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Progressive Humanism is not about Free Will
Posted: 18 April 2006 02:13 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 16 ]
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Re: That poor donkey and the free will issue

[quote author=“Bob”]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 alway consider the possiblity that perhaps no one is really responsible for anything. I think that as humanist we should be more mindful of this than anyone else.
Bob

Well, I think the concept of free will does have a place, and you have found it in the notion of personal responsibility. That is, we distinguish between the case where someone is compelled to do something and the case where someone does something of his own free will.

So: if I put a gun to your head and tell you to sign a contract giving me your house, then you are not signing of your own free will. You are being compelled to sign. In that case (even legally) you are not responsible for fulfilling its terms.

On the other hand, if you sign a contract of any sort without someone’s gun to your head, then you are legally responsible for fulfilling its terms.

We all intuitively understand the distinction here. It has to do with the causal antecedents of one’s actions.

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Posted: 18 April 2006 07:41 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 17 ]
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Re: That poor donkey and the free will issue

[quote author=“dougsmith”][quote author=“Bob”]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 alway consider the possiblity that perhaps no one is really responsible for anything. I think that as humanist we should be more mindful of this than anyone else.
Bob

Well, I think the concept of free will does have a place, and you have found it in the notion of personal responsibility. That is, we distinguish between the case where someone is compelled to do something and the case where someone does something of his own free will.

So: if I put a gun to your head and tell you to sign a contract giving me your house, then you are not signing of your own free will. You are being compelled to sign. In that case (even legally) you are not responsible for fulfilling its terms.

On the other hand, if you sign a contract of any sort without someone’s gun to your head, then you are legally responsible for fulfilling its terms.

We all intuitively understand the distinction here. It has to do with the causal antecedents of one’s actions.

Dear Doug:

You are making a very good point, but we have to be careful about maintaining the distinction between valid and invalid applications of the idea of “personal responsibility.”

We can all see the social utility of enforcing contracts that were entered into without external coercion.  We can also see that there would be no such social utility in enforcing contracts entered into at gunpoint.  But we can make this distinction without assuming that internal causation constitutes “free will,” and without endorsing the idea of retribution for its own sake.  When a contract is enforced against someone who chose to sign it as a result of his own independent analysis, that is not an act of retribution against the person who signed the contract.

We all benefit from having the opportunity to enter into deals, and we all willingly enter into the risk of having the formal deals known as contracts enforced against us.  It can even be argued that we all benefit from having deterrent punishments in place, and can therefore be justly forced to undergo deterrent punishments.  But how do we all benefit from having the state enact retribution for its own sake?

All the best,
BOB GULACK

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Posted: 18 April 2006 09:01 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 18 ]
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Re: That poor donkey and the free will issue

[quote author=“Robert Gulack”]We can all see the social utility of enforcing contracts that were entered into without external coercion.  We can also see that there would be no such social utility in enforcing contracts entered into at gunpoint.  But we can make this distinction without assuming that internal causation constitutes “free will,” and without endorsing the idea of retribution for its own sake.

Hello Bob,

There are two different issues here which I would like to deal with separately.

First is the issue of what constitutes “free will”. Since we all agree that there is no “uncaused cause” inside the brain that is doing the acting, there can be nothing more to free will and free action than “internal causation”. What distinguishes a freely willed action from a compelled action is the particular sorts of causal antecedents which produced it.

Now, coming up with a detailed story as to how to distinguish clearly the causal antecedents of a free versus a compelled action is the job of a professional philosopher (one who’s getting paid for his time :wink:). My dissertation advisor worked on such a program, as have others. It’s a hard job.

Second is the issue you raise of “retribution”. Strictly speaking that’s a different issue. We can agree that there is such a thing as free will (= freely willed action) and that there is such a thing as personal responsibility (for freely willed actions). Then the question comes down to how we deal with someone responsible for doing something malicious, wrong, hurtful, evil, illegal, or what have you.

[quote author=“Robert Gulack”]We all benefit from having the opportunity to enter into deals, and we all willingly enter into the risk of having the formal deals known as contracts enforced against us.  It can even be argued that we all benefit from having deterrent punishments in place, and can therefore be justly forced to undergo deterrent punishments.  But how do we all benefit from having the state enact retribution for its own sake?

I’m not sure I understand the distinction you make between “justly undergoing deterrent punishment”, which is a good thing, and “retribution for its own sake”, which is a bad thing. Isn’t “deterrent punishment” just “retribution” by another name?

:?

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Posted: 18 April 2006 09:58 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 19 ]
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Re: That poor donkey and the free will issue

[quote author=“dougsmith”][quote author=“Robert Gulack”]We can all see the social utility of enforcing contracts that were entered into without external coercion.  We can also see that there would be no such social utility in enforcing contracts entered into at gunpoint.  But we can make this distinction without assuming that internal causation constitutes “free will,” and without endorsing the idea of retribution for its own sake.

Hello Bob,

There are two different issues here which I would like to deal with separately.

First is the issue of what constitutes “free will”. Since we all agree that there is no “uncaused cause” inside the brain that is doing the acting, there can be nothing more to free will and free action than “internal causation”. What distinguishes a freely willed action from a compelled action is the particular sorts of causal antecedents which produced it.

Now, coming up with a detailed story as to how to distinguish clearly the causal antecedents of a free versus a compelled action is the job of a professional philosopher (one who’s getting paid for his time :wink:). My dissertation advisor worked on such a program, as have others. It’s a hard job.

Second is the issue you raise of “retribution”. Strictly speaking that’s a different issue. We can agree that there is such a thing as free will (= freely willed action) and that there is such a thing as personal responsibility (for freely willed actions). Then the question comes down to how we deal with someone responsible for doing something malicious, wrong, hurtful, evil, illegal, or what have you.

[quote author=“Robert Gulack”]We all benefit from having the opportunity to enter into deals, and we all willingly enter into the risk of having the formal deals known as contracts enforced against us.  It can even be argued that we all benefit from having deterrent punishments in place, and can therefore be justly forced to undergo deterrent punishments.  But how do we all benefit from having the state enact retribution for its own sake?

I’m not sure I understand the distinction you make between “justly undergoing deterrent punishment”, which is a good thing, and “retribution for its own sake”, which is a bad thing. Isn’t “deterrent punishment” just “retribution” by another name?

:?

Dear Doug:

Allow me to address your points in reverse order.

First, the distinction between deterrence and retribution is this: if one is imposing the punishment in order to scare other people away from doing the same thing in the future, that is deterrence.  If one doesn’t care whether the punishment, in fact, deters others in the future, but is imposing the punishment purely and solely because of what the criminal has done in the past—because the criminal “personally deserves” to suffer—that is retribution.  In the U.S. Supreme Court decision that brought back the death penalty (GREGG V. GEORGIA), for example, Potter Stewart explicitly cast the deciding vote in favor of capital punishment even though Stewart acknowledged there was no evidence that capital punishment was a more effective deterrent than life-without-parole.  Steward argued that punishing the criminal as the criminal personally deserves is, by itself, an adequate reason for putting someone to death.

Second, once we understand that many Americans, and our legal system, believe in retribution for its own sake, we can understand the importance of analyzing the belief systems that lead these people to believe in retribution as a moral goal.  Basically, I argue that, while you and I believe that our minds are causal mechanisms, the retributivists don’t agree with us.  When pressed, they nearly always acknowledge that a totally causal mechanism (such as a toaster) never personally deserves retribution.  When further pressed, they acknowledge that they don’t mean randomness, either.  They mean something which is neither random nor causal, which they call “free will.”

Now, given that this is what THEY mean by “free will,” it is dangerous and confusing to circle one kind of intra-brain causality and call it “free will.”  I acknowledge we need a word for the sort of independent-personal-analysis-in-signing-a-contract that we have been discussing.  We could call it a “voluntary action,” if we were always careful to note that “voluntary” actions should not be supposed to be the result of “free will.”  The precisely limits of the “voluntary” are, as you note, a complex matter, but I think you and I share a rough idea as to where they lie.

As to the larger question of what a rational and ethical criminal justice system would look like, once free will and retribution are abandoned, I discuss it in detail in my lecture, HOW TO TELL RIGHT FROM WRONG, which is posted at ethicalfocus.org.

All the best,

Bob Gulack

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Posted: 18 April 2006 10:10 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 20 ]
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*interesting*

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Posted: 18 April 2006 10:46 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 21 ]
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Re: That poor donkey and the free will issue

[quote author=“Robert Gulack”]Basically, I argue that, while you and I believe that our minds are causal mechanisms, the retributivists don’t agree with us.  When pressed, they nearly always acknowledge that a totally causal mechanism (such as a toaster) never personally deserves retribution.  When further pressed, they acknowledge that they don’t mean randomness, either.  They mean something which is neither random nor causal, which they call “free will.”

Now, given that this is what THEY mean by “free will,” it is dangerous and confusing to circle one kind of intra-brain causality and call it “free will.”  I acknowledge we need a word for the sort of independent-personal-analysis-in-signing-a-contract that we have been discussing.  We could call it a “voluntary action,” if we were always careful to note that “voluntary” actions should not be supposed to be the result of “free will.”  The precisely limits of the “voluntary” are, as you note, a complex matter, but I think you and I share a rough idea as to where they lie.

Hello Bob,

Thanks for the clarification, it makes more sense to me now. But then I don’t really have a fully-formed opinion about whether retribution or deterrence is correct. It’s a bit inchoate for me now. I don’t follow the argument of the “retributivists” that “a totally causal mechanism never personally deserves retribution”. For example, what if retribution made the causal mechanism behave better in the future? Or is that another form of “deterrence”? You’ll have to motivate the arguments here.

At any rate I would not be willing to give them the notion of “Free Will”. Free will is a perfectly natural and good concept, correctly understood. Admittedly our disagreement here is basically a matter of semantics: you want to talk about “voluntary action” simpliciter, while I want to add that voluntary action is action done by a free will (= a will free of compulsion).

Best,

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Posted: 18 April 2006 11:36 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 22 ]
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Re: That poor donkey and the free will issue

[quote author=“dougsmith”][quote author=“Robert Gulack”]Basically, I argue that, while you and I believe that our minds are causal mechanisms, the retributivists don’t agree with us.  When pressed, they nearly always acknowledge that a totally causal mechanism (such as a toaster) never personally deserves retribution.  When further pressed, they acknowledge that they don’t mean randomness, either.  They mean something which is neither random nor causal, which they call “free will.”

Now, given that this is what THEY mean by “free will,” it is dangerous and confusing to circle one kind of intra-brain causality and call it “free will.”  I acknowledge we need a word for the sort of independent-personal-analysis-in-signing-a-contract that we have been discussing.  We could call it a “voluntary action,” if we were always careful to note that “voluntary” actions should not be supposed to be the result of “free will.”  The precisely limits of the “voluntary” are, as you note, a complex matter, but I think you and I share a rough idea as to where they lie.

Hello Bob,

Thanks for the clarification, it makes more sense to me now. But then I don’t really have a fully-formed opinion about whether retribution or deterrence is correct. It’s a bit inchoate for me now. I don’t follow the argument of the “retributivists” that “a totally causal mechanism never personally deserves retribution”. For example, what if retribution made the causal mechanism behave better in the future? Or is that another form of “deterrence”? You’ll have to motivate the arguments here.

At any rate I would not be willing to give them the notion of “Free Will”. Free will is a perfectly natural and good concept, correctly understood. Admittedly our disagreement here is basically a matter of semantics: you want to talk about “voluntary action” simpliciter, while I want to add that voluntary action is action done by a free will (= a will free of compulsion).

Best,


Dear Doug:

You ask, what if punishment makes you act better?  As a matter of practical fact, punishment is rarely the best way to improve behavior.  But even if we assume it sometimes works, that would not be retribution or deterrence.  It would be a sort of rehabilitation-by-punishment.  And (while it would raise complex ethical issues) it would certainly not depend upon the sort of “free will” postulated by retributivists.

As far as terminology goes, feel “free” to use the term “free will” as you please.  But watch out that the people you’re talking to don’t get confused.

My problem with retributivism is twofold:  It is scientifically crazy, as it depends upon the sort of metaphysical “free will” which is basically a matter of superstition.  And it is morally wrong, since—even if we DID have metaphysical “free will”—two wrongs would still not make a right.

All the best,
BOB GULACK

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Posted: 21 April 2006 03:14 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 23 ]
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Re: That poor donkey and the free will issue

[quote author=“Robert Gulack”]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 said at the outset that there may be just some confusion about what we mean by “free will”.  I usually discuss this topic with Christians, and to them, the opposite of Free Will is Pre-determinism, which basically means that God decides what is going to happen and we just follow the script like good little puppets.

Okay, so what we’re really talking about is Capitol Punishment and whether certain people “deserve” the death penalty.  I used to be a staunch opponent of Capitol Punishment, but then I came to see that, aside from purely philosophical questions of exactly how much “blame” we’re willing to assign people, there is still the practical matter of how to deal with a murderer when it is obvious to everyone that he would kill again given half a chance.

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Posted: 21 April 2006 03:44 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 24 ]
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Re: That poor donkey and the free will issue

[quote author=“advocatus”] I usually discuss this topic with Christians, and to them, the opposite of Free Will is Pre-determinism, which basically means that God decides what is going to happen and we just follow the script like good little puppets.

It is probably worth pointing out that there are some Christian schools that accept predetermination, or “Predestination” so-called. Check here for example. If you are particularly interested in this, google “predestination”. Calvin was apparently one of the firmest believers in it.

It also appears that Aquinas believed in Predestination. See for example here , from Aquinas’s Summa Theologica.

Of course, here we get into a lot of thorny theology as to what precisely counts as “Predestination” and whether it is the same thing as (mechanical) determinism. FWIW, in my opinion there is a huge amount of wiggle room that theologians attempt to construct (and a whole lot of effort put into obfuscation) with their discussions of these issues. In particluar, they do a certain amount of hand-waving to argue that Predestination is somehow different from mechanical determinism. Yet at the same time it isn’t clear what the difference is, or if this difference really makes a difference.

It is so startling and clearly unjust a position that God would create creatures determined to go to hell, that once a theologian gets himself into this position he blows all the smoke he can.

Calvin appears at least to have been the clearest on this issue, although that makes his position the least palatable from an ethical point of view.

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Posted: 21 April 2006 05:45 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 25 ]
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Re: That poor donkey and the free will issue

[quote author=“advocatus”][quote author=“Robert Gulack”]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 said at the outset that there may be just some confusion about what we mean by “free will”.  I usually discuss this topic with Christians, and to them, the opposite of Free Will is Pre-determinism, which basically means that God decides what is going to happen and we just follow the script like good little puppets.

Okay, so what we’re really talking about is Capitol Punishment and whether certain people “deserve” the death penalty.  I used to be a staunch opponent of Capitol Punishment, but then I came to see that, aside from purely philosophical questions of exactly how much “blame” we’re willing to assign people, there is still the practical matter of how to deal with a murderer when it is obvious to everyone that he would kill again given half a chance.

Dear Advocatus:

No one disputes (I hope) that it is our ethical duty to prevent dangerous people from continuing careers in the field of homicide.  The question is: HOW are we to be protected from such people?  Life imprisonment without the opportunity for parole provides the necessary isolation from society.  It is also reversible, if we find out we’ve made a mistake.  So the need to protect society, while unquestionable, does not justify capital punishment.

I would also argue that we are NOT simply talking about capital punishment.  That is only the most obvious and most drastic example of revenge for its own sake.  We are talking more broadly about having (as one famous determinist put it) charity toward all and malice toward none.  We are talking (as the Spinoza quote explains in my lecture above) about abandoning anger, guilt, anxiety, jealousy, and feelings of superiority.  We are talking, in short, about a whole new way of living our lives.

Training ourselves to use Occam’s razor in a thorough and objective manner also allows us to see through God, immortality, “intelligent design,” and a host of other impostures.  It keeps us in touch with the real world.

Now—as to the Christians.  Some of them (as dougsmith notes) are advocates of “predestination” in all sorts of varying intepretations.  The core of predestination would be the belief that there is a fixed future of which God has knowledge.  Some Christians may be fatalists who believe that a will outside of human will controls all history, including future history.

Neither predestination nor fatalism is consisent with a skeptical, scientific, Occam’s razor approach, which is what I’m advocating.  The core facts in a scientific view of the universe appear at present to be:

(1)  There is no reason to believe in a supernatural being or beings, with or without foreknowledge of the future.
(2) There is no reason to believe in immortality.
(3)  People have internal mental processes, carried on in their brains, which obey the laws of physics and are probably entirely causal in their operation.
(4) Nevertheless, the (caused) will of individual humans is often a major cause of future events, so fatalism is not true.
(5)  The separation of time into past, present, and future is an illusion.  There is only a single, fixed, four-dimensional space-time continuum.  Every moment of time is simultaneously in the past, present, and future—as seen from the points of view of multiple observers, all of whom are equally correct.

All the best,

Bob Gulack

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Posted: 21 April 2006 06:18 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 26 ]
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Re: That poor donkey and the free will issue

[quote author=“Robert Gulack”]No one disputes (I hope) that it is our ethical duty to prevent dangerous people from continuing careers in the field of homicide.  The question is: HOW are we to be protected from such people?  Life imprisonment without the opportunity for parole provides the necessary isolation from society.  It is also reversible, if we find out we’ve made a mistake.  So the need to protect society, while unquestionable, does not justify capital punishment.

Hello Robert,

My views on capital punishment are not particularly well-formed, however for the sake of argument I am willing to grant your point here with a few caveats:

(1) We must have confidence that escape is a practical impossibility. This is not true in many countries.

(2) We must have confidence that the criminal cannot continue doing mischief while in jail. Again, this is not true in many countries, such as in Latin America where many drug kingpins have continued their empires from behind jailroom walls. It is also not true with certain messaianic leaders who continued their guidance and political influence from jail. Think of Adolf Hitler, to take one example, who wrote Mein Kampf and had many illustrious visitors while in his jail cell early in his “career”.


[quote author=“Robert Gulack”]Now—as to the Christians.  Some of them (as dougsmith notes) are advocates of “predestination” in all sorts of varying intepretations.  The core of predestination would be the belief that there is a fixed future of which God has knowledge.  Some Christians may be fatalists who believe that a will outside of human will controls all history, including future history.

Neither predestination nor fatalism is consisent with a skeptical, scientific, Occam’s razor approach, which is what I’m advocating.

I assume you mean that “predestination” and “fatalism” are models that include a supreme being that wills a destiny. Because strict causal determinism also “predestines” the future. While we know that nave causal determinism is in fact false (due to quantum mechanics), what replaces it isn’t much better ... it tells us that the future is determined to some probability and that that which isn’t determined is simply random.

Not a lot of solace there for people concerned with issues of determinism and (Godless) predestination.

[quote author=“Robert Gulack”]  The core facts in a scientific view of the universe appear at present to be:

(1)  There is no reason to believe in a supernatural being or beings, with or without foreknowledge of the future.
(2) There is no reason to believe in immortality.
(3)  People have internal mental processes, carried on in their brains, which obey the laws of physics and are probably entirely causal in their operation.
(4) Nevertheless, the (caused) will of individual humans is often a major cause of future events, so fatalism is not true.
(5)  The separation of time into past, present, and future is an illusion.  There is only a single, fixed, four-dimensional space-time continuum.  Every moment of time is simultaneously in the past, present, and future—as seen from the points of view of multiple observers, all of whom are equally correct.

Agreed on all, except that I would take out the “probably” in #3 (and include the caveat about QM I mentioned above). I like your #5! Not a lot of people realize this to be true, although it follows from Einstein.

Best,

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Posted: 21 April 2006 08:02 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 27 ]
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Re: That poor donkey and the free will issue

[quote author=“dougsmith”][quote author=“Robert Gulack”]No one disputes (I hope) that it is our ethical duty to prevent dangerous people from continuing careers in the field of homicide.  The question is: HOW are we to be protected from such people?  Life imprisonment without the opportunity for parole provides the necessary isolation from society.  It is also reversible, if we find out we’ve made a mistake.  So the need to protect society, while unquestionable, does not justify capital punishment.

Hello Robert,

My views on capital punishment are not particularly well-formed, however for the sake of argument I am willing to grant your point here with a few caveats:

(1) We must have confidence that escape is a practical impossibility. This is not true in many countries.

(2) We must have confidence that the criminal cannot continue doing mischief while in jail. Again, this is not true in many countries, such as in Latin America where many drug kingpins have continued their empires from behind jailroom walls. It is also not true with certain messaianic leaders who continued their guidance and political influence from jail. Think of Adolf Hitler, to take one example, who wrote Mein Kampf and had many illustrious visitors while in his jail cell early in his “career”.


[quote author=“Robert Gulack”]Now—as to the Christians.  Some of them (as dougsmith notes) are advocates of “predestination” in all sorts of varying intepretations.  The core of predestination would be the belief that there is a fixed future of which God has knowledge.  Some Christians may be fatalists who believe that a will outside of human will controls all history, including future history.

Neither predestination nor fatalism is consisent with a skeptical, scientific, Occam’s razor approach, which is what I’m advocating.

I assume you mean that “predestination” and “fatalism” are models that include a supreme being that wills a destiny. Because strict causal determinism also “predestines” the future. While we know that nave causal determinism is in fact false (due to quantum mechanics), what replaces it isn’t much better ... it tells us that the future is determined to some probability and that that which isn’t determined is simply random.

Not a lot of solace there for people concerned with issues of determinism and (Godless) predestination.

[quote author=“Robert Gulack”]  The core facts in a scientific view of the universe appear at present to be:

(1)  There is no reason to believe in a supernatural being or beings, with or without foreknowledge of the future.
(2) There is no reason to believe in immortality.
(3)  People have internal mental processes, carried on in their brains, which obey the laws of physics and are probably entirely causal in their operation.
(4) Nevertheless, the (caused) will of individual humans is often a major cause of future events, so fatalism is not true.
(5)  The separation of time into past, present, and future is an illusion.  There is only a single, fixed, four-dimensional space-time continuum.  Every moment of time is simultaneously in the past, present, and future—as seen from the points of view of multiple observers, all of whom are equally correct.

Agreed on all, except that I would take out the “probably” in #3 (and include the caveat about QM I mentioned above). I like your #5! Not a lot of people realize this to be true, although it follows from Einstein.

Best,

Everyone:

I agree with everything Doug posted here.  Now—what about the rest of you out there?  Are you on board with points 1-5, or do you have any questions?

BOB GULACK

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Posted: 26 April 2006 03:09 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 28 ]
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Re: That poor donkey and the free will issue

[quote author=“Robert Gulack”] We are talking (as the Spinoza quote explains in my lecture above) about abandoning anger, guilt, anxiety, jealousy, and feelings of superiority.

I don’t want to oversimplify, but it also seems to me as if you’re talking about doing away with personal responsibility.  Aren’t you saying that if everything is simply cause and effect, we are really not responsible for anything we do?  Or am I missing the point again?

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Posted: 26 April 2006 03:46 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 29 ]
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Re: That poor donkey and the free will issue

[quote author=“advocatus”]Aren’t you saying that if everything is simply cause and effect, we are really not responsible for anything we do?

I can’t speak for Robert, but yes, we are absolutely responsible for what we do. Nothing about this quasi-deterministic causal picture eliminates responsibility at all.

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El sueño de la razón produce monstruos

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Posted: 26 April 2006 05:54 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 30 ]
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Re: That poor donkey and the free will issue

[quote author=“dougsmith”][quote author=“advocatus”]Aren’t you saying that if everything is simply cause and effect, we are really not responsible for anything we do?

I can’t speak for Robert, but yes, we are absolutely responsible for what we do. Nothing about this quasi-deterministic causal picture eliminates responsibility at all.

Dear Advocatus & Doug:

Even though we are almost certainly machines, in the same way that a toaster or a Sequoia is a machine, from an ethical point of view I would say we are all under a duty to act responsibly.  That ethical duty doesn’t vanish simply because, as a matter of fact, whether we do, in the end, end up acting responsibly is ultimately decided by an infinite string of prior causes.  Part of this duty to behave responsibly involves having the duty to forgive others, having what Martin Luther King, Jr., called an “understanding creative redemptive good will” toward everyone.

That being said, being under a duty to behave responsibly is a very different thing from being “personally responsible” in the way that is ordinarily understood in our society.  In common use, when we talk about holding people “personally responsible” we don’t mean simply asking that people behave responsibly, and we don’t mean simply subjecting them to deterrent punishment as needed.  (Such deterrent punishment could, in principle, be rationally and ethically imposed on purely causal mechanisms.)  In common use, we also mean that the person who is said to be “personally responsible” will also be liable to suffer purely retributive punishments.  So that part of “personal responsibility” must be discarded for the reasons we’ve already discussed.

In short, we are not doing away with personal responsibility.  But we are very significantly modifying the definition of it so that it no longer includes any element of revenge for its own sake.

All the best,

BOB GULACK

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