In the novel, Jack runs into this discussion initially with Ivana and Vladimir. Subsequently, the discussion arises again with other encounters. No true attempt at understanding our place in the world can avoid this entanglement. It is a vast area to cover, and I suspect this will need to be addressed again in further posts.
The discussion with Vladimir opens up with the idea of causality, that we can find an answer to the present situation (in the novel, the stage is the half-built houses in Ciruena), prompting the question whether we ourselves are equally a product of our past. That is to say, if our thoughts are equivalent to our brain, and our brain is equivalent to the atoms and synaptic events in our brain, then we can see our thoughts in terms of input and output. We are not masters of that material, (neither at the start of our existence as this is dependent on our DNA, nor throughout our lives as we are a result of our environment and culture), and therefore we are determined. Determined, Biologically, Culturally, Psychologically or via Behaviourism.
Not predestined, however. That is a related but different story.
It is an attractive theory, I can see that if I drink a cup of coffee, or something stronger, it causes an effect upon me, it can change the way I think. Input – output. It is simple:
Ivan Pavlov, Russian (hence why Ivana and Vladimir are Russian in the novel) gave us the theory of classical conditioning. B. F. Skinner, through operant conditioning, births the idea that we can control animals and humans. Input – output. The brain will learn through re-enforcement and repetition.
Freud, proposed the idea of the sub-conscious, our conscious mind is not in control, rather we are controlled by unseen forces that we cannot see.
Can we see what you are thinking? Perhaps, if your mind is calibrated when it sees an object, then we would know what you are thinking if we saw the same areas of activity in your brain if it was being scanned at the time. Thoughts are things then? They have a physical presence in the brain. Our thoughts can be reduced to atoms?
Richard Dawkins states that we are the product of our genes, our evolutionary past. Through millions of years of adaptation to best find an advantage in our environments, we are merely the result of that process.
The ‘I’ is therefore an illusion. It is a useful mis-concept that allows us to persevere, to think we are important, it is merely a by-product of our brain. We could, still survive, act, without consciousness. We do it, more or less, when we are on auto-pilot, whilst driving a car, you can have thoughts but no will or consciousness of the driving itself.
So where is the ‘You’ in all of this?
‘Are you an illusion?’ is the title of Mary Midgley’s book. I believe her to be one of the most profound philosophers of the twentieth century, far more important, time will show, than the more popular philosophers such as Richard Dawkins (who has little by the way of serious philosophy only strident assertions) and the more established philosophers such as A J Ayer and Wittgenstein. She rightly asserts that the key to understanding all debates is a right view on what human nature is. Hence ‘Midgie’ attempts to explain this view on human nature.
And that view is simply this. The reductionist, material monist, evolutionary view fails.
It fails because it is not a useful explanation of what human beings are.
That is not because evolutionary theory, or behaviourism, or theories of the sub-conscious are not true.
Primarily we are will, and that will can overcome our conditioning.
We need to be fully aware of that background, that context of how we are built, but we are not chained by that.
We can change our mind…and we can still do good and evil.
And once we realise that our choices have significance, we can be truly good again….and truly human.