Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Unfounded Worries about "Neuro-Determinism"

Raymond Tallis, speaking for the Manifesto Club in London, presented a spirited sally against the threat of “neuro-determinism.” To his way of thinking, determinism robs us of the “Enlightenment faith that… a human being is ‘an independent point of departure’. Each person is a new beginning, able to contribute to shaping the future for good or ill. We are not fated to act out a pre-ordained script.” Tallis expresses a common worry that's surfacing more often as neuroscience reveals the material workings of even our highest capacities.

His arguments against neuro-determinism aren’t particularly compelling, but it’s interesting that he thinks that only by denying determinism can we remain optimistic and effective agents, genuinely committed to the improvement of mankind. He says “there has been a counter-Enlightenment denial of the centrality of individual consciousness in human affairs” coming out of recent humanities and sciences. It seems he confuses the likely true claim that human conscious processes are fully caused with the idea that such processes don’t really have effects of the sort which make us effective agents. That is, he conflates determinism with fatalism, a common error.

This is unfortunate since he must deny the findings of the sciences or downplay their significance in order to secure what he thinks is essential to have real power: having contra-causal free will. The irony is that the Center for Naturalism takes the position that we're far better served by seeing that we don’t and couldn’t have such power. After all, its attribution is often used to assign ultimate credit and blame in ways that justify punitive attitudes and practices, demonize enemies, and marginalize the unlucky in life. Further, positing the existence of contra-causal freedom necessarily leads to ineffective policies, since we ignore the actual causes of human behavior. So we don’t need to suppose we're free in this quasi-supernatural sense to have power and use it humanely, quite the opposite.

Curiously, as he goes along Tallis seems to accept the fact we are not causal exceptions to what he calls Laplacean, that is, deterministic nature. He says our freedom comes from having higher order capacities, personal and social, that distinguish us from simple mechanisms, plus the fact that we are proximately self-creating once we get past childhood. But all of this is consistent with the fact that higher-order capacities and proximate self-causation involve complex, recursive mechanisms, which don’t need to transcend Laplacean determinism to be causally effective. In any case, this just goes to show that the presumption that we have and must have contra-causal free will exists even among smart, critical thinkers, who only want the best for humankind. Another instance of smart (and very progressive) folks running off the cognitive rails is described in The Specter of Scientism.


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