Safe. Better than safe, safe and sound. What we all yearn for. To be totally secure against all injury, accident, illness, disease, misfortune of any kind. To recapture that moment when your mum closes the story book, tucks you up in bed and whispers, ‘Everything will be all right. You’ll see,’ and you believe her heart and soul for she is a goddess. She is all powerful.

Then you grow up.

The urge to be safe. For this we buy locks and bolts, security gates, security lights, put up barbed wire, fences, walls, hire henchmen, build fortresses, castles and moats, ramparts, air raid shelters, bunkers, take out insurance, have vaccinations against polio, TB and diphtheria, buy McAffee and Norton virus protection. To be safe. If only.

But it only takes a tiny germ, a poisonous bite, a falling tile, a careless turn of the steering wheel, just to mention the known unknowns. How many unknown unknowns lurk in the darkness ready, to trip, to trap, to ambush?

Oh, the dream to be secure, to be safe and sound. There was once a king, a very fearful man, always anxious about his wellbeing, always on the lookout for any danger that might befall him. A servant tasted his food. Nothing remarkable about that, many kings had the same provision. Seven burly bodyguards surrounded him day and night. The walls of his palace were armour plated and two feet thick. Anyone approaching the palace was searched and stripped of items that might be used as a weapon. Any surface he might touch had to be scrubbed and disinfected several times a day. A sneeze or a cough within his vicinity was punished by a year’s banishment. When on rare occasions he was obliged to leave the palace and enter the city, he was carried in a sedan chair with windows sealed against the coarse breath of the people.

As he grew older he became not less but even more self-protective, trusting fewer and fewer people. He no longer received ambassadors and emissaries in person. Each one was obliged to wait in an antechamber of the palace, pass a letter to a servant who, after it had been inspected for possible contamination, conveyed it to the King.

He withdrew into one room which he left less and less frequently. Eventually, not at all. But now he took some comfort in his isolation. ‘Now I am safe,’ he said to himself, ‘safer than I was before but not yet safe and sound. There are still so many dangers that beset me.’ He worried that someone might fire a bullet through the windows. He had the windows bricked up.  This happened before the days of electric bulbs so the only light in the room was from a candle. But then he feared that the naked flame of the candle might spark a fire and burn him to death.

He sat in the dark of luxurious surroundings: velvet covered sofas, silver plate on a mahogany table, magnificent paintings and sculptures, a tiger rug on the floor, and he felt a little safer.

Until he saw a sliver of light above the one door to his room. He had the door sealed, sealed air tight.

Now no harm of any sort could enter to harm him. No human, no animal, no particle of poison could find any passage into his room and to his person.

Now he was safe. Not just safe but safe and sound.

(I came across the brief source material for the story of the King in a piece by a twelfth century Persian poet, Attar of Nishapur, included in The Way of the Sufi (1968) by Idries Shah)




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There is very strong resistance in our minds to the notion of determinism. However often and however persuasively the arguments are made to undermine belief in free will and to support determinism, thoughts keep arising to the effect that there is a part of me that is not in the domain of cause-and-effect physical determinism and from this location outside the loop it can intervene, change direction and choose actions.

This self, the me that seems to do the choosing — where is it? What is it?

Suppose that  this essential me is a non-physical entity outside the brain and the body. It certainly feels very much as though this is what I am. I don’t appear to myself to be just a complicated network of neurons but somehow apart.

But there is a problem with this description and it is very much like the one that confronts the dualism of Descartes. According to Descartes there exist in reality two substances, each totally independent of the other, matter and mind. Matter is physical stuff which occupies space, has dimensions and a location, is divisible and so on. Mind is non-physical, non-spatial; it cannot be pinned down to a particular place, is indivisible and so on. These two substances have no properties in common.

And yet, in Descartes’ system they are able to interact: matter can causally affect mind and mind can causally affect matter. Ever since Descartes introduced his dualism in the first half of the seventeenth century critics have been pointing out a glaring flaw in it. If the substances are as alien to each other as he claimed, then it seems impossible that they could affect each other. Neither could have any purchase on the other.

Either there is complete separation of mind and matter or there is interaction: the two theories are incompatible.

Back to the idea of a non-physical self with power to choose, to direct the body to do this or that action. If the criticism of Descartes’ dualism is sound, then it presents a serious difficulty for the notion of a non-physical intervening self. How could that which has no physical properties — it isn’t in a particular place, has no mass, no dimensions etc.— how could such an entity fire neurons and thereby make an arm or leg to move or the mouth to utter speech?

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FREEDOM: A scientific standpoint

These days most people, in the Western world at least, have adopted what may loosely be called a scientific world view. This does not mean, of course, that most people are scientists but simply that in a minimal way they accept an assumption that underlies scientific enquiry. This assumption holds that for any physical event that takes place there is a physical cause that accounts for it. Leaves change colour, the earth rotates, water falls from clouds, fingernails grow, muscles contract, some crops fail to grow and some people but not others contract serious illnesses.

We tend to be dismissive of explanations that invoke the supernatural, for example, magic or witchcraft, and assume that the only plausible explanations are to be found in terms of laws and forces operating within the physical domain of atoms and molecules, in short, in terms of chemistry and physics. The ‘causal closure of the physical domain’ is a useful term for this overview. ‘Closure’ implies that this is a complete explanation and that it would be futile to look beyond the physical domain for any causal input. In fact, more than this, there is no room for any non-physical input since the physical description gives a complete causal explanation.

The notion that the physical universe operates in accordance with laws can be traced back at least to Newton. Once he had shown that objects on the astronomic scale were law-abiding, it was only a matter of time before men began to wonder  whether their own behaviour, the movements of the physical object they occupied, the human body, were also subject to laws, to be what we would now call mechanistic.

When I smile, laugh, cry, grimace, frown, when I walk, run, sleep, when I speak, clench a fist, make a high five, write on a ballot paper, these are physical events carried out by a physical body. This body is composed of organs, cells, molecules and atoms. Each of these basic components is subject to the fundamental laws of the universe as much as a star, planet, mountain, tree or leaf. If the causal closure theory is sound, any change or movement in any part of the physical world, including the human body,  is caused by the physical state that is prior to it. Even the neurons in my brain are part of this causal system.

The notion of the causal closure of the physical domain is, of course, a philosophic theory. It is not a directly observable fact but an overarching assumption which in many areas of enquiry has proved very fruitful.

It presents a problem for the idea of the freedom of the will.

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One aspect of freedom that is very highly valued is the ability of to do as we choose or as we want. I remember a man recently retired saying, ‘Now I can choose to do what I want, when I want.’ We have wishes and our freedom consists in our not being prevented from fulfilling them. That is stating the obvious, I acknowledge. Again, as in the most recent post, the key word is from. If I want to travel round the world, I am not free if I lack the resources to pay for it. But I am free if I have a full bank account.

A desire to travel, to help other people, to become rich, to climb a mountain, to survive an illness, to clean the floor before the children come home — there are so many desires, even within one person on a single day.

Why do I desire one thing rather than another? Why this rather than that? These are not questions normally asked. We just do have certain desires. That is all there is to it. There is a bluntness, a brute fact element about desire. (Unless, of course we want A as means of attaining B. But that is a stopgap answer. We still want B and there is no easy explanation as to why. )

As a child and for years later I strongly disliked the taste of olives. Now I am very partial to olives. What happened? Over the course of the years I do not think that olives have gone through any significant change, their chemical composition, the basis of their taste, presumably much the same now as then. The change is in me. But the change was not decided by me. I did not set out to like what previously I had disliked.

Based on examples like this my thoughts turn to the question of whether our likes and dislikes are under the power of the will. I seriously doubt it. Can I under the direction of thought, by the power of concentration control and change my preferences?  I can make an effort, in a sense, to be open to change, I suppose. For example, I might wish to become a fan of country music or of Formula 1 racing and make a point of widening my experience by listening to CDs and watching Grand Prix events. Perhaps, as a result, a positive appreciation might be awakened. In that minimal sense we can have some input into our likes and dislikes. But that is a different scenario from that in which we simple say, ‘From this day forward I will like this or that.’ That is surely not in our gift.

Which brings me back to the point about freedom. If not constrained by some external force, then, yes, should I want A, then I am free to acquire A. However, as regards the arising of the desire itself, that is a given, not the consequence of any choice of mine. I like what I like. I want what I want. Some people call this compromise position, compatibilism. Freedom and determinism are in this sense reconciled. But isn’t this straining the meaning of freedom a little too far?


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What is freedom? What does it mean to be free? ‘Freedom’, ‘liberty’, these are powerful and evocative words. But surely the essential sense is clear enough? To be free is not to be constrained, not to be held, controlled by a force outside oneself, not to be in chains, in a cage or prison.

Along with ‘freedom’ and ‘free’ comes the preposition ‘from’. To be free makes little sense on its own. The term needs a context; to be free entails freedom from something.

Freedom is a key term in politics. People value freedom of speech, thought, religion in the sense of not being in thrall to a source of authority, for example, a despot, a dictator. Much has been and will continue to be written about the relative rights of the individual and the state but this is not the subject here.

As mentioned above we tend to think of freedom in the sense of exemption from the constraints of external forces. But is a distinction between forces outside and forces inside a significant one here? Am I free, for example, if I am subject to an internal force? An example might be addiction. If I am addicted to gambling, no person or force outside me is compelling me to gamble but this is what I do every day. In these circumstances am I free?

One response is to say that a person has the capacity to resist desires such as the desire to gamble. This implies that there is a centre of power in the personality that can stand up to the desire to gamble and can overcome it.

Suppose that there is such a psychological power. We can ask next what it is and what is its origin. It might be called a moral sense, a set of values according to which gambling is deemed an improper activity not to be practised.

(Note, by the way, that we discussing human behaviour here in psychological terms and not as the expression of physiological causes, i.e., on the assumption that the body is just a biological machine.)

This moral sense, this set of values, did not arrive out the blue. It must itself have a source and where else is that to be found apart from in the upbringing of the person as a child, the cultural milieu, all the influences of parents, siblings, other relations, friends, school, the media, in short, all the many aspects of the environment which impinges upon us, in which we grow up, develop and live.

I assume then that the strength of this moral sense, this set of values at the time when the desire to gamble manifests, is either more powerful or less powerful than the desire. If more powerful, the desire is resisted and the gambling habit is broken (at least on this occasion). If less powerful, then the desire to gamble is fulfilled in action, i.e., a visit to a betting shop, fingers tapping out a wager online.

But this post is supposed to be about freedom. What sense can be made of freedom in this scenario? From the description above it seems very much as though it is a question of comparative forces, like weights put on a set of scales: the heavier pushes down while the lighter one rises. In psychological terms there are competing forces within the mind. Whichever is the more powerful determines our actions.

Alternatively, is there a ‘me’, distinct from the contest of psychological forces which stands outside it, makes a choice, imposes its will and is the decider of our actions?

Looking back over this piece I am aware that there is a fundamental assumption underlying it. As mentioned before I have been discussing the topic in terms of psychological forces that are in conflict with one another, a conflict in which the stronger psychological force dictates action and behaviour. This assumption, of course, is open to question.

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Are trees conscious? Do they have feelings? I instantly answer my own question, of course not, confident that the world of vegetation as distinct from the world of animals and humans is devoid of any sort of awareness. Some people may become vegetarians on the grounds that animals suffer pain in the messy confines of an abattoir. With the notable exception of Descartes, most thinkers, indeed most people, take for granted that animals, particularly the more complex one most similar to humans in their makeup, share with us feelings of pain and pleasure, to say the least, and probably many other emotional states too. But we draw the line when it comes to plant life. Nobody refrains from eating fruit and vegetables to avoid cruelty to plants.

I must admit that I have never seriously questioned the view that flowers, vegetables, shrubs and trees are non-feeling entities.  Does anyone believe that when an axe is embedded in its trunk, a tree feels pain? For this reason I was quite taken aback to read a review of a book in which this assumption was challenged. In The Hidden Life of trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate by Peter Wohlleben, translated by Jane Billinghurst (2016) the author tells us that his curiosity was first aroused when he investigated the stump of a very old beech tree. Why, he wondered, had it not decomposed and rotted away? Why was it still green? Studying the botanical literature he discovered that ‘the surrounding beeches were pumping sugar to keep it alive.’

I was immediately sceptical reading this. Wohlleben describes the situation in terms of purposeful action ‘to keep it alive.’ And a further cautious point, what advantage was gained, even if the other trees actually had such an aim, in keeping that stump alive? I have written other posts on a related subject, addressing the fact that there is clearly purposeful action in the non-human natural world. (See posts on this blog ‘Animal Architecture’ during January and February 2017). My favoured example has been the process of nest making among birds. But, if I have read the review correctly, Wohlleben is saying more than this. Not just purposeful action but conscious action.

Intrigued, I read on. Wohlleben thinks that trees work together to achieve certain ends, that they ‘experience pain’, even ‘make decisions’ and have characteristics like greediness and impatience. Furthermore, they ‘are aware’ of changes in temperature and can compare the lengths of days at different times of the year and ‘pass their knowledge on to the next generation’. To Wohlleben trees are conscious agents with some control over the manner of their growth.

A staple of philosophy of mind studies is Thomas Nagel’s article ‘What is it like to be a bat?’ (1974) in which the reader is invited to consider the proposition, first. that a bat is an experiencer of consciousness and then that the nature, the particular quality of that consciousness,  is difficult if not impossible for humans to comprehend. Their method of echolation is surely not the same as our seeing but neither is it like our hearing.  In the case of trees, which in terms of physical structure are far more remote from us than bats, without even the benefit of crude analogies with seeing and hearing, we cannot have the slightest inkling of their state of mind. Nevertheless, as Wohlleben argues (and to pick up Nagel’s phrase), there is ‘something it is like’ to be a tree. Can he say anything about tree consciousness? He offers ‘a diffuse, blind intelligence located in the sensitive, questing  filaments of thousands of root-tips, or a networked language of chemical messages, fanning out through the forest floor via a “wood wide web” of symbiotic fungal mycelium.’ Make of that what you can.

To maintain the status quo, to uphold the received wisdom of the western philosophical tradition which places vegetation in all its forms outside the boundaries of consciousness, I am inclined to say that however complex the reactions of trees may be, they can be accounted for in terms of chemical processes and that, therefore, there is no need to invoke consciousness in a full description of what is taking place.  But I am a little reluctant to lean on accepted wisdom without at least a pause for reflection.

According to Wohlleben trees can ‘taste’ which species of pest has bitten into their leaves and in response send out an appropriate chemical compound as a form of resistance. They even emit messages to other nearby trees which then release the same compounds as protection against likely attack: ‘When umbrella thorn acacias are nibbled by giraffes they release ethylene which deters them; but the chemical also drifts to nearby acacias, and “all the forewarned trees also [pump] toxins into their leaves to prepare themselves.” ’

I am sure that many readers will take the line that even these very subtle and sophisticated responses are evidence only of the operation of highly complex chemical systems, physical cause and effect in accordance with natural law without the accompaniment of any feeling.

But even if that explanation is accepted, it is not the end of the story. There is a link here to a deeply unsettling and difficult philosophical problem, namely that of other minds. It can be argued that all we witness in the behaviour of others, whether it is in the form of facial expressions, movements, cries, calls or, in the case of humans, speech is in one sense reducible to biological and chemical reactions. Lips move, fists clench, sound waves are emitted and so on. The only conscious states that are known are our own. Trees protect themselves against pests, animals fight against predators, humans talk to one another in a war cabinet. It’s chemistry, chemistry, chemistry? Or am I getting the wrong end of the stick?

So where does consciousness, what we know indubitably and at first-hand, come in?

(Wohlleben’s book was reviewed by Francis Gooding in the London Review of Books, 16th February 2017.)



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I have put together in this post some quotations from eminent people whose philosophical stance seems to me to be consistent with agnosticism.

The first two are from the article about philosopher, Bryan Magee, published in the New Statesman, 6-12 April 2018 and summarised in a previous post.

  1. Karl Popper: (the quotation is from the article mentioned above not directly from Popper): ‘to demand certainty is to demand something you can never have. At best, all we can have is conjectural and provisional knowledge permanently open to improvement’
    Magee himself added: ‘There aren’t explanations for anything, and we should be far more agnostic in our way of living.’
  2. Martin Amis: (from the same article which quotes from an interview with Bill Moyers) that being an agnostic was ‘the only respectable position, simply because our ignorance of the universe is so vast … We’re about eight Einsteins away from getting any kind of handle on the universe. Why is the universe so incredibly complicated? That makes me delay my vote on the existence of some intelligence.’
  3. David Attenborough in an interview on YouTube: He rejected literal interpretations of texts (e.g., Genesis) in the light of the fact that around the world in different cultures there are many different creation stories and there is no way to choose between them. Besides, whereas these stories are all different, the scientific explanation for phenomena is the same everywhere. He then went on to explain why he is not an atheist:
    ‘When I’ve taken off the top of a termite hill, I’ve seen termites in there all busying about building walls, looking after the queen, caring for the pupae, clearing the nest, all busy, all blind. They haven’t the faintest idea I am there watching what they are doing because they don’t have the sense organs which would allow them to know that and I do sometimes feel that maybe I am lacking in some sense organs, that I don’t know whether there’s anyone else involved in all this sort of thing. And it’s a very confident thing to say that you’re absolutely sure that there’s nothing in the world that I don’t have the sense organs to appreciate. That would be my position.’

COMMENT: In line with what I have learned from a sketchy knowledge of Kant, what we perceive, believe, know, indeed all of our consciousness arises within us by virtue of the apparatus, the body (in particular, the brain) the medium through which it manifests. In the light of this we have a very limited perspective. If tempted to make grand claims to knowledge, a reminder of our psychological condition helps to put them into perspective.

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