From theistic science to naturalistic science, part 7

Part 6 is here. Chapter Six is on free will and natural laws. A philosophical dispute took center stage, with the future of science and society at stake.

p. 194 – Victorian society’s base assumption was that the soul and will could act freely, whether to select a meal or to accept divine grace. Being divinely created and endowed, the soul was qualitatively different from the crude matter around it and was thus exempt from having all its future states already determined as a rolling billiard ball would.

Applying the uniformity of nature to the mind, [Huxley and the scientific naturalists] said, demanded that animal and humans be considered as automata. The original Greek term meant a self-moving object, but in the eighteenth century it came to refer to an entity incapable of free will, a soulless machine.

p. 195 – It was on this issue — freedom of the will — that we can see the formation of the deepest fractures between theism and naturalism in Victorian science.

p. 199 – A particularly important natural law for physiology and psychology was that of the conservation of energy. As Frank Turner showed, that principle became one of the pillars of the naturalistic worldview, not least because of its enormous impact on questions of mind-body interactions.

p. 200 – Looking back on the previous generation of physiology [research], Huxley triumphantly declared that humans, just as much s the horse, were fuel-consuming, energy-limited machines.

p. 201 – Once physiologists could measure nerve force the way they measured the length of a limb, the mind could be treated as wholly within the uniformity of nature.

The dependence of mind on matter became a serious issue for Huxley in defending Darwin’s theory, particularly around the publication of The Descent of Man, as some critics tried to object that human mental capacity could not have evolved by physical means.

p. 202 – [Huxley] acknowledged that some objected to this position as materialistic. With his typical caginess, Huxley toyed with the meaning of the term until only “rhetorical sciolists [those who pretend to have knowledge]” could object to its use.

[Huxley:] Whatever reason we have for believing that the changes which take place in the normal cerebral substance of man give rise to states of consciousness, the same reason exists for the belief that the modes of motion of the cerebral substance of an ape, or of a dog, produce like effects.

p. 203 – These unconscious movements [e.g., reflexes] were used by Huxley as the foundation for far-reaching claims about the nature of animals and humans: his theory of automatism.

The result was the infamous “On the Hypothesis That Animals Are Automata, and Its History.” This was classic Huxley: a verbose, pointed historical narrative about the triumph of naturalism.

p. 207 – The scientific naturalists were relentless in claiming the human consciousness for the uniformity of nature. They were unwilling to accept that the mind functioned differently from the material world.

p. 210 – With the body and the mind pulled firmly within the uniformity of nature, and the will defined away, Huxley arrived at a controversial position of long standing. Commonly called determinism, sometimes necessitarianism, it was usually phrased negatively: there was no room for freedom of action in the world. The laws of nature allowed no exceptions, bringing rigid causality even to the living world.

p. 212 – Huxley’s lecture on [the method of] Zadig placed successful prediction and retrodiction as the markers of true science, and also what made it so threatening to the orthodox.

Huxley was aware that the most difficult defense of free will to stamp out would be that based on direct experience — the unbreakable sense that one can choose what to eat for dinner, therefore free will must be real. Balfour declared it “ludicrous” to think it was illusory. This subjective sense of will was impossible to observe, but equally impossible to debunk.

p. 214 – As always, Huxley delighted in turning theologians against their own. He could then paint attacks on him as simple prejudice — if Balfour truly objected to determinism, why was he not attacking Luther? In truth, was this not simply one more example of orthodoxy gone awry? Augustine and Calvin were happy to see man as a conscious automaton.

p. 215 – Huxley’s automaton theory stirred deep controversy. It was one thing for Huxley to tell people they were animals; it was something else entirely for him to tell people they were machines. Even beyond Darwin, the steam-whistle model of deterministic consciousness seemed to annihilate the last vestiges of human uniqueness. With the destruction of the possibility of an efficacious soul came a host of psychological and social threats.

p. 216 – Right and wrong could mean nothing if there was not a sense of being able to choose between them. A will must be able to choose between two alternatives or there could be no moral accountability.

p. 221 – [William] Carpenter reiterated that he understood, and indeed helped formulate, much of the physiology that the scientific naturalists claimed inevitably led to determinism. Against this he denied the possibility that “any conceivable play of molecular forces” could explain how an idea could come to dominate an entire nation.

p. 227 – Maxwell’s response to these developments appeared in an essay for the Eranus Club on science and free will. He began the essay by stating that free will was the essential problem bridging physics and metaphysics. He was clear that philosophy, religious or otherwise, must take into account the progress of science.

p. 228 – Stewart argued that there were two kinds of mechanical systems, stable and unstable. Both could be considered as machines and obeyed the laws of mechanics, but because they were regular and calculable, only stable systems had been studied closely. However, there were also unstable systems where an infinitesimal amount of energy could set a system in motion, such as when a balanced eggs falls in one direction and not another.

Maxwell was delighted with the development of the concept of instability. He argued in an anonymous review that the stable/unstable division called into question many of the fundamentals of determinism, most notably the notion of an unbroken causality that can be precisely understood.

p. 230 – At a singular state “a strictly infinitesimal force of equally possible paths, as the pointsman at a railway junction directs the train to one set of rails or another.”

The problem, Maxwell said, was that investigators had not been careful about applying results from one domain of knowledge to another.

p. 231 – There were two extremes on which Maxwell thought one could err. The first was to try to explain the emergence of consciousness from material processes.

The second extreme was to accept the existence of the soul, but then try to justify its properties in material terms.

p. 232 – [The soul] was outside the explanatory range of science.

p. 235 – The same metaphor that Maxwell constructed to explore the human will reappeared here inside containers of heated gas [in what Thomson/Kelvin called “Maxwell’s demon”].

p. 236 – The pointsman was not intended to show the unrestricted force of the will. It was meant to show that the will could act even within a wide range of restrictions.

p. 238 – It follows from [the activity of the demon] that the idea of dissipation of energy depends on the extent of our knowledge.

p. 239 – Maxwell asserted that thinking of humans simply as machines was a choice: “Either be a machine and see nothing but ‘phenomena,’ or else try to be a man, feeling your life interwoven, as it is, with many others, and strengthened by them whether in life or death.” One could either accept the reality of our experiences of volition and sociability or discard it, but rejecting that reality was asserting a particular boundary to science.

p. 241 – The evidence of uniform processes at work in the human body was agreed upon by all, but how to think about the significance of that evidence caused a profound split. The differing commitments of naturalists and theists could find no common ground on these issues. The human mind, particularly the will, became the thin end of the wedge.

Part 8 is here.