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What’s Missing From This Picture?


Writing in the Los Angeles Times last year, Ellen Ruppel Shell, author of The Hungry Gene, said, Obesity is the consequence of environment acting on genetic inclination, and that genetic predisposition combined with an increasingly obesegenic environment underlies the current pandemic.

Whats missing from this picture?

Human volition, free will.

Whats remarkable about Shells statement is how unremarkable it is these days. Free will is pass, superseded by modern neuroscience and genetics, which see man as little more than a robot. Behavior is caused by the complicated processes involving neurotransmitters, chemical balances (or imbalances), and subatomic particles.

Put simply, were all just highly complex billiard balls reacting to various internal and external forces outside our control. We may be conscious, but consciousness is just an impotent byproduct of physical processes, incapable of itself being a cause of anything in the physical world. (That view is called epiphenomenalism.)

Some writers on the subject may not go to this extreme. But vogue thinking about mind and consciousness in one way or another reduces mental activity to the physical activity of the brain. For increasing numbers of thinkers, mind is nothing but the brain.

Consider this from the January 20 Time magazine cover story, Your Mind, Your Body:

Mind and body, psychologists and neurologists now agree, arent that different. The brain is just another organ, albeit more intricate than the rest. The thoughts and emotions that seem to color our reality are the result of complex electrochemical interactions within and between nerve cells. The disembodied voices of schizophrenia and the feelings of worthlessness and self-hatred that accompany depression, although they seem to be based on reality, are no more than distortions in brain electrochemistry. Researchers are learning how these distortions arise, how to lessen their severity and, in some cases, how to correct them. [Emphasis added.]

This is more than esoteric neuroscience. Its also more than medicine, although here the ramifications are immense with every human problem diagnosed as an illness to be treated, coercively if necessary, with chemicals. My concern here is politics for the simple reason that, taken seriously, this view defines metaphysical freedom out of existence. The brain is a physical organ fully subject to the mechanistic laws of science. It cannot be free. And if metaphysical freedom is defined out of existence, so is political freedom. There is no point in talking about liberty if people cannot truly govern their own behavior. Thus, much hangs on this discussion.

Thomas Sowell has written that there are no solutions, only tradeoffs. To get you have to give. With the good comes the bad. The age of enlightenment and science brought countless benefits, but it has had its downside. As Ludwig von Mises and F.A. Hayek pointed out, it encouraged people to believe that if man can deliberately control natural processes, so can he deliberately control social processes. Central planning was born. That project was advanced by the allied belief that man cannot be an exception to the mechanistic universe. He is as subject to Newtons (and later Einsteins and the quantum physicists) laws as any speck of dust.

These thoughts were all congenial to the would-be dictator. They also had the advantage of seeming modern and scientific. With religion losing much of its clout in the modern world, the mantle of science gave organized coercion a major boost.

As the computer came into its own, the view of man as machine took another leap. Man thinks, but so do machines. Thus man is a machine. The circle was closed. Intelligent planning of society was at hand. Freedom and morality, those quaint and outmoded notions from the era of religion, need not stand in the way of enlightened social reconstruction. Man as we knew him was abolished. O happy day.

The problem is that every assumption underlying this approach to the world is dead wrong. One need not believe in an immortal and autonomous soul to see that man is not a machine. He differs fundamentally from a computer, the activities of which are not meaningful to itself. His body may be subject to the laws of biology, chemistry, physics, quantum mechanics, but his person is not. He chooses and acts, initiates and originates.

How do we know? Its self-evident.
Free choice and free will

Not long ago I got into a debate with two biology professors who argued that people do not have free will. I wondered why they ever bothered to make appointments with their students, since it would be a sheer coincidence if they happened to be in their offices when the students arrived. They certainly could not choose to keep the appointment, could they? Moreover, I wondered why they were opening their mouths and uttering what sounded like words, but couldnt really be words, because using language requires exercising volition in selecting meaning and the appropriate words to convey it. They had ruled that out, at least for themselves.

Which reminds me: the satirist Tom Lehrer, back in the 1960s, became irritated with the incessant whining about the inability to communicate. If you cant communicate, he said, the least you can to is to shut up. Doesnt that also apply to someone who argues against volition? I guess he cant help speaking, but that doesnt mean we should regard the noise emitted as anything more than, well, noise.

The upshot is that we cant escape the idea of choice and the panoply of concepts associated with it. No one could live as if he did not govern his own behavior. I once read that John Stuart Mill decided to test the theory of determinism by sitting in his chair and waiting to see what happened. How absurd. He had to choose to sit and wait. Volition is inescapable.

This has been recognized by important thinkers. Mises regarded the concept of action as axiomatic. Action, Mises wrote, is will put into operation. Thus it is different from mere motion. It involves intangibles, such as intention and preference. We cant understand the idea of action without those underlying concepts. We see the axiomatic status of action when we understand that to deny the existence of action is itself an action. Denial is affirmation and is thus self-contradictory.

Similarly, Ayn Rand identified the idea of mans volitional consciousness (a form of action) as axiomatic. It is simply ridiculous to demand proof of consciousness. The demand, and the idea of proof itself, presuppose consciousness and reality. (Descartes got it wrong, as Rand and others have noted. Knowledge of the existence of consciousness does not precede knowledge of the existence of reality. Before one could know one possesses consciousness, one would have to be conscious of something reality.)
The nature of the mind

This brings us to the subject of the mind. Philosophers have been vexed by the mind-body dichotomy for centuries. The dualists asked, how there can be interaction between two such different things: the irreducibly physical and the irreducibly mental. Many attempts at an answer have been made all unsatisfactory, I venture to say.

Some have tried to get around the problem by embracing monism, the theory that minds and bodies, quoting from Antony Flews Dictionary of Philosophy, do not differ in their intrinsic nature; the difference between them lies in the way that a common (neutral) material is arranged.

The problem, it seems to me, is that both dualism and monism regard the mind as some kind of thing. Heres where we can profit immensely by reading Thomas Szaszs great book, The Meaning of Mind. I remember being at a dinner with Szasz after he finished writing this book. I asked him what it was about, and he said, Mind is a verb, not a noun.

Its amazing how many puzzles are solved by that seemingly simple sentence. For one thing, we no longer have to decide if mind is the same substance as the body. It is of no substance at all. It is action. What kind of action? Szasz calls it self-conversation. Mind is the word for that lifelong internal narrative we engage in about ourselves and our surroundings. (The close association with memory should be obvious.)

As Szasz writes on page 81,

[There] is no consciousness (as a unitary event or experience) to explain.There is only human minding, that is, attending to the ever-changing aspects of our environment (including our self) and articulating as well as deciphering the experience as and in language (self-conversation).

It should be obvious that one cannot deny the existence of mind so conceived without collapsing into rank absurdity. Persons of course require physical equipment to engage in minding; we arent ghosts. But minding qua experience is not reducible to underlying physical processes. When Im riding in a crowded subway car, it matters whose hand touches mine despite the fact that all hands are made of human flesh.

Libertarians have to become interested in this subject because, as suggested earlier, the cause of political freedom is at stake. We must not let our enthusiasm for science seduce us into the acceptance of scientism, the application of the methods of hard science to areas outside its competence. If we fall for that, we will witness what C.S. Lewis warned of some years ago: The abolition of man.

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    Sheldon Richman is former vice president and editor at The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.