TREATISE ON FREEDOM AND FATE, CAUSE AND CHOICE
by Robert Priddy Ph.D
The key issue - do humans have any degree of free will - is a very involved one. To elucidate its many convolution one must deal with philosophical and scientific investigations (especially in physics, neurology and biology), but also with far-reaching cultural and religious beliefs and behaviour. To illustrate this with brief examples: the philosophical issue deals with the meaning of 'freedom', 'willpower', 'causation' and numerous related words and also with the scope and logical consistency of the conceptual frameworks of ideas involved. In physics there is the issue of whether experimental and theoretical physics allow of uncaused events - and if so, how and to what extent (i.e. the nature and consequences of 'indeterminacy'). In neurology, the issue is influenced by the increasingly sophisticated study of neural connections and the neurological nature of consciousness and its inevitable role in any freedom of the human will. The cultural and religious roots of the question of free will are closely intertwined with belief in the supernatural - where various powers vy with one another over human fate and freedoms and/or a creator divinity who either omnipotently runs and rules everything or allows some measure of freedom to the subjects he has created. From such widespread and hugely varied beginnings, differing theologies have developed, each with their doctrine for or against human freedom.
THE MEANING OF 'FREEDOM'
Few words have been used
for so many things as 'freedom' has. The term is imprecise and so can have
many different meanings. As preliminaries for discussing the nature of freedom
and trying to decide what is true or false about the subject, we may try
to make it clearer by asking
1) freedom from what? and
2) freedom for what?
It may also be worth remembering that the interpretations and standpoints involved are important really only because of the various consequences they have have for our lives, thought and activities, such as what kind of society and culture they are likely to support. The issue of whether the individual has any degree of free will is inseparable from the question of what kind of 'freedom' is intended.
A.C. Grayling has written that we require a clearer conception of free will:-
"Its formal identifier is the “genuinely could have done otherwise” requirement: but not only does that itself require unpacking, we also need to look for the fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) traces that suggest which structures in the brain import novelty into the world’s causal chains, making their possessor a true agent, and not merely a patient—a sufferer—of the universe’s history."
PERSONAL FREEDOM IS UNEQUALLY DISTRIBUTED
Whether or not humans have free will is not a simple question, so a blunt dichotomy between freedom-determinism is not helpful, even if the issue could be empirically decided (which so far seems beyond the reach of science). The more important of the many meanings or interpretations of ‘free will’ - crucially meaningful in the entire human inquiry into how humans causally affect the world and society - are the senses in which we experience that we are free to choose. However, one cannot make the assumption that all individuals are equally free to choose. Firstly, people in different cultures and different socio-economic classes are subject to different degrees of restraint or freedom to act. Likewise, individuals are not all equally able to exercise free will, as their abilities depend on such factors as maturity, health condition, physical limitations, social restraints, intelligence and the level of their knowledge.
This aspect of freedom of the will – seemingly such an evident fact – is mostly overlooked in the concentration on the more technical philosophical or theological issue whether human can have any free will at all. There may be reasons why such a debate is not raised or is unpopular, since it conflicts with the widely cherished generalised belief about the supposed freedom and equality of all persons. On the one hand it is patently evident that everyone does not have the same degree of personal freedom – that is, the ability and means to do whatever they choose – because all freedom or choice is limited by the alternatives on hand. For example, an infant is less free than an adult, a person serving a prison sentence is less free than a normal citizen, a person with broad knowledge and long experience is usually aware of more realistic possibilities and alternatives than a person deprived of education and opportunities for wide experience. The limitations on freedom can also be congenital, as in those born with symptoms of genetic mental retardation.
The significance of the above consideration is that it opens for the possibility of degrees of human freedom of will in a way which even tends to challenge the basic assumption of free will as a universal human capacity, or at least some of the implications drawn from it (not least in religion, morals and the law). It has been proposed in some religions and by esoteric schools that the degree of free will anyone has depends upon unusual achievements such a yoga, tantra and other practices. The pseudo-philosopher Gurdjieff was a proponent of such a theory. This idea also forms the basis of most Hindu and Buddhist religion. The difficulty with this is that, as a hypothesis, it is far beyond any normal means of investigation or testing. Nonetheless, science in general still regards the existence of higher forms of consciousness or ‘transcendental wisdom’ than the human mind normally achieves as a ‘unvalidated hypothesis’, and some even regard it as an unnecessary theory to explain anything. Moreover, there is no evidence that any such supposed ‘spiritual masters’ have ever contributed anything significant to genuine knowledge, but only to speculation and subjective self-interpretations.
TWO 'POLES' IN THE PHILOSOPHICAL DEBATE
In essence, the sphere of discussion covering the subject human freedom and causal determinism has two poles. At the one is the idea that our will is 'completely free' in essence, though it may be 'conditioned' by the various different circumstances surrounding each person. At the other pole are the extreme doctrines of total fatalism or unalterable causal determinism. Other relevant standpoints fall somewhere between these 'polar extremes'. It is interesting to note that the fatalistic pole is occupied both by many religious fundamentalists and many natural or physical scientists. The other extreme is hardly populated, except for some philosophers of the existentialist variety, such as Jean-Paul Sartre. The 'tropics and temperate zones' represent the middle way theories, which admit in one way or another of the 'necessity' of there being some free will while recognizing that the conditioners and limitations operating upon us are either more or less powerful. Most thinkers in the social, historical and political sciences are found well away from the poles, as are those who contribute to some form of ordinary common sense, especially in modern and more Westernised cultures.
The most serious challenge to the possibility of human free will comes from speculations around the philosophy of science. Since science aims to trace the cause of every possible event or phenomenon, it is always close to absolutising the assumption that there is no freedom in that everything that happens in any shape or form must inevitably be caused by directly preceding events. This leaves no room for human freedom whatever. Therefore this issue is dealt with first of all, before the many theological speculations that also would deny any kind of freedom. Since the theological speculations all depend ultimately on belief or non-belief in a God and a doctrine surrounding this (i.e.on some irrational assumption), it primarily in the sphere of philosophical analysis, logic and empirical science that the key issue is sought illumined through purely rational and empirical means. In short, no belief in any omnipotent creator is presumed here so that the issue can be examined better on its merits independently of doctrine.
SCIENTIFIC CONFUSION ABOUT CAUSES
However, many sciences operate with a multiplicity of causes, due to the complex interactive and many-facetted structure of matter, mind and society. Werner Heisenberg's famous intervention is the deterministic Einsteinian physics can be summed up simply in his own words: "With the mathematical formulation of quantum-theoretical laws pure determinism had to be abandoned."(1)
Many supporters of scientism will still not fully accept the possibility of 'uncaused' phenomena, and it appears that none of them accept that both meaningless random coincidences and meaningful synchronous 'coincidence' of events can occur. Scientists also ignore how some people experience 'extraordinary' meaningful coincidences argue that synchronicity is nothing more than chance or random 'coincidence' without statistical significance, for all meaning or purpose in such 'coincidences' is rejected by scientism as a merely subjective interpretations of events. This standpoint is controversial, since many thinkers are convinced that 'meaningful' coincidences occur, perhaps best known of these being C.G. Jung with his empirical materials to support his theory of synchronicity. In many religious and 'spiritual movements' the meaningful nature of coincidences is recognised, such events being somehow controlled by a higher power or god. Be this as it may, the issue alone opens a major field of discussion about the interpretations of events and, where even what little serious empirical research available is inconclusive.
Great Western thinkers have almost always pursued the goal of discovering order in life and the cosmos, whether by religious, philosophical or scientific means. Early forms of civilization already sought to account for the cause of events by what is now widely considered to be 'mythology', by explaining natural events as the result of actions of deities. Superstitious as they may seem to the casual observer, such systems of belief contributed to a kind of ordering of ideas and of social relations.
The science of nature developed by the early Greeks started from ideas of an underlying order in nature itself, a 'logical cosmos' (cosmos as logos). The nature of certain regular physical events were examined and described, which led to ideas about underlying structures or laws of nature that determined the ordering of events in time and space. With the human mind's propensity to seek regularity, such as causes and effects, order became a guiding ideal of rational thinking, the basis of the development of discursive reason and logic and also of systematic scientific research.
The ultimate origin, meaning and purpose of the cosmos and all its events has been sought by metaphysicians and theologians, artists and mystics, of many cultures. The ideal is all-embracing explanation and is set against the apparent chance happenings of the world and the fearful notion of ultimate chaos. Seeking solutions and explanations of the conflicts of human life and society led thinkers to the conception of an ethical order. This had already arisen in India centuries before with the concept of karma or the universal law of action and reaction in all things, including human actions. The Jews and the Greeks both adopted such conceptions of an ethical order operating on human destiny, which became a cornerstone of Christian and European thought. This fatalism will be looked at from various angles in the following pages.
POLITICAL AND SOCIAL FREEDOM
Political freedom is desired from suppression of individuals or groups and for individual justice, as appropriate in each instance. Nations or races seek freedom from external forces, whether military , economic or otherwise and they desire the freedom to exercise socio-economic and political justice. Democracy is based on the 'freedom' of the individual to vote on who should govern. ('freedom' thus interpreted as 'choice'). That such freedoms can and do exist is a historical and social fact. But the particular extent or scope of such 'social freedoms' obviously varies with time and place. Social freedom is also for the good of all society, being the rights a person should have so as to be able do his duty as a member of society. It is not a right or an open license to do whatever one wants; that is anarchy. Our 'human rights' are whatever is necessary or reasonable to enable us to serve our fellowmen. Whatever denies human beings the minimum of means of doing those duties is a compulsion from which they must seek freedom. Some examples of compulsion are the suppression of the right of religious belief or worship and the denial of the general opportunity of caring for others through work (and of not being an undue burden oneself).
FREEDOM IN HUMAN WILL POWER
Most Christian denominations hold that freedom
implies the capacity to deny God and err from the right way (also known
in the East as the way of
dharma). Some people use their freedom to act well, some to err. Moreover, Saint Augustine held that God would not want to be loved as if by slaves, but to be loved only out of the soul's free option of surrendering. The will is what enables us to choose a course of action and decide to follow it, after having arrived at a judgement of how to act in the given circumstances. The freedom to discriminate morally (or not do so) is a human faculty which other living beings do not have, nor do they suffer as we must from the necessity of having to choose. To discriminate and make efforts to do good, not bad, required a measure of individual freedom, even though it is always bounded by limiting circumstances. If our choices between alternative actions were not willed 'voluntarily', all moral exhortation would be futile because moral effort (exertion of will power) would be impossible. There could be no such thing as responsibility and no philosophy other than fatalism could be true. To hold anyone responsible for their conscious acts (such as in law) would be a gross injustice if they had no freedom to do otherwise.
OMNIPOTENCE AND FATALISM
It has been said in scriptures, including the Koran, that no blade of grass can wave without God's will and, in Vedantic writings, that we are all but actors in a vast play written and directed by God, a drama of which we can know neither the whole script nor the outcome. This belief is mirrored in that fundamentally insecure philosophy of 'scientism' in more materialistic and mechanistic versions. This belief is based on the assumption that the causal connections of all events through time are inevitable, therefore predetermined from the start of the universe, so that there can be no change from the set pattern of developing events. This is scientific determinism at its ultimate. It is ideologically rooted in the nineteenth century mechanistic and mainly static view of events, rather than a dynamic or multi-dimensional perspective.
The image of puppets on a string in a shifting shadow drama has been used by fundamentalist religionists to describe our predicament. At the same time we are exhorted to try to play our parts well! This only makes sense if we have the power we have to exercise a limited 'free will', depends for its existence on the same energy as does the entire cosmic continuum of space, time and matter. I can see that we are like puppets in that virtually nothing we do, from moving our limbs to digesting our food, from thinking to dreaming, is done without the motive power of some 'ultimately mysterious' energy that is created somehow in ways still beyond our ken. Whether science will eventually attain to a full explanation of the conversion of energy in the human organism or not remains to be seen. The advances of science is becoming so impressive in numerous previously-impenetrable areas (genetics, astrophysics, micro-physics, nano-technology) that it would be foolish to deny that the sciences may never understand the entire connection between consciousness and the body (as exemplified, say, in the will to act and the physical movement).
Science aims at the explanation, through tangible tests of some sort, of the cause of each event it investigates. It then seeks to generalize about events to find and demonstrate regular orders (i.e. natural laws) to which they conform, whether or not this order is evident to the ordinary observer. By and large the physical sciences claim to discover just such natural laws, the main exception being micro-physics with its discovery of inherent physical paradoxes and a certain 'indeterminacy' in micro-events. In our day, however, the empirical scientist still tends to accept the assumption of a non-purposive universe. This is a belief, not a fact, of course and - like all beliefs - it is backed by various arguments and demonstrations, none of which are - or can ever be - conclusive proofs. The revered Law of Universal Causation which asserts that 'every event has a cause' came to be interpreted as 'each event has only one prior cause'. Paradoxically, the idea of the father of biology, Aristotle, that 'nothing in nature is in vain', and therefore has an inherent purpose or meaning, was thus distorted and narrowed by modern science. Probably a majority of biologists, being mainstream Darwinists, still reject the notion of cosmic purpose of any sort (from Monod, Dobhanzsky etc. and on down to Stephen Jay Gould or Richard Dawkins) and largely join physics and the non-science mathematics (which is the very model of logic) in upholding the belief that 'chance' or 'randomness' and 'sheer accident' do occur.
However, the paradoxical consequences of the deterministic position that is, its lack of logical consistency across the whole field of events - have caused some biologists to look towards goal-fulfillment (teleological explanation) to account for evolution. One thought-provoking instance is Rupert Sheldrake's teleological viewpoint in A New Science of Life, which it is no exaggeration to say has not been welcomed by the mainstream. Sheldrake's explanation of natural forms (morphology) is goal-oriented rather than causal and Darwinistic. However, this current move towards seeking teleological explanations again is part of a general apparent 'religious revival' and does not represent any signs of radical or extensive change in the views of world science. Time will tell whether this new religiosity is mainly an effect of access to the Internet so many underdeveloped societies where religions have always been strongly held, and whether it is more like a 'swan song' from a culture which is under greater and greater threat by modern education, science, technology and changing lifestyles.
When any scientist today speaks
of the 'cause' of an event, what is really meant is simply 'that event which
is always observed immediately to precede the event caused'. Explanation is
thus a mere description of a series of events observed always to be regularly
connected to one another. It is agreed by scientists themselves that such
(detailed) descriptions are the only sort of 'explanations' that science can
provide. What is 'explained' is simply how much more detailed and complex
many events are than is generally perceived or thought. Once consequence of the prime importance of the temporal connection between two events is that explanations are driven to micro-temporal events (hence also often at the ultimate microscopic level). This makes it more and more difficult to establish causal connections at the level of normal, humanly-experienced events. However significant statistical connections between events may prove to be, they do not locate or explain the causal connections.
There is another sense which the idea of cause usually implies which is left unexplained... what actually creates the connection between cause and effect and, further, what sustains it in every instance? Descriptions answer questions of 'how' or 'in what manner', whereas the word 'why' asks for more than a description, but a proper explanation. Scientists might prefer that the word 'why' did not exist at all. But exist it does and, though science assumes that 'every event must have a cause', there must be a reason (cause?) for the concept 'why'. The time-honoured notion of a cause, however, originally meant that there was some power, some purposeful principle or an operative Will operating on events or itself somehow inherent in events. Knowing that power, how and why it operates as it does to create and maintain order and causality in nature - rather than the reverse - would amount to explaining events fully. Both philosophers and scientists agree that such a cause is not observable by use of any of the five senses or their combinations. Since David Hume wrote his famous analysis showing how observation reveals the baselessness of the idea of 'necessary connection' between cause and effect, this doctrine has virtually become universally accepted among scientists.
Empiricism has consequently re-defined the ancient idea of 'cause' to narrow its scope. The end result is that one observes that B follows A, but one does not claim it must so do, or that a connecting factor between events is understood. Science does not try to answer 'why', it even rejects rational explanations entirely if they have no observable cause. Sometimes - but not always - an exception is made for our explanations of our own motives or intentions, which science may or may not recognize as the sufficient 'cause', depending on the degree of physicalistic strictness in the particular school of thought.
Scientific empiricism serves to summarise and generalize the information gathered from a plethora of different individual descriptions. Scientific experiment is no more (or less) than a method of discovering which descriptions (or generalised descriptions known as hypotheses) are based on accurate observations. If the observations are lacking, the hierarchy of descriptions (from hypotheses to theories) are thrown into doubt and require to be modified or rejected, according to the seriousness of their lack of accuracy etc. This is the essence and the extent of all scientific theory and method, however intricate, however far-reaching its observations in time and space. Beyond this descriptive understanding it cannot go, not - that is - without becoming 'unscientific'. All this is long-established and unproblematical doctrine in the history and philosophy of science. The most abstract and concise theories in any science do no more than compress and unify such 'causal' descriptions of physical nature. This is the whole of it; science does not really explain but rather shows us how to observe and manipulate the environment more accurately and thus effectively.
There are also anomalies that arise when trying to apply the idea of cause as it was traditionally defined, as Prof. Joad pointed out long ago, "Under the influence of the theory of relativity, twentieth-century physics tends to account for the movements of an entity X solely in terms of happenings in the immediate vicinity of X." but the facts of nature show that "...modifications are the more intense near the place of origin, less intense as we travel away from it. Now the so-called law of cause and effect constitutes a particular case of force operating from over a distance, and the law is, therefore, affected by the abandonment of the general conception of which it is a special case.(2) Joad held that, for a variety of reasons the kind of causation which the mechanist theory of the universe requires, long regarded as untenable by philosophers, was in large measure rejected by physicists. This action from a distance is now called 'field effect', and is still behind a closed gate, as it were. All magnetism is field effect, with the magnetic influence of the sun and earth as impressive instances.
In summary, the basic idea of causation obviously cannot be rejected, for there is no adequate replacement for this practically unavoidable way of thought. (Kant even saw the idea of causality as one of the few fundamental functions inherent to the human mind at the deepest level). In a profound sense, though, science can even be said not to be able to explain how any event really occurs. The causes and effects described by science can themselves be said to have an unexplained cause (in the fuller sense of the word 'cause'). An example helps to illustrate this: what is the cause of the digestive processes that enable the human body to utilize the energy in foodstuffs as sustenance for the 'inexplicable' life force? It is certainly not just the presence of digestive enzymes, for this itself requires 'explanation'. The bio-chemical construction and functions of enzymes do not help to explain their existence, but only which conditions are observed as accompanying their production. Nor does any such analytic observation help explain their immediate purpose (i.e. which functions they fulfil). Like all physical science, bio-chemistry is devoid of any idea of purpose in nature. It can trace the physical origins to amazing lengths, not least going far back into the past. One can surely say that the purpose is the sustenance of the life-principle in the body, but then one must answer what the purpose of the life principle is. This is doubtless a question beyond the methods and theories of science. It is not a question to which numerous and various answers can be supplied, but the question itself relies on an unproved - and most likely untestable - assumption, that life has a pre-set purpose. Meanwhile, events of the future are virtually a closed book to most of the predictions of science, and to all the prophesies of religion. It is overwhelmingly a case of 'wait and see'. to 'know' how it will actually devolve.
THE PROBLEM OF CAUSAL MULTIPLICITY
The insistence of scientific theorists on there being one cause of each event is understandable, because this has proven a very fruitful assumption indeed to the methodic progress of analysis and experiment in physics and the allied natural sciences. Isolating one factor as the crucial factor is doubtless applicable in studying the processes of nature at an elemental level. But what of nature at the higher levels, of the bamboozling intricate and countless interacting functions of life?
The complexity of an eco-system, even of a tiny part of eco-systems such as the bacteriological processes within a cubic inch of fertile soil, are still far beyond comprehensive observation or calculation. The same applies to the interactive system of bio-chemicals in the human body, which is a complex beyond the reaches of all analysis and calculation. The simple idea of one-cause-one-effect is evidently totally futile at the level of articulation of life reached in the human being, with its endlessly varied emotions (as described ever anew in world literature), with the billions upon billions of perceptions, thoughts, ideas, word-pictures, actions, and with the constantly changing and growing gestalts of taste, opinion, behaviour, desire, aspiration, art, music, organisation etc...
As long as we consider very basic processes between the elements in nature, the idea of 'linear' cause-effect chains of causation is useful for identifying and isolating regularities of connection of events. But nature has many levels of increasing articulation, such that it is both theoretically and practically quite impossible to analyse every kind of event - and often unique combination thereof - so as to arrive at any reasonable account of causes.
When people speak of causes of upheavals in nature, of wars or even of some important action by an individual, it is just not feasible to speak in terms of a single cause. Usually one points out many contributing 'causes', which usually are seen as human motives formulated amid all manner of physical and social conditions. What is virtually a theory of multiple causation is then called for. It is simply not acceptable to argue for one single event as causing the murder of a person such as Trotsky. No single micro event can be singled out as 'crucial' among the mass of events that brought about that terrible act. No more does it make sense to say that one single cause led Chamberlain to decide on his famous declaration of war against the Third Reich is too absurd to be even worth considering. The same logic necessarily applies to all social events where any kind of intentional decisions were involved.
What sets going and sustains the incredibly intricate interplay of chemicals and enzymes in cell life to behave organically, attracting and repelling, bonding or destroying, initiating division or impeding it, defending and attacking... is not explained at all. Some immediate causes are so far described, yet the whole interaction of chains of events is invariably only known to a relatively minor extent. The bewildering bio-interactions within even the simplest living organisms make simple cause-effect thinking look a very inadequate and rough intellectual tool. Though molecular biology, which is highly analytical, still manages largely with the principle of isolating a single cause to each event, ecological biology cannot do so, and so rather seeks the holistic view. To try to isolate one single cause of the depletion of a particular species of insect in a rain forest is about as futile as trying to isolate one cause for the depletion of the world's rain forests. One may even say with considerable good reason that each such event is simply caused by 'human greed', but this is not scientifically satisfying because it does not advance our understanding of the intricacies of the whole global process. Even to know all the inter-relations of countless billions of microscopic events within a small area of forest neglects the influence of major weather patterns, many kinds of human intervention (like logging, pollution etc.)
The above problem applies very largely in all the sciences that deal with such events which are thought to be very complex combinations of single events, which is to say most of them. Many such events, however, are unitary and have the nature of wholes or 'gestalts', such as with eco-systems of any kind and with most psychological, social, economic, anthropological, historical or allied phenomena.
It is possible, thinking of Wittgenstein's apposite remarks on the functions of language in clouding thought, that sheer grammar lies behind the fixation of scientists on the singularity of causes: the phrase 'has a cause' may have mislead reason away from what otherwise is obvious, some events can have several or more concurrent causes (often called 'factors' or 'variables' in methodological jargon), without which those events could not have occurred.
Bertrand Russell was even of
the opinion that the language of cause and effect was merely a convenient
shorthand for certain purposes, but does not represent anything that is genuinely
to be found in the physical world. This is basically only Hume again. One
weakness of this is that it undermines the chief guiding principle of science
through the ages, which has contributed greatly to its advances. More serious,
though, is its rejection of a concept which is found in some form in every
human culture and which is indispensable according to many philosophers, not
least Kant who elevates the idea of causation to the most important of the
mind's inherent or a priori categories. To reject the idea of cause
is like saying, 'there are no grounds whatever for anything to happen as it
CHANCE EVENTS & FREE WILL VS. CAUSALITY
The recognition of unique or unrepeatable events is clearly unavoidable in practice in science and is certainly so in the realm of 'social sciences' like history. In the micro-physical sphere, the behaviour of individual sub-atomic particles are 'proven' unpredictable and are thus subject to 'chance', their individual behaviour being 'unique' (not conforming to any regularity, pattern or law), though they conform to predictable laws in the aggregate. This implies that chance takes place at the elemental or individual scale of things, but in the aggregate or on the macro-scale, regularity is always found. Universal order would in this way be imposed on chaos (on indeterminacy as prevailing at the level of the particular individual). This virtually amounts to a variant of 'holism' as opposed to 'individualism'.
This implies that one cannot predict macro-events reliably from micro-events. It seems, at least, to be in accordance with all normal experience. It amounts to an overall ordering (even determinism) which is qualified by the exceptions of chance and freedom at the particular level, always operating within objective limits.
For example, individual persons can also be notoriously unpredictable in at least some things, even to some one who knows them extremely well. Psychology and other social sciences (such as social economics) may sometimes approximate how the statistical aggregate will behave, but cannot avoid the common sense notion that, from our own conscious point of view, we individuals have a 'will of our own' which enables us not only to defy any prediction if we wish to prove it wrong, but also on occasion to act independently of any known or conceived general law. Between the supposed 'causal chains of events', human volition sometimes steers towards goals that have no precedent whatever in any past experience. The moment of indeterminacy, of choosing through the mind's inward decision, somehow inserts itself into the chain of events... between stimulus and response, cause and effect. There is not even an iron 'law of survival', for people can and do commit suicide, even sometimes only to prove a point, as occurs in political protests, relationships and so forth.
As soon as we leave the realm that science still treats as 'dead' or inert matter and come to mankind and society, the human sciences have to deal with additional complications. The basic problem, as noted, is that of 'free will'; the will to choose between alternative courses of action within given situations and limitations. This idea of free will is ineradicable in human life, for without it there can be no responsibility, no just law, no philosophy other than fatalism and even no democracy. Human beings would be sheer automatons in a (very complex) mechanical type of universe without any freedom of will, however limited. But free will cannot be caused, for it is precisely 'free' of causal determinants.
Causal science has a problem with all voluntary goal-oriented 'social processes' such as revolutions, fashions and anything affected by subjective motivations and ideal purpose. Neither the 'creation' of original meaning, as in the arts or sciences, nor the idea of meaninglessness can be explained as a result of determinacy. Telling evidence that human will somehow breaks with any iron law of causality is the fact that - unlike physics and biology - sociology, economics and political science are never able to predict. Innovation, future events or trends are not predictable with any reasonable degree of reliability, even under fairly well known circumstances.
Events that are or can be influenced in any way whatever by human will are similar and thus can only be understood when the following or subsequent events and the intended consequences are taken fully into account. This is the reverse of the empirical idea of causality in that it sees the cause of an event in terms of a lack, that is the absence of some required condition or as a shortcoming in some state of affairs. This perspective is future-oriented because it analyses existing conditions on the basis of what would, could or should be.
Despite Einstein's great achievement in showing the fruitfulness of causal reasoning and its applicability to the vastnesses of the universe through the special relativity theory, he remained unable fully to appreciate - or at least, accept - what has become an equally incontestable theory, that of indeterminacy in quantum theory. He was even rather vehemently unwilling to consider such a view of nature. His famous dictum that "God does not play dice" is proven wrong. (Of course, he did not believe in any God, but only in a supreme order pertaining in the universe). Indeterminacy shows it is not possible to show that everything is causally determinable, thus we cannot know or always in every instance reckon on determinate causality. Einstein's great authority as a scientist and his gigantic achievements and predictions are still being experimentally validated to an astonishing extent, such as the existence at near absolute zero of the Bose-Einsteni codensate. His famous theories did not, however, save him from making his mistake on a central scientific question - indeterminacy - which has momentous consequences. Indeterminacy and the consequences it has in quantum physics is seen as opening further for a lack of necessary causal connection between certain events, opening the way for non-indeterminacy and - extrapolating to general philosophy - for a degree of voluntarism in human events (freedom of the will).
The consequences of allowing any conception of freedom of the human will (however limited) are very considerable for the limits of what science can know, what it can do and how it must view itself. The literature of the sciences, especially that of the non-physical sciences, still demonstrates that the consequences have not been appreciated widely by the scientific community or its intellectual offshoots. Most great thinkers in the European and classical Grecian traditions asserted the freedom of the will, despite the many limitations with which nature or fate hedges it.
Prof. Paul Davies has pointed out that Einstein would have hated the results of the latest experiments with photons (the two prisms back to back for photon 'duplication') because they support Bohr's complementarity thesis and quanta theory. (3) To do Einstein's memory better justice, however, his own famous words redress the balance and must be a bitter pill to most Western intellectuals who still subscribe to physical scientism today:-
"Our time is distinguished by wonderful achievements in the fields of scientific understanding and the technical application of those insights. Who would not be cheered by this? But let us not forget that knowledge and skills alone cannot lead humanity to a happy and dignified life. Humanity has every reason to place the proclaimers of high moral standards and values above the discoverers of objective truth. What humanity owes to personalities like Buddha, Moses, and Jesus ranks for me higher than all the achievements of the inquiring and constructive mind."
CHAOS THEORY AND CAUSALITY
The fact that chance or chaos seemingly has to exist for there to be anything for laws to operate upon or apply to is recognised - at least implicitly - in so-called 'chaos theory'... itself a strangely self-contradictory term. Though some people interpret chaos theory as supporting causal determinism, the key concept of chaos (disorder) is its basis. The nux of the theory can easily be exemplified: if a fire is lit, one will never be able to predict what the ultimate effect of the motions and changes it brings will have on the global system of temperature and movements of the elements, or on any other effects this will produce anywhere at any time in the future. It makes little or no real difference for us whether this inability is due to practical limitations or theoretical impossibility.
The ideas of chaos vs. cosmos, chance vs. cause, accident vs. purpose lead to various apparent paradoxes. Chaos theorists who emphasis that no theory can account for and thus predict all events, must therefore admit the absence of a satisfactory theory of chaos! Meanwhile, those who believe that a theory is possible which will allow prediction of all otherwise 'chaotic' events thereby must also deny that such a thing as chaos occurs.
So, without any contingency in the existent worlds, whether they be regarded as physical or mental, order could not arise. Without their teeming and overflowing disorderliness and change, everything would be a fixed plenum within which development or evolution of any sort would be an impossibility. This is, at least, what reason seems to dictate.
Since order implies something unruly and unregulated - to which it can be applied - scientific advance may be said to bring order to what appears as disorder in our experiences and ideas. Undiscovered order (i.e. meaning or purpose) may be discovered as having existed unseen in otherwise disparate events or to be still only potential in them. Were none of this so, all further research would be entirely futile. However, the question remains: are not some events or acts intrinsically a break with order (the laws of the universe)?
The idea that events can occur 'by chance' or 'by sheer accident' is rooted in modern culture, supplanting older ideas of fortune, fate and destiny which were the opposite of sheer chance. The word 'chance' does not refer only to one straightforward concept, for it is used to mean both 'not caused', 'not in accordance with any known regularity' and even 'coincidental'. The 'technical' jargon of particle physics has a comparable concept in 'indeterminacy', which accents the inability of an observer to determinate the nature of particular sorts of atomic event (like the direction of movement of any individual atom) and the impossibility in principle of predicting such an event. This very broadly accepted idea of quantum theory famously implies that individual causes do not operate at the level of the 'building-block' fundaments of nature. Below I consider other phenomena which strongly indicate this, such as the unpredictability in social science of individual behaviour, improbable coincidences of many kinds and - later - events having no other explanation than 'acts of divine grace' or miracles.
RANDOM SELECTION AND PROBABILITY
If, on the other hand, one accepts that there are 'uncaused events' in the sense of events without physical cause but which are the result of acts of human free will (or occasional supernatural intervention or divine fiat), then probability theory is undermined and cannot be universally valid. In that case, statistics would be useful only where natural or predictable habitual events were concerned.
Statistical theory often relies heavily upon the concept of chance in that it uses as its standard the idea of 'randomness' of selection. Examples of what science regards as 'random patterns of distribution' (itself a rather self-contradictory concept) are the distribution of galaxies in the universe, of the fall of leaves from a tree in autumn or of the craters on Venus. To consider the distribution of craters on Venus, which were discovered by the Mariner probe and then confounded all current theories of the evolution of planetary features: the craters are seen to be 'randomly distributed', which was demonstrated by making a half-dozen computer simulated 'random distributions' and seeing if experts could choose the genuine picture from the computer models.
The result was that no-one could distinguish which was the "actual" random pattern - thereby proving the 'randomness'. However, the photograph of the craters showed very even distribution. So 'random pattern' turns out to be an empirical concept. But even patterning speaks of order, so 'randomness' cannot be equated with chaotic chance. It is evident that even randomness is a form of regularity, and hence there is a law governing it. Thus it cannot be a question of chaotic chance or mere unregulated accident! Only when looked at 'close up' does the contingency appear, but at a distance it looks like part of an even 'pattern'.
With the statistical method, one sets out to discover regularities in events, which are observed or registered in some more or less reliable way, being 'quantified' by some kind of measuring. One then looks for concomitant variations in events, which is to say 'correlations' between different chains or types of event. The key to deciding whether there is or is not a correlation is whether or not the numerical values that vary with one another are closer to one another than one would expect compared to the 'chance' relationship of the same values. Relatively simple mathematical techniques are used for these calculations, according to probability theory.
For example, the probability that the same card in a pack of 52 will be drawn at random twice running is 52 to 1. For it to occur three times running there one will on average have to wait 52 times 52, which is 2704 times... and so on. If the same card occurs significantly more often than 'chance' indicates, it would imply (disregarding operating errors and fraud of all kinds) either that the choice is not being made in a purely random way, or that even a long-term outcome is not always predictable. To put it bluntly, even the bank of Monte Carlo has been broken... or, no one can guarantee 100% that rigidly following statistical laws will make a casino bank unbreakable! To support this is the fact that persons who publish lists of random numbers for various uses have to doctor their numbers because meaningful series of numbers occur in all random mechanical kinds of selection, and these must be eliminated from a random list! Does not this suggests that there is something fishy about the concept of randomness and thus chance?
Hitherto I have disregarded the possibility of a miracle or break with the laws of the universe. The assumption of statistics, as used in science, is that there is can never be any higher intelligent agency than that of human beings at work where the 'laws of chance' fail to hold up. There is of course no soundly conclusive evidence to support this assumption but there is a mass of testimony to the contrary.
An event is called a 'coincidence' when it coincides with another event to which it is not related by causal laws or by other regularly-observed connections between events. When such a coincidence is regarded as particularly significant or meaningful, it is nowadays sometimes termed a 'synchronicity', which implies that, even if there is no physical causal connection between the two events, there is some form of subtle relationship which is either of psychic or spiritual origin and which may be intended (by some agency) to stimulate the understanding or the faith of the experiencer.
The fact of synchronous events is an exception to the laws of classical physics in that their simultaneity breaks with the law of causation. Because of the inherent meaningfulness to the persons involved of most synchronous connections events and the demonstrability of this meaningful nature, however, a higher type of 'law', intelligence or will is considered to be operative. Genuine or 'highly improbable' coincidences are thus not regarded as random or chance events, by events guided by factors unknown to science. In fact, the existence of synchronicity undermines the entire fundament of statistics and thus also brings into question many aspects of physical theory built on statistical probabilities.
When we pass a group of persons talking on the street, the words we hear soon become mere voices. As we move away, the figures diminish and eventually become indistinguishable. When, from a great distance, we approach a group of persons doing something, their movements may look inexplicable until we are near enough to see what they actually are doing. This shows how the observer's perception and interpretation is all important. Without it, the phenomena are totally hidden, unknown noumena. With it, they figure on the background of the observer's entire psycho-physical and spiritual make-up and depend further on the state of his being and of his mind at the time.
In short, randomness becomes merely a function of the perceiver's 'position'. Physical phenomena that appear as 'random', on this thesis, depend upon the physical perspective of the viewer. Meaningful phenomena (like what people talking in the distance are saying) depend upon the understanding of the observer. Likewise, what appears 'random' or 'mere accident', only does so - I submit - because of the attitude, mind-set or currently held theory of the observer(s) in question. It is the lack of a cogent explanation that constitutes the idea of chaos. However, to eliminate all chaos (i.e. all ignorance of real 'cause') also implies that one reaches the perspective of omniscience, per specie aeternitas.
STATISTICAL THEORY AND CAUSATION
The use of statistics has increased vastly in the twentieth century. There are any number of textbooks which explain the benefits of such theory, the possibilities it offers and the methods of its application to many differing types of problem. I do not see it as my task here to expand on the possible benefits of statistics and the theories based on them as this has been done excellently already. What has been less well presented is the case against relying unduly upon statistics.
To adhere to the axiom 'every event has a cause', is in principle to exclude the possibility of chance or authentic 'accident'. However the very basis of statistics is probability theory, which inevitable relies on likelihood or chance (as in 'probability') in calculating the significance of apparent statistical correlations (what is technically termed their 'reliability', 'validity' etc.).
Even if an event has an identifiable single cause, statistical theory could not establish the connection. This basic insight of logic is increasingly overlooked and is seldom mentioned by those who live from statistics in one way or another. It has long been recognised that a statistical correlation between two classes of event (or 'variables') gives no proof of causal connection. It simply points to the likelihood of some causal relatedness.
A statistical correlation, however well-founded, is not itself proof of a causal relationship because, even where events are concomitant through changing circumstances and appear therefore to be related, they can be the effect of different causes which are causally related. There can well be hidden intermediate events between those appearing as cause and effect. In that case they are only indirectly related, which is not itself the cause-effect relationship. Statistics may sometimes point towards causes, but they may as well mislead as to the 'real' cause, of which many examples are to be found, right back to early works on logical fallacies.
An example of this may be: the incidence of a certain type of muscular ailment may concur to a significant extent with disturbances in people's heartbeat. This 'correlation' does not indicate that either one is the cause of the other. Instead, the cause of both symptoms may be the intake of heavy metals which upset the immune system and in turn cause a variety of illnesses, infections and diseases.
Some events - or series of events - may also be concomitant while there is only one element therein which is a causal bond. To illustrate this by extending the same example; the incidence of the particular muscular ailment may be caused only by disturbance of the immune system by the body's intake of quicksilver (inorganic mercury), coming from the wear and tear on dental amalgam. The other heavy metals - like gold, silver and platinum - may contribute only to the process of breaking down of the bond of silver and mercury in dental amalgam (i.e. work more or less as catalysts) or contribute further to the immune system's disturbance (eg. lead, aluminium etc.).
Despite statistical correlations not of themselves constituting adequate scientific evidence, they are still widely relied on to 'solve' some questions that instead call for a much deeper and more thorough form of penetration. This is particularly the case in some forms of social medicine, psychology and other social disciplines.
The severe limitations of statistical 'explanations' are illustrated by asking a simple question: "Could statistical methods alone ever have revealed the structure of DNA?" The same can be asked of any major discovery in the physical sciences. The answer is obviously no!. Statistical information has been instrumental in the growth of a theory of genetics and in quanta physics, but the solution to basic or what we call 'immediate causal' questions can never validly be shown by statistics.
Statistics has undoubted value in discovering general trends, but the danger of hasty or wrong questions and interpretation leading to the conflation of facts and causal confusion is very real, itself probably more likely than not. The results can also seem convincing but be trivial, such as the statistical fact that all persons on average have one breast and one testicle. That the uncertainties of statistical 'proofs' are legion can of course also depend on many other circumstances involved in such work than on the uncertainty of the universal validity of probability theory.
Any chain of events wherein a conscious individual makes a choice between some number of alternative courses of action will be impenetrable to statistical study unless one knows with certainty the real motivation of each individual act. It would require a great deal of other information as well, and it all presumes that human behaviour is ultimately all causally determined. Besides, since knowing the real motivation or truthful intention of even the simple human acts often presents unsolvable difficulties, such as is often demonstrated in courts of law, interpretations made on the basis of statistical studies are therefore often highly questionable where human acts, whether individual or collective, are a connecting link.
Because one cannot transpose qualitative events like motives or intentions into quantitative information without losing their holistic meaning or their relative importance in an overall situation, attempts to grade the strength and type of motive in interviews are highly uncertain and often subject to many sources of mostly uncheckable error like forgetting, subjectivity, deception and misinterpretation and suggestion in questions and cues. This is the great weakness of interviewing, such as in opinion polls. The more intricate and deep the subjects interviewed on, the greater the likelihood of influencing and 'steering' the interviewee by the mind-set of the researcher's questions and the interviewer's expectations of some response etc. One cannot, for example, generalise meaningfully about a complex social and political situation by methods which rely on translating the qualitative and nuanced reasons given by many individuals into numbers, nor by making cumulative scores for opinions.
The massive increase in statistical studies in the political, social and psychological sciences in recent decades does not therefore mean that anything like a correspondingly massive increase in knowledge of what influences individuals or groups. One has more information about various, often important, aspects of their registered or observable behaviour. This does not amount at all or to any extent in understanding why this behaviour comes about, what motivates it or how environmental, social and psychological influences work in the interplay of human minds and consciences that are the driving force of behaviour and most changes in society.
In practice, statistics are themselves very often highly selective, however 'representative' they try to make their selections. This is seen frequently in opinion polls, which are only reliable when there is considerable stability or stagnation in the politics of a nation. There is some wisdom in the modern adage "you can prove anything with statistics", because there is much room for both conscious and unconscious bias in formulating the survey and its aims, in the selection and gathering of data, in the wording of interview questions and many another subtle factor in gauging opinion. The presentation of results can also be angled in such a biassed manner, even at the level of mathematical models and methods, that too much reliance on statistical evidence is fraught with many dangers.
The consumers of statistics are invariable large organisations, not individuals. In short, they provide information which is really only useful in all branches of government and economic planning, in profit-maximalisation in business, in international politics and in a large number of specialised fields of scientific research. This can be an important fact to remember when the bogus slogan of 'scientific freedom of research' is hawked (invariably by scientists). The great majority of scientists involved in researches that rely much upon statistics are thereby producing the raw materials required for consumption by large institutions, not just whatever it is of interest for the individual to know. This does not mean statistics necessarily serve bad ends, obviously... they have virtually become a necessity of the modern state and can be progressive in revealing inequalities that need to be righted and burgeoning problems that need to be tackled.
KNOWLEDGE AND COSMIC ORDER
All philosophy and science aims to discover 'formulae' (or even 'the' formula) that will correctly express an unchanging order to which an otherwise incoherent field of events conforms. Philosophical metaphysics or ontology attempt this at a much more comprehensive or embracing level than each of the mutually delimited sciences.
Why assume, as most thinkers
do, that creation has some given structure or constancy of form? For example,
why believe that the physical body consists in a uniform type of electro-chemical
and magnetic process? Because, one may answer, it is so? Or should we not
rather say that it is because it can be perceived and thought to be so, not
because we have any certain means of knowing that it necessarily is so. New
structurings of matter can be conceived at new levels, as rapid changes in
physics partly demonstrates. The history of thought shows that being has proven
not to be adequately definable once and for all by any means, and this may or may not be so in future.
A different example: why believe that the human being has one corporeal body rather than three (or five or seven) 'bodies' of differing degrees of subtlety (eg. mental, etheric and spirit), as various so-called 'mystical philosophies' claim to be the case? The answer in each case will usually say 'because we perceive it to be so?', depending on the practitioner... medical doctor, yogi, clairvoyant etc. There are grounds for affirming that each of these views may be founded on personal experience. The main reason for doubting these theories is that they have not been controlled by empirical means (not by any hypotheses so far made testable). Those who purport to know that there exist 'astral' bodies of various sorts or levels which can only be known through exacting practices claim that these 'bodies' are of an immeasurable supra-sensory nature. In short, for the vast majority of people, it is a matter of belief in relatively isolated individuals and their subjective experiences.
One may choose to start out from the assumption of a sharp distinction between subjective mind and objective matter and see each as embracing entirely different orders of phenomena. Such dualism (typified by Descartes' philosophy) is one approach to understanding reality, though it leads to so far unsolved paradoxes. Monism, however, can regard body and mind as separate but parallel aspects of being (eg. Spinoza's 'substance') or as complementary phenomena (i.e. 'appearances' which but conceal the essential unitary reality). Both approaches have their historical precedents and differ as to the orders of facts - or alleged phenomena - which they seek to encompass. There are many different theories - mostly metaphysical and therefore extra-scientific - in support of either dualism or monism. Scientific evidence so far tends very strongly to support the theory that body and mind are one - existentially inseperable - since there is no validated empirical evidence to support other theories and theologies which assume a division of body and mind (or body and 'soul').
It is apparent from the history of philosophy that, whenever any assumed premises are absolutised (i.e. made the only key to understanding reality) the theory runs into unsolvable problems sooner or later, when applied to new experiential facts. This has been the fate of many foregoing disciplines of the modern natural sciences and also in social-economic theories (eg. the case of Marxism), in classical psycho-analytic theory, in logical positivism and many other theories too numerous to detail. This is supporting evidence for scepticism about the possibility of ordering the infinity of existence under any one integral system of ideas. At the root of the problem are the facts of the temporal relativity of the theorist combined with change and indeterminacy. This is illustrated by the map-maker whose product is never 100% up-to-date because the ground is changing even as the map is being made ready.
Those who are so trained as to perceive in terms of a theory which orders apparent reality each necessarily conceive new appearances on the background of previous assumptions and grounds. Only those with a self-critical and self-reflective approach may be relatively less bound by presuppositions. One cannot, at the conclusion, assert that the forms finally described, or the order supposedly 'discovered' exists as such. It is systematically ambiguous, however, to argue that nothing can be known independently of the perceiver. Knowledge is precisely what has been established through consensus between a community of (analystically trained) perceivers, so it is independent of any individual perceiver. Nonetheless, intersubjective agreement - even when resulting from massive experimentation and predictive verifications - does not guarantee that and theory or overall explanation can 'fit' all reality. Scientific growth, change and self-modification denies this. Ones assumptions mostly define the scope and fruitfulness of possible results, some assumptions produce some results, others yield different ones. Different kinds of system can be functional - even if not representing trusted knowledge - for different spheres of life and objectives at various levels.
Unless one believes oneself to have discovered the universal purpose which convincingly orders everything and explains all, two possibilities seem to remain: that human aspirations towards this end are unfulfilled and unknown as yet, or that there is no such constant and ultimate order and purpose in or behind all things. The successive discoveries of order at more and more general levels in the history of scientific thought lend weight to the thesis that progress is being made and that the goal therefore is not entirely illusory. The development of technologies make possible the handling of vast quantities of information (computing power and sophistication) and penetrate to both micro-levels and macro-levels of existence previously though impossible (nano technology and space research including astronomical cosmology.
On the other hand, science has not been a dominant philosophy for very long, and is still far from universal acceptance in the world population. Despite this, the changes it has already wrought in human life make it most unlikely that it will prove to be a temporary diversion from what for aeons was the mainstream of human thought - religion. The sciences may also prove to be moving closer to the projected goal of total knowledge of many phenomena, becoming potentially able to explain many events at any level, including both natural and human phenomena. Though this is contested, the possibility that this is happening increasingly cannot be excluded. The opposite can be argued on reasons of epistemological principle as well as on various practical grounds - philosophers and religious mystics in various cultures have asserted this - yet the hard evidence for such speculations are still lacking.
The above suggests that the phenomena of reality cannot totally be construed according to any one fully explicit and coherent system that satisfies strictly logical reason. Note that this is itself based on an assumption, namely, that there is an overall coherence - or purposive order - in the cosmos. That the universe has an inherent meaning or goal, however, is highly controversial, mostly dividing religionists from scientists. Those who maintain that there is a design or meaning too subtle, intricate, deep and extensive to be fixated in an definitive or complete way by the human mind, individually or collectively, include the religionists and others. I call this the 'thesis of no fully-comprehensible order'. This stands in (at least partial) opposition to the principle of universal causation ('every event has a cause') and rejects the expectation that everything has a complete explanation, whether or not humanity can ever know it in full.
Some universal physical laws are almost certainly already known to us. Though they are very far-reaching and allow amazingly long-term and accurate predictions of certain matters, they do not actually serve to explain all that much about life on the whole, including human lives. The hypothesis of a wholly-intelligent Creator is adopted in religion, for it seems to be a satisfactory resolution of these difficulties. To be satisfactory, it need not be total, but it must take account of observable phenomena and what reason conceives on that basis. An overall, total rational purpose in or 'behind the scenes' applying to every phenomenon might seem to amount to total determinism: and 'automatic mechanical universe', however intricate. As shown, this thought cannot satisfy the human mind. But one cannot either say the universe is rational in every respect (i.e. ordered) or could therefore be understood fully in rational terms.
The thesis of not-fully comprehensible order gives room for what otherwise would be the awkward fact of chance, accident or contingency, without denying the possible existence of an overall purpose in all being. As noted, the very idea of order also implies that of disorder, just as heat implies cold, day implies night and good implies bad. Cosmos implies chaos and determinacy brings indeterminacy close upon its heels (eg. in physics). This need not be seen as an insurmountable dualism but as a complementarity of two aspects or poles of apparent reality where the one simply represents a lack of the other.
Differing cultural and social systems constitute differing sorts of political and spiritual order that regulate the main intercourse of their members. Tenets of belief and faith affecting all aspects of life largely distinguish one culture from another and one group from another within any culture... as well as being at the root of individual personality. No social system is free of malfunctions, dissent and crises, which fact reflects the disorder that characterizes much of the world and natural events.
The 'causality' of the law of action and reaction (karma) includes natural scientific principles like the conservation of energy. This, the most comprehensive form of understanding does not only conform to physical models, for it is seen as further operating at all levels... the mental, ethical, social and spiritual. It may be that time perspectives will alter our understanding of such events; an order or purpose that was potentially present may become evident only after it has become actualized. Much longer time-spans than allowed by the scientific concept of the immediate cause-and-effect relationship can be at work here. Whole life-spans, so far only approached in biography, should also ideally be a unit of systematic study.
CAUSATION, PAST-ORIENTATION AND TELEOLOGY
A more understandable theory than that of universal causation would be 'every isolated physical event is caused, while every intentionally-chosen act is uncaused'. This makes causation less than universal. However, this would be mistaken, if no human actions are absolutely voluntary - that is to say - entirely unforced by any directly preceding event. Now, an action may be influenced by any previous event without being enforced, for the agent can take account of them yet still remain free to choose an alternative that ignores them and goes against past experience. Examples may be taking chances against all odds, bold acts of heroism, risking on entirely unprecedented enterprises as well as 'meaningless' acts of sheer fecklessness, desperation or demonstrative refusal.
The truncated notion of cause, to which science limits itself by the assumption of sense-empirical materialism, ties it down to description within a sense-observational framework. This is a useful tool for analysis, but useless where synthesis (i.e. wider or integrated understanding) is involved. Science cannot therefore even accept evidence of inherent purposes, of goals or aims (telos) implied by and fulfilled by the causal process. Scientific method as determined by physicalism is unsuitable as an instrument of discovering purposive order or of meaning that is inherent in the most important areas of human life: the realm of purposive action, of the inner relations of mind and of spiritual vision. Here the fact of social change often demonstrates how one order becomes 'disorder' and subsequently gives way to another. It is here too that competing social, political and religious precepts of moral order enter the fray with questions of purpose, meaning and ethicality.
One might say that the explanatory scope of science falls short of the Eastern view of karma, which would include both the scientific idea of natural causality (the preceding physical event which 'pushes' according to determining physical laws) as well as the that of purpose (the goal which 'pulls' through the privation of completeness). However, theories of karma, which abound in Eastern religion, are always very unspecific and depend very much upon theological reasoning rather than observable fact. Moreover, as will all such all-embracing theories, they are invariably subject to problems of logical consistency and ambiguity, quite apart from their being largely untestable in any empirical way.
Aristotle recognized the objectivity of a 'pre-causative' end-result or purpose inherent in observed natural forms. From observing growth in nature, a particular type of seed was seen to contain within itself the species 'ideal' or model of what it is to become ('ideally', that is, when all the surrounding conditions are present like sufficient heat, light, water, nutrients, growing space, absence of poisons etc.) For example, we know from experience that a grape vine will produce grapes, not some other fruit. The end is inherent in the earlier stage.
So far, this teleological view is based on experience. A problem arises with this for the empiricist when dealing with things for which there are no set purposes and which may aim at many purposes. A piece of clay, for example, may become many things. Even a grape vine may be genetically engineered to produce something other than grapes. A human being likewise. Aristotle 'solved' this by reason, holding that the characteristics of anything (its form - eidos) determined its highest or ideal purpose (areté). Since the purpose is not itself observable but is determined by reason, which - though based on experience - remains dependent upon some basic evaluative judgements, science has rejected this approach. The idea of form determining ideal purpose (or 'virtue') is also found in Vedantic, possibly even predating Aristotle. There is no reason, however, why it cannot be used for forming testable hypotheses in future-oriented social investigation and interaction.
As a means of systematizing
experience, science develops very concise generalizations to cover all known
phenomena (generalizations known as hypotheses or theories, and often expressed
mathematically). But 'all known phenomena' means only all phenomena so far
observed... in other words, past phenomena. The explanation of an event in
a preceding cause. That scientists are bound to the past rather than the future
is seen in the strong emphasis of physical science on the original physical
event, the Big Bang. So when science wishes to try to explain or predict something,
its firstly turns to its stored up fund of theory and calculates the consequences
of the particular case in question. Thus it plots the future on the basis
of the past. However, some research does obviously attempt to look ahead of
what is established and even to break the existing mould. The inertia of past
knowledge itself makes acceptance of such studies a very difficult task, and
all the more so if integral parts of an entire thought paradigm is in question.
THE STUDY OF VALUES IN SCIENCE - HUMAN EVENTS
If we assert, say, that one of the causes of drug delinquency is the lack in the social environment of sufficient examples of good and sane human values in practice, the idea of cause here has nothing to do with any one preceding causative event. Evidence for and against the 'link' (a preferable word to 'cause' in this context) can be studied and sought. The hypotheses one may develop to test this contention will arise from certain kinds of subjective experience most likely combined with shared experience and not least also 'objective' indicators of a socio-psychological kind. Though the aim of such research is to reach clearly-defined aims (absence of the relevant drug dependency) is is not, as one may be misled to think, a goal-oriented view of causation (teleological causation).
So what if events turn up something previously unknown or if something unprecedented new occurs? In astronomy and astrophysics, old hypotheses are repeatedly challenged by new ones, old phenomena are discounted as mins-observations or as wrongly interpreted. Yet none of this involves radical rethinking of physical cosmology or its most basic findings, which accumulate an ever more embracing insight into cosmic order (and apparent disorder).
If indeed the mind is fundamentally free to construe perceived facts within whatever framework it can conceive, this supports the assertion of 'freedom of the will'. One might think it could also possibly mean that there can be no intrinsic order expressed in each and every event, for it all depends who interprets them and how. Yet, while the mind knows itself to have some considerable freedom, there are limits set by experience, memory, upbringing, training, opportunity, psychological habit and much more. To reinterpret some events in a radical fashion contradictory to established science would require the reinterpretation of science in its entirety. This has occurred in history - the Einsteinian revolution being the most radical examples in modern times. The mind's ability to make order is, perhaps unfortunately, paralleled by its possibility of making disorder, both in the realm of ideas and in the practical world. The mind has invented very many different conflicting and incompatible explanations, which has resulted in a disorderly range of philosophies and world-views (not to mention religious beliefs or theological doctrines)... none of which are infallible or capable satisfactorily of explaining the full meaning from all perspectives of every event. Does this not also constitute a case of disorder? Ignorance of the truth certainly seems to be a case of lacking order, just as darkness is a lack of light.
The most universal expression of the idea of causality is the age-old theory of karma. This is the Vedantic equivalent of the scientific assumption of regularities and 'laws', but which extends the principle of law beyond what the sciences today are able or willing to consider seriously. The theory of karma is not simple, as many current sources suggest, but a very many-sided philosophical conception of nature, man and the cosmos which leaves - in principle - few major questions untackled. Suffice here to indicate the standpoint of Vedantic theory of cosmic law (karma) as follows:-
"The Cosmic Law of Karma is not fatalistic or deterministic. Karma is self-determined in the sense that it is a resultant of the forces of determinism and indeterminacy acting on the personal self. The universe of inanimate matter is governed by causality and the universe of animate matter is governed by teleology. The universe is 'pushed' by mechanical causes and 'pulled' by conscious purposes. The Karmic Law of self-determinism recognizes the existence of an absolute and unconditioned Cosmic Will and a relative and conditioned personal will."(4
THE INDIVIDUAL 'EGO' AND THE 'KARMIC' VIEWPOINT
Though we appear to have
the free will to do anything we like this is the illusion. Fundamentalist religionists hold that the freedom to pursue
one's 'individual' instincts and inclinations, whatever they happen to be,
is a miasma for no good purpose and is therefore really not freedom at all.
It may seem to be freedom but, according to this restrictive 'spiritual'
view of life, it is really only bondage to one's karmically obtained inclinations
(vasanas) and one's acquired desires. What one thought were 'free
choices' are sooner or later seen to have consequences that work back upon
the doer (both of the good or pleasurable and bad or painful sort). One's
free will was thus 'used' only so as to create future limiting conditions
for oneself. This, the ancient Indian religious theory of karma, holds that the conditioning of our minds by
our wants and desires is itself obscured... and the more so the stronger
By 'ego' in that context is meant the sense of egotism and attachment to 'me' and 'mine' - what in modern parlance is called 'egoism' or selfishness. However, this neglects entirely the other and main aspect of the individual human being, namely that the ego (as distinguished and studied in psychology) is a very necessary function of the personality, one which builds up a secure and sane balance between instincts and reason. That aspect of personality regarded since Freud as the 'ego' is a development of traits that regulate the individual's reactions to the environment and defines his socio-physical identity (at the very least). According to the speculative and unscientific theory of karma, however, the 'ego' hides from us the operations of the law of karma, which always eventually cause the environemt to react upon us according to what we have done. This line of thought also usually believes that the 'me' (i.e. the passive aspect of the ego) is itself formed as the (karmic) end result of many previous acts (whether before or since birth). All in all, the theory of karma as a whole has no observational basis and suffers from many logical failings. (See further elucidation of karma theories)
However, all this is based on a number of untested and untestable assumptions. Firstly, that namely that the same personality is reincarnated in a new body as some time after death. Further, that it carries with it a 'karmic' balance sheet (of good and bad actions) into the next incarnation, in which even the total environment is determined by the nature of the individual's tendencies and 'balance sheet'. Not least, of course, is the highly controversial - and entirely untestable - assumption (i.e. belief) that there is a superior and all-powerful intelligence which (or who) evaluated and regulates all these life conditions, actions and reactions.
According to these doubtful yet socially-persistent theories which depend on a belief in God - in whatever form and with whatever qualities - human reality is but a microcosm of Divine reality. Thus, the 'ego' - taken as the mundane egoistic self - is counterbalanced by 'the I'. This 'I' is supposedly not part of the ego, but consciousness itself... though often distorted precisely because of the delusion of the ego as being the true self. The It is a "witnessing awareness", which is taught to be one expression of the universal intelligence working in and through us (i.e. God, in ordinary language). Scripture informs that human beings are created in God's own image. God is believed to possess free will to an almighty degree... an omnipotent creator.
Those religions which support the existence of a measure of free will in humans, assume that human beings have some share of God's
potency - that God apportions some free will - and hence some responsibility - to all individuals (whether we like it or
not). Secondly, God does not have constantly to exercise omnipotence in all things in order to remain omnipotent. Lack of divine intervention at whatever level is not seen as any proof against divine omnipotence. The Catholic theologian, Thomas Aquinas, held that God has
endowed us with a small measure of knowledge and freedom of will in some
matters, all subject to the general laws and limits within which the cosmos
is regulated. Though the supposedly omnipotent
Divine Will sustains and orders the entire cosmos, latitude is somehow allowed in the plan of creation, some divergence
from the general rule.
Though some religious doctrines consider that events and all human action are determined so that nothing is left to individual initiative or efforts, only a minority of religious sects that preach such notions. The majority of the modern world rejects this - and at least the consequences that would follow from it. Then again, our freedom is defined in some theologies as our choice between doing God's will or the contrary... i.e. right or wrong, good or evil. Sufficient selfless and divinely-dedicated action is regarded as the cessation of egoistic 'doership'. Usually it is held that we progress very gradually from the mundane to expand towards the divine viewpoint. To suppress criticism of this entire set of speculative suppositions, it is preached that - could we but know directly the inconceivable intricacy and vastness of Creation from God's eternal viewpoint and the plan that lies beyond our ken, individual freedom would appear so minimal as incapable of influencing the universal divine order one whit.
Clearly, the above account of human will and (a monotheistic) God's omnipotence has only arisen gradually through millennia of attempts to explain the otherwise inexplicable, threatening and 'mysterious' conditions of life and death in many different cultures from the earliest times. The abstract and untestable nature of these emerging theological developments (or abstruse superstitions) has not led to any universal theology - for the competing religions and their many warring sects prevail yet. Not all mainstream religions accept that humans have any degree of 'free will' (eg. Islam), and those which do also differ very considerably in their doctrines on many of this issue's related aspects (eg. Catholicism, Hindu advaitism, Judaism). The advent of modern science and its tremendous scope of far-reaching and demonstrable explanations is radically and rapidly changing the content of religions as they struggle to reconcile and modify their doctrines where they are fenced in and often discredited by proven fact.
A 'WORKING RULE' BETWEEN FREEDOM AND FATE
The struggle against the assertion of human free will - in favour instead of either an omnipotent will or total determinism - has certainly been partly driven by the need to curb otherwise unrestrained and destructive passions of all kinds. Priesthoods have arisen in many cultures and invariably exert pressures on the people to make them 'fear evil' so as to help control their activities and protect against an excess of excessive ego-willed voluntarism. The clash of values and morals - what is good and what is not - has a long and often most undistinguished history in which religions have played a major part compared to their relative loss of influence on events today.
Modern ideas are increasingly in favour of positive action based on self-confident willpower. The general tendency is undoubtedly towards counteracting the passivity of fatalism, even though it still has a strong inertia in under-developed and under-educated nations. The idea that there is such a thing as fate - however ill-defined - is almost as persistent as the belief in chance, accident and fortune. Yet since the vast advance in knowledge of all kinds - including of course knowledge about ourselves as human entities - we learn increasingly from experience the consequences of our actions. This reinforces the determination to eliminate bad consequences and unforeseen results of our actions wherever possible - both on a communal and individual scale - and so what loomed as fate adopts more the appearance of chosen destiny. When I choose an end and a means to reach it, some of my freedom is then expended to that end and I am bound to the consequences, unless I can choose to act to reverse them.
CONFUSION ABOUT PERSONAL FREEDOM
The question 'does the human have free will?' confronts the issue of whether free will is possible or not. However, if the answer is yes, one cannot make the assumption that all individuals are equally free to choose. Firstly, people in different cultures and different socio-economic classes are subject to different degrees of restraint or freedom to act. Likewise, individuals are not all equally able to exercise free will, as their abilities depend on such factors as maturity, health condition, physical limitations, social restraints, intelligence and the level of their knowledge.
This is an aspect of freedom of the will which is mostly overlooked in the concentration on the fundamental issue whether human can have free will at all. There may be reasons why such a debate is not raised or is unpopular, since it conflicts with the widely cherished generalized belief about the supposed freedom and equality of all persons. On the one hand it is patently evident that everyone does not have the same degree of personal freedom - that is, the ability and means to do whatever they choose - because all freedom or choice is limited by the alternatives on hand. For example, an infant is less free than an adult, a person serving a prison sentence is less free than a normal citizen, a person with broad knowledge and long experience is usually aware of more realistic possibilities and alternatives than a person deprived of education and opportunities for wide experience. The limitations on freedom can also be congenital, as in those born with symptoms of genetic mental retardation.
The significance of the above consideration is that it opens for the possibility of degrees of human freedom of will in a way which tends to challenge the basic assumption of free will as an universal human capacity, or at least some of the implications drawn from it (not least in religion, morals and the law). It has been proposed in some religions and by esoteric schools that the degree of free will anyone has depends upon unusual achievements such a yoga, tantra and other practices. The pseudo-philosopher Gurdjieff was a proponent of such a theory. This idea also forms the basis of most Hindu and Buddhist religion. The difficulty with this is that, as an hypothesis, it is far beyond any normal means of investigation or testing. Nonetheless, science in general still regards the existence
of higher forms of consciousness or 'transcendental wisdom' than the human mind
normally achieves as an 'invalidated hypothesis', and some even regard
it as an unnecessary theory to explain anything. Moreover, there is no evidence that any such supposed 'spiritual masters' have ever contributed anything significant to genuine knowledge.
The fact of evolution of mankind and society point in the direction of increased understanding of so far unexplained phenomena in human experience, including so-called 'paranormal' phenomena. Psychological neurology has made some notable advances in explaining some such phenomena as new methods of research using such technologies as magnetic resonance tracking and the vastly increased computing power.
1 . The Physicist's Conception of Nature. Werner Heisenberg (1955)
2. God and Evil, C.E.M. Joad. (London 1942, p. 126
3. The Mind of God Paul Davies. (London 1992)
4. Towards a Creative Synthesis of Science and Spirituality. B. Srinivasa Murthy (Golden Age 1979. Brindavan, Bangalore)
5. eg. Maimonides: "We ought to exert our efforts in everything as though they were absolutely free, and God will do as he sees fit."
The Oxford Handbook of Free Will, ed. Robert Kane - Oxford University Press, 2002
Since I became a philosophy teacher and researcher over five decades ago, I have been investigating the issues around freedom and fate, cause and choice. My standpoints on many related issues have undergone many changes and developments, not least almost entire reversals of my convictions as regards fundamental philosophical issues. This I regard as inevitable if a person is truly to learn and discover, to deepen and broaden understanding... to be capable of accepting having been mistaken time and again, itself something which presupposes self-reflection and self-critical thinking of a quite radical kind. My temporary adherence to many different world-views, at times atheistic or agnostic and for a long period religious mysticism, eventually led me in a decisive paradigm-shift away from any belief in any all-encompassing intelligence or designing creator. A very radical reassessment of the considerable range of evidence on which these doctrines were based - evidence which I had taken too much on trust - proved them to be so speculative as to cause a major shift in my convictions.
Quite late in life I came fully to discount deterministic philosophies and various largely incompatible theories of 'karma' which 'reward' or 'punish' actions, rejecting that there is any supernatural moral system working through cause and effect to equalise the effects of actions which 'reward' or 'punish'. However, my standpoint on issues of freedom of the will has been fairly consistent throughout. I have nearly always been convinced that some degree of real personal freedom is possible, though my views have changed on in what it consists, what evidence supports it, how much and to what it extends, what it is that limits it and to what extent it may be increased through personal development. Robert Priddy Ph.D