Agency and anti-essentialism. A meditation.

Painting by Genevieve Camille Jackson.

Declaration: “the most sophisticated parascientific ontologies of the day are anti-essentialist”. Works for me. Illusionism is evidently such an ontology. However, in order to avoid gratuitous eliminativism (and descent into anti-realism), once we divest “things” of their essences, we must reconstruct them as processes. Processes are relational and definitionally lack “own being”, i.e., intrinsically lack intrinsic identity.

I feel like it’s a lack of attention to reconstruction that distinguishes eliminativism – even if it’s it’s only “apparent” eliminativism – from a genuinely process-oriented philosophy. In the “west” (or maybe it’s just analytic philosophy?) we still seem to largely deploy processual arguments in service of reductionism.

And much as I love extremely rigorous and unimpeachably analytic interpretations of Buddhist philosophy, modern westerners need more explicit synthesis, not just powerful tools of deconstruction.

We need more explicit synthesis in the contemporary west because of the historical influence of theodicy on our frameworks.

Buddhists and Ancient Greeks could largely take agency for granted. That’s why it’s easy to interpret much ancient philosophy as “a way of life”.

In the west, a little later on, our agency was mystifyingly threatened by that of an omniscient and omnipotent agent. There can only be one agent in a cosmology that includes an omnipotent agent (hint: they’re the same critter).

And theodicy actually won the debate over freedom that took place for centuries within the Christian world. The arguments for freedom that were able to make any headway (or at least survive) under the onslaught of omnipotence were of the “wretched subterfuge” variety.

Eventually, we got rid of God, but retained the problem of theodicy (….darn, I seem to have thrown out the baby instead of the bathwater….).

Some time after we achieved Enlightenment (en masse), we started to refer to the God function as “Laplace’s Demon”, and to think that because we’re only “metaphorically” identifying Laplace’s “intellect” that is “vast enough” with a personified demon, we have successfully banished that naughty function from our philosophy and become truly “Rational” in our acceptance of a universe fully determined by its prime mover and entailing laws.

Or maybe our ancestors drew significant comfort from God’s omnipotence (He’s on our side, right?), regardless of the intellectualising of some of them.

Maybe we continue to derive comfort from determinism (just sayin’)? If so, this is really quite understandable and we can forgive ourselves (immediately!) for seeking comfort when confronted with the vastness of the universe and the complexity of the biosphere.

I, at least, forgive us our continued obsession with apotropaic eliminativism. Sometimes forgiving oneself is the first step on a new, suddenly open and uncertain (unprestatable), path. A confrontation with the future.

(spoiler alert!) The future is terrifying because “I” dies there . Clearly, we can’t spend all our time staring into that abyss. Fear of the void is what got us into this backwater, being consumed by the void is hardly likely to get us out.

Nonetheless, there does *appear* to be a way out (I don’t mind if you call it an “illusion”, it’s a mighty fine one). Not a way “out of this world”, mind you, like some form of (techno-pharma) gnosticism. A way out of our heads and into our bodies. Into the loci of our agential selfhood, i.e., our access to Being. As aspects of Being we are granted participatory perspectives on Being.

(yes, this “Being” is another version of the God function, but it’s a better one, hush….).

Not out of this world, but into it….in the same old ways our species has been checking in with itself for as long as it has needed to (since language? you reckon?).


Note that Daniel Dennett has become more and more invested in this reconstruction as his career has progressed (even though his defence of free will was there all along). But he still doesn’t seem to feel a need to begin his reconstruction from the level of fundamental ontology.

He always gives lip service to physics being “deterministic” – even though by this he principally means “in accordance with the principle of sufficient reason” – rather than extending his deconstruction and reconstruction into that territory.

From the reader’s perspective, then, it’s all too easy to continue to see him as a descendant of Laplace, though he (weakly) repudiates the Demon. The metaphysical analysis of the temporal relationship between indeterminism and determinism is a way out of this basin of attraction

P.S. There is another reason to deny agency, you may argue – to be “objective” or “scientific”. We must not project our subjectivity onto phenomena (ha!). “Nature is closed to thought”. Sure, but it seems likely that this injunction is itself at least partly descended from theodicy. If our agency hadn’t been threatened, perhaps we would never have denied agency to others. Never would have denied that agency was simply observable. Measurable, even. We can’t prestate an agent’s trajectory, but we can estimate its degrees of freedom.


Noise from the notebook: The Dead – a Jungian meditation

That tension you’re always feeling is things pressing on the edge of consciousness. The dead, clamouring for attention.

The dead inhabit the neglected areas of the psyche. Consciousness gave birth to them but left them, forgot them, neglected them.

Left them to rot.

Painting by Genevieve Camille Jackson

You are a process, not a thing. Why fear that which has happened before and will happen again and again? Don’t take your self so seriously. Let go. Let that which is conscious die so that others may become conscious. Don’t hog the limelight, bro….


Though we may speak, at any given moment, of “the ego”, in actual fact there is a multiplicity of “ego-ish” complexes inhabiting the psyche. Each of these is primed and ready to be born when whichever complex currently occupies the centre of narrative gravity is ready to die. To relinquish its starring role. To relinquish its flailing attempts at control.

Thus in fact it is useful to think not of a single process, but of many parallel processes. Such ego-ish processes are similar in metastable structure to one another – they possess the quality of ego-ness – but most are shadow egos, in the dark. Lacking the je ne c’est quois of consciousness.

Each is reasonably considered “motivated” to capture attention and thus enjoy status as the ego, even if such status can be only fleetingly maintained.

If the egos are excessively denigrated in consciousness – unduly criticised for their quality of ego-ness – they will exert their influence unconsciously (in compensation). And their repression may have rendered them “hostile” – this is a simple expression of their completely reasonable frustration at the control freak complex that so pointedly ignores them.

Your chronic frustration is impatience born of neglecting the dead, with the result that they, the dead, become restless.

The dead are restless.

“Does anybody have a comment for the dead?”

May the dead forgive my trespasses of inattention.

May I strive to give them the attention that is their due.

Essentialism and evolutionism

Carl Jung – detail from Liber Novus (The Red Book). This illustration depicts a common motif from creation myths, in which the world serpent (representing “chaos” and the unknown or the unconscious) gives birth to the world tree (representing the ordered cosmos or consciousness).

This piece contains a lot of philosophy that may seem quite abstract at first. It’s my contention that these apparently arcane concepts are deeply entrenched in human culture and thus that they, in some way, animate all of us. The philosophical process is therefore a bit like that of depth psychology – it’s an attempt to make explicit things that are often only implicit, but are nonetheless influential on the way we think and behave. In fact, the argument could be (and has been) made that when such things are merely implicit, they animate us all the more potently due to our lack of awareness of them. What we bring into the light, we can “intelligently design”. On the other hand, the argument could be (and has been) made that I am merely justifying my own desire to count the number of angels able to dance the merengue on a pinhead (note that the number would be quite different were they tangoing). Well, so be it. I hope you find something useful in all this pontificating.

Ancient Antitheses

In some sense, evolutionism and essentialism are antitheses. Evolutionism is the idea that all things are in flux; are changing; are context-specific; are constantly becoming; etc. Essentialism, at its most fundamental, is the idea that change is an illusion, part of the world of appearances, and what is “really Real”, behind the veil of Maya (or any number of other analogous metaphors), is timeless, eternal – the pure ground of Being, which is not “becoming”, because it simply is and always will be.

Epistemologically, evolutionism may be characterised by scepticism and fallibilism – our search for knowledge is never-ending; the status of our knowledge is constantly in flux; we can never know with absolute certainty; there is no Ultimate Truth (only conventional truth); etc. Epistemological essentialism on the other hand is (naturally) associated with the opposite set of contentions – there are things we can know for certain; we have access to Ultimate Truth (perhaps either through contemplative or scientific practices); etc. In its worst form, an evolutionary approach to knowledge might approach abject relativism (all truth is context-dependent, thus we can all have our own truths). The essentialist pole would therefore be fanatical fundamentalism – I have possession of the Ultimate Truth, it cannot be questioned or criticised, etc.

In all cases, evolutionary thinking emphasises the importance of time and context, whereas in essentialism there are timeless and context-free truths or states. However, we should note that Aristotelian “time” is evolutionist – being merely the changes in relations among things – whereas Newtonian Time is essentialist – being an independent absolute “clock” that proceeds independently of any actual change. As we’re going to see, this apparently antithetical relationship between evolutionist and essentialist perspectives or “stances” exists all over the philosophical map.

Buddhism and Hinduism

If we look back on major philosophical traditions in both East and West, we can easily locate examples. In India, one of the great wellsprings of world philosophy, this dynamic is epitomised by the contrast between the orthodox Hindu schools and Buddhism. We must note here that Buddhism and Hinduism are both extremely diverse traditions, and, share a common ancestry (in “Vedic philosophy” more broadly) and have transferred concepts between them horizontally since the inception of Buddhism some 2500 years ago (note, in particular, the influence of Mahayana Buddhism on Advaita Vedanta). If we superficially understand them as two distinct traditions, we might say that they have been constantly involved in a fruitful dialectic since that time, which is precisely why they are a useful point of reference for the broader dialectic between essentialism and evolutionism. Buddhism is (and yes, I’m massively over-simplifying here) in some sense a sceptical, anti-essentialist (i.e. evolutionist) reaction to orthodox Hindu beliefs. The classic example of this concerns the doctrine of anātman (anattā), which is typically translated as “not-self”. This doctrine is a negation of the doctrine of ātman – the view that every “individual” contains its own essence, its “Self” (ātman), which is a sliver of the divine ground of being (the divine Self), Brahman. For Buddhism, this is a fantasy, there are no essential selves of any kind (“all things are not-self”) because all things are formed (entirely) by context – they are the products of “dependent origination”. This means they have no independent reality, but only exist by virtue of their relationship with other things.

Another way of putting this is to contrast the assertion that relationships are formed from relata (things that relate) with its antithesis, that relata are formed from relationships. In the former, “things” are primary, they have independent existence, and then they enter in relationships with other things. In the latter, relationships are primary, and “things” only emerge as entities as a consequence of relationships (you may well ask what these primal relationships exist between…..and then be told to stop being such an essentialist!). These are complex ideas and I’m not going to unpack them here; my primary intention is to use them as examples of the antithetical relationship between essentialist and evolutionist thought.

Heraclitus and Parmenides

In ancient Greece, this dynamic is (at least doxographically – in the classificatory systems of historians) epitomised by the twin poles of Parmenides (in the essentialist corner) and Heraclitus (in the evolutionist corner). These two are often heralded as amongst the most important of the “pre-Socratic” philosophers. Indeed, each of them has been hailed as the “true father” of all western thought/philosophy/science, which may be a hint that the essentialist-evolutionist cat fight is alive and well in modern scholarship.  As is the case for other pre-Socratic philosophers, we know Parmenides and Heraclitus primarily through surviving fragments of their poetic writings, so it can be hard to determine exactly what each of them was trying to say, let alone what they “really believed”. Predictably, there is considerable squabbling in academic circles over interpretation of their texts. Regardless, there is general agreement that Heraclitus was the champion of “eternal flux”, who famously said that “you can never step in the same river twice” (the river and you have both changed between your first and second steps); and that Parmenides asserted that nothing ever changes, not really.

The laws of physics – timeless or evolved?

So, there seems to be something fairly basic about the opposition between these two modes of thinking. As mentioned, both are very much alive and well in contemporary discourse. In theoretical physics, a view in which the laws are timeless is contrasted with a view in which they themselves evolved (see e.g., Lee Smolin’s work). A slightly different notion is that the laws as we know them are particular patterns that we pick out from a much richer (or more “chaotic”, in the colloquial sense) background. This perspective, known as conventionalism, emphasises the contingent nature of the “laws of physics” – they are contingent upon us (as the organisms that “discover” them) being the kinds of organisms that we are. Such a view might be described as “Kantian” (after titanic philosopher Immanuel Kant) and it has deep consonances with the way we understand perception in cognitive science. It’s also being explored in Stephen Wolfram’s new computational physics project.

Mathematics – invented or discovered….or both?

There’s a related question about the origins of mathematics – was it “discovered, or invented”? Here again we see the essentialist and evolutionist poles. If it was discovered it has a timeless, independent existence. If it was invented it’s conventional, contingent upon us as inventors – it’s a tool and tools are not timeless, they are evolutionary traits (more on this here). On the other hand, if the laws of physics describe patterns that we pick out from a larger whole then mathematics (at least so far as physics is concerned) may be thought of as both discovered and invented. The patterns are actual, otherwise they wouldn’t afford us a grip on reality, and this means that we discovered them. However, had we been slightly different organisms, or had the history of physics (as a discipline) been slightly different, we might have discovered different(but no less actual) patterns…so in a sense the specific laws we use were invented, they are specific to the human biological and cultural context.

Essentialist fallacies and being an evolutionist about evolutionism

As an evolutionary biologist and a thoroughgoing advocate of evolutionary (processual) thinking, my heroes have tended to be evolutionists – Buddha, Nagarjuna, Heraclitus, Epicurus, Darwin, Whitehead, Popper, etc. Or at least they have tended to be thinkers in whom I have perceived a strong evolutionary intuition. But, of course, I have also been deeply attracted to many thinkers more typically associated with essentialist perspectives. On the whole I think I have been more sensitive to what I have perceived as “essentialist fallacies” – naïve Platonism; naïve realism (which is somewhat antithetical to Platonism!), and perhaps above all, literalism, which I consider to be an exceptionally widespread and “dangerous” (sometimes literally – ha!) delusion. Literalism is basically confusing something – like a model, map, or metaphor – that stands for something else with the thing that it stands for. What I’m calling naïve Platonism (because I want to distinguish it from all the glorious contributions Plato and Platonism have made) is imagining phenomena that are well-described by mathematical models/equations are mathematical in essence. This is often referred to as “confusing map with territory” – maps are extremely useful guides or descriptions, but they are not the things that they describe, which typically have many properties that the map does not have. Very simple “things” are often very accurately described or even dynamically predicted (as in “predictive models”) by mathematical equations (or computational models), but it’s still a fallacy to imagine that such descriptions are complete. Literalism is also particularly common in the usage of natural language – we imagine that words are the things they stand for (as opposed to being fundamentally metaphorical), or even that words have fixed/definite meanings that transcend context. This is not so – meaning is always context-specific (indeed a community of language users who define meaning is such a context).

Another form of “confusing map with territory” is taking a concept (which is a heuristic), and then confusing it with something actual that it applies to and subsumes. There are a number of words for this kind of practice, all of which are most commonly used derogatorily – “reifying” (making real); “hypostasising” (positing an underlying essence or substance); “concretising” (making, uh, concrete). The process philosopher Alfred North Whitehead liked to speak of the “fallacy of misplaced concreteness” – attributing definite, concrete reality to that which is merely a map/model/description. This is all well and good, confusing map with territory is fallacious and is absolutely rife at all levels of human discourse, from the popular to the rarefied air of theoretical physics (where it’s particularly on the nose). The thing is, it’s entirely possible to “reify” evolutionary concepts, too. To really be a thorough-going evolutionist means thinking evolutionarily about evolution, being sceptical about scepticism, Darwinian about Darwinism, etc. Ironically, being truly evolutionary in our thinking means admitting that some essentialist maps absolutely have their uses, and indeed might be far more useful than their evolutionary counterparts in some contexts. In other contexts, the two “poles” must exist side by side – each stance has something important to offer.

Creation myths – both evolutionary and essentialist

Consider the structure of creation myths. These are fundamentally (and we should always raise our eyebrows at this essentialist word, of course) evolutionary tales, right? In fact, myths and narratives in general are evolutionary in form – change and development tend to occur in them, after all (or they’d be quite boring). A creation myth seems quintessentially evolutionary – it’s a story about how the deep past transformed into the present, or at least about how that process of transformation began. On the other hand, creation myths are also about beginnings, and beginnings seem to have a slightly fishy, slightly essentialist odour to them. They are Ultimate, in some sense. Actually, a typical creation myth starts with a “ground of being” – for example a God, an egg, or an arena in which things start happening (the world starts flowing up out of the ground, or down from the sky). Where does this primitive (or prime mover) come from? Nowhere. It’s timeless. Essential. Clever atheists understand this as the “problem of infinite regress” that logically refutes creation myths. They might, however, think that “science” has solved this problem. It hasn’t. The problem of infinite regress refutes beginnings of any kind and has nothing to do with God or the supernatural. So, in a creation myth (and yes, this includes the Big Bang model and the simulation hypothesis) there must always be both an essential and an evolutionary element. The (logically, if not ontologically) timeless Ground, and the evolutionary story of what emerged from that to become our universe.

Literalism in evolutionism

What about literalism in evolutionary philosophies? It’s rife. Think of anātman – this doctrinaire refutation of essence, of Self, is often taken to mean that “there is no such thing as self”, as in “self” of any kind – “self” is an illegitimate word. Humans have no selves. Animals have no selves. Rocks have no selves. In some sense perhaps there are no individuals of any kind, because of dependent origination (nothing has “own being”, it exists by virtue of relationships). “Self” is a word, though, and it means a lot of things. There are at least half a dozen different things or processes (which are inherently evolutionary) this word is used to refer to in cognitive science. We mustn’t be literalist about the word “self” – it’s a perfectly useful word. We can say that essential, timeless, static, selves that are slivers of the ground of being probably don’t exist, but that’s different from concretising the concept of self in order to refute it.

In fact, this stipulative concretising is something we do all the time in debate. We literalise a term – “x means y” – and then demonstrate that y doesn’t exist/is fallacious, and thus, quod errat demonstrandum, x is meaningless because it refers to a non-entity. We need several essentialist moves in order to prove our point – proof is an essentialist notion in itself! As for there being individuals or not, this is all a matter of levels of description. It’s generally not useful to think of the cells of a multicellular organism as individuals, after all, their functions are in service of the organism as a whole. But what about single-celled organisms? They are effectively described as individuals. What about social organisms? Is an ant an individual, or is the colony the individual? What about humans? We’re greatly enamoured of the individualist perspective in today’s day and age, but what would we be without our cultures, our societies, even our friends and families? No man is an island. The level one chooses to identify as the individual entirely depends on the question one is asking, i.e. on the level at which one is describing the system.

Absolute negation and finding the middle path

The truth is that evolutionism and essentialism are like chaos and order. We need a balance of the two poles in our thinking in order to be able to reason at all. If your thought is constantly in flux at all levels you will be completely unable to formulate an argument, indeed completely unable to function. If your thought is completely concretised and hypostasised, well, good luck learning anything. Naturally, as an “evolutionist” (not that I want to be an “-ist” of any kind, such labels smack of essentialism!), I generally feel as though essentialism is the bigger problem and we need to combat literalism wherever it rears its (ugly!) head. But then again, relativism, which is a kind of fundamentalist evolutionism, is certainly something all thinking beings need to combat.

When you dig down deeply enough into conceptual antitheses, you often find paradox – you cannot have one thesis without the other. This is also an ancient insight that has been recovered time and again. Think of yin and yang – concepts presuppose their opposites. In Hegelian philosophy there is the idea of “absolute negation”. Hegel’s evolutionary dialectic has been characterised as having the structure of “thesis-antithesis-synthesis”. One starts with a particular idea, then the antithesis presupposed by the original idea becomes apparent, then progress is made by merging the two ideas. “Absolute negation” treats the “synthesis” as “the negation of the negation”, i.e. the antithesis negates the thesis, and then absolute negation negates the antithesis, prompting a return to the thesis, which has been transformed by the dialectic process. Rinse and repeat. This seems like a place where the most erudite and esoteric of philosophy converges with the most beautiful and relatable of poetry, as in this sumptuous line from T. S. Eliot’s “Little Gidding”:

We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

By our powers combined

This idea of the union of opposites creating something novel – a “higher” level born of integration – also features in the work of another evolutionary thinker who has frequently been accused of being an essentialist: Carl Jung. Individuation, in Jungian psychology, is a process in which one becomes one’s own “intelligent designer” – the individual takes responsibility for their own development into a unique being. Sounds pretty evolutionary; after all, development is the evolution of an individual, as opposed to a lineage. On the other hand, some critics have felt that it presupposes the idea of a unique individual that one is somehow “destined” to become, if only one can get out of one’s own way. That sounds a bit essentialist. Moreover, Jung’s concept of the “archetypes”, given that they are apparently timeless patterns of psychic energies shared by all people, can seem pretty essentialist. The “collective unconscious”, which is composed of the archetypes and all that we inherit psychologically from our ancestors – basically the structures of the psyche that are determined by the type of organism we are, i.e. by our evolutionary history – seems to combine evolutionist and essentialist thinking. Which is probably because it does. We should note here that Jung himself explicitly stated that the archetypes cannot be accurately or completely described – we should not confuse a map (like Zeus!) with territory. Archetypes are somewhat timeless (or at least ancient) patterns of energy in the human psyche, but their representations in myths and religions (and elsewhere) are entirely contingent on the culture that gives them form.

The empirical and the imaginal

The thing is, when we open our eyes and ears and attend as closely as possible to the raw empirical data we see everything changing, constantly. But in order to get a grip on that constant flux, we need categories, theories, maps. We need to detect patterns in order to be able to interact with the world. This is what our nervous system does – it is a pattern-recognising, theory-forming system that allows us to detect affordances, ways of interacting with the world. This is a thoroughly evolutionary process, but it involves the creation of relatively stable models. Raw sensory data is extremely noisy – resolving signal from noise is a process of (contingent) essentialising. For this reason, when we become very still and look inside ourselves, sealing ourselves off from incoming sense data and allowing consciousness to interact with itself (pure reflexive awareness, etc.) we encounter a world of Forms (Plato), of Archetypes (Jung). This is the imaginal world, and it’s no less “real” than the empirical world.

What we experience in “normal” consciousness is a combination of models/theories (top-down constraints) and sensory data (bottom-up constraints) which “collaborate” to create the world – the Umwelt, as the post-Kantian philosopher of biology Jakob von Uexküll calls it. The “gain” (i.e. its relative influence on the formation of percepts) on one or the other source of information is constantly being adjusted. When we turn down the gain on the top-down models and open ourselves to maximal input from the external world (as in open-monitoring meditation and flow states), our “priors” (again, the models of the world we are “running” on our “necktops”) get updated rapidly, giving us higher-fidelity perceptions of the state of the external world. Conversely, when we disconnect ourselves from the external world and turn our cognitive modelling processes inwards on themselves in certain forms of contemplative meditation (or in isolation tanks), we enter the imaginal realm with its “timeless” qualities.

Perspective and frames of reference

So, essentialism and evolutionism turn out to be products of perspective – dependent on the frame of reference one chooses, which is (hopefully) influenced by the kind of question one is trying to ask. In orthodox Hindu schools such as Vedanta (which, particularly the “non-dual” – Advaita – school, is deeply influenced by Buddhism), there is an emphasis on finding the divine ground of being within oneself and experiencing the integration of the “petty I” with that timeless field of consciousness. In Buddhism, there is perhaps more emphasis on directing the attention outwards in meditation (though of course they love the imaginal realm too), decreasing the gain on top-down models and recognising the impermanent and contingent nature of all things, which not only will pass, but are passing. Heraclitus, perhaps, was a man of the empirical world, one of the founders of the western tradition of empiricism. Parmenides, on the other hand, who was a priest of Apollo and practiced the contemplative interiorising known as “incubation”, was a man of the imaginal realm. Each of them (much like Vedanta and Buddhism) have contributed exceptional riches to the history of human cultural evolution. One might even say that these contributions are “timeless” ;). 

If you enjoy this kind of philosophising, subscribe to the blog – there will be lots more articles about evolutionism and essentialism in future. Some planned pieces include:

  • The debate between Perennialism (essentialist) and Constructivism (evolutionist) is the philosophy of relgion
  • Essentialism and evolutionism in theoretical physics
  • “Hierarchies of constraint” – evolved patterns that essentially constraint the evolution of future patterns
  • Ontological versus cognitive (logical) essentialism
  • Psychology versus metaphysics

And much more random content……

image: Carl Jung, detail from Liber Novus.

What is the unending process?


Painting: “Ouroboros” By Genevieve Camille Jackson 

The unending process is the evolution of everything, which takes place at multiple scales:

  • The evolution of the cosmos, the universe, the All
  • The evolution of the biosphere
  • The evolution of organismal lineages
  • The evolution of human culture
  • The evolution of human knowledge
  • The evolution of the individual

All of these (and others) are part of the unending process and each of them is, in its own way, unending. I’m something of an “evolutionist” (but don’t label me, bro!), and I believe the best scientific evidence and philosophical arguments indicate that the evolution of the universe is open-ended. Perhaps even more importantly, I believe that the future is open. The future is built from the past and the past constrains the future, but it does not determine it. At some point, in future articles/videos/lectures, we can dive into the nitty gritty of metaphysical determinism and why I reject it as a scientifically or philosophically viable hypothesis. For now, suffice it to say that my main concern is functional philosophy – philosophy that is useful, i.e. that can be fruitfully lived…..and that makes “hard determinism” pretty unattractive.

Now, you might well argue that some of the sub-processes I’ve mentioned above will come to an end at some point – it’s really only the whole shebang that is literally “unending”. Fair enough, but from our limited perspective there are salient reasons to consider these sub-processes (as good as) unending:

  • The evolution of the biosphere will be unending so long as our planet remains hospitable to bios – which originally meant (in Greek) the course of a human life (now, of course, we use it to mean life in general).
  • Organismal lineages continue to evolve until they go extinct.
  • No one really takes claims that history (and “human ideological evolution”) ended with the Cold War seriously anymore – human culture will go on evolving as long as there are humans.
  • The evolution of human knowledge is also open-ended – we will never know all there is to know. In fact, it’s questionable whether or not we can ever “know” anything with certainty. We’ll be talking plenty about fallibilism and evolutionary epistemology in future articles/videos/lectures.

Individual evolution is also (potentially) open-ended in important ways. Without a doubt, neuroplasticity declines as we mature and people become increasingly “set in their ways” – there are evolutionary reasons for this that we’ll discuss later. On the other hand, if you look at traditions that have been concerned with the “intelligent design” of personal evolution – that is taking an active and expansively rational interest in one’s own development (which is a form of evolution) in ways that allow one a certain degree of control over it – they tend to treat personal evolution as an unending process. Some examples:

  • Individuation in Jungian psychology is a lifelong process without an end point
  • The path towards enlightenment in (at least some lineages of) Buddhism is a lifelong process without an end point
  • The journey to the One in Neoplatonism is also not something that is ever “completed” within a lifetime

It might be argued that “enlightenment” and “communion with the One” are states, not processes. These are alternate views and both have merit. As states, however, they are transitory, not stable (the neo-Platonic mystic Plotinus only reached his highest state of realisation four times in his life). Regardless, when considered as processes, they are not only open-ended, they are non-linear. Jung described individuation as a “circumambulation of the Self”. You don’t just identify your goal and move straight towards it. Individuation, seeking enlightenment, etc, are paths one follows in order to gain knowledge and ultimately wisdom. How could you have knowledge of the goal of achieving more knowledge/wisdom before you achieve it?

Of course (depending on what you believe), just as organismal lineages go extinct, just as the planet will eventually become inhospitable to life, personal evolution comes to an end at the time of your death. No matter your thoughts on the afterlife, however, there are ways in which parts of us continue on after our bodies (and the psyches they support) cease to be animated. Trivially, your constituent atoms will be recycled by other components of the unending process (waste not, want not). Perhaps you’ll pass on “your” (or rather your lineage’s) genes, maybe even some unique mutations (“you” have no influence over these) or epigenetic modifications (you might have influenced these) that didn’t exist before you but may continue to exist for millennia after your death. Maybe your contributions to the “memesphere” – the ideas you created or inflected, or the ways you helped spread other people’s ideas (for better or worse) – will have some (probably small!) influence on cultural evolution. Regardless, your life will leave some impression on the unfolding of the unending process long after you’ve gone – it’s a participatory process, and we’re all in this together.

On a personal level, the “unending process” is the name of a new series of podcasts, articles, YouTube videos, and lectures I’m putting together. It’s part of my personal evolution and perhaps it will be part of yours, too.

What’s the content going to be like? I’m kind of an eclectic – a jack of all trades (and indeed a master of none). Specialisation has never appealed. Having said that, I do tend to view the world through an evolutionary lens. In my day job, I’m an evolutionary biologist and toxinologist studying the evolution of venom systems and using them as a model system for understanding the evolution of novelty more broadly. I also do research on venomous injuries (e.g. snakebite) and the development/refinement of therapeutics for treating these injuries (e.g. antivenoms). Venoms are also a great source of novel molecules for drug design and discovery, so I collaborate with pharmacologists and lecture to pharmacology students on biodiscovery. My PhD is in evolutionary biology and philosophy of science, and my philosophical passions are broad, so we’ll be going deep there. The first degree I completed (not the first I began, mind you) was a music degree, so expect a lot of music content. I’m currently studying neuroscience and psychology, so there will be plenty of content on the mind (and isn’t it all really “in the mind”, after all? Read Kant before you say “no!”). Ultimately, this means that the content of the “unending process” is going to be the unending process itself – the evolution of everything. I hope you find it useful.





Noise: counterfactuals and possible worlds

Dear S.,

Unobservable alternate “worlds”, whether string theoretic, Everettian, or merely “possible”, are counterfactual possibilities.

“The laws could have been any number of different ways,” — these are string theory counterfactuals.

“The wave function could have branched/collapsed1 any number of different ways,” — these are quantum counterfactuals.

Whether you treat them as counterfactuals or as “facts about elsewhere” is not itself a strictly scientific question, it is philosophical2.

Treating them as actual elsewheres is metaphysics, not science. Treating them as formal counterfactuals that emerge from theory is all that is required.

Reification is not the way, dear friend.




  1. These are isomorphic terms
  2. …and there ain’t nuttin’ wrong with that.

What things are conscious (do we need panpsychism)?

 What things are conscious? Is this a tricky question or a simple one? It really depends what we mean by “conscious”. One very reasonable synonym is “aware”, and if this is what we mean then the answer may be relatively straightforward. Awareness is one of the basic capacities of all living things. All life on Earth, from single-celled organisms like bacteria to wildly complex multicellular animals like you and me, has the ability to sense and respond to the environment. For biologists like me, it seems fairly obvious that human consciousness, for all its richness, must be descended from the basic sensory awareness of our distant single-celled ancestors. So far so simple: if to be “conscious” is merely to be aware, then all living things are (at least minimally) conscious.

Some people, like the writer Annaka Harris (as in this interview on her husband Sam Harris’ podcast “Making Sense”), prefer the word “experience”, as a synonym for “consciousness”. For her, the important question is not whether an organism is aware, but whether or not it is having an experience. At first glance, there may seem to be little difference between awareness and experience as synonyms for consciousness. When I googled the definition of “experience”, the first result was “practical contact with and observation of facts or events”. It doesn’t seem like too much of a stretch to say that “practical contact” and “observation” of facts or events is awareness of them, does it? Again, for a biologist it’s easy to accept that a bacterium detecting and responding to a chemical gradient has “practical contact” with it and once we disabuse ourselves of the sensory chauvinism that equates “observation” merely to seeing1 it’s not difficult to admit that the bacterium might be “observing” (parts of) its environment. Google’s second definition suggests that an experience is “an event or an occurrence that leaves an impression”. Well, bacteria (and plants and all living things to some degree) certainly have the capacity to respond to events and even to “remember” them in ways that modify their future behaviour. As a verb, Google tells me that (to have) an experience is “to encounter or undergo (an event or occurrence)”. This doesn’t seem to pose any additional challenges. Does all this mean that bacteria have “experiences” and thus are conscious by Annaka Harris’ definition?

Harris and many other thinkers like to reference a famous essay by the philosopher Thomas Nagel (Wiki!) titled “What is it like to be a bat?”. In the essay, Nagel defines consciousness by saying that something is conscious “if it is like something” to be that thing. This is what Harris means by having an experience – a conscious experience is “like something” to have, i.e., it is associated with subjectivity. All of a sudden, our intuitions about bacteria, plants, and a host of other organisms start to shift – does a fern have subjectivity? For most of us, our intuitive response is “no, I guess not”. Nagel’s definition is popular precisely because it is intuitively appealing – it’s what philosopher Daniel Dennett (Wiki!) calls an “intuition pump” – and this is precisely why we should be wary of it. Part of the point of Nagel’s essay was to argue that the subjective experience of a bat, constructed under the influence of a primary sensory modality – echolocation – that we have little talent for2, would be completely unrecognisable to us. Nonetheless, our intuition is that a fellow mammal like a bat must possess subjectivity – it is “like something”, no matter how alien, to be a bat.

The problem with this thought experiment is that it drives us to project our own subjectivity into the sensory realm (the “sensorium” or “umwelt” – Wiki!) of a bat. “What would it be like,” we can’t help but wonder, “if I were nocturnal and perceived the world aurally, instead of visually? What if catching moths was a more important goal to me than getting a promotion….?” etc. When we consider the subjectivity of other organisms, we struggle not to project our own sense of self into (our fantasies of) their worlds. This is just one of the many delusions caused by the “illusion of self” – the feeling that “I” is some sort of neutral observer that exists independent of our biological (from neural to social) context. Whenever we invoke our intuitions in consideration of consciousness and its definition, we risk falling into this trap – we cannot escape our own consciousness, after all! Neither should we forget that “consciousness” has (at least since the Enlightenment, in a western3 context) historically meant specifically human consciousness, and it’s only more recently that we have begun considering its application to non-human animals. Our intuitions about the application of this word (and all the ramifications that application may have) are contingent upon its linguistic history – i.e. its meaning 4.

Whilst attaching the appellation “conscious” to non-human organisms remains controversial, some philosophers want to extend its application even further. “Panpsychism” is the idea that some form of consciousness might be a fundamental property of “matter” (itself, by the way, a rather problematic word to define). The caveat “some form” is important – panpsychists aren’t necessarily claiming that atoms and Coke cans have “experiences”……or are they? Panpsychism is an ancient concept, arguably represented in records of human thought present from all over the world stretching as far back as such records go. In the modern context, however, it’s usually characterised as a response to the so-called “hard problem” of consciousness. Like panpsychism, the “hard problem” is nothing new, but the coinage of the term itself is attributed to the philosopher David Chalmers (Wiki!). In essence, the problem is explaining (and perhaps demonstrating) how consciousness can arise from non-conscious matter, something Chalmers maintains we have no idea how to do, even in principle. I’ve written elsewhere about the reasons why I think Chalmers’ formulation of this question is unscientific (click here for this critically acclaimed blog waffle!). Regardless, it’s plain to see how panpsychism might represent a simple solution – the problem simply does not arise if we claim that matter is “conscious” in the first place. This may seem suspiciously like begging the question, because it is, but since the “hard problem” isn’t a well-formed question in the first place, maybe that’s no big deal.

Panpsychism comes in many forms, but these can be conveniently arrayed along a spectrum with “weak” panpsychism at one pole and “strong” panpsychism at the other. Weak panpsychism is the simple idea that whatever it takes to “make” consciousness is present in the atoms and subatomic particles5 that everything is made of. Chalmers has proposed the memorable mouthful “pan-proto-psychism” for this position. Strong panpsychism is the rather more extravagant idea that everything is conscious….at least a bit6. Weak panpsychism is trivially true, at least for “physicalists”. Strong panpsychism is, well, extravagant, and not many people seem to genuinely hold this view7.

Physicalism is the view that everything that exists is ultimately made up of the types of things (particles, fields) that are studied by “fundamental” physics. These constituents may be arranged in mind-bogglingly complex ways, giving rise to mind-blowingly intricate and dynamic objects or processes (like organisms), but at the fundamental8 level, everything is made of the same stuff. Thus, physicalism is a form of “monism”; as opposed to “dualism” in which the world is subdivided into the physical and the mental. Weak panpsychism is trivially true for physicalists because there is no point in the evolution of complexity at which some new “stuff” (mind stuff) comes into existence, so whatever it takes to make consciousness has to be present from the get-go. This is the sense in which philosopher Galen Strawson, a noted proponent of panpsychism, is correct when he says that “physicalism entails panpsychism”. It’s trivial, however, because it adds nothing to our understanding of the world – that certain arrangements of physical constituents give rise to consciousness is already a basic tenet of physicalism. Indeed, it might be considered the only tenet, since physicalism’s entire content is that there is only one kind of stuff (physical stuff) and its entire purpose is to stand against dualism or mentalism (about which more in a moment).

So, what does weak panpsychism achieve? Nothing more (or less) than the evaporation of the “hard problem”. Amongst scientists (neuro- and cognitive) and philosophers of mind, opinions are sharply divided about whether or not the “hard problem” is a genuine problem, or just a rebranding of old (bad) philosophy. Extremely smart and well-educated people, all of whom have spent a lot of time thinking about this, have diametrically opposed intuitions. Ultimately, these intuitions are about the nature of “matter” (or, more properly, physical fields and their excitations). Are the “things” studied by physicists the kinds of things that can give rise to conscious experience or not? The physicist Sir Arthur Eddington and the philosopher Bertrand Russell are both often claimed by panpsychists as early modern champions of their cause. Both pointed out that the scientific discipline of physics is primarily concerned with mechanics and is thus completely “silent” about the nature of the things it studies. Physics proper has nothing to say about consciousness. But who is to say, asked Eddington and Russell, whether or not particles are the kinds of things that can have or support consciousness? Physicalists, that’s who. Unless she denies the existence of consciousness outright (stranger things have been said by philosophers), a physicalist must affirm that particles and fields are the kinds of things that can, in certain complex configurations, (at least) support consciousness. Physicalists are “weak panpsychists” by definition and we therefore don’t really need the latter designation at all.

As soon as we take a step along the spectrum towards “strong” panpsychism, things get weird. A typical statement of such a position (again articulated by Annaka Harris) is to say that “electrons (e.g.) may have some sort of ‘consciousness’, but it’s nothing like human consciousness.” “Nothing like” is also substituted with phrases like “unrecognisably dissimilar to”. As we discussed earlier, the minimal sensory awareness of a single cell is (to a biologist) recognisably similar to (and the evolutionary precursor of) human consciousness. The alleged “consciousness” of electrons must therefore be unrecognisably dissimilar to the awareness of all living systems. Remember, Harris prefers the synonym “experience” for consciousness, and the implication is that this, as a general capacity of some organisms, is further down the path towards human consciousness than simple sensory awareness. Harris says she is unsure if plants – complex multicellular organisms – are “conscious”. So, if the “consciousness” of electrons isn’t even awareness, and awareness isn’t even (necessarily) consciousness, in what sense can electrons be meaningfully said to be “conscious” at all? Why use this extremely loaded and difficult to define word?

Unless one is prepared to make extravagant claims about the awareness and experiences of electrons (and, yes, tables and chairs by extension) it seems that taking even one step along the panpsychist spectrum, away from the “weak” position and towards the “strong”, leaves one in a kind of philosophical (not to mention semantic) no man’s land. The weak pole is an extremely strong attractor (all sensible positions must be drawn to it) and (I have claimed) is itself a contentless position with regard to physicalism.

The subtitle of this jaunty little essay is “do we need panpsychism?” Well, do we? Perhaps, but only as a corrective for the legacy of bad philosophy encapsulated as the “hard problem9“. Many self-described panpsychists (several of whom I’ve mentioned) have written wonderfully insightful essays about consciousness that have informed my own view. However, the majority of scientists and even philosophers of mind today are physicalists and careful consideration reveals that physicalism is definitionally “pan-proto-psychist”. Others may be dualists or idealist/mentalist monists, but neither of these positions has any need of panpsychism either, because for them consciousness is either its own stuff (the immaterial soul of dualists) or the stuff from which everything else arises (idealists/mentalists). For them there is no “hard problem”. Panpsychism and the “hard problem” itself therefore have a restricted (but nonetheless important) role as correctives for our ill-formed intuitions10….and I will happily concede that this function is nothing to be sneezed at.



  1. “Observe” has become a tricky word, thanks to quantum mechanics. Regardless, the restriction of this term merely to “seeing” seems arbitrary, after all, in meditation we are instructed to “observe our thoughts”, and we routinely speak of “observations” made by scientific instruments.
  2. cf. however, deaf people and the latent capacity we all have for “auditory scene analysis”.
  3. This applies to western philosophy since the Enlightenment (e.g. since the influential writings of Descartes and others) broadly, not merely to the English word “consciousness”.
  4. A general point we should always keep in mind when arguing “semantics” as though words have intrinsic meaning (rather than merely conventional/contingent meaning).
  5. …..and the fields these “particles” are excitations of.
  6. Indeed some proponents like to say that a subatomic particle might contain “one bit” of consciousness.
  7. It may be that it only really exists as a “straw man” argument against panpsychism – “these crazy people believe chairs are conscious!”
  8. There are good reasons to be allergic to this usage of the word “fundamental”, to be discussed elsewhere.
  9. Again, I am referring specifically to Chalmers’ formulation. Working out how consciousness arises from complex arrangements of matter (via integrated information processing, or whichever theory you prefer) is obviously an exceptionally challenging project.
  10. Note that, in my view, it’s in rejecting the problem as Chalmers (extremely helpfully) defines it that our intuitions are corrected….it’s entirely possible my own intuitions are at fault here though of course.


Artwork: detail from La grande ferme by Dado – would these hopeful monsters be “conscious”?

Permanent Evolution

A: What is “evolution”?

B: Evolution is descent with modification.

A: “Oh? As simple as that? So……can we go home now?”

B: Slow down – sometimes simple explanations are the hardest to understand – so let me unpack this one a bit.

Evolution is the ubiquitous process through which all that was came to be all that is, and through which all that is will become all that will be. That might seem cryptic or hand-wavy, but it’s just a simple statement. Evolution is prosaic.

Evolution is not “natural selection”. Natural selection is not a “type” of evolution. Natural selection is a particular kind of constraint that shapes the consequences of evolution in biological systems. It is not the only kind of constraint that shapes biological evolution, but it’s an important one. Natural selection is one of the best ideas ever produced by hairless apes, because it explains why some of the results of evolution look the way they do (to us).

Evolution is just descent with modification. The future states of a system depend upon (are descended from) prior states. Systems (ones that are actual) are not static – future states are different from prior states. That is evolution: breathtakingly simple and utterly universal.

There are those that wish to defend the word “evolution” from this interpretation, as though it might be tarnished by it. “Following this argument,” they (might) say, “the weathering of a rock, its transformation from a boulder into sand, would be considered its ‘evolution’.” Indeed. As would the transformation of the sand back into rock, were that the sand’s fate. Evolution is prosaic.

“Change is the only constant.” A truism that happens to be true. Aristotle thought that the default state for all things was for them to be at rest. He thought energy had to enter a system in order for movement to be initiated. He used this logic to construct his “prime mover”, or “unmoved mover”, argument. Aristotle was wrong. Heraclitus (a precursor of Aristotle) was closer when he said “everything is in flux and nothing is at rest”. Modern physics refutes Aristotle’s argument – at the “bottom” all is change, all is movement. In fact, Aristotle had it precisely backwards – “energy” is required to prevent change, not to cause it, and even then it’s just a temporary preservation of some “pattern” or another. “All patterns are ephemeral!”, cries the evolutionist.

A: A bit morbid, these evolutionists…

B: Death and taxes, my friend.

Anyway, change is constant, but not all change is permissible, because future states descend from prior states. Future states are constrained by prior states. Evolution, as manifest in the actual universe, is a process that takes place across time. Yes my dear, time is real! The past constrains the future and the deepest level at which we can observe this is by considering the laws of physics themselves. Since evolution is a process in time, if evolution is ubiquitous time must be fundamental and the laws of physics therefore cannot be “outside time”. Lee Smolin hits the nail on the noggin: the laws of physics evolved. Once evolved, they constrained all future evolution. They are one of the earliest “selection pressures”.

A: Why don’t the laws of physics keep evolving then?

B: Huh? I dunno….maybe they do, but maybe they are heavily constrained by something else. I didn’t claim to know everything…..and I was on a roll, do you have to keep interrupting?

A: Sorry….

B: “That’s OK, it was a good question. Anyway, let me sum this up so we can get on with our lives:

Evolution is like this: change is constant, but every system has a set of degrees of freedom which constrain its possible future states. These are the selection pressures or “principles of selection”, or whatever semantically isomorphic phrase one wishes to coin. Different systems….

A: Semantically what?

B: “Semantically isomorphic” – it just means a different choice of words with the same meaning.

A: Well why didn’t you just say that?

B: I think my facial expression says it all right now. Aaaaaanyway:

Different systems have different principles of selection (and working these out is the hard, explanatory task of the evolutionary sciences). Selection pressures themselves evolve, of course, and the laws of physics are an example. The biological sciences have identified thousands of examples, some of which constitute “natural selection”. Systems of ethics are another example – they evolved and they constrain future evolution.

Got it?

A: Sorry what? I was just checking my Instagram feed…

B: Ah. Fair enough I guess. Have you ever read any Marx?

A: Huh? I thought we were done with all this intellectualising once you got through the evolution schtick?

B: We are, but this is funny – one of Marx’s most famous slogans was “permanent revolution!”; little did he know that reality was in a state of permanent Evolution!

A: “That’s not funny.”

B: “Oh.”



This piece was originally published on my new blog Sympathetic People which is a collaboration with Johanahan Coludar. The Sympathetic People blog is also the home of the Permanent Evolution Podcast – please check it out and follow it!

Timmy the tortoise

Slowly, steadily, he marched.

Timmy the tortoise was frightened, but he pressed forward. Behind him, felt but not seen, the giant serpent swallowed its tail. Before him, the many-branching path leading…..where?


Slowly, steadily, he marched. Time passed, one foot in front of another.
Rounding a bend, Timmy saw a tiger. The tiger sat by the path, a sad and confused look on its majestic features. Timmy the tortoise was frightened, but he knew his armour would keep him safe, so he stopped to see if he could help the confused cat.
“Brother tiger,” he said, “you look vexed. But you are a beautiful, strong predator, with glossy orange and black fur, bright eyes and big teeth. Surely you are lord of your domain and all bow before you, trembling in awe. What could possibly be the matter, great one?”
The tiger stood on all fours and looked down at the humble tortoise, his bright eyes baleful. “Little terrapin, I have problems of which your puny mind could not conceive. Certainly I am beautiful, lord of my domain, and all tremble before my burning eyes, but still I am troubled. I may eat any animal I choose, even you, whose armour I could crack with one bite, any animal but one.”
Timmy was no terrapin, and he was more than a little perturbed by the tiger’s threat, but he held his head up high and asked the fearsome feline, “Which animal is that, my lord?”
“The elephant, friend turtle. Please understand, it is not that I cannot bring him down, cannot subjugate him to my will. This I can do, it is a trifle. I can subjugate any animal to my will, for my will is iron, my claws sharp and my teeth true. No, it is not that. It is only that once I bring him down I do not know what to do, for he is so huge. How does one eat an elephant?”
Timmy thought hard, knowing his life may depend on the answer he gave. He swallowed, then gave his considered opinion: “One mouthful at a time?”
“Ah.” The tiger sat heavily on his haunches, a thoughtful look upon his whiskered features.
Leaving the tiger gratefully perplexed by this kernel of wisdom, Timmy pressed on down the many-branching path.
Slowly, steadily, he marched. Time passed, one foot in front of another.
Rounding a bend, Timmy saw a man sitting dejectedly on a stump next to a small wall made of clay bricks. The wall was scarcely a metre high and a few metres long. Timmy was scared, because he knew men were even more dangerous than tigers, but he stopped by the wall and cleared his throat.
“Brother man dude,” he said, adopting lingo he felt would put the naked ape at ease, “you seem troubled. But you are a man, most resourceful of all creatures, transformer of landscapes, subjugator of nature. Surely you are lord of your domain and all bow before you, trembling with awe. What could possibly be the matter, great one?”
The man stood up, scratching his moustache and looking around for the source of the small voice that addressed him. Finally noticing Timmy the tortoise, standing with head held high a mere four inches from the ground, the man looked down with red-rimmed eyes. “Little testudine, how simple your life is. You could not possibly conceive of the troubles faced by a man such as myself. I have a vision, you see, a fantastic vision so grand and so huge. The world has never seen such a construction as that which I have conceptualised and must now bring into this world. I have been working at it all day, and see what I have accomplished!”
Timmy had no idea what a “testudine” was supposed to be, but he was a firm believer in being polite to strangers. “Indeed sir your wall is very impressive, I must confess I have seen other walls…”
“No, you stupid-small-minded-cold-blooded-reptile! The wall is nothing! Nothing!! My vision includes ten thousand walls, buildings, archways, aqueducts! It is a city, a great city where the world’s greatest minds will congregate and build the future.” The man melodramatically clapped his hand to his forehead, looking as if he might keel over in his fervour.
“Oh, I see,” said Timmy, allowing the man’s insults to slip by like water off a tortoise’s shell. “That does sound pretty amazing. What do you call this incredible architectural conglomerate that you will create?”
“I call it ‘Rome’, but I will never create it. I have worked all day – see how little I have achieved!” The man was pacing back and forth in agitation. “Little friend, I am finished! Ruined! I will be a laughing stock. What ever shall I do?”
Timmy thought hard, wanting to help the man but also nervously aware of the hammer the man had picked up and was now purposelessly swinging back and forth in the air, a hammer that might crack a little tortoise’s shell. “Perhaps it takes more than one day to build something so magnificent,” he offered, “perhaps you should work on it again tomorrow?”
“Ah.” The man stopped swinging the hammer and sat sown heavily on his stump, a thoughtful look on his moustached features.
Leaving the man gratefully perplexed by this kernel of wisdom, Timmy pressed on.
Slowly, steadily he marched. Time passed, one foot in front of another.
Timmy was frightened, but he pressed forward. Behind him, felt but not seen, the giant serpent swallowed its tail. Before him, the many-branching path leading….where?
Timmy was frightened, but he thought he saw a light in the distance getting closer, one step at a time.

Bob walks home.

3D man near red question mark

Bob, walking home from the train station, saw a slogan in bright red spray paint on the wall of the underpass.

“The way to defeat fascism is to ban it,” the scarlet letters proclaimed.

Damn right, thought Bob, continuing on his way.

Further down the tunnel was another red slogan,

“The way to spread the values of liberalism is to force people to accept them.”

Hmmmm, thought Bob, scratching his head, I guess that’s right. After all, people don’t know what’s good for them do they?

Emerging from the mouth of the underpass, blinking as the bright spring sunshine stung his maladjusted eyes, Bob saw through tears the final slogan in letters black on the white concrete of the wall before him.

“The way to understand irony is to take it literally.”

Oh, thought Bob.

Free will and dualism

I’ve been planning to write about free will for years but it’s never quite happened. I have, on more than one occasion, planned large scholarly articles….and then failed to write them. The form and content of those potential articles is probably lost forever, oh well. Free will is a huge subject, one of the most written about and argued about subjects in all of philosophy. That’s why every time I start planning to write about it the range of arguments I want to discuss quickly expands, the project becomes bloated, and I slink back to my day job as an evolutionary biologist. Well, maybe it’s because I’m currently between day jobs, but I figure if I don’t start by writing something short and sweet and posting it on my blog (which exists for this very purpose, after all) I might never write anything about it at all. I think that would be a shame (for me, at least), so here goes.

As one of the most popular and controversial subjects in philosophy, and one of those that people have the strongest intuitions about, it’s unsurprising a lot of arguments about free will are somewhat (dare I say it) incoherent. Actually, “incoherent” is a very common word utilised in these arguments themselves, typically directed by proponents of one view towards those of another. I’m going to continue this venerable tradition (mostly because it’s fun)  – there are plenty of incoherent arguments both for and against the existence of free will. If I keep writing about this subject, I might get around to reviewing many of them, but I’m going to start by putting some of my own cards on the table at the outset. I believe that Kant, who probably didn’t believe in free will in the metaphysical sense and who famously considered compatibilism (the claim that free will can exist in a deterministic universe) a “wretched subterfuge”, nonetheless refuted the majority of arguments against the existence of free will. This includes many modern arguments. When a philosopher who died in 1804 can be considered to have refuted arguments still being made in 2016, this is an example of what I like to call “proactive refutation”. How did he accomplish this? Simply by asserting that we “cannot act except under the idea of freedom”. For Kant, all actions (or inactions) result from choosing to act (or not to). This includes making the choice to believe that we have no free will – unless you have been somehow coerced (by another agent) into making this choice, you have made it freely.

There is, of course, a sizeable literature devoted to this claim of Kant’s, and there have been many attempts to refute it, but I think that most of them fail. This is going to be a short piece and I want to get to why I think denying the existence of free will is fundamentally dualistic, but before I do I better try to explain what (I think) Kant is on about. There are complicated arguments about coercion etc – e.g. when one is forced to do something is one free to do otherwise, and if not can one be said to be “acting” in the Kantian sense – but let’s leave those aside for now. I think the most important thing about what Kant is saying is that “freedom” and “autonomy of the will” are part of what Wilfrid Sellars calls “the manifest image”. This means that these concepts are part of the level of reality on which humans have evolved to act and on which (in one of Sellars’ examples) we perceive and interact with objects like tables rather than clouds of loosely interacting subatomic particles with a whole lot of empty space between them. Daniel Dennett has developed this line of argument in considerable detail, but the punch line is that arguments from physics (e.g. arguments about determinism) are irrelevant to discussions regarding the existence of free will. Now, most of the arguments from physics against the existence of free will are incoherent (told you!) anyway and wouldn’t demonstrate the non-existence of free will even if they were relevant, but they aren’t. They also aren’t really even arguments from physics, more like arguments from pseudophysics, but that line of argument can wait.

So, a striking majority of arguments against free will are refuted simply by a recognition of the fact that there are many “levels of description” when it comes to reality and that free will is relevant to (and exists on) only some of them. This simple argument takes care of a lot of modern arguments from neuroscience as well as those from physics, but I want to dwell on the former a little longer. To me it seems quite ironic that many people who deny the existence of free will on the basis of evidence from neuroscience accuse those who persist in believing in it of being closet dualists. For me quite the opposite is true  – not that those who deny free will based on neuroscience have a considered belief in dualism that they are hiding, but that their intuitions are guided by (vestigial) dualist notions.

Dan Dennett has caricatured these arguments as “my brain made me do it” and lamented the naïve (in his view) attempts at philosophy perpetrated by certain scientists who have advocated this position. I don’t always agree with Dennett (I’m sure he’ll be devastated to hear this), but I do wish that those who consistently lampoon his positions (“Dan doesn’t believe in consciousness!”) would actually take the time to understand them first. Another way of caricaturing the argument from neuroscience is as “the self is an illusion, therefore free will doesn’t exist”. This is incoherent (am I over doing it yet?). Sure, the self isn’t what it might naïvely appear to be (which doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist, or that it is acausal, but I won’t get into that) but acknowledging that simple fact and then using it to justify doing away with free will is throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

If you are a monist, you are committed to the idea that everything is, at some deep level, made of the same stuff. This stuff might be vibrations, subatomic particles, atoms, whatever you want. To me, that’s all physicalism. It’s not “materialism”, because matter is not fundamental, but no matter (ha!) how far “down” you go it’s still physicalism (vibrations in fields are physical). Anyway, unless you are absurdly reductionist, you agree that there are entities at some range of levels above your chosen fundamental level. If you have any respect for biology, you acknowledge that at some number of levels above the fundamental you find entities like proteins, cells, and ultimately organisms. Which level is the “causal level”? The position people take on free will often hinges on their answer to this question. A very influential position of the past (famously illustrated by Laplace’s Demon, an intuition pump so potent it is still guiding people’s thoughts today) is that, since the only really real stuff is atoms moving in a void, the atom is the important level for causal analysis. Many neuroscientists seem to think that the cell (specifically the neuron, or perhaps the neuronal network) is the relevant level. The problem isn’t the preferred answer though, it’s the question. It’s meaningless (incoherent?). There is no level of causal primacy. There is no prime mover. This is taking the worst of theological thinking and the worst of reductionist thinking and mashing them together to create a Frankenstein’s Monster of an intuition pump that refuses to die. Forget that question forever if you want to be able to think clearly about the evolution of the universe, including the organisms present within it, all the way “up” to the level of the consciousness that at least some of those organisms possess.

If you don’t believe in free will, you are not just committed to a hard form of epiphenomenalism (the incoherent notion that consciousness is entirely acausal), you are also a (vestigial) dualist. Why? Because you are suggesting that the “you” which is your “self” is causally disconnected from the “you” that is your neurons (and all the rest of your physiology). What would that mean? If you are a physical monist, you must believe that the experience you are having, your sentience, awareness, meta-consciousness and self, is realised due to activity in your brain. You also can’t be an idealist (in the Berkeleyan sense) – you must believe there is an actual reality out there that your brain evolved to allow you to interact with. So, you believe that signals are coming in via your sense organs and ultimately are “transduced” into your awareness. All this is happening in your brain. Consciousness is just an (integrated) form of awareness (actually it’s an affordance-seeking predictive engine of awareness, but anyway). The “self” is something you are (or can be) aware of. So, do signals come in, get integrated and go into your awareness, but then find the neuronal blind alley in which meta-consciousness hides? Can signals go in to this blind alley but not come out? Is the neuronal substrate of your consciousness somehow causally isolated from the rest of your brain? Hmmmm, sounds a lot like vestigial dualism to me  – it’s a recasting of the “problem of interaction” that has long been used as an argument against dualism (how does the soul/consciousness “stuff” interact with the physical stuff?).

Okay, I’m going to stop there. I know I haven’t addressed a lot of arguments that people use to try and refute free will (e.g. some of those glossed over above, as well as arguments from phenomenology and more), but this is enough for now. Ultimately, a lot of the arguing about free will is arguing about the definition of the term itself. There are plenty of people, who I have a great deal of respect for, who are basically compatibilists but who nonetheless claim that there is no such thing as “free will”. I prefer to concentrate on the common ground in such cases, in so far as the real goal of discussion and debate is inching slightly closer to whatever truth of the matter might be accessible. However, arguing semantics can sometimes be very productive too, as long as all parties involved in the debate understand the level on which the debate is taking place. I myself am essentially a fallibilist and this means that I’m not all that attached to any particular way of saying things because ultimately they are all wrong. I’m not a relativist though, which means that some ways of saying things are more right than others, so now that I’ve made a start in my writings about free will you can expect to hear more from me on this subject in the future.

P.S. That’s Kant at the top. He’s on my side, really he is.