Sunday, November 09, 2008

After Free Will

Paul Davies (not the astrophysicist but the philosopher at William and Mary) gets interviewed here (and there’s an audio clip here) on the possibility that we might have to give up on free will and what that might mean for us. By free will he has in mind some sort of capacity to transcend the neural instantiation of personhood, and he rightly suggests that a science-based, naturalistic understanding of ourselves calls such a capacity into question.

Of course compatibilists (those who say free will is compatible with determinism) will argue that Davies is mistaken about what free will is, and that it has nothing to fear from science. But they will likely agree that what he means by free will might not survive a naturalistic understanding of ourselves. The obvious point being that we can avoid confusion on the free will issue by stating up front what capacity or characteristic of an agent we refer to when we say "X has free will." Or better yet, simply talk about the capacities and characteristics themselves, whether there’s reason to believe they exist, and what their existence or non-existence implies for how we think about ourselves and, for instance, our responsibility practices. Talk about free will, absent clear definitions, is simply a recipe for miscommunication.

Davies himself speculates that even as strictly material creatures, we have robust, neurally based capacities for extracting and creating meaning that will likely see us through the death of free will as he defines it (the death of the contra-causal soul, more or less). He says there’s no evidence yet for such optimism, but I think there’s at least some anecdotal evidence coming in, see here. And as Shaun Nichols pointed out at the end of his Scientific American article (discussed by yours truly here), there’s evidence that determinists don’t give up on moral responsibility. Life, meaning and ethics and will go on after the soul is gone. Not that it’s going quietly, see Creationists declare war over the brain and Steven Novella's good 3 part commentary starting here.

I also take some (friendly) issue with Davies' description of the poor beleaguered self: he says it gets pushed around by internal and external stimuli. But if we agree the self isn’t an immaterial soul, is there anything else we’d call the self that’s separate from neural activity or from the brain and body that could be pushed around? If not, then we might say there is no self, in which case the problem of being pushed around disappears. But we might instead say (and this is my preference) that the self or person is, for instance, an integrated, functionally coherent construction of physical and psychological parts (see here). This stable, identifiable agent is just as real as its causal antecedents and external environment, and therefore we can justifiably assign it causal powers, just as we assign causal powers to the antecedent factors that created it and the environment that impinges on it. So we shouldn’t feel demoralized, disempowered or in any sense disestablished when admitting our complete integration into the causal matrix (see here). After contra-causal free will is gone, we'll still be recognizable as people, moral agents, and the readily identifiable individuals we so reliably are. And again, life will go on with its usual ups and downs, but minus a major incitement to pride, contempt, resentment, shame, guilt, and other not-so-lovely reactive attitudes.

Worldview Naturalism in a Nutshell

If you don’t believe in anything supernatural – gods, ghosts, immaterial souls and spirits – then you subscribe to naturalism, the idea that nature is all there is. The reason you’re a naturalist is likely that, wanting not to be deceived, you put stock in empirical, evidence-based ways of justifying beliefs about what’s real, as for instance exemplified by science. You probably (and rightly) hold that such beliefs are usually more reliable and more objective than those based in uncorroborated intuition, revelation, religious authority or sacred texts. Kept honest by philosophy and critical thinking, science reveals a single manifold of existence, what we call nature, containing an untold myriad of interconnected phenomena, from quarks to quasars. Nature is simply what we have good reason to believe exists.

We can see, therefore, that naturalism as a metaphysical thesis is driven by a desire for a clear, reliable account of reality and how it works, a desire that generates an unflinching commitment to objectivity and explanatory transparency. Supernaturalism, on the other hand, thrives on non-scientific, non-empirical justifications for beliefs that allow us to project our hopes and fears onto the world, the opposite of objectivity. As naturalists, we might not always like what science reveals about ourselves or our situation, but that’s the psychological price of being what we might call cognitively responsible, of assuming our maturity as a species capable of representing reality.

To be a thorough-going naturalist is to accept yourself as an entirely natural phenomenon. Just as science shows no evidence for a supernatural god “up there”, there’s no evidence for an immaterial soul or mental agent “in here”, supervising the body and brain. So naturalism involves a good deal more than atheism or skepticism – it’s the recognition that we are full-fledged participants in the natural order and as such we play by nature’s rules. We aren’t exempt from the various law-like regularities science discovers at the physical, chemical, biological, psychological and behavioral levels. The naturalistic understanding and acceptance of our fully caused, interdependent nature is directly at odds with the widespread belief (even among many freethinkers) that human beings have supernatural, contra-causal free will, and so are in but not fully of this world.

The naturalist understands not only that we are not exceptions to natural laws, but that we don’t need to be in order to secure any central value (freedom, human rights, morality, moral responsibility) or capacity (reason, empathy, ingenuity, originality). We can positively affirm and celebrate the fact that nature is enough. Indeed, the realization that we are fully natural creatures has profoundly positive effects, increasing our sense of connection to the world and others, fostering tolerance, compassion and humility, and giving us greater control over our circumstances. This realization supports a progressive and effective engagement with the human condition in all its dimensions. So we can justly call it worldview naturalism: an overarching cognitive, ethical and existential framework that serves the same function as supernatural worldviews, but without trafficking in illusions. By staying true to science, our most reliable means of representing reality, naturalists find themselves at home in the cosmos, astonished at the sheer scope and complexity of the natural world, and grateful for the chance to participate in the grand project of nature coming to know herself.

Originally written for and posted at Nirmukta - thanks to Ajita Kamal.