Churchland and the Wonder of Philosophy

Ehman’s Wow! signal, 6EQUJ5, circled in red in a printout of vertically aligned single digits indicating radiowaves.
Ehman’s Wow! signal, 6EQUJ5.

In studying philosophy, and more broadly the history of human thought, there are times when you are gripped by a new idea, or a new way of conveying an idea, which leaves you in a state of amazed wonder. Put bluntly, these are occasions which leave you thinking, wow. We could call these wow moments, or wow ideas, much like the famous wow! signal. Maybe more than any other, the wow moment that has stuck in my mind the most, and which still imprints on me something of my initial wonder at it years later, is the example of a clinical report on a Virginian man from 2003, repeated by the neurophilosopher Patricia Churchland in an article titled “Do we have free will?”

Churchland repeats the example of a man who began, over time, developing a paedophilic attraction to children — eventually acting out on this attraction, first by consuming child pornography and later by molesting his eight-year-old stepdaughter. The man had no previous history of malfeasance; one can only imagine the perplexion and shock of his family and friends. After his arrest, his sexuality became increasingly compulsive. Eventually, after repeatedly complaining of headaches and vertigo, he was sent for a brain scan: it was discovered that he had a brain tumour. Benign but large, the tumour had spread throughout the frontal area of his brain, invading the septum and the hypothalamus, regions known to regulate sexual behaviour.

After the tumour was operated on and removed, the paedophilic desires dissipated, and his sexuality returned to “normal”. Some months later, however, his paedophilia began to return: a new scan revealed tissue missed in surgery had grown into a sizeable tumour. A subsequent second surgery once again restored “normal” behavioural and phenomenal conditions.

The brilliance of this example is that it hammers home — with regard to a concrete, real example of an individual, not some abstract thought experiment or conglomeration of data — the utter insufficiency of folk psychology and folk sexuality in truly explaining human behaviour, and does so with a degree of potency that I’ve yet to encounter since. Folk psychology demands that at least some significant percentage of human behaviour is governed, at least to some significant degree, by autonomous decision-making. This we can, in part, affirm: animal locomotion is produced by the animal itself. To use a more “philosophical” terminology, we could say, via Aristotle, that the moving principle of voluntary action is in the agent itself, as opposed to external to it. But folk psychology posits a notion of autonomy, and of self, that is not in accordance with our understanding of the universe.

Folk psychology would describe a given event somewhat as follows: a person initially declines to go to a party, but then changes her mind and decides to go because she believes a specific person, whom she likes, is there. A simple enough narrative that everyone can understand. To attempt to explain her change of mind in terms of neuronal activity, with reference to the firing of certain fibres and the release of certain quantities of chemicals and hormones, or whatever else, seems absurd. Of course, we can accept that such a description, such an explanation, is true, but that does not mean it is the right one: the right description is the one of her choosing to go once she finds out someone she likes is also going. These kinds of folk psychological explanations are extremely successful, under normal conditions. (What counts as normal conditions, and how we are to ascertain whether any given conditions are actually “normal”, is difficult to say — we seem to be under the firm impression that we know it when we see it, but are hard-pressed to explain beyond this.) One of the reasons for this is that folk psychology is only concerned with a very specific level of description: that of publicly accessible mechanical behaviour, and drawing correlations between such behavioural instances and our own phenomenal experiences in what we determine to be roughly equivalent conditions. Crucially, it insists on humans’ ability to decide their own actions. We choose to raise our arm, we choose one meal over another, we choose one house over another, etc. Yet we posit that the universe functions deterministically, that is, for every given set of antecedent conditions, there are a set of consequent conditions that are a direct product of the antecedents such that if we knew all the antecedents and possessed a sufficiently accurate understanding of the relevant causal processes, we could correctly predict the consequents. It is very difficult to see where, in this schema, the capacity to do otherwise can be found. This is not to say the human agent is causally impotent, it absolutely is not, and its actions have a crucial part to play in its environment (in the raising of its arm, say), and as we said before, we can affirm that the (non-forced) motions of an animal are made by the animal itself. However, these motions, made by the animal as they are, are nevertheless part of a causal chain of which the animal is not the totality, and neither is it the initial nor the ultimate element.

The relevance of all this to the example repeated by Churchland is that her example demands of folk psychology something it cannot give. Asked for an explanation of the man’s behaviour, it simply cannot give it, and must acquiesce to the other species of description, namely the physical-chemical-biological one. It simply does not have the conceptual tools nor empirical capacity to interrogate such an instance. Accepting this, the obvious question is, if this is so, where is the line to be drawn? Where do we come to the intercession of the scientific and the popular descriptions where the one best gives way to the other? It should be relatively intuitive that such a question is wrong-footed. There is not, and cannot be, such a line. Natural phenomena are never so neatly and perfectly delineated, and all distinctions between them are typically family-resemblance distinctions (where this is most appropriate or where we cannot scrutinise the phenomena in any greater detail, for example in the concept of a biological species, or of memory) or distinctions made on such a level as to be unusable for the purpose of macrobehaviour (such as all that performed by humans, as opposed to, say, the behaviour of an atomic nucleus). As it is of the former kind, human action is described in terms of just such resemblances — this is precisely what folk psychology is: the theory of human action and motivation inductively inferred from observation of human behaviour. But just because this level of description is, today at least, the most workable one, does not mean it describes a fundamental reality. Folk psychology functions, after all, through metaphor.

The insufficiency of the scientific level of description for the purpose of guiding the ordinary actions of human beings qua social entities interacting with other human and non-human actors in no way necessitates, or even, considering the evidence to the contrary, mplies the accuracy of the other level of description. Churchland’s Virginian man is a powerful reminder that human behaviour and even phenomenal experience is but another instance of the working out of natural (physical, chemical, biological) laws, not something standing above, beyond, or in any way separate to them. The problem, then, for Churchland and for all of us, is what to do with this understanding given its profound implications for the concept of responsibility, a concept which folk psychology integrates fully by its use of the concept of deliberate, reasoned and motivated action for which the actor can be praised or blamed. Churchland’s article attempts to point us toward the necessity, in the face of such an example, to redefine our concept of free will, as it clearly does not fit with the world as we understand it. It is an anachronistic, vestigial superstition. It is not our intent here to comment on this — suffice to say we disagree, not because we are committed to the dominant conceptualisation of free will, far from it, but precisely because we do not believe the concept of moral responsibility, or of responsibility in general, holds up beyond the identification of a given entity’s location within a causal chain. Our intent, rather, is to hold up Churchland’s example in isolate, separate to any answers we may give to the questions it poses, precisely because of the impetus it gives us to question.

However, it is worth pointing out the direction it gives us. Understanding human behaviour as being inseparable from its acting out of natural laws, we are faced with the chasm between us and the world we inhabit wrenching shut. We already intuitively realise that it is nonsense to apply moral considerations to gravity, or the speed of light, or any natural law. Yet we apply them freely, even gleefully, to the expression of these laws in certain biological processes. How ludicrous it would be, then, to apply moral criteria to our example here — to moralise a tumour! — and yet that is exactly what most people would be want to do. The Virginian man example masterfully embodies the Nietzschean maxim that there are no moral phenomena, only moral interpretations of phenomena. From here it is a straight line to saying that these interpretations are the product of emotional responses to stimuli, responses totally explainable and placeable within nomological descriptions, that is, themselves being totally physical as opposed to metaphysical, and that the attribution of moral values to phenomena is systematically in error insofar as it claims there is some property called morality substantiated within the phenomenon.

How is folk sexuality to explain such an instance as that given by the Virginian man? It cannot. Folk sexuality is concerned only with social behaviour, being a special form of folk psychology, and with concepts like validity (a value judgement). It can say nothing on such an instance, in part because it goes some way to undermining some of the most fundamental premises of folk sexuality itself, namely that there are valid and invalid expressions of human sex drive. Again, this attribution of moral value to the mechanical phenomena of nature is in error. The phenomena exist, and demand serious study — study of the genetic basis for sexuality, of the effect various social forms have on the expression of these genes, of the neurological processes involved, and so on. Folk psychology can tell us nothing about the phenomenal experience beyond metaphor and behaviourism, and folk sexuality can tell us nothing beyond the relationship of the specified biological phenomenon to the currently dominant mode of production and associated ideology (that is, whether it is an antiformist, reformist, or conformist phenomenon, being to a greater or lesser extent compatible with and/or integral to the reproduction of the given social system).

Churchland’s example demands of philosophy many things, one of which being that it marries itself intimately with the empirical and natural sciences. It highlights the limits of pure reason, and of folk explanations for phenomena; it powerfully points philosophy in a certain direction: the direction of empiricism and naturalism, not rationalism and metaphysics. It also reminds us what philosophy is meant to be for: it is the study of knowledge, and of the right application of that knowledge. What other field is there to answer the questions our example poses? Science is impotent in providing normative directions, knowing only the study of what is and what may be, not what should be; superstition is, in turn, impotent in providing an understanding of ourselves and of the world, merely positing increasingly alienating metaphysical entities. Philosophy had the honour and privilege of being the midwife of the natural sciences in their oh so long and painful birth, and now they are born and grown, she, in turn, reaps the fruit of their labours — not as a parasitic hanger-on, but as an integral part of the process of knowledge-building, creating and perpetually refining the language and concepts of the sciences and working towards the unification of their myriad data and theories into a single unified science.

This example Churchland has provided is so incredibly fertile for philosophical discussion that it has taken us, in these short few minutes, from biology to psychology, to sexuality, to ethics and responsibility, to antiformist political movements, to philosophy of science and metaphilosophy. And all the while, a recurrent thought: wow — wow at the scientific knowledge we now possess, and the promise of what we may therefore one day soon know; wow at the capacity for change; wow at the possibilities that lie open to a social movement setting itself against the present state of things and struggling to realise a new social system. This is the wonder of philosophy, a wonder inseparable from the wonder of science and the nature of human society as being fundamentally in motion.

Philosophy. Writing on Marxism, eliminativism in philosophy of mind and metaethics, suffering(-focused ethics), and philosophical pessimism.

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