Internet Goosing the Antithesis

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Unspoken assumptions in denying free will

The denial of moral responsibility in materialism is not restricted to the Christian worldview. Secular or religious, deniers often try to undercut free will as their starting point. In the latest assault on moral responsibility, so-called psychologists Joshua Greene and Jonathan Cohen argue that, because the brain determines everything we do, we are not responsible for our actions, and that the law should not be punitive but rather be consequentialist.

That's the nice way of putting it. As I see it, while I am not against consequentialism in principle, in this case consequentialism seems to me simply to mean : treat man as a meat machine and try to control it. I've seen the same argument applied to politics, calling for more welfare because after all man has no free will and therefore has no responsibility whatsoever for his own outcomes. Therefore, total control of society is desirable. The fallacy of Special Pleading, in both cases, seems to apply. Neither the judge, nor the politician, nor the person who proposes consequentialism, is any more than a meat machine either, in this perspective, so these beliefs are self-referentially nonsensical.

People who should know better often use properties of the brain to try to deny free will. The article I linked argues that, because we can trace all thoughts and attitudes in the brain - because we are in theory not uncertain about anything in the mind - there must be no free will. Others argue that free will does not exist because we know neurologically that our choice to press a button follows the impulse to press it.

But here's the problem : we have no more reason to think that free will expresses itself in neurological uncertainty, or neurological temporality, any more than we have reason to think that, say, the concept "red" is encoded by neurons that glow red, or that our perception of a violent event should hurt the perceiver's brain. We have no grounds to assume anything about how any mind experience is expressed in the brain until we actually find it. To assume that free will "must be expressed" in a certain way is to hold a belief about it that is not based on fact.

This pseudo-scientific anticipation is much like homeopathy and its principle of "like cures like". It's not because something has a metaphorical resemblance to something else that both have a relation, and the absence of such a resemblance does not mean there is no relation. Aspirin doesn't look like a headache, but it still cures headaches.

And yes, before the Objectivists start getting impatient, I haven't forgotten that free will is axiomatic. To deny free will demands one to direct one's attention to facts and arguments, and therefore is automatically self-refuting. It's not really the epistemic aspect that interests me, in this case, but rather people's unspoken assumptions that lead them to deny free will.

The more important unspoken assumption, however, is the assumption that we are separate from our brain. And this is where the pseudo-scientific side joins Christianity fully. Both assume that :

(1) It is a necessary precondition of moral responsibility that "I" decide what I am doing.
(2a) If materialism is true, "I" am not morally responsible because "my brain" makes "I" (me) do things.

Yet from the materialist standpoint, this is wholly incoherent, as "my brain" is part of "I". The proposition then becomes :

(2b) If materialism is true, "I" am morally responsible because part of "I" (myself) makes "I" (me) do things.

For the argument that something exterior to myself ("the brain") is nullifying my moral responsibility fails, as "the brain" is not exterior to myself.

In essence, both the Christian and the subjectivist claim that moral responsibility is only possible if the mind-brain connection is severed - the only difference is that only the Christian claims that the connection is indeed severed. But as in most things, both hold to the same epistemic premises. However, it is obvious that moral responsibility is only possible if the mind-brain connection is maintained.

Suppose that the mind had no causal relation to the brain, and that I have a "soul". Thoughts pop in my mind with no relation to reality. One second I love all mankind, the next I desire to kill. How can I possibly be held responsible for these thoughts ? They are not the result of any reasoning on my part, since reasoning would require empirical evidence, which would require a causal link to reality. They are not the result of my personality, since the personality is part of the brain. So how am "I" in any way responsible for my desires ? This seems quite impossible.

On the other hand, if there is a brain-mind identity, then my thoughts and desires are part and parcel of my identity, and manufactured by myself, and there is no grave problem in this case. If I desire to kill, I am responsible for such desires. Even if I had the bad fortune of being born with criminal impulses, I am still capable of repressing such desires (as the vast majority of such people can, a handful of serial killers notwithstanding), armed with a solid education and a strong sense of values. Even if I may desire to kill, I know that such actions are detrimental to my life. BTK is not a good life example.

Regardless of the things I had no choice upon, I still, in the end, choose to act in a certain way, as opposed to another. The ultimate responsibility lies solely on my shoulders. As an individual, I take control of this responsibility and make it mine.

Post a Comment


At 10/29/2005 12:40 PM, Blogger breakerslion declaimed...

"(2b) If materialism is true, "I" am morally responsible because part of "I" (myself) makes "I" (me) do things."

Exactly so. I have recently been in a dispute with a Theist on the subject of "free will". It is my contention that free will, as defined (the way Christians use the term), does not exist by virtue of the fact that it is an oversimplification of life and human existence. This does not mean that I don't think we are independent units, responsible for our own actions and the judgments (decisions) that motivate those actions. It means, that I do not accept the definition of free will as a valid conclusion concerning any event of human action any more than I accept a child's drawing of a car as being an automobile.

I do not dispute that I am morally responsible for my actions, I merely point out that there is a sequence of events and learning that effects the framework by which I make those moral (or amoral) decisions. These are not excuses, they are simply reasons, some of which exist(ed) outside the "I" and for better or worse, left their impression on the "I".

I'll give you an extreme example that will hopefully explain my problem with the concept of free will. After his capture, the Green River Killer was asked if he thought he was different in some way from other people. He answered without hesitation that he didn't have "that caring thing". The man lacked the hardware in his head that would allow him to feel empathy; he was a psychopath. He had no more identification with, or sympathy/empathy for his victims than would a scorpion.

His ability to exercise "free will" was constrained, or impaired, by his mental condition. I believe that to be true of everyone, just more severe and easier to identify in cases like his.

Side note: Can we call his actions amoral in light of the fact that he was incapable of making moral judgments, without resorting to some form of moral relativism? What I mean is, it is necessary in cases like this for an outside determination of morality, since he has no ability to make that construct for himself. If a caged bear kills his keeper, we don't call that action "amoral", after all. How is a human psychopath different from an animal in this regard?

At 10/29/2005 1:23 PM, Blogger Francois Tremblay declaimed...

Well, we all make our own moral judgments. We don't have to rely on a person's moral judgment to judge him. Even the highest atrocities are committed by well-intentioned but extremely deluded people.

At 10/29/2005 6:03 PM, Blogger Thomas declaimed...

I wonder if anyone of you have read "Freedom Evolves," by Daniel Dennett, about how we humans can have all the traditional, desirable attributes of free wills, even if those wills are themselves composed out of smaller units which "blindy" follow physical laws (deterministic or otherwise).

I thought it was a good read.

At 10/29/2005 6:09 PM, Blogger breakerslion declaimed...

If I understand you correctly, you are saying that you believe that it is OK for me to judge another based on my moral framework, regardless of the other's ability to create a similar moral framework. Please don't get me wrong, I have no problem with this opinion, I just want to be sure that I understand what you are telling me. I have pondered this point off and on over the years, wondering if it is ethical to hold someone to my standards (no matter how generally acceptable they might be), if they are incapable of devising those standards for themselves. In other words, should I react differently to a person that can rationalize and reject a moral standard, versus someone who is incapable through brain damage of some kind to even see the construct?

My own inclination is to treat each type of person as equally undesirable in a social setting, but that creates doubts as to the fairness of that assessment.

At 10/29/2005 7:42 PM, Blogger Francois Tremblay declaimed...

"If I understand you correctly, you are saying that you believe that it is OK for me to judge another based on my moral framework"

Of course. No one can think for you. No one can make a moral judgment for you. This is not a question of choice : you don't have any choice in this matter. Even if you surrender to another person's judgment, you still have to decide to do so.

"In other words, should I react differently to a person that can rationalize and reject a moral standard, versus someone who is incapable through brain damage of some kind to even see the construct?"

There's a difference between judging someone's actions and deciding that this person is fully morally responsible. Besides, morality only applies to volitional beings. We don't go around executing aardvarks for treason.

At 10/29/2005 10:21 PM, Blogger Boelf declaimed...

treat man as a meat machine and try to control it

I wonder how control of immoral behavior would differ whether we had free will or not. Say to control bank robbery we would devise a level of detection, apprehention and punishment that would reduce bank robery to an acceptable level. Is the alternative to ask how pissed are we at bank robbers and punish accordingly.

The same for how we treat the less fortunate in our society. The question of unfortunate "choices" doesn't really matter since poverty itself is an issue.

On the issue of my moral values in judging another: I think morality is absolute in that for instance slavery was just as wrong a few hundred years ago as is today. We as individuals and as a society are constantly discovering the truth of morality.

So I have discovered that stealing is wrong and another has not, I can still call him on it.

At 4/27/2006 5:57 AM, Blogger vkk1_hypno declaimed...

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