I think one of the most, if not the most, significant indicator that one’s world-view (narrative, story, faith, which includes philosophical naturalism, scientism, empiricism, etc.) is false, unhealthy, or extremely weak is if it ever leads one to say something along the lines of “I believe such-and-such is true, but I don’t, or can’t, live my life as if it were true.” I can’t imagine a more powerful inducement to cognitive dissonance as such a statement or sentiment. My first thought is: If something is true, accurate, the way the world is, but we have to live as if such isn’t really the case, then in many ways, we are living a lie. This almost seems a type of philosophical schizophrenia. Whatever it is that one believes, he should be able to say, “My life doesn’t always reflect my beliefs, but I try to live so that they do and I am aware of it when they don’t; and I desire my life to align or correspond with my beliefs, because I think what I believe is true.”
I just finished a series of posts on the justified use of violence and how we think about morality in general. One could see the great reluctance, if not outright dismissal, of the idea that a moral skeptic’s views lead to a reduction to power/freedom. Why? My theory is because even if someone believes the skeptic’s views to be true or is sympathetic to them, they don’t want to think it would mean such (a reduction to power). I think I made a fairly logical case that it does lead to such a reduction, but as the Stanford link made clear, what the moral skeptic believes metaphysically is actually the case, they for the most part do not live “as if” such were the case:
“…All that moral skeptics deny is that their (or anyone’s) moral beliefs are justified. This meta-ethical position about the epistemic status of moral beliefs need not trickle down and infect anyone’s substantive moral beliefs or actions.”-Stanford link (See previous post(s))
In other words, I may believe my moral beliefs are unjustifiable even to myself (just as an aside, in my view, if one cannot justify their moral actions or omissions to themselves or anyone else, then one is always acting out of pure power, but that’s just me…) on a metaphysical, epistemic level, but “substantively”, down here in my actual lived life, I don’t let what I think is actually true trickle down and “infect” my actual moral beliefs and actions. Okay. If such is really “true”, why not? I find this to be a grave flaw in any world-view that would produce such an epistemic view of morality.
Many of the comments were quick to point out that, regardless the skeptic’s beliefs, if he still abhorred all the things that objectivists did and acted “morally”, what was the problem? And, can we look at an actual moral issue or topic? Well, no one said such was a problem to begin with (that wasn’t the point), and it is irrelevant to any single moral issue if the point is the skeptic, one, doesn’t believe morality exists by referent and, two, believes we can’t justify any of our moral beliefs, to ourselves or anyone else. If we can’t justify any of our moral beliefs, then asking about any single example is irrelevant. To then ask for a single moral example would be like asking a person who didn’t believe in witches, to please tell us which type he didn’t believe in. Well, it wouldn’t matter—he doesn’t believe any of them exist! Of course, this very basic problem was lost on all. Anyway, more importantly for this post, it demonstrates the moral skeptic rarely, if ever, lives “as if” his views were actually the case, or true.
A perfect example of what I am talking about is summed up in this essay. The title says it all: “There is no such thing as free will, but we are better off believing in it anyway” Again, wow. So we know this to be true, proven by science (not), and yet let’s act as if it weren’t true. I can imagine moral skeptics making a similar statement regarding morality. We know it doesn’t exist ontologically (duh, science), but let’s act as if it does. Basically we are being told that even though we all know goblins and fairies do not exist, let’s all act as if they do. One should really question and wonder about any world-view that would have this philosophical undercurrent or this sense we should ignore the truth—pretend it doesn’t exist. And this is no trivial or small matter. We are talking about our very freedom to choose, which is intrinsically related to ethics—morality and responsibility. It touches everything, both the smallest choices and those with greater import.
Now, the writer simply assumes that the current “science” has proved or is greatly inclined toward proving, or is close to proving, there is no free-will in the traditional sense. I think his assumption is wrong. The reality is that at the philosophy-of-science, academic level, and other areas of academic philosophy, these are all disputed areas and hardly settled as is easily seen simply from perusing the literature. It may be settled in the minds of some neuroscientists out there working in a lab or on their computer, but once brought into the arena of the philosophy-of-science in academia, certainty, or the idea it has been “proved” all melts away.
However, I don’t particularly care about that. I am much more interested in the idea that we should live contrary to what we think is true about ourselves and the universe in general. Here is where I give the nihilist respect. He disagrees we should live contrary to the truth. Truth is too important to the nihilist. However, what about those who in principle agree with much, if not most, of the nihilist’s world-view on a metaphysical, epistemic level? Well, it appears they have a problem facing up to their own beliefs when it comes to life in the trenches. At the last, as their brothers and sisters get set to charge the barricades, they blink and fall back into the trenches. It all sounds great in the abstract—it just doesn’t seem to work in real life.
Now, for those who have come to a place of philosophical naturalism or similar world-view/narrative, and understand well the choice they have made, I would say the great majority are college graduates, have been raised in fairly stable families, with mid-to higher middle-class type incomes and life-styles. They were probably raised also with middle-class values, a tepid blend of American fairness and pragmatism, good manners, politeness, and a nod to a moderate to progressive Judeo-Christian sense of morality (whether consciously or whether imbibed thoughtlessly from the surrounding culture). And I would also tend to think most of this cultural influence to still be present and active, even if after a later acquired metaphysical and epistemic belief system has in the abstract completely undercut it.
But what happens when these metaphysical and epistemic beliefs trickle down to those not so advantaged? As I have posited many times, since none of us can prove, or found, our world-views in any sort of final scientific manner, in any empirical manner, since we all believe what we do (over-arching narrative wise) by faith, how can we know if one world-view is healthier, truer, or perhaps a less false way of viewing ourselves and the world than another? Well, we can ask questions. Questions like, “Under this narrative, can I live as if what I believe is true or not?” Or, “Is what I believe something that an entire culture or civilization could also believe and understand, or is what I believe only accessible to the higher educated or those with resources and the other advantages of my culture?” Or, “What does what I believe lead to when an entire culture has adopted it, in the area of morality or any area of life?”
Well, here in the noted essay, we can ask one of those questions. As noted here:
“In 2002, two psychologists had a simple but brilliant idea: Instead of speculating about what might happen if people lost belief in their capacity to choose, they could run an experiment to find out.”
Here is what they found:
“When asked to take a math test, with cheating made easy, the group primed to see free will as illusory proved more likely to take an illicit peek at the answers. When given an opportunity to steal—to take more money than they were due from an envelope of $1 coins—those whose belief in free will had been undermined pilfered more. On a range of measures, Vohs told me, she and Schooler found that ‘people who are induced to believe less in free will are more likely to behave immorally.’
It seems that when people stop believing they are free agents, they stop seeing themselves as blameworthy for their actions. Consequently, they act less responsibly and give in to their baser instincts.”
But wait, there is more:
“Another pioneer of research into the psychology of free will, Roy Baumeister of Florida State University, has extended these findings. For example, he and colleagues found that students with a weaker belief in free will were less likely to volunteer their time to help a classmate than were those whose belief in free will was stronger. Likewise, those primed to hold a deterministic view by reading statements like ‘Science has demonstrated that free will is an illusion’ were less likely to give money to a homeless person or lend someone a cellphone.
Further studies by Baumeister and colleagues have linked a diminished belief in free will to stress, unhappiness, and a lesser commitment to relationships. They found that when subjects were induced to believe that ‘all human actions follow from prior events and ultimately can be understood in terms of the movement of molecules,’ those subjects came away with a lower sense of life’s meaningfulness. Early this year, other researchers published a study showing that a weaker belief in free will correlates with poor academic performance.
The list goes on: Believing that free will is an illusion has been shown to make people less creative, more likely to conform, less willing to learn from their mistakes, and less grateful toward one another. In every regard, it seems, when we embrace determinism, we indulge our dark side.”
Wow. So think about that. If I have this world-view, and if a subsidiary part of it is determinism, this is what it can produce in people. Given my world-view is not proved by science, is not certain, is possibly false, given I believe it by faith, why in the world would I choose to believe this? Because it is “true” and proved by science? Well, that is disputed. It is not a settled matter. None of us can say that. It is not “science” to believe such, but rather a philosophical commitment. So, given this, why would I believe it? Why would I choose to believe something that is harmful in this way?
I think a significant reason philosophical naturalism is false, is because if we believe it and actually try and live as if it were true, it can cause or lead to these negative results in people. I can’t imagine many people would want a world populated with a significant portion of people who have been led by a world-view (or just told its “science”) to “indulge [their] dark side.”
So what does one philosopher propose we do in light of these bad outcomes to the supposed “truth” of determinism?
“Saul Smilansky, a philosophy professor at the University of Haifa, in Israel, has wrestled with this dilemma throughout his career and come to a painful conclusion: “We cannot afford for people to internalize the truth” about free will.”
Wow, imagine a world-view we cannot afford people to internalize, even though it’s the “truth”. A core truth of the Christian narrative is that the “truth shall set you free.” Here, with the world-view of philosophical naturalism and the subsidiary determinism, we see the exact opposite. Here, the “truth” will harm you and potentially make you a worse person.
Dr. Smilasky goes on:
“Smilansky is convinced that free will does not exist in the traditional sense—and that it would be very bad if most people realized this… Smilansky advocates a view he calls illusionism—the belief that free will is indeed an illusion, but one that society must defend. The idea of determinism, and the facts supporting it, must be kept confined within the ivory tower. Only the initiated, behind those walls, should dare to, as he put it to me, “look the dark truth in the face.” Smilansky says he realizes that there is something drastic, even terrible, about this idea—but if the choice is between the true and the good, then for the sake of society, the true must go.”
Do I really need to say anymore? It seems to me such a world-view is deeply flawed. Imagine a world-view that leads us to assert: “…the true most go.” In my view, this should lead us to see that any world-view/narrative, or a derivative part, that would have us conclude “the truth must go” is a false world-view/narrative.
But some are not happy with this response such as Sam Harris.
“The big problem, in Harris’s view, is that people often confuse determinism with fatalism. Determinism is the belief that our decisions are part of an unbreakable chain of cause and effect. Fatalism, on the other hand, is the belief that our decisions don’t really matter, because whatever is destined to happen will happen—like Oedipus’s marriage to his mother, despite his efforts to avoid that fate. When people hear there is no free will, they wrongly become fatalistic; they think their efforts will make no difference. But this is a mistake. People are not moving toward an inevitable destiny; given a different stimulus (like a different idea about free will), they will behave differently and so have different lives. If people better understood these fine distinctions, Harris believes, the consequences of losing faith in free will would be much less negative than Vohs’s and Baumeister’s experiments suggest.”
What? So let me get this straight: Determinism is true, which is the idea that “our decisions are part of an unbreakable chain of cause and effect.” However, we shouldn’t be “fatalistic” about that because there might be a “different stimulus”, like “a different idea about free will” and we can behave differently. What? That might be the most incoherent chain of thought I’ve read in some time. Is the “different” stimulus or “idea” the idea or stimulus that determinism is false? Or is it a stimulus or idea that leaves determinism still true? Because that would be a flat-out contradiction as if an “unbreakable chain of cause and effect” can be reconciled with a “different stimulus” which would “break” the “unbreakable” chain. Nonsense.
And finally there is the view of Bruce Waller:
“Some scholars argue that we should think about freedom of choice in terms of our very real and sophisticated abilities to map out multiple potential responses to a particular situation. One of these is Bruce Waller, a philosophy professor at Youngstown State University. In his new book, Restorative Free Will, he writes that we should focus on our ability, in any given setting, to generate a wide range of options for ourselves, and to decide among them without external constraint.
For Waller, it simply doesn’t matter that these processes are underpinned by a causal chain of firing neurons. In his view, free will and determinism are not the opposites they are often taken to be; they simply describe our behavior at different levels.
Waller believes his account fits with a scientific understanding of how we evolved: Foraging animals—humans, but also mice, or bears, or crows—need to be able to generate options for themselves and make decisions in a complex and changing environment. Humans, with our massive brains, are much better at thinking up and weighing options than other animals are. Our range of options is much wider, and we are, in a meaningful way, freer as a result.
Waller’s definition of free will is in keeping with how a lot of ordinary people see it. One 2010 study found that people mostly thought of free will in terms of following their desires, free of coercion (such as someone holding a gun to your head). As long as we continue to believe in this kind of practical free will, that should be enough to preserve the sorts of ideals and ethical standards examined by Vohs and Baumeister.”
Notice he is really side-stepping the problem. He is basically saying that because our brains are powerful, and can generate choices, that this alone somehow provides a way out of the free-will conundrum. But how?—it doesn’t address the determinist’s point. If cause-and-effect is an unbreakable chain, then it is whether one’s brain is more highly evolved and powerful or whether it is the brain of an ape or dog. Physics doesn’t care about either. For him to say that on one level, there is determinism, but on another there is not, is to misunderstand what is being asserted by the determinist. The determinist would say that physics works the same at any level we care to name.
To say there is “practical” free-will but not metaphysical or actual, traditional free-will is to simply assert that regardless of what we think physics tells us about the cause-and-effect chain of brain events and actions, people seem to understand and experience their choices and actions as an actual freedom. The first part is question-begging and the second just descriptive. Further, it completely discounts the possibility we could be describing an actual freedom of will (since that is what it seems people experience) and not an illusionary one.
So, even here, I don’t see a view of free-will that reflects a healthy or attractive narrative/world-view. I think it reflects poorly on that narrative. I think it another reason to then think such a narrative to be false.
Throughout this essay two problems underlie the narrative. One is we want people to be and feel responsible for their actions. The second is we want to recognize that “no man is an island” and in many ways we are responsible for each other and not totally responsible for ourselves. I do appreciate Waller’s efforts to balance these two very important aspects to any discussion regarding what it means to be “free” or to have “free” will. I view it sort of like this: At a certain age (varies for each individual and probably culture), we become free to make decisions, to choose other than what we want or desire or even feel compelled to do. However, there are many aspects to life where we had no choice in what happens to us, but we can choose how we will react and respond to what happens to us or to the cards life has dealt us. None of us chose which family, which ethnicity, or culture we would be born into. None of us chose what geographic location we would be born. None of us chose what religion or lack thereof we would be born into by way of whatever our parents believed or didn’t believe. None of us chose to be born into either poverty or wealth. There is so much we had no power over that determines so much of who we are and what options and choices were open to us as we grew up and perhaps are even now. Still, even in that knowledge, we are free to choose and do otherwise. Are we always strong enough to? Of course not. So what? That is another issue. But we know that sometimes we were/are strong enough. We know we have chosen otherwise sometimes and many times, we are not even sure why we did—but we did. I think the Christian narrative and other such narratives allow for both of these aspects to free-will to be present and not opposed to each other. Clearly, given Waller’s attempts here, whatever narrative he is operating from, does not allow this and he has to try and reconcile the two.
As noted in the essay, I too especially liked President Obama’s comments where he reminded us that “You didn’t build that” meaning- you did not do that by yourself. The idea of the “self-made man” is a myth really. Even if there are the rare exceptions, people who literally for generations came from nothing but excelled enough in some area to rise above their past and circumstances and were “successful”. Even then, for the Christian, we would say this person still didn’t do such by themselves but through the gracious gifts of a creator God, but they also still needed human help at some point. Our lives are part of a great web of others and all these intersections along with the serendipity of life, of luck, of simply being in the right place at the right time, but also of hard work, vision, good choices, and will—all combine to create a great confluence of myriad factors bringing each of us to the moment we find ourselves. It is, frankly, a great mystery. A wonderful, beautiful, and even frightening mystery. But we need not make this mystery into an opposition.
However, I do believe what Waller is after here is a cake-and-eating-it-too (as suggested in the essay) attempt to hold onto two ideas that end up contradicting or undercutting the other as a matter of logic. If we are going to assert that our world is deterministic in a cause-and-effect machine like, mathematical fashion (pure physics; of course only from a Newtonian or Laplacean understanding of physics), if we are going to believe by faith the universe is causally closed, then free-will as traditionally understood is a myth. If so, then people are not fundamentally any more responsible for their actions than a hurricane could be said to be responsible (See Harris’s comments). There is no way to then say (logically anyway), well, yes, but as a practical matter, since people seem to believe they are free and responsible, since they seem to act that way, since they have big brains, we can just let the fact they are not really free go and just try to emphasize the communal aspect to mitigate the damage possible if we were to go with what we know is the actual case.
Well, why not consider the better and more reasonable alternative? It could be that even though none of us are an island, we are still free in the traditional sense. We are the product of much we had no freedom to choose, but we are also, even knowing such, free to choose how we will respond to what we couldn’t choose. As is often heard, “It is not what happens to me that matters—I have no control over such, but how I choose to respond to what happens to me, which I do have control over, is what matters.” That is the essence of free-will. If we are created souls, if we are spirit, living in a one-story holistic existence, then there is no reason to oppose the two ideas that we are both the result of much that is beyond our control and still free in that knowledge to choose otherwise as our souls transcend a pure cause-and-effect universe, which would also mean the universe is causally open; in fact, the entire question rests on whether one believes the universe is casually closed or open—and neither “science” or physics proves either view. However, one view, that the universe is causally open does seem to be consistent with and corresponds to our lived and felt experience of being free persons.
Given that, since it is not a question of what the science or physics proves or doesn’t prove, why not choose the story that most corresponds to our own lived experience of being free, that we feel and act, live, as if we are free and that we can choose otherwise—and doesn’t contain the conundrum of believing physics tells us something we have to then try and live as if it weren’t true, even though we know it is? And what if we have confused “physics” with philosophical naturalism/empiricism/scientism? What if “science” or “physics” tells us no such thing, but rather we are hearing a philosophical counter-story, another faith-based narrative? If so, why not believe the story that doesn’t require such cognitive dissonance or discounting one’s lived every-day experience and is still compatible with everything we know from science and physics once we remove the philosophical naturalism/empiricism/scientism looking glass?
PS- Although it is not a discussion of free-will in a metaphysical sense, here is an interesting essay on how something we all experience plays into the practical aspects of free-will.