The Dangers for Education of Inadequate Philosophy

The mind is much more than grey matter.

The mind is much more than grey matter.

I’m not trained in philosophy, any more than Tom Bennett could claim to be a professional social scientist. But just as Bennett gets involved in social science, so I find I must get involved in philosophy, because prevalent theories are having a disastrous impact on the world of education. Influenced by these theories, there are many nowadays who think that materialism can be justified by statements such as ‘Evidence suggests that ‘conscience’ and ‘consciousness’ and other mental processes are products of human brain activity’.

But this sort of statement doesn’t explain what something is, only how it is manifested in the material realm. It mistakes symptoms for the cause. Understanding is always about finding the cause. What causes the brain activity? A human person with freedom and a conscience.

Consider a criminal case. The judge pronounces that the crime was the result of brain activity which led to muscular activity which thrust the knife into the victim. But what caused this activity? A person. And what is a person? Someone with a conscience. Dogs aren’t put on trial.

Perhaps we should stop holding human beings responsible for their actions? After all, what they did is only the result of ‘brain activity’. And how can any value judgement be made about that? How can someone be tried for a set of neural events?

Indeed, we have reached the stage where many do not hold others responsible for their actions, at least in theory. Their materialistic determinism leads them to ‘explain’ actions in psychological or social or (insert favourite flavour of determinism) terms. But this doesn’t explain anything, because it leaves out the person. It removes humanity because it removes conscience and freedom. All humanity is excused because humanity, it turns out, does not exist.

Such people are likely to drop their deterministic theories rather quickly, however, if a crime is committed against them. Then they suddenly start believing in the existence of responsible human beings. They also rather like responsibility when it comes to accepting praise for their achievements. If they win the Nobel prize, will they reject it, and point out that their work was only the result of psychological and social determinants?

Unfortunately, whatever the inadequacies of deterministic theories, they have had a wide impact on education, crippling teachers’ ability to do their job. Teachers must believe in human freedom, conscience and responsibility if they are to maintain good order and demand hard work from their pupils. Determinism only leads to a culture of excuses. ‘We can never cease to be ourselves’, wrote Joseph Conrad is his brilliant but utterly depressing The Secret Agent. If that’s true, we might as well give up our efforts to inculcate good habits in our pupils.

Education and law must work on the basis that there is such a thing as a human person with responsibility and freedom. Even the most materialist of scientists cannot live according to his theory, because he would have to give up the protection of law and even the intellectual copyright on his research. Materialistic determinism is worse than useless as a theory for understanding humanity. To those who would like to convert the world to this way of thinking, may I remind them of the famous comment made by an American officer during the Vietnam War: “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.”

(Image from Wikimedia).


14 thoughts on “The Dangers for Education of Inadequate Philosophy

  1. As the person who wrote the dread phrase ‘Evidence suggests that ‘conscience’ and ‘consciousness’ and other mental processes are products of human brain activity’ I have to say that I don’t agree that it is symptomatic of an inadequate philosophy.

    Firstly, a materialist (or a proponent of methodological naturalism) is not necessarily a determinist. The behaviour of even a small group of particles is most definitely non-deterministic in the sense of not being perfectly predictable in even a theoretical sense, and more complex systems even less so.

    Secondly, materialism does not deny the existence of mind or humanity, simply that they arise out of physical processes. We know that even simple rules of interaction can give rise to complex, emergent properties.

    You claim that materialist explanations only address manifestations “in the material realm.” And yet, all that we reliably know or know of is situated in that same material realm. I say that we have no evidence of any “supermaterial” realm and I find Gilbert Ryle’s arguments against the “Ghost in the Machine” compelling in this regard.


    • We know of many things that are not situated in the material realm, such as human personality and conscience.

      I say you are reducing everything to matter, and that annihilates humanity. You say we only know what is material. You still have not explained why that does not make knowledge and understanding of humanity impossible.


      • Is there any evidence that minds are possible without brains? I believe that your thinking is falling prey to the Fallacy of Composition:. you are inferring that if something is true of the parts (i.e. that neurons are not concsious) then it must be true of the whole (i.e. a large number of neurons cannot be conscious). Although rhetorically persuasive, it ignores the role of emergent properties (large groups of simple agents can produce complex behaviours). As such, it leads to the cul-de-sac of magical thinking where events are linked not by logic, reason or evidence but simply by an appeal to the supernatural. And there I stand, I can do no other…


      • There is a difference between complexity and freedom. Animal behaviour can be complex. Human actions are freely chosen. You are right that neurons are not conscious. They are the agents of consciousness, which is not a part of them but something separate and non-material. There is no other logical explanation for the actual, observable behaviour of human beings.


  2. Agreed, but I see no reason why in principle human free will could not arise as an emergent property from a complex system. That would seem to be a more epistemologically abstemious position (if that’s the correct phrase). Also, surely there is not such a sharp dichotomy between human and animal behaviour as you propose? I would suggest that there is a continuum of behaviours. Certain animals (chimps, elephants, dolphins amongst them) would seem to show behaviours suggesting that they have something at least approximating to free will.


  3. I’m slightly puzzled by this blog post. Yes, it’s true, that if determinism is true, then we have to drop or radically reinterpret many cherished and widely held beliefs about humanity. However, I don’t see how this leads to the conclusion that a) because these conclusions are so radical, or unpalatable for some, that we must reject determinism, or b) that determinism is worse than useless as a theory for understanding humanity. This latter point, seeming only to make sense if one subscribes to a conception of humanity that is in large part akin to Kant’s transcendental self or Sartre’s notion of radical freedom. There are plenty of ways of understanding or thinking about humanity that are not dependent on belief in free-will. See for example Hobbes, Spinoza, Nietzsche and many Buddhist scholars, who have rejected free-will and still quite happily make interesting claims about what it is to be human. Also, while we’re at it could you offer an argument in support of your claim that brain activity is the symptom of human freedom and a conscience, and not that human freedom and a conscience is an illusion caused by brain activity? And finally, I can’t help but think that telling people that they are animals is a wonderful strategy for promoting civilisation as a) it is a scientific fact, and I don’t think any civilisation should be afraid of embracing the truth, and b) it might make us think twice about the terrible harm and death, we have, and continue to inflict upon those animals on the planet who just don’t happen to be a member of our particular species.


  4. Hi – this is getting old now, but saw E=MC2’s recent post trying to rebut this, so a couple of comments of my own for what it’s worth…!

    Firstly – in incarcerating a human, our punishment system has 4 elements to it: deterrence, prevention of further misdeeds, education/reformation, and finally, retribution. If we did away with all notions of free will, then it is only the last aspect which would no longer make sense.

    Secondly, my personal belief is that it isn’t necessarily ‘free will’ which can allow me to transform my life – it is my BELIEF in my free will. What I mean by that is that, if part of the ‘programming’ of my brain includes a belief in my power to deliberate, decide and act in accordance with my concious experience (whatever that might in actuality be), then I will act differently to if I believe that my actions are ultimately predestined, and consciousness can simply watch what happens. This first belief seems to be the default setting for the human mind, which perhaps has been key to our success as a species, but if humans were to be educated out of a belief in ‘free will’ (which to be fair is a non-rational paradox which can only be supported through experiential evidence), and consequently out of a belief in our ‘agency’ and into a feeling of impotence and fatalism… then what would be the long term knock-on for society…?

    Our belief that we can choose to change our circumstances can produce remarkable turn-arounds and developments in peoples lives. Societally acting as if we have free will produces huge individual and systemic achievements which just wouldn’t happen otherwise. Actually, I don’t even have to believe that I have free will – I simply need to realise that my self-conscious, self-referential ability to cognitively choose appears able to turn corners. I suppose you could even say that my sense of ‘I’ is exactly as real as my ‘free will’. Both may be illusions, but they can transform my physical actions. Mens agitat molem…

    Thanks for the chance to reflect on this – I love this stuff!


Thoughtful and reasonable discussion is always welcome.

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