"If You Believe in Magic..."
... or if you believe in supernatural intervention overriding the natural operation of the universe according to its physical laws, well ... this website isn't for you. No way.
I'm not saying you can't agree with my most important views if you believe in a God (or dozens of them, for all I care). But if you think that there's divine "tweaking" of a universe that can't be trusted to operate correctly on its own, then you and I part company right here, right now, and probably forevermore.
I'm not being dogmatic here; I'm simply insisting (in the philosophical tradition) that beliefs must be justified by the evidence of our senses and the logic of our minds. Having studied the physiological and psychological nature of belief, I can see many reasons we hold unjustified, magical, superstitious beliefs, but no reasons at all to believe non-physical forces are influencing the universe.
On the other hand, if you believe in one or more creative deities who set the universe in motion -- one perfect creation, never needing the smallest adjustment or the tiniest nudge to improve some state of affairs or course of events -- then, while we may not share religious beliefs, we can at least share some very important philosophical ones.
This isn't supposed to be a debate on religion -- just a bit of fumbling around for common ground. If we've found it in a shared belief that the universe operates according to natural laws, period, and probably has for at least the three-plus billion years that life has existed on this planet ... then let's proceed! I'm going to begin with a topic that's really not central to my views, but it may be crucial to my explanation.
Free Will: Alive and Well
If we believe the universe operates entirely according to natural laws, then we really can't accept the "commonsense" perspective that human activity is an exception -- that we are somehow exempt from the laws governing everything else. Events out in the world are caused by a chain of causal influences -- but it's tempting to imagine that we create our actions from nothing but our own decision or whim. The conventional view of mankind's free will just doesn't fly. We are biological machines. If you don't like that, hang on ... maybe I can soften the blow. Because we do have free will!
But first, let's consider a potential non-mechanistic cause for human decisions. What about randomness -- the indeterminacy talked about by quantum physicists? Might that not account for seemingly self-caused human behavior? No, for two reasons.
- First, I think randomness is probably a myth -- a fairly sophisticated explanation for phenomena whose causes are invisible to us. I think the late physicist David Bohm had the right idea: that there is complex structure underlying the smallest "objects" (particles) we can observe -- what he called the "implicate order". I imagine it as a swirling chaos of activity (in more dimensions than the three our senses record) that produces here and there something large enough for us to examine -- much like the chaos of our atmosphere produces funnel clouds that appear to be "objects" in their own right. But we know such funnel clouds are created by the complex interaction of molecules, which are in turn a dance of atoms, which are in turn swirling bunches of subatomic particles, in which we now see what appears to be quarks.... I see no reason to expect this progression of finer and finer detail to end, even though there's no way we could ever observe it. Fractal images such as the famous Mandelbrot Set (above right) have infinite detail; there's simply no smallest feature. My bet is the universe is like that, too.
(Because I'm a functionalist rather than a structuralist, I think that processes rather than objects are fundamental to the universe. For more on functionalism -- especially the very general version I promote -- and reasons to prefer it over structuralism, read this explanation.)
- Secondly, randomness wouldn't explain what people want it to explain about human behavior: that we get "credit" for it, all by ourselves. Instead, if random events are responsible for starting apparently spontaneous human behavior, we'd get no credit at all. Quite the opposite, it would seem, since our "choices" would all depend on a quantum roll of the dice, so to speak.
No, even our most ideosyncratic and personal choices, tastes -- even whims -- are almost certainly outgrowths of complex physical interactions, which have their own antecedent causes, and so forth ... all the way back to the Big Bang. That makes human behavior (and everything else) wholly determined by the initial conditions existing at the time of the Big Bang. It's as though today's universe grew from a "universe seed", and the only thing that could have grown from it was this universe. This view, called 'determinism', has been around for a very long time -- with most people hating it all the while!
Wouldn't determinism be fatal for free will -- and therefore for any meaningful notion of morality? Not at all. My view is a version of 'compatibilism':
Both determinism and free will can truly coexist. Here's how.
We can look at creatures (including humans) as doughy information processing machines. (I know that doesn't sound flattering, but you'd best get used to it; self-flattery will only get you trouble.) An organism must collect and process information about its environment, or it will die and fail to reproduce. Do I see prey moving out there, or a predator? Is that a potential mate, or just a sexy-looking bush? After the billions of years of evolutionary selection operating on our vertebrate, mammalian, and primate ancestors, the information processing power bequeathed to human beings is staggering. For most of history leading up to us, the processing our ancestors did was primarily automatic response to incoming information: reflex action. A bit later came instinct, which strongly disposed (inclined) a creature toward a particular behavior, but might be overridden by other more urgent internal drives. Even later came emotions which, psychologically linked (either genetically or through experience) to the ordinary kinds of objects and events in the life of a mammal like you or me, provided a different, somewhat weaker but more flexible, sort of disposition to act.
Finally (so far, at least), intelligence arrived -- along with a couple of new kinds of tools:
- a batch of "gut-level" decision making mechanisms -- hunches, intuitions, biases, and (if you want to impress your local psychologist) heuristics, schemata, and attributions -- and
- reason -- that careful, methodical process of examining alternatives and deciding according to the logical relationships between them and the relevant information you have.
Now, the popular notion of free will has two requirements of the decisions we make. First, at the moment of my decision, it has to be made by me; and second, whatever my decision turns out to be, I could have chosen differently just as easily.
We can have the first part, but not the second.
You see, as information processing machines responding to our environment, part of the natural processing we do is making decisions and choices. They are made by us, and there's no way an external force could affect our decision without changing our minds, leading us to a decision that is still ours.
But, at the moment of decision (imagine us frozen in time), all the influences contributing to our decision making -- the recent sensory input from around us, and the relevant memories and concepts and attitudes and habits we've developed over a lifetime -- are in place ... and they are the only influences that can be brought to bear on our decision.
We might imagine that a whim, arising unbidden, might cause us to choose differently. But such a whim can only emerge from our character as it responds to the demands of the situation -- and our character, remember, is what it is at the moment of decision. It can't simultaneously be the set of traits producing one decision, and also be the set of traits that could have produced a different solution. That would be sort of like expecting your automatic bread-making machine to take the same batch of ingredients it uses to bake a loaf of whole wheat bread and, after it has begun its cycle (the moment of decision), to produce sourdough biscuits instead!
Now, I don't know about you, but I'm rather pleased that my decisions come from me, and aren't determined by influences that I don't filter first.
What makes free will free is that we make the choices, according to the knowledge, preferences, biases, and even whims (up until the moment of decision) that make us who we are.
Most people want to think of themselves as no kind of machine at all. They feel they must be, essentially, pure mind in a physical body; the brain may be the home of our mind, but (they insist) it can't be the cause. This "mind first" view is explained (and debunked) quite well in Daniel Dennett's recent book, Darwin's Dangerous Idea.
But we are, as certainly as our judgments about such things can determine, biological machines. Don't just take my word for it, but opposing views appear to fail the ultimate empirical test (Do their logical implications conform to the evidence of our senses?), or to involve troublesome explanatory gaps, untestable ad hoc hypotheses, or even embarrassing leaps of faith.
That said, there's one important addition: We are wonderful, marvelous biological machines. Just look at what we can do! Is there some sort of dishonor lurking in the fact that we're the most complicated, adaptable, versatile product the universe (as far as we know) has ever produced?
No, we can be very proud of what we are ... and the fact that we operate mechanically in no way detracts from the marvels of our intricacy and function.
Hooray for you and me!
Often, the next concern people have is this: Why should I worry about the morality of what I do, when there's no way I could change my decision anyway? [In my sidebar on functionalism I showed why functionalism illuminates the philosophy of mind and metaphysics, and promised to touch on its explanatory power for other branches of philosophy. What follows next is a functionalist view of ethics.]
This concern about morality in a deterministic world comes from forgetting that our choices happen over time, and even if they can't be changed at the moment of decision, they respond to all of our thoughts, emotions, hunches, intuitions, etc. right up to the last instant when we decide. That's what decision is: the final output of a decision-making mechanism.
Now, there are some very important influences that make all the difference here. As social creatures, we have built-in tendencies to seek the good opinions of ourselves and others. When that is coupled with a knowledge of what outcome will be preferable in a given situation, along with an understanding of the actions that can produce such an outcome, only one question remains.
Is the desire within us for a good outcome strong enough to produce the right choice?
It either will be or it won't be. Determinism tells us that one of those alternatives will be the unavoidable outcome of our functioning according to the laws of nature and the circumstances of our environment. But, as complex learning machines, we constantly refine our behaviors with experience. Maybe today I choose to do wrong -- and then feel, according to my own established nature, so contrite that next time I really want to choose well, and do!
And maybe yesterday I was apathetic or cynical about moral choices, but today I had a new experience (reading an article or two on a website, perhaps?) that was profound enough to change my decision-making behavior for the rest of my life. Nothing magical -- just a little programming tweak.
We can't know when or if such events will happen for us. But even if we are what might be called "morally weak" today, as long as some influences within us keep looking for ways to improve (and I'll bet you can feel them; they're standard human equipment), there is hope to become a moral giant.