Monthly Archives: October 2013

Welcoming Hate Speech

Jonathan Rauch has a thought-provoking article in the latest issue of The Atlantic: The Case for Hate Speech. He says,

The critical factor in the elimination of error is not individuals’ commitment to the truth as they see it (if anything, most people are too confident they’re right); it is society’s commitment to the protection of criticism, however misguided, upsetting, or ungodly.

It takes a lot of courage to protect the speech of your misguided opponents. You must have confidence that your ideas will prevail in the end, and you must have the patience to wait.

In fact, Rauch not only protects but encourages the airing of his opponents’ views. As he says regarding an opponent of same-sex marriage:

Most fair-minded people who read his screeds will see that they are not proper arguments at all, but merely ill-tempered reflexes. When Card puts his stuff out there, he makes us look good by comparison. The more he talks, and the more we talk, the better we sound.

I think this is similar to the faith one must have in due process of law. Even though you know the suspect is guilty, you must follow due process if society is to work. Shortcuts and cheating have a corrosive effect that is far more serious than one unjust acquittal.

If I have faith in one thing these days, it is in the power of information. Even false information is true information about those who are spreading it.

Here is one of my favorite movie moments of all time. Where Sir Thomas More defends the idea of giving the devil the benefit of the law, think of giving crazy people full freedom to state their views.

Spirit of Chaos, Be Gone!

I was sitting at a red light recently and people all around me were acting crazy. One young man was blaring his radio. Someone else came roaring around the corner. Even I was crazy, for I found myself thinking the words, “A Spirit of Chaos is here.”

That reflex — thinking that there are spirits lurking everywhere — is a hold-over from my time in evangelical culture. I can’t say I bought into it, but there was often talk around me of “a Spirit of Such-and-Such.” This was not a figure of speech. My friends literally believed that local events were sometimes due to the presence of one spirit or another.

There is ample justification in the Bible for this view. For example, Isaiah 19:14 says that God sent “a spirit of confusion” upon the Egyptians, causing Egypt to “stagger in all her doings like a drunken man.” In 1 Kings 22:23, God allows a “lying spirit” to be “put in the mouths” of some false prophets. On a positive note, in Mark 9:14-29, Jesus heals a boy who in all likelihood just had epilepsy, but the healing is put in terms of casting out a spirit.

Returning to the traffic light, my next thought was, “Wait a second! Spirit of Chaos!? I’m free from that kind of thinking!” Free I am, and it’s a wonderful feeling.

You see, as much as invoking spirits can provide an explanation for almost any human behavior, it is a very unsatisfying one because you never know what a spirit will do next. Even the Holy Spirit, Jesus said, is like the wind: You can hear it, but you never know where it came from or where it is going.

Ancient people blamed spirits for everything from confusion to epilepsy to insanity. They understood so little about certain things that positing spirits may have felt like progress. Not to brag or anything, but we moderns can do better.

Better not only in explaining bizarre and frightening conditions, but in understanding the behavior of people at traffic lights. Where our knowledge is incomplete, we can try to learn more.

That gives me much more hope than the always-impossible attempts to predict the behavior of the spirit world.

Free Will and Fatalism

In my last two posts, I have argued that we don’t have the contra-causal free will that most people vaguely think we have. A good friend read the posts and told me, “Beagle, beagle, beagle: your logic is impeccable, but you’re not going to convince anyone. We feel we have free will and we must act as if we have it.”

Before I respond, let me digress to the amazing world of emergent phenomena. Emergence happens when a system composed of relatively simple things gives rise to something more complex and usually unexpected. For example, thought arises out of the interaction of billions of neurons in our brains. Each neuron has only the most rudimentary awareness of its immediate environment, and no idea what we’re thinking about. Yet, coherent thoughts emerge. Who could predict this would happen?

It’s so mysterious that it’s tempting to call thought an illusion, but it’s not. Not quite. (If an illusion has the power to act on itself, can it really be an illusion? Read I Am a Strange Loop for more fun with this.) In fact, unless you are a biologist or chemist, it is more useful to consider people’s thoughts than to focus on their neurons.

So it is with free will. It’s useful to think of compatibilist free will (the sort of free will I argue we do have) as an emergent property very similar to thought, of which it is a close cousin.

It would be a shame to give up on thinking because thoughts are “nothing more than” the firing of neurons. In one sense that is all they are, but in an important sense thoughts are much more than that. They are specific patterns of firing, which can be analyzed and cultivated much more effectively if we forget about the neurons.

Same for compatibilist free will. Even though it is “nothing more than” an emergent property of cause and effect in our brains, it would be a shame to be as utterly fatalistic as that seems to warrant.

The fact that our free will subject to cause and effect is no reason to give up on life. Cause and effect is good. Who wants to be random?

Contra-Causal Free Will

In my last post, Free Will and the Water Park, I argued that we cannot have the sort of free will that people informally think we have. I emphasized the aspects of rationality and conscious intent and I think I caused some confusion. Let me try again from another angle: causality.

Most people feel that if choices A and B are available, and nobody is forcing them to take one or the other, they can use their free will to pick one in a way that is reasoned and yet somehow floats above causality. This is what I called contra-causal free will in one of my comments to the last post, and this is the sort of free will I contend cannot exist:

The power to make a choice that is both reasoned and free from external causes.

In my last post, I talked about rationality, but we don’t even need to go there. Now I’m using the word reasoned, meaning that if you were to ask the person whether he had a reason for his choice, he would say yes. It does not even have to be a good reason. For the purposes of this discussion it could even be a purely emotional reason. (“I hit him because I was so angry that I couldn’t help myself.”)

As for the second part of the definition, free from external causes, I mean that the choice has somehow broken the sequence of cause and effect. Not only is nobody forcing your choice, but nothing is forcing it.

This type of free will, which most people vaguely think they have, is logically impossible because it is self-contradictory. To exactly the extent that I have reasons for my choice, I am following cause-and-effect. Yet, I’m also claiming that my choice is magically free from cause-and-effect. I can’t have it both ways.

How does having a reason tie me to cause-and-effect? A reason is simply a cause that I have chosen to bring to bear on my decision. Why did I choose to do so? Well, I had my reasons. There were reasons for those reasons for my reasons, and so on. At some point, the chain of reasons will go back to where I had no choice — if only because I had not been born yet. So my reasons, which were supposed to be my tickets to freedom, turn out to chain me firmly to non-freedom (in the sense we’re considering).

In the case of the purely emotional choice, the “I” who chose to bring a reason to bear may be my subconscious. When I hit someone because I was so angry that I “could not help myself,” it was not my cerebral cortex that was running the show, but my lizard brain. That primitive, emotional part of me had its reasons, and the rest of the previous paragraph applies.

But let’s suppose that somewhere along that chain I had a reason that was not the result of anything. It had no determining cause at all. If something is uncaused then it is random. (Think about it.) If I make a choice randomly, I suppose I’m free in one sense, but not in the sense that people mean when they say they have free will.

To summarize, a choice cannot both be reasoned and free from cause and effect, for having a reason means there was a cause.

All of the above applies whether we are talking about our conscious selves or our unconscious selves. It does not matter whether we’re talking about quick, instinctual acts or decisions pondered over months. The logic even holds whether we believe our decisions are made by molecules in our brains or by immaterial souls. You can’t have decisions that are both for-cause and free from the chain of cause and effect.

Compatiblists such as Daniel Dennett rescue the idea of free will by redefining it. “Let’s throw away the useless, self-contradictory definitions of free will,” they say, “and define it as the ability to make a choice unhindered by outsiders.”

In that sense, we clearly do have free will, for we do make choices that people don’t force us to make. And to Kiril’s point, yes, our choices do have efficacy.

On the other hand, the chess-playing computer, Deep Blue, had free will in that sense as well. In fact, it wielded it even better than the reigning world champion, Garry Kasparov.

So does compatibilist free will count? You are free to decide.