Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Thinking Clearly About Freedom

Sam Harris has (another) great post on the muddled notion of "freewill" that obscures so much of our thinking about religion and morality here: Morality Without "Freewill". Much of this is agreeable although I find something elusively off the mark about the way he's framing the discussion.

Two brief ideas. First, the native conception of freedom that many non-philosophers seem to be operating with is of some inexplicable force, originating with us, that defies the ordinary physical, naturally lawful order of events. Free acts are little miracles, as it were; violations of the causal closure of the physical world. This view is completely at odds with what we know about the physical world and how brains operate.

Second, people's motivations are frequently backwards on the topic. If some argument or piece of evidence suggests that we don't have freedom in this wrongheaded sense, then that is typically taken as an irrevocable reductio of that argument. If the implication of argument x is that we don't have freewill, then x is immediately objected because we have an incorrigible intuition of our own freewill, or, at least, we dislike that implication intensely enough to be motivated to reject the argument.

Part of what Harris is struggling with in the book (The Moral Landscape) is providing a clear conceptual scaffolding that can serve as an alternative to the old one. People's inability to extricate their thinking from the hopeless mess of religious moral notions is also the source of a lot of the resistance he's getting, even from people who aren't overtly religious.


JSA said...

"People's inability to extricate their thinking from the hopeless mess of religious moral notions is also the source of a lot of the resistance he's getting, even from people who aren't overtly religious."

I think you're making a common mistake here. It's true that people are very confused about free will, and it's also true that much of our confusion comes from our moral impulses. But it's not true to say that these moral impulses are a result of religion. If anything, religious morality is a side-effect of, or parasite upon people's innate moral impulses. And of course, our delusion of having free will is probably just an evolutionary adaptation that long predates religion.

FWIW, this is an area of active empirical research. We are learning about the boundaries between evolved moral impulses and what can be culturally influenced; learning about how much people really believe in incompatibilism when making moral judgments (not as much as you might think), and so on. Scientists like Viney, Woolfolk, Doris, Darley, Nahmais, Morris, Nadelhoffer, and Turner continue to collect experimental evidence that presents a more refined picture of our innate evolved situation.

IMO, we should focus on learning exactly how the human brain innately make moral judgments, and understanding why that might've evolved, rather than trying to just sweep the whole issue under the rug by claiming it's "religion".

Matt said...

I don't believe Dr. McCormick is claiming that moral impulses are a result of religion. But, rather, that the confusion stems because they think they are a result of religion.

There's a difference between growing up and discovering the utility and innate humanity of moral actions, which most of us would probably agree is a significant part of what morality actually is, and growing up and being told (either directly, or indirectly through society) what is right and wrong.

In the first case we have the fundamentals of morality. In the second case, we have religious morality which is, for the most part, superimposed upon actual morality. Where it differs, the taught religious morality will often triumph. In this case, the people actually believe that their moral actions are a result of religious belief.

I believe Dr. McCormick is stating that the confusion comes, not from the idea that people's moral actions are a result of religion, but rather that the confusion comes because they believe that their morality is based in religion. Because it happens to superimpose so often, it's nearly impossible to separate, and discover what the actual foundation is without significant reflection and fair reasoning.

It would be very difficult, if not impossible, to determine if a religious person's "moral action" (In the case of it being one that actually superimposes on something that is moral) is directly due to fundamental moral instinct, or religious indoctrination. If actions are predicated on beliefs, then the belief need not be fundamental in any sense. However it becomes accepted in the brain, whether realization based on reality, or brainwashing, it will then determine the actions of the individual.

Just a few thoughts.


JSA said...

"It would be very difficult, if not impossible, to determine if a religious person's "moral action" (In the case of it being one that actually superimposes on something that is moral) is directly due to fundamental moral instinct, or religious indoctrination."

Regarding his larger point, my wife and most of my friends were raised in officially atheist countries and have never been a part of any religion. They also grew up believing that everything the authorities said was a lie (the old joke goes, "As soon as the official party newspaper says that there is no shortage of butter, that is when you should run out and hoard butter"). Despite having no real moral indoctrination, they have no problem proclaiming moral judgments. They also tend to think that compatibilism is crazy.

I think it's safe to say that innate belief in libertarianism is a byproduct of evolution and is tightly related to our evolutionary programmed moral intuitions. I don't see any evidence that belief in libertarianism is caused by religion. Heck, wasn't it the Calvinists who first popularized compatibilism to a broad population?

Matt DeStefano said...

Harris wrote a subsequent post and I think he addresses this pretty well. He says:

"The problem with compatibilism, as I see it, is that it tends to ignore that people’s moral intuitions are driven by a deeper, metaphysical notion of free will. That is, the free will that people presume for themselves and readily attribute to others (whether or not this freedom is, in Dennett’s sense, “worth wanting”) is a freedom that slips the influence of impersonal, background causes."

In other words, free will seems to be a succession of, as you called it, "tiny miracles" in which physical causation is violated. This seems to me inextricably linked to the conception of an autonomous personhood (much like the soul) in which we view ourselves as exempt from the causal closure of the universe.

pboyfloyd said...

I've always thought that free will was, in most people's minds, inextricably linked with choice.

Bring up the possiblity of not having free will to almost anyone and they may rant on and on about having the ability to choose.

There is no doubt we have many options of various kinds available to us from birth and we learn how to deal with them in one way or another and this becomes a big part of each of our particular personalities.

I think that the philosophically-minded theist, when talking on free will, attempts to demonstrate that one's non-religiousity has exact parallels to their doctrines, faith, religion and so on, to box the opponent in.

If I agree that my atheism has every parallel to a religion, then I must agree that free will exists, as they do.

If I disagree then I'm demonstrating free will despite my protestations of it.

Sort of a sophisticated 'with us or against us' argument.

M. Tully said...

O.K., free will. Before we discuss it, I think it is only fitting that we define it (I mean otherwise, you could be talking about one thing and I could be talking about another, and neither of us would gain anything from the conversation). I normally think of free will as, “ If I could go back in time, I could have done 'X' differently.” That is certainly not the only explanation. Others have offered a more immediate response: One who acts without an immediate threat compelling them to act (e.g. I entered into this contract under my own free will because there was no gun pointed to my head at the time I entered it). The latter is widely accepted in legal circles (one should ask why), the former more accepted in the physical sciences. I am going to argue based on my definition.

If I could go back in time I would have acted differently. Really? Why would you have acted differently? Ignoring the outcome of your decision (which you couldn't have known at the time), why would you have done anything different from what you did? I mean offer an explanation of why you thought what you did seemed liked a good idea at the time and then how you judged the alternatives that didn't seem like a good idea, and why without foreseeing the future, you could have decided on a different course of action? And in that is the irreconcilable paradox of the concept of “free will,” I could have done something different in the past if only I had experienced the future. No doubt; if I could see the winning lottery number tomorrow, I would pick it today, that doesn't equate with, “The number I pick today is totally independent of the experiences I have I had to date.” But the contra causal free will argument will always ignore that and beg the question, “Why did you do what you did when you did it?” And, it will never get answered because there is no answer without accepting paradox as a norm.

Above is my (wholly unqualified) logical argument against contra causal freewill. My real argument against it is, no matter how adamantly the proponents of it will deny it, it requires an intelligence without a material brain. That is an extraordinary claim that has never offered even ordinary evidence.