Jump to content
Sign in to follow this  
disillusioned

Truth, Knowledge, and Belief: An Exploration

Recommended Posts

I want to make mention quickly of something that I forgot to point out in my last post, which I find quite interesting. Sticking with the money example,  we might think of money as being a kind of token which represents some actual commodity. This is roughly how paper money came into existence: it initially represented a promise to pay the bearer a certain amount of gold (or silver, or whatever). The gold, here, was recognized as the real money, while the paper had value only inasmuch as it was representative of the gold. We've fairly clearly moved beyond that some time ago. Now the paper simply is the real money. But increasingly,  even this is no longer the case. Most of the time these days, when I purchase things, I don't use any actual currency. I just tap my credit or debit card. In real terms, I walk into a grocery store and they give me food, and I give them nothing at all in return. Some data stored on a computer hard drive somewhere changes slightly, but no physical money changes hands.

 

We now live in a world where most of the money that exists doesn't actually physically exist at all, except as a certain state of a hard drive somewhere. Nevertheless, money really does have value. Moreover, those who have money have real power to change the physical world. At the end of the day, we're all just basically pretending that money exists, but accruing it and managing it remains a crucial concern for all of us. This should be fairly illustrative of the power of collective intentionality.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

In this post I want to look at the problem of free will. I will be arguing that we can know that we have free will, and that this is knowledge of an ontological truth.

 

The problem of free will can be stated fairly briefly. It seems there are two alternatives: either the universe is entirely deterministic, or it is not. If it is deterministic, then an all-knowing outside observer, given complete knowledge of the state of the universe at a particular point in time, would be able to predict every future state of the universe, and retrodict every past state of the universe. This fairly clearly leaves no room for freedom at all. On the other hand, if the universe is not deterministic, then, at least at the quantum level, randomness will rule. Randomness, however, does not seem to be the same as choice. So in either case, it looks like we have a legitimate problem to deal with.

 

I am going to be arguing as follows: 1) We have good reason to believe that we have free will, 2) We cannot operate under the assumption that we do not have free will, and 3) We have no good reason to believe that we don’t have free will. From these three premises it would seem to me to follow that we should very firmly believe that we have free will, which, in the vocabulary developed here, amounts to claiming that we know we have free will. Once this is established, I will briefly look at why I consider that we have free will to be a matter of ontological rather than epistemic truth.

 

Premise 1: We have good reason to believe that we have free will

 

Contrived philosophical objections aside, it is undeniably the case that we all have the experience of making myriad choices on a daily basis. Moreover, there seems to be no restriction on our choices. I can choose to get up on the left or the right side of the bed, or not to get up at all. I’ve just now chosen to raise my left hand, for no reason at all other than to illustrate this point. I’m also, right now, choosing to type this. I hardly think I need to go on: the simple fact of the matter is, we all have the conscious experience of choosing to act freely.

 

Now, it is possible that this is all illusory, but on the face of it, there is no reason to think that it is (I will address the determinism and randomness objections when I defend premise 3). This leaves us with good reason to think that we have free will. When we have the conscious experience of a phenomena over and over, and experience no counter-examples, we tend to take this as evidence that the phenomena is legitimate. This is why I have good reason to believe that if I throw a rock in the air, it will fall, and I would have good reason to think this even in the absence of a theory of gravity: every rock I’ve ever thrown, or that I’ve ever seen thrown has fallen. Why should I believe otherwise? My contention here is just that something similar may be said about free will. I constantly have the experience of making choices, and I have never once had the experience of having my choices made for me. Thus, I have good reason to believe that I have free will. Note that, like with the rock example, this conclusion holds even if we do not have a robust theory of how free will comes about. I would have been justified in thinking that a thrown rock would fall before Newton. Similarly, I'm currently justified in thinking that I have free will even in the absence of a proper theory of consciousness.

 

Premise 2: We cannot operate under the assumption that we do not have free will

 

When Christopher Hitchens was asked whether or not we have free will he was inclined to answer “Of course we have free will. We have no choice but to have it.” This is clever, but somewhat flippant. Nevertheless, I think the underlying point is, more or less, correct. Suppose you think that you do not have free will. What will you do upon waking up in the morning? Will you choose to get up, or stay in bed? Notice that it is no good to simply say “Que sera, sera”, and refuse to choose. The refusal to choose is a choice in this context. You simply cannot do anything (including not doing anything) if you refuse to exercise free will. So whether we believe that we have it or not, we cannot operate under the opposite assumption. Thus, the fact that we are, in fact, able to operate would seem to indicate that we do have free will.

 

John Searle was once asked at a lecture “If determinism were proved to be true, would accept that we do not have free will?” He replied by saying (I’m paraphrasing) “Notice the form of the question. You are asking ‘If determinism were true, would you freely and rationally choose to accept it?’ The question itself presupposes my free will.” This is illustrative of the underlying point I’m getting at here. Even if you really believe that free will does not exist, you literally can’t do anything with that. To even engage in this debate is to exercise free will. We simply must operate under the assumption that we do, in fact, have free will.

 

Premise 3: We have no good reason to believe that we don’t have free will

 

Now we come to the alleged problem of determinism, which I spelled out at the outset of this post. My response to this is simple: determinism is not correct. Indeterminacy exists at the quantum level, and since the entire universe is composed of quantum objects, indeterminacy perforce exists all the way up. Now, generally speaking, random quantum effects tend to cancel each other out at the macroscopic level. This leaves us with certain macroscopic phenomena being deterministic. Notice, however, that it does not follow from this that the entire universe is deterministic. Given knowledge of the initial conditions of a particular macroscopic physical system, and the knowledge of the relevant scientific laws, it is possible to predict future states of that system. The entire universe, however, does not need to (and, in fact, doesn't) behave in this way. Determinism is a kind of emergent property that macroscopic physical systems tend to have. Somehow it arises out of the underlying quantum randomness.

 

If the above is accepted, then my response to the randomness objection should be fairly straightforward as well: consciousness, and by extension, free will, are emergent properties. Somehow, they arise out of the underlying quantum randomness of the universe. We don’t know exactly how this happens, but it seems to me that it must happen, because we are conscious, and we do have free will.

 

An alternative response to someone who contends that we do not have free will is to slap them across the face, and when they say “why did you do that?”, simply thank them for conceding the argument.

 

If I have succeeded in establishing my three premises, then it seems to me to follow that we have good reason to firmly believe that we have free will. This is to say that we can claim knowledge that we have free will. But the question of whether this knowledge claim corresponds to an ontological or an epistemic truth remains. I mentioned earlier that I think that the fact that we have free will is an ontological truth. The reason for this has to do with premise 2: we cannot help but behave as if we have it. Even if everyone stopped believing in free will, we would need to continue making choices, and carry on our lives as if we believed that we had free will. Thus, the belief that we do not have free will seems to me to necessarily be a purely intellectual conclusion, not grounded in reality at all, and not having any practical effects on our lives. If this were a matter of epistemic truth, then everyone believing that we did not have free will would be sufficient to make it the case that we do not have free will. In this case, we should expect to be able to operate under that assumption. But this is not possible.

 

Let’s go back, for a moment, to our favourite example of epistemic truth: that money is valuable. I can choose to act as though money is not valuable. I can light hundred dollar bills on fire. I can refuse to go to work, refuse to purchase anything, and allow myself to starve to death. Alternatively I could, in principle at least, attempt to establish a self-sustaining community that operated without money. In short, it is possible for me to refuse to place value on money despite the fact that other people value it. Contrast this with an ontological truth: that objects which have mass attract each other, for example. I cannot operate under the opposite assumption here, and simply float away. I just can’t choose to defy gravity. In the case of money, defying its value will have some severe effects for me, but in the case of gravity, I literally can’t just decide to defy it. It’s a brute fact. Similarly, it seems to me that the fact that we cannot help but behave as if we have free will indicates to me that this is an ontological truth.

 

I’m going to stop there, and let people question or object if they wish. In the absence of any objections, I have to confess that I’m not exactly sure anymore what I’ll be looking at next, but I’m sure something will come up.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

My two bits:  consciousness does not imply free will.  If consciousness is an emergent property of a deterministic nervous system, we could believe in and act on the assumption of free will even if we do not have it.  Even if we think we have reasons to believe in it.


Also, there is the possibility that free will has nothing to do with quantum randomness; our consciousness could be a little spark of some non-physical phenomenon, or at least an extra-dimensional phenomenon, acting on the matter of our nervous systems/bodies.  (Which would be a gnostic belief, or maybe science fiction.)  Since we cannot even define consciousness, it is hard to say.  This is a point at which I, as an atheist, would say that if someone could show me evidence of a non-physical consciousness, I would rethink my beliefs.  But it hasn’t happened yet.

  • Like 1

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
18 minutes ago, TEG said:

My two bits:  consciousness does not imply free will.  If consciousness is an emergent property of a deterministic nervous system, we could believe in and act on the assumption of free will even if we do not have it.  Even if we think we have reasons to believe in it.

 

Yes, I agree, consciousness does not imply free will.

 

A question I want to ask is,  if, as I claim, consciousness is an emergent property of our nervous systems (deterministic or otherwise), could we believe in and act on the assumption of no free will? I think the answer must be "no". We simply can't act on the assumption of no free will, even if it turns out that there is no free will.

 

18 minutes ago, TEG said:


Also, there is the possibility that free will has nothing to do with quantum randomness; our consciousness could be a little spark of some non-physical phenomenon, or at least an extra-dimensional phenomenon, acting on the matter of our nervous systems/bodies.  (Which would be a gnostic belief, or maybe science fiction.)  Since we cannot even define consciousness, it is hard to say.  This is a point at which I, as an atheist, would say that if someone could show me evidence of a non-physical consciousness, I would rethink my beliefs.  But it hasn’t happened yet.

 

I agree with this. Extra-physical explanations are possible. I just don't have any reason to think that they are correct.

 

BTW, I want to be very clear: I'm not headed down a Deepak Chopra type path here, where I blather on about the quantum, and the consciousness, etcetera, etcetera. The point about quantum mechanics was just that it implies that determinism is not correct,  or at least not absolute. This entails that free will is possible as an emergent phenomenon.

 

I personally think that consciousness arises out of normal,  physical processes in the brain, and that I have good reason to think that my consciousness (and yours...) is capable of free action. That's all.

  • Like 1

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
5 hours ago, disillusioned said:

I personally think that consciousness arises out of normal,  physical processes in the brain,

 

I am 99 to 1 in favor . . . .

 

5 hours ago, disillusioned said:

and that I have good reason to think that my consciousness (and yours...) is capable of free action.

 

and about 70 to 30 against.  It is just so hard to prove it one way or another.

 

There is also the issue that quantum phenomena LOOK random to us, but they might not be if we could see down far enough.  David Bohm pointed that out; when you get to the limit of your understanding, things are bound to look random.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
11 hours ago, TEG said:

 

and about 70 to 30 against.  It is just so hard to prove it one way or another.

 

So you're about 70% confident that we do not have free will? I'd be interested to hear more of your reasoning if you'd care to share it...

 

11 hours ago, TEG said:

There is also the issue that quantum phenomena LOOK random to us, but they might not be if we could see down far enough.  David Bohm pointed that out; when you get to the limit of your understanding, things are bound to look random.

 

This is an interesting point. I'm not entirely convinced that it is correct to say that at the limits of our understanding,  things will necessarily look random. Nature is full of apparently regular phenomena which we,  at one point in the evolution of our species,  did not understand. They did not appear random, though. The tides, the seasons, the rising and setting of the sun... take your pick.

 

It seems possible to me that quantum randomness might be a byproduct of our lack of understanding, but I'm just not sure that the appearance of randomness is necessary at the limits of our understanding.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I assume that cellular phenomena are electrochemical reactions governed by physical laws like everything else.  Certain cells are able to contract and move in response to stimuli, and some are able to store information.  Neurons are electrochemical “logic gates” that fire in response to the sum of their excitatory and inhibitory inputs at any given moment.


A protozoan can react to a chemical gradient, temperature, light, or other stimuli to change direction, and appear to be “swimming around.”  Does it have free will?


A hydra has a neural net that lets it grab prey, withdraw from threats, and move around.  Insects have a simple nervous system with a greater capacity to do things like manipulate objects, build homes, fly, and interact with each other.  As we progress up the animal kingdom, organisms have more neurons with more complex organization, and more and more decision-like capacity to react to external and internal stimuli.  At some point we have homo sapiens which is able to express a line of abstract reasoning by typing on a keyboard.


From a reductionist standpoint, all human behavior is like the retraction of a hydra’s tentacle, but based on a WAY more complicated set of inputs, both excitatory and inhibitory.  At what point do we say that an organism has free will?  Can we even define free will?  I am not a reductionist, I believe in emergent properties, but I just don’t know the answer to any of this.  And I lean toward free will being an illusion.  The fact that something is unpredictable, the result of quantum randomness or whatever, does not mean that some little homunculus decided it.


Possibilities for the mechanism of free will include:  


— an integration of physical complexity that takes on the ability to act, make “decisions,” in ways that are not seen in normal matter (maybe?)
— a concentration of “vital force” which is different from ordinary matter/energy (naah)
— a non-physical soul/atman (naah)

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
3 hours ago, TEG said:

I assume that cellular phenomena are electrochemical reactions governed by physical laws like everything else.  Certain cells are able to contract and move in response to stimuli, and some are able to store information.  Neurons are electrochemical “logic gates” that fire in response to the sum of their excitatory and inhibitory inputs at any given moment.


A protozoan can react to a chemical gradient, temperature, light, or other stimuli to change direction, and appear to be “swimming around.”  Does it have free will?


A hydra has a neural net that lets it grab prey, withdraw from threats, and move around.  Insects have a simple nervous system with a greater capacity to do things like manipulate objects, build homes, fly, and interact with each other.  As we progress up the animal kingdom, organisms have more neurons with more complex organization, and more and more decision-like capacity to react to external and internal stimuli.  At some point we have homo sapiens which is able to express a line of abstract reasoning by typing on a keyboard.

 

I agree with all of this. However, I think we should be a bit careful with terms like "decision-like capacity". It seems to me that there may not be an actual distinction between something which is sufficiently "decision-like" and an actual honest to John decision. More on this in a moment. 

 

3 hours ago, TEG said:


From a reductionist standpoint, all human behavior is like the retraction of a hydra’s tentacle, but based on a WAY more complicated set of inputs, both excitatory and inhibitory.  At what point do we say that an organism has free will?  Can we even define free will?  I am not a reductionist, I believe in emergent properties, but I just don’t know the answer to any of this.  And I lean toward free will being an illusion.  The fact that something is unpredictable, the result of quantum randomness or whatever, does not mean that some little homunculus decided it.

 

The "at what point" question is a good one, as is the question of the definition of free will. I take a fairly naive approach to the latter, and just say that free will is the ability of a consciousness to act freely (ie without constraint, in a non-deterministic manner, at one's own discretion, etcetera). I'm afraid I don't have a good answer to the former. I just don't know at what point precisely free-will emerges, just as I don't know how it, or consciousness, emerges. I don't find this particularly troubling though,  because both are apparent to me, and I can't help but operate under the assumption that both exist. If it turns out that free will is an illusion,  what of it? I think it's a meaningless assertion. If it seems like it's real, and we must behave as if it is real, how is this different from it actually being real?

 

3 hours ago, TEG said:


Possibilities for the mechanism of free will include:  


— an integration of physical complexity that takes on the ability to act, make “decisions,” in ways that are not seen in normal matter (maybe?)
— a concentration of “vital force” which is different from ordinary matter/energy (naah)
— a non-physical soul/atman (naah)

 

I'm inclined to go with option one here as well.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I can’t help but want to know if free will really exists.

 

1 hour ago, disillusioned said:

. . . free will is the ability of a consciousness to act freely (ie without constraint, in a non-deterministic manner, at one's own discretion, etcetera).

 

It occurs to me that there are two different concepts involved in the discussion of free will:  the free part (without constraint, non-deterministic) and the will part (action, discretion).  Much of the argument seems to focus on the possibility of free will, as in whether everything is deterministic or not.  But to me, the central concept of free will is will, not just unpredictability.  Does a radioactive nucleus decay by an act of will?  Maybe if you are a pantheist, or if the stuff of the universe is the hindu brahman, or tao with a consciousness.  At the other extreme, you could believe that nothing happens by an act of will, and humans are nothing more than complex cellular machines.  In between, one is left with the belief that some events are acts of will, and others are not.  So, do you have to be human to act by will?  Is consciousness required, whatever that is?  What about a plant?  Or a computer?

 

Deep down inside, I do not believe that we have free will, any more than an eddy in a stream does.  It would be interesting if we did, but . . . .  However, if you are comfortable operating on the assumption that we do, whether we do or not, I have no argument there.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
On 2/24/2020 at 10:35 AM, disillusioned said:

 

 Most of the time these days, when I purchase things, I don't use any actual currency. I just tap my credit or debit card. In real terms, I walk into a grocery store and they give me food, and I give them nothing at all in return. Some data stored on a computer hard drive somewhere changes slightly, but no physical money changes hands.

 

 

LOL, forgive me, but I couldn't resist.  It isn't free will, because the devil made me do it!  By using plastic to purchase things you are driving up the cost of the item by about 2%.  Is that free will?

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
On 2/29/2020 at 6:08 PM, TEG said:

 

 

It occurs to me that there are two different concepts involved in the discussion of free will:  the free part (without constraint, non-deterministic) and the will part (action, discretion).  Much of the argument seems to focus on the possibility of free will, as in whether everything is deterministic or not.  But to me, the central concept of free will is will, not just unpredictability.

 

I agree with this, and it's a very good point. But it seems totally apparent to me that we do have will. I act in all kinds of ways, and I consciously experience the exercise of my will all the time. I cannot conceive of the notion that I don't have will. I can conceive of the notion that my will may not be free. This is why I focused on the free part of the argument.

 

Quote

 

  Does a radioactive nucleus decay by an act of will?  Maybe if you are a pantheist, or if the stuff of the universe is the hindu brahman, or tao with a consciousness.  At the other extreme, you could believe that nothing happens by an act of will, and humans are nothing more than complex cellular machines.  In between, one is left with the belief that some events are acts of will, and others are not.  So, do you have to be human to act by will?  Is consciousness required, whatever that is?  What about a plant?  Or a computer?

 

I don't think radioactive decay is an act of will, and I also don't think that one needs to be a human to exercise will. My dog is quite capable of exercising will; when I give her a command which she understands, she sometimes pauses to think about it, before deciding whether she is going to obey or not. She never did this when she was younger, but now that she's old there are plenty of times when she looks at me as if to say "really? I have to do that? Ok." I digress though.

 

I think some level of consciousness is required for will. I also think that it's literally true that humans are just complex cellular machines. It just so happens that our machinery is arranged in such a way as to give rise to consciousness and, by extension, will.

 

Quote

Deep down inside, I do not believe that we have free will, any more than an eddy in a stream does.  It would be interesting if we did, but . . . .  However, if you are comfortable operating on the assumption that we do, whether we do or not, I have no argument there.

 

Fair enough, we can disagree here.

 

One thing I want to emphasize though is that I don't think at all that there is a contradiction between the premises that we are entirely physical beings and that we have consciousness/will. Eddies in streams don't digest food. For that you need a digestive system. The digestive system does digestion even though it is entirely physical in its composition. I think that the brain similarly does consciousness even though it is entirely physical. And because it does consciousness, we are able to exercise will.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
7 hours ago, Weezer said:

 

LOL, forgive me, but I couldn't resist.  It isn't free will, because the devil made me do it!  By using plastic to purchase things you are driving up the cost of the item by about 2%.  Is that free will?

 

Well, that the cost of items is driven up roughly 2% because of the widespread use of credit cards actually has very little to do with my personal method of payment. This is a due to collective intentionality. People in general want to use credit cards, so the prices are increased. It doesn't much matter what any one person does.

 

Also,  if it is accepted that we have free will it doesn't follow that our actions are never constrained. There are plenty of things we "have to" do, even if we, strictly speaking, don't have to.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
4 hours ago, disillusioned said:

But it seems totally apparent to me that we do have will. I act in all kinds of ways, and I consciously experience the exercise of my will all the time. I cannot conceive of the notion that I don't have will.

 

These are arguments believers use for the existence of god; just sayin’ . . . .


Just like god, your will could be imaginary.  If everything we do is a very complicated stimulus-response, and your consciousness arises from neuronal activity, your will could too; and given the right stimuli (thirst, for example), your neurons could generate a sensation of will that says, “I am going to get a drink of water.”  But it is just that, a sensation; the concept that you “thought of it” in some independent way is basically a confabulation.


But this may all boil down to the definition of “will.”  If you define it as a subjective experience, then so be it.  I am thinking of it as an independently-acting agency of some kind, a homunculus that can come up with its own ideas and make its own decisions and is not just the product of neuronal activity like a reflex.  And that is what I question the existence of.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
14 minutes ago, TEG said:

 

These are arguments believers use for the existence of god; just sayin’ . . . .

 

 

Granted, there is a certain similarity in form. That alone doesn't make it a bad argument though. What is actually being claimed is very different. I am uniquely qualified to comment on my own experience of my own actions. Alleged experiences of God are a different matter entirely.

 

14 minutes ago, TEG said:


Just like god, your will could be imaginary.  If everything we do is a very complicated stimulus-response, and your consciousness arises from neuronal activity, your will could too; and given the right stimuli (thirst, for example), your neurons could generate a sensation of will that says, “I am going to get a drink of water.”  But it is just that, a sensation; the concept that you “thought of it” in some independent way is basically a confabulation.

 

I do think that will arises naturally from neuronal activity. I just don't think that's a problem at all.

 

Also, it's entirely possible for me to be thirsty, want to drink, and yet decide not to have a drink. I think this is difficult to explain without the concept of will.

 

14 minutes ago, TEG said:


But this may all boil down to the definition of “will.”  If you define it as a subjective experience, then so be it.  I am thinking of it as an independently-acting agency of some kind, a homunculus that can come up with its own ideas and make its own decisions and is not just the product of neuronal activity like a reflex.  And that is what I question the existence of.

 

I don't think we're that far apart here. I flatly deny the homunculus proposal. The entire point is that have agency. There is no homunculus required.

 

The reflex point is actually a good one. When my leg moves due to reflex, I feel justified in saying "I didn't do that". But I am also capable of deciding to move my leg. I may have reasons for doing so, and sometimes these reasons reduce to stimuli, but I don't think they always need to. I think I can also decide to move my leg just because I want to.

 

I do not think that there is any contradiction between the claim that I have free will and the claim that my free will is the product of neuronal activity. Yes, it may be subjective. I also don't see that that is a problem.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Relevant video:

 

 

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
On ‎12‎/‎15‎/‎2019 at 12:18 AM, disillusioned said:

When I say that it is “wrong” to commit murder, I am not merely stating my personal opinion. It is actually wrong. It’s just that the reason why it is wrong is because people think it is wrong. This is the mark of an epistemic truth. Now of course, there are those who disagree. We call them sociopaths, and we generally discount their opinions on this matter. A key point to remember is that epistemic truths do not derive from what any particular individual thinks; they derive from what people in general think. So the existence of individuals who dissent from standard thought on moral issues should not be particularly troubling to us. Anarchists exist as well, and governments still somehow manage to retain authority. So long as most people agree that murder is wrong, it is actually true that murder is wrong. Thus we can have objective morality on atheism; it’s just that moral truths are epistemic rather than ontological in nature. A consequence of this is that WLC’s argument from morality falls apart entirely. He asserts that on atheism objective morality doesn’t exist, but objective morality does exist, therefore God exists. I have just shown that you can have objective morality on atheism. Moral truths are true irrespective of what anybody thinks; they just aren’t true irrespective of what everybody thinks. That is to say, they are epistemically true.

 

Disillusioned, I'm losing you at this point. I don't think you have satisfactorily demonstrated above that morality is objective under your description. That or I don't understand your point.. which is quite possible. Note I don't disagree that under atheism that you can't have objective morality, I'm just not sure you can get there with the reasoning above.

 

We both agree that objective means real and binding regardless of what anyone thinks. But then you state "the reason murder is wrong is because people think it is wrong". Isn't this necessarily subjective? If everyone thought murder is right, would that make it right? This seems more like moral relativism than objective morality, which you do state below.

 

On ‎12‎/‎15‎/‎2019 at 12:18 AM, disillusioned said:

So where does this leave us? Well, what we have is a kind of moral relativism, but not moral subjectivism. Morality derives from evolution, it is epistemic in nature, it is subject to socio-cultural differences, and it can change over time. But nevertheless it is completely coherent for us to say that an action is objectively morally right or wrong, just as it is completely coherent for us to say that a $5 bill is objectively worth five dollars. We just need to be clear that these are statements about epistemic truths, not ontological truths.

 

I tend to agree with Matt Dillahunty's take on morality, which briefly is that morality is based on wellbeing. That is when we say something is good or bad we are saying that in reference to  whether and action increases or decreases the wellbeing for any given situation. Under this definition for any given situation we can objectively state whether an action is moral or not based on whether wellbeing is increased or decreased. If we take murder for example, it's not just wrong because people think its wrong, its wrong because it objectively decreases wellbeing - both for the person who was murdered, and for society as a whole. Matt would of course explain this concept better, but thoughts on this so far?

  • Like 1

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
2 hours ago, LogicalFallacy said:

 

Disillusioned, I'm losing you at this point. I don't think you have satisfactorily demonstrated above that morality is objective under your description. That or I don't understand your point.. which is quite possible. Note I don't disagree that under atheism that you can't have objective morality, I'm just not sure you can get there with the reasoning above.

 

We both agree that objective means real and binding regardless of what anyone thinks. But then you state "the reason murder is wrong is because people think it is wrong". Isn't this necessarily subjective? If everyone thought murder is right, would that make it right? This seems more like moral relativism than objective morality, which you do state below.

 

Fair enough. Let me try to clear this up.

 

We agree on what objective means: "real and binding regardless of what anyone thinks". What I mean by this is "regardless of what any individual thinks". I specifically do not mean "regardless of what everyone thinks" or even "of what people in general think".

 

Replace "right" and "wrong" with "legal" and "illegal" for a moment. It is clearly objectively illegal to murder. The reason why this is the case, though, is simply that people think it is illegal. The law is constructed by humans. It could be different, but it isn't, and as it is, murder is objectively illegal. It doesn't matter whether I think it is. It doesn't matter whether you think it is. It doesn't matter whether anybody (ie, any individual) thinks it is. It's objectively illegal. This is a matter of epistemic truth.

 

I want to say something very similar to the above about morality. On my view, we can have objective moral truth, because what any individual thinks doesn't matter. What matters is what society in general thinks. Society in general thinks that murder is wrong, so it actually is wrong as a matter of epistemic truth. Now, morality is obviously not as clearly or explicitly codified as the law, and that leaves lots of room for morally ambiguous cases. I don't think that's really a problem though for the underlying point: you can have grey without dispensing with black and white.

 

The short answer to your question about murder being right if everyone thought it was right is "yes", but with a very significant "but": I don't believe it would be possible to actually form a functioning society in which everyone thought murder was right. People would just start murdering left, right, and center, and the society would fall apart. This gets back to what I was saying about morality arising from evolution. Evolutionarily, the survival of the species is what matters. Societies have proven beneficial to the survival of the species, and these societies tend to form moral codes that include the idea that murder is wrong. If they didn't, they wouldn't be beneficial to the survival of the species, and morality may never have arisen at all.

 

I also want to be very careful to distinguish between moral objectivity and moral absolutism. When I say that morality is relative, I mean moral claims must be evaluated relative to a certain set of societal rules, norms, etcetera. Some actions may turn out to be right against one background and wrong against another. This doesn't make them subjective, it just means they aren't absolute or universal. "It is raining" is objectively a sentence in English, but it is objectively not a sentence in French. This is similar to what I mean when I say that moral claims may be simultaneously objective and relative.

 

Quote

 

I tend to agree with Matt Dillahunty's take on morality, which briefly is that morality is based on wellbeing. That is when we say something is good or bad we are saying that in reference to  whether and action increases or decreases the wellbeing for any given situation. Under this definition for any given situation we can objectively state whether an action is moral or not based on whether wellbeing is increased or decreased. If we take murder for example, it's not just wrong because people think its wrong, its wrong because it objectively decreases wellbeing - both for the person who was murdered, and for society as a whole. Matt would of course explain this concept better, but thoughts on this so far?

 

There are several problems I see with this kind of utilitarian approach. It's appealing on the face of it, and I don't think there is nothing to it whatsoever. A major issue, though,  is how we define and measure well-being. There are also quite a few problematic thought experiments involving utilitarian ethics. I'll just give one for now, but we can look at this in more detail later if it's of interest.

 

Let's say you are the leader of a small, isolated community. Someone in the community died in an unexplained fashion, and the people believe it was murder. It may well have been, but there is no evidence that might lead to a conviction. The people are upset, and social unrest ensues. They start to riot, and demand that someone be held to account. You know that if you convict and sentence an innocent person, the community will return to a state of peace. Nevertheless, I don't think we want to say that this would be morally correct. It would seem, here, that overall well-being would be increased by an action which we would want to call immoral.

 

Again, this is just one example.  There are many others. Where major moral theories are concerned, I personally prefer Rawls' theory to most others, but this is beside the point I've been trying to make here. Moral theories like these attempt to give us a mechanism for answering questions of what is right or wrong in various situations. What I'm trying to do is answer the question of what makes it the case that anything is actually right or wrong at all.

 

I think moral questions are inherently epistemic. They have to do with what,  and how, people think. Utilitarianism isn't in explicit conflict with this. If you want to say that right and wrong have to do with well-being, fine. But why is that? The only possible answer I can see is "because people think so".

 

In terms of clarity, I'm not sure if this will make things better or worse, but in either case that's all I have time for right now.

  • Thanks 1

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

This free will thing is understandable.

 

I remember one of Mark's takes was that IF infinite replication paradox and inflation are true, then the entire universe would be repeating and therefore deterministic as a repeating and replicating phenomenon. I remember you being resistant towards that back then. But hadn't developed this argument about free will versus determinism at that point. The world, us, history itself would be part of a repeating process that happens over, and over, and over again. You were always very skeptical of the proposition. 

 

What I'm seeing here is that 1) Mark's deterministic perspectives were married to whether or not a cosmological model is true and 2) if the cosmological model is not true then the deterministic factors involved don't apply. 

 

So that direction is far too speculative to base a strong deterministic argument on. 

 

And what I'm also seeing is that even if we grant it's truth just for fun, we would still be experiencing the conscious experience of free choice even if we're in an infinite replication of repeating over and over again - where the world and history repeats itself including our lives and choices. The experience is the same regardless. If our free will boils down only to whether we experience it as such, then we obviously have that experience, whether it's true or not concerning the big picture. 

 

This is why I've remained in a 'limited free will in a deterministic universe' point of view. Because there are many deterministic factors involved and we also have the experience of limited free will. Sam Harris's arguments against free will have not been raised, but they apply too. But you're arguments about the experience of free will are still true. If it's about experience, then we have that. It doesn't make a lot of sense to carry on as if we do not, as you've been saying. Regardless of what Mark or Harris have said about determinism. Which is something that I remember Mark telling members himself, following these deterministic discussions. We may as well carry on as if we have free will, even if it turns out that in the grander scheme we do not. 

 

On 2/29/2020 at 7:32 AM, disillusioned said:

I'm not entirely convinced that it is correct to say that at the limits of our understanding,  things will necessarily look random. Nature is full of apparently regular phenomena which we,  at one point in the evolution of our species,  did not understand. They did not appear random, though. The tides, the seasons, the rising and setting of the sun... take your pick.

 

It seems possible to me that quantum randomness might be a byproduct of our lack of understanding, but I'm just not sure that the appearance of randomness is necessary at the limits of our understanding.

 

Regardless, it could be that we have incorrectly interpreted the quantum world as random. To say that we certainly have correctly interpreted it would be tough. Can't very well close the door on the possibility that we only understand it in part at present. 

 

You're still right. None of these examples seem to warrant acting contrary to our free will experience. And carrying on as if we do still seems more logical than otherwise. It's just that framing it against unknowns like quantum assumption seems unnecessary. The objections from determinism don't appear to do anything to the free will assumptions. They just tend to reveal that we may be wrong about our assumptions based on experience. Nevertheless, one has to live out their life experience regardless of what's really going on. So why not go with how it appears to be at face value? 

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
17 hours ago, Joshpantera said:

 

I remember one of Mark's takes was that IF infinite replication paradox and inflation are true, then the entire universe would be repeating and therefore deterministic as a repeating and replicating phenomenon. I remember you being resistant towards that back then. But hadn't developed this argument about free will versus determinism at that point. The world, us, history itself would be part of a repeating process that happens over, and over, and over again. You were always very skeptical of the proposition. 

 

(Snip)

 

And what I'm also seeing is that even if we grant it's truth just for fun, we would still be experiencing the conscious experience of free choice even if we're in an infinite replication of repeating over and over again - where the world and history repeats itself including our lives and choices. The experience is the same regardless. If our free will boils down only to whether we experience it as such, then we obviously have that experience, whether it's true or not concerning the big picture. 

 

Yes, this is true. For the record, I still think that infinite replication is incorrect, even on an inflationary model.

 

Incidentally, I'm not sure it's quite correct to say that on infinite replication,  we cannot have free will. It seems to me that I might be able to freely choose between "x" and "y" even if other versions of me have already chosen both "x" and "y" an infinite number of times. The replication point seems to me just be saying that whatever I do has already been done, and will be done again. I think I might still be able to choose freely though. It just wouldn't be a novel choice. The is similar to what you say in the second half of the above.

 

Quote

 

This is why I've remained in a 'limited free will in a deterministic universe' point of view. Because there are many deterministic factors involved and we also have the experience of limited free will. Sam Harris's arguments against free will have not been raised, but they apply too. But you're arguments about the experience of free will are still true. If it's about experience, then we have that. It doesn't make a lot of sense to carry on as if we do not, as you've been saying. Regardless of what Mark or Harris have said about determinism. Which is something that I remember Mark telling members himself, following these deterministic discussions. We may as well carry on as if we have free will, even if it turns out that in the grander scheme we do not. 

 

Yes, we may as well. In fact, I don't think it's possible to do anything else. 

 

Quote

 

Regardless, it could be that we have incorrectly interpreted the quantum world as random. To say that we certainly have correctly interpreted it would be tough. Can't very well close the door on the possibility that we only understand it in part at present. 

 

Agreed.

 

Quote

You're still right. None of these examples seem to warrant acting contrary to our free will experience. And carrying on as if we do still seems more logical than otherwise. It's just that framing it against unknowns like quantum assumption seems unnecessary. The objections from determinism don't appear to do anything to the free will assumptions. They just tend to reveal that we may be wrong about our assumptions based on experience. Nevertheless, one has to live out their life experience regardless of what's really going on. So why not go with how it appears to be at face value? 

 

The quantum point was just to say that the traditional deterministic picture of physics has already been undermined. We don't need to be married to it. That's all. You're right; it doesn't make or break the argument. In fact,  it's hard to see how free will could arise out of randomness too. By what of it? Here we are.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
4 hours ago, disillusioned said:
Quote

Regardless of what Mark or Harris have said about determinism. Which is something that I remember Mark telling members himself, following these deterministic discussions. We may as well carry on as if we have free will, even if it turns out that in the grander scheme we do not. 

 

Yes, we may as well. In fact, I don't think it's possible to do anything else. 

 

 

That's a very good point. How could we conceive of doing anything else?

 

This is where I'm at with how the free will discussion parallels with religionists, even though we're coming from a completely secular point of view about free will.

 

It just so happens that we've come full circle in the discussion to once held christian beliefs about free will, as TEG has pointed out. But we've lapped our old selves several times over in the process. And it's a completely different concept of free will in question. Secular and non-theistic, or at least doesn't involve or require theistic thinking. 

 

No god. And no reason to assume that we really do have free will. Openly admitting that we may not. And not caring either way. But understanding and accepting the futility of even trying to carry on otherwise. And just finding peace in letting the deterministic argument rest because it's not worth pursuing past a certain point. I'm glad you brought up this insight because I see a lot of potential for closure coming from it. 

 

4 hours ago, disillusioned said:

The quantum point was just to say that the traditional deterministic picture of physics has already been undermined. We don't need to be married to it. That's all. You're right; it doesn't make or break the argument. In fact,  it's hard to see how free will could arise out of randomness too. By what of it? Here we are.

 

It just is what it is. Will be what it will be. 

 

 

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Join the conversation

You can post now and register later. If you have an account, sign in now to post with your account.

Guest
Reply to this topic...

×   Pasted as rich text.   Paste as plain text instead

  Only 75 emoji are allowed.

×   Your link has been automatically embedded.   Display as a link instead

×   Your previous content has been restored.   Clear editor

×   You cannot paste images directly. Upload or insert images from URL.

Loading...
Sign in to follow this  

×
×
  • Create New...

Important Information

By using this site, you agree to our Guidelines.