Thursday, December 21, 2006

Do We Really Need Another "Ism"?

Some of those skeptical about faith-based religions and other non-empirical belief systems seem equally skeptical about whole-heartedly endorsing any worldview. They don’t particularly want to sign on to another “ism,” something which might be, or turn into, a fixed creed or ideology. Or perhaps as staunchly independent thinkers they don’t want to be pinned down or pigeonholed – no labels on me, thank you very much. Although they might endorse a rational, empirical approach to justifying beliefs and not have any truck with the supernatural, they balk at describing themselves as naturalists.

Fair enough. The skeptical, independent habit of mind underlying this refusal is exactly the cognitive virtue naturalism encourages. And indeed, those suspicious of naturalism as an ism – a potentially restrictive ideology – are welcome to expose it as such. If naturalism can be shown defective, for instance because it imposes cognitive blinders, limits the range of human experience, or blunts our engagement with the world and each other, then it must yield to whatever worldview does better in these respects. (How’s that for being non-defensive?)

Absent this critique, however, those who are naturalists in all but name might consider coming out as such (although the countersuggestible among them likely won’t). Atheists, secular humanists, skeptics and freethinkers are basically naturalistic in their worldview; a science-based, rational, empirical naturalism is their philosophical lodestone, even if it isn’t always explicit. Naturalism simply names the worldview that holds the world is of a piece, not divided into the natural vs. the supernatural, and naturalists are simply those that subscribe to naturalism.

To count yourself a thorough-going naturalist is, however, to go beyond what many atheists, humanists and skeptics currently are willing to accept. Denying god is fine, but denying contra-causal free will? That’s a real problem for many. Nor will the progressive implications of a thorough-going naturalism be particularly palatable to secular conservatives. If they consider themselves true-blue naturalists, they must either formulate a naturalized notion of contra-causal agency (very difficult!), or deny there are progressive, humanistic implications of seeing that we’re fully caused creatures. Such critiques are welcome since naturalism is by definition based on open inquiry.

But again, do we really need another ism, in this case naturalism? Well, if it’s an accurate, convenient label for what you believe on careful consideration to be the case, make use of it. Not to name your worldview, after all, leaves it at a competitive disadvantage in the marketplace of belief, what Susan Blackmore would call the “meme-o-sphere.”

Friday, December 15, 2006

Big Tobacco and the Free Will Defense

In a recent paper in the journal Tobacco Control, researchers report that tobacco companies use a “free will” defense in law suits, to wit:

“The defendant’s cigarettes may have been a factor [in causing cancer], but the plaintiff knew of the health risks and exercised free will in choosing to smoke and declining to quit.”
The data presented in this paper show that, as evidence mounted that smoking causes cancer, tobacco companies stopped using the “no causality” defense (that there’s no causal connection between smoking and cancer) and shifted to the “free will” defense:

“We found a decrease in the use of the ‘no causality’ argument over time. As can be seen in table 7, this argument was used in 89% of the cases before 1997, 65% of cases during the period 1997–2002, and 25% in 2003. Correspondingly, there was an increase over time in the use of the ‘‘other risk factors’’ argument (from 11% during the first period, to 33% and 50% in the next two periods, respectively) and the ‘‘free will’’ argument (56%, 71%, and 100% in the first, second, and third periods, respectively).”
It’s interesting that as the causal story got filled in about the connection between smoking and cancer, tobacco companies increasingly relied upon juries’ intuitions about free will to defend against liability claims. There are two sets of intuitions that might come to bear, related to two different understandings of what’s meant by free will.

On a compatibilist understanding of free will (compatible with determinism), tobacco companies would say that no one was forcing smokers to smoke; they were smoking voluntarily on their own recognizance. Their will was free in that their behavior was unconstrained by any external compulsion. They knew the health risks of smoking, but their desire to smoke won out, perhaps against their better judgment. So smokers alone are responsible for continuing to smoke.

But this last claim about being solely responsible is a non-sequitur. On a deterministic, causal understanding of the desire to smoke, the addictive qualities of nicotine obviously play a big role, and tobacco companies knew full well they were marketing a very addictive product. So the causal story clearly shows that tobacco companies share responsibility for the inability of smokers to quit, and therefore for the high rates of cancer among smokers. So a compatibilist free will defense doesn’t get tobacco companies off the hook.

On an incompatibilist, contra-causal understanding of free will, tobacco companies might be appealing to people’s intuitions that no matter how addictive or pleasurable cigarettes are, a smoker could quit, if only he chose to. Everyone, ultimately, has a power of choice that transcends causal influences, that decides which influences to give in to, and which to rise above. If jurors have this picture of human agency in mind, then indeed they might conclude that tobacco companies bear no responsibility for the health costs of smoking.

This points to the importance of debunking the idea of contra-causal freedom, since left intact, it effectively insulates the purveyors of addictive products from taking any responsibility for the harmful consequences of addiction. If you’re a tobacco company executive, you’re probably smiling and saying: ain’t supernatural free will a wonderful thing? But as naturalism about human agency takes hold, it will become more difficult to hide behind the free will defense.