… inverting the familiar question about human freedom, might humans be an exception to the otherwise universal rule of law to the almost diametrically opposite question, might humans be an extreme exception to an otherwise largely disordered and unruly universe, opens up a quite different, and perhaps more productive, set of questions.
Final post from Processes of Life: Essays in the Philosophy of Biology by John Dupré (2012):
… many of us are still captivated by a neo-Laplacean picture in which everything really happens at the microphysical level, which is causally closed and complete. And this picture cannot escape the implication that everything above the microphysical level is merely epiphenomenal. If the parts of a thing have their behavior determined by microphysics then so must the behavior of the composite thing be determined. Any appearance that it has causal powers of its own is illusory. It is no more or less necessary to appeal for causal explanation to the properties of my mental states than it is to the liquidity of water or the motion of tectonic plates. To a Laplacean calculator all are just the upshots of countless microscopic movements.
… The microphysical determination of everyday events is, at least, hardly something open to causal inspection. It is, on the contrary, a metaphysical assumption, and once open to serious consideration it is, it seems to me, a highly implausible one.
Abandoning the assumption of causal completeness is giving up the idea of the universal reign of law, the assumption that everything happens in accordance with some universal causal regularity. Speculatively (though the speculation is of course not original), I suggest that this is an idea grounded in the prescientific conception of law as the edict of a supreme lawgiver. Certainly God should be capable of regulating every event, however minute; whether nature could or should be expected to accomplish the same feat is another matter. Reflection on biology, on the other hand, should make such universal regularity quite implausible. Not only are life processes constantly beset by at least the appearance of irregularity and unpredictability but, more significantly, regularity is won with great difficulty and ingenuity. The mechanisms that make possible the regularities that constitute the persistence of living things are more astonishing the better we come to understand them.
Of course, this will seem entirely beside the point to someone convinced that universal law reigns at the microphysical level. My point so far, however, is not to show that biology refutes microphysical determinism, but that it is incumbent on the determinist to offer an account of the relation between physical and biological phenomena. The account will be reductionist, but not in the sense of explaining biological laws, since in the determinist’s sense there are none, but in the sense of explaining in principle every specific biological event. Irregularity is then an expected consequence of the microphysical heterogeneity of biological entities and processes. But then it appears that the determinist has explained too much; for biological regularities, the regularities that make possible the persistence of biological processes, while far from universal, are highly impressive and certainly in need of explanation.
I will not attempt to show that the determinist can’t meet this challenge, but rather suggest that this is a point in the dialectic at which an entirely different perspective begins to look much more attractive. This is the idea that causal regularity is in fact a rare and precious thing, bought at great cost in energy or ingenuity. Biology, from this point of view, is not so much about tracing out how the causal regularities at the microphysical lead deductively to the (partial) regularities at the biological level, but rather is a matter of seeing how the causal properties of physical entities are employed to constrain events and maintain the persistence of complex systems. New properties, put to such purposes, are constantly emerging as more complex entities come into being. The complex macromolecules employed by living systems have properties — catalysing other reactions, forming structures with strength, elasticity, etc., neutralizing alien biological entities, and so on — that are a result of their particular complex structures. The combinations of these new causal capacities in turn create systems with entirely new (emergent) capacities — the abilities to fix atmospheric nitrogen, say, or run down and consume prey — capacities that contribute to the persistence of the highly complex systems of which they are part.
In this light, now consider the human developmental system, surely the most complex system in our experience. This deploys the causal capacities of humans and the countless artefacts they create, and perpetuates the survival of the human lineage and the structures that serve that survival. Central to this system is the human mind, an abstraction that I take to refer to the densest concentration of causal capacities in our experience, the capacities exercised in human intelligence, and without which it would be inconceivable that the human developmental niche could be maintained and indeed give rise to ever larger numbers of humans, in turn creating a set of problems that human intelligence may or may not ultimately succeed in solving.
This then, to summarize, is the major step towards an understanding of human autonomy made possible by the rejection of determinism, and indeed leads to a far more satisfactory metaphysics of human nature. Causal order is not something found saturating every part of the universe. On the contrary it is something quite rare and specific to its locations. It is found in the simplicity of massive physical processes such as are studied by astronomers; it is created with great difficulty in the complex, elaborately controlled and isolated machines built by physical scientists; and most spectacularly, though very differently in form, it is found in living beings.
If there is a scale of nature, it is an increase in the causal powers, the construction of causal order and regularity. One respect in which the human mind constitutes a further step in this scale is because it involves a new level of capacity to transform the world beyond the organism. Humans, in my view, are the densest concentrations of causal capacities, or causal power, in our experience. The niches we have constructed for ourselves — warm and sheltered housing, landscapes dominated by edible plants and docile and tasty animals, roads and machinery for moving ourselves about, and so on — are remarkable testimony to our causal potency. But still, it may be asked, does this amount to real autonomy?
How much autonomy do we want?
[ … ]
… Can we choose what kind of person we will be, and if so when and how? Is it better to be causally efficacious than merely content (Socrates or a satisfied pig)? … My point is only that inverting the familiar question about human freedom, might humans be an exception to the otherwise universal rule of law to the almost diametrically opposite question, might humans be an extreme exception to an otherwise largely disordered and unruly universe, opens up a quite different, and perhaps more productive, set of questions.
[ … ]
… Even if humans are such effective foci of causal capacity that actions for reasons always exclude the possibility of acting otherwise in the sense of rational determinism, my wider view of the context in which these capacities develop is radically indeterministic. So I think compatibilist indeterminism is an ideal label bringing together the three strands of my account of human freedom.
[In the original, many of the instances of “causal” quoted in the above are printed as “casual.” I have taken the liberty of correcting what I feel reasonably sure are mistakes.]