Sunday, May 31, 2015

Clash of Worldviews: Free Will Edition

MODERATOR: Welcome to another edition of Clash of Worldviews, the show in which our guests cry out philosophical ideas in the wilderness. We’re joined this evening by biologist and determinist, Professor Sam Harrison Coyney, who believes free will is an illusion. Arguing against his position is Adam Garnett, noted liberal secular humanist and believer in the existence of human freedom. Professor Coyney, shall we begin with you? Tell us why you don’t think people are free.

COYNEY: Well, it’s obvious to those who understand the science. We think we’re free because we’re ignorant of all the causes of our actions that precede our apparent choices. Our so-called choices are forced on us by the prior physical state of the universe, and if you rewound the cosmic tape, as it were, we’d repeat exactly what nature forces us to do the first time. We’d have no choice in the matter. So the freedom to do other than what the laws of physics and the physical initial conditions compel us to do is the impossible miracle of one natural being’s act of negating all of physical reality. No one’s that powerful or transcendent. We’re stuck in nature, with no immaterial spirit inside us, so we’re forced to do what the universe causes us to do.

MODERATOR: Seems clear enough, Adam, no?

ADAM: No, I’m not free to destroy the universe, but I’m free to control myself a little. That’s because I have a brain. A rock does whatever the universe tells it to, because it can’t think about it and mull the options. Its weight will force it down a hill because it can’t do anything about gravity. But I can think about jumping even though gravity’s telling me to stay put. Also, people thought hard about how to fly and they built airplanes, so now we can go even further against that force of nature. Freedom comes from the brain, because the brain controls the rest of the body. A rock has no brain, so it’s not free.

COYNEY: No, no, no, Adam, you’re missing the point. You may think you’re free when you learn how nature works and exploit that knowledge in your behaviour, but your ability to learn is likewise the result of evolutionary processes which derive ultimately from chemical and physical regularities. The brain is blind to all of those prior causes, so it thinks the only relevant causes of its actions are those it seems to control, namely the mental ones such as its conscious thoughts and feelings. But mental states are themselves forced upon us by our past and by the environment which is governed by natural laws.

ADAM: I thought you said the lack of free will is obvious to those who understand the science.

COYNEY: Yes, that’s exactly what I said.

ADAM: So why are you talking about natural laws?

COYNEY: When you were younger, Adam, didn’t you sit in a science classroom and hear about how scientists discovered the laws that govern the universe?

ADAM: I did, but didn’t you once find yourself in an English class where you might have learned how a metaphor can become outdated? 

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The Miracle of Modern Conservatism

It’s a miracle that conservatism survived in the West after the rise of modern free societies. To see why, reflect on the difference between two kinds of conservatives, the preservationist and the reactionary. The preservationist seeks to maintain the status quo as the culmination of favourable developments of certain traditions. For example, a preservationist such as this one here could approve of the rule of law, the separation of political powers, and the right to liberty as secular values that stem from ancient Greek and Roman innovations. By contrast, the reactionary draws a red line between two historical periods and calls for a reversion. Typically, the reactionary opposes the revolutions that began with the European Renaissance and that were largely fulfilled in the more recent civil rights movements. Thus, unlike the preservationist, the reactionary doesn’t approve of just any tradition in the names of social stability and continuity, but explicitly condemns modern culture.

Preservationist conservatism turns “tradition” into a weasel word and thus should be opposed merely by radicals who will accept a social order only if its origin is arbitrary and chaotic. Everyone else is “conservative” in the sense that we don’t think our beliefs and practices fall from the sky. We all demonstrate this when we complain about some governmental dysfunction, but are loath to actually change our social system. As flawed as the system may be, most people assume there are no viable alternatives and any establishment is better than none. Innate fear of the unknown makes all but the most adventurous and naively youthful among us conservative about the need to avoid pandemonium.

For just that reason, preservationist “conservatism” is uninteresting, since it’s irrelevant to our prominent social and political divisions. Indeed, by labeling the roots of Western secularism “traditions,” from the rise of democracy and reason-based ethics in ancient Greece, to the rule of law in the Roman Republic (which contrasted with the later arbitrary power of the emperors), to the rediscovery of those secular possibilities in the West’s period of modernization, the core principles of liberalism end up being consistent with this so-called conservatism. After all, liberalism is the relatively recent realization that we could break from the autocratic norm of human history that naturally also prevails more generally in social animal behaviour.

That break occurred in early modern Europe primarily when the rediscovery of North America fired the European imagination with thoughts of radical change and when mercantilism and democracy replaced the feudal order. But there were forerunners to this transition in ancient Greece when rationalists worked out esoteric philosophies such as Plato’s, which offered intellectuals respite from the prejudices of the masses. By exploring their rational potential, Hellenic philosophers paved the way for the Enlightenment principle that the individual’s right to liberty is based on everyone’s capacity for rational self-control. Likewise, in ancient Rome, when pragmatists confronted a version of the global practice of tyranny in the rule of the Etruscan kings of the city of Rome, and worked out a proto-American form of government that used checks and balances and the rule of law to prevent natural forms of corruption, this was a radical means of protecting and empowering the majority, which foreshadowed the liberal’s ideal of social equality.  

Thus, by speaking of any status quo as the completion of a certain tradition, including the Western tradition that ushered in modernity and its corresponding liberalism, the preservationist uses a rhetorical trick to attempt to marginalize her opponents. By glossing periods of historical progress as continuations of some culture, the preservationist would turn moderate liberals into inadvertent traditionalists so that the ideological options would include only preservationists (conservatives) and radical outsiders and anarchists. 

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The Wistful Quest for Honour

As in The Walking Dead, the protagonists in the wonderful postapocalyptic movie, Mad Max: Fury Road, wrestle with the question of whether to hold on to ethical principles and fight for something greater than themselves or to regress along with the world and act as narrow-minded animals. A quotation at the end of Mad Max reads, “Where must we go, we who wander this wasteland, in search of our better selves.” The heroes search, then, for honour despite the futility of that effort. Their honour is at best tragic, although perhaps the world’s indifference to our struggles is a precondition of moral value. There would be a worse sort of absurdity to the lack of impediments in heaven, since in that deathly state of bliss there would be no need for improvements nor any desire at all since a desire entails a lack of fulfillment.

In our hypermodern culture, though, honour itself is outmoded.

What is Honour?

Honour isn’t just about moral reputation or respect for someone’s high moral standing; it’s not just a matter of performing deeds of renown. An honourable person has integrity and so honour is opposed to hypocrisy. This means that an honourable person has no inner conflict, so that he doesn’t wear different faces, as it were, in different companies. He’s discovered his deepest self and honours that self in his actions and beliefs, regardless of the circumstances. So honour is a virtue, not just a matter of obeying moral laws.

Still, honour is a masculine preoccupation, which is odd because the interest in morality is universal. Moreover, honour is a mainstay of tribal societies as opposed to those ruled by law. A society that can’t afford the governmental institutions to guarantee a monopoly on the use of force within its borders relies on a code of honour so that its members don’t descend into anarchy when an opportunity arises to take advantage of each other. Desert tribespeople, for example, feel honour-bound to shelter travellers, and lords of medieval Europe would back up their word by pledging their estates “on their honour.” These prescriptions, that strangers in need should be assisted and that oaths should be kept are implicit rather than codified, because there’s no institution that could enforce such prescriptions in pre-industrialized societies. Honour works by an appeal to prestige that depends on how the rest of a population feels about each of its members. If you have honour, you enjoy society’s goodwill towards you, if not necessarily any protection by an all-powerful government. If you’ve committed some dishonor and your shameful act is discovered, you’ll be shunned, at a minimum, rather than automatically punished in some regulated fashion.

I’d submit, then, that honour arose prehistorically as a modification of the power dynamics that stabilize groups of social animals. Alpha wolves are more respected than betas in their packs, but that respect is little more than fear, because wolves lack the self-control to be interested in questions of what they should do as opposed to what they must do. Human societies are still defined by their dominance hierarchies, and there’s a sense of “honour” that captures the animalistic origin of this only-slightly-more-sophisticated form of social interaction. After all, honour can apply to rank rather than merit, so that an unscrupulous aristocrat, for example, can have more honour than a Christ-like peasant, because the aristocrat has access to more privileges in his society. The “respect” shown to such a high-ranking individual is akin to both fear and jealousy, whereas that shown on moral grounds is a kind of awe that something as virtually unnatural as morality could break into dismal nature. When the morally-compromised masses bow before a monk who always obeys a stringent moral code rather than succumbing to the natural course forced on creatures that lack autonomy, their reverence indicates that they recognize that the monk stands apart from nature and has even miraculously reversed its flow, like Moses parting the Red Sea.

In any case, the hypothesis is that moral hierarchies function like dominance ones or crude, power-based pecking orders, in that they stabilize a social group by dividing it into classes whose members feel obligated to maintain their place rather than upset the social order. When animals first became people, they acquired self-control through language, reason, introversion (self-reflection), curiosity, and creativity, and so they sought to set themselves apart from the “lower” animals, by making their societies meritorious rather than necessary or naturally compelled. Beta animals rally to their alphas for protection from the elements, and fear of the alpha’s wrath is the mechanism that solidifies their social arrangement. Again, human groups are still largely shaped by the same mechanism, but we’ve supplemented it with another hierarchy befitting our freedom and the emergent choice we face, of what we ought to do now that we needn’t necessarily do anything (because we have sufficient control over our actions). In the interim between animalistic dominance hierarchies and lawful civilizations, we used morality and the mechanisms of ostracism and fame to maintain a social order.