Robert C. Priddy

Writings on diverse themes from philosophy, psychology to literature and criticism

  • Robert Priddy

    In this blog I post information and critical views concerning ideologies, belief systems and related scientific materials etc. I am a retired philosophy lecturer and researcher, born 1936.

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Archive for the ‘Free will’ Category

Sam Harris on free will; is all ‘freedom’ a miasma?

Posted by robertpriddy on June 9, 2011

Sam Harris, for whose ideas I otherwise hold in calm approval,  has now decided: “Our sense of our own freedom results from our not paying close attention to what it is like to be ourselves in the world. The moment we do pay attention, we begin to see that free will is nowhere to be found, and our subjectivity is perfectly compatible with this truth. Thoughts and intentions simply arise in the mind. What else could they do?  The truth about us is stranger than many suppose: the illusion of free will is itself an illusion.”

Though his declaration is unnecessarily compounded with what he believes our sense of freedom results from, the core idea that free will is an illusion cannot be proven false. Nor, of course,  can it be proven true. When I pay attention to “what it is like to be myself in the world” I come to an entirely different result than Sam Harris believes anyone would. This test he proposes is really so vague that it can be taken a hundred ways, so it is rather useless as an argument for his contention. I can see conditions over which I had no control, but also alternatives between which I had to decide – after long deliberations as to which of the most likely consequences were the best bet. I note also that, fortunate as I am in my life situation, I have far more alternatives and possibilities than many who are less ‘free’ (i.e. live under far more constraining conditions). 

Without giving a definition of ‘free will’, which presumably Harris finds impossible since he claims there is no such thing – he has (on his own theory) involuntarily plumped for physical determinism as the reason for no free will being possible. The whole idea of ‘freedom’  – one of the vaguest and most misused words available (if not comparable to ‘God’)  is itself under threat here, of course. (But has not our freedom ever been under threat… o.k., joke over). The idea of choice between real alternatives as an illusion has consequences of an extremely far-reaching nature… and they would be revolutionary if it were eliminated from human thought and intercourse. I do not see that Harris has considered this, and I find the reason to be his over-generalizing approach…. and that means his language imprecision. What does he mean by ‘freedom of the will’ exactly?

One cannot reduce the entire issue of human freedom to some either-or propositions (eg it exists or it does not) without falling into the trap that some Vienna positivists did when they wanted to abolish all words and phrases which did not have a corresponding referent (and so leave us with a ‘scientific language’ devoid of poetic nonsense and imagination that would eventually solve all disagreements). Wittgenstein abolished that mythology, of course. The issue of freedom is not encompassed by one ‘determination’ – whether there can be an uncaused cause or not.

Before proceeding please note that freedom of the will is not a necessary component of theology and religious moralizing, for there have been many a religious determinist since the Stoic Zenon, and most pre-Greek religion is highly fatalistic/deterministic, not least in India where a deterministic brand of ‘karma’ theory is one root cause of the widespread fatalism seen among the Indian masses today. Sam Harris seems to think determinism could be a conceptual tool against religious moralism… for if we have no choice, then all moral preaching is totally futile. It can equally well be a tool of fanatics… all is Allah’s will, being one example for contemporary comparisons.

One problem with Sam Harris’ thesis is that he narrows the discussion to what is little better than the ‘clockwork universe’ conception: one interpretation of the famous dictum ‘every event has a cause’.  That every event has a cause is not proven, of course… every single event cannot be studied and tied to a preceding event. So it is an assumption, a principle – fruitful indeed in respect of scientific investigation. It is the desirable carrot before the donkey that doesn’t know the answer (yet). But then the universe is a continuously interacting complex of countless influences – multiple causes if you like, a mutually-dependent ‘ecology’ of events – so that the reductionist method of isolating one event to one cause is rather comparable to missing the forests for one tree. Admittedly, one tree tells us a lot about a forest, but far from all that is involved. The ‘one cause-one effect’ hypothesis is fruitful as an analytical instrument but not much use in that we are also faced with the synthetical task (holistic if you prefer) or understanding in terms of greater and greater wholes. One such greater whole is the human brain, another is nature, another is  ‘society’ and the question becomes – is everything running on predetermined lines, or is there any point in mental development, education, politics, upbringing to responsibility, or any of the countless attempts to ‘liberate’ people progressively from the worst burdens of life? (How to ‘liberate’ someone who can never be other than unfree?)

All explanations must end somewhere (in practice and in theory), so proving what causes what in the super-intricate human mind will always remain largely an open question. In such an uncertain situation, how should we think about ourselves – as ignorant automatons, as unwitting slaves of circumstance? Harris’ thesis implies that is just what we are! But he might rather take a leaf from Maimonides’ book, “We ought to exert our efforts in everything as though they were absolutely free..” (That Maimonides added, “… and God will do as he sees fit.” need not phase us… one can substitute ‘natural causes’ for God and ‘determine’ for ‘as he sees fit’).

It is (theoretically) totally predictable what he draws from what he must logically recognise as his involuntary plumping. There is nothing new about his theorizing – despite a few references to research which suggests – but does not prove (of course) – that the brain as a totally causally-determined entity.

Let us explain how ‘free will’ is understood by many people. It is to have options and to be able to distinguish and so select those alternative courses of action one chooses or wishes (whatever the multiplicity of circumstances that lie behind the choice… including conscious intentions and subconscious predilections). This makes free will – or freedom – something that is relative to the level of one’s control over the environment and oneself. Those who have the opportunities provided by upbringing, education, social position, self-help and resources have a greater degree of freedom – and can exercise their ‘will’ (desires, motives, and aims) accordingly. In this respect, it is patently obvious that there is a difference between freedom and it suppression (by whatever agencies or natural facts).

The key issue about free will is not whether it is a metaphysical possibility or not, but what it is used for, how its scope can be increased in a fair way within a society.

See review on Harris’ latest (one-track) book ‘Free Will’.


Posted in Atheism, causality, Free will, Philosophy, Science, Understanding | Leave a Comment »

“God is Imaginary” – see linked proofs

Posted by robertpriddy on January 29, 2011



  • Proof #1
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  • Posted in Atheism, Belief, Free will, Philosophy, Religion, religious faith, Theology, Understanding | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

    Evolution of the human psyche towards self-sufficiency

    Posted by robertpriddy on January 23, 2011

    In 1841, the German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach first explained how religion arises from alienation from oneself and the projection of ideal human qualities onto a fictitious supreme ‘other’. This event can mark the beginning of an increasing movement towards individual human autonomy and away from almost universal false dependence on belief in imaginary beings, immaterial spheres and the hopes and wishes attached to them. It should be considered as a major step in the evolution of human self-understanding.

    Feuerbach’s insight were taken up by Karl Marx in his famous ‘Thesis on Feuerbach’, one of the eventual consequences of which for Soviet (i.e. non-Marxian) Communism were a rigid atheism and suppression of all religion. Of course, this was not a necessary consequence! The progress of humanity’ self-understanding is historically fraught with many and diverse setbacks, but the critique of religion itself is certainly not one of them!

    As long as one projects human qualities into imagined immaterial beings or discarnate entities, those qualities are likely to be suppressed by and in oneself in the same measure. Self-sufficiency is an ideal to be striven for and is not itself specifically a kind of ambitious individualism or self-pride lacking human humility. A person, a family, a community, a society and a nation would all benefit from self-sufficiency, and this precludes beliefs that everything is divinely ordained or that any kind of supernatural influence is capable of hindering or helping in any enterprise.

    The modern emphasis on developing personal autonomy, from the child onwards, is intimately connected with the ideals of democracy – that is, that people should as far as possible be able to decide over the circumstances that affect them most directly. The religious emphasis on such beliefs as fate, a predestined future, obedience to the will of a dumb and invisible Deity (or the supposed holy deputies which are found throughout the world) are all definitively opposed to self-sufficiency, autonomy and this – at the very core of religion – even the freedom of people to decide over their own lives and societies.

    Posted in Atheism, Belief, Evolution, Free will, Ideology, Philosophy, Religion, religious faith | Leave a Comment »

    The Origins and Persistence of Religious Belief and Faith in God

    Posted by robertpriddy on September 5, 2010

    Views on the origins and development of religion expressed here are a contribution to secular and humanistic culture. They are no doubt anathema to believers in almost all religions today. There is a vast wealth of intricate evidence, interpretations and argument underlying my thesis into which I shall not without digress much so that the main lines are more readily graspable.

    Religion certainly had its roots in both awe and fear, the overriding fear being that of death.

    Wonder and awe at existence, at the world early humankind lived in and not least at ‘the heavens’ are common to us all and there is evidence that neolithic humans also had the capacity and the time for this. The human condition of not knowing the whys, hows and wherefores of being pertains even today, though is doubtless not so overwhelming as it once was. This awe cannot have been insulated from fear, which is so closely related to ignorance. (Even the word ‘awe’ is parent to the word ‘awful’). With the development of primitive technology and understanding of nature and with the inception of ideas of causation from a largely invisible (and often threatening) spirit world, the human mind groped through prehistory towards conceptions of creative and ruling gods, and eventually a single God entity. Gradually the idea of divine benevolence became more prominent than that of a jealous and punishing God, if only relatively very recently. All that has never been a smooth or painless transition, nor is the transition in recent centuries to the removal of a supposed divine agency from the one field of research to the next… and the spreading loss of faith in any God.

    Fear is a natural human condition in a hostile environment, which most often prevailed in prehistory. The mystery of death and fear of it is obviously an existential reality, however one tackles it and remains a challenge to humanity. Since the earliest history of humankind, when the causes of death were not understood to anywhere near the extent that is the case today, it would have been ‘natural’ to suppose some ‘supernatural’ agency. This was surely one powerful motivation to seek explanations in an unseen world peopled by spirits or other unseen beings, to help allay that fear and to grapple with the many enigmas of life, natural events and inexplicable human physical and psychological conditions. Needing an explanation of the many circumstances that sustain human life and how to face and overcome the challenges of this world – as science now knows them to be – the continued life of soul or spirit (in later religious terms) and realms where they resided were conceived – and developed in many local variants. This belief in an afterworld – or parallel world – was developed along very diverse lines. It persists today in religious conceptions of heavens and hells.

    The struggle to deal with the conditions of life – scarcity of food, weather extremes, illness, wild creatures and many other circumstances related to such basic factors of existence, also involved a struggle to master and understand them. The causes were mostly seen in animistic terms – that beings inhabited and controlled the earth, water and the heavens. Rites and sacrifices came about in the attempt to propitiate and so influence these spirits (or deities) to protect and help the tribe. Contacting them ‘shamanistically’ through trance and altered states was a further step. Ideas about transcendental entities and places were no doubt based on experiences from intense rituals, tribal rites like dance and deprivations, shamanist induction of trances, rigorously demanding initiations, and not least through altered states of consciousness caused by a variety of psychotropic plants and fungi, through high fevers, extreme starvation or loss of blood… and so on. The break with more simple kinds of animism took many ages to effect, and it is not even over today for few religious cultures or groups have been rid of all animistic beliefs. Here and there resurgence of certain natural and pagan superstitions regularly happens. Animism is yet very prominent in various sects among Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, Islamic sub-cultures and in amalgams of Christian with spiritualist and/or traditional tribal beliefs. In these practices one clearly sees the general prototype of religious beliefs as are widespread today. The sheer extent and time span of these primitive urges to understand the world has a tremendous cultural inertia.

    The Inertia of Religious Belief:
    We grow up under the pressure of ideas caused by what I call ‘the inertia’ of religion. This inertia was generated by millennia of human culture where one knew almost nothing of the infinitely complex systems of natural causation. From misty beginnings, we sought to explain them as results of the acts of spirits, deities, gods. Fear of terrible scourges that beset early humans must have given rise to desires and hopes of propitiating whatever or whoever caused them. Human sacrifice is known to have been a fairly common kind of ‘offering’ to please whatever powers-that-be, and it still occurs even today in some parts of the world. The idea of influencing an invisible agency grew, multiplied, divided and were propagated – being employed in many ways to regulate or control human affairs, in short – the root of religion. These conceptions formed the glue of many societies and were the basis of a considerable part of every language, interwoven in many ways into words and phrases, and in ever-developing forms up to this day. Religions still try to propitiate idols, deities or holy figures through countless and changing rituals… and in more knowledgeable or enlightened societies this mostly takes the form of prayer, devotion, personal sacrifice and social work.

    Since the sky was probably the most impenetrable mystery to early humankind – unreachable and inexplicably dark or sunlit – it was the repository of our early ideas of gods. Probably only much later did the speculative ‘heaven’ as a derived realm to which the spirits of the dead went and which was hopefully imagined to be ‘paradise’ in its being close to the God the Creator and source of all wisdom and whatever. Similarly, volcanoes must have been equally impenetrable and fearful, and no doubt prefigured the widespread visions of hell as a burning realm. It only became a place of burning torture for souls for all time – eternally, much later.

    Human beings have always had to rely since birth until maturity on their parents to answer their needs and questions. Where lacking, elders or other authorities capable of fulfilling these requirements took the place of father and mother. Yet the adults and elders themselves had not such paternal being to watch over them, to whom the could appeal for solace or justice. Thus the idea of God easily filled that role – the great spirit which made the wonderful world work and who could hopefully be appeased when troubles descended. Voltaire most likely also considered this when he wrote: "If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him." ("Si Dieu n’existait pas, il faudrait l’inventer."). Times have changed, however, as the need to ‘un-invent’ God becomes more widespread and intellectually and morally pressing.

    That cultural heritage is the motor which drove religion forth for most of human existence on earth. What is now known to be superstition persisted and is carried along well after it has been explained away by religion’s inertia We know that God does not bring the rain (Latin “Jupiter pluit” – i.e. Jupiter causes it to rain) or the drought. Yet many primitive religions still believe this and even educated people go to church to pray for the end of a drought… and the same with many trials and tribulations. Not least also, of course, thanksgiving to one God or another all manner of things which arise as normal effects of nature and life.

    Religion and Politics:
    Politics in the very broadest sense includes all forms of leadership, however enforced enforced or chosen. The multitude of primitive superstitions and beliefs which formed religion in tribal societies since the stone age (as known to us) were so intertwined with the interests of those who were leaders that separating the two would be near impossible from our perspective. This relationship has always persisted with few probably exceptions even to this day. The preponderance of religion in most nations at least since before the Enlightenment, still applies to most nations and its intimate associations with the origins and influences of national law are historical fact. This being so, the United Nations 1948 Human Rights declaration had no option but to include freedom of religious expression and tolerance of religion throughout both private and public life. This is an embodiment of the secular, humanist value system. "Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance." (United Nations’ ‘Universal Declaration of Human Rights’, Article18).

    This ideal had long been suppressed and rejected in one practical or theoretical way and another – often quite totally – by all mainstream religions. These require adherence to belief in the authenticity of each their various scriptures which must be regarded as the will of God and not to be doubted or criticized with the aim of challenging them. This limitation on freedom of information – and consequently on the scope of education – student the growth of those brought up within a belief system and either delays or stops natural human development of knowledge in the search for the truth (which may contradict doctrine). Religious bodies have had to pay respect to human right, though sometimes grudgingly and only as lip service (as in much Hinduism and most of Islam).

    Two quotes capture essential features of the problem of interaction or interference of religion in politics: "You cannot avoid the interplay of politics within an orthodox religion.
    This power struggle permeates the training, educating and disciplining of the orthodox community. Because of this pressure, the leaders of such a community inevitably must face that ultimate internal question: to succumb to complete opportunism as the price of maintaining their rule, or risk sacrificing themselves for the sake of the orthodox ethic.
    " and "When law and duty are one, united by religion, you never become fully conscious, fully aware of yourself. You are always a little less than an individual." (Frank Herbert in the ‘Dune’ series).

    Religion and equality: All mainstream religions and virtually all sects still contravene or silently ignore (less in theory than in practice) central values in the UN Declaration of Universal Human Rights, Article 2, which states: Article 2:
    "Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty."

    Sex or gender is almost universally regarded in discriminatory ways by religious scriptures and doctrines derived from these. Even where women are accorded freedoms in religious scriptures, the organised religious communities often fail to allow them to exercise the few freedoms the doctrines allow.
    The discrimination against non-heterosexual persons is rife in most religious communities, and has traditionally been punished by the most brutal means… and this occurs widely still today with religious doctrinal backing. Even religions which preach and emphasize love and compassion at the same time also often supported (or fail to condemn) extreme religious bigotry, intolerance of dissenters and provoked fanatical zealotry and social hatred to convert others through unfreedom. This has been due to the absolutist nature of most handed-down scriptural injunctions and to the many doctrines derived more or less from them. These have caused only hate, violence and have contributed the driving force in countless destructive wars and conflicts to this day. Organized religions have supported many wars as ‘holy’, the idea of the ‘jihad’ not being confined to Islam by any means. No all mainstream religions extend universal rights or equality to all, whatever they happen to believe. The two religions with most adherents, the Roman Catholic Church and Islam, provide prime examples of this non-universalism and divisiveness.

    Are spiritual beliefs a human necessity? To start with religious faith (assuming ‘spirituality’ can have some fruitful meaning apart from religion or faith in a God), the evidence is that people can live well – most likely far better – without belonging to or believing in any religion. This presumes a social and cultural environment where there is no strong authoritarian or group pressures to be or become a believer (or to cease believing)… in short, in societies where there is freedom of thought and expression both in law and in practice. Only in the latter case can interchange of ideas, values and friendships really develop, with the security, harmony, peace and pleasure that this engenders. Tolerance of religious belief is essential, though any pressure to ‘respect’ and therefore not criticize beliefs one rejects and sees as harmful would not protect the freedom of speech and thought and should be avoided. Non-interference in the private life of others is an ideal which seems essential to personal freedom. This gives the opportunity to foster a universal attitude, one where human equality and common rights, duties and destiny are understood. This universal humanistic attitude enables people to work for common human benefit. Yet where it is done more or less out of fear of punishment or hope of reward in a next (invisible) world it is not done for the sake of fellow humans, but for oneself. Being able to think freely and express one’s ideas without being persecuted (provided that one does not break the laws of an enlightened or ‘liberal’ society) gives much creative energy and personal fulfillment. This is a secular value, above all, and is the result of millennia of struggle towards liberation of humanity from the bonds of ignorance and unfounded fear.

    See also On the roots of religious, political and other fanaticism

    Posted in Atheism, Belief, Catholicism, causality, Creationism, Environment, Ethics, Evolution, Free will, Intelligence, Religion, religious faith, Theology, Understanding | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

    Freedom and fate, cause and choice

    Posted by robertpriddy on June 14, 2010

    The key issue – do humans have any degree of free will – is a very involved one. To elucidate its many convolution one must deal with philosophical and scientific investigations (especially in physics, neurology and biology), but also with far-reaching cultural and religious beliefs and behaviour. To illustrate this with brief examples: the philosophical issue deals with the meaning of ‘freedom’, ‘willpower’, ‘causation’ and numerous related words and also with the scope and logical consistency of the conceptual frameworks of ideas involved. In physics there is the issue of whether experimental and theoretical physics allow of uncaused events – and if so, how and to what extent (i.e. the nature and consequences of ‘indeterminacy’). In neurology, the issue is influenced by the increasingly sophisticated study of neural connections and the neurological nature of consciousness and its inevitable role in any freedom of the human will. The cultural and religious roots of the question of free will are closely intertwined with belief in the supernatural – where various powers vie with one another over human fate and freedoms and/or a creator divinity who either omnipotently runs and rules everything or allows some measure of freedom to the subjects he has created. From such widespread and hugely varied beginnings, differing theologies have developed, each with their doctrine for or against human freedom.


    Few words have been used for so many things as ‘freedom’ has. The term is imprecise and so can have many different meanings. As preliminaries for discussing the nature of freedom and trying to decide what is true or false about the subject, we may try to make it clearer by asking
    1) freedom from what? and
    2) freedom for what?
    It may also be worth remembering that the interpretations and standpoints involved are important really only because of the various consequences they have for our lives, thought and activities, such as what kind of society and culture they are likely to support. The issue of whether the individual has any degree of free will is inseparable from the question of what kind of ‘freedom’ is intended.


    In essence, the sphere of discussion covering the subject human freedom and causal determinism has two poles. At the one is the idea that our will is ‘completely free’ in essence, though it may be ‘conditioned’ by the various different circumstances surrounding each person. At the other pole are the extreme doctrines of total fatalism or unalterable causal determinism. Other relevant standpoints fall somewhere between these ‘polar extremes’. It is interesting to note that the fatalistic pole is occupied both by many religious fundamentalists and many natural or physical scientists. The other extreme is hardly populated, except for some philosophers of the existentialist variety, such as Jean-Paul Sartre. The ‘tropics and temperate zones’ represent the middle way theories, which admit in one way or another of the ‘necessity’ of there being some free will while recognising that the conditioners and limitations operating upon us are either more or less powerful. Most thinkers in the social, historical and political sciences are found well away from the poles, as are those who contribute to some form of ordinary common sense, especially in modern and more Westernised cultures.

    The most serious challenge to the possibility of human free will comes from speculations around the philosophy of science. Since science aims to trace the cause of every possible event or phenomenon, it is always close to absolutising the assumption that there is no freedom in that everything that happens in any shape or form must inevitably be caused by directly preceding events. This leaves no room for human freedom whatever. Therefore this issue is dealt with first of all, before the many theological speculations that also would deny any kind of freedom. Since the theological speculations all depend ultimately on belief or non-belief in a God and a doctrine surrounding this (i.e.on some irrational assumption), it primarily in the sphere of philosophical analysis, logic and empirical science that the key issue is sought illumined through purely rational and empirical means. In short, no belief in any omnipotent creator is presumed here so that the issue can be examined better on its merits independently of doctrine.


    The keystone of science is the principle, “everything has a cause”. Yet how can an act of genuinely free will be caused? Likewise, how can any chance event occur, i.e. one that is uncaused? When confronted with these dilemmas, natural scientists twist and turn with arguments that almost always amount to denial of the phenomena of free will and chance.

    However, many sciences operate with a multiplicity of causes, due to the complex interactive and many-facetted structure of matter, mind and society. Werner Heisenberg’s famous intervention is the deterministic Einsteinian physics can be summed up simply in his own words: “With the mathematical formulation of quantum-theoretical laws pure determinism had to be abandoned.”(1)

    Many supporters of scientism will still not fully accept the possibility of ‘uncaused’ phenomena, and it appears that none of them accept that both meaningless random coincidences and meaningful synchronous ‘coincidence’ of events can occur. Scientists also ignore how some people experience ‘extraordinary’ meaningful coincidences argue that synchronicity is nothing more than chance or random ‘coincidence’ without statistical significance, for all meaning or purpose in such ‘coincidences’ is rejected by scientism as a merely subjective interpretations of events. This standpoint is controversial, since many thinkers are convinced that ‘meaningful’ coincidences occur, perhaps best known of these being C.G. Jung with his empirical materials to support his theory of synchronicity. In many religious and ‘spiritual movements’ the meaningful nature of coincidences is recognised, such events being somehow controlled by a higher power or god. Be this as it may, the issue alone opens a major field of discussion about the interpretation of events and, where even what little serious empirical research available is inconclusive.

    Great Western thinkers have almost always pursued the goal of discovering order in life and the cosmos, whether by religious, philosophical or scientific means. Early forms of civilisation already sought to account for the cause of events by what is now widely considered to be ‘mythology’, by explaining natural events as the result of actions of deities. Superstitious as they may seem to the casual observer, such systems of belief contributed to a kind of ordering of ideas and of social relations.

    The science of nature developed by the early Greeks started from ideas of an underlying order in nature itself, a ‘logical cosmos’ (cosmos as logos). The nature of certain regular physical events were examined and described, which led to ideas about underlying structures or laws of nature that determined the ordering of events in time and space. With the human mind’s propensity to seek regularity, such as causes and effects, order became a guiding ideal of rational thinking, the basis of the development of discursive reason and logic and also of systematic scientific research.

    The ultimate origin, meaning and purpose of the cosmos and all its events has been sought by metaphysicians and theologians, artists and mystics, of many cultures. The ideal is all-embracing explanation and is set against the apparent chance happenings of the world and the fearful notion of ultimate chaos. Seeking solutions and explanations of the conflicts of human life and society led thinkers to the conception of an ethical order. This had already arisen in India centuries before with the concept of karma or the universal law of action and reaction in all things, including human actions. The Jews and the Greeks both adopted such conceptions of an ethical order operating on human destiny, which became a cornerstone of Christian and European thought.


    Political freedom is desired from suppression of individuals or groups and for individual justice, as appropriate in each instance. Nations or races seek freedom from external forces, whether military , economic or otherwise and they desire the freedom to exercise socio-economic and political justice. Democracy is based on the ‘freedom’ of the individual to vote on who should govern. (‘freedom’ thus interpreted as ‘choice’). That such freedoms can and do exist is a historical and social fact. But the particular extent or scope of such ‘social freedoms’ obviously varies with time and place. Social freedom is also for the good of all society, being the rights a person should have so as to be able do his duty as a member of society. It is not a right or an open license to do whatever one wants; that is anarchy. Our ‘human rights’ are whatever is necessary or reasonable to enable us to serve our fellowmen and thereby also God. Whatever denies human beings the minimum of means of doing those duties is a compulsion from which they must seek freedom. Some examples of compulsion are the suppression of the right of religious belief or worship and the denial of the general opportunity of caring for others through work (and of not being an undue burden oneself).

    See a fuller exposition at

    A.C. Grayling has written that we require a clearer conception of free will.
    “Its formal identifier is the “genuinely could have done otherwise” requirement: but not only does that itself require unpacking, we also need to look for the fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) traces that suggest which structures in the brain import novelty into the world’s causal chains, making their possessor a true agent, and not merely a patient—a sufferer—of the universe’s history.”

    Posted in causality, Free will, Philosophy, scientism, Uncategorized, Understanding | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

    Humanism educates, dispels ignorance and reduces miseries

    Posted by robertpriddy on May 27, 2010

    Humanism as it appeals to me holds that, within the conditions set by the natural world, human beings are themselves – either individually or collectively – entirely the cause of all the ills of the world, as well as all the good. It is safest and most likely by far that there is no other agency influencing humanity or nature.

    Human history and enterprise, however fruitful or destructive, remain human, none of it is divine (or demonic). Whether material and practical, our works are ruled by precise and unavoidable natural laws, and conditioned by the environment, including social conditions. That an infinite power (the ‘God’ of ancient and modern beliefs) intervenes to rescue us is a ‘delusion and a snare’. Sometimes, when life seems to us too hard and unfair, otherwise sensible people looking for help and hoping for some ‘miracle’ delude themselves into religious beliefs. When succour fails to occur, many pray for salvation or invoke divine justice. There is, however, no definitive proof of any reasonable kind too show that a single divine intervention has ever occurred or  succeeded in saving humanity from its miseries. For every instance where it seems to have happened, there are countless others where it has not… it is just the law of averages at work, not any benign invisible agency.

    If humans were the creation (or manifestation) of God or a divine will (though extremely unlikely) then he (or she or it) would also be entirely responsible for all human faults and so-called ‘evils’ which would be a consequence of that creation, known in advance to any omniscient entity. If it were that such a being existed who could create humans and provide them with a measure of ‘free will’, they would still not be responsible for their condition and choices, for these are made within a framework which is limited by creation itself and which gives very little room for overall change.  If we observe divine intervention in human history as this belief has been handed down to us from the most ancient of times when we understood almost nothing of the workings of nature, it is seen to be a superstition, a faulty primitive conception derived from ignorance combined with fear, escapism, desire and hope.  There have been and still are many thousands of claimants to divine knowledge and power. The India gurus especially know how to take advantage of those who listen to them, having a long and highly sophisticated tradition of priestly doctrine and means of control and manipulation of people to draw upon. It is constantly handed down by word of mouth with the vast pseudo-spiritual community of swamis, mendicants, gurus and the common herd who have been totally indoctrinated to accept their ‘teachings’.

    However, enough wonder and beauty is in nature and our human world to make supernatural wonders superfluous.  Both beauty, ugliness, pleasure and pain are almost perfectly explainable by natural laws, which are experienceable and understandable. Even our origins, and the origins of the stars and galaxies are now understood to a vast extent – a development which has taken place within 100 years or so… which is a tiny time span compared to the billions of years of our solar system. The secret of how human have developed and how DNA programmes this is cracked and science is on the threshold of the creation of the most elementary life form from which all else came. All that was a most securely ‘closed book’ to the writers or ‘channellers’ of scripture… their wisdom was in fact simply a speculative mask for their ignorance of natural law in its myriad detail.

    Posted in Belief, Creationism, Environment, Evolution, Free will, Ideology, Religion, religious faith, Science, Understanding | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

    Confusion over causality – some reflections

    Posted by robertpriddy on March 25, 2010


    Science aims at the explanation, through tangible tests of some sort, of the cause of each event it investigates. It then seeks to generalise about events to find and demonstrate regular orders (i.e. natural laws) to which they conform, whether or not this order is evident to the ordinary observer. By and large the physical sciences claim to discover just such natural laws, the main exception being micro-physics with its discovery of inherent physical paradoxes and a certain ‘indeterminacy’ in micro-events. In our day, however, the empirical scientist still tends to accept the assumption of a non-purposive universe. This is a belief, not a fact, of course and – like all beliefs – it is backed by various arguments and demonstrations, none of which are – or can ever be – conclusive proofs. The revered Law of Universal Causation which asserts that ‘every event has a cause’ came to be interpreted as ‘each event has only one prior cause’. Paradoxically, the idea of the father of biology, Aristotle, that ‘nothing in nature is in vain’, and therefore has an inherent purpose or meaning, was thus distorted and narrowed by modern science. Probably a majority of biologists, being mainstream Darwinists, still reject the notion of cosmic purpose of any sort (from Monod, Dobhanzsky etc. and on down to Stephen Jay Gould or Richard Dawkins) and largely join physics and the non-science mathematics (which is the very model of logic) in upholding the belief that ‘chance’ or ‘randomness’ and ‘sheer accident’ do occur.

    However, the paradoxocal consequences of the deterministic position that is, its lack of logical consistency across the whole field of events – have caused some biologists to look towards goal-fulfillment (teleological explanation) to account for evolution. One thought-provoking instance is Rupert Sheldrake’s teleological viewpoint in A New Science of Life, which it is no exaggeration to say has not been welcomed by the mainstream. Sheldrake’s explanation of natural forms (morphology) is goal-oriented rather than causal and Darwinistic. However, this current move towards seeking teleological explanations again is part of a general apparent ‘religious revival’ and does not represent any signs of radical or extensive change in the views of world science. Time will tell whether this new religiosity is mainly an effect of access to the Internet so many underdeveloped societies where religions have always been strongly held, and whether it is more like a ‘swan song’ from a culture which is under greater and greater threat by modern education, science, technology and changing lifestyles.

    When any scientist today speaks of the ’cause’ of an event, what is really meant is simply ‘that event which is always observed immediately to precede the event caused’. Explanation is thus a mere description of a series of events observed always to be regularly connected to one another. It is agreed by scientists themselves that such (detailed) descriptions are the only sort of ‘explanations’ that science can provide. What is ‘explained’ is simply how much more detailed and complex many events are than is generally perceived or thought. Once consequence of the prime importance of the temporal connection between two events is that explanations are driven to micro-temporal events (hence also often at the ultimate microscopic level). This makes it more and more difficult to establish causal connections at the level of normal, humanly-experienced events. However significant statistical connections between events may prove to be, they do not locate or explain the causal connections.

    There is another sense which the idea of cause usually implies which is left unexplained… what actually creates the connection between cause and effect and, further, what sustains it in every instance? Descriptions answer questions of ‘how’ or ‘in what manner’, whereas the word ‘why’ asks for more than a description, but a proper explanation. Scientists might prefer that the word ‘why’ did not exist at all. But exist it does and, though science assumes that ‘every event must have a cause’, there must be a reason (cause?) for the concept ‘why’. The time-honoured notion of a cause, however, originally meant that there was some power, some purposeful principle or an operative Will operating on events or itself somehow inherent in events. Knowing that power, how and why it operates as it does to create and maintain order and causality in nature – rather than the reverse – would amount to explaining events fully. Both philosophers and scientists agree that such a cause is not observable by use of any of the five senses or their combinations. Since David Hume wrote his famous analysis showing how observation reveals the baselessness of the idea of ‘necessary connection’ between cause and effect, this doctrine has virtually become universally accepted among scientists.

    Empiricism has consequently re-defined the ancient idea of ’cause’ to narrow its scope. The end result is that one observes that B follows A, but one does not claim it must so do, or that a connecting factor between events is understood. Science does not try to answer ‘why’, it even rejects rational explanations entirely if they have no observable cause. Sometimes – but not always – an exception is made for our explanations of our own motives or intentions, which science may or may not recognise as the sufficient ’cause’, depending on the degree of physicalistic strictness in the particular school of thought.

    Scientific empiricism serves to summarise and generalise the information gathered from a plethora of different individual descriptions. Scientific experiment is no more (or less) than a method of discovering which descriptions (or generalised descriptions known as hypotheses) are based on accurate observations. If the observations are lacking, the hierarchy of descriptions (from hypotheses to theories) are thrown into doubt and require to be modified or rejected, according to the seriousness of their lack of accuracy etc. This is the essence and the extent of all scientific theory and method, however intricate, however far-reaching its observations in time and space. Beyond this descriptive understanding it cannot go, not – that is – without becoming ‘unscientific’. All this is long-established and non problematical doctrine in the history and philosophy of science. The most abstract and concise theories in any science do no more than compress and unify such ‘causal’ descriptions of physical nature. This is the whole of it; science does not really explain but rather shows us how to observe and manipulate the environment more accurately and thus effectively.

    There are also anomalies that arise when trying to apply the idea of cause as it was traditionally defined, as Prof. Joad pointed out long ago, “Under the influence of the theory of relativity, twentieth-century physics tends to account for the movements of an entity X solely in terms of happenings in the immediate vicinity of X.” but the facts of nature show that “…modifications are the more intense near the place of origin, less intense as we travel away from it. Now the so-called law of cause and effect constitutes a particular case of force operating from over a distance, and the law is, therefore, affected by the abandonment of the general conception of which it is a special case.(2) Joad held that, for a variety of reasons the kind of causation which the mechanist theory of the universe requires, long regarded as untenable by philosophers, was in large measure rejected by physicists. This action from a distance is now called ‘field effect’, and is still behind a closed gate, as it were. All magnetism is field effect, with the magnetic influence of the sun and earth as impressive instances.

    In summary, the basic idea of causation obviously cannot be rejected, for there is no adequate replacement for this practically unavoidable way of thought. (Kant even saw the idea of causality as one of the few fundamental functions inherent to the human mind at the deepest level). In a profound sense, though, science can even be said not to be able to explain how any event really occurs. The causes and effects described by science can themselves be said to have an unexplained cause (in the fuller sense of the word ’cause’). An example helps to illustrate this: what is the cause of the digestive processes that enable the human body to utilise the energy in foodstuffs as sustenance for the ‘inexplicable’ life force? It is certainly not just the presence of digestive enzymes, for this itself requires ‘explanation’. The bio-chemical construction and functions of enzymes do not help to explain their existence, but only which conditions are observed as accompanying their production. Nor does any such analytic observation help explain their immediate purpose (i.e. which functions they fulfil). Like all physical science, bio-chemistry is devoid of any idea of purpose in nature. It can trace the physical origins to amazing lengths, not least going far back into the past. One can surely say that the purpose is the sustenance of the life-principle in the body, but then one must answer what the purpose of the life principle is. This is doubtless a question beyond the methods and theories of science. It is not a question to which numerous and various answers can be supplied, but the question itself relies on an unproved – and most likely untestable – assumption, that life has a pre-set purpose. Meanwhile, events of the future are virtually a closed book to most of the predictions of science, and to all the prophesies of religion. It is overwhelmingly a case of ‘wait and see’. to ‘know’ how it will actually devolve.


    The insistence of scientific theorists on there being one cause of each event is understandable, because this has proven a very fruitful assumption indeed to the methodic progress of analysis and experiment in physics and the allied natural sciences. Isolating one factor as the crucial factor is doubtless applicable in studying the processes of nature at an elemental level. But what of nature at the higher levels, of the bamboozingly intricate and countless interacting functions of life?

    The complexity of an eco-system, even of a tiny part of eco-systems such as the bacteriological processes within a cubic inch of fertile soil, are still far beyond comprehensive observation or calculation. The same applies to the interactive system of bio-chemicals in the human body, which is a complex beyond the reaches of all analysis and calculation. The simple idea of one-cause-one-effect is evidently totally futile at the level of articulation of life reached in the human being, with its endlessly varied emotions (as described ever anew in world literature), with the billions upon billions of perceptions, thoughts, ideas, word-pictures, actions, and with the constantly changing and growing gestalts of taste, opinion, behaviour, desire, aspiration, art, music, organisation etc…

    As long as we consider very basic processes between the elements in nature, the idea of ‘linear’ cause-effect chains of causation is useful for identifying and isolating regularities of connection of events. But nature has many levels of increasing articulation, such that it is both theoretically and practically quite impossible to analyse every kind of event – and often unique combination thereof – so as to arrive at any reasonable account of causes.

    When people speak of causes of upheavals in nature, of wars or even of some important action by an individual, it is just not feasible to speak in terms of a single cause. Usually one points out many contributing ’causes’, which usually are seen as human motives formulated amid all manner of physical and social conditions. What is virtually a theory of multiple causation is then called for. It is simply not acceptable to argue for one single event as causing the murder of a person such as Trotsky. No single micro event can be singled out as ‘crucial’ among the mass of events that brought about that terrible act. No more does it make sense to say that one single cause led Chamberlain to decide on his famous declaration of war against the Third Reich is too absurd to be even worth considering. The same logic necessarily applies to all social events where any kind of intentional decisions were involved.

    What sets going and sustains the incredibly intricate interplay of chemicals and enzymes in cell life to behave organically, attracting and repelling, bonding or destroying, initiating division or impeding it, defending and attacking… is not explained at all. Some immediate causes are so far described, yet the whole interaction of chains of events is invariably only known to a relatively minor extent. The bewildering bio-interactions within even the simplest living organisms make simple cause-effect thinking look a very inadequate and rough intellectual tool. Though molecular biology, which is highly analytical, still manages largely with the principle of isolating a single cause to each event, ecological biology cannot do so, and so rather seeks the holistic view. To try to isolate one single cause of the depletion of a particular species of insect in a rain forest is about as futile as trying to isolate one cause for the depletion of the world’s rain forests. One may even say with considerable good reason that each such event is simply caused by ‘human greed’, but this is not scientifically satisfying because it does not advance our understanding of the intricacies of the whole global process. Even to know all the inter-relations of countless billions of microscopic events within a small area of forest neglects the influence of major weather patterns, many kinds of human intervention (like logging, pollution etc.)

    The above problem applies very largely in all the sciences that deal with such events which are thought to be very complex combinations of single events, which is to say most of them. Many such events, however, are unitary and have the nature of wholes or ‘gestalts’, such as with eco-systems of any kind and with most psychological, social, economic, anthropological, historical or allied phenomena.

    It is possible, thinking of Wittgenstein’s apposite remarks on the functions of language in clouding thought, that sheer grammar lies behind the fixation of scientists on the singularity of causes: the phrase ‘has a cause’ may have mislead reason away from what otherwise is obvious, some events can have several or more concurrent causes (often called ‘factors’ or ‘variables’ in methodological jargon), without which those events could not have occurred.

    Bertrand Russell was even of the opinion that the language of cause and effect was merely a convenient shorthand for certain purposes, but does not represent anything that is genuinely to be found in the physical world. This is basically only Hume again. One weakness of this is that it undermines the chief guiding principle of science through the ages, which has contributed greatly to its advances. More serious, though, is its rejection of a concept which is found in some form in every human culture and which is indispensable according to many philosophers, not least Kant who elevates the idea of causation to the most important of the mind’s inherent or a priori categories. To reject the idea of cause is like saying, ‘there are no grounds whatever for anything to happen as it does’.

    Posted in causality, Free will, scientism, Understanding | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

    Links to pages on philosophy of science and psychology

    Posted by robertpriddy on September 30, 2009

    Understanding concepts of truth, their meaning and essence

    Understanding and Truth. The multiple problem of what truth is seems so confusingly fathomless that there is quite simply no general consensus about it.

    Language, communication and interpreted meaning

    It is widely thought in contemporary philosophy that the limits of what is known are, at any time, determined by language.

    The person as a whole – self-integration

    I told him about scientists who had begged to come with me, some because they wanted to measure Bushman heads and behinds… others to study his family relationships, and one to analyse his spit; but when I asked them etc…

    Holistic psychology’ outlined

    With what kind of questions does a philosophical psychology try to deal? The answer is whatever concerns the problems of human life as seen and experienced from the viewpoint of a person who seeks to understand it.

    Human values in psychology

    Much controversy arises or is made out of the question of values; what is meant by ‘values’? Which values are good and which bad, if any? Which values are to be tolerated even if their rightness is controversial?

    Intelligence in psychology

    Few people are not at all concerned to improve their own level of intelligence where possible. One key to doing this is to have a balanced appreciation of what human intelligence is, what are its best qualities.

    Self-awareness in psychological understanding

    The understanding of what it is to be a person oneself is the natural and unavoidable basis on which any intelligible psychology necessarily builds.

    The human faculty of understanding (intelligence)

    The psychology of understanding has not been developed to any appreciable extent in Western psychology, neither as regards inter-personal understanding nor understanding as a basic human need.

    Past-oriented therapies critically reviewed

    The crucial role of self-inquiry and self-reliance in all forms of psychic improvement does not mean that therapy cannot be of assistance.

    Understanding and the concept of human unity

    Understanding and Unity. The need for holistic understanding is emerging with increasing persistence in subject after subject as the process of globalization…

    ‘Science Limited’ by Robert Priddy

    (a 13-chapter book critical of the role of the sciences today) Intellectual/social problems due to scientistic beliefs on solving it by Robert C. Priddy Formerly University of Oslo (ret’d)

    Critics of populistic propaganda in science presentation

    Science as an institutionalised social activity and scientific theory are in a constant process of change.

    The scientific problem of human subjects.

    The above quote illustrates the dilemma of much contemporary social science: it studies humans physically, as psycho-physical entities.

    Scientific explanation and metascience

    It is evident that the vast majority of major decisions made by human beings are not based on science.

    Science questioned – a metascientific challenge

    On the chief causes of a serious decline in intellectual culture on a reformed model

    Multiple cause effect in science

    The keystone of science is that everything has a cause, yet how can an act of genuinely free will be caused…

    Intellectual crisis under the ideology of scientism

    The prevailing attitude of intellectuals in the last decade of the 20th century still appears to exhibit an almost unquestioning belief in science and the secular

    Fallacies about research freedom in science

    The necessity for the science to have freedom to research whatever scientists see as worthwhile has long been as much part of academic ideology.

    Sathya Sai Baba

    Information by Robert Priddy (Author of the book “Source of the Dream – My Way to Sathya Sai Baba” Born 1936. British. Researched and taught philosophy and sociology at the University of Oslo 1968-85.

    Posted in causality, Free will, Holistic psychology, Intelligence, metascience, Past-oriented therapies, Science, scientism, Self-awareness, Understanding | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »