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Flew’s Moving Claims

by Roger Squires

In Philosophy Now (Issue no 1, 1991) Antony Flew “goes with the grain of English usage” in distinguishing between movings, “which can be initiated and quashed at will”, and mere motions. That is surely right. But two claims he appears to make about the distinction are questionable. One, that it is (or essentially involves) a difference in the mover’s experience, like the difference between an ache and an itch, or one colour and another. Two, that if there are movings at all, the thesis of ‘universal, necessitating determinism’ must be false. This note questions both.

It is quite common for someone to sleep in such a position that they lose all sensation in an arm and, when they first wake up, not to notice anything amiss. Suppose we ask such a person to move their arm up and down. They may be surprised that it stays at their side. What if we have rigged up a well-concealed apparatus which moves the arm up and down in the required way just after our request? This would be a motion not a moving; it would not be a marginal case (by which Flew says we should not be impressed). Yet it seems to be perfectly possible that the person should think it was a moving under their control.

What would convince them that it was a motion would not be the absence of the familiar feeling of control (whatever that is) but the revelation that the movement was produced by the clever device. This suggests that when the person moves the arm in the normal way it need not feel any different from the way it does or does not feel in the imagined case of temporary paralysis. This suggests there is something wrong with John Locke’s claim, approvingly quoted by Flew, that each person “finds in himself a power to begin or forebear” (italics added), though it does nothing to question the existence of such powers.

When Flew claims that the existence of movings is incompatible with universal, necessitating determinism, he needs an argument. A common one is that if determinism were true, our movements would have causes (themselves ultimately beyond our control) such that those movements had to occur. And that it would follow that they were motions rather than movings. Many philosophers, including Flew’s other hero David Hume, have challenged this. It is plausible that the movements would be motions, if they had to occur whether the person meant them to or not. But there is no obvious inconsistency in the person’s movements when doing what they meant to do being the only possible outcome deducible from some earlier state of affairs in accord with an accepted theory.

In the previous article Michael Norwitz quotes a similar incompatibilist argument from Peter van Inwagen (that if the causes of our actions are not up to us, the actions themselves and their outcomes are not up to us). Without further support this is no more convincing than the argument that a child does not inherit its parents’ genes because biologists have shown that it inherits its grandparents’ genes which existed before the parents were born!

Norwitz mentions an attempt by Daniel Dennett to show that the sense in which we require actions to be up to their perpetrator for moral or legal purposes is not the sense in which determinism would entail they are not up to that person. But he says this “comes off like a verbal trick”. Since when has the making of a distinction, which (if correct) would invalidate an influential argument that overlooks it, been dismissible as a trick? Philosophy could do with more of them!

© Roger Squires 1991

Roger Squires, who holds no brief for determinism or Dennett’s distinctions, is a Senior Lecturer at the University of St Andrews. He is the author of a few articles and thinks that it is even less likely that readers would be impressed by his photograph than by his arguments.

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