Archive for the ‘Free Will’ Category

Does Free Will Exist in Heaven?

June 15, 2013 2 comments


A fairly common retort to why evil and suffering exist if God is omnipotent and all-loving is free will.

For example, in the back-and-forth I posted on “the problem of evil” a while back, one of Andrew Sullivan’s readers makes a representative version of this point:

Suffering, the existential consciousness of alienation, on which you are so eloquent, is an extension of human freedom. Those of us, like you, who stand in the faith and view the world (both physical and existential) from the perspective of faith, do not have words to understand why God created the world in the way can has, but we do understand that both the principle of entropy and human free will are gifts of the Creator and that God respects the integrity of Creation.

Most religious people assume that no one suffers in heaven. If they’re right, does that imply that we lack free will in heaven? If the formula for the perfect state of happiness contains a total deficiency of free will, why does an omnibenevolent Creator give us free will at all? It cannot be beneficial, by definition, if heaven is perfect and lacks it.

One alternative could be that we have free will, but God punishes any offense with banishment to hell – terrifying everyone into immaculate behavior. Yet that would seem to shatter the notion of a totally merciful Divine Being like stained glass.

(Robot Heaven)

Categories: Free Will, Theodicy

Is What Romney Gets Wrong, Right?

By now everyone that pays close attention to these ridiculous campaign squabbles should realize that when president Obama said, “if you’ve got a business – you didn’t build that,” he didn’t mean that the entrepreneur isn’t responsible for his work, but that everyone utilizes public infrastructure and gets help from others. If he thought the individual didn’t make it happen he wouldn’t have said, “The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.” So, Romney is purposefully and dishonestly taking the president out-of-context – you know, as his campaign said it would do.

With Republicans arguing that the president thinks you aren’t responsible for your business and everyone else pointing out that he never said that, it’s worth noting that no one is actually responsible for their own “individual initiative.” Yes, you did build your own business, but the reason why you could build that business is due to the groundwork of society along with the talents and drive that you didn’t give yourself.  We should still reward ambition and success even if no one fully deserves personal credit because the outside influence of accolades and compensation motivate beneficial actions like entrepreneurship.

Exterior influences acting on the biological hardware you inherited form our every behavior; where’s the merit in that?  As the Republican Party trumps up imagined slights to corporate America from this business friendly president, we see an extreme individualist philosophy coddling a new entitlement class of the prosperous. The moral language of responsibility isn’t a trivial amusement when one party is only interested in conserving privilege at the expense of the economic mobility and security of everyone else.

Categories: Free Will

"Proximate Determinism"

July 28, 2010 1 comment

Earlier this week, I discussed the implications of determinism on moral responsibility and my distinction between ultimate and proximate causes of our decisions. To recap a bit, ultimately (it seems likely) that all of our actions are the result of an infinite regress of prior causes, but proximately we make decisions based largely on reasons (even if that reason is ultimately rooted in that same deterministic chain). Free will may be an illusion but it is an illusion that we’re forced to live in. 

I concluded saying I was going to discuss a form of what I termed “proximate determinism.” Although I actually believe all actions are probably not generated by a free will, I want to distinguish between actions that are decided by our proximate will generator (i.e. our reason) and those actions which aren’t. To be less obtuse, I think this free will vs determinism discussion is as good a bridge as any to discuss subjects such as behavioral economics and cognitive psychology. Originally, I just wanted to just show you an excellent Dan Ariely video, but The New York Times and Jerry Coyne expanded on their original posts and it adds some more dimension to this topic.

Most interestingly, they point to some fascinating research that shows our brains’ (also primates’ brains) neurons  register our decisions before we’re conscious of it. Coyne writes, “that implies that the “decision” isn’t really a conscious one—that is, it doesn’t conform to our notion of free will.” He goes on to discuss that research further here.

[T]he brain activity that predicted which button would be pressed began a full seven seconds before the subject was conscious of his decision to press the left or right button. The authors note, too, that there is a delay of three seconds before the MRI records neural activity since the machine detects blood oxygenation.  Taking this into account, neuronal activity predicting which button would be pressed began about ten seconds before a conscious decision was made.

This seems to fit with some findings of researchers in other fields that argue our decisions are sometimes made “irrationally.” Here’s Dan Ariely’s TED talk fittingly titled, “Are we in control of our own decisions?” 

***Note to Andreas: you may enjoy the research that used The Economist’s subscription choices (which I actually recall seeing).***

As Ariely shows us, the default settings in our lives play an enormous role in our decision making. It’s obvious that our choices are shaped by various cognitive illusions, it’s becoming more clear that free will itself may be just another one.  

[update]: Jonah Lehrer shares his thoughts on free will.

The fact is, we are deeply wired to believe in our freedom. We feel like willful creatures, blessed with elbow room and endowed with the capacity to pick our own breakfast cereal.

In my last post I reached a similar conclusion: “We are hardwired by the universe to act as though we have free will.” 

Free Will: Hardwired by the Universe?

Lately on the web there has been a bit of an uptick in discussing free will vs. determinism. Biologist Jerry Coyne shares his thoughts of some of the literature in a blog post and calls for more science to be injected into the philosophy. Over at the New York Times’ newish philosophy blog Galen Strawson tries to walk readers through the “maze” of free will/determinism arguments and consequences. She persuades me that even if determinism is false at its core by some randomness or some quantum ambiguity built into the universe, we can’t be entirely morally responsible for every action we take. 

There may be all sorts of other factors affecting and changing you. Determinism may be false: some changes in the way you are may come about as a result of the influence of indeterministic or random factors. But you obviously can’t be responsible for the effects of any random factors, so they can’t help you to become ultimately morally responsible for how you are.

Some people think that quantum mechanics shows that determinism is false, and so holds out a hope that we can be ultimately responsible for what we do. But even if quantum mechanics had shown that determinism is false (it hasn’t), the question would remain: how can indeterminism, objective randomness, help in any way whatever to make you responsible for your actions? The answer to this question is easy. It can’t.

I tend to find arguments in favor of free will stink of wishful thinking; so I concede that determinism or something philosophically equivalent is most likely true. Yet, as Strawson notes, we still feel as though we are making our own decisions. No matter how strong I think the arguments for determinism are, I behave as though I’m free to act (what other choice do I have?). The main reason is, what nihilists fail to appreciate, even if all our actions are compelled by physics they still have determined consequences which we still feel as conscious beings. 

Let me expand on this by borrowing Steven Pinker’s argument in The Blank Slate, where he eases readers’ fears that evolution and genetics (nature) compel our actions, and apply that argument to this subject.

The difference between the mechanisms that impel organisms to behave in real time and the mechanisms the shaped the design of the organism over evolutionary time is important enough to merit some jargon. A proximate cause of behavior is the mechanism that pushes behavior buttons in real time, such as the hunger and lust that impel people to eat and have sex. An ultimate cause is the adaptive rationale that led the proximate cause to evolve, such as the need for nutrition and reproduction that gave us the drives of hunger and lust. The distinction between proximate and ultimate causation is indispensable in understanding ourselves because it determines the answer to every question of the form “Why did that person act as he did?” To take a simple example, ultimately people crave sex in order to reproduce (because the ultimate cause of sex is reproduction), but proximately they may do everything they can not to reproduce (because the proximate cause of sex is pleasure).

This helps me respect the difference between our actions being ultimately determined by events prior and us proximately making actual decisions. We have been caused to have the ability to reason in real time even if the underlying operation of that reason is at its core predetermined. Ultimately people’s reason is determined by physics, chemistry, biology, and society, but proximately their brains apply logical analysis and emotions to reason and thus make a decision and act. To take this example further, ultimately you are choosing to read this blog post because a series of events beyond your control obligates you to be at a computer and prefer to make that choice, but proximately you are choosing to read because of you reasons (e.g. interest, enjoyment, friendship, lack of better alternatives, etc) that reading this is your preference. 

If our actions are determined beyond our ultimate control, but we still feel and live in that cause-and-effect chain, and therefore are not ultimately responsible (even if we are proximately responsible because we own the body which is acting) it gives me a sense of modesty and humility in condemning individuals’ behaviors. Of course, since nihilism and moral anarchy would cause actual suffering (who cares if it’s by will or has been determined?) we try to act in such a way that best reduces suffering. The pain impulse compels us to not retreat to nihilism. We are hardwired by the universe to act as though we have free will. The phrase Strawson shares with us from Jean-Paul Sartre is “condemned to freedom.”

So if we’re not ultimately morally responsible, what does that mean for criminals and evildoers? It shouldn’t mean that we let them act in ways that hurt others’ lives. But the arguments for determinism convince me that we shouldn’t punish for its own sake. Even if a rapist, for example, isn’t ultimately responsible for his actions doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t lock him up to prevent him from harming others. Likewise, if temporary punishment causes a change in behavior for the better like in the case of a misbehaving young child than that is a convincing argument in its favor. Just as if a doctor must stick a needle in a patient’s arm to provide a helpful vaccine or cure, a police officer might have to strike a violent criminal to prevent or stop an assault. Yet the vengeful torturer has no moral justification that sits comfortably with determinism. 

If you didn’t like this post I’m not ultimately responsible. Coming soon, a blog post on a form of proximate determinism. 

I hope to read Daniel Dennett’s Freedom Evolves for a scientific and philosophical blended discussion on free will/determinism. Has anyone read that or any other titles which they recommend (or dislike)? 

(image: Erin Schell, The New York Times)

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