Monday, August 02, 2010

the limits of the coded world

NYTimes | To my mind the philosopher who gave the most complete answer to this question was Immanuel Kant. In Kant’s view, the main mistake philosophers before him had made when considering how humans could have accurate knowledge of the world was to forget the necessary difference between our knowledge and the actual subject of that knowledge. At first glance, this may not seem like a very easy thing to forget; for example, what our eyes tell us about a rainbow and what that rainbow actually is are quite different things. Kant argued that our failure to grasp this difference was further reaching and had greater consequences than anyone could have thought.

The belief that our empirical exploration of the world and of the human brain could ever eradicate human freedom is an error.

Taking again the example of the rainbow, Kant would argue that while most people would grant the difference between the range of colors our eyes perceive and the refraction of light that causes this optical phenomenon, they would still maintain that more careful observation could indeed bring one to know the rainbow as it is in itself, apart from its sensible manifestation. This commonplace understanding, he argued, was at the root of our tendency to fall profoundly into error, not only about the nature of the world, but about what we were justified in believing about ourselves, God, and our duty to others.

The problem was that while our senses can only ever bring us verifiable knowledge about how the world appears in time and space, our reason always strives to know more than appearances can show it. This tendency of reason to always know more is and was a good thing. It is why human kind is always curious, always progressing to greater and greater knowledge and accomplishments. But if not tempered by a respect for its limits and an understanding of its innate tendencies to overreach, reason can lead us into error and fanaticism.

Let’s return to the example of the experiment predicting the monkeys’ decisions. What the experiment tells us is nothing other than that the monkeys’ decision making process moves through the brain, and that our technology allows us to get a reading of that activity faster than the monkeys’ brain can put it into action. From that relatively simple outcome, we can now see what an unjustified series of rather major conundrums we had drawn. And the reason we drew them was because we unquestioningly translated something unknowable — the stretch of time including the future of the monkeys’ as of yet undecided and unperformed actions — into a neat scene that just needed to be decoded in order to be experienced. We treated the future as if it had already happened and hence as a series of events that could be read and narrated.

From a Kantian perspective, with this simple act we allowed reason to override its boundaries, and as a result we fell into error. The error we fell into was, specifically, to believe that our empirical exploration of the world and of the human brain could ever eradicate human freedom.

This, then, is why, as “irresistible” as their logic might appear, none of the versions of Galen Strawson’s “Basic Argument” for determinism, which he outlined in The Stone last week, have any relevance for human freedom or responsibility. According to this logic, responsibility must be illusory, because in order to be responsible at any given time an agent must also be responsible for how he or she became how he or she is at that time, which initiates an infinite regress, because at no point can an individual be responsible for all the genetic and cultural forces that have produced him or her as he or she is. But this logic is nothing other than a philosophical version of the code of codes; it assumes that the sum history of forces determining an individual exist as a kind of potentially legible catalog.

The point to stress, however, is that this catalog is not even legible in theory, for to be known it assumes a kind of knower unconstrained by time and space, a knower who could be present from every possible perspective at every possible deciding moment in an agent’s history and prehistory. Such a knower, of course, could only be something along the lines of what the monotheistic traditions call God. But as Kant made clear, it makes no sense to think in terms of ethics, or responsibility, or freedom when talking about God; to make ethical choices, to be responsible for them, to be free to choose poorly, all of these require precisely the kind of being who is constrained by the minimal opacity that defines our kind of knowing.

As much as we owe the nature of our current existence to the evolutionary forces Darwin first discovered, or to the cultures we grow up in, or to the chemical states affecting our brain processes at any given moment, none of this impacts on our freedom. I am free because neither science nor religion can ever tell me, with certainty, what my future will be and what I should do about it. The dictum from Sartre that Strawson quoted thus gets it exactly right: I am condemned to freedom. I am not free because I can make choices, but because I must make them, all the time, even when I think I have no choice to make.