Monthly Archives: September 2013

Free Will and the Water Park

TL;DR summary: Perfectly rational thinking is deterministic and therefore not free. Random thinking is certainly not free. A muddle of both can’t be free. There is nowhere else to look, so free will is an illusion. BTW, an immaterial soul does not solve the problem. But don’t worry; we can still have fun.

Water Slide

Island Water Park

At a recent Meetup of the philosophically inclined, we discussed destiny and free will. Someone asked, “How much control do we have over our destiny?” I cheerfully answered, “Zero.” In this post, I’d like to outline why zero, and why I was still cheerful about it.

The points I will make in support of “zero,” it turns out, are explicated at length in Sam Harris’ book, Free Will, which I was destined to read during a vacation in California, shortly after the Meetup. Harris throws in a heaping measure of neuroscience to boot, but I think an argument against free stands without that.

First let’s define what we mean by free will. What most people mean, I think, is that given the choice between a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a ham sandwich, they could in theory choose either but in the end, through a conscious act of will, they choose peanut butter and jelly. The important points are

  • both choices are genuinely on offer;
  • their choice could go either way;
  • through a conscious thought process, they choose one.

With that out of the way, let’s think about thinking. We make our decisions based on two types of thinking: the rational and the irrational. 

Rationality, as it pertains to free will, involves the conscious consideration of factors to arrive at a decision. (We can also train our unconscious to be rational, through force of habit, but when most people say they have free will, they are referring to anything but habits.)

The more rational our decisions, the less free they are. A great example is a top-notch computer chess program. It plays as rationally as can be conceived, but it has no free will because at each turn it could only play one move: the one it calculated to be optimal. Perfect rationality means perfect non-freedom.

Most of us, when we play chess, do not have the patience of a computer. We sometimes move impulsively. When we follow the causal chain far enough, we’ll inevitably find some randomness mixed with rationality.

“Why did you make that move so hastily?”

“Oh, I don’t know. I had no ideas and I had to move something.”

“If you had thought for 20 more seconds, maybe an idea would have occurred to you.”

“Maybe, but I just had to move.”

“Why now? Why not 20 seconds from now? Or a minute?”

“I don’t know.”

The player may have made his impulsive move at that time because of factors that are buried in his unconscious. Maybe when he was a child his mother only gave him a count of 10 to take his first bite of peas. Maybe the Knight subconsciously reminded him of the pony he always wanted but never got. Alternatively, there could be something truly random going on. Maybe a quantum fluctuation at one of his synapses gave just the boost he needed to complete his so-called decision. In any case, the non-rational aspect of his decision was not what we call free will.

So where is free will? It is not in the rational, for rationality constrains, not liberates, our decisions. Nor is in the irrational, for unconscious or random processes, while they may be free from the constraints of rationality, are not what we mean by free will. Nor is it in a mixture of both, for a muddle of non-free mixed with non-free must still be non-free.

Some thinkers, such as biologist Ken Miller (here and in Finding Darwin’s God), argue that the randomness of quantum mechanics leaves the door open for free will to emerge. But again, randomness itself cannot be freedom and Miller does not explain why the appearance of free will that I concede does emerge is actual free will, in the face of the common-sense objections I’ve outlined above.

Stephen Barr, in Modern Physics and Ancient Faith, contends that our perceptions are internal to our brain and do not require proof. “There is a certain degree to which we must trust our experiences if we are to do any rational thinking at all, including scientific thinking,” he says on page 189. In light of the extremely counter-intuitive but proven reality of quantum mechanics, I am astonished that a physicist would say such a thing.

And by the way, introducing the notion of an immaterial soul does not help. We face the same conundrum: Does the soul make its decisions rationally or randomly? Either way, it is not free and, again, a mixture of a not-free brain and a not-free soul is even more muddled not-free.

Free will cannot be found in rationality, nor randomness, nor a muddle of both. And there is nowhere else to look. It is an illusion.

In fact, says Sam Harris, the illusion of free will is itself an illusion. If you stop to think deeply about any of your supposedly free decisions, you will realize this. Keep following the causal trail of “Why?” and you will end at “I don’t know.” Even what you thought was a free choice originates in darkness.

Does this mean that we might as well roll over and wait for death? That would be a shame, because life can be fun even if it only appears to be free.

Island Water Park

Island Water Park

I was reminded of this as my wife and I drove from San Francisco to Sequoia National Park. We passed Island Water Park, with several huge slides. Take a look at the people in the swimming pool. They are wandering around freely, but they look bored, don’t they? Other people are on the slides, careening on a fixed path toward a watery end. The fact that they have no choices does not take away from their fun in the least.

Since Evolution Is Blind, Isn’t Atheist Morality Arbitrary?

Since evolution is blind, isn’t atheist morality arbitrary?

In the last week, two Christians have made that claim in conversations with me: one a highly educated and intelligent engineer who was attending a meeting of a philosophy club; the other a pastor who, as such, probably has at least one post-graduate degree.

I’ll let the pastor speak for both, since I happen to have his thoughts in writing:

On the atheist rubric, integrity is an accidental byproduct of a blind evolutionary process…. There isn’t really a moral anchor for atheism, only an arbitrary preference, subject to every breeze.

Let me begin by saying that I completely understand and even empathize with the pastor’s position. It is exactly the position I maintained for four decades as an evangelical. To me, it was only the grace of God that kept the unbelieving world from descending into moral anarchy.

Imagine my surprise when, after leaving my faith, I discovered that I still wanted to do the right thing! Granted, there was some inertia from my years in the church, but I also discovered an unexpected moral core in myself.

How did this come to be?

I hope to show how evolution can produce a moral sense that is far from arbitrary and, in fact, the “arbitrary” label sticks much more readily to biblical morality than to the core morality that is our evolutionary heritage.

There are just two concepts behind evolution: descent with modification, and natural selection.Those who believe evolution is a “blind” or “chance” process understand descent with modification, but have forgotten about natural selection. Descent with modification is indeed blind. That’s where random mutations happen. Natural selection is ruthlessly clear-eyed. That’s what prevents bad mutations from reproducing, and gives favor to the beneficial ones.

If we stick to the physical characteristics of creatures, it’s easy to see how far from arbitrary natural selection is. We can all imagine how selection pressures could fashion an aquadynamic body shape for fish whose ecological niche involves being good swimmers. In each generation of fish, some are born with more suitable shapes and others are doomed to a life of struggle as they push their ungainly bodies through the water. The former are more likely to eat and reproduce; the latter more likely to be eaten and die without offspring. Over time, the species’ body shape improves.

Not all fish survive by being good swimmers. Some, like this stonefish, have slid into an ecological niche that depends on their camoflauge — looking like the surrounding reef, in its case. There, too, it is easy to imagine how natural selection could, in a far from arbitrary fashion, favor those fish who descended with a modification that helped them to lurk undetected.

There are many ecological niches, but natural selection for each niche is ruthlessly non-arbitrary.

Humans may be the weakest large species there is, in terms of physical strength per pound. Our close cousins, the chimpanzees, are about four times stronger, pound-for-pound. Yet we survive. How?

It happens that the ecological niche into which we’ve slid involves using superior intelligence to cooperate with our own kind. Without cooperation, we perish, just as surely as a stonefish with flourescent polka-dots and no venom would perish.

The ability to empathize is a “descent with modification” from mere cooperation that makes cooperation even more effective. Humans whose cooperation is thus enhanced have a survival advantage.

Empathy is the basis of the Golden Rule, which Jesus said summed up the Law and the Prophets.

From an evolutionary perspective, empathy is self-perpetuating. The wish of every teenager is to be paired with “someone who understands me.” In contrast, who wants to marry a sociopath? It’s easy to see how, especially in the formative years of our species, our morality would be honed toward the Golden Rule just as inexorably as a swordfish’s body would be honed for being a fast-swimming predator.

Thus evolution begets morality, at least in our species.

A morality stemming from cooperation and empathy is far from arbitrary. That’s why nearly all cultures’ moral codes share a core that is based on the Golden Rule and its obvious corollaries. (Granted, some cultures are less morally evolved than others and still tolerate things like slavery — an moral-evolutionary way-station that we have thankfully left behind.)

What is arbitrary is a moral code established on the supposed commands of an invisible god. Examples from the Bible are endless, but just to give you the flavor of it…

  • The Bible says picking up sticks on the Sabbath is an offense worthy of death (Numbers 15:32-36), but you may use a stick to beat your slave so severely that he can’t get up for almost two full days (Exodus 21:20-21).
  • The Bible’s god says that a bride who can’t prove she is a virgin must be stoned to death on her father’s doorstep (Deuteronomy 22:20-21), but the same god gives explicit permission to rape war captives via non-binding “marriages” (Deuteronomy 21:10-14, discussed at length here).

Commands like those, sometimes literally written in stone, are increasingly revealed to be arbitrary, as the optimal shape of real morality is sculpted over time through the natural selection of the memes that form our moral code.

To close, I’d like to recommend this short video of Richard Dawkins responding to the question, “Considering that atheism cannot possibly have any sense of absolute morality, would it not then be an irrational leap of faith … for an atheist to decide between right and wrong?”

No Rest for the Wicked?

But the wicked are like the troubled sea,
when it cannot rest,
whose waters cast up mire and dirt.
There is no peace, saith my God, for the wicked.
Isaiah 57:20-21 KJV

No rest and no peace for the wicked? That may be true in some ways. If you’re a fugitive being hunted by the CIA like Edward Snowden, you are doomed to a life without rest.

However, in one very important way, I find that life is much more restful now that I’m one of the wicked. I can accept people as they are. I can sincerely wish their dreams will come true. I don’t have to be anxious because their wishes and actions are not what God supposedly wants them to be.

Back in my evangelical days, if one of my children had abandoned the faith I would have been incredibly anxious. Now, I only want my kids to live with integrity, whether that’s with faith or without it. As they have emerged into adulthood, their take on the faith in which they were raised has varied, but they all have very high integrity. I get to enjoy each one of them without worrying over their souls.

It’s not that I think every possible way of thinking or acting is just fine. There are still things that bug me a great deal. The world’s troubled seas still cast up mire and dirt.

During a storm, it is a bad idea to tie your boat to a fixed dock. It can be dashed to pieces. Far better to moor or anchor your boat where it can adjust itself to face the wind.

In yet another surprise from my deconversion that  I find that I am safer, happier and more at peace when I’m anchored in open water.

What Morality Is

We spend a lot of energy arguing about what is right or wrong, but how many of us have stopped to ask what morality is?

Do the principles of morality exist apart from living beings? 2 + 2 would equal 4 even if there were nobody around to add the numbers, but would Do unto others as you would have them do unto you make any sense if there were no others and no you? Right away we see that morality is at least somewhat contingent.

A theist might assert that moral principles are whatever God says they are and they as eternal and unchanging as God himself. In theory that’s possible but in practice it never happens that way.

My own former tradition of evangelical Christianity is a case in point. Although we believed that the Bible was God’s Unchanging Word, we found ourselves in the uncomfortable position of having to explain away supposedly eternal commands ranging from keeping the sabbath to women not being allowed to teach men. I suspect other traditions whose morality is based on what God has literally written in stone face similar conundrums. If the moral code is eternal, then we have not yet seen it on Earth.

This is not to say that morality is arbitrary. Far from it. Just as there are physical characteristics of humans that distinguish us from other species, there are moral characteristics that seem to suit us best. For example, take monogamy. That ideal has had a salutary effect on our social development, giving almost every woman a reliable support for her children and almost every man a reason to be productive. However, it would be entirely unsuitable for bees, whose social organization is exquisitely optimized around a single bearing female.

Moral norms evolved one way for bees, and another way for us. As human society continues to evolve, what makes us flourish may change, too. That’s what I think morality is: whatever best makes us flourish.

An open-minded observer cannot help but notice that moral principles are memes that continually battle each other for control of our minds. Over time, the memes that gain the upper hand are those that make their hosts (that’s us) flourish.

Maslow’s famous Hierarchy of Needs put physiological survival at the base and morality at the top. Our first need as a species, and the first to be fulfilled, was survival. As we became more firmly rooted in our niche, we were able to progress up the Hierarchy, until in the 21st century most of us in the First World think all day about the top level — self-actualization — and barely give survival a thought.

In the same way, primitive moral systems emphasized tribal cohesion and survival. It was just fine to enslave or wipe out rival tribes, stone heretics and so on. Now, thanks to prosperity, commerce, and other factors, we are past that. Our moral systems are based on universal rights rather than tribal exceptionalism; on freedom of thought rather than conformity; on mutual respect rather than authority.

Economic progress can give us the luxury of more enlightened morals, and better morals in turn promote prosperity and happiness.

It is said that morality is a straight and narrow path. That may be true, but it is not level. It rises with our progression as a species.