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Progressive Humanism is not about Free Will
Posted: 13 March 2006 02:15 PM   [ Ignore ]
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Free Will: The Last Great Lie
By Robert Gulack

There are three great comforting lies at the heart of the cruel and corrupt monstrosity we call ÏWestern CivilizationÓ Ō three all-important factual allegations that, like Santa Claus, are treasured not because there is scientific evidence for them, but because they offer an emotional cushion some are loathe to live without Ō the three lies that are the opiate to which nearly everyone is addicted. 

The three lies are: God, immortality, and free will.  They are joined together in a religious narrative, founded in medieval theological dogma, which remains the unquestioned basis of our American culture and our American system of law.  The narrative goes like this:  the universe is governed by an all-powerful benevolent spiritual entity Ō God Ō who implants a spiritual essence into people at some point following conception.  It is this spiritual essence, the soul, that gives people two unique gifts Ō gifts they did not get from evolution and do not share with any other animal or plant.  These two uniquely human spiritual God-given gifts are free will in this life and immortality in the next.  According to traditional religion, it is because we have souls that we can transcend the influences of genes and environment, and even triumph over death itself, as our souls fly back up to heaven.
It is as easy to see the appeal of this narrative as it is to spot the appeal of St. Nicholas.  If the universe is indeed governed by an omnipotent force for goodness, then we are not as frail and open to random acts of destruction as we might appear from a review of the morning paper.  We have a protector who, in some ultimate sense, cannot be defeated.  Our Dad is bigger than their dad.
If we are, indeed, immortal, the loved ones we appear to have lost are, in fact, not lost to us.  We shall meet them again, soon, and laugh about the tears we shed at their funerals.
If we, indeed, have free will, then we can take credit when we choose to do good, and feel a thrill of moral superiority when we contemplate those who have chosen to do bad.  Indeed, on those occasions when it is the obligation of we good people to punish those bad people Ō you will notice that genuinely evil people only appear in the third person: it is never Ïwe evil peopleÓ or Ïyou evil peopleÓ but always Ïthose evil peopleÓ Ō on those occasions when, as I say, it is our obligation to visit upon Ïevil-doersÓ the suffering they deserve, we can unload our pent-up feelings of sadism and aggression in a socially-approved way, and we can enjoy an especially delicious sense of how much better we are than whoever it is whose turn it is that day to be executed or otherwise humiliated.  Good as it feels to do the right thing, it often feels even better to have the opportunity to look down on other people who are doing the wrong thing.
So there is no problem understanding why these three lies Ō God, immortality, and free will—have stayed in fashion for centuries.  Just like Santa Claus, they make the world appear warm and benevolent and comfy.
In the face of the obvious appeal of this narrative, why has anyone rejected it?  Why is it that all progressive thinkers from the Renaissance onward, have turned their backs on at least some of these comforting lies?
The story goes that Napoleon asked the great scientist Laplace to explain why Laplace had not mentioned God in LaplaceĖs book on astronomy.  ÏSire,Ó Laplace replied, ÏI had no need of that hypothesis.Ó  There it is, in a nutshell Ō the scientific outlook.  If you can get by without bringing in an additional factual hypothesis, leave it out.  DonĖt make your theory any more cluttered and complicated than it has to be.

This principle of simplicity is often referred to as OccamĖs razor.  It was invented by William of Occam, a Franciscan monk who lived eight centuries ago.  ItĖs called the Razor because it cuts out anything you donĖt need.  (William of Occam, by the way, was the basis of the character played by Sean Connery in the movie The Name of the Rose, so some of you may have already met William of Occam without realizing it.)  We use OccamĖs razor, usually without consciously considering the matter, whenever we donĖt know whatĖs going on and genuinely want to make the best possible guess.  No one objects to using OccamĖs razor Ō the principle of leaving out anything you donĖt need—to do physics or biology or to figure out who robbed a particular bank.  There are three, and only three, factual issues concerning which the use of OccamĖs razor is controversial.  In all three cases, OccamĖs razor is refusing to give us the answer we want. 
What are the three cases?  Our old friends: God, immortality, and free will.  Those are the three things most people genuinely want to believe in, but for which there is no evidence.  People who use the scientific approach with regard to every other factual question will often become emotional on these three topics.  They become emotional because they have no evidence, and do not wish to admit it.  They may have given up Santa Claus; they may have given up the Virgin Birth of Jesus; they may have given up on transubstantiation.  But they donĖt want to lose the Big Three.  They donĖt want to lose their divine Protector, their chance of happiness in Heaven, and their view of themselves as creatures who freely choose their own actions.
Yet, in principle, the right way to handle the questions of God, immortality, and free will is precisely the same way we should handle figuring out who robbed the bank, or which of the kids made that mess in the playroom.  We should start by assembling all currently available evidence, and then try to come up with the simplest possible working hypothesis that explains the evidence we have.  Tomorrow, we may get our hands on the videotape from the security camera in the bank, and we may then change our minds about who robbed the bank.  Tomorrow, one of the kids may come forward and admit what really happened to the fish tank.  But we do the best we can at any given moment, with the evidence we have at that moment, and the way to do our best is to apply OccamĖs razor.
And this is precisely what Laplace, Darwin, and others have all done with the factual allegation that there is a God.  You go through all the evidence, and scientific breakthroughs such as evolutionary theory allow you to explain what you see without bringing in a brand-new class of spiritual entities.  At that point, if you are a scientific thinker, you start leaning to atheism.  Certainly, a scientific skeptic will no longer make important decisions on the assumption that there is a God.  If you hear a voice ordering you to kill your son, for example, you might decide itĖs time to get some therapy.  The very substantial emotional benefits of monotheism are junked in deference to the rule of the simplest hypothesis.  We have to choose between science and the comforting lie of God, and we have chosen science.
This is also how progressive thinkers handle the factual allegation of immortality.  Many people claim to have seen ghosts, or to have had near-death or out-of-body experiences, but, so far, it appears theyĖve been mistaken.  So far, the simplest hypothesis is that we die when our bodies die.  Certainly, it would be foolish, at this point, to make any important decision on the assumption that we are immortal.  If someone hands you a jacket stuffed with dynamite, for example, and promises you immortality with seventy virgins, it might be a good idea to say no.  Once again, the very substantial emotional benefits of belief in immortality are junked in deference to the rule of the simplest hypothesis.  Once again, we have to choose between science and the comforting lie of the afterlife, and we have chosen science.
So far, so good.
And now to the business at hand.  Free will.  Just what do we mean by free will, and what evidence is there that we have it?
LetĖs start by being clear about what free will isnĖt.  We donĖt think that earthquakes are the result of free will, no matter how unpredictable earthquakes are, because earthquakes are so obviously the result of a chain of physical causes and effects, blindly obeying the law of physics.  If it turns out that the strength of the various desires we have, and the choices we make as a result of those desires, are all merely physical events, chains of causes and effects, the result of natural law, that would not be free will.  If our minds are merely brains containing electrochemical signals buzzing mechanically back and forth Ō and thatĖs certainly how our brains appear to a neuroscientist Ō then we donĖt have free will.  Our brains are simply computers built by genes and programmed by our experience of our environment from conception onwards.  Our brains are constructed of synapses that each absorb a pre-set level of input and then release a signal.  They have no more free will than a Game Cube.  We have desires because those desires have been brought into existence by mechanical causes.  We may have a general desire for food because of evolutionary hard-wiring, for example, and a specific desire for pasta because of a TV commercial we saw a moment ago.
Until the last century, Western scientists assumed that the whole universe was a matter of cause-and-effect, rattling down from the beginning of time to the end of time.  Everything ticked away under the unchanging laws of physics in a manner that was wholly determined and, in principle, predictable.  If there were certain things we could not predict Ō the weather, say, or criminal conduct Ō that was not because there could not be a science of weather or a science of criminal conduct.  It was just because the human race hadnĖt yet mastered those particular sciences.  Within that worldview, which is called the determinist worldview, there was no room for free will, and many progressive thinkers began to have doubts about the free will hypothesis.
ÏThe mind is determined to this or that choice by a cause which is also determined by another cause, and this again by another, and so on ad infinitum,Ó Spinoza wrote.  ÏThis doctrine teaches us to hate no one, to despise no one, to mock no one, to be angry with no one, and to envy no one.Ó  LetĖs suppose some unpleasant person accosts you and starts talking about your mother.  Instead of letting yourself get riled up, Spinoza would advise you to remind yourself that the person who is bothering you has no more free will than, say, a hurricane.
This was also the doctrine of David Hume and of John Stuart Mill.  It is the view expressed in Mark TwainĖs What is Man?, where Twain writes, ÏWe are mere machines.  And machines may not boast, nor feel proud of their performance, nor claim personal merit for it.Ó  It may come as a surprise to learn that Lincoln not only agreed with this form of mechanical determinism, but acquired quite a reputation in Illinois for arguing with everyone about the topic.  ÏThe human mind,Ó Lincoln wrote, Ïis impelled to action, or held in rest by some power, over which the mind itself has no control.Ó  Ironically, Lincoln cited the specific example of Brutus and Caesar, and said BrutusĖs decision to murder Caesar was simply the mechanical result of laws and conditions over which Brutus had no control.  Disbelieving as he did in free will, Lincoln consciously swore never to act out of revenge, deciding he would literally have Ïmalice toward none.Ó
        Clarence Darrow, of course, spoke against the idea of free will again and again, most famously and effectively at the trial of Leopold and Loeb.  Einstein was a determinist, bringing up the topic of free will with reporters in order to ridicule it.  Bertrand Russell, as usual, managed to present the matter clearly and be funny at the same time:
ÏWhen a man acts in ways that annoy us we wish to think him wicked, and we refuse to face the fact that his annoying behavior is the result of antecedent causes which, if you follow them long enough, will take you beyond the moment of his birth, and therefore to events for which he cannot be held responsible by any stretch of imagination.  When a motorcar fails to start,Ó Russell says, Ïwe do not attribute its annoying behavior to sin, we do not say, you are a wicked motorcar, and you shall not have any more gasoline until you go.Ó

          According to this traditional determinist view, then, the universe is nothing but a big pile of causes and effects, one mechanical result triggering the next.  If you add one even number to another, you know in advance the answer must be even Ō because every even number is a pile of twos added together, and, when you add together two piles of twos, you know you must get a bigger pile of twos.  In just the same way, the traditional determinist argued that, no matter how complicated the human brain was, it was assembled from causal building blocks, and so, in the end, it could be nothing but a big pile of causality, lacking in free will.
Then, with the advent of Heisenberg and the uncertainty principle, there was a shattering change in the philosophy of science.  It now appeared that the hard experimental evidence about subatomic particles could not be explained solely on the basis of mechanical causality.  It turned out that, in some ways, subatomic particles were like dice: you could predict, with great accuracy, what proportion of the time they would roll sevens, but you never knew, on any particular roll, whether they were going to come up sevens or not.
The arrival of HeisenbergĖs uncertainty principle and quantum mechanics represented the acquisition of fresh evidence requiring a new application of OccamĖs razor.  The universe was no longer just a pile of causality.  It was now a mixture of causality and blind chance.  Was there room now for free will?
Let us suppose, for example, that we build a robot pre-programmed to roll dice and fire a gun whenever the dice come up snake eyes.  Would we say such a robot had free will?  If our dice-rolling robot wound up shooting someone, and the police arrested the inventor, would it be a defense for the inventor to say, ÏI didnĖt know my robot would shoot anyone.  My robotĖs actions are unpredictable, the result of blind chance.  Therefore my robot has free will, and I certainly am not responsible for what my robot chooses to do.Ó  I canĖt believe that anyone would buy this for a moment.  No one would dream of holding the dice-rolling robot personally responsible for what it had done.  I think itĖs clear to all advocates of free will that they donĖt mean falling dominoes Ō that is, causality Ō and they donĖt mean rolling dice Ō that is, blind chance.  They mean something else Ō something that would somehow connect to ideas about personal merit and personal evil.  And they would certainly hold the inventor responsible for unleashing this dice-rolling robot upon the world.
So the real question boils down to this: can you build that something else Ō that third thing which is free will—out of a pile of falling dominoes mixed with a pile of rolling dice?  Remember, thatĖs all you have to work with.  Modern science acknowledges the reality of causality and chance, but nothing else.  Is that enough to allow for free will?  Assuming you canĖt build free will out of dominoes and dice, OccamĖs razor places the burden on the advocate of the reality of free will come up with evidence that requires us to add a third principle beyond dominoes and dice, a second revolution in physics on the scale of what Heisenberg brought about.  I can only assume that Spinoza and Hume and Mill and Lincoln and Twain and Darrow and Einstein all experienced having desires and making choices the same way you and I do.  But everything each of us experiences within his or her own mental operations can be explained as either dominoes or dice.  There is therefore no reason to clutter up our theory of the universe with talk of free will.
Each of us is free to do what we want.  But we are not free to want whatever we want.  We do, in fact, want certain things as a result of prior causes.  If we want to want something else, we have to move to new environments that will re-program us.  That is why some alcoholics, for example, get help from Alcoholics Anonymous.
Our minds are governed by the same laws of physics that governed the quasars thirteen billion years ago and will still govern the universe thirteen billion years from now.  Our glory is to be a part of this eternal and infinite universe, not something apart from and in contrast to the remainder of creation.  As Dr. Joe Chuman has put it, ÏOur sense of connectedness and participation in the fabric of natureÓ inspires us with feelings of wonder and awe.  The atoms that make up my brain were forged billions of years ago in the heart of an exploding star.  In strict obedience to the laws of physics, these atoms have journeyed across the light-years and across the eons.  In strict obedience to the laws of physics, these atoms are now giving you a lecture on free will.  But these atoms are no more free now than they were when the supernova went off five billion years ago.
          ItĖs time to accept and to welcome our membership in the universe.  No one has reached into the brainpan of this particular pitiful species of primate, orbiting a tiny star in the suburbs of an insignificant galaxy, and said, ÏThere!  I have inserted something that allows you to transcend all prior influences in a manner that is not merely random!  Congratulations!Ó
          Look to your left: for thirteen billion light-years, there are no exceptions to the laws of physics.  Look to your right: for thirteen billion light-years, there are no exceptions to the laws of physics.  And there are no exceptions to the laws of physics in our immediate neighborhood, either.
I would argue that any pile combining causality and blind chance can only be the equivalent of our dice-rolling robot, and that the application of the scientific worldview therefore casts doubt on the reality of free will.  Just as we should not make any serious decision based on the assumption that God exists, or the assumption that we live forever, so we should not make any serious decision on the assumption that people have free will.  The obvious and substantial emotional benefits of belief in free will should be junked in deference to the principle of the simplest hypothesis.  One last time, we have to choose between science and a comforting lie—this time, it is the lie of free will—and we must choose science, and forget about free will.
The Ethical Culture movement (fill in any humanist organization here) is rigorous in its application of OccamĖs razor to God and immortality, and then throws the razor away when itĖs time to confront the third and final dragon of free will.  This is absolutely self-contradictory.  If we are willing to apply OccamĖs razor to the attributes of God, we should be willing to apply it to our own attributes.  Any other approach smacks of favoritism.  Furthermore, as we have already noted, free will is part of a narrative involving God and souls.  If there is no God, passing out souls, how did we get our hands on free will?  Why is it that only people are alleged to have free will, and that no one feels the need to busy himself running around wreaking revenge on misbehaving tigers and polar bears?  Once we realize that God, immortality, and free will are all part of the same story, we can see that rejecting God and immortality, but holding onto free will, makes as much sense as understanding that Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia are fictional characters, but holding to a belief that there really was someone called Han Solo.
As Spinoza and Lincoln tried to teach us, when we discard free will, we are discarding hatred, anger, envy, malice, guilt, and anxiety.  So the next, and very practical question is this: Can you run a society without hatred, anger, envy, malice, guilt, and anxiety? 
Lincoln did.  He ran our society much better than the many presidents we have had since who have believed in free will, hatred, anger, envy, malice, guilt, and anxiety.  Indeed, in general, the pioneers of liberal democracy Ō Locke, Voltaire, Jefferson, John Stuart Mill, Lincoln, Darrow, in more recent history, Abe Fortas Ō are all people with conspicuous doubts about free will.
Many people think that, when you give up God, you have to give up ethics. God is a factual claim Ō an allegation about what is.  Ethics is a matter of what should be.  We can make our own ethical commitments without God telling us what they should be.  Indeed, if God should, in fact, appear and tell us what our ethical commitments should be, that wouldnĖt prove God was giving us the right advice.  Many religious people, of course, simply assume that what God says to do is the right thing to do, but, if you define ÏgoodÓ as simply whatever God says, then the difference between good and bad loses all ethical content.  Doing the right thing merely means doing what youĖre told. 
I assume we all agree that we can have ethics without being immortal.  We just have to decide that we wish to be good for its own sake, as opposed to being good because we wish to avoid hell.
In just the same way, ethics can exist without free will.  We can make ethical commitments even though we are not, in some ultimate sense, free to choose what those commitments will be.  In fact, we do make ethical commitments when and only when we are caused to make them.  To the extent that religion has any value at all, it is because it sometimes causes people to make ethical commitments.  And, by the same token, the reason why religion is so often dangerous is precisely because it so often causes people to make wrong ethical choices, such as punishing others for failing to follow GodĖs orders.
In just the same way that people can be caused by advertising to desire particular products, people are often caused by ethical indoctrination to believe in justice, equality, and kindness.  Once they have been so indoctrinated, they will often go out and practice justice, equality, and kindness, even in the face of howling mobs.  There is no conflict between disbelief in free will and belief in ethics.  Indeed, for hundreds of years, it has usually been the skeptics on free will who have provided moral leadership for our society and fomented the forces of social reform Ō people like Jefferson and Lincoln.  We can have ethics without free will as long as we are willing to wish to be good for its own sake, as opposed to being good because we hope to take personal credit for it.
An ethical nation that had discarded the idea of free will would cease to hold executions.  Execution is an act of revenge.  It goes beyond what is necessary to incapacitate the offender or deter other people.  We have an ethical duty to protect society from bad people, by locking them up.  We have no ethical duty to make people suffer simply because the doctrines of free will and retribution tell us that certain people deserve to suffer.
An ethical nation that had discarded the idea of free will could no longer blame crime on criminals.  It could no longer hide from itself its responsibility to provide all children with proper homes, food, medicine, schools, economic opportunity, and ethical training.  Its emphasis would be on preventing crime by justice, as opposed to revenging crime by cruelty.
We would start by giving all children a decent chance.  We would offer people rehabilitation programs for drug addiction, instead of filling our prisons with drug addicts.  We might be forced to lock up certain dangerous people, but we would do so under the most benevolent possible conditions Ō we wouldnĖt stuff people into hellholes that make them worse, as we do today.  And we would never execute people.
If we could just give up this idea of holding people responsible for what they do, we could, at long last, start to behave responsibly in what we do.
For the last hundred years, the evidence against free will has piled up higher and higher, as we have uncovered more and more about the physical structure and function of the brain.  Using positronic emissions or radioactive xenon, we can now map which individual areas of the brain process mathematics, assemble words, or access visual memory.  ItĖs becoming harder and harder to doubt that our minds are just physical processes.  Ironically, during the same period, in our country, the reality of free will has been questioned less and less. 

A hundred years ago, Mark TwainĖs What is Man? was published.  The reviewers of the time had no problem understanding that Twain was criticizing the idea of free will.  They just said that criticizing the idea of free will was not a new idea.  Today, when TwainĖs work is discussed, virtually no one mentions TwainĖs attack on free will.  What was once a clichŧ that everyone knew about has been transformed into a non-topic that no is allowed to know about.
        During the Leopold and Loeb trial in Chicago eighty years ago, the judge allowed Clarence Darrow to talk for four days about the fact that free will is an illusion.  In New Jersey today, it is against the law for a lawyer to make that argument in court.  You can argue that your client is insane, and therefore lacks free will, but youĖre not allowed to argue that no one has free will.  You canĖt even bring it up.  This is a violation of the constitutional rights of the citizens of New Jersey to free speech and representation by counsel.  ItĖs also an unconstitutional imposition of the religious dogma of free will upon the courts and defendants of New Jersey.  But no one questions it.
Fifty-five years ago, Daniel Boorstin, Librarian of Congress and winner of Bancroft, Parkman, and Pulitzer Prizes, published a book, The Lost World of Thomas Jefferson, discussing JeffersonĖs disbelief in free will.  Many people here studied Jefferson in high school and college, even graduate school.  Did any of your faculty mention this point?
Fifty years ago, the courts of the District of Columbia, on the advice of Abe Fortas, established a definition of criminal insanity that did not assume the reality of free will.  Later on, the courts threw out that definition and went back to a definition relying on the assumption of free will.
I went to law school at Columbia and Yale in the 1980Ės.  When I raised this issue, my law professors told me, ÏEveryone used to talk that way in the 60Ės.Ó  Obviously, no one talks that way anymore. 
We are now under the rule of a political party that calls itself the party of Lincoln.  Do you think that there is one person in the White House, or the Congress, or the Supreme Court who is familiar with LincolnĖs disbelief in free will?  As LaGuardia once put it, these so-called Republicans know less about Lincoln than Henry Ford knows about the Talmud.
Darwin agonized over introducing the idea of evolution, because he knew people would realize that Darwin was saying that people were animals, devoid of free will.  Nowadays, the latest polls show that only one out of four Americans still believes in evolution; and of those few who do believe in evolution, few realize, as Darwin did, that evolutionary theory casts doubt on free will.
George Orwell warned in 1984 that the ultimate way of controlling thought was to train people to realize they were about to think about a forbidden topic, and then stop themselves.  The forbidden topic was never to have a specific name Ō allowing it to have a specific name would prompt forbidden thoughts.  Anything off limits was simply to be swallowed up under the name, crimethink.  The thoughts I have been sharing with you today are crimethink.  They are thoughts that newspapers and magazines and historians have trained themselves to edit out of the record, or obscure under misleading terminology.  If you doubt this, try publishing an Op-Ed piece on the topic we have been discussing.  Try raising this topic at a law school.
  As Christian fundamentalism seizes increasing control of our society, it is harder and harder even to find a forum to raise this issue for intelligent discussion. 
Spinoza and Lincoln and Einstein were not the common victims of some logical fallacy that led them all astray.  They were people of uncommon courage and independence of mind.  They understood the importance of scientific analysis and were willing to stand by the outcome of a scientific analysis, even it led to uncomfortable results.  Their ideas have drifted in and out of fashion, but these ideas remain the most likely working hypothesis.  It is time for all of us to catch up to Spinoza and Lincoln and Einstein.  It is time for all of us to bear in mind that Spinoza and Lincoln and Einstein were not only skeptics concerning traditional notions of God, and not only skeptics concerning traditional notions of Heaven and Hell, but were also and for exactly the same reason skeptics concerning free will.
Around the cradle of the infant Hercules were found three snakes that had been strangled by the new-born baby.  Just like Hercules, if a genuinely clear-minded progressive humanism is ever to rise from its cradle and make its full contribution to world history, it must first find the strength to dispatch three snakes Ō God, immortality, and free will.

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Barry F. Seidman
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Posted: 13 March 2006 02:15 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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Progressive Humanism is not about Free Will

Free Will: The Last Great Lie
By Robert Gulack

There are three great comforting lies at the heart of the cruel and corrupt monstrosity we call “Western Civilization”, three all-important factual allegations that, like Santa Claus, are treasured not because there is scientific evidence for them, but because they offer an emotional cushion some are loathe to live without, the three lies that are the opiate to which nearly everyone is addicted. 

The three lies are: God, immortality, and free will.  They are joined together in a religious narrative, founded in medieval theological dogma, which remains the unquestioned basis of our American culture and our American system of law.  The narrative goes like this:  the universe is governed by an all-powerful benevolent spiritual entity, God, who implants a spiritual essence into people at some point following conception.  It is this spiritual essence, the soul, that gives people two unique gifts, gifts they did not get from evolution and do not share with any other animal or plant.  These two uniquely human spiritual God-given gifts are free will in this life and immortality in the next.  According to traditional religion, it is because we have souls that we can transcend the influences of genes and environment, and even triumph over death itself, as our souls fly back up to heaven.
It is as easy to see the appeal of this narrative as it is to spot the appeal of St. Nicholas.  If the universe is indeed governed by an omnipotent force for goodness, then we are not as frail and open to random acts of destruction as we might appear from a review of the morning paper.  We have a protector who, in some ultimate sense, cannot be defeated.  Our Dad is bigger than their dad.
If we are, indeed, immortal, the loved ones we appear to have lost are, in fact, not lost to us.  We shall meet them again, soon, and laugh about the tears we shed at their funerals.
If we, indeed, have free will, then we can take credit when we choose to do good, and feel a thrill of moral superiority when we contemplate those who have chosen to do bad.  Indeed, on those occasions when it is the obligation of we good people to punish those bad people, you will notice that genuinely evil people only appear in the third person: it is never “we evil people” or “you evil people” but always “those evil people”, on those occasions when, as I say, it is our obligation to visit upon “evil-doers” the suffering they deserve, we can unload our pent-up feelings of sadism and aggression in a socially-approved way, and we can enjoy an especially delicious sense of how much better we are than whoever it is whose turn it is that day to be executed or otherwise humiliated.  Good as it feels to do the right thing, it often feels even better to have the opportunity to look down on other people who are doing the wrong thing.
So there is no problem understanding why these three lies, God, immortality, and free will—have stayed in fashion for centuries.  Just like Santa Claus, they make the world appear warm and benevolent and comfy.
In the face of the obvious appeal of this narrative, why has anyone rejected it?  Why is it that all progressive thinkers from the Renaissance onward, have turned their backs on at least some of these comforting lies?
The story goes that Napoleon asked the great scientist Laplace to explain why Laplace had not mentioned God in Laplace’s book on astronomy.  “Sire,” Laplace replied, “I had no need of that hypothesis.”  There it is, in a nutshell, the scientific outlook.  If you can get by without bringing in an additional factual hypothesis, leave it out.  Don’t make your theory any more cluttered and complicated than it has to be.

This principle of simplicity is often referred to as Occam’s razor.  It was invented by William of Occam, a Franciscan monk who lived eight centuries ago.  It’s called the Razor because it cuts out anything you don’t need.  (William of Occam, by the way, was the basis of the character played by Sean Connery in the movie The Name of the Rose, so some of you may have already met William of Occam without realizing it.)  We use Occam’s razor, usually without consciously considering the matter, whenever we don’t know what’s going on and genuinely want to make the best possible guess.  No one objects to using Occam’s razor, the principle of leaving out anything you don’t need—to do physics or biology or to figure out who robbed a particular bank.  There are three, and only three, factual issues concerning which the use of Occam’s razor is controversial.  In all three cases, Occam’s razor is refusing to give us the answer we want. 
What are the three cases?  Our old friends: God, immortality, and free will.  Those are the three things most people genuinely want to believe in, but for which there is no evidence.  People who use the scientific approach with regard to every other factual question will often become emotional on these three topics.  They become emotional because they have no evidence, and do not wish to admit it.  They may have given up Santa Claus; they may have given up the Virgin Birth of Jesus; they may have given up on transubstantiation.  But they don’t want to lose the Big Three.  They don’t want to lose their divine Protector, their chance of happiness in Heaven, and their view of themselves as creatures who freely choose their own actions.
Yet, in principle, the right way to handle the questions of God, immortality, and free will is precisely the same way we should handle figuring out who robbed the bank, or which of the kids made that mess in the playroom.  We should start by assembling all currently available evidence, and then try to come up with the simplest possible working hypothesis that explains the evidence we have.  Tomorrow, we may get our hands on the videotape from the security camera in the bank, and we may then change our minds about who robbed the bank.  Tomorrow, one of the kids may come forward and admit what really happened to the fish tank.  But we do the best we can at any given moment, with the evidence we have at that moment, and the way to do our best is to apply Occam’s razor.
And this is precisely what Laplace, Darwin, and others have all done with the factual allegation that there is a God.  You go through all the evidence, and scientific breakthroughs such as evolutionary theory allow you to explain what you see without bringing in a brand-new class of spiritual entities.  At that point, if you are a scientific thinker, you start leaning to atheism.  Certainly, a scientific skeptic will no longer make important decisions on the assumption that there is a God.  If you hear a voice ordering you to kill your son, for example, you might decide it’s time to get some therapy.  The very substantial emotional benefits of monotheism are junked in deference to the rule of the simplest hypothesis.  We have to choose between science and the comforting lie of God, and we have chosen science.
This is also how progressive thinkers handle the factual allegation of immortality.  Many people claim to have seen ghosts, or to have had near-death or out-of-body experiences, but, so far, it appears they’ve been mistaken.  So far, the simplest hypothesis is that we die when our bodies die.  Certainly, it would be foolish, at this point, to make any important decision on the assumption that we are immortal.  If someone hands you a jacket stuffed with dynamite, for example, and promises you immortality with seventy virgins, it might be a good idea to say no.  Once again, the very substantial emotional benefits of belief in immortality are junked in deference to the rule of the simplest hypothesis.  Once again, we have to choose between science and the comforting lie of the afterlife, and we have chosen science.
So far, so good.
And now to the business at hand.  Free will.  Just what do we mean by free will, and what evidence is there that we have it?
Let’s start by being clear about what free will isn’t.  We don’t think that earthquakes are the result of free will, no matter how unpredictable earthquakes are, because earthquakes are so obviously the result of a chain of physical causes and effects, blindly obeying the law of physics.  If it turns out that the strength of the various desires we have, and the choices we make as a result of those desires, are all merely physical events, chains of causes and effects, the result of natural law, that would not be free will.  If our minds are merely brains containing electrochemical signals buzzing mechanically back and forth, and that’s certainly how our brains appear to a neuroscientist, then we don’t have free will.  Our brains are simply computers built by genes and programmed by our experience of our environment from conception onwards.  Our brains are constructed of synapses that each absorb a pre-set level of input and then release a signal.  They have no more free will than a Game Cube.  We have desires because those desires have been brought into existence by mechanical causes.  We may have a general desire for food because of evolutionary hard-wiring, for example, and a specific desire for pasta because of a TV commercial we saw a moment ago.
Until the last century, Western scientists assumed that the whole universe was a matter of cause-and-effect, rattling down from the beginning of time to the end of time.  Everything ticked away under the unchanging laws of physics in a manner that was wholly determined and, in principle, predictable.  If there were certain things we could not predict, the weather, say, or criminal conduct, that was not because there could not be a science of weather or a science of criminal conduct.  It was just because the human race hadn’t yet mastered those particular sciences.  Within that worldview, which is called the determinist worldview, there was no room for free will, and many progressive thinkers began to have doubts about the free will hypothesis.
“The mind is determined to this or that choice by a cause which is also determined by another cause, and this again by another, and so on ad infinitum,” Spinoza wrote.  “This doctrine teaches us to hate no one, to despise no one, to mock no one, to be angry with no one, and to envy no one.”  Let’s suppose some unpleasant person accosts you and starts talking about your mother.  Instead of letting yourself get riled up, Spinoza would advise you to remind yourself that the person who is bothering you has no more free will than, say, a hurricane.
This was also the doctrine of David Hume and of John Stuart Mill.  It is the view expressed in Mark Twain’s What is Man?, where Twain writes, “We are mere machines.  And machines may not boast, nor feel proud of their performance, nor claim personal merit for it.”  It may come as a surprise to learn that Lincoln not only agreed with this form of mechanical determinism, but acquired quite a reputation in Illinois for arguing with everyone about the topic.  “The human mind,” Lincoln wrote, “is impelled to action, or held in rest by some power, over which the mind itself has no control.”  Ironically, Lincoln cited the specific example of Brutus and Caesar, and said Brutus’s decision to murder Caesar was simply the mechanical result of laws and conditions over which Brutus had no control.  Disbelieving as he did in free will, Lincoln consciously swore never to act out of revenge, deciding he would literally have “malice toward none.”
        Clarence Darrow, of course, spoke against the idea of free will again and again, most famously and effectively at the trial of Leopold and Loeb.  Einstein was a determinist, bringing up the topic of free will with reporters in order to ridicule it.  Bertrand Russell, as usual, managed to present the matter clearly and be funny at the same time:
“When a man acts in ways that annoy us we wish to think him wicked, and we refuse to face the fact that his annoying behavior is the result of antecedent causes which, if you follow them long enough, will take you beyond the moment of his birth, and therefore to events for which he cannot be held responsible by any stretch of imagination.  When a motorcar fails to start,” Russell says, “we do not attribute its annoying behavior to sin, we do not say, you are a wicked motorcar, and you shall not have any more gasoline until you go.”

          According to this traditional determinist view, then, the universe is nothing but a big pile of causes and effects, one mechanical result triggering the next.  If you add one even number to another, you know in advance the answer must be even, because every even number is a pile of twos added together, and, when you add together two piles of twos, you know you must get a bigger pile of twos.  In just the same way, the traditional determinist argued that, no matter how complicated the human brain was, it was assembled from causal building blocks, and so, in the end, it could be nothing but a big pile of causality, lacking in free will.
Then, with the advent of Heisenberg and the uncertainty principle, there was a shattering change in the philosophy of science.  It now appeared that the hard experimental evidence about subatomic particles could not be explained solely on the basis of mechanical causality.  It turned out that, in some ways, subatomic particles were like dice: you could predict, with great accuracy, what proportion of the time they would roll sevens, but you never knew, on any particular roll, whether they were going to come up sevens or not.
The arrival of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle and quantum mechanics represented the acquisition of fresh evidence requiring a new application of Occam’s razor.  The universe was no longer just a pile of causality.  It was now a mixture of causality and blind chance.  Was there room now for free will?
Let us suppose, for example, that we build a robot pre-programmed to roll dice and fire a gun whenever the dice come up snake eyes.  Would we say such a robot had free will?  If our dice-rolling robot wound up shooting someone, and the police arrested the inventor, would it be a defense for the inventor to say, “I didn’t know my robot would shoot anyone.  My robot’s actions are unpredictable, the result of blind chance.  Therefore my robot has free will, and I certainly am not responsible for what my robot chooses to do.”  I can’t believe that anyone would buy this for a moment.  No one would dream of holding the dice-rolling robot personally responsible for what it had done.  I think it’s clear to all advocates of free will that they don’t mean falling dominoes, that is, causality, and they don’t mean rolling dice, that is, blind chance.  They mean something else, something that would somehow connect to ideas about personal merit and personal evil.  And they would certainly hold the inventor responsible for unleashing this dice-rolling robot upon the world.
So the real question boils down to this: can you build that something else, that third thing which is free will—out of a pile of falling dominoes mixed with a pile of rolling dice?  Remember, that’s all you have to work with.  Modern science acknowledges the reality of causality and chance, but nothing else.  Is that enough to allow for free will?  Assuming you can’t build free will out of dominoes and dice, Occam’s razor places the burden on the advocate of the reality of free will come up with evidence that requires us to add a third principle beyond dominoes and dice, a second revolution in physics on the scale of what Heisenberg brought about.  I can only assume that Spinoza and Hume and Mill and Lincoln and Twain and Darrow and Einstein all experienced having desires and making choices the same way you and I do.  But everything each of us experiences within his or her own mental operations can be explained as either dominoes or dice.  There is therefore no reason to clutter up our theory of the universe with talk of free will.
Each of us is free to do what we want.  But we are not free to want whatever we want.  We do, in fact, want certain things as a result of prior causes.  If we want to want something else, we have to move to new environments that will re-program us.  That is why some alcoholics, for example, get help from Alcoholics Anonymous.
Our minds are governed by the same laws of physics that governed the quasars thirteen billion years ago and will still govern the universe thirteen billion years from now.  Our glory is to be a part of this eternal and infinite universe, not something apart from and in contrast to the remainder of creation.  As Dr. Joe Chuman has put it, “Our sense of connectedness and participation in the fabric of nature” inspires us with feelings of wonder and awe.  The atoms that make up my brain were forged billions of years ago in the heart of an exploding star.  In strict obedience to the laws of physics, these atoms have journeyed across the light-years and across the eons.  In strict obedience to the laws of physics, these atoms are now giving you a lecture on free will.  But these atoms are no more free now than they were when the supernova went off five billion years ago.
          It’s time to accept and to welcome our membership in the universe.  No one has reached into the brainpan of this particular pitiful species of primate, orbiting a tiny star in the suburbs of an insignificant galaxy, and said, “There!  I have inserted something that allows you to transcend all prior influences in a manner that is not merely random!  Congratulations!”
          Look to your left: for thirteen billion light-years, there are no exceptions to the laws of physics.  Look to your right: for thirteen billion light-years, there are no exceptions to the laws of physics.  And there are no exceptions to the laws of physics in our immediate neighborhood, either.
I would argue that any pile combining causality and blind chance can only be the equivalent of our dice-rolling robot, and that the application of the scientific worldview therefore casts doubt on the reality of free will.  Just as we should not make any serious decision based on the assumption that God exists, or the assumption that we live forever, so we should not make any serious decision on the assumption that people have free will.  The obvious and substantial emotional benefits of belief in free will should be junked in deference to the principle of the simplest hypothesis.  One last time, we have to choose between science and a comforting lie—this time, it is the lie of free will—and we must choose science, and forget about free will.
The Ethical Culture movement (fill in any humanist organization here) is rigorous in its application of Occam’s razor to God and immortality, and then throws the razor away when it’s time to confront the third and final dragon of free will.  This is absolutely self-contradictory.  If we are willing to apply Occam’s razor to the attributes of God, we should be willing to apply it to our own attributes.  Any other approach smacks of favoritism.  Furthermore, as we have already noted, free will is part of a narrative involving God and souls.  If there is no God, passing out souls, how did we get our hands on free will?  Why is it that only people are alleged to have free will, and that no one feels the need to busy himself running around wreaking revenge on misbehaving tigers and polar bears?  Once we realize that God, immortality, and free will are all part of the same story, we can see that rejecting God and immortality, but holding onto free will, makes as much sense as understanding that Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia are fictional characters, but holding to a belief that there really was someone called Han Solo.
As Spinoza and Lincoln tried to teach us, when we discard free will, we are discarding hatred, anger, envy, malice, guilt, and anxiety.  So the next, and very practical question is this: Can you run a society without hatred, anger, envy, malice, guilt, and anxiety? 
Lincoln did.  He ran our society much better than the many presidents we have had since who have believed in free will, hatred, anger, envy, malice, guilt, and anxiety.  Indeed, in general, the pioneers of liberal democracy, Locke, Voltaire, Jefferson, John Stuart Mill, Lincoln, Darrow, in more recent history, Abe Fortas, are all people with conspicuous doubts about free will.
Many people think that, when you give up God, you have to give up ethics. God is a factual claim, an allegation about what is.  Ethics is a matter of what should be.  We can make our own ethical commitments without God telling us what they should be.  Indeed, if God should, in fact, appear and tell us what our ethical commitments should be, that wouldn’t prove God was giving us the right advice.  Many religious people, of course, simply assume that what God says to do is the right thing to do, but, if you define “good” as simply whatever God says, then the difference between good and bad loses all ethical content.  Doing the right thing merely means doing what you’re told. 
I assume we all agree that we can have ethics without being immortal.  We just have to decide that we wish to be good for its own sake, as opposed to being good because we wish to avoid hell.
In just the same way, ethics can exist without free will.  We can make ethical commitments even though we are not, in some ultimate sense, free to choose what those commitments will be.  In fact, we do make ethical commitments when and only when we are caused to make them.  To the extent that religion has any value at all, it is because it sometimes causes people to make ethical commitments.  And, by the same token, the reason why religion is so often dangerous is precisely because it so often causes people to make wrong ethical choices, such as punishing others for failing to follow God’s orders.
In just the same way that people can be caused by advertising to desire particular products, people are often caused by ethical indoctrination to believe in justice, equality, and kindness.  Once they have been so indoctrinated, they will often go out and practice justice, equality, and kindness, even in the face of howling mobs.  There is no conflict between disbelief in free will and belief in ethics.  Indeed, for hundreds of years, it has usually been the skeptics on free will who have provided moral leadership for our society and fomented the forces of social reform, people like Jefferson and Lincoln.  We can have ethics without free will as long as we are willing to wish to be good for its own sake, as opposed to being good because we hope to take personal credit for it.
An ethical nation that had discarded the idea of free will would cease to hold executions.  Execution is an act of revenge.  It goes beyond what is necessary to incapacitate the offender or deter other people.  We have an ethical duty to protect society from bad people, by locking them up.  We have no ethical duty to make people suffer simply because the doctrines of free will and retribution tell us that certain people deserve to suffer.
An ethical nation that had discarded the idea of free will could no longer blame crime on criminals.  It could no longer hide from itself its responsibility to provide all children with proper homes, food, medicine, schools, economic opportunity, and ethical training.  Its emphasis would be on preventing crime by justice, as opposed to revenging crime by cruelty.
We would start by giving all children a decent chance.  We would offer people rehabilitation programs for drug addiction, instead of filling our prisons with drug addicts.  We might be forced to lock up certain dangerous people, but we would do so under the most benevolent possible conditions, we wouldn’t stuff people into hellholes that make them worse, as we do today.  And we would never execute people.
If we could just give up this idea of holding people responsible for what they do, we could, at long last, start to behave responsibly in what we do.
For the last hundred years, the evidence against free will has piled up higher and higher, as we have uncovered more and more about the physical structure and function of the brain.  Using positronic emissions or radioactive xenon, we can now map which individual areas of the brain process mathematics, assemble words, or access visual memory.  It’s becoming harder and harder to doubt that our minds are just physical processes.  Ironically, during the same period, in our country, the reality of free will has been questioned less and less. 

A hundred years ago, Mark Twain’s What is Man? was published.  The reviewers of the time had no problem understanding that Twain was criticizing the idea of free will.  They just said that criticizing the idea of free will was not a new idea.  Today, when Twain’s work is discussed, virtually no one mentions Twain’s attack on free will.  What was once a clichŧ that everyone knew about has been transformed into a non-topic that no is allowed to know about.
        During the Leopold and Loeb trial in Chicago eighty years ago, the judge allowed Clarence Darrow to talk for four days about the fact that free will is an illusion.  In New Jersey today, it is against the law for a lawyer to make that argument in court.  You can argue that your client is insane, and therefore lacks free will, but you’re not allowed to argue that no one has free will.  You can’t even bring it up.  This is a violation of the constitutional rights of the citizens of New Jersey to free speech and representation by counsel.  It’s also an unconstitutional imposition of the religious dogma of free will upon the courts and defendants of New Jersey.  But no one questions it.
Fifty-five years ago, Daniel Boorstin, Librarian of Congress and winner of Bancroft, Parkman, and Pulitzer Prizes, published a book, The Lost World of Thomas Jefferson, discussing Jefferson’s disbelief in free will.  Many people here studied Jefferson in high school and college, even graduate school.  Did any of your faculty mention this point?
Fifty years ago, the courts of the District of Columbia, on the advice of Abe Fortas, established a definition of criminal insanity that did not assume the reality of free will.  Later on, the courts threw out that definition and went back to a definition relying on the assumption of free will.
I went to law school at Columbia and Yale in the 1980’s.  When I raised this issue, my law professors told me, “Everyone used to talk that way in the 60’s.”  Obviously, no one talks that way anymore. 
We are now under the rule of a political party that calls itself the party of Lincoln.  Do you think that there is one person in the White House, or the Congress, or the Supreme Court who is familiar with Lincoln’s disbelief in free will?  As LaGuardia once put it, these so-called Republicans know less about Lincoln than Henry Ford knows about the Talmud.
Darwin agonized over introducing the idea of evolution, because he knew people would realize that Darwin was saying that people were animals, devoid of free will.  Nowadays, the latest polls show that only one out of four Americans still believes in evolution; and of those few who do believe in evolution, few realize, as Darwin did, that evolutionary theory casts doubt on free will.
George Orwell warned in 1984 that the ultimate way of controlling thought was to train people to realize they were about to think about a forbidden topic, and then stop themselves.  The forbidden topic was never to have a specific name, allowing it to have a specific name would prompt forbidden thoughts.  Anything off limits was simply to be swallowed up under the name, crimethink.  The thoughts I have been sharing with you today are crimethink.  They are thoughts that newspapers and magazines and historians have trained themselves to edit out of the record, or obscure under misleading terminology.  If you doubt this, try publishing an Op-Ed piece on the topic we have been discussing.  Try raising this topic at a law school.
  As Christian fundamentalism seizes increasing control of our society, it is harder and harder even to find a forum to raise this issue for intelligent discussion. 
Spinoza and Lincoln and Einstein were not the common victims of some logical fallacy that led them all astray.  They were people of uncommon courage and independence of mind.  They understood the importance of scientific analysis and were willing to stand by the outcome of a scientific analysis, even it led to uncomfortable results.  Their ideas have drifted in and out of fashion, but these ideas remain the most likely working hypothesis.  It is time for all of us to catch up to Spinoza and Lincoln and Einstein.  It is time for all of us to bear in mind that Spinoza and Lincoln and Einstein were not only skeptics concerning traditional notions of God, and not only skeptics concerning traditional notions of Heaven and Hell, but were also and for exactly the same reason skeptics concerning free will.
Around the cradle of the infant Hercules were found three snakes that had been strangled by the new-born baby.  Just like Hercules, if a genuinely clear-minded progressive humanism is ever to rise from its cradle and make its full contribution to world history, it must first find the strength to dispatch three snakes, God, immortality, and free will.

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Posted: 24 March 2006 03:05 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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*interesting*  :cry:  That what happaned to my eyes while reading that. Though worth it. :D

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Fighting the evil belief that there is a god(s).

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Posted: 27 March 2006 02:39 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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I’m not sure I agree with his definition of free will.  Granted that our minds are a big conglomeration of causes and effects, and granted that even our personalities are built up of memes that have warred with one another within our brains ever since we were born, I think the amalgam of all that still amounts to what I would call “free will”.

If not—if we think of the decisions we make as just “pile of falling dominoes mixed with a pile of rolling dice”, we might as well just sit back and enjoy the ride, since there’s nothing we can do about it.

Again, I think the only problem here is what we call “free will”.

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Posted: 07 April 2006 04:02 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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More on free will

[quote author=“advocatus”]I’m not sure I agree with his definition of free will.  Granted that our minds are a big conglomeration of causes and effects, and granted that even our personalities are built up of memes that have warred with one another within our brains ever since we were born, I think the amalgam of all that still amounts to what I would call “free will”.

If not—if we think of the decisions we make as just “pile of falling dominoes mixed with a pile of rolling dice”, we might as well just sit back and enjoy the ride, since there’s nothing we can do about it.

Again, I think the only problem here is what we call “free will”.


Dear Advocatus:

Thank you for reading my essay so attentively.  I would like to respond to your thoughts.

First, even the widely-postulated war of the “memes” would be yet another example of cause and effect, unless the outcome of this meme war is dictated by quantum randomness, in which case we’re back in “rolling dice” territory.

Second, just as a computer has to go through its work in order to generate an answer, so we have to go through our work of conscious and unconscious mental processing before we arrive at our decisions, even though our decisions are probably as causally determined as a computer’s.  That’s why there’s no sitting back and enjoying the ride.

All the best,

Bob Gulack

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Posted: 07 April 2006 05:19 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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Thanks for this essay, Mr. Gulack.  I found it compelling, detailed, and very thought-provoking. 

I can’t help but think back on all the times I’ve tried to raise many of the same arguments and failed to convince anyone, simply because it’s just not a comforting thought to many people.  As I read your essay, I continually thought of how many people I wanted to show this to, and how many people I thought could benefit from this analysis, but sadly, I can’t say that any of them would bother. 

Like you said, I believe most stop thinking about this issue far before they begin to scratch the surface, and that goes for most philosophical and political issues, as well. 

I especially liked the “Occum’s razor” idea of the simplest, rational hypothesis based on available data and evidence.  This has always been compelling to me as a reason to favor a “no God, no afterlife” outlook over a religious one.  Assuming a God or an afterlife would be much more incongruent with the evidence we have than an atheistic wordview, I think.

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Posted: 10 April 2006 03:20 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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I understand exactly what you’re saying.

One of the old philosophers used this illustration.  Imagine a goat tethered an exactly equal distance from two exactly equally attractive buckets of food.  If the goat were a biological mechanaton, there should be no way for it to make a decision which way to turn, and therefore it should stand there and starve to death.  The fact that it doesn’t tells us that even a goat has free will.  It has some mechanism for arbitrarily judging between two exactly equally attractive options, even if it is just flipping a coin inside its head.

The fact is, even though we are all essentially androids (like Data on Star Trek), and all our thought processes are basically biologically-determined algorithms and sub-routines, living things have the capacity to continuously update and rewrite their algorithms in response to stimuli.  I think that is what I would call Free Will.

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Posted: 10 April 2006 03:43 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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[quote author=“advocatus”]One of the old philosophers used this illustration.  Imagine a goat tethered an exactly equal distance from two exactly equally attractive buckets of food.  If the goat were a biological mechanaton, there should be no way for it to make a decision which way to turn, and therefore it should stand there and starve to death.  The fact that it doesn’t tells us that even a goat has free will.  It has some mechanism for arbitrarily judging between two exactly equally attractive options, even if it is just flipping a coin inside its head.

This is named for the Medieval philosopher Buridan and is called “Buridan’s Ass” ...

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buridan’s_ass (you have to input the whole URL; the HTML is a bit screwed up here)

... since it’s a donkey between two bales of hay ... although according to Wikipedia the example originated with Aristotle. (Who knew?)

I don’t think it is a good example of free will at all though ... all it shows is that we can make decisions for non-rational or irrational reasons. The point is that rationally the donkey won’t be able to decide between the two bales, since he’s equidistant. He needs some non-rational trigger. But why think that non-rational trigger is the essence of free will?

Is the donkey not just as free when, confronted with a single bale of hay, he opts to walk towards it for rational reasons? If rational acts are just as free, then the example of Buridan’s Ass is simply irrelevant to the issue of free will ...

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Posted: 10 April 2006 11:15 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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That poor donkey and the free will issue

[quote author=“advocatus”]I understand exactly what you’re saying.

One of the old philosophers used this illustration.  Imagine a goat tethered an exactly equal distance from two exactly equally attractive buckets of food.  If the goat were a biological mechanaton, there should be no way for it to make a decision which way to turn, and therefore it should stand there and starve to death.  The fact that it doesn’t tells us that even a goat has free will.  It has some mechanism for arbitrarily judging between two exactly equally attractive options, even if it is just flipping a coin inside its head.

The fact is, even though we are all essentially androids (like Data on Star Trek), and all our thought processes are basically biologically-determined algorithms and sub-routines, living things have the capacity to continuously update and rewrite their algorithms in response to stimuli.  I think that is what I would call Free Will.


First, I doubt that any two options maintain PERFECTLY equal attractiveness long enough for survival to to require a built-in coin-toss mechanism.

Second, even if evolution HAS selected for a built-in coin-toss, it would be misleading to call that “free.”  The proper term would be “random.”  It would be just like the dice-rolling robot I talk about in my essay (see above).

Third, Spinoza deals with precisely this objection in his ETHICS, and makes the very telling point that we all know lots of people who dither and dither and dither long after it would be better for them to make a decision—even the “wrong” decision.  The very fact that we all know such ditherers reinforces the fact that we all know (for all practical purposes) that we ARE simply mechanisms responding to causal inputs, and therefore sometimes get hung up, just like the poor donkey.

BOB GULACK

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Posted: 13 April 2006 01:43 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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*interesting*

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Posted: 14 April 2006 03:08 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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Re: That poor donkey and the free will issue

[quote author=“Robert Gulack”]First, I doubt that any two options maintain PERFECTLY equal attractiveness long enough for survival to to require a built-in coin-toss mechanism.

That’s just it.  The goat in my example is being presented with a situation he has never seen before, that natural selection has never had to equip him to deal with, and therefore he has no inbuilt system for responding to it.  His mind has to invent one.

Dice-rolling robots to the contrary, our minds are a mish-mash of logarithms and subroutines, all battling it out for supremacy, and that is what makes each one of us a unique individual.  The sum total of that process is what I’m calling “will”, whether it’s absolutely “free” in the fullest philosophical sense of the word or not.

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Posted: 14 April 2006 03:09 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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[quote author=“theatheistheretic”]*interesting*

Oh, you can do better than that, Agent Aytch!  Give us your opinion, you spineless invertebrate!  smile

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Posted: 14 April 2006 06:47 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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Re: That poor donkey and the free will issue

[quote author=“advocatus”][quote author=“Robert Gulack”]First, I doubt that any two options maintain PERFECTLY equal attractiveness long enough for survival to to require a built-in coin-toss mechanism.

That’s just it.  The goat in my example is being presented with a situation he has never seen before, that natural selection has never had to equip him to deal with, and therefore he has no inbuilt system for responding to it.  His mind has to invent one.

Dice-rolling robots to the contrary, our minds are a mish-mash of logarithms and subroutines, all battling it out for supremacy, and that is what makes each one of us a unique individual.  The sum total of that process is what I’m calling “will”, whether it’s absolutely “free” in the fullest philosophical sense of the word or not.

Dear Advocatus:

I am not aware of any evidence that our minds have a built-in capacity to invent new processing approaches whenever that’s needed.  I can’t help but notice many people around me, such as President Bush, who appear to have no such capacity whatsoever.  I’m not saying we don’t have something like this, but I am saying that you can’t simply assume it.  A few people appear to have originality in droves (Edison, Einstein); many people appear to have none.

I certainly have no objection to calling “the sum total” of our mental processes our “will.”  We certainly do have mental processes, and they certainly do leave us with desires and intentions.  What’s important to realize is that this “will” of ours is almost certainly the result of prior genetic and environmental inputs, and none of us personally deserves special rewards or punishments because of what our “will” has been caused to be.  (It may be necessary to impose exemplary punishments on some of us, but that would be based on the desire to profit by deterrence,  not based on what we each “deserve”.)

There is another important argument against free will, which I raise in my lecture “The Land of Now, or, How Time Goes By” at the ethicalfocus.org website.  This argument is based on Einstein’s understanding of time in the Special Theory of Relativity.  Most Americans would assert that we all share a unique “present” moment—a radically different place than either the past or future, in which our free will chooses from among potential futures.  Einstein says that past, present, and future are all indistinguishable parts of a single space-time continuum.  There is only one future ahead of all of us, and it is as fixed and determined as any aspect of what we call the “past.”  Indeed, Einstein points out that, within each frame of reference, each observer has a present moment that contains a list of “present” events that is not the same list as that belonging to an observer in a different frame of reference.  The lists may overlap without being identical.  There is no one present moment we all share, as Newton believed.  (Read Columbia physicist Brian Greene’s THE FABRIC OF THE COSMOS to get the details on this from an authoritative source.)

Of course, any argument based on Einstein is also fundamentally an Occam’s razor argument.  The challenge is simply this: if one wishes to assert the reality of free will, and NOT believe in Special Relativity, then one has the burden of coming up with a different explanation than Einstein’s as to why the stars shine and nuclear weapons work.  (Good luck.)

Advocates of free will should also be prepared to discuss how free will arose in the course of evolution, why it was selected for and spread throughout the human race, and how it is that human DNA (a very causal agent) creates the non-causal process of free will.  (Good luck.)

Until all these questions are answered, the free will theory will remain high ly doubtful, and should not be relied upon as the basis for important moral decisions, such as imposing the death penalty.

All the best, BOB GULACK

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Posted: 17 April 2006 03:57 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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Re: That poor donkey and the free will issue

[quote author=“Robert Gulack”]
I certainly have no objection to calling “the sum total” of our mental processes our “will.”  We certainly do have mental processes, and they certainly do leave us with desires and intentions.  What’s important to realize is that this “will” of ours is almost certainly the result of prior genetic and environmental inputs, and none of us personally deserves special rewards or punishments because of what our “will” has been caused to be.

I think I’m completely missing the point, then.  So what if our free will is the result of natural processes?  Does that make it less free?

Advocates of free will should also be prepared to discuss how free will arose in the course of evolution, why it was selected for and spread throughout the human race, and how it is that human DNA (a very causal agent) creates the non-causal process of free will.

Huh?  It sounds like you’re just defining “free will” as a “non-causal agent”.  Try to imagine a supernatural creature who actually does have this “free will” as you imagine it.  How would such a creature be different from us?  It seems to me that you’re saying that “free will” is simply not possible in any way, shape or form, in which case in essence we’re just arguing about what we call our demonstrated ability to have “desires and intentions”.  Is that it?

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Posted: 17 April 2006 04:36 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
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Re: That poor donkey and the free will issue

[quote author=“advocatus”][quote author=“Robert Gulack”]
I certainly have no objection to calling “the sum total” of our mental processes our “will.”  We certainly do have mental processes, and they certainly do leave us with desires and intentions.  What’s important to realize is that this “will” of ours is almost certainly the result of prior genetic and environmental inputs, and none of us personally deserves special rewards or punishments because of what our “will” has been caused to be.

I think I’m completely missing the point, then.  So what if our free will is the result of natural processes?  Does that make it less free?

Advocates of free will should also be prepared to discuss how free will arose in the course of evolution, why it was selected for and spread throughout the human race, and how it is that human DNA (a very causal agent) creates the non-causal process of free will.

Huh?  It sounds like you’re just defining “free will” as a “non-causal agent”.  Try to imagine a supernatural creature who actually does have this “free will” as you imagine it.  How would such a creature be different from us?  It seems to me that you’re saying that “free will” is simply not possible in any way, shape or form, in which case in essence we’re just arguing about what we call our demonstrated ability to have “desires and intentions”.  Is that it?

Dear Advocatus:

The point here is that the vast majority of Americans believe that human beings possess the power to make choices in a manner that results in a situation where the choosers sometimes personally “deserve” praise or “deserve” blame.  I argue that, for this to be true, the process of choice cannot be purely mechanical and causal, for then we would no more personally deserve praise than a really good automobile can be said to deserve praise.  I argue, too, that, for this to be true, the process of choice cannot be merely random, for then we would no more personally deserve praise than a pair of dice can deserve praise.

I therefore conclude that most Americans believe in a third kind of relationship between events in space-time—a relationship that is NOT causal and NOT random, and not some mix of the two.  This is the thing that people must be referring to when they speak of “free will.”  I then point out that there is no evidence that this third thing exists, and no explanation as to how this third thing arose and maintained itself in evolutionary history.  Finally, I point out that this third thing appears inconsistent with Einstein’s view of time.

Why bother to go through this whole analysis?  To show that our ordinary account of “deserved punishment” is based on a very doubtful factual assumption, and thus to show that no punishment ought to be imposed solely on the basis that it is “deserved.”  Among other things, I believe this would lead us to abandon capital punishment, and to place greater emphasis on economic justice in our own country, and around the world.

I base my argument not on authority, but on Occam’s razor.  Nevertheless, it remains a well-established but little known fact that the following people were, like me, skeptics regarding free will:

SPINOZA
JOHN LOCKE
VOLTAIRE
DAVID HUME
THOMAS JEFFERSON
ABRAHAM LINCOLN
MARK TWAIN
CLARENCE DARROW
JOHN STUART MILL
BERTRAND RUSSELL
ALBERT EINSTEIN

All the best,
BOB GULACK

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Posted: 17 April 2006 06:10 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
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Re: That poor donkey and the free will issue

Robert Gulak wrote,
“Dear Advocatus
The point here is that the vast majority of Americans believe that human beings possess the power to make choices in a manner that results in a situation where the choosers sometimes personally “deserve” praise or “deserve” blame.  I argue that, for this to be true, the process of choice cannot be purely mechanical and causal, for then we would no more personally deserve praise than a really good automobile can be said to deserve praise.  I argue, too, that, for this to be true, the process of choice cannot be merely random, for then we would no more personally deserve praise than a pair of dice can deserve praise.

I therefore conclude that most Americans believe in a third kind of relationship between events in space-time—a relationship that is NOT causal and NOT random, and not some mix of the two.  This is the thing that people must be referring to when they speak of “free will.”  I then point out that there is no evidence that this third thing exists, and no explanation as to how this third thing arose and maintained itself in evolutionary history.  Finally, I point out that this third thing appears inconsistent with Einstein’s view of time.

Why bother to go through this whole analysis?  To show that our ordinary account of “deserved punishment” is based on a very doubtful factual assumption, and thus to show that no punishment ought to be imposed solely on the basis that it is “deserved.”  Among other things, I believe this would lead us to abandon capital punishment, and to place greater emphasis on economic justice in our own country, and around the world.

I base my argument not on authority, but on Occam’s razor.  Nevertheless, it remains a well-established but little known fact that the following people were, like me, skeptics regarding free will

SPINOZA
JOHN LOCKE
VOLTAIRE
DAVID HUME
THOMAS JEFFERSON
ABRAHAM LINCOLN
MARK TWAIN
CLARENCE DARROW
JOHN STUART MILL
BERTRAND RUSSELL
ALBERT EINSTEIN

All the best,
BOB GULACK”

Robert Gulak,
As i see it “Free Will” is a religious concept and as such should not be taken seriously. It has no basis in science anymore than than the concept of “the soul” has. Of course most Americans believe there is such a thing as free will because most Americans are religious. There is no evidence that at some point in human evolution free will manifested itself. Without such evidence we are justified in being skeptical about this concept.
When it comes to the question of punishment we should always consider the possiblity that perhaps no one is really responsible for anything. I think that as humanists we should be more mindful of this than anyone else.
Bob

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