Saturday, December 27, 2008

Without Free Will

Tibor R. Machan

Lots of important people, in the sciences and in philosophy, are saying that free will is a myth, a delusion. Some go so far as to embark on revamping the legal system and our ideas of ethics or morality so concepts of guilt, innocence, responsibility and so forth are dropped. No one is guilty of anything, they hold, since no one could have done anything other than what he or she did. This is just one notion that follows from the absence of free will in human life. What are some others?

Regret is out; so is pride. Apologies are pointless since no one could have done better than she or he did. Certainly no one can be blamed for anything. Or praised. Just as it makes no sense to blame the weather for being unpleasant or even horrible, or praise it for being great, so none of the awful stuff that people do can be blamed on them and none can receive praise either, since it all just happens as it must. That means, also, that editorials that congratulate some while those that chide others are all nonsense, gobbledygook, if there's no free will. Forget about admiration, too, for no deed is a function of individual good judgment and effort. It's like nice flowers, which simply grow as they, too, must. Artists must do their art, murderers must do their murders, no alternative to any of it is possible, just as the way a river runs is how it must run.

Most difficult to swallow, though, is that what I am saying or writing here or anyone else has said or written or is saying or writing or will say or write is no more true or false than is the noise made by ocean waves since the idea of truth--the independent, objective identification of reality by an unprejudiced mind--is also dead without free will. You affirm free will? Well, you just had to do it, just as if you were to deny it, that to just had to happen. The issue of which is right cannot arise, either, since when it is claimed that one is while the other isn't, that too just has to happen as it does.

Juries, too, simply have to come up with the verdict they do--they have no freedom to consider evidence, or to evade it (when supposedly perpetrating malpractice). Scientists, too, just must believe as they do, as do their detractors--Creationists cannot help but believe as they do, as do the Darwinians. Everyone just has the beliefs he or she must have, as the unstoppable chain of causal connections has made it necessary. Que Sera, Sera!

But this, of course, means that believing in or disbelieving in free will or determinism amounts to just something that happens to people. Arguing is pointless--it is just helpless prattle, no more productive of truth (or falsehood) that the yapping of a parrot or the noise of a tape recorder. It's no more related to truth or falsehood than are thunder and the roar from a lion.

Of course, all of this could be as I say but none could know it since knowledge itself requires freedom of judgment, of a capacity to research and think about issues without prejudice, without being driven to reach some given conclusion!

As far as I can figure, being without free will makes no sense since giving up everything one must to be without free will is nonsense. But that may not be a decisive enough argument for free will. What would be? Among other things that would have to be dealt with is how come so many serious folks can so easily come to believe that tossing free will can make sense, despite all of what follows from it. What might be amiss with their framework, with how they go about considering this matter? These folks are bright--in fact, one of them has proposed that there should be a name for them, at least the ones who also deny God, and it should be "Brights"! (A label that's a bit vain, if you ask me, but not necessarily wrong.)

To help get to the bottom of this topic, much besides listing what all we would have to do without free will is necessary. Still, considering what it would be like without free will should be a good beginning for seriously considering the matter.
Year End Pet Peeves

Tibor R. Machan

Mostly I write on topics I suspect concern a wide enough audience. Columnists don’t just write on anything that pops into their minds but need to do a bit of service to reader-clients. But, if one has a regular venue for one’s columns, it maybe fine, now and then, to indulge oneself with a topic or two that’s more personal. Even these will, of course, aim to please, if only by inviting reader-clients to know a bit of the writer.

In that spirit I am going to take the risky step of laying out some of my pet peeves. These are not the most serious complaints I have about culture, politics, religion, and other human institutions. Instead, they are matters that tend to irritate me personally even as they may pose nothing much objectionable to others and might not even need to, either. Individualists like me will fully accept that some stuff is strictly personal, amounts to likes or dislikes and implies nothing about what others ought to feel, do, or pursue.

Take my favorite color, for an example. I am nuts about red-orange, the color of the California poppy and the old Mustang and the setting sun over the Pacific. This is, yes, the opposite of a pet peeve, more of a pet love. It is, however, exactly personal and idiosyncratic.

What about a genuine pet peeve, then? Well, heavy bangs would serve as a good case in point. Cannot stand them even if the face is gorgeous in all other respects. Somehow these bangs even suggest something more generally puzzling--why would someone wish to hide a forehead? Is there some message afoot in that, like, “I don’t like my brain?” No, need not be, but it’s somewhat intimated, at least for me.

Bad dancers get to me, those who go out there and gyrate without a bit of rhythm. Sure, they could be having fun, though I cannot see how, given how bad they are at what they are doing. I just cannot abide by it, maybe because I am such a great fan of the likes of Fred Astaire and Gene Kelley. And while I am at it, I should mention singing off key. Totally puts me off, especially in some popular singers--for example, the late Dinah Shore!

There is also that genre of painting, the very poorly executed abstract work! I didn’t used to take to any abstract paintings but then changed and began to like some of them as a form of design--shapes and colors and intensity, all well coordinated. But when it is without the slightest sense of balance it really sucks, as far as I am concerned. I even fancy that I can spot one of these awful efforts at a distance. But I am not confident enough to say I know they amount to bad works of art. Maybe some individuals are really sent by just such stuff!

Pointless Jargon, the sort that reeks of having been manufactured despite there being no need for it at all! I am nearly paranoid about this--some folks write, it seems, to prevent their being understood. Again, I could be wrong but I am awfully suspicious. (I guess one reason is that escaping into jargon is a temptation of writers when their ideas aren’t clear enough to them but admitting this isn’t cool.) At times it appears evident that some of the most erudite folks, highly praised scientists from prestigious institutions, will succumb to this temptation, at least in regions of their discipline they are still confused about.

Cops who swagger really put me off, and this includes nearly all those out there enforcing the rules of the road. Frankly I don’t even regard these people as police officers or officers of the law because rules of the road, however necessary, are just that, rules of the road, just a step or several above rules of attire at some private school. Yes, yes, the rules sort of aim at orderliness and even safety but more often they appear to aim solely at revenue generation. So one is stopped for making an “illegal” U-turn by a person wearing really scary outfits and prominently carrying a menacing weapon! Tends to demean the very idea of law, which is a general system of principles that is supposed to serve to secure civilized conduct, protect the rights of individuals, not bother about the specific details of various forms of life. But I suppose this pet peeve stems in part from my near-anarchism, my fierce resentment of all those who lord it over other people who are carrying on in mostly peaceful ways.

I won't go into the types of driving that I despise. It would fill a book. But here is at least a small sample of what I just happen to like and dislike. It may say a bit about me, for better or for worse.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Left Liberals and Right Conservatives

Tibor R. Machan

It is not always taken note of that conservatism refers to a procedure for dealing with life, ethics, politics, or public policy, not with a position on these. What the conservative urges is that as one considers matters related to any of the above, one ought to pay heed, first and foremost, to what has been found acceptable, useful, sensible in the past, by the dominant and persistent traditions in human history. It is these that ought to be conserved. There is, for conservatives, no other road to reliable truth. Just as the pragmatist rejects the possibility of firm, lasting principles in any area of inquiry, so the conservative rejects the possibility of gaining understanding apart from following dominant traditions.

As such, conservatives oppose something that’s central to the American political system, namely, individualism. Just consider what Edmund Burke, the father of modern conservatism, said: “...Men have no right to risk the very existence of their nation and their civilization upon experiments in morals and politics; for each man's private capital of intelligence is petty; it is only when a man draws upon the bank and capital of the ages, the wisdom of our ancestors, that he can act wisely,” adding that “We are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason, because we suspect that this stock in each man is small, and that the individuals would do better to avail themselves of the general bank of nations and of ages.”

And it is in this that conservatives share something essential with the Left, with socialists, communists, communitarians, and many modern liberals as well. All these regard individualism fatally flawed because it entrusts human individuals with the capacity to know the world on their own (a rare case but still not unfamiliar when we consider innovators, discoverers, scientists who are often way ahead of their colleagues, etc.). For socialists human beings are innately socially bound. Karl Marx put it best when he coined the term “species being,” meaning that everyone’s basic identity is intimately tied to the whole of humanity (or in less grandiose versions, society, the tribe, the race, the ethnic group, or the nation).

This is why neither those on the Right nor those on the Left favor individual rights, those social-legal provisions that make room for the independence, sovereignty of the human individual. For these Leftists everyone belongs to society and the right to individual freedom, as per Locke and the American Founders, does violence to this idea, undermines it. At nearly every turn of the debate between defenders of the American political system, with the tenets of the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights, in the end this issue becomes central, pivotal both vis-à-vis Right and Left.

American individualism, following Locke and advanced mainly by Objectivists and Libertarians, holds that although human beings flourish best among their fellows, this must be under conditions where everyone’s individuality is fully respected and protected. In the last analysis a citizen must have the option to withdraw from society, say when its policies have turned against individuals, just as the Declaration makes clear. This “exit option” testifies to the prominence of individualism in this system of social-political thought. This isn’t about living like a hermit or not being closely related to others--those charges are disingenuous or misconceived. Individualism is about an adult human being having the ultimate authority over his or her life, exactly what the great and small tyrannies of human history have denied.

If you want to know why the central American viewpoint has it so hard with not just the rest of the world but its very own crop of intellectuals, it is because both Right and Left are essentially against its basic tenet, individualism.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Why Gray Isn’t

Tibor R. Machan

Not unlike others who have become students of philosophy, I have had an abiding interest in ethics or morality, especially on what if anything justifies a moral conviction one may have or indeed the moral principles that are taken to be true by millions. As I grew up to get more and more involved in this issue, I became well aware that there are not only famous philosophers but millions of lay persons who basically scoff at the idea that right and wrong can be distinguished at all. Indeed, it is often deemed to be hallmark of sophistication, erudition and even wisdom to declare that thinking in moral black versus white is a form of infantilism.

When the superb actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, who plays Father Flynn in the movie Doubt, was recently quoted about this, I had to smile. What he said was is that Doubt “isn’t about whether the priest ‘did it’.” For him “What’s so essential about this movie is our desire to be certain about something and say, This is what I believe is right, wrong, black, white.” But, he is quoted as saying, we do not want to be “living in what’s really true, which is the whole mess that the world is.”

Interesting. Suggests to me that Hoffman like so many people who think themselves to be profound is urging that we embrace the ambiguity of the world, especially of morality. That would, as he seems to see it, a good--white--thing to do! Thinking in black and white, let alone acting accordingly, would appear to strike him and many others who consider themselves aware of the complexities of life as simplistic, something to be avoided! That would be another good thing.

Well, that’s all well and good because, of course, many of us don’t give the topic of right versus wrong a very close inspection, not unless we are very directly involved. Looking on as other people grapple with ethical or moral issues we give it all a cursory glance and walk away thinking that surely what is right, what is wrong isn’t anything clear cut or certain. No, it is full of doubt, maybe even inherently doubtful so that no right and wrong actually exist at all.

Yet, most of those who hold such sophisticated views on ethics or morality will balk at extending it to every ethical or moral issue. What about rape? How about racism? What of bigotry? And there is Guantanamo Bay and torture, and Mr. Bush’s policies and suddenly these very sophisticated folks show themselves to be thoroughly committed to the black versus white outlook on ethics or morality.

This is not all that dissimilar from how many erudite people look at the determinism versus free will topic. Being modern and respectful toward a certain idea of science, they tend, in the main, to dismiss free will as an illusion. This is what the editor of Science News, Tom Siegfried, states quite categorically, in his essay, “The Decider” [December 6, 2008, p. 28]: “Free illusion that endures only because biochemical complexity conceals the mechanism of decision making.”

Never mind for now whether Siegfried is right or wrong. What is noteworthy is how difficult it is to consistently embrace his position. In editorial after editorial in the magazine he edits he and guest commentators chide, implore, criticize, urge, and do all the kinds of things one can really only do sensibly if there is free will. How can one be critical of what President Bush does about, say, torture or scientific research--the latter a prominent target of criticism in the pages of Science News--if Mr. Bush has no free will? How could one even be critical of those who believe that free will exists if free will doesn’t exist and they are helpless in what they believe?

It is remarkable how many people with very high regard for their intelligence and understanding announce something they firmly believe but then, shortly thereafter, proceed to talk and act as if what they so firmly believe were quite false, after all. It seems as if they didn’t really bother to think through what they say with such firm conviction.

So for such people, then, all morality or ethics is about grays, not blacks and whites, except for what bothers them about how people talk and act. All human conduct is driven by impersonal force, absent any freedom of the will, except that those who disagree with this and other important ideas ought to straighten out their thinking, just as if they were quite free to do so.

Not all of us can be full time disciplined, professional thinkers but it would be a welcome thing if those who aspire to it did a better job at the task.