- A Theory of Determinism: The Mind, Neuroscience and Life-Hopes by Ted Honderich
Oxford, 656 pp, £55.00, May 1988, ISBN 0 19 824469 X
The problem first of clarifying and then of answering the questions how far human thoughts and actions are subject to causality and whether this is consistent with their being free is one to which many different approaches have been made throughout the history of philosophy. I doubt if any of them has been the product of such intense research as Professor Honderich has devoted to the construction, the defence and the evaluation of his theory of determinism. Agreement among philosophers, especially on fundamental questions, is difficult to reach, and I shall be arguing against Honderich’s theory at many crucial points. Nevertheless, I think that his readiness to accept even the most startling implications of his views, the patience he displays in examining alternatives to them, his assiduity in setting out and trying to meet a wide range of objections, are all highly creditable to him.
The book, which runs to well over six hundred pages, is divided into three parts, ten chapters and 74 sections. It begins by elaborating a view of causality as a form of necessary connection, and proceeds to develop a hypothesis concerning the ‘nomic correlation’ between a person’s states of consciousness and states of his central nervous system, from which Honderich extracts the concept of a mental item and its neural associate as ‘a psychoneural pair’. A chapter on the causation of these psychoneural pairs, leading to a shorter chapter on the causation of actions, brings the first and most philosophical part of the book to a close.
In the second part Honderich turns to science. Its title is ‘The Truth of the Theory’, which prompts me to say both that I agree with him in taking the theory of determinism to be empirical, and that I regard his marrying philosophy with science as an example of a current trend which is much to be welcomed. This part of the book consists of a very long chapter on Neuroscience and Quantum Theory, followed by a shorter discussion of the topics of prediction and knowledge. Honderich’s acquaintance with the natural sciences, like my own, is only second-hand, but he has been conscientious in seeking out the best sources for his account of contemporary physics and neurology. I shall nevertheless be arguing that he underrates the threat which Quantum Theory poses to the very strong version of determinism which he upholds, and that his belief in the total predictability, not only of all human experience and action, but even of purely physical states and processes, goes far beyond anything that is warranted by the empirical evidence at our disposal.
By now we have reached page 379 and there are still 236 pages to come; followed by 22 pages of references and an index of 25 pages. There are also diagrams which do not enter into the pagination. A lot is being asked of those whom Virginia Woolf addressed collectively as ‘the common reader’, but there will be a reward for their persistence. The third part of the book, which explores the bearing of Honderich’s theory of determinism on our claims to knowledge, our moral judgments, the rationale of reward and punishment and the concept of free will, is the most interesting and the most original.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 10 No. 11 · 2 June 1988
None ever wished it longer, said Johnson of Paradise Lost, thereby making us forget what else he said of it. Professor Sir Alfred Ayer maybe wished shorter my A Theory of Determinism: The Mind, Neuroscience and Life-Hopes (LRB, 19 May). Still, he approves it for a singularity or two, and it is lovely to have the approval of someone who has never been in much danger of the fulsome. I reply with gratitude, then, but reply I do, in something like his own spirit of independence, since he has not convinced me of anything.
His principal objection is to what he certainly over-describes as the central feature of my book, part of my solution to the mind-brain problem, the problem of the relation of a mental to a simultaneous neural event. What I say is taken to depend on my view of causation. That view, in sum, is that an effect is an event preceded by a set of things – a causal circumstance – such that the event would still have followed whatever else had been happening in addition to the causal circumstance and the event.
Professor Ayer’s objection has the premise that we typically do not or cannot specify a whole causal circumstance for an effect. Rather, we may think of something or other prior to the effect such that if certain things had been happening in addition to it, the effect would not have occurred. When the match lights, we may think of the striking and a bit more, and leave out the absence of a gust of wind. I agree with all that, and talk a lot about it in the book. I do not at all agree that it supports the conclusion he tries to draw from it, which is that we do not understand effects to be events related in the given way to antecedents, that we do not have that conception of them. It plainly doesn’t follow. Further, anyone who supposes we do not take effects to be related in the given way to antecedents is on the way to supposing we take them to be a kind of mystery, which exactly we do not.
Professor Ayer has therefore found no vital flaw in my mind-brain solution. That solution, by the way, as I am reassured to report, does not contain the second part of a thought he assigns to it. That is the thought ‘that a mental event is necessary to the occurrence of the simultaneous neural event: in other words, the mental event would not happen in the absence of its neural partner.’ Other words needed, dear Freddie, and a correction, too, to something similar in your fifth paragraph.
In dealing with the third and culminating part of my book, which he likes best and to which he gives least attention, Professor Ayer does not shed a clear and consistent light. He gives no leg up to that Common Reader he mentions earlier. He says that I agree ‘with Hobbes and Locke that a person can properly be said to be acting freely when he is not prevented by external or internal constraints from doing what he chooses.’ That report, since absence of constraint is of course compatible with determinism, makes me sound like yet one more Compatibilist, one more member of what must surely be a wearied philosophical tradition, whose burden is that determinism and freedom are logically consistent.
In fact, it is exactly as true or false that I agree with Kant and with, say, Bradley and Sartre, all of them of the opposed Incompatibilist tradition, that a person can properly be said to be acting freely when he is not constrained, and also has originated the action. Further, I do not, in the sense Professor Ayer says, reject all concepts of origination or Free Will, allow them no meaning. I don’t come close to thinking them insignificant in our lives either – absolutely the contrary – nor suppose that determinism poses no threat to rationality. In a way it does.
Professor Ayer does indeed go on to convey something of this, but tardily, and without making at all clear what is in fact a new view of things, whether right or wrong. It has to do essentially with what are called life-hopes, and, more important, is a view that escapes darkening preconceptions given us by Hobbes, Kant et al – by both of the traditions of thought about the human consequences of determinism. It is a view, too, that is relevant not only to determinism but to something more popular, near-determinism, which is the idea that there is irrelevant micro-indeterminism down below, as suggested by an interpretation of Quantum Theory, but macro-determinism up above, certainly including neural determinism.
Finally, to look at but one secondary matter about which Professor Ayer has not convinced me, he may sound a bit persuasive when he remarks that ‘it is at least not obvious that the proposition “If Queen Victoria thought Prince Albert handsome, King George V collected postage stamps” expresses a causal truth entirely on its own.’ However, what he is supposed to be showing, at bottom, if I have him right, is that if some causal circumstance including Victoria’s inclination really had as an effect some later fact about the existence of George, and that later fact really caused him to collect stamps, it nevertheless isn’t right to say that the initial circumstance caused the collecting.
Who, as Johnson might have said, unsound as he was on Free Will, could cudgel the mind to believe it? If A caused B, and B caused C, then A caused C. This fact is perfectly preserved when causal statements are analysed into what they are, which is certain conditional statements. Nor would the conceptual truth be complicated, as Professor Ayer suggests, if the period of courtship and gestation for the Royal Family were longer, and George appeared on the scene only some millions of months after Albert caught Victoria’a eye.
There is more to be said, Common Reader, much more – about those bits on Quantum Theory and classical mechanics, and whether causes are individual properties, and that fast argument about margins of error for the reality of Chance – but necessarily I stop.
University College London