Should We Make Every Choice Scientifically?

Psychology, the science of mental events, has grappled from the start with a critical question of moral neutrality. The science of psychology with its ideal of the impassive observer began as a branch of philosophy in the latter decades of the 19th century. In the United States William James, philosopher and close friend of Charles Peirce, was recognized as an originator of psychology. But philosophy including that of James and Peirce raises questions of value-choices.

Are human thought and behavior best defined from a position of scientific neutrality? It should come as no surprise that psychology took just such a value-neutral turn in 20th century modernity. Continue reading “Should We Make Every Choice Scientifically?”

Choosing to Deny Free Will

Every sentence is first-person in its origin. That is to say, every statement, hypothesis, question, or exclamation is linked to a person or a group of people who have produced it.

This rule does not mean that truth is somehow dependent on the individual mind or even a convergence of brilliant minds. Nor does it mean that we should stop interrogating nature in its physical and psychological presentations to gain scientific knowledge.  I agree with Charles Peirce (as quoted earlier) who wrote

…To make single individuals absolute judges of truth is most pernicious.  The result is that metaphysicians will all agree that metaphysics has reached a pitch of certainty far beyond that of the physical sciences; – only they can agree upon nothing else.  In the sciences in which men come to agreement, when a theory has been broached, it is considered to be on probation until this agreement is reached.  After it is reached, the question of certainty becomes an idle one, because there is no one left who doubts it.  We individually cannot reasonably hope to attain the ultimate philosophy which we pursue; we can only seek it, therefore, for the community of philosophers.[1]

He emphasizes the community (italicized by Peirce) of philosophers (scientists) as the context in which we seek scientific truth.  This community is a highly developed “we” that aims to approach universality, conceived as the community of past, present, and especially future rational, trained observers who seek to reproduce and refine knowledge by framing questions to be answered by nature.

I disagree with Peirce’s choice of words, however, when he describes the goal as “the ultimate philosophy which we pursue.” Such a singular term does not describe GSOT, the many-splendored, dynamic world in which you and I live. “The ultimate philosophy” is too monolithic, static, totalitarian.

Language exists to make thoughts portable. The objectivity of science, defined by the reproducibility of results and interchangeability of observers, is foundational, enabling progress in technology and understanding.

Yet even the magnificent scientific community falls short of complete objectivity. It comprises a group, as indicated in a quote from Thomas Kuhn in the previous blog, that is less than ideal, less than all. If nothing else, it is a group committed to reproducibility of results and interchangeability of observers, and its vision within the context of science is thereby restricted to what recurs and is potentially discernible to any capable observer.

Even considering the we-group of science, then, one can always add a prefix

                                             (“I/we…” + transitive verb) to any sentence

and Rule #1 – Every sentence is first-person – applies in science as it does in every other form of discourse.

Thus far the illustrations of Rule #1 have been generic and inclusive. The rule will not be useful, however, unless it gets tough and excludes some kind of wording for sentences – that is, unless it makes certain kinds of sentences false.

Looking carefully at the way Rule #1 is defined, it becomes clear that sentences are false if they purport to make the first-person pronouns “I/we” meaningless.

In our discussion of positivism, we saw that this was precisely the goal, at least at one point in their careers, of some daring objective thinkers, Rudolph Carnap and Daniel Dennett. Both of them seemed to pull back on later reflection. To my knowledge, no full booklength treatment on the demise of the first- (and second-) person pronouns has yet appeared.

Instead the tendency of positivist philosophers has been to nibble away at some essential features of what it means to use the pronouns I and we. For example, Dennett’s book titled Consciousness Explained demonstrates effectively that many instances of events or phenomena that we consider directly observable in consciousness are in fact erroneous.

I don’t want to make a stand on consciousness. It’s a slippery concept and largely inconsequential. Even those like Dennett who verbally deny the customary ideas about consciousness go right on speaking, writing, and acting as if nothing has changed.

Far more serious is the attack by positivist objective thinkers on the concept of free will (as exemplified here). When you or I begin a sentence with the word “I,” the sentence often will express a judgment or choice believed to arise more or less freely. To the positivist, however, the choice is not free at all.

The positivist denial of free will might go something like this: Volitional expressions fail to qualify as objective hypotheses capable of support or falsification by publicly demonstrable criteria.

In response, I shall turn to Rule #1 and reply that completely objective hypotheses do not exist. Even the best scientific hypotheses are not completely objective.

Let’s formally add the first-person prefix and active verb, and then see what a denial of free will looks like. Here it is in simplest form:

“I deny that free will makes any sense.”

A simple denial like this has no more force than a statement of opinion. What would a much stronger individual statement look like?

“I have studied the concept of free will at great length and sought to find whatever solid evidence might support it. I have read previous authors’ opinions and considered them carefully. In all of my judgments, I do my best to be fair. At the end of arduous deliberation, I conclude that objective evidence to support free will is insufficient. Therefore, I deny that the concept of free will makes any sense.”

What do you think? It seems to me that the concept of objective evaluation of free will makes no sense, and thus the denial of free will fails. For the methods of objective evaluation incorporate more than a few values of fairness, reasonableness, clarity, completeness, and so forth – and these values are chosen.

One of these is an illusion – free will or its denial. Which? Tell me … if you will.


Next post: Free Will Expressed in First-Person 

Previous post: Rule #1. Every Sentence is First Person

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[1] Peirce, C.S, in Journal of Speculative Philosophy 5:264-8, 280-317, 18xx. (reprinted in Philosophical Writings of Peirce, ed. Buchler J, p. 229).

Subsidiary Questions. Part 1. Students in Detention

Consider a set of questions that might be deemed unanswerable, such as

                            A. IS LOVE THE GREATEST THING?

                            B. DOES DISCOVERY BRING JOY?

                            C. DOES WHATEVER CREATED US CARE ABOUT US?

                            D. IS LIFE WORTH LIVING?

Suppose that we agree not to give these questions soft answers – merely that it feels good to believe that love is the greatest thing, or that it is too painful to think that life is worthless. We want real evidence. As the evidence is gathered, however, contradictions come up, and by the usual way of thinking, we face a choice of 2 alternatives: The questions can be dismissed for lack of evidence, or the answers can be proposed and accepted on faith despite the lack of evidence. In this blog I want to present a third choice. It will be a middle way, involving a certain kind of evidence related to these questions.

As an example, consider with me the single question, “Is love the greatest thing?” Upon asking it, immediately I find that the answer is uncertain, and I return to the affairs of daily life. Then after a while something happens, perhaps an extraordinary kindness, which raises the question again, “Is love the greatest thing?” Once more the answer eludes me, and the question fades. Nevertheless, as time passes, the happier events of life bring me to pose the question of love’s supremacy over and over again.

This experience leads to a new, subsidiary question, as follows:

                            E. DO I KEEP ON ASKING, IS LOVE THE GREATEST THING?”?

The subsidiary question (E.) intrigues me. I think it might have an answer, even if the primary question (A.) is unanswerable. The subsidiary question keeps re-appearing; I cannot get it out of my mind. Like a student in detention at the blackboard, I frame this question 100 times in a day, and even more the next day. It fades, but recurs with full force a week or so later. The subsidiary question becomes familiar. And although I am slow to catch on, eventually I become convinced that

                            F. I DO KEEP ON ASKING, “IS LOVE THE GREATEST THING?”

Do you see? A question of the form, “Do I keep on asking…?” answers itself, as long as you expend the effort of asking it. Therefore, the original, primary question that seemed unanswerable – “Is love the greatest thing?” – may find just a pinch of truth. It is not the answer that is true, but the question. I do keep on asking it.

This process can be applied not only to (A.), but also to (B.), (C.), (D.), and similar primary questions. The subsidiary question in each case looks like this:

                            G. DO I KEEP ON ASKING _____________ ?

and it has an answer in this form:

                            H. I DO KEEP ON ASKING _____________.

An obvious warning: Not every instance of (G.) will result in (H.). Here is a primary question that won’t work:


This question has an answer: No. It proposes a biological impossibility.1 Therefore, every primary question that we put into the formula must be checked to be sure that it has a possibly true answer.

Okay so far? But we must now deal with 2 pressing concerns: Is this only trivial word-play, a game for Friday nights in front of the computer? Or is it solipsism – mere internal theatre?

Perhaps you will agree with me that the questions (A.-D.) are important, not trivial. I’ll grant that it is a matter of personal choice. You may assert, along with a number of brilliant thinkers, that any question deemed unanswerable – for example, by a lack of falsifiability – is thereby rendered meaningless. My rebuttal is that the issue of exactly how we determine what is meaningful or meaningless is itself a question very similar to the questions (A.-D.) .

But, someone interjects, to pile questions upon questions is just an academic exercise. People will not be satisfied with questions; they want bold assertions and exciting proclamations. I tend to disagree, because I think that questions can provide meaning profoundly, but I am sympathetic. Consider then that each of the questions (A.-D.) can be rewritten as an intuition, an intimation, or a proposition followed by a pang of doubt. For example, the first question (A.) may be more completely understood when it is written as

                            J. LOVE IS THE GREATEST THING! IS IT TRUE?

and likewise each of the primary questions can be rewritten similarly. The intuitions and the pursuant doubts express feeling, motivation, joy, and despair; they are not just dry academic aims. Therefore, I invite you to agree with me that these questions are important ones for our lives, neither trivial nor academic.

The danger of solipsism seems more substantial. The subsidiary questions thus far have been expressed in the first person singular voice. But we are social creatures. Our culture requires communication among individuals.

The escape from solipsism is already in progress. You are reading the paragraph that I have written. You can redeem me from solipsism, if together we move from the singular –

                            G. DO I KEEP ON ASKING ___________?

to the plural –

                            K. DO WE KEEP ON ASKING ___________?

again, if you join me, then we two students in detention can answer –

                            L. WE DO KEEP ON ASKING ___________.

and the danger of solipsism is avoided.

To summarize, we have considered a set of nontrivial questions related to values and motivations. While those primary questions may not have clear answers, a corresponding set of subsidiary questions of the form, “Do we keep on asking __________?” appear to be answerable. The answers take the form, “We do keep on asking _________.”

In the next post, we will take a close look at the properties of the subsidiary questions.


1 No, as long as we discount imagination, dreams, and hang gliders. I read somewhere that approximately half of people surveyed in the U.S. have experienced bodily flight in their dreams.

Subsidiary Questions. Part 2.

Subsidiary Questions. Part 2. Rules of the Game

We have looked at a set of primary questions, as follows –

                            A. IS LOVE THE GREATEST THING?

                            B. DOES DISCOVERY BRING JOY?

                            C. DOES WHATEVER CREATED US CARE ABOUT US?

                            D. IS LIFE WORTH LIVING?

– and we have asserted that these questions are neither trivial nor academic. These questions are not restricted to individuals, but may also be asked by groups of people or even entire cultures. But questions like these have often been deemed unanswerable. In response, I have proposed that a set of corresponding subsidiary questions of the form –

                            K. DO WE KEEP ON ASKING ___________?

have answers, given by –

                             L. WE DO KEEP ON ASKING___________.

as long as we keep on asking.

Now the meta-question is – what good are these subsidiary questions? What value do they have, and is it positive or negative? To pursue this line of thinking, let me propose several characteristics – one might say, rules of the game – for the subsidiary questions and their answers:

    1. They relate to specific people asking the primary questions.
    2. They do not aim toward universality.
    3. They are rooted in actual time.
    4. They are best expressed in the first person voice.

Point #1. Specific, particular people must ask the primary questions. This is in contrast to the anonymous and interchangeable observer in scientific research. The primary questions are not scientific. Importantly, however, and emphatically this is not the old distinction between empiricism and faith. Whether or not the primary question keeps on getting asked is a matter to be judged on the basis of observation, not faith. We do not have to decide whether to believe without evidence; we simply ask, “Are we still asking that question?”

So the primary and subsidiary questions are matters of observation and evidence, but are distinct from science. Does that mean they are incompatible with science – that is to say, incompatible with a viewpoint of natural realism? By no means! Humans placed in a natural world do ask primary questions like (A.-D.) repeatedly. There is no contradiction with nature, and no conflict necessarily arises between natural realism and the answers to our subsidiary questions.

Some will say that the repetition of the primary questions…and thus the answers provided to the subsidiary questions are phenomena likely to be explained by some evolutionary advantage which has fixed those questions into our genetic makeup. But this begs another primary question:


And (M.) has no more validity than (A.-D.).

It is tempting to think that the answers to our subsidiary questions might serve as the entrée to a system of pure logic dealing with values and moral imperatives…a system similar perhaps Kant’s transcendental idealism or to Hegel’s absolute idealism. Might they not function, to use a science fiction metaphor, like a wormhole to a parallel, metaphysical universe? The temptation can be resisted by remembering how we get answers to the subsidiary questions. “Flesh and blood” and some degree of sacrifice – at least the sacrifice of repeatedly allocating mental resources to ask the primary questions – are required. The answers to the subsidiary questions are neither absolute nor even marked by probability. Instead they are concrete for the present, indeterminate for the future, and contingent upon personal activity.

Real specific people must keep on asking the primary questions. As a consequence, a sense of responsibility may develop. Others will not necessarily help to keep on asking. Our own activity is necessary for the maintenance of answers to the subsidiary questions.

Point #2. The subsidiary questions and their answers do not aim toward universality. Only some of the student pranksters get caught and find themselves in detention. Only some people cannot help hearing the voice inside asking the primary question over and over again.

The goal of universality must be given up. This is extraordinarily difficult in several ways. The primary questions with their themes of love, joy, discovery, perseverance, and thankfulness seem so important that we want them to be universal. But our desire to make them universal just becomes another primary question – unanswerable in itself.

We recognize that mathematical and scientific progress depends critically on the widespread applicability of theoretical and experimental results. The novice in science is drilled in a methodological rigor that produces general rather than particular conclusions.

But the primary and subsidiary questions of value and spirit must remain particular. We do not discover truths which every reasonable person must recognize. In consequence we ourselves must remain humble – not an easy thing for humans. Alone as individuals or in groups of varying size, once in a while we may discover a pinch of truth in the persistence of a moral question. The group may be as small as two. As hubris escalates, the group may be proclaimed as large as a civilization… or even the entire course of human civilization up to the present. But we should never presume to have discovered truth in this way for everyone, always, and everywhere.

Often people seek to establish and disseminate unprovable moral suppositions and their subsidiary questions of persistence. Consider this example, which is similar to the initial four primary questions – an intimation followed by a pang of doubt:

                            K. EACH PERSON SHOULD HAVE ONE VOTE. IS IT TRUE?

In ages past, the proposition of one person/one vote would have elicited blank stares or condemnation. In some cultures even now, this position will be deemed unrealistic, morally naïve, or stupid. Yet in the context of liberal civilization and open societies today, the proposition of one person/one vote as an ideal is widely accepted. How did this happen? I submit that it can be derived neither from mathematics nor from pure reason. Even less does it arise from natural science. The doctrine of natural selection describes a competition for dominance among individual packets of genes.

Supposing that you agree with one person/one vote, how can we together promote it? In my view we cannot appeal to science, to human self-interest, or to any kind of universal law or truth. Human self-interest, if it is really smart, gives lip-service to the ideal while seeking to subvert it in the interest of self.

But we can ask people to choose. Are you willing to align self-interest with the idea of human equality? Will you agree to seek your identity at least partly in the common condition of humanity? At least to the extent of voting equally? The task is essentially political in the best sense of coming together to form the polis – a community of equals. Nothing in the realm of philosophy, nor any law of human nature, compels us to see universal suffrage as something good. The laws that our civilization provides for free and fair elections owe their origin to a complex genealogy of human choice.

Point #3. The subsidiary questions of persistence and their answers are rooted in time. Specifically, they exist in the present moment. To be sure, they recall the past, and they point toward continuation in the future. But the past is inadequate and the future uncertain. Everything hinges upon an active voice that asks the primary question once again. In contrast, mathematics and science deal with unchanging, eternal laws of logic and physics. To be sure, physical events have trajectories that move from past into future. Yet if the very word “trajectory” refers to something real, it must refer to something that transcends time, not to something in the grip of time. Often the answer to a problem in physics does not even require knowing the direction of time: future to past may work as well as past to future, cases of entropy or cosmic expansion being exceptional. In scientific discussion, the present moment serves as a point of reference, and generally nothing more than that.

In clear contrast to the answers provided by mathematics and science, our subsidiary questions of persistence and their answers are inescapably tied to the present moment. As with previous points of consideration, this has an important consequence. By tying the answers more or less tightly to the now, we leave the future open and undetermined. Only the frail reins of hope and persistence (in continuing to ask the primary questions) are available to guide the future. This means that the future remains free – an extraordinarily difficult concept.

Point #4. The primary and subsidiary questions are most clearly expressed in the first person voice. I am tentative in raising this point. Confidence is confounded, and I am not sure whether the reason lies in the limitation of language, the ubiquitous sprouting of the seeds of universal rationalism, or my own inadequate thinking.

(I recognize that the primary questions (A.-D.) at the beginning of the post are not written in first person voice, for reasons of brevity and impact, but even these statements will be expressed more clearly by prefixing each with “Do I/we think that…?”)

Let me amplify the point just a bit. It is not just any real specific person or group who “keeps on asking the question.” It must be me or my group. The primary question must be asked with first person voice.

What’s the problem? Just this – all questions and all answers, without exception, originate with first person voice. What? Would that not invalidate the second and third person voices – you, she, he, it, they – entirely? Let me explain. It is always possible to add “I/We judge that…” to any declarative statement, “I/We ask whether…” to any question, “I/We exclaim…” to any ejaculation, and so forth – without changing the meaning of speech at all. Within the statement, question, or exclamation, the second or third person voice will often appear, but the first person prefix can always be applied. This is the sense in which all questions and all answers originate with first person voice, either explicit or implicit.

Here is a turn toward subjectivity! Yet the whole burden of science has been to remove traces of subjectivity, so that objective truth can be learned. Is this an attempt to erase the progress? Even in science, I propose, every question and every report originates with first person voice. In science, a special case of “we” applies. Charles Peirce spoke of the community of philosophers (scientists) as the context in which we seek the ultimate philosophy (scientific truth).1 This is a highly developed “we” that aims to approach universality, conceived as the community of past, present, and especially future rational, trained observers who seek to reproduce and refine knowledge by framing questions to be answered by nature.

The philosophical question is not whether all sentences are first person. They are. The philosophical choice is whether to regard this point is (a) a trivial truism arising as an accident of the way we communicate, or (b) a profound insight into our existence as rational beings engaged in observing and responding to the universe – an insight embedded so deeply in language that it has escaped notice repeatedly in the history of philosophical inquiry. I think (b). But we have neither time nor space to develop this further here.


1 Peirce, C.S., Some consequences of four incapacities. Journal of Speculative Philosophy, 1868; 2:140-157.  Reproduced in Charles S. Peirce: Selected Writings, ed. Wiener, P.P. Dover, New York, 1958.


Subsidiary Questions. Part 1. Students in Detention

Subsidiary Questions. Part 3. A Pinch of Truth

Subsidiary Questions. Part 3. A Pinch of Truth

Let me summarize briefly the themes we have covered thus far: Primary questions of a moral, aesthetic, spiritual, or intentional nature are often deemed unanswerable by the program of science. Nevertheless, against the positivists, I assert that these questions are not devoid of meaning. They bear a meaning given by the persistence with which they are asked. What kind of meaning is it? How can we recognize the pinch of truth gained through the answers to the subsidiary questions? This pinch of truth has four characteristics: 1) it requires that actual, specific people keep on asking the questions, 2) it does not aim toward the universal, 3) it is rooted in time, and 4) it is expressed in the first person voice (either trivially or profoundly). These characteristics sharply distinguish the meaning of persistence of moral questions from the truths of rationalistic philosophy and of science. Nevertheless, the meaning of the persistent questions is not a mere matter of wish or belief without evidence; it is rather a matter of observation. We do keep on asking the questions.

There are many examples from philosophy, history, and literature that can serve to illustrate these points. I will cite only one from the novel Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, concerning 2 brothers. Sergey was a highly esteemed thinker, well known in the drawing rooms of Moscow for his conclusions about the natural laws of social interaction, especially regarding the virtues and advantages of peasant life. He enjoyed visiting the estate of his half-brother Levin in the country, where Levin sometimes worked alongside his peasants, adjudicated their quarrels, and admired some, disdained others. This is Levin’s reaction after his brother’s visit.

Levin regarded his brother as a man of immense intellect and culture, as generous in the highest sense of the word, and possessed of a special faculty for working for the public good. But in the depths of his heart, the older he became, and the more intimately he knew his brother, the more and more frequently the thought struck him that this faculty of working for the public good, of which he felt himself utterly devoid, was possibly not so much a quality as a lack of something – not a lack of good, honest, noble desires and tastes, but a lack of vital force, of what is called heart, of that impulse which drives a man to choose some one out the innumerable paths of life, and to care only for that one. The better he knew his brother, the more he noticed that Sergey, and many other people who worked for the public welfare, were not led by an impulse of the heart to care for the public good, but reasoned from intellectual considerations that it was a right thing to take an interest in public affairs, and consequently took interest in them. Levin was confirmed in this generalization by observing that his brother did not take questions affecting the public welfare or the immortality of the soul a bit more to heart than he did chess problems, or the ingenious construction of a new machine. (Anna Karenina, Part iii, Chapter 2)

Notice that in the last sentence of this famous passage, Levin makes an observation about – in other words, derives evidence from – the questions that his brother asks. Contrast the universalism of Sergey, identified by a repeated phrase, “the public good,” versus the particularism of Levin, driven by an “impulse…to choose some one out of the innumerable paths of life, and to care only for that one.” In the novel, Sergey’s path of life goes nowhere. Levin marries, grows with the joys and terrors of family life, and continues to mow the fields with his peasants. Sergey has the answers, while Levin keeps on asking questions.

Look again at the 4 primary questions posited at the beginning:

                            A. IS LOVE THE GREATEST THING?

                            B. DOES DISCOVERY BRING JOY?

                            C. DOES WHATEVER CREATED US CARE ABOUT US?

                            D. IS LIFE WORTH LIVING?

Suppose with me now that these questions are answered with absolute and universal truth. Moreover, suppose that all of the great questions such as these are answered, at least in general terms. Is this heaven?

Some may join Plato, other rationalists, idealists, and even positivists, as well as a number of saints from all religions in longing for the day when Truth takes command of our lives. I do not long for that day, because I think that universal answers to the great primary questions might crowd out freedom. I cherish the opportunity to say “Yes!” or “No!” to each of these great primary questions. I also cherish the pang of doubt that follows immediately, asking, “Is it true?”, because it gives me the opportunity to ask the question again. But recognize that even “I cherish….” presents itself as another primary question. “I cherish…is it true?” Will I keep on cherishing the opportunity and experiencing the doubt – inspiration transformed into a repetitive question? The future is unknown, but as for the present, yes, so far… up to now, it is true. I do keep on asking.

We have talked about the primary questions and the subsidiary questions. The implication from the start has been that the primary questions are the important ones. The subsidiary questions tend to be viewed as adding something, but not much. Now upon reflection, I choose to think that the reverse is true. The primary questions may indeed be unanswerable, not because answers are impossible, but because answers make the questioner disappear.

So the subsidiary questions are the real ones for us. They have answers compatible with human life and freedom. The answers do not provide truth for everywhere and always, but just a pinch of truth for here and now. If the pinch is hard enough, then we should remember to keep on asking.