Monthly Archives: August 2011

Naturalism and responsibility

A long time ago I wrote an email to one of my favorite authors, Daniel Dennett. I wanted to know who he though were the most challenging opponents to his positions. One such opponent he pointed out to me was Tom Clark, specifically about the idea of responsibility: that people can be blamed or praised for their actions; that individuals are indeed accountable for their actions.

Many people who hold the naturalist perspective, or who fear it, believe that the naturalist premise necessarily concludes that people are devoid of free will unable to choose anything and thus cannot be considered accountable for any action that they may take. A good percentage of such individuals will claim that a person who believes otherwise must necessarily be reaching toward faith or some other, irrational leap or have failed to follow the evidence and naturalism to its ultimate conclusion. This works as a conclusion if it can be shown, but as an argument does not really amount to much of anything.

Tom Clark does indeed seem to me to make this claim but he also makes some arguments that are indeed noteworthy. On the other hand, at least in what I have seen of his talks, I believe he makes some categorical errors that are fundamental to the problem and are indeed quite common among those who hold the perspective that people cannot make choices and cannot be held accountable for their actions, be they moral, immoral, or whatever.

To begin with, here is a video I am particularly referring to within this argument: Tom Clark presents Naturalism. I would also like to iterate those premises to which I agree with him:

There is no such thing as the “supernatural”.
The idea of the supernatural is a cop out. People who wish to continue to believe in things to which there can be found no evidence to support justify that belief by claiming that one cannot analyze the entire world in rational means. They split the world into two compartments: the natural, which can be examined scientifically and rationally; and the “supernatural”, which is immune to scientific examination and thereby cannot ever, possibly be counter-proven.

It must be stated though that the world is indeed what it is and any event that occurs in the world can indeed be observed and this includes the effects born of any supernatural cause. The supernatural thus must simply be the natural as there are many things science cannot directly observe but is still aware of due to its effects.

The “soul”, as a supernatural entity, does not exist.
It can be said that people have souls in that they have a particular, unique personality that has a certain identifiable quality to it. The idea of the soul as a non-material component capable of existing beyond the body that it inhabits though is absurd. Agree or disagree that there is a soul or “self” that is conscious of its own existence, and thereby indeed exists, it is quite evident that this soul or self is but a byproduct of the interaction of material elements. It is a state within a brain and when that brain ceases to function, the soul is gone.
Human beings, having no supernatural beginnings or components, are not free from causality
We are what our past makes us. We are thus limited in many fundamental respects. We cannot chose to be other than what we are. We cannot have a different past from the one we have. The events that have preceded our current decisions indeed determine, albeit in unpredictable ways, the decisions we make now. We, being byproducts of a physical process, ARE those physical processes even if we cannot be reduced to them or described by them (which is not something I am asserting at this time).

There is no magic happening in our brains that creates decision outside a chain of causes. Events occur in the brain, a decision is the byproduct of those events. If this runs contrary to your idea of free will then you need to abandon the idea or modify it.

As products of our past and of physical processes, we are at least partially products of things we have no control over.
How much of what we are is governed by genetics is not something I can say nor is it important to the conversation. However, it is clear that much of what and who we are is indeed beyond our control and amounts to little more than luck of the draw as to what genes we were generated with. We cannot chose to not have a tendency toward cancer. We cannot chose to have learning difficulties, or visa-versa. We cannot chose to not have cognitive disorders caused by sections of our brains not growing correctly. We also cannot chose to not have had a car accident that renders us paralyzed or mentally disabled. Stab a knife in my brain and I become another person, in many ways new and distinct from the old one. Give me a different past and I am not me.

This later statement is of most importance to the discussion. Tom Clark uses it to claim that we cannot be praised or blamed for our actions. Since we cannot be blamed of praised for being who we are, and who we are determines our choices, we cannot thus be accountable, good or bad, for anything we do. This statement seems absurd on its face to me, but a good many see it as obvious and completely sensible. My task here is to show why this later view is in error.

To begin, let us assume the premise of that statement: that we are not accountable for who we are. Because who and what we are is the product of our genetics, our past, what we had for breakfast, etc…there is nothing about who we are that can be said to be within our control. I will later discuss whether this is indeed true, but for now let us assume that it is. We will assume that you, me, and everyone else are basically created as we are and that every moment since then is simply the product of events beyond the control of anyone. We are as we are and that is that. What we are governs our “choices” and our actions. Does this mean that you are not accountable?

Tom Clark brings up a murderer in his lecture. So let us start there. It is his premise that a murderer cannot help but be who he is since who he is comes from causes beyond his control. If who he is cannot be under his control then the decisions he makes, which come from who he is, cannot be either.

I believe that Daniel Dennett quite thoroughly responds to this direction of argument with his chess program metaphor. A chess program is an entirely predictable and deterministic machine, even if it appears from the outside to behave otherwise. Thus we can say that the “decisions” that a chess program makes are determined entirely by the state of the machine it is running on and the game. Put the computer in a particular state and feed the program a position and it will ALWAYS make the same move. This metaphor works quite adequately to our discussion as it assumes all the premises being made.

Dennett points out that you can pit various different computer programs against each other over and over again. In fact, having written a couple such programs myself I know that this is so and that there are international events where programmers indeed do just that. Even further, we’ve pitted some such programs against some of the best human chess players that ever lived. In so doing we can see that there are some programs that are good at the game, some that are really bad, and others that perform well under various conditions and badly under others. There is a whole wide spectrum of performance among these programs, and their human counterparts, that is quantifiable and is based entirely upon evidence.

Is it unreasonable in this case to say that chess program A, having always performed better than chess program B, is indeed a better chess playing program than program B? Certainly we can say that the team which developed program A had a great deal to do with how good it is, and that this is of course utterly beyond its control, but is it unreasonable to attach this measurement to the program? Is it wrong to say that program A is a better player than program B even if we can also say that team A is better at developing strong chess playing programs than team B?

I have to conclude that it is indeed reasonable to make both statements. Many may try to argue otherwise and claim that this is an unreasonable statement even though it seems completely natural. The measure of performance actually needs to be attached to the team which created the programs such people might say. I can somewhat sympathize with this view and this attempt to hold onto their guns, but I must also conclude that it flies in the face of all measurement.

If we are going to say that here then we have to say it everywhere and every attempt to measure falls prey to an infinite regress that cannot be escaped. Measure a log and the length surely is dictated by how far from one end the other end was cut. Thus the length of a log cannot be attributed to that log but must be attributed to the cut alone? And that cut of course being attributed to the conditions in place when it was made?

Such a regress cannot be proven to be logically flawed but I believe that it flies in the face of all reasonable discourse. Surely when I say a log is 5′ long I am saying something useful. If that can be agreed to then surely it can be agreed that when I say program A is better at playing chess than program B I am also saying something useful. I cannot prove the counterpoint, and have run into a point of convention, a premise, but I do believe it is a reasonable one that’s lack would render all discourse impossible.

The problem some may have with the chess program analogy is that it breaks down the argument that people can’t be held accountable. Just as a chess program can be better or worse at playing chess than another, a person, who’s “soul” is a byproduct of events, chemistry, etc…all beyond their control, can be said to be better than another at certain things. For example, someone with the genetic predisposition to strength and agility may end up being better at playing basketball than one who is not. As I said, how much genetics determine the outcome is uncertain, what is certain though is that someone who’s past includes a lot of basketball playing AND genetics will probably be “better” at the game than someone who’s past is otherwise.

As with any difference we can say that some people are “better” or “worse” at behaving morally than other people. Even though we might say that the murderer cannot help but be inclined toward murder, such a person is not as good at not murdering people as others. In such respect we CAN hold them accountable for the fact that the murder even if we have to say that they murder because that’s who they are. Quite the contrary to the counter argument in fact, the fact that a person is bad at not killing others is based very much on who and what they are and is very directly pertinent, even more so than if we were to attempt to reach for some vapor in “supernatural land”.

Tom Clark attempts to reason away responsibility through empathy. “There but for the grace of … genes, parenting, random events, etc…go I,” is his claim. Because the naturalist understands that who and what we are is nothing but a product of events that we have no control over, if we had the same events in our past then we would be the person we are so judging. Since we can see ourselves as being the same as these individuals who perform poorly in the morality game, given their past, we can further empathize with them and conclude that its not their fault any more than it is our fault we are not murderers. Even further, given the same past we would behave exactly like them.

This is, however, a categorical error on his part. Assume we are talking about Charles Manson; Tom Clark would say that given Charles Manson’s past and genes you would behave as Charles Manson does. This statement seems true given the premises but it assumes that there is something within you that can be pulled out and put into an alternative situation where you’ve got different genes and a different past. From the naturalistic perspective, and given the premises that both he and I agree with, this is simply not the case. The correct statement here is not, “There but for the grace of luck go I,” but, “There but for the grace of luck goes Charles Manson.”

The problem here is that both you and Charles Manson are, given the premises, products of your genetics and past. There is nothing that can be pulled out of you and given his genetics and past to become something other than what you are. Mirror neurons let you speculate about it, and empathize with him even going so far as to cause the same brain events that he has when you do, but it is in fact this that is the illusion, not the fact that you and Charles Manson are indeed different people that have a quantifiable difference in behavior. If we gave “you” all the genetics and past of Charles Manson then you would be Charles Manson, not you (assuming my reader is not Charles Manson). If I had his past I would be Charles Manson, not Crazy Eddie.

But I am Crazy Eddie and you are you and Charles Manson is Charles Manson. We can hypothesize what it’s like being the other but we are never other than what we are. Since we are indeed distinct, having different genes, different pasts, different brains, different states, and all the various other things that Tom Clark and others might say determine our being and our choices then our various, quantifiable different abilities are also distinct and cannot be traded in anything but an entirely hypothetical manner. I might try to wear your shoes and try to see things from your perspective but your perspective will always be yours and not mine. Your actions will always be based on who you are, and mine will be based on who I am. Always and for as long as we live.

I agree with Tom Clark that seeing that at least much of what we are can be attributed not to anything we have decided to be, but on the entirely determined nature of the natural world, I cannot agree with him that this precludes responsibility. People who care about being moral and behaving as honestly as they can are not the same as those who do not. We can tell the difference, at least given all knowledge, and as such the distinction is useful and also true. Although it must be agreed that people, all people, tend to see themselves in better light than others and may not be as different as they think…this fact does not negate the differences that are in fact there.

Even if we can attribute who you are and who I am to things outside either of our control, the differences between us are still there be they in height, weight, performance in sports, penis size, or even morality. It seems to me that people who insist we cannot be held responsible for our decisions tend to keep the former distinctions but pretend the latter doesn’t exist because it’s based on as superficial differences as the former. This is an emotional distinction though, because we value morality so highly (and rightly since amoral or immoral people can hurt us), not a logical or reasonable one.


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