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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…

Dawkins, Determinism, and Truth

Philosopher Paul Copan describes his recent experience at a lecture given by Richard Dawkins at Nova Southeastern University:

There I was—the first one in line during the Q&A. I asked Dawkins how he could claim that the naturalist [is] rationally superior to the theist since, according to his book River Out of Eden, all of us are dancing to the music of our DNA. Our beliefs are the product of non-rational, deterministic physical forces beyond our control—whether we’re theists or naturalists. In fact, if the naturalist is right, it’s only by accident—not because he’s more intellectually virtuous than the theist. That is, the naturalist has accidental true belief (which is not knowledge) rather than warranted true belief (which is knowledge).

Dawkins gave the odd reply that it’s kind of like Republicans and Democrats—with each group thinking they’re right and the other group wrong. But on what grounds could either side think they are more rational than the other? Dawkins then added that he supposed that whatever view “works” the correct one to hold. But here’s the problem: what “works” is logically distinct from “true” or “matching up with reality”—since we may hold to a lot of false beliefs that help us survive and reproduce, even if they are false. Indeed, naturalistic evolution is interested in survival and reproduction—the “four F’s” (fighting, feeding, fleeing, and reproducing). Truth, the naturalist philosopher Patricia Churchland argues, is secondary to these pursuits According to another such naturalist, the late Richard Rorty, truth is “utterly unDarwinian.”

To top off his answer to me (without addressing how to ground rationality), Dawkins dismissively quipped that science flies rockets to the moon while religion flies planes into buildings.

Read the rest of the post and see what Professor Copan made of Dawkins’ response.