Arguments for compatibilism (2): a detective’s testimony

Alas, poor Flintcraft, I knew him, Brigid!

Alas, poor Flintcraft, I knew him, Brigid!

Undoubtedly, one of the most important reasons I am a compatibilist determinist, rather than an incompatibilist, determinist, because incompatibilism does not have an adequate account of chance that opens the door to major changes in our lives (and of course ‘free will’ theory cannot adequately account for the continuities through change).

One such story that indicates some of the problems that the dance between the determined and the unpredictable generates for us can be found in one legend of the Buddha’s enlightenment experience, which one I narrated thus:

“One story of the Buddha’s enlightenment is that, practicing Hindu asceticism, he was reaching the point of starving to death, when a tradesman chanced upon him and offered him a rice cake. Without thinking, he took it and ate it. Since this violated his ascetic vows, he struggled with what this revealed about the nature of human being and the source of its suffering. This led to his awakening, and the Four Noble Truths.

The point is, as an ascetic, the Buddha had reached the point of negating absolutely every human value, even that of his own life. But this couldn’t possibly be the path, and his body let him know it – the body, not the mind, sustained itself in eating the rice cake. And the tradesman had shown compassion in providing him with it – how could that not be a good?” [1]

Notice that the Buddha’s eating the rice cake was a moment of biological determinism expressing itself. And the Buddha recognized this. But he didn’t fight in or feel guilty about it or become a hedonist to wallow in it. He let the moment speak to him, and thus acquired insight. This led to, not only a change in life, but a program for changing lives, the Eightfold Path. This path, when followed, becomes habituated behavior, which is precisely what it is designed for. Insight similar to the Buddha’s is hoped for by many who follow the path; but the essential purpose to it is reducing suffering.

But to some, such a story seems fraught with problems, having to do with the uncertain nature of such deep insight. So let us approach the matter from a more commonplace story, one which is comfortably within our own culture and near enough to our own time, so that its meaning is relatively clear and easy to grasp.

This is the story told by Dashiell Hammett through one of his most famous fictional characters, private detective Sam Spade, in novel The Maltese Falcon. Sam Spade and Brigid O’Shaughnessy are waiting for a phone call, when out of the blue, for no apparent reason, Spade relates the story of his search for a missing man, who is discovered to have gone off to live a different life under a new name.

One of the things I like about this story is that it has nothing to do with anything that has come before in the novel, and nothing to do with anything that follows. Hammett remarks that O’Shaughnessy’s initial interest in the story is finding out why Spade wants to tell it to her, but that’s never revealed. The story thus instances its own theme of random occurrence within a continuity.

From: The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammett, Chapter VII. “ G in the Air”

Spade sat down in the armchair beside the table and without any preliminary, without an introductory remark of any sort, began to tell the girl about a thing that had happened some years before in the Northwest. He talked in a steady matter-of-fact voice that was devoid of emphasis or pauses, though now and then he repeated a sentence slightly rearranged, as if it were important that each detail be related exactly as it had happened.

At the beginning Brigid O’Shaughnessy listened with only partial attentiveness, obviously more surprised by his telling the story than interested in it, her curiosity more engaged with his purpose in telling the story than with the story he told; but presently, as the story went on, it caught her more and more fully and she became still and receptive.

A man named Flitcraft had left his real-estate-office, in Tacoma, to go to luncheon one day and had never returned. He did not keep an engagement to play golf after four that afternoon, though he had taken the initiative in making the engagement less than half an hour before he went out to luncheon. His wife and children never saw him again. His wife and he were supposed to be on the best of terms. He had two children, boys, one five and the other three. He owned his house in a Tacoma suburb, a new Packard, and the rest of the appurtenances of successful American living. Flitcraft had inherited seventy thousand dollars from his father, and, with his success in real estate, was worth something in the neighborhood of two hundred thousand dollars at the time he vanished. His affairs were in order, though there were enough loose ends to indicate that he had not been setting them in order preparatory to vanishing. A deal that would have brought him an attractive profit, for instance, was to have been concluded the day after the one on which he disappeared. There was nothing to suggest that he had more than fifty or sixty dollars in his immediate possession at the time of his going. His habits for months past could be accounted for too thoroughly to justify any suspicion of secret vices, or even of another woman in his life, though either was barely possible.

“He went like that,” Spade said, “like a fist when you open your hand.”
“Well, that was in 1922. In 1927 I was with one of the big detective agencies in Seattle. Mrs. Flitcraft came in and told us somebody had seen a man in Spokane who looked a lot like her husband. I went over there. It was Flitcraft, all right. He had been living in Spokane for a couple of years as Charles–that was his first name–Pierce. He had an automobile-business that was netting him twenty or twenty-five thousand a year, a wife, a baby son, owned his home in a Spokane suburb, and usually got away to play golf after four in the afternoon during the season.”

Spade had not been told very definitely what to do when he found Flitcraft. They talked in Spade’s room at the Davenport. Flitcraft had no feeling of guilt. He had left his first family well provided for, and what he had done seemed to him perfectly reasonable. The only thing that bothered him was a doubt that he could make that reasonableness clear to Spade. He had never told anybody his story before, and thus had not had to attempt to make its reasonableness explicit. He tried now. “I got it all right,” Spade told Brigid O’Shaughnessy, “but Mrs. Flitcraft never did. She thought it was silly. May be it was. Anyway, it came out all right. She didn’t want any scandal, and, after the trick he had played on her–the way she looked at it–she didn’t want him. So they were divorced on the quiet and everything was swell all around.”

“Here’s what had happened to him. Going to lunch he passed an office-building that was being put up–just the skeleton. A beam or something fell eight or ten stories down and smacked the sidewalk alongside him. It brushed pretty close to him, but didn’t touch him, though a piece of the sidewalk was chipped off and flew up and hit his cheek. It only took a piece of skin off, but he still had time scar when I saw him. He rubbed it with his finger–well, affectionately–when he told me about it. He was scared stiff of course, he said, but he was more shocked than really frightened He felt like somebody had taken the lid off life and let him look at the works.”

Flitcraft had been a good citizen amid a good husband and father, not by any outer compulsion, but simply because he was a man who was most comfortable in step with his surroundings. He had been raised that way. The people he knew were like that. The life he knew was a clean orderly sane responsible affair. Now a falling beam had shown him that life was fundamentally none of these things. He, the good citizen-husband-father, could be wiped out between office and restaurant by the accident of a falling beam. He knew then that men died at haphazard like that, and lived only while blind chance spared them. It was not, primarily, the injustice of it that disturbed him: he accepted that after the first shock. What disturbed him was the discovery that in sensibly ordering his affairs he had got out of step, and not into step, with life. He said he knew before he had gone twenty feet from the fallen beam that he would never know peace again until he had adjusted himself to this new glimpse of life. By the time he had eaten his luncheon he had found his means of adjustment. Life could be ended for him at random by a falling beam: he would change his life at random by simply going away. He loved his family, he said, as much as he supposed was usual, but he knew he was leaving them adequately provided for, and his love for them was not of the sort that would make absence painful.

“He went to Seattle that afternoon,” Spade said, “and from there by boat to San Francisco. For a couple of years he wandered around and then drifted back to the Northwest, and settled in Spokane and got married. His second wife didn’t look like the first, but they were more alike than they were different. You know, the kind of women that play fair games of golf and bridge and like new salad recipes. He wasn’t sorry for what he had done. It seemed reasonable enough to him. I don’t think he even knew he had settled back naturally into the same groove he had jumped out of in Tacoma. But that’s the part of it I always liked. He adjusted himself to beams falling, and then no more of them fell, and he adjusted himself to them not falling.” [2]

As my final comment on this, for now: The question arises, did Flintcraft achieve any insight through his experience? Is it necessary that he should?

“The law of habit exhibits a striking contrast to all physical laws in the character of its commands. A physical law is absolute. What it requires is an exact relation. Thus, a physical force introduces into a motion a component motion to be combined with the rest by the parallelogram of forces; but the component motion must actually take place exactly as required by the law of force. On the other hand, no exact conformity is required by the mental law. Nay, exact conformity would be in downright conflict with the law ; since it would instantly crystallise thought and prevent all further formation of habit. The law of mind only makes a given feeling more likely to arise. It thus resembles the “non-conservative” forces of physics, such as viscosity and the like, which are due to statistical uniformities in the chance encounters of trillions of molecules.” – Charles Sanders Peirce [3]

[3] “The Architecture of Theories” (1891)


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