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Finding Freedom in a Determined Universe

February 6, 2018

Foreword to Free Will Explained: How Science and Philosophy Converged to Produce a Beautiful Illusion, by Dan Barker (Sterling. 2018. ISBN 9781454927358).

Free Will Explained: How Science and Philosophy Converged to Produce a Beautiful Illusion (book cover)

In 1985, the physiologist Benjamin Libet conducted a series of experiments that involved taking EEG readings of subjects’ brains engaged in a task that required them to press a button at random intervals whenever they felt like it during the session. Results: several seconds before the “decision” was consciously made by the subject, the brain’s motor cortex was activated.1 The neuroscientist John-Dylan Haynes employed fMRI brain scans in a 2011 study in which subjects inside the scanner were instructed to press one of two buttons whenever they wanted while observing a series of random letters. The subjects were told to verbally report which letter was on the screen when they “decided” to press the button. Results: the time between brain activation and conscious awareness of a “choice” was several seconds, and in some cases a full seven seconds.2

In these studies, and others, scientists measuring subjects’ brains know which decision they would make before the subjects themselves know it! That is spooky, and if these results don’t bother you then you’re not thinking hard enough about them. What they imply is that we are not free to choose in the way we think we are. We feel free, but that’s just what our conscious self believes because it doesn’t know about the inputs feeding into it from below that have already made the choice. As the neuroscientist Sam Harris articulated it in his widely-read book Free Will, “Our wills are simply not of our own making. Thoughts and intentions emerge from background causes of which we are unaware and over which we exert no conscious control. We do not have the freedom we think we have.”3 (continue reading…)

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Mr. Hume: Tear. Down. This. Wall.

December 22, 2017

A Response to George Ellis’s Critique of My Defense of Moral Realism

This article appeared in Theology and Science in December 2017.

I am deeply appreciative that University of Cape Town professor George Ellis took the time to read carefully, think deeply, and respond thoughtfully to my Theology and Science paper “Scientific Naturalism: A Manifesto for Enlightenment Humanism” (August, 2017),1 itself an abbreviation of the full-throated defense of moral realism and moral progress that I present in my 2015 book, The Moral Arc.2 As a physicist he naturally reflects the methodologies of his field, wondering how a social scientist might “discover” moral laws in human nature as a physical scientist might discover natural laws in laboratory experiments. It’s a good question, as is his query: “Is it possible to say in some absolute sense that specific acts, such as the large scale massacres of the Holocaust, are evil in an absolute sense?”

Pace Abraham Lincoln, who famously said “If slavery is not wrong, then nothing is wrong,”3 I hereby declare in an unequivocal defense of moral realism:

If the Holocaust is not wrong, then nothing is wrong.

Since Professor Ellis is a physicist, let me approach this defense of moral realism from the perspective of a physical scientist. It is my hypothesis that in the same way that Galileo and Newton discovered physical laws and principles about the natural world that really are out there, so too have social scientists discovered moral laws and principles about human nature and society that really do exist. Just as it was inevitable that the astronomer Johannes Kepler would discover that planets have elliptical orbits—given that he was making accurate astronomical measurements, and given that planets really do travel in elliptical orbits, he could hardly have discovered anything else—scientists studying political, economic, social, and moral subjects will discover certain things that are true in these fields of inquiry. For example, that democracies are better than autocracies, that market economies are superior to command economies, that torture and the death penalty do not curb crime, that burning women as witches is a fallacious idea, that women are not too weak and emotional to run companies or countries, and, most poignantly here, that blacks do not like being enslaved and that the Jews do not want to be exterminated. Why? […]

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Life’s Score

August 9, 2017

The author in the 1984 Race Across America (RAAM), crossing from Arizona into Utah through the Virgin River Gorge.

Among cycling aficionados of my generation, Peter Yates’ and Steve Tesich’s 1979 film Breaking Away was a welcome vehicle to convey the elegance and complex strategy of our sport to an American audience largely oblivious to its beauty and nuances. Of course, like most sports films, it was a metaphor for something deeper, in this case a coming of age story of a young man struggling to break away from the provincialism of family and friends, along with a morality tale about how everyone lies a little and some people cheat a lot.

In Knowing the Score, King’s College philosopher David Papineau uses specific sports as metaphors for and lessons about many of the most important and contentious issues in philosophy and life. In his chapters on cycling, for example, he confesses his ignorance while watching the 2012 Olympic road race as to why four women cyclists from different countries would work together after their break away from the peloton. Papineau finds an answer in game theory, the analysis of competition and cooperation between rational actors in a conflict situation. The prisoner’s dilemma model is the most famous example: you and another prisoner are arrested for a crime with the following options: (1) If both of you remain silent then you each receive one year in jail; (2) If you confess but the other person does not, then you go free and he gets three years; (3) If the other prisoner confesses and you don’t, then you receive the three-year penalty while he goes free; (4) If you both confess then you each get two years. What should you do? Research shows that when the game is played just once, or over a fixed number of rounds without the players being allowed to communicate, defection (confessing) is the common strategy. But when the game is played over an unknown number of rounds the most common strategy is “tit-for-tat,” where you begin by cooperating and then do whatever the other player does. Even more cooperation can be induced in a “Many Person Dilemma” in which one player interacts with several other players, and in which players are allowed to accumulate experience with the other players in order to establish trust. Here cooperation trumps competition, selflessness overcomes selfishness. (continue reading…)

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Scientific Naturalism: A Manifesto for Enlightenment Humanism

June 19, 2017

This article appeared in Theology and Science Vol. 15, No. 3 in June 2017.

A recording of this article can be listened to below, read by the author, with an introduction by David Smalley, thanks to our Patrons at Patreon.

Abstract

The success of the Scientific Revolution led to the development of the worldview of scientific naturalism, or the belief that the world is governed by natural laws and forces that can be understood, and that all phenomena are part of nature and can be explained by natural causes, including human cognitive, moral and social phenomena. The application of scientific naturalism in the human realm led to the widespread adoption of Enlightenment humanism, a cosmopolitan worldview that places supreme value on science and reason, eschews the supernatural entirely and relies exclusively on nature and nature’s laws, including human nature. (continue reading…)

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It’s Complicated

June 5, 2017

Unraveling the Mystery of Why People Act as They Do

This review of Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst by Robert M. Sapolsky (Penguin Press, May 2018. ISBN 9780143110910) appeared in The American Scholar in June 2017.

Have you ever thought about killing someone? I have, and I confess that it brought me peculiar feelings of pleasure to fantasize about putting the hurt on someone who had wronged me. I am not alone. According to the evolutionary psychologist David Buss, who asked thousands of people this same question and reported the data in his 2005 book, The Murderer Next Door, 91 percent of men and 84 percent of women reported having had at least one vivid homicidal fantasy in their life. It turns out that nearly all murders (90 percent by some estimates) are moralistic in nature—not cold-blooded killing for money or assets, but hot-blooded homicide in which perpetrators believe that their victims deserve to die. The murderer is judge, jury, and executioner in a trial that can take only seconds to carry out. (continue reading…)

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