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Morality without 'Free Will' - Comments

Anaximander's Avatar Comment 7 by Anaximander

Many people seem to believe that morality depends for its existence on a metaphysical quantity called “free will.”

Is it possible for them to not to believe that?

Tue, 31 May 2011 07:53:19 UTC | #632559

bendigeidfran's Avatar Comment 8 by bendigeidfran

No stopping him now. The great idea in the bath has fused. Diminished responsibility.

Tue, 31 May 2011 08:13:40 UTC | #632563

Marcus Small's Avatar Comment 9 by Marcus Small

There is simply no description of mental and physical causation that allows for this freedom that we habitually claim for ourselves and ascribe to others.

And therefore it follows...

Tue, 31 May 2011 08:24:22 UTC | #632565

wolfhoundGrowl's Avatar Comment 10 by wolfhoundGrowl

Whilst we do not have free will, we experience life as though we do have free will so I don't think the fact of not having free will necesarrily opens up the floodgates of diminished responsibility though it certainly forces us to be more considerate and understanding of others.

Tue, 31 May 2011 08:27:11 UTC | #632566

TheChrissetti's Avatar Comment 11 by TheChrissetti

Wow, if the rest of Sam Harris' book is like this extract I'm definitely going to have to put it on my 'to read' list.

Tue, 31 May 2011 09:36:24 UTC | #632581

Non-plussed's Avatar Comment 12 by Non-plussed

@Comment 1, We can change their mind about it by inputting other factors in the mix that decides whether they believe it or not, surely?

Tue, 31 May 2011 10:37:26 UTC | #632589

Noble Savage's Avatar Comment 13 by Noble Savage

Comment 1 by Anaximander :

Many people seem to believe that morality depends for its existence on a metaphysical quantity called “free will.”

Is it possible for them to not to believe that? Yes. Outside influence. Sam's not a fatalist.

Tue, 31 May 2011 10:44:42 UTC | #632591

Noble Savage's Avatar Comment 14 by Noble Savage

If we accept that we do not have contra-causal free-will (which I do), how are we to think about moral accountability? Is a being morally accountable simply by understanding the difference between right and wrong?

In this respect we make a distinction between the moral accountability of babies as opposed to adults. Adults "get it". Babies do not.

But neither the adult, nor the child, could have acted differently.

Is that all moral accountability will mean then? That a being is morally accountable by virtue of knowing, as it swung the axe, that it was doing wrong.

I'm not saying the term is meaningless without free will, but it certainly cannot mean "could have done differently".

Tue, 31 May 2011 11:17:12 UTC | #632603

Anaximander's Avatar Comment 15 by Anaximander

But neither the adult, nor the child, could have acted differently.

Maybe the rain can or cannot prevent itself from falling. Does this change the usage of umbrellas?

Tue, 31 May 2011 11:36:17 UTC | #632607

KenChimp's Avatar Comment 16 by KenChimp

Here we go again.

I've a query, and I would like some honest feed back.

A computer is a rather complex artifact, and yet compared to a human's neuro-physiology it is incredibly simple. When we program a computer to, say, play chess, we construct through 'language' a means by which we convert human readable text into binary code (sequences of zeros and ones).

Upon doing so, successfully, we have a 'program' which is run as part of the operation of the computer itself, within the programming construct of its operating system.

So, what is playing the chess? The computer or the program? What difference does it make, really whether we say the computer is playing chess or whether the program running on the computer is?

For the most part, the 'chess' program is completely unaware of the underlying physical and instructional constructs upon which it relies to function. The CPU states, the memory states, the disk states, none of these things are typically engineered into a non-operating environment software program such as 'chess'.

The program merely requests blocks of memory, time on the CPU, and space on electro-magnetic disks to store information. That's about the extent of its 'awareness' if I may be so bold as to use this word in this sense.

Although this is a very simple example of 'consciousness', I argue that in essence, consciousness IS the software. Just because our brains are not exactly like the computers they design and create does not mean there is no correlation between them. Computer programs do not, for the most part, physically alter the computer upon which they run (some do, but those are destructive viruses designed to destroy hardware by severely overclocking a CPU or locking the read-write arms of hard disks). In a human being, there is constant rewiring going on in the brain. New neurons, new synaptic connections, etc. The process of a child learning to speak, read and write a language is a prime example of this.

Do we really understand what is going on? Is the mind controlling the changes in the brain, or is the brain simply changing to accommodate this new information? Or, as Neil Stephenson so wonderfully contemplated in his epic work of science fiction "Snow Crash" is language like a virus that 'infects' the human mind, reprogramming it as it rewires its physical brain?

So what IS the mind? Is it the brain, or is it more like software running within the brain which utilizes the brain's vast resources of 'computation' in order to go about its 'mindy' thing, altering the physical construct which gives it existence as it reprograms itself in various ways due to experience?

In the end, it may not matter, but it seems to me that it does have some bearing on this topic.

Tue, 31 May 2011 12:19:58 UTC | #632611

KJinAsia's Avatar Comment 17 by KJinAsia

The discrediting of the traditional notion of free will does not lead to the loss of the notion of moral accountability. It just redefines it to refer to actions in which conscious processes, influenced by societal norms reached by consensus, have sufficient influence on one's actions.

A better understanding of the neurology of morality (and the shedding of the false moralities promoted by religion and other irrationalities) will reduce the burden of immoral acts on society and allow us to be more humane in dealing with transgressions that can be demonstrated to be beyond conscience control.

Psychopaths that prey upon innocents understand perfectly well why society disapproves of their behaviour. They just don't care. There will shortly be genetic treatments for that.

And to those tempted to bring up Orwellian scenarios, don't bother. That would require totalitarian control, which is the opposite of the direction science and globalized communication is taking us.

Tue, 31 May 2011 12:20:25 UTC | #632612

Noble Savage's Avatar Comment 18 by Noble Savage

Comment 12 by Anaximander :

But neither the adult, nor the child, could have acted differently.

Maybe the rain can or cannot prevent itself from falling. Does this change the usage of umbrellas?

I have never argued that we shouldn't put people in jail. But we'd also put hurricanes and tornadoes in jail if we could, without holding these natural forces morally accountable for the damage they've caused.

Tue, 31 May 2011 12:21:43 UTC | #632614

KJinAsia's Avatar Comment 19 by KJinAsia

Typo in paragraph 2: "beyond conscious control"

Tue, 31 May 2011 12:27:43 UTC | #632615

GamerFromJumpZ's Avatar Comment 20 by GamerFromJumpZ

It seems like "free will" is the ability to create new mental "programs". Which is something we do all the time.

Tue, 31 May 2011 12:38:41 UTC | #632617

Marc Country's Avatar Comment 21 by Marc Country

Sam's blog rules.

Tue, 31 May 2011 12:49:20 UTC | #632620

Peter Grant's Avatar Comment 22 by Peter Grant

Great piece, one of my favourite parts of the book. Punishment is a necessary evil. Natural selection explains the function of our retributive impulse but it doesn't justify it or make it good in and of itself.

Tue, 31 May 2011 12:50:46 UTC | #632621

keddaw's Avatar Comment 23 by keddaw

Punishing people for vengeance is not something any civilised person or society should ever do - with or without free will.

Punishment should only ever be meted out to disincentivise that person from doing it again, to stop them from being able to do it again (be that imprisonment or rehabilitation), or to disincentivese others from doing something similar.

@KenChimp, the pattern of information in your brain is the mind. Neither the computer NOR the software is playing chess, the computer is running software and the software is obeying rules that with appropriate inputs can approximate chess. In terms of the brain it is both hardware and software, we have gotten so used to modern computers that we forget old fashioned ones had the hardware and software combined - as nature still does, however nature has left us plenty of flexibility in the hardware.

In terms of the overall discussion I seriously doubt Sam was aiming at readers of this site. I figured most people would be in agreemet with him and the only people piping up would have been compatibalists trying to claim Sam's (and the general population's) understanding of free will is unforgivably naive. From the comments though it appears I may be wrong.

Tue, 31 May 2011 12:57:23 UTC | #632622

aquilacane's Avatar Comment 24 by aquilacane

I find it hard to acknowledge morality as a real topic. It's like arguing over the ten greatest rock songs in history... they don't actually exist. There is no greatest rock song of all time because it will never be consistent from one second to the next, depending on which radio station is doing the countdown and who is voting. I think I made the comparison to People magazine's sexiest person, last time this came up.

Morals will never be consistent from one person to another, it will depend on which tribe they belong to, how they are naturally inclined to behave and in what scenario are the moral values being evaluated. Individual morality will often be expressed in a manner that is consistent with keeping the individual as part of the group, unless they no longer wish to be a part of the group or are naturally inclined to be incapable of the behaviour.

Whether the individual is subservient, assertive or detached their moral compass resembles more of a continually changing menu of directions to chose from rather than one single moral direction.

As for free will, if it existed, I would be a better person.

I don't know?

Tue, 31 May 2011 12:58:51 UTC | #632623

Steve Zara's Avatar Comment 25 by Steve Zara

In fact, the concept of free will is a non-starter, both philosophically and scientifically. There is simply no description of mental and physical causation that allows for this freedom that we habitually claim for ourselves and ascribe to others.

This is wrong. It's unquestionably wrong that free will is a philosophical non-starter because most philosophers believe in free will. There are philosophers who believe in free will and who clearly understand the scientific issues. Daniel Dennett is one of those.

Wouldn't it have been more supportive of science and reason for Sam to have tried to start a debate with fellow rationalists who disagreed with him than to beg the question and simply assert that they are all wrong?

I find Sam's approach here very puzzling.

Tue, 31 May 2011 13:02:28 UTC | #632626

Marc Country's Avatar Comment 26 by Marc Country

another typo, two paragraphs after the bullet list: "a casual agent" probably should be a CAUSAL agent.

Tue, 31 May 2011 13:16:56 UTC | #632628

jameshogg's Avatar Comment 27 by jameshogg

Really good read, and I think Sam raised something clever that I've not thought of before: if the impulse of reward/punishment was non-existent, it would mean we would not be able to deduce what is right and wrong (or have great difficulty). I detest all things that fall under the category of reward/punishment because I consider it a tribal impulse that was way too simple and cheap a solution back in the days where our consciousness hadn't developed enough to think about situations more, but that part of the article has given me a genuine moment of pause. :)

My current response so far would be, perhaps, that our desire for revenge is too great (prefrontal lobes being too small and adrenaline glands too big etc) - we could do with an evolution out of that biological state so that we are not too emotionally impulsive and irrational. Thus the only way forward would be the advocating of justice as a means of primarily keeping society safe as opposed to a system of vengeance, and more advocating of reason and skepticism, meaning we'd effectively become more rational instead of emotionally impulsive.

I shall comment further soon (will probably type something massive).

Tue, 31 May 2011 13:17:32 UTC | #632629

AtheistEgbert's Avatar Comment 28 by AtheistEgbert

Comment 22 by Steve Zara :

I find Sam's approach here very puzzling.

Sam is often extremely clear when making rational criticisms, but then becomes vague and lazy when constructing his own arguments. It is puzzling.

Tue, 31 May 2011 13:23:33 UTC | #632631

aquilacane's Avatar Comment 29 by aquilacane

Comment 20 by keddaw

Punishing people for vengeance is not something any civilised person or society should ever do - with or without free will.

Punishment should only ever be meted out to disincentivise that person from doing it again, to stop them from being able to do it again (be that imprisonment or rehabilitation), or to disincentivese others from doing something similar.

Interesting. I've often thought that people who are willing to commit crimes like first degree murder are not so much guilty of murder as they are guilty of being unacceptably flawed in their capacity to function in society. They must not be properly wired to understand the value of life. This makes them a threat and while we may be wired to want to punish, the murderer is merely carrying out there programming (at no fault of their own). They need to be separated from society. Perhaps they lack education, a chemical or something else. Regardless, until a solution to their faulty programming is found, they need to be isolated (perhaps for life) but not punished.

You don’t punish a broken chair; you fix it or throw it away.

Steven Harper, our new majority leader in Canada is all about punishment. He wants to build more jails and start chain gangs. They don't even care why a crime was committed they just can't wait to punish people. That's all religion is about... behavioural control and the resulting punishment for disobedience.

Reasoned statement: "But the guy has autism and was severely beaten as a child. He was never educated and has been locked away by himself in an institution, for 15 years. He is incapable of understanding the concept of right and wrong"

Religious statement: "To hell with him. He broke the law, he must hang. We must punish the wrongdoers."

Tue, 31 May 2011 13:23:55 UTC | #632632

jameshogg's Avatar Comment 30 by jameshogg

While viewing human beings as forces of nature does not prevent us from thinking in terms of moral responsibility, it does call the logic of retribution into question. Clearly, we need to build prisons for people who are intent upon harming others. But if we could incarcerate earthquakes and hurricanes for their crimes, we would build prisons for them as well.

I love this. I would also like to add: it's funny how theists are quite convinced that someone IS actually controlling the earthquakes and tornadoes, but none of them seem to want to take out any vengeance on God whatsoever.

Tue, 31 May 2011 13:24:17 UTC | #632633

Betrys's Avatar Comment 31 by Betrys

new to the forum and a big hello to you all.

I do not think that any kind of 'understanding' could "destroy the distinction between right and wrong or good and evil"; but I do think that the 'understandings' discussed by Sam Harris would lead to the use of such terms as "good and evil" becoming linguistically redundant. We can say of any act that it is the right or wrong thing to do without out making a moral judgement; that is judging an agent to be morally right or wrong. The terms "good and evil" are used differently however; when used a moral judgement is implied; how can you judge an agent who is not free and therefore not responsible? Freedom and responsibility are inherent within our common notion of morality.

Then again if morality is merely conditioning and has nothing to do with freedom and responsibility then as we can say of a badly trained dog that attacks, "it is evil" so we can say it of a badly trained person.

A complex topic and whilst I am merely thinking aloud above, the 'understandings' discussed by Sam Harris do and would bring into question our common notions of self, responsibility, blame and ultimately punishment.

Tue, 31 May 2011 13:34:52 UTC | #632637

keddaw's Avatar Comment 32 by keddaw

Comment 22 by Steve Zara :

This is wrong. It's unquestionably wrong that free will is a philosophical non-starter because most philosophers believe in free will. There are philosophers who believe in free will and who clearly understand the scientific issues. Daniel Dennett is one of those.

I find Sam's approach here very puzzling.

They are compatibalists. They do not believe in libertarian free will but claim free will in a deterministic way that confuses the literal minded among us. Sam is talking about the 'man in the street' free will, i.e. libertarian free will. Unless you know philosophers who do actually believe in libertarian free will, in which case you should point them towards the psychology department where virtually no-one does.

Tue, 31 May 2011 13:48:26 UTC | #632642

Steve Zara's Avatar Comment 33 by Steve Zara

Sam is talking about the 'man in the street' free will, i.e. libertarian free will

That's not what he says. If that is what he wanted to say, he would have said it. A statement that "free will is a philosophical non-starter" is clear enough.

It seems that Sam wants to walk a lonely path philosophically.

Tue, 31 May 2011 14:00:50 UTC | #632649

Alan4discussion's Avatar Comment 34 by Alan4discussion

Comment 22 by Steve Zara

It's unquestionably wrong that free will is a philosophical non-starter because most philosophers believe in free will. There are philosophers who believe in free will and who clearly understand the scientific issues. Daniel Dennett is one of those.

You explained this very clearly over here Steve - ......... If you believe that your freedom is not determined by the brain, what you are saying is that neuroscience will reach a point where it fails. You are saying that neuroscience will reach a stage where it can no longer predict why a brain cell does what it does using biology, chemistry and physics...............

and expanded on it here

and here

and here

and here!

The theists promote a false dichotomy asserting "free will" is in conflict with physical laws. The points you (and Quine) made about Chaos theory and determinism break down this false claim. We are free to make choices within our nature. We are not free from the laws of science!

Tue, 31 May 2011 14:03:51 UTC | #632650

keddaw's Avatar Comment 35 by keddaw

Comment 30 by Steve Zara :

Sam is talking about the 'man in the street' free will, i.e. libertarian free will

That's not what he says. If that is what he wanted to say, he would have said it. A statement that "free will is a philosophical non-starter" is clear enough.

It seems that Sam wants to walk a lonely path philosophically.

Steve, compatibalism is the Karen Armstrong of free will. It is free will as only understood by apologists, sorry, philosophers. When free will is described in terms of determinism then the man in the street, or anyone not well read in philosophy, is justified in asking in what manner is it free? Sam's article wasn't aimed at philosophers and I see no problem with him not intricately describing the differences between free will and libertarian free will. Having read his book from which this was adapted I can tell you he does point out the difference there where he isn't trying to limit the number of words, at least I assume he is.

Tue, 31 May 2011 14:19:08 UTC | #632654

Steve Zara's Avatar Comment 36 by Steve Zara

Comment 31 by Alan4discussion

Yes, but I should add here again that I'm not just a believer that free will is compatible with determinism, I believe (like, I think, Dennett) that determinism is necessary for free will.

And so, I find Sam's statement a bit puzzling. Whatever one's view of free will, saying "it's a philosophical non-starter" is simply not backed up by the literature, because so many philosophers do think it's a "starter". I'm not sure what, if any, version of free will Sam supports.

Tue, 31 May 2011 14:19:28 UTC | #632655