Why it is easier to know observation than free will

(A philosophical modification of an idea of Costa De Beauregaard)

The set-up:

All objects in natural science require observation to be known.

Observation is interaction

Interaction resolves into two principles: the action of one on the other and the other on the one.

Every observation is both an action of the world on a knowing subject and vice versa. In the first, the world causes knowledge and so is an observation, in the second knowledge causes action and so is chosen or free. 

The Hypothesis:

In the observation-freedom binary, either (a.) the observation is (usually) the dominant element and the action very slight, or (b.) it is impossible to know the extent to which the observation and action are diverse. (a) is a common opinion in contemporary science, where the active aspect of observation only counts on the quantum level; (b) is Kant’s exact argument that the noumenon can never be known. Dekonninck to agrees with (a) as a description of observation, since the difference between sensation in act (the actual observation) and sensation in potency (the real object in the world) can never be known. While human intellection really transcends  sensation, so far as it is concretized in the body even intellection can be viewed as sensation at least in a broad sense.

The Alternatives

(a)  If observation is the dominant element, this means that it is much easier to understand observation and being acted upon by objects than to understand the way in which knowledge itself is the cause of action. If I open my eyes and see a cow, there is an obvious way in which the cow is acting on my subjective awareness, but only a weak and negligible way in which my subjective consciousness, using various physical processes as instruments, is affecting the cow. This perturbation gets much larger with the instruments consciousness uses act upon things much smaller than cows.

The upshot is that observation and the causality of the world on us is much easier to know, and the mode in which knowledge affects the world itself is much harder to know. This predicts that science must spend a long time as determinist. On its first level of approximation, it will not assign any statistical significance to knowledge acting on the world, that is, by free will.

Physical science is in the business of giving laws applicable to the universe as a whole, and within this context the way in which consciousness affects the world is vanishingly small. Any account of freedom is so localized as to be negligible, and will not enter into science until it attains an extraordinary precision; for all we know, it might be a level of precision beyond human attainment.

(b) In the second sense, we will be certain that there is both action of the world on knowledge and action of knowledge on the world, but we will never be able to draw a precise line dividing the two elements. When I choose to do something I can know that there is an element of free choice in it in the same way that when I sense something I can know that there is something outside consciousness acting on consciousness,* but I can never adequately divide my free action of knowledge acting on the world from the way in which the world acts on me.  Soul and body are distinct, but there is no junction point or leaping off point where some last moment motion of the body that which then passes off to the soul. The interaction problem is thus correct to say that it is impossible to identify a place of nexus between soul and body, but it is wrong to assume from this that there are not two really distinct elements involved.

*It is entirely possible that this all occurs “in the head”, as it does in illusions. But even then there are subconscious, automatic, and reflexive processes going on outside of consciousness that affect and condition it. As Tim Wilson shows, conscious processes are largely conditioned by such action outside of consciousness.



  1. Justin said,

    September 4, 2014 at 12:42 am

    Are you saying that the effect of instruments on the world constitutes knowledge affecting observation?

    • September 4, 2014 at 6:39 am

      I’m saying that observation is an interaction, and so has two directions: the world affecting the knowing subject, and the knowing subject affecting the world. If you hold, as I do, that a knowing subject is always immaterial (even in non-human animals), then this second aspect of the interaction is through things working as instrumental causes – even if those instruments are neurons, organs, etc.

      The knowing subject, in terms acceptable to physics, is information so far as it has a subjective aspect, and so far as it both arises from and gives rise to a localized reversal of entropy.

      • Justin said,

        September 4, 2014 at 11:54 am

        Ok, just wanted to clarify. Maybe I’m simplifying your argument, but What would you say about colorblindness then? It seems disagreeable that it is easier to know the way the world affects the knowing subject than the reversal, and I would actually say the opposite. We identify the world of colorblindness with the instruments of the the colorblind. When someone strong lifts a weight, he perceives the weight differently than someone weaker and I tend to believe that even practices aiming at objectivity such as science are at root practiced because of the state of the instruments we use to interpret the world- i.e. most young children can’t understand science because of the state of their instrumental development.

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