Free Will: Where’s the Real Illusion?

comments form first comment

It never ceases to amaze me how some people will blithely burst forth with incoherent convictions of determinism. I acknowledge that Anthony R. Cashmore is an accomplished biologist holding an endowed chair at Penn. But that doesn’t mean he makes sense speaking of free will. The following comes from his January 2010 paper, The Lucretian Swerve: The biological basis of human behavior and the criminal justice system.

Cashmore is a full-blown free-will denier:

The reality is, not only do we have no more free will than a fly or a bacterium, in actuality we have no more free will than a bowl of sugar. The laws of nature are uniform throughout, and these laws do not accommodate the concept of free will.

How has he come to that conclusion? The glib answer would be, “not by any choice of his own.” It’s not just glib; if Cashmore’s thesis is correct, then it’s also exactly true. It’s the short form of one of the most basic objections to hard determinism: if determinism is true, then there is no rational choice involved in accepting it. (The same applies to determinism coupled with randomness, which is Cashmore’s position.)

I’ll come back to the bowl of sugar shortly, but first I want to give somewhat more respect to Cashmore’s process of (ahem) deciding that free will does not exist. As much respect as I think it deserves, at least. The word “mechanism” appears fifteen times in this article, revealing Cashmore’s fundamental view of reality:

It is my belief that, as more attention is given to the mechanisms that govern human behavior, it will increasingly be seen that the concept of free will is an illusion….

This information is translated into action via the motor neurons, joined to the muscles and the glands of the body, using a mechanism of both electrical and chemical transmission….

Whereas this so-called Cartesian duality, at least superficially, provides a nice mechanism whereby one could entertain the concept of free will, belief in this mechanism among scientific circles has ostensibly disappeared….

However, as admirably appreciated by Epicurus and Lucretius, in the absence of any hint of a mechanism that affects the activities of atoms in a manner that is not a direct and unavoidable consequence of the forces of GES [genes, environment, and stochasticism], this line of thinking is not informative in reference to the question of free will….

There must be a mechanism by which consciousness does influence behavior.

The mechanistic details of these conscious processes are unknown, and remain the major unsolved problem in biology

This focus on mechanism may have blinded him to the fallacy contained in one of his central refutations of free will:

However, if we no longer entertain the luxury of a belief in the “magic of the soul,” then there is little else to offer in support of the concept of free will. Whereas much is written claiming to provide an explanation for free will, such writings are invariably lacking any hint of molecular details concerning mechanisms.

Obviously I don’t deny there are mechanisms in nature. If there is free will, though, it won’t be found there. Mechanisms don’t choose. If biologists haven’t found free will in molecular mechanisms, that means either (a) there is no free will, or (b) there is free will—which by definition cannot be found by looking for it in mechanisms. (Nice to have options, isn’t it?) You can’t prove something doesn’t exist, if the only place you look for it is where everybody knows it couldn’t exist. He could as cleverly have concluded there is no photosynthesis in nature because he’s looked all over the animal kingdom and can’t find it there.

This is a severe stumbling point for many with a scientific frame of mind. Science is so successful in unveiling mechanisms (also describable as objects, organisms, etc. operating by natural laws or regularities), some people think mechanisms comprise the only sort of causal process there could possibly be. If science doesn’t find mechanisms for free will, then poof! there is no free will; never mind that the whole idea of looking for free will by scientific means is incoherent to start with.

Cashmore’s scientistic assumptions glare like klieg lights from phrases like,

the sparsity of evidence or credible models in support of free will

“Sparsity of evidence”?! How about the evidence that you and I each demonstrate whenever we decide A rather than B? But for Cashmore, that’s not the right kind of evidence, since it can’t be modeled biologically.

He ought to recognize that if free will exists, it will not be known by scientific means. Ergo, if scientific means do not discover free will, that says nothing at all about whether free will exists.

A. Hypothesis: Free will exists
B. Method of testing: Scientific
C. Result of scientific testing: Negative (free will disconfirmed)
D. Relevance of testing method: Nil
E. Validity of testing result: Nil

Cashmore devotes considerable space to research on consciousness, and on the biological correlates of decision-making. He probably knows correlation does not demonstrate causation; but then, he doesn’t use the word “correlation” in this article but just one time. He uses “causation” and its cognates 33 times. Maybe he doesn’t recognize that what he’s talking about actually are correlations, and that his leap to causation is just that, a leap.

Is it possible that something other than mechanisms could cause human decisions and behaviors? How would it do that? Watch out: this so-called interaction problem misdirects the question. Stage and street magicians (my son is one, working his second day at Busch Gardens today) employ misdirection to foster an illusion. The same thing is happening here. Hidden within the “interaction problem” is this tasty philosophical morsel, “If you suggest something other than mechanisms might have an effect on human decisions and behaviors, by what mechanisms do you propose they operate?” Do you see what’s happening there? The questioner is trying to direct you back toward his own beliefs, asking us to accept their truth as steps toward demonstrating their falsehood. Another name for this trick is begging the question.

My answer to the interaction problem is quick and easy: non-mechanical causes affect human behavior non-mechanically, so there is no mechanical explanation. “What kind of explanation is that?” you ask. I’ll answer that if you’ll own up first to the fact that the interaction question implies (demands, actually) a mechanistic answer and thus begs the question. (No pretending, now. You need to really accept that scientistic, mechanistic assumptions and demands are illegitimate in this context.)

Speaking of tasty morsels (two paragraphs up, in case you’ve forgotten already), I’m about to come back to that bowl of sugar. First, though, I need to bring in two further quotes from Cashmore:

From this simple analysis, surely it follows that individuals cannot logically be held responsible for their behavior. Yet a basic tenet of the judicial system and the way that we govern society is that we hold individuals accountable (we consider them at fault) on the assumption that people can make choices that do not simply reflect a summation of their genetic and environmental history.

and…

Many believe that the consequences of a society lacking free will would be disastrous. In contrast, I argue that we do not necessarily need to be pessimistic about confronting a world lacking free will. Indeed, it is quite possible that progress in some of the more vexing sociological problems may be better achieved once we clarify our thinking concerning the concepts of free will and fault.

I think he’s suggesting that we ought to decide to think of ourselves as unable to make free decisions, because it’s more logical, and because then things might get better for us. Three problems there:

1. The aforementioned difficulty of deciding anything if we can’t decide anything.

2. The difficulty of making sense of “ought,” if “individuals cannot logically be held responsible for their behavior.”

3. If we’re just a bowl of sugar, what on earth does “better” mean for us?

Number three is quite a big deal. Don’t rush past it too quickly. If our human ability to choose what we do, what we value, how we treat one another, how we live and die, all turns out to be a meaningless illusion, then why would not the word “better” also turn out to be a meaningless illusion?

The real illusion lies in scientism’s misdirection. Don’t fall for it.

top of page comments form

50 Responses to “ Free Will: Where’s the Real Illusion? ”

  1. Tom, what exactly do you mean by “affect human behavior non-mechanically”? (Naturally I concede that the question “by what mechanism do you propose they operate?” asks for a “mechanistic” answer.)

  2. What I mean, Janice, is that human thoughts can affect human behavior by way of our making human decisions. We decide to do something, and then we do it. The deciding side of that interaction is non-mechanical, and the interaction between that side of the interaction and the physical outcome is also non-mechanical. It is a thought-to-action interface.

    If it seems unclear to you just how that could happen, well, I assume you’ve read your Hume and your Kant, and you know that physical-to-physical interactions aren’t necessarily any more perspicuous.

  3. “The deciding side of that interaction is non-mechanical”

    But this “deciding” is precisely what stands in need of explanation. Regarding it, can you say anything more? Or can you only say what it is not?

    you know that physical-to-physical interactions aren’t necessarily any more perspicuous

    Nearly everyone (including the substance dualists) accepts physical-to-physical interaction; some are attempting to add a further sort of interaction. The presence of one mystery doesn’t exactly license us to multiply mysteries. No one says: “Since I can’t explain one feature of the universe, let me go ahead posit one hundred other things that I can’t explain–I needn’t be concerned with explanations.”

  4. I didn’t just say what it is not. I said,

    We decide to do something, and then we do it…. It is a thought-to-action interface.

    Satisfied? I thought not. At this point I invite you to think hard about what kind of explanation you are looking for, that will satisfy you. What characteristics would such an explanation have to have in order to be sufficient for you?

  5. I’m not using one mystery to license other mysteries. I’m pointing out that a cause’s being mysterious doesn’t exclude it from being a cause; or if it did, then we would probably have to exclude physical causation.

  6. I’d be interested to hear your responses to what I described as Cashmore’s incoherencies, by the way. It seems to me that free will’s major logical deficit is that there may be an explanatory gap to it—as there also is with physical causation, so I’m not sure how great a deficit that is, weighed in the balance. Determinism (or determinism/randomness) suffers from far more serious inconsistencies. Free will could at least possibly be true, even if we don’t understand how it works. Determinism (or DR) flies in the face of everything we know about humanness.

    I haven’t even gone into its absolute undermining of the rational process by which someone like Cashmore concludes it is true. If DR is true, then no person chooses a conclusion based on reasons or arguments; for reasons and arguments are non-physical, and could not cause a person to choose one conclusion or another. Reasons and arguments in a purely physical system are causally effete.

  7. If we’re just a bowl of sugar, what on earth does “better” mean for us?

    Add to the list “rational” and “intelligent”. What on earth do those terms mean to Cashmore?

  8. My answer to the interaction problem is quick and easy: non-mechanical causes affect human behavior non-mechanically, so there is no mechanical explanation. “What kind of explanation is that?” you ask. I’ll answer that if you’ll own up first to the fact that the interaction question [i.e., “by what mechanisms do you propose they operate?”] implies (demands, actually) a mechanistic answer

    .

    Tom, I made the concession with regard to that question. Now I thought it was your turn to answer to the question: “What kind of explanation is that?” If what you say in comment #3 is the entirety of your answer, then that’s what I want to know.

  9. “I’d be interested to hear your responses to what I described as Cashmore’s incoherencies, by the way.”

    The freewill-determinism issue isn’t really my thing. I’m skeptical from start, however, when I hear that it’s a “accomplished biologist” wading into these depths–especially when he’s simultaneously opining about consciousness, causation and (moral?) responsibility.

    If I were to enter into this debate, I’d first like to get really clear about what is meant by “free will” and “choice of his own.” If these are defined in terms of something like “determinism,” then I would also like to get really clear on what that means.

    One of your objections (“if determinism is true, then there is no rational choice involved in accepting it”) has something of a Kantian ring to it. It sounds promising, but I’d have to hear more. Kant seemed to think that in taking ourselves to act rationally we must take ourselves to be free (where “free” here is supposed to be at odds with determinism). I’m not sure where I stand on this. I guess I’m not convinced. I suppose there is some sense in which I must take myself to be free from external determination when I deliberate and choose, but I’m not convinced that this is a sense which entails a denial of determinism. (And even if it were a sense that entails the denial of determinism, then it seems that there would still have to be more to the argument.) But perhaps I simply haven’t thought about the issue enough.

    I think you’re taking a promising path in looking for instances of question begging. But I also can’t help but think that there must be a better treatment of these issues for you to sharpen your sword against; maybe something from a different academic department.

  10. Janice, in response to your 12:10 am comment, I was answering a different question earlier (“what exactly do you mean by ‘affect human behavior non-mechanically’?”). What I gave you then was pretty much my whole answer to that question, as I understand it at this point. That is, I am thoroughly convinced that free will exists, that it has a non-mechanical aspect to it which we experience as thought (I would also add beliefs, values, and will; possibly emotions as well though I’m not sure; they are a combination of the above as well as somatic experiences), and that there is an interface between that and the physical world.

    What kind of explanation is that? It’s one that cannot be modeled physically, and therefore is difficult for us to be sure we have a grip on it; and yet if it could be modeled physically it would be self-contradictory. It’s one that fails the test of predictability that some scientistic persons insist is necessary for explanation; but then, if it were that predictable, it wouldn’t be free will, would it? It’s also one that logically accounts for what we know to be true of our humanness. That’s what kind of explanation it is, at least for starters.

    The further question that needs exploring (I’m not trying to be cute here) is, “What exactly do you mean by, ‘what exactly do you mean’?” That’s what I was getting at in the the question I asked at 8:33 pm. If the “what exactly do you mean?” question is calling for some breaking-down-into-parts, or some strong analogy to physicalistic models, then it’s the wrong question for the topic, because they assume the contrary of what is being explained. I’m honestly not sure what it is you or others are asking for when you request explanation of this interaction, because so far I’ve never seen it asked for in a non-question-begging way. So if you could help me with that, I’d be better able to move forward with an answer.

  11. Thanks for your later comment, Janice. A better treatment somewhere else? I would hope so. It’s distressing that PNAS would publish a paper like Cashmore’s; he really is out of his field here, and the NAS does not display itself well in endorsing this work. Daniel Dennett would be an example of a better thinker on this, but in Freedom Evolves, he also eliminates human agency, which means freedom is not really human freedom.

    If you’re interested in more on the necessity of freedom for rationality, I strongly recommend C.S. Lewis’s Dangerous Idea: In Defense of the Argument from Reason by Victor Reppert. He has a blog, too.

  12. What kind of explanation is that?….It’s…one that logically accounts for what we know to be true of our humanness.

    This last statement here strikes me as the one that might be fruitfully explored. But when you speak of “what we know to be true of our humanness” I’d like to know what, precisely, you have in mind—and to know why these supposed truths can’t be adequately explained if all of our thoughts, attitudes and actions are ultimately causally determined by external, non-agential factors.

    If the “what exactly do you mean?” question is calling for some breaking-down-into-parts, or some strong analogy to physicalistic models, then it’s the wrong question for the topic…. I’m honestly not sure what it is you or others are asking for when you request explanation of this interaction.

    You’re raising a good question here. My question (“what exactly do you mean by ‘affect human behavior non-mechanically’?”) could be interpreted in a number of ways—any of which I would happily accept. On the one hand, you might interpret me as asking, “Is there anything more that you can say about this?” Alternatively, you might understand me to be looking for an explication of “mechanically,” according to which it becomes apparent that mechanical causation is obviously a very narrow species of causation generally. Similarly, I might be asking you to explain “affecting” in a way that it becomes apparent that there are obviously many non-mechanical ways to affect something.

    Just as it would seem fruitful to explore the idea of “what we know to be true of our humanness,” perhaps it would be fruitful to sharply distinguish mechanical causation from agential causation by explicating both ideas independently (i.e., without simply saying that the latter is non-mechanical causation). Do you have a way of explicating agency that doesn’t simply amount to synonyms and paraphrases? The Kantians offer some suggestive proposals. I wonder if you could offer a similarly rich account. Perhaps an account of agency might shed some light on agential causation—or to at least help us to understand whether “what we know to be true of our humanness” indeed entails a denial of some influential thesis of determinism.

  13. I should also add: the last comment will probably have to be my last on this thread. It’s a big can of worms this topic. If some of my comments were helpful, I’m pleased (arising, as they do, from a mere dabbler). I don’t take myself to have offered any objections to what you are saying.

  14. Hi Tom and Janice

    Free will in the sense that it is normally used in philosphy and in the sense that Cashmore intends is “the capacity to evaluate options and make choices,” in other words, “to transcend the normal cause and effect laws of physics.”

    I use the example of billiard balls rolling across the billiard table. The red ball does not “choose” to enter the corner pocket; its trajectory and ultimate end are determined by forces outside itself.

    The argument of the determinists is that the same forces acting on the billiard ball act on human beings. “The laws of nature are uniform throughout, and these laws do not accommodate the concept of free will.” The obvious fact that I, as a free agent, perceive myself evaluating options and making choices is an illusion. In fact, the determinist even denies the actuality of the self.

    This argument has seen various incarnations for which we have documentary evidence back to at least the ancient Greeks. The argument will never be settled because “free will” or “agency” is a “first priciple.” It cannot be proved by reason because it is the basis of all reason. To deny free will is to deny, in priciple, the human capacity for reason. “[Determinism] is the philosphy of the subject who forgets to take account of himself.” Schopenhauer

  15. Dave,

    I think your view (and Schopenhauer’s, apparently) commits a fallacy.

    You wrongly assume that if particle physics ultimately accounts for why a thing happens, then nothing but a microscopic description can be said to account for it. That is, you completely reject macroscopic descriptions that reduce to microscopic ones.

    Suppose lightning from a storm cloud strikes a mountaintop, and causes a boulder to fall. What would we make of the person who reasons that the boulder does not dislodge because it was struck by lightning, but rather that there are only atomic causes?

    Suppose he argued that
    1) neither the cloud nor the lightning, nor the boulder actually exist,
    2) only atoms (or fundamental particles) exist,
    3) only atomic (or particulate) causes exist
    4) therefore, the boulder does not move because it was struck by lightning.

    We can see that this is nonsense because we *identify* clouds, lightning and boulders as composites of particles and energy. There’s no contradiction between the particle physics description and the macroscopic description. A boulder or a lightning strike is just another name for a composite of particles and motions. So the cause of the boulder moving can be atomic AND be a lightning strike without contradiction.

    What you are missing is a reductionist formula for reasons and thoughts. You assume no such thing exists, but it that begs the question, and flies in the face of our scientific understanding of brains.

    I think we might have a reason to reject the case for naturalism if it were proven impossible for thoughts and abstractions to be reduced to particle motions, but we don’t have such a proof. At best, we have a lack of knowledge.

    The brain is capable of making abstractions. We have models of how this works. Once there are abstractions, you can have abstract reasons without deviating from natural causes.

    Once there’s no conflict between reasoning and naturalism, the notion libertarian free will becomes even more absurd than it already is.

  16. Hi doctor(logic)

    What you are missing is a reductionist formula for reasons and thoughts.

    What you are missing is the “point” of Dr. Cashmore’s thesis. It is not I who suggest that reason and freedom are incompatable with naturalism (although I do) it is Dr. Cashmore who goes to great length in his articl to prove that reason and freedom are incompatable with naturalism. My point, and Tom’s point, is that the position iterated by Dr. cashmore is self referentially incoherent.

    The brain is capable of making abstractions. We have models of how this works. Once there are abstractions, you can have abstract reasons without deviating from natural causes.

    This is exactly the opposite of Dr. Cashmore’s thesis. According to the thesis of determinism we only imagine that we evaluate options and make choices. Making choices (the foundation of reason) is in principle outside the realm of possiblity in a naturalistic universe. “The laws of nature are uniform throughout, and these laws do not accommodate the concept of free will.” – Cashmore

    Once there’s no conflict between reasoning and naturalism, the notion libertarian free will becomes even more absurd than it already is.

    What, pray tell, is “libertarian free will”?

  17. Libertarian free will is free will that could in at least some circumstances have literally chosen other than what it actually did choose; that (per impossibile) if the agent had exactly the same circumstances twice, with absolutely no difference between the two cases, in one case the agent might choose (a) and in the other (b).

    (It is not part of lfw’s definition that the agent could choose anything at all, as in (c), (d), (e), … ; nor is it necessary to its definition that it have freedom to choose (a) or (b) in every circumstance.)

  18. doctor(logic), you say,

    we *identify* clouds, lightning and boulders as composites of particles and energy. There’s no contradiction between the particle physics description and the macroscopic description.

    This gets complicated, because you have introduced the term “description.” To describe the cloud one way or the other is a rational choice taken according to the agent’s purpose for describing it as such. So although I agree there is no contradiction between the two levels of analyses, I cannot agree that it gets you where you want to go. I’m sure you noticed I used the terms “rational,” “choice,” “agent,” and “purpose” just now. I noticed that you yourself used “we *identify*” as part of your language.

    I don’t see how you can deny those terms’ relevance to the question; yet they are so tied in with the topic that you cannot call on them without begging the question. Maybe there is a way, but I’d like to see how you would propose to do it.

    Apart from agents’ identifying it as such, according to purposive, rational choices, is there or is there not such a thing as “a boulder” as opposed to “a collection of subatomic particles”? I don’t think there is. It takes an observer/agent to see a boulder there.

    What you are missing is a reductionist formula for reasons and thoughts. You assume no such thing exists, but it that begs the question, and flies in the face of our scientific understanding of brains.

    If your point is that what I have written disagrees with some scientists’ opinions on mind and brain, then you have successfully caught my intent in this blog post. I think they’re wrong, and I have stated reasons for thinking that. To refute my argued disagreement with some scientists with a bare assertion that some scientists disagree with it seems rather weak, don’t you think?

    I think we might have a reason to reject the case for naturalism if it were proven impossible for thoughts and abstractions to be reduced to particle motions, but we don’t have such a proof. At best, we have a lack of knowledge.

    I’d be very interested to know what you think it would take to constitute such proof, if ever such proof could be discovered.

  19. I think we might have a reason to reject the case for naturalism….

    The term naturalism has been credited with more and more so I wouldn’t be surprised if you adjusted your view of naturalism rather than say it had been disproved.

  20. Tom,

    You’re attempting to provide a form of the Argument from Reason, which I am quite familiar with, and which I think is flawed.

    The way the AfR is supposed to work is like this.

    1) Assume our rational faculties are reliable, and that rules of reasoning are to be followed.

    2) Use those faculties to paint a picture of a naturalistic world.

    3) Show that this picture contradicts (1).

    4) Since (1) + (2) lead to a contradiction, and we can’t sacrifice (1), therefore, (2) must be false.

    I think this argument is one that every naturalist should study, and that some take too lightly, but I think it’s an argument that ultimately fails.

    The problem with the argument is that it fails at step (3).

    It fails for several reasons, and usually because dualists are begging the question with respect to their definition of free will and reason. In this case, you say that we can’t reason without libertarian free will (LFW). Indeed, LFW appears to be the definition of free will that Cashmore is working from. Your criticism of Cashmore is that Cashmore doesn’t see the conflict between a lack of LFW and an ability to reason and decide.

    Well, I think that LFW is not necessary for reasoning and deciding. LFW is an incoherent concept, IMO, but we don’t even have to go there. We can just look at your reason for thinking that LFW is necessary for deciding.

    IIRC, your argument is that if a human belief is formed by chemical reactions, then it wasn’t caused by anything more than chemical reactions. And this was the focus of my last comment.

    If you were correct about this necessity, then you could support (3) in the AfR, and reach your desired conclusion. Problem is that you’re wrong about the necessity for LFW.

    If the things that we call as reasons (and recognition, intentionality, etc) are names for material processes, then we can have reasons to believe/decide AND have those decisions be physical processes without contradiction.

    Even if we understood nothing about how brains worked, a failure on our part to understand how reasons could be material isn’t an argument that they aren’t material.

    In reality, we now know enough about brains to see how reasons and intentionality could indeed be material.

    To refute my argued disagreement with some scientists with a bare assertion that some scientists disagree with it seems rather weak, don’t you think?

    I hope you can see that this wasn’t my argument at all.

  21. Thanks for the definition Tom.

    I keep finding minute shadings to various philosophies which tend to incorporate some ambiguity which tends to obscure the riginal intent of the terminology. The term “libertarian free will” seems somewhat redundant since the root of liberty, liber means “free”. What else could there be? “deterministic free will”? That would be somewhat oxymoronic. Caught between a redundancy and an oxymoron.

    I really think everyone should take some time to read a dictionary so they understand the language and then define their terms if they intend to depart from common usage.

  22. Hi Tom

    Theopedia gives a somewhat different definition for “libertarian free will” which introduces a false dichotomy between derterminism and LFW by defining LFW as “free from the determination or constraints of human nature” as well as free from predetermination by God. I think “free from the determination or constraints of human nature” is an absurdity. We are finite beings and are constrained by our nature but our nature includes the capacity to transcend the cause and effect determinism of physics. The definition on Theopedia implies unconstrained caprice rather than rational action.

    http://www.theopedia.com/Libertarian_free_will

  23. Dave,

    What else could there be? “deterministic free will”?

    Sort of, but it’s probably not what you think.

    From Christian theology we know God cannot sin. Does God have libertarian free will? Most say no because the reasoning (as I understand it) is that God’s nature is such that it is impossible for him to sin. God, having a holy nature, never wants to sin so he never chooses to sin. He makes decisions about doing this thing or that thing, so he’s still a free agent. In one way the outcome is deterministic, but not in the ususal meaning of the word.

    I’ve heard similar explanations related to our inability to sin in heaven. In heaven, our transformed natures never want to sin. It’s a possibility that never comes to exist.

    Sorry for the diversion…back on topic. 😉

  24. Hi doctor(logic)

    The way the AfR is supposed to work is like this.

    1) Assume our rational faculties are reliable, and that rules of reasoning are to be followed.

    2) Use those faculties to paint a picture of a naturalistic world.

    3) Show that this picture contradicts (1).

    4) Since (1) + (2) lead to a contradiction, and we can’t sacrifice (1), therefore, (2) must be false.

    I think this argument is one that every naturalist should study, and that some take too lightly, but I think it’s an argument that ultimately fails.

    The problem with the argument is that it fails at step (3).

    I think you misapprehend the Argument from Reason.

    “Charles Darwin himself once said, `The horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would anyone trust the conviction of a monkey’s mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?’ [Darwin, C.R., Letter to W. Graham, July 3rd, 1881, in Darwin, F., ed., “The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin,” [1898], Basic Books: New York NY, Vol. I., 1959, reprint, p.285] In other words, if my brain is no more than that of a superior monkey, I cannot even be sure that my own theory of my origin is to be trusted. Here is a curious case: If Darwin’s naturalism is true, there is no way of even establishing its credibility let alone proving it.

    http://creationevolutiondesign.blogspot.com/2006/09/cs-lewis-argument-from-reason.html

  25. Tom,

    What’s the difference (on your view) between a good reason and a bad reason?

    Well, that’s an interesting phrasing, and I want to clarify something before I dive in. There is a reasoning process, and then there are specific reasons for doing specific things. Even if we agreed on what constituted a proper reasoning process, we might still disagree agree on what decision should be made if our goals and prior beliefs differed. So, Wellington can say “If I had Napoleon’s goals and beliefs, I would be rational to launch pre-emptive attack,” while, at the same time, Wellington will not do what Napoleon does because he lacks the same goals and beliefs. Both Wellington and Napoleon could have been rational without contradiction. Wellington might say, “Napoleon has no good reason to conquer Europe,” but he’s not necessarily referring to the rational processes that Napoleon is using to make his decisions.

    Anyway, a rational thinking process involves three things:

    1) Logical deduction to implement consistency. Not every set of beliefs is logically consistent. Deduction tells you which sets are consistent.

    2) Induction. Helps you select between consistent sets of beliefs.

    3) Self-knowledge. Some beliefs are derived directly from self-knowledge. If I feel cold, then I believe I feel cold. As soon as I stop believing I feel cold, I don’t feel cold, etc. If I want to eat something sweet, then I believe I want to eat something sweet, etc.

    This process can be entirely deterministic.

  26. Tom,

    I see that you’re trying to convert rational procedures and tests into properties, and that’s fine, as long as you don’t lose track of what procedures and tests equate to the properties.

    Yes, reasons (as in instances of human reasoning) can be valid or invalid. If I believe all men are mortal, and I believe that Socrates is a man, then my reasoning is valid if I make the inference to believing that Socrates is mortal. If I believed the same premises but concluded with a belief that Socrates was not mortal, then my reasoning would be invalid. This is because the immortality of Socrates would lead to a contradiction between my conclusion and my premises.

    As for truth… If you start with certain assumptions, certain conclusions will reliably follow, and that reliability of inference is what we refer to as truth. So, yes, conclusions can be true if following proper procedures of rational inference reliably leads to certain conclusions.

  27. I’m not trying to convert rational procedures and tests into properties. I’m seeking your agreement on what properties can apply to reasons and deductions. That’s not the same thing at all.

    You apparently agree that reasons can have the property of validity, and conclusions can have the property of truth. I take also that you would agree that they could have the properties of invalidity or falsehood, respectively. Can material objects and processes have the properties of validity and/or truth? Can material objects or processes be invalid or false?

  28. Tom,

    Can material objects and processes have the properties of validity and/or truth? Can material objects or processes be invalid or false?

    Yes.

    It’s just like when we say that a material object/process can have the property of being alive. A bird can be a material object/process and be either dead or alive, while at the same time, its constituent atoms are neither dead nor alive.

  29. That’s a very unusual position you’ve taken there. I mean, extremely unconventional. I think you’re going to need to support it better than that. It’s not the least bit obvious how your analogy applies, nor is it apparent how a material object can be true or false, valid or invalid.

  30. DL,
    You say material objects can have the property of being alive. Can material objects have the property of being designed or being good?

    Because these are material properties, science should be able to empirically test for these material properties – and since they are physical properties, they would then be objective, not subjective. Agree?

  31. Steve,

    Can material objects have the property of being designed or being good?

    Yes, as long as you mean “good for something”. For example, a scissors can be objectively and empirically good for cutting out coupons.

  32. Tom,

    I don’t think my position is unusual, once it’s expanded. Remember, my position was phrased in answer to your questions.

    I hope the following helps to clear things up a bit.

    To the extent that it is a property, truth is a property of propositions. We might generalize this somewhat and say that truth is a property of beliefs.

    Similarly, validity is a property of an inference which takes place in a mind.

    And when we say “properties”, we mean that certain procedures or processes end up with certain outcomes. For example, a belief is an expectation about how things are, and the belief has truth when the expectation is realized in experience. That means that, in a naturalist picture, truth is a correspondence between one piece of matter (the mind) and another.

    If beliefs and propositions are in human minds, and human minds are material, then a belief or a proposition is a name for a material condition within the human mind (or a condition spanning a human mind and the external world).

    The reason that my claim looked so peculiar is that you prefer to phrase truth and validity as properties, thereby obscuring what we mean by those terms. Truth and validity are defined by processes, by how we know something to be true or valid. By referring to them as properties, you obscure the meaning of the term. Using the language of properties makes it sound as if, say, electrons have mass, charge, spin, truth and validity, which is clearly not what I’m saying.

    I’m saying that truth and validity are appearances to minds, and that if minds are material, then truth and validity are ultimately material, too.

    footnote 1: It’s okay to speak of truth and validity as processes under normal circumstances, but when we’re asking about the nature of truth and validity, property-talk will get us into trouble.

    footnote 2: If one insists that truth and validity are real beyond possible experience, then one is making a new, strong metaphysical claim, which is not a good foundation for arguing that naturalism is incoherent.

    footnote 3: Abstractions are things recognized in general ways, e.g., an abstraction for “goose” is matches any goose, independent of size, time, date, color, location, etc. The brain is filled with abstracting circuits that do precisely this. A proposition in a brain that refers to a goose in the abstract can refer to the abstract goose-recognizing faculty of that brain.

    footnote 4: Mathematical truths are truths about abstractions. A mind devises a set of general rules and procedures, and proves theorems by applying those rules, and noting that applications of those rules reliably end up at certain results. The mind, being an engine for applying these rules, is where the rules exist.

  33. dl,

    You say that “To the extent that it is a property, truth is a property of propositions. We might generalize this somewhat and say that truth is a property of beliefs.” That’s fine, though the generalization, as far as it is accurate, is redundant. But then you go on to say,

    And when we say “properties”, we mean that certain procedures or processes end up with certain outcome

    Who are the “we” who say that? Can you provide a source for that? Or is it you alone with that view?

    But I’ll deal with your defense of that view regardless…

    For example, a belief is an expectation about how things are, and the belief has truth when the expectation is realized in experience. That means that, in a naturalist picture, truth is a correspondence between one piece of matter (the mind) and another.

    This is muddled. A belief is not necessarily an expectation. I believe I had salmon for dinner last night. I believe my son and I drove home from work together. I believe I had a friend named Mark Clark when I was five years old. I believe there are birds singing outside the window. I believe the wind is blowing on me through the open window. I don’t believe I was close to Earvin “Magic” Johnson in college even though we were there at the same time, and I don’t believe that the law of non-contradiction is optional for logic.

    If you are going to say (as you have in the past) that all of these as “expectations” relate to what I think will happen if I go to verify them, I reject that as obviously wrong. I don’t intend to seek verification for the past events, and I’m quite sure I couldn’t verify the Mark Clark memory if I tried. The current events are verified just in my perceptions; I don’t “expect” that’s how things are, I know it. My logical beliefs are not based on expectations that they will be verified, but on what some call “simple seeing;” I can just see that they are true.

    Going on: what on earth does it mean for one piece of matter to correspond with another? Can you give any extra-mental description? Or does this happen only in the brain? If it happens only in the brain, what is it about the brain that makes it possible? How can one bit of matter be related to another other than physically? Is correspondence something physical?

    Truth and validity are defined by processes, by how we know something to be true or valid. By referring to them as properties, you obscure the meaning of the term….

    I’m saying that truth and validity are appearances to minds, and that if minds are material, then truth and validity are ultimately material, too.

    You make it sound as if I’m making this up! Who defines truth and validity by processes? Even taking your own words here, do you consider correspondence a process? Is correspondence an “appearance to minds,” taking into account that by “minds” you really mean physical brains? How does anything “appear” before a physical thing?

    If minds are material, you say, then truth and validity are ultimately material, too. I won’t worry too much about how that begs the question; I assume you were aware of that when you wrote it. But it does show where your commitments lie. You are required by your metaphysical pre-commitments to conclude that properties are processes, that physical objects can correspond to each other (in some relation other than physical), that beliefs are expectations, that expectations can be “about how things are,” that it’s misleading to consider truth and validity to be properties of propositions or arguments, that physical brains can be appeared to by beliefs.

    If you find it convenient to hold on to all that in order to salvage your belief in a material mind, then that’s certainly your right. Or (more consistent with your position) that’s what you have to believe; you have no free will about it, do you? And (on your view) I have to believe what I believe, for I have no choice either. Nobody believes anything because they chose to believe it. Nobody believes anything because they apprehended the truth-properties of the propositions or the validity of the arguments leading to their beliefs, since propositions and arguments do not have those properties to apprehend. They only have the ability to stimulate processes in the brain; processes that mysteriously, unlike any other physical thing, claim to have “correspondence” with physical objects and processes with which they have no physical relationship.

    Like I said, if you want are required by deterministic processes to believe this, you’re welcome to it. I choose otherwise, because choosing otherwise has the property of making more sense.

  34. Tom,

    A belief is not necessarily an expectation. I believe I had salmon for dinner last night. I believe my son and I drove home from work together.

    I don’t agree, but it depends partially on what you mean when you say you believe these things. When you say “I believe I had dinner last night”, do you simply mean that you remember experiencing having dinner last night? If so, then you are reporting self-knowledge, which, for you, cannot be wrong. However, if you are expressing a claim about which someone could be wrong, then potential verification is certainly part of the claim. I’m not saying that you expect to verify it, or even that it is necessarily likely that you will verify it. But the claim that the belief is true is a statement about verification or potential verification.

    So, again (this ground seems awfully familiar), is your notion of truth in these cases something that you can never be wrong about? If so, then you are talking about direct reports from your memory. Something that you can never be wrong about, even if your memory is reporting something that never happened. On the other hand, if you’re asserting that your memories correspond with physical events, then I think you can see what I’m talking about.

    How can one bit of matter be related to another other than physically? Is correspondence something physical?

    First, recall that it’s not about one bit of matter being related to another bit, but rather one giant complex of matter being related to other complexes of matter.

    Second, suppose that I have matter complex A. When A encounters complex B, it goes into a state A’. And suppose that A only goes into state A’ when something very much like B is in its presence.

    An analogy for this would be hemoglobin. It goes into a new state in the presence of oxygen, though it can be fooled by similar molecules like carbon monoxide.

    Of course, we would not normally say that hemoglobin was “about” oxygen or carbon monoxide. And even if we did, it would be because of the historical relationship between the evolution of hemoglobin and utility of oxygen.

    However, suppose that A was part of a large system, M, of similar complexes, A1, A2, A3, etc. which are activated by B1, B2, B3 respectively, i.e., A2 goes into state A2′ when interacting with B2. And suppose that these complexes were formed by a historical physical relationship between the A’s and B’s. That is, A6 was formed in response to past exposure to B6.

    And suppose that the structure of M is such that it can anticipate that B2 + B7 will produce B6, even though it has never previously encountered this interaction between B’s. That is, within M, it is possible to activate A2 and A7 simultaneously without B2 and B7 being present, and that this causes A6 to activate too.

    At this point, I think we can say that the A’s are about the B’s, and it is unimportant that the whole complex is operating on principles of chemistry. The A’s were formed by fundamental physical interactions, but the resulting A’s emulate a new calculus.

  35. Tom,

    Here’s a different approach. Let’s look at chemistry. For example, we know that oxygen and hydrogen react to form water, and that there are lots of other similar interactions in chemistry.

    Now, imagine some alien chemistry from another universe. For example, in our hypothetical alien chemistry, XX + YY produces FF + GG + HH, while FF + XX produces RR + SS, and so on. In general, we won’t be able to substitute elements from our Earth’s universe for XX, YY, etc. and have the same interactions. There’s no reason for another universe to have the same chemical composites or rules of combination as ours does.

    However, it’s quite possible that we could create composite molecules composed of Earth elements that did mirror the interactions of the alien atoms. That is, while we can’t map XX and YY onto fundamental Earth atoms and get the same rules of combination, we might be able to map XX and YY onto composite Earth molecules and get a chemistry that mirrors the alien chemistry.

    Thus, when we look at the Earth molecules that map to XX and YY, we can safely say that those Earth molecules obey the rules of the alien chemistry, under suitable conditions (e.g., assuming the temperature is not so high as to break up the Earth molecules kinetically). The Earth molecules ultimately obey only the laws of our universe, but under suitable conditions, they emulate the laws of the alien universe. There’s no conflict in saying that Earth chemistry obeys the rules of alien chemistry under certain conditions.

    This is an analogy for what physical minds are doing. In our mental world, we deal with concepts and logic. The rules don’t seem to be the simple rules of chemistry. However, a sufficiently complex arrangement of Earth chemicals can emulate almost any set of rules you can imagine, under suitable conditions. The particles in the brain never stop obeying the laws of chemistry, but that doesn’t mean they don’t conform to other, more abstract laws under suitable conditions.

  36. dl, re your 10:44 am comment,

    Your attempt to equate truth or falsehood with expectations is hopeless. My belief about dinner the night before last is either a true or false belief, irrespective of any potential verification. Beliefs do not require any verification (potential or otherwise) to be true or false. Recall the context: I was answering your statement, “A belief is an expectation about how things are, and the belief has truth when the expectation is realized in experience.” No, there is no requirement for an expectation to be realized in experience for a belief to be true.

    The hopelessness multiplies. You say, “But the claim that the belief is true is a statement about verification or potential verification.” Is that a true statement? How do you propose to verify it (actually or potentially)? Will you call on any other beliefs as support? Are they true? How do you propose to verify them?

    This is no help:

    So, again (this ground seems awfully familiar), is your notion of truth in these cases something that you can never be wrong about? If so, then you are talking about direct reports from your memory.

    So? Yes, I could possibly be wrong. That means there must be something true to be wrong about. There is a true proposition regarding what I had for dinner two nights ago.

    Consider the proposition, The Detroit Lions will win the Super Bowl in 2099. That proposition is either true or false, and it is either true or false today. If I claim I know it is true (or false) that claim is false, because I do not have justification for my belief;* but the fact that I cannot know whether it is true or false does not mean it is neither one nor the other.

    First, recall that it’s not about one bit of matter being related to another bit, but rather one giant complex of matter being related to other complexes of matter.

    I haven’t forgotten that for a moment, I assure you.

    At the end of your complex chain of interactions, you say that the B’s cause the A’s. How then do you get from causation to aboutness? A very complex chain of events leads to the protein folds that make up the enzymes in a bacterium. Are the enzymes “about” the DNA, the amino acids, and the other cellular components? Is there some sense in which the enzymes’ aboutness renders the DNA, amino acids, and other components true? This is a pretty complex process, after all. Perhaps it’s not complex enough to get all the way to something like aboutness or truth. But on your view, if complexity makes the difference, it seems it must be more true than some simpler causal chain, say, the grass getting squashed under a pine cone that fell from a tree; and less true than a more complex chain such as what happens in a rabbit’s liver cells.

    To reiterate, you can say the B’s cause the A’s. How you get from there to some mental state A being about some other state of affairs B is a mystery. And how you get to A is true of B is even harder to fathom. Physical causal relationships are not truth relationships.

    *With one caveat: if past performance is any indicator of future success, the Detroit Lions won’t win any postseason games at all this century 🙂 .

  37. re: 10:45 am:

    From “obey” to “emulate” is a long step. Emulation is not a physical process. It is a physical process observed and judged by rational intellect, and without that mediating step there is no such thing as emulation. You’ve introduced your answer into your question. Nice try but it won’t wash.

  38. You are required by your metaphysical pre-commitments to conclude that properties are processes, that physical objects can correspond to each other (in some relation other than physical), that beliefs are expectations, that expectations can be “about how things are,” that it’s misleading to consider truth and validity to be properties of propositions or arguments, that physical brains can be appeared to by beliefs.

    The more we “learn” about naturalism from DL, the less it resembles the reality we are familiar with. Naturalism is looking more and more like a Rube Goldberg device. Where’s all the talk about parsimony we’re used to hearing?

    Anyone know where Occam hide that razor? 🙂

  39. That editing function has disappeared, hasn’t it? It’s there for me as an admin, but not if I’m logged out.

  40. I think the edit comment function works now. I had to edit the php file to allow non-logged-in users access to it. I hope it’s right; let me now know, please.

  41. Tom,

    My belief about dinner the night before last is either a true or false belief, irrespective of any potential verification. Beliefs do not require any verification (potential or otherwise) to be true or false.

    This is a long-running disagreement between us, but maybe we can temporarily bridge this gap.

    I’m going to say that asserting my belief says something about potential future experiences you I might have, whereas you (apparently) will reject that claim. Let’s set that dispute aside for a moment.

    Wouldn’t you at least say that a belief entails some ability to recognize that the belief was false if it actually was?

    Or, to phrase it another way, you have to be able to distinguish the case where it is true from the case where it is false?

    So, when you say, for example, that you believe you had salmon for dinner, doesn’t that imply that you could recognize not having salmon for dinner in the event you didn’t have salmon for dinner?

    I think that it obviously does. And I think that a person lacking such an ability to recognize would not know what he was saying, and couldn’t fairly be accused of having a belief at all.

    How do you propose to verify it (actually or potentially)? Will you call on any other beliefs as support? Are they true? How do you propose to verify them?

    Every system of beliefs has some assumptions at its core – beliefs that are axiomatic, i.e., true by assumption. Naturalism and verificationism are no exception. However, since I’m setting that (verificationism) part of our discussion aside for now, I won’t go any deeper.

    To reiterate, you can say the B’s cause the A’s. How you get from there to some mental state A being about some other state of affairs B is a mystery. And how you get to A is true of B is even harder to fathom. Physical causal relationships are not truth relationships.

    As I tried to explain in my last comment, I think it has something to do with abstraction and an ability to make forecasts by combining abstractions. The brain is a giant abstracting machine. A DNA molecule does not make abstractions, and doesn’t combine them into propositions. And pointing at other non-abstracting systems (like rocks or enzymes or beds of grass) doesn’t weaken my thesis (or any naturalist thesis) at all.

    BTW, let’s suppose that I’m wrong about abstraction being the (or one of the) vital ingredients in intentionality. Maybe it’s something else. Our lack of understanding of what intentionality consists in does not serve as a proof that intentionality is non-physical or fails to reduce to physics. Any argument based on such a premise would be an argument from ignorance. And that would do nothing to show that naturalism is incoherent, which is the claim you are making.

    Also, any claim that assumes from the start that intentionality cannot be defined or reduced would be begging the question. Because intentionality is not defined that way. Intentionality is defined in terms of our experience of it.

  42. DL, you say,

    Every system of beliefs has some assumptions at its core – beliefs that are axiomatic, i.e., true by assumption.

    So you can call this most fundamental proposition an exception to its own rule?! Nice fiat. But I can turn around and call your most fundamental proposition axiomatically wrong.

    I win. That was easy!

    I mean really, I was going to respond to the rest of your comment, but now that I have declared your foundational proposition axiomatically wrong, I don’t need to. Especially since we don’t really come out in a tie on this. Your fundamental proposition is also self-defeating.

  43. More nonsense from people with Ph.Ds responsible for teaching students. In this case, Jerry Coyne. Note the language in bold. Honestly, it makes my head hurt to read this junk. If this was said in the classroom I’d likely get an ‘F’ for laughing so hard.

    I’ve always tried to avoid thinking about free will, realizing that that way lies madness.

    ….

    Nevertheless, like all humans I prefer to think that I can make my own decisions. I decided to adopt an uneasy compromise, believing that there’s no such thing as free will but acting as if there were. And I decided to stop thinking about the issue, deliberately avoiding the huge philosophical literature on free will.

  44.