Posts Tagged ‘theodicy’

Sam Harris: Free Will

10/09/2013

HarrisFreeWillCoverI am currently researching an epic pair of posts re-examining Sam Harris’ debate on morality against William Lane Craig from April 2011 at The University of Notre Dame and in particular Craig’s wilful misrepresentation of Harris’ written work.  This has necessitated me engaging in the mammoth – albeit wonderfully rewarding – re-reading Harris’ books, The End of Faith, Letter to a Christian Nation, The Moral Landscape and Free Will.

I have always loathed the faithful’s concept of “free will” but have never had the means to tackle it head-on.  I invariably put the term in scare quotes to signify my distain.  It is part of the disgusting branch of theological “thought” called “theodicy”, aka making excuses for your imaginary best friend’s failure to do anything about all the evil and suffering in the World.  Theists argue that God have given us “free will” to act how we please and to believe in him or not and our rejection of him.  However, poor old God’s heart is broken when we abuse our “free will” to reject his boundless love and commit atrocities against our fellow man.

For me, this concept is philosophically and semantically incoherent to the point that I had no idea how to mount an argument against it.  How can you have a choice not to believe in God?  Taking the coward’s way out with Pascal’s Wager is at best feigning a belief in God.  There are plenty of facts about the World that I do not especially like – such as the existence of famine, genocide and the wonderfully designed AIDS virus – but have to accept because there is plenty of evidence for their existence regardless of whether or not I find them comforting.

If presented with sufficient evidence for God’s existence – such as a big face and a booming voice sticking out of the clouds striking sinners down with fire and brimstone rather like the God of the Bible I was made to learn about in school – I would believe.

Harris –v- “Free Will”

In his gem of a short book Free Will, Harris explodes the concept of “free will” as philosophically incoherent and scientifically unsupportable; our thoughts and actions are entirely deterministic.  Here are some of Harris’ key points:

  • You are no more in control of the next thought you think than the next thought I write.  Thoughts appear in your head at random and you have no control over them.  As you try to concentrate on one of Sam Harris’ lectures to which I link below, you may well suddenly think, “Gosh, he does look a bit like Ben Stiller!”
  • You are not free to choose options of which you are not aware.  For example, if someone asks you to think of a film, you would not be able to choose The Maltese Falcon if you have never heard of it.
  • Modern neuro-imagining shows that our brains have formed our decisions seconds, sometimes minutes, before we are aware of them.
  • All of our thoughts and actions are governed by a string of prior causes over which we have no control: genes, upbringing and environment.
  • Even people who believe in “free will” accept that certain medical conditions will affect a person’s thoughts and actions such as depression, diabetes and brain tumours.  Therefore, you have as much “free will” to be a homosexual as you have to be black or white skinned.
  • Compromise positions on “free will” such as “compatibilism” that concede that our thoughts and actions are influenced by prior causes over which we have no control amount to saying “a puppet has free will as long as it loves its strings”.
  • As counter-intuitive as it seems, it makes no more sense than to hate a psychopath who has tried to cut you up with an axe than to hate a grizzly bear who has tried to eat you.
  • Retribution and personal hatred of people makes no sense as we are punishing people for acts for which ultimately they are not responsible.  Our criminal justice should be geared towards protection of the public at large (which does include incarceration) and rehabilitation but not retribution and revenge.
  • If we developed a pill that could cure psychopathy with no side effects, it would make no sense to withhold it from a violent psychopath as a punishment for what they have done.
  • Swallowing determinism whole by “throwing the oars out of the boat” and doing nothing but drift through life and seeing what happens is a course of action over which we have no control and is therefore impossible.  Just try staying in bed and waiting for something to happen: very soon you will feel the urge to get out bed and do something, like eating or going to the loo!
  • Good and evil, morality and happiness do not depend on the existence of “free will”:

In my view, the reality of good and evil does not depend upon the existence of free will, because with or without free will, we can distinguish between suffering and happiness.  With or without free will, a psychopath who enjoys killing children is different from a paediatric surgeon who enjoys saving them.  Whatever the truth about free will, these distinctions are unmistakable and well worth caring about.

  • Personal effort and choice do still count even on a deterministic view of “free will”:

Might free will somehow be required for goodness to be manifest?  How, for instance, does one become a paediatric surgeon?  Well, you must first be born, with an intact nervous system, and then provided with a proper education. No freedom there, I’m afraid.  You must also have the physical talent for the job and avoid smashing your hands at rugby.  Needless to say, it won’t do to be someone who faints at the sight of blood.  Chalk these achievements up to good luck as well.  At some point you must decide to become a surgeon—a result, presumably, of first wanting to become one.  Will you be the conscious source of this wanting?  Will you be responsible for its prevailing over all the other things you want but that are incompatible with a career in medicine?  No.  If you succeed at becoming a surgeon, you will simply find yourself standing one day, scalpel in hand, at the confluence of all the genetic and environmental causes that led you to develop along this line.  None of these events requires that you, the conscious subject, be the ultimate cause of your aspirations, abilities, and resulting behaviour.  And, needless to say, you can take no credit for the fact that you weren’t born a psychopath.

Of course, I’m not saying that you can become a surgeon by accident—you must do many things, deliberately and well, and in the appropriate sequence, year after year. Becoming a surgeon requires effort.  But can you take credit for your disposition to make that effort?   To turn the matter around, am I responsible for the fact that it has never once occurred to me that I might like to be a surgeon?  Who gets the blame for my lack of inspiration?  And what if the desire to become a surgeon suddenly arises tomorrow and becomes so intense that I jettison my other professional goals and enrol in medical school? Would I—that is, the part of me that is actually experiencing my life—be the true cause of these developments?  Every moment of conscious effort—every thought, intention, and decision—will have been caused by events of which I am not conscious.  Where is the freedom in this?

  • Determinism does not undercut the human concept of “love”, yet assists in a better understanding of “hate”:

What many people seem to be missing is the positive side of these truths.  Seeing through the illusion of free will does not undercut the reality of love, for example—because loving other people is not a matter of fixating on the underlying causes of their behaviour.  Rather, it is a matter of caring about them as people and enjoying their company.  We want those we love to be happy, and we want to feel the way we feel in their presence.  The difference between happiness and suffering does not depend on free will—indeed, it has no logical relationship to it (but then, nothing does, because the very idea of free will makes no sense).  In loving others, and in seeking happiness ourselves, we are primarily concerned with the character of conscious experience.

Hatred, however, is powerfully governed by the illusion that those we hate could (and should) behave differently.  We don’t hate storms, avalanches, mosquitoes, or flu.  We might use the term “hatred” to describe our aversion to the suffering these things cause us—but we are prone to hate other human beings in a very different sense.  True hatred requires that we view our enemy as the ultimate author of his thoughts and actions.  Love demands only that we care about our friends and find happiness in their company.  It may be hard to see this truth at first, but I encourage everyone to keep looking.  It is one of the more beautiful asymmetries to be found anywhere.

Harris differs from Daniel Dennett, who defends “free will” simply by redefining its terms:

Fans of Dan’s account—and there are many—seem to miss my primary purpose in writing about free will.  My goal is to show how the traditional notion is flawed, and to point out the consequences of our being taken in by it.  Whenever Dan discusses free will, he bypasses the traditional idea and offers a revised version that he believes to be the only one “worth wanting.”  Dan insists that this conceptual refinement is a great strength of his approach, analogous to other manoeuvres in science and philosophy that allow us to get past how things seem so that we can discover how they actually are.  I do not agree.  From my point of view, he has simply changed the subject in a way that either confuses people or lets them off the hook too easily.

Sam Harris lectures on the illusion of free will

Caltech, 2012:

Festival of Dangerous Ideas, Sydney Opera House, 2012:

Bon Mot Book Club, Vancouver, 2012:

Reddit.com Q&A, 2011:

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TheIDIOCY

19/01/2010

manicstreetpreacher assesses the latest pathetic attempts by believers at squaring the ultimate circle.

Further to my recent post on Pat Robertson’s theory behind the Haitian earthquake, I notice that the world’s more “moderate” believers are trying to make sense of how an all-powerful, all-good, all-loving, omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent God would allow all this to happen.  Evil Burnee, Paul S Jenkins, has posted to some well and truly dire attempts by the faithful to dream up excuses for their imaginary God, such as on Thought for the Day when “theodicy’s guilty vacuity was brought to a new low” by Giles Fraser:

…at a moment like this, I prefer to leave the arguments to others.  For me this is a time quietly to light a candle for the people of Haiti, and to offer them up to God in my prayers.  May the souls of the departed rest in peace.

Christopher Hitchens, as always, can be relied on to inject a piece of rationalism into the situation with this piece on Slate (also posted on RichardDawkins.net):

The Earth’s thin shell was quaking and cracking millions of years before human sinners evolved, and it will still be wrenched and convulsed long after we are gone.  These geological dislocations have no human-behavioural cause.  The believers should relax; no educated person is going to ask their numerous gods “why” such disasters occur.  A fault is not the same as a sin.

However, the believers can resist anything except temptation.  Where would they be if such important and frightening things had natural and rational explanations? They want the gods to be blamed.  After the titanic eruption of Krakatoa in 1883, the Muslims of Indonesia launched a hugely successful campaign to recruit terrified local people to Islamic repentance.  Following the more recent Asian tsunami of 2004, religious figures jostled to provide every possible “explanation” of tectonic events in terms of mere human conduct.

It reminds me of the time that ultraconservative Catholic hack (and seemingly now a human punch bag for the Hitch!) Dinesh D’Souza attempted to make religious capital out of the Virginia Tech massacre of April 2007 with this god-awful post on his AOL blog:

Notice something interesting about the aftermath of the Virginia Tech shootings?  Atheists are nowhere to be found. Every time there is a public gathering there is talk of God and divine mercy and spiritual healing.  Even secular people like the poet Nikki Giovanni use language that is heavily drenched with religious symbolism and meaning…

To no one’s surprise, [Richard] Dawkins has not been invited to speak to the grieving Virginia Tech community.  What this tells me is that if it’s difficult to know where God is when bad things happen, it is even more difficult for atheism to deal with the problem of evil.  The reason is that in a purely materialist universe, immaterial things like good and evil and souls simply do not exist.  For scientific atheists like Dawkins, Cho’s shooting of all those people can be understood in this way – molecules acting upon molecules.

If this is the best that modern science has to offer us, I think we need something more than modern science.

Have no fear by visiting the piece itself: it’s well worth reading virtually every commenter tear D’Souza a new one!  The post also found its way onto RichardDawkins.net where the responses there were not exactly complimentary either…

One good thing that did come out of D’Souza’s reprehensible piece of trash was this beautiful response by an atheist professor at Virginia tech:

We atheists do not believe in gods, or angels, or demons, or souls that endure, or a meeting place after all is said and done where more can be said and done and the point of it all revealed.  We don’t believe in the possibility of redemption after our lives, but the necessity of compassion in our lives.  We believe in people, in their joys and pains, in their good ideas and their wit and wisdom.  We believe in human rights and dignity, and we know what it is for those to be trampled on by brutes and vandals.  We may believe that the universe is pitilessly indifferent but we know that friends and strangers alike most certainly are not.  We despise atrocity, not because a god tells us that it is wrong, but because if not massacre then nothing could be wrong…

I am to be found on the drillfield with a candle in my hand.  “Amazing Grace” is a beautiful song, and I can sing it for its beauty and its peacefulness.  I don’t believe in any god, but I do believe in those people who have struggled through pain and found beauty and peace in their religion.  I am not at odds with them any more than I am at odds with Americans when we sing the “Star-Spangled Banner” just because I am not American.  I can sing “Lean on Me” and chant for the Hokies in just the same way and for just the same reason…

With or without a belief in a god, with or without your asinine bigotry, we will make progress, we will breathe life back into our university, I will succeed in explaining this or that point, slowly, eventually, in a ham-handed way, at risk of tears half-way through, my students will come to feel comfortable again in a classroom with no windows or escape route, and hell yes we will prevail.

You see Mr D’Souza, I am an atheist professor at Virginia Tech and a man of great faith.  Not faith in your god.  Faith in my people.

As wonderful as that article is, I can do no better than this beautiful poem by former Christian preacher turned atheist, Joe Holman:

I am God.  I know your pain.
I was there for every trial you’ve ever faced.
I was there when you fell and hurt your knee at the age of three.
I was there when you were shunned on the playground more recently.

I was there when your mother was in the hospital.  I stood by and watched as the doctors worked to save her life.  I appreciated the prayers you sent Me to spare her.
I was there when mother died, as her immortal spirit drifted back to Me.
I was there when your family mourned her loss and cried with unceasing tears.

I was there when your father passed, when he forgot who you were, when you closed the lid to his casket.
I was there when dear Aunt Olga was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.
I was there when she bravely went through test after test until her condition was finally confirmed.
I was there when she lost her will to live.  I watched as the family pleaded with her to continue treatment and not to give up; I waited where her tears fell.

I was there when your Uncle Hank died.
I was there when you told your first lie.
I was around the first time you touched yourself; on that day, all the angels cried; on that day, you lost your innocence.

I was there, in the corner of your room, watching you sin.  I testified to your inner-man that you fell short of My Glory, as a sinner, an impure and fallen man, another of Adam’s reproachful sons, wicked from birth.

I was there when young Ben, your childhood friend, was killed in the car wreck.  I was in the driver’s seat of the other car, watching, looking on as a drunken man fell asleep at the wheel.  I did not wake him, but said: “Sleep, you foolish man.  Sleep.”

I was there when your best friend from high school decided to take his own life.  My holy eyes saw the blood from his slit wrists run down through the cracks of the hard wood floor.
I was there when you wept at his funeral.  Jesus wept too.
I was there when you sobbed uncontrollably, leaning on the casket of your bosom friend, pushing away the comforts of your spouse.

I was there when your youngest child was born, when it was said of the doctors: “Your son’s spine did not form correctly.  He will never walk and will need surgery to live.”
I was there when the doctors performed the operation.
I was there as their hands took the scalpels, as every incision, every cut into his newborn flesh was made.

I was there, and I am here. I am God: “and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.  Amen.” (Matthew 28: 20)

When the Asian tsunami struck on Boxing Day 2004, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, was famously misquoted in a screaming headline by The Sunday Telegraph as saying that the disaster had made him doubt the existence of God.  Williams of course immediately pointed out that this was a ploy on the newspaper’s part to grab the reader’s attention: the Archbishop was actually addressing his flock’s concerns with so much suffering.

A pity.  For a moment there I thought that a clergyman had finally said what we heretics had known all along: shit just happens.