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Currents in Naturalism


Naturalism, a worldview that takes human beings and their behavior to be fully embedded within the natural, material continuum, gets expressed in a wide range of contexts, from politics to obesity to punishment to spirituality.  The contents below are an occasional sampling.  Note: Currents in Naturalism now continues in the form of Memeing Naturalism, a weblog, your comments invited. 



Brooks, reconfigured

In an analysis of the Columbine massacre written two years ago, New York Times columnist David Brooks opined that “My instinct is that Dylan Klebold was a self-initiating moral agent who made his choices and should be condemned for them.  Neither his school nor his parents determined his behavior.”  According to Brooks back then, Klebold and his behavior aren’t fully traceable to determinants – he created himself as a moral agent, and is condemnable on that basis. 

Fast forward to a May 7, 2006 op-ed “Marshmallows and Public Policy” in which Brooks presents a thoughtful analysis of the determinants of self-control in children.  Here’s a very different columnist, deeply interested in understanding behavior and in applying that knowledge to build communities and schools that allow kids to become responsible citizens, not killers. 

He points out that self-control in children is positively correlated with better SAT scores, attending better colleges, less involvement with drugs, and other measures of adult stability and satisfaction.  Given this connection, he asks the right question about causality: “…how do we get people to master the sort of self-control that leads to success?”   Kids differ in their innate capacity for delaying gratification, no doubt, but self-discipline is also a learned skill, and Brooks wants society to pay more attention to teaching it.  Excellent.

Tellingly, and rightly, he discounts “sheer willpower” as a factor in explaining where self-control comes from.  After all, willpower is just another name for self-control, and we can’t suppose that it creates itself – a logical impossibility.   Instead, he recommends we follow University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Heidt’s suggestion to create “stable, predictable environments for children, in which good behavior pays off.”

So in this op-ed Brooks does not suppose, as he did in discussing Dylan Klebold two years ago, that something other than environment and heredity determines how kids turn out.   If becoming a self-disciplined adult is fully caused, why should we suppose that becoming a morally good person, which after all centrally involves control capacities, is not?  The upshot is that present Brooks is implicitly calling earlier Brooks into question  As his current reasoning suggests, it’s the full complement of causes, not a capacity to rise above one’s circumstances, that explains whether or not self-control and moral virtue are achieved.  From a naturalist’s standpoint this shift in perspective is good progress.

However, my guess is that Brooks would still resist this conclusion about moral agency, and insist there’s something about it that transcends causation. After all, this is a central dogma of our culture, especially for conservatives: we are first causes of ourselves in a way that makes us really responsible – we are “moral levitators.”  But if we accept that self-control is determined, we have to say what other aspects of agenthood aren’t, and then provide a plausible alternative account of them.  This is difficult, to put it mildly, once we eschew causality.    

If Brooks wants to believe that Klebold was a self-initiating moral agent and that kids are fully determined in their control capacities, he ends up in implicit self-contradiction, in which case he has some self-reconciliation to do.   But that’s OK; after all, who doesn’t?  Reconfiguring ourselves in the light of new insights, we all agree, is how we become better moral agents. 

*What’s puzzling in Brook’s analysis is that he pooh-poohs what he calls “structural reforms” such as smaller class sizes and universal day care.  Clearly, the creation of stable environments for kids in which they are taught self-control could profitably include such reforms.



Responsibility roundup

A naturalistic understanding ourselves challenges some conventional notions of freedom and responsibility, as the following news stories make clear. But we needn't fall into a moral panic.  Paradoxically enough, seeing that we don't ultimately create ourselves gives us greater opportunities for self-control, as the last piece illustrates.  The titles in quotes are the original articles. 

"Free Will: You Only Think You Have It"  There's considerable controversy among philosophers about whether people think having free will requires us to be free of determinism, or not (see the Research page at the CFN).  According to Zeeya Merali in the May 6 issue of New Scientist, a new theory of quantum phenomena developed by Dutch physicist Gerard 't Hooft reveals reality to be fundamentally deterministic, and "abandoning the uncertainty of quantum physics means we must give up the cherished notion that we have free will."  John Conway and Simon Kochen, professors of mathematics at Princeton, also believe free will requires indeterminism, and Kochen is quoted as saying that if 't Hooft's theory is right, "Our lives could be like the second showing of a movie - all actions play out as thought they are free, but that freedom is an illusion."   It's curious that Merali, Conway and Kochen think (as do many, perhaps) that indeterminism would somehow give us a free will worth wanting, to use Daniel Dennett's phrase from his book Elbow Room.  As David Hume saw long ago, indeterminism can't possibly give us authorship or responsibility for our actions.  Whatever sorts of freedom and responsibility we have (and we do have some as natural creatures), they don't gain power or plausibility by denying determinism.

"Far Out, Man. But Is It Quantum Physics?"  Writing in the New York Times science section, Dennis Overbye also relates physics to free will in a review of the movie "What the Bleep Do We Know?".   He ends the article saying: "I'd like to believe that, like Galileo, I would have the courage to see the world clearly, in all its cruelty and beauty, 'without hope or fear,' as the Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis put it. Take free will. Everything I know about physics and neuroscience tells me it's a myth. But I need that illusion to get out of bed in the morning. Of all the durable and necessary creations of atoms, the evolution of the illusion of the self and of free will are perhaps the most miraculous. That belief is necessary to my survival. But I wouldn't call it good physics."  One wants to know, of course, how an illusion you know is an illusion gets you out of bed. You can't call something a belief if you believe it's false, so the free will illusion probably isn't necessary for Overbye's survival.  Yet, like John Horgan, he persists in claiming it is.  Such is the power of "belief in belief" in (contra-causal) free will, to borrow yet another phrase from Dennett (Breaking The Spell) Here's another spell that needs breaking. 

"Does eating salmon lower the murder rate?" - As reported by Stephen Mihm in the New York Times Magazine, researchers in Britain discovered a correlation between consumption of omega-3 fatty acids (found in fish such as salmon) and lower rates of anti-social behavior among prisoners.  But, Mihm worries, "What would it mean if we found a clear link between diet and violent behavior? To start with, it might challenge the notion that violence is a product of free will." And further: "...there's something that many people may find unnerving about the idea of curing violent behavior by changing what people eat. It threatens to let criminals evade responsibility for their actions. Think, for example, of the infamous 'Twinkie defense,' in which an accused murderer's lawyer suggested that junk food was partly to blame for his client's compromised mental state." What's operating here is the idea that free will operates outside of cause and effect, so when we discover the empirical causes of violence, justifications for holding people responsible seem to collapse.  But of course knowing the real causes of violence doesn't mean we let criminals go free.  It simply means there's no good justification for retribution, and that we'll be smarter in preventing crime (safe, healthy communities and salmon for everyone) and rehabilitating offenders (life skills education, job training and, of course, salmon).

"Kagan: Mind Matters, But So Does Morality" -  Interviewed by Carey Goldberg of the Boston Globe, Harvard psychologist Jerome Kagan warns against supposing that determinism, biological and environmental, obviates all ascriptions of responsibility:  "It is dangerous to be lulled into believing that an adolescent who commits a violent act of aggression 'couldn't help it' because of temperament or life experiences and, therefore, should not be held responsible. Every adolescent, save the tiny proportion with serious brain damage, knows that harming another is wrong and has the ability to inhibit that behavior."  The question, though, is what our responsibility practices should be, given that, as Kagan understands, the ability to inhibit harmful behavior is fully determined by the interaction of innate temperament and life experiences.  One sort of responsibility practice often overlooked in discussions of harmful behavior is to deliberately increase adolescents' powers of self-control (see below and also "Brooks, Reconfigured").  To imagine that kids simply choose to misbehave in a way that transcends the failure to learn self-control is to set them up as targets for punitive retribution, and retribution need not (and should not) be part of our responsibility practices.

Better Kids, Naturalistically - Jeffrey Bruns is marketing software to help children learn to be more successful and responsible.  He takes an unflinchingly causal, Skinnerian view of behavior, which he claims will give parents more non-punitive leverage in getting their little darlings to shape up.  He says: "The law of cause and effect is predictable and irreversible. Knowing how to use the law, kids can attract success and happiness. Ignorance of the law can result in boredom, frustration, and failure, which can lead to fear, drugs and suicide.”  And here's a sure draw for overworked caretakers: “In about three weeks, children start to change their strategy from arguing to get what they want, to looking for ways to earn it. Kids go from not doing their chores and you having to constantly remind them, to asking for extra chores to help out. Think of all of the time you will save.”  Now, your results may vary, but at least Bruns is taking the science of human behavior seriously.  New York Times David Brooks should know about this, see his piece advocating more attention to teaching children self-control skills, mentioned above



Spirituality, Naturalized?   

Duke philosopher and brain scientist Owen Flanagan recently completed his tenure as John Templeton Foundation Fellow at the University of Southern California, during which he delivered 6 lectures, to be published by MIT Press.  In his last talk Spirituality Naturalized?, Flanagan says "Naturalism, as I conceive it, is plenty broad enough to make room for robust conceptions of the sacred, the spiritual, the sublime, and of moral excellence."  That a Templeton fellow defends an explicitly naturalistic spirituality is most encouraging, given the Templeton Foundation's aversion (thus far) to what it sees as "the flatness of a purely naturalistic, secularized view of reality" (see here).  If Flanagan manages to widen their conception of what counts as authentically religious, this will certainly advance Templeton's contribution to the science-religion dialog.



Time and Free Will

A Radio Lab production with science reporter Robert Krulwich called "Against Time," the section on "No Special Now," explores the somewhat discomfiting implications of the Einsteinian 4-dimensional "block universe" for free will.   Courtesy of physicist Brian Greene, who questions the idea that the future is open, and neuroscientist V. S. Ramachandran, who discusses the famous Libet experiments on the timing of readiness potentials, Krulwich discovers that he isn't perhaps quite "in charge" the way he thought he was.  Greene is sympathetic to Krulwich's concerns, but can't honestly reassure him about free will, and tries to distract him with multi-verse cosmology.  But Krulwich doesn't buy it; he wants his free will back.  Ramachandran is trenchantly definitive: the unconscious readiness potential precedes the conscious choice to move one's finger by .5 seconds, so consciousness can't be in control the way we thought.  No solace for Krulwich. 
        Green talks about time in his terrific book The Fabric of the Cosmos, chapter 5, "The Frozen River," and chapter 15, "Teleporters and Time Machines," (see pp. 451-8 re free will).  Each moment we experience as flowing from future to past is actually "an eternal and immutable feature of spacetime," so past, present, and future co-exist in the block universe.  Time as a dimension is simply there, just as up/down, left/right and forward/back are all there, laid out in front of us.  This means all our past, present and future actions co-exist as well, strange as it may seem.  But this can be understood as a time neutral re-statement of what science, from our (illusory) time-bound conscious perspective, describes as causal relations over time.  The
way one moment effortlessly gets transformed into the next – no hindrance or obstacle, just a smooth transition – suggests the next moment was (is) simply there, waiting for the mind to experience.  Naturalist attorney Bob Gulack explores time and free will in one of his talks for the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County, New Jersey, see here.



Scientism vs. Science 

 In his New York Times review of Dennett's Breaking the Spell, Leon Wieseltier writes: "Scientism, the view that science can explain all human conditions and expressions, mental as well as physical, is a superstition, one of the dominant superstitions of our day...".   But are science's explanatory ambitions, over-reaching or not, rightly called scientism?  Responding to Wieseltier, Duke philosopher Owen Flanagan deftly counters as follows:  "First, ‘scientism’, as most intellectuals and philosophers understand it, is not the tame regulative hypothesis (which is falsifiable) that science can, in principle, explain ‘all human conditions and expressions,’ but the incredible view that everything worth expressing can be expressed in a scientific idiom.  Most naturalistic thinkers, including Dennett and myself, think that science can, in principle, explain the nature and function of art, music, and religion.  But no one, save possibly long dead positivists, ever thought that science could express whatever is worth expressing.  So let’s accept that what Bach, Mozart, Coltrane, Michelangelo, Buddha, Jesus, and Mohammed expressed cannot be expressed scientifically.  This leaves open the possibility that science can shed light on their musical, artistic, and spiritual productions, including what is expressed and why.  This is all Dennett’s important project assumes, not ‘scientism.’"  See also Flanagan's further critique of scientism and what he calls "global metaphysical materialism" in Science for Monks: Buddhism and Science, pp. 15-17. 



Childhood's End

The threat of creeping naturalism (as some might call it) is on display at Edge.Org, which features a forum of noted thinkers on their candidate for the world's most dangerous idea.  Ideas can be "dangerous" simply by upsetting conventional wisdom, but they might also pose a danger by undermining what some suppose are psychologically or socially necessary assumptions about human nature.   As many contributors to the forum show, we are being naturalized at a terrific pace, in that we can increasingly understand ourselves without appealing to anything immaterial or supernatural.  The biological and cognitive sciences are compiling explanations of human behavior which leave no role for the soul or contra-causal free will, the power of the person to choose and act without her and her choices being fully caused in turn.  Not surprisingly, the challenge to such bedrock assumptions can be perceived as dangerous in both the superficial and deeper senses.  As Australian art critic Miriam Cosic says in a piece about the Edge forum (emphasis added):

The other idea suffusing answers to the Edge's 2006 question is that evolutionary psychology may have explanations for behaviours, thoughts even, that will dismantle the edifice that holds up our idea of what it is to be human. The most appalling ramification has little to do with why men don't listen and why women can't read maps. Rather it calls into question the very existence of reason and of free will: the assumption of which has lain at the heart of every culture's moral system.

But it's also quite possible to understand these developments - on the assumption that science gets it right - as our coming of age as a sentient species.  The increasing awareness of naturalism is childhood's end, to borrow the title of Arthur C. Clarke's novel.  We're gradually growing up, getting too big, cognitively, for our supernatural attire.  The danger of science to our conventional understandings of human nature is undeniable, but whether the end of our illusions - in particular the illusion that we are causally privileged over nature - is dangerous to us and our culture, is an open question.  Daniel Dennett thinks Darwinism a dangerous idea in the first sense, but certainly not the second, since he believes we can live in the light of the truth of natural (and artificial) selection.  Likewise, it might be the case that we can live, even flourish, while understanding ourselves as entirely natural creatures, without souls or contra-causal freedom.  Indeed, organizations which champion science and naturalism, such as the Center for Naturalism, the Center for Inquiry, and the American Humanist Association, are betting that an empirical understanding of ourselves is the best way forward, and that supernaturalism, not naturalism, poses the greater threat to psychological health, social stability, and the planet.  

To grow up and grow old gracefully as a species, we have to get a clear understanding of the implications of naturalism, otherwise we might fall into a moral panic, in particular a free will panic.  A few contributors to the Edge unfortunately misrepresent to a greater or lesser degree these implications, abetting unnecessary fears, for instance that we are now "merely" physical creatures, or that naturalism undercuts all viable notions of responsibility, rationality, and political liberty.  These misrepresentations tend to hold onto normative criteria rooted in supernaturalism (e.g., that the non-physical is somehow more dignified than the physical, that we must be contra-causally free to be rational or be moral agents), when in fact there are naturalistic alternatives that fill the bill quite nicely.  These misrepresentations, some of which are critiqued below, also tend to assume that our social practices, for instance our criminal justice system, are somehow immutable or optimal, when in fact the naturalization of human nature suggests there's considerable room for improvement.  

On the other hand, some contributors tout the marvelous possibilities of naturalism, for instance Carolyn Porco, who speaks to a naturalistic spirituality.   Not only must we defuse fears, we must display the ethical and practical viability of taking on a science-based view of who we are.  This will make growing up positively attractive, not a bitter pill or a fall from grace.  More on this below.



Naturalizing goes on apace

A fair number of the 119 responses at the Edge forum on dangerous ideas have to do with the looming naturalization of human nature, which takes us off our pedestal in the tradition of Copernicus, Freud, and DarwinIt's a fascinating ride to browse through them, great stuff on a wide range of topics, not just naturalization.  Five members of the Center for Naturalism advisory board have posted responses: 

Susan Blackmore - the purposelessness of nature
Paul Bloom - the death of the soul
Daniel Dennett - the "population explosion" of memes
Nicholas Humphrey - believing without evidence
Thomas Metzinger - questioning contra-causal free will might threaten our sanity and personal liberties (see below for a brief critique)

Here are further entries of note mostly regarding the impact of naturalism, in no particular order except the first.  This is not to suggest that the other contributions aren't equally worth looking at.  Not all these hyperlinks work properly, so you may have to search some pages.

Clay Shirkey - contra-causal free will is going away, so let's deal with it
Dan Sperber - on naturalizing culture
John Allen Paulos - the self as a fiction
Clifford Pickover - on virtual realities
Scott Sampson - we are natural energy dispersion systems
John Horgan - the death of the soul (see critique below)
Eric Kandel - the unconscious component of choice threatens free will and responsibility
Sam Harris - against religion (mentions free will as a supernatural holdover)
Gary Marcus - on the mind as mechanism
Carolyn Porco - on naturalistic spirituality
Barry C. Smith - the challenge of science to cherished notions of human agency
David Buss - the evolution of evil
V. S. Ramachandran - on Crick's "astonishing hypothesis" that we're a pack of neurons
Craig Venter - on the impact of genetic determinism
Mihalyi Csikszentmihaly - on free market ideology



Rejecting retribution

At the Edge forum on dangerous ideas, Richard Dawkins comes out nicely against retribution, saying that "Retribution as a moral principle is incompatible with a scientific view of human behaviour."  Just as we wouldn't rationally "punish" an old jalopy for not running right, so too it doesn't make good sense to inflict pain and suffering on offenders just for their suffering's sake, without the prospect of achieving any consequential benefit.  This is the essence of retribution, that punishment need not entail any benefits, but it's difficult to defend retribution if we dispense with the freely willing, self-made self that simply deserves to suffer.  So Dawkins has done us a huge favor by drawing out one of the primary ethical and practical implications of a naturalism that denies contra-causal free will.  On the other hand, it isn't the case, as he puts it, that "a truly scientific, mechanistic view of the nervous system make[s] nonsense of the very idea of responsibility."  Even if we are fully determined creatures, as science tends to show, we must still continue to hold each other responsible - as compassionately and as non-punitively as possible - since that's partially how we learn to behave responsibly.  We are not ultimately responsible, of course, but we are nevertheless properly subject to moral evaluation, rewards and sanctions.  Seeing that we can naturalize moral responsibility, that we need not abandon it, is one of several important reassurances we can offer to those fearful that a scientific understanding of ourselves undermines the basis for ethics and the social order.  If we don't present naturalism accurately, we'll end up like David Honigmann of the Financial Times, who thinks that in abolishing free will, Dawkins and other naturalists show that "Holding people responsible for their behaviour is... completely irrational."



Death of the soul: just what the doctor ordered

At the Edge forum on the world's most dangerous ideas, science writer John Horgan's candidate for that honor is that we have no souls.   As he points out, neuroscience is rapidly closing the explanatory gaps that leave something for the immaterial soul to do.  That the brain might do everything he calls the "depressing hypothesis."  After all, doesn't the soul give us "a fundamental autonomy, privacy and dignity"?  And wouldn't a full understanding of the "neural code" allow unprecedented manipulation via brain control, and unlimited self-modification, threatening the very notion of an innate human nature?  Perhaps, but Horgan's concerns can best be allayed by coming to terms with what science has to say about ourselves, and realizing that the "fundamental autonomy, privacy and dignity" conferred by the soul is not only non-existent, but unnecessary.  After all, there are vital naturalistic sorts of autonomy and dignity which, if we're lucky, we enjoy in spades.  And these stem from freedoms, rights (e.g., to privacy), and responsibilities that are social and political, not metaphysical.  There may indeed be no human soul-essence, but that's another sort of freedom to explore.  Besides, seeing that consciousness, choice and all our higher capacities arise out of the "mere" matter of the brain helps re-enchant the physical world.  So all's well without the soul and its companion myth, contra-causal free will.  We just need to remain vigilant about our civil liberties, but we were doing that anyway. 



Will determinism drive us crazy, or undermine an open society?

Writing at the Edge forum on dangerous ideas, neurophilosopher Thomas Metzinger (scroll down after click) worries we might go literally insane believing in determinism: we won’t be able to integrate our conceptual understanding that we are determined creatures with our phenomenal self-models.  But these don’t conflict precisely because the former is conceptual, the later phenomenal.  How does it feel to be a perfectly determined creature (on the assumption we are)?  Just as we presently do, even if that feeling might involve what we conceptually know is the illusion of being undetermined or ultimately self-caused in some respect. We stay sane since the conscious self-model, as Metzinger himself shows in his tour de force Being No One: The Self-Model Theory of Subjectivity, is an extremely robust phenomenal construction of the brain, generally impervious to mere concepts.  And besides, it’s not clear that the feeling of being a contra-causal agent is essential to the self-model anyway.  There’s probably cultural variability in the contra-causal agent illusion, in that the feeling of being a self may not always be interpreted as having contra-causal freedom.  And some people (such as Susan Blackmore) have gotten rid of it; they deny feeling as if they’re ultimately self-caused or uncaused in any respect, and they get around in the world just fine.  So there’s no insurmountable problem here. 
      Metzinger also worries about the anti-democratic implications of determinism: “Making a complex society work implies controlling the behavior of millions of people; if individual human beings can control their own behavior to a much lesser degree than we have thought in the past, if bottom-up doesn't work, then it becomes tempting to control it top-down, by the state.”  But hold the phone.  I control my behavior in that its my bottom-up and top-down systems that result in what I do, no one else’s (one of Daniel Dennett's favorite points against free will panic).  I’m not "out of control" just because determinism might be the case.  It’s just that there’s no separate uncaused or indeterministic libertarian self pulling the strings.  Since I’m not out of control, the state has no good justification to encroach on my liberty to act voluntarily within the law.  So there’s no implication from determinism, or from losing the “robust conscious experience of free will,” to totalitarianism.   
      Bottom line: properly understood, the challenge to contra-causal free will posed by determinism isn't a danger, either psychologically or politically.  There might in fact be personal and social benefits in challenging the myth of the self-made self, and besides, it’s more interesting and honest to live in the light of what neuroscience shows to be the case about ourselves.  Childhood’s end, right?


A more compassionate libertarianism

Cathy Young, syndicated columnist and contributor at Reason, recently took an enlightened view of poverty - for a libertarian.  She comes across as reasonably compassionate, compared for instance to Randian Objectivists, the radical me-firsters some of whom advocated withholding aid for hurricane victims.  Young disavows such cold-blooded reliance on "personal responsibility," acknowledging that people can't simply bootstrap themselves out of poverty:  "Most of us, if born into bad circumstances, would have likely ended up trapped in the same self-defeating patterns."  Of course she still takes a  small government position, saying that "spending more money won't cure poverty," when progressives would argue that more money, intelligently allocated, can make quite a difference.  Nevertheless, overall Young models a more altruistic libertarianism that takes a causal understanding of the culture of poverty seriously.  This is progress, even if Young isn't yet a progressive, as evidenced by her views on retribution


Ethical Culture challenged on free will

The Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County, NJ was regaled with a hard-hitting and very entertaining talk by Robert Gulack on what he calls the "third lie" of contra-causal free will, the first two being god and immortality.  He cites a host of luminaries, all of whom were skeptics about such freedom (Spinoza, Hume, Mill, Jefferson, Lincoln, Twain, Einstein, Darrow), and draws out the progressive implications of seeing ourselves as fully caused participants in the natural order.  And he reassures us that, just as we don't need god to be good, "In just the same way, ethics can exist without free will.  We can make ethical commitments even though we are not, in some ultimate sense, free to choose what those commitments will be.  In fact, we do make ethical commitments when and only when we are caused to make them. "  By all means read the rest of what Gulack has to say - it's an excellent example of how naturalists can, and should, challenge what Alan Watts called the taboo against knowing who we are. 




Rocker into naturalism

Turns out that Greg Graffin, founder of the band Bad Religion, is a full-fledged naturalist.  He studied at Cornell with ally-of-naturalism Will Provine, doing his Ph.D thesis on "Monism, Atheism and the Naturalist Worldview: Perspectives from Evolutionary Biology."  He's also running the Cornell Evolution Project, and he's got a video clip that explains the main findings, well worth a look.  Stay tuned for more from Graffin about naturalism in the next few years. 




Searching for Ethics in a New America  

Hamilton College professor of religion Heidi Ravven is working on a Ford Foundation project, Searching for Ethics in a New America, in which she exposes the roots of our common cultural misunderstanding of the human person as free and self-originating.  She's conducting interviews with immigrant Buddhists, Muslims, and native Navajos to search for more realistic ways to understand human action and ethics.  Regarding which, she has a paper here on Spinoza and naturalizing ethics just out in Cognitive, Emotive, and Ethical Aspects of Decision Making in Humans and in Artificial Intelligence, Volume III.  In it she writes: "The doctrine of the freedom of the will is problematic because it both mis-describes the human person and also has negative personal, social, and public policy consequences. Assigning to the individual complete responsibility for his or her triumphs or failures aggrandizes the privileged and blames the poor and needy for their situation. It suggests that all solutions are individual rather primarily social and systemic."




The Theory of Negligent Design, according to Stanislaw Lem

Scene:  The Rhohchian's have sponsored a motion to accept Earth as a member of the Galactic Council, but the Iridian representative challenges the motion by relating the true story of humankind's origins ...

"I shall now put a few final questions to the honorable delegation from Rhohchia!  Is it not true that many years ago there landed on the then dead planet of Earth a ship carrying your flag, and that, due to a refrigerator malfunction, a portion of its perishables had gone bad?  Is it not true that on this ship there were two spacehands, afterwards stricken from all the registers for unconscionable dealing with duckweed liverworts, and that this pair of arrant knaves, these Milky Way ne'er-do-wells, were named Gorrd and Lod?  Is it not true that  Gorrd and Lod decided, in their drunkenness, not to content themselves with the usual pollution of a defenseless, uninhabited planet, that their notion was to set off, in a manner vicious and vile, a biological evolution the likes of which the world had never seen before?  Is it not true that both these Rhohches, with malice aforethought, devised a way to make of Earth - on a truly galactic scale - a breeding ground for freaks, a cosmic side show, a panopticum, an exhibit of grisly prodigies and curios, a display whose living specimens would one day become the butt of jokes told even in the outermost Nebulae?  Is it not true that, bereft of all sense of decency and ethical restraint, both these miscreants then emptied on the rocks of lifeless Earth six barrels of gelatinous glue, rancid, plus two cans of albuminous paste, spoiled, and that to this ooze they added some curdled ribose, pentose, and levulose, and - as though that filth were not enough - they poured upon it three large jugs of a mildewed solution of amino acids, then stirred the seething swill with a coal shovel twisted to the left, and also used a poker, likewise bent in the same direction, as a consequence of which the proteins of all future organisms on Earth were Left-handed?! And finally, is it not true that Lod, suffering at the time from a runny nose and  - moreover - egged on by Gorrd, who was reeling from an excessive intake of intoxicants, did willfully and knowingly sneeze into that protoplasmal matter, and, having infected it thereby with the most virulent viruses, guffawed that he had thus breathed 'the bloody breath of life' into those miserable evolutionary beginnings?!  And is it not true that this leftwardness and virulence were thereafter transmitted and handed down from organism to organism, and now afflict with their continuing presence the innocent representatives of the race Artefactum Abhorrens, who gave themselves the name of 'homo sapiens' purely out of simple-minded ignorance?  And therefore is it not true that the Rhohches must not only pay the Earthling's initiation fee, to the tune of a billion tons of platinum, but also compensate the unfortunate victims of their planetary incontinence - in the form of Cosmic Alimony?!"

 - from Stanislaw Lem, The Star Diaries, "The Eighth Voyage," 1976 Avon Press paperback, pp. 42-43.



Freedom from cognitive illusions

Sam Harris writes about contra-causal free will in a footnote from his book The End of Faith, and pretty much nails it as a morally harmful, logically incoherent illusion.  Just one quibble about agency at the end....

The belief that human beings are endowed with freedom of will underwrites both our religious conception of "sin” and our judicial ideal of "retributive justice.” This makes free will a problem of more than passing philosophical interest. Without freedom of will, sinners would just be poorly calibrated clockwork, and any notion of justice that emphasized their punishment (rather than their rehabilitation or mere containment) would seem deeply incongruous. Happily, we will find that we need no illusions about a person’s place in the causal order to hold him accountable for his actions, or to take action ourselves. We can find secure foundations for ethics and the rule of law without  succumbing to any obvious cognitive illusions. 

Free will is actually more than an illusion (or less) in that it cannot even be rendered coherent conceptually, since no one has ever described a manner in which mental and physical events could arise that would attest to its existence. Surely, most illusions are made of sterner stuff than this. If, for instance, a man believes that his dental fillings are receiving radio broadcasts, or that his sister has been replaced by an alien who looks exactly like her, we would have no difficulty specifying what would have to be true of the world for his beliefs to be, likewise, true. Strangely, our notion of “free of will” achieves no such intelligibility. As a concept, it simply has no descriptive, or even logical, moorings. Like some perverse, malodorous rose, however we might attempt to enjoy its beauty up close, it offers up its own contradiction. 

The idea of free will is an ancient artifact of philosophy, of course, as well as a subject of occasional, if guilty, interest among scientists—e.g., M. Planck, Where Is Science Going? trans. and ed. J. Murphy (1933; reprint, Woodbridge, Conn.: Ox Bow Press, 1981); B. Libet, “Do We Have Free Will?” Journal of Consciousness Studies 6, nos. 8–9 (1999): 47–57; S. A. Spence and C. D. Frith, “Towards a Functional Anatomy of Volition,” ibid., 11–29; A. L. Roskies, “Yes, But Am I Free?” Nature Neuroscience 4 (2001): 1161; and D. M. Wegner, The Illusion of Conscious Will (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002). It has long been obvious, however, that any description of the will in terms of causes and effects sets us sliding toward a moral and logical crevasse, for either our wills are determined by prior causes, and we are not responsible for them, or they are the product of chance, and we are not responsible for them. The notion of free will seems particularly suspect once we begin thinking about the brain. If a man’s "choice” to shoot the president is determined by a certain pattern of neural activity, and this neural activity is in turn the product of prior causes—perhaps an unfortunate coincidence of an unhappy childhood, bad genes, and cosmic-ray bombardment—what can it possibly mean to say that his will is "free”? Despite the clever exertions of many philosophers who have sought to render free will "compatible” with both deterministic and indeterministic accounts of mind and brain, the project appears to be hopeless. The endurance of free will, as a problem in need of analysis, is attributable to the fact that most of us feel that we freely author our own actions and acts of attention (however difficult it may be to make sense of this notion in logical or scientific terms). It is safe to say that no one was ever moved to entertain the existence of free will because it holds great promise as an abstract idea. 

In physical terms, every action is clearly reducible to a totality of impersonal events merely propagating their influence: genes are transcribed, neurotransmitters bind to their receptors, muscle fibers contract, and John Doe pulls the trigger on his gun. For our commonsense notions of agency to hold, our actions cannot be merely lawful products of our biology, our conditioning, or anything else that might lead others to predict them—and yet, were our actions to be actually divorced from such a causal network, they would be precisely those for which we could claim no responsibility. It has been fashionable, for several decades now, to speculate about the manner in which the indeterminacy of quantum processes, at the level of the neuron or its constituents, could yield a form of mental life that might stand free of the causal order; but such speculation is entirely oblique to the matter at hand—for an indeterminate world, governed by chance or quantum probabilities, would grant no more autonomy to human agents than would the incessant drawing of lots. In the face of any real independence from prior causes, every gesture would seem to merit the statement "I don’t know what came over me.” Upon the horns of this dilemma, fanciers of free will can often be heard making shrewd use of philosophical language, in an attempt to render our intuitions about a person’s moral responsibility immune to worries about causation. (See Ayer, Chisholm, Strawson, Frankfurt, Dennett, and Watson—all in G. Watson, ed., Free Will [Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1982].) Although we can find no room for it in the causal order, the notion of free will is still accorded a remarkable deference in philosophical and scientific literature, even by scientists who believe that the mind is entirely dependent upon the workings of the brain.

What most people overlook is that free will does not even correspond to any subjective fact about us. Consequently, even rigorous introspection soon grows as hostile to the idea of free will as the equations of physics have, because apparent acts of volition merely arise, spontaneously (whether caused, uncaused, or probabilistically inclined, it makes no difference), and cannot be traced to a point of origin in the stream of consciousness. A moment or two of serious self-scrutiny and the reader might observe that he no more authors the next thought he thinks than the next thought I write.

- The End of Faith, pp. 262-4

Here's the quibble:  We can still talk about human agents and agency in a deterministic context, since when I act freely - that is, without being coerced - I do author my actions, since no one else does.  Put another way, I am, partially, my actions.  Human agents, although fully caused, don't disappear under naturalism, about which see here.   But such naturalized freedom, agency and authorship don't  support the ultimate sort of praise and blame that accrues to the contra-causal, self-made self, as Harris makes clear.  



Will Provine on the front lines, again

Cornell biology professor Will Provine continues to fight the good fight against contra-causal free will.  Most recently on August 29 (2005) he gave a lecture for the Bioethics Society of Cornell.  As the Cornell Sun reported,

He added that if society recognized the absence of free will, society would ultimately be much kinder to its less fortunate.

“I hated the idea of human free will,” Provine added. He also argued that humans mostly provide their own moral guidance, and that “ultimate moral responsibility is nonexistent.” He admitted, “Free will is the hardest [preconception] … to give up.”

The lecture received mixed reactions from the crowd.

Mixed reactions are no surprise when challenging centuries of received wisdom about human agency.  Although many academics recognize the incoherence of libertarian free will, few are willing to come out and say so in a public forum, or suggest the significant consequences of giving up the idea of contra-causal freedom for our attitudes and behavior.  Provine is to be congratulated for taking a strong, explicit stand on a matter of such controversy and importance.  And he's been at this a long time, see here



The Limits of Reason

In Soul Survival at Reason magazine, Cathy Young considers the conference on The New Neuromorality hosted by the American Enterprise Institute.  Since Naturalism.Org has two takes on this conference, one here (directly below) and one here, and since Young's pro-retribution views have been critiqued here, what follows is just a brief rejoinder to a few questionable assertions. 

1.  "If [Joshua] Greene’s 'dirty little secret' was that the soul does not exist, [Stephen] Morse’s was that we still have no clue 'how the brain enables the mind' and produces mental states or moral judgments. That there is no immaterial soul, he argued, doesn’t mean that 'we are not the kind of creatures we think we are—conscious, rational, intentional beings'; science or no science, the physicalist model must be resisted for the sake of human dignity and 'the good life we can live together.'" 

Morse is wrong to think we have no clue about how the brain enables mind, since clues are mounting daily, some of which Greene is discovering in MRI scans of brains during moral decision-making.  Morse is also wrong to suppose we must resist physicalism, since physicalism is no threat to personhood or dignity or the good life.  No one supposes that persons can be understood at the physical level of neurons and neurotransmitters, but they are nevertheless composed of such sub-personal, material elements.  That we are fully physical creatures is simply testament to the amazing (but not miraculous) powers of matter, properly organized.  Considerably more about Morse's presentation is here

2. "...proposing to do away with the soul is not exactly a prescription for no more squabbling. Nor is doing away with retributive justice. [Steven] Pinker noted, somewhat ambivalently, that 'the thirst for retribution'—punishment as 'just deserts' and a way to right the moral balance—may be inherent in human nature, and a legal system that does not satisfy this need may never command enough respect to be effective. Confirming this point, Greene acknowledged that in a host of studies people evaluating hypothetical crimes assess punishment based on their notions of just deserts, not deterrence."

That the thirst for retribution might be inherent in human nature is of course not an argument in its favor, since there are many natural impulses worth resisting so long as they have no moral justification, for instance to cheat, dominate, enslave, or kill.  A legal system that instead appealed to our capacity to understand causality, which in turn undercuts the assumption of the self-caused self that deserves retributive punishment, is not an impossibility.  True, for it to command respect requires that we marginalize the retributive impulse, but that's exactly what Greene's dismantling of the soul helps us to do.  That his research shows the prevalence of desert-based responses argues for public education, not resignation to retribution.  Young concludes by saying:

3.   "In the big philosophical picture, perhaps Morse’s advice—to simply go on treating each other as autonomous and rational creatures—makes the most sense, even if rationality may be his code word for soul. I’m not sure even traditional ethics ever treated the autonomous human self as completely exempt from external causes. And one need not be a believer in immaterial souls to think that, just maybe, the rational and moral consciousness packed inside our brains is something more than the sum of our neurons."

Young and Morse are right: we have to treat each other as rational and autonomous creatures, but in the light of naturalism there's no longer any good reason to treat each other as first causes deserving of retributive punishment.   That traditional commonsense ethics admits we are caused in some respects doesn't negate the fact that it still clings to the myth of contra-causal agency, which is the usual justification for punishing people without regard to consequences.  Young is also right that our rational and moral consciousness is more than the sum of our neurons: it's one of the higher level emergent properties of our socialized brains.  But again, there's nothing in such emergence that justifies our retributive punishment practices (about which see the Criminal Justice page).  That Young, Morse and other retributivists nevertheless countenance such practices shows the limits of reason in the face of an entrenched and irrational commitment to our punitive legal tradition.



Unlikely allies: responsibility sans soul, courtesy of conservatives

The American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a conservative think-tank, hosted a one day conference in June, 2005 on The New Neuromorality, a meditation on the impact of neuroscience on our conceptions of self, responsibility, free will, ethics and the law.  The entire proceedings are available here, and they're well worth a look.  Speakers included Harvard cognitive scientist Steven Pinker, UPenn law professor Stephen Morse, and Princeton neurophilosopher Joshua Greene, among others.

What's most striking about the presentations is the general acceptance of neural materialism, or more broadly, a naturalistic determinism.  In their talks on how neuroscience might influence our thinking about moral responsibility and criminal justice, Morse describes himself as "a good-enough-for-government-work determinist" and both Pinker and Greene explicitly debunk contra-causal free will.  This means, necessarily, that all three favor conceptions of responsibility, moral and criminal, that are brain-based, not soul-based.  Pinker suggests that when assessing culpability we shouldn't ask any longer whether someone has free will, only whether or not they are deterrable.  Similarly, Greene argues that, having put the soul out of a job, we should move from a retributive model of punishment toward a more humane deterrence-based system, in which we stop supposing people deeply deserve to suffer for their crimes.  Morse, equally the materialist and determinist, nevertheless holds out for retributivism, even though he concedes the function of the law is to guide behavior (why he does so will be food for thought in a forthcoming analysis, now available here).

The tenor of this affair contrasts markedly with a 1998 conference on more or less the same theme, Neuroscience and the Human Spirit, hosted by another conservative think tank, the Ethics and Public Policy Center (EPPC).  There, many were concerned that neuroscience threatens widely held beliefs about free will and the human "spirit" (soul), and some presenters did their best to defend dualism, (although this proved difficult since most were scientists).  That those meeting in 2005 weren't worried about the death of the soul and its special freedom might reflect a growing acceptance of naturalism, at least among the intelligentsia.  Or it might be a matter of the particular speakers at each event, since the AEI panel was overall pretty liberal (which speaks to the open-mindedness of Sally Satel, organizer of the conference).  In any case, both the AEI and the EPPC are to be congratulated for providing forums in which the implications of scientific naturalism for our self-concept and for policy were thoughtfully explored. 



No Offense Taken

Naturalists and supernaturalists are equally standard issue human beings with largely the same complement of needs, but they seem to inhabit very different epistemic and metaphysical universes, at least according to what they say.  To the supernaturalist, the project of naturalizing such things as rationality and ethics seems absurd, since there's no external guarantor of truth or moral principles.  Without god and a causally privileged free will, what's to prevent us from being systematically misguided?  How, without certain foundations, or a causally uncorrupted point of view, can we certify our beliefs?  For the naturalist, these are admittedly tough problems, but resorting to supernatural justifications seems too easy an out - tennis without a net, as Daniel Dennett puts it.  There's got to be independent evidence for something special outside or above natural causality, otherwise we're simply positing the backup we need - how convenient.  And really, having all these problems solved in one fell swoop is simply too dull a prospect.  Better a wild universe than tame, naturalists think.

Such differences came vividly into focus recently as the Center for Naturalism was discovered by Christian evangelicals.  They were delighted to have found, at last, actual unabashed proponents of naturalism incautious enough to reveal that crazy worldview in all its illogicality.  Joe Carter of the Evangelical Outpost got the ball rolling with a nice broadside, Naturalism for Dummies, which sparked a good deal of additional comment at other religious blogs, and then more at Joe's place, including a roundup of posts from fellow religionists and a meditation on the absurdity of naturalist ethics

It's good occasionally to see yourself through the opposition's eyes just to understand their concerns, so I recommend naturalists have a look (and it's not unamusing to witness such incredulity).  The denial of contra-causal free will, not surprisingly, catches a good deal of flack, since this seems to undercut choice, moral responsibility and ethics.  And how can we be merely collections of molecules without souls?  After all, molecules can't create meaning, or understand anything, or make free choices.  How can an authentic spiritual response to existence arise if we don't have literal spirits residing in us?  Since we obviously do understand, make choices, behave ethically, and have spiritual lives, naturalism must be false. 

So you get the essentialist picture, and there's no help for it, reassurances about naturalism notwithstanding.  Between the naturalist and supernaturalist there are very different cognitive commitments and very different tastes in what a universe should look like.  There are desires for security, comfort, specialness, and scripted meaning on the one side vs. excitement, questioning, perplexity, and  astonishment on the other.  They pity our unmoored floundering, and we their staid incuriosity (to generalize unfairly about both sides just for effect).  But would we have it any other way?  Imagine there were no opponents to poke fun at us, and none for us to generalize unfairly about.  Now that would be a dull universe.  So thanks Joe, and keep up the good work. 

TWC 5/05


Fear of Mechanism

Kenneth Silber (“Are we really just smart robots?in Reason, April, 2005) is worried about the encroaching scientific understanding of our brains and behavior.  If science shows us to be simply smart biological machines, he believes this undermines liberal democracy, human rights, moral responsibility, and self-worth; all is permitted and authoritarian regimes will flourish.1  Fortunately, he argues, John Searle (Mind: A Brief Introduction) and Jeff Hawkins (On Intelligence) have shown the mechanistic thesis is false, so we needn’t worry.  Human beings, although part of nature, nevertheless have a special something that grounds our dignity and value.

The difficulty is that Silber doesn’t quite specify what this special something might be.  Is it consciousness?  Nothing in Searle’s biological naturalism or in Hawkins’ account of intelligence requires that our capacity for consciousness couldn’t be computable and thus a property of a machine, once we understand the functions of the neural processes subserving consciousness.  Could it be free will?  But even Searle admits that the experience of free will might be an illusion, perhaps an adaptive illusion at that (although it’s more likely the result of not being able to see the causal workings of our own brains).  Could it be personhood?  But personhood rests on physically instantiated capacities for sentience and self-concern, and complex though these are, there’s no reason in principle why intelligent machines might not someday have moral claims on us, were they given such capacities (on this point, see I Robot, and Benjamin Soskis’ article “Man and the machines” in Legal Affairs).

Although he doesn’t establish the existence of a special human something (a soul, perhaps?), Silber needn’t worry that the mechanistic thesis poses a threat.  Even if it turns out that we’re amazingly complex biological machines, we nevertheless remain persons, and our desire to be treated as ends in ourselves won’t diminish.  After all, that’s “hard-wired” into the very neural architecture of our brains, as are the rest of our basic motives and desires.  We’d still love and protect our families, fear death, abhor tyranny, enjoy a good meal, and generally life would go on, minus the belief in the soul.  So we can relax: there’s no moral or political threat stemming from science, should it unmask us as “mere” machines.  Even if we are, we’ll continue to defend our freedoms with all the resources nature has given us.

TWC 4/05

1. This is also Paul Davies' worry about the scientific attack on contra-causal free will, see "Davies' Really Dangerous Idea."


Liberals, evil, and free will

Libertarian Tibor Machan, writing in the Desert Dispatch (and reprinted in Free Inquiry, Oct-Nov, 2005), inveighs against liberals, claiming that "Liberals tend to excuse all evil with stories about bad luck and disease and a bunch of other impersonal forces that make people do bad things."  He goes on to say that "The basic philosophical thesis behind the liberal mentality...is the denial of free will."  So according to Machan, by accepting that evil has causes, liberals deny free will, and in so doing deny the basis for moral judgments.  But is it true that if everything is caused, everything is excused?

First, it's hardly the case that liberals deny free will.  Liberals, like most people of all political persuasions, tend to suppose that we have contra-causal freedom.  True, they are more likely to look for causes, since they are less likely than conservatives to suppose that people are self-made (see George Lakoff's book Moral Politics on this).  But most liberals, regrettably, are not yet full-fledged naturalists in their understanding of persons and their relationship to the world. 

But even if they did deny free will, would that make liberals the dangerous deniers of morality, as Machan seems to think?  No.  First, we don't lose our moral compass when we acknowledge that persons and their behavior, like everything else in nature, are entirely caused phenomena.  After all, we still retain our deeply held desires to protect ourselves and our loved ones, and to promote a more flourishing, humane society.  Second, we still have all our causal powers available to bring to bear in defending these values, so we don't lose our efficacy as agents.   In short, we don't need to suppose, as Machan thinks we must, that there's something self-caused within each person to justify moral judgments and enforce standards of right and wrong.   For more on this see "Materialism and Morality."

Machan says liberals must "toss their derisive attitude toward the rest of us who think it is perfectly sensible to distinguish between good and evil, right and wrong."  But liberals aren't derisive of such distinctions, and to say so is a calumny.  They simply are more likely to think, justifiably, that such distinctions are compatible with admitting that behavior, including evil, has causes

Machan is very much like David Brooks (see immediately below on "moral levitation") in supposing we must be causally privileged over nature in some respect to be moral agents.  But there's no evidence that we are thus privileged, or that such exalted status is necessary to ground our moral practices.

TWC 12/2004

Machan replies.



The Moral Levitation of David Brooks

- must we float free of causality to count as moral agents?

In his latest book, Freedom Evolves, Tufts University philosopher Daniel Dennett coins the wonderful term “moral levitation” – you’ll even find it in the index.  It names what some philosophers and many lay people think is required for morally responsible choices: “Real autonomy, real freedom, requires the chooser be somehow suspended, isolated from the push and pull of…causes, so that when decisions are made, nothing causes them except you!” (p.101-2, original emphasis).

New York Times regular David Brooks expresses this view perfectly, writing in his May 15, 2004 column, “Columbine: Parents of a Killer,” that “My instinct is that Dylan Klebold was a self-initiating moral agent who made his choices and should be condemned for them.  Neither his school nor his parents determined his behavior.” 

By claiming Klebold was self-initiating, Brooks isolates Klebold from the causal push and pull of school and parents, disconnecting him from the world so that he can count as a “real” moral agent.  Brooks seems to think that Klebold’s choices are morally condemnable only if he wasn’t determined to make them.  But as Dennett, myself, and others continue to point out, such supernatural moral levitation isn’t in the least necessary to sustain judgments of right and wrong, or to justify holding persons responsible.  Causal determinism – being fully caused to be who you are, and do what you do – isn’t a threat to moral agency, although it undermines certain justifications for punishment which Brooks and other conservatives may not want to give up.

Very briefly, moral agency survives under determinism because most people, having capacities of rationality and anticipation, can legitimately be held responsible in order to “guide goodness,” as University of Pennsylvania law professor Stephen Morse succinctly puts it.  Those who are insane and those children who haven’t yet reached the age of reason don’t count as moral agents, because the prospect of being held accountable simply doesn’t work to shape their behavior.  Rationality and reasons-responsiveness are causal, deterministic functions of our complex but fully physical brains, and if such functions weren’t deterministic, they wouldn’t be reliable.  Likewise, the processes of moral, legal, and criminal accountability that shape good behavior (or not, if the agent or the processes are defective) are causal, not magical or supernatural in their operations.  Dennett explores these themes at length in Freedom Evolves and his other book on free will, Elbow Room, as does Duke philosopher Owen Flanagan in his book The Problem of the Soul.

So Klebold, an adolescent having reached the age of reason, and undoubtedly knowing that what he and Eric Harris were contemplating was wrong, counts as a moral agent. But he was determined – by his biological endowment, parents, school, bullies, peer influences, Harris, the availability of guns, and other factors unknown – to commit mayhem just as certainly as objects fall to earth.  To suppose otherwise is to imagine that human behavior is supernatural in some respect, magically self-initiated in a way that owes nothing to one’s history or genetic endowment or current circumstances.  We are not causally privileged moral levitators, and don’t need to be to be judged and held responsible.  Indeed, if we were in some respect independent of causality, then our responsibility and accountability practices wouldn’t work. 

It’s important that our hard won, scientific understanding of behavior should be reflected in these practices, and in this instance it should modulate our condemnation of Klebold.  Seeing the determinants of his character and actions, we can no longer demonize him in the way Brooks does – we can no longer suppose his atrocity had no roots beyond him.  The naturalistic appreciation of causality forces us to acknowledge that Klebold was not self-initiated in his depravity, but a product of his biology, his parenting, his friends, his town, and his culture.  This doesn’t in the least undercut the judgment that what he did was depraved, but it illuminates the factors that made him who he was and therefore materially contributed to the fatal outcome.  This means that retributive justifications for punishment based on the traditional notion of contra-causal, libertarian free will – that the agent before us is a causa sui, the ultimate source of himself and his evil lose their footing.  Not a happy prospect for those who relish the imposition of just deserts. (Of course, this is not to say that we don’t have other very good reasons for detaining dangerous individuals.)

The explanatory stance – to acknowledge that there is indeed a full causal explanation of human behavior, albeit partially hidden to us – is strikingly absent in Brooks’ analysis of the Columbine massacre (both here and in an earlier column on Harris), possibly because it conflicts with claiming retributive satisfactions.  According to Brooks, Klebold’s parents, although they cite the “toxic culture” of the school as a possible contributing factor, “confess that in the main, they have no explanation.”  But not having a complete explanation in hand is quite different from supposing that no real-world explanation is conceivable.  The latter supposition feeds the assumption of moral levitation: that morally consequential behavior, whether good or bad, must somehow arise independently of the push and pull of causality.  It also legitimizes the supposed inscrutability of evil: the pernicious doctrine that horrific behavior is in a realm apart, beyond our understanding or control. 

An interesting and important question is whether Brooks and the legions committed to the assumption of libertarian free will can be persuaded to examine this assumption, or first, even see it as an assumption.  Despite the logical and empirical implausibility of contra-causal agency, and despite Dennett’s and others’ explicit attack on libertarian free will, there are considerable forces arrayed in its defense.  We love our retribution, we love taking ultimate credit and assigning ultimate blame, and we don’t particularly like the hard work of figuring out causal explanations.  But if we can demonstrate that moral responsibility survives determinism, and moreover requires it, then perhaps the fear-based objections to a naturalistic understanding of ourselves can be overcome.  In any case, showing that David Brooks is committed to something as implausible as moral levitation – thank you Dr. Dennett – might be a good start. 

TWC  5/17/04   

See also this  letter published in the Times on Brooks' column, and Brian Leiter's trenchant critique, quoting Nietzsche to good effect.



Reason Continues to Evolve

As someone involved in promoting naturalism, I was pleased to see Julian Sanchez’ review in Reason of Owen Flanagan's excellent book, The Problem of the Soul (I’ve reviewed it for Human Nature Review). Like his colleagues senior editor Jacob Sullum and science correspondent Ronald Bailey, Sanchez seems willing to take science seriously regarding ourselves and to more or less accept the implications, which as he notes do not leave things untouched.  We don’t, as Flanagan says, have Cartesian, contra-causal, libertarian free will, and this fact has major personal and social consequences, explored at Naturalism.Org. 

Sanchez says that "Perhaps the case for retributive punishment is weakened, but it would surely be a mistake to conclude that only radical freedom would make it appropriate to hold people responsible for their actions."  Actually, the case for retribution is very much weakened by naturalism; see for instance “Against Retribution”. And Sanchez is certainly right that other sorts of freedom – the sorts compatible with determinism – are sufficient for moral responsibility, although they don't support retributive punishment (see "Science and freedom").

But not everything changes.  Among other things, I particularly appreciated Sanchez’s rebuttal of libertarian alarmist Sheldon Richman, to whom I've replied similarly (see point 5 of my commentary).  Being fully caused creatures is not, as Richman supposes, to lose a necessary condition for rationality.  As Daniel Dennett among others has pointed out, it’s only our deterministic connections to the world that make reliable prediction and control possible.  Any causal unlinking of the mind from its surroundings would make us less, not more rational.

On one major point, however,  I think Sanchez gets it wrong.  He sees no particular implication from naturalism to any necessary rethinking of social inequality.  But there is an implication: vast differences in material well-being and opportunities are often justified by appeals to metaphysical desert based in free will, and once that justification is subtracted via naturalism, then it's a good deal more difficult to make the case for such differences. He writes:

“Similarly, critics of liberalism – and some liberals as well – believe that disparities of wealth and income are justified only if the well off ‘deserve’ what they have in some deep sense. But as the late philosopher Robert Nozick observed, there are many things to which we are entitled, even though they are not deserved ‘all the way down.’ Being born with two working eyes is an accident of fate, not something the sighted have done anything to ‘deserve.’  It does not follow that our eyes are up for grabs, subject to political reallocation. Our decisions – our capacities and the uses we make of them – are as much a constitutive part of us as our bodies. Respect for embodied persons still requires deference to our ‘unfree’ choices and their consequences.”

The analogy between having eyes and having great wealth or talent is weak, since virtually all of us are born with eyes, while only a small minority have the luck to be born into the ranks of the well-off, or to be endowed with superior mental and physical capacities.  Offsetting such luck with progressive social policies is not to redistribute or rob anyone of anything essential, but it would be to improve the lot of millions.  And although "respect for embodied persons" is an important value, it doesn't imply that each of us has a moral right to all our lucky advantages.  John Rawls made this point in A Theory of Justice; see the Social Policy page, note 1.  It's simply to recognize that personal liberty (for instance, to amass unlimited wealth) can’t be supposed to trump all other values, all the time, in the ordering of a just society. 

This caveat and a few other minor quibbles aside, Sanchez assesses Flanagan’s book, and the naturalistic picture of ourselves, fairly and positively.  Although libertarians often tend to be vociferous defenders of radical freedom (after all, they style themselves rugged individualists, beholden to no one and to no thing), Reason counters this stereotype with Sanchez’ review and Ronald Bailey's earlier interview with Daniel Dennett, both of which explicitly challenge contra-causal free will.  Reason thus evinces a commendable courage to question one of our culture's most cherished beliefs, something that few newsstand publications dare to do (other exceptions are the Humanist, Free Inquiry, and New Scientist).  I hope Reason continues to evolve in a naturalistic direction under the enlightened supervision of Sanchez, Sullum, and Bailey.

TWC  3/19/04



Luck Swallows Everything*

On 9/28/03, the Boston Sunday Globe published an essay by Matthew Miller, "The Wages of Luck," in which he draws out the policy implications of the fact that none of us chooses our parents, innate abilities, or social status at birth.   He suggests that since the social inequalities that result from such luck aren't deserved, they shouldn't be left unremedied.   Concerning the genesis of such inequalities, conservative economist Milton Friedman is quoted as saying, remarkably enough, "What you're really talking about is determinism vs. free will...In a sense we are determinists and in another sense we can't let ourselves be.  But you can't really justify free will.''   Indeed.  I'd only offer the suggestion that we can, and should, permit ourselves to be determinists, or at least disavow libertarian free will.

All this is in line with what John Rawls wrote some time ago in his book, A Theory of Justice

"It seems to be one of the fixed points of our considered judgments that no one deserves his place in the distribution of native endowments, any more than one deserves one's initial starting place in society.  The assertion that a man deserves the superior character that enables him to make the effort to cultivate his abilities is equally problematic, for his character depends in large part upon fortunate family and social circumstances for which he can claim no credit.  The notion of desert seems not to apply to these cases" (p. 104).

The upshot is that by accepting Rawls' view of of luck and desert, Friedman agrees with Miller that more should be done to provide equal opportunity for education and an improved standard of living, including a negative income tax.  Such an agenda is one of the main policy goals of the Center for Naturalism, see http://www.naturalism.org/policy.htm.

It's encouraging that Miller and Friedman are not only making the connection between determinism and lack of metaphysical desert, but understand and accept the egalitarian policy implications as well.

TWC, 10/5/03

*I've borrowed this title from Galen Strawson's piece on free will.


A Question for Brights:  How Naturalistic Are You?

On July 12, 2003, the New York Times published an op-ed piece by Tufts philosopher Daniel Dennett, "The Bright Stuff," on the newly minted term for philosophical naturalists: "brights."  Dennett defines brights as those who hold “a naturalist as opposed to a supernaturalist world view,” exactly what the coiners of the term have in mind (see www.the-brights.net).  But as the coiners also point out, there are many varieties of brights, from hard-boiled confrontational atheists to more relaxed, irenic humanists.  It’s also clear that brights will vary considerably in their versions of naturalism, both in explicitness and completeness.  In particular, many of those who will end up calling themselves brights, or naturalists, will still hold that human beings are causal exceptions to nature by virtue of possessing what philosophers call libertarian free will.  This is the power to cause with out oneself being fully at the effect of prior or surrounding conditions.  Most secular humanists, free-thinkers, atheists, agnostics and other varieties of brights have not yet seen that this traditional sort of free will, with its causal exceptionalism, is just as supernatural as any of the attributes traditionally ascribed to god.  In short, most brights are not yet thorough-going naturalists in their world view, since they reserve for themselves a special human power to transcend cause and effect.

So, one question to ask self-proclaimed brights is "how much of a naturalist are you?".  Have you thought through the implications of a consistent naturalism for yourself, for understanding human behavior, and therefore for your attitudes and for social policy?  What would it mean to live in the light of understanding that each and every aspect of ourselves has its origins in what has come before, and in what surrounds us?  Can we, perhaps, learn to live without the meme of contra-causal free will?  To contemplate that possibility is to challenge some deeply held beliefs about the presumptive foundations of morality and social order, and to question the legitimacy of social institutions that impose retributive punishment and take for granted notions of supernaturalistic, “causa sui” (self-originated) merit and desert.  It is to invite a revolution in our traditional self-concept that may have effects far beyond the commonplace rejection, in secular circles, of standard supernatural entities and attributes.

It’s unlikely that many brights will anytime soon come out of the closet to question free will, since most aren’t yet consistent naturalists.  But the term “bright,” if it stays explicitly connected to the coiners’ original distinction between naturalism vs. supernaturalism, will have the beneficial effect of increasing awareness of naturalism itself.  It’s of course quite possible that bright will simply become synonymous with atheist or non-believer, in which case this consciousness-raising effect will be lost.   For instance, the subtitle in the print version of Dennett’s op-ed was “Atheists, agnostics, and nonbelievers unite,” and note that as the piece proceeds, bright more and more comes to signify nonbeliever, not naturalist.  To keep the root meaning of bright – someone holding a naturalist world view – maximally salient, those introducing and using the term should state this definition, or consider using “naturalist” as a synonym at some point in the conversation or discussion.  Naturalism, unlike atheism, is a positive philosophy of human nature and the world based in a commitment to science as a mode of knowing.  The term bright may well serve as a useful umbrella designation for naturalists of all stripes, but if it ends up synonymous with nonbeliever, this would be to miss an important opportunity to make naturalism and its implications known.

TWC, 7/03


Free will?  Not really

More and more about free will is making it into the news as naturalism, albeit obliquely, finds a voice in recently published books and articles.  On May 24, 2003, the New Scientist carried an interview with Daniel Dennett about his book, Freedom Evolves, "Free will, but not as we know it."   Dennett takes the line that our freedom is a matter of having the rational and cognitive abilities to anticipate and avoid damaging consequences and bring about positive consequences.  This sort of freedom, the capacity for control, is consistent with determinism and indeed depends on deterministic connections between events, as Dennett points out.   Because it avoids fatalism - the erroneous notion that our actions make no difference to outcomes - Dennett suggests that our worries about freedom and dignity in the face of determinism are misplaced.  There is no need to slide into what might be called free will panic

What's largely missing in Dennett's account, however, in both the interview and the book, is any suggestion that attitudes and social practices based in the dualistic notion of contra-causal free will - what philosophers call libertarian free will - might or should change.  This sort of free will, Dennett acknowledges, doesn't exist, so one would think that heralding it's non-existence would be an opportunity to explore how our lives might improve were we to drop the idea of such freedom (the mission of Naturalism.Org and the Center for Naturalism).  Although he admits that "there have been advances which have shown us that people we used to hold fully responsible for their actions are not," these same advances show that the traditional rationale for holding people responsible is untenable, in which case the attitudes and policies predicated on this rationale need reassessment as well.  This complaint is aired further directly below in "Reason Evolves". 

TWC, 7/03


Reason Evolves

Reason's cover story for May, '03 was "Pulling Our Own Strings: How Evolution Generates Free Will", an interview with philosopher Daniel Dennett, who's just published his second book on free will, Freedom Evolves (the first was Elbow Room).  Of considerable interest is that Reason, a libertarian publication, chose to present Dennett's case against traditional contra-causal free will (and for a compatibilist understanding of freedom) so forthrightly and so prominently.  After all, in libertarian circles, it's often supposed that the basis for political liberty is some sort of metaphysical, ultimate freedom - the power to choose without oneself being entirely determined to choose.  Being fully caused creatures logically threatens our status as ultimately autonomous, self-made individuals who can lay claim to resources and privileges (e.g., unlimited financial rewards) because we pulled ourselves up by our bootstraps and thus deeply deserve what's coming to us (the same goes for punishment, of course).  That libertarians do in fact often presume they have such freedom (what philosophers have called, not entirely coincidentally, "libertarian" free will) is evidenced by some exchanges posted at Nat.Org, including a recent letter Reason kindly published in response to Thomas Szasz.   For further evidence, see also a commentary on a recent op-ed piece by the fiercely libertarian Sheldon Richman of the Future of Freedom Foundation.   He says, "If we come to believe that metaphysical freedom is impossible, we will hardly be in a position to complain when our political freedom is taken away."

            Reason, by giving Dennett airtime, and by virtue of the fact that interviewer Ronald Bailey offers no rebuttal to Dennett's claims for determinism, materialism, and naturalism, is an encouraging counter-example to the stereotype I exploit above.  Bailey, in fact, seems rather comfortable with determinism, both here and in another excellent piece on The Battle for Your Brain, in which he concedes we don't need to be immaterial essences with contra-causal free will in order to be held responsible (see the section "Authenticity and Responsibility").   Compared to 1998, when it published Brian Doherty's "Blame Society First", Reason has indeed evolved away from the knee-jerk defense of this sort of freedom, for which it is to be congratulated.  This progress seems to be driven by Bailey's (and perhaps editor Jacob Sullum's) respect for science, as opposed to tradition, as the arbiter of what we should believe about human nature.  (I realize to speak of evolution isn't strictly to speak of progress, of course, but it makes for a nice title.)

            Further evolution is in order, however.  Both Reason (Bailey) and Dennett (in both his books) studiously avoid articulating one obvious conclusion that follows from rejecting libertarian free will:  that the justifications for rewards and punishments based on ultimate moral desert, justifications so beloved by the right, go by the boards.  As philosopher Galen Strawson puts it in an interview posted on Nat.Org, "These desires for revenge and retribution are just not going to be the normal human thing if they don’t involve the belief that the hated person has DMR [deep moral responsibility]. They’re going to be unusual."  How does one, after all, justify retribution if you're a naturalist? 

            Since it goes to the very heart of our assumptions about who deserves what and why, it's no surprise that this conclusion goes significantly unmentioned by those who are otherwise naturalists: they may not want to rock the boat quite this much.   After all, it calls into question such things as our extremely punitive criminal justice system and the absurdly high disparities in access to a decent standard of living.   Some incentives and disincentives are necessary, of course, to properly order a liberal society, but the extremes at play in our culture can only be justified on grounds of ultimate desert, something that Dennett and Bailey understand is an illusion.   Furthermore, the conclusion that we are fully determined creatures prompts us to look at the actual causes of crime and success, instead of crediting the individual as the sole source of good and evil.   Ignorance is therefore no longer an excuse for inaction, nor can we any longer blame the victim.   Although it's unlikely that anyone soon will publicly make the case for social policies consistent with inclusive naturalism, (although see Derk Pereboom's work for a heartening exception, thus far still confined to the academy), the conclusion and its implications are there, waiting their time to come. 

TWC, 5/03



Boston Globe: Neuroscience enters the debate on free will

The October 15th 2002 issue of the Boston Globe science section ran a lead story, "A Question of Will," on recent advances in neuroscience and their implications for our conceptions of self and freedom.  To my knowledge, this is among the first articles to appear on this topic in a mainstream US news outlet.  Although hard line skeptics about free will weren't consulted (e.g., Owen Flanagan, Derk Pereboom, Stephen Morse), the piece nevertheless suggests that traditional contra-causal free will is under considerable pressure.  It ends with  reassurance from neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga that "brains are automatic and people are free."  But what sort of freedom is this?  Not that of the uncaused soul, clearly.  My letter in response makes the crucial point that, despite determinism, we can and must still hold people accountable - compassionately.


A Question of Will

The issue of free will has perplexed theologians and philosophers for centuries - now neuroscience enters the age-old debate

by Carey Goldberg, Globe Staff, 10/15/2002

Try this: At a moment of your choosing, flick your right wrist. A bit later, whenever you feel like it, flick that wrist again.

Most likely, you'd swear that you, the conscious you, chose to initiate that action, that the flickings of your wrist were manifestations of your will.

But there is powerful evidence from brain research that you would be wrong. That, in fact, the signal that launched your wrist motion went out before you consciously decided to flick.

''But, but, but,'' you'd probably like to argue, ''but it doesn't feel that way!''

With that protest, you would be joining a great debate among neuroscientists, philosophers and psychologists that is a modern-day version of the age-old wrangling over free will.

The traditional conundrum went: ''How can God be all-knowing and all-powerful and yet humans still have free will?'' And later: ''How can everything be governed by the determinist forces of physics and biology and society, and yet humans still have free will?''

Those questions still concern many, but the new neuro-flavored debate over free will goes more like this: Is the feeling of will an illusion, a wily trick of the brain, an after-the-fact construct? Is much of our volition based on automatic, unconscious processes rather than conscious ones?

When Daniel M. Wegner, a Harvard psychology professor and author of a new book, The Illusion of Conscious Will, gives talks about his work, audience members sometimes tell him that if people are not seen as the authors of their actions, it means anarchy, the end of civilization. And worse. Some theologies, they tell him, hold that if there is no free will, believers cannot earn a ticket to heaven for their virtue.

In reality, neuroscience is not generally tackling the sweeping philosophical issue of free will, but something much narrower, said Chris Frith, a neuroscientist at University College London.

''There has been much recent work addressing the question of how it is that we experience having free will, i.e., why and when we feel that we are in control of our actions,'' he wrote in an e-mail.

That is not to say that neuroscience will never enter the philosophical fray.

It could even be that, once the physiological basis of will becomes better understood, ''You'll get a more mature, larger view of what's going on and the question of free will might vanish,'' speculated V. S. Ramachandran, director of the Center for Brain and Cognition at the University of California at San Diego. No one argues about ''vital spirits'' now that we know about DNA, he noted.

Meanwhile, the debate is still on, and near its center is an 86-year-old University of California professor emeritus of physiology, Benjamin Libet.

His seminal experiments on brain timing and will came out back in the mid-1980s, and the results are still reverberating loudly today.

Just this summer, the journal Consciousness and Cognition put out a special issue on ''Timing relations between brain and world'' that prominently featured Libet's work. And, at a conference, titled ''The Self: from Soul to Brain,'' held by the New York Academy of Sciences last month, ''Libet'' rolled off more tongues than Descartes or Kant or Hume or the other philosophers whose names usually come up when the subject is will.

What Libet did was to measure electrical changes in people's brains as they flicked their wrists. And what he found was that a subject's ''readiness potential'' - the brain signal that precedes voluntary actions - showed up about one-third of a second before the subject felt the conscious urge to act.

The result was so surprising that it still had the power to elicit an exclamation point from him in a 1999 paper: ''The initiation of the freely voluntary act appears to begin in the brain unconsciously, well before the person consciously knows he wants to act!''

Libet's experiments continue to be criticized from every which angle. At the New York conference, for example, Tufts philosopher Daniel C. Dennett argued that it could be that the experience of will simply enters our consciousness with a delay, and thus only seems to follow the initiation of the action.

But, though controversial, the Libet experiments still stand and have been replicated. And they have been joined by a growing body of research that indicates, at the very least, that the feeling of will is fallible.

Among that research is the following experiment by Dr. Alvaro Pascual-Leone, director of the Laboratory for Magnetic Brain Stimulation at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.

A subject, he said, would be repeatedly prompted to choose to move either his right or his left hand. Normally, right-handed people would move their right hands about 60 percent of the time.

Then the experimenters would use magnetic stimulation in certain parts of the brain just at the moment when the subject was prompted to make the choice. They found that the magnets, which influence electrical activity in the brain, had an enormous effect: On average, subjects whose brains were stimulated on their right-hand side started choosing their left hands 80 percent of the time.

And, in the spookiest aspect of the experiment, the subjects still felt as if they were choosing freely.

''What is clear is that our brain has the interpretive capacity to call free will things that weren't,'' he said.

Wegner's book discusses a variety of other mistakes of will. Among them is the ''alien-hand'' syndrome, in which brain damage leaves people with the sense that their hand no longer belongs to them, and that it is acting - say, unbuttoning their shirt - out of their control.

Another recent book, ''The Volitional Brain: Toward a Neuroscience of Free Will,'' includes a psychiatrist's description of a German patient who felt compelled to stand at the window all day, willing the sun across the sky.

Wegner argues that ''the feeling of will is our mind's way of estimating what it thinks it did.'' And that, he said, ''is not necessarily a perfect estimate.'' It is ''a kind of accounting system rather than a direct read-out of how the causal process is working.''

In Libet's interpretation, free will could still exist as a kind of veto power, in the fractions of a second between the time you unconsciously initiate an action and the time you actually carry it out.

For example, he said in a telephone interview, ''The guy who killed the mayor of San Francisco, he was obviously deliberating in advance, but then when he gets to the mayor, there's still the process of, does he now pull the trigger? That's the final act now. That is initiated unconsciously, but he's still aware a couple of hundred milliseconds before he does it and he could control it, but he doesn't.''

''That is where the free will is,'' Libet said.

Such veto power is not enough for many people, however. ''I want more free will than that,'' Dennett complained at the conference.

He may not get it, but he will almost surely get more data about it. Some neuroscientists are using new brain imaging technology to try to pinpoint what happens in the brain when a person wills something. With its help, and further work being done on patients with abnormal volition, more progress appears likely.

''I think,'' Frith wrote, that ''in the next few years we will have quite a good understanding of the brain mechanisms that underlie our feeling of being in control of our actions.'' But that, he hastened to add, ''does not in any way eliminate free will.''

Further comfort comes from Michael S. Gazzaniga, director of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at Dartmouth College.

There is no need, he said, ''for depressing nihilistic views that we're all robots walking around on someone else's agenda. It's the agenda we build through experience, and the system is making choices.''

And just because some processes in the brain are automatic does not mean they all are, he said. ''My take,'' Gazzaniga said, ''is that brains are automatic and people are free.''

Carey Goldberg may be reached at Goldberg@globe.com

Click here for TWC letter published in response, "Accountability is still in play."



Free Will in the News ( 8/02)

Neuroscience and freedom  - The May 25th, 2002 issue of the The Economist ran a story, "Open Your Mind," on the ethics and implications of brain science.  The introduction said: "Genetics may yet threaten privacy, kill autonomy, make society homogeneous and gut the concept of human nature.  But neuroscience could do all of these things first."  This sentiment lines up with Tom Wolfe's 1996 prediction in "Sorry, but your soul just died," that neuroscience, not genetics, will pose the most immediate peril to human freedom and dignity.  After a review of the growing capabilities of brain scans and other sorts of "neurotechnology" to diagnose disease, screen for neural and cognitive defects, and perhaps even enhance brain-based capacities, the article gets to the main issue: the threat of neuroscientific understanding to our concept of free will.  "Although some philosophers see free will as an illusion that helps people to interact with one another [e.g., see "Is Free Will a Necessary Fiction?"], others think that it is genuine - in other words, that an individual faced with a particular set of circumstances really could take any one of a range of actions.  That, however, sits uncomfortably with the idea that mental decisions are purely the consequence of electrochemical interactions in the  brain, since the output of such interactions might be expected to be an inevitable consequence of the input."    

Here, starkly, is the contrast between what philosophers call "libertarian" free will - the capacity to have done otherwise in the exact same situation were it to arise again - and determinism, which denies that such a capacity exists.  Neuroscience reveals that the brain is a more or less deterministic mechanism, and if mental states somehow just are this mechanism, then libertarian free will goes by the boards (for a good deal more about this concern, see Neuroscience and the Human Spirit).   After admitting that neuroscientific understanding of propensities for aggression and violence might indeed have an impact on assessing criminal responsibility, the article concludes, rather lamely, by suggesting there's still hope for the human soul.  After all, science hasn't yet found it!  Indeed, science never will, but that can only give comfort to those who put stock in non-scientific claims to knowledge.   For those of us committed to empirical grounds for knowledge, living without the soul is the only viable option, since not to find it is good evidence it doesn't exist.  

Causality and capital punishment - On June 22, the New York Times ran an op-ed piece, "The Changing Debate Over the Death Penalty," by Stuart Banner, law professor at ULCA and author of The Death Penalty: An American History.  The fifth and sixth paragraphs read (emphasis added):

"But throughout American history, support for the death penalty has risen and fallen with the times. In periods when Americans have tended to think of crime as the product of the criminal's free will, the criminal justice system tilts toward retribution, and capital punishment has grown more popular. In periods when they have paid more attention to causes other than the criminal's free will — the criminal's social context, for example — the system has emphasized rehabilitation, and the popularity of the death penalty has waned.

"The past 30 years were a period of strong support for capital punishment, as part of a trend toward retribution in criminal sentencing. (This trend is also evident in other sentencing measures like "three strikes" laws.) For the past 250 years, however, such periods have always been followed by times of growing opposition to the death penalty."

Banner suggests here that  support for the death penalty and other harsh punishments hinges in part on our perceptions and beliefs about causality and human behavior.  If we come to believe that individuals are not ultimately self-originating - that they don't have libertarian free will - then of course they don't ultimately deserve the death penalty.   We must seek outside the offender for the causes of crime, and rehabilitation, or at least non-punitive detention, seems more justifiable than the retributive "just deserts" of harsh prison conditions or capital punishment. 

Banner stays agnostic on the question of whether free will exists, but there's little doubt that the growing understanding of the causes of human behavior (e.g., see above re neuroscience) must undercut the idea that individuals are ultimately self-caused.  Although it's unlikely that an op-ed writer will any time soon suggest, in an influential public forum such as the Times, that free will doesn't exist, and that therefore we should rethink our beliefs and policies regarding punishment, this conclusion is implicit as science continues to naturalize the self.   Education about causality and crime will eventually help undermine support for capital punishment, but it's a long haul, since the belief in human causal exceptionalism is deeply entrenched, and widely thought necessary to ground responsibility and morality.  To see why it isn't, click here and here.


Legislating Naturalism (3/01)

- An op-ed about why science and naturalism can't be separated, even though intelligent design theorists are trying.  For a very detailed, cogent, and persuasive account of these issues, see Stephen D. Schafersman's essay "Naturalism is an Essential Part of Science and Critical Inquiry" -

At the close of Carl Sagan’s novel, Contact, astronomer protagonist Ellie Arroway discovers within the structure of mathematics a sign that the universe is the intentional creation of superhuman intelligence. Far along into the otherwise random sequence of digits generated by the expansion of pi (the ratio of a circle’s diameter and circumference), a patterned series of ones and zeros appears.

When arranged in a two dimensional grid, this series forms a geometrically perfect circle of ones against a background of zeros. What could this be if not the mark of design? Sagan writes: "In the fabric of space and in the nature of matter, as in a great work of art, there is, written small, the artist’s signature. Standing over humans, gods, and demons…there is an intelligence that antedates the universe."

Earlier this year, the Kansas Board of Education adopted standards for teaching evolution in public schools that give short shrift to such a possibility. The Darwinian story endorsed by these standards says we are the unintentional products of strictly material processes.  But in the ongoing Kansas creationism-evolution debate, one side claims to see evidence of intelligent design, not in the expansion of pi, but in the form and function of our very bodies.

Jody Sjogren, the founder of the Intelligent Design Network (IDN), said that to rule out the possibility of a purposive agent in explaining how we came to be is "legislating naturalism into the public school curriculum," not the unbiased pursuit of science. Science, says the IDN, is perverted by the philosophy of naturalism into assuming that evolution is necessarily Darwinian - mechanical and unpurposive - when in fact the hypothesis of intelligent design is a better reading of the fossil and physiological evidence.

Even though he obviously understood the emotional and spiritual attractions of the design hypothesis, there’s no question that were he alive, Sagan would stand firmly on the other side of this debate, with those who see science as inevitably allied with, not biased by, naturalism. Naturalism - the assumption that the universe is of a piece, with nothing that escapes being constrained by physical laws or being constituted by the basic building blocks of matter and energy – seems essential to the scientific method.

To develop explanations which unify our understanding of the cosmos, which is after all the purpose of science, its practitioners can hardly rest content with postulating an intervening intelligence which in turn is not subject to explanation. To do so splits the universe into two parts, one part natural and potentially explicable, the other supernatural and out of bounds for investigation. But it is precisely the possibility of overcoming such bounds in the quest for understanding that motivates scientists.

This is why, despite their protestations of being true to science, those who champion intelligent design cannot really play the science game, at least not at any deep level. It is also why it is highly unlikely that design "theorists" will ever be published in prestigious peer-reviewed journals such as Science, Nature, or Physical Review Letters. Any so-called explanation of our origins which includes the equivalent of "and then a miracle occurs" won’t cut any ice within the scientific community, nor should it.

It is conceivable that Sagan’s fantasy in Contact might come true, that scientists discover a creator’s "signature" embedded in pi, or in super-string theory, or in some as yet undreamed-of mathematical description of nature that fits the empirical facts. But for any scientist worth her salt the immediate questions raised by such a discovery would concern the characteristics and origins of this creator. In other words, how does this designer fit into the universal scheme of things, considered as a whole?

Unfortunately for intelligent design theorists, this shows that scientists wishing to teach Darwinian evolution have no need to legislate naturalism into public school science standards, since naturalism resides in the very motives and practice of science itself. As even those in Kansas might say, when contemplating the vast, interconnected web of nature as it stretches from molecules to galaxies, "we’re not just in Kansas anymore."

TWC  3/01



Who Wrote the Book of Life?

(Editor's note:  Just in case you missed Clinton's public piety at the press conference on the human genome, here's an op-ed piece which suggests that crediting evolution, not God, for our "book of life" is a far more interesting context for this scientific milestone.  This appeared in The Humanist, September/October 2000)

Who, or what, wrote the book of life? That was the unasked question that nevertheless got answered at the press conference announcing the near-completion of the sequencing of the human genome. President Clinton preempted any doubts about his religiosity, saying that "Today we are learning the language in which God created life." Not to be outdone, Francis Collins, head of the public Human Genome Project, added that "It is …awe-inspiring to realize that we have caught the first look of our own instruction book, previously known only to God." In refreshing contrast, Craig Venter of the privately held Celera Genomics remarked on the "beauty of science" as a collective human endeavor, and the wonder of discovering that "we are all connected to the commonality of the genetic code and evolution."

It is both dispiriting and disquieting that public officials feel the need to pay lip service to God while celebrating a scientific achievement. Although I’m not suggesting a lawsuit, Clinton’s piety vaults the wall of church-state separation. The policy implications are worrisome as well: if God wrote our instruction book, are we then permitted to rewrite it, or is it an unalterable sacred text? It would seem that learning the "language in which God created life" puts us in a better position to play god, but according to Tony Blair (also at the conference) we have a duty "To ensure that the powerful information at our disposal is…not abused, to make man his own creator…".

But beyond politics and policy, what’s most galling is that giving God credit for authoring our genome is such a cramped, safe, and utterly uninteresting context for this discovery compared to the naturalistic view that Venter hints at. The really marvelous, intriguing thing about the "language" of DNA is that it evolved on its own, without supervision or purpose, and that we are here on this earth as a natural contingency, not an outcome of intentional design. Of course what I and other humanists find enchanting is for many a monstrosity: the possibility that the universe is a vast unsupervised unfolding of material properties without an externally imposed purpose is an affront to their desire that humans play a starring role in a drama with ultimate significance.

Citing God as our creator functions as a buck-stopping explanation, a paternalistic reassurance for those looking for a privileged place in the scheme of things. It’s designed to ward off embarrassing inquiries, very much like a parent who shuts up a doggedly curious child by saying "Because I say so, that’s why!" Those content with such tactics transparently fail to ask the next, obvious question about our purported designer: from whence cometh this creator? Not to ask this question, or to deem it unreasonable, reveals a basic antipathy towards unrestricted inquiry, driven by a rather shallow, adolescent fear of the cosmic dark.

At least that’s what I and other humanists might say, implying that theists should really grow up and bite the bullet of naturalistic contingency. Don’t you see, we’d continue, that life’s far more interesting when shorn of any imposed purpose, however grand or noble? What’s more fascinating, after all, than the questions of existence, sentience, and the parameters and laws of natural phenomena? Add God and all these become his possibly arbitrary creations, subtract him and they become the eternal mysteries themselves, possibly endless in their unraveling, possibly impenetrable. But for Clinton (if we take him at his word, not always recommended) et al. such engagement with the unfathomable goes by the boards, tamed by traditional theism.

What motivates these opposing stances, perhaps, are the sometimes conflicting desires for security and exploration, each of which has a claim on us. Those driven more by security tell the conventional, comforting story: scientific understanding decodes the text of a God who makes everything work out in the end, as we join him after death. Those driven more by the exploratory impulse disdain a designed universe, preferring the uncertain but exhilarating quest for further understanding. Security, exemplified by the church, wants an end to questions, while exploration, exemplified by science, prizes questions that may indeed prove unanswerable.

So who’s right here? Humanists by nature tend towards curiosity and impolitic questioning, so we’ll judge Clinton wrong not just because he implicitly endorsed theism in a public capacity (hence marginalizing non-believers) but also on aesthetic grounds: giving God credit for creation takes some of the fun out of life. And besides, there’s no good evidence God exists, by our lights.

If, in rendering this judgment, we remember that it originates in our preferences for empiricism and exploration, we’ll stay true to these preferences and likely show more compassion toward those (the majority in this country, it seems) with greater needs for psychological security. We can patiently tolerate their belief that the genome is the word of God, since we understand they haven’t yet outgrown the need for a cosmic hand to hold. Eventually, with our gentle, self-critical proddings and suggestions, former theists will discover that they can walk unassisted and with excitement into the unknown.

TWC, July 2000


Seeing Drugs as a Choice or a Brain Anomaly

(see related articles on the Addictions page)

by Michael Massing

(Editor' note: This appeared in the New York Times on June 24, 2000 in the Arts and Ideas Section.   Massing does a nice job in bringing together various strands of the debate on the disease model of addiction, in which free will is the unstated subtext.   Some responses follow the article, and have a look at the Addictions page as well.)

Dr. Alan I. Leshner, the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, a division of the National Institutes of Health, is known for his slide shows. Two or three times a week he gives a speech -- to treatment counselors and prevention specialists, physicians and policymakers -- and almost all feature slides culled from the work of the 1,200 researchers supported by his institute. The slides are of brain scans, and they usually come in pairs. The "before" slides show the activity of a normal brain; the "after" ones depict a brain that has had prolonged exposure to drugs. Lacing his presentation with jokes and Yiddish expressions -- as a youth, Dr. Leshner summered at a Catskills hotel owned by his grandparents, and he has a bit of Alan King in him -- he tries to translate the science into plain English.

What the science shows, he says, is that the brain of an addict is fundamentally different from that of a nonaddict. Initially, when a person uses hard drugs like heroin or cocaine, the chemistry of the brain is not much affected, and the decision to take the drugs remains voluntary. But at a certain point, he says, a "metaphorical switch in the brain" gets thrown, and the individual moves into a state of addiction characterized by compulsive drug use. These brain changes, Dr. Leshner says, persist long after addicts stop using drugs, which is why, he continues, relapse is so common. Addiction, Dr. Leshner declares, should be approached more like other chronic illnesses, like diabetes and hypertension. Going further, he says that drugs so alter the brain that addiction can be compared to mental disorders like Alzheimer's disease and schizophrenia. It is, he says, a "brain disease."

In promoting this concept, Dr. Leshner has stepped forthrightly into a debate that has smoldered for decades: are drug addicts responsible for their behavior? Should they be treated as sick people in need of help, or as bad people in need of punishment? Dr. Leshner has come down squarely on the side of illness. And he is winning many people over. Today the brain-disease model is widely accepted in the addiction field, and Barry R. McCaffrey, the White House drug adviser, routinely invokes it.

Others are not convinced. "I reject the notion that addicts fall under the spell of drugs and become a zombie and so are not responsible for anything they do," says Dr. Sally L. Satel, a senior associate at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington and a practicing psychiatrist at a methadone clinic. To her and other critics, the brain-disease model is a new orthodoxy based less on science than on a desire to soften the stigma attached to addiction.

The idea that addiction is a disease is not new. In the 1960's Alcoholics Anonymous began speaking of alcoholism as a disease. But, initially at least, A.A. used the term figuratively to suggest the tenacious hold drinking has on alcoholics. Over the last decade or so, however, advances in brain-imaging technology have allowed researchers to measure the impact of psychoactive substances on the brain with increasing precision. Investigators have found that drugs like cocaine, heroin and alcohol increase the brain's production of dopamine, the neurotransmitter that regulates pleasure, among other things. This helps account for the euphoric high drug users feel. But these drugs deplete the dopamine pathway, disrupting the individual's ability to function.

At the Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island, for instance, Dr. Nora D. Volkow has found that even 100 days after a cocaine addict's last dose, there is significant disruption in the brain's frontal cortical area, which governs such attributes as impulse, motivation and drive. Dr. Volkow says that "the disruption of the dopamine pathways leads to a decrease in the reinforcing value of normal things, and this pushes the individual to take drugs to compensate." Other researchers have found a physiological basis for the craving so many addicts experience, but it is not yet clear how long such physiological changes remain.

Dr. Herbert D. Kleber, the medical director of the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse in New York, says that the brain-disease concept fits with his experience with thousands of addicts over the years. "No one wants to be an addict," he says. "All anyone wants to be able to do is knock back a few drinks with the guys on Friday or have a cigarette with coffee or take a toke on a crack pipe. But very few addicts can do this. When someone goes from being able to control their habit to mugging their grandmother to get money for their next fix, that convinces me that something has changed in their brain."

But does causing changes in the brain qualify addiction as a brain disease? Not according to Dr. Gene M. Heyman, a lecturer at the Harvard Medical School and a research psychologist at McLean Hospital in Boston. "Since we can visualize the brain of someone who's craving, people say, 'Ah hah, addiction is a brain disease,' " he remarks. "But when someone sees a McDonald's hamburger, things are going on in the brain, too, but that doesn't tell you whether their behavior is involuntary or not." While acknowledging that addiction does induce compulsive behavior, Dr. Heyman says that addicts still retain a degree of volition, as evidenced by the many who stop using drugs.

"Smoking meets the criteria for addiction, but 50 percent of smokers have quit," he says. This change, he goes on, is "demonstrably related" to the data about the hazards of smoking that have emerged since the surgeon general's report on the subject in 1964. By contrast, Dr. Heyman says, "information about schizophrenia hasn't reduced the frequency of that illness." Dr. Heyman also cites a well-known study of Vietnam veterans who were dependent on heroin while overseas. Within three years of their return to the United States, the study found, nearly 90 percent were no longer using it -- strong evidence, Dr. Heyman says, that the addictive state is not permanent.

Sally Satel first became skeptical about the brain-disease model in 1997, when she attended a conference of the drug-abuse institute on the medical treatment of heroin addiction. "So pervasive was the idea that a dysfunctional brain is the root of addiction that I was able to sit through the entire two-and-a-half-day meeting without once hearing such words as 'responsibility,' 'choice,' 'character' -- the vocabulary of personhood," Dr. Satel wrote in a paper called "Is Drug Addiction a Brain Disease?"

Written with Dr. Frederick K. Goodwin and published as a booklet by the Ethics and Public Policy Center, the paper offers a blistering attack on the drug-abuse institute and its brain-disease terminology. "Dramatic visuals are seductive and lend scientific credibility to NIDA's position," the paper states, but politicians "should resist this medicalized portrait for at least two reasons. First, it appears to reduce a complex human activity to a slice of damaged brain tissue. Second, and most important, it vastly underplays the reality that much of addictive behavior is voluntary."

To support that claim, Dr. Satel cited the results of the Epidemiologic Catchment Area study, paid for by the National Institute of Mental Health, which asked 20,300 adults about their psychological history. Of the 1,300 people who were found to have been dependent on or abusing drugs, 59 percent said they had not been users for at least a year before the interview; the average time of remission was 2.7 years. "The fact that many, perhaps most addicts are in control of their actions and appetites for circumscribed periods of time shows that they are not perpetually helpless victims of a chronic disease," Dr. Satel said.

At the mention of Dr. Satel, Dr. Leshner bristles. "Simplistic and polarizing," he says of her writing. More generally, Dr. Leshner maintains that his views have been distorted and misinterpreted. Still, he says, he has lately modified his message, giving more recognition to the role of volition in addiction. "Today's version," he says, is that addiction is "a brain disease expressed as compulsive behavior; both its development and the recovery from it depend on the individual's behavior."

But where does choice end and compulsion begin? The slide showing that has not yet appeared.



Deciphering Addiction (letter to the Times)

by Mary M. Cleveland, research director for the Partnership for Responsible Drug Information

A June 24 Arts and Ideas pages article describes the debate between two camps of anti-drug crusaders: those who say drug addiction is an immoral choice and others who see it as a "brain disease."   But it is also possible to see addiction as an obsessive-compulsive behavioral disorder, akin to compulsive gambling or repetitive hand-washing. Treatment for such disorders emphasizes helping people understand and manage their behavior.  That includes identifying false assumptions ("I just have no self-control") and avoiding circumstances that set off compulsive behavior (hanging out with the guys).

Treating addicts as immoral or diseased makes them view themselves as bad or helpless, and makes it harder for them to gain self-knowledge or self control.


Editorial Note: This letter pretty much nails it, as long as we understand "self-control" to mean behaving in a responsible, socially sanctioned manner, not some sort of magical control exerted by a self independent in some respect of environment or heredity.  Heyman's work in behavioral choice theory is all about how the voluntary aspects of addictive behavior - what gets talked about as self-control (or its absence) - are determined by the addict's social environment.  For more on this see my reply to Massing below, and also see the Addiction page.

Editor's Reply to Massing:

Dear Mr. Massing,

I read with great interest your June 24 New York Times piece, "Seeing Drugs as a Choice or as a Brain Anomaly." Underlying this debate, but not usually made explicit, are assumptions about volition and free will. Until these assumptions themselves are openly debated I don’t think we’re going to make much headway in resolving the controversy over the disease model of addiction.

For instance, you quote Gene Heyman as saying that "addicts still retain a degree of volition." "Volition" suggests to many people a free choice independent of environment and heredity, but what Heyman actually means by volition is quite different. It’s the voluntary component of addictive behavior, that which is sensitive to consequences, as exemplified by the higher quit rate of smokers exposed to information about the risks of cancer. Heyman believes (as do I) that voluntary behavior is just as caused, or determined, as involuntary behavior, but that its causes lie in transactions between persons and their environments; it’s not driven directly by brain anomalies (personal communication). There is no role for free will here, understood as some sort of self-originated choice that’s independent, in some respect, of a person’s biology or social circumstances.

Like Heyman, Satel certainly understands the power of environmental contingencies in shaping addiction, but she consistently reinterprets this sort of causality as a matter of the addict’s self-control, suggesting to the unwary that there might be a freely willing self that chooses addiction (or not). For instance, you quoted her from her (and Fredrick Goodwin’s) booklet, "Is Drug Addiction a Brain Disease?" saying "The fact that many, perhaps most addicts are in control of their actions and appetites for circumscribed periods of time shows that they are not perpetually helpless victims of a chronic disease." But being "in control" of one’s actions and appetites is nothing over and above having one’s behavior shaped to conform to social norms by one’s social and interpersonal situation, perhaps with the help of pharmaceutical interventions. It’s not a matter of free will.

Satel is aware of this issue, since in the preface to her pamphlet she writes: "Among the questions raised by this essay is whether the traditional concept of free will can be sustained in the face of new knowledge about biological and environmental forces that shape human behavior." Curiously, however, nowhere in this booklet does free will get discussed (I hope it will be in future publications from the Ethics and Public Policy Center, Satel's organization). Instead, Satel gives plenty of examples of how addictive behavior is a function of various factors (e.g., it can be influenced by Contingency Management, is exacerbated by "boredom, depression, stress, anger, and loneliness") but always ends up ultimately blaming the addict, as in the following: "They are instigators of their addiction, just as they are agents of their own recovery…or non-recovery. The potential for self-control should allow society to endorse expectations and demands of addicts that would never be made of someone with a true involuntary illness."

Interestingly, the second sentence of this quote draws on clear the connection between self-control and reinforcement contingencies, since addicts only have *potential* for self-control, which gets *realized* by placing expectations and demands on addicts (or by having them grow up in better social circumstances in which good behavior is the norm, not the exception, thus avoiding addiction in the first place). If such is the case, then how can addicts be the "instigators" of their addiction or recovery?

Satel doesn’t seem to want to face the implications of a scientific understanding of addiction, or behavior generally: there is no originative, freely willing agent to praise or blame for choices. Perhaps this is because she supposes, as do many, that having got rid of free will there are no longer grounds for holding addicts (or the rest of us) accountable. But of course this is wrong. The same grounds exist as before: we want to conform addicts’ behavior to social norms so that they become responsible adults. Therefore we are justified in arranging social contingencies which can shape their behavior, or, to use that highly misleading expression, give them "self-control."

To the extent that punitive attitudes (some of which I detect in Satel) are based in the notion that we are the instigator of our own faults, seeing through the myth of free will constitutes the ultimate distigmatization of addicts. This means that in choosing contingencies to shape behavior, we can no longer justify punitive contingencies on the grounds that people could have done otherwise in the biological, psychological, and social conditions they were faced with growing up, and that therefore they deserve to suffer. (They might have done otherwise if conditions had been different, but they weren’t, which is why we have to change those conditions.) Knowing that choices are not willed independently of circumstances, our attitudes towards addicts might change to become more compassionate; as a result we might pay more attention to preventing the formative conditions of addiction than to after-the-fact sanctions.

However, this is not to say that "tough love" isn’t sometimes necessary. The threat of losing privileges as a result of bad behavior does work to instill "self-control". But the default position differs from Satel’s: it is to minimize the addict’s suffering in the process of recovery, and head off problems before they start with all the resources we can muster directed at the conditions which generate addiction. This is not, as you can imagine, the libertarian laissez-faire prescription I suspect Satel might endorse.

Once those championing the disease model of addiction (such as Alan Leshner) understand that voluntary behavior is just as determined as any disease process, they won’t any longer have to deny the voluntary component of addiction in order to destigmatize addicts. But they will have to face the fact that a certain number (one hopes a bare minimum) of negative contingencies may be necessary as a last resort to restore dignity and responsibility to an addict. So the anti-stigma folks have to concede something here, as well as the libertarians.

I want to thank you again for raising this issue, but I think you’ve only hit the proverbial tip of the iceberg. Whether its depths will be plumbed, given the social reticence about exploring the issue of free will, is an open question.


Tom Clark

...and a letter to the Times, unpublished:

To the Editors:

Michael Massing usefully examines the disease model of substance abuse, pointing out that there are voluntary choices involved in drug seeking behavior, even in the late stages of addiction (Arts and Ideas, June 24).  But just as physiological abnormalities in the addict’s brain can be traced to the chemical effects of drugs, so too the voluntary aspects of drug use can be traced to the addict’s social and psychological milieu.

This means that to treat and prevent addiction effectively we must pay as much attention to the environment of potential addicts as to their brains. It also suggests that in destigmatizing addiction, discovering the environmental determinants of choice is just as important as finding the genetic and physiological mechanisms of compulsive craving.

In the light of a scientific understanding of voluntary behavior, social stigma might still play a role in helping to reduce drug abuse, but it should be applied only when other, less punitive means are proved ineffective. Seeing why addicts behave as they do will force us to acknowledge that were we handed the same genetic and environmental lot in life, our choices would have been much the same.



Playing God, Carefully

(Editor's note:  This is a response to Cho, et al., "Ethical Considerations in Synthesizing a Minimal Genome."  Their concern - that biotech might devalue life - is a good example of what might be called "fear of mechanism.")

The December 10, 1999 issue of Science reported that microbiologists may eventually pin down a "minimum genome": the bare bones, molecularly speaking, of what it takes to make a living organism. The interplay of DNA, proteins, and other sub-cellular components in supporting the necessary functions of life – in this case a very simple bacterium – would be completely understood. Nothing mysterious or "protoplasmic" would remain: the very mechanism of life would stand revealed in all its complexity.

The same issue also carried a companion piece by a group of bioethicists on "Ethical Considerations in Synthesizing a Minimal Genome," in which they grapple with what they believe are the worrisome implications of such knowledge. "The attempt to model and create a minimal genome," they say, "represents the culmination of a reductionist research agenda about the meaning and origin of life that has spanned the 20th century." This agenda is far from benign, according to these ethicists, since it challenges the tradition which holds that life is valuable because it is more than "merely physical." Their worry, in essence, is that "The special status of living things and the value we ascribe to life may …be undermined by reductionism."

This is a serious charge, one that might well tend to foster prejudice against science. If a thorough understanding of the mechanics of life necessarily devalues it, then shouldn’t we pull back from the pursuit of biological knowledge? One might expect that the supposed threat of reductionism would be made clear, but in fact the authors don’t sustain their indictment. Rather, their article suggests that reductionism, properly understood, poses little danger. Even with a minimum genome in hand, science simply isn’t in a position to offer definitive pronouncements on the meaning of life.

Their worries rest on a confusion between materialism, the thesis that we essentially are physical creatures, and what might be called strong reductionism, the claim that higher level phenomena, such as human behavior, can be completely explained in terms of its underlying physical mechanisms. Now, some indeed are threatened by materialism, since being "merely" physical undercuts the traditional reassurance that the soul might outlive the body. But it’s not clear that anyone should be worried about strong reductionism, since it’s patently false, and must be distinguished from the bread and butter science of analyzing biological processes, which is what work on the minimal genome consists of.

The ethicists point out that "a reductionist understanding of …human life is not satisfying to those who believe that dimensions of the human experience cannot be explained by an exclusively physiological analysis." True enough, but does anyone really suppose that physiological analysis is even relevant to most human experience? Such strong reductionism is simply a straw man, not an encroaching scientific agenda.

For instance, a thorough understanding of the brain at the neural level, while often necessary for tracing specific mental functions and pathologies, is simply inappropriate for dealing with the everyday psychodrama of our motives, aspirations, disappointments and interpersonal interactions. Even though our having experiences at all may depend on our having properly wired brains, the meaning of experience derives from its social context, not its substrate in physiology. In short, since analytical physical science is irrelevant to domains in which it is useless for explanatory or predictive purposes (which is to say, in much of our lives) its success cannot threaten our dignity.

The ethicists also suggest that extensions of minimal genome research, by specifying the genetic definition of the human organism and its beginnings in utero, will have implications for the abortion debate. Although they don’t tell us precisely what these implications are, they do conclude that "the complex metaphysical issues about the status of human beings cannot be discussed in terms of the presence or absence of a particular set of genes". Quite true, but this is yet another illustration of how physiological analysis is not about to rule our ethical intuitions. Even if we agreed on a definition of human life at the DNA level, all the contentious issues of fetal viability, birth defects, quality of life, and the sometimes conflicting interests of mother and potential newborn, remain to be decided at the social level. Science simply isn’t in competition with social policy debates, although it can help inform them.

But beyond abortion, the most pressing issue, they say, is whether identifying minimal genomes, or perhaps even creating artificial organisms from such blueprints, "constitutes unwarranted intrusion into matters best left to nature; that is, whether work on minimal genomes constitutes ‘playing God’." How much should we intervene in the mechanics of life to suit our desires? An analytical understanding of life’s mechanisms is the key to genetic engineering, both of other creatures and ourselves. If we decide we should play God, then we’ll use the key; if not, we should throw it away.

The authors point out that a spectrum of views exist on playing God. Many of religious persuasions reject it as arrogant hubris; others believe that it should be the no-holds-barred culmination of our capacity for self-design. They themselves recommend a middle path of careful biotechnological stewardship that "would move forward with caution into genomic research and with insights from value traditions as to the proper purposes and uses of new knowledge." They also state that "while there are reasons for caution, there is nothing in the research agenda for creating a minimal genome that is automatically prohibited by legitimate religious considerations."

If, as these ethicists conclude, there is no deep moral objection to our playing God -carefully - then a detailed analysis of life’s mechanisms is simply a means to an end, not an intrinsic threat to the specialness of life or our attachment to human beings and other creatures. And it is these attachments that will shape the ends we seek, and that must channel the use of biotechnology in humane, not monstrous, directions.

Were we to conclude that playing God is wrong, then advanced biology does pose a threat, and we might seek to limit research into what once were the mysteries of life. Indeed, the success of science in showing that simple life forms are mechanisms, albeit astoundingly complex, lends power to what some feel is a deflationary materialism: we no longer need mysterious, non-physical explanations for what life does. The sheer ability to play God, therefore, threatens those who think God is, or should be, a necessary hypothesis at the physical level. They would prefer science to fail, even in its proper arena, and one sure way to ensure failure is to limit biological research.

But in reality, of course, it’s too late not to play God. By knowing that we have the power to know, even a decision to "let nature run its course" is yet another God-like choice, albeit it one that renounces domains of understanding and control. Such a choice would make us a God of the Deists, a passive onlooker of unfolding creation, rather than an active participant in shaping our destiny.

The question, therefore, is not whether we should play God, but what sorts of local gods we will, or should, become. Will materialism (not the straw man of strong reductionism) demoralize us, or will we continue to find meaning in our personal and social lives, even though life itself is understood to be a mechanism? The latter outcome becomes possible if we grasp that our lives’ meaning need not depend on our being ethereal, as opposed to purely physical, creatures. Either way, our response to the success of science will help determine how we play the leading role in which nature has cast us on this planet.

TWC, January 2000



Scientists Unmask Diet Myth: Willpower

By Jane Fritch

New York Times, Science Times, October 5, 1999

(Editorial note: Below is a telling expose of will in an everyday context.  With one exception, the scientists quoted by Jane Fritch pull no punches in dismissing willpower as a fraud.   They recommend instead the Skinnerian solution to overeating: set up your environment to make it less likely you'll want to, or be able to eat.  If you do a good job at this, one says, it will even seem as if you've got willpower!   The trick is to generalize this message into other realms of behavior, but of course that gets controversial...)

A thin person, the kind who has always been thin, is confronted by a chocolate cake with dark fudge icing and chopped pecans. Unmoved, he goes about his business as if nothing has happened.

A fat person, the kind who has always struggled with weight, is confronted by the same cake. He feels a little surge of adrenaline. He cuts a slice and eats it. Then he eats another, and feels guilty for the rest of the day.

The simplest -- and most judgmental -- explanation for the difference in behavior is willpower. Some people seem to have it but others do not, and the common wisdom is that they ought to get some.

But to weight-loss researchers, willpower is an outdated and largely discredited concept, about as relevant to dieting as cod liver oil. And many question whether there is such a thing as willpower.

"There is no magical stuff inside of you called willpower that should somehow override nature," said Dr. James C. Rosen, a professor of psychology at the University of Vermont. "It's a metaphor that most chronically overweight dieters buy into."

To attribute dieting success or failure to willpower, researchers say, is to ignore the complex interaction of brain chemicals, behavioral conditioning, hormones, heredity and the powerful influence of habits. Telling an overweight person to use willpower is, in many ways, like telling a clinically depressed person to "snap out of it."

It is possible, of course, to recover from depression and to lose weight, but neither is likely to happen simply because a person wills it to be so, researchers say. There must be some intervention, either chemical or psychological.

The study of weight loss began in earnest in the early 1950's, a time when doctors and nutritionists treated overweight people by telling them to eat less and sending them on their way.

"Willpower was a kind of all-embracing theory that was used all the time to make doctors feel good and make patients feel bad," said Dr. Albert Stunkard, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania who has been studying weight loss for five decades.

"Most people think that willpower is just a pejorative way of describing your failures," he said. "Willpower really doesn't have any meaning."

The role of willpower in weight loss was a major issue among scientists about 30 years ago, when the behavior modification movement began, Dr. Stunkard said. Until then, the existence -- and importance -- of willpower had been an article of faith on which most diets were founded, he said.

The behavior modification approach had its roots in a 1967 study called "Behavioral Control of Overeating," which tried to analyze the elements of "self-control" and apply them to weight loss. The study, by Richard B. Stuart of the University of Michigan, showed that eight overweight women treated with behavior modification techniques lost from 26 to 47 pounds over a year. They had frequent sessions with a therapist and recorded their food intake and moods in diaries. And the therapists helped them develop lists of alternatives to eating, like reading a newspaper or calling a friend. One cultivated an interest in caged birds; another grew violets.

"No effort is made to distinguish the historical antecedents of the problem and no assumptions are made about the personality of the overeater," Mr. Stuart wrote in his article, published in the journal Behavioral Research and Therapy.

After that, the focus of weight loss programs shifted toward behavioral steps a dieter takes regarding eating, said Dr. Michael R. Lowe, a professor of clinical psychology at the MCP Hahnemann University in Philadelphia, and away from "something you search for within."

Behavior modification is now the most widely accepted approach to long-term weight loss. Practically, that means changing eating habits -- and making new habits -- by performing new behaviors. Most programs now recommend things like pausing before eating to write down what is about to be eaten, keeping a journal describing a mood just before eating and eating before a trip to the grocery store to head off impulse buying.

There is also mounting evidence that behavior affects the chemical balance in the brain, and vice versa. Drugs like fenfluramine, half of the now-banned fen-phen combination, reduced a dieter's interest in eating, thereby making willpower either irrelevant or seemingly available in pill form. And Dr. Stunkard has just completed a study that showed that people with "night-eating syndrome" -- who overeat in the late evening, have trouble sleeping and get up in the middle of the night to eat -- have lower-than-normal levels of the hormones melatonin, leptin and cortisol in their blood.

Still, to deny the importance of willpower is to attack a fundamental notion about human character.

"The concept of willpower is something that is very widely embedded in our view of ourselves," said Dr. Lowe of MCP Hahnemann University. "It is a major explanatory mechanism that people use to account for behavior."

But Dr. Lowe said he and others viewed willpower as "essentially an explanatory fiction." Saying that someone lacks willpower "leaves people with the sense they understand why the behavior occurred, when in reality all they've done is label the behavior, not explain it," he said.

"Willpower as an independent cause of behavior is a myth," Dr. Lowe said. In his clinical practice, he takes a behavioral approach to weight control. In part, that involves counseling dieters to take a more positive attitude about their ability to lose weight. It also involves some practical steps. "Most importantly," he said, "you need to learn what behavioral steps you can take before you get in the situation where you're in the chair in front of the television with a bowl of potato chips."

And, he said, it is important for dieters to keep in mind that there are formidable forces working against them and their so-called willpower. "We live in about the most toxic environment for weight control that you can imagine," Dr. Lowe said. "There is ready, easy availability of high-fat, high-calorie fast foods that are relatively affordable, combined with the fact that our society has become about as sedentary as a society can be."

Not all experts, however, reject the notion of willpower. Dr. Kelly D. Brownell, director of the Yale Center for Eating and Weight Disorders, said that this was the most difficult time in history for dieters, and that it would be a mistake to dismiss the concept of willpower. "A person's ability to control their eating varies over time, and you cannot attribute that to biology," he said.

"There's a collective public loss of willpower because of this terrible food environment that challenges us beyond what we can tolerate," Dr. Brownell said. "One needs much more willpower now than ever before just to stay even."

All the temptations notwithstanding, thousands of people find a way to lose weight and keep it off, a fact demonstrated by the National Weight Control Registry, a research project that keeps tabs on people who have lost at least 30 pounds and kept the weight off for more than a year.

" A lot of times in weight loss programs patients will say to me that they need to learn to be able to live with an apple pie in the refrigerator and not eat it," said Dr. Rena Wing, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh and the Brown University School of Medicine, who is collaborating on the registry project. Most behaviorists think dieters should instead arrange their lives so that they rarely have to confront such temptations.

"If I were to put an apple pie in front of everybody every minute of the day, I could probably break down everybody's quote-unquote willpower," she said. "We really are trying to get away from this notion of willpower. If you make certain plans, you will be able to engineer your behavior in such a way that you will look as if you have willpower."


On the Supposed Inscrutability of Evil

by Currents editor, TWC

In the wake of the Columbine High School shootings in Littleton, Colorado, several newspaper articles, including two by Massachusetts sociologists, downplayed the possibility that we can ever truly understand the evil behind such events.  Evil, it seems, is not fully explicable by causal factors, but is instead the product of an intrinsic, self-chosen malevolence within individuals.  Alan Wolfe of Boston University concluded his piece defending suburban culture ("Littleton Takes the Blame," New York Times Op-Ed, 5/2/1999) with a telling tautology: "We ourselves should not try to find an explanation for all of life's mysteries.  Not everything requires a sociological analysis.  The evil that was Columbine was not about franchise outlets, cell phones or cliques.  It was about evil."   The Boston Globe ran a piece by University of Massachusetts sociologist John Hewitt ("Trying to make sense of the senseless," Op-Ed 4/29/99) which went even further in mystifying evil:

"More ominously, this tragedy might have an explanation that we are not prepared to accept.  Science has taught us to look for peculiar social or psychological circumstances that cause people to do what they otherwise would not do. The mind does not rest easy with the idea that seemingly ordinary people who are a bit odd but generally keep to themselves might quietly be forming awful plans. We would rather think of bad acts as the unfortunate consequences of discoverable and remediable social and personal conditions. Yet it is precisely the account we do not wish to believe that might best capture what happened in Littleton.

"The two dead members of the 'Trench Coat Mafia,' together with their fellows, might simply have chosen evil in circumstances where others choose to play football or to crave membership in the National Honor Society."

Last, but not least, the New York Times ran a Sunday Week in Review article ("Science Looks at Littleton and Shrugs," 5/5/99) in which Dr. Jeffery Fagan, director of the Center for Violence Research and Prevention at Columbia University was quoted saying that "a much more hard-heading approach [to explaining Littleton] says 'Sometimes bad things happen and we can't always explain it.'" 

It speaks to the power of the myth of radical autonomy (see next section) that even experts in the art of explanation throw up their hands when confronted with extreme acts of violence, as if these were somehow beyond nature, or culture, and have to be chalked up to an incomprehensible Evil residing within the person.  Such a stance not only misplaces the person outside of nature and culture, it suggests that evil is beyond our reach to contain or control:  it relieves us of responsibility for creating a less punitive culture in which retaliatory episodes such as Littleton (and many, many more unpublicized killings) become less frequent.  Don't blame or try to change suburbia, says Wolfe, evil is simply evil.   Don't look to science to illuminate the killings, says Hewitt, it's just a personal choice, like choosing to play football.  If we are hardheaded realists about such tragedies, says Fagan, we will admit that they are ultimately inexplicable.  This last bit seems simply wrongheaded, not hardheaded.

Such defeatist nonsense is driven by the deep cultural assumption that individuals are in some sense freely willing first causes, insulated from biological, psychological and social factors.  On the contrary, only by naturalizing evil - that is, showing how it arises from such factors - do we stand a chance of conquering it.  Clinging to the myth of autonomy, far from giving us power, guarantees that the recent history of Littleton will repeat itself, perhaps in a community near you.  For a response to Wolfe published in the Times see the Letters section, "The End of the Suburban Dream?".


Radical Autonomy in the New York Times

DNA and Destiny

An excerpt from a 11/16/98 New York Times op-ed piece by David P. Barash, a professor of psychology at the University of Washington at Seattle:

The existentialists had it right. From a religious thinker like Kierkegaard to an atheist like Nietzsche, the existentialists recognized that all human beings define themselves as unique, responsible individuals. As Simone de Beauvoir put it, a human being is a being whose essence is having no essence. Or, in Jean Paul Sartre’s famous phrase, "existence precedes essence."

In other words, our essence is ours to choose, depending on how we direct ourselves with all our baggage, DNA included.

This is not to minimize our gene-based, Darwinian heritage. It is, rather, a reminder that within the vast remaining range of human possibility left us by our genes and our evolutionary past, each of us is remarkably, terrifyingly free.

Editorial comment: Yeah, right. Like so many responding to the threat of genetic determinism, Barash ignores the other, complimentary set of determining factors which shape the self - the environment. Beyond genes and environment, there are no other factors involved in the development of individuals, certainly not a self free from such influences. And on what basis would a radically free self choose to shape itself in one direction over another? On the assumption of radical autonomy - the existentialist assumption Barash champions - no explanation could ever be forthcoming. This sort of ill-considered flight to freedom is typical of those who see determinism as a threat to human dignity.


Smoking is a Choice

In a 11/21/98 letter to the New York Times, Marc Beauchamp of Falls Church, VA writes:

Your Nov. 19 front-page article about Jan Binder, a smoker who has been unable to quit, is emblematic of today’s culture of victimization. Ms. Binder is an addict and outcast not by chance but because of choices she’s made.

I was a pack-a-day smoker from my late teens until my late 30’s. I took my last puff eight years ago. What I learned from my struggle to kick the habit was that you can’t quit for the wrong reasons: because it costs too much, because your family thinks it’s a vile habit, because a friend or relative smoked themselves to death. You can only quit when you decide that’s what you want to do. Period.

It’s a smoker’s choice to be a smoke victim.

Editorial comment: Note the startling lack of explanation for why a smoker would choose to quit: "You can only quit when you decide that’s what you want to do. Period."  The smoker’s decision is imagined to be in isolation from any and all influences, making it inexplicable except as an act of sheer will, which itself comes out of the blue. This sets up the agent to take all the blame, and suggests that outside factors are insignificant in helping smokers to quit. This is the core of the defense that tobacco companies mount in lawsuits to avoid accountability. Unfortunately, most juries buy it, wedded as they are to the fiction of free will.



Dr. William Provine: Free Will a Cultural Myth

American Atheist Conference, 6/12/98

Dr. William Provine, Cornell University Professor, addressed the convention on the theological concept of "free will." He began with a detailed discussion on recent developments in evolutionary biology as formulated by Charles Darwin. He noted that the idea of a universe created by a deity - "intelligent design" - was refuted by the findings of science, specifically the doctrine of natural selection.

Provine asserted that "when you're dead, you're dead," and that in looking at life from an evolutionary perspective, one sees that there is no ultimate, absolute reference in formulating an ethical system. "No, human beings on this planet are alone, and we exist in a world which was made by processes that don't care one whit about us... we live in a universe that will probably continue to expand for some time, then contract."

"The meaning we seek in our lives cannot be ultimate meaning, but a meaning which we create."

Dr. Provine then continued that "free will is a terrible cultural myth." He added that "Giving up the idea of God is great for a rational mind."

Provine also made a strong plea for competing viewpoints to be aired throughout the academy, and society; he called upon Atheists to actively debate creationists. "Some of my best friends are creationists, and they like me, because they know I want to see their ideas presented and contested in class."

Source: American Atheist Magazine


Underreporting Antidepressant Use Tied to Stigma of Mental Illness

(excerpt chosen and emphasis added by Currents editor)

...Rost and associates reported a study of coding practices among primary care physicians treating depression that may help explain our findings. These researchers used a structured survey of primary care physicians. They found that 50.3% of respondents who had seen a patient meeting the DSM-III-R criteria for major depression in the previous 2 weeks admitted that they deliberately miscoded the diagnosis. The most common diagnoses substituted for depression included fatigue/malaise, insomnia, headache, anxiety, adjustment/grief reaction, and anorexia, as well as somatic syndromes such as fibromyalgia and irritable bowel syndrome. These results correlate closely with the pattern of diagnoses seen in our primary care record sample.

The reasons physicians cited for using alternative diagnostic codes are intriguing and have interesting clinical, societal, and ethical implications. "Uncertainty about the diagnosis" was reported by 46.0% of respondents. This highlights the need for both objective screening and diagnostic tools for common mental illnesses in primary care practice as well as improved provider education. A variety of studies have concluded that primary care physicians significantly under-report and undertreat depression. Paradoxically, it appears that in many cases they suspect the correct diagnosis but fail to record it due to uncertainty or other factors described here.

Other reasons reported for miscoding the diagnosis have health system and societal implications. "Problems with reimbursement for services if depression is coded" was reported by 44.4% of respondents; this demonstrates that reimbursement bias also affects the accuracy of the outpatient record. This finding also reflects the incongruities of the health plan design, which reimburses treatment for "physical" illnesses but not brain diseases with demonstrated organic, neurobiologic basis.[40, reference below]

All of these results reflect the stigma of mental illness that continues to be explicitly reinforced, as is evident in the list of other reasons given for not identifying depression as the diagnosis. These reasons include "jeopardize future ability to obtain health insurance" (29.4%), life insurance (12.8%), employment (10.2%), or disability (6.4%). Moreover, 20.9% of physicians reported that the "stigma associated with depression was likely to delay recovery," and 12.3% reported that the stigma would "negatively influence future care from other providers." Finally, 11.8% of physicians reported that patients were "unwilling to accept the diagnosis," and 11.2% of patients specifically requested that depression not be recorded.


40.   Shannon, BD: The brain gets sick, too—The case for equal insurance coverage for serious mental illness. St Mary's Law J 24:365-398, 1993.

Source:   "Research Using Physician-Reported Anti-depressant Claims," Medline, 6/22/98, http://www.medscape.com/SCP/DBT/1998/v10.n05/d3249.brow/d3249.brow-06.html

Editorial comment:  The "incongruities of the health plan design" mentioned above is a good example of how the mental/physical conceptual split controls both how coverage for illness is allocated and attitudes about depression.  As long as depression is thought of as "mental," it can be safely excluded from standard medical coverage of physical illnesses, and it can be chalked up to personal shortcomings.  As we move towards understanding ourselves as strictly physical creatures, whose "mental" problems are entirely rooted in the brain as it responds to physiological and environmental influences, the stigma of depression should lessen and medical coverage should become more equitable.  TWC


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