Consciousness and Freedom

RichardAfter having a bizarre conversation with someone who insisted that key assumptions, what philosophers call ‘first principles,’ do not inevitably lead one to certain conclusions, I read a book called ‘Ideas Have Consequences.’ While the politics of it are pretty strange, the author’s assertion that William of Occam’s postulate of nominalism was the beginning of the end seems accurate. Nominalism is the claim that only individual entities are real, while the categories, or universals, or Ideas under which these individual things fall are not real. What this means is that in some strange way consciousness is not real either. Nominalism is going to privilege physical entities over the intellectual ideas via which we think about these entities. And yet thoughts are real too. In fact, if consciousness and Spirit/God are coextensive to some degree, then spiritual realities are denied too.

Perhaps this is what lies behind John Locke’s bizarre ontology. Locke insists that primary qualities, the physical, measurable aspects of objects are real, while the secondary qualities which our mind’s attribute to objects (colors, tastes, sounds) are not real. Locke’s rationale for this is that primary qualities are objective and secondary qualities are subjective. This as it stands is a non sequitur. What is it about subjectivity that makes something unreal? Locke explains that there is a difference between the way the world is and the way we perceive the world to be. But this assumes that ‘the world’ is exclusively physical and that our perceptions don’t exist. Where are they then? Presumably in our minds – but we know that our minds exist. If not in the world, then where?

One possible explanation is that Locke has simply assumed the truth of Occam’s nominalism (he doesn’t argue for it, as far as I know). Thus, Locke’s attitude to the intellect is predetermined. This then leads to philosophical skepticism, because all our knowledge of physical reality exists in our intellect. Even our perception of the physical world exists in our minds. If our minds are not real, then we have no knowledge of ‘the world.’ Since none of us are actually skeptics; we all act as though our perceptions of the world are veridical – skepticism is an untenable position. If you can’t ‘do’ skepticism, if skepticism doesn’t work in any practical sense, then no philosopher is actually a skeptic – certainly if they are still alive. Otherwise, their skepticism will have lead to starvation, sleep deprivation, walking off cliffs, or into empty elevator shafts, etc..

Nominalism is thus not really an option at all and we can reject conclusions derived from it.

But I must confess that I am in the grip of materialism to such a degree that I have to repeatedly remind myself that my thoughts are real too – not just the chair upon which I am sitting.

On the topic of free will and determinism, we can perhaps agree that neither one is provable. Believing in determinism means that genuine choice is impossible, no dignity is possible, we are machines, life is meaningless and love is impossible. If we assume free will exists (assume because we can’t prove it), then our dignity is restored, love is possible (and surely we know love exists), we are not machines and life has meaning. Why not choose to assume the truth of free will? What will you lose? The assumption of free will also conforms to our actual experience of life. And yet, science studies causation, and not the mind. If we totalize science then we lose sight of freedom, and all those desirable features of human existence must slowly be explained away as an inevitable consequence of that particular assumption; the assumption that science describes all the reality that’s fit to print, so to speak.

Actual materialist philosophers continue to assert meaning and morality, consciousness and freedom, while ignoring the conflict with their guiding assumptions. Inexorably, they will find themselves returning again and again to logical positivism and finding positivism to be congenial to their thought. Ideas have consequences.

Part of the problem is the tendency to specialize. The specialists are relatively ignorant about the history of philosophy so some of them are not aware of these consequences. Some, of whom I have personal knowledge, repeatedly reinvent the wheel and their assumptions lead them towards certain predetermined conclusions. While as a generalist, one can feel oneself to be a dilettante at times, one also feels like the small boy in A. A. Milne’s poem telling his mother that she must never go down to the end of the town without consulting me. If you would just check with a generalist first, years of your life might not be wasted repeating mistakes which have often been made centuries ago.