Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Clever Man Says Interesting Thing, Shock

Earlier this year the New Statesman (a magazine) asked a group of famous people who believed in God why they believed in God. Later on they asked a group of famous people who didn't believe in God why they didn't believe in God. It turned out that the people who believed in God believed in God for all the usual reasons, and the people who didn't believe in God didn't believe in God for all the usual reasons. I give Ben Goodacre points for saying that he thought there should be a word for people who weren't interested one way or the other. The atheists were on the whole shriller than the theists. Richard Dawkins started off sounding calm and reasonable, explaining that he didn't believe in God because he didn't see any reason to believe in God, but ended up saying that "theology" was "the exact equivalent" of reading tea-leaves.

I was a lot more interested in the comments of one Steven Hawking. He was the fella, you remember, who said that when we'd filled in the last bit of physics we would "know the mind of God".

The Dawk is probably right to say that when Hawking says "God" he doesn't actually mean "God": it's just a flowery way of saying "we will know everything." I do wonder if Hawking was deliberately playing up to his own mythology. A very clever man who happens to be severely disabled fits in nicely with Gnostic ideas about Bodies being things that Minds have annoyingly got trapped in, and that we should let those bodies shrivel away so that minds can expand and ascend and get back in touch with the mind of God. That's why the most brilliant fictional scientists (Prof. X, Davros, the Mekon) are always represented as wheelchair users.

Biologists are often accused of "playing God" by people who don't understand biology, or for that matter, God. It's hard to see why "fixing the plumbing" so childless couples can make babies is necessarily more hubristic than, say, giving aspirins to people who God has decided ought to have headaches. But Physicists seem to positively like using the G-word. They pretend that Mr Higgs-Boson is the God Particle or that a grand unified theory is the Mind of God or that Quantum Physics reveals that the Creator is a big fan of Yahtzee. 

Christians have a bad habit of pretending that this means that the scientists in question believed in God even when they obviously didn't. Christians have a bad habit of pretending that all sorts of famous people believed in God when they obviously didn't. Atheists have got an equally bad habit of claiming that famous people didn't believe in God when they obviously did. ("Oh, they may have said that they did, but that was the kind of thing you had to say in the olden days. If they lived today, they would have agreed with me.") Einstein, who was a scientist, didn't believe in God, and said so, although he also said that the didn't think much of atheists and was a big fan of Jesus.

I think that the tendency of some physicists to talk about their science in theological language does imply that they think that their science is the sort of thing which it is worth using theological language to talk about. I think that they use words like "God" because they like to think of themselves as discoverers of some ultimate, or indeed, Ultimate, truth, or indeed Truth. Unlike those poor benighted chemists who just mix things up in their test tubes. I think that they use the G-word because they believe in some kind of Platonic reality – that there are things that are true and would have been true even if there had been no minds to observe them being true. Unlike those people on the other side of the quad who think that everything is contingent, cultural determined, subjective, post-modern, deconstructable.

More recently, Mr Hawking has claimed that the gaps which he perceived when he wrote a Brief History of Time have indeed been filled in: "the scientific account is complete and theology is unnecessary". This works very well if God is primarily an explanation for the bits of the Universe we don't quite understand. When we knew hardly anything, there was lots of stuff for God to do; now we know everything, we can retire him. (I've always felt that this can't be quite right. So little of the Bible and the Koran and the Book of Mormon seem to be involved in saying "Why do elephants have long noses? Because God said so, that's why." So much of it seems to be about temples and taboos and morals and miracles and stuff.)

But the bombshell that Hawking drops on the New Statesman goes like this:

"I am not claiming that there is no God. The scientific account is complete but it does not predict human behaviour because there are too many equations to solve. One therefore uses a different model which can include free will and God." 

Go back and read that again.

Now go back and read it again.

Now, we know well enough how the rest of this argument pans out. Like a high level chess game, the moves are planned out in advance. Some Christians are, right now, typing that God exists because the most famous scientist of his generation says that God exists, or at any rate, that God doesn't definitely not exist. Some atheists are, right now, typing "Oh, I suppose just because humans are complicated I have to start circumcising lambs on bronze alters, do I?" All the cute little Dawkinistas are typing that by "God", Hawking doesn't mean "God" and even if he does, he's got a diseased mind and can be ignored. Five comments in someone will use the phrase "sky fairy" and the discussion will come to an end.

But it is still very interesting.

Clearly, Hawking hasn't suddenly converted to anything, and isn't even necessarily talking about the "God" of religion. He may not be saying anything more than that "God" can be a useful tool of thought. That was the line taken by Phillip Pullman before he became boring: God doesn't "exist" but she's still worth thinking about, because she allows us to think of things we couldn't think of without her. (There is no such number as the square root of minus one, but calculations involving the square root of minus one have useful real world applications.) It was also the line taken by Terry Pratchett: maybe it is good to teach children to believe in things that don't exist, like the tooth fairy, because they are going to need to believe in other things that don't exist, like "love" and "freedom".

It isn't quite clear what Hawking means by "model". He may mean "It could sometimes be useful to pretend that there is a God in the same way that it is sometimes useful (when you are trying to find your way home without a compass, say) to pretend that the earth is the center of the universe and the sun moves round it." Or he may mean: "When we are talking about the human mind, and how it interacts with the universe, and whether it makes real choices, it is perfectly valid to construct hypothesis which includes God. At some point in the future, we may think of a way of testing those hypotheses." 

He seems, very interestingly, to grok the idea that "God" is not, and never way, primarily a very inefficient way of explaining why elephants have trunks; but is, and always was, a way of thinking about how us minds go about existing and interacting with other minds which also seem to be embodied in this physical universe thing. 

Since he has (so far as I know) no particular religious axe to grind it will not be possible for the atheists to reply "Oh, look at the contortions which these Christians will go to to salvage some part of their nasty barbaric bronze age did I mention Fred Phelps stoning apostates sky fairy sky fairy sky fairy." This doesn't mean that they won't say it. And if he is serious (about not claiming that God does not exist) it will suddenly become awfully hard to maintain the imaginary line between science (which is always atheistic) and faith (which is always anti-scientific.) Which doesn't mean that people won't carry on saying it.

Science has explained everything; but human minds and their apparent ability to make choices are not really part of the "everything" which science has explained. We may need to think of them in some other way. Some way that may include "God". 

Excuse me: but wasn't that exactly the territory over which C.S Lewis and G.E.M Anscombe had their celebrated theological spat in 1948?

42 comments:

Mr K said...

Um, or Hawking is just wrong? He's a physicist, not a philosopher or a neurologist. Hawking isn't "science" he's a scientist.

Andrew Rilstone said...

I stand corrected.

Andrew Ducker said...

I've taken to thinking of myself as an ignostic. I came across the term a couple of years ago, and I find it just short-circuits a lot of the discussions that arise when I identify as an atheist.

Unknown said...

"And if he is serious it will suddenly become awfully hard to maintain the imaginary line between science and faith."

Why is that line imaginary, and why does Hawking's statement make it difficult to maintain?

Science has one job: explain how the physical Universe works. It doesn't explain how to be a good parent, or how to weigh different systems of human morality, or why you like Dylan songs. The human mind can grasp concepts and ideas of things that are not part of the physical Universe, but science cannot help you do that.

Faith and theology can do that, for some of those things, for some people. What faith cannot do is tell you anything useful about the physical Universe. That's what science is for.

How is that line imaginary? Unless you reject the idea that an objective physical universe exists (in which case you reject the very idea that science has any utility whatsoever and there's no point discussing it), that line seems pretty clear. Science and faith help you think about totally different things, and you won't get far if you use the wrong tool for the wrong area of inquiry.

Isn't that Hawking's whole point? Science explains what science explains, but you need other ideas to explain what it doesn't.
God and the metaphysical vagaries of the human mind are not part of the physical Universe. Science cannot explain them. Might God exist? Dunno, but that's not a question you can discuss using science, and the answer isn't relevant to scientific problems.

Andrew Rilstone said...

The line of science vs religion; the line which says that science and religion are always and necessarily in conflict; the line that says that science and scientists is inherently athiestic; the line that says the theists are always and inherently anti scientific. The line that is very convenient for Creationists (oh, SCIENCE says that man evolved from a chimp, does it, well that just proves that you shouldn't pay any attention to SCIENCE) and equally convenient for a particular kind of anti religious scientific zealot (lets call him "Richard") for the sake of argument (oh RELIGION says that the universe was created in 6 days, sodes it, will that just proves that you shouldn't pay any attention to RELIGION.) I don't go with the people who say that Dawkins is a fundementalist, that's just name calling. But I do say that the Creationists and the Dawkinisites are mirror images of each other, and that they both need each other, and that I hope that they will both drag each other to their deaths over a metaphysical Riechenbach falls.

The fib that "No Scientists Believe In God" is harder to maintain if the countries most high profile scientis has said "I'm by no means certain that there isn't a God."

JackFool said...

The fellow in the next cubicle at my old place of work (basement of the English building at a biggish university in the middle of the US) used to self-identify as a *militant agnostic*: "I don't know if God exists, and you don't either."

Salisbury said...

So many things to clog your comments feed up with, Andrew. I'll restrict my thoughts to a couple.

First thing--Mr K has already covered it but it bears repeating--Steven Hawking isn't a neuroscientist. (And his thoughts on that area seem at times nigh on Luddite.) Neuroscience has already gone some distance to shifting the sand on which the illusion of free will rests.

We are unlikely ever to explain the greenness of green, though we can probably say why 'greenness' (and qualia in general) is useful for moving about in the world. (In other words, why it evolved.) There may be some room for a god-entity in that, though no more than there is in explaining why space necessitates distance. (The spaceness of space.)

An interesting avenue for me exists in the idea of musical understanding. In noting the musical tension in, say, the root note of a key followed by its fifth, we seem to be aware of the two notes simulataneously, which for a physical computational engine would seem likely impossible. Awareness feels like a singular phenomena: you might be aware of the two notes separately, but how do we assess and feel the relationship between them.

(Unless we are aware of the interval as a concept on its own: this gels with the fact that most of us lack perfect absolute pitch but do have perfect relative pitch.)

In any case it is perfectly simple to acknowledge the possibility of some backstage force and at the same time fail to see the need to pay it any mind. I think what Hawking might really be wondering, between the lines, is why on earth people keep asking him about God, why is it so important to them that he have an opinion on the matter?

Sam Dodsworth said...

@Salisbury - Here's an interesting paper that suggests (in essence) that the results of all the various "neurology of free will" have been seriously oversold. Which is, let's face it, always likely with studies that make good news stories:

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2942748/

[DISCLAIMER: I'm not an academic psychologist - I got the link from psychology postgrad I follow on Twitter.]

Salisbury said...

Sam: Thanks for the link and that seems eminently possible. I'll have a read now.

(My point was more that a basis of agency--free or otherwise--has been located in the brain, and that Hawking has a bit of a track record of slightly woolly thinking in regards to disciplines that aren't physics.)

Andrew Rilstone said...

Mr Socrates, a dead historical dude, would sometimes say things like "Well, of course, this is just an interesting discussion between friends. But if I were debating with one of those agressive, disputious fellows over there, I might say...." I might say that when Christians ask quite why we are paying any attention to what (for example) a biologist says about philosophy and theology we get beaten about the head with leprachauns and Hans Christian Andersen; but when a physicist makes an interesting comment which isn't 100% committed to the glorious Athiest movemnt, we hear "well, of course, its not really his field, poor chap."

Andrew Ducker said...

A rational person would pay attention to whether what _anyone_ says is rational, and the evidence which is presented to back up any assertions they make.

If Stephen Hawking opines on an area he is not an expert in without referencing any evidence, and Richard Dawkins does likewise, then I'd hope that rational people would pay them both the same amount of attention.

Of course, some people don't value things based on their rationality, and are interested more in a call to arms which backs whatever their opinion might already be. I believe that our esteemed host has recently written a post on just such a thing.

Salisbury said...

Ah, but Mr Rilstone, we members of the glorious atheist movement are not so homogeneous as that. What Mr Dawkins has to say about philosophy or theology is of no interest to me whatsoever, having already been more succinctly put by Mr Russell, and without the fuss of the accompanying book tour.

But Mr Hawking's comment deserves pause, because it is as if he had said the field of chemistry leaves gaps for God because we don't know how molecular bonds form when, for some considerable time now, we have done.

Mr K said...

My main point was that arguments from authority are rarely relevant unless the arguments in of themselves are interesting.

Hawking is basically saying "well we can't explain free will without God " (or maybe he isn't, but lets just say he is for the sake of this argument). This is an authorative argument. He is stating this to a true fact. But to be able to make an argument, and for me to credence it, I would need to know Hawking's credentials on philosophy and neuroscience. Well he doesn't really have any, so unless he has an actual argument to back it up, I'm gonna just dismiss it out of hand, frankly.

For the contrary case, lets suppose Richard the biologist makes an argument for the existence of god. His argument uses, say the argument from first cause. Now such an argument is not Richard's speciality, but, presuming its well constructed, it doesn't need to be, because its an argument in of itself.

The difference is that Hawking simply hasn't given a fully formed argument, he's simply stated that something is so, and we have no reason to accept him at that.

I. Dall said...

Though one certainly can see the Platonic Prof. Lewis interest, Prof. Hawkings statement seems, to me, yet another appeal to the God of the gap, at the expense of all those ignorant non-physicists.

But yes, the idea of the Eternal Emnity between "Science" & "Religion" is, indeed, an entirely subjective mental construct, occasionly usefull to activists but a burden on human civilization in general.

For what my statement, as a student of the history of science, is worth; up untill now, physicists who claim Absolute Knowledge have been wrong; though their failures have given us, to take but one example, the internet.

Andrew Ducker said...

The conflict between "Science" and "Religion" depends entirely upon your definition of those two things.

Take, for instance definitions of "Science" as "A process of observation, theorising and testing designed to produce knowledge with evidence behind it." and "Religion" as "The belief in and worship of supernatural entities."

These are only in conflict if you wish to base your belief in supernatural evidence on evidence. If you are happy to say "I believe despite having no evidence." then you have removed any conflict between science and your religious beliefs. Of course, you've also made it tricky to persuade other people that your beliefs are more correct than any other set.

If you _do_ wish to claim that your beliefs are connected to the real world then you will need to back that up with something testable that people can attempt to reproduce.

Jacob said...

Isn't saying "God is a way of thinking about things" tantamount to saying "God does not exist"?

I think that when most people - both theists and atheists - use the word "God", they're not talking about anything metaphorical; they're talking about a think like an elephant or a unicorn that actually does or doesn't exist*.

Whether or not a god or God is a useful way of thinking about things depends on whether or not one exists, and whether its properties match those you ascribe to it.

God isn't like i - if there is no God, adding it to your thinking will not help you reach correct answers to questions that matter, and it will lead you to make mistakes, I think.


*Although what "exist" means in the context of something with no physical structure is obviously a question in its own right.

P.S Andrew, do you object to complete strangers posting on your blog? I started following it years ago, when you were still writing about roleplaying, and I've found enough here on subjects that interest me (Tolkien, politics, folk music, religion/atheism etc) to keep doing so, but it's not clear to what extent its aimed at your friends and to what extent at the general public?

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mike Taylor said...

I really can't be having with these people who say we don't have free will (especially has they have a tendency to present it as though it were a universally accepted fact and we are terribly behind the times for not agreeing). It's one of those matters that everyone can and must have an opinion on -- not a matter for academic specialists -- for the obvious and simple reason that everyone has to and does exercise their free will. To say otherwise is ... just ... nonsensical. I just decided to write this comment, for example.

Andrew Ducker said...

Mike, as you clearly have an
opinion on the matter, I'd like you to define for me what "Free Will" means to you. Because it's one of those concepts that meant less and less to me the more I thought about it, to the point where nowadays I don't consider it to mean anything.

Mike Taylor said...

Andrew,

Every time you use the word "I" in that comment, you had in mind a thing that is you. When you said "I'd like you to define for me what 'Free Will' means to you", you had in mind an outcome that you wanted (in which I define the term), which you prefer to another outcome (in which I do not). That I that you refer to, and which prefers some things over others, and takes actions such as posting your comment that are intended to make the desired outcomes happen -- the decisions that I makes are free will.

This seems so obvious that I almost feel stupid writing it, as though I were writing "That wooden object you're sitting on with the square base, a leg at each corner and a back-rest: that is a chair". Just as I would despair of having a constructive conversation with someone who didn't know what a chair is, so I feel vague and lost in trying to discuss free will with you. What can a person be who doesn't know that? I can only assume that we are miscommunicating on a very fundamental level here.

Andrew Ducker said...

"the decisions that I makes are free will."

Oh. I don't believe that at all. I believe they're the results of physical processes that are either deterministic or probabilistic (depending on which way quantum physics works out).

I believe that it's all just {quarks/atoms/chemicals/biological processes/electricity in the brain/delete as applicable}

Mike Taylor said...

If you were correct, then your words would have no meaning, being only the outcome of random or deterministic phyiscal processes. So your argument would be invalid. And so would mind, of course.

If that were true, I wouldn't bother to continue with it. But of course I would be deciding not to, which would be another exercise of free will. There really is no escape from it. Everything we say, do, believe or decide hangs on it. It's spiritual oxygen: we don't see it because it's everywhere.

Andrew Ducker said...

If you were correct, then your words would have no meaning, being only the outcome of random or deterministic phyiscal processes.

Meaning is the link between symbol and object. My words have meaning because they make that link.

If that were true, I wouldn't bother to continue with it.

I believe it to be true, and yet I continue.

You seem to be saying that "Doing X rather than Y" indicates that you have a nebulous quality about you that allows you to do one rather than the other. But you make those choices for reasons - because of your genes, your hormones, your culture, your current surroundings, your mood. A thousand factors add up to what you do. There is no extra "free will" on top of this that adds anything to it. The world just is what it is.

Or to put it in a different manner:
http://filipspagnoli.files.wordpress.com/2008/12/dilbert-free-will.png

Mike Taylor said...

"If that were true, I wouldn't bother to continue with it."

I believe it to be true, and yet I continue.


Yes. Because you have chosen to.

And we both know that at any moment you could choose not to. Go and make an omelette instead.

Put it this way. Suppose we were instead discussing this in a pub, and I were suddenly to punch you in the stomach. You would, rightly, be outraged. You would ask my why on Earth I did such a thing. And you would not be satisfied if I replied "because of my genes, my hormones, my culture, my current surroundings, my mood", nor indeed "because my choices are the results of physical processes that are either deterministic or probabilistic (depending on which way quantum physics works out)".

Whatever you say you believe now, I find it very very hard -- implossible, in fact -- to believe that when it came to it you would accept those reasons, rather than holding me culpable for my decision to punch you in the stomach.

Andrew Ducker said...

Are you saying that your reasons for punching me in the stomach would have nothing to do with the mood you were in, the culture that brought you up, the environment, the context we were in? That it would happen for no reason?

This makes no sense to me.

Would I be _happy_ you'd punched me in the stomach? No. Punching tends to lead to fear or anger, in my experience.

But that doesn't mean that there wouldn't be an explanation for why you did it.

Mike Taylor said...

Are you saying that your reasons for punching me in the stomach would have nothing to do with the mood you were in, the culture that brought you up, the environment, the context we were in? That it would happen for no reason?

No, of course not. All those things are factors. But in the end, I take them all into account and then decide whether or not to punch you in the stomach.

This is obvious. This is what a person does. This is what a person is. You must mean something different from what I think you mean.

Andrew Stevens said...

Mr. Ducker might very well hold Mr. Taylor culpable, but by his theory, he would have no choice in that, so this doesn't refute him. It may expose Mr. Ducker as irrational, but by Mr. Ducker's theory, we're probably all irrational perforce anyway, so I don't see why this would bother him.

I do sympathize more with Mr. Taylor's argument. When I choose to do X, it always seems pretty clear to me that I could have chosen to do Y. It seems like I need a pretty powerful argument to convince me that my introspection on this point is nothing more than a very complicated (and probably evolutionarily unnecessary) illusion. The argument against free will, though, turns out to have as a central premise an assumption of materialism and determinism. These, of course, are perfectly necessary and appropriate methodological assumptions when doing science, but they are not proven theorems or anything. (Indeed, science has nothing to say on whether these assumptions are true. What experiment could possibly refute materialism? What experiment could possibly verify determinism?) But I'm not convinced that the anti-free-will argument is false, just that it's currently not strong enough to clear its hurdle.

Andrew Ducker said...

This is obvious. This is what a person does. This is what a person is.

I really don't know what you mean by this. Do you mean "You process information and come to conclusions"?

If so, then yes. But the decision you come to is no more "free will" than the output of a computer is. It's just more complex, and you are aware of it, which computers aren't.

Possibly you can clear something up for me here - what would be the difference between "A complex system which processes signals and then acts based on them." and "A complex system which processes signals and then acts based on them, which has free will." - i.e. how would we tell if you had it or just felt like you had it?

Salisbury said...

Andrew Stevens: There is no need to assert determinism or materialism to show that free will is largely meaningless.

I have before me a piece of chocolate and a chicken drumstick. I am only allowed to choose one. Which do I choose?

Presumably I have a preference for chocolate or chicken, based on taste, nutritional value, religious views and an assortment of other factors.

If my choice doesn't take into account my preference for chocolate or chicken then it what sense is it a choice at all? It is simply arbitrariness.

If it does, well, where did I get those preferences from?

Mr K said...

Even in a world without "free will", there are lots of sensible reasons to punish wrong doers. If someone punches me I raise the probability that they will do that again, and seeing as my body doesn't like being punched, its perfectly rational for it to attempt to make sure that the puncher is prevented from doing so.

Punishment makes less sense when we realise people must be the products of their environment and their upbringing, unless we believe it would act as a deterrent.

A proponent of free will needs to believe that they could of done something differently to what they actually did. And I will agree- you could have, but you wouldn't have, because if you had, you'd be a different person. If you push me, I swear at you. Perhaps with the benefits of hindsight I wish I hadn't sworn, but thats because me now, who has just been beaten to within an inch of his life, is a different person to sweary me of 20 minutes ago.

Mike Taylor said...

Even in a world without "free will", there are lots of sensible reasons to punish wrong doers.

In a world without free will, you have no choice in the matter.

Salisbury said...

In a world without free will, you have no choice in the matter.

In a world without free will, counterfactuals can still be assessed for their truth value.

A computer may have no choice except to conclude that 1 + 1 = 2, but conclude it it does

Mike Taylor said...

In a world without free will, counterfactuals can still be assessed for their truth value.

I don't understand what point is being made here.

Salisbury said...

Mr K had raised the point that in a world without free will, there are still reasons to punish criminals.

You responded that if our world is without free will we have no choice in the matter.

You are correct, of course, but I felt it important to note that it is still possible to ask and answer if-then questions about such a world, such as if free will doesn't exist, is punishment meaningful? Even if the decision to ask and answer those questions is also not free.

Mr K said...

Also Mike you are confusing what you want to be true and what is true. Whether or not we punish criminals in a world without free will is not pertinent to the question. That I might act like a hypocrite by acting "like" I have free will isn't really important. I can determine the truth of something and then still act like it isn't true.

For instance, I believe that when I die I will cease to be, and that within a century or so all my actions will be erased. I believe that even if I were to attain immortality, it would only last long enough for the sun to die, and the universe to suffer its heat death. Yet I still act like what I do has some meaning or impact. There are lots of reasons why I would so so, but my actions have no impact on the truth of the statement that when I die I will cease to be.

Same with free will. Humans act like we have free will (you claim) but that doesn't mean they actually possess it.

But lets get to the nub of the matter. Human A wakes up one morning and goes to work. Human A has chosen to go to work because of the information A has, and the life A has led up to that point, and who, fundamentally, A is.

If we replayed this morning with EXACTLY the same conditions in every way, we should still expect human A to go to work. Not because A is being compelled to by an external force, but because if A chose to do something different then it would no longer be human A making that choice, it would be human A*, who is different in some manner, causing A* to choose not to go to work.

Choices are free, but they must be inevitable.

Now to deal with an obvious objection, what if the universe is random? Well on a macro level we expect the universe to be pretty deterministic, and if we restart the day we'd expect it to be similar to the original. But even if there were different conditions caused by inherent randomness in reality, so that human A decided to not go to work, it wouldn't really be human A anymore. We would have, again, human A*, because the morning has turned out differently, and different neurons have fired in different orders, leading A* to make different decisions.

I don't see how a deterministic or a random universe gives us free will- I honestly don't understand the definition of free will you are currently using. If you simply mean that there is nothing external forcing you to make a choice, then i would agree, but nonetheless I will argue that your choice is inevitable because of who you are.

Andrew Stevens said...

There is no need to assert determinism or materialism to show that free will is largely meaningless.

I agree. You have to assert determinism and/or materialism to show that we do not have free will. You can even claim free will is meaningless even while conceding that we have it (and some philosophers do).

The crux of all the argument currently going on is the assertion that anything uncaused must be random, correct? I.e. if we agree that there can be such a thing as a non-random uncaused event, then we would concede the possibility of free will and it's simply the denial that such a thing is possible that is leading to the denial of free will. Am I summing up accurately?

Andrew Stevens said...

Correcting my own summing up: I meant to say that it's leading to the denial of the meaningfulness of free will. I.e. the claim seems to be that our choices are either caused or random and, in either event, free will is meaningless (though it might exist).

Mr K said...

Andrew: that is an excellent summary of my position, put far more concisely than I have thus far! I genuinely cannot conceive of a non-random uncaused event: to me, that seems to be something none of us have experience of.

Andrew Stevens said...

I don't really have a dog in that fight then. I'm not terribly interested in the question of whether free will is "meaningful" in that sense. E.g. when it comes to punishing the guilty for something, if you tell me, "But given his genetics and experiences, he had to choose to do what he did," I would respond with "Well, then, it's a good thing I'm not suggesting punishing anyone other than the one who has his genetics and experiences. It seems, if anything, more important to punish someone who had no choice but to do wrong. Perhaps the experience of punishment will cause him to act properly in the future."

I don't find the assertion that there are no non-random uncaused things as obvious as Mr. K and Salisbury, but neither am I saying they're wrong. Obviously, if it's uncaused, that means we can't predict it so it might seem random to someone doing a scientific experiment, but it is not obvious to me that this is synonymous with random.

(I believe that most metaphysical libertarians agree that most choices are caused, by the way, but that at least sometimes the will has options available, i.e. it is not necessitated. For example, I like both chicken and chocolate, but don't love either, so I could go either way. But it's hard to imagine a circumstance where I'd punch Andrew Ducker in the stomach so I may not have free will to do so.)

Salisbury said...

Andrew Stevens: By meaningless here, I mean meaningless from the point of view of culpability.

In other words, even if there are non-random, non-caused material or numinous decisions being made, they would be arbitrary with respect to the will.

The good man knows right from wrong and is inclined to do good.

The bad man knows right from wrong and is inclined to do what he pleases.

The man who knows right from wrong and has no opinion on the matter has no choice but to act capriciously with respect to morality.

Kant tried to help but, even if he were right, his reasoning is so violently abstract that the man on the street in need of moral guidance will struggle to parse his advice.

Andrew Stevens said...

My point was that the will itself could make uncaused, non-random decisions. Whether this has any effect on moral culpability, I couldn't say, but as I said above, this doesn't concern me. So long as moral decisions are adequately determined, I have no issue with blaming people for the results of their genes and their environments and this is particularly true if they are 100% products of their genes and their environments (which I am not necessarily granting).

Salisbury said...

'If I were having a philosophical talk with a man I was going to have hanged (or electrocuted) I should say, "I don't doubt that your act was inevitable for you but to make it more avoidable by others we propose to sacrifice you to the common good. You may regard yourself as a soldier dying for your country if you like. But the law must keep its promises."'
--Oliver Wendell Holmes