Wednesday, August 19, 2009
In his thoughtful reply to my recent review of his book Encountering Naturalism, Tom Clark narrowed the differences between us on how naturalism changes the way we should think. We agree on even more than I suspected. But important differences remain, and one is so important it warrants an entire blog of its own.
In Sense and Goodness without God I make a point of the fact that what people say they mean is often in fact not what they mean (pp. 33-35). We can't trust human self-reporting about their own reasons and motives, either, because so few people examine themselves enough to truly know themselves that well. I don't emphasize it much beyond that, but perhaps in future I should: psychologists have consistently shown that we can't trust most human self-reporting, in just about every sphere of inquiry. I would argue that's because of my observation that to accurately report about yourself, especially your reasons and motives, you have to know yourself exceptionally well, which requires considerable directed effort, which almost no one engages (hence it is my own number one recommendation: pp. 23-26). This has ramifications for how we respond to people in arguments and debates, and how we analyze the consequences of particular beliefs in the general population.
What follows is an in-line response to some of Tom’s comments (Part 1 and Part 2), which are worth reading in full, particularly with his very interesting links there. But here I just cut to the chase of one issue...
Tom Clark said... ...many, perhaps most folks think we do need supernatural, contra-causal free will for individual responsibility (and many other basic desiderata), and showing we don't need it was a major focus of the sections on morality and responsibility in [my] book.
Which is one of those many areas of agreement between us (after all, I do the same in my own chapter on free will). But once you have shown that individual responsibility not only can be, but in practice already is, based on compatibilist free will, the result is nearly zero net change in human behavior--unless the supernaturalists have yet other irrational beliefs that in actual fact weren't based on their views of free will, regardless of what they claim.
Laymen very often claim one thing, but just observe them and in practice it is clear what they said is not in fact what they really think or believe--just as they will often claim one reason or motive, when in fact their actual reasons or motives are entirely different, which is why we must observe how people behave in practice, and not rely only on what they say. Linguistic superstitions are commonplace (as I describe in my book). And people who do not live the self-examined life rarely know the real reasons for their feelings, opinions, and beliefs. As scientists have proven, when people are in that position, they unconsciously invent reasons that sound attractive or make superficial sense to them, and that's what they report. It takes considerable effort for anyone to realize that they are wrong even about their own reasons and motives, and to discover what their real reasons and motives are. And most people don't even know they should exert that effort, much less how.
Accordingly, for instance, hearing someone explain that they want the death penalty because of contra-causal free will does not warrant concluding that's actually their reason. It almost always is not. Getting at their real reasons is far more important. Of course, it's also more important to point out that this is a non sequitur to begin with ("he had contra-causal free will, therefore we should execute him" is completely devoid of logic), and that there are sound and overwhelming reasons to abolish the death penalty (at least in most cases) even if people have contra-causal free will (which they can't have anyway, since such a thing is logically incoherent and therefore logically impossible, but one need not prove that to establish the other two points--in fact those are easier to prove, because most people are daft at logic, and some resist even hearing it out because they think it's a trick or a bore).
Tom Clark said... It seems we disagree on the extent of the connection between American individualism and other central attitudes and beliefs and the belief in contra-causal free will. If as you say the connection is a red herring, then Americans won't mind being corrected about free will. But in my experience they hold onto it tooth and nail--they really dislike they idea that they're fully caused.
But the question you should be asking is “Why?” And you shouldn't trust their answer. Because they don't really know why it bugs them, so their brains will make up a reason, then you spend your time rebutting that reason, but since that isn't the real reason, you find them unresponsive to your rebuttal, and then interpret this as "hanging on tooth and nail." That's my point. You have to begin with getting people to confront the question of what they actually want, for themselves and for their society. Why does lacking 'free will' bother them at all? [See my remarks in The Ontology of Time]
That query (if they take it seriously) gets them to their real worries, the real reasons, which actually aren't about contra-causal free will. They are about much more reasonable fears, but which are only irrationally linked with contra-causal free will, such as a fear of losing control over their fate (which is fatalism, not determinism--as I explain in my book these are not the same thing, and it is their conflation that is responsible for the public attitude you encounter) and a fear of criminals escaping justice (which is based on a complete ignorance of the actual criteria of fault in law, which are, and have long been, entirely compatibilist and thus are under no actual threat from determinism, which is why I also demonstrate that point in my book, too).
By analogy, consider people who crash town-hall meetings and shout down arguments for a public health insurance company because of unintelligible reasons they can barely articulate. Even their ostensible reasons are based on complete falsehoods ("death panels," "it will ruin the quality of American health care," "it will turn America into a communist state," yadayada), which are so easily rebutted you may wonder why they persist in citing those reasons but "hang on to them tooth and nail" anyway, even after they've seen all the evidence to the contrary (or why they often simply refuse even to look at that evidence or make any effort to find out what it is). But in unguarded moments you'll hear one of them say "Because we're afraid of Obama" and "Obama has taken my America away and I want it back," which exposes the real reasons people won't listen to reason. And it's a reason they refuse to confront. Yet until they do, no logical or empirical refutations are going to change their mind.
That's because it's not really about death panels and communism or any such nonsense. It's about an uppity Negro being smarter, better educated, and more powerful than they are, and a nation that, by choosing such a man as their leader, is a nation they don't understand anymore (and is therefore no longer "their America," the one they "want back"). They will deny this (because being a 'racist' is so stigmatized they will invent any excuse to tell themselves they aren't one). But that doesn't mean I'm wrong.
Getting at the real reasons is crucial. Getting people to confront them is essential. Debating the facts, apart from that, is useless.
Tom Clark said... So whether most folks will agree with you about the sufficiency of compatibilism is an open question, see for instance this paper concerning recent research on beliefs about free will: ["The Value of Believing in Free Will" by Vohs and Schooler in Psychological Science 19.1, 2008]
Those results are irrelevant, because the study lacked the required control group: students made to read works on compatibilist free will. It thus tested fatalism, not determinism, a conflation I expect scientists to make, because scientists are lousy philosophers, having next to no training in the subject, which is why there were so many false remarks by scientists on this matter that the researchers could find to have their test subjects read, and why these very scientists doing the study were utterly oblivious to the distinction themselves. This is precisely an example of my point: determinism is a red herring. This is additionally proved, IMO, by the fact that so many test subjects were in fact not affected by the test conditions (thus refuting any notion that the effect reflects "popular" reality, when only comparatively few even present the behavior).
Tom Clark said... You're right that I focus on free will a lot (which adds to the impression of redundancy no doubt), since the book is largely about naturalizing our ideas about self and agency and what follows from that.
I do understand that's what you believe. But the point of my criticism is this: because you think that, I think you slight other issues--not by ignoring them, but by giving them far less attention and treatment. For example, not having a supernatural soul means a lot more than not having "contra-causal freewill." How we approach the death of loved ones and the treatment of criminals (and how we construct our entire understanding of reward and punishment) are as much affected by the fact of the lack of an afterlife, as by the lack of CCF. How naturalism affects our prima facie hypotheses (and ultimately the hypotheses that prove out) is another example, e.g. how it affects our reaction to claims of supernatural phenomena; our reaction to natural disasters, or even manmade ones (e.g. replacing "God saved me from that airplane crash" with "I was more fortunate than all those others who sadly died" and "how can we prevent that happening again?"); or how we decide on which solutions to problems we should try first, which is just as much affected by the fact that only naturalistic solutions are available (which requires understanding nature well, including our own human nature), as by the lack of CCF. Naturalism, for example, entails that our brains were not intelligently designed but ad hoc and imperfect and grafted onto an animal brain, which entails that we need to understand better the errors and flaws and internal and external influences our brain's reason is subject to, in order to better understand ourselves and how to solve our own problems and improve our own lives. That means reading up on the psychology of mistakes of reason, on the science of emotion, and so on. All quite apart from any question of CCF.
Again, I don't think you ignore these matters (you treat many of them in Encountering Naturalism), but you could spend a fifth as much time on CCF and have 4/5ths more time to spend on so much more that is actually, IMO, far more important. I would rather someone know all the ways our brains err and deceive us, for example, as science has ascertained, than reject CCF (hence my sections and bibliographies on reason and emotion, including what I have on p. 55, which I would now expand considerably as there has been a raft of excellent books on this lately).
People who learn those things will reject CCF eventually anyway, while knowing those things will actually make them better people, more reasonable, more effective, more self-correcting and self-examining. Whereas abandoning CCF won't change them at all, or hardly at all, since much of what they believe is warranted by CCF is just as warranted on determinism. Hence erroneously believing in CCF is much less a problem than being ignorant of how our brains err and deceive us. At least, IMO. Again, that would seem to be one of our differences.
Tom Clark said... There's plenty of literature debunking God, but not that much debunking the soul (what I call the little god) and its supernatural free will.
I agree. My point is only that there is so much more to all the superstitions of the soul than supernatural free will (and so many more ways naturalism changes things than have to do with superstitions of the soul).
Tom Clark said... You say I'm "trying too hard to show how things change when we abandon popular superstitions about free will, when in reality anyone who takes a rational position on any issue in the first place will find that it doesn't matter what you think of free will." But the belief in contra-causal free will (CCFW) is irrational, hence needs correcting...
I agree. My point is that our difference is one of emphasis and relative importance. I think you far over-estimate the importance of CCF as an issue, so much so as to be conspicuously redundant, and as a result under-explore so many other things, things I personally believe are considerably more important.
Tom Clark said... ...and I argue that correcting [that irrational belief in contra-causal free will] has considerable implications because it's so central to our self-conception (this gets discussed in a recent interview at Point of Inquiry).
Actually, that's the very red herring I'm talking about. CCF really isn't central to our self-conception. I suspect you are being deceived by what people say, and not paying attention to what in fact they do. Psychologists have long known that you can't trust self-reporting to get at the real causes and belief structures in a human mind. You need corroborating evidence, and the truth very often turns out quite differently than the individual reports.
This is a case in point: what is central to our self-conception is that we are not puppets, that we control our fate by the decisions we make, that we can change, that we can choose to make carefully reasoned decisions rather than irrational or thoughtless ones, that we are not slaves to our emotions, that we can rise above the circumstances we were born into, that we can therefore correct ourselves and improve ourselves and get out of bad environments, that our emotions belong to us and not someone else, that our actions demonstrate our character, that we are responsible for the choices we make, and so on. And yet, every single thing on that list is true. CCF in actual fact has nothing to do with any of it.
That people think CCF has something to do with it is irrational. But removing that irrational belief has very little effect, precisely because almost everything we believe is connected to CCF remains true without CCF. Contrast that with the popular superstition that our brains are innately rational and reliable instruments. The significance of abandoning the latter superstition is far, far greater. Similarly, the popular superstition that reason should always override emotion, or the opposite superstition, that our emotions are more reliable than our reason, or the even more bizarre superstition, that God talks to us and guides us and this guidance is more reliable than our own reason or emotion, these are all far more important to correct and dispel, yet have nothing to do with CCF.
Tom Clark said... Even though as you say retributive justice is immoral whether or not we have CCFW, the belief in CCFW helps support retributive attitudes and policies, so changing that belief should help move us toward a consequentialist criminal justice system.
I disagree. In fact, that is perhaps the most central disagreement between us. Because that's what people will tell you. But you shouldn't believe them. They would much sooner improve the world, in fact, if they would stop believing this excuse themselves, because they are only preventing themselves from confronting the real reasons they support retributive punishment--most prominently, the fact that it makes them feel good. And it makes them feel good because as social animals they evolved that emotional vengeance response, due to its utility in regulating behavior in social animals that can't regulate their behavior based on reason (because, being animals, they are pre-rational, and weren't intelligently designed to begin with, and thus stumbled onto whatever "fix" was easy to randomly develop that produced differential reproductive success).
As apes or hominids it served us well to "feel good" at seeing or causing retribution, because this emotional response motivated (and thus caused) behavior that just happened to have the effect of deterring antisocial behaviors or removing antisocial members from the group. But as rational, conscious animals now, we can recognize why that primitive brain mechanism was (and therefore is) naive and flawed (just as we recognize much of animal behavior as irrational or nonrational, yet, just as with retributive emotions, not always without a measure of utility) and served interests we no longer consider of overriding importance, since we now see the value of happiness as much greater than differential reproductive success, yet retributive emotions evolved because they served the latter, not because they served the former (other than derivatively).
Understanding all that is far more important than attacking CCF without convincing anyone of that other stuff first. If you want to change things, you need to educate them about why retribution makes them feel good and why it isn't always in their best interests to trust that emotion and why it makes far more practical sense to channel and satisfy that emotion in ways more productive than mere retribution. All of that can be explained and accepted even by someone who believes in CCF. And in the end, once they understand all that, they will eventually fail to see any use in CCF. You won't even have to argue them out of it. But if you focus solely on the logic of CCF, they won't have learned any of those other things, and consequently will have learned nothing. And I suspect that is the reason you find so much push-back against debunking CCF.