Doubting the Sun

Imagine, in some medieval monarchy or modern-day oligarchy, that the government passed a law which made it a crime to deny that the sun exists.

No country either ancient or modern has ever done this, and it's easy to see why. Who would ever be tempted to deny the existence of the sun? The evidence to the contrary is undeniable. It's large, it's obvious, it's blindingly brilliant - it's just there. There are no rational grounds for claiming the sun does not exist; only a fool or a madman would choose to do so. Even if some sower of discord or false prophet made it part of his mission, the sun's existence is so obvious that he'd stand little chance of persuading others to join him in such a mad quest. No state intervention would be needed to dissuade the populace from following along.

Clearly, there's no need for anti-sun-denying legislation. Why, then, have kings, priests and mullahs through history so often passed similar legislation which makes it a crime to publicly doubt the existence of God?

There are billions of theists around the world who hold a very unusual set of beliefs. On the one hand, they believe that God is the all-powerful Creator of the cosmos and all that is in it, the Sustainer whose moment-to-moment providence is the only thing that keeps the machinery of nature running. Some go so far as to believe that God is the underlying ground of being without whom the very notion of existence is meaningless and void. And yet, on the other hand, many of these same people believe God is hidden, and cannot be found through evidence but only believed in by faith.

What an utterly bizarre conjunction of beliefs this is! Does it make any sense at all to believe that God would hide himself? On the contrary, the only conclusion that I can comprehend is that, if such a being as God existed, his existence would be even more undeniable than the sun that lights the sky. It would be a truth so obvious that the idea of outlawing atheism would never even occur to anyone.

But there have been anti-blasphemy laws throughout history. They have been quite common. We can draw an important conclusion from this. Clearly, God's existence is eminently deniable. If it were otherwise, there would have been no need of such laws in the first place. The only reason such a statute would exist, as Robert Ingersoll said, is so that whatever was lacking in evidence could be made up for with force. The very fact that the authorities sought to enforce conformity shows that it would not come about on its own.

One possible rejoinder is that the sun clearly does not care whether its existence is denied - it continues to shine down regardless - whereas God's favor is fickle, and it may be inviting disaster to doubt him. Thus, the state must enforce uniformity for people's own good. But even if the premise of this argument is true, the conclusion does not follow. The state can regulate people's outward actions, but it cannot control their inmost thoughts. Even if people are required to mouth the correct words of allegiance, privately they may be giving voice to whatever thoughts they please. Since every religious tradition agrees that God can see into our hearts, and presumably would be enraged by private blasphemy as well as public, any attempt to secure his blessing by passing mortal laws would be an exercise in futility.

July 14, 2008, 4:44 pm • Posted in: The LoftPermalink68 comments

Dawn of the Dead: Are Zombies Possible?

Inspired by a recent post on Philosophy, et cetera, I want to talk a little about zombies and what they imply for a materialist theory of the mind.

When I say "zombie," I don't mean the shambling, flesh-eating undead of horror films. This thought experiment is about philosophical zombies, which are a different beast altogether. The philosophers' zombie is a hypothetical creature which, to all outward appearances, is indistinguishable from an ordinary human. The difference is that they lack phenomenal consciousness - they lack qualia.

Qualia are the subjective sensory perceptions of our inner mental life. We see colors: the redness of red, the greenness of green. We hear tones, sharp or high-pitched or dull or low. We taste flavors, salty or bitter or sweet. We feel emotions like joy, anger, or sadness. Zombies, by contrast, have none of these experiences. They are not truly conscious of anything, any more than a stone is conscious, but they act exactly as if they were. A zombie can duck a thrown baseball or write a restaurant review. Point a gun at one and it will flinch and act as if it were afraid.

What does such a bizarre idea have to do with atheism? The answer is that some prominent philosophers claim that zombies are a conclusive disproof of any strictly naturalistic theory of how the mind functions. The train of argument usually goes that zombies are not a metaphysically impossible notion; it involves no self-contradiction to imagine their existing. If they are not self-contradictory, then they are possible. If they are possible, then we could hypothetically build one - a sophisticated robot, let's say. Such a being would act with rationality and apparent intelligence, yet lack consciousness. But if it's possible to be an intelligent, rational being without consciousness, the question is, why aren't we zombies? What makes us different from the robot? The answer, they say, is that there must be a supernatural component to the mind, in other words, a soul. This supernatural component is what gives us our consciousness, our qualia, whereas a being lacking that component could never truly be conscious no matter how much mental processing power it might have.

The problem with zombies, as with many philosophical notions, is that they do not truly prove a point but simply play on people's differing intuitions about what is possible. No obvious self-contradiction arises when we imagine a zombie, I grant. It is logically possible for such a thing to exist. But that does not mean that zombies are possible in our world, under the laws of physics that hold sway here. Our ability to imagine them is no disproof of this. We, fallible humans, are not cognizant of all the laws of physics, much less their almost infinitely complex hierarchy of ramifications. An intelligence like Laplace's demon, with perfect knowledge of the universe, might well see some consequence of physical principles which we overlook, and which renders zombies impossible in our world.

Consider a similar example. Just as dualist philosophers claim they can imagine creating a zombie, I claim I can imagine creating a perpetual motion machine. I couldn't tell you exactly how to build it, just as no one can say exactly how to build a zombie, but I can readily imagine some marvelous machine - blinking lights, coils of wire conducting electric arcs, spinning flywheels, a big brass switch - that, once it's powered up, begins producing free energy out of nowhere. No self-contradiction arises when I imagine this. But does that mean we can actually build one? Have I just disproved the laws of thermodynamics without getting out of my armchair?

Obviously not. Though we may think we can imagine a working perpetual motion machine, reality is bound to disappoint. So far, every attempt to build one has ended in utter failure, stymied by some physical principle they failed to take into account. The laws of our universe, it appears, interlock in such a way as to perfectly rule out the possibility of perpetual motion machines. There is no loophole where an inventor, however clever, can slip through. It only seems possible because our imaginations do not take into account the critical details that any practical attempt cannot avoid.

The dualists, I believe, are in the same boat. They may think they can imagine zombies, but that doesn't mean they're actually possible. Indeed, I suspect the opposite is more likely true: any creature complex enough to behave with all the creativity and adaptability of a human being would have to have consciousness and qualia, or something very much like them.

After all, how could a zombie dodge a thrown baseball, unless its eyes (or cameras) conveyed images of nearby objects; unless those images were in some way converted into an internal model of the world; and unless that model contained some data stream or symbol which represented a small, round, rapidly approaching object? How could a zombie write a restaurant review unless its chemical sensors were linked to a sophisticated mapping of what readings correspond to what flavors and the many subtle ways in which various combinations could interact with each other? How could a zombie convincingly simulate fear unless it had a wide-ranging ability to keep track of events in the external world and infer which ones could pose a threat to its continued existence?

It is not at all obvious to me that a being with such a sophisticated repertoire of memory, understanding and perception could fail to be conscious. In fact, I strongly suspect the opposite: any being with this capability would have to be conscious, given the physical laws that hold in our world. Consciousness is not an optional add-on, but an inevitable product of a certain degree of cognitive sophistication. In particular, I believe the ability to explicitly represent one's own self in one's mental catalog of objects, and to introspect one's own internal information processing - which, again, a zombie can do - is a vital building block of true consciousness as humans possess it, if it is not consciousness itself.

The dualists assume that an intelligent being could fail to possess qualia, and therefore conclude that intelligence and consciousness are separable. But this claim is an example of the fallacy of circular argument. If you assert that it's possible to hold everything else about the world constant, but subtract consciousness, then you're not arguing for dualism, you're assuming dualism! The conclusion which you wish to reach is already contained in the starting assumptions you feed into your argument. Whether consciousness is an inevitable outcome of the working-out of physical laws inside intelligent brains, or whether it's an unnecessary epiphenomenal accompaniment, is the very thing at issue. I argue that, contrary to some people's intuition, consciousness and intelligence are in fact not separable. I can't prove it; but neither can the dualists prove that they are.

The only remaining question, which I admit is a vexing one, is: why qualia? Why does consciousness have any subjective character at all? The way in which our minds represent characteristics of the external world as ineffable interior perceptions does seem strange, and not like most other phenomena we encounter. It does indeed seem difficult to imagine that any science, however advanced, could explain precisely how such subjective experiences arise from the collisions of atoms inside the brain.

But our inability to imagine it, at this point in time, is no proof that it's impossible. The existence of life was also once considered to be an impenetrable mystery, inexplicable except by postulating a supernatural "vital force". Yet life has since been shown to have an explanation comprehensible in terms of physical laws. (Overcoming Bias writes about "encapsulating the mystery as a substance" - an apt description of the situation.) I see no reason to believe that qualia will prove to be any different. Though they may seem to be a fundamentally different kind of thing, that's just an artifact of our present ignorance. Most likely, qualia arise from the physical laws of the cosmos no less than any other natural phenomenon. We don't understand precisely how - and maybe the mysterians are right, and we never will - but still, that is no proof that it is impossible.

May 2, 2008, 7:41 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink37 comments

On the Possibility of Perfect Humanity

Last month, in "An Impoverished Infinity", I wrote about the strange limitations that many Christian believers impose on God. These theists believe that God was not wise or powerful enough to create a world with intelligent beings that did not also include earthquakes, diseases and other disasters - as if the infinite space of possible worlds was somehow foreclosed.

The discussion in the comments thread centered largely around the issue of free will, which is the most common example of these theological limitations. Several theists showed up to argue that God could have created human beings such that we never chose to sin, but believe that he could only have done so by making us into automata who lack meaningful freedom.

I believe this argument is wrong, and I'll explain why. As I wrote some time ago, what it means to have free will is that you can choose from the options available to you in accordance with your desires. The "automata" claim overlooks the fact that there are three things which free will does not require.

First, free will does not require infinite choice, where every imaginable course of action is a realistic possibility. Even if the laws of nature and logic restrict our options to a limited set, we can still choose freely from among the members of that set. Free will is not a total absence of constraint, but rather the ability to select among the options that are available.

Free will also does not require a mental blank slate, where every possible course of action seems equally attractive and compelling. On the contrary, a free person can have dispositions, desires and character traits that incline them to choose a certain way in a given situation. This must be so, for a person who had no desires or inclinations would never act at all. Having a certain set of unchosen desires is a precondition for having a will in the first place. Just as with the previous point, we are still free because we can still choose among the options open to us. What makes a person unfree is not acting in accordance with their desires, but being compelled to act against their desires.

Finally, free will does not require randomness. Granted, a free person can choose to inject a kind of "radical choice" into their decision-making, permitting their decisions to be controlled by some external source of random input - whether it be a coin-flip or quantum noise in the synapses of the brain. But a random component is not required for an act to be free. Even a decision that involves no quality of randomness, one that is entirely determined by the facts and reasons available to the decision-maker, can be a free choice.

After all, wouldn't the freest possible agent be one who is perfectly responsive to reason, who is perfectly aware of all the facts relevant to any decision, and who decides on that basis? Such a person would always make the decisions that were best for them without ever needing to choose randomly, and surely that is the purest and most desirable form of free will. Anything less would be inferior, because being unaware of facts relevant to our choices diminishes, not increases, our freedom; it causes us to overlook possibilities we would otherwise have considered.

All three of these points should be uncontroversial, even among theists. To deny either of the first two is to deny that humans have free will, because obviously we do have built-in inclinations and do not have infinite choice. To deny the third, meanwhile, is to deny that God has free will; or at the very least, it is to suggest that our free will is more perfect than his, because we are blessed with ignorance and he, presumably, is not. Since I doubt that most theists would want to make either of those claims, I figure they would agree with me.

Now see where these conclusions lead. Free will does not require unlimited choice, absence of desire, or randomness. A person whose choices are constrained by physical law and their own desires, and who chooses in accordance with those desires and with the relevant facts, still can be and is free in a way that is genuine, significant, and worth wanting. (In fact, each of us is such a person.)

Given all this, why couldn't an omnipotent deity have done things differently? Such a being could have created a world where evil was a literal impossibility, where physical law is constituted by God's will and it is not possible to act in contravention to that will. Or God could have created a world in which evil acts were physically possible, but in which human psychology would be different than it actually is, such that we only desire to choose the good. To truly rule out evil in this world, our decisions would also have to be non-random, so that chance would not occasionally intervene and cause us to do evil despite our desires. In either of these worlds, human beings would truly be morally perfect.

None of these options, as we've seen, would turn humans into puppets or automata. We would still be truly and legitimately free. But in these worlds, there would be no sin or wrongdoing at all, and thus no evil, no suffering, no need to create an afterlife of torture or send earthly catastrophes as punishment. Why wouldn't God, if he exists, have created a world like this? It would have been superior to our own in every way.

The force of this argument should be undeniable. In fact, in worldviews like the Christian one, God conferred on human beings a positive attraction to sin - a set of psychological inclinations that frequently bias our decisions toward disobedience. If that isn't seen as taking away our free will, why couldn't he have done the opposite and instead given human beings an equally strong set of inclinations toward obedience? In short, instead of original sin, why not original virtue? If God hates sin so much, why would he create a world that would all but ensure the maximum amount of it?

A rational deity would not demand moral perfection unless he created beings capable of supplying it. To say otherwise contradicts a basic point of morality: that you cannot blame someone for not doing what they are not capable of doing. This is why, for example, we don't hold mentally ill people criminally responsible. We understand that their capacity to tell right from wrong is impaired, and that it wouldn't be just to treat them as we treat people who possess that capacity. But God, if we believe the Christian logic, rejects this reasoning - he created human beings imperfect and then punishes them harshly for their imperfection. If, as the Bible says, God is "not willing that any should perish", then I am unable to see why he would not have created a world where that will could be realized.

February 4, 2008, 8:28 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink124 comments

An Impoverished Infinity

In Christian theology, God is presented as the omnipotent creator, able to bring about literally any world it is possible to imagine. His power has no limits, he never suffers from weakness or fatigue, and he possesses the omniscient knowledge necessary to shape the world according to his overarching plan.

Or so Christian apologists say, anyway. Yet when we atheists challenge them with the problem of evil, asking why a benevolent creator would bring about a world where disease and disaster wreak havoc on the innocent, these same apologists often fall back on a very strange defense. They insist that this is the best world God could possibly have created, that natural evil is a regrettable necessity, and that not even infinite power could have made a world where conscious beings like us could exist without also including these undesirable elements.

In the past few weeks, I've had two Christian correspondents make the same argument to me in e-mail. First, one visitor said this:

Take earthquakes, for example. Earthquakes are almost exclusively caused as a result of plate tectonics. Plates move, grind, slip - and the earth shakes as a result. The only alternative is to have a fixed, unmoving crust - plates that cannot move. But scientists have proven that plate tectonics are, in essence, a "necessary evil." Without the movement of the plates, life on earth as we know it could not exist. Therefore, in order to have life, one must accept plate tectonics - and the earthquakes that come with it.

In another example, I asked a Christian correspondent if he believes God could have avoided the need to create Hell by creating human beings who desired above all else to worship God as he requires. My correspondent's response: "There are 5 billion or so examples on this planet that show that what you propose is not possible."

Though neither of my correspondents seemed to notice, their argument effectively demotes God from omnipotence. What they're effectively saying is that God is not powerful enough, or wise enough, to create the world as other than it is. Not even an infinitely powerful, infinitely intelligent deity could have engineered a universe with different natural laws or conditions than ours, so as to permit self-aware living beings but exclude earthquakes caused by plate tectonics. This amounts to a claim that it is logically necessary that earthquakes accompany life, in the same way it is logically necessary that triangles have 180 degrees.

Similarly, the second argument amounts to a claim that it is logically impossible for human beings to be any different than we are. Not even God could have created us with different dispositions, different characters, different natures. Human beings as we are, with all our faults and contingent pecularities - our xenophobia, our emotional turmoil, our impulses to lust and violence, our often faulty grasp of cause and effect - are the only sentient creatures that exist anywhere in all the limitless space of possibility. Truly, the infinity of possible worlds must be an impoverished infinity indeed in the theist mind.

Even famous Christian apologists are willing to put sweeping limitations on God's power when theologically convenient. C.S. Lewis did the same thing in The Problem of Pain, claiming that this world is the only one God had the power to create, that he could not have made it any different, and that even God could not think of a way to allow life and free will without also allowing random disaster and catastrophe:

Try to exclude the possibility of suffering which the order of nature and the existence of free wills involve, and you find that you have excluded life itself...

...With every advance in our thought the unity of the creative act, and the impossibility of tinkering with the creation as though this or that element of it could have been removed, will become more apparent.

For people who believe in God, these theists don't give him much credit. They presume that God has no more imagination or knowledge than they, and that since they can't think of any world better than our own, then he couldn't either. Like Dr. Pangloss in Voltaire's famous satire Candide, they blithely assume that this must be the best of all possible worlds, not subject to improvement in any way.

Admittedly this conclusion, absurd though it is, is a rational conclusion from their own strained premises. Since Christians start with the assumption that God is all-powerful and good, they logically infer that he would not have created anything less than the best world possible. But this conclusion runs smack into the manifest imperfection of the actual world.

By contrast, atheists who are not bound by theological preconceptions can readily imagine ways in which an omnipotent being could have crafted better worlds than our own. (I listed just a few possibilities last March in "Improving on God's Handiwork"). This may relate to the common theme of fundamentalists fearing sci-fi and fantasy writing - it may well be that the exercise of imagining worlds different from ours is a dangerous path for these believers' tightly circumscribed imaginations to start down.

January 17, 2008, 10:31 pm • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink162 comments

Eternal Moments

Without an eternal soul our existence is truly meaningless in the long run which is all that matters. Eventually your effect on others, nations and the world subsides, even if you are Alexander the Great. The earth will cease to exist, the universe will eventually cease to support any life. It will be as if we never existed. There will be absolutely no trace.

In the above excerpt from a feedback e-mail, a Christian visitor attempted to persuade me that I should view life as meaningless because I am an atheist. If we don't believe in an eternal soul, he argued, and if life ends forever at death, then all our endeavors are pointless because they are doomed to return to nothingness in the long run. Eventually, the universe will be the same as it would have been if we had never come into existence.

Quite aside from any other considerations, this argument is fallacious on its face. Meaning and accomplishment need not last forever to be significant. When we act now, in the present, we can make a difference in others' lives here and now, and as far as I'm concerned, that is more than enough. It's nothing but arrogant vanity to think that our acts must be remembered and praised for all time to be meaningful. This correspondent felt that "the long run", meaning thousands or millions of years hence, is all that matters, but in fact it seems to me that the exact opposite is true: the present is what truly matters. The future can see to itself.

However, there's another reason why this argument misses the mark. In my recent post "The Moving Light of Time", I presented evidence from physics that the common-sense notion of time as a moving spotlight, illuminating moments in succession so that each one briefly becomes the present, is false. One of the most startling consequences of the theory of special relativity is that past, present and future are relative terms, dependent on the motion of the observer. Which one of those three categories a moment is classified as depends on who is doing the classifying, just as a particular place can be nearby or far off, depending on where one is viewing it from. The place itself does not change, only the observer's perspective.

But the fact that the same principle holds true for time leads us to a profound and awe-inspiring conclusion. Past, present and future are matters of perspective: it is the moments themselves that are real. In a very real sense, each moment exists eternally. Our imperfect senses, deceived by the arrow of memory that creates an illusion of time's steady flow, do not perceive this, but it is no less true for our inability to grasp it.

In this sense, it is not true, as my correspondent suggested, that all will eventually return to nothingness without a trace. Quite the contrary, the moments in which we are alive will always exist. There may be later moments in which the universe becomes barren, but those earlier moments will not cease to be. Thus, a universe that is empty and dead from the beginning does differ from a universe that later becomes so. The set of moments which comprise the totality of spacetime in these two universes are not the same. One contains life and happiness, and the other does not - and the more happiness that is contained in the former, then the better that universe was a place to be.

There is another profound implication for freethinkers. If Heaven is defined as eternal happiness, then we do not have to die to get there. We are already there. Any moment when you are happy, any moment when you feel joy - that moment exists forever. No blind faith in this conclusion is required, no miracles or magic need be invoked; this is the position to which the ordinary, evidence-backed natural laws of the cosmos inevitably lead.

September 10, 2007, 7:21 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink49 comments

The Moving Light of Time

"In a word, the Future is, of all things, the thing least like eternity. It is the most completely temporal part of time — for the Past is frozen and no longer flows, and the Present is all lit up with eternal rays."

—C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters

In the above excerpt, C.S. Lewis expresses a very common view of time: that it "flows" from future to present to past like a filmstrip passing through a movie projector, with each frame of the film momentarily becoming the present as it is illuminated by the projector's light. Christian apologists such as William Lane Craig use this view of time to argue that the universe must have had a beginning, and hence a creator, because a universe with an infinite past could never have traversed the infinite number of past moments to reach the present moment (the kalam cosmological argument).

This is the most widely held view of time, for obvious reasons. It seems intuitively true, in accord with our experience; we do observe time apparently flowing, with one moment following the next in succession. In the present, we can act and make choices that seemingly affect the future, while the past is frozen and beyond our ability to alter.

This view is also, indisputably, false.

This may seem a strange thing to say. How can time not flow? We feel it flowing, don't we? If time does not flow, then what does it do, and why don't we notice? If time does not flow, how can there be such a thing as cause and effect? How can there be such things as choice or free will?

These are all valid and important questions. Nevertheless, the widespread perception that time flows is - must be - an illusion. Consider the following points.

First: If the "moving light" of the present, in fact, moves, how can this be? Ex hypothesi, that "moving light" is outside time, because its motion is what defines what time is. And yet, how can there be motion without time? The very idea of motion implies a time at which an object is in one place and a different time in which it is in another. If there is no time, there can be no motion. For this light to move at all, there must be some "meta-time" within which it moves. But if that is the case, then does this meta-time dimension have its own moving light determining the present? And so on, in an infinite regression. The kalam argument, invented to avoid the supposed impossibility of an infinite, ends up running right back into that same impossibility.

But in addition to committing its user to an infinite number of temporal dimensions, this view of time has another problem: the moving light is utterly superfluous. We do not need it. To see this, imagine a thought experiment: What would happen if the spotlight of the present suddenly started moving in reverse? Would we notice anything?

As a moment's thought should make clear, the answer is no. If there is a moving light, then time must be divided into some number of discrete slices - like the frames in a filmstrip - each one representing a snapshot of the universe at a single moment. But the people - more accurately, the people-slices - inhabiting each moment only have the memories leading up to that moment, regardless of whether it is "replayed".

Consider three frames in the filmstrip of my life. In moment A, I'm graduating high school; in moment B, I'm starting college; and in moment C, I'm putting up the first post on this blog. If the spotlight of time started moving backward, so that these moments happened in "reverse" order, would I notice? Of course not. The spotlight of the present cannot change the content of these moments; even if it moves backward to reilluminate a particular moment, that moment will reoccur exactly as it did the first time. And in each of those three moments, I only have the memories of the events preceding it. Regardless of which way the spotlight of the present is "actually" moving, the sequence of my memories imposes a consistent order on my experiences, making it seem as if time is flowing in the "right" direction. And this works exactly the same way if there is no such light at all. The spotlight of the present is an unnecessary explanation, conferring no additional ability to explain our seeming perception of time's flow. Thus, by Occam's razor, it should be eliminated.

But all this is not just a matter of armchair philosophy. It is also a matter of empirical evidence. And in this regard, the evidence strongly confirms the arguments I have put forward. Physicists have known for over a century that the commonly held view of time is incorrect.

For example, if there was a spotlight of time, highlighting moments in succession so that each one briefly becomes the "now", this implies that there is one true present in which everyone shares. All observers should agree on what is happening "now". But this is not the way the universe actually works.

Consider a classic example. Imagine a moving train car, with a light source in the exact center. At a predetermined moment, the light source switches on and fires two photons, one toward a detector on the front wall of the car, one toward a detector on the back wall. Which detector will be triggered first?

An observer on the train, moving along with its motion, will observe both detectors trigger simultaneously. After all, the emitter was in the exact center of the car, so the two photons have to travel the same distance to their respective detectors. This is undoubtedly a correct answer.

But an observer on the platform, watching the train pass by, will observe something different. To that observer, the back wall of the train was moving toward the photon, while the front wall was moving away from it. The difference in distance is miniscule, but it exists; so the back detector should trigger first. This, too, seems to be a correct answer.

Which observer is right? As Albert Einstein first demonstrated, the answer is that they both are. Strange as it seems, there is no one absolute answer to this question. Rather, simultaneity is relative: it depends on the perspective of the observer. Observers who are in motion relative to each other will disagree on which events are simultaneous - in other words, they will disagree on what is happening "now" - and there is no way to say that one is right and the other is wrong.

And this is not a unique, contrived case, applying only to this one example. On the contrary, this is the basis of Einstein's theory of special relativity. Observers in relative motion will always disagree on which events are taking place in the present. At ordinary time and distance scales, this effect is so small as to be almost undetectable, but at very high velocities or over astronomical distances, it can become very significant. Physicist Brian Greene, in his book The Fabric of the Cosmos, gives a startling example: an observer 10 billion light-years away from you, who moved in a direction away from you at a mere 10 miles per hour, would have a "now" consisting of events 150 years in your past. And if this observer moved toward you at the same speed, his "now" would consist of events 150 years in your future.

This shows that moments cannot be partitioned into "past", which have already happened and cannot be changed, and "future", which have yet to be decided. These terms do not correspond to any fundamental attribute of reality. In fact, one observer's past may be another observer's future, and vice versa. Even more importantly, there is no single, universal present, no one moment somehow highlighted in a way that differentiates it from all other moments. Quite the contrary, there are only the moments themselves - each one existing eternally, each one unchangeable, and each one just as real as all the rest. We do not experience this because, as already explained, the causal order of our memories produces an illusion - a convincing illusion, but an illusion nevertheless - of time's mutability and flow.

This realization demolishes the kalam argument. The supposed impossibility of traversing an infinite number of past moments to reach the present simply evaporates, because nothing is traversing anything - there is no spotlight moving in sequence from one moment to the next. The term "now", rather than some special metaphysical significance, becomes, like "here", a term of purely indexical significance. "Here" is wherever I am when I invoke that word; similarly, "now" is whenever I am when I invoke that word. You do not need to traverse anything to reach "here", and nor do you need to traverse anything to reach "now".

The last important question is what place there is for free will in such a scheme. The apparent fixity of the future would seem to deny the possibility of choice, but this ceases to be a problem when we realize that free will does not require the ability to have done otherwise. We choose in accordance with our natures, and our natures are shaped in turn by those choices, regardless of whether that process takes place in a single, special "now" or in one of an eternal succession of moments.

Though the commonly held view of time is wrong, this does not deprive us of anything important. We should always bear in mind that unaided human perceptions are not necessarily, and in fact not usually, a reliable guide to the true nature of ultimate reality. But using science and reason, we can surpass our limitations and arrive at a more fundamental understanding of the orderly laws by which the cosmos operates.

September 4, 2007, 7:37 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink23 comments


A Response to Ned Block's "Blockhead"

In a classic 1981 paper titled "Psychologism and Behaviourism", the philosopher Ned Block proposed a thought experiment that has been dubbed "Blockhead" in his honor. Block's experiment has to do with the Turing test, itself a classic proposal on how to test for the presence of intelligence in a machine (or some other suitable non-human agent). The Turing test consists of a human, the judge, conversing via computer terminal with two agents. One of the agents is another human being; the other is a machine. If the judge cannot reliably tell which is which, the Turing test tells us that the machine should be considered to have the same intelligence as a human.

Block's proposal was to build a computer program that would store within its memory banks a precomputed reply to every possible question it might conceivably be asked. Everything: from "What are your fondest memories of my Uncle Morris?" to "Do you prefer the smell of vanilla extract to gasoline?" to "Could you summarize the plot of Romeo and Juliet in a hundred words or less?" To many nonsensical queries, the program could be instructed to deliver an answer expressing confusion or bewilderment. Its meaningful answers might be written to consistently express a single perspective or outlook, thus simulating not just a person but a personality. Block's assertion is that such a program, despite not being intelligent, could pass a Turing test.

Blockhead is one specific example from a family of philosophical thought experiment I like to call "lookup table consciousness": imaginary constructs that simulate consciousness by maintaining a massive list of actions to take in response to every imaginable circumstance. The Chinese Room is another, although the two differ in that the Chinese Room is usually said to possess some rule set or program that transforms input into output, whereas a Blockhead stores every possible output explicitly. Proponents of the Chinese Room such as John Searle argue that no computer program or machine, however well-constructed, could ever be conscious in the same way a human being is. However, Block makes only the weaker claim that some structures could simulate consciousness without actually being conscious.

I have previously discussed reasons why the Chinese Room could not pass a Turing test, and therefore would not cast doubt on the claims to intelligence of any machine that could. Namely, because it is said to reply on a stateless set of condition-action rules, the Chinese Room could not adequately respond to repetitious or context-dependent questions. However, we could imagine a Blockhead that could do this. Rather than a simple list of queries and answers (which would be unmasked by the same strategem), we could imagine a Blockhead that stores every possible conversation in a form analogous to a branching tree, where each question and answer represents a decision point that branches out into an innumerable array of possibilities for the next query and reply. In such a scenario, every reply that is given depends on what has come before, and so there is a realistic possibility of answering context-sensitive questions correctly.

It should be clear just what a staggeringly impossible and pointless endeavor this is. Even if every atom of the visible universe was used for storage (if the entire cosmos was turned into computronium), we still would not have even a fraction of a fraction of the capacity that would be required to build a Blockhead, to say nothing of the unimaginable time it would take to compile a list of answers to every syntactically valid question. But of course, we are doing philosophy here, and it is logical possibility, not practicality, that is relevant in that field. Even if a Blockhead will never be built, if one was, what would that tell us?

To more clearly illuminate the principle at work, consider a different thought experiment: the Chance Conversation Machine. The CCM is another program designed to participate in a Turing test, one that takes input from a keyboard and sends output to a terminal. But the CCM makes no effort to create an intelligible response to its interrogator's queries. No matter what input data it receives, it discards that data, generates a random stream of bits and outputs them to the screen.

Of course, the vast majority of the time this will result in total gibberish. But if the CCM's output is truly random, all possible outcomes are guaranteed to occur eventually. Once in a great while, its random output will fall into the patterns that code for English characters. Once in an even greater while, these characters will form meaningful words. And once in an unimaginably enormous while, the CCM will apparently respond meaningfully to the most recent thing its interrogator said. It may send a response that dazzles us with penetrating insight, provoke gales of laughter at its razor wit, or respond to our troubles with understanding and sympathy. It may even seem to be aware that its output is purely random, and express its apparent regret that its next reply probably will not be so erudite.

Plainly, the CCM is not conscious, though it might occasionally seem to be so. Consciousness by definition requires genuine understanding of one's situation, not merely meaningful output in response to it. The CCM has the latter, but not the former. For the same reason, a Blockhead is not conscious either. Neither of these imaginary constructs perform any actual analysis of their sensory data, and without analysis, there can be no genuine comprehension. The ability of analysis is not a sufficient condition for consciousness, but it is clearly a necessary one.

Where a Blockhead simulates consciousness using unrealistically enormous amounts of space, the CCM simulates consciousness using similarly unrealistically enormous amounts of time. Although logically we must account for bizarre possibilities like this, they are not realistic possibilities. It entails no self-contradiction to imagine them existing, but they could never actually be built. In particular, a Blockhead could not exist in our universe - there is not enough matter in the cosmos to store all its possible actions, and even if there were, the finite speed of light sets a finite horizon for communication that would make it impossible to access all the multibillion-light-year-distant memory banks that would need to be queried whenever the consciousness simulator was presented with a new challenge to react to.

Far more reasonable, given the evidence available to us and our knowledge of the underlying laws of physics, is that there are and can be no such things as Blockheads. Far more reasonable is that any agent, whether organic or mechanical, that can pass a Turing test can do so because it performs some process analogous to thinking and understanding. This does not provide a logically airtight proof that an agent that succeeds at a Turing test must be intelligent, but then again, when do we ever have that impossible degree of certainty about anything?

As I said, genuine understanding and not merely meaningful response is a necessary condition for consciousness, and the two are not logically required to go together. In the strictest sense, this is true. But in our imperfect, inductive world, we can depend on the latter to be a reliable indicator of the former. To the degree we believe our worldview is not the product of a Cartesian demon, concocting illusions to deceive us, we should similarly believe that anything that passes a Turing test is truly conscious and not merely a cunning simulation.

January 13, 2007, 3:44 pm • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink9 comments

The 29th Philosophers' Carnival

The great Library at Daylight Atheism has been outfitted for an auspicious occasion. Merry bunting drapes the tall shelves of books, balloons congregate near the ceiling, and waiters quietly circulate bearing trays of drinks. Already the symposium is in full swing, and philosophers from every era and society in human history are circulating around the room and chatting animatedly: ancient Greeks in togas and sandals, Enlightenment Europeans - the men in frock coats and powdered wigs and the women in elegant gowns - colonial Americans, Indians in saffron robes, East Asians from the Neo-Confucian period in robes and topknots, Muslim Sufis in white kaffiyehs and dusky hijabs, and a few modern luminaries in cardigan sweaters, t-shirts and blue jeans. A few senior philosophers are holding discourse with their younger colleagues beneath plaster busts that suspiciously resemble them.

A podium has been set up near the tall picture windows at one end of the room, beneath a banner reading, "Ubi Dubium Ibi Libertas". The windows offer a picturesque view of a verdant and sunny garden below, where a few early arrivals seem to have organized a friendly game of football on the lawn.

Your humble host, Ebonmuse, takes the podium and surveys the room. He rings a spoon against the side of a glass to call the meeting to order, and once everyone's attention has turned to the podium, clears his throat and begins to speak.

"Welcome, one and all, to the 29th Philosophers' Carnival here at Daylight Atheism! It's my honor to be here in the company of so many august minds. We have a selection of the finest philosophy writing from across the World Wide Web for your reading pleasure and intellectual stimulation. There are a great many worthy candidates to showcase in this edition, so without further ado, let's get to them!

The Philosophers' Carnival's inaugural blogger, Philosophy, et cetera, offers reasons to believe that the actual world is not a possible world in modal space but rather a fundamentally different kind of thing, in a post titled The Actual World is not a Possible World.

Next, In Search of Enlightenment brings us Our Enhanced Future, exploring the ethical concerns that may arise in the future as our ability to radically enhance the capabilities of human beings increases.

Antimeta offers Sets of Worlds, which considers the issue of possibility and set theory as it relates to logically possible and impossible worlds.

A Brood Comb writes in Why a neural network can't be conscious (2) that the ability to replay signals given to artificial neurons functions as a reductio against the possibility of an artificial neural network being conscious.

Philosophy of Real Mathematics, in More about MacIntyre, draws some lessons for the philosophy of mathematics from Alasdair MacIntyre's arguments against relativism.

In Heidegger and Kuhn, Mormon Metaphysics compares and contrasts Heidegger and Kuhn's approaches to philosophy of science, focusing on Kant and the issue of internalism/externalism.

Sago Boulevard argues in Betting on Vegetarianism that, contrary to Rik Hine's argument for vegetarianism, one is not obliged to refrain from merely possibly immoral activities.

Reality Conditions, in Chalmers, Dennett, and the Zombies, considers the views of David Chalmers and Daniel Dennett on the irreducibility of consciousness and argues that the former fails to consider the revisability of scientific concepts.

Obsidian Wings suggests an ethical primer in About Morality.

Certain Doubts muses on when one is qualified to differ with the leading lights of philosophy, in Disagreement with Philosophical Superiors.

The Shipwright Returns criticizes two bad arguments for hereditary monarchy.

The Boundaries of Language worries whether subject-sensitive invariantism about knowledge can be reconciled with our intuitive picture of the role of experts in society, in Bombscare.

The ambiguous DuckRabbit offers another list of 10 things everyone should know about philosophy. criticizes moral particularism as stemming from a failure to properly apply Occam's razor, in Shaving Particulars.

Persephone's Box argues that the practice of giving wedding vows sets up an untenable and possibly harmful commitment, in Loved to Death.

Parableman writes in Ethics in a Multiverse that ethics would not be rendered meaningless even if multiple-universes models in cosmology or philosophy were true. considers the question of whether the demand of a biological parent to have their adopted child returned to them does more harm than good, in Adoption and Cruelty: Is Blood Thicker than Water?

Goosing the Antithesis discourses on pride and humility, arguing that the traditional view of which of these is a virtue and which a vice is in error, in Pride and Humility Part 1.

And last but not least, Stop That Crow! criticizes Plato's arguments against democracy and argues that what other people in a democratic society believe matters to us, in What Others Believe.

That concludes this edition of the Philosophers' Carnival; much gratitude is due to all who participated. The next edition will be held at AnnieMiz in three weeks, so get those entries in!

Should you be interested in further philosophy writing in the meantime, I've been asked to inform everyone of the inaugural Online Philosophy Conference, which looks to be a fine and welcome addition to our own humble efforts. And, if I may ask your indulgence, I myself have been known to record some thoughts right here in the Library at Daylight Atheism, should you be interested. Until next time, fellow philosophers and friends!"

May 1, 2006, 6:49 pm • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink4 comments

On Free Will V: Moral Responsibility

The last and arguably most important question of free will, one that is closely intertwined with the nature of choice, is the issue of moral responsibility. What is it that makes us responsible for what we do?

Most traditional views, especially dualist views, hold that for a person to be morally responsible for an action they commit, they must have been able to choose a different course of action at the time. This belief is commonly held, but has rarely been examined. In this, the final part of my free will series, I will challenge this assumption, and propose a new basis for human moral responsibility. Acting in a moral way, I argue, does not require the capability to have done otherwise.

How can this be so? Daniel Dennett draws attention to a famous counterexample: the Protestant Martin Luther, who when pressured to recant his religious beliefs, supposedly replied, "Here I stand; I can do no other."

Luther claimed... that his conscience made it impossible for him to recant. He might, of course, have been wrong... But even if he was - perhaps especially if he was - his declaration is testimony to the fact that we simply do not exempt someone from blame or praise for an act because we think he could do no other. Whatever Luther was doing, he was not trying to duck responsibility. (Elbow Room, p.133).

As Dennett points out, a great deal of acting ethically consists of making ourselves unable psychologically to commit evil acts. For example, I find the idea of torture abhorrent, and I know via introspection that I would never agree to torture an innocent person for money. If presented with such an offer, I would invariably refuse it; I am unable to do otherwise. Similarly, I would hope that I am the kind of person who, if I saw someone in urgent need - such as someone choking in a restaurant - I would be compelled to help them; my conscience would give me no choice. Does that mean that these decisions are no longer a matter of moral responsibility on my part? I do not think that a reasonable person would say so. Being moral, in this view, consists of making a series of free choices to make oneself into the kind of person one is. We are moral agents not in spite of, but because of the fact that we could not have done otherwise.

Some may assert that this view denies us true freedom, since it implies that there were never really any alternative courses of action open to us in any circumstance, but I do not think so. Given the exact circumstances we were faced with, we could not have done otherwise, but that is irrelevant, since that exact set of circumstances will never recur. What is relevant is whether you would act the same way in similar circumstances - because that is the question that tells others about your character and enables them to assign praise or blame accordingly.

In light of this, I must admit that my earlier statements were too strong. I can think of some (highly unlikely) circumstances where I would be compelled to torture an innocent person for money - for example, if that money were needed to pay the ransom of some despot who would otherwise destroy the planet. Similarly, if the person I saw choking in a restaurant happened to be a suicide bomber, I would not help them, since doing so would only give them a chance to set off their explosives. Even for any reasonable, moral person (such as yourself, dear reader), there is doubtless some bizarre conjunction of circumstances that could compel you to commit a crime, but that is not the issue and says nothing about your moral character. The issue is whether you are the sort of person who could or would have done otherwise under most circumstances, and this view can also answer that question in the affirmative.

To put it another way: the existence of alternatives arises from the fact that, for any situation that does occur, there are (due to micro-indeterminism) an enormous number of very similar situations that could have occurred. And due to the vast complexity of our possible actions and our fundamental unpredictability, we might have acted differently in any of those similar situations if they had come to pass. A person's moral responsibility in a given situation is determined by "averaging out" their likely actions in all similar circumstances. If they would in most cases have done otherwise than they did, then their actual choice can be considered a fluke and should not be used to judge their character. On the other hand, if in most similar circumstances they would have done the same, then that act speaks to the kind of person they are, and accordingly they can be said to bear moral responsibility for it, whether for the better or for the worse.

The traditional dualist view of free will - that people could have done otherwise under the very same circumstances - is something that has never made sense to me. Consider its implications for a moment. Imagine that this view is correct, and whatever a person does, they could have done otherwise. If some godlike being put them in exactly the same circumstances twice, down to the specific microstate of their brain, they could do something different. The question is then, if no fact about the world or about themselves caused them to choose as they did, then what did cause that?

It has been said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and expecting different results. If that is the case, then advocates of the traditional picture of free will are saying, in effect, that they want to be insane. They want their decisions to be determined by no reason, no circumstance, no fact about the world, about their character, or about their own process of moral reasoning. But if that is the case, there is only one possible conclusion: their decisions are not really chosen at all, but are instead random. And randomness is not free will.

Most people, I suspect, would have no objection to the idea that their good deeds arise inevitably from their character, that they are the sort of person who could not have done other than the right thing in that circumstance. But when they do something wrong, they want to believe that it was a momentary lapse of judgment, a fluke - that they could have done otherwise, that this wrong act is not reflective of the kind of person they really are.

But this picture, appealing as it may be, is not a consistent theory of morality but rather an expression of wishful thinking. The compatibilist picture of free will denies people such a convenient excuse: the bad acts we do are not flukes, but rather reflections of our character just as the good ones are. If we wish to prevent them from recurring, then it is up to us to make choices that change our character (see Part IV), so that we are no longer the kind of person who would do such things. But in exchange for this burden of responsibility, this picture of free will brings good news: your good acts were not just random flukes either, but extensions of your character. You chose to do them because you are the kind of person who does such things. Is this not a positive view of ourselves?

With that, we come to one final, thoroughly practical issue: the role of blame and punishment in moral responsibility. A naive view of my argument would hold that assigning blame or credit for people's conduct is pointless, because after all, whatever a person did, they could not have done otherwise, so why hold them responsible for their behavior?

This view has it precisely backwards. Punishment and praise play a very important role in my version of free will, the same role they play in the traditional view, in fact; I merely hold that the justification for doing this has to be slightly altered. I propose that we hold people responsible for their behavior because that is how they actually become responsible.

Recall the discussion from Part III, where I cautioned readers to recognize the distinction between fatalism and compatibilism. Fatalism holds that the future will occur as it does regardless of our choices, compatibilism that it will occur as it does because of our choices. A similar principle is at work here. A naive, and incorrect, view of my account would hold that it is pointless to blame or praise people because they will act the same way anyway; the correct view is that blaming or praising people is one of the causal factors affecting their behavior, and can therefore lead them to make different choices than they otherwise would have. There will always be some saintly souls who will do the right thing because it is the right thing, needing no external inducement, but it is neither necessary nor practical to hold all of humanity to this lofty standard at this point in history.

There are some important provisos to this view to keep in mind. I wrote elsewhere that it would be a poor moral system that could only keep people in line with reward and punishment, rather than teaching them to value the good for its own sake, and I do not recant that view. Nor do I believe that any act which society condones is necessarily good or that any act which it condemns is necessarily bad. Rather, I believe that the notion of societal praise or blame should be used as a stepping stone to true moral responsibility, not as the be-all and end-all of it. As a parallel, I believe that all people should accept science as the only reliable way to learn empirical truths, but it would be foolish to try to persuade them of that with purely philosophical arguments, without laying out the evidence that science works. Similarly, once we have accustomed people to the idea that actions have consequences, we can use this as a jumping-off point to lead them to the recognition that they should act based on the natural consequences of their actions - the suffering or happiness they produce - guided ultimately by personal conscience, not rules imposed from outside.

Other posts in this series:

April 6, 2006, 8:04 pm • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink7 comments

On Free Will IV: The Nature of Choice

What does it mean to make a choice? This question is at the heart of many of the debates over free will, and justifiably so. It may seem simple initially, but the more deeply one considers it, the knottier it becomes.

The basic dilemma seems to be this: Every event that occurs either had sufficient cause to occur or it did not. If it did, then it seems choice has no part to play: the event happened because of that cause, and could not have failed to happen. But if it did not, then choice seemingly is also excluded: the event "just happened", not as the result of a choice (or of any other reason). Either way, choice seems to be ruled out. And note, also, that this conclusion seems to hold true regardless of whether one is a theist.

Does this mean that choice does not exist at all? It seems to be like an optical afterimage, something glimpsed only out of the corner of one's eye that disappears when one tries to look at it directly. Is the very notion of choice a self-contradictory, impossible idea?

There is, of course, no middle ground between caused and not-caused. All events must be one or the other, and I do not intend to argue that there is some mysterious third category into which human actions fall. I intend to argue something very different: that some of our decisions are caused and are also free. This idea may strike some of my readers as strange or self-contradictory. If you are among them, bear with me; in the course of this essay, I will do my best to persuade you otherwise. But before delving into this, it may be worthwhile to limber up the imagination with a few thought experiments.

First, consider the case of a boulder balanced on a cliff edge. One day, it falls and crashes to the ground below. Did it choose to do so? Certainly not: a boulder has no capacity for volitional action. Its behavior is wholly described by the blind workings of cause and effect. If it did not fall, it is because the physical conditions for such an event did not obtain, and as soon as those conditions did obtain, it inevitably had to fall. Perhaps it required a strong gust of wind to give it the necessary push, or the patient working of erosion to alter its size or shape in just the right way, or the seasonal expansion and contraction of the ground that caused it to become unbalanced, or any of these in combination - but once the right causal factors lined up, it had to fall.

Second, consider the case of a virus that infects a cell and hijacks the cell's reproductive machinery to make more copies of itself. Did it choose to do this? Again, certainly not: a virus is a mindless object, like a guided missile - a bit of genetic information wrapped in a protein coat. Its actions are wholly determined by the chemical and molecular interactions between it and its immediate environment. Its behavior seems slightly more intentional than the falling boulder, in that it has some capacity to control its own destiny and is not simply the passive tool of external causal forces, but nevertheless we feel comfortable in denying it any real ability to choose.

Finally, consider a single-celled organism such as a bacterium or an amoeba. These creatures are considerably more sophisticated than a virus, and better suited still to control their own fate and not merely passively react. But nevertheless, they are still blind, mindless reactors, their behavior bluntly determined by the chemical and physical characteristics of their environment. It is still inappropriate, I think we can agree, to speak of an amoeba "choosing" to do anything.

But now comes the troubling jump. Our brains, the source of all our actions and desires, are made up of interconnected networks of cells, each of which has complexity roughly equivalent to that of, say, an amoeba. Each of our neurons reacts to external stimuli in just as predictable a way as any single-celled organism, and none of them individually has the capability to choose. How, then, does choice arise from their agglomeration? How can we build a free-willed whole out of non-free-willed parts?

It should be obvious that our behavior is not determined by any particular neuron, but by all of them working in concert, giving rise to an enormously more sophisticated ability to sense, conceptualize and react to our surroundings. We are not like a virus or a bacteria, reacting in a mechanically predictable way to a given environmental change, and having only a limited, enumerable number of possible reactions to such changes. On the contrary, human beings are not mechanically predictable (as Part III argued); and we possess an almost infinitely vast array of possible actions open to us. And what is more, our behavior is not merely based on brute physical and chemical facts about our environment, but on information we have gained. We do not have brute dispositions to act, but rather inclinations, an entire subtle and complex web of tendencies and predispositions.

When we make the move from a virus or a bacterium to a human, it is not just a matter of degree, not just a move from lesser to greater complexity of reaction. On the contrary, there is something qualitatively different about this transition. In making it, something altogether new emerges, and that something is this: an ability not just to react blindly, but to anticipate - to build a mental model of the world in one's head, and to use that model to guide one's actions. Agents with this capability do not just perform an action that has consequences; they perform that action because it has those consequences. That is what a choice is: an act performed by an agent, in accordance with that agent's inclinations, as a result of considering the likely outcome.

Although our ability to plan, to anticipate, gives us a degree of freedom that simpler life forms do not possess, the existence of those inclinations seems to be the troubling point. Although we humans are not as simply and mechanically determined as a virus or an amoeba, it is true that each of us comes into existence with a set of inclinations - character traits, if you will - that predispose us to act in certain ways. It is equally true that no one can choose their own inclinations; they are the result of causes that were operating before we were born. But, the question inevitably arises, does this not destroy choice? How can we be freely choosing when our decisions are influenced, if not determined, by factors beyond our control?

To answer this question, try considering it from another angle. If we express the wish to be truly free, free of unchosen inclinations that affect our behavior, the question is: what exactly are we wishing for?

It cannot possibly be the wish to be rid of any inclinations that affect our behavior. A being with no inclinations to act would not have free will; it would not have a will at all. Such a being would simply sit there, doing nothing. Even if a being came into existence with nothing but the bare inclination to choose other inclinations, it would have to do so randomly, and how is choosing one's own character traits at random an improvement on having those traits chosen for one by someone else?

A personality cannot be built by pulling oneself up by one's own bootstraps. To be able to take any effective action, an agent must come into existence with traits or inclinations that it did not choose. If that agent is sufficiently intelligent to perceive patterns in its own behavior, it can then recognize which of its own traits are contributing to poor outcomes, and turn this evidence into a new inclination toward changing those traits. Over time, such an agent can end up with a very different, and genuinely self-chosen, set of inclinations than the one they started out with. And even if an agent does not reflect on or change its own behavior, so long as it has the ability to do so, we can still rightly say that its current character is in a sense self-chosen, and that they are therefore responsible for it. Sometimes holding people responsible for their actions is what actually makes them responsible. (This point will be explored in Part V.)

Our characters are the result of a complex interplay between our inclinations, our reflections on those inclinations, and the actions arising from those two in combination. Albert Einstein's theory of general relativity is sometimes summed up as, "Matter tells space how to curve; space tells matter how to move." This conception of free will is similar, in a way. We choose what we choose because of who we are; we are who we are because of what we choose. Our choices are caused, it is true; and what causes them is our own characters.

A necessary consequence of all this is that, if you cannot reflect on your own behavior, you don't have free will. Higher-order thinking - thinking about thinking - is a necessary precondition of this ability. Except for a few pathological cases, humans undoubtedly have this. Some of our relatives in the animal kingdom seem to have it also, albeit in lesser degree than us, and as such they might rightly be described as having a reduced degree of free will compared to what we possess.

We cannot magic our own characters out of the void. The truly "self-made" person, the one who bears ultimate and sole responsibility for every aspect of their own character and therefore bears ultimate and sole responsibility for every act they carry out, is an impossibility. But we can approximate this ideal sufficiently closely that we can, indeed, be said to make genuine choices and to bear the responsibility for those choices. In every way that matters, we are "free enough".

Coming up: Is there genuine moral responsibility in a materialist world? Whenever we make a decision, could we have decided to do otherwise, or is the future that happens the only one that could have happened?

Other posts in this series:

April 3, 2006, 8:28 pm • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink6 comments

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