There is no doubt that one of the characteristic features of the modern age is the lust for statistics. The business pages of our daily newspapers feature graphs, charts, and columns of figures. Investors wait breathlessly to obtain official word concerning the money supply, economic growth, interest rates, and on and on. To receive advance information is to receive a gift of profit. The U.S. government goes to great lengths, for example, to make certain that the Department of Agriculture’s monthly statistical compilation is released to members of the press simultaneously. The window shades are drawn in the statistical section on the morning of the press release, and anyone coming into the building must remain inside until the figures are released. He is, figuratively speaking, a prisoner of the numbers.
Why all this concern with numbers? Do numbers rule our lives? Are people merely cogs in a great machine which is run exclusively by the numbers?
There are a handful of philosophers and scientists who say that mankind is indeed a determined species, as are all other species, without any independence from the natural realm. Man’s feelings of independence and freedom are therefore illusions. Man is nothing more than a series of chemical reactions–matter in motion. He is not subordinate to a personal God or a personal anything. Man is simply a machine that dies. His reactions are produced by mechanical or chemical stimuli. Everything can be explained in terms of stimulus and response.
This sort of mechanistic philosophy has never been widely held. Most philosophers believe that men are partially the outcome of mechanical cause and effect, but also in part the product of human will, something which is not automatically produced by stimuli, but which can affect the external realm.
The Autonomy of the Will
This seems sensible enough, but on the basis of human logic, there is no way to explain the apparent freedom of man and still defend the universal rule of cause and effect. If a humanist denies that human will–ethics, for example–is produced automatically and inescapably by external stimuli, then he has to argue that this realm of human freedom lies outside the realm of science. It is outside the realm of logic, too. It is so far outside that it cannot be connected to “this world,” meaning the logical, scientific, cause-and-effect world.
But if we say this, then we can have little confidence that our ethical (or willful) decisions will, in fact, have any predictable effect on the external world. Ethics then becomes impotent. How can something (human will) which is completely outside logical cause and effect have any predictable, cause-and-effect influence on the external world? Once I lower the drawbridge of power (cause and effect) to enable my will to influence the external world, I have thereby allowed the invading realm of mechanical causation to rob me of my freedom. My will becomes like the external, “scientific” world: determined.
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