an autodidact meets a dilettante…

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

Posts Tagged ‘morality

Is free will a thing? Apparently not.

with 16 comments

Science appears to be cutting the gordian knot of philosophical isms

Canto: The subject of free will often comes up, and I’ve recently read Sam Harris’ booklet on it, so I want to state right now my view that if we do have free will, it’s a far more circumscribed thing than many prefer to believe, and I’m open to the view that it doesn’t exist at all.

Jacinta: Yes I’ve read a fair bit on the subject over the years, including Dennett’s Elbow Room in the eighties, and a collection of essays edited by Bernard Berofsky, dating back to the sixties, but like everyone I’ve forgotten almost all of any book I’ve read within weeks of having read it, so it’ll be good to get back to the subject enfin. 

Canto: But have you been exercised by the actual subject, intellectually speaking?

Jacinta: Very much so. Let’s return to our old friend the Dunedin longitudinal study, which indicates that the various personality types – roughly characterised as well-adjusted, confident, reserved, under-controlled and inhibited – are established very early on and rarely change outside of neurological damage. These constrain free will, as does your broad environment, for example whether you’re a scion of the British aristocracy or the offspring of Mongolian goat-herders. You’re not free to choose these things or your genetic inheritance or, presumably, your neuronal wiring, at least not as a youngster.

Canto: I think the free will people would concede all that, but their best argument would be that in spite of all the determining factors that make you who you are, your moment-to-moment decisions – whether to get out of bed or sleep in for a while, whether to break your diet or stick to it, whether to watch a TV program or go to the pub, whether to study physics or psychology at uni (assuming you’re qualified to do either), and so on – these decisions are made of your own volition, so you are responsible for them and nobody else. If there’s no free will, there’s no responsibility, therefore nothing or nobody to praise or blame. And then where would we be with our ethics?

Jacinta: That’s interesting because we often get confused about that, or some people do. I would say most people believe we have free will, so we’re happy to punish people for criminal acts. They chose to commit them after all. But take those serial paedophiles that the tabloid press like to call ‘monsters’. They describe them as incorrigible – that’s to say, uncorrectable. So they should never be released again into the public, once they’ve been proven to commit some heinous paedophile act. What’s being claimed here is that the paedophile can’t help but commit these acts again and again – he has no choice, and presumably had no choice to begin with. But prison is a terrible punishment for someone who has no choice but to be what he is. They’re denying that he has free will, but punishing him for acts that should only be punished if they’re undertaken freely. You can’t have it both ways.

Canto: Well put, and my own tendency towards what used to be called hard determinism comes from reading the writings of ‘compatibilists’ or ‘reconciliationists’ who wanted, I thought, to give themselves as much credit for their success as they possibly could, seeing that they were successful academic philosophers earning, I assumed, the kind of salaries I could only dream of. On the other hand, as a hard determinist, I naturally wanted to blame everyone else, my parents, my working class environment, my lack of wealthy and educated connections, for my abject failures in life.

Jacinta: You jest a little, but I know you’re being essentially serious, in that the Gina Rineharts of the world, inheritors of millions, are the biggest spruikers of the notion that everyone is free to be as rich as everyone else but most people are just too slack, or, for reasons unfathomable to her, aren’t sufficiently interested in material self-enrichment, so they get precisely what they deserve.

Canto: Or what they’re destined to get. Just reading through some of that old philosophical material though, I find myself reliving my impatience with the academicism of philosophy. For example, the endless analysis of ‘able to’, as in ‘she’s able to play the piano’ but she can’t because she hasn’t got one right now. So she has the skill but not, right now, the equipment. Perhaps because she’s fallen on hard times and has had to sell it. Which leads to having ‘potential ability’. She might have been one of the world’s greatest soccer players, having the requisite skill, speed, drive, etc, but she was never introduced to the game or was discouraged from playing it.

Jacinta: She was told to study piano instead. Or more importantly, potential scientific geniuses who just didn’t get the opportunity due to a host of external circumstances, to attain that potential. They say geniuses are made not born, but they require external material to make themselves into geniuses, if that’s what they do. The point is that you can get caught up with words like ‘able to’ or ‘could have done otherwise’, which you can then interpret in varieties of ways, and it becomes almost a philosophy of language thing. But the main point is that although it seems obvious that you can choose between having a piece of cake before bedtime or not, these aren’t the most important choices..

Canto: And maybe even these choices aren’t as freely made as we might think, according to research Sam Harris cites in his essay. It seems science is catching up with what I knew all along. Not only do we have no control whatever over our genetic inheritance, but the way those genes are expressed, based largely on environmental factors, which lead to our brains being wired up in particular ways to release particular levels of hormones and neurotransmitters in patterned ways, leading to those character types identified in the Dunedin study, all of this is way beyond our conscious control. In fact it’s fair to say that the gradual retreat of the notion of free will is largely the result of the assault on the primacy of consciousness. Far more of what we do is less conscious than we think.

Jacinta: Yes the neurophysiological research around everyday ‘decisions’ is compelling, and disturbing to many. It suggests that our feeling of having freely decided on something is a delusion, though perhaps an evolutionarily useful one. Believing in free will usually entails belief in personal moral responsibility, and thus supports punishment for damaging acts and reward for heroic or beneficial ones. And  some research has actually shown that people primed to disbelieve in free will are more prepared to cheat and pilfer than those who aren’t.

Canto: So if this continues, this spread of disbelief or skepticism about free will, it may lead to a spike in criminal activity, large and small?

Jacinta: Well I don’t know if there’s been a rise in crime, but there has certainly been a rise in ‘my brain made me do it’ defenses. The effect of all this might be a ‘go with the flow’ attitude to pursue self-interest because your brain’s wiring supposedly impels you to.

Canto: So, that’s interesting, maybe a solution to this is more knowledge. The understanding that we’re the most social mammals on the planet, and that what we do, such as cheating and pilfering, adversely affects others, which will ultimately rebound on us. Even our brain’s own wiring has been caused by environmental factors, primary among those being human factors. So emphasising that our ‘self’ is more of a social self than our privileged access might lead us to believe will encourage us to consider what we owe to the wider society that helped shape us.

Jacinta: Yes, that’s a good point. And I think, as Harris and others point out, jettisoning the free will notion should help us reduce our tendency to blame and hate. I struggle myself with this – I ‘hate’ Trump, but I quickly realise he’s always been like this, and I can’t even blame his parents, who are what they are, etc. So I turn, as I think I should, to a US political system that enables such a person to reach the position he’s reached. In focusing on this system I can heap blame upon blame to my heart’s content, which I always love to do, without getting personal, which may have rebounding consequences for me. It’s a great solution.

Canto: Anyway, I think we’ve just scratched the surface with this one. Don’t we sometimes appear to agonise over decisions? People make lists of pros and cons about whether to spend x money or whether to travel to y, or whether or not to break up with z. How does this sort with a lack of free will? There must be a lot more to say.

Jacinta: It’s determined by our brain’s wiring that we agonise over some of our decisions and not over others. And how often do we make those lists you speak of, often prompted by others, and then just go with our original intuition?

Canto: Hmmm, I still think this is all worth further consideration…

Jacinta: I don’t think there’s any way you can seriously argue for free will. The argument is essentially about the consequences.


Sam Harris, Free will

Bernard Berofsky, ed, Free will and determinism


Written by stewart henderson

May 15, 2018 at 10:16 am

some thoughts on the Edward Snowden affair

with one comment


Like many people, my imagination has been exercised by the Edward Snowden case, though I haven’t followed ii particularly closely. When I do think of it, it’s in terms of what the USA’s National Security Agency has been up to. As a humanist, I’m obviously not so concerned about the security of particular nations as I am about the human consequences of surveillance, spying, secretiveness and the like. So it was with some interest that I read in yesterday’s Adelaide Advertiser a letter to the editor which argued that Snowden had not committed a “real crime”. I thought the argument, prima facie, a good one. Snowden released secret data collected by the NSA about individuals – or released data to the effect that the NSA was spying on individuals, I’m not sure of the details – but not before making sure he was in a foreign country, out of the reach of the US government. Since then, there has been much shrieking about treason, not only from US officials, but from US allies. This is as you would expect. Imagine, though, a North Korean citizen releasing data to the effect that North Korea’s National Security Agency was collecting data, not only on North Korean citizens, but on citizens of many other nations. But this North Korean citizen waited until she was out of the country (let’s say in the USA) before releasing the data. North Korea’s government shrieks treason and demands that the individual is returned to North Korea to face the consequences of her actions. I would be very surprised if the US government acceded to such a request. I imagine that the western newspapers would place much more emphasis on the information leaked by this ‘traitor’ than on her behaviour, and that she would be treated more as a hero than a villain. And we can look at many other scenarios of this kind, with many different responses, depending on national allegiances. It follows that this kind of behaviour is not a ‘real crime’ in the way that murder, rape, theft, assault and many other crimes obviously are.

I can imagine counter-arguments. For example, that this just takes a libertarian line, saying that ‘real crimes’ are only those against individual liberty, while ignoring what we owe to our nation, the abuse of which is like an abuse to ourselves, and has the potential to make each of us more insecure. My response to that would be that, while I do find nationalism a rather shallow allegiance, that doesn’t make me a libertarian, as I believe very strongly in the ‘social glue’ that enriches our humanity and is in fact essential to it. So the behaviour would have to be measured in a more complex way, against the background of how it affects the non-national, human social glue as opposed to how it affects nationalistic concerns, which themselves have their shifting impacts, pro and con, on the human social glue.

Taking that argument, and considering what seems to have been leaked – but I admit I haven’t looked at the detail of that – the criminality of Snowden’s actions seems at the very least questionable. And besides, I would take the USA’s complaints more seriously if they made a more serious attempt to subscribe to international law and international criminal jurisdiction, which of course successive US governments treat with scarcely veiled contempt.

Written by stewart henderson

July 13, 2013 at 8:34 am

how to debate William Lane Craig, or not – part 7, objective moral values and duties

with 12 comments

ceci n'est pas Jesus

ceci n’est pas Jesus

Dr Craig’s sixth claim, that his god is the best explanation for objective moral values, is one I want to dwell on at some length, so please sit back in your electrified chairs and enjoy my reflections if you can. But please note that I dwell on the subject for my own interest’s sake, not because I find Dr Craig’s views require much work to overcome – far from it.

I suppose it’s fair to say that when it comes to moral issues, unlike with matters scientific, we all like to consider ourselves experts, and we’re all a little more committed and vociferous, because – it’s personal. So I’ll begin with some personal stuff. From earliest childhood I’ve always felt very emotional about issues of cruelty and injustice. I was often in tears on witnessing kids in my class being bullied – more often than not by teachers. When I was a little boy I read the Hans Andersen story, ‘the little match girl’, a simple but devastating story about a young girl out in the cold snow, trying to sell matches for her impoverished family, afraid to go home without having sold any. She finally dies, out in the cold, on the last night of the year. This tale of unfairness and cruelty and indifference, had me awash with tears at the time, and literally haunted my childhood. I think it’s fair to say that a sense of empathy was well developed in me from an early age. Needless to say, ethical ideas based on the harm principle, such as those articulated by the liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill, held great appeal for me, but further than this, active moral programs to protect and support individual human beings, such as those enshrined in the universal declaration of human rights and in the many conventions and protocols that have followed from that declaration, are programs that I hold dear.

The point I’m making here is that the starting point for my own moral values was an emotional one, a visceral one, if you like, and not something derived from any ‘higher consciousness’ or reflectivity or rationality.  And I suspect that’s quite a common experience. We don’t generally choose to cry over or be haunted by an injustice. So where do these deep emotional feelings come from? I have absolutely no reason to associate them with a non-material being who has, as far as I’m aware, never communicated anything to me. Nor was I, during my childhood, convinced that everyone would feel the same way as I did if exposed to the story of the little match girl. Some would, I was sure, but others would be cruelly indifferent, and there would be a whole variety of responses along the spectrum. In short, my observations of life, even from an early age, told me that people valued things and experiences very differently from me, and very differently from each other, to a rather bewildering and unpredictable degree.

So, from the fore-going I hope it won’t come as a surprise to you that I don’t believe in objective moral values, but that I’m far from believing that this entails some kind of moral nihilism or amorality. In Dr Craig’s presentation of this argument, he suggests that those who don’t subscribe to objective moral values, by which he means, values that come from a male supernatural being, don’t see anything ‘really’ wrong with the massacre of schoolchildren. Let me put that in another way. He argues that my own deeply felt disgust, shock, anger and pain, when I hear about, and see, played out on my tv screen, those sorts of crimes, is not really real, because it isn’t connected to a non-material creator-protector god, which is how he defines objective morality. I find this a ridiculous argument, as well as an offensive one.

Firstly, Dr Craig’s version of morality is a sham because it exists nowhere. Dr Craig will not be able to give you a single instance of a command from his favoured deity. The decalogue, the ten commandments, were written by men, and though some of them may seem uncontroversial – don’t lie, steal, don’t kill – even these aren’t absolute. A starving person, in my view, would be justified in taking food belonging to another person, who had an abundance of such food, if the alternate was death. I have no difficulty with that. Some people would, as they have the view that private property is sacrosanct. And I could make similar arguments to justify lying, and even killing, under certain special circumstances. To me, there are no absolutes. Other commandments, such as keeping the sabbath day holy, I don’t take at all seriously, because I don’t believe a supernatural being made the world in seven days, though had I lived several thousand years ago, I might well have believed that. And so my morality would have been different then, just as my morality would be different if I were born, on the same day that I actually was born, but in the city of Basra, to a devout Moslem family. My morality, that I hold so dear, and which gives my life so much meaning, is the result of my particular upbringing, my peculiar variety of experiences and influences, the culture that I was born into, my genetic inheritance, and I’m sure there are other factors that I’ve left out. One thing I’m happy to leave out, though, is the command of a deity. I’ve never experienced such a command, and I have no reason to believe anyone else has either.

Now, there are atheists I know who argue for an objective morality, but obviously not grounded in a deity. Personally I find such rational arguments a bit weird, and I’ll say no more about them here, except to make the obvious point that being an atheist doesn’t commit you to any specific moral position, as it’s simply an absence of belief in a deity. That’s all.

What I do want to focus on is the claim that morality without a deity is merely subjective and not really real. That’s to say, without a deity we can do whatever we like and call it morality. Well, that’s not how I feel about morality, and it’s not how morality, and laws relating to morality (and most laws have some sort of moral reasoning behind them) have developed in our increasingly secular society. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is entirely secular, and I think it’s a grand step forward in global human interaction. And it’s more of an effect than a cause, it’s symptomatic of a gradual shift in our attitude to other cultures, in our attitude to race, whether the concept is a valid one or not. In the attitude of men to women, in the attitude of heterosexuals to homosexuals, in our attitude to and respect for children, and in our attitude to and respect for other species on this planet. All of these attitudes have changed drastically in the past 150 years or so. Living in an eternal present as we often do, we can easily overlook how thoroughly transformational these essentially moral developments have been, and they’ve owed nothing whatever to religion, which has generally dragged its heels at the rear. Look, for example, at the Catholic Church.

I’m an avid reader of history, and as such I’ve noted the social changes, particularly in western Europe, that occurred over the past 400 years or so. What has always struck me, in reading about the Thirty Years’ war or the English revolution of the 17th century, or the early slave trade, is how often and regularly God (the Judeo-Christian one) is invoked in the primary documents of those times. God appears on every page, often several times on every page, of every legal document. I’ve described the 17th century, and the centuries before, as a ‘god-besotted age’. And yet the everyday brutality, the callous inhumanity, the cruelty, the viciousness, the inequity, the impoverishment of basic human values of those times, were everywhere on display. If you think you’ve got problems now, transport yourself back to pre-Enlightenment Europe for a wake-up call. Arbitrary rulers, upstart priests, popular revolutionaries, all invoked the divine in order to invest themselves with authority, as still happens today. Think of the divine right of kings, and papal infallibility, and the dear leader and great leaders of North Korea, who promoted themselves as divine. In the past, monarchs regularly passed laws in the name of the god whom they represented. Nowadays, elected politicians pass laws in the name of the people who elected them. It seems to have been a great improvement.

Our morality and our laws are grounded, it seems to me, in our common, but changing, evolving human nature. This is not mere subjectivity. In fact it’s all we have to go on. We don’t make up our own morality as individuals because we’re essentially social beings who rely on each other for our survival and our thriving. We’re empathic because we see ourselves in others and others in ourselves. And we’ve evolved that empathic capacity to embrace species other than our own, which I think is a great step forward.

The theist has no ground for objective moral values because no single moral value, claiming to be objective, has ever been shown to come from a deity. I have no doubt that they’ve all come from human beings.

Written by stewart henderson

March 22, 2013 at 9:55 am