Why the Idea of Free Will Is Not That Crazy (2/2)
The root of the word mereology is greek: "meros" means "part," as in how the heart or the head is a part of the human body. It is one of the most ancient sub-fields of philosophy, but mereology nevertheless remains relatively unknown. In short, mereology attempts to answer questions such as: "What does it mean to be a thing? A single, identifiable thing, such as an atom, a fundamental particle, a water molecule, a stone, tree, koala bear or human being?"
Throughout the history of philosophy, different thinkers have suggested a wide range of different answers. The ancient Greeks proposed that things are pure quality. Water, fire, air, earth, love and strife were among the quality alternatives. Democritus used his proto-atomism to propose quantity; the Pythagoreans suggested numbers; Plato advocated his famous theory of form; Aristotle both form and matter; while Berkeley settled for pure ideas.
In the previous essay, I explained why our will causes things to happen. Why, some might inquire, is it relevant to move on to mereology? Because we need an intelligible way of talking about a human being as a single, identifiable thing. And actually, we need to be able to do so before we speak of such things as the will that belongs (or does not belong) to this or that thing which is a human being.
Somehow, the most unlikely of these proposals were vindicated by history: quantity. In the 17th century, Rene Descartes, a mathematician, refurnished the view of nature according to his own field of study. He remodeled matter on entirely quantitative or mathematical terms. That turned out to be an excellent methodological move for the progress of science, and opened up the way for the increasingly accurate methods of physics. Mathematics is a great tool to abstract and investigate the quantitative aspects of nature, enabling us to control them and predict their future. But in order to investigate the fullness of nature itself, physics is quite insufficient. When nature is redefined as quantity, it comes as no surprise that Descartes had to postulate the human mind—qualitative through and through—as immaterial. The human being was now split into a dualism of separate substances: the merger of a material body with an immaterial soul.
Isolating quantity is wise for certain methodological purposes, but it is a fatal categorical error to construct an ontology from it, revising an entire philosophy of what is real. Quantity has no plausible means for maintaining the intelligibility of being. No one exemplifies this better than particle physicists. Most particle physicists explain how their own micro-level field of study, the fundamental particles, are somehow "the most fundamental" to reality. In the hierarchy of being, from their point of view, we build the universe bottom-up. It is like using tiny homogenous building blocks of legos to somehow make up this world of large variation—including planets, stars, volcanos, trees, koala bears and human beings. This is also a default mindset of many people in the educated western hemisphere.
But when one redefines ontology, the physicist enters the realm of metaphysics (i.e. move from physics to philosophy). And for the physicist to be a good metaphysicist, he or she needs to be aware that they are doing metaphysics. Contrary to popular myth, ontology from a bottom-up view of quantity was never supported by the findings of natural science. Moreover, this view gets things exactly backwards.
It is the properties of natural things that determine how things work out at the micro-level. It is because a tree and a koala bear are what they are, that their corresponding particles function in the way that they do.
It is no difference with a human being. When we suggest that some part of the human body, like the brain, is performing choices in a way that makes it somehow a separate thing from us, we find ourselves in deep mereological muddle. It is the human being, with the possibilities and limitations arising from its total makeup, that is doing the perceiving, deliberating, intending and willing. We could no more locate a choice in a set of neurons, than we could find the act of seeing in an eye, separate from the human being as a whole. Just as a human being uses his eyes to see, he or she 'uses,' as it were, the neurons for intending and carrying out actions.
The qualities were never gone, but following Descartes, we have attempted to sweep them under a rug of an immaterial mind. We explain them away as something we mentally inflict on nature, instead of something we read out of nature. The philosophically sophisticated physicist Erwin Schrödinger noted this in his What is Life? And Other Scientific Essays:
We are thus facing the following strange situation. While all building stones for the [modern scientific] world-picture are furnished by the senses qua organs of the mind, while the world picture itself is and remains for everyone a construct of his mind and apart from it has no demonstrable existence, the mind itself remains a stranger in this picture, it has no place in it, it can nowhere be found in it (1956, p. 216).
Rediscovering real quality
As philosopher Etienne Gilson noticed in his critique of Descartes, when you choose whether to base knowledge on thought or thing, one must begin with thing—that is, the reality of being itself. If you begin by thought on the other hand, you are left without the tools to escape the prison of your mind, doomed to spiral into the abyss. Even when Descartes’ famously meditated himself to his cogito ergo sum ('I think, therefore I am'), it was illegitimate, as his process all along presupposed resources acquired from his lifetime of intimate encounter with the world of being.
The process of rationality would otherwise be incapable to function, because reason is always directed towards knowing and reasoning about something prior to thought itself. Without admitting reason's existing knowledge of being, one is left in a world of pure fantasy. If real being is a gap-length away from us, thought alone could never provide any possible bridge, doing the job of getting us across. One is trapped inside oneself, which is made evident in the history of philosophy following Descartes. As something close to historical necessity, with thought and being separated, Hume and Kant in the following centuries attempted to fill the missing dots towards the extremes of each side of reason. They thought they were overthrowing the immaterial superstitions of Descartes, but were really reinforcing his hypothesis.
However, if we start by thing (rather than thought), we find ourselves in the middle of the being of existing things, and can retroactively discover thought within being. And that is why metaphysics, the study of reality, needs to be prior to epistemology, the study of how we acquire knowledge. If there is no reality to know about, then we are only inventing complex ways of fooling ourselves. Hence, any sophisticated skepticism is thoroughgoing, leaving you in the abyss of no possible knowledge. If you attempt to introduce principles to limit your skepticism, you are already invoking the innate intelligibility of our world, placing metaphysics prior to epistemology.
We can now reintroduce another principle to quantity, that allows us to find quality: if the universe was unintelligible when viewed as simply quantity, then one can recover by reintroducing form into the metaphysical toolbox. A human being, just like a tree or a koala bear, cannot intelligibly be explained as collections of piles of lego, no matter how large or many the pieces are. They first and foremost display the qualitative form of a human being, that informs the matter towards its unique set of properties. This is something that is never found in its parts. With form placed beside matter, we have ventured back to the commonsensical pre-Cartesian hylomorphism, which is simply the juxtaposition of the Greek words for matter (hyle) and form (morphe), of Aristotle.
A cause for the one
Rejecting nature as bare quantity enables us to rediscover another part of Aristotelian metaphysics: its notion of causality. This is important, because upon further investigation, the modern view of causality as driven by the so-called laws of nature, really has no explanatory power at all. Ludwig Wittgenstein famously stated in Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1911, p. 87):
At the basis of the whole modern view of the world lies the illusion that the so-called laws of nature are the explanations of natural phenomena.
To this very day, there has been no sufficient answer as to what it would mean for a natural law to cause anything. The Newtonian view of determinism, and subsequent arguments against the existence of free will are often sparked by the assumption that human beings are subject to some impersonal laws of nature, that does not discriminate its dictatorship of stones or plants, mice or men. The causal rules directing neurons firing in the human brain are not different from those that direct snow towards the earth, or falling gravel down a mountainside.
The early pioneers of modern science invented the term "laws of nature," but derived all its explanatory power from the ability of substituting the notion of a law with a "decree of God." Later in history, secular thinkers continued to talk about laws of nature, but never came up with any plausible alternative, and either left this direct irreducible heritage of monotheism unexamined, or opted for an unsustainable Humean alternative. The latter (Humean) alternative substitutes the notion of laws with "regular patterns."
The Humean view famously leaves us unable to generalize from any amount of previous observations. Humean events are individual, and thus, any observed regularities are accidental. But science is nothing but discovering and categorizing the workings of causality. Introducing "laws of nature" then faces us with a dilemma unacceptable for most moderns: either you subscribe to this crude form of monotheism, where laws of nature are shorthand for God’s actions, or you give up the entire project of modern science, as with events in nature being loose and separate, there will be nothing for science to categorize. To continue talking about laws of nature without being able to provide any metaphysical justification, is to fool oneself: it is to base all of one’s explanations on a prior non-explanation.
But there is no reason to accept any of these alternatives. The laws of nature originally were meant as a substitute for the Aristotelian-Scholastic philosophy of nature, where "laws of nature" were really a short-hand description for how natural things will operate given what it is. Natural laws were not external to natural things, magically existing out there in the universe. Rather, natural laws are a way of speaking about causal dispositions internal to the natural things themselves, directing them towards some given target. That is to say, all things in nature acts towards some end.
For a piece of glass, that means it will shatter if someone throws a brick at it. For a tree, that means it will consume nutrition, grow in roots and strength, and provide offspring. For a koala bear, that means it will exercise locomotion, climb trees, eat leaves of eucalyptus, and find a mating partner. The what-it-is-ness of these things, is what informs the entire operation of its parts. And because the human being is a part of nature, we are no exception.
To be human is to have (free) will
We should not start, then, by asking about how we are treated by some fictive external forces of nature, but we need to start by asking what it is to be a human. What is to be found in our very human nature?
To be a human is first and foremost to be a rational animal, where matter is organized in the form of the human being. And what it is to be a human, is to have a number of cognitive and appetitive powers. As other animals, we can receive external stimuli through our external senses, that are captured for recognition in our perception with our inner senses. In accordance with our emotions, animals have evolved to process these perceptions so that we respond in certain ways. The sight of a predator makes the antelope flee, while the sight of potential nutrition, combined with an increasing emotion of hunger, attracts a lion to its prey.
Unlike other animals, human beings also possess intellective and volitional powers. We can abstract universal concepts from individual sensation, process them in conscious thoughts and will in accordance with some given good that the intellect informs us about. All of our actions are directed towards an end. We all act towards something we identify as a good.
This is obvious in the sense that we can put a “to” for every task we set before us. For every conscious activity you engage in throughout a normal day, you will always be able to provide a reason when inquired. You drop down on a couch to rest, you cook food to still hunger, you turn on the TV to entertain yourself, or you call someone to build friendship. Even if you were now trying to disprove me by performing some seemingly irrational or meaningless action, like licking your arm or spontaneously singing your national anthem, you are doing it to make some philosophical point.
There are no human acts without such a corresponding identified good, be it rest, satisfaction of hunger, entertainment, friendship or philosophical truth. Not every identified good are really good of course. Our intellects can devolve, as when we develop an immoral character, to a point where we self-identify false goods as good. That is, vices such as outburst of temperament, excessive eating or drinking, pride, greed, and so on.
Our free will should not appear strange to us. That is what allows us to ask meaningful questions and to reason about free will in the first place.
The effectiveness of real mental causality is necessary for you to read and think about this essay. Sensing and perception, require a physical-to-mental-causation. Thinking requires mental-to-mental causation, as you process strings of sentences in logical succession in your mind, or deduct new knowledge from existing knowledge. Communication require mental-to-physical-to-mental causation, as my knowledge needs to be mediated through my voice or my keyboard, to be perceived by some curious spirit at the internet, and absorbed into their mind. This is reflected in philosophers like Jerry Fodor, who writes the following in Making Mind Matter More (1989, p. 156):
I’m not really convinced that it matters very much whether the mental is physical; still less that it matters very much whether we can prove that it is. Whereas, if it isn’t literally true that my wanting is causally responsible for my reaching, and my itching is causally responsible for my scratching and my believing is causally responsible for my saying […], if none of that is literally true, then practically everything I believe about anything is false and it’s the end of the world.
We should, perhaps, stop using the term 'free will.' The term ‘free’ adds nothing to the notion of will, which is free by nature, even when situated in its biological and social context. No willing is unfree, since no human willing does not belong to a human being. Human beings, being rational animals, is characterized by having intellect and will.
Free will is not a mystery, but a necessity—it is required even to ask questions about free will. This is completely consistent with all of our existing science. But in order to see this, we must first unveil a tangle of metaphysical muddle, that commits modern people to nonsensical positions.