You are here

10. The Plus of Determination

10. The Plus of Determination
The writings of Nicolai Hartmann were highly esteemed in the early part of this century and very widely read. In many quarters they appear since then to have passed into oblivion although I was pleased in making a reference to him and his relevance to current controversy at a recent Joint Session of the Mind Association and the Aristotelian Society to find that more persons than I anticipated were interested in him and convinced of his importance for us today.

The third volume of Hartmann’s Ethics is peculiarly relevant to the main contentions of this book and especially so his notion of ‘a plus of determination’. This is the idea of some new mode of determination which supervenes upon other processes without suspending them or modifying what they are in themselves or at their own level and without requiring any gap in the initial course of things into which the new factor may interpose itself. No change is required in the way we understand the original determination chemistry is chemistry and physics is physics but processes of that sort could have their part strictly in terms of what they normally are in a more comprehensive whole in which the eventual course of things owes much to the supervention of other factors as well as the forces already at work.

It may not be easy to determine how far if at all this applies to processes below the level of sentience. It is indeed quite common to refer to the functions of some inanimate artefacts like computers in some sorts of mentalistic terms. The computer it is sometimes said calculates is puzzled tells or informs or redirects itself is surprised pleased or even angry. But this is surely no more than a helpful metaphorical way of referring to highly elaborate processes which have some resemblance to conscious operations but which must also be understood in the final analysis in terms of the strictly material operations of machines which men have made and whose operations they condition in the process known as ‘feeding in information’.
Those who wish to deny that there is more than an analogy here usually do so in the interest of a reductionist or behaviourist view of properly mental processes themselves. If my anger can be described entirely in terms of my observable reaction then there does not seem to be much impropriety in the characterisation of a machine in literally the same sense. But of all views in the philosophy of mind this appears to me to be the most naive and implausible. However ‘clever’ the machine may be it still operates as a strictly material entity in ways which the designers of it can exhaustively understand in the terms in which any physical contrivance is known to work.
On themes of this kind if anything further is needed it has been said already by me earlier in this book and elsewhere and by many others. But the view may still be advanced that in some ‘organic’ processes as they are sometimes described the operations of some units cannot be understood entirely in terms of sub-processes within them considered by themselves or in some summation. The way the processes are related or the nature of the whole makes a difference. I find it hard however to think of a proper instance of this which would require the recognition of a properly new order of determination.
The case for something of this kind even at the inorganic or physio-chemical level has however been very helpfully investigated in the symposium on Cognitive Biology conducted at the Joint Session of the Mind Association and the Aristotelian Society in 1980 by Dr Margaret Boden and Dr Susan Khin Zaw.1 Dr Boden sets out fairly boldly to maintain that the biologist must go beyond the level of physio-chemical process and strictly molecular biology. ‘Even processes whose underlying biochemical details are relatively clear may not be intelligible in terms of molecular biology alone’.2 There is ‘adaptive behaviour’ which needs to be ‘defined at a higher level than molecular biology’.3 At the same time this must not be understood in terms of properly ‘mentalist implications’ in the words used subsequently by Dr Zaw.4 We are not invited to reinstate some form of vitalism or animism as was current some while ago or ‘an up-dated attribution of a soul’5 again in Dr Zaw’s words. But if there is no subtle form of mentalism just what is the force of the cognitive terminology? What happens when we pass beyond the strictly physio-chemical approach?
The kind of example we are offered here is that of oscillations within a biological system a sort of ‘biological clock’ which initiate waves of activity which travel over greater distances than in the case of ‘gradient fields by way of simple diffusion. This means that they might be able to influence the organism as a whole rather than just that extent of tissue which is within a diffusible distance’.6 It is not easy for the layman to decide the precise significance of this or appreciate how far if at all it does take us beyond physio-chemical processes in a full presentation of the story as a whole. But if we are impelled in cases of this kind to go beyond molecular biology not as a provisional move pending a fuller account but as a final notion of the way things are we do indeed seem to have an example of a mode of determination which takes up other processes into a unity where determination as a whole is different.
Even so one hesitates to characterise the total or superior process in cognitive terms. If there is no mental or sentient factor involved can we understand the cognitive characterisation in any way other than as helpful fanciful metaphors? That metaphors may be useful in this way need not be denied and it could well be that at a certain stage of research investigation is best directed on the supposition of some quasi-cognitive activity beyond which we cannot go at the time. As a methodological device to get us to the right questions there may be much to be said for a cautious use of cognitive concepts in biology it might make us more open and adventurous in our mastery of the subject. But that in itself would not imply that we had passed to a totally new conception of the subject.
Dr Boden herself is fairly firm in following Goodwin in his insistence that ‘cognitive terminology in describing biological systems is not a fanciful metaphor’.7 On the other hand it is far removed from conscious reasoning and more akin to ‘non-intro-spectible cognitive structures’ which psychologists take to ‘underlie conscious thought experience and behaviour’.8 There can be an extension of concepts from a primary domain to a secondary one and this can be useful in directing empirical research. But even so one would take some convincing in the present instance that anything significant had been found between some sort of mentalistic process rightly rejected here and a provisional metaphorical device which had no ontological significance.
It is to the latter conclusion that Dr Zaw inclines. She hesitates to go all the way with reductionism but accepts its intuition about the scientific mode of understanding the world namely that ‘physicalism is somehow intrinsic to empirical science as we now conceive it. Physicalism constrains its ontology: the kinds of things there are in the world of science are physical kinds’.9 It does not follow that all understanding in science must be in terms of physics and chemistry but it must ‘be in some sense anchored in or constrained by the physical world. Reductionism is an attempt to formulate this anchoring — wrong as it turned out. But the desire to anchor was sound’.10
The point at which Dr Zaw veers a little towards Dr Boden’s position or makes at least a provisional concession to it is in her reference to functional explanation. This is not itself a physicalist explanation. A football is shaped as it is for kicking a cap on the distributor to keep it dry. But this goes beyond a proper physical explanation. It refers to the purpose of the designer or maker and as such it is perfectly legitimate as an explanation of these physical things but it is quite different from the mechanical explanation. We could explain how a bicycle works without reference to the point of making it. But the latter is legitimate although it ‘does not threaten the mechanical explanation of a bicycle’.11 But does this affect biology? We may if so disposed invoke a divine author and sustainer of the external world and ascribe to him various purposes in making it as it is. But that in itself whatever difference it made to the scientist’s general view of his work hardly enters into what he actually does and maintains as a scientist. The question is whether something of a like functional sort can be found at other levels which are strictly relevant to what the biologist does beyond guiding him through metaphorical suppositions to ways of directing his study which he might not otherwise appreciate but which must eventually be cashed in physical terms.
It is this sort of question that Dr Boden and those of like mind have to answer in terms of explicit examples. It is not enough to show that functional explanations cannot as such be reduced to biochemical ones. The question is whether such explanations are in the last analysis necessary at all. ‘A physicalist need not deny that it is possible and even useful to regard organisms as information-exchanging devices; the point is that no one would regard such an account as a scientific explanation if it did not have a conceivable physical basis or realization’.12 It is for those who question this to provide persuasive examples.
There is one feature of these issues however which seems to have been left out of account altogether by both writers understandably since it cannot have much if any place in the contexts with which they have concerned themselves. I refer to the fact of sensation. The moment we pass to properly animal existence we must reckon with this. In the case of the higher animals there is much more than mere sensation co-ordination of vision and perspective for instance. A dog sees very much as we do and smells and hears. He chases the ball to the far corner of the garden because he sees it rolling that way he barks at the stranger because he sees him approaching he leaps up with excitement when you reach for the lead he yelps because he feels pain. Indeed the level of intelligence however sharp its limitations can be very high as anyone watching a dog penning sheep can see; and as I have earlier stressed to give a Rylean or quasi-Rylean behaviourist account of this would be as absurd as it is in our own case. But if this is so we must take account of it in a total story of animal life though for many physiological purposes we can disregard it.
Whether sentience comes in and makes a difference at the level of biological study with which the two symposiasts were concerned is another matter. Presumably the embryo does become sentient at some stage well before birth. It clearly does not do so in a way that directly involves the way the body is formed and develops. It must be of a very rudimentary kind. But it might be worth considering in these contexts whether in some subtle way the onset of sentience at whatever stage it comes makes a difference. If it does in this or in other respects then we do have a new feature of determination which affects the course of things without being reducible at any stage to biochemical processes.
A similar problem to that discussed by Dr Boden and Dr Zaw could be raised at a lower level of animate existence in botany. In earlier forms of vitalism much would be made of the way a plant shapes its own life and heals some damage done to it. Would Dr Boden’s arguments apply here also and could they be met in the same terms by Dr Zaw? It would seem on the face of it that Dr Boden’s approach would be harder to support here and yet there is at least some initial plausibility in the case which certainly strikes the layman with much force that the processes involved in vegetable life are organic and peculiar in a way of which an exhaustively physicalist story could not be told. If that were the case then there would here also be a form of determination beyond the constitutive processes initially involved.
I should like to interpolate here the further comment that the relevance of the issue as presented in the symposium to questions of the conservation of nature and respect for living things is nil. As Dr Zaw points out we can get no mileage out of Dr Boden’s claims in this way; and that it seems to me holds irrespective of the soundness of these claims. We conserve the world of nature mainly because of its importance for use and enjoyment by human beings; and we care for animals and their environment because they also enjoy such amenities in their way and can be hurt by the lack of them. We are kind and not cruel to brutes because they feel pain. To put this very starkly and leave out religious considerations that may be relevant would it really console us at all on being assured that all life would be extinct on our planet the next day to be told also that there would still be wooded glades and winding rivers and stormy seas and snowy peaks? In romantic ways we might still deplore the passing of these but if there is no enjoyment of them at the very least in rudimentary sentience would it matter two hoots if the world were burnt to a cinder or became a cloud of gas — apart of course from prospects of renewal. Is it not experience of some sort at least and the worth that goes with it that counts in these contexts?
There is no hubris in this. It is not the resemblance to ourselves that matters but the simple linkage of worth with experience and if we neglect this in matters like the conservation of nature and feel impelled to retreat upon the sort of considerations adduced by Dr Boden we may find ourselves giving very uncertain hostages to fortune.
I return to Hartmann and the ‘plus of determination’. If the views favoured by Dr Boden could be maintained and their like in other animate existence or it may be even in physics and cybernetics such that the whole story could not be told in principle or eventually in physical terms then we would have at all these levels clear examples of what Hartmann has in mind. But it does not seem in fact that the case has been made out.
It is quite another matter however once we reach the level of sentience. At rudimentary levels the difference made in practice to response or behaviour may be barely perceptible but presumably there would be some notwithstanding the dependence of the sentience on physical conditions. At other levels the difference will be substantial unless the main contentions of this book are wrong. The dog runs this way rather than that because he sees where the ball goes. The initial significance of Hartmann’s concept for man as for brute is that in claiming the efficacy of mental states we do not have to suppose that all other relevant determinations are suspended.
Hartmann himself puts it as follows:
What is contained in the earlier stage (of a causal nexus) necessarily works itself out in the later. Hence the later stage is only in so far determined beforehand by the earlier as no new factors are added. But if such are added they modify the determinational complex and thereby all the ensuing stages. Herein consists the diversion of the process from its direction. Nothing opposes such a diversion.13
That is why an incoming Plus of determination in it is every time simply one component more which according to its direction and force determines the result.14
Precisely this is the peculiarity of the causal nexus that it does not allow itself to be suspended or broken but does permit of being diverted. The further course of the process then is different from what it would have been if it had lacked the new determinant; but no one of the original causational factors in it is on this account diminished; all are just as efficacious and unhindered in the diverted process as they would have been if no diversion had taken place.15
It is in these terms that Hartmann conceives of freedom:
Hence ‘freedom’ in the positive sense is here actually achieved. It is not a Minus in determination (like ‘negative’ freedom) but is evidently a Plus. The causal nexus does not admit of a Minus. For its law affirms that a series of effects once it has entered upon its course can by no kind of external agency be annulled. It may however very well admit of a Plus — if only there be such — for its law does not affirm that no elements otherwise determined could be added to the causal elements of a process.16
This allows of many senses of freedom according to the various orders of determination which may be superimposed one upon the other. How many of these there are will depend much on the view we take on issues like the one discussed in the symposium I have just been noting. The modification of physical processes by sentient and experiential or mental factors is one obvious major instance. It is not that the initial causal process is annulled or suspended but that a further determination combines with it much as an additional player joining a number of people already propelling a push-ball can make a difference to the way the ball moves. The new player does not have to throw off the persons already there before he can make any impact neither can he have it all his own way. The nature of the ball itself and other material conditions preclude that. So does the pressure already exerted by other players. But the pressure applied by the new player also makes a difference to what happens.
One form of freedom in the sense indicated has much importance. It is that which comes about in the way the various ingredients in our psychological make-up modify one another and bring thus the force of the system of one’s nature or character as a whole into the decisions and responses we make and our impact on the world in our conduct. Hegelian and post-Hegelian idealist philosophers made much of this. In appreciating how the abiding subject as in Kantian philosophy made possible the apprehension of a unified world of objects they understood also how the same self in virtue of holding together our experience as a whole would bring unity and system to our desiring nature also. In the measure in which this happened in particular cases our aims and aspirations would be considerably modified the strength of various desires depending much on the ‘system of desires’ to which they belong. New aims are made possible in the same way. Long-term projects over-ride wishes which might otherwise be much stronger at the time. This is what is usually known as self-determination and it found a classical expression in Essay 1 of Bradley’s Ethical Studies.
This kind of self-determination is sharply contrasted with the situation where isolated or relatively isolated impulses battle it out in their unmitigated initial strength among themselves as is presumed to happen for the most part at least among brutes. Although we are in both cases dealing with mental as against material determination there is a considerable difference which warrants the acknowledgment of self-determination in the sense indicated as a distinct mode of determination. It can therefore claim a place of its own in the stratification of modes of determination envisaged by Hartmann.
This has been thought by many including foremost idealist writers to provide the proper solution to the problem of freedom and accountability. Our conduct in so far as it is self-determined and reflects what we are as rational creatures is our own and free in the way required by ascription of moral praise and blame. Hartmann would not agree. Psychological determination in Hartmann’s own term is not enough. But the way the basic problem presents itself to him is in terms of an aporia presented especially by Kantian philosophy and the sharpness of the bifurcation into noumenal and phenomenal determination. Against the latter Hartmann presents the view already outlined that the causal nexus while it cannot be suspended may nevertheless be modified; it is not a world of its own. But he also insists notwithstanding the firm realism of the axiology defended in the earlier volumes of his Ethics that the apprehension of worth and obligation although made possible by our rational nature and indeed described as ‘axiological determination’ does not of itself guarantee our conformity with them. It is hard on some aspects of Kantian metaphysics and ethics to see how the rational self can ever go against its own principles just as it is hard to see how the hedonistic empirical self can properly heed them. Beyond the axiological determination ‘through categories and values’ there is a determination ‘native to the person himself’.
This determination is not ‘without further ado an actual teleology of values’.17 ‘Of themselves values have no power to move what actually exists. Such power can only issue from some other quarter and indeed only from an actual person and in so far as he commits himself to them’.18 It follows that ‘the actual person is autonomous not only when in harmony with the values but also and precisely when opposed to them that is that his autonomy as compared with theirs is the higher’.19 These may not be the terms in which all of us would put these points. But it seems to me that Hartmann is on the firmest possible ground here in recognising a very distinct mode of determination bound up with what it is to be a person.
It is unfortunate I think that in his concern to stress the genuineness and distinctness of determination through the agency of a person Hartmann should also be very averse to describing it as some kind of indeterminism. The reason for this I suspect is that he thinks of an undetermined will as a will which wills nothing20 blind chance or ‘a minus of determination’ as he also puts it. But there is in fact a world of difference between chance or sheer randomness and a subject deliberately making a choice between what most appeals to it and what seems to be a duty. This must indeed be the ‘positive’ decision of the person but we do not have to suppose that the person is further determined by anything in his nature as a person in this instance beyond what is involved in being a self-conscious person. If there were such a determinant it would have its place in our characters or dispositional natures as a whole and thus fall into the area of the self-determination noted above.
I think in the main that Hartmann would accept this notwithstanding his insistence that ‘all that is ontologically possible is precisely thereby ontologically necessary also’.21 What he seems really concerned to stand upon is the principle that ‘in the real world that only becomes actual for which the total series of conditions is complete’.22 This is quite compatible with the insistence that one of the conditions the decisive one in the case of moral or accountable choice is the choice made by the agent between genuinely open alternatives.
I will not pursue this theme further here. My reference to the work of Nicolai Hartmann is made in the first place for the help it provides in understanding how we can fully recognise the continuing course of physical determination including processes in the brain and at the same time recognise the genuine efficacy of mental states. To insist on the latter is in no way an affront to appropriate scientific explanation as such and I have been much at pains in this book in maintaining that nothing in the respect we owe to science and empirical study requires us to suppose that the course of our conduct could be in principle exhaustively accounted for in terms of physical or material determinants.
The second main relevance of Hartmann’s views is that they also provide the intellectual framework within which we can properly place and understand the choice which is not itself an expression of our natures or characters of the sort of persons we are. Many choices are indeed of that kind they express what we by our particular constitution prefer. But this is not bound to be the model for all choice. There supervenes on much that takes its course in one’s life and makes it the kind of existence it is the exercise of this further peculiar ‘plus of determination’ which we exhibit in distinctively moral choices and the part these play in due course in our lives and personal relations as a whole.
This is not the place to pursue this particular theme further. There are many ramifications of the notion of the self as a genuine entity not exhaustively described in the peculiarities we ascribe to ourselves as the individuals we are this elusive essence of selfhood which each one I have maintained apprehends initially in his own case. I have outlined more fully what some of these ramifications are including their place in moral accountability in the closing chapter of my The Elusive Mind and it would be wasteful to repeat here what I have sketched out already there. My concern in this volume has been to reinforce and extend what was said less completely in my earlier book about the distinctive subject of experience itself and its identity. I hope in the final volume of this trilogy to bring out more exhaustively the way the proper understanding of our nature as persons bears on the main concerns we have in morality and religion and in other aspects of our cultural and social existence.

From the book: