Disenchantment and the anthropology of (re-)enchantment

I recently read an interesting essay by Egil Asprem entitled Dialectics of Darkness. Its original purpose was to serve as a review of The Myth of Disenchantment: Magic, Modernity, and the Birth of the Human Sciences by Jason Josephson-Storm. I have yet to read Josephson-Storm’s book, so I shall have to reserve comment for another time. But I am certainly already familiar with its main subject and the history behind it, which is one reason I found great interest in navigating Asprem’s essay on the enlightenment (and thus, too, the notion of enlightenment reason) and the anthropology of active (re-)enchantment.

Additionally, following the publication of Asprem’s work, a number of other short essays and articles appeared directly in response. I list them as follows, The Enchanted World Today by Josephson-Storm with a reply by Asprem; The Reemergence of Magical Beliefs by Adam Possamai; and, finally, Models of (Re-)Enchantment by Dafydd Mills Daniel. 

The latter article by Daniel offers what I think to be a decent and certainly interesting reading of Bertrand Russell and Richard Dawkins, particularly their nuanced and deeply considerate approaches to naturalist philosophy as well as their attempts to satisfy the demands for ethical norms rooted in a naturalistic model. It is no secret that I enjoy a lot of Russell’s writing, and a short disclaimer would highlight at this point that Russell’s essay A Free Man’s Worship (referenced by Daniel) is perhaps one of my favourite pieces of humanist literature. However, while I think a review of the contents of Daniel’s contribution could, in itself, be the focus of an entire essay, I will save a few comments for the end.

In reading the essay by Asprem, and then the follow-up by Josephson-Storm with a reply by Asprem, one thing struck me in particular. Up to this point, I’ve tended to see the enlightenment not as some cultural totality or as a total cultural shift in a particular moment of time but as a historical process. From d’Alembert and Descartes to Leibniz, Pascal, and Newton (to name a few enlightenment thinkers) – I think there is also a kernel of insight to be retrieved from their respective notes on this issue. Indeed, for many notable enlightenment thinkers, not least Kant, there was no such enlightenment as a historical period that completely extinguished enchantment; it was instead perceived as an ongoing process of social, psychological or spiritual development in human history. (In fact, as an aside, I would be inclined to argue that the enlightenment philosophes are generally distinguishable by the very nature of their confrontation with the dichotomy between process vs. substance metaphysics, a point that I think is relevant here). The philosophes were or can be read as an attempt to formally describe this process and capture its positive implications. Indeed, I think for many enlightenment scholars this view would not be received contentiously. And so, I am inclined to perhaps warn against the view that the enlightenment should be seen as a period of total cultural disenchantment that may or may not have eventually regressed to an unfolding process of (re-)enchantment over time.

Moreover, an investigation into the objective validity of reason and of scientific knowledge discloses, I think, a sort of naivety that sometimes saturates our thinking with regards to the idea of the historical realisation of cultural enlightenment. In the essays cited above, Newton is mentioned because for all his mathematical and scientific genius he also studied alchemy. But when the enlightenment is seen as a process, which too must exist or manifest in given history with its own established domain of concepts and prejudices, the weight of this contradiction becomes more measurable. To generalise my complaint: it is no secret that many enlightenment thinkers, even some members of the radical enlightenment (as some scholars distinguish), maintained belief (personal or via organised religion) in God whilst championing secularised knowledge and humanistic values. However, I’m not convinced this should be seen as a failure or interpreted in the context of (re-)enchantment. Even today, I don’t think it is entirely false to say that some members of the scientific community maintain a belief in the superstitious, supernatural, or the divine. Famously, there were many significant and famous modern physicists who also carried superstitions beliefs or artefact beliefs in myth. Taking a broader view, we may objectively perceive and criticise such logical inconsistency, and perhaps for the benefit of reason take lesson from their example. One lesson to recognise is that myth – or perhaps its remnants depending on how we parameterise the theory – may persist in very organised or established ways as historical legacy or artefact. It is not at all controversial to say that human bias and prejudice may continue to exist despite evidence against whatever belief; and it would seem very appropriate to look at these issues in their sociohistorical context in order to establish as nuanced a view as possible.

So from my own reading and studies, my interpretation of the enlightenment project is as an ensemble of concepts not necessarily unique in category but realised uniquely in time. In a sense, my view has been shaped around the idea of the enlightenment as a unique realisation of concepts, the genesis of which dates back and through such pre-Socratic scholars as Anaxagoras and Democritus, Thucydides and the The Mytilenaean Debate, and then eventually the philosophical considerations of Plato onward. Such concepts include, in modern language, basic ideas of reason as set against myth and political realism.

In many of the grandfathers and fathers of modern science we see this much more in terms of a general shaping of epistemology, however much residues of myth and enchantment may be found (from one philosopher to the next), given that human history is saturated in the perpetuation of prejudice. Although such a course of discussion requires a fuller essay in itself, what I am trying to say, in different words, is how the enlightenment may be viewed as a certain continuation in the historical generation of ideas and that epistemology is perhaps the best site to study its development. In philosophy, particularly or especially philosophy of the subject, this may be expressed by way of a study of the genesis of the modern subject, which some trace as far back as Homer’s Odyssey. Perhaps more insightful is Bertrand Russell’s study of knowledge in The Problem’s of Philosophy (1912) in which, rather than considerations of metaphysics, epistemology is brought directly into focus. From this view – namely, from the study of epistemology – the genesis of well-known enlightenment values and ideas appear in different forms, under different guises, and through manipulations of different frameworks in the very seeds of philosophical thought in classical antiquity forward.

Plato’s Allegory of the Cave can very much be read as an investigation into epistemology not so dissimilar to the enquiry of enlightenment philosophes into the possibility of knowledge – rational and scientific or otherwise. The leading question for the enlightenment may be stated, ‘What even constitutes knowledge, let alone rational and objective knowledge?’. As a profound site of investigation, often ignored or not taken serious enough, it is one that can be traced back to pre-Socratic study which was, I am inclined to argue, eventually refocused with advent of the first Medieval universities and their systematic introductions of Aristotelian language, then in the humanist renaissance of the 14th and 15th centuries, and finally in the 18th century philosophes.

On the other hand, although the enlightenment project did not emerge simply out of nothing, there is something unique about it which continues to draw serious interest and consideration. In a sense, I think it may also be viewed a lexicalized concept. As such, it is unique in what it represents as a particular unification of ideas and values realised in such a way as to be epistemologically revolutionary. Taking this view, I think we can also begin to delineate different epistemologies and their significance with respect to the prospect of enlightenment knowledge.

Arguably, one of the last great philosophical efforts to answer the fundamental question of the status of knowledge and the possibility of knowing – and, really, the status and legitimacy of abstract concepts – was in the work of Kant. Interestingly, I think it can be strongly argued that Kant’s investigations, and likewise also Hume’s skepticism in which Kant seeks to overcome, are much more relevant to philosophical systems of knowledge than scientific systems of knowledge. There is, at a point, a divergence between traditional philosophical epistemologies and scientific epistemologies. For Kant, and also Hume, neither seem to be able to do justice to the unique epistemological domain of scientific enquiry, which, I think was clearly realised in the 20th century to be very different than the general philosophical domain of enquiry. Although, in my opinion, Kant comes extremely close in places, I would be inclined to expand that, at least in a Platonic sense of conceptual space, scientific knowledge can be cleanly and clearly differentiated from purely subjective reasoning, and that while Kant’s response to Hume’s skepticism is not entirely satisfactory, the latter can be overcome through explanation within scientific systems of reasoning. But with these matters put to one side, the deeper point is that I think one can see clearly this delineation of epistemologies not only in the progression of modern science but also in what it has to say about the prospects of reason and human rationality.

Mention has already been made of Russell. It would be terrific to write more about his works in both a critical and non-critical way, because his 1912 investigations are some of the best when it comes to late-modern encircling of these differences in epistemology by way of fairly systematic investigations into the nature of knowledge. That said, I think some of the most illuminating sites of reflection can also be found in the writings of many of the great 20th century physicists, who concerned themselves with such longstanding historical debates. Einstein, to offer one example, is noted to have spent time thinking about epistemological questions and engaging with debates on the nature and status of knowledge.


These essays, especially the one by Asprem which ignites a wonderful chain of contributions and perspectives, are undoubtedly stimulating. The one thing that stands out to me, given the above reflections, is the risk that one may easily take a viewpoint that is too binary, lacking the complexity of a systems view of human society and the general types of behaviour it fosters. Disenchantment and re-enchantment seem less like fundamental processes than epiphenomena. In many ways, I think the antimony often defined between disenchantment and enchantment can be broken down into very basic elements of the epistemological study of reality versus appearance, from which Russell for example delineates two forms of knowledge: by description and by direct acquaintance. The latter is very much akin to the best of existential phenomenology of the 19th and 20th centuries, in which intimate description of the phenomenal world of direct experience and sense data is given. Often these movements neglect the abstract and theoretical or are simply unable to conceptualise it. Russell, on the other hand, is able to substantiate the validity of logicism and logical reasoning – indeed, we may even extend his analysis today to theoretical knowledge – whilst maintaining ample recognition of the experiential and the phenomenological. Preservation of the recognition of the type of knowledge by direct acquaintance is important in terms of secularised ethical and moral foundations; but doing so while maintaining a concept of the objective and not regressing to subjectivism is no easy task. Much of contemporary post-modern philosophy, for instance, sinks into the muddied confusion of pure subjectivism and at a great cost.

But if we decide that the disenchantment-enchantment model is not satisfactory, what I want to say is that, as I have been alluding, perhaps the more fundamental site of enquiry is the study of epistemology, from which any and all discrepancy between disenchantment and (re)-enchantment may emerge. And, in few words, I think this and the paragraph immediately above describe why Daniel’s essay touches on something very important in his reference to the compelling arguments by Russell and also Dawkins, respectively. Intentionally or not, they both present fairly convincing approaches principled, firstly, on the foundations of knowledge and the validity of objective knowledge. From this, and as modern science would also indicate, (re-)enchantment is reduced to the domain of cognitive human bias, dogma and superstition; the persistence of myth played out in daily human life has its roots here, just as the violence and irrational ideologies that define the contemporary political domain are often a projection of the unreasonable on the basis of the prejudiced nature of the subject’s interaction with the world. If, as some scholars describe, the contemporary political domain may be generally depicted as a polarised space for the practice of bias and prejudice, with the establishment of echo chambers and irrational subjective pursuits of ideological ends as opposed to rational, disclosing, truth-giving processes – I take it from the view of Russell that such a space is merely the continuation pathological epistemologies.

What is also significant about both Russell and Dawkins is that, rather than completely rejecting the human existential inclination to search for meaning, it is acknowledged and reformulated positively. They argue that there is no deeper source of meaning than that which is naturally disclosed within the epistemological domain of science, and that through science and its many lessons the human need and thirst for meaning may be quenched, even in the face of our own cosmic insignificance. Unlike romanticism for example, in which meaning and inspiration is deduced purely subjectively and with emphasis on the primacy of the individual, which completely prefigures the notion of the subject by neglecting the objective; what we see in the better parts of Russell and Dawkins is a positive, evolving notion of enlightenment meaning-giving process that in many ways may begin to answer Camus’ deep (and certainly valid) conundrum.

For these reasons, I agree and sympathise with Daniel’s assertion that, in many ways, Russell and Dawkins successfully carve a path a forward, transcending the pitfalls of the romantics so often tied to (re-)enchantment and anti-modern movements, whilst preserving the existential depth of what it means to be human and in search for meaning. Through this lens, I think the picture of total enlightenment disenchantment from the perspective of cultural anthropology becomes something of a myth. Allow me to explain.

In certain strands of contemporary philosophy, the projection of some complete realisation of reason and the crystallisation of rational society (such as in Weber’s construction) would seem to rely in some way on a view of cultural enlightenment as a sort of final development. In that sense, it too would seem predicated in places on the myth of cultural enlightenment and hence the achievement of solid rational outcome. But I would argue that history has witnessed neither, and even the best examples of contemporary society fail satisfy the demands of both concepts.

Furthermore, many of the critical philosophes of the 20th century, most of which were rooted in or indebted to the enlightenment, placed great importance on reason, its historical genesis, and the ongoing struggle in its realisation. That is to say that the genesis of the modern subject was a central point of focus, and with this focus many provocative debates on knowledge and reason may be found. Crucially, the concept of enlightenment reason is not perceived as a given. The concept of enlightenment reason may have historically crystallised in a unique way – or at least some framework was formalised to better describe it – and hence concepts of rational society may have begun to spring forth. But we learn in the critical philosophies that the parameters in which reason and notions of rational (thus disenchanted) society may be historically realised can be more or less pathological, and that generally in the social and communicative domain it is reason’s absence that continually defines humanity’s historical struggle. In Weber’s construction, then, one could argue that the concept of reason is essentially utilised in a less than rational way. There is, in other words, an ongoing classical distinction between form and content, and their lack of synthesis, that I would argue underlies much of the struggle for reason that continues to the present day.

Such a viewpoint reinforces the idea – indeed, the acute observation – that we do not presently live in a rational, scientific society. Evidence of this can easily be found in the very structure of contemporary debates and the issues they concern. Instead, it would seem much more akin to a society that uses notions of reason or quasi-systems of reason and science at its convenience, without complete subscription to its logical and rational demands. So, in a way, I think there is a deeper truth to Josephson-Storm’s study. I would say that some enlightenment disenchantment has been achieved but only up to a point within a particular epistemological domain that exists within broader social-pathological and enchanted parameters. I think the subtlety and nuance of such a viewpoint carries forward what may have been deemed the radical enlightenment based largely on the assessment that, following a lexicalized concept of the enlightenment, the reality of the process of enlightenment reason is much more akin to a struggle for reason and for a future rational society against the forces of its absence.

One last comment, to conclude this already lengthy engagement. If the enlightenment is seen more as a unique configuration of concepts and ideas, as part of a larger history, which triggered a process (against myth, prejudice, etc.) in the development of reason, science and ultimately fundamental secularised values – from this point of view, reason and human rationality may be perceived within the scope of a theory of society that recognises how, and in what way, such important concepts must be socially fostered. The notions of disenchantment and enchantment, if the binary is correct to construct, discloses a tremendous conflict: namely, the legacy of historical and cognitive biases, in addition to general irrational human tendencies and inclinations which reject the objective. That a society may, in recent time, promote itself as disenchanted only to then be said to have regressed to (re)-enchantment and myth – or only for (re)-enchantment and myth to continue propagate – would seem one of the central themes of Dialectic of Enlightenment. At the same time,  modern science continues to push the boundaries of human thought, and its special epistemological domain of enquiry is generally irrefutable. The influence and demands of enlightenment reason continues to challenge, even scientists, to normatively check one’s biases and to continue to struggle for a clearer recognition of objective knowledge within the historical context of constraints of that knowledge at any given time.

However, in that the promise of enlightenment reason – the promise of reason and human rationality – may exist and yet simultaneously be folded into a human social world of continued and renewed enchantment – and hence, myth and the irrational confluence with the rational – this is akin to acknowledging that differentiated spheres of society may each be affected differently. It is this fragile and precarious existence of reason and its unrelenting possibility of betrayal that seems to be one of the essential features of today’s social world, so much so that in continued enchantment reason can take on the appearance of a disfigured form that is, in fact, absent of any rational content.

The struggle is to see reason and unreason, solid as the ground beneath one’s feet or as the material objects in one’s daily life. Even those who believe they command reason often, in their certainty, fall guilty of its opposite. It is notable that most major cultures and religions to have crystallised in human history possess a concept of good and bad, in moral philosophical terms; light and dark in religious language; or reason and unreason, in epistemological terms. With no exception, none have reconciled these ideas however much one may faithfully believe the contrary. This is as close to an objective view that may be accessed, and almost always whatever lesson one may wish to glean such fleeting objectivity can quickly turns subjective through the simple demand of interpretation. This was as much a struggle for Plato as Aristotle and the 18th century philosophes. In the modern lens, it was as much a struggle for Kant and Hegel as Adorno or alternatively the opposing attempt to formulate the post-modern.

One thing I can speak to is that in mathematics, ideally, we follow the systematic through to the result, and then we ascertain whether the logic is true or not. But this space of concepts and of thought would seem different to the world of social occupations, in which concepts – like policy – can be reasonable, unreasonable, or both simultaneously. This is why there is no realised fundamental moral theory, because the space of concepts is saturated in the subjective stuff of daily human life. The point is not to say that the objective is in accessible, but oftentimes its fleeting and precarious nature cannot be trusted in the eyes of human beings. Even when solid objects are attempted to formed in words, such as God, or in symbols, such as peace, one can easily feign through solid and rigid representations the opposite of its conceptual substance. People have killed in the name of religion or the idea of a just politics without any awareness of the indignation of the contradiction. I think here, too, Russell and Dawkins serve important lessons and insight as we continue to reflect on the importance of the enlightenment and its realisation.

**Image: Projection of the Enlightenment by Anshu Kumar.

‘The unreasonable effectiveness of string theory in mathematics’: Emergence, synthesis, and beauty

As I noted the other day, there were a number of interesting talks at String Math 2020. I would really like to write about them all, but as I am short on time I want to spend a brief moment thinking about one talk in particular. Robbert Dijkgraaf’s presentation, ‘The Unreasonable Effectiveness of String Theory in Mathematics‘, I found to be enjoyable even though it was not the most technical or substantive. In some sense, I received it more as a philosophical essay – a sort of status report to motivate. I share it here because, what Dijkgraaf generally encircles, especially toward the end, is very much the topic of my thesis and the focus of my forthcoming PhD years. Additionally, while it may have aimed to inspire and motivate string theorists, the structure of the talk is such that a general audience may also extract much wonder and stimulation.

One can see that, whilst, certainly in my view, mathematics is a platonic science, Dijkgraaf wants to establish early on the unavoidable and unmistakable connection between fundamental physics and pure mathematics. So he starts his presentation by ruminating on this deep relationship. Eugene Wigner’s ‘The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences‘ comes to mind almost immediately (indeed inspiring the title of the talk) in addition to past reflections by many intellectual giants. The historical evidence and examples are overwhelming as to the power of mathematics to speak the language of reality; at the same time, physics exists in this large space of concepts. It is their overlap – the platonic nature and rigid structures of mathematics and the systematic intuition of physics with its ability to capture nature’s phenomena – that in fundamental science suggests deep ideas of unity and synthesis. On this point, Dijkgraaf uses the example of the basic and humble derivative, highlighting the many perspectives it fosters to show that the mathematical and physical use of the concept is broad. The point is to say that there exists a large space of interpretations about even such a basic conceptual tool. The derivative has both physical meaning and interpretation as well as purely mathematical meaning. These many perspectives – similar, I suppose, to Feynman’s notion of a hierarchy of concepts – offer in totality a wealth of insight.

A better example may be the dictionary between the formalism of gauge field terminology and that of bundle terminology. On the one hand, we have physicists studying Feynman diagrams and fundamental particles. On the other hand, we have mathematicians studying and calculating deep things in topology and index theory. Historically, for some time the two did not discuss or collaborate despite their connection. In fact, there was a time when maths generally turned inward and physics seemed to reject the intensifying need of higher mathematical requirements (it seems some in physics still express this rejection). As Dijkgraaf tells it, there was little to no interaction or cross-engagement, and thus there was no mathematical physics dictionary if you will. For those that absolutely despise the increasingly mathematical nature of frontier physics, one may have no problem with such separation or disconnection. But such an attitude is not good or healthy for science. We see progress in science when the two sides talk: for instance, when physicists finally realised the use of index theory. The examples are endless, to be sure, with analogies continuing in the case of the path integral formalism and category theory as Dijkgraaf highlights.

In addition to discussing the connection between maths and physics, there is a related discussion between truth and beauty. For Dijkgraaf, he wants to feature this idea (and rightly so): namely, the two kinds of beauty we may argue to exist in the language of fundamental mathematical physics, the universal and the exceptional. There is so much to be said here, but I will save that for another time!

I will not spoil any more of the talk, only to say that the concept of emergence once again appears as well as the technical idea of ‘doing geometry without geometry’. Readers of this blog will know that what Dijkgraaf is referring to is what we have discussed in the past as generalised geometry and non-geometry. As these concepts reside at the heart of my current research, we will talk about them a lot more.

To conclude, I want to leave the reader with the following playful thought with respect to the viewpoint Dijkgraaf shares. If, for a moment, we look at string theory as the synthesis between geometry and algebra, I was thinking playfully toward the end of the talk that there is something reminiscent of the Hegelian aufhebung in this picture – i.e., the unity of deeply important conceptual spaces in the form of quantum geometry, as he puts it. In the physical and purely mathematical sense, from whatever side one advances, the analogy is finely shaped. From a mathematical physics point of view, it sounded to me that Dijkgraaf was seeking some description of synthesis-as-unification-for-higher-conceptualisation. I suppose it depends on who you ask, but I take Dijkgraaf’s point that string theory would very much seem to motivate this idea.

Sagan demon haunted world

Thinking about philosophy and Carl Sagan’s “The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark”

I find philosophy to be an incredibly controversial subject, one that is difficult to get a handle on. There is a value to philosophy, though I often struggle to understand it or place it. Perhaps this is because I lack a satisfactory definition of philosophy – a term which can represent so many different bases of ideas, including different methodologies and epistemologies ranging broadly from the analytical to the postmodern and purely subjective. For me, any grasp I may have of philosophy breaks down with the latter – I find a lot of contemporary philosophy to be subjective and lacking what I once termed “epistemological and methodological coherence”.

Maybe this last comment strikes a more explicit concern: philosophy not as a particular form of systematic enquiry, but as a weapon to enforce the formalising of opinion.  I suppose as a person who has engaged a lot with philosophy over my younger years, from the enlightenment philosophes to critical theory and anglo-american or what is otherwise known as analytical philosophy, I think I can say that, despite my struggle to find the basis for logical and rational validity, I am not of the scientific representatives who reject philosophy’s relevance. I think philosophy is relevant, in some ways, perhaps most crucially with respect to the social world. In other words, I think the situation is much more nuanced and convoluted than to merely assert “philosophy is dead” and that its fate was brought about by the march of science. Even though some of the utmost traditional philosophical areas of study are becoming (and rightfully so!) increasingly subject to scientific methodologies and epistemology – there is still something lastingly relevant to genuine philosophical thought.

From the perspective of science, one of the easiest mistakes, I think, is to presuppose the existence of some sort of rational communicative utopia. It doesn’t correlate with the phenomenology insofar that the ideas of science, of scientific logic and rationality, and more broadly of the principle of objectivity, are found to be in constant tension with the opposite: the irrational characteristics of the human social world. Science can report objectively verifiable facts and those facts may still be rejected for the benefit of political bias or general prejudice. This duality seems quite apparent, at least from my vantage. The more science becomes politicised the worse the situation because the more rational and objective engagement and communication is undermined. At the same time, the pathologies of the social world also confront the scientist, as a human being, embedded in those systems and cultural patterns. The idea of objective reality, natural and social, can easily fade by force of overwhelming communicative disorientation. That even a scientific subject of concern – say, for example, climate change (without fronting my own position and study on the subject) – is contested by some members of the scientific community (for example, see here or here) despite overwhelming consensus reveals that something fundamental in human knowledge and in the engagement with scientific study is vulnerable to bias, ulterior motivation or worse. Indeed, even scientists – perhaps especially physicists – can be guilty of hubris. But it still begs a different question. Science is principled on the basic idea of expert consensus forming, and with that a weight is given to experts in their field followed by great trust and responsibility. In such a debate, who is right and what are the facts for rational consensus? The hope, always, is that the scientific method will prevail (assuming a scientific matter). But there also seems to be implicitly a philosophical criterion here which demands consideration.

For myself, my concern is with science inasmuch as it is also with knowledge, such that the former also implies fundamental concern with reason and the idea of obtaining as objective of an understanding  of reality (social and natural) as possible within the confines of human ignorance. There is an entire thesis to be written systematically dismissing many arguments by the likes of Thomas Kuhn and others regarding the nature of “ordinary science”, “scientific revolution” and theory-forming from historical, epistemological and scientific perspectives. That science probes closer to some truer notion of reality is should not be contentious.

And yet, these concerns also become philosophical when science is forced to reflect upon itself in a critical way. And in thinking about this, I’ve come to the suspicion that the continued relevance of philosophy is possibly featured particularly with respect to the social domain as it exists in tension with such concepts of reason and unrelenting scientific consideration. Moreover, it is hard to avoid that many questions remain with respect to human behaviour, society and ethics that currently extend well beyond the scope of scientific enquiry. That scope may, indeed, continue to narrow over time, such that even the traditional philosophical subject of consciousness is becoming an increasingly scientific concern. But today it is not possible to find a scientist who, outside of thinking scientifically and performing scientific research, offers non-scientific opinion and thus also implies non-scientific philosophical assertions. That one might feign opinion as scientific – or exploit one’s position and authority in science to propagate personal bias outside of science – is something we observe all the time. To recognise the existence of bias is perhaps one of the certain hallmarks of broader intelligence in a systems-thinking frame. And yet, when all things are considered, the question of unavoidability is genuine. That, generally, the whole of science as a movement in history teaches valuable lessons – morally and broadly philosophically – does not mean that, in particular instances, subgroups may still profess scientific reason and be simultaneously fascist or bigoted or whatever.

I suppose, if one follows this course of enquiry, it can be stated that there exists and may always exist a contiguous region within a scientific society – a region of questions about greater (systemic) moral and ethical patterns and trends that require critical philosophical concepts and tools to enable science science, empiricism and evidence-based thinking to reflect upon itself in truly systemic ways. Even members of the scientific community that argue against the lasting relevance of philosophy (in whatever form) often invoke philosophical arguments outside of scientific matters of concern reveals an intriguing contradiction. That one may argue, as a matter of opinion, toward or from a basis or counter-basis of facts without the objective means to recognise potential implicit bias in the simultaneous formation of biases in those arguments, is an essential element of human irrationality that seems to come with being human (or, so the science of cognitive bias increasingly reveals). Some people are better than others in such practices of critical reflexivity, but one can hardly argue with any clarity that this is the general rule.

In any case, and whilst I have deviated somewhat from the primary trajectory, the key idea I am encircling considers whether philosophy continues to have genuine meaning in this context – that is, whether it has a role to play a critical function in human thought. As much as I have engaged with philosophy in the past, placing the role of philosophy in the enterprise of human thought (especially in the age of modern science) and excavating some satisfactory definition of “genuine” or objective philosophical theory as opposed to “bad” philosophy is something I struggle to grasp in any sort of satisfactory way. I think, primarily, because delineating between the basis of objective and even systems-based philosophy and philosophy with objective flavouring or even completely fiendish philosophical argument – the point at which one blends into another is currently subjective. And this subjective problem is what perhaps undermines completely any claim to philosophical objective enquiry, whereas science, despite microscope tensions and struggles and problems in practice, has much more of a grip on the objective.

But if the question of philosophy as a relevant critical function remains open, what I am reminded of whilst writing this short essay is piece is perhaps one of the most penetrating and thought-provoking pieces of social philosophy that I have ever read. The book I am referring to is by Carl Sagan titled “The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark” (2008). Sagan may have his critics, but this book has always struck me as being intriguing for the reason that it interweaves both science, scepticism and philosophy (social and natural) in a way that seems to exemplify the continuing power of philosophy to draw certain connections and illuminate objective patterns for the benefit of broader critical reflexivity.  Sagan evokes, if not practices with a relatively high degree of success, a rational and critical epistemology, applying scientific logic and reason along with philosophical tools to evoke deep questions about the human world. In the process, he unfolds his own humanistic values as those which he sees as a product of the unfolding of science (and, perhaps, of enlightenment reason). It is not the perfect book, by any means. And almost all popular literature shares the same fatal flaw. But what Sagan does is capture, or at least has a unique way of tracing, a sort of enlightenment scientific philosophy (however one may then project their views or biases on such a philosophy). He goes from deriving the importance of scepticism in all things (in science as well as in human policy) to forewarning about the dangers of dogma in the form of modern witch-hunts, New Age healing, and fundamentalist religion. He extracts patterns from human history – patterns of bias and repeating tendencies toward the irrational, pathological and dogmatic – to offer explanations that fit with the science.  There is also the presence of critical thinking, and, perhaps, the presence of a sort of critical theory, in which great emphasis is placed on understanding and being able to dissect fallacious arguments and practice media literacy (to be able to identify sensationally fallacious media stories and biased narratives) as well as rationally consider all that which envelops a person, with grounding in evidence; it is, in a sense, Sagan’s own social philosophical appeal to a future rational society. This is deeply philosophical inasmuch as it is motivated by science and its broader lessons.

Below are two particular passages. Reading these parts of Sagan in the contemporary social context remind one that perhaps science does serve many valuable critical lessons – even moral lessons, should one argue from the basis of its epistemology and draw out a broader philosophy of human reason. In what way, and on what basis it might philosophy be grounded in science, or cooperate and collaborate with science, I am not sure. That there are theoretical physicists who have vacated their physics departments in order to find new homes in philosophy departments, where it is felt they can then ask potentially deeper questions about the physics they are practising, is perhaps one reference point. Of course, I might also invoke MY past studies of history here, and cite the classical context in which philosophy and science were not separate, divisible parts. The natural philosopher – through the tools provided by philosophy – conceived of the scientific method, and a trace of that legacy – in the very concept and practice of scientific logic – surely remains.

That such a deep connection exists suggests that a rational, critical and objective philosophy would not see itself as being too far from also being normatively informed scientifically. Moreover, perhaps it is true that philosophy is necessarily speculative, but philosophy without science is condemned to the practice of blind speculation. From another angle, I’ve read in the past that perhaps it is the categorical imperative of philosophy to support the project of human reason, science and critical thinking – to guide such efforts and keep them honest. In some ways, I read this in Sagan – he is philosophical in his humanism without ever vacating from his scientific foundation, referring to the support of science, education and a literate and rational social class as key values (there is also a very clear economic argument to be made here, if one is thinking of psychological well-being in relation to fostering the capacity for increased social rationality, as linked in past discussions on social pathology). He writes, for example:

I worry that, especially as the Millennium edges nearer, pseudoscience and superstition will seem year by year more tempting, the siren song of unreason more sonorous and attractive. Where have we heard it before? Whenever our ethnic or national prejudices are aroused, in times of scarcity, during challenges to national self-esteem or nerve, when we agonize about our diminished cosmic place and purpose, or when fanaticism is bubbling up around us – then, habits of thought familiar from ages past reach for the controls.

The candle flame gutters. Its little pool of light trembles. Darkness gathers. The demons begin to stir.

Sagan lays out these arguments in the context of science and its potential broader moral and ethical lessons, while discussing anything from Maxwell’s equations and electromagnetism and quasars to the human genome. He does so from a framework that allows for prescient critique, such as in the following quote that I reference to close this article. Notice, too, the kernel of applied critical philosophy as the web for each concerning depiction of the future. I close with the following quote,

I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time – when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the key manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness. The dumbing down of America is most evident in the slow decay of substantive content in the enormously influential media, the 30-second sound bites (now down to 10 seconds or less), lowest common denominator programming, credulous presentations on pseudoscience and superstition, but especially a kind of celebration of ignorance.

Latour’s Revision: Objects and “Truth”

One may have noticed something distinct about the title of this essay, namely that I have enclosed the word “truth” in quotations.  The purpose is to bring focus to the question of its status, not because the concept itself is in doubt, but because after what seems like much neglect, whatever truth content may have existed for human beings appears to have increasingly eroded. I am not just speaking of climate denialism, or of observations regarding the status and role of “fact” in popular discourse. I am speaking also to what one might describe as the crisis of metaphysics in postmodernism.

So why comment? The short answer is that, on the side of my physics, I am interested in the study and history of mathematics, including the history of scientific and mathematical knowledge. With that, I have also developed a study of epistemology more generally (i.e., human knowledge). The opening statement of this post draws on these studies. It was also inspired by an article I recently read on Bruno Latour’s revision of his postmodern challenge against “scientific certainty”. The article cites that recent reconsiderations by Latour have formed in the context of growing unease with the development of things like climate denialism and post-truth culture. It was intriguing, nonetheless, to read these words in relation to such a staunch postmodernist thinker. For me, as I detailed in my study in social pathology, the question of rational discourse – its lacking – is a concern.

The trouble I have with Latour’s position – and this probably goes for the whole of postmodernism – is that, from what I can see, it lays the foundation not just for the irrational but for a reject of reason as a whole. Why? I think it begins with what I see as the misguided rejection of the object. Indeed, there is even a frequent conflation between the scientific study of objects – consider, for example, mathematical objects or the study of things like neutrinos or stress tensors – and the social epistemology of object reductionism (argued to be a site of ethical violation). For Latour and the broader postmodern view, natural epistemology and social epistemology seem to be awkwardly collected into one. Indeed, this seems to be the case for much of what is called contemporary critical theory. In epistemological terms, the objective side of the subject-object dialectic is rejected outright without sufficiently working through the role the object plays in the progress of human thought. While the ethical philosophy of social object reductionism is applied in contexts of violence and prejudice (see concepts of epistemic violence and economic reductionism, for example), and while the arguments can be compelling, something is missing when a wider assertion is made linking this reductionism with scientific methodology.

That science – and scientific epistemology -might be exploited on behalf of economic ideology is a problem that I think we ought to take seriously. There is a lot of bad science out there – not science as such, but science as an abstraction of itself on behalf of economic or political biases. This leads to a comment that the argument in the context of social philosophy – namely, the concern of socially mediated facts in the context of a highly irrational social world seems, to me, to scratch some kernel of philosophical and empirical truth. In especially convoluted circumstances in which rational discourse appears significantly lacking, the postmodern idea that there is no such thing as “natural, unmediated, unbiased access to truth” takes on a certain meaning. But to argue toward a metaphysics of post-truth seems absurd to me.

For Latour, “the opposite of relativism is totalitarianism”. I take this to be the general postmodern view. Uncomfortably absolutist and overly simplistic, I’m not sure the assumption is a necessary or even sufficient condition for the conclusion, particularly or especially when extended beyond the realm of social and political truth. That is because the postmodern case seems more of a social projection on metaphysics than an actual genuine statement about metaphysics. It takes a pathological and thus irrational social world and projects it on the plane of metaphysics, as though human society is an example of natural truth and natural scientific epistemology. Moreover, or to put it another way, I struggle to see how it is logically or rationally sufficient to extend social critique to a metaphysics of reality. That the social world produces patterns of dogma, which may or may not then be a sufficient condition for tyranny, does not necessitate that the idea of objective reality and truth is fundamentally despotic. To conflate the former with the latter seems very much misguided.

Social truth contexts, I would say, are very different than scientific truth contexts – they do not share the same epistemological grounding – although in social science the two may overlap. But the idea that in the human social world, the concepts of fact and truth might be easily manipulated or epistemologically convoluted, and that one might then extrapolate from this experience that “truth” as a whole is subject to Foucault’s notion of power seems to me to be grossly simplistic.

But this is exactly what seems to happen in postmodernism. For postmodernism, the object, severed from the subject, becomes epistemologically and methodologically inaccessible. In other words, postmodern philosophy, rejecting any claims of objective reality, seeks to establish a response to modernity by suggesting human beings are prisoners of language, facts are thus entirely constructed. Through the lens of such cultural theory, objects do not exist in the world insofar that facts do not exist “out there” waiting to be discovered. This is the epitome of the postmodern trope – the essence of postmodern philosophy.

For me, it is hard to read such opinions in the context of natural scientific study. To posit such beliefs or arguments in the context of the success of things like quantum field theory or general relativity, two of the most successful scientific theories in human history, offers immediate disproof of the epistemological biases of the postmodern narrative.


What, then, of objects? It seems to me that the idea that the natural scientist reduces everything in the world to objects is an overstated myth. The “objects” of science may be plants in botany, a fundamental particle in physics or a distant phenomenon in cosmology. An object can also be a system. But, in general, we could just as well replace the word “object” with “model” and we can also replace the notion of pure reduction to contextual isolation. If “object” and “model” are synonymous, as they often appear to be, this concept of modelling is based on the scientific activity in which a particular part or feature of the world is made easier to understand, define, quantify, visualise, or simulate by referencing it to existing and usually commonly accepted knowledge.

Think, for instance, of weather patterns as a dynamical system. This object of study may be further visualised, at least in terms of human intuition, by creating a plot. Or, perhaps for the sake of simplicity, think of a more classical picture of study in which something, say a cow, is being acted on by a number of forces. For whatever reason, we want to know or understand the forces acting this cow! A number of simplifying assumptions could be made, such as modelling a cow as a circle. In this case, let’s model it as a particle. In doing so, we could then accomplish a number things, such as calculating the net force acting on the cow. Indeed, though the cow is an object of study in this example, this does not necessitate that there is some lasting epistemological skew. The cow is also a subject, and this can indeed be recognised. Most of the reports I’ve read by scientists study fruit flies are never short of expressive their appreciating and wonder for the subject of the fruit fly. In other words, the notion of the object seems to mean different things to the natural scientist and to the postmodern philosopher. Firstly, there are two different definitions of objects at work here. Secondly, in the scientific frame, there are also different types of objects. Thirdly, the status of objects in biology – a very young science – and the status of objects in physics are not necessarily one and the same. In biology, the objects of study are also subjects.  Philosophically, I understand this is very sensitive ground for many who partake in contemporary ethical debate, particularly, as I have read, around the meaning of the study of animals. Simply put, one is no longer studying mathematical objects of the traditional sort, or systems and phenomena in the physical sense, but things other creatures.

But it is striking that the one of the most vocal sources of appreciation for the natural world is the scientific voice. In biology, to say that a forest is an object of study is different than the economic reductionism of that same forest, even though there seems to be conflation here amongst certain philosophers. That the global economy might equip scientific tools for the economic harvesting of the natural world is not an issues of science but, in my opinion, an issue of the misuse of scientific methodologies and epistemology. Biology sees the forest in its diversity of biological life – all the wonderful particularities of the forest to be studied, explored and appreciated with a great sense of discovery for each subtle hint that may be disclosed at a broader truth. The epistemology of the global economy only feigns a scientific appearance in this regard, using scientific tools to reduce that forest to the status of economic objects to then be exploited for profit. This is not science, and I think a survey of the biological scientific community would reveal quite the opposite appreciation for the sensitivity of the life of that forest that exists as much more than some economic resource.

On my readings, it seems like if there is any rationality to the concern of object reductionism it exists primarily within social and ethical philosophy with respect to the reduction of phenomena as social and economic objects as a site of violation. As I mentioned early, the arguments can be compelling. At the same time, to confuse scientific objects of study with economic objects of control makes no sense in absolute and definitive terms. Indeed, and putting aside the recognition that many of the most staunch defenders of environmental health are scientists, and that within the scientific community the ethical view of celebrating the diversity of life and the complexity of the subject is one that fills so many popular science books, I would challenge the idea that to analysise the world “out there”  necessitates a lack of investment with the reality of subjects. To construct this argument, there needs to be clear epistemological connection and I personally do not see it.

The problem, rather, is that in seeking to construct the argument that it is a fundamental error to separate the world into subjects and objects, Latour, and many other postmodernists, seem to sidestep questions of epistemology in effort to avoid serious engagement with the role of the concept of the scientific object plays in the positive development of human knowledge. But even more broadly, the role of the  object in thought cannot simply be discarded. Indeed, rather than working through the subject-object relation in effort to establish some sort of logical reconciliation in what is likely to be their epistemological mediation. Even in theoretical physics, the great Albert Einstein pondered absence of humans in the measurement. In any case, if we assum such reconciliation is necessary in the first place – Latour seems to dismiss the idea altogether and instead substitute a different implicit dualism: human disinvestment-investment with natural reality. What is interesting in drawing this distinction, from what I can tell, is that any substantive discussion on the objects of myth is avoided. In the context of post-modernism, relativism, exceptionalism and mysticism are allowed to flourish and not only is truth deconstructed completely on a metaphysical level – instead of social truth in particular – so too is the notion of reason eroded. Such, it would also seem, is the nature of the conflict postmodernism has generated with the enlightenment. And while postmodernism seeks to work in the area of critical theory, unlike the foundations of critical theory which sought to defend the enlightenment, reason and the principle of human rationality in the face of the irrational and pathological, I fail to see how postmodernism is equipped with the right conceptual tools to tackle the problems of knowledge it seeks to evoke.

To construct the postmodern view, one must firstly reject the subject-object distinction outright. The rejection, in this case, comes on the side of the subject at the cost of the object. As the question of genuine reconciliation, or mediation, is not even of a concern – inasmuch that this rejection is synonymous with disposing of any idea that certain methodologies have more of a corner on the truth than others – the result is subjectivism and the manufacturing of the subjectivity of relative worldviews. The irony, I think, is the manner in which the foundations of postmodernism imply a sort of false reconciliation between subject and object without admitting that such reconciliation was even on the agenda. But the postmodern response to epistemology is just as regressive as the dogmatist who cuts the relation purely on the side of the object or the religious mystic who fantasises about the object through the lens of a subjectivism. But then again, in the postmodern case, it would seem to this reader that as a substitute for objective reality what we have is a purely socially constructed notion of reality – that is, instead of objects, we are left with a different doctrine of knowledge in which there are no facts external to the subject’s enterprise. So it is kind of like the reemergence of myth through an abstract reason, in the sense of how the rational and scientific description of the world is replaced with an epistemology in which natural or social phenomenon are given subjective explanations.

The mediated nature of the relation between subject-object is corroded, along with the differentiation between two very different forms of truth: natural and social.

Epistemologically speaking, it is in no way surprising that the effects of such misguided efforts have culminated in the development of the post-truth, post-empirical worldview with its inclination toward conspiracy and the falsely reconciled idea of the “truer truth” that we observe in conspiracy and anti-science cultures. What is surprising is that now even Latour is beginning to backtrack from making “scientific certainty” a “primary issue”, as the social, political and cultural foundations of climate denialism demand focus.

None of this is to say that postmodern philosophy has offered nothing positive. To my mind, its emphasis on the particular is a good thing. Post-modernism forced through the important social ethical concept of appreciating and celebrating the particularity, and sought to defend such particularity from reckless social and political attempts at hypostatisation. But I think it is also time to recognise that, analogously, emphasis on the particular cannot come at the epistemological cost of the universal. Indeed, there are philosophical problems that currently face us when it comes to a coherent theory or model of objective knowledge which satisfies, on the one hand, the limits of non-scientific and scientific knowledge in process and, on the other hand, the substance of our current best theories and the nature of identity. The discerning reader will acknowledge yet another connection by analogy: more broadly, debates between process metaphysics and substance metaphysics. Inasmuch that with each historical moment there is a limit to our knowledge it can also be said that science teaches us that with each historical moment, that knowledge also sharpens, deepens, and expands in the course of the next future moment. If, in my opinion, philosophy remains especially vulnerable to absolutist theories of concepts – that the antiquated law of identity predicates the conflation of concept, phenomenon and the non-identity of identity – I would argue that science generally fosters the opposite in the sense that its epistemology is a priori principled on the understanding of the revealing nature of phenomena: that identity, process, and substance can and do exist simultaneously. Where the trouble arises, I think, is when science and scientific knowledge enters the social world with it biased inclinations toward hypostatisation.

To the last paragraph, I think this also speaks to my own lack of comfort when it comes to the relation between science and industry, or any other obviously biased and social site of practice. Indeed, as scientific knowledge enters into a biased and less-than-rational social world, it becomes a political object or, in other ways, it seems to become an abstraction of itself in much the same way rationality might maintain its form but lose all of its content. As scientific knowledge is politicised, its truth content gets emptied. Of course this is not always the case, but examples are plenty!

I suppose the concern lends to the view that how science is realised, socially, and how science is used can be vulnerable to the biases of governing political, cultural and economic systems. For me, this is a much more pressing and nuanced issue than the postmodern case would allow.

In closing, if much of what I have read suggests the postmodern view is one that wants to respect history, then surely one ought to also recognise that the frontier of human knowledge has advanced to truly astounding boundaries of investigation, owed entirely to the modern scientific enterprise and its unique epistemological domain of enquiry. If human social history is largely one of prejudice, the development of an objective knowledge of the natural world over time points to the manner in which human enquiry ought to be accountable to scientific verification. Or, at least, this is the demand from the perspective of the history of scientific knowledge.

I suppose what I am saying is that I think it is important realise that the domain of social study is very different than the domain of natural scientific study; and that questions of social truth and of the operation of social truth are very different than concepts of objective truth and natural reality in the context of the scientific study of the natural world. But what is perhaps most obvious to me, it is the natural sciences by and large that remain a site for the mediation of subject-object and a truer view of reality.

persistence of memory

Free Will, Determinism and Probabilities

The debate about which triumphs, free will or determinism, can on many occasions feel so unsatisfying. Over the years I’ve picked up or have come across quite a few pieces of literature on the subject, from historical and social studies to psychological research, neuro and cognitive science, and also various speculations within philosophy and physics. It is a debate that is hotly contested from both sides – a longstanding philosophical matter of concern.

Through history philosophers and scientists have organised arguments around numerous points of empirical validation. On the one hand, human beings can affect change. The human subject – consciousness and all – has the ability to change social and economic structures, protest and revolt in the face of tyrants, and conceive of novel inventions that will forever shape civilisation. Imagination, creation, the impulse to explore and discover, and the ability to deviate from established patterns and social norms – these are all cited as examples that support some idea of free will.

Moreover, that a person could, spontaneously and on a whim, decide to paint a picture of melting clocks in a desert simply because they can, and because they have the ability to imagine and philosophise about such radical symbolism, could be construed as an act of free will. Jean-Paul Sartre famously argued from the basis of two well-known aspects of human experience in this regard: choice and responsibility. With some concept of free will comes both freedom of choice and responsibility of action (and for one’s actions), two qualities that are argued to be of basic human experience. The assumption, of course, is that free will exists. On the other hand, Sartre, the master of existentialism and 20th century notions of freedom and the subject, also conceded at the heart of his philosophy that the situation is complicated. There are many more forces at play that extend beyond pure unadulterated free will. Hence, he employed the term “facticity”. This term represents all of that sociohistorical-cultural stuff that exists external to the individual subject – economy, cultural norms, social and individual psychology, and so on. In other words, he recognised all of these things – the stage in which one pursues life – as also playing a significant role in fostering subjectivity and in suggesting, in my own words, certain sets of probabilities in behaviour. Human choice, in other words, is delivered within a historical context – the range of things that comprise that context extend or constrict the horizon of possibility. This is similar, in some ways, as considerations one might read within biology texts about how or in what ways biology and culture may become entangled and thus affect one another.

Sartre is just one philosopher of a long list that argues toward some notion of free will – or rather, the mediating subject which is, as I take it, more nuanced that the traditional idea of free will. He does so within a set of certain constraints, similar, indeed, to likes of Adorno and others. But Sartre serves as a particularly useful example because, on the other hand, there is also a strong argument for some notion of determinism. On the level of the human, not only is there all that social, historical and cultural stuff that contextualises the stage of one’s existence – some even refer to the “economic horizon of possibilities” – but there are also worthy scientific concerns and speculations that would contradict any argument toward the idea of pure and unadulterated free will.

Contemporary cognitive and neuroscience rightly have a growing voice on these matters. Indeed, in my opinion, the answer likely lies within a better understanding of both the human brain and mind. One plausible estimate is that there are 86 billion neurons in the human brain. We’re speaking of an inconceivable amount of cells, not to mention synapse, of which up to one-hundred thousand can be associated with just one neuron. Factoring in brain chemistry – and biochemical processes more generally – notions of unadulterated free will become less likely. The likelihood then constricts even more given the role psychology and emotions play in human experience, and how these may then relate to the brain – not to mention how the social, cultural and economic contexts may affect the development of the brain. (For example, there is emerging evidence that suggests things like poverty affect a child’s brain development). But even on a purely physical level: consider something so simple as two people talking with one another, or interacting in some way. This situation is dependent also on the laws that atoms behave in a certain way in this situation, that electrons behave in a certain way – the interaction depends on chemical forces, electrical forces, and even forces of gravity and so on. It is easy to just see two people talking, conscious and engaged, conceiving of new thoughts and imaging new future topics of conversation. It is a common daily image to witness two or more people engaging in conversation over tea or a meal. But there are so many dimensions or factors to this interaction as well as to each individuals behaviour in that moment of interaction, it is difficult to fix the idea of free will because almost immediately the context and complexity of the engagement demands focus.

We could substitute the word “dimensions” for what the great physicist Richard Feynman would describe as interconnecting hierarchies – a sequence of relative hierarchies, their connections and interconnections, from the elaborate complexities of fundamental particles quantum mechanics to atoms and then microbes and biochemistry and the ~100 billion neurons firing in the brain; then constantly higher to perception, motor control, memory processes, psychology, emotions, prejudices, and social concepts and then also established norms of social interaction, and so on. When thought of in this way, with the complexity of interacting and interconnected hierarchies, it is difficult to not only find sense in the idea of unadulterated free will but it is also difficult to follow or trace the complex causal chain that would define a tangible concept of determinism, even in a simple situation of two people conversing with one another. Just the operation of the visual cortex of the brain alone, with its many excited neurons, as light reflects off objects in one’s field of view, entering the eye (a complex optical refracting system and photodetector). As the light passes through the cornea and to the retina, light sensitive cells cause photochemicals to decompose, sending necessary electrochemical signals to the brain that then stimulate the visual cortex. Although a gross simplification – without even mentioning the greater complexity of the human eye, the millions of rods and cones in the retina, or even the million nerve fibres connecting the eye to the brain – the point is that each subtle moment in even the most basic experience of two people talking is filled with an inexplicable amount of interconnected processes. How to account for all of this in the context of free will or, for that matter, causal chain determinism?

Indeed, and moreover, we can think of this example of two people talking and compare it with a study of patients undergoing brain surgery while still awake. This might sound strange at first. But it is an interesting example because, while undergoing surgery, it is not uncommon that the patient may lie awake and play their favourite instrument or recite their favourite maths, so as to be sure that the particular part of the brain associated with the patient’s favourite activity in life may not be damaged. It is also the case that, in such instances of brain surgery, it has been found that electrical stimulation to the relevant areas of the brain can cause the patient to move their hand or exercise a certain muscle. With this direct link between stimulation and action, it is difficult to speak of free will or even agency. One of my favourite passages currently on these debates comes from the late Professor Stephen Hawking in Grand Design (2010), who also cites similar examples of patients undergoing brain surgery. He writes, in one part of his book, “the molecular basis of biology shows that biological processes are governed by the laws of physics and chemistry and therefore are as determined as the orbits of the planets…so it seems that we are no more than biological machines and that free will is just an illusion” (p. 32). Later, he writes, “Quantum physics might seem to undermine the idea that nature is governed by laws, but that is not the case. Instead it leads us to accept a new form of determinism: Given the state of a system at some time, the laws of nature determine the probabilities of various futures and pasts rather than determining the future and past with certainty” (p.72; emphasis added).

With everything that has already been noted, and in taking seriously Professor Hawking’s argument, how might we proceed?

If we return to the example of two people talking and interacting, perhaps over a cup of coffee, one enlightening point of study involves the new science and emerging conceptual picture of complexity and networks. In other words, I think it can be said that human behavior can be modeled as a complex system. Unlike particles, human beings respond to history . In fact, every single moment of human experience is based on a fermenting and simmering cocktail of interacting factors. Consider the relation of the brain to the body and vice versa – it seems a mistake to liken the brain purely to a machine, and frontier neuroscience certainly sheds light on this error. Less mechanical and predictable, the brain is equally dependent on genes that make proteins, which then enable a brain cells to communicate with another brain cells. These cells then of course manufacture or establish circuits, the basis then of macro brain structures, and so on. In the instance of two people communicating verbally with one another, or simply one person perceiving an object, a multitude of interacting parts are at play, some of which I have already alluded. The complexity of human experience is then only complicated further when we consider the subject’s unceasing interaction with their environment – some philosophers and scientists describe this through the notion of intentionality. But even more complex yet, throughout ones entire life genes are constantly being switched on and switched off, the brain is also constantly receiving biochemical signals and triggers as chemicals are released, while biochemical forces can trigger emotions or other response patterns or behavioural patterns. It is, again, a fermenting and simmering cocktail of interacting chemistry and active neurons, in addition to more superficial aspects such as emotions and psychology, which, in every moment, plays some role in human behaviour. It is becomes even more complex when we consider the nurturing and developmental aspect of things like human emotions, in which a great deal of psychology elaborates, including how healthy and positive emotional development can lead to increasing capabilities for rational and logical considerations to overcome emotional responses. Not only does all of this deepen questions or valid enquiries into the state or status of determinism with respect to a conscious human being; it most certainly dampens, in my view, any idea of free will.

Rather than thinking in terms of simple systems or of interactions within simple systems – or simple mechanical models of behaviour – even in the example of two human beings interacting at a coffee house, science from across numerous disciplines seems to suggest a picture of where we’re now converging more with the need of having to think in terms of complexity (or even networks).

To approach the issue from another angle: if the notion of free will is being brought into question here, perhaps impliedly another point of enquiry that emerges concerns the status of choice and responsibility. Indeed, the implications in moral philosophy about the absence of free will are well known. Informed scientific debates have existed for decades, including within the legal realm. But as this discussion relates to Prof. Hawking’s view, perhaps it depends on one’s interpretation or conceptualisation of determinism? I mean, the idea of libertarian free will would seem an “illusion” in many ways; but what of the general idea of human agency? What of the idea of the free-flourishing human subject? How might, instead, the notion of probabilistic determinism offer a language, or a way of conceptualising, that in some way preserves the idea of determinism while acknowledging the computational mechanism of the subject of the human agent? I think these are very interesting questions to ask, which, likewise, raise very interesting ideas that are worth considering.

I suppose what I am encircling in a very informal way is how, on a purely physical level, we can most certainly say that what we have is two human beings with each human being comprised of a certain configuration of particles and atoms that obey the laws of physics. In that there is physical reason to argue for a new form of determinism, this also serves an interesting question. How can such a new form of determinism fit within a complex picture of human behaviour?

For example, in the illustration of two people speaking with one another, perhaps over a cup of coffee, one could ask: did they choose to drink that coffee or was their behaviour determined? But what if there is a third explanation: what if there is a certain probability that the individual will drink a cup of coffee or will not? How do we fit this question into a complex picture of human behaviour keeping in mind, also, the empirical argument for an interacting subject?

One might argue, like some philosophers do in relation to the “soul”, that free will is entangled in the self-stimulation of electrical signals – in knowledge, and observation, and thus in reason which can overcome purely biochemical motivations. One might argue, alternatively, that on the basis of quantum theory and moving up the conceptual hierarchy, determinism is the most accurate explanation for human reality, made complicated with the existence of consciousness of which we have yet to really understand. I think these types of considerations are helpful in that the longstanding stalemate in the debate between free will and determinism is due to how it has so often become limited to the entrenched ontological distinction between materialist views and dualistic views. In my opinion, this is negatively restricting. Instead, when considering all the current best arguments in addition to the weight of the physical evidence, I am left thinking: perhaps the reality is more convoluted, more nuanced – that our lack of certainty and inability to conclusively reconcile the concepts of free will, or agency, and determinism is a measure of our ignorance. In other words, what if the answer is neither a 1 or a 0. What if there is some mechanism for computation and for some mediating agency in making decisions whilst also some mechanism of determinism? How can we stretch our conceptual vocabulary to make sense of the physical nature of human beings and what we observe in terms of behaviour and psychology in the context of interacting systems?

It is similar, in a certain sense, to the ongoing debates between process metaphysics and substance metaphysics. Both positions offer valuable arguments, and also serve their own respective substantial empirical and logical case as evidence. But what is most interesting – and perhaps this is another example of the value of the march of science – both of these debates are making their way into contemporary physics. And among all the speculations within theoretical physics about the correct interpretation of quantum theory, perhaps it is that there is process in substance and, reversely, substance in process. Relatedly – even if only by analogy – when we take the weight of all the arguments, perhaps it is fruitful to ask whether some notion of free will – or mediated agency, which is different than traditional notions of pure free will which still does justice to the computation factor and to agency – can exist within a physical theory of determinism? In physics, building from the uncertainty principle, there implies in uncertainty some idea of freedom from a traditional hard determinism. Instead, from one vantage, we are looking at the potential of probabilistic determinism. (A site of interesting consideration here can be found in the study of the path integral – or of particle paths more generally. To give historical context, Albert Einstein was famously cautious about quantum theory as currently conceived, primarily because he saw probabilistic determinism as evidence of an incomplete picture. Instead, the idea was that there are variables still hidden from us, mathematically and experimentally. This is what gives meaning to Einstein’s remark, “I am convinced God does not play dice”. On the flip side, there is quantum contextualism and Bell’s famous theorem that counter this notion of hidden variables).

Of course, these last comments point back to the frontier sciences and what we strive to know. Fascinatingly, the debate of free will versus determinism has some connection.


To conclude, it should be said that there is a great deal more still to be said on these matters. What I will end with here is a simple acknowledgement that the topics at hand are incredibly interesting and certainly important. I do not mean to offer any formal argument, but simply to suggest certain questions that might be raised. Disagreements pertaining to determinism versus free will arise in so many different research contexts, it is difficult to not find reason for stimulated curiosity.  In terms of my own perspective, I would say that what is encouraging is that the question of free will or determinism is become increasingly scientific. As for my own arguments, I currently argue toward some idea of probabilistic determinism. I have often expressed some argument toward some notion of causality, and I would be inclined to suggest that the case for some sort of determinism is overwhelmingly strong – that is, a determinism given the state of a system at some time. Human beings are comprised of atoms and other things that obey the laws of physics. To speak as a human being as if there is no determinism would seem foolish. But what if we begin thinking in terms of networks and systems, as some biologists are beginning to do? I think it leads to a very different idea of determinism compared with traditional or classical notions of deterministic thinking. Is there a wider analogy that one might offer? In this manner of wording, the idea would seem to be not that different to the concept of “facticity” mentioned earlier – a concept also given many different names by many philosophers and social scientists. It’s also a concept one will find, however it may be expressed, within places like developmental and behavioural psychology – the idea that the subject is mediated with its sociohistorical-cultural conditions. But I am currently thinking of these ideas in the background of strictly mathematical and physical study. It is interesting to point out, for example, that many mathematical models of physical systems are deterministic. There are also mathematical models that are not deterministic – stochastic – and there are those that are chaotic, with an interpretation of the latter and its implications still very much open. In chaos theory, it may actually prove impossible to predict outcomes in complex systems – perhaps including systems involving consciousness – and this may or may not offer some statement about the parameters or limits of determinism. It also remains that deterministic systems – even very basic systems or models using differential equations – can be sensitive to their initial conditions (much like with chaotic systems), giving the false appearance of non-determinism.

Using these insights to offer wider analogies is difficult. But, as things currently stand, probabilistic determinism would not seem unfathomable. We have not even scratched the surface of arguments in physics and biology and elsewhere, while on the level of human experience, there is also intriguing empirical examples that might be raised: it is interesting to consider how given a current state – or situation – and even preserving some space for human agency, it is entirely possible to predict a person’s behaviour if you know them well enough (given the probabilities of their action). Think, for instance, of insights offered by way of cognitive behavioural therapy – the existence of established thought patterns and triggers to certain stimuli. In other words, a person’s behaviour may not be absolutely determined or determinable, but there is still a certain probability or predictability. Of course people can change their behavioural patterns, alter or change the ways in which they think. After all, the assumption is that some space for agency is preserved and in preserving some space for agency absolute knowledge is forbidden. But the probability of a person’s behaviour, given a certain situation or context against which such probability may be judged, is likely not out of reach. If I know that a person is hungry and that they like apples, then when experiencing hunger and situated around some apples, the likelihood is that they will opt to eat an apple. Or, if a person is known to be triggered by a certain stimuli, there is a sense of predictability or at least predictable probability that such stimuli will act as a behavioural trigger. One may think, furthermore, of Bayes theorem or think of studies regarding predictive models of consumer behaviour. Indeed, it does not seem outrageous to suggest some predictability – even conditional probability – about a person’s behaviour given prior knowledge of conditions and some definition of familiarity with that person: a knowledge of that person, their psychology, history, and motivations over time, etc. In the very least, probabilistic determinism is interesting to think about from a number of perspectives. In a not so subtle way, some of the ideas also remind me of certain insights offered by predicative coding theory in which it would seem possible that both the idea of determinism and the idea of the mediating subject might coalesce. The only problem is that, once again, the coordinates of the point where these two concepts might intersect remains largely undefined.