Tag Archives: Free will

Free Will Debate between Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris — and a plea to a third party…

I used to be fascinated by the question of free will. I still am, but it is some times since I have read the various debates. I see that Richard Carrier has posted a review of an online debate between Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris at Dennett vs. Harris on Free Will that will be of interest to some.  (As you may guess from my recent post addressing Harris’s views on another matter, I think Sam Harris comes out as the less clear thinker in such a debate.)

I don’t know if I have Richard Carrier’s attention with this post but just on the off-chance I do, with well-meaning intention I would like to add another comment on an unrelated matter. Carrier writes:

In his response, after 200 words of introduction, Sam Harris first burns 600 words complaining about Dennett being mean to him, treating criticism as an affront to his dignity that requires elaborating on for some reason. This is not a good start. It is usually a red flag for not having an actual defense. It’s the sign of a hack: If you can’t rebut content, complain about tone.

And concludes with:

Maybe some day Harris will realize all the mistakes he made here, and how he may be making them elsewhere too. The outcome will be marvelous.

Richard Carrier knows what it is like to have critics treating him and his works unfairly, very unfairly, even falsely, “being [extremely] mean to him”. Richard is known not to shrink back from complaining about such treatment in some of his response. Now in Richard’s case complaining in such cases about “tone” is not a sign that he has no “actual defense” or that he is “a hack”. But that’s not how people tend to react. Complaining in the heat of the moment about tone and unfair treatment can create the impression of being shrill. It certainly robs one of the moral high ground one has just gained by being the subject of bitter and false accusations. That moral high ground becomes evident by a response that shows up one’s attackers for what they are. The moral high ground is clear for all when an unprofessional attack is confronted with a professional and civil response.

I think it is a shame that John Loftus (an anti-Christian polemicist) and Richard Carrier cannot work harmoniously and supportively together. Recently, for example, John Loftus in his post Dr. Wallace Marshall Highly Endorses David Marshall’s Book, “Jesus is No Myth” added this disappointing remark:

Richard Carrier thinks this book is bad to say the least, but I find Carrier to be shrill, very offensive and exaggerated in defense of his own work.

Richard, you know you have the method and logic on your side (generally) so there is no need to display anything but the sound method and logic of your arguments against the criticisms. People don’t “work” in an ideal righteous and rational world of our own liking. The most devastating and memorable critiques I have seen against unfair or obtuse critics come from scholars like Michael Goulder, for one, who always responded with scholarly but wry wit. The punch line usually came towards the end — leaving room for readers to be impressed by the devastating logical dismantling of the opponents.

Another scholar I like and who demonstrates calm, devastating critique in a scholarly manner is Crispin Fletcher-Louis. He has the ability to demonstrate, for example, that Larry Hurtado is an apologist some of whose arguments are without merit in the scholarly world by calm scholarly prose:

If, as we have argued here, the New Testament nowhere in fact presents direct evidence to support Hurtado’s account of religious experience in christological origins then, for his thesis to have any credence, he surely has to explain why it is that the early Christians buried the evidence for what really happened and created so thoroughgoing an alternative story.

Fletcher-Louis, C. (2009). A New Explanation of Christological Origins. Tyndale Bulletin, 45. pp. 200f

Ouch! That’s a professional way to say that Hurtado’s argument is baseless and flies in the face of all the evidence for which there are other far more cogent explanations, that Hurtado is arguing like an apologist despite his claims to be doing otherwise.

There are a number of points where I think Richard goes beyond the evidence, too, and that his main arguments would be stronger without some of those loose bricks. I have had to tidy up a few of my own in the past. But that’s not the main point here.

The main point is a plea to do a Saul to Paul turnabout. It’s okay for those “on the top” in the professional world to display their bigotry, bias and falseness. What puts the spotlight on those warts is a calm and scholarly and professional rebuttal of the content, ignoring the “tone”. The contrast is immediately evident. Those “on the bottom” of the pecking order can never afford to look like the aggressor or as if they are prepared to get as dirty as their opponents. I know. I sometimes in the past crossed the line in responses to a few critics whom I considered blatantly dishonest — and it always backfired.

End of plea.

 

The Free Will Question Once More . . .

There’s an interesting outline of a new experiment to assess processes involved in decision making at the General Religious Discussion section of the Biblical Criticism & History Forum: Do we have free will? Researchers test mechanisms… (The original article is at Do we have free will? Researchers test mechanisms involved in decision-making.)

I was beginning to think that I no longer have any idea if we have free will or not and after reading the ensuing discussion I felt I could firmly conclude that I really am undecided — though lately beginning to lean a little towards the “yes, we do have it” side of the fence. For now.

 

 

The free-will myth: further evidence that conscious “decisions” are made unconsciously in advance

Jerry Coyne has published another post discussing another recent experiment that stacks more evidence against the notion of us freely making conscious choices.

It is based on a paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Predicting free choices for abstract intentions.

Jerry raises the obvious social implications for this theses, including one that has particularly interested me for some years now — the foundations of our entire legal system, based as it is on the concept that lawbreakers/anti-social criminals are freely (consciously) responsible for their actions, and the requirement to punish for making decisions that cause harm.

On the other hand, the enforcing of rules with threats of punishments is a fundamental part of all social behaviour in probably all social species. Is it possible, or is it even really ethical, for us to be able to accept that our Jack the Rippers should be treated and cured — as opposed to punished — when caught? I hardly think so.

What will a social species do when or if it is eventually confronted with the evidence that the decisions of its members are somehow determined and concluded before those decisions register in the consciousness?

Free Will and the Value of Self-Deception

The paper of the day: “The Value of Believing in Free Will.” A scientific study that shows why many scientists and philosophers are reluctant to tell people they don’t have free will.

This is from the commonsenseatheism site, which many readers of this blog will already have seen, but for the others, it’s interesting reading. I think I can relate to its conclusions.

For those who don’t want to read the whole thing or want to test the water, some extracts:

The belief that one determines one’s own outcomes is strong and pervasive. In a massive survey of people in 36 countries, more than 70% agreed with the statement that their fate is in their own hands (International Social Survey Programme, 1998).

Yet the view from the scientific community is that behavior is caused by genes underlying personality dispositions, brain mechanisms, or features of the environment (e.g., Bargh, in press; Crick, 1994; Pinker, 2002). There is reason to think that scientists’ sentiment is spreading to nonscientists. For example, the news magazine The Economist recently ran the headline, ‘‘Free to Choose? Modern Neuroscience Is Eroding the Idea of Free Will’’ (‘‘Free to Choose?’’ 2006). What would happen if people came to believe that their behavior is the inexorable product of a causal chain set into motion without their own volition? Would people carry on, selves and behavior unperturbed, or, as Sartre suggested, might the adoption of a deterministic worldview serve as an excuse for untoward behaviors?

That’s the opener. The conclusion . . . . read more »

The Nonsense of the Freedom Argument When Accounting for Evil

It’s become a trite argument for religionists to justify evil in the world by saying we want our freedoms. God also wants us to be free to choose, so we are told, and that’s why he allows evil. To prevent evil he would have to take away our free will.

I think that’s bollocks.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:A.afarensis.jpg

Evil has nothing to do with being free or having free will. It is all about being human on a planet not entirely benign for its many life-forms.

Being human is not always bad. Most people anywhere I think are basically caring and hospitable and kind to others. There are arseholes too, of course, but they are mercifully the few. I don’t believe either type of human is the way they are because they “choose” to be like that. Or I should rather say I doubt that they are. Sure we may think a lot before deciding to give to a particular charity or beggar or before deciding to actively commit to a social justice cause. But isn’t that just a matter of us being us?

What worries about free-will (it also kind of reassures me) is that set of experiments that have demonstrated that people really make up their (false) reasons for making a particular decision. I wish I could think of sources and specifics right now.

It might be worrying to think that we will be shown to not have the freedom of will we like to think, and that our responses are as basic or hidden as they are for any other social animal. But at the same time there’s a hope and a reassurance in there. It’s nice to know we really “are what we are”, and we are all of the same kind. More room for understanding and compassion.

Not that I “choose” to have more understanding and compassion, mind you. It’s just that that’s me. As I keep having to remind my partner, I really am just a nice guy after all. Like most of us.

Beyond Christian ethics – crime and punishment

The foundational institutions, attitudes and values of our modern societies are still based on a legacy of Christian and pre-Christian assumptions of human nature that take no cognizance of the modern advances in biology, neurology, genetics, psychology. The power of the black book still binds our ethical senses. read more »