Friday, April 20, 2007

Free Will or Not?

Tibor R. Machan

Sure enough, some topics resurface quite naturally in the wake of certain types of events. The Virginia Tech massacre has brought out the gun control champions, as well as those who anticipate their histrionics and warn that banning guns can do more harm than good in just such circumstances. Also, the issue of whether perpetrators of such heinous acts are helpless or in fact possess free will and are therefore responsible for their actions has come up (notably in a recent missive by New York Times columnist David Brooks).

As to the free will issue, one of the many points worth noting, especially in response to Mr. Brooks’ input, is that the dispute has been around for ages. The ancient Greeks put on record some rather sophisticated arguments on both sides, so Mr. Brooks’ claim that free will is now in retreat, in light of various brain-scientific theorizing, is way off.

In fact, ever since the 15th century, when the natural sciences gained a strong momentum—having been legitimatized by Thomas Aquinas’ philosophical writings, which party embraced the naturalism of Aristotle—free will has been challenged based on the idea that everything in nature behaves deterministically, as billiard balls do on a pool table. Thomas Hobbes, in England, and Baruch Spinoza, on the continent, laid out somewhat different but very impressive cases against free will.

There have not been too many free will champions ever since then, other than Immanuel Kant in the 17th century and a few others. In our day the only well known naturalist thinker who defended free will was Ayn Rand, although in academic philosophy quite few have advanced the view that people themselves can be causes of their actions, so there need be no conflict between scientific causality and free will.

What makes this a recurring popular topic is that without free will there would seem to be no basis for morality and criminal law. If one should do some things and not other things, one would have to have the capacity for free choice. Otherwise personal responsibility is a myth. And nearly all those who have argued against free will agree. For example, the famous defense attorney Clarence Darrow argued that such clients of his as Leopold and Loeb had no choice and couldn’t help themselves when they brutally murdered a young woman. The late Harvard psychologist B. F. Skinner also argued that freedom and dignity—our moral capacity—are both mythical notions, without scientific foundation.

So, pace Mr. Brooks, the dispute between those championing free will and those who deny it predates by many decades, even centuries, the current arguments between some neuroscientists and their detractors. (As a side note, there are brain scientists, such as the late Roger W. Sperry, who defended free will on scientific grounds, saying that the human brain contains features that enable one to govern one’s impulses, resist one’s habits, control one’s emotions—if one will only apply oneself.)

I am a partisan in this dispute, having written two books, one on Skinner himself and another on the free will issue directly, in which I have argued that free will and science are not in conflict. What makes it appear that they are is that too many believe that science assumes a materialist view of the world, one according to which everything is just simple matter, kind of like everything made of sand at the beach is just sand, even though it may look like a castle, a car, or a bridge at first inspection. But this isn’t really part of any of the sciences but rather a part of a certain philosophy that admittedly many scientists accept.

There is one major argument against determinism that’s very tough to overcome, especially by scientists. This is that unless human beings are free to do independent thinking, including scientific research, the results of inquiry are always infected with bias, prejudice, and other causes they cannot resist. This is the same problem most of us associate with prejudice in other areas, such as racism, sexism, ethnic bias, and so forth. We tend to take it that such prejudice is avoidable—indeed much public policy in the last several decades rests on the idea of its avoidability. Similarly, most of us take it the jurors can be objective, if they work at it.

But if free will is a myth, no such objectivity is possible, including about the issue of free will versus determinism. And that is a very difficult idea to reject because even to reject it, one would need to be able to be objective and, thus, to have free will.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Mars May Need Al Gore

Tibor R. Machan

Yes, Virginia, the red planet is getting warmer. As Science News magazine reports in its April 7, 2007, issue, “Modeling conditions on Mars using albedo [the percentage of light reflected form its surface] data form the Mars Global Surveyor, the team [of Paul E. Geissler, planetary geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Flagstaff, AZ and his colleagues] calculated an average air temperature at the planet’s surface about 0.65oC higher than in comparable simulations using the Viking-era data. In some areas, particularly those over the planet’s southern ice cap, air temperatures might have increased as much as 4oC, the researchers report in the April 5 Nature.”

Well, I don’t know about you, but it is my very strong impression that Mars is not teaming with gasoline powered traffic just now. Exactly what the folks up there are using for fuel I do not know but I have heard on good authority that none of what they use is causing the warming of the planet. Indeed, I have heard rumors that there is no one up there using any fuel combustion for anything, not a soul. The warming seems to be happening quite without the influence of Martians, let alone human beings.

But of course, Mars hasn’t had the benefit of Al Gore’s wisdom concerning its recent remarkable warming. Soon, perhaps, the former Vice President and his team of climate scientists will be invited to make a movie there. This is what happens when you get an Oscar here on earth—everyone wants to give you scripts to film and those concerned with Mars’s warming trends are no exception.

Rumor has it that there is a script making the rounds already, tentatively called, “A Very Inconvenient Truth, One Only Mr. Gore Could Prove.” And it will demonstrate, with the wide consensus of the universe’s climate scientists—and with the soon to be expanded United Nation’s bureaucratic community in tow—that, yes, the warming of the climate on Mars is caused by, well, human beings who have been secretly sending up the CO2 from earth, in the hopes that this would show they have no hand in earth’s global warming. In the new movie, however, Mr. Gore will demonstrate that these sneaky humans won’t get away with their scheme and now have the great Al Gore to deal with.

It is hoped by all concerned, of course, that once the movie is made and shown, especially on Mars, the terrible dangers predicted from Mars’s impending climate changes will abate, although some who have had a sharp eye focused on the planet have concluded that it is too late now, just as they have done as far as earth’s prospects are concerned. The dice has been tossed and we are all doomed both on Mars and on Earth.

It remains to be seen, though—and here is where the “who done it” aspect of the new film enters the picture—who exactly must be chewed out for the climate warming on Mars. There must be someone to blame, although whereas on Earth we have, of course, capitalism, American consumers, fossil fuel use by nearly all, and similar villains to target with the charges, on Mars the perpetrators have managed to do some effective obfuscation by not providing any evidence whatsoever of who they might be. Mr. Gore, it is also rumored, will inject a surprise ending into his new movie by finding the culprits. Maybe he will finally solve the on going UFO controversy here on Earth, revealing that all those sightings have been about the dastardly humans on Earth who were shipping off the bad substance to Mars—which will demonstrate just how much worse things could be here on Earth if Al Gore didn’t scare them into their sneaky ways.

Science News, in its report on Mars’s warming trends, did venture into the ongoing controversy about global climate warming when it concluded its report by noting that “The team’s findings don’t point to an external influence, such as an increase in solar radiation, that some climate-change skeptics have suggested may be behind earth’s recent warning,” Geissler says. Well, at least no non-human external influence!
Bias at PBS, etc.

Tibor R. Machan

Over the last year or so some friends of mine have been involved in a crash course in bureaucratic corruption and bias at PBS-TV. They were invited, initially, to contribute a documentary on the conflict between moderate and radical Islamists around the world. Their contribution was well received at first, slated to be included in a series of PBS-TV programs that have just hit the television airwaves, “America at a Crossroads.”

Martyn Burke, the producer of the documentary “Islam vs. Islamists,” says his film was dropped from the series for political reasons. As reported in The Arizona Republic, he claimed "I was ordered to fire my two partners (who brought me into this project) on political grounds." Burke sent a letter of complaint to PBS and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which supplied funds for the films. He said that his documentary shows the plight of moderate Muslims who are silenced by Islamic extremists, and added that "Now it appears to be PBS and CPB who are silencing them." Yet, as the newspaper reports, “A Jan. 30 news release by the corporation listed Islam vs. Islamists as one of eight films to be presented in the opening series.” The two partners were labeled neo-conservatives by those at PBS which they regarded a serious liability, enough to cause them to cancel the showing of the documentary.

I have seen portions of this film and it is riveting. There is hardly any commentary in it. Instead all those shown, as well as the events, are allowed to speak for themselves.

It is always risky to climb into bed with the likes of PBS and NPR, both media outlets that exist by virtue of the federal government. (Sure, they also receive private support—NPR recently got big bucks from Joan Kroc’s estate, the widow of McDonalds' founder, who died last October and left $225 million to the organization which, incidentally, eagerly invites opponents of trans fatty foods to air their views. But with the feds, they wouldn’t be.)

The few times I have gotten near such outfits I felt the censorial pinch—when, for example, in the late 80s, Bob Chitester produced a pilot for a political philosophy series, with me as the host and the late Sidney Hook as the expert guest. The show, “For the Love of Work,” dealt with the ideas of Karl Marx. (Chitester, you may recall, later produced Milton Friedman’s immensely successful “Free to Choose” program.) The pilot we did was turned down somewhere in Washington after I was identified by one of the judges, according to The Wall Street Journal, as “a mere popularizer of libertarianism.”

More pertinent is the recently shown program, produced by Filmmakers Collaborative of San Francisco, about America’s anti-trust laws, “Fair Fight in the Market Place.” This is pure, unabashed, and unadulterated statist propaganda. And badly produced to boot.

For one, it presents only anecdotal stories of how wonderful the anti-trust laws are, mostly based on some of the prosecutions of price fixers and industrial colluders and the hidden camera shots shown of their discussions in which they clearly indicate their knowledge that they are breaking anti-trust laws. Among those interviewed for the show there is but one (Purdue University) economists, very favorable to the Sherman and Clay anti-trust laws, with the rest all partisan state and federal prosecutors.

Not a single, solitary individual on the program gave any opinion disputing the ultimate wisdom of anti-trust law and of the history of anti-trust prosecution, not even when discussing the failed effort by the Justice Department’s anti-trust division to break up Microsoft Corporation because of its supposed illegal bundling of the operating system with its own Internet browser. (I recall this case well since I took part in numerous debates, both at my own university and elsewhere, making the point that bundling should not be illegal and that it occurs time and time again throughout the market place.)

The main idea in defense of anti-trust laws is “consumer choice.” As if it were a proven proposition that only with anti-trust laws can there be a truly competitive market. The late Yale Brozen of the University of Chicago’s graduate school of business and University of Hartford Professor Emeritus Don Armentano are just two of the prominent, well published authors who have argued against this idea.

But why be surprised? PBS, NPR and PRI (Public Radio International) are all instruments of the American federal government’s self-promotion. If anyone is featured on any of their programs who disputes statism, you can be sure that there will be strong voices opposing such an individual. The rest, the cheerleaders of statism, aren’t going to be allowed to be challenged.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Authenticity and Integrity in Art and Entertainment

Tibor R. Machan

Plato’s many dialogues have Socrates—his version of Socrates, since there never ending debate about whether Plato’s is the real one—aspire to understand what important ideas mean. Virtue, justice, being, knowledge, piety and others are explored with Socrates usually taking the part of the skeptical inquirer while his very clever pupils advance answer to the questions about what these all are, what the concepts mean.

So from this we still have as one of our pedagogical ideals the Socratic method for searching for the truth about something, anything. While Plato’s Socrates has come in for criticism when it comes to the goal of this method—namely, to discover the final, timeless, perfect truth about the subject matter—his method has most often been regarded unexceptional.

Ah, except when it comes to art. In this realm we aren’t so much after truth but after, well, artistic excellence, including beauty. And to teach this goal it has often been thought that we require a sort of single vision, a unique apprehension, be this in painting, the novel, drama, music or some other medium. Integrity or authenticity has often been deemed to be the necessary virtue to reach the goal here. Any kind of cooperation, collaboration, or brain storming before the creativity comes to fruition seems to many to take away from the worthiness of the work.

Now in the recent movie, The TV Set a good deal is made of the fact that in order to bring an idea to the TV set, it has to go through a whole lot of adjustment, editing, rethinking, testing and so forth. Somehow, those who conceived of this movie bought into the notion that even a silly old sitcom must spring forth in finished form from the mind of the writer. If someone else from the production team suggests that a change is needed for making some shows work, and if the original authors of the idea for it yield to the suggestions they must in some ways be compromising their integrity.

But this, I think, is misconceived. Yes, we know that Howard Roark’s character in Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead made it big in fiction because he resisted all efforts to change his idea of a low cost apartment building. Yet even here we don’t know whether he talked over his original conception with other like-minded architects, with engineers who might have given him advice about how much it will cost to do it the original way and how this might be reduced with some perfectly acceptable changes that still do justice to Roark’s idea.

And a TV program is by its very nature not an individual creation. In fact, a great many other creations that have one person’s name as the author have several editors, helpful readers of initial manuscripts, and so forth. Even artists—novelists, playwrights, poets and musical compositions run their initial drafts by others who will often give advice for more or less significant changes.

So, it looks to me that all this hullabaloo about how it’s insulting to writers in Hollywood to make suggestions to them about the scripts, who to cast for their parts, whether someone on the show who is initially killed off might not better survive to live a few and more additional episodes, is bunk. There is, of course, something to the point that if one is simply caving in to pressure based on prejudice, irrelevant or trivial considerations, or something quite offensive to one’s basic principles or values, that is shameful. But not all suggestions from producers and others surrounding the development of a show amount to demands to compromise the basic idea behind it, the writer’s essential vision. In the movie The TV Set the ideas for the changes were not sorted out properly so that we, the audience, could grasp what was central to the idea and what incidental.

Which is why I suspect that The TV Set was an entertaining enough but not altogether subtle besmirching of the business end of Hollywood. If one changes one’s cast for monetary reason, that’s got to be bad; but if there is a suggestion to do based on how well the prospective actor can act, that’s OK. Yet, this isn’t quite right—budgetary constraints surround every project, even those of the greatest artists of world history. They needed to rein in some of their idea because of money, too, or because they were running out of time or materials.

I wouldn’t fret so much about whether one or many people have a hand in a creative project, more about whether the result is good.