Sunday, April 04, 2010

I Sink, Therefore I’m Not

by Joel Marks

Published in Philosophy Now, issue no. 77, February/March 2010, p. 39

I do have revelations at the kitchen sink. Just a few minutes ago I had one. Of the myriad thoughts always racing through my head, one caught hold of my attention as I was washing a breakfast dish. The idea that struck me was that my washing of that dish was as “determined” as determined could be. That is, in a very local sense of metaphysical determinism, I could sense the inevitability of the event’s occurring as a result of the current and immediately preceding circumstances. Specifically, there were dishes from which I had just eaten sitting in the sink, and I wasn’t about to let them continue to sit there indefinitely because they would become encrusted with the food scraps that could now be easily removed, and would take up space I would want for preparing lunch, and would grow into a pile from more than one meal that would be far more onerous to clean.

This was truly a moment of perceiving my inner robot. I do believe we are all robots – natural ones, of course, as opposed to created in some factory. But everything that we do is ultimately a matter of stimulus and response, granted via innumerable mediations of physiology and so forth. As I washed the dishes I began to review in my mind my morning rounds, beginning with the alarm clock waking me up. It soon became apparent that the short period of time between awakening and washing those dishes was filled with a virtual infinity of mechanical encounters.

As an eternity had already passed by the time I came down to the kitchen, let me begin my story just before breakfast. There was a dish rack full of last night’s dishes, so I proceeded to place the various items in their usual places – the better to find them again in future -- while also keeping out those I would be using again for breakfast. This was not an uninterrupted process, however, since in replacing an item I would also come into proximity of something I would need for breakfast, such as the glass I would use for my orange juice that sat in the cupboard where I was replacing last night’s tea cup. Removing the glass would then prompt me to walk over to the refrigerator, where I would grab the juice carton. This would in turn send me to the kitchen counter, where I would pour the juice. Ah, but I’d reached the bottom of this carton and didn’t yet have enough juice in the glass, so I tossed the carton into the waste bin and returned to the refrigerator to pull out a new carton, which brought me back to the counter, where I opened it … with another brief visit to the bin to toss the seal of the new carton … then back to the counter ….

Well, you get the idea. The point is: it never ends. (Nor, for all I know, does it ever begin). My typing these words is all part of the exact same sequence, one thing leading to the next, with perfect reasonableness in most cases, and in others for unknown reasons but without any deep mystery. An example of the latter might be: Why was I thinking about determinism while washing that dish? But even there I can easily sketch an explanation, although of course I am unable to tell you which neurons were firing, etc. It came about, I am sure, because I had attended a fascinating colloquium earlier in the week about determinism and free will! This is already a subject that fascinates me … which, of course, is why I was attending that colloquium! I could well having been pondering my freedom, or lack thereof, even had I not gone to the colloquium; but it seems plausible that the currency of that colloquium is responsible for the particular force with which my dish-washing exemplified the phenomenon for me this morning.

I now just took a glance at the notes I scribbled down when in the throes of the revelation. “& meanwhile all these thoughts coursing thru my head,” I wrote; then, “(& writing down these words!)” with an arrow pointing to the preceding phrase, and then another arrow pointing to itself (the phrase in parentheses). Yes, of course: even my thinking about determinism was determined by factors internal and external to my body and preceding and concurrent with the thinking. Where in any of this is there room for some “free” act of “will”? Nowhere at all. In fact, there isn’t even any place for me – for an agent who does any of this stuff. What there is is a flow of events, including some that we conceive as experiences of our own self initiating various actions on its own behalf. But the way we conceptualize the flow (probably even including conceptualizing it as a flow) is rife with anomalies and gaps, which current science is filling in and rationalizing. The final result will be a story about what is going on that is utterly different from the tale we are accustomed to tell. And the trickiest part may not be the neuroscience and such but the replacement of our everyday vocabulary with a more scientifically informed one. For example, somehow we are going to have to learn how to talk about ourselves without even referring to “me.” Our present language only enables us to utter nonsense, such as “I do not exist.” Says who, right?


Joel Marks is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the University of New Haven in West Haven, Connecticut, and a Bioethics Center Scholar at Yale University. He has his greatest ideas upon awakening, while walking, washing dishes, and taking showers (but not all at the same time). The kitchen sink at which his most recent revelation occurred is the very same one pictured on the cover of his book of Moral Moments published a decade ago. He thanks Joshua Greene for being the stimulus of this essay.

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