Science, Human Action, The Search for “Truth”, and Consequences | Part 8: The Siren Call of the Determinist Paradox

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

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

A logical implication of mechanistic materialism is that everything has been set in motion by that first cause and is inevitable, and if not for our limited human computation power and limited knowledge, we would be able to predict every future outcome – that what comes after is metaphysically determined by the darkness that comes before. Those modern scientists and intellectuals who advocate for mechanistic materialist ideas are, to the extent they are determinists, also fatalists who must advocate that the future is already written and necessarily preordained.

To deny the scientific evidence in favour of materialistic causal necessity, the scientists who advocate mechanistic materialism say, is to be scientifically ignorant.

As Mises put it, what the advocates of materialism and positivism declare is that

it is only a deficiency of the present state of the natural sciences that prevents us from imputing all manifestations of the human mind to the material – physical, chemical, biological and physiological events that have brought [human ideas] about. A more perfect knowledge they say, will show how the material factors have necessarily produced in the man Mohammed the Moslem religion, in the man Descartes co-ordinate geometry, and in the man Racine Phaedra.  (The Ultimate Foundation of Economic Science, 29)

This is entirely consistent with the scientific worldview put forth by determinists. For example, Sam Harris asserts that based on the current scientific paradigm, “nothing [makes] the concept of free will scientifically intelligible.” Having concluded that determinism is true, by conjecture there can be no scientific basis for any science that presumes the validity of choice in human action. He writes:

If determinism is true, the future is set – and this includes all our future states of mind and our subsequent behavior. And to the extent that the law of cause and effect is subject to indeterminism – quantum or otherwise – we can take no credit for what happens. There is no combination of these truths that seems compatible with the popular notion of free will. (Harris, Free Will, 33)

Likewise, neuroscientist Joshua Green and psychologist Jonathan Cohen contend that modern neuroscience “can help us see that all behavior is mechanical, that all behavior is produced by chains of physical events that ultimately reach back to forces beyond the agent’s control.” (Cited in Satel and Lilienfeld, Brainwashed, 127)

And hence the great works of human ingenuity are, as Mises says and implies, necessarily produced and meaningless to atomistic human vessels. By implication, next months best-sellers and the great books of the future are today inevitably determined not only in their writing and selection to be published, but also who will necessarily purchase them to ensure their preordained status. The claim by some is that this is consistent with and demonstrated by modern neuroscience.

Of course, not all neuroscientists side with the determinist conclusion and a great many have argued against it.

The point Mises makes above is that if the past and the future inextricably follow a path put in play by the natural laws of cause and effect, initiated at the birth of time and space (presuming such a concept is valid), the great scientific and artistic achievements of individual men and women in history are not and can not be achievements at all.

What appear to us to be achievements worthy of our praise or disasters worthy of our condemnation are, according to determinist logic, merely the unavoidable consequences of historical necessity for which nobody can take credit or blame. And perhaps someday, by this logic, a computer will be assembled and an algorithm written that can align the inevitable material factors and predict future human events and their outcomes prior to their inevitable occurrence.

Where there is only material cause and effect without the possibility of human agency, there is no meaning ascribable to human action. And yet we know that any explanation of human action must take into account the meaning of that action to the actors, meaning that is hidden from empiricist observation and measurement and therefore ignored by empiricist science. Thoughts and meanings are not available perceptually and cannot be quantified by the methods of natural science to explain the reasons behind individual actions. The conclusions reached by empiricists that human thought and motives for actions have no epistemological standing is both self-serving and delusional. It is also self-contradictory given that the method by which the conclusion is reached is itself a motivated human action.

Mises’ observations about this point with regards to economics are generalizable to all human action:

Economics is not about things and tangible material objects; it is about men, their meanings and actions. Goods, commodities, and wealth and all the other notions of conduct are not elements of nature; they are elements of human meaning and conduct. He who wants to deal with them must not look at the external world; he must search for them in the meaning of acting men. (Mises, Human Action, Liberty Fund, 2007: 92)

This common notion of free will as volitional consciousness is at the core of all purposeful and motivated human action and is only problematic to the mechanical materialist/positivist scientific crusade. By committing the error of rejecting free will and human agency, thereby evading reality and sound epistemological practices, such advocates land in a contradictory and non-reconcilable paradox. By means of circular reasoning, volitional consciousness is willed out of existence by a large proportion of neuroscientists and others in the scientistic camp who declare free will to be “unproved” or, more emphatically, as having been scientifically proven to be an illusion created by the materialist structure of the human brain.

Given the supposed modern scientific conclusion that free will is an illusion or an irrational prejudice not subject to scientific confirmation, the appeal to Science is invoked to reveal the ignorance and delusional nature of non-scientific “common sense” and the prejudicial demand for applied reason and logic that is inconsistent with the positivist view of science.

With this as background, I suspect Sam Harris sees Jordan Peterson’s common-sense approach to sciences as tragically naïve and quaint, and a flaw in Peterson’s worldview – as Peterson operating under an antiquated paradigm of science. If so, any reference by Peterson towards the need for science to take into consideration teleology when studying human behavior and for the efficacy and success of science to be judged by the contribution it makes to human utility and considerations of the service of science to a human survival purpose, is likely to be looked upon by Sam Harris as misguided and bogus – as having nothing to do with Science.

Peterson’s position, on the other hand, is likely more akin to that of Hayek and Mises, who look upon as false and dangerous the narrow mechanistic, positivist, approach to science as the only valid methodology to seek and establish truth. It is incoherent to seek meaning in life and exercise the faculties of mind inherent in the nature of human beings, while at the same time denying the existence and efficacy of volitional consciousness. The purpose of science is to apply a valid method to solve human problems. It is human behavior in pursuit of chosen ends. Scientific positivism as advocated by Harris and others repudiates the existence of known ends and purposeful goal directed action. I suspect that Peterson sees this as a flaw in the worldview of Sam Harris, and as a naïve and bogus argument.

NEXT: Part 9. The Ultimate Foundation of Economic Science

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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