It is quite popular today to say that according to our scientific models, the world proceeds according to causal law. And therefore, either an interaction is caused, or it is random, and in either case human freedom fails to appear.
This is something of a paradox, because the formulation of the defeat of freedom itself presupposes freedom – what do we mean by freedom? Freedom is human activity. Hegel has a convincing proof of this: assume we were unfree, that we just responded to a series of drives and appetites. So on the one hand there is us, which is a set of drives, and on the other hand, all the possible ways our drives could be satisfied. If we look closely, we notice that there is no thing in either of these lists that is something like the principle of choice, the thing which determines which appetite ought be satisfied now, given the concrete situation. Economists presume a “principle of maximization”, but thinking clearly, this is quite a large assumption because it assumes the ability to numerically quantify all the drives and all the possibilities for satisfaction. Since this isn’t anything like counting bottles, but more like spontaneous determination and choice, it turns out that Freedom is implied by this “nonfree” self. The attempt to actualize human freedom is then the search to find the object proper to it, and not merely the object of some desire. I’m not sure what this would be, but the spontaneous re-valuation of values looks like a good place to start.
Anyway, so I’ve proved freedom from a determined subject. But a reductive physicist has no problem with this – he can simply retort that I’ve assumed “drives”, which don’t really exist, all that exist are the interaction of particles or whatever his model tells me this century. This brings us to the relation between modeling (concepts), and the world (being). Now, while it is not required to have a metaphysics in order to model and act in the world (e.g. the pyronian skeptics), it is the characteristic of modern science that it assumes some basic models to be true, and works out other models taking that into account. In other words, modern science (since Descartes) is productive not because it questions everything but because it refuses to question everything, it takes some things for granted (i.e. Newtonian physics), and works everything out taking that as a given. Now, obviously these physics have been superseded, but the mistake is to think it’s because they failed to solve some physical problem only – the possibility of coming up with a new physics was largely motivated by the contradiction between Newton’s theory of gravity and Maxwell’s theory of electro magnetism (don’t ask me to explain the contradiction).
The tendency not to put the main theory into question makes it appear to be simply true, because to a Scientist is sort of is. Of course, many scientists will admit it’s a hypothesis, but people in newspapers never seem to hear that bit. (Notice Newton’s laws were “laws”, but since then everything is called a “theory” – it’s because physicists take seriously the provisional character of the things they refuse to put into question). Naturally, most people arn’t as smart as physicists and they assume that if their cell phones work so well, this must mean that the models we have now are just the truth ones. But what does this mean, for the models to be “the true ones”. This brings me to the divergence between Kant and Plato.
Plato believes the world to be in itself differentiated according to permanently enduring laws, forms (eidos, idea) which can be grasped as concepts by humans who study philosophy for long enough. It is common to confuse Plato’s metaphysics (the world is in itself a differentiated unity according to law), with his epistemology (idealism – we learn about the laws of the world in itself by thinking about concepts). But properly, they are two distinct positions, one about what there is, and one about how we know what there is. Modern science has categorically disproven idealism as method of inquiry, but it does not necessarily take a stand on the metaphysics – unsurprising since metaphysics are “beyond physics”.
Kant takes this issue head on: living in the age of Newtonian Science, Kant asks how can a human be Free if we take the world to be governed by laws? Keep in mind the scientific laws were actually “laws” for the physicists then, not “theories”. Kant’s solution was to say the laws were not in the world itself, but in the understanding. In other words, Kant takes the platonic metaphysics out of the world itself, and puts it in our faculty of ap-perception, so it is not the case that the world truly is differentiated according to law, this is a misguided question, but rather the world for us shows up as the kind of thing differentiated according to law. To save freedom, Kant posits a world in itself, where these laws exist not as the laws governing the interaction of things, but as the laws governing how things show up to us. And then he posits that is another kind of law, the law of freedom, which makes us appear as the kinds of beings that are free.
Kant thus argues that the world can show up to us in two fundamentally different ways – either as the object of science, where everything is causally determined according to law, or as free, where it obeys the law of freedom (which is to act such that the maxim of your actions, the ground of your will, could be made the ground for universal legislation. Or put differently, you, as a human, would affirm the world in which your actions were not a choice but forced by a law.)
Kant thus completely diverges from the metaphysical idea of the world “in itself”, the world “in itself” becomes not an object but a way we talk about things, a way our understanding has of understanding the world as it is for us in relation to something we never see. Does it exist? This is a mistaken question for Kant – because existence properly is existence for us.
Now, what does this split tell us about modern physics? Well, we no longer think that the laws we have are the right ones, we want to take into account that physicists change their mind every hundred years or so. It would appear that since the laws “ain’t in the head”, they must be out there in the world – but on what grounds do we assume this? Because it’s practical? But then, it certainly isn’t practical when it comes to dealing with art or laws or music? Oh, but it will be responded, we must be consistent. Why? Even in science, there are different laws from discipline to discipline? Biologists do not worry that there rules of thumb might not be reducible to a meaningful statement about the interaction of matter and energy? They simply use them, because they are useful.
Why can we not appeal to use-value to affirm freedom? Freedom is how we encounter the world, we encounter the world as the kinds of beings that are free. How do we know this? By examining the character of our experience – we notice that we can act one way or act another way. Oh, but you say, it’s an illusion. What does this mean? Usually illusions when revealed cease to show themselves as illusions. Take for example, ghost riders in the sky – we would say if you saw riders in the sky they were an illusion. But, if you went up into the sky and talked to them, perhaps got ran over by the cattle they were hearding, you would no longer want to call them an illusion. If science continued to say it was an illusion, it was some other interactions which produced what looked like an interaction with riders. But we would then say, Science, say what you like, these are in fact riders – I encounter them as riders, I can call them on my cell phone, they are always there or at least at this and this time. I use this silly example because this is how we encounter free beings – we don’t encounter them as an illusion, we encounter them day after day as the kinds of beings that obey laws which are comprehensible on the level of folk (or, maybe, good?) psychology, and on the level of freedom and right. If science fails to describe the objects of our experience, why would we assume that the objects of our experience were faulty, and not that the science was only describing the world according to one particular aspect?