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Thursday 18 February 2021

I Like Locke (III) : Revelation

It's time to conclude this trilogy examining Locke's mighty Essay Concerning Human Understanding with a look at what Locke thought about faith. Locke showed that true certainty was indeed possible. How, then, do people come to be so mistaken about even their own deepest beliefs

In part one, we saw how Locke believed we can be truly certain of at least some of our own thoughts. If I say, "I'm thinking of a horny badger" then I'm (a) a bit weird and (b) probably actually thinking about a horny badger for some reason. Some of my thoughts I can know with absolute certainty, even if sometimes it would be better if I didn't.

Alas, things are not quite so clear when it comes to the external world. There I have to make certain assumptions in order to get by, though generally these are pretty reasonable. If I see a pair of socks being sold for £2.50, I can safely assume that the price hasn't been changed by an evil demon hell-bent on causing me constant confusion. It's a good bet that the world objectively exists and reality is what causes our perceptions. We can't know the true, complete form of anything, but in practice we just don't need to. Not even when it comes to horny badgers or socks. 

Clothing, the nemesis of philosophy.

In part two we looked at free will. Dualism, to me, is by far and away the most sensible, level-headed, and downright scientific interpretation of consciousness. Yes, it means acknowledging that mind over matter is possible, but only within the very specific and utterly limited realm of the brain. There's no need for any mystical woo; you don't need to subscribe to Uri Gellar's YouTube channel. But neither do you have to go around saying that "thoughts aren't real !" or "help, I'm not in control of my own actions !" or any other such bloody nonsense that people are often seduced by.

Now of course I cannot prove to you that that's what consciousness is really like. I cannot even assess the probability that this is the right answer. It's just my opinion. But I believe it to be true nonetheless : I'm placing my faith in the scientific method.

To some, this last statement causes otherwise cool heads to explode. They cannot abide the idea that science has any overlap with "belief" or "faith". The former is entirely rational and evidence-based; the latter, they say, are anything but.

I think this is just not true at all. And so, for quite different reasons, did Locke. So let's lay this silly charge that scientists don't "believe" in anything fully and finally to rest. I approach this from the perspective of an fervent agnostic, quite prepared to accept some vague philosophical notion of divinity but altogether much more skeptical of any interfering, moralistic busybody entities - whereas Locke was a Christian through and through. This ought to be interesting.

Spoiler alert : this is nothing more than a glorified terminology problem. But one that might help us resolve an awful lot of confusion - and maybe even have some practical consequences.

An Astronomer's Faith

In the previous posts we looked a little at the differences between knowledge and opinion. We all think we know what this is in principle, but often come unstuck on specific examples. If we say, "I know something", we generally mean we're certain about it. If someone else says the same thing, we don't generally and/or instantly also become as certain as they are. Unless, that is, we have supreme faith in them.

What do I mean by faith here ? Simply this : trust. If I put my faith in someone, I trust their judgement more than my own. Faith is thus quite distinct from belief in the ordinary sense. If I really believe that it's a good idea to jump into a pit of scorpions, if I'm for some reason quite convinced that it's genuinely true, then I'll do so of my own volition (and likely win a Darwin Award in the process). This ordinary kind of belief is no more than a synonym for thinking. I think the scorpion pit is safe, therefore I'm an idiot I'll jump in it. 

Of course, it's a spectrum of confidence - I don't necessarily have the same degree of assuredness in everything I think is probably true. But that's the essence of it : belief is essentially my own confidence in what I think is going on. In that sense, belief may or may not be entirely rational - it depends on how one reached a conclusion, not what that conclusion actually is. You can reach rational conclusions by irrational methods, and vice-versa.

Faith is altogether different. To act on faith, or trust, requires not a burning fire of unshakeable belief but its very opposite : doubt. For example, if I'm not a complete idiot, I can see for myself that jumping into a pit of scorpions is a terrible idea. So I won't do it. But if I have a greater faith in something else (a cult leader, a textbook, whatever), my trust in them can override my own judgement. I will say, "well, this looks like a bad idea to me, but this person surely knows better than I do, so I guess I'd better to do it." Supreme faith would then be acting against one's own certainty - to look the problems squarely in the eye and ignore them anyway. And depending on your point of view, such behaviour is either commendable or contemptible, devoted or deranged.

(As an aside, this partly helps with the paradox of controlling one's own thoughts I discussed last time. We arguably don't have much choice about what we believe, but belief, desire, and choice are all separate - if related - things. There's more to choice than belief.)

This is not always dangerous though, and often it's necessary. We can have this sort of faith in experts or different methodologies - happens all the time, and a jolly good thing true.

As a scientist, I confront this daily. My intuition isn't always bad, but it often leads me astray : I see a pattern in the data and think, "hah, yes, surely this time I've discovered something that will win me the Nobel Prize !". But I don't immediately rush to publish it, because I trust the established scientific method. I have faith that a proper statistical analysis will reveal things that a casual inspection simply can't. So I go ahead and do things properly, not because I think I've done anything wrong, but because the methodology has a proven, reliable track record of being better than my own instantaneous judgement.

This, I think, helps explain the idea of a leap of faith quite nicely :

And it also explains the difference between ordinary belief, what's also known as judgement or opinion, and true faith (usually associated with religion). A belief in a thing is also usually this sort of quasi-religious faith. You can and should believe that chairs exist - in fact, you can be said to know that they exist; knowledge can be seen to be just an extreme form of this kind of everyday belief. But you can't really believe in them.

This "belief in", rather than of, is usually something quite different, and more like the trusting sort of faith. So you can't really believe in chairs in this sense : they don't offer you any sort of knowledge contrary to your own. Well, I suppose if you're counting on a chair to support your weight, when you have a deep suspicion that it looks a bit flimsy, in that specific and limited circumstance you could "believe" in the chair - you could trust it despite your own misgivings - but that's about as far as it goes.

Sometimes faith is only just strong enough to overcome doubt. I will gloss over a significant caveat that the desire to actually do something is arguably quite distinct from the belief that it's a good idea.

So should scientists get angry when people say they "believe" in things ? No, absolutely not. And that goes for both senses of the word.

If I say, "I believe in dark matter", I could mean one of two things :

  1. I could simply mean that I think, on balance, that it's more likely to exist than not exist. I have a genuine degree of confidence in the prospect. That belief (for me) is well-founded on solid scientific principles, evidence and reason. This is perfectly sensible and unavoidable. I don't have to commit my entire body and soul to my opinion, but I can't very well avoid having an opinion at all - that would be silly. 
  2. Alternatively, I could mean that I trust the evidence over my own intuition, which might incline against invoking large amounts of a mysterious substance that makes galaxies spin. That too would be rational and proper, which not even the most skeptical should have any problem with. Trusting the method is perfectly rational given its proven track record - and to repeat, neither faith nor beliefs are absolutes. I can say, "well, this is just my best guess", or "the analysis suggests this result, but I'm not fully convinced". Like the terrified young lady above, the net strength of faith or belief can sometimes be only marginal.

But of course sometimes faith does become silly. If I find evidence against dark matter, but I persist in maintaining the full strength of my belief, then my faith is a hindrance to knowledge. The stronger the evidence I choose to (or otherwise) ignore, the more dangerous my faith becomes. It's not trust that's important, it's what I put my trust in.

Now if you're a rationalist, you might well object to having your world view labelled as a variety of faith. But I would argue that it is. Given all the uncertainties and necessary assumptions regarding knowledge we looked at in part one, you have to have some trust that the evidence of your own senses is a sensible way to form a judgment. It doesn't have to be very much, and some of it is unavoidable - but still there is some

A rather stronger form of faith pervades rationalism when it comes to specific methodologies. We sometimes seem to forget that the scientific method itself is subject to revision, that we're always developing new tools to analyse data and new criteria for establishing facts - especially when it comes to statistics. We all of us suffer a particularly blind sort of faith when we trust the current methods too much, when we forget that this too is subject to improvement. We think, paraphrasing an earlier quote, that all the methods we have are all the methods there are.

Yet, by and large, faith that aligns with the evidence and current analytical methods is seldom much of a cause for concern. It's probably the best we can ever hope for, and certainly better than believing someone just because they dress like a pirate or say things that sound nice. In a sense, it's possible to have faith in your own self-doubt : to trust that there are better methods than your own intuition, but that you yourself are capable of deciding which methods are better and which are worse.

That's my take then. Belief is confidence in one's own opinion, faith is confidence that someone else's opinion is better. Neither is intrinsically good or bad, and neither are fundamental to or fundamentally opposed to rational inquiry. They're just parts of the human condition.

Well, I feel an awful lot better for having clarified my position. At last we may turn to Locke.

Locke's Faith

Locke's view on faith proceeded from a different angle. Knowledge, he says, comes from direct perception and deductive reasoning. We may have ideas that are in accordance with, contrary to, or above (beyond) reason : the latter meaning things that are unprovable by rational inquiry. There isn't any inherent pejorative here, but he doesn't immediately view faith as falling into this category :

Faith is nothing but a firm assent of the mind : which, if it be regulated, as is our duty, cannot be afforded to anything but upon good reason, and so cannot be opposite to it.

Locke then views faith as much more similar to the common meaning of belief or opinion, albeit perhaps with a high degree of confidence. He acknowledges that beliefs can be irrational, but doesn't set faith into any special category :

He that believes without having any reason for believing, may be in love with his own fancies, but neither seeks truth as he ought, nor pays the obedience due to his Maker, who would have him use those discerning faculties he has given him, to keep him out of mistakes and error.

To search for truth by rational inquiry is, in Locke's view, a form of service to God. Why else would he have given you the capabilities to do so if not to use them ? The idea that God would demand blind obedience does not feature anywhere : quite the opposite ! The religious overtones associated with the modern use of the word "faith" don't really feature much here, except indirectly in that some religious beliefs do tend to be especially fervent.

Clearly you can have beliefs without any real evidence to back them up. For Locke this is nothing virtuous; again, he doesn't much distinguish between faith and belief. But he does acknowledge that some people take faith to wholly irrational by definition :

I find every sect, so far as reason will help them, make use of it [reason] gladly : and where it fails them, they cry out, "It is a matter of faith, and above reason."

This at least alludes to the notion of faith as a kind of trust, but potentially with an added factor that I've hitherto overlooked. It depends on just how irrational you think people can be. Rational people can have a solidly rational faith, placing their trust in a source that's been previously proven correct when there's limited knowledge of a current topic. Irrational people may do something very much stranger, trusting that a result is true even if inherently unprovable by rational methods. So here we have yet another sense of the what "faith" can be taken to mean - and a quite legitimate one too, since some beliefs certainly fall into this category. Defining faith as "an inherently unprovable belief" would, needless to say, be markedly different to my own inclination, but entirely plausible. 

Locke's sigh of indignation almost audibly emanates from the pages. How can such people argue with anyone, he laments, without clearly distinguishing between faith and reason ?

He proposes that the key difference is how people arrive at their conclusions. Reason is the process of logical deduction. Faith, in contrast, is revelation - an idea communicated through "some extraordinary way of communication" from God. So this is quite distinct from ordinary belief after all. But this is not to say that faith is inherently irrational - and not just because Locke himself happened to believe in divine revelation. It's both subtler and more interesting than that.

Firstly, revelation (according to Locke) is surprisingly limited considering its progenitor's omnipotence. God can't give you wholly new perceptions - at least not by revelation alone. That is, if you were born deaf, you can't know what hearing is like except by gaining the sense of hearing, which is more than the knowledge that can be communicated through linguistic revelation :

This revelation, if it be of new simple ideas, cannot be conveyed to another, either by words or any other signs. Because words, by their immediate operation on us, cause no other ideas but of their natural sounds, and it is by the custom of using them for signs that they excite and revive in our minds latent ideas - but yet only such as ideas as were there before. 

Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that if God did give you a new sense, you couldn't properly describe this to anyone who didn't also receive such a gift. This echoes earlier, medieval ideas that even God can't violate logic. Locke imagines aliens living on Jupiter or Saturn ("for that it is possible there may be such, nobody can deny"*) with a sixth sense** :

* I don't know if Locke had any difficulties with religious authorities over this, though I doubt it.
** I'm surprised that Locke isn't mentioned more often in popular articles describing Mary's Room. His aliens certainly get to the heart of the matter : arguably more so than Mary, since they have a literally unimaginable extra sense that Mary can never possess.

He could no more, by words, produce in the minds of other men those ideas imprinted by that sixth sense, than one of use could convey the idea of any colour, by the sound of words, into a man who, having the other four senses perfect, had always totally wanted the fifth, of seeing. For our simple ideas, then... we can by no means receive them, or any of them, from traditional revelation.

Second, nothing prevents revelation from agreeing with reason. God is necessarily good, so he wouldn't go around filling your head with a load of cobblers. This means there's no reason at all why he wouldn't reveal things to you that you could have figured out entirely by yourself, just because he wants to give you a helping hand. God, in effect, is the equivalent of fifty-fifty on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire.

Obviously from the parts of the Bible they left out.

But more importantly, revelation isn't as certain as ordinary knowledge. Even if it's God telling you stuff, in the end, this is never as good as seeing something for yourself. So much for religious dogma.

The knowledge we have that this revelation came at first from God, can never be so sure as the knowledge we have from the clear and distinct perception of the agreement or disagreement of our own ideas. Nobody, I think, will say he has as certain and clear a knowledge of the Flood as Noah, that saw it, or that he himself would have had, had he then been alive and seen it.

Third, and most strikingly of all, even divine revelation must fail before reason. God does not tell lies, and there's nothing more certain than direct perception or logical deduction. Therefore anything that contradicts rational inquiry must be false (or beyond reason).

No proposition can be received for divine revelation, or obtain the assent due to all such, if it be contradictory to our clear intuitive knowledge. Because this would be to subvert the principles of all knowledge, evidence, and assent whatsoever, and there would be left no difference between truth and falsehood, no measures of credible and incredible in the world, if doubtful propositions shall take place before self-evident, and what we certainly know give way to what we may possibly be mistaken in.

If someone claims to have had a divine revelation, but what they say goes against reason, then they must be lying or mistaken. This says nothing about the truth of God, just his believers. He's really, really, really insistent that knowledge must always prevail over "faith".

For faith can never convince us of anything that contradicts our knowledge. Since the whole strength of our certainty depends upon our knowledge that God revealed it, which, in this case, where the propositions supposed revealed contradicts our knowledge or reason, will always have this objections hanging to it, viz. that we cannot tell how to conceive that it come from God, the bountiful Author of our being, which, if received for true, must overturn all the principles and foundations of knowledge he has given us, render all our faculties useless, wholly destroy the most excellent part of his workmanship, our understandings, and put a man in a condition where he will have less light, less conduct than the beast that perisheth.
This particular anti-religion meme does have a point...y hat. But seriously, reason ought to have prevailed over faith here.

So convinced is Locke of the rational nature of the Universe and the benevolence of God, that he goes even a step further. Any divine revelation, he says, must also be achievable through ordinary inquiry. 

To all those who pretend not to immediate revelation, reason has a great deal more to do, and it is only that which can induce us to receive the truths revealed to others.

Which raises the question : does faith - in revelatory sense - have any use at all ? Yes, says Locke, it has three purposes. First, he concedes that it can indeed allow us to know things which are beyond reason and not subject to rational analysis. Things which are unfalsifiable (in the modern Popperian parlance) can be revealed this way and no other ("not how the heavens go", and all that) :

These, as being beyond the discovery of our natural faculties, and above reason, are the proper matter of faith. Thus, that part of the angels that rebelled against god, and that the dead shall rise and live again, these and the like, being beyond the discovery of reason, are purely matters of faith, which reason has directly nothing to do.

Second, when evidence is lacking, faith can tip the balance. If we're more confident of a revelation than we are of the evidence, then revelation can help overturn even what seems otherwise the more probable (but under no circumstances certain) conclusion. And thirdly, if God really wants us to know something achievable with rational analysis, he can provide instructions on how to do so. Hmm, yes, "we chose to fit a third-order polynomial to the data because God told us to"... good luck getting that one past a modern reviewer. #OverlyHonestMethods.

God when he makes the prophet does not unmake the man. When he illuminates the mind with supernatural light, he does not extinguish that which is natural. If he would have us assent to the truth of any proposition, he either evidences that truth by the usual methods of natural reason, or else makes it known to be a truth which he would have us assent to by his authority, and convinces is us that it is from him, by some marks which reason cannot be mistaken in. Reason must be our last judge and guide us in everything.

Divine revelation has long fallen from scientific grace, but Locke's solution is a clever way to avoid the obvious problem of charlatans and madmen. His view again echoes earlier theologians who held that you were free to try any medical, rational cure for illness that you wanted - it would only overcome a heaven-sent illness if God had decided you'd had enough. Likewise, so Locke expects God to provide rational, testable proof that claimed divine revelations were really his own work. You were not expected to take it - ahem - on faith.

For Locke, trust is something that's earned. For others, this misses the whole point. Locke's view of such fanatics is little short of contempt :

Enthusiasm [fanaticism] takes away both reason and revelation, and substitutes in the room of them the ungrounded fancies of a man's own brain, and assumes them for a foundation both of opinion and conduct. For a strong conceit, like a new principle, carries all easily with it, when got above common sense, and freed from all restraint of reason and check of reflections, it is heightened into a divine authority, in concurrence with our own temper and inclination.

The love of something extraordinary, the ease and glory it is to be inspired, and be above the common and natural ways of knowledge, so flatters many men's laziness, ignorance, and vanity, that, when once they are got into this way of immediate revelation, of illumination without search, and of certainty without proof and without examination, it is a hard matter to get them out of it. Reason is lost upon them, and they are above it... what they have a sensible experience of admits no doubt, needs no probation.

Fanatics are generally sincere in their beliefs, according to Locke. They think themselves experiencing divine revelation with the same degree of intuitive certainty that we see "the Sun at noon... and need not the twilight of reason to show it us." 

All the more need, then, for reason. Someone experiencing true revelation will be able to rationally prove either what they say is true and/or that it came from God. A deluded fanatic, on the other hand, can only offer a perfectly circular argument :

This is the way of talking of these men : they are sure, because they are sure, and their persuasions are right, because they are strong in them. For, when what they say is stripped of the metaphor of seeing and feeling, this is all it amounts to, and yet those similes so impose on the they they serve them for certainty in themselves, and demonstration to others. It is a revelation, because they firmly believe it, and they believe it, because it is a revelation.

This is surely the very worst variety of "faith" we've come across : not merely nonsense, but self-justifying nonsense. Locke hates it. We should only believe something, he says, so far as the evidence allows, and anyone going further than this is being irrational and possibly fanatical. "Whoever goes beyond this measure of assent, it is plain receives not the truth in the love of it; loves not truth for truth's sake but for some other bye-end".

Flattery will get you everywhere.

So how about that "God" chap ?

There is one final teensy-weensy thing we need to address though. Locke has given us a clear way to test if claimed prophets are genuine or not. But he falls down, I think, on two other areas. First, he has no clear way to tell if one's own intuitive knowledge is at fault. He asks the right questions, but the answer is not at all satisfying :

How do I know that God is the revealed of this to me, that this impressions is made upon my mind by his Holy Spirit, and that therefore I ought to obey it ? For, if I mistake them not, these men receive it for true, because they presume God revealed it. Does it not, then, stand upon them to examine upon which grounds they presume it to be a revelation from God ? Or else all their confidence is mere presumption, and this light they are so dazzled with is nothing but an ignis fatuus [will-o'-the-wisp].

Alas, while he does state the general solution, that God could choose to provide a rationally-verifiable answer if he wanted, this is a rare case where he doesn't give a specific example. Yes, God could surely make his revelations provable, and make it equally provable to a rational, skeptical observer that he was indeed responsible, but how exactly would this manifest itself in practise ? Would He descend as a burning bush and co-author a paper ? Locke has no answer. Except, perhaps, when it comes to the existence of God itself - the only major part of the Essay I found disappointing.

Descartes starts his Meditations by attempting to doubt everything. As well as becoming certain of his own existence, pretty soon he also establishes the existence of God through one of the most annoying ideas in history : the ontological argument. In essence, God is perfect, and one of the necessary qualities of perfection is that it exists, so God exists. Bam, done.

I hate this. It's just gaaaargh. Sophistry. OVERLOAD. Let us never speak of this again.

Locke's position is... slightly more sophisticated. It isn't mere wordplay, at least. But in the end I don't find it any more convincing.

He has two reasons for believing in God, both closely related. Since we ourselves exist, and nothing cannot come of nothing, it follows that something must have produced us. Or indeed the entire world around us - there's not really an anthropic argument here just yet. 

Man knows, by an intuitive certainty, that bare nothing can no more produce any real being, that it can be equal to two right angles. If we known that there is some being being, and that nonentity cannot produce any real being, it is an evident demonstration, that from eternity there has been something, since was not from eternity had a beginning and what had a beginning must be produced by something else.

In some ways this is not too bad. How a state of total non-existence (I mean the complete absence even of any governing physical laws, not merely the absence of matter or even of space and time themselves) can give rise to existence is a deep philosophical and physical problem which, in all likelihood, is beyond human understanding. After all, non-existence can't exist by definition. 

Go, have fun with that one. I'll wait.

For the sake of argument, let's assume that something has always existed, and ignore the tricky problem of where and when such a thing has existed. It certainly doesn't necessarily follow that what existed before us was any kind of entity, whereas Locke finds it almost self-evident that the being was both the most powerful and most knowing entity of all. I think he's perhaps extending the principle of "nothing can come of nothing" too far - that because we have some knowledge, our progenitor must have done so too. In contrast, it seems self-evident enough to me that we are born knowing nothing but learn things later on, whereas Locke disagrees :

If it be said, there was a time when no being had any knowledge, when that eternal being was void of all understanding, I reply, then it was impossible that there should have been any knowledge - it being impossible that things wholly void of knowledge, and operating blindly, and without any perception, should produce a knowing being, as it is impossible that a triangle should make itself three angles bigger than two right ones.

Which just doesn't make sense to me. We don't even need to bring in evolution for this. I'm certainly not born with any prior knowledge of fish or differential equations or custard. None whatsoever. My perception also begins (as a fertilised cell) as zero. I acquire both perception and knowledge from literally nothing. So I don't see why this eternal being, even conceding the already strange point that it "must" have existed, need be any kind of supreme being as Locke thinks.

It's popular idea that the universe could just be an accident created by some moron in a laboratory, but this doesn't really address the root problem : where does stupidity intelligence, awareness, understanding originally come from ?

This brings in Locke's second point, which he's equally convinced about but doesn't persuasively justify - that mindless matter cannot come to have a mind. 

For it is as repugnant to the idea of senseless matter, that it should put into itself sense, perception, and knowledge, as it is repugnant to the idea of a triangle, that it should out into itself greater angles than two right ones.

I wonder what Locke would have made of non-Euclidian geometry, computers, and optical illusions. Today we take such things for granted, but in Locke's day there was absolutely no reason to do so. Still, he had books (which store knowledge) and illusions were hardly unknown either. So he ought to have realised that his perceptive intuition was potentially more fallible than he gave it credit for. It's also a bit strange, given (as we saw in part two) Locke's sympathy with the idea of consciousness being transplantable, and, more explicitly, his acknowledgement that God could choose to allow matter to think.

Locke, I think, was a little bit of a panpsychist, essentially arguing that consciousness is a property that matter has, not something it generates. But there's no hint of the idea that all matter has some degree of consciousness, which makes it all the stranger how only some types of matter - apparently in very specific configurations - can be conscious and not others.

He does at least attempt to elaborate as to why he's so against the idea of thinking matter though :

Let us suppose the matter of the next pebble we meet... if there no other being in the world, must it not eternally remain at rest, a dead inactive lump ? Is it possible to conceive it can add motion to itself, being purely matter, or produce anything ? Matter then, by its own strength, cannot produce in itself so much as motion.

True enough, but as soon as you add any other matter at all, the picture changes. The Essay was published only three years after Newton's theory of gravity, but the obvious retort is :

Matter can certainly induce motion. But even granting this, Locke doesn't concede this could ever be true of thought :

Matter, whatever changes it might produce of figure and bulk, could never produce thought : knowledge will still be as far beyond the power of motion and matter to produce, as matter is beyond the power of nothing or nonentity to produce. Divide matter into as many parts as you will, and you may as rationally expect to produce sense, thought, and knowledge, by putting together, in a certain figure and motions, gross particles of matter, as by those that are the very minutest that anywhere do exist. They knock, impel, and resist one another, and that is all they can do. For it is impossible to conceive that matter could have originally, in and from itself, sense, perception, and knowledge, as is evident from hence, that then sense, perception, and knowledge, must be a property eternally inseparable from matter and every particle of it.

Panpsychist tendencies indeed ! But... why ? What is so self-evident about the notion that matter cannot think ? I could equally well claim, without justification, that the non-physical cannot affect the physical and so render God (who Locke says cannot be made of matter) useless. Now I'll cheerfully grant that the modern assumption that matter can think is equally strange - it's the supposedly self-evident nature of the assumptions that's the problem.

So for all Locke's commendable efforts to support a rational view not merely of faith in general, but religious faith specifically, I find myself unmoved in my agnosticism. It's good to prioritise reason above faith. It's commendable indeed to invoke the notion of a God who wouldn't ask you to abandon science, who gave you the faculty of reason so that you might use it, not to defy it as a test of a truly perverted notion of subservient, prostrating sort of faith. I just don't think that when it comes to the actual issue of the existence of God, Locke has anything useful to say.

Summary and Conclusions

We've seen several different contenders for how we define faith, so let's recap. First, we had the ideas of faith and belief as relating to confidence in any particular idea :

  • It's just a synonym for opinion, or more usually belief - the confidence we have in an opinion. This has rather fallen out of favour. While people do use "think" and "believe" interchangeably, few if any use "faith" in this way. "I think my fish is ill" and "I believe my fish is ill" - both sound fine, but, "I have faith my fish is sick" is just downright weird.
  • With belief being a measure of confidence in our own opinion, faith is our confidence that an external opinion is superior to our own. This kind of faith requires us to have our own, somewhat opposing opinion. And acting on faith can then become a far more impressive feat. Faith overcomes doubt rather than reducing it.
In these two interpretations, there's nothing inherently good or bad, rational or irrational, about faith itself. That depends entirely on how our beliefs (or the beliefs of those we trust) happen to be aligned with rational evidence and methodologies. In this sense, it's perfectly reasonable to speak of scientists having faith in what they do.

But people often use the word faith in quite a different, more explicitly irrational sense, and this terminology has value too :
  • Faith is nothing to do with confidence or trust, but only a particular kind of belief : one that is inherently unprovable. In this definition you can think that chairs exist, but you can't believe in them. You can only have faith, or believe in, things which are beyond what's measurably real.
  • At the extreme, faith, or more particularly fanaticism, is self-justifying irrational belief. This is circular and inherently illogical : the strength of one's belief is used as evidence for the strength of the belief, making it virtually invulnerable to reasoned argument.
The reason I get a bit cross when people start ranting about how scientists don't believe in things is because I generally use the term in the simple opinion-sense. Of course we make basic assumptions about reality. It's unavoidable. So I see nothing wrong in us saying our findings are (evidence-based) opinions, or that we have personal preferences that are influenced in part by non-rational factors. To pretend that science is so aloof is, I think, dangerous. I'm extremely wary of anyone claiming to be that far above ordinary human biases; such people are, in my experience, often by far the most convinced of their own opinions.

But it is true that the fanatical-variant of faith is also an important human condition. If someone uses faith in this sense, then no, most scientists certainly don't think like this. The areas in the Venn diagram would not be entirely separate, but the overlap would be marginal - some aspects of some theories are unprovable or interpretative; some individual scientists are simply mad.

Generally I think this latter version is the less helpful. I don't agree with Locke that so much of religious faith is a rational, provable assertion - I think far more of it is "above reason" than he did. Nor can I ignore fanaticism. No, it seems to me that trust is the underlying common factor. Trust is what unifies these two diametrically opposed schools of thought. It does not impose a moral judgement on either (though my own preference should by now be clear), for trust itself is neither right nor wrong. Instead, it describes and explains : trust in objectivity, measurement, repeatability and consistency leads to science; trust in feeling, intuition, doctrine and emotion lead to religion.

Which is not to say either is always good or bad or always opposed to the other. The point is more that the human condition is largely a blend of these two states, not one or the other.

For me the biggest weakness of Locke is not his failure to prove the existence of God - I would hardly expect anyone to be able to do that ! - but his inability to explain how someone could prove their "divine" revelation wasn't their own internal delusion, a prospect he clearly admits happens all too often. The divinity aspect of the problem is minor : I think this points to a bigger flaw with his definition of certainty and knowledge. 

If the thing we can be most certain of is our own thoughts, but we can be deluded about even this, if we can think ourselves certain but not actually be so, then what exactly are we left with ? Can we hold anything to be truly certain if no-one else can verify it ?

Suppose, for example, that God did give us a revelatory message. Let's say that one day he decides to warn us about the fate of our beloved pet fish. Suddenly we find ourselves thinking, "YOUR PET FISH IS QUITE ILL. YOU SHOULD TAKE HIM TO THE VET." But that's it, and after that God buggers off and gives no further information at all. How do we respond ?

I'll grant that we can absolutely certain that we are actually thinking the message itself about said fish. This is self-fulfilling : we can, in effect, directly perceive it. The problem is that of course we can't truly be certain about the origin of the message - we can't directly see its origin any more than we could smell crime or see music. Yet people claim they are indeed as certain of the origin as they are of the message, that they can directly perceive this - and because other people haven't had this unique revelatory experience, there's no way to convince them, just as we can't describe the colour red to a blind man. 

This puts us in a terrible, terrible dilemma. One side is certain and the other has no way of accessing that certainty. Any further argument is useless. Either the believer is mistaken, and our most fundamental sense of certainty is deeply flawed, or they're correct but others are denied access to this most basic knowledge. So we have a wretched paradox : we can be truly certain of some of our own thoughts, but equally convinced in our certainty even of falsehoods. We can apparently "know" unverifiable, unknowable truths. Like mathematical proofs that only a select few can truly understand, sometimes we have no recourse but to faith.

Of course the cat probably doesn't have faith here, he probably just hasn't thought it through at all. But for more on when science oversteps its proper boundaries, try this.

All this leads to the very practical consequence of science denial. It helps us appreciate just how vast the gulf between these two opposing world views can sometimes be. It's not a matter of one side lacking information, but something enormously deeper. It's well-summarised by a quote by idealism supporter Jonathan Black :
While we should try and reconcile religion with reason, what it cannot be reconciled with is materialism. If you concede that matter came before mind, you have conceded so much that there is nothing left worth defending... if the only meanings the cosmos has are the ones we invent for it, then the great claims of religion are false. If we came from nothing, the world's religions are worth nothing.
Creationism, Flat Earth, and other ideas are basically forms of idealism. To fly so fully in the face of scientific, material evidence requires that God actively shapes and reshapes reality : very much to the effect of reality being constructed of consciousness, not objective matter. Countering arguments in favour of such beliefs with scientific proof will not help, because the adherent's world view is fundamentally different and fundamentally irrational - or at the very least, based on an entirely different theory of knowledge. The two belief systems - and science is indeed a belief system - are simply not compatible. Even if Creationists don't admit to this (and I suspect many of them wouldn't even understand it), that is the "truth" they are willing to accept. Unless you tackle that first and head-on, then evidence-based, rationalist, materialist arguments will never succeed against someone who rejects evidence and all rational argument.

Of course, the two great world views, the mystical and the methodical, are not usually so far apart or as fiercely opposed as Creationism and geology. Most of the time the two can happily exist alongside one another. It's only, as Locke says, when the boundary between the two domains is improperly blurred that either has difficulties. And most adherents of either system do not fully adopt only one of the other in all things. But when they do conflict, it's important to realise what's going on is not purely a matter of who trusts what. The reasons for preferring one source over another are profoundly linked to the most basic view of reality. And the ultimate truth of that can, surely, only ever be a matter of faith.

Thus forever settling the argument between science and religion so that there need be no further discussion. Hurrah !

Tuesday 16 February 2021

I Like Locke (II) : FREEDOM !

Welcome to part two in this mini-series examining John Locke's awesome Essay Concerning Human Understanding. In part one I attempted to summarise Locke's view on how we acquire near-as-damnit certain knowledge given our limited human frailties and imperfections. I found myself wishing I could invite Locke around for cake, because I found him to be commendably sensible. 

He says : we can know the world through perception, we differentiate reality from imagination because perception is involuntary, and some things cannot be known except through perception (e.g. you cannot imagine a colour you've never seen). Qualia exist in our minds but are induced by real properties of the objects. Some things we know through direct perception and intuition, while others we have to deduce, with reasoning allowing us to overcome our limited conditions. However, our true knowledge is still very limited indeed, with the vast bulk of our conclusions being only probable opinions, not certain facts. 

This all seems fine and dandy to me, so what, if anything, remains mysterious ? Time to look at that other great topic of armchair philosophers*, free will.

*As opposed to bathtime philosophers, obviously.

The matter of the mind

I'm going to put more of my own spin on this one than last time, so bear with me a little. Thanks to my efforts to wrestle with Locke, I realised I was finally able to articulate what I think free will means - and why I think this supposedly mystical concept is entirely compatible with the scientific world view. I'm mostly satisfied with my answer, so there.

I'm gonna approach this with the recurring topic of qualia. As I'm prone to banging on about, how can non-physical things affect reality ? Seriously weird. This is the "ghost in the machine" - a.k.a. mind-body problem of dualism. Concepts like yellowness, justice, number, and solidity exist only in our minds. They're induced by the outside world, but the concepts themselves, the descriptive labels, are purely mental. So do they really affect how we act, or are they purely passive, observable qualities ? If the latter, then free will would seem to be an illusion, with consciousness only being the act of experiencing the world and nothing much more than that.

Although sometimes mere observation does have consequences. Heisenberg would have approved of Ceiling Cat : he knows exactly what you're doing but has no idea why.

I have argued that such concepts are not purely experiential. When we see that something is yellow, we act differently than if it was red - even if our perception happens to be mistaken. Or if we see there are five cookies instead of the ten we were promised, we get upset and throw a hissy fit*. We act based on what we think we saw, not what we actually perceived. 

*Right ? 

Furthermore, there are clearly no "number" particles floating around in space any more than there are atoms of justice or molecules of mercy. Raw sensory stimulus is not enough - I need internal concepts on which to act. I need to know the exact number of those cookies, dammit. So although completely distinct from the physical world we see around us, these qualities are nonetheless "real" in some sense, and very much able to influence us at some level. Presumably they don't exist in some higher Platonic dimension (which would only shift the problem anyway), as they obviously have no direct impact except through our minds, but that impact is real enough all the same.

And besides : an illusory or purely observational consciousness wouldn't solve a bloody thing. That would mean that our minds can create a phenomenon radically different from anything else we've ever proposed. See, ordinary relational properties, like, say, relative velocity, though they do not exist as physical entities themselves, are at least labels of something physical. Their origin, what they represent, is clear. Even that most mysterious substance of dark matter is supposed to interact with ordinary baryonic matter through gravity. 

Mind you, in this documentary I saw about talking bears, it's apparently possible to talk to dark matter using a computer.

But the kind of "substance" proposed for consciousness in this strictly materialist scenario is radically different : absolute nothingness, something that can be generated, definitely exists, but has no power of affecting what generated it in the slightest. And even if consciousness itself were a purely relational property, a label for some specific interactions, that still wouldn't explain how we have awareness : why should some relational properties have an associated awareness and not others ?

Consciousness as an emergent, relational property sounds interesting at first, but in the end I think it's not that much better than illusionism. It doesn't explain at all how this process of experience, the distinct sensation of our inner mental lives, arises. It just says that it happens, somehow. All of our inner lives are apparently just pointless. Well, the hell with that ! My inner life is freakin' fantastic. What happens inside my head undoubtedly matters a great deal. To say that it doesn't is subjectively yet axiomatically wrong.

This is all getting a bit mystical and at any minute we might expect an armoured bear to appear, so it's high time to bring in Locke. He points out, rather nicely, that our understanding of matter is similarly flimsy :

When we talk or think of any particular sort of corporeal substances, as horse, stone, etc., though the idea we have of either of them be but the complication or collection of those several simple ideas [irreducible concepts we can only know through perception] of sensible [as in "senses"] qualities, which we used to find united in the thing called horse or stone; yet, because we cannot conceive how they should subsist alone, nor one in another, we suppose them existing in and supported by some common subject; which support we denote by the name substances, thought it be certain we have no clear or distinct idea of that we suppose a support.

I interpret this to mean that while we can know the properties of horses and stones in extreme detail, things come unstuck when we push this too far. Sure, we can bring in atomic theory and work out how molecules and suchlike can interact. But the very substance of matter itself... that's much harder. 

Example : what's a proton ? Some quarks. Alright, what's a quark then ? A character in Deep Space Nine... but you can see where I'm going this. We can have wonderfully thorough descriptions of matter, and on the large scale we can even have some pretty fantastic, genuinely meaningful explanations of how it behaves (sufficient for us to demolish cities, should we choose), but in some ways today's knowledge is no more sophisticated than that of Locke's era. The very essence of what matter is continues to elude us. And if matter is so challenging, little wonder that mind should be any different.

But we can put a far more optimistic spin on this. We know that something called matter exists. We also know, with even more certainty, that minds exist. Both are an intrinsic part of reality. Okay, we might never be able to describe their true nature with absolute certainty, but the examination of the possibilities is worthwhile all the same. Perhaps, if we're very lucky, we might achieve the same useful sort of theory of mind as we have for theory of matter - even if it is all, ultimately, built on the same shifting sands. Limited knowledge of atomic physics hasn't stopped us from building nuclear reactors, so why should limitations on our knowledge of our inner lives be any different ?

You know when you're bored and you start stacking random objects to make the tallest thing you can ? I call such towers "stuff detectors". They're extremely sensitive to the presence of stuff : vibrations, a light breeze, gravitational waves, boredom... but they're very impressive while they last.

So we should not shirk from seemingly "mystical woo-woo" ideas if that's where our inquiries take us; but neither should we rush to embrace Wicca or start sacrificing chickens to the Great God Gadzaookalgrump. Our aim is to consider, not conclude, no matter how outlandish. 

And especially to consider Locke's view, not the whole mighty philosophical edifice. Locke says, intriguingly, that whatever perceives must also think :

A man begins to have ideas when he first has sensation... To ask, at what time a man has first any ideas, and perception, being the same thing... it being impossible for anyone to perceive without perceiving that he does perceive.

We might wonder whether he really means that perception is directly equivalent to thought. Does a computer hooked up to a camera really "think" ? Does a calculator "think" ? What about a doorbell ? It "perceives" touch, after a fashion. But what he seems to be getting at is more tautologous : without inner awareness, you're not really thinking; true perception requires inner life. A lens doesn't "perceive" just because it affects light or projects it to a surface. I suspect Locke would say that of course an abacus or even a calculator doesn't "think", but he might come unstuck when dealing a computer. 

He might say, perhaps, that they have some form of thought but not the sort of conscious perception that we have. Locke believed that the soul (a.k.a. the mind) doesn't necessarily think any more than the body necessarily moves. So this at least opens the possibility of thought not being directly equivalent to perception; certainly our brain does unconscious information processing that we could happily label as "thought". While Locke says that "consciousness always accompanies thinking", I think he'd be open to revising this point and refining his definitions - especially given phenomena like blindsight. Merely processing data, or responding to external stimuli, isn't the same as thinking or having an inner awareness.

Being able to calculate the amount of force needed to bend a girder to 31 degrees is qualitatively different to being aware of the experience of applying that force.

Mind from matter, or matter from mind ?

Hang on, aren't we forgetting about free will ? Not really. As I see it, the essence of the problem* is whether we have, quite literally, mind over matter. And establishing that requires we fully understand what we mean by thought. If we don't understand the nature of thought, we can't possibly hope to say if it can or can't interact with matter.

* There are many caveats to what we mean by free will, of course. I'm only going to consider the strongest definition of the term, not some namby-pamby stuff like "unhindered" will, which is obviously for losers.

Locke, like Descartes, thought that mind was a kind of substance. He conceded that God could allow matter to think by itself, but his overwhelming preference was that mind was a kind of immaterial thinking substance. Here the jargon of the day is a bit obscure, but my impression is they took this rather literally. Not that mind was believed to be any kind of physical substance, which would be just plain silly, but nevertheless some immaterial, substance-like "stuff". When Locke says, however, that we have equally clear ideas of both mind and matter, we should remember his statements that we have no idea of what matter really is either (my emphasis) :

For putting together the ideas of thinking and willing, or the power of moving or quieting corporeal motion, joined to substance, of which we have no distinct idea, we have the idea of an immaterial spirit; and by putting together the ideas of coherent solid parts, and a power of being moved, joined with substance, of which likewise we have no positive idea, we have the idea of matter. The one is as clear and distinct and idea as the other : the idea of thinking, and moving a body, being as clear and distinct ideas as the ideas of extension, solidity, and being moved.

Locke never really gets any more convincing as to what a thought actually is. For my part, I don't think there are any fully satisfying descriptions, much less explanations. The idea of thought as utterly passive is as bizarre to me as the idea that I'm not really thinking what I think I'm thinking : this is to defy the very thing I'm most certain about of all. Yet if thought is not passive, it would appear to be virtually supernatural, with an inexplicable ability to effect, albeit in highly limited and specific ways, physical matter. Just how strange would this be ?

Not strange at all... as long as you're Keanu Reeves or Uri Gellar. And now I want a remake of the Matrix...

At this point it's probably worth a further digression from Locke to briefly review some of the major ideas about what consciousness actually is.

  • Idealism. There is no "real" matter. Everything is consciousness; matter and the external world are all an "objective illusion".
  • Dualism. Consciousness is distinct from matter. One variant of this is panpsychism, which says that consciousness is a fundamental property of all matter, so that everything has consciousness, at least to a small degree. Other variations are that consciousness is a field of some sort which can be received or generated by matter, but perhaps only by very specific configurations.
  • Illusionism. Consciousness is some emergent property of matter but is at most entirely passive. It is pure observational experience. An extreme version seems to be that we're not even thinking at all.
I'm firmly a dualist, as was Locke. For my part I'm as certain that consciousness is not the same as physical matter as I can ever be certain about anything. But I'm much more reluctant to commit to anything beyond that.

Idealism, to be sure, is radical in the extreme. Frankly it feels like fixing a broken pipe by burning down the house, or in this case by spitting in the eye of God and running away shouting :

Locke would surely have welcomed a chain-smoking drunken robot into his philosophical mindset.

Even so, it's an elegant solution to the mind-body problem. We know with certainty that we can imagine matter : that is an incontrovertible fact. If anyone disagrees on this point, they are undeniably mad. But... we have no idea how matter can create mind. So, if it's all mind, there's no problem, whereas if it's all matter, things are horribly complicated.
This is all clever and interesting, but to me it's unhelpful. It's not obvious as to why our imaginary external world should be so damn consistent and testable. And who is the dreamer anyway ? I know it's not me, and it's probably not you : my sense of self is absolutely singular. This then requires consciousness within consciousness, which is getting weird and lacks any explanatory power - I cannot raise another consciousness within myself just by imagining it, that'd send me insane. Besides, I don't see how this solution is substantially different from saying, "a wizard did it". So while it's philosophically valid, certainly interesting, all the same it's just not for me, thanks.

Illusionism ? As already mentioned, to me this seems to be completely bonkers. Having seen back-and-forth arguments between the professionals, I'm very much of the opinion that is so monumentally self-inconsistent that it's one of the worst ideas anyone's ever had in any field whatsoever. It's not even wrong, so we shall say no more about this.

That leaves dualism. Panpsychism I don't think is terribly helpful as it says nothing much about consciousness comes to be, or how it interacts or combines when matter does the same. In this view consciousness is something that simply exists. There's nothing much that's obviously wrong with this idea, but what does it get us ? Very little, in my opinion. It in no way explains the dualistic nature of mind and matter. It's purely descriptive, not explanatory.

"Pan" is surely short for "pan-psychic". Didn't see that one coming, didya ?

So that leaves* the ideas that consciousness is something either generated or received by the brain. Furthermore, it's something that interacts with matter, but only via those very specific configurations of matter - possibly requiring a certain degree of complexity.

* Apart from the thousands of alternatives I'm no doubt unaware of.

My answer

In my view, the matter-generated version is the most scientific version of a theory of mind. We don't have to posit a pointless inner life of an electron, trapped forever in a subatomic coma. We don't have to pretend that our thoughts don't affect us despite the fact that they very clearly do. And we limit the interaction between mind and body strictly to the configurations of matter that generated it. Just as a lump of coal doesn't care a button about any magnetic fields that happen to be floating past, so most ordinary matter is totally impervious to whatever consciousness is. And just as a piece of iron does respond to magnetic fields - indeed cannot avoid it - so our brain must interact with our own mind. Rather satisfyingly, this view does not allow for telepathy or psychokinesis or ghosts or any other sort of woo-woo.

Surely, replacing the Ghostbusters with a bunch of philosophers is a golden opportunity for Existential Comics.

Of course, it leaves as a total mystery exactly how the mind is generated and how the interaction occurs, but this seems to me a very much better deal than saying reality isn't real or that electrons are all subatomic invalids. Common sense and science alike are saved. Hurrah ! 

And as a nice bonus, I think this view is entirely compatible with experiments where brainwaves are observed to change in response to external stimuli : sometimes our thoughts affect us, while sometimes physical affects our thoughts. Given that this scenario explicitly allows mind-matter interaction, we should fully expect this to work both ways. It also allows for consciousness to have different levels of complexity : the consciousness of a sleepy bear is not necessarily comparable with the consciousness of someone on LSD.

On the other hand, the other option is that matter receives consciousness as a kind external field (for want of a better word; consciousness might still be something radically different from any more familiar field). This definitely does allow for woo-woo, and makes it even less clear what consciousness is. Do each of our minds somehow exist separately in this literal field of dreams, or are they only disentangled by the brain ? What about memories ? We know, weirdly, that in some animals memories are not shared in different regions of the brain, but more on this later.

(In all this, however much hyperbole I might employ, however much I might dismiss ideas as madder than a bagful of mad clams that have just escaped from the Insane Asylum For Mad Clams, I can't be absolutely certain of anything. I'm just giving you my personal preferences, is all.)

That's my view then. Our brain (somehow) creates our mind (whatever that is) which interacts only with our own brain. That's what I mean when I talk abut free will : my thoughts control my actions but nothing else; they are not merely illusory products of electrochemical process in my nervous system. This is a full-throated view of free will without any magic at all. Oh, you can add in some magical sparkly stuff if you want - I won't stop you, you might even be right - it's just not necessary to do so. 

Locke's answer

But what about poor Locke ? Much like Mad Max in Fury Road, he's almost at risk of becoming a sidekick in his own post.

Since he was writing a magisterial treatise on knowledge and not a blog post, Locke carefully spelt out just what he meant by "free" and "will". The "will" aspect of the problem appears to be clear enough :

This power which the mind has thus to order the consideration of any idea, or the forbearing to consider it; or to prefer the motion of any part of the body to its rest, and vice-versa, in any particular instance, is that which call the Will. The actual exercise of that power, by directing any particular action, or its forbearance, is that which we call volition or willing.

So the will is just our capacity to try and make choices. Not the process of enacting the choice itself, because we could be in a straightjacket or paralysed or something. Which brings in the "free" part :

So far as a man has power to think or not to think, to move or not to move, according to the preference or direction of his own mind, so far is a man free.

Well, this is easy ! Free will is simply our capacity to make choices according to our own thoughts. Locke elaborates that not every action we take happens as a result of this. As a tennis ball, he says, has no preferences for choosing anything, so sometimes we might accidentally hit our friends without meaning to. Best to say away from Locke during tennis then, but the point is clear.

Locke elaborates that "free" is not quite the same as "voluntary", pointing out that you can volunteer to be imprisoned. Likewise "necessary" actions as those you cannot avoid. But while the case of physical action seems clear enough, I think it starts to unravel when it comes to thought :

A waking man, being under the necessity, of having some ideas constantly in his mind, is not at liberty to think or not to think; no more than he is at liberty whether his body shall touch any other or no : but whether he will remove his contemplation from one idea to another is many times in his choice, and then his is, in respect of his ideas, as much at liberty as he is in respect of bodies he rests on; he can at pleasure remove himself from one to another. But yet some ideas to the mind, like some motions to the body, are such as in certain circumstances it cannot avoid, nor obtain their absence by the utmost effort it can use. A man on the rack is not at liberty to lay by the idea of pain.

Which, contrary to Stoicism is not unreasonable. We cannot avoid having some thoughts and sensations, although thankfully being on the rack is no longer much of a concern*. This seems very much in agreement with the version I've outlined, but provokes an awkward question : what about those cases where we are, supposedly, at liberty to choose what to think ? What on earth does it mean to say we have control of our own thoughts ?

* I'm guessing Locke was a really, really vindictive tennis player.

The paradox of free will

Sadly Locke breaks off at this point into sophistry and semantics. He describes at some length how the will itself cannot have freedom - agents have freedom, not their properties. But he concludes, I think, very much in the affirmative that free will is a thing :

What is it determines the will ? The true and proper answer is : the mind. For that which determines the general power of directing, to this or that particular direction, is nothing but the agent itself exercising the power it has that particular way.

Okay, but... I've set out my case for why I think our thoughts do indeed control our actions. No problem there. But do we have control over our own thoughts ? Wouldn't that be a ghastly contradiction ? We'd have to think about what we wanted to think before we could think it, an infinite and tremendously confusing paradoxical chain. Locke at least asks the right question, but his answer is unsatisfying :

What moves the mind, in every particular instance, to determine its general power of directing, to this or that particular motion or rest ? And to this I answer — the motive for continuing in the same state or action is only the present satisfaction in it; the motive to change is always some uneasiness : nothing setting us upon the change of state, or upon any new action, but some uneasiness.

But what controls this uneasiness ? If our thoughts control our actions, but our thoughts are set by things over which we have no control, then free will would be rendered no more than a clever sham. Locke only partly comes to the rescue :

For all that we desire is only to be happy. Yet the satisfaction of any particular desire can be suspended from determining the will to any subservient action, till we have maturely examined whether the particular apparent good which we then desire makes a part of our real happiness, or be consistent or inconsistent with it. The result of our judgement upon that examination is what ultimately determines the main; who could not be free if his will were determined by anything but his own desire, guided by his own judgement.

So while things over which we have no control (in this case emotions) do influence us, they don't prevent us from making judgements. We can choose to put up with things we don't want in order to accomplish a goal, or to abandon that goal instead. We have a degree of control - limited but nonetheless important - over how we act and what will happen to us. We get to decide how to proceed with our goals. And even more fundamentally, it's we ourselves who get to "tell me what you want, what you really really want." We are not purely slaves to our desires.

Though teenage boys of the 1990s might happily disagree. Still, if we can't choose what our base desires actually are, we can at least judge for ourselves what they are - and how to respond to them.

In this sense free will is not unlike knowledge, as discussed last time. Truly certain knowledge is not possible - always there are assumptions about what we mean by certainty. But within those assumptions, we can recover certainty. For free will, we may not have total control of our desires - which would be a paradox - but we do have some. We get to choose roughly how to proceed, even if we can't choose exactly what it is we want in minute detail.

I think that some elaboration is useful here. In a previous post I've likened thinking to a process of beckoning. I do not choose exactly what I'm going to think, but I do choose what to think about : I beckon those thoughts toward me. Thoughts generally arrive in some complete, linguistically-structured form; I employ a process of active filtration on which to set down in text and which to discard. I choose. I do not choose the details of what my mind comes up with - I've no choice about that - but I do consciously choose which general areas to direct my attention towards. This is a bit like how I choose to wave my arm about. I choose where it goes, but I have no control of the fine details of the electrical signals sent through my nervous system. If I did, I imagine my hand would fly off, or something.

In some situations my conscious control is much more pronounced than in others. I don't have to think at all when walking around or shouting at pigeons. But if I solve a mathematical problem, or decide what to watch next on Netflix, or purchase something expensive, then my consciousness is fully in the driving seat. I can choose to override my base beliefs and intuition through objective analysis. And I can shape my desires through learning. I have a direct influence over my own future.

Consciousness is over-rated anyway.

Still, though, a difficult problem remains. In order for my thoughts to assemble themselves into neat, generally coherent sentences, a large amount of processing must be done unconsciously, i.e. at a level below my control. Occasionally, especially with complex issues, the general sentiment is raised to consciousness before crystallising into language. During this time I do have some control over exactly what I want to express. But even here, I have no control over that general sentiment, that vague, formless idea risen from the murky depths. There's a chicken-and-the-egg problem here - do I control what thoughts I have next, or do the thoughts I happen to have control what I do next ?

Maybe a simple thought experiment will help. Imagine a dot. Got it ? Good. Now move it around. What decided the direction of movement ? Well, you did, obviously, but how did you make that choice ? 

If someone else tells you, "move it to the left", then obviously you make a binary choice whether to obey them or not; you exercise your free will and control in making that choice (even if they say, "move it to the left or I'll jab you with this sharp pointy stick !"). But ultimately, with that dot being absolutely in your control, it isn't at all easy to say how you made a decision, any more than you can describe exactly how you wave your arm. Your options were essentially unconstrained. And by simplifying the question of free will down to this simplest of puzzles and finding it to be unanswerable, I think we can safely say that we're not going to fully solve this chronic mystery anytime soon.

So here's my view. Free will means our thoughts control our choices. We have limited influence over what our thoughts will actually be, but a degree of absolute control of our choices. Just as I don't pretend to have any clue as to how mind can operate over matter, so I leave as mystery how we can control our thoughts. I take this on a kind of faith, on which more next time.

All this has looked at what control actually is. Let's finish off with a look at who is in control. Just who or what is this "thinking substance" anyway ? And what about memory ?

If I'm in control, then who am I ?

The obvious retort is, "I think, therefore I am !" Yes, but who am I that's thinking ? Reading Descartes Meditations it's impossible not to follow along with Descartes walk-through guide to examining reality. I found that I became ever more certain of my belief that I am undeniably me. That is, in the thread of my life, the knot of awareness that is me was as much me 30 years ago as it is now, despite the myriad of different experiences between now and then. Memories are then just things which are added and subtracted from my identity, not my identity itself. There is something, however inscrutable, that is infinitely more fundamental to my identity than anything as petty as what I can recall. I may lose consciousness for a time, but when I regain it, there I am. The self is more than mere memory or even awareness. And it's this that solves the problem of split-brain animals having multiple identities.

Locke does not come up with a clear explanation as to what this mysterious "self" thingy is, but he has some interesting thoughts. He explicitly differentiates between the identity of living things and inanimate matter. Annoyingly, even defining identity for the latter is hardly straightforward :

If two or more atoms be joined together in the same mass, every one of those atoms will be the same : and whilst they exist united together, the mass, consisting of the same atoms, must be the same mass, let the parts be ever so differently jumbled. But if one of those atoms be taken away, or one new one added, it is no longer the same mass of the same body.

This is either obviously true or just confusing. If I take out one atom from a teapot, is it no longer the same teapot ? It has undeniably changed, even though its differences are for all intents and purposes imperceptible. 

Or even if the differences are perceptible. A kitty pretending to be a lion isn't fundamentally different because it's wearing an adorable mane.

Yet this feels somehow unsatisfactory; the change of a thing does not automatically equate with the destruction of a thing. After all, if the teapot were initially at rest, then suddenly accelerated to one hundred miles per hour, or its handle was broken, we'd only say the teapot had changed. We'd say it was the same teapot, just travelling very fast or without a handle. We wouldn't say the old teapot we knew and loved had suddenly ceased to exist, and been instantly replaced with a new high-speed broken-handled variant. But then how else should we define identity ?

Locke's answer is purpose. He seems content that when dealing with inanimate matter, atomic configuration is enough. When we come to plants and trees, however, he says their identity is quite different : it's the life that matters, not the atoms :

Partaking of one common life, it continues to be the same plant as long as it partakes of the same life, though that life be communicated to new particles of matter vitally united to the living plant.

He says the situation is much the same for animals, and makes the analogy of a watch : a configuration of matter ordered to a particular purpose. The major difference being, in his view, that the animating force of a watch comes externally, whereas for living animals the source is internal. Of course, the problem is that he has no clear idea what this "life" is, treating it as another sort of ethereal substance.

What of people ? 

Locke distinguishes between the identity of a man and the identity of a person*. The "man" is identified by his life force, or soul : "by constantly fleeting particles of matter, in succession vitally united to the same organised body." What he doesn't explain very well is whether this life force can be transplanted into other bodies and imbue them with the original identity. Or rather, I couldn't wrap my head around the various double-negatives and arcane uses of the different terms, so I couldn't pin down what Lock was trying to say about this. He either means it definitely is possible or definitely isn't.

*Queue angry hate mail from the woke brigade.

However, on personal identity there's no ambiguity in Locke - it's consciousness all the way. The consciousness is the self. The mysterious substance of consciousness doesn't change when we lose a limb or two. And even, "the same consciousness being preserved, whether in the same or different substances, the personal identity is preserved". Sounds like Locke would have approved of transhumanism.

Although possibly not.

Of course the tricky issue is memory. We can not only forget things, but also remember events incorrectly, and even "remember" things which never happened at all. One of the creepiest implications of this is, some argue, that we're constantly different people. Our continuous change, our nightly loss of consciousness, makes us a brand new person from day to day, minute to minute. 

Locke doesn't go to this extreme. Rather, he says that we're the same person as whatever we remember; that we forget things (or don't experience anything at all sometimes) doesn't change our identity, it just places gaps in it. So when Doctor Who regenerates, he or she is the same person even thousands of years after the initial. That there are gaps in the memory timeline doesn't mean we die each night and are reborn each morning.

But what if our memory was completely erased prior to some moment ? Here Locke does say we become a new person. If, he says, someone claims to be reincarnated with the soul of Socrates, but claims no memories of their previous life, then they are far all intents and purposes just being silly. If you can't remember your previous life, it obviously wasn't you who experienced it.

Here I have to disagree. This interpretation would shatter my singular self into thousands of pieces, or rather, turn my linear though gap-ridden timeline into a vast branching network. Working memory lasts at most a few minutes. So as I type this paragraph, my consciousness extends back for thirty-something years from long-term memory, but only about as far as the start of this paragraph in short-term memory. By the time I start the next paragraph, I'll have forgotten details of what I wrote here. So the "me" who wrote this will cease to be, but a new version of me will arise from the ashes of the old - even as the "me" derived from long-term memory persists and changes. There's a me that exists in the now, but the now is ever-changing, so the me in five minutes time won't remember everything that I do right at this moment. 

I just think this interpretation is a bit daft : the constant loss of petty details in memory doesn't seem grounds to say I have a new identity. And what about when I remember something I've forgotten ? If I can't happen to remember the name of the street of my favourite restaurant right now, but a minute later it pops into my head, I don't think anything has happened to my identity. I'm not about to turn every café owner out there into a potential identity thief.

A much, much better interpretation, in my view, comes from this article* :

There are many overlapping strands of psychological connection: personality, tastes, beliefs, memories, interests, preferences, desires and ambitions, to name a few. These are woven together like the strands in a rope. No one thread continues from one end of the rope to the other, and that’s to be expected. While the fibres that compose a rope are relatively short, they overlap, interlock and twist together so that the rope itself is strong and whole. The same is true of one’s psychological history: it is the time-spanning rope that ties together the different temporal parts and makes us complete.

* Which is ironic. For some reason the author wants to show that amnesia means the self is an illusion, but I think he presents a persuasive argument for the exact opposite conclusion.

I find this rope analogy compelling. It avoids the awkward old question of what becomes of a broom after both the handle and brush are changed, or a rock band after changing all the members. You can have a rope consisting of many interwoven threads, none of which extend through the whole length of the rope but it's unarguably one damn rope from end to end. There doesn't even have to be some mysterious inner core to wrap the threads around. It's enough that the rope is continuous, not that's made of the same materials throughout.

Interestingly, rope was used as computer memory for the Apollo guidance computer.

Locke allows this only insofar as the identity of the man, not the person. He says that this is even legally accepted, with someone suffering from temporary madness not being held accountable for their actions when restored to sanity. In his view, a man can be many persons. 

It seems simpler to me to say that a person can have many attributes, of which memory is just one. We don't need to say that someone who fornicated with a sheep because they were really drunk actually became a different person; rather, we can still say their responsibility was diminished but because their attributes were changed, not their identity. We don't say a person wearing stilts or clogs has a new identity, nor should we if they forget something. Just as a person wearing clogs can't be expected to be very good at ice-skating, so someone who's totally wasted can't be expected to be good at mathematics. Neither involves a change in identity, just attributes.

Perhaps an even better analogy would be a VHS tape. The tape can store many different things, and they don't need to be continuous. The tape might record a five minute weather forecast, a gap of an hour, and then twenty minutes of The Great British Bake-Off. What's on the tape is important. If we wipe it all and replace it with episodes of Rick And Morty, we've undeniably got something very different from when we started. But the tape itself remains the same.

How far could we push this ? Presumably at some point we do have to declare the tape broken or fundamentally changed. If we not only forget absolutely everything, but also change our whole personality, our intellect and morality, then at that point we might justifiably call ourselves a New Man. But the exact point at which this happens - if there even is one - is hard to define, and probably not all that interesting anyway.


So there we have it. I define myself roughly as the collection of my thoughts, memories, personality, morality, intelligence all other mental faculties I may or may not have. My thoughts give me a highly specific and limited kind of mind over matter, literal but utterly lacking any sort of mystical woo-woo whilst still being mysterious. We don't even need to mention the word "quantum" at all, nor ESP, nor illusionism. More interesting is the problem of how my thoughts interact, and in what sense I can be said to be in control of my own reasoning : how can I think what I need to think without first thinking it ? But this I am content to leave for another occasion. For now, I'm content in having set out my case for why free will is (a) real and (b) not in the least bit unscientific despite not being fully understood. 

Which all leads, of course, to the inevitably to the conclusion :

The version of consciousness I've presented has some definite consequences. We would never be able to program an artificial intelligence, for instance. We could get more and more elaborate forms of intelligence by this method only in the crude sense of data processing - but consciousness could never arise through pure number-crunching simulation. Genuine free will, consciousness, and emotion amounts to much more than randomness and unpredictable decisions under constrained options : it requires intention. And that, I submit, cannot occur through software but only specific, physical hardware. 

Not to say that there's nothing stopping us from building a true A.I., of course, just that we could never get one through code alone. In principle we could even test this : if we do ever manage to build a seemingly-conscious machine, we could recreate it in a simulation and it should, according to this idea, find that it would behave completely differently to its physical counterpart.

Next time I'll conclude this mini-series with a look at something a bit different : Locke's views on faith and revelation. If nothing else, Locke's insistence that faith must be rational ought to provide good fodder for provoking the antitheist brigade, which is always good for a laugh.