Forster in Philosophy of Mind

Struck by two references to E. M. Forster in a couple of days. Reading John Gray, as I was last week, as I was intrigued by reference to E. M. Forster that I clearly need to follow-up. Now I’d previously been no fan of Julian Baggini, having described him as the “darling of British philosophy”, wheeled out for media-friendly quotes, and the book of his I’m currently reading came with blurb I’d already bought. Namely that free will is real, and the tendency of science to accuse it of being “merely” an illusion is a failure of science. Free will is alive and well.

I’m resisting the temptation to skip straight to Baggini’s conclusions in “Freedom Regained” – the varieties of free will worth having, worth believing in and worth striving to defend. Having implicitly maligned him, I’d like to do his writing justice. I’m only into the second chapter, and already we’ve covered mis-interpretations of Libet, having started with Laplace’s demon and looked at why neither determinism nor materialism, nor even reductionism, need be nails in free-will’s coffin.

“How can I tell what I think till I see what I say?” as E. M. Forster perceptively put it. We should not [never did] need neuroscience to tell us that our conscious minds are often the last to know what we’re thinking.

And referencing Buddhist [mindfulness]:

[We] do have some conscious control over how much we attend to [our thoughts], but we do not control their happening.”

Many more of the usual references, Kant and Hume, Dawkins and Harris, with more Spinoza and Dennett to come, but looking promising for some new avenues of thought. Not entirely an exercise in philosophology.

Sam Harris comes in for some analysis, as I’ve done here before:

Even Sam Harris, the most fervent denier of free-will, says:
“The fact that our choices depend on prior causes does not mean they don’t matter.”
“Human choice … is as important as fanciers of free will believe.”

Earlier, Baggini points out Harris’ failure to emphasise the second clause here:

“we are not the authors or our thoughts and actions
in the way that people generally suppose.”

Though Harris seems to fit the provocative mould of the worst of the “shrill” scientistic types, I have maintained he wins out because like Dennett, he really is a philosopher first. Though he “denies” free will in simple declarative statements, to fall in line with the crusading anti-superstition armies, he clearly and carefully qualifies what he says, even if what he chooses to emphasise is driven by his personal marketing choices.

Baggini’s suggestion of  99% subconscious vs 1% conscious processing of previous experience is to my mind pure standardisation – with the same efficiency and consistent quality basis as standardisation in any industrial context. If we had to design every chosen solution to every context, we’d never have time to live creatively, or indeed live life.

Well beyond the Forster reference now, so far as I know, I also noticed the Hofstadter “meta” connection in Baggini’s use of the Tom Stoppard “Rosencrantz and Guilderstern Are Dead.” Once we raise issues of “fate” to conscious thought, we have changed fate. By slipping side-ways we create new levels, and leave category errors in our wake. Thinking about thinking is something different to thinking, and we’re free to repeat, to pile on the meta-levels ad infinitum. That’s what humans do.

And finally for now, at the end of chapter 3 “The Genticist” in which the nature vs nurture arguments are played out with the natural conclusion that either/or is misguided, I hear the following passages in the context of the most celebrated freedom of will, the freedom of thought and expression. Baggini makes these points in reaction to the emphasis on complete freedom of choices when we assess freedoms:

If we become accustomed to thinking of freedom as completely unfettered, anything more limited will, at first sight, look like an emaciated form of liberty. We might even dismiss it as mere wiggle room: the ability to make limited choices within a framework of great restraint. But that would be a great mistake.Unfettered freedom is not only an illusion; it makes no sense. It would not be desirable even if we could have it. Choices are not meaningful unless they reflect values, and values cannot be meaningfully chosen unless we already have some.

The scientific world view, therefore, destroys only a strawman version of free will, a naive conception that would crumble under rational scrutiny long before scientists could get there hands on it. Quite simply, the commonplace idea of free will we have lost was always wrong. Good riddance to it.


[Post Notes : I did finish Baggini and found him entirely positive, if a little restrained in his positive conclusions – cautionary principle at work ? Also saw, after comparing Baggini with Gray at the outset (above), that shortly after this post, Kenan Malik had a review piece on both Baggini and Gray published in New Humanist. Malik emphasises their difference; I have to say despite noting Gray’s overly generically-pessimistic line of warning compared to Baggini’s more conservative cautionary lack-of-specific-optimism, this difference was really one of style, of the politics towards action. Both seems to be highlighting the same current issues – same evidence and logic – with overly arrogant received (scientistic) wisdom. Doubly spooky, now reading Dick Tavern’s “March of Unreason” (2007 paperback edition), I find the same agenda – filled with political warnings from the would-be rational (and cautionary principle) side of the debate, yet another E. M. Forster quote. More later, when I’ve finished Tavern.]

Also published on Medium.

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