I recently enjoyed an excellent online discussion between professional philosophers Massimo Pigliucci and Daniel Kaufman. They were talking about the modern habit of reducing everything to a physical explanation, and the philosophical errors involved in doing this. It’s a potentially technical topic, but I want to see if I can convey a somewhat simplified (reduced – yes, I get the irony) sense of it, because to me the implications of this mistake are profound. Indeed, to draw a slightly long bow, I want to suggest that the error is in some important way contributing to what appears to be a sharp spike in anxiety disorders. That’s perhaps a stretch, but compared to John Marsden’s recent attempt to put the blame at the feet of anxious parents, it is at least reasonable.
So, to the philosophical misstep. Here’s a metaphor I’ve used before that I think gets to the essence of the argument. Imagine I’m watching a favourite old tv show on my computer. A friend walks in and asks what I’m laughing about and I tell them Donna’s just been lured into a televised conversation with a guy in a chicken suit. It’s a funny moment and I’m amused. The friend looks confused. ‘But there’s no show there, not really. You’re actually just looking at the pixels of the computer screen, and their cleverly co-ordinated flashing is creating the illusion of a story.’
This clearly makes my friend an idiot, albeit a technologically aware one. Their mistake is to do with this business of existence, or rather what we mean when we say something exists or is real. There can’t really be a television show on my screen, that has to just be an illusion, because really what’s going on is just this pixel business (and the vibrating of the speaker, for without the dialogue Sorkin’s masterwork would be decidedly ordinary). Actually the pixel thing is real, and so too is the show. There really is a show and this show is enabled by exactly the technology my friend has identified. And when I say they are both real, I mean it in an important sense. There exists a number of qualities that I am affected by, that I experience, that can only be explained in terms of the show: its characters and their circumstances and motivations. The experience I am having, my investment in and response to the genius fiction before me can not be explained, even in principle, by the physics of the computer, nor the physics of my brain. To explain what I am experiencing, you have to speak of the human world being represented. There is information about the world, in other words, that is only accessible at the higher level of explanation, the level of motivation and perception. And to say ‘there isn’t really a story unfolding on your screen’ is simply to deny the reality of something that, well, exists.
In technical terms, we say that these two realities require different ontologies to describe and explain them. The mistake is to use a physicalist ontology (a thing exists if it can be described in terms of its position in time and space) to describe a teleological phenomenon (the existence of narratives and intentions).
Now, at this point you may be wondering what all the fuss is about. Nobody ever walks into a room and speaks as my imaginary (yet conceptually real) friend does. What we do all the time however, or rather what modern philosophy and modern commentators do all the time, is play the ‘what’s really going on here’ card with a smug air that for many is compelling. And in doing so they privilege one kind of reality over another. Two fine examples are the fields of neuroscience and evolutionary psychology, and here I am not suggesting the disciplines themselves are bogus, but rather that their more enthusiastic supporters fall for this error hard. I’ve sat through professional development courses where ‘brain experts’ with slide shows full of scans have used ‘the latest science’ to explain to us what’s really going on for the teenagers we teach. Considered as one perspective in a multi-layered explanation of behaviour, there can be useful insight here. But when the viewpoint is implicitly privileged (you think they’re frustrated that the teacher hasn’t noticed they’re had their hand up for the last four minutes, but actually what’s happening is a misfiring of the fight or flight response… etc etc) we become weirdly uncritical. Take for instance the received wisdom that teens are just out of control because of the chaotic state of their rearranging brain. I’m happy to accept that their physical brains are in a remarkable state of flux, but it’s not the only thing that’s going on for them. Nor is this fact in itself deterministic. The great majority of students I’ve taught over the decades are calm, restrained, thoughtful and quite capable of exhibiting a finely tuned understanding of action and consequence. They put up with a schooling environment which is loud, repetitive, and frequently incoherent and do so with remarkable good grace. I have seen no evidence that they are any more prone to foolish and rash behaviour than my adult colleagues, (would that it were so) and yet the myth of the irrational teen is more firmly rooted than ever because we are so easily swayed by the ‘hard science’. We fall for the ‘of course, what’s really going on…’ line and are distracted, at least for the length of the dreary seminar, by the existence of the pixels. Yes, brain states enable experience and behaviour, but they do not define it. Not by a long shot. More importantly, the best way to assist teens to further develop the insight, restraint, generosity and kindness we hope to see blooming in them is to understand them not as biological machines but as independent, motivated souls, seeped in personal narratives. It’s at the level of their individual narratives that we properly understand them as people, and connect with them in a way that has lasting impact.
The excesses of evolutionary psychology arguments are legendary, and perhaps no better exemplified than in the Sam Harris style writings on free will. An inordinate amount of excitement is generated by the observation that our brain states have physical antecedents and in this sense our behaviours are all explicable in physical terms, which in terms can be captured within an evolutionary narrative (it feels as if you are writing a story in order to express a creative urge, or tease out an idea that has been puzzling you, but actually you are subconsciously being drawn towards a public display of your intellectual capacity in order to make yourself more attractive to potential mates). This ‘what’s really going on’ business, when it comes to fundamentals like free will, does more than simply misdirect our energies. At its very worst, it strips us of our essential humanity, and denies that which is most precious. This is perhaps what George Bernard Shaw saw when he responded to his first encounters with evolutionary theory writing:
There is a hideous fatalism about it, a ghastly and damnable reduction of beauty and intelligence, of strength and purpose, of honour and aspiration.
He certainly wasn’t saying evolutionary theory was incorrect, but rather warning of what happens if we see this as the ‘real explanation’ of life, rather than the best explanation for a particular level of analysis. Yes, natural selection is real. Genes are real. Biological imperatives are real. But so too are beauty, honour and purpose. They are realities with their own ontologies, and their own demands and rewards.
The flashing red light in all of this is the word ‘illusion’. Free will is just an illusion. Consciousness is an illusion. Moral truths are illusions. There exists a kind of intellectual framework that, by privileging a very specific kind of scientific ontology, seeks to make us feel a little foolish when talking about things like love, hope and story. We are are the children, still clinging to our mythology, because cold hard reality is just too frightening to us. We lack the courage to stare into the abyss. This is nihilism, pure and simple, and it rests on an ontological error. Reduced explanations are not more real at all. If they were, then we’d be in significant trouble. For we can not draw upon biological explanations, resting as they do on the ontology of purpose – hearts don’t really pump blood, that’s just an illusion, really they’re just collections of atoms colliding, bonding and exchanging energy. And then an atomic explanation is not good, because atoms themselves are just constructed metaphors attempting to encapsulate our murky understanding of the quantum world, and maybe that just reduces to information, but then information itself is surely a metaphor… And, to get really picky, the whole argument rests on, well, the validity of arguments, which rest upon the rules of inference, which themselves are only valid within their own specific and irreducible ontology.
The point is that there always have been and always will be many different ways of knowing and each of these ontologies will have their own set of rules for deciphering and interacting with the world. To consistently privilege the materialist ontology when considering the non-material world (so, for example, the human world, defined as it is by intention and story, or the mathematical world, defined as it is by its axioms and rules of engagement) is to do something more than be misguided. It is to actively promote a world where there is room to be cynical about the things that are not only most real to humanity, but most precious. I speak here of our value systems, of Shaw’s honour, purpose and aspiration.
And, to make good on my promise, I suspect that it is the sense of purposelessness, our lack of confidence in the promotion of higher values, that encourages the inward focus on self, and the shallow virtues of status and recognition. I think it is the subsequent feeling of emptiness, the lack of connection with a community that extends beyond the mirror, the lack of opportunity to serve freely the needs of others, that allows anxiety to slowly creep into the modern psyche. I think the modern malaise has an awful lot to do with the narcissism that emerges when we are allowed to believe that shared values are illusions, and the self is the only reliable reference point. Because it is such an anaemic world view, so inherently unsatisfying, that anxiety is the only rational response. There must be more to it than this, whispers the soul. I must be missing something. What am I missing? What am I missing? Cue more pointless purchases, more vain attempts to be noticed, to be measured as acceptable, more disappointment (inevitably) and so the anxiety rises.
And, as I contemplate the elected leaders of the old world order, the Donald Trump, Boris Johnson debacle, I think there’s an equally dangerous corollary in the public sphere. I think this is what nihilism looks like: politicians who are judged not by their substance, their honour, their purpose and their aspirations, but by their self regarding ability to draw attention. Toddlers in suit, endorsed by the people, ruling the world. Now that does make me a little bit anxious.