The Illogicality of Determinism

Physical determinism is the notion that all events, including thoughts and actions, are the result of cause and effect. Each effect is the result of a prior cause. Each effect is also the cause of some new effect, creating an endless causal chain.

C→E/C→E/C …

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From this point of view, every event is “necessary.” Given the cause, the effect must occur. Exactly what “must” and “necessary” mean here philosophers have found it difficult to say.

Every event is thought to be unavoidable in some way and a “necessary” consequence of preceding events.

If the Big Bang is taken as the first physical cause, then all subsequent events can be regarded as the result of that first cause, when time began. Thus, according to determinism, since the beginning of time, everyone’s thoughts and actions have been pre-determined and unavoidable. No deviation from this predestination is possible on this view. The “events” referred to would seem to include thoughts, on the assumption that brains generate consciousness.

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However, if physical determinism is true then the person arguing for it has no choice as to whether he believes in physical determinism or not, nor whether he argues for determinism or not. He is in the grip of physical forces beyond his control. It is as though someone pushed the cosmic “play” button and the arguer starts arguing for something he never had any choice but to believe and to argue for. He is the victim of circumstance. Why should any attention be paid to such a victim – to such a mindless and compulsive machine – to such an idiot? He has an unfortunately not so rare form of Tourette’s syndrome and should be pitied.

It is a farce. The farce gets worse when the person being blasted with this nonsense is considered. According to determinism, the interlocutor too has no choice whether he listens to the sounds the other madman makes, for he too is mad. He listens or does not listen compulsively. He agrees or does not agree with the determinist’s argument through no free will of his own. While the arguer is a cosmic tape machine playing its predetermined recording, the interlocutor is affected by blind physical forces himself. The outcome of this travesty masquerading as “reasoning” has been predetermined since the beginning of time and the exercise is pointless.

The image of two tape machines alone in a room together playing their scripted comments and responses comes to mind. Nobody and nothing is really asserting anything nor really responding. Determinism is consciousness denying. No meaningful “thinking” is occurring if the determinist is right.

Determinism has reflexive implications – it applies to the person arguing for determinism. All determinists that I have met in practice imagine that they can freely decide when and if they will argue for determinism. They imagine that it is possible to step in and out of determinism like it is a river. But determinism does not leave room for an “inside” and an “outside;” that’s the whole point. If it were possible to freely choose when to do something and when not to do something determinism would be false.

Some determinists argue that computers are deterministic machines that argue and can produce valid arguments and that proves that meaningful argument and physical determinism are compatible. This is supposed to support the notion that there is no problem imagining that arguing human beings are deterministic machines. The notion of deterministic computers is meant to provide evidence that humans might be deterministic.

However, computers are the product of human minds. They are explicitly programmed to do the things programmers want them to do. They argue as the programmer determine. As John Searle’s Chinese Room argument demonstrates, computers understand nothing – neither the input nor their own output. Computers are the physical medium by which human beings communicate with each other or derive answers to computational questions or do the things we wish. They are not the product of blind deterministic physical forces. Humans are governing what they do. If computers seem intelligent, it is because humans are.

If the determinist claims that computers are indeed the product of deterministic forces because human thought is the product of deterministic forces, then the determinist has simply assumed humans are not free in order to prove that humans are not free! Instead of using computers to prove that humans are determined, the determinist assumes humans are determined to prove that computers are determined to prove that humans are determined.

The purpose of a philosophical argument is supposed to be to provide evidence for controversial assertions. It is logically possible that determinism is true, but it is not logically possible to persuade someone that determinism is true because determinism precludes the possibility of logic and genuine persuasion in the context of controversial assertions.

Any argument that expresses skepticism about consciousness or the ability to think rationally is problematic and generates self-refuting paradoxes since the arguer is using the very thing he is arguing is untrustworthy to arrive at the conclusion that this thing is untrustworthy.

Reasoning and mindless physical forces are incompatible. If the phrase “mindless physical forces” seems question-begging, and mindful physical forces are postulated instead, then qualities of mind are being attributed to physical forces. This results in the situation where mind is thought to be affecting matter  affecting mind with matter as a simple intermediary between two aspects of mind – a cosmic mind (a giant thinking nature) and a parochial mind (human minds).

Do brains generate minds?

If brains do not generate minds, then physical determinism does not apply to thoughts.

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The brains in the diagram represent the same brain in different states – A, B and C. Under determinism, Brain State “A” causes Brain State “B” which in turn causes Brain State “C.” As a physical mechanism, the brain is following the laws of chemistry and physics. It can be imagined that each brain state is giving rise to a discrete thought. Brain State “A” (BSA) gives rise to the thought that “p → q” (If p, then q). BSB give rise to the thought that “p.” BSC gives rise to the thought “q.”

In the diagram above, the brains and the black arrows represent physical determinism; one brain state giving rise to another. The blue arrows point to thoughts produced by the brain states, namely the modus ponens argument, “p→q, p, ∴ q.”
If p, then q,
p,
Therefore q.
The diagram represents brain states physically leading to each other. Also shown is the level of abstract, rational thought, with each thought related to the next by logic; not physics or chemistry.

From a mental level perspective, it would seem that these thoughts generated by a physically determined brain, are effectively random. Each thought is not the product of rational reflection. It is the inexorable product of physical processes, each state deterministically producing the next state. If the brain generates the mind then we are driven to conclude that the mental events which seem conceptually related to other mental events are really random from a conceptual point of view. If the thoughts seem conceptually coherent, and importantly related to each other in the form of an argument, this is just a coincidence.

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An analogy could be Powerball machines. In this form of lottery, a machine blows ping pong balls with numbers on them. After a while, the ping pong balls end up in a structure at the bottom of the machine. If the numbers happened to be the first few digits of pi, this would be by pure chance. Mindless physical processes are acting on the balls; any meaning is a coincidence. It could be imagined that on the balls are written letters instead of numbers and that words might get accidentally spelled. Or variables and logical operators such that p → q, p, ∴ q.  Again, such results would be comparable to faces in clouds and the like.

If the physical processes are not mindless then the balls would not be being blown by forces governed by deterministic laws of nature but would be being selected on the basis of meaning. The apparent autonomy of physical processes with their never-ending chains of cause and effect would be an illusion.

With regard to the Powerball machine, the game would be rigged. Instead of purely physical processes determining what happens to the balls, reason and logic would be guiding the balls to the desired logical outcome. Mind would have proved to be more fundamental than matter. Of interest might be Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos that asserts that consciousness and material reality are fundamental aspects of nature and always have been.

Philosophers refer to bottom up causation: the brain or body affecting the mind such as the effects of caffeine or sleep deprivation on thoughts and feelings. Top down causation is when the mind affects the brain and body. Someone says something that upsets another person and that person goes red in the face and his blood pressure rises. A mind selecting brain states to produce mental events would be similar to top down causation.

Causes versus reasons

The premises and conclusions of a valid argument are connected, but their connection is not physical. Or if they are physically connected by being written on the same piece of paper, or blackboard, or hard drive, if this can be called “connected,” then this physical connection is irrelevant. It is the way the premises and conclusion are connected logically that matters.

Causally determined physical processes are incompatible with arguments which require true and relevant reasons conceptually and logically related to the conclusion. If he is good he will get a bike for Christmas. His parents agree that he has been good. Therefore, he will get a bike for Christmas. The relationship between the premises and conclusions is conceptual and logical.

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Physical things work by causes. Arguments work by reasons. Causes are not reasons. If it is said that driving to Canada is a good idea if someone has a disease that requires expensive medications, and thanks to the Canadian health system, medicines are cheaper in Canada, and that the internet should not be used for these purchases because companies in the Caribbean have been known to pretend to be Canadian, and you go to Canada on the basis of this reasoning, you have rationally been persuaded to go to Canada on the basis of reasons.

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If someone is locked in an entirely dark room with no company for five straight days, when the door is opened, that person is likely to be craving stimulation so badly that he will be very excited about anything someone says and to be highly amenable to suggestion. If someone then says “Go to Canada” and that person goes, the first person has caused the second to go. He has been brainwashed to go.

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Self-refuting paradoxes

If it is claimed that no, reasons are just fancy jumped up causes and that when someone thinks he is being persuaded, he is really just being caused by physical processes, then skepticism is being expressed about the reality of rational persuasion.

But the person who expresses skepticism about rational persuasion is attempting to rationally persuade. He wants to be an exception to his own rule, a telltale sign of being wrong, because he is contradicting himself. Francis Crick says “‘You,’ your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.” (Science Set Free, Rupert Sheldrake, p. 110, 2012) The trouble is that if all mental activity is “no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules,” then that thought itself is “no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules” and not to be taken seriously; “no more than” being the key phrase here.

Similarly, a professor may argue that gender is nothing more than a social construct. Yet her ability to challenge this supposed social construct means that the professor gets to occupy a rational space outside the social construct. She has her own personal opinion differing from the usual social construct; an opinion that is thus not merely derived from the social construct. The professor is effectively calling other people sheep, merely following the dictates of culture, while she gets to have her own self-derived opinion. She is a wondrous exception to her own rule.

“Everything is what it is and not another thing,” said Bishop Butler. You, your joys and sorrows, memories and ambitions are just what they are and not something else. Nerve cells and molecules may be involved somewhere, but there is no reason at all for reducing them to these things.

Neither can it even be rationally suspected that humans are really mechanistic robots that are wholly the product of unthinking physical processes, because for this suspicion to be rational, it must itself be the product of true and relevant reasons. If there is no rational ground for the suspicion, then, rationally speaking, suspicion should stop.

If it is possible to wonder if humans are deterministic robots whose thoughts are ruled by causally determined physical processes, and there is any rational basis at all for this wonder, then rationality does indeed exist and people are not robots.

So, free will exists because rationality exists. In order to be rational, a person must be free to consider the merits of an argument based on an evaluation of the truth and relevance of the premises of that argument. He must be free of external interference in his evaluation. If something physical is forcing him to a particular conclusion due to an unbroken chain of physical causal processes stretching back to the beginning of time, then rationality per se is impossible. He is unable to make an evaluation on the basis of conceptual and logical relationships, but instead must think whatever the physical unthinking deterministic processes makes him think.

Moral responsibility and love

In addition to the self-defeating nature of arguing for determinism, there is a practical objection. This objection is that determinists are only classroom determinists. Their behavior outside the classroom indicates that they believe in free will. In order for determinism to be true, moral responsibility must be an illusion and meaningful love must be an illusion. Determinists continue to hold other people and themselves morally responsible for their actions, and hopefully, they manage to love other people.

Courts of law recognize that actions performed under duress, in which someone has no choice, do not make him morally or legally culpable. If someone is compelled to do something by being threatened with something dire and he has a reasonable expectation that the threat will be carried out, then he is not held responsible for his actions. And so it should be.

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Regarding love, love is not meaningfully love if it is not freely given. If it is discovered that every time a beloved attempts to leave the lover he or she is tasered, or is taken into an interrogation cell and brainwashed, then this would change the lover’s feelings about his beloved. He would know that she is not freely choosing to love him or be with him but is acting under compulsion.

Love is not an entirely rational process of course but it does involve respect and admiration and these are based on a more or less rational assessment of the other person. If a girlfriend, husband, etc., thinks their beloved is an idiot or morally corrupt, nasty and horrible, boring, humorless and ugly, then they do not love the beloved.

One of the more amazing life experiences is when someone thought to be really cool and beautiful responds in kind. This means going from having a crush, an unreciprocated affection, to the beginnings of love. The beloved does not have to like the lover and it is flattering that someone as impressive as that thinks he is attractive and nice too – someone worth getting to know better. If it were possible to just flip a switch on the back of someone’s head and she would gaze at the lover adoringly, this would make that person’s affection worthless and pathetic. It could be hoped that no one ever gets so desperate for even simulated affection that he would be willing to do this.

Love is a gift. No one can demand to be loved. If a gun is pointed as someone’s head with the command “Love me!” it is not possible to actually comply. The love could only be pretended. In Christian theology, even God cannot compel humans to love Him. Hence, there is the notion of God the lure, or Jesus as making his followers fishers of men. Likewise, the one ability Bruce does not have in Bruce Almighty even though he is God of Buffalo for a week, is the ability to make anyone love him. The writers consulted a Jewish theologian to get their theology right. If God could make you love him, he would be no better than a man with a date rape drug. If a person would not be satisfied with “love” in those circumstances, neither would God.

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Love is a chemical? Partly

There is an amusing movie about a man who thinks love is a chemical. Explaining that to a date would likely end the relationship. A version of the first encounter could be – [Robotic voice] “Dopamine levels, satisfactory, serotonin plateaued, oxytocin slightly raised, scheduling second meeting – waiting, waiting, Thursday is free – waiting for reply. You’re a dick! Affirmative. Negative response recorded. Is this decision final? Press 1 for yes, 2 for no.”

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There is an element of truth in the love is a chemical idea. Love is not a chemical, but feelings of love and affection may be related to hormones in the “It” quadrant. Oxytocin seems to be associated with bonding and is released when the skin is stroked – but someone has had to have decided they actually like another person before he is going to let you stroke his skin. If someone tries to start with skin stroking prematurely, no oxytocin.

Whether someone think someone else is boring, stupid, humorless, ugly and a jerk, or beautiful, interesting, funny, smart and nice is likely to be influenced by his cultural context and class, the “We” quadrant. Women are likely to look at a man’s job, social status and income, the “Its” quadrant if they are thinking about whether to marry someone or not. Love or not love occurs in a context. It is the “I” quadrant that is being examined here – the idiosyncratic and freely chosen response to another person.

Love and transcendental arguments

So the claim is that there is something wrong with a person if he would be happy with taser or determinism compelled love. If it is thought that love as it is being defined here exists, then free will exists. Kant called this a transcendental argument. This means starting with the phenomenon and then working backwards to the way the universe must be if this phenomenon exists. In other words, one prioritizes evidence/data over theory. Physical determinism is a theory based on a commitment to the metaphysical notion called materialism. If someone is ontologically committed to determinism, and love as a datum and an experience seems to exist, love is just an illusion. Since materialism remains an unproven assumption the determinist has chosen to rule out of existence one of life’s most important experiences on the basis of an unproven hypothesis. Where data and theory conflict, logically it is possible to reject either one. In the transcendental argument, the data is chosen and the theory of materialism is rejected.

Consciousness vs determinism

Lastly, if brains were self-contained physical mechanisms with no input from conscious minds, i.e., top down causation, then the brain would follow its own predetermined chain of causation. But this would mean that the brain would not be subject to adjustment by conscious evaluations of what is going on around someone in the environment. Without consciousness and top down causation, a person would not be aware of his environment and could not adjust his behavior as the demands of the environment changed. These demands are unpredictable. The workings of the brain, if the organism is to survive, must be constantly adjusted to the environmental factors perceived and evaluated by the conscious mind.

From the point of view of the organism, its environment is unpredictable. Even if the universe were a large deterministic machine – ignoring the fact that machines have designers and in-built purposes – the organism still has no idea what events it will encounter. An event that cannot be predicted is effectively random. An appropriate response cannot be preprogrammed to an unforeseen event – and with the complexity of human social interactions there are many such events. There can be no rule for an unanticipated circumstance. The ability to improvise is required and for this improvisation to be successful someone’s reaction must be perfectly suited to this new circumstance and for that, real live consciousness free from deterministic rules must exist.

21 thoughts on “The Illogicality of Determinism

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  3. The experienced difference between reasons and causes is very suggestive. Oddly, the most suggestive aspect of this may be our capacity for obstinacy. A man is quite capable of disregarding, discounting or dismissing the most powerful reasons. We call such a man “unreasonable.” If he did the same thing in the realm of natural causes–for instance, by deciding not to fall after leaping from the top of a cliff–we would call him “supernatural.”

    I’m not writing in praise of every instance of obstinacy or unreasonableness, for the motive to abandon reason is very often a low passion. But sometimes, by grace, a man transcends the domain of reason, just as by reason he transcends the domain of causes. I think this is what St. Paul meant by “foolishness.”

    • The experienced difference between reasons and causes is very suggestive. Oddly, the most suggestive aspect of this may be our capacity for obstinacy. A man is quite capable of disregarding, discounting or dismissing the most powerful reasons.

      The readily observed freedom of all men to “disregard[], discount[] or dismiss[] the most powerful reasons” shows the falsehood of the common (and necessary to their sanity) belief among materialists that they can-and-have “transcend[ed] the domain of causes”. For, the fact of their “disregard[], discount[] or dismiss[] the most powerful reasons” can be explained in only one of two ways —

      1) either: their “response” to these “powerful reasons” is a mechanistic event having nothing at all to do with the content of the “powerful reasons” — in other words, the two “persons” who are “arguing” might as well be two tape recorders each playing a set of pre-recorded noises — which is to say, there is no such thing as “transcend[ing] the domain of causes”;
      2) or: their response to these “powerful reasons” is indeed a response, it is indeed a freely-chosen non-mechanistic decision — which is to say, “the domain of causes” does not exhaust the “domain of reality” and it is indeed possible for there to exist beings who are free to “transcend[] the domain of causes”.

      The materialists/atheists want to live in the world of 2) while asserting that the world is 1).

      … for the motive to abandon reason is very often a low passion. But sometimes, by grace, a man transcends the domain of reason, just as by reason he transcends the domain of causes.

      The man who asserts that reason, and reason alone, is determinate of truth is as much the fool as the man who abandons reason; in truth, he is the same man.

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    • I mean the usual meaning of the word – a selection among alternative courses of action where those courses of action are genuine possibilities for the agent. The phrase “he had no choice” covers the opposite possibility. If all actions have been determined i.e., set in stone, since the Big Bang, choices as an activity of an agent, do not exist – only the preordained path. Choice is an illusion for the determinist. There are no alternative courses of action for the determinist partly because there is no agency and no “selecting.” There are no possibilities other than the one “chosen.” Except no choice is taking place. It may feel like there is a choice, but this is an illusion for the determinist, as is much of our subjective experience of our own consciousness.

    • If someone is pushed off a cliff, there is no point saying that he should have flown away like a bird to save his life. That’s not a possibility.

      • Re: Hobbesian Meliorist – all the arguments against determinism hold true of the compatibilist too. Anyway, according to the logical implications of both determinists and compatibilists agency doesn’t exist and I have no choice about what I consider or don’t.

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  8. ” However, if physical determinism is true then the person arguing for it has no choice as to whether he believes in physical determinism or not,”

    Right off the bat you confused fatalism with determinism. So many do this.

      • Arguing between people and deliberation is possible in a determined universe. I don’t know why so many assume otherwise.

        It’s possible; it would just be pointless and irrational. I didn’t assume otherwise; I argued otherwise.

        Fatalism means that even if you know a lion will kill you on your birthday, there’s nothing you can do to change it. In a determined universe, if information was presented to you (from outside the universe) that said a lion was going to kill you on your birthday, you’d be able to change it. So when you say “if physical determinism is true then the person arguing for it has no choice as to whether he believes in physical determinism or not” this is confusing the two.

        It is clear from a later comment that you think thoughts are physical events with physical causes, so “information” is a physical event from your POV. If information does not involve physical events and we can act on information without regard to physical causes then we are rejecting the idea that we live in a physically determined universe – which is the notion I am arguing for.

        So what you are describing is getting the deterministic universe and then poking at it from outside the universe with the equivalent of a big stick. The determined universe is then no longer self-contained. But the whole concept of a determined universe is precisely such a self-contained machine. It would be a machine where Laplace’s demon could exist – knowing the precise location and momentum of every particle in the universe, the demon could predict every future event. If “outside causes” intervene, then determined universe is no longer predictable.

        Determinists tend to do this. They “chunk” determinism into pieces and imagine that they can intervene voluntarily, manipulating bits of the deterministic machine for their self-chosen purposes – stepping outside deterministic processes in order to alter them. But this ability contradicts the very concept of determinism. All human actions are thought to be the product of physical forces set in motion since the Big Bang and are thus inalterable. There can be no stepping into and out of determinism for a determinist.

        The notion of “outside causes” is incoherent. Physicists tell us that any communication between universes would mean that there would not now be two universes, but one universe. Once the two universes are linked, they become one. That is why no evidence for the existence of multiverses will ever exist, say physicists.

        In a later comment, you suggested that in saying this I was picking on an irrelevant aspect of the “outside causes” thought experiment. My reply is that physical determinism relies very much on notions borrowed from classical physics. It is precisely the truth of classical physics and the notion that all events, including thoughts, are caused by physical causes that underpins in every way, determinism. If your argument starts contradicting classical physics then the logical undergirding of determinism disappears.

        You even raise the point that Laplace’s demon may provide this “information” about lions and birthdays. But if “outside causes” exist, Laplace’s demon can’t exist for his defining feature is being able to predict events in the distant future based on determinism.

        The existence of “outside causes” seems to be a terrible thought experiment. It introduces unsolvable puzzles into the middle of the discussion instead of clarifying anything.

        For instance, are the outside causes themselves part of a deterministic process or are they free? If they are free determinism is false – certainly at least in the universe they come from – and how is that possible for a determinist? If outside causes are determined are they randomly interacting with causes in our universe or are the outside causes interacting in a deterministic fashion with this universe? If outside causes are interacting in a deterministic manner with this universe, then, again, the outside causes are not really “outside” at all, but part of a larger deterministic machine that encompasses this universe and the “other” one – the one that physicists tell us can’t exist.

        You say I can now change my behavior because of my new knowledge about the lion. Change it from what? What it had been determined to be? So am I now free? Or am I still determined? If I’m still determined, how is this different from fate? My fate was not to get eaten by the lion after all. If I’m freely changing my behavior, then determinism is false.

  9. @ Dan Hope. If you or the readers of your comment cannot see any defect in your argument, then good luck to them! Imagining causes that lie outside the deterministic universe is not what determinists envision when they say “a deterministic universe.” Nor have you suddenly shown that rational thought and rational decision making are possible in a deterministic universe that has outside causes. A mechanical universe that has taken a different path does not answer my objections to the possibility of being rational if determinism is true.

    • It’s just a thought experiment to demonstrate a principle. You’re reading too much into it. Do you think a determined universe precludes rational thought? If you think that there is no point trying.

  10. You didn’t say whether you think we can be rational agents in an entirely causal environment.

    Yes, I did. Read the article.

    I think determinism is a prerequisite for rational thought.

    If you think that, please do me the courtesy of responding to the arguments presented in my article as to why that is not so. I have met my burden of proof. It is now up to you.

    If thoughts are not caused by prior events, where do they come from?

    I have presented arguments about why the brain cannot generate thoughts. If it did, those thoughts would be random from a meaning point of view. Check the reasons out sometime when you read the article. A better question would be, if thoughts were caused by prior events, why do thoughts even make sense?

    You’re not going to like my ideas about where thoughts come from. My article does not rely on such speculations. It only argues that arguing for determinism is illogical. But just in case anyone is actually interested and pretending the question was not merely rhetorical, here is Colin Wilson quoting Aldous Huxley’s “The Doors of Perception” that seems to present a similar idea to his own:

    “Reflecting on my experience, I find myself agreeing with the eminent Cambridge philosopher, Dr C. D. Broad, “that we should do well to consider much more seriously . . . the type of theory which Bergson put forward in connection with memory and sense perception. The suggestion is that the function of the brain and nervous system and sense organs is in the main eliminative and not productive. Each person is at each moment capable of remembering all that has ever happened to him and of perceiving everything that is happening everywhere in the universe. The function of the brain and nervous system is to protect us from being over¬whelmed and confused by this mass of largely useless and irrelevant knowledge, by shutting out most of what we should otherwise perceive or remember at any moment, and leaving only that very small and special selection which is likely to be practically useful.’ According to such a theory, each one of us is potentially Mind at Large. But in so far as we are animals, our business is at all costs to survive. To make biological survival possible, mind at large has to be funnelled through the reducing valve of the brain and nervous system. What comes out at the other end is a measly trickle of the kind of consciousness which will help us to stay alive on the surface of this particular planet. To formulate and express the contents of this reduced awareness, man has invented … languages.’

    This is consistent with Frederick Myer’s notion of evolutionary consciousness where abilities of the mind are developed or eliminated depending on their usefulness for survival. But, in the interests of self-actualization, we can attempt to develop mental capacities that are not merely useful.

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