Mind and the Autonomy of the Self
The Personal Weblog of Edward W. Farrell   
Mind and the Autonomy of the Self Saturday, May 9, 1998
As a convinced non-materialist, I certainly find Searle's position more satisfying than that of the hard-core materialists who deny that mental states as standardly conceived exist. And there is an endearing honesty to Searle that allows him to be openly perplexed by such things as the discrepancy between what his theory of mind would say of free will (that it doesn't exist) and his own experience of freedom which says the opposite.

Certainly there is a simplicity to the materialist view that is attractive in that all else being equal, the simple explanation is the most elegant. The materialist view also claims as its sole referent an object (the brain) that can be studied with many of the instruments of physical science. The non-materialist view, on the other hand, while less "elegant", remains in accord with our commonsense experience that the self somehow transcends its material conveyance and is autonomous to boot. The non-materialist views are also generally consistent with traditional Judeo-Christian and Hindu anthropology, as well as rationalism and idealism of Hindu or Greek descent.

I will candidly admit that my own non-materialism is strongly colored by certain philosophical predispositions, preeminent among which are my religious beliefs about God, the nature of right action (morality/sin), and free will. And yet these predispositions are not necessarily inconsistent with scientific objectivity; I share Francis Bacon's conviction, chiding to the Christianity of his day, that there should be no interdiction to the study of nature, religious or otherwise. Most non-materialist notions of mind have one or more metaphysical fulcrums somewhere in their pockets but I believe there is sufficient evidence pro and con to discuss non-materialism without recourse to metaphysics. Along these lines I will make reference to the unpopular Popper once again; my apologies to those who are predisposed to dismiss this evidently unfashionable man.

The materialist/non-materialist debate about mind is at its most divisive when it comes to the validity of free will and the self. Materialists (and quasi-materialists such as Searle) are practically bound to a denial of free will because any real or imagined mental phenomena is causally bound to the brain, which is itself a thoroughly conditioned organ. Ditto the self for the same reasons, at least insofar as the self is viewed as an autonomous entity capable of such things as free will.

The autonomous self (or whatever you may call it, so long as it is autonomous) is a necessary condition to free will (paradoxical as it sounds to put it that way). "Mental autonomy," were it shown to exist, would at the same time be most damaging to the materialist view in that an autonomous self is an unconditioned self, which would place it above (or at least apart) from the conditioned functioning of the brain. But is there any evidence that such autonomy exists in us?

I would propose that the most compelling evidence of this autonomy is found in the observation of human creativity. There is a diversity and frivolity to much of this activity that makes it difficult to reconcile with conditioned processes such as adaptive evolution and natural selection. But most compelling are the ways in which our mental creations relate to one another and to the physical world. Let's take your standard room air conditioner, which is ubiquitous enough and very physical: it cools and dries air. The motor, condenser, and coils that are the guts of this machine are a wonderful instance the most rarefied mental concepts made physical. The reverse Carnot cycle on which the mechanism depends is itself a hypothetical thermodynamic postulate that is used as a standard of comparison for actual cycles. The science of thermodynamics of which the Carnot cycle is an expression, is possible only through the definition of the hypothetical states of absolute temperature, internal energy, and entropy. Now the natural processes to which these concepts refer will undoubtedly proceed as they always have throughout the universe without reference to our concepts about them. But the air conditioner will not. The very metals and plastics with which it is made are not found in nature; they are the product of human design and are adapted to human concepts.

The existence of an incredibly diverse array of these human objects that exist in the physical world only through the agency of human thought is a powerful argument for the autonomy of that thought. A comparison with the products of the builders of the rest of the animal world might further illustrate this. The constructions of paper wasps. mud daubers, nest building birds, beavers, and bees are certainly remarkable in their own right but they are so invariant in their form that the species can often be identified solely on the basis of its characteristic construction. This is a strong argument for determinism and adaptive evolution. But a leisurely browse through a good book on the history of world architecture will illustrate anything but invariancy. In fact, the diversity of human structures across time and across the globe is somewhat bewildering. What is particularly noteworthy is that many of the most elaborate and sophisticated of these structures were built in accordance with religious concepts that have only tangential relation to the world we live in, and were seen by their builders as gateways (of a symbolic sort) to another world entirely. And architecture is only one of many fields of human creativity where purposive design and profound diversity are observed.

Karl Popper has argued that not only are our 'selves' (or minds) autonomous, but that some of the creations of our minds are autonomous in themselves, which is a further (and somewhat bizarre) illustration of the mind's autonomy. He has illustrated this phenomenon by way of what he terms "unintended consequences:"

"...we may invent a method of naming the natural numbers so that we can, in principle, always add one, and so go on to infinity. This is our invention, in this case belonging to the Babylonians. But from this invention there emerge unintended and unavoidable consequences that we neither invent, nor make, but discover. For example, that there are odd and even numbers; or that there are divisible numbers and prime numbers... These prime numbers have given rise to many solved and many more yet unsolved problems. [...] The very fact that a problem itself has to be discovered--and that there is ingenuity needed to discover a problem, and not only its proof--shows you that unintended consequences arise with the construction of the number system. [...]

"Although the various realms or regions of world 3 arise as human inventions, there also arise, as the unintended consequences of these inventions, autonomous problems and possible solutions to them. These exist independently of anybody's awareness of them; they can be discovered by us, in the same sense in which other things--say, new elementary particles or unknown mountains and rivers--can be discovered by us."

It's interesting to note that the very concepts of free will and determinism sometimes have material consequences in the societies that adopt them. In Christian anthropology, sin and free will are axiomatic yet Calvin's theological skepticism with regard to free will in favor of determinism directly led to the establishment of a Genevan theocracy in which the holding of certain views were capital crimes. The modern views of Wilson and Crick with regard to genetic determinism have led them to propose more-or-less radical reengineering of the human genome with (seemingly) little regard for the issue of the freedom of a human individual. And yet it is difficult to oppose such proposals intellectually when free will is disallowed and disvalued.

Related Web Links: Mind and the Autonomy of the Self
John Searle on Consciousness
David Chalmer's Weblog
John Lau's Wiki

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