Agency and naturalism
I don’t imagine this will come as any big surprise to anybody who’s thought about these very much, but it comes up enough in dealing with students — especially in intro philosophy classes — that I’ll write it down.
There’s a mutually reinforcing chain of connections that I think plays a pretty significant role for a lot of students in terms of entrenching them in a world view that many of them come to college (and my courses) with.
At one end of the links is a belief in some kind of God-like supernatural force or being in the universe. For some (but certainly not all) this takes the form of pretty traditional monotheistic deity; but for others, it’s a much more amorphous and maybe even quasi-pantheistic notion (more on that another time). They probably initially got this from family/breeding, and is likely supported further by links to how they think about death, and morality. I, of course, am not so sympathetic with this view, to put it mildly.
But at the other end of the chain is a view about human existence that seems to me both valuable and also nearly impossible to actually give up. This is the view of ourselves as in control of our actions and commitments, in some way responsible for our actions, both moral and creative, and in some at least partial way, the authors of our moment to moment paths through life.
I think that they — like me, and maybe you — take this latter conception of human existence to be one that they can’t really imagine rejecting. Furthermore, if they did reject it, they’d be leaving behind at least some of the most important and valuable (and experientially inescapable?) things about human existence.
And you don’t have to mix this all up with capital “M” “Moral Responsibility” to get this sense of value. Even people who might be willing to pay lip service to some kind of moral relativism are, I think, typically less likely to be completely indifferent to something like aesthetic responsibility: A poem or a song I write seems like an expression of my own feelings and experience, and as such requires some pretty robust notion of my activities as resulting from my personal experiencing of the world. I am in that way responsible for its content, even if there’s no objective facts about its worth, and in a way that I’m not responsible just by causing it to come about (as I would be if the poem or song were generated by an algorithm which used dice throws of mine as random number seeds).
So although this view comes to the surface most obviously in talking about free will and moral responsibility, I think it’s far more pervasive and central that that problem suggests. I might, for example, completely reject any notion of morality and moral responsibility, while holding tightly to this conception of myself as agent, and as “author of” or “in control of” at least certain sorts of my actions.
I’m fairly convinced that this notion of agency is deeper and more pervasive than almost anything about our experiential sense of ourselves and our relationship to the world — our “phenomenology of self”, if you like. But I think that this commitment is, unsurprisingly, linked up with ones that I find far less attractive, reasonable, and inescapable.
So here’s how I think it often goes, for at least a good chunk of smart and thoughtful intro student (and sure some others as well): Without some supernatural deity-like force in the universe, there’s only matter, biology, physics, or whatever left. But if these are all that’s left, we can’t make sense of how it is that our character or our experiences can be truly responsible for the apparently creative activities of our bodies — the writing of that poem, say. So without God-like supernaturalism, we have to give up something we not only really don’t want to give up, but something we can’t imagine how to give up — our commitment to the potency of our own experiences, and the fundamental idea of our conscious agency.
Or to put it the other way around, so as to make clear how much of the preconceptions are shared with a vaguely popular quasi-materialistic view held by some academic philosophers: True potency for the character of experience seems to require something more than biological and physical selves; so we have a dilemma: Either (the quasi-materialistic philosophers’ view) give up on true experiential potency (whatever that means), or they embrace something more than the bio-physical world in order to make room for that — a “something more” that seems to require something supernatural.
Of course, It’s exactly this that I think is just a false dilemma, grounded in the antecedent I’ve made explicit here: That true experiential potency and conscious agency requires a world-view that adds extra fundamental causal ingredients that non-physical and non-biological.
I have more to say about the noted philosopher’s side of this — some might be said here, and much in a less “lite” context. But for now, I just want to note how these two views which are seemingly almost diametrically opposed — that of a certain kind of naturalistic quasi-materialist philosopher, and that of a theistic semi-neophyte — are playing off the same central assumption. It’s hard to see how each side couldn’t take the other as strengthening they’re own hand: If the option is really rejecting true agency, then of course I should hold to my supernaturalism (or theism), the newbie thinks — even if that means accepting a theism that seems to have very serious flaws. And from the other side: If the option is really accepting some supernaturalism or theism, then surely I should keep to my quasi-materialism — even if that means accepting a rejection of the potency of experience and the agency of consciousness.
But if you can undermine the shared assumption, then both dilemmas fail, and you can have your agency and your naturalism too. (Which, of course, is the right view).
I’ll show why another time. Today, I just wanted to note how the dilemmas here naturally work to reinforce a kind of view that comes up in intro classes a lot.