Thursday, April 21, 2011

Neuroscientific Threats to Freedom

There's been a lot of ink spilled recently about the possibility that neuroscience undermines our freedom of action or our freedom of the will. Neuroscientists, apparently, have been running about in the popular media claiming that they have shown that humans lack free will or that our conscious choices are epiphenomena, mere concomitants of actually causative non-conscious brain processes. This furor has caused some consternation among philosophers, especially because other experiments appear to show that the belief in determinism makes people act less morally. This raises the specter of a populace unmoored from its traditional moral bearings, running amok in the (misguided) belief that they can be blamed for nothing they do.

The philosophical response (widespread, it seems, but mostly exemplified by Daniel Dennett) is that it is (1) morally irresponsible to lead people to believe they lack free will given these consequences and (2) that we still have free will even if we are determined, so the neuroscientists are misleading people (even if unintentionally) to have false beliefs (that are, as noted, harmful).

These are two distinct issues, of course, and if it were the case that people lacked free will, and philosophers knew it, then it would be irresponsible (I believe) to withhold that information from them from a paternalist belief in their own self-interest. So, the most important issue is the Compatibilist response to the challenge raised by brain science.

The first thing that strikes me about this debate is how much it resembles the debate between new atheists and the religious or the 'more responsible' atheists. Theists and atheists alike have decried the impertinent tone of recent atheist pronouncements (such as those of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and others) and have claimed that these new atheists do not address the real questions about theism that all responsible thinkers should address. For example, they should not concern themselves with the literal accuracy of the Bible--no one (except for 40% of the American public) believes that--rather they should address the serious theist position that God is the grounding for all existence, the essence of being itself, the perfect being that is the sine qua non of existence, not the imperfect, anthropomorphic being of the Old Testament.

There is even some similarity to the position of atheists who nonetheless believe in the power of belief. In other words, atheists or deists (such as Benjamin Franklin) have often believed that if the people did cease to believe in God, they would be morally the worse for their disbelief even if we enlightened few are capable of disbelief without losing our moral bearings.

In the past I have expressed considerable skepticism about this critique of the new atheists. I think the main point is that the atheists in the popular press are not talking to academics (who might believe these things about God if one can be said to believe such apparently nonsensical claims) but are talking to ordinary people who believe in Christianity, in the literal truth of the Bible, and in the anthropomorphic God the Bible portrays. So here it is relevant to ask whether the academic Compatibilists are missing the point. Are these neuroscientists addressing some commonly-held but misguided belief about freedom? Is there a reasonable variety of freedom that we do have? Or is Compatibilism more like the theist position that God is the ground of being qua being?

Here the Compatibilists are on firmer ground than the theists, and much work over the centuries has gone into supporting exactly these claims. Very few philosophers are (anti-naturalist) Libertarians anymore. Not many believe that there is a variety of free will such that physical laws either do not apply to our actions and choices or that we violate those physical laws when we make such choices or take such actions. Roderick Chisholm died and (mostly) took Agent Causation with him. The remaining philosophers all look for a naturalistic concept of free will, and these neuroscientists seem not to consider this possibility. Their thinking appears to be: Physicalism means determinism; determinism means no free will; hence, we have no free will.

It's always tempting at this point to wade into some debate about Compatibilism. I'll skip it for now and say that the truth of Compatibilism may be beside the point if we can take the neuroscientists to be opposing a commonly-held view of free will that is, in fact, incompatible with physicalism. Are the ordinary folk anti-naturalist Libertarians? Are ordinary people dualists? I think that there's a good case to be made that they are, at least sometimes, even if they are not so consistently. At least, most people believe that they are Libertarians, or think that they believe (anti-naturalist) Libertarianism.

Demonstrating such a claim is difficult, perhaps impossible here, but I rely on my experience teaching introduction to philosophy students who frequently say that, no matter the circumstance, "there's always a choice," or "you can always do something else", that it's always possible to act differently than one in fact does. They react with horror to the idea that their lives necessarily turn out as they have, and that if they 'rewound the tape' of their lives, they would do everything exactly the same way. Perhaps they should not feel such horror. Perhaps there are Compatibilist glosses of these notions that one could convince students to accept (at least until their exam). But the initial reaction is almost always anti-determinist, and so the neuroscientists might be providing a valuable service if they educate the public about this and make such views publicly impossible to maintain with any respectability (as, alas, the current media have failed to do with Biblical literalism).

My tentative view, then, is that these neuroscientists should be engaged in a dialogue in which dualist, anti-naturalist Libertarianism gets ruled out of court, and the Compatibilist case is persuasively made to the public so that people can (ha!) decide for themselves which view is right. It is not a bad thing for scientists to stake out an extreme position that may, ultimately, prove incorrect if it can help show that one alternative is not compatible with the best understanding of contemporary science. If philosophers fail to make a persuasive case for Compatibilism, or fail to make themselves heard in this debate (despite their enormous grants from the Templeton foundation), the fault is their own. Or, to paraphrase Shakespeare, the fault, dear Compatibilists, lies not in our stars but in ourselves.

Explanatory note on Templeton: One of my colleagues has done a lot of work, that has been lavishly funded by the Templeton foundation, on the threat from recent discoveries in neuroscience and psychology posed to freedom (and claims that neuroscience poses no real threat but that overstated claims by neuroscientists may have harmful effects). I have no word on whether they would provide equal support for work on threats to neuroscience caused by our intuitive judgments about freedom. Also, too lazy for links today. I may add them later. Sorry.

Update: Mild revision to remove redundancy and maintain plausible pseudonymity.

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