That’s what these four guys call themselves and if there is indeed not some measure of narcissistic self aggrandizement at work here in regard to their assumed revolutionary status then I will be happy to eat crow (or shit) for the next six months! Who are these four self congratulatory WASP(J)s whose bourgeois sense of entitlement makes them think that they are the greatest revolutionaries of the modern era merely because they claim ownership rights over the age old free will vs. determinism debate? They are the departed Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris.
Make no mistake about it all of these authors have something useful to say in regard to a whole range of topics that impinge upon contemporary atheism .For my book money Prof. Richard Dawkins has proven to be the most original and forthright deconstructionist regarding the popular religious myth that many people in the modern age still chose to live by. I used to actually enjoy reading Christopher Hitchens’ articles in Counterpunch in the early to middle years of his career before he became so totally seduced by his rise to international celebrity status that he felt honor bound to become a rabid (and rapid) supporter of US wars of aggression against Iraq and other nations. In other words Hitchens metamorphosized from being an intelligent and astute observer of contemporary reality to just another plutocratic mouthpiece whose sole purpose was to build support for whatever US war of aggression was on the ruling class agenda.
Daniel Dennett is an academic “philosopher” who in spite of his avowed atheism seems is actually an idolatrous worshiper of the physical sciences and the hyper reductionist method of inquiry that believes that all ultimate truths about anything belong strictly to the domain of the physical sciences and that no other truths exist than those that can be accessed via the physical sciences themselves. As a mere “philosopher” himself Dennett lacks the credibility to be taken seriously in regard to any of his alleged theories regarding human consciousness and/or the age old free will vs. determinism debate that he seems determined to pollute with what Marx called “vulgar materialism” as opposed to the historical materialism that Marx himself embraced and/or the more limited form of scientific materialism that forms the basis for what came to be known as the scientific method. For such people as Dennett & Co. the scientific method of inquiry has nothing to do with a specific methodology as a means of gaining knowledge but a hyper reductionist method of reasoning that aims to reduce everything to ever smaller particles and can be thusly measured and manipulated to yield the desired results.
Certainly within the limited realm of the actual physical sciences themselves this methodology does have merit. Indeed it is one of the few practical methods of scientific inquiry within such a field as the actual physical sciences; however, to apply such a hyper reductionist mode of analysis to the social sciences and other domains constitutes a serious and pathetically mistaken mode of inquiry. Its only the holistic, systems based approach that has value in such fields although I am only to happy to meet the four horsemen half way by admitting that in such fields as psychology both the standard reductionist method as well as the systems based approach is appropriate and called for. Neuroscience has already made great progress in understanding the basic material substrate upon which consciousness rests and out of which it is generated. In regard to the question of free will no mention is ever made in the works of the mighty four of the three basic kinds of conditioning that determine human behavior. These three methods are 1) Classical Conditioning 2) Operant Conditioning 3) Social Conditioning based upon Social Learning Theory.
Classical Conditioning is the method of conditioning/learning discovered by the Russian scientist Ivan Pavlov. Operate Conditioning was discovered by the American researcher from Harvard B.F. Skinner. Social Learning Theory was originally discovered and developed by a group of academic research psychologists at Stanford University. Skinner claimed that all behavior as well as animal behavior is conditions by the system of rewards and punishments that exist within nature and/or within human society. Social Learning Theory is a further refinement of Operant Conditioning theory that takes into consideration the roles that people are taught to play in society and how this determines behavior. The fact that our behavior is conditioned based upon previous rewards and punishments that we have encountered in life as well as the social roles that have either been forced on us by circumstances or “freely” selected by ourselves limits the range of our responses to any given stimuli. There are degrees of free choice that may exist within this behavioral matrix but they are probably far more limited than we would want to accept. No discussion of this by the four horsemen just a lot of mumbo jumbo regarding brain chemistry that they themselves are ill prepared to understand despite their wish to turn it into some form of unconscious idolatrous worship.
The great free will vs. determinism debate that has been quietly raging for the last 25 centuries is therefore most certainly an area of philosophic debate that falls within the domain of psychology. Its curiously interesting therefore that in all the lectures and books that I have read by the self congratulatory four never is their reasoning based upon acknowledged gains in the psychological sciences that would in most cases support the work of the mighty four by way of indicating that most of our behaviors and behavioral pattern are in fact pre-determined and that in such cases as these free will does not enter into the equation. The key word here is most and once again we see the limitations of the mighty four in assuming that everything has to exist in discreet categories. Their thinking in not only merely categorical but bicameral in that everything is either a yes or no, either on or off, either up or down, black or white, etc. Within their own minds is what CG Jung labeled a syszigy or divided nature that they project onto everything else. There can be no grey area, none of the inconvenient randomness that Quantum Theory has determined underlies the reality of the physical universe itself not to mention that field that some researchers have thought of as mind that knows no barriers and can not be reduced to mere atoms and/or chemical reactions taking place in the brain. Indeed it is the very nature of this quantum indeterminism/randomness that produces the phenomenon known as mind.
This is certainly an inconvenient truth that the four horsemen are probably organically incapable of entertaining for a nano second. The reason for this is that when academics become wedded to a particular theory of anything upon which they place their brand, reason and logic are suspended in favor of defending the basic material interests that are at stake in defending their brand. Millions of dollars are at stake through book contracts as well as speaking engagements and it is this basic material interest that holds sway over the truth and/or any kind of independent research study that renders a verdict contrary to the one that they are already wedded to. All of this is not to say however that the work of the four horsemen is negligible; rather I would say that it constitutes only half the story at best and has to be seen within that frame of reference.
The idea of mind being a self generating non localized field is a proposition put forward by the British biologist Rupert Sheldrake whose works include A New Science of Life, and The Presence of the Past where he outlines his core theory of morphic resonance. The material substrate for such morphic resonance is the quantum state itself and the myriad formative processes going on within nature and within us in the quintillions every fraction of a nano second that thus determine and shape reality. It shapes what is perceived as well as the perceiver him/herself. My own personal assessment is that as stated previously degree of freedom exist within our behavioral matrix but such degrees of freedom are far more limited than we imagine or suspect. As Sam Harris has suggested in one of his online youtube lectures there is something therapeutic in this knowledge/awareness that people can embrace as a way to stop blaming themselves for everything that they could have become or done if only they had worked harder, studied more, made better decisions about, and all the other methods of self torture that we employ against ourselves and/or our parents. There is both wisdom and comfort that can be found in just finally accepting the fact that our parents did the best they could with the knowledge and resources they had available to them at the time. We in turn did the only thing we could have done, made the only decisions that we could have made. In other words there is an aspect of liberation in all of this in that based upon accepting that most if not all of our behaviors are pre-determined we can begin to forgive ourselves as well as our parents and become happy again. We were socially conditioned to take on the debilitating burden of guilt, self doubt, existential anxiety related to the choice that we think that we had at the time some great seemingly momentous decision was made in our lives either by us or by those closest to us. Learning how to live in world free of guilt, self loathing, and doubt is no doubt a new experience for all of us. If it is anything it is indeed a new brave world that is worth aspiring to.
Lastly in summing up in regard to the knowledge gained by psychoanalytic theory that none of the four horsemen seem to want to acknowledge even though it supports their basic hypothesis that we lack free will is the whole question of the unconscious mind that they touch upon in only the most minimalist sort of way. Both the work of Freud, Jung, and most of the other psychoanalytic greats all confirm the fact that most of our thoughts and behaviors grow out of and therefore originate in the unconscious mind that these theorist have always claimed can be revealed to us in our dreams. Indeed a great portion of their life’s work in this field was based upon cases studies that can often be less reliable than carefully controlled clinical studies. Perhaps it is for this reason that the four horsemen prefer not to elaborate too much on what psychoanalysis has to offer in regard to the question of free will. I think that is regrettable but it confirms the larger social prejudice against psychology as a science. An epistemology confined merely to an unconscious idolatrous worship of the physical sciences can never be of real lasting value to anyone in spite of whatever minor revelations that it has to offer up though the hyper reductionist methods that it employs. Indeed both systems theory and reductionism are two highly useful methods of scientific analysis that are continually being employed in a whole variety of ways. The question of epistemology does however seem to lie at the bottom of this whole debate of free will vs. determinism. There is no reason why categorical thinking has to be employed in regard to such and only by accepting what psychology has to offer can a more definitive picture of things be developed. That means that the social prejudices against psychology will have to be considered and dealt with appropriately.
Note-this piece was originally posted to Open Salon on 02-09-2015