Science, Human Action, The Search for “Truth”, and Consequences | Part 7: In the Land of Blind Science, Volitional Consciousness is King

Thinking on the Potential Dangers of Science Myopia (Photo: Joao Silas,

© 2018, Barry L. Linetsky. All Rights Reserved.

When it comes to human actions, notes Hayek in his aptly titled book The Counter-Revolution of Science, “things arewhat the acting people think they are” (44). For example, a hammer is not a thing in itself or an objective fact of Science, but rather a means to an end as perceived by a human being, a tool that can be created, designed, and used for a conceived purpose as defined by the user. A hammer can be a tool to join pieces of wood by means of nails, or to remove nails and break things apart.

Scientism neglects the study of human action and the meaning humans ascribe to the world they encounter. The best science can do in this realm is generate statistics and data maps. Human motives cannot be directly perceived and quantitatively measured, and to this extent are excluded from “real” Scientific study.

What we see in Hayek’s thesis is a window into understanding the self-admitted frustratingly incoherent discussion between Harris and Peterson and their chaotic attempt to grapple with the nature of truth. It comes down to a conflict between two distinct paradigms of what is to be deemed and recognized as a legitimate method or methods by which humans pursue systematic knowledge of the world. What we see is a clash between scientific monism and scientific dualism.

It seems that for Peterson, science is a tool to gain knowledge and wisdom to be used and applied towards human survival and flourishing, and we can discuss whether and how science is used and has utility relative to the human ends being sought. One must adopt the appropriate means for the ends chosen, grounded in sound epistemological science.

It seems that Harris, on the other hand, who appears to align himself with ideas consistent with modern materialism, positivism, and determinism, has no such “illusions” that science has anything to contribute to questions of human utility sought through human action.

The natural capacity of humans to make choices is identified as volitional consciousness and is commonly known and referred to as free will consisting in the ability to make choices amongst alternatives. For Harris, matters of volitional consciousness are not matters of scientific interest because they can neither be measured nor proved (consciousness is axiomatic and a priori in that all proofs depend on and assume its prior validity), and thus are considered by positivists to be metaphysical assertions that have no place in Science. From this perspective there is no need for a scientific methodology to study the human action and social sciences because the study of such things as dealing with the meaning that humans attribute to chosen ends motivating actions is, from the point of view of the positivist, meaningless.

I write about Dr. Harris’ position in my essay Free Will: Sam Harris Has It (Wrong):

[According] to Dr. Harris, whatever we take to be a cause of our thinking and action, there are prior unconscious causal mechanisms that underlie those causes. He writes [in Free Will], “Choices, efforts, intentions, and reasoning influence our behavior – but they are themselves part of a chain of causes that precede conscious awareness and over which we exert no ultimate control” (p.p. 39-40) I can make choices, and those choices matter, says Harris, but I cannot choose what I choose, he says. “[A]nd if it ever appears that I do [make a choice] – for instance, after going back and forth between options – I do not choose to choose what I choose. There is a regression here that always ends in darkness.”

Harris also writes in his book Free Will:

You are not in control of your mind – because you, as a conscious agent, are only part of your mind, living at the mercy of other parts. You can do what you decide to do – but you cannot decide what you decide to do.” (37-38)

And this:

You will do whatever it is you do, and it is meaningless to assert that you could have done otherwise. (41).

Determinism as a denial of human agency is a popular outgrowth of mechanistic materialism and positivism, and has become an embedded metaphysical premise of modern science.

According to neuroscientist Michael S. Gazzaniga, director of the SAGE Center for the Study of the Mind at the University of California, Santa Barbara and president of the Cognitive Neuroscience Institute,

…determinism is the philosophical belief that all current and future events, actions, including human cognition, decisions, and behavior are causallynecessitated by preceding events combined with the laws of nature. The corollary, then, is that every event, action, et cetera, is predetermined and can in principle be predicted in advance, if all parameters are known. … Determinists believe that the universe, and everything in it, is completely governed by causal laws. (Who’s In Charge: Free Will and the Science of the Brain, 111)

Determinism isn’t a fringe belief amongst scientists and intellectuals, notes Gazzaniga; the belief “that we live in a completely determined universe” is “palpably dominant in the intellectual community.” It is “the dominant idea in modern neuroscience” in which there is a widely held belief that “a full understanding of the brain will reveal all one needs to know about how the brain enables mind, that it will prove to be enabled in an upwardly causal way, and that all is determined” (ibid, 3, 4).

This “enlightened science view that we are all determined mechanistic machines” is even held by notable science populists such as biologist and evolutionist Richard Dawkins, notes Gazzaniga (ibid, 7).

V.S. Ramachandran, Director of the Center for Brain and Cognition at the University of California San Diego, and author of The Tell-Tale Brain, writes that “Sam Harris demonstrates…free will is an inherently flawed and incoherent concept” and that when we as human beings finally accept the demonstrated scientific facts, we will have to “radically change the way we view ourselves as human beings.” (Presumably accepting that constructing an argument, and convincing and being convinced by an argument, doesn’t breach the boundaries of logic and thereby void the denial of free will.)

The widely accepted and promulgated belief by so many prominent scientists that we live in a completely determined universe, Gazzaniga informs us, “seems to follow logically” from the prior conclusions those scientists have reached about “the nature of the universe”:

Physical laws govern the happenings in physical world. We are all part of that physical world. Therefore, there are physical laws that govern our behavior and even our unconscious self. Determinism reigns – both physical and social – and we are asked to accept it, and to move on. Einstein bought it. Spinoza bought it. Who are we to question it? Beliefs have consequences and indeed because we live in what is believed by many to be a determined world, we are commonly asked to be slow to assign blame and to not hold people accountable for their actions or anti-social behavior. (ibid, 3-4).

From this, one can see that little has changed since Mises raised his objections, with regards to the dominant view within the science profession about what constitutes the legitimate domain of science and the narrow and restrictive scope within which science is said to have anything valid to offer acting man.

The criticism of Mises, who shared Hayek’s concern about the abuse of science by its leading advocates, remains valid: the natural sciences as currently constructed and widely practiced, are unable to “[deal] with the actions of men, viz., our ability to learn how definite external events produce in the minds of men definite reactions, i.e., ideas and volitions” (Mises, The Ultimate Foundation of Economic Science, 46).

The materialist and positivist position on determinism is nothing new. The conclusions reached are a matter of logic, not empirical scientific experimentation, and wrapping it in a fresh coating of modern neuroscience only represents the latest episode of “the abuse of science.”

Thousands of years ago, around the time of Plato and Aristotle, there was a school of Greek thinkers known as the Atomists. The Atomists proposed that at the base of all elements were tiny particles that defined the size, shape, and motion of everything that exists, and thus all of existence, including human thoughts and perceptions was quantitative and based on the laws of mechanics. For the Atomists, all events were determined by the cause and effect of these tiny atomistic particles and therefore nothing ever happens for a purpose or a goal. In philosophy, this metaphysics is known as “mechanistic materialism” and is still widely popular as a fundamental philosophic worldview.

British philosopher Antony Flew informs us that in the modern era, “The misconception that our desires are external forces pushing us where they rather than we will, is at least as old as classical mechanics” (Antony Flew and Godfrey Vesey, Agency and Necessity, Blackwell, New York, 1987: 63). He writes,

What so many have wanted to do, and what some still hanker after doing, is to develop a science of individual psychology on the model of elementary physics. This would misconstrue our desires, in just this way, as external forces operating upon us; and show how our actual actions must be the inevitable resultants of the interplay upon our otherwise inert bodies of these external forces. (Ibid, 63-64)

The desire to pursue a program that reduces agency to necessity as a means to do away with moral causes is unjustified and “hopeless,” according to Flew:

Notwithstanding its perennially seductive appeal this whole enterprise is altogether hopeless. Our desires, as we have just been reminding ourselves, simply are not external forces. Any of the desires which we happen to have we may or may not adopt as our motives for action; as we choose. Nor is any action which we choose to perform necessitatedby the desire which we ourselves adopted as its motive. (Ibid, 64)

Fifty years ahead of the publication of Harris’s Free Will, Mises wrote about implications of mechanistic materialism. He noted that the logical and inevitable result of the materialist/positivist/determinist package leads its advocates to advancing and advocating that “human ideas, judgments of value, and volitions are real and can produce definite changes,” but at the same time “are the inevitable result of external events that necessarily beget in the bodily structure of men definite reactions.” In other words, human thoughts and actions are inevitably the result of prior materialistic causes going back to some primary cause or first cause. This is Harris’s “regression that ends in darkness.”

As we shall see, it is a position that on the basis of logic and praxeology is self-evidently wrong.

NEXT: Part 8. The Siren Call of the Determinist Paradox

Mises: The A Priori Nature of Human Action (pdf)

Barry Linetsky has learned a considerable amount from the writings of Mises and Hayek. Barry makes his living specializing in value-driven strategic management, and is the author of the acclaimed business biography The Business of Walt Disney and the Nine Principles of His Success (Theme Park Press, 2017) and Free Will: Sam Harris Has It (Wrong), both available from amazon. He frequently blogs at and has been published in the Ivey Business Journal and Rotman Magazine. Twitter @BizPhilosopher.

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