that is needed is a being powerful enough to create and sustain a universe such
Because we can conclude that the universe is as we experience it is consistent
with a belief in a completely good God, or a completely evil God, or a God
somewhere in between, there is no rational reason for supporting the theistic
conception of God being completely good in so far as these three competing
conclusions logically cancel each other out. If we are talking about the way
the world is, it is logically not possible for the same being to be completely
good, completely evil, or somewhere in between at the same time. The only
reasonable conclusion is to remain agnostic and suspend judgment as to God's
moral qualifications. This, of course, means that we cannot know that a
theistically defined God exists.
The theist can only assert that God is completely good by begging the question
of His goodness. Somewhere the theist makes an equivocation. Descartes does
this, for example, when he argues that a perfect being would not deceive. He
maintains that deception is an imperfection, an intrinsically bad thing,
therefore a perfect being is an intrinsically good thing, and would not deceive
because a perfect being has no imperfections. (Descartes) But this is to beg the
question that perfection is only a positive, non-instrumental moral quality and
that perfection and non-instrumental goodness are equivalent so that when
people assert that something is perfect they can substitute, without change in
meaning, that that thing is intrinsically good.
However, 'good' is a vague term that can be applied as an adjective to many
different things. What is considered good depends on our conceptual frameworks,
which contain, in part, the goals that we seek to achieve and the principles and
rules for determining what is good (most efficient) as a means to achieving
these goals, as well as any intrinsic goodness these goals may have. In part,
'good' has an instrumental interpretation as the most prudential means to
achieve a desired goal. A completely evil being could, and probably would,
deceive in order to achieve a goal. Such a being would consider deception to be
a good thing as a means to achieve a goal. That is one of the reasons why that
being would be evil. He wants to deceive us into believing something to be true
which is in fact false. He would want to deceive us into believing that He is
good and not a deceiver. If the deception were flawless, not being able to be
detected with certainty, then it would be perfect. A completely evil being is a
perfectly evil being in so far as that being lacks nothing that would make it
The problem is that based on the evidence of the world as we experience it, we
cannot conclude that God is completely good, or that God is completely evil, or
somewhere in between because all three conclusions are all consistent with the
available empirical evidence. Consequently, we are not in a position to derive
any conclusions relative to the moral status of God from His having the other
three characteristics and/ or the fact that He is the creator and sustainer of
The argument for agnosticism re God's complete goodness is:
1b. God is the creator and sustainer of the universe.
2b. Part of His creation are the conditions wherein the moral agents that He
also created could make decisions and perform actions that result in good or
3b. Moral agents do make decisions and perform actions that result in the
existence of good and evil.
4b. Even if 1b-3b are true, we cannot assert that God has any other
characteristic than being able to create a universe such as ours.
5b. Let us agree, for the sake of the argument, that God is all knowing,
all-powerful, and present everywhere.
6b. If God has these characteristics; they are consistent with, but not
entailed, or even implied, by, 1b-3b. Such a being could create a universe such
as ours, but so could a lesser one if it had the enough power to do the job.
7b. If God has these characteristics we cannot determine His moral qualities.
We can only determine that 1b-3b are consistent with 5b.
8b. God being completely good, completely bad, or somewhere in between, is
consistent with 1b-3b and 5b, but is not entailed, or implied, by 1b-3b and 5b.
9b. Therefore even if 1b-3b and 5b are true, we cannot conclude anything about
the moral qualities of God.
10b. This being the case, then if we want to maintain that God being completely
good is consistent with 1b-3b and 5b, we must also maintain that 1b-3b and 5b is
equally consistent with God being completely evil, or somewhere in between.
11b. 10b is an example of a logical impossibility. 'God is completely good' and
'God is completely bad' and 'God is somewhere between being completely good or
completely evil' cannot refer to the way the world is simultaneously. There
cannot be one being who is simultaneously completely good, completely evil, and
somewhere in between.
12b. Therefore, the best the theist can hope for is to demonstrate that 1b-3b
and 5b are consistent.
13b. Consistency between 1b-3b and 5b is not enough to maintain anything about
God's moral characteristics.
14b. Therefore, because we are talking about the way things are and not the way
we may believe them to be, the theistic conception of God is not consistent
throughout because we have no way of determining if He is completely good, or
completely evil, or somewhere in between, based on the available evidence.
Based on this argument it is rational to remain agnostic about our having
knowledge of any of the characteristics that theists argue pertain to the
nature of God. People may still believe that God is completely good, meaning
that He does nothing morally impermissible, but that belief refers only to
their conceptual framework and its internal coherence. It does not show that
this belief, or set of beliefs, corresponds to what really is the way things
are. It is correspondence with the facts, not coherence with our other accepted
beliefs, which justifies us in believing how the world really is. Ascribing
moral characteristics to God is to say something about how the world really is,
and if the available evidence can lead to contradictory conclusions about the
way the world is, the only reasonable epistemic alternative is to remain
agnostic. A person can still believe in any one of the possible conclusions,
but the warrant for this belief will be psychological and pragmatic, based on
desire and coherence with other beliefs held to be true, not where what is
believed to be true is true if and only if it corresponds to the way things are
in the world.
Adams, Robert Merrihew, 'Middle Knowledge and the Problem of Evil, in The
Problem of Evil, edited by Marilyn McCord Adams and Robert Merrihew Adams,
Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1990.
Descartes, Rene, 'Meditation Three,' In Discourse on Methods and Meditations on
First Philosophy, Donald A. Cress translator, Indianapolis, Hackett Publishing
Company, Inc., 1993.
Hick, John, 'Soul-Making Theodicy,' in God and the Problem of Evil, edited by
William L. Rowe, Malden MA, Blackwell Publishers, 2001.
Penelhum, Terence, 'Diving Goodness and the Problem of Evil,' in The Problem of
Evil, edited by Marilyn McCord Adams and Robert Merrihew Adams, Oxford, Oxford
University Press, 1990.
Wisdom, John, 'Gods,' Proceeding of the Aristotelian Society XLV, (1944-1945),
185-206. Reprinted in An Introduction To Philosophical Inquiry, edited by
Joseph Margolis, New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1968.
(c) John Alexander 2006
John K. Alexander, Adjunct
Grand Rapids Community College
Grand Rapids MI, USA
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