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Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Why Determinism Doesn't Get Us Off The Hook

This post is about comparing the two seemingly contradictory concepts of determinism and moral responsibility. On one hand, if everything is determined by causality and physics, and this includes our brain activity, memories, thoughts, choices, and actions, then how can we be responsible for what we do?[1] On the other hand, it sure seems like we should be held responsible for what we do. If we weren't, couldn't we use that as an excuse to be even worse than we might be otherwise? Wouldn't all of ethics and morality fall away as being some sort of sham?

I believe these issues clear up considerably when we have clear definitions of things like: 'morality', 'responsibility', 'will', 'free', and so on. In my view, what is happening here when we perceive a conflict between these two concepts is that we are assigning meanings to one or the other which are inappropriate.

First, start with the premise that it's all "atoms and the void", interacting in a causal nexus according to the laws of physics. What will happen will happen.

Next, imagine there are various subsets of these atomic structures with various sorts of behaviors that emerge out of these complex interactions. We, as thinking beings, assign various names to clumps of these atoms, to various forms we find repeated throughout nature, and to various sorts of activities within and between these clumps.

One of the clumps of atoms we see repeated is what we've called 'human beings'[2]. We've also observed that these 'human beings' have various sorts of common behaviors. Among them is the tendency to coordinate on opinions regarding the acceptability or unacceptability of other behaviors - mostly those that deal with how they interact with one another. These notions tend to shift over time in the culture in response to environmental factors, conditions, and human nature. They are generally 'enforced' through social pressures, ranging from social discomfort to the use of force, depending on how important the behavioral rule is generally held to be. This is human morality[3]. Forming these social norms is a tendency toward which all humans seem to have an instinctive, inborn natural inclination. This is evidenced by the fact that all human cultures have formed these social norms, even if the specifics of those norms vary. It seems quite obvious the reason Homo Sapiens evolved this tendency is related to the fact that humans are social animals and there is some survival benefit to coordinated cooperation and society-building in general. Our numbers seem to indicate that it is a particularly potent survival trait at that[4].

So, when we talk about morality, we should remember that we are talking about a human-level phenomenon, with human-level functions and roles. Certain concepts simply don't apply on certain scales. For example, one cannot meaningfully discuss 'air pressure' with respect to one atom of oxygen because the concept of pressure is inherently about the relationship between several molecules.

We need to ask ourselves why it is important for human beings to be held accountable for their actions? Why is it important for them to feel pity, remorse, shame? Why is it important for us to shun those who do wrong?

If we understand the survival benefits of morality, and we further understand the benefits to ourselves as individuals, then we can see that ethics is important, morality is important - not only despite its inherently human origins and function - but specifically because of that. Since ethics is important, its maintenance is as well. This means teaching it to children, encouraging it in peers, developing it in ourselves, and applying those social and legal pressures to those who do not comply (including punishments).

But what of our notion that a person shouldn't be responsible for something if they 'couldn't help it'? Let's look at the sentence: "Tom isn't responsible for his actions because of determinism." What we have to remember is what exactly we mean by "Tom" in that sentence. "Tom" is the name we have given a certain clump of atoms. When we look deeper at what we mean by the word, that clump doesn't necessarily refer to the clump of atoms that is Tom's body. Rather, we're talking about a 'person'. In other words, we're talking about the pattern of interaction and data that is maintained through the ongoing activity of atoms making up regions of a brain. 'Tom' is a pattern of information that interacts within itself as a complex system. The ability of that system to make selections between data and initiate actions is Tom's "will". Tom's will has a 'normal function' to it and when it is functioning properly and unhindered we can define this as being 'free' - free of obstruction or intrusion from unusual phenomena not typical to its normal operation. Tom therefore has a 'free will'. Thus, in talking about 'free will' much is cleared up by precisely defining what we mean by 'will' and what it means for a will to be 'free'. These are pragmatic and practical means of defining these characteristics in a way that is meaningful and useful.

In a deterministic universe, a person will operate causally, according to its natural function in interaction with its environment. Therefore, if ethics is important to humanity and beneficial to individual human beings, we must attempt to build an environment in which that person will adapt to be more likely to operate in the manner needed. We have found this is accomplished through social pressures such as shunning, blame, praise, and in more extreme cases punishment, confinement, etc. There are more artful ways of accomplishing this than through brute force, which often include more creative 'carrots' than 'sticks', but the bottom line is the same - human beings must be held accountable for their actions, precisely because we live in a deterministic universe. Meanwhile, to the contrary, it remains somewhat of a mystery as to why we should punish people if they are so free from causality that our punishments will have no causal effect on their future actions.

When we choose whether or not to hold a human being accountable for a moral misbehavior, we should look at whether or not the will was operating freely in the manner described above. The reason for this is that it is the will which that accountability is designed to mold. Guilt, pride, contentment, peace, unhappiness, shame, are all experiences which shape the will such that it will more often make certain choices and avoid others.

However, if we determine that a moral outrage took place because of some unusual interference with the will, such as a mental illness or brain damage, this is another matter. Similarly, if we find that the action took place due to accident beyond control of the will, it is also another matter. In both of these cases, there is no functional purpose to holding the person morally accountable because (1) the event was not an indication of the nature of the person's will we seek to mold, but rather some other phenomena effecting it, and (2) accountability is not capable of molding the external forces that were acting on the person's will, nor is accountability capable of molding anything having to do with incidental accidents which could happen at any time. Thus, accountability should only apply to cases of a freely operating will. Only there can it have the molding effect it is designed to.

Meanwhile, to apply such accountability (and the discomfort or displeasure that often accompanies it) in a case where the will was not free, would be giving those negative experiences to a will that was already properly formed or did not have the defects the accountability is seeking to dissolve. In such a case, the accountability may have an adverse affect, molding the will in unpredictable or undesired fashion such that inappropriate behavior is actually increased. In addition, it is a violation of a social contract with which we have agreed that we will not do to others what we would not want done to us (namely, applying negative experiences when we have done nothing negative ourselves). Should that contract be weakened, we all experience less enjoyable events on average. Therefore violations of it should be avoided where possible.

As you can see, moral responsibility and free will are phenomena like 'air pressure' which only make sense on a certain scale (a human scale). Meanwhile, determinism is a much more fundamental property. In this regard, it is simultaneously possible (even mutually necessary) for determinism to be true, the will to be free, and people to be morally responsible - so long as we define these concepts precisely and pragmatically. At least, that's my take.

For a nice essay on how the Stoics reconciled moral responsibility and determinism, see Dr. Keith Seddon's article: Do the Stoics succeed in showing how people can be morally responsible for some of their actions within the framework of causal determinism? [LINK HERE].


[1] In dealing with this conundrum, I'm going to go ahead and assume that determinism is true - that we do indeed live in a completely mechanistic and causally determined universe. I'm also going to ignore quantum mechanical considerations on the basis that, even if randomness plays a role at the most fundamental levels of the universe, it averages out on larger scales that even brain activity statistically behaves as though it were more or less determined. Some say there might be exceptions whereby quantum fluctuations in portions of the brain might create a chain reaction leading up to the larger scale in our neural networks, thereby possibly resulting in different thoughts and actions. However, I'm going to discount this as well for these purposes, since randomness presents the very same conundrums where moral responsibility is concerned, in that it is still a phenomenon which may result in our choices and actions which is something other than a completely sovereign 'will'.

[2] The fact that we are the human beings is incidental to the fact that we can still observe ourselves objectively from an 'outside perspective' as we would any other phenomenon.

[3] For a more complete explanation, please see: Natural-Objective Ethics on my philosophy site.

[4] That is, if it doesn't turn out that our intellects, growth rate, or other traits result in overpopulation and stripping of the planet's resources, or possibly devastating warfare, destroying ourselves in the process. The answers to these questions remain to be seen.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Comparing Budhism and Stoicism

In a recent online conversation, several members of the International Stoic Forum and myself had a wonderful conversation on the similarities and differences between Stoicism and Buddhism. I have collected and edited the conversation on my philosophy site for easy reading. I've also included some commentary and conclusions at the end. If you'd like to read the conversation, please click this link:

Many thanks to all who participated!

Debunking 9/11 Nonsense

I have recently been looking for a good website to direct people to, who have unfortunately been snickered into buying the conspiracy theories about 9/11. I had previously found a lot of good information out there debunking the ludicrous claims of the conspiracy theorists, but the site below seems to be a good single location where they have been collected together.

As with cults or some religious people, reasons for being invested in these ideas are sometimes more personal and broad than the actual facts. Therefore, deprogramming someone from these ideas can be very challenging. Most of the 9/11 misinformation is intentionally being concocted by people who get off on it, as a power trip or to see how many people they can hoodwink into believing them. If you know someone suffering from their vile efforts, this site can be a good starting point:

If you know of other good sources debunking these conspiracy theories, please leave them in comments, thanks.

(note: links and long arguments for the conspiracy theories themselves will be deleted until or unless I see something new to convince me they aren't nonsense. I'd prefer that I and my websites not contribute to the spread of blatant disinformation and will treat such comments the same as a religious zealot's preaching).

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Responses to Dr. Francis Collins

Recently on the excellent podcast by the Center for Inquiry called Point of Inquiry, Dr. Francis Collins was interviewed on scientists and faith. Dr. Collins is author of The Language of God and head of the Human Genome Project. A scientist and a man of faith himself, Dr. Francis argued that good scientists can also be theists. He stated that one being a believer doesn't prevent one from doing science properly to understand the natural universe.

I couldn't agree more with this. The scientific method is specifically designed to address those things which can be empirically measured. Claims that are about things which are 'outside of nature' and not amenable to scientific measurement, cannot be addressed by science in the first place, much less result in any finding for or against. Dr. Collins displays great intellectual honesty and scientific integrity in the interview. He admits the case for evolution is overwhelming, laments the evangelical church's attachment to creationism and Intelligent Design, and says that his arguments cannot 'prove' the existence of God.

Where I differ with Dr. Collins is not on matters of science, which I wouldn't possibly presume. Rather, Dr. Collins has a distorted view of atheism, thanks in no small part to people like Dawkins mucking things up. As Dr. Collins states in the interview:

"...I had to conclude that atheism was the least rational of all choices because it assumed that the atheist knows so much as to be able to exclude... the possibility of something outside of nature; namely God. And, that seemed to be a pretty arrogant position - a position of some hubris for anybody to take and certainly not one that you could defend on rational grounds."

However, atheism does not exclude the possibility of God:
Atheism is merely the lack of belief in a God. One could lack a belief that God exists, and lack the belief that God does not exist. This would be an atheist because he would be without theism - without the belief that God exists. The lack of the latter belief would be incidental to the term. Atheists such as myself say clearly that God cannot be proved or disproved and we cannot have knowledge, one way or the other, of such a being. As such it would be foolish to believe in God, and it would also be foolish to claim that such an entity couldn't possibly exist. Still, the lack of the former is enough to fully and completely count as an atheist (a-theist, or non-theist).

More importantly, theism is not the belief that God is possible:
Theism is the belief that God is real - that God exists. Therefore, to back up that claim, one need do far more than argue for God's possibility. One must show there is a positive reason to believe that God is, in fact, independently and objectively real and actual. That alone is theism and, lacking that, all other positions are atheism[1].

On a second matter, Dr. Collins states:

"A purely naturalistic worldview is impoverished in certain important ways. It basically says some questions are just 'out of order' like 'what's the meaning of life', and 'why are we here', and 'is there a God'."

Later he suggests that some think these questions are simply "not worth asking". I think that Dr. Collins, like his nemesis (perhaps too strong a word) Richard Dawkins, both suffer from an abundance of focus and experience in scientific practice. I'm sure in both of their fields, these questions seem to be 'out of order'. However, as interviewer D.J. Grothe points out, these are questions that atheists commonly enjoy tackling. From my philosophic point of view, I'd say it's not these questions that are out of order so much as it is definitive answers that are out of order. We can ask ourselves if there is a God in all sorts of ways, and explore possibilities in all sorts of ways. But in the end we must admit that we couldn't know such a thing.

However, Dr. Collins handles the issue in another way. He mentions sources such as C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity and says that such arguments presented therein show belief to be "more plausible" than non-belief. He then concluded this was enough to take a 'leap of faith' and thus believe in God.

This is an approach I've seen many times and in many varieties. The problem behind this approach is the unstated premise that we must reach a final conclusion. That, for some reason, it is important for this little short-lived microscopic primate crawling about a speck of dust in a nameless corner of the vast cosmos for the tiny sliver of time it occupies, to submit an affirmative proclamation to the universe on the existence or non-existence of a deity.

For one, to think such a creature even has the means to submit a meaningful answer on the question is comical. Secondly, to think the rest of nature even cares what it has to say on the matter is equally comical. But thirdly, and more importantly, is the fact is that the question is irrelevant and ultimately inconsequential to anything of substance in our lives. It ranks #2 on my personal list of 'completely ridiculous and meaningless wastes of time in philosophy', just under the issue of whether or not we have 'free will' (and yet, here I am again, sucked into spending time on it).

Most people make decisions and live their lives by anything but their belief in a deity. There is no evidence it effects our morality, our ethics, our happiness, our meaning, our ability to explain nature, or our society in any way that numerous examples haven't shown are equally obtainable absent an invisible intelligent architect. Sure, I along with any number of other people, can be convinced that the meaning of life is to eat bananas but that doesn't make life objectively meaningless without bananas.

In fact, many people are fully content to leave matters as 'unknown' or 'unknowable' and that's what a truly rational and humble person must do when it comes to questions beyond our means to answer[2].

We basically live our lives as normal - without any sort of appeal to unproved claims in invisible entities, but remain open to the possibility and ready to change that behavior should any new evidence come along in the future. In the meantime, we can rationally argue that those who do go out of their way to worship, appease, or address such alleged entities are thinking 'out of wack'.

Perhaps the most revealing statement by Dr. Collins was his take on morality. After siting C.S. Lewis, the issue of our ingrained moral sense came up. Dr. Collins was unconvinced that evolution has explained all of our moral behaviors and speculated that it couldn't explain all of them, but perhaps only some superficial and direct tendencies[3].

Then came the bomb:
He asked, if our morality was just about biology, just an "evolutionary artifact" and an "illusion", then who cares about morality? He wondered why an atheist should care about morality.

Thus we see the real hole in Dr. Collins' perspective, and it again has to do with an abundance of scientific knowledge and practice, with very little philosophical foundation. Dr. Collins, like so many of us, suffers from the affliction of ignorance concerning virtue and ethics: the lack of knowledge that they are, in fact and in themselves, good for us. I am convinced that, at the root of much theism, is the view that ultimately, ethical conduct is some sort of 'sacrifice' we make, for some other external reward or punishment, rather than it being a reward in its own right. I think if more people understood that ethics and virtue is 'good medicine' and fully comprehended Epictetus' statement that virtue alone "is both necessary and sufficient for happiness", then such questions would dissolve.

What is also ironic about Dr. Collins question is its circular nature. If morality is an evolutionary artifact, that would mean that it had some survival benefit. Therefore, it would necessarily be something we should 'care about'[4].


[1] According to my anecdotal experiences with many who are not theists, it seems the person who will claim that any sort of God-entity cannot exist and is impossible, is few and far between (I couldn't recall one by name that I have met personally). However, that vocal group of anti-theists get all the press and have convinced huge numbers of people into thinking of atheists as something they aren't. Another factor in this is the common apologetic theist straw man that seeks to get off easy by merely arguing for God's possibility. Such a tactic demands an opponent whose position is the impossibility of God - thus that sort of person is highlighted despite being almost unheard of, even among atheists.

Many atheists, perturbed by this persistent mischaracterization, have opted to use the term 'non-theist' to help highlight these points. But technically, lacking theism, they are still atheists, as are most agnostics (who lack theism as well). I would recommend not using any of these labels and simply having substantive conversations about specific beliefs and positions. Given the distortion of these labels, I think more meaningful communication of the reasonableness of positions is only possible in this way.

[2] I conversed with one person who pointed out that such people actively behave as though there is no God, even if they say the matter is merely unknowable. But this is the way we always act about unknown things. For example, suppose we knew there was a planet full of pre-industrial but fully intelligent people on a planet in our nearest star system of Alpha Centauri? How do you think that might affect NASA's budget or the speed with which we get probes and people there? Of course we don't know such a thing, but one would have to be quite ridiculous to say it is impossible. In fact, given what we know of biochemistry, our own planet, and astronomy, life (even intelligent life) is probably more likely than not somewhere in this universe. We simply don't know if there is a life-bearing planet somewhere in a nearby star system yet. But the default position is to behave in a fairly regular fashion until or unless such is shown to exist.

[3] On a side note, it was interesting that he later admonished this very same 'attacking the gaps' strategy of the creationists against evolution and felt comfortable that new information to come would fill in those gaps. When Grothe earlier brought up that possibility with Dr. Collins on the matter of evolutionary morality, he said he'd be interested in seeing what resulted, but still appeared to hinge the weight of C.S. Lewis' argument on the assumption that evolution couldn't explain our moral sense.

[4] For a more complete description of this, please see my essay on Natural-Objective Ethics.