Sunday, 30 August 2020

James Joyce: The Curve of an Emotion

 

The features of infancy are not commonly reproduced in the adolescent portrait for, 

                                                                                                so capricious

                                                                                                        are we,

                                                                                                            that we 

                                                                                                            cannot

                                                                                           or

                                                                                  will not

                                                                        conceive

                                                             the past

                                                    in any other than 

                                                         its iron

                                         memorial

            aspect.

        Yet the past assuredly 

                                                                         implies a fluid 

                                                                      succession 

                                                                           of 

                                                             presents, 

                                               the development

                                                                    of 

                                                                    an

                                                                    entity 

                                                                            of 

                                                                                which 

                                                                                               our 

                                                                                            actual present 

                                                                                                        is a phase 

                                                                                                                       only. 

                                                                                    Our world, 

                                                                                                        again, 

                                                                                                                recognises its 

                                                                                                                            acquaintance

                                                                                                                                        chiefly by the 

                                                                                                                                               characters 

                                                                                                                                                               of 

                                                                                                                                                      beard

                                                                                                                                                 and

                                                                                                                                   inches

                                                                                                                  and is,

                                                                                                                 for the most part,

                                                                                        estranged

                                                                                from those of its 

                                                                                                members 

                                                                                                    who seek 

                                                                                                through 

                                                                                        some 

                                                                                                                       art, 

                                                                                                               by 

                                    some 

                process 

                                                                           of the 

                                                               mind

                                                     as yet

                               untabulated, 

                                           to 

                                liberate 

                             from the 

           personalised lumps 

                                        of 

                                 matter 

                          that which is 

                                            their 

                                             individual 

                                                        rhythm,

                                                                        the first 

            or 

                       formal 

                                                relation 

                                                                            of their 

                                                                                                        parts. 

But for such            

    as        

these

a

portrait    

is not            

an                         

identificative                                

paper                                     

but                                           

rather                                            

                                                           the

                                        curve 

                                            of

                                                an 

                                                                   e

                                                                            m

                                                                                o

                                                                               t

                                                                        i

                                                                    o

                                                                    n

                                                                     .

From the essay ‘A Portrait of the Artist’ in 
James Joyce Poems and Shorter Writings
Eds. Richard Ellmann, 
A. Walton Litz, 
and John Whittier-Ferguson. 
(London: Faber and Faber, 1991) 211 
(Typography added, obviously).

Wednesday, 26 August 2020

New Publication by Giorgio Baruchello

Big data and professionals: What we can learn from Michael Polanyi

by Giorgio Baruchello

in

Big Data

Promise, Application and Pitfalls

Edited by John Storm Pedersen and Adrian Wilkinson

Since the early 2000s, digital data has transformed the way we live and work. This timely book looks to big data analytics to understand this revolutionary change, unpacking the impact of big data analytics on the mobilization and allocation of individuals, organizations and societies’ resources.

Contributions from leading experts on modern technological trends examine the promises, applications and pitfalls of big data. The contributors assess the ways in which contemporary trajectories of data processing have increased efficiency and had a transformative effect on all avenues of life, from energy, tourism and social media, to human resources, welfare systems and urban citizenship. At a time when our personal data is more valuable than ever, this book seeks to make sense of how big data analytics has transformed our lives and how it will continue to shape society in the future.

Astute and comprehensive, this book is critical reading for business and management scholars with a focus on information systems and communications technologies. It will also prove to be vital information for students and researchers of big data and digital society, as well as politics and administration more widely.


Available from

Edward Elgar Publishing

Friday, 21 August 2020

Polanyi Society Online Discussion

 Zoom Discussion

Michael Polanyi’s 1964 Duke Lectures

The Polanyi Society is sponsoring an online discussion of Michael Polanyi’s 1964 Duke Lectures. A short introduction to the Duke Lectures and links for the five lectures are available in the collection of primary materials here in Polanyi Society web materials. The titles of the lectures below also directly link to that lecture. The Duke Lectures are one of several sets of lectures Polanyi gave in the sixties; they reflect the refinements in his philosophical perspective after Personal Knowledge. Polanyi intended for the Duke Lectures to become a book but there was a publishers’ dispute and the Duke Lectures were never published. 

Schedule for Zoom discussions:

Lecture 1: “The Metaphysical Reach of Science”—Saturday, August 29, 2020 at 11 a.m. Central Daylight Saving Time

Lecture 2: “The Structure of Tacit Knowing”—Saturday, September 5, 2020 at 11 a.m. Central Daylight Saving Time

Lecture 3: “Commitment to Science”-- Saturday, September 12, 2020 at 11 a.m. Central Daylight Saving Time

Lecture 4: “The Emergence of Man” -- Saturday, September 19, 2020 at 11 a.m. Central Daylight Saving Time

Lecture 5: “Thought in Society”-- Saturday, September 26, 2020 at 11 a.m. Central Daylight Saving Time

Sessions are projected to be one hour in duration. Some may extend beyond that but participants can come and go as schedules permit. Each session will have a facilitator who will make very brief comments (or raise questions) about ideas developed in the lecture; this is simply a device to stimulate subsequent general discussion.

Anyone interested in Polanyi’s Duke Lectures can sign up to participate in a session or all sessions. You do not need to be a member of the Polanyi Society to participate. You simply need to email a request to be sent a Zoom link for sessions to:

Phil Mullins (mullins@missouriwestern.edu)

Gus Breytspraak (gus.breytspraak@ottawa.edu)

You will be advised by e-mail about any further developments and will be e-mailed a link for sessions. We plan to record sessions and post a link for each session on the Zoom cloud as well as the Polanyi Society web site very soon after the session. Those who miss sessions and wish to review a recording should be able easily to do so.


Sunday, 16 August 2020

The Data of Mind and the Blindness of Faith

by Denis Larivee

Francis Bacon’s ‘Great Instauration’ articulates the philosophical principles that would come to ground the shape of scientific reason; through these he also made plain the purpose for their adoption. Written in 1620, Bacon asserted therein

…a way must be opened for human understanding entirely different from any hitherto known… in order that the mind may exercise over the nature of things the authority which properly belongs to it….

Together with Descartes, autonomy for the exercise of power over nature thus came to be embraced as the norm motivating the extraction of natural principle through the pursuit of science.

To open the way to the new understanding Bacon refashioned the prevailing scholastic notion that regarded purpose as embedded in nature and instead affirmed that purpose was inscribed by the exercise of authority, which directed nature to the end proscribed for it. The transposition of purpose – aka final cause – from its lodging within nature to that acquired through extrinsic imposition, was achieved by a redaction of the scholastic causal order, which has since grounded natural investigation. The complex effect of this redaction on the autonomy that motivated nature’s subjugation has only become apparent with the advent of modern neuroscience, however, again calling into question the siting of purpose.

Heir to these redactions, modern neuroscience has faithfully conveyed Bacon’s characterization of the natural world, invoking a posteriori, efficient causal influences as the mode by which cognition is structured. The explanatory success of a variety of basic empirical discoveries has, in fact, reinforced his conception, including such elementary neural features as action potential generation, coding spike trains, vesicular neurotransmitter release, and the like, all of which illustrate the contiguous and extrinsic nature of associations that yield successive neural events. The confirmation of efficient causal influences in basic processes of neuroscientific operation, however, has also been upwardly extended in the assertion that large scale neural events are themselves mechanistically confined.

This is illustrated, for example, in the understanding used to explicate the somatic integrity thesis, which advances a mechanistic claim on the body’s unification and has generally served as the philosophical linchpin for brain death assessments. In Craver and Tabery’s approach to neural function, generally conceded to be a retrieval of the Cartesian, machine based, inertial contact paradigm—neural mechanisms are understood to ‘do’ something, that is, they are productive of some event. Accordingly, models of neural mechanisms are noted for the asymmetry and extrinsic character of their causal flow. The action potential mechanism that often serves as an archetype is posited, for example, to induce synaptic vesicle release by means of consecutive causal and extrinsic associations. The induction of vesicular release, therefore, is underpinned by the notion of continuity between cause and effect, since gaps would require additional factors as explanans; hence, causal interactions are here seen to entail contiguity and temporal succession. Using this paradigm, large-scale neuronal events have also been understood to flow from a causal nexus constituted, typically, by a suite of cognitive regulatory processes. Accordingly, the somatic integrity thesis depicts the body as a cluster of organized systems that are unified by the brain’s regulation. Anatomically and physiologically the source of this integration is explicitly referenced to neural processes confined to the cranium – so also the individual.

Analogously, other higher order neural operations are also seen as mechanistic outputs tracing their regulation to causal nexi within the brain. To avoid the explanatory circularity implicit in efficient, contiguous associations—neural feedbacks, for instance—such operations are typically parcelled into discrete functional categories, which are then investigated independent of their relation to global behaviour. As a matter of praxis, mechanistic models are thus constructed by segregating higher order behaviours from the brain’s global operation, the latter conceived as having extrinsic oversight.

Perception, for example, has been widely understood to be an extrinsic operation by which the brain independently generates representations of the world; that is, such representations are regarded as causally and extrinsically constructed by the brain, a posteriori. While evidence of top down influences on the awareness of perception have in fact been shown to occur, e.g., attentional regulation, top down influences are claimed to extend even to the manipulation of the nature of such representations, yielding loosely or even unrelated representations of the external world. Worded otherwise, what is perceived to be ‘out there’ is understood to be interpretively manipulated solely by the brain, a position that has been endorsed not only in modern neuroscience but as a historical legacy from the Idealist philosophers who succeeded Bacon and Descartes. Francis Crick, for example, is unequivocal.

What you see is not what is really there, it is what your brain believes is there.

Given the supposition that the brain regulates perceived events independent of their external reality, this has the deductive consequence of laying perception open to an unknown and highly variable account of reality. Metzinger, particularly, is noted for extending this notion to its logical extreme, where the brain is seen to operate independently of all external influence.

Conscious experience is like a tunnel ... first our brains generate a world simulation, so perfect that we do not recognize it ... and then a construct of ourselves interacting with it, a selective and extreme representation of information.

Unsurprisingly, this deductive position was expressed centuries earlier with even greater clarity by Kant, an assiduous disciple of Descartes.

...appearances are only representations of things that exist without cognition of what they might be in themselves. A mere representation, however, they stand under no law of connection at all except that which the connecting faculty prescribes….

Despite the inherent variability of perceptual observations that is the result of such logic, by carefully circumscribing the processes of perception a constellation of studies are now used to demonstrate the grounding of perception in mechanistic accounts; that is, as a top down, extrinsically modulated brain function. Beginning with George Wald’s discovery of the light receptive protein rhodopsin, and the molecular events of signal transduction, which evoke sensory receptor potentials and on to population coding, these studies are used to illustrate the presence of consecutive steps that generate the neural activity patterns that underlie perceptual awareness. Reprised from global brain operation, therefore, such studies claim the presence of only contiguous and extrinsic causal relations in perceptual processes; hence, they are stated to demonstrate the grounding of perception in a posteriori causal relations alone.

By extension, emotions—arguably equally complex— have also been classed within mechanistic paradigms, a claim reinforced by, among other observations, the demonstration of binding shifts between emotional responses and particular memories by neuromodulation. The lesson taken from these studies is that emotions are similarly subject to Bacon’s postulates and the notions of contemporary neuroscientific interpreters. Distinctions that may be claimed for subjectivity and emotional feelings, therefore, have been explained on the basis of degree and not of kind, a message amplified in the general claim that humans share through their neural activity in the same sorts of neural processes underwriting apparently similar emotional events seen in animals or even duplicated in neurotechnological devices. Such a claim, clearly, has bearing on human ontological status, which is therefore made subject to the lack of a clear ‘exceptionalness’ criterion by which the human can be distinguished from the material world. The absence of such distinction, conversely and further, has led to the conclusion that the human being, and the behavioural features and emotional inclinations to which he is privy, is exceptionless.

The move to ontology that is apparent in these conclusions, is coherent as the expression of a consistently invoked principle on the perceived natural order, and the culmination of a trajectory initiated by Bacon’s revision of the older Scholastic understanding. The logical conundrum exposed in the ontological claim, however, reveals the flawed outcome of this pursuit, exacerbated by a dichotomy of praxis that contrasts the level of interrogation evoked via the principle with that directed to the principle. What modern neuroscience makes apparent, therefore, is that in staging this dichotomy there are untoward consequences neither foreseen by the master nor intended by the disciple. Bacon’s redaction of the scholastic causal order and his substitution of motivation for metaphysic failed due to his failure to value the arguments that had first sited final purpose to nature. In consequence, it exposed the ground for its challenge in studies of the material order of the human mind, which emerged in the 21st century.

Embedded in nature, the drive to autonomy may be understood as the logical inference on a purposeful reality; removed from nature for the sake of its control, autonomy is no longer manifestly present in the natural domain. Harvard’s Wegner, for instance, personifies this logic in his fervent denial of behavioural autonomy.

Writing in 1979, Karol Wojtyla noted that the order of nature was not coincident with the order of biology, a statement directly referencing the general scientific perspective on the natural world.

…The expression ‘the order of nature’ and ‘the biological order’ must not be confused or regarded as identical; the ‘biological order’ does indeed mean the same as the order of nature but only in so far as this is accessible to the methods of empirical and descriptive natural science…..The ‘biological order,’ as a product of the human intellect which abstracts its elements from a larger reality, has man for its immediate author. The claim to autonomy ….is a short jump from this…….’

Wojtyla apparently meant by this that while the order of nature was impressed with the totality of reality, the order of biology reflected only man’s abstraction of nature, which reduced reality to a selected interpretation. The consequence of this partial view is in finding that by subjugating the natural world, nature comes to exercise control over man. As a part of the metaphysical order, however, the drive to autonomy reflects an upward striving to personal freedom that attains a pinnacle in the human condition. When removed from nature for the sake of its control, though, purpose is itself lost and autonomy denied. For Bacon’s heirs, thus, in lieu of an understanding of autonomy, only blind faith in its motivation remains.


Wednesday, 12 August 2020

A Brief Comment on Dignity

by Simon Smith

Without wishing to be facetious or obtuse, it seems there may be a factual error in Macklin's view of the concept 'dignity', discussed last time by Dr B. as being 'vague' and 'imprecise': viz. 

Dignity, n.
The quality of being worthy or honourable; worthiness, worth, nobleness, excellence.
"dignity, n." OED Online, Oxford University Press, June 2020, www.oed.com/view/Entry/52653. Accessed 11 July 2020.

This, nota bene, is only the first of 8 definitions. Further, this being the OED, those 'mystery-shrouded' origins are laid out quite clearly, should anyone care to investigate them. 

Just a thought. 

Sunday, 9 August 2020

Dignity

by James Beauregard

My first attendance at the International Conference on Persons was in August of 2013, held at the University of Lund, Sweden.  While I had been reading personalism for some time, it was the first opportunity I had had to gather with a group of dedicated personalist philosophers, allowing me to experience personalism as it was happening – as papers were presented, as ideas were being shared, as new ideas were being formed. Belying the comment of a Swedish co-worker at the time, who told me that “All Swedish food is grey,” I also discovered more variety, in colour and flavour than that statement would have led me to believe. I also inadvertently discovered that there are some very good Italian restaurants in southern Sweden – who knew? Many personalist conversations were conducted over red sauce that week. That Italian food proved so congenial to personalist discussion was not the least of the reasons that I organized the dinner for the Boston International Conference on Persons in the city’s Italian section, the “North End.”

But, back to Sweden - I remember Randy Auxier’s introduction to the conference on the first day.  In those introductory remarks he made it a point to mention the notion of human dignity “something personalists profess to care about.” In a sense, this set the tone for the week for me – thanks Randy! – and more recently has led me to consider human dignity more carefully, and in a more organized fashion. 

In much of the world, both East and West, the concept of dignity has fallen on hard times.  In some places, dignity talk is ignored or banished, in others attacked, in still others devalued or ridiculed, and still, in some places, recognized and affirmed.

How did we come to this situation in a relatively short span of time?  In the years after the Second World War we saw the promulgation of some of the greatest documents on human dignity and human rights that the world has known – the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights being a flagship example and in inspiration for many other documents that would follow.  

Jump ahead with me from 1948 to 2003, when the American bioethicist Ruth Macklin published a brief editorial in the BMJ called “Dignity is a useless concept.”[1] She concluded her essay with the statement, “Dignity is a useless concept in medical ethics and can be eliminated without any loss of content.”[2]  For Macklin, the origins of the concept of dignity are obscure, shrouded in “mystery” and she deemed the concept of dignity incoherent due to its vagueness imprecision, to the point where it could invoked by multiple sides in debates on life issues.[3] She argued further that dignity had been drawn into bioethical debate as a substitute term for autonomy and “respect for persons,”  terms she found more specific and useful.[4] Noting the lack of a concrete working definition of dignity in various bioethical and international rights documents, she stated that “In the absence of criteria that can enable us to know just when dignity is violated, the concept remains hopelessly vague.”[5] A final criticism of dignity was addressed to its origins in religious sources, “especially, but not exclusively in Roman Catholic writings,”  that have “crept into the secular literature in medical ethics.”[6] Because of this, the aetiology of the concept of dignity, in her view, remained “a mystery.”[7]

There is much to ponder here. Is dignity still a useful concept, and if so, in what contexts?  How should it come into play?  What are the consequences of including dignity in public conversation and what are the consequences of its absence? Macklin’s views have not going unchallenged, and there is a literature since 2003 in direct response to her shot across the bow, as well as a continuation of dignity more generally that we will also consider.

Macklin’s comments may seem damning – vagueness, incoherence.  The concept of dignity has been employed on both sides of the assisted sides debate – the dignity of the human person defended against assisted suicide on the one hand, and death with dignity on the other.  But the problem runs deeper than the issue of language and of definition.  What is at stake is human persons, and not least our very understanding of who is a person, what constitutes personhood.  When we speak of dignity, either to support it or criticize it, we are speaking at some level of the dignity of persons. 

What I am writing here is the beginning of an investigation – an investigation of dignity, which is something that, as Randy said back in 2013, is something that should receive the attention of personalist philosophers and theologians.  To do this, this blog begins a series of reflections on human dignity that will look at the context and history of the notion of dignity to create a context, and that will then look at dignity in its contemporary context, which presents multiple perspectives, some in favour of recognizing dignity, some against it. I will be asking the question of dignity, and as a precursor, the question of persons, to whom dignity is ascribed or denied, or removed from the conversation altogether. In the next instalment, the long history of the concept of dignity will be our starting point.



[1] Ruth Macklin, “Dignity is a useless concept,” BMJ, 327 (20-27 December 2003): 1419-1420.

[2] Ibid., 1420.

[3] Macklin specifically mentions the California Natural Death Act in 1976 in the debate on death with dignity, 1419.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid, 1420.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.


Sunday, 2 August 2020

On Determinism

by Simon Smith

Marking season has come and gone, and with it my chance to

mete and dole

Unequal laws unto a savage race…[1]

As seasons go (or come) it’s been unusual, what with the global plague and such. This year, I was marking essays in applied philosophy, some significantly better, I’d say, than the usual emetical exam scripts. Their authors had taken the time, or some time, to reflect upon their chosen topics with no little care. The essays were fairly interesting, more so than the usual boked up remembrances of Descartes or Nietzsche, being as they were an attempt to apply new-born philosophical acumen to some ‘non-philosophical’ material: a book, a film, song lyrics, etc. A refreshing change to merely reading about philosophy, which is largely what academic philosophy seems to be about these days.

The standard of English was better, too, than many a professionally produced paper I’ve encountered lately; depressingly so. It surprises me that a profession which stakes its credibility on clarity of thought appears to have so little concern with basic grammar, punctuation, and, quite often, spelling.

Agonising Christ, wouldn’t it give you a heartburn on your arse?[2]

It would, oh it would.

A common theme of this year’s essays was that ol’ black magic called Determinism. Students attacked it vigorously and from a variety of angles; most concluded that Free Will is an illusion while Determinism is the very Hymenoptera’s patella. Curiously, hardly any of them seemed remotely perturbed by this. Coming apocalypse notwithstanding, they have their lives ahead of them and yet they cheerfully accept the idea that they are merely vibrations in the universal web of causal interaction and interpenetration; they accept that their lives, being consequent on physical causes, are also meaningless. Do these nascent Socrates and Socratesses feel the physical and metaphysical weight of a universe pressing down upon them already, I wonder. Has the sudden swell and flood of coughing death impressed upon them the sheer futility of all human endeavour? Perhaps; gloomy little buggers. Or maybe they’ve drunk too deep of the usual old rationalist toot without really thinking about it.

‘Courage!’ he said, and pointed toward the land…[3]

One common assumption seems to be that Determinism is somehow scientific, or at least supported by scientific thought, whereas the belief in Free Will is a conjuration of folk psychology. Hardly a fair assessment. Both Determinism and Free Will purport to say something, not just about my experience of the universe, but about how the universe really is. As such, they are both metaphysical positions.

The temptation to align metaphysics with science cannot be denied, however. Clearly, there is nought but causal order to the universe, chain-link of events from one end to the other without pause or pass. All else within its measured span is prefigured, as it were; why should human action be an exception? That tightly woven skein is, after all, the necessary ground of all my actions; without it, what could I do? ‘Nothing at all,’ replies the Determinist, ‘as you well know.’

Then we’re agreed: the dragon wing of Determinism, o’erspreads my actions in their entirety. Such is the verdict of a scientifically informed metaphysic; and the physical sciences should know, after all, since cause and effect are meat and drink to them. Nothing that falls within the purview of scientific investigation could ever occur without its prior cause.

That such a purview surveys the entirety of creation is, of course a moot point. Doubtless, there are modes of exploration and investigation which require something a little bit more sophisticated than cosmic clockwork to make them go. The social and historical sciences might be two.

But this is a path well-trodden indeed. Stepping off it, one might note, instead, that this allegedly ‘informed metaphysic’ might not be as well-informed as it thinks. This picture of a universe woven in cause and effect, handed down from Aristotle to Newton and thence to the modern-day Determinist, is rather out of date. That antediluvian physical theory was shown to be metaphysically useless a hundred years ago. Once modern science flipped the relativistic switch, Farrer, Whitehead, and Bergson were more than ready to reshape metaphysics in Einstein’s energetic mould. Thanks to them, we now live in a Gershwinian universe: it’s got rhythm.[4]

It’s common knowledge in the world beyond philosophy that quantum mechanics – a fundamental theory in the physical sciences – does not strictly abide by those old-fashioned rules. Rather, it maps their disruption. Down below the subatomic level, where stuff and substance no longer matter, it seems that photons and the like just can’t make up their minds what they’re up to. The fact that what happens on the quantum level does nothing to falsify the higher-level mapping of causal relations is irrelevant, for all such talk concerns the efficacy of calculations, not of what is or is not real: it’s maths, not metaphysics. The fact remains, when quantum mechanics get to work with their sub-atomic socket sets, the rules of classical causality no longer seem to apply. Apparently, then, the sciences to which Determinists appeal are quite prepared to consider the possibility that Newton’s physical theory does not operate successfully in every possible or conceivable case. If scientists can do this, why not philosophers. In short if quantum theory tells a different story, it is surely not beyond the bounds of possibility that human action could do likewise.

All of which may or may not be interesting, but it is rather beside the most curious point of the whole Determinist case, which is talk of causal necessity. Just what, one might fairly wonder, does that mean? Necessity, after all, is logico-linguistic: it concerns the ways in which we talk and the relations between the propositions we use in doing so. The most common examples of necessary truths, as every schoolboy knows, are tautologies; for example, either it will rain tomorrow or it will not rain tomorrow. Logically speaking, this proposition is necessarily true. Anyone who has ever been to old Ireland will know that, as a matter of fact, it’s a load of boll√≥ga. In the heaving metropolitan hub that is Knobber, simultaneous rain and not-rain is both normal and perpetual. It is, I’m told, what’s known as a ‘soft day.’

Therein lies the rub. Logical concepts such as ‘necessity’ apply very well to propositions, but they have no real purchase on the world and our encounters with it. The world of experience and experiment, that is, the world that is known and knowable, operates within a framework of probability, not necessity. So much we know: the successful performance of an experiment, whether in the laboratory, the kitchen, or the bedroom does not guarantee the same results next time. The hundredth successful performance might give you considerable confidence in the results, but it cannot necessitate them.

That, by the way, is what Friedrich Waismann called the ‘open-endedness’ of description.[5]

Of course, the proposition ‘every effect has a cause’ may be necessarily true, but that’s only because the concept ‘effect’ entails the concept ‘cause’. Whether, as a matter of fact, of experience, every state of affairs really is caused by some other is another question entirely. Necessity in a proposition does not equate to necessity in fact.

Oil and water, then: necessity and causality don’t mix. Any ‘knowledge’ gained from causal necessity would be simultaneously a priori and a posteriori. If we’re going to insist that there’s no room to swing Schrodinger’s cat in this universe – all available space being positively heaving with Newton’s balls – then what we have on our hands is a good old-fashioned necessitarian metaphysic. One might almost imagine that Determinism is just an attempt to secularise an old-world theology, which itself was an attempt to legitimise and impose an old-world, authoritarian political philosophy. The schoolmen taught that misfortune was a divine judgment: poverty, sickness, disability, etc. were the wages of sin.[6] Secular Determinism is more enlightened, naturally. Too embarrassed to talk about sin or God directly, we say inequality is natural; poverty, sickness, and disability – isn’t that just how the universe goes? How grand, if you happen to be in the universe’s good books; an unnecessary cricket bat to the plums for everyone else.

All this is, of course, only half the story, as well we know. And we know the other half very well too; if we didn’t, we wouldn’t know anything at all.[7] That’s not to say we’re absolutely free. We aren’t ‘swimming in a perfectly featureless medium;’ we’re ‘walking the earth among all sorts of obstacles’ without which we wouldn’t be able to do anything at all.[8] More importantly, we’re walking the earth among all sorts of people without whom we wouldn’t be able to do anything at all because we wouldn’t be anything at all.[9] Ah yes, but that heralds ideas like duty and responsibility, the ‘claimingness’ of others, the demand for action. In the end, however, isn’t it just easier to hunker down beneath the comforting fatalism of Determinism and pretend that we’re merely cogwheels in the cosmic clockwork?

‘Shite and onions!’[10] Them that ‘hoard and sleep, and feed, and know not me’[11] or anybody else it seems always miss the real point of human existence. In the end, that is, we’re not condemned to behave as though we’re free while knowing our every thought and action is ordered by the turning of wheels and the depression of levers. We’re condemned to be free while knowing, in reality, it makes damn all difference one way or the other.[12] 


[4] Gershwin, George. ‘I’ve Got Rhythm.’ For the rest, see Farrer’s Faith and Speculation (London: Adam & Charles Black, 1967); Whitehead's Process and Reality, Corrected Edition, edited by David Ray Griffen and Donald W. Sherbourne(New York: Free Press, 1978) as good examples. 

[5] See Friedrich Waismann, ‘Verifiability’ in The Theory of Meaning ed. G. H. R. Parkinson (Oxford: OUP, 1982) and ‘The Resources of Language’ in The Importance of Language edited by Max Black. (Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice-Hall, 1962).

[6] See Parts 3 and 4 of Hamblet, Wendy C. Punishment and Shame. Plymouth: Lexington Books, 2011.

[7] See Hampshire, Stuart. Thought and Action. (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1983) 49-50.

[8] Farrer, Austin Marsden. Finite and Infinite. (Westminster: Dacre Press, 1959) , 233.

[9] See Farrer, Austin Marsden. The Freedom of the Will. (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1960), 300: ‘thank heaven I have not to meditate in vacuo on what to make of myself…. Thank heaven I have this lecture to write and beyond that, my pupils to see to; and ah, beyond that, if I dare to look, there is Lazarus on the doorstep covered with sores.’

[12] Everybody knows this quotation, but just in case, it can be found in Sartre, Jean-Paul. ‘Existentialism is a Humanism’ at the Marxists Internet Archive.