Wednesday, April 28, 2004

Freewill & Skinnerboxes

There's a vast and ever vaster theological literature on the subject of freewill. Most of the time, no defense is offered for freewill itself. That is taken as an unquestioned assumption, and the only question is how to harmonize this core belief with some other belief, such as the foreknowledge of God.

This omission is quite striking, for you would expect philosophers and philosophical theologians to subject their operating assumption to philosophical scrutiny as well—rather than privilege it as something to put on a pedestal and made the referent point for all further debate.

A rare exception is to be found in William Hasker's Metaphysics: Constructing a Worldview (IVP 1983). To his credit, Hasker at least makes an effort to argue for his libertarian datum and rebut counterarguments.

Hasker advances three basic arguments for freewill. This, of itself, is quite striking. Is that all it comes down to? Just three arguments?

I expect that Hasker could bring other arguments to bear, but he presumably limits himself to these three because they are his three best arguments. What is his first argument?
"One reason, certainly a weighty one for many libertarians, lies in the very experience of choice...this experience seems to carry with it the strong conviction that the various alternatives are indeed within our power—that there is nothing at all which prevents us from choosing one way or the other.

I would maintain that the intuitive conviction of freedom, sustained by the occurrence of choices in which we seem to determine our future, is one that we are entitled to take seriously and to treat with great respect as we formulate our answer to the question of freedom and necessity," ibid., 45.

One of the things I find intriguing about this argument is it seems to me that I could construct a parallel argument for the freedom of rats and robots. If, for example, I present a pet rat or lab rat with a choice of food, it may well prefer one menu over another. And if I put it in a Skinnerbox, it will turn right or left to get to its food supply. Does a rat thereby determine its future in a libertarian sense? It a rat the master of its own little corner of cosmic destiny?

And, of course, I could carry this line of reasoning further down the food-chain. An ameba, occupying a 3D volume of space, has a literal infinitude of directions in which to move. By moving in just one of these directions, does the ameba thereby choose, by process of elimination, that move out of the infinitude of alternatives?

Or, we could carry the argument over to automata. A robot, equipped with a pattern-recognition program, will choose some patterns while rejecting others.

So, do rats and robots enjoy a metaphysical faculty of freedom to do otherwise? And does this satisfy the necessary condition of moral responsibility? Does such liberty constitute the essential dignity of rathood or robothood?

Now perhaps Hasker would object that these counterexamples leave something important out of the comparison. For we infer freewill, not merely on the basis of observable behavior, but on the basis an introspective awareness of our own deliberations. So the "experience of choice" must take in the subjective dimension as well in order to validate the inference.

No doubt this counterargument may introduce some equivocation into the proposed parallels, but does that work in favor of Hasker? Or does it leave his inference underdetermined by the evidence?

For if, in some cases, an identical selection process does not require recourse to freewill, then why resort to this factor in other cases? If, for instance, I choose between meal options, and a rat chooses between meal options, why does freewill figure in my choice, but not in his? And if it does, does it also figure in the "choice" of a robot or ameba?

Put another way, why go beyond the observational level of behavior if the behavior can be accounted for at the observational level? Why postulate an additional dynamic in one case, but not another, when they are outwardly identical in effect?

Maybe Hasker would say that while freewill is unnecessary to account for every choice, there is a threshold at which men make choices of which rats and robots are incapable, and the disanalogy between the repertoire of human choice and lower animal or robotic choice does justify this extra faculty.

Okay. To begin with, I'd like to see a classification scheme that systematically covers what cases do and do not demand freewill. And I'd then like to review case-studies to see if there's any breakdown in terms of the relative complexity of the task. Compare, say, the construction of a beehive with the construction of a geodesic dome. If bees were human, Hasker would attribute such an achievement to superior brain development and freedom of action.

Another difficulty is that, for an evolutionary materialist like Hasker, who denies the soul and views man as ranging along a progressive temporal continuum, it is unclear at what point in the process he thinks that freewill kicked in. And this goes back to an earlier issue. For if lower animals or "primitive" organisms engage in apparently goal-directed behavior, then should we posit freewill in their case as well? And, if not, why in ours?

His second argument is as follows:

"If all human actions are causally determined, the no one is ever morally responsible for any action. But in many cases people are morally responsible for their actions. Therefore, not all human actions are causally determined."

What are we to make of this argument?

1. The argument is predicated on the assumption that in many cases, men are morally responsible for their actions. Although I wouldn't deny that claim, yet as a matter of elementary logic, Hasker's argument is easily convertible to the opposing conclusion, for if all human actions are causally determined, and this is incompatible with moral responsibility, then there are no genuine cases of responsible action.

And this is not a merely hypothetical alternative. Certainly there are philosophers who say that human action is causally determined by a multitude of factors, viz., genetics, brain chemistry, social conditioning, &c.

2. It is hard to see how his second argument coheres with his third argument. For, according to his third argument:

"Rational thinking must be guided by rational insight in the light of principles of sound reasoning…one accepts the conclusion because one recognizes that it is justified by the evidence," ibid., 47.

But this suggests that our beliefs are involuntary. One has a predisposition to believe certain things when presented with compelling evidence.

3. In assessing moral responsibility, the role of motives is often considered to be a necessary condition. The difference between murder and manslaughter is not the dead body, but criminal intent. Did I mean to kill him? Did I act with reckless disregard or depraved indifference to his safety?

Unless intent is a causal factor, it cannot be either culpable or exculpatory.

Perhaps, though, Hasker's "causal" determination is shorthand for "external causal determination." Yet it's hard to see how that distinction will salvage his case:

i) Hasker regards "evidence" as a necessary condition of belief. And the evidence is external to the subject.

And Hasker seems to imply that belief is, or ought to be, automatic when presented with compelling evidence.

ii) Since Hasker denies mind/body dualism, the internal/external distinction breaks down. If brain events are mental events, then neural processing is a physical determinate of our belief states. The brain is just an extension of the external world. There is no distinction between mind and matter. The mind doesn't use the brain, the mind is the brain.

In fact, Hasker raises this very issue, but concludes that it cannot be true because it would conflict with his definition of rational insight. But this begs the question. Given that Hasker is a physicalist, he is committed to physical determinism. It's is simple as that.

3. It is also unclear what alternative there is to causal determinism. How does causal indeterminism ground moral responsibility? Is Hasker contending that I'm only accountable for my actions when I have no control over my actions?

4. Returning to our defendant, a libertarian might introduce another distinction. What if I could not avoid killing him?

This distinction points up the ambiguity it what it means to do otherwise. Does it mean to do otherwise under the same circumstances? Does it mean to do otherwise if I wanted to do otherwise? Does it mean to want otherwise?

A man has more freedom that a rodent. Men make choices. And the smarter you are, the more choices you can choose from because you can think of more choices to make. You can also examine your motives and weigh the consequences. So men enjoy a wider range of freedom. But that doesn't imply freewill in the libertarian sense.

Choices are like so many doors. But I can only go through one door at a time. And once I pass on through, it locks behind me.

How is it necessary to moral responsibility for me to have a whole lot of doors before me that I was never going to open? If I was never going to try each doorknob, what does it matter if they're locked or unlocked? All that matters is that the door I do choose to open be unlocked.

5. Returning, once again, to our defendant, if he were acting at gunpoint, we might make allowance for that attenuating circumstance.

Or suppose he pleads the insanity defense. If someone commits a crime because he has brain cancer, we may well feel and rightly feel that his mental impairment leaves him in a condition of diminished responsibility.

But the insanity defense has been extended well beyond this common sense intuition. We're told that someone is not answerable for his actions if he doesn't know the difference between good and evil.

But I would say that not knowing the difference between good and evil is evil in itself. Lack of conscience is culpable, not exculpatory. It represents a very advanced stage of moral depravity.

Surely it is morally counterintuitive to say that someone is wholly innocent because he is wholly evil. Far from being a mitigating factor, that is an aggravating factor.

Have you noticed that bad men hate good men? They can't stand them. They can't bring themselves to think well of a good man, because the mere existence of a good man is a mute moral judgment on the comparative depravity of the bad man. But does that moral inability acquit the bad man of his evil disposition? Doesn't that point to his guilt rather than innocence?

In sum, I congratulate Hasker for at least giving us some libertarian arguments to consider, but upon due consideration, I don't see that they are cogent or even coherent. And I'd also say that bad theology is bad philosophy. In the end, this is a matter of revelation rather than reason, or reason at the service of revelation, and not the reverse.

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