Erisology of Self and Will, Part 1: Introduction

When writing the post on my attitude to philosophy I went back to re-read my old Bachelor’s thesis paper from 2009. I was surprised — surprised to see how things I thought I started believing more recently were already there eight years ago. The paper is clearly erisology, six years before the word existed; it deals with the indeterminacy of language and interpretation, misunderstanding as a source of conflict, and confusion between map and territory. All in the context of the debate about free will and the nature of the self.

I thought if I edited it a bit, eased up on the academese and got rid of some of the worst instances of youthful arrogance and pretentiousness, it could be made into a decent series of blog posts. And so I did. While I don’t necessarily endorse every single thought in it now, I think the central point holds.

I’m publishing the series over summer, which gives readers a chance to read something long at a nice, leisurely pace (it also gives me a break from having to write new stuff for a while). This is part 1 out of 7 and acts as a short introduction before the real “meat” starts in part 2. I’ll publish a new part every Friday until August 11 before I pick up my regular, more irregular, posting schedule.

Now have a great summer,

— JN, 2017


2009 AD

Erisology of Self and Will [1]

The question of the nature of the human self and how its process of deliberation and decision-making happens forms an old and important branch of philosophy. While perhaps no one has shaped this discussion more than René Descartes, the frank dualism with which he tried to explain human thought and action is now widely rejected among philosophers, and criticism of his views (from various perspectives) has been common ever since he put them forward.

Actual substance dualism of the Cartesian brand might not be so common in today’s world except among the explicitly religious, but outright rejection of it is certainly not the norm either even among otherwise secular people. Rather, some element of non-materialism or non-causality is thought (to the extent that the issue is thought about at all) to be central to the mind. But neither this mysterious part’s function nor the reason for believing it’s there at all is obvious and its territory is only as large as our ignorance about how the brain works. And now the sciences are in the process of conquering that once vast terra incognita where a supposedly mysterious self has space to act, which is troublesome for a doctrine that relies on our ignorance to survive.

As a result, science — whose progress is bringing the human self into the framework of the natural world — is often met with hostility. Its proclamations are seen as chilling, dehumanizing, as devaluing of human dignity and morality as well as robbing us of our treasured sense of freedom and self determination.

I think this is mistaken, that science is seen as saying things it doesn’t mean. I also think this mistake has serious consequences and needs to be corrected. The first step is to make the mistake, its causes and its effects explicit, which is the purpose of this paper.


I start with establishing two different conceptions of what the human self is and how the will operates. The first is tacitly assumed in most societies, and will be explained with the help of the philosopher Charles Arthur Campbell. This view, I’ll claim, is incoherent, illustrating an uncomfortable truth about our everyday conception of agency. The other image is more of a sketch, inspired by the methodological and by extension metaphysical underpinnings of natural science.

The paper continues with a short description of some contemporary scientific disciplines with bearing on the human mind, followed by a more detailed discussion of how the results produced by these sciences are interpreted from the two perspectives, and how they fall victim to a sort of paradigmatic incommensurability regarding their meaning.

Following this I’ll try to show that Campbell’s view actually is common in today’s western societies. Or more accurately, that it is implicitly assumed rather than explicitly worked out in detail like Campbell’s own. For this I’ll use casual conversation found on the internet. I try to extract the underlying assumptions behinds these texts, revealing the “quasi-Campbellian” views of the people behind them, and discuss how this may lead to hostility towards mind-sciences because of how statements coming from them are misinterpreted.

After this, the scope will expand to discussion of the reasons why Campbellian ideas endure both in society in general and in parts of the philosophical community; and why a scientifically inspired image popular among materialist philosophers like Daniel Dennett or Patricia Churchland can be so hard to stomach.

At the end I classify this resistance as an instance of a broader human emotional and intellectual tendency to reject materialism/reductionism/conceptual non-realism; if not explicitly, then at least manifested as an unwillingness or inability to fully appreciate the implications of it and adjust one’s worldview to accommodate it. I close with a discussion of where this leaves us in the future and what actions could be taken to alleviate the potential damage.

• • •

2017 comment: This isn’t the original title, that was something complicated and jargon-y.

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