The Meaning of Life: An interview with Professor A C Grayling – Part 3

Welcome to Part 3 of the Freethinker/Grayling interview. Here, we ask him why religion has stuck around so long, if we could ever be free of superstition, why humanism is good for the world, and if free will could really exist in a purely physical world.

PB: Daniel Dennett talks about it in terms of memetics, but why do you think religion has hung around so long?

ACG: It’s partly because humanity is in a very, very early stage in its history. We tend to think that we’re at the end of a long process but we’re not actually, we’re in a very early stage. But religions become institutionalised and get reinforced by society. You only have to look at something like the time, effort and money that has gone into building cathedrals and mosques and the like to see how deeply institutionalised religion really is in society. This is why a child will believe in God, the Tooth Fairy and Father Christmas until about the age of ten, then give up the tooth fairy and Father Christmas, but keep the deity. After that time, that’s when society reinforces it in the form of adults who take the idea of a deity very seriously.

"Burn the brains. We've no use for them."

...and then try and believe it.

If it weren’t for, in effect, proselytising and brainwashing children in early life, religion would vanish. That is the one major thing that keeps it going. Most children lose it for a while though, during the teenage years when hormones and sex make it rather inconvenient to be religious.

But then later something will happen: failure, grief at a parent dying or divorce, their first child born – a “miraculous” experience – and they go back to these beliefs for a time.

Most religious people don’t really think about their beliefs though. They don’t really believe them either. It’s a kind of con-trick they perform on themselves. What they want to do is believe that they believe. They would like it to be true, so they just act as if it were.

PB: It’s a much more optimistic approach than that of, say, Christopher Hitchens, who reckons that the religious impulse just can’t be rid of. But you say there is hope for humanity? We can be rid of all superstitious thought?

ACG: I’m not sure about superstitions because, in just the same way as someone splats a Rorschach pattern and we see images in the shape, like someone’s face or an event simply because we are narrative seeking creatures. We impose interpretation on things.

Further, we’re very naturally credulous, which is a great evolutionary advantage for very small children who believe everything they’re told. Ghost stories and alien abduction stories, urban myths and conspiracy theories, we Hoover them up with enthusiasm. We love that kind of thing because they’re stories that are easy to understand and which provide alternatives to the dreary truth.

We really have a natural propensity for this, but if we didn’t feed that propensity during childhood, especially with all the gravity and seriousness of grown-up, religious behaviour it might not be so bad. It makes children think, “Well, it’s got to be true because the grown-ups take it so seriously.” If we didn’t do that, it would have a very, very loose grip. If I come to you in adulthood and present you with a story that a three-wheeled car plummeted from the sky, hit the ground and immediately dispersed into its component molecules, or made up some even more incredible and ridiculous story, you would laugh it out of court. But if I told you when you were very young and said, “This is really true and really important, and you’re in serious trouble if you stop believing it or ever turn your back on this” and I frighten you with it, then you’d accept it. It would be a powerful reinforcement.

PB: If we consider humanism to be a good grounding for law and ethics, what is to stop it being corrupted by the same kinds of people that corrupt everything else? What makes humanism better?

ACG: Because it’s not premised on the idea that there is an orthodoxy, that there is one right way of doing things, that some humanists know better than others about what the truth is or how to understand “the great founding texts of humanism”. There’s no “Arch-Humanist”, no bishops of humanism. The point about it is that it is nothing more than a premise. The premise is: our ethics must be derived from our best and most sympathetic understanding of human nature and the human condition, that there’s plenty of room for discussion and negotiation, that we must move with the needs of society and be responsive to what happens in history. Of its very nature it’s about discussion, thinking, reflection, argument, being tolerant of other people’s points of view. It’s not about observing an orthodoxy. It’s not about obeying. It’s not about the submission of your will to the deity. It doesn’t tell you that you’re proud, and therefore in danger of hellfire if you think for yourself. It’s a very different mindset, a different way of thinking about everything.

PB: If we are to agree that the mind is the brain, then it must be held in accordance with deterministic physical laws. Where, then, is free will?

ACG: The free will question is by far the hardest question in metaphysics. All the evidence that is coming out of brain science, neurology and neuro-psychology at the moment tends to push us in the direction of thinking that as a part of the natural world, the brain and what it secretes, that is, consciousness, thought, memory and so on, must be subject to deterministic causal laws. We look as though we’re headed in the determinism direction rather than the free-will direction.

There are several things to think about here. Firstly, we shouldn’t be too simplistic with the problem, to think that what we call the mind is the same as a set of physical events in some structure in the brain, pure and simple.

Identity theory is too simple, and for the following reason. Mental properties are properties of properties. They’re not properties immediately of the brain. They’re outputs of very complex interactions of the brain. The parallel would be to say that the property of a motorcar of being able to be driven from London to Brighton is a property of the combination of the parts of the motorcar. You couldn’t dissemble a motorcar and then expect it to drive to Brighton. It’s got to be organised in the right way, everything has to be in the right relationship so that is can have the property of being able to drive to Brighton. So conscious and mental phenomena are high-level properties, which arise from the relationship of the low-level properties.

Secondly, remember that the mind is not just what the brain does. The mind is also the relationship with other minds and with the environment. Meaning is the relationship between something that you know and things out there in the world to which these things refer and of which they can be true and so on. In the same way, your mind, your experience, your consciousness are only really understandable with regards to the relationship between your mind and the physical and social environment through which you move throughout your life. It’s as if the mind were somehow connected with the outside world. The activity of the brain is responding to information from the outside world, information which is both natural, like light and sound, but also social, like the significance of the noises and marks produced by other people. So when we think about ‘mind’, we’re thinking about something, a full description of which would have to contain more than a description about brain events alone.

Now, what that says about free will, one can’t yet work out. It doesn’t say anything one way or the other. So we have to set against it the following thought: That if there is no such thing as free will, if everything that we do is written into the early history of the universe and is simply an outcome of all the causal occurrences that connect us with 13 billion years ago, then all our thinking about human nature, morality and human life is massively and systematically wrong. It seems very odd when we consider that, that we live with this completely unfounded error theory about other people’s behaviour, their intentions, their choices, how to relate to them, how to predict them, what their character is, we’re just completely wrong about it because they are just, in fact, automata. We think of ourselves and others as agents, but we wouldn’t be, we’d be patients of the causal process.

It’s very hard to accept that as true. It might be true. If science settles that it’s true then we’ve got to accept it. We’d have to think again about reward and punishment, praise and blame, the idea of choice, the idea of changing ourselves through reflection. It’s all just accident, just chemistry.

PB: So as we currently understand the mind/body free-will problem, would you call yourself a compatibilist?

ACG: I think I’m some kind of compatibilist, yes. My own temptation is to think that there is more to this than it seems. Imagine this: there are two people standing at the side of a field. The first person, a physicist, describes the set of events on the field in terms of bodies of a certain mass, velocity, the principles of mechanics, emissions of radiation and so on. The second person, a sociologist, describes the same set of events as a rugby match. In the vocabulary of the sociologist there will be explanatory concepts of a try, a penalty, a fly-half. There won’t be any such concepts in the language of physics. But in the language of sociology there are no such concepts of velocity and radiation. They don’t have a role there.

Accordingly, the vocabulary of brain science and the vocabulary of intentionalistic “folk psychology” are two quite different vocabularies that address two quite different phenomena, and with respect to which we have very different interests. And what we want is to make everything simple, we have a very good, well rounded desire to effect a reduction of a psychological explanation to a physiological or neurological explanation. It’s a sound and scientific impulse. But that doesn’t mean that we won’t find out that high level properties of brain activity are such that different aspects of our conscious life interact with one another in certain ways, as for example, you might have an impulse to bash somebody in the face, but you control yourself. You deliberately think, “I’m not going to do that”, I’m going to control myself. So there was a point when you could genuinely have done either of those two things. If the proposition “Peter could have done A but chose to do B” is literally true in a way that makes the use of the concept “choice” irreducible. If such a proposition could be true then we have free will.

Tomorrow in the final part, we ask Grayling what Eutopia might look like, what lies in store for the future of humanity, where the best philosophy is to be found and whether the right to die should be a legal right.

Previous part


Next Part