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Column on Do We Have a Moral Nature?

Do We Have a Moral Nature?

Tibor R. Machan

It is often held, by admirers of modern science (which took off near the 15th century) that if human beings are parts of nature, there can be no room for morality in their lives. They are then simply complicated machines working as they must, with no possibility that they can make choices, which is an essential part of morality. Science and morality are, then, often juxtaposed.

But there are several problems with this. For one, nature is bountiful in its variety; so simply because other parts of it are mostly determined to move as they must, it doesn’t follow that all parts do. Just as there are living things that swim, as well as some that fly or simply slither about, there could also be some that are dumb beasts and others that think, reason and make choices. Nothing unnatural about that at all. And once something uses higher reasoning to get on in its life, choices are just around the corner.

Also, those who insist that we are all fully determined to do as we do tend, paradoxically, to be very moralistic about insisting that this is how everyone ought to think about us. In effect they believe, “No one ought to believe that people have free will, that they can make genuine choices in their lives; they ought to be thought of as complex machines.” However, without the capacity to choose, such admonitions are meaningless. Without the capacity to choose, without free will, our thinking is also purely determined and so if we do believe in free will, we then must believe in it. Yet why then get annoyed with us for failing to heed the advice of those who deny our capacity to choose?

Not only that, innumerable scientific minded folks make moral declarations galore. Blaming and praising are part of this exercise and champions of the scientific way quite often blame and praise. They blame those who reject their imperialism about how nature behaves and they praise those who share it. They often outright denounce those who think they shouldn’t be given extensive government funding for their work.

In the recent discussions by the likes of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens, the group called “the new atheists,” all kinds of blaming is in evidence when others who don’t embrace Darwinian evolution or do embrace creationism are being talked about. These people, these champions of science insist, others aren’t doing the right thing, namely, accepting Darwin as correct about how the world works. (Not even all of these scientifically minded people deny free will, by the way.)

The point I am making isn’t about whether such blaming or praising is correct but that it doesn’t square with the belief that we are all determined to be the way we are, that we all work like machines.

In more recent discussions of human choice some scientists have suggested that there might be room for it now that Newtonian physics has been superseded by contemporary, post-Heisenbergian quantum physics, the kind that leaves some room for uncertainty (at least at the subatomic level of existence) and thus might allow that not everything is fully determined to happen one and only one way. (Not that the features of quantum physics that they rely on for this necessarily support anything like human freedom of choice!) In particular the late Karl Popper and John Eccles had thought that the new physics allows for free will (presented in their book The Self and Its Brain [Springer Verlag, 1977]).

So while there is wide consensus among champions of the natural sciences about whether human beings have a moral nature–can reasonably be held responsible for the conduct they choose to embark upon–some dissidents do exist who think that, yes indeed, we are moral agents; it’s a distinguishing aspect of our nature but still quite natural. And certainly quite a few scientists and their champions act like we all did have free will, when, for instance, they blame those who refuse to accept their ideas about evolution. As already mentioned, blaming someone implies they have the freedom to choose how they think and act.

Of course, the world of human beings is filled with moral elements. Personal, social, political and international affairs are all replete with moral concerns, with how we ought to and ought not to think and act. And since this is also in evidence among scientists, it is probably the right way to think about us.

Another Brief Defense of Free Will

[This essay, slated to be a chapter in a new book I am writing, is a slightly revised version of one that has appeared in some philosophy readers--e.g., “A Brief Defense of Free Will,” John Burr and Milton Goldinger, eds., Philosophy and Contemporary Issues (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 2004), 33-39.

The Importance of having Free Will

Before anything else, in discussing the nature of law and government one needs to know what kind of entity these are supposed to serve. Human nature, in other words, must be examined to see what sort of system of community life suits it best.
To this end I need to explore an ancient but still utterly relevant topic, namely, whether human beings are free agents or merely puppets on strings that move them independently of their choices or will.
This is not a common topic of discussion outside the discipline of philosophy and a few other fields. Yet nearly every interesting human issue is related to this problem, usually in more ways than one. For example, if, say, a certain system of law or political economy is taken to be just, this implies that it ought to be implemented—even if only gradually, over time. If one claims that aggression or neglecting the poor or fighting a war for oil is wrong, one implicitly holds that people ought to refrain from do such things. And if one promotes bailing out failing banks or car companies or providing health care and insurance for all citizens, that, too, implies that these ought to be accepted as public policies.
And as the philosopher Immanuel Kant pointed out, "ought implies can," meaning in part that only if it is possible to choose to do something can it be the case that it ought to be done. So the very meaningfulness of the advocacy of moral or political ideals and policies implies that free will exists. (The other meaning of "ought implies can" is that some objective standard of human conduct must be identifiable, otherwise one could never do what one ought to do.)
Even as far back as Aristotle it was clear that the moral virtues must be practiced voluntarily, as a matter of one’s free choice or personal initiative. (I advance a fuller case for this in my Initiative—Human Agency and Society [Hoover Institution Press, 2000].) Indeed, even to say that some argument concerning any topic from logic to astronomy is unsound, we are claiming, implicitly, that one ought not to propose or accept it and that people in the main are free either to do so or refrain from doing so.
Thus, clearly, it is of some value to explore briefly whether human beings have free will. In connection with any set of principles in ethics or politics and the need to respect and act in accordance with them, the idea that people must have an area of personal responsibility within which to make choices about their lives or wherein to initiate their actions is, again, implicit and inescapable. In other words, this all assumes, again, that human beings have free will or that they can make basic choices about their lives, initiate basic conduct, that can turn out to be right or wrong. Furthermore, requiring of people that they respect such principles again assumes that they possess free will. Otherwise it would make no sense to require such adherence from them: something they have no choice about cannot be something they morally ought to or can fail to do.
There is also the more familiar matter of the issue of personal responsibility concerning everyday conduct, those matters discussed daily in the home, in the press, and on the various media. Not only is there the issue of who is responsible for various good and bad things, but there is also the question of whether most of us are, as so many people seem to believe, in the grip of various forces over which we have no control. This or that addiction—to drugs, sex, violence, power, athletics, or work—is supposed to be our master, with us as mere puppets on strings moved about by it.
Yet, only if we have free will does any talk of blaming our parents, politicians, insurance companies, the rich, bureaucrats or the rest make sense. But there are many people who believe that modern science, including, of course, all the social sciences, leaves no room for such a thing in human life. Where does it stand, then, with the free will issue? It seems to me worth discussing this topic outside the confines of philosophy graduate seminars and encourage some thinking about it on everyone’s part. After all, it is a central feature of political philosophy that individual citizens in society should be treated in certain ways. What does this come to unless they possess free will, the capacity to produce their own behavior?
I want to argue that there is indeed free will. And I’m going to defend the position that free will means that human beings can cause some of what they do, on their own; in other words, what they do is not explainable solely by references to factors that have influenced them, though, of course, their range of options is clearly circumscribed by the world in which they live, by their particular circumstances, capacities, options, talents, etc. My thesis, in other words, is that human beings are able to cause their actions and they are therefore responsible for some of what they do. In a basic sense we all are original actors capable of making novel moves in the world. We are, in other words, initiators of some of our behavior.
The first matter to be noted is that this view is in no way in contradiction to science. Free will is a natural phenomenon, something that emerged in nature with the emergence of human beings, with their kind of minds, namely, minds that can think and be aware of their own thinking.
Nature is complicated and multifaceted. It includes many different sorts of things and some of these are human beings. Such beings exhibit a unique yet natural attribute that other things apparently do not, namely, free will.
I am going to offer eight reasons why a belief in free will makes very good sense. Four of these explain why there can be free will—i.e., why nature does not preclude it. But these do not yet demonstrate that free will exists. That will be the job of the four reasons I will advance next, which will establish that free will actually exists, that it’s not just a possibility but an actuality.

Nature’s Laws versus Free Will
First, one of the major objections against free will is that nature is governed by a set of laws, mainly the laws of physics. These laws control everything and we human beings are basically more complicated versions of material substances and that therefore whatever governs any other material substance in the universe must also govern human life. Basically, we are subject to the kind of causation everything else is. Since nothing else exhibits free will but conforms to causal laws, so must we. Social science is merely looking into the particulars of those causes, but we all know that we are subject to them in any case. The only difference is that we are complicated things, not that the same principles or laws of nature do not govern us.
Now, in response I want to point out that nature exhibits innumerable different domains, distinct not only in their complexity but also in the kinds of beings they include. So it is not possible to rule out ahead of time that there might be something in nature that exhibits agent causation. This is the phenomenon whereby a thing causes some of its own behavior. So there might be in nature a form of existence that exhibits free will. Whether there is or is not is something to be discovered, not ruled out by a narrow metaphysics that restricts everything to being just a variation on just one kind of thing. Thus, taking account of what nature is composed of does not at all rule out free will. Yet, simply because of the possibility that there is free will, there may still not be. We consider that a bit later.

Can we Know of Free Will?
Now, another reason why some think that free will is not possible is that the dominant mode of studying, inspecting or examining nature is empiricism. In other words, many believe that the only way we know about nature is by observing it with our various sensory organs. But since the sensory organs do not give us direct evidence of such a thing as free will, there really isn’t any such thing. Since no observable evidence for free will exists, therefore free will does not exist.
But the doctrine that empiricism captures all forms of knowing is wrong—there are many things that we know not simply through observation but through a combination of observation, inferences, and theory construction. (Consider: Even the purported knowledge that empiricism is our form of knowledge is not “known” empirically!)
For one, many features of the universe, including criminal guilt, are detected without eyewitnesses but by way of theories that serve the purpose of best explaining what we do have before us to observe. This is true, also, even in the natural sciences. Many of the phenomena or facts in biology, astrophysics, subatomic physics, botany, and chemistry—not to mention psychology—consist not of what we see or detect by observation but of what is inferred by way of a theory. And the theory that explains things best—most completely and most consistently—is the best answer to the question as to what is going on.
Free will may well turn out to be in this category. In other words, free will may not be something that we can see directly, but what best explains what we do see in human life. This may include, for example, the many mistakes that human beings make in contrast to the few mistakes that other animals make. We also notice that human beings do all kinds of odd things that cannot be accounted for in terms of mechanical causation, the type associated with physics. We can examine a person’s background and find that some people with bad childhoods turn out to be decent, while others crooks. And free will comes as a very helpful explanation. For now all we need to consider is that this may well be so, and if empiricism does not allow for it, so much the worse for empiricism. One could know something because it explains something else better than any alternative. And that is not strict empirical knowledge.
Furthermore, if there is no free will, it would mean that our “knowledge” is something that we must have or lack, without our having anything to do with which it turns out to be. So if one is not free in some basic sense, such as free to think or focus or be aware or not, the content of one’s mind must be what it is. So if one believes in free will for example, or determinism, that is just how one must be, a believer or an unbeliever (or an agnostic) about the topic. And, furthermore, if one cannot help being one or another of these, neither can one double check whether one is correct since that, too, will be a matter of one’s having to hold one or another position about it.
The bottom line is that independent, objective judgments about reality, including whether free will is or is not part of it, are impossible if free will denied. So determinism leads to having to abstain from trying to reach any conclusion about anything whatever. One will simply be forced to think as one does and there can be no way to tell if one is right or wrong.
This self-referential problem is a very serious one and it seems that quite a few thinkers are reluctant to be radical determinists because of it.

Is Free Will Weird?
Something that very often counts against free will is that none of what exists in the inert or living world, apart from human beings, exhibits it. Rocks, water, flowers, trees, cats, lizards, fish, frogs, etc., appear to have no free will and therefore it appears arbitrary to impute it to human beings. Why should we be free to do things when the rest of nature lacks any such capacity? It seems an impossible aberration.
The answer here is that there is enough variety in nature—some things swim, some fly, some just lie there, some breathe, some grow, while others do not; so there is plenty of evidence of plurality of types and kinds of things in nature. Free will could be yet another variety in nature.
Should We Become Determinists?
There’s another dilemma of determinism. Determinists want us to believe in determinism. In fact, they believe we ought to be determinists rather than believe in this spooky myth called “free will”. But, as already mentioned, “ought” implies “can”. So then if one ought to believe in or do something, this implies that one has a choice in the matter; it implies that we can choose as to whether determinism or free will is a better doctrine. That, then, assumes that we are free. In other words, even arguing for and advocating determinism assumes that we are not determined to believe in free will or determinism but that it is a matter of our making certain choices about arguments, evidence, and thinking itself. That’s a paradox that troubles a deterministic position.

We Often Know We Are Free!
In many contexts of our lives introspective knowledge is taken very seriously. When you go to a doctor and he asks you, “Are you in pain?” and you say, “Yes,” and he says “Where is the pain?” and you say, “It’s in my knee,” the doctor doesn’t say, “Why, you can’t know, this is not public evidence, I will now get verifiable, direct evidence where you hurt.” In fact your evidence is very good evidence. Witnesses at trials give evidence as they report about what they have seen, which is introspective evidence: “This indeed is what I have seen or heard.” Even in the various sciences people report on what they’ve read on surveys or seen on gauges or instruments. Thus they are giving us introspective evidence.
Introspection is one source of evidence that we take as reasonably reliable. So what should we make of the fact that a lot of people do say things like, “Damn it, I didn’t make the right choice,” or “I neglected to do something.” They report to us that they have made various choices, decisions, etc., that they intended this or that but not another thing. And they often blame themselves for not having done something; thus they report that they are taking responsibility for what they have or haven’t done.
In short, there is a lot of evidence from people all around us of the existence of free choice.

Modern Science Discovers Free Will!
Finally, there is also the evidence of the fact that we do seem to have the capacity for self-monitoring. The human brain has a kind of structure that allows us, so to speak, to govern ourselves. We can inspect our lives; we can detect where we’re going; and we can, therefore, change course. And the human brain itself makes it possible. The brain, because of its structure, can monitor itself and as a result we can decide whether to continue in a certain pattern or to change that pattern and go in a different direction. That is the sort of free will that is demonstrable. At least some scientists, for example Roger W. Sperry—in his book Science and Moral Priority (Columbia University Press, 1983) and in numerous more technical articles—maintain that there’s evidence for free will in this sense. This view depends on a number of points I have already mentioned. It assumes that there can be different causes in nature, so that the higher functioning of the human brain could involve a kind of self-causation. The brain as a system would have to be able to cause some things about the organism’s behavior and that depends, of course, on the possibility that there are various kinds of causes in nature.
Precisely the sort of thing Sperry thinks possible is plainly evident in our lives. We make plans and revise them. We explore alternatives and decide to follow one of them. We change a course of conduct we have embarked upon, or continue with it. In other words, there is a locus of individual self-responsibility that is evident in the way in which we look upon ourselves—and the way in which we in fact behave. (Some, such as Benjamin Libet, in his Mind Time: the Temporal Factor in Consciousness, Harvard University Press, 2004, have argued that our actions aren’t actually a result of our initiative at all. But others, such as Al Mele, have disputed this; see Mele’s Effective Intentions: The Power of Conscious Will, Oxford University Press, 2009. See, also, David Shenk, The Genius in All of Us, Doubleday, 2010.)

Some People are Determined; some are not.
There clearly are cases of conduct in which some persons behave as they do because they were determined to do so by certain identifiable forces outside their own control. A brain tumor, a severe childhood trauma or some other intrusive force sometimes incapacitates people. This is evident in those occasional cases when a person who engaged in criminal behavior is shown to have had no control over what he or she did. Someone who actually had no capacity to control his or her behavior, could not control his or her own thinking or judgment and was, thus, moved by something other than his own will, cannot be said to possess a bona fide free will.
Those who deny that we have free will simply cannot make sense of our distinction between cases in which one controls one’s behavior and those in which one is being moved by forces over which he or she has no control. When we face the latter sort of case, we still admit that the behavior could be good or bad but we deny that it is morally and legally significant—it is more along lines of acts of nature or God by being out of the agent’s control. This is also why philosophers who discuss ethics but deny free will have trouble distinguishing between morality and value theory—e.g., utilitarians, Marxists.

The Best Theory is True.
Finally, as I have alluded to earlier, when we put all of this together we get a more sensible understanding of the complexities of human life than otherwise—we get a better understanding, for example, of why social engineering and government regulation and regimentation do not work, why there are so many individual, religious and cultural differences, why people can be wrong, why they can disagree with each other, etc. It is because they are free to do so, because they are not set in some pattern the way cats and dogs and orangutans and birds tend to be. (I develop this point in my Putting Humans First, Why We Are Nature’s Favorite [Rowman & Littlefield, 2004].)
In principle, all of the behavior of these creatures around us can be predicted because they are not creative in a sense that they originate new ideas and behavior, although we do not always know enough about the constitution of these beings and how it would interact with their environment to actually predict what they will do. Human beings produce new ideas and these can introduce new kinds of behavior in familiar situations. This, in part, is what is meant by the fact that different people often interpret their experiences differently. Yet, we can make some predictions about what people will do because they often do make up their minds in a given fashion and stick to their decision over time. This is what we mean when we note that people make commitments, possess integrity, etc. So we can estimate what they are going to do. But even then we do not make certain predictions but only statistically significant ones. Clearly, very often people change their minds and surprise or annoy us. And, if we go to different cultures, they’ll surprise us even more. This complexity, diversity, and individuation about human beings is best explained if human beings are free than if they are determined.

Is Free Will Well Founded?
So these several reasons provide a kind of argumentative collage in support of the free will position. Can anyone do better with this issue? I don’t know. I think it’s best to ask only for what is the best of the various competing theories. Are human beings doing what they do solely as the consequences of forces acting on them? Or do they have the capacity to take charge of their lives, often neglect to do so properly or effectively, make stupid choices? Which supposition explains the human world and its complexities around us?
I think the latter makes much better sense. It explains, much better than do deterministic theories—be they hard or soft—how it is possible that human life involves such a wide range of possibilities, accomplishments as well as defeats, joys as well as sorrows, creation as well as destruction. It explains, also, why in human life there is so much change in language, custom, style, art, and science. Unlike other living beings, for which what is possible is pretty much fixed by instincts and reflexes—even if some extraordinary behavior may be elicited, by way of experiments in laboratories or, at times, in the face of unusual natural developments—people initiate much of what they do, for better and for worse. From their most distinctive capacity of forming ideas and theories, to those of artistic and athletic inventiveness, human beings remake the world without, so to speak, having to do so! And this can make good sense if we understand them to have the distinctive capacity for initiating their own conduct rather than relying on mere stimulation and reaction. It also poses for them certain very difficult tasks, not the least of which is that they cannot expect that any kind of formula or system is going to predictably manage the future of human affairs, such as some of social science seems to hope it will. Social engineering is, thus, not a genuine prospect for solving human problems—only education and individual initiative can do that.