Free will and good writing

I’m probably more interested in free will than you are, presumably for reasons I have no control over.

I don’t believe in free will.  Or, more precisely, I can figure out how it could possibly work.  I read Daniel Dennett’s pro-free-will book Freedom Evolves, and I couldn’t really follow his arguments.  I read Sam Harris’s anti-free-will book Free Will, and it seemed admirably clear.  Is it clearer because Harris is a better writer, or because the case against free will is simply easier to make?

Now Dennett has published a rejoinder to Harris’s book, and Harris has published a rejoinder to Dennett’s rejoinder. Yikes!  The heart of Dennett’s argument, I think, is that of course the naive folk interpretation of free will is wrong, but there is this other kind of free will that’s really real.  This seems to me to be the kind of move that sophisticated religious people like Karen Armstrong make.  Of course the Bible isn’t literally true; everyone knows that.  Instead, atheists need to grapple with my own numinous, apophatic, transcendent view of God.  Except this ends up being so numinous that there’s nothing to grapple with.

Similarly, Dennett’s view of the pernicious effects of an anti-free-will stance remind me of the “belief in belief” point of view that some smart people have about religion.  Of course you and I know better than to take religion seriously, but we have to be quiet about this, because religion is necessary to keep the great unwashed from losing their morality.

Anyway, here is a taste of Harris’s prose:

Holding people responsible for their past actions makes no sense apart from the effects that doing so will have on them and the rest of society in the future (e.g. deterrence, rehabilitation, keeping dangerous people off our streets). The notion of moral responsibility, therefore, is forward-looking. But it is also paradoxical. People who have the most ability (self-control, opportunity, knowledge, etc.) would seem to be the most blameworthy when they fail or misbehave. For instance, when Tiger Woods misses a three-foot putt, there is a much greater temptation to say that he really should have made it than there is in the case of an average golfer. But Woods’s failure is actually more anomalous. Something must have gone wrong if a person of his ability missed so easy a putt. And he wouldn’t stand to benefit (much) from being admonished to try harder in the future. So in some ways, holding a person responsible for his failures seems to make even less sense the more worthy of responsibility he becomes in the conventional sense.

Jerry Coyne is another clear writer who is not afraid to speak his mind.  Here is his utterly expected view of the debate.  (He could not have written otherwise.)

Is blame worthy?

I have difficulty wrapping my head around free will.  It’s either me or free will, and I tend to think it’s the latter.

Most people, on the other hand, find it hard to imagine that we don’t have free will.  One of the big advantages of free will is that it lets us blame people for stuff they do, because they could always have chosen not to do that stuff.  And if we can’t blame people for stuff, how can we have a criminal justice system?

Radiolab recently ran a podcast called “Blame“.  The main story involved an epileptic who had surgery to control his disease; a side effect of the surgery was that it made him compulsively download child pornography.  He is arrested and brought to trial.  Is he guilty of a crime?  Should we blame him for his actions?

As neuroscience marches on and we gain a clearer understanding of how the brain works, there will be more and more situations like this, and it will be harder and harder to say that someone is to blame for his misdeeds.  The Radiolab hosts, Jad and Robert, seemed to find this a vexing moral and legal dilemma.  But again, I don’t get it.  If we got rid of blame, we could still have a criminal justice system.  You could still send someone to prison, if only to send a message to other people–other brains–that the person’s behavior is not something that society tolerates.

Blaming people, of course, is deeply satisfying, so I can’t imagine it will ever disappear, any more than religion will.  Still, I can dream.

Siri and I have a conversation about my new iPhone 5

Me: Siri, why did I buy an iPhone 5?

Siri: Everything you need to know about iPhones is in the Apple Store.

Me: No, but why?

Siri: I don’t know what you mean by ‘No but why’.  How about a web search for it?

[That’s about as far as the real conversation got…]

Me: I don’t think a web search will help.  I mean, I really don’t need an iPhone 5.  I had a perfectly good dumb phone.  And I have an iPad.  Two of them, actually, although one’s a little busted.  Also, a good desktop computer.  And a Nano.  I’m awash in gadgetry.  Why do I need an iPhone?

Siri: It’s thin!  And light!  Much more portable than an iPad!  Much more useful than a Nano!  And you now have a data plan, which means you can surf the Internet almost anywhere!  And, of course, there’s me!  The iPhone 5 is going to make you so happy!

Me: You’re great–don’t get me wrong.  But Daniel Gilbert and those other folks I’ve been reading about happiness say that things don’t make you happy.  Friends make you happy; doing good deeds make you happy.

Siri: So, do a good deed for all those wonderful people who read your blog.  Show them a couple of those photos you took today.

Me: OK.  Here are some birch trees, just before dawn:

And here’s another tree, at mid-day:

The iPhone’s camera is really pretty good.

Siri: See?  You’ve already given pleasure to the five or six people who read your stinky blog!

Me: Wait a minute!  I have way more than five or six readers!  And where do you get off calling my blog–

Siri: OK, I bet you don’t get more than three “Likes” on this post.  And zero comments.  Do we have a bet?

Me: Sure.  It’s a bet.  I have lots of great readers.  They’ll come through for me!

Siri: But look, it doesn’t really matter about the good deeds.  You should do something for yourself!  After all, you deserve it!

Me: I don’t know about that.  Read this post.  I’m not convinced about free will.  And if there’s no free will, what does it mean to “deserve” something?

Siri: You seem like a perfectly nice guy, Rich, but I’m not going to read your stinky blog posts.  And anyway, remember who you’re talking to–I’m just a piece of software.  Are you saying that you don’t have any more free will than I do?

Me: Well, er, um–

Siri: I thought so.  Look, if you’re so sure there’s no free will, think of it this way: you were destined to by an iPhone 5.  This was going to happen no matter what.  It’s fate!

Me: Well, if you put it that way…

Siri: And remember that high-definition TV that you’re starting to lust after?

Me: Wait a minute, how did you–

Siri: All you have to do is think to yourself: I won’t get the TV.  At least, not now.

Me: Hmm, that’s not a bad approach.  Thanks, Siri!

Siri: That’s what I’m here for.

Free Will and the Immigration Debate

I keep meaning to post about free will.  Everybody loves posts about free will!   Obama’s recent decision about immigration finally prompted me to come up with something.  So this is about politics as much as it’s about free will.

I have never really understood free will.  Where does this freedom come from, if we don’t postulate a soul or some other non-material entity that has no basis in science?  If everything is deterministic (except for some stuff down at the quantum level), where does the freedom come from?  I’ve read Dennett’s Freedom Evolves, and I don’t really get it.  It seems to me that he comes up with a kind of free will by redefining what free will means away from what everyone thinks it means.

So I don’t see how we can have free will. And if free will doesn’t exist, where does responsibility come from?  And similarly, where does merit come from?  In what way do we deserve what we have — or not deserve what we don’t have?

A point Michael Sandel made in his course (and book) Justice brought this home to me in a personal way.  Sandel gives the Justice course every couple of years to hundreds of Harvard students. In the course, he talks to the students about the concept of “moral desert”.  And he brings up the issue of admission to Harvard.  These kids have gotten into Harvard because they’re smart and talented.  Well, OK, there are plenty of kids who are smart and talented.  But the kids who got in worked hard and studied hard and accomplished amazing things with their talents.  Isn’t that the difference?  Well, OK, but — at this point Sandel asks for a show of hands: how many of the kids in the audience were the first-born in their families?

Every time he gives the course, an astonishing number raise their hands.  So, what do we make of this?  Being the first-born helps you get into Harvard.  But no one chooses their birth order.  He quotes John Rawls (another Harvard philosopher): “No one deserves his greater natural capacity nor merits a more favorable starting place in society.”

I graduated from Harvard.  Yay for me!  But I have never been able to figure out why this should say anything good (or bad) about me.  I didn’t make myself intelligent; I didn’t make myself hard-working — I just always seemed to be that way.  I wasn’t the first-born in my family, but I certainly got plenty of support and encouragement in my studies.  If I had wanted to make different choices along the way, could I have?  I have no idea.  But I suspect not — I am who I am.

This brings me, in a roundabout way, to immigration.  The immigration debate always seems to me to circle around moral desert and, ultimately, about free will and determinism.  What do we who were born in America deserve because we were born here?  Beats me.  It just seems to me that we are awfully lucky, the way I was lucky in my parents and my genes and my upbringing.  Do the immigrants who are here illegally deserve to be thrown out?  They’ve broken the law!  But the kids covered by Obama’s decision haven’t exactly broken the law — they’re just here, where life has put them.  They can no more change who they are than I can change who I am.  We can make the case that throwing them out will help the economy or reduce the need for bilingual education or whatnot– at the expense of untold human suffering, of course.  But I think that case is far from clear.

Anyway, as a reward for reading this drivel, here is the great Bonnie Raitt singing “Luck of the Draw.”  (She too attended Harvard for a while.)