The problem of individual experience

Another re-post from comments I’ve made elsewhere.
For some reason, Jerry Coyne’s brief remarks on E. O. Wilson’s recent restatement of his own physicalist/ determinist position on free will (which left Coyne unimpressed) piqued my interest on a debate that I have little interest in. It is not clear how strict determinism can be experienced by the individual, so the very relevance of whether it is true or not appears to be questionable.
To emphasize the issues involved, I include two comments I made in response to an essay by Robert Nola on Massimo Pigliucci’s webzine, Scientia Salon. The first remark is actually an excerpt from the comment I made directly to Dr. Nola’s article, the rest of the comment doesn’t relate to what I am discussing here. The second comment is the full reply to a remark Coel made in reply to my original post. The problem noted in both remarks is that human experience is, well, to put it bluntly, a mess. The way we understand human experience is by parceling out the organism’s parts and various parts of his or her contexts and histories, either through the natural sciences or the social science. But for ethics this won’t do. One reason has to do with politics, but I won’t discuss that here – except to note that the ‘fault free’ justice system that strict determinists seem to be advocating for (see, for example “The Lucretian swerve: The biological basis of human behavior and the criminal justice system” by Anthony R. Cashmore, is not likely to receive many votes in this country for a long time to come. But the other is that ethics, to be practicable as an argument for human behavior has to appeal to the individual, and a top-down scientific or social analysis won’t get us there. (Which is why, outside of psychotherapy, social scientists focus their ethical arguments on persuading legislatures that certain laws, regulations, and agencies can ultimately reduce costs to the state.)
But now I am already digressing into another discussion. (I’ll make a final comment at the end.)

Here is the comment on Coyne’s article (

I have largely ignored the free will/determinism debate because it is empirically unverifiable – and I don’t mean for science, or philosophy, but for the individual.
My own understanding of consciousness and the self is social constructionist, and basically I think the ‘self’ is an organizing principle for the organism’s effort to maintain a sense of coherence and stability in confronting the mass of sensory and internal events that occur at every moment. So for me, if science definitively proves a physicalist determinism, it wouldn’t bother me much.
But it took considerable study and training to get to this point. Most individuals experience life and the world in a manner that seems to necessitate and emphasize their uniqueness and demand their ability to navigate by way of choice and decision making. So it is actually quite difficult for them to test a determinist hypothesis, all the evidence of their experience seems to confirm a stable self that has free will. I may be mistaken, but right now it seems strict physicalist determinism has no persuasive counter-argument (for the individual), beyond reference to scientific data and evidence-supported theory (i.e., a generalized knowledge that accounts for individual experience from outside, and not from within the individual’s experience itself.)
For now, as a social constructionist, and having the knowledge that consciousness is biologically developed, I can deploy ethical arguments for individual behavior that still respect individual experience. (“Is that you talking or your friends?” “You may have genetic tendencies to do that, but you have other dispositions to do otherwise” – as simplistic examples.) I don’t think strict physicalist determinism gets us near that yet. And yet the individual – and what he/she does, or thinks he/she is doing – that is the real story here.
Can physicalist determinism account for individual experience and ethical behavior? I don’t have the answer, but I think that’s the real question.

From my response to Robert Nola’s article arguing for the primacy of scientific knowing, a remark basically suggesting that living with someone is in fact a way of knowing the other person (
But consider this: some form of courtship/marriage occurs in all cultures; but the actual structures of the marriage relationship vary widely. But these structures do not necessarily lead to a “happy” marriage (depending on how a given culture defines such). How does one learn how to live intimately with another person whom, despite all professions to the contrary, one doesn’t really know very well at the outset? The answer should be obvious – the couple live together and learn each other as they go along, dealing with misunderstandings and conflicts as they arise. Or they don’t, and divorce. (Or in some cultures, they learn to live together without intimacy.) That is a way of knowing, and it is not scientific, because it isn’t even “common sense” in Quinean terms. It is simply experience, involving nuances of disposition, verbal and non-verbal communication, empathy and emotional relatedness, erratic chance events, catastrophes and what one may call ‘ordinary miracles’ (e.g., the birth of a child) that cannoto be hypothesized or tested beforehand. (We don’t get to ‘experiment’ having a child.)

And my response to Coel’s reply, wherein he remarks:
“If we knew everything about your genes and about the environment in which you developed and lived, then likely we would be able to give a straightforward scientific explanation of your aesthetic preferences.”

I call this the ‘god argument,’ since what it implies is that ‘once we attain (god-like) knowledge of everything, all our questions will be answered.’ This argument appears in a number of philosophies and ideologies, including some religions. My favorite such argument is Hegel’s Phenomenology of Mind (through the crucible of the dialectic we attain Absolute Knowledge), because Hegel implies that the science and philosophy of his day had already achieved this. He thought the historical process of discovery, debate, synthesis, as well as development of new interests to explore, was completed. He was wrong.
I know you’re not arguing that history is over and there is no new knowledge to acquire. But that was only the proof of Hegel’s real problem. The god argument itself is wrong, because we are historically and empirically contingent knowers. Even if I granted your claim (and I don’t), the explanation you could give for my aesthetic preferences could very well be right today and wrong tomorrow, dependent largely on contingencies your explanation couldn’t predict. Some of the possible changes could have scientific explanation – e.g., alterations in neurotransmitters in the brain. But others would not – e.g., hearing that a loved one died while listening to a certain song. How that would change my response to the song would depend on a number of factors, having to do with previous experience, previous value choices, contextual relationships (e.g, whether I like my loved one’s family, and cultural codes of showing them sympathy; mutual friends we had and my perceived responsibilities to these; not to mention issues concerning children if there are any involved), as well as dealing with whatever emotions (or other internal responses) I would be feeling (also partly culturally coded); and there would obviously be practical matters to take care of, e.g., going to the hospital, and so on.
Sorry for the run on sentence! But such listings of possible issues to confront in a moment of crisis do all finally form the whole of the experience.
And yes, if all of these contingencies could be accounted for, then how I would afterwards respond to the song I was listening to at the time could be fully explained – possibly scientifically, or perhaps, per Hegel, dialectically.
But only a god could know all this about me; and I don’t believe in god.

FINAL NOTE: I’m not sure why I felt strongly that these three remarks from other posts need to be read together – perhaps this only for myself; or perhaps I will synthesize the comments into a complete argument in the future. We shall see….


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