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Back to Basics

Human beings act.

NOVEMBER 11, 2011 by SHELDON RICHMAN

Note: I wrote this for the December 2002 issue of The Freeman: Ideas on Liberty, before I inaugurated TGIF in 2006. I repost it today especially for readers who never ran across it before.

Lately I’ve landed in discussions about whether there is such a thing as human action. I’m not kidding. Some educated people have their doubts.

Just to be clear from the outset, human action, as Ludwig von Mises pointed out, is purposeful behavior, as opposed to the reflex that occurs when the patellar tendon is struck. Someone decides he wants to accomplish an end (anything from sitting down to hunting quarks). He selects means that he believes have a good chance of achieving the end. Then he uses the means to try to achieve the end. “Action is will put into operation,” Mises wrote.

In other words, as Thomas Szasz reminds us, people’s actions have reasons, not causes. A person sits down because he wants to rest or read or watch television. He didn’t have to do it. Even if a gunman orders him to sit down, he still chooses it (rather than being shot; but this doesn’t exonerate the gunman). In contrast, a billiard ball moves because it is hit by another. Given the conditions, it had to move. It can’t decide not to move this time because it’s tired.

Nevertheless, pop science today regards human beings as highly complex billiard balls rather than as persons.

Neurochemical Processes

In my recent discussions, my interlocutors stated that modern neuroscience has shown, or undoubtedly will soon show, that what we call “the mind” and all its activities are really just neurochemical processes. Notice what this means. The brain is a physical organ. As such, it follows the laws of biology, chemistry, physics, quantum physics, and of any other hard science we have yet to discover. The brain cannot make choices. It is not free. So when someone says that mind is nothing but brain, he is saying that the things we associate with mind—choosing, preferring, thinking—aren’t real.

In philosophy this is called epiphenomenalism. It’s hardly a modern view. Thomas Henry Huxley used the term in 1874 in his paper “On the Hypothesis that Animals are Automata.” In his view, consciousness is thought to be an “epiphenomenon of molecular changes in the brain and hence all mental events to be the effects of physical events but never the causes of either physical or other mental events.”[*] I guess Huxley never had a thought that made him laugh or set his heart pounding.

When I respond that no materialist description of mental activity could ever be complete, I am accused of dogmatically predicting what science will not discover in the future. How do I know neuroscientists won’t find a way to give a complete account of what we call “mental activity”?

I respond by noting that while mental activity of course requires physical equipment and processes, logically this must mean that mental activity cannot be the same as physiological activity. After all, if A (mental activity) requires B (physiological activity), or if B causes A, then obviously A can’t be the same thing as B. A thing can’t cause itself. It would make more sense to simply deny the existence of A and say there is only B. I’d have thought that this point would be an argument stopper, because how can neuroscience describe something—conscious experience—that is outside its purview? Can a physicist explain why a car goes to Wal-Mart rather than Kmart? (See Gene Callahan, “What Is Science?”)

Alas, the argument does not end. Nor does my next tack succeed. I usually go on to say that it is empirically clear that our introspective experiences are different from whatever electro-chemical things are happening in our brains. When I introspect I am not aware of neurological events. I am aware of thoughts, feelings, intentions, and so on. I’m even aware of my being aware (self-consciousness). This is what Szasz calls the “self-conversation” that constitutes “the mind.” It is noteworthy that we have two separate vocabularies for introspective events and physiological events. I know what a funny thought is. I don’t know what a funny neurochemical event is. (Maybe I have a poor sense of humor.)

There may have been a better way to wrap up the discussion. I could have asked, “Do you mean to tell me that there is no such thing as purposive behavior?” Maybe that’s too subtle, but obviously it would be self-contradictory to reply, “That’s what I mean.” What does it mean for a person to mean something? Purpose and intention are affirmed in the very act of communicating a denial of them. Thus, as Ayn Rand and others have noted, such things are self-evident. The concept “proof” presupposes them.

Purpose Is Pervasive

Each of us has evidence of purpose every moment of our waking lives—through introspection. Countless times a day we say to ourselves, “I will do such and such” and then we do it (or try).

But the modern neuroscientist disregards this evidence. Why? Precisely because it is introspective and hence branded “unscientific.” This is where scientists show that they are as capable as anyone else of being unscientific. There is no reason, a priori, to rule out introspection as a source of valid information. To do so is arbitrary.

The pop materialists create a filter out of the methods of physics and chemistry, then arbitrarily dismiss anything that cannot get through their filter. Biochemical processes make it through. Thought, will, intention, and purpose do not. Thus they are ignored. It’s the most egregious act of question-begging (assuming that which is at issue) I can think of.

This is not science or reason. It is scientism, the application of the methods of the hard sciences to matters where those methods are inappropriate. Mises and F. A. Hayek argued vigorously that studying the world external to consciousness (including the human body) is different from studying the foundations of human action. When we study the movement of planets or molecules, we are outsiders, recording data, discovering the nature of entities, and looking for regularities, causes, and effects. But we observe human action as insiders. From our own internal experience we know what human action consists of. We know directly what it means to think, to will, to choose, to prefer, to attend to, to mind. Following Szasz, I’ve used verbs, not nouns, because they are actions not possessions. That’s the answer to those who wonder where the mind is located. (See Szasz, The Meaning of Mind,1996.)

Why does this matter in a magazine called [The Freeman:] Ideas on Liberty? There should be no mystery. If mind is brain, there is no “psychological” freedom or responsibility—no humanity. And if those don’t exist, there can be no political freedom or self-responsibility. What does not exist cannot be violated.

The freedom philosophy presupposes human action and all that it entails, including self-responsibility. The hard sciences are great human achievements, but for the sake of liberty, they must not be permitted to overstep their bounds.

* Antony Flew, A Dictionary of Philosophy, rev. 2d ed. (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1984), p. 109. An alternative view is interactionism, “according to which physical events can cause mental events, and vice versa” (p. 175).

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December 2002

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SHELDON RICHMAN

Sheldon Richman is the former editor of The Freeman and TheFreemanOnline.org, and a contributor to The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. He is the author of Separating School and State: How to Liberate America's Families.

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