Taking Both the Subjective and the Objective Stances

The NY Times' Stone Series has an entry by Erik Parens on the value of balancing what we learn of ourselves from neuroscience--the objective stance--against what we believe of ourselves from experience--the subjective stance. From the article,

When I said in the beginning that there’s something right about the reasoning of those researchers who reject the idea that our choices are “spontaneous” and not determined by prior events, I was referring to their rejection of the idea that our choices are rooted in some God-given, extra-natural, bodyless stuff. I’m with Crick and those researchers on that point. My complaint is that they slip from making the reasonable claim that such extra-natural stuff is an illusion to speaking in ways that suggest that free will is an illusion, full stop. To suggest that our experience of choosing is wholly an illusion is as unhelpful as to suggest that, to explain the emergence of that experience, we need to appeal to extra-natural phenomena.

The more difficult — and, I would argue, better — way to go about trying to understand what sorts of beings we are is to see ourselves as both free subjects and as determined objects, and to accept that we aren’t wired for seeing ourselves in both ways at once. Using either lens alone can lead to pernicious mistakes. When we use only the subject lens, we are prone to a sort of inhumanity where we ignore the reality of the natural and social forces that bear down on all of us to make our choices. It would be hard to exaggerate, for example, the inhumanity of locking up huge numbers of people who are clearly mentally ill. When we use only the object lens, however, we are prone to a different, but equally noxious sort of inhumanity, where we fail to appreciate the reality of the experience of making choices freely and of knowing that we can deserve punishment — or praise.

Our conceptual lives would be tidier if we could see ourselves only as subjects or only as objects, but our understanding would be shallower. If we want to understand persons in deeper ways than either lens alone can offer, we need to practice a more binocular habit of thinking. Such a way of thinking would accept the necessity of oscillating between seeing ourselves as beings who can — and can’t — deserve punishment. Neuroscience can help us grind one of those lenses, but it can’t obviate the need for the other.

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