Friday, October 17, 2008

The Emergent Freedom of the Mind in the Brain: A Reply to Stephen Craig Dilley

In the 2008 issue of the Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies, Stephen Craig Dilley--a philosopher at St. Edward's University--has an article on "Enlightenment Science and Globalization." He attacks my Darwinian conservatism because of its "Enlightenment claim that the laws of nature and material causes are sufficient to produce 'emergent' human minds capable of the kind of free will consistent with moral responsibility." The problem, he warns, is that this "implies determinism of the mind and the disintegration of morality."

In Darwinian Natural Right and Darwinian Conservatism, I have argued that the human mind or soul can be explained as a product of the emergent evolution of the brain. The evolution of the primate brain shows a trend towards increasing size and complexity of the neocortex, which allows for greater behavioral flexibility in these animals. This trend reaches its peak in the human brain. Larger and more complex frontal lobes give animals the capacity for voluntary action, in the sense that they can learn to alter their behavior in adaptive ways. In human evolution, the growth in the size and complexity of the frontal lobes passed over a critical threshold allowing human beings to use words and images to compare alternative courses of action through mental trial and error. Consequently, human beings are capable not just of voluntary action but of deliberate choice, by which they self-consciously choose present courses of action in the light of past experiences and future expectations to conform to some general plan of life.

Against this, Dilley develops two kinds of criticism. First, he complains that my account of the emergent evolution of the mind in the brain is too vague, because it does not explain the specific details of how exactly the evolution of the primate brain gives rise to the human mind. Second, he argues that since I never explain "how mental events and properties can transcend the limits of physical causation," but rather assume "the sufficiency of purely natural causes to account for all things in heaven and on earth," I must implicitly accept that all human actions are causally determined by material causes and natural laws. This assumption that all mental activity has natural causes leads to the "disintegration of morality," Dilley insists, because it denies the possibility of free will and thus denies that people can be held morally responsible for their actions.

To the first charge, I plead guilty. I don't provide a detailed explanation for exactly how the human mind arises from the evolution of the brain, because as far as I know, no one has yet worked out such an explanation. Lots of evidence points to the evolutionary history of the primate brain as passing over some kind of critical threshold at which fully human mental capacities appear. But it's hard to say how exactly that happens. Our situation is comparable to our ignorance prior to the 1950s of how exactly genes work. We knew a lot about the outcomes of these genetic mechanisms. But we didn't know exactly how these mechanisms worked. In fact, even today, genetics is still shrouded in great mystery. The same is true for explaining how human self-conscious thinking and willing arises in the brain as shaped by a history of genetic evolution. But even so, we can say that the evidence supports the general conclusion that the mind arises in the brain by some kind of natural causality.

Does Dilley have his own detailed explanation of how exactly the human mind originated? If he does, he does not lay it out it in this article. It's hard to know how to respond to his criticism of my account of the evolutionary emergence of mind, because he offers no alternative explanation of his own.

Similarly, it's hard to respond to his criticism of my account of human mental freedom, because he never explains his alternative. At one point, he complains that in my reasoning, "God, spiritual beings, or non-material causes are out of the picture." But then he never explains exactly how "God, spiritual beings, or non-material causes" create human mental freedom.

Against the Kantian account of moral freedom as freedom from nature, I argue that our moral experience requires a notion of moral freedom as freedom within nature. The uniqueness of human beings as moral agents requires not a free will that transcends nature--as Dilley seems to believe--but a natural capacity to deliberate about one's desires.

We hold people responsible for their actions when they act voluntarily and deliberately. They act voluntarily when they act knowingly and without external force to satisfy their desires. They act with deliberate choice when, having weighed one desire against another in the light of past experience and future expectations, they choose that course of action likely to satisfy their desires harmoniously over a complete life. Such deliberation is required for virtue in the strict sense, although most human beings most of the time act by impulse and habit with little or no deliberation.

Children and other animals are capable of voluntary action. But only mature human adults have the cognitive capacity for deliberate choice. Being morally responsible is not being free of one's natural desires. Rather, to be responsible one must organize and manage one's desires through habituation and reflection to conform to some conception of a whole life well lived. One must do this to attain the happiness of a flourishing life, which is the ultimate end of all human action.

I reject any contrast between free will and determinism as a false dichotomy. Moral freedom should be identified not as the absence of determinism but as a certain kind of determinism. We are free when our actions are determined by our deliberate choices. I doubt that we ever have any real experience of people acting outside the laws of nature. Moral judgment assumes a regular and predictable connection between what people desire and what they do. To hold people responsible for their actions, we must assume that their beliefs and desires causally determine their actions.

I reject the idea of free will as uncaused cause. I agree with Jonathan Edwards that whatever comes into existence must have a cause. Only what is self-existent from eternity--God--could be uncaused or self-determined. In fact, the very idea of free will as uncaused cause comes from the biblical conception of God, and so, as Martin Luther observed, "free will is a divine term and signifies a divine power." Against the absurd idea that human beings could have such a divine power of free will as uncaused cause, I would say--like Edwards--that the common-sense notion of liberty is the power to act as one chooses regardless of the cause of the choice.

So what is Dilley's alternative? It's not clear. He refers to "agent causes." He never explains what that means. But since he rejects my idea that in human choices, our beliefs and desires causally determine our actions, I can only infer that he is implicitly appealing to free will as uncaused cause.

If that's what he is doing, then I would respond to him as I have to Denyse O'Leary. Like O'Leary, Dilley seems to adhere to a Gnostic dualism that insists on an absolute separation of mind and body. This Gnostic scorn for the natural world as incapable of embodying spiritual freedom denies both Christian orthodoxy and common sense.

Is Dilley implying that we cannot explain the emergence of the human mind without invoking "God, spiritual beings, or non-material causes"? If so, could he explain how exactly this works? And could he explain why God was either unable or unwilling to create the human soul through natural evolution?


John Landon said...

The question of the evolution of freedom is not really addressed adequately in the Darwin paradigm. The debate over naturalistic vs Kantian ethics is an indication of this.
Arnhart is right: we don't know the answer yet.
Discussion at

Marchant said...

Agreed, but neuroscience and anthropology are making great advances towards that answer.

For a substantial account of the evolution of the primate brain to construct a mind capable of "virtual" thoughts, see the following:

"Religion a figment of human imagination."