Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Hodgson's choice

David Hodgson, an Australian (New South Wales) Supreme Court justice, has published an article on free will and responsibility in the July 5th 2007 Times Literary Supplement (TLS) titled "Partly Free." Although he concedes the explanatory force of current physicalist accounts of human behavior, he opts for a kind of non-naturalistic mentalism:
I believe there are stronger reasons for holding that, while our conscious experiences do correspond with physical processes, these experiences can themselves have effects beyond those explicable in terms of physical processes and laws of nature, and that this enables us to have free will and to be responsible for our actions.
He takes this line because he believes that determinism destroys moral and criminal responsibility, a belief that UPenn law professor Stephen Morse calls the “fundamental psycholegal error.” Hodgson also thinks we need retributive justice as a way of limiting punishment to only what people deserve, otherwise we risk over-punishing. Further, retributive justice can only rest on a sort of agent causation in which a deterministic, physicalist story cannot be traced from antecedent conditions, thence into and including the agent, and thence to the act. Fortunately such agent causation exists, he argues, so all is well. We are causal exceptions to natural laws and thus can take a full measure of what he sees as a metaphysically real responsibility, that which justifies retribution.

But we needn't resort to human causal exceptionalism to remain responsible agents, nor do we need retribution. First, we don't need the concept of retributive desert to limit punishment. A central value in the West is personal liberty and autonomy, and it is this that limits punishment so that it doesn't become draconian. The criminal justice goals of deterrence and public safety are counterbalanced by our commitment to individual freedom such that legal sanctions remain proportionate to the crime.

Second, if we are naturalists there's no basis for retribution in Hodgson's agent causation since the requisite sort of undetermined, self-caused agents don't exist, which is to say we don't have contra-causal free will. Nor are there any convincing compatibilist grounds (that is, grounds compatible with not having contra-causal free will) for retribution; see for instance my critiques of Morse, Moore, Bailey, Hoffman and Goldsmith, and Hill. But since we don't need retribution to limit punishment, this isn't a problem.

Third, as natural agents, those fully subject to cause and effect, we remain moral agents in that we are responsive to the prospect of moral evaluation, rewards and sanctions. We don't need to be causal exceptions to the natural order to be held responsible. Indeed, if we were such exceptions, our responsibility practices, such as the threat of sanctions, wouldn't work. Our freely willing core wouldn't be responsive to moral evaluation - it would just do what it darn well pleased. So morality, minus its retributive component, survives without contra-causal agency. This has considerable implications for criminal justice.

Most of Hodgson's ideas in "Partly Free" appear in an earlier article, "A plain person's free will," which he wrote for the Journal of Consciousness Studies, critiqued here. He can only maintain his non-naturalistic notion of free will by dint of some very tenuous and contentious claims having to do with quantum mechanics, consciousness, rationality, evolution and human agency. Such implausibilities (by my lights) wouldn't be necessary but for his antecedent supposition that we need to somehow evade cause and effect to be moral agents and to keep punishment humanely proportionate. But there are far simpler conceptions of moral agency and humane criminal justice to be had within science-based naturalism, a worldview that accepts that human beings are fully included in the natural, physical order of things.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Will the soul survive?

Yale psychologist Paul Bloom (author of Descartes' Baby) said in a New York Times editorial back in 2004 that "The great conflict between science and religion in the last century was over evolutionary biology [natural selection vs. intelligent design]. In this century, it will be over psychology, and the stakes are nothing less than our souls." The Times science section on evolution a few weeks ago included a piece on the science of the soul which suggested he might be right:

For many scientists, the evidence that moral reasoning is a result of physical traits that evolve along with everything else is just more evidence against the existence of the soul, or of a God to imbue humans with souls. For many believers, particularly in the United States, the findings show the error, even wickedness, of viewing the world in strictly material terms. And they provide for theologians a growing impetus to reconcile the existence of the soul with the growing evidence that humans are not, physically or even mentally, in a class by themselves.
Consciousness and our mental life, including reasoning and imagining, seems the last redoubt of dualism, and therefore, possibly, of supernaturalism. If we can come up with a transparent explanation of how the operations of the brain entail subjective experience, then we'll have pretty much closed the case on the soul and rehabilitated the reputation of "mere" matter. We'll see how the brain does everything the soul was supposed to do, short of surviving death. But clear and testable definitions of mental phenomena are so elusive, and theories of consciousness so arcane (thus far), it's unlikely that the soul will be put out of a job anytime soon. It just isn't at all obvious how one gets pain, for instance, out of neurons, even though a naturalist would insist there's nothing "spooky" going on. Absent a clear physicalist-functionalist account of our mental lives that a layperson can grasp, the concept of the soul will live happily on, no doubt, giving aid and comfort to those who want to be more than just physical.

In the article, theologians Nancey Murphy and John Haught try to reconcile the soul with science, but don't give much comfort to dualists since they admit we're basically material creatures. The soul, as they describe it, becomes pretty much a metaphor or vague untestable concept, very much like god in liberal theology. But it's a way to soften the blow of naturalism, permitting the use of a word that inevitably retains supernatural and immaterial connotations.

Despite best efforts of hard-nosed scientists and philosophers, the transition to naturalism will likely be by very slow and halting degrees since the required change in our self-concept is so radical. Part of that transition will involve the gradual redefinition of words and phrases with dualistic implications (self, soul, spirituality, religion, free will, responsibility) in a more naturalistic, non-dualistic direction. If the soul survives under naturalism, it will mean something quite different from what it does now.