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December 10, 2009

Zdeno on Materialism and Free Will

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Here are some comment-reactions and philosophy from Zdeno:

* * * * *

In case anyone, for reasons unfathomable to me, skips the often-more-interesting-than-the-post-itself comment threads here at 2Blowhards, I’ll briefly catch you up to speed: At some point, the question of Ideological Inconsistencies
was overtaken (in a good way) by a discussion on free will and strict materialism. My claims to soullessness, which would have resonated well with some of my ex-girlfriends, did not persuade PatrickH and Vladimir, who I feel got the better of the exchange. Fortunately, I have let guest-posting privileges go to my head (Le blog, c’est moi!) so I will use the cheap trick of responding above the fold.

I have considered myself a strict materialist well before I heard the phrase, originating with a line of argument taken by my 10th-grade English teacher, a man I later learned was high his entire waking life. I’m not sure how he worked it into our discussion of A Separate Peace, but here it is, as I vaguely remember it:

Imagine you were to smash a teacup on a concrete floor. The pieces would scatter throughout the room according to the strength and angle with which you had thrown the cup, the irregularities in the floor where it smashed, and every other material object that interacted with it, all the way down to the air currents and dust motes that nudged the shards of glass in their trajectories. We could not hope to predict the exact placement of each shard, lowly mortals that we are, but in the sense that the final distribution of glass is a function of the physical properties of the room, we can say that the outcome is predetermined. If we were to somehow recreate the exact physical properties of the room and throw the same teacup in exactly the same manner, we would get exactly the same result, perhaps with some variability resulting from quantum randomness.

Now extend the analogy to a person walking into (say) his office first thing in the morning. He walks in, grabs a coffee, says hello to a co-worker, then sits down and fires up SPSS. All decisions made via free will, right?

But how is the person any different from a teacup? We are all the products of our genes and our experiences. If we could recreate the exact same scenario for our hypothetical office worker – same physical office, the people he interacts with behaving in the exact same way, etc – what reason do we have to suspect that his behaviour would be in any way different from the first time we ran the simulation? Even if we posit the existence of a soul, would the same soul not make the same “choices” over and over again, if we regressed it through the same situation repeatedly? If this logic applies to everyone, than the outcome of any particular scenario we find ourselves in is predetermined – we are all just billiard balls knocking each other around on green felt. Our interactions are extraordinarily complex, and thus unpredictable by our mortal minds, but they are predetermined nonetheless.

If free will exists, the implication is that your soul, placed in a situation with a given set of choices to make, would choose differently if it were run through the same situation over and over again. Perhaps the soul decides with some sort of probabilistic function, killing his parents for the insurance money with p= (.2) and nursing them throughout their old age with p = (.08). Is that still free will? Mere probability?

And that’s how I first started leaning towards a materialist interpretation of human minds. Since then, I’ve come across a book or two on evolutionary biology and I am more or less convinced by the Dawkinsian treatment of the origins of replicators, genes, and intelligent life as explained in the opening chapter of The Selfish Gene. I consider it to be plausible, if humbling, that we are the result of a gradual evolution of creatures of greater and greater complexity, culminating in a species whose central nervous systems are so sophisticated that they create something as mysterious and seemingly irreducible as the subjective experience of consciousness. I can’t explain the phenomenon, and my experience of life certainly doesn’t feel pre-scripted, but that seems to me to be the (flawed) crux of the argument made by the Soulistas – that because we feel like we’re making choices, it must be so. The alternative, that free will is an illusionary by-product of our moist-robot brains, doesn’t strike me as impossible. This line of reasoning relegates souls –mysterious, supernatural, immaterial consciousnesses that have not been observed and whose existence cannot be tested - to the category of “extraordinary claims.” I have yet to see extraordinary evidence for them.

* * *

At the risk of over-burdening a single post, I’d like to wade into a second question that came up: The nihilistic consequnces of a soulless existence.

One implication of strict materialism is that absolute morality – Humean oughts, wrought into the fabric of the universe – cannot exist. How can we talk about morality if we have no choices to make? Amorality is the logical implication of determinism, and determinism is the logical implication of materialism. And yet, here I am, claiming that I do believe in higher morals, and that I live my life according to X and Y moral principles, and just generally acting as if I don’t believe a word of what I’ve just written. PatrickH and Vlad are right to call me out on this disconnect between my words and my actions.

My response, which can quite fairly be called a cop-out, is that I am playing the odds. I am hesitant to speak probabilistically about something so meta, but let’s say I assign p=.95 to my materialist interpretation of reality. If I am correct, the choices I make are not choices at all, and thus have no effect on my life and happiness. If I am incorrect, and act as if I believe the strict materialist hypothesis, i.e. run red lights, eat old oysters, trust her when she says she’s on the pill – I am much worse off. As long as I assign a non-zero probability to being incorrect on the question of free will, I am better off making the same choices as a 100%-convinced Soulista. There are simply no behavioural implications of a materialist worldview, unless you are 100% convinced that you are correct. A fair analogy can be made to Pascal’s Wager

Anyways, thanks for tuning in to Moral Philosophy Amateur Hour. I don’t think I’ve seen that line of reasoning anywhere else, but it seems like a fairly obvious one, so I doubt I’m the first to use it. My self-education on the subject hasn’t been extensive, but anyone interested in further reading should check out this dialogue between Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker. I would also recommend this ambitious attempt by Daniel Dennett to make sense of consciousness, and for a fictional treatment of the subject, The Terminal Experiment by Sci-Fi titan Robert Sawyer is a fun read.

So, Blowhards: Where do you fall in the materialist debate, and why? Mind, or Matter? Material Girl, or Soul Power? Any reading recommendations that could change the (purely physical) mind of this atheistic materialist?

* * * * *



posted by Donald at December 10, 2009


My response, which can quite fairly be called a cop-out

Sorry Zdeno, but with all due respect it's doublethink in operation. The ability to hold two mutually contradictory thoughts in one's head and not to be bothered by the fact. It's "this not being bothered" which is the core issue of the left/right divide. It can be either attributed to stupidity(which you're not) or a willful refusal to accept that one of the positions is wrong and you need to modify your thinking about it. It is a turning away from the truth.

Searle, who is no way a deist, demolished materialism as a basis for consciousness with his "Chinese room" argument, and since morality is based in consciousness, it has no basis in the material.

Posted by: slumlord on December 10, 2009 5:10 PM

I'm sure there'a an argument already formulated that will counter this hypothesis, but can't morality be placed within a evo-bio framework in that it is beneficial for our survival to act morally? For instance, our probability of making it to the next Spring is improved if we, say, act as a group and pool our resources? Or not kill the guy next to me. Etc.

I'll state again, I'm sure this argument has been countered, I just haven't personally heard or read it, so if a commenter has, I'd genuinely appreciate reading it here.

Until then, that's pretty much my belief regarding morality and materialism. I'm basically a materialist with a slight lean towards accepting the probability of some type of non-sentient, over-arching order permeating the universe. I think any spiritual feelings us humans experience are, at their cores, chemical reactions to that material order.

Within this framework, I find much to be awed and humbled by. I'm constantly amazed by the myriad ways in which human consciousness as reacted towards our material predicament, and find much of it beautiful and sublime. This response of mine feels right to me deep down and as I get older, it's only solidified and grown more profound for me. All the religions of the world I see as simply different manifestations of this human reaction to our material predicament.

I don't for a second believe this worldview can only result in an amoral life.

Again, I could be missing an argument that would make me reconsider this position. I'm totally open to hearing it.

Posted by: JV on December 10, 2009 5:54 PM

Too much with the head, Zdeno. I blame Aquinas.

You talk to God in a purely conversational fashion, no special breathing or posture required...and he's right there!

God's probably created a couple of million universes while I've been typing, but the universes might be inside some undiscovered particle somewhere on my hanky. That's the kind of stuff you can do when you're omnipotent.

Your logic is to help you get across the road and sell Polaroid before it dips...not to understand God.

The good news is: he wants company and made you above the angels. Something to do with Free Will, I think...but I never like to delve.

Posted by: Robert Townshend on December 10, 2009 6:38 PM

"[S]some type of non-sentient, over-arching order permeating the universe" seems like a perfectly normal expression, to me, of Divinity.

"In the beginning was the Word [Logos], and the Word was with God, and the Word was God."
-- Gospel of John

I am not an evangelist, by the way, and probably similar in my current conception of the Divine. But there are many-- most?-- religious people who do not picture God as, literally, a ghost in the sky who does stuff to human beings.

Materialists-- and I am not implying anyone here does this-- who start with the "man in the sky" conception of religion are people I immediately ignore. They just don't know what they're talking about when they critique spirituality.

Posted by: karlub on December 10, 2009 7:20 PM

JV, probably the main mechanism for what you are thinking of is called reciprocal altruism. Basically, if I see person X frequently we can exchange altruistic acts. If he starts being a crappy altruist I can just drop him like a stone.

This may be a major cause of our focusing on intentions as much as consequences. We dont want to drop an ally who does a bad act, if he was forced by circumstances to act that way. Not only would that deprive us of one alliance, it also makes a big mess, because he has allies of his own.

Posted by: Eric Johnson on December 10, 2009 9:32 PM

A few preliminary points about your very interesting post, Zdeno (and thanks for taking the chance to make posts here--well done!).

First, if you do not have free will, how can you "play the odds"? How can you assign a p value? How can you be correct or incorrect about anything? There are no behavioural implications of a materialist view because being matter, you cannot derive implications of any kind from any view. You cannot have even have views in the first place. Having views is something minds do, not matter. Derivation of implications is an act of the mind, not matter. Correctness is a quality of thought, not of matter. No matter, no material configuration, has ever been right or wrong about anything.

As for the free will argument, again a preliminary response, and perhaps a slight agreement (more later when I've woken up): some say that the discovery that we do not have free will would change things like, say, punishing criminals. After all, if they don't have free will, they're not responsible, right?

But then, neither are we responsible for punishing them. We can't help trying, convicting and punishing criminals any more than they can help committing crimes. And if we can examine the human condition, namely that we are not free, then draw conclusions and change our behaviour (no more punishment!), then why can't the criminals do the same and stop committing crimes? The no-freedom position actually has no consequences at all!

(Except, if anything, requiring sterner punishments, perhaps even large-scale capital punishment. After all, if they can't help what they do, that makes them even more dangerous, and irredeemably so, doesn't it? But I'm not a materialist, redemption is possible, and capital punishment is evil...but that's because it's wrong to kill a soul under almost all circumstances.)

As someone once said, "I believe in free will. I have no choice in the matter."

But I'll try to address your points more effectively later, Zdeno. And thanks again for these interesting and provocative posts.

Despite some criticisms leveled at you in comparison to M Blowhard, I think you're doing a very good job stirring the pot and getting me thinking. You've actually kept me coming back here...and some of your critics too. Notice that? Heh.

Keep up the intelligent sh*t disturbing work, Z.

P.S. I am not a dualist. Mind is not a ghost in a machine. There's a word that can resolve many of your difficulties (justified IMO) with standard dualist theories: the word is from Aristotle and it is...hylomorphism.

Posted by: PatrickH on December 11, 2009 8:28 AM

I did not read the earlier comment threads, but a couple of points:

--there is no contradiction between materialism and belief in a soul. Something with the properties of a "soul" can be an emergent property of a complex materialist system. I think I am agreeing with PatrickH here, not to mention a whole bunch of philosophers -- belief in a soul does not rest on dualism.

--Re Zdenos comment on determinism --

If we could recreate the exact same scenario for our hypothetical office worker – same physical office, the people he interacts with behaving in the exact same way, etc – what reason do we have to suspect that his behaviour would be in any way different from the first time we ran the simulation? ...the outcome of any particular scenario we find ourselves in is predetermined – we are all just billiard balls knocking each other around on green felt.

This presumes that there is no irreducibly random element in natural processes. Zdeno's imagination seems to have been captured by 17th century Newtonian physics, but the billiard ball particle model of matter is severely out of date.

--Re the supposed contradiction between morality and deterministic beliefs, I don't buy it. The Calvinists were absolute determinists, and they were also famous for their strict moralism. We quickly jump to the conclusion that people will use determinism as an excuse for cutting themselves slack morally, but the Calvinists had exactly the opposite response. They saw their actions as revealing their predetermined eternal destiny, and were obsessively concerned with what that destiny would turn out to be. Of course, the Calvinists were also theists who believed in Hell, so that's part of it, but the point is that once you believe in morality the question of whether your fate is to be moral or not moral will be of great interest.

Posted by: MQ on December 11, 2009 10:35 AM

MQ, there are Christians who are strict materialists, interestingly, some even strict eliminative materialists. So your point is definitely, well, pointy.

And Calvinists: you know the joke about the Calvinist who falls down the stairs, gets up and says, "Well, glad that's over!"

Calvinists reveal their destiny in the life they live. Destiny is the name people give to their future. Somebody who misunderstands pre-destination to mean he can murder people and still go to heaven only reveals that he was predestined to misunderstand predestination, thereby becoming a murderer and thereby being condemned to hell. The Calvinist God has a rather dry sense of humour, I think.

There's a quality to the freedom-of-will discussion (in general, not here) that strikes me as being utterly beside the point. It changes nothing for anyone facing any moral dilemma, having to make any moral decision. If my actions are determined by an inner impulse rooted in my brain, what matters is which impulse it is. People don't really think of free will and responsibility beyond that: freedom is revealed in the exercise of control over impulses.

Works for me.

Posted by: PatrickH on December 11, 2009 1:16 PM


Frankly, I find your post rather confused. Here are some pertinent points:

(1) As others have already noticed, your teacup example rests on a simple Laplacean determinism that no longer holds in modern physics. I'm not discussing here what (if any) arguments modern physics provides against your views overall, but regardless of that, this particular argument has no validity. Your English teacher was at least a century behind the relevant developments in science.

(2) Then you jump to an analogy with a person. But regardless of any questions of free will and determinism, here we already have a fundamental difference: unlike the cup, the person is presumably conscious. This is a fundamental difference that you can't explain by reducing the person to the underlying physical processes. (Or if you really can, I'd be curious to hear it.)

You write:

I consider it to be plausible, if humbling, that we are the result of a gradual evolution of creatures of greater and greater complexity, culminating in a species whose central nervous systems are so sophisticated that they create something as mysterious and seemingly irreducible as the subjective experience of consciousness.

Trouble is, you're facing an impenetrable wall here between physical systems following natural laws and the actual subjective experience. If I were an unimaginably different alien intelligence observing humans from the outside, I might well assume that they are, along the rest of the life on earth, just interesting self-reproducing blobs of chemical reactions whose parts function as complex mechanical, biochemical, and computational hardware that developed through natural selection. But being one of these entities myself, I can't see how this view explains the fact that unlike the falling teacup, I have subjective experience.

(3) You describe souls as "mysterious, supernatural, immaterial consciousnesses that have not been observed." Very well, but isn't this a fair description of your own consciousness (or mine), even if we don't have free will? ("Unobserved" would refer to the fact that you can't be strictly certain of the existence of any other consciousness except yours.) And you really don't find it unsettling at all to think -- and really think about it -- that you might be living through a 3D movie that you can neither control nor shut down?

(4) Your play on the Pascal's Wager is interesting, but you still contradict yourself with the very words you're writing. You write "I am playing the odds," "I am hesitant," etc., as if you were a conscious mind making decisions, rather than a blob of chemical reactions that simply behaves however it must behave according to physical laws. You're even talking about "behavioural implications of a materialist worldview" in ways that are very different from how you would presumably talk about implications of, say, temperature, electromagnetic field, or concentrations of certain chemicals for some physical process. Your every word betrays an implicit belief in a mystical spirit inside you. (And to emphasize it again, I agree that the free will of this mystical spirit can be reasonably denied, but its consciousness cannot, even if it's just a helpless captive observer.)

(5) Finally, I don't understand why you listed examples of personal recklessness as beliefs supposedly representative of the nihilism that is logically implied by materialism. I'm sure I don't even need to point out why this list doesn't even begin to address the issue.

Posted by: Vladimir on December 12, 2009 12:20 AM

I was wondering if anyone would bring up us Calvinists, since, as MQ points out, morality can indeed be compatible with determinism (though, of course, Calvinists' determinism arises not from materialism but from Reformed theology). The two needn't be pitted against each other as an either / or dichotomy, when they certainly can co-exist. (And Suuni Muslims are similar to Calvinists in their beliefs in predestination, of course. And the ancient, pagan Greeks believed in 'fate'; sounds much like the Reformed emphasis on 'destiny' to me; I fail to see a whole lot of difference between the two, *except* that the Reformed view always holds out the possibility of repentance and change for those who desire it, so pagan fatalism is thus rejected.)

But the Reformed worldview doesn't imply lack of ability of humans to make moral choices or any other decisions; far from it. (I did have that caricature view of Calvinist thought prior to becoming Reformed myself; I'd fancied that Reformed believers must think people are robots following their programming; now, I realize I neither knew nor understood anything about the Reformed doctrine of predestination.) The Reformed view, is that the first two humans actually had free will, but lost it due to the Fall, and now lack it - but, for those whom God has chosen, the blindfold-type effect caused by sin is removed, allowing one to see his / her true condition and need of salvation, which, then knowing the truth, will lead one to freely choose to 'flee to Christ' and embrace the faith. And thus, the Reformed still believe very much in 'free agency', the ability of humans to make moral choices, even though, paradoxically, somehow, in an unfathomable manner, all events happen with divine concurrance. Yes, one's actions can shore up one's confidence in one's salvation, but even when we fail and stumble, we can repent, turn away, and return to the sense of confidence that we haven't been let go. (The unpenitent murderer in Patrick's example indeed demonstrates, by his lack of guilt and remorse and repentance, that he isn't saved.)

Posted by: Will S. on December 12, 2009 12:34 AM

Er, that should have been 'unrepentant' or 'impenitent', not 'unpenitent'; my bad.

Posted by: Will S. on December 12, 2009 12:36 AM

"Now extend the analogy to a person walking into (say) his office first thing in the morning. He walks in, grabs a coffee, says hello to a co-worker, then sits down and fires up SPSS. All decisions made via free will, right?"

Erm, no. Speaking for myself, if I've worked there a while those actions would be habitual, automatic, and therefore not requiring conscious thought or choice. In my bleary-eyed state, my conscious mind is probably thinking about last night's football and how to take the mickey out of my work-mate's misguided support of his team. If someone makes a conscious decision to, say, smile at me then I do not quite trust them.

Automatic behaviour makes up the majority of our behaviour, and necessarily so- if you agonised over the precise combination of muscle movements required to get dressed, your ability to do so would be severely impaired. Automatic behaviour is not necessarily unskilled- most experienced drivers do not have to think too hard about the actual mechanics of what they are doing when they drive, yet driving is (hopefully) a very highly skilled activity. Choices only really present themselves to us when unfamiliar situations that habitual reactions are, or possibly are, inadequate for. Choice arises from a break-down of our automatic behaviours. Yet we would not say that our habits have been predetermined by the universe, unless, perhaps, you exalt the effects of genes in ways that do not seem to be supported by science.

Oh, and what's the problem about not having free will implying no moral responsibility? When told I have a bacterial infection, I think that the bacteria are just doing what they naturally do, and have no choice about it. I still seem to feel no compunction about downing the penicillin. (I am not directly comparing bad people to bacteria -I could use a variety of animals to illustrate the point - but equally I don't think there is a colossal distinction to be made between us and other animals.)

To me it seems that actions that are most like the exercise of free will - actions entirely unconnected with anything that went before them - would *diminish* responsibility, not establish its possibility. In the real world, such actions are called 'completely out of character' and used as mitigating circumstances when determining gaol sentences, or even just whether to forgive someone.

Furthermore, if peoples' behaviour is agreed to be largely habitual, that doesn't exclude the possibility of moral praise or condemnation- we uncontentiously talk of 'good habits' and 'bad habits', don't we?

Am I missing something here, or do you have to live in Tusk Towers to fully appreciate the debate?

Posted by: James Williams on December 18, 2009 5:35 AM

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