Saturday, July 16, 2016

Can we live under the idea of determinism?

Interviewed here, the philosopher John Searle is an articulate, unabashed incompatibilist, someone who holds that free will is incompatible with determinism - the fact (if it is a fact) that there are causally sufficient conditions for our character, thoughts, deliberations and actions. He says there is good reason to suppose determinism is true about human behavior, given what we know, but he also says that we experience having free will (that we and our actions are not causally determined). Thus we have inconsistent but equally plausible conclusions about human agency, which blocks progress on the free will problem.
But do we really experience “that [our] decisions themselves were not forced by antecedently sufficient causal conditions”?  I don’t think so. We sometimes don’t experience or otherwise know what the causes of our decisions are, on the assumption they have causes (sometimes the causes are obvious). However, what we don’t experience is the purported fact that they aren’t caused. And we can’t conclude from our experience of the ignorance of the (possible) causes of our decisions that they actually are uncaused. So it seems Searle is mistaken about what he thinks is the experience of free will, that which drives our conviction we have it. Further, and more generally, why should we take subjective experience as being a secure basis for drawing conclusions about any substantive, factual matter – in this case the conclusion we have (incompatibilist) free will? Drop that assumption and the problem of free will as Searle poses it disappears: there is no good reason to suppose we are uncaused creatures, in any respect, so we should accept that we aren’t. Moreover, indeterminism, should it play a role in our lives, wouldn’t add to our powers of control or origination, see here.
Searle says (start at about 3:30) “when it comes to free will, you can’t live your life on the assumption of determinism.” Why not, precisely? Well, he says that you can’t sit back and wait for determinism to happen, for instance when choosing a meal at a restaurant, because if you do, the refusal to engage in decision-making is itself free will in operation (“that refusal is only intelligible to you as an exercise of free will”). But of course this begs the question of whether conscious decisions are caused or not, and the neuro-biological evidence strongly suggests that they are, as Searle himself concedes at the end of this interview (see quote below). So I can indeed “wait for determinism to happen” by deciding not to decide – it’s all a fully caused process in which the waiting itself is included. But of course I will at some point be forced to decide (the waiter is waiting too!) – and I’ll likely be conscious of having been pressured by circumstances to choose.
If free will is an illusion, says Searle, then it’s a puzzle that evolution would have given us “this expensive [that is, glucose-intensive] mechanism for conscious rational decision-making and it’s all useless, all epiphenomenal.” That evolution went to such pains seemingly counts against the idea that free will (as conscious rational decision-making) is an illusion. Indeed, rational decision-making and its neural mechanisms are of course essential to successful behavior control, but only under the idea of determinism: our reasoning plays a role in causing behavior. What’s epiphenomenal (causally inert), from a scientific explanatory standpoint, is the experience of free will. So there’s no particular puzzle here, so long as we don’t take that experience as referring to something real outside cause and effect (many folks do, apparently). 
At the end of the interview Searle says
But the tougher question is what about the level of the neuro-biology? If the neuro-biological level is causally sufficient to determine your behavior, then the fact that you have the experience of freedom at the higher level is really irrelevant.
In my experience, the relevance and importance of the experience of freedom doesn’t diminish when living on the assumption of determinism (as I do). The experience of freedom, properly construed, isn’t that we are uncaused in some respect, but that no one is forcing our hand, that we get to do what we want, more or less. It corresponds to very real, concrete senses of freedom of belief and action that we enjoy in an open society where we are more or less left alone to think and do what we want, so long as we don’t hurt others or infringe on their freedoms.
Searle suggests at one point that if determinism is true, then “we’re at the mercy of causal forces.” Not so, or at least not always, since as individuals we are tightly knit, highly organized wielders of causal forces ourselves, often putting other things and people at our mercy. If we should start living under the idea of determinism (not holding my breath here), we might actually become less at the mercy of impersonal causal forces, and more merciful and compassionate in how we exert our very real power and control, one goal of

Friday, July 08, 2016

Harris and Dennett on free will: could they have done otherwise?

Sam Harris podcasted a conversation with Dan Dennett about free will in which they try to sort out their differences. Here I offer what I hope is some even-handed commentary that might contribute to an amicable reconciliation, well underway apparently. Your reactions welcome over at the FB naturalism group
Could have done otherwise. As a good determinist, Dan knows that we couldn’t have done otherwise in actual situations, but he denies this has relevance for human agency. What matters (is worth wanting), he says, is being able to pick out competent agents that can be held responsible. We do this by considering counterfactual situations: does the agent have enough degrees of freedom of action that, had the situation been somewhat different, he might or would have done otherwise? Fine, but pointing out that we couldn’t have done otherwise in actual situations – what Sam often adverts to in “rewinding the tape” – is also important since it gets at a fundamental truth about ourselves that many (most?) folks, being libertarians, don’t recognize. Getting the word out about this can help to soften retributive and punitive attitudes based in the idea that we are miniature first causes and ultimate self-shapers. This isn’t Dan’s concern, but as Sam rightly says libertarianism is the central issue when it comes to naturalizing agency (so to that extent Dan is “failing to interact with some core features” of folk free will). The truths of neuroscience are compatible with much but not all of most folks’ understanding of responsibility and desert and the ways in which we currently treat each other.
Explanation and excuses. Sam argues there’s something exculpatory about determinism and not being ultimately self-caused. But as Dan points out, cosmic bad luck and being the end result of an explanatory causal chain don’t count as excuses when standing in the dock. But it’s still important to see that the person standing there is cosmically and perhaps locally unlucky to have been determined to become a responsible agent that made a bad choice. There’s no way in the actual world that he could have turned out or acted otherwise in a way that would have been up to him. This is so even though his actions are up to (controlled by) him as a reasons-responsive, deterrable agent. So our status as responsible agents doesn’t obviate the fact that some of us are simply cosmically unlucky to end up like Madoff, a point Dan never concedes despite Sam’s constant adverting to determinism.
Self-shaping. Dan argues that we are proximate, do-it-yourself, self-shapers even though we’re not ultimately self-originated. True, but pointing this out can be used to deflect attention from the fact that the course of self-authorship is completely set by factors outside one’s control. Some of us are lucky to have been bequeathed the biological and environmental conditions that produce good choices in setting our priorities and habits, and then in controlling our actions to good ends. And as Dan says, some people fail miserably at this – they are the unlucky ones. To deny that luck swallows everything, that it goes all the way down, including the process and outcomes of self-formation, is to assert that we stand outside natural law. Drawing attention to proximate self-formation and proclaiming the duty to become a good citizen are fine but shouldn’t be used to hide or downplay the big deterministic picture.
Control and consciousness. Dan claims rightly that we are pretty decent controllers even if we aren’t ultimately in control or in control of everything. We’re not in control of our brains since we are our brains, but such is the necessary fate of any autonomous cognitive system. The system controls its behavior and some downstream effects, not its own control processes except as they become targets of meta-control over time (Dan:  at the “temporally macro level”). That consciousness might lag or not be privy to its neural antecedents is no threat to agency, although it does help overthrow the intuition that we exist as immaterial controllers. The neural processes associated with consciousness obviously play crucial roles in behavior control, even though the causal role of experience itself is contested. In any case, we’re not passive puppets but active agents with robust causal powers.
Consequentialism and criminal justice. Both Sam and Dan endorse a consequentialist, pragmatic conception of responsibility and criminal justice. Dan emphasizes the need for punishment for general deterrence and maintaining respect for the law, but with reasonable and revisable excusing conditions. Although he concedes the necessity of punishment, Sam is more concerned to point out the fully determined, unlucky, non-ultimately self-authored status of offenders, which should help to reduce punitive attitudes based in libertarianism and motivate a shift from retributivism to a more humane consequentialism. Lack of libertarian agency - the revolution in our self-concept driven by naturalism - doesn’t count as an excuse, but it does require we rethink our justifications for punishment and the nature of desert.

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.