The Buck Stops -- Where? Living Without Ultimate Moral Responsibility

Galen Strawson, interviewed by Tamler Sommers, on getting free of free will. Originally published in The Believer, March, 2003.

“You sound to me as though you don’t believe in free will,” said Billy Pilgrim.

“If I hadn’t spent so much time studying Earthlings,” said the Tralfamadorian, “I wouldn’t have any idea what was meant by free will.  I’ve visited thirty-one inhabited planets in the universe, and I have studied reports on one hundred more.  Only on Earth is there any talk of free will.”  

-- Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse–Five

Imagine for a moment that instead of Timothy McVeigh destroying the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, it had been a mouse. Suppose this mouse got into the wiring of the electrical system, tangled the circuits, and caused a big fire killing all those inside. Now think of the victims’ families. There would of course still be tremendous grief and suffering, but there would be one significant difference. There would no extra bit of resentment, no consuming anger, no hatred, no need to see the perpetrator punished (even if the mouse somehow got out of the building) in order to experience “closure.” Why the difference? Because McVeigh, we think, committed this terrible act out of his own free will. He chose to do it, and he could have chosen not to.; McVeigh, then, is morally responsible for the death of the victims in a way that the mouse is not. And our sense of justice demands that he pay for this crime.

There is an undeniable human tendency to see ourselves as free and morally responsible beings. But there’s a problem. We also believe—most of us anyhow—that our environment and our heredity entirely shape our characters (what else could?). But we aren’t responsible for our environment, and we aren’t responsible for our heredity.   So we aren’t responsible for our characters. But then how can we be responsible for acts that arise from our characters?

There’s a simple but extremely unpopular answer to this question: we aren’t. We are not and cannot be ultimately responsible for our behavior. On this view, while it may be of great pragmatic value to hold people responsible for their actions, and to employ systems of reward and punishment, no one is really deserving of blame or praise for anything. This answer has been around for over two thousand years, and it is backed by solid arguments with premises that are consistent with how most of us view the world.Yet few today give this position the serious consideration it deserves. The view that free will is a fiction is called counterintuitive, absurd, pessimistic, pernicious, and most commonly “unacceptable,” even by those who recognize the force of the arguments behind it. Philosophers who reject God, an immaterial soul, even absolute morality, cannot bring themselves to do the same for the concept of free will—not just in their day to day lives, but in books and articles and extraordinarily complex theories.

There are a few exceptions and one of them is the British analytic philosopher Galen Strawson.Strawson is one of the most respected theorists in the free will industry and at the same time a bit of an outsider. The two main philosophical camps in the field engage in a technical and often bitter dispute over whether or not free will is compatible with the truth of determinism (the theory that the future is fixed, because every event has a cause and the causes stretch back until the beginning of the universe). If there is one thing that both sides agree upon, however, it’s that we do have free will and that we are morally responsible. Strawson, with a simple powerful argument which we will discuss below, bets the other way.

It was not always such a minority view. Enlightenment philosophers like Spinoza, Diderot, Voltaire, and Holbach challenged ordinary conceptions of freedom, doubted whether we could be morally responsible, and looked to ground theories of blame and punishment in other ways. Strawson is a descendant of these philosophers, while still incorporating the British analytic tradition into his work His views are clear and honest and there are no cop-outs, quite unusual in a literature mired in obscure terminology and wishful thinking. And his essays are always deeply connected to everyday experience. Indeed, one of the main issues Strawson addresses is why we so instinctively and stubbornly see ourselves as free and responsible. What is it about human experience that makes it difficult, impossible maybe, to believe something that we can easily demonstrate as true?

Galen Strawson is also the son of perhaps the most respected analytic philosopher alive, the great metaphysician and philosopher of language P.F. Strawson. Though not primarily concerned with the topic of free will, P.F. Strawson has written one of the classic papers of the genre, an essay called “Freedom and Resentment.” Galen, not from Oedipal motives he assures us, is one of its most effective critics. In addition, Galen Strawson is the author of Freedom and Belief (Oxford University Press 1986), The Secret Connection  (OUP 1989), Mental Reality (MIT Press 1994), and numerous papers on free will, causation, and philosophy of mind. He is currently Professor of Philosophy at the University of Reading.

--Tamler Sommers, philosopher and author of A Very Bad Wizard.

Tamler: You start out your book Freedom and Belief by saying that there is no such thing as free will. What exactly do you mean by free will?

Galen: I mean what nearly everyone means. Almost all human beings believe that they are free to choose what to do in such a way that they can be truly, genuinely responsible for their actions in the strongest possible sense; responsible period; responsible without any qualification; responsible sans phrase, responsible tout court, absolutely, radically, buck-stoppingly responsible; ultimately responsible, in a word - and so ultimately morally responsible when moral matters are at issue Free will is the thing you have to have if you're going to be responsible in this all or nothing way. That's what I mean by free will. That's what I think we haven't got and can't have.

I like philosophers - I love what they do - I love what I do - but they have made a truly unbelievable hash of all this. They've tried to make the phrase 'free will' mean all sorts of different things, and each of them has told us that what it really means is what he or she has decided it should mean. But they haven't made the slightest impact on what it really means, or on our old, deep conviction that free will is something we have.

Tamler: That’s true—neurobiologists, cognitive scientists—they all seem to have an easier time at least considering the possibility that there's no free will.; But philosophers defend the concept against all odds, at the risk of terrible inconsistency with the rest of their views about the world. If it's a fact that there's no free will, why do philosophers have such a hard time accepting it?

Galen: There’s a Very Large Question here, as Winnie-the-Pooh would say. There's a question about the pathology of philosophy, or more generally about the weird psychological mechanisms that underwrite commitment to treasured beliefs -; religious, theoretical, or whatever - in the face of overwhelming contrary evidence. But to be honest, I can't really accept it myself, and not because I'm a philosopher. As a philosopher I think the impossibility of free will and ultimate moral responsibility can be proved with complete certainty. It's just that I can't really live with this fact from day to day. Can you - really? As for the scientists, they may accept it in their white coats, but I'm sure they're just like the rest of us when they're out in the world—convinced of the reality of radical free will.

Tamler: Well, let’s move on to the argument then. There’s a famous saying of Schopenhaur’s that goes like this: “A man can surely do what he wants to do. But he cannot determine what he wants.” Is this idea at the core of your argument against moral responsibility?

Galen: Yes — and it’s an old thought. It’s in Hobbes somewhere, and it’s in Book Two of Locke’s Essay, and I bet some ancient Greek said it, since they said almost everything. Actually, though, there’s a way in which it’s not quite true. If you want to acquire some want or preference you haven’t got, you can sometimes do so. You can cultivate it. Perhaps you’re lazy and unfit and you want to acquire a love of exercise. Well, you can force yourself to do it every day and hope you come to like it. And you just might; you might even get addicted. Maybe you can do the same if you dislike olives.

Tamler: But then where did that desire come from—the desire to acquire the love of exercise…or olives?

Galen: Right — now the deeper point cuts in. For suppose you do want to acquire a want you haven’t got. The question is, where did the first want — the want for a want — come from? It seems it was just there, just a given, not something you chose or engineered — it was just there, like most of your preferences in food, music, footwear, sex, interior lighting, and so on.

I suppose it’s possible that you might have acquired the first want, that’s the want for a want, because you wanted to! It’s theoretically possible that you had a want to have a want to have a want.But this is very hard to imagine, and the question just re-arises: where did that want come from? You certainly can’t go on like this forever. At some point your wants must be just given. They will be products of your genetic inheritance and upbringing that you had no say in. In other words, there’s a fundamental sense in which you did not and cannot make yourself the way you are. And this, as you say, is the key step in the basic argument against ultimate moral responsibility, which goes like this: (1) You do what you do — in the circumstances in which you find yourself — because of the way you are. (2 ) So if you’re going to be ultimately responsible for what you do, you’re going to have to be ultimately responsible for the way you are—at least in certain mental respects. (3) But you can’t be ultimately responsible for the way you are (for the reasons just given). (4) So you can’t be ultimately responsible for what you do.

Tamler: I suppose it’s the third step that people have the most trouble accepting.

Galen: Yes, although the step seems fairly clear when you look at it the right way. Sometimes people explain why number (3) is true by saying that you can’t be causa sui—you can’t be the cause of yourself, you can’t be truly or ultimately self-made in any way. As Nietzsche puts it, in his usual, tactful way:

"The causa sui is the best self-contradiction that has been conceived so far; it is a sort of rape and perversion of logic. But the extravagant pride of man has managed to entangle itself profoundly and frightfully with just this nonsense. The desire for ‘freedom of the will’ in the superlative metaphysical sense, which still holds sway, unfortunately, in the minds of the half-educated; the desire to bear the entire and ultimate responsibility for one’s actions oneself, and to absolve God, the world, ancestors, chance, and society involves nothing less than to be precisely this causa sui and, with more than Baron Münchhausen’s audacity, to pull oneself up into existence by the hair, out of the swamps of nothingness."

There’s lots more to say about this basic argument, and there are lots of ways in which people have tried to get around the conclusion. But none of them work.

Tamler: I notice that the argument makes no mention of the theory of determinism. But historically the debate over freedom and responsibility has revolved around the truth of determinism, and the question of whether free will and moral responsibility are compatible with it.

Galen: Yes, many people think that determinism—the view that the history of the universe is fixed, the view that everything that happens is strictly necessitated by what has already gone before, in such a way that nothing can ever happen otherwise than it does—is the real threat to free will, to ultimate moral responsibility. But the basic argument against ultimate moral responsibility works whether determinism is true or false. It’s a completely a priori argument, as philosophers like to say. That means that you can see that it is true just lying on your couch. You don’t have to get up off your couch and go outside and examine the way things are in the physical world. You don’t have to do any science. And actually, current science isn’t going to help. Ultimate moral responsibility is also ruled out by the theory of relativity. Einstein himself, in a piece written as a homage to the Indian mystical poet Rabindranath Tagore, said that ‘a Being endowed with higher insight and more perfect intelligence, watching man and his doings, would smile about man’s illusion that he was acting according to his own free will.’

Tamler: And the illusion that he and others were morally responsible for their actions?

Galen: Yes, but I just want to stress the word “ultimate” before ‘moral responsibility.’ Because there’s a clear, weaker, everyday sense of “morally responsible” in which you and I and millions of other people are thoroughly morally responsible people.

Tamler: I suppose your lazy unfit man who acquires a love for exercise is responsible for his choice in this weaker everyday sense. He made the choice, and he acted on it. On the other hand, it seems that in order for this man to be deserving of praise for his decision, he would have to be morally responsible in the deeper sense, in the ultimate sense. And in fact, isn’t that an implication of your argument—that no one is truly deserving of blame or praise for anything?

Galen: Well, ‘truly’ is a flexible word – again I think ‘ultimately’ is better — but yes: no one can be ultimately deserving of praise or blame for anything. It’s not possible. This is very very hard to swallow, but that’s how it is. Ultimately, it all comes down to luck: luck — good or bad — in being born the way we are, luck — good or bad — in what then happens to shape us. We can’t be ultimately responsible for how we are in such a way as to have absolute, buck-stopping responsibility for what we do. At the same time, it seems we can’t help believing that we do have absolute buck-stopping responsibility

Tamler: You’re right that many people find this hard to swallow. As you write in one of your essays, if it all comes down to luck, “even Hitler is let off the hook.” So how should we regard Hitler and Stalin and other villains of history? Should we view them like we view the Lisbon earthquake, or the Plague?

Galen: In the end, and in a sense: yes. Obviously it’s wildly hard to accept. For some people I think it’s impossible to accept, given their temperament (they might not be able to make sense of their lives any more).; As I said, I can’t really accept it myself — I can’t live it all the time.  If someone harmed or tortured or killed one of my children I’d feel everything almost anyone else would feel. I’d probably have intense feelings of revenge. But these feelings would fade. In the end they’re small and self-concerned. Only the grief would last. Maybe one way to put it is this: People in themselves aren’t evil, there’s no such thing as moral evil in that sense, but evil exists, great evil, and people can be carriers of great evil. You might reply, Look, if they’re carriers of evil they just are evil, face the facts. But I would have to say that your response is in the end superficial. After all, we don’t call natural disasters evil.

But there’s another thing to say about the Hitler case. Our sense that he must be held to be utterly responsible for what he did is both cognitive and emotional, and it usually seems to us that these two factors can’t possibly come apart. The cognitive part, the sense that it is just an absolute objective fact that he is wholly responsible in the strongest possible way, seems inseparable from the non-cognitive part, the moral nausea, the disgust, the anger, I don’t know what to call it. They seem inseparable in the way that blood is inseparable from a living body (that was Shylock’s problem) . And since the non-cognitive emotional part is plainly a completely appropriate reaction it can seem that the cognitive part must be too. Nevertheless I think they can come apart. Many of our emotional responses can stay in place when we confront the fact that there is no ultimate moral responsibility. We don’t stop retching involuntarily when we realize that there is nothing objectively disgusting about a smell of decay. No doubt some of our emotional responses are essentially connected to belief in ultimate moral responsibility. But I think even the most emotionally intense desires for revenge and retribution, say, can be felt in a way that does not presuppose ultimate moral responsibility.

Tamler: I don’t know. Take the case of Timothy McVeigh—his execution was shown to the families of the victims on close circuit TV. Why? So that the families could experience “closure.” Don’t you think that kind of retributive impulse presupposes a belief in moral responsibility? If a malfunctioning computer, or a mouse, had caused the death of their loved ones, would they have had to watch the destruction of the mouse (or computer) in order to attain this closure?

Galen: What you say sounds right, so what can I say in reply… It’s not enough for me to say that a hated human is just not the same as a hated mouse or computer. Quite so, you’ll say, and that’s precisely because we take a human to have ultimate moral responsibility. I’m sorry about repeating ‘ultimate’ every time, but I think it’s important. Let’s just call it deep moral responsibility from now on, DMR for short. (It sounds like some exotic psychotropic drug.)

So I guess you’re right. These desires for revenge and retribution are just not going to be the normal human thing if they don’t involve the belief that the hated person has DMR. They’re going to be unusual. So why did I say what I said? Partly because I was thinking of a remarkable book called Revenge, by Laura Blumenfeld, in which she describes cultures in which the whole business of revenge and vendetta gets ritualized. I don’t think the Mafia have to believe in DMR to feel intense desires for revenge and retribution. And desire for retaliation doesn’t require anything of the sort.

Which reminds me of something interesting: the old rule, older than the Old Testament, that says ‘Life for life; eye for eye; tooth for tooth; hand for hand; foot for foot; burning for burning; wound for wound; stripe for stripe’ is almost universally misunderstood. It’s not an intrinsically vengeful idea. It was intended as a counsel of restraint, of moderation in retaliation. Take an eye for an eye, it says, but no more. Measure for measure. No escalation. At one point Blumenfeld goes to the Roman Catholic north of Albania and asks a member of the local 'Blood Feud Committee' about turning the other cheek. The guy just laughs - they all do, in the room, they titter - and says 'In Albania we have "Don't hit my cheek or I'll kill you".’ One feels they really got the hang of Christianity.

Tamler: So in your view, then, the idea of retaliation can play an important pragmatic role, but actual belief in deep moral responsibility isn’t necessary to function as a human being.

Galen: Not only is not necessary, it may even be harmful. I’m thinking of what psychologist Eleanor Rosch says in a talk she gave in San Francisco last August called ‘What Buddhist Meditation has to Tell Psychology About the Mind’. At one point she was discussing the Buddhist doctrine of the endlessly ramifying interdependence of everything, and observed that ‘an understanding of [this] interdependence has clinical significance. It can provide people who suffer from guilt, depression, or anxiety with a vision of themselves as part of an interdependent network in which they need neither blame themselves nor feel powerless. In fact it may be that it is only when people are able to see the way in which they are not responsible for events that they can find the deeper level at which it is possible to take responsibility beyond concept and (depending upon the terminology of one’s religious affiliation) repent, forgive, relax, or have power over the phenomenal world’.

Trouble is, this is very, very hard to do. And it needs some explaining. Seeing the way in which you are not responsible for events in the manner that Eleanor Rosch describes certainly doesn’t mean that you become an irresponsible person. Also, while some of us are fiercely self-critical, and would do well to ease up on ourselves — for self-criticism is another form of self-indulgence — we don’t particularly want Hitler & Co to ‘relax’.; It takes reflection to see the truth in what Eleanor Rosch is saying.

Tamler: Buddhist meditation and Buddhist philosophy in general appears in much of your work. Do you practice some form of meditation yourself?

Galen: I tried meditation when I was an undergraduate (and putative flower child with hair to my waist) at Cambridge in the UK in the late 1960s and early 1970s, but I’ve never managed to keep it up…. I tried again last year, after a twenty-five year gap, using Patricia Carrington’s utterly dogma-free method of ‘Clinically Standardized Meditation’. It was pretty interesting, but I lapsed again.

Tamler: Did you feel, when you were doing it, that meditating made the denial of free will and DMR easier to accept—I mean on more than just a theoretical level?

Galen: Well, the denial of DMR didn’t come to mind when I was actually meditating, or trying to, though I think it would have seemed pretty natural if it had. But perhaps you’re asking whether meditation made a discernable difference to my attitude to DMR in the rest of my daily life. The answer is that I don’t think so, though it might well have done so if I’d been better about it, or gone on for longer.

So can I live the denial of free will and DMR rather than just accept it theoretically? Well, if I think I’ve done something bad, I feel wholly responsible—I feel remorse, regret and so on. So no. But perhaps the remorse doesn’t endure for too long. I think that if such feelings persist too long, they become self-indulgent in some deep way. I think, in fact, that all guilt is self-indulgent—it’s all about self—while things like remorse and contrition are not, although they can become so if persist too long they get ritualized.

But to get back to your question: I’m pretty sure it’s not meditation that has got me any closer to living the fact that there’s no deep moral responsibility. In so far as I have got closer, it is just living a life, and the long and devoted practice of philosophy. I think philosophy really does change one over time. It makes one’s mind large, in some peculiar manner. It seems to me that the professional practice of philosophy is itself a kind of spiritual discipline, in some totally secular sense of ‘spiritual’; or at least that it can be, and has been for me. It would be very surprising if intense training of the mind didn’t change the shape of the mind as much as intense training of the body changes the shape of the body. It does.

Here’s an odd confessional passage from a paper I wrote fifteen years ago that I’d forgotten about until someone mentioned it recently.

“…my attitudes on such questions are dramatically inconsistent. For (a) I regard any gifts that I have, and any good that I do, as a matter of pure good fortune; so that the idea that I deserve credit for them is some strong sense seems absurd. But (b) I do not regard others’ achievements and good actions as pure good fortune, but feel admiration (and, where appropriate, gratitude) of a true-responsibility-presupposing kind. Furthermore, (c), I do not regard bad things that I do as mere bad luck, but have true-responsibility-presupposing attitudes to them (which may admittedly fade with time). Finally, (d), I do (in everyday life) naturally regard bad things other people do as explicable in ways that make true-responsibility-presupposing blame inappropriate. I suspect that this pattern may not be particularly uncommon.”

Tamler: Interesting you say that, I would think it is pretty uncommon. This idea that we don’t deserve credit for your achievements and good deeds—it seems to go against some core American ideals, anyway.

Galen: Well, perhaps it’s uncommon, but I don’t think it’s that rare. I agree that it may be pretty un-American, but I don’t think it can be that unusual worldwide— or am I the weird one here? One can certainly get a lot of pleasure or happiness from having done something, but taking credit for it does seem absurd, like taking credit or responsibility for one’s height or one’s looks (putting cosmetic surgery aside). People sometimes say that one can take credit for effort even if one can’t take credit for natural talent, but in the end being the kind of person who’s got determination and who perseveres and makes an effort—that too is a gift, a piece of luck. It just so happens that we particularly admire it, in the same way that we find some people or landscapes particularly attractive.

Tamler: And how about (d)—the idea that blame is inappropriate for the bad actions of other people.

Galen: As for that, I realize that when I wrote it I was thinking of everyday life, not of monstrous acts. (d) involves taking what my father called the ‘objective attitude’ to others, and that’s certainly how it is for me when it comes to others’ wrongdoing in everyday life — at least after the heat of the moment.

Tamler: Let’s talk about the objective attitude for a moment. In 1962 your father—P.F. Strawson—wrote a famous paper that continues to haunt anyone working on free will today. In the paper he claims that when you adopt the objective attitude towards another human being, you lose some essential features of interpersonal relationships. You’ll start to see this person as an object of social policy, a subject for “treatment”—some Orwellian scenarios come to mind—but you can no longer see them fully as a person. But if we’re going to accept the belief that there is no free will, no DMR, it seems we’ll have to take the objective attitude towards all people, including those closest to us. Are the implications of this as cold and bleak as your father suggests?

Galen: No, I don’t think so. I disagree that regularly taking the objective attitude to someone means giving up on treating them fully as a person. In fact I think it’s essential to the closest human relations. I think that it is rather a beautiful capability that we have. It is deeply involved in compassion and love.  I don’t think love is blind. I think love sees all the faults and doesn’t mind. It brings the point of view of the universe into our lives, where it is (as far as I can see) welcome.The point of view of the universe can be part of care, caring.

Tamler: In your book and a subsequent essay you take on some of your Dad’s arguments.  What’s it like to have a public philosophical disagreement with your father? Has he come around to your point of view or does he just call you a schmuck like my Dad calls me?

Galen: It's very hard to imagine the word 'schmuck' issuing from my father's mouth. Perhaps if you got him drunk, passed him a pot of Smucker's jam and asked him what it was. Actually I've no idea what he thinks about this. I think he might concede the point about the objective attitude and remain content with the deep thought behind his paper, the thought that belief in free will is so deeply built into our natural moral-emotional attitudes to others that philosophical argument about it is simply moot - supermoot. Derek Parfit (a British philosopher famous for his work on personal identity) once said he thought my view was closer to the truth than my father's, but that my father's paper would be the one that would live on. I think he was right. I don't think there's anything Oedipal going on. In general disagreements are fine, real substantive disagreements - because either your opponents are wrong, in which case it's no problem, or they're right, in which case it's also no problem because what's right is right, and what can you do? Plus it's nice to get things right. What's at issue, always, is the truth.

Tamler: Well this leads to my next question. In your book you ask us to consider a man who wants to live according to the truth.He wants to consistently deny the existence of free will and DMR. We can imagine that this person will tone down his resentment of others, and maybe he won’t be as consumed in self-indulgent bouts of guilt. But, you argue, in ordinary situations of choice this man may hit a wall. In these situations, we’re unable not to think that we will be truly or absolutely responsible for our choice, whatever we choose. Ok, granted there will be an initial impulse on this man’s part to see himself as deserving of blame (or praise) for a particular action. On the other hand, he knows that this conception of free will is incoherent and impossible. So the question is: is it possible that our natures are flexible enough that—after due reflection—this commitment to free will and DMR can be softened, or even eliminated?

Galen: I think this question may be the only really interesting question left in the free will debate, because the answers to the rest are really pretty clear by now. But before I try to answer it let me tell a story that explains why I think we can’t help experiencing ourselves as radically free, as having DMR.

Suppose you arrive at a shop on the evening of a national holiday, intending to buy a cake with your last ten dollar note to supplement the preparations you’ve already made. Everything is closing down. There’s one cake left in the shop; it costs ten dollars. On the steps of the shop someone is shaking an Oxfam tin — or someone is begging, someone who is clearly in great distress. You stop, and it seems quite clear to you — it surely is quite clear to you — that it is entirely up to you what you do next — in such a way that you will have DMR for what you do, whatever you do. The situation is in fact utterly clear: you can put the money in the tin (or give it to the beggar) or you can go in and buy the cake. You’re not only completely, radically free to choose in this situation. You’re not free not to choose. That’s how it feels. You’re condemned to freedom, in Sartre’s phrase. You’re already in a state of full consciousness of what the options are and you can’t escape that consciousness. You can’t somehow slip out of it.

Tamler: No matter what your other commitments might be…

Galen: Right. You may be convinced that determinism is true: you may believe that in five — two — minutes time you will be able to look back on the situation you are now in and say truly, of what you will by then have done, ‘It was determined that I should do that’. But even if you do fervently believe this, I still don’t think it’s going to touch the feeling of DMR that you have right now as you stand there. And although the Oxfam box example is a particularly dramatic one, choices of this general sort are not rare. They occur regularly in our everyday lives.

Well, that’s the story, now for the question you asked, the one I thought might be the only really interesting one left. Given that the experience of DMR is seemingly inevitable in our everyday life, can we shake free of it, can we at least diminish it, can we somehow truly live, breathe the impossibility of DMR, and not just accept it in a merely theoretical context? And is the inevitability of the experience of DMR just a local human fact, a human peculiarity or limitation, or is it going to be inevitable for any possible cognitively sophisticated, rational, self-conscious agent that faces Oxfam-box-type choices and is fully aware of the fact that it does so?

Well, I’m not sure. But I think that perhaps it’s not inevitable for human beings, and here I have a couple more quotations I like. The Indian mystical thinker Krishnamurti reports that the experience of radical choice simply fades away when you advance spiritually: ‘you do not choose’, he says, ‘you do not decide, when you see things very clearly.. Only the unintelligent mind exercises choice in life’. A spiritually advanced or ‘truly intelligent mind simply cannot have choice’, because it ‘can … only choose the path of truth’. ‘Only the unintelligent mind has free will’ — by which he means experience of radical free will.

Saul Bellow has a related thought in his novel Humboldt’s Gift: ‘In the next realm, where things are clearer, clarity eats into freedom. We are free on earth’ — i.e. we experience ourselves as radically free— ‘because of cloudiness, because of error, because of marvelous limitation.’ And the great Dutch philosopher Spinoza extends the point to God. God cannot, he says, ‘be said . . . to act from freedom of the will’. In which case he cannot think or feel that he does so, because he is after all omniscient.

Theology aside, Krishnamurti convinces me that it’s not actually impossible for human beings to live the fact that there is no DMR, in spite of the cake and the Oxfam box. What he says has the ring of truth. And there’s convergence here with the passage I quoted from Eleanor Rosch’s talk. That said, I don’t think living without the feeling of DMR a realistic option for most of us.

Tamler: Well, maybe there’s one more interesting question left in the debate. If living the fact can be done, with hard work, should it be done? In other words, if someone accepts the conclusion of the basic argument, that DMR is impossible, would you recommend that he try to live according to this belief?

Galen: It might take years of spiritual discipline to get to ‘living the fact’ (though actually one can get quite a way by ordinary secular reflection). But let’s suppose you could achieve it immediately, just by pressing a button. You’re asking Should you press that button?

Well, it might be blissful…but I think it might take you out of the range of normal human relations. You wouldn’t mind that consequence once you were there — I’m sure you’d be absolutely clear that it was right to be where you were once you were there — but it might be frightening to contemplate trying to get there — leaving behind all this thick human comforting mess. It might seem bleak from this side, sad, ruling out truly personal relations. I’m not sure it can accommodate romantic love as we ordinarily conceive it. But it would not touch a capacity for compassion, and it would not eliminate reactive attitudes like gratitude, it would just change them deeply from within. It would turn them from moral to aesthetic attitudes. Which, in the end, is all they can properly be.

Tamler: Really—romantic love is out? I would have thought that love of all kinds remained more or less intact. Why is it necessary to believe in DMR in order to experience romantic love?

Galen: Well, with a philosopher’s caution, I said romantic love as we ordinarily conceive it. That’s because I think the romantic love as we ordinarily conceive it requires the possibility of feeling gratitude, real, freedom-presupposing gratitude, gratitude that has not been deeply changed into a merely aesthetic feeling. That’s what I argued in the last chapter of my book Freedom and Belief, anyway. But I don’t actually think that romantic love, love for a specific individual rather than Christian love, general beneficence, requires the possibility of feeling gratitude. I think it’s the same as it was for Michel de Montaigne and his famous profound friendship with Etienne de la Boétie, who died young. When he was asked why their friendship was as it was he simply said: ‘Because it was him, because it was me’. Same with love. This seems to me deep and true.

OK, I’ve answered your question, or I’ve tried to answer it. Now you must answer my question. Will you or won’t you press that button?

Tamler: I think I’d definitely press it, if I had the option of coming back. The one thing I worry about (more than loss of romantic love) is loss of the ability to enjoy sports. That’s the one area of my life where I set all theory aside. When the Red Sox lose, someone’s to blame!

Galen: The way I imagine it you don’t have the option of coming back — but OK, just this once, just for you. But I won’t be expecting you back. And you and the Red Sox will be just fine.

© Tamler Sommers , Duke University, 2/10/2003