Monday, 23 March 2015

Boiled Potatoes and the Analytic Method, part 6

I found myself in need of counselling last year. The counselling I received was extremely helpful, but it's only as, in the intervening time, I've started to study critical perspectives from gender and race discourse in depth that I've been able to understand the wider context of my difficulties. These approaches emphasise connectedness; the marketing of children's toys, for example, contributes to a domestication of women that in turn commodifies their sexuality and devalues their consent, leading to rape culture.

By contrast, the idiom of 'analytic philosophy', the tallest and remotest of the academic ivory towers, to which I've given a decade of my life and all my adulthood, puts detachment and abstraction foremost. It was detachment and abstraction - an overdose of both - that led me to counselling. What follows is a reflection on that journey.

In part 1, I discussed the specific experience that led me to seek counselling.

In part 2, I talked about a lack of emotional sensation that I discovered during my counselling sessions.

In part 3, I blamed everything on boiled potatoes (and allowing my everyday life to become too bland).

In part 4, I surveyed the rise of analytic philosophy and attempted to show how it rejects the spiritual and the emotional.

In part 5, I evaluated analytic philosophy and the limits of its conception of meaning.

Part 6: On Taking Responsibility

The concept of moral responsibility has been at the heart of my journey through analytic philosophy. The first philosophical system I encountered which inspired and moved me was existentialism, a position that has moral responsibility as its foundation and centrepiece. This stands in direct opposition to the determinism which characterised much of 20th-century analysis.

Science has long been thought to promise a perfect system for predicting human behaviour (I choose my words carefully here, since few practicing scientists have embraced this belief - it belongs more to the realm of 'popular' or at least establishment commentary). It's a classic modernist tenet, and for a while scientific discoveries did seem to be progressing in that direction. Neuroscience and psychology made great strides through the nineteenth century and into the twentieth.

Still, as early as 1942, Isaac Asimov could acknowledge, with his invention of 'psychohistory' in the Foundation short stories, that a truly determinist understanding of human behaviour was out of reach, prohibited by the fundamentally probabilistic character of quantum physics. This is not to claim that prediction of human behaviour is impossible, only that it can never be done with complete certainty.

Philosophers, who have been arguing with Laplace's demon for two centuries now, were slower to catch on. Even ten years ago, when I was in my first year at university, hard determinism was still discussed as a plausible theory, rather than merely a far-fetched possibility. So great was my determination (hah) to hold onto moral responsibility that I once refused to read an assigned article because of its determinist slant, which is about as defiant as I've ever been towards a teacher ever.

Determinism and scientism suit the analytic approach. They are theories of absolute knowledge and certainty, of everything in its place, clear and predictable. In denying the possibility of free will, they deny the meaningfulness of the aesthetic, reducing emotions, beliefs and principles to the purely causal.

This outlook has persisted despite the eventual demise of hard determinism. The philosophers who would have been determinists in a previous generation now begrudgingly begin their papers with 'we know that hard determinism is false, but...' and go on to argue that quantum randomness leaves the defender of free will no better off.

The point is not entirely without merit. Fundamental randomness does not guarantee a meaningful freedom of will. Free will theorists have long held that free will is a necessary condition of moral responsibility. The best they can claim from quantum theory is the existence of a narrow sliver of space in which freedom of the will might hide.

More insidiously, the post-determinists have targeted moral responsibility itself, even as free will theorists began to abandon the connection between will and responsibility (the resulting positions are myriad, and better covered in detail elsewhere). The essence of the new determinist argument concerns motivation, understood as whatever mental state in an agent results in their action.

An agent is morally responsible for an action, the argument goes, if their action is a product of a motivation in an appropriate way (that is, not subject to hypnosis or other control). Motivations, though, are products of the agent's character, and said character is a product of the agent's birth and upbringing. If we are to hold agents responsible for their actions, then, it seems that we must hold them responsible for their upbringing and their ancestry. This, the post-determinists argue, is absurd.

And, on the face of it, it does sound absurd. A person cannot literally be responsible for their own birth - this would distort time itself. This argument, the causal argument, seems to present a profound challenge to the existence of moral responsibility.

And yet... Let us come at this from another angle. Critical theories, such as Marxism, feminism and queer theory, recognise differences among birth circumstances as important social phenomena. The concept of privilege is vital to understanding these models, and their well-grounded demands for social justice.

These days, it is common to hear reactionaries crying that it is not their fault they were born male, or white, or middle class, or straight, or cisgendered, or able-bodied, or neurotypical. Strictly, they are not wrong - but then, you will find no serious feminist arguing that they are. What the reactionaries are doing, though, is relying on the same simplistic, causal understanding of moral responsibility as the post-determinist analysts.

Responsibility for the circumstances of our birth, for the privileges and attitudes therefrom, is something we take. It is not something we are born to, nor something we are morally entitled to ignore. The essence of maturity, of adulthood, is making this transition; this is the sense in which children are innocent.

Practically speaking, the act of taking responsibility consists in critical self-reflection, the willingness to examine our own behaviour and the attitudes which condition it, and the seeking of ways to change them where appropriate. It is the act of taking seriously our relations, both structural and specific, to others, rather than viewing ourselves as isolated particles predestined to bang into one another with whatever arbitrary results a crude social physics dictates.

Theoretically, taking responsibility requires detaching responsibility from the purely causal, embracing the messy illogicality of a putatively free choice to escape the fist of determinism. The result is not a neat theory; it has little of the clarity that analysis craves. But it is honest and liberating, and above all else it allows a hope for general, meaningful change that the determinist mindset can never offer.

(part 7)

No comments:

Post a Comment