Sunday, November 28, 2010

Leveraging Harris: making moral progress by denying free will

In his latest book, The Moral Landscape, Sam Harris devotes 10 pages (pp. 102-112) to debunking contra-causal free will and drawing out the progressive implications for our beliefs, attitudes and social practices. This is a most welcome development since Harris commands a wide readership and considerable respect (although by no means universal agreement) among atheists, humanists, skeptics and freethinkers. Such readers are among those most likely to be receptive to the thesis – radical from the traditional dualistic religious perspective, but a scientific commonplace – that we aren’t causal exceptions to nature. The Center for Naturalism has long been promoting the challenge to the soul and its supernatural freedom as a science-based route to more effective and compassionate interpersonal relations and social policies, so we’re very pleased that Harris takes up this challenge so forcefully. Having dispatched the Big God of the major Abrahamic religions in The End of Faith, the little god of free will is a next logical target.

Continued at Naturalism.Org, comments welcome at this location.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Causation and Culpability

At Why Evolution is True, Jerry Coyne, stout defender of science against anti-evolutionists and accomodationists, describes attending a conference with psychologist Philip Zimbardo, known for his situational analysis of why good people end up doing bad things. Coyne writes (my bolding in the second paragraph):
…Zimbardo said, “There are no bad apples, just bad barrels.” Do have a look at Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment webpage: that work, done in the ’70s, is still a sine qua non in psychology texts as it raised disturbing questions about how nice people can become evil very quickly.

I was not completely convinced by this extreme environmentalism. For one thing, it’s an easy way to exculpate people who commit antisocial or criminal acts; for another, there do seem to be some people who are of inherently good
character and prone to do heroic things in circumstances where others are
apathetic. On the other hand, I keep thinking of Daniel Goldhagen’s book, Hitler’s Willing Executioners, which showed how everyday Germans, most of whom we’d consider nice, well-meaning people, became avid supporters of the Holocaust.
I want to nit pick the bolded phrase since it encapsulates what I think is a widespread misunderstanding about causation and culpability. Coyne is of course right that there are dispositional (characterological) as well as environmental (situational) factors that determine behavior, but whatever the balance is between them, a full causal explanation of behavior is not exculpating. To suppose that we can hold people responsible only if they are uncaused in some respect sets an impossible standard for responsibility. After all, there’s no reason to think people are uncaused in some respect or ultimately self-caused, a logical impossibility. And even if Zimbardo were right that people’s dispositions and characters count for very little, we would still have to hold individuals accountable as a means to deter wrongful acts, such as the torture at Abu Ghraib (about which see Zimbardo’s book The Lucifer Effect and his interview with philosopher Tamler Sommers in Sommer’s new book A Very Bad Wizard: Morality Behind the Curtain, highly recommended).

What Zimbardo’s analysis does, crucially, is to broaden the scope of accountability to include not just individuals and their traits, but the systemic, institutional and policy factors that bring out the worst in human nature. Understanding how those factors cause individuals to act badly gives us that much more potential power to prevent wrong-doing, so it’s important not to let a narrow, dispositionist and perhaps even contra-causal conception of culpability block our appreciation of situational influences. Hence my nit-picking of Coyne’s comment.

Curiously enough, however, I’m not sure that Zimbardo himself is completely consistent in the application of his thesis. At a talk he gave in Cambridge, I asked him if his analysis of the Abu Ghraib situation didn’t also apply to George W. Bush and then vice-president Dick Cheney. Weren’t they too the product of a situation, of political parties, ideologies and the lure of power, not self-created monsters? He hemmed and hawed, clearly unwilling to endorse such an apparently exculpating explanation of people he considered evil incarnate. But again, such an explanation wouldn’t be exculpating since we can, and must, still hold Bush and Cheney responsible despite the fact that they were fully caused, by their situation and innate endowments, to be who they are, and act as they did. In his interview with Tamler Sommers, Zimbardo agrees with Sommers that contra-causal free will is an illusion, but he also says the higher-ups like Bush and Cheney bear greater responsibility since they create the systems that corrupt the underlings. But of course neither Bush nor Cheney created the system that created them, a crucial point Zimbardo seems unwilling to acknowledge, or at least vacillates on (read the interview, see what you think). The buck stops nowhere, which means interventions are appropriate everywhere they will do some good, including the reform of systems that create and enable nefarious leaders.

If Zimbardo, one of the major proponents of situationism (and more broadly the causal explanation of behavior) can’t fully accept that causation applies to all of us, even presidents and vice-presidents, this just illustrates the power of contra-causal thinking. Indeed, Zimbardo says in the interview, "I don't really believe in free will, but I can't live without it" (p. 50). Nonsense! Please try harder. As long as we suppose the wrongs that people do are not the fully determined outcome of a host of social, environmental and biological factors, including an electorate that can put the likes of Bush and Cheney in power and an administrative system that allowed them to pursue a needless war in Iraq, then we’re at a serious disadvantage in our attempts to make the world a better place. By pinning blame on the bad apple alone, we’ll be blind to, and lose control over, the causes of bad apples.

Is Naturalism Nihilistic?

This is an invited response to Alex Rosenberg’s essay at On the Human, The disenchanted naturalist's guide to reality, in which he suggests that naturalism leads to scientism and thence to nihilism. Nothing remotely like this is true, and seeing why not is a good opportunity to make some observations about naturalism and normativity – about where standards of right and wrong, and true and false come from if nature is all there is. I’m happy to report that most of the other commentators declined Rosenberg’s gambit, so they rightly remain un-disenchanted naturalists. The supposed relationship between naturalism and nihilism has been debunked previously at Memeing Naturalism, see here.

Scientism as Rosenberg describes it isn’t equivalent to or implied by naturalism, a worldview that takes science as its guide to reality. He says “Science has to be nihilistic about ethics and morality.” But science alone isn’t in a position to be nihilistic. Science arguably provides the best answers to factual questions about what exists, but doesn’t itself have the resources or competence to answer (in the negative, as Rosenberg would have it) the “persistent questions” of human meaning, purpose and morality. To suppose science alone can answer such questions is indeed to be scientistic in the original and rightly pejorative sense. After all, when considering the big questions, we ordinarily avail ourselves of all the philosophical and practical resources outside science, such as ethical and political theory, religious and secular traditions, maxims, rules of thumb, and other sources of wisdom on how best to live and find meaning.

It isn’t surprising that Rosenberg’s hyper-reductive scientism ends up in nihilism, since of course we don’t find values or purpose or meaning at the level of what he thinks science shows to be the only reality: fermions and bosons. But such austere physicalism isn’t forced on the naturalist, who can countenance higher-level ontologies, including mental states, so long as they play useful roles in our best (most predictive, transparent and unifying) explanations and theories. So far as science can tell, human beings (physical organisms) and their projects (their behavior) are just as real as their sub-atomic constituents, which after all are not directly observed but theoretical posits par excellence. Naturalism still leaves plenty of room for purpose, meaning and morality so long as these are understood as what they actually are under naturalism: human, creaturely concerns that need no cosmic or sub-atomic backup. To see this is to naturalize purpose, meaning and morality, to relativize them to naturally occurring needs and interests; it isn’t to annihilate them.

Rosenberg underestimates the extent to which scientific explanations can be understood and found inspirational by non-scientists, for instance the grand stories of cosmic and biological evolution. To discover ourselves full participants in nature, historically and in the present moment, need not be demoralizing as Carl Sagan so wonderfully demonstrated. Crucially, scientific explanations don’t entail that human existential and ethical concerns are unreal or unfulfillable, only that they are situated in a natural world that, logically enough, has no capacity to validate them. Only the assumption that addressing such concerns requires an appeal to supernatural or extra-human standards would lead us to suppose that naturalized meaning and morality aren’t the real thing. But there’s no good reason to make that assumption.

Rosenberg says that “If the physical facts fix all the facts…then in doing so, it rules out purposes altogether, in biology, in human affairs, and in human thought-processes.” But the physical level of description doesn’t compete with, or supplant, higher level descriptions of human behavior involving purposes and other intentional states, conscious and unconscious. There’s no making sense of behavior at our level without them. True, science reveals no purpose in evolution or nature, but that doesn’t show that our purposes are illusions, that we don’t really believe, desire, plan, etc. Purposes and intentional states are real-ized in physical organisms such as ourselves.

He makes the same sort of claim about morality: “There is no room in a world where all the facts are fixed by physical facts for a set of free floating independently existing norms or values (or facts about them) that humans are uniquely equipped to discern and act upon.” Agreed: for the naturalist norms aren’t free floating, but are rooted in our evolved needs and desires for flourishing in community with others (hence ethical norms of fairness and reciprocity) and for making accurate predictions about the world (hence cognitive norms of rationality, evidence and inference). But even though we don’t find anything intrinsically normative in nature taken as a whole, or at the level of physical facts about fermions and bosons, these norms are just as real as the human beings that depend on them for getting by in the world. From a naturalistic standpoint, the normative force attached to our moral core – our judgment that it’s correct – can only be a function of the fact that it serves basic human needs as shaped by evolution: if you want to get along with others (and you likely do) then you should in general behave morally. That this explanation shows our moral core to be an adaptation, along with much else about us, doesn’t debunk normativity as unreal, only naturalizes it.

Rosenberg’s reductive stripping away of higher level human perspectives continues down the line, for meaning, history, consciousness, the self, free will, and even knowledge (a perilously self-undermining tack to take). But the mistake in all this is to suppose that physicalist, mechanistic, sub-personal and selectionist explanations leave no room in naturalism for the higher level ontologies and explanations that comprise the need-driven normative realms of cognition, meaning and morality. That the brain doesn’t traffic in propositions, and that consciousness isn’t a direct mirroring of the world, doesn’t mean that language-using persons don’t have propositional knowledge or entertain accurate beliefs. That semantic meaning isn’t a “fact about reality” considered at the sub-atomic level doesn’t render unreal our linguistic referential capacities, or our ability to tell truthful and instructive stories about historical events. No original intentionality is needed, only the constructed intentionality made possible by being creatures whose brains instantiate mental models that track the world. Seeing that the consciously experienced self is naturalistically not a soul, but a neurally realized pattern (a “real pattern” Dennett would say) is to explain selves and self-concern, not to explain them away. That we aren’t contra-causally free doesn’t mean we cease being moral agents responsive to the prospect of rewards and sanctions, although it might entail that we rethink some of our more punitive responsibility practices.

The processes of naturalization spurred by science may indeed upset some cherished supernatural and theistic conceptions of the self, freedom, consciousness, morality, meaning and knowledge, which may in turn prompt changes in mainstream concepts and practices. But naturalism does not entail the scientistic elimination and debunking of all that matters to human beings; it simply places this mattering within nature as a set of creaturely concerns that other sentient beings might conceivably share with us. That nature, taken as a whole, or understood sub-atomically, does not validate our naturally occurring concerns and capacities isn’t a reason to give up on them, and indeed we’re pretty much constitutionally unable to do so. So naturalists need not be, shouldn’t be, and in the end can’t be, scientistic eliminativists or nihilists.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Mitigation Response: Getting Smart on Crime

The French proverb has it that “tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner” – to understand all is to forgive all. Although it isn’t good interpersonal or social policy to forgive those who show no sincere signs of regret, or could continue to harm us, the saying nevertheless captures an important feature of human psychology. Understanding the causal antecedents of wrongful behavior, and more basically seeing that it had causal antecedents – it didn’t come out of the blue – often reduces blame focused on the offender. We see the role of the factors that created him and the opportunity for wrongdoing, and know that had those been different, he might well not have done wrong. This in effect distributes causal responsibility for the offense, so that the offender ceases to be an ultimate, point-like originator of action.

It’s appropriate that this change in our perception of causal responsibility mitigates perceived blameworthiness. To blame is to assign responsibility and seek redress, and as it becomes clear the offender is not self-made, but only the most proximate cause of harm, the smart course of action is to widen the scope of redress to include his causes – his formative environment and current situation. The tendency for blame focused on the offender to diminish in light of his causal story is an adaptive reallocation of emotional and attentional resources. It frees us up to consider a wider, more effective strategy in preventing future wrong-doings.

All this has implications for criminal justice, in that drawing attention to the causes of criminals, not just crime, might make us smarter in dealing with it. But just how real and robust is the psychological tendency described above, what we might call the mitigation response? Is there empirical evidence that understanding and appreciating causation actually reduces our desire to punish? Might it attenuate our desire for retribution, which aims only to inflict suffering on the offender, not produce good social consequences?

Some preliminary research supports these hypotheses. A series of studies conducted by psychologists Azim Shariff, Joshua Greene, and Jonathan Schooler indicates that heightening the salience of determinism reduces the attribution of moral blameworthiness, the perception of free will, and the desire for punishment (“Beyond Retribution?: Effects of Encouraging a Deterministic Worldview on Punishment,” in preparation). Individuals exposed to explicit arguments in favor of determinism and against free will, or (in another study) scientific articles merely suggestive of determinism, were less likely to impose long prison sentences on a hypothetical murderer. The results also indicated that imposing shorter sentences was mediated by reductions in perceived blameworthiness, arguably the main factor motivating retributive, as opposed to consequentialist, punishment (about the difference see here). It looks as though these experiments induced the mitigation response.

They also suggest that educating the public about causation, in particular that human beings and their acts are likely fully caused, might help shift our criminal justice priorities away from retributive punishment, the law’s current preoccupation, and toward prevention, rehabilitation and restitution, while maintaining deterrence and public safety. By widening the consideration of causes outside the perpetrator (but not forgetting him either!), the “deterministic worldview” can humanize criminal justice by motivating the idea that any suffering inflicted on him must have a solid consequentialist rationale: only inflict it if nothing non-punitive works to reduce the future harms coming from crime, and only if the suffering inflicted is less than the harm being reduced.

The mitigation response, generated by appreciating the offender’s causal history of being shaped by criminogenic influences, can thus play a role in changing attitudes about blame and punishment. We should take full advantage of it in crafting a humane and smart approach to crime reduction.

(About a smarter, less draconian approach to criminal justice, have a look at Mark Kleiman's appearance on Bloggingheads with Reihan Salam.)

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Freedom From Free Will

Back in February 2008, the New York Times and many other news outlets made mention of research conducted by Jonathan Schooler and Kathleen Vohs which suggested that people cheat more when induced to believe they don’t have free will (discussed at Memeing Naturalism here). This finding, they argued, raises concerns about disseminating the idea that we might be fully caused in our behavior: we might get demoralized by determinism. Perhaps we should maintain at least the fiction of free will even if we don’t actually have it. But perhaps not. That we need not be demoralized by determinism is argued here, and that determinism is in fact indispensable to us here.

These concerns resurfaced in a debate between psychologists Roy Baumeister and John Bargh at the recent Society for Personality and Social Psychology convention in Tampa. Their presentations are on YouTube here and here respectively, and the debate continues on their Psychology Today blogs here and here. Baumeister, worried about demoralization, is very concerned to spike the idea that human behavior is fully determined, so he floats the unlikely proposal that causation at the macro level isn’t deterministic (same causes, same effects) but more a matter of probabilities (same causes, a range of possible effects). The latter is likely true for micro-level quantum phenomena but there’s no evidence that it’s true at the level of human behavior. I try to steer him straight about determinism here, and try to persuade him that determinism isn’t demoralizing here, with help from philosopher Tamler Sommers. Further, Baumeister’s view of free will itself is somewhat confused, a mixture of naturalistic compatibilism and contra-causal libertarianism, so I try to clarify things for him here. Fortunately he’s a forgiving soul and seems completely unfazed by my meddling.

Bargh, on the other hand, is a model of clarity in his responses to Baumeister (here and here), so hasn’t needed any helpful hints. He’s properly skeptical about contra-causal free will and makes these two important points, among many other good observations:

1) Where’s the research, and publicity, about possible positive effects of disbelief in free will? All the focus so far has been on the downsides of determinism, at least what we’ve heard about. Interestingly, Bargh mentions that Jonathan Schooler, who brought us the study on cheating, also found that “telling experimental participants that free will did not exist caused those participants to be more forgiving towards the transgressions of others.” But there have been no press releases or news stories about this to my knowledge. With any luck, Bargh and others will research the benefits of free will skepticism, so stay tuned.

2) Bargh says it’s crucially important that if we don’t have free will, people should know about it. Why? In order to empower them. He says:

To my mind, one potential benefit to getting people to not believe so strongly in the power of their own personal agency or free will is that they might then be more concerned about external influences or even explicit attempts by advertisers, government, etc. to control what they do (eat, drink, buy, vote). Research by Tim Wilson and Nancy Brekke (Psychological Bulletin, 1994) has shown that people do not worry very much about these influence attempts because they believe they are the captains of their minds and in near-complete control over their judgments and behaviors. For example, people do not believe negative campaign advertising affects them, and so do not attempt to counteract or defend themselves from the effects of such ads, yet that variety of campaign advertising is in actuality so effective that it became nearly the exclusive form of campaign ads during the recent 2008 US presidential election. And Jennifer Harris and colleagues in our ACME lab have recently shown unconscious effects of television ads on snack food and cigarette consumption, such that these ads contribute to societal health problems of obesity and smoking (see Thus I can see significant positive benefits in informing people of their (at least relative) lack of free will in the behavioral impulses triggered by the ads, both in their own health outcomes and in their ability to counteract presumed unwanted influences on their
important decisions, such as who they want to lead their country. Indeed, given that Baumeister has expressed his belief that telling people that free will may not exist is 'irresponsible', I can make the case that not telling them is perhaps even more irresponsible, because it leaves them at the mercy of corporations and governments who are not quite so naive.

Here Bargh agrees with behaviorist B.F. Skinner: the myth of radically “autonomous man” is used to lull people into being more easily controlled. Moreover, it helps in blaming and punishing victims (they cause their own misfortunes), and draws attention away from the actual reasons people fail to flourish (don’t blame circumstances, just blame individuals). In helping to challenge conventional wisdom about free will, Bargh is bringing power to the people, if only they could be convinced. They are, paradoxically enough, made less free by their own beliefs about freedom, which is why we needn’t be shy about advertising the truth about human agency. Freedom from free will is a liberation movement waiting to happen, should naturalism take hold. If it does, we can thank John Bargh for his straight talk on a matter many suppose should be kept under wraps.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Putting epistemology first

The debate over so-called accomodationism (notably between Chris Mooney and Jerry Coyne, with significant contributions by Russell Blackford, Jason Rosenhouse and P.Z.Meyers) has, fortunately, raised what I think is the fundamental issue between naturalism and supernaturalism: how we know what's real. The National Center for Science Education and the National Association of Science seem to grant religion a special domain of epistemic competence in being able to decide the question of whether the supernatural exists, a domain in which science, they say, has no competence. But this seems wrong, as argued here. Science can investigate supernatural hypotheses if they have testable content, and religion has no special reliable mode of knowing which shows that something beyond nature exists, although theologians such as John F. Haught try to make the case that it does.

Of course there are important questions we can ask about reality outside the direct purview of scientific theorizing. Supernaturalist Ken Miller suggests some: "Why does science work? Why is the world around us organized in a way that makes it accessible to our powers of logic and observation?" And he points to "the deeper questions of why we are here and whether existence has a purpose." To the extent these questions involve matters of fact, or that they imply a factual state of affairs within which we ask them, we'll want to use our most reliable mode of knowing to ascertain those facts, which is science. What is the nature of existence, that it might or might not have a purpose? What is it about the methods of science that explains why it works so well? Science, and more broadly intersubjective empiricism, obviously has a role in investigating the nature of existence and the nature of scientific practice itself since these are empirical questions. To the extent these questions aren’t directly factual, but involve conceptual analysis, they are ordinarily deemed philosophical. But the neat distinction between empirical and conceptual investigation has been blurred considerably by the naturalistic turn in philosophy over the last century, so that we might call Miller’s questions “philo-scientific” questions, ones which arguably require the collaboration of science and philosophy to address.

What Miller and other supernaturalists such as Francis Collins at Biologos seem to suggest, however, is that religion and religious faith have some additional expertise, knowledge or epistemic competence beyond what science and philosophy have to offer in answering such questions. They believe that there are specifically religious, non-scientific ways of reliably knowing reality that can help answer the questions of why the world is accessible to logic and observation, and of ultimate meaning and purpose. If so, how do these ways of knowing work, such that we can see that they’re trustworthy? Does theology, usually in the business of defending the existence of something beyond nature, have a special philosophical or epistemic competence such that it provides insights into reality not available to naturalistic philosophy? If so, what is this? In a must read essay on naturalism, Barbara Forrest quotes Sidney Hook asking the crucial question:
“Is there a different kind of knowledge that makes ... [the supernatural] an accessible object of knowledge in a manner inaccessible by the only reliable method we have so far successfully employed to establish truths about other facts? Are there other than empirical facts, say spiritual or transcendent facts? Show them to us...”
This is a reasonable demand that any cognitively responsible supernaturalist should be able, and feel obligated, to meet. Of course it isn’t as if naturalists claim to have all the answers to the big or even middle-sized questions, but the methods of inquiry we stick with have been proven pretty reliable. If there are any rival methods that establish the existence of something beyond nature that informs such answers, we want to know about them. If there aren’t, then supernaturalists are skating on thin epistemic ice.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Getting Along: Civil Disagreements with a Thinking Christian

It’s always salutary to get evaluated by a strong critic of your position, someone who doesn’t share your preconceptions and assumptions and who therefore is able to detect weaknesses in your premises and arguments. Being an advocate of a worldview is to be biased in its favor, and it’s good to achieve some virtual distance from your commitments by looking at them through the eyes of an opponent.

Tom Gilson at Thinking Christian was kind enough to offer a critique of Reality and its rivals, an article that discusses the justifications for intersubjective empiricism (exemplified by science) as our most reliable way of knowing, how empiricism tends to support naturalism, and the ethical obligation we have to one another to be empiricists (and thus, perhaps, naturalists). He then invited me to a debate in three parts, which you can read here.

I won’t reprise the arguments since the disagreements are perhaps less important than the tone of the discourse, which was pretty amicable. Since it’s unlikely that unanimity on the fundamental questions that worldviews address will ever be achieved, it’s crucial that worldview adversaries share a belief in live-and-let-live tolerance, otherwise things can get very nasty, as the history of ideological conflict shows. They should agree that maintaining an irenic philosophical pluralism is more important than achieving world domination for their worldview, because that’s simply not achievable given human diversity. Better we disagree peacefully than try to enforce an untenable uniformity.

I wrapped up my contributions by noting all the common ground that had come to light during the debate. I’ll quote that and the end of Tom Gilson’s reply, just as an example of how focusing on commonalities helps to generate cross-ideological comity. To put it succinctly and imperatively: everybody play nice!

Clark writes:

…But what I’ve learned from this debate is that we agree about those [epistemic] commitments more than I expected. We agree that “first person data” – for instance the subjective experience of being embraced by God – aren’t alone adequate to prove the claim of God’s existence. We agree (I think) that intersubjective evidence using public objects is necessary to justify that claim to persons not having such experience. We agree that history and philosophy have intersubjective elements to them, and we agree (I think) that one can’t simply reason one’s way to God: philosophical arguments supporting God’s existence involve premises about how the world actually is in various respects (otherwise you wouldn’t be interested in history or science, which of course you are). We also agree that there are unsolved mysteries about how the world works, that dogmatism is to be avoided, and that argument, not force, is the best way to resolve worldview differences. And if they can’t be resolved, we agree that we can still live peacefully together in an open society (my cardinal value). So all told we agree on a lot, and for that and the very civil discourse I’ve encountered here, I’m most grateful.

Gilson responds:
...I continue to hold that God can communicate his reality to persons in a private manner, and that he does so, and that the shared reality of that experience among believers is as valid as persons’ shared experience of “red.” This is in addition to, not instead of, external inter-subjective validations.

I agree that there is epistemological value in your two requirements [the insulation and public object requirements], but I hold that to place complete reliance on them is self-defeating. I think you probably have agreed with that in the end, but I’m not entirely sure.

This has been an interesting discussion. There’s room for more response here, and (whether this is good news to you or not I don’t know!) I have two further topics to address from your epistemology article, relating to meaning and ethics, so I’ll take those up in blog posts before long. I appreciate your excellent interaction!

The Wisdom of Alice

It would be nice if a worldview were not only true, but livable. As yet, there aren’t many thorough-going naturalists to provide data, but a hardy few have reported back on the livability of naturalism and it mostly seems to pass the test, see Living in light of naturalism. Below are some updates from Alice in Australia at the Naturalism Philosophy Forum (open membership), who describes some of the practical and psychological advantages of taking a consistently cause and effect view of ourselves, and the understandable suspicions many folks have about it. She also describes applying naturalism to child-rearing, as does Stephen, another member of the Forum. If a worldview can pass that test, then clearly it’s a winner! Enjoy…

Alice writes:

I’m really happy with my understanding of the world based on what I understand Naturalism to be telling me. In the past I’ve found that I was coming up with theories, then when I came across a theory that made sense I was applying it, but it never went smoothly, something always came up that didn’t fit in with my theory. So I jumped from theory to theory until finding Naturalism in July 2007. 18 months is probably the longest that I’ve had a theory that I’ve applied to my life where in 18 months I’ve not yet had a contradiction to the reality that I’ve experienced. I feel enlightened. I tell my friends this and they’re not sure what to think. When things go wrong in my marriage and I ‘attempt’ to speak with my mother about it – she tells me ‘well you’ve made your choices’, so then I tell her, I don’t have free will, she seems to think I’m trying to cop out of something and is very disapproving of me. In fact most people are disapproving of my belief in NFWism [no free will-ism: not having contra-causal free will]. I’m just really sorry they don’t ‘get it’. NFWism allows me complete acceptance of what is. It allows me to have compassion for all people. It allows me to make informed decisions and respond to everyone with the understanding that they ‘couldn’t have done otherwise’. This is an emancipating position. Yet still people look at me and think I’m some how being a smart-arsed shirker of responsibility, who hasn’t quite understood how life works yet – a dreamer who really doesn’t get it! Ironic that they have it so back to front – and yet my world view allows me to have total compassion for them and their attitude – whilst they look at me in judgment. It really throws the Christian door knockers - LOL!

On child-rearing:

…So the better I understand Naturalism, the better I can enact those principles in my life and use the rationality of naturalism in my thoughts and actions, the more likely that is going to permeate all my relationships and influence those around me. My eldest is currently 7 years old, and I find overt examples of my Naturalistic world perspective come out in my discussions with him regarding interactions between himself and his younger brother. Kids are very good at detecting false realities, so I have to be careful what I say if I want to maintain any authority or respect. I find that if I stick to Naturalistic parameters, my argument is quite based in reality and therefore acceptable.

I can’t see any problem with introducing all aspects of Naturalism including NFW [no contra-causal free will] to my children. Children integrate what they learn very easily and can also easily see when things don’t add up or make sense. If they feel safe they will talk about what is not adding up for them and allow you the opportunity to clarify concepts. One example of this for me was when my son’s friend told him that he would burn in hell because he didn’t believe in God. As my son approached me with his concerns, I was able to give my perspective, which was satisfactory and caused much relief.

If you hold Naturalistic beliefs and are able to concurrently have good self-esteem then there is no reason why your child wouldn’t follow you to do the same. If anything Naturalism has improved my self-esteem, as I’m more grounded in reality, feel more confident about my understanding of the world and have more compassion for everyone around me, which has lead to my feeling more valuable in society and therefore created higher self-esteem.

With my first child I had a go at punishment as a parenting technique. It caused us both lots of distress [and] it clearly didn’t work – it wasn’t effective in outcomes. Now I go for a more effective method – I change the circumstances so that I achieve the outcome I desire. The child may or may not understand what I’m doing, or why, but if I get the outcome I want and the child is not distressed it’s win-win. I have no concerns that this will create problems later on, as I explain everything I’m doing and allow the child to learn how to see other perspectives at their own rate – developing compassion (the ability to see another’s perspective) in the child is the key to socially functioning adults.

And Stephen writes:

…the other day I was talking to my daughter about what school she will be going to. She was worried in case she got "a rough one." I explained that she was an amazing biological machine able to adapt to the situation and do well if necessary, that this was the result of billions of years of natural selection going right back to the first self replicating molecule, that she couldn't take ultimate credit for the fact but still she has this amazing ability.Oh and I told her we'd get her Karate lessons too :-)

She is 10, didn't bat an eye lid but it gave her justified confidence (along with the offer of karate lessons), she stopped worrying and cheered up.

I think she's used to having one strange dude for a father :-)

[Relatedly, see this interview with Dale McGowan on raising kids without supernatural beliefs.]

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Science Wars: Dualism vs. Materialism

The prestige of science is such that everyone wants it on their side. Science is a trusted arbiter of facts for most of us, at least when it comes to empirical questions on which evidence can be brought to bear. So it’s little wonder that even those with patently faith-based convictions about the nature of things should try to conscript it to their advantage. The obvious examples are creationists and advocates of intelligent design who argue that were it properly conducted, science would provide support for their supernatural hypotheses (see here). The argument thus becomes about the nature of science itself: does it have canonical methods and assumptions? What are these, and are certain scientists guilty of letting their worldview warp good scientific practice? If science as it’s commonly conducted doesn’t support your metaphysics, then the temptation might be to claim that mainstream scientists are guilty of malfeasance.

The intelligent design controversy is perhaps the biggest front on the science wars, followed by disputes over the paranormal, but a new front is opening up around the issue of materialism or physicalism. Is science biased in favor of the materialist-physicalist assumption, the idea that nature fundamentally contains only material things? A small but vocal group of self-styled anti-materialist and dualist neuroscientists held a mind-body symposium at the UN last year, arguing that science has indeed been hijacked by dogmatic materialists, who wrongly discount evidence for categorically non-physical phenomena. New Scientist ran a good article about it, quoting some well-respected mainstream scientists and philosophers who, unsurprisingly, see the anti-materialists as the dogmatists, intent on warping science to serve their agenda.

These opposed positions are mirrored in two responses to the 2009 Edge question, What will change everything?. One is by biologist Rupert Sheldrake, who says materialism’s days are numbered: certain questions, for instance about the nature of consciousness, will never be answered unless science is liberated from its assumption that the physical world is all there is. He says “Confidence in materialism is draining away. Its leaders, like central bankers, keep printing promissory notes, but it has lost its credibility as the central dogma of science.” The other is by biologist P. Z. Myers, who says that materialism rules, and that eventually people will adjust to the idea they don’t have souls, widely believed to be the precious immaterial essence of our being: “Mind is clearly a product of the brain, and the old notions of souls and spirits are looking increasingly ludicrous…yet these are nearly universal ideas, all tangled up in people's rationalizations for an afterlife, for ultimate reward and punishment, and their concept of self.” Science writers John Horgan and George Johnson discuss Sheldrake, Myers and the materialism/anti-materialism conflict at Bloggingheads, and there’s been a protracted debate between materialist Steven Novella and dualist Michael Egnor, both neuroscientists, at their respective blogs here and here.

So who’s right and how do we decide? Sheldrake and Myers are both credentialed, published biologists, so they must share considerable common ground in how they practice science on a day-to-day basis. But obviously that isn’t enough to keep them on the same page when it comes to the prospects for materialism.

One way to moderate the argument, if not completely resolve it, is to see that science is primarily a method of inquiry, not a repository of metaphysical truths. Science has no particular commitment to materialism as a final conclusion about the world, it’s just that so far it hasn’t found evidence for, or explanatory justification for, categorically immaterial phenomena such as souls, spirits or disembodied minds and wills (whether agreement could be reached on the defining characteristics of such phenomena is an interesting and open question). If such evidence were to accrue, and were our best explanatory theories to incorporate non-physical entities, no good scientist would complain about it. It’s just the way things turned out. What scientists are after, qua scientists (and not worldview advocates), is explanatory transparency and reliable, maximally predictive models of reality (see here). No one can say in advance where these cognitive desiderata will take us. If Sheldrake and Myers could agree on this point, then their opposing opinions on materialism are not fundamentally about science, but bets on where science is likely to take us.

Sheldrake seems to think science might be limited in its current menu of options when he says “But there is still no proof that life and minds can be explained by physics and chemistry alone.” Fair enough - no honest scientist supposes that we can know in advance what the final scientific explanations for life and mind must involve. Perhaps totally new fields of inquiry will develop (but I’m not holding my breath). However, what is very unlikely to change is the basic methodological constraints of science and its criteria of explanatory adequacy, which require high levels of evidential support, explanatory transparency, and descriptive specificity for phenomena to be certified as real. It’s these requirements that have thus far ruled out creationism and intelligent design as tenable hypotheses, and they will apply equally to any hypothesis about categorically non-physical phenomena.

Sheldrake says “science will be freer - and more fun” once divested of its materialist bias. But science, properly conducted, has no such bias, and its judgments on anti-materialist hypotheses will be determined by the same rather demanding rules of evidence and explanation it applies to any hypothesis, materialist or otherwise.

No Problem With Determinism

Psychology Today hosts a wide variety of blogs written by psychologists, therapists, philosophers and other assorted professionals concerned with mind, body and behavior. New on the block is One Among Many by Brown University social psychologist Joachim I. Krueger, who posted recently on "Troubles with determinism." As the title suggests, he worries that a consistently determinist view of ourselves might undercut our sense of agency and self-efficacy. As he puts it,
The problem of determinism is a deep one, and I think that neither scientific nor folk psychology have come to grips with it. In scientific psychology, there is constant friction between deterministic theories, such as behaviorism (or any other theory describing "mechanisms") and theories stressing human agency. What academic psychology seems to be telling us is that human behavior follows scientifically detectable laws and that at the same time we have the power to choose and change apart from these laws.
It's crucial to see that determinism doesn't conflict with genuine human agency, including the power to change ourselves. Human beings, though caused in each and every respect, are just as real as the causes that shaped them, and they still have real causal powers to pursue their goals, including those set by psychotherapy. We can't logically attribute causal power to the factors that create human agents and yet deny it for the agents themselves (see Avoiding demoralization by determinism).

Were there some part of a human being independent of determining influences, it would have no reason to choose one way or another, since it wouldn't be affected by, and thus responsive to, its own motives and reasons. Any exemption from determinism wouldn't give us a freedom (or responsibility) worth wanting, as philosopher Daniel Dennett puts it, only a random factor introduced into behavior. So we don't need, and indeed shouldn't want, a power to choose that's independent of "scientifically detectable laws."

As it turns out, there are now psychiatrists and therapists who are coming to grips with a deterministic, and more broadly, naturalistic understanding of behavior. Dr. Ron Pies, clinical professor of psychiatry at Tufts University in Boston, is one - see his papers on what he calls "psychiatric naturalism" in Psychiatric Times: Hume's Fork and Psychiatry's Explanations: Determinism and the Dimensions of Freedom and Psychiatric Naturalism and the Dimensions of Freedom: Implications for Psychiatry and the Law. (Pies responds to Krueger at the blog.)
In a therapeutic setting, seeing that one's behavior and that of others is fully caused works to reduce shame, blame (of self and others), anger and other responses predicated on the idea that we could have done otherwise in a situation. Indeed, Krueger recognizes a thorough-going determinism might make us more compassionate and self-compassionate, since, as he puts it, "We acted the way we did because we did our best and really couldn't have acted differently."

The cause-and-effect understanding of ourselves not only generates compassion, but gives us control, since we won't suppose that any part of us escapes being shaped by our circumstances, internal and external. Instead, we'll look at the actual causes of behavior, and thus be in a much better position to design and target effective interventions. So the insight that we don’t have contra-causal free will can be a key tool in achieving therapeutic objectives. Far from causing trouble, determinism - the reliable patterning of events and actions - can serve us well in navigating the world.

Further reading: Worldview Cognitive Therapy