International Society for Philosophers

International Society for Philosophers

Wisdom begins with wonder

PHILOSOPHY PATHWAYS                   ISSN 2043-0728


Issue number 120 9th September 2006


I. 'The Last Infirmity of the Noble Mind' by Richard Schain

II. 'To Decide or not to Decide, That's Not The Question' by Pierre Pouget

III. 'An Argument For Remaining Agnostic About God's Goodness' by John Alexander



The place of mind in nature is a recurring theme in philosophy. Contemporary philosophers seek a reconciliation between naturalism, the view that all that occurs in the universe falls under the laws of nature, and the belief that human beings inhabit a different order of reality: to use a phrase adopted by John McDowell (Mind and World, Harvard 1994) human beings operate within the 'logical space of reasons'. The task is seen as demonstrating that the clash between the world of causes and the world of reasons is apparent rather than real, that we can and indeed must belong to both worlds simultaneously.

In his latest article for Philosophy Pathways, Richard Schain looks at the phenomenon of fame and our desire for fame, arguing that it arises from our neglect of the value of thought and mind, as having a role which is not merely functional -- enabling us to pursue this or that material satisfaction -- but final, representing our place within the eternal scheme of things. Each of us is important because our minds and thoughts are important, in themselves.

In complete contrast, Pierre Pouget presents an overview of research into the process of decision making which appears to cast doubt on our intuitive belief that we have access, though introspection of our thought processes, to the true causes of the decisions that we make. Pouget presents these findings as a consequence of the rejection of belief in a non-physical soul. It is clear, however, that a philosopher intent on reconciling reasons and causes would regard this as a somewhat tendentious description.

Finally, John Alexander looks at the theologian's 'problem of evil', arguing that insofar as we are relying on empirical evidence alone we have to suspend judgement concerning whether God, if such a being exists, is all good, all evil or somewhere in-between. At one stroke, this silences any further discussion of the problem of evil because we simply cannot say with any degree of certainty whether the 'omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent' God of the theologians could or could not have made a world such as ours.

Geoffrey Klempner



'The desire for fame is the last infirmity of the noble mind.' This saying from antiquity has a more profound meaning than may be evident at first glance. It is an indication that individuals do not regard their own individuality in a sufficiently serious manner. There is a widespread belief in our culture that if one does not have an impact on his society, his life is without significance, he is a non-entity. This feeling seems to be instinctual in many people since they will go to any length to affect, in one way or another, the world around them. The desire for fame, in all its variegated manifestations, symbolizes this need to feel that one's essential being is a function of his effect on his milieu. The concept of intersubjectivity, popular in philosophy today, is a non-pejorative way of expressing the same idea.

Kant's characterization of a person's existence as a speck of sand in an infinity of time has been amply confirmed by the scientific study of the physical universe. It is impossible to conceive that an individual in his physical being can have any significance in the cosmos -- it is absurd of imagine otherwise. Thus the persistent attempt of individuals to develop a circle of influence and thus transcend their own miniscule being. The reality is, however, that this effort is not worth the trouble since a hundred, a thousand, a million specks of sand have little more significance than one alone. A sand castle on an endless beach in an infinity of time is soon erased by the elements.

A genuine sense of self-valuation cannot come from one's effect upon society. At best there is the transitory sensation of victory when one has made his mark in the world but this feeling soon passes. There soon appear new conquests, greater discoveries, more brilliant expositions that need to be undertaken. After Alexander conquered the vast Persian empire, he became obsessed by the thought of how many more conquests were still necessary. There are few successful persons who do not experience similar feelings. Fame is usually a fraud, rarely does the famous individual fully deserve the accolades given to him and he experiences the need to justify his reputation by new accomplishments. There is nothing more pathetic than a 'successful' person trying to duplicate his successes, often in areas where he is little capable of doing so. 'Fame enslaves the Gods and Men' is a saying attributed to Heraclitus who, at the dawn of philosophy, perceived the vacuity of worldly success. Even if the attribution may be doubtful, the idea was present among those who valued his ideas.

The quest for fame arises from a lack of valuation of the self. A person who values himself or herself does not dissipate energies by engaging in activities that will bring fame. Human beings are entities that generate thought, thinking reeds as Pascal neatly put it, and it is in their thoughts that they find their reason for being, not in plaudits arising from their milieu. What is thought? By now it is abundantly clear that thought can only be a metaphysical phenomenon. Generations of neurologists, psychologists and computer analysts have had no more success in locating a physical basis for thought than did the eminent pathologist Virchow looking for the soul in the hundreds of brains he dissected. There is simply no way for science to explain the basis of human thought. Because of this, there has been a subtle and often not so subtle effort by white coat philosophers to disparage the concept of self and even deny its existence. If there is no such thing as a metaphysical self, only an assortment of stimulus-response phenomena welded onto an instinctual behavioral apparatus, then little is to be gained by considering this fictitious entity. It is more rewarding to assert one's will to success and the many-faceted forms of power that stem from it.

But the self exists. Descartes' much-maligned dictum, 'I think therefore I am,' is a more profound thought than the carping of his critics. The profoundest person in the history of American philosophical thought (HDT) wrote that the meaning of life lies in our thoughts, all the rest is just the wind whistling in the trees. Thoughts give one a place in a metaphysical plane of reality that is not obtained solely through physical or psychological experiences. Speaking and writing are natural means of developing and clarifying one's thoughts. However, activity arising from the desire for fame is merely the extension of the animal herd instinct into the more sophisticated life evolved in civilization. There is really no difference in kind between the yearning for professional, political or artistic recognition and a wolf wishing to lead or even just be part of a pack of wolves. (And woe to the lone wolf who does not fit into the pack.) As in any pack phenomenon, a key factor in the desire for fame is the acquisition of sexual power; this is well known among authors and academicians. This feature and accumulation of wealth are the main consequences of fame -- for whatever they are worth.

The appearance of thought is one of the miracles of life, analogous to the emergence of life itself. Biologists can explain how life develops but not why such an improbable event should have occurred in a purely physical universe. Even if life appeared by chance, it is incomprehensible why the earth should not be swarming with simple life forms instead of the incredibly complex and fragile organisms that now exist. Bacteria are far more fitted for survival than is Homo sapiens. Most incomprehensible of all is the phenomenon of thought, which defies understanding using physical models. Inescapably, thought must exist on a different plane of being. Once one rises to the consciousness of this 'metaphysical' plane of being, then a new world-view becomes possible, one that is not purely a function of the vagaries of the social milieu.

Every developed mind is a remarkable occurrence revealing a sphere of reality that goes beyond the material universe. When one considers the many facets of thought -- imagination, rationality, values, will, emotions, one is awe-struck by the phenomenon of the mind, and even more so by one's own mind with which the individual is acquainted in a unique manner. We need to have reverence for our own minds, for our souls, to fall back upon a more traditional term. It is only the constraints of scientism with its insistence upon an exclusively material reality that inhibits the thinking individual from an appropriate valuation of his own inner self.

The valuation of self is the key to combating the scourge of excessive ambition, which is another way of denoting the desire for fame. The bitch goddess success takes her toll on the human personality. The only ambition that can be allowed free rein is to live the life of the mind, the bios theoretikos of antique Greek philosophy. The individual must center his ambitions on his own mind. Ambition focused elsewhere is a road map to a downward direction of life and degradation of the human potential.

It is probably a form of hubris to think that we limited creatures could have an exact conception of the place of the mind in a metaphysical realm of being. However, one need not denigrate the self by imagining it to be fictitious, or at best, a speck of sand in a limitless universe. A more appropriate conception is that of a microcosm mirroring a macrocosmic reality. 'Atman is Brahman' is the way Hindu scriptures succinctly puts it. Elsewhere[1] I have utilized a metaphor I call the pointillist canvas of eternity in which every living being is imagined as a brushstroke contributing to the entirety of the canvas. Time and space are the dimensions within which the canvas exists; there may be others of which we have no conception as yet. Each brushstroke may be considered as essential to the integrity of the canvas. A flaw may well appear on it when one does not develop his mind to the fullest extent possible.

The metaphor of a pointillist canvas of eternity provides a convenient framework for certain articles of faith to which I subscribe. These are the metaphysical nature of my mind and its importance in the universe. These beliefs have arisen from rational consideration of a long acquaintanceship with life. Furthermore, I have come to think that human beings are thrust into a physical universe in order to gain the experiences necessary for development of the mind. The process is never complete; there is a need for continual experience as long as an individual human life exists.

No doubt there can be psychological reasons put forth to undermine the point of view here expressed. There will always be a Freud or Skinner ready to demolish metaphysical thought. The cult of scientism has dominated philosophy ever since technology has been mechanizing civilized life. But a philosopher betrays his vocation when he is willing to subvert metaphysics for the sake of the prestige of scientific methodology. The philosopher should wear a robe, not a white coat. The very essence of philosophy is the discovery of the metaphysical mind. When a philosopher trades this in for an uncertain membership in the institutions of science and takes on the herd habits accompanying them, he has abandoned his high calling in the cosmos. He has given in to the last infirmity of the noble mind.


1. Richard Schain, In Love With Eternity, 2005

(c) Richard Schain 2006


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     Investigations and Controversies of the Concept of Decision-Making

'The beginning of wisdom is the definition of terms.' -- Plato


If decision referred to the 'soul' examining the decision processes has nothing to do with the laws of nature and the scientific methods.

The relation between the body and the mind is not a contemporary subject of discussion. Around 2500 BCE, the ancient Egyptians believed in distinctions between aspects of the body and the 'self'. Even though they did not believe in a simple dualism between the body and the mind, they described five parts: the ka, the ba, the akh, the name and the shadow or shade. Each of the aspects of the ancient Egyptian 'self' was unique, yet interrelated with the other four elements. Several outstanding representations of this aspect of ancient Egyptian 'self' have been preserved over centuries. The sculpture of a man named Nedjemu is one of them. As historians understood it, the figure doesn't represent Nedjemu as a walking man. Rather this statue was intended as a substitute repository for the spirit or 'ka' of Nedjemu.

The very idea of representation may suggest a separation, really a distinction between the thing and the image of the thing or the body of the dead man and its image sculpted in stone. It is difficult to say without a doubt, that ancient Greeks when looking at an Egyptian sculpture like that one, would have thought they were looking at a walking figure rather than a representation suggesting a separation between body and mind. In fact, around 500 BCE the ancient Greeks and pre-Socratic philosophers were strongly influenced by the philosophical cult of Orphism which described the soul and body as united by an unequal compact; the soul is divine, immortal and aspires to freedom, while the body holds it imprisoned. Pherecydes' pupil, Pythagoras, was one of the first to connect Orphism throughout with philosophy and the philosopher most responsible for spreading Orphism throughout Greece. Soul and number characterized Pythagoreanism throughout antiquity. In this perspective, the soul doctrine determined moral conduct and the number theory purported to explain aspects of the structure of the physical world.

Plato, according to Aristotle, adopted the theory of dual first principles and the number-substance notion of the Pythagoreans. But as his Heraclitean views compelled Plato to recognize a gradational reality, downwards to sensible things, Plato modified his theory so as to achieve a procession of being from first principles and the mediation of mathematicals between ideas and particulars. Plato called universals 'ideas.' But Plato's reorientation of thought towards mathematization and towards a doctrine of the soul permitted some fruitful developments and led to Aristotle's view.

It is probably true that contemporary question about the concept of decision starts with Aristotle's definition of mind in his book De Anima (On the Soul). For Aristotle, psychology was a study of the soul. Insisting that form (the essence, or unchanging characteristic element in an object) and matter (the common undifferentiated substratum of things) always exist together, Aristotle defined a soul as a 'kind of functioning of a body organized so that it can support vital functions.' In considering the soul as essentially associated with the body, Aristotle challenged the Pythagorean doctrine that the soul is a spiritual entity imprisoned in the body. Aristotle's doctrine is a synthesis of the earlier notion that the soul does not exist apart from the body and of the Platonic notion of a soul as a separate, nonphysical entity.

However, it seemed to Aristotle that the individual's freedom of choice made an absolutely accurate analysis of decision processes impossible. Since the time of Plato, Aristotle and the Pythagoreans, the debate about the possibility of a complete analysis of the decision processes has remained strong and is particularly relevant today. It is not surprising that a central and complex philosophical or biological notion has to depend on the historical context in which this notion is defined. As we have just briefly discussed, the concept of mind and its association with the body was revised and modified throughout antiquity. However, what is very surprising is that the 'concept of decision' which has been examined as a central notion in the study of the relation between the body and the mind or later as a central concept in psychology has varied much less. In another words, we may observe that the definition of psychology has changed dramatically since Aristotle whereas the concept of decision appears to be barely unchanged.


Choosing, selecting or deciding

In common sense, the decision process is alternatively defined as 'the ability voluntarily to decide to perform one of several possible acts or to avoid action entirely' (Encyclopaedia Britannica), or as the process of solving a problem. Such a problem is specified by a set of possible states of the environment or possible initial conditions; a set of available experiments and a set of possible outcomes for each experiment, giving information about the state of affairs preparatory to making a decision; a set of available acts depending on the experiments made and their consequences; and a set of possible consequences of the acts, in which each possible act assigns to each possible initial state some particular consequence.

The problem is dealt with by assessing probabilities of consequences conditional upon different choices of experiments and acts and by assigning a utility function to the set of consequences according to some scheme of value or preference of the decision maker. In this perspective, an optimal solution of the problem consists of choices of an optimal decision function, which assigns to each possible experiment an optimal act that maximizes the utility, or value, and a choice of an optimal experiment. A multiplicity and a variety of adaptation of this normative definition of the decision can be found in the literature (Dippel, 1994; Damasio et al., 1996; Wilson, 1999: Berthoz and Weiss, 2006), however all of them refer to a notion that can be defined with intrinsic properties and presuppose the potential measurability of the decision processes. The main point, which is still making debate for all these definitions of the 'essence of decision' is not whether there is a decision process because this state exists, but rather to know if this act is refers to what we understand as decision or not.

In the next section I'll introduce some characterizations of the notion of 'essence of decision' which may be opposed in the role of decision and describe how this definition may lead to reconsider the study of decision.

Decision as an emotional expression

Empiricism designates the theory that all knowledge is derived exclusively from experience, as either explicitly or implicitly, external sensation, representation or inferences. In psychological application, empiricism signifies the theory that the phenomena of consciousness are the simple product of sensuous experience.

In the historiological link between senses and decision processes, Sensism is one particular form of empiricism, which focuses on the link between sensation and ideas. Sensism, which is found in Empedocles and Protagoras, was given its first psychological and systematic form by Locke (1704), though Bacon (1626) and Hobbes (1679). For Locke all simple ideas derive from external experience (sensations) and all compound ideas (modes, substances, relations) from internal experience (reflection). Substance and cause are simply associations of subjective phenomena. However, Locke admits the existence, though he denies the demonstrability, in man of an immaterial and immortal principle, the soul. Berkeley (1753), accepting the teaching of Locke that ideas are only transfigured sensations, subjectivizes not only the sensible or secondary qualities of matter (sensibilia propria, e.g. colour and sound) as his predecessor had done, but also the primary qualities (sensibilia communia, extension, space, etc.), which Locke held to be objective. Berkeley denies the objective basis of universal ideas and indeed of the whole material universe.

Hume (1776) agrees with his two empiricist predecessors in teaching that the mind knows only its own subjective organic impressions, whereof ideas are but the images. The supersensible is therefore unknowable; the principle of causality is resolved into a mere feeling of successiveness of phenomena; its necessity is reduced to a subjective feeling resulting from uniform association experienced in consciousness, and the spiritual essence or substantial being of the soul is dissipated into a series of conscious states. Locke's sensism was taken up by Condillac (1780), who eliminated entirely the subjective factor (Locke's 'reflection') and sought to explain all cognitional states by a mere mechanical, passive transformation of external sensations. The French sensist retained the spiritual soul, but his followers disposed of it as Hume had done with the Berkeleian soul relic.

Neurophysiological evidences for an emotional contribution in decision making

Although derivatives of the sensist approach have not disappeared, the idea has substantially changed during the 20th century largely due to the developments within the neurological field. One of the first and most famous cases of so-called 'frontal lobe syndrome' -- was the patient Phineas Gage, described by Harlow (Harlow, 1848, 1868, and Damasio, 1996). Phineas Gage was a railroad construction worker, who survived tan explosion that blasted an iron-tamping bar through the front of his head.

Before the accident, Gage was a man of normal intelligence, energetic and persistent in executing his plans of operation. He was responsible, sociable, and popular among peers and friends. After the accident, his medical recovery was remarkable. He survived the accident with normal intelligence, memory, speech, sensation, and movement. However, his behavior changed completely. He became irresponsible, untrustworthy, and impatient of restraint or advice when it conflicted with his desires. The case of Phineas Gage paved the way for the notion that the frontal lobes were linked to social conduct, judgement, decision-making, and personality. A number of instances similar to the case of Phineas Gage have since appeared in the literature (Ackerly & Benton, 1948; Brickner, 1932; Welt, 1888). These patients had normal intelligence and creativity before their brain damage. After the damage, they begin to have difficulties planning their workday and future, and difficulties in choosing friends, partners, and activities. The actions they elect to pursue often lead to losses in diverse areas, e.g., financial, social standing, family and friends. The choices they make are no longer advantageous, and are remarkably different from the kinds of choices they were known to make in the pre-morbid period. These patients often decide against their best interests. They are unable to learn from previous mistakes as reflected by repeated engagement in decisions that lead to negative consequences. In striking contrast to this real-life decision-making impairment, problem-solving abilities in laboratory settings remain largely normal. As noted, the patients have normal intellect, as measured by a variety of conventional neuropsychological tests (Bechara, Damasio, Tranel, & Anderson, 1998; Damasio, 1994; Damasio, Tranel, & Damasio, 1990; Eslinger & Damasio, 1985).

According to modern sensism, decision making involves evoking an emotion from recall or thought about a previous emotion and eliciting a somatic response. The 'thought' of gaining or losing a certain amount of money can trigger a somatic response, and so does the 'thought' of taking a drug in the case of a drug addict. This overall somatic state provides signals to the brain which participate in two functions. (a) it provides a substrate for feeling the overall emotional state, (b) it provides a substrate for biasing the decision to select a response (Damasio, 1996). In this point of view, a decision process is thus related to an emotion as a process of a higher stage, in the same way that an emotion is related to a feeling. The fundamental psychological condition for decisional acts is, therefore, the contrast between feelings, and the origin of the first decisions is most probably in all cases to be traced back to unpleasurable feelings that arouse external movements whose results are contrasted pleasurable feelings. A decision is distinguished in such cases from an emotion only by the fact that the former has added to its emotional components an external act that gives rise to feelings, which, through contrast with the feelings contained in the emotion, bring the emotion itself to an end. The richer the ideational and affective contents of experience are, the greater the variety of the emotions and the wider the sphere of decision.

Decision as an experimental question

The exact observation of decision processes appears to be difficult in the case of decisional acts that come naturally in the course of life. The only way, in which a thorough psychological investigation can be made, is, therefore, that of experimental observation. To be sure, we can not produce decisional acts of every kind at will, but we must limit ourselves to the observation of certain processes which can be easily influenced through external means and which terminate in external acts.

Experimental measures of the decision process

One classical experiment used to examine the decision processes in laboratory is called reaction-experiments. In this experimental context, a simple decision process is incited by the presentation of a stimulus -- e.g visual, auditory, tactile -- which is followed by a specific motor reaction -- e.g. eye movement toward the stimulus, button pressing, arm movement -- produced by the subject in reaction to the perception of the stimulus. Instead of just measuring the motor reaction to the stimulus, the reaction-experiments have been used to examine a second and more general significance besides that mentioned. By measuring the motor reaction time these paradigms have been described as able to furnish means for the measurement of certain neurophysiological and psycho-physical processes. The primary significance of these types of experiment, however, consists in the fact that each one includes a decision and that it is therefore possible, in this way, to infer with sufficient exactness the succession of psychical processes in such a decision, and at the same time, by the deliberate variation of the conditions, to influence this succession in a systematic manner.

Eye movement reaction time is one particular but very well documented case of a simple task that has been and is still intensively used in numerous laboratories in cognitive sciences and more particularly in psychology, neuropsychology, and neurophysiology (for instance: Krauzlis, 2005; Trillenberg et al., 2004; Leigh and Kennard, 2004; Pierrot-Deseilligny et al., 2003; Schall, 2002; Carpenter, 2000). The basic experiment may be described as follows: a stimulus, usually a visual spot, is presented on a screen and at the moment when the stimulus is perceived by the subject -- human, patient or non-human primate -- an eye movement that has been determined upon and prepared before, as, for example, a saccadic movement (brief movement of the eye), toward the stimulus has to be executed. The psychological conditions in this experiment correspond essentially to those we may refer as a simple decision act. If the measure the interval that elapses between the presentation of the stimulus and the execution of the movement is realized, it will be possible, by repeating such a simple trial, to collect sufficient results of an objective measurement of the saccade reaction time which may furnish some information for the constancy or possible variations of part of the decision processes. This information is especially useful because numerous parameters of the stimulus can be manipulated and thereby the course of the decision itself varies.

Such an experimental manipulation may, indeed, be introduced even in the simple form of the experiment just described, by varying the brightness of the stimulus, which may vary the detectability of the stimulus. For instance, if the stimulus is bright, the detection of the stimulus is usually faster than when the stimulus is dark and the time to produce the eye movement toward the stimulus is usually reduced. Using similar paradigm eye movement, reaction-times have been found to vary on the average between 100ms to 400ms, with a mean variation of ~20ms for the single observations (Carpenter, 2000; Prablanc and Jeannerod, 1974; Brooks, 1975; Findlay and Walker, 1999; Becker and Jurgens, 1979). As we just described by manipulating the one properties of the stimulus, we may make sensorial and motor reactions the starting points for the study of the development of decision processes. By manipulating the physical properties of the stimulus an experiment may furnish a way of passing from simple to complex decisions.

The chronometric experiments familiar in experimental psychology under the name of 'reaction-experiments' have been and are extremely used in context of laboratory (Krauzlis, 2005; Trillenberg et al., 2004; Leigh and Kennard, 2004; Pierrot-Deseilligny et al., 2003; Schall, 2002; Carpenter, 2000 + Logan + Donders). As we briefly discussed above, this type of experiment has been used as an aid in the analysis of decision processes, furthermore this type of experiment is also largely used, as means for the investigation of the temporal course of cognitive processes in general.

Decision as a neurophysiological question

While systematic observations of decision processes can be made in context of laboratory, simple and unique measure of reaction time does not directly allow us to describe the physiological causes of such decision. Because species like macaque or other non-human primates are able to produce similar action to human beings, examining the neurophysiological substrate of monkey brain appear to be a extremely rich option to understand the neuronal basis of the decision processes in context of simple decision act. More precisely by using extracellular recordings in macaque, neurophysiologists have recently focused on the question whether or not the neuronal response may not only describe but may be able to predict some decisions processes. In the last decade, the neural correlates of decision making have been reviewed so often that a brief review of reviews had necessitate a very sharp selection. The primary goal of the present section is to introduce to the non-specialist readers part of findings about the decision processes, which have been advanced in the field of neurophysiology.

Because, in the end, a decision process has to depend on neuronal activity -- I would not have been able to type these words with my fingers without any neuronal signal -- theoretical and findings in neurophysiology may shed light on some crucial aspects of the decision processes (Schall, 2005; Schall, 2004; Glimcher et al., 2004; Rorie et al., 2005). Neuronal signal that come closest to encoding the output or monitoring of a decision-making process have been found in areas of the brain involved in motor control: the SMA (Romo et al. 1997; Salinas & Romo, 1998b), M1 (Zhang et al, 1997; Shen & Alexander, 1997; Salinas & Romo, 1998a), the lateral intraparietal area (Shadlen & Newsome, 1996), the Frontal eye field (Schall & Hanes 1998, Schall 2001), the Superior colliculus (Pare.. Kofk), the caudate (Haruno et al., 2005; Platt, 2002 ), the globus pallidus (Gambarian et al., 1971), the cingulate cortex and the supplemental eye fields (Fleck et al., 2005; Critchlev, 2005; Ito et al, 2003; Schall et al., 2002). How can cortical activity reveal the way brain functions in the process of deciding? Why is one act selected rather another? Finally when such decision happens, how can it be related to psychometric variables such as reaction time? All of these three questions are intensively examined in the field of neuroscience today. In the next session, I'll present some aspects of these studies.

To stay with the eye movement aspect of the measurement of decision processes, we may ask what happened when many stimuli appear in the richly textured visual world, but we can only look at these targets one at a time, picking some as important and ignoring others (Schall et al., 2004; Sato et al., 2003; Thompson et al., 2005). This selection must be accomplished by passing visual information from the sensory systems to the motor systems of the brain. While a strong debate still exists in neurophysiological field concerning the role of different region in the brain in context of decision, most agree that a relationship between the behavioral choices and the activity of individual neurons may be measured in different regions -- visual, somato-sensory, middle temporal or frontal regions -- of the brain (Rorie et al., 2005; Krug, 2004; Brody, et al., 2002; Romo et al, 2003; Romo et al., 2001; Opris et al, 2005; Stuphorn et al., 2002). For most of these studies the activity indicatea that a perceptual decision can be based on a correlated activity of a small population neurons (Schall et al., 2000; Shadlen et al., 1995; Shadlen et al., 1996). Furthermore, recent studies have demonstrated that electrical stimulation of cortical sensory areas may be used to probe how brain activity relates to the process of deciding. (Brody et al., 2002). For instance, electrical stimulation of somatosensory cortex of monkeys cannot be distinguished from a natural fluttering stimulus on the finger.

While most of the neurophysiological studies we just briefly presented were focused on 'How' the neuronal correlate may describe some part of the decision process, 'Why' such a decision is made and it's neuronal correlate, appears also as a crucial question. A key insight to understand the brain mechanism of 'Why' a decision is made, was the discovery that animals and humans will work to obtain electrical stimulation delivered to certain parts of the brain (Wise et al., 1992; Schaefer et al., 1992). Since then, several studies have documented the influence and representation of reinforcement in the brain. For instance, neural activity in sensorimotor as well as limbic structures is modulated by the probability magnitude or kind of reward that a monkey receives and such modulation can guide adjustments in behavior (McCoy et al., 2003). Neural activity more explicitly signaling the receipt withholding or unexpected delivery of reward has been found in several brain structures (Brown et al., 1999; Ito et al., 2003).

To date the decisions that neurophysiologists have studied are not really like these decisions at an introspective level. The decisions that we are beginning to understand are much more deterministic: stimulus and prior probabilities influencing behavior in a predictable fashion. The question which is still causing debate is whether by examining the brain states at a time (t), we may be able to determine not only brain states at time (t+1), but also the complex dynamic systems that produce such complex decision making. The question raised above is by itself debatable and for some recent psychologists and philosophers if this question does not necessarily dissociate decision and determinism, it may involve reconsidering the potential association between decision, free-will and predictability.  


As Schopenhauer and, following him, some modern philosophers declared the decision in itself is an 'unconscious' occurrence, which comes to consciousness only in its result, as the decisional act (Schopenhauer, 1836, 1839). In this case, obviously, the inadequate observation of the decision process preceding the act, has led to the assertion that no such process exists. In a series of controversial experiments first reported in 1973, Libet and colleagues indicate that the decision to perform a muscular act is made prior to the awareness of the decision. In other words, and in Libet's view, we become aware of a decision only after the decision has already been made. For Libet, the subjective present always lags the objective present. It means that any thought, feeling, sensation, or action always occurs objectively before we become aware of it subjectively and hence there is no possibility that we can avoid it. This includes any choices or decisions that are made. We inescapably live in the objective past so that the objective present and future are completely beyond our control. This is that everything that happens must happen before we can become aware of it.

For instance, you can try for yourself to hold out your hand and, after a short interval, decide whether to move it left or right, or else up or down. If you pay attention to what goes on, to the decision as it is experienced. Do you believe -- can you believe -- that your hand did not move in response to your choice? Nonetheless, that seems to be the conclusion to which Libet's evidence points. The face-value interpretation is that the experienced choice is some sort of illusion: it occurs after, and therefore cannot affect, the generation of the impulse that causes the finger movement. If anything, the conscious, experienced choice is some kind of epiphenomenon, a reflection in experience of some underlying process, and it is the underlying process, not the decision, that accounts for the way the finger moves and perhaps also for the way the decision is experienced. If we generalize this, we get the disturbing thought that our actions never depend on our conscious reasoning or decision-making. Libet's conclusions have often been taken to be in contradiction with the hypothesis of identity between mental and neural states. This has granted him support from some (Eccles, in Popper & Eccles, 1977) and opposition from many (Churchland, 1981a, 1981b; Glynn, 1990; Danto, 1985; Nelson, 1985; Wood, 1985). Libet's beliefs on free will have been attacked for being out of step with mainstream neurosciences and for dabbling in dualism (Wood, 1985; Gomes, 1999; Bolbecker et al., 2002). In fact, most modern scientists, believing in causal chain of events, would say without hesitation that there are causal neural antecedents of any conscious decision. However as we mentioned above determinism is not predictability. This question of free will brings us to the beginning of our questioning, for some authors a true free will implies a dualistic ontology for some others this assumption is not necessary.


The search for neural correlates of decision processes -- specific systems in the brain that correlate directly with states of decision -- has become an active area of research in recent years. Methods such as single-cell recording in monkeys, brain imaging and electrophysiology in humans have generated a wealth of data. The topic of this article was intended to introduce in an interdisciplinary manner these issues from physiological, psychological, and philosophical perspectives. The rapid development of such research in recent years makes it likely that question about how and why such decision processes is generated in the brain, is possible. When can we infer that some brain region or activity underlies decision processes? That question has caused considerable controversy. Though recent empirical findings are widely accepted, debate continues about the evidence and its interpretation.

Such debates are common at the leading edge of any scientific effort. Biochemists two decades ago found it useful to develop a set of explicit criteria for the identification of proteins, and a similar set of high criteria may help build a working consensus on what would constitute adequate evidence for the brain basis of decision processes in the field of cognitive science. Operational distinctions can be made to define what a decision processes is. It is legitimate that asking questions about decision may raise the question about free-will, responsibility and morals. If the decision processes are described at a neuronal level, following by definition the law of nature and the causality principle it is also legitimate to ask the question about the consequences of such decision processes. Antonio Damasio says in his book Descartes' Error, that 'The fact that acting according to an ethical principle requires the participation of simple circuitry in the brain core does not cheapen the ethical principle. The edifice of ethics does not collapse, morality is not threatened, and in a normal individual the will remains the will.'  But because as some authors noticed (e.g. Dennett, 1991) simple brain circuits don't prima facie generate moral decisions, this comment suggests we at least ought to take a look at the philosophically perennial issues of free-will and determinism, as well as reductionism and emergence.

We may argue that if the concept of decision falls to science, what would happen to our sense of moral agency and free-will? If any simple or complex decision process is reduced somehow to mere matter and motion, what would happen to our appreciation of love and pain, and dreams and joy? If conscious human beings were just animated material objects, how could anything we do to them be right and wrong? These are among the fears that fuel the resistance and distract the concentration of those who are confronted with attempts to explain consciousness. A certain pragmatism and emergence of working at a different level is tolerate by the community of neuroscientists when they make models and propose mechanisms of decision. At least in my knowledge there is not yet in the field of neuroscience a powerful theory that we think might be fundamental and universal, a theory for which if the states of the brain were measured, all subsequent states of the system are predictable and determined. Furthermore, regarding the most extreme point of view, neuroscientific determinism has so far failed to be established empirically. For this reason, a common view is usually to think in favor of attributing free-will to an individual fact as the default position. The question of rejecting a null hypothesis would probably be disputed as to what degree of proof is required to reject the absence of free will. In any case, an ethical concept of the decision-making would probably involve simultaneous work at several levels, going back and forth in a co-evolutionary way.


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(c) Pierre Pouget 2006

Center for Integrative & Cognitive Neuroscience Vanderbilt Vision Research Center Department of Psychology Vanderbilt University Nashville, TN 37203 USA




Theists define God as having certain characteristics; omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence, and complete goodness. In order to square their belief in this type of God with the existence of evil, they often argue that the existence of evil is consistent with God's complete goodness because He has knowledge that we do not have that explains and justifies the existence of evil. (Adams, Hick, Penelhum). However, we have no evidence-based reason to support the knowledge claim that God is completely good, or completely evil, or somewhere in between, regardless of the knowledge He possesses. A completely evil God can explain the existence of evil as well as a completely good God, or a being somewhere in between. The evidence supports all three of these possible alternatives. All that is needed is a being powerful enough to create and sustain a universe such as ours.

Because we can conclude that the universe is as we experience it is consistent with a belief in a completely good God, or a completely evil God, or a God somewhere in between, there is no rational reason for supporting the theistic conception of God being completely good in so far as these three competing conclusions logically cancel each other out. If we are talking about the way the world is, it is logically not possible for the same being to be completely good, completely evil, or somewhere in between at the same time. The only reasonable conclusion is to remain agnostic and suspend judgment as to God's moral qualifications. This, of course, means that we cannot know that a theistically defined God exists.

The theist can only assert that God is completely good by begging the question of His goodness. Somewhere the theist makes an equivocation. Descartes does this, for example, when he argues that a perfect being would not deceive. He maintains that deception is an imperfection, an intrinsically bad thing, therefore a perfect being is an intrinsically good thing, and would not deceive because a perfect being has no imperfections. (Descartes) But this is to beg the question that perfection is only a positive, non-instrumental moral quality and that perfection and non-instrumental goodness are equivalent so that when people assert that something is perfect they can substitute, without change in meaning, that that thing is intrinsically good.

However, 'good' is a vague term that can be applied as an adjective to many different things. What is considered good depends on our conceptual frameworks, which contain, in part, the goals that we seek to achieve and the principles and rules for determining what is good (most efficient) as a means to achieving these goals, as well as any intrinsic goodness these goals may have. In part, 'good' has an instrumental interpretation as the most prudential means to achieve a desired goal. A completely evil being could, and probably would, deceive in order to achieve a goal. Such a being would consider deception to be a good thing as a means to achieve a goal. That is one of the reasons why that being would be evil. He wants to deceive us into believing something to be true which is in fact false. He would want to deceive us into believing that He is good and not a deceiver. If the deception were flawless, not being able to be detected with certainty, then it would be perfect. A completely evil being is a perfectly evil being in so far as that being lacks nothing that would make it more evil.

The problem is that based on the evidence of the world as we experience it, we cannot conclude that God is completely good, or that God is completely evil, or somewhere in between because all three conclusions are all consistent with the available empirical evidence. Consequently, we are not in a position to derive any conclusions relative to the moral status of God from His having the other three characteristics and/ or the fact that He is the creator and sustainer of the universe.

The argument for agnosticism re God's complete goodness is:

1b. God is the creator and sustainer of the universe.

2b. Part of His creation are the conditions wherein the moral agents that He also created could make decisions and perform actions that result in good or evil.

3b. Moral agents do make decisions and perform actions that result in the existence of good and evil.

4b. Even if 1b-3b are true, we cannot assert that God has any other characteristic than being able to create a universe such as ours.

5b. Let us agree, for the sake of the argument, that God is all knowing, all-powerful, and present everywhere.

6b. If God has these characteristics; they are consistent with, but not entailed, or even implied, by, 1b-3b. Such a being could create a universe such as ours, but so could a lesser one if it had the enough power to do the job.

7b. If God has these characteristics we cannot determine His moral qualities. We can only determine that 1b-3b are consistent with 5b.

8b. God being completely good, completely bad, or somewhere in between, is consistent with 1b-3b and 5b, but is not entailed, or implied, by 1b-3b and 5b.

9b. Therefore even if 1b-3b and 5b are true, we cannot conclude anything about the moral qualities of God.

10b. This being the case, then if we want to maintain that God being completely good is consistent with 1b-3b and 5b, we must also maintain that 1b-3b and 5b is equally consistent with God being completely evil, or somewhere in between.

11b. 10b is an example of a logical impossibility. 'God is completely good' and 'God is completely bad' and 'God is somewhere between being completely good or completely evil' cannot refer to the way the world is simultaneously. There cannot be one being who is simultaneously completely good, completely evil, and somewhere in between.

12b. Therefore, the best the theist can hope for is to demonstrate that 1b-3b and 5b are consistent.

13b. Consistency between 1b-3b and 5b is not enough to maintain anything about God's moral characteristics.

14b. Therefore, because we are talking about the way things are and not the way we may believe them to be, the theistic conception of God is not consistent throughout because we have no way of determining if He is completely good, or completely evil, or somewhere in between, based on the available evidence.

Based on this argument it is rational to remain agnostic about our having knowledge of any of the characteristics that theists argue pertain to the nature of God. People may still believe that God is completely good, meaning that He does nothing morally impermissible, but that belief refers only to their conceptual framework and its internal coherence. It does not show that this belief, or set of beliefs, corresponds to what really is the way things are. It is correspondence with the facts, not coherence with our other accepted beliefs, which justifies us in believing how the world really is. Ascribing moral characteristics to God is to say something about how the world really is, and if the available evidence can lead to contradictory conclusions about the way the world is, the only reasonable epistemic alternative is to remain agnostic. A person can still believe in any one of the possible conclusions, but the warrant for this belief will be psychological and pragmatic, based on desire and coherence with other beliefs held to be true, not where what is believed to be true is true if and only if it corresponds to the way things are in the world.


Adams, Robert Merrihew, 'Middle Knowledge and the Problem of Evil, in The Problem of Evil, edited by Marilyn McCord Adams and Robert Merrihew Adams, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1990.

Descartes, Rene, 'Meditation Three,' In Discourse on Methods and Meditations on First Philosophy, Donald A. Cress translator, Indianapolis, Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1993.

Hick, John, 'Soul-Making Theodicy,' in God and the Problem of Evil, edited by William L. Rowe, Malden MA, Blackwell Publishers, 2001.

Penelhum, Terence, 'Diving Goodness and the Problem of Evil,' in The Problem of Evil, edited by Marilyn McCord Adams and Robert Merrihew Adams, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1990.

Wisdom, John, 'Gods,' Proceeding of the Aristotelian Society XLV, (1944-1945), 185-206. Reprinted in An Introduction To Philosophical Inquiry, edited by Joseph Margolis, New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1968.

(c) John Alexander 2006

John K. Alexander, Adjunct Grand Rapids Community College Grand Rapids MI, USA


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