Erisology of Self and Will, Part 2: Representative Campbell Speaks

This is the 2nd part of a series adapted from my 2009 Bachelor’s Thesis in philosophy.

Part 1 introduced the series and its premise: there are two ways to look at the self — a scientific way and a traditional way — and transferring statements from one to the other has weird effects.

Here in part 2 I’ll describe the traditional view, using the philosopher C.A. Campbell as a representative.

I’ve picked Charles Arthur Campbell of the University of Glasgow to represent the popular and intuitive image of the self and will. As a source for his opinions on the matter I’ve used a collection of essays titled On Selfhood and Godhood. As the title suggests, Campbell has a supernaturalist streak[1], which is no problem considering what he’s meant to represent. While our modern society is often a bit uncomfortable with outright, full-on supernaturalism we still carry it with us just below the surface, especially when it comes to the mind.

Other figures could have been used. Of the modern defenders of the metaphysically free will and its mysterious source (the non-causal self), Roderick Chisholm is perhaps the most known and if we go further back, Thomas Reid and ultimately Descartes stands out. Instead I chose Campbell because he sketches the intuitive picture of the self in a detailed and clear manner, avoiding obscurantism except where it’s absolutely necessary. His conscientiousness and relative recency also makes it easier to note how difficult his enterprise is; centuries of critique and philosophical refinement has enabled him to give a more relevant account than, say, Descartes. Campbell is no idiot, he knows about the problems and tries to confront them, which brings out the details.

Traditionally, any philosophy about the self has been heavily influenced by the interminable debate on free will, and that’s often framed as the free will vs. determinism question. This framing means that two opposing positions are considered to be in play: either everything in the universe is determined by the laws of physics and therefore our actions are as well, or, our actions are not determined and our wills are “free” in a metaphysical sense.

Philosophers’ positions are typically labeled according to how they address this supposed dichotomy. Libertarians[2] assert that our wills are free and if that puts them on a collision course with determinism, then so much the worse for determinism. Campbell holds this view.

Opposing them are the “hard determinists”. They deny the freedom of the will because of its conflict with determinism. Now, I’d say they aren’t as “opposite” as they appear, since both libertarians and hard determinists accept the same definition of free will and therefore at least agree on the terms of the debate, they just come to different conclusions.

The third major position has been called compatibilism, meaning that free will and determinism are compatible, (libertarians and hard determinists are considered incompatibilists). This necessarily means that compatibilists refer to something slightly different when they talk about “free will” than incompatibilists do. More on that later.

I should come clean with what I think before I go any further. If I must pick among these labels I’m a reluctant compatibilist. The reason I prefer not to pick is that the label defines the position in terms of its relation to the traditional dichotomy. Using it legitimizes that formulation of the problem — and thereby tacitly agrees that determinism vs. indeterminism in physics somehow matters for the free will problem. And I don’t think it does, at all.

Campbell’s purpose is saving moral agency, and he proposes a strict division in the mind between “desires” and the rational self. Consistent use of the word “duty” when referring to morally correct actions suggests a Kant-inspired sense of ethics. This isn’t necessarily the prevailing view today, but the more general idea of moral duty — that there can be a right thing to do that’s contrary to one’s desire is alive and well. An adversarial relationship between reason and desires (which I think is more confusing than illuminating) is also a staple of mind-related discourse today just as yesterday.

Campbell’s conception of where and when free will comes into play is limited in scope. He sees that in most cases simple determinism makes sense, and since most choices are not moral choices (they aren’t about whether to act morally or not) he admits that choices are determined by your personality, your character. This can be admitted fairly easily because it doesn’t challenge his religiously[3] inspired notion of moral responsibility, I think. It does make his refusal to accept the same in moral situations seem all the more desperate. He says:

Now in all those practical cases—and they comprise perhaps 99 per cent of the choices in most men’s lives—in which there is no felt conflict of duty with desire, it seems clear that the determinant of choice can only be the agent’s strongest desire. But if that is the case, then since it is a man’s formed character that determines what his strongest desire will be, it is entirely comformable with acceptance of the distinction of self and character to hold that, overby far the greater part of the practical life, it is a man’s character that determines his choices. /—/

On the other hand, this should not be supposed to entail that in the ordinary run of choices man is subject to a merely external determination. For a man’s desires is not something external to his self. His ‘strongest desire’ at any moment is the expression, in relation to the given situation, of that developing, but relatively stable and relatively systematic, complex of conative and emotive tendencies which we call his character.

So in a large majority of cases, Campbell doesn’t think that being determined makes one unfree. He does require that a “formal act of self-identification” occurs with one desire which then dictates behavior.

What he says here diverges a bit from what he says in other parts of the book, where desires are not seen as part of the actual agent. He says that the core of his libertarian view is that “nothing can determine an act save the agent’s doing of it” and says quite clearly (see below) that this also disqualifies character traits as determinants. This must mean that he means different things by the terms “self” and “agent”, where self includes character and personality but agent doesn’t.

I think this is a fair representation of how decision-making is understood by most people, namely that choices are determined by “desires” (character, personality) unless they are of a serious moral nature. But when it does come to important moral choices we must be Responsible for — which Campbell defines as choices about whether to follow our strongest desire or do our duty in the cases where these are in conflict — the decision is up to the non-determined “agent”.

In short, Campbell’s agent rubber stamps any non-moral choices by “the character” as a matter of course, but can intervene in case the choice is of a moral nature. This is much like a CEO allowing things to happen in a corporation of robotic underlings, accepting responsibility in the process because as the only one capable of making moral choices s/he is the only one who can be responsible[4].

A man’s strongest desire at any moment may in fact be regarded as a function of his character in relation to the given situation. But if that is so, moral decision cannot be experienced by the agent as flowing from his character. For it is of the very essence of the moral decision as experienced that it is a decision whether or not to combat his strongest desire, and hence to oppose his formed character; and presumably strongest desire or formed character cannot find expression in the decision whether or not to fight against itself. The self-activity of moral decision, then, as experienced differ very significantly from the self-activity of ordinary choices in virtue of the fact that while in both cases it is the self that is active, in the former case it is not the self merely qua formed character that acts, but the self as somehow transcending its own character.

This is necessary (or, should I say, Campbell and others with him believe it to be necessary) to salvage moral responsibility. One could tear down this edifice simply by construing the willingness to be moral as a desire like others, turning the autocratic corporation into a deliberative democracy. From a religious perspective this raises the question of what we really mean with a moral act in an absolute sense. Are we even being moral if we do good deeds because we want to? Because we like being and doing good, duty or no duty?

Campbell obviously doesn’t want to explore this, but the apparent fact that it would be easy to do sends a strong signal that Campbell’s “agent” that can transcend the self’s character isn’t actually necessary, and only posited because he wants to construe choice so that it is consistent with the idea of sin.

It’s standard practice to say that for a person to be responsible for their actions, their will must be “free”. Most often this is interpreted as free from causation, which I think is a confusion that I will return to later on. He expresses this as:

It is the simple point that the act must be one of which the person judged can be regarded as the sole author. It seems plain enough that if there are any other determinants of the act, external to the self, to that extent that the act is not an act which the self determines, and to that extent not an act for which the self can be held morally responsible.

Campbell describes this point as uncomfortable. He says that many are not really being earnest when it comes to this — that responsibility requires the absence of determinants external to the self[5]. This compels him to fashion some form of choice by non-causation. His approach is to work backwards, by assuming that moral responsibility (as he sees it) is a real thing, establish what human decision-making must be like for that to be true, and then cook up a scenario that is supposed to achieve it.

When he describes what human decision-making must be like, it’s defined by what it isn’t rather than by what it is. It can’t be a deterministic process, because our sense of people’s culpability tends to melt away when being told about the causation involved.

That this is so we all of us recognize in our moral judgments when we ‘make allowances’, as we say, for a bad heredity or a vicious environment, and acknowledge in the victim of them adiminished moral responsibility for evil courses.

It also can’t be random, since a person can’t be responsible for something that isn’t of their doing, obviously. This forces Campbell and others like him to conceive of moral action in a nonsensical mysterious way that is “neither determined nor random”.

I may perhaps be permitted to throw out, in passing, the suggestion that the difficulty—in one sense the impossibility—of understanding anything that is genuinely creative. If an act is creative, then nothing can determine it save the agent’s doing of it. Hence we ought not to expect to ‘understand’ it, in the sense of seeing how it follows from determinate elements of the self’s character; for then it would just not be a ‘creative’ act.

As said, I believe Campbell’s view to be a good representation of beliefs many people hold subconsciously, which only reveal themselves indirectly. Making explicit one’s opinion on this matter is a subtle and difficult task that doesn’t get any easier by all the philosophical baggage one must contend with and all the psychological and cultural commitments that come in play. Most people stop their probing far earlier than Campbell and don’t reach the peculiar and incomprehensible terminus that he does. Of course, those explicitly committed to supernaturalism might go “all the way” so to speak since incomprehensibility might not be considered a weakness.

In fact, there’s a hint of the opposite in Campbell’s talk about our incapability of understanding something “genuinely creative”. His use of words makes me think that he wants us to see these nondetermined, non-random acts as something “higher” which we mere humans are beneath understanding. Such a piece of underhanded sophistry should be beneath him, since even though many deep things are difficult to comprehend, incomprehensibility does not in itself imply depth. His “creative acts” are fleshed out no more than “that which isn’t determined nor random”, whatever that’s supposed to be. It isn’t complicated and difficult, it’s just nothing.

Campbell accuses his critics of begging the question when they disallow this supposedly meaningful action appearing from a dimensionless point. Of course, he says, it’s going to appear incomprehensible if you define comprehensibility as hinging on following understandably from causes.

Instead their comprehensibility is purely subjective. He admits that these acts are meaningful only because they are perceived as meaningful from the inside, and that they actually are indistinguishable from randomness when seen from a third person perspective. To me, this is tantamount to agreeing that they really are just randomness, because if they were just random they would likely still feel meaningful from the inside — as our thoughts apparently takes place in the self and not the agent since a point-shaped entity can’t have internal processes.

In what way does a free will indistinguishable from randomness grant us anything we want? Duke University philosopher Owen Flanagan has an answer (not specifically to Campbell, but to those of similar persuasion):

If you were only able to say that the orthodox picture of free will makes no sense from the perspective of the scientific image, you could be rightly accused of begging the question. All you would then be saying would be that what I assume doesn’t permit what you assume. But I am making a stronger claim. Upon examination, the orthodox concept of free will makes no sense in terms of the agenda it sets for itself — to explain rational deliberation and choice.

I’ll call on Owen Flanagan and his book The Problem of the Soul from which this passage is taken a number of times, to illustrate the issues in ways better than I could myself.

To sum up, Campbell’s view ends in incomprehensibility and, at least in my opinion, as a failure in actually establishing a view that gives us any “freedom” in a meaningful sense. I think painting yourself into a corner in such a spectacular fashion is unavoidable if one tries to construe being free as being undetermined, and at the same time wants to resist the idea of meaninglessness that comes from choices not being a function of one’s character and personality. The traditional view among the general population is very similar (I’ll give examples in part 5), and isn’t as obviously absurd only because most non-philosophers don’t go as far in examining their assumptions as Campbell does.


• • •


The first half of Campbell’s book is about the self and will, the second is about God.

Not to be confused with the political meaning of the word “libertarian”, they are unrelated.

Campbell’s idea of what moral choices are appears to follow from the Christian concept of sin. It’s all about temptation and self-control. In contrast, our modern idea of moral questions are more in the vein of “What’s the morally right choice here?” instead of Campbells “Should I act good or bad?”. The model proposed in his book doesn’t seem to conceive of such choices as being moral choices.

This metaphor also reveals the weakness of the model — it glosses over what the CEO:s internal decision process is like. The only way to stop an endless series of questions about the internal structure of the decision-making unit is to posit, as Campbell does, an agent without any kind of internal structure or properties. But then of course, it isn’t anything.

Note that Campbell now uses ”self” in the way he earlier used “agent”. He clearly has trouble deciding whether character traits are internal or external to the self. He says that character traits are not external to the self at one point, and that a free act is one that is determined by nothing but the self, while at the same time disqualifying an act determined by character from being considered free. It’s understandable, however, that he does this. If he were to make a clearer distinction between the self and the agent it would be more obvious that all that makes us us reside in the self and not in the agent, raising the question why it’s needed or desirable to posit the agent at all. It’s funny to see him flip-flop on this point, because I think he is being totally representative of the average person when doing so.

2017 comment: This kind of contortions is typical of the sort of pathological philosophy I criticized in The Good, the True and the Undefined.


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