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.”