A Critique of Chris Firth’s Aeon essay “Our illusory sense of agency has a deeply important social purpose”

Chris Frith, emeritus professor of neuropsychology at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging at University College London, has recently weighed in on the perennial philosophical question of free will. One is tempted to comment on the insouciance with which contemporary scientists, on the assumption that their special expertise qualifies them for such a task, set about to conclude philosophical issues which have engaged the most perspicacious thinkers for millennia—as a rule without even addressing the pith and marrow of those very issues themselves. Instead, however, one will merely comment on the argument in question and allow the reader to draw her own conclusions on the sociological aspects of the matter.

In an essay published in Aeon, titled, Our illusory sense of agency has a deeply important social purpose, Frith opines that individual agency is an experience but not a fact. One could hardly deny that individual agency is an experience, since the same is self-evident and moreover must form the departure point for inferences about facts that are not. We will return to this point near the end of this brief critique. Arguing from the premises that (1) most of our daily activities are undertaken according to foregone habits and (2) that our intuitions can be deceived, Frith concludes that individual agency is a post hoc interpretation of our actions and has no bearing on the performance of them itself. “Contrary to what many people believe,” he writes, “I think agency is only relevant to what happens after we act—when we try to justify and explain ourselves to each other.” Likely everyone will be familiar with the experience that Frith describes: of having acted unconsciously and feeling subsequently compelled to rationalise the same out of a sense of responsibility. Nevertheless, the mere fact that this is a common experience does not establish that it is the only one. Clearly, even if one first acted without agency, it is precisely the resurgence of the latter that impels one to justify the same action.

Indeed, the premises that Frith provides do not come anywhere close to supporting the conclusion that he wishes to derive from them. The fact that most of our deeds are routine and habitual hardly proves that all of them are. In fact, unless a person wishes to assert that habits emerge from nowhere, it must be conceded that their causes must be sought in deliberate action. Any analysis of, and reflection upon, a present habit reveals that it is the result of a prior deed that was performed with sufficient repetition and consistency for the action establish an inertia of its own. Clearly, if the original cause was illusory, it could not have produced its effect. Because Frith’s argument assumes the reality of habits, he must grant no lesser status to the deeds which formed them. In fact, Classical philosophers unequivocally affirmed that a cause had greater reality than any of its potential effects, and that the very actuality that the latter possessed first proceeded from the former.

Frith could, of course, have taken a different approach. As an alternative to being compelled by logical necessity to affirm the reality of agency on the basis of the reality of the habits which are its issue, Frith may have chosen to affirm that habits emerge in pure spontaneous generation, unbeholden to any causal sequence altogether. This would be a distinctly unattractive solution, however, for it would entail forsaking the very determinism that is the basis of the entire paradigm in which this question is framed. Given that the fundamental argument as to the social utility “our illusory sense of agency,” depends on a strict affirmation of causality to make sense, it is not surprising to discover that Frith chooses the first alternative in spite of its logical deficiencies. To recapitulate the consequences of the same: the existence of habits, quite on the contrary from disproving individual agency, prove that it is a fact.

Another premise that Frith levies in his effort to argue against the reality of individual agency is the fact that we can be misled. The mere fact that we believe we are free in our actions does not constitute evidence that we are so. Naturally, one can hardly argue with this premise on its own, since taken by itself, it is indeed inconclusive as to the existence of agency. It is, however, just as inconclusive as to whether it is illusory. In certain cases we are misled and in other cases we are not, and often we find ourselves correcting ourselves and thereby transforming cases of the first sort into that of the second. Frith wishes to have it both ways, however. Thus, he cites the fact that we can be mislead in general as evidence that we are mislead in this particular case while failing to cite the fact that we can be or become correct in general as counterevidence to his thesis. Evidence that can serve just as well for a given proposition as for its opposite is simply not good evidence. Clearly, only someone who were already convicted that agency was an illusion would find such a double-standard persuasive. To anyone else, however, it would be to beg the very question that was at issue.

Perhaps a more serious threat to the credibility of Frith’s argument even than the vacuity of its logical structure, however, is the fact that he is making it. Is the reader to imagine that Frith is writing out of habit, and that she is reading out of the same? If the present writer had thought that Frith were merely stringing syllables together into syllogisms in an unconscious fugue, only in retrospect to assume responsibility for his actions—if “agency is only relevant to what happens after we act”—then the former would not have bothered to read the essay nor to respond to it. Instead, the present writer sees in Frith’s essay the representative case amongst a troubling trend that has taken hold of the minds of a large swath of contemporary thinkers. C. S. Lewis famously meant to indicate a related concern under the rubric “The Abolition of Man.” Specifically, it seems to be quite fashionable to refuse, to begin with, the possibility that (1) the spiritual nature of the human being has any reality, and only subsequently to assemble evidence in support of this conclusion. This is accomplished by (2) culling out only those data which support the said conclusion and disregarding all those which do not.

(1) By “spiritual nature,” the present writer means to indicate those aspects of the human being that do not lend themselves to quantification and measurement through the methods of physical science. Let the reader kindly not interpolate into this definition more than is intended by it. One must after all employ some manner of expressing that which does not pertain to physical nature, but rather expresses itself through it, and “spiritual” seemed to be the best choice. An example of a phenomenon that pertains to the spiritual nature of the human being is the cognitive agency by which the present author is attempting to marshal a coherent and persuasive argument against the conceited Zeitgeist of scientism, as well as the similar thinking activity which Firth offered in service of it, and that by which the present reader may, being obliged, weigh the merits of these antithetical positions.

(2) By “culling out only those data which support the denial of the spiritual nature of the human being,” one means to draw attention to the approach general amongst modern scientists that simply does not allow something like this thinking agency, nor the consciousness, of it, to count as evidence against the foregone conclusion that it is in some way illusory. On the contrary, it is assumed at the outset that such apparently spiritual aspects are in reality entirely reductible to physical ones. It can hardly be stated with sufficient emphasis or frequency that such a proposition is neither self-evident nor derivable from its own methods. In fact, if anything were self-evident, it would be the opposite: after all, anything of which we are most immediately aware pertains to this spiritual nature. The facts about the physical world, on the contrary, are subsequent inferences from the former. This is not to say that they are unreal, but only that knowledge of them can only be of a contingent sort.

The proposition that apparently spiritual aspects of the human being are entirely the result of physical ones cannot be derived from an application of its own methods because physical investigation, in principle, can yield only physical findings and not metaphysical ones, which alone could constitute the grounds to peremptory sustain axiomatic methodological ones. If physical findings could yield axiomatic methodological findings directly, the notion of the scientific method, and the progress of science through history, would make little sense, since facts would immediately compel their own understanding. Neither, obviously, would weighing the question which Frith posed in his essay, since its answer would have been immediately dictated by specific experimental findings. The facts of the matter—that we are presently engaged in the disputation of this very question—disprove, therefore, that investigations according to the methods of physical science can offer anything more than the most rudimentary hints and suggestions about anything outside of its significant—and yet by all reasonable standards, extremely limited—purview. In his own way, Frith concedes this very fact: “To date, the scientific method is the most advanced cognitive technology we’ve developed for honing the accuracy of our consensus—a method involving continuous experimentation, discussion and replication.” Leaving aside possible points of contention with such a sweeping statement, the notion of “honing the accuracy of our consensus” indicates that Frith affirms that scientific consensus evolves through history. This is tantamount to acknowledging that specific experimental findings alone are not sufficient to compel the such a consensus…otherwise there would be no need for a development of the same. By extension of this fact, the scientific method, insofar as its scope is limited to physical phenomena, ought to remain decidedly non-committal about questions outside of this scope—like whether our apparently self-evident experience of agency is an illusion.

Despite being an illusion, Frith nevertheless affirms that a belief in individual agency, and the sense of responsibility that it engenders, is a sine qua non for a cohesive social fabric: “the bedrock of culture.” It is unclear how a real sense of responsibility is possible if the sense of agency upon which it depends is illusory. Frith himself seems to be of two minds on the matter, at once expressly denying the reality of agency while continually appealing to it in his description of human affairs throughout the essay. Indeed the existence of the essay itself seems to be a tacit affirmation of that very thing it expressly denies—after all, how are we to value the argument of it if the latter is understood as the issue of mere habit? Such questions, far from representing mere quibbles or personal polemics—which could hardly be further from the present writer’s habit or intention—are crucial to establish a viable world-conception. Science can never truly be sundered from ethics, in spite of what naïve peddlers of the discipline who extol such virtues as “objectivity” and “impartiality” would have it. Ethics purports to guide us in how to act in the world. Obviously, however, such a question cannot possibly be approached without an idea of what kind of place the world is. It is often to science that we turn to for answers to this question. Science, therefore, is always implicitly adopting an ethical position in the very manner and methodology by which it approaches any question. In this respect, science and ethics are inextricably interwoven. This should hardly come as a surprise: after all, both stem from the same human spirit. Such a connection will only elude the one who supposes that the same does not exist. The commonplace rejection of the human spirit in the name of science, which was the subject of earlier paragraphs, presents no exception to this intrinsic connection of science and ethics. For this reason, to deny the reality of individual agency is not merely a scientific assertion, but also an ethical one.

As a habit, the present writer has merely passed over such affronts to human dignity as one might avoid obstacles in one’s path and because it has seemed beneath that same dignity to engage them. But habit alone has never been the sole arbiter of one’s actions and the stakes of the question that Frith broached do not allow one to remain altogether silent. Frith appears to share the concern of the present writer: “Humans are social animals, but we’d be unable to cooperate or get along in communities if we couldn’t agree on the kinds of creatures we are and the sort of world we inhabit. It’s only by reflecting, sharing and accounting for our experiences that we can find such common ground.” One almost senses that Frith may have written his own rebuttal better than I have managed. Still, if the reader has been inspired to consider this question with something of the depth that it deserves, then the present critique will not have been composed in vain.

4 Comments Add yours

  1. Hesiod says:

    Excellent. Such commentary on these matters by like folk irk me too. As if a neuroscience degree or the like acts as a default paper of authority (a logical fallacy anyway) that we should just bow to. Too bad these publications that run incoherent and misleading ruminations by “scientists” would never run a piece like yours…but we both know why.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Max Leyf says:

      Thank you for your comment. I have some ideas why they might not, but I would be curious to hear your take.


  2. Hesiod says:

    Well, for one, you don’t conform to the sterile materialist orthodoxy (notwithstanding that there is a wealth of scientific studies and papers that seem to suggest its bankruptcy). Two, like Rupert Sheldrake, any inclusion of the spiritual or ethical into the “scientific” is a no-no. Three, and most importantly(!), you refuse to surrender philosophy into the handmaiden of materialism. Three strikes right there Max. You’re out! :p

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Max Leyf says:

      Fair enough, I won’t deny it. “The world is still deceived with ornament.”


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