Monday, December 08, 2008

Another Bad Argument

Tibor R. Machan

Let me focus for a bit on the following lines in an article in that wonderful magazine, Science News: “[T]he 19th century English historian Henry Thomas Buckle ridiculed such logic [namely, that because we can make up our own minds whether to believe in free will, therefore we have it], pointing out that consciousness is often fallible. Some people profess to have consciousness of the presence of ghosts, for example. ‘If this boasted faculty deceives us in some things, what security have we that it will not deceive us in others?’ Buckle asked.” [12/6/08, p. 28]

This is chuck full of errors, the least of which is to invoke Buckle as some kind of authority on the issue of free will. He is not. But then to take his argument as decisive is a real problem. One need not believe at all that consciousness is infallible to conclude, reasonably, that it is reliable on any given occasion. That the mind is fallible means only that it can make mistakes, not that it is rampant with mistakes. More strictly, moving from “this faculty deceived us in some cases,” to “therefore there is no security that it will be reliable in the future” is invalid. Of course, one cannot prove a negative, namely, that the mind “will not deceive us.” But need one do this so as to have reasonable confidence in it?

Lord Chesterfield has a good reply to this: “Examine carefully, and re-consider all your notions of things; analyze them, and discover their component parts, and see if habit and prejudice are not the principal ones; weigh the matter, upon which you are to form your opinion, in the equal and important scales of reason.” ( If one investigates issues this way, one can come to know, reach certainty beyond a reasonable doubt.

What Buckle asks for is what Descartes and some other philosophers demanded, namely certainty beyond a shadow of doubt. But if that were our standard for knowledge, we could know nothing, including that we can know nothing. The very idea that Buckle proposes, namely, skepticism about our own faculty of reason, depends on knowing that we have made mistakes in the past. But if certainty beyond a shadow of doubt were required to know anything at all, than we could never know that we have made a mistake--it cannot be ruled out by mere logic that what we consider to have been a mistake will in the future turn out to have been correct, after all.

None of this serves to justify full confidence in the belief that we have free will. That confidence would have to come from doing what Lord Chesterfield recommends and that would take a lengthy inquiry. However, there is what I have argued elsewhere, namely, that there is great peril with denying that people can choose. For if the denial is true, then that denial itself is something unavoidable, something the proponent could not have helped making, just as the skeptic cannot help being a skeptic. And then all questions about truth and falsehood appear to vanish. Robots do not say what is true or false but only what they must, akin to a parrot or a tape recorder.

In order to be in the business of truth seeking and discovering, human beings seem to need mental independence, just as jurors need it if they are to come up with true verdicts instead of mere prejudice. Scientists need to be in the position to freely assess the evidence and arguments bearing on their work, otherwise what they “discover” is but a claim they cannot help make. But what use is such a claim to us? It would all come to a standstill--I have to assert X while you had to assert not-X and neither of us is free to do otherwise.

Buckle’s error is to hold up an ideal of human knowledge that is plainly impossible to satisfy, ever, namely, irrefutable, absolute, timeless, perfect certainty. Maybe there is some knowledge like that, say, concerning very basic facts about the world--such as, “A is A” or that “It cannot be that A is not-A.” But knowledge of nearly everything else is not like this, not “absolute”--there is always the possibility of needing to modify what we know, although this does not mean that everything is to be doubted.

As the early 20th century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein pointed out, in his posthumously published book On Certainty, to doubt something for which one has good evidence requires a reason, not merely the paranoia that one might perhaps be mistaken.

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