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Book Review: Things That Bother Me, Galen Strawson

June 17, 2020

Things That Bother Me: Death, Freedom, the Self, Etc.Things That Bother Me: Death, Freedom, the Self, Etc. by Galen Strawson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There was quite a good thematic continuity to this book and to the philosophical perspective he promotes on various subjects from free will, to the self, to consciousness. However, I find myself disagreeing with him at various points along the way. And, most of my criticism comes down to the fact that he always tries to revert to safety with his view of naturalism, that he distinguishes from pure materialism as naturalism.

The problem is that he relies very heavily on a tautological and changing definition of naturalism depending on what the latest science articles might have to say. It is good to be informed by science. But, it seems more that he is trying to use science as a shield to hide his own, at times, dubious ontological position behind. The good thing about many naturalists is that they are consistent in line with a materialist ontology. Good, because this makes them clear and predictable, though, to my mind, terribly wrong. Galen Strawson, though, has a much more chameleon like definition of naturalism that changes depending on the subject at hand.

For instance, when talking of free will, his argument amounts to saying that if we have responsibility for something we have to have responsibility for everything, including our very emergence into existence, otherwise somewhere in the chain luck, as he says, would swallow it all. If at some point we are reliant on luck in having a strong mind, or constitution, or whatever, however far back we have to go back for that lucky and arbitrary genesis, we cannot then claim moral credit for having free will in relation to those things.

It seems good, when combined with a materialistic, deterministic naturalism where we are determined from the outside, and that is the kind of naturalism he draws upon here to defend this view.

Unfortunately, in a later chapter he defends the existence of consciousness, appealing to a different kind of naturalism. One where we are sure of it from the inside, and connects it up with something like a panpsychic view of nature.

Well and good, a common view, however if he would apply this panpsychism consistently to the free will discussion, he would see that it is actually quite easy with that kind of view of nature to imagine how an entity could be responsible for everything in its own existence, including its own genesis. For, if it is entities with minds all the way down and all the way up, then there is no point at which those entities are arbitrarily formed from the outside by an event of luck.

This vacillation between an external naturalism and a more internal one allows Strawson to stay very much in touch with common sense, but not in touch with a consistently applied ontology. And it is his inconsistency on this latter notion that concerns me. Alongside his over reliance on the use of purely anecdotal arguments. So many times, in his critique of the narrative view of the self, his argument reduces to a personal anecdotal assertion that he does not have this narrative view of himself and so it is not important. But, what if most people do have it, and what if you have it yourself in subtle ways without realising because you have not engaged in the right kind of reflection?

I am willing to grant that he has searched well and genuinely and not found any narrative self in his own experience, but it still falls flat as a general philosophical argument. When you combine this with his weak and vacillating view of naturalism, you get a flavour of his strategy for coming at all philosophical problems. He makes some good points along the way by using this approach. But also, some big problems are underplayed.

For instance, he talks of the denial of consciousness as the silliest claim, and refutes it easily with his own experiences and his version of panpsychic naturalism, but in the process I think he fails to appreciate how strong a tidal pull the view of denying consciousness has, due to a particular dominant consensus narrative view of reality that has a grip on many people’s minds. Maybe the narrative will never fool him, or some others, but it can fool many and they are not likely to be drawn out of their view by isolated individuals calling them out based on their own experience. They have the authority of tradition and consensus among loads of people backing them up. And I think he underplays how that can lead to people ignoring, undermining denying, or not even fully seeing their own experience of something. A person can be so clouded by an ideological or narrative perspective, and take much heart and confidence from the amount of people sharing that view with them, that an isolated individual talking about his anecdotal experience is not going to be able to overcome the force of that. They will strongly affirm the emperor has clothes on when he has none, and it feels like the only way to counter that belief is to dissect their whole belief system piece by piece, applying critical reason at every stage. In this way the imposing and intimidating authority of the viewpoint can be overcome.

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