Review of Guus Labooy’s “Freedom and Dispositions”

Review of Guus Labooy’s “Freedom and Dispositions”

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Neil Spurway, editor of ESSSAT News, reviews “Freedom and Dispositions: Two Main Concepts in Theology and Biological Psychiatry” by Guus Labooy, a clinical psychiatrist and pastor. First published in ESSSAT News 13:3, Spurway’s critical and concise treatment of the text considers Labooy’s use of analytical philosophy, Scotistic thought, and philosophical theology in defending free will against biological determinism.

Neil Spurway, M.A., Ph.D, is retired Professor of Exercise Physiology at Glasgow University. His lifelong interest in Science and Religion (he would read Gifford Lectures when he should have been preparing for school) was formalized when he took over editorship of ESSSAT News in Fall 2001. Spurway was the first elected chair of the Glasgow University Gifford Lectures, and edited “Humanity, Environment, and God: Glasgow Centenary Gifford Lectures.”



I initially hoped that a professional philosopher would volunteer to review this book. But ESSSAT has relatively few such members, and particularly few who are analytic philosophers. I earnestly trust that this serious study will be subjected to that kind of critique in the pages of journals such as “Mind”. However, for the predominant ESSSAT readership, a non-specialist assessment is probably more appropriate.

Guus Labooy’s first profession was clinical psychiatry. Trained in the Dutch school, he has the linguistic skills to draw freely also on both the Austro-German and the Anglo-American traditions. (Note that French names do not appear, for his concern is not psychoanalysis: clinical psychiatry is the discipline which makes extensive use of pharmacological, and sometimes even physical interventions, in treating mental illness.) Even in this field, however, Labooy shares with such thinkers as Nancy Andreasen the view that the sufferer’s personal decisions remain crucial. Biological determinism does not operate: we have free will!

One of the best-known experimental studies, which is widely considered to indicate otherwise, is Benjamin Libet’s demonstration that test subjects become aware of deciding to perform an action about a third of a second after the first recordable neuronal activity relating to the movement. In the face of such experimental evidence, and the immense weight of clinical experience indicating that mental functions are inextricably bound up with neuroanatomy and biochemistry, Dr Labooy has sought philosophical grounds for upholding the subjective sense of freely willed decision. He took a doctorate in philosophical theology to pursue this theme, and the present volume is the outcome. Furthermore, with great intellectual courage, he chose not to turn to phenomenology, existentialism, or structuralism, let alone their post-modern successors: a Daniel in the lion’s den, he turned to Anglo-Saxon analytical philosophy, with all its materialist and even behaviourist leanings, represented by such thinkers as Carnap and Ryle, Smart, Kim, Putnam and the Churchlands.

Nevertheless, his approach is not narrowly modern. It is historically grounded in the writings of Duns Scotus, from whom Labooy adopts the concepts of “synchronic contingency” (that a state of affairs which exists might, at this same time, not have existed) and “haecceitas” (the “this-ness”, or individual essence, of an entity). He deploys these concepts within the context of possible-world semantics, at times encapsulated in symbolic-logical formulations, and the core of theresultant book is a detailed and subtle analysis, in these terms, of concepts such as action and cause, determinism, freedom and disposition. (A disposition as such – a proneness to act in a particular way inspecific circumstances – can be displayed equally by inanimate andliving matter. The uniquely human situation, as Labooy perceives it, is focused under the refined formulation of an “act-disposition”.) I doubt if even a professional could summarize the argument in a few lines; it deserves to be studied with a degree of care commensurate with that which was devoted to its construction. Nevertheless, the conclusion is, in the circumstances, perhaps unsurprising – namely, that the concept of determinism is inconsistent.

In the last third of the book, Guus Labooy moves onto more familiar “Science/Religion” territory. First he considers Augustine, Barth and the concept of sin. The style remains philosophical but the context has become theological. Next, he has my approval for rejecting the ideathat chaotic phenomena provide the toe-hold for Divine action in the universe; but then he addresses the concept of Miracle, in terms which I find elusive. The final chapter returns to psychiatry, ending with a section on Imago Dei in the perspective of mental illness.

Being myself trained as physiologist, I question whether the book’s core argument is either correct or necessary. To me it is sufficient that, without my conscious decision to act, the act will not occur. The fact that my decision is itself caused by the interaction of 10,000 interacting biological and social factor means only that I am a moderately rational and consistent personality. Not being such a causally-decided creature is what would worry me!

Though I am consequently unpersuaded by the overall argument, it is a pleasure to say that the book is for the most part wonderfully lucid at the individual sentence level, and often displays a charmingly light touch. Furthermore, the translation by Gerrit Brandt has the stamp of being among the finest one has seen. Despite my doubts, from a different background, about the ultimate value of Labooy’s approach, I suspect that, when it is reviewed professionally, his book will be adjudged as very good indeed.

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