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NY Times twists on horns of secular free will dilemma

“Do you have free will?” a recent article in the New York Times asks. “Yes, it’s the only choice.” So begins a fitful confrontation with the dilemma of free will in a world comprised only of the physical universe.

Although it never says it directly, the article appears to assume that the universe is deterministic. Everything happens as an unavoidable consequence of the events before; our choices are not free; and we are not morally responsible.

At the same time, it notes that “there seems to be a fairly universal gut belief in [free will] starting at a young age. When children age 3 to 5 see a ball rolling into a box, they say that the ball couldn’t have done anything else. But when they see an experimenter put her hand in the box, they insist that she could have done something else. That belief seems to persist no matter where people grow up”.

The article concludes that, “At an abstract level, people seem to be what philosophers call incompatibilists: those who believe free will is incompatible with determinism. If everything that happens is determined by what happened before, it can seem only logical to conclude you can’t be morally responsible for your next action.” Yet in our hearts, it says, we’re compatibilists who consider free will compatible with determinism. We believe that we do make choices, even though these choices are determined by previous events and influences. In fact, we must believe this to function properly, both at an individual level, and a societal one. Thus, “it’s the only choice”.

But this seems like a strange, even tendentious conclusion to draw. Did everyone surveyed actually believe the universe is deterministic? Or is that merely what the people in charge would like for these people to believe? Continue reading…

Bill Vallicella on eliminative materialism

The “maverick” philosopher William Vallicella has started a number of entries on materialism, focusing particularly on eliminative materialism. This bears serendipitously on some debate which has been ongoing here. This started with Samuel Skinner in ‘Atheists Should Not Criticize Hitler’, which prompted my reply post, ‘Whence Cometh Value?’, and most recently discussion has been ongoing between Mike, Keith, Rob and myself in the comment thread of ‘Jesse Kilgore commits suicide after reading Dawkins’. The discussion has shifted subtly from the initial thesis that objective morality is unjustified in a non-theistic worldview, toward the thesis that non-theistic views preclude, by definition, any kind of abstracta such as meaning, value, purpose, qualia (pain, pleasure, and other sorts of subjective experiences), and so on. This is essentially the same point of contention around which eliminative materialism hinges, so I’d urge those involved in the debate here to better familiarize themselves with the issues by referring to Bill’s brief primer, ‘Eliminative Materialism Defined’. He concludes, and I think rightly so, that

The fundamental error of the eliminative materialist, then, is to imagine that belief, desire, and other mental states are theoretical posits of a false theory he calls ‘folk psychology.’ This is just nonsense: pain, desire, and the like are immediately given. There is nothing theoretical about them. It is the eliminative materialist who is in the grip of a false theory, namely, the theory that nothing can be real except what the physical sciences posit as real.

The eliminative materialist is engaged in a sensless enterprise: he attemts to prosecute the philosophy of mind while denying the very data of the philosophy of mind. What could be more absurd? Blinded by his scientism, he cannot admit what we all know to be the case: that we believe, know, desire, recollect, expect, fear, etc.

I’ll post updates to this series here when they are published.