Breathing Room

This essay was written for an undergraduate philosophy class called “Meaning of Life” in the spring of 2014. The lecturer was Prof. James Yess.

Since Nietzsche proclaimed in 1882 that “God is Dead”, we have seen the demise of Christianity and theism in general, especially within the study of philosophy. The de facto worldview currently is determinism, a philosophy built on the principle that to each effect there is always a cause. Determinism is further nestled within a naturalistic, materialistic reality that states that every single phenomenon in the world is attributed to the interaction of matter, made of atoms and molecules. Within the metaphysical context of materialist determinism, there are various views held by different philosophers, yielding separate and distinct worldviews. Generally, these worldviews belong to two groups, the incompatibilists and the compatibilists. Incompatibilists believe that free will is incoherent with determinism, and compatibilists believe the opposite, that they are not mutually exclusive. This logically follows that incompatibilists like Honderich who believe that an indeterminate self is false, that our actions are caused solely by our environment and dispositions and that an unfixed future cannot occur within determinism.

Ever since religion has been relinquished from a majority of our lives, philosophers have been trying to provide answers to the perpetual question of man’s yearning for meaning and purpose in a universe which is neither sentient nor alive. Among those who take the question sincerely, some of the more uplifting ones come from the existentialists and determinists. In general, they have stated that although life itself has no objective value, subjective value can exist. This subjective value is not found but created. The death of God requires man to take the empty driver’s seat. Instead of God’s will, we now purpose our own wills and pursue them. Man, once a creature, is now a creator. How apt is the description “Homo Faber” in our current paradigm. However, the hard incompatibilist view that Honderich and his colleagues have promoted threatens this outlook. Their belief that there is a fixed future undermines the creative potential that humans have for our future. Instead of owning these wills and pursuits, the hard incompatibilist would strike down their hopes and tell them that they have no part to play in the creation and fulfilment of their desires. The hard incompatibilist would wrongly edify that these are merely illusory, that the person has no part to play in the direction of her life and that her person is merely a combination of dispositions and environmental factors. Herein lies the space of uncertainty, which I term “breathing room”. The breathing room postulates that there is space for man to be a part of the causal process within a deterministic framework. (Within this essay the terms breathing room and space will be used interchangeably.) The exploration of this space seeks to provide an alternate narrative to the claims of hard incompatibilism through uncertainty that man has control of. It expounds a worldview that better resembles the everyday experiences of man. The gap will first be explored within the determinism and then neurology. A hypothesis behind the workings of the gap, and how it ultimately affects human meaning and purpose will be discussed.

The hard incompatibilist claim that the future is fixed is, to me, a very distant conclusion made from the deterministic basis. First, it seems apparent to me that by projecting the future from their deterministic worldview, hard incompatibilists are going beyond the boundary and putting themselves in a position of unnecessary speculation. Determinism shines most through a reflection in retrospect of events and occurrences, but it is meaningless to see its relevance beyond the present. Although it may be true that the understanding of our past can lead to a more mindful approach to the future, this is incoherent to the worldview of the hard incompatibilist. Hard incompatibilists postulate that the future is fixed but cannot be known. Due to our lack of knowledge of this future, we would live in exactly the same way as we do if there are possibilities of multiple futures. To adopt this worldview is to believe that all of our choices are illusory and that there is no way at all that man can have any level of control over their lives. The problem about this perspective though is that, like religion,  it cannot be disproven. To a large extent, it is merely a gross extrapolation of the deterministic worldview. Clearly, if the view that the future is fixed is by itself speculative, how definite is the following statement that our choices or life-hopes, coined by Pereboom, are illusory? Since our future can never be known to us, it is therefore meaningless for us to postulate perspectives that would restrict our outlook, especially ones that could lead to an attitude of passivity in life. The breathing room therefore exists in this not yet determinate space between past and future, where our choices are made and our actions decided upon.

It seems logical that we would have no control at all over our thoughts and subsequent actions if they stem from our dispositions and environmental causes. However, that claim has to be examined further. To enter our decision-making process, environmental factors have to be within the brain network. Therefore, the external factors are first sensed as stimuli that are processed into functional subconscious or conscious information. If a bat is swung quickly towards us, the brain responds by interpreting the fast-moving object as “danger”. Within the brain network therefore exists mental parallels or concepts of  “bat”, “speed” and “danger”. Instead, if it was a soft foam tube swung towards us by a child, concepts evoked within the brain could be “fun”, “squishy” and “safe”. Obviously, within a materialistic context, these mental parallels are physical phenomena most possibly occurring as neurons part of a larger brain neural circuit. Our dispositions are more tricky because they can be confused as both an internal or external factor. A view purporting that it is an external factor presupposes a self that is separate from our dispositions. This view contradicts the general deterministic view that our self emerges solely out of the activities of our brain. As put succinctly by Daniel Dennett, our consciousness arises from the intricate “ratcheting” of our brain. Hence, it seems logical that our dispositions are subconscious internal factors that, when exposed to external factors, come together to cause an action. However, a component that does not defy deterministic limits can be introduced to this system and form part of causal determination. This component could be the thoughts of the conscious self. The belief that our subconscious greatly shapes our eventual actions does not inherently deny the effects our conscious thoughts have in the formation of choices and actions. Determinists like the Stoics and Descartes maintain that we are selves distinct from our dispositions. Pereboom also maintains that nothing in determinism rules out the view that a self can select principles of action and initiate action on their basis independently of the influence of her dispositions and environment. These views validate the possible existence of the breathing room, that choice can exist within a deterministic framework, without even the introduction of compatibilist notions. Instead of Pereboom’s suggestion that a self can initiate action independently, I believe that consciousness, dispositions and environments are all part of a codependent neural system from which decisions are made. This view of the human causal chain empowers people to be active in their decision-making process and not leave all of their choices completely to impulse and chance. Not only is this model of causal determination more familiar to the common man, but it can also be observed from the beliefs of several philosophers. John Dewey, for example, stated that we do not learn from experience, but from the reflection of experience. The reflection process is a conscious phenomenon which enriches our brain’s reward centers and stimulates the learning process, calibrating the ratchets of our brain with the lessons learnt. 

In Man Against Darkness, Stace states that a man’s actions are as much events in the natural world as is an eclipse of the sun. Although I do generally agree with the naturalistic position, I doubt that an eclipse is a good analogy for the processes that occur within our brain. It has been said that there could be more neurons in our brain than stars in the Milky Way. That statement itself is probably enough to show how awesome the three pounds of matter in our cranium really is. The hard incompatibilist is awaiting the day when neuroscience provides all the answers to confirm their position. Currently, neuroscience has not painted us a complete picture of the brain’s workings. How the eventual findings are interpreted is crucial in the standings of current philosophical perspectives. It is therefore in this breathing room of uncertainty that allows multiple versions of determinism to coexist. For an object as intricate as the brain, I am not quite sure if scientists will ever be able to fully comprehend its vast, inherent complexities. In the face of that, scientists therefore create models that can closely represent how the brain works. These models can capture a part of the brain’s functional properties but not entirely. Astronomy is the oldest science and has been around for millennia, but astronomists still use ever-changing models to understand celestial objects and phenomena. Meteorology has been studied for close to a millennium, but until now weather forecasts can only do so much in predicting tomorrow’s weather. Although neuroscience would eventually get closer to understanding the fundamental mechanics of the brain, it might never be able to create a model of the brain that can accurately predict the outcomes of brain function. The unexpected or uncertain nature of its outcomes do not stem from randomness like the kind proposed in Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, but instead from a totally deterministic, dynamical system as can be seen from, for example, Chaos Theory, where dynamics are extremely sensitive to initial conditions. Until the day that neuroscientists can predict to utmost certainty the entirety of brain function, which arguably would take a very long time, we will never truly understand our ability to choose and affect our own decisions. Therefore, the presence of this breathing room of choice does not conflict with current neuroscientific fact.

Thus far, only the existence of the breathing room has been argued for, but how it affects human meaning and purpose have not yet been discussed. The space enables consciousness to be a part of the choice-making process, therefore providing a certain amount of agency, though limited, to persons. This limited agency allows people to take ownership over their projects, purposes and pursuits. It was discussed earlier on how the brain has mental parallels of physical phenomenon which act as part of the entire neural circuitry. Thus far, we have established that consciousness, dispositions and the environment are on deck for causal determination. Within the brain, these concepts have to be a physically similar entity in order to interact with each other. Each of these concepts is material by nature. Within the current neuroscientific understanding, these concepts are either a distinct or group of neurons that are part of the entire brain network. Essentially, these neurons have the capacity to hold an idea or thought. Philosophers lament the loss of God in our increasingly secular societies, and how that has taken away universal morality and justice. However, to say that we have “lost” God is a misnomer. If God has never been there in the first place, how is it that we have lost her? I argue that what we have lost is the idea of God, and that the idea of God occupies an important space in our brains. Post-theism requires that man’s purpose comes from the aspirations that he has willed. Underlying dreams and aspirations are ideals and values. Without a set of ideals and values, we would not be able to create any purpose or meaning because they have to be put in context. As human beings, we tend to anthropomorphize all that we experience. Every religion therefore has human-like deities and Gods. This can be seen even now, when philosophers call the universe “unfeeling” or “apathetic”, which does not make sense because the use of such terms assumes a human nature in the object. This is equivalent to telling jokes to a rock expecting that it would listen and respond, it is false and illusory. Perhaps our biggest error is in our desire to humanize every single object and experience we encounter. We set up ideals in our brain and through religion, we idolize and consolidate these concepts. The power of the idea of God lies in its absolute perfection. Seen from this view, God is merely a human-like manifestation of the greatest of the greatest great. The loss of God therefore entails the loss of a vision of absolute perfection. However, that does not mean that the vacuum cannot be filled. Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of human cognition is our ability to understand and communicate abstract ideas. Some of these ideas, like love, is instantly relatable and sometimes visceral to most even though they may not be able to put it well in words. Within our brains, these ideals are kept as pure abstract concepts, untainted by the forces of reality. Unlike Bertrand Russell, I believe that there is an authentic space that our ideals can occupy. Our ideals in the brain are neurons in the network like any other, being able to affect causal determination. Therefore, our ideals, consciousness, dispositions and environment all play a role in the determination of our lives and choices. Through the pursuit and passing on of our ideals, we can have a universal and, at the same time, unique purpose. This creates a narrative at both the grand and personal level. Each person, through communication and chosen actions, pass-on their ideals to the following generation and thus ensures that the goodness of man, and a part of them, exists for posterity. The younger generation, on the other hand, goes through a selection process of removing obsolete ideals and the strengthening of others to fit their newer contexts. Through a reversal, each person has now become a manifestation of their ideals, instead of the traditional opposite which gave rise to idols. Instead of false deities, we now have real-life heroes embodying certain sets of beliefs. 

The problem with this position is that abstract ideas might be less accessible to the uneducated masses as compared to anthropomorphized idols. For that reason, I will never downplay the relevance of religion, especially for those who are born into unfavourable circumstances without a chance for education. That said, the stand taken by this narrative is one that inherently values diversity and a wide variety of different ideals and values.

If we are the only conscious organisms in the world, we are the nervous system, the consciousness of the universe. Hitherto, we are the only beings able to appreciate the vastness of the universe within our brains. Given this powerful starting point, how can the ultimate narrative of man be that of any other species, to merely survive for a brief moment and perish? Most of us, despite this relatively young Godless context, would still aspire to do good. At the point of our death, most of us hope to leave the world a better place. As the late Steve Jobs once said, “We are here to leave a dent in the universe”. The claim is an exaggeration, but we all aspire to be able to affect others and create real positive changes in the world through our lives and actions. As Gandhi has stated, we need to start with ourselves to change the world around us. A hard incompatibilist notion denies completely the possibility of self-changing, which undermines our ultimate belief of making a difference, be it small or significant, in the lives of those who surround us. Even within a deterministic context, when people recognise this breathing room and start to take ownership of their lives they realise that they can truly influence their lives and the lives of others. This allows them to take an authentically active approach to their lives. One of the lessons that can be gleaned from the demise of theism is that no matter how great the promised benefits, once people start to doubt the truth of their belief, it will soon crumble. I think that there is a parallel between that and the illusory mode of living life promoted by several hard incompatibilists. The worst lie one could ever tell is the one told to herself. Through their actions, deeds and stories people become manifest of their ideals, causing them to spread good causes across the human network and allow their ideas to be carried on by the next generation.