Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Another thread

There is an awful lot to the argument about free will and I can't do more than touch a couple of things here. It came up in the comments in response to my praising the Reno article over at First Things. I guess I have three things to say on the subject.

The first is that this is a very old argument. It is now some three centuries that people have been saying it is only a matter of time until we explain the human brain/mind. These claims are always accompanied by some discussions of recent discoveries and an implied conclusion that "once we work out the details" we'll be able to predict how our decision making processes work. So far, none of these promised claims have panned out. That could all change tomorrow but until someone actually does work out the details, we are just speculating.

And that is why I think Reno is correct to argue that Dawkins et al are stealing a base here and that they are stealing that base to shore up moral claims that have nothing to do with science. (That moral claim and culture will have to wait for a separate post because it's a big subject of its own).

The second thing worth noting is that Dawkins and company differ in one very important respect from previous materialists. In the past, people who thought they were on the edge of explaining how the brain worked were usually determined to prove that their theories were compatible with free will. d'Holbach wasted extraordinary amounts of ink and paper trying to establish that thorough-going materialism did NOT mean that free will was impossible.

Now there is something odd about that because all the models he and his contemporaries had for explaining the world and things in it (including humans) were mechanical and nothing could have been less amenable to d'Holbach's purpose. Even Newton's universe was largely mechanical. He did include action at a distance in the form of gravity but he insisted that gravity could only act in straight lines as anything else would have seemed too much like magic and not like science. The universe Newton envisaged at the end of it all was rightly compared to a  watch and there is no place for free will inside the workings of a watch.

And that is the second thing that Reno gets right. Dawkins and company aren't just embracing materialism, they are embracing the crudest materialism going and they aren't doing this for scientific reasons.

Why? I think it has to do with the collapse of modernism. Go back a century and it looked like materialism was about to take over. It is often said that modernism is like a three-legged stool and the legs are Marx, Freud and Darwin. Well, Darwin is all that is left now. Marx and Freud were just pseudo-science. The other thing that won't go away is religion. Modernists had two views about religion. Some believed that as science advanced religion would ebb away. Others thought that art could replace religion—that nothing that religion did couldn't also be done by stuff created by a special class of geniuses. Neither of those beliefs have panned out.

Dawkins and the new atheists are in a mad race against time to try and build a new foundation for modernism before it collapses forever. (Post-modernism is the same game only coming from art rather than science.)

The final thing I want to say about free will is to parrot Wittgenstein who said if you think there might be no free will just try it. Go about your business imagining that everyone you meet has no free will. That they are really just complex automatons. Just try it.

Wittgenstein said you won't be able to do it. I suspect that is not strictly true but to actually do it would call for a huge adjustment in your beliefs. Make that assumption and there is quite literally no reason not to start thinking like this:


  1. Maybe the issue isn't so much whether or not we have free will but rather if we do have free will a) where it emanates from (nature or nurture) and b) are the choices we make always under our conscious awareness or control. I think those questions are more to the point. Today we have the technology to not only see inside the living brain but--more importantly--to measure how the various parts of the brain respond to different types of stimuli in various ways, which then become manifest in people's actions and even emotions. The implications of this are staggering and, like it or not, we are in a brave new world. Newton, Darwin, and Wittgenstein did not have the tools we have today, so I don't think a comparison to them is valid. I think the task for people of faith--I mean true people of faith like me and you, not the ones in Rome-- is to try to figure out how the Gospel can be applied and understood in light of these new findings. I would put Freud in the same category as Aquinas and Augustine--all three got some things right, but they got a lot wrong too.

  2. I hope you can open this, it raises questions that are directly related to what we've been discussing about free will.

    HEALTH | July 13, 2010
    Mind: Accepting That Good Parents May Plant Bad Seeds
    We marvel at the resilient child who survives the most toxic parents, yet the converse - the notion that some children might be the bad seeds of more or less decent parents - is hard to take.