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Quotation

24 November 2009

"A theory about a thing does not change the thing the theory is about."

B.F. Skinner said it well in Beyond Freedom and Dignity: "A theory about a thing does not change the thing the theory is about." A couple of times I saw Skinner strolling through Harvard Yard. He didn't move like a robot because he espoused determinism.
—Robert M. Price,
Top Secret: The Truth Behind Today’s Pop Mysticisms

I'm currently a subscriber to both Skeptic and Free Inquiry, and while perusing the August/September 2009 edition of the latter (I'm a little behind on my reading, as I cycle to and from work eight months of the year, so I don't have my hour-long public transit commute until November), I happened across an op-ed by Tibor Machan.

Lots of important people in the sciences and philosophy say that free will—the human capacity to think and do either this or do that—is a myth, a delusion. Some go so far as to recommend revamping the legal system and our ideas of ethics or morality so that concepts of guilt, innocence, responsibility, and so forth can be abandoned. No one is guilty of anything, they hold, since no one could have done anything other than what he or she did.

Okay, I'm basically on board with Machan at the beginning. I would have added emphasis to make it "the human capacity think and do either this or do that", as clearly humans have the tendency to do some things or do other things, and it's the choice of one or the other that you're after—but I'm picking nits. The real problem comes in when he says, "Some go so far as to recommend . . . that concepts of guilt, innocence, responsibility, and so forth can be abandoned. No one is guilty of anything . . . ." This strikes me as a bit of a straw man, for I'm unaware of anyone who says any such thing. It is, of course, possible that he simply misunderstands the determinist position—but if so, what's he doing writing an op-ed about it? He's presenting an argument that no one is really making to push the idea that determinists are going to release murderers and rapists from prison to kidnap your children.

There are people pushing for reform in the penal system, sure—the problem is right there in the name! Many free will sceptics are against punishment for crimes, yes; they are, however, in favour of prevention of crimes and reformation of criminals. If a bear wanders into town and mauls a child, any free will that the bear may or may not have is irrelevant. We don't punish the bear; we either lock it up someplace it can't harm anyone or we put it down. Unless you're a hopeless barbarian monster you're not in it to hurt the bear like it hurt you, you're in it to prevent someone else from being hurt. That's the whole idea.

This is just one notion that follows from the denial of free will in human life. What are some others?

Regret is out; so is pride. Apologies are pointless since no one could have acted better than she or he did. Certainly no one can be blamed for anything. Or praised. Just as it makes no sense to blame the weather for being unpleasant, even horrible, or to praise it for being great, so none of the awful stuff that people do can be blamed on them.

So?

This is one big argument from final consequences. "Well, if that's true, then . . . well life isn't as good as I thought it was!" Although it's possible (though certainly debatable) that all of these statements are correct, that doesn't matter. Maybe free will doesn't exist, and maybe it would be good if it did. The fact that free will might be nice to have and that some people want it has no causal relationship with the existence of free will. Unless you're C.S. Lewis, that is.

Imagine someone runs up to you frantically and, with a crazed look in his eye, yells: "Don't you realise that if you don't think we're immortal, we're all going to die?" What can you say to that. The fact that death is a bad thing in no way means that it is avoidable, or that sticking your fingers in your ears and loudly proclaiming that you don't believe in it will make it go away. Sure, you may think that it sucks that you don't have full control of every aspect of your inner and outer life, but that says nothing about the reality of the situation.

That means, also, that editorials . . . are equally nonsensical, gobbledygook . . . .

Well, you're certainly convincing me! But I'm just being a jerk. Here's the whole sentence:

That means, also, that editorials that congratulate some and those that chide others are equally nonsensical, gobbledygook, if there is no free will. . . . Artists must do their art, murderers must do their murders. No alternative to any of it is possible, just as the way a river runs is how it must run.

Murderers?! Oh noes! He must mean that determinists feel that art and murder are equally legitimate occupations. This is, of course, a false analogy, and an example of the is-ought fallacy: just because artists do art and murders do murder, doesn't mean that we wish it so. In fact, an artist is defined as a person who creates art, and a murderer is defined as a person who commits murder. By their very definitions, artists must do their art and murders must do their murders.

But of course, alternatives are possible. Even in a fully determined world, it is possible to stop a murder from taking place, if you define "stopping a murder" as taking an action that prevents a murder from occurring when the intention of the other party was to commit murder! It may be true that there is only one possible way that things will turn out, but no one involved knows what that is. We're not talking about fatalism, here!

Most difficult to swallow, though, is that none of what I am saying or writing here—or anything anyone else has said or written or is saying or writing or ever will say or write—is any more true or false than is the noise made by ocean ways.

And here is where the author of this particular editorial flies the idiocy flag for all to see. You're right, Tibor Machan, I do find that difficult to swallow. I happen to believe that there is one reality that we all share, and that any given proposition is either true or it is false, regardless of whether anyone ever knows it. Oh, I can guess what he's getting at, but he seems to be implying here that if we don't have free will, 2 + 2 does not equate to four. I believe that he means to say that writing down "2 + 2 = 4" is no more meaningful, in some magically objective way, than nonsense such as "FfffFWWdl;'6"; we interpret the symbols, and their meaning is what is true. But we are here, determined or not, to give the symbols meaning, to internalise them, and to analyse their truth or falsity. But even if it never occurred to anyone that water were composed of two hydrogen atoms bound to an oxygen atom, it would be true nonetheless—and if explorers one day encounter a random collection of rocks strewn across the regolith of some distant world that seems to say "water is H2O", that would be true, regardless of whether it was scribbled there by a mind governed by a will or by the mindless action of natural forces. If there is someone there to interpret it, then it has meaning.

Free or not, we're still here.

At the risk of being accused of ad hominem, I'll admit that this editorial reminded me most of a creationist screed, tying "evilution" to Nazis and Stalin. It's filled to bursting with arguments from final consequences, is-ought fallacies, and silly straw men for Machan to knock down.

Although I'm probably not an out-and-out determinist in the classical sense, I don't believe in "free" choice; there may be some quantum randomness that goes on—although most of it probably comes out in the wash, and you can't get from randomness to choice in any way that I know—but I don't believe in the "ghost in the machine" sort of free will that the religious peddle to get their god his get-out-of-the-problem-of-evil free card.

We are free to make the choices that we will make. These choices are determined by our genes, by our upbringing, by our environment, and perhaps a little by random chance—but they are determined by our nature: by what we really want. We can't change that. So we make the choices that we make because we want to make them. And if making those choices is what we want, then what are we complaining about.

Determinism, or bound will, or whatever it may come to be called when we take quantum randomness into account ("randeterminism"?—perhaps not) is a theory that accounts for whatever choice-making goes on, and from what I can see the only alternative is magic. "A theory about a thing does not change the thing the theory is about." If we don't have free will, that doesn't change who or what we are: it explains how we come to make the choices that we make. It seems to me a lovely theory that makes clear our place in the wonderful, unfolding dance of the cosmos.

Isn't it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?
—Douglas Adams

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