Tag Archive | "Free will"

Are We Free to Believe?

It is essential to any free society that its citizens have freedom of speech and freedom of thought. It is practically impossible to conceive of a society we can reasonably call “free” that polices the thoughts of its citizens and enforces the only kinds of thoughts that its citizens may have.

To illustrate such an unfree society, let us take Christianity. In the Gospel according to Matthew, Jesus extended the prohibition on adultery even to the realm of the mind. According to Christianity, not only should we ought not to have sex with someone other than our lawfully wedded spouse, we are forbidden from even having the thought of straying or “lusting.” In fact, the mere lustful thought itself, no matter how fleeting and regardless of any possibility of actual adultery, is not just wrong, but as wrong as actual adultery. This moral equivalence is often lost on people.

A society built upon such thought policing principles cannot be called “free” in any sense of the word. It is one thing to find the breaking of a consensual marital agreement despicable; it is completely another thing to prohibit even the thought (even if that is all that it ever will be) and damn it as equally immoral. The human mind is the ocean of a river of incongruous and undesired whims, such as intrusive thoughts and addictions. Thoughts do not always (in fact, often do not) result in action.

Freedom of thought is essential to a free society and orthodox Christianity is plainly incompatible with this principle. Let us discuss, however, whether a society can actually have “freedom of belief.”

A belief is more than just the thinking about a proposition. It is an active assent to and confident acceptance of a proposition. We can see how Jesus proscribes not just certain beliefs (such as, “I actively want to commit adultery”) but also certain involuntary thoughts (such as, “My biological predisposition to find mates gives me sexual stirrings towards persons other than my spouse”).

Let us move to belief outside the moral realm and include other facts about the world. Are we free to believe, let us say, in a certain religion? On paper, such as the Constitution of the Philippines, we have the right to freedom of belief. But, in practice, freedom of belief may simply be an artifact of bad intuitions about what the mind is capable of.

Let us take the case of a hypothetical person, Jane. Jane looks at the world and, according to the best of her ability and experiences, concludes that Catholicism is true. She believes that the world only makes sense if the specific claims of Catholicism are true (that a God exists and that Jesus established a Church that exists to this day to proclaim God’s Word). Was Jane free to believe in Catholicism? I don’t think so.

I need to clarify that one need not reject the notion of a soul or free will in order to agree with me here. Of course, hard determinists and compatibilists will already agree that free will, in the popular supernatural understanding, is incoherent. They will already agree that, if it even makes sense to call any desire “free,” our minds are not free from the effects of natural things beyond our control (such as genetics).

Even if we assume that she has supernatural free will, Jane does not control which facts about the world are true. She does not control the “fact” that a person called Jesus lived about two thousand years ago. She does not control the “fact” that Catholicism is the one true religion and that it holds certain views about the nature of the universe and how it applies to homosexuals. She cannot help that these things just make sense to her. She is no more free to believe in Catholicism than she is free to believe that she is human. Jane is a victim of facts about the world.

Now, of course, Jane may be mistaken about the world. She might not be intellectually honest enough to be consistent in her thinking. For example, she might strictly require evidence when buying a used car, but in matters of religion, she is not as critical. It is completely possible that she unquestioningly accepts the religion of her upbringing as true. It is possible that she is not skeptical of supernatural explanations for events in her life, such as the sheer fortune of passing an exam despite not studying all that much.

What these things do not suggest, however, is that Jane is consciously choosing what things about the world she’d like to believe are “facts.” At the very least, some self-deception is necessary for Jane to convince herself that an obvious lie is true. Jane is not free to believe in what facts she thinks are right, even if she could be mistaken about the truthfulness of those facts.

If Jane were to be more consistent in her thinking, though, she might reach different conclusions. It is possible that if she were to consciously apply scientific principles to her religious views, she might find that Catholicism no longer makes sense.

She might notice that the reality of gratuitous suffering is not consistent with the existence of a benevolent and intervening God. She might find that the supposed cosmic importance of humanity is incompatible with our existence as one species on one unexaggeratedly tiny dust particle in an unimaginably vast universe (perhaps one among many). She might find that the existence of evil only makes sense under the light of nature’s indifference. She might then conclude that the best explanation of the facts in our universe is one that includes no God. Was she free to believe these things? No.

It is strange that many believers still argue for belief via Pascal’s wager. The challenge insists that regardless of the truthfulness of the claim that a god exists, it is still best to bet on a god existing rather than betting against it. Of course, the wager presumes that non-belief actually has eternal consequences, such as hellfire. It also presumes that there is only one god to bet on, the Christian afterlife-giving God.

It is very rare and, I think, practically impossible to be that insincere about belief. Of course, because of peer pressure or fear for her life, Jane could pretend to other people that she believes in Catholicism. But, I don’t think she could actually bet on a god if the facts aren’t convincing her of a god’s existence. She could be involuntarily self-deceiving; she could willfully not expose herself to scientific research; she could willfully not reason out the logical implications of her beliefs. What she cannot do, however, is to accept a belief simply because she consciously decides to believe.

While “freedom of belief” sounds like a perfectly desirable principle, a closer inspection reveals that it is unintelligible. We are no more free to consciously believe the things that we believe than we are free to change what facts in the world are true.

What we are left with is the fact that if there is any liberty to be had at all, the last thing we ought to surrender is control over our thinking to an authority or tradition. If we are to be free at all from any misapprehension of facts, then we must consistently ask for evidence and reason out our positions. Whatever conclusion we reach, however uncomfortable or counter-intuitive, we must accept. Then, and only then, can we have the only kind of freedom of thought worth having. Then, and only then, can a person be a freethinker.

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Freedom Outside Free Will

The doctrine of free will is a keystone in Christian theology. It is the principle by which theologians try to explain away the problem of evil in a world designed by a benevolent God. It is central to the tenet of redemption and the reason for the human sacrifice of Jesus.

With the advent of neuroscience, it has become increasingly more difficult to defend free will. We see more and more that what we view as our “selves” and our desires are products of circumstances that we had no control over (our genes, our upbringing, the amount of sleep we had, the smells of a room, noises in the neighborhood, etc.). And, as Sam Harris argues in his new book, Free Will, not only is free will an illusion, it is unintelligible.

Free will is not conceptually coherent, according to Harris. “Either our wills are determined by prior causes and we are not responsible for them, or they are the product of chance and we are not responsible for them.” No amount of quantum indeterminacy can even begin to make sense of a free will doctrine. No amount of theological finessing can make heads or tails of it.

The theistic position regarding free will maintains that we, in a very real sense, create our own thoughts (termed contra-causal free will)*. This is, however, at odds with what we know about the nature of the brain. Studies such as those performed by physiologist Benjamin Libet showed that activity in the motor cortex can be seen around 300 milliseconds before the a person becomes aware of a decision to move. Another study showed that observing a mere 256 neurons was sufficient to predict with 80% accuracy a person’s decision to move. Even without delays, our conscious self is not in control of the causes behind which and when neurons fire.

Though we feel free in our choices, we are not in control of this feeling to feel free. And therein lies the illusion. It seems that we are only free in the sense that we don’t mind what the unconscious operations of the brain tell us. Even our not minding is itself the product of unconscious operations that are out of our control. Neuroscience and informed philosophy has reduced “authorship” to our conscious mind helplessly witnessing the spontaneous appearance of unconsciously determined thoughts into consciousness. Harris writes, “From the perspective of your conscious awareness, you are no more responsible for the next thing you think (and therefore do) than you are for the fact that you were born into this world.”

Consider the mind of a person who murders a random pedestrian. In subsequent interviews, we find that this person exhibits no remorse for his actions and says that he would do it again, given the chance. Were we to discover that this person has a tumor in his prefrontal cortex (the site of much of our behavioral impulses), we might consider that he was not truly to blame for his actions. He was not responsible for his tumor or the precise consequences of his tumor, after all. But, how is this situation any different from the brain of a psychopath, which is known to have palpable differences with normal brains?

None of the circumstances that lead to a psychopathic mind are the fault of a psychopath. He did not choose to have a psychopathic brain. Neither does it imply that a psychopath is free because he desires to kill a person since that desire is not under his control either. Should we learn that a murderous psychopath had struggles with his bloodlust and earnestly fought against his compulsion, we can only conclude that his desire to murder won out over his other determined desires. Where is the freedom in that?

A psychopath has merely been unlucky to have inherited genes that predispose him to violence and a lack of empathy. This, of course, predisposes him further to situations that encourage him to hold cynical and anti-social beliefs. The lack of control of the psychopath is no different from our lack of control in having the minds that we have at this moment. A psychopath is as much a victim of neurophysiology as we are.

If you were to trade places with our hypothetical psychopath, “atom for atom” as Harris puts it, you would be him. There would be no extra part of you that would be there to see or experience the world in any different way. You would have no way to tame the murderous impulses with the more moderate impulses of your former body.

One need not be a naturalist to dismiss free will. Even outside metaphysical materialism, Harris argues, the notion that an immaterial soul is at the helm of our will does not rescue the notion of free will. “The unconscious operations of a soul would grant you no more freedom than the unconscious physiology of your brain does.”

Harris presents that the only philosophically defensible notion of free will is compatibilism, or the idea that determinism and free will are not incompatible. However, it appears that compatibilism and determinism are only different in that they define free will in completely different terms, though neither finds the theistic notion of contra-causal free will convincing. Compatibilists argue that free will is real in the sense that unconscious mental activity is still “you.” However, this does not seem to be what most people mean by “free will,” which is the conscious authorship of thoughts. It is certainly not what theologians mean by free will. Harris reduces the compatibilist position to “a puppet is free as long as he loves his strings.”

An important distinction should be made between determinism and fatalism. Fans of libertarian free will might point out that since our wills are determined, we should just lay back and watch as our bodies move themselves without conscious intent (fatalism). But that, of course, is to forget that conscious intentions, though caused by events prior to consciousness, are a part of the system which determines consequences. Intentions do matter and intending to just sit around is itself an intention. And this intention to be passive, Harris points out, will increasingly become more difficult as the compulsion to do something else grows intolerable.

That we are free in an absolute and metaphysical sense to decide how to act is a fundamental tenet of our ideas regarding moral responsibility and justice, whether in secular or religious terms. Harris cites the United States Supreme Court, stating that a deterministic view of free will is “inconsistent with the underlying precepts of our criminal justice system.” And, if we are in no meaningful sense the author of our thoughts, then the entire Christian notion of the afterlife (either heaven or hell in any formulation) is horrendous and damnable. Harris writes in the first page of his book, “Without free will, sinners and criminals would be nothing more than poorly calibrated clockwork, and any conception of justice that emphasized punishing them (rather than deterring, rehabilitating, or merely containing them) would appear utterly incongruous.”

Theists worry that without contra-causal free will, there can be no moral responsibility. For how can you fault a hurricane for leveling entire cities? How can you blame an alcoholic for being that way, when genetic predispositions and uncontrolled circumstances led to his being an alcoholic?

Of course, this appeal to consequences does not prove that free will is real. And, upon the slightest bit of inspection, we can see that the theist’s worry is unfounded. Moral responsibility is viable outside of free will. What we appear to morally condemn, and can reasonably maintain to condemn, in violent people (as in the psychopath of my previous example) is the intentionality. The intention and desire to murder is the real cause for fear. If there is anything that we can be held “responsible” for, it would be our conscious intentions, which we are aware of, since these best reflect what kinds of persons we are and how we will tend to act in the future.

If, after careful planning and much research, you decide to kill your neighbor, then that simply shows that you’re the kind of person who would kill your neighbor. You’re the kind of person who would spend hours deliberating on the best means to maim or kill another human being. If you were to find yourself naked in a car that crashed into a tree with your neighbor dead on the hood of your car, without any memory of how you got there, you’re probably not the kind of person who does this sort of thing. The aspect of intention, regardless of its determined origin, generally predicts the trends of behavior that we are likely to have. This gives us good reason to put a premium on conscious intention, in terms of blameworthiness.

The first example shows a person who simply has the mind of a murderer. We have good reason to fear the deliberate murderer and not the accidental one. Though, given determinism, we have no rational basis to hate either.

If we could incarcerate hurricanes, we would, so as to prevent further harm. What, then, does it mean for us to find out that we ourselves are weather patterns of intentions and actions—determined by lawful interactions outside our control? Since a person is fundamentally the epicenter of uncontrolled genetic predispositions and environmental circumstances, any conception of punitive or retributive justice is just incoherent. And what else is religious justice but punitive and retributive?

Without contra-causal free will, the justice of religion is simply absurd and malevolent. Adam was never free to choose which of his impulses would have won out in his encounter with the fruit of knowledge. The sins Jesus died for were the result of bad design by his father in heaven. To be fair, we cannot fault religion for having an unrealistic view of human nature, its creators simply did not know better. This does, however, further betray religion’s human and uninformed origins.

We can maintain a system of laws that is more fair and honest about what we are and what our brains make us to be. To keep everyone else safe, justice systems must rehabilitate criminals. And, in the impossibility of such rehabilitation, incarceration for the good of society is the only recourse. In light of what we know about brains and minds, punishment betrays the juvenile “justice” of our religious and prescientific past.

The knowledge that we are the products of causes outside our control may seem nihilistic and overwhelming, but it need not be. Our awareness should, instead, empower us to know that not every mood we have is meaningful (it can simply be because of lack of sleep). Knowing that we can take hold of the causal triggers of our personality (without denying that this too is due to prior causes), we can take effective steps to change our state of mind by introducing more causes (in the form of books, novel activities, other people, etc.) into the storm that is the mind. Realizing this can help us change our brains in a way that may initially be unconscious, but no less consequential.

We can escape the prison of the delusion that we are little gods immune to nature and accept the laws of nature for what they are. We can be free from fatalism without committing to nonsensical doctrines. Choices, beliefs, and intentions are as important as ever, even if they are determined by prior causes.

In the 66 pages of Free Will, Sam Harris presents a short but devastating case against the traditional and theological concept of contra-causal free will. It is by no means comprehensive, but it gets to the point quick without getting muddled.

*In The Nature of Necessity, the philosopher Alvin Plantinga defines contra-causal free will as: “If a person S is significantly free with respect to a given action, then he is free to perform that action and free to refrain; no causal laws and antecedent conditions determine either that he will perform the action, or that he will not.”

Free Will by Sam Harris is published by Free Press.

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Cruz on Choice: The Curse of Free Will

Ex-CBCP President Oscar “the Borg” Cruz wrote a new post on his blog, and once again it defies logic, reason, and grammar. But what’s surprising in this post is it seems to defy Catholic theology as well. Then again, that could just be his poor writing skills. You be the judge.

He starts by praising the concept of “pro choice:”

“It is salutary to hear and encouraging contemplating. It is very human in its substance and humane in its implications. ‘Pro Choice’ properly means and correctly implies that all ordinary adults in particular, have their respective intellectual faculty plus will functions to depend on and use accordingly.”

Fair enough. But then it gets weird. Whether our choices result in good or bad, we take it for granted that choice is something that we have; choice implies having options. But Cruz seems to think that the choice we take for granted is optional:

“Strictly speaking wherefore, choosing instead what is inherently wrong and in effect unjust can be made an option – but for a cost always, for a profound and pervasive cost at times.” (emphasis mine)

After revealing his premise — that choice is optional — he starts to reveal his argument: We should not make choosing bad things a choice. Only the option that leads to what is good — by Oscar’s standards — should be given to people.

But again, his argument changes direction. While he first argued that choice is optional — that people can choose to make unethical choices — he now says that choice is not optional — that people can only choose what is ethical:

“Again, given his or her operative deliberative faculty, a man or a woman is only free to choose what is ethical or moral – certainly not what is unethical or immoral.” (emphasis mine)

Finally he reveals his twisted logic. He says that choice is only good to have when there are only good options to choose from:

“The phrase wherefore ‘Pro-Choice’ is great to contemplate and noble to act upon, not unless it is intentionally coined and twisted in order to purposely accommodate – – favor or defend – the freedom to choose what is objectively vicious or evil, purposely depraved or nefarious.”

So let’s review Oscar’s argument (the most recent version of it anyway). He is arguing that choice is good unless there are options that lead to bad outcomes. But there are always options that lead to bad outcomes. Does it then follow that choice is bad? Shockingly, Oscar thinks it is:

“Is there really a right or sound choice between life or death, between peace or war, between integrity or deceit, between poverty and development, and so on?”

Each person can and does make right or sound choices (based on their own judgment) on a daily basis. Although individual choices may be different , there is a right or sound choice between the options you mentioned above.

Catholic morality is based on prescribing a certain criteria for choosing among sound and unsound options. Why would such a criteria be necessary if only sound options were available? So yes. Most people believe — Catholic theologians, especially — that there is a “right or sound choice.”

“Is there? If there really is, then this is really a helpless world, a cursed humanity!”

Has Oscar heard of a Catholic doctrine called “free will“? For Oscar’s benefit, Catholics believe that free will is God’s gift to man. Is Oscar saying that free will is not a gift but a curse? Does he really think the world is helpless?

Oscar Cruz should go back to the seminary and brush up on his theology. (While he’s at it, he should brush up on logic, grammar, and rhetoric as well.) His message is not consistent with the creed he professes, which may lead some of his flock to do evil. Therefore, going back to the seminary is, by his own standards, the moral and ethical thing to do.

Does he have a choice?

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