Thursday, February 27, 2014

Craig, Law and the Evil God

I've been listening to the William Lane Craig - Stephen Law debate on the existence of God. Against the existence of God, Law deploys the evidential argument from evil in the form of the evil god hypothesis. The point of the evil god hypothesis is to force theists to re-examine their assumptions about good and evil in the world and what it means for God by flipping the argument on its head. Craig summarizes the argument like this:
The claim of the argument is that given the existence of an evil god, it is highly improbable that the goods in the world would exist (Pr (goodsevil god << 0.5)). By the same token, given the existence of God, it is highly improbable that the suffering in the world would exist (Pr (sufferingGod << 0.5)). So just as the goods in the world constitute overwhelming evidence against the existence of an evil god, the suffering in the world constitutes overwhelming evidence against the existence of God.
A hidden assumption of the argument is the metaphysical symmetry of good and evil: Good and evil are equally fundamental metaphysical principles (yin and yang, so to speak) and therefore can be substituted for each other in an argument like this. I expected Craig to attack this symmetry but was surprised to see that he in fact agrees with it. His response to the argument is:
I suspect that Law thinks that theists will try to deny the symmetry between these two cases. But that would be a mistake. The two situations strike me as symmetrical—I would just say that in neither case would we be justified in thinking that the probability is low. Just as a good Creator/Designer could have good reasons for permitting the suffering in the world, so an evil Creator/Designer could have malicious reasons for allowing the goods in the world, precisely for the reasons Law explains. My initial response, then, still holds: we’re just not in a position to make these kinds of probability judgements with any sort of confidence.
So Craig thinks that no conclusions about the moral nature of God can be known from reflection on the natural world. This is the price he is willing to pay to defuse the atheist's argument from evil. How, then, does Craig argue to the moral nature of God? He argues that the reality of objective moral values requires a good God as its metaphysical foundation.
I'm not going to address that latter argument here, because I think Craig's concession on the metaphysical implications of good and evil in the world is not only much too high a price to pay to defuse the argument from evil, but is not necessary. Furthermore, St. Paul tells us in Romans 1:18-21 that not only God's existence, but also that He is worthy of worship (and therefore good), are things that can be seen from creation. So if we are to concede that God can't be known to be good from philosophical reflection on nature, we are not only engaging in poor philosophy but contradicting St. Paul.
What about the metphysical symmetry of good and evil that lies behind the evil god hypothesis? It just isn't so. As explained by the classical philosophers from Socrates to Aquinas, good is the more fundamental metaphysical principles, as evil is parasitic on the good. In The Republic, Socrates uses the example of a gang of thieves. The gang may act in an evil manner to its victims, but to the extent that the gang members are evil to each other - lying, cheating, killing each other - the gang itself loses its effectiveness as a criminal force. In other words, the only way they can be evil is if they are to some extent good. Or, the way Socrates puts it, the only way the gang can effectively be unjust to others is if they are just with themselves. But the converse doesn't hold; a just association of men (which distinguishes the city from a gang) doesn't need to base its justice on a foundation of injustice. The city can be honest and non-murderous with other cities as much as it can be internally within itself. (This isn't to say that the real city won't involve some injustice or sometimes act unjustly with other cities; the point is that such actions are not a necessary precondition for the city to be at all.)
Or consider a standard item in the catalog of horrors in the argument from evil: Childhood disease. In order for there to be childhood disease (the evil), there  first must be a child (the good).  The evil is parasitic on the good and cannot exist without it. But a child can very well live without disease (and, indeed, we hope he does), which shows the prmary metaphysical nature of the good and the secondary nature of evil.
In the actual debate, Stephen Law brought up the case of lizards who incapacitate their victims with venom then eat them alive. Craig's response to this was to point out the necessity of predation in a balanced ecosystem; without the predators, the system would collapse and even the victims Law feels sorry for would end up disappearing along with the predators. This is a reasonable answer, but we can go further and more deeply than that. Even if we could show that the removal of predators would not unbalance an ecosystem, would this be something we would want to do? We can solve the problem of lizards eating live prey by driving the lizards to extinction. Is this something Law would favor? I suspect not, and this shows that despite their mode of life, the existence of lizards is a fundamental good, and driving them to extinction would simply be throwing out the more fundamental good (life) with the lesser evil (predation). The environmental movement, in fact, spends a lot of effort to save from extinction predators (wolves, sharks, eagles, etc.) that would otherwise perish, and not simply from the point of view of ecological balance, but because a world with eagles in it is better than a world without them.
Let's turn to the evil god himself. The hypothesis is that this god creates just enough good that he can maximize evil. But we need to make a distinction between the evil this god does to others and the evil he does to himself. Surely this god is not intent on maximizing the evil he does to himself - he could do that by killing himself and being done with it. What he wants to do is maximize the evil done to others while maximizing his own good.
As a creator god, he creates beings with certain natures, ends and purposes. He then commits evil on those creatures by violating their natures and purposes. But in doing so, he's only violating the natures and purposes he himself put into those creatures. So in the end, he's only frustrating himself in performing evil on his creation; in othe words, in being evil to his creation, he's also being evil to himself. And this contradicts our hypothesis about him, that he want's to do evil to others but not to himself.
To make this point clearer, think of the creator god on the analogy of an artist. His creation is his Mona Lisa; he puts all his talent, knowledge and effort into creating a beautiful painting with the enigmatic smile. He does this so that his later evil will be all the greater. Then, at the end, he destroys the work by painting Groucho Marx glasses and mustache on it. He's done a great evil to the painting, to be sure, but he's done an even greater evil to himself. He's thwarted his own native artistic efforts that found expression in the painting before he ruined it. He's ruined himself even more than the painting. This result is simply a consequence of the metaphysical primacy of good and the parasitic nature of evil.
A good god, on the other hand, does not contradict himself by doing good. Rather, he expresses his glory in his work, of which da Vinci expressing his nature in the Mona Lisa is but a poor analogy. And just as we can know something of da Vinci by meditating on the Mona Lisa, we can know something of God by meditating on his creation. Closing off this road to the God's good nature is much to high a price to pay to neuter the evidential problem of evil.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Tolkien and Moral Complexity

The Boston Sunday Globe has an article in its Ideas section by Ed Power (behind the paywall) today called "What Tolkien Didn't Do". The article is concerned with making the point that Tolkien is not truly the father of modern fantasy (the author has in mind works like Game of Thrones).  The argument is that modern fantasy owes more to the pulp fiction of the 20's and 30's than to Tolkien.

It's clear along the way that the author is not a big fan of Tolkien (guilty of "plodding" prose), and in particular what he thinks of as the simplistic moral universe of Tolkien. Tolkien has an "old-fashioned sense of moral certainty" and his failings include "prudishness, his sometimes archaic prose, and his Boy Scout characters." Power much prefers the grittier worlds of pulp fiction: "A cesspool of inequity [sic - does he mean iniquity?], populated with feuding guilds, conspiratorial cults, and cutthroats lying in wait. Lankhmar feels vividly alive in a way Middleearth arguably never does. You can almost smell the exotic spices, the open gutters, the freshly spilled blood."

I'm not concerned with whether Tolkien truly is the father of modern fantasy, but I would dispute the common presumption that "gritty" fiction is somehow more realistic than the allegedly simplistic fiction of a writer like Tolkien. Ultimately, it involves the mistake of thinking that vice is more real than virtue. But Boy Scouts, whether or not Power has a use for them, are after all real people. And as philosophers since Plato have argued, vice cannot be more real than virtue (or evil than good), because both vice and evil are parasitic on virtue and the good. The feuding guilds, conspiratorial cults and cutthroats of Lankhmar are only possible because somewhere else in that universe are good, ordinary (and, from the sophisticated perspective of Power, boring) people tending the crops, spinning the wool, minding the shops and raising the children. Without the latter the former would soon starve to death. But the latter can get on quite well without the former, in fact better without them, which is why the classical philosophers understood that good is more fundamental, and real, than evil - even if modern pulp writers prefer not to show the goodness on which their worlds depend.

Tolkien was not afraid to show it. The difference between Tolkien and the pulp writers preferred by Power is not the presence of conspiratorial cults and cutthroats in the one and their absence in the other.  Middle Earth has its cult of Saruman and its conspiracies (Grima Wormtongue). The difference is rather the location of the moral center of the story. In  The Lord of The Rings the moral center is The Shire, the pastoral home of the Hobbits inspired by the English countryside of Tolkien's youth (a real place, after all). The Shire is real, perhaps the most real place in Middle Earth (except, perhaps Rivendell), and it is rather evil places like the Mines of Moria and Mordor that suffer a murky reality in comparison. The story has morally complex characters (like Boromir) but there is never any doubt that some things are truly good and others truly evil - and "there is some good in this world, and it is worth fighting for" (Sam Gamgee).

Contemporary writers like Power find such moral certainty unsophisticated- or "old-fashioned." The use of "old-fashioned" as a criticism is revealing, however, as it is nothing other than an historical conceit. Surely the relevant question regarding moral certainty is whether it is true or false, not whether it is old-fashioned, for if moral certainty is possible, would it not remain stable over time? What's really going on is that Power find's Tolkien's description of goodness boring (thus the "plodding") and wants to dismiss it without doing the work to substantively address it, and what easier way to do that than to dismiss it in terms of the calendar.

But Power never addresses the fact that Tolkien has an enduring permanence that his favorite pulp writers do not. The Lord of the Rings is a work beloved by more than just fantasy nerds. And that is because the pulp works provide a certain superficial thrill, but having no moral center - and you can't have one without moral certainty - they have no depth and no staying power. Men may dabble with the fun of the gutter or conspiracies, but what they really want is to come home - to the Shire.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Empathic Civilization or The Just Civilization?

My brother pointed out an interesting video by Jeremy Rifkin here, on what Rifkin calls The Empathic Civilization. The basic idea is that we are hardwired for empathy and should strive to expand our range of empathy beyond tribe and nation to embrace the whole world, and even into the animal kingdom.

That's all well and good, but the problem is that empathy by itself isn't enough to serve as a moral guide.  I may feel empathy for both the Red Sox and the Cardinals in the World Series, but one of them has to win and one of them has to lose. More seriously, our moral life often consists in making difficult choices between parties both of whom may engage our empathy. We may empathize with the poor man and support taxes to help him, but might we not also empathize with the working man who has his life's work confiscated from him through those taxes? We may empathize with the young woman who finds herself pregnant when she didn't plan it, but what about empathy for the unborn child in her womb who finds himself a potential victim of abortion? Empathy by itself doesn't decide which empathy takes precedence.

Even when empathy has a clear focus, it is not always a good guide. We may empathize with a child getting a shot, but we understand that the shot is in the best interests of the child even if getting it is unpleasant. More important than empathy is a well-developed sense of justice, which is simply willing the good for others - whether we empathize with them or not. We owe it to a child to give him the shots he needs whether he likes it or not, and however we feel about it.

Using empathy as a moral guide is to mistake the engine for the captain. Empathy can drive us to act for the good of others, but it doesn't by itself reveal what that good is or how it is to be achieved, nor how to balance competing goods. For that we need justice.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Sam Harris and the Moral Landscape

Sam Harris's The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values is several years old at this point but is still generating controversy. Ross Douthat's recent take on it is here. For my part,  Harris is worth reading because of the straightforward, transparent manner in which he argues his case; Harris is an honest atheist and sincerely wishes to rationally persuade his audience. He also has a certain philosophical naivete, such that he does not always perceive the philosophical consequences of his positions, consequences that atheists have long struggled to avoid. I think this latter aspect of Harris's writing accounts for the not quite friendly response he has gotten from some secular reviewers. But more on this later.

Harris has issued a challenge to critics, offering a cash award for the best criticism of his book and an even larger cash award if that criticism persuades him. (Given that Harris is by definition the judge of the latter, it's not too much of a leap to suppose that prize is in no danger of being won.) I might submit an essay to this challenge just to see what happens. If I do, the essay will run along ideas like the following.

Sam Harris in The Moral Landscape acknowledges a fundamental challenge to his attempt to determine human values through science: If it is through science that human values are to be determined, how is the value of science itself to be determined? Harris recognizes the only possible answer: Science cannot  determine its own value, so that value must be recognized pre-scientifically:
Science is defined with reference to the goal of understanding the processes at work in the universe. Can we justify this goal scientifically? Of course not. Does this make science itself unscientific? If so, we appear to have pulled ourselves down by our bootstraps. (p. 17 - all references to paperback edition)

In the chapter "The Future of Happiness", he argues in this way:

It seems to me, however, that in order to fulfill our deepest interests in this life, both personally and collectively, we must first admit that some interests are more defensible than others. Indeed, some interests are so compelling that they need no defense at all. (p. 191)

The interest of finding truth through science is, of course, the principal interest Harris has in mind. In the Afterword to the paperback edition, Harris puts the matter in a way that makes the philosophical implications clear:

The fatal flaw that Blackford claims to have found in my view of morality could be ascribed to any branch of science - or to reason generally. Certain "oughts" are built right into the foundations of human thought. We need not apologize for pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps in this way. It is better than pulling ourselves down by them. (p.201-202, emphasis mine)

The italicized sentence is the one that will cause heartache in Harris's secular critics, for although Harris appears not to know it,  it is a foundational principle of traditional natural law philosophy, something modern philosophers have been hoping to discredit since the Enlightenment. Indeed, the typical modern philosopher thinks natural law philosophy was discredited at the dawn of the Enlightenment with the "discovery" of the fact-value distinction. This is why Harris's secular critics sometimes, like Colin McGinn, simply repeat the fact-value distinction and think they are done - for the fact-value distinction is a foundational principle of modern philosophy and functions as something of a litmus test. Denying it serves to identify oneself as one of those naive pre-modern philosophers who still believes in things like the natural law, and therefore may be justifiably and summarily dismissed (which is what McGinn does).

As I say, one of the attractive features of Harris is his relative philosophical innocence with respect to the larger philosophical battles waging around him. He simply calls things as he sees them, and does not hedge his views or couch them in obscurity for the sake of broader philosophical consequences. In this case, Harris acknowledges what is obviously true, that there are certain values (certain "oughts") that are self-evident to human reason and need no other justification. He does this because he sees the self-evident value of scientific inquiry. What he doesn't see (which his secular critics recognize with horror) is how much of modern philosophy is undermined, and classical philosophy affirmed, with that simple acknowledgement.

For starters, the Kantian project is shown to be misguided. For Kant's premise is that nothing can be truly known without a prior evaluation of the range of human reason - a "critique" of reason that defines its powers and limits. But if the value of something (in this case science) can be immediately known absent a prior critique, then the Kantian project is shown to be unnecessary and even counter-productive, since it may result in the obscuring of truth that can be immediately known yet might not survive a critique.

Harris doesn't see that the consequentialism he favors - and is popular amongst modern philosophers - is put in danger by acknowledgement of fundamental natural law principle:

Here is my (consequentialist) starting point: all questions of value (right and wrong, good and evil, etc.) depend upon the possibility of experiencing such value. Without potential consequences at the level of experience - happiness, suffering, joy, despair, etc. - all talk of value is empty. Therefore, to say that an act is morally necessary, or evil, or blameless, is to make (tacit) claims about its consequences in the lives of conscious creatures (whether actual or potential). (p. 62)

But Harris has already given us an instance of where the talk of value without respect to potential consequences is not empty: Talk about the value of science itself, which is based on an "ought" built into the foundations of human thought, not demonstrated via its consequences. Given that Harris acknowledges the existence of at least one pre-consequentialist "ought", he must acknowledge the possibility that there might be others (maybe there isn't, but the possibility can't simply be dismissed without investigation). And if there are other pre-consequentialist "oughts", they must be discovered and understood and consequentialist conclusions evaluated in light of them rather than vice-versa.

Another way of saying the point is this: Harris recognizes that "certain oughts are built right into the foundations of human thought." He has in mind the value of science. We "ought" to prefer truth to falsehood and science is the best way of distinguishing between the two. His project is to recognize the value of science pre-scientifically, then use science to bootstrap a comprehensive theory of good and evil. All well and good.

But he fails to see certain consequences of this view. The first is that it is clear that the most important values are the ones known pre-scientifically, for it is on the pre-scientific value of science itself that Harris's whole project is based. All other values stand or fall on it. The second consequence is that there may be other pre-scientific values other than the value of science itself, other "oughts" built right into the foundations of human thought. Simply because Harris only recognizes the value of science and simply ignores any other possible pre-scientific values does not mean that they are not there (and, incidentally, violates Harris's oft-stated distinction between "no answers in practice" and "no answers in principle" p.  3)

It is no good to critique other possible pre-scientific values based on the results of Harris's scientific inquiry into morality: For those other potential pre-scientific values compete with science at the level of science's own value. To take the value of science for granted, then evaluate other potential pre-scientific values in light of science's conclusions, is simply to beg the question against other pre-scientific values that might compete with the value of science. Those other candidate's for value must be evaluated the same way the value of science was: Pre-scientifically.

What I have been just discussing exposes a typical misunderstanding of natural law philosophy found in writers like, well, Sam Harris. Traditional opposition to things like abortion, homosexuality, gay marriage and contraception comes in for rough treatment by Harris in The Moral Landscape, where he writes as though his scientific morality case against traditional views is conclusive almost before he states it. What he doesn't understand is that his case for his scientific morality on those questions begs the question against traditional natural law opposition to them: For that natural law opposition operates at the level of pre-scientific value, "oughts" built right into the foundation of human thought itself, and is susceptible to criticism of the "scientific morality" sort only to the extent that the question is begged.
The natural law opposition may be opposed, but it must be done in the same way that the pre-scientific value of science was defended - not through science, but a philosophical case.

The irony of Harris's project, an irony that I think his modernist critics recognize and want to distance themselves from, is that to the extent Harris is right he must leave off the scientific criticism of the things he most wants to attack (traditional moral views on matters sexual and life-related) and fight them on the traditionalists own turf in the arena of natural law. For the game is all about those pre-scientific values - by Harris's own account the most important ones - that he acknowledges exist but modern philosophers have been struggling to banish to the realm of mythology since the sixteenth century.

The Moral Landscape is, I think, a case of needing to be careful what you wish for.

I will have more to say about Harris's book and its relation to traditional thinking on morality in subsequent posts.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Sam Harris and Free Will

I just finished reading Sam Harris's Free Will, a brief defense of Harris's view that free will is an illusion. Harris is worth reading because he is an excellent writer, with a clear and succinct style. He doesn't hedge or avoid the more disturbing logical implications of his position, but addresses them head on and with confidence.

Free Will is also worth reading because Harris, unintentionally, reveals the weaknesses of the modern understanding of free will while leaving the classical understanding entirely unscathed. In fact the classical understanding becomes all the more attractive in comparison to Harris's conception. (By "classical" I mean mainstream philosophy up to roughly St. Thomas Aquinas, with Aquinas representing the pinnacle of the classical tradition).

The key to understanding the classical conception is that it is inextricably linked with the intellect. The intellect and will in classical philosophy are almost two sides of the same coin, and it is difficult to make sense of one without the other. Freedom is found in the interplay between the two.

Harris writes at the start of his chapter "Changing the Subject:"

It is safe to say that no one was ever moved to entertain the existence of free will because it holds great promise as an abstract idea. The endurance of this notion is attributable to the fact that most of us feel that we freely author our own thoughts and actions (however difficult it may be to make sense of this in logical or scientific terms). Thus the idea of free will emerges from a felt experience. (p 15)

The fact that Harris is likely true about this says more about the poor state of contemporary popular philosophical reflection than any failure of the promise of free will as an abstract idea. The old notion of free will did not arise out of any felt experience, but simple empirical observation, and it issued in an idea (aren't ideas by nature abstract?) straightforwardly intelligible. Men observed that inanimate objects  like stones are acted on but have no interior principle of action. In that sense they are entirely unfree. They also noticed that plants, unlike rocks, can initiate their own actions like sinking roots into the soil or growing toward the sun, and so are in that sense freer than rocks. Animals, beyond plants, have the ability to perceive their environment and pursue their desires as well as flee from their fears. An oak tree can't move itself to better soil or run away from a forest fire, but a wolf is free to find better hunting grown or flee a conflagration. In that sense, the wolf is yet more free than the oak tree.

Man, alone in physical nature and by the power of his intellect, can know the truth about himself and the universe, and so perceive his own good through that truth and pursue it as such. The wolf will devour raw meat because it perceives it as desirable and it reacts on that basis. Man also perceives meat as desirable, but he also knows the truth that meat is good for him because of its nutritional value, and the end of nutrition is health, and so he may not devour meat even if his animal nature desires it if he decides it is not healthy for him (e.g. he is cutting down on red meat to lower his cholesterol). Man, then, is free in a way that no other earthly creature is because freedom for him means the power to act in light of the truth and in pursuit of the good as such.

It's easy to see why the classicals stressed the relationship between intellect and will. Free will in the classical sense means a will enlightened by the intellect with truth; absent the intellect's knowledge, the will has no object and becomes impotent. It becomes reduced to an animal or plant will that merely responds immediately to perceived desire or fear.

We can also see that the classical conception of freedom is dynamic. It depends on knowledge, and as our lives move between the poles of ignorance and knowledge, so our will moves between the poles of slavishness and freedom: A philosophically primitive barbarian is in a very real sense not as free as Socrates, but may become so to the extent that he is educated. Thus the classical aphorism that "the truth shall make you free."

The classical conception also recognizes that our behavior is derived from both rational and non-rational sources. I may conclude that it is good for me to lose weight and so begin a diet (a rational cause). But I may have difficulty staying on it because my desire for cheesesteak subs (a non-rational cause) overwhelms my rational determination to diet. The moral life consists, in part, in training the non-rational side of our nature to follow the rational side.

Finally, it is important to see that the classical conception of freedom does not involve rescuing free will from a chain of causation. The free will is caused just like everything else is caused. The difference is that the will becomes free when it is moved in the chain of rational causes rather than the chain of non-rational causes. Why did I write "4" to the answer "What is 2+2?" Because it is true, and mathematically provable, that two added to two is four. This is an explanation in terms of rational causes. There is a parallel explanation in terms of non-rational causes as to how that "4" got written: My brain sent an electrical signal to my hand which moved a pencil to write a symbol of the shape "4." But no matter how detailed this account, it has no bearing on the truth of the account in terms of rational causes that is the basis of freedom: I wrote "4" because 2+2=4.

The modern version of free will differs from the classical insofar as it separates the will from the intellect. This had its origin in the early modern's dazzlement by the advances of science. Science seemed to provide an account of the world entirely in terms of dumb matter and irrational causes - Newton's clockwork universe. Rational causes - Aristotle's formal and final causes, and which are at the heart of the classical understanding of free will and intellect - were not so much refuted as simply left out of the account, having lost respectability in the non-rational account of nature provided by science. The classical intellect and will simply disappeared from view as invisible to modern science.

The result was that free will, which was not particularly mysterious for classical philosophers, became an impenetrable mystery for modern philosophers, for what could freedom mean in a clockwork universe devoid of rational causation? The issue of causation becomes the central focus of modern thinking about the will because the only way moderns can conceive of freedom is as some sort of escape from the chain of non-rational causation (which is why free will can only be felt rather than demonstrated, because demonstration necessarily involves an account in terms of causes, and for moderns free will is a mysterious uncaused cause).

Sam Harris puts great stock in experiments like the Libet experiments that detect neural evidence of our decisions before we are actually conscious of making the decision:

The physiologist Benjamin Libet famously used EEG to show that activity in the brain's motor cortex can be detected some 300 milliseconds before a person feels that he has decided to move. Another lab extended this work using functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI): Subjects were asked to press one of two buttons while watching a "clock" composed of a random sequence of letters appearing on a screen. They reported which letter was visible at the moment they decided to press one button or the other. The experimenters found two brain regions that contained information about which button subjects would press a full 7 to 10 seconds before the decision was consciously made. More recently, direct recordings from the cortex showed that the activity of merely 256 neurons was sufficient to predict with 80 percent accuracy a person's decision to move 700 milliseconds before he became aware of it. 
These findings are difficult to reconcile with the sense that we are the conscious authors of our actions. (p. 8-9)

They are certainly difficult to reconcile with modern attempts to find some space for freedom within the clockwork universe thought to be heralded with the advent of modern science. Those attempts, e.g. those of Descartes or Kant, attempted to save freedom by removing it to a realm beyond the reach of science, either in an immaterial soul mysteriously attached to the body (Descartes), or another realm beyond the reach not only of science but of rational inquiry altogether (Kant). They are all, in the end, attempts to rescue free will as some sort of spontaneous uncaused cause. It is not surprising that this conception of freedom would fall apart as soon as human choice was shown to be susceptible to physical causes (something, incidentally, the classical philosophers never denied because they had no need to.)

But experiments of this type say nothing about the classical understanding of free will. I am free to the extent that I act in light of the truth. Suppose I take a math test, and write down the answer "0" to the question "What is the limit of 1/x as x goes to infinity?" I am free because the answer to the question "Why did I write down 0" is "Because it is true." It is entirely irrelevant that Benjamin Libet could detect my impulse to write the answer down a few milliseconds before I actually decided to move the pencil. And it means nothing that someone could predict with 100% accuracy what my answers will be to a simple math test before I take it. They can safely predict that I will get nearly all the answers right because I am educated enough to know the answers to simple math questions.

It is fascinating, and revealing, that all the examples Harris cites in his book to refute free will involve non-rational decision making, i.e. they do not involve the engagement of the intellect with the will that is the foundation of the classical conception of freedom. In the above cited case, subjects were asked simply to press a button based on a visual cue; in other words, a test suitable for a monkey. That the resulting decision is something that might be explained in terms of purely physical causation is nothing that would surprise Aquinas or Aristotle, for it is only when we consciously act in light of rational causes that we are free in the sense of human freedom.

Here is another example of free will in terns of non-rational causes that does not survive Harris's deconstruction:

I generally start each day with a cup of coffee or tea - sometimes two. This morning, it was coffee (two). Why not tea? I am in no position to know. I wanted coffee more than I wanted tea today, and I was free to have what I wanted. Did I consciously choose coffee over tea? No. The choice was made for me by events in my brain that I, as the conscious witness of my thoughts and actions, could not inspect or influence. Could I have 'changed my mind' and switched  to tea before the coffee drinker in me could get his bearings? Yes, but this impulse would also have been the product of unconscious causes. (p. 8)

But as we have seen, the really relevant distinction crucial to free will isn't between conscious and unconscious causes, but between rational and non-rational causes. From the classical perspective, the decision to choose tea over coffee (unless it involved a rational deliberation about the good) was never really an instance of free will in the first place. It was on the level of a dog choosing which bowl of food from which to eat; something entirely explainable in terms of the physical chain of causes involving non-rational desires and stimuli.

Here are some of the other putative examples of free will Harris examines:

"For instance, I just drank a glass of water and feel absolutely at peace with the decision to do so. I was thirsty, and drinking water is fully congruent with my vision of who I want to be when in need of a drink.  Had I reached for a beer this early in the day, I might have felt guilty; but drinking a glass of water at any hours is blameless, and I am quite satisfied with myself. Where is the freedom in this? [Nowhere, because there is no freedom in water buffalos going to the watering hole, which this essentially is. DT] It may be true that if I had wanted to do otherwise, I would have, but I am nevertheless compelled to do what I effectively want. And I cannot determine my wants, or decide which will be effective, in advance. My mental life is simply given to me by the cosmos. Why didn't I decide to drink a glass of juice? The thought never occurred to m. Am I free to do that which does not occur to me to do? [italics in original] Of course not. (p 19)

Harris has essentially described the life of a bear or a fish. Animals are driven by their desires, not rational consideration of the good, and so are not free. What's interesting about this example are the words in italics at the end, which present the possibility of recovering something of the classical understanding of freedom. The will cannot choose that which is not presented to it as an object; the will cannot choose that which we do not know. So the more we know, the more freedom we may have as the range of our options increases. This, again, is why knowing the truth can make you free - and why the best way to keep someone a slave is to keep him ignorant.


Thoughts like 'What should I get my daughter for her birthday? I know - I'll take her to a pet store and have her pick out some tropical fish' convey the apparent reality of choices, freely made. (p. 32)


For instance, in my teens and early twenties I was a devoted student of the martial arts. I practiced incessantly and taught classes in college. Recently, I began training again, after a hiatus of more than 20 years. Both the cessation and the renewal of my interest in martial arts seem to be pure expressions of the freedom that Nahmias attributes to me. I have been under no 'unreasonable external or internal pressure.' I have done exactly what I wanted to do. I wanted to stop training, and I stopped. I wanted to start again, and now I train several times a week. All this has been associated with conscious thought and acts of apparent self- control. 
However, when I look for the psychological cause of my behavior, I find it utterly mysterious. Why did I stop training 20 years ago? Well, certain things just became more important to me. But why did they become more important to me...?" (p. 43)

and the final and clearest example of an attempt at non-rational free will:

In fact, I will now perform an experiment in free will for all to see: I will write anything I want for the rest of this book. Whatever I write will, of course, be something I choose to write.  No one is compelling me to do this. No one has assigned me a topic or demanded that I use certain words. I can be ungrammatical if I pleased. And if I want to put a rabbit in this sentence, I am free to do so. 
But paying attention to my stream of consciousness reveals that this notion of freedom does not reach very deep. Where did this rabbit come from? Why didn't I put an elephant in that sentence? I do not know. I am free to change 'rabbit' to 'elephant,' of course. But if I did this, how could I explain it? It is impossible for me to know the cause of either choice. (p. 65)

This is a perfect example of the muddle into which modern thinking about free will has gotten itself. The search for a truly free act is seen as the search for an act immune to any intelligibility; somehow an act can only be free if we can't find any reason for it, rational or otherwise. This is freedom as the Uncaused Caused, i.e. a freedom only God could possibly have.

Thomas Aquinas would be baffled at this understanding of human freedom. Surely the best evidence of Harris's free will would not be the random insertion of words into the text - again, something a well-trained monkey could do - but rather the intelligible content of the book as a whole. Harris's freedom is expressed in his attempt to grasp the truth about free will and communicate it to the rest of us, something monkeys, trees and rocks are not free to do.

Free Will is a relatively short book (82 pages), but then the case against freedom in the scientistic worldview of Harris is straightforward and brief:

Either our wills are determined by prior causes and we are not responsible for them, or they are the product of chance and we are not responsible for them. (p 5)

This is surely true if you only recognize as causes non-rational efficient causes. But if the reality of rational causes (Aristotle's formal and final causes) is acknowledged, then we can be responsible for our actions, and our actions be free, even if they occur within a chain of rational causation. Socrates made the distinction a long time ago in the Phaedo:

I felt very much as I should feel if someone said, 'Socrates does by mind all he does'; and then, trying to tell the causes of each thing I do, if he should say first that the reason why I sit here now is, that my body consists of bones and sinews, and the bones are hard and have joints between them, and the sinews can be tightened and slackened, surrounding the bones along with flesh and the skin which holds them together; so when the bones are uplifted in their sockets, the sinews slackening and tightening make me able to bend my limbs now, and for this cause I have bent together and sit here; and if next he should give you other causes of my conversing with you, alleging as causes voices and airs and hearings and a thousand others like that, and neglecting to give the real causes. These are that since the Athenians thought it was better to condemn me, for this very reason I have thought it better to sit here, and more just to remain and submit to any sentence they may give. For, by the Dog! these bones and sinews, I think, would have been somewhere near Megara or Boeotia long ago, carried by an opinion of what is best...

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Inspiring Socratic Quotes, Part 2

"You are wrong, my friends, if you think a man with a spark of decency in him out to calculate life or death; the only thing he out to consider, if he does anything, is whether he does right or wrong, whether it is what a good man does or a bad man."

- Apology, WHD Rouse translation

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Inspiring Socratic Quotes, Part 1

This may be my favorite quote in all the Platonic works, and the one I go back to when tempted by despair of philosophy.

" 'Then, Phaidon', he said, 'it would be a pitiable disease, when there is an argument true and sound, and such as can be understood, if through the pain of meeting so many which seem sometimes to be true and sometimes not, instead of blaming himself and his own clumsiness a man should in the end gladly throw the blame from himself upon the arguments, and for the rest of his life should continually hate and abuse them, and deprive himself of the truth and the knowledge of what is real.'
... 'First, then, let us be careful', he said, 'and let us not admit into our souls the belief that there really is no soundness or health in arguments. Much rather let us think that we are not sound ourselves, let us be men and take pains to become sound: you and the others to prepare you for all your coming life, I to prepare myself for death.'"

- Phaedo, from the WHD Rouse translation.