Thursday, 12 June 2014

The dangers of 'no free will'?

The debate around free will is one of the major topics in philosophy of course, and has come to a lot of people's attention recently due to Sam Harris' book Free Will (he argues we don't have it). Many have countered his arguments, most significantly (for me at least) Daniel Dennett. In a recent workshop meeting of philosophers and scientists set up by cosmologist Sean Carroll, Dennett said a few times that he thought it was dangerous to be publicly articulating the argument that we don't have free will, because it's conceivable that people will take that as meaning no one is ever fundamentally responsible for their actions, leading to a 'social vacuum' as he calls it which is a very scary prospect.

Couldn't the same argument be made for belief in God though? As billions of people on the planet believe there is a God watching over them day and night, isn't that same danger there if all those people lose that belief? Dennett has no problem at all with saying there is no God. The ideas seem similar to me as they both suggest that there is no such thing as justice. No God, no ultimate justice, that's an obvious argument. With free will it's a bit more complicated - if there's no free will, and that is scientifically 'proven' (in the minds of the general public) then that would have to lead to people not being held accountable for their actions in the way they are today (the whole concept of retributive punishment becomes a problem) - and therefore there would be no justice.

But we don't think that of belief in God, do we? We don't think for a second that people who lose their faith in God will suddenly decide it's perfectly fine to go and steal, rape and kill because there's no ultimate justice waiting for them - any more than we believe atheists, agnostics, humanists or any non-believers somehow lack any morality. So why would we think it for losing free will?

Personally I'm undecided on free will, I'm most persuaded by the idea that even though it's not to be found in fundamental laws of physics, that it is an emergent property and no less real than anything else.


Free Will by Sam Harris

Dennet's review of Free Will and Harris' response

Sean Carroll's workshop 'Moving Naturalism Forward'

Another book called Free Will by Mark Balaguer which I enjoyed

Saturday, 24 May 2014

Some further very random thoughts...

Last night Swindon Humanists had a joint meeting with Swindon Philosophical Society, and we hosted Chris Street of Humanists4Science who I'd invited to talk. It was a really interesting talk mainly around the scientific method, scientism and humanism and certainly provoked some discussion and debate, which I always enjoy!

I couldn't possibly go into all the points raised but a couple of things came up that stuck in my mind that I wanted to write some more thoughts down about, before they slip forever from my mind - so this post is really just for me to note down my meandering ideas!

The first thing I've been thinking over was a point made by one group member who asked about the definition of 'supernatural' in relation to science, saying that if it's really about things that cannot be observed or tested scientifically, then would things such as the interior of a black hole or the universe beyond the horizon that we are currently able to observe be classed as supernatural? It was a difficult point to answer at the time, and I'm not sure anyone actually did satisfactorily. Having thought about it a bit more, this point occurred to me. Supernatural things that are claimed to exist by religions, superstitions, some pseudo-science etc. are said to be separate from our familiar material universe and beyond the ability of science to investigate. However, they are also claimed to interact with our material universe in all sorts of ways, so there's a contradiction there. While it appears that scientific concepts such as regions of the universe that are forever beyond our observable horizon can never be proven to exist by observation (obviously) - no claims are made that they interact with our part of the universe in any way. Those sorts of claims are made for 'supernatural' things like a realm where souls go after death, God coming to Earth and doing all sorts of crazy stuff, etc. They are 'supernatural' because the evidence for those claims is very weak and there simply is no mechanism for a non-material realm to interact with our material one - in either direction (i.e. the dead talking to mediums, of souls leaving the body to another realm in the first place). It's not really an answer but it's a distinction between what is commonly thought of as 'supernatural' and the observationally unprovable things that science predicts, I think.

Secondly was a discussion I had with Chris Eddy, one of the philosophy society members here (which came up briefly in the meeting again). That particular exchange is a bit on the confusing side for me, but it has lead me to carry the thought process on a bit and come up with a short and simple argument of my own. Chris's argument starts with the claim that religion sets out to class some actions as absolute or unconditional - for an obvious example let's take one of the ten commandments, "Thou shalt not kill". We're talking morality, so far so good. But it seems pretty obvious also that such rules don't apply to the God of the Bible (and most other religions I would imagine, I'm just using Christianity as I'm more familiar with it), as he kills vast numbers, kills on a whim and demands others kill for him. So clearly those rules are neither absolute nor unconditional, because they don't apply to you if you're God - that's a condition! If we then consider the famous question about God and morality posed by Euthyphro:

"Is what is morally good commanded by God because it is morally good, or is it morally good because it is commanded by God?"

The answer clearly has to be the latter, given that God is supposed to be morally perfect (and the source of all morality in the first place) - because if the moral rules were external to God, he would follow them. As he doesn't, those moral rules must be moral because they are 'commanded' by him. But then that leaves you with the situation that these moral laws are no longer absolute or unconditional, because God frequently changes him mind! One minute he's saying "Thou shalt not kill", the next he's commanding the extermination of entire races (or simply wiping them out himself). So the idea that because our moral laws come from God means that they are objective also fails. Moral laws cannot be absolute, unconditional or objective.

Some Christian theologians (I'm thinking in particular here of Douglas Wilson and William Lane Craig) do state that it is what is commanded by God that is morally good. Yet they don't seem to have a problem with him ignoring his own rules, and how that (it seems to me) shows they are not really what they think they are.

Sunday, 26 January 2014

The Immaterial Beethoven's 9th

A couple of days ago I took part in a panel discussion on humanism at a local philosophical society. I was one of a panel of three representing the Swindon Humanists, a recently formed group of which I am a member. I didn't feel at all qualified to do so, but thought it would be a fun experience anyway, which indeed it was.

It was also at times very frustrating as I don't think any of us succeeded in getting important points across very well (under some quite intense questioning admittedly). This wasn't a surprise as I know next to nothing about philosophy and was sure in advance I'd miss references and arguments.

One question that came up (not directly about humanism) that baffled me was about materialism. I would consider myself a materialist, in the sense that I don't believe in an immaterial aspect to reality. After the subject had been raised, the question was asked - and I hope I'm accurately reporting it - that would we not think that some things, the example used was Beethoven's 9th symphony, had to exist in some immaterial form. I must clearly be missing some important philosophical point, because even writing that now it seems ridiculous to me. We argued that it is simply a pattern of information that can and does become encoded in all sorts of physical forms, but this didn't seem to dissuade anyone from suggesting a requirement for some sort of ephemeral existence for the composer's famous work.

Having thought about this for a while now I can only respond with a thought experiment and some more questions. Consider the complete timeline of Beethoven's 9th, from the moment the composition first formed in the composer's mind, to some imagined far-future where the Earth and humanity have long since vanished from the universe and no physical manifestation of the pattern of information that is (or was) the piece exists. So, at what point along that timeline does the symphony leave the material world and become immaterial? How and why would it do so?

This is how I imagine that timeline to look: the music begins in the composer's mind as patterns of electrical activity across the brain, which is then encoded into written form as musical notation. I don't know anything about musical notation (is it a language, a form of mathematical code? Both?) but I do know that it allows the music to be given to someone else to be decoded, or played by an orchestra. Now, would the first time the 9th was played aloud by a full orchestra have matched the pattern of information that first formed in the composer's mind? Of course not. There would be many subtle differences in how the code written down in musical notation would have been interpreted by an orchestra and conductor - and the same will be true every time it is played aloud along it's timeline. In the same way that the written code is interpreted differently when played surely every person listening to the music will experience it in a slightly different way. No one can know what anyone else's experience of it is like. So the code moves to another form (the brain activity of others) and is replayed, reheard, recorded in countless ways, every physical version having differences. Of course it can't mutate into something altogether different (although, it would have undoubtedly been adapted, reimagined, even plagiarised in parts during it's timeline) because of the original musical notation version acting as... a blueprint (Template? Formula?) that anything wishing to be know as Beethoven's 9th needs to arise from. So over time what we know as Beethoven's 9th will have taken many different types of physical form an immeasurable number of times, until in some dim and distant future, at the end of it's timeline, every copy will have disappeared, everyone who ever heard it will be dead, every physical manifestation of the pattern will have been lost.

Again I ask at what point did it leave the material world and how? If indeed it did, does it's immaterial form survive the disappearance of it's material original? Or perhaps the suggestion is that it exists eternally immaterially somehow, only to enter the physical realm via the composer? Can the immaterial form change in anyway? Do we all experience the immaterial form somehow when we hear it played? How? Why does anyone need to propose some mysterious immaterial existence to it when there would appear to me to be no need whatever to do so? As I said, I must clearly be missing some deep philosophical point somewhere along the line.

What this does remind me of is the ontological argument for god, which is basically that if we can conceive of a completely perfect being (god, of course) then a completely perfect being that actually exists is more perfect than one that doesn't, hence god exists. If only it were that easy, eh? Perhaps the whole immaterial 9th argument is somehow proposing the existence of a perfect 9th symphony that transcends the many ever so slightly different material forms it takes over time. I don't know, I hope not because it's just silly, as is the ontological argument. The example I use is of a perfect circle, which we can not only conceive of but have even developed a mathematical language with which we can represent it in several different ways. But that in no way implies the existence of a perfect circle somewhere out there in the universe. However well you can draw a circle, it will never be a perfect circle. It would seem to me that in this instance, the use of the word perfect implies the exact opposite of what it is claimed to do within the ontological argument. None of that really helps me to understand the point behind the immaterial Beethoven's 9th argument though! Please free to explain it to me in the comments. I suspect it ends up in an argument about human consciousness, as I think all arguments about materialism inevitably do.

So I really look forward to more philosophical discussions, there are lots more things to write about that came out of the panel debate to do with humanism that I may blog about, if only to write down what I should have said at the time but failed to think of on the spot!