The Frontal Cortex

Morality and Materialism

Ramesh Ponnuru, of the National Review, says this:

What renders atheism incompatible with a coherent account of morality, when it is incompatible, is physicalism (or what is sometimes described as reductive materialism). If it is true that the universe consists entirely and without remainder of particles and energy, then all human action must be within the domain of caused events, free will does not exist, and moral reasoning is futile if not illusory (as are other kinds of reasoning).

Will Wilkinson offers up an astute reply:

This is a stupefyingly widespread view that flows from an elementary error in thinking. Suppose you know that there is free will or that moral reasoning is not futile. Next, suppose you find that the universe is made out of only whatever the universe is made out of. What do you infer? You infer that free will and moral reasoning, which occur inside the universe (or as aspects of the universe), whatever they may be, are made possible because of whatever it is the universe is made out of. And there you are.

Here is what you do not do. You do not start with a mystifying conditional like “If the universe is only physical (or whatever), then there is no free will,” because how do you know that? You don’t. But you may think you do and so you get caught in a retarded ponens/tollens showdown: the universe is physical, ergo no free will, or… free will, so the universe is not physical. But, again, through what method of divination do we validate this conditional? None. Because we already know it is false.

I think that’s exactly right. Looking at the neural anatomy of morality didn’t undermine morality, or disprove its existence. On the contrary, the “reductive materialistic” approach simply showed us where, approximately, moral questions are processed inside the brain. I think a similar thing will happen with the concept of free will. Although many commenters will claim otherwise, I’m very dubious that neuroscience or physics will ever “disprove” free will. Free will is such an elemental part of human experience that disproving free will would literally require some sort of Laplacean demon. Until we obtain that level of omniscience – and I’m not holding my breath – I’ll continue to assume that free will is a natural side-effect of some element of the material universe. Quantum indeterminacy sounds about right.

Comments

  1. #1 Tegumai Bopsulai, FCD
    July 19, 2007

    Free will will likely not be “disproven,” it will be redefined. People will agree that they have free will, and then will shift the definition of it to fit the facts on the ground.

    Take for example your assumption that free will corresponds to quantum indeterminancy: how does randomness correspond to will, free or otherwise?

  2. #2 Mark Nutter
    July 19, 2007

    Free will is something of a conundrum anyway. If your will is free, does that mean it’s not bound to rationally pursue its own best interests? That would be self-destructive insanity, not a virtue. Why would anyone want that?

    If the opposite of free will is determinism (i.e. there’s a rational cause for one’s choices), then the opposite of determinism is chaos, madness, and purposelessness (i.e. there is no rational cause for one’s choices). Put that way, free will doesn’t sound quite so noble.

  3. #3 tharding
    July 19, 2007

    Free will isn’t really all that complicated.

    As Tegumai Bopsulai points out, randomness is not free will but neither is raw reason. If a truly omniscient god actually existed, it would not have true free will. It would already know which particular actions to take to achieve its goals with all other actions leading to failure. That fact alone eliminates real freedom.

    When we talk about free will, we are talking about choice in how we work toward our goals. If we didn’t have goals, we wouldn’t have any reason at all to act. Ultimately, our goals are based on biological needs, drives and emotions. All of these are bred into us through our evolutionary background, but they vary wildly from person to person. We try to achieve these goals using reason, but we fail. We fail because our brains are innately a mix of rational and irrational to begin with, again for evolutionary reasons. Top all of this off with the fact that we only ever have a small amount of the data needed to make truly reasoned decisions. What we call free will is the result of this natural inability to make fully informed and rational decisions which lead us to the best results. The fact that we all make different decisions creates the impression of some magical free will when in fact there is nothing there but our limitations.

  4. #4 Ray Ingles
    July 19, 2007

    I’ve never understood the issue with free will, either way. If I have it, I don’t have to worry about it. If I don’t have it, there’s no point in worrying about it.

  5. #5 phish
    July 19, 2007

    Quantum effects seem to have no place with any discussion of higher-level brain functions, since brain networks work at the level of collections of cells, not individual particles.

    Besides, does it particularly matter whether or not we have free will in terms of morality? The illusion has thus far convinced most of human history… And even if it does matter, we still must have moral reasoning. We only have to change it to take no-free will in account, but it really won’t make much of a difference. Punishment would only become a corrective thing, and it would need some deeper abilities to truly have an effect. So if a criminal goes to jail, we would have to affect the criminal enough so that they do not behave that way again. We can’t change the past, but we can alter behavior in preparation for the future.

  6. #6 Mark P
    July 19, 2007

    It’s not free will that’s important, it’s the appearance of free will. After all, the only reason free will can be said to matter is that we want to have it. If you can’t tell the difference between having it and thinking that you have it, the difference does not matter.

  7. #7 Jonah
    July 19, 2007

    These are all thought-provoking comments, thanks. I invoked quantum indeterminacy just to counter the inevitable invocation of the materialism=strict determinism thesis. To get a better sense of how the concept of indeterminacy can be applied to biology and brains, check out Dennett’s “Freedom Evolves”.

  8. #8 Cole
    July 19, 2007

    The argument presented in National Review or the response really get to the heart of the conflict between atheism and a coherent morality. First, I would like to point out that Ponnuru responds to Christopher Hitchens metaphysics specifically; Mr. Wilkinson appears to ignore this. If nothing exists but space-time events completely defined by mechanical laws (Ponnuru’s description of Hitchens’ metaphysic), then no free will exists; that systems exist which mechanical laws do not describe weakens the truth value of the argument but does not invalidate it. Second, Mr. Wilkinson’s response does not solve anything. I also do not see why he suggests knowledge of free will and the viability of moral reasoning as a foundation; no difference of significance isolates those axioms from assuming the existence of a god. Mr. Wilkinson may claim he intuits their validity; I know many who claim to intuit the existence of God.

    Atheism and a coherent, non-relativist morality actually contradict each other. Absolute morality requires a privileged perspective. Morality without reference to an absolute can only defend itself functionally. Attempts to hold on to an absolute though non-divine standard fail; they require a media of communication between the aperspective and relational. With no way to ascertain its contents and injunctions, the noumena remains irrelevant to the phenomenal world.

    I personally consider the concept of free will just as nonsensical. How limited a scope does one allow free will before it loses any meaning? Environmental conditions determine (for the sake of argument) if life develops on a planet and what form it takes. Accepting DNA based life as our standard, the genetic code determines what organism develops from it, given the proper environmental conditions. Say we have a human, the mother’s diet, general health and stress levels all determine various aspects of its development, from general constitution to whether Fetal Alcohol Syndrome impacts its life. Then we have environmental again, early imprinting, early conditioning. Even the structures of human subjectivity develop in a particular order.

  9. #9 Andrew Wade
    July 19, 2007

    If nothing exists but space-time events completely defined by mechanical laws (Ponnuru’s description of Hitchens’ metaphysic), then no free will exists …

    If nothing exists but space-time events than chairs do not exist. Chairs may be described in terms of space-time events, but chairs are not space-time events. Whether this is a problem or not depends on what you want your metaphysics to validate as existing.

    … Attempts to hold on to an absolute though non-divine standard fail; they require a media of communication between the aperspective and relational. With no way to ascertain its contents and injunctions, the noumena remains irrelevant to the phenomenal world.

    Woah, easy on the jargon there! We haven’t all read Kant. What are these injunctions that an atheistic metaphysics can’t provide for noumena, and why can’t it provide them? Why are they necessary for the relevance of noumena in the phenominal world? Do remember that “atheist” is a very general term, and the absolutes in atheist metaphysical systems may not bear much relation to whatever the heck noumena are.

  10. #10 Tegumai Bopsulai, FCD
    July 20, 2007

    Atheism and a coherent, non-relativist morality actually contradict each other. Absolute morality requires a privileged perspective. Morality without reference to an absolute can only defend itself functionally.

    So it’s a choice between absolute relativism and absolute morality? No other, middle-ground solutions might be possible? Is a functional defense somehow inadequate?

    Meanwhile, what’s the alternative? Theism as a source of morality fails in theory on the Euthyphro dilemma. God(s) cannot be the source of morality.

    Theism as a source of morality fails in practice because there are no reliable methods to know how the gods want us to behave. Scripture is known to be false, and revelation is known to be unreliable.

    Theism as a source of absolute morality has failed historically, when one compares modern standards of morality with the “absolute” moral codes espoused by major religions. Example: which major theistic religious moral code outlaws slavery?

  11. #11 Tegumai Bopsulai, FCD
    July 20, 2007

    I know many who claim to intuit the existence of God.

    Sure. For example: Deanne Laney. God told her to kill her children.

    For another example: Terry Mark Mangum. God told him to kill homosexuals. This revelatory knowledge is backed up by the scriptures of Mangum’s theistic religion.

  12. #12 Daniel
    July 20, 2007

    The subject of free will is something that interests me, so I will comment a little. When we say free will, I think of beliefs. Alot of people think of the “self” as existing in some way, and the self then chooses that self’s beliefs, and then that self makes conscious decisions and actions, based on these freely chosen beliefs. But is this really correct? What is “self?”

    Your “self” is in fact your collection of thoughts and beliefs. It is this collection of thoughts and beliefs that causes your “self” to be. Do you really choose your thoughts? What is this mechanism of thought choice by which you freely pick and choose your beliefs? I cannot say. When I get right down to it, I cannot say how I choose my thoughts, but can only observe that they appeaer in my head.

    We do not really know where our thoughts come from, any more than we can know ultimately, where anything comes from. It is just all here, somehow. All we can really know for sure is that we have impressions of order transmited from the exterior world to our interior mental mechanisms, and beyond that, it all just happens, beyond our control.

    We do not choose our thoughts and beliefs. But, really, the thoughts that we think, and the beliefs that we hold choose us, or at least, define us, each our “selves.”

    This is my realization. Is it really practical? In everyday life, does it mean anything? Not really, but it is an interesting way of looking at things.

  13. #13 Cole
    July 20, 2007

    Mr. Wade:

    If nothing exists but space-time events than chairs do not exist. Chairs may be described in terms of space-time events, but chairs are not space-time events. Whether this is a problem or not depends on what you want your metaphysics to validate as existing.

    Clearly. Nouns merely act as higher order abstractions of space-time events.

    What are these injunctions that an atheistic metaphysics can’t provide for noumena, and why can’t it provide them? Why are they necessary for the relevance of noumena in the phenominal world? Do remember that “atheist” is a very general term, and the absolutes in atheist metaphysical systems may not bear much relation to whatever the heck noumena are.

    Noumena cannot provide injunctions for atheism; if noumena somehow impacted phenomena, then it would no longer have an absolute state, it would have a relative status to phenomena. For an absolute to provide some sort of injunction, that would imply a consciousness in the absolute (as it would possess some value system) which fits a broad definition of God.

    Tegumai Bopsulai:

    So it’s a choice between absolute relativism and absolute morality? No other, middle-ground solutions might be possible? Is a functional defense somehow inadequate?

    I think it does come down to absolute relativism or absolute morality. Without an external standard to apply, Hitler and Gandhi just had different perspectives, each as valid as the other. Without an absolute standard, each individual must decide whether a functional defense suffices for them.

    The Euthyphro dilemma does not establish anything other than absolute morality must transcend reason to exist.

    Theism as a source of morality fails in practice because there are no reliable methods to know how the gods want us to behave. Scripture is known to be false, and revelation is known to be unreliable.

    We simply disagree on these points. Many hold that scriptures cross-culturally express the same psycho-spiritual truths; that only dullards would assert empirical validity. What sources do you feel bear on the reliability of revelation?

    Theism as a source of absolute morality has failed historically, when one compares modern standards of morality with the “absolute” moral codes espoused by major religions. Example: which major theistic religious moral code outlaws slavery?

    Without an absolute standard, how can you say that modern morality trumps that of religious moral codes? Perhaps God felt slavery appropriate to preindustrial times. On the other hand, God required the Israelites to let land lay fallow every seventh year and not commit usury; government enforced usury places the majority of child born into indentured servitude for the rest of their lives.

  14. #14 Andrew Wade
    July 21, 2007
    If nothing exists but space-time events than chairs do not exist. Chairs may be described in terms of space-time events, but chairs are not space-time events. Whether this is a problem or not depends on what you want your metaphysics to validate as existing.

    Clearly. Nouns merely act as higher order abstractions of space-time events.

    Ok, fair enough. I have no idea how common this metaphysics is among atheists, it’s not mine. (I think chairs have as much and as little claim to existence as space-time events).

    Noumena cannot provide injunctions for atheism; if noumena somehow impacted phenomena, then it would no longer have an absolute state, it would have a relative status to phenomena.

    I don’t follow this argument at all, possibly because I’m relying on Wikipedia to explain noumena. But no matter; I don’t think absolute morality does impact the phenomenal world. One might legitimately ask by what mechanism I know what is moral if not through phenomenal effects. I have no mechanism to offer. I have certain beliefs (axioms) about what is moral and no mechanism to verify they are correct. Perhaps this is what you mean by not being able to “hold on to” an absolute?

    As for defending my morality, my metaphysics is irrelevant. To satisfy my inquisitor, I must necessarily defend my morality on his terms, not mine. (Or confuse him/her with rhetorical slight of hand … not really my thing).

    For an absolute to provide some sort of injunction, that would imply a consciousness in the absolute (as it would possess some value system) which fits a broad definition of God.

    I am still at a loss as to what these ‘injunctions’ are.

  15. #15 Cole
    July 21, 2007

    Mr. Wade:
    If you go back to my first post, I noted that the basis for a metaphysic claiming nothing exists but space-time events comes from the National Review article. I point out evidence against the view; my argument on that context only intended to show that Mr. Ponnuru had reasoned properly in his article, regarding the metaphysic he describes. I have no interest in supporting or refuting any metaphysics of atheists; Mr. Wilkinson’s comments do not address Mr. Ponnuru’s post whatsoever and I find it frustrating when poor reasoning gets held up as an exemplar.

    One might legitimately ask by what mechanism I know what is moral if not through phenomenal effects. I have no mechanism to offer. I have certain beliefs (axioms) about what is moral and no mechanism to verify they are correct. Perhaps this is what you mean by not being able to “hold on to” an absolute?

    Your description fits my meaning. Guidelines for a moral life comprise the theoretical injunctions; the operational rules of morality, describing how to live a good life and the lack of leaves us in a miasma of relativism.

  16. #16 tekel
    July 22, 2007

    Ponnuru is a blithering idiot, unworthy of serious debate, or in fact any attention at all. If he honestly believes anything he writes, he should seek professional help. He is not qualified to pick up trash on the side of the freeway, much less debate politics or religion with human beings who have evolved a cerebral cortex. If you read his tripe, it will make you dumber. You should not link him or discuss his writing, because it only encourages him.

  17. #17 Tegumai Bopsulai, FCD
    July 22, 2007

    The Euthyphro dilemma does not establish anything other than absolute morality must transcend reason to exist.

    2+ millenia of philosophers disagree with you about that.

    Without an absolute standard, how can you say that modern morality trumps that of religious moral codes? Perhaps God felt slavery appropriate to preindustrial times.

    So you are claiming that God is a moral relativist? That’s going to throw a wrench into the works. BTW, “trumps” is your word, not mine, so I have no duty to defend it.

  18. #18 Daniel
    July 24, 2007

    We have no knowledge of anything except by inferences of varying degress of uncertainty, we make from our sensory perceptions of order. Space time events, and noumena, and moral relativism, and non-relativist morality–these are all tenuously speculatitve and a little tedious. Impressions of order is all that we have.

  19. #19 quidnunc
    July 26, 2007

    The intuition for me is that we are free in some ways as a physical system in the universe. We can imagine limits and constraints, some ridiculous (can’t fly away like a bird), some more practical (human perception and reasoning are good relative to other animals but still quite feeble). The typical objection is that we don’t have ownership over said processes. Problems like confabulation are interesting but I think some of the speculation about it recreates the ghost in the machine via a dichotomy presupposing a clearly discernible executive binding everything together. I don’t think it’s necessary to imagine that to have a comfortable degree of freedom. Yes, the idea that we are completely free to make decisions is an illusion but that idea will be dead soon enough I think.

    In that case this discussion by Jenann Ismael is much more sensible and lucid than anything I can imagine along that line:

    http://homepage.mac.com/centre.for.time/ismael/

  20. Very good blog article.Really looking forward to read more. Really Cool.