Sunday, January 29, 2012

Coyne and the nature of philosophy

I've been trying to get around to commenting on the this Jerry Coyne article on free will from USA Today. Rather than one large blogpost - which I don't seem to be able to get the time to do - maybe I can attack it with a series of smaller ones. For this one, I'll comment on Coyne's passing remark about the significance of the question of free will:

"The issue of whether we have of[sic] free will is not an arcane academic debate about philosophy, but a critical question whose answer affects us in many ways: how we assign moral responsibility, how we punish criminals, how we feel about our religion, and, most important, how we see ourselves — as autonomous or automatons."

What's interesting about this passage is what it says about Coyne's view of the nature of philosophy, which is a view of it that started in the Enlightenment and is still common. Philosophy, for Coyne, includes "arcane academic debates" that aren't about anything that "affects" us. When we do begin talking about things that affect us, like how we assign moral responsibility or how we punish criminals, we've moved beyond philosophy or, at least, the arcane debates that comprise academic philosophy.

Now the classical philosopher would say that Coyne has it exactly backwards. To the extent that philosophy discusses anything that won't "affect" us, it isn't really philosophy at all. The philosopher is a lover of wisdom, which means living an "examined life." Everything the philosopher discusses, from the metaphysics of Thomas Aquinas to the ethics of Aristotle, must be in service to the primary goal of living an examined life - or the philosopher isn't really a philosopher at all. To use my favorite example, Socrates in the Crito is offered the chance to escape from his death sentence in Athens so he may continue pursuing philosophy in a different city. Socrates refuses the opportunity because he does not, after philosophical reflection, think there would be justice in an attempt to escape his sentence. To escape his sentence would then be to betray his philosophical vocation, which isn't about merely discussing "philosophy", but leading a life examined by reason and faithful to it. Such a life is what philosophy is; it is not a series of academic debates, arcane or otherwise.

The degeneration of philosophy from the Socratic ideal to a series of academic debates about nothing that "affects" us started in the Enlightenment. We can point to Descartes idea in his Discourse on Method that he would accept nothing until it had survived the most critical form of doubt. What then of his ongoing daily life and the myriad decisions life requires, including mundane ethical decisions? Daily life demands regular decisions from us whether we have prepared those decisions through a Method or not. Descartes solved this problem by living according to a "provisional morality", pending the development of a truly rational,  real morality that would be worked out in due course through the Method. While under development this true morality, of course, had nothing to do with how Descartes was actually living (which was the province of the provisional morality); it wasn't about anything that "affected" him. In truth, whatever ethics might be developed through the Method isn't really an ethics at all, since the subject of ethics is precisely the existing man facing the problems of life as they come, problems for which he can't take a "timeout" pending the development of a truly rational ethics. Socrates facing the problem of escaping from Athens is a subject of ethics; man considered in timeless abstraction through something like the Method is not.

What is interesting about the "provisional morality" is that it isn't open to rational criticism. True reason is only available through the method; since the provisional morality is just that which we live by while the method works out the true morality, the provisional morality is by definition not open to reason. And, in truth, the true morality never does get worked out. This was Kierkegaard's point in emphasizing that abstract reason cannot put an end to itself; in other words, abstract reason cannot of itself issue in a decision, because decisions are demanded by the concrete circumstances of life that are just what reason abstracts from. Socrates did not refrain from escaping from the Athenian prison because he had worked out a logical ethics to completion; he refrained because, as his philosophical reflection told him at the moment, there was no justice in an attempt at escape.

The thing about allegedly arcane philosophical debates, like the one over Descartes and his method, is that they eventually trickle down and spread through the common culture. Descartes' "provisional morality" is, it seems to me, the de facto ethical view of the average American. The average person may believe that you can think about ethical questions, but he doesn't think such thought counts as "real thought" in the sense of abstract methods like math or physics. It's all kind of "iffy." And it certainly doesn't apply to what he himself will do in the moment. That is a matter of "personal choice"; and by that we mean not only that it is up to us as individuals to make a decision, but that the process by which we come to that concrete decision isn't finally open to rational scrutiny. Descartes "provisional morality" has become our permanent morality.

When we do bring what we think is "true reason" to bear on subjects like ethics, then it means approaching them through science in the manner of Coyne. But Coyne's approach isn't, in the end, any more sound that Descartes'. Any system of thought, philosophical or otherwise, that doesn't start with man in his subjective, concrete existence, and stay there, can't have ethics in the true sense as its subject; it can't ever be about the things that "affect" us. Thus the "free will" discussed by Coyne isn't the subjectively experienced free will you are aware of every moment you make a decision. It is "free will" as a scientific abstraction, which isn't really free will at all and is, in fact, incoherent in terms of scientific abstraction.