14-3 faith

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A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis

14.3 (Summer 2014)


faith & cultural meltdown

Arhipov Abram: 'Down the Oka Rither', 1889

Arhipov Abram: “Down the Oka River”


Human Free Will vs. Modern Science’s Will to Power

John R. Harris

I lately happened upon British journalist Michael Brooks’ 13 Things That Don’t Make Sense (Vintage: 2009) while browsing through a discount book catalogue.  It seemed a good risk of a few dollars; and indeed, having grown up on a wide-open plain whose night lights were far more celestial than terrestrial, I found the initial chapters about dark matter and the Viking missions to be absorbing (though over my head in more ways than I would have liked).  If Brooks had contented himself with nine or ten senseless things, I would have made a permanent place for his little volume on my cramped shelves.

Yet even in properly empirical fields of study, it must be said, Brooks and the pioneering scientists represented abundantly in his interviews display a certain hubris about the ability of their disciplines to answer ultimate questions.  One would have thought that a cosmologist, faced with the evidence that matter in the outer universe is actually accelerating, might consider that final answers cannot be cast in scientific terms.  Instead, no end of Alice-in-Wonderland scenarios are advanced by theoretical physicists to scuff up or postpone inevitable impasse, as if the night’s mysteries would make better sense if we called the whole apparatus a black orchid and set our software to drawing petals.  (Worth noting, by the way, is the respect bordering on reverence that many such investigators—e.g., the late Carl Sagan—display toward Third World cosmic mythology without an inkling of scientific underpinning.  Might that attraction result from an egotistical, if subconscious, desire to play the part of prophet, shaman, or magus—to become a kind of demigod?)

Brooks didn’t really lose my good will, however (didn’t tip his hand, I should perhaps say), until his chapter about heterosexual reproduction: specifically, about the inadequacy of current evolutionary doctrine to explain why the inefficient, time-consuming, risk-fraught method of bringing forth offspring by male/female exchanges should constitute an advantage over “natural cloning” via egg-laying or self-grafting.  (Apparently even human females can bear without male fertilization, once in an indigo-blue moon, though such offspring are sterile.)  As with other chapters, this one declines to consider the possibility of a spiritual reality; and indeed, I quite agree that a scientist should trade in his own coin and leave metaphysical speculation to others.  Yet why not, on that very basis, end Chapter 10 (and others) in a sublime perplexity?  Why not grandly enroll this question into the list of Fundamental Issues We Have Not Solved, and move on?  Instead, the reader is treated to an admiring crash-course in highly speculative sociology, the thrust of which is that regeneration is only a “spandrel” [i.e., random consequence] of sex, and that the real reason higher life forms like mammalians couple is to cement group bonds.  This, of course, bestows full respectability upon homosexual practice while depriving its opponents of their “argument from nature”.  We are given the standard refrain about how very, very many birds, turtles, and apes have been detected in homosexual acts by voyeur-researchers in camo; and we are even informed that vastly more researchers would share what they observed on the great gay Serengeti if only they did not feel harassed by the ghost of Jerry Falwell.

Alas, I know far too much of academic politics to buy this snake oil.  Research that might disprove the naturalness of homosexuality is, rather, food for the chopping block these days, in both the public and the private sectors.  As for male apes teaming up under the baobab, couldn’t the phenomenon be analogous to male prison inmates consoling each other for a lack of female company?  I have neither grant money nor time nor inclination to explore this jungle further; I merely note that Brooks has decided—and ever more noticeably as he leaves electron microscopes and particle accelerators farther in his wake—to hug the PC solution tightly rather than to hold his judgment in principled suspense.  I can’t help but think again about Carl Sagan during one of his orgasmic rhapsodies on Hindu cosmology.  Things That Make No Sense #14: why is Albert Einstein always morphing into Willie Wonka these days?

At this point, at least, I was primed for disappointment by the ensuing chapter on free will.  Given the antiquity of the question, and absent my now fully fledged misgivings, I should have expected a much subtler discussion.  Brooks’ empirical brief against free will seems to consist of the following “insights” imparted by the very latest science.  1) Muscles make our body do things, nerves energize our muscles, and a researcher with a cow prod can get our nerves to dance to his tune; 2) the brain is the storehouse of internal cow prods, and thus surgical operations on the brain (as opposed to the stomach or the left thumb) can alter behavior; 3) individuals are often heavily influenced by circumstances and other people even when they suppose themselves to be initiating their own behavior; and 4) in clinical tests, involuntary impulses to begin an action seem to beat voluntary impulses selecting that action to the researcher’s electroidal finish-line (e.g., we’re already reaching for a candy bar before we “decide” to reach).  And there you have state-of-the-art evidence against free will.

Brooks again wraps up with the deceptively invertebrate sort of compromise which passes for open-mindedness among the contemporary intelligentsia, and which in fact—just beneath its amoebic plasticity—is iron-rod rigid in its hostility toward social convention. The jellyfish is really a stalking, clanking sci-fi Transformer. “Maybe we should try to see the other side,” parses into clear English as, “Everything our forefathers accepted is a load of stinking compost.” We must continue believing in free will, Brooks magnanimously concedes (with that journalistic “we” that doesn’t really include him), for no better reason than that our criminal codes are built around the assumption of its reality and our dull minds (i.e., your dull minds) are too minutely programmed to think in other terms.

I should like to ask Mr. Brooks (who, given his youth, is clearly much brighter than I) how there can be any argument about free will at all if there is no free will.  We contend with adversaries rhetorically in order to “change their minds”, and we use reason (or sophistry) to do this in order that we may win their assent to the more objectively valid position.  If people have no control over their opinions and beliefs, however—whether the programming results from their DNA or their cultural conditioning or their breakfast—then no persuasion can possibly sway them.  Of course, Brooks’ cutting-edge researchers may also be programmed to present rational argument in this irrational manner, I suppose.  And indeed, such an assumption sheds light upon the misgivings to which I referred above; for if scientists, despite their voiced commitment to objective method and impartial experimentation, must always make of their profession only an expensive charade to cloak their egotism or their appetite, then… then we have perhaps explained Carl Sagan at last.

Missing from Chapter 11’s entire discussion, in all seriousness, is any non-behavioristic definition of will.  The human will is that impulse which mentally anticipates and initiates (if it indeed exists) a given observable act.  It is not a preference for Stravinski: it is the extraction of the Firebird CD from its case.  It isn’t a belief in the value of self-control: it’s the act of eating, or not eating, more chocolate cake.  The very essence of this “senseless” conundrum lies in the datum.  Science must have a perceptible datum—an act; otherwise it cannot study human motivation at all.  It therefore reduces all possible motivation to the initial phase of an act.  This phase can always mechanistically explain what follows to some degree; and to the scientist, the degree becomes 100% by default unless further perceptible content for the initial phase is uncovered.  Yet with regard to free will, a materially further-complicated initial phase must continue, through all of its many parts, to account for 100% of the motivation deterministically.

Allow me to borrow an example from Saint-Exupéry’s unfinished work, Citadelle.  A Bedouin rises and leaves his tent on a moonlit night.  He proceeds to walk straight over a cliff to his death.  His tracks lead to the chasm in a rigid line, suggesting full intent.  The Caïd calls his wise men together the next day and asks their verdict on the tragic event.  The wise men study the tent, follow the tracks, and peer over the cliff.  Then they announce, “He went over the cliff because there was no more sand to sustain this final step.”  Annoyed, the Caïd protests, “Yes, but what brought him to make that step?”  The wise men answer, “The previous step.  He could not have stepped other than he did, because the step before left the final step no further room.”  The Caïd, in disgust, dismisses his wise men.

If you allow a ladder to slip which you are meant to be holding tight, it may be that the ladder is too heavy.  It may be that a hornet caused you to remover your hands impulsively.  It may be that the man above you was juggling his hammer, and you feared that it might slip and fall on your head.  Each of these is a fully adequate explanation of the event.  All of them together are equally adequate.  Yet if you intended to let your companion come to harm the very next time that your negligence might prove fatal to him, then none of the three materials causes, nor any combination of new ones, suffices to account for what really happened.  The scientist has no way of handling this last assertion: it yields to him no datum, no perceptible evidence.  In his universe, therefore, it is unreal.

Nevertheless, every sane, functional, adult human being knows that such facts are an indispensable component of reality.

Mr. Brooks’ stimulating little book, I fear, has left me sad.  I do not know what satisfactory future could possibly await us at our present cultural pass if we lose our competency in science… but I am just as sure that a future constructed of science without humanity will turn dismal.  Who are these men and women, I ask myself increasingly—these “scientists”—who seem to possess no self-knowledge, no humility, and no restraint?  They appear to have lost respect for their own discipline in casting aside impartiality to pontificate about complex moral issues based on heavily “engineered” experimentation. They appear to be stirred to no kind of spirituality by the Pascalian mysteries over their heads and under their microscopes, unless this should be a quasi-Dionysiac raving—a rebellion against their profession’s rigor, perhaps, or perhaps a celebration of the Ego to fill the nuclear void of their investigations.  Where have the Edward Hubbles and the Enrico Fermis gone—modest men of humble spirit and disciplined judgment?  Who among these “wise men” would not coolly lead us over a cliff for the sake of keeping the next step in line with the last one?


Dr. John Harris is founder and president of The Center for Literate Values.  He has taught English and the Classics throughout the southeastern United States.