Every hand’s a winner,
And every hand’s a loser.
–Kenny Rogers, The Gambler
Just this morning, the following items came across my radar. Can you detect the basic alternative that is common to all of them?
At the New York Times, Eddy Nahmias asks: “Is Neuroscience the Death of Free Will?” (A very good read in its own right, I’m not linking it just for the title!)
Via Twitter, Linda Cordair (@CordairGallery) tweets:
The bond that links your true family is not one of blood, but of respect and joy in each other’s life.
From Jennifer Casey, at her blog “Rational Jenn”:
Morgan said the most interesting thing to us the other day. It was something like this:
“There are three people who can invent me–you two [pointing at me and Brendan] and ME!”
That statement led to a fascinating conversation about how, yes, we created her, but she is primarily responsible for inventing herself.
Because she is. We gave her the raw materials, but she must learn and figure things out and integrate concepts and make decisions, all things which will shape her mind and sense of self and sense of life–each of which will in turn affect future decisions and her thinking (and even the decision to think).
Those of you who have read enough of my writings about ideological causation should already be able to suspect what’s coming, as I have touched on this connection before. The obvious form of the alternative, is free will versus determinism, yes — but I want to discuss a closely related expression of this alternative: ideological versus physical causation as the motor of human action.
Ideological causation is my integration of “the inexorable logic of ideas”, with the premise of free will. I first conceived of it sixteen years ago when I spotted the false presumption behind David Kelley’s accusing Leonard Peikoff of “Hegelianism” in regard to the latter’s invocation of “inexorable logic” in explaining that it is ideas that move men (in the latter’s essay “Fact and Value”). “Hegelianism”, as I understood Kelley to mean, was the notion that ideas themselves are the moral agents, and that men were *passively* moved by them.
My immediate reaction to that claim, was to laugh out loud. It was clear to me that Dr. Peikoff had left unexpressed, for simple reasons of economy, the basic premise of free will which all genuine Objectivists would know was part of the underlying assumptions. In other words, ideas do move men, so long as they accept them. Men are always free to get off that train, I thought. Else what is the point of Ayn Rand’s most famous quote: “Check your premises”?
That is the key right there. The differences between physical and ideological causation are as follows:
1. Physical causation, or ordinary causality, is driven by the laws of physics, and is deterministic. The entities involved, from quarks to galaxies, act as determined by those laws — there is only one causal path they may follow.
2. Ideological causation is driven by basic logic – and the entities involved retain the ability to interrupt it and to redirect their course onto different causal paths.
“Different causal paths” is of course what I am referring to with my road metaphor. The central idea involved here, is “the ability to interrupt”, also known as free will — and the entities involved are of a special sort: they are the ones possessing a conceptual form of consciousness. Human beings are the only entities we know of that fit this criterion.
Philosophical determinism is, in essence, the insistence upon substituting physical causation for ideological causation as the motor of human action. The very notion of “ideological causation” is that ideas are efficacious in the world, and that is what is specifically being denied by determinism. If that is clear to you, dear reader, the examples of this error in action all over our culture should be multiplying in your mind right now.
Obvious examples of this error are Eddy Nahmias’ neuroscientists, and their thinkalikes in the evolutionary psychology field. From there, you can see it in every article trumpeting the latest “Gene for X found“, where “X” is some human behavior. But it just keeps going from there.
How many times have you seen some political commentator insist that his opponents are “crazy”? If we take “crazy” to mean an actual illness or other physical issue with his opponent’s brain, that commentator is doing the same thing — he is ascribing physical rather than ideological causation to explaining his opponents’ ideas. This is common with both Leftists and conservatives, and it is due to ideological (not physical) causes that are common to them both. Conservatives in particular are known for their disdain for the efficacy of ideas; it’s a direct side effect of their “Original Sin” premise (more on that below).
In addition to disease or injury (“you fell on your head/ate paint chips as a kid, didn’t you?”), another common form of physical causation invoked to explain ideological effects, is genetics. This one should be familiar from one of its most virulent and common logical expressions: racism.
Racism is a species of collectivism, of course, so now let’s shine that light over there (yes, this is a very target-rich topic). Among other things, collectivism views individuals as interchangeable. This makes perfect sense from a viewpoint informed exclusively by physical causation: if the active causative agent is genetics, then all individuals bearing the same genes will enact the same effects (i.e. their identity is a function of the physical aspect defining the group, not of any choices made by any individual). They will look the same, act the same, smell the same; one is as good as any other of that particular group.
None of this changes when you swap in some other physical cause. Jump from “nature to “nurture”; now the physical causation involved is one’s environment. From that bizarre “your tools condition your mind” notion that Ayn Rand lambasted in “Atlas Shrugged”, to Marx and his economic determinism, to the Left’s fetish with the deterministic power of society — the end result is the same: if you came from culture X, that is what determines your identity. That’s what you were seeing when some Leftists were asking if Barack Obama was “black enough” — and why Lefties, like religionists, become unhinged in the face of “apostates” who don’t follow the expected program (Herman Cain, Clarence Thomas, Sarah Palin and Ann Coulter for four quick examples.) Then you come to Harry Belafonte and his infamous “race traitor” comments, and you see how all of these examples start blending together when viewed from the correct perspective. (Funny how that happens!)
How about non-physical causes? Cue the religionists! What exactly do you think that “Original Sin” or “The devil made me do it” IS, if not another example of a claimed external and determinate cause of individual behavior? The posited cause is “spiritual” rather than physical, the group so defined is humanity itself, and the ultimate “determinor” is God’s law rather than the laws of physics or genetics — but these differences pertain entirely to metaphysics. The essence of the idea, and its moral consequences, are the same. (Christianity has not been consistent on this point over its history with regards to free will, but it has never corrected the basic error. Such is the, er. ideologically determined nature of inherently arbitrary doctrines.)
And finally, this: does anyone recognize Kant’s notion of “innate ideas” here? “Innate” means innate to the nature of the subject being discussed — human nature, in this case. In other words, ideas in the mind that are predetermined by some physical cause. This is the ultimate abstraction of all the concretes I just described, and it’s the one active whenever you hear someone blaming “human nature” for anything.
Here we finally come to one of the signature expressions of the direct opposition between Ayn “Man is a being of self-made soul” Rand, and Immanuel “Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made” Kant!
That, ladies and gentlemen, is my explanation of the ideological causation behind the “physical causation” fetish.
As for its psychological manifestation, I’ll bet many of you are ahead of me on that one: the signature behavior is that of making excuses. Blame luck, blame God, blame one’s genetics, blame IQ, blame human nature, blame the weather, blame one’s parents or one’s rotten lousy hometown — it doesn’t matter. Such people are petrified of the responsibility of self-authorship, and I am dead certain that a significant portion of the visceral hatred for Ayn Rand comes from those who glimpse this aspect of her philosophy. Atlas Shrugged is full of this sort of character; they are the ones, like Eric Starnes, screaming “But I couldn’t help it!” Ayn Rand clearly had their number.
When she said “Man is a being of self-made soul”, she meant specifically that, as individuals, we author ourselves — and are morally responsible for the results. As I have written before, it is our *character* that we author, not our physical bodies or our nature as human beings. It is our character which is “tabula rasa”, not our nature. The latter does not determine the content of our character, but merely defines the potential that every individual has. It’s up to each one of us to actualize it.
We can see the alternative logically playing itself out among Eddy Nahmias’ apostles of physical determinism.
It’s the meaning behind Linda Cordair’s quote: true family is not defined by the physical accidents of birth or genetics, but by the values chosen in common by the individuals involved. (The bond of common experiences in growing up together, counts as such a choice.)
Most importantly, this is what Jennifer Casey is teaching her children, and they will be far and away the better off for it. It will be that sense of self-authorship which forms the basis for Morgan’s self-respect, and self-discipline. The goal of such parenting is not to “imbue the child with one’s values” as so many think it is, but to provide the child with as solid a base as possible from which to sally forth into the world and discover them for herself; as Jenn puts it: “This idea of self-invention relates to my parenting principles in that I deliberately try to stay out of their self-invention as much as possible.” Compare and contrast this with all the square pegs being shoved into round holes by parents whose preconceptions of what their kid is determined to be, overrides what the child himself may think (if he even makes it that far).
It’s not about the cards you are dealt; those merely set your limits. Your character lies in how you play the hand.