A Selected Excerpt
Chapter XII – Free Will
I have recently been reading Ernst Cassirer’s Determinism and Indeterminism in Modern Physics.1 Cassirer is a brilliant writer. He is thoroughly at home in science and in philosophy. He is an exponent of the new enlightenment and, generally speaking, provides as fair an example as I could pick of the obfuscation and ambivalence in which modem thought becomes entangled.
The book leads up to a final chapter in which Cassirer deals with the crucial question of whether the indeterminism established by quantum physics has a bearing on the question of free will and the related questions of ethics. He concludes, as have almost all authorities who have approached the problem, that it does not.
Of course, I believe it does, but because I am outnumbered and outpointed by rational argument, for my opponents are all rational men, I am compelled either to retire in defeat or to meet their arguments eyeball to eyeball. This is difficult, if not impossible, for the use of reason, which has trapped them, would also trap me. There is nothing I’d enjoy better than a blow-by-blow rational argument, but even if I were to win the battles, I could not win the war, as I’ve learned many times.
Therefore, instead of trying to win the argument in regard to free will, I propose to lay siege to philosophy in general, in order to restore that whole thinking with which we have lost touch in our bedazzlement with science.
We can begin with the famous Laplacean “intelligence,” which, given accurate information about every particle in the universe, could predict what was going to happen for all time. Cassirer devotes his first chapter to this subject.
He explains that his reference to the Laplacean spirit is not made because it is appropriate as a picture of a universe, but because it is not. For were it possible for human understanding to raise itself to this ideal intelligence, it would still be but “one aspect of the total of being.” Here we can back up Cassirer, for of the three modalities–relation, action, and state–all the knowledge of the Laplacean spirit is confined to relationship, and of the four kinds of relationship, it accounts only for the self-contained, or objective general, type of information. So we can say that even if such a degree of knowledge were possible, it would have access only to one-twelfth of reality.
So far, so good. But Cassirer now says that the vast and important domains contained by reality dissolve into nothingness when we depart from this idealized objectivity. Perhaps I misunderstand him, but I would insist we do have access to these vast and important domains, not only through the other kinds of knowing, emotional, intuitive, etc., but through four kinds of action and four kinds of experience of states. In fact, the notion of objective structure can never do more than share totality with eleven other aspects.
But perhaps I should formulate better arguments about this important issue, for it emerges again and again, and in many forms, in Western thought. Cassirer himself, of course, realizes the shortcomings of the Laplacean intelligence. He shows that Hume was able to shatter the monolithic unity of the system of cause and effect (upon which the determinism of the Laplacean intelligence depends) by simply doubting the objectivity of causality. Hume’s skepticism was based on the fact that we know about the objective world only through our perceptions, which is where the principle of causation exists. We can find no evidence of causality “out there.” It is a mere belief.
I find Hume’s argument unconvincing. While it is true that cause and effect is not objective because it is a relationship that requires time, and hence not the symmetrical type of relationship that objectivity demands, it is not for this reason less “real.” In fact, according to the ontological scheme we have set forth, cause and effect is second-level. It is of the same ontological order as is time. It is also at the level we accord to emotion, things felt, which are the “realest” of all, for they include pain and pleasure.2
So where do we stand? The “shocking” skepticism of Hume, which affirms that cause and effect is not objective, is already anticipated. And the supposed implication, that the reality of cause and effect is therefore undermined, is wrong-end-to. One just doesn’t undermine reality. One discovers a deeper reality, both more real in feeling and ontologically prior because it is second-level.
This is not Cassirer’s view, however. He calls the inability to give up the “belief” in causality a mental failing. He feels we “overstep the limits which have been set for human knowledge as soon as we give this belief any objective basis.”3
We cannot blame Cassirer for the confusion that Hume initiated; it is of long standing. It consists in proving that because x is not objective, it does not exist. If x were a headache, its “nonobjectivity” would diminish its reality not a whit. Why then should the nonobjectivity of causality diminish its reality? We are being given the same razzmatazz that made Zeno famous.
But we can see the situation as one which calls for application of the three-operator, not analysis. Cause and effect involves time sequence. Referring to Chapter XI, the relation of fire to cooking is causal if fire comes first. This is the natural order when the barn bums down and roast pig results. But purposive intelligence can invert the relation and build a fire in order to cook. It is entirely correct that causation is not objective. If it were, the order could not be inverted, as it must be if we build a fire in order to cook.
Cassirer now introduces Kant. He says that Kant confirms Hume, but takes the argument still further in that he applies i to the causal concept in general Kant concludes that we cannot through reason conceive how any change comes about. Addressing himself to the epistemological question, Kant entitles transcendental all knowledge which is occupied, not with objects, but with how knowledge of objects comes about (my paraphrase). It is a priori to the objective knowledge.
This term “transcendental” has always puzzled me, partly because the word seems to imply something “beyond what is natural.” Seen in the light of our present discussion, however, the word is equivalent to what we call projective, that is, it is nonobjective; it is prior to objectivity. I see no reason for not thinking it natural. It is the basis for (but not equivalent to) rational knowledge.
Perhaps the simplest way to see the difference is to correlate projective (Kant’s transcendental) to quantity, and objective to ratio. The difference is basic and all important: the former we have correlated to material cause (water), and the latter to formal cause (air). It is also the old issue of substance versus form. It gave rise to Aristotle’s question: is the soul substance or is it form? His decision, reached in his later work, was that it is form. If so, it follows that since form can have no existence apart from a body, the soul does not survive the body. It is not immortal. Since the earlier doctrine that the soul is substance, and therefore immortal,4 was not invented by Plato, but was traditional, we can say that this reasoned conclusion of Aristotle initiated the emphasis on objectivity which has characterized Western thought.
For form is communicable, it can be defined, it can be formulated. Moreover, because it can be formulated, it can be conceptualized. If we ask reason to tell us what is real, reason will invariably present us with its own produce. It will hand concepts. Substance it will deny. This takes us to another pa of the forest, for during the period that Hume and Kant were demolishing the objectivity of cause and effect, other philosophers were busy demolishing substance. As we have already pointed out in Chapter VIII on substance and form, Berkeley proposed to dismiss the notion of substance altogether. He pointed out that the chemist has no need for the notion of substance since he can always tell whether the object before him is gold by comparing it in various ways wit other objects. He obtains its specific gravity, its combining proportions, its solubility in different acids-ratios, in short.
But the good bishop was playing two chess games at once. He must have been quite a cantankerous fellow, for he was n content to elevate ratio at the expense of substance, as Aristotle had elevated form at its expense. He also saw fit to attack Newton for doing the same thing but more competently and in a more appropriate application.
We have already touched on this subject in Chapter 11, where we briefly referred to Newton’s discovery that not only could we measure space and time, we could employ the ratio of space to time, that is, velocity. But Berkeley insisted that such a ratio was a “logical absurdity.” It is true that it was perhaps the device of taking this ratio over infinitesimal intervals of time that disturbed Berkeley, yet this was the step that freed the ratio from the necessity of a tie to substance, the very thing Berkeley elsewhere insisted on.
Now isn’t that strange? Berkeley, reasoning shrewdly, decides substance is superfluous, as it is for chemists; yet when Newton takes the step that eliminates it and formally elevates the Bishop’s own proposal by the invention of the calculus, the Bishop is outraged. He would deny substance to chemists and ratio to mathematicians. This kind of “push me, pull me” is great stuff to a higher form of consciousness, but it is murder for philosophy because the philosopher feels he must take sides.
But bear with me. Johann Sebastian Bach, who was born March 21, 1685, the day before Berkeley, at a time when a number of planets were in sharp opposition, translated this opposition into his contrapuntal music. He was able to stand above the “push me, pull me,” and sense it as an ecstasy, a cosmic copulation. Berkeley was victimized by it.
But we must not tarry with astrology. My purpose is to show the interplay of the four elements, fire, water, air, and earth, the necessity of opposites for one another, and of both for that which mediates. In passing, we have also seen how these great issues of philosophy are built into the fabric of reality, which is not form or substance alone, but both together, and more, for we must not forget their quadrate relationship with function and the physical object.
Put another way, we can say that in our materialist orientation (which, by the way, I am not criticizing, because one can start at any point in the circle or cycle) we begin, or at least agree to begin, with physical objects or particulars of experience. We cannot rest there because we need to extrapolate, to theorize from what we know of these particulars, to something else. We have two alternatives. We can extract from the objects their form, which includes formulating their motions, behavior, nature, etc., or we can extract from their substance, their feet The former leads to a static view of relationship structure, a world of interlocking connectivity which can be seen all at once, like a map of the subways in a great city, a map that includes time, but does so in a way that removes from time its excruciating reality as change. This is the mental world, the world seen by the Laplacean intelligence.
The latter, or the emphasis on substance, leads us back to the feeling world that precedes intellect or formulation. Lacking the light that reveals things all at once, it might be thought that it is a world of darkness, but it is not. It is full of images, spooks, wraiths, phantoms but also of beauty; it is the world of dreams, of images. It is, in a sense, the world of illusion, but it is the movement of life because it is substance, we can take hold of it.
The deficiency of this world is that it is both a Garden of Eden and a trap. To escape, we must sever ourselves from it by an act of the mind, like a fish climbing out of the water to get its bearings, and from this island of the ego, we can look about us and learn a little.
It is impossible to have either form or substance in an absolutely pure state. Except, perhaps, for raw energy itself, there is no substance that does not have some structure. The raw material of which we make things, wood, iron, clay, has structure in its molecular interstices, and even the purest mathematical forms require substance for their representation; we need pencil and paper, or electricity to run the computer.
So the endless debates of philosophers on form versus substance can never be settled on the terms that the contestants desire: a unilateral decision for one and against the other.
If the reader understands what we have covered so far, he may close the book. But first let him be prepared to use the tools we have resurrected from the ancients. For we are not living in the 17th and 18th centuries, when the Age of Reason wore a peruke and graced its halls with colored silk and string quartets. Nor even in the 19th century, when prisons and policemen were invented, when steam locomotives, stoves, and top hats led the somber parade toward morality and transcendental philosophy. (A deadening era too, since the testimony from science that broke the rule of reason was the second law of thermodynamics, or entropy, stating that the universe is running down, down, down, to end forever in a lukewarm death.)
We are living in our own time. We have made new discoveries, found many things not known before. It is already evident that these advances in technology are a mixed blessing, for reasons that are hard to generalize. But I think it is safe to say that their bad effect proceeds from the fact that they are partial. They elevate and amplify one factor at the expense of others. Not long ago, writers were given to saying that man lagged behind the developments of science, implying that some more advanced type of humanity was necessary to these new devices, but this notion, which puts the cart before the horse, is less in evidence of late. We are aware that pollution of the atmosphere and hydrosphere is a fault of the overall control of technology, not of man’s evolution.
In any case, this is not our present concern. We are concerned with mental pollution, with the degree to which new ideas have so deluded us that we have lost all common sense. am not against science. I am all for it. Nor do I believe in ignoring recent progress in science, for the handwriting of quantum physics contains an insight more profound than any it has been man’s privilege to hear in the many centuries of modem history. But because man’s mind is so deluded with rational half-truths, we have not read this message correctly.
How may we do so? Let me return to Cassirer.
No one would question his merits as a mind and as a philosopher. And as I read Determinism and Indeterminism in Modern Physics, like watching an archaeologist digging up a valuable find, I saw how carefully and rightfully he made his progress, only, at the very end, to miss the point.
But, as I said earlier, he is not alone in this. If I were to say, “Hold on there, Professor. That lump of clay which you just tossed aside is worth more than your whole museum. Please look at it closely, scrape off the encrusted matter, test its hardness on your watch crystal. It is the jewel you seek, the diamond that can cut the hardest steel, that will cleave carborundum like butter,” there are dozens who would say I was wrong. Therefore, in this chapter I have taken the reader on a long excursion. Not being able to climb the north face of the Matterhorn, I have taken him all the way around. In this whole book I have laid down a scheme of meaning which, in a sense, is just a map upon which to base the strategy for the climb.
It is here that the challenge for the reader lies: to cut through the obscurity of the present, not the smog of pollution, but the smog of education, of intellect that has lost touch with both sense and intuition. How are we to restore man to wholeness?
I was told of a Warhol movie, Trash, in which an impotent junkie is the protagonist. A number of females endeavor to induce an erection, using techniques currently described as oral-genital. Of course, I am shocked, etc., but on reflection, I recognize the outlines of a very ancient myth showing through, the myth of Osiris, the man-god who descends into the lower world, where he is cut up into pieces by Set. Set throws the pieces into the marsh. Isis, Osiris’ sister and mate, gathers them up and finds all but the penis. Despite this deficiency, Isis conceives from the assembled corpse the infant Horus, the hero who conquers Set and becomes the Sun God.
What is the penis of Osiris? We have by this time become accustomed to the Freudian ploy: “What is the meaning of (the Tower of Pisa, climbing Mount Everest, a golf club, kitchen knives)?” “A sex symbol,” says the shrink. But now we have a myth about the penis. What does that mean? We can no longer say simply that it is a sex symbol. That tells us nothing. Taking the myth in its totality, we can see that what is lost when Osiris is dismembered is wholeness. Like a car disassembled and no longer a car, Osiris is not capable of generation, not because he lacks a penis, but because, since he is not a whole person, he is not able to initiate, to be cause. This, then, is the meaning of the penis. It is the power of generation, and it is the person in his capacity to initiate new endeavors, to create, to make things happen.
The myth of Osiris is a death-and-rebirth myth. It is a hero myth, but it is also a virgin birth myth, which is to say, it tells how something comes out of nothing. It is about first cause. In several ways we are told that the cause of generation is not a visible physical thing, not something objective.
Quantum physics, I believe, tells the same story. It tells us that behind the phenomenal objective world there is something we cannot in any objective sense know, something which can be characterized only as uncertainty, but something which is the cause. It is a quantum of action, a whole act. Cassirer, as I have said, rejects the possibility that the indeterminacy discovered by quantum physics is the freedom of free will. Because I do not agree, it is hard for me to state his reasons fairly, but I will try.
Reaching the end of his exposition of causality and of quantum theory, Cassirer takes up the free-will question in his “Concluding Remarks and Implications for Ethics.”5 He begins with the stock “hands off” warning to which professional scientists resort when they want to keep philosophers and amateurs from prodding into the significance of concepts which they themselves use in a rather specialized manner. Kant, he says, insisted that only distortion occurs when we permit boundaries between fields of knowledge to run together. This is what occurs, says Cassirer, when statements about indeterminism in quantum theory are directly connected with metaphysical speculations about freedom of the will.
He then goes on to say that it is precisely the uniqueness of ethics that sets it in a realm apart from that of physics. Ethics, he says, would be in a bad way, would lose all its dignity, “if it could maintain its authority and fulfill its particular function in no other way than by keeping a lookout for gaps in the scientific explanation of nature and taking shelter, so to speak, in these gaps.”
The eloquence of this point is admirable, but in considering such basic issues as that of first cause, we must not make divisions; we cannot truly separate the world into a physical and an ethical domain without having made an irreversible choice in the limitations of the respective fields. Moreover, Cassirer is mixing up the methodology of physics with the findings of physics.
It was not a part of the method of physics to conjure up indeterminacy. Indeterminacy was a shattering discovery that delivered a knockout blow to classical science by showing that the method of science could go only so far. There was vital core in phenomena, a core that could not be formulated or bounded. This finding is of concern to philosophers because it indicates that the boundary separating ethics from physics does not exist at the primordial level. The revolutionary discoveries of quantum physics are a reminder that even the “particles” of classical physics are engaging in ethical struggles. Having confused the findings of science (which are as much revelations as are those of religion) with the method of science (which is a code of behavior, a sort of ethics), Cassirer now goes on to say that what he calls the “negative concept of indeterminacy” is inadequate for the positive nature of moral freedom.
By now we should be on guard about positive and negative. We recall that every attribute has its positive and negative form, and also that each attribute (in the circle of meaning) is the opposite of the one 180 degrees from it. Thus faith and discrimination are opposite and, in a sense, the negation of one another.
To apply this concept to indeterminacy, let me tell a story. During experiments with a very remarkable “sensitive,” Frederick Marion, whose special skill was psychometry, or the ability to tell the meaning of a word or message written on a piece of paper and folded so that the subject cannot see it, I asked him to use his talent to tell me the meaning of symbols of which I myself did not know the meaning, among them astrological symbols. I gave him, folded, the sign of Sagittarius. Marion concentrated for an unusually long time. Finally, striking his fist against the palm of his hand, he said, “This is the power of ignorance!” My mind went to the emblem used on the Sikorsky helicopter:
“The bumblebee, according to the theory of aerodynamics, cannot fly,
but since the bumblebee knows nothing about aerodynamics, it goes
ahead and flies anyway.”
Do I make myself clear? On the circle of the zodiac, Sagittarius is opposite Gemini. Gemini is knowledge. Sagittarius is nonknowledge, ignorance, but it has a positive connotation, that of taking the plunge, making a decision, taking off, like an arrow launched into the unknown. To top it off, we have the position of Sagittarius (one o’clock) as that of action, the measure formula for the quantum of action (see chart at the end of Chapter IV).
In other words, the concept of indeterminacy, negative as it may be to the conscious mind, is positive in its own right. We have, in fact, already equated mind to negative being, so it follows that nonknowledge, or ignorance (uncertainty, indeterminacy), is positive being.
But there is another issue involved. Cassirer seems to equate free will with moral freedom. Here I think, thorough as he usually is, he has skipped a step. What is essential, especially in view of the deterministic bias which has infected the age, is to establish the possibility of free decision. We admit man’s many failings, his animal needs, his vanities, his shortcomings, but is there or is there not somewhere at the core of his being some essential capacity to because, to initiate a course of action that is not “fathered” by any prior cause?
That there is such a capability is testified to by all the great religions. This is the true meaning of the virgin birth. Osiris is reborn as Horus, who conquers Set. Christ is born of the Virgin not because of some biological freak, but because the Son of God can be fathered only by the ineffable. We are all, in this sense, the sons of God, the ineffable, the nonobjective. (If we have a spiritual rebirth, it is not due to some exterior cause. It has no father, no authority who tells it to be.) It is the same whether we call this capability first cause or whether we call it divine cause. I realize the resistance most readers will throw up against this notion, and this resistance is paradoxical: the very refusal to accept ulterior reason is an affirmation of self-determination, leading to self-realization and self-transformation.
This is my own wording for an ineffable mystery. It is perhaps what Cassirer means by moral freedom. But, as I said, I think a step has been left out. First, the new self must be born; the moral step comes later. It is perhaps described in Christ’s temptation. I am not a Biblical scholar, but from a number of other considerations, it would appear that free will must first learn to manipulate matter (recall Chapter IX on purposive intelligence), and when this task is done, when knowledge is gained from the earth experience, the moral issue emerges.
I am concerned here with free will. The additional factor involved in moral action is beyond our present inquiry-and certainly beyond my abilities-but I would surmise that moral action is just about as indeterminate as is the quantum of action. The example given by Cassirer from the Phaedo, in which Socrates chooses to take his punishment, is certainly a moral action; but not because it is determined, either because the Athenians decided on punishment, or because Socrates complied with their decision. Some moral acts are in conformity to the state and some are not, and there is no predetermined answer.
Cassirer seems to imply that an intelligent man acts in a predetermined way, but even if this is so, it is not the kind of predetermination dictated by the laws of matter. Before this moral act, with its own predetermination, if such there be, there must be the possibility of a completely free decision.
This would certainly require complete indeterminacy, and the fact that indeterminacy is found by quantum physics at the core of what was once called matter is significant both inside and outside the boundaries of physics. It is a discovery about the world, our world, for we all exist in one world. The atoms studied by Mr. Bohr are the same atoms that compose my body. If they cannot be predicted, there is that same free element in me. We can have no boundaries here.
The question, not raised by Cassirer, but cited by others (notably Caws6 and Waddington7), that the quantum of action involves much too small a quantity of energy to be adequate for moving my fingers and thumbs, is easily answered. The quantum of action, in all life process, is a trigger energy. It does not need to have more than a certain minimal value (enough to change a molecular bond) to control the living organism. It does so through an elaborate hierarchy: molecules control cells, cells control nerves, nerves control muscles, muscles control bodies, and (we can go on to say) bodies control bulldozers and B-52’s. But I will not expand on this here. It is a straightforward mechanical problem.
Others reject indeterminacy as a basis for free will on the grounds that if we allow indeterminacy, anything could happen, nothing could be relied on. This is doubly mistaken, since in the first place, there is no option about accepting indeterminacy. It is a fact of life. In the second place, the indeterminacy of quantum physics (which exists) does not, in fact, create a general breakdown of laws. The indeterminacy of quantum physics is that of individual electrons, atoms, and molecules. It does not affect the laws of aggregates. The vase stands still despite the jostling of its individual molecules. Only for life, hierarchically organized, does this “individuality” have wider scope and become able to cause macroscopic uncertainty (negative entropy for plants, and mobility for animals).
The objection that nothing could be relied on if indeterminacy prevailed applies more properly to man-made mechanisms in which provision against the failure of a part can be obtained only by an adequate factor of safety. Even with this insurance, few machines have an infinite life. But these are mechanical questions.
Our concern is not with mechanical problems, but with the much more difficult intersection of the spiritual and structural worlds. Cassirer now takes up Spinoza. (Yesterday I saw a bulldozer labeled SPINOSA.) Cassirer seems also to express the notion of one world we mentioned above, for he says that Spinoza’s method demands that we do not treat human action as a “state within a state.” “There is only one order and one law underlying happening, as truly there exists only one being, one all-embracing substance.”8
Here it might seem we’ve won our point that the indeterminacy of physics is significant for free will because both must be in one and the same world. But Cassirer surprises us. His very next sentence is: “The concept of purpose must therefore be excluded not only from science but also from ethical considerations.” I would have included it in both! It is obvious that Cassirer does not think of purpose as equivalent to indeterminacy. This was our basic starting point (the kind of knowing described in Chapter I as purpose or final cause).
Cassirer now is really in a fix. Having banished purpose from nature and from man, he has to open the door a crack and let it back. He says, “Even Spinoza cannot evade the admission that there is a ‘different kind of cause’ to which we are led when we are considering human actions.” The footwork now becomes very rapid. He continues, “We cannot nor do we wish to withdraw from the dominion of general laws of nature; but these take on a different character when they refer not to the motion of bodies, but to our self-conscious activity…”9
So now we have two worlds again, seen from within and seen from without. This is precisely the point; purpose as seen from without is indeterminacy. What I can cause to happen by my free will, the observer can know only as indeterminacy. If, on the other hand, I cannot cause anything to happen, the observer says I am determined. In fact, I am dead
But back to Cassirer: “Ethical laws are natural laws, but they are laws of our rational nature … To act freely does not mean to act arbitrarily or without prior decision; it means, rather, to act in accordance with a decision which is in harmony with the essence of our reason.”10
And now a word from our sponsor. (I’m sorry, but I simply cannot let that pass.) Here Cassirer makes a double oversight. In the first place, he confuses the initial decision with the organized action that must follow if the decision is to be effective. As we pointed out earlier, freedom of action requires freedom of decision plus a whole lot of determinate agencies to carry it out. Second, the phrase “in harmony with the essence of our reason” contains, I am afraid, a most serious error. For if reason is to dictate “free” action, it is not the action we are talking about, the action of first cause, which is the creative or novel type or action that cannot be anticipated by reason. (Just as “novelty” is defined by the patent office as that which could not have been anticipated by one skilled in the art.)
If, on the other hand, we take reason here to mean a higher type of reason, something to which only spiritual intuition has access, that is something quite different from the logical connectedness of ordinary reason.
And it is evident that this is what Cassirer refers to, for he goes on to say that the “concern [of reason] is to understand the whole… its realm is not that of mere existence but of pure essence… it is the amor dei intellectualis … He who is filled with love for and insight into the whole does not succumb to the illusions of the imagination or the incitements of passing and momentary motives.” And, we would add, does not succumb to rationalization. In short, this is not reason at all. This is the medieval intellectus, not the modem intellect (a 180 degree reversal in terms of our geometry). It is the higher mind, the intuition.
What interests me especially in the above is that it ties in with yet another modern variant of the Zeno-type “paradoxes” that encumber free will, the notion that moral law and physical law are somehow equivalent. To name names, I will add that it is the view taken by three scientists in recent works: Waddington’s Ethical Animal, Hardy’s The Sacred Flame, and Margenau’s Science and Ethics. What is common to all three authors is that as men of science they have come to believe in the laws of nature which, having their own beauty, produce the order of the phenomenal world, and these authors view moral behavior as similar. For Hardy, it is social laws that guide men; for Margenau, it is the determinism or physics (Margenau wrote the introduction to Cassirer).
But,.as we said of Cassirer, this admiration of natural order confuses the ends and the means. Free choice, if truly free, is indeterminate, but the means that the will uses to carry out its objective must be predictable, or things won’t turn out as planned. My reader should by now be on to this, but it is amazing how the intellectual leaders of our time lose sight of the critical distinction between the generative origin and its dependencies, between first cause and secondary causation.
Summary with some emphasis on neglected points
In this chapter we have applied the geometry of meaning to the problem of free will, using for this purpose Cassirer’s Determinism and Indeterminism in Modern Physics. The first part of my book has shown the necessity of four different types of knowledge (of which rationalism is but one). In this chapter we have seen how the deficiencies of objective reasoning get Cassirer into difficulties.
Reason, as we have shown, involves relating or comparing one thing with another, hence, ratio and rationalization. Reason is not direct knowing, but comparison of what has already been experienced. It cannot exist in a vacuum and it cannot deal with first cause.
Starting with the Laplacean intelligence that is able to know the exact position and motion of every particle in the universe, we find we cannot use this information without drawing on the principle of cause and effect, a principle which cannot be verified because it is not objective. It is a belief. We are thus forced either to deny the reality of cause and effect with Cassirer and others before him, or in accordance with our geometry to affirm a nonobjective reality which we call projective. We discover that Kant, in his plea for what he calls transcendental knowledge, does the equivalent.
This takes us to the notion of substance, Whose nonobjectivity was to Berkeley sufficient reason for dropping it and depending only on ratio knowledge. At the same time, however, Berkeley refused to accept Newton’s invention of the derivative, essentially a ratio of infinitesimals and devoid of substance.
This conflict between form, or what can be held in the mind as a concept, versus substance, or that which is felt emotionally, has received a great deal of attention and has been the cause of many divisions in philosophy.
We insist that both aspects are necessary-in fact, interdependent. In calling the former objective and the latter projective, we stress this interrelationship, which is like the interrelationship of direction in space.
Form and substance, however, are not opposite, but perpendicular (or complementary) in that they share the property of generality. Each has its own opposite. Form is opposed by the particular projective, and substance by the particular objective. This oppositeness has not been covered so far. Let us first consider the opposition of substance and the particular objective:
|General Projective||Particular Objective|
|Reality as felt||Reality as encountered|
A difficulty is that we are inclined to think of substance as objective. Real, yes; objective, no. Objectivity has no self-evident reality. We cannot feel it. However, we feel a pain or an emotion, but we cannot communicate it. Objectivity is what we can communicate, what we can describe and define. The box is square, the table is round, etc.
On the other hand, properties such as solidity which are communicable because the experience of them is shared may seem objective, but they are not. Perhaps one of the reasons people talk about the weather-“Isn’t it hot today?”-is that this involves a shared experience.
What is involved here is the difference between feelings and sensations. The two words are often used interchangeably, and I doubt that much can be gained by insisting on linguistic distinctions. The point is, rather, to uncover the basic dichotomy to which language refers.
Suppose we touch the coffeepot to see if it is hot. Within certain limits, our finger is an instrument which informs us of temperature, much as would a thermometer. This is sensation. If the pot is very hot, we may receive a burn, in which case we withdraw the finger quickly. We have experienced pain, a negative value which teaches us to avoid hot objects. This second reaction is of a more primitive type than is the informative reaction of sensation without pain. The sensation gives us objective information: whether the coffee is ready; the pain teaches us not to use fingers for extreme temperature measurement.
The sensation of smell is one that is so poorly developed in man that the word “smell” has become synonymous with value, “That deal has a bad smell,” whereas with animals, smell is informative. It is a true sensation. A case is on record of a man whose sense of smell had been highly developed for a period of time. Later, when it had become average once more, he was asked about the difference between his present and former state. His answer was that when his sense of smell was acute, all smells were interesting.
But we must not lose sight of the forest for the trees. The overall principle is that there is an opposition between conviction of reality, which is projective and is essentially a belief, and the verifiable facts of the outside world, which are discovered only through work.
The other opposition, between form and function (or between general objective and particular projective), is even more difficult. The difficulty is that the former, which covers reason and concept, gets all the attention. It is the visible end of the stick. The other end is the knower himself, and cannot be objectified without ceasing to be itself. This is the predicament of providing scientific status for free will which, existing only in its activity, eludes identification and labels. In looking for it, we are in the predicament of Perseus who, in order to cut off the head of Medusa, had to look at her in a mirror lest he be turned to stone. Medusa is the intellect, which converts anything it deals with into objects (stone). To circumvent this, we must invert our approach (the mirror).
To the observer, free will is uncertainty; precisely because it is free, the reasoning mind cannot predict it and cannot relate it to something else; it is irrational, unrelatable.
Thus the rational mind has to acknowledge a higher principle, one that is indistinguishable from pure chance. So great is this hurdle that few philosophers can surmount it. The anonymous Cloud of Unknowing, 11 written in about 1350, affirms this positive value of unknowing with a most beautiful simplicity that should be instructive to philosophers. Certainly, it is one of the most profound writings in the West.
Of course, our trump card is quantum physics, which has actually discovered, or been forced to recognize, that the quantum of action or quantum of uncertainty (for these are two names for the same thing) is a primordial ingredient of the reality of physics. But even here the rational mind refuses to accept first cause. It is not convinced by the creation of matter from light, for it says, “How can we say the photon is first cause when it itself has a cause? Does not light come from the sun?”
Here we should make a clarification. In order to say that A causes B, there must be in A that which implies B. Thus, if I put salt on the doorstep, it will melt the ice because there is a relationship between the melting point of ice and the salinity of water.
On the other hand, we cannot so relate cause and effect in the case where the pot boiling over “caused” the invention of vulcanized rubber. Pots boiling over don’t imply rubber tires, or even rubber.
The cause was Goodyear, whose intention to find a way of improving raw rubber had led him to cooking it on the stove. Now, it is true that there were other causes-hot stove, accident, etc.-but the first cause, Goodyear’s intention, is the only one that implies improved rubber, and was responsible for his recognition of the solution when it accidentally occurred.
To fully account for the distinction between first cause and other sorts of causation, we need to recognize that generation itself has a cycle, birth, youth, maturity, old age, death, whose phases occur on four levels.
What is significant is that once generation is under way, development is determinate; causation, with the exception of the virgin birth at its midpoint, is based on antecedents.
At level I, however, generation is quite different. Here there are neither physical objects nor “laws” to move them. Previous events have no necessary influence on the future. It is similar to the situation before and after an explosion. The spark initiates a new generation whose development is not due to what has gone before. It is at this seed point that first cause operates. For example, a photon precipitates into an electron and a positron (pair creation), which dash off in opposite and unpredictable directions.
At this level too occurs the fertilization of ovum by sperm. While the DNA “blueprint” of each is definite, their combination, based on random pairing of genes, is unpredictable, a combination that never existed before.
Note, then, that first cause need not be without temporal antecedents. What makes it first cause is that these antecedents do not imply the result.
1New Haven: Yale University Press, 1956.
2The reader will note that I am not trying to do justice to the arguments of our guest philosophers. I am, rather, collecting these arguments and assigning them to a prepared system which already anticipates their message and implements it.
3Ibid., P. 16.
4An early hint of the conservation of mass-energy.
5Ibid., pp. 197-198.
6Caws, Peter. The Philosophy of Science. Princeton: Van Nostrand, 1965.
7Waddington, C. H. The Nature of Life. London: Allen & Unwin, 1961.
8Ibid., P. 200.
9Ibid., P. 200.
10Ibid., P. 200.
11A recent translation of The Cloud of Unknowing has been published, New York: Julian Press Inc. Also in paperback, New York: Delacorte Press (Delta Edition), 1974.
(c)1976 Anodos Foundation