Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Noumenal soul and the causal order

      If I don't know 'what I am' but only know 'that I am', does that mean that 'I' ultimately refers to something unknowable? a Kantian noumenon?
      In the Critique of Pure Reason Kant is absolutely convinced of the truth of Newtonian mechanics. Kant saw it as the task of metaphysics to establish, a priori, the underpinnings of the Newtonian view of the world of phenomena.
      This leads him, in Groundwork for the Metaphysic of Morals into extraordinary gyrations, attempting to reconcile free will with determinism. Every action my physical body performs is determined. And yet, these actions when motivated by thought of the Moral Law are 'free'. The only difference between actions motivated by empirical desire and actions motivated by the Moral Law lies in the way they are 'rationalized' by the agent, whether as hypothetical or categorical imperatives.
      This isn't the kind of 'freedom' we want or is worth wanting, would be my reply. The day I was born determined absolutely, on Kant's Newtonian picture, that I would become a person who was only motivated by the Catagorical Imperative, or a person who ignored morality and just did what he wanted — or something in between. as most of us are.
      I remember reading some time ago a contemporary criticism of Kant's 'causal whirligig'. Looking up the phrase on the internet I found this, in a letter from Hamann to Herder:

      Hume is the man for me, for he at least honors the principle of belief, and includes it in his system, while our contryman [i.e. Kant] keeps on chewing the cud of his causal whirligig, without a thought for belief. I don't call that honest. (Quoted in Louis Dupré The Enlightenment and the Intellectual Foundations of Modern Culture.)

      I've mentioned in a YouTube video P.F. Strawson's scepticism in The Bounds of Sense about Kant's alleged 'proof' of universal determinism. The most Kant can establish, Strawson thought, was that there must be a rough causal order, sufficiently 'regular' to allow for us to distinguish (most of the time) between veridical perception and false sensory judgements.
      This misses, perhaps deliberately, Kant's point: Either there is such a thing as objective truth or there isn't. If there isn't, on the basis of causal linkage, a definite answer — even though we may never discover this — to every question that can be raised about the past, then there is no objective truth. There are merely Humean 'beliefs' more or less well supported (or provoked by) experience. An intolerable conclusion, for Kant.
      To allow for free will by smashing the scientific picture of the world and allowing random irruptions in the causal order is surely too high a price to pay for free will. Hume, for one, does not consider this a serious possibility. His 'rules' for judging cause and effect would be rendered useless. Hume is in fact a compatibilist about free will. Nothing is to be gained by making the agent a roulette wheel, capable of generating random uncaused 'actions'.
      However, there is an alternative, a 'loop hole'.
      In an essay I wrote in my first year as a graduate student at Oxford (in Hilary Term 1977, for M.J. Woods) I believed that I had found a way round the standard objections to mind-body interaction:

      Let C be a system constituted by individuals which may be in one of two states, 0 or 1. Let 0–>1 be a 'random' process which has a relaxation rate R (i.e. there are on average R transitions 0–>1 per second). Such a system might be a substance whose molecules are changing from a higher to a lower energy state. We may suppose that a Cartesian mental event is able to determine whether molecule A or molecule B undergoes the change of state 0–>1, and that such interactions can occur without violating the law of statistical mechanics according to which the relaxation rate for C is R. The  brain functions as a relay which converts local changes of state of certain kinds of molecule into, say, electrical impulses.

      On this picture, we know what the 'soul' or 'I factor' does, but there is no suggestion that one could ever deduce from this what it is. It remains 'noumenal', in Kant's sense.

      That was, in fact, the last time I seriously considered the possibility (and only hypothetically) that mind-body interactionist dualism might be true. (I don't recall Woods' reaction to this particular essay but I can picture him now, squirming in his seat, as I read my essays out aloud, following the usual practice. Having me as a student was a penance.)

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