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Narrowing the Divide

by Antony Flew

The response by Roger Squires (Issue No. 2, 1991) to my piece in the first issue of Philosophy Now was so sympathetic that I shall now attempt to extend our already considerable measure of agreement.

First, while accepting my distinction between movings and motions he proceeds to object that, in making that distinction, I at least appear to claim “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”.

No doubt it did appear to Squires (and perhaps to many others) that I was making that claim. But that was because he (and they) insisted upon construing the word ‘experience’ in its technical, philosophical sense; the sense in which experience is an essentially subjective, ‘in the mind’, Humian impression. In that sense a claim to have enjoyed or suffered some sort of experience carries no entailments concerning what – genuflecting towards (not the altar but) the stove of Descartes – we may call the External World. By contrast, in the ordinary, everyday, untechnical sense, claims to have had experience of cows or of computers just are claims to have had experience of real, flesh-and-blood cows or real, chips-and-wires computers. Pause to reflect upon the likely reception at interview of a candidate for some job demanding such experience who confessed that, having graduated with honours in Philosophy, he was prepared to affirm no more than that he had often dreamed of computers or frequently enjoyed cowish sense-data!

What I actually wrote was: “Contemplation of … passages in Locke should be sufficient to show … that we all of us have the most direct, and the most inexpugnably certain experience … both, on some occasions, of being able to do other than we do do and, on other occasions, of being unable to behave in any other way than that in which we are behaving.” The experience referred to here is experience in the ordinary, everyday untechnical sense.

Squires objects that, in this matter as in others, people can be and often are mistaken in their beliefs. Certainly that is true. But here, as elsewhere again, the possibility of error is not proof of the impossibility of knowledge. To say that Squires and Flew both know some proposition is not falsely to assert our joint infallibility. It is only to maintain that we both believe and are justified in believing that that proposition is true, which, as a matter of fact, it is.

Squires cites the case of a man who on waking up does not realize that one of his arms is temporarily paralyzed. So what? He was on that occasion mistaken. That, however, does nothing to show that, on any of the other far more numerous occasions when it was not paralyzed, he did not really know that he could move his arm. Just so soon as, on some particular occasion, anyone finds reason to doubt whether they retain some previously possessed capacity, then they can at once put the issue to the test: not by launching an introspective search for the nonexistent impression from which the idea of power or capacity would supposedly have to be derived; but by simply trying to exercise those capacities, and thus discovering whether or not success crowns their efforts.

The second main point which Squires makes is that “When Flew claims that the existence of movings is incompatible with universal, necessitating determinism, he needs an argument.” That, of course, is perfectly true. But my hope was to have provided just such an argument in my contention that the contrasting and surely incompatible notions of, on the one hand, physical necessity and physical impossibility and, on the other hand, action, choice and being able to do other than we do do are and can only be acquired and explained ostensively.

This is a contention which would be decisively disproved were someone to succeed in producing acceptable non-ostensive definitions of these fundamental terms and expressions. But if it is correct, and if to say that someone could have done other than they did is – as it surely is – incompatible with the assertion that their behaviour was physically necessitated, then it becomes out of the question to insist that all human behaviour is physically necessitated; and, consequently, that there can be no actual and proper application for the expression ‘he (or she) could not have done other than they did’.

© Professor Antony Flew 1992

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