Home        Center for Naturalism       Applied Naturalism        Spirituality       Philosophy 



Dan Dennett reviews Sam Harris's Free Will

The Nonsense of Free Will by Richard Oerton

The Ego Trick by Julian Baggini, reviewed by Juno Walker

Against Moral Responsibility by Bruce Waller

Free Will by Sam Harris, reviewed by Juno Walker

The New Atheism by Victor Stenger, reviewed by Yonatan Fishman

The Recalcitrant Imago Dei: Human Persons and the Failure of Naturalism by J.P. Moreland

Addiction: A Disorder of Choice by Gene M. Heyman

The Ego Tunnel by Thomas Metzinger

Living Without God by Ronald Aronson

Naturalism by Stewart Goetz & Charles Taliaferro

The Secular Conscience by Austin Dacey

The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality by Andre Comte-Sponville

God and the New Atheism by John F. Haught

Did My Neurons Make Me Do It? by Nancey Murphy & Warren Brown

Four Views on Free Will by John Martin Fischer, Robert Kane, Derk Pereboom and Manuel Vargas

Bioethics and the Brain by Walter Glannon

Reason and Reverence by William R. Murry

Challenging Nature by Lee M. Silver

Is Nature Enough? by John F. Haught

Abortion Rights as Religious Freedom by Peter S. Wenz

The View from the Center of the Universe by Joel R. Primack and Nancy Ellen Abrams

Good and Real: Demystifying Paradoxes from Physics to Ethics by Gary L. Drescher

The Robot's Rebellion by Keith Stanovich

Atheism: A Very Short Introduction by Julian Baggini

Susan Blackmore on Consciousness

Freedom Without Responsibility by Bruce Waller

Rational Mysticism, by John Horgan

Reason and Practice: A Modern Introduction to Philosophy, by Kai Nielsen

The Problem of the Soul, by Owen Flanagan

The Illusion of Conscious Will, by Daniel Wegner

Placing Blame, by Michael Moore

Addiction is a Choice, by Jeffrey A. Schaler

B.F. Skinner: A Reappraisal, by Marc Richelle

The Natural Selection of Autonomyby Bruce Waller

Skeptics and True Believers: The Exhilarating Connection Between Science and Religionby Chet Raymo



Bioethics and the Brain

by Walter Glannon

Author Posting. (c) Taylor & Francis, 2007. This is the author's version of the work. It is posted here by permission of Taylor & Francis for personal use, not for redistribution. The definitive version was published in The American Journal of Bioethics, Volume 7 Issue 5, May 2007.doi:10.1080/15265160701372609 (

If the burden of applied ethics is to decide how we should treat one another in various contexts, then neuroethics raises a particularly interesting set of questions. Neuroscience finds no evidence for a soul or mental essence, so the person – the object of moral concern and source of action – must be a construction in some sense. The self becomes the target of analysis (Farah and Heberlein 2007) and thus deconstructable, mutable, perhaps even improvable according to some standard. If so, how do we defend its inviolability and authenticity? If persons can be understood as the emergent result of neurally instantiated sub-personal processes, are we permitted more latitude in fixing moral defects by medical means?

In Bioethics and the Brain, Walter Glannon takes up these challenges and many others, considered in the context of emerging technologies such as neuroimaging, drug therapy, psychosurgery and brain stimulation. Neuromedicine is improving, but as Glannon reminds us, we’re far from a complete understanding the mechanisms underlying personhood and behavior. We must proceed conservatively, therefore, in prescribing treatments that rely on a still nascent brain science. His paramount concern is the rights and welfare of those undergoing interventions that might affect the substrate of self, whether they be patients or inmates. We should keep the Brave New World at arm’s length.

Glannon provides an overview of brain physiology and function, moves quickly to philosophical considerations of mind, consciousness, self and personhood, and thence to well documented discussions of a host of cutting-edge neuroethical issues. These include (just to mention a few) the therapeutic manipulation of memory, the paradoxes of placebo use, the behavioral control of criminals, the possibly spiritual benefits of transcranial magnetic stimulation, and the biological criteria of death. In each case Glannon brings his philosophical framework to bear, weighs the risks and benefits of interventions, and makes concrete recommendations, most of which seem well-reasoned and defensible. All this makes the book a valuable resource for those wanting a survey of current (and future) neuroethical concerns, and a clear viewpoint against which to test their own intuitions and reasoning.

Glannon’s perspective is broadly physicalist and emergentist: although mental capacities aren’t straightforwardly reducible to neural operations, mind and personhood nevertheless depend on what the brain, modulated by the body and environment, does. Such dependence inevitably raises issues of free will and moral responsibility. Glannon aligns himself with philosophical compatibilists, who accept some type of physicalism yet find sufficient basis for responsibility in our capacities for self-control (Fischer and Ravizza 1998). Such responsibility is compatible with the fact that the operations of the brain, although dauntingly complex, are most likely deterministic. We remain moral agents with robust rights and responsibilities even though we’re completely caused creatures. Compatibilism thus secures the physically instantiated person as a source of responsible action and a legitimate object of moral concern against the threat of “creeping mechanism” (Dennett 1988). This conclusion is of the first importance, given that neuroscience will likely make the cause and effect relations between brain, mind and behavior ever more transparent.

But if the self survives scientific analysis, the immaterial soul doesn’t, which means that the integrity of persons – now understood as neural constructions, not essences – is obviously at risk from interventions that target the brain. Glannon is concerned to protect the self and its identity as we seek to cure diseases, treat behavioral disorders and perhaps even rehabilitate inmates using the latest neurotechnology. But the question then becomes how and where to draw the line between interventions that restore the peripheral characteristics and capacities of persons, and those that alter persons themselves. That there might not be a bright line doesn’t obviate the question.

Interventions targeting the brain, it is hoped, support the integrity of persons by restoring normal function, whether it’s been compromised by a psychiatric-behavioral disorder (anxiety, depression, OCD, PTSD, addiction) or a neurological condition (epilepsy, dementia, Parkinson’s). There are, consequently, a wide range of treatments discussed by Glannon, some accepted, some experimental, some more invasive than others, that have uncontroversially therapeutic objectives. If the (mentally competent) patient voluntarily consents and the possible benefits clearly outweigh the risks, there’s no reason to withhold treatment. Glannon is particularly helpful in sorting out hypothetical risk-benefit scenarios, giving us a wealth of neurological, medical and psychiatric detail.

But more controversial are cases in which a person’s core identity – personality, autobiographical memories, behavioral dispositions – might be affected or even become the target of interventions. For instance, should the beta-blocker propranolol be used to erase traumatic memories diagnostic of PTSD if it also affects a patient’s baseline emotional responsiveness?  As Glannon reports, the President’s Council on Bioethics “expressed concern that therapeutic forgetting could subtly reshape who we are.” [p 87] But, more concerned with alleviating suffering than maintaining a patient’s perfect self-fidelity, Glannon recommends in favor of therapy, at least in severe cases.

Even more contentious is how to treat patients and (all too often) incarcerated offenders who, although basically rational, have significant personality and impulse control disorders that put them on the cusp of the medical-moral divide. In such cases the core capacities and characteristics of the self seem pathological, in dire need of treatment, but our legal and moral tradition mandates punishment for even marginally sane offenders. As meted out in our criminal justice system, punishment all too often undermines any possibility for self-transformation, except for the worse. Glannon suggests that, as an alternative to prison, we could in some cases offer voluntary treatment with psychotropic drugs to increase the capacity for self-control, even if this might affect personality [p 102]. Indeed, fundamentally changing the person might be the very objective, in which case the medical and moral domains are fully intertwined.

Many might find this prospect disturbing, since it seems to threaten the inviolability and moral status of self. But if we are essentially neural constructions, then our moral failings – our normatively condemnable behavioral propensities – are instantiated by the brain, and thus might someday be “cured” with the right sort of interventions. Why not do so, with informed consent? And if persons can be fixed, do they still deontologically deserve punishment for their misdeeds (Greene and Cohen 2004)?  

This raises the issue of whether there’s an autonomous moral domain that validates the intuition that basically sane individuals shouldn’t be fixed (they aren’t really broken, are they?), but only praised or blamed (Sher 2006). Glannon says that once conjured into existence by neurons, persons come to have their own irreducibly reasons-based, socially responsive and thus perhaps specifically moral capacities. But his physicalist compatibilism means that such capacities, for instance to resist a depraved impulse, can’t transcend the (likely) deterministic workings of our brains and bodies. The moral dimension of behavior is thus a person-level descriptive and explanatory framework operating over what neuroscience reveals as a mechanistic causal system. However, having rid the machine of its ghost, we might wonder in what sense complex biological processes such as ourselves deserve to be punished instead of (voluntarily) improved, should this become possible. Since we can’t live without making person-level normative judgments about behavior, we remain moral agents, even if we are mechanisms (Clark 2006). But a mature neuroethics, which Glannon does much to advance, might nevertheless challenge some of our deepest moral intuitions.

 TWC May, 2007 


Clark, T. 2006. Holding mechanisms responsible. Medical Ethics 13(3): 10-11.

Dennett, D. 1988. Quining qualia. In Consciousness in Contemporary Science, ed. A. Marcel and E. Bisiach. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Farah, J., and A. Heberlein. 2007. Personhood and neuroscience: naturalizing or nihilating?  American Journal of Bioethics 7(1): 37-48.

Fischer, J., and M. Ravizza. 1998. Responsibility and Control: A Theory of Moral Responsibility. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Greene, J., and J. Cohen. 2004. For the law, neuroscience changes nothing, and everything. Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological sciences 359: 1775-1785.

Sher, G. 2006. In Praise of Blame. Oxford: Oxford University Press.



Abortion Rights as Religious Freedom

by Peter S. Wenz

The suspicion that Roe v. Wade was wrongly decided haunts many of those committed to a woman’s right to choose. What if critics are correct, and there is no fundamental constitutional right to privacy or liberty that guarantees legal abortion?  Should the pro-choice forces pack it in, or might there be other constitutional grounds for their position?    

In his book Abortion Rights as Religious Freedom (Temple University Press, 1992), philosopher Peter Wenz argues that Roe was in fact wrongly decided. But he makes a strong case that there’s another basis for the conclusions of Roe, to be found in the First Amendment’s separation of church and state. This is that there are no good secular reasons to think that a fetus before the 21st week is a person, in which case to assert the fetus's personhood (and its right to life) before that time is a matter of religious belief. This in turn means that statutes which prohibit abortion in early stages of pregnancy violate the First Amendment because they establish religion, hence are unconstitutional.   

Wenz builds his case carefully, first setting out a theory of constitutional interpretation that avoids the pitfalls of what he calls the extreme Liberal and extreme Conservative views. He applies his theory in a telling critique of Roe, finding that Justice Blackmun’s privacy rationale for abortion rights is shaky, and that Justice Stewart’s liberty rationale based in “substantive due process,” although somewhat better, still permits judges to read their own values into the Constitution. (Not being an expert in constitutional law, I won’t hazard an opinion on whether Wenz is right about this.)

Wenz’s alternative rationale depends on his claim that beliefs about fetal personhood are inherently religious. His strategy is to define religious beliefs in contrast to secular beliefs, where the latter are “all those agreements of belief, thought, and practice that are the basis of the cooperation and mutual understanding needed among people to maintain and perpetuate our society” (112).  Further, secular beliefs are defined epistemologically as those “supported cogently by the use of common sense, science, technology, or accepted scientific methodologies” (112-113). In contrast, religious beliefs, e.g., belief in god, “are those that cannot be supported cogently with arguments or demonstrations whose premises only include secular beliefs,” so they lack the epistemic support derived from science and commonsense. There are also, he argues, uncontroversial, shared secular values, such as health, liberty, and equal opportunity. Such values might find expression in religious beliefs, but they are secular insofar as they don’t depend on such beliefs for support, but are simply basic to the character of our society.  

Wenz cites Supreme Court decisions that suggest this religious-secular distinction indeed operates in mainstream constitutional law involving church-state separation. Precedents based on the First Amendment Establishment Clause are embodied in what’s become known as the Lemon Test. In Justice Burger’s words from Lemon vs. Kurtzman, a statute  must 1) “have a secular legislative purpose” 2) its “principal or primary effect must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion” and 3) “the statute must not foster ‘an excessive government entanglement with religion.’” 

With all this in hand, the final step in Wenz’s argument is the claim that beliefs about fetal personhood, like beliefs in god, are inherently religious, that is, not decidable by appeal to science, commonsense, or shared secular values. People might agree on all the physical and psychological (hence secular) facts about an early stage fetus: its biology, level of sentience, viability, etc. But they might (and often do) disagree about personhood, in which case there’s no secular fact of the matter about personhood that can be established. There is, for instance, no fact that can tell us whether the essence of personhood is to have human DNA, or whether it's the potential to become a newborn, both of which have been adduced as grounds for fetal personhood. So even though the claim about personhood (pro or con) might seem perfectly factual to the disputants, there’s really no deciding secular fact they can appeal to. Thus, beliefs about fetal personhood are inherently religious, since, according to Wenz’s schema, religious beliefs are just those which are not decidable on secular grounds.

The personhood of later stage fetuses which are sufficiently like born infants (who are uncontroversially persons, given the secular moral consensus which requires the protection of newborns), is decidable on secular grounds, just because such similarity is sufficient to establish personhood, says Wenz. He draws the line (inevitably somewhat arbitrary) at the 21st week, before which fetuses don’t have “one or more basic systems that newborns have and use” (179, 181). So restrictions on abortions after the 21st week are permissible, according to Wenz, but before that time they run afoul of the First Amendment Establishment Clause: since there’s no good secular rationale for restricting early stage abortions, such restrictions amount to the establishment of religion.

The most problematic feature of Wenz’s strategy (and it isn’t that problematic) is his implicit claim that no valid secular argument will ever be forthcoming to justify the ascription of personhood to fetuses before the 21st week. This is an empirical claim, the evidence for which is simply that no such argument has yet been produced. Those defending the right to abortion based on Wenz’s strategy must assume the burden of refuting all arguments purporting to show, on secular grounds, that the fetus is a person, or at least rendering them inconclusive and thus religious by definition. That there are no irrefutable secular grounds for fetal personhood is, I think, an extremely good bet (see here), but defenders of the right to choose on First Amendment grounds must stay on their toes (as does Richard Carrier in a debate with an anti-choice secularist).

In his book, Wenz painstakingly dissects a host of arguments and counter-arguments about fundamental rights, judicial activism, fetal viability, potentiality, consequentialism, limitations on abortion, and other related matters. So even if you end up disagreeing with him, you’ll get a valuable education in the constitutional law of religion and abortion rights.  Abortion Rights as Religious Freedom connects two issues of paramount concern to progressive naturalists (not to mention progressives of other stripes): the separation of church and state, and a woman’s right to choose. For this reason alone Wenz’s book deserves a wide audience, especially at a time when Roe is in danger of being reversed. 

TWC 9/06




The View from the Center of the Universe

by Joel R. Primack and Nancy Ellen Abrams

reviewed by Joseph Hilbe


The View From the Center of the Universe is quite different from most volumes on cosmology. Its goal is not primarily to present an overview of contemporary scientific cosmological thought, but rather to urge readers to adopt a type of naturalistic religion. The authors believe that ancient societies and the people in them benefited from cosmologies -- synonymous with their religions -- that made them central to the cosmos. Such centrality conferred social solidarity, meaning, and an emotionally satisfying story of the origins of the world and society.

This relationship between the cosmos and society changed with the emergence of monotheism and later with the 17th century scientific revolution. Currently, most educated individuals think of the universe as a vast impersonal repository of galaxies, stars, planets, and comets. Mankind is no longer central to existence, but rather a tiny speck in the cosmos. You and I live on a small planet encircling a medium-sized and aging star -- one of some 100 billion in our galaxy alone. And our galaxy is but one of some 100 billion galaxies situated in the observable universe - which is itself thought to be a small section of the universe as a whole. Moreover, if we in fact live in an eternal inflationary universe as envisioned by Alan Guth and many other scientific cosmologists, our universe -- the one emanating from the Big Bang some 13.7 billion years ago -- is just one of an infinite number of universes.

The authors - Joel Primack, Professor of Physics at the University of Santa Cruz in California and his wife Nancy Abrams, a lawyer by trade, but science writer by avocation - want us to discard this impersonal view of the universe and of our relationship with it. They yearn for us to once again find in the cosmos the source of human meaning and purpose.  How?  By rediscovering our centrality. 

To make their case, they point out that human beings are half-way in size between the Planck length (10^-33 cm) and the cosmic horizon (10^28 cm). Humanity exists half-way from the birth of the sun and its predicted demise, and so forth. But of course there are a great many human-cosmic relationships in which mankind is in no sense the half-way point or center. Strangely, the authors argue that the Milky Way is at the center of the universe. They think this because all galaxies appear to be receding from us, or rather, from our Local Group, no matter what direction we look. But this would be the case for intelligent beings observing other galaxies from any location in the universe. We are not in fact, even though we may be appear to be, at the literal center of anything.

Although the authors want us to return to the mindset of the ancients with respect to the cosmos, they don’t want us to become polytheists. Nor do they want us to abandon empirical science in favor of mythology or belief in a transcendent Abrahamic God. Instead, they emphasize the importance of creating a society that both reveres and engages in science, so that scientific cosmology might someday serve as the basis for a natural religion.

They fully realize that many people still think in pre-scientific terms. Perhaps a majority of those living in the US, or at least a majority of Christians, believe the universe and Earth were created by god some six thousand years ago. Such people love the technological comforts that science has given us, but often disdain the knowledge behind the technology. In any event, the authors see that in order for cosmology to become the religion of the future, it must be recast in terms of easily communicated symbols and metaphor in order for the “masses” to accept it.

They also believe that our current mentality, in which scientific advances have outstripped normative thinking, and which separates human values from nature, may be leading our species to extinction. We know a great deal about the world, but not what to do with it. They argue, sensibly, that we need to conserve natural resources; we need to attune ourselves as individuals and as a world-wide society to the long-term needs of our species.  Seeing ourselves as central to the cosmos, or at least as an integral part of it, may help inspire such a shift in perspective.

But it's a stretch to suppose that many in the US will abandon their current other-worldly religious beliefs for a cosmological religion, at least any time soon. This is a society of American Idol and Brittney Spears, not one to revere the universe, however artfully it’s symbolized and even if it’s human-centered. It is highly unlikely that most Christians will abandon their belief in a personal afterlife in favor of a more abstract unity with nature. The desire for personal immortality is too powerful, especially in a society so steeped in individualism.

Still, this book has a natural audience. Members of groups wishing to conjoin science and religion (an increasingly popular endeavor) will likely find it stimulating. They will appreciate the information provided about cosmology, which the authors do a good job in presenting, as well the images and symbolism throughout the text. And the thesis about our cosmic centrality will likely appeal to many not bound to traditional religion. However, most scientists and people of a more skeptical bent will likely want to pass on it, reserving their reading time for books like Vilenkin (2006) and Greene (2004). 

References and related readings:

Capra, Fritiof (1975), The Tao of Physics, Boston: Shambala Publications.
Davies, Paul (1984), God and the New Physics: New York: Simon & Schuster.
Goswami, Amit (1995), The Self-Aware Universe, New York: Tarcher.
Greene, Brian (2004), The Fabric of the Cosmos, New York: Random House.
Kafatos, Menes and Robert Nadeau, (1990) The Conscious Universe, New York:
Lidsey, James (2000), The Bigger Bang, New York: Cambridge University Press.
Mctaggart, Lynne (2003), The Field: The Quest for the Secret Force of the Universe,
        New York, NY: Harper.
Randall, Lisa (2005), Warped Passages. New York: Ecco.
Smolin, Lee (2000), Three Roads to Quantum Gravity, Oxford, UK: Oxford Univ. Press.
Stenger, Victor (2003), Has Science Found God, Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.
Vilenkin, Alex (2006), Many Worlds in One, New York: Hill & Wang.
Webb, Stephen (2004), Out of This World, New York: Copernicus Books.

- Joseph Hilbe, 9/06 





Good and Real
Demystifying Paradoxes from Physics to Ethics

by  Gary L. Drescher

Promoting a thorough-going naturalism is a fraught business. Explain to people that they are fully natural, caused creatures, that they don’t have contra-causal free will, and they often suppose you’re dallying with fatalism. Explain that there is no provable basis for morality outside the natural world, and they often assume you’re a moral relativist or nihilist. Put another way, it’s the threats to human efficacy and ethics that most trouble those encountering naturalism. How can we construe human choices as anything but illusory if all we do is fully determined?  How can we judge behavior right or wrong if there are no supernatural ethical foundations

In Good and Real (MIT Press, 2006), computer scientist and independent scholar Gary Drescher mounts a mind-bending attack on these and other problems that arise when commonsense conflicts with the science-based view that we inhabit a purely physical, mechanistic, deterministic universe. (Please fasten your seatbelts.) Establishing that we are in such a universe is just one of his projects, set forth in a chapter called “Quantum Certainty.” Drescher explains and defends Hugh Everett’s relative-state interpretation of quantum mechanics in which there is no collapse of the waveform and in which the evolution of the (locally branching) universe in configuration space is fully deterministic. This unflinching fidelity to the mathematical quantum formalism is quite the opposite of pop-quantum physics, for instance as popularized by the film What the Bleep Do We Know, which gives the putatively undetermined conscious observer a special role in “creating” reality by collapsing the waveform. Here as elsewhere in the book Drescher draws a tough-minded, unpopular conclusion: sorry, we don’t create our own reality. 

Nor is consciousness something that transcends mechanism. Rather, Drescher explains in “Dust to Lust,” it’s what happens when a representational system goes recursive and starts taking its own episodes of representing as objects of further representation.  Consciousness isn’t something extra generated by recursion, it is recursion (of a particular type), and so not anything that can’t be instantiated by a sufficiently complex mechanism, for instance ourselves. Many readers will object to such a characterization: after all, we’re not just machines, are we?  Well yes, we’re organic machines, choice machines in fact, Drescher says, whose consciousness and rationality can best be explained as the complex deterministic functionality of achieving goal states that have many sub-goals. Sticking with science, there’s no reason to suppose we’re animated by something non-physical in our goal-seeking behavior, since that assumption does no explanatory work. It’s here that many will likely part company with Drescher, and hold out for extra-scientific claims about our cognitive capacities, for instance that consciousness transcends the brain. Such claims support a more “optimistic” view about human exceptionalism, in which our choices have contra-causal leverage over the world. But this refuses to let empirical findings drive our conclusions about reality – a no-no of the first order for naturalists like Drescher.

The discussions of consciousness and quantum physics are joined by a consideration of time in the chapter “Going Without the Flow.” Drescher reminds us that, according to 100 year-old standard physics, all events are sitting statically in four dimensional space-time. The past, present and future just are – there is no cursor moving forward along the time dimension that temporarily endows each moment with reality. All moments are equally real, which means that the future is there, “waiting” to be discovered by consciousness, not created de novo by human action. Now we start to see the problem for our standard intuition about human efficacy: if the future is inalterable, aren’t choices futile? 

Before tackling this problem, Drescher explains how the illusory impression of the flow of time arises, and further, given that basic physical laws don’t specify a temporal direction, why it is we only observe events evolving forward in time, not backwards. As is often the case in this book, readers will find the explanations challenging; not because the writing isn’t lucid (it is, and often entertaining) but simply due to the conceptual complexity and counterintuitiveness of the material, which sometimes translates, inevitably, into what are politely referred to as technicalities. Although the gist of his conclusions can be grasped without tangling with the tough parts, to decide if he’s right requires you grapple with them.

The last third of Good and Real is devoted to the twin problems of choice and ethics in a deterministic universe, and if your mind isn’t already stretched, this will definitely do the trick. If we are choice machines, whose every decision is etched inalterably in the space-time manifold, and whose consciousness isn’t privileged in creating reality, why bother to act for the sake of what already exists?  Part of the answer is relatively straightforward: if we didn't bother to engage in choice making behavior, which ordinarily includes considering alternative possibilities, then we wouldn't be as likely to achieve our goals. And choices needn't involve our being causal exceptions to nature:

Thus choice…is a mechanical process compatible with determinism: choice is a process of examining assertions about what would be the case if this or that action were taken, and then selecting an action according to a preference about what would be the case. The objection The agent didn’t really make a choice, because the outcome was already predetermined is as much a non sequitur as the objection The motor didn’t really exert force, because the outcome was already predetermined…Both choice making and motor spinning are particular kinds of mechanical processes. In neither case does the predetermination of the outcome imply that the process didn’t really take place. (p. 192, original italics) 

But the rest of Drescher’s answer takes us way down the rabbit hole, first by means of the seemingly innocent example of safely crossing the street, followed by his solution to Newcomb’s Problem, a notorious thought experiment about choice and prediction that has divided philosophers for decades. It turns out, says Drescher, that it makes sense to act as if your choice had an effect on conditions preceding the choice, even though there’s no causal link between your choice and those conditions. There exists what he calls a subjunctive means-end relation, a non-causal link between action and desired states of affairs. Therefore, Drescher argues, it can be rational to act for the sake of states of affairs that you know already obtain. If this seems completely counter-intuitive, join the club. Making it intuitive or at least logically transparent is Drescher’s goal, which in my case was not achieved, at least at first pass (which says nothing about whether he’s correct, since it will likely take several passes to fully understand the argument).

The capstone of Drescher’s tour de force is to apply the rationality of appreciating subjunctive means-ends relations to the classic problem of the Prisoner’s Dilemma, and from that derive an ethics grounded in enlightened self-interest. Agents caught in the dilemma who are smart enough to grasp the reality of subjunctive means-ends links will see that it’s in their best interest to cooperate, not defect. This insight, generalized, becomes the rational basis for Kant’s categorical imperative and the golden rule. Unlike Kant, however, Drescher posits nothing beyond the physical space-time continuum and goal-seeking choice machines (us) to establish this most basic ethical maxim. So, perhaps, he has fully naturalized it.

The scope of Drescher’s ambition in this volume will not have escaped the reader. But he doesn’t come across as ambitious or overbearing, just curious and relentlessly logical, wanting to get to the bottom of the best puzzles that unvarnished reality offers. That he ventures into such diverse territory might make specialists suspicious, but Drescher seems to have done his homework. Deciding whether he’s right in any given instance will, however, require a close reading of his arguments and an evaluation of his evidentiary basis, for instance in consciousness studies, physics, game theory, and behavioral economics. Many of us non-specialists will likely have to reserve judgment, but can we suppose that standard intuitions about choice and reality, comforting though they be, are better than Drescher’s carefully thought out if counterintuitive conclusions? Here are the big questions, addressed by a gifted, independent-minded thinker, made real for us in all their perplexity, and it’s good that we should catch at least a glimpse of naturalistic answers that form a satisfying whole. A deterministic, godless universe can, it seems, offer a sufficient basis for human efficacy and ethics.  

Note:  Gary Drescher’s first book, on artificial intelligence, is Made-Up Minds, MIT Press.

Full disclosure: Drescher counts himself an ally of naturalism, and he spoke for Cambridge Saloon Salon in June, 2006 at the invitation of the Center for Naturalism. 

And another recommendation:  “A breathtakingly original assault on all the Big Issues!  When philosophers get stuck in ruts, it often takes a brilliant outsider to jolt them onto new ground, and Gary Drescher, coming to philosophy from AI, offers a startling feast of new ideas.” – Daniel Dennett (from the book jacket)

TWC 7/06


Brief Review:

The Robot's Rebellion

by Keith Stanovich

In The Robot’s Rebellion, Canadian psychologist Keith Stanovich conducts a fascinating exploration of how we might transcend our role as replicators for “selfish” genes. If, as Richard Dawkins puts it, we’re “lumbering robots” deployed by DNA, then our dignity and autonomy might come from rebelling against the impersonal forces that created us. We can, in effect, tell our genes to go jump in the lake (as Steven Pinker suggests we do in How the Mind Works), and live for ourselves. Following Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Susan Blackmore, Stanovich points out that we also inadvertently serve selfish memes – beliefs and cultural practices which replicate in human brains, with sometimes disastrous results for the host (think ideologically motivated suicide bombers). We must take to the streets against both genes and memes, carving out our own interests. Seeing our fully natural status is the first step: what Dennett calls the “universal acid” of Darwinism dissolves the traditional supernatural notions of soul and free will. Then, we rationally critique our motives and behavior to discover which best serve our purposes, not the goals installed in us by genes and culture.

But what are our purposes, anyway, and can we really separate them from what we’ve been “designed” to want?  For instance, the very desire for autonomy might be built into us, a trait derived from being descendents of those that won the competition for status, resources, and reproductive opportunities. Wanting to be your own man or woman, not a creature of the herd, is after all simply another description of being a leader: someone who, by virtue of derring do, ultimately gets more goods than her followers. Further, in our Western, radically individualist culture, personal autonomy is the Grand Meme par excellence: “Be all that you can be”, “I did it my way”, “God bless the child who’s got his own”, etc, etc. So it can be argued that the robot’s rebellion is just a further expression of genetic and memetic imperatives, playing themselves out in our doomed quest for independence. 

No matter. According to Stanovich, the project of cognitive reform he recommends won’t necessarily reach a stable, satisfying conclusion. Rather, it’s the project of rational self-investigation itself that’s the point – our point –  that which most distinguishes us reflective human beings from blind nature and culture. Once embarked on, we can call anything and everything into question, at the same time knowing that that the very desire to question is the outcome of factors that we, the products of genes and society, never consciously chose. Perhaps more than anything else, it’s knowing that we are not ultimately self-made or autonomous that paradoxically most gives us autonomy.  Or if you don’t buy that, you might agree that knowing the truth about ourselves is at least a necessary precondition of authenticity.

The Robot’s Rebellion is a terrific, no-holds-barred grappling with the profound implications of seeing ourselves as completely natural creatures, and a call to become fully conscious of this truth about ourselves. It’s been widely reviewed, see here, including a nice notice by Susan Blackmore, about whom see below, two reviews down.

TWC, 7/06



Brief Review:

Atheism: A Very Short Introduction

by Julian Baggini

Philosopher Julian Baggini, an editor of Philosophers' Magazine and a contributor to Butterflies and Wheels ("fighting fashionable nonsense"), has written a necessarily brief but very useful and engaging book, Atheism: A Very Short Introduction.  One of the Very Short Introductions series, it fits easily in your back pocket, a nice little red book of atheism that covers a good deal more than just the basics, with suggestions for further reading.  Baggini is a gifted writer - precise, even-handed, insightful - who puts atheism in the wider philosophical context of science, physicalism, rationalism (small-r) and naturalism.  He shows atheism to be a consequence of naturalism, which is in turn based in a commitment to myth-supplanting rationality, "which confines itself to reasons, evidence and arguments, that are open to scrutiny, assessment, acceptance or rejection, on the basis of principles and facts which are available to all."

       Baggini addresses the big questions of ethics, meaning, and purpose, showing that atheists are at no disadvantage in being able to live meaningful and moral lives.  Although he makes an excellent case for atheism as the mature, reality-based acceptance that we inhabit a natural universe unsupervised by a supernatural intelligence, he wisely refrains from taking a militant anti-religious stance.  Those of us with a strong preference for evidence-based beliefs will not win converts by contemptuous assaults on theistic assumptions.  As he puts it, "Religion will recede not by atheists shouting condemnation, but by the quiet voice of reason slowly making itself heard."  I would only suggest that it isn't really religion that should recede, since there are religious naturalists out there who share Baggini's commitment to evidence and rationality.  Rather, it's non-evidential faith that stands most opposed to a naturalistic enlightenment.  And indeed it's faith that Baggini most calls into question.  Despite its brevity, his book is a well-crafted, illuminating resource for those seeking to champion a humane atheism. 




Susan Blackmore on Consciousness

Consciousness: An Introduction - softcover, 459 pages

Consciousness: A Very Short Introduction - softcover, 146 pages

Conversations on Consciousness: What the Best Minds Think about the Brain, Free Will, and What It Means to Be Human - hardcover, 274 pages

For the philosophically inclined
, the mind-body problem has special attraction just because it’s so intractable.  How can Hercule Poirot’s “little grey cells” produce, generate, or entail in some sense or another conscious experiences, such as pain, taste, and color?  Poirot’s problem-solving ability is one thing, his phenomenal experience quite another, perhaps. Considering this problem the “hard problem” of consciousness as it’s now called – our concepts of the mental and physical collide and produce intense puzzlement.  But apart from the intellectual pleasures of trying to solve this conundrum, why should we care about the relation of mind to body?  One answer is that commonsense dualism about consciousness – that it involves something categorically mental or non-physical – is perhaps the last barrier to a fully naturalistic understanding of ourselves.  If we could integrate consciousness into the rest of science, then we’d see we’re all-natural creatures, not partly ethereal or supernatural.  And the full naturalization of human nature might have considerable personal, moral and even spiritual implications, which is why, ultimately, we might care about consciousness.

Susan Blackmore, researcher and writer on consciousness, cares in this sense, which gives her three books a personal and engaging touch, even though they have very different formats. Consciousness is just weird, she admits (if you're not puzzled by it, you haven't seen the problem), and she cheerfully but relentlessly shows that commonsense ways of thinking about it fail miserably, and that some standard philosophical approaches are likely flawed.  In particular, she believes mind-body dualism of any sort is dead, a non-starter. But then how can phenomenal experience – the smell of a rose – be the same thing, for instance, as a set of representational functions carried out by the brain?  It isn’t at all clear.  Nor is it clear we’re even conscious in the way it seems, with a definitive set of conscious contents always on display, so to speak, from moment to moment.  But what is clear on Blackmore’s account is that we unequivocally do undergo, sometimes, experiences, such as pain, pleasure, emotions and other sensory episodes, the basic qualitative elements of which philosophers call qualia.  However skeptical she might be of the continuity and specificity of consciousness, Blackmore is a qualia realist: there is something “it is like” to be conscious that’s a legitimate target for scientific explanation.  That explanation might ultimately show qualia to be in some sense the same thing as cognitive functions or representations or affordances to action, but at this stage of the explanatory game we’re not entitled to dismiss them as non-existent.  And how could we?  Is there anything that compels belief more than the undeniable reality of excruciating pain?  

Blackmore rightly sees that the mind-body problem is wrapped up intimately with the questions of the self and free will, and of course these issues hit us where we live.  Most of us, perhaps, have the sense of a unitary self that has experience, that controls behavior, that looks out at the world.  But what, if anything, is the subject that feels, tastes, sees, decides, and wills?  If we question mind-brain dualism and conclude that the brain runs the show, what role do consciousness and the consciously willing self play in behavior?  If the self is an experienced construction of the brain, and not in charge of anything, then who am I, really?  And how, if the brain and body are fully physical, deterministic systems, as seems the case, do we construe moral responsibility?  Can we get along without the idea of a contra-causally free will?  Such questions show the true bite of the puzzle of consciousness, and by giving them prominence in a way that most other consciousness researchers have not, Blackmore conveys the significance of the mind-body problem. 

Consciousness: An Introduction, published first (2003), is as close to multi-media as a paperbound text can be, pitched to the non-specialist student seeking immediate, full sensory immersion in the subject.  Do you want to know the major players in consciousness studies and their pet theories?  Want a taste of the brain science behind the theories, and their intellectual history?  Want first-person exercises that make the weirdness of consciousness palpable?  Want the full catastrophe of the mind-body problem laid out in 9 major sections and 27 chapters, from qualia to evolution to free will to artificial intelligence to altered states to Buddhism to meditation?  It’s all here with lots of graphics, sidebars, cartoons - a very diverting and detailed survey that conveys a lot of science and philosophy in its historical and cultural context.  Blackmore’s approach here and in her other books is delightfully clear, direct, and jargon-free. It’s also personal, letting her enthusiasm and puzzlement show so readers won’t feel alone in their quandaries.  The experiential encounter with consciousness is on practically every page of this text, which nicely motivates the theoretical material, which is largely non-technical but not oversimplified.  For those wanting to delve deeper, further readings are suggested in each chapter, and Blackmore provides an extensive bibliography. 

Next out is Consciousness: A Very Short Introduction (2005), one of the Oxford very short introduction series.  Compared to the Introduction above, it’s very short indeed, but for those wanting a quick tour of the hard problem and its ramifications, it’s just the ticket.  Again, Blackmore does a great job of motivating the problem, of zeroing in on the essential puzzlement, such that the reader will likely get caught up in the fascinating project of sorting out just where the puzzle lies.  Here’s a key question: “Is consciousness an essential ingredient that we humans have in addition to our abilities of perceiving, thinking, and feeling, or is it an intrinsic and inseparable part of being a creature that can perceive and think and feel?”  Many would suppose the former, in that as philosopher David Chalmers points out, we can conceive of smart creatures (the philosopher’s zombie) that function just as well as we do, but that have no inner, conscious lives.  But in that case, why would evolution have bothered to install consciousness?  To be selected for, consciousness as a distinct phenomenon in it’s own right would have to serve a distinct and valuable function, but all functions we can understand are carried out by the physical brain.  This casts doubt on the first alternative, and as Blackmore shows, it also casts doubt on the role of consciousness as something categorically mental which could control behavior, or that could have free will, or be an essential self. A Very Short Introduction challenges both traditional and more modern dualisms, but also shows the conceptual and personal difficulties involved in monism: how can consciousness just be the brain, or some of its functions?  Why should cognitive abilities entail a mental life?  And if there is no soul, substantial self, or free will, how do we proceed in being human? Blackmore is refreshingly candid in confronting such issues head on, and takes the position that from the perspective of science and philosophy, commonsense about consciousness, the self, and human agency is deeply wrong.  The readers of this well-designed back-pocket book will be very quickly catapulted into some of the most profound and disturbing questions we have the privilege of asking. 

Most recent is Conversations on Consciousness (2006) in which Blackmore interrogates 20 mind-body experts - philosophers, neuroscientists, psychologists, and various hybrids. The resulting conversations have been transcribed nearly verbatim, so we get data on theories of consciousness and personalities, including Blackmore’s.  She doesn’t stand on ceremony, is persistent, probing, honest about her puzzlements, and happy to defend her own views if the occasion arises, which once or twice creates a bit of friction (beware the baroness!). The basic questions repeat for each interview, which provides the glue, but there’s plenty of spontaneous variety in the interactions to hold our interest.  Each subject gets to present a thumbnail sketch of their take on consciousness, but also on the self, free will, life after death and the personal impact of having investigated consciousness.  So again, Blackmore insists on the relevance of consciousness studies for our lives.  Most agree that the problem of qualia – phenomenal consciousness – is the central conundrum, but the proposed solutions differ drastically.  So, we get a taste of nearly all the major alternative explanations in the running, such as David Chalmers’ naturalistic dualism, Dennett’s deflationary qualia irrealism, Roger Penrose and Stuart Hameroff’s quantum proto-consciousness, mainstream varieties of functionalism and representationalism such as Thomas Metzinger’s self-model theory of subjectivity, the anti-functionalism of Ned Block and John Searle, the anti-representationalism of Kevin O’Regan, and others not easily categorized. No one claims to have definitively solved the mind-body problem, but some are quite sure that their rivals are barking up the wrong theoretical tree.  Most philosophical technicalities are by-passed in these conversations, keeping them accessible to the non-specialist, but reading Consciousness: A Very Short Introduction first wouldn’t hurt.   

The mind-body problem is fascinating in part because it’s inherently transdisciplinary, drawing together philosophy, neuroscience, cognitive psychology and (some think) fundamental physics.  Once gripped by the puzzle of consciousness, as is Blackmore, the poor victim is forced to consider a vast landscape of conceptual possibilities and empirical data, and embark on a first-personal phenomenological investigation to boot. That’s exactly the burden of these books, and Blackmore is a model victim: knowledgeable, completely absorbed in the problem, and honest in her reports from the front lines. To naturalize consciousness will likely require a multilevel theory, perhaps counterintuitive or non-obvious in the way that many scientific theories are, which leaves behind our intuitive conceptions of the mental and the physical, but at the same time explains why we have them.  To integrate phenomenal experience into our conception of nature may require some fancy philosophical-scientific footwork that shows how each side of intuitive mind-body dualism is a distortion of a theoretically well-grounded concept that’s fully consistent with the rest of science, for instance a concept having to do with representation, or information, or being a mobile creature interacting with an environment.  This is to say that a mature science that incorporates consciousness may not privilege either commonsense physicalism or commonsense mentalism.  Or it may turn out that the deflationists will convince us there never was a deep problem about consciousness to begin with. In any case, Blackmore’s books are a great way into the problem, whatever its eventual solution or dissolution.  But be warned: consciousness studies can be addictive. 

 TWC  3/06




Freedom Without Responsibility

by Bruce Waller

Although it's been 14 years since publication, philosopher Bruce Waller's book Freedom Without Responsibility still stands as one of the more visionary and progressive contributions to the literature on naturalism and free will.  True, the title is a bit disconcerting, connoting as it does that everything's permitted; in the next (much needed, perhaps paper) edition it could be changed to "Freedom Without Ultimate Responsibility," since that's what Waller is really getting at.  So don't be deterred - if you can find it, this is an excellent, engaging exposition of what Waller calls "no-fault naturalism" and its real-world consequences, which are considerable.  It rivals Owen Flanagan's The Problem of the Soul in its unflinching naturalism, but goes further in arguing for significant revisions in our attitudes and social practices.  It's clearly written, with most technicalities relegated to endnotes, and the examples and thought experiments nicely illustrate the arguments. 

      The responsibility at issue - what we're without, according to Waller - is a specific sort of moral responsibility, that which depends on having contra-causal freedom or free will.  If it existed, such freedom would make us ultimately responsible, since we'd originate our behavior in some crucial sense independently of non-self factors.  But since under naturalism we are not libertarian, contra-causal agents, we don't bear such ultimate responsibility for our acts.  And since we aren't morally responsible in this sense, we aren't deeply deserving of praise, punishment, or other sorts of special treatment usually thought appropriate for contra-causal agents. 

     Waller draws out the implications of denying this sort of moral responsibility, taking care to defuse some common fears and correct common misunderstandings.  Although we don't have contra-causal freedom, we are nevertheless free in the important sense that our actions ordinarily flow from our character and motives - we are proximately autonomous beings.  And we have, or take, certain important kinds of responsibility - for instance the role responsibility of carrying out the duties of various roles, e.g., mother, teacher, employee, boss, etc.  Nor do moral judgments disappear on this understanding of ourselves: we can be morally bad (or good) without being ultimately morally responsible for being bad.  But Waller rightly argues that dropping the essentially supernatural notion of libertarian free will and the cognate sense of moral responsibility does have significant implications for such things as punishment (retribution can no longer be sustained) and for social equality (no one deeply deserves to be rich or poor).  Abandoning ultimate responsibility in favor of no-fault naturalism is both fairer and more efficient in shaping virtuous behavior and societies.

     Throughout the book are perspicuous replies to many compatibilist philosophers (e.g., Harry Frankfurt, Daniel Dennett, Jonathan Glover, George Sher and Jonathan Bennett), those who try to reconcile the idea that we deeply deserve praise and punishment with our being fully natural creatures.  Waller points out that these naturalist-compatibilists tend to block full consideration of the causal story in order to portray human agents as deserving originators of behavior, not proximate causes.  They insist that the buck stops with the (fully caused) person, and that we are thus liable as morally responsible agents for the full measure of credit and blame ordinarily thought to be deserved by self-made selves.  But Waller presses the obvious question: why is it fair to praise and blame fully caused persons for the way they are, and for their actions, given that their character, motives, and thus behavior are completely shaped by factors ultimately beyond their control?

       Compatibilists might reply that it's fair to praise and blame simply as a matter of behavior control, that we can naturalize moral desert as part of a consequentialist ethical framework that guides goodness, as Steven Morse puts it.  True, people are ultimately the way they are due to factors beyond their control, but as rationally responsive agents, praise and blame work to encourage naturalistic self-control and responsible behavior.  But crucially, this is not what most compatibilists mean by fairness or desert, since for the most part they countenance categorically deontological, non-consequentialist rationales for praise and blame.  That is, their compatibilist moral responsibility still entails what moral responsibility did under the notion of supernatural contra-causal free will:  being liable for praise and blame independent of whatever consequences might ensue.  But this seems unfair and unjust, given that compatibilists agree that the contra-causal agent doesn't exist.

     By questioning standard compatibilist accounts of moral responsibility in the light of no-fault naturalism, Waller isn't giving us a get-out-of-jail-free card.  We may not be responsible in the sense of deserving rewards and sanctions independent of consequences, but of course we must still deal with morally bad agents.  However, the way we deal with them is strongly conditioned by the realization that they are not self-created, that there is a sufficient causal explanation for who and how they are, should we care to investigate.  This leads to more humane, non-retributivist, and effective approaches to preventing crime and immorality. 

    Waller's book is replete with examples of how a scientific understanding of human behavior, including Skinnerian behavior analysis, enables us to maximize our personal freedoms and our effectiveness as natural agents.  At the same time, it induces us to question many of our standard assumptions about moral desert, blame, credit and accountability in ways that are likely to produce a less punitive, more equitable society.  In fact, this brief review only scratches the surface of what Waller has to offer, both philosophically and practically.

     We might not, as Waller implies we should, necessarily drop all talk of moral responsibility as naturalistically incoherent, since there are perhaps naturalized conceptions of both morality and responsibility that, when combined, produce a naturalistically tenable idea of moral responsibility.  Such responsibility would be strictly consequentialist, non-retributive, non-ultimate and, importantly, would take a wider perspective of the agent in her environmental and genetic context.  From this perspective, moral agents exist and can be held responsible, but in ways that take full account of their antecedents, which is to say non-punitively, if at all possible, and remedially, if appropriate.  It also means that instead of focusing strictly on agents as putative originators, our responsibility practices too would widen to take on the many conditions that shape agents to begin with (e.g., the criminal justice system would expand its mission and join up with other agencies to become a crime prevention system).  Waller's book is a well-written call to arms that should get us moving in this direction, whether or not we decide to talk about moral responsibility.  It deserves (naturalistically) a wide reading, and for that to happen it needs reprinting, soon. 

TWC 11/05

Bruce Waller is author of several other books, including The Natural Selection of Autonomy, reviewed here, more recently Consider Ethics: Theory, Readings, and Contemporary Issues, and forthcoming, You Decide! Current Debates in Philosophy (Longman Publishing). 




Reason and Practice

A Modern Introduction to Philosophy

by Kai Nielsen

reviewed by Jim Farmelant

Early last June, I found in a used bookstore Kai Nielsen's 1971 philosophy textbook Reason and Practice: A Modern Introduction to Philosophy.  As far as I can tell the 1971 edition is the only one ever published.

The book itself is probably the best introductory philosophy textbook that I have ever run across.  It is clearly and lucidly written, and does not talk down to the reader.  Although it starts out by presenting arguments that are fairly easy to comprehend, as the reader proceeds through the book, she will find herself confronted with increasingly sophisticated argumentation and analysis.  Nielsen writes as an analytical philosopher, and finds nothing to be ashamed about on that score.  In the first part of the book he takes on what else, but the issue of free will versus determinism.  Nielsen, as he himself makes clear, is a determinist and a compatibilist.  But in the book he approaches the issue in a Socratic manner, first presenting Holbach's case for hard determinism, then in the following chapter presents Dostoyevsky's case for free will as irrational choice, then in the chapter after that William James' case for free will.  In the following chapters, Nielsen argues that determinism, while not conclusively demonstrable, constitutes a genuine hypothesis (that is, it is in principle falsifiable) and states why he considers it to be a reasonable hypothesis.  He argues for compatibilism, and uses that to defeat some standard objections to determinism.  He discusses the implications of determinism for issues concerning responsibility, including implications for criminal justice. 

Indeed, he devotes an entire chapter to assessing the implications of determinism for criminal justice, titled appropriately enough “Crime and Responsibility in a Deterministic World.”  There, he mounts a defense of a “soft determinism,” in which it is argued that a coherent concept of moral responsibility can be developed which is consistent with determinism.  He takes as his starting point Moritz Schlick’s classic statement of a soft determinist conception of responsibility, then presents C.A. Campbell’s famous critique of Schlick, and then develops a refined version of Schlick’s conception which he believes can withstand what Nielsen, himself, describes as Campbell’s powerful criticisms.  Schlick’s conception of responsibility, in the final analysis, equated responsibility with the alterability of one’s behavior through blame and punishment.  People’s whose behavior cannot be altered by such means are quite properly not held responsible for their actions (for instance young children, insane people, or people who are severely mentally handicapped).  As Nielsen notes, for Schlick moral responsibility and moral freedom were not only consistent with determinism, but they actually require determinism.  People are free to the extent that their behavior is not compelled or coerced.  To say that behavior is free is not to assert that it is uncaused. 

Now Campbell offered a strong critique of Schlick’s position, from the standpoint of indeterminism.  First of all, he contended that if determinism is true then it would be meaningless to speak of people as being capable of doing other than what they do.  Campbell admits that in a deterministic world, it still would be the case, if I choose to or if I want to or if I will it, I could under certain circumstances, do something different from what I in fact do.  But since the very wanting or willing is causally determined, then it is in a quite significant sense out of our hands.  Therefore, contrary to soft determinism, there will be a very significant sense in which we will not be free in a deterministic world.  Furthermore, Campbell finds Schlick’s conception of responsibility to be inadequate on several grounds.  By equating responsibility with the alterability of behavior via punishment, Schlick, in fact, commits himself to holding that babies and animals can be held responsible for their behavior, to the extent that it can be shown that their behavior is modifiable by punishment, contrary to our intuition, that it does not make sense to hold babies and animals responsible for their actions.  Likewise, Schlick’s conception of responsibility also implies that we cannot impute responsibility to dead people, for instance, since they can hardly be said to be punishable.  And yet, we do in fact often impute responsibility to people who are deceased.  Thus, historians will often seek to assign responsibility for acts to people who have long been dead.

Nielsen draws upon Sidney Hook to answer Campbell’s objections to soft determinism.  Hook offered a refined version of Schlick’s soft determinism, in which the conditions for imputing responsibility to an agent include not only that the person’s behavior be modifiable via punishment but also that the person’s behavior exhibit some degree of rationality, involving the capacity for foreseeing the consequences, including especially the undesirable consequences of one’s actions.  Thus, the rationale for not holding children and animals responsible for their conduct would be that they are lacking in rationality and foresight, so they are unable to anticipate the consequences of their actions.  Likewise, according to this conception of responsibility we can quite properly impute responsibility to the deceased for their actions, providing that we can show they were in a rational frame of mind at the time of the actions in question, they knew what they were doing when they acted, and if they had been punished for their actions, they would have altered their behavior.  Using this conception of responsibility, Nielsen maintains that we would have criteria for assessing degrees of responsibility, even when people respond similarly to punishment or the threat of punishment.

In other chapters Nielsen continues his defense of soft determinism, answering not only the arguments of the defenders of libertarian free will but also the arguments of hard determinists like John Hospers.  And Nielsen also devotes a chapter to a consideration of free will and determinism in light of psychoanalysis.

He devotes another whole section of the book to the philosophy of religion, or rather whether or not a rational case can be made for religion.  He examines the traditional arguments for the existence of God, and finds them all wanting.  He discusses the ontological argument, and after presenting the standard Kantian refutation of it as assuming existence to be a predicate, goes on to discuss Norman Malcolm's presentation of St. Anselm's ontological argument, which Malcolm maintained did not presuppose existence to be a predicate.  However, while Nielsen finds this argument to be very subtly presented, and very instructive concerning concepts of God, he nevertheless, finds it to be unsound.  All Malcolm's argument can show is that if an eternal being exists, it exists eternally, or as other critics of Malcom have put it, if a necessary being exists, it exists necessarily, but that leaves open as a contingent matter, whether in fact such a being exists, so the argument remains inconclusive.  Nielsen also takes on Aquinas's five ways of proving the existence of God, the argument from design, the arguments from religious experiences, and William James' defense of the will to believe.

He ends the section on religion with a discussion of whether or not religious language is cognitively meaningful.  Like the logical positivists, and Antony Flew, Nielsen finds theological language to be cognitively meaningless, and advances a verificationist understanding of religious language.  In a later section of the book he returns to the issue of verificationism, and argues that the logical positivists were essentially on the right track in embracing verificationism and in rejecting theology and speculative metaphysics, despite the deficiencies in their theory of meaning.   He also discusses in that section the resurgence of metaphysics among analytical philosophers in the 1960s as represented by Strawson's Individuals and Quine's Word and Object and points out that that sort of metaphysics was quite different from the sort of speculative metaphysics that the positivists had rejected.  Quine’s sort of metaphysics Nielsen finds to be acceptable since it avoids the fallacy of asserting synthetic a priori statements about the world and instead attempts to pursue the analysis of our basic concepts at a very high level of generality, so as to provide us with a synoptic account of man and his place in the world.

In connection with this, Nielsen provides a discussion of existentialism and continental philosophy.  He finds much of continental philosophy, especially that of Heidegger and Jaspers, to display most of the same faults as traditional speculative metaphysics.  He seems sympathetic to the idea that Heidegger may have been a clever fraud, but nevertheless Nielsen finds in existentialism an attempt to deal with important aspects of human experience, which cannot be and should not be ignored by philosophers.  He holds existentialist literature in higher esteem than he does formal existentialist philosophy.  That is, he perceives more value in the novels and plays that Sartre wrote than his formal philosophical writings such as Being and Nothingness.  Nielsen does consider both Kierkegaard and Nietzsche to have been very profound philosophers, from whom much can be learned by analytical philosophers.

In another section of the book, Nielsen discusses the philosophy of mind, and after reviewing the main theories from dualism to epiphenomenalism, to Ryle's logical behaviorism etc., he finally opts for a reductive materialism as the most defensible view of mind, the one most consistent with the picture of man that modern science provides.

Thus in the end, while providing discussions of a wide range of worldviews, Nielsen opts for one that is empiricist, naturalistic, determinist, and which embraces a reductive materialism in regards to mind.  He defends atheism, and in terms of his moral and political values he opts not just for humanism but for a socialist humanism.

The question for me is why this book, after more than thirty years, hasn’t been revised and reissued in new editions.  If Nielsen were to revise it to take into account the philosophical developments (including his own) of the last thirty years, it might well find a place in the academic market as a book that skillfully introduces modern philosophy and its methods.

©  Jim Farmelant, 4/2003




The Problem of the Soul

Two Visions of the Mind and How to Reconcile Them

by Owen Flanagan

New York: Basic Books, 2002 ISBN 0-465-02460-2

Published May 28, 2002 $27.50 Hardcover, 352 pages

Although we live increasingly in an age of science, our notions of self and mind remain largely supernaturalistic. Central to most religious conceptions of ourselves is the idea that persons possess a soul, an immaterial essence that persists after the physical self disappears. If we are not religious, we might suppose that in addition to being bodies, we are also mental agents, in that consciousness and choice depend on something non-physical above and beyond the brain. Further, it is widely believed by the religious and non-religious alike that we have free will, the power to choose without ourselves or our choices being entirely determined by natural causes and circumstances.

In The Problem of the Soul, Owen Flanagan, professor of philosophy, psychology, and brain sciences at Duke University, takes the unpopular position that all this is wrong. There is a conflict at the deepest level, he says, between traditional mind-body dualism and the scientific truth about the self, which is that we are entirely physical animals, inseparable from the natural world. He wants us to reconcile this conflict by abandoning supernatural conceptions of ourselves and replacing them with a better, naturalized image that finally gets the facts right after centuries of misdirection about the soul.

Following Antonio Damasio in Descartes’ Error, Flanagan argues that we’ve inherited a "philosophically diseased" picture of the self, bequeathed to us by Descartes, who supposed that the mind was a categorically separate non-physical entity, issuing commands to the body via the brain’s pineal gland. Such metaphysical dualism found fertile soil in the religious tenet that human beings, made in God’s image, have incorporeal souls which act outside natural laws, making us the freely willing originators of our choices.

To cure these long-standing misconceptions, Flanagan offers us philosophical therapy, mounting a strong, uncompromising attack on both secular and religious beliefs supporting the soul, and articulating what more cautious academics dare not say. There is little question that science is on his side, since neuroscientific explanations of perception, cognition, and behavior leave less and less of a role for a separate mental agent riding herd on the body. The brain and its supporting nervous system seem quite capable of doing all that the soul traditionally was supposed to do, with the exception, of course, of making choices that somehow circumvent causality.

That the brain can’t do this shouldn’t disturb us, Flanagan says, since the very notion of an uncaused chooser, whether immaterial or material, is irredeemably incoherent. But it is here that many will part company with him, since incoherent or not, the idea that we have free will seems essential to our self-image. Many scientists, along with most laypersons, will be reluctant to concede that we don’t have the special freedom ordinarily thought necessary to make us moral agents, deserving of praise and blame.

Flanagan seeks to deflect such concerns by showing that a naturalized self still has all that should matter to us about human agency. We retain our individuality, remain rational, are capable of self-control and effective action, and can still be held accountable for our wrongdoings and rewarded for our virtues, even if we aren’t God-like first causes.

We must also naturalize ethics, since with God out of the picture we are deprived of theological answers to questions of meaning and morality. Avoiding both scientism and relativism, Flanagan finds that ethics and its goal of human flourishing need not be based in anything beyond our shared human nature, which is cooperative and altruistic as well as competitive. He argues that our "proto-moral" capacity to express sympathy, guilt, pride, anger, affection, and other emotions contributed to reproductive fitness by helping to build stable, resilient social groups. To satisfy our desire for lives that transcend mere survival, we can reflect and improve upon our innate moral dispositions.

Apart from our biological nature, there are no absolutes or foundational certainties in Flanagan’s naturalistic account of what it is to be human, to be moral, and to discover meaning in life. To buy into it, the reader will have to agree that science should overrule our ingrained Cartesianism and our religion traditions (except for Buddhism, which Flanagan accurately portrays as largely naturalistic) in deciding who we really are. But in a culture that countenances all manner of irrationalisms and that positively celebrates the will to believe, whatever the countervailing evidence, it’s likely that readers will discount his arguments in droves.

There’s also the difficulty that, despite Flanagan’s reassurances, the thesis of this book will strike many as risky and demoralizing, even more dangerous than the pan-selectionism championed in Daniel Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. But, he argues, the benefits of admitting the truth of our natural nature far outweigh the risks of demoralization, and as a philosopher going public, it’s his job, after all, to expose bad arguments, even if they protect cultural shibboleths.

A self-described practitioner of Buddhism, Flanagan is personally and passionately engaged in his project to transform our ideas about the self and its freedom. In autobiographical sections of the book, he uses his own, sometimes difficult, life to illustrate what being a fully natural self means. His writing is lively and rarely circumspect, and scientific and philosophical technicalities are clearly presented and leavened with enough anecdotes to make them fully digestible.

The book closes with a useful bibliographic essay on further sources which recapitulates the main ideas in the context of others’ work. But generous as Flanagan is in citing his influences, his book is revolutionary in its explicit, synoptic treatment of the emerging conflict between dualistic and naturalistic views of ourselves. The social and personal consequences of naturalism, should it gain a foothold in our cultural consciousness, are likely to be far-reaching. Retributive motivations for punishment, for instance, seem to lose much of their justification if we no longer suppose that we have contra-causal free will, and Western radical individualism likewise might be tempered by naturalism. Although he may not be widely appreciated for his efforts anytime soon, Flanagan is among the very first to chart territory that will become increasingly familiar to us as we discover, in the light of science, a tenable conception of what it means to be human.

 TWC 8/2002




Addiction is a Choice


Jeffrey Schaler


Open Court, Chicago, paper, 179 pages including references and index, ISBN 0-8126-9403-1, 2000

In the tobacco wars, smokers and states seeking compensation for smoking-related health costs are now in the ascendant, having won big court settlements against tobacco companies in California and Florida. Juries now seem to buy the argument that 1) heavy smokers are addicted, 2) cigarette makers concealed evidence that nicotine was addictive even as they aggressively marketed their product, and therefore 3) tobacco companies share a proportion of the responsibility for the illness and death that results from heavy smoking.

On the other side, lawyers for Philip Morris and other tobacco giants argue that smokers were well aware of the risks of smoking and could have chosen to quit anytime. After all, the Surgeon General’s report publicizing the danger of cigarettes came out in 1964, and many people do quit, some even after years of heavy smoking. Since the smokers bringing these lawsuits presumably knew the risks, it was their informed, uncoerced decision to continue smoking which explains the huge toll of tobacco-related sickness and death, not anything tobacco companies did.

At issue, then, is the nature of addiction, choice, and responsibility. Do substances such as nicotine, or alcohol, or heroin have the power to usurp self-control, such that those who purvey drugs (whether legal or illicit) should be held at least partially accountable for the bad behavior, and bad health, of addicts? Why do some heavy substance users simply stop, or outgrow their habit, while others find it impossible to extricate themselves from addiction? If I end up an alcoholic, even though I’m knowledgeable about the risk of imperceptibly increasing dependence, is this only my doing? Should we regard compulsive drug takers (and perhaps compulsive gamblers) as sick, or as morally deficient, or perhaps both?

As summed up by Alan Leshner, head of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the prevailing view of addiction disseminated by treatment and prevention professionals is that of "a chronic, relapsing disease that results from the prolonged effects of drugs on the brain".1 Leshner and others capitalize on the recent explosion of neuroscientific research to make the case that addiction is less a moral failing than a neurological disorder, albeit one that originates in the choice to use drugs. Perhaps the addict is responsible for his behavior in the early stages of substance abuse, but not once the neural "switch" of addiction has been thrown. This so-called "disease model" of addiction prompts us to treat addicts as sick individuals with a chemically-induced compulsion instead of punishing them as willful transgressors of social norms. It also suggests that those who profit from the distribution of addictive drugs, such as liquor and tobacco companies, might share some responsibility for the costs associated with their use.

There is little question where Jeffrey Schaler’s sympathies lie in the tobacco wars, or in the larger debate over addiction. Schaler’s objective in this rather intemperate volume is nothing less than to destroy, root and branch, the disease model of addiction, and his motive is clear: he believes that if we give in to a physiological account of addiction as a brain disease, our status as autonomous and morally responsible individuals is at risk. But even though he scores some good points against those who suppose addiction is literally a disease, his fear of physiology drives him to an even more dubious proposition: that addiction, even in its final compulsive stages, is simply a personal choice. Those who choose to be addicted do so, he says, because they choose to avoid coping with stressful life situations. Those who drink heavily do so not because they are weak willed, but because they have an "iron will" to keep drinking despite the negative consequences (p. 7). And it is only the exercise of willpower, Schaler contends, that can allow someone to overcome addiction. In short, it is basically up to you whether or not you get addicted, and whether you recover.

Of course Schaler isn’t suggesting that anyone sets out, consciously and deliberately, to become an alcoholic, compulsive smoker, or drug addict. He means simply that the behavior which leads to and maintains an addiction – acquiring and actually ingesting substances – is usually voluntary, and often involves thinking, planning, and other rational capacities. All these are hallmarks of choice.

Fair enough, but to call choices voluntary, and not look further into why various choices are made, is to cut short the explanation of addiction at the crucial juncture. The individual’s decision to engage in behavior that puts him or her at risk for addiction is left unexplained, in which case the temptation (which Schaler can’t resist) is to hold the person alone responsible for their situation. This, combined with the "fact" that only willpower can extricate us from addiction, underlies Schaler’s moralistic, derisive stance towards addicts and those who would presume to heal them. It also motivates his contention that providing drug treatment, housing, education, skills training, and employment assistance are unnecessary intrusions into the addict’s life. Such a radical conclusion is congenial to libertarians, among whom Schaler is conspicuously eager to be counted.


Schaler contrasts two views of addiction, the now popular disease model and his candidate for a more enlightened view, the "free will" model. The former, as Schaler describes it, understands addiction as a progressive loss of control over substance use, and sees treatment and other outside help as essential to regaining control. In contrast, the free will model holds that control is never lost but is simply willfully misused. Addiction ends when the addict decides on the basis of his or her internal resources – willpower – to stop misusing substances.

These models diverge, obviously, on the nature of control, and in particular the locus of control. Schaler’s book mostly consists of illustrating this difference in various contexts, while ridiculing those who imagine that the capacity to exercise one’s will is ever significantly compromised. In the disease model, the addict is understood as the victim of overpowering urges generated by significant physiological changes caused by substance use, but Schaler points out that over time the consumption of alcohol and drugs is often moderated or ceases entirely, even without treatment. How can addicts properly be thought of as "out of control" victims of a substance when many succeed, seemingly on their own, in cutting down or stopping their compulsive behavior?

Addicts sometimes do moderate their substance use without any obvious outside assistance, and Schaler is right that the disease model paradigm of loss of control is at least an incomplete and possibly misleading account of addiction. But in mounting his critique, Schaler is wrong on two counts: first, in his adamant dismissal of the role of physiology in addiction, and second, in divorcing personal choices from any clear determinants, whether in biology or environment. The result is a "theory" of addiction far worse than that he seeks to supplant. The disease model, after all, gets at least half the story – the biology – more or less right, even if it sometimes ignores the role of external factors in shaping addictive behavior. But Schaler, in order to defend his free will model and the inviolable status of personal willpower, must discount both biology and environment as determinants of choice.

Schaler is quite direct, and quite mistaken, in dismissing what he calls the "far-fetched, scientifically worthless fantasy about ‘physical addiction’" (p. xvii). He insists that "no identifiable pathology has been found in the bodies of heavy drinkers and drug users" and further, that if any changes were found, these would not count as signs of addiction, but merely the effects of addiction, which is best understood, he says, as a self-inflicted psychological condition (p.16). However, the evidence from neuroscience is overwhelming that the prolonged use of opiates, for instance, results in structural and functional changes in the brain which produce the intense craving and withdrawal symptoms reported by addicts. Assuming opiates are available, these changes dramatically increase the probability of future opiate use – they are central in explaining paradigmatic addictive behavior and therefore likely to play a central role in a scientific account of addiction.

More evidence for the physiological basis of craving, notably ignored by Schaler, can be found in research on the genetic contribution to susceptibility to drug abuse. Twin studies have shown that for some substances, notably heroin and other opiates, biological endowment plays as much a role as social and family environment in determining the risk of dependence.2, 3 This means that some physical attribute of the brain, perhaps a heightened sensitivity to chemical reinforcement stemming from a lack of endogenous enkephalins (opiate analogs produced by the body), increases the risk of addiction. Similarly, the burgeoning pharmacopoeia of drugs to treat substance abuse testifies to the physical basis of compulsive drug-taking. That the euphoria of heroin can be blocked by compounds operating at the neural level leaves no doubt about the chemical basis for addiction. But such considerations go unmentioned in Schaler’s book.


To imagine at this late date, as Schaler does, that physiology plays little if any role in addictive behavior is to be gripped by the libertarian creed of radical autonomy, to which any evidence of biological determinism is an affront. Such ideology explains Schaler’s second major error in this book, which is to credit individual choice with an originative power independent of either biology or environment. This mistake is slightly more subtle, since Schaler seems to recognize, sometimes explicitly, that environment does make a difference in the course of addiction. For instance, in outlining the "credo" of the free will model he writes "Addiction has more to do with the environments that people live in than with the drugs they are addicted to" and "People become addicted to alcohol and other drugs when life is going badly for them" (p. 9). Although both of these points aren’t indisputable (biology might sometimes play a bigger role than environment; people with what seem good lives sometimes end up addicted) at least they recognize that life circumstances play a role in the addictive process.

But in Schaler’s analysis the power of environmental conditions to shape behavior always gets reinterpreted as, or trumped by, the power of personal choice. For instance, he complains that when trying to help Native Americans with addiction, "treatment providers advocating the disease model…ignored the social, political, and economic context within which drug use occurs" (p. 121). Yet he also writes that Native Americans "choose to drink too much alcohol and consume drugs excessively to avoid coping with their experience of life…in a predominately racist, that is, anti-Native American society" (emphasis added, p. 120). So although Schaler seems on the one hand to admit the contribution of social conditions to drug abuse, on the other he minimizes this by suggesting that individuals freely choose addiction as a response to such conditions. The inviolable core of personal choice ultimately owes nothing to biological or social factors, so the conclusion is that addicts can and should cure themselves.

All this is music to the ears of libertarians. Dispense with treatment and other community-funded interventions and simply spread the word about willpower. What could be less intrusive, and less costly? If someone doesn’t extricate themselves from addiction, they simply haven’t chosen to get better and that choice, after all, is theirs alone to make. Although circumstances might increase one’s risk of addiction, we can all rise above circumstances, right?

But if such is true, how explain why some rise and others don’t? If addiction is indeed a choice, precisely why do some choose addiction? Schaler’s "explanation," if it can count as such, is to point to the individual and his free will, and to look no further. He won’t look further, of course, because to do so would challenge the libertarian credo that our freedom, ultimately, transcends both biology and culture:

"Most of us know people who smoked for years and then quit abruptly. Their bodies had adapted to nicotine and since they chose to quit, they did. Question: What do we attribute that behavior to? Answer: the exercise of free will.

"And what of people who do not want to quit? Why explain their behavior using terms such as weak will and physiological addiction? Those people simply choose to continue smoking, even if a doctor or loved one has suggested they quit. They aren’t suffering from a weak will. They have an iron will: they choose to continue smoking against medical advice." (p. 59, emphasis added)

At one point, Schaler suggests that even a complete determinist could accept his free will model, as long as the distinction between voluntary and involuntary behavior is acknowledged (p. 69). But nothing in the rest of his book suggests he could seriously countenance a thorough-going determinism. After all, from a scientific explanatory perspective, the voluntary is just as determined as the involuntary, it’s just a matter of the causes involved: reflex arcs or complex interactions of biology and culture. This means that an "explanation" of addiction as a function of free will, willpower, or an ultimately personal choice (see quote above) is a patent evasion of any factual account of how the voluntary choice to use addictive substances actually arises. And Schaler’s book is a litany of such evasion, despite his occasional lip service to science. Held hostage by libertarianism, Schaler gives very short shrift to plausible explanations of addictive behavior, and ultimately does the field a grave disservice by denying the reach of science into the realm of choice.


Nevertheless, many will find something deeply attractive about Schaler’s thesis, since it stakes out a moral dimension to addiction which a full blown disease model seemingly lacks. By insisting that addiction is a choice within the control of the addict, Schaler joins other libertarian psychologists such as Herbert Fingarette, Stanton Peele, and Thomas Szaz in their appeal to the common sense notion of personal responsibility: no one starts drinking or smoking with a gun to their head, so if addiction ensues, who’s to blame? Not society or biology, surely.

But surely it is possible to view addicts as responsible, moral agents (albeit agents who are severely compromised in the late stages of addiction) without resorting to obscure notions of libertarian free will which deny that choices have causal histories. Individuals, to be held accountable, don’t have to be free in some ultimate, contra-causal sense as Schaler so often implies, they just have to have the capacity to respond to, and anticipate, social rewards and sanctions. We are justified in assigning a certain measure of blame to the addict for his condition, not because his choice wasn’t determined by biology and environment, but because assigning blame (e.g., stigmatizing excessive drug use, withholding certain privileges) can help to modify future choices, both of the addict and those who witness his predicament. Libertarians imagine that only the radically autonomous core of self can be the proper object of praise and blame, but such a self, if it existed, would actually be immune to such influences. Only a self which is fully a function of biology and culture is the sort of self that moral injunctions could modify, and it’s all we need to ground a robust sense of moral agency.

Such a naturalistic conception of responsibility – one that places the addict entirely within a causal context – means that insisting on personal accountability is just one of many resources available in attacking addiction. Holding addicts primarily to blame for their situation may work in some cases, but is justified only to the extent it produces change without unnecessary collateral damage: in the late stages of addiction emphasizing personal failings may have little effect, and might well be counterproductive in piling shame on shame. While Schaler and other libertarians would have us largely ignore biological and environmental factors, and focus primarily on the blameworthy free will of the individual, a causal model of addiction encourages an ecological approach to treatment which can simultaneously address the neurobiology of the addict and his family and social circumstances, while justifying the judicious application of personal sanctions.

Schaler further objects to the disease model on grounds that it encourages passivity on the part of the addict. This it might well do if one imagined addiction to be a disease just like cancer, with a more or less inexorable progression. Indeed, it is this sort of simplistic, literal disease model that Schaler sets up for the kill. But it’s a straw man since few, if any, of Schaler’s opponents actually take such a view; they understand full well that playing an active role in one’s own recovery can dramatically affect the prognosis.


The question, though, is what conditions will foster taking such a role? Schaler leaves the addict on his own with bootstraps and willpower, suggesting that the internal capacity to change can always be mustered independently of one’s circumstances. Those not wedded to the ideology of radical autonomy will instead look carefully at the factors which can reliably sustain the desire to change and an internal locus of control (that is, the belief that there are things one can do to recover). Such factors will include advising the addict about his own brain chemistry so that appropriate medications can be tried, and helping to create a social environment which offers incentives to become, and remain, sober. Skillful treatment recognizes that both the desire and power to change are a function of the addict’s internal and external circumstances, not simply willed into existence.

Schaler’s libertarian blinders put him well behind the curve of addictions theory, which has begun to combine an increasingly detailed neurobiological understanding of the brain’s response to drugs with a deeper appreciation of the role of social networks in facilitating or curbing addictive behavior. Along these lines, Harvard psychologist Gene Heyman has developed a bio-behavioral model which shows promise in reconciling what he calls the "contradiction of addiction": that excessive substance use is often subjectively felt and described by addicts as out of control, yet it’s clearly responsive to environmental contingencies.4, 5 Being out of control, Heyman suggests, is a function of how some extremely reinforcing substances (or even activities, such as gambling) can subvert the normal, rational tendency to avoid self-destructive choices. Like Schaler, Heyman recognizes that such choices are often voluntary and therefore not accounted for by a disease model, but unlike Schaler he develops a detailed (and fairly technical) theory of behavioral choice to explain why and under what conditions bad choices are made. Not surprisingly, free will and willpower play no role in his analysis. And unlike Schaler, Heyman’s theory suggests policies that might actually help addicts, as he puts it, "make better decisions": limit the availability of drugs and alcohol, increase the salience of the long-term consequences of excessive substance use, and provide reinforcing alternatives. None of this will completely eradicate addiction, of course, but it’s a far better bet than the libertarian prescription of laissez-faire self-cure.

A bio-behavioral model of addiction, whatever its final shape, will still leave room for personal accountability even as it provides the theoretical underpinnings for interventions by doctors, therapists, families, communities, and government. To hold ourselves and others responsible for substance use in a reasonable and useful fashion, we must recognize that voluntary choices arise within a determining context of biological and social factors, and that the direct application of praise and blame to the individual is one among many strategies available, and not always the best. As part of the social context of drug abuse, the suppliers of addictive substances, tobacco companies included, are as legitimate targets for reform as are the addict’s bad habits. And seeing that choices arise as a function of circumstances will tend to dampen retributive and punitive attitudes toward addicts, while helping to pinpoint where and when the imposition of limited personal sanctions actually helps.

With luck, Schaler’s book will turn out to be among the last hurrahs of those who imagine that responsibility and dignity inheres in some undetermined, inviolable core of self. In reality, someone in the grip of full blown addiction has little capacity for either responsibility or dignity, and both must be restored to him. That these are restored by virtue of outside help, and not by willpower, does not in the least render them less valuable. It does, however, distribute the responsibility for their restoration to those who have the means to shape policy on addiction prevention and treatment – that is, to nearly all of us.



August, 2000


  1. Leshner, A. Addiction is a brain disease, and it matters, Science, 278, October 3, 1997, pp. 45-47.

  2. Kendler, K., Karkowski, L., Neale, M., Prescott, C. Illicit psychoactive substance use, heavy use, abuse, and dependence in a US population-based sample of male twins. Arch Gen Psychiatry, 2000, 57:261-269.

  3. Tsuang, M., Lyons, M., Meyer, J., Doyle T., Eisen S., Goldberg J., True W., Lin N., Toomey R., Eaves, L. Co-occurrence of abuse of different drugs in men: the role of drug-specific and shared vulnerabilities. Arch Gen Psychiatry, 1998; 55:967-972.

  4. Heyman, G., Resolving the contradictions of addiction. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 1996 19, 561-610, with open peer commentary.

  5. Heyman, G., Is addiction a chronic relapsing disease? Relapse rates, duration estimates, and a theory of addiction. Forthcoming in Defining Addiction and Making Policy, Philip Heymann, ed., Harvard University Press.





 B.F. Skinner: A Reappraisal


Marc N. Richelle

Lawrence Earlbaum Associates, Publishers: Hove, East Sussex, UK. 1993.


- Richelle agrees with Skinner that a challenge to the notions of autonomous man and mentalism is necessary if we are to make social progress -


Reviewer: Jim Farmelant

Marc Richelle is a Belgian psychologist who studied in Geneva where, not surprisingly, he came under the influence of Piaget. However, as he began to read B.F. Skinner's work his viewpoint shifted towards radical behaviorism while still retaining a great respect for Piaget. His book, B.F. Skinner: A Reappraisal, is written as an evaluation of Skinner from the standpoint of a European psychologist, and he relates Skinner's work with that of such prominent European psychologists as Pavlov, Freud, Lorenz, Piaget, and Vygotsky. Richelle provides an overview of Skinner's career and how his views evolved over time. For those who are familiar with Skinner's work much of this should be familiar, but they still might learn a good deal from Richelle’s comparison of Skinner to his European contemporaries. Richelle's evaluation of Skinner in reference to European psychology makes his book unique among the studies of Skinner's work.

Richelle sketches out Skinner’s contributions to experimental methodology in psychology, including the invention of the Skinner box and the development of a research methodology based on single-organism experiments, as opposed to the traditional method of comparing experimental groups with control groups. He reviews Skinner's challenge to traditional S-R models of behavior, those psychologies that Skinner labeled methodological behaviorisms. Such psychologies include the behaviorisms of John B. Watson and Clark Hull as well as the cognitive school of psychology. For all these schools, psychology is in one way or another the science which attempts to understand behavior in terms of stimulus-response pairings. This is true even for the cognitivists, who differ only in that they posit intervening cognitive mechanisms between stimulus and response. Against these schools, Skinner posited his own radical behaviorism which centered around his conception of operant conditioning (a conception that owed much to the work of Thorndike on the Law of Effect). In his elaboration of operant mechanisms, Skinner proposed to understand the development of behavior in Darwinian terms - that is, the selection of responses by the organism's environment.

Richelle devotes one chapter to exploring Skinner's debt to Pavlov, which was certainly very large. Skinner borrowed much of his scientific vocabulary from Pavlov as well some
of his methodology. However, contrary to Pavlov, Skinner contended that there were two types of conditioning rather than one: traditional Pavlovian conditioning (which he called respondent conditioning) and operant conditioning. Although both kinds of conditioning followed similar laws, there were also significant differences which required the use of different experimental methodologies. Skinner argued that the two types of conditioning had different neuroanatomical roots, with Pavlovian conditioning rooted in the autonomic nervous system and operant conditioning rooted in the somatic nervous system. This thesis was eventually refuted by Neal Miller in 1968 when he showed that, contrary to Skinner, autonomic responses could be operantly conditioned (1). Concerning the influence of Pavlov on Skinner, Richelle concludes that, while large, it has been overstated by many commentators.

Richelle devotes a chapter to Freud in Skinner's writings. He notes that while Skinner was highly critical of Freud's mentalism, he had many kind things to say about Freud's work. Skinner admired Freud for being a determinist, for being an astute observer of human behavior, and for having discarded consciousness and introspection as tools for understanding mental processes. Freud was praised by Skinner for having shown that mental activity does not require consciousness and that many of the most important aspects of mental activity occur beyond its ken. Skinner saw much value in the concepts of Freudian defense mechanisms (i.e., repression, sublimation, projection, rationalization) which in Science and Human Behavior and Verbal Behavior he sought to show could be translated into the language of behaviorism.

Skinner also argued that Freud's modeling of human personality in terms of id, ego, and superego could be restated in terms of the various sorts of contingencies of reinforcement that control human behaviors. Thus the Freudian id was seen as corresponding to biologically based reinforcers and was responsible for behaviors that were ultimately reinforced by food, water, sexual contact and other primary biological reinforcers. The superego - the "conscience" of Judeo-Christian theology - was in turn responsible for the behaviors that control the id, using techniques of self-control that are acquired from the group. Id and superego inevitably clash, and their conflicts are in turn mediated by the ego, which besides attempting to reach a compromise between the id and superego also deals with the practical exigencies of the environment.

Richelle goes on to discuss Skinner and ethology, especially that of Konrad Lorenz. Skinner was often harshly critical of much of the work of the ethologists, including Lorenz, but he came to perceive value of their work. He agreed with them concerning the necessity of applying a Darwinian standpoint to behavior (which meant understanding it in selectionist terms) but he faulted them for not making a clear distinction between different levels - the biological level, the behavioral level, and in humans the cultural level - to which a Darwinian analysis could be applied. (Interestingly, Skinner faulted the sociobiologists on similar grounds.) Skinner's comments on the three levels of selectionism is relevant to such matters as the debate over directionality in history which Robert Wright defends in his new book Nonzero and which is also defended by Alan Carling from the standpoint of a selectionist Marxism (2).

Concerning Piaget, Richelle says that both Skinner and Piaget were largely ignorant of each other's work, a situation which he finds to have been understandable but somewhat regrettable, since in certain respects their perspectives were more complementary rather than antagonistic. Piaget's constructivism was explicitly developmentalist, an approach that Richelle sees Skinner as having under-emphasized. Also, Piaget's work was concerned with the development of the higher cognitive functions in humans, whereas Skinner's work tended to focus on those aspects of behavior that humans share with other species. But despite the fact that they came out of quite different psychological traditions, there were some underlying similarities, in Richelle's opinion. Both men attempted to take Darwinism seriously, which meant understanding behavior in evolutionist, selectionist terms. Skinner's emphasis on knowledge as action was surprisingly similar to Piaget's views.  Richelle at one point compares quotations from Skinner and Piaget. From Skinner's About Behaviorism he quotes:

"Operant behavior is essentially the exercise of a power: it has an effect on the environment."

Likewise, Richelle quotes from Piaget's Adaptation vitale et psychologies de l'intelligence:

"The organism acts upon the environment, rather than being simply submitted to it. As to the highest levels, where behavior plays a non-negligible role, this role is by no means limited to compensate for alterations or aggressions from the environment: it may consist, on the contrary, in conquering actions aimed at extending the environment."

Richelle points out that for both Piaget and Skinner the emphasis in studying behavior was not on the stimulus, nor upon the mind, but rather upon action itself.

Richelle argues that Piaget's work on cognitive development could have benefited from a greater understanding of Skinner's work on operant learning since, like Skinner, he was committed to applying Darwinian analogies to the understanding of behavior. Skinner's analysis of operant conditioning could have helped Piaget to substantiate his thesis that evolution, or selectionism, is applicable to behavior on a multiplicity of levels.

Richelle only very briefly discusses the work of the Soviet psychologist Vygotsky, but he notes some similarities to Skinner, including the fact that both Vygotsky's psychology of activity and Skinner's radical behaviorism shared an emphasis on action as the focus for psychological study. They also shared similar views concerning the social origins of human self-awareness.

Richelle has a useful chapter on the Skinner-Chomsky debate in psycholinguistics. He agrees with Skinner that Chomsky fundamentally misunderstood Skinner’s work, but he also faults Skinner for, among other things, neglecting the developmental dimension which Chomsky emphasized, for failing to respond to Chomsky's attacks, and for failing to engage the psycholinguists generally. However, Richelle discerns a tendency within psycholinguistics to move towards positions reminiscent of Skinner's without generally acknowledging the Skinnerian origins of the views that they are adopting.

The last few chapters of the book engage Skinner's views on education and society. Richelle generally endorses most of them with enthusiasm and he gives a good restatement of the arguments of Beyond Freedom and Dignity. Richelle reiterates Skinner's critique of "autonomous man" and how this notion, along with commonsense mentalistic psychology, performs an important ideological function: persuading people that they are free agents while concealing the existence of behavioral controls. This wouldn't be so bad, Richelle thinks, except that the types of behavioral controls in place have failed to solve our most important social problems. Therefore, Richelle agrees with Skinner that a challenge to the notions of autonomous man and mentalism is necessary if we are to make social progress.

One section of this chapter bears the heading "Mentalism as a Tool of Power," which sums up Richelle's (and Skinner's) point regarding control. Mentalism promotes the idea that the way toward change is to change people's minds or hearts, not the environmental conditions in which they live. This generally suits the dominant political and economic elites, since mentalism turns people's attention inwards, diverting them from perceiving the actual determinants of their lives, especially the more or less hidden behavioral controls. By positing a special freedom, the myth of autonomous man conditions the masses to blame themselves for their fate, and the status quo is thus rendered safe from questioning or modification. No surprise, then, that Skinner, even with Richelle’s advocacy, is unlikely to catch on.

© Jim Farmelant, 3/00


(1). Miller's research on the operant conditioning of visceral responses provided the scientific basis for biofeedback research which enjoyed a particular vogue in the 1970s. See:  Miller, N.E. and Banuazizi, A., 1968. Instrumental learning by curarized rats of a specific visceral response, intestinal, or cardiac. Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology, 65: 1-7. See also Miller, N.E. and Dworkin, B.R., 1973. Visceral learning: Recent difficulties with curarized rats and significant programs for human research. In Oberist, P.A. et al. (eds.) Contemporary Trends in Cardiovascular Psychophysiology. Chicago: Aldine-Atherton.

(2). Carling, Alan, 1993. "Analytical Marxism and Historical Materialism: The Debate on Social Evolution." Science & Society, 57:1 (Spring), 31-65.  Carling, Alan, 1994. "The Strength of Historical Materialism: A Comment." Science & Society, 58:1 (Spring), 60-72.



The Natural Selection of Autonomy


Bruce N. Waller


SUNY Series, Philosophy and Biology. State University of New York Press, Albany, 1998. Paper edition, 193 pages, including endnotes, references, and index.

Reviewer: TWC

What would it be like to conceive of ourselves and our moral systems as completely contained within the natural realm, the contingent products of Darwinian evolutionary processes? Is it possible to accept our status as complex animals, deterministically connected to the rest of nature, and still take seriously our ethical commitments? If we don’t have free will, and the individual is not seen as ultimately morally responsible for his or her actions, how do we carry on moral discourse and justify moral judgments?

Bruce Waller takes on these important questions in this eminently readable and for the most part persuasive account of a naturalistic, non-objectivist morality. His arguments and conclusions will seem radical to most readers: we don’t have, or need free will (in the sense of being exempt from deterministic causality) to behave ethically, or to be held accountable. Morality has no rational foundation outside our naturally derived ethical dispositions, but is none the worse for it, since moral imperatives just are our most heartfelt, hardwired interpersonal inclinations. Morality is integral to our animal nature, and other creatures exhibit in varying degrees the autonomy and authenticity necessary for moral status.

We may be the only creatures capable of abstract reasoning, but according to Waller rationality cannot give us reasons to be moral, nor is it foundational to ethics. Our moral motivations are, as he puts it, non-rational, discovered in the ineradicable desires to stay connected with kith and kin, and to have stable societies in which we and those we love can flourish. These motives are entirely a matter of our evolutionary inheritance, and there need not be (and cannot be) any further justification of them. This, then, is an ethical anti-foundationalism or non-objectivism that runs counter to the standard presumption that morality, in order to avoid rampant relativism, must somehow find a basis outside "mere" human preferences.

In his discussions of free will, Waller demonstrates that it is possible to have real autonomy (the capacity to select among anticipated alternatives) and real authenticity (the capacity to form deep, character-based commitments) without supposing that we have a "miraculous freedom from environmental influences and past causal history." The freedom most of us normally have isn’t a "libertarian mysterious choice" but a high degree of naturally given cognitive flexibility, operating within the constraints of our naturally derived character and our available options. We can explain this freedom, naturalistically and deterministically, as the fortunate outcome of how we’ve been shaped by biological and environmental contingencies, just as we can explain the relative lack of freedom of those with limited flexibility (e.g., drug addicts, schizophrenics) as the unfortunate outcomes of different contingencies. This means that there’s no "true self" or essential self-constructing agency within the individual that’s responsible for being free (or unfree) in this naturalistic sense.

This conclusion sets the stage for what is most central, but what many will find most difficult to accept in Waller’s analysis: that moral responsibility – conceived as the true self’s ultimate origination of choices – doesn’t exist. Waller summarizes the libertarian position he critiques, in all its improbability:

Libertarian autonomous choice has no causal antecedents, does not stem from my own character and history, is not a product of my personality or character, and is not shaped by the environment that shaped me. It doesn’t matter that we have different environmental histories, different educational opportunities, different levels of encouragement and support and success: our miraculous libertarian autonomous choices transcend all differences, and thus we ourselves and nothing else – not the gods who made us, the genes that directed us, nor the environment that shaped us – bear moral responsibility for our choices and their consequences…

But for the naturalist, frustration rapidly boils over into impolite questions: where does this choice come from, if not from my formed character? If the choice transcends my history and my character and my desires and my intellect, then how can it be my choice at all [original emphasis]? Such miraculous autonomous choices seem completely detached from me and my choosing and my deliberative processes, all of which have been shaped by my cumulative genetic and learning and social histories [emphasis added]. The miraculous saving of moral responsibility thus seems to be at the expense of a coherent account of autonomous choice (pp. 35-36).

Given these objections, Waller recommends that we dispense with moral responsibility altogether, a course not often chosen. He shows that even some very competent, naturalistically inclined philosophers try to save moral responsibility by holding on to some subtle, self-constructing element of choice, such as Daniel Dennett’s claim that free will consists in our decisions about our deliberative processes themselves, for instance in the decision to stop considering alternatives. Waller simply replies that these higher-level acts, no less than any other aspect of our behavior, are a function of learning histories which the individual has in no sense chosen independently of the unfolding of impersonal circumstances. Even the most sophisticated, self-conscious efforts to shape one’s own character (and certainly these are undertaken from time to time) cannot escape being embedded in the natural causal framework, and thus offer no support for the moral responsibility thought necessary to justify praise and blame.

But having dispensed with moral responsibility, what becomes of morality? Waller argues that we needn’t link or justify perfectly valid moral judgments (person A is evil, person B virtuous) with the non-naturalistic claim that individuals somehow choose themselves and their characters ex nihilo. Evil and virtue still exist, even though individuals don’t choose themselves and so don’t deserve praise and blame for being how they are. Positive or negative moral evaluations are warranted, but not deserved, which means that prescriptive language ("you ought not to do such and such") and other social sanctions still have indispensable roles to play in fostering virtue and discouraging evil. So morality, both as a structure of desirable behavior, and as a means of generating it, still remains a robust possibility under this strictly naturalistic view of ourselves.

However, (and here is one of my few quibbles with this excellent book) Waller perhaps underestimates the naturalistic uses of praise and blame, or reward and punishment, supposing that we must steer entirely clear of these lest we fall into the error of assigning moral responsibility. But praise and blame, if carefully understood as not implying an ultimately originative self, can function as warranted evaluations that have the effect of shaping moral character. Even if justice cannot be based on retributive (or laudatory) desert, we must still reward and punish to some extent to create persons who behave responsibly within social norms. What dropping free will and moral responsibility does is to temper moralistic, holier-than-thou punishing, in which those handing out just deserts believe in their innate moral superiority. Naturalism reduces the excesses of self-righteous retributive rage by depriving it of a metaphysical basis in free will. However, judicious punishment (and praise) will still be necessary in the foreseeable future to create moral individuals and a stable society. Even though persons end up behaving badly through no fault of their own (in the sense of non-naturalistic, ultimate fault) it’s just and fair to punish bad behavior if that’s the only feasible way to redirect it. We are not necessarily, as Waller seems to think, unjustly punishing their bad fortune to have become misbehavers (p. 64).

This quibble aside, Waller’s case for a morality untethered to moral responsibility is a strong one, with the virtue that such morality is founded not in some ethereal, mysterious self-choosing self or transcendent rationality, but in biological dispositions that can be channeled by culture. But Waller’s more or less scientific account of the natural roots of morality leads, inevitably, to his non-objectivism concerning the content of value systems, and therefore to the possibility of unresolveable moral disputes:

We are only too aware that within our own species there is the possibility - and actuality – of fundamentally different and categorically opposed basic moral principles (as between egalitarian and elitist-aristocratic value systems). When disputing such views, we may eventually find that there is no shared set of values on which to base arguments. Thus reason and argument may end without any rational means of resolving the conflict, and no basic value framework can be assumed without begging the question against alternatives that (however repugnant we find them) are genuine and coherent. In such cases we can seek the causes of such differing moral dispositions, but we are at the end of justification (p. 148).

This means, although Waller never says so explicitly, that the ultimate defense of our moral commitments (to democratic, rights-based egalitarianism, for instance) lies in force, since the possibility exists that nothing we say to our opponents cuts any ice. This, of course, is not news, as the war against Nazi Germany demonstrated, but it should serve as a caution to those who imagine that a stable, rationally supported moral equilibrium between authoritarian and democratic regimes might ever develop.

Waller makes many worthwhile and (from my less than omniscient perspective) often original observations in the realm of ethics and free will, most of which must go unmentioned here. But there are three points I found particularly striking which receive considerable treatment in his book. First is that although rationality cannot serve as a foundation for morality, it significantly extends the reach and resilience of our ethical predispositions, for instance in helping us to generalize the golden rule beyond our immediate community to others very much unlike us. Second is that the traditional duty-based, Kantian moral framework is a drastically impoverished moral conception compared with the creaturely, biological morality which Waller shows we have in common with other animals. Third is his proposal to develop a "care-based" morality, something many of us might find appealing and which reason – by itself arid and impotent – could fruitfully extend:

The care-based ethic is fundamentally right: affection, caring, trusting, and generous impulses are the moral foundation. And the tendency of reason-oriented ethical systems – whether Kantian or utilitarian – to ignore that foundation has left an artificial ethics: a rationalist ethics that is well suited for moral enhancement but crumbles underfoot when used as a moral foundation. Reason-based ethics reinforces rather than replaces care-based morality. The rules-reason approach is an important means of extending and enhancing and sustaining moral behavior when affection has reached its limits, but the moral foundation – on which duty morality must build – remains the immediate nonreflective inclinations of care and affection: inclinations rooted in biology, nurtured by direct and indirect reciprocity, and existing prior to rationality (p. 156).

Finally, I think Waller provides a most persuasive response to questions each serious student of ethics must eventually confront: Why should I be moral? If my particular moral convictions lack a foundation outside contingent biology and culture, why should I hold them instead of others? Without giving away the ending, suffice it to say that Waller’s answer is not to be found in reason, or science, or in a true self in touch with transcendent moral principles. I leave future readers of this most enlightening volume to discover it for themselves.

© Thomas W. Clark, 5/99



Skeptics and True Believers: The Exhilarating Connection Between Science and Religion


Chet Raymo

1998, New York: Walker and Company, hardcover, 288 pages, including endnotes and index.

Reviewer: TWC

Science and religion have long been in collision, driven by the seemingly relentless march of empiricism into realms that were once strictly theological territory. The origins of the universe, the nature of the self, the source of ethics: all these are fair game for science, often at the expense of traditional faiths. It is fashionable (and politically correct) to portray this ongoing battle as a mutual accommodation, but in reality, religion is doing most of the accommodating, as the gaps in understanding that nourish God grow ever smaller. For believers conversant with science, the conception of divinity has shifted from the personal to the abstract, and for non-believers, any notion of the spiritual is likely to seem suspect. For many seeking religious consolation, the advance of science, or more broadly, naturalism, has forced a retreat to the easy fix of new age nostrums: angels, aliens, and astrology. But science writer Chet Raymo shows there is a better way.

Those interested in how to integrate, not separate, science and spirituality will profit by Raymo’s inspiring book, Skeptics and True Believers: The Exhilarating Connection Between Science and Religion. Although each of us will find our own balance between skepticism and religious experience, Raymo makes a convincing case that they need not be incompatible. Wonder need not be extinguished by understanding and doubt; indeed, as we better appreciate both the vastness of the cosmos as given to us by astronomy (Raymo’s favorite theme), and our ignorance, perhaps ineradicable, of its origins and destiny, wonder can’t help but grow. It may even culminate, as it does for Raymo, in frankly religious awe for the "god of the galaxies" – although here’s where some will part company with him, since "god," even lower case, may be too burdened with theistic connotations to figure in a thoroughly modern spirituality – that is, one without spirits. But this is a minor quibble, since obviously no vision of the ultimate will please everyone.

Raymo explores the reasons why so many of us cling to antique cosmologies or fall prey to pseudo-scientific scams, concluding that much of our desire for transcendence is rooted in the fear of death. But, he says, we would be well advised to grow up, relinquish the quest for immortality, and find spiritual solace in what Catholic priest and historian Thomas Berry calls the New Story of science. This is not so paradoxical as we might imagine: our identification can shift from the personal "I" to the vast ground of being from whence we spring, revealed in telescopes and particle accelerators. Using his personal story of a lost Catholic faith transmuted into a reverential naturalism, Raymo makes it plausible that many, if not all thinking adults, can participate in what surely counts as a maturing of the spiritual impulse.

For those already in the naturalistic camp, Raymo’s case for science, as opposed to wishful thinking, won’t be revelatory, but his sharp dissection of New Age fads and resurgent fundamentalism is nevertheless instructive. He dispatches, compassionately but effectively, astrology, intercessory prayer, angels, creationists, the academic left’s bungled critique of science, and even Vaclav Havel. Particularly telling (and amusing) is his run-in with John Mack, the Harvard-credentialed apologist for alien abduction theories, which ends with a college campus vigil for aliens that never show up. Score one for the skeptics.

Raymo even takes issue with some rather reputable scientists, remonstrating Stephen Hawking for supposing that his astrophysics might reveal "the mind of God" and Stephen Weinberg for the reductionistic hubris of imagining that we will ever have a "final theory." This is all to the good, since it would not do, in our quest for an authentic modern spirituality, to replace one false god with another. Science helps give rise to wonder, but it is not itself to be worshipped.

Raymo’s tone throughout is serious, but never pompous, pedantic, or condescending to the "true believer" clinging to traditional certitudes. He wishes only to point the way out of the manifest contradiction between our increasingly scientific, empirical, grasp of material reality, and our uncritical acceptance of feel-good solutions to the problem of meaning. The way out is not to dismiss objective understanding of nature in favor of myths that are in flat contradiction to our knowledge, but to see that the awe-inspiring facts given by science (and the mysteries it will always leave open) are invitations to spiritual experience. Raymo shows us the way with a sure, skillful touch, that will likely move all but the most confirmed religionist or most crusty atheist.

How, for instance, can we reconcile the growing evidence for mind-brain identity with our traditional self-image as souls, or mental agents, inhabiting bodies? Something’s got to give, and Raymo’s bracing prescription is to jettison the immaterial I, along with its promise of immortality, in favor of a strictly materialist theory of the self. But what, one might well ask, is inspiring in the view, as M.I.T.’s Marvin Minsky puts it, that we are simply "meat machines"? Raymo answers adroitly: "To admit that the mind is electrochemical does not diminish our concept of self; rather, it suggests that the cosmos was charged with the possibility of becoming conscious from the first moment of creation. The newly emerging concept of self is materialistic and mechanistic; it is also capacious enough to embrace not only the future but also the past, and expansive enough to entangle the self with the rest of creation."

It is this entanglement that Raymo succeeds in making vivid and spiritually compelling, not only through his account of the successes of science, but in apposite quotes from poets such as Mary Oliver and Gerard Manley Hopkins, and from writers as diverse as Martin Buber, Teilhard de Chardin, and Nikos Kazantzakis. Raymo’s impressive cultural range, developed in his years of writing a weekly science column for the Boston Globe, should satisfy both the intellectual and the aesthete, without leaving mere mortals in the dust.

Cynics may find his naturalistic epiphanies (at least one or two in every chapter) off-putting, since the language becomes nothing short of rapturous. But given Raymo’s objective – to concretize the spiritual possibilities of science and skepticism – this risk had to be taken. Few, perhaps, will find themselves moved in precisely the ways Raymo is moved by the grand spectacle of creation without a creator, and some will ridicule his response as just more, if more sophisticated, wishful thinking in the face of the uncaring abyss. But even though Raymo himself is pessimistic about the chances that a naturalistic spirituality will take hold, his personal revelations testify that even professional skeptics can find meaning and wonder in the world. This bodes well for the rest of us, should we find ourselves on the route Raymo has scouted.

© Thomas W. Clark 7/98


    Home        Center for Naturalism       Applied Naturalism        Spirituality       Philosophy